Extract: This Little Art

From Kate Briggs's new book out today
This Little Art

Extract from Kate Briggs’s new essay book This Little Art, published today. The essay is a genre-bending song for the practice of literary translation, offering fresh, fierce and timely thinking on reading, writing and living with the works of others:

DRAGONESE

It’s Walpurgis-Nacht in the sanatorium and Hans Castorp, the hero of The Magic Mountain, has been made to feel hot and reckless by the atmosphere of carnival. Standing a small distance behind him, in the doorway of the little salon, is Frau Chauchat. She is dressed in a startling gown of thin, dark silk.

Was it black?

Probably.

Or, at most, shot with golden brown.

Cut with a modest little neck, round like a schoolgirl’s frock. Hardly so much as to show the base of her throat. Or the collar bones. Or, beneath the soft fringes of her hair, the slightly prominent bone at the back of her neck.

But all the while leaving bare to the shoulder her arms.

Arms so tender and so full.

So cool and so amazingly white, set off against the dark silk of her frock.

To such ravishing effect as to make Hans Castorp close his eyes. And murmur, deep within himself: ‘O my God!’

He had once held a theory about those arms. He had thought, on making their acquaintance for the first time – veiled, as they had been then, in diaphanous gauze – that their indescribable, unreasonable seductiveness was down to the gauze itself. To the ‘illusion’, as he had called it. Folly! The utter, accentuated, blinding nudity of those arms was an experience now so intoxicating, compared with that earlier one, as to leave our man no other recourse than, once again, with drooping head, to whisper, soundlessly: ‘O my God!’

 

Later, agitated by the silly drama of a drawing game, he’ll walk straight up to her and boldly ask for a pencil.

She’ll stand there, in her paper party cap, looking him up and down.

‘I?’ she’ll ask. ‘Perhaps I have, let me see.’

Eventually, she’ll fetch one up from deep within her leather bag: a little silver one, slender and fragile, scarcely meant for use.

Voilà,’ she’ll say, holding it up by its end in front of him, between thumb and forefinger, lightly turning it to and fro.

Because she won’t quite hand it to him, because she’ll give it to him and withhold it, he’ll take it, so to speak, without receiving it: that is, he’ll hold out his hand, ready to grasp the delicate thing, but without actually touching it.

C’est à visser, tu sais,’ she’ll say. You have to unscrew it.

And with heads bent over it together, she’ll show him the mechanism. It would be quite ordinary, the little needle of hard, probably worthless lead, coming down as one loosened the screw.

They’ll stand bending toward each other. The stiff collar of his evening dress serving to support his chin.

She’ll speak to him in French, and he’ll follow her.

He’ll speak to her in French uneasily, feeling for the sense. 

 

A little further on she’ll command, a bit exasperated and more impersonally now: ‘Parlez allemand s’il vous plait!’

 

And in the copy of the novel I have open next to me as I read and write, Hans Castorp replies in English. Clavdia Chauchat has asked him, pointedly, in French, to address her in German, and his reply is written for me in English. I mean, of course it is. It’s an everyday peculiar thing: I am reading The Magic Mountain in Helen Lowe-Porter’s translation, first published in 1927. A novel set high up in the Swiss Alps, one of Germany’s most formative contributions to modern European literature (so the back cover of my edition tells me) and here they all are acting and interacting – not always, but for the most part – in English. And I go with it. I do. Of course I do. I willingly accept these terms. Positively and very gladly, in fact. Because with French but no German – I look at my bookshelves: also, no Italian and no Norwegian, no Japanese and no Spanish, no Danish and no Korean (and so on and so on) – I know that this is how the writing comes:

An unassuming young man named Hans Castorp travels up from his native city of Hamburg to Davos-Dorf. When the train stops at the small mountain station, he is surprised to hear his cousin’s familiar voice: ‘Hullo,’ says Joachim, ‘there you are!’ 

(…)

The Confessions

Joshua Cohen for Wired
The Confessions - Joshua Cohen

For Wired, a new short story by Joshua Cohen called ‘The Confessions’, where it is explored what might happen if one’s secrets became public information:

DEAR MONICA—THAT’S how you start a letter, with a salutation, I’d almost forgot.

Monica, my dear, my love, my girl woman pony heart—I’ve written you a letter! On paper! With pen! A letter!!!

(How many exclamation points do I have to use nowadays to come off as normal???)

Hope you can read my scribbles.

Now I know what you’re thinking: You’re thinking that if I’ve gone to all the trouble of cursiving and sending you a Marriott Marquis stationery/Marriott Marquis ballpoint letter all the way from the middle of my business trip to New York, I must have something serious, something grievous, to tell you, because letters are for serious grievous occasions, like Latin is for funerals.

In my mind, I can see you sitting down now, green couch, den, and preparing yourself with a breath to hear that I’ve been diagnosed with over 70,000 incurable rare cancers, or that I’m leaving you for someone else, but don’t worry. Or do worry, but about yourself: Because while I’m fairly sure that I’m in decent health, I’m just as certain that, at the end of this, you’ll be the one leaving me.

OK. My computer. It seems as if my computer has been hacked and all the crap on it, or all the crap related to all the accounts related to it, or whatever—everything I’ve ever done on it—has been made public.

I was alerted to this fact by a phone call from HR—apparently, the attack has struck throughout the company. Striking most of management too, along with all the road reps. I’m just putting that out there, the extent of the attack, not so as to evade responsibility by spreading guilt or victimhood around but just as reassurance, to reassure you more than myself: I’m not alone.

We’re not.

It’s all out there, all of us now: not just my company emails and files but my personal emails and files, all our chat logs together, our banking.

I’m sorry, Monica, I apologize. You’re about to find out many things.

I love you. That’s the most important thing. That I love you and our life together. That I love what we have very much. I see your face every night when I shut down my head, in a new bed in a new room in a new hotel, wherever the company gets a discount. Your voice is the sound that every morning wakes me.

But sometimes I just lose it. I’m ashamed, but I do.

It happens when I’m too far out, when I’ve been gone for an extended stretch and everything like a dream just fades away for me.

I forget who I am, what joy I have.

I have sex with other women. This has never happened in LA, only on the road, and there is never any emotional involvement on my part. The sex is always safe. Or mostly safe. I promise to get tested.

Better that you find this out from me than online.

You don’t want to go online, Monica, you don’t want details. It sounds perverse, I know, but: Trust me.

I will never cheat on you again. Or even be in contact with these women. I will go, alone or with you or both, to counseling of your choosing. And I will stop taking Modafinil (Provigil), and I will stop posting on men’s rights subreddits (under all my names). All of that brute shit I wrote about your parents I didn’t mean. And I will repay the money, about $70,000, which I took from the 401(k). I never did make those investments. And what investments I did make failed.

I’m currently on the phone, on hold, trying to cancel the Visa.

And now I’m off—to figure out how to contain that other damage: the professional damage. I want to keep my job. I want to keep my wife. I’ll be back in LA by Wednesday, this letter should land there by Mon or Tues. How many times have you reread it already? Or is it shredded? If you prefer that I don’t come home, just say so, but don’t email. Tie a ribbon that isn’t yellow to the front yard oak and I’ll stay away—Monica, I’ll check every day until it’s gone.

Loving you,

Austin

(…)

At Tate Britain

Brian Dillon for London Review of Books
Tate Britain - Queer British Art

Brian Dillon reviews the Tate Britain exhibition Queer British Art 1861-1967 (on until 1st of October) for London Review of Books:

On 28 April 1870, Miss Stella Boulton and Mrs Fanny Graham attended the Strand Theatre in London, where they made a spectacle of themselves, catcalling from their box to various men below. As the giddy pair left and approached their carriage, a plain-clothes detective stopped them: ‘I have every reason to believe that you are men in female attire.’ Stella was indeed one Ernest Boulton, music hall artiste and rent boy, and Fanny was Frederick Park, a trainee solicitor. At Bow Street police station they were arrested and charged with sodomy. Stella, it transpired, had been living as the wife of Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton MP, who promptly died of cholera before the case went to trial. In Westminster Hall, before the Lord Chief Justice, a jury acquitted Fanny and Stella: there was no evidence of buggery, and nobody could determine that cross-dressing was a crime.

There are two studio photographs of ‘The Funny He-She Ladies’, as the newspapers called them, in the Tate’s survey of a century and slightly more of queer British art, from 1861 to 1967, the year male homosexuality was decriminalised (the show closes on 1 October). Here is Lord Arthur doted on by curl-headed Ernest and Fred, who are in masculine mufti, and then crinolined Fanny and Stella à deux: all over each other like sentimental sisters. It was just nine years since the death penalty for the crime of sodomy had been abolished in England and Wales, and 25 years before Oscar Wilde’s trial. (The exhibition includes Wilde’s cell door from Reading Gaol.) As Neil McKenna points out in his catalogue essay, Boulton and Park would almost certainly have called their evening get-up ‘drag’; but they would not yet have thought of themselves as ‘queer’ or ‘homosexual’: terms not established till the 1890s. Queer British Art begins at a moment when its theme is both overdetermined – the insistence on anal sex as evidence – and ambiguous, frequently unnoticed or elided.

Consider the range of male artists and male bodies that opens the exhibition. When Simeon Solomon’s painting Bacchus – doe eyes, ringlets, Cupid’s-bow lips parted – was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the summer of 1867, it caused no critical stir. But a year later, at the Dudley Gallery, Solomon’s watercolour of the same subject was thought by the Art Journal to depict ‘a sentimentalist of rather weak constitution’. Such euphemism was common enough, but critical reaction sometimes more direct: in 1869, the Times noted that Frederic Leighton’s smooth and golden Icarus, who is billowed about by luscious drapery, also seemed to be showing ‘the soft rounded contour of a feminine breast’. The ‘subtler threads of temperament’ that Walter Pater had adduced in Winckelmann’s Hellenism were more than hinted at in works like Walter Crane’s The Renaissance of Venus (1877), where the goddess is in most physical respects, as writer and artist W. Graham Robertson put it, ‘a fine, upstanding slip of a boy’.

There are considerably fewer female artists, and women’s bodies, in this show than there are men – a fact the Tate curators acknowledge, along with the infrequency of non-white faces: ‘We have been constantly frustrated by the comparative scarcity of material.’ In a section somewhat dutifully titled ‘Defying Convention’, we find John Singer Sargent’s 1881 portrait of an austerely boyish Vernon Lee, and Alvaro Guevara’s Dame Edith Sitwell from 1916. Laura Knight, three years earlier, had been condemned by the Telegraph for a self-portrait with a nude model that lacked ‘the higher charm of the “eternal feminine”’. A few such notable nudes aside, there is a tendency to allegorise lesbian desire in objects and interiors: as in Ethel Sands’s The Chintz Couchof 1911, or the frothy Lilac and Guelder Rose by Gluck (born Hannah Gluckstein) from 1937. Even Claude Cahun – who here counts as British for having lived on Jersey – is represented not by her shaven-headed self-portraits but by photographs of her delicately Surrealist sculptural assemblages under glass bell-jars.

Such displacements, whether on the part of curators or artists themselves, might seem timid, but they have the fortunate effect of posing the question, more frankly than the Victorian male nudes, what a queer aesthetic might look like, as distinct from mere subject matter. The answers are in some ways predictable: there is a room at Tate Britain given over to theatre, in which one may view Noël Coward’s monogrammed scarlet dressing gown and Oliver Messel’s designs for the 1959 film of Suddenly Last Summer. Style, poise, extravagance: these we might expect. (Consider Glyn Philpot’s 1935 painting of Glen Byam Shaw, who is playing Laertes but looks as though he’s stepped off the set of a New Romantic music video fifty years later.) But it’s a certain texture that seems to signify most, as for example in the theatrical photographs of Angus McBean, who was jailed during the Second World War for his homosexuality. McBean’s 1937 portrait of Beatrix Lehmann twins the actress’s face with incongruous block and tackle, and frames this ‘surrealised’ arrangement with silk drapery. His 1941 study of Quentin Crisp is an astonishing instance of the retoucher’s art, the subject’s burnished flesh so perfect it is hardly there at all.

(…)

John Ashbery’s Whisper Out of Time

Ben Lerner for the New Yorker
Lerner-John-Ashbery-Montpelier

Following John Ashbery’s death earlier this month, Ben Lerner remembers the poet, for the New Yorker:

There was in the person and there is in the work such a mixture of genius and modesty, ambition and gentle irony, innovation and deliberate unoriginality, that it sounds a little off, maybe a little stuffy, to speak of John Ashbery’s greatness. A major poet, a master, the most important writer since X—none of that seems right for a poet so enamored of the minor: his love for “other traditions” (as he titled his Charles Norton lectures), his interest in “mild effects” (to quote a phrase from “The Skaters”), his method of “wandering away” (the formulation appears in several books; “wandering” is Ashbery’s version of Whitman’s “loafing.”) It’s as if, when you say he wrote some of the greatest poems in English, his poems respond, “Who, me?” Well, yes, you.

Today I walked around listening to one recording after another on my phone. Ashbery doesn’t change his voice when he begins—when he began—to read his poetry. There is no dramatic heightening, no shift, however subtle, into a declamatory mode. It’s just John reading. And what he’s reading sounds simultaneously like something you’ve heard a million times before, like the songs we know best, and like an intercepted transmission from another world or era, a whisper out of time. I have some ideas about how he accomplishes this weird effect—how he makes the (mild) shock of recognition and the (mild) shock of the new coexist—but I’m too sad to try to summarize them here. And they’re insufficient anyway. (“When one goes at ideas directly, with hammer and tongs as it were, ideas tend to elude one in a poem,” he once said. “I think they only come back in when one pretends not to be paying any attention to them, like a cat that will rub against your leg.”) The poems are like those mirrors in Cocteau’s “Orphée”: at one moment they reflect this world, then suddenly they’re portals to another (although in Ashbery’s poems we rarely find ourselves in the underworld).

The first time I met John (a decade ago), he thought I was someone else. This became slowly clear to me because he kept asking me questions about the poet Landis Everson, about whom I knew basically nothing. (It turned out that John thought I was the writer Ben Mazer, who edited Everson’s collected poems.) There was something appropriate about being misidentified by the poet who’d become my hero, in part because of the beautiful fungibility of his “you”: the way sometimes the poems address you, are alone in the room with a particular reader (yes, you), and sometimes address all possible yous, expand until we feel the mundane miracle of address as such—that there are other people, that there might be a common language. “The poem is a hymn to possibility; a celebration of the fact that the world exists, that things can happen,” Ashbery wrote, sixty years ago, in a review about Gertrude Stein’s “Stanzas in Meditation”; it remains among my favorite descriptions of John’s own work. After I quoted these lines while introducing him at a reading in Brooklyn a few years ago, he wrote to me: “The fact that you would someday be born and later would read my Gertrude Stein review, which I typed laboriously in my furnished room in Rennes, and that you would apply my words to me, well it all makes me feel somewhat dizzy.” I’m dizzied by my luck at having overlapped with John Ashbery, one of the good things about being born when I was (here he would probably make a joke: “Television is pretty good, too,” or “Antibiotics can come in handy”).

(…)

 

Launch Party for THIS LITTLE ART by Kate Briggs

at Caravansérail Bookshop-Gallery
This Little Art

Please join us at Caravansérail Bookshop-Gallery for the launch of Kate Briggs’s new book This Little Art on 20 September from 6.30-8.30pm. There will be a short reading at 7.30ish; there will be drinks. The event is free to attend but please do RSVP to info@fitzcarraldoeditions.com. 

An essay with the reach and momentum of a novel, Kate Briggs’s This Little Art is a genre-bending song for the practice of literary translation, offering fresh, fierce and timely thinking on reading, writing and living with the works of others. Taking her own experience of translating Roland Barthes’s lecture notes as a starting point, the author threads various stories together to give us this portrait of translation as a compelling, complex and intensely relational activity. She recounts the story of Helen Lowe-Porter’s translations of Thomas Mann, and their posthumous vilification. She writes about the loving relationship between André Gide and his translator Dorothy Bussy. She recalls how Robinson Crusoe laboriously made a table, for him for the first time, on an undeserted island. With This Little Art, a beautifully layered account of a subjective translating experience, Kate Briggs emerges as a truly remarkable writer: distinctive, wise, frank, funny and utterly original.

‘Kate Briggs’s This Little Art shares some wonderful qualities with Barthes’s own work – the wit, thoughtfulness, invitation to converse, and especially the attention to the ordinary and everyday in the context of meticulously examined theoretical and scholarly questions. This is a highly enjoyable read: informative and stimulating for anyone interested in translation, writing, language, and expression.’
— Lydia Davis, author of Can’t and Won’t

‘In This Little Art, Kate Briggs looks at the “everyday, peculiar thing” that is translation, testing it out, worrying at its questions. She deftly weaves her recurring threads (Roland Barthes, Crusoe’s table, The Magic Mountain, aerobic dance classes) into something fascinatingly elastic and expansive, an essay – meditation? call to arms? – that is full of surprises both erudite and intimate, and rich in challenges to the ways we think about translation. And so, inevitably, to the ways we think about writing, reading, artistry and creativity, too. As a translator, I’m regularly disappointed by what I read about translation – it feels self-indulgent, irrelevant in its over-abstraction – but This Little Art is altogether different. It comes to its revelations through practicality, curiosity, devotion, optimism, an intense and questioning scrutiny, as the work of a great translator so often does.’
— Daniel Hahn, translator of José Eduardo Agualusa and winner of the International Dublin Literary Award in 2017

‘Not so much a demystification as a re-enchantment of the practice of literary translation, that maddening, intoxicating ‘little’ art which yokes humility and hubris, constraint and creativity – in Briggs’s passionate telling, you can
practically hear the sparks fly.’
— Deborah Smith, translator of Han Kang and winner of the Man Booker International Prize in 2016

‘Briggs interrogates and celebrates the art of translation. She wears her erudition lightly in this highly readable essay that makes intriguing connections and raises more questions than it answers. Urgent and pertinent questions that challenge
us as readers, writers and translators and offer much food for thought.’
— Ros Schwartz, translator of Tahar Ben Jelloun, Georges Simenon and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This Little Art maps the current landscape and disputed territories of literary translation with exquisite precision. With xenophobia on the rise across the western world, the complex art of translation has achieved a new level of relevance for English-language readers and Briggs has crafted an excellent exploration of the reasons why.’
— Idra Novey, author and translator of Clarice Lispector

‘Just as there is something intimate about the act of translation – the translator is inhabiting the text being translated, reading it as closely as possible – there is an intimacy to This Little Art, Kate Briggs’s wonderfully evocative essay on translation. We feel the author is talking to us from across the table about the most important things – novels, language, beauty, art – but in a confidential, friendly way, in a way that makes us listen more closely. Translation, Briggs shows us, is a conversation – between the author and translator, between the translator and reader – and it is this conversation that keeps literature alive. I hope this book will produce not only more readers appreciative of the art of translation, but also more translators willing to engage in the courageous and daunting task of true close reading, that most intimate act we call translation.’
— Charlotte Mandell, translator of Maurice Blanchot, Jonathan Littell and Mathias Enard

An Extract: Companions

From Christina Hesselholdt's book published today
Companions

An extract from Christina Hesselholdt’s book Companions, translated from the Danish by Paul Russell Garrett, published today:

CAMILLA’S GPS

[Camilla]

I had to go to Belgrade to give a couple of lectures, and Charles was unable to travel with me. I am a literary figure, but might have preferred to be an architect. I have a strong sense of space, I am touching my heart at this very moment. My hotel was red on the inside, Twin Peaks red; the receptionist was a legal practitioner. His life had not turned out as he had imagined. Unlike mine, he commented, referring to my visit to the institute as evidence. Though his current position, working as a receptionist for his younger brother – this was his brother’s hotel – did give him the opportunity to put his law degree to use on occasion. For instance when he had to communicate with and show around the supervisory health authorities, ‘because it demands an understanding of the law’. I wondered what it might be comparable to. Perhaps, for example, if a qualified house painter only used his qualification to buy paint for his own house, no, consider the opposite instead, how when her daughter lay dying in hospital, the author Joan Didion purchased surgical clothing and walked around the hospital ward wearing it, all the while offering sound advice to the doctors, until finally they told her that if she did not stop interfering with their treatment, they would have nothing more to do with her case, she would have to take over herself. That would be equivalent to a person, while a painter is working on their home, wearing white paint-stained clothes and standing on a ladder next to him. Welcome to my labyrinth.

 

I had no desire to commit my usual blunder of isolating myself in the hotel room. At one time I enjoyed staying in hotels; staying in a room that was not mine and which I had no responsibility for, where I could quickly make my peace with any possible aesthetic qualms, and where unseen hands swept away the dust. Now I regard them as waiting rooms where it is impossible to sleep, all night long the unfamiliar objects change shape every time I blink; everything solid becomes fluid. During the day I am lightheaded and dizzy, it’s like I’m breathing thin air. My feet are heavy. I drag myself along. The minibar. No, no alcohol. Chocolate. Salted nuts. Lonely, a veritable waste of my life, munching in bed, albeit in safety. And exempt from having to find my way home-out-and-home-again. I mean: find my way around the city and attempt to find my hotel again. My sense of direction is terrible. Non-existent. Better to stay home. (Of course I did not neglect my lectures, that was the entire reason I had come, but I allowed myself to be picked up and dropped off so as not to disappear somewhere in between the two destinations, I’m talking about the rest of the time, my spare time.) But as Eliot has taught us:

We shall not cease from exploration
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.

(Which does sound reassuring: as though you can be confident of returning home, automatically, so to speak.)

As a compromise, I spent quite a lot of time in the reception (not out, not entirely in) hovering on a barstool, I drank one espresso after the other. It was a small hotel, with only six rooms. And at one point I was the only guest. The staff, on the other hand – if anything they were overrepresented. I have no idea how many thin,dark chambermaids in red dresses walked aimlessly around, blending in with the walls. They weren’t prostitutes, were they? If that were the case, they might just as well have been leaning against the sunset in a deserted landscape. Nevertheless when breakfast was served in the basement, all six tables were laid. To keep up the illusion. It was called Hotel City Code, a name I was not quite sure how to interpret. Was this hotel the code to the city? When I said the name, code quickly became coat.

Before leaving, I had decided to spend every waking hour exploring the city. I wanted to be a tourist. I wanted to get to know Belgrade. And then I lost my courage. The reception, as mentioned, was my compromise.

 

But the receptionist talked incessantly. In a rather mumbling and unintelligible English that meant I had to strain every nerve to understand him. He had plenty of time for his only guest. As soon as I stepped out of my room, he moved towards me as though carried by a gust of wind. He was dark, slender, nimble, indefatigable, with surprisingly kind eyes hidden behind his glasses, but he kept going on and on until my mouth went dry, the room blurred and I nearly fainted. I knew the names of his siblings, I knew his cholesterol level and I knew his doctor’s instructions: ‘fifty grams of almonds, four squares of dark chocolate and a glass of red wine every day,’ he said, his small friendly face beaming, ‘and obviously eat plenty of fruit and vegetables and walk at least three kilometres.’ He bent forward and drew a curve in the air to indicate the progress of his blood pressure. I also knew that his grandfather had written an account of his experiences in World War Two, but unfortunately the manuscript had gone missing. I knew more or less what it contained. And I was starting to get the ideathat it was hidden in a barn somewhere in Croatia. I was also starting to suspect that he was encouraging me to go in search of it. He considered me to be an unusually kind person – with a lot of spare time. Ear, vagina, a mirror that makes you look twice as big; you little devil, I suddenly thought, not a chance in hell. And with that I grabbed my coat and left the reception with barely a nod. I had chosen a good time to leave. He had just stated that no matter how much money society poured into the Roma community, all they did was spend it on beer and cigarettes, and on chocolate for their many children. That was what drove me out into the world. Though I was afraid of encountering a Roma who behaved like the one I met in St Petersburg. I had given her what corresponds to a hundred kroner, and in gratitude she lay down in the middle of the street and started to kiss my shoe. ‘No, no,’ I said, ‘please get up.’ ‘Not until you give me another hundred,’ she said, and only then did she release my shoe, allowing me to continue walking towards the Spilled Blood Church, the one with the candy-coloured cupolas, which even up close did not look real.

 

As soon as I walked out the door, a sense of loss swept over me. With absolutely no desire to do so, I took my first steps in Belgrade. Like I was learning to walk. I knew nobody, nobody knew me. I was nobody. I did not understand the language. I understood nothing. I might as well have stopped looking where I was going, because when it came down to finding my way back, maybe I would have a vague recollection of what met my gaze, but I would not be able to remember where on my journey it had occurred. The order of the elements is not arbitrary when it comes to finding your way. Instead of trying to find my way back to the hotel later,I should have checked out and taken my luggage with me. Then, exhausted from exploring and lugging everything about, when I could manage no more, I could have dragged myself to some new, unknown hotel – and then when I absolutely had to, I could set off again. I am not that helpless. I had the address of the hotel in my pocket, and when I grew tired of walking, I hailed a taxi and rode back. An unfortunate experience in my youth had taught me to always carry the address of the hotel or guest house on my person. Greece, half a lifetime ago. Me, young, wearing a gauze Iphigenia dress, light as a feather, so white that I had had to cover my nipples with toothpaste. It was before the time of strapless bras. In any case, I had been out dancing, night-time, the flowers falling from the flowering trees. Alma, my faithless friend, continued to dance with her Greek. I could not find our pension. The longer I searched, the smaller I became. A man had been observing me for some time. In the end he cut across the street and kindly asked me what I was looking for. He had a hard time believing that I could not so much as remember the name of the pension. That which you do not understand, you simply have to accept. So at the first hotel we came across he rented a room for me and promised to return the next morning to help me. He left. He had a moustache, but he was not without some charm. Had he been less chivalrous, it might have led to a slightly lengthier encounter. The next morning he returned, paid the bill, swung onto the saddle of his moped, and with me behind him, headed for the local office of the Tourist Police. There they had a copy of my passport, which the owner of the pension had dutifully submitted upon check-in – with the name and address of my temporary residence attached! Such efficiency, and in Greece, at that. Back at the pension, I found my beloved friend Alma wringing her hands, half-dead from dread, certain that I (my head) was lying somewhere, detached from my body, under a sprinkling of browning flowers, even though we were used to ditching each other whenever some handsome mutt crossed our path. Ah, adolescence, one long mating season, a parade of brilliant memories, an entire repository of bright young passion for tougher times – did I really have a piece of red glass (grenade-like) attached to my navel and did I really display it to my temporary chosen one in a tunnel by simply lifting my dress? Yes, you bet I did! It was me, to give one final little toot. Now I use the word ‘toot’, which is Beckett’s expression for drawing out the text as much as possible, not to tie bows, but to make curls, and earlier today, duly escorted by a lecturer from the institute, on my way back from a lecture, I came across some graffiti. Sprayed on the wall were the words:

Books, brothers, books
Not bells

The lecturer translated for me and said something about bells and Santa Claus – when he arrived in his sleigh. ‘Santa Claus, you know, on a creaking carpet of cotton wool, jingle bells jingle bells, until we all hygge our arses off. Even his beard is creaking.’ Bells probably referred to church bells. So neither church nor kitsch, no thank you. Moral graffiti. Lovely to see graffiti that encourages reading, the lecturer said. ‘Exactly,’ I answered and hoped he would offer to carry my bag. Because it was heavy. With books.

(…)

Pursuing the Artfully Naked “I”: The Myth-making of Kathy Acker

Chris Kraus for LitHub
kathy-acker2

An extract from Chris Kraus’s new book After Kathy Acker appears in LitHub:

The trauma of the disappeared father is a theme Kathy Acker pursued throughout her writing, from The Childlike Life to her last published novel, Pussy, King of the Pirates. In The Childlike Life,

My mother tells me my “father” isn’t my real father: my real father left her when she was three months pregnant and wanted nothing to do with me, ever. This husband has adopted me. That’s all she tells me.

The story is told exclusively from the daughter’s point of view in all its many iterations. But then again, perhaps the greatest strength and weakness in all of Acker’s writing lies in its exclusion of all viewpoints except for that of the narrator. As William Burroughs wrote, with great precision, in his blurb for Grove Press’s 1983 publication of Great Expectations, “Acker gives her work the power to mirror the reader’s soul.”

How does she do this? Acker had no shortage of female contemporary writers throughout the 1970s. Outside the downtown New York scene, Jayne Anne Phillips, Margaret Atwood, Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, Janet Frame, and dozens of others published semiautobiographical novels with strong female narrators. But, shaped by their interactions with others in naturalistically described situations, the presence of their narrators was wholly relational. While these women were widely respected for their achievements as writers, they never sought or attained the iconic status of Great Writer as Countercultural Hero that Acker desperately craved. Until she achieved it, no woman had.

In Great Expectations, Acker worked deeply under the influence of such Beat-era icons as William S. Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi and the French modernist writers and thinkers Georges Bataille and Pierre Guyotat. Sometimes described as “philosopher-artists,” these writers conveyed their narrators’ internal lives with startling primacy. And so, by extension, whatever pain and emotion they felt was not theirs alone. They offered themselves as receivers for cosmological information transmitted via their works. “In my writing I am acting as a map-maker, an explorer of psychic areas,” William S. Burroughs wrote.

Defending his work at the 1962 Edinburgh Writers’ Conference, Trocchi proclaimed himself “a cosmonaut of inner space.” Written against history and time, Trocchi’s 1960 novel Cain’s Book dispassionately records a few months in his life as a remorseless heroin addict. His narrator states, “When I write I have trouble with my tenses. Where I was tomorrow is where I am today, where I would be yesterday. I have a horror of committing fraud.”

A special issue of Sylvère Lotringer’s journal Semiotext(e) devoted to Georges Bataille appeared in 1976, and Harry Mathews’s translation of Batailles’s 1928 classic Blue of Noon came out with Urizen Books the following year. Acker and Lotringer were close friends and lovers between 1977 and 1980. Years later, she would credit him widely for introducing her to French theory and “giving her a new language” through which to explain her existential and literary sense of fragmentation, multiplicity, and disjunction. Lotringer taught Georges Bataille in his Columbia University “Sex and Literature” graduate seminar; no doubt he and Acker discussed Bataille’s work and thought.

The first line of Bataille’s Story of the Eye could easily have been written by Acker herself: “I grew up very much alone, and as far as I recall I was frightened of anything sexual.” I don’t write to express anything, she’d write in a 1979 self-interview in the French literary magazine Dirty, named after the “Dirty” character in Bataille’s Blue of NoonEverything is material. . . culture is more and more a rag-bag. . . I use material that is commonly described as “autobiography.” There are lots of emotions to draw from, and I love working with emotion because I love shock. Acker was the first female writer to so relentlessly pursue the artfully naked “I” of French modernism. In fact, she’d go on to “plagarize” Bataille in Great Expectations:

I never wanted you, my mother told me often. It was the war. She hadn’t known poverty or hardship: her family had been very wealthy. . . My father, a wealthier man than my mother, walked out on her when he found out she was pregnant. . .

(…)

I Love You So Much I Would Drink Your Blood

Charlie Fox for the Paris Review
Jim Goldberg - Megan

Charlie Fox looks at Jim Goldberg’s book Raised by Wolves for the Paris Review:

Friday?
Dad,
I’m really sorry about
losing control of myself
+ hurting you (+ the, “ahem”,
bathroom mirror).
I know + understand
that talk doesn’t mean a
damn thing to you by
now. (Especially from my mouth.) …

Some facts before things get messy. This unattributed note—handwritten as neatly as one’s science homework, its margin decorated with a ghostly heart—appears in Jim Goldberg’s mammoth book of photographs Raised by Wolves (1995), juxtaposed with a fuzzy snap of a scarecrow-like boy tilting forward as if hit by a windstorm. I think that boy is Tweeky Dave, a cadaverous teenage drug addict who died from liver disease circa 1993; he was, for a few years before his death, something of a celebrity urchin on the Los Angeles streets he used to haunt in search of opiates. He’s also the hero of Goldberg’s epic book, which chronicles the lives of various homeless kids in LA and its environs (shout-out to Echo, Marcos with the wonky eye, Wolfette, Vampchild—“this cute boy who says he’s a real vampire”—and Blade) and comes stuffed with transcripts of their conversations, faxes from Social Services, Polaroids, and other grungy ephemera testifying to the decade Goldberg spent shadowing his subjects. Tracking them through the book—on drugs, out of school, and running away from ogreish parents—also means confronting some of the gnarliest fallout from the Reagan-Bush years: the rapacious mutilation of education programs and social services, not to mention the, ahem, decline of the “family values” they claimed to protect. Tweeky Dave is just the most wretched embodiment of the trouble all those acts can cause. 

“I’m really sorry about losing control of myself … ” Raised by Wolves is about what happens when the self gets lost amid all the drugs and dereliction as economics turn savage and parents disappear. Meanwhile, the kids are too spaced out to know what day it is.

Before Dave died, he liked to call Jim Goldberg “Dad,” too. Check that picture of a scar snaking up Dave’s stomach and it’s obvious that his real father, “a biker from hell,” shot him …

Or maybe he stabbed him?

Maybe he did neither: it depends how much you believe the stories coming from that junkie mouth, which, as Dave acknowledges, is famous for telling tall tales. Three hundred pages later, he’s on his deathbed playfully telling “Dad” to invite James Brown, “Trent from Nine Inch Nails,” Stephen King, and “Cher (what the fuck)” to his funeral. This sad event happens on a sunny day outside a Salvation Army Youth Center. Cher doesn’t make it. At its conclusion, the kids release balloons into the sky.

*

The, uh, “establishing shot” that opens the book shows a handsome pinewood house, hazy, shrouded by flowers, sleepy trees, and seen through some creep’s binoculars. When we talk on the phone, Goldberg tells me he was thinking about Buffalo Bill in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991), the toad-voiced sociopath who abducts and kills innocent women after tracking their movements through his night-vision goggles. Lycanthropic vibes: we could be experiencing the perspective of the Big Bad Wolf lurking outside the house of a succulent little pig. There’s something storybook-like, upstate idyllic, about the picture, too, which may not actually show Echo’s mother’s real house at all but a weirdly familiar dream home liberated from elsewhere, giving extra resonance to her claim that what’s happened to her family could strike “any home in America.”

What Goldberg assembled in Raised by Wolves isn’t a real history, which wouldn’t be a fitting tribute to the kids since they never told the whole truth anyway, but something lyrical and a little feverish. Facts get high or vanish on their way through the night. “Some of the names,” Goldberg tells me, “have been changed to protect the innocent.” Verification is difficult when it’s tested against the kids’ habits of compulsive mythmaking, which is also a strategy for survival: I can’t be hurt if I’m not the real me.

(…)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Enforced Freedom

Derek Matravers for The TLS
Rousseau

Derek Matravers examines the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ideas for The TLS:

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) is, perhaps more than any other philosopher, a contradictory figure. He is a predecessor of liberalism and a theorist of fascism; a champion of the Enlightenment and its most severe critic; a Classicist critic of Romanticism and vice versa; and an advocate of humane, child-centred education, despite giving up his own five children to an orphanage and almost certain death. His reputation these days rests primarily on his political philosophy (in particular, On the Social Contract), his autobiography (The Confessions), and a part novel, part philosophical treatise, and part syllabus for progressive education (Émile).

Rousseau is very quotable – never more so than at the beginning of Book One, Chapter One of the Social Contract: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”. This appears to capture the view with which he is most famously associated: that man is born naturally good only to be corrupted by society. Another quotable opening sentence, this time from Émile, seems to support this: “God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil”. This phrase is misleading on two accounts. First, Rousseau is clear that the situation of humankind in its pre-societal state is not to be envied. Second, he did not think it our inevitable fate to be corrupted by society; indeed, the point of the Social Contract is to provide a blueprint for a society in which people are able to flourish.

It was fairly standard in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to compare humankind before societies formed (the “state of nature”) to our condition in society. This was not an attempt to write history from the armchair, but rather a thought experiment; a comparison between things then with how they are now, to shine a light on the advantages of states. Rousseau had a weakness for the rhetorical flourish – and his powers of eloquence sometimes served to highlight the notion that leaving the state of nature had been a catastrophe.

The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared, had someone pulled up the stakes and filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men: “Do not listen to this imposter. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one!”

Nonetheless, further flourishes pull in a different direction:

The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces quite a remarkable change in man, for it substitutes justice for instinct in his behaviour and gives his actions a moral quality that they previously lacked. Only then, when the voice of duty replaces physical impulse and the right replaces appetite, does man, who had hitherto taken only himself into account, find himself forced to act upon other principles and to consult his reason before listening to his inclinations. Although in this state he deprives himself of several advantages belonging to him in the state of nature, but he regains such great ones. His faculties are exercised and ennobled, his entire soul is elevated to such a height that, if the abuse of this new condition did not often lower his status to beneath the level he left, he ought constantly to bless the happy moment that pulled him away from it forever and which transformed him from a stupid, limited animal and a man.

Rousseau had identified the fundamental flaw in the state of nature argument; we are not comparing like with like. The change from the state of nature to the civil state transforms us altogether – it changes us psychologically, and hence morally and politically, from “stupid limited creatures” to those governed by justice, morality, duty, right and reason. Furthermore (a point stressed more recently by Bernard Williams) there is no route back – attempts to turn the clock back to an earlier politics, or even to a pre-politics, by romantics of both the Left and Right are doomed not only to failure but to catastrophe.

(…)

Camilla Grudova at Burley Fisher Books: A Belated Book Launch

On 12 September 2017
tda-green-3

Please join us to celebrate The Doll’s Alphabet, published in February 2017 by Fitzcarraldo Editions, on the occasion of a rare visit by Camilla Grudova from Canada, at Burley Fisher Books, 400 Kingsland Rd, London E8 4AA, from 7-9pm on 12 September 2017. There will be a short reading. There will be drinks. The event is free to attend.

Fitz Carraldo Editions