A Review of The Conductor and Other Tales by Jean Ferry

[posted by Greg]

We want here to make note of an important book published late last year, The Conductor and Other Tales by Jean Ferry. A copy was kindly sent to us by its publisher, Wakefield Press, upon the request of the work’s distinguished translator, Edward Gauvin (we’ve previously published his translations of The Pavilion and the Lime Tree by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, The Wrinkle Maker by Marcel Béalu and, indeed, one of the stories that appears in this volume, Kafka, or the Secret Society.

The book immediately stands out because of its elegant appearance. It is printed in a format I’m mainly familiar with in Europe – a matte (not glossy) paperback cover with a folded over leaf – that is largely reserved for literary works with a smallish print run. This sense of the literary was reinforced by the abundance of compelling black and white collages by Claude Bellaré. Indeed, seeing a small literary work so distinctively and lovingly put together in an American context served as a reminder of how rare that experience is here, and for reasons that are not entirely clear: the graphic work done on our mass produced trade paperbacks can certainly be of high quality, but the graphics and illustrations are generally limited to the front and back covers, leaving the rest of the book almost indistinguishable from any other book of its type, while the small press literary works also generally fall into the same standard trade paperback format with the disadvantage that they do not have such a large budget for the cover art. As every single story in this volume is illustrated by one of Bellaré’s surrealistic collages, that is not a problem here.

And the stories themselves are quite brilliant. As this is but a short review, I will attempt to describe Ferry’s stories succinctly but imperfectly by stating that they present a reality being pushed by the circumstances described in the story and the narrator’s reflections on those circumstances to the breaking point and then, inevitably, past it. As in the story “Rapa Nui,” in which the narrator finds himself at long last on Easter Island after 30 years of literally dreaming, time and again, that he was finally on Easter Island except that, at the end of the story’s two pages, we learn that “not a line of the above is true, except that for 30 years I’ve wanted to go to Easter Island, where something awaits me…” The same is true in the story of Ferry’s that we published, “Kafka, or the Secret Society,” in regard to the the mysterious, but flexible and expansive (perhaps endlessly expansive) membership parameters of the society mentioned in the title. Indeed, the stories generally share the quality of the island on which the narrator is stranded in “Letter to a Stranger,” whose reality causes him to ask the reader, “Haven’t you, in the dark, ever reached out with your foot for the final step of a staircase, only to find there wasn’t one? Do you remember the utter disarray you felt for a moment? … Well, this land is always like that.”

Indeed, this work reinforces for me the sense that we in the English-speaking world are not sufficiently familiar with the strong, and unique, tradition of the fantastic that exists in the Francophone world. Like many, I’ve been aware of and even read occasional works by such authors as Alfred Jarry and iconic names such as Baudleaire and Rimbaud. But that these are only the most famous names of what is a very deep tradition has been brought home to me from three sources in the course of my work with The Cafe Irreal: the translations that Mr. Gauvin has sent us (see above), the translations that Michael Shreve has sent us (Morphiel the Demiurge by Marcel Schwob, Hell by Remy de Gourmont, and  Where Are the Plans? by Jean-Marc Agrati) and, in the course of my own translating and reading of the work of the Czech writer Michal Ajvaz, his mention in an essay (which I read several years ago) that the author who has had the greatest influence on him was Raymond Roussel.

This was a surprise to me as I didn’t have at that time the slightest idea who Raymond Roussel was. I have since corrected this by reading Roussel’s Impressions of Africa. It is true that it is not at all my favorite work from amongst what I have read of this group of authors, but perhaps to correct this I need to read a bit more of Ferry’s work. For it turns out that Ferry wrote no less than three works about Roussel. Indeed, André Breton, who called Roussel the “greatest mesmerizer of our times,” admitted in a letter to Ferry that “without you, I would probably still not see anything in him.”

But here we have entered the realm of the translator’s excellent introduction, and these and other aspects of Ferry, Jarry, Roussel, the Collège de ‘Pataphysique (of which Ferry was a leading member — “pataphysique” is “the science of imaginary solutions”), the Oulipo (a subcommittee of the Collège de ‘Pataphysique) and other such matters are concisely and nicely explicated by Gauvin. Which is yet another reason to purchase this book, and/or recommend that your local library does the same.




Sun Ra’s 100th Birthday and Irrealism

[posted by Greg]

It might be going a bit far for us, as irrealists, to claim the great jazz musician, bandleader and Afro-futurist Sun Ra as one of our own. But I can certainly report having my sense of reality undermined anytime that I saw Ra and his Solar Jet Set Arkestra. Certainly one does not expect to go to a jazz concert and, after the band sans leader has warmed the audience up with a tune or two, to see the band’s singer get up and start singing the lyric “When the world was in darkness, and darkness was ignorance, along came Ra,” and then, as the rest of the band repeated the refrain “Along came Ra,” to see Sun Ra himself, dressed in a kind of futurist-Egyptian garb, coming onstage. Nor did one expect, as happened at a concert at Chicago’s Navy Pier in 1980, to hear a long monologue from Ra, detailing how he had once been the pharaoh of Egypt but had given up his kingdom for immortality. And beyond the unexpected theatrical juxtapositions there were the musical ones, as the band effortlessly moved back and forth between playing with the raw energy and deceptive simplicity of a 1920s or 1930s jazz territorial band and with the sophistication and boundary-breaking sensibilities of the cutting-edge avant-garde group that they also were.

Some of the sense of strangeness of these performances came from not appreciating the musical and cultural roots of Sun Ra, who in his youth played with the great 1920s bandleader Fletcher Henderson and whose stage sensibilities lay in the more theatrical jazz of, e.g., Cab Calloway, which preceded the sanitizing of big band jazz that occurred in the course of the 1930s and 1940s. In that sense, he was both a throwback to a previous era and yet an exemplar of the avant-garde. But it also flowed from the personality of Sun Ra himself, aided by his brilliant musicians, including vocalist June Tyson, tenor saxophonist John Gilmore, and alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, and the whole tradition of the touring big band, which the Arkestra exemplified.

In 1985 Alice and I were living at the Blackstone Hotel in downtown Chicago when the Arkestra had a two-week engagement at the Jazz Showcase, which was located in a room off the lobby of the hotel. The whole of the fifteen or so member Arkestra stayed at the hotel as well, and so for that two weeks we would frequently encounter its members as they came and went from rehearsals, ate at the diner downstairs, and so on. Like any touring band they lived in a world of their own, but this was obviously a very unique world, influenced as it was by the singular vision of Sun Ra. And here, perhaps, we could make a leap to some of the icons of irrealism, for if exceptionally distinct visions of the world, with brilliant art flowing from them, characterized figures such as Kafka and Borges, then the same can certainly also be said of Sun Ra.

The Cafe Irreal Gets a New Look

[posted by Alice]

Having a web-based magazine means doing a certain amount of web design, but we’ve always tried to keep the design of The Cafe Irreal simple so the focus is on the stories. When the first issue of Cafe Irreal went online in February of 1999, it had a somewhat stark black-and-white design, and for the first few years the “cover” of each issue featured an animated gif collage. Those were the days of font tags and the other messy building blocks of early html.

With the February 2014 issue we’re rolling out a new design for which we’re using html 5 and a CSS framework, Pure, to make a responsive site. Pure is available at http://purecss.io/. We used a couple of their common layouts  and customized them. The resulting site reminds us a little of the original, black-and-white Cafe Irreal design, and it’s nearly as light-weight. Let us know what you think.

Partisan politics and The Irreal Reader: A note regarding the title of our anthology

[by Greg]

The title “The Irreal Reader: Fiction & Essays from The Cafe Irreal” — and to an extent the anthology itself — was inspired by a 1946 anthology I found in a library several years ago. I was drawn to the anthology in question, “The Partisan Reader: Ten Years of Partisan Review, 1934-1944,” because of a particular, and peculiar, connection I had with the Partisan Review that dated back to 2002 and 2003. At that time I was actively translating work by the Czech author Arnošt Lustig, and among the works I’d translated was a lengthy story of some 16,000 words titled “Enzo – A Jewish Story.” It was a compelling piece, in which the story’s narrator, a Czech Jew who’d been sent first to Terezín and then to Auschwitz-Birkenau (like Arnost himself) and an Italian Jew, Enzo, who’d been active in the anti-fascist resistance, compare their war-time experiences while eating an ironically sumptuous meal prepared by Enzo’s wife, Concetta, in the couple’s Rome apartment. But it was also a piece in which the protagonists discussed politics at length, and for this reason it was difficult to place the story in the mainstream American literary press. At the time there was, however, a notable exception to this tendency toward the apolitical in American letters: the Partisan Review. As I’d hoped, they accepted the story with great enthusiasm. But, to Arnošt’s and my chagrin, this exception, in spite of its long and distinguished history, wasn’t long for the world.

The dominant American literary magazine of the 1940s and 1950s, the traditionally left-leaning Partisan Review was now a part of Boston University which, around that time, was headed by a president who was moving (from what I understand) in a neo-conservative direction. This president, John Silbr, took advantage of the death of the PR’s cofounder William Phillips in September of 2002 to move against the publication, and announced that its funding would cease at the end of 2003. Since my translation was scheduled to be published in the next issue, this needn’t have affected Arnošt’s and my contribution. However the editor, Edith Kurzweil, the one who had accepted “Enzo,” decided to terminate the publication after one final issue that was to be dedicated to the memory of Phillips. Her concern was that that there might be an attempt by the neo-conservatives to take over the good name of the PR and use it for their own purposes, so she felt that by ending it then and there this would both be less likely to happen and there would, in any case, be a distinct break between the old publication and any new use of the title that might be attempted.

And so that was that: due to a complicated play of politics, Arnošt and I were wouldn’t be getting our story published in one of America’s most venerable and prestigious publications, not to mention being out of a few thousand dollars. (Instead we got a $100 kill fee from the university.)

But this (I hope) interesting story of literary and political intrigue begs the question as to why, having been drawn to the anthology, we went ahead and modeled The Irreal Reader after this rather ancient anthology of a deceased publication. First off, the title had a certain attraction, as the concept of a “reader” seemed a bit eye catching and unusual and the word itself goes well with “irreal.” Just as important, however, was the overtly intellectual quality of the anthology. Instead of just collecting the stories together, as most literary anthologies culled from publications do, it featured a lengthy introduction by Lional Trilling and a “Retrospect” by the editors, Phillips and Philip Rahv. Together these pieces vigorously described the publication’s goals and helped to situate it historically. Though our preface and afterward are not nearly as ambitious as those which Trilling, Phillips and Rahv undertook, they serve something of the same purpose. In addition, the Partisan anthology also gave us a precedent (there are others, though they too are more from the middle of last century, and are from Europe at that) for mixing fiction and literary theory in a collection such as the The Irreal Reader.

So at least, then, some good came out of my Partisan Review experience beyond that small kill fee. Sad to say, however, “Enzo—A Jewish Story” never did find another home and remains, to this day, unpublished in English.

After 15 Years, the Virtual Becomes Physical

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.

A note on compiling The Cafe Irreal anthology

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.