:: Article

beautiful losers

By Julian Hanna.

C. D. Rose, The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure (Melville House, 2014)

Failure, it seems, is on the town. The New York Times ran a piece on startup culture recently called ‘Welcome to the Failure Age!’, and another one, a review of the same book reviewed here, called ‘Failure is Our Muse’. Both pieces acknowledged that ‘failure is big’. But why now? Maybe it’s a coping mechanism for the fact that global competition is increasing and more of us are facing failure than ever before. Another reason could be that authenticity is prized in our late-capitalist, post-Empire West, and there are few quicker routes to authenticity than abject failure. But isn’t this kind of failure just a ruse? Failure in the business sense is never really about failure, not the kind of starving-in-a-garret failure that artists have been celebrating at least as far back as Goethe. When Silicon Valley’s serial entrepreneurs tell us to ‘fail better’, as they have been doing with annoying frequency of late (how poor Beckett must be spinning in his grave in Montparnasse!), they’re using ‘failure’ as a marketing term, a more eye-catching gloss on ‘iteration’, an update of the old adage: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. It’s still all about success. For business there is always the expectation that success will arrive in the end, or else why bother?

Why bother was not a puzzle that Samuel Beckett, lifelong pessimist, ever tried to solve. Writers must face the fact that they can strive for a whole lifetime without receiving anything but scorn and rejection and unpaid publication in return. Failure for writers is still just failure; it is terminal. To ‘fail better’ for Beckett was still, crucially, to fail. Nowadays romantic failure is no longer the preserve of a gifted elite. More and more of us are becoming writers, enrolling in MFA programmes or joining hundreds of thousands of others in the masochistic festival of NaNoWriMo, and thus more of us are daring to fail. We can’t go on, we go on. Fortunately, as Beckett also knew (and as he demonstrated in Murphy, which remains one of the funniest novels ever written), failure can be fascinating, attractive, and highly entertaining.

Which brings us to the present book. The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, subtly marked with the classification ‘Fiction/Reference’ on the back cover, is a unique and absorbing compendium of authorial woe. It was ‘edited’ by C. D. Rose, who, ironically, is just now experiencing his first taste of success. The success is well deserved: this is the kind of book that is so perfectly conceived it makes you wonder how such a book was never written before. Each of the fifty-two entries, arranged alphabetically, brings to life an intricate universe reminiscent of the drawings of Edward Gorey or Eric Chase Anderson. Starting with the tragic tale of Casimir Adamowitz-Kostrowicki, who suffered the Kafkaesque fate (eluded even by Kafka himself) of having his whole oeuvre incinerated by a well-meaning executor, the reader is presented with one fascinating character after another, until we finally meet Sara Zeelen-Levallois, an author so obscure that her biography and works ‘exist purely in the domain of hearsay and rumour’. The index gives a sense of the eye for detail, with entries like: ‘Beowulf, considered as bafflingly mediocre, 50’, and, ‘Rushdie, Salman, cocktail parties attended by, 107’. The introduction, a brilliant extended meditation on ‘real’ failure by 3:AM’s own co-editor-in-chief Andrew Gallix, complements the fictional failures that follow.

The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure originated as a yearlong blog with one entry appearing each week (hence the number fifty-two). This origins might strike some readers as odd, as it seems to contradict the celebration of print culture that lies at the heart of the work. But in the end the book manages to defy not only its paperless origins but also the very constraints of parody, rising to the level of an erudite and heartfelt paean, or requiem, to literary culture from the printing press to the present day. Quite how it achieves this feat still has me scratching my head: to wring success from failure, and printed beauty from online ephemera, and then to strike the balance between weightless comedy and surprising scholarly depth: let’s just say it does more than a book of humour is required to do. Taken as a whole, The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure brings to mind the spontaneous pleasure of a barstool conversation with an overeducated but unpredictable, boozy and boisterous, wholly unpretentious friend.

For a start there are the references. ‘“Modernism’” in The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure means not just T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Virginia Woolf but also Italo Svevo, Cesare Pavese, and Robert Musil. ‘“Minimalism’” is John Cage but also Steve Reich and Morton Feldman, Lydia Davis and Raymond Carver, Barnett Newman and Donald Judd, Kazimir Malevich and Mies van der Rohe. (Even the contemporary master of minimalist drone music, Tony Conrad, is mentioned.) The Australian surrealist poet Ern Malley, himself an invention, appears amongst the factive and the fictive. So does Fernando Pessoa, whose endless roll call of authorial stand-ins, or ‘heteronyms’, each with his own backstory and astrological sign, would not have been out of place here. I don’t recall meeting Brian O’Nolan in these pages, but his spirit, whether in the guise of Flann O’Brien, Myles na gCopaleen, Brother Barnabas, or Count O’Blather, presides, as does, in another sense, the Nabokov of Pale Fire. But although Rose doesn’t shy away from obscure references and literary in-jokes (one failed author is said to have slept with Stewart Home’s mother), the book wears its learning lightly and will no doubt be enjoyed by non-obsessives.

Rose doesn’t limit his references to the arcane corners of literary history either. Contemporary signifiers, from Tesco, Dropbox, AbeBooks, and Starbucks to MacArthur genius grants, rub shoulders with, for example (to quote one author’s list of obsessions):

Russian steamships, First World War artillery battalions, the Mauve February anarchists, Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon poetry, the United Kingdom’s lesser-used train routes, rare psychological complaints (bibliophagy and graphomania in particular), translations of obscure German and Russian literature, the nature of the true Ark, seventeenth-century traveller’s tales, Muscovite street slang, early submarines, Bothno-Ugaric languages, the practice of demonology in West Yorkshire, Age of Discovery-era Portuguese statuary and the contents of the great lost library of Alexandria.

The range and eclecticism is refreshing, to say the least.

As well as being a font of cultural knowledge, Rose is an irrepressible inventor and embellisher of history. The dozens of invented authors’ names and the titles of their ill-fated works are worth the price of admission alone. There is Hans Kafka, a victim of ‘nominative determinism’ and, like so many in these pages, the cruel whims of fate. Hans grew up across the street from Franz (no relation) and similarly worked on ‘a grotesque tale of a beetle who is transformed into a man’, which sadly never saw the light of day. Then there is Virgil Haack, the minimalist whose novel consists of the single word ‘I’ (mistaken for the chapter ‘1’), and Yildirim Kemal, the Turkish poet whose book sold a single copy (not even his mother bought one) and whose day job is slicing doner meat in a kebab shop in Dalston where no one knows he is a genius. There is Lord Frederick Rathole (pronounced ‘rath-ole’), who built a vast library to house books he never managed to write, and the obscure Beat poet Maxwell Loeb (pronounced ‘loob’), who appeared in photographs ‘behind Ginsberg’s beard or Burroughs’s hat, leaning over Kerouac’s shoulder or looking thoughtfully at Neal Cassady’. Then there are the alliterative authors: Veronica Vass, Wendy Wenning, Maxim Maksimich, and Robert Roberts (whose novel, John Johnson, failed to find a publisher). This is surely a nod to Amanda McKittrick Ros, often called the ‘world’s worst writer’, whose novels include Irene Iddesleigh, Delina Delaney, and Helen Huddleston, as well as two volumes of poetry, Poems of Puncture and Fumes of Formation. When it comes to failure, fact is certainly on par with fiction: but there is always room for more.

Typewriters, for which Rose obviously has a bit of a mania, appear on nearly every page of the book. Squatter-poets The Beasley Collective, for example, wrote their post-punk manifesto on a ‘liberated’ IBM Selectric, while Jürgen Kittler wrote his manifesto Towards a Revolution of the Wor[l]d on a portable Olympia Splendid 66 (with a sticky ‘l’ key). Other elegant machines include a Royal Quiet Deluxe, an Olivetti Lettera 22, a Silver Reed SR 180, a ‘mint-green’ Hermes Baby, a Robotron 202, an Adler Tippa S, a Remington No. 1, a ‘once proud’ Brother AX15, a Fabig and Barschel Faktotum … the list goes on. It is all part of a celebration of a dying literary culture, or in this case a part of the culture that is already extinct.

Though uniformly brief, the sketches in The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure often teeter on the brink of fully becoming the short stories that in a sense they already are. Hans Kafka, for instance, is followed from childhood right up through to old age. There at last he finds some peace, despite living in the constant presence of his former neighbour’s memory: ‘As an old man, as he went out to get his morning becherovka, he saw tourists wandering the streets of his city wearing T-shirts bearing a picture of the dark-eyed, skinny-faced boy he remembered. He put his hand on the cool glass and rolled a cigarette. I’m alive, he thought as he sipped the bitter liqueur and drew on the warm smoke. I am alive.’ Or there is the story of João Quaresma, the Portuguese epic poet who writes in the style of Camões. Quaresma worked as a stonemason by day, so he decided to build a commemorative statue to himself, reasoning that if he didn’t, who would? But owing to a tax problem – a setback perfectly suited to Portugal’s peculiar obsession with fiscal bureaucracy – the statue was converted into an image of the reigning king with the clever addition of a stucco moustache. When the king fled into exile a few days later, the statue changed again: it was now ‘Vasco da Gama or Henry the Navigator’ – which of the two national heroes it didn’t really seem to matter.

Many of the book’s clever conceits go beyond easy pastiche to touch something deeper. Otha Orkkut wrote all her books in her native Cimbrian, an obscure language of which she was, unfortunately, ‘the last surviving speaker’. Her work also evaded translation, in part because Orkkut herself was a monoglot Cimbrian, but also due to the fact that the language employed an untranslatable tense ‘which was used to describe a person or object which had gone missing or been lost’. Another example is the case of Kevin Stapleton, a promising young travel writer whose wanderlust was curtailed by the onset of acute agoraphobia. Undeterred, he kept writing inside his limited sphere:

Even though his greatest journeys now consisted of travelling no farther than the shared bathroom in his hallway, or even, on a good day, as far as the Londis minimarket for half a pint of skimmed milk and a loaf of sliced white, he continued to write. His greatest work, My Day, concerned the voyage from his bedroom to the toilet, then to the kitchen, where he made himself a cup of tea and some beans on toast, recounting his meetings with the people he found along his route, and was replete with anthropological insight and utter poignancy.

The greatest pleasure of the book, however, is that each chapter serves as a gateway to a unique moment in literary history. Stanhope Barnes leaves the only copy of his memoir of the Battle of the Somme, Here are the Young Men, on the train to London, where he is to meet with T. S. Eliot at Faber and Faber. Ernst Bellmer, the Viennese bibliophage who literally consumes all of his work and eventually dies from ink poisoning, was the subject (we are told) of ‘The Book Eater’, a case study cut from an early draft of Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. The charming and seductive Elise La Rue, meanwhile, begins her career on the Paris stage in the 1890s, works as a spy ‘for no less than six nations’ during the First World War, and in the 1920s is a model for Molly Bloom and the target of Zelda Fitzgerald’s and Hadley Hemingway’s jealous wrath (both women tried to poison her). In this way The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, its fifty-two distinct milieus each sketched in vivid detail with impressive scholarly accuracy, is much more than a book of humour: it is an engaging primer on literary history. All the famous real-life literary anecdotes are here, alongside the invented ones. It’s part Zelig, part Midnight in Paris.

At times the twin spectres of repetition and the weight of form haunt the entries, as might be expected from even the most imaginative sort of dictionary. For those who know their literary history well, the pleasure of recognition is occasionally mixed with the pain of predictability. (Next stop: drunken bohemians in 1960s Soho.) One could also argue that there is no need for fiction in the domain of failure: writers have been failing in engaging ways since the dawn of literature. But such a complaint would underestimate the subtlety and originality of this work. The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure exceeds its modest purview so spectacularly that there is very little to say against the content.

If only the outside of the book matched a little more closely to the inside. Having gone to all the trouble of transitioning from website to hardback, I found myself wishing that the publisher, Melville House, had gone that extra bit further and created a lost classic from the golden age of print. Why not arrange a collaboration with Brooklyn’s flourishing craft printing industry? Melville House is an excellent publisher with a varied and provocative list, but I couldn’t help thinking how much better the outside of this book-lover’s book would have looked dressed in, say, green-linen boards with gilt lettering on the spine and a thick paper dust jacket. (You could always order a bespoke cover on Etsy, I suppose.) The silver lining to this minor complaint was that I didn’t feel too bad scribbling notes in the back pages while I read.

I finished this book in two or three afternoons, lingering slightly longer than necessary just to stay in the company of Rose’s beautiful losers. The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure is at once a highly entertaining comedy that may be dipped into repeatedly and at random, a tireless romp through great moments in literary history, and also a tender requiem for a disappearing culture.

Having reached the last entry, Rose becomes serious for a moment:

The ephemeral, evanescent, scarcely believable career of Sara Zeelen-Levallois shows us, if nothing else, one important, terrible thing: words will change nothing. Write how we may, the arrogant and corrupt will still run the world, people will starve needlessly, your lover will still leave you.

And yet.

While it is not likely to top the ‘best of’ lists this season, being only a book of humour and therefore not as ‘worthy’ as other competitors, The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure is in no sense a failure: it is a deeply felt and even at times a serious book. Breaking character slightly in the final pages, Rose pays tribute to ‘the power of writing … whether it is read or not’, and asks us to remember ‘those who have wanted to leave a mark, a trace, of whatever kind, however slight, on this earth’. Real or imaginary, we can hardly deny his authors that final courtesy.

Julian Hanna is Assistant Professor at Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute. He writes mainly on modernism, manifestos, and futurisms past and present, and files random thoughts at @julianisland.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, December 11th, 2014.