Blog about the first half of Antoine Volodine’s Writers

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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.

Courtyard with Lunatics, 1794 by Francisco Goya (1746-1828)

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 OttersEve of PandemicJournal of PandemoniumGoodbye CloudsGoodbye RomeoMlatelpopec in ParadiseMacbeth in ParadiseHell 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.

 

Madness — Odilon Redon

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Madness, 1883 by Odilon Redon (1840-1916)

Monomania — Theodore Géricault

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La Monomane de l’envie (Monomania: Portrait of an Excessively Jealous Woman), c. 1819–22 by Theodore Géricault  (1791-1824)

The mind is a thing absolutely apart (Paul Bowles)

The only way to do anything is to have it so well rehearsed in one’s imagination that when the moment comes one does it automatically, as though for the hundredth time. Then it is all natural, and there is little likelihood of a slip-up. And there was no slip-up anywhere along the way. It was a heavy day, but not too hot because of the rain, which fell quietly as I walked down the road to the station. On the train I was not in the slightest degree perturbed: I knew there was no chance of any trouble. I kept marveling at the peculiar pleasure afforded by the knowledge that one has planned a thing so perfectly there can be no room for the possibility of failure, all the while being conscious that both the pleasure and the idea itself were completely childish, and that my conviction of success was, at the very least, ill-founded. But certain situations call forth certain emotions, and the mind is a thing entirely apart. I have cakes of soap that I bought twenty-five years ago, still in their wrappers, and I am saving them in the perfect confidence that the right day will come to unwrap each one and use it. And there are probably a hundred books downstairs in the library that I am eager to read, have been eager to read for years, yet refuse to read until the day comes, the day that says to me: This is the morning to start Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, or George Borrow, or Psichari, or someone else. Now, in my logical mind, I know quite well that these promised days are not likely ever to arrive: I shall never use those old cakes of soap that are stored in the linen closet, and I am reasonably sure of never reading Romany Rye, because it doesn’t interest me. But there is that other person, the ideal one that I ought to be, whom it does interest, and it comforts me to think that those things are there waiting for him. Certainly, the mind is a thing absolutely apart.

From Paul Bowles’s 1954 story “If I Should Open My Mouth.”

“Memoirs of a Madman” — Nikolai Gogol

Poprishchin, Ilya Repin (1882)

 

“Memoirs of a Madman”

by

Nikolai Gogol

English translation by Claud Field

from The Mantle and Other Stories


 

October 3rd. — A strange occurrence has taken place today. I got up fairly late, and when Mawra brought me my clean boots, I asked her how late it was. When I heard it had long struck ten, I dressed as quickly as possible.

To tell the truth, I would rather not have gone to the office at all today, for I know beforehand that our department-chief will look as sour as vinegar. For some time past he has been in the habit of saying to me, “Look here, my friend; there is something wrong with your head. You often rush about as though you were possessed. Then you make such confused abstracts of the documents that the devil himself cannot make them out; you write the title without any capital letters, and add neither the date nor the docket-number.” The long-legged scoundrel! He is certainly envious of me, because I sit in the director’s work-room, and mend His Excellency’s pens. In a word, I should not have gone to the office if I had not hoped to meet the accountant, and perhaps squeeze a little advance out of this skinflint.

A terrible man, this accountant! As for his advancing one’s salary once in a way — you might sooner expect the skies to fall. You may beg and beseech him, and be on the very verge of ruin — this grey devil won’t budge an inch. At the same time, his own cook at home, as all the world knows, boxes his ears.

I really don’t see what good one gets by serving in our department. There are no plums there. In the fiscal and judicial offices it is quite different. There some ungainly fellow sits in a corner and writes and writes; he has such a shabby coat and such an ugly mug that one would like to spit on both of them. But you should see what a splendid country-house he has rented. He would not condescend to accept a gilt porcelain cup as a present. “You can give that to your family doctor,” he would say. Nothing less than a pair of chestnut horses, a fine carriage, or a beaver-fur coat worth three hundred roubles would be good enough for him. And yet he seems so mild and quiet, and asks so amiably, “Please lend me your penknife; I wish to mend my pen.” Nevertheless, he knows how to scarify a petitioner till he has hardly a whole stitch left on his body. Continue reading ““Memoirs of a Madman” — Nikolai Gogol”

Aguirre, The Wrath of God — Werner Herzog (Full Film)

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The Mad Woman — Chaim Soutine

The Stone Operation (The Cure of Folly) — Hieronymus Bosch

Courtyard with Lunatics — Francisco Goya

Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector

Even if Phil Spector hadn’t given us the recent spectacle of an outlandish murder trial, Mick Brown’s Spector biography Tearing Down the Wall of Sound would still make for a gripping read. Brown’s biography, simply put, is the definitive Spector book. At nearly 500 pages (including endnotes and an extensive bibliography), Tearing consistently treads the thin line between exhaustive and exhausting, but the source material–Spector’s insane life–is simply too compelling to ever earn a yawn. Just when it begins to feel that Brown has given us too much detail, we’re rewarded with yet another tale of Spector’s lunatic shenanigans. And whether he’s pulling a gun on the Ramones, drunkenly berating Michelle Phillips, praising Ike Turner and Yoko Ono, or fighting with the Beatles, Spectors’s crazy mischief is exactly the kind of stuff we love to read in a celebrity biography. However, lurid stories never trump the real reason to read this book: Spector as musical genius. There’s plenty here to please hardcore audiophiles, including long discussions of the evolution of Spector’s famous “wall of sound” and the producer’s tumultuous relationship with arranger/songwriter Jack Nitzsche. All the episodes of Spector’s life are here–his early teenybopper days with the Ronettes, his “making” of Tina Turner, his battles with the Beatles (both as a group and individuals), his “comeback” shot with the Ramones, and even his late disillusionment with, um, Celine Dion. These segments are bookended with a detailed consideration of Spector’s recent troubles, beginning with a secretive Spector secluded in his California mansion right before the alleged murder of B-movie actress Lana Clarkson, and a lengthy, journalistic afterword explaining the events of Spector’s much-publicized trial, right up to the September 2007 mistrial ruling. Heady stuff.

Photograph by Brad Elterman

Ultimately, Brown crafts Spector’s strange life into a bizarre bildungsroman; he paints Spector respectfully but never reverentially, revealing a Promethean hubris in his subject that veers into self-annihilation. At the same time, Brown’s Spector is an utterly American story, a classic reinvention tale. Even when Spector is at his most petulant, paranoid, and downright awful, Brown never lets us lose sight of the man’s sheer force of will and his enormous contribution to American music and culture. Brown’s book reminds us of the myriad ways Spector transformed our notions of pop music, but he leaves us wondering if Spector will indeed be able to rise like the phoenix from his latest debacle or if his upcoming retrial will be the end of the music.