December 28, 2012
Sylph Editions and The Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris continue their outstanding collaboration with their Cahiers Series 18, Her Not All Her: on/with Robert Walser, a play by Elfriede Jelinek. The only stage direction in the play is this: “A number of people to each other, all very friendly and well-behaved (perhaps lying in bathtubs, as was once the custom in mental hospitals),” which obviously provides wide latitude for producing the piece on the stage.
There are no characters or voices identified; instead, the play is written in paragraphs, just like a short story or essay. Without the clue provided by the stage direction, it would be eminently reasonable to read straight through Her Not All Her as if there was but a single voice that probably emanates from Walser. “Would you like to hear the novel of my life?” But on closer inspection, it becomes less and less clear who might be speaking at times. In some paragraphs the first-person narrator seems as if it could be no one but Walser. At other times it appears that someone else might be addressing Walser; or, it could well be that Walser is addressing himself in the third person – a not unreasonable possibility. But even when it seems like it might be Walser speaking, it isn’t always discernible which Walser is speaking – the young Walser-as-successful-writer or the elderly Walser who spent the final three decades of his life in a mental institution, where he wrote but meagerly.
Memory is a hardware store where writers try to help themselves to something for free until all of the suffering falls on their heads because they pulled the bottommost plank out of the pile first. So now I garb myself in delicate absentmindedness and no one can ask anything of me now, I’m dreaming, or temporarily dead at the moment.
“Who speaks?” asks Reto Sorg in an afterword to the play. “This question returns insistently in modernity…”
What Jelinek’s play highlights is that the act of literary confession, striving for self-determination, is always also an attempt to free oneself from just this obligation to have any identity at all.
To be sure, an overriding attribute of this play is uncertainty. Her Not All Her forces the determined reader – and even more so, the stage director – to invent distinctions in and contexts for the text. As Jelinek says in a statement about the play:
Robert Walser is one of those people who do not mean themselves when they say “I.” It is true he never stops saying “I”, but it’s not him.
The title Her Not All Her is an English adaptation of the German original (Er nicht als er), which itself is a wordplay built out of the German syllables of Walser’s name, as if Walser was himself was a literary construction. There are several brief, but extremely evocative videos of a 2011 production of Er nicht als er at Meetfactory in Prague under the direction of Katharina Schmitt here and here and here, which show one approach to producing this on stage. For anyone who wants still more, there is a CD horspiel of the play available here, spoken by Bruno Ganz.
This is the first time the play, which premiered in 1998, has appeared in English. The 40-page pamphlet also includes a brief statement by Jelinek, an essay on Jelinke and Walser by Reto Sorg, Director of the Robert Walser Centre, and reproductions of thickly impastoed paintings of faces by British artist Thomas Newbolt. The translations are by Damion Searls. I previously wrote about Cahiers Series 14, Animalinside by László Krasznahorkai.
[Photographs courtesy Sylph Editions.]
May 8, 2010
The whole brook seems as busy as a loom: it is a woof and a warp of ripples; fairy fingers are throwing the shuttle at every step, and the long, waving brook is the fine product. The water is wonderfully clear. Sept. 4, 1851
I’ve waded into The Journal of Henry David Thoreau and I don’t really want to leave soon. Thoreau’s polymath curiosity is infectious and best taken in small doses. I’ve been using a newly published abridgment of The Journal to float on Thoreau’s stream for two months now and, at 667 pages, I made be reading Thoreau for a very long time.
But there is something unsettling about The Journal. The product that ultimately emerges as The Journal dramatically shapes our sense of Thoreau. As Damion Searls, who abridged this volume down from the original 7,000 pages, writes in his fascinating Introduction, “The Journal is not literally what Thoreau wrote each day: he often wrote up entries days later, from notes, and … he would also go back years later and make further additions and connections.” So when we read in consecutive paragraphs (as we do on February 3, 1852) about Thoreau’s visit to libraries in Cambridge and Boston, musings on the nature of sunsets, an evening walk, a quick investigation into the origins of the word “selenite” (a stone), questions about the color of the night sky, and a final paragraph about the nature of a “forcible writer,” it’s easy to see this not as the flow of a single personality but the facets of a many-dimensional puzzle. Moreover, Thoreau’s aphoristic tendencies can be maddening. He crafts fabulous, pithy sentences (is any writer more quotable than Thoreau?) that are blunt, self-assured, disconcertingly without context or nuance, and ultimately ambiguous. Truth with a capital T.
Thoreau had a mind ideally suited to an era (the tail end of an era, really) when it was still possible to pursue real science through observation, questioning, and a broad knowledge that could be largely self-taught. If he had been more sociable – and British – he would have fit well in with the people who populate two recent and highly engrossing books: Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder (2008) and Jenny Uglow’s Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World (2002). (Brief aside: the original British subtitle was The Friends Who Made the Future, 1730-1810. Must US publishers always tweak book titles?)
But the truth is, it’s hard to conceive of Thoreau blending in with a circle of like-minded colleagues. The dislike of nearly all mankind is one of the constant themes of The Journal and Thoreau would make us believe that he prefers his own company to that of any other person. When it suits his purposes, he can idealize the hard-working common man: “I like better the surliness with which the woodchopper speaks of his woods, handling them as indifferently as his axe, than the mealy-mouthed enthusiasm of the lover of nature.” But most of the time Thoreau simply dismisses “the rabble” just as he dismisses cities (“so strange and repulsive”).
One final thought. If Thoreau appears to like anything less than the rabble, it is government. While The Journal (so far) only gives hints of the philosophy contained within his Civil Disobedience, it’s not hard to see him being adopted as a mascot by the current Tea Party movement in America. “It is only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know,” he writes. In an earlier post I briefly touched on some relationships I saw between Thoreau and W.G. Sebald. But the differences are equally compelling. Unlike Thoreau, Sebald is not interested in pithy aphorisms or general truisms of any sort. His long, often convoluted sentences are filled with context, history, nuance, complication. For Sebald, there are few Truths and an infinite number of truths.
April 20, 2010
EBay has morphed into a place to buy and sell just about anything, but I have to admit I like the idea of using eBay to distribute new writing and raise a few (very few) dollars for the author or for a charity. Tp be honest, the project, run by SignificantObjects.com, is not really about money; it’s an experiment in significance (to quote from their fun website) :
- The experiment’s curators purchase objects — for no more than a few dollars — from thrift stores and garage sales.
- A participating writer is paired with an object. He or she then writes a fictional story, in any style or voice, about the object. Voila! An unremarkable, castoff thingamajig has suddenly become a “significant” object!
- Each significant object is listed for sale on eBay. The s.o. is pictured, but instead of a factual description the s.o.’s newly written fictional story is used. However, care is taken to avoid the impression that the story is a true one; the intent of the project is not to hoax eBay customers. (Doing so would void our test.) The author’s byline will appear with his or her story.
- The winning bidder is mailed the significant object, along with a printout of the object’s fictional story. Net proceeds from the sale are given to the respective author. Authors retain all rights to their stories.
This has been going on since last July, but I just learned about it from Damion Searls, (more about Damion here). He has a great story and a nice red teapot up for sale on eBay through April 25 (13:18:01 Pacific Daylight Time, to be precise). To judge from the bidding so far, Damion has added $33.00 worth of significance to this teapot with his story, or a little more than six and a half cents a word.
Just for the sake of comparison, here’s what seven and a half cents would buy in the 1954 Broadway musical Pajama Game:
I figured it out
I figured it out
With a pencil and a pad I figured it out!
Seven and a half cents doesn’t buy a hell of a lot,
Seven and a half cents doesn’t mean a thing!
But give it to me every hour,
Forty hours every week,
And that’s enough for me to be living like a king!
I figured it out
With a pencil and a pad I figured it out!
Only five years from today!
Only five years from today!
I can see it all before me!
Only five years from today!
Five years! Let’s see..thats 260 weeks, times forty hours every week, and roughly two and a quarter hours overtime.. at time
and a half for overtime! Comes to exactly.. $852.74!
That’s enough for me to get
An automatic washing machine,
A years supply of gasoline,
Carpeting for the living room,
A vacuum instead of a blasted broom,
Not to mention a forty inch television set!
March 31, 2010
July 2, 1851. A traveller! I love his title. A traveller is to be reverenced as such. His profession is the best symbol of our life. Going from _____ toward _____ ; it is the history of every one of us.
It takes but little distance to make the hills and even the meadows look blue to-day. That principle which gives the air an azure color is more abundant.
To-day the milkweed is blossoming. Some of the raspberries are ripe, the most innocent and simple of fruits, the purest and most ethereal. Cherries are ripe. Strawberries in the gardens have passed their prime.
I am savoring Henry David Thoreau’s The Journal 1837-1861, as recently edited by Damion Searls for NRYB. (Savoring is code for reading slowly during the interstices between other books, hoping the book will never come to an end – and, at 667 pages, it seems like it may never end.) Thoreau is a writer to linger over. His wide-ranging curiosity and persistent, clear powers of observation come as a real tonic to a 21st century reader. Thoreau represents one of the paths America set out on more than two centuries ago – scientific minded, rational, passionate, ethical. A person who brought very few preconceptions to the table. Thoreau’s quiet direction is still part of the American ensemble, but it’s a voice easily and sadly drowned out.
W.G. Sebald, who, in so many ways, seemed like a man of the 19th century, and Henry David Thoreau both grapple with questions of scale. Within the scope of the infinite universe and an earthly history far longer than any one person’s existence, what is the proper scale of a single individual in a single lifetime. And for both, I think, this topic was essentially a struggle toward a proper ethics.
March 1, 2010
At my grandparent’s house there were hundreds of books that ranged from rose gardening to Scottish poetry to three-decker novels by Bulwer-Lytton, all nestled in the arts and crafts bookcases that adorned nearly every room. Every year I spent entire days at their house reading and absorbing new subjects and consuming 19th century novels. By contrast, my parents had only several shelves of unread Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and an encyclopedia set that I refused to consult. Even as a young child with a library card and a voracious appetite for books I remember thinking it was somehow wrong to reduce a book’s wordage, although I couldn’t articulate what my rationale was at the time. So perhaps it was inevitable that I would become a literature major as an undergraduate as a way of sorting all this out for myself.
I hadn’t given condensed books much thought for, well, let’s just say several decades, until Penguin announced in 2005 the posthumous inclusion of something called Young Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald in its series of seventy titles celebrating the 70th anniversary of their Pocket Penguins series. I was horrified at the mere idea of Austerlitz reduced to 68 pages. Young Austerlitz, it turned out, much to my relief, was not an really an abridgement, but a word-for-word – and illustration-for-illustration – excerpt from Austerlitz. As I have written before: “In 2005, as part of the celebrations of its 70th anniversary, Penguin (which owns Sebald’s British imprint Hamish Hamilton) issued excerpts from 70 titles spanning its publishing history. Austerlitz was chosen to represent the year 2001 and so a 58-page excerpt from Austerlitz was published in a slim paperback under the title Young Austerlitz. The excerpt covers pages 44 to 96 in the American edition, in which Austerlitz describes part of his childhood in Wales.”
I was reminded of this episode with Young Austerlitz sometime last year when the Summer 2009 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction landed in my mailbox and much to my delight and puzzlement the cover announced a “Special Fiction Issue” devoted to “Herman Melville’s ; or The Whale“, edited by Damion Searls. In his playful Introduction, Searls explains that “; or the Whale is a lost work from Herman Melville’s major period (1851), never before published … until 2007.” In truth, ; or the Whale is a reverse abridgement of a 2005 publication called Moby-Dick in Half the Time, which is part of a series from Orion Books called Compact Editions – “Small(er) is beautiful”. Like a Rachel Whiteread sculpture, ; or the Whale is an exploration of the negative space that occurs when a novel is condensed. What Searls had done was to painstakingly construct yet another condensed version of Melville’s novel by including only the bits cut out by Orion Books, using as his title the deleted half of Melville’s original title Moby Dick; or The Whale.
Reading Searls’ loving reconstitution of Moby-Dick was surprisingly fun. But rather than writing up my own response, it seems only fitting to simply steal the press release issued by the publisher of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Dalkey Archive:
Moby-Dick in Half the Time, an abridgment by Orion Books which Adam Gopnik notoriously described in The New Yorker as “all Dick and no Moby,” has now called forth an spirited rebuttal. In an act of arguably Ahabian obsessiveness, writer Damion Searls has pulled together every chapter, word, and punctuation mark that Orion’s abridger cut from Melville’s original Moby Dick; or The Whale. The result—inevitably called ; or The Whale—has been published as a book-length special issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, making it the first contemporary fiction by Herman Melville to appear in almost 150 years.
“I have nothing against abridgments, I make them myself,” says Searls, who holds a Ph.D. in early American literature. His one-volume abridgment of Henry David Thoreau’s 7,000-page Journal, produced with traditional methods, will be published by NYRB Classics later in 2009. “After all, the original is still there for anyone who wants it. I just think we should ask what we value, what we want to abridge for. Orion went for a straight-ahead story with a clear plot arc, but what makes Melville Melville is digression, texture, and weirdness. If you only have time to read half the book, which half the time is more worth spending?”
In a cover story for The Believer magazine (“Carving the Whale,” September 2009), Searls describes Melville’s new novel as a good read, filled with humor and unexpected poetry. Chapter 62 consists of a single word, “hapless”—the only word Orion’s abridger cut from the chapter, trimming a 105-word sentence to 104; the book’s first sentence is “methodically”; the final hunt for the white whale dissolves into pure punctuation. And the emotional arc of the book is the same as in Melville’s original, because Melville’s excess comes at moments of emotional intensity, and that excess, trimmed from Half the Time, is what makes up ; or The Whale. Searls describes it as like watching a DVD on fast forward, and it may get you closer to what Moby Dick is really like than the other abridgment does.
Bringing readers closer to others’ works is the goal of many of Searls’s efforts. He translates from German, Norwegian, French, and Dutch, bringing classic writers like Proust and Rilke and less known writers like Ingeborg Bachmann and Jon Fosse to American readers. His new book of short stories, What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going, is a collection of “cover versions”: present-day stories inspired by Nabokov, Hawthorne, and other writers from around the world. For the Review of Contemporary Fiction, though, ; or The Whale is not just a version of Moby Dick but a work of literature in its own right: “Otherwise we wouldn’t be publishing it,” insists editor Martin Riker. The quick cutting and narrative elisions are very 21st Century, irrespective of whether the author wrote 19th Century classics too.
Author Herman Melville could not be reached for comment.
For example, here is Searls’ version of Chapters 10 and 11 in their entirety:
- CHAPTER 10
A Bosom Friend
It may seem ridiculous, but
He made no advances whatever; appeared to have no desire to enlarge the circle of his acquaintances.
If there yet lurked any ice of indifference towards me in the Pagan’s breast, soon thawed it out, and
- CHAPTER 11
- what little nappishness remained in us altogether departed, and
imposed and I no more felt unduly concerned for the landlord’s policy of insurance.
Damion Searls, by the way, is the translator of Melancholy by Jon Fosse, which I have written about earlier.
If it seems like the posts on Vertigo have been few and far between lately, it is because a pair of monster-sized books are really slowing me down. I’m making my way through Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which alternates between fabulous moments and long dry spells. And I’m reading yet another abridged title for which Damion Searls is responsible: a newly edited version of The Journal by Henry David Thoreau, which nevertheless comes in at 667 pages. More on Thoreau later.