The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas
by Daniel James (2017)
Dead Ink Books (2017)
399 pp

This is not a biography. It is a true story. 

It began with a phone call in the dead of night.

It is impossible to discount the possibility that some of what you are about to read may contain fiction. 

“You know that line ‘the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist’? Well, I think Ezra Maas’s greatest trick was convincing the world he did.” 

Some stories are more dangerous than others, and true stories are the most dangerous of all.

This book is dangerous. You need to know that before you begin.

The famously reclusive artist Ezra Maas was believed to have been born in Britain on January 1, 1950, but first made his artistic reputation (but, deliberately, not his public fame) in the New York pop art scene of the late 1960s. A man of many talents, even more legends among his cult-like followers, and multiple personalities:

the romantic artist, the withdrawn recluse, the violent, temperamental genius, the charismatic cult leader, the counterculture icon, the serial womaniser, the drug addict, the experimenter, the intense loner, the passionate collaborator, the painter, the poet, the madman.

His life story and works contains elements of those of, among others, Andy Warhol, Charles Manson, L. Ron Hubbard, Hunter S. Thompson, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Joseph Beuys, Samuel Beckett, Damien Hirst, Thomas Pynchon, David Lynch, the Unabomber, Banksy, R.B. Kitaj, John Wheeler, and Rozz Williams. He worked with or influenced most of these people. Maas was an artist who was in the vanguard of many key creative trends, often years before they became a trend.

In the 1970s through to the 1990s, Maas himself became more and more of a recluse, almost a rumor, the public face of his works instead controlled by the rich and rather sinister Maas Foundation.

In 2002 Maas released, through the foundation, a statement announcing his withdrawal from public life (rather ironically given his already highly reclusive nature and ambiguous identity) to concentrate on “his final and most important creation.”

But then in 2005, Maas was officially registered as missing, his wife and controller of the Foundation, admitting he had not been seen since 2002.

In the following years, his works were bought up, removed from public display, newspaper stories about him suppressed. It was almost as if he had never existed.

In 2011, journalist and author Daniel James received a 3 a.m. phone call from the representative of a mysterious, and never identified, third party, offering him a huge sum simply to write the unauthorised biography of Ezra Maas, and to find the truth behind both his origins and disappearance. His investigations took him around the world and placed the lives of himself, and others, at risk.

Then in May 2012, when his book was about to be launched, the Maas foundation scheduled a press conference, claiming Maas was alive and well and ready to unveil his master work. The book was dropped by James’s original mainstream publisher (under pressure from the Maas foundation?).

And in 2013, James himself went missing.

The evidence suggests James tried to destroy his research and his writing. But in this book, a former close companion of James who prefers to remain anonymous, the Brod to James’ Kafka, has reassembled what survives and published it under Daniel James’s name.

Shunned by the large conglomerates (again as a result of pressure from the Maas Foundation?) the book was picked up, in a crowdfunded campaign, by the brave independent press Dead Ink:

We see it as Dead Ink’s job to bring the most challenging and experimental new writing out from the underground and present it to our audience in the most beautiful way possible.

The resulting book interweaves four separate sections:

–what remains of James’s official biography, at times rather hagiographic, as much of what remains of Maas’s history has been controlled by the Maas Foundation.

–oral accounts of those who knew him (a filmed example here from Bryan Talbot, father of the UK graphic novel). Notably the picture of Maas that emerges from these different accounts — even the descriptions his physical appearance — are highly contradictory: was he one man or many?

–Daniel James’s own account of his investigations into Ezra Maas, written in a self-aware style that combines existential and metaphysical noir, auto-fiction, and new journalism.

–copious footnotes from the anonymous narrator (the anonymity presumably as he or she wishes to avoid the fate of James and Maas), both clarifying various references but also adding his own commentary on the story and the disappearance of James. But these footnotes, while answering many questions, raise a key one of their own: who exactly is the mysterious narrator? James himself? Ezra Maas? One of Maas’s representatives? Or someone else?

It is a fascinating mix. Indeed it is more than just a book, it’s a work of conceptual art.

But how much is pure fiction?

Well searching for Ezra Maas on the internet, reveals very little, only interviews and articles connected with James’s book and the highly obtuse website of the shadowy Ezra Maas Foundation (here) and their twitter feed @maasfoundation, which seems mostly intent on discrediting this very book.

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But then we learn early on that the Foundation have “gradually wiped the internet clean of references to Mass in the same way they’ve removed his artworks from galleries. Daniel James himself, with his desire to destroy what he has found, tells us towards the end that we will “only know I have succeeded if you do not know who Ezra Maas is, if the name means nothing to you.”

And mysteriously, having vanished, in rather suspicious circumstances, years years earlier, the original author Daniel James has suddenly reappeared, seemingly alive and well, on the publication of this book, giving various interviews that explain more of his project and even appearing in 2019 at book launch events.

Or is it Daniel James, whose own history seems fairly opaque? The Maas Foundation claims otherwise:

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The interviews of thepersonnowclaimingtobeDanielJames do give some fascinating additional insight.

Describing Ezra Maas:

Ezra Maas is a reclusive British artist who first became famous in New York in the 1960s. Unlike his contemporaries, Maas rejected the cult of celebrity, never giving interviews and refusing to be photographed, insisting that his radical artwork speak for him. He was intensely private and his exhibitions were surrounded in secrecy. This created a kind of anti-fame around him and he quickly gained a cult following as a result. Maas went on to exhibit work in galleries and museums around the world, including Paris, Bruges, Berlin and Switzerland.

From the 1980s onwards, he was rumoured to be working from a studio mansion in the Hertfordshire countryside, but as ever with Maas, nothing could be sure. There were stories of agoraphobia, drug addiction, mental illness, as well as links to cult-like groups who claimed there were hidden messages in his work, but most of these stories were dismissed as tabloid gossip. Less and less was heard from Maas throughout the 1990s, although he continued to produce new work, adopting new technologies and releasing pieces via his website.

Maas disappeared under mysterious circumstances from his studio in the mid-2000s after announcing plans for his final and most important artwork. His representatives, The Maas Foundation, continue to maintain and protect his legacy, staging retrospectives and selling his work for larger amounts every year. Many believe Maas is dead, but others claim he’s simply in seclusion and will return when his final work is complete.

(from The Book Trail)

How James became involved in the project:

Six years after Maas was officially registered as missing in 2005, Daniel received a late night phone call from a mysterious third party and embarked on his life story of Maas.

In 2012 the book was ready to go – and then, out of the blue, the Maas Foundation scheduled a press conference.

Could it have been to declare that the artist was dead… or alive? Or could it have been to unveil the masterpiece that he allegedly went into seclusion to work on?

(from Narc Magazine, Chronicle Live, and Rhys Tranter)

James’s own take on what he had written:

It is an unorthodox hybrid of literary fiction, biography and detective story, written by a former journalist and told through a combination of prose fiction, biographical chapters, news clippings, academic footnotes, emails, phone transcripts and more. Given these origins, the novel occupies a unique space at the intersection between truth and fiction, history and myth.

(from New Writing North)

His literary influences:

Paul Auster, Raymond Chandler, Samuel Beckett. James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Philip Pullman, Philip K Dick, Jorge Luis Borges, Alasdair Grey, Flann O’Brien, David Lynch.

(from Dead Ink Books and Living North)

and to that male-dominated list should be added Virginia Woolf, whose Orlando is one clear precedent for this work, and who is quoted, early on in the book, from To The Lighthouse:

What art was there, known to love or cunning, by which one pressed through into these secret chambers? … How then, she had asked herself, did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were?

A fascinating and disturbing work. And perhaps most disturbingly of all, while writing this review, a Twitter notification appeared on my account…

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By |2019-02-20T14:17:17-04:00February 14th, 2019|Categories: Daniel James|Tags: , |5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. David February 14, 2019 at 2:13 pm

    Paul, this review makes me want to see a feature length documentary about Maas and James. I hope some day someone makes it.

  2. Trevor Berrett February 14, 2019 at 3:51 pm

    I think this sounds fantastic! I put the link to The Crying of Lot 49 below because of Oedipa Maas and the playful interaction of the real and unreal providing ample fodder for a story about paranoia and conspiracy.

  3. Paul Fulcher February 26, 2019 at 2:10 pm

    I really must read Pynchon one day – so perhaps this is the prompt to start.

  4. Trevor Berrett February 26, 2019 at 2:46 pm

    I really must read Pynchon one day.

    This could all be a conspiracy to accomplish just that, Paul! I wouldn’t test what happens if you don’t!

  5. David February 26, 2019 at 7:25 pm

    I had always intended to read Pynchon, but never did. Then last summer I decided to try one of his books. I picked The Crying Of Lot 49. So maybe I’m behind the conspiracy and don’t even know it! Hmmm…..

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