Archives: February 2018

Why does literature ignore pregnancy?

Jessie Greengrass for The Guardian
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For The Guardian, Jessie Greengrass explores depictions of pregnancy in literature.

few years ago, I spent a couple of weeks in the Wellcome Library, reading. At the time, I wanted both to write a novel and to have a baby and it didn’t occur to me that any connection might be found between the two. As far as the novel went, I knew that I wanted to write about subjectivity and I was interested in medical history – John Hunter, Freud, the early history of the x-ray – but I lacked a device to tie these thoughts together. It took me a surprisingly long time to come up with the idea of a pregnant narrator and when at last the possibility occurred to me, I dismissed it. To write about pregnancy – to try to articulate the desire for it, its uncomfortable realities, its disorientating aftermath – felt transgressive, although at the time I didn’t understand why.

Later, having found the baby easier to realise than the novel, I returned to the idea. In a haze of postnatal exhaustion it seemed easier to contemplate, somehow; I existed in a bubble, and lacked the mental resources to imagine far beyond its boundaries, and so I didn’t try. Instead, at odd hours of the night, I mulled over pregnancy in literature, only to find that my overwhelming impression was of something out of shot, a business of hot water and towels despatched elsewhere while in the centre of things a man paces a carpet. Think of Madame Bovary, whose labour is not only comically abrupt, but confirmed by her husband, as though she had somehow been absent herself:

She was confined on a Sunday at about six o’clock, as the sun was rising.

“It is a girl!” said Charles.

Although a fundamentally female experience, pregnancy exists in literature, when it does so at all, as a male problem. Sometimes it is a problem of trust, as with Hermione, heavy in her prison cell in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Or it is a problem because it doesn’t happen at all: a wife without a child (where a child without a mother is opportunity, a Victorian stalwart of a plot).

Or, conversely, pregnancy is an impediment, freedom’s curtailment – Newland Archer in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, whose fantasies of escape are finally ended by his wife’s announcement of her pregnancy. From the outside, pregnancy might appear a gift: in A Farewell to Arms, Catherine’s pregnancy allows her lover access to an illusion of peace (before her death and that of the child shatters it). But we rarely make it so far. It is taken for granted that birth is attendant on marriage, and so stories stop at the altar. Nothing interesting can come of us afterwards, unless it is as a coda to another’s story: Jane Eyre persists so far as the birth of her first son, only so we might be reassured by the detail that Edward Rochester’s eyesight has returned.

Lately, it is true, there have been a few books on pregnancy: Rachel Cusk, Maggie Nelson, Rivka Galchen. The latter’s Little Labours deals with the transition to motherhood through a series of discrete fragments, adding up to a picture of a time that is disjointed. These are memoirs, though, and memoir is the preserve of the extraordinary, of experiences outside our own. This, I think, is the crux of it: we regard women’s bodies as absolutely strange. They are the mysterious other, going about their peculiar processes. What could we possibly learn from something so alien?

It was only very recently that I read The Argonauts, Nelson’s account of her pregnancy, and afterwards – when it was too late, because my own book was already being printed – I wondered if perhaps she had said all there was to be said. Her work is extraordinary; but still – my second thought – is there really only space for one pregnant body in all of literature? What Nelson does (and I had wanted to find a way to do) is to use pregnancy as a device to examine other things – in her case, queer family-building, embodiment, love. This is what literature offers us: the chance to take the specificities of a particular experience and to use them to articulate that which is universal. I have learned almost all I know about the world, about myself, from books, and it has been a joy, a work of love; but the consequence is that I have learned it from men. Desire, failure, fear, ambition – all have been housed in male bodies. Insofar as I have differed from this standard, I have felt myself to be somewhere between uninteresting and unspeakable.

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Love Poems for the Border Patrol

Amitava Kumar for the New Yorker
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For the New Yorker, Amitava Kumar considers the sense of alienation and loss felt after immigrating from India to the US, the ‘self-conscious construction of an immigrant self’, and of finding refuge and clarity in writing.

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After ten or fifteen years [in the US], the confusion and loss had been replaced by a self-conscious construction of an immigrant self. I’m calling it a construction because it was an aesthetic and a textual idea. I was taking pictures of immigrant life; I was reporting on novels and nonfiction about immigrants; my own words were an edited record of what I was reading. An eclectic mix of writers: Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, June Jordan, Jamaica Kincaid, Hanif Kureishi, Salman Rushdie, Marguerite Duras, Guillermo Gómez-Peña. Reagan was still President when I came to the U.S. The Iran-Contra hearings were my introduction to televised spectacle. Gap-toothed Ollie North and his proclamations of innocence, the volume of hair on his secretary Fawn Hall, reports I read of Reagan declaring, “I am a Contra.” I had consumed all of this as an innocent—and by writing poems I began issuing my declarations of independence.

Recently, I was reading the lectures that the novelist James Salter delivered at age ninety, at the University of Virginia, shortly before his death. In one of them, he quoted the French writer and critic Paul Léautaud, who wrote, “Your language is your country.” Salter added, “I’ve thought about it a great deal, and I may have it backwards—your country is your language. In either case it has a simple meaning. Either that your true country is not geographical but lingual, or that you are really living in a language, presumably your mother tongue.” When I read those words, I thought of my grandmother, who died a few years after I came to America. She was the only person to whom I wrote letters in my mother tongue, Hindi. On pale blue aerograms, I sent her reports of my new life in an alien land. Although she could sign her own name, my grandmother was otherwise illiterate and would ask the man who brought her the mail in the village or a passing schoolchild to read her the words I had written. And when my grandmother died, I had no reason to write in Hindi again. Now it is a language that I use only in conversations, either on the phone, with my friends and relatives in India, or, on occasion, when I get into cabs in New York City.

At another point in his lectures, Salter told his audience that “style is the entire writer.” He said, “You can be said to have a style when a reader, after reading several lines or part of a page, can recognize who the writer is.” There you have it, another definition of home. In novels such as “A Sport and a Pastime” and “Light Years,” the sentences have a particular air, and the light slants through them in a way that announces Salter’s presence. All the writers I admire, each different from the other, erect structures that offer refuge. Consider Claudia Rankine. You are reading her description of a woman’s visit to a new therapist. The woman has arrived at the door, which is locked. She rings the bell. The therapist opens the door and yells, “Get away from my house. What are you doing in my yard?” The woman replies that she has an appointment. A pause. Then an apology that confirms that what just happened actually happened. If you have been left trembling by someone yelling racist epithets at you, Rankine’s detached, near-forensic writing provides you the comfort of clarity that the confusion of the therapist in the poem does not.

Thirty years have passed since I left India. I have continued to write journalism about the country of my birth. This has allowed me to cure, to some degree, the malady of distance. I’ve reflected a great deal on the literature that is suited to describing the conditions in the country of my birth. But I have also known for long that I no longer belonged there.

I haven’t reported in grand detail on rituals of American life, road journeys or malls or the death of steel-manufacturing towns. I think this is because I feel a degree of alienation that I cannot combat. I’ve immersed myself in reading more and more of American literature, but no editor has asked me to comment on Jonathan Franzen or Jennifer Egan. It is assumed I’m an expert on writers who need a little less suntan lotion at the beach. I don’t care. Removed from any intimate connection to a community or the long association with a single locale, my engagement with literature is now focussed on style. Do my sentences reveal once again the voice of the outsider, a mere observer?

In a cemetery that is only a few miles away from my home, in the Hudson Valley, is the gravestone of an Indian woman. The inscription reads, “Anandabai Joshee M.D. 1865-1887 First Brahmin Woman to Leave India to Obtain an Education.” Joshee was nine when she was married to a twenty-nine-year-old postal clerk in Maharashtra, and twenty-one when she received a medical degree in Pennsylvania. A few months later, following her return to India, she died, of tuberculosis, at the age of twenty-two. Her ashes were sent to the woman who had been her benefactor in the U.S., and that is how Joshee’s ashes found a place in Poughkeepsie. I’m aware that, when she died, Joshee was younger than I was when I left India for America. Involved in medical studies, and living in a world that must have felt immeasurably more distant than it does now, she probably didn’t have time to write poems or worry about style. I recently read that last year a crater on the planet Venus was named after her. It made me think that brave Anandabai Joshee now has a home that none of us will ever reach.

Inside Kettle’s Yard

Lucy Watson for AnOther Magazine
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For AnOther Mag, Lucy Watson explores the recently re-opened Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge.

At the northern edge of Cambridge’s staid city centre, down an unremarkable alleyway, is Kettle’s Yard – a remarkable gallery that is something much more than a gallery. Once home of former Tate curator Jim Ede and his wife Helen, this is a mid-century enclave filled with Modernist art and furniture. And it remains almost exactly as it was when the Edes donated it to the University in 1966.

A trained artist, Jim Ede became an assistant curator at what was then the National Gallery of British Art in 1921, and befriended many underappreciated European Modernists, whose work he tried to promote within the gallery. Through friends he acquired works of art as gifts, or cheap purchases he would not have otherwise afforded on his meagre salary of £250 per annum, resulting in a collection of over 100 artists including Brâncuși, Henry Moore, Russian Constructivist Naum Gabo (a small print of his bears the inscription “To Jim Ede from Gabo with love”) and the largest collection of work by Vorticist artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska in the world.

Searching for a place to both to live and to display his art, Ede found “four tiny condemned slum dwellings” in 1956, which were then gutted and converted into a single, modern building. The Edes donated the house and its contents to Cambridge University in 1966, but continued to live there until 1973. Not content with the size of the house, a contemporary sky-lit extension by Sir Leslie Martin, architect of the iconic Royal Festival Hall, was added in 1970.

The idea behind the house was to create “a living place where works of art could be enjoyed, inherent to the domestic setting, where young people could be at home unhampered by the greater austerity of the museum or public art gallery”.

In practice that meant that students were invited daily into Ede’s home and able to loan his now priceless works of art to decorate their rooms. Guests are, still today, encouraged to sit in his chairs and read his books, attend concerts, and a small library is open for visitors to sit and study. When they vacated the house a carefully staged set of photographs were left behind, carefully detailing the exact location of every object – still strictly adhered to.

“Kettle’s Yard is in no way meant to be an art gallery or museum, nor is it simply a collection of works of art reflecting my taste or the taste of a given period,” Ede insisted in 1970. “It is, rather, a continuing way of life.”

Just as in a home, nothing – not even the Barbara Hepworth – is labelled or out of reach. “I would bet my life that this is the only place in the world where you will see a Brâncuși head perched on a piano with no Perspex hood,” says head of collection Dr. Jennifer Powell.

Objects are mischievously placed in corners and behind furniture – in Ede’s eye, nothing was prosaic. Even the most mundane of domestic necessities could be, or could host, art. A lapdog in bronze by Gaudier-Brzeska sits crouched on the floor, perfectly placed to trip guests. A painting by abstract artist Ben Nicholson, a few inches across, is nestled against a dado rail behind an armchair. The ideal way to view William Congdon’s large, dark and imposing Gautemala no.7 (Dying Vulture) is to sit on the toilet. Every inch of the house is part of the composition.

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Launch for Arkady by Patrick Langley on 21 March

At the ArtReview bar
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Please join Fitzcarraldo Editions and ArtReview in celebrating the launch of Arkady by Patrick Langley from 6.30-8.30pm on 21 March 2018 at the ArtReview bar, 1-5 Honduras Street, London EC1Y 0TH. There will be a short reading. There will be drinks. The event is free to attend but please RSVP to info@fitzcarraldoeditions.com. 

The Epic, Neglected Vision of Joan Murray

Farnoosh Fathi for The Paris Review
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In this piece for The Paris Review – adapted from her introduction to a new collection of Joan Murray’s poems – Farnoosh Fathi asks how Murray’s poems have remained in obscurity.

“What truth, what mystical awareness can be lived,” Joan Murray wrote in a letter to her mother. Like the young Rimbaud, Murray intended to make herself a seer—what she calls, among other figures, the “Unemployed or universal Architect.” She became this architect-seer not, as Rimbaud proposed, by a total derangement of the senses but by building “the firm reality of a consciousness, consciousness in the never-ending, the great wideness that one must blend withal.” Like Emily Dickinson and Laura Riding before her, Murray belongs to a radical arc of American metaphysical women poets, most of whom still remain unsung. Her untimely death from a congenital heart condition in 1942, at age twenty-four, marked the loss of an extraordinary poet; yet Murray’s poems recalibrate the notion of a life’s work. The tragic facts only underscore the epic achievement of her vision.

Five years after her death, out of the blue woodwork of 1947, her first book of poetry was published as the winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition with the title Poems by Joan Murray: 1917–1942. W. H. Auden, who had been dissatisfied with the manuscripts he had received as a first-year judge, had reached out to Murray’s mother to inquire about the possibility of publishing her daughter’s work posthumously for the prize. Murray had been a student in Auden’s Poetry and Culture course at the New School in 1940, and her mother countered Auden’s invitation with the accusation that he had killed her daughter by inspiring her “poetry fever.” But she was devoted to her daughter’s work and eager to see it published, so agreed to the Yale edition with the condition that her friend Grant Code—a poet, Harvard lecturer, and dance and theater critic—edit the collection.

While Murray’s Poems received mostly laudatory reviews in Poetry, the Saturday Review, the New York Times Book Review, and The New Yorker, it soon fell into obscurity and remained out of print for more than fifty years. I first learned about the collection in 2006, thanks to the poet Shanna Compton, who posted an invaluable pdf of it on the PhillySound blog’s Neglectorino Project, a series on neglected writers started by the poet CAConrad. In a note to the pdf, Compton writes, “Despite the untimely death of the author, the flawed editorial work, and the fact that the book has been out of print for decades, Murray has managed to earn something of an underground reputation.” How was it possible that Murray’s poems—with their wild and unwavering authority, their singular metaphysics of a migratory American psyche, one unburdened by any formal or aesthetic “schooling” and the clearest evidence we’ve ever had of the visionary nature of youth, what George Eliot averred of the young Teresa of Ávila whose “passionate nature demanded an epic life” and who found her epos in poetry—how could these poems be so totally unknown?

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The White Darkness

David Grann for the New Yorker
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Featured in the New Yorker, David Grann’s longform piece on British explorer Henry Worsley, who successfully retraced Ernest Shackleton’s expedition in the Antarctic in 2009, and sadly died in 2016 during an attempt to cross the Antarctic unaided.

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At 10 a.m.—the hour that Shackleton had set out—Worsley and his men leaned into their harnesses and began their trek. This was the moment that he’d been waiting for nearly all his life, Worsley thought. Yet, as he strained with his arms and his legs to propel himself forward and drag the heavy sled, he was gnawed by doubts: “I was nervous about lots of things; of failing the team; of getting injured; of letting down all those people who had supported us; of plainly not being physically up for it—put simply, I feared failure.”

The surface was generally flat and smooth, and as he and the other men headed south, toward the Ross Ice Shelf, they began to gather some momentum. Worsley made sure that they followed the advice of Matty McNair, who had instructed them on Baffin Island: “Stay together, never separate.” She had drummed into them one other rule: “If you get wet, you die.”

After several miles, they came upon another desolate wooden hut. Robert Falcon Scott and his men had built it in 1911, on their fateful South Pole expedition. Ice crept over the timbered walls and glazed the windowpanes like jungle vines. Inside the hut, Worsley and his companions found the chart table where Scott had studied his maps, and the bunk belonging to Captain Lawrence Oates, who had left the party’s tent on the return journey from the Pole, saying, “I am just going outside and may be some time.” He was never seen again.

As Worsley inspected the objects, he felt uneasy: “I couldn’t shake the sense of pathetic sadness from my mind.” The men quickly resumed tracing the path of their forebears, which had long since been obliterated by the windswept ice. The fresh tracks made by Worsley and his companions gradually vanished as well; tiny granules of ice swirled in the wind like ash. The men used a compass to maintain a southward trajectory. Their breath smoked and their bodies sweated in the arid cold. After slogging for seven hours, Worsley gave the order to stop for the day. They had covered nearly eight nautical miles. In order to reach the ninety-seven-mile mark on January 9th, the men would need to average between ten and twelve nautical miles per day. But it was a promising start.

They began the cumbersome process of making camp: pitching their tent, which was roughly fourteen feet long and seven feet wide; gathering provisions from the sled; squeezing inside the shelter and removing their ski boots and sweaty socks, which they hung on a clothesline above their heads, along with any other damp items; checking their bodies for frostbite and putting on dry socks and tent “booties”; and firing up a gas cooker, melting snow in a kettle, and pouring hot water into packets of freeze-dried meals.

As the men ate, they talked about the relatively warm weather—the temperature had reached fourteen degrees. Adams delivered the evening broadcast, reporting that they had been blessed with “beautiful sunshine, exactly as Shackleton had a hundred years ago on his first day.” Privately, though, Adams confessed to Worsley and Gow that he felt like an amateur hauling his sled, and had a deep sense of unease. “He was right and honest,” Worsley wrote. “None of us knew what the next two months were going to be like.”

Following supper, the men dipped their toothbrushes in the snow and cleaned their teeth, which Worsley believed was essential to maintaining a sense of humanity. Then, jostling for space, they spread out their sleeping bags. Worsley, however, didn’t climb into his. In spite of his aching muscles and the dropping temperature—the sun was now hugging the horizon—he went for an evening walk. He decided to make this a daily ritual, like a mystic who pursues enlightenment through self-abnegation. The harsh reality of Antarctica had seemed only to deepen his entrancement with it. Outside, he often picked up objects—a fragment of a penguin skull, a small rock—and put them in a pocket, despite the extra weight. “We used to take the Mickey out of him for taking all this rubbish,” Gow recalled.

After Worsley’s stroll, which lasted about twenty minutes, he returned to the tent and settled into his sleeping bag. They all kept plastic bottles nearby, in case they had to respond to what Adams referred to as a “call of nature.” Before falling asleep, Worsley wrote briefly in his diary, ending with a quote from Shackleton: “I pray that we may be successful, for my heart had been so much in this.”

Within eight days, they had covered more than seventy-five nautical miles. The scale of the Ross Ice Shelf was dawning on Worsley: it was bigger than France. Shackleton described it as a “dead, smooth, white plain, weird beyond description.” Worsley and his men moved in single file and rarely spoke, hearing only the thumping of their sleds or the soundtracks on their iPods. Adams loved to listen to Rachmaninoff’s Vespers; Gow sometimes trudged along to an audiobook of Lansing’s “Endurance.” Worsley’s playlist included Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band playing “Eyes on the Prize” (“I got my hand on the gospel plow / Won’t take nothing for my journey now”) and “We Shall Overcome” (“We are not afraid, we are not afraid”).

(…)

Why do white people like what I write?

Pankaj Mishra for the London Review of Books
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From Pankaj Mishra’s piece on the rise of Ta-Nehisi Coates, featured in the LRB.

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‘A racist society can’t but fight a racist war,’ James Baldwin wrote in 1967, ‘the assumptions acted on at home are also acted on abroad.’ During the war on terror the traffic between the US and various shithole countries wasn’t only in assumptions: there was also a wholesale exporting of equipment, technologies of torture and bad lieutenants. To take one instance, Richard Zuley, a specialist at Guantánamo, had become reassuringly ruthless while working for a Chicago police unit that for decades interrogated predominantly African-Americans at so-called black sites. It’s only now, with a white supremacist ensconced in the White House, that those same hardheaded liberals – who did so much to create a climate of opinion and a legal regime in which black and brown bodies could be seized, broken and destroyed outside all norms and laws of war – are coming to grips with ‘America’s Original Sin: Slavery and the Legacy of White Supremacy’ (an unlikely recent headline in Foreign Affairs). Back in the early 2000s the liberal universalists seemed unaware that their project might be fatally flawed, and that America’s own democracy had been secured by mass bondage, colonial dispossession and wars of aggression; they still hadn’t fully reckoned with the historical legacy of institutionalised racial cruelty, inequality and division – what Coates has come to describe.

‘In America,’ Coates writes, ‘it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.’ ‘To be black’ is to be perpetually ‘naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape and disease’. The liberal freedoms of propertied men were always defined against omnipresent threats: mutinous natives, rebellious slaves. The white man, Tocqueville wrote as he observed race relations in America, ‘is to the men of other races what man himself is to the animals’, in the sense that he ‘makes them serve his purposes, and when he cannot make them bend, he destroys them.’ A social order built on systemic violence made the black man, Tocqueville recognised, an ever present menace in his white master’s imagination. This proximity to a nemesis made a culture of fear central to American politics, entailing a continuous investment in the machinery of coercion, surveillance and control, along with pre-emptive brutality against internal and external enemies.

Coates, who was born in 1975, came of age just as a new Jim Crow was emerging domestically to accompany Bush Sr’s new world order. ‘By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all!’ So Bush Sr said in a euphoric victory statement at the end of the Gulf War. The kicking of the Vietnam Syndrome and ‘Saddam Hussein’s ass’ signalled the removal of all restraints on American power imposed by dogged gooks and their traitorous allies on the American left. With America free to police the world, old legal and moral barriers were also dismantled at home. Just as Coates entered Howard University and began his harsh education in American history, the stage was set for a pitiless imposition of market discipline and evisceration of welfare-state protections. Such drastic socioeconomic re-engineering required a fresh public consensus, and a racialised view of crime and national security came in handy in separating the deserving from the undeserving. Under Reagan, the police had started to resemble the military with its special weapons and bellicose posturing. The prison-industrial complex burgeoned under Bill Clinton: an incarcerated population of 300,000 in 1970 expanded to 2.1 million in 2000 – the majority black and brown, and poor. Liberals did not simply inherit Republican schemes of harsh policing and extreme punishment. They took the initiative. Clinton, hailed as the ‘first black president’ by Toni Morrison, ended what he called ‘welfare as we know it’ and deregulated financial markets. Amid a national panic about ‘street terrorists’, he signed the most draconian crime bill in US history in 1994, following it up two years later with an anti-terrorism bill that laid the foundation for the Patriot Act of 2001.

The intimate relationship between America’s internal and external wars, established by its original sin, has long been clear. The question was always how long mainstream intellectuals could continue to offer fig-leaf euphemisms for shock-and-awe racism, and suppress an entwined history of white supremacism and militarisation with fables about American exceptionalism, liberalism’s long battle with totalitarianism, and that sort of thing. Hurricane Katrina, coming after the non-discovery of WMDs in Iraq, undermined liberal faith in Bush’s heavily racialised war. American claims to global moral leadership since the 1960s had depended greatly on the apparent breakthrough of the civil rights movement, and the sidelining of the bigots who screamed: ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation for ever’. In New Orleans, black bodies naked before the elements of the world – elements which included trigger-happy Blackwater mercenaries guarding the rich – made it clear that old-style racial separation had been replaced by sharply defined zones of prosperity and destitution: segregation for ever. But the apparent successes of social liberalism, culminating in Obama’s election, managed to obscure the new regimes of racial sequester for a while longer. Since the 1990s, the bonanzas of free trade and financial deregulation had helped breed greater tolerance for racial and sexual variety, primarily among the privileged – the CIA under Obama set up a recruiting office at the Miami Beach Gay Pride parade. Overt racism and homophobia had become taboo, even as imprisonment or premature death removed 1.5 million black men from public life. Diversification and multiculturalism among upwardly mobile, college-educated elites went together with mass incarceration at home and endless military interventions abroad.

*

In many ways, Coates’s career manifests these collateral trends of progress and regress in American society. He grew up in Baltimore at the height of the crack epidemic. One of his own friends at Howard University in the 1990s was murdered by the police. Coates didn’t finish college and had been working and writing for small magazines when in 2008 he was commissioned by the Atlantic to write a blog during Obama’s campaign for president. Three books and many blog posts and tweets later, Coates is, in Packer’s words, ‘the most influential writer in America today’ – an elevation that no writer of colour could previously have achieved. Toni Morrison claims he has filled ‘the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died’. Philip Roth has been led to histories of American racism by Coates’s books. David Brooks credits him for advancing an ‘education for white people’ that evidently began after ‘Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston and the other killings’. Even USA Today thinks that ‘to have such a voice, in such a moment, is a ray of light.’ Coates seems genuinely embarrassed by his swift celebrity: by the fact that, as he writes in his latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power, a collection of essays published in the Atlantic between 2008 and 2016, ‘I, who’d begun in failure, who held no degrees or credentials, had become such a person.’ He also visibly struggles with the question ‘Why do white people like what I write?’ This is a fraught issue for the very few writers from formerly colonised countries or historically disadvantaged minorities in the West who are embraced by ‘legacy’ periodicals, and then tasked with representing their people – or country, religion, race, and even continent (as in the New York Times’s praise for Salman Rushdie: ‘A continent finding its voice’). Relations between the anointed ‘representative’ writer and those who are denied this privilege by white gatekeepers are notoriously prickly. Coates, a self-made writer, is particularly vulnerable to the charge that he is popular among white liberals since he assuages their guilt about racism.

(…)

An excerpt: In the Dark Room

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An excerpt from Brian Dillon’s In the Dark Room, published today.

¶ A haunted house

In the autumn of 2004, a few months after I had begun trying to picture once again my own family home as it stood empty on that morning eleven years earlier, I travelled to see a work of art which I suspected might have something to say about the relationship between houses and memory. The work, by the English artist Tacita Dean, is a film – or rather, three related and subtly different films – entitled Boots. On the day in question, I arrived at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London, where the film was to be installed for the next month, to discover that I had mistaken the date of the exhibition’s opening: it was not due to begin for another four days. The security guard who informed me of my mistake, however, was sympathetic, and I was directed upstairs to three adjacent rooms, where two technicians were busily preparing a trio of ancient and recalcitrant 16mm projectors. I explained my error, and they agreed that as soon as they had got the first version of the film running (focus was so far proving difficult), I could enter the first darkened room and watch a still slightly shaky back-up print of Dean’s film.

Boots is a meditation on architecture and memory, shot in a vast Art Deco villa in Portugal that is now used as exhibition space by a nearby museum. The film takes its title from the nickname of an old family friend of the artist’s, so named for his orthopaedic boot, the sound of which, as it strikes the gleaming wooden floors of the villa, echoes through the twenty minutes of the first of the film’s three versions. The octogenarian Boots, his frail body supported by two walking sticks, wanders through the house alone, apparently recalling as he goes the building’s former, now deceased, inhabitant: a woman, Blanche, with whom, many years ago, he had an affair.

In fact, the story he fashions out of the odd muttered reminiscence or sudden exclamation is at least partly fictional. Boots, unscripted, invents his own memories to fill rooms that are brilliantly sunlit and quite empty. He improvises his own character, while Dean’s camera gives the house itself a grandly melancholy personality, composed of cool shadows and sudden, blazing expanses of light. As the old man moves through the villa, the viewer realizes that the figure on screen is seeing a quite different film: a series of tableaux made, perhaps, out of his own past, now projected on to the pristine surfaces of an empty house.

I watched Dean’s film with a growing sense that I was seeing something very familiar: the moment when one moves through a space both intimately known and at the same time utterly alien. The artist’s frail collaborator conjures the most moving images out of the tiniest details of the house: details which, for all the historical resonance of the house itself, and the ravishing cinematography which revives it, were invisible to the viewer. Boots, it seems, is seeing ghosts. ‘One has the feeling, or I have the feeling,’ he sighs at one point, ‘that they are still here, but in another dimension … and that this whole house is in another dimension … it’s not … of the moment, if you know what I’m trying to say.’ Not only is the house, as Boots negotiates its remarkable rooms, overpopulated by mid-century ghosts, but the space itself seems to have dropped out of history, drifted off (like the massive ocean liner it resembles) into unchartable seas of memory.

As this huge, convoluted theatre of memory opened itself up before me on the screen, I was reminded of another, more tangible artistic reflection on the house as an image of recollection and nostalgia. In 1993, the sculptor Rachel Whiteread made a work simply entitled House. The sculpture (if that is what it was: various civic dignitaries rushed to condemn it as an inartistic monstrosity) was a cast of the interior of a Victorian house, ‘exhibited’ in situ at 135 Grove Road, Bow, East London. Whiteread had garnered a certain amount of celebrity from her previous works, in which the interior volume of a single room was cast in blocks, later reassembled in the gallery to form an eerie white ghost of the original space. House was a good deal more ambitious and resonant: an entire phantom building was revealed once the outer shell (which was, after all, the house itself) had been removed and the specially formulated concrete beneath revealed. The sculpture unearthed an impossible volume: the solid replica of an empty interior, the image of a void once enclosed and supported by real bricks, real plaster.

I have never seen Whiteread’s House: after months of controversy, it was finally demolished, and even the fact that the artist had won that year’s Turner Prize could not save it (might, indeed, have hastened its end). But photographs of it suggest that for a time it must have soaked up the memory of its environs: the surrounding streets which, pocked with derelict houses, had eventually been demolished. Stranded at the edge of the empty park that had replaced them, the sculpture gave the impression of having solidified memory itself. This was an illusion: it was not a solid mass at all, but a collection of vacant concrete boxes, held together by an invisible interior armature. You could have broken through its surface – some local squatters attempted to do just this – but you would not have found a habitable space, just a mass of wooden and metal supports. To the viewer on the outside, however, House made manifest a feeling that only occasionally overtakes one at home: that the substance of the house – the layers of brick, plaster, paint and wallpaper – is quite unreal, that the true house is the space in which we move. It is the empty volume that we get used to, that makes our bodies move in particular ways, that forms habits and physical attitudes which persist, awkwardly, after we have left.

We often think of nostalgia – which is nothing more or less, etymologically, than the desire for home – as accruing to objects and images (and so it does, as we shall see later). But there is another sort of ache for the past, which has nothing to do with the visible and tangible world and everything to do with the void that abuts it in the most complex ways. If the photographic evidence is to be believed, visitors to Whiteread’s House must have been startled not only by the obtuse volume of the thing, but also by the way that emptiness was so minutely etched and convoluted. A house is not made of flat surfaces, but of odd protrusions, embossed or striated planes. Each tiny recession of the solid world around us is an extension of our own space, and therefore full of memory: a refined and slow-drying medium which covers everything. Nostalgia is no longer the word to describe the moment when we see the space around us for the complicated void it really is. At that instant – the instant, for me, of seeing the house empty for the first and last time – it becomes properly uncanny (which is to say: unhomely). The house no longer looks like itself, and yet it is reduced to its essence for the first time: recognizably a house from which we have been banished. The brilliance of House lay in the way it depended for its existence on a specific, unrepresentable space, and at the same time recalled all those who saw it (perhaps especially those who rejected it as art) to the vanished chambers of their own pasts. No house could be more comprehensively stocked with the detritus of the past than the empty house.

[...]

On Sophie Calle

Nico Israel for 4Columns
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For 4Columns Nico Israel reviews Sophie Calle’s exhibition, Beau doublé, Monsieur le marquis!, currently running at Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris.

“Fish for your ideas from your fishmonger,” recommends an old prefabricated sign Sophie Calle saw in an Arles fish market shortly after her father died, then later bought and placed near the entrance of her current Paris exhibition. Writing in chalk on the sign, menu-du-jour style, the artist briefly recounts how, depressed and devoid of ideas, she went to see Sylvain, her fishmonger, to ask him for his help. In a four-minute accompanying video, Sylvain listens sympathetically to her as Calle describes her plight, but he claims to know nothing about art. When pressed, he says he likes paintings and sculptures, especially the kind that are “well executed”; he has no patience for abstraction, much less the kind of conceptual photographs, films, texts, and installations Calle tells him in an uncondescending way that she herself makes (and is at that moment making with his participation). But he does, he notes, think you can do things with salmon; they used to make shoes out of the fish’s skin. Next to the video monitor appears a sculpture with a school of wax-molded and pink- and black-painted “salmons.” On nearby walls are photographs from numerous different American cemeteries of headstones that say, simply, “Father.”

This jarring combination of mourning and humor, collaboration and imposition, intimacy and abjection characterizes much of Calle’s art in the show, which includes both new pieces and reactivated work from earlier in her career. The exhibition venue, the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, occupies an imposing seventeenth-century mansion full of taxidermied wild animals, trophies, and bric-a-brac; in 1967 André Malraux (of Le musée imaginaire renown) turned it into a public institution dedicated to investigating the relationship between human beings and animals. The museum was renovated and extended about a decade ago, and since then a couple dozen artists have responded to the space in shows that usually occupy small parts of the capacious mansion; Paris-born Calle was invited by curator Sonia Voss to take over the whole museum. The resulting exhibition, Beau doublé, Monsieur le marquis!, allures, ensnares, and slays.

The show’s title appropriates a slogan from a 1960s ad campaign for a French bullet company in which a valet congratulates his gentleman employer for being an excellent marksman. In the French hunting lexicon, doubler means to kill two animals with two consecutive, near simultaneous shots—and in the exhibition Calle repeatedly reflects on the deaths, in 2014–15, of both her father, a well-known surgeon and art collector, and her housecat Souris (Mouse). There is a photographic portrait of her father shortly before his death superimposed over a prose poem/lament about him, whose intimacy is astonishing. Nearby are pictures of black-and-white Souris in life and death. In her accompanying writings, Calle notes that Souris was the “name she pronounced most in her life”; she also transcribes the unintentionally callous words her friends and acquaintances used (in notes, voice mails, etc.) in response to the passing of her animal companion of eighteen years. Calle is almost certainly aware of critiques about man-centered ideas of “nature,” and of the dangers of anthropomorphizing animals (not to mention of maudlin sentimentality)—but isn’t interested in them. What she is interested in is mourning and longing; where the exhibition really surprises is by putting mourning and longing in the conceptual frame of la chasse et la nature.

(…)

London launch events for Esther Kinsky’s RIVER (tr. Iain Galbraith)

At Sutton House in Hackney and Tate Modern
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Please join us for the London launches of River by Esther Kinsky (tr. Iain Galbraith)

On Tuesday 20 February, Pages of Hackney will host a launch event at Sutton House, 2 & 4 Homerton High St, London E9 6JQ, from 7-9pm. There will be a short reading and drinks. The event is free and all are welcome. Please RSVP to Pages of Hackney here, or to info@fitzcarraldoeditions.com. 

On Wednesday 21 February, Esther Kinsky will be in conversation with Gareth Evans at Tate Modern from 7-8.30pm. This event is also free and open to all, but please book a place through Tate here.  

 

Fitz Carraldo Editions