“What?” he asked, startled. “What did you say?”
“Gallows,” she confirmed, with a provocative movement of her shoulder.
And: I’ve always wanted to start my novel that way, with a sentence that slaps them in the face. And him: Your novel? You aren’t seriously going to write it? And anyway who is slapping whom? And her: It just hauls off and slaps them, all of them, the overfed slaves of Europe, pudgy little slaves and their tie wearing masters, and all the managers, militarized by America, and the employers’ serfs and all those pathetic types, subjugated by everyone, and the social-traitors and their bulldogs, and you as well, my bulldog, you as well.
He sensed she was drifting, on the verge of hysteria again, and if that happened she was liable to lose the fundamental sense of things, attracting the not necessarily indulgent attention of the passers-by, and creating a scene and, in the wake of that scene, a disaster; for herself certainly, but also for him, for he was up to his neck in this affair. “A slap to the snout of the Western pig,” she hissed playfully. “Please don’t tell me you’re going to ruin everything by writing a book riddled with information,” he countered, “where anyone who cares in the German police will find all he needs to pluck you from your hiding-place, not to mention plucking me from my not so hiding-place and breaking me, dismantling in turn what’s left of your network of nutjobs? Don’t forget I’m up to my neck in this thing.” And her: Would you get a hold of yourself, my brave bulldog, I’d never rat on you. I wouldn’t rat on you for anything in the world. And him: Again happy. And her: Nevertheless, my novel will open with a vision of gallows. And him: That’s absurd. Don’t write anything. And her: I remind you that we are in fact on the Rua do Arsenal, in Lisbon, and gallows do abound. As throughout Europe, I might add. And him: Darling, let me just say: you’re fucking nuts.
He hastily examined the messages being sent by her pupils, diving immediately for the shadows and light, which conveyed, from the other end of this tunnel, her intellect. She’d turned toward him, her sunglasses perched atop her head, as if to hold back abundant curls, but for the past two weeks she’d worn her hair short; it was the face of a young woman sunning, only tormented and hard; her features ravished by passions, hatreds and fear. An arid veil was morphing the transparent blue-green of her eyes; darkening the silver glints, until recently so bright: a wind carrying charred dust across an age-old steppe, where presently everything alive was tempted to rave. She’s going mad, he thought. Despondency rose in him. Her mind is fading, she’s drowning. A cynical mistrust had sunk its claws into him, and already he was drawing up contingency plans, already he was preparing emergency measures, sirens wailing. Their joint survival rested on a ruse. If Ingrid were to crack, she would take him down with her. And he, Kurt, had no intention of stumbling into the void just to keep her company.
As he stared her down, she reigned in her smile, and then broke free, joyous. She nodded with her chin towards the clumps of dried cod hanging in front of the markets.
And: You see, I’m not lying, all around us it’s nothing but disfigured corpses. And him: I’m sorry, I misunderstood. I thought you were sinking into madness. And her: Oh don’t worry I sank ages ago, now I’m just pretending. My bulldog was the only one to realize, such a clever bloodhound. And him: Forget about writing this book. The trail will be too visible. And what’s the point of leaving clues? Forget about literature. And her: First I give up my machine gun, and now black ink; is that how it is, my bulldog?
Antoine Volodine’s short story “The Theory of Image According to Maria Three-Thirteen” is collected in Writers, a book available in English translation by Katina Rogers from Dalkey Archive Press.
Writers is one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years: unsettling, bizarre, satirical, and savage, its stories focus on writers who are more than writers: they are would-be revolutionaries and assassins, revolting humans revolting against the forces of late capitalism.
Writers (which I wrote about here) functions a bit like a discontinuous novel that spins its own web of self-references to produce a small large gray electric universe—the Volodineverse, I guess—which we can also see in post-exotic “novels” like Minor Angels and Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven.
Volodine’s post-exotic project refers obliquely to the ways in which the late 20th century damns the emerging 21st century. And yet the trick of it all is that the stories and sketches and vignettes seem ultimately to refer only to themselves, or to each other—the world-building is from the interior. This native interiority is mirrored by the fact that many of his writer-heroes are prisoners communicating from their cells, often to interrogators, but just as often to an unresponsive void.
“The Theory of Image According to Maria Three-Thirteen” takes place in such a void, a kind of limbo into which the (anti-)hero Maria Three-Thirteen speaks herself into existence. It’s an utterly abject existence; Maria Three-Thirteen crouches naked like “a madwoman stopped before the unknown, before strangers and nothingness, and her mouth and her orifices unsealed after death…all that remains for her is to speak.” She speaks to a semi-human tribunal, a horrorshow, creatures “without self-knowledge.” After several paragraphs of floating abject abstraction, Maria eventually illustrates her thesis—an evocation of speech without language, speech in a deaf natural voice–to this audience.
Her illustration is a list of scenes from 20th-century films.
I found this moment of the story initially baffling—it seemed, upon first reading, an utter surrender to exterior referentiality on Volodine’s part, a move inconsistent with the general interiority of Writers. Even though the filmmakers alluded to made and make oblique, slow, often silent, often challenging (and always beautiful) films, films aesthetically similar to Volodine’s own project, I found Volodine’s gesture too on-the-nose: Of course he’s beholden to Bergman, Tarkovsky, Bela Tarr!
Rereading the story, and rereading it in the context of having read more of Volodine’s work, I take this gesture as the author’s recognition of his aesthetic progenitors. Volodine here signals that the late 20th-century narrative that most informs his work is cinema—a very specific kind of cinema—and not per se literature.
This reading might be a misreading on my part though. Maybe Volodine simply might have wanted to make a list of some of his favorite scenes from some of his favorite films, and maybe Volodine might have wanted to insert that list into a story. And it’s a great list. I mean, I like the list. I like it enough to include it below. I have embedded the scenes alluded to where possible, and in a few places made what I take to be worthy substitutions.
Here is Volodine; here is Volodine’s Maria Three-Thirteen, speaking the loud deaf voice—
And now, she begins again, to illustrate, I will cite a few images without words or almost without words, several images that make their deaf voice heard. You know them, you have certainly attended cinema showings during which they’ve been projected before you. These are not immobile images, but they are fundamentally silent, and they make their deaf voice heard very strongly.
The chess match with death in The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman, with, in the background, a procession of silhouettes that undertake the arduous a scent of a hill.
The man on all fours who barks in the mud facing a dog in Damnation by Bela Tarr.
The baby that cries in a sordid and windowless apartment in Eraserhead by David Lynch.
The bare facade of an abandoned apartment building, with Nosferatu’s head in a window, in Nosferatu by Friedrich Murnau.
The boat that moves away from across an empty sea, overflowing with cadavers, at the end of Shame by Ingmar Bergman.
The desert landscape, half hidden by a curtain that the wind lifts in Ashes of Time by Wong Kar Wai.
The early morning travel by handcar, with the regular sound of wheels, in Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky.
The old man with cancer who sings on a swing in Ikiru by Akira Kurosawa.
The blind dwarfs with their enormous motorcycle glasses who hit each other with canes in Even Dwarfs Started Small by Werner Herzog.
The train station where three bandits wait at the beginning of Once Upon a Time in the West by Sergio Leone.
The flares above the river in Ivan’s Childhood by Andrei Tarkovsky.
The prairie traveled over by a gust of wind in The Mirror by Andrei Tarkovsky.
She is quiet for a moment.
There are many others she thinks. They all speak. They all speak without language, with a deaf voice, with a natural and deaf voice.
I finished Gerald Murnane’s 1982 novel The Plains last week. The Plains is quite short—it’s a novella really—and is divided into three parts. I read Part I in two sittings, gulping down the first-person narrator’s description of an Australia that exists in some alternate universe, where aristocratic plainsmen of Inner Australia keep grand houses populated by every kind of artisan. The novel’s first 70 pages or so move at a brisk pace, brimming with hints of a mythology that Murnane’s narrator keeps always just outside the frame. I read Parts II and III (much shorter than Part I) at a much slower pace. Murnane’s prose condenses here, his sentences tangling out into thick knots of consciousness. I’m still not sure what to make of the novel’s conclusion.
I’m absolutely crawling through Mario Benedetti’s The Truce (in English translation by Harry Morales). Subtitled The Diary of Martín Santomé, this Uruguayan novel is told in lucid prose. Santomé’s journal entries track his day to day life as a man with three children—the youngest approaching adulthood—who was widowed early in life. He’s just now started up a love affair with a younger colleague (an affair that he doesn’t want to call an affair and an affair which I think is like hey a very bad idea, Martin!). It reminds me a bit of John Williams’ novel Stoner. I’ve been reading one or two of the diary entries a day, usually in the morning before I leave for work. It’s a different way to read a book (at least for me anyway).
Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Manis my big re-read right now. I’m having a lot more fun with it the second time. I think the first time taught me how to read it. I’m moving pretty slowly but that’s fine.
I read most of Antoine Volodine’s Post-Exoticism in 10 Lessons, Lesson 11in two sittings. I want to write a proper review of the novel, or novella, really, or really it’s something besides a novel or novella—anyway, I want to write a proper review on the thing, but I need to go back and finish his novel Minor Angels, which I started earlier in the summer but lost track of (I think I was trying to plow through the end of Eliot’s Middlemarch at the time).
I’ve read the first and third (but not the second) stories in Helen DeWitt’s new collection Some Trickand…I don’t know. There’s a part of me that doesn’t trust my reaction so far. I know that what she’s doing here would’ve flipped any wig I was wearing ten or twelve years ago, but I find myself not particularly persuaded to keep going. I skipped to the third story because it had a bunch of footnotes, a la DF Wallace and that intrigued me. It’s a bit clever, yes?
I’ve only read two of the stories in Tadao Tsuge’s collection of “alternative manga” (mostly from the sixties and seventies) Slum Wolf (in English translation by Ryan Holmberg), but there’s definitely a different flavor here—rough, weird, and a bit chilling. I hope to post a review of Slum Wolf at The Comics Journal next month.
Not pictured above because I read it on an iPad: The first two chapters of Anders Nilsen’s graphic novel Tongues, which is a loose retelling of the story of Prometheus and a few other myths (maybe). There’s a lot going on it. The art is gorgeous—a bit reminiscent of Geof Darrow, but more not as sprawly. Again, I hope to do a review at TCJ soon on these.
Also not pictured because also an e-book: Provisional Biography of Mose Eakins, a two-act play by Evan Dara. You can download the play here without paying upfront: The site instead gives this somewhat cryptic message on payment: “If you please, reciprocation accepted only after reading. Thank you.” The message actually makes sense after you’ve read the play, which is very much about paying for language—literally utterances as commodities. Mose Eakins is “imparlent” — he cannot communicate with those around him. The play is often funny, but also very sad, and it’s impossible not to read it as an allegory for the limitations of real communication in the age of late capitalism. I read it all at once last night. Speaking of which, I need to reciprocate now.
Even though I haven’t gotten to Minor Angels yet, I went ahead and picked up Antoine Volodine’s Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven. Publisher Open Letter’s blurb:
Like with Antoine Volodine’s other works (Minor Angels, We Monks & Soldiers), Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven takes place in a corrupted future where a small group of radical writers—those who practice “post-exoticism”—have been jailed by those in power and are slowly dying off. But before Lutz Bassmann, the last post-exoticist writer, passes away, journalists will try and pry out all the secrets of this powerful literary movement.
With its explanations of several key “post-exoticist” terms that appear in Volodine’s other books, Lesson Eleven provides a crucial entryway into one of the most ambitious literary projects of recent times: a project exploring the revolutionary power of literature.
I had ordered Antoine Volodine’s Minor Angels through my favorite bookstore, and it came in yesterday. It’s slim but expensive (ah! university presses!) and ate up all of my store credit, but still I picked up used copies of Robert Coover’s second novel The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. and Barry Hannah’s Boomerang b/w Never Die (some of the only Hannah I’ve yet to read). I was tempted also by the title and cover of Daniel Hoffman’s 1971 Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe—but I was not tempted enough to acquire it.
Several creatures wake up, semi-human and semi-animal, seated on a tribunal dais. Their memory doesn’t give them any self-knowledge, they knew nothing about the affair that they must judge, or even about the world where they’ve landed. The only landmark they have at their disposal is the individual lamp that illuminates a bit of the table before them. The darkness all around is without hope. Silence reigns, crushing, and prolongs itself. Aware that the situation must be untangled in one way or another, they all imagine being observed by their neighbors with discontent and even hatred. In reality, all share, without knowing it, a vertiginous feeling of guilt and solitude. The strangeness of the situation reinforces itself every moment; immobility grow stronger. The minutes flow, more and more painful. The only way to put an end to the unbearable seems to be to take the floor. Their voice must be heard, they must seem to take on their judiciary function competently. After having cleared its throat, the massive animal who is in the middle, and therefore assumes the need to play the role of president, opens the dossier placed in front of it and begins to read it with thundering voice. Startled by the excessive vibration of its vocal chords, painfully embarrassed by the words it pronounces, it nonetheless continues its speech. What it has before it is a prose poem, surrealist, a completely incongruous text. The creatures sitting to its left and its right have collapsed at the idea that they must now prove their existence and therefore respond. In order not to underscore its own foreignness to the world, each one to the world, each one in turn pretends to know the procedure and intervenes, masking it’s fears under an aggressive excess of confidence. The readings follow one after the other. The poems are not always of a trivial nature and, on the contrary, abound in imprecations and personal attacks; however, they are formulated in a sufficiently obscure manner that each magistrate feels deeply implicated. The tribunal session has no end. The nightmare has no escape.
From Antoine Volodine’s short story “The Theory of the Image According to Maria Three-Thirteen.” English translation by Katina Rodgers (Dalkey, 2014).
The microfiction, which points to the abject nature of writing/speaking (and witnessing), by the titular heroine, is also a macrofiction for both the story itself, and, perhaps, Volodine’s entire post-exotic project.
I had to use the internet to buy Naming the Jungle, and the cover is awful, but I’m eager to read more Volodine.
Antoine Volodine has been hailed as one of the most innovative and accomplished writers in France today. Compared by critics to Franz Kafka and Lewis Carroll, Volodine weaves an unusual novel of political and psychological intrigue in a lush, exotic setting. The publication of Naming the Jungle marks his American debut and the first translation of his work into English.
Puesto Libertad could be any Latin American city torn by the strife of civil war. In this isolated capital buried in the jungle, the revolutionary secret police have started digging into Fabian Golpiez’s past. In order to avoid brutal torture and interrogation, he decides to feign madness. Led by a local shaman/psychiatrist in a bizarre talking cure, Golpiez must use indigenous names to prove both his innocence and his true Tupi Indian identity. To name is to conquer. He names the monkeys, the plants, and the insects all around him as he names his fear, his paranoia, and his pathologies.
A masterful storyteller, Volodine speaks to us about the slow and fatal agony of revolution in a haunting and intense novel, one of the most dazzling pieces of fiction to come out of France since the early novels of Robbe-Grillet and Duras.
Antoine Volodine’s collection of loosely-connected stories Writers (2010; English translation by Katina Rogers, Dalkey Archive, 2014) is 108 pages. I have read the first four of the seven stories here—the first 54 pages. This is the first book by Volodine that I have read. Antoine Volodine is in fact a pseudonym, I know, but I don’t know much else about the writer. I’ve been meaning to read him for a few years, after some good folks suggested I do so, but I’ve never come across any of his books in the wild until this weekend. After I finish Writers I will read more about Volodine, but for now I am enjoying (?) how and what this book teaches me about the bigger project Volodine seems to be working towards.
That bigger project evinces in the first story in the collection, “Mathias Olbane,” which centers on the titular character, a writer who tries to hypnotize himself into a suicide attempt. Poor Mathias goes to prison for twenty-six years — “He had assassinated assassins.” Like most of the figures in Writers (so far anyway—you see by the title of this post that I am reporting from half way through, yes?) — like most of the figures in Writers, Mathias is a revolutionary spirit, resisting capitalist power and conformist order through radical violence. Before prison, Mathias wrote two books. The first, An Autumn at the Boyols’ “consisted of eight short texts, inspired by fantasy or the bizarre, composed in a lusterless but impeccable style. Let’s say that it was a collection that maintained a certain kinship with post-exoticism…” The description of the book approximates a description of Writers itself; notably, Volodine identifies his own genre as post-exoticism. Autumn at the Boyols’ doesn’t sell at all, and its sequel, Splendor of the Skiff (which “recounted a police investigation, several episodes of a global revolution, and traumatizing incursions into dream worlds”) somehow fares even worse. Mathias begins a new kind of writing in prison:
…after twenty-six years in captivity, he had forged approximately a hundred thousand words, divided as follows:
sixty thousand first and last names of victims of unhappineess
twenty thousand names of imaginary plants, mushrooms, and herbs
ten thousand names of places, rivers, and localities
and ten thousand various words that do not belong to any language, but have a certain phonetic logic that makes them sound familiar
I love the mix of tones here: Mathias Olbane’s grand work is useless and strange and sad and ultimately unknowable, and Volodine conveys this with both sinister humor and dark pathos. Once released from prison, our hero immediately becomes afflicted with a rare and incurable and painful disease. Hence, the suicide urge. But let’s move on.
The second tale in Writers, “Speech to the Nomads and the Dead,” offers another iteration of post-exotic writing, both in form and content. The story plays out like a weird nightmare. Linda Woo, isolated and going mad in a prison cell, conjures up an audience of burn victims, an obese dead man, Mongolian nomads, and several crows. She delivers a “lesson” to her auditors (a “lesson,” we learn, is one of post-exoticism’s several genres). The lesson is about the post-exotic writers themselves. She names a few of these post-exotic writers (Volodine is addicted to names, especially strange names), and delivers an invective against the modern powers that the post-exotic writers write against:
Post-exoticism’s writers…have in their memory, without exception, the wars and the ethnic and social exterminations that were carried out from one end of the 20th century to the other, they forget none and pardon none, they also keep permanently in mind the savageries and the inequalities that are exacerbated among men…
The above excerpt is a small taste of Woo’s bitter rant, which goes on for long sentence after long sentence (Volodine is addicted to long sentences). Like Mathias Olbane, Linda Woo writes in the face of futility, creating the “post-exotic word,” a word that creates an “absurd magic” that allows the post-exotic writers to “speak the world.”
Linda Woo’s name appears in the next story in Writers, “Begin-ing,” if only in passing. This story belongs to an unnamed writer, yet another prisoner. Wheelchair-bound, he is interrogated and tortured by two insane inmates who have taken over their prison, having killed their captors. The pair, Greta and Bruno Khatchatourian, are thoroughly horrific, spouting abject insanities that evoke Hieronymus Boschs’s hell. They are terrifying, and I had a nightmare the night that I read “Begin-ing.” It’s never quite clear if Greta and Bruno Khatchatourian are themselves post-exotic writers gone mad or just violent lunatics on the brink of total breakdown. In any case, Volodine affords them dialogue that veers close to a kind of horror-poetry. “We can also spew out the apocalypse,” Greta defiantly sneers. They torture the poor writer. Why?
They would like it, in the end, if he came around to their side, whether by admitting that he’s been, for a thousand years, a clandestine leader of dark forces, or by tracing for them a strategy that could lead them to final victory. … They would like above all for him to help them to drive the dark forces out from the asylum, to prepare a list of spies, they want him to rid the world of the last nurses, of Martians, of colonialists, and of capitalists in general.
The poor writer these lunatics torture turns inward to his own formative memories of first writings, of begin-ing, when he created his own worlds/words in ungrammatical misspelled scrawlings, filling notebook after notebook. Volodine unspools these memories in sentences that carry on for pages, mostly centering on the writer’s strange childhood in an abject classroom where he engages in depravities that evoke Pasolini’s Salò. And yet these memories are the writer’s comfort—or at least resistance—to the lunatics’ violence. Volodine’s prose in “Begin-ing” conjures Goya’s various lunatics, witches, demons, and dogs. It’s all very upsetting stuff.
After the depravity of “Begin-ings,” the caustic comedy of the next story “Acknowledgements” is a welcome palate cleanser. In this story’s twelve pages (I wish there were more!) Volodine simultaneously ridicules and exults the “Acknowledgements” page that often appends a novel, elevating the commonplace gesture to its own mock-heroic genre. The story begins with the the hero-writer thanking “Marta and Boris Bielouguine, who plucked me from the swamp that I had unhappily fallen into along with the bag containing my manuscript.” The “swamp” here is not a metaphor, but a literal bog the writer nearly drowned in. And the manuscript? A Meeting at the Boyols’, a title that recalls poor Mathias Olbane’s first book An Autumn at the Boyols’. Each paragraph of “Acknowledgments” is its own vignette, a miniature adventure in the form of a thank-you note to certain parties. Most of the vignettes end in sex or death, or an escape from one of the two. “Grad Litrif and his companion Lioudmila” as well as “the head of the Marbachvili archives” (oh the names in this story!) are thanked for allowing the writer
…to access the notebooks of Vulcain Marbachvili, from which I was able, for my story Long Ago to Bed Early, to copy several sentences before the earthquake struck that engulfed the archives. My thanks to these three people, and apologies to the archivist, as I was sadly unable to locate either her name or her body in the rubble.
“Acknowledgments” is littered with such bodies—sometimes victims of disasters and plagues, and elsewhere the bodies of the married or boyfriended women the writer copulates with before escaping into some new strange circumstances (he often thanks the husbands and the boyfriends, and in one inspired moment, thanks a gardener “who one day had the presence of mind to detain Bernardo Balsamian in the orchard while Grigoria and I showered and got dressed again”). He thanks a couple who shows him their collection of 88 stuffed guinea pigs; he thanks “the leader of the Muslim Bang cell” who, during his “incarceration in Yogyakarta…forbid the prisoners on the floor from sodomizing” him; he thanks the “Happy Days” theater troupe who “had the courage” to perform his play Djann’s Awakening three times “before a rigorously empty room.” Most of the acknowledgments connect the writer’s thank-you to a specific book he’s written. I’m tempted to list them all (oh the names!), but just a few—Tomorrow the Otters, Eve of Pandemic, Journal of Pandemonium, Goodbye Clouds, Goodbye Romeo, Mlatelpopec in Paradise, Macbeth in Paradise, Hell in Paradise…Without exaggeration: “Acknowledgements” is one of the funniest stories I’ve ever read.
With its evocations of mad and obscure writers, Volodine’s books strongly reminds me of Roberto Bolaño’s work. And yet reading it is not like reading an attempt to copy another writer—which Volodine is in no way doing—but rather like reading a writer who has filtered much of the same material of the 20th century through himself, and has come to some of the same tonal and thematic viewpoints—Volodine’s labyrinth is dark and weird and sinister and abject, but also slightly zany and terribly funny. More to come.