Today’s reflection on a year in reading, her second for the blog, is by the inimitable Alina Stefanescu (@aliner). Alina was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her partner and several intense mammals. Recent books include a creative nonfiction chapbook, Ribald (Bull City Press Inch Series, Nov. 2020) and Dor, which won the Wandering Aengus Press Prize (September, 2021). She is currently working on a novel-like creature. More at www.alinastefanescuwriter.com.
Maurice Blanchot: The Thought From Outside and Michel Foucault as I Imagine Him by Michel Foucault and Maurice Blanchot, trans. Brian Massumi and Jeffrey Mehlman (Zone Books, 1987)
Imagine Michel Foucault and Maurice Blanchot sitting down to portrait the silences in each other’s texts. [Ed. – Lowly editor finds “portrait” an… odd verb here; writer prefers to be a “terrible poet” and keep it. Editor concedes that she’s the artist. P.S. terrible poet as in poete terrible…] Imagine Foucault smoothing his plaid pants and typing:
In ancient times, this simple assertion was enough to shake the foundations of Greek truth: “I lie.” “I speak,” on the other hand, puts the whole of modern fiction to the test.
Speech about speech, or speaking, leads us to what Foucault calls “the outside in which the speaking subject disappears.” In trying to explain why Blanchot’s fiction is indiscernible from his essays and reviews, Foucault also probes what exactly it is that fiction does differently. He locates the “peril” of fiction’s vocabulary in its reliance on familiarity, or its evocation of meanings that “stitch the old fabric of interiority back together in the form of an imagined outside.”
The window is the problem here. Like his description of Blanchot, it is language that speaks around its frame. Although Monoskop gives us Foucault’s part of the book, Blanchot’s is hidden. One could mine this for metaphors or resort to buying the print version, as I did. Either way, this book gives us both thinkers at their best—at their most exposed, visceral, and dangerous.
Kate Colby’s Reverse Engineer (Ornithopeter Press, 2022)
This poetry collection felt like riding an abandoned rollercoaster in a desert haunted by Edmond Jabes’s silences and Rosmarie Waldrop’s close attention to language. I lingered over it, and marked how it circles the question of silence as in the Foucault-Blanchot book, where Foucault wrote: “Literature is not language approaching itself until it reaches the point of its fiery manifestation; it is rather language getting as far away from itself as possible.”
To “reverse engineer” is to study by deconstructing, or to take apart a finished object in order to build it back and understand how it is made. Is the book the reverse engineer – or is it the poet?
The title poem, “Reverse Engineer,” rubs the definition, or the act of defining, in order to draw closer to meaning and language. Borrowing apophatic strategies from mystical theology, Kate Colby approaches the real by negation, by speaking only of what cannot be said. Each word is a mystery, and attempting to speak of the human condition leads to this sort of repetitive negation. The mode of defining by undoing is visible in “Integer,” for example, where an asterisk in the poem (“*a thing complete in itself “) doesn’t designate a note at the bottom of the page. Here, the asterisk is the thing complete in itself, rather than serving its usual referential role. The asterisk signals something, but gives us nothing. I still can’t get over it.
“I Want to Keep Smashing Myself Until I Am Whole”: An Elias Canetti Reader by Elias Canetti, as edited by Joshua Cohen (Macmillan, 2022)
Joshua Cohen’s acuity finally gives us a compilation of Elias Canetti’s extensive opus in small form. His introduction to Canetti’s work is wickedly well-written and engaging. To quote, to note, to invoke:
I might take counsel from Canetti’s wife Veza, herself a novelist of high accomplishment, who once wrote in a letter to Canetti’s brother Georg: “No document that gives access to Canetti’s inmost being must be allowed to survive.”
Or I might take counsel from Georg, who, when Veza asked him to destroy that letter—to destroy all her letters—did not.
And that, I’m realizing, is the best approach: to address myself to the destructions that did happen, to address myself to the burnings.
Included are various excerpts from Canetti’s memoirs, his meditations on family, friends and frenemies—Hermann Broch, Karl Kraus (“a master of accusing people with their own words”), Thomas Mann, Robert Musil—as well as his previously untranslated aphorisms addressed to death.
At one point, Canetti describes his growing awareness of what he called the “acoustic masks” of each person’s voice and way of seeing, particularly their repetitions, intonation, relationship to language. He sits in a bar with his face to a wall and listened as voices moved around him, as they withdrew and returned and misunderstood each other. [Ed. – Sounds like Henry Green, who might have been in the same pub. They were in London at the same time, right?] The solipsism of subjectivity surrounds us at high volume. “It all depends on this: with whom we confuse ourselves,” Canetti whispers.
It’s the End of the World, My Love by Alla Gorbunova, trans. Elina Alter(Deep Vellum, 2023)
“The world cannot be captured by a net,” Alla Gorbunova told Alexandra Tkacheva in an interview in Punctured Lines. Like the world, Gorbunova’s recent book and its surreal St. Petersburg, refuses to be classified or captured. Haunted by folklore, baba-energy, apparatchiks, nomenbratura [ed. – Had to look that one up!], and freshly-minted billionaires, the speakers lose the thread of their thoughts only to find them in the mouth of another. Humor, malice, and agony are indistinguishably betrothed in these linked tales. One senses the chaos of the postsocialist period in Russia in the sheer opportunism and magical thinking of the female speakers. There is no distance between the past and present, Gorbunova seems to insist, the costumes have changed but the lies are the same, as in “Treasures in Heaven: A Tale of God and the Billionaire,” where God drops by to ask the billionaire for a loan. “A story unfolds, often retold,” Gorbunova writes:
“Like this,” said the billionaire, “in my heart there is a needle, it has an eye, in the eye is the gate to heaven.” As soon as the billionaire’s wife heard this, she decided that she wanted to live in heaven, thinking that everything is expensive there, they have all kinds of things, and she climbed into the billionaire’s heart, found the needle, and tried to pass through, but she couldn’t.
Narrative tension builds from the impossible hope to escape the past. One is struck by the eternal pageant of misogyny, and the extent to which no ideology has managed to improve life for Russian women. Elina Alter’s translation brings these defamiliarized scenes to life.
I could see Daniil Kharms grinning at what Gorbunova has wrought, for, as it is written in the final paragraph of “Lord of the Hurricane”:
We don’t know what goes on in the apartment upstairs. We’ve never known. We walk around our apartment in little tin-foil hats. There’s a tornado in Moscow. Our neighbor is a bastard.
Nothing is clarified or explained. We paint our bodies blue to protect ourselves from the curse of whatever comes next in the ashes of failed religion and ideologies. We are all mad, somehow. What does it mean to survive or thrive under such circumstances? What sort of human can be successful as the world ends?
Foucault in Warsaw by Remigiusz Ryziński, trans. Sean Gasper Bye (Open Letter Books, 2021)
Obsession authors extraordinary literature. In 1959, French theorist Michel Foucault was mysteriously expelled from Poland. The archival silence, the absence of documents explaining Foucault’s Polish chapter, so obsessed Remigiusz Ryziński that he wrote a book about it. Foucault in Warsaw is driven by this search for what, if anything, the Polish government had on Foucault. [Eed. – He was ordered to leave Poland in 1958 after possibly having been entrapped by a Polish secret agent; homosexuality was technically legal in Poland at the time, but much condemned.] Shifting between intellectual history and descriptions of his search on the ground, Ryziński chases the mystery of Foucault’s secrecy regarding the Warsaw chapter, when he wrote most of his doctoral dissertation (though it was published in France in 1961). In the preface to the first French edition of The History of Madness, Foucault described the dissertation as beginning on a “a Swedish night” and being “finished in the stubborn bright sun of Polish liberty.” Like Ryziński, Foucault was doing archival research for this book which developed into his first poststructuralist work. To know, for Foucault, is to study, to subject to rigorous, microscopic examination. “Madness is the lack of knowledge,” writes Ryziński, which he takes as central to understanding why Foucault’s dissertation doesn’t provide a history of madness or knowledge—since neither really exists—but focuses instead on “the archaeology of silence,” the articulation of the unspeakable. Gaining knowledge of that which defies knowledge (or unreason) exposes the tension between reason and madness, which is to say, the “normal” cannot “know madness, and so madness remains unthinkable, and light shed on it cannot dispel ignorance.” [Ed. – He had a big fight about Derrida over what the latter took as Foucault’s romantic idea of madness. Anyway, this book sounds great!]
Ryziński knows that Foucault was gay. And he knows that homosexuality was not welcomed by the Polish communist state. Although he suspects that this is the reason for Foucault’s disgrace, he wants evidence—the sort of knowledge that enables the past to become part of what we call history. He finds that homosexuality wasn’t technically a criminal offense, but sex work and prostitution were crimes punishable by law. The writer’s education transpires in this intellectual kinship which leads a reader to hide the archives for a missing history (I don’t want to give away the ending). Foucault’s attention to “conspicuous silences” troubled the balance between binaries—madness or sanity, female or male, heterosexual or gay—and the ontology of freedom, I think, which can only exist alongside prisons, slavery, and repression. The theorist deconstructs and builds nothing to replace what has been ruined, but there is no prescriptive menu, the normative states as the handmaiden of power.
“Knowledge about madness is the illusion of knowledge about anything,” Ryziński argues. This reflects on Foucault’s amoral and limited idea of freedom. At some point, Foucault went to Gdańsk and Krakow to lecture on Apollinaire. The handwritten draft of this lecture, currently housed in Foucault’s archives, is one of the few things he brought back from Poland. It has never been published. Ryziński’s relentless fascination becomes one’s own.
Inhuman Land: Searching for the Truth in Soviet Russia, 1941-1942 by Jozef Czapski, trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones (NYRB Classics, 2018)
Only the sky can save us, I thought after reading Inhuman Land: Searching for the Truth in Soviet Russia, 1941-1942 byJozef Czapski, a Polish painter, committed pacifist, and involuntary witness who survived incarceration in a Soviet prison camp and lived long enough to look back on a life between prisons, borders, and 20th century horrors. With Proust in one hand and Gide in another, Czapski details the kindness of strangers, the friendships that bloomed in carceral spaces, the devastation of war. While fighting to defend Poland, Czapski was captured by the Soviets. He was one of the few officers to survive the Katyn massacre of 1940. To forget would be a crime against those whose mouths had been frozen shut by death.
The Inhuman Land was translated into English in 1951 because, to quote the dread wiki, this “first-hand account of contemporaneous negotiations with the Soviets over the missing Polish officers . . . became an important document until Russian guilt for the massacres was acknowledged.” Czapski also testified before the US Congress on what Soviet troops had done. This documentary record traces his journey through Soviet Russia trying to find out what happened to the officers of his former regiment. The faces of the living and dead torment Czapski. He remembers; he looks for documents; he takes notes; he gets sick. There is a part where his recollections pause near the hospital window, in the room where he almost died, roiled by fevers and excruciating pain—there, in that room, lacking a metaphysic, he longs for nothing except to exist at less agonized pitch. How is it, Czapski wondered, that respected humans are capable of egotism and self-protection? What does it mean to exist without feeling for others?
One can teach oneself self protective egoism by being standoffish for years on end, and if not egoism, then perhaps to be more detached toward fragile personal affections, more abstract. But what use is that, if I have never been able to see things other than through people. Even Poland has always been embodied for me by a few faces of the living and the dead.
As Czapski convalesced in that hospital room, “the cream white window frame against a pure blue, almost always cloudless sky, very bright in the mornings, then gradually darker, then brightening again, taking on a greenish hue.” [Ed. – I’m reminded of Sebald’s description of the sky outside his hospital window at the beginning of The Rings of Saturn.] This “evocation of a pure blue sky with objects set against it” segues to a recollection of Matisse’s paintings of southern Morocco, and then Gordi’s Piazza San Marco, a sort of mental gallery exhibit provoked by memories of colors and hues. There is a gallery in his mind. Czapski thought about “how a painter could pick out the “sound of that perfect blue, the shout of the white window frame against the azure sky.” From there, in that hospital bed, the remembered world appeared “totally unattainable,” yet it is these moments, gathered into vignettes and vistas, that form the material of the writer’s mind. It was the painter’s eye that saved him, the words on the brush, and the window with a view of the sky. [Ed. – OMG you put this so well; I gotta move this up Mount TBR.]
Although Czapski was intensely Catholic, his commitment to living in conscience was complicated by his religious affiliation. He doesn’t mention, for example, his love affair with Vladimir Nabokov’s younger brother, the poet Sergey Nabokov, from 1924 to 1926, which ended when Czapski went to London seeking medical assistance with his typhoid fever. (One wonders how hospital windows coincide in reverie, in silence, in commemoration.) [Ed. – Sergey died in Neuengammen in 1945, murdered by the Nazis.] When World War II began, Czapski was living in Józefów with the writer Ludwik Hering. The war separated them, and then Czapski moved to Paris, but their love affair continued by correspondence, and one wishes that this epistolary existence would be translated as well.
The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irene Nemirovsky By Her Daughter by Elisabeth Gille, trans. Marina Harss (NYRB Classics, 2011)
Irene Nemirovsky’s novel, David Golder, came out in 1929. She had left Russia to live in France with her husband. While living in France, Nemirovsky was arrested by the Gestapo when her daughter was five. She was deported to her death at Auschwitz in July 1942. (Her husband, Michael Epstein, died on the same Nazi transit in November of that year.)
The orphaned daughter, Elisabeth Gille, published The Mirador: Dreamed Memoirs of Irene Nemirovsky By Her Daughter as a biography of her mother, narrated by the mother in first-person, as dreamt or imagined by Gille. In recording her mother’s memoirs as she imagined them, the daughter creates the child, Irene, raised in Kyiv who becomes a writer that refuses to identify as Jewish. There is a direct correspondence between Nemirovsky’s own letters and writings and the character “created” by Gille’s assiduous study of her mother.
Central to these imaginings is the tension between Nemirovsky’s literary dreams and her own mother’s lavish lifestyle-hunger. Nemirovsky’s mother (who is technically Gille’s grandmother) pouted when she wasn’t gifted jewels. [Ed. — I mean, same…] In her daughter’s imagined memoirs, the young Nemirovsky scorns the Russian exiles of 1924 who gather in Paris like nihilistic, pleasure-seeking teenagers living for the moment, refusing to imagine the future. The Whites don’t believe the worst can happen—reality hovers, over-aerated, somewhere in the motion between floating and fleeting. The exiles ignore “the monuments, columns, steles, cenotaphs, each more pompous than the last, that were being erected everywhere, even in the smallest village.” Her glamorous mother, the status-seeking socialite, represents the world of the exiled elite to her; whose extravagant displays of luxury could not read the room. Nostrodamus prophesied that the end of the diaspora’s troubles would come in 1944, but the troubles continue.
World War I taught the young that their elders had died for nothing: “There was nothing left of them but the path of extremism,” according to Gille’s Nemirovsky. The bourgeoisie had nothing to believe in apart from war, domination, and fear. One hears the auspices of Canetti’s later work on crowds when Gille writes that the schoolboy “prefers to be oppressed by a single bully rather than have complete freedom” and be abandoned to the unclear hierarchy of “the crowd.” The dreams written from the author’s longing to know her mother have not aged; the syntax skips across space and time seamlessly. One senses a “lever of love” (Vladimir Nabokov’s neologism for “the diabolical method of tying a rebel to his wretched country by his own twisted heartstrings”) wrestling within the portrayal of Nemirovsky. The heart aches for—and admires—the portrait a daughter creates of her defiant mother, in dialogue with her mother’s rejection of 19th-century high-status femininity which we consume in the present via Hollywood’s latest glam.
The Mirador was published in French in 1992, several years before Irene Nemirovsky’s own Suite Française (which existed in manuscript form) was finally published posthumously in 2004. Unfortunately, Gille did not live to see her mother’s literary reputation secured. But she left a portrait that testifies to love’s studious imaginings and faithfulness.
Wonderlands: Essays on the Life of Literature by Charles Baxter (Graywolf Press, 2022)
Baxter’s Wonderlands is a craft book that doesn’t read like a craft book. The range is profound and immediate, as in the section where Baxter discusses how the lies of politicians affect us when they become narratives which guide lives. The concept of deniability is political but also functions to normalize ignorance or subterfuge. (Gertrude Stein’s references to the thrill of unsubstantiated generalities apply.)
Baxter takes the absence of accountability in fiction as a contribution to conspiracy theory (I’d bracket this with an insistence on religion’s role in privileging belief as a form of knowledge that eschews evidence). Defining the “dysfunctional narrative” as a sort of key to the psyche in the novel where everything is caused by past trauma, Baxter observes that the story isn’t about the story but about the therapy that didn’t happen. The “political culture of disavowals” leads to the “fiction of finger-pointing.” Thus, the responsibility for therapy becomes part of the narrative task, and some of us feel this is too much to ask.
Why is the character unhappy? This matters to us because today happiness is an expectation. Since we can’t blame the abstract corporation, we blame the family who lived and labored under the myth of consumerism. We laugh at them as we consume ourselves. To Baxter, fictions which lack an antagonist “tend to formally mirror the protagonist’s unhappiness and confusion.” Daytime television, particularly talk-shows, make it seem as if family can carry the burden of individual unhappiness, Baxter observes. In their “therapeutic narration… no verdict ever comes in “and no one has the right to judge.” But what about the “poetry of a mistake,” the action’s meaning in time, “its sordid origin, its obscenity,” Baxter wonders. Not for him the glib shrug of Shit happens. Not for him the evasive structural gesture or the “moralizing” which has replaced ethics and self-reflexivity. The therapeutic narrative (or the “already moralized story”) steps in to relieve us from thinking while simultaneously depriving the characters’ actions of meaning. “The injury takes for itself all the meaning”; the injury claims the centerfold. Are we interested in victimization because we are ambivalent about our own desires for power and unequipped to acknowledge them? Error. Baxter suggests, is as true as success.
I relished Baxter’s discussion of performance anxiety in modern life, and how the pressure to perform an appropriate grief, joy, gratitude, etc., corrugates the scene of family reunions, weddings, funerals, etc. Is everyone at the reunion taking notes for their therapist? How do we navigate the extraordinary anxiety of being alive at a time when so much media and language purports to deliver variations on the correct script, the right thing to say when someone dies, the best, the ideal? Is one playing a role on a stage rather than living—is one waiting for the clap or the thunderous clap-back? Nothing anyone says can kill my mother more, but it’s easier for me to be furious at you for saying the wrong thing than to rage against the anonymity and haphazard injustice of loss. What Romanian writer Norman Manaea called “compulsory happiness” is similar to what Charles Baxter calls “compulsory sincerity,” the requirement that one feel a certain way and display it physically and verbally. Maybe even the interpreters are exhausted. Certainly, the literature could use a cold shower and a refresh.
In conclusion, a few books I found to be profoundly intriguing— and which I feel compelled to mention because critical attention often leapfrogs the intriguing in order to focus on the historically significant, the aesthetically attractive, or the well-marketed.
My Manservant and Me by Hervé Guibert, trans. by Jeffrey Zuckerman (Nightboat Books, 2022) for Zuckerman’s splendid translation of Guibert’s controversial book, and for the controversy that Guibert made of writing, personhood, and literary genre.
Disembodied by Christina Tudor-Sideri (Sublunary Editions, 2022) for the unique forests of Tudor-Sideri’s language, and the radical, interstitial resonances of her disembodied writing at a time when embodiment seems to be trending.
Chimeras by Daniella Cascella (Sublunary Editions, 2022) for reasons I’ve given elsewhere. [Ed. – I dunno, google it.]
Dead Souls by Sam Riviere (Catapult, 2021) for its Bernhardian self-implication and provocations, and for its thorough dethroning of the poet’s heroic self-mythos. “A fever of commemoration activity ensued,” the protagonist says— and the poets posed for selfies. For who is more commemorated in contemporary poetics than the poets, themselves? I appreciate being dragged through the mud by Riviere.
Death by Landscape: Essays by Elvia Elk (Soft Skull Press, 2019) for its rigorous interrogation of trauma and self-help bootstraps in the contemporary landscape.
Suicide by Édouard Levé, trans. by Jan Steyn (Dalkey Archive, 2011) because I cannot stop thinking about how epistolarity tangles with fiction, or how the last book we write before dying may be our suicide note. Levé is formidable, heart-breaking, and deeply beloved by this human.
Paradiso by Gillian Rose (Shearsman, 2015) for its vigorous beauty and painstaking attention to mortality, or what it means to live a thinking life.
Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp by Józef Czapski, trans. by Eric Karpeles (NYRB Classics, 2018) for the tenderness of encountering Proust in a carceral environment, and for the reminder that carceral systems remain spaces in which literature has the potential to save lives.
Falling Hour by Geoffrey Morrison (Coach House, 2023) [Ed. — Imma let a 2023 title on a 2022 year in review because it’s Alina and because this book is Canadian.] This was one of the most luscious, immersive, and mind-blowing literary journeys of my adult life. Morrison begins with poetry and wanders through globalization’s alienations in this lyrical, disembodied novel to which I return often, in a somewhat futile though diligent effort to uncover its multiple mysteries.