Mathias Enard’s Compass (22 March 2017) follows the restless night of an ethnomusicologist, Franz Ritter, as he drifts between dreams and memories, revisiting the important chapters of his life: his ongoing fascination with the Middle East and his numerous travels to Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus and Tehran, as well as the various writers, artists, musicians, academics, orientalists and explorers who populate this vast dreamscape. To accompany the publication of the novel, we have compiled a playlist (below and on spotify) of some of the many pieces of music that feature in the text:
Winterreise, Op. 89, D.911: No.1 Gute Nacht – Franz Schubert
Winterreise, Op. 89, D.911: No.2 Die Wetterfahne – Franz Schubert
Winterreise, Op. 89, D.911: No.3 Getfror’ne Thranen – Franz Schubert
Winterreise, Op. 89, D.911: No.21 Das Wirsthaus – Franz Schubert
Winterreise, Op. 89, D.911: No.24 Der Leiermann – Franz Schubert
Kindertotenlieder, I: Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n – Gustav Mahler
Kindertotenlieder, II: Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen – Gustav Mahler
Kindertotenlieder, III: Wenn dein Mütterlein – Gustav Mahler
Kindertotenlieder, IV: Oft denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen – Gustav Mahler
Kindertotenlieder, V: In diesem Wetter – Gustav Mahler
Le Chemin de Fer, OP. 27 – Charles-Valentin Alkan
Chant des chemins de fer OP 19 No.3: C’est le grand jour, le jour de fête – Hector Berlioz
Simon Boccanegra: Che dicesti? – Giuseppe Verdi
Simon Boccanegra: Che ripose? – Giuseppe Verdi
Simon Boccanegra: Piango perchè mi parla – Giuseppe Verdi
Mystic – Shahram Nazeri & Hafez Nazeri
Kurd Shepherd Melody – Thomas de Hartmann
Kurd Melody from Isfaha – Thomas de Hartmann
Sayyid No, 10– Thomas de Hartmann
Der Erlkönig, D328 – Franz Schubert
An die Entfernte, D.765– Franz Schubert
Turkish March, Op.113 No 4 – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Harmonia Caelestis, No.1 – Péter Esterházy
Harmonia Caelestis, No.6 – Péter Esterházy
Harmonia Caelestis, No.29 – Péter Esterházy
Harmonia Caelestis, No. 55 – Péter Esterházy
Roméo et Juliette, Op17, H, 79, Pt 4 – Hector Berlioz
Hungarian Fantasy, S.123 – Franz Liszt
Grand galop chromatique, S219/R14 – Franz Liszt
Symphonie Fantastique, OP.14: IV – Hector Berlioz
Symphonie Fantastique, OP.14: II – Hector Berlioz
An die ferne Geliebte, op.98: 6 –Ludwig van Beethoven
Le Desert: Part I: Song of the Desert – Félicien David
Le Desert: Part I: Sunrise – Félicien David
Le Desert: Part I: Entry into the desert – Félicien David
Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin Op. 42: – Karol Szymanowski
Scheherazade, Op.35: The story of the Calendar Prince – Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov
Mârouf, savetier du Caire: Dances – Henri Rabaud
The Song of Majnun: Scene 3 – Bright Sheng
Tristan & Isolde: Einleitung – Richard Wagner
Piano Sonata No.32 in C Minor, Op111: II Arietta – Ludwig van Beethoven
Carmen, GB 9 : Prelude (Allegro giocoso) – Georges Bizet
Symphony No.3, Op.27: Chant de la nuit – Karol Szymanowski
Con forza, assai marcato – Robert Schumann
1. Cessation of Breath: Is He Breathing?
He’s not breathing, and he cannot go on like this. He
needs air. Mouth-to-mouth is a fool’s game: you must
not believe that you have enough air for the both of
you. The body should supply itself, but in this it can be
encouraged. Breath begets breath, and life life. One O
says yes to another O and that equals oxygen. One god
nods to the next god, who nods to the next and so on.
Therefore plant plants, as follows:
(i) The chest is just a gathering of shapes as it
is, and it knows full well what it means to be
a shrubbery. There is depth and breadth
enough for soil, and it lends itself naturally
to inhabitance. From there to conurbation.
Drop seeds and sow. It grows in spite of
(ii) The extremities are a framework already in
place: honeysuckles, for example, thrive on
the order inherent in limbs; fingers are the
beginnings of mathematics, and you will
find the sweetpea loops nicely to a ring;
ivies are many and incessant.
(iii) The holes of the head are a blessing. Eye
sockets, in particular, are favourable to
2. Cardiac Arrest: Is There Any Rhythm to Him?
They say: cut the wood yourself and it will warm you
twice. It is the same for the heart – if you beat it, it will
beat. And it is the same with blood – it won’t move
unless you move it. This is the kind of work that must
be done by hand. This is monks and manuscripts. This
is sculpture. This is the work your father did, is where
you came from.
(i) Locate the heart by feeling
(ii) Trace out the gridlocked veins
(iii) Prepare the bell for pealing
(iv) Make fists and take your aim
(v) Pound it till it feels like kissing
(vi) Push the blood between your hands
(vii) Force the heart to miss what’s missing
(viii) Forbid it to neglect its plan
(ix-xii) Of all the laws that you could leave him
Leave him only one:
Hurt could your heart every man
Hurt can his heart none.
The individual soul is under attack and for that reason a “beat” generation existed and will continue to exist under whatever name Rosey generation lost or as Kerouac once prophecied Found until it is found. The soul that is. And a social place for the soul to exist manifested in this world. By soul I mean, that which differs man from thing, i.e. person,—not mere mental consciousness—but feeling bodily consciousness. As long as this tender feeling body is under attack there will continue the expression in Art of the scream or weep or supplication the EXPRESSION in one form or other of that infinite—Self—which still feels thru the smog of Blakeansatanic war mills and noise of electric sighs & spears which is XX century masscommunication.
Uniquely the art work is of one single hand, the mark of individual person: thus in prose developed thru Kerouac Burroughs Selby the nervous transcriptive spontaneous faculty. Thus in poetry the individualized metre reflective of eccentric breathing W. C. Williams thru myself Corso Kerouac Creeley Wieners Snyder etc.
How difficult to sustain this in the USA presently occupying its deepest energies in wars (not against communism for peace has been made with Russia) against the yellow & other races.
Though ten years ago it may have been inconceivable that the great sweet “cassaba melon” as it was called of “American Century” prosperity was really a great psychic hoax a mirage of electronic mass-hypnosis, the real horror, the real evil latent in America from the days of Poe to the Days of Burroughs is clearly visible in the faces of the hate-gangs that crash thru newspaper and Television at last to lay their Ahab curse on the Negro, as they have already laid their Ahab curse on Communism. The spectacle of supposedly respectable elders—Eisenhower the leader of the country himself—sustaining a bid for power by an Android like Goldwater! The choice given—or CHOSEN?—by us between an oldfashioned politician like Johnson, which is to say conservative and an outright Authoritarian rightwinger? We never had a choice between middle and left, we were always stuck between middle and right. Finally it becomes too much to fight. But the stakes are too great to lose—the possession of one’s feelings intact.
There has been an outrage done to my feelings from which I have never recovered tho I’ve talked to Blake and bowed at the feet of many an Indian Guru.
To live in a country which supposedly dominates the entire planet and to be responsible for the outrages of ones own country! Woe to the Germans silent under Hitler woe to the Americans silent now.
I found Margate watching the sea and I walked the streets thinking they had left it sometime in the 70s, like an old street sign hanging pleadingly over shut cafes. It was an old stand-up comedian who had been successful; lived a rock and roll lifestyle; pissed away his money on hookers and gambling; become an alcoholic; and performed the same routine from ’79 in the backs of pubs to old men who all wished they could disappear.
It was a wonderful place. My bag was small, not enough clothes for the time there, and a playlist of Stevie Nicks in my ears that soundtracked the walk up the seafront. Out of place Fleetwood Mac posters, too small for the cases they were in, too old to be hanging along the railings. The B&Bs shouldered each other, grey cream grey again. A pretty town – full of fish and chip shops that didn’t open, and Mayfair packets chased down the road by wind. Spring hadn’t come, which was fair enough, given that the fat woman with the red dyed hair was stood outside Dreamland in a red vest top, shrugging off the grey sky.
The pub served whiskey and cokes that I took my time with, watched one eye on the football score on the screen across from my head. It felt like a holiday. No real worry for my things, which I left across my seat when I stood out front of the pub smoking, listening to people who knew each other, talk. When the pub shut, drunker than I wanted to be, I walked towards the seafront to the line of B&Bs that stood mostly empty. I rang the doorbell, and the Lebanese man turned the key on the other side of the glass door, opening it. Just him and his wife, and a small child that smelt of shit who turned circles in what should have been their living room. A brown desk and an old computer in the corner as their reception area.
– You waiting for somebody? – No. I tell him. – You shouldn’t wait for anyone, he says, – no one is worth it. – No, I say, – it’s just me. – No dirty weekend? he says. – No. – That’s ok, he says, – it’s ok to be here alone, he says, – it’s ok. I paid, took my keys and followed him up to the second floor, where the clean double bed was all I wanted, and the shower pissed over the toilet.
Do you drive? I do not, cannot and will not, but my borderline phobic attitude to the motor car exists in tandem with a genuine, epicurean love for the smell of petrol; just as the olfactory bang of frying garlic hits me with Pavlovian ravenousness, the heady, metallic stench of a petrol station forecourt immediately renders me helplessly vulnerable to the catchpenny tat in the shop. Long car journeys punctuated by filling stops have caused me to invest in copies of magazines I don’t read, CD compilations I will never listen to and truly rebarbative wraps that bear as much resemblance to their advertised ingredients as I do to Lewis Hamilton. In a city, I can resist the onslaught of garish promotions, false economies and super-sized chocolate bars (‘£1 with any purchase!!’), but out at the oases of the A1 and the M4, I’m helpless against the diktats of the convenience store subliminal. As Half Man Half Biscuit put it in their typically facetious single ‘24 Hour Garage People’:
I’ll have ten KitKats and a motoring atlas
Ten KitKats and a motoring atlas –
And a blues CD on the Hallmark label,
That’s sure to be good.
Yeah, right. This litany of rubbish says it all for the British motorist’s consumer opportunities. Yet despite their subtopian architecture, the aforementioned mediocrity of their secondary wares and the faecal stench one encounters if forced to use their facilities, petrol stations hold many associations for me. Most of my childhood memories involve seemingly interminable car journeys between London, Edinburgh and what you might forgive me for calling the Northumbrian outback. We drove abroad, too, once all the way from Dunbar to Barcelona, via London, Troyes and Marseille. I don’t remember what, if anything, we actually did in any of these places, nor do I have much recollection of sitting in the car; in fact, my own distinctly non-linear childhood narrative consists almost exclusively of stopping for lunch in motorway service pitstops.
In Britain, we tend to think of petrol stations – if we think about them much at all – as rather sorry places, sad clusters of concrete and glass flogging off fuel and Heat. Searching for examples of such garages in film and literature, I emailed almost everyone in my address book for suggestions. The response that came in only convinced me of this: ‘What about Alan Partridge? He hangs out in a petrol station’. North Norfolk’s favourite son notwithstanding, my enquiries revealed that the British canon throws up precious few garagistes; I can think of Scott Graham’s profoundly depressing film Shell, set on a small garage in the Highlands where an innocent teenage girl and her epileptic father pump out their lonely living; there is Ballard, of course (though not as interestingly or comprehensively as one might reasonably expect), and Chris Petit’s remarkable 1979 road movie Radio On, in which the protagonist arrives at a very basic petrol station somewhere between London and Bristol where the filling attendant is played by – of all people – Sting.
American lore, though, puts the petrol station in an altogether more exalted position. There is nothing left to say about the Americans and their cars or about the Americans and their oil that is not already a cliché, but the simple fact is that if you’re going to travel the Big Country, at some point you’re going to need to top up the gas. From the immiseration of the Grapes of Wrath to the frontier romance of Edward Hopper’s Gas to Kerouac’s On the Road through to Easy Rider and the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, the filling station – preferably isolated and ever so slightly fly-blown – has become a favourite hangout for American cinema, art and literature.
Over on the Harpers Magazine blog, Browsings, Joe Kloc frankly sums it all up:
Trump announced that he would win the Latino vote, and tweeted a photo of himself eating a taco bowl from Trump Grill in Trump Tower with the message “I love Hispanics!” Trump referred to a black man at one of his rallies as “my African American,” and pledged his support for black people at a gathering of mostly white people in Wisconsin, whom he often referred to as “the forgotten people.” “I am the least racist person,” said Trump, who was sued twice by the Justice Department in the 1970s for allegedly refusing to rent apartments to black tenants, whose Trump Plaza Hotel was fined $200,000 by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission in 1992 for removing black dealers from card tables, who allegedly told a former employee that he hated “black guys counting my money,” who in 2005 floated the idea of pitting an all-black Apprentice team against an all-white one to reflect “our very vicious world,” and who was endorsed by leaders of the Ku Klux Klan, one of whom said, “What he believes, we believe.” Trump tweeted statistics credited to a fictional government agency falsely claiming that the majority of white murder victims in the United States are killed by black people. Trump tweeted a photoshopped picture of Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, who Trump had said “had blood coming out of her wherever,” standing next to a Saudi prince, who tweeted back that he had “financially rescued” Trump twice, including once in 1990, when the prince purchased Trump’s 281-foot yacht, which was formerly owned by a Saudi arms dealer with whom Trump often partied in Atlantic City, and with whom Trump was implicated in a tax-evasion scheme involving a Fifth Avenue jewelry store. Trump disputed former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s claim that Trump magazine is defunct, showing as proof an annual circular for his clubs that was not Trump magazine, which folded in 2009. Trump republished his book Crippled America with the title Great Again. Trump told and retold an apocryphal story about a U.S. general who executed Muslim soldiers with bullets dipped in pig’s blood and proposed that Muslims be banned from entering the country. At the first primary debate, Trump praised his companies’ bankruptcies, including that of Trump Entertainment Resorts, in which lenders lost more than $1 billion and 1,100 employees lost their jobs, and that of Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts, a publicly traded company that Trump used to purchase two casinos for almost $1 billion, and from which he resigned after the company went bankrupt for the first time, but before it went bankrupt for the second time. “I made a lot of money,” said Trump. At the fifth primary debate, Trump defended the idea of retaliating against America’s foreign aggressors by killing non-combatant members of their families, saying it would “make people think.” At the eleventh primary debate, Trump told the crowd there was “no problem” with the size of his penis. Trump said that he knew more about the Islamic State than “the generals,” and that he would “rely on the generals” to defeat the Islamic State. Trump said he would bring back waterboarding and torture because “we have to beat the savages.”
Nobel prize winner Svetlana Alexievich has quit the Russian PEN centre to protest against the expulsion of journalist and activist Sergey Parkhomenko, joining 30 other writers including novelist Boris Akunin and poet Lev Rubinstein leaving the organisation.
Alexievich, who withdrew from the organisation on 11 January, wrote in a statement: “My comment on Parkhomenko’s exclusion [from PEN] can only be my application to leave the Russian PEN, whose founding ideals were cravenly violated. In the perestroika years we took pride in our PEN but now we are ashamed of it. Russian writers acted as subserviently and outrageously only during the Stalinist period. But Putin will go, whereas this shameful page from the history of PEN will stay. And the names will stay, too. We now live through times when we cannot win over evil, we are powerless before the ‘red man’. But he cannot stop time. I believe in that.”
Thirty writers have now left Russian PEN, with many publishing their withdrawal letters online. Akunin – one of Russia’s most widely read contemporary authors of detective fiction – withdrew the day before Alexievich. Akunin said that he felt Russian PEN did not stand for freedom of speech, that it failed to defend persecuted writers and therefore has “nothing in common” with the global network of PEN centres. There are 145 PEN centres in more than 100 countries, working with the core mission “to defend and promote freedom of expression, and to remove barriers to literature”.
As 2016 finally teeters on its last legs, we decided to take a look back over a few of the year’s highlights for us. This year we were proud to publish excellent essays by Dan Fox, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Svetlana Alexievich, and Ben Lerner; as well as works of fiction by John Keene, Ed Atkins, Clemens Meyer, and Agustín Fernández Mallo with the second installment of his brilliant Nocilla triology.
For this blog post we asked a few of our translators, and an author, to reminisce over some of their own cultural highlights of 2016: Charlotte Mandell, Shaun Whiteside, Jen Calleja, and Dan Fox tell us about their most memorable experiences of the year in literature, music, and the arts.
For the past year I’ve been working on my translation of Mathias Énard’s long novel Boussole (Compass), so much of my reading has been connected in some way to that: Edward FitzGerald’s elegant translations of Omar Khayyam; Germain Nouveau’s poetry, in the Pléiade edition that Sarah (one of the main characters) bemoans no longer features him; Xavier de Maistre’s very funny Journey Around My Room. There are so many books mentioned in Compass that it would take years to read them all, but I’d certainly like to try, starting with Leg Over Leg by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, a book that Sarah claims is one of the best novels of the nineteenth century in any language, not just in Arabic.
I suppose the cultural highlight of the year for me was a gorgeous production of the seldom-performed opera Iris by Mascagni, conducted by Leon Botstein, at the Bard Music Festival last July. It was beautifully sung by the soprano Talise Trevigne; the beginning of the third act, with its mysterious, Wagnerian overture, was one of the most haunting things I’ve ever seen in a live performance: Iris is shown falling in slow-motion, while tendrils of smoke rise up from the trash heap below. A screen between her and the audience made it look even more other-worldly and ethereal.
There’s an exciting new publishing collective, an offshoot of Lunar Chandelier Press, called the Lunar Chandelier Collective, which published several innovative poetry books this past year, each one very different from the other: Heart Thread by my husband, Robert Kelly; Uncreated Mirror by a powerful young poet named Tamas Panitz; Waters Of by a lyrical and sensuous poet named Billie Chernicoff; and Porcelain Pillow, a poem that combines memoir and essay, by Thomas Meyer. Robert actually had four books published this year: The Hexagon, a long poem published by Commonwealth Books; Opening the Seals, a meditation on proto-language, published by Autonomedia Press; Heart Thread; and The Secret Name of Now, a selection of shorter, lyrical poems, from Dr. Cicero Press.
One of my favorite novels of the year, The Night Ocean, isn’t actually out yet — we received an advance copy of it from its author, Paul La Farge. Its cast of characters includes H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Barlow, and William S. Burroughs, and the narration is so beautiful and intricately wrought that any summary would do it an injustice.
Finally, I’ve been caught up lately in Nocilla Dream by Agustín Fernández Mallo, from Fitzcarraldo Editions — another difficult-to-summarize novel, having to do with the interconnectedness of things and the illusory nature of reality. It’s elegantly and convincingly translated by Thomas Bunstead. I’m looking forward to the next installment, Nocilla Experience. I’m also very excited about Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems, just out from New Directions: there’s a fascinating article about it by Dan Chiasson in the recent New Yorker, here, with this memorable sentence: “Her idiosyncratic punctuation sometimes feels like triage for the emergency conditions of her muse.”
Charlotte Mandell has translated fiction, poetry, and philosophy from the French, including works by Proust, Flaubert, Genet, Maupassant, Blanchot, and many other distinguished authors. She translated Street of Thieves by Mathias Enard for Fitzcarraldo Editions, and has received many accolades and awards for her translations, including a Literature Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts for Zone, also by Mathias Enard.
At the start of BS Johnson’s pitch-black comic novel Christy Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973), the book’s anti-hero, Christy, begins his adventure by taking an accountancy course. Here he learns the principle of double-entry bookkeeping: for every debit, there must be a corresponding credit. Christy is a miserable young man who rationalizes his dreary lot with the belief that the world has conspired against him. Deciding that the metaphysical books need to be balanced, he begins to apply the double-entry system to his life. Christy draws up a two-column ledger: one for ‘Aggravations’, the other for ‘Recompense.’ Each time life aggravates or ‘debits’ him he awards himself recompense, usually an act of minor vandalism. When for instance, he is forced to take a detour on his way to work, his compensation is to scratch the expensive stonework of a nearby building. As his sense of aggravation grows larger, the credit he demands becomes more gruesome.
What, I wonder, would the accounts look like for the calendrical crock of cowshit that called itself 2016?
Donald Trump and related misery
22% of Great Barrier Reef coral dead
Record decline in Arctic sea ice
Pulse nightclub shooting, Orlando
Murder of Jo Cox
Death of David Bowie
Death of Prince
Death of Pauline Oliveros
Death of Sonia Rykiel
Death of Leonard Cohen
Death of Leonard of Mayfair
Death of Malick Sidibe
Death of Alan Vega
Death of Doris Lamar-McLemore (last speaker of the Wichita language)
Death of William Christenberry
Death of Jenny Diski
Death of Victoria Wood
Death of Harper Lee
Death of William Trevor
Death of Sharon Jones
Death of Kenny Baker
Death of David Mancuso
Death of Raoul Coutard
Death of Elaine Lustig Cohen
Death of David Antin
Death of Dario Fo
Death of Prince Buster
Death of Don Buchla
Death of Edward Albee
Death of Elie Wiesel
Death of Caroline Ahearne
Death of Abbas Kiarostami
Death of Billy Name
Death of Tunga
Death of Peter Shaffer
Death of Bernie Worrell
Death of Tony Feher
Death of Alvin Toffler
Death of Carla Lane
Death of Tony Conrad
Death of Ken Adam
Death of Merle Haggard
Death of Umberto Eco
Death of Pierre Boulez
Death of Alan Rickman
Death of Terry Wogan
Death of Jacques Rivette
Death of Zsa Zsa Gabor
Death of Scooter, the oldest cat in the USA
This myopically Western-centric and mostly arts-fixated list could go on. I am stumped for ‘Recompense’ line items that could truly balance the bereavement, fear, heartbreak and anger that the past year has brought. Nothing on my roll-call of admiration and pleasure is going to stop climate denial or bring down Donald Trump. But these talismans of open-minded thought, empathy and action serve as a reminder for me to keep going.
Denzil Forrester, White Columns, New York, and Tramps, London
Mark Leckey, ‘Containers and Their Drivers’, MoMA PS1, New York
Marc Camille Chaimowicz, The Serpentine Gallery, London
Paulina Olowska, Metro Pictures, New York
Bruce Conner, Museum of Modern Art, New York
Jessi Reeves, Bridget Donahue Gallery, New York
Danny Lyon, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Kerry James Marshall, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Diane Simpson, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Nicole Eisenman, New Museum and Anton Kern Gallery, New York
Lukas Duwenhogger, Artists Space, New York
‘The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissim’ by Kristin Dombek
‘Respectable: The Experience of Class’ by Lynsey Hanley
‘The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories’ by Lynne Tillman
‘Here is Information. Mobilize.’ by Ian White
‘Embrace of the Serpent’
‘A Bigger Splash’
‘Lodestar’, Shirley Collins
‘Last Signs of Speed’, Eli Keszler
‘Juarez’ and ‘Lubbock (on everything)’, Terry Allen
‘We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service’, A Tribe Called Quest
Borealis Festival, Bergen. (At this small, yet brilliant music festival, I discovered the stunningly strange father and daughter improvised pop duo Yeah You; a blistering footwork set from Jlin, the hypnotic Egyptian Females Experimental Music Session, and the premiere of Object Collection’s new opera ‘It’s All True’ – based on the complete archive of recorded gigs by the post-hardcore band Fugazi.)
The two works that made the biggest impression on me bookended the year. In January, it was a song: ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, the final cut on David Bowie’s final curtain album, Blackstar, released days before his death. Opening with warm string synths in respirating refrain, as if struggling for breath, and a plaintive harmonica line that directly echoes Bowie’s 1977 track ‘A New Career in a New Town’ (what better description could there be for an afterlife?), the song begins with an admission with anxiety about the future; ‘I know something’s very wrong…’ Over skittering drums, and an increasingly frenetic saxophone, the words ‘I can’t give everything away’ are a line being drawn between the personal and private, or a defiant assertion of personal sovereignty. I’ve given you all the love I can, it seems to say, but now I must take care of myself or I will be reduced to nothing.
In December I saw Arthur Jafa’s seven-and-a-half minute video ‘Love is the Message, The Message is Death’ at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York. Cut to Kanye West’s song ‘Ultralight Beam’, Jafa’s video pulls together reportage footage, cellphone video, and archival film of police shootings, civil rights marches, block parties, iconic performances by black musicians, and the burning surface of the sun. West’s sparse, roboticized gospel track –problematised by the singer’s recent support of Donald Trump – wrings pathos from the multiple video textures on screen, from the high-res to the low-grade and pixellated. Jafa’s film has the quality of a trailer for a documentary, a tantalising promise of a longer cinematic survey of African American social history, but its compressed expression of the complexities, contradictions, tragedies and triumphs of the black experience in the USA is gut-wrenching. I don’t know what could possibly balance the books.
Dan Fox is a writer, musician, and co-editor of frieze magazine, Europe’s foremost magazine of art and culture. He is based in New York, and has published Pretentiousness: Why it Matters this year with Fitzcarraldo Editions.
What a year. Book-ended (more or less) by two black-edged farewells: Blackstar and You Want it Darker, just in case the message of 2016 hadn’t got through. Both rare much more than coded farewells, and have seldom been off the stereo in our house. Goodbye, Bowie and Len.
In literature, the great event for me was Sam Garrett’s translation of the Dutch classic The Evenings by Gerard Reve, first published in 1946 and never before translated into English. It’s a dark, existential sitcom, very unsettling and in places very funny indeed. As a Dutch commentator described it: “Nothing happens, and it seems to have been written by a psychopath.” Well done, Pushkin Press, and worth the 70-year wait.
The exhibition has to be Bosch in ‘sHertogenbosch: the weirdness of the late medieval imagination laid bare in a comprehensive show bringing together works from all over the world, except the ones in the Prado, which it eventually joined when the show moved there. Wonderful.
In film, my favourite was the touching, subtle and ultimately conciliatory divorce drama After Love by Joachim Lafosse. He coaxes extraordinary performances from his actors, not least from the children.
But the most heart-stopping experience of all, on every level, was Akram Khan’s Giselle at Sadler’s Wells, to a semi-industrial score by Vincenzo Lamagna. This borrowed not only from classical ballet and Martha Graham, but from Bollywood and, most dramatically, Japanese horror movies. It was quite stunning, with dancers constantly transformed from objects into people and back into objects again. The scary second half in particular was a real treat, and Alina Cojocaru was of course amazing. Would almost restore your faith in humanity.
Shaun Whiteside is a translator from French, German, Italian and Dutch. His translations from French include novels by Amélie Nothomb, Patrick Rambaud, Michèle Desbordes, Georges-Marc Benamou, and Georges Simenon, as well as works of non-fiction by Pierre Bourdieu and Anne Sinclair. He translated Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint for Fitzcarraldo Editions, and lives in London.
Exhibition – Helen Marten, Tate Britain/Serpentine Gallery
I went to see the Turner Prize with a very good friend of mine and we both experienced a kind of epiphany when we saw Marten’s work. Afterwards we bought her book Parrot Problems, and while flicking through saw that she was due to have a solo exhibition at the Serpentine. We headed straight there and spent what felt like hours taking in her poetic reflection of contemporary life, it’s almost as if it’s everything in existence refracted through dreams back into materiality and image. I couldn’t be happier for her win (the last time I fell in awe with a Turner Prize winner was Richard Wright, I think) and I especially commend and celebrate her sharing of her prize money with the other artists shortlisted (for the second time in as many months) against the winner/loser hierarchy.
Fiction – Michelle Steinbeck, Mein Vater war ein Mann an Land und im Wasser ein Walfisch (My Father was a Man on Land and a Whale in the Water) & Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers
I’m currently in Zurich working on my first novel and I’ve been savouring this short book by Swiss writer Steinbeck. It’s a dark contemporary fairy tale where anything can happen, and opens with a woman accidently killing a child with an iron, stuffing it in a suitcase and being told by a wise woman to track down her father to give the suitcase to him. One critic said that she had to be sick in the head to write something like this but to write this kind of thing you have to be absolutely attuned to the structures of reality and your own consciousness. This book isn’t translated into English yet, sorry. But you can read a review in English in the latest issue of New Books in German.
I read Max’s GITTWF – that just won its one hundredth award this week – on a flight to Italy. Well actually, I read it within the first hour or so and didn’t have anything else to read for the rest of the flight. In that short time I laughed, cheered, was left breathless, and then left devastated. For a writer also writing a novel in juxtaposing fragments it’s got a reassuringly small word count and a massive impact that still wakes me in the middle of the night or interrupts my thoughts while waiting in queues.
Poetry – Jack Underwood, Happiness
Jack’s poetry has spoken to me for years and he definitely made me feel that there was a place in poetry for my kind of writing and the kinds of things I wanted to write about. I’ve returned to this book may times this year, soothed by the melancholic hesitancy, depiction of personal embarrassment and unstoppable worrying.
Non-Fiction – Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts & Chris Kraus, I Love Dick.
These have been two life- and game-changing books for many people. I did that whole ‘resist the hype’ thing I always do and then bought Nelson based on a recommendation from a friend who then bought me Kraus because she was moving to Australia. Just the quality of writing, the integrally experimental forms, and the unsurpassable honesty of both books have changed autobiographical, essay and feminist writing forever. Rebecca May Johnson and I are making loose plans to start a reading group next year and these will be the first two books for sure.
Record – Anxiety, Anxiety
Glasgow’s Anxiety made the perfect punk record. It’s not just the record though, they break out the best unhinged, be-gloved live show I’ve seen since getting to watch Vexx many times around the UK last year. After listening to this record constantly, you should listen to frontman Michael Kasparis’ solo project Apostille, which sounds pleasant on record, but live is like watching a mean and sarcastic wailing goblin addicted to dancing sweating profusely over various electronics, and bassist Helena Celle’s new synth record is subterranean and distorted, absorbingly submerged like it’s bubbling up out of water.
Jen Calleja is a writer and literary translator from German. She translated Nicotine by Gregor Hens for Fitzcarraldo Editions and her debut collection of poetry Serious Justice is published by Test Centre. She is currently translating Kerstin Hensel for Peirene Press and Wim Wenders for Faber & Faber. Throughout December and January she is index writer in residence working on her first novel.
Last week Anna Aslanyan caught up with writer, filmmaker, and psychogeographist Iain Sinclair in the wake of the publication of his latest book My Favourite London Devils. For the Times Literary Supplement, they talk about the memories that haunt his writing of London:
“You couldn’t imagine anything like this here”, Iain Sinclair said, gesturing at the interior of Burley Fisher Books, a year-old venture in Dalston. Sinclair has lived in and tirelessly explored this part of East London for nearly half a century; back in the 1970s, he ran his Albion Village Press from home and was a “trader in forlorn and forgotten literature”, selling books from stalls. The new bookshop, in the middle of what has been branded the coolest place in Britain by the media, sells books and bagels by day, while by night, true to its promise to “be an asset to the local community”, it runs events.
It was packed for the recent launch of Sinclair’s new book My Favourite London Devils, a collection of essays dedicated to authors who, like himself, found their muse in London. Written over the past decade and a half, these pieces were recovered from storage and revised by Sinclair. Read together, they prove yet again that London is an inexhaustible theme, and that Sinclair’s take on it never stands still, mirroring the city in flux.
The book’s subjects range from famous to “eternally rediscovered”, to “reforgotten” – until, that is, Sinclair got on to them. Joseph Conrad – who on his return from the Congo was treated at the German Hospital in Dalston – and his The Secret Agent (1907) are mentioned in a piece written in the wake of the 7/7 bombings. One vignette shows Peter Ackroyd at a poetry reading in Earl’s Court, and together with another of the devils, Michael Moorcock, he and Sinclair have an eventful night out. Ackroyd has said that Sinclair’s poem “Lud Heat” was an inspiration for his novel Hawksmoor (1985).