BY Susan Finlay in Books , Opinion | 19 SEP 23

The Books That Influence Susan Finlay

To celebrate the recent release of her memoir, The Lives of Artists, the author shares a list of literary works that have inspired her

BY Susan Finlay in Books , Opinion | 19 SEP 23

To celebrate the recent release of The Lives of Artists, artist and writer Susan Finlay shares a reading list for frieze, consisting of works that have left a lasting impression on her practice and continue to influence her approach to the art of writing.

I describe myself as an ‘artist who writes’ for two reasons. One, my background is in the visual arts, and I still make (although rarely show) paintings. Two, objects and images are the means through which I tell stories. In the art world, it’s a given that the artist takes inspiration from all sorts of sources outside of their own medium, whereas in the literary world it’s not. To me, this is a stupid way to behave. We don’t read books the way people in the 19th century did because we have television and the internet. I want my work to reflect the fragmented, visually saturated world we live in, and perhaps unsurprisingly I’m drawn to authors who share these concerns.

Susan Finlay, The Lives of Artists, 2023. Courtesy: Joan Publishing

Steven Izenour, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form (1972, MIT Press)

Nothing looks cooler than a nice bit of post-modernist design: Memphis bookshelves, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), Jonathan Meades on pre-digital Channel Four. You name it and I love it, hence Learning from Las Vegas – arguably, the place where ‘post-modernism’ first appeared in print – sitting at the top of my list. For the uninitiated, the book attempts to define the difference between the ways in which modernist and postmodernist buildings convey meaning, and the effects of the shift between them. For the modernists, meaning came through form, while those that succeeded found it through signs and symbols – most notably the cowboys, pyramids and colonnades that decorate the casinos on the Vegas strip – in enjoyably flash ‘Brainy Quote’ style. The opening chapter’s plea for ‘communication over space’, is about as good a writing-as-living/living-as-writing manifesto as you'll ever (unintentionally) get, in that it implicitly rejects waffle and ideas of ‘good’ taste in favour of getting to the point as quickly and brutally as possible.

Steven Izenour, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, Learning from Las Vegas, 1972. Courtesy: the authors and MIT Press

Dave Hickey, Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy (1997, Art Issues Press)

I was still at art school when I first came across Dave Hickey and this series of essays on American popular and counter-culture, intermingled with critical theory and art history. Too many years later, I’m still not over it. His role as professor at the University of Las Vegas also provides a nice segue here, although given my affection for rainy days and Victorian mansion blocks, I have no desire to actually visit the place beyond the realm of ideas. Using this city as a lens through which to view America, Air Guitar is intended not only as a work of cultural criticism, but also as a memoir and, as Hickey states, a ‘love song to democracy’, in which he discusses everything from the art market to his car salesman father playing jazz. In many ways, Hickey ruined cultural criticism for me – for a long time, nothing could match his extremely cool but at the same time inclusive ‘high-low’ style. That said, I recently read, and thoroughly enjoyed, Nathalie Olah’s Bad Taste (Dialogue, 2023). It’s a book that occupies a similar territory to Hickey’s but is written from a contemporary working-class woman’s perspective.

Dave Hickey, Air Guitar, 1997. Courtesy: Art Issues Press

Michelangelo Antonioni, That Bowling Alley on the Tiber: Tales of a Director, translated by William Arrowsmith (1986, Oxford University Press)

But now to Europe (although still via the language of new towns, old photographs and art as advertising). Quite apart from making some of the greatest films of all time – L’Eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962) and La Notte (The Night, 1961) are two of my favourites – Michelangelo Antonioni also had a lot of ideas for unmade ones. His writings on these ideas, like the films he actually made, are deliciously cold and precise little stories, formed from layers of shimmering surface. During the early noughties, I worked in a now defunct art bookshop on Charing Cross Road where lots of the customers were obsessed with obtaining a copy of his collected writings. Unfortunately, That Bowling Alley on the Tiber has been out-of-print for almost 40 years and it was rare that I could help them. This situation is partly due to the translator, William Arrowsmith, being a classicist academic, and Arrowsmith’s family maintaining tight control of the rights. They're adamant that Antonioni’s work (or as they, perhaps rightly see it, their father’s) continue to be presented in an academic context along with the rest of Arrowsmith’s translations. For those who can’t find a second-hand copy, Italian screenwriter Tonino Guerra’s novella Equilibrium (1969), which was reissued by MOIST in 2020, is also super chic and alienating (Guerra also wrote or co-wrote almost all of Antonioni’s films). It also contains a new introduction by another hero of mine, novelist, cultural critic and curator Michael Bracewell.

Michelangelo Antonioni, That Bowling Alley on the Tiber: Tales of a Director, 1986. Courtesy: Oxford University Press

Johanne Lykke Holm, Strega, translated by Saskia Vogel (2022, Lolli Editions)

I read this novel in one sitting, simultaneously enraptured and eaten up with jealousy because it is just too good. The story starts as the novel’s protagonist, Rafa, leaves her home to take up seasonal work in a remote Alpine town, which I think is meant to be in Italy although it could be various parts of a Europe as depicted in a painting from ye olden days, lending it a timeless, fairy-tale quality. Along with eight other girls, Rafa continually cleans rooms, makes beds and prepares meals for wealthy guests who never arrive, until one of her companions mysteriously disappears. Stylistically the book is brilliant; there is no interiority whatsoever. Instead, intense, eerie descriptions of things like soft furnishings, food, and jewellery gradually increase the tension. Structurally, the way it collages reimagined fragments from pre-existing films together – most notably Dario Argento’s 1977 masterpiece of Gothic schlock Suspiria is great too. Holm is young (at least, compared to me) and Strega is her debut, so I'm excited and a little intimidated to see what she does next.

Johanne Lykke Holm, Strega, 2022. Courtesy: the author and Lolli Editions

Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (1962, G. P. Putnam’s Sons)

The moment I discovered Nabokov I understood he was a genius. Similarly, as soon as I began Pale Fire, I knew it was the best novel that I would ever read – an assertion that has gone unchallenged for over two decades. It’s also the first poioumenon that gave me genuine pleasure, rather than demanded I plough through it in order to grimly tick the ‘getting it’ boxes and convince myself that I could pass as a certain type of worthy reader.

Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire, 1962. Courtesy: G. P. Putnam’s Sons

At the time of writing, I'm half-way through Vehicle by Jen Calleja (Prototype, 2023), a book I bought primarily because I'd heard it likened to the above. So far, I'm loving it, and I've decided it's a sign to purchase work by any writer who shares my obsession with this oh-so-sacred text from now on.

Susan Finlay’s The Lives of Artists is published by JOAN Publishing and is available now.

Johanne Lykke Holm, Strega (detail), 2022. Courtesy: the author and Lolli Editions

Susan Finlay is the author of five works of fiction and ‘anti-memoir’ including The Jacques Lacan Foundation, which was a White Review Book of 2022. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the LA Review of Books, POETRY, The Stinging Fly and WORMS among others.