Ever returning: Describing the Past by Ghassan Zaqtan

She is my loss and she knows this. She is my absence and knows this too.

From the earliest passages, there is an abiding transience to the narrative flow of Ghassan Zaqtan’s novella, Describing the Past. The language is delicate, the imagery fragile and dream-like. The world his characters inhabit has an eerie timelessness. The past—immediate or distant—is tangible. Ghosts wander the streets, and memories are brought into being as ethereal images or objects that hold a vital presence in the room, breathe, come alive at night. We are among people who have been uprooted once and will be uprooted again; their dreams and recollections sustain them, give them something to hold on to.

ghassan_zaqtanZaqtan, a Palestinian poet, was born a refugee. In 1961, at the age of seven, his family was relocated (for the second time since 1948) from Beit Jala, in the West Bank, to the Karameh refugee camp across from Jericho, in the Jordan River Valley. But, as Fady Joudah indicates in his Foreword, the camp would be burned with the Israeli invasion in 1968. Zaqtan’s tale is set in this community, yet re-imagined and filtered through the chimerical memory of a place, like childhood itself, that no longer exists.

The narrative is carried by three separate voices—designated I, He, and She—each speaking in first person. The central narrator is nicknamed Christian (his mother was Christian, his father Muslim), and his friend, the other young man, is known as the Iraqi’s son after an uncle who identified himself as Iraqi due to his brief role helping the Iraqi Army at the end of the 1948 war, an experience he built into a sustaining myth that coloured his entire family’s identity. The young woman who holds their attention is, at the outset, married to an elderly man who takes her and her mother into his home. When he dies, she will marry the Iraqi’s son and bear him a child before he drowns, leaving her alone. As such, the outline of the plot is simple, much of it alluded to in the first chapter. However, the story is unwrapped slowly, moving back and forth in time, and relying on poetic imagery and the vagaries of memory to sketch out the spaces that exist between these three individuals.

And that is where the magic lies. In the opening section Christian inadvertently chances to see “her”, the young wife of the old man, naked in her room. He had come seeking some tea leaves for his mother and had not realized she was home. Transfixed by the sight of her body he watches her in hiding until she begins to sob and he runs away, terrified and exhilarated by what he has seen. Of course he must tell his friend, who beautifully describes the vividness of the account:

At first I didn’t believe it, it was not his voice. There was a strand of fantasy that glimmered in his words, some current of rash hunger and desire, of fear and fraud. Little by little, like dust growing slowly and insistently into heaps, she started to gather there in the voice toward the point of completion. She became clear and close. I saw her in his voice reclining nude and whole. Her knee flashed at a distance. At the centre of her figure a dark spot of light amassed, turning and breathing. I was there. I saw her in his voice with a clarity that did not exist for him; she was clearer and more complete in his voice than anything he had looked at and beheld.

The narrative glances forward and retreats in time. The voice of the Iraqi’s son who meets an early demise, disappears from the discourse about halfway through. But the dead are never gone. They are greeted in the street. They emerge from photographs. One has the sense of a world crowded with memories, individuals weighed down by what they have lost. The level, steadily-paced poetry of the language enhances this sensation. This novella, only 84 pages long, is best if savoured slowly, allowing the words to be absorbed.

As each of the narrators picks up the pieces of their own stories, the temporal distortion, shifting from chapter to chapter, can be disorienting. “Here” and “now” are terms without a fixed frame of reference. This is intensified because Christian, as the central narrator, rather than providing structure, is the most abstract and philosophical in his manner of being in the world. He is most sensitive to a past that extends beyond his experience. To ghosts. At one point his father had crept into forbidden territory in search of his village, only to find it in ruins, home now to a curtain of cacti and one remaining pomegranate tree. Stuffing his pockets with pomegranates he arrived home covered in juice, clutching one whole fruit:

He placed it on our only table, and the fruit stayed there. We were unable to wound it. We were afraid to cause it, or him, pain. It was in front of us—breathing and remembering—on that squat table, next the knife that my youngest sister had brought and about which we quickly forgot. It was impossible for us to go beyond that. The fruit was completely alive and necessary for him, his only means to make us believe him, to make us believe all those stories he had brought to us—of his house, his village and his land.

Our house, our village, our land.

There is a sense that the three young characters at the centre of Describing the Past are trapped, suspended in lives they cannot control. It is not clear how much time passes. Hopes and ambitions are fleeting when you face an uncertain future in a refugee camp—when the land you live on is shared with ghosts, haunted by memories, and liable to turn to dust without warning. Yet, circular, the dream-like narrative returns, in the end, to complete the fragmentary images that the set up by central narrator in the opening passages. The mood is gently haunting, beautiful and sad.

And it leaves you with chills.

Describing the Past by Ghassan Zaqtan is translated by Samuel Wilder and published by Seagull Books.

Another winter solstice is upon us: 2016 – The year in review

Winter solstice. The longest night of the year.

Moving forward, the days grow steadily longer and, in less than two weeks, we will leave a dark, disturbing year behind us.

But it would be reckless to imagine that 2017 will be brighter. However, with luck, we can be forewarned, forearmed, and determined not to relax our guard. We can stand together against the rising tides of hatred, and remember what is truly at stake.

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Since I started this blog two and a half years ago, winter solstice has become my annual check-in point. Last December, I reflected on the key elements of a year that began with a move to writing seriously about books and culminated with my first review for Numéro Cinq. Against that trajectory, I wrote about my trip to South Africa, and the pulmonary embolism and cardiac arrest that followed within a few weeks of my return. I imagined that the eventful year I had experienced would not likely, for better or worse, be exceeded this year.

Cue 2016.

This has been a year of heartache, anger, and dismay. Around the world and close to home. I watched the violence in Syria, the outcome of the Brexit vote, and the spectacle of the American election, among the other tragic and unexpected events that have unfolded. And as economic uncertainty and anxiety has grown in my own hometown—a city that lives and dies with the price of oil—the crime and homicide rate has risen sharply this year. It does not feel like the same community any more.

Then there is the lengthy roll call of the writers, artists, and performers who have left us. But to be honest, I cannot say that I have felt these losses as acutely as many others… I’ve been distracted by the immediate, personal losses that marked this year. My mother, my father, and one of my closest friends, all gone within the span of two months. And my grief—that most fundamental human emotion—is complicated, inarticulate, and wearing.

It will take time.

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But, 2016 has also been a time of amazing growth and opportunity for me as a writer. I don’t know how often I resolved, with the dawn of a new year that: This year I will write. Last December, with that first critical review under my belt, I could not have imagined that I would have, in addition to regular contributions to Numéro Cinq, published reviews at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s], The Quarterly Conversation, and The Rusty Toque. And I would not have dared to dream that I would see my essays and prose pieces published on line and in print, or that I would be invited to join the editorial team of The Scofield. As 2017 approaches, I have a handful of reviews scheduled and several prose projects underway. I’m also feeling inspired to return to photography after a lengthy hiatus, and to see how I can incorporate photos into my written work.

I have much to look forward to, in spite of, or rather, against the new darkness that threatens.

Art and literature are more important than ever at times like this.

So, this seems to be an appropriate time to look back over this year’s reading, and highlight the books that stand out for me.

I’ve read about 50 books to date, a little more than half of what I read in 2015. I don’t even want to hazard a guess as to how many books I bought, received as review copies, or brought home from the library. I feel, as usual, like I fell short of my intentions. However, I have to remember that I was writing, working on critical reviews, and dealing with considerable life stresses over the past twelve months.

More than ever before, I read like a writer this year. That is, I was especially attuned to voice, structure and approach to storytelling. Consequently, the books that made my year-end list tend to reflect this focus. Of course, any “best-of list” leaves out many excellent books. I’ve managed a baker’s dozen here, and it’s probably a reflection of the increased number of off-blog reviews I wrote that this year’s list is predominately composed of new releases. I was surprised to see that once I’d made my selection.

In reverse chronological order, my top reads of 2016 include the following:

Story of Love in Solitude by Roger Lewinter (France), translated by Rachel Careau
I will write about this collection of three short stories once I have completed The Attraction of Things. My verdict is still out on that title, but this tiny book is simply wonderful.

The Inevitable Gift Shop by Will Eaves (UK)
Fragmentary, cross genre writing that works fascinates me. Billed as a “memoir by other means”, it is Eaves’ unique tone that makes this blend of memoir, literary criticism, and poetry so compelling. His thoughtful reflections on reading and writing made this an ideal meditation to turn to after a year of reading critically and exploring my own literary voice.

gravediggerThe Absolute Gravedigger by Vítěslav Nezval (Czech Republic), translated by Stephan Delbos & Tereza Novická)
I have found myself turning to poetry more and more as the world seems increasingly unstable and, well, surreal. This newly translated collection of poetry by one of the best known Czech Surrealists should be essential reading at this time. Originally published in 1937, the darkness he could see on the horizon are all too familiar once again.

The Country Road by Regina Ullmann (Swiss), translated by Kurt Beals
I read this collection of short stories when I was in a very low mood. But in the spare, sombre prose of these tales I found a beauty that, rather than deepening my depression, brought strange comfort. Admired, in her lifetime, by the likes of Rilke, Mann, and Musil, Ullmann’s work is mostly forgotten today. This volume, released in English translation in 2015, is a rare treasure—one that I encountered at just the right moment.

panorama-coverPanorama by Dušan Šarotar (Slovenia), translated by Rawley Grau
For me, as a reader and a writer, one of the most important books I read this year is this literary meditation on migration, language, landscape, and loss. This novel finally broke through my own stubborn determination to hold to a sharp delineation between fiction and nonfiction, and has made me re-evaluate potential approaches to themes I wish to examine. What Šarotar achieves here with his own unique take on what might be deemed a “Sebaldian” approach, is the creation of an atmospheric, captivating, and intelligent work.

The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector (Brazil), translated by Idra Novey
Oh wow! In a way, I am glad I didn’t read Lispector before writing and publishing my essay “Your Body Will Betray You,” because she is exploring the process of coming into being so beautifully that I might not have been able to write at all after reading this. Employing an unconventional narrative, Lispector’s G.H. experiences a vivid, metaphysical crisis triggered by the sight of a cockroach. The result is a remarkable, thoroughly engaging read. I have at least three more of her books waiting for the new year.

Proxies by Brian Blanchfield (US)
I bought a number of essay collections this year and currently have several on the go. This collection impressed me not only for the way the essays were composed—written without consulting outside sources—but for some of the ideas explored, and for reinforcing the value and possibilities of the personal essay/memoir form. I also greatly appreciated his guiding caveat: Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source.

SergioSergio Y. by Alexandre Vidal Porto (Brazil), translated by Alex Ladd
This book is significant and important for dealing with gender identity and transition in a sensitive and original way. I am, as a transgender person, critical of much of what passes as literary writing on this subject. This is a most impressive work with a startling and unique approach. As I noted in my review, Sergio Y. is novel that approaches the transgender experience from the inside and the outside, allowing for the comfort with names and pronouns to vary, over time and from person to person, reflecting the complexities of relationships that others, even loving family members, can have when an accepted and assumed identity is challenged. That is the book’s greatest strength.

surrThe Surrender by Scott Esposito (US)
This book was on my radar from the moment I first heard of it. Again, despite my typical gender related skepticism, I was drawn to this transgender-themed memoir/film critique/literary diary. I wanted to know how Scott would present his story—one that is not commonly heard. Although his journey is very different than mine, we share a certain sensibility. This is a brave and most wonderful book by a man who has long been one of my heroes. He has since become one of the many literary friends I have come to know and cherish this year.

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Atlas of an Anxious Man by Christoph Ransmayr (Austria), translated by Simon Pare
This book was a total surprise when it arrived courtesy of the good people at Seagull Books. This most unusual travelogue, a series of brief “encounters” across the globe, contains some of the most stunning descriptive language I have ever read. Each episode begins with the words “I saw…” and ends with a wise, evocative observation. From the North Pole, to South America, from deep inside the mountains of New Zealand, to a parking lot in San Diego, this is a journey that will not be easily forgotten. Highly recommended.

Quiet Creature on the Corner by João Gilberto Noll (Brazil), translated by Adam Morris
My third Brazilian book on this list is this enigmatic novella that led to one of the most entertaining literary discussions of the year. What is it about? Well that is the challenge. I had to read it three times before I could begin to get a handle on it. The narrator, a young man who finds himself in a strange situation that is rapidly growing stranger, is, in his oddly passive tone, almost more disturbing than whatever might be happening. Opaque and surreal, this book gets under your skin.

The Crocodiles by Youssef Rakha (Egypt), translated by Robin Moger
This novel still holds fast in my memory although I read it back in February. It is, as I described it in my review, a prose poem of simmering power, unwinding across 405 numbered paragraphs, tracing a torturous path from the first stirrings of poetic assurance within a trio of young men in the 1990s to the doomed protests of the Arab Spring. It is a dark, intense exploration of youthful political idealism, that builds on repeated images, themes and refrains to create a compelling narrative force as it moves toward its stunning conclusion. Again, this is another work that is increasingly relevant in today’s world.

On-the-edgeOn the Edge by Rafael Chirbes (Spain), translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Finally, the very first book I read in 2016 is probably my favourite book of the year. I wrote about this novel at length for Numéro Cinq and I regret that it has not generated more discussion. In what is essentially an extended monologue with brief cameos from other characters, Chirbes creates a memorable, engaging, and tragic character in seventy-year-old Esteban, a man who has lost absolutely everything in the economic collapse of 2008.  Thoroughly human in his wisdom, his resolve, his shortcomings, and his despair; this is a powerful and important book that deals frankly with many of the critical issues—including migration, xenophobia, and economic decline—that are more vital than ever as we step into 2017.

When you fall out of reality: Dispatches from Moments of Calm by Alexander Kluge & Gerhard Richter

As we witness an unprecedented assault on the integrity and role of journalists and the news media, fueled by recent events in the US—and, let’s be fair, in many other nations in our current climate of political unease—this collaborative effort to re-imagine an alternative approach to capturing reality is ever more timely and precious. The genesis of Dispatches from Moments of Calm (Seagull Books, 2016) lies in an unusual experiment. For one day, October 5, 2012, all of the noisy and distressing political reportage evaporated from the pages of the German national newspaper, Die Welt. In its place? Thirty pages of photographs capturing the simplicity of the everyday—a quiet interlude in restless times, created and directed by renowned artist Gerhard Richter.

calmInspired by this singular attempt to create a “moment of calm,” writer and film maker, Alexander Kluge, started to work on a collection of small stories to accompany the images. Richter responded in turn with the proposal of a collaboration. He added more photos; Kluge wrote more stories. The resulting book—a continuation of their first successful joint publication, December (2010/2012)is an important, and given the mood of the current times and the circumstances of the project’s origin, a more meditative and philosophical work.

The photographs scattered throughout the text isolate the ordinary instant. The atmosphere is placid, low-key. We see a dog sleeping in the sun, the blurred image of a family at a meal, a deserted downtown street, images of nature, children at play, a moody seascape, and more. But each image exists in a space apart from time and the world. And Kluge’s fictions, taking off as they so frequently do, from real life people, events, and ideas, offer the ideal counterpoint. Many of the stories explicitly explore the intersection between art, music and reality:

László Moholy-Nagy was asked whether a photograph reproduces a piece of reality. He denied the claim. He replied that a photograph is constituted by the fact that it concentrates on an actual moment and records it, becoming a textual addition existing outside the world. He knew, the Bauhaus man continued, series and networks of such photographs, which relate to reality or current events like a mirror (including the gaps in that reality, to a silence or to a nothingness), but which, when cut off from the rapidly receding stratification of time, would form themselves into their own republic, one that would superimpose itself (like an El Niño mudslide) onto the original impression that caused the photograph, which itself would have disappeared from the participants’ memory, had they never had the impression to begin with.

Dispatches comprises 89 stories and 64 pictures. Some of the stories—which range from a paragraph or two to a couple of pages—were composed to accompany, after the fact, specific images from the original Die Welt project. Both Kluge and Richter added more contributions on their own. In the resulting book, the confluence between images seems to be accidental, rather than exacting. Where a connection exists, the image is unlikely to occur near the corresponding story. This arrangement adds to the incidental flow of the work. There is, however a thematic structuring at play.

2016-11-30-22-39-33The book is divided into five parts. The stories in first section turn on the element of chance. With narratives featuring real figures from science, music, and history, alongside parables drawn from nature and from everyday life, Kluge explores the vagaries of fate and circumstance. The consequences, happy or unhappy, have the effect of promoting a sense of disequilibrium—an awareness of the fleeting quality of those moments of calm that we experience.

The second part takes us into the city starting with stories set in modern urban spaces, moving back in time to vignettes that speculate on the Mesopotamian origins of the city-state and ruminations on the nature of the concept “city.” This section closes with a story featuring sociologist Richard Sennett:

The city that we carry around inside ourselves, he said, is visible. But when you see a city destroyed by bombs, one which you do not know and means nothing to you, and you nevertheless feel sad, then you can see from this reaction that we carry around inside ourselves just such an invisible city. You see the city only when it has been lost.

These words seamlessly lead into a collection of stories set in the Middle East—Beirut, Lebanon, Syria, Israel—engaging current events, history and even opera to reflect, in words, the very instants Moholy-Nagy imagined captured in the mirror of a photograph.

2016-11-30-22-29-25The final two sections sharpen the focus on questions of reality—how we report it, record it, place ourselves in relation to it. The philosophical musings Kluge entertains in these brief stories offer so much to contemplate. His ability to exploit the fluid intersection between what we, especially in English language literature, want to divide into fact and fiction, lends his stories the sense that these should be considered fragmentary pieces of nonfiction. The influence that his work had on W. G. Sebald is evidenced in this regard. These stories, parables, and reflections are, in themselves, narrative truths—regardless of whether they describe events as they really occurred, or if they even occurred at all. Kluge wants to make you stop, in the moment, and think. Here, as an illustration, is one of my favourite stories, in its entirety to provide a taste of Kluge at work:

For many centuries, thousands of monks in monasteries between Ireland and Byzantium, dotted like islands across the barbaric land, were writing out the holy texts. Their zeal and their great efforts produced mistakes. The result was that the texts imperceptibly expanded. One learned monk in Samanca was delighted to find a text by Ovid on the back of a copy of the apocryphal LOGION OF ST JOHN. The copyist on the island of Reichenau could not resist including this interpolation. In this way, a text was expanded in a distinctly “unholy” manner.

A transcription of texts (just as if evolution had been tinkering with their DNA texts) doesn’t only create lines to new future texts. It can also be reconstructed in the direction of paradise. The way there leads through indeterminacies. ‘Nearer, my God to Thee’ was the music played by the orchestra on board the Titanic as the ship went down. But it is also the working instructions to copyists of all countries, who are driven from the omphalos of experience into the parallel world (heterotopia), the pre-world history and the future world (the world of our children, who are so attached to life). For copyists, all images are NOW-TIME.

I don’t know if it is the nature of the project from which this collaboration arose, that is, as an attempt to visually introduce an element of calm to the daily news cycle, that gives this book its impact, but in contrast to December, which I read at the end of last year (my review is here), Dispatches from Moments of Calm is a more powerful, comprehensive work. But then it may be a question of timing. Originally published in German in 2013, the driving forces against which Richter’s photographic interlude at Die Welt was superimposed, have not slowed. Uncertainty has increased and continues to grow. But as Kluge and Richter, two of the most influential and respected artists of their generation stand to remind us, art is more critical than ever at times like the one we find ourselves in at the end of 2016.

Like the dome of lights over a great city, the STATE OF THE NEWS forms an aura in which a general notion of what matters in the world coalesces.

It is out of such NEWS VALUES and not out of the facts themselves that the daily image of the reality of our world is put together. The products of poetry form an antithesis to this daily fluctuation. In painted images, and in the narratives of short stories and novels, time outside stands still.

Dispatches from Moments of Calm by Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter is translated by Nathaniel McBride and published by Seagull Books. A second edition of their earlier collaboration, December (translated by Martin Chalmers) will be published, also by Seagull, in paperback, in Spring 2017.

Literature as Liberator: My contribution to the 2016-17 Seagull Books catalogue

Earlier this year I was invited by Naveen Kishore, the publisher of Seagull Books, to write a contribution for their 2016-2017 catalogue. Now the Seagull catalogue is never an ordinary publication. It is a lavishly illustrated volume featuring the stunning artwork of Sunandini Banerjee, and contributions from a wide range of writers, translators, and this year, a handful of humble book bloggers, myself included. When I agreed to try to put something together, Naveen sent me this year’s “Provocation”:

Soul he said. Soul as the prison of the body. Soul I asked? What about the ones who don’t believe? In soul. Or God. Or religion. The ones that understand the body for what it is. Accept its one-way journey towards the inevitable. The body as decay. Gradual ruin. Eventual crumbling. We all know this. Or those that think the ‘inner core’, or what I presume is a ‘substitute’ for the notion of ‘soul’, is actually just an ever changing, evolving, fermenting mass of literature that grows. And grows. And knows freedom. And fear. And emotion. And love. And death. And every kind of existential angst that any soul worth its weight in gold would know! What about me? I asked. Or you for that matter. We who write and read and write and continue to both read and write while our bodies grow old and tired. But the mind. The mind remains in a state of excitement. Constantly radiant. Its brilliance grows with every new thought. What if we substitute ‘literature’ for ‘soul’ in your proud statement so that it now reads ‘Literature as the prison of the body’. Thing is that this doesn’t hold. Literature cannot be a space that restricts movement. Or freedom. At least it shouldn’t be. It is meant to be a liberating presence. Like its close companion. The dark. For me the dark is important. The dark as a substitute for soul? Maybe. Darkness is essential for literature of meaning to grow and take root.

The body. The soul. Literature.

2016-11-09-17-33-54I knew immediately what I would write. I took themes that were spinning through my head, scratched out on notepads—unformed, but increasingly urgent ideas that I wanted to find a way to address in words—and placed them within the framework of an analogy I have long used to describe my experience of feeling that I did not belong in the body I was born in. This piece represents the first creative expression of the self, of my self, that I dared to offer for publication. Although I had addressed my gender-different history, my queerness, in the occasional blog post and review, I had never sought to open some of the deeper elements of being that have come to define—and trouble—my long-term experience of living in the world as a gay transgender man.

2016-11-09-17-28-08In the meantime, between writing and submitting my Seagull “response” and finally holding the published catalogue in my hands earlier this month, I published two critical pieces of writing. Your Body Will Betray You (Minor Literature[s] May 6, 2016) explores the body and being, while A Reader’s Journey Through Transition (Literary Hub October 25, 2016) takes a look at the urgency with which I attempted to read myself to a place of self understanding. I’m proud of both of these essays, but I must confess, there is a certain weariness that comes with writing so honestly about oneself, not to mention a creeping discomfort with being laid bare, as such. This is a reflection of my ongoing personal struggle with the value and efficacy of being out, and with the inevitable fatigue that comes with constantly having to come out, again and again.

If I had thought writing myself out in the world would help, I’m not sure it has. But then again, we are constantly reading and writing ourselves into being. It is a process, not an end. Like transition.

So, after a little consideration, I’m ready to reproduce my Seagull Books contribution here. Rest assured this is not an excuse not to request a copy of this amazing catalogue for yourself. A Seagull Books catalogue is a work of art and celebration of literature.

The seeds of both of my later essays are evident in the following parable, but this piece attempts to articulate my own experience of feeling “wrongly gendered.” You will note that it is not a question of outward expression—being differently gendered, as I know it, comes from inside, not from wanting to play with the toys or wear the clothing of the other “sex.”

Here, then is my contribution to the 2016-17 Seagull Catalogue, with endless gratitude to Naveen Kishore:

Literature as liberator, you suggest.

I am, I want to reply, inclined to agree.

But I would caution you that words can confine us, as readily as they can set us free. We can become entangled in meanings, lose ourselves in definitions, search in circles for explanations when all we know is that the words we hear don’t seem touch the heart of what or whom we seem to be. False trails can mislead, lead away from understanding, especially if the destination you seek is not marked on any of the maps you can find. You wander blind.

And, you speak of the transience of the body, its trajectory toward decline, deterioration and decay.

I would argue the body cannot be so easily discarded.

Let me reframe the imagery.

Accept, for the sake of argument that the body is the fragile housing of the mind and the mind is the intersection of the heart and the brain; and, as such, both are essential to the experience of being in the world. The soul then, or that spark by which we know we are alive, can be thought of as being-in-motion. And literature—the stories we tell, the stories we turn to—is an essential element of the process of understanding ourselves in the world.

We are reading and writing ourselves into being.  Always.

Let me tell you a story.

Imagine, for moment, a darkened room. The sole illumination is a candle burning against the insistent gloom.

A boy inhabits this space; it is the only space he has ever known. And he has known, for almost as long as he can remember that everyone he encounters, every person who stands at the threshold and beckons, is expecting someone else, someone he can only pretend to be. He decorates his room, he carries his candle into the corners to try to understand what secrets they might contain, he worries that his insecurities might be exposed. But, of course, it’s dark, and others tend to see only what they want to see.

As the boy grows, his room becomes a more distorted, distressing, disorienting place. He wonders what lessons he missed, why he is unable to learn to exist comfortably in this strange space.

He assumes he is at fault.

If only his candle burned brighter. If only his room was not so dark.

He continues to decorate and redecorate his room. He scours the books that line the shelves, listens to the music that fills the hollows. Somewhere, somewhere far away he senses there is an answer to his otherness but its truth escapes him. He seems to fall off the axis the wrong way. So he puts away the stories of his childhood, the ones he tried to emulate with his own tales of ordinary boys on heroic journeys to fight dragons, and tries to draw a new character, the one he is supposed to be. If he can tell this character’s story, find her voice, perhaps he can write himself into the woman everyone else anticipates, the woman everyone else sees.

But he cannot find the voice.

He puts down his pen, files the unfinished stories and poems. Or throws them away.

He goes to university. He reads more books. The unease intensifies, the books can only take him so far—he continually reaches a place where the road ends, where the bridge is washed out, where the trail fades away into the underbrush. And then he falls in love. If he can’t fix the persistent otherness, perhaps he can hide—in plain sight.

The years pass. And still his room is an alien space.

He plays by every rule he can imagine. Marriage. Children.

Until, one day, he finds a book. It’s not the answer, but it shatters something deep within, it whispers in the darkness, and the candle flickers briefly. So he reads more. He encounters words that catch him up, that lead him on. He reads more. The words, the words threaten to tear apart his world. He tries on stories; wonders if they fit, if they’ll finally help him understand the room that has, over the years, come to feel more like a prison than a body.

He longs to make his way home to a place he’s never been.

He reads more.

And at last he comes to understand that the only way to make sense of himself in the world—to touch the centre of his very own being-in-motion—is not to deny the man inside but to renovate the room. To step out of the shadows and acknowledge the person he has always been, celebrate him and let him live. The candle still burns, but the room is now bathed in natural light.

So yes, literature can illuminate the corners, crack the walls, break down the door to bring the essential being—the soul, if you like—into the light.

I know this in my bones. The story I just told you is mine.

Theatre on the page: 50 Drawings to Murder Magic by Antonin Artaud

They are 50 drawings

taken from exercise books

containing notes

       literary

       poetic

       psychological

       Physiological

       magical

especially magical

magical first and foremost.

Thus ends the first page of Antonin Artaud’s last piece of writing, 50 Drawings to Murder Magic. Scrawled on notebook pages, this piece was written as a text to accompany a selection of sketches and fragmentary notations that he had been collecting for several years in small school exercise books. The sketches are frantic, the paper intentionally stabbed and tattered, the missives angry and disjointed. The ultimate design of this project, which was initiated at the request of art dealer Pierre Loeb, will never be known. It was interrupted by Artaud’s death in March 1948, two months after it was begun.

50drawingsArtaud was a poet, dramatist, actor and theoretician, best known for his notion of the “Theatre of Cruelty”—an approach to experimental theatre that envisioned the removal of the barrier of the stage between the audience and the performers, and the transformation of the theatrical experience into a primal, mythic spectacle involving groans, screams and verbal incantations. In her preface to the Seagull Books edition of 50 Drawings, the editor, Évelyne Grossman, suggests that his drawings reflect Artaud’s preference, in his later years, for the “restricted framework of the small format.” His feverish drawings of faces, torsos, hands, totems, spikes and other undefinable shapes and scratches may be seen as a form of dynamic performance on paper:

“This is not to say that his intention is to breach the frame of the page, to escape its confines; rather he is seeking to break out within the sheet: to raise the paper surface, to dig down into it, to lend it volume, to open up its unsuspected depths and thicknesses. The pages dimensions are thus exploded. Writing and drawing alike are set in motion.”

2016-10-25-02-39-30Originally associated with the Surrealist movement, Artaud had a deep interest in magic and the occult that extended far beyond that of his peers. He saw magic not only as a very powerful form of communication, but, he hoped, as a means to heal the deep rifts in his own troubled psyche. Plagued by mental health concerns, Artaud would spend much of his life in and out of asylums. Increasingly he was haunted by the demons of his own imagination and, as a result, it is intriguing to turn to his intense, often seemingly angry notebook drawings as an effort, as he puts it himself “to murder magic.”

2016-10-25-02-36-23In entering this gloriously reproduced edition of 50 Drawings to Murder Magic, I turned first to the facsimiles of the drawings themselves—selected from notebooks dating from 1946 to 1948, and presented in the order chosen by Artaud himself—before turning to the poetic introduction (also reproduced with the accompanying facsimile). That approach seemed to suit my mood at the moment and rendered an extra impact to his words. Even though I was only able to recognize and understand about half of the text accompanying the drawings, the intensity of the imagery is undeniable.

Artaud himself insists that his images:

…are not drawings

they figure nothing,

disfigure nothing,

are not there

to construct

build

institute

a world

even an abstract one.

He proposes an interactive engagement with the words he has captured and illuminated on the pages of these notebooks. In and of themselves, he claims that they have no meaning:

To understand these drawings

fully

       you must

       (1) leave the written page

             and enter

             the real

             but also

leave the real

             and enter

                         the surreal

                         the extra-real

                         the supernatural

                         the suprasensible

                         into which these drawings

                         continually

                         plunge

                         because they come from there

and because they are in fact

merely commentary

on action that

has really occurred…

There is, I sense, in this commentary created to accompany these sketches a prescription that applies to the dynamics between words or images on the page and the reader or viewer that also applies to the creator. There is something in this text that speaks to the creative process—especially to the degree to which so much of what the writer or artist commits to the page (or canvass) extends from a place beyond conscious attention, to be received actively but without specific intention.

When I write and a reader finds their own answer in the work, to a question I may not have even asked, that is when magic happens. Artaud may have imagined that is drawings murdered magic, but his accompanying text indicates that the magic he believed to be the mediation between artist and audience was alive right to the end.

50 Drawings to Murder Magic is published by Seagull Books and translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith.

Goethe Dies by Thomas Bernhard – My Numéro Cinq review

I have written about Thomas Bernhard’s novels before, but faced with prospect of writing a longer critical review of a book containing four short stories I was faced with a dilemma: What does one say about Bernhard?

The question really is: How much familiarity with Bernhard should one assume? He is, most definitely, a singular writer. Those of us who count ourselves among the converted tend to have bulging bookshelves filled with a healthy supply of Bernhard’s novels, memoirs and poetry. Others are uncertain or fail to be immediately captivated. A bit of Bernhard primer is thus in order for those potential new readers, especially in this instance, because Goethe Dies, the collection at hand, offers a perfect opportunity to experience the magic of the master in miniature. A treat I argue for readers no matter their degree of prior acquaintance.

So in the following review published at Numéro Cinq earlier this week I tried to balance my general discussion of Bernhard’s prose style to provide a context for the appreciation of my analysis of the stories that would not be too redundant for the experienced or too vague for the novice.

Here’s a taste of the review, please click through the link at the end to read the rest. And while you’re there have a look around. There is another great issue shaping up at NC.

A Master Set Loose in a Small Space: Review of Thomas Bernhard’s Goethe Dies — Joseph Schreiber

Goethe Dies

Once acquainted with the work of the late Austrian writer, Thomas Bernhard, it is difficult to remain indifferent. One is either put off by his endlessly convoluted sentences, his bitter, misanthropic vision, and his fondness for digressive, contradictory and self-obsessed narratives; or one is swept up in the singular energetic flow of his darkly comic genius and never looks back. For those who find themselves in the latter camp, the announcement of a newly translated collection of four short stories originally published in periodicals in the early 1980’s is good news indeed.

Bernhard in short form may lack the unleashed full force intensity afforded when a single paragraph is allowed to unspool over one or two hundred pages or more; but these minor works, if you like, offer a valuable and entertaining opportunity to observe a master at play in a small, contained space. As with the early stories of Prose and the micro-fiction of The Voice Imitator, the short pieces collected in Goethe Dies, recently released by Seagull Books, highlight many of the essential elements that lend Bernhard’s work such a distinctive, infectious voice. Consequently, they may be best appreciated against a certain familiarity with the author and the idiosyncratic features that characterize his novels.

Continue reading here:

Immersed in the moment: Incidents by Roland Barthes

In his Publisher’s Note to the French edition of Roland Barthes’ Incidents, a collection of essays published shortly after the theorist’s death in 1980, François Wahl suggests that the four very different texts assembled form a coherent whole because each piece “strives to grasp the immediate”. These are not theoretical or critical investigations in any sense, rather, in each text, Barthes is immersed in the moment, observing, reflecting, and recording his reactions. There is an unchecked flow and intimacy, by turns nostalgic, sensual, and melancholic but always tuned to the instance of occurrence: to the incident.

2016-05-19 21.38.01These are works that invite the reader to engage with all five senses, mediated through words and memory–they are not formal pieces but rather take the form of journal entries, diary writing, and fragmented travelogue. Barthes writes people and he writes place, never really entirely at ease with too much of either. Delight, boredom, and sadness filter through his reflections creating an immediacy that is at times startling. He is not writing for posterity, he is writing for himself.

The collection opens with “The Light of the South West”, an evocative essay/memoir, a personal tribute to the south west region of France. He writes about the experience of traveling south from Paris. Passing Angoulème he becomes aware that he is on the “threshold” of the land of his childhood. It is the quality of light that defines the place:

. . . noble and subtle at the same time; it is never grey, never gloomy (even when the sun isn’t shining); it is light-space, defined less by the altered colours of things . . . than by the eminently inhabitable quality it gives to the earth. I can think of no other way to say it: it is a luminous light. You have to see this light (I almost want to say: you have to hear it, hear its musical quality). In autumn, the most glorious season in this land, the light is liquid, radiant, heartbreaking since it is the final beautiful light of the year, illuminating and distinguishing everything it touches. . .

He goes on to turn his attention to the elements of the south west that resonate with different aspects of his childhood, to reflect on the way that memories formed in childhood inform way we remember the places associated with that time, the magical spaces and the difficult times will each carry their own tone, their own qualities.

2016-05-19 21.41.06The title piece is the earliest in the book. Recorded in 1969 when the author was in his mid-50s, “Incidents”, as the name implies, captures moments from an extended stay in Morocco through an incidental series of fragmented encounters and experiences. Here, people form the scenery; with a special attention reserved for young men. Barthes demonstrates a a particular eye for detail (and somewhat of an obsession with hands) in these passing observations, combined with an acute sensitivity for scents and colours. The vibrancy, shades and contrasts of the country come alive. As a reader you become aware of the blinding light, the dark shadows–they are not described, you sense them in the background.

A young black man, wearing a crème de menthe-coloured shirt, almond green pants, orange socks and, obviously, very soft red shoes.

A handsome, mature looking young man, well dressed in a grey suit and a gold bracelt, with delicate clean hands, smoking red Olympic cigarettes, drinking tea, is speaking quite earnestly (some sort of civil servant? One of those who track down files?), and a tiny thread of saliva drips onto his knee. His companion points it out to him.

Some young Moroccans–with girlfriends they can show off in front of–pretending to speak English with exaggerated French accents (a way of hiding the fact without losing face that they will never have a good accent).

The art of living in Marrakesh: a fleeting conversation from open carriage to bicycle; a cigarette given, a meeting arranged, the bicycle turns the corner and slowly disappears.

The Marrakesh soul: wild roses in the mountains of mint.

The third essay, “At Le Palace Tonight . . .” is a tribute to a Paris club in a converted theatre. He describes the ornate detail, the mood and the atmosphere of this place where he seems to almost prefer to be an observer, watching the dancers and the human interactions rather than taking part. And as in the first essay, we find once again a wonderful evocation of light, this time light as informed by the interior of a structure:

Isn’t it the material of modern art today, of daily art, light? In ordinary theatres, the light originates at a distance, directed onto the stage. At Le Palace, the entire theatre is the stage; the light takes up all the space there, inside of which it is alive and plays like one of the actors: an intelligent laser, with a complicated and refined mind, like an exhibitor of abstract figurines, it produces enigmatic shapes, with abrupt changes: circles, rectangles, ellipses, lines, ropes, galaxies, twists.

This collection closes with “Evenings in Paris” a series of journal entries from 1979 that open with words Schopenhauer wrote on a piece of paper before he died: “Well, we’ve escaped very nicely.” The Barthes who comes through in this selection is tired, often impatient with colleagues and irritated by noise. A certain loneliness and dissatisfaction underscore his descriptions of dinners with friends, failed attempts to win the affections of the younger men he covets, and an unresolved mourning for his beloved mother. Most nights he finds himself heading home alone, half despairing, half relieved, to settle into bed in the company of Pascal, Chateaubriand, Dante, or the echoing ghost of Proust. Although he still enjoys longingly watching attractive men, he has little patience for crowds or social functions. This is a heavier, more emotionally intense offering, the intimacy of “the immediate” weighs heavily as Barthes commits his thoughts to paper, unaware in the writing as we are in the reading, that he is nearing the end of his life.

2016-05-20 02.33.11And, because he is recording the ordinariness of the daily encounter of the self with the world, there is the possibility of shock waves that ring down the years with a new intensity in light of the incidents (that word again) that have unsettled Paris in recent years:

The guy who sells Charlie-Hebdo walks by; on the cover in the publication’s idiotic style, there’s a basket of greenish heads that look like lettuces: ‘2 francs the head of a Cambodian’; and, right then, a young Cambodian rushes into the café, sees the cover, is visibly shocked, concerned, and buys a copy: the head of a Cambodian!

Not without a little social commentary, even in a deeply personal journal, Roland Barthes, remains ever relevant down the years.

Reading Incidents is, in itself, a sensuous experience, it is doubly so in this edition from Seagull Books. With a sparkling fresh translation by Teresa Lavender Fagan and illustrated with the evocative photographic images of Bishan Samaddar, this collection of writings becomes one that can, as Barthes himself would have intended, be savoured.