Abbey among Oak Trees, by Caspar David Friedrich (1809-10).
In the beginning, before humanity, consciousness, perception, society and narrative, there was only the continuous flow of the cosmos, the slow geological dramas of displacements and accommodations, the infinite cycles of days and seasons, the perpetual entropic Nature. But suddenly, some primates discovered (or invented) the individual mind, with impulses that led in a direction different from those expected reactions to natural configurations. Then came the social organization. And later, the production of rituals that seemed to dialogue with the cosmic flows. Soon, the nomadic hordes began to settle, and the cities emerged – manifold in their shapes and sizes, from small, isolated villages to the megalopolises and gigantic conurbations that characterize the urban organizations of our present era. Cities are the human heritage par excellence – the living impressions (even when abandoned, in ruins) in the reality, attempts to postpone the uninterrupted flow of Nature. These scarred impressions in the fabric of planet Earth are sources of understandable and inexhaustible pride for mankind. Yet all this pride is not enough to appease the realization, sometimes painfully clear, that underneath these small and large landscapes built by men there are overwhelming forces – powerful rivers that no channel work can handle.
The entire plot of Ben Tweddle's short novelette, The Salix Arcanum, revolves around the uncontrollable flows of nature, often invisible to our pedestrian and untrained senses. The author is cunning to maintain, obliquely ambivalent, the devastating forces of Nature – its origin, its unleashing, its purpose – perceived in an indirect and discontinuous way. The reader follows an obscure and ambiguous path, similar to that which the unfortunate protagonist also follows. For Mr. Godwin's path is the quest for understanding the strange world of a British rural community, seemingly ordinary. There are community parties, pubs frequented by religious and other gentlemen in the neighborhood, churches in ruins, marshes, woods and roads in the middle of nothing. But this is only the surface of placid, bucolic peace. At the subterranean thresholds there is the threat, the strangeness and, above all, an unknowable transcendence, which often seems pure, utter perdition. Ben Tweddle builds his metaphysical fantasy set in the British countryside with an extraordinary ability in the delicate construction of the visionary setting (gradually revealed and only accessible in all its glory at the end), a magnificent sensitivity to ambiguity, at least in the same baseline as Henry James.
This extraordinary narrative, in turn, requires a kind of appropriate editorial and visual proposal. For it is a narrative where the visionary element and the contrast between perceptions produces a vertiginous effect on the reader – therefore, the design of the book would need to take all of this into account, since reading (in this particular case) was indeed an experience, not just the absorption of the immanent (or immaterial) content encoded in printed (or projected, or loaded) words. So the support needs to have another dimensionality - and this is guaranteed in the spectacular edition of Mount Abraxas. From the jacket – with a beautiful illustration by Matúš Ďurčík, reminiscent of the crude woodcut technique – to the typography and internal photos, everything in this edition was thought to evoke in the reader a unique visionary feeling in the reading process. The yellowing of the pages of the book immerses the reader into a 1970s film whose photograph was sepia-tone. The rhythm of the narrative, in which gradually the visionary landscape acquires more vivid and intricate traits, makes this yellowish world of the book something like a strange lysergic effect.
Like the cathedrals in the wilderness, abandoned to Nature – which may be indifferent – from Casper David Friedrich's canvases, The Salix Arcanum will persist, a brief but intense glow (bright and dark at the same time) in the midst of the proliferation of life and death that is the entropic continuum of Nature.
Photo by Dan Ghetu.
Non sequitur. There is a kind of delightful peculiarity in this Latin expression – perhaps because the language that expresses the the notion of non-continuity has the acrid sonority of an extinct language. Latin and Greek enunciations, in general, evoke (at least in me) this sense of speaking the language of the dead, as if through a complicated linguistic hallucination some living individual who expresses himself using Latin as a medium becomes in a talking, walking corpse. And since we are dealing with linguistic hallucination and non-sequitur, nothing is more appropriate than dealing with The Metapheromenoi, Brendan Connell's spectacular novel, recently released in sumptuous editing by Mount Abraxas.
But what is The Metapheromenoi (literally, "The Transported Ones")? Well, the first page of the Mount Abraxas edition provides a clue to the core of the narrative: "A Novel of Degeneracy and Dope." It is a fragmentary journey through different forms of distortion of the usual perspectives, which make mimetic shadow of reality palatable to its occasional visitor, the reader. Each of the segments of the novel (called "Dyserotes”, literally "the unfortunate”, the first in The Metapheromenoi series) seems to follow the long non sequitur path, but there is something like a unifying principle in all segments: the mimetic reality of reading is slowly and subtly unraveling, so the fabric employed to unify fantasy and make it an experience close to reality can no longer sustain the tension that should be minimized to a casual reading, not haunted by the fragmentary perception of the whole. It is an effect remarkably close to hallucination, natural or drug induced; The Metapheromenoi, in this sense, is one of the most lysergic experiences ever conceived in narrative terms. But it is much more than that; there is a profound irony throughout the book. This irony is firmly, programmatically established in another of the initial paratexts, this time the dedication: "May the filth within these pages provide you with nourishment, so that you may twelve and dream away your farcical resentment." Although not as good as the dedication of Connell at the beginning of Cannibals of West Papua, such fierce note makes clear the ironic, strategic operations in the hallucinatory fields evoked by fragmentation, by nightmare images, by breaking expectations, by stylistic disarticulation, by confrontation of forms (drama, scripting for film treatment, vignette, conte cruel, poetry). It is a narcotic text streams (expressionist, decadent, or perhaps degenerate), using by Greek expressions as titles – a method that, far from endowing the work with snobbish exhibitionism, serve to carving new scars of eerie evocation, as a dead language spoken by the living person.
On the other hand, we must highlight the editorial work of Mount Abraxas. Imposing, as usual, though opting in this case for dominant soft pink tones – faint colors, whose contrast with narrative decadent style establishes a kind of very welcome visual paradox. It would be excessive if the book's layout followed an overly dreary aesthetic principle. And the volume format, following the pattern of the latest editions of Mount Abraxas, is magnificent. It's like reading a short novel on a movie screen – the breadth of the margins, the size of the font on each page, seems to allow the imagination to expand itself to the taste of the images constructed by the narrative. And in the case of The Metapheromenoi, a novel full of disconcerting images, such an editorial solution is an amazing achievement.
Photos by Dan Ghetu.
I wonder how the land of Prester John would be in my dreams – perhaps, it would be a territory where milk and honey would flow from the earth. Or, on the contrary, an arid place, in which only the tears would serve to soften the stones. No matter: in my imagination, the possibilities are endless, contradictory, simultaneous. However, this imagined territory needs a map: this map should be a thematic hotel room, in which the borders of Prestes John’s country appear delimited in their physical, political, artistic, and social aspect. In this hotel room, I can begin the unstable rituals for the destruction of this concrete, dull world, which must be gradually replaced by that, wild, that exists only in the impossible continuity of the imagination.
Damian Murphy's novels The Academy Outside of Ingolstadt and Abyssinia with its elegant structure, extraordinary images, fascinating characters and situations, not only offers us a remarkable narrative but the powerful resonance of a ritual, unknown and exquisite.Both books deals with geography – an exquisite geoscience, vague, starting from the subjective perception of a seemingly limited space but soon expands to much larger dimensions. The strange locations of both novels becomes, by complex processes of analogy and symbolic perception, in Europe and them, by a new metamorphosis, a scenery that could be, perhaps, our whole universe. In the book books, there are long, ritualistic and initiatory processes, a series of occult, hermetic meanings arise in denser layers. Novels that the spirits of Gustav Meyrink, Bruno Schultz or Franz Kafka would applaud – wherever they may be.
Below, two brief interviews with the author about these unique narratives.
Photo taken from the Ziesings website.
On The Academy Outside of Ingolstadt.
1) What would be the origin of this extraordinary conception of his academy, a teaching institution so peculiar as that outlined in the novel. During the reading, I thought of the many schools, background of so many narratives – for some obscure reason, her academy of Ingolstadt reminded me of the women's school of the book (by Joan Lindsey) and the film (by Peter Weir) Picnic at Hanging Rock. But in any case, your academy has so many unique characteristics that it would be interesting to know the details of its elaboration.
There are two teaching institutions described in the book—The Academy and The Institute. Both of these are partly based on my experiences living and working with the administrators of an esoteric order, but also on Gurdjieff’s Fontainebleau Priory and the boy’s academies imagined by William S. Burroughs. The Benjamenta Institute from Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten was certainly an influence, as was the Gormenghast of Mervyn Peake.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the school from Picnic at Hanging Rock unconsciously comprised part of The Academy. I’m quite a fan of both the book and the film and am almost kind of surprised that it didn’t occur to me to deliberately include elements from that institution in my own. I can only imagine that it unconsciously influenced the girl’s school described in the red notebook.
The spirit of Kafka looms over the text as well, although, as with so many of my influences, the message contained within the book is very much the opposite of that of his work.
2) A visionary aspect is quite evident throughout the structure of his novel. But these are carefully structured visions, perhaps employing some method of conception such as that imagined by William Butler Yeats in his treatise on the subject entitled A Vision. In this sense, talk a little about creating the visions that drive the characters in your book.
There’s a very particular mystery at the heart of the story which is never defined directly. It’s indicated in almost every part of the story, including some of the most seemingly trivial details. I don’t know if I could possibly articulate it in a purely rational way—some ideas need to be veiled in order to find expression. It took writing the entire book for me to elaborate it. The structure of the more enigmatic sequences in the narrative refer back to this mystery. This is especially true of the string puppet performance that takes place in the Institute.
The vision that unfolds at the beginning of the book arises as a sort of warning for the main character. The second world war approaches, and the character is in very real danger. The Academy seems to stand entirely outside of the shifting tides of European power, and can serve him as a stronghold in which to wait out the coming conflagration. He also needs to return to the school to confront the ordeal that he passed through there in his youth. The school itself, so the impression is given, is endowed with a sort of sentience. If Fräulein Weiss is to be believed, it stands as the repository for the surviving fragments of a lost tradition. It’s reasonable to assume that the intelligence behind the institution remains in contact in some way with its former members.
3) There exists in this book, as in several of your narratives, the book / manuscript found, which structures the vivid unfolding of the plot. But the diary discovered in The Academy Outside of Ingolstadt this scheme is much more complex. From whence came the conception of the red diary and its rich gallery of rituals and characters.
Initially, I wanted to explore some of the methods used in the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff (which themselves provided a certain amount of inspiration for the working methods my own former teacher). Herr Schwarz is almost entirely based on that particular figure. The almost unfathomable depths of Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, Gurdjieff’s unwieldy masterpiece, provided some inspiration, but only in the most incidental and oblique way. Some of the content in the journal came directly out of dreams.
The two schools—the Academy in the main part of the narrative, and the Institute which is described in the journal—mirror and oppose each other in several ways, and are connected by numerous threads that wind their way through both sides of the story. The journal sections contain hidden keys to the non-journal sections, and vice-versa.
Of course, an explicit connection between the two organizations is revealed at some point in the book—but then, can Franz be certain that this is genuine? I think it’s made clear that The Academy is not above making use of outright deception, even betrayal, if the administrators think this will further its teachings. There’s a certain amorality at play.
4) The structure of the academy/institute, with its intuitive learning scheme based on the discovery of symbolic elements (the relics) and on growing threats that need a kind of thought that is both elaborate and intuitive. It is a formulation that makes this entity, the academy, extremely alive, throbbing. What is the path to the elaboration of such a pedagogical structure? What is your inspiration in this regard?
The escalating severity of the lesson types given in The Academy reflect, on the one hand, the full range of initiatory ordeals presented to the aspirant on the path of occult development, and, on the other, the perilous nature of some of the work undergone at the hands of my teachers. The most profound changes often come about as a result of crisis. This is definitely the case with the main character in the story, in whom a crisis of a somewhat drastic nature is deliberately induced.
Photo by Dan Ghetu, at Ex Occidente website.
1) At the beginning of the book, there are a reference of three films, obviously fundamental in its composition. In this sense, Abyssinia was thought in cinematographic terms from the scratch – perhaps, as a script for a film, a narrative with visual elements? Is it possible to say that the powerful images that appear in the plot would have originated in this cinematographic sense?
The original impetus for the story came not from any of the three films listed at the beginning of the book (Altman’s Three Women, Chabrol’s Les Biches, and Bergman’s Persona), but from the film version of Destroy, She Said by Marguerite Duras. As the narrative developed, the atmosphere gradually drifted more toward that of the three above-mentioned films.
I was definitely thinking in terms of the feeling imparted by certain types of cinema when I was writing the book. Often, I’ll watch a single scene from a film over and over again, having become obsessed with the idea of somehow recreating the atmosphere in my writing. In this case, it was more the backdrop for the story, rather than the images themselves, that were inspired in this way. Things like the dream described by Dominik from the balcony of his hotel room, the war stories recounted by Karl Reginald, the images of The Apostate and his wife—these all came from other sources, while the world that they existed in was shaped in accordance with the impressions I received from these films.
2) I think it is curious that in the short list of films mentioned, there is no Last Year at Marienbad (1961), the famous collaboration between Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet. There are some elements in Abyssinia more or less close to the creation of Resnais / Robbe-Grillet, notably the labyrinthine hotel as a backdrop, although with very different results, techniques and narrative strategies. Was such a film an indirect influence, an inspiration by elective affinity to your novel?
Last Year at Marienbad is very much a favorite of mine. I’ve seen it so many times that I suspect it casts its shadow over everything I write.
3) There is, in the novel, a fascinating shadowplay between the animate and the inanimate, the active and the inactive, the simulacrum and the real living being. What artifices did you use to create this universe? How did the idea of this dizzying game of projections and mirrors come about?
Part of that, especially in the case of doll that Celia manipulates and talks for throughout the story, must have come from the way in which the characters of a story come alive for me in the process of writing. No matter how many times this happens, it surprises me in every instance. The characters of any given piece are at once part of myself and have a life of their own. As they arise, take form, unfold and develop, they tend to take over a portion of my personality. So much so that I’ve actually had to learn how to allow this to happen without letting it affect my outward behavior in inappropriate ways.
It’s been said that when an artist reaches a certain level of maturity, they become capable of creating something that’s more than a mere expression of themselves. On the other hand, Jean Cocteau, in his Testament of Orpheus, shows himself attempting to sketch an image of a rose, and instead ends up, to his great frustration, sketching an image of himself. Well, if Jean Cocteau, toward the end of his life, still found himself falling into that trap, I won’t be too hard on myself for succumbing to the same tendency. On the other hand, while everything I write is in a sense a self-portrait, in another sense there’s a different element that arises in the text as well, something that I can’t entirely understand. The same is true with Celia and Karl Reginald—on the one hand, the doll is a projection of something in her personality, part of which is known to her and part of which reveals itself only through his monologues, and yet there’s clearly something else as well. Karl Reginald is at least partly endowed with a life of his own that lies completely outside of his controller.
As for how the complex structure within the story was created—I don’t really know how that happens, to be honest. There’s almost always a hidden structure that underlies my stories and which keeps all of the different elements from falling into incoherency. Sometimes this structure is present from the beginning, while at other times, as with Abyssinia, it reveals itself to me a little at a time. Colonel Olcott’s book of maxims reveals the barest outlines of this particular structure, while Karl Reginald’s remembrances (along with several other elements of the narrative) cast it into a different light. Parts of it remain unknown to the reader. I like to think that it can be caught sight of in completion by the intuition alone.
4) In Abyssinia, the reader is constantly placed in a situation in which it is difficult to apprehend the changes in the fluid territory between dream, memory, imagination and perceived reality. This ambivalent atmosphere allows the emergence of characters with powerful symbolic meaning, such as the Apostate – enigmatic, threatening, hieratic. How was the development of this character and the mythic-ritualistic effects in the novel?
The figures of The Apostate and his wife made themselves known to me very strongly right at the beginning of the process of writing the story. I didn’t fully understand them until well past the halfway point. By the time I’d finished the piece, I’d written somewhat of a treatise (in my private notes) pertaining to their mythological significance. Still they seem very real to me—they’re larger than life, almost as if I’d encountered them myself in exactly the same way as did Petra. Of course, they’re meant to be personifications of undying principles with which, in very different forms, I have quite a bit of familiarity.
Karl Reginald, on the other hand, was loosely (though not too loosely) drawn from a set of real-life experiences.
5) Do you intend, in the future, to resume the fascinating characters and unique universe of Abyssinia? I must say that leaving them behind after the reading experience was somewhat hard.
I would be reluctant to return to a character I’ve already created—there are so many new voices that want to have their chance to speak. The feeling of not wanting to let go of a character or set of characters is precisely as intended. Hopefully, they’ll live on in the reader’s mind and continue to reveal things that I would not be capable of revealing myself.
Photos by Claus Laufenberg.
One of the most vertiginous and extraordinary film panels of the historical past is undoubtedly Andrei Rublev (1966), by Andrei Tarkovsky. Rublev was a Russian icon painter in the fifteenth century, an enigmatic and mysterious figure, whose artistic production was almost entirely lost (less than twenty works attributed to him), in an ebullient and ferocious historical background. Tarkovsky's film embraces this effervescence and ferocity, and instead of focusing the narrative on an artist whose biography seems almost unknown, opts for the composition of genetic historical panels, culminating in a beautiful, poetic and touching narrative of the building of a bell for a church. More than the (if imaginary) biography of a genius, Andrei Rublev is a deep reflection on Art, History, Barbarism and the Creative Will, essential to the human being.
It is curious and even appalling how, after finishing reading Brian Howell's astounding novel, The Curious Case of Jan Torrentius, it was precisely from Tarkovsky's film that my wandering mind remembered. No other historical novels appeared, but the images of the Russian painter, lost in an apocalyptic landscape came out of a nightmare, a historical one. For Howell's masterpiece – probably one of the best novels of the early twenty-first century – is also centered on a painter, Jan Torrentius, a man of succinct, mysterious biography and minimal surviving production – practically reduced to a single absolutely spectacular painting. And if the multiple layers present in the intricate statements that make up the plot suggest multiple and rich interpretive paths, I especially hold Howell's affectionate homage to the human dream of cinema and photography, this ancient desire to freeze time in an instant of eternity.
The edition of the book, by Zagava, is simply spectacular and deserves, in the future, essays and articles about its paths between a first abridged publication and the current, complete version.
Below, the video and written interview of Brian Howell regarding his fascinating and baroque narrative about painting, heresy, secret societies, images, intrincated artistic visions, dreams and the fortuitous nature of truth.
1) Your novel was first published in 2014 under the title The Stream and the Torrent, as a novel of reasonable but apparently conventional extension, with its division into three chapters (the title of the second, "Ex Anglia reversus", incidentally , Is great). But the final version of the novel is much more intricate: there are six (or three) books and the chapters division has multiple presentations and introductory essays that clearly define some narrative options, as well as a chapters division as statements. How was the development of your book: did it come in a more or less definite format or did you develop the ideas of it conformed more and more complex? How was the development of your book: did it come in a more or less definitive format, or did you develop his ideas over a period of time, to its final form?
The basic shape of the novel was always set as consisting of five or six sections, with the last sixth section an option. Originally, each statement, solicited by Huygens as a kind of collective portrait of Torrentius, was preceded by a prologue, but as I got more and more views on the novel as a whole, these prologues became subsumed into the sections proper. The content of the prologues was basically still there. These prologues for the statements have to be distinguished from the Prefaces by Christiaan and Constantijn Huygens, which were there from the beginning, and the epilogue by Christiaan. The extra prologues just made it too busy and confusing.
The above has to be separated to a certain from the way the book first appeared with Les editions de l’oubli/Zagava in 2014 under the title of The Stream and The Torrent: The Curious Case of Jan Torrentius and the Followers of the Rosy Cross: Vol. 1 had discussed with Dan Ghetu of Ex Occidente various permutations of the segments (statements) simply because he could not publish any one book over 50,000 words, as I understood it. So I made a decision to put the final segment by Torrentius at the beginning of Vol.1 along with what had always till then been the first two segments by Huygens and Drebbel. The problem was that these appeared without the prefaces by the father and son to give them any context. I think the reader is forced to read them as three floating, vaguely connected novellas about this character called Torrentius. It will not be until the complete The Curious Case of Jan Torrentius appears with the Table of Contents (available for people who already have Vol.1, too) that readers of Vol.1 will have any idea of the originally intended order (Huygens, Drebbel, Carleton, Elizabeth of Bohemia, Donne, and Torrentius)! Before this decision was made I think we came close to what was a good compromise in so far as Ex Occidente might have published four slim volumes (Vol.1: Huygens and Drebbel; Vol. 2: Carleton: Vol.3 Elizabeth and Donne; Vol.4: Torrentius. Combining Vol. 3 and 4. might have also been mooted). That would have kept the order but at the time I think I wasn’t sure how long the Torrentius segment was going to be and in the end it turned out to be very short. Either way, that idea would have represented the novel in the right order, as now the The Curious Case of Jan Torrentius does, finally. The latter is one of a number of permutations and ideas so I can’t say that any were set in stone before it came out in the Vol.1 incarnation.
That said, the various permutation did not make a great difference to the fact that it was always one novel. The only variable in my mind was the idea that the Huygens section might be too slow so I always had the idea to put Torrentius’s segment at the front in the back of my mind, but in retrospect this was a bad idea and the idea of putting it in Vol.1 was basically my idea, and I regret that move. Luckily, Zagava have given me the chance to redress that mistake.
2) Still in the statements: it is a peculiar and intelligent strategy of fragmentation of the perspectives surrounding the mysteries involving the enigmatic Jan Torrentius. There is even something about it that reminds me, for example, of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (as well as the two Ryonosuke Akutagawa short stories that were adapted by the Japanese director in his film). Would the foundation of this conception be more cinematographic or literary? How was the construction of this fragmented universe in varied perspectives?
I was familiar with the film version of Rashomon but what was in my mind from the very beginning was Citizen Kane, but only in the most basic way, i.e. a portrait of a mysterious personality made up from different dramaticised accounts. I haven’t seen Citizen Kane for 20-30 years so I can’t say how similar or different it actually is in structure to The Curious Case. But certainly some narrative strands overlap, probably in the way they do in Rashomon.
To me, the content of the story has always had a connection with cinema, but the execution is literary, if that makes sense. The whole idea of a prototype of photography, and therefore in an implied way, cinema, comes from the subject of how Torrentius is involved in a form of early photography. But when it comes to all of the historical characters who either knew him in reality or who I made know him fictionally, a great amount is based on their original writings, whether letters or poetry or any other kind of literary output. One big inspiration was always the letters of John Evelyn as a sort of ground layer for the style of the time, even though each historical character had their own linguistic style – and Evelyn comes a bit later in the century. I don’t know if what I have done with them is a pastiche or an imitation but it could never be a totally consistent pastiche because a really skilful pastiche or rendition of Donne’s writing would be (almost) unreadable to the modern reader. To that extent, I used some of his actual poetry and some verbatim excerpts from his sermon! If I was going for any effect, it was for the Jocobean/Carolian language of the time, which I love, but it sounds awkward to modern ears (if done perfectly!). There is also the fact that not all of the characters are writing in their original language.
3) The approximation between written and cinematographic narrative is far from being something innovative, but the fact is that the basis of this approach happens, in general, in view of a literary reproduction of the cinematographic montage. In Serge Eisenstein's Immoral Memories, for example, this type of experience is clearly manifested: Eisenstein's observations are driven from one topic to another, in a structural scheme that resembles the film (and poetic) structure based on parataxis, on the non-sequential logic, a kind of form usual in the film. But your The Curious Case of Jan Torrentius follows a much more visual principle – the illusion of the images is reflected in the fluidity of identity and the adventures of the characters. In constructing your narrative, have you taken into account this eventual opposition between montage / image, in the case of the cinematographic effects on the narrative? Or in evoking a kind of ancestral cinematographic technology, did the modus operandi of the moving-image perception of the Renaissance and the Baroque had some directly influence in your creation?
I would say that the way I am trying to deal with this subject is more organic. I am attempting to take the various anecdotes about how people of the time – especially Constantijn Huygens and Drebbel – who experienced the camera obscura and were in a position to write about it reacted, and embellish that with imagination and fantasy. In some cases reports go as far back as Leonardo with respect to the camera obcura and as far as forward as Kepler and others. This is mixed in with the idea of the occult, magick, alchemy, and thaumaturgy, magic lanterns, and modern cinema. I was probably much more influenced by the work of Frances A. Yates’ speculative ideas about Elizabeth of Bohemia in The Rosicrucian Enlightenment than any other work.
There is an example of a kind of cinema or live show seen by an audience in a dark room using a camera obscura or something similar, which I adapted in the dénouement to one of the sections. I think it’s based on fact but I have to go back and check but I think it’s feasible. There are too many to mention here but one type of pre-cinema, even though it’s anachronistic in the context of the 17th is the tableau vivant, as exemplified by a scene in the film Last Year in Marienbad. It is also a kind of contradiction here in the sense that the tableau vivant is a motionless recreation of a scene, say, from a recognisable painting which is ‘performed’ by living people in statuesque poses. And then it is filmed! But something of the atmosphere surrounding it sums up something of what I am trying to do in an earlier era. What is missing, of course, is the ability at that time to fix the image and certainly to reproduce motion chemically. So I used a kind of mixture of sleight-of-hand showmanship and possible scientific invention.
4) The novel approaches obliquely two parallel conceptual axes: the mechanisms that gave rise to cinema and photography (that is, means that surpass the pictorial representation as it was recognized and accepted in the time of Jan Torrentius); the secret societies and political conspiracies that shaped Europe since the sixteenth century. Considering that such a brilliant rapprochement of these two axis was deliberate, what would be its basis for such a development? Since the novel preserves the mystery of both strands, where would be the point of historical convergence?
I would have to refer again to The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. I am going to claim that the idea of joining the speculations about Torrentius’s use of the camera obscura, including some of the wilder claims about how he used it (which to me implied he was used a proto-photographic device), to the idea that he was a Rosicrucian (still unproven) is mine, BUT Yates implies very heavily that there was a hidden movement to bring Elizabeth of Bohemia and her husband Frederick V of the Palatine to a position that would challenge that of the Holy Roman Empire and even a so-called ‘Reformation of the Whole Wide World’. Now, whether that revolution would have been all Protestant, I don’t know, but, combined with the tenets of the Rosicruicans, I think it is implied or I would at least have liked to imagine it as a pan-religious organisation embracing all religions of the time. Of course, we are in the realms of fantasy here, but Yates was a serious scholar, so, when you think of some of the unlikely organisations and philosophies that have come to transform history in the 20th century alone, it’s not totally unimaginable. We have to remember that this was a time when many secret societies of a utopian bent existed. They were Christian and peace-loving, as far as I can tell.
5) Your novel, in its dense and intricate structure, has an undeniable appeal not only visual – what would be natural because of the focus of the narrative – but even cinematographic, as already addressed in other questions above. And this appeal comes in both sensory and narrative terms: all the colorful paneling of European cities and courts of the time, the disputes of artists, the desperate search for aesthetic-technological innovations – these visual glimpses sharpen the reader's imagination. In that sense, would there be de facto plans for some sort of audiovisual adaptation? Or, would your novel have been thought for the audiovisual medium at some point in its development?
Maybe strangely, I have not written this with a film or any kind of audiovisual adaptation in mind. I think it would be a hard task but definitely possible and ripe ground for an adaptation. I think any adaptor would have to decide for themselves where they stand with the character of Torrentius, whether they see him as a charlatan, a misunderstood libertine, a serious artist, or even a heretic. I think it’s fairly ambiguous in the book but possible to come out on one particular side. Once that is done, any director could have a great time with bringing to life the audio devices and magick that is on show in the boo, not least because the exact nature of the machines or projections are pretty ambiguous. I can’t imagine adapting it myself but I can’t help thinking of films like Nolan’s The Prestige or Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract.
The audio version of the interview follows below.
There are usual, everyday, fortuitous, and familiar narratives, like the family portraits that line the walls of our homes (which we often do not even notice). And there are risky, visionary stories that do not fear crossing borders or following absolutely dangerous paths, which are unviable from the point of view of what is accepted by rationality. In this second case, we undoubtedly find Karim Ghahwagi and his strange travel books Amerika and Europa, systematic descriptions of the new continents of madness.
In the continental amplitude of the fantastic narratives, 'Weird', Karim's fictions occupy an original place, between political satire and surrealistic fantasy, between decaying perception and the dynamic record of travels and displacements, between myth and carnival. The author kindly collaborated with the interview we proposed – a first, broader and more systematic part, in writing, accompanied by the second part, intuitive, on video. The two interviews follows below, and I hope both are useful to illuminate the intricate visions of Karim within his multi-layered perspective.
Interview with Karim Ghahwagi (Video Version)
Interview with Karim Ghahwagi (Written Version)
1) The universe of Amerika and Europa novels have a clear resonance of certain works of authors such as Mikhail Bulgakov, William Blake, Emanuel Swedenborg or John Milton (authors, incidentally, cited in these two novels). But there is an evident, very personal development in an absurd, surrealistic and satirical direction which, in addition to revealing a very peculiar verve, also indicates other influences. How did the process of creating these two works take place? What are your main references besides the authors mentioned above?
I first encountered Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita while working on my undergraduate literature degree at Bard College in Upstate New York. I was completely derailed by that astonishing book, and ended up writing my literature dissertation on it. I had the great fortune of attending a wonderful class studying Kafka and Bruno Schulz with author Norman Manea, and I was always very interested in the works of the fantastic, the role of the exiled writer, the processes of estrangement, the idea of the writer living far away from his home country. Something that I also encountered in an amazing class reading African short stories with Chinua Achebe. It was however in a class on the literary fantastic, that my professor Lindsay Watton, to whom I dedicated my first published work Amerika, introduced me to Mikhail Bulgakov and Nikolai Gogol. The Master and Margarita completely changed everything for me, but it also encompassed a number of my own preoccupations, and it is certainly a magnificent example of the great polyphonic novel, and the manner in which, as Mikhail Bakhtin writes, it also exemplifies the effects and processes of the carnivalization of literature. These ideas where very important to me, particularly for both Amerika and later, Europa. The carnival could be understood as a celebratory, subversive form of resistance against the absurdity of authoritarian regimes, the idea that laughter and chaos, instigate transformation, remove the tired, malevolent divisions in society, a source of freedom against oppression. William Blake too was against all forms of both social and spiritual repression, and we know that he had an altercation with a drunken soldier in the back garden of his own home and was deeply affected by being falsely accused of sedition; and Mikhail Bulgakov lived through the dark period of Moscow in the 1930’s and forever it seemed, was in Stalin’s shadow (and had personally received a phone call in his home from the man Himself, who can forget). He too never lived to see his great novel published in his lifetime. Both artists in a way were exiled or outsiders, who would only gain increasing recognition after their deaths- though Bulgakov had some success in the theater.
In response to your question concerning John Milton, Bulgakov would often refer to his novel in progress as ‘a book about the Devil.’ Certainly Goethe’s Faust was a huge influence, and John Milton’s Satan is very much an anti- hero who never-the-less spurs revolutionary action, an instigator and instrument for change. Woland and his infernal retinue in The Master and Margarita represent those chaotic, whimsical destabilizing forces, demons and clowns, with infernal fractured gazes, causing great de-hierarchizing effects, often confronting and ridiculing and exposing oppressive, unimaginative forces. It is not without reason there is an early central decapitation scene in Bulgakov’s novel, and Blake too was very much affected by the forces of the French Revolution, and how those fires of change swept through Europe and America. In a sense, going back to William Blake, some would identify the beginning of the Romantic period in England all the way back to Blake, a transition, a movement spurred from Goethe to Blake. Literally Katerina Goethe in the beginning of Europa is bringing this revolutionary idea from continental Europe to Albion, as there is a relationship between the sweeping revolutions in America and Europe that Blake was moved by. The idea of confronting the rational, the mathematical, the militaristic, and delving into that deep, internal, mystical well, to put poetry and mysticism, and the whole world in relation to the human. Blake is a true profound mystical humanist.
Finally to answer the question of how both Amerika and Europa came to be and their influences. Initially Amerika was submitted as a novelette because Dan Ghetu of Ex Occidente Press had an open call for submissions for an anthology in homage to Mikhail Bulgakov. That ended up becoming its own book, and it was incredibly and lovingly designed by Dan Ghetu. I felt very fortunate to have that work so lavishly presented. In a sort of meta-fictional book about books, where the nature of books themselves are disappearing, or stubbornly reluctant to disappear, it was not without a great amount of joy to seeAmerika published that way.
While I had entertained the thought over the years to write a sequel to Amerika, it would be just as comically ludicrous I reckoned, as Mr. Sweden’s supposed sequel to The Master and Margarita as depicted in Amerika. Then when Damian Murphy and Dan Ghetu invited me to submit a short story intended as a panegyric for William Blake, I couldn’t resist drawing parallels both between Mr. Sweden, the Travel Writer in Amerika, and Swedenborg’s effect on William Blake, particularly on The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and his two canonical works, America and Europa. So all this devilry is really Damian Murphy and Dan Ghetu’s fault, for which I am eternally grateful! The thought entertained me to no end however, and what I had intended to be a similar novelette (or novelarette- a term coined by D.F.Lewis), just continued to grow into the short novel that became Europa. I always knew that György Ligeti's opera Le Grand Macabre would inevitably have to figure in the story and was certainly an influence on Europa. All kinds of music and sounds are important to the worlds of both books. The Master and Margarita is an incredibly sonorous and cacophonous novel.
I think that the extraordinary work of Brian Evenson had an influence on Amerika, too. I had spent two years adapting The Brotherhood of Mutilation, originally published by Paul Miller’s wonderful Press, Earthling Publications- which is the first half of the astonishing novel Last Days- into a screenplay. Working quite a bit with the dialogue and the world of Last Days had an effect in certain ways in which the Jensens for example, spoke inAmerika, and the manifestation of pitch black comedy in a detective noir setting. Brian Evenson creates an unsettling feeling in his stories that is all but impossible to pin down, and it is completely unique and powerful. His extreme care and awareness of certain rhythms in language, coupled with the profound existential preoccupations and often blackly comic subject matter in these highly compressed, terrifying narratives is really like nothing else I have ever encountered, and utterly astonishing. Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil, and Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic books, and the work of Clive Barker are certainly all influences too. And I think I have always been amazed by Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy of novellas- particularly the manner in which the detective-writer is confronted with subversive existential and inter-textual conundrums. The extraordinary bodies of work of Ramsey Campbell, Peter Straub, China Mieville, J.G.Ballard and Michael Marshall Smith are certainly all influences. What motivated me to write Amerika was particularly the political realities in Scandinavia and the US after 9-11. The vilification of foreigners and immigrants by right wing elements, the shrill tone of some newspapers in the following years, the constant attacks on the Scandinavian welfare system by greedy and nihilistic corporatist forces. In Europa, I think the absurd rise of Donald Trump, the malevolent, racist rhetoric against the poor, the environment, the huge masses of refugees displaced around the world, the detention centers, the ugly rise of elements of authoritarianism in Europe and America in our present time.
2) There is an extraordinary emphasis in Amerika: the manuscript from an unsolicited (or perhaps impossible) novel that does not burn. It reminded me of certain images of the Renaissance/Baroque era, with the same theme – the book that resists the fire because of the heretical content in its pages. At the same time, this emphasis is associated with the theme of the clandestine manuscript tradition in the Eastern Europe, the concept/ strategy of the samizdat. To compose this moment in your book, what references do you use? How did you imagine this impossible object?
The Master and Margarita remained unpublished during Mikhail Bulgkov’s lifetime. He burned an early version of the manuscript fearing persecution for his work. ‘Manuscripts don’t burn’ is much quoted from Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel. After the book was burned the first time, he would then go on and work on the novel for the rest of his life until his death in 1940. This quote is a testament to the immortality of ideas, that they will overcome censorship, that ultimately suppression will fail. It is also a statement filled with some irony, for the function of infernal fire in the novel also has particular significance, as does a certain subversive Manichaean world view. The Master does not seek ‘light’ in the novel, he seeks ‘peace’. So there are certain layered complexities and ironies in this much quoted statement. I also found Alcediades, a wonderful and complex relationship to light, and fire and illumination in your excellent collection Lanterns of the Old Night. This collection is filled with illuminating glows, from the moon and magic lanterns, and midnight fires on darkened beaches, and in dreams with vast architectures. Even the process of illumination itself, to reveal, and to literally illustrate a text, has a complicated relationship with that ancient light and fire, reaching all the way back to the Platonic cave of ideas, of light and shadow and reflection... So I think both light and fire, and the meanings of ‘infernal fire’ is a complex one, in both its destructive and Promethian dimensions. After Bulgakov burned an earlier version of the manuscript of the Master and Margarita, he ended up rewriting everything from memory, and it was not uncommon for authors at the time to memorize their work in case they were completely destroyed, or for fear of persecution. The Master and Margarita remained unpublished for decades after Bulgakov’s death and finally appeared in censored form in 1966. I don’t believe that a complete uncensored version appeared in English translation until the late eighties. In totalitarian regimes, ideas that deviate from the political program are obviously deemed taboo, and those images of Nazi book burnings are impossible to forget.
In Amerika I like the idea of the book as a fantastical object, that it has a power to not only to shift perspectives, perceptions and thinking, but to also literally, to shift architectures, to transform the very fabric of reality, to open doorways to new experiences and vistas. To have characters literally jump off the page, or to interact with each other from different periods and different universes, is something that gives me much enjoyment, and becomes an exercise to test and see those said works when they are given new vistas and new perspectives in the way they are rearranged. Ultimately they are celebrated.
3) Still about the manuscript impossible to burn: the subject of indestructibility appears in his two books through rather complex approaches. Both the manuscript in Amerika and the bullet-proof mannequin in Europa embody strange drives that are impossible to control or liquidate. What would be the origin of this theme obsessively reimagined in your narratives?
Working in the shadow of Nazism, Hans Bellmer created these highly unsettling mannequins, pre-pubescent girls with contorted, disfigured anatomies as a way of addressing the grotesqueries and the destruction of innocence by Nazism. These highly unsettling images were impossible to forget when I first encountered them. I am also fond of the Brothers Quay’s vast, incredible body of stop motion work, and their interpretation particularly, of Bruno Schulz’sThe Street of Crocodiles, which is one of the masterpieces of stop motion cinema, or any cinema, for that matter. There is a tradition that the Brothers Quay- in being successors to the work of Jan Svankmajer- that also in my mind, reaches back to a cinematic and literary tradition of the fantastic in Eastern Europe. The idea of the cinema imbuing inanimate objects with life and animation. There is this interesting transition from the literary fantastic to the cinematic one in this particular, vacuum-like, but highly charged and mystically electrical, stop motion space. In fact in later work, where the Brother’s Quay work with ‘real actors’, the human characters in many instances almost appear to be like mannequins of flesh, directed in these strange austere, fetishized spaces- obsessed with structure and discipline, while seemingly struggling to contain vast inner emotional landscapes. I kind of wanted to play with that, and also have the mannequin take on some of the facsimilied characteristics, or lack thereof, that we encounter in the repetitive, militaristic machine-like, banal consistency of military dictatorships. I also think that individual human beings are reduced to mere numbers in malevolent bureaucracies, and are obviously made to be large, unidentifiable masses, and not treated as individual human beings. I also wanted the mythic fires of Blake’s Golgonooza to spread as kind of infernal, destabilizing carnival-march, an oxymoron perhaps, of mannequins. However these mannequins have momentary notable differences in gender, and they are not always completely indestructible, and do suffer from the wounds of both war and time. It was also important I guess, to have the Supreme Chancellor very much surrounded by a puppet cabinet, quickly exchanged, quickly discarded wax mannequins. I had a whole scene of a puppet show trial in the novel that I removed before publication.
These so-called indestructible texts, imbued perhaps with a kind of supernatural resilience, are often then, created by extremely vulnerable individuals, writers surrounded by violence, war, oppression etc. I think there is a relationship there, the idea of a very vulnerable vessel being able to access some power or ability, through the fire of invention, to create something ethereal and powerful, divorced, but intimately still, a profound part of themselves. The text being a document, literally of an indestructible mythic voice of fire.
4) The disappearance of America is one of the central leitmotifs of both Amerika and Europa. It is evident that the allegorical burden of this conception goes beyond the more obvious dimensions. In that sense, you could comment on the origin, development and political and aesthetic sense of this idea of the disappearance of an entire country, and the importance of such a conception in your plots.
I think the fantastic often operates in that twilight space, in a moment of transition between light and darkness, where our perception of things become uncertain. Having then, something missing altogether from a reality we are usually familiar with, also operates and creates interesting spaces to explore. Sometimes a mere inversion of things can profoundly shift our understanding of things and form fresh perspectives. Sometimes creating those absurd inversions, from situations that are already absurd, well, both farce and satire inevitably arises, sometimes in a necessarily rather shrill and unpleasant dimension.
I think travel is its own country. There is a particular space that you occupy when you are in transition, or know that your time in a particular new space might be finite. I think the manner in which your mind operates might in part, be quite particular to that experience as well. I feel very fortunate to have benefited from the marriage of cultures that have made up my immediate family life and from having lived on three different continents. I think my life has been enriched by the immersion into other cultures in my private, social and professional life. I am grateful for gaining a wider perspective into other cultures and trying to understand better what makes us all human beings, while respecting the deep, historical roots that make cultures unique and wonderfully idiosyncratic. One side to this however, is also identifying which is really your home, where you feel that you are least a stranger- or why you feel particularly, that a particular place is your home. Writing and thinking in different languages I think also affects your thought processes. While I don’t do any translation myself, you do hear from writers that also translate books from other languages, and how the process of translation helps them with their own writing, with how they construct sentences and meaning in their own native tongue.
Perhaps then, to attempt to answer your question, a marriage of some of these preoccupations I think form part of the background I guess. I am also suspect of those forces then, that try and separate us from each other, or that absurdly suggest that one group of people from a particular culture is inferior to another, and the great, just as absurd lengths they go to, to forward that agenda.
5) It seems to me that in Europa there is a strong influence of William Blake, of the visions and perplexities and even of the influences of that author, adapted to your style. Has the Blakean universe, in this context, come as a reasonable option because William Blake himself created very complex mythology involving continents, territories, countries? What is the relation of the Blakean visions and of this perception of totalitarian politics in his book?
Blake has created a complex mythology, one that develops throughout his life, and was continuing to do so until his death. While Blake loved his homeland, and even envisioned a new sort of central spiritual nexus in England, his Albion, his new city Golgonooza, he was very much au courant with the political and social situations in his country and in the wider world. He was fascinated with the swell and power of ideas traveling across vast distances, literally revolutionary ideas moving on the great currents of history. He may have been disillusioned by some of those outcomes, but he was certainly acutely aware of them, and was moved to address them in his work. Blake is constantly working also with a kind of psychogeography, juxtaposing continents atop of one another, sometimes encompassing the totality of the exterior cosmos inside the body of every human being. It’s a remarkable, sophisticated and humane and mystical gesture. That this is in opposition to banal, totalitarian, jingoistic ideas is without question, and a form of resistance to that sort of thinking. But there is this fascination with juxtaposing the spiritual world, a mythic world, very much onto the physical architecture of the ‘real world’. A spiritual geography, and therefore some of the concerns in Amerika, and certain satires concerning that ‘bewilderment of cartography’, I felt was more than a little interesting when exploring Blake with Bulgakov.
6) It is fascinating the usage, in your two novels, of concepts or even names that, taken from their original context, gain new, unusual possibilities. These new possibilities endow such concepts with a flavorful mystery tone; this is the case of the fifth dimension in Amerika and the idea of Wollstonecraft in Europa. How, during your creative process, does the construction / displacement of meaning happens?
I can sometimes get a little obsessed with semiotics, the way in which signs and words operate in relation to each other. I think essays by Roland Barthes, and some of the work of Umberto Eco are operating underneath the surface, in ways, in retrospect that I am still trying to understand myself. I think the idea in Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a book obsessed with texts, both real and imagined, (As in the notion that Aristotle had a Poetics of comedy, and not solely an investigation into classic Greek Tragedy) the idea of the censored forbidden text, etc, all I suppose have fed into this. I am, and am not, always completely aware exactly how this operates. I do not particularly reverse engineer concepts to put them into fiction. While I have an idea where certain things are going, I not plot these stories. I start them and they take me where they lead, and as I make that journey things begin to settle into a kind of structure. I think there is this kind of satire concerning that existential psychogeography in giving characters names of countries and concepts and similarly identifying them as individuals that both identify, and disassociate themselves with their moniker, often with varying results. Entirely displacing meaning from concepts and then re-contextualizing them, particularly to give them a kind of supernatural or occult context is something that is interesting to me in selective instances, I guess. I think it comes from the power of collage, of placing certain concepts and ideas in relation to each other to create new modes of meaning, that perhaps would not otherwise have arisen from them individually.
7) The dystopia in Europa is one of the most accomplished of recent times – humorous in its nonsense, preserving in this sense the satirical sources that are in the foundations of both utopias and dystopias. On the other hand, such dystopia is strongly connected to historical and recent events in an elaborated mixture – such as the image of Sherlock Holmes wearing uniform and armband. In this sense, what are the references and the method used to construct this particular kind of world?
Thank you very much for saying that. William Gibson and John Scalzi for example, are always reminding us that science fiction that projects into the future, is really addressing issues in the present. Both incidentally are prolific on Twitter, and how I wish that we could have these two gentlemen, just for a week say, take over the current POTUS Twitter feed- that could just change the world and skew it towards a slightly (substantially) more pleasant and informed direction. In any case, I like the idea of re-contextualizing ideas and notions, and to resurrect and test them in a new context. It is also interesting to note, that in both Blake and Bulgakov, in different ways, are very much addressing the notion of time itself. Blake operates in this vast mythic time, and Bulgakov in a sense skews geographies and time as well. We have scenes of Pontius Pilate and Yeshua in The Master and Margarita happening concurrently with the events in Bulgakov’s present day Moscow. Those are incredible juxtapositions, and they provide all kinds of dynamic and powerful readings. The juxtaposition itself on the surface appears to also be a political act, but it runs deeper into a rather more mystical well, and if we read those sections rather more carefully, there is this cross pollination of subtle images that bleed into each other. It is remarkable and I think this notion of creating overtly political satire is not always that interesting, but on other occasions it certainly feels like it is necessary, particularly in these troubled times.
Perhaps one of the most perennial characteristics of Humanity is its tendency to avoid the incongruous, the unknowable. We opted for a easy and crystalline recognition of the objects that surround us – if we are to avoid disturbing experience of the freudian Unheimlich –, with no surprises or shocks. The multiplicity of human ingenuity and art follows the same pattern, and this, of course, includes publishers. The monstrous book is avoided, that is, the volume marked by heterogeneity and hybridity, and this behavior was established in Antiquity, since the privileged target is the harmonic whole, the expected result, the element easily recognizable and catalogable. In his Ars Poetica, Horace reproaches the monstrous book, consisting of unequal and disharmonious parts, stating that such senseless totalities are aegri somnia, these products of unbridled imagination, inaccessible to a conventional, healthy order. Perhaps Horace imagined that these aegri somnia were someday extinct, that the imagination would find a uniform path, that the human mind would conform to the aesthetic projection of the beauty that followed high standards of decorum. But he was wrong: despite all our organization, perhaps even instinctive, of all this pursuit of a purified imaginary, the aegri somnia persist, finding places unusual for its outbreak. Perhaps a worthy heir to this kind of construct that displeased the dignified Horace is, precisely, The Haunting at Tankerton Park, an illustrated book by Reggie Oliver, published with elegant and discreet splendor by the Zagava Press.
At first sight, nothing would be unusual in Hauntings: it is an illustrated alphabet, in which each letter is illustrated by a verse and an image simultaneously. Below we have an example of this didactic literary creation (in Spanish) usually intended for kids, taken from the blog El desván del abuelito:
In the case of Reggie Oliver's work, the illustrated letters compose a brief narrative, constituted by the act of assembling / disassembling the images and the verses. This is undoubtedly an innovation, although it has even been preceded by some other experiences, such as The Dangerous Alphabet, Neil Gaiman’s creation illustrated by Gris Grimly. However the Hauntings simplicity, austerity, and even conventionality is only apparent: it is a legitimate nightmare, an intricate manifestation in which images, verses and a narrative context become heteroclitical elements of a wholeness that resonates in the mind of the reader and which distances itself from the reassuring references of form or content. In this sense, it is the images that leap into the eyes of the reader immediately; extremely suggestive, they create a veritable grammar of Victorian interiors and atmosphere, including even the orientalist ornaments present in such style, as we see in the letter X of Xerxes. Oliver's drawing style, which he uses in the illustration of his tales, finds here a more subtle and direct expression, in which both the roughness of the woodcut and the softness of the chiaroscuro are emphasized, the transitions between light and shadows, which makes this work close to Goya's etchings.
If the book were only these detailed images, these dizzying and suffocating environments in which the impossible, the absurd, occurs, Hauntings would already be a memorable book. But it goes beyond this thanks to two other intricated elements: the verses and the narrative. In the case of the verses, the author sought a certain singleness of the children’s poetry:
“F was the Frog they acquired from a farm
To eat up the finger that caused such alarm”
The simple rhyme evokes the non-sense of childlike rhymes, yet retains the literalness of the element described in the grievous image of the giant toad devouring an equally disproportionate and inhuman finger. This tension between the form (the simple verses), the literalness of meaning and the image that illustrates the verse and that surpasses this seemingly limited functionality creates a remarkable effect. On the other hand, these verses escape the didactic functionality of the syllabary or the illustrated alphabet – Reggie Oliver is not meant to illustrate his reader by memorizing the letters of the alphabet. What he wants is to tell the story of a family moving into a Victorian mansion, finding in this new home the most unusual apparitions. This narrative eagerness disturbs the reader's perception, rendering the experience of this journey through a story with images and verses rather unusual and unique. In fact, the Zagava edition contributes to this, for being exquisite: I have, in my hands, the cheaper version, paperback. Even in its simplest incarnation it strikes from the cover – entirely in black, a negative of one of the many images in the book of Victorian mansions – by size, quality of print and format, makes the revisit of brief narrative a renewed pleasure.
And, in fact, this repetition, the act of revisiting, becomes a fundamental pleasure in this brief volume. Walter Benjamin, the German philosopher who worked on such scholarly themes as the German Baroque drama, the narrator (from Nikolai Leskov), the concept of history and the Parisian Arcades, was equally fascinated by the inevitable materiality of the book for children, full of curious and strange idiosyncrasies. For Benjamin the children would materialize a verse from Goethe: “Es ließe sich alles trefflich schlichten, könnte man die Sachen zweimal verrichten.” (Everything would be perfect if one could do things twice). Repetition provides astonishing pleasure for the child; and Hauntings shifts its reader (adult or child) to this dimension of immense pleasure in repetition, to see again those amazing images, to repeat the verses, to remake the course of the narrative. Once again. And again.
Note: Goethe's quotation was kindly corrected by Jonas Plöger.
The old adage of Ecclesiastes (1:9), “nihil novi sub sole” – “there is nothing new under the sun” – seems to materialize in general a kind of rule, a ruthless, established and inflexible as steel rule. But the fact is that innovation, the novum need not arise from a brutal change, a revolution in absolute, total terms. There are amazing possibilities that arise from small nuances, handled with dexterity, skill, sensitivity. When faced with this kind of innovation, in a novel, poem or film, it’s possible to feel this kind of shine aroused by the masterpieces – something that someone can feel as soon as contemplate this cinematic "FIN", which closes John Howard's newest book, Visit of a Ghost.
The novum of this brief (just over 35 pages) narrative by John Howard first comes from two aspects directly related to the plot. The first of them, already a well-known feature of those who accompany this extraordinary author, is the location: the imaginary city of Steaua de Munte. It is a triumph of Howard's imagination, obtained through the economic arrangement of seemingly trivial elements. The imaginary map of fiction is immense, diversified, from the legends of Prester John to Jonathan Swift, from William Faulkner to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But Steaua de Munte is a strangely familiar landscape built patiently, its minimal elements (postcards, stamps, shops, coins) in conjunction with much larger ones (a world in which airships dominate all the aircraft industry), giving to the totality a fantastic figuration, almost of alternative reality. In this sense, John Howard seems to have in mind an excerpt from the poem "Juan López and John Ward", by Jorge Luis Borges (in the translation by James Halford): “The planet had been partitioned into different countries, each armed with loyalties, cherished memories, and an unquestionably heroic past; with laws, grievances, and their own peculiar mythologies; with bronze busts of great men, anniversaries, demagogues, and symbols. This division, the labor of cartographers, was good for starting wars.”
The second aspect, in this sense, appears immediately in the title: a quaint idea of ghost. It is a fantastic element so employed in so many differentiated forms of narrative that its existence becomes almost derisory – the reader, in front of this word, initiates the mental process of accommodation of this concept in some of the innumerable possibilities already known and shared in the immense emporium of meanings available, recognized, cataloged. Here the two ghosts unfolds themselves, embracing aspects of it’s most simple aspects, however far from some innocent plainness. The encounter of these ghosts, two of them, is retained in much of the plot as a potential event, something that brings about an extraordinary quid pro quo whose complexity arises from an escalation of multiple incomprehension, something constructed in a simple but natural way, as many other everyday misconceptions. When these two ghosts finally converge, in a particularly extraordinary occurrence, such a climactic encounter reveals what may be the critical point of the narrative, in thematic terms: the discovery of another Europe, perhaps unfeasible nowadays, more open to the glance and presence of the Otherness. In that sense, John Howard's story brought to mind an essay by Ezra Pound titled "The Passport Nuissance," published in The Nation on November 30, 1927. In this brief essay, Pound vituperates against the formation of a new bureaucracy which, after World War I, made the disinterested activity of traveling more and more complicated. In that same spirit, one of the characters states (and this is the couplet that appears on the back of the dustcover): *My new book will be called Around Europe*. It is another Europe, potentially welcoming although surrounded by the usual tempestuous clouds of war, intolerance. But, perhaps, this is only a feasible meaning, a reading of many available.
Physically, the book is extraordinary, magnificent achievement of the publisher Ex Occidente / Mount Abraxas. The balanced typography, the choice of photography as a significant element, even the use of this unexpected cinematographic resource, the "FIN" at the end of the book – it is a set of elements that follows the narrative in a subtle but indelible way. In fact, the use of photographic medium, allied with intelligent layout formatting, established unique, cinematographic effects. For, in fact, it is a story that could be on the screen of the cinema, specially a screen in the past, perhaps a puzzling film on the hazards of the nations like The Barefoot Contessa, The Last Command, or Mr. Arkadin.
Some books have a special impact from their very existence, their being in the world; by not having a standardized presentation, a conventional exterior structure, become objects of fascination even before they are opened. Some present a strange, shocking or extraordinary cover illustration, this image being its source of magnetism more evident and concrete. Thus, the French translation by François Rivière of the J. G. Ballard’s novel The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), entitled La Foire aux Atrocités, published in 1976 by Editions Champ Libre – for the collection Chute Libre (“free fall”) – presents one of these extraordinarily picture with some striking layers. It is a kind of portrait, in the form of an illustration whose authorship is unknown, in which we have a face (female, probably) obliterated by blindfold and gag. The colors of the image (deep red, green, light brown, black that creates violent contrasts) are powerfully evocative, though the image itself has little to do with the content of the book, rounding the sex, yes, but not that way. Another more complex way for a book to express its potency in itself is by its volume, the way its outward structure is presented to the reader – in this sense, the recent collections Booklore and The Whore is This Temple are magnificent in a peculiar way. The first one, evoking the multiplicity of a library by its conflict between format and content; the second, because it is a kind of impossible object, a contemporary grimoire for personal rituals although it is not that, in fact, but a collection of narratives and poetic creations.
Astronautilia is close to these two trends, but in a very unique way, because their impact happens in successive waves, that plays with expectations of the reader from one seemingly surpassed fright to another, culminating in a very own final decisive impact. In its dust cover, with a strong blue tone, a suggestive illustration by Václav Pazourek, the first image of the book and its real gateway: a portrait, in profile, quite colorful (the style suggests a vaguely primitivist expressionism) of what appears to be a warrior of the past, probably a hoplite of Ancient Greece. It is possible to identify in the image the shield, the helmet, the spear that this soldier holds. But the illustration, however, escapes this determination of meaning by a trait of technological futurism that runs through it – the white space between the face and the background of the image suggest an astronaut's helmet, adapted for use in sidereal space; the elaborate arabesques in the helmet suggest a civilization and a history that are not entirely human; the eye of the hoplite, at last, with a stylizedly almondlike shape and multiplied (by lenses? Or it’s an alien eye, in fact?) by the subtle effects used by the illustrator, a secure support for the odd strangeness. This extraordinary image covers and contrasts with the hard cover, much more austere – gently marbled dark blue, with the Greek part of the title engraved in silvery tones while the Czech part is in low relief – which refers to collections such as translations of classical and bilingual (Greek and Latin, of course) works published by publishers such as Éditions Les Belles Lettres.
But the impact of the dust cover rich imagery, the fastness of the cover, and even the volume of this reasonably thick book constitute the first moment, preparing for the still greater impact with what we might call the linguistic discovery of its contents. For in the very first pages the reader is threw in a confusio linguarum of considerable proportions: there are texts in English, Latin, Czech – but all this is only the preparation to the poem, thousands of hexameters in glorious Homeric Greek handwritten.
There are certain books that do not seem to exist-or rather, they seem to exist only as a fictional creation, a kind of imaginary interaction. Since Rabelais, whose giant Pantagruel spent his time in reading imaginary masterpieces that included a safe guide to public flatulence, written by a certain Magister Noster Ortuinus, not a few authors have populated their fiction, their personal universe with some shared elements with the continuum seem as common reality, with fictional, impossible books. These are volumes that, if they existed (something unlikely, an unfeasible technical achievement), would be like the lost volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica found by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares in the tale "Tlön, Uqbar, orales Tertius" – part of a conspiracy against the foundations of our reality. But at certain moments we come across these imaginary books; our touch recognizes its textures, the softness of its pages and the graceful smoothness of its cover. Yes, this book exists, it’s not only a hallucination or a tricky that deceived our senses. But, still, we are not absolutely sure about that. The moment we find imaginary books (or that could be imaginary) is as if we find a breach in the continuity of a daily, systematic, prosaic, immanent reality. I can say that sometimes in my life I found these semi-imaginary volumes in the most common and uncommon places – libraries, small and large bookstores, second-hand bookstores, virtual bookshops, small publishers' websites (part of these books, incidentally, were reviewed here, in this blog, which came to life because of them).
One of the last encounters with these books that seem to make the fabric of reality thinner and easier to crack - to break and become a mutated piece of imagery - was with the astonishing Astronautilia / Hvězdoplavba, by the Czech polygrapher Jan Křesadlo (In fact, the pseudonym of Václav Pinkava), published by Ivo Železný, an editor famous for his work of popularizing Esperanto. It is an amazing book that came from this distant land (at least from my point of view, a pedestrian in the southern hemisphere), which dissolves into an equally imaginary haze, from a small town whose curious sonority of the name, to a Portuguese speaker, sounds at once poetic and fairylike, the land of the Golem and Kafka, the Czech Republic. As I opened the package, I found a huge tome in a solid cardboard box. This case, at once rustic and functional, skillfully done, showed in its cover only the author's signature, in a convulsive calligraphy – a sure anticipation of the contents of the case, already visible in the spine of the book that such arrangement had exposed. For indeed, this content would be even more surprising.
An exquisite book in more ways than one, Astronautilia / Hvězdoplavba will be the target, the first one, of a series of small bibliophagic videos and commentaries, which will open a new methodology of our blog. I hope it will please everyone (in any case, please send comments on this and other issues, if necessary).
"One after another all these earths are submerged in renovatory flames, to be re-born there and to fall into them again, the monotonous flowing of an hourglass that eternally turns and empties itself. It is something new that is always old; something old that is always new."
(Eternity Through the Stars, by Louis-Auguste Blanqui)
After a long time of development, the crowdfunding project of the adaptation of the tale "The Extinction Hymnbook" – present in the startling collections The Gift of the Kos'mos Cometh! A Homage to Night and Kosmos and Lanterns of the Old Night – for a graphic novel, illustrated by young and talented Fabio Laoviahn, is ready and consummate. Some drawings can be seen in the gallery and the link to the campaign is available at the link below.
Extinction: a Graphic Novel Project