A few thoughts about reviewing Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson for 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.

So, without further ado, here is a link to my attempt to review Imaginary Cities. I wrote it back in early January—I think it took about two weeks, and even then I still felt I was sending Scott Esposito a bundle of superlatives at the end of the day.

And while you’re over there, have a look around, there are some great articles and reviews to check out!

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.”

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.