One Great Reader, Series 3, No. 15: Adrian Dannatt
I’m slightly embarrassed to admit Adrian Dannatt’s name only came to my attention earlier this year when I read his wonderful obituary of important art dealer Alexander Iolas in a book the Paul Kasmin Gallery put out in 2014 called Alexander the Great: The Iolas Gallery, 1955-1987. I was swept away with Adrian’s dashing style on the page and I immediately googled him and found the obituary he wrote for his friend, the same Paul Kasmin, last March. They both left such impressions on me that I had to see if Adrian wrote any others about people in culture, like Alexander and Paul, the kind of people I like to read about. Upon a few more clicks I discovered that that very week (I kid you not) one of my favorite galleries in my neighborhood, Miguel Abreu, was opening a show called “Doomed and Famous: Selections from the Adrian Dannatt Collection” and their associated publisher, Sequence Press, was shortly thereafter releasing a book of the same title consisting of…Adrian’s obituaries! The timing and alignment of it all just thrilled me and I quickly contacted Sequence to ask to be put in touch with Adrian. They quickly did so (thank you Katherine at Sequence!) and you’ll quickly see that Adrian is abounding with a panache that is so very English, one which the English have singularly excelled at for centuries.
After you finish our interview please do find his book Doomed and Famous as much more Adrian isn’t nearly enough. To further tempt you, I leave you with its flap copy that promises a most delightful read:
In Doomed and Famous, an obituarist opens his archive in celebration of the most marginal and improbable characters, creating a meta-fiction of extinction and obscurity. For many decades Adrian Dannatt tracked and dredged the dead, with a macabre disregard for the etiquette of mortality. His specialty, much in demand among even the most mainstream publications, was to memorialize those whose eccentricity or criminality made them unlikely candidates for the fleeting immortality of a newspaper necrology. Dannatt maintained a veritable lust, perverse certainly, for capturing and celebrating such wayward existences. This book is a selection of some of the best—meaning most improbable—of these miniature biographies.
Here are arranged an almost fictive cast of characters including an imaginary Sephardic count in Wisconsin, a sadomasochist collector of the world's rarest clocks, a discrete Cuban connoisseur of invisibility, an alcoholic novelist in Rio, a Warhol Superstar gone wrong, a leading downtown Manhattan dominatrix, a conceptual artist who blew up a museum, and many others. Dannatt terminates this volume with his own putative extinction, performing the difficult if not dangerous task of penning his personal life history and ultimate end.
-Wes Del Val
WDV: Whose writing about contemporary culture is clearest and smartest?
AD: My publishers Sequence Press, run by Katherine Pickard with gallerist Miguel Abreu are known for a commitment to the radical, stylistically as well as politically. One might even detect a sort of steely tardif Gallic Marxism, one of their allies being the philosopher Alain Badiou, notorious for his self-proclaimed Maoism. Indeed he came to Manhattan at the behest of my publishers specifically to debate how it is possible to be a Maoist in light of what we now know about the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. This lecture-performance Dialogue Between a Chinese Philosopher and a French Philosopher led me to actively think about what Mao was trying to do, namely the “re-education” of those guilty of incorrect thinking, to physically change the tenor of their beliefs, their being. This seems particularly relevant to our current lively debates about racial and gender identity and rather than resist the wind of history I decided to become an eager participant of our own “Cultural Revolution.” Like many an enemy of the revolution I am of a certain age, rich in bourgeois tendencies and even wear glasses. Indeed as an actual landlord, let alone a “bad-influencer” and Rightist, I am clearly already among what Mao listed as the “Five Black Categories.” Luckily I am not being forcibly re-educated in some distant province but instead willingly attempting to change the assumed fixity of my internal wiring, to think anew.
As such my chosen writing about contemporary culture would have to include Fred Moten, surely the most agile and elucidating framer of “race” in the widest sense. Thanks to Moten I am trying to approach race, or my own attitudes regarding race, as a different conceptual space. I might even dare ponder race as an Oulipian exercise in “restrictive form” and social grammar, a question of “style” both literary and quotidian, of how we interact with others, with the supposèd “other” on a daily basis. As such I am attempting to find the anagrammatic link between, say, Harry Mathews and Harryette Mullen, between Queneau’s notion of Oulipians as "rats who construct the labyrinth from which they plan to escape” and Ellison’s Invisible Man in his basement. Here I should also mention Darryl Pinckney’s book Out There: Mavericks of Black Literature which happily fractures all clichés of monolithic and approved “blackness” to emphasize instead the individual, indeed the eccentric individual, so central to my own world view. Likewise, as someone who personally tries to avoid the company of men, from sheer physical cowardice, Pauline Harmange has proposed a deliciously revolutionary all-out war against my species, her alternative bestseller Moi les hommes, je les déteste really needing to be read in its original French for full frisson. If not quite as inspired in its frenzy as Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto it certainly tickles all the right spots when it comes to the proposed death of the patriarchy, so easily confused with the “death of the author.” I might conclude with the name Aria Dean, such a pleasingly resonant name in itself, half opera singer, half academic executive. In a typical coincidence my friend Bingham Bryant the young filmmaker was describing his proposed new co-operative venture with Dean when I realized that I had been reading her on “Blacceleration” the night before, knowing nothing about her, just because it was on the bedside table at my publisher’s apartment. Dean’s textual adventures seem to propose new ways of fracturing the formal boundaries of politics and art, fiction and filmmaking, opening instead to a communal ambition, shared engagement, to defeat old certainties. As bold an artist as critic, Dean also happens to share a gallery, Chateau Shatto, with my old friend, the Situationist revolutionary Jacqueline de Jong—ageless comrades on the barricades. And yet and yet, however hard I try to liberate myself I am well aware that I remain an unforgivable member of the “Stinking Old Ninth.”
What a start, that’s months’ worth of essential reading right there! Two related questions: Besides Harmange, has anything else gender-related from the past few years marked you as these have as you proceed in your self-re-education? And I’m glad you brought up Oulipo, you’re the first in 45 interviews to do so. Do you read those texts in their original French?
Well, French feminist writing has been at the heart of my ongoing self-re-education, starting of course with Simone de Beauvoir and everything from Kristeva to Monique Wittig, it's just such a rich and dare I admit “chic” vein of theory, fiction and poetry. It can however be damn hard to read in French and as with the Oulipo I always try to understand them in the original but end up reading them in both French and English. Actually English-language Oulipo is a whole thing in itself. I went to a great event in Paris hosted by that splendidly named poet Rufo Quintavale featuring English-language Oulipians, including the late Tom La Farge who with his wife Wendy Walker created the equally excellently named “Writhing Society.”
Which writers whom you’ve met came across in real life most similar to their writing on the page?
In my distant thespian youth I was lucky enough to act on television with Beatrix Lehmann, playing Aunt Georgina, and as a special treat she introduced me to her elder sister Rosamond. I had not read her work but retroactively connected the smart and feisty woman I encountered with the marvels of her novels, especially that bi-sexual classic Dusty Answer. In my recent thespian dotage I was lucky enough to act in a film with Eileen Myles, she playing a rock star and myself her manager, and in this case I had already extensively delved into her oeuvre and her deadpan laconic cool exactly matched her writing on the page. Chinua Achebe was as gracious and elegant in life—I was lucky enough to once meet him in London—as peerless on the page. A memorable afternoon was spent visiting Lionel Ziprin, that master Kabbalist, in his small apartment in Seward Park surrounded by glorious clutter. He was lying on his bed attached to a breathing apparatus for emphysema and with his long white beard and bushy eyebrows the strangest thing began to happen; for as it grew darker and darker and no light was lit his face began to reverse itself, his mouth to his beard, his hair as his chin, until his features were entirely upside down and his voice came from a black void, a ritual of shape-shifting that he was generously allowing me to witness accompanied by his soft occult whisper. As with Lehmann (two extremely different people!) at the time I had read nothing by Ziprin but am now a devotee of Songs for Schizoid Siblings. And at the risk of this degenerating into a show-off litany of name-dropping, I could add that visiting Paul Bowles in Tangiers proved as nerve-wracking as his writing. It was already such a cliché to go and see him and with my friend Peter Culshaw, the musician and writer, we were naturally hesitant to do so. In fact I had at the time a fantasy of writing a comic article about being the only visitors to Tangiers not to go and pay their respects to Bowles! We had no introduction whatsoever, only the address of his modernist housing block on the outskirts of the city, and simply went there uninvited to ring on his bell. I remember well the polished bronze door plate and the back room where he lay on his mattress surrounded by male-physique magazines, our cracked cups of tea on the floor. On explaining that we were here traveling through Morocco recording different local musics, one of his own specialties, a strange glimmer came to his eye, “yes, sometimes you have to use….a knife!” The way he hissed that word was pure Bowles.
That’s all just delicious! I in fact just listened to four hours of Bowles’ recordings of Moroccan music this very weekend. I only drop that as it’s quite the coincidence.
Are there expatriate writers who you believe had to relocate to come into their own, otherwise you suspect we’d not be reading them?
A great question but there are so many of them it would be hard to make a list, because in a sense every writer is an “expatriate,” the foreign and often difficult country in which they live being literature itself. But I guess the big ones would be Gertrude Stein and Joyce, Beckett and Nabokov. And how about Patricia Highsmith in Switzerland and Suffolk, or those two very different figures from the West Indies, CLR James and VS Pritchett? Or two classic Englishmen in the USA who both went to Dulwich College namely PG Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler. Or from Canada you have Leonard Cohen and Nancy Huston and Mordecai Richler. But there's also Ondatjee, Doris Lessing, Iris Origo, Edith Wharton, Germaine Greer, James Baldwin. It's an endless flow of exile...
Looking at your shelves, which single publisher has consistently produced the most handsome books?
I have long admired the book designs of Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications (BLP), a radical house of fine vintage set up in West Ealing, London in 1969. Named after Paul Bogle, the Jamaican martyr, and Toussaint, the great Haitian revolutionary, these handsome hardbacks boasted notably snazzy covers, especially desirable being the red-and-green boards of Writing In Cuba Since the Revolution. Likewise, any of the many publications by the late great Marxist typographer-designer Robin Fior deserve all their cachet, as his recent retrospective exhibition at the Gulbenkian in Lisbon made clear. But if I must choose a single publisher responsible for probably the most handsome row of books on my groaning shelves it would probably be Oxford Classical Texts. Curiously I just discovered that the young Kim Jong-Un also seems to be a fan of these books, a man whose relatives I visited in their family mausoleum in Pyongyang.
I love the weight and heft of these volumes and especially their elegant dust-wrappers whether in distinctive green or tasty powder-blue. This latter colour we hijacked, thanks to my editor Katherine Pickard, a wily aesthete, and designer Geoff Kaplan, for the covers of my own Doomed and Famous.
Ah yes you did, I’m glad you pointed that out.
All I see in that Kim Jong-Un photograph is a classic interior designer move of buying books-by-the-foot for an imagined intellectual effect for the client...
Which living writer would you most desire to write a biography about you?
What a wonderful notion—such vast vistas of possibilities. Yet also the nagging reality of one’s own parochial limitations, the very paucity of my connections amongst the truly great and good of the contemporary literary canon. But within this fictive arc of limitless grandeur I can’t imagine anything more exciting than having Hélène Cixous pen my biography. I even dare quote her in the epigraph at the entrance to my own book, Digression is the soul of literature. I am a terrible digresser myself and do not doubt la grande Cixous would be able to track me firmly down all my dim alleyways, behind my “Veils” and “Rootprints,” through those Oulipian labyrinths indeed, with her usual admirable acuity.
Very good answer, I did say “most desire” so it needn’t be realistic.
What do you want to happen to your books after you die?
Oh no, the key question which I ponder daily, nightly.
What can I do with them all? Will I ever build that fantasy dream bookshelf, free-standing library to contain them all? This is part of my sad fantasy to become sufficiently successful, recognized, whatever it is called, that some institution might accept my soi disant archive; my lunatic collections of newspaper and magazine cuttings, hoarded invitations to exhibitions, boxes of letters and postcards, my jottings, notebooks and sketchbooks, scrapbooks, “yet every scrapbook stuck with glue.” And, centrally, what about the books themselves? Should one have a bookplate or not? A thousand years ago in Ankara I attended a conference where I was lucky enough to meet Cornelius Castoriadis and the delightful Marcia Tucker, who founded the old New Museum. This event was organised by a mysterious Swiss diplomat who collected not books but bookplates and explained to me the perils and pleasures of that world. I would love to have one, especially choosing who to commission to design a great bookplate, but right now that would lessen the value of the volumes, so I have this fantasy of working like a mad man to try and establish the tiniest flicker of fame so that I can at last have my own bookplate, and it will not instantly sabotage their re-sale.
This is particularly poignant for me right now as my father, the well-known modernist architect Trevor Dannatt just died at 101. Though the Royal Institute for British Architects has taken a judicious tranche of his library (complete with his own entirely justified bookplate) I still find myself inheriting his voluminous handwritten journals, his own cuttings, letters and postcards from friends. These are exactly the same things I myself have piled up in countless boxes, our shared DNA wired for this obsessive commitment to saving every scrap. I just hope that in a hundred years one of my great-great-grandchildren will inherit a few dusty tomes, bookplate and all, by which to remember the dim glimmer of their doomed forebear.
If you could start a new international literary prize what would your categories be?
A bid for pure radicality—formal and political. This of course leaves the moot question of who defines the “radical.” The other real issue is how much money is involved, because that changes everything. I would like to start a prize whose largesse was so staggering, impossible, that it becomes radical in itself; the $650,000 of the MacArthur Fellowship may be something but my fantasy runs more to the hundred million dollars left by Ruth Lilly to Poetry magazine or François-Marie Banier’s billion euro bonanza, actual beauty and brilliance for once recognised and rewarded with real money. I would start a two million pound prize for a single page of writing that was so extraordinary, so astonishing that nobody has ever read anything like it before. Something like the All Souls exam combined with a Kabbalistic occult revelation which would actually shatter our world through words.
Fabulous. A dozen various scenarios instantly ran through my head. And you’re completely accurate about actual beauty and brilliance so rarely being recognized with real money. In your estimation which writers’ grand sales of their books have matched their prowess on the page?
Another deliciously juicy question, especially as I love many bestsellers whether Conan Doyle, Ian Fleming or Rex Stout. But at the same time it's amazing how bad the prose of many bestsellers can be...so it's actually physically difficult to get through them. Yet there are also bestsellers snobs foolishly dismiss because of their success; for example in Britain Joanna Trollope is a ubiquitous bestseller just like her distant relative Anthony, and both are truly addictive, or the success of Amor Towles' Gentleman in Moscow is another exemplary case.
Which books’ indexes did you most quickly page to once you got your hands on a copy?
The biographies of Malcolm McLaren and Guy Debord to check whether I was in them, denounced by both for being a “known troublemaker”!
Wait, you indeed made it in both for being a troublemaker, or should have? While on the subject, who has wreaked the most havoc in literature with their words?
Happily I made it into the Debord memoirs and biographies, several of them. I am also proud that my name is in Paul Gorman's definitive McLaren biography, but curiously there is nothing about McLaren’s threats to sue me over his planned adventures in North Korea, which led to the rare honour of actually being denounced by McLaren himself as a “known troublemaker and disturber of the peace”!' I suppose the most “havoc” ever wreaked by the written word must belong to the Bible, these “people of the book” also having a great capacity for fighting, torturing, excluding and killing on the basis of these same words.
What a badge of distinction to have been denounced by both. I like knowing this. And there’s probably not a better answer than what you gave for the latter.
What locations have you been to which were written about more beautifully than they turned out to be in reality?
The distant suburbs of London now prove a disappointment compared to the great dark mysteries of Arthur Machen, the Limehouse Docks fail to achieve the foggy threat of Sax Rohmer, Muriel Sparks’ lodging houses have been long converted back to “single-family-homes” and even Eastbourne hardly measures up to the gin soaked tristesse of Patrick Hamilton. One does begin to fear that much of Britain is now much better on the page, especially those musty Penguin pages of yore, than as experienced today, general ghastliness being so widespread.
When in your life has your breath been taken away by something you read?
I literally had to hold my breath whilst finishing George Orwell’s Coming Up for Air. Drenched in nostalgia for a “real England” the villains of this prescient 1939 novel are the very same property speculators and mass-market high street retailers, motorway-planners, who have by now effectively destroyed the magic of rural Britain. Also, it was thanks to my enthusiasm for this book that I was accepted as a student by St Chad’s, an all male Anglo-Catholic theological college, despite not having any of the obligatory exam results in maths or science. For in charge of my illegal admission was one Wheatley Blench, a formidable literary scholar of highest high church bent who had actually known Orwell, “Yes, Blair was a solid chap…though in Spain he did fight on the wrong side of course.”
My god, British names! How did Wodehouse not get to “Wheatley Blench” first.
What are some of the most stimulating publishing world-related conversations you’ve had around a dinner table?
Aside for my own much-aforementioned editor Miss Pickard, it is always elucidating and intriguing to be with my friend Emmie Francis, the fabled young editor at Faber & Faber. Over some bottle of fine wine in south London she might outline a vision for truly filthy avant-garde publishing—a la Barney Rosset—wherein the visual becomes literary and literary becomes visual. While the current “trade” publishing landscape does not really allow for that kind of imagination, she does remain committed to new forms of potential publishing—she has the “eye” in every sense. She’ll bring bestsellers, prize-winners and renegade literature to us all, for time to come. It is likewise always a delight to ponder the nexus of literature and design with Vintage-Random House’s legendary art director and cover queen, Megan Wilson, ideally whilst eating deeply of her famous roast chicken special. Of course the “publishing world” should not be thought of as just some monolith of the entertainment-complex with vast budgets and hefty laminated volumes; thus I would be equally happy discovering some hidden speciality of lower Manhattan with Fan Kong, an expert on the tiniest most elegant of handmade fanzines, sometimes in an edition of one and small enough to hide in a thimble.
Emmie Francis’ name is new to me, but your putting her in the same sentence as Barney has immediately put her on my radar.
Where should reading never occur?
On a cell phone whilst with other people.
Well then I guess a lot of people are reading all the time... Thanks Adrian!
Adrian Dannatt as drawn by Duncan Hannah