I can’t seem to stop writing about the Cahier Series, published by Sylph Editions in collaboration with the Center for Writers & Translators at The American University of Paris. I have previously written about five earlier numbers in this series and now I’m blown away by the latest two, both written by eminent translators.
Posts from the ‘Cahiers Series’ Category
The remarkable collaboration between the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions continues to put out thoughtful and beautifully-produced publications. They have just released numbers 21 and 22 in their Cahiers Series, with texts by Anne Carson and Paul Griffiths.
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.]
If you want to know what language and literature permit us to do, read the fourteen short untitled, numbered pieces that comprise László Krasznahorkai’s Animalinside. The best of these pieces transcends any literalness or point of reference and simply speak to us in an oracular, disembodied voice that suggests the impossible, the unimaginable, the indescribable.
You can’t touch me. I have no eyes, no ears, no teeth, no tongue, no brain tissue, no hair, no lungs, no heart, no bowels, no cock, no voice, no smell; …useless for anyone to scream at me, I don’t understand, because I don’t hear anything, useless for anyone to strike at me, I don’t see, I am entirely blind, you don’t know what I’m like and what I am, because you can’t picture it, you can’t even conjure me up in your dreams, because I am absent from any picture that you have ever seen… (ii)
It’s the voice of a vengeful god warning us of what true, unlimited power really is.
And I am strong. Too strong. So strong that I break a knife in two with my teeth, that I break a sword in two with my teeth, that I break a house in two, that I break one hundred houses in two, one after the other, that I break one thousand houses in two, that I break every building in every city in two, so strong am I that I smash in the middle every bridge on earth…and if I want to break the entire Earth in two, I grab it by one end and – whoop! it’s snapped in two already… (iii)
Animalinside, a forty-page chapbook, is number 14 in The Cahiers Series being issued jointly by Sylph Editions, New Directions, and the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris. According to the Preface by Colm Tóibín, the work is a collaboration that began when Krasznahorkai wrote a piece based upon one of German artist Max Neumann‘s powerful, enigmatic images of two-legged dogs (they have no forelegs). Neumann created more images in the series for which Krasznahorkai then wrote responding texts. The chapbook is beautifully produced, especially Neumann’s images, which are stunningly printed and selectively varnished to achieve vivid blacks and real texture.
…because my coming is violent, just a few moments now, and I shall break out of you, and you will be that which I am, and that which I have always been. (vii)
For an excellent introduction to Krasznahorkai’s work, try to find a way to read James Wood’s piece on the author in the July 4, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.