Oct 012014
 

AFSullivan-Insideco

 

The first time they floated through the ceiling, Abbie Kirkland was naked. Life was full of constraints, obligations and restrictions—sleep was one chance to abandon all of that. Even in the winter months, she hated sleeping in her clothes. Quilts were piled up on the bed, but she and Derek floated right up through them, their skin lit up blue under in a wide circle of light. Derek wore only a ratty t-shirt, the armpits gaping holes. The clock read 3:00 AM, but Abbie could not speak or cry out. Her body was almost frozen, slowed down so every moment was an ache, an endless task. Her eyes could move, but all they saw was blue light and Derek beside her, his own face stuck half-way through a yawn. There was fear trickling out around the corners of his eyes, but he could not say a word. His teeth looked electric, sharpened in the light. Abbie wanted to scream, but then she passed through the ceiling, through the attic, through the roof of the farmhouse, and nothing could touch her.

It was there in the tractorbeam above their farmhouse twenty miles outside Lethbridge that Abbie finally saw everything, even the pieces she never wanted to find. She did not see the horizon or the world around her; she saw everything inside Derek, inside the tractorbeam hoisting them up into the air, soundlessly, the saucer above them just an aluminum pan stuck in rotation. Memories of frogs exploded with firecrackers, of a mother’s fist whacking Derek’s mouth, of dead mice in the attic fed to the cat by hand. The blue light pierced them both in a way that she and Derek became one, unleashing every fear, every hate and those deep kindnesses most humans can’t remember. They washed over her mind, seeped into the corners of her skull. Abbie saw her husband pull a boy out a house fire while he was wasted, saw him leave a friend outside in the winter cold when there was not enough room in the truck. She watched him hold his first niece, felt the size of his heart almost cripple his skinny chest. She learned of the horrors his father had described, but never enacted on his offspring. She and Derek rose up through the darkness, swaddled in blue and not even the moisture in the air could touch them.

Abbie watched Derek’s eyes move toward her, felt him there, showered with her oldest thoughts, the time she cut her hand and didn’t cry but just watched the blood run through the lifeline of her hand, watched it trickle down her arm and slide off the point of her elbow. It was only then that she told her mother, only then that she had wept because that was what you were supposed to do when you were five and someone saw you hurting. This was your signal, your cue. Derek had access to all of this, but he wasn’t probing, he was being showered with these memories, these horrors and fears and revelations. She always wanted him to refuse a shower before they made love, to smell the day on him, the sweat, the shit, whatever and now he saw this, knew this and they kept rising into the air. The saucer above drew closer, but it could not be a saucer. These were not true stories, these were fantasies. She wanted to call it a dream, but the blue light tasted like a socket and she could not pinch herself. No dreams, no nightmares. Just a now.

As a small hum of the machine above them drew closer, Abbie pushed words out toward her husband, letting them swim through the blue light toward his head. What is this? Why is this?

Derek only could send back colours, bright yellows that hit her brain, reds that made her tremble somewhere within, where the blue light could not reach. Finally, small words began to trickle in to her brain, into her consciousness, if that’s what she could call it here, hovering above their house and the snow below.

Something. It is. Do not. Do not. Let go. Let go. Hold. Hold. Hold.

It was when they bumped against the aluminium that the darkness finally closed around them and the last word she could taste, could smell, could hear was rye and ginger and Us like a whisper pushed through chipped, clenched teeth. And then she knew everything.

The next morning Abbie and Derek woke up in the backyard. She was still naked in the snow and his shirt was still ragged. They crawled toward each other against the cold and did not need to speak. Each one had somehow been inside the other up there in the sky; there were no more intimate places to hide, no more shame, no more secrets. They groped each other, looking for wounds, for missing parts, for seams or zippers where there had been none before. They found nothing, only what they knew, what they had always wanted. Abbie ran a hand down her husband’s spine, pushed her lips into his. They would tell no one of what happened. No one would believe them anyway—no one would understand outside these two beings. They remembered nothing after the aluminum, but everything from before. They had halls to walk, museums to explore that never seemed to end. The world could become a person if you were given enough access—the world could become a person if that was all you cared to know.

After a few minutes kneeling in the snow, they finally realized they were cold.

-

It was five years before they rose again in the middle of the night, bodies pulled slowly from the bed, perfectly flat toward the ceiling. Derek wore the same t-shirt which now had spots of puke decorating its front. Abbie still remained naked, but it was summer and her sweat had filled the sheets. The blue light was the same. Owen was two years old and sleeping in the other room. He was just learning to make it through the night. Abbie’s heart began to ripple quickly inside her as she rose; there were never any guarantees that they would come back, there were no promises with the light. It came when it wanted to it seemed, it raised them in the dark with no warning.

We knew this was comingWe will come back. We will always come back.

Derek’s voice was inside her, his words sliding up against her glowing teeth. Her eyes found his and she saw the fear in her rain down toward him, a lonely child, a bitter boy with no parents in this world, sent to live with ancient relatives who could not spell kindness, much less show it. Rotten fruit, rotten kids at school, a boy stunted by a lack of diet, a lack of love. This would be Owen and Derek’s dreams filtered back toward her, the night the cattle got out and he had kissed Owen goodnight three times, how he had come back between each run and looked down on his son, placed a gnarled hand against the smooth surface of the boy’s head. Abbie’s fear plunged away somewhere hidden, and she found the old pieces she wanted to recognize, the first time Owen had bit her while breastfeeding, the first time he had fallen down and got up by himself. Children would eventually grow, eventually change. Derek’s mind showed her how he stayed up some nights just to watch over her, how he ate the overcooked chicken breast without complaint, how he threw out a vase he smashed one night after a bachelor party and she never noticed.

She found little bits of Owen inside him as they rose through the light. Private moments a son had shared with his father, things the boy would way day forget, but that would linger on for the man beside her, naked in the air, floating in the heat of summer, teeth lit up like exposed wires under a foreign sun. She knew Derek found the first steps Owen had taken with her while he had been out haying in the summer before, the way the boy had clapped to cheer for himself and then fallen over directly into the coffee table. Only three stitches, but those stiches were woven into Abbie’s heart now, into her being, she could feel them there even in the blue light.

There were secret loves here, things that had changed, grown deeper, creeks that had become rivers, ditches into canyons, but they were not divided, they were still drawn toward one another. The blue light tightened this bond that had once just been a child, held it close against them. The sky was clear and they could have stared for miles around them, taken in the beauty of a world about to change, a season fading into the next, the idea of distance, of space, of whatever it was dragging them up into the sky, but here, in the tractorbeam, Abbie could only find her husband, could know him more than any other place, any time. It sucked them both up into the sky, drew them towards a deep unknown and all she could find was how he liked to swallow his toothpaste water, how he liked to wrap his hand inside her hair, how he could slaughter a pig and think of Morrissey and laugh. And Abbie wanted all these things, she had all these things, they were hers and his and there was no separation, no line, no demarcation. They eroded into one another, in the blue, in the light, until they were swallowed once again, not as a two, but as a single organism.

They agreed never to tell the boy, again deposited outside their home in the early hours of the day. There was now a new knowledge between them, a third, displaced understanding of their son within their lives. Abbie could hear the cows bucking up against the fences near the house—they understood something, but could not articulate it beyond their fear. From inside the house, she could hear a voice and for a second, the sensation was too old, too ancient to count as a memory. Her knowledge came from inside, came from a knowing that Derek could share alone, a long understanding that needed no form the outside world could understand. This was a human sound and Derek moved before she could, a crying coming from within the house. Owen was awake. She gathered herself up in the grass, not even bothering to look for a wound or a puncture, no soreness on her body. Whatever they had taken from her, they had given something more. Abbie knew this. This was an understanding she would have, a knowledge she could keep. This was not magic or science, or fantasy. This was simply the future, she told herself. This is something we deserve. As she came through the screen door, she watched Derek in his dirty shirt swing Owen up into his arms and then remembered she was naked and did not care.

-

They slept in separate beds during the third occurrence. Separate rooms even. It wasn’t until Abbie rose through the dissipated ceiling, her body now covered in a nightgown in the fall air, that she saw Derek rising with her, his hairy body turned away from her, as if their gaze was what connected them in these strange and foreign moments. His body seemed to fight the light, she could see striations of him straining, little bundles of muscle fibre slowed and stunned by the blue encompassing them. There would be no escape. They both knew this and so Abbie did not resist. She welcomed this, dreamed of being taken away to another planet, to another place, away from their house. It had to be cursed now; maybe the blue light had cursed them, given them too much. She wanted to see the grief inside Derek, the places where he was no longer whole, to let herself know that he too was shattered, splintered, a series of fragments stitched together by will alone, will and some bizarre desire to keep living in the wake of Owen’s absence.

All that she found was rage though, a seething mass of red bombarding her skull, the contents of Derek shelling her with images of other women, of flesh on flesh, of an email he had read where she confessed her desires to a man in San Francisco, the hand of Owen slipping from hers near the river two summers before, Derek wasn’t there but he had imagined it well enough, almost had Abbie shoving their son into the deep, dark cold. She dove in after him, but Derek had painted it with hesitation, had nixed out the Skidoos and the screaming people, had rendered it into some strange tableau and so her own black bile filtered through the blue light to him, their semi-naked bodies hurling insults and rage at one another in the sky. It was raining and the water could not touch them, it fell in a cone around the blue light while the saucer spun above them, nameless, eyeless, watching nonetheless, its blue maw pulling them higher and higher.

Agony had new terms here, was an eternal reliving of that loss, of the ways they had tried to cope, the new flesh Derek had pursued in town, the cats he had shot in the middle of the night, drunk in the barn, aiming for raccoons or anything to stomp the life out of to quiet himself. Abbie found the ways she retreated already well-worn routes into the arms of old high school boyfriends grown wide and sedentary, but still welcoming. She mainly slept on their couches, drank their beers, asked how their ex-wives were going.

Murder spun between them, acts of imagined violence, divorce always gloaming up into the dark but never quite taking shape until now, until the memories seemed to be boxed up and divided, the museums closed to one another, but still memorized, so all the wounds still burned hot even in the blue. Words still filtered through to express failures, to express desires best left unsaid.

Loathing is too weak.

Abbie could feel this on her neck, coupled with the yoke of Owen’s body never moving from her shoulders but here in the blue with her crackling teeth, she cast it off to build up her own defenses—you never could be a man to recognize. You would not identify the body.

He had disappeared down the river and it had been weeks before they pulled out what was assumed to be the Kirkland boy. Abbie found images of Derek weeping in his truck outside the coroner’s office, battering the steering wheel, prying his teeth into the leather, the sobs wracking his chest like a death rattle. She threw these through the air toward him, split his weaknesses into tinder and lit it. The blue light did not allow Derek to run and so he burned and burned and she can feel him flush the blood and bile toward her, unspooling older hatreds she already knew but had let mold and drift away. Her mother slapping her in the face outside the church, outside the corner store, outside the school. Her father sitting in the car and just watching, just watching.

Just watch a boy drown, just watch, just watch.

They rose slowly together even through this maelstrom, even through this hate as the rain fell and now Derek was the one closer to naked, closer to the start, he was sleeping in the guest room these days and doing his own laundry at Sheryl Ann’s place and she liked to take him in her mouth before he left at night and Abbie couldn’t help but know these things, they must both know all these things, this was what the blue light has always promised and so when they hit the edge of the aluminum, when the dark descended again and cancelled everything, there was no love, no loss, no want between them—just flame and salt and whatever was left of hearts untended.

They were never dropped into their beds. They were in the yard again and they awoke with no outer wounds, no zippers, no portals through their stomachs. They awoke clothed and damp and it was still raining and the cows were in the barn and they did not look at each other. Abbie rose with her cheeks bright red and her eyes filled with crystals of some sort, they were tears, they were stuck to her eyes it seems, but she did not make any noise. She rose and walked toward the house, saw Derek stumbling toward his axe at the woodpile and then shuffling toward the barn.

Abbie stepped into the kitchen, turning one of the burners on, placing a skillet over the rising flame. She stared out the wet window, watched her husband bring a pig out into the yard, watched him raise the axe above its head. No artistry out there in the wet, just rage, just red, just splashes of fury out onto the dirt and the grass and his half-naked body. This was how it would show itself, the wounds the blue light had provided, the ones lingering within them for that year, for that loss, for what a river could take away and never apologize for because it was never the same thing twice. The river was never static enough—there would be no blue light there.

Abbie pressed her bare palm down onto the skillet and did not scream. She let it sizzle and burn until the pig outside stopped wailing and Derek had fallen to his knees in the mud.

Only then did she pull the melted flesh away like a human glove, knowing there and then the inside was still worse off. The rain did not wipe anything away; it only blurred the edges until everything outside looked like a wound. Abbie ran the tap and let it all slough down the drain.

-

Fifteen years passed and they stayed in that same farmhouse, working the same land, living the same life as before in the same separate beds in the same rooms and they rose in that blue light again, but older, fatter, more tired. Everything gets tired, everyone gets tired, even the blue light seemed weaker for once, or maybe they were just used to it by this point, this fourth ride into the sky so delayed from their earlier voyages. Abbie did not turn away from Derek, she could almost move her face toward him. He was wearing a coverall from the barn. He had not even bothered to change before lying down in the bed, placing his balding head back against the sweat drenched pillow. She could feel the fear begin wafting off him, all the knowledge she could find inside him leaking out for the world to see.

Abbie had tried to forget things, tried to heal her burnt hand, but it was never quite the same. At one point she almost told the doctor about the beacon in the sky above her bed, the sensation of floating through your own attic with your husband beside you, the deep knowing of your guilt in every synapse in your brain due to this terrible blue light, this terrible illuminating technology, a gift, a curse, all these things at once, but she kept her mouth shut because there were mornings where she could not believe, where she would go to Owen’s grave and weep and blame the river and the sky all at once. It resided in each molecule of her, it hid all its stories and memories in her flesh, bound Derek to her in each and every day. They had never harmed her, but Abbie knew she would never be the same. And no doctor would help with that.

Why? Derek’s word slipped into her like a long forgotten transmission, a recoding he’d kept in storage for this moment, wanting her pardon. Why rise again, why bring this pain again?

Abbie could see his yellowed teeth crackling in the blue light like before, she could see the pieces of Owen within him and the old pieces of the love they’d built, the love he’d tried to find with other women, with Sheryl Ann and Debra and Ms. Gibbons from the elementary school. None of it lasted though and he had stayed on in that house with her, stayed away from the river, from the scenes of devastations and house fires and missing children. Abbie was not shocked to find new things in him, new things she wanted to absorb, to find and remember. There were newer hurts, newer fears, the same old longings he could never outrun. There was a baseball game on tomorrow that he wanted to watch, a dream he wanted to forget about frogs and death and the ghost of his father’s right hook.

Abbie knew why. She wanted to know Derek as she always had, as he would want to be known. And they could still build Owen in there somewhere, maybe, maybe out of disparate parts and all the new terrible and awesome things they had come to know—awesome in the old understanding of unknown skies and seasons. The world could be just two people, could just be a single person if you were given enough time, enough delay in the sky.

Abbie Kirkland knew why.

Fascination.

Abbie’s voice wasn’t a sound, it was a colour and a fury, it was a sky before the storm, it made the blue light pale against Derek’s exposed face. It spread through him as a pink glow inside his sluggish blood and there was no aluminum above them, no maw to swallow. They were both here and they could know everything. All they had was a now. Her voice knew it.

 —Andrew F. Sullivan

/

Andrew F. Sullivan is the author of WASTE (forthcoming Dzanc Books, 2015) and All We Want is Everything (ARP Books, 2013), one of The Globe & Mail’s Best Books of 2013. Sullivan no longer works in a warehouse.

 

Oct 012014
 

Jacob Glover

At the Top of the Page this month: essays and reviews, a selection of Jacob Glover‘s contributions to the magazine. Jacob Glover has been an accomplice, co-conspirator, helpful presence from the magazine’s inception. He’s contributed essays, reviews, translations, poems, blog posts, and contest entries (in the days when we ran contests), also performed as a singer-songwriter with his brother Jonah and allowed dg to post funny pictures of him now and then. He has done background layout and scouted and curated pieces for the magazine, most recently the Wayne Hankey essay on conversion and novel plots in the July issue. He entered into the spirit of the place from the start. He’s one of the old guard at NC. On the current masthead, only Rich Farrell can claim seniority.

Sep 262014
 

Savage Love PB cover2 small(Click on the image to read reviews.)

“This was, hands down, the best book I read in 2013.” National Post

“…stories as radiant and stirring as anything available in contemporary literature.” Los Angeles Review of Books

“…demands comparison to McCarthy, Barry Hannah, Donald Barthelme, William Faulkner.” Music and Literature

§

Publisher’s web page.

Sep 242014
 

2-Salgado-The Party_180x190cm_2014_oil on canvasThe Party by Andrew Salgado

Art is the human/inhuman attempt to get at what is beyond the words, the thing that cannot be expressed, whether love or sadness or joy or awe. Paradox there, I know. If you’re writing words, how can you be trying to get beyond words? But you are. Think about it.

The amazing Canadian painter Andrew Salgado has a new exhibition going up October 7 in London called Storytelling; storytelling but with paintings, with images, oil on canvas, his medium for what cannot be communicated. We have excellent paintings and an interview curated by Numéro Cinq newcomer JC Olsthoorn.

Fritz at SrebrenicaSrebrenica Genocide Memorial, Tom Simpson Photo

Long story: in 2010 we published a gorgeous sequence of poems by the Bosnian-Canadian poet Goran Simić. Flash forward to this summer: I got in touch with Goran in Bosnia and he said sure but he needed some translation help. Contributing Editor Sydney Lea put me in touch with Tom Simpson at Philips Exeter Academy who knows Goran and has a personal stake in Bosnia. Tom flies to Sarajevo and he and Goran have what I can only say must have been a wonderful time together, sitting in Bosnian bars and coffee houses, mulling over the poems.  The result: We have in this issue a brand new, freshly translated (by Goran and Tom) sheaf of Goran Simić poems, plus a terribly moving, passionate memoir of Thomas Simpson’s travels in Bosnia, his friendships and epiphanies.You will have to read the poems and the essay; words fail, and the story of pain, loss and human will embodied in the word Bosnia can only be re-experienced in their art.

But wait, there’s more (ah, the endless adventure of editing NC): A week and a half ago, Tom wrote to say he’d gone to a Sydney Lea reading (they had never met before), and Syd had read a poem about and for Goran Simić that nearly brought Tom to tears. So I wrote to Syd and got the poem for NC. Much gratitude to Tom and Goran and Syd for combining on two continents to bring this to pass.

My imagination was born from my simple need
To be silent instead of cry
Because silence alone has the colour I am craving
To paint myself,
Which finds no place on the hardware store’s palette.

—Goran Simić

Goran SimicGoran Simić

Samuel Stolton in his brilliant brief essay “Plato, Heidegger, Kant & Habermas Play Pass the Parcel: Poiesis and the Philosophy of Art-Creation” turns the problem of art (the paradox of expressing the inexpressible) on its head: How do you create something out of nothing?  He then does a forensic analysis of the philosophy from Plato to Agamben and Habermas. I adore the concept herein of “weak thought,” the sort of  artistic noodling around that is neither focused or intentional but is a precursor to creation. But there is so much more.

Samuel StoltonSamuel Stolton

And Natalie Helberg (one of our own) contributes a stunningly dense and erudite essay on the great Canadian experimental novelist Gail Scott  (who can forget her first novel  Heroine?), focusing on Scott’s 2010/12 novel The Obituary with its complex overlapping point of view structure. The essay begins with a paradoxical question: “How to do justice to a text so rich that I could only do justice to it by repeating it exactly?”

Author PicGail Scott

And then because I have a dog and have always loved that J. R. Ackerley memoir My Dog Tulip, which, among other things is about love and communicating without words, we have a nice little review (by animal rescue activist Melissa Armstrong) of Han Dong’s new novella A Tabby-cat’s Tale just published by Frisch & Co in Berlin. (I also have a new dog in my life but will restrain myself from adding several irrelevant photos here. Just so you know.)

haystack-rock-e1407876106174-768x1024Melissa Armstrong talking with her dog.

We also have in this issue — at this point in the preview, the writing of the preview, I generally start to hyperventilate and need to breathe into a paper bag (or walk the dog) — scads of new fiction. First and foremost, a brief tale of the grisly and unspeakable (might as well keep the theme going), baby-selling, from Benjamin Woodard.

WoodardBenjamin Woodard

And then a fantastic story by Andrew F. Sullivan, one of my favourite young Canadian writers, a story of, yes, that thing you don’t usual talk about (if it happens to you — for me, only twice, and till now I have kept my mouth shut), of alien abduction called “Nights in the Tractorbeam.”

The first time they floated through the ceiling, Abbie Kirkland was naked. Life was full of constraints, obligations and restrictions—sleep was one chance to abandon all of that. Even in the winter months, she hated sleeping in her clothes. Quilts were piled up on the bed, but she and Derek floated right up through them, their skin lit up blue under in a wide circle of light. Derek wore only a ratty t-shirt, the armpits gaping holes. The clock read 3:00 AM, but Abbie could not speak or cry out. Her body was almost frozen, slowed down so every moment was an ache, an endless task. Her eyes could move, but all they saw was blue light and Derek beside her, his own face stuck half-way through a yawn. There was fear trickling out around the corners of his eyes, but he could not say a word. His teeth looked electric, sharpened in the light. Abbie wanted to scream, but then she passed through the ceiling, through the attic, through the roof of the farmhouse, and nothing could touch her.

AFSullivan-InsideAndrew F. Sullivan (who takes a good picture, too)

Also a gorgeous story by Timothy Dugdale (who has appeared before as a book reviewer): “Back Spin” — a terse, grim, Carver-esque piece on snow, dog-walking, and the thrashing death of a deer.

His father shone a flashlight. The deer was thrashing about, trying to right itself. But it was front legs were destroyed and blood covered its breast. His father gave Nieves the flashlight and took out a sledge hammer from the back of the truck. He stepped smartly to the deer and  swung. The deer wrenched its head from the blow and thrashed again. His father took another swing. The deer made a sound and moved and went still. A car whizzed by and then another.  “Hold that light steady, ” his old man said. Nieves watched his father pause at the top of his next swing, staring at the deer, choosing his place for delivery. The hammer dropped. The deer’s head exploded.

Timothy DugdaleTimothy Dugdale

We have more, much more (and I am past the hyperventilating mode). A lovely interview-with-poems from Ann Ireland who talks to the amazing wife and husband poetry-writing duo Roo Borson and Kim Maltman.

The Collaborators Kim Maltman and Roo Borson in their shared writing roomKim Maltman and Roo Borson in their shared writing space

And a review of the new Murakami novel by Steven Axelrod, a novel excerpt from Gladys Swan, another Numéro Cinq at the Movies by R. W. Gray who has recently been busy premiering his own film Zack and Luc at the Atlantic Film Festival and, yes, even another Uimhir a Cúig (a piece of NC that will always be Ireland) featuring an essay by Liam Carson on Irish language writers.

That should be enough. That should hold you, oh ravening beast readers of NC.

Ok.

DSCF8568New dog at Casa NC.

dg

Sep 232014
 

In this powerful and important essay, Laura K. Warrell refuses to bow to Quentin Tarantino as a pop icon and instead calls him out as a puerile manipulator of stereotypes. She puts his brutal and salacious Mandingo fight scene in Django Unchained (winner of the completely undeserved Oscar for Original Screenplay) up against Ralph Ellison’s horrific fight scene in Invisible Man (published separately as a short story called “Battle Royal”) and a recent theatrical production of the novel at the Huntington Theater in Boston. All three portray forced fight scenes between black men as an expression of white racism in the American South; they give Warrell an amazing opportunity to contrast approaches, values, techniques and motives and to deliver a stinging indictment of lingering racism and black stereotyping in Hollywood and PC America. In the end, Ellison is the voice that speaks the black experience with grace, intelligence and dignity.

Read the essay at Race & Art in America: The Invisible Man meets Django Unchained — Laura K. Warrell » in the Numéro Cinq Archives.

Sep 202014
 

BergerJohn Berger

Here’s a review I wrote of John Berger’s early novel Corker’s Freedom 20 years ago, rescued from an old disk. The novel was first published in the UK in 1964 and was finally published in the U.S. in 1993 by Pantheon Books. This review appeared in the Washington Post in February 1994. Berger, as you all know, went on to win the Booker Prize in 1972 for his novel G. and became a famous BBC TV art critic. An amazing, knowing writer. Get the book.

dg

corkers-freedom-frontcover-5a44cf4884f45f8f48187085a26d3304The Verso edition.

Corker’s Freedom
A Novel
By John Berger

.

Dostoevsky once said we all came out from under Gogol’s overcoat by which he meant that the roots of modern storytelling all trace back to Nikolai Gogol’s tale of a humble clerk whose great adventure was buying a brand new overcoat which someone immediately steals.

John Berger’s novel Corker’s Freedom is contemporary masterwork in precisely this Gogolian mode — the old-style noble hero is dead, and in his place we have the drama of a little man who throws all his passion and yearning into some minor, shopworn achievement and inevitably fails.

First published in England in 1964, Corker’s Freedom took almost thirty years to cross the Atlantic Ocean, a slow passage by anyone’s reckoning. I won’t say it was worth the wait because a delay like that is unconscionable, though not inexplicable.

Berger went on to win the Booker Prize in 1972 for his novel G., but he also has an immense reputation as a (Marxist) art critic and avant garde film maker, a reputation sure not to make the hearts of commercial publishers flutter with anticipation.

Corker’s Freedom is about the 64-year-old owner of a grubby little London employment agency who one day decides to leave the home he shares with his invalid sister Irene and set up house in the empty flat above his office. William Corker is humble clay. He and Irene are emotionally pinched — what everyone today would instantly recognize as co-dependent. The single relationship that Corker can recall in anything resembling warm tones is his brief childhood acquaintance with a Viennese nanny.

The move from Irene’s house to the agency flat is the great adventure of Corker’s life, his last, desperate bid for freedom before the long night falls. In the midst of rearranging his mother’s old furniture to make a bedroom, he pictures himself as Lancelot holding the Grail. He thinks he has struck a blow for “The right of a man to be himself, the right of a man to find a way out of his suffering, the right of a man to live where and as he wishes — eager, curious, hopeful, experimental — the right of a man to say: I wish to begin again.”

These are brave, rousing words uttered in the cause of personal transformation in a godless modern world. But they come to nothing. In a horrifyingly comic climactic scene, a drunken Corker discourses on the meaning of life, liberty and art in the midst of an ill-attended church hall slide presentation on his recent holiday in Vienna. His sister sits in the audience tapping her canes irritably. His agency assistant Alec fondles his girlfriend. And a pretty young woman with whom Corker thinks he has fallen in love watches cagily while her burgler lover breaks into the employment agency and makes off with the company safe. Ruined, Corker ends up making crank speeches from a Hyde Park soap box and conning tourists for his lunch.

Berger pushes against the constraints of the novel form, using passages of screen-play dialogue and parenthetical stage directions as fictional shorthand to stand for everyday narrative machinery (set-up and background) that might take pages and pages in a normal novel. This is so that he can pay attention to what he wants to pay attention to, which is the gap between the inner thoughts and public statements of his characters, the tragic and ironic distance between what they know or feel and what they can say.

The drama of the book, in Corker’s case, is the gradual narrowing of this gap — at the end of the church hall scene he is saying what he thinks and knows, which, as Berger sees it, is a kind of folly bordering on madness and leads directly to Corker’s downfall. (Hence the irony of the final pages with Corker endlessly exercising every Englishman’s right to free speech to a sparse gathering of unemployed hecklers and baffled tourists.)

Corker is already done for when he announces to his slide-show audience: “To the best of our ability we must choose happiness. That is my choice. I may be interrupted, prevented or defeated by circumstances but at least I know what I want and what I am doing. I am making myself happy.” The final sentence is, of course, untrue, which makes the speech achingly tragic and absurdly funny at the same time.

Berger writes with amazing aplomb, packing his pages with pyrotechnic ethical wisdom, trenchant social criticism (couched dramatically in the life stories of a succession of deftly sketched secondary characters), and sly comedy (Corker getting progressively drunker on Austrian kummel while reflecting on the glories of Vienna and his long-lost nanny).

Corker’s Freedom is an exhilarating achievement, wise, unsettling, and alive with a sense of humanity that is flawed, doomed, yet oddly indomitable.

—Douglas Glover (Originally appeared in the Washington Post, February 27, 1994)

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Sep 202014
 

My old roomie (and frequent NC contributor) Mark Anthony Jarman and I are reading together at the Goose Lane Editions 60th Anniversary party in Toronto, September 30. Many others are reading, too (including David Seymour, reviewed in these pages earlier this year). So you won’t be bored with, you know, just me.

Details: September 30, 7:00 pm at The Supermarket, 268 Augusta Avenue, Toronto, ON.

This is also the launch for six@sixty: Goose Lane Anniversary Collection, a very cool boxed set of six stories by six Goose Lane authors, each story as a separate small book. My contribution is the story “Woman Gored by Bison Lives” from my collection A Guide to Animal Behaviour. It’s a story about love, sex, death, and great steaming herds of charging buffalo. Not to be missed. It begins:

Days, while my husband is at work, Susan and I make love on the couch in her parents’ basement. It is a desperate thing to do, and we are both a little stunned by it. But something has pushed us to the edge of caring.

Gabriela, the baby, is upstairs sleeping, while Susan’s mother does housework or watches soap operas. We keep our clothes on, manacled at the ankles by a tangle of underwear, jeans and belts.  And when Susan comes, I press my palm across her lips to keep her from shouting out her joy.

I don’t know if we are in love. But we are both in need of solace, and our sex is a composition of melancholy and violence, as though we are seeking to escape and punish ourselves in the same act.

This story also contains the immortal lines: “There are certain things you have to know. Suicide is not an option. Life is always better under the influence of mild intoxicants. Masturbation is healthy, the sooner started the better. It’s a sin not to take love where you find it. That is the only sin.”

PLUS!!!!!!!! The paperback edition of Savage Love is coming out. I got copies in the mail this week.

dg

GLE

 

Sep 192014
 

Wendy1Wendy Voorsanger in her novel skin at Burning Man. Click the photo for more.

One of the side benefits of Numéro Cinq is the outrageously extensive network of friends, contributors, passionate readers and interested parties committed to the cause. My son Jonah, himself an NC contributor, is on a work term (from University of  Waterloo) in San Francisco. He moved there late August, but before that, I put out the word to the NC Tribe and got some amazingly helpful responses. Best of all was Wendy Voorsanger (check out her contributions in the Art contents page, or click the photo above, or read her What It’s Like Living Here essay) who offered Jonah a place to stay till he got on his feet, a warm and generous (thoughtful, caring — I could go on) invitation from someone with a family of her own to look after. Jonah moved into an apartment at the beginning of September, but Wendy’s parting gift was a quick & dirty list of the best things to see and do during his four months in San Francisco. The list made me want to move to SF. Hell, the whole thing made me want Wendy to adopt me. I thought it was too good to leave in an email. So here it is. A friend’s advice to my son on what to experience in a new city. I am eternally grateful.

dg

Jonah and sf skylineJonah on Telegraph Hill. Click the photo for his NC Archive Page.

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1. Off The Grid food truck dinner market (http://offthegridsf.com). I suggest the Haight on Thursday night or Fort Mason on Friday night. If you do Fort Mason on Friday, you can pair it with SFBATS improv comedy theater (http://www.improv.org). Super funny, and cheap entertainment.

2. Have pasta and chianti in North Beach.

3. Visit Coit Tower to see gorgeous WPA frescos painted inside (some by Ralph Stackpole, who did the nudes in our dining room of Conrad’s grandmother, when she/they were young). Don’t forget to go to the top!

4. Have cheap Chinese food in China Town, I suggest Hunan Home’s Restaurant.

5. City Lights Books, Green Apple Books, Dog Eared Books.

6. Visit the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park and bike through the park (it’s closed to traffic on Sundays) to the ocean beach and have lunch at the Beach Chalet. Upstairs is sit down, out back is more casual. Don’t forget to check out the frescos inside here too.

7. Walk (or bike) from Crissy Field for Ft. Point Cafe under the Golden Gate Bridge on a sunny day.

8. Bike over the GG Bridge.

9. Take a ferry to Tiburon and have brunch at Sam’s Cafe outside on the pier.

10. Get a burrito at La Taqueria in the Mission.

11. Walk behind the MLK waterfall in Yerba Buena Park. Read the wall.

12. See a movie at the Kabuki Theater.

13. Order a California Roll at Sushi Boat Restaurant.

14. Visit the SF Art Institute (a private art school founded by Ansel Adams) and ask to visit the Diego River Mural in the main gallery.

15. Attend a Litquake event, SF’s literary festival in October.

16. Visit Stanford in Palo Alto.

17. Visit UC Berkley across the Bay.

18. Visit Muir Woods in Marin and see the giant Sequoia Redwoods.

19. SUP (Stand Up Paddleboard) in Capitola.

20. Climb Mt. Tamalpais all the day to the fire look out on a clear day for a 360 view of the Bay Area.

(21. Visit Steve Jarret at Facebook!)

—Wendy

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Sep 182014
 

Bonnie Prince CharlieBonnie Prince Charlie bidding farewell to Flora MacDonald on the Isle of Skye after the Battler of Culloden, from the London Illustrated News.

Okay, the referendum is today. A brief memoir: I have Scottish blood, McCall and McInnes. On the McCall side, there was a Scottish soldier who fought with Wolfe at Quebec and then came west along the Lake Erie shore during Pontiac’s Rebellion. He was demobilized in New Jersey, but left the United States after the Revolution and ended up in what became known as the Long Point Settlement in what is now southwestern Ontario. On the McInnes side, there was a fatherless boy, taken up by Sir Walter Scott, educated and sent on the Grand Tour, who then inherited slaves and a tapioca plantation in Curaçao. Later he became the youngest slave owner indemnified by the British government for giving up his slaves. He took the money, moved also to southwestern Ontario, and never worked again. The two families eventually intermarried and my great-great-grandfather Daniel McCall ran a store in St Williams, Ontario, on the Erie shore. At some point, someone in the family cut this illustration from the London Illustrated News, framed it, and hung it in the outhouse (posh outhouse). Later, my grandmother, who grew up with it, took the illustration to live with her. Now it lives with me, hangs above my desk. So now you know which way I’d vote. On the other hand, these things always have a way of disappointing romantics, so I can’t bear to watch the news today.

dg

 

Sep 152014
 

In Justin Anderson’s “Jumper,” a mid-century modern styled family is taunted and tempted by a naked stranger who troubles everything that lies beneath their well-mannered dinner. The film pays homage both to Pier Paolo Passolini’s Teruma and David Hockney’s swimming pool paintings while it more specifically pays tribute to British fashion designer Jonathan Saunders on the 10th anniversary of his label. This melange of fashion, painting, and film is characteristic of most of Anderson’s work, but in this short in particular his play between texts works perfectly with the film’s themes of repression and beautiful surfaces.

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The film starts with a pool sequence that pays homage to almost every painting about a pool David Hockney ever made. Hockney’s pool paintings reveal his excitement and celebration of what he found in 70’s Hollywood when he moved there from England: an expressive, carnal, sun-bronzed eden. This creative time and the life of Hockney and his friends was captured in the documentary A Bigger Splash (1973). The  Hockneyesque pool is both something that inspires the man to strip naked and, when he climbs out on the other side, is the place where he is transformed from naked man into a profound messenger for the woman waiting.

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The house wife the naked man finds on the other side of the pool stands with a pained, pleased expression, her mouth parted, as water trickles down his chest. She responds to this rupture in her life, to the excitement he provokes in her by turning away, walking back into the house, and carrying a plate of pasta to the dinner table. She walks away from her desire and in a sense all the desires and corruptions that follow stem from her walking away from this naked man. Perhaps if she had given over to her appetite, he would not have loomed over their meal, their lives, tempting them one by one. Perhaps she could have consumed him, but now he will consume them.

Jonathan-Saunders

Anderson’s work leans into the absurd, focuses on awkward details that seem conscious of themselves as symbols while they contradictorily resist their symbolization. Water is a key example here: it is the pool he swims through; it drips off his torso, distorts how we see the dinner through the water jug, overflows on the table; the daughter sucks it from the soaked napkin and the father penetrates the jug of it with his hand and wedding finger. Water means so many things that it becomes either numinous or an empty symbol, impossible to be fixed, just like the naked man’s influence over the family.

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The troubling stranger in films is both a perverse and sometimes queer trope. In the aforementioned Teorema, a man sleeps with all the members of a family and the maid, in the Argentinian Apartment Zero, a mysterious James Dean sort of figure has all the denizens of an apartment complex fall in love with him, particularly his roommate (Colin Firth), and in Holy Motorsthe enigmatic and mercurial figure who traverses a cornucopia of little worlds full of confusion and excess. There’s a masters’ thesis here.

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In “Jumper,” though, the film seems less about stirring up trouble than it does the sort of tenderness and beauty that can come from connecting with this stranger, connections that seem impossible in the context of the family, even between husband and wife. Certainly Anderson employs a fetishistic camera that troubles the eye, confuses and overwhelms, but the effect I think is not horrific, but alienating, so that the moments of tenderness when they surface look like life preservers.

Anderson’s other works also marry art and fashion and he’s more recently been hired by the likes of Italian Vogue. His short “Fleurs du Mal” flirts or cruises the line between the beauty and violence of lingerie. Though his work is definitely more sexualized, there are some interesting similarities between the fashion / horror elements in some of Anderson’s films and the fashion short films made by Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel, her works (“Muta,” “Fish“) previously featured and written about here on Numero Cinq by Sophie Lavoie. Fashion and film seem to share a similar love for where the beauteous and the disturbing meet.

–R.W. Gray

 

Sep 142014
 

ssample01Author Photo by Sally Anne Sample Ward

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Call me Magdalene. Not Maggie. Not Meg. And certainly not Dolly, for God’s sake. Call me Magdalene. Let the syllables roll off your tongue. Slowly…slowly…

Let the connotation seep into your stomach, your very skeleton, your middle there. Take a breath. Narrow your eyes. What do you want?

Think: do you really love your life? Your job…your grown children…your spouse? Is what you have now really enough for you? Take another breath.

Touch my cheek… my silver-sheathed breast…me. Keep breathing now.

Hear the raging air blowing all around us. Feel the wind’s unpredictability. Sense the precipice beneath our toes. Smell the gift. See how our bodies sway just before they’re beyond choice? How our chests cease to heave?

We fly for an instant, holding each other for an infinite moment of understanding. See the puffs of dust rise in frilly clouds that our bones make as they crack on the sun-scorched earth./

—Cynthia Sample

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Cynthia Sample holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in fiction as well as advanced degrees from University of Texas at Dallas and at Austin in mathematics and business. Her writing credits include stories published in Numéro Cinq, SLAB, Summerset Literary Review, Between the Lines, Wichita Falls Literary & Arts Journal, and others. She lives in Dallas.

 

 

 

Sep 132014
 

DSCF0087 Leon Rooke, 2014 bwLeon Rooke. Photo by Tom King.

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This brings us back again to the question of repetition, if such may be seen as a question. Take Jack. The question as pertains to Jack was Jack’s fear of repetition. In our view Jack was counted a failure as a musician because Jack refused to repeat himself. He would not play or sing a number twice — never in public, that is, and rarely in private except to a restricted few — because that meant he was without any new ideas and had become the wretched musician who went on performing the same old material over and over. Such is how we saw it, and furthermore saw the same when it came to his compositions. Here, too, he failed, because if he played out a bar or two he could never bear to repeat that bar or bars a second time, the result being that all his compositions were inadequate. We had no doubts as to why this was so.

We said to Jack, Jack, you are in love with Zulu, are you not? Yes, Jack said, I am head over heels in love with that woman. We said, Well, Jack, you have told her of this love, have you not? Jack said, Yes, I have declared my adoration in no uncertain terms. We said, Well, Jack, that was our exact expectation, that you had spoken of this love, which is to say, you have said it out loud to Zulu, but there is this also, which we expect you know, a woman certainly is not going to be content with an expression of love delivered once and never again, a person, Zulu among them, requires an updating on the love question once in a while, needs reassurance, we are saying. I know what you are saying, said Jack. We said, Jack, how long have you and Zulu been together? A few days over a year, said Jack, which has been my great  good fortune. Yes, we said, but when was it you last expressed you love for dear Zulu, whom we love also? We would wager you said ‘Zulu, I love you,’ or something similar, long, long ago, most likely in the early days of your relationship, would this not be so? Jack said, I believe I can say I expressed my adoration of this woman in the very earliest days of our relationship, probably, in fact, sometime during the first hour I found myself in her presence. We said, we would expect no less of you, Jack, the fact of the matter is that Zulu has told us she was leaning against a wall and you were leaning against her and whispering this love business in one ear and another within five minutes of your very first meeting. That rings a bell, said Jack, I recall the very building we were standing against and what time of day it was, and that it was winter and snowing and we both had on these thick coats and what hell it was, how frantic we were, I mean, to get our hands beneath those coats all the while we were kissing and not aware of any other person on this planet. Yes, we said, that corresponds exactly with our sense of the event, inasmuch as we were in a Hudson’s Bay entryway watching, asking each other who that woman was Jack was kissing, how long has that been going on, when did she come into the picture? Asking such questions as that because until that moment we had all been feeling a little sorry for you because there was no one in your life you loved and never had been, so far as we knew, when we were all of us pretty well covered on that front and recognizing how lucky we were. Yet there you were suddenly in passionate embrace of this woman we had never seen before. Behaving, that is to say, in a manner we thought shocking at the time, because this was so unlike the Jack we knew that we could not believe our eyes. Jack said, Yes, I was more than a little shocked myself, and hardly believed it myself, all those honking horns and stunned pedestrians, because almost within seconds of catching sight of each other there we were pressed against the wall and fumbling to get inside those coats. Yes, we said, that is just as we saw it, the falling snow, moreover it was freezing cold out there, one could get frostbite in a minute. Well, Jack said, I don’t remember being cold, I believe it would be fair to say that Zulu and I were totally unaware of weather, although I do recall we had these little sniffles in the days following. We said, we can’t speak of that, Jack, because it seems you and Zulu disappeared for about a month, although of course at that time we didn’t know her name was Zulu. Yes, said Jack, a month, that’s accurate. We hid away in bed that full month, hardly ever eating and seeing no one. We said, Well, that brings us to our point, Jack. Jack said, What point is that, I hope this is not going to be embarrassing. We said, It well might embarrass you, Jack, our question is, well, it really isn’t a question so much as an observation. Jack said, What is this observation? We said, It is this, Jack, we were thinking surely during that month, given all that passion, you must have expressed your love for Zulu a second, third, or fourth time, however much this does not square with your obsession with this question of repetition, if that indeed is a question. Jack said, I am going to say this only once, the truth is simply that you do not understand. We said, So explain it to us, Jack. Jack said, I am sure these expressions of love passed back and forth between us during that month, and since. Where you are making your mistake is in assuming there is only one way to say I love you whereas there are about ten thousand ways of expressing these endearments, few of which I regard as repetitious, the same applying, I would argue, to what you deride as my compositions. We said, Be that as it may, Jack, or as may may be, still you must admit that now a year and some have passed and if you are telling us that in the whole of this time, these endearments firing back and forth, you have not repeated yourself, then we simply are not going to believe it, and as for that we very much doubt Zulu would confirm this ludicrous, not to say far-fetched notion you are preaching. Jack said, Be my guest then, why don’t you go and ask her. We said, Jack, old friend, it is not our intention to intrude into your affairs in the manner you are suggesting, it is enlightening, however, to learn that in matters of love you claim infinite variation, yet in your professional life you contrarily refuse to play or sing a composition more than once, which fear of repetition explains why all your creations are imperfect, worthless, a waste of time, and that’s why, to make no bones about it, as an artist you are an abject failure. Jack said, Oh, abject, am I, a failure am I, is that so. We said, How else would you put it, to which Jack said For your information I do not need to sound out those bars on any instrument since I hear those notes perfectly well in my head, thus these passages you apparently believe mandatory are rendered unnecessary for any and all judicious ears, but you deem me an abject failure even so, am I understanding you correctly? We said, Yes, unfortunately, but yes, yes. Jack said, Well, that is nice to know, it is nice to know that my supposed best friends, esteemed colleagues in the musical world, view me so unfavourably. We said, It is our contention, Jack, sad though it be, that you have not lived up to your potential. Fine, Jack said, I suppose you are entitled to your opinion. We said, It is not only our opinion, we bet if you asked Zulu she would say the same. Jack said, You are mistaken, you do not know Zulu. We said, All right, we will go and ask her. Jack said, You do that, you are in for a big surprise, you will return with tears in your eyes, begging my forgiveness, I doubt I will be able to, at least not for a week or two, for a week or two your lives are going to be utter hell.

We said, We will see about that.

Jack said, Kindly take these beautiful strawberries to my darling, such is what I was sent out for, you scorpions will be first to know Zulu is having our baby.

—Leon Rooke

Leon Rooke has published more than 30 books, including novels, short story collections, plays, anthologies, and “oddities,” and more than three hundred short stories. He exhibits paintings at the Fran Hill Gallery in Toronto. Rooke’s many awards include the Governor General’s Award for Fiction (for Shakespeare’s Dog, 1985), the Periodical Association of Canada Award for the English-Language Paperback Novel of the Year (for Fat Woman, 1982), a Pushcart Prize (1988), the North Carolina Award for Literature (1990), and the Canada/Australia Literary Prize in 1981, for his body of work. Also the W. O. Mitchell Literary Award, for his writing and his mentoring, and the ReLit Short Fiction Award. Rooke has taught at more than a dozen Canadian and U.S. universities. He lives in Toronto.

Check out Rooke’s earlier appearances on NC below:

Sirens & The Red Hair District: Paintings

Thou Beside Me Singing: The April Poems

Heidegger, Floss, Elfride, and the Cat: Fiction

Son of Light: Fiction

Four Paintings

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Sep 122014
 

Cuba Feb 2012 052Glen Sorestad in Cuba

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Cuban Hand Line Fisherman

Beneath the roil and roll of the turquoise surge the restless Gulf
lies before him, an infinite mystery the young man is trying his best
to fathom, as others before him have done. He seeks to unbolt
the buried treasure chest of marine knowledge. With each flick
of his right wrist and follow-through of hand and arm, he hurls
his line and baited hook out to the limits of his developing skill.
With each cast he is a pilgrim tossing his coin with religious fervour
into a fountain of miracle. The youth has learned the timeless art
of delving below the surface of things, an unseen world in which he
has become one with the fish, so he may hear the subtlest voice
in the tension of line as he draws it, slowly, ever so slowly, back to
him, intuiting movements he can interpret only through the thinnest
monofilament, conveying its messages to his sensory receptors over
the tip of his index finger only.

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Guillerucina

The name card left atop the TV
tells us our maid has this uncommon name –
uncommon at least for us,
coming from a country not rife
with Spanish names.
So for the first few days I roll
a variety of bumbling pronunciations
off my Anglo-thick tongue, imagining
the placement of the various accents.

Her name sets her firmly apart
from the myriad Marias
and repetitive Rosas as one
who certainly cannot be easily dismissed,
nor taken lightly, one with whom
to trifle would involve risk.
Guillerucina is a name one might
expect to find on a building nameplate,
someone of considerable consequence,
perhaps even a figure of power.
We tip her well.

This afternoon when we return
to our room Guillerucina has swirled
our fresh white towels into an unmistakable swan
afloat on the pond of our bed, and fallen
alongside – a scarlet hibiscus bloom.

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The Bus Stops Here

We are waiting for the morning bus
into Havana, a cluster of us from the hotel,
when one of the women indicates a man
standing near the front of the group, clad

all in white, middle-aged, a curly black
haphazard thicket of mad scientist hair.

You know, he’s got to be the first to get on the bus,
or else. He’s caused all kinds of problems with
the staff and the rest of us, says the woman,
here with her husband from Toronto.

I have noted this person for several days,
an obvious loner, anti-social, demanding.
A walking frown, he could be
from an Andy Capp comic strip

So I ask her, Does anyone know his name?
Asshole? she suggests helpfully.
Would that name be all in caps? I enquire.
No! And she becomes quite adamant.
Lower case — very, very small.

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Cuban Sunset

When dusk arrives here it is no lingering suitor —
no gradual softening of light, no slow fade
to the deep, thick stillness of night.

The sun dives into the Gulf like a tossed stone;
the dark pursues, pell-mell, dragging a duvet
of night over land and sea.

—Glen Sorestad

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Glen Sorestad is a Canadian poet who lives in Saskatoon. His poems have appeared in literary magazines all over North America and other countries; they have been translated and published as well in seven languages. His poems has appeared in over 60 anthologies and textbooks, as well as in his more than twenty books and chapbooks of poems published over the years.

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Sep 112014
 

josephine-jacobsen-448

Photo 1 - J. Jacobsen

 

Friends, Romans, Countrymen: a word of warning— If you’re a tyrant, you’d do well to beware the Ides of March. Four-hundred years after Shakespeare offered up that phrase to theater-goers, it’s still best to avoid friendly types who gather round waiting to stab a despot to death outside whatever Capitol he controls. Sic semper tyrannis, as John Wilkes Booth reminded another crowd of theater-goers in 1865.

Writers: Odds are you’re not in control of any Capitol (nor any capital) so forget the soothsayer’s voice rising above the crowd in Julius Caesar. Had the Bard been issuing a warning to his own colleagues, he might have said, “Beware the phrase ‘a writer’s writer,’ ” because those words are like a knife between the ribs, metaphorically speaking.

“A writer’s writer” implies that the readers who most appreciate your work will be other writers – high praise to some, low praise to many, almost certain poverty will ensue, and yes, it’s the kind of praise that can bury Caesar. Upon hearing that designation assigned to them, ambitious writers – those who hope to win over a wider range of countrymen and readers, and/or those who hope to make more money – might feel as Marc Antony did, as if their hearts are “in the coffin there with Caesar.” Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor for The New Yorker, quoting a review in the New York Times, said that the phrase “a writer’s writer” is “the definition of obscurity.”

Try searching the Web for the phrase “writer’s writers” and up the names will come, the generally-agreed-upon writers’ writers (wiggle-room acknowledged), mostly contemporary: Joseph Brodsky, Henry Green, Julian Barnes, Lydia Davis, James Salter, Colm Toibin, William Maxwell, Elias Canetti, Richard Yates, W.G. Sebald, Mavis Gallant – these writers often have the phrase “a writer’s writer” attached to descriptions of their work. The list goes on, of course, and is not always short; people argue for the inclusion of a baker’s dozen more, or argue their exclusion. But the list settles down to those whose names get repeated often. Putting the wrong person on the list (try naming anyone who writes science fiction) generates guffaws among the cognoscenti. The phrase “a writer’s writer” suggests a level of craftsmanship – “the art of the sentence” – not generally associated with popular fiction, much less genre fiction. “Writer’s writer” tops off an amorphous category known as “literary fiction.”

If you narrow “a writer’s writer” to “a poet’s poet” – the phrase first used by Charles Lamb to describe Edmund Spenser – you’re taken into the backroom of an even more exclusive club (whether exclusivity is off-putting is a side argument): Elizabeth Bishop is on everyone’s list, I think, and names like Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice, Stanley Kunitz, John Hollander, Richard Wilbur, Allen Grossman, Wallace Stevens, Fernando Pessoa and Allen Tate make the short list of 20th-century  “poet’s poets” over and over.

Sisters2

The one I want to shine a light on here is Josephine Jacobsen, born Ontario, Canada, 1908, died Maryland, U.S.A., 2003, just one month short of her 95th birthday. Though she published well into her eighties, and received more attention in those later years, she remains even less well-known – less read and less anthologized – than most of the poets already mentioned.

Jacobsen’s poetry offers its readers three qualities most common to the category of “poet’s poet” – formal precision with the variety and musicality of her words, a freshness to her images, and a depth of subtext underneath the surface subject. All three of those qualities inspire repeated readings of any one of her poems; with each subsequent reading, her poems unfold and grow, unlike less complicated poems which remain relatively static each time they’re read. If you pay close attention to how she manages to do what she does, you do what good poets do, studying not just the surface of the poem but the craftsmanship behind it. Readers who want quick comfort from a poem rarely spend time with a poet’s poet because what they’re looking for is something easy. To be fair, quick comfort is sometimes nice and certainly serves a wider community. But the general public’s knowledge of the many tools a poet uses is minimal, so its desire for an “accessible” poem is maximized.

Jacobsen’s craftsmanship exceeded the abilities of less exciting poets as well as the capacity of readers in a hurry to understand. She was not “willfully difficult” as Wallace Stevens has been described. But she handled the tools available to a poet with more precision, complexity and grace than is the norm.

Of Pairs

The mockingbirds, that pair, arrive,
one, and the other; glossily perch,
respond, respond, branch to branch.
One stops, and flies. The other flies.
Arrives, dips, in a blur of wings,
lights, is joined. Sings. Sings.

Actually, there are birds galore:
bowlegged blackbirds brassy as crows;
elegant ibises with inelegant cows;
hummingbirds’ stutter on air;
tilted over the sea, a man-of-war
in a long arc without a feather’s stir.

The mockingbirds are a pair. A pair
touches some magic marrow, lends
a curious solace. “Lovers” pretends
of course an anthropomorphic care
we know is specious. This is a whim
of species. Nevertheless, they come.

One, then the other, says what it has to say,
pours its treble tricks clearer
into clear air, goes; one, and the other.
In the palms’ dishevelment, the random day,
over the green hot grass, fellow to fellow:
the shadow of wings, the wing’s shadow.

What jumps out at you at once in the first stanza of Jacobsen’s “Of Pairs” is the pairing of words as a complement to the pair of birds being described. Hardly a line goes by without words being doubled or repeated – one/the other, respond/respond, branch/branch, one/the other (that phrase itself, repeated), flies/flies, sings/sings. The second stanza moves on to describe other birds, non-pairs, some as part of a multitude (blackbirds, crows, hummingbirds), some spared cross-species (ibis and cow), and one eerily singular (the lone man-of-war in his long arc over the sea.) The third stanza opens again by pairing the word “pair,” and adds a warning via the pairing of “specious” and “species” – we’re warned not to over-anthropomorphize the mockingbirds; in other words, we should work to understand this as similar to human behavior only when due caution is exercised. The fourth stanza, again, is all about pairing – one/the other (a third echo of that phrase), clearer/clear, one/the other (the fourth and final echo of the phrase), fellow/fellow, shadow of wings/wing’s shadow.

Unlike some poems where the echoes are less intense and less noticeable, it seems Jacobsen’s purpose here is to overwhelm the reader with pairings. The title of the poem itself announces her purpose. And nothing about the pairing apparatus is subtle, in keeping with the nature of the mockingbirds themselves, who not only pair up but who echo the songs of other birds – the pairing of birds, plus the pairing of words, plus the imitation (parroting, pairing) of one bird by another. A perfect matching of form to content.

All this Jacobsen does while sustaining the tetrameter rhythm (a four-beat line) through four six-lined stanzas, and creating a rhyme scheme of ABBACC – a pair of A’s, a pair of B’s, a pair of C’s – and what is rhyme if not a pairing of words? There are some full rhymes (wings/sings, pair/care, lends/pretends, say/day) but many more near-rhymes (perch/branch, arrive/flies, galore/air, crows/cows, war/stir, whim/come, clearer/other, fellow/shadow) which the ear picks up as both imperfect and interesting, as are the mockingbirds’ own imitations of other birds – similar, but not the same. Again, form and content “rhyme.” The noisy alliteration of those bowlegged blackbirds brassy calls – again, form (alliteration, almost always noisy) and content (blackbirds, ditto) pair up.

As for the freshness of images, who would argue that “bowlegged blackbirds” is a tired idea, or that hummingbirds stuttering and mockingbirds playing “treble tricks” are not fresh ways of seeing and hearing them? Who but a poet’s poet could come up with such an ending: “In the palms dishevelment, the random day, / over the green, hot grass, fellow to fellow: / the shadow of wings, the wing’s shadow.” This is what I mean by a poet’s “depth of subtext underneath the surface subject.” Depending on your circumstances at any given point in your life, these lines take on new meanings – so the poem must be read, re-read, and read again over the course of a lifetime. For each person, there is a way to weave these lines into individual experiences – what does “the palm’s dishevelment” mean in the context of a random day of happiness or sorrow? And so a fine poet releases the poem to her readers, she lets her readers make meaning, rather than the other way around. And she does it simply (though not as simply as it seems at first) by describing the mockingbirds. Musicality, fresh images, depth of meaning – each element expertly handled.

What’s even more amazing is that Jacobsen managed to sustain this level of effort and precision over a long lifetime of writing. William Meredith called her “post-cocious.” She never got lazy, she never just knocked one out or went for an easy laugh or an easy cry, as some poets do. Poor Billy Collins always comes up in discussions of accessibility; he’s the punching bag of the Formalists who don’t care for his prose-like work. I do like Collins’ quirkiness when he’s at his best – there’s no denying he brings a poet’s perspective to the world. But sweet as some of his work is, he is no poet’s poet. His lack of technical finesse and his prolific output inform how “tossed off” much of his work feels to poets who work within the restrictions of received forms. Collins charms the public, there’s no doubt about that. Poets like Jacobsen, however, charm the poets.

sisters4

Effortful-ness, then, might also be a quality particular to the work of a poet’s poet, most often if the effort disappears inside the poem. Effort sustained over a lifetime, in combination with technical elegance – those are the trappings of genius. “Of Pairs” is included in Jacobsen’s last book, In the Crevice of Time, published when she was eighty-seven. Though I don’t know the precise year “Of Pairs” was written, it’s included in the section of poems written between 1975 and 1994, when the poet was already a septuagenarian (at least.) Compare it to “Terrestrial,” a poem published at the beginning of her career.

Terrestrial

The day was made of dust,
The bright and lovely
And utterly perishing—
Nothing that we could trust, nothing worth cherishing.

No skeleton to stay and whiten,
No soul to escape—
The word was never,
Nothing like love, to frighten; dust, lost forever.

Moss, rainbow rock, fall apart,
the cold pools vanish
Without resurrection.
The alien human heart, strange to perfection

Understands this, its own:
Not past, not future,
Not truth, to enmesh us—
This was our dust alone, O ours, O precious.

Structurally, this has four four-line stanzas, with the first three lines short, and the last line comparatively long. Each last line has a caesura – a sustained pause within the long line – and the last word of the first line of each stanza rhymes with the last word before the caesura in each fourth line (dust/trust, whiten/frighten, apart/heart, own/alone.) In addition, the last word or words of each third line rhyme with the final word/words of each stanza (never/forever, resurrection/perfection, enmesh us/O precious.) Technically, Jacobsen has always done this kind of rhyming elegantly, using unexpected patterns. If you want a hair-pulling writing prompt, try to write a poem following that structure and rhyme scheme.

Though the poem seems grounded, literally, in dirt and dust, it’s filled with airy abstractions like “love” and “the soul,” the past, the future, truth – all words I would warn a student of poetry away from because abstractions tend to make a poem ungrounded – that is, they make nothing available to the reader’s senses. But are those abstractions airy? In an odd way, they feel heavier than the dust in Jacobsen’s poem – they stand as things to cherish and revere, and they impart a kind of biblical solidity – a religion of abstractions – that readers can get tangled in or bogged down by. Compare that abstract solidity to what is real and what the heart, maybe unwillingly, understands in Jacobsen’s poem: the ephemeral dust-to-dust nature of our bodies, ending without even “skeletons to whiten,” without perfection, without time – we are the “utterly perishing.” We own that condition, it’s ours, and it’s precious. Death is, after all, what makes life meaningful.

There – I’ve made sense of the poem in a way that satisfies me right now. Tomorrow or next year or in another ten years, I might read it again and make sense of it another way, possibly reinterpreting that word “resurrection.” That’s the gift a good poet offers us: a poem to slow down with, to re-read, to understand in a new way each time it’s read.

Though Jacobsen’s work is not well known, she did receive – finally – some of the honors her work deserved. She served as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress from 1971 to 1973. The Sisters, a poetry collection published in 1987,was awarded the Lenore Marshall Prize in 1988. She was given a fellowship by the Academy of American Poets and awarded the Robert Frost Medal for lifetime achievement in 1994. Joyce Carol Oates, in the New York Times Book Review, compared her to Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop. Jacobsen also wrote well-received short fiction; her collection of short stories, On the Island, was nominated for both the Pen Faulkner award and National Book Critics Circle award, and eight of her stories have been included in the O’Henry Prize Stories series.

When asked to assess her own work, Jacobsen said, “”I don’t really value very highly statements from a poet in regard to her work. I can perhaps best introduce my own poetry by saying what I have not done, rather than defining what I have done. I have not involved my work with any clique, school, or other group: I have tried not to force any poem into an overall concept of how I write poetry when it should be left to create organically its own individual style; I have not been content to repeat what I have already accomplished or to establish any stance which would limit the flexibility of discovery. I have not confused technical innovation, however desirable, with poetic originality or intensity. I have not utilized poetry as a social or political lever. I have not conceded that any subject matter, any vocabulary, any approach, or any form is in itself necessarily unsuitable to the uses of poetry. I have not tried to establish a reputation on any grounds but those of my poetry.”

I hope you’ll search out Jacobsen’s books – In the Crevice of Time collects an astounding number of poems written over the course of sixty years, between 1935 and 1994; used and nearly new copies of the book pop up from time to time. It’s exciting to see the poems in their original volumes as well, and to judge for yourself how she developed as a writer. Don’t fail to find her book of collected essays and lectures, The Instant of Knowing, and check out her fiction to see if her achievements there measure up to her skill as a poet. I think her poems gained in strength and brilliance as she aged, and one of my favorites of her later poems – “Piazza di Spagna”— was first published in the Atlanta Review (Vol.II, No.1, Fall, 1995 – see note in comments) and then posthumously in Contents of a Minute as part of Sarabande Books’ Quarternote Chapbook Series. In the poem, Jacobsen uses the two characters from Waiting for Godot, Estragon and Vladimir, to open up a short examination of the nature of poetry itself, placing at its core the small apartment in Rome where John Keats died.

Piazza di Spagna

Estragon says to Vladimir
(or vice versa) of happiness
recollected in distress: how
unpleasant that must be.

Ah, Estragon, ah Vladimir,
discussing loss, the poet’s
mother-lode. On the Spanish Steps
chill fingers the bone.

As the sun drops and drops,
stare across at the small,
cold, invisible room
where loss has reveled;

where loss’s aficionado
labored to grasp and hold
a green felicity,
Apollo’s summer look.

Loss has its son et lumiere
to show what it has got
and means to keep: a hundred poems,
bright blood, a girl.

It’s always risky to try to pin down what makes a poem a poem, and I like the elusiveness of this take on it – we really only hear about two essential elements, memory and loss. Maybe that’s true even today as post-Modernism pokes holes in received traditions. I’m not sure what I think of that. Jacobsen wrote another poem (“The Poem Itself”) which takes a look at how a poem “works,” and in it she offers this description: “On the shelf, by the clock’s tick, in the black / stacks of midnight: it is. A moon / to all its tides.” That, I believe completely. It saddens me to think that a poet can be undersung not because she is so bad, but because she is this good. Shakespeare gave his soothsayer in Julius Caesar a “tongue shriller than all the music,” and its true that something is needed to make certain voices rise above others. Luminous craftsmanship shines, but it doesn’t always make the loudest noise. Sic semper scriptores.

—Julie Larios

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Sep 102014
 

WInterbach by Leanne StanderAuthor Photo: Leanne Stander

The building goes up in flames, causing the protesters to scatter, and turning the attempt at damnation, at justice, into a bloodbath consuming not just those involved, but several innocent bystanders, as well. The scene eerily echoes recent, similar real-life protests in places like Ferguson, Missouri, and though Winterbach does ultimately bring righteousness down upon the villains of The Elusive Moth, she does so at the expense of the justice-seekers, as well, calling into question the true value of their efforts. — Benjamin Woodard

Elusive_Moth_cvr

The Elusive Moth
Ingrid Winterbach
Translated from the Afrikaans by Iris Gouws and Ingrid Winterbach
Open Letter
198 pages ($14.95)
ISBN: 978-1-934824-77-1

 

Often, we travel for the same reasons we read stories: escape, insight, knowledge, adventure. Stepping off of an airplane in a new environment offers the same opportunity for internal charge (or recharge) as the mental submersion provided by a great narrative. In both cases, home is far away—if only sometimes in the reader’s mind—and endless opportunities await engagement. So it’s no surprise that Ingrid Winterbach’s The Elusive Moth, originally published in 1994 but now translated for English-speaking audiences, succeeds as both a novel and literary expedition, for as Winterbach ushers her protagonist, lepidopterist Karolina Ferreira, from her urban home to the small community of Voorspoed in the Free State—a town full of singing lawyers, seductive economists, and corrupt officials—so too does the reader feel the pull of investigation. This land functions as setting and as a character, with its intense heat and unpaved roads, providing an ideal stomping grounds for Karolina and her associates. And while the novel lingers in a period two decades removed from our own, never does it read as a dated volume of yesteryear. Rather, Winterbach’s clever, fascinating meditation on gender and power echoes societal flaws still present around the world, making the volume vital and timely.

As The Elusive Moth opens, Karolina spends her days in the veldt outside Voorspoed with Basil, a part-time resident of the town who she picked up during her travels. Here, she studies moths, specifically the “distribution and breeding patterns of the moth species Hebdomophruda crenilinea,” while Basil, himself a pupil under a local herbalist, scours the land for unusual vegetation and natural remedies. In the evenings, back with society, the duo loiters at the nearby hotel bar, playing games of snooker, drinking whiskey, and observing the locals. As in the scrub fields, their critical eyes work overtime in town to separate the wheat from the chaff, finding focus on those that make the community’s ecosystem function. They make fun of some, like the sullen magistrate, or the lawyer Pol, and question the political tactics of others, particularly Lieutenant Kieliemann, who sexually harasses Karolina nightly, pressing against her until she forces him off, and his boss, Captain Gert Els. There are also the many fleeting groups that interact with Karolina and Basil: a theatre troupe secretly organizing the residents to rise against the town’s authorities, a man trying to escape his captors, and a pair of travelers who befriend Karolina while passing through the area. As these characters and engagements slowly stack up, Karolina devotes far more time to the community of Voorspoed than its desolate outskirts, dancing on Saturday evenings, striking up a romance with a man named Jess, looking for a pair of mysterious lovers in the cemetery, and investigating the men who run the small town with inordinate amounts of power. Her research shifts from moths to men.

And yet, much like the long, lazy days that it paints on every page, The Elusive Moth refuses to latch onto Karolina’s suspicions in the same way a lesser novel would. Instead of using her wariness to sprint forward in a series of action set pieces, Winterbach lets her characters meander. While Karolina supposes Gert Els of nefarious doings, she never acts quickly to call in the cavalry. Instead, she goes on long walks with Jess, or picnics with Basil. And this is one reason the novel works so well: it establishes a firm rhythm for Karolina early—some combination of research, drinking, snooker, investigation, repeat—and then rarely strays from this framework. As such, there’s an authenticity, not to mention a relatability, to this routine and the way Karolina approaches her actions. Instead of molding the generic Hollywood heroine who instantly transforms into a superhero the moment she doubts an individual, the author constructs characters that experience life as it comes, fitting in cries disbelief between rounds of snooker. Karolina does not see herself as the hero, therefore, she does not act as the leader to right wrongs.

This is not to say that Winterbach crafts a novel of little consequence. Far from it, for nestled firmly within The Elusive Moth’s brisk 198 pages are several shrewd musings on gender and power. For example, there is a certain reasoning argued by Winterbach for Karolina’s lack of heroics. Throughout the novel, Karolina’s interactions with the opposite sex tend to materialize in two forms: from those who view her as an intellectual equal; and from those who view her as a sexual conquest, complete with lustful, unwanted advances. These second encounters frequently come from men of certain high regard in the township and help reinforce Karolina’s distrust of authority. And though she never finds a way to articulate the feeling of this emotion and confusion verbally, an artist friend composes a strong definition in a letter written to Karolina, which appears about halfway through the novel:

“In her paintings she was trying to portray herself as a hero, but it seemed it was not easy for women to be heroes, she said. One could not portray a woman in the heroic style in the same way as one could a man. Anything experienced by a man—however deviant—is immediately regarded as an extension of human experience, whereas the experience of a woman remained deviant, eccentric, idiosyncratic.”

When examining The Elusive Moth with these words in mind, Karolina’s languid advancement toward the evil of Voorspoed reads less like a conscious decision of the character and more as a commentary on South African culture in the early 1990s, one filtered through the pen of a wise female, South African author. There is a suppression and degradation of women at play, one, in other words, that makes it difficult for Karolina to be taken seriously by most, and even harder to lead the charge, even within her own story, a hindrance that continues to bare its teeth in many corners of the world today.

In addition, Winterbach uses these same ideas to speak of peaceful protest in the face of abusive power. Eventually, the power hungry are confronted, and though Karolina does not head the group of townsfolk who bind together in an effort to remove Gert Els from command, she is present for their final confrontation:

“’We have come once more to bring the charge that the captain would not receive this morning,’ the man said calmly.

‘I am not accepting it,’ Els said. (His tongue heavy and cold.)

Philemon Mhlambi stepped forward suddenly. ‘You have to accept it!’ he said, and held out a piece of paper to Gert Els.

Els stepped forward too, and slapped Mhlambi’s face with the side of his hand, causing him to stagger to one side and fall down.”

The confrontation quickly heightens in intensity: Els trains his pistol on the unarmed group, and as he threatens their lives, Karolina hears an explosion from the snooker room nearby. The building goes up in flames, causing the protesters to scatter, and turning the attempt at damnation, at justice, into a bloodbath consuming not just those involved, but several innocent bystanders, as well. The scene eerily echoes recent, similar real-life protests in places like Ferguson, Missouri, and though Winterbach does ultimately bring righteousness down upon the villains of The Elusive Moth, she does so at the expense of the justice-seekers, as well, calling into question the true value of their efforts, perhaps, and placing the virtuous in a camp similar to that of women in South African culture: Regardless of effort, of desire, the truly powerful will always find a way to strike, even when facing the ultimate downfall.

In the end, The Elusive Moth succeeds thanks to Ingrid Winterbach’s fearlessness, both in penning a work unafraid to relish in the minutiae of life as well as one willing to speak to the abuse of societal power found in South Africa. The novel is wise, funny, and playful, and through its slow amble toward an enlightened conclusion, the reader is able to see reflections of today in a world twenty years old.

— Benjamin Woodard


Woodard

Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Cheap PopdecomP magazinE, and Cleaver Magazine. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his reviews have been featured in Necessary Fiction, Publishers WeeklyRain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.

Sep 092014
 

Fernando Sdrigotti Fernando Sdrigotti at Shakespeare and Co, Paris

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When you are re-born in this manner it is as if all the possibilities are open; you are given a chance to re-fashion yourself into whatever shape you choose. You are your own demiurge: out of nothing, as it were, you can become everything.”
Costica Bradatan,
Born Again in a Second Language

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In his film Tangos: El exilio de Gardel, Argentine filmmaker Fernando Solanas narrates the misadventures of a group of Latin American exiles in Paris during the early 1980s. They are a motley crew of musicians, dancers, and intellectuals. They want to put on a tango-ballet-opera about their plights, the people they have left behind, the political situation in the continent that expelled them, their present in an alien place. To sum up (albeit abruptly) a remarkable film, it could be said that their project collapses when they fail to find an artistic language that is authentic yet legible enough to garner the interest of the French public. I have no knowledge of any other film that captures the situation of the displaced Latin American intellectual or artist better than El exilio de Gardel. And the film’s characters are in Paris, in a city that due to cultural affinities, and a common history of movement in both directions, is familiar with Latinamericanness. And what if this story had taken place in London? I am of the impression that in this city Latin Americans are even more illegible. Illegible, for it is always about reading—about reading and writing, and about literature. Not that I was always aware of this. It took some time for me to realise it. And it took displacement.

When I moved to London, ejected from my country by an economic crisis (and not by a dictatorship), an entire literature to which I had previously related became nonsensical. Until then I had a very clear impression of who I was and how to read myself—or so I thought. My biography was clear: Argentinean, middle-class, of European descent like many of my fellow-countrymen, one more book among others, easy to read. Changing my surroundings to an alien place involved a process of becoming unfamiliar, of becoming illegible to myself and others. In this new context I realised the falsity of my biography, the artificiality of myself. And writing became necessary and unavoidable. If your biography is revealed as a fallacy, then why not write yourself anew? Not to arrive at any truth, but to feel in command, to exist on the safety that a gerund provides: writing, becoming, becoming through writing. Every biography is a forgery. You might as well be the author.

It is always about literature, yes. About histories, documents, application forms, legal documents. They provide you with a personal narrative or they deny you one. Back in Argentina I was (I embodied) a major literature. Soon after arriving in the UK, I was written as an immigrant and a white, other—I was minored. This was probably the best thing that ever happened to me and the most perplexing too: a whole set of certainties came crashing to the ground. What does it mean to be a white, other? Can it really explain my experience of displacement? How is an Argentinean perceived abroad? Are we really perceived as white, others by the other whites who are not others? Does it matter? How do other cultures perceive us, the others who aren’t white? And more importantly, how do we—Latin Americans—perceive ourselves—our different cultures—here? How do we read ourselves here? Do we read ourselves with the bullet points that we passively receive? I hope that we don’t. For none of the narratives that aim to crystallise reterritorialised people are in place to help them read themselves. They are in place to facilitate readability by others, a bit like a footnote in a literary translation: “X in this context means Y”. Processed or illegible—translatable or authentic.

It is always about literature. And when it comes to writing literature my experience is always the same, it is about juggling legibility and authenticity. How can I write for people who can’t pronounce my name? Should I write from the point of view of an immigrant, a white, other? An other, non white? Should I write from the point of view of one of them, those who are not others? Who am I? Where am I when I am writing? Who and where are they? How legible and authentic should my characters be? What would be the right balance? And so on. It is always about that process of negotiating authenticity and legibility and it is always most certainly a failure, because the seminal question at the end of the day is always “who is writing?”. I can’t answer this question. And that makes me feel a bit like a ghost.

Because I am a ghost myself I get the impression that I am writing for a ghost readership…“The people are missing,” says Deleuze of modern political cinema, minor cinema. For Deleuze the problem faced by postwar auteurs is that the idea of a people collapsed—postwar auteurs don’t have the safety net provided by a people, they have to invent them one frame at a time. This applies to minor literature too. The people are missing, the people as readers, the people as writers. The invisibility of the people persists, even today. And the people are not there yet, they are being written, one paragraph at a time. Maybe some people have been invented while I wrote these paragraphs. Maybe I have invented myself in these paragraphs. Maybe I am already a bit here now, a bit less of a ghost. Or maybe I erased myself even more. I can’t tell.

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Some form of biography, something forged, any forgery that grants an illusory form of self-identity, is necessary. Forgery. It is always a creative process and my way of partaking in it has always been through writing. I know of much more creative people than I: those who choose to come up with a whole different persona; those who need not explain themselves-in-displacement to anyone; those happy to become a carnival, nomad chameleons, always ready to change for the audience. They are their own works of art, their own Elmyr de Hory—the uberforger—and no less of a fantasy than any of my words. I see them clinging to this or that other stereotype. I see them rejecting stereotypes. I see them tactically shedding skins. And this is no criticism. For it is possible to live in a state of fantasy, to rewrite oneself completely anew, forge oneself as many times as required. Being a good forgery is always better and more honest than being a mediocre original. It is always more desirable than assuming some of the identities you are forced into.

I was reading the paper yesterday when I accidentally fell head-first into a football article. I am not interested in sports, nor in the genre of sports journalism. Sportsmanship bores me to death and sports journalism—most of the time—confirms that it is perfectly possible to put words on a sheet of paper whilst remaining quite distant from thinking. In this article the author was “analysing” regional idiosyncrasies whilst providing a pop-anthropological account of the phenomenon of Argentineans travelling en masse to Brazil during the World Cup. The thing was a rehash of many recurrent stereotypes: that Argentineans are arrogant, that they are hated all over Latin America, that they are belligerent, that they envision themselves as more European than the rest of Latin America, and so on. Stereotypes might be popular because they contain an element of truth, however diminutive it might be. But more often than not they just provide an empty vessel, a lazy signifier through which to misread the stereotyped party (through whichever lens the reader might have at hand). It went on and on and I kept reading because I wanted to figure out whether I was reading an article written by someone incredibly myopic or cynical—it is of course possible to be both. The piece ended with full colours: “For the time being, the Argentines are making the most of what is their most emphatic annexation since Goose Green.” This line made my blood boil: I never felt like launching a naval war in the South Atlantic.

Is this the idea the British have of Argentineans? Are we perceived as a bunch of violent warriors? Is it fair to reduce a culture to the delirium of a military junta that ruled the country over 30 years ago? (This is the same junta that killed thirty thousand Argentineans, by the way). Perhaps these kinds of mindless statements shouldn’t be taken seriously. Perhaps. But we can’t deny that many people swear by this kind of essentialism. This is the type of narrative that the mass media excretes on a daily basis. The only antidote, I believe, is to balance things out, to reject any imposed biography in order to forge our own identity, however artificial and Quixotesque this endeavour might be. To write a literature of oneself and in that way to summon the people who are still missing. To bring them one step closer. To hope that, in the act of writing ourselves, we will also write readers able to read us on our own terms. The alternative is leaving the gaps open for anyone to write us into this or that reductive stereotype.

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One of the most interesting effects writing in a second language has had on my life is that of English dripping into my mother tongue, affecting the way I write in Spanish, the way I think in Spanish, the way I talk. I haven’t become legible in two languages—my relationship with the word is now accidental even in the language I call my own (not that I ever really owned it). In other words, I am never at home anywhere—other words, other words. It is always about those other words that can’t be summoned when you need them. How can I explain the insulting familiarity of the Argentine word boludo to a British person? How can I explain the insulting distance of mate to an Argentinean? The page of myself is full of footnotes. And nobody reads footnotes.

Going back home also demands that I become readable. It entails that I take notice of parts of my own biography that I have deleted or edited. It entails that I acknowledge the existence of pages that have been ripped, rewritten, or written over. Back home I am always a translation of a translation, an existential palimpsest, a mess of a text. I imagine that if I ever resettled back home permanently I would have to erase and rewrite myself all over, that I would be intervened and questioned by a completely new literature, read by different eyes, and that I would write and edit myself again and again, to the point of exhaustion. And perhaps even to the point of silence.

What is it like to always live, write, think, exist in the same language? Is this even possible? Are there people out there who are always legible? Perhaps it is about different modes of illegibility—perhaps we are all illegible to an extent and for a certain audience. Aren’t we all writing ourselves all the time? Aren’t we all failing all the time? For writing is always impossible, and if it is not it might as well be unnecessary, and we should get rid of all the typewriters, word processors, and use pens and pencils only to scratch our ears or fill-in our Lotto tickets. Screw all literature—screw everything ever written. Nothing but sorrow comes from all these documents, books, application forms. Why do we insist in writing when the reader is missing? The ghost readership gets to me.

Deep inside I know that I write these words in order to bring the people to come a step closer. But I also know that I write them for myself. Not to understand myself, but to become myself, to produce myself, to keep on living, to forge myself into another forgery, the gerund I was speaking about above. Writing, becoming, becoming something through my writing, forging, fabricating, and fabulating.

— Fernando Sdrigotti

Fernando Sdrigotti: is a writer, cultural critic, and recovering musician. He was born in Rosario, Argentina, and now lives and works in London. He is a contributing editor at 3am Magazine and the editor-in-chief of Minor Literature[s]. His new book Shetlag: una novela acentuada, has just been released by Araña editorial, Valencia. He tweets at @f_sd.

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Sep 082014
 

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The Austrian novelist, Robert Musil (1880-1942), who was trained as a mathematician, physicist, and behavioral psychologist, spent most of his career working on his magnum opus, The Man without Qualities, which, despite the thousands of pages completed, remained unfinished at his death while in exile in Switzerland. But he also wrote many essays, a few plays, a good deal of criticism, many philosophical and sociological essays, and many shorter prose pieces, including a novella and a number of longer short stories, published during his lifetime in book form and in numerous journals and newspapers, not to mention endless unpublished drafts of his novel, and for other literary, essayistic, and theatrical projects. Musil’s short prose pieces, which are a mixture of different sorts of experimental stories, of period vignettes, feuilletonistic sketches, and glosses on social and cultural issues, situate Musil within the literary, social, and philosophical concerns of his times, and show him struggling with incomparable wit and insight with problems, such as the commodification of art and culture, the sloppiness of language, the tension between individualism and conformity, and the decline of critical thinking, still very much unsolved today. These two short glosses, from the mid-twenties, which were published in 1926 and 1927 in a number of journals and newspapers, address the question of modern art, commodification, and the imprecision of metaphoric language. They are part of a collection of translations of previously untranslated Musil stories, glosses, and literary fragments I will be publishing with Contra Mundum Press in 2015.

This excerpt has been published by permission of Contra Mundum Press. Robert Musil, Short Prose, tr. by Genese Grill (New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2015).

—Genese Grill

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Speed Is Witchy!

It is always good to use words as one should, without thinking about it, that is. One can easily go on for ten sentences before a word pops up that needs to be thought about. This is doubtless a freewheeling kind of style that has about it an air of speeding traffic over long distances, and it seems that the intellectual tasks of the day can only be mastered with its assistance. But if one pays niggling attention to details, one will go flying into a hole in the language. Language no longer ambles along like it did in the days of our ancestors.

Consider for example the phrase, “head over heels”; what an important and much used phrase in a time which depends so much on tempo! How many people use this phrase in a rush without considering how many difficulties it creates for speed? For to fall head over heels toward somewhere would be to develop such a frantic acceleration that your body would seem to be wheeling over your feet, and your feet over your head; speed grabs you by the cuffs of your pants, the law of inertia shuts down in your head, and you are torn out of yourself like a rabbit out of his hide. But when was a person ever in such a mad rush? God yes, as a child, when one ran with unsteady legs. As a boy when one rode one’s bike down a steep hill. Maybe as a knight when one didn’t really know how the quest would end. At a paltry speed of ten to twenty miles per hour! If a car or a train wanted to drive head over heels they would have to creep!

Head over heels does not express a speediness then, but rather a relationship between the quickness and the danger of the conveyance or between the quickness and the excitement of extreme exertion. The streamers have to fly, the eyes have to lather, and the flanks must cramp. But then even a snail rushes along head over heels, in an utterly accelerated snail tempo, mad cap, in peril. Secondary observations are once again always the decisive ones. It is said that a small car speeds faster than a large wagon, and the more worn down the rails are, the faster a train speeds. Even romping is a matter of habituation. We have neighbors who think it means carefully gliding along through life as if on waxed floors.

One looks around in language for more solid expressions. How would it sound, for example, if one said: “He stuck the dagger in her heart head over heels?” Even the most daring novelist wouldn’t bring that over his quill. He doesn’t know why. But he makes the dagger thrust like lightning. Quick like a thought would not quite be the correct speed for it. But a lover is with his beloved as quick as a thought and never suddenly like lightning. These are mysteries.

A general always charges in forced marches. Someone who has finally been found falls into your arms, but runs to greet you. A general director storms around; his office employee, on the other hand, enters breathless; the speed of movement has, for each of them, the opposite effect on their breath. Perhaps it also should be mentioned that one always comes flying, but is gone in a flash.

One can see that these are difficult problems. But the worst of it is that modern life is filled with new speeds for which we have no expressions. Remarkably, speeds are described using the most conservative expressions that exist. Despite the train, the airplane, revolutions per minute, slow motion, the outermost limitation of speed expressions is the same today as it was in the Stone Age; nothing in language has gotten any faster than a thought or lightning or any slower than a snail. That is a devilish situation for a time period that has no time and that believes itself called to give the world a new speediness; the apples of quickness are dangling in front of us, but we cannot seem to open our mouths.

But maybe the future will be totally different. Classically experienced speeds still do exist today, but only in places where one would least expect them, like for farmers in the country. There lightning still flies through the air, the passing car blasts through the chickens, and there are paths where one can fall on one’s nose for rushing. In the city, the only speed one still senses is that of the connection that has to be made, the haste of disembarking and the uncertainty about getting somewhere at the right time. Without the blessing of neurasthenia we would have already lost this kind of speed too, since, in the worst case scenario, the person in a hurry, instead of wheezing and perspiring vapors, relinquishes a buck fifty for a car that will do this for him. And the higher one rises in the realms of power, the quieter it gets. A turbine factory with fifty thousand volts of horse power hums almost silently, and the most monstrous speeds of technology are still only a gentle rocking. Life becomes more prosaic and practical the larger it gets. A boxing match between two masters makes a lot less noise than a street fight between two laymen, and an explosion is not as dramatic as a knifing. The great new intensities have something that our feelings cannot grasp, like rays of light for which an eye does not yet exist. But it won’t be very long before we say relaxing-train instead of express and only use the phrase head over heels when we want to describe or depict something like the evening stillness, when far and wide nothing stirs, and the rare quiet rushes over us like an ocean.

(1927)

 

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Intensivism

Don’t waste too much time on art! Find yourself without further ado on the pinnacle of expertise! All you need is two rules.

Always declare that a picture that does not please you or that you do not understand is old-fashioned. Don’t include anything that will let on whether you have taken it to be second or twentieth century, a watercolor or a woodcut. For one can argue about those things.

Secondly, maintain, if people ask you for the reasons for this judgment, that the painting style of the future is Intensivism. And if they ask you what this is, refuse to answer and say, that’s self-explanatory.

This is, after all, how it is always done. This is how Impressionism did it and Expressionism. I will not tell you, of course, what these two words mean; happily, that no longer concerns you. And if I tell you a bit more about Intensivism, it is not with the intention of giving you an idea of it—because, if the adherents of a movement had a clear conception of it that would paralyze their momentum —, but so that you can get a feeling about how this coming art will become the nerves, the will, and the vitality of painting; stick to this resolution, forget everything else.

In the old days people painted larger pictures than today. That was because the living areas were larger. You see how simple the rules of art are.

When we lived in castles, we covered whole walls with a single picture. Later, when we lived in a house, the pictures were 5 x 6 ½ feet at their largest. Today even massive people can only afford apartments with a few rooms, rooms only half as high as they were before, and the pictures correspondingly have a format of only 3 ¼ feet; and if, as is to be expected, the building activity in Europe stagnates for much longer, the pictures will get even smaller.

But they have not become correspondingly less expensive. From this follows that the ground and surface of the picture has gotten more expensive, the ground rent of the canvas per square inches has become larger and the same spiritual profit requires an intensivist economizing. That is the root of Intensivism.

Secondly, it demands psychic energy. Look at a landscape, and you will usually find a third, if not a half of the picture covered with air or water. Such pictures are more or less fallow land. It cannot be contested that a quarter inch of painted blue or an explanatory note are quite sufficient to let us know whether sky or water was meant; every person knows what they look like, there is nothing new about it to depict, it is just a matter of habitual waste of going through the motions. Naturally, you discover the same thing when you look at a portrait. The painter does not fill the whole picture with it, but spares himself with a background, which fills at least half of it.

I could, for example, paint you two times, or you and then after you your rival while you step on his neck, the great day when all paper securities skyrocketed, or the black day when everything collapsed. Don’t be afraid of such demands; all truly original epochs of art came about quite naturally. Consider that one can paint many pictures inside each other; but I won’t jump ahead, this art is already developing on its own. Just keep a firm hold on the wish that painting will soon turn to race horses, hunting scenes, automobiles, airplanes, and whatever you find truly beautiful, and tentatively demand that we put an end to all these underutilized spiritual surfaces.

Intensivistic life in the smallest portion of a picture, nervous surfaces, introduction of the victorious energy of modern life into the frame of the picture: that is Intensivismus! If you see something that already seems to tend toward it, then say nothing more than: but is that ever intense! If this is too hard for you, then bring your wife along, she will get it right.

(1926)

—Robert Musil, Translated by Genese Grill

These short essays have been published by permission of Contra Mundum Press. Robert Musil, Short Prose, tr. by Genese Grill (New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2015).

All original texts taken from Die Klagenfurter Ausgabe (Klagenfurt Edition): Annotated Digital Edition of the Collected Works, Letters and Literary and Biographical Remains, with Transcriptions and Facsimiles of All Manuscripts. Ed. Walter Fanta, Klaus Amann, and Karl Corino. Robert Musil-Institut, Alpen-Adria Universität Klagenfurt, Austria, 2009.

Intensivism. “Intensismus”. Berliner Tageblatt (1926), Der Tag (1927). Posthumous printings: Frisé (1978), pp. 681-683, Klagenfurter Ausgabe: Lesetexte Kleine Prosa.

Speed is Witchy! “Geschwindigkeit ist eine Hexerei”. Vossische Zeitung (5.28.1927), Prager Presse (7.6.1927), Magdeburgische Zeitung (7.29.1927), Der Tag (9.20.1927), Vierzehn Federn (1927). Posthumous printings: Frisé (1957), pp. 542-544, Frisé (1978), pp. 683-685, Klagenfurter Ausgabe: Lesetexte: Kleine Prosa.

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Genese Grill

Genese Grill is an artist, writer, German scholar, and translator living in Burlington, Vermont. Her first book, The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’: Possibility as Reality (Camden House, 2012), explores the aesthetic-ethical imperative of word and world-making in Musil’s metaphoric theory and practice and celebrates the extra-temporal moment of Musil’s “Other Condition” as a transformative aesthetic and mystical experience informing a utopian conduct of life.

 

 

Sep 072014
 

Michael OatmanMichael Oatman in London in March 2014 with Eduardo Paolozzi’s 1982 mural for the Tottenham Court Underground Station, completed the year he started college at RISD. Photo credit: Jen Kollar.

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Michael Oatman is brilliant. He calls his practice “the poetic interpretation of documents,” and much like a poet in love with the lyric moment, he captures hundreds of still-lifes, bits of magic, preserving the quality of the painterly images he works with by using them in his constructions, simultaneously reverent and irreverent. He works in collage and installation, making pieces that can be extremely large scale.

His work, studio, and intellect set up a seduction not unlike a labyrinth, and shortly after entering, you realize you’ve willingly let go the thread. Time no longer exists. You want to go down every rabbit hole. His downtown Troy studio is jam-packed, floor to ceiling. Yet it is also highly organized and makes your fingers itch with excitement and curiosity. There are books everywhere. Thousands. And objects, in stacked files and bins overflowing, whose stories and histories are locked away, subject to the imagination, some known only to their collector. Oatman unlocks or reinvents these images and objects for us as painstakingly as a surgeon.

Oatman’s influences, surprisingly (and not) include Cage, Duchamp, and Hitchcock. His installations are utterly immersive projects, and he’s constantly got things in the works. Many of you will have seen one of his recent pieces, a four-year collaborative effort, “All Utopias Fell,” installed at Mass MoCA. It includes jars of tomatoes his mother canned, a stationary exercise bike from the seventies, power tools, a record turntable and collection of vinyl records, and a fascination of knobs, gizmos & do-dads, which remake odd instrument panels. Of course there are books, among hundreds of other items, housed in a re-purposed Airstream trailer, whose outside is graffitied with phrases including “Ignore alien orders,” “One word changes everything,” and “Build your wings on the way down.” This trailer has become a spaceship, a satellite that has crash-landed, and the collection inside & out tells the story of a man.

We get the feeling that Oatman’s work is suffused with his biography. Because he is so deeply engaged in the world around him and in art as a means of communication, I was inspired to speak with him primarily about collaboration and connection.

  —Mary Kathryn Jablonski

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“The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”

—Marcel Duchamp

Mary Kathryn Jablonski (MKJ): Michael, I see here in your studio that you’re working on a new collage using images of cloaked body parts. They remind me of Nina Katchadourian’s “Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style,” and make me want to ask you, what would you do if you were trapped on an airplane for twenty hours?

Michael Oatman (MO): I’ve had that happen before. 38 hours one time to go to Montana, and it only took me 27 hours to go to Easter Island, the most remote place in the world. I’ve been in that kind of situation. I’d probably get everyone on board to do something together to kill time, because everyone’s got a video camera on their phone. Also, what I used to do a lot of when I was waiting, when I didn’t have a car, when I was a student, I had my sketch book, and I’d just draw. Everybody. Bus stations, train stations, airports, waiting to get on the subway. And I find when I travel I sometimes go back to that a little bit. I like drawing people. For me, it’s not part of my work any more, but occasionally I’ll draw the figure. I taught it for 10 years, but the kind of drawings you get out in the world are really different from the kind of drawings you get of the body in the studio. Sometimes a body makes a scene seem more real somehow. I don’t live in a sketchbook quite as much as I used to, but I think Nina’s really figured out something hilarious.

MKJ: Yes, I especially love the clandestine “Bucklehead” photos of other passengers reflected in her seatbelt.

MO: Oh, that’s great. Yeah, I just saw the movie, Finding Vivian Maier. It’s about a woman who was a self-taught photographer who produced over 100,000 images in her lifetime. Quintessential street photographer, easily as good as Robert Frank. She was a nanny to make her money, but she also wanted a job that wouldn’t take up a ton of her time, that would get her out onto the streets all day, so she worked for seemingly dozens of families from something like the 1940’s until the 90’s, maybe longer. 50, 60 years as a nanny. Sometimes you can tell she had a Rolleiflex that you looked down through the top of. It was easy for her to take pictures with no one noticing her. But other times it’s clear that the subjects are looking right at her. She had the ability to get people to trust her enough to take that photo. It’s a wonderful movie.

But going back to the visual relationship to Nina’s things. What I obviously like about those photos where she mimics the Dutch Masters… These photos I’m currently working with are actual pieces of diseased skin that the doctors or authors of the book (titled “The Jacobi Dermachromes”) framed out with cloth to look a bit like relics. They’re kind of honoring the disease and the person by beatifying it, and that’s what I really like. I did some work many years ago with images from life saving manuals, and in all these scenes of mayhem with broken legs and bones sticking through arms and people unconscious and bleeding, everybody, including the victims, looked so calm. And that was something I drew on.

Similarly, what I like about these diseased skin images is the devotional quality, and that is actually how I think about the images I use in my collages. Generally speaking, the pictures that I’m using, nobody cares about anymore, because everything on the Internet is a photograph. Why have a painting of a sea urchin or a horseshoe crab when you can have a photo of it? The illustrators that I use whose work comes mostly from between the 1920s and 70s made everything by hand, by painting. I guess it’s a little nod to the fact that I used to be a painter, so I really like images that started as paintings and ended as reproductions in books. With this project, in breaking my own rule, I’m working with photographs, but I feel like they’re altered enough by the process of being framed out with the fabric around the figures, and the hand coloration, and the separations for printing, that they feel more like illustrations to me than straight photographs.

Collage parts in preparation as decals, studio view, 2014

Because there are often hundreds of illustrators in one image that I make, and it has to work somehow, I’m trying to maintain the “official quality” of these original picture sources, which were so authoritarian, and at the same time, confidence in the judgment of the selector.

MKJ: Your work seems at once nostalgic and futuristic. In that way it reminds me of some of Margaret Atwood’s novels, The Handmaids Tale, Oryx and Crake. And all of your work, whether the two-dimensional wall pieces or the three-dimensional installations, I see as collage.

MO: That’s interesting, kind of “fugistic.” It’s funny you say that you see all my work as collage, because I now call the collages “flat installations.”

And I have these new frames that my dad has been making, which nobody’s written about yet. It’s really interesting for me because I’ve always commissioned my folks to make work for my projects, so I’ll hire my mom to do sewing or my dad to do carving or knife making or frame making and I’ll ask for 10 frames, as I did recently for this piece called “The Branch,” which is 30 feet long, which Ian Berry commissioned for the Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College. My dad made these rectangular frames that I kind of assembled together on the wall in the form of a branch. But two Thanksgivings ago he called me excitedly to ask if I was coming home for the holiday, saying he had this idea he wanted to run by me, an art idea he didn’t think anyone had done before. So I went up to Vermont and he had this beautiful drawing on vellum, a drafting of a Native American thunderbird shape. And he said, “I’ll make these shapes and you fill them.” I’ve been waiting for this for 30 years, for him to propose a project. Because it’s always been, “Dad, I need this. It’s this dimension. Here’s how to make it.” Now he’s picking the shapes: fish, butterfly, bat, thunderbird, anvil. I guess I influenced him on the anvil [see bio: Falling Anvil Studios].

He just gets them done whenever he gets them done and delivers them, and he’s an amazing resource. But it’s a real challenge, because the way that I’ve been working with imagery is in the classical manner of the Renaissance model: single viewer, a scene that unfolds in the world. I generally don’t make pieces that are pure abstraction, although I’ve made a few. One was in a Tang show and called “Code of Arms,” which was a human DNA helix. It’s pretty abstract, but it was still made out of pictures of things. Or a piece I made titled “Germinal Velocity.” Having the shaped edge means that you’ve really got to work with it or ignore it in a fantastic way. It’s been an opportunity for me to think dynamically about what’s been going on. It’s also given me an opportunity to change scale.

3-Germinal Velocity “Germinal Velocity (by the time I get to Phoenix, she’ll be rising),” 2013, collage on paper with frame custom made by the artist’s father, Gordon Oatman.

Like in this new piece, it’s not a landscape in a traditional sense, the zoom-out of the surface of the earth, but when I began to move the butterfly frame around, I realized that Africa fit in the upper right hand corner and the rest of it was blank. It’s a piece kind of about the butterfly effect, you know, the butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon, changing the weather, and this is more like a creature of human invention, the Pegasus, which is the Mobil Oil Corporation mascot. I’ve been collecting them. So they’re kind of the storm spiraling out. The working title for this piece is, “Convenience Storm,” a play on convenience store, which is a place where you get things like gasoline, cigarettes, condoms, beer. This piece is a bit about convenience store culture, a weird “Ode to Stewarts,” our regional shop, and I’m sure I’d be shocked if I learned how much I spent at Stewarts over the years. This piece is still very much in progress, and I’m not sure where it’s headed. I think things started to snap when I got the red working with the rest of the colors in the map. This is going to be one of the pieces in my upcoming show in October at the Arts Center in Troy with Colin Boyd called “Abecedarius,” which, as you know, follows a kind of A, B, C format. We’re each taking 13 letters of the alphabet and making a work, and we’re going to do one ampersand work that we make together.

4-Convenience Storm in process“Convenience Storm,” 2014, collage on map with frame custom made by the artist’s father, Gordon Oatman. Process, studio view.

5-Convenience Storm - process detailDetail view of “Convenience Storm,” 2014, in process.

MKJ: Has it ever felt forced to you to have your father make the frames first and you having the task of filling them? Have you ever dreaded the challenge or has it thrilled you instead?

MO: Totally thrilling. And what’s really thrilling is his process. He finds a shape online, so my non-computer-expert Dad has been surfing Google looking for animals. He’s thrown a lot of things out there that we’ve decided weren’t so great. We thought a manta ray was good, but he couldn’t really find a geometry that he liked. He thought a shark might be interesting, but it was a little too goofy. And then he found this bat, and it got stylized, not quite like the Batman logo, but it’s very baroque. I asked him years ago to find a way not to cast a shadow as much with the frames, and he came up with this bevel on the surface, which tapers down to about a quarter of an inch. Previously it was a three quarter inch edge. I asked him to start making frames like this when I came back from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and saw these really plain frames around Dutch paintings. I’d been teaching that semester in Rome and took a trip to Amsterdam to meet my then wife. In Rome the frames were like somebody threw up on them and then gold-leafed it, but in Northern climes they wanted this severe Calvinistic frame. So that’s what my father and I started doing, and we just painted them black instead of the Jacobean brown, which he was using earlier.

His process includes finding an image and printing it out at home. He goes to an old fashioned Xerox place, blows it up, then uses his 30-60-90 triangles, protractors, and other tools, as he averages the geometry. I think you have to admit that it’s a very good configuration of that shape, and I hope to actually show these drawings that he made someday, because I love them: the graininess of the Xerox and the calculations of the angles written at each point. I think this frame has 32 compound angles. Not only is he beveling the surface, he’s mitering each angle, you know, it’s 25 degrees, 60, 15, 45, 30, 60. It’s a lot of work to make these frames! So I really appreciate it, and I’m glad we’re finally getting to do something that’s a real 50-50 team effort. I’d long hoped to do a project with my whole family, my brother included. He’s in finance, but he was great at sewing when he was younger. I want to do an “Oatman Family Robinson” type show, where they would make everything. We would make everything together. That may happen someday.

MKJ: I made the assumption that when you work in the studio on your 2-D collage works it is a very solitary, meditative practice, based on the exacting quality of your cutwork. In the project “Beautiful Moths,” even the book you cut is intact! At Mass MoCA, however, the wall label for “All Utopias Fell”  reveals an amazing collaboration of over 20 names. I recall thinking that the canned tomatoes in that installation must have been your mother’s. I was going to ask you to speak about the differences between the (seeming) privacy of your studio practice and the social, collaborative aspects of your installation works, yet you’ve just been describing the blurred lines between the two, haven’t you?

6-Beautiful Moths“Beautiful Moths,” book.

MO: There were way more than 20 involved in the Mass MoCA piece; like maybe 60. And, yup, Dad grew the tomatoes; Mom canned them! Well, if my dad continues to make these shaped frames for me I’d be happy to work in nothing but the shapes, although I do have a lot of projects that are earmarked already for rectangular frames. It’s a really good question. I used to do the installations completely by myself and then my ambitions got bigger and museums wanted bigger pieces, and I had longer time frames within which to work. Now, I’d probably say that I wouldn’t do installations without working with a lot of people because I like it. I get to be like a director on a film. When you work with a lot of people you have to have a certain control over the overall project, and I think you also let go of a lot. And that’s much more surprising for me. There’s much more of a chance element if you say to a student, “All right, if you want to make a video for this piece, make a proposal and we’ll include it in the reel.” If I’m asking a helper use beer labels to make them into a kind of wallpaper in the ship, and they get to determine what the layout is, then I get to be surprised by that. My longtime editor that I worked with for many years is a former student. He’s now editing out in Hollywood. He began to know what I was interested in after awhile, so he could do a lot of work on his own that would be in the vein of how we’d work together. I miss that relationship greatly, and I’m looking to rekindle or replace that, working with a new editor. But I think collaboration is interesting not just because of the high, but also because of the surprise. That’s why I do it now.

I’m currently working on a big project for Toronto with my friend Brian Kane, an artist from Cambridge, Massachusetts, curated by Denise Markonish from Mass MoCA, titled “Nuit Blanche.” It has changed, because of venue changes and budget changes, literally a dozen times. It’s been super-interesting, and I think we’re going to have a great project in the end. We’re also collaborating with Paul De Jong, the cellist and former member of the now disbanded group The Books. He’s an amazing composer, studio craftsman, and performer. This sort of “secret” project is being deployed at Union Station for 12 hours only, at a sunset to sunrise art festival, on October 4th. It’s deeply collaborative, curatorially, and even in terms of working with the city managers. It has had its challenges and its delights, and I think that’s the nature of collaboration. I don’t know of any collaborations that were completely smooth. I think they’d probably not be so interesting.

MKJ: I want to know if you conceal yourself in your works, particularly your collaborations, or if you reveal yourself. Of course, most viewers who walk into the Airstream at Mass MoCA must ask if Michael Oatman is the hermit.

MO: When I was an undergraduate student I was churning out a lot of stuff. After I was a freshman and chose my major, which was painting, I was making a lot of collages, and I think it was my friend Todd Bartel who pointed out to me one day that every single image that I’d been making had a hand in it somewhere. Sort of, the Hand of God, or maybe the Hand of the Maker. It was a symbol that had crept in, and hands were in sculptures and pointing down from the sky and jutting into frames. Ninety-five percent of what I made that year in prints and collages and paintings had no full bodies, not even heads or faces, but hands coming into the frame. And once I saw it, I began to do it in earnest to try to figure it out. I guess I began to see it as a reluctant portrait in a way, but also mentors, parents, and partners, an absent body. Later, when I was making paintings in graduate school that were all about bodies, they were very distanced. Even later still, I used imagery of objects used by the body, the tools of a surgeon or artist. If there was a body in the picture, it was often an unconscious body or disembodied body.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the great tiny piece by Rauschenberg called “Portrait of Iris Clert.” I think the story is that he was supposed to be in a portraiture show featuring this woman in particular, and he telegrams the gallery, addressing Iris Clert and saying basically, “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so / Robert Rauschenberg.” Her name was in it. His name was in it. Her picture was nowhere to be found, and it was just this completely conceptual move. Remembering that piece has been useful in answering this question. I do get asked a lot where I am in “All Utopias Fell.” I think that the short answer is that my biography drives a lot of the material and image choices. Not any readily available facts about me, not my own image, obviously. It’s really how sensations, stories, memories from my own life help me make choices for what’s going to go into a piece, and that’s beautifully indirect. That piece at Mass MoCA on some level is about a romantic relationship that ended, on some level it’s about historical figures that have influenced me. In the stained glass there are references to Tom Phillips, author of The Humument, my girlfriend in college, and my mentor, Alfred DeCredico, both of whom are now gone. There’s also reference to Chinua Achebe, author of When Things Fall Apart, who was alive when I made the window, but recently died. His book is also in the installation. You know, it’s riddled, riddled, with personal information that is not easily obtainable by the viewer, because I don’t think it needs to be, but it needs to be there for me to make a choice about something. For me it isn’t every work that’s deeply autobiographical, but the large ones tend to be. I’ve made something like 24 installations in my lifetime now, some big, some small.

MKJ: “All Utopias Fell” is actually a project in three interrelated parts: “The Shining,” “The Library of the Sun,” and “Codex Solis.” Let’s talk about the solar panels/coded text aspect, titled “Codex Solis.” I recently attended a wonderful panel talk at the Arts Center in Troy on The Creative Process, and among other things the discussion touched upon topics including success & failure, submission & rejection of works, and intrinsic value of the work as well as public recognition. So often you speak about art as a form of communication; would this piece be a “failure” in your mind if it were never deciphered? Or, if it is deciphered and publicized, does that devalue the piece in your mind? Or, is its value intrinsic, making these issues irrelevant? How do you process this piece?

MO: If it’s solved is it a success? If it’s not solved is it a failure? Or if it’s solved is it a failure? If it’s not solved is it a success? Actually, one person has solved it. The analogy for “Codex Solis” for me is a Duchamp piece called “With Hidden Noise,” which I think is one of his greatest contributions to the idea of art. It is two plates of metal with a ball of twine in between, and there’s some French and English words on the top and bottom of it, and right before he closes up the two metal plates with four bolts, he gives it to his friend and patron Walter Arensberg, and tells him, “Put something inside and don’t tell me what it is.” That’s what Arensberg does, and supposedly nobody’s ever opened it. It’s highly unlikely in the world of curious people and conservators that nobody’s X-rayed the thing. People have speculated that, well, Arensberg wasn’t a particularly risky guy intellectually, and probably knowing Duchamp’s interest in chance, there’s a die or coin or something related to chance hidden in there. They’re good guesses. They may be totally off base. Hopefully we’ll never know. In my mind, that’s the perfect artwork: where the artist makes something extremely deliberate, and there’s a great deal about it that he doesn’t know. That’s what I want to do.

In “Codex Solis” I still know what the message is. I had to look for it in a very unorthodox way. It had to be a certain number of characters. I could have as many mirrors and blank spaces as I wanted, but I had to have a certain number of solar panels. It took me six months to find something that would meet the electrical load of the piece, which is a weird requirement, kind of Duchampian. And I needed something that would relate content-wise to my overall project. It’s not something that I wrote. It’s something that I transplanted into the piece. Now, would it have been a better piece if someone else chose the text? Probably, on some level, because then I wouldn’t know what it is, sort of invisibly beaming into the heavens every day.

I think that the person who solved it generously decided to keep it to himself, because to answer your question, something will change when it is revealed. I think it will be interesting for people, some more than others, to know what it says.

MKJ: Yes, yes. Toshiko Takeazu also made closed ceramic vessels, inscribing the inner walls with hidden messages before she sealed and fired them. One final question, Michael. Does your artwork ever teach you things about yourself?

7-Who Me- Pornithology series“Who, Me?” (from the ongoing series “Pornithology”), 2014, collage on paper, 10″ x 13″.

MO: All these books to look through… It can be wildly inefficient, because I stop to read. I cut things out and leave them in a pile and forget about them and come back to them, and don’t quite remember what they were for specifically, but they take on a new meaning, and that’s a sort of gift of working with physical material. There are a few in this folder titled “Pornithology,” birds and guns and things I think of as a perversion of the birds through human weapons. But I also make deliberate notes and sketches. Almost every collage or installation has anywhere from a few to hundreds of drawings. Then there’s like a rule that comes along. Like the Moth Book Rule of removing only shaped things. For instance I wouldn’t bother to remove rectangles from the dictionary, but if it’s a book of birds and they’re in that shape, then that’s a much more interesting book to cut out. Otherwise, I would never tear a book apart, but I’m choosing books that are beautifully laid out, and there’s an acknowledgement that the designer, the illustrator were masterful.

I think that the studio is a place of great discovery. I don’t even know if I’d call it learning as much as I’d call it discovery. It’s not knowledge in the way that I’m consuming it. It’s trivia. I would say that there’s loads of interesting trivial information, lots of experience that happens in the studio. I don’t think I’d do it if there weren’t some sort of payoff of consciousness or realization or growth. Certainly the studio has been a very sustaining part of my life. The first thing that saved me was probably reading. The second thing that saved me was an outlet for ideas. But the studio is always like an old friend.

There’s second hand smoke knowledge in the studio all the time. But I learn a lot more in the collaborative works, from other people, students, teachers, friends, audience members, people who start out as audience members and become collaborators. They’ve seen something and they get in touch with me and want to become involved. I try to think, if there’s a place for them that would be great. It’s an easy decision to make, because help is help and it’s going to change the piece. It’s going to change the way I think about it.

— Michael Oatman and Mary Kathryn Jablonski

 

Michael Oatman was born in Burlington Vermont in 1964. He received his BFA in painting from RISD in 1986. His installations integrate thousands of found, modified and handmade components, including artifacts of material culture, painting, drawing, video, sound, food – and objects at the scale of architecture. These ‘unvironments’ have been installed at museums, public spaces and private homes.

His collages, also realized on a large-scale, typically contain vast numbers of hand-cut images culled from discarded and unloved books – children’s encyclopedias, scientific texts, product and armament catalogs. His father, a carpenter, makes the frames. His rigorously researched subjects include genetics and eugenics, capital punishment and prisons, the history of knowledge and the exploration of space. Often using large amounts of material from archives, libraries, flea markets, garage sales, abandoned stores and the collections of private individuals, he refers to his practice as ‘the poetic interpretation of documents.’ He has also written about art and has curated several important exhibitions, most notably Factory Direct, a new version of which was mounted by the Andy Warhol Museum in 2012.

Similar to the Situationists’ notion of the dérive, his works often begin with an aimless foray into psychogeographic terrains, on foot, in a car, or occasionally by dreaming. In order to perform his research he has posed as a salesman, pollster and journalist; sometimes this playacting gives way to legitimately operating as a private detective, technician or personal assistant.

In addition to his studio and post-studio practices, Oatman teaches first-year and thesis in the School of Architecture at Renssealer, in Troy, NY. His Extreme Drawing course – as well as seminars on Duchamp and Hitchcock – are popular, even with students from non-art disciplines. He has also taught at Harvard, The University of Vermont, SUNY Albany, St. Michael’s College and Vermont College. He has been a visiting critic at RISD since 1986.

Oatman’s installations are ‘context-specific,’ and demand from him a total immersion into physical location, sonic/haptic realms, local history and the personal stories of those he encounters in the process of making a work. He is prone to collaboration, and, since 2004 has worked with gifted students under the name of Falling Anvil Studios. Privileged to study with Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler, the most significant conceptualists/social activists of the 1980s/90s, he has also studied with Ana Mendieta, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Edward Mayer, Jim Dine, and his RISD mentor, Alfred DeCredico.

Oatman has shown his work extensively in the U.S. and abroad. Recent projects include All Utopias Fell, a permanent commission for MASS MoCA, which opened in October 2010; a large-scale commissioned collage for the newly opened Wellin Museum at Hamilton College; a recent book for graphic design firm id 29, and a long-term outdoor video environment. He is represented by Miller/Yezerski in Boston, MA; Lenore Grey in Providence, RI; Stremmel Gallery, in Reno NV; and Mayson Gallery in New York, NY.

Mary Kathryn Jablonski

Mary Kathryn Jablonski is a gallerist in Saratoga Springs, a visual artist and a poet, author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met (APD Press, 2008). Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals includingSalmagundi, Slipstream, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Blueline. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.

 

Sep 062014
 

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It was through Phyllis Springer and Goksin Sipahioglu, the owners of the celebrated photo agency SIPA press in Paris, that I met Mavis Gallant.  This was in the 1980s.

Mavis lived in the apartment next to Phyllis and Goksin on the left bank near Boulevard Montparnasse, not far from 27 rue de Fleurus.  In that same apartment building in those days lived the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, with whom I had no encounter.

I had been staying in Paris above a couscous restaurant on rue Xavier Privas that I shared with fullback-sized cockroaches.  In those days I drove a yellow deux chevaux I named Colette.  I would park her where I could, changing places in a failed attempt to avoid parking tickets, but at least not being towed.

Some days I’d buy a lunch from un marchand de rue and, with a bottle of vin de pays, take my meal on Square du Vert Galant, a point on l’Ile de la Cité where I’d watch the bateaux mouches on the Seine.  One such lunch I saw a barge going up the river packed with cars; Colette was among them—-in fact, on the bow, like a figurehead.

It took three days of my poor French and 300 francs to free her from the Fourrière, a kind of dog pound for cars. Later, just before I left Paris, I put an AV sign in the windshield and sold her to a sous chef of Café de Palais on Place Dauphine. Adieu: Colette.

Sometimes Phyllis and Goksin would invite me to join them for dinner at a restaurant where they were habitués. It was at one of those meals that I met Mavis: La Marlotte? Brasserie Lipp? Closerie des Lilas? Probably La Marlotte, as that was not far from where they all lived.

It was at that meal that Christiane Amanpour stopped to say hello to Goksin and Phyllis; she had worked for them at SIPA before she turned to television reporting.

—He is a great photographer, she said to me, putting her hand on Goksin’s shoulder. Do you know that? I said I did. And Mavis is a great writer, she continued.  I said I knew that as well.

I had, like almost any American author who writes short fiction, read Mavis’s stories in the New Yorker. Along with Salinger and John Cheever in those days, you could earn multiple graduate degrees in creative writing by reading these authors. At one point I typed (on a manual typewriter, it was that long ago) parts of stories from all three to see what they had accomplished, and how they did it.  I learned, among other things, what a fine sense of local detail these writers had:  Salinger for the parks and subways of New York City; Cheever for the upstate suburbs with roaming lovers and Labrador Retrievers; Mavis Gallant for the rues of Paris; her stories were their own Plan de Paris.

Also at that first dinner, Phyllis asked Mavis if she had walked that day. Paris has many rainy days, and that had been one of them.

—I walk every day in Paris, Mavis said. It is how I fetch my stories. Not to do so would be impossible.

Years later, when she was crippled by arthritis and diabetes, Mavis’s agent made her a Christmas gift: a year’s worth of taxi rides so she could continue fetching her stories.

I imagine her with the notebook of her writer’s mind open through her eyes as she has the driver take her toward Place de l’Odéon, and then down where the students rioted in 1968. The next day the taxi is driving her across the Seine toward the Hotel de Ville in the 4th, past the apartment buildings and cafes and art galleries of her characters, and beyond: to Pere Lachaise in the 20th–all the time Mavis not looking where she had been in her previous work, but where in her mind’s eye she would be setting new stories once she got back to her writing.

In the years that followed our first dinner, Mavis and I would eat entre nous at restaurants that her characters and mine frequented; she would order from my fictional menu, and I would order from hers–both being true to our characters. Because of the writer she was, and because of the writer I was, her characters were much better fed than mine.  Tant pis. At least I ate well, and in her company had bright and witty talk.

At one such lunch (at Le Cherche Midi I think because it was open on Sunday), she lectured me that I was not a writer because I did not make my living as one; beyond that, I taught creative writing, which is not how writers learn. I said I knew the latter from reading her stories.  She smiled.

As if to compensate for her rather pointed points, she ordered a split of Chateau D’ay (the appellation delighted her given the company), and toasted the quality of my fiction: très amusant, which was high praise, as she thought herself a comic writer. Très belle: To Mavis Gallant, after all these years I toast both the woman and her fiction, as if the two can be separated which, had you watched her walking through Paris in the rain (as I did one day on my way to join her for lunch, her head turned here and there to see what would become the facts of her fiction) you know is, thankfully, impossible.

 —Robert Day

Bob DayRobert Day in Paris

Robert Day’s new novel Let Us Imagine Lost Love premiered here on Numéro Cinq in its entirety as a serial novel and will be published in fall 2014 by Mammoth Publications. Prior to that, his most recent book was Where I Am Now, a collection of short fiction published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press. Booklist wrote: “Day’s smart and lovely writing effortlessly animates his characters, hinting at their secrets and coyly dangling a glimpse of rich and story-filled lives in front of his readers.” And Publisher’s Weekly observed: “Day’s prose feels fresh and compelling making for warmly appealing stories.”

 

Sep 052014
 

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Gallant and MulhallenMavis Gallant & Karen Mulhallen

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Three months after my conversation with Richard Landon, Director of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto, Mavis Gallant and I were able to meet at the radio station to discuss her work in anticipation of my broadcasts on her writing. We spent an entire day in the recording studio and saw one another two more times that week, off record so to speak. I found her both candid and open.

And our subsequent talks, after the tape machine was turned off and we had changed context, bore out my sense of her deep intelligence and her compassion. In rereading her stories to prepare these pages for Numéro Cinq, I found another quality, which perhaps I had been too young, or too anxious to take in — her comic, even madcap, sense of human folly.

In “The Four Seasons,” the first story in From the Fifteenth District, there is a six-page scene where a substitute priest in the British colony in the south of France is being lessoned in manners and morals, and the classics and the Bible, and of course, really, on their expectations, by his new parishioners. They have informed him there is no need to change the signage which advertises “Evensong Every Day at Noon.” They warn him about his sermons: “I hope you are not a scholar, Padre. Your predecessor was, and his sermons were a great bore.” And finally, on telling him it is time for him to leave, his host says, “Well, I’ll expect you’ll not forget your first visit.”  “I am not likely to,” says the young man.

Mavis Gallant and I began to talk in the CJRT art deco studio on Victoria Street in Toronto in the morning of Wednesday, October 11, 1989. It was just past Canadian Thanksgiving, a festival which carries very specific culinary rituals, as will become later important in my brief epilogue to this narrative. The small art deco building on Victoria Street was one of a group of exquisite art deco structures in downtown Toronto, which have since been torn down. The signature building, which still stands, is just up the street at the corner of College and Yonge, the former Eaton’s College Street. Another exquisite building is at the south west corner of Gerard and Yonge, formerly a bank, now a pub. It’s impossible to think about Gallant without thinking about cityscapes, since she is so much the writer of urban life, and she chose to live the greater part of her life in a city, Paris, which has not pulled down its signature architectural structures willy-nilly.

— Karen Mulhallen

 

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As it had been with with Richard Landon, the focus of our conversation was initially her collection From The Fifteenth District (1979), nine tales set in Europe after the Second World War. We began with” The Moslem Wife,” and Gallant read part of the story, explaining its context as she read:

Mavis Gallant (MG): The story is set in the south of France before the war and this couple, Netta and Jack Asher, owns a hotel. Just as the war breaks out Jack gets to America, but Netta is left behind, and she tries to look after the hotel, and she also has his mother to look after, and a lot of different things. She starts to write him a letter, which she never sends, but she keeps trying over and over, because what she has experienced is so remote from anything he’s been living. So she starts to write — the letter she’s been writing in her head for many years. She is in her father’s business room, wearing a shawl because there is no way of heating any part of the hotel now, and she tries to get on with the letter she’d been writing in her head on and off for many years:

“In June 1940 we were evacuated” she started for the tenth or eleventh time, “I was back by October. Italians had taken over the hotel.”

MG interjects: You must understand, that the Italian army had occupied that part of the South of France, then in 1943 the Germans occupied it.

“Italians had taken over the hotel… When the Italians were here we had rice and oil. Your mother, who was crazy, used to put out grains to feed the mice. When the Germans came, we had to live under Vichy law, which meant each region lived on what it could produce, as ours produces nothing we got quite thin…. This true story sounded so implausible that she decided never to send it. She wrote a sensible letter asking for sugar and rice and for new books; nothing must be older than 1940.”

MG: That’s all true you know, that’s all based on truth, the Red Cross people who took a German skull away as a souvenir and the Italians who were there when the Germans took over because the Italians had suddenly switched sides in 1943 and then they were put in the hotel and just left there. And the local people took them water, something to drink, because they hadn’t been all that bad, they hadn’t been anything as bad as the Germans who came in.

Karen Mulhallen (KM): Netta feels the same way, doesn’t she?

MG: The hostages who were taken for shooting at the Germans as they were retreating were all young boys and they were all taken and shot along the wall of a café and left there.  There were all these true stories.

KM: Where did you get them?

MG: Well, I lived there on the border.

KM: When it was happening?

MG: Well, no, not when it was happening, but shortly after, and I knew lots of people and they told me all sorts of stories.

ghallant younger

KM: Do you keep notebooks of people’s stories and go back to them?

MG: No, I keep a journal and anything you write down you’re apt to remember, and anything you’re told more than once you remember. One time you might forget, but when people tell you the same things over and over, they stick.

KM: Were you in Europe when all these things were happening and were still vivid for people?

MG: No, I was in the post-war period, but the whole coast was still bombed and the Germans were in the hills behind and they were shooting at each other, and the town was pretty well shot up. They didn’t begin to build again until late fifties.

I went to Europe in 1950, five years after the end of the war, so it was still the post-war period.

KM: Is that the time in which you first began to write full time, in which you decided that would be your career?

MG: No, I decided that before I left Canada, and so I went away in order to do it.

KM; So there was a kind of coalescence of history and your own decision. Do you think that might be one of the reasons why history is so essential to your stories, not just the fifties?

MG: I can’t judge whether it is or not; the reader has to judge. Certainly a book like From The Fifteenth District is entirely European history, but I wasn’t conscious that I was doing it until I started to put the book together. Then I was able to put in chronological order stories, or a story that begins with the war.

An incident in the stories that was true takes place in “The Four Seasons.” It is the story of a little Italian girl named Carmela who works for a British family. They run away because they have to go home and they say to her we’ll pay you when we come back, after the war. My story doesn’t go on from then, but after the war they paid her in devalued money. It was disgraceful. I used to look at them in the market and I used to think you’re not going to get away with that. I’m going to write about you.

KM: Did you use their names?

MG: Oh, no, there’s never anything recognizable.

KM: So it’s the bare bones of the story?

MG: It’s not exactly as it is in the story — she was a bit older than my character, and the geography isn’t exact. That’s one of the rare stories though that is lifted from an instant, where somebody said this and I thought I’m going to write about this. That’s rare.  Most of the time it’s imaginary.

KM: And was that in a way to avenge her?

MG: Well, I remember when she pointed them out to me in the market — she said those are the people — I thought they shouldn’t get away with this.

KM: How did you know her; was she still living in the town?

MG: She was working for me, for everyone.

KM: In the story she goes back to her mother, doesn’t she? and is afraid she will be beaten.

MG: Well, her mother did beat her, because she came back with no money, and her mother didn’t believe the story. That part’s true.

KM: What about the ice cream? She eats ice cream and eats her way into heaven?

MG: I guess that part is invented.

KM: It made me want to go out and immediately eat ice cream.

MG: She was someone who was a good gardener. She did all sorts of things like that and worked by the hour for people. She died there. That was her life.

Mavis Gallant

KM: When you organized From the Fifteenth District, there were stories that you had written over a long period, six or eight years?

MG; Yes, they were stories from the seventies.

KM:  Did you decide on the order of the book, since the stories wouldn’t have been written with an eye to the collection?

MG: Yes, I put them in that order. Where the book was best received was in Germany. I’d like to know why. You would think with all the German parts they would be very touchy, but they were enthusiastic. So that was very interesting and now they are going to translate The Peignitz Junction.

KM: They want to examine their own history?

MG: Yes, but from a Canadian?  That’s what is so interesting.

KM: There has already been a wave of young German filmmakers scrutinizing their history, and it hasn’t stopped, has it?

MG: No, it hasn’t stopped. I don’t mean reviews but translations. Germany figures in all my war stories, for example “The Latehomecomer,” and they have been enthusiastic about my view of Germany, and have said it should have been published in German. I am barely German-speaking, I speak like a child of five or six, but it has been astonishing for me. If this sounds like boasting, don’t use it, because I don’t mean it that way. But they said, at last a European writer, and that was astonishing.

KM: I’m trying to think of the German name for latehomecomer — Spätheimkommer? So you have given the feeling of German with the name of the story.

MG: I just translated the word into English, but what it means now mostly is people who are disappeared into Russia. Originally my book was called The Latehomecomer,  but I couldn’t use that because readers would think  it was about a German who disappeared into Siberia or something. From the Fifteenth District is a title that doesn’t translate into German, so it was what was chosen.

KM: But by choosing that title, changing the title, they’ve also given the book a different emphasis, haven’t they?

MG: Well, in France it was called The Four Seasons. You can’t translate From The Fifteenth District, just doesn’t make any sense.

KM: Where is the fifteenth district? I thought I should try and find it on a map of Paris.

MG: It’s imaginary, but there are small things that are not, yet it is completely imaginary. At one time I thought I would like to write some stories set in the fifteenth arrondisement. It’s the largest, in a sense the newest in Paris. It’s so new that it has no cemetery. It’s where people go to live when they can’t find a flat, so it’s the most mixed area, it has no class, it’s neither upper nor lower nor middle. So everybody who can’t find a flat will find one there. It has no character. Somebody told me it had no cemetery and that gave me the idea of the living haunting the dead.

It’s something completely new with no settled character. I was really thinking of it as a metaphor for Europe, for Modern Europe. I also got the idea of the living haunting the dead from the wife of a poet. I don’t know why widows of poets always say, he couldn’t write a word without me, you know, or he couldn’t paint unless I was in the room, or he couldn’t…whatever. I thought, I wonder what they feel like in heaven, these poets and writers and so forth. Can they hear this? And there’s not a word of truth in it: he couldn’t paint, I had to be there to look at everything he was doing otherwise he was miserable. I thought what if they go and complain, the dead, and say look at you. Shut these people up, there’s not a word of truth in it. That’s what it grew out of.

gallantMavis Gallant. Photograph: Jane Brown, The Guardian

KM: And Irina, in the last story “ Irina,” is she such a widow?

MG: Well, no. She doesn’t say he couldn’t write without me, on the contrary.

KM: But she does say she couldn’t leave him, when Mr Aiken wants to know why she didn’t?

MG: Well, it’s probably true, and she had five children. It’s not all that simple.

KM: And there’s the scene where her husband cried because she doesn’t butter his toast properly. And of course her lover cried because she doesn’t leave her husband. There are a lot of men crying over her.

 Let’s talk about Irina. It’s the last story in the collection. She seems to me to be an immensely sympathetic character. One feels a great love for her. Her appearance in the doorway with her blue eyes and her short white hair, holding her dressing gown gripped at the collar. The way she looks at her young grandson at the end and she seems to understand young people, how they feel.

MG: Yes, people who understand young people usually are not sentimental about them at all. I’ve noticed that people who are sentimental about children don’t understand them, they’re trying to make the children enter into a fantasy life  of their own. She is a woman who is not sentimental.

KM: Is she based on anyone at all or a mixture? She gives that remarkable speech about women of her generation, how they’re really packages. It’s an amazing set of observations about women being packages and owning nothing.

MG: She is a mixture of characteristics. Those observations are mine. Those are things I’ve noticed. I remember asking someone in France “Why didn’t you leave?” and she said “Well, I’ve no money.” And I said, “You had a dowry,” and she said, “Well, he has it now.” So these women were often stuck because they couldn’t earn their living.

KM: So as you said a moment ago, it’s not that simple.

MG: But there are European women who have gone out and taken any job, the way a Canadian woman would. A Canadian woman might say I’d rather scrub floors than that, and she meant it. But it’s inconceivable even now in Europe.

KM: Is it just a different sense of who you are?

MG: It’s inconceivable. I gave an introduction to some friends to a Canadian architect. They came back and were very shocked because his son had a paper route.

They couldn’t understand how the son of an architect in Montreal had a paper route. I explained, well he wants a boat and his father says he’ll have to pay for most of it himself. That seemed to be very ordinary. And then they said, but you said he is an architect and his son sells papers on the street, like a common…You know it was inconceivable to them.

KM: Mavis, that allows me to ask you my next question, which is about the very real differences among the different nationalities in your stories. With “The Latehomecomer” you have a sense of a working class German family.

MG:  When I began to be interested in writing fiction out of Germany, I was only interested in the working class and lower middle class. Intellectuals cannot tell you anything at all in my view in any country. I’m not being anti-intellectual and stupid, but they don’t know anything. I’d rather anytime have lunch with a working journalist to find out things, but even there there’s a limitation, they’re busy, and they see a bit too much.

I didn’t think the working class was a victim of what happened in Germany, they were a part of it, of the movement, not out  of evil-mindedness, but out of a deep depression. I don’t mean that the industrialists didn’t put money into the Hitlerian movement, but I don’t think that having lunch with an industrialist would have got me anywhere, whereas meeting these people on a friendly basis, I did find things out. The only thing that interested me was finding out from them, because a victim can only tell you what happened to him.

You know you have to know what was going on in the mind of a man in the firing squad. I don’t pretend I ever did find out, but I got enough to satisfy my interest a bit.

KM: I think what you are saying is that the different classes have a completely different value system?

MG: They do anywhere.

KM:  In North America the architect’s son can sell papers on the street?

MG: But that doesn’t mean that he is going to marry a working class girl. Necessarily a different thing. Unless she’s been to the same university as he has, or something like that. It’s more fluid in North America but it’s pretty snobby too.

KM: Yes, the class system is still here; do you think it is easier to see it in Europe?

MG: It exists everywhere, probably in societies I know nothing about. When I first went to Europe in 1950, the class structure was distinct. I couldn’t stand England for that reason. In fact I loathed it. I couldn’t bear to stay there because it was so contrary to everything I admired or believed.

gallant mah

KM: In your stories, characters who are expatriates are in a sense out of class, aren’t they?

MG: Except among other expatriates.

KM: So then the class system kind of kicks in again.

MG: There was a British colony in the south of France, and it was like ancient Egypt, you know, with a pharaoh, and there was always something very amusing about it.

KM: What about Eric Wilkinson in “The Remission?” He’s able to adapt to different accents.

MG: He floats up and down and we don’t really know very much about him except that he can act a bit.  The view of the others in the British colony pretty well fluctuates with his fortunes.

KM: And the kind of curry he can cook for dinner! They pay him five pounds, don’t they? They offer him a fiver.

MG: It’s been a long time you know…

KM: Now Gabrielle Baum is also an actor.

MG: That’s my favourite story in the collection: “Baum, Gabrielle, 1935—(  ).”

KM: It’s a lovely story.

MG: It’s really about Montparnasse more than anything else and the changes and it’s through the sixties.

KM: Yes, I was going to ask you if it wasn’t about the whole feeling of the changing district. La Méduse — is that the name of the bar, and the old car seats, and so on?

MG: In the sixties and the seventies all those English style pubs came in and orange lights. There were scenes for recruiting for the Resistance TV and film productions. A series of five episodes or so. I actually used to go to one or two cafes there and someone did come in and say in a very practical way, “I want 12 Polish Jews for deportation.” And everybody was saying me. Me, me, me. I couldn’t do that. And then somebody would say: “Don’t take him. He doesn’t look Jewish.” They usually picked Yugoslavs for nearly everything, but I’ve forgotten why. They were great drifters. There were actors who did these bit roles and they would try and get a speaking part because they’d get more money. And that was why there were so many of these long deep silences in French films. They just didn’t have to pay them much if they didn’t say anything!

KM: Now that story ends with something about age. Gabrielle says his father lived to ninety. How does he feel about that?

MG: I think he thinks he has lots of time. He’s an actor and he works all the time. He’s not a drifter. He always lives in the same place, he won first prize at the Conservatory and so forth. But you know there are an awful lot of actors who are unemployed. There is 90% unemployment. And he does have that mystery in his life, of what became of his parents. They just disappeared, probably picked up by the police. I don’t say I know because I am seeing from his point of view, so I can’t pretend to know more than he does. But I think anyone reading it would guess that his parents have probably been picked up in the street one day.

KM: They were in the south of France weren’t they?

MG: There was a point where it was a free zone, and then the Germans occupied the whole thing, I think that was in 1942, so everyone was at risk. People were picked up in the street.

KM: And then some people had left early enough to get to South America. Is that what happened with the uncle, that he had gotten out earlier? And he seems to despise Gabriel’s parents for not having gotten out earlier.

MG: Yes, he seems to have gotten out before the war and feels they dithered.

KM: Why is that your favourite story?

MG: Because of Montparnasse and the kind of people in it. When it was translated I reread everything and I recognized the Montparnasse of the sixties and the seventies. I think I had it right.

KM: Have you noticed Paris changing in the years you have lived there and how do you feel about any changes?

MG: Oh yes, it has changed and I regret the decline of Montparnasse. But those things have to happen. There are still cafes.

KM: That’s one of the things Gabriel talks to Dieter about, isn’t it, the changes?

MG: It’s nothing to the changes now in the architecture. When it comes to hideous architecture, the French are the champions.

KM: Some people, for example Prince Charles, would say the English are the champions.

MG: Paris has not been destroyed anything like London. Prince Charles has superimposed a painting of London as it was, I think it was a 17th century painting, over the skyline today, but you could put an old painting of Paris over today’s Paris and still find a lot of it. And there are some new buildings which are beautiful, like the Arab Institute. And the Pyramid in the Louvre. They’re beautiful.

mavis-gallant by Jane Brown the GuardianMavis Gallant

KM: Let’s go back to “The Latehomecomer,” which is written in the first person. I think that’s a surprise to have the narration in the first person after reading several stories in the third person. Generally in the stories there is the feeling of knowing everything the narrator seems to know. That’s an exhilarating thing about your writing.

MG: Well, I just wanted to tell it that way, more intimately, from his point of view throughout. But his mother is from her point of view. In the letter she says, “I was your mother.” That’s much stronger in English than in French. In French it doesn’t mean anything.

KM: In English, it’s like a sudden bolt.

MG: And I’m not a writer in the French language and I don’t do my own translations. If I wrote first in French I might know a way of doing it, but I don’t. The humour doesn’t come through in translation either, at least not much.

KM: When you write a story, do you work from the characters? How do the stories come to you?

MG: As images of the people. “The Remission” was the first of them. I remember this because I kept my notes, which usually I tear up. I saw the family getting down from the train, there’s nothing like that in the story, but that was the first image. I saw them getting down from a train arriving in the south of France with three children, the mother and the father and the 1950s clothes and suitcases. I had a sort of image and I built from that.

KM: And then did you begin to imagine what their lives were?

MG: You don’t imagine anything; it just comes to you. For a few days after that things come out of the air, you write them down, and then it stops, that onrush of several days, and then you have to work from there.

KM: Is there any time in which you know a story will be with you, a specific period in which you work, a special time of the day?

MG: In general, I work everyday. If I have an idea for something new, you don’t control the time, it just rushes in. On the whole, I get up and I work, that’s what I do, I write and even if it’s going badly I just sit there. I usually eat lunch around 2 p.m.

When it’s going well, it’s perfect, and when it’s not, it’s an awfully long time.

KM: Do you stay with a story until you feel it’s done, or do you write several at once?

MG: I work on several things and come back and then when it’s done, it’s done. When I am getting to the end of a story, I don’t do anything else at all.

KM: You’re immensely prolific; I ‘m sure other people have said this to you. There are hundreds of stories.

MG: Isn’t it funny, I think I’m not prolific. There are over a hundred stories, but not hundreds.

KM: In 1978, there were a hundred, and there are so many uncollected. You have twelve books.

MG:  There are still some which are uncollected, from 1985 on. But I want to publish a novel before I publish another collection, and I’m working on one now.

a-dreyfusAlfred Dreyfus

KM: Tell me about your Dreyfus book?

MG: How much do you want to know? First, it wasn’t my idea, but it was the American publisher, Random House, who asked me if I wanted to write about the Dreyfus case.  I accepted without realizing. I’m not an historian, it’s not my training, my training is journalism. I was a journalist all through my twenties, and that’s how I look at the world a bit. I accepted because I thought, well, probably no woman has ever done anything like this. Although I knew about the case, I didn’t know what I know now. I knew Alfred Dreyfus had been unjustly convicted of treason and I knew he’d been sent to Devil’s Island. I didn’t know for how long. I knew that the French writer Émile Zola had written passionately about this in a newspaper article which had the famous heading “J’accuse,” I accuse. I knew he had had a famous lawyer named Fernand Labori. I knew that he’d come back and more or less disappeared. But it ended there. I knew nothing more about him.

I looked it up in a French encyclopaedia to get a beginning, and I saw it was a huge fresco of French society. I became wildly enthusiastic about it and I said I could do it I thought in two and a half years. Famous last words. Two and a half years later I was still looking, looking things up, meeting people and carrying on

It was an extraordinary experience for me to do the research, which is done. In fact if someone came along with some startling thing, I don’t even want to hear it. I’ve done my research, its miles and miles of notes and stories and interviews. I got in at the right time, because Dreyfus’s daughter was still alive. I couldn’t work from documents, because I didn’t want to write the books I was reading. They told me about the case, but they didn’t interest me. I wanted to know about the people.

I used journalistic techniques. I took my telephone and my notebook and I called every single person I knew in France who was French. Everyone. I mean people I had not talked to for years. I asked do you have anyone in your family who had a connection to the Dreyfus case? And then I began to be more general, have you any Jews in your ancestors and don’t say no right away but ask your grandmother. I got people who had been Jews at that time. People who had descendants whom I knew and who often didn’t know their own life history. Do you have anyone in your family who were officers at that time? Don’t say no, ask your grandfather.

640px-AlfredDreyfusDreyfus with his family, 1905. via Wikipedia

In about three weeks, I had Dreyfus’s daughter, and I knew all about Esterhazy’s daughters — he’s the villain of the piece; he’s the one who was the German informer, not poor Alfred Dreyfus. I had the daughter of the man who’d been chief-of-staff in the army and who worked against Dreyfus. I had that generation of elderly people, all defending their fathers, whichever side their fathers were on. Those loyal daughters, and believe me this is something — no matter what side their father was on, he was right.

The great help to me was Dreyfus’s daughter Madame Jeanne Levi. I didn’t get to her right away. I’d asked a book seller I knew whether anyone among her customers or clients might be connected  to the case. She called me and said I have a customer who is a great niece or something by marriage. I only met two people who knew my work or anything about me, so I went in as a complete stranger. She read English and read The New Yorker, so she knew a bit about me. That was a great help. The others didn’t know any English, and so I just came on as a foreigner really. This woman was the first. She looked me over. Then she invited me to lunch to look me over. Then she invited two of Dreyfus’s grandsons, who were both doctors, and their wives to dinner, to look me over. Then one of the grandsons, one of the doctors turned to his cousin, it was rather dramatic, and he said, “You may make an appointment with my mother to meet Madame Gallant.”  This man’s wife took me aside and said you are not going to get anything out of that family— they have a policy of total silence. I said, well then, I will have to work without them, but if I can talk to them, that would be even better.

So then I was taken to tea with Dreyfus’s daughter, who was a stunning elderly woman. She was in her seventies, with white hair and she looked like an English woman to me. I can’t explain why I would have taken her for an Englishwoman of a certain class. She had blue eyes, lovely white hair and she was very, very straight and rather solid and very careful. She didn’t know much about me and we talked about general things. She showed me a few innocuous souvenirs and at the end of the tea she said, “Je suis à votre disposition.”  I am at your disposal. Wow. So I waited more than two months, as I didn’t wish to push her and then I called.

I came and I brought her a box of chocolates. It was Monday and the florists were closed, or maybe there was some other reason why I didn’t bring flowers. I said to myself elderly people like sweets. She was delighted and said that her mother never let them have candy because they were afraid it would be poisoned. Anti-Dreyfus. People sent boxes of chocolates for the children, but she always threw them out. So they were brought up very, very strictly, and in her old age chocolates were a treat.  She could have gone out and bought herself chocolates, but they were brought up in such a way that they wouldn’t, would ever self-indulge. It was quite an experience for me, and here I am old self -indulgence herself in contact with this rather rigid view. In the end, I had her going to restaurants with me, and eating desserts and carrying on. I loved her dearly. She died ( 1893-1981). She helped me a lot, a lot!

57990974Dreyfus and his daughter Jeanne, 1910. via Clioweb

KM: When will the book be done?

MG: A fortune -teller in Bangkok told me it was the last thing I’d ever do. That doesn’t encourage me much. I can’t tell you when. I think that would be tempting fate. It’ll be done certainly. I’m not going to spend half my life on something I’m not going to finish, didn’t finish.

KM: How long have you been working on it?

MG: Many years.

KM: I won’t ask you anymore!

MG: But I have learned a lot and I haven’t any startling conclusions. I do have things that I think are interesting about what people were like who populated the story. Dreyfus is an enigma because everyone is so contradictory about him. But I think I’ve a clue as to what he was like. It’s a clue: he’s a man who’s very nervous. Tension. He always speaks of “my damned nerves” in his letters. “If only I could control my damned nerves.” But he’s all of a piece, he doesn’t flounder all over the place. He was a pathetic figure in a way, yet it was the last thing he wanted to be.

KM: But you must be very interested in this story even if it is a book you were asked to write?

MG: I could have wound it up a long time ago, but it would have been the book I did not wish to write. I am not going to turn in a book that I do not wish to read. It’s a very difficult thing I have done. The first third is an essay setting the case in its time, and explaining. Alfred Dreyfus was an Alsatian Jew and he was also an officer. What is an Alsatian Jew; what is a Jew in France; what is an officer? I begin with the officer, because— you won’t believe me— it was the most important. Nobody can understand the Dreyfus case who doesn’t know what it meant to be an officer in the French Army at the end of the nineteenth century. It explains his behavior, it explains  the way in which he almost went along  with the thing out of loyalty to the army. Things that are inconceivable to us today. As for the religious side of his life, I can only trace it through letters, his letters. There’s a point where he says at the beginning: “I trust in God. God will get me out of this; it’s the God of mercy and so forth.” And then one day he writes, “God has abandoned me.” Whew. Finished. There’s no more mention at all. Someone who is all of one piece lost his faith, it’s obvious. That’s interesting to me, but it’s not interesting to anybody else. I mentioned it to people, and they say well who cares? Well I do, because you can’t judge a man, or a woman. But we’re talking now about a man: every attitude has to come into it. The attitude to religion, the attitude to money, the attitude to his wife, the attitude to women, to his country, to history. I’ve read books that said he was a snobbish officer. He wasn’t snobbish at all. He was an officer. He had it in the blood. Some men are like that. I’m not like that; I’m a pacifist. So it was even more interesting for this pacifist to encounter a military man. That was fascinating to me. And people’s memories of him varied. His daughter adored him; he was so kind to her. Other people found him stiff, cold, sometimes inexplicably cold. But it was a horror of sentimentality, and a horror of people gushing, and a horror of people crying all over him— he would just freeze.

I interviewed two women, witnesses, one was a hundred years old, the other was 99. The one who was a hundred remembered being at one of the first gatherings — we would call it a party — when he came back from Devil’s Island. Everyone applauded when he came in, which embarrassed him, and then a woman rushed up to him and flung herself into his arms, well not his arms because he kept them at his sides, and said: “Oh Captain Dreyfus, the dream of my life has been to meet you. Now I am meeting you, you’re my hero, and you’re my this and that.” And he didn’t answer. And she became hysterical because she thought he had turned to stone or he was dead, or something had happened. And she went on and on and he didn’t answer.

And she had to be led away in hysterics. He just stood there; he was incapable of saying that’s enough, or calm down or anything like that. He was all of a piece. He just didn’t answer. People remember him and his family with his watch in his hand.

Dinner was at 7:30 p.m. and not a minute before and not a minute after.

He was a military man, and a loving father, and a loving husband. I think all these things have to be put together.

mavis-gallantMavis Gallant in The New Yorker

KM: Mavis, are there writers who have been important to you?

MG: The writers that are important are those you begin to read as a child. I’m convinced of that, quite serious about it.  The wealth of books in the English language for children was extraordinary, well-written, with style. Like Lewis Carroll. I regret that children read less and that they are not read to and that they are taught to read so late and so badly I think the Swiss psychologist Piaget is going to have to answer for a lot in heaven. There must be a wicket they go through in heaven for what they had to do with a child’s education. And they are going to say: “Are you the man who started them reading at seven? Purgatory for you!”

KM: Piaget and B.F. Skinner together? I wanted to ask you about Tolstoy?

MG: Oh that goes on and on, but the basic English style comes from the first books you read. Then you begin to read more and more widely. I read the Garnett translations of Russian writers rather young, but I don’t mean at twelve, but older. I read an awful lot of that, and Chekhov was probably very important, although at the time you don’t know that. You just read them.

KM:  Because you have been talking about the war, and about a man, his society, his religion, his profession, I was thinking this is the way — I am sure people have said this to you before — this is the way Chekhov thinks, this is the way Tolstoy thinks. You do see a human being in a total social, political religious context. Not all writers do.

MG: If I started to think that I was anywhere close to these people I would think I was paranoid, and I would go instantly to a psychiatrist and ask him to bring me down to earth. So, no, I have always thought it is my journalist’s training.

KM: To see the total context?

MG: Yes.

KM: The reason I’d asked you earlier about how you write is because it seemed to me that when I pick up a story by you and I look at a single sentence, the sentence seems to include the world, there is a total context all the time.

MG: I don’t like reading things that aren’t set somewhere. I don’t like never never land.

KM: Do you travel to all the places you describe, for instance Berlin, Budapest? Are these places you have visited?

MG: You are living in Western Europe, and so earlier yes. In the last few years I‘ve been coming more to Canada and to North America.

KM: You’ve written many stories set in Canada.

MG: If I stay here a while, I go back and I just bubble up. I lived here in ’81, ‘83, ’84. I had a very good time. Do you think the city has changed since then?

KM: Yes it has.

MG : In what way?

KM: There’s tremendous destruction of the city itself and there are many more homeless people. And the class distinctions are much sharper.

MG: I haven’t been where the homeless are, because I’ve been around the university.

KM: You’re in the ‘shopping danger zone’.

MG: And I go wherever I’m going in a taxi.

KM: Your Paris Notebooks were recently published and in them you discuss 1968.  Could you say a little about that moment in French history, which you experienced directly and which speaks so tellingly to your intense scrutiny of French society?

MG: There’s a passage in the book which comes directly from my journal. On the twentieth of May, 1968, I saw people hoarding. The reaction of the people of Paris went straight back to the war. Whenever there is a crisis in France, you can tell it’s a real crisis because sugar disappears from the supermarkets. It’s striking. You go to the supermarkets, and all you get are the grains of sugar on the floor. People were frightened that if there was a civil war, food would be missing. I’d never seen that kind of public reaction.

Later in the diary I mention a shop owner who, when the wind turns, puts  up only right wing magazines. And I remind him of what he’d been thinking about two weeks before and he said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

gallant again

KM: Mavis, you live in Paris, and you write in English in a French environment. How do you keep your English intact?

MG: Well, it was never a problem until a year or two ago. I don’t speak enough English. Most of my friends are French-speaking. If they are foreigners, we speak French together, because it’s what we have in common. Of the Canadians whom I see and talk to, there’s Joe Plaskett, a Vancouver painter. But there aren’t many Canadians because they don’t form colonies, they’re all very independent, each going off by himself and so forth. But I never had trouble maintaining English until my work was translated into French, about two years ago. Last year the first books were published, and the year before I was reading the proofs of my own work in another language, helping with the translation, my own ideas expressed not as I expressed them. Then I had a lot of trouble with English, I began to think in French syntax. I wasn’t thinking in French, I was thinking in English with French syntax, which is completely different. I had to take strong measures, and I mean strong, otherwise I would have had to leave the country altogether.

KM: What did you do?

MG: Well, these might sound odd, but I don’t read or speak any French at all until I’ve finished working for the day. I read only an English newspaper, I listen to the BBC news. At 7:45 every morning CBS American News with Dan Rather. It’s with French subtitles but it’s in English. I watch a bit of it, not the whole thing. It’s also the only place where I can get any Canadian news. I read only in English. I have to get on the English track in the morning, listening, reading. I’m probably alright now, but I’ve gotten into this habit of a year and a half. I don’t answer the phone in the morning. From lunch on, it doesn’t matter.

KM: Do you dream in English?

MG: Both, but I had to do that. I thought it was the most drastic thing to do, but it helped.

KM: Created a kind of barricade?

MG: It’s like two tracks. I had never before confused them. I had never used an Anglicism in French, put English words into French, used English syntax in French. If I do that in English, it’s a bit of a joke. Sometimes you are joking and you use some French words in English. You know we say hors d’oeuvres or détente, and it’s not really thought of as French. It was a question of the syntax, which is completely different. I don’t think it would have lasted, and I do think it just came from reading those proofs. I read French all the time and it has never impinged. But my own work in French had a devastating affect on me.

With the third book, I didn’t help nearly so much. I read it quickly to see if there were any real semantic mistakes, but I don’t read it for mood, tone, tense, etcetera. I thought even if it’s wrong. even if it’s a betrayal, it’s dangerous, too dangerous for me.

KM: Do you have a translator that you trust in France?

MG: I did, but when I was in Vancouver a short time ago, I met a woman at the University who is writing her MA thesis on the betrayal of my work in French. She calls it betrayal. It is a question of mood, of tense, of using verbs in a different way, and so forth. And I said to her, well, you are probably right, but I can’t do anything about it. I will correct actual mistakes, where I’ve said geranium and they think it’s nasturtium, but the rest I simply can’t cope with. I thought that would interest you?

KM: It does, and in French Canada today this is a constant question, isn’t it, about the relationship between the French language in Quebec and English.

MG: Well, I maintained mine for nearly forty years with no problem. So it certainly can be done. I never never had any problems at all.

KM: It’s also interesting that it just came at this particular phase…

MG: It’s seeing the images. When you read someone’s work, you see images. The author cannot provide what’s in his head. You provide the images. When I read my own work, I see my original images. But seeing my original images in another language was as if two railway tracks went together.

KM: Thank you very much, Mavis, for your generosity.

/

Epilogue

I saw Mavis Gallant three more times after this long day of interviewing and taping.

We went for lunch at a French bistro, then located on Queen Street West in Toronto. At that time, Le Select had bread baskets strung over each table with clothes line tackle. Luckily the main dining room was full and the waitress decided to squeeze us into a small front window area. We sat near the entrance to the alcove and settled in to talk about Toronto and her time here and Janice Keefer’s recent book on her work, when the waitress asked me to pull in my chair so some other clients could get by. After she left, Mavis commented that it was interesting that the waitress did not ask the table next to us to pull in, which would have been equally effective in freeing up passage. The next table was occupied by two men in red ties and grey business suits.

We talked as well about aging, what it means for a woman, and about Gallant’s own intention to stay full-bodied to preserve her skin, and about her love of pumpkin pie. It was a few days only after Canadian Thanksgiving and Mavis was staying in The Windsor Arms Hotel, then and now a chic hostelry in the most expensive shopping district in the city. On Saturday, I made my way to the St Lawrence Farmers’ Market and then drove up to The Windsor Arms with a fresh baked pumpkin pie for Mavis. She was delighted, of course, because there was no pumpkin pie on the menu at The Windsor Arms Hotel.

Years later, I ran into Mavis at the Writers’ Suite in the Harbour Castle Hotel during the International Authors’ Festival. I was with my friend Nancy Huston, each of them had flown in from Paris to read that week, and the suite was crowded with writers from all over the globe. Mavis was sitting on a sofa, surrounded by admirers, but she seemed delighted to see one, or perhaps two familiar faces. We began to chat, but then a well-known Canadian poet began to drunkenly declaim and to threaten to punch out another poet, so the three of us, rather wistfully I thought, said good night. I never saw her again, and the notes from her unpublished Dreyfus book, I understand, were still stuffed into a closet on her death this past February, as fiery battles shattered the Ukraine. She was a writer who belonged both to Canada and to the world. We will not see her like again.

gallant photo by Nott & Merrill

—Mavis Gallant & Karen Mulhallen

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Karen Mulhallen has published 16 books (and numerous articles), including anthologies, a travel-fiction memoir, poetry and criticism. She has edited more than 100 issues of Descant magazine. She is a Blake scholar, a Professor Emeritus of English at Ryerson University, and adjunct Professor at the University of  Toronto.