The human animal in the room: The Grass Library by David Brooks

Central to Australian writer David Brooks’ meditation on the ethics and implications of existing in a truly honest and respectful relationship with the nonhuman creatures who share this planet with us, is the question of how one can properly write about animal experience at all without filtering it through a decidedly anthropocentric lens. Are words, as we know and employ them, even up to the task? These are neither easy nor straightforward questions, but the search for possible answers is a journey that Brooks stumbles into willingly, and frets about, fumbles through, marvels over, and shares with surprising humility in this engaging—and endearing—collection of interrelated essays.

It all begins with a sudden life shift when Brook’s partner, T., announces over dinner one night that she can no longer continue to consume meat. He takes it well, but when this declaration is soon further refined to exclude all food that comes from animals, he finds himself accepting, if at first a little mournfully, a vegan diet. Where this path will ultimately lead them he can hardly imagine at that moment, but within a few years they will have left their rented house in Sydney and moved—cautiously at first and with an intermediary purchase—to a small farm in the Blue Mountains where he, T. and  their dog Charlie will find themselves living with a growing “herd” of rescue sheep, not to mention the snake, ducks, rats, and all the other creatures that come and go. The resulting account is not a book about veganism or guilt but it is a book detailing one man’s ongoing effort to realign his values in accord with respect for animals. More importantly it is a lyrical philosophical tale of “discovery and wonder: wonder and wondering.”

But first, to set the stage, there is the move. Reluctant to cut ties with the city cold turkey, so to speak, they buy a house in a mountain town, but continue to rent in Sydney. When they finally try to make a permanent move to their new home, a variety of factors prevent them from settling in and feeling at peace. So, when they hear about a farm on the edge of town, they check it out. Two sloping acres, an old farmhouse and a small cabin just begging to be converted into a library. It seems to be perfect given a number of circumstances and dreams that are beginning to colour their thoughts of the future, so they buy it, move in, and within a few months are joined by a couple of rescue sheep—Jonathan and Henry-Lee.

The genesis of the text that will become The Grass Library lies in a vegan friend’s challenge to Brooks that he should write about animals. However, if that was, at least for the friend, envisioned to be part of a grander exposé about animal cruelty, this book is smaller, more intimate and close to home, but it raises fundamental philosophical questions all the same. He draws, for example, on the writings of Kierkegaard and on Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am. But the true beauty lies in the self-reflective exploration of what it means to write on behalf of another creature with an openness to possibility of experience—ours and theirs. Uncertain how to start, Brooks decides to begin with their rescue dog, Charlie, and his curious dusk anxiety. A window on the life of another, a life that overlaps with but is not contained within those of his human companions. See the problem? “Owners” is a fraught term. Even writing this review echoes the challenges of writing about animals—what can we ever fully know about anyone who shares our lives with us, even if they are of the same species, let alone if they belong to another species or even order of being? Brooks struggles to tell Charlie’s story as Charlie might, an exercise, at best never more than approximate and subject to an endless double guessing that he will continue to practice as the group of nonhuman animals who become part of his life and narrative expands.

The true nature of the nervousness Charlie displays as the day comes to a close is never fully understood despite efforts to analyze or assuage it, but it seems that once his family relocates to the farm, where he quickly takes to his fleecy new friends, he finds a comfort zone of sorts. Once “the boys” arrive, followed in time by an orphaned lamb, little  Orpheus Pumpkin, Brooks’ creature considerations extend and, for much of the book revolve around sheep. Living with these characters (and they are definitely distinct individuals) offers countless opportunities for observation, contemplation and, on occasion, serious concern. As for example, when David and T. decide that it would be an act of complicated kindness to have Henry castrated. A ram who exhibits a desperate longing for the ladies whenever ewes are nearby, they worry that he will either injure himself trying to reach them or harass his poor companion Jonathan, a wether, to the point of distraction. But whose comfort is really on the line?

The surgery does not go well, prompting worry, guilt and doubt, though Henry eventually does recover and seem calmer and, dare one say, happier. But, of course, Brooks cannot be entirely certain they did the right thing:

We began this process of—I don’t even know what to call it: stewardship? protection? attempted redress?—so naïvely, despite all the thinking that had gone before. But of course that had been thinking about the animal, in the absence of the animal. No one told us—who was there to do so?—that we’d encounter, almost inevitably, these pitfalls, dark holes, perilous places. As we open up to these creatures, as we apprehend more and more of their Being, or think we do, we’re dealing more and more with lives no less complicated, painful, traumatised, or liable to trauma than our own—indeed we’re dealing in most cases with lives that have been much more traumatised than ours are ever likely to be.

There are, as one can see, more questions than answers, and throughout this book, among the accounts, humorous and tragic alike, of daily life on the farm, Brooks invites the reader into his internal queries and quandaries. The closer he aligns himself with the ethics and obligations of animal advocacy, the more he is forced to re-evaluate his own childhood interactions—the shovel to the head of a snake, for instance—and, perhaps even more painfully, his enthusiasm for some of the literature and authors he once loved as he comes to recognize aspects of their attitudes toward animals as debatable, even distasteful.

Of course, in his evolving effort to articulate this growing self-awareness, Brooks’ engagement is not limited to animals, birds or reptiles. One of my favourite chapters is “Cicada Summer.” Referring to the insects as his “almost-totem,” this piece which could easily be read as an elegant and thoughtful stand-alone essay, describes the emergence of one particular season’s generation of cicadas from their waiting larval refuges buried deep on the roots of trees. He marvels at the fragile beauty of discarded carapaces, and even finds, with sadness, a nymph that has died in a failed effort to free itself from its shell. The song of the insects is the soundtrack of the season, implying in its consistency, an ongoing eruption of these otherwise short lived creatures—short lived, that is, in this stage of their lives. But of course, the cicada offer more than an opportunity for a little speculative natural history. In their epic drama, lies a lesson for us: “If we think we are anything other than creature,” he warns,—have crawled very far beyond it—we are kidding ourselves.”

He then goes on to draw a striking parallel between the discarded carapace of the larval cicada and the creative acts we human creatures engage in:

A book, a poem is like that: the shell of something that has emerged, gone. Writers work hard at those shells, but as soon as we finish them—a poem, a novel, an essay—there’s a sense in which we’re not there any longer. A cicada, I note, sheds multiple shells before the one we see clinging to the bark of a tree; and humans too—human animals—have to shed carapaces, create shells, whether they’re authors or not, if they are to mature. That can be agony, pulling oneself out of oneself.

The further Brooks’ effort to write about animals—and to write about writing about animals—takes him, the more it brings him write back to the human animal in the room: himself. And, for that matter, the rest of us too. As he recounts his and T.’s adventures with ducklings in the swimming pool, a persistent rat in the kitchen, or little Orpheus Pumpkin who spends his early weeks living in the house (and, like his fellow sheep, falling in love with T.), practical and philosophical musings and digressions are frequent. As such, the book has a sense of active construction—tentative, meditative, worked and reworked. Brooks is unafraid to confess to missteps, let the seams show, leave possibilities raised, but unresolved.

And then, through it all, there is the beautiful, poetic prose. It is as if all of Brooks’ years as a poet, essayist, novelist, and short story writer have been channelled into what has become a deeply personal life project. At the end, as he stands out in the paddock with Charlie, surrounded by all of “the boys”—Henry, Jonathan, Orpheus Pumpkin, and the latest arrival, Jason—there is a sense of a man at peace with the world. At least, perhaps, until the next, creature in need arrives on the scene.

The Grass Library is published in Australia by Brandl & Schlesinger and will be released in North America by Ashland Creek Press in June.

The book that comes after the book is done: Appendix Project by Kate Zambreno

An odd thing happened when I was reading Kate Zambreno’s remarkable Book of Mutter, her fragmented meditation on grief and loss—a mix of memoir and literary and artistic criticism—that took her more than a decade to write. I sensed a strain in her relationship with her mother, reading it against my own circumstances. Of course there were huge differences between our lives and the ages at which we lost our mothers, but it seemed that even after such a long gestation period, her effort to work through her complicated emotions was still uncertain and unresolved. And, why not? Is grief ever really resolved?

Appendix Project, the unintentional follow up or companion piece to Book of Mutter, is a collection of lectures and essays composed during the year following the original book’s publication. It offers Zambreno a unique opportunity to continue a process that, to her surprise, was not put to rest with the final edits and release of a text she had already dedicated so much of her writing energy to. What more could be said? A lot it turns out. And the result is a more intimate, thoroughly engaging meditation on the impossibility of ever fully writing through grief, the limits of language, and the intensified emotional connection to her mother that she discovers through her own experience of motherhood. The entries gathered into Appendix Project trace the first year of Zambreno’s daughter’s life, and as such, her mother’s absence is filtered, re-imagined and given greater dimension through the presence of her child. In becoming a parent herself, her understanding of her mother as a mother has been altered.

What I never anticipated is how much being pregnant, and having a baby, would change the nature of time for me, and how that would interfere with the mourning of my mother, which I thought was finished, since the book I wrote about her was finished… My baby is almost four months old, but I feel she was just born, and that she’s been alive forever. I am 39 years old, but I have never felt more the past year like I was a child, have never felt more strongly the absence of being a daughter, of having a mother.

More haphazard, natural and organic than the book that proceeds it, this series of talks and reflections is not simply an addendum to Book of Mutter, or an alternative to reading from the book at public events, rather it grows over the course of its evolution into an intimate investigation into the act of remembering and attempting to put into words that which cannot be readily defined, confined, contained and released. There are many spaces where language is inadequate, where writing to process experience is not only irresistible but often  impossible. Drawing on—that is, thinking and writing through—the work of artists and writers like Barthes, W.G. Sebald, On Kawara, Anne Carson, Bhanu Kapil, Marguerite Duras, Louise Bourgeois, Peter Handke and many more, Zambreno is not just continuing to think and re-think her own work, she is opening up avenues of inquiry and contemplation for any intuitive reader or writer to follow to their own ends. To read Appendix Project is akin to listening to its author thinking aloud as she reads the works others, reflects on motherhood, and returns to reconsider the elements of Book of Mutter that, over its long journey to a finished form, were either abandoned or edited out.

During the course of preparing the pieces that come to comprise Appendix Project, Zambreno resists the idea that they will be published as a book, knowing at the same time that she is engaged in a project. Others suggest that she should just repeat her these lectures, considering the time it takes to put them together, but there is an important temporal element at play, an ongoingness that is essential:

It feels like a necessary act, at this point where I am as a writer, and also as a published author, to re-engage in a passionate way in the ephemeral and daily practice of the writer, a way of returning back to the semi-privacy of writing—the different forms this might take—the letter, the notebook, and the talk. A talk however, Barthes notes, is not quite a performance. A talk is an outline for writing and speaking, a means to prepare and vocalize one’s thoughts.

Herein lies the key, at least for me, to the success of this project.  As Zambreno sorts her thoughts out in the course of these lectures and essays, an attentive reader/writer can  find their own launching points to questions that they may be dealing with. Reading Book of Mutter set me off on long stretches of  writing in my notebook as passages I encountered facilitated unlikely connections I might not have made otherwise. It was often less what was said than the way something was said that caused me to think: how is that different for me? The fruits of my very idiosyncratic reading led to an understanding of my own queered relationship with my mother that I had never appreciated. I have since written about that in an essay posted here on my blog on Mother’s Day. My reading of Appendix Project, which I had little desire to rush, has likewise opened up further channels of exploration for my own writing—this time broader because the scope is broader—and some of this meandering has become key to another piece I have recently written for publication next year.

My point in bringing in my own reactions here, without fleshing out any of the details of the connections I made because they are relevant only to me, is by way of saying that this is not a book I can stand back from and review with the critical displacement required. Well I could, but that is not what excites me about this work. What makes this form of intelligent, personalized critical essay writing so powerful when it works (and it does not always work, especially when it slides into the overly self-indulgent and solipsistic) is that it can send readers (or listeners when presented as a lecture) to consider their own intersection with the topics discussed. Certainly grief and addressing the loss of a mother are central themes, but other losses—childhood, language, land, even sanity—can be subject to the same challenges of understanding and expression. My copy of Appendix Project is decorated in marginalia spinning off in a multitude of directions. And I have a stack of books Zambreno dips into—some old favourites, others yet unread—now sitting close at hand, not to mention a few more titles added to my wish list.

Finally, it’s worth asking whether familiarity with Book of Mutter will provide context for this collection of lectures and essays, and of course it won’t hurt, but this really more a book about everything that book (or perhaps any book) does not contain—what was removed, what was never there, what may never adequately be captured in any written text. They are really very different works, in form and intention. Book of Mutter, if unconventional, is still a highly structured  work of mourning that, in the end, left me feeling a little disconnected. Appendix Project fills in those gaps and much more. And as such it is an exceptionally original, intelligent, and generous work in its own right.

Appendix Project by Kate Zambreno is published by Semiotext(e).

Some thoughts on Michel Leiris’ Phantom Africa and a link to my review at 3:AM

It’s no secret to my literary friends that I have been somewhat obsessed with French writer Michel Leiris this year. I will address this fact further at a later date, but essentially, it is his autobiographical writing that fascinates me—it’s a very internalized, yet sharply observant form of writing about language, memory, and experience. In his epic journal project, Phantom Africa, a detailed, personal record of his experience as part of the Dakar-Djibouti ethnographic expedition in the early 1930s, one see him develop as a writer as the weeks and months past. With a background as a Surrealist poet and an essayist, he was a strong writer at the outset; what evolves over the course of the journey is an uncanny ability to lay himself open on the page with a distinct, idiosyncratic honesty. A discussion of this development forms the primary thread of my review of this critical work, published earlier this week at 3:AM Magazine.

However, the publication of this valuable document  in English, at this point in the ongoing post-colonial narrative, holds an importance that I only allude to in my critique. Leiris’ primary role on the expedition was as secretary-archivist. Ethnographic study was, for all intents and purposes, a mechanism of colonial control and exploitation. Thousands of artifacts, many with profound cultural and spiritual meaning, were collected for display in museums back in France. Some items were purchased, others taken by force or deceit, but in the end, it was all facilitated by an exercise of the power of the colonizer over the colonized. Leiris is not unaware of this fundamental inequity and he does express considerable concern and discontent with the ethics of the entire colonial enterprise, but he also admits to enjoying the thrill of the raid. Of course, it is not appropriate to measure a man outside the context of his times. Leiris’ true gift here lies in is his candid, unedited, record of the events he knows of or takes part in. It forms a vital contribution to the argument in favour of the repatriation of lost art and artifacts to Africa.

Phantom Africa, translated by Brent Hayes Edwards, is published by Seagull Books. My 3:AM review can be found here.

Our uncertain stories: Immortal for Quite Some Time by Scott Abbott

There is a fortuitous intersection between my first, and to date, only attempt to capture a memoirish reflection on the page, and Scott Abbott’s memoirish reflection, Immortal for Quite Some Time. My Minor Literature[s] essay was published a year ago this past May, just as Scott was proofing his book. I followed that process via his blog, The Goalie’s Anxiety. We shared concerns about opening oneself to strangers. When my small piece went live, his reaction was so immediate and gut-level, that I returned to his positive words repeatedly in the weeks that followed. Now, my reading and my attempt to record my reaction to his finished book comes at a time when I am seriously beginning to build on the project that started with my initial essay and flesh out a life twice lived—my own. And although, on the surface, the circumstances driving our explorations would seem very different, both involve fundamental, human questions of identity, belief, and family. As a result, my reading of this work is decidedly idiosyncratic.

Immortal for Quite Some Time is, as Abbott states in his epilogue, a “fraternal meditation,” an attempt to answer a question posed by his brother John, who died of AIDS in 1991, at the age of forty. Estranged from his devout LDS family for several years prior to his death, John’s question is simple: “Are we friends, my brother?” Scott’s reply, complicated by his loss of faith, conflicts with the rigidity of the Mormon church, a loveless marriage, the demands of parenthood, and a deeply ingrained homophobia, is ultimately more than two decades in the articulation. Presented in the form of diary excerpts, highlighted with images, outtakes from John’s notebooks, and the input of a critical counter narrative voice, Abbott struggles to reach a place of comfort with the answer he so dearly wants to offer. Thus, we are warned, from outset, that this is not a memoir: “The story is uncertain, the characters are in flux, the voices are plural, the photographs as troubled as the prose.”

It is this disclaimer that promises an honesty that respects all the shadowed corners one encounters looking into a life lived—whether that is someone else’s life or one’s own.

Immortal opens in the morgue in Boise, Idaho. The image of John’s body on the examination table forms a stark pivot point that his brother’s thoughts return to again and again: “His feet are livid.” From there, the narrative swings back to Farmington, New Mexico, 1950, midpoint between the births of Scott and John, only fourteen months apart, and moves, with broad strides, through the 50s, 60s and into the 1970s. Scott’s missionary obligations and academic aspirations take him to Germany, where an intellectual infection will begin to work its way into the assumptions and presumptions of his strict Mormon upbringing. John will go to Italy and, for years, his family will speculate if that is where he was “corrupted,” or whether he was “lured” into homosexual behavior at some earlier point. One of Scott’s first steps to reconciliation and acceptance of John’s orientation will involve coming to understand that sexuality has a biological basis. Not that that understanding provides a desired comfort with his own, decidedly heterosexual, attractions for many years.

Scott’s belief in God slips away from him much more readily than his homophobia. However, he continues to uphold the expectations imposed on him by his background. He marries young and before long is supporting a brood of seven with a teaching position at Bringham Young University. John, despite strong grades and an interest in pre-med studies, ends up working as a cook in a series of cafés. His contact with his family is limited and strained. His notebooks reveal little about his personal life. Abbott is clearly troubled by his brother’s isolation and sadness. It was not easy to be gay in the 1970s and 80s, but coming from an uncompromising religious tradition made it much more difficult. It still is today.

Throughout this work, John is a memory, a ghost, as much as a loved and lost brother and son. As readers, we only hear his voice filtered through time. See him peering from old photographs. In that sense, Immortal for Quite Some Time, reads like a fraternal love letter, an apology, and a reckoning. Scott Abbott is wise enough to know that the only story he can really tell is his own. And it is a fascinating, raw, and honest exploration of the intellectual, emotional, and political conflicts that have made him the man he is today. As his story progresses, a critical voice intervenes to challenge his recorded recollections, forcing him to answer and clarify his statements. Toward the end John is also granted a greater presence. (The use of italics, bold type and font facilitates these imagined exchanges in a manner that is simple and effective.) This is more than stylistic device. It is a reminder that we can never and should never stop questioning ourselves even in telling our own stories. It is a good lesson for me to keep in mind too.

As I made my way through this book, I encountered many questions I need to ask myself in piecing together my story. I do not come from a rigid religious background, but in my case I am the outcast, the one set apart by sexuality and gender. I sought to conform to a different, but equally confining set of rules and expectations. I mourn the loss of a sibling, a stillborn sister I never had, and the imagined image of her that I could not be.

The person I have to answer is myself, finding the courage to ask the question is my goal. That will require a memoir of some kind. Just as, in spite of himself, Scott Abbott ended up with a memoir of sorts to answer his brother.

Immortal for Quite Some Time is published by The University of Utah Press.

Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson (originally published at TQC)

I’ve been busy reading and writing reviews lately, but everything seems to be directed at the future, scheduled for publication at online literary journals. It’s all good, but you put so much work in and then have to wait to share your thoughts and engage in conversation about the book. My review of Darran Anderson’s monumental Imaginary Cities, published earlier this week in the Spring 2017 issue of The Quarterly Conversation is a case in point. This extended essay on the idea of the city, in all of its possible and impossible incarnations, does not readily lend itself to the confines of a critical review… I know, I’ve had a look around. Originally published in the UK in 2015 (Influx Press), my piece has been written in anticipation of the North American release from University of Chicago Press next month. As I struggled to beat this essay into submission, I cast an eyeball at prior reviews. After all, it is already a well-known and well-loved work. And I was relieved to see that the best anyone can do is skim the surface of Anderson’s rambling, eclectic, and immensely readable tome.

The original publication where this review appeared seems to be offline or closed so my work is reproduced below:

Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson.  University of Chicago Press. $22.50, 576 pp.

Imagine a city that you cannot contain, a city that forms and reforms itself around you constantly, a city that continues to change while your memories remain lodged in a reality that moves further into the past every day. That is the city of a man with a ten-second memory. I know such a person. Severely injured in an accident more than thirty years ago, this man, a former client, is unable to lay down new memoires. He lives in the continual present, working from a frame of reference decades out of date. But in the moment he is a highly intelligent, logical thinker—he was a young lawyer at the time of his injury. To see him today, his memory impairment is not immediately apparent. He is meticulous about his appearance, well-spoken, and polite. He tries to cover for his confusion as much as possible.

For many years, this man has spent several hours a week volunteering at a downtown law firm. The purpose is to provide him with social stimulation, stave off boredom. He goes to “work” in a suit, briefcase in hand. A special needs taxi delivers him to and from his placement. One day, a storm slowed all traffic, and his ride was late to pick him up. In the driving snow he began to walk toward the last home he could remember. But he had not lived there in years, and downtown, with its signature landmarks, had shifted in the meantime. The city around him no longer conformed to the one he had known, but on its streets he was invisible, a business man like any other, lost in a truly imaginary city.

As one navigates the sprawling streets and avenues that spread out across the pages of Darran Anderson’s ambitious guidebook to the metropolitan ideal—past, present, and future—there is likely to be more than one occasion of disorientation, an invitation to entertain an entirely new way of understanding the possibilities of the urban reality. In this sense, Imaginary Cities is a map that encourages you to get lost. Subtitled A Tour of Dream Cities, Nightmare Cities, and Everywhere in Between, this journey is an open-ended inquiry into the myriad ways that the idea of the city has been conceived in history, art, literature, social theory, and architectural design—for better or worse.

Unlike the standard guidebook, Anderson offers his traveler no pictures, maps, or diagrams. This is intentional. Side trips are encouraged as the fancy strikes, and generous footnotes are provided for those who wish to follow up on quotes and references. (Of course, there is also the ease of stopping into Google for quick access to an image, biography, or further background material.) Anderson’s extended essay feels like spending time with an entertaining, well-read explorer who has traversed the cities of the imagination and returned with exotic tales that stretch back into pre-history and out into the solar system. We are in the presence of a modern-day Marco Polo who understands that “all cities can, and should be read.” His aim is to help us learn to trace these narratives ourselves.

Our guide is an Irish writer living in Scotland. He is neither an academic nor an architect, but his focus of attention lies in the intersection of culture, architecture, and technology. In a recent podcast, Anderson traced the genesis of this project to long-standing fascinations with cities and with the point at which reality and myth meet. As he became increasingly obsessed with architects and started looking through their plans, he found that beyond their iconic structures, each had drafted countless schemes and designs that would remain, for a variety of reasons, unrealized. With a different set of circumstances, then, the skylines and urban landscapes we know now could have been very different—as they once were in the past and will be in the future. The modern city is in flux and can perhaps best be understood only through a shifting kaleidoscope of angles and perspectives.

Dividing his book into seven sections, Anderson manages to pull together a wide range of interrelated ideas—from sources as diverse as myth, archaeology, art, film, urban studies, science fiction, architectural design, and many others—into a thematically structured, meandering discussion, at once densely packed and tangential. Yet the quality that makes this project so impressive also makes it very difficult to adequately capture in a review. It is a slippery beast. The themes explored are neither exhaustive nor exclusive. Amorphous, the content exceeds the boundary of the pages. Each section necessarily offers more, and less, than it promises—echoing so many of the architectural, community, and metropolitan schemes that come in and out of focus along the way. Dreams cannot be contained—in their fulfilment sacrifices must be made.

Nonetheless, it’s inspiring to see just how much Anderson manages to squeeze into his thematic discussions. For example, the section, “The Tower,” with its twenty-seven chapters, starts with the quixotic. We meet Tommaso Campanella, whose proposed “City of the Sun”—with its utopian vision of a center devoted to intellectual engagement and physical pleasures—landed him in a dungeon as a guest of the Church during the Inquisition. But his mind could not be confined and he continued to construct his designs in his imagination. He was not forgotten, and his ideas would continue to the inspire the civic utopias of his contemporary Francis Bacon and, later, Ivan Ilich Léonidiv, who dreamed up urban plans to try to save himself under Stalin. None of these imagined designs were realized, but that did not lessen their influence.

Subsequent chapters introduce Le Corbusier, the ambitious and eccentric pioneer of Modernism; stop by Mega-City One, the vast metropolis of the Judge Dredd comics; spend time contemplating the Ideal City in Renaissance art and philosophy; and spare a few minutes glancing at various attempts to envision a New Jerusalem before turning to the unfortunate, even tragic, communities founded by messianic leaders and madmen. And at this point, the journey is just getting started. From the ziggurat to the skyscraper, “The Tower” will examine the titular subject both on its own and as an integral part of the cityscape. In later sections, many of the projects and personalities met here will reappear in other contexts.

Ever avoiding the temptation to belabour a point with exhaustive detail, Anderson prefers to paint with broad strokes as he explores concepts and themes. But he continually manages to punctuate his narrative with pointed observations that bring us back, from wherever he has wandered, to moments and ideas we instantly recognize, tying his discursions back into the book’s multifaceted main thread. In the chapter, “Cinematic Dystopia of the Everyday,” for instance, he moves from the surreal silent cityscapes of Metropolis and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari to the futuristic noir of Blade Runner, then to the soullessness of the consumer-driven society depicted by French director Jacques Tati in his ambitious film Playtime, for which he constructed a set to mimic a modern city:

Tati foresaw it all. Everywhere looks sedately impressive and like nowhere in particular. People are inherently lost. Traffic crawls in barbiturate carousels. The shocking thing watching it back now is not how contrived his sledgehammer and slapstick satire is, but how pertinent. The open plan office floors with their individual cubicles are rife now. The large glass facades, echoing the quiet desolation of Edward Hopper’s paintings, are everywhere. This is life as a glistening empty waiting room and it is a life we are increasingly forced to live all over the globe.

Here we are reminded that, as what once was presented as part of a dystopic (or, for that matter utopian) vision arrives, it soon becomes commonplace. It is easy to forget that the future is now, or rather, to quote William Gibson, “The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.”

The wide, eclectic sweep of Anderson’s project is fueled by an infectious sense of endless curiosity. One of the book’s greatest assets—perhaps the key to its success—lies in its author’s thoughtful, engaging tone. His lyrical, aphoristic prose offers a wealth of memorable lines. This is where his inner Marco Polo, channeled through Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, serves him well. He is an intelligent, witty, and consummate storyteller, never afraid to speculate, raise questions, and entertain ideas without the pressure to define and prove an overarching theory. But there is a persistent theme that runs through the book. It arises naturally from the earliest formations of human settlements and is so fundamental that it has essentially become part of the psycho-topography of the urban space, reflected in our mythologies, stories, and art. That is the endless tension between utopian aspiration and dystopian despair.

One might imagine that these are two opposite ends of the spectrum, but Anderson suggests that utopias and dystopias each imply the quality of the other, that is, every utopia contains its own dystopia and vice versa. Cities are fundamentally heterogeneous places. From their earliest incarnations, such as Uruk in Mesopotamia, they were marked by the production of an agricultural surplus and the development of social classes. Utopian visions with their idealistic, often philosophical or Puritanical agendas—the dream of a world without difference or inequity—tend to deny the very qualities that make city life possible, let alone vibrant and interesting. As a sort of heaven on earth, a utopia is rarely imagined for all, just as hell might be said to exist for those who want to imagine other people burning in it. And it is no question which scenario tends to capture the popular imagination. More visitors follow Dante and Virgil down into the depths of the Inferno than sign on for the subsequent treks through Purgatorio and Paradiso.

In the end, Imaginary Cities, is much more than a book. It is an ongoing project that invites participation. It opens conversations, challenges assumptions, exposes contradictions, and invites readers to lose themselves in the cities they live in, visit, and encounter in their dreams. And the discussion does not end when the final page is turned. Darran Anderson’s Twitter feed, @Oniropolis is a wonderful source of fascinating of images, links, and retweets guaranteed to keep the magic flowing.

 

 

Painting the world with words: Atlas of an Anxious Man by Christoph Ransmayr

“I saw a jet-black darkness tattooed with countless dots of light above me, an apparently boundless firmament stretching out to the deepest universe, while I lay on the bottom of a rowing boat that a Maori ferryman pushed through the night with the strokes of his oar.”

Layout 1Thus begins “In Space” one of the 70 episodes collected by Austrian writer Christoph Ransmayr in his unconventional and utterly captivating Atlas of an Anxious Man, newly released from Seagull Books in a translation by Simon Pare. Seemingly caught in a dreamscape somewhere between travelogue and memoir, he leads the reader on an unforgettable journey that stretches across the globe in a series of evocative vignettes. Such as the one quoted above which, we soon learn, is an account of a tour into a system of caves deep within mountains on New Zealand’s South Island. The night sky Ransmayr is lying beneath is an illusion created by the luminous larvae of a gnat species clinging to the cave ceiling. Insects that mistakenly fly up toward the false heavens are soon snared in a web of sticky silken threads and become nourishment for the growing larvae. Nestled securely within the bottom of the boat, the author goes on to recount a frightening experience from earlier that same day as he made his way through a high mountain pass to reach this site:

“After snow had begun to fall in large flakes just before the top of the pass, my rental car, not equipped for wintry conditions, began to slide backwards – backwards! – with churning wheels down an already snow swept rise towards the edge of the road and a rocky slope. The slope was so steep that my car seemed destined to somersault over and over down to a mountain stream far below, running black and silent towards the valley bottom.”

He is about to jump and let the car go on without him when it comes to a stop perilously close to the edge where passing trekkers find him and tow him to safety with their jeep. In four pages we are treated to both the wonders and the terrors of nature, narrated with the skill and confidence of a gifted storyteller.

Each episode begins with an observation: “I saw an open grave in the shade of a huge araucaria pine” or “I saw a fisherman cursing as he steered for Baltimore harbour in the south-west of Ireland” or “I saw a three-toed sloth on the veranda of blue wooden house on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast” or “I saw a naked man through binoculars from my cover behind dusty firethorn bushes.” Even a tale that seems to begin with a most ordinary descriptive passage becomes, before you know it, an engaging portrait of a place, an experience, a character. Ransmayr has an uncanny ability to focus his lens on the small details to bring a location, a time, an event to life.

The 70 entries follow neither chronological nor geographical order, and occasionally he even slips back in time to capture experiences from his own life in Austria, reaching as far as the age of three with the account of a storm that lifted the roof off his house when he was watching his mother hang wet laundry across the attic room. Whether he is observing a bird on a remote rock face, watching a man tee off at the North Pole, describing a bullfight in Spain, or trekking through the Himalayas; he is never a disinterested observer. His engagement with the people, creatures, and landscapes he encounters is always curious but respectful. In the waters of the Dominican Caribbean for example, he floats among the waves watching a humpback whale cow and her young sleeping far below. When the calf suddenly breaks free from its mother’s protective shadow and heads up for the surface, Ransmayr panics as the parent rushes up towards him in pursuit. She comes close enough that he can see the iris of her eye:

“The giant looked at me. No, she brushed me with her gaze and altered her course by a hair’s breadth, just enough that we didn’t touch each other. Yet although she avoided me with this hint of a deviation, and therefore recognized and acknowledged my existence, I discerned a complete indifference in her look – akin to the mountain’s toward someone climbing it, or the sky’s toward someone flying through it – that I was overcome by a feeling that I would dissolve into nothing before these eyes, disappear before them as though I had never lived. Maybe this Atlantic giant in black had actually swept up from its realm in the deep to convey to an Atlantic swimmer how rich and varied, unchanged and natural the world was without him.”

His travels typically take him to the far reaches, off the beaten track, to locations accessed on foot, or by bicycle, assorted boats, tour buses, rental vehicles and more. He explores history, lifts his telescope to the heavens, and encounters politically tense environments. No two entries are the same, few extend beyond 6 to 8 pages, some are only 2 or 3 pages long. I found it best to take my time with this book, reading a few entries a day and allowing the awe to linger. This is not an ordinary travelogue by any means, but it is a shimmering example of what makes the best travel writing sparkle. The theme, if there is one, that unites and drives the narrative from beginning to end is possibly simply wonder. Not that Ransmayr is blind to the poverty, suffering and threats he encounters. His immediate reactions are sometimes frustration, even fear, but he manages, remarkably to find a glimmer, an image, a thought that affirms life, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.

However, what really makes this book such a joy to read is the sheer beauty of the language and the author’s ability to weave his experiences and observations into stories that are moving and original, time and again. I’ll leave you with end one of my favourites in which he tells of emerging from mangrove swamps in Sumatra to encounter, in a clearing, a building on stilts. On the patio a man is singing with a karaoke machine, but his only audience is composed of the geckos clinging to the roof. Ransmayr takes a seat and as he listens to the singer perform the Rolling Stones’ “Love in Vain” he is transported back to a snowy night in Austria, a wedding and corduroy suits. Suddenly a lightening strike from an approaching storm knocks the power out. Oddly, the singer fiddles with the controls, seemingly determined to try to turn the machine back on until a thin man in a sarong appears and calls to him:

“The singer laughed. And then the thin man was beside him, took him by the hand and led him carefully down the stage steps and between the empty chairs and tables to one of the walkways, and I realized that the singer, who was groping for obstacles with his free hand, could not have seen the lightening and could not have seen how the neon tubes and control lamps had gone out, nor how night had fallen so suddenly over the mangroves, swallowing up swarms of insects and a tin sky with hundreds of geckos stuck to it. Karaoke. A blind man had sung to me out of the mangroves of Sumatra back to the village of my birth.”

Thank you to Seagull Books for kindly sending me on this journey.

“That’s just who I am”: Is that Kafka? 99 Finds by Reiner Stach

“Now I’ve taken a closer look at my desk and realized that nothing good can be produced on it. There’s so much lying around here, it creates disorder without regularity, and with none of that agreeableness of disorderly things that otherwise makes every disorder bearable.”  (Find #29 Kafka’s Desk)

I have never understood those who feel inclined to disparage Franz Kafka. It should be sufficient to admit that a writer, especially one whose work has entertained and inspired so many and has clearly withstood the test of time, is simply not one who speaks to you. Admit, if you like, that you just don’t “get it”. But why, like Joseph Epstein in a 2013 Atlantic Monthly column, declare that Kaka’s apparent joyless, dark vision of the world reflects a personal defect that undermines his worth and proclaim: “Great writers are impressed by the mysteries of life; poor Franz Kafka was crushed by them.”

isthatkafkaOf course, there is no law that says that great literature and a delusory, ominous imagination are mutually exclusive, nor does a writer’s work necessarily represent their personal inclinations or moral character. Readers can, and have been, misled. And although Kafka, a German Jew living in Prague in the early part of the 20th century plagued by a persistent, crippling and ultimately fatal illness, would have more than ample reason to be every bit as morose as the tone of some of his most famous works suggest, Is That Kafka?, a collection of 99 fragments, letters, reminisces and insights offers an image of a man who was warm, friendly and well liked by those who knew him. He comes alive here as anything but a soul tortured and crushed by life.

Newly released from New Directions, this entertaining, illustrated compendium of facts and photographs, texts and testimonies represents a selection of fascinating finds uncovered by Reiner Stach in the course of researching his acclaimed three volume biography of Kafka. These are exactly the sort of glimpses into Kafka, the man, that rightfully inform a sensitive biographical study but can easily get lost in the retelling. An affectionately curated collection such as this volume offers a chance to slip back in time and glimpse the human, humorous man behind a body of work that has acquired mythic dimensions that would likely have embarrassed, if not horrified, its creator. Translated by Kurt Beals, this richly illustrated volume is ideal for anyone who has found themselves drawn to Kafka’s work, a book best enjoyed at leisure, a few entries at a time.

Divided into themes such as Idiosyncrasies, Reading and Writing, Illusions, Reflections and more; the entries are labelled and presented as exhibits, each offering an image, an excerpt, or an anecdote. We learn that Kafka was frightened of mice, fond of children, delighted in slapstick, and was skeptical towards doctors, medicines and vaccines – perhaps to the detriment of his own health. The floor plan of the apartment where he lived with his parents and sisters while writing The Metamorphosis is reproduced with the rooms marked as reassigned in the setting of his famous tale, while photographs of events at which Kafka is thought to have been present are scoured to pinpoint a tall, slim individual who might be the very man himself – the finds that give rise to the book’s title “Is that Kafka?” Some pieces will be known to even he most casual fan, such as the excerpts from two drafts of Kafka’s Will famously advising his friend Max Brod to collect and destroy all of his writings. Others may well surprise even the most dedicated enthusiast.

KafkaPersonally I was fascinated by Kafka’s reluctance to suffer doctors gladly (“Medicine knows only how to treat pain with pain, and then they say they have treated the disease,” he complained in a letter) and his attraction to what might be understood as alternative or holistic remedies. He was, like many with prolonged, serious illnesses, constantly on the alert for new treatment options, relocating as his symptoms demanded. He did seem to enjoy travel insofar as he was able to do so, fascinated by the experience of riding the Metro in Paris and even entertaining the creation of a series of guides for travelers on a budget. Women were drawn to him as evidenced by his numerous love affairs, his sisters adored him, and he was especially close to his youngest sister Ottla. Although he never did marry or have children of his own, he was deeply invested in his sisters’ children and appears to have taken great care selecting gifts and books for the youngsters he had a an opportunity to know.

However, one of my favourite finds is an extended account from a letter to Felice Bauer to whom he was twice engaged. Perhaps she had accused him of being too dour but he takes great pains to convince her that he is quite capable of falling into uncontrollable laughter by describing an incident during a ceremony at which he and a colleague are being honored with promotions at the Workers Accident Insurance Institute where he was employed. He starts to laugh during his colleague’s speech, a situation that is worsened when the president takes the stage:

“But as he began his speech–the sort of customary speech that you know long before you hear it, following the imperial formula and accompanied by heavy chest tones, altogether meaningless and unjustified–as my colleague cast sidelong glances my way, trying to warn me even as I fought for self-control, but in the process vividly reminding me of the pleasures of my earlier laughter–I couldn’t hold myself back. At first I only laughed at the harmless little jokes that the president scattered here and there; but whereas the law tells us to respond to these jokes only with a respectful smile, I was already letting out a full-throated laugh, I could see my colleagues give a start for fear of contagion, and I felt more sympathy for them than for myself, yet I didn’t try to turn away or cover my mouth with my hand, rather in my helplessness I kept staring into the president’s face, unable to turn away, probably feeling that it could only get worse, not better, and so it would be best to avoid any change at all.” (Find #51)

The portrait of Franz Kafka that takes shape over the course of these carefully edited and selected discoveries is one of an engaging, intelligent man – someone who could be shy and nervous at times, but hardly a man totally consumed and destroyed by hopelessness and despair. This makes the singular visions that haunt his work, that continue to speak to readers and are recognized all too frequently in a real world that turns, at times, on an axis that is rightly called Kafkaesque, even more profound because they did not define his life or relationships with others. He channeled them into his writing. Maybe that release even kept him sane.

Stach argues: look at his letters, his diaries, his sketches and unfinished drafts, and it becomes clear that Kafka’s whole life was literature. Thus to understand it fully, his stories and novels tell only part of the truth. He wrote, like all great writers, because he had to. As he says in the conclusion to the piece quoted at the outset of this review:

“Wretched, wretched, and yet well intended. It’s midnight after all, but considering that I’m very well rested, that can only serve as an excuse insofar as I wouldn’t have written anything at all during the day. The burning lightbulb, the quiet apartment, the darkness outside, the last waking moments entitle me to write, even if it’s the most wretched stuff. And I hastily make use of this right. That’s just who I am.”