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.