Call Things By Their Proper Name: The Plague at the Arcola Theatre

Photo courtesy of Alex Brenner.
Photo courtesy of Alex Brenner.

Albert Camus’s most famous work ends with a warning: “The plague bacillus never dies […] perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.” The novel, published in 1947, is often read as an allegory for the Nazi occupation of France, lending these lines prophetic significance. With fascism and Nazism becoming buzzwords once again in relation to populist leaders like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, the time is ripe for a retelling of Camus’ tale of human decency in the face of a seemingly unstoppable evil. To use a phrase which recurs throughout Neil Bartlett’s taut adaptation of the novel, it is time we “call things by their proper name” to avoid sleepwalking into the mistakes of the past.

Camus’ novel is a sweeping anthropological study, probing with easy insight into how the citizens of Oran, Algeria survive alongside a deadly epidemic in a town under lockdown. With so much of the text focusing on the shared mindset of the community, a stage adaptation – especially a performance with only five actors – is not an easy undertaking. Neil Bartlett’s take on the novel is bold and effective, yet sacrifices some important scenes in the name of economy.

The retrospective take on the epidemic is key to Camus’s novel, and Bartlett has found an ingenious way of retaining it by staging his adaptation as a public inquiry. Documents and files litter the stage and there’s a liberal smattering of dates and figures in the dialogue. You can’t help but feel it’s all somewhat pedantic, like one of those sprawling reports into modern controversies that arrive years after the event and achieve nothing. An inquiry will in some senses always be too little too late; the only power it has is to prevent history from repeating itself, attribute blame and (as Dr Rieux famously explains) “to make sure that there is at least some memory of the injustices and violences that have been done to people.” This is, perhaps, one of the key ironies of this revival of Camus’s novel 50 years after its publication. The Holocaust was far from the last genocide of the twentieth century, and even today we read the news of prison camps for gay men in Chechnya. This production has an awareness of the limitations of art; our responsibility to document evil but also our inability to learn from it.

As an allegory the production was undoubtedly a success. Camus’ denunciation of economic inequality was subtly underlined, as was Dr Rieux’s (Sara Powell) frustration at the bureaucracy she must fight to protect the citizens of Oran from the plague. Cottard (Joe Alessi), who cuts a more pathetic figure in the novel, here becomes a chillingly amoral villain, leaving us uncomfortably ambivalent when he faces his comeuppance in a brutal police beating.

There was, unfortunately, a great deal left out of the novel that detracted from the overall effect. At a running time of only 90 minutes Bartlett could easily have expanded on more of Camus’ themes, and what he gained in pacing he lost in complexity. Father Paneloux, the priest whose hellfire and brimstone sermons are tempered by his personal contact with plague victims, is noticeably absent in this stage adaptation. In the novel, Tarrou gives us one of the most effective formulations of the problem of evil after Paneloux unconvincingly clings to his faith following the death of a child from the disease. “When innocence has its eyes gouged out,” Tarrou explains, “a Christian must lose his faith or accept the gouging out of eyes.” Perhaps this exchange is less relevant in an age of ever-decreasing church attendance, but for me, it loses none of its power.

The main flaw in Bartlett’s production is the characterisation. The action is relentless and rarely gives us pause to reflect on the character’s inner lives. For Camus, the plague was a philosophical testing ground which laid bare the absurdity of life, and you never truly get this sense in Bartlett’s production. Joseph Grand (Burt Caesar) is no longer a frustrated novelist obsessively rewriting the first sentence of his magnum opus – one of the most striking images of futility in the novel. The citizens of Oran no longer pack into the cinemas to see the same film on endless repeat or attend weekly performances of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Tarrou’s (Martin Turner) edgy and difficult morality is simplified into a general benevolence; his backstory is cut; and his relationship with Rieux loses much of its power. The ending of Camus’s novel brought me close to tears when, amid celebrations over the defeat of the plague, Rieux realises “that there would no longer be any peace possible for himself.” Bartlett’s handling of this aspect of the novel, on the other hand, left me resolutely dry-eyed.

Nevertheless, there is undoubtedly more to praise than critique. As with much of Bartlett’s work, the play’s minimalism works a treat. The veteran director wisely chose not to attempt any gory representation of the plague’s symptoms onstage, instead relying on Camus’s vivid prose and Dinah Mullen’s excellent sound design to leave much to the imagination yet make certain scenes almost unwatchable. Though there were no showy performances – Camus insists his novel is about human decency rather than individual heroism – Powell was perfect as Rieux, an all-too-human protagonist who tirelessly fights a losing battle against the spread of the disease.

This is certainly a slick and highly relevant revival that neatly sidesteps many of the problems of literary adaptations. For those new to Camus’s classic novel it easily gets to the heart of the key thematic concerns while also proving a gripping watch. Those who have read the book may share my disappointment at some of Bartlett’s omissions, but, after all, protesting that “it’s not as good as the book” is something of a cliché.

The Plague continues at the Arcola Theatre until May 6 2017. Tickets are £12-£22 (or £10 with an Arcola Passport). 

The Irreducible Materiality of Words: January by Nathan Brown

Nathan Brown's January is published by the Berlin-based Broken Dimanche Press.
Nathan Brown’s January is published by the Berlin-based Broken Dimanche Press. Photo courtesy of the publisher’s Instagram.
Last month saw the release of Canadian author Nathan Brown’s poetic debut January, a slim publication or ‘chapbook’ released by the Berlin-based publisher Broken Dimanche Press.

There are three reasons why those interested in the field of avant-garde literature will care about this new publication: two contextual, one aesthetic (the last being, of course, the most important).

First of all, Nathan Brown is not only an emergent poet but also a notable scholar of philosophy and art, with various highly digestible, theoretically rigorous articles in some of the most respected print and online journals of the present day – namely (but not limited to) Parrhesia, Radical Philosophy and Mute. In these texts, the subject of his philosophical writing – which ranges from, for example, G.W.F. Hegel to Jean-Michel Basquiat to Jacques Rancière – demonstrates a comprehensive familiarity with conceptually complex metaphysical and aesthetic issues, handled with a deft and eloquent touch. Any artistic project produced by such an adroit philosophical mind is one that immediately piques our interest, familiar as we are with the fact that the conjunction of philosophy and literature has proven, over the course of centuries, to be a stage from which arise texts of extraordinary merit. Think Voltaire’s Candide, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea or, more contemporaneously, Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia.  

The second item of relevance is the involvement of Broken Dimanche Press. BDP is a relatively new exponent in the world of experimental prose publishing. Though admittedly, and disappointingly, this is a world that has far too few members, those that have established themselves as stable entities (such as London’s Bookworks, New York’s Fugue State Press or Montreal’s Coach House Books) are absolutely instrumental, providing a fundamental service internationally by facilitating the publication of truly innovative texts and thereby encouraging the promulgation of an artistic category – avant-garde literature – always in danger of extinction. Founded by novelist, artist and curator John Holten and journalist Line Madsen Simenstad in 2009, BDP clearly has both the ambition and capacity to be as serious a contender as the names listed above. Included among its roster thus far are the authors/artists Ann Cotten, Hanne Lippard, Kate Holten, Angela Rawlings (known as a.rawlings), Morten Søndergaard, Shane Anderson and, of course, John Holten himself, whose first novel The Readymades (published in 2011) was described by influential American critic Travis Jeppesen as “one of the greatest works of art to come out of Berlin in recent years”. Consequently, to be the recipient of BDP’s collaboration is a definite coup for the nascent poet Nathan Brown.  

Happily, the reverse is also the case – Nathan Brown has achieved remarkable feat himself. His slim volume is rich, innovative and highly readable.

In a short preface, Brown informs us that the poems were “typed between the evening of January 9 and the night of January 10, 2016,” that they “are ordered in the sequence of their composition” and that no pieces typed at the time have been excluded from the finished product. Hence, in the very conditions under which these poems were written and accordingly organised, we are confronted by some of the primary thematic concerns demonstrated throughout the collection, viz.; the status and experience of time, considered both (existentially) as the present insofar as it is passing and (logically) as the absent past that determines current events; the contrastive features of day and night; the qualitative relationships that obtain between being, nothing, and existence; the difficulty inherent in either conceiving of or enacting a beginning; the possession of an ego that is either proved or problematized by relation to its attendant spatial representation; and the irreducible materiality of words (what is written cannot be undone), a kind of physicality or density that is almost sculptural, and one which counterbalances the postmodern idea of language’s inherent slipperiness – its shadowy, mutable nature – with respect to signification. Many deep themes reside in Brown’s poetry: these are only those that come to mind most readily. Perhaps the most accurate, concise summary of the poems can be found on the BDP website. According to the press release, Brown’s concerns boil down to the elementary problem of how one conceptualises thought vis a vis its expression:

How does thought relate to the form in which it appears? Is its material appearance simply a constraint or does thought realise itself in matter? Can philosophy help poetry think about its physical presence on paper?

If one takes, for example, Brown’s lines “being there/ having been/ here/ nothing changes/ but place/ placeholder/ this/ body” one can palpably feel the tensions described above, pertaining to the relation between thought (as an instance of self) and the expression of self via the body.

Having quoted Brown directly, we bring to light what is perhaps the most significant aspect of his work: the strikingly formalized constitution of his poetry. Though technically this is free verse, the aesthetic mood is anything but “free”. The essential character of Brown’s poetic style is profoundly restrained, his construction is minimal, condensed and elliptical. Most lines are composed of between one and two words, and very few lines run longer than three (only one runs to five). There is almost no punctuation. All text is lower-case. There are no titles. This last “subtractive” element generates an intriguing ambiguity into the chapbook as a whole: with only a string of dashes separating various sections of text, how are we to quantify what constitutes a complete poem? Are we reading a collection structured along familiar lines, or something more esoteric, such as one long, ascetic epic, or a highly fragmented series of atomic poems? This ambiguity surrounding completion is a formal device that nests comfortably within the wider thematic concerns.

Having said that, I don’t want to make it appear as though these poems (if we accept that collective designation) are purely cerebral experiments in structural assemblage. My reading experience was not clinical, at a remove, but was rather highly involved. The brevity of prose gives one the impression of tightrope walking, while the columniform organisation engages the reading eye trippingly, creating odd disjunctions and combinations, like a saxophonist playing staccato jazz. The following extract – one of my favourites from this economical but incredibly rich volume – gives a measure of Brown’s talent: “quiet/ what does this mean/ sense/ of no sound/ revocable/ pause/ the revocable/ appears/ bleeds being/ turns/ phenomena/ toward finitude”.

January by Nathan Brown, 36pp., is published by the Berlin-based Broken Dimanche Press. It is available from their website for €14.99 and has a print run of only 200 copies.

Book Review: A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros

philofwalkA bestseller in France since its publication in 2009, Frédéric Gros’ A Philosophy of Walking has recently been released as an English translation by Verso, billed as an “insightful manifesto” on walking. The book charts Gros’ reflections on walking, but also considers walking as a practice in the lives of great thinkers such as Nietzsche, Rousseau, Thoreau and Rimbaud. Following on the coat tails of the recent renaissance in walking as a critical and literary subject, it steps into the growing “genre” of literary walking, represented by the writings of Rebecca Solnit, Merlin Coverley, Robert Macfarlane, W.G. Sebald, which have been very well received by readers over the past few decades.

Publishers know the popularity of this type of writing, but the reasons behind this genre as a cultural phenomenon have been given very little serious consideration. It is perhaps to give credence to a critical examination of walking as a literary trope, and philosophic mode, that I turned to Gros’ book, hoping to find in it both the rambling poetics of W.G. Sebald, but also an analytical framework which would illuminate why discussing the act of walking is important. But, while titled “a philosophy”, I found the book more a dawdle than a march. Its prose limp and saccharine, often repetitive, and overall a waste of time. This might sound overly harsh, but the tautological style of this book often makes it exasperating to read. To give a good example, Gros writes,

 The freedom in walking lies in not being anyone; for the walking body has no history, it is just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life. So we are a moving two-legged beast, just a pure force among big trees, just a cry…

Need I continue? This may be a harsh perspective, from my cynical British eyes. Possibly in French the book has that lackadaisical aimlessness, so loved in the Proustian form of French novel and in French cinema. Perhaps even, the book is merely the victim of a rough and badly considered translation? At one point, the translator Richard Howe, makes Epicitetus proclaim that the “ground is my couch”, in a truly banal Americanisation of the stoic philosopher. But, even if we consider this translation as accurate, the book is pallid to the extent of parody. It feels more a weak vehicle for biographical detail, than rich philosophical curiosity. The selection of writers which Gros has chosen to focus on is evidently French; with Rousseau, and Rimbaud, heavily dwelling on the French literary canon. But also Nietzsche and Kant equally part of that European male oeuvre. Even with his description of Thoreau, there is a distinctly European reading of this thinking and relationship to nature in Waldon.

The book draws on considerable documentary evidence for the walking practice of these historic figures. However, at times there is desperation in the way Gros picks up on every detail of how and when these writers walked. The weakness of this biographical detail is especially conspicuous with the focus on Kant, whom even Gros agrees only took a brief daily walk, moved very slowly and desperately hated to perspire. From all accounts Kant should not really be considered a serious walker but Gros places him alongside the wild and indomitable Nietzsche, who went mad with exhaustion from his walking, and Rimbaud, whose prolific walks and writings on walking, are of course legendary. Indeed, I found that despite the obvious differences of all these writers, reading the book and viewing these thinkers from this same perspective of walking, forced them into similitude, often merging into one globulous entity of “walker”, which was both repetitive and monotonous. In Gros’ hands there is a methodic attention to their lives, their backgrounds, and the accounts of their walks, without very much consideration of what this actually means to our understanding of their work or even to the importance of these walks.

What Gros’ book very much picks up on is the passive, reflective mode of walking. Walking as a non-competitive act, which puts one foot in front of the other. An act which both internalises one’s thoughts, but also, for the writer, breaks them from the introversion of the internal world, to observe the wider world and their small place within it. But so much of this has already been said before, often by the very writers he cites. Nietzsche proclaimed that we do not belong to those who have ideas only among books […] it is our habit to think outdoors – walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the seas where even the trails become thoughtful”. Perhaps this book would have been better if he had just published a selection of quotations from these very writers on the spirit of walking which he is trying to mine?

No doubt, in the great liberation exalted by the beat generation of Ginsberg and Burroughs, in that debauch of energy that was meant to tear up our lives and blow sky-high the dens of the submissive, walking in the mountains was just one means amongst others: others that included the drugs, the booze and the orgies through which we hoped to attain innocence.

What I found particularly guiling, (with full transparency as woman and a feminist), was the lack of women even considered in this discussion. That is, disregarding his small paragraph on the “sweetie-pie”,”working-class good time girls” who strolled the Tuileries Gardens in Paris during the Belle Epoque. While Gros makes a surreptitious nod towards William Wordsworth, where are the women included in this, like his sister Dorothy, Virginia Woolf or even Doris Lessing? In this criticism is an implicit frustration with the lack of ingenuity and contemporaneity to this account of walking. Writers like Nietzsche, Rimbaud and Thoreau have been scrapped over endlessly. Others to, like John Clare, Charles Dickens and James Joyce too have had a lot of attention, but perhaps were not popular enough with his original French audience. But what about more recent entrants to this history like the traveller Patrick Leigh Fermour, or Guy Debord, even the “London” tradition of psychogeography with Stewart Home, Iain Sinclair and Will Self? What of Werner Herzog, who famous suggested to  Bruce Chatwin that “walking is virtue, tourism deadly sin”. What about more recent adventurers and escapists, like Jon Krakauer’s account of Chris McCandless. What if one broadened the genre and also concentrated on walking in the practice of visual art, in the work of Richard Long for example, or further into film, with Agnes Varda’s wonderful Vagabond?

Perhaps then, the problem here is that to broaden out this “philosophical” perspective on walking, to include wider genres of contemporary examples, would make this book far too diffused and diffuse. It is only when looking back at these key, sparse accounts of walking as a philosophical practice, that any clear conclusions on “a philosophy” of walking can be drawn. But these are conclusions which don’t resonate with contemporary life. The problem with this book, as with the genre of walking as a whole, is the generality of walking. While used in literature as a sublime expression of escape, of simplicity, and as a response to Modernity; walking is also in itself something so mundane and everyday. Indeed,  to a “general public”, these books are often (rightly) derided for effectively teaching a grandmother to suck eggs. They seek to elevate these activities which were often simple to something much more complex and intentional. While Gros rallies around the importance of walking as an escape for the writers from the narrowing internalisations of reading, one should perhaps question his motives in communicating this message through the medium of the book. You feel Nietzsche would not have sat down long enough to read it. Instead, Gros should perhaps have merely written: “Get up from you chair. Go. Do not read the next 216 pages. Go outside and experience your world by walking for yourself.”  But that would perhaps leave him, and his publisher, unemployed.