Thursday, February 23, 2017

feel that

Butor's Letters from the Antipodes is a reaction to Australia but not a book about Australia; for though the material it draws on is factual documentation it is not a factual book. The complexity of the structure, its dependence on interruptions, somehow places the facts into the context of an impression, without the network of dependence that facts are supposed to have on one another.

Perhaps the sense of independence (of things happening on their own and being reported on) is essential to the impression that factual things are happening; that a piece of writing is factual. When, instead, you have the feelings of the author replacing the independence of natural logic, its networks being assumed into one central thing (that is somehow understood as if it were not natural, or it's natural but not nature …).

Pam Brown's article in the latest issue of Cordite ends by suggesting that Antipodes is a book for the internet age since "within the framework the reader is able to scroll or to browse fluidly and open the text up to a thematic encounter at any chosen point." I've been going back and forth over that idea ever since I read it, first disagreeing because the machinery you would have to learn before you could "browse fluidly" seems so perverse, and the author's presence, as I've said, is always with you, never invisible in the way that the intelligence of the internet seems invisible (Butor's invocation of Raymond Roussel is not appropriate only because they both visited the same continent).

But Butor's book is like the internet in that it does not mimic or complement any of its fragments: it is not sympathetic to Captain Cook's memoir, it does not mind that the Nude Girls ads in the Brisbane Courier-Mail were not written to be run together in one line; it does not care that the Jules Verne novel it borrows from, In Search of the Castaways, 1867-68, is supposed to be a tense adventure, it will arrest the action whenever it likes. Likewise the internet does not care if an article or story was written to reward sustained attention from the reader; it will exert a resistance to the structure of the individual objects; it will shatter and disturb them, it will subvert them with its sustained lack of care and attention, which is apparently eternal and bottomless, and will outlast whatever effort they can exert; it asserts itself as the dominant framework through which the world is anticipated.

You notice that though Butor described himself as an author who was addressing a subject (Australia) to French readers who were generally unfamiliar with it ("I feel that I'm a pioneer in French literature"), he does not try to make it clear and felt, whereas his Spirit of Mediterranean Places, 1986, describing countries they would already know, is clear and plainly written.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017


If The Porthole is a mimicry of a collage, in that no source material has actually been cut apart, and Tristiano is a collage created out of (primarily) a single person's work in slightly different modes, then Michel Butor's Letters to the Antipodes, 1981, is closer to the process that creates the type of visual collage people are used to: multiple sources, disassembled, and placed back together in a new order; some things left out, others emphasised by their placement. There are strategies in Antipodes that don't have equivalents in the other Butor books that I've read, such as the word "red" inserted in the joins between segments, and the names of authors added to the ends of the excerpts sometimes ("VERNE," "COOK") and of course the entire text being printed in red ink; then the "ooo" at the bottoms of the pages; this constant reassertion of himself as a controlling force over a text that he has not, for the most part, written, (though letters from himself have been cut up for material too), these methods that resist his own disappearance or effacement.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

a poetic experiment made possible

Adriano Spatola was in Gruppo 63 with Nanni Balestrini, Umberto Eco, Amelia Rosselli - whose selected poetry in translation I read last year, Locomotrix, 2012 – and a list of other names. I wish I knew more about that movement.

Describing the Balstrini book at slightly greater length than I have so far:

In 1961 I created Tape Mark I, a poetic experiment made possible by using the combining processes of an IBM calculator (which was the name given to computers back then). A series of pieces of sentences were put together one after the other, until they formed a sequence of verses, following simple rules transformed into algorithms which guided the machine. The number of possible results was huge, and just a small number of variants were published in the Almanacco Bompiani 1962.

He was going to try the same process on a novel but the work of reshuffling the sentences for each copy would have been too onerous. "The printing technologies of the time did not permit the realisation of such a project." A single book was created in 1966 and named Tristiano, "An ironic homage to the archetype of the love story." That last line must have been the modern blurb-writer's inspiration for the sentence, "Inspired by the legend of Tristran and Isolde," which occurs close to the beginning of the first paragraph on the back cover of my 2014 translation as if Tristran and Isolde is a key selling point. The headline at the top of the paragraph reads, "A love story that tests the limits of literature". The love story element in Tristiano consists of two figures, both named C (most of the proper names in this book are C, including those of towns and cities, so that in some sentences C and C, who may be cheating on C with C, are travelling to C), but referred to generally as "he" and "she", hugging, arguing, driving together; and appearing in other sentences that indicate a partnering idea. "He massaged her shoulders and smiled at her," for example. But the constant insertion of further sentences that have nothing to do with them -

The right side looks like an undeveloped film or a specimen on a slide.
Creeping thyme Thymus serpyllum the horned poppy of the Alps Papaver alpinum var. achantopetela the bitter Nordic buttercup Ranunculus acer borealis there are still a few examples of Thalictrum alpinum the Atragene alpina var. sibirica in the Alps.

for instance, or

A very simple almost banal story that could be summarised in a few lines.

- which I understand as a sign that Balestrini collaged his own preparatory notes about the work into the work itself – these lines, appearing wherever the computer put them, kill the possibility of any forward momentum. This (did I say so before?) is something I find absolutely peaceful. No sentence can be understood or relied on as the consequence of any other sentence. Then there is a patch of calm around each one that seems unimpeachable - a sense of platonic equality - making Tristiano the most unnatural book that has ever been written.

Monday, January 30, 2017

human beings only take advantage

As I look at The Porthole again I believe that I could spend a long time going through the book page by page and listing all the variations that Spatola finds in this thwartation or resistance play. Why did Samuel Richardson write books that put him (not him but his written voice) in situations of apparent anxiety and why did he (his voice) exacerbate those situations instead of ending them? Asking, "Why did he create such a perfect character as Grandison?" might be something like the same question. You picture a man observing his voice as if he is watching a very exciting film. Spatola describes a war in which his character Guglielmo takes part on both sides at once (meaning that the name "Guglielmo" is partaking in contrary actions simultaneously in different places), torturing people, stealing horses, etc, baffling the normal expectation that an author who writes about conflict will ask you to sympathise more with one body of combatants than the other. This is a bit shocking: shouldn't he give you a position; shouldn't he find some noble rebels or reluctant army recruits or something to sympathise with? Removing a dead war-horse's shoes, the narrator 'I' also removes its "glasses, watch, ring, gold teeth, hair, and orthopedic limb." I think of Alice in Wonderland's argument for the dominance of algebraic principles in language. By insisting on the vigilant mediation of words, the Wonderland characters point towards a hypothesis of language that has been changed from a common property to a private one. As a Wonderland person you are not inevitably unhappy. You appear abrasive to others, but your privacy ensures your character. It is like having a house to live in. If Alice could handle language algebraically like the others then she would not have to worry so much about warping and stretching. She would be the manipulation of formula.

The inhabitants of Wonderland are living machines in costumes. (Is a living machine also a malfunctioning machine?) Reading the art historian T.J. Clark's 2006 book The Sight of Death I notice how often he refers to boundaries in his work; how he notes the overlapped straightnesses of the landscape in the two Poussin paintings and the outstretched arm of the fleeing individual in Landscape with Man Killed By a Snake, c. 1648. I am interested in his appreciation of the stillness this helps to create upon the canvas; and how his description of a real event, a trip to Michael Heizer's Double Negative earthwork, 1969-1970, is a lifeless sketch. The people in the car gave a "great shout" when the cutting finally comes into view, he says, a phrase so routine in British English that he can rely on it to represent nothing much. Returning to the boundaried world of the paintings he goes back into evocation again. Double Negative has not been an opportunity for thought. Eventually he comes to this idea about the intersection between the painter and the world: "The lake's level, or the balance of branches on a tree – human beings only take advantage of order already present. It is just that nature gives no such clear priority to such orders." It will be interesting to see if Heizer really goes through with the plan to shore up Double Negative with concrete.

Monday, January 23, 2017

flew forth two

When I said that The Porthole, 1964, reminded me of Tom Jones, 1749, what did I have in mind? A rough impression that the parts about the mother at the start of Spatola were similar in their approach to the reader to this passage from Jones:

First, from two lovely blue Eyes, whose bright Orbs flashed Lightning at their Discharge, flew forth two pointed Ogles. But happily for our Heroe, hit only a vast Piece of Beef which he was then conveying into his Plate, and harmless spent their Force.

Since Fielding is setting the audience up to anticipate a certain outcome and then thwarting it, as Spatola does; both also making their awareness of the thwart part of a game that carries on to the ends of the two books; the mood of teasing play being carried on throughout Jones, and the luring/thwarting pattern of the mother passages being mirrored later in Porthole – there's this in the Arianna chapter for example:

It was a small room, three quarters or more were taken up by her wardrobe, and the rest, by her childhood bed. A light rain fell in the twilight on the poorly-lit street. A warm, light rain fell on my street: I slowly moved closer to her. No one spoke.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the black princess jersey she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the flared satin dress she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the wavy blue wool dress with lateral draping she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the orange wool dress with kimono sleeves she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the military-style cloak fastened at the neck she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the lovely printed pastel-colored wool overcoat she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the short tulle and lace formal dress she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the double-bellied skirt with open panel she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the new fine tulle bridal gown she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the slender three quarter-sleeve, turtle-neck bodice she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the fluffy multi-layered skirt she wore.

(tr. Beppe Cavatorte and Polly Geller)

Etc, etc, for over a page, changing the spectacle of an imaginary person into the mechanical production of a real sentence; which I interpret as, at least partly, the author inviting you to see how his trick is done, or how his trick could have been done if he had chosen to be a realist. The expectation you might have formed after the first paragraph was not inevitably going to make the next part manifest itself as you anticipated; your expectation was not fate. (Samuel Richardson believes in fate and fears it, the agitation before the wedding in Grandison so incredibly roused by the thought that this upcoming event cannot be stopped.) You don't expect this much repetition either; it carries on past the point where the point has been made. It takes on, I think, a kind of abrasive mechanical autonomy. At the same time you know a human being is behind it. The human being is expressing freedom by appearing not completely reasonable and human. Clarissa and Tristano (and Grandison as well as Clarissa) are made of movements so small, it seems to me (and to Richardson, who said that he wanted to reduce his books by editing them but there was nothing inessential he could find; in spite of him they needed all their atomies) that they seem to bunch in on themselves, without moving out towards the reader, as Spatola and Fielding do, grabbing them, touching them, changing tone --  Richardson is contrastingly serious -- maybe culminated atomie is the least whimsical thing --.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

it can fight or ransack

The Porthole is against ideas of coherence and secret enormousness (Modernism and Bleak House – what did modernism mean in Italy?); it's a splitting-apart that works consistently throughout its length to maintain the split; the detail in the first paragraph preparing you to know this mother-character better – there must be a reason why she is being filled in with this remark about the pencil behind the ear – but then she is removed and there is nothing to connect her to except the word "mother" again, attached to something that is not her.

"Mother" is placed in impossibility, not by any quality of itself, but by the restrictions of bodies.

If the author writes "mother" again in a distant future chapter then what is he referring to?

He has addressed Guglielmo's mother so that the phrase "Guglielmo's mother" is not restricted to a phenomenon with recognisable habits such as tucking a pencil behind its ear; so, instead, it is attached to an absence or impossible overabundance of character, so impossible that it negates or even ignores its own constituent parts. I want to say that this makes her non-monolithic. In the Love Novel chapter Spatola might be arguing for the power of the anti-monolith and the paradox, but on the other hand he might be asking you to regard everything that is being said as "All the clichés of political debates," because he places that phrase roughly in the middle of the mass of points, some of which are repeated in ways that could make you interpret them as ridiculous things to say* though I prefer to read it as the author's own fidelity to his idea of vital paradox and certainty-repulsion. The point of the book is given priority over the points in the book, in my understanding. If the Porthole pointed to a larger form (a definite political statement, a set of well-drawn characters) then it would not be true to its own faith in paradox. Deducing that the author is thinking about this consciously as he writes and that the paradox is not the byproduct of a desire to write nonsensically.

You can imagine him adjusting his paradoxes to make them more paradoxical.

* e.g., making a point in a calm mode, "a society would not be capable to establish its economy on a large scale, by domesticating man, if it could not find weaker societies, which it can fight or ransack …" then again in a frantic tone: "Do we find weaker societies within reach? Do we destroy them?"

Thursday, January 5, 2017

the eye fixed on the fisherman

I failed to use excerpts from books as far apart in style and intent as Scott G.F. Bailey's murder mystery The Transcendental Detective, 2014 (which I could call "a page-turner" if I were writing blurbs, since I had a sincere desire to know who had murdered whom and why, and kept reading because of it), and the 1964 Italian book L'oblò or The Porthole by Adriano Spatola, (tr. Beppe Cavatorta and Polly Geller) "a singular novel that evades any kind of categorisation and remains even more important today for its remarkable achievement in that fertile period of Italian literature," according to the tripartite publisher. The same "fertile period" included Nanni Balestrini's Tristiano, 1966, another book I didn't quote. There are similarities between Balestrini's book and The Porthole but only superficial ones, I think, Spatola proceeding humanistically (you can imagine a person at a desk, planning striking contrasts), and Tristiano arranged by a machine (I believe you would know this even if they didn't tell you since there seems to be a willingness toward accidental repetition and no effort to create contrasts, the computer taking on the personality of chance. Compare this to the Porthole chapter called A Love Novel in which the questions deliberately escalate).

The mechanics of Balestrini's plan were so advanced that the book couldn't be published as he wanted it until 2014. Every copy is different. I read no. #11246.

My preference for Tristiano over Porthole resembles my preference I think for Clarissa over Tom Jones.

One of Porthole's techniques is to state an apparent fact the way that normal stories do and then write another fact cancelling it out, in a succeeding paragraph and in the same tone, without acknowledging the earlier assertion. The book opens directly into scene-setting with realismistic details, Guglielmo's mother "sitting on a chair, her right elbow propped up on the table (pencil in her hair)," tallying up the grocery bill, when "they" come through the door and kill her. "And he hadn't been born yet." Later, says the author, they killed his father. "But he hadn't been born yet." His mother is not human but a cow. She is a Samoyed or a Belgian sheepdog, she is an ant reformed as an earthworm; and her son is born in an attic, next to a freeway, on an island in the Dead Sea, and on the Adriatic Riviera. His father is a stable-keeper, his father is a demon, his father gave birth to him by laying an egg, his father is a truck moving at 100 miles per hour.

One consistent element is a hole that Guglielmo sees through: somehow throughout the book, no matter what he is doing, he (or something) is also in some sealed location looking through a hole. The sealed location seems degraded (this is not the metaphor of the lighthouse-human looking through the erected windows of the eye); his mother's anthill is mentioned; he is trapped inside a building, and his detached eye is brought up as well, wandering around.

In the river, the eye that the fisherman pulled to shore. The fixed eye that the fisherman pulled to shore. And when it was on the shore, the eye fixed on the fisherman and recognised him.

Spatola later suggested that the title-eye-hole-porthole "indicates a particular method of 'viewing' the world" which "passes before the writer much like it would in front of a camera," and the translator Beppe Cavatorta quotes this in order to make an argument about "the Spatolian eye [that] simultaneously records the things and actions of the world that surrounds it, as well as 'non-things, ' non-actions'."

But when I see that Spatola's method is explained with a reference to assemblage art while the author for the rest of his life (1941 – 1988) made concrete-collage poems that look like large single shapes then I say, "What if I thought of it as a stand-in for the eye of the single viewer ever-present throughout the viewing of a two-dimensional artwork, which, here, has to be placed inside the text, looking at it all at once, because no reader's eye is able to do what the eye of a viewer looking at a visual collage can do, which is to be all over the work with a single glance?"