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.