Ricardo Blanco's Blog

Anselm Kiefer at the Pompidou

Kiefer Margarethe 2

A couple of weekends ago we had the opportunity to visit the Anselm Kiefer retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Quite apart from its power, scope and integrity – and in spite of its overwhelmingly dark subject matter – the exhibition filled me a similarly paradoxical and devastating faith in humanity that can be glimpsed in the work of Kiefer’s compatriot, W.G. Sebald. Kiefer, incidentally, was born one year after Sebald, on 8 March 1945, at the time of the massive allied air raids on his native Germany documented by Sebald in The Rings of Saturn and elsewhere. Much of Kiefer’s work reflects openly on the legacy of Nazism, a tendency that brought him intense criticism from German critics at the start of his career. As he himself has written:

‘After the ‘misfortune’, as we all name it so euphemistically now, people thought that in 1945 we were starting all over again . . . it’s nonsense. The past was put under taboo, and to dig it up again generates resistance and disgust.’

His undaunted gaze on the past of Germany – and Europe at large – struck me as overwhelmingly pertinent now, as Europe faces a humanitarian crisis in the shape of millions of refugees, and the German and European Right flexes in indignation, while in the United States Donald Trump begins to stir up the same kind of populist xenophobia that made the whole experiment of the Third Reich possible. However, Kiefer does considerably more than reflect on historical contingencies, and his oeuvre, massive in range as well as intellectual breadth, explores the idea of a collective mythology – not only the specifically Germanic, Romantic imagination with which much of his work is imbued – but the entire project of the human condition, and of how to live humanely under inhumane conditions, if that is at all possible.

I would need several months to reflect in depth on the emotions generated by this extraordinary exhibition. It is the third time I have visited a major Kiefer show, but the Pompidou have excelled themselves in the attention to detail and the fantastic range of work exhibited. Unfortunately, the exhibition only runs until 16 April, but if you have any chance at all of getting there, it is very much worth it.

I have chosen to consider reproductions from two of the most powerful paintings in the exhibition, titled Margarethe and Sulamith, a thematic that Kiefer has explored exhaustively following Paul Celan’s famous poem ‘Todesfuge’ (Death Fugue), concluding with the famous lines that reflect on the murder by immolation of the Jewish girl Sulamith (Shulamite in The Song of Songs) and contrasted with the golden-haired Aryan Margarethe, whose hair, represented in the painting by straw, according to Sue Hubbard in The Independent ‘symbolises the German love of land, and the nobility of the German soul, allowing Kiefer to play with complex notions of racial purity.’

According to Rebecca Taylor, ‘all of the canonical elements of Kiefer’s work’ are present in the painting Sulamith (or Shulamite): we find ‘a thick impasto resulting from a hardened mixture of oil, acrylic, emulsion, and shellac; a brittle, textured surface infused with commonplace materials (in this case, straw and ash); mythological or biblical references  . . . and a historical subject or location (a Nazi Memorial Hall in Berlin).

Funeral Hall

Wilhelm Kreis, Funeral Hall for the Great German Soldier  (Berlin, 1939)

‘ . . . Kiefer’s hall is not a memorial to great men with patriotic flags waving boldly, but a gateway to damnation, a dark and foreboding road to hell, enclosed by low arches and paved with massive stones —the whole mise-en-scène  . . . suggestive of an oven (immediately bringing to mind the hyperactivity of the crematoria at the Nazi death camps).’

Kiefer Sulemith 2

Kiefer has stated that he would have liked to have been a poet – though it seems strange to me that an artist whose work is so imbued with its own poetry would consider language to be somehow a ‘higher’ attainment than that which he has achieved through his extraordinary visual creations. But it seems only appropriate to close with Christopher Middleton’s marvellous translation of Paul Celan’s poem ‘Todesfuge’, which inspired Kiefer in these paintings.

 

Fugue of Death

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at nightfall

we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night

we drink it and drink it

we are digging a grave in the sky it is ample to lie there

A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes

he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden

hair Margarete

he writes it and walks from the house the stars glitter he

whistles his dogs up

he whistles his Jews out and orders a grave to be dug in

the earth

he commands us strike up for the dance

 

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you in the morning at noon we drink you at nightfall

drink you and drink you

A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes

he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden

hair Margarete

Your ashen hair Shulamith we are digging a grave in the

sky it is

ample to lie there

 

He shouts stab deeper in earth you there and you others

you sing and you play

he grabs at the iron in his belt and swings it and blue are

his eyes

stab deeper your spades you there and you others play on

for the dancing

 

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at nightfall

we drink you at noon in the mornings we drink you at

nightfall

drink you and drink you

a man in the house your golden hair Margarete

your ashen hair Shulamith he plays with the serpents

 

He shouts play sweeter death’s music death comes as a

master from Germany

he shouts stroke darker the strings and as smoke you

shall climb to the sky

then you’ll have a grave in the clouds it is ample to lie there

 

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you at noon death comes as a master from Germany

we drink you at nightfall and morning we drink you and drink you

a master from Germany death comes with eyes that are blue

with a bullet of lead he will hit in the mark he will hit you

a man in the house your golden hair Margarete

he hunts us down with his dogs in the sky he gives us a grave

he plays with the serpents and dreams death comes as a

master from Germany

 

your golden hair Margarete

your ashen hair Shulamith.

 

Translated by Christopher Middleton

Angry in Piraeus

houses sultanahmet

Flicking back through old photographs, I find one taken while returning from an evening out with friends in Istanbul, and passing some wooden-fronted houses in a twisting street, near the shore, that seemed to belong entirely to a world of things forgotten, specifically one of those nostalgic evocations of the old city invoked by Orhan Pamuk in his memoir Istanbul: Memories of City.

It was with real pleasure, then, that I read Maureen Freely’s bewitching essay in the Cahiers series produced by the American University in Paris, called Angry in Piraeus (the title is explained by Freely’s childhood memory of attempting, as a linguistically gifted nine-year-old, to moderate between her father’s splenetic discontent and an implacable Greek taxi driver). She evokes a scenario, familiar to some of us, of being caught between two angry parties and two sets of rules, and having to act as interlocutor between individuals who do not share a common language, and realising, of a sudden, that this is what all human communication is like, but more so. And the antidote? Freely describes what it might be for her:

‘ . . . If asked to describe paradise on earth, I would depict a city I have never seen before, a city I could wander through without anyone quite seeing me. A maze of narrow lanes would send me past gate after locked gate, courtyard after sunlit courtyard. In each there would be another drama, another cast of characters conversing in a language I was hearing for the first time, but that had existed for many millennia, and that I would now attempt to explore, word by word.’

 

 

A murmuration of starlings

Why do starling swarm in the sky? What are they communicating, if anything? Is it play? There doesn’t seem to be a clear response on any website I have searched.

But I have discovered that it is called a ‘murmuration of starlings’, which I like. It evokes the astonishing burr of all those wings in unison, which can be heard whenever you pass close to a group. The RSPB website says:

We think that starlings do it for many reasons. Grouping together offers safety in numbers – predators such as peregrine falcons find it hard to target one bird in the middle of a hypnotising flock of thousands.

They also gather to keep warm at night and to exchange information, such as good feeding areas. 

They gather over their roosting site, and perform their wheeling stunts before they roost for the night. 

The starlings I photographed through my car windscreen (I stopped the car first) were swarming over the flatlands of Ampurdan, near the fresh and saltwater marshes of the Aiguamolls reserve. But I find it hard to be convinced that they gather in this way to keep warm at night (especially as it was mild, and mid-afternoon), and nor am I convinced by the peregrine falcon theory (there are eagles here in the Ampurdan also) and the hypnosis effect on such birds of prey.

An article in The Guardian informs readers that The Society of Biology is calling on the British public to “help them solve the mystery of why murmurations form, how long they last and why they end.”

Starlings 1

 

Starlings 2

Starlings 4

 

 

Olive Oil

The Christmas and New Year break can be draining enough anywhere, but here in Spain the festive drudgery carries on until Epiphany on January 6th, and the celebration of the coming of the kings (Reyes, or Reis in Catalan), the Magi of the Orient who arrive to welcome the baby Jesus in his manger, surrounded by the traditional donkey, cow and a few sheep. This not only means that nothing functions for a full two weeks, but that everyone – especially those with small kids – are in a state of near exhaustion by the time they need to go back to work on 7th January. This puts everyone in a bad mood, even if the weather, and particularly the persistent icy wind, were not enough.

One aspect of the visitation of the kings, in almost every village across Spain, is that the custom of a white person ‘blacking up’ for the role of King Balthasar – supposedly an African king – continues despite mounting criticism of the practice. In fact, Madrid has abolished the custom altogether, choosing to use a ‘real’ black person in the role. Since in Madrid the spectacle is customarily enacted by three of the City Councillors, and  – unsurprisingly – there are no black Councillors to be found, a professional actor was found. As the English language newspaper The Local reported:

The Spanish capital has decided to break with tradition – all in the name of diversity . . . King Balthazar will be played by a black actor from an African association based in Madrid, confirmed the director of Programs and Cultural Activities at Madrid City Hall, Jesús María Carrillo . . . “As well as being more professional it will be more representative: we are not just using any old actor from an audition . . . we want to connect with the cultural diversity of the city while also bringing a sense of professionalism to the parade because it is a huge event, in which it is a huge responsibility to step into the shoes of one of the three kings.”

The actors will be paid around €1,000 for the parade which will take place in central Madrid on the evening of January 5th. Madrid City Hall also confirmed that sweets will be handed out during the parade to children in the crowd but in a “more peaceful way”: during previous years’ parades several members of the crowd had their glasses broken by flying candies. 

BalthasarWell, so much for Madrid. Here in the Catalan hinterland, there were no such pretensions at political correctness, let alone ‘connecting with the cultural diversity’ of the region. Sweets were thrown most peacefully, and nobody’s glasses were broken. In a society where a good percentage of the agricultural workforce is composed of black Africans, it is a mystery why the ludicrous and offensive practice of ‘blacking up’ be allowed to continue, but there we are. No doubt if a thousand Euros were offered for the job, a volunteer would be found quickly enough.

Last weekend was the Festival of the Olive in Espolla, a neighbouring village. Espolla is only a walk away through the vineyards, but always seems to me a much more exalted and organized sort of place than our lowly village: they’ve got a shop that opens all day, a butcher’s, a couple of restaurants. There’s even a bar.

J & J at stall

Our neighbours, Joan and Juliette, ran a stall (pictured above) to sell their excellent wines and honey. As well as locals, the festival is popular with French market stall holders and day trippers (France is only fifteen minutes drive away on the back road). On display, along with the local wines and glorious dark green, fragrant, earthy mineral-rich oils, there were great rounds of cheese, wonderful freshly baked breads, baskets, wooden chests, wood-burning stoves and candy floss. A great outing on a fine day, after nearly an entire gloomy week of the tramuntana mountain wind.

Espolla

The village of Espolla, in the Ampurdan

 

 

 

Canigou

Mount Canigou, from Espolla

 

 

 

 

 

Notes from a Catalan Village: The Mushroom Season

Rovellos

Autumn is the mushroom season, and at weekends, if you take a walk outside the village, you will encounter the mushroom hunter, a basket slung underarm, scanning the ground with an expert eye. King of the mushrooms is the rovelló, (Lactarius deliciosus) – pictured above, large and fleshy funghi that appear around the roots of pines, which grow abundantly along the tracks through the Alberas leading north and into France.

The picture includes one of the largest specimens I have ever encountered (or eaten). I’d recommend them cooked in olive oil or butter with some garlic and parsley, and spread over toast, or with spaghetti or linguine, if you have any.

Another – perhaps the other – defining feature of autumn is the Tramuntana – a wind that heads down off the Pyrenees and sweeps all before it. It makes its way to the coast of Menorca (200 miles due south from here), and who knows how far beyond . . . It is a wind invested with powerful psychological or emotional qualities.

This wind, the mountain wind, infiltrates every corner like a spinning incubus, growing inside each perception, every mundane act, taking them over utterly. Eventually you become aware only of the immediate and hallucinatory impact of whatever stands before you: the silent apparition of the dog waiting expectantly in the doorway; a dead sheep lying beside a roadside elm. The wind sucks out everything from you, leaving you exhausted and chastened. People have been known to commit murder on account of the mountain wind, or else go slowly insane over several seasons. (Colour of a Dog Running Away)

The wind needn’t affect everyone in quite this way; but the dogs, they notice, and flocks of starlings appear as you drive along the road to Garriguella and swerve and dive and bank away in a thick black cloud over the recently ploughed fields.

I have noticed, in myself and others, particularly after a full week of the wind – a tendency towards dreaminess or abstraction, a withdrawal into a state in which the structures of the phenomenal world have a tendency to dissolve. When this happens, conversations about the village take a strange turn, and the person with whom one thinks one has been speaking turns out to have been dead for a hundred years (the teenage girl who disappeared into the mountains with her illegitimate and stillborn child in 1912), and the postman mistakes you for Andreu the beetle-crusher, and the Butane delivery driver’s assistant refuses to let you take in the heavy gas cylinder that you use for cooking and hot water, mistaking you for the old man you must appear to him to be, and tells you to take care now, to wrap up warm, it’s cold.

Rabos January 2012

 

pre sunset

 

sunset

Engrained confusion and Freudian typos

A porpoise with purpose

A porpoise with purpose

Are there words that you always seem to mis-type? I don’t mean mis-spell when writing longhand, but mis-type, when typing in a hurry, when the words are coming out faster than the fingers can organise them into print on the screen, and the mind, as it were, stumbles. Is there any point in analysing these moments?

The question I am getting to, rather clumsily, is whether or not there is an element of the ‘Freudian slip’ involved in the kinds of words that we habitually mis-type when typing faster than we can comfortably manage.

Let me give two examples. One word which I often type incorrectly is ‘purpose’. It occurs to me that this is because I lack purpose, that I have always lacked purpose. I am quite good on intention, and energetic in pursuing obsessive goals, but purpose can floor me. No doubt I spent too much time immersed in the novels of Samuel Beckett as a teenager, but I can hardly blame him. I over-identified with Beckett’s forlornly comic protagonists, mostly because, like my teenage self, they lacked purpose, and this coincided with a time in life when I and those around me were being encouraged to acquire and develop Purpose above all things.

Puprose or porpuse (which of course gets auto-corrected to ‘porpoise’)is how I spell it, and once or twice pusproe. I find it hard to ‘get’ purpose, and have to slow down, pause, and seek out the keys.

The other word I almost invariably type incorrectly is ‘because’ (becuase, beacuse, beacuase etc) – but most commonly beacuse .

My analyst friend, Alphonse, perched on his Freudian stool, says: purpose, sure, Blanco: you lack purpose. Because, surely, because you lack a sense of causality. You refuse to believe that one thing happens as a direct consequence of another thing, and prefer to follow your misguided and mystical faith in Sympathetic Magic.

And there’s the rub. Causality (or actually, I kid you not, cuaslity, which sounds rather like ‘casualty’ is as much of a stumbling block as ‘purpose’ and ‘because’ – the latter as a subordinating conjunction (I hate you because you are a liar) or compound conjunction (the concert was cancelled because of the rain). Either way ‘because’ is a concept whose very existence depends on an acceptance of causality.

But to reinforce this confusion, I have a final repeat slip-up to confess to: when speaking Spanish I consistently confuse the word casualidad (chance, coincidence) with  causalidad (causality)– it is an engrained error, but one which must surely have deep psychological roots, in which I regard all causality as, essentially, a matter of chance or coincidence.

 

 

 

Dark Ages

A new poem by Pedro Serrano, translated from the Spanish by Richard Gwyn.

Bill, Pedro, Me @ Pen & Wig

Pedro Serrano (in mirror), with Blanco (left) and Bill Herbert.

DARK AGES

The tiger leaps

from a cloud of smoke into transience.

Falls on the devastating corral with an idleness

corresponding to the haste of his victims,

not to his elasticity.

He brushes past the bars of his cage

swinging his tail, rattling, tac, tac, tac, tac.

Crackling, he licks the circus sands

and raises ripples of dust,

traces of an approaching wake.

The motive for his observation

journeys in the smooth rhythm of his stomach,

velvety, gluttonous, elastic.

He turns circles before the spectators,

ears cocked, instincts fixed

on the excitement in the air.

He walks by the tables, propitious,

exudes substance and style.

The head sinks between the shoulders,

swells in the rail that encircles him.

The claws are extended

in the animal body that awaits him.

In the mirror of midday

the night’s end was taking shape,

beatific, inscrutable.

DARK AGES

El tigre salta

de la humareda a la fugacidad.

Cae en el aplastante corral con una pereza

que alude a la prisa de sus victimas,

no a su elasticidad.

Pasa rozando las rejas de su jaula

meneando la cola, golpeteando, taq’, taq’, taq’, taq’.

Restallante lame las arenas del circo

y levanta espejuelas de polvo,

huellas de una estela aproximándose.

La razón de su observación

viaja en el suave ritmo de su vientre,

afelpado, glotón, elástico.

Da vueltas a los espectadores,

las orejas prestas, su olfato

en la agitación que se respira.

Pasa propicio por las mesas,

se enjundia, se estiliza.

Sume la cabeza entre los hombros,

crece en el riel que lo circunda.

Deja las uñas puestas

en el cuerpo animal que lo acecha.

Desde el espejo del mediodía

se apuntaba el final de la noche,

beatífica, hierática.

Tree

tree near corral

Today’s post is a translation of the opening fragment of the poem ‘Tree’ by the Bolivian poet Jessica Freudenthal Ovando (born 1978).

 

1.

my father has a girlfriend of my age

my father says he cheated on my mother with six women

with whom he fell in love

my father always cheated on my mother

“always” could be reduced to fifteen or twenty years

my father and my mother became engaged at fifteen years of age

and were married as soon as they were legal adults

my mother is the daughter of a military man

my mother is the daughter of a military man they say was involved

in the death of che guevara and the nationalization of the gulf oil company

my father is the son of the right hand man of the president who led the revolution of 1952

my father’s father was exiled by the father of my mother

i am the daughter of my mother and of my father

i have a sister and two brothers

my older brother has the same name as my father and the older brother of my mother

the older brother of my mother died in an airplane accident

they say that it wasn’t an accident

they say that the plane was sabotaged to bring about the fall of my military grandfather’s government that nationalized oil and tin

my younger brother has the name of sid campeador and of the younger brother of my mother which is also the name of her father

i have my name and the name of the older sister of my father who died during an epileptic attack in eastern bolivia

my father’s mother says that she was born in a place where the cemetery is bigger than the village, and the word love is not known

my sister has her name and the two names of my mother

my mother’s younger brother has his father’s name

– but never uses it –

my mother’s younger sister is adopted

– but this is an open secret –

i am the spouse of my spouse

i do not use the surname of my spouse

my spouse was the boyfriend of the second daughter of my mother’s younger brother

my mother and my spouse’s father had a fling

my father became somewhat jealous

my mother was sick with jealousy

she used to check my father’s pockets and phone him like a madwoman

i suffer from jealousy

my husband has cheated on me on several occasions

i have never been able to cheat on my husband

i haven’t dared

yet

mother and father

mother fatherland

mama milk-bottle

the family tree doesn’t know its roots

it can’t see them

in the darkness and depth of the earth

there hidden underground

far from the crown

from the air

and from the branches

from the branches of this tree

hang the dead

the suicides

my father’s mother’s brother

shot himself on christmas night

my father’s younger brother snorted cocaine until his heart stopped

my mother’s first cousin threw himself off the niagara falls

poetic deaths

deaths

my mother’s father died of cancer of the pancreas

my father’s father died of pulmonary emphysema

it costs this tree to breathe

it doesn’t know its roots

surnames run all along its structure

they vanish

they become transparent

Translation from the Spanish by Richard Gwyn


 

Fragmento de “ÁRBOL”

1.

 

mi padre tiene una novia de mi edad

mi padre dice engañó a mi madre con seis mujeres

de las que se enamoró

mi padre siempre engañó a mi madre

–siempre– puede reducirse a quince o veinte años

mi padre y mi madre se hicieron novios a los quince años

y se casaron al borde de la mayoría de edad

mi madre es hija de un militar

mi madre es hija de un militar que dicen estuvo involucrado

en la muerte del che guevara y la nacionalización de la gulf oil company

mi padre es hijo del hombre de confianza del presidente que hizo la revolución de 1952

el padre de mi padre fue exiliado por el padre de mi madre

yo soy hija de mi madre y de mi padre

tengo una hermana y dos hermanos

mi hermano mayor lleva el nombre de mi padre y el nombre del hermano mayor de mi madre

el hermano mayor de mi madre murió en un accidente de aviación

-dicen que no fue un accidente-

dicen que sabotearon el avión para que cayera el gobierno de mi abuelo militar que nacionalizó la gulf y el estaño

mi hermano menor lleva el nombre del sid campeador y el del hermano menor de mi madre que es también el de su padre

yo llevo mi nombre y el nombre de la hermana mayor de mi padre muerta por un ataque de epilepsia en el oriente boliviano

la madre de mi padre dice que nació en un lugar donde el cementerio es más grande que el pueblo, y que no conoció la palabra amor . . .

mi hermana lleva su nombre y los dos nombres de mi madre

el hermano menor de mi madre lleva el nombre de su padre

– pero no lo usa nunca –

la hermana menor de mi madre es adoptada

– pero ese es un secreto a voces –

yo soy esposa de mi esposo

yo no uso el apellido de mi esposo

mi esposo era el novio de la hija segunda del hermano menor de mi madre

mi madre y el padre de mi esposo tuvieron un romance

mi padre se puso algo celoso

mi madre era enferma de los celos

auscultaba los bolsillos de mi padre y lo llamaba como loca por teléfono

yo sufro de celos

mi marido me ha engañado varias veces

yo nunca he podido engañar a mi marido

no me he atrevido

todavía

madre y padre

madre patria

pacha mama

el árbol familiar no conoce sus raíces

no puede verlas

en la oscuridad y profundidad de la tierra

allí debajo escondidas

lejanas a la copa

al aire

y a las ramas

en las ramas de este árbol

cuelgan los muertos

los suicidios

el hermano de la madre de mi padre

se pegó un tiro la noche de navidad

el hermano menor de mi padre aspiró cocaína hasta detener su corazón

el primo hermano de mi madre se lanzó por las cataratas del niágara

muertes poéticas

muertes

el padre de mi madre murió de cáncer de páncreas

el padre de mi padre murió de enfisema pulmonar

a este árbol le cuesta respirar

no conoce sus raíces

los apellidos recorren toda la estructura

se desvanecen

se hacen transparentes

from Patria bastarda (2014)

Confabulation, or making shit up

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing: making shit up?

Post is delivered erratically in the village, and two issues of the London Review of Books land in my letter box on the same day. I read one of them, and am struck by a sentence in an article by the excellent Jenny Diski, one of a series she has been commissioned to write following her diagnosis of terminal cancer (last year she was given possibly three years to live). The article – like much of her recent work – concerns her relationship with Doris Lessing, who ‘took her in’ as a troubled teenager, after ‘abandoning’ two of her own children in Rhodesia, as it was then known. The article begins with a troublesome quotation from Lessing, which is, in fact, the ‘Author’s Note’ to her book The Sweetest Dream:

“I am not writing volume three of my autobiography because of possible hurt to vulnerable people. Which does not mean I have novelised autobiography. There are no parallels here to actual people, except for one, a very minor character.”

In her essay, Diski explores and questions this (disingenuous) disclaimer, and edges towards a revelation of who the ‘very minor character’ might be.

‘What is she telling us about?’ asks Diski: ‘Sex, politics, her version of some truth that has been confabulated?’

And there it is. That word. Confabulate has a peculiar history. It comes from the Late Latin, confabulationem – “talking together”, con = with/together; fabula = fable, tale. The making of fables. And yes, you can do it in a group, with other people, or you can do it on your own, in your head. Making shit up, which is what writers do, a lot.

In recent years, ‘confabulate’ has taken on a specific medical meaning. I was very interested to learn that the clinical term for Alzheimer’s patients making shit up is ‘confabulation’. Wikipedia even has this: “Confabulation is a memory disturbance, defined as the production of fabricated, distorted or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive” – which is kind of interesting, considering what it is that writers do. Now, if you look in any dictionary, you will find the word has become medicalised, thereby adapting its meaning to a specific clinical usage, while its original meaning has taken a back seat.

Recent neurological research (see, for example Daniel L. Schacter’s Memory Distortion) has provided overwhelming evidence to suggest that memories are constructed from an uneven mix of ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’. Something similar is true for perception: our perceptions are constructions that supplement data processed by the brain with other data that the brain supplies to fill in the blanks.

So, when Alzheimer’s patients ‘confabulate’, in other words ‘make shit up’, I cannot help but question what it is that writers do: the difference being, I guess, that with Alzheimer’s patients confabulation is involuntary, and with us it is (usually) intentional.

 

 

Fiction Fiesta, reality, and Alastair Reid

borges in library

The first Borges story I ever read was ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, in the translation by Alastair Reid, while living in a derelict shepherd’s hut on a Cretan hillside. A couple of years later, like so many others readers, I underwent a kind of epiphany while reading One Hundred Years of Solitude.

I was twenty years old, and from that point on, Borges’ fictions, alongside García Márquez’s recreation of the semi-fictional world of Macondo, forced me to re-evaluate almost everything that I had been reared to believe about literary fiction.

Thinking back, I had never had much truck with either realism or naturalism – the antagonists, in their way, of so-called ‘magic realism’ – and since my exposure to Borges and García Márquez, I never quite trusted them again. These two writers, followed by other discoveries, such as Juan Rulfo, Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa and Augusto Monterroso, opened the doors to different perceptions of reality, in which the frail membrane separating one world, one mode of understanding, from another, was always permeable, subject to movement and interpenetration. Everything was a fiction. This was a model, I believed, that could be applied to almost anything: culture, language, philosophy . . . it was almost, but not quite, a religion.

Alastair Reid, who died in 2014

Alastair Reid, last year.

Last July I was reminded of this lifelong struggle with the false dichotomy between fiction and reality, when I travelled to Dumfries and Galloway to meet Alastair Reid himself. The Scottish poet – friend as well as translator of Borges, Neruda and García Márquez – spent a large part of the day talking with me about Latin America and its literatures, especially Borges. I recorded the conversations, and consider myself incredibly fortunate to do this as, just over a month following my visit, Alastair passed away, at the age of eighty-eight.

One of the things he told me – which also crops up in one of his essays – was the reluctance of Latin Americans in general (not just authors) to discriminate between what ‘actually’ happened, and what might have happened under other circumstances. Thus life (and storytelling) is a continuous weave of memory, confabulation and invention. In one of his essays, Reid cites the American diplomat George F. Kennan, who, after an investigatory trip through several Latin American countries in 1950, wrote, in a tone of exasperation:

Latin American society lives, by and large, by a species of make-believe . . . a highly personalised, anarchical make-believe, in which each individual spins around him, like a cocoon, his own little world of pretense, and demands its recognition by others as the condition of his participation in the social process.

While the sentiments expressed here might be familiar to many as a symptom of European or North American ethnocentrism, the diplomat had a point. Reid himself lived for many years among villagers in the Dominican Republic, and describes a ‘fictive’ cast of mind, in which the vague boundary between history and invention is blurred beyond recognition. This is not simply a case of the ‘objective’ European mind critiquing the supremely subjectivist world-view of those in ‘the third world’: it is a truth (if such a word has any meaning) borne out by Reid’s experience, and one described most succinctly by Borges himself. For Borges, everything put into language is a fiction, whatever ‘literary’ or non-literary’ form that might take. Thus a poem, a newspaper article, or a letter from the bank manager all fit the category of ‘fiction’ as each uses language as their mode of expression. As Reid says:

A fiction is any construct of language – a story, an explanation, a plan, a theory, a dogma – that gives a certain shape to reality.

And it is with this in mind that we must think of Fiction Fiesta; not in the limited sense of a festival that celebrates the genre of literary fiction. FF is a platform for building fictions that give shape to reality. On one level, FF complements work that I am doing, alongside others – with the invaluable support of Wales Literature Exchange and Wales Arts International – in taking Welsh writing out into the wider world; at the same time we are helping Welsh readers discover more about contemporary Latin American writing.

Fiction Fiesta started out in early 2012 as a conversation in a pub between myself and Nick Davidson, landlord of the now defunct Promised Land in Windsor Place, Cardiff. My idea for Fiction Fiesta was simple: to team up writers in both the languages of Wales with writers from Latin America, and initiate a discourse between us and them, with the aim – among other things – of dismantling such notions as ‘us’ and ‘them’

Nick got some money from the San Miguel brewery and I managed to secure some from Cardiff University and the thing was on. We followed up in 2013, with an Arts Council of Wales small festivals grant, inviting Eduardo Halfon from Guatemala, Inés Garland and Andrés Neuman from Argentina, alongside writers from Wales and elsewhere in the UK, and The Independent covered the event, with a feature on one of our guests, Angharad Price, which attracted more attention.

Through Fiction Fiesta, we set out to pay particular attention to literature in translation and, by extension, to explore the larger idea of translation as a concept that, to some degree, governs all our lives. In literature, even without being translated into other languages, we are translating emotions and thoughts into words. ‘Reading poetry is itself a kind of translation,’ commented Andrés Neuman during a discussion at Fiction Fiesta in 2013. And Octavio Paz goes further: ‘in writing a poem we are translating the world, transmuting it. Everything we do is translation, and all translations are in a way creations.’

It was never our intention to put on a big festival. We always wanted Fiction Fiesta to retain a sense of intimacy that came from holding the first edition of the fiesta in the upstairs room of a local pub. And we wanted to keep a sense of celebration, of literature as something to be savoured and enjoyed by readers, like food and drink, which the large-scale corporate festivals cannot provide. In addition, we wanted Fiction Fiesta to help develop contacts and friendships between Welsh writers and writers from Latin America, which, as I explained at the start of this piece, is where a lot of my own literary interests are centred.

This year’s Mexico-themed Fiction Fiesta teamed up with Wales PEN Cymru and the British Council to hold an event at the Wales Millennium Centre on Friday 17th April. Owen Sheers hosted the Mexican writer Juan Villoro, along with Francesca Rhydderch, while I was in conversation with Pedro Serrano and the Scottish poet W.N. Herbert. FF is hoping to maintain the partnership with Wales PEN Cymru, and bring many more writers from Latin America to Wales over the years to come.

 

Juan Villoro, Owen Sheers and Francesca Rhydderch at this year's Fiction Fiesta, held at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

Juan Villoro, Owen Sheers and Francesca Rhydderch at this year’s Fiction Fiesta, held at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

 

Blanco (centre) with Pedro Serrano (left) and Bill Herbert at Fiction Fiesta

Blanco (centre) with Pedro Serrano (left) and Bill Herbert at Fiction Fiesta

 

This piece first appeared in the New Welsh Review, 1st July 2015

No ideas but in things

The young Marcel Proust

The young Marcel Proust

Since I began teaching creative writing, some fifteen years ago, I have become accustomed to the sad refrain from younger writers that although they fervently wish to write – or perhaps ‘become a writer’, which may or may not be the same thing – they don’t have anything to say.

It was with some pleasure, therefore, that I noted, during my leisurely (i.e. very slow) re-reading of Proust, the following passage:

‘. . . since I wanted to be a writer some day, it was time to find out what I meant to write. But as soon as I asked myself this, trying to find a subject in which I could anchor some infinite philosophical meaning, my mind would stop functioning, I could no longer see anything but empty space before my attentive eyes, I felt that I had no talent or perhaps a disease of the brain kept it from being born.’ (The Way by Swann’s, Lydia Davis translation).

But interestingly – at least for my purposes – the suggestion is made that the answer to his lack of inspiration might be found in the things around him, the very things, in other words, that are distracting to him:

‘ . . . suddenly a roof, a glimmer of sun on stone, the smell of the road would stop me because of a particular pleasure they gave me, and also because they seemed to be concealing, beyond what I could see, something which they were inviting me to come and take, and which despite my efforts I could not manage to discover . . . I would concentrate on recalling precisely the line of the roof, the shade of the stone which, without my being able to understand why, had seemed to me so full, so ready to open, to yield the thing for which they themselves were merely a cover. Of course it was not impressions of this kind that could give me back the hope I had lost, of succeeding in becoming a writer and a poet some day, because they were always tied to a particular object with no intellectual value and no reference to any abstract truth. But at least they gave me an unreasoning pleasure, the illusion of a sort of fecundity, and so distracted me from the tedium, from the sense of my own impotence which I had felt each time I looked for a philosophical subject for a great literary work.’

It is noteworthy here how Proust (through his young protagonist, Marcel) disavows any connection between these ‘objects with no intellectual value’, and his frustrated desire to write. For it is that very particularity, that sense of thingness (which always, as Proust suggests, is a cover for something else, something ineffable) that so often provides the starting point for a writer, if only he or she would look.

‘No ideas but in things’: the line by William Carlos Williams has been taken up as a mantra by teachers of poetry to students obsessed, like the young Marcel, with trying to convey deep philosophical concepts, and instead sinking in a morass of tired imagery, expressed through endless clichés of emotion and language.

I think this is the notion I was trying to convey in my post of 29th August. You can simply be drawn in by some aspect of the inanimate world without knowing why. Not that everything is a metaphor, precisely, nor even that every object is a cover for something else (Borges reminds us that a stone might want just to be stone, a tiger a tiger), but that, using Ricardo Piglia’s thesis of the short story as an analogy, every account, every story conceals within it another telling, a secret story, and it is the quest for this other story that leads young Marcel, in his walks with his grandfather near the beginning of A la recherche du temps perdu to understand that this great, almost suffocating desire to be a writer – a desire that one observes (though perhaps in a less astutely articulated form) in many young students of creative writing who likewise find difficulty in finding subject matter to accommodate their ambitions – might encounter a solution by looking at ‘things’ in the world, rather than heading straight for the ‘idea’.

Finally, an insight from Jane Smiley, in her 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, which drily sets to rest the maddening condition familiar to all writers of wanting to start a piece of writing, but managing to find any number of things to prevent them from doing so:

‘My definition of “inspiration” is “a condition of being stimulated by contemplation of the material to a degree sufficient to overcome your natural disinclination to create.”’

How long is a piece of string?

cafe parisOr how long should a piece of writing be? Reflecting on this, in relation to a piece I am working on, I haphazardly check into an article in The New Yorker and am reminded by John McPhee that “ideally, a piece of writing should grow to whatever length is sustained by its selected material—that much and no more”. He is talking about non-fiction, but of course the same applies to poetry or to fiction: some might say it is even more crucial that fiction writers learn how to discern what length can be reasonably sustained by the selected material so as to avoid rendering the reader senselessly bored. Why, as Borges asked – and I often ask myself – succumb to the laborious and impoverishing madness . . . “of composing vast books—setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes.”?

And while on the subject of contraction, here’s a lesson to learn about how to save time in storytelling by presenting several ideas at once. In Mavis Gallant’s short story ‘Grippes and Poche’, her protagonist, the solitary and sardonic writer, Grippes, witnesses a quartet of plain-clothes police beating up a couple of pickpockets, and escapes into a café. He has been out to collect some offal from the butcher’s to feed his cats. Rather than have Grippes ‘find’ his idea about realism – or ‘writing about real life’ – while seated at the café reading a newspaper; or even allowing the thought to present itself to him through internal monologue, reverie, or conversation with a literary adversary, Gallant allows her character to discover it on the newspaper in which the butcher has wrapped a sheep’s lung.

                    Returning on a winter’s evening after a long walk, carrying a parcel of sheep’s lung wrapped in a newspaper, he crossed Boulevard de Montparnasse just as the lights went on – the urban moonrise . . . Grippes shuffled into a café. He put his parcel of lights on the zinc-topped bar and started to read an article on the wrapping. Someone unknown to him, a new name, pursued an old grievance: Why don’t they write about real life any more?

                    Because to depict life is to attract its ill-fortune, Grippes replied.

And that ‘attracting of ill-fortune’, uttered to no one in particular by a man reading from a newspaper in which rests a sheep’s lung, while outside – in the ‘real’ world – the police exercise some casual violence on a couple of petty criminals, achieves a marvellous contraction of idea and imagery, without spoiling the effect by any explanation or commentary.