Marion May Campbell
At the centre of Marion May Campbell’s brilliant new novel Konkretion is Monique Piquet, an aging academic-cum-novelist who is wrestling with the abjection of her increasingly frail body as she arrives in Paris, ‘the site of her lost aura’ and of an earlier self bound up with an emphatically European tradition of avant-garde aesthetics, left-wing theory and radical activism. The sense of flight that dominates the opening of the novel also points back to the provincialism of an Australian intellectual scene characterized by the commercialisation of literary publishing and the instrumentalisation of higher education. Monique Piquet, we soon learn, sees herself as a victim of this climate. Some of her Australian colleagues regard the sort of ‘literary fiction’ she writes as a ‘right-wing plot, effete, aristocratic nostalgia, a stepping out in diamonds and furs’. And if literary fiction is on the nose in English Departments, what hope does it have in the marketplace? Monique Piquet realizes she is being ‘genteelly disappeared’: ‘she knows this is no lamentable fate. She’s hardly the first to be silenced by indifference.’
Campbell correlates literary obscurity and physical decline with a terrific, and disturbing, eye for detail. The novel is an intense meditation on the abjection of authorship, but it also explores the fate of the avant-garde (both literary and political) in circumstances in which, as Slavoj Žižek suggested in his 2011 speech at Liberty Plaza, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. These two thematic strands are etched into Monique Piquet’s interior life, which is crowded with ‘poetic revolutionaries’ (Baudelaire, Lautréamont, Mallarmé, Artaud, Genet), and the theorists who developed their sense of aesthetic resistance towards a politics: ‘rehearsing a way beyond war, beyond capital, beyond stuttering sovereign subjects.’ We are clearly in the company of a character who looks outside of Australia for her intellectual sustenance and inspiration. Konkretion takes us deep into the mental landscape of its protagonist as she wanders around the physical spaces of Paris. It is a work of ‘loiterature’, as the cover blurb puts it. It’s a formulation that nicely captures the novel’s lingering, introspective quality.
But none of this occurs without a good deal of irony. Monique Piquet was once Monika Pickett. She has ‘re-fleur-de-lyséd the picket’ in order to better embody the maverick intellectuality she associates with the French. We also sense that her investment in a counter-canon of revolutionary poets and theorists is, or has been, on the verge of becoming fetishistic. The ‘iconography of the intellectual’, the novel insists, is a key phase in the commodification of dissent.
Forget the death of the author: people would much rather look at the face of the author than the text of the author. Faces. Ugly writers are beautiful. Ravaged, line-crazed, chain-smoking, alcoholic Marguerite Duras, beautiful. Bald Michel Foucault with his spectral stare, beautiful. Roland Barthes himself, with his weak chin, his doe-soft eyes, his film-noir fag and mac, beautiful.
These glamorous ego-ideals not only ward off the banality of the everyday, they also present an imaginative antidote to the decrepit body in which Monique is trapped. What began as a fairly blunt indictment of Australian provincialism has quickly shifted into an unflinchingly endoscopic examination of the very culture with which Monique Piquet (and, one suspects, Campbell) has been so intensely involved.
Nowhere is the capacity for intellectual fetishism more obvious than around the figure of the revolutionary. The novel’s cover design points in this direction. German typescript, a Kalashnikov, and mug shots of Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Ensslin and Holgar Meins tell us that this is also a novel about the Red Army Faction. Angel Beigesang, Monique’s ex-student, has channeled her former teacher’s radicalism into a fictionalized, free-verse dialogue between Meinhof and Ensslin, two celebrity-terrorists at the centre of what they imagined was a guerilla war waged in the metropole on behalf of the oppressed peoples beyond it. Monique’s encounter with this text, and later with Angel herself, takes us to the endgame of the trajectory that links poetry and revolution: Stammheim prison in Stuttgart, where Meinhof, and later Baader and Ensslin, would all commit suicide. As the novel suggests, the story of the Red Army Faction continues to haunt contemporary consciousness, not least because it melds revolutionary credulity with an emphatically visual sense of left-wing chic: ‘insolent Andreas Baader and his lover, the radiant, wolf-eyed Gudrun Ensslin. Here they are sipping café exprès and chain-smoking Gitanes at Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots.’
The punning in the title of the book begins to get at the complexity of Campbell’s engagement with this milieu. konkret (lower case ‘k’) was the name of the magazine in which Ulrike Meinhof made her name as a journalist. It also embodied a fashionable leftism (dubiously bound up with libertarian attitudes to sexuality) with which she soon lost faith. At different moments in the novel the title attaches to an oppressive, stifling, or laborious materiality. Campbell’s fictionalized Meinhof describes her ‘slow convoy of intentional tanks / building from article to article / on cumulative persuasive caterpiller tracks’ as konkretion. The word also suggests being set in concrete or buried under concrete. This could Meinhof, running from ‘konkret’ to ‘a concrete tomb.’ It could also be Monique Piquet as she recalls her response to her husband’s death: ‘Concrete then set in her veins — walled in; she was walled in. Her lungs a sold mass. Limbs leaden, nerves sclerotically sheathed.’ But konkretion can also mean objectification. Campbell is terrific at tapping into the libidinal dimension of revolutionary iconography while simultaneously exploring its poverty and its persistence as kitsch once it succumbs to this process.
Is Angel Beigesang’s work on the Meinhof-Ensslin relationship another example of this? The reader encounters it as a text within a text, framed by a magazine interview with the author, and then punctuated by Monique’s generally scathing asides. The layering effect here is important. The ‘Baader-Meinhof Komplex,’ as Stefan Aust cannily named it in a formulation that gets at its psychological pull, was a new-left fantasy that quickly turned into a nightmare. But to the extent that Konkretion takes us inside the world of the Red Army Faction — the moment at which the relationship between theory and praxis bottoms out into abjection — it does so in a way that puts a fair degree of textual distance between Campbell and her subject matter. Because the text within the text is attributed to Angel (whose surname Beigesang is a literal rendering into German of the word parody) the reader is also asked to treat it as a flawed, historically contingent, if not belated, work. This is, after all, well-trodden territory. In Germany books and films about the Baader-Meinhof group and the broader context of the extra-parliamentary opposition are still being produced at a fairly constant rate, even though decisive interventions by people like Oskar Negt and Klaus Theweleit have already laid the romance of terror to rest. ‘As if Ulrike Meinhof were the one,’ Monique Piquet thinks dismissively: Meinhof, whose trajectory took her ‘from philosophy and art history research student, to activist, to passionate journo, to become the slapstick parody of the revolutionary, but death-dealing all the same, to her abject end.’ But if we are supposed to share Monique’s skepticism here, there is no denying that there are moments at which Angel Beigesang’s work is full of insight: her text explores the fraught gender-politics of the Red Army Faction and the fetishized mystic of the revolutionary, but it also allows Meinhof to speak through ‘a poetics’ that does a lot of the novel’s most interesting thematic work, not least because her articulation of a consciousness caught in the konkretion of patriarchy, feeding its ‘black hole’ with Marx, Gramsci, Marcuse and Fanon, casts such a fascinating light on the concerns of the framing narrative.
The final scene of the novel takes us to a choreographed version of Beckett’s Worstward Ho. We experience it as an interior monologue that verges on the sort of stream-of-consciousness associated with Joyce. It reminds us that there is another endgame behind all of this: mutability, entropy, decay — ‘the festering compost of crawling subjectivities.’ That these are the flipside of fetishism, reification and political fantasy is one of the novel’s strongest implications. But to reduce Campbell’s novel to anything that seems didactic or programmatic is to do it an injustice. Konkretion is an open, rhizomatic work that constructs a myriad of relationships between ideas, characters, texts and contexts. Above all it is an incitement to thought, an attempt to set in motion the political and aesthetic currents that are themselves subject to the konkretion of the everyday.
In stressing the novel’s theoretical orientation, I probably won’t have done its prospects in the marketplace any favours. But Konkretion is well aware of its antagonistic relationship to prevailing conceptions of literature as entertainment and commerce. It is a metafictional work unafraid of formal experimentation. If it prioritizes introspection over plot-driven action, it also understands better than most contemporary novels that subjectivities are tightly woven into the material contexts they inhabit. Its deep interest in the concepts informing and structuring our experience will also put it at odds with those literary journalists who believe that critical theory has somehow undermined Australian literature. In fact, part of what makes this novel so fascinating is its ambiguous relationship to questions of national context and culture. On the one hand, its cosmopolitanism registers it refusal of a generally monolingual Anglo-Australian imaginary. On the other hand, its own identifications are ironized and displaced at almost every turn. If it were possible to talk about an Un-Australian drift in Australian fiction, Konkretion might be a good example. In its political and aesthetic complexity, in its desire to interrupt the anti-intellectualism of Australian intellectual life, it might be out of step with its time, but then its very untimeliness might also be the surest sign of its relevance.