This is an interview I did recently with H Magazine around the publication in Spain of my novel Memphis Underground. They will have run a Spanish translation but here it is with my original answers in English. I know some of my bilingual readers have enjoyed comparing the original interviews about the Spanish edition of Memphis Underground and their translations… so this provides another opportunity for them to do so. For those of you who don’t speak Spanish but are fluent in English, you get to read something you wouldn’t have access to otherwise. I haven’t run through all the Spanish interviews I’ve done yet but I’m tempted to call it quits with this one for now…
Raül De Tena:. At one point in Memphis Underground you say that you’re gonna use one of the sentences you just wrote to answer a random journalist. That part of the book scared me when I started to write down these questions… Are you gonna answer the truth and only the truth in this interview? Or is it better keep the mystery to make the interview more appealing?
Stewart Home: I don’t think I wrote that in the book but this might be because of the way the passage has been translated or perhaps you’re misremembering it. My memory is often so faulty that I’ve no idea about the actual content of things I wrote last week, let alone a few years ago! And the same goes for what I read, but much more so!
Anyway, I think the passage you’re referring to is the following: “In my rereading of Marcuse, I paid particular attention to the chapter entitled The Aesthetic Dimension, since I thought it might be amusing to bamboozle a journalist by using this as a theoretical justification for my own work.”
This is from one of the diary sections in Memphis Underground written as if it is a piece of non-fiction by me, rather than one of the fictional sections, so I’m not surprised it would worry you as a journalist. In journalism (and I too write journalism) we assume that truth is something we can reach, but as an anti-novelist I have to assume it is something slippery that escapes us but that can be approached more closely through fiction than non-fiction. The tricky bit here is that Memphis Underground contains both fiction and non-fiction, or at least blends them.. One of the intended effects of much of my prose is to amuse – and also if the reader thinks deeply about how I’m giving them laughs, to leave them all at sea! Confused? You will be!
Raül De Tena: Anti-literature, neoism and psychogeography are three important concepts in Memphis Underground. Do you think a reader who doesn’t know anything about those concepts can enjoy the book? Or you don’t even care about those considerations?
Stewart Home: I don’t think most people need to know anything about anything to enjoy the book – as long as they haven’t been brainwashed into thinking about ‘literature’ in the restricted sense of bourgeois subjectivity. Those who think that books are about linear plot and plodding characterisation will have a real problem with my writing. We can liken those with this outlook to people who think paintings have to be representational – they’re living in the past and incapable of understanding contemporary culture. But aside from plonkers of this stripe, I don’t think anyone will have any problems understanding Memphis Underground. I think it’s a very accessible book for contemporary readers, and they’ll laugh their asses off as they go through it.
Raül De Tena: The concepts I just mentioned are referred to a lot in the book, but how do anti-literature, neoism and psychogeography influence your writing and your style in Memphis Underground?
Stewart Home: Of these three concepts the most important is anti-literature – this is a tradition that predates literature and that encompasses black humour, theory and experimentation with prose and poetic forms. One could cite anything from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy to the works of Kathy Acker by way of Karl Marx…. The important thing is not to restrict yourself to the genre known as literary fiction. Most of the contemporary writers promoted as being worthwhile by the bourgeois press are in fact boring, and this is precisely because they project themselves as being serious. To do anything worthwhile you have to get over the adolescent mania for being po-faced and grow up and grow into humour and laughs. The adolescent thinks that to be adult you have to always act like grown up – whereas the precise opposite is the case. To be properly grown up and to do anything really serious you have to do it with humour and levity. There are just way too many middle-aged writers out there whose misplaced sense of ‘gravity’ and importance reveals them to still have the minds of adolescents. Only anti-literature attains the levity that is a necessary corollary to real gravity.
Moving on, neoism is a prefix and a suffix without any content…. but then as Hegel demonstrated if you have nothing you have to have something because one is meaningless without the other. And if you’ve something and nothing then you must have becoming and from this foundation Hegel builds his entire philosophical system – which I find pretty hilarious, although I wouldn’t go along with it’s final realisation in the Prussian State and God, which is unfortunately where Hegel took it…. Returning to neoism, if it is nothing then it must be everything… And it can be pretty much whatever you want, so my take on neoism in Memphis Underground is subjective and possibly solipsistic!
Finally as regards this question, psychogeography is now so popular with the chattering classes and sections of the literary establishment that pretty much everyone who ever had anything to do with it in its earlier incarnations tends to disavow it. But for the situationists it was a way of drawing up new emotional maps of the city, although before doing this they’d have to get blind drunk or really stoned and then wander around letting the unconscious solicitations of the architecture draw them on. It was only by getting completely out of it that the situationists were able to do psychogeorgraphy and this is something that seems to be lost on many contemporary practitioners of the craft… and may explain why their results, in England anyway where psychogreography seems to be most popular, are so utterly useless…
Raül De Tena: When you read through Memphis Underground you are left thinking that the book is a direct attack on two concepts. First of all, art as a business and as a dead scene. Is there no hope for art in the 21st Century?
Stewart Home: As the radical New York group Up Against The Wall Motherfucker (UATWM) declared back in the 1960s: “Art is Dead Baby! Burn The Museums!”
Raül De Tena: It’s interesting that the only hope for art in Memphis Underground is precisely through fakery. But even that practice seems to be pretty ridiculous… Don’t you trust the fake as a motor for art any more? Or is even fake art a business?
Stewart Home: Well you know what they say – “Fake It Till You Make It!” This is also called the ‘act as if” doctrine and in English it is a common catchphrase that exhorts us to imitate confidence so that as the confidence produces success, it will generate real confidence. Fake art all too often falls into this trap and becomes real art, and I’m definitely faking it here coz I just copied and pasted the previous sentence from Wikipedia…. But to return to what I was saying, even being landed with the label art is a problem nowadays because it means people can put something that might otherwise disturb them in a little mental box and not even think about it. This was not a dilemma the Dadaists had to deal with when they embraced the negative a century ago… But Dadaist art trapped in museums does become a part of this problematic. Duchamp says somewhere that art dies (it has a life of maybe 30 or 40 years) and then ends up in graveyards called museums…. The same can be said of anti-art and fake art nowadays, except the half-life of such projects is getting shorter by the minute.
Raül De Tena: Your interest in fakery seems to relate to the annihilation of individuality (this is the other main concept Memphis Underground appears to be attacking). In the book you’re always ‘playing’ with the reader so the reader never knows who’s really the main character – or if it’s even the same person. Are you trying to annihilate the usual certainty of literature about the main character’s individuality and psychology? Or is this just a game played with the reader?
Stewart Home: There’s a difference between us all being unique individuals (although not necessarily that unique in our desires and tastes) and the ideology of individuality. I see characterisation in literature and all psychology from Freud to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari and beyond, as bourgeois. Therefore this trope in literary fiction and the psychoanalytic theories associated with it for the past hundred years or so do need to be smashed! So what you’re asking me about is more than a game played with my readers….
Raül De Tena: Memphis Underground seems to be divided into two parts. The first half of the book is more classical, and the second half is perhaps your revenge against those who thought the whole book was gonna be easy reading… Is that division into two parts intentional? Do you usually think about the accessibility of what you’re writing?
Stewart Home: I always think about the audience for what I do, but the audience does not have to be broad, although sometimes it is. No book is going to have universal appeal. Memphis Underground has four main parts and some nice fills between these… and the opening was designed to read like a really typical piece of bland contemporary writing, which is then smashed up against a description of a map like you’d find in the French nouveau roman. So the book does set up the expectation that it will be more conventional than it ends up being, and I rerun that trope as you move through the text. But I don’t think that makes Memphis Underground hard to read for those have open minds, but it does create an accessibility problem for those who have been conditioned in their expectations by conventional bourgeois literature….
Raül De Tena: Lady Di and Death appear as characters on Memphis Underground. I find this awesome… But didn’t you think it was gonna be a dangerous move? Do you think you succeed using them as characters?
Stewart Home: Unless you’re prepared to take chances, and really willing to fail, then you’re not going to move writing or any other cultural form forward. Lady Di was probably the biggest celebrity we had in England for a hundred years, and like all celebrities the coverage of her drained her of all real humanity until we were only left with a cipher…. So I don’t think I could easily go wrong with her… In his 1957 movie The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman has a knight play chess with a personification of Death and I thought that was hilarious. So that was my starting point but obviously I wanted to trash Death up and not treat ‘him’ too seriously. So the humour in my use of Death is intentional, whereas in Bergman’s case I suspect it was unconscious…But again judged on my terms I’d say my use of Death was a huge success….
Raül De Tena: You mention Joyce and Finnegans Wake as the death of literature. Haven’t you found any interesting authors after Joyce? Could you mention some and why you find them interesting?
Stewart Home: There are many… Clarence Cooper Junior for his vision of prison and junkie life. Blaster Al Ackerman for his fried humour. Ann Quin for her deployment of a ventriloquist dummy in her first novel Berg. Alain Robb-Grillet both for his use of repetition and multiple perspectives…. and also for attacking the bourgeois disdain for pleasure – of which humour and laughter are important examples, as well as eroticism which is the springboard for Robbe-Grillet’s critique. British beat novelist Alex Trocchi for being a friend of my mother, and the fact they dealt smack together…. The list could go on and on and on! But I’ll stop here!
Raül De Tena: Your vision of London in Memphis Underground is fairly negative. Has it changed recently? How is your vision of London right now?
Stewart Home: London is always best in winter and in a recession, it ain’t a pretty city but it can be picaresque. Unfortunately the fact that there is a global market in London property means that the process of gentrification is continuing and rather than the rich and poor living side by side as has been the case for hundreds of years, the city is in danger of turning into somewhere like Paris with poverty concentrated in a ring around the outside, that is to say in the suburbs. So London ain’t what it used to be but then change is an integral part of the urban experience. But London is now much more like any other European city than the place I knew as a kid and teenager, when it was much dirtier and more smashed up, but also more unique….
Raül De Tena: Music is pretty important in Memphis Underground… Aren’t you afraid someone could think you’re part of pop literature (such as Nick Hornby)?
Stewart Home: I wouldn’t mind being seen as a part of pop literature if that meant like Michael Moorcock or some cool sci-fi writers. But Nick Horby! Ha ha ha! He just completely sucks….
Raül De Tena: You’re gonna be in Barcelona in May as part of Primera Persona. What can we expect of your lecture?
Stewart Home: Expect the unexpected – and loads more of the same as you get in this interview! My writing will give you better orgasms, but seeing me in the flesh is even better!
Raül De Tena: Javier Calvo’s gonna be with you at Primera Persona. Do you know his work? What do you think about it?
Stewart Home: I don’t read Spanish but I’m told by people who do that his writing is fabulous. So it will be groovy to appear with him!
Raül De Tena: Right now in Spain you’re considered a big influence on some important writers. Do you think your work has any connection with contemporary Spanish literature?
Stewart Home: I feel a strong connection for sure – and especially to hot female Spanish writers… I think I can develop my relationship with Spanish literature much further by getting to know some of these lit chicks intimately. I’d particularly like to meet some Spanish girl power writers who are churning out novels about sex and proletarian revolution – and who like to wear short skirts and white boots! But even if they’re not writers but are hot and like to wear white boots and skimpy dresses, then I’ll still be happy to meet any Spanish girls when I’m in Spain or if they come to London….
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!