It must count as an unusual experience in the annals of literature: putting out a publication for fifteen years that has never taken a physical form. In fact, before the advent of the internet it would have been impossible. And yet, that is exactly what we at The Cafe Irreal have done. Or, we should say, had done until a UPS shipment arrived Friday evening and, for the first time, we could actually hold The Cafe Irreal (in anthology form as The Irreal Reader) in our hands. Of course, as its editors our first concern was that everything had turned out okay: that the cover came out okay (it looks great), that something didn’t go wrong at the printers (the text portion is all in order, and also looks great), etc. But then, as we state in the title of this blog post, the virtual became the physical and we could actually hold it in our hands, leaf through its pages, show it to friends and family. Now we don’t claim this experience to be unique to us, as anybody involved in publishing an internet journal shares it. But among the established internet journals it seems that we have waited longer than most to come out with an anthology (and without gentle prodding from the good folks at Guide Dog Books, it would have been even longer). We can then, perhaps, appreciate even more the power of having our publication in physical form at long last, even though we would be the last to diminish its value in virtual form.
At first we had assumed that much of the work of putting together our soon to be released anthology, The Irreal Reader: Fiction & Essays from The Cafe Irreal, would be technical (e.g., tracking down authors we might not have had contact with for ten or more years, minutely proofing the anthology). But long before we could send out the first author’s contract we first had to decide on which stories would go into the anthology and this also proved to be quite a challenge, though of a more creative and theoretical nature.
When we select stories for any given issue of The Cafe Irreal, we are able to quickly and readily eliminate a fair number of the submissions that we have received because they are not particularly irreal or, even if they are, they may not be particularly well-written. But with the anthology, we had to carefully read over hundreds of stories all of which, by virtue of the fact that they had appeared previously in our publication, we considered to be well-written and irreal. So, instead of, as is often the case when we are coming out with an issue, having to decide whether a particular story fits within a specific framework of the irreal, the story selection for the anthology became in part a question of which stories were the most irreal. Especially seeing as the anthology would stand out as a kind of flagship of our concept of the irreal.
And so we were thrown into a mini-version of what we’d gone through when we first worked out our writer’s guidelines (detailed in our Journal of the Kafka Society of America article, a synopsis of which is here) — though in this case it meant us further refining what we mean by the irreal. Or, to paraphrase from the anthology’s liner notes, we had to decide which from among the many, excellent irreal stories we’d published over our first 40 issues “take us most definitively into the realm of the Irreal.”
Thus, unlike some of the issues raised in our theoretical texts (such as “What is Irrealism?”), in which we go to some lengths to explain what it is in a story that takes it out of the realm of the irreal (e.g., extensive description of the setting, especially when it utilizes naturalistic touches), we focused on some devices that authors sometimes used that might be said to take some of the “edge” off the irreal, and which more often than not made us decide against using them in the anthology, even though they too were fine, irreal stories:
1) In some of the stories that we ultimately decided against, the narrative voice used irony in its description of the events or situations that constituted the story (this was especially characteristic of fiction that was self-consciously trying to be edgy). The problem here tended to be that an irreal story already possesses, in its very being, the conflicting, double-code characteristic of irony, and so to add to this a self-consciously ironic narrator added at best a gratuitous, at worse conflicting, element into the story.
2) In other stories, the narrative voice was, it seemed to us, excessively empirical and neutral in its description of the irreality unfolding in the story. That we found this to be the case was somewhat surprising to us, as we consider a distanced narrative to be a key to an irreal narrative. But there is, of course, a difference between empirical and being distanced. Distanced narration is a quality of what is called “objective” fiction, objective in the sense of the work being seen by the reader as an object, as opposed to “subjective” fiction in which the narration strives to make the reader forget he or she is reading a book and have instead the sense that they are really there, where the action of the story is. The former is exemplified by Kafka’s typical narrative voice, distanced, but not merely empirical in its description of the irreal events going on in the story (As in the beginning of The Trial: “Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested. Every day at eight in the morning he was brought his breakfast by Mrs. Grubach’s cook — Mrs. Grubach was his landlady — but today she didn’t come. That had never happened before.”). Stories that have an excessively empirical and neutral narrator can tend to undermine the dream state, with its vague, diffused backdrops, that irrealism strives to create.
3) Related to this is the tendency of some narrative voices to use excessive description. This is, of course, in general a problem in American literature, where the long established “cult of experience” continues to make writers feel that they must, to cite a worse case scenario, describe the room the protagonist is sitting in to the last detail whether this has any bearing on the story or characters or not. In these irreal stories what is being described is not, of course, real nor could it ever be; nonetheless, a large amount of description often excessively concreticizes the story’s — albeit fantastic — world, working against its being able to sustain a sense of the irreal (let us not forget here the general lack of detail in dreams).
4) Another device that tended, we found, to have a negative effect on an irreal narrative is the use of the pseudo-2nd person narrative, in which the reader is not only addressed as “you” but also discovers him- or herself to be the protagonist in the story. Thus, if we were to re-write the beginning of The Trial using this device, the reader might be told that “Someone must have been telling lies about you, because you knew that you had done nothing wrong and yet, one morning, you were arrested…” This narrative device, we believe, tends to weaken the irreality of a story because of the importance of the highly personal, “accidental” symbology inherent in irrealism, in which the irreal writer, instead of working with universal symbols (such as water, widely considered a symbol of renewal), works with that set of personal symbols that comes from their personal life and which tend to be manifested in dreams (see “On International Imagination“). The pseudo 2nd person narration can thus weaken the irreal effect of a story if it attempts to place the writer’s personal symbology in the mind of the reader as though it were the reader’s which, of course, it isn’t, and so it can seem an artifice.
We now have the official word from our publisher, Guide Dog Books: The Irreal Reader: Fiction & Essays from The Cafe Irreal, an anthology taken from our first 40 issues, will be released this November. Details are available at the publisher’s website: http://guidedogbooks.blogspot.com
[posted by Greg]
Recently, in our literary supplement irreal (re)views, we published my translation of Michal Ajvaz’s essay “An essay about that which isn’t a pipe.” [review18.htm] At the risk of making this blog read like one of Ajvaz’s recent novels (where the narrative structure tends to be a story within a story within a story within a story), this is a translation of an Ajvaz essay that discusses a Michal Foucault essay which discusses Rene Magritte’s drawing “This is not a pipe.” Furthermore, my inspiration for translating Ajvaz’s essay was that I myself wrote an essay some number of years ago which also discussed Foucault’s discussion of Magritte’s drawing (titled “This could be a pipe: Foucault, irrealism and Ceci n’est pas une pipe”[review5.htm]) and I thought that Ajvaz’s essay would make an interesting contrast with my piece.
The contrast between Ajvaz’s essay and mine can especially be seen in the fact that I almost entirely focus on the first third of Foucault’s essay while Ajvaz focuses almost entirely on the final 2/3 of it. The reason for this difference isn’t hard to fathom: I pretty much reject the ontology with which Foucault interprets Magritte’s drawing (i.e., that the power of the drawing lies in the fact that the inscription “This is not a pipe” attached to a drawing of a pipe highlights a complete divide between language and external reality; I, on the other hand, argue that it is the very real, if ambiguous, relation between the word and the object “pipe” that allows the negative assertion of the inscription to challenge our sense of the real) and therefore don’t get past the part of the essay where Foucault lays out this ontology; Ajvaz, on the other hand, accepts Foucault’s ontology without comment and so focuses his attention on what we should make of the drawing in light of it (and here he has some disagreement with Foucault).
But of course a blog isn’t really the place for a discussion of the ontology of the irreal. Suffice it to say for now that the translation is online for anyone that might be interested.
[posted by Greg]
Now back in Tucson, we recently attended a photography exhibit, a couple of works from which manifested the irreal in an interesting way. The exhibit, “Made in Arizona: Photographs from the Collection,” was at the Center for Creative Photography and drew upon its world-class collection (they are the repository for the collections of such photographers as Edward Weston and W. Eugene Smith) to feature works such as Ansel Adam’s formal compositions of Arizona landscapes, Aaron Siskind’s highly textured, abstract close-ups, as well as many realist, genre photos of ranchers, urban barrios and the ever ubiquitous post-WWII ranch style housing that makes up so much of the suburban sprawl here.
The first of the pictures that stood out from this mix for its irreal qualities was a picture by William Clift, titled “Judge’s Bench, Old Cochise County Courthouse, AZ (1979)”. This picture caught my eye because of the the way the judge’s bench seems to surge forward into the completely empty and (one presumes) still courtroom, which gives one the fleeting impression, much as the photographic work of Jindřich Styrsky or Eugene Atget does, that the inanimate is animate. But it does so in an opposite manner from Styrsky or Atget, who photographed objects (e.g., a storefront mannequin, a life-size poster of a circus performer) in such a way that we first think of it as being animate and only then do we realize that it is inanimate. By this method, Styrsky forces us, as Alice Whittenburg wrote in her essay on him in irreal (re)views, to “dehumanize the object and force us to confront it in its own right, as brute existence, rather than as a tamed and domesticated bit of human culture.” But “Judge’s Bench, Old Cochise County Courthouse, AZ” achieves, I think, the same effect but the other way around. At first glance it is clear that this is a picture of an empty, older courtroom. But then, continuing to look on the picture in all of its evident stillness, the judge’s bench takes on a biomorphic quality–perhaps a result of its rounded edges contrasting with the rectangular doors behind it or the jury box to its side, the way it seems to be almost moving toward the camera as though it had been spilled onto the floor and was now following the floor’s slope, and the fact it is entirely and conspicuously made from a form of biomass, wood-humanizing it for a brief while until that impression is overcome by the very stillness from which it came in the first place and we once again find ourselves confronted by the fact that, biomorphic or not, the matter that is the judge’s bench is not living and there is not anything living in that courtroom (a fact that we might now, perhaps, even take as being made ironic by the pictures of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln hanging behind the judge’s bench). Here, then, the animate-inanimate dichotomy is revealed to us by our fleetingly bringing life to matter before having to dispense with it, as opposed to a picture by Styrsky in which we are “tricked” by the artist into thinking that the object is animate, has life, and then upon closer examination are forced by the realization of what it actually is to have to strip it of that life.
But if the “Judge’s Bench” remind us of the irreality of some of Magritte’s biomorphic paintings, such as Le séducteur http://www.magritte.be/portfolio-item/le-seducteur/?lang=en, then the other photograph in the exhibit notable for its irreality reminds of those works of Magritte in which he gives us a canvas or a window that looks out on a different scene from the one it seems we should be looking out on, an example of which might be Le beau monde (The beautiful world): http://www.galleryofsurrealism.com/RMMA-1979AB.htm. This photograph, “Alvin Langdon Coburn’s storm passing through three seasons and ninety-eight years (1911, 2007, and 2009),” is one of an ongoing series by Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe, in which they find old photographs of the Grand Canyon and then go back to the spot where these photographs were originally taken and retake the photograph, and then, on the new photograph, re-impose parts of the original photograph. In this case, two segments of the original photograph, taken by Alvin Langdon Coburn in 1911 and showing a storm passing through the canyon, were imposed upon the newer views of the panorama (with one half of the panorama composed of a picture taken in 2007, and the other half composed of a photograph from 2009, which is more or less explained in the title, “Alvin Langdon Coburn’s storm passing through three seasons and ninety-eight years [1911, 2007, and 2009]).”
Described in this way, the whole enterprise sounds like it could be a gimmick, even evoking aspects of 19th century trick photography, in which supposed spirits were superimposed on photographs to give the viewer the sense of seeing the supernatural. But the actual effect of what Klett and Wolfe are doing in this (and their other photographs of the Grand Canyon) is far more interesting than this, as they evoke the past, but do so in an absolutely neutral manner. To see, among the unchanging (in the human timeframe, “eternal”) rocks of the Grand Canyon, that a storm passed through in 1911 is hardly a revelation. Of course it did, and so no doubt did many other storms, clouds and fogs. And yet we are intrigued by these ephemeral clouds set against those unchanged rocks, caught in one, not very consequential moment a hundred years ago. More than just intriguing, the juxtaposition of the two time frames brings us into contact with the irreal in that what we are seeing is, in the world of the real, quite impossible, and yet not only are we are seeing it in this potentially most realistic of artistic mediums, there is even a logic to our seeing this impossible as it is the exact same thing that is being shown. We are, however, looking out on a very different time, and the knowledge that we are makes the world created by the photograph topsy-turvy in the photograph, and thereby evokes Magritte and the irreal (it is especially interesting to note here the unique effect that the fact that it is a photograph and not a painting has on the viewer–if one attempted this by way of painting, one expects that the effect would fall flat).
Thus Neal Shrouder’s apt description of Magritte’s work can also be said to well describe this aspect of Klett and Wolfe’s work, but utilizing the photographically unique quality of lapsed time: “Magritte was fond of illusions and problems of visual perception. How do you see things, and can you trust what you see? He used the symbols of windows, eyes, curtains, and pictures within pictures to explore these questions. Whereas his contemporary Salvador Dali painted hallucinatory dreamscapes of the mind, Magritte was content to stay within the reality of the visibly world. He places before us ordinary objects from our everyday lives and gave them new meaning — he forces us look at them from a new, slightly tilted, perspective. Magritte altered the viewer to the process of seeing.”
Our apologies for not keeping up on the blog, but we have been busy with the anthology. Now that the manuscript is more or less completed, we will be finishing and posting some of the blog posts that we started but couldn’t find the time to finish, starting with the following:
At the Prague International Book Fair in May, I attended a discussion on the theme of “Turning reality into fiction.” There were three authors on the panel, Petra Hůlová, a Czech author, and two Romanian authors, Florin Lăzărescu and Adina Rosetti. The moderator was another Romanian author, Marius Chivu (Romania was the guest of honor at the book fair, and I had to rely on the Czech-language simultaneous translation of the proceedings). Since, as an irrealist, I find the question of how we turn “reality” into a fictional context to be a profound question, both philosophically and stylistically, I was curious as to how the subject would be presented at the panel. I knew little of the Romanian authors beyond the short excerpts of their work that I’d read in an excellent book, Romania: Discover the peaks of Romanian literature, which contained translations from the work of a number of contemporary Romanian writers and which the Romanian Ministry of Culture had made available for free. But these short excerpts and the descriptions of these authors’ other works showed them to be essentially writing within the parameters of realism; Hůlová was already known to me as major Czech author who, however, has so far written almost entirely within the tradition of realism. Given the number of outstanding non-realist authors writing in Czech and, based on the authors presented in Romania: Discover the peaks of Romanian literature, such as Petru Cimpoesu, in Romania as well, these were, from my point of view, surprising choices.
And so, not surprisingly given the background of the authors, the panel’s discussion of the rendering of reality into fiction took on a straightforward and practical quality–e.g., how the authors depict people or situations they have known or have experienced in their fiction—rather than a philosophical one. Mr. Lăzărescu was something of an exception to this, as he emphatically insisted that all fiction was just that, fiction, and not a vision of reality, and went so far as to dismiss the moderator’s interjection of one of his works seemingly depicting his childhood, insisting that the “mother” in that work was not, and could not be, a rendering of his actual mother.
Nonetheless, I found myself yearning for a more radical voice, meaning an author who might contend that the most effective way of turning reality into fiction (albeit, a “deeper” reality) into fiction could be done via non-realist fiction. There being no such voice on the panel, I decided that maybe I could take on the role. And so, as the presentation was coming to a conclusion, I prepared myself to argue that the most effective rendering of the uncertain, contingent reality that we must confront every minute of our lives could best be done (and yes, I was already translating in my mind the phrasing from our guidelines to this effect) by not portraying people and places realistically and by not giving a full resolution to the story, instead showing a reality constantly being undermined.
How this argument, stated in my second language and then translated into Rumanian, would have gone over with the panel will never, alas, be known. The moderator, apparently because the program was running over its allotted fifty minutes, ended the program without the members of the audience being given a chance to respond or ask any questions.
The Cafe Irreal is pleased to announce that we have signed a contract with Guide Dog Books to publish a Cafe Irreal anthology, which will come out sometime in 2013. The anthology will feature a selection of stories from our first forty issues and, consistent with GDB’s compelling backlist, a selection of theoretical works as well (from our theory page and irreal (re)views).
There is much to be written regarding Michal Ajvaz’s recently translated novel, The Golden Age, published in 2010 by Dalkey Archive Press. In this post, I will limit myself to the interesting question of its lineage. Though reviewers have likened The Golden Age to the work of Franz Kafka, Jonathan Swift and Jorge Luis Borges, I think the first two are more incidental to it. Yes, there is a scene that takes place in Prague which is decidedly fantastical, but there is little else of Kafka in the work. And it is true that the main storyline takes place on a mysterious island that has been traveled to by the protagonist and so reminds of us of Gulliver’s Travels. But Ajvaz’s rather lengthy novel has a singular focus on the society that inhabits the aforementioned island, which differentiates it from Swift’s tale, in which Gulliver travels to many different islands. Furthermore, whereas the societies on the islands in Swift’s work are depicted using the best traditions of satirical comedy, e.g., taking to absurd lengths many recognizable conventions of human society, the notable aspect of the depiction of the civilization on the unnamed island in Ajvaz’s work is the degree to which the author works to make it not resemble any conventions of human society.
And this is when I find myself turning to the last name on the list, Jorge Luis Borges, especially the story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” And I have in mind here primarily “Tlon”: in this story, Borges describes a world that, even in the context of the story, is fictitious even if it is also seemingly real, and which does not abide by the usual rules of language, culture, and social dynamics. In addition, “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” has multiple stories within the story, so much so that the reader becomes confused as to what the actual storyline is. All of these things can also be said of The Golden Age. But here, once again, the matter of length is important. For Borges’ story is all of twelve pages long, while Ajvaz’s novel is fully 322 pages long. To sustain such a non-existing/existing, non-substantial/substantial world, founded on ideas and language as much as it is on any physical reality, is a considerable achievement for Ajvaz.
It also raises in my mind the question of whether one of Ajvaz’s many projects is to elaborate on and extend the work of some of the more fantastical writers working in an idealistic mode, exemplified by Borges. I am also thinking in this regard of Ajvaz’s work 55 měst (55 Cities), which is “a catalogue of settlements which Marco Polo related to Kublai Khan, compiled in honor of Calvino,” a work clearly inspired by, and building upon the foundation of, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. (I translated a small portion of this work, which appeared in Issue 31 of The Cafe Irreal).
This is not to suggest that Ajvaz’s work is derivative — indeed, the adjective I would use to describe his brilliant novel Druhé město (The Other City) would be “Ajvazian”, so unique is it — but it does suggest that he considers himself to be working within a broader tradition of which Borges and Calvino are key figures, much as we would consider irrealism to be a part of the “Kafkan” tradition. I will certainly be contemplating this possibility as I read more of Ajvaz’s work, both his fiction and his critical work (including a book length essay on Borges). However, it will be slower going for me as the rest of his work hasn’t yet been translated into English, and I will therefore be reading it in Czech. Next up for me will be a critical essay that Ajvaz wrote about Foucault’s essay on Magritte’s painting, Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe), a logical enough choice as I too wrote an essay about Foucault’s essay.
In Praise of Kaela
(an additional note in regard to The Golden Age)
And what is the second thing I will be saying about this work? Even somebody who has read Michal Ajvaz’s The Golden Age might wonder, assuming it had been a while since they’d read the work, who or what is the “Kaela” that I am praising in the title of this postscript? Kaela, as it happens, is the narrator’s girlfriend, the woman with whom he has a relationship while he is staying on the island and the reason I’m praising her (or, especially, Ajvaz’s treatment of her) is that we know virtually nothing about her. Not what she looks like, not who her parents are, not what she did for a living (not that it’s clear that the Islanders exactly ever do anything “for a living”). Indeed, even the few times we learn how she reacts to what the narrator says or does, this reaction is not unique to her, but serves to indicate to us the reactions of the islanders in general. It is apparent in reading this work that Ajvaz knows full well that when writing a didactic work (and for all its richness, this is a very didactic work) one does not muddy it up with cliched concerns about “fully developing” the characters. Indeed, I can’t help thinking in this regard of seeing a brief feature about Ajvaz on Czech television in which he is asked about which contemporary authors he reads, and he responded that he is largely focused on the various aspects of his own work (which presumably includes, e.g., as he wrote a book length essay about him, close readings of Borges) and so doesn’t read much of his contempories. Perhaps, then, this is why he hasn’t been infected by the contagion of gratiuitous characterization in works of fantastic fiction. Or, more likely, he is simply immune to the contagion.
Two things, besides my reading of The Golden Age, have helped bring this issue to mind. The first was a recent visit by a (now) retired professor of English who, with one comment, inspired me to write a paper that helped me to clarify the issue of characterization in fantastic literature. The second was the fact that, while sorting through some papers, I just came across an excellent essay that long ago influenced me in this matter of characterization: Joanna Russ’s “Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction” (Science Fiction Studies 2:112-119, July 1975). In it, Russ states that science fiction, like much medieval literature (and, I would argue, virtually all fantastic fiction), is essentially a form of didactic fiction. “That despite superficial similarities to naturalistic (or other) modern fiction, the protagonists of science fiction are always collective, never individual persons (although individuals often appear as exemplary or representative figures)…I would like to propose that contemporary literary criticism (not having been developed to handle such material) is not the ideal tool for dealing with fiction that is explicitly, deliberately, and baldly didactic. (Modern criticism appears to experience the same difficulty in handling the 18th century contes [which can be considered] as among the ancestors of science fiction.”
[posted by Greg]
We haven’t written much about the English author Magnus Mills, even though he is among the leading contemporary novelists whose writing could be considered irreal. We hope to change this situation soon, perhaps using as an inspiration the several days we spent in London on our way to Prague this year and the chance it gave us to buy two books by Mills that are not available in the United States, the novel, The Maintenance of Headway, (published in the UK in 2009) and a short story collection, Screwtop Thompson (2010).
Despite our interest in Mills, The Maintenance of Headway isn’t likely to figure in our discussion of his irrealism. Though it is a fine novel, and certainly an excellent read for someone who has just travelled extensively around London by bus, it is probably the least irreal of his works. This is not to suggest, however, that Mills has embraced the mainstream of literary realism. The work has all the spareness of description, distanced narration, and exclusivity of focus that we would expect from him. But unlike the Restraint of Beasts, Three to See the King, or A Scheme for Full Employment (which we might well call a “social irrealist” novel), there is nothing in this novel that couldn’t happen in our currently existing reality. The ending — which articulates the difficulties that the characters at the bus company have in reconciling the theory and practice of maintaining headway — points us toward a very particular, albeit universal, meaning.