My Little Farewell to the Great Walser

My Little Farewell to the Great Walser

I knew the word kafkaesque before I ever read Kafka, and without wanting to, I already knew a lot, almost everything, about Kafka.

As a twelve-year-old I wanted The Castle, by Kafka. And so my mother took me to Schreiber’s bookshop in Olten, and explained my wish to the ancient Miss Schreiber. She looked at me and said sternly: “He’s too young.” I refused to accept any other book and grew stubborn. Sunk in my stubbornness, I withstood the great Kafka-wave of the Germanists nearly unharmed, and was quite grown-up by the time I finally started, with great pleasure, to read Kafka. I only read him when hardly anyone was talking about him anymore, and I found him witty, fun, cheeky, joyful. I did not discover the Kafka I’d always vaguely heard about—I found Kafka anything but kafkaesque.

This is now the way I’d like to read Walser, ten or twenty years after the great Walser-wave has crashed. Namely, when the last few readers have been driven away from his books, just as they have from Kafka’s.

With Walser, at least, I had more luck. I found him not in the bookstore or at the library, but at the market in Solothurn, at a shabby used-book stand: two books for one franc—Fritz Kocher’s Essays and The Walk—and after a few sentences I was convinced that this Walser wasn’t just anybody, but someone who belonged to real literature. Only, no one could confirm this for me. My German teacher, a cultured man, knew of no author called Walser. Walser was, in fact, in the library. The grouchy librarian was not happy to give him to me. But I had discovered an author all by myself—a wonderful experience, and an experience one can have only as a youth, far from any literary scene. I searched enthusiastically, and soon despairingly, for fellow readers—it took a few years to find the first one. And then the wave began—first as a niche product for a few kooks, like organic vegetables had once been, a little sworn brotherhood, then the intellectual supermarket. . .

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A Swiss among Swiss

A Swiss among Swiss

The image of Switzerland today is fundamentally connected to the Second World War. Anyone who did not experience the war as an adult will find it hard to take a political stand. Whenever someone is asked his age during a political debate, this is the reason why. 

The war reinforced our sense of ourselves. The fact that we were spared, so to speak, proves everything we wanted to see proved: our army’s might, our probity, the strength of our state, our democracy, the favor God shows to our homeland.

We Swiss are anti-communists. The experience of the war confirmed us in our anti-communism. That the war was fought against the fascists no longer matters.

We are convinced it is to our merit that we were spared—to the merit of General Guisan and to the merit of us all. Both the conduct of our army and the beauty of our country must have deeply impressed God himself.

During the war, Switzerland was a paradise. It was a magic word, a promised land for the persecuted. In the eyes of the suffering, even our landscape took on a divine glow. For them, the Swiss state and the Swiss landscape formed a unity—the same unity we ourselves are convinced of.

Since for us, “beautiful Switzerland—good Switzerland—progressive Switzerland—humane Switzerland” are inseparable, we take any criticism of individual aspects as criticism of the whole. This means that all criticism is obliged to begin with a tedious proclamation of our allegiance to the whole.

Naturally, then, people continue to interpret the general strike, and the socialism at the beginning of the century, not as criticisms of isolated aspects of the state, but as hostility to the state itself. Even now, when the socialist party has expanded and grown docile, no one who thinks “Swiss” will think “socialist.” Not quite housebroken—that is all one can say of the opposition offered by the socialists.

We are a bourgeois country.

We can also say this positively: a country of burghers, that is, citizens. . .

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There’s a man at my local pub who hates me. He tells me so all the time. He doesn’t hate me personally, he says—he hates me for my politics. I’m a writer, which means I’m a leftist. He’s right-wing and proud of it. He acts like it, too. His favorite word is clobber. He talks to me, though, and when we’re alone he’s even friendly with me. He’s a sales rep, a successful one.

One evening he confesses to me that he used to have a learning disability, that he went to a special school for it. He doesn’t tell me this proudly, but sadly. I’m startled, because I know what a confession like this means for him. Later he may remember that I know and hold it against me, and his hostility could be dangerous.

So why does he open up to me, a man he hates? Maybe he expects me to be gentle because I’m a writer. There’s something contemptible in his eyes. Maybe he’s counting on my sympathy, expecting me to see him in a more romantic light. And of course I am sympathetic and romantic, for good reason. I’ve read Oliver Twist and Heidi by Johanna Spyri and Red Zora by Kurt Held. I’ve been conditioned to see things in a romantic light. 

What surprises me, though, is that a right-wing extremist like him knows this. How would he know that people who read are conditioned in this way? I’m sure he doesn’t read. So where did he get his ideas about reading? Maybe he thinks people who read are weak.

What is a reader, anyway?

People who do crosswords know the answer. If the clue for 24 across is “newspaper buyer,” the solution will be “reader.” Ergo, all you need to be a reader is to buy a newspaper. According to the founders of the Stadtschreiber Prize, one of the things the winner is supposed to do is bring literature to the people—to turn them into people who read. Not that I know how I’m supposed to do that. Go sit in the pub with a stack of newspapers and books at my side?

Something strange keeps happening to me at the pub, though. People show up and bring me books. They want me to read them, so the books pile up on my desk. Jürgen, for example, has been telling me for weeks about this book. It’s very valuable and old, he tells me. It’s about Germans in Brazil. It’s a real book, printed and hardbound, dedicated to the author’s wife, and I simply must read it.

So, finally, he forced it into my hands, and now it’s on my desk: Franz Donat’s Paradise and Hell: The Adventurous Fortunes of a German in Brazil Amongst Backwoodsmen, Diamond Hunters, Indians, Settlers, and Criminals—Dedicated to my Dear Wife Emilie in Gratitude. It has a picture of the author and a map, and the foreword—from 1926—ends with “a loyal German greeting” to his old homeland.

If there’s one thing I know, it’s that this book fell into Jürgen’s hands by chance. Maybe he inherited it, along with various other odds and ends. Has he even read it himself? Possibly. If so, it was a long time ago. I would guess it’s the only book he owns.

I’ve read it. It’s awful. Not that I told him that. Why would I tell him to read Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther instead and just replace his one book with another? Jürgen just wanted to find a fellow reader to share his book with, because as far as he’s concerned he’s the only person who’s ever read this Donat fellow. So he hears there’s a writer in town, and the very sympathetic idea occurs to him that this Stadtschreiber Prize-winning writer-in-residence might also be a reader, who might then become a fellow reader, a confidant, a co-conspirator. . .

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The Pleasure of Telling Ourselves the World: An Interview

The Pleasure of Telling Ourselves the World: An Interview

Is your predilection for short prose also a matter of the pleasure you take in beginnings? Each of your publications implies a new beginning, and the structure of your texts is marked by restarts.

Beginning is awful. Nobody has an easy time finding a beginning. There are no exceptions. Now, the author of short prose is damned to restart over and over. He knows how to do it. Or rather, he’s used to the pain of it. The novelist, on the other hand, requires a single beginning and then he has to work with it for three years. That seems more comfortable to me.

Is the novelist less rushed?

In sports there are long-distance runners. Ten thousand meters. Marathons. It’s marvelous. If I were a runner, I’d run marathons. But I would always come in last, because I would take too much pleasure in the journey. I’d be too slow. Now, you could say that the novelist is the long-distance runner and the writer of short prose is the sprinter. But that’s not true. The writer of short prose is not a sprinter, he’s a long-distance runner over a short distance. When Johann Peter Hebel starts one of his stories, you have the impression that it’s going to take two hundred pages. You get comfortably settled in and then after twenty lines it’s over. But it began like a great novel. Writing is managing time, it’s a question of patience. Reading, too. Reading is lost on impatient people. . .

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Wit and Wile and Love

Wit and Wile and Love

As a rule, one can classify authors by the way they talk about the weather. Some would describe a meteorological event roughly as follows: “The clouds gathered into dark streaks of heavy, gray, low-hanging masses, and a wind whipped through the treetops, sending the birds to seek shelter with desperate cries before they fell silent in fear, and making people run ducking into their houses, already hit by the first pattering drops, which were rapidly multiplying into a pounding drumbeat, overwhelming the gutters with gurgling streams and flooding the rooftop parapets while the few cars on the road splashed wide sheets of water across the pavement.” Peter Bichsel, on the other hand, would write: “It started to rain.”

And yet Peter Bichsel can write “It started to rain” in such a way that we unwittingly find ourselves recoiling at the feeling of rain running down our collars. Given his druthers, Bichsel would only ever write stories as long as that sentence: “It started to rain.” Perhaps one day he will write a whole book of enchanting stories that make us roar with laughter and move us to tears, yet are no longer than “It started to rain.” The essence of Bichsel’s writing lies in a form of simplicity that expands and deepens and multiplies impudently, before our very eyes.

I spent last night trying to find this author’s primal narrative, his Ur-Story, just as Goethe once searched for the Ur-Plant that contained all other plants. There must exist such a thing, I thought. Every author eventually writes the Ur-Story that contains all his other stories. And just as Goethe hunted through the botanic gardens of Palermo for his Ur-Plant, so did I hunt through Bichsel’s complete works. First, it struck me how much more interesting and entertaining these were than the Palermo gardens, which had seemed a bit disheveled when I visited them a few years ago. Secondly, however, and in contrast to Goethe, I actually found what I was looking for. Bichsel’s Ur-Story is a little longer than “It started to rain,” but not by much. It appears in the middle of his least-known book, a bold little masterpiece, one of the few significant examples of the nouveau roman in German literature. Even today, the book lies in the shadow zone between Bichsel’s two sensational successes, the Frau Blum stories and Children’s Stories. It’s called The Seasons, and its composition, a play between fragments of speech and bits of narrative, has something enchantingly musical to it. It could have been written by John Cage, had Cage been from Solothurn. And there, on page 54 of the first edition, almost out of the blue and without any consequence for the rest of the plot, appears Bichsel’s Ur-Story. Barely a line long, it reads:

A drunkard lifts his head, looks at me, says, I’ll tell you everything, and falls silent.

Now, how wonderful it would be to be able to watch this story take root behind the eyes of its readers, growing ever more multifaceted, revealing the most various meanings as it played with the riddle of its own simultaneity.

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The Wit of Their Strange Appearance

The Wit of Their Strange Appearance

During an event at Poets House NYC, in the fall of 2016, Sylvia Legris mentioned that she had spent six or seven years researching for the poems that ultimately formed her collection The Hideous Hidden. “Four years doing research and you end up with nine little lines,” she joked. Those nine little lines, it turns out, are bound together by a deep reading of Hippocratic texts. It might be stating the obvious that poets are attuned to the nuances of language, yet some highlight attention to their métier more than others. Legris is among the most committed, with a vertiginously precise ear for a word’s potential semantic modulations. Through the five books she has produced from circularity of veins to her most recent there is a fascination with the vocabulary of the natural world; the lexicon of birds, of the body, and of disease predominate her verse. But her attention to language has been particularly acute in her most recent works. Take the first poem of The Hideous Hidden, entitled “Articulation Points (a preface),” which functions as an invocation:

Renounce the vestibule of non-vital vitals.

Confess the gallbladder,

the glandular wallflowers,

the objectionable oblong spleen.

The poem articulates anatomical, spatial, and even liturgical vocabularies; each word contains shadow meanings. Perhaps the most obvious example is “spleen,” which echoes both the irregularly shaped organ as well as the long history of associating the word with madness, creativity, joy, and depression, especially in the poems of Charles Baudelaire, whose work Legris frequently quotes. . .

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Language Seems to Stoke Itself: A Conversation with Sylvia Legris

Language Seems to Stoke Itself: A Conversation with Sylvia Legris

Alexander: You made allusions in your earlier message, but what are the areas of experience through which you engage in order to fertilize poetic instinct?

Legris: Often I find that merely moving through the world fertilizes poetic instinct, walking around and being open to discovery or to seeing things in ways I haven’t previously. I’ve been a big walker for a lot of years and I’m always paying keen attention to everything—people, the natural world, stuff on the street. 

The areas of study that inform my work are, at least in the early stages of a project, less deliberate than a reader of my poetry might assume. Every poem in Garden Physic refers to botany in some way; my reading for this collection is wide ranging and includes technical books about plants, as well as literary or visual art-related works that touch on plants, either directly or obliquely. Some of the anatomical poems in The Hideous Hidden sent out shoots and suckers into botany; so even when I was working on that book I was already doing some research about plants, if only tangentially. (It’s impossible to do in-depth reading about glands and not notice the places where glandular terminology parallels that of botany.) The realization that my collection following The Hideous Hidden would focus on botany happened not while I was reading or writing—or even thinking—but while my hands were deep in earth, wrestling with an impossible tangle of volunteer elm roots and daylily rhizomes. My first attempts at gardening, outdoors as opposed to indoors in pots, happened while I was finishing The Hideous Hidden and was still immersed in the history of anatomy and dissection. The formidable task of trying to eradicate a sorely neglected flower bed of roots so tenacious they were causing a driveway curb to buckle and crumble felt like something closer to surgery than to gardening. And I imagined I was doing surgery, my hands working their way through the muddy tendons and intestines of a huge body. My poem “Pedanius Dioscorides in His Backyard Plot” contains the line “The limb-sized roots.” In the section of the yard dedicated to vegetables, there was one area where nothing would grow. I thought I’d dug up this area thoroughly and removed all the crap, but apparently not. I dug deeper and hit something hard—what I first worried might be water pipes turned out to be the roots of a blue spruce that had been cut down years earlier. And limb-sized these roots were. I felt like I’d unearthed human remains, some of these roots the length and diameter of an adult’s legs and arms, their surfaces pulpy—flesh-like—from decay. The more I dug, the more I wanted to know about plants and gardens. As I roamed around in books about gardening and horticulture, I was amazed at how many plant names contain anatomical references: bladderwort, kidney vetch, boneset, liverweed, lung moss… this is just a sample. My long poem “The Garden Body,” which went through several incarnations over three years, was sparked by my thinking about how cool it would be if you could arrange a garden anatomically—bloodwort interspersed throughout, the “organ” plants occupying the central “torso,” lungwort and heart trefoil surrounded by ribwort, lady’s fingers at the extremities.

The finished poem is very different from how I first envisioned it, yet now I can’t imagine it being anything other than what it is. The poem that emerged from this lengthy germination, starting and stopping and restarting from scratch, is a concoction of instinct and association, sparks flying back and forth between garden and page, doing and pondering, plodding and plotting. Of course, there’s also an element of serendipity in the mix; what poems might have emerged if I’d started with a pristine patch of earth? What you say about language being “not unlike foliage, it accrues simultaneously like a magically lit vapor” seems apt to me. My poems seem to develop organically and unpredictably, music, meaning, and texture unfolding with what seems like synchronicity. Just as I always find it magical that a flower I’ve planted blooms or that my peas look like real peas, the process that results in a finished poem also seems magical and mysterious. . .

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Writing the Body

Writing the Body

The following is excerpted from Jesse Ruddock’s “Writing the Body”:

A cautery pen cuts through flesh with a hot-wire tip. Unlike a scalpel, it does not only cut as it goes but seals blood flow. Cautery pens are also called cautery pencils, which feels insensitive. A pencil has a lighter touch. It can be easily erased. It cannot make legal markings. The truth of the cautery machine lies somewhere in between pen and pencil.

The first time I guessed at the body as palimpsest was attending the botched surgery. The next time was watching a nurse write “NOT THIS LEG” in black Sharpie on my left leg before a right-leg anterior cruciate ligament repair. But it has only been through reading Sylvia Legris’s poetry that understanding the body as palimpsest has proved revelatory. Before, it was only softly shocking.

It’s one thing to taste or bump into an idea, another thing to follow a poet’s decades-long epic journey writing her way into the obscurity of the body. The body emerges through Legris’s poems, literally and metaphorically, as an unruly subject and an even more unruly text. One we only ever co-author. As Legris allows, breaking taboo, the body—my body, your body, any body—is a text that its co-authors, however well-intentioned, never control or finish.

In The Hideous Hidden, each poem is a theater of anatomy in which the poet is anatomist and her pen a scalpel or cautery machine whose lines perform dissections of human and animal bodies. The body as palimpsest—written on, written into, and rewritten—is explicit here, but I am interested in where and how this technique emerged. It is found in Legris’s very first publication, Ash Petals, a nineteen-page handmade chapbook of tight open verse. . .

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Language at Its Most Distilled

Language at Its Most Distilled

One of the first emails I received from Sylvia contained the following advice:

Let the work, the challenge of the work, the desire to become a better poet, the hunger to do whatever it takes to become a better poet, drive you. Not the desire to publish, or win prizes, or receive attention, or to meet well-known writers—this is ambition of the worst sort and will blind you to what needs to happen with the writing. 

Be ruthless: that is, ruthless in terms of making the poem as strong as it can be. If something isn’t working, don’t be afraid to get rid of; if a poem is bad, take whatever is strong within it—that might only be a phrase, an image, a single word, or absolutely nothing!—and throw the rest away. If the whole poems seems like a failure, start again. 

Upset the expectations of your reader.

With Pneumatic Antiphonal, Sylvia takes her own advice and runs with it. On its face, Pneumatic Antiphonal is a study of birds. And yet, in reading the poems aloud, it is also a study of how words can, in the right hands, mirror nature. The poems in Pneumatic Antiphonal echo with the movement of birds in flight, in all their tittering, aeriality, and fluidity. Sylvia captures the airiness of a bird’s small wingspan, or a song through the weighted language of ornithologists. The result is a collection of poems that masterfully illustrate not only the weightless musicality of birds in their flight, their anatomy and song, but the potential for language to celebrate itself through itself. . .

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"Not a notch but a note": from circuitry of veins to The Hideous Hidden

"Not a notch but a note": from circuitry of veins to The Hideous Hidden

In a 2016 interview with Eleanor Chandler for Prac Crit, Sylvia Legris describes her poem “Part the Second,” from The Hideous Hidden, as “‘succulent,’ a fleshy water-storing plant. Or ‘glandular’: small but vital cell masses that ooze and secrete.” This description could extend to Legris’s poetry as a whole; her poems are as close to material as poetry can get. Her words are multiplicitous and shape-shifting; they fill the space of a poem in a way that feels tangible, the way the complexities of blood fill entirely the tube of a vein. Hers is indeed, at times, a bloody poetry, though never clichéd or horror-filled; rather, blood rises and pools through a poetic process of peeling back the surfaces that keep our innards in (muscle, cells and biles, cerebrality). Digging for what is not meant to be seen, Legris enacts a study of what exists beneath, and her poetic project is to embed those unseen materials into the visible fabrics of her poetry.

There are few formal characteristics that we can thread through from Legris’s circuitry of veins to The Hideous Hidden. Such a dramatic evolution in her poetics has taken place in the twenty years spanning the two collections that a reader could hardly identify Legris as their sole author. Yet Legris’s concerns remain the same, namely, the somatic, and rendering materiality in language. The execution of this thinking deepens and sharpens as her collections of poetry progress. Legris has admitted her preoccupation with the bodily, and especially with what exists unseen but which is certainly there, within us. When discussing the title of The Hideous Hidden for the Toronto Festival of Authors, the poet claims to freak herself out “imagining what might be going on inside my own body. Blood streams afloat with islets of fat, bone islands, the recurring skirmish of muscle and bone in my shin-splints’d tibia.” This captivation with the uncontrollable within us, but that which, paradoxically, makes us (and makes us feel stable and indeed under control), is present from the first. In circuitry of veins dual narrations are featured: one describes, obliquely and experimentally, the changes a woman’s body undergoes in the various stages of cancer; another describes a woman’s body suffering from anorexia nervosa. The two impulses mirror and shift in relation to one other in a way that allows for comment on the endurances of the body: how physical illness debilitates the mind, and how mental illness physically deprives—all articulating a tightrope between wellness and sickness, and specifically, their impact on a human female body. . .

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There Is No America

There Is No America

I heard this story from a man who tells stories. More than once I told him I didn’t believe him.

“You’re lying,” I said. “You’re rambling, you’re telling tales, you’re taking the piss!”

He was unmoved. He went on calmly telling his story, and when I shouted, “You liar, you rambler, you daydreamer, you traitor!” he looked at me for a long while, shook his head, smiled sadly, and then said, in a voice so low I was almost ashamed: “There is no America.”

To make him feel better, I promised I would put his story in writing:


The story begins five hundred years ago in the court of a king, the king of Spain. A palace with velvet and silk everywhere, and gold, silver, beards, crowns, candles, lackeys and servants, courtiers skewering each other at dawn after throwing down their gauntlets the night before. Sentries sounding clarions from the tower. And messengers hopping up into their saddles, messengers jumping down from their horses, friends of the king and his fake friends, too, and beautiful ladies, and dangerous ladies, and wine, and all around the palace people who paid for all of it without question.

But the king himself lived this way, without question, and no matter how you live, in splendor or in poverty, in Madrid or in Barcelona or anywhere else, in the end every day is the same, and you get bored. Which is why people who live somewhere else imagine that Barcelona must be beautiful, and people who live in Barcelona would prefer to leave and go Somewhere Else.

The poor imagine how nice it must be to live like the king, and their tragedy is that the king believes that poverty suits the poor perfectly well. 

The king gets up in the morning, goes to bed in the evening, and all day long he’s bored among his problems, his lackeys, his gold and his silver, his velvet and his silk. He’s bored among his candles. True, his bed is magnificent, but after all what else is a bed good for besides sleeping?

Every morning his lackeys bow to him deeply, every morning as deeply as every other morning, and the king is so used to it that he no longer even looks at them. Someone hands him his fork, someone else hands him his knife, someone else pulls out his chair, and whoever speaks to him says Your Majesty and many other pretty words, but behind them there is nothing. 

Nobody ever says to him: “You idiot, you ass.” They won’t say anything today that they didn’t already say yesterday.

That’s how it is, the life of a king. . .

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When he was a child, his parents’ property in Ussy was adjacent to Samuel Beckett’s. Nothing amused him more than tossing moles over the wall into the writer’s yard. If he is to be believed, this was even his chief source of entertainment. Perhaps his only source of entertainment. Today, he takes pride in this prior proximity, and he boasts of his childish games. In fact, he never shuts up about them.

“When I was a child, we lived next to Samuel Beckett in Ussy. I had a great time chucking moles into his yard.”

It’s not hard to believe him. He’s a sly-eyed guy with ugly teeth. He teaches electronics at Désiré Nisard High. He likes his job. He claims he gets along well with his students. But mostly what we notice are his skin problems, those red patches on his hands and face, the
desquamation, the scabs.

“Chronic eczema. A rare, complicated form. I put ointment on it.”

Who asked him? Beckett—that’s what interests us. This man lived next door to Beckett, for Christ’s sake. What memories does he have of him?

“I used to pitch moles into his yard when I was a kid.”

So. Here’s a man who lived next door to Beckett for several years and he has nothing better to tell us about that fact than he tossed moles into Beckett’s yard, over the wall, for fun?

“I would smoke them out of their tunnels. They would come above ground, stunned, zigzagging blindly. Christ, a mole in the sun is so stupid. I’d whack them with a shovel without killing them.”

Then he would toss them over the wall, to Beckett’s; we get the picture. Basically, this bonehead of a brat harassed one of the great geniuses of his century. And today he doesn’t seem ashamed of this. That, perhaps, is what is most perturbing. Because the way he tells it, he was bombarding Beckett’s yard with moles. And the moles destroyed Beckett’s yard. And this, no doubt, distressed Beckett.

We are in the presence of someone who deliberately caused Beckett harm and who is bragging about it to this day. And he’s telling us all this because he knows we love literature and we love Beckett. Does he want to impress us with his story? Arouse our jealousy, elicit our admiration perhaps? Like someone who would brag about having cultivated a special relationship with Beckett?

“I knew Beckett well. I even tossed moles into his yard.”

He is the only person who can say such a thing. Who else could?

Not a soul, not even Beckett’s closest friends had this type of relationship with him.

“Only me.”


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A Hard Blow for Europe: on Florian Zeller’s <i>Pleasure</i>

A Hard Blow for Europe: on Florian Zeller’s Pleasure

It can be risky for a young writer to expose himself or herself to the influence of a master. Doing so is like exposing oneself to x-rays: beneficial at first, helpful as a tool of self-knowledge, it offers a sound training in boldness and radicalism. It burns away fatty layers of voracious, careless, maladjusted post-adolescent reading. And then it keeps burning, destroying immune defenses, attacking the bone. The master’s influence eventually reduces the disciple to ashes. His or her books will henceforth be but pale, grimacing shadows of the oeuvre that inspired them.

In any case, important writers have no truck with the apes who would ape them; they have no desire to see, in these cross-eyed mirrors, their faces reconstituted in flyspeck. The true master teaches liberty, and thus solitude: he chases us out of his orbit the day we become of age. He has marked out a territory where everything has been said, where we can do no better than to trample his flowerbeds.

All of this is what Florian Zeller seems to have failed to understand and consider. His new novel, Pleasure, visibly reflects an ambition to add to the bibliography of Milan Kundera: alas, an unreasonable and desperate ambition. Everything is present, however, more or less: short chapters alternating episodes in a sentimental story of variable geometry with sociopolitical musings on the zeitgeist; a lexicographer’s attention for certain revealing terms carefully embroidered in italics on the page (here, for instance, contradiction and negotiation); the ambiguous posture of a narrator who intervenes from time to time to comment on the situation; and sex, again, as both impetus and telos of even the smallest acts. Of course, it would be naive to reduce Kundera’s work to such a list, but this is quite precisely what Florian Zeller has done. One can almost see him cracking eggs and pouring flour into his mixing bowl, tongue between his teeth, squinting at The Book of Laughter and Forgetting as one would consult a cookbook.

Result: a book to laugh at and then forget, an undercooked Kundera that is not nourishing but still sits heavy in the gut. Comparison against the original is brutal for this gauche, immature story: another steer sinking into the pond in a vain effort to pass itself off as having the sinewy, shapely legs of the frog.


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An Impeccable Feast: on Marie NDiaye’s <i>A Cook’s Novel</i>

An Impeccable Feast: on Marie NDiaye’s A Cook’s Novel

“But what’s the word for a male florist?” my eight-year-old daughter asks. I know that terms like authoress and woman of letters are no longer irregularities in terms of vocabulary, but in terms of judgment? Hard to say. It’s amusing to see, in a Larousse dictionary from the nineteenth century (1866–1879), the following entry: “AUTRICE: Bygone feminine form, now obsolete, of the word auteur.” But there remain so many injustices, so many inequalities, that our sensitivity around the issue is deservedly deep and unforgiving. Gender is no laughing matter, not even for us Frogs (this being the feminine derivation of frogman, naturally). And a lady chef? There is no word for her in French other than cheftaine: not the most appetizing option, but then we all must play the chards we’ve dealt for ourselves. The Swiss and the Québécois have opted for cheffe. Marie NDiaye does too, in A Cook’s Novel [La Cheffe].

And for good reason. Cheffe is a perfectly acceptable word, pleasing to the eye and ear as much as it is to our sense of parity. It applies perfectly to Marie NDiaye herself, who has written so many fine books. After Three Strong Women (winner of the Prix Goncourt in 2009) and Ladivine, she offers us another portrait of a woman comfortable in her own skin, in that hypnotic prose that stalks and surrounds its subject as though hypnotizing it, then swoops down and spears it with one or two impeccably chosen epithets. The adjective is the chiseled tip of Marie NDiaye’s slow, majestic language: recall those “hard, efficient mirrors” of Ladivine. It’s a language that moves like an eagle, a shark, a cobra—circling its prey and then striking, suddenly and without error.  


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Exhausting the Form: A Conversation with Éric Chevillard

Exhausting the Form: A Conversation with Éric Chevillard

PJ: Do you still have the ambition to write Flaubert’s quintessential “book about nothing”?

EC: That’s quite an abstract notion, almost incomprehensible the more I think about it… but I do have to keep busy somehow. Perhaps what I’m really drawn to is a book about everything. What breaks my heart, in any case, is the novelist who knows his subject to the letter, who discusses it without ever surpassing it (except the tip of his tongue visible between his lips as he labors over his coloring book), who keeps piously to the topic at hand and never allows himself go astray. It’s a narrow and, frankly, miserly view of literature. It’s calling in quantity surveyors and weights-and-measures specialists and the police and the army to maintain order in a space where the whole point is the fertile chaos of disorder, where everything can be made up, especially that which doesn’t make sense, so long as the sentences hold together. To write is to take hold of oneself and to take hold of the things that make up the world.

PJ: What is it about clichés that’s so interesting to you?

EC: Our representations of the world are fixed within them, encased as in cement. But you point a finger at them and your fingernail makes them shatter. A cliché isn’t much different from its proverbial formulation: it’s just words clumped together, held in place by some kind of glue. And it’s possible to melt that glue, to disassemble the proverb, to emancipate the thought from its detainment by these readymade sentences. Literature, being a great purveyor of clichés, needs to pillory itself from time to time—and to keep the snake from biting its tail or the scorpion from stinging itself, we pit the snake and the scorpion against one another.  


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Final Bouquet

Final Bouquet

A writer who does not perceive his surroundings and human existence in a significantly different way from the majority of his contemporaries can still try to give his language the appearance of originality, he can even write experimental poetry if he enjoys the role of avant-gardist. But a style of one’s own is as unmistakable as a fingerprint; the poet, his person, the whole of his thought and emotions are suspended in it.

I remember when, having just become acquainted with Éric Chevillard and his literature, I encountered the idea in one of his early books that a cock had laid a church there. I looked at the weathercock sitting high up on the church steeple and was startled and touched: was the thought not obvious? Except that it had occurred neither to me nor to anyone else.

About twenty years later I walked with Éric Chevillard through Stuttgart’s pedestrian precinct and past the bust of Schubert. “Amazing that that man could have been such a good pianist,” Éric said. I looked first at him and then at Schubert, who was wedged shoulders down in his stone pedestal.

Still it was not the armless Schubert but Hegel’s voluminous cap, which we had previously seen behind glass in the museum, that found its way into Chevillard’s diary. Presumably the abundance of thoughts and observations springing from the author’s head is simply too great all to be made into literature. Of the intellectual and linguistic fireworks going off in his head, apparently all by themselves, the reader gets to see only those worth of a bouquet final.  


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Honoring Unsuk Chin

Honoring Unsuk Chin

The textures of her most recent compositional inventions and musical settings are startling, and create the impression of shimmering, drifting and floating, of glittering and sliding. But it also knows the other zones, the ones that are dark and deep, as well as the insistent probing and poking into areas of discomfort. Behind a brilliant, often entrancingly beautiful façade, the abyss always shows through. In that area of tension between eastern and western traditions she has found her own, unmistakeable language, which I feel to be contemporary and timely, but which also has the timelessness of that art that has freed itself from trends, fashions, and concessions to any particular tastes of the present day.


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Notes on <i>Cantatrix Sopranica</i> for two sopranos, countertenor, and ensemble

Notes on Cantatrix Sopranica for two sopranos, countertenor, and ensemble

I’m not particularly keen on setting poems that convey concrete content or emotions. Music and literature are highly autonomous “languages” which often get in each other’s way. The advantage of the combinations of experimental poetry is, to my eyes (and ears) not only its lack of concrete meaning and “messages,” but above all its proximity to compositional methods. A “boule de neige,” one might say (a text continuously growing on the snowball principle from a small “protosemantic” cell, which varies its meaning, chameleon-like, as it grows), is already inherently a musical process through the “fanning out” of sound material in the course of time. Another thing that connects me to these word-artists is the self-referentiality of their linguistic goals, but also the humor and irony of their creations. Apart from the Boule de neige (movement four) by Harry Mathews, I do not use any other texts by Oulipiens. Four of the eight texts I developed myself during the compositional process. The second movement was based on an idea by Gertrude Stein; the fifth is a treatment, translated into Italian, of a poem from the Phantasus-Zyklus (1898-99) by the Berlin poet Arno Holz (who anticipated certain avant-gardisms of the twentieth century); and the sixth is based on Li Bai’s poem from the Tang Dynasty (7th10th century), although it was used less on a semantic than on a sonic level.

Cantatrix Sopranica is a self-referential piece, on many different levels: on the one hand, its content is about singing itself (above all in movements one, two, five, and eight), the specific qualities of singers, their tricks and tics from vocal exercises to their self-presentation on (and behind) stage, and musical phenomena or processes that are reflected in language, and vice versa (movements three and four). On the other, it is also about playing with musical languages of the past, singing techniques that become an end in themselves, and idiomatic clichés not only of European music (the fifth and sixth movements). Song and instrumental playing interact, role-play is involved, and even the swapping of roles between singers and musicians. In this piece, I aimed for the greatest possible symbiosis of linguistic and sound processes, and had the intention of not only entertaining but also of amusing the audience in what I hope is not too obscure a manner. The piece is not free of musical mischief-making which, as we know, can assume menacing dimensions.


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A Conversation with Unsuk Chin

A Conversation with Unsuk Chin

GD: It seems your initial encounter with György Ligeti was a happy turning point. It came during a stylistically undefined phase for you, one marked by trauma, no less. Are there compositional styles you feel were most fruitful during this phase? And have you had the opportunity to advise younger composers as Ligeti advised you?

UC: Ligeti’s teaching was completely unconventional. At that point, he was betraying his faith in the avant-garde. We listened to everything imaginable—ancient music, “classical” music, jazz, a lot of non-European traditional music, modern outsiders, of course his own music, but nothing avant-garde, in fact—it was a very tough school, because it demanded both technical perfection and originality. New scores were analyzed in detail by Ligeti during the group classes, and sometimes thrown into the wastepaper basket by him in person. But he was also hard on himself, and we can only take our hats off to him for discovering completely new stylistic ideas for himself at the age of sixty and, in my opinion, making another qualitative leap. Ligeti was a difficult person, but that was a good thing because it made the obligatory killing-of-the father much easier. Where I’m concerned, I’ve repeatedly given masterclasses for composers. For ten years, I’ve regularly organized masterclasses in Korea in the context of my New Music series, and in the context of what we call “reading sessions” I also give selected younger composers the chance to do more work with guest conductors such as Peter Eötvös, François- Xavier Roth, Susanna Mälkki, and others. This involvement in practical work is incredibly important and often a big shock for composition students. But a professorship has never appealed to me, and I’ve turned down several offers.

GD: Good training is indispensable in a technical profession like compositionin literature I’m not so sure. But does it also require a close teacher-pupil relationship like you find in the visual arts?

UC: That’s a very hard question. In principle, I’m of the opinion that you can’t teach composing. On the other hand, of course, there’s a whole lot of technical things that you just have to learn on your own. Many major composers have struggled with academic teaching. A teacher-pupil relationship can be a good thing, but only if it has a time-limit, and there is enough tolerance for disagreements and space for the pupil's development. If you think of the legendary professors of composition of the twentieth century, in my view Messiaen is a good example of allowing the pupil to do something very much their own: when you think of the famous pupils—like Xenakis, Boulez, Stockhausen, Grisey, George Benjamin, Murail—they’ve all done something of their own that actually didn’t have much to do with Messiaen. But the master had opened their eyes, and that’s the best thing you can say about a teacher. In the Schoenberg school, on the other hand, I think it’s a problem that the influence of the Supreme Father was so extremely overdetermining, even though of course Berg and Webern were geniuses, and the less well-known Roberto Gerhard managed to do something of his own as well.

GD: Ligeti’s music was important to you from the very start, because as you once said you were able to “grasp” it from the firstunlike some over-conceptualized serial endeavors. I understand very clearly what you mean, and yet I always hesitate to use concepts like “graspability” or “comprehensibility”first of all because these are difficult to objectify, and secondly, because they quickly assume a reactionary aftertaste, as if you could deliberately take your listeners into account. What does graspability mean in your own work?

UC: Of course, you shouldn’t take your listeners into account. There’s the rather tired metaphor of sending messages in a bottle: you’re not composing for yourself or for a particular audience, but of course there is communication with an imaginary audience. The problem with over-conceptualization consists in the fact that in some circumstances something that looks wonderfully logical and complex on paper can sound less complex and more random when actually performed. That was the problem with the extreme serialism of the 1950s: eventually the results sounded less differentiated than those that could be achieved through aleatory practice. Even Adorno criticised this and said quite correctly that the ear must always listen actively to the resulting material. Joseph Brodsky once said that poetry was a highly formal art whose forms had always been invented and used by others, and that he had no option but to pour new words into those old forms. In a sense, of course that also applies to music—the idea that you can suddenly create a tabula rasa and change all the grammar and semantics is naive at best. That was also the problem with Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system: an important invention, no question, and an invention which he pursued dutifully and with clarity, and I also understand the historical moment that gave rise to it, but at the same time it was also a random invention that has little to do with music, and was ultimately coined only in light of the situation of German music. I should say in passing that I agree with the young Boulez, that Schoenberg applied the invention very inconsistently, and that his pupil Webern was its great master. But at the same time there were so many different paths: Debussy and Stravinsky revolutionized music no less, and perhaps even much more.


To read the entire interview, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 8.

On the <i>Piano Etudes</i> of Unsuk Chin

On the Piano Etudes of Unsuk Chin

Several years ago, I had an appointment with a neurologist. There an EEG was performed. With a hairnet of electrodes on your head, you sit in front of a strong lamp, keep your eyes closed, and are subjected to flashes. The reaction of your brain to the flashing light, which flickers at an increasing frequency, is recorded by software. I don’t remember at how many hertz it was that I suddenly saw a spiral of falling gingerbread men. I told this to the assistant who was conducting the test. “I think I see gingerbread men.” To which she replied: “We’ll try one level higher, then it’s enough.” With the light now flashing marginally more rapidly, I still saw the incredible image behind my closed eyelids: falling gingerbread men, millions of them, a whole cosmos full. I had to open my eyes, because the sight was making me dizzy.

“A visual hallucination of that sort is completely normal,” the assistant reassured me. “Most people experience something like that with this type of stimulation.”

“But why gingerbread men?” I asked.

“It’s something different for everyone,” she said. “The visual cortex is simply induced to do something. And in your case, it apparently produces gingerbread men.”

“Millions of them,” I said.

“Yes,” said the assistant.

I didn’t learn all that much from this experience, apart from the fact that now, when I hear certain music and try to visualize its structures, I can refer to a specific feeling to describe their effect. “Classic” examples of this sort of music are the famous polyrhythmic piano works by György Ligeti or Conlon Nancarrow, about which much has been written. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s final composition, Paradise for flute and electronic music (2007), the twenty-first hour of his Klang cycle, generates this feeling too; a strange, unsteady light fills this piece, to which you can hardly experience with a calm soul. Another, less frequently cited example that evokes in me the overpowering gingerbread men feeling is the music of Unsuk Chin, a Korean composer living in Berlin, particularly her six Piano Etudes.


To read the entire piece, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 8.