Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors

Ian Penman

Winner of the 2024 RSL Ondaatje Prize for Literature
French paperback with flaps, 200 pages
Published 19 April 2023

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Melodrama, biography, cold war thriller, drug memoir, essay in fragments, mystery – Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors is cult critic Ian Penman’s long awaited first original book, a kaleidoscopic study of the late West German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945–1982). Written quickly under a self-imposed deadline in the spirit of Fassbinder himself, who would often get films made in a matter of weeks or months, Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors presents the filmmaker as a pivotal figure in the late 1970s moment between late modernism and the advent of postmodernism and the digital revolution. Compelling, beautifully written and genuinely moving, echoing the fragmentary and reflective works of writers like Barthes and Cioran, this is a story that has everything: sex, drugs, art, the city, cinema and revolution.

Time Out Books of the Year 2023

‘This is the only book I have read twice this year. Truly it is thousands of mirrors in terms of the thoughts, images and references running through this reflective and wonderfully interior work. The world of European cinema, especially Fassbinder’s film seen through Ian Penman’s eyes, has transported me to a tantalizing place called post-war Europe. The book brings me back to my youth and my film school years in the east and west, and it reminds me of how powerful images have shaped our very understanding of love and life.’
— Xialuo Guo, chair of the 2024 RSL Ondaatje Prize for Literature

‘Stendahl once described the novel as “a mirror being carried up the street”, but Ian Penman’s extraordinary critical memoir is more like a whole convoy of the things. The book captures not only scenes both gross and beautiful from the 1970s life of the workaholic Fassbinder, but a glittering array of thoughts and moments from his own long fascination with Fassbinder’s place and time and historical moment – which was also the time of Penman’s youth, not as a German film director but as a London music journalist, hungry for Europe and all that it then represented to England, assembling a wider world for his imagination from clues and scraps and cherished frames of German movies.’ 
— Francis Spufford, 2024 RSL Ondaatje Prize for Literature judge 

‘I’m so keen for more readers to discover this incredible little book. Every sentence is explosive. Every page left me reaching for my notebook to jot down things which required further thought. There are so many ideas, perspectives and tiny nuggets of deep insight contained within this book, I’d struggle to put a label on it. It’s biography. It’s philosophy. It’s critique. It’s flighty enough to read like fiction and yet it’s one of the most grounded books I’ve read in years. Yes, it’s about German cinema, but German cinema’s simply the mirror Penman’s holding up to force his readers to look long and hard at themselves.’ 
— Jan Carson, 2024 RSL Ondaatje Prize for Literature judge 

‘[Fassbinder] Thousands of Mirrors is not a sorrowful kill-your-heroes recanting. It’s much more interesting than that – a freewheeling, hopscotching study of the Fassbinder allure and an investigation of Penman’s younger self…. It’s a book about a film-maker but also, hauntingly, about the way our tastes and passions change over time.’
Anthony Quinn, Observer

‘Do Penman’s flurries of quickfire erudition add up to a dazzling kaleidoscope overall, or a labyrinth of aborted pathways? The answer is “both”. He’s boldly querying his subject’s genius from every vantage point – angry and young; older and (maybe) wiser.’
Tim Robey, Telegraph

‘Ian Penman is an ideal critic, one who invites you in, takes your coat, and hands you a drink as he sidles up to his topic. He has a modest mien, a feathery way with a sentence, a century’s worth of adroit cultural connections at the ready, and a great well of genuine passion, which quickly raises the temperature.’
— Lucy Sante, author of The Other Paris

‘This is a wonderful book, and a surprisingly encouraging one too. Acute in its glancing survey of Fassbinder’s films, it also engages the early Seventies as a moment of ideological dishevelment that refuses to pass. If Penman lingers over those years in his own taut and revealing way, that is partly because they produced a kind of critical thought that, having not yet been squared up to fit the academic conveyor belt, could be rarified, speculative and experimental while also remaining closely engaged with political reality. Fassbinder is a great model for anyone puzzling over how we might remember as well as think and act in this chaotic time.’
— Patrick Wright, author of The Sea View Has Me Again

‘Ian Penman – critic, essayist, mystical hack and charmer of sentences like they’re snakes – is the writer I have hardly gone a week without reading, reciting, summoning to mind. The writer without whom, etc.’
Brian Dillon, author of Affinities

‘Approached from all angles, Fassbinder is by turns a figure of intense corporeality, glistening with sweat, and an overblown mass of meaning.’
Georgie Carr, Times Literary Supplement

‘The book is many things, but above all it is a reckoning with the idea that art might enter the commodity world and awaken its inhabitants…. [T]he late 1970s/early 1980s, in which Penman was a shadowy but vital presence – post-punk, new pop, new romanticism – is remembered similarly as a moment where a sudden societal switch led to an efflorescence of radical popular culture. Writing his book in 2022, Penman was remembering Penman in 1982 remembering the just-dead Fassbinder marking one historical moment of transition by making reference to another that took place decades earlier. To read Penman doing this in what feels like another moment of passage into something unknown and frightening is rather eerie.’
Owen Hatherley, London Review of Books

‘This is a jittery, clammy book, sweat beading on every page.… In its exuberant phrase making, obsessive listing, emotional explosions and crashes, bursting seams – the book has three appendices – and its linguistic pyrotechnics, it ultimately comes down on the side of willing delirium.’
John Douglas Miller, Frieze

‘[A] slender love letter.’
Stuart Jeffries, Spectator

‘[T]his is the efficient, gregarious guidebook that neophytes have been missing’
Chris Molner, Los Angeles Review of Books 

‘Drifting through personal back alleys and intellectual boulevards à la the wanderings of Walter Benjamin and Geoff Dyer. A maze of epigrams, aphorisms (“Aren’t all masks death masks?”), anecdotes, and numbered fragments. An exquisitely companionable guidebook-inventory of a vast, intimate mental space Penman dubs the Fassbundesrepublik … A Thousand Mirrors doesn’t try to solve the contradictions of its subject but lays them out like a suit and inhabits them.’
Howard Hampton, Artforum

‘Ian Penman’s Fassbinder Thousands Of Mirrors isn’t a biography of the epic and controversial master filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder – it’s much more. It’s chock-a-block with quotes and confessions, famous writers, artists, politics, history, social commentary and a bit of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, among – of course – film talk. Like me, you’ll have to re-read this, not least because it’s a who’s who of post-WWII culture world.’
Rhonda Lee Reali, Buzz Magazine

‘This is a wonderful thing – an elegantly assembled scrapbook brimming with insight and history, its creator daring to once again occupy multiple roles: critic, diarist, evangelist.’
Gary Kaill, Lunate

Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors, by the British critic Ian Penman, offers … an erotics – of cinema, of memory, of the gradual wreck of history. The sensuality of Penman’s book is inseparable from the music of his prose.’
Jeremy Lybarger, The Baffler

‘Ian Penman – legendary writer, critic and master of lucid, joyous prose – instead offers up a patchwork portrait of RWF, one assembled of 450 observations, reflections, bits of research and more. Through those fragments you get a proper sense of how one can really wallow in both Fassbinder’s massive body of work and his personal mythology – but Mirrors also reeks of adoration and joy, a delightful, emotive and appropriately flashy ode.’
Ed Cunningham,Timeout Books of the Year 2023

Ian Penman is a British writer, music journalist, and critic. He began his career at the NME in 1977, later contributing to various publications including The Face, Arena, Tatler, Uncut, Sight & Sound, The Wire, the Guardian, the London Review of Books, and City Journal. He is the author of the collections Vital Signs: Music, Movies, and Other Manias (Serpent’s Tail, 1998) and It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019). Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors is his first original book.