Consumed by the landscape: The Plains by Gerald Murnane

There is a certain futility in setting out to write a review of Gerald Murnane’s classic novel, The Plains. Like the world in which it is set, it eludes concise description, or, rather, any attempt to contain it fails to capture its rare and strange beauty.  An otherness is apparent from the earliest pages. The narrator’s account of his arrival in the vast, open lands of the central region of Australia is measured, performative. He is a filmmaker who originally traveled to the plains to gather research for a project titled The Interior. Looking back, twenty years on, he recalls his first evening in the town he has chosen as a base:

Late that night I stood at a third-storey window of the largest hotel in the town. I looked past the regular pattern of streetlights towards the dark country beyond. A breeze came in warm gusts from the north. I leaned into the surges of air that rose up from the nearest miles of grassland. I composed my face to register a variety of powerful emotions. And I whispered words that might have serve a character in a film at the moment when he realised he had found where he belonged.

He has come prepared with a stack of folders bulging with notes relating to the script he is working on, confident that “no one has seen the view of the plains that I am soon to disclose.”

The landscape—definitive and incomprehensible—shapes the singular society that has evolved there. But this is an allegorical, alternative Australia. Wealth is tied to the ownership of land, longstanding and rooted in the history of exploration. But it is maintained through a currency of ideas. Every “cultivated plainsman” has an ever expanding library to accommodate the growing disciplines of thought and speculation that occupy this idiosyncratically intellectual world.

Our protagonist takes time to listen to other plainsmen and build an understanding of the history, trends, and competing concepts of the plains and their relation to the coastal areas (or “Outer Australia”) that have come and gone. It is a complex mythology. His goal is to secure the patronage of a landowner who will support his work on his film project. He succeeds, or so it seems, but the cost, if in fact that is how he ultimately would see it, is extracted gradually and steadily over time.

The prose is intoxicating. Words seem to emerge out of the shimmering stillness. The narrator’s simple account carries a sense of foreboding that continually builds and dissipates. He describes a society obsessed with its own arcane introspection, so inward looking that the direct light is a distraction, where experience of the world is mediated, filtered, and reduced to minute, intricate exploration of the smallest details isolated and abstracted from the whole. Relation to the land is one of primacy of the ideal over the real. The landscape of the plains defines the thinking, aesthetics, and values of the inhabitants—shapes their arts and sciences—but the plainsmen themselves rarely travel and never speak of life as a journey. They are, rather, more concerned with time and memory disassociated from physical experience:

Of course, the literature of the plains abounds in accounts of childhood. Whole volumes have expounded in profuse detail the topography of countries or continents as they were descried under faltering sunlight in the only hour when they were said to exist—some fortunate interval between almost identical days before they were engulfed by events too trivial even to be remembered. And one of the disciplines that most nearly resembles what is called philosophy in far parts of Australia is known to have originated in the comparative study of scenes recalled by one observer alone and accounts of those same scenes by the same observer after he had acquired the skill to attempt a fitting description of them.

Murnane is a difficult, but compulsively readable, writer. He falls quite comfortably into the company of Kafka, Calvino, and Borges, but with his own distinctive (and essentially Australian) quality. He is also slyly funny. At one point, after his would-be filmmaker has been on the plains for over a decade, still no further advanced on his plans for his project but continuing to fill file after file with notes and research, there is the intimation of a potential attraction between him and his patron’s wife. The latter comes to the library to read, day after day, sitting near the shelves where the philosophical tomes dealing the question of Time are kept. As an energy seems to develop between them, unspoken in this silent space, the narrator contemplates the possible ways he might let his feelings be known—write a book she might read, write a book and catalogue but not shelve it, and so on. In the meantime, more texts about Time continue to arrive, filling up the space between them. Ultimately, his intentions proceed no further:

I may take pleasure occasionally in the sight of her so close to the crowded shelves that the pallor of her face is momentarily tinted by a fair multiple glow from the more hectic of the jacketed volumes around her. But I myself prefer not to be seen in the places given over to Time, no matter how nearly I might seem to approach the plainsman’s view of all that might have happened to me. I have a fear, perhaps unreasonable, of finding myself beguiled by images of what almost came to pass. Unlike a true plainsman, I do not care to inspect to closely those other lives lived by men who might have been myself.

If you have lived in the plains, as I have, this novel will have a special resonance. You will recognize the ineffable qualities of space and light (although for those of us in the northern hemisphere, there are southern peculiarities—warm winds don’t come from the north here). What it means is another matter. It is a tribute to the book’s shifting opaque character, that you sense you cannot quite observe it in the right light. But this is an intelligent, provocative, fascinating work. For an Australian reader there are likely themes others might not notice and yet it does not matter. This is a book that has to be experienced to be appreciated and, I would argue, best met without preconceptions.

Nothing will quite prepare you anyway.

War and remembrance: This Is the Place to Be by Lara Pawson

The key thread running through Lara Pawson’s fragmented, fresh, and frightening memoir, This Is the Place to Be, is an honest account of her years working as a journalist for the BBC in Africa between 1996 and 2007. However, it is much more than that. The epigraph is an extended quote from James Baldwin about androgyny and identity, about the way we are not male or female, black or white, but rather one within the other. Her opening admission (and this book is essentially a series of admissions that unfold, fold, and circle back on themselves) takes off from this observation, reading:

When I was about seven the owner of a watch and clock shop mistook me for a boy. Twenty-four years later, a Nigerian man, following my radio reports from Angola, mistook me for a Nigerian. Omolara was what he called me.

Identity and identification. The personal and the political. These are the forces that push this honest, sometimes conflicted, often unsettling account forward.

The book had its genesis as a piece composed for a sound installation called ‘After A War.’ Pawson’s contribution, Non-Correspondence, was presented as a 22,000-word looping monologue inspired by her experiences as a witness to war in Angola and the Ivory Coast—experiences that she found could not be isolated from other aspects of her life. A series of conversations and encounters over the following year or two led to the expansion of the original work into a book, an intensely personal collection of reflections, insecurities, emotions, and memories. The format is non-linear and, in keeping with the development of the project, it retains the feeling of an extended conversation to which we, as readers, are invited.

Second guessing her confessions and questioning the reliability of her memory heightens the immediacy and conversational feel. There is a sense of self-consciousness that lingers behind the intimate revelations, and a willingness to acknowledge a mixture of emotions as she recounts her experiences at home and abroad, in youth and in the present day. Life is messy. She is not afraid to admit this.

The corruption, devastation, and futility of war form the central focus of this book, but what Pawson manages to bring to light through her accounts and anecdotes is the complexity of sentiments that arise when one is close to the action in the dangerous, yet privileged, position of a correspondent. There is a curious exhilaration, and an attachment to the people. However, she is still an observer, there with a job to do, and home is, ultimately, elsewhere. She will admit that she was, for a time, infatuated with the idea of settling in Luanda taking on the life of a revolutionary , recalling fondly the first time she was called camarada. But, in the end, she must leave. She was disillusioned with mainstream media and the sense that she was contributing to the exploitation of the pain of others. And worried about becoming inured to it:

Another reason I left Angola was because I was afraid that I was becoming too thick-skinned. I didn’t want stop being shocked by what I saw and by what was happening. I was also feeling increasingly unhinged.

Letting go is not easy. Returning to life in London is not smooth. In many respects, This I the Place to Be is a love song to Angola. She confides that there are times when she wishes she was still in Luanda: “Moments when I still get desperate pangs for the place.” Her affection for the country is palpable, its lasting impact at times unexpected. She tells us:

When I came back to the UK, I started reading books by Samuel Beckett. I had read bits of his work before, in my early twenties because I ought to, but it was only after experiencing real conflict that I got any kind of handle on the man. The way I see it, Angola taught me Beckett.

Against and woven into her experience in war zones are memories of childhood and youth, reflections on race and class, and anecdotes about her marriage and her social idiosyncrasies. The insecurity of identity—being mistaken for a boy, for a transwoman, for Jamie Lee Curtis—is another recurring theme. (Here her observations were of particular interest to me, given the themes that drive my own memoirish experiments.) Although it may sound that all this would make for a disjointed read, the result is quite the opposite. There is an ebb and flow between ideas that link this series of admissions. By allowing the fragments to flow in a manner that retains a natural and organic quality, the tangential transitions in time and place occur in much the same way they do when we are engaged in conversation with one another.

The fragmentary memoir seems to be an increasingly popular means of telling stories from life. However, it only works when it is not forced or contrived. Pawson leaves room for humility, for guilt, for insecurity. This keeps her book real. As the end nears, the intensity builds. We trust her. We are invested. And she leaves us where her heart lies. In Angola.

The weight words carry: Napoleon’s Road’s by David Brooks

I read Napoleon’s Roads, Australian writer David Brooks’ most recent collection of short fiction, as I made my way to Australia a little over a month ago. Looking back through the pages of this book to gather my thoughts to write these words, certain adjectives keep floating through my mind: shimmering, translucent, affecting, reflective, wise. There are sixteen tales here, written over a span of nearly twenty years: fragmented journeys, fables, and allegories that slip through the contemporary “real” world, wander imaginary landscapes, and explore the inner realms of the heart and mind. Taken as a whole, these stories reflect a few key themes, rather like light refracted through a multi-faceted crystal—ideas moving outward, layered and recombined to create a series of experiences that make for a most satisfying travel companion.

His prelude, “Paths to the City,” sets the tone, asking:

Why do we write? What are we groping for? Are words able to penetrate the night? Are they able to go down the road we only half recall, along which we see only our own back receding in a heat-shimmer of memory? Can they truly take paths we have not ourselves taken? Bring back the lost? Such weights they carry, these things that arrive as if unbidden, or that sometimes we think we summon from nowhere, you would think they were beasts of burden, each line a caravan, setting out by moonlight over pale trackless sand, guided by half-forgotten stars.

 What we can know, what we can say about what we know, and what is better left unknown, are questions that surface, explicitly and implicitly, throughout this collection. Brooks allows for gaps and spaces in his narratives, reinforced by the sharp, broken, fragmented style of many of the pieces. There is an evanescent quality that lingers, leaving a sense that many of the stories cannot be rewound and retold for fear of crushing them under the weight of pedantic description.

Many of his stories have a fable-like quality. There are echoes of Calvino, Borges, Kafka. But some of the most interesting pieces are multi-leveled meditations that spin out from a central subject in a sequence of fragmented reflections. The title story takes the long, straight tree-lined roads constructed in the French countryside under Napoleon. The narrator travels along these roads with his daughter, his account framed and interrupted by reflections on the history of the roads, their relation to the landscape, and memories from his own past. At one point he asks, “How to say that these roads are about what is not road, this text is about what it is not?” This a is a sentiment that resurfaces again and again—how much of any one of these stories is about what it is not?

The same fragmentary form is used to powerful effect in “Kabul.” The city the narrator is in exists in the past and the present at once. It is a place of horror and violence. It is the people he encounters. It is more:

It is not always the body, not only. Kabul is within us, but it is also a landscape of the days, a positive to their negatives, a trace. Weeks marked by craters, explosions of shells. Months marked by lies and betrayal. A field of engagements, tracks leading inland. (There, on those ridges, a hide-out. And if you could get to it, a view of the city. The minarets, the domes, convoys in or out. The land dry. The puffs of smoke where the shells hit. Or in winter, when it is covered with snow …)

In a series of single paragraphs, set apart by font and font size, a multi-dimensional, experiential vision of a city under siege is constructed.

Cityscapes are important. The allegorical story “A.” is an guide to the City, as an ideal and a real destination, a place we are ever moving towards—borne of our memories and our dreams: “… A. is distinctive, also entirely one’s own.” Calling to mind Calvino’s Invisible Cities, A. is “a different city for everyone who reaches it, a different memory for everyone who leaves it.” In the hauntingly beautiful “The Dead,” an angelic experience of the City is imagined. Wandering the streets, the angels visit the City of the Dead and the City of the Ruin, but again, the negative is evoked:

The City is what the City was. If we are taught to see by the stories we see or hear or read, if our vision is always the product of texts – the texts we have seen, and those seen by those who have written what we have seen – then the City that is is a hole, an absence, a possibility, beyond us as we ourselves are, as our friends are, our lovers. An edge which we think we glimpse through accident, irruption, exposure.

Reflections on time, memory, and loss also reverberate through this collection. The fragmentary piece “Grief” is the story of the death of an old woman, a relative of the narrator’s partner. It’s about the pain of losing a loved one. And, because grief has its strange trajectories, it’s also about a cat that keeps entering the narrator’s thoughts. The fractured narrative captures the disjointed experiences, hitting, at moments, the raw essence of grief:

A nausea perhaps. The overwhelming weight of being. But also something more, surely. The heart was wrenched, as if something had prised it open. The opposite of nausea. Not closed in by things, but offered them, in their depth. Or drawn by them, rushed into them. As if one were being sucked out of oneself. A force. A kind of gravity. The cat at its centre, there in the boot-room.

An entirely different mood is evoked in “Lost Pages,” a wonderful piece that employs a wide range of fonts and formats to play out a writer’s fear of losing those middle-of-the-night ideas, the hastily recorded texts, the unbacked-up electronic musings, and the memories that aging brain cells can no longer contain. There is unlikely to be a writer who can’t relate.

If, at the outset, Brooks asks why we write and questions the power of words, he comes at an answer most directly in the penultimate piece in this collection: “A Traveller’s Tale.” The writer who is about to begin a long story is, he suggests, akin to someone setting off on a voyage. The preparatory measures one would take for a journey and the nervousness that one feels about the uncertainties ahead are played out as the writer sits down with pen and paper or computer. And, although the technicalities of this preparation are typically removed from the finished narrative (except in this case, the one we are reading), the nervousness cannot be entirely erased because the journey, the journey of the storyteller, is too important, the heart too involved:

And when I say the heart, of course, I’m not sure that I’ll be understood – well, no, what I mean to say is that, to be understood, I feel I need to explain that what I have in mind when I say the heart is a very durable thing that stretched over a whole lifetime, that is one of the most stressed and yet most constant, toughest, most durable organs of the body; the heart that has to get up in the morning and take up the often heavy – often very heavy, often too heavy – burden of being, let’s call it, and carry it, somehow, to the day’s other end.

As he goes on to examine the emotional challenges of the journey, from the beginning of a story to the ending, he will touch at the heart of what words, memories and experience—the tools the writer must rely on—can accomplish. The nervousness is never resolved, and, he decides, the tale he is trying to tell is untellable.

But that can’t be the end. After all, there are fifteen other rich and varied tales that prove him wrong. Brooks is a consummate storyteller. Perhaps it’s all that nervous energy that makes his stories shimmer.

By the “sun of the dead”: Wolf Moon by Julio Llamazares

The moon has not come out tonight either. The night is like a cold black stain on the outline of the beech groves, which climb up the mountain and into the fog like ghostly armies of ice. It smells of rosemary and shredded ferns.

Our boots slosh through the mud searching for the elusive surface of the ground with each step. Our sub-machine-guns shine in the darkness like iron moons.

We carry on climbing towards the Amarza Pass, towards the roof of the world and solitude.

Set in the Cantabrian Mountains of northern Spain in the years following the collapse of the Republican front in Austrias in 1937, through the end of the Spanish Civil War and beyond, the above passage from the early pages of Julio Llamazares’ novel Wolf Moon could stand as a refrain that will echo down through the pages that follow. Inspired, the author tells us, by his childhood hero, Casmiro Férnandez Arias, one of the countless resistance fighters who led his brothers and comrades to seek refuge in the wilderness where they would be relentlessly pursued to their deaths or driven into exile, the result is a skilful blend of thrilling adventure, harsh natural beauty, and heartbreaking loss. An epic tale rendered with power and lyric intensity.

Wolf Moon is part of the Spanish Season of the World Series published by Peter Owen in association with Istros Books. It is in keeping with the high quality established with the debut Slovenian Season issued last fall. Born in Léon Province in 1955, Llamazares studied law but soon left for a career in journalism and literature. He released several volumes of poetry before turning to fiction. His poetic sensibility is especially evident in the present work, his first novel, originally published in 1985.

The desperate circumstances of the four Republicans at the heart of this story is immediately evident from the opening passages. The leader, Ramiro, is hiding in a ruined hut with his brother Juan, a fellow villager, Gildo, and the narrator. They are on their way over a mountain pass hoping to reach a region closer to home. But remaining hidden is critical. They must restrict their travel to the hours after nightfall and they must be on a constant alert for Franco’s Guardia Civil. “Daylight, we are told, “is not good for dead men.” Containment, darkness, and the tedium of waiting are recurring themes as they seek concealment, first in an abandoned mine, and eventually in a camouflaged cave where they will remain for years:

Since we got here I’ve scarcely felt the terrible moaning of the beast in the depths of my stomach, which bayed despairingly so many times in the final months of the war. It was even worse during the five days when we did not eat at all as we fled across the mountains, in the rain, from a more physical beast, more human and bloodthirsty, which pursued us implacably. It is as if the dampness and cold of the cave have penetrated my bones and my soul, imprisoning me here, lying beside the fire day and night with no interest in eating and talking or even peering through the mouth of the cave to look at the hard, overcast sky.

The narrative has a distinctive lyrical quality. This is most apparent in the strong presence of the natural elements. The landscape, weather, flora and fauna are continually evoked. Nature can be seen as a critical protagonist throughout—an aid, a threat, and a constant force to be reckoned with. As an account of years of seclusion in a wild environment this enhances the reader’s sense of connection with the characters and their plight. Wisely, Llamazares has chosen to make his narrator, Ángel, a school teacher. The tension, the emotion, and the striking bucolic imagery all work well through his voice, in tune with his sensitive, poetic personality. Otherwise, the language might risk feeling a little forced or melodramatic.

Over time, the fugitives engage in cautious contact with their home villages and families, but always at great risk to all involved. Tragic losses do occur, and the little band shrinks and becomes more isolated as the guardias continue their pursuit unabated, even after the war ends. The fugitives, the “men from the hills,” have taken on the status of mythic legend over time, fueling the official pressure to drive them out. In the end, those who survive will be those who manage to make it into France where the Spanish resistance will continue into the 1960s. What Wolf Moon captures so effectively is the alternating claustrophobia and physical exposure of life in hiding and on the run. It is a tribute to the incredible endurance of the young men who sacrificed the best years of their lives deep in the mountains—hungry, injured, and clinging like ghosts to the shadows—and the price paid by their families and the rural communities who likewise lived under continual fear and threat during this time.

It is, like many a great epic, a powerful testament to the futility and human cost of war.

Wolf Moon is translated by Simon Deefholts and Kathryn Phillip-Miles.

Another year of roughghosts has passed, my blog is three years old

“be a ghost gum rising from the waterhole in each heart”
— Rico Craig

Birthday Waterhole, in the photo above, is perhaps the most stunning and isolated campsite we stayed at along the Larapinta Trail. The line, quoted from Rico Craig’s newly released collection Bone Ink, seems to me to capture so much of the past three weeks—from my own peculiar challenges with walking (or more often, not walking) the trail, through to lunch with the poem’s author on my final full day in Australia. But more about all of that later. The key word at the moment is birthday.

A few days ago, WordPress kindly reminded me that my blog is three years old.

The past three years have been marked by tremendous growth for myself as a writer, amidst loss, trauma, and great adventure. What continues to amaze me is the degree to which the internet, for all its shortcomings, is able to connect people across the miles. Over this past year, many of my casual blogging and Twitter contacts have grown to form a rewarding and productive creative environment that I value very deeply. But it is always a special treat to meet an online friend face to face.

My recent trip to Australia was instigated by an invitation from a fellow book blogger to join his annual “Larapinta Extreme Walk” in support of the NPY Women’s Council in the Northern Territory. Unfortunately, I arrived with what soon developed into a severe head cold that still lingers, tinged once again with jet lag, as I write this. I’m still processing my disappointment at not even being able to know how I might have managed the trail under healthier conditions, but the experience was incredible and invaluable nonetheless, and everyone was so friendly and supportive. I will write about it at greater length in a few weeks time and share more images of the incredible desert landscape.

After two weeks in central Australia I spent a few days in each Melbourne and Sydney. I met with five online contacts during that time, including a long-time friend from the Pentax Forum (a camera as obscure, relatively speaking, as my literary interests tend to be). Every single encounter was wonderful in its own way. Strangely, online banter clears away the space for good solid conversation of the sort one is often at loss to find in the communities we regularly exist in. Naturally, a strong common interest tends to set the course.

So today, as I look back on three years of blogging—and my subsequent forays into Twitter and to a lesser degree, Facebook—I am especially cognizant of how much warmer and richer my world has become. And not only have I been publishing my own original writing beyond this space, but when I suffered a series of losses last year with the deaths of my parents and a dear friend, the outreach of sympathy and support far exceeded anything I received in real life. Which is both heartwarming and sad when you think about it.

I won’t make any predictions or set any goals for roughghosts in the year to come. I don’t want to be reckless or foolhardy in my ambitions. This blog is, first and foremost, a forum where I can call attention to books I read, without necessarily indulging in the rigour I apply to critical reviews for publication elsewhere. It also provides a space to exercise my writing skills and toss out ideas or work through emotions that are troubling me. The beauty of a blog is that you can directly track the response and reaction to your work—you have a sense of the book reviews that draw readers and the musings that resonate with others. That feedback is vital. I imagine that this will remain the primary purpose of this project.

At the moment though, I have four books I’d like to write about here, and a review to prepare for Numéro Cinq. And after months of battling writer’s block, I find that words are starting to flow again, so I am hoping to carve out some time to write and work on ongoing projects of my own.

And that seems as good a way as any to celebrate three years of roughghosts.

 

* Image copyright Joseph Schreiber, 2017

Somewhat overdue: A link to my review of João Gilberto Noll’s Atlantic Hotel at Numéro Cinq

Just before I left for Australia, my review of Atlantic Hotel by João Gilberto Noll went live at Numéro Cinq. I typically link back to my blog but didn’t have time—so I’m making amends now. Last year when Adam Morris’ translation Noll’s Quiet Creature on the Corner was released, it triggered great debate. I’ve only been home for a little more than a day and have barely wrestled my email inbox into some semblance of order, so I don’t know how this title was received.

Quiet Creature was an odd beast that I warmed to slowly. Atlantic Hotel thrilled me from beginning to end. It undoes all the clichés of noir fiction and film, and spins an odd existential little tale that will baffle and frustrate those who expect their literature to follow some degree of narrative logic. Which is exactly why I loved it so and was haunted throughout the reading by the very recent loss of the Brazilian novelist who created it.

So, better late than never, here is a taste of my review. Please link through at the end to read the rest. A second link leads to an excerpt:

Unbearable Transience of Being | Review of Atlantic Hotel by João Gilberto Noll — Joseph Schreiber

Just last year, an enthusiastic English language audience was introduced to the work of the eminent and enigmatic Brazilian writer, João Gilberto Noll, through the publication of Adam Morris’ sensitive translation of Quiet Creature on the Corner (Two Lines Press). On March 29th of this year, less than two months before the scheduled follow up release of Atlantic Hotel, his most highly regarded and controversial novel, Noll died at his home in Porto Alegre. He was seventy years old. While his passing was met with an outpouring of tributes and grief in his home country, to those of us who have been eagerly awaiting an opportunity to his sample more of his work, the confluence of these two events is certainly bittersweet.

For all the acclaim he earned in his lifetime—notably Noll was awarded Brazil’s prestigious Jabuti Prize five times—he was an unassuming literary hero. In his obituary for Words Without Borders, translator Adam Morris wrote:

What was so special about João Gilberto Noll was that he wrote for himself. This might seem like a simplistic criterion for heroism. And what I mean by it is simple, something better expressed by his agent, Valéria Martins, who was quoted in the Folha de São Paulo: “Era um cara que vivia para a literatura.” He was a man who lived for literature. Particularly in his later years, Noll lived a solitary lifestyle that allowed him to devote as much of his time as possible to his craft.

Continue reading here:

Read an excerpt here:

On my nightstand, a selection of current touchstones in lieu of a personal canon

I have been on Facebook long enough now that I have begun to get those sunny reminders of what I was up to one year ago. Yesterday I discovered that it has been a year since I published my first piece of personal creative writing. The essay, Your Body Will Betray You, remains pinned to my Twitter timeline and continues to generate conversation. Readers have found it informative, inspiring, and, in one important case, a ground for opening a conversation that had been unspoken in that person’s life. And that particular response made baring a piece of my soul like that worth it. A writer may write for him or herself, or to entertain or educate, but to speak to the very core of one reader who needed those words more than anything… that is a gift.

My most recent piece of writing to be published comes deep within the pages of the new issue of The Scofield 2.2: Conrad Aiken & Consciousness. This issue marks my first opportunity to edit the work of other writers—a tremendous honour and thrill, with deep thanks to Tyler Malone and Dustin Illingworth for their faith in me. Putting a publication of this size and scope together is an enormous task and my role is a modest one, but I am proud to be involved. My written contribution is even more modest. I wrote several hundred words about Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room for the “On Our Nightstand” section (it’s on page 287 if you care to have a look, the issue can be downloaded for free and has a wealth of good reading). In this piece I talk about my evolving relationship to this book by one of my favourite writers. I turned to it as a possible avenue into the task of writing about one’s self—which, for me, after more than a decade of deeply closeted existence and a life lived in two genders, seemed terrifying and overwhelming.  Galgut’s attempt to record three distinct experiences in his own life was so spare, so translucent, that I could not begin to imagine taking an approach like that to my own. In the end he comes to believe that memory necessarily fictionalizes our “truths.” I am, at this point, closer to and yet less troubled by that conviction than I was three years ago when I started to understand that I needed to write. I go back to In A Strange Room often. As I say in my Scofield piece:

This book has become one of my touchstones, an elegant example of the way personal experience can be pared down to its essentials and explored through the lens of time and memory. It remains, for me, some of the most meditative and precise writing about what it means to be grounded, in one’s self and in relation to others; the allure of the road and the ambiguity of home; and most vividly, the way that all truth lived is, in essence, a fiction.

In other words, if I had a personal canon, which I would argue I don’t, this book would be on it. And I do keep it on the shelf inside my nightstand.

In the past few years, as writing has become more urgent, my reading has become more explicitly targeted. I am especially drawn to smaller, quirky, experimental works and, in many cases, books by people I have been fortunate enough to come to know—writers who have become part of a virtual network people who inspire me and suffer my creative ideas. The majority of those books are literally on (or technically inside) my nightstand. In lieu of a personal canon, here are the books that are currently fueling my literary scribbling. (Links to reviews, if applicable)

Beastlife by J’Lyn Chapman — I am always on the lookout for unique approaches to the personal essay. I have a large selection of books waiting to be read, but this little meditation on life, death and taxidermy is a treat.

Fear and Trembling  by Søren Kiekegaard — Well, just because.

Intimate Stranger by Breyten Breytenbach — This is a collection of essays and poems to a young poet. I ordered it when I came back from South Africa; it arrived when I was in the hospital recovering from cardiac arrest. I’ve mentioned and quoted from this book several times, but the post I’ve linked was written shortly after  I returned from the hospital. It addresses one of the key concerns—loss of a memory—that I am taking with me into the outback this month.  Reconciling one’s own near death is no small matter. I carry it deeply and have not yet found a way to write it out.

Thy Decay Thou Seest by Thy Desire by John Trefry — This little caprice or, as we’re advised, “Meditations for Sedentary Labourers,” is so delightfully eclectic that I found in it inspiration for an experimental project that, in contrast to the deeply personal work I write, will allow me to distance myself from the salvaging of the language I use and, depending on the constraints I set, some of the construction. I am proud to count John among the writer friends the internet has afforded.

Roland Barthes: Mourning Diary, Camera Lucida, and Incidents Three works that intersect for me, at a personal and literary level at this moment. Incidents, may well be one of my very favourite Seagull Books as well.

Will Eaves: The Absent Therapist and The Inevitable Gift Shop. Experimental, insightful, and devoid of pretension. Fragmentary works fascinate me. It seems to be a bit of popular device lately, but in my mind, these books—one fiction, the other essay/memoir—work very well. Eaves has a presence that is immediate and personal, he is good company.

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (see above)

The Surrender by Scott Esposito — This is one of those books I watched and waited for. I am cautious about trans themed writing but I knew this one would be different. This book holds infinitely more for me than I included in my review. My reading of this book coincided with the release of my own Minor Literature[s] essay, and the beginning of a valued friendship.

Aphorisms by Franz Kafka. Yes, I also love The Castle — one of the few books I own in multiple translations, but this is the Kafka I need to have close at hand at the moment.

Róbert Gál: Signs & Symptoms and On Wing — When I was first looking for a way to begin to write about my life and experiences, I was looking to fiction. But in defiance of conventional narrative form, I wanted current, accessible, experimental models. I read In A Strange Room and The Absent Therapist in late 2014 but it was almost a year later when I picked up On Wing. It remains a book that I read all the time, it has impacted my thinking in ways I cannot describe (because we ideally absorb and filter the work that drives and inspires our own—it should not be obvious in the final product) and Róbert was one of the first writers to suggest I should write a book. I don’t know where that book is, but it is no accident that a quote from On Wing opens Your Body Will Betray You.

Daniela Cascella: En Abîme and F.M.R.L. It may not be evident, but getting to know Daniela and her work has revolutionized the way I engage with language. Her enthusiastic approach to reading, listening and hearing work into being is wonderful. I find I am so much more attuned to sound when I read now. Maybe it will come through in my own writing one day.

Proxies by Brian Blanchfield. Again, this is another work that asks questions and contains ideas that are important to me. Essays that make me think about writing essays are my favourite kind.

If there was enough room, W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and Austerlitz would also count as work of current relevance. (They would probably be in that non-existent canon too, if I had one.)