[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.
(posted by Greg)
The film version of Vaclav Havel’s play Odchazeni (Leaving) – directed by Havel himself – premiered here in Prague a few weeks ago. I hadn’t had a chance to see the play, which Havel wrote in 2005 and which has been the only play he’s written since turning to politics in the wake of 1989. I was quite interested in seeing the film, in part because Havel’s political career, to the surprise of those who knew his earlier work, has taken such an “establishment” turn. He has not only fully backed the policies of the world’s sole superpower but, in addition, the politics of some of its most conservative, and powerful, political groupings (such as the neoconservatives). Thus, he fully backed the United States invasion of Iraq, the stationing of American soldiers and radars on the soil of the Czech Republic as a part of a Star Wars anti-missile system (and opposed the holding of a referendum on the issue), and has refused to condemn the American policies and practices in the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. How then, would this film, which was about the chancellor of an unnamed country leaving office, as Havel had just done, play out, given Havel’s continuing accommodation to the kind of establishment forces that he treated so ironically in his earlier plays? Curiously, in the play, no accommodation is made to these forces at all. It is in fact quite savage in its treatment of all the compromises and deceptions that one must make to keep one’s position in the world of establishment politics. Havel does this quite brilliantly, and the fact that he utilized the best traditions of Absurdist Theater and the Theater of the Grotesque to accomplish this goal was quite gratifying for an irrealist such as me.
But the film does raise the question as to whether Havel, who continues to this day to play the same political game (now in the role of the revered ex-President statesman, very similar to what the protagonist in Odchazeni, Chancellor Vilém Rieger, was aiming for) that he so savagely condemns in the film, might not be a terribly conflicted person.
[posted by Greg]
To have a chance at long last to read Maurice Blanchot’s novel Aminadab was something of an event for us. Long ago, when we were putting together The Cafe Irreal, we came across a review of Aminadab by John-Paul Sartre titled, “Aminadab or the Fantastic Considered as a Language.” The influence of Sartre’s review, also a polemic on Kafka’s work, is easy to spot in our publication: a citation from it serves as a preamble on our homepage and, indeed, the setting that Sartre uses in that citation helps explain why we are the “Cafe” Irreal even though we serve no food or drinks. At the time we were getting The Cafe Irreal into gear, however, Aminadab was not available in English translation; the part of Sartre’s review/essay that addressed Blanchot’s novel, therefore, was all we knew about the novel. In 2002, however, an English translation appeared and in 2010 we finally learned of it and read the book. Though this review has been a long time in coming, it will remain a preliminary one as the book will require another reading.
Based on this first reading, I would agree with translator Jeff Fort’s opening words to his introduction, in which he states that “this is a strange book.” Not specifically, however, for the reason that he gives (though it is no doubt true), i.e., that “strangeness is the very element in which [Blanchot's narrative] works move and unfold,” nor because of Blanchot’s tendency to “dispense with all recognizable narrative conventions.” Nor, for that matter, as an irrealist, did I find the Kafkan setting and structure of Aminadab strange. What I found strange and challenging about this novel, and ultimately unsuccessful, was Blanchot’s appropriation of Kafkan conventions and structures without an existential agent to inhabit them. Thus, the work starts out quite enticingly with Thomas, the protagonist, arriving in an unidentified village, making his way through a sparsely described but intriguing street and, upon seeing a woman seemingly signal to him from an upper window of a boarding house, deciding to enter the building and look for her. The rest of the novel is about that search, and all the difficulties that he has reaching her. This, of course, has obvious parallels with the plot outlines of Kafka’s The Castle. Indeed, in comparing the two novels Sartre writes that Kafka had perfected the technique in that work, in that “the hero himself is fantastic. We know nothing about this surveyor whose adventures and views we share. We know nothing except his incomprehensible obstinacy in remaining in a forbidden village. To attain this end, he sacrifices everything; he treats himself as a means. But we never know the value this end had for him and whether it was worth so much effort. M. Blanchot has adopted the same method; his Thomas is no less mysterious than the servants in the building. We do not know where he comes from, nor why he persists in reaching the woman who has signaled to him.” (p. 65)
Having now read Aminadab for myself, I have to question whether this parallel holds. There was, that is to say, an imperative to K.’s claim that he was a land surveyor; first of all, he might actually have been the “Land Surveyor whom the Count is expecting” that he claims to be in the novel’s opening pages and, secondly, even if not, even if his claim, which sets him on that uncertain trajectory toward the Castle, isn’t true, it is a claim that he makes under obvious duress, under threat of being forced to “quit the Count’s territory at once,” that is, being forced out of the inn and into the snowy night with nowhere to sleep. This is far different from the apparent motivation of Thomas, who sees the woman make “a quick sign with her hand, like an invitation; then she quickly closed the window…Thomas was quite perplexed. Could he consider this gesture truly as a call to him? It was rather a sign of friendship than an invitation. It was also a sort of dismissal. He hesitated. Looking again in the direction of the shop, he realized that the man who was sweeping had gone back inside as well. This reminded him of his first plan. But then he thought that he would always have time to carry it out later, and he decided to cross the street and enter the house.”
Thus, it is a matter of curiosity and momentary whim, perhaps additionally encouraged by a vague sense that he knows the woman, that inspires his journey; indeed the journey itself is often a series of discourses as he tries to clarify the laws of the house and his status in relation to them, discourses which are complemented by the “endless commentaries” of the various characters in the novel, with their “unreliable and conflicting clarifications,” as Fort puts it. With these, he adds, the novel “enters into its most singular and proper mode,” (xiv), one which would seem to suggest Blanchot’s later works, which “gradually dispense with all recognizable narrative conventions and constantly verge toward the rarefied disappearance of the voice that proffers them.” (vii)
All of this leaves Aminadab with a floating quality, an endeavor undertaken out of a vague curiosity and compulsion and which continues on more or less on the same basis, which then turns into an extended discourse which offers us, as Sartre complains, “a continual translation, a full commentary on its symbols.” (Sartre, p. 70) One example of this that is particularly striking occurs in the novel’s final pages, when the woman says to Thomas that “this night has its particularities. It brings with it neither dreams nor the premonitions that, at times, take the place of dreams. Rather it is itself a vast dream that is not within reach of the person it envelopes. When it has surrounded your bed, we will draw the curtains that enclose the alcove, and the splendor of the objects that will then be revealed will be enough to console the most unhappy of men. At that moment, I too will become truly beautiful…” (p.196)
In The Castle, on the other hand, K. is clearly a person with a desire to move up in the world – e.g., he is always trying to make contacts (above all with figures of power, such as Klamm) and trying to show, and impress, the others that he is indeed a player. The discourses are concrete ones, about officialdom, what the officials do and how one gets an in with them. His actions represent real aspirations, even if it isn’t clear what it is he’s really aspiring to, how the strange world of the village will receive those aspirations, or whether the aspirations might not themselves be entirely futile from the start.
Indeed, it is these conflicts between K.’s aspirations and the world he finds himself in that helps make it possible to classify The Castle as an existentialist work (as well as many other works which we consider to be irreal). Aminadab, by presenting us with an extended work that has a Kafkan structure but whose protagonist and narrative lack such aspiration, raises the question of whether there must be such a close association between irrealism and existentialism. Or, put another way, if we accept that an important element of irrealism is not just the absurd (meaning, in this case, the chasm between what we want and can imagine on the one hand and what our finite world and body allows us on the other) but also the passion of the absurd (the insistent, driven attempt to do the impossible and cross this chasm) then Aminadab might not be an irrealist work. By largely discarding any strong imperative in the protagonist or narrative — any of the passion mentioned above — the novel leaves the reader in the abstracted and disassociated state that more typically results from reading works of narrative experimentation. But, of course, the novel does utilize many Kafkan elements and structures, and so even in my own mind the matter is not settled.
Aminadab by Maurice Blanchot ; translated and with an introduction by Jeff Fort Lincoln ; London : University of Nebraska Press, 2002.
Literary Essays by John-Paul Sartre, Philosophical Library, New York, 1958, tr. Annette Michelson.
[posted by Alice]
In November of 1993 Greg and I arrived in Prague for the first time. As Louis Armand tells us in his introduction to the anthology The Return of Kral Majales, by that point Prague was home to a lively community of English-speaking writers and had already been proclaimed the “Left Bank of the nineties.” Also in 1993, Michal Ajvaz published The Other City in Czech.
Flash forward from November of 1993 to November of 2010: Although an English translation of Ajvaz’ exceptional novel has been available since 2009, it wasn’t until this month that I actually read it. I also just finished reading Greg’s essay about the Kral Majales anthology, a volume that contains work by many writers who lived in Prague between 1990 and 2010 (including Greg and me). I decided to write a post about these readings and the memories they evoked.
[To be honest, I wasn’t thinking very clearly on my first trip to Prague because of jet lag and fatigue, and we were only in the Czech Republic for six weeks and in Prague for two before we had to leave because of my father’s illness, and it took a lot of energy just to make ourselves understood because we possessed maybe 200 words of Czech between us, and when we were hungry we found our way through crumbling cobblestone streets and down into musty basements of stone buildings to eat pizza with catsup and drink muddy coffee and breathe vast amounts of cigarette smoke, and when we emerged and had walked through streets filled with slushy snow till we were exhausted, we would find our way back in the coal-scented darkness to accommodations that were sometimes stiflingly warm, and I lay in bed and read Kafka’s collected stories and thought them brilliant and wanted to write fiction but wasn’t at all convinced that Prague was the place to do that. In the meantime, Greg found enough that was attractive and intriguing to convince him that he would return.]
In The Other City Ajvaz says, “… the snow lying everywhere is almost already the beginning of the unreal. It too urges us to leave: we are bound to find in it footprints of chimerical beings, footsteps that will lead us to secret lairs in the depths of the city.” (page 13) And of course when we returned to Prague in January of 1995 there was again snow on the ground, and Greg was ready to teach English and to become a translator and to engage in a richly complex writing project. Less engaged, less convinced, I focused on imagination.
[As Greg describes in more detail in his essay, we began to go to movies in out-of-the-way neighborhoods, to go to galleries to see whimsical and sometimes fiercely original art, to look at old buildings with distinct personas (though these buildings still exist, they are now renovated, sandblasted, painted and plastered into pretentious monuments that remind me of Disneyland), and we explored a city with so many hidden corners that it seemed to disassemble and reassemble itself before our eyes to defy being known, and in public places we found a deep chill that the coal-fired heat couldn’t touch (though the apartment in which we stayed was cozy warm), and I learned the complex route from the tram stop to our place (past the brewery, over the tracks, up the hill, up the steep steps, up another hill, around the bend, past the barking dogs, and so on), and I learned to speak a little Czech; to find vegetarian possibilities in a pork-and-dumpling land; and to miss my home as a special and idealized place I rarely appreciated when I was in it.]
We returned to Prague each year after that and stayed as long as we could. We encountered many of the spaces Armand describes as meeting places for expats: Beef Stew readings at Radost, Alchemy, The Globe Bookstore. But the strangeness of the city was what seeped into my bones and the Czech imagination influenced me more than the English speakers around me ever really did. It was while we were in Prague in 1997 that we first came up with the idea of publishing an online journal that would feature a hard-to-define type of writing, which we call irrealism. We sometimes refer to it as Kafkan (we used to call it Kafkaesque as John Gardner does, but we learned that people associate the term Kafkaesque with faceless bureaucracy and dehumanizing police states, and though such things can be found in irreal literature, it’s not inevitable), and we spent many hours trying to see Kafka’s city as he once did.
We were also very influenced by Czech literature, which is filled with whimsy and absurdism and fantasy, and that brings me to the fact that The Other City by Michal Ajvaz is a very irreal novel. The main reason I say this is that the meanings contained in the work point in many, often irreconcilable directions (in Shimon Sandbank’s parlance, they are “so many pointers to an unknown meaning”). The Other City begins like an allegory: the velvet-bound book with its secret alphabet opens the way to a world of the imagination that includes lectures at 2:00 a.m. and underground churches. But the references also point to notions of death, the unconscious mind, the mysteries of life and sexuality, and the search for meaning and patterns that might result in art. This novel is a feast for the imagination, alternating as it does between a moderately straightforward (though always irreal) narrative style and stream-of-consciousness, surreal, automatic-writing sorts of monologues, the first of which is delivered by a black fish. And yet there is a way in which the green marble streetcars and combination skyscraper-cruise ship on the Vltava found in this novel call to mind the real city, the Prague I knew back in the 1990s, a place of such intense complex imagination that anything seemed possible.
[In the summer of 2009 when I was last in Prague, there was no snow in which to find the footprints of chimerical beings, of course, but we lived near Petrin Hill, which features prominently in The Other City, and it’s still a microcosm of those hidden corners and magic moments we once seemed to find everywhere, and I walked up that hill almost every day because I wanted to see the birds and trees, but I also was reminded that Prague is still full of the unexpected – on Petrin there’s a gallery of imaginative art and an underground exhibit, and a number of small and unusual buildings (a wooden church, a pink chapel, and at the top a replica of the Eiffel Tower -- and when I walked up Petrin I felt secure in the company of the remarkable number of statues to be found there (though I also enjoyed the Japanese and Italian tourists, the students, the staid ladies with their little dogs), and the night we went up to the astronomical observatory at the top of the hill and then rode slowly back down in the funicular railway gazing at the lights of the city below us that looked so lovely and yet promised something more than an ordinary city should, I renewed my connection with the other city, and I think it would be a very good idea to read Ajvaz’ book again next time I’m in Prague.]