Objektophilia — an interview with Susan Finlay, by Thom Cuell

Susan Finlay’s novel Objektophilia blends fiction, design critique, psychoanalysis and more. Split between Brutalist East London and the fin de siecle remnants of Vienna, the text explores its characters through chance encounters with objects and other people. There are hints of Perec’s Things: A Story of the Sixties, and the nouveau roman in general, as well as a hint of late-capitalist Bartleby in the protagonist’s repeated plea ‘I would prefer not to have a conversation’.

An author and poet, Finlay is currently writer-in-residence at the Freud Museum in London.

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First of all, can you give us an overview of Objektophilia?

Objektophilia begins in London, 2014, where a nameless design critic and her partner X reside in a decrepit but Grade II listed tower block, and ends, some months later among the fin de siècle wonders of Vienna.  Possessed by the ruins of social housing – and its accompanying ideologies – but nevertheless in possession of said ruin’s original brushed-steel light-fittings the critic soon discovers that her craving for these and similarly ‘undemanding things’ has usurped her more conventional, or fleshy, desires. Encounters with [insert various foreign objects] follow…

Objectophilia is a form of romantic or sexual attraction to an inanimate object – in the text, you refer to the case of Erika Eiffel, who married the Eiffel Tower in 2007. What prompted your interest in the subject?

I’m from a visual arts background, and a big believer in the importance of good design.  At the same time I hate the way in which objects are, increasingly, described as ‘sexy’, and how this creates an even more explicit link between consumerism and physical desire.  Last week I read one trashy, sensationalist article about voluntary celibacy, and another about people who only get aroused when watching robots fight. Despite having no proof whatsoever, I am convinced that both groups recently purchased Apple products, not because of the updated pixels or whatever else it is that this company pretend to be selling, but because both groups received subliminal messages about how ‘sexy’ the brand is, which then replaced their need for actual sex…

Objektophilia could be described as a nouveau roman, a rarely-used form these days – what were your influences when you were working on the book?

As a teenager I read a lot of slim, French novels by the likes of Nathalie Surraute and Marguerite Duras, and the latter in particular has very much stayed with me.  At art school – cliché of clichés – I discovered French, and more importantly Italian New Wave cinema.  To this day I still think Antonioni’s L’Eclisse – both a reference in, and influence on, Objektophilia – is the most perfect film ever made.  More recently I fell in love with Deborah Levy whose writing, although not the nouveau roman per se, clearly also owes a debt to the above.

You use different styles of storytelling throughout the book, mixing film scripts, case studies and poetry with prose. How do these forms of ‘unliterary literature’ interact within your text?

I never made that conscious decision to use different forms – or to attach different levels of importance to them – but it seemed very natural that some lent themselves to particular characters, or events.  For example, the chapter where the somewhat knowing heroine is attempting to present as an ingénue is written in the form of a theatre play; the chapter when she is viewed – or objectified – through another character’s eyes, as a screenplay; and so on.  However, if you tried to perform or film these sections they’d be pretty awful.  Yes, they allude to other mediums, but they’re written solely for the page, and I think that, ultimately, this is what allows the book to work as a whole.

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The painting Abstract Composition by Jessica Dismorr is referenced numerous times through the book – what was it that drew you to that artwork?

In a previous life, as an art lecturer, I organised lots of trips to Tate Britain.  As soon as the students arrived they would start to sketch this painting.  Initially, I put their choices down to laziness, the then hang being such that this was one of the first works they encountered. After a while though, I noticed that even the most conscientious were drawn to it. I came to realise that this was partly because the work was smaller and cosier than the others displayed in the gallery – i.e. more manageable for those still learning how to look at artworks in this context – and partly because it was just plain better.

Usually, when people think of Vorticism they think of Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound, so it’s quite nice to see a woman’s, in my opinion more successful, take on things, and give her some attention, which is also credit.

Objektophilia is influenced by Arthur Schnitzler’s play La Ronde, especially the second section, which follows the play’s structure. Schnitzler tells his story through a series of encounters between pairs of characters; however, one of the phrases that recurs throughout Objektophilia is ‘I would prefer not to have a conversation’. Is this move from willing to unwilling interaction a symptom of shifting social relationships between Schnitzler’s time and your own?

Yes! Totally! My rage against (late-)capitalism continues!  We have now entered a world in which we only ‘talk’ to our possessions and/or machines…

Your protagonist and her partner, X, live in the Balfron Tower, a ‘decrepit’ Brutalist tower block in Poplar in which social housing tenants live alongside ‘a disproportionate number of architects’. What do utopian social projects like this represent to you, in today’s London, and how do your characters interact with the building?

To me, in today’s London, they represent a great but unrealised (as opposed to failed) dream. The flaws of these schemes have been well documented (or alternatively, it’s now a given that putting families in tower-blocks doesn’t work).  Yet these flaws should be regarded as flaws in the first step in the right direction only.

To me, a building like Balfron Tower symbolises a belief in ordinary, working people’s right to a secure and comfortable living environment – which makes it beautiful

Whether or not my characters share this view I’m not entirely sure.  What I do know is that their lives are pretty separate to those of their neighbours, and that I wanted their situation to reflect the current one in many newly gentrified – or whitewashed – parts of the city. I’m currently in London for a residency, and ever since I arrived I’ve been overwhelmed by just how bougie it is.  As a student I lived on Shacklewell Lane, which used to be a red light area. When living there I would run home with my keys between my fingers.  Now, each house is worth several million pounds, and the sex workers, who’ve been priced out, find their clients online. Basically, what I’m saying is that all the dirty, dangerous stuff still happens, but without the middle-classes having to feel discomforted by it.

If you were an Egyptian Pharaoh and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?

According to one of the wall panels at the British Museum, the ancient Egyptians saw cats as sacred, which not only meant that they mummified them, but that they also mummified mice in order to provide them with food in the afterlife.  Having reached an age where I am officially a mad cat lady I’m sure I’d be grateful for a dead pet, plus dead pet food. I might also steal a few other bits and pieces from the British Museum while I’m at it, perhaps something stylish, and death appropriate like an antique chess set… 

Do you have a favourite joke, proverb or quotation?

“You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”  Proof that I am NOT a murderer.

What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?

Young Woman and A Game of Patience by Meredith Frampton. So smooth, so gloriously alone.

As a writer, Susan Finlay is the author of four published, and soon to be published novels, and three poetry pamphlets. You can read more about them here. Collaborative projects include the Coelacanth Press, with whom she co-edited four issues of their bi-annual journal; the radio series Documents; and the artists and writers’ organ Jour Mal Jour Nal. Currently, she is writer-in-residence at London’s Freud Museum.

​​​As an artist she has had solo exhibitions in Europe and the US. Again, you can read (and see) more here. Her work has been included in group shows and performances at the Royal Academy of Arts, the Whitechapel Gallery, and Camden Arts Centre among others. Residencies include Unlisted and the Troy Town Art Pottery. In 2016 she co-curated Inland Far, an exhibition inspired by Herbert Read’s only novel and its relationship to Jung at the Herbert Read Gallery in Canterbury, and in 2018 Isadora, a combination of text, sound, and film pieces based around the concept of a European salon at MoHA, Austin.

Featured image of Balfron Tower by Images George Rex from London, England – Balfron Tower / bedroom 1, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80210668