A review of Pierre Senges’ confounding novel Geometry in the Dust

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Describing Geometry in the Dust is a challenge. I’ve deleted so many openings now and my frustration is mounting: so some very basic description:

Geometry in the Dust is a novel by the French author Pierre Senges with accompanying illustrations by the Oubapo comix artist Killoffer. The novel was originally published in France (as Géométrie dans la poussière) in 2004. The English translation is by Jacob Siefring, and was published by Inside the Castle earlier this year. Geometry in the Dust is 117 pages and includes 22 black and white illustrations. The prose is set in two columns per page, with infrequent inclusions of inset notes of a smaller font obtruding into the text proper. The typeset is Venetian. The book is approximately 217cm long, 172cm tall, and 10cm thick. It weighs approximately 210 grams.

This is a lousy way to describe a book.

What is it about?, you’ll want to know. What’s the plot? Who are the characters? What’s the drama, the conflict, the themes?, you’ll insist.

So there’s a geometer.

The geometer is a first-person “I” who addresses himself to the “inheriting prince” who rules a “country of sand.” The geometer is of course also addressing himself to you the reader. In addition to being a geometer, he is also

your minister (of Economy, of Religion, of War, and also of the City, we decided). As your sole, faithful minister, your counsellor, chamberlain, and your scapegoat, having weathered many dry seasons and countless reorganizations of your cabinet, I am your confidant too, and, judging from appearances–one can say this without offending the dignity of your kingdom or its constitution, we might even call me your friend.

And so we have our characters: Geometer and his absent audience, his sultan, his reader.

And so for plot? What is our friend, our confidant doing in Geometry in the Dust? He is trying to describe the city that he and his monarch (?) have…dreamed up? Built from scratch? Proposed as a thought experiment?

(I’m not sure.)

The reality or unreality of the city in question should be dispensed with entirely of course. The city is made of words, and it exists in Geometry in the Dust through words. Our narrator implores us in the novel’s second paragraph: “do not be afraid of words!”

So our narrator the geometer tries to describe the city, this city, the sultan’s city, in words. But of course capturing a city in words is a problem—

How does one form an idea of the city, when all one has seen of it are little pieces of it brought back from voyages in trunks? how to describe a metropolis to someone who has only ever known sand and its forms through the cycle of seasons? how to speak of snow to a Moor, of cannibalism to a vegetarian Jesuit?

Measuring a city for our narrator amounts to measuring the angles of waves as they break on the shore: an impossible task. Even metaphors run dry, point in the wrong directions, and ultimately, “all of these measures will be in vain and mediocre , the descriptions will be lost in allegories.” Nevertheless, our narrator will try. 

This trying to describe the city is the plot, I suppose, such as it is. And it’s really quite marvelous, far richer and smarter and funnier than I’ve managed to capture here so far. Our geometer is observant, sharp, witty, strangely sincere, flighty and whimsical at times. He advises his prince, his reader, on the value of getting lost in the city (the only way to know it), and a lot of Geometry might amount to our narrator getting lost himself, losing us, leading us in, out, around.

“You will readily understand that a city is not composed only of itself,” he avers at one point, continuing that, “a city is composed of city, the intentions present in the city, and the difference between the city and those intentions…” Perhaps too Geometry is our narrator’s effort to measure the gaps and lacunae between split intentions, and to situate the various players that fill these gaps: black marketeers and insomniacs, calligraphers and macabre dancers, crowders and loners, musicians and animals (including “an alligator of the White Nile” to reside “in the conduits of our main sewer,” whose presence will surely “spice up the lives of your people, those incorrigible auditors of fables.” And if such an alligator can’t be find, never mind–just spread its legends. Words).

And themes?, you ask after. I don’t know. I’ve read Geometry twice now and it’s thick with themes, the basic one, I suppose (and I could be wrong) is: What is a city(This is too easy, I know). Senges’ narrator invokes and evokes every manner of archaic text, imagined or otherwise; he considers our native tendencies, the roles outsiders play, the movements of crowds, what constitutes a garden, and so forth.

Maybe a better description of Geometry is to simply look at the text itself. Here is a short chapter (go on, read it—click on it if you need a bigger version):

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Notice the punctuation: the semicolons, the dashes (em and en), the periods, the parentheses, the commas. Senges’ prose in Geometry is syntactically thick. Sentences, like alleys in a strange city, begin in one place and end up somewhere quite different. The interposition of jostling clauses might cause a reader to lose the subject, to drop the thread or diverge from the path (or pick your metaphor). The effect is sometimes profound, with our narrator arriving at some strange philosophical insight after piling clause upon clause that connects the original subject with something utterly outlandish. And sometimes, the effect is bathetic. In one such example, the narrator, instructing his sovereign on the proper modes of religious observance in the city, moves from a description of the ideal confessional to an evocation of Limbourg’s hell to the necessity of being able grasp a peanut between two fingers. The comical effect is not so much punctured as understood anew though when Senges’ narrator returns to the peanut as a central metaphor for the scope of a city (“there are roughly as many men in the city as peanuts in the city’s bowls”), a metaphor that he extends in clause after clause leading to an invocation of “Hop o’ my Thumb’s pebbles,” a reference to Charles Perrault fairy tale about a boy who uses riverstones to find his way home after having been abandoned in the woods by his parents. 

What is the path through Geometry in the Dust? The inset notes, as you can see in the image above, also challenge the reader’s eye, as do the twin columns, so rare in contemporary novels.

Killoffer’s illustrations also challenge the reader. They do not necessarily correspond in pagination to the sections that they (may) illustrate; rather, they seem to obliquely capture the spirit of the novel. The following image is perhaps the most literal illustration in the novel, evoking something in the passage I shared above:

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The experience of reading Geometry is confounding but also rewarding. The first time I read it, at least for the first third or so, I kept looking for all those basic signs of a novel—character, plot, clear conflict, etc. I was happy to find instead something else, something more challenging, but also something unexpectedly fun and funny. In its finest moments, Geometry evokes the essays that Borges disguised as short stories. Readers familiar with Italo Calvino and Georges Perec will find familiar notes here too, as well as those who love the absurd tangles Donald Barthelme’s sentences can take. But Senges is singular here, his own weird flavor, a flavor I enjoyed very much. Recommended. 

Blog about some recently acquired books

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I have acquired a goodly amount of books in the last two weeks and failed to do any of these silly “books acquired” posts about them, having been busy with summer classes and occupying summer-bound children (and, admittedly spending too many free hours rewatching Deadwood so that I can watch the Deadwood film and doing a Brueghel puzzle, and not really writing).

I ordered Pierre Senges’ strange little book Geometry in the Dust. It’s new in English translation by Jacob Siefring from publisher Inside the Castle. (Siefring also translated Senges’ novel The Major Refutation, which I read a few years ago.) Geometry in the Dust is a rectangular novella that includes black and white illustrations by Patrice Killoffer. The text is set in two columns, with occasional inset notes set in a smaller font.

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I mention the size/shape, the inset notes, and the illustrations because, for whatever reason, these things make the reading experience even odder (although I can’t articulate why, and to be clear, I find the oddness compelling).

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Told in the articulate, observant, and often-funny first-person voice of the “sole faithful minister…advisor, chamberlain and…scapegoat” of a certain monarch—a “you” this minister addresses—like, you, the reader—told in this funny and strange voice, Geometry in the Dust is “about” (a term that we’d have to place under suspicion here) the planning, the mental construction of a great city. A sort of extended thought experiment, Senges’ novella captivated me for two quick afternoon reads, and I hope to go through it again in preparation for a proper review. For now, I’ll lazily compare it to Borges, Calvino, Perec, and Antoine Volodine—writers that Senges does not imitate, but seems to drink from the same imaginative well as.

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I went to my beloved used bookstore last Friday to browse, as is often my habit, and while I didn’t find any of the Joy Williams Vintage Contemporaries I was hoping to find, I did find a copy of Anna Kavan’s 1967 novel Ice. I’ll admit I hadn’t heard of Kavan until I read Ann Quin’s fantastic novel Berg (which I reviewed recently on this blog). I subsequently read/heard Kavan’s name brought up in conversations concerning Quin. Ice is my next read.

I also spied a new copy of Anna Burns’ Milkman at half price and picked it up. I’d heard good things about the novel—that it’s weird, challenging; that a lot of folks hated it. And, like, look—Ann, Anna, Anna. Why not? Milkman after Ice?

I got home to three separate review copies in the mail, a bit of an overwhelming shock, really, as one is NYRB’s new edition of Gregor von Rezzori’s The Death of my Brother Abel (translated by Joachim Neugroschel and revised by Marshall Yarbrough) b/w Cain: The Last Text (translated by David Dollenmayer). (The novel and its sequel have been published as Abel and Cain.) At nearly 900 pages it is a brick, or maybe a nice big hole to fall into soon.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see that Contra Mundum Press has published Iceberg Slim’s novel Night Train to Sugar Hill, which was never published in Slim’s (aka Robert Beck’s) lifetime. I’m not sure if this is the first publication of this late novel, but I think it is.

I had read some of Greg Gerke’s essays at LARB and 3:AM before getting See What I See (which is out later this year), and am generally impressed with what I’ve read so far. I admit that I skipped around almost immediately, reading (or rereading, in one case) pieces on William Gass and William Gaddis, before turning through pieces on Paul Thomas Anderson and Ingmar Bergman. An essay ostensibly on Mike Leigh’s film Mr. Turner is really about criticism itself, and contains this paragraph:

Critics have a job incompatible with their raw materials. They are to respond promptly and pithily to a work of art—the very life of which changes by different viewings, listenings, and readings, and at different times in one’s life. It is like being a bull rider—one being is not made to situate itself onto the other. Yet, our culture still respects some views and honors the guidance offered. In conjunction, it is no exaggeration to say we live in an era that disposes of language, including the etiolation of the sentence, punctuation, spelling, and grammar by the rush to judgment, and by the ego not caring what it’s form of thought is like, only that it’s owner’s name is lit up. Our species is changing—words, because they are not respected, boil more easily over into lies and exaggeration, disregarding the best humanistic advice possible, courtesy of Shakespeare: “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” Where once words were imbricated and limned to grasp at wisdom, we now have the sweet satisfactions of irony, the insulting tweet, and the ham-handed “article” on why this or that does or doesn’t meet one’s satisfaction.

Gerke’s essay reminded me that I had wanted to see Mr. Turner (admiring both Leigh and his subject). (And if Gerke is a namegoogler—I loved Boyhood.)

Reading/Have Read/Should Write About (Paul Bowles, Robert Coover, Pierre Senges, Antonio di Benedetto)

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I’ve had a hard time reading much (let alone writing anything) since November 8th.

A Klimt puzzle has been soothing though.

And I’ve found audiobooks, which I’ve always loved, particularly wonderful lately. They have provided a kind of anti-noise, antidote, anti-?—against the NPR news and punditry I might normally adhere to in the car (and especially potent against my own thoughts at night before I fall asleep).

My pattern with audiobooks has long been to reread at night the chapters or passages I audited that day, or to audit after I had read—or to mix it all up, going back and forth. I like this method because it allows me, essentially, to reread.

I’ve been listening to The Stories of Paul Bowles, read by like a dozen different performers (not a full-cast group read, but rather different voices for different tales). Then (mostly at night but occasionally very early in the morning), I’ve been rereading some of the stories that are collected in Collected Stories. (My local bookshop had copies of the more-complete The Stories of, but hell, who can pass up a Black Sparrow Press edition? Plus—parenthetically—the BSP edition collects the more essential stories).

Anyway, I’m coming to the end of The Stories of Paul Bowles and I’m almost a bit sad about it. The sadness come partially from the fact that the stories are presented chronologically, and, simply put, the later tales are sadder than the earlier ones. Not in content, but in tone—Bowles’s later stuff grows more bitter, more resentful. The earlier tales are strange, sharp, and driven by weird nightmare alienation and sinister surrealism. But they also open into possibility, exploration, and radical newness. The later tales, composed in the 1980s, seem to me a closing off, not just in themes and tone, but also stylistically. They retreat into formalist modernism. There’s a palpable resistance to postmodernism in the later stories, an elegiac tone that romanticizes (even through multiple ironies) the post-War colonial past.

But my sadness is also the feeling of Oh I want more. (Plus like, the aforereferenced general post-election malaise). This is all easily remedied by my plan to listen to the first two-thirds of these stories again—but probably after I take a crack at his novels.

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I was too young the first time I took a crack at The Sheltering Sky—16 I think. I was reading a lot of Hemingway, Vonnegut, William Burroughs, et al. But I couldn’t click with Bowles, which makes sense to me two decades later. His stories are spare but sharp, wild but obscure. His fables refuse to square with our expectations. They are menacing, awful, loaded with strangers and travelers and outcasts. The characters do not know what is happening to them; they do not even know that they do not know what is happening to them. Often, the story’s narrator does not seem to know what is happening, and if the narrator does know what is happening, he’s not going to throw anything but the barest bones to the reader to piece together. Anyway, I’ll trek through again, for sure.

A late Bowles story, the epistolary “Unwelcome Words” (many of the later stories are epistolary affairs), offers me a neat transition to the audiobook I’ve been drifting off into unconsciousness the past few evenings with. Here’s Bowles’s narrator (a version of Bowles his-goddamn-self):

I’ve often wished that someone would rewrite the end of Huckleberry Finn, delivering it from the farcical closing scenes which Twain, probably embarrassed by the lyrical sweep of the nearly completed book, decided were necessary if the work were to be appreciated by American readers. It’s the great American novel, damaged beyond repair by its author’s senseless sabotage. I’d be interested to have your opinion, or do you feel that the book isn’t worth having an opinion about, since a botched masterpiece isn’t a masterpiece at all? Yet to counterfeit the style successfully, so that the break would be seamless and the prose following it a convincing continuation of what came before—that seems an impossible task. So I shan’t try it, myself.

Bowles here licenses my transition to Robert Coover’s latest, Huck Out West, a sorta-sequel to Twain’s problematic American masterpiece. Sure, Coover’s not rewriting the end of Huck Finn so much as he’s carrying out the mission of the novel’s final lines: “…I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” So Coover sets Huck out in the Territory, away from the maternal bodies that would otherwise sivilize him. I’ve gotten maybe two hours into the audiobook (it’s short, fewer than ten hours), but I keep launching in to different points, and only auditing late at night. I need a physical copy.

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Physical copies report:

I’m crawling through Pierre Senges’s The Major Refutation (Eng. trans. by Jacob Siefring), mostly because I have to look up names, look for images, get lost in early depictions of “The New World” (and, uh, the refutation of the New World). . So far, it reminds me of the kind of fantasy-based literary criticism that I love: Eco, Borges, Calvino. Excerpt here.

A friend loaned me his copy of Antonio di Benedetto’s first novel Zama (Eng. translation by Esther Allen) last week, insisting I read it, and informing me that Bolaño based the titular figure of his story “Sensini” on di Benedetto. I read the first four chapters this afternoon; they were very short and I want to keep reading. Short chapters are working for me right now.

Farce for farce, we could have been just as glad with a book | From Pierre Senges’s The Major Refutation

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To paint the portrait of this new territory, the mapmakers in their workshops are drawing free-hand sketches of coastlines that are not a whit newfangled, but for their way of appraising our world scornfully, as if from a foreign shore. Bringing islands into existence on paper is a heady game: I have taken it up myself in order to appreciate such intoxication as trumpery procures, that of an adventure on the high seas, at hardly any cost, drawn out in the meticulous outline of gulfs, hills natural harbours, headlands, capes, deltas, swamps, bone-heaps and rocks peopled with grey fowls; it sufficed to set some corsairs gamboling there. But the mapmakers go further: they invent the natives of these territories too, drawing their faces in the manner of the Guanches of the Canaries, or Ukrainians driven by force to Genoa; without inventing much they invent loincloths copied from Madeira, shoes copied from Ceylon, and sticks of incense copied from Bactria but placed in the mouth. As for the amorous rites of the natives, the clerks in Isabella’s workshops only had to leaf through the ledgers of the Old and New Inquisitions, but aslso the works of Tertullian where he denounces the excesses of the Gnostics & their collective mating practices, involving devorations, anthropophagy, child sacrifices, sodomies complicated by the age of the subjects and their numerousness. They plunge into these annals as if into the reservoir of all possible combinations, the imagination being for them but a principle of permutations, and nothing else. The Cathars, before they retracted, addressed their torturers with periphrases we find almost unchanged in the accounts of many impostors returned from the New Indies. We can see that the promoters of these lands under the horizon did not have to look very far for their lying words, which they simply cut from books, sometimes with their images, combining them freely with those old lullabies that our grandmothers recited now and then, no longer believing in them, but transmitting them all the same since one must talk of something if only to fill the day’s idle hours.

By reading these works, by plundering the archives, in other words by resurrecting these long dormant voices, each can see for himself that this world arbitrarily pulled out of the sea is neither a new idea, no an ingenious invention of our admirals, but rehashed legends, dressed up in drama and luxury to appeal to modern appetites, embellished sometimes with the help of parades of passive, nude savages, insinuated by the conquerors—the sole novelty these crude, chronically celibate men are capable of inventing to excite their fantasies, nay, the consummation of these fantasies in a tightly clenched fist, since love, discovery, and imagination are for them matters of force. No one can convince us that the Atlantic islands are an original idea, or that sailors from Lisbon or Genoa are telling for the first time of western archipelagoes adrift on the tenebrous sea. There are in our libraries so many allusions to Atlantis, to the voyages of St. Brendan, to the Seven Cities, to Ante Illa, and to the island of Brazil; so many now tattered books tell of the drifting of the Apostles of God toward the unbelievers and scorpions of the east and of the west, so many tattered books describe the walls of legendary cities and islands in the shape of tortoises: you would swear that the adventure of the new world were naught else than a hardly embellished copy of our old legends, a copy graven on the sea, instead of on paper: farce for farce, we could have been just as glad with a book.

From Pierre Senges’s novel The Major Refutation, new in English translation by Jacob Siefring from Contra Mundum Press.

The narrator is Antonio de Guevara, unsigned author of Refutatio major (c. 1517-25), an argument (?!) against the really real reality of The New World.

The Major Refutation (Book acquired, 12.19.2016)

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Pierre Senges’s novel The Major Refutation is new in English translation by Jacob Siefring from Contra Mundum Press. It looks pretty cool. Here’s their full “blurb”:

“Few or none of them heard of a book entitled Refutatio major, falsely attributed to Don Antonio de Guevara, in which the aforementioned Guevara avers that there does not exist a New World, but only chimaeras, malevolent rumors, and inventions spread by schemers. These same persons affirm that the reasons set forth by the aforementioned Guevara are highly disconcerting.” — Bonaventura d’Arezzo, Treatise on Shadows (1531)

“If this new world actually existed, if its measure could be had in hectares and in tons, or more maliciously in carats to reflect the value of its diamond mines, or in nautical miles because it is seemingly capable of devouring an entire hemisphere as a crab would, going from north to south and from east to west — if this were the case, then adventurers would have set foot there long ago, smugglers failing to find a better use for their discovery would have taken it as their refuge, and instead of traffickers by nature mute about their rallying points, we would have heard the cries of one thousand boasters, one thousand returning voyagers.” — The Major Refutation

Here is a book that unites all books: adventure book, historical panorama, satirical tale, philosophical summa, polemical mockery, geographical treatise, political analysis.

This edition of The Major Refutation is followed by a scholarly afterword discussing the conditions of the text’s genesis.

Pierre Senges is the author of fifteen books. His long novel, Fragments of Lichtenberg, is forthcoming in English from Dalkey Archive Press in 2017.