Category: Fitzcarraldo Editions

Esther Kinsky and Caroline Schmidt on gardens

While in lockdown, Esther Kinsky, author of River and Grove, and Caroline Schmidt, translator of Grove from German to English, have both been focusing on gardening. Here they share one of their email exchanges about gardening and photographs of their successes.

(EK to CS, May 29 2020)
How is your little cherry tree doing that seemed like a shivering waif in the March sunlight? One of my cherry trees in the orto (planted last year) has five immaculate cherries to show for itself. The fruit tree miracle is my peach tree, also planted last year, which is full of little flat vineyard peaches. 

But the flowers! The first wave of rose bloom is already over, and unfortunately my great project of having an old English climbing rose (nicely named ‘Shropshire Lass’) intertwine itself with a late blooming violet Clematis on the rose arch hasn’t worked out, they’ve just missed each other, the tips are touching, but the lass has finished her first bloom (rosy white, as befits the name) while the clematis is only just coming out and looking a bit stark with nothing but the thin black iron of the rose arch to match its deep violet. Maybe next year they shall wed.

My seven English roses have all survived my learning curve here in Italy, some are thriving more than others. Roses are such strange creatures, they are characters really, sometimes they make me think of cats because they also do as they please. But probably I’m just an impatient and inconsistent gardener, too greedy for beauty. Apart from that, I’m almost aghast at the size and copiousness of my snapdragon (up to my shoulders), Sweet William, and Nigella, and Echinacea. The former two come from a 70 cent Lidl seed packet, I have to confess (I hate Lidl and usually limit my shopping there to cat food, but the seeds have proved to be quite something). I really recommend Nigella, these wispy flowers in so many shades of blue, very undemanding, after the blossom they form pretty seeds pods, and the seeds make a wonderful spice (black cumin).

Last year’s English poppies have self seeded and are now, probably after some cross fertilisation with the wild red poppies, developing the most amazing colours and colour effects, I attach a few photos, they are so delicate and short lived, and that’s why their beauty is so touching. I hope we’ll manage an Olson week this year and you’ll see the garden.

Did I tell you how much I like your project to offer a kind of collaborative residency? Maybe I can come and contribute something one day, and write a text about Altfriedland, the birds, the Wende.. But I’m not good at building work, so you’d have to find something else for me. Sewing curtains, or gardening. A week of weeding! Not such a nightmare in the sandy soil of the Mark, as Martin used to say. Apparently the Mark Brandenburg was called the sandpit of Europe in the 18th/19th century. (The Friuli is charmingly named the pissoir of Europe because of the precipitation). Considering the martial inclinations of the Prussians the name is rather deceptive.

 

(CS to EK, June 2 2020)

Your flowers are gorgeous, and you’ve convinced me to take a trip to Lidl the next time I’m in Seelow.

Helga says it was a bad year for peaches. She is 80 and lives alone. Every evening she sits down on her veranda and says to her garden: ich weiss du bringst mich um, aber ich liebe dich!

Whenever I water the garden, I imagine the neighbours are rolling their eyes, thinking: there she goes again, giving the weeds a drink! But being a negligent gardener has its advantages. After avoiding eye contact with our blackberry bushes for days, which were drowning in stinging nettle, I was pleasantly surprised to find they had sprouted three squash plants, as big as squirrels. The seeds must have come from the compost.

And when you don’t have a lawn, you have other things, like Storchschnabel. The seedpods are nutty, supposedly; they tasted green to me. Still, I appreciate that the name invites you to see them as beaks.

Reading Aloud Allowed

Antonia Lloyd-Jones, translator from Polish, describes her experience of reading her own translation for the audiobook recording of DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD by 2018 Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk

When Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, was shortlisted for several prizes including the Man Booker International award in 2019, there were a number of public promotional events, at which I did readings from the book. To maximise the opportunity, I never read the same extract twice. I chose dialogue-free extracts, and made the unconventional narrator sound eccentric, to catch the audience’s attention, and give them an idea of the whole book – black comedy, with this strange character at its heart. These readings were well received, and even though the book didn’t win any prizes, I was rewarded by kind comments and excellent sales. To my surprise, several people asked if I was going to read the audiobook. I hadn’t heard of a translator doing that, but authors read their own work, so why not? I asked Jacques Testard, the publisher, if it was possible. He liked the idea, but although hoping to make an audiobook, he didn’t yet have the resources.

Meanwhile the much larger American publisher was planning to record one, so I offered my services, but was told I sounded too British. The job went to an American professional actress of Polish origin, who read it with a mild Polish accent, and won an award for her reading. I was disappointed, but realised I’d expected too much. I thought the whole thing was off and forgot about it.

Almost a year later, Jacques told me that Fitzcarraldo had received a grant to make some audiobooks, and would I still like to record Drive Your Plow… for the UK market? I immediately said yes, although I knew it would be a challenge.

 

How to get it wrong

The recording schedule was tough – three days to read 268 pages. I felt nervous on the first day, and soon discovered that I wasn’t properly prepared. Of course I knew the text well, but I had never read the whole thing aloud to an audience before, just short, self-contained pieces, for a few minutes at a time, to make an impression quickly.

On that first day I expected to record six chapters, but after four, Kate Bland, the audiobook producer, said she thought we’d better stop to allow Tamara Sampey-Jawad – the Fitzcarraldo editor responsible for their audiobooks – to hear it, and decide if that was what they wanted. It was obvious from her tone that it wasn’t what she would have wanted. I asked her to tell me straight what I was doing wrong. She was diplomatic, but made some general suggestions: I wasn’t differentiating the characters well enough in the dialogues, and I wasn’t getting the pace right for long sections where the narrator describes a scene at length, or expounds one of her bizarre theories.

I was crestfallen – so I was out of my league. As someone with no professional training, I’d been presumptuous to imagine I could do this. I was afraid Tamara would listen to the recording, agree with Kate, and ask me to stop. Instead, she liked it, and I was back on board. But I knew I should listen to Kate’s warning. I asked to defer the recording to give me time to do some more thinking, and to prepare properly.

 

How to get it right, possibly

In my efforts to find a new approach, first I consulted friends: an actor who has recorded lots of audiobooks, and a theatre director. They gave good advice, and prompted me to listen to some existing audiobooks with a new ear. I also read the entire book again, aloud, to rehearse, which earned me some funny looks on public transport.

As I read, I highlighted the dialogue to give myself visual cues for the lines spoken by different characters. I realised that I shouldn’t give them accents or strong quirks of speech, because I wouldn’t remember who spoke how, it would be hard to keep up, and it could sound off-putting or patronising. Instead I simply had to alter the tone to reflect who was speaking and what they were saying – act the lines, as it were, and pause between them to allow the listener to keep pace with changes of speaker.

Most importantly, I realised, or rather remembered, that the narrator was the key to the whole reading. When I translated the book to be read on paper, I had made sure that although the central character, Janina Duszejko, is plainly eccentric, she shouldn’t be too weird, or the reader wouldn’t want to stick with her to the final page. For the purposes of the story, ideally the reader needs to sympathise with her, even though she’s a rebellious non-conformist who rubs people up the wrong way. More than that, the reader needs to become complicit with her as she embarks on some unusual behaviour. I think she sounds quite stylised in Polish, and it works, but for English-language readers I instinctively feel she should be a little less overtly strange, so in my translation I reined her in a bit, to make sure the reader found her likeable as well as odd.

Now I realised that I needed to do the same thing for the listener. Reading aloud adds another layer of interpretation – reading off the page for themselves, the readers understand the text in their own way, but the actor reading the audiobook inevitably interprets, influencing the listeners’ response. While in short bursts at public events it had been all right for me to add a tone to tell the audience that Duszejko is eccentric, that was the worst thing I could do when reading the entire book. It would become annoying after an hour or two – and that’s what Kate had picked up on. I was making the narrator too alien, and ultimately unsympathetic.

So I took a new approach, and read it straightforwardly, as me, rather than the way I imagined the character might sound in real life. And it all fell into place – reading it without encumbering myself by “acting” the narrator allowed me to change the pitch, pace and tone when I actually needed to. I felt much more relaxed when I came to do the recording, and wasn’t fazed by the dialogues either. Of course I can’t be the judge of the result, but Kate seemed happy with my change of approach.

 

How it works in practice

If you’re wondering how audiobooks are made, the producer sits you down in a recording studio, carefully adjusting the seat and the position of the microphone to make sure you’re comfortable. Then she shuts you in there alone, taking her place on the other side of a glass screen, at a computer showing the sound levels. She speaks to you through a microphone, occasionally making useful comments. In my case, the book was on a stand in front of me as I read, and I made pauses to turn the page, a noise that has to be edited out afterwards.

It’s impossible to read for long without fluffing. Some sentences took several goes, making me feel like a scratched CD that’s juddering. Some words just decide to be bolshie: I had trouble with ‘retrograde’, ‘particularly’, and ‘deaths’. Thankfully, the producer removes all the false starts, coughs and splutters, making the recording sound smooth as silk. So yes, there is some mild cursing, but it ends up on the cutting-room floor.

The text included two songs, one very famous, but on my theatre director’s advice I didn’t attempt to sing, but spoke them. I had to check in advance some dates in German, and how to pronounce some unusual words, including ‘adipocere’, ‘Ephemerides’, ‘pyknic’ and ‘butyric’. Oh, and Cucujus haematodes.

Of course, as the translator, I couldn’t resist making a few tiny amendments as I read, and even found a mistake, where a ‘not’ had been left out, so the audiobook is slightly different from the printed edition.

And it was bloody hard work – try reading 104 pages aloud in a period of six hours with two half-hour breaks. After the first day I felt as if I’d swallowed tin tacks. Hurray for Strepsils and especially for (disgusting but effective) Vocalzone throat pastilles, honey and lemon juice.

 

What I learned

Even after translating this book, reading the whole text aloud showed it to me in a fresh light. It confirmed what I knew, that Olga Tokarczuk is a brilliant writer. Perhaps only a former psychotherapist could have created the extraordinary Janina Duszejko, who talks a lot of truth and common sense, but who can also come across as seriously unwell and out of control. Reading it again so intensely made me have new feelings about Duszejko – she partly inspired me as I found myself sympathising with her often extreme views about animal rights and human folly, and she partly made me want to get away from her at high speed as she gradually slid off the rails.

Perhaps some people will like my reading, and some won’t – the sound of someone else’s voice is a personal thing. But I hope I’ve done justice to Olga Tokarczuk and her extraordinary creation, Janina Duszejko.

Thank you to everyone at Fitzcarraldo Editions and Cast Iron Radio.

Dispatches

A diary from Esther Kinsky, Friuli, Italy

In Italy we’re in the third week of lockdown now. People are still friendly, patient, polite, considerate, but tempers are fraying. For children and adolescents, this is the fourth week without school. The fourth week of patchy online teaching, clueless parents, absent grandparents – the latter being the ones who have to be protected from the mythical beast of spring 2020.  The empty streets, the silence, even the absence of traffic – all this is beginning to feel leaden and bleak. I look at the village in this dove grey dusk in March and wonder – shall we ever return to thinking first and foremost of Paul Celan’s poem when we read or hear the C-word? 

Nevertheless, it’s good to be in the country. The deserted streets of a city must be even harder to bear. People have their gardens here. There’s chatting across the fence. My eighty-year-old neighbour is worried about his potatoes. They should’ve been planted during the last lunar phase – potato planting only under waning moon – but his field is three kilometres away. He’s worried about running into a control officer. Potatoes wouldn’t be a good enough reason for the ‘Autocertificazione’, the form one has to fill out and carry for every errand now, in case of a police control. ‘We’ll have to wait’, my neighbour says, with some sadness. ‘Perhaps we’ll just plant them under the luna giovane’ – the young moon. What a beautiful expression, pronounced with such melancholy. Meanwhile, a cold wind has descended from the north. The light is very bright, and the mountains seem so near, very blue, every crag and rocky excrescence visible. The patches of snow on the peaks glistening. A world beyond reach for lack of a good enough reason.

Esther Kinsky is the author of River and Grove, a novel of grief, love and landscape, published in April 2020.

An Extract: River

An excerpt from Esther Kinsky’s River (tr. Iain Galbraith), published today:

V. PINHOLE CAMERA

My flat was not far from Abney Park Cemetery. Had I leaned out of the bay window in my front room I would have been able to see the cemetery gate whose defiant grandeur stood out from everything else in the area, even from the cemetery behind it. On a walk some years earlier, I had taken a detour through the cemetery. It was springtime, and there were small clumps of yellow and white blooming daffodils everywhere. Although I had not been alone at the time and was given all kinds of explanations about the history of the graves, the cemetery had seemed like a deep forest to me, a dank and musty island, half-wild, drifting in the river of the city. At the time I should not have been surprised to stumble out through one of the two gates into a London that was wholly different from the one I had previously entered from. Now that I was so near to this forest full of graves, I rarely visited it. It was autumn. Poisonous flowers blossomed in the shade of the tall trees and brushwood; the leaves rustled after a dry summer, but had retained their tired green instead of turning yellow. The cemetery seemed like an incongruous counter to the wilderness beyond the river Lea, which lay in the opposite direction. The cemetery belonged to the city; it was a small outgrowth from it, not an island in a river. There was no surprise for me to look forward to on leaving the gate at the other end of the cemetery; in fact, that way led towards my old London life, whose familiarity I wished to slough off. I confined myself to short tours between the graves, trees, flowers and undergrowth. I avoided little groups of drug dealers and their customers, and the dreamy visitors sitting on graves in the few patches of sunlight.

One day, in the middle of the cemetery, I came across a young girl and her boyfriend in a clearing. She had a pale, drained face, and was looking up with a timid, rapt expression at her companion, a large black man sitting very upright on a tree trunk or gravestone. He was staring into the bushes, but his gaze was so earnest and lofty that he seemed to be looking over the tops of the trees, into some uncharted yonder. The girl reminded me of a sepulchral angel, its face worn by wind and weather; her skin was like porous stone, and her features had a certain flatness, as if they had been sandpapered to erase severity. But she had lovely long red hair, and I secretly called her Sonja because she reminded me of a character in Chekhov. A few days later I saw Sonja in the cemetery by herself; she was sitting in a different part of the clearing, where she had set up a pinhole camera to take a picture. I asked her about the camera, which she had balanced with some difficulty on a tree trunk, and she explained its simple construction. On windless days the pictures can look like delicate sketches, she said. And sometimes they show angels.

Sonja was a firm believer in the pinhole camera. She showed me all kinds of wondrous phenomena made possible by the device: the reproduction of images; bringing to light the invisible. She went on to explain how leaves also acted as a kind of pinhole camera; the spots of light observable under foliage on a sunny day were countless tiny suns. Countless tiny suns, she repeated. It was a chilly, whitish-grey day, and I thought of the three suns seen by members of an expedition to the ice-wastes of the North Pole four centuries ago. 

I would sometimes meet Sonja on the street, or in the second-hand clothes shop a few houses away from my flat. The shop was managed by a thin-lipped Croat, who professed to be running the place on behalf of a Bosnian charity. It was chock-a-block with stuff: clothes, suitcases, toys, shoes. I ran into Sonja a couple of times there trying on shoes. She didn’t like them, or they didn’t fit her, and on one of these occasions the thin-lipped man went to the back of the shop and reappeared with a large rubbish bag full of shoes, which he proceeded to empty onto the floor in front of Sonja. At last she found one that suited and fitted her, whooping with joy at how lovely it was as she rummaged in the shoe-heap; its other half was nowhere to be found. Sonja left the shop without purchasing anything. The Croat calmly picked up the dumped shoes, including the single one, and put them back in the bag.

To avoid having to search my house-moving boxes for crockery I bought some tea glasses from the Croat, and a metal teapot tarnished by constant scrubbing during its years of service in some canteen or cheap roadside café. The Croat stood behind his makeshift shop counter, where some pieces of jewellery were displayed. This was a motley jumble of brooches and rings, which the donors may have overlooked on lapels or in pockets as they hurried to stuff the clothes into bags. The Croat gave me the odd bit of advice as I studied the jewellery. This brooch was very becoming, or that ring showed off my hand very nicely, but I was not persuaded. 

Sonja worked in a small grocer’s next to the charity for Bosnian refugees. I sometimes met her there. On one occasion I wanted to tell her about my instant pictures, indeed I had even prepared a little talk in my head about the relationship between these pictures and memory, but the talk went awry, my words sounded muddled, and she regarded me with disbelief. I mistrust memory, she said. The next time we met, she mentioned that she had started work on a photographic study. She mumbled an attempt to explain the study to me. You know, she said, beauty, light, reality, that sort of thing. A kind of law. Her voice became ever quieter, and I could barely understand what she was saying, but when I gave her a quizzical look, she shrugged her shoulders. A kind of law, she repeated, craning her face so far forward that it almost came up against my own. What is actually beautiful in what we see? she asked so suddenly and loudly that the few other customers in the shop turned to look. Following this conversation I stayed away from the shop, but a few weeks later Sonja came to see me. She was pregnant. Her features had become sharper; the weather-worn stone angel was no more, while her red hair, plaited into a braid, hung down in front of her shoulder. She lowered her eyes and soft bluish eyelids; she was no longer Sonja but a pre-Raphaelite vignette. That day at the grocer’s she had handed in her notice; she intended to move to a houseboat on the Lea. As a farewell gift she had brought me two photographs she had taken with her pinhole camera. On one of them I recognized a view of the garden behind where I lived: the flat gravel-strewn roof, the sycamore, the window of my small room, where I had so often stood. For a moment I was taken aback; I felt watched, and caught at trying to memorize things. The window of the little room looked empty, however; there was no sign of any figure.

The other picture showed Sonja’s clearing at Abney Park Cemetery: the trees, grass, half-overgrown gravestones, the deserted tree stump where she had sat with her friend. It really did look like a drawing.

An angel! she said, pointing to a thin, apparently hovering white shape in the bottom corner of the picture of the clearing. It was a blot of the kind that had occasionally appeared in the photos I took with my old instant camera: white shadows, caused by light penetrating the primitive casing. 

Thank you, I said. It’s very beautiful.

Sonja, who since her metamorphosis may have been called Gabriella, took her leave. She walked slowly and ponderously, not towards the Abney Park Cemetery, but in the other direction. I began to imagine her in Springfield Park, where, who knows, she might cross paths with the King, but then I saw her turning down the lane that ran along between my back garden and the embankment above the train station. The moment she vanished I was no longer certain I would recognize her if I saw her again in a different place. 

I gave the two pinhole photographs a place in my flat. And there they stood, one at either end of the series I had taken of the Lea, like two distant relatives from a branch of the family thought to have withered away.

(…)

An Extract: The Second Body

From Daisy Hildyard's new book out today

An extract from Daisy Hildyard’s new book The Second Body, published today:

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I was alone in my kitchen when I noticed a small brown pigeon on the floor. The pigeon made a squeaking sound when I approached it, and I realized it couldn’t fly. I crouched down until I was close enough to see the threads of pale fluff sticking out of its neck feathers: it must have been young. I tried to catch it but it was slipperier than I’d have expected – it went out of my hands like a fish. We stood looking at each other for a short while, and then I tried again. For a few seconds I had it in my grasp, and it did occur to me then that I could have wrung its neck and eaten it but I didn’t – I put it in the shed, and cared for it for a while. It was quite greedy and fell off the edge of a bucket once while trying to get at seed. Its legs leaned at an angle over its claws: L. The talons curved up out of the ends of each toe and didn’t seem to actually touch the ground when it walked. It was definitely using its eyes – I could only look at one of its eyes at a time. A very round pale brown eye which blinked. I could see its mind in its body. It turned its head every few seconds to get a proper view of me. 
     I fed my pigeon every morning for several weeks. It still wouldn’t fly. I was worried it would be attacked by a rat – we’ve had rats in the yard – and one day I lost patience. I thought: it has to live for itself. I turned my pigeon outside and closed the shed door. The pigeon spent hours scuffling around on the concrete, and I nearly went out to collect it and let it back in, but then suddenly it was up on the roof. I didn’t see it get there, and it rested for a while. Perhaps it will fall, I thought, but I was watching when two other pigeons, both grey, both larger than my pigeon, came for it. They were all on the grey roof together and then they all, at the same time, opened their wings and floated into the air, incredibly slowly. They were close together, and their wings made a kind of dome shape from where I was standing. It didn’t look like they were flying so much as it looked like they were being pulled into space. I could see the three of them lifted further, and eventually they were so far away that I couldn’t see them. It was December and the sky was almost white. Afterwards I went to the sink and cleaned and dried my hands. It was strange that the pigeon had previously been constrained by them. 

It was around the same time that I started noticing the other animals. In the newspaper I saw images of eleven hippopotami which floated, dead, down a river in Binga, Zimbabwe. Dozens of barn owls fallen onto the Interstate-84 in Idaho. Tonnes of fish silvering the beaches in Montevideo, Uruguay. Hundreds of reindeer strewn across a plateau in southern Norway, after a freak storm. 
     Closer to home, I saw images of the corpses of sperm whales which had washed up on the coast at Skegness in England, some way to the south of where I live. I saw photographs of the bodies of pilot whales which had washed up, a few weeks later, on the coast in Fife in Scotland, some way to the north of where I live. I saw images of winter-resident waxwings arriving at a wetland reserve not far from my house. Usually only a few hundred waxwings settle there for the season, but this last year thousands and thousands and thousands of them came – when they appeared over the horizon, the sky grew dark. In the summer, a study published in the journal Nature reviewed 370,000 ecological records from 1960 to 2012, and found that the seasons themselves were slowly drifting out of place.
     While my small brown pigeon was flying away from me, it felt like these strange and prodigious animals were coming closer. I hadn’t really noticed them before and then suddenly they seemed to be all over the place, landing on the beaches or bombing out of the sky. But still, none of these animals felt like they had anything to do with my pigeon because they just weren’t as real. Their strange behaviour was more like a representation of something and I found it difficult to put my finger on what exactly it was. I looked online at shots of chromosomes, hydrocarbon data, satellite images. I watched impressions of pure white ice shelves breaking off and floating away. But all those things, like the owls and the Uruguayan fish, seemed to embody a truth which felt conceptual or abstract to me. The pigeon, on the other hand, even if it was flightless and unable to live on its own, even if the squeaking sound it made was sometimes annoying, and could not realistically be called a coo, even so, it was definitely there and I had become involved with it. My pigeon and I found time for one another every day. In my job, I speak to people who work with animals, and they, too, often give me an impression that there are different ways to exist in a body: that there are truths about any body – your body – which are not quite the same as the reality of that body’s everyday life. The things I know to be true, in an abstract sense: satellite images, shots of chromosomes, hydrocarbon spreadsheets – they don’t always feel real. Meanwhile, the real, fleshy, living bodies, going about their business, cleaning their kitchens or trying to get at their seed, falling off their buckets – they don’t feel like they have much to do with the complicated truth about what is happening to life on earth. I find it hard to make myself much interested in this truth – it feels far off. I don’t want to hear about climate change or the biosphere, I want to hear about real people and real creatures. But there is a sense that the sky is getting dark and the horizon is moving nearer – that I should be paying attention, because one day the distant ice shelf will come ripping through the tissue of my body – through every body – even if it appears, for now, that the bodies all around me are intact.

What does all this have to do with you? Everything. What do an American barn owl, a Zimbabwean hippopotamus and a Norwegian reindeer have in common? What they have in common is that they all have a relationship with your body – they are all, in some sense, your responsibility. There is a way of speaking which implicates your body in everything on earth. Dead whales have something to do with you, the disorientation of the waxwing is indirectly your problem, the freak storm and the changing seasons are consequences of actions performed by your body. Meanwhile, in the human world, there are car bombs going off in Baghdad every day. Does this have anything at all to do with you? Moreover, a teenager in Kolkata is missing a thumb and you are wearing a pair of inexpensive gloves. Is there any connection there? 
     The idea that a human body can be responsible for something which bears no tangible relation to it or to its immediate surroundings is not a new idea. In the scriptures, God sends down plagues and floods when men are misbehaving. In Macbeth, strange things that happen in nature, which seem at first to be spooky and supernatural, end up being logical – too logical, really – technical and fussy. When the horses eat each other in the stables, there is a feeling that something is about to go wrong; it does. The witches predict that none of woman born will harm Macbeth, and that he will be undefeated until Great Birnam Wood, to high Dunsinane Hill/Shall come against him. Later, he is killed by Macduff, who was from his mother’s womb/Untimely ripped – and therefore not, in the phrasing of the time, of woman born. The forces that come to depose Macbeth come hidden behind branches which they lop off trees in Great Birnam Wood to take with them on the advance to Dunisnane Hill. Everything that happens, political and natural, is an effect of human acts, but the reasons are so obscenely down-to-earth that it takes a leap of imagination to perceive it. 
    This idea of a body which can reach over to the other side of the world is not one we tend to speak of in everyday language right now. In normal life, a human body is rarely understood to exist outside its own skin – it is supposed to be inviolable. The language of the human animal is that of a whole and single individual. You are encouraged to be yourself and to express yourself – to be whole, to be one. Move away from this personality, self-expression, and you risk going out of your mind, being beside yourself, failing to be true to yourself, hearing other voices or splitting your personality: it doesn’t sound good. This careful language is anxious, I think – threatening in a desperate way. You need to take care of yourself, it says. You need boundaries, you have to be either here or there. Don’t be all over the place. 
    Climate change creates a new language, in which you have to be all over the place; you are always all over the place. It makes every animal body implicated in the whole world. Even the patient who is anaesthetized on an operating table, barely breathing, is illuminated by surgeons’ lamps which are powered with electricity trailed from a plant which is pumping out of its chimneys a white smoke that spreads itself out against the sky. This is every living thing on earth.

(…)

 

Extract: This Little Art

From Kate Briggs's new book out today

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!’ 

(…)

Launch Party for THIS LITTLE ART by Kate Briggs

at Caravansérail Bookshop-Gallery

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

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.

(…)

An Extract: Moving Kings

From Joshua Cohen's new book out today

An extract from Joshua Cohen’s new book Moving Kings, published today:

DAVID
(In Distraint)

Ye shall know them by their vehicles: those blue trucks that’re always cutting you off on your way to the airport, sides emblazoned with grimy white crowns, dinged bumpers stickered GOT A PROBLEM WITH MY DRIVING? CALL 1-800-212-KING!

Ye shall know them by their ads: on basic cable and drivetime radio, those billboards that’re always blocking the signs and making you miss the airport turn, with their offers of free estimates over the phone and 100% money back guarantees.

Or maybe, like more than 180,000 other satisfied customers served in all five of the boroughs and three neighboring states since 1948, you know them as the Courtly Couriers®, or the Royal Treatment Pros®, or the Removalists with the Regal Touch™—whom you’ve let into your home, to move your most precious possessions to your new home, or else to one of their six 24-hour, security-monitored, climate-controlled storage facilities conveniently located throughout the New York Metropolitan Area.

Or maybe, whatever you know is wrong, because you’ve just been reading their online reviews.

King’s Moving (David King, President, Spokesman, Container of Crises, Stresses, & the Distrained) was a licensed, bonded, limited-liability insured large small business that specialized in—one guess—moving … ’n’ storage … ’n’ parking … ’n’ towing … ’n’ salvage … ’n’ scrap, activities that demanded the bloodsweat of plus/minus 40 fulltime and 60 parttime employees, 50 vehicles, three lots, five garages, six 24-hour, security-monitored, climate-controlled storage facilities conveniently located throughout the New York Metropolitan Area—not to mention a headquarters in Jersey City, hard by the piers.

Above all, King’s Moving was a family business. Family owned, family operated. Family, family, family… Take that into account, Your Honor…

 

It was summer, toward the weekend of a holiday week—Moving Day (last day of the month, first day of the month), followed by Independence Day—and David King was out in the Hamptons at a birthday party for America, to which he’d been invited as a member of the Empire Club, which had required attendees to donate upwards of $4K for the privilege of drinking diluted booze and eating oversauced BBQ under the auspices of the New York State Republican Committee.

Inviting him to a party and then making him pay: that was class. That was how billionaires stayed billionaires.

And David, who’d resented even the toll to the Long Island Expressway, couldn’t help but wonder whether he’d met $4K worth of people yet—he couldn’t help valuating everything: the people, the property, the Victorianized manse shadowing the pool. His phone was vibrating again in his pocket.

He canceled the call—he was working.

He was working by attending a party at which he didn’t know anyone, or knew only that he recognized: names, faces, profiles.

It was work having to restrain himself from mentioning mergers he’d only read about, acquisitions that weren’t his, a celebrity stranger’s divorce/custody negotiations still ongoing—having to endure discussions of clean ocean and beach replenishment initiatives, when all he wanted to know was: daughter or wife? when all he wanted to know was: does anyone know where our hostis? It was work pretending he blended, he mixed, pretending he wasn’t sweating and had a second residence of his own and was a Hamptons vet and agreeing yes hasn’t the Meadow Lane heliport gotten so crowded lately? and yes isn’t Ray from Elite Landscapers just the best?

Because the fact remained that David had never been this far out on the Island before and not only couldn’t he tell you which of the Hamptons he was in, he couldn’t even tell you the number of Hamptons, or the differences between the Hamptons, or what made a Hampton a Hampton, singular, to begin with.

“Hope we’re not keeping you?” a lady said.

David said, “Come again?”

“You keep checking your phone.”

“I’ve got foreign business, never stops. It’s already July 5th somewhere.”

And he excused himself from that bezant of lawn and its assembly of skinny flagpole women flying dresses in red, white, and blue.

Ruth, his office manager, had been calling without leaving messages. Now she was gibberish txting: sorry sorry bill sick have take bill jr bball practice.

And then: anyway not finding passcard.

David made his way among tents, buffet tables of chafing and carving and bars—the trick was to keep on the move.

Kids—put David around kids and he’d fantasize about having them and only then would he recall that he had a daughter, who was an adult now—the kids were having their faces smeared native with warpaint. They bounced around on a giant inflatable galleon, parried and thrust with balloon swords.

A breeze blew in with the dung of elephant rides.

He moved among servers who made $8.75 an hourand so who made about 14 cents, 14.5833 cents, he did the figures in his head, for each minute it took them to carve him primerib or fix him a scotch or direct him and his menthols to a smoking area.

Conversations collected, as they were conducted, in circles. About stocks, about realestate, stocks. About renovations and how draining it was to open a house for the season. Apparently, to have two houses meant always neglecting one of them, at least. About alarm systems, sprinkler systems, sump pumps, white vs. black mold. About politics.

David’s politics were aspirational, inferior: he was in favor of contacts, contracts, the right to not diet, and the right to jump lines at dessert stations.

David King was a man who if a longtime employee flaked on a commitment on short notice because her exhusband was too ill to take their son to a baseball practice that wasn’t even hardball but actually softball, or if his primerib came closer to medium than to the already spineless concession that was medium rare, or if his Dewar’s 18 turned out to be Dewar’s 15 or 12 or God forbid came with an icecube or even just an extra splash of water, or if the line for the dessert station was moving so indecisively slowly that his icecream would melt before he got to the toppings he liked—it wasn’t his fault that he was so decisive about his toppings—he’d scream, he’d have a conniption, and yet once he’d fudged his sundae with a cherry atop he had all the attention, all the guilty sated childlike attention, for being lectured by an Ivy League B student on the new model Gulfstreams (though David didn’t have his own plane), the best sailing routes (though David didn’t have his own boat), the best steeplechase courses (David didn’t even have a pony), how New York State was the most regulated statein the union, the state with the highest taxes, the state with the highest energy costs, the highest fuel costs, the highest insurance premiums, and a convoluted body of tort law that made even the Nazi justice system seem unbiased and lenient, and how so and so was really the only candidate to bet on, so and so the only candidate who had real plans both for the Middle East and for midsized American businesses (our composited Ivy League B student apparently knew his audience)—the only candidate who was legitimately “Pro-Growth,” and that was the line, or the jargon, that struck him, and brought to mind the image of a small modest neat building, like some fourfloor prewar walkup in the Village, which with every vote for a Republican grew taller by the floor, until it became this big shiny tower that clockhanded all of Manhattan, and then, by association, his mind flashed below his belt, which was on its last notch, and below his gut, which hung like a panting tongue over it, to his bloodless dick, which—as if his heart had betrayed the party platform, “Pro-Growth”— dangled limp and useless.

(…)

An Extract: Essayism

From Brian Dillon's new book Essayism about the genre, its history and its contemporary possibilities

An extract from Brian Dillon’s new book Essayism published today:

¶ On essays and essayists. On the death of a moth, humil­iation, the Hoover dam and how to write; an inventory of objects on the author’s desk, and an account of wear­ing spectacles, which he does not; what another learned about himself the day he fell unconscious from his horse; of noses, of cannibals, of method; diverse mean­ings of the word ‘lumber’; many vignettes, published over decades, in which the writer, or her elegant stand-in, described her condition of dislocation in the city, and did it so blithely that no one guessed it was all true; a dissertation on roast pig; a heap of language; a tour of the monuments; a magazine article that in tone and structure so nearly resembles its object, or conceals it, that flummoxed readers depart in droves; a sentence you could whisper in the ear of a dying man; an essay upon essays; on the author’s brief and oblique friendship with the great jazz singer; a treatise on melancholy, also on everything else; a species of drift or dissolve, at the lev­els of logic and language, that time and again requires the reader to page back in wonder – how did we get from there to here? – before the writer’s skill (or perhaps his inattention); a sermon on death, preached in the poet’s final days on earth, before a picture of his own shrouded person; the metaphoric power of same: the womb a grave, the grave a whirlpool, Death’s hand stretched to save us; a long read; a short history of decay; a diary’s prompt towards self-improvement: ‘To sew on my buttons (and button my lip)’; on a dancer arrayed like an insect or a ray of light; love, alphabetized; life, alphabetized; every second of a silent clown’s appearance on screen, dissect­ed: ‘We commit a cruelty against existence if we do not interpret it to death’; on the cows outside the window: their movement and mass, their possible emotions; what happened next will amaze you; upon a time a dutiful thing, set and judged by teachers, proof because proof needed – of what? Compliance, competence and com­prehension, proper meanness of ambition; but later, discovered in the library and under the bedclothes: sparks or scintillations, stabs at bewilderment, some effort or energy flung at the void; and style too, scurri­lous entertainments, a writing that’s all surface, torsion and poise, something so artful it can hardly be told from disarray; an art among others of the sidelong glance, obliquities and digressions; an addiction to arduous learning; a study of punctuation marks, their meaning and morality; seven Dada manifestos, forty-one false starts, the writer’s technique in thirteen theses; an ac­count of what passed through the author’s mind in the seconds before a stagecoach crash, somewhere on the road between Manchester and Glasgow, ‘in the second or third summer after Waterloo’. The writing of the di­saster. Confessions, cool memories, a collection of sand. Curiosities. The philosophy of furniture. An account of the late eclipse. What was it like to fly high above the capital, through silver mist and hail, when flying was yet new? The answer: ‘Innumerable arrows shot at us, down the august avenue of our approach.’

Imagine a type of writing so hard to define its very name should be something like: an effort, an attempt, a trial. Surmise or hazard, followed likely by failure. Imagine what it might rescue from disaster and achieve at the levels of form, style, texture and therefore (though some might cavil at ‘therefore’) at the level of thought. Not to mention feeling. Picture if you can its profile on the page: from a solid spate of argument or narrative to isolated promontories of text, these composing in their sum the archipelago of a work, or a body of work. The page an estuary, dotted at intervals with typographical buoys or markers. And all the currents or sediments in between: sermons, dialogues, lists and surveys, small eddies of print or whole books construed as single essays. A shoal or school made of these. Listen for the possible cadences this thing might create: orotund and authoritative; ardent and fizzing; slow and exacting to the point of pain or pleasure; halting, vulnerable, tenta­tive; brutal and peremptory; a shuffling or amalgam of all such actions or qualities. An uncharted tract or plain. And yet certain ancient routes allow us to pilot our way through to the source, then out again, adventuring.

I dream of essays and essayists: real and unreal authors, achieved and impossible examples of a genre (it’s not the word, not at all) that would – what, exactly? Perform a combination of exactitude and evasion that seems to me to define what writing ought to be. A form that would instruct, seduce and mystify in equal mea­sure. (Michael Hamburger: ‘but the essay is not a form, has no form; it is a game that creates its own rules.’) Does that sound like what one might want from art or literature in general, not from essays only? Perhaps one category stands for everything, defines what I want from all art forms. The boundaries of this thing, this en­tity or inclination I admire – these I’ll have to determine later. For now it’s enough, I hope, to acknowledge that what I desire in essays – all those essays named or al­luded to in the list above, almost all of which are real – is this simultaneity of the acute and the susceptible. To be at once the wound and a piercing act of precision: that makes it sound as though all I care for is style, that old-fashioned thing. It might well be true. But isn’t style exactly a contention with the void, an attitude or alignment plucked from chaos and nullity? Style as the prize, not a rule of the game. Style as sport in another sense too: botanical anomaly or innovation,avant-garde mutant. But don’t sports get assimilated in the end? Aberrations accommodated, rogues, freaks and rarities corralled and tamed? Curiosities neatly la­belled, safely immured in vitrines and cabinets.

I may have imagined all of this – I might be describ­ing a form that doesn’t (yet) exist. I have no clue how to write about the essay as a stable entity or established class, how to trace its history diligently from uncertain origins through successive phases of literary dominance and abeyance, to its present status as modest publishing revenant: the genre (please do not call it ‘creative non­fiction’) on which many writers’ and readers’ hopes are hung, many print and online columns filled with reflec­tions on whether non-fiction is the new fiction, the essay the new novel, confession the new invention. Or rather, I know too well how that particular essay on essays gets written, what are its touchstones, where its arguments directed, how circular the sense that the writer is ex­plaining a form to which he or she hopes to yoke the present text. I like circles and lines and symmetry too, more than is good for me as writer and as human, but in this case I cannot give myself to an elegant tale about the essay, neither to a pointed defence, rhetorical apology, psyched manifesto. (I find myself allergic to polemics, and so in the pages that follow some partisans of political essaying, or boisterous critical opinion, may find that their exemplars are absent. It’s not that I dislike a certain violence in the essay, but I can’t believe in a writing that is forcefully only itself – I want obliquity, essays that ap­proach their targets, for there must be targets, slantwise, or with a hail of conflicted attitudes. This too may be political, even radical. It will often look like something else: what used to be called formalism, or dismissed as aestheticism.) I will have to write, can only write, in fits and starts, in passages that aspire to something like an argument, but others too that will seem to come from the very confusion the first class exists to cure. There are many passages in the works of the great essayists, and perhaps also the less-than-great, that will sanction a failure or refusal to cohere. Here is the poet William Carlos Williams, in the essay that yielded an epigraph for this book:

Each essay rings the changes of its range, the breadth, the penetration moving inward about the fashionable brick of all styles, unity. Unity is the shallowest, the cheapest deception of all composition. In nothing is the banality of the intelligence more clearly mani-fested. There is no less significant matter for the attention. Every piece of writing, it matters not what it is, has unity. Inexpert or bad writing most terribly so. But ability in an essay is multiplicity, infinite fracture, the intercrossing of opposed forces establishing any number of opposed centres of stillness.

(…)

Fitz Carraldo Editions