Saturday 25 June 2016

Robert Walser, Microscripts

Robert Walser's Microscripts are just the thing for desperate days. They were written in pencil, each phrase a tiny flick of (dis)quiet. Let's not think failure of nerve; in our great, unnoticed sorrow we are nerveless. These are tiny scripts on fragments of paper often already printed with something else. This is the density of the creature, inner convolution brought out as far as it will go, and then cut; off goes Herr Walser, invisible once again. Tiny text lies unread longest, on the borderlands of legibility and despair, hardly worthy of secrecy, he'd say, humble Herr Walser, that divinely gifted layabout.

In order to start writing Walser puts on a prose piece jacket. Some writers have to be dressed correctly; this is a formal moment after all; you are here to choose such of your day as deserves to be hidden, which may involve other people you have passed by on your walk, or dogs, paintings, joy-deficient cliffs. You absorb such of the world as you see, ferret away your day, make a stab at what comes your way and try not to comment, not to be rude or to disturb. You're far from the world, though eagerly in it; burrowing in is one way to slip out. In is out, and out is in, especially when snow is falling.

All observations are fully charged. All that you say is also all that you don't say. This isn't false modesty. There isn't a false feather in Herr Walser's apparel. He writes about everything equally, leaves it there to be (un)read.
That I listened to the radio for the first time yesterday fills me with a feeling of internationality, though this remark I've made is, to be sure, anything but modest.
The absence of a feeling of internationality is what underlies my despair ninety years later and sends me to Robert Walser for comfort.
All his longing, how he longed for it again!

Tuesday 21 June 2016

Knut Hamsun, Paul Celan

Gusty unsummer weather reached my soul too fast today. Started reading Knut Hamsun again. Hunger. Required reading in the seventies, like many Picador editions, runkled in rucksacks from Brighton to Kathmandu, handed on like spiritual currency, pages softening, spine creased: Knut Hamsun, Herman Hesse, Rimbaud, Blake. The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. Knut Hamsun's excesses are a perfect fit. Once you are lurching about in his borderline existence, it is your borderline existence too, though you might not be trying to pawn the buttons off your jacket to buy a loaf of bread or a glass of milk, you're starving in some other way and life repeats itself alarmingly, even in Kathmandu.

I've never been to Kathmandu, I read Knut Hamsun in Ireland. His Oslo, or Christiana, was my Cork. I was ready to be lost. I was lost. Being lost was my profession. And now? How does it look now? Am I inside the palace of wisdom? A gusty day knocks me down. I'm not inside anything.

Mysteries, a few days later, is just that: one inexplicable turn of events after another. Yesterday I read in a review of a new Paul Celan translation that it may be best, confronted by the inexplicable, even the unreadable, just to keep reading, fast, to ride the storm of images, of mysteries, to keep going: you will never get to the bottom of this so you might as well exercise your deepest freedom and gallop off into the sunset with Paul Celan, Knut Hamsun, or life itself.

Monday 13 June 2016

Martin Walser, Robert Walser

I was looking for books to throw out (the bookshelves are once again full) and found a novella by Martin Walser that I bought in New York in the early eighties thinking this was Robert Walser, whom I'd lately heard of but only remembered the surname and a promise of something strange, which the Martin Walser book wasn't. I couldn't throw out a case of mistaken identity without giving it a second chance. Runaway Horse came out in English in 1980. The author's photo takes up the whole of the back cover; his glasses are very seventies. More recent photos show a truly phenomenal pair of eyebrows, beetling if not mossy.

I'm on the brink of recounting the novel's set-up: these people in that place with those key events as well as a circular ending. If I were on holiday I would look at them at a next-door table outside a café by a lake, which is where the story begins and ends, and never guess that the two men had been friends at school and now one of them taught philosophy and was reading Kierkegaard's diaries, while the other was an aggressively vital figment of his imagination. Or maybe I would. Sometimes you get it right. The mood-setting quote a page or two from the start of the novella is from Kierkegaard's Either/Or, and, like most prefaces, best read afterward.
From time to time one comes across novellas in which certain persons expound opposing philosophies. A preferred ending is for one of these persons to convince the other. Thus, instead of the philosophy having to speak for itself, the reader is favoured with the historical result that the other person has been convinced. I regard it as a blessing that in this respect these papers afford no enlightenment.
Is it disingenuous to be blessed by a lack of enlightenment? The other Walser, Robert, would not have been troubled by this kind of pancake. He would go for a walk and see what he saw.
A village was especially beautiful with humble dwellings set thickly under the white cliffs. I encountered a few carts, otherwise nothing, and I had seen some children on the highway. We don't need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.

Wednesday 8 June 2016

Frederic Tuten, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

I ought to like Frederic Tuten (Self Portraits: Fictions), a second-generation american as I am second-generation english, but the music isn't there; he moves between romance and cultural icons as in an amusement park under a layer of volcanic ash. Last Year at Marienbad is one of his favourites, and indeed mine. Finding someone else under the sway of Delphine Seyrig is not as reassuring as I would have thought; he would like to meet a woman who has her weariness and detachment; leave her at the hotel in Marienbad, I say, with that bit of chiffon about her throat.

One way of clarifying why a writer doesn't do it for me is to read another in the same breath.  Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky for example, the story 'Thirty Pieces of Silver', a fantastical history of the common era, so-called, through the metaphorical yet obstinately real thirty pieces of silver, one of which could turn up in your weekly pay packet, dear reader. And 'Postmark: Moscow', a series of letters to no one in particular. (I used to write those.) These are dry, long-legged sketches, savage yet polite, a riff more than a story, written in Moscow of the 1920s and 30s by a Ukrainian in a state of perpetual bewilderment and ever-narrowing focus; he pays fine attention to walls and windows, the lay-out of streets.

Frederic Tuten inhabits a cosier world of women, films and nostalgia. He cruises about in his cultural Luna Park. Krzhizhanovksy is edgily, defiantly, darkly closer to his (subfusc) meaning. Tuten, whose family is from Sicily via the Bronx, doesn't need meaning, when he quotes Marx it is to bask in old ideals before returning to a park on fire. Dreamlike but not dreamy.

What is the difference between the fire of state-repressed writing, the habit of concealment and the word-image-bath of the second-generation migrant to the free world? The prisoner who paces about Moscow is largely on his own; the free man has the companionship of an entire culture. Frederic Tuten dedicates this book to his friend Alain Resnais. The writings of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovksy, on the other hand, were not published until 40 years after his death.

Friday 3 June 2016

Fence Magazine

Up at the pond on a fine day I think I can't get any quieter than this and then I know there's a ways to go. This is a dipping pond, and I read in the same way. Fence magazine is just the thing. Other people's bumpy jolty. I know myself there, stippled and onward like the sound of aspens in a light easterly wind, crossed by pigeon flaps, blackbirds going to ground and small brown birds whose intimate flight between bushes and ponds renders them modestly nameless.
Read this journal. It is not the news, but it is the news as reported through the lens of a collection of contemporary artists who approach the world like boundless governmental wiretaps: investigating all of humanity.
I'm not sure how come I receive Fence; somewhere along the line I moved towards it and, after several issues, I have grown into it. Reading it I have some sense how people might read me. And that's a rare aperçu. Here are people moving around in just as much language as they can muster, if not less. As well as what they've written we know what they're reading. This is a more complete sense of a person than you can get after several days spent together. In some cases, a lifetime.