Exploring the other Oxford: A Certain Logic of Expectations by Arturo Soto

When we travel or relocate to a new city or country we inevitably arrive with expectations. We have an image in our minds of what it will look and feel like to be on the ground. Sometimes the preconceived experience bears a remarkable resemblance to the realized one. But sometimes reality blindsides us completely. Either way, any place we visit or live in can never experienced fully—engagement is always subjective on so many levels so that, even if you live in the same location all your life, you will only ever know a corner of it, or a series of images collected over a network of space and time.

In a sense that is the premise underlying this handsome photobook which came to me, in contrast to the title, without any expectations at all. I knew little of Oxford apart from a general awareness of the University and all the academic weight that it carries. As to any specific historical or visual detail—either about the University or the city that surrounds it—my knowledge was minimal. What intrigued me about Arturo Soto’s A Certain Logic of Expectations was the idea of experiencing the city through the eyes of a Mexican studying at Oxford during the Brexit years. I suspected he might have an interesting angle on such a storied place. I was not wrong.

Born in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico in 1981, Arturo Soto earned an MA in Art History from University College London and an MFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York before completing his PhD in Fine Art at the University of Oxford. His fondness for the grittier side of urban landscapes developed early. His first photobook, In the Heat (2018) focuses on Panama, but eschews the travel brochure side of the country and turns its attention to “banal spaces that people rarely consider, partially because of their familiarity, but also because they contradict conservative notions of progress and economic growth.” The same social and aesthetic impulses guide his new work.

A journal in a shop window with the legend Start Where You Are on its cover is the perfect maxim for projects that blend photography with psychogeography. Instead of wishing to document faraway lands, photographers should consider examining their immediate surroundings first.

Oxford is a city with multiple realities. The Oxford Soto engages with through his camera lens, contains none of the esteemed features of the University. He talks about it, yes, but I have to admit that the mention of such architectural landmarks as the Radcliffe Camera, the Magdelan Tower or the Bridge of Sighs brought no immediate images to my mind. I had to google them to find out what they looked like and, even then, I would not have recognized or placed most of them before making a point of looking. Oxford, the University, exists as much as an idea as as a place. Yet I was captivated by, and remain much more interested in, the working class Oxford Soto’s images record—the brick buildings, boarded up shops, back alleys, and strangely vacant streets. They tell their own stories, but they also project a certain anonymity. (A selection of images from A Certain Logic of Expectations can be found on his website.)

Weaving a path of sorts between the two possible Oxford’s is the text. Memories, observations and anecdotes drawn from Soto’s time in the city are presented as discreet descriptive passages, with no connection to any particular image. He considers the dynamics that have formed Oxford as a city, and talks about some of the idiosyncrasies of the photographic endeavour. He records scenes and interactions he encounters on the streets and reflects on the student experience, recalling friends, romances and favourite watering holes. Some of his remembrances have a photographic quality of their own:

A friend and I spot a naked girl through a basement window on Rectory Road. She is sitting down on the bed with her back to us. The basil green sheets make me think of Modigliani, whom I associate with that color. The room is brightly lit, making it hard to understand why she has not drawn the curtains. My friend is equally fascinated by the incident, and we speculate about the situation for a while. She keeps referring to the girl as beautiful, even though we did not see her face.

Oxford, as Soto describes it, is a city constrained by its own history—a history that is actually confined to a very small geographic space. Beyond that, its ability to renew itself is limited. A distinct separation is maintained between “town” and “gown.” As a student, Soto has full access to the college he attends (but not the entire University). For residents of the city with no connection to that side of Oxford, the hallowed halls of the educational institution and the world it contains exist entirely outside their lived experience. Two solitudes.

Soto’s camera brings the otherwise unseen Oxford into focus; his crisp, clear images highlight its absolute ordinariness. To his eye, and given his own background, even its “dodgiest” neighbourhoods appear orderly. His prose passages and vignettes are precise, admittedly subjective and charged with a deadpan humour. It all came together when I learned (also on his website) that his artistic practice:

owes a great deal to the work of the French writer Georges Perec, whose fragmentary and often absurd projects offer a methodology for the study of the infraordinary, the term he coined to describe the nothingness that comprises the bulk of our lives. Perec highlighted the complexity of micro-events and banal spaces, exposing the partiality and selectivity of our attention and making us question why we grant significance to certain things while overlooking others. Perec’s writings provide a fitting analogy for documentary images, which give a realistic impression of the world while also connoting an authorial vision.

In the background throughout this project looms the tensions around Brexit. Soto is a careful observer, noting, for example, party signs pasted up in a window. Yet, as an outsider, without a vote or a particular stake in the matter, it is still impossible to remain entirely neutral. He recounts a friendship that dissolves when he learns of the other’s political leanings. There is inevitably a spark in the air that one senses when in a foreign country at a time of voting or campaigning that fuels an interest and a disconnect at once. It seeps into the memories you take away. There may be a level of discontent in the air, but as Soto reflects on returning to Mexico as his studies draw to a close, he knows he will miss the freedom and safety he enjoyed on the streets of Oxford. That comfort also seems to inform his photographs and his observations such that this Oxford, the one that defies a certain logic of expectations, is perhaps one that can only be seen by an outsider open to all its possibilities.

A Certain Logic of Expectations by Arturo Soto is published in a limited edition by The Eriskay Connection.

A special type of perception: Responses · Kafka’s Prague by Jiří Kolář

I first encountered the work of Jiří Kolář (1914-2002), one of the most important poet/visual artists in post-war Europe—a man for whom the two descriptors very often went hand in hand—through A User’s Manual, first published in English translation in 2019. This intentional pairing of his so-called “action poems” written in the 1950s and 60s with collages from the series “Weekly 1967” was originally published together in 1969 and reproduced handsomely by excellent Prague-based indie press Twisted Spoon. Now, with the release of Responses · Kafka’s Prague, another of the Czech artist‘s idiosyncratic pairings, an intriguing overview of his opinions and reflections on the intersection of literature and art is set against a collection of his distinct “crumplages.” Again it makes for an unusual yet beautifully presented volume which also speaks to his creative processing as displayed in both this and A User’s Manual.

Responses is a sort of one-sided investigation, or what Kolář called an “imaginary interview,” a set of seventy-one answers without questions. Compiled in Prague and Paris in 1973, the topics covered include the development of his artistic sensibility, the writers, artists and movements that had an influence on him, and a discussion of technique. It has a thoughtful, conversational, musing-out-loud sort of feel and a sense of direction that is not explicit or artificial but gives the work a natural flow.

From the outset,  Kolář makes it clear that he sees art as part of the “general drive toward universal knowledge” and as such there can be nothing extrinsically new that is not a departure from that which is already innate to the practice. Art and literature are disciplines that do not create anything new so much as they create new ways of looking at (and using) what is already there, a “special type of perception.” As in science, artists are engaged in exploration and investigation, and those he admires, such as Mallarmé and those who followed in his footsteps, are those who become dissatisfied with the status quo. For Kolář this leads him to analyze and reflect upon what various poets were doing with language, and ultimately realize he had to dismantle language itself:

For me the destruction of poetic language followed the same path and the same type of perception as did a new and different perception in other disciplines. As I’ve already said, this is primarily the case in [modern] music and the visual arts. I was speaking about a type of perception — what I mean is that I couldn’t keep seeking poetry in the written word. I had to go beyond the written word. It meant finding another, living language.

There is a distinct restlessness to Kolář’s self-described poetic and artistic evolution, accentuated by the casual style of this particular discourse, but then he was working in trying times. Deemed publicly undesirable by the Communist government in Czechoslovakia he spent time in prison, saw the publication of much of his work delayed, and would eventually end up living in exile. Responses, however, is not concerned with political revolution, but rather with his artistic interests and endeavours, past and current. As translator Ryan Scott points out in his Translator’s Note, this work “should not be read as Kolář’s final word but as capturing a particular moment in time amid his creative flux.” Nonetheless, it makes for an interesting look into an original creative mind.

Kolář’s international reputation rests largely on his innovative collage techniques. He is so fond of printed materials—newspapers, letters, tickets, receipts—not only as raw materials but for the moment-in-timeness captured in them that one wonders how he would have adapted artistically to our increasingly digital environment. The present volume contains a series of “cumplages” constructed from photographs of buildings and landmarks in Prague, paired with brief quotes from Kafka’s writings. In these images, the shapes and angles of the structures are distorted, twisted and bent out of shape. The effect is quite striking and perfectly “Kafkaesque.” The process follows a specific routine, starting with moistened paper:

Crumpling must be done fast and carefully, and it’s difficult to predict results with this technique because it’s always the brother of chance. Because the moist paper is crumpled and the work has to be finished fast, hardly any adjusting can be done.

Later on he mentions that his “best crumplages were created from reproductions that readers had coloured themselves.” He delights in the touches human hands have left behind coming through in his art. Among the thirty-four images employed in Kafka’s Prague are buildings directly associated with the writer’s life, and other structures Kafka would have known well. (You can get a sense of the book here.) To have this work so beautifully reproduced in this book is a treat in itself, together with Responses it is an enriched experience.

Responses · Kafka’s Prague by Jiří Kolář is translated from the Czech by Ryan Scott and published by Twisted Spoon Press.

Towers rise, towers fall: Sandfuture by Justin Beal

The World Trade Center must have been climbing its way toward the heavens when I first visited New York City, my mother’s hometown, in 1969. However, at the age of nine, the tall building that caught my fancy was the Empire State. It made no impression on me that its record height was soon to be overshadowed—I best remember the imposing measures taken to keep visitors from plunging to their deaths from the observation deck. Being terrified of heights I was struck by the twin existential shock and thrill that such a risk could even be a concern. Somehow, it’s a strange, small comfort to know that Minoru Yamasaki, the Japanese-American architect who designed the World Trade Center shared the same fear, allowing his own sense of comfort to influence his proposal for narrower, deep-set windows on his famed—and infamous—creation. Although he would be convinced to open up the view in several ways, the Twin Towers sealed his reputation for better and worse, because even though he did not live to witness the events of 9/11, his life and career cannot be abstracted from the dramatic destruction of not one, but two, fated architectural projects.

Until now. A sensitive, humane account of Yamasaki’s life and work lies at the core of Sandfuture, an ambitious work of literary nonfiction by artist and writer Justin Beal recently released from MIT Press. Not explicitly a biography nor a treatise on the collapse of architectural modernism (literally or figuratively), it is rather a far-ranging, inventive hybrid essay. Woven around the central biographical narrative is a fascinating stream of memoir, architectural history, and reflection on the myriad ways bodies, buildings and cities mirror one another in sickness and health. Beal draws on his own experience as an artist and as a student and admirer of architecture, and as a partner and a new parent, but he never gets in the way or loses the key focus of the interconnected ideas he wants to pull together.

Throughout Sandfuture it becomes clear that in so many things in life and art, fate and design are inextricably bound. On the morning of September 11, 2001, Justin Beal happened to be sharing an apartment with a couple of friends just a few blocks from the World Trade Center, so he was personally caught up in the rush and panic that followed the collapse of the two buildings. That event, because we all know it so well, looms in the background, a ghost of future tragedy that haunts Yamasaki’s entire life and career and beyond, but the event itself plays a peripheral role in this book. There are many other forces and factors at play when disaster strikes. In fact, Beal had recently relocated to Manhattan from Los Angeles on October 29, 2012 when Hurricane Sandy hit the eastern seaboard hard and that natural disaster is where his account begins with a vivid depiction of the force of water pushing down on the lower lying areas of New York, bringing destruction and flooding and exposing the socioeconomic distinctions that drive urban development and decline. Meanwhile, closer to home, countless pieces of artwork stored beneath the gallery his girlfriend co-owns are damaged beyond recognition. In the drama of this opening section, some of the key threads that will loop through so much of the material to follow make their first appearance.

Minoru Yamasaki was born in Seattle on December 1, 1912, the son of Japanese immigrants. Inspired to pursue architecture by a visit from an uncle, he entered University in 1929—just before the Stock Market Crash, an event that forced him to earn money for his tuition by working in Alaskan salmon canneries over the following summers. It was an experience that helped forge his personal mythology yet it also signals a trajectory marked by unfortunate timing. He arrived in New York in 1934 with $40 to his name, just as the Great Depression was taking hold. But the city gave him his start, and over the next decade he gained valuable experience, made important connections, and met his first wife.

In 1945, he was recruited to join a firm in Detroit. The city would become his long-time base, but when he first arrived racist sentiments fueled by the war kept him from buying a house in a desired neighbourhood. Curiously, more significant racial tensions would become synonymous with the legacy of his first major project in his new position—the design of a landmark public housing project in St. Louis named Pruitt-Ioge. The goal was ambitious: replace densely-packed slums with a massive complex comprised of thirty-three buildings and almost three thousand apartments. Guided by a vision he hoped would foster community building, Yamasaki’s design incorporated a number of design features intended to encourage interaction, some of which would, over time, prove not only counterproductive but dangerous. The buildings deteriorated, crime rose, discontent escalated, and conditions fell into a state beyond repair. Finally, in the spring of 1972, the first explosions detonated on the now abandoned buildings were broadcast on live television. While the World Trade Center rose, Pruitt-Ioge was systematically reduced to rubble. As Beal demonstrates, the factors contributing the project’s failure are multifaceted beginning with strict cost-cutting measures from the outset, but in the public eye the architect would publicly and unfairly wear the blame.

The architect is so often imagined as hero, gracing the pages of novels or commanding the silver screen, projecting an impossible romantic ideal. He is also a figure who makes a regular appearance throughout the course of Sandfuture. Standing against it all, is the real, very human character of a man who casts a somewhat shadowy presence even in his own archives. Yet it is Yamasaki who gives this story its soul. He was an architect who challenged conventions with varying success, often hobbled by the constraints placed upon him by the confluences of forces and interests driving any major project. Drawing on influences from time spent in Japan, India, the Middle East, and elsewhere, he wanted to promote a movement away from modernism which he saw as overwhelmingly monotonous and lacking “delight.” He persisted, dedicated to his craft and vision, but the pressure took an early toll on his health. He drank heavily, married several times, eventually reuniting with his first wife, and waged a battle with ongoing stomach troubles—ulcers and, finally, cancer. He comes across as a conflicted figure, as prone to bouts of both despair and overconfidence as any other driven professional, lauded, then slipping out of favour, only to be awarded the most prestigious project on the planet. But as ever, so much rides on the final product. Each design is, in the end, a structure that has a life of its own—bound to a vicious cycle of critical reception, practical and public utility, repurposing, and ultimately neglect and decline by which point the architect has already moved on.

Author Justin Beal, as an artist with a deep fascination with architecture, brings a unique perspective to this multi-stranded biographical effort. Having studied the subject, he enters into his serious engagement with Yamasaki’s work and ideals burdened by an architectural education that was inclined to deride the architect’s value to the field. He has to relearn what he thinks he knows. As he scours library documents, architectural journals, news reports and, of course, the many buildings Yamasaki designed during his long career, the sense of a genuine desire to interact with and understand the difficult, maybe misunderstood man behind the designs never wanes.

So, if Yamasaki is the soul of Sandfuture, Beal is the heart. He, his partner, and his daughter are a measured presence, their adventures adding a novelistic quality to transitional passages that, if at first unclear, lend new, relevant dimensions as the work progresses. Prominent among these “memoirish” side threads is a recurring discussion of migraines. Beal’s girlfriend, Nina as she is named here, suffers from crippling migraine headaches. At one point she is even hospitalized. The exploration of this topic sets the foundation for discussions of the history of sanitariums, interconnected notions of bodies and buildings, Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, and the concept of sick building syndrome. After all, whether one is constructing a house, a temple or a skyscraper, the mechanical is as essential as the organic. Or so it should be.

The construction of the World Trade Center is, of course, an essential feature in this book as it is in the career of its designer. Structural dilemmas and decisions are explained with just the right amount of detail and tension. Woven around this element are two other key architectural projects: Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Ioge, its televised fate foreshadowing that of the Twin Towers, and at the extreme opposite end of the residential income spectrum, 432 Park Avenue, the luxury condominium project towering over Central Park. This, rather than One World Trade Center is Beal’s post 9/11 counterpoint. This striking triangulation of structures is telling—none of these buildings is, or was, able to meet the reality of its intended (or desired) tenants. They reflect the motives of developers and urban planners, fueled by ego, money and ambition. They have all come up hard against practical, social and economic pressures, greater threats to any architectural project than gravity itself.

Sandfuture is one of those books that is so full of interesting ideas and information that, in the end, it is almost impossible to succinctly describe what it is about. With such projects there is always the temptation to throw in too many sidenotes, too many literary references, too much personal information. It’s a balancing act and yet somehow in this whirlwind it all manages to come together seamlessly. At one point my editorial instincts questioned the layout—one 250 page effort broken only by small section breaks—leading me to wonder if this hybrid effort was too ambitious to succeed, but that concern soon faded. Intelligent and entertaining, Beal maintains a tight pace throughout, turning in unexpected directions and connecting everything back to his main themes and to give his rather unfortunate hero his due.

Sandfuture by Justin Beal is published by MIT Press. It is a handsomely presented paperback featuring a centre section of black and white (and one colour) photographs and a detailed source note on materials used.

Art and poetry meet online: Ignite from with in the confines

In late September a wonderful artist friend of mine, Deepa Gopal, invited me to participate in an online exhibition featuring eight artists and eight poets. The past few months have  been rather dry for me creatively for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is this extended period of pandemic living. And that was the spark of inspiration for this unique show.

Each artist contributed five pieces of art inspired by, or in keeping with, the theme IGNITE-from within the confines. Each poet was then paired with an artist and asked to contribute five new or recent poems with at least one written in direct response to one or more of the pieces. I was immediately inspired by the work of my partner, Dubai based Peruvian artist German Fernandez and wrote four new poems, companions to specific images and added one more piece written earlier this year. It was a lot of fun and I look forward to seeing our work together, as well as the contributions of my fellow artists and poets as the show rolls out over the following eight days.

I hope you will come and see this unique collaboration. Links for our blog, Instagram account and YouTube channel are below.

SCHEDULE – IGNITE-from within the confines-
5 NOV to 12 NOV 2020 – 4 pm (UAE time/GMT+4 hrs) every day

ARTIST and POET profile on official blog (2 blog posts)

ART & POEM on YouTube (one video)
– one artwork and one poem –

will be published on Facebook and Instagram too

As of today, November 10, my poetry can be found here.
German Fernandez’ profile and artwork can be found here.

*

Official Blog: https://ignitefromwithintheconfines.blogspot.com/
Official Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ignite.fwtc.2020/
YouTube:https://www.youtube.com/channel/UClJQhklsmPqHkaU6FmMmhEA/featured?view_as=subscriber

Drawing draws us in: On Being Drawn by Peter Cole and Terry Winters

What would it mean to translate a drawing into a poem? To render the experience of a piece of art into words? Ekphrasis as translation. And, following from that idea, to what extent can one view translation as a form of ekphrasis? These are the questions that propel On Being Drawn, the most recent offering in the Cahier Series—the joint project of the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions. The result, a unique collaborative project between artist Terry Winters and poet and translator Peter Cole, is a multilayered, dynamic exploration of the translational interrelationship between different forms of artistic expression.

Each addition to this collection of beautifully presented hand-sown booklets pairs a story, essay, or poetry with illustrations. The subjects, always in some way an examination of the idea of writing or translating—or both—are as varied as the writers invited to contribute. The artwork chosen to accompany the text is always striking and engaging in its own right, but there is not necessarily an intentional or existing  relationship between the writer and illustrator, so the final product is a complementary yet parallel effort. Sometimes, as with Éric Chevillard’s QWERTY Invectives, the artist (in this case Philippe Favier) comments on and reaches beyond the text. But with On Being Drawn, artist and author share equal billing. The connection between the two, as such, is essential. It originated with Winters’ request for some poems from Cole for a catalogue for an art show he was preparing. The selected images and poems are included here along with Cole’s later reflections on the act of translating images into words. Therein lies the true magic of this booklet: the commentary is poetic, open-ended and thought-provoking, enriching the entire experience.

There are different levels of interest and connection at play in a work like this. The initial exercise is one of ekphrasis—literary description or commentary on a visual piece of art—but an ekphrastic engagement undertaken in which, as Cole says: “I wanted to see what would happen if I consciously approached the writing as I would a translation.” The secondary project is a reflection, from a temporal distance, on the composition of these poems, and a closer meditation on the question: Is ekphrasis a kind of translation? And can the reverse be true?

These are two very different inquiries. The first might seem more obvious: ekphrasis renders the value, essence or meaning of an artwork into another medium. One expressed with words. Of course, it must be noted that Winters’ drawings are sometimes drawn from natural objects, but most (or at least those that Cole was drawn to) are abstracted—circles, lines, patterns. The poems generated are sometimes descriptive, but often rely on word games, playing with language against the image, engaging in a sort of lyrical Rorschach test. But then again, this results in a translation of the spirit of a work of art that does not appear to be anything specific but could, for the viewer, be almost anything. As they exist together in this work, the twelve selected drawings belong to part of an artist’s larger body of work; the poems are, in a sense, birthed in response to them. The poet’s musings are born of further reflections on translation as ekphrasis.

One of my favourite pairings, drawing and poem alike, is this one, simply called Untitled, 1988, to which Cole responds:

The nerve and zinc ascent of it
descending extension in every direction –
knots of cinder and brightness as one
wash of ash through which it hums
beneath the skin       these paths are thought.

Within the passage that follows this (nicely set off in a fainter print than the poems) he reflects, moving from art to literary translation:

‘My small skill to save a likeness’ John Berger writes of his own sketching his father’s final face in his coffin.

But in the case of these almost abstract sketches, a likeness of what? And how might that ‘what’ be tricked into speech?

It isn’t always pleasant. The act itself and the realization – that part of a translation’s depth derives from its movement through death. The total identification with an original leading to its replacement, so that another’s name and lines live on. so the present unfurls as a rickety bridge of resemblances and resurrections. And the translator, too, passes away again and again through self-effacement faced. For now. And after? An afterlife, after all?

It is perhaps, then, no accident that tracing a line from art to writing poetry to questions of literary translation offers such a rich avenue of exploration for Peter Cole, a translator from Arabic and Hebrew.

When the symbolic rendering of the two languages through which a translator navigates differ the letter acquires a certain significance. Cole is attuned to the shapes of letters surfacing through some of the images. As he reminds us:

The materiality of the letter, of all letters – as building block and spirit trap, a grounding but insurgent tactility – lurks beneath our talk and verse, bringing us back to what matters, as matter, involving continual return to beginnings and incessant permutation.

This brief volume, scarcely more than 40 pages, provides an especially rewarding opportunity for engagement. The art work is varied, representing the full range of the artist’s career, the poems are accessible yet well matched—curiously they often pick up on movement and energy in the drawings. And the commentary is insightful yet unobtrusive, faded so as not to upstage the initial connections. As ever, a welcome addition to a rich collection.

On Being Drawn, The Cahier Series, no. 36, by Peter Cole and Terry Winters is published by the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions.

Summoning the celestial: The Sex of the Angels, The Saints in their Heaven by Raoul Schrott

If absence makes the heart grow stronger, absence tinged with the uncertainty of love returned can lead the heart and the imagination to wander into realms beyond the merely mortal. To contemplate romantic perfection. To be filled with a longing for something that may no longer exist. To attempt to counter the earthly with the heavenly. To trust in angels.

The wonderfully titled The Sex of the Angels, The Saints in their Heaven is essentially a series of missives from a lovelorn poet to a mysterious red-haired beauty from whom he has been separated by time, distance and, perhaps, some recklessness on his part. He is writing from County Cork in the south of Ireland, a place which is not his home, where he is exiled, or has exiled himself, sending into the nightly blackness a chain of love letters ever so loosely disguised as a sensual, passionate and mildly profane angelology accompanied by miniaturized hagiographies. Originally published in German in 2001, this extraordinary work by Austrian writer Raoul Schrott, with its arresting illustrations by Italian artist Arnold Mario Dall’O, is now available from the inimitable Seagull Books in Karen Leeder’s delicately rendered translation. Fictional, but not a conventional novel, essayistic, but meditative in style, this book is an engaging blend of philosophy, mythology, the classical sciences, saintly heroism, and earthbound human romantic longing.

Our narrator begins, as one would expect, with Dionysius the Areopagite—not the saint, but the fifth century Syrian Neoplatonist who, writing in the name and style of his sanctified predecessor was the first to craft a hierarchy of angels and demons, a celestial stepladder to God for dark times.  Within Pseudo-Dionysius’ model of an angel-sustained universe, he locates himself and his own angelic entity:

For Earth he chose only a single one, which he placed in the lower arc of my ribs where I can feel it now, hard as a little planet. I carry it with me (even now in the train it keeps to its orbit) and sometimes I can see it before me: its mouth, black brows and a storm of red hair over its freckles, an incarnation of St. Elmo’s fire.

Captive and captivated, he writes as if possessed, bringing the Aurora Borealis, Samuel Johnson, Greek and Babylonian mythology and more into his musings as he tries to make sense of his fate, this spell of infatuation under which he is labouring. His thoughts never stray far from his beloved even though his letters have yet to elicit a response. He is continues his conversation into the silence, remembering their moments together. It is not entirely clear how much he really has to build on, how much they ever had, a quality that amplifies the sense of yearning:

Then as I sat next to you in the great hall, I heard you more than saw you beside me; I listened to you; wings folding shut. Do I bore you with all these sophistries and sentimentalities? It is only because the post takes so damned long, because I don’t know whether you will ever respond, not how; because I must eke out the little that I have to create a picture of you: little stones for a mosaic. The angels help me lay it out.

As he wanders the past and waits in the present, meditating on the nature of the role of angels in the affairs of humans, especially his own, our poet paints an image of a windswept remoteness, an isolation actual and emotional. He references local towns, harbours and natural features, like the aptly named Mount Gabriel. The ocean is never far away, and water is a major presence in his memories, his sense of loss, and much of the mythology he calls on. His heartache is pervasive, and achingly beautiful:

I walk through the grass; it brushes against my shoes. All is still, and I wish your voice was with me now, whispered and low so that only I could hear it. Instead the moon starts off on a soliloquy. Where it stands, stubbornly apart, is the southwest and somewhere behind is where you are, as if only I had to concentrate to see that far, peer over the curvature of the earth. But where you are it is an hour later, I only wish I knew how to catch up that hour.

Because the distance that haunts him is temporal, in more than one sense of the word, trusting the angels, even if as he admits, he does not believe in them, has a certain logic. A comfort.

Turning to John Scotus Eriugena, the ninth century Irish theologian, best known for translating and commenting on Pseudo-Dionysius, the narrator reflects on the inverted balance existing between humans and their heavenly counterparts:

the angel finds its form within humankind through the spirit (intellectus) of the angel that is in the man; and man comes into being in the angel through the spirit of humankind within him and so on and so forth for all eternity without a single Amen being granted to us in Eriugenia’s scholastic permutations. We are nothing but the imaginings of angels; and angels exist only in our thoughts: that is our paradox not theirs.

He has entrusted his love and his beloved to the care of angels, to hold her for him in their thoughts. And yet, as her own distinction from the angels becomes less clear in his letters, one has to wonder how much she has begun to exist only in his thoughts. If she, in her epistolary silence is possibly not thinking of him, what existential questions does that raise? For him? For any of us who has ever loved hopelessly another who will never return our affection? At heart, he knows, it seems.

And: no, I am not writing for writing’s sake; no, if my letters were in any way beautiful, there were so only on account of you; no, they are not complete in themselves; all they do is beg for the answer and conceal best they can the question (they tiptoe in stealth as I know they are trespassing on your territory). No, your cheeks were so warm that it felt as if I could have woken up next to you; no, there is nothing that could possibly dis-appoint you from the rank of the angels; no, the Amores will never run out of arrows, although I make a rather unholy Sebastian; and no, the angels will not wear themselves out with words; writing to you brought at least a few hours relief, then you started up again humming in my ears.

The Sex of the Angels, The Saints in Their Heavens reads like an extended meditative conversational prose poem, a playful interplay between earth and the heavens, grounded in the inescapable humanness of romantic love. The rich illustrations and micro biographies of the lives and martyrdom of the saints accompanying the text work together to form a running commentary on the interrelationship between love, spirituality, literature and art. This book could almost be, if one didn’t know better, the work of the angels themselves.

The artist as outsider: The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

The lonely city is a pervasive phenomenon. The specific city of Olivia Laing’s new essay/memoir of the same name is New York City, but there is something about the modern city – be it the glass towered canyons of the central core or, I would argue, the uniform, ordered expanse of soulless suburbs that breeds a loneliness that can be suffocating. And surely some feel it more acutely than others, but most of us have probably, at least at some time or in some space, been troubled by the longing for contact, the need to share, and the sense that our aching neediness is conspicuous, writ large in awkward desperation. That is the experience Laing sets out to explore, by placing the inward focused isolation of being alone in a foreign city, against the works of a number of artists who, she argues, portray loneliness – capture the sensation, however bleak or beautiful – in a manner that speaks to her, during her sojourn and, in the end, perhaps help her find her way out of her darkness.

lonelyHer previous book, The Trip to Echo Spring, also set in America, was a road trip via the lives of five American authors who battled the bottle, framed against her own experiences growing up in an alcoholic household. I read it with an eye to understanding my adult son, a creative young man who is also an alcoholic. In her new work, the terrain she covers is confined, claustrophobic, but again informed by her own experience, this time of a period spent in New York following the emotionally devastating collapse of a relationship. I read The Lonely City in an urban centre less glamorous but with its own tendency to be unfriendly, at the apex, perhaps, of an extended period of crushing loneliness of my own.

Laing begins her journey through urban alienation with the suggestion, inspired by an entry in the diaries of Virginia Woolf, that there can be a transcendent quality to the experience of loneliness. She seeks to find this idea reflected in the lives and creations of a number of artists whose works draw her in and help her articulate and understand her own loneliness, in the moment, and as it exists within in the context of 21st century technology. She asks:

“What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people, particularly if we don’t find speaking easy? Is sex a cure for loneliness, and if it is, what happens if our body or sexuality is considered deviant or damaged, if we are ill or unblessed with beauty? And is technology helping with these things? Does it draw us closer together, or trap us behind screens?”

As an essayist, Laing has the ability to balance just the right measure of personal exposition and vulnerability, with an uncanny talent for bringing the lives of the individuals that fascinate her into an immediate, sensitive focus. She writes with an honest compassion and curiosity. New York City – reflected through her months of moving between rented or borrowed accommodations, patrolling the streets with a sense of acute isolation, and digging through the archives of artists in search of meaning and treasure – is exposed and stripped bare through the emotionally disenfranchised creative eye. The eyes she choses to look through include Alfred Hitchcock, Valeries Solanas, Nan Goldin, Klaus Nomi, Peter Hujar, Billie Holiday and Jean-Michel Basquiat; but four artists in particular provide perspectives she finds deeply intriguing. They are the realist painter Edward Hopper whose stark images capture the solitary urban existence with an intensity that is poignant and uncomfortable; Andy Warhol, the socially awkward artist who virtually fabricated an identity protected by silkscreen frames, cameras and tape recorders; the unknown Chicago janitor, Henry Darger, who left an extensive, often disturbing, legacy of folk art and thousand of pages of imaginative prose; and, finally, photographer, artist, writer and activist David Wojnarowicz.

Laing weaves her personal reflections with a survey of some of the essential psychological studies of the causes and expressions of loneliness; expanding on these themes against the broad canvas of the lives and artworks of the artists she examines. Her subjects, the key players and the supporting characters alike, tend to be outsiders, typically survivors of troubled childhoods – victims of neglect, rejection, even outright physical abuse. Many are queer, individuals set apart by their sexuality, most find normal conversational communication difficult, and addiction is a common demon that recurs. The art, film and writings produced by these complex individuals is, in many instances, boundary breaking, frequently disturbing, and contain, at their core an attempt to articulate the aloneness of life in the city, to portray the isolated individual within stark interior spaces (as in the haunting paintings of Edward Hopper) or to record the desolate environments where the dispossessed seek to assuage their alienation through drugs and risky anonymous sexual encounters (as in the work of Warhol, Goldin, Wojnarowicz and others). Then there is the janitor/artist Darger, a loner who created a detailed alternate universe, illustrated with playfully coloured paintings that frequently contained elements of disturbing violence enacted on children, leaving an exhaustive wealth of works that no one saw until he was forced into hospital care at the end of his life.

Each of Laing’s outsider artists is treated with an empathetic respect and is understood within a society that is perceived as antagonistic to the those who by virtue of personality, mental illness, social anxiety, gender expression or sexuality are seen as divergent from the “norm”, whatever that is. The artists who seem to hold the greatest appeal for her, as a memoirist, are those who exploit their own differences to challenge the pressures that perpetuate a mainstream conformity. Regarding Wojnarowicz she says:

“All his work was an act of resistance against this dominating force, driven by a desire to contact and inhabit a deeper, wilder mode of being. The best way he’d found to fight was to make public the truths of his own life, to create work that resisted invisibility and silence; the loneliness that comes from having your existence denied, from being written out of history, which after all belongs to the normal and not to the stigmatised.”

As Laing unwraps the nuances of her own engagement with loneliness she finds in herself a profound identification with the gay artists who were navigating the city’s streets in the years before Stonewall, or even worse, during the height of the AIDS epidemic. As the daughter of a lesbian who was outed when homophobia was still legally enforced in the UK, she was especially sensitive to the gay taunts and jeers she heard in the school yard. But the knife cut deeper in an unexpected way:

“It wasn’t just about my mother. I can see myself then, skinny and pale, dressed as a boy, completely incapable of handling the social demands of being at a girl’s school, my own sexuality and sense of gender hopelessly out of kilter with the options then on offer. If I was anything, I was a gay boy; in the wrong place, in the wrong body, in the wrong life.”

These words struck a deep chord with me. Growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s, I found myself in the same space, only more completely if you like. I was haunted by an other-worldliness, a complete sense of my lack of ability to understand, let alone communicate, with those with who apparently shared the same gender. This feeling began to escalate as I reached my mid teens. That was, incidentally, a time when I sought a sense of self-identification with the world personified by Andy Warhol, The Velvet Underground and other denizens of the Factory scene. I was, without any language for myself, grasping at straws. But I would not find the words, or discover that there was a way to ameliorate the crushing sense that I was in the wrong body until I was well into my 30’s. Many years on now I would like to say that being able to exist in the world in a way that is at once socially and emotional right has rendered loneliness a less pervasive force, but, in truth, it just changes the parameters of one’s alienation. At best, I am a loner who appears outgoing, who can readily speak to a room of 100 people but stumbles awkwardly over small talk; at worst I am floored by waves of intense loneliness that break over me when I least expect it, most often when I am in public places.

I have introduced my own experience here because it leads into the curious question of the role of social media in the 21st century experience of isolation. Laing describes how, during her New York stay, she would open and close the day wandering the virtual streets and alleys of the city of Twitter. In between, even more hours could be lost to clicking, conversing, and cruising hashtags. In my loneliest periods I have fallen into the same pattern and asked myself the same questions she poses:

“What did I want? What was I looking for? What was I doing there, hour after hour? Contradictory things. I wanted to know what was going on. I wanted to be stimulated. I wanted to be in contact and I wanted to retain my privacy. I wanted to click and click and click until my synapses exploded, until I was flooded with superfluity.”

The migration of our social engagement to a virtual sphere is, she argues, reflected in the gentrification of our urban communities and in the gentrification of our emotions. Happiness is assumed to be the default; difficult feelings are to be avoided, corrected, numbed. The internet can be a comfort, a necessary connection, but it is important to understand its limitations. It cannot cure loneliness. The answer lies not in another person, but within ones self. After all, a period of loneliness can be positive experience, a time of personal growth. Longing, as Laing reminds us, is a vital part of the human experience, it “does not mean that one has failed, but simply that one is alive.” I am inclined to believe she is right.

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone is published by Picador.

A look at two winter treasures from Seagull Books

It may not be winter by the calendar (yet), but here, where I sit, north of the 49th Parallel and west of the Rocky Mountains, it is a perfect wintery day. The snow has been falling, no too much to be fair, but the wind has been playing with it, sweeping it into drifts and coating the roads with ice. A good day for a good book.

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In recognition of the German Literature Month reading project that is drawing to a close this week (a growing list of over 120 reviews contributed by participating bloggers can be found here) I wanted to call attention to two very special books that not only feature German authors, but celebrate the book as a work of art. Both have winter themes and are published by Calcutta based Seagull Books.

Victor Halfwit: A Winter’s Tale by Thomas Bernhard is a short fable lavishly illustrated by Sunandini Banerjee. Listed in the Seagull catalog as “Children’s Literature”, I would suggest that this is, aside from being an opportunity to introduce a child to Bernhard early (and who would not want to do that?), a book to speak to the child inside. The story is essentially classic Bernhard. On a cold winter’s night, a physician crossing through the forest on his way to see a patient, stumbles, quite literally over a man lying in the snow. This man with the improbable name of Victor Halfwit is legless as the result of an accident and now, most unfortunately, his wooden legs have “snapped in the middle, as wooden legs do”, leaving him helpless and facing a miserable end. He had been on an ill-conceived attempt to win a bet with a miller who had wagered that he, Mr. Halfwit, would be unable to make his way from Traich to Föding, through the snowy forest, in just one hour, on his wooden legs. The faint chance of winning 800 schillings – the price of the finest pair Russian leather boots, something he had long desired – was too tempting, so Victor took the bet and nearly proved the miller right. Almost. But then, even a happy ending would not be without it’s bitter dark irony. This is Bernhard after all.

Taking a sentence or two at a time, this tale is presented in the company of rich, glorious collages. Drawing inspiration from famous artworks, medical illustrations, Indian imagery, playful designs and so much more, each page turned presents a new, original background to compliment the passage in quite unexpected and infinitely wonderful ways. I will confess that I ordered this book without paying much attention to the description. I knew it was Bernhard, I knew it was illustrated, but I was completely – and happily – caught off guard by this large, most gorgeous book when it arrived in the mail. I had expected something special, but honestly I had imagined something more modest. As a gift for a Bernhard fan or a lover of visual arts, or for yourself, let’s be honest, I would heartily recommend this book.

December is a take on the tradition of calendar stories that pairs 39 short texts by German writer, film director and critic, Alexander Kluge, with 39 haunting photographs of wintery forest scenes by Gerhard Richter. Included in this collection is a story for every day in December. Some are set during the war years, others in the 2000’s; some appear to have a straight forward historical tone, others seem more experimental in form. I can’t actually say because I intend to read this book throughout the month of December. Each entry is short, no more than a couple of pages at most. I bought this book with a gift card my daughter gave me for my birthday, thinking that it would be a welcome companion for the dark days – in a practical and an emotional sense – of December. Like many, I find it to be one of the most difficult times of the year and I look forward to exploring this work as the month unfolds.

Victor Halfwit: A Winter’s Tale and December are both translated from the German by Martin Chalmers and published by Seagull Books.

Probing the fantastic imagination: Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz by Maxim Biller

“Schulz was incomparably gifted as an explorer of his own inner life.”
– J M Coetzee

The year is 1938. In the dull light of a basement apartment in the town of Drohobycz a man is anxiously penning a letter to his literary hero Thomas Mann. He works at a desk that is too low for him. When he is disturbed and distressed by the sound of birds pecking at the high windows he slips down onto the floor and continues working there until the falling autumn light forces him back up to the desk. On the walls of his room hang drawings he has made – fantastic dark sketches of domineering women and desperate men.

bruno_schulz_paintingThe man is famed Polish writer and artist Bruno Schulz. As he composes his missive to Dr Mann, German author Maxim Biller is conducting a guided tour to the interior thoughts, fantasies and fears – make that Fear with a capital F – that he imagines fueling Schulz’s surreal and creative imagination. The resulting novella, Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz serves as a delightfully inventive introduction to an original and influential writer.

“Ever since he could remember Bruno – for that was the name of the man with the face like a paper kite – had awoken every morning with Fear in his heart. Fear and he had breakfast together in Lisowski’s tearoom, Fear accompanied him to the High School and looked over his shoulder as the boys put their unsuccessful sketches of animals down in front of him, as well as plaster models, covered with black fingerprints, of their sweet little heads.”

Biller paints a portrait of a deeply anxious man… a character that would be at home in one of Schulz’s own stories. When he meet him he is unsuccessfully struggling with a novel. He lives with his sister and her two sons. She still believes her dead husband will return. His students whom he thinks of as “bird-brained” literally appear to him as birds, at his window and in his room. He has a conflicted affection for a sado-masochistic sports and philosophy teacher whom he describes as beautiful despite her hairy monkey face and filthy matted hair. But more critically, he carries an impending sense of doom as it increasingly seems inevitable that Germany will be moving toward Poland. It is with that in mind that he is writing to Thomas Mann.

inside headA most curious and twisted fellow claiming to be the great writer has turned up in this small town, charming the residents with enticing stories and grotesque gatherings. The fictional Bruno is anxious to alert Dr Mann to the existence of this impostor whom he suspects is actually a Nazi spy, and to beseech him to consider offering a poor Polish writer critical assistance. With an opportunity to publish in a prestigious journal or an introduction to an important publisher, the timid Bruno believes he might find the courage to leave Poland. He has even written a story in German to include with his appeal.

Combining biographical facts with a wildly fantastic vision that echoes Schulz’s own dark, dreamlike work, Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz is a lateral approach to the writer’s restless creative energy. A brief biography and two of Schulz’s own short stories, “Birds” and “Cinnamon Shops” follow the primary text, making this short book which clocks in at under 100 pages, an irresistible invitation to explore more of the work of this important Polish writer. Unfortunately a number of stories and the unfinished novel he was at work on in this tale were lost after his death so what remains is limited. However, Schulz himself has resurfaced and been has been re-invented and re-discovered as a writer and artist time and time again in novels by Cynthia Ozick, David Grossman and Philip Roth among others, as well in plays and film. (See the essay “The Strange Afterlife of Bruno Schulz” by Jaimy Gordon for an excellent overview.)

SchulzBruno Schulz was a Polish-Jewish writer born in 1892 in Drohobycz, a town historically part of the kingdom of Poland,  now part of the Ukraine. During his lifetime he published two collections of short stories, The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. He was known to be at work on a novel, The Messiah, which has not survived. He worked as an artist and an art teacher for many years. When the Germans moved into Poland during the Second World War, his artwork granted him temporary protection under the auspices of an admiring Gestapo officer in exchange for the painting a mural in the officer’s home. On November 19, 1942, walking home with a loaf of bread, he was shot in the back of the head by another Gestapo officer, a rival of his protector. He was 50 years-old.

Published by Pushkin Press (April, 2015 in the UK/October 2015 in North America), Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz is translated from the German by Anthea Bell. The stories “Birds” and “Cinnamon Shops” from The Street of Crocodiles, were translated from the Polish by Celina Wieniewska and originally published 1963.