Archives: March 2018

Muscular Sanity: The Language of Pain in Literature

Emily Wells for the LA Review of Books

For the LA Review of Books, Emily Wells on the articulation of pain in literature.

“English,” Virginia Woolf writes in “On Being Ill,”

which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver or the headache … The merest schoolgirl when she falls in love has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her, but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to his doctor and language at once runs dry.

Woolf seeks to establish illness as a serious project in literature, which “does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, negligible, and non-existent.”

However, even in this essay on illness, Woolf only hints at the mental and physical ailments that plagued her throughout her life, asserting that, in the matter of disease, “we go alone, and like it better so. Always to have sympathy […] would be intolerable.” Though she potently explores states of illness in her fiction — Rachel’s delirious, raging fever in The Voyage Out, Rhoda’s madness in The Waves, and Septimus’s suicidal mania Mrs. Dalloway — in describing pain explicitly and specifically her own, language does appear to run dry.

Considering this disparity between her fictional and nonfictional treatments of pain, we must ask, is the “running dry” a failure of language, or of the will? Does Woolf’s reticence owe more to the shame that goes hand in hand with sharing one’s pain than to a weakness in the language itself? Perhaps language fails us only when we wish to express our pain, rather than the pain of others. In her 1985 volume The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, Elaine Scarry echoes Woolf’s lamentations at the limits of language:

Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language […] Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned.

Scarry also notes that the language used to describe the physical pain experienced by the individuals she has interviewed often comes from others speaking on their behalf. To the person in pain, there is no reality besides that pain. The effect of this reality-defining pain on an individual identity is modeled in Meghan O’Rourke’s most recent poetry collection, Sun in Days, a poignant meditation on chronic illness:

I discovered what I had always naturally called I was really no longer an “I.”

It changed all the time — in fact, entirely receded as a coherent notion — according to something happening in my cells that no one could identify …

Walking, teaching, writing, I experienced myself as categorically fraudulent.

This experience of categorical fraudulence, in which one lacks the exact word for an experience, may force a writer into the realm of metaphor. Yet in Illness as a Metaphor, Susan Sontag takes issue with disease metaphors. “I want to describe not what it’s really like to emigrate to the kingdom of the ill and to live there,” she writes, “but the punitive or sentimental fantasies concocted about that situation; not real geography but stereotypes of national character.” Throughout, Sontag challenges psychological abstractions that do more harm than good:

We are not being invaded. The body is not a battlefield. The ill are neither unavoidable casualties nor the enemy […] About that metaphor, the military one, I would say, if I may paraphrase Lucretius: Give it back to the war-makers.

Sontag’s condemnation of metaphor is refreshing and even salutary, but what language is left for those who suffer from diseases that don’t have a precise scientific designation? Can writers who wish to convey the nuanced experience of being in an ill body resist metaphor? In any event, relying on seemingly precise definitions may actually obscure the true meaning of an experience.


An extract: Arkady by Patrick Langley


An extract from Patrick Langley’s debut novel Arkady, published today.


A fan stirs the room’s thick heat as the officers talk. Jackson wags his legs under the chair and watches his shoes as they swing. The officers speak about beaches. A pathway. Red flags. The story does not make sense. When they finish it, Jackson looks up. The door is open. It frames a stretch of shrivelled lawn and a column of cloudless sky. Colours throb in the heat.

‘Do you understand?’ the woman asks.

‘We are sorry,’ says the man.

Blue uniforms cling to their arms. Black caps are perched on their heads. Jackson peers into the caps’ plastic rims, which slide with vague shadows and smears of light. The officers mutter to each other and swap glances with hooded eyes. The breeze through the door is like dog-breath, a damp heat that smells faintly of rot.

‘Where’s my dad?’ asks Jackson.

The man’s thumb is hooked through his belt. He stands like a cowboy, hips cocked.

‘We don’t know,’ he sighs. ‘Our colleague saw him a moment after. We’re sure he’ll come back soon. You have a small brother? We take you to the place, and you tell him. Tell him your father is coming back. We’ll find him. I promise. Right now.’


They are staying on the side of a mountain, a short but twisting drive away from the nearest coastal town. The hotel is enormous. From a distance it resembles a castle, its high walls strong and stern, its red roofs bright against the mountain’s grey. The valley below is dotted with scrubby bushes and half-finished breezeblock homes. At its centre, a dried-up riverbed runs through copses of stunted trees: a jagged path connecting the hotel to the town.

Frank is in the crèche with the other toddlers. They crawl and stumble on the floor, slapping primary-coloured mats with chubby palms. Jackson glances at the sprinkler outside. Threads of water glitter like glass until they shatter and fall. He asks the woman when the children go home.

‘When does the session finish, you mean?’ she asks. She is English. Her eyes are the dull blue of cloudless skies. ‘Is everything alright?’

Jackson’s brother is in the far corner, a monkey teddy in his hand. He is wearing his robot pyjamas; his smile makes Jackson smile.

‘You can come back at five o’clock, if you like,’ the woman says. ‘We have a painting class. Do you like art? You could do a jigsaw?’

Frank smacks a beat on the monkey-doll’s stomach. Thump-thump!

‘The one in the corner,’ says Jackson.

‘You know him?’

‘He’s my brother.’

The woman smiles at Jackson, briefly narrowing her eyes. ‘He’s very good,’ she says.


The swimming pool is white and blue. It hurts Jackson’s eyes to look at it. In the evenings, before dinner, his mother will swim for a while and then relax on a lounger, sunglasses masking her eyes, and read a book while their father plays tennis, goes walking, or naps. Today a strange woman has taken his mother’s lounger. Her legs are bronzed and dimpled, with blue worms squiggling under the skin. Her lips are the colour of cocktail cherries, sticky and red.

‘You alright there pal?’

The man is on a lounger. Gold things shine at his knuckles and neck: he is either a king or a thief.

‘Here on your own?’ The man is from Jackson’s city. That voice. ‘Where are your parents?’ He is wearing skimpy Y-front trunks, the kind Jackson’s mother calls budgie smugglers. His tanned skin shines like oiled meat. ‘You speak English? Española? Where are your parentés, your grandays persona? Big people, you know?’ He chuckles. ‘Mum? Dad? Parents? No?’

A waiter appears with a tray. On his tray is a bright blue drink in a tall glass shaped like a space rocket. A wedge of pineapple, skewered on a toothpick, glistens in the sun. The woman places her hand on her heart and – ‘Ah!’ – her teeth flash as she gasps.

‘My man,’ says the man on the lounger, clicking his fingers. ‘Over here.’

The woman slips the fruit into her mouth.

‘Of course,’ says the waiter, smiling. The red splodge on the pocket of his shirt is the hotel’s logo: a mermaid sitting sadly on a rock. ‘Another beer, sir?’

Everyone smiles.

The budgie-smuggler shakes his head. ‘This boy,’ he says, ‘he’s been standing there for the last five minutes. Hasn’t said a thing.’

‘I see,’ the waiter says.

A crucifix hangs at the waiter’s neck. His nose is long and straight, like a statue’s. He is tall and strong and has very white teeth but his eyes are too close together. ‘Hey lil’ man,’ he says, walking over, smiling so wide the creases reach his ears. ‘You looking for your mother? You want me to try and call her?’

Jackson squints. Sweat pours down his forehead and stings his eyes. ‘She doesn’t have a phone,’ he says. ‘People call her all the time and she hates it. I went to tell Frank, but he’s playing with a monkey.’

The waiter frowns and sticks his lower lip out. ‘There’s no monkeys here.’

Jackson explains about the crèche.

‘Ahhhhh, sea sea sea – your baby brother! I remember now.’ Spanish people love the sea, they say it all the time. ‘Well, let me think.’ The waiter taps his chin with a finger. ‘Ah, I saw your father this morning. He bought a snorkel from Reception.’

Jackson nods. ‘That was before.’

When the waiter squats beside him, the muscles on his lower legs bulge. He smells of lemon peel, soap, and sweat.

‘Why don’t you come with me,’ the waiter says. ‘We’re gonna do a search. I’m sure she’s not far.’


Jo Hopper, Woman in the Sun

Sarah McColl for the Paris Review

For the Paris Review, Sarah McColl on the life and work of Jo Hopper.

In a 1906 portrait of Josephine Nivison, painted while she was a twenty-two-year-old student at the New York School of Art, her artist’s smock slips from her shoulder like the falling strap of Madame X’s gown. This is teacher Robert Henri’s portrait of the artist as a young woman; one suggestive detail, sure, along with aspects of Jo’s character he can’t help but capture: her steady gaze of steely resolve, the way she holds her brushes like a divining rod.

This is when Jo Nivison meets Edward Hopper, though they do not make much of their first meeting, or even their second. When they graduate, Jo keeps herself in cigarettes by selling drawings to places like the New York Tribune, the Evening Post, the Chicago Herald Examiner. In the 1920 New York City Directory, Jo lists herself as an artist, and she is no slouch. She shows her paintings alongside work by Picasso and Man Ray. In that same directory, Edward Hopper calls himself an illustrator.

Jo and Ed don’t link up their wagons until 1923. It is the third time their paths have crossed, and by now they are both in their forties. Maybe they can help each other. Six of Jo’s watercolors appear that year in a group show at the Brooklyn Museum; she puts in a word for Ed with the curators, and they buy one of his paintings. It is the first he has sold since the Armory Show of 1913, ten years before.

This is Ed’s tipping point. Next, he’s given a sellout solo show by the gallery that represents him for the rest of his life, and Jo becomes Ed’s only model. She creates characters for his work, transforms herself into women alone, idle, waiting. She is woman in a train compartment, woman in the office at night, at a New York movie, a woman in the sun. She is painting, too—she always has—but there are murmurs that Jo is riding Ed’s coattails onto the gallery walls. In 1938, there is a group show at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, and in 1939, another at the Golden Gate International Exhibition. Here, Jo’s oil painting “Chez Hopper” appears, and it is a portrait of Ed for once, in which his feet rest on a coal stove. This painting, as is the case with most of Jo’s work, has been lost.

But that’s rushing ahead to the end of the story. The beginning, and the middle, is that Jo and Ed are always painting and always fighting. They work together in their sometimes home on the Cape and their other-times home, a skylight-bright fourth-floor walk-up on Washington Square. Ed hauls coal and tin cans of beef stew up the stairs. If only his wife would do less painting and more cooking. Nobody likes her work, he says. He means he does not care for it.

Their fights, as Jo records in her diaries, are vicious. Jo scratches Ed and “[bites] him to the bone.” He slaps her, bangs her head against a shelf, colors her with bruises. On their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, she tells him they deserve a medal for distinguished combat, and he complies with a coat of arms made from a rolling pin and ladle.

It is true: Jo is a lady flower painter, but things are not only as they seem. Sometimes she is thinking of her dead friends, other women. She calls the 1948 painting of a brittle, drooping arrangement set before an open window, “Obituary.” “She intentionally disregarded the dominant male aesthetic,” the Hopper historian Gail Levin writes. “Her subject matter seems self-consciously female.” In her early seventies, Jo paints a self-portrait in which she wears earrings, a necklace, and a pink lace bra, which she purchased for herself as a birthday present from Ed. It was “the most expensive thing of the kind I’ve ever owned,” she wrote in her diary. The lingerie is “perishable & does nothing specially for me anymore than another layer of skin.”


Nuar Alsadir: An Interview

Maria Isakova Bennett for The Honest Ulsterman

Maria Isakova Bennett interviews poet Nuar Alsadir for The Honest Ulsterman. They discuss Alsadir’s ‘night fragments’, psychoanalysis and spontaneity.

Maria Isakova Bennett: Nuar, after I first heard you read in Liverpool in 2016, I couldn’t get the idea of writing at 3.15 a.m. out of my mind. I wonder if you could talk further here about the process and about the use / value of writing from the unconscious?

Nuar Alsadir: My night fragments were written during a creative dry spell—I began to use a method of accessing my interior which involved going to bed with a notebook on my bedside table, pen marking a blank page, setting my alarm for 3:15 a.m., and, at hearing the alarm, waking for a few seconds to write down whatever was at the top of my mind. I reoriented my process so that, rather than trying to construct thoughts, I was listening for the thoughts that were already there. Psychoanalysis approaches the mind similarly, as does the art of clown—which I discuss in a recent piece I wrote for Granta When you enter a session or take the stage, you’re not supposed to operate from your expectations, have an agenda or idea of what you’re going to do. Without a plan, you can listen—and, if you trust and follow what is before you, you’ll realize that the dryness in any dry spell likely has less to do with what is available to you than your approach.

MIB: It sounds a fascinating method. I wonder, are there other methods to access the interior, other ways of listening for the thoughts that are already there? What I mean is, are there methods that can be used in the daytime ?

NA: Psychoanalysis, for one! Or clown school. Once you tune into your inner voices, you hear them all the time, during the day as well. This approach was helpful to me in generating material—though it did not always yield work that I would show to anyone else.

MIB: Has this approach (no agenda, trusting and following what’s before you) replaced your other approaches, or improved them? 

NA: Writing night fragments hasn’t replaced other approaches—it was a particular method I used during a particular period of time. I’m not writing night fragments at the moment.

MIB: Nuar, in your Granta essay about Clown school, you talked initially about spontaneous laughter and the link with honesty. What do you think is valuable about spontaneity for a writer and can you talk a little about the link with honesty?

NA: Slips of the tongue, parapraxes, outbursts of laughter represent escapes from the unconscious, as do my night fragments. I use the term “spontaneous” in the piece to point to what emerges from within in a way that retains its form without being matched up to social (or poetic) codes. I carry this idea across clown, psychoanalysis, and poetry to political action. In relation to poetry, I talk about the importance of resisting the urge to write what Derek Walcott termed a “fake poem” even if it receives accolades, and call for the poet to, in Sylvia Plath’s terms, allow themselves to ‘grow ingrown, queer, simply from indwelling and playing true to [their] own gnomes and demons’. Honesty, in this context, is accuracy—representing what is within without adjusting it to fit pre-existing forms, as expectations surrounding the dominant perspective are often revealed through form. This kind of honesty is critical, I believe, when it comes to work that expresses a different subject position than the mainstream, so that the writer resists the pressure to explain, tweak the work to make it accessible to a general reader. It is radical—indeed political—to hold on to your perceptions and not adjust your perspective for the comfort or recognition of a particular audience.


In the Cauldron at Midnight

Regina Marler for the New York Review of Books
Leonora Carrington: A Warning to Mother, 1973

For the NYRB, Regina Marler reviews Whitney Chadwick’s Farewell to the Muse: Love, War and the Women of Surrealism, examining the life and work of the female Surrealists and the ‘fundamental incompatibility of the roles of beguiling muse and committed professional artist.’

One morning in Mexico City in 1991, the English Surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington and the art historian Whitney Chadwick set off for the Mercado de Sonora, a traditional market in a rough part of town that is also known as a mercado de brujería, or witches’ market. “It is here that the shamans and the curanderas [folk healers] find their supplies,” Carrington explained. After showing Chadwick various healing herbs and miracle cures, Carrington found what she’d been seeking: “one of the best-known curanderas.” They negotiated the price with an attendant, and Chadwick was led alone through a torn curtain to a woman on a low stool with long braids and penetrating dark eyes. “I stood paralyzed,” Chadwick recalled, “remembering stories my uncles had once told of foxes that hypnotized cats by swaying in front of them. I grew more nervous as the seconds passed.” Then she heard a commotion behind her, the curtain parted, and Carrington gripped her arm: “‘Don’t do it,’ she whispered, ‘Don’t do it. This woman works with black magic. She will kill frogs on your body and use the blood. Run!’” Chadwick stood transfixed until Carrington pulled her away, and they fled the market.

This incredible story is not from Chadwick’s latest book, Farewell to the Muse, but from a talk—a “memory piece,” as she described it—that she delivered in Mexico City in April 2017 at the centenary celebrations for Carrington, who died in 2011 at the age of ninety-four. She and Carrington had been friends since the early 1980s, when Chadwick was among the earliest scholars to seek out the more-or-less forgotten women of the Surrealist movement. In fact, one of the rich pleasures of reading this first generation of Carrington scholars—among them Marina Warner, Gloria Orenstein, and Susan Aberth, who wrote the first biography of Carrington—is that they knew her (and often related artists, such as Leonor Fini) for years. We need memoirs from these pioneers.

Chadwick does allow herself one significant anecdote in the introduction to Farewell to the Muse. In 1982, the painter Roland Penrose showed her his remarkable art collection at Farley Farm House, East Sussex. When he learned she was planning to write about the female Surrealists, he shook his head: “‘You shouldn’t write a book about the women,’ he said…. ‘They weren’t artists.’” Chadwick probably glanced around the room at this point, having just seen the work he owned by his two wives, the French poet and collagist Valentine Penrose and the American photographer Lee Miller. “‘Of course the women were important,’ he continued, ‘but it was because they were our muses.’”

The vexed issue of muses undermines the revolutionary program of international Surrealism: the rejection of the rational and of all the oppressive institutions and bourgeois norms that, André Breton and others argued, had led to the ravages of World War I. In place of the military, the family, and the church, Surrealists would celebrate the imagination, sexual liberty, and the promptings of the unconscious. In his first Surrealist Manifesto, Breton called for an art of “psychic automatism” that would record “thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, apart from any moral or aesthetic concerns.” Women were exalted as conduits to these chthonic realms. In the process, Breton and his followers created a mythology out of the way pretty women made them feel.

“Man defines woman not as herself but as relative to him,” observed Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex (1949). Among the writers she skewered, she could have included the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard, whose 1924 poem “L’Amoureuse” throws his image over his wife Gala’s like a coat: “She has the shape of my hands, she has the color of my eyes, she is engulfed in my shadow.” But Beauvoir went straight for Breton. The ideal woman of Breton’s poetry, she wrote, “casts the same spell as the equivocal objects loved by the surrealists: she is like the spoon-shoe, the table-magnifying glass, the sugar cube of marble that the poet discovers at the flea market or invents in a dream.” Equating Beauty with Woman relegates women to a land of toys. The Second Sex sold 22,000 copies in its first week alone, and Beauvoir’s analysis of Breton fuelled decades of feminist revisions of Surrealism. When Beauvoir criticizes you, you stay criticized.


Launch events for In the Dark Room by Brian Dillon

At the Photographers' Gallery Bookshop and the London Review Bookshop
Image 4 (115)b

Please join us to celebrate the re-issue of Brian Dillon’s In the Dark Room. Originally published by Penguin in 2005, In the Dark Room explores the question of how memory works emotionally and culturally.


On Thursday 15 March, Brian Dillon will present In the Dark Room at the Photographers’ Gallery Bookshop, 16 – 18 Ramillies Street, London W1F 7LW, from 6-8pm. There will be a reading and a book signing. The event is free to attend, but please RSVP to


On Wednesday 21 March, Brian Dillon will be reading from and discussing In the Dark Room with Sophie Ratcliffe at the London Review Bookshop, 14 Bury Place, London WC1A 2JL, from 7pm. Tickets are available here.

Fitz Carraldo Editions