Recently Read: Two Slim Books by Josipovici and Berger/Platonov
The first release from the new House Sparrow Press is a beautifully produced book/CD combo called A Sparrow’s Journey: John Berger Reads Andrey Platonov. The book contains a short story by Platonov (1899-1951) called “Love for the Motherland, or A Sparrow’s Journey: A Fairytale Happening,” along with a piece of writing by Berger that is obliquely about Platonov called “That Have Not Been Asked: Ten Dispatches about Endurance in Face of Walls,” a brief essay about Platonov’s story by Robert Chandler (who co-translated it with his wife Elizabeth), and an even briefer piece about discovering this previously untranslated story by Gareth Evans, editor of House Sparrow Press (among other things). Platonov’s story about a fiddler and a sparrow was written in 1936 in homage to Alexander Pushkin in advance of the one hundredth anniversary of his death in 1937.
A Sparrow’s Journey is one of those publications that remind you how wonderful it is to hold and read a book. Smartly designed and nicely printed on thick paper, handling this small volume is like holding a sparrow in your bare hands. The accompanying CD of a recording of Berger reading the Platonov story is housed in it’s own paper folder with artwork by Georgia Keeling. The story fits into 25 slim pages but Berger takes a full 44 minutes to read it in his quiet, luscious, and deliberate voice and I didn’t want the reading to come to an end. Somehow, Berger’s reading gave me insights into Platonov’s story that I never suspected were there.
As I was writing this yesterday, word spread that John Berger had died at the age of ninety. Do yourself a favor and get this publication and listen to his voice over and over.
An old man stands in a room, staring out the window, listening to the sounds of children in a playground below. Incomplete snippets of conversations – shuffled into chronological disorder – appear on the pages of the slim book I am reading. Conversations between the man – Felix – and his two wives, between Felix and his son and his daughter at various stages in their lives. The conversations with the second wife and his friends often drift into the subject of literature. Felix listens to Beethoven’s String Quartet in A minor, opus 132 and stares out the window some more.
Gabriel Josipovici’s Everything Passes (Carcanet, 2006) is a rich and suggestive novelette that is only 60 pages long including oodles of white space. It reads like poetry with every sentence resonating with possibilities. During the brief time that it took for me to read and reread the book, I realized that Josipovici had cunningly fractured the reader’s viewpoint so that we observe the characters and the sequence of events from multiple perspectives simultaneously – as if looking through the compound eye of an insect. Everything in Everything Passes takes place in the present tense, so it is ambiguous whether Josipovici is deliberately presenting the fragments to us in random order or whether we are witnessing the order in which Felix is recalling memories. Is the reader inside Felix’s mind or an observer watching the observer as he stares out the window? Or both.
As he has tea with his second wife, Felix explains his one great and final obsession – to write down his theory on how literature became modern (a topic Josipovici considers at length in his 2010 book What Ever Happened to Modernism?). But the writing won’t come.
Rabelais though, he says, sucking his spoon, understood what this new miracle of print meant for the writer. It meant you gained the world and lost your audience. You no longer knew who was reading you or why. You no longer knew who you were writing for or even why you were writing… I want to tell people about his modernity. About what he means or should mean to all of us, now.
He looks at her. She smiles.
There are two main events in Everything Passes, but it is not clear which happens first. Felix has a heart attack and is saved by an injection into this heart, a “red hot needle.” And one day the writing suddenly starts to flow.
I was writing fast, without pause, setting down on the white paper what had been waiting all those years. Everything would be said. I knew that. I couldn’t write fast enough. All in the right order. I knew it was the right order. It flowed out of me. I couldn’t stop.
Depending on the reader’s predilection, the outcome, which I won’t reveal, is either a moment of heartbreaking sadness or of joyous release. Probably, it’s both.