Listening to voices in search of my own: A reflection

§ New Line of Thought

Every new line of thought is a departure.

Or a new way of arriving where one already is.

–  S.D. Chrostowska, Matches

I have been thinking about voice lately.

I am drawn to voices in literature, listening to the way stories are told, the language, the perspective, the vision, the content. I can’t say what I am looking for but I know when I find it. Or, more critically, I know when there is, in an otherwise worthwhile read, nothing for me at this time. As a reader I am grazing, hunting and pecking, listening for the voices that startle and ideas that stimulate. It is an entirely idiosyncratic endeavour driven by my own writing–reading to write that is sometimes at cross purposes with reading to review.

But it is reading that leads one down interesting side roads.

I’ve been immersed for the past few days, in en abîme, the blog of Daniela Cascella, in anticipation of reading her book of the same name and its successor F.M.R.L.. From the fragments and articles I have read to date, it is clear that she writes with an intuitive grace about the experience of language as rhythm, tone, and meaning. Reading, writing and listening are, for Cascella, deeply sensuous experiences. Most explicitly she is drawn to writing after sound, a project as seemingly elusive as the task that drives my own writing: that is, writing after being.

In her review of Marlene van Niekerk’s mesmerizing The Swan Whisperer for Music & Literature, Cascella prefaces her piece by describing this work as:

“ . . . a tale of transmission, disappearance, and utterance, of writing as it hovers at the edge of language, trafficking with the ephemeral and the unreliable; challenging the primacy of the written text through a compelling reflection on flow and interference, rhythms and non-origin.”

I am deeply interested in articulating the experience of being, an age old question I know, but I would suggest that its timelessness arises from the inherent challenge of adequately giving voice to an experience that, itself, “hovers at edge of language.”

We live in a world of sound-bites, of inspirational quotations, often ripped out of context and juxtaposed against images of flowers, beaches, or sunsets and spilled out on Twitter or printed on coasters and tea towels in gift shops. Authenticity is a watch word, To thy own self be true, as the Bard himself would say. We hunger after the healing journey of self-discovery, we admire it in our heroes, we long for it in our own lives.

I have sought it myself. My life has been a constant struggle to balance and rationalize an incongruent and conflicting experience of being in the world. I don’t know if my own challenges are, or have been, greater or less than those of anyone else, for in truth, the only truth I have is my own and even that is suspect.

“He has the feeling that merely by being alive he is blocking his own way. From this sense of hinderance in turn, he deduces the proof that he is alive.”
– Franz Kafka, Aphorisms

What I do know is that I am possessed of a persistent sense of groundlessness, a very real and present awareness of a fragile and constant process of coming into being. It is an ongoing expression of inauthenticity that I experience – if I could capture a truth it would be momentary and fleeting, cancelled out by its negative in the act of expression. My writing is directed toward giving this experience, as I know it, voice.

Which brings me back to the point where I started. As I said, I have been thinking about voice. But until this point I was thinking of voice in the sense of expression, not sound.

Spring in silverMy own voice is damaged. Metaphorically and in fact. I sacrificed my voice a number of years ago in my endeavour to be real, and as a result I have lost power and depth. My voice strains easily. To speak loudly and project takes concentration and effort and leaves me hoarse. Yet I frequently read aloud to myself. I find that to write seriously, I require silence and the freedom to read my writing aloud as I progress. Those that have the misfortune to live with me have learned to accept this quirk, but I must confess I really love to write when I am alone in the house.

That makes me wonder about the necessity of an aural component to the process of writing about being. About silence and sound.

Interactive Silence

“A stillness that is initially a stillness ready to be, once it ceases to be still . . . An end, recurring so many times that in the moment that it ends . . . An ignited fire of the end to an extent of necessary measure . . . A braided braid . . . Getting to know one another and being known . . . In the trap of mental unification . . . Nonbreak-down . . . Silence, sounded over, blaspheming about silence and about not being silent . . . The inability to locate the word, and yet the necessity to seek it, as if the word could save one from that which is unsaid.”
– Róbert Gál, On Wing

To talk about being, for now, for me, begins with writing about my life. I need to be able to frame the angle at which I intersect with the world. To that end my first piece of “memoirish” writing will be published on Minor Literature(s) in the near future. I am concurrently exhilarated and horrified by the prospect. This is an openly queer piece, at once honest and guarded, and marks the beginning of a journey to find that elusive voice in all its permutations.

Winter solstice (again): 2015 – The year in review

I tend to run solstice to solstice, so this seems as good a time as any to pull together my thoughts about the year that was. I debated the conventional “best of” list affair, but somehow that is not reflective of the way I read or engaged with literature this year. I began the year still finding my footing as a book blogger, my earliest reviews tended to be less critical, more personal. By the end of the year I feel I have endeavoured to establish a more critical but, hopefully still accessible approach. Off my blog, it was an honour to cap off 2015 with my first review on Numéro Cinq where I have been invited to join the masthead. I am most thankful to Douglas Glover, the fine editor of this fine magazine, for having faith in my ability to write.

8294617299_b22c0cd186_z(1)I read and write about books as a an effort to strengthen my own skills both as a reader and a writer, but behind it all is a writing project of my own that has been struggling its way into being, seemingly with an infinite number of forays down paths leading to dead ends. So the following is a review of the year and, along the way, a nod to some of the books, new and not so new, that kept me company.

Reading in translation: I have typically read widely, but I never stopped to focus specifically on literature in translation, or, for that matter, to even think of much that I did read as being translated – sounds odd, I know, I think I just thought of myself as someone who tended to read internationally. Joining a shadow jury for the IFFP and then devouring as much of the BTBA long list as I could manage was, for me, a significant turning point in the way that I saw and focused my reading. My books are now shelved (or stacked) by original language. Apart from English I read books in 20 languages over the past year; German, French, Afrikaans, Czech and Spanish topped the list.

istrosIndependent and not-for-profit publishers: This year I became more conscious about looking to and supporting independent publishers. I was already well aware of Istros Books, a small UK publishing house dedicated to bringing Balkan and Central European writers to an English speaking audience, but this year I had the pleasure of meeting with publisher Susan Curtis, and visiting her closet sized office in the heart of London. She has been a most supportive influence in my development as a reviewer, and because I believe in their books and trust her instincts as an editor, I always look forward to their new releases. I also became conscious of other publishers including And Other Stories, Twisted Spoon, and Two Lines Press, just to name a few. I would reckon I bought few books from major publishers over the course of the past year, and trust me, I bought a lot of books!

2015-10-22 11.21.29Seagull Books: Here I have to credit (or blame?) Anthony of Times Flow Stemmed for bringing Calcutta based Seagull Books to my attention in recent months. I may be late to the party as they seem to have a core of passionate devotees. A book from Seagull is, quite simply, a finely crafted treasure, a reminder why books will never be supplanted by their electronic versions. They are also willing to take on authors or works that other publishers often balk at as witnessed by their impressive German, Swiss, French and African literary offerings, but any publisher who can transform a child’s tale by Thomas Bernhard into a huge, gorgeous picture book for all ages is alright by me!

23818667295_d1e4f92c94_zSouth Africa: I have had a significant interest in the literature of South Africa for a number of years but this spring, feeling especially isolated and unhappy in my present circumstances, I decided, rather suddenly, to visit the country for the first time. I aimed for the solstice, effectively trading what would have been summer solstice here in the north for winter solstice in the southern hemisphere. I spent time with a dear friend in the Eastern Cape, then kicked around Cape Town and dropped a small fortune on books.

An ending does not give a life meaning: On my last full day in Cape Town, I sat in the Company’s Gardens, took the notebook I had carried and scribbled in, back to front as is my habit, throughout my journey; opened it to the first page and began to write. I felt I had reached a point, perhaps of closure, a space in which to truly start to pull together my endless personal writing project. I was certain I could, from that vantage point, look back over the months to June of 2014 when I walked away from my job, wildly manic after a period of unbearable workplace stress, and finally begin to give shape to that story I had been trying to tell for so long. I was at an end, of sorts, so I thought, and now I could work back.

14344933323_66912ab5a8_zBut I was wrong: Just over two weeks after I returned home, a pulmonary embolism I had unknowingly developed, a souvenir most likely of my recklessly long flight back, triggered cardiac arrest – in my sleep. The quick response of my son, who happened to be home, saved my life. I nearly reached that “end”, not the one that I imagined would be the point at which I could render my particular life experience and write some meaning into it, but an end final and complete. One that would have left me mute, distorted in the memories of those who have known me. The story would no longer be mine.

So what of writing? That is most critically the end to which I read, seeking ways into a story, or stories, I that need to be able to explore – to ultimately put behind me. I can write easily about other people’s words but I choke up on my own. And so the following list of books are those which spoke to me this year as a reader and a writer. I read over 90 books and enjoyed many including: the long overlooked Hansen’s Children by Ognjen Spahic, Ivan Vladislavić’s Double Negative, While the Gods Were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier, Can Xue’s The Last Lover, Marlene van Niekerk’s monumental Agaat, not to mention her wonderful Swan Whisperer from the Cahier series, and  Primeval and Other Times by Olga Tokarczuk. I have, by the way, excluded from this accounting a host of writers I expect to like and therefore read regularly, often repeatedly, including Bernhard, Sebald, Borges, Coetzee, Damon Galgut, and, added to the group this year, Bohumil Hrabal.

But the following books were, for me, the most vital. Thbirdse order is chronological, as read:

The Alphabet of Birds (And Other Stories) S J Naudé (Afrikaans/tr. SJ Naudé)
* This debut collection, of long, simmering, often disturbing, stories is simply some of the most sensuous work I have ever encountered. The characters are typically groundless, searching South African ex-pats, uncertain residents trying to find their place, and or those suspended somewhere in between.

atavisms

 

Atavisms (Dalkey) – Maxime Raymond Bock (French/tr. Pablo Strauss)
* The thirteen stories that make up Atavisms reach back hundreds of years, stand in the present, and spin into the future to explore the Québécois experience – at the personal and the political level. Bock skillfully employs a variety of genres to create what reads, in the end, as a mulit-facetted yet cohesive whole. Most impressive.

 

The Elusive Moth (Open Letter) – Ingrid Winterbach (Afrikaans/tr. Iris Gouws & Ingrid Winterbach )
* This novel about an entomologist in search of some way to fill or heal an ache that even she is at pains to articulate becomes an evocative exploration of memory, loss and anxiety. The story unfolds through scenes that repeat motifs, imagery, and fragmented conversations; set against racial tensions building in the small town where she has come to conduct research. The result has an unforgettable cinematic, art film feel.

 On Wing (Dalkey) / Signs & Symptoms (Twisted gal_on-wingSpoon) – Róbert Gál (Slovak/tr. Mark Kanak/Madelaine Hron)
* As I have tossed my own writing goals between fiction and memoir, happy with neither, I had sensed that an experimental approach might be part of the mix. However I had been frustrated with many of the works I had encountered – at least in so far as they spoke to me in a meaningful constructive way. With On Wing and then Gal’s earlier Signs & Symptoms I finally encountered works that I could enter into with my own observations and begin to map out ways of talking about the essentially philosophical issues I want to address. Re-engaging with philosophy years after my formal studies in the field, has also been critical to framing the way I view the essentially ontological questions I wish to articulate. So I am most grateful to Róbert for both his writing and his encouragement.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (Farrar Straus and Giroux) – Peter Handke (German/tr. Ralph Manheim)
* This 69 page memoir, Handke’s finely wrought tribute to his mother written within months of her suicide at the age of 51, not only paints a careful and delicate portrait of a woman trapped by her circumstances, but offers reflections on the challenges of telling a true story – distilling an entire life to the essential elements – when it might be easier to simply make up stories, to, say, write a play. A whole life is messy to write about with elegance. Handke succeeds.

dreamhorsesA Dream of Horses & Other Stories (Roundfire Books) – Aashish Kaul
* This is a collection of dreamscapes populated by seekers of truths, purveyors of words, storytellers and readers. Most of the protagonists are writers, negotiating the fine balance between truth and imagination, struggling to capture the point of intersection in words. At least in my own experiences as a writer, or would-be-writer, that is what spoke to me throughout this melancholy, impressionistic book. And that is why it has to be on my list.

Vertigo (Dorothy Project) – Joanna Walsh
* Short story collections dominate my favourite books this year. It was an intentional focus, again with an eye to becoming more confident with medium. To that end, I recognize that the stories I am drawn to tend to have narrative arcs that are less pronounced, or more subtle, than some may like. The writing is typically more evocative, more ambiguous, more difficult to define and pin down. Like Vertigo – brutally sharp, spare and gorgeous, cutting to the quick of everyday life – an exquisite piece of work.

Dry Season (Istros Books) – Gabriela Babnik (Slovene / tr. Rawley Grau)
* I read many fine and challenging works from Istros Books this year, but the most stunning and devastatingly original has to be the EU Prize winning novel Dry Season. This tale of a love affair between a 62 year-old Slovenian woman and a 27 year-old man from Burkina Faso breaks every expectation, weaving African magical realism into a layered metafictional narrative that culminates in an ending so unexpected that it suddenly throws everything into a new light. Or does it?

sleepSleep of the Righteous (Two Lines Press) – Wolfgang Hilbig (German/tr. Isabel Fargo Cole)
* 2015 saw the release, for the first time in English, of two works by the late German author Wolfgang Hilbig – both championed and translated by Isabel Cole (The other, I, from Seagull Books is waiting on my shelf.) The magic of this collection, set in East Germany before and after re-unification, lies in the atmosphere created by the long sentences that flow, like a stream, back and forward again. Starting grounded in a harsh reality the narratives slip into a subtly surreal, gray-toned, world where reality blurs at the edges and memory takes on a haunting, dark quality.

Adventures in Immediate Irreality (New Drections) – Max Blecher (Romanian/tr. Michael Henry Heim)
* It may well be that my most memorable read of the entire year is one of the last – an impulse buy if I can be honest. A prisoner of the plaster body casts that were the standard treatment of spinal tuberculosis, Blecher’s creative imagination penetrates the experience of being in the world at the level of minute, intimate detail and manages to capture with acute sensitivity those moments of reality in flux and flow. I don’t know how unique this way of interacting with the world is, but as someone who has always had a discordant, dysphoric relationship with his own body, there is more for me, personally, in this book than I can begin to express. A fine closure to a year of excellent reading experiences.

Finally I am most grateful for the conversation and company of the book bloggers and twitter literary folk with whom I have been so fortunate to engage over the past year. I have a dearth of book lovers in my real life. I was at a Christmas party the other night and a game was played in which we were each to share our three worst Christmas gifts – two true and one lie. I was saddened how many people included books among their worst gifts ever. Breaks my heart. Bless you all for keeping me (somewhat) sane.

Nothing less than the big questions: A reflection on Signs & Symptoms by Róbert Gál

“He who seeks, shall be found out.

What is not worth speaking about, is not even worth keeping silent about.

Consciousness is a disease of the spirit.

If life were bearable, there would be no death.”

This is not a review in the formal sense, but an attempt to formulate an answer to the question: So what do you think of Signs & Symptoms?

symptomsSimple, yes? Well, yes and no. It cannot be answered in this forum without an overview of the book in question so it will look suspiciously like a review. So be it. A few weeks back I read and reviewed a book entitled On Wing by poetic Slovak philosopher Róbert Gál, a recent release from Dalkey Archive Press. Signs & Symptoms was an earlier work translated into English and published by Prague-based Twisted Spoon Press in 2003. My copy and the question above, are courtesy of the author.

First of all, the book itself is beautiful to look at and to hold. Textured covers, French flaps, thick paper and an ethereal series of black and white photographs created specifically to accompany this work. But more about those later.

The text consists of three separate pieces unified by recurring themes. The first section “Epigraffiti”, is a collection of single-line aphorisms composed between 1995 and 2000. There is a distinctly pessimistic tone here in these simple observations about life, death, God, truth and the measure of possibility against faith, hope and the experience of time:

“Where possibility ends, there the past begins.

Reality is a long-forgotten possibility now being fulfilled.

The future never happened.”

A reflective neurotic, sometimes bitter, despondency prevails. Although this is the simplest section to read, I emerged feeling a slight heaviness in my chest. If this work begins, as the author’s note suggests from a “bottom”, a low place, this earliest segment sets the stage.

The centrepiece of the book is the second section, “Signs & Symptoms” which is, in turn divided into four parts or “circles”. The first circle sets off with a series of short prose pieces which open with an anecdotal feel – fragmented stories and conversations that lead into speculative statements. The philosophical observations soon take over completely.

“Panic is the emotional tremor of a short circuit, a protracted slide into permanent irritation. Not daring to say YES is symptomatic of fearing an expected NO. The moment before is firmly decided on taking a risky leap beyond. Signs speak through expression.”

The second and third circles, still maintain the short fragmented format but engage in much more intense, condensed ontological arguments, frequently requiring careful reading and re-reading. Here we are bluntly confronted with statements about the nature of being, existence as measured in hope, pain and desire. The real meaty stuff. This is where a few reviewers I found fell off the map a little. Me, I grabbed my journal, finding in these sections fuel for honing some of the ontological truths I have encountered in my particular experience of being in the world. Observations that I hope to be able to articulate in a writing project of my own.

Finally, the “fourth circle” opens up the atmosphere again, relaxing the intensity with some very striking observations about the reality of human relationships to the self and others.

The book closes with a section entitled “Postludia”, a collection of single sentence aphorisms and fragmented prose pieces. Distant echoes of themes from the earlier sections resurface here but the atmosphere is quieter, wiser, more poetic. If the author’s intent, as he indicates, is to re-imagine Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, as avant-garde jazz musician John Zorn brought the music of Ornette Coleman “into the present” on his album Spy vs Spy, then it is in this final part of Signs & Symptoms that the contemporary feels especially close at hand and the work as a single experience reaches a sense of completion.

“‘Create a mask in your own image,’ runs the imperative of assimiliation.”

or

“Sympathy means that everyone is to blame for everything. And this excuses us, mitigating our guilt.

Nonethelss, such a purification takes entire lifetimes to carry out…”

Against this philosophical text which, taken as a whole, strikes me as On Wing did, with an inherent musicality (albeit discordant and experimental at times), the illustrations – a series of nude self portraits by Slovak photographer Lucia Nimcová – play against the text like a sort of dance. As illustrations they are intentionally metaphoric, but I found that the contrast of remote or removed images, frequently showing no head or face, against tight close ups, foster a separate and unique philosophical monologue that works well to complement or contradict the text, both being valid and desirable effects.

So, if it isn’t apparent, I would have to say that I found this to be an absorbing and challenging read. It is coming to me just at the right time for a number of reasons. But there is, of course, a fundamental universality to questions about the nature of existence or man would not have been pondering them for millennia. At this moment I am not looking for answers, I am rather focused on exploring and refining a way of posing questions to others.

There was a time, almost 30 years ago I shudder to think, when I completed a degree in Philosophy. It was not my first degree and I proved adept at synthesizing the most complex ideas and re-framing and defending them. I graduated summa cum laude. But I was neither fighting with ideas nor digesting them. On one of my last days I ran into a professor who asked after my plans. I told him I had taken the LSAT and applied to law school (I didn’t go but that’s another story). He nodded and said to me, “Your work is very strong, you can write very well, but you have no questions. A philosopher needs to have questions burning inside him.”

I agreed. He was right. Well, no, I did have questions but they were buried so deep and so close to my identity that I had no words to express them at the time. I did not know you could. As the years went by and those questions finally did break through and my life took paths I had never imagined, I often thought how desperately I would love to be able to go back and do a graduate degree in Philosophy. I had questions, by God! I still do. But by then I was in no position to return to school, I was a single parent and Philosophy is not exactly a fast track to a solid career. Neither is writing, the medium to which I am turning to explore my present questions, but at least I can do it on the cheap.

Signs & Symptoms is a text I suspect I will return to again as I go forward. The translation by Madelaine Hron handles the spirit and the complexity of the material smoothly. With my reading of On Wing, I marveled at the magic maintained in that translation. Here I realized that, of course, translation has long been an intrinsic element in the spread of philosophical ideas. In literary discussions some readers reject works in translation as necessarily less than the original insisting on engagement solely with texts in languages that one can read directly. How myopic to close one’s self off to the exchange of ideas! A book like Signs & Symptoms would have precious little impact knocking around in the borders of a small country like Slovakia where it was first published. Translation into English has set it free to engage a wide and diverse range of readers. A good thing indeed.

So that, Róbert, is what I think about this book. And thank you.

Unanswerable questions: On Wing by Róbert Gál

“That which we let come in and that which we never allow to enter. The flood of words. The word, like smoke. Always too late. Always already different. The word as a question, not to be posed, the word as an answer, not even given. The word as the only possible testimony, always unquestioned. The fracture, unable to be prepared, always ready to speak out. The fracture of the heart that, cut out of itself, still feels.”

Billed as fiction, On Wing by the Slovak poet-philosopher Róbert Gál eschews all the common precepts of narrative story telling. You might say that this slim volume delights in turning language and ideas inside out, offering a parade of aphorisms, queries, dreams and anecdotes. It might sound disorienting, and if you are looking to impose your preconceptions or to demand an objective truth, you may well be frustrated. Or worse. But I would argue that you don’t want to enter this work as a blank slate. You want to enter it with an openness, and a willingness to be engaged.

gal_on-wingConsider this. The avant-garde musician and composer John Zorn makes a cameo in a dream segment within the first few pages of the book. Gál revisits Zorn at the end. On Wing reads like an improvisation, an exploration of recurring motifs and themes: memory, pain, death, love, identity, faith and all the idiosyncrasies of living. Grounded through stories and recollections he rolls over ideas with an immediacy and recognizable humanity. The aphorisms, the rhetorical questions, and creative reconstructions of language weave in and out of the text; holding their own at times like extended jazz solos.

The attentive reader has to pay close attention. Marvel at the inventive word play:

“Nirvanization.
Sorting out the sporadic.
Undeception.
The transparency of sorrow.
Unexbirthed.”

Wonderful. I want those words.

But you might wonder, does this work? I will confess that I am intrigued by experimental writing, I am interested in exploring the ways that ideas can be entertained outside the traditional narrative. But for a fragmentary exercise such as this one to work, there needs to be an intrinsic continuity, even if, on the surface, there seems to be certain randomness. Humanity and restraint are important, the work must say something about life; raising questions, but not pretending to have the answers. I don’t want a writer, even in more conventional literature, to give me answers. Life doesn’t work that way.

“He: A living question mark, a question mark so full of life as a question can be. The question of who could draw no breath, the question with each suppressed tendency to breathe out. The question to an answer which yields no answer to a question. The question to a question that doesn’t answer, even when it does.

Being asked what he was doing, he answered that he had no time.

Spontaneous obligation.

For everything he is grasping for (as a drowning man) constitutes a breakthrough in his life.

Prior to that which was and after that which shall be.

Empathology.”

Reading On Wing is a singular experience. And unique, I would imagine, to every reader. One reviewer I read seemed to make much of an apparent preoccupation with suffering, anguish, pain. I did not read that book. I was especially drawn to the questions about questions, the musings about memory. Gál presents a humble, somewhat neurotic contemplation of those unanswerable questions of life creating an intimacy with the reader. I thought he was being a little lyrical about death and my marginalia bear me out. But then, less than two months ago I very nearly died. With distance I may feel different.

Somehow words seem to fall short when I try to capture the experience of reading this book. The blurb on the back describes a “restless, searching, ‘improvisational‘ prose whose techniques reflect those of Bernhard, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard”. But if that sounds heavy, fear not. This is a pocket sized book of 109 pages. 109 pages of of ideas, humour and wisdom.

Translated by Mark Kanak, I must make a comment about the translation. I don’t know anything about Slovak, but this is a work that frequently relies heavily on word play and tautological statements, not to mention the re-envisioned words that occur in the text. I could not help but wonder how much the process of translation may have altered the intent or effect of the original. One does not have the sense that this is a translated work, it flows so smoothly. Much of the subject matter is intended to strike a note of universality, presumably in the narrative pieces as well as in the more philosophical elements, and that may contribute to this effect. I don’t know. Maybe that is another one of those questions that is not meant to be answered.

Róbert Gál was born in Bratislava, Slovakia in 1968. He spent time in New York and Jerusalem before settling in Prague. On Wing is published by Dalkey Archive Press.