Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Whether there are books

When I enter a house for the first time I check on whether there are books, if they are few, if they are many, if they are too neatly arranged — which is a bad sign — or if they are all over the place — which is a good sign, and so on.

— from Involuntary Witness, by Gianrico Carofiglio.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Windows onto time

I've just seen Uraniborg, an exhibition of the work of Laurent Grasso at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal. The exhibit is named for Tycho Brahe's island castle-observatory.

According to the museum website,

Grasso continues his exploration of space and temporality as he seeks to create what he calls a "false historical memory." In this in-between place where true and false intermingle, the all-pervading observation of the sky underlies a broader examination of seeing, watching and surveillance, at the same time as it opens up a path to possible worlds.

Please see Canadian Art for a most excellent summary of this conceptual installation.

The exhibit is a marvelous experience — the space is labyrinthine, it's dark, it's full of ambient sound, it feels like a mystery and a discovery. It feels like the videogame Myst — mysterious islands, weird technology, messages from a future past.

It's a perfect fit with the odd manuscripts lately invading my mind. Today I read about Kircher leading his blindfolded biographer into a labyrinth beneath a basilica, and as part of a science experiment. My discovery today of Uraniborg embodied the same spirit.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

This seemed reassuring

I had the pleasure of seeing Gianrico Carofiglio in interview yesterday evening, as part of the 15th Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival. He is a former anti-Mafia judge (in Italy) turned crime writer. I have not read his books, but I fully intend to (in fact, I bought a book after the show, and I'm already seven chapters in).

He's charming — modest and self-deprecating, yet exuding a calm confidence. He embodies very much the same qualities as his protagonist, defence lawyer Guido Guerrieri. When asked if he (Gianrico) and Guido are one and the same, he explains that, while he used to maintain a firm distinction between himself as author and Guido as an entirely fictional creation, upon seeing how popular Guido is with his women readers he's become much more flexible in the matter.

(He's so charming, in fact, that when he was signing my book for me, gosh, I don't know what came over me, my senses left me entirely, I think I flirted with him, and the opportunity to ask him a serious question about non-Scandinavian European crime fiction slipped past.)

Carofiglio came to writing relatively late in life, though he'd wanted to be a writer since he was eight. The question is not why a lawyer should decide to turn to writing, but why a young child who wanted to be a writer decided to become a lawyer instead.

He has mixed feelings about the port city Bari, the setting for this series of novels and from which he hails. He clarifies, it's good to have mixed feelings toward people and things you love. When things are too clear, it's not very interesting.

He echoes the sentiment in explaining why Guido is flawed: Weaknesses are more interesting than strengths. (And this is, I'm sure, why we love our poet detectives, our broken heroes, our tragic men — men readers find them easier to relate to, women readers come to care for them, want to fix them.)

Carofiglio tries to define a good lawyer. You must above all else have respect for people, all people. You must not be a moralist — there is no room for moral judgement in law. You must practice doubt.

In Italian, there's a saying: La verita, relativa. The truth is relative. One is an anagram of the other. There are always different versions of a crime, different versions of the truth. If you don't know this being a lawyer, then you're not a good lawyer, Carofiglio remarks. But he is not a relativist. Rather, acknowledging different perspectives and examining the multiple points of view is the best way to arrive at the truth.

I've started reading Involuntary Witness.

The psychiatrist was tall, massive and imposing, bearded and with hands like shovels. I could just see him immobilizing a raving lunatic and forcing him into a straitjacket.

He was kindly enough, considering his beard and bulk. He got me to tell him everything and kept nodding his head. This seemed reassuring. Then it occurred to me that I too used to nod my head while clients were talking and I felt somewhat less reassured.

It has a tone that reminds me a little of the one book I read by Wolf Haas. Self-involved, self-reflective, chatty, playful. It feels different from the Scandinavian crime novels. Though, Carofiglio wasn't about to make any generalizations of this sort. (He has read the first of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, and admits he found the stuff about computer hacking quite boring — he would've cut 150 pages.)

At any rate, Carofiglio has a brand new fan in me.

Here's a link to a review of Temporary Perfections, one of the later books in the series, but it in turn has links to reviews of several of his other books.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Unquestionably happy

My mother was unquestionably happy. Her bright, creative spirit, overflowing with love for mankind, floated and soared above us all, though she often said that "happiness — is when there's so much to do there's no time to think."

— from Bro, first book of Ice Trilogy, by Vladimir Sorokin.

I'm in a bit of reading funk lately, and I'm acquiring books (including Sorokin's Ice Trilogy) that I feel I'm not yet at liberty to read — there's the kid's project I have to monitor, and I have my own project going on, and taxes still to file, and work, and. I have been reading Where Tigers Are at Home, by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès, but it's dense, and long (and I've been reading it on my phone, for some strange reason, and that feels all wrong, yet I persist).

I have time to neither read nor think, and I'm not happy about it, Mr Sorokin.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Watching you

World Book Day has not yet caught on in Canada, but I celebrated in my own subversive way by sending my child off to school wearing her new doubleplusgood proletarian t-shirt. (World Book Day is actually recognized by my daughter's school, which today hosted an open house to display bookish projects and such things.)

Out of Print recently offered limited edition t-shirts featuring Paul Bacon's dust jacket design for George Orwell's 1984. I ordered some for the whole family! And in so doing I exacted a promise from the girl that she would read it within the next five years.

It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Flailing impotent arms in the aimless air

Life was not to be sitting in hot amorphic leisure in my backyard idly writing or not-writing, as the spirit moved me. It was, instead, running madly, in a crowded schedule, in a squirrel cage of busy people. Working, living, dancing, dreaming, talking, kissing — singing, laughing, learning. The responsibility, the awful responsibility of managing (profitably) 12 hours a day for 10 weeks is rather overwhelming when there is nothing, noone, to insert an exact routine into the large unfenced acres of time — which it is so easy to let drift by in soporific idling and luxurious relaxing. It is like lifting a bell jar off a securely clockwork-like functioning community, and seeing all the little busy people stop, gasp, blow up and float in the inrush, (or rather outrush,) of the rarified scheduled atmosphere — poor little frightened people, flailing impotent arms in the aimless air. That's what it feels like: getting shed of a routine. Even though one had rebelled terribly against it, even then, one feels uncomfortable when jounced out of the repetitive rut. And so with me. What to do? Where to turn? What ties, what roots? as I hang suspended in the strange thin air of back-home?

— July 11, 1952, from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath.

Join me Sunday, April 28, for a breakfast salon to discuss the work of Sylvia Plath, and The Bell Jar in particular, as part of the 15th Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Looking for the amazing

METAPHYSICIANS OF TLÖN: Kircher is like them, he is not looking for the truth, nor even the probable, he's looking for the amazing. It never occurred to him that metaphysics is a branch of literature of the fantastic, but his work belongs entirely to fiction and therefore also to Jorge Luis Borges.

THE ESSENTIAL CLOSENESS to death, a fleeting insight from this homemade hell where my struggles take place.

— from Where Tigers Are at Home, by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Weird manuscripts

The Voynich Manuscript has become a beacon for a secular community of quasi-Talmudic scholars whose interpretive ingenuity and stamina have few parallels.

After my recent immersion in the culture of the Codex Seraphinianus, it seems I am everywhere encountering references to the Voynich Manuscript.

There is an increasing body of evidence that the manuscript is a hoax, and the persistent belief that it's a code to be cracked is based on faulty assumptions, for the simple reason that we want to believe.

Wilfred Voynich, a Polish revolutionary, "discovered" the manuscript that came to be named after him in 1912. He claimed to have bought the manuscript in an Austrian castle, but later Villa Mondragone was disclosed as the source. A letter inside the manuscript indicated that Athanasius Kircher, a 17th-century Jesuit scholar, had been asked to try his hand at translating it.

Aside: What little I've come to learn about Voynich makes him sound like a character out of Prus, a composite at any rate, that I wonder if The Doll didn't inspire Voynich in his person and in his attitude.

Meanwhile, I continue to read Where Tigers Are at Home, by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès, which presents sections of a manuscript chronicling Kircher's life. At this point: Kircher and his young Jesuit biographer are at Villa Palagonia; Kircher discovers a weird (demonic, or scientifically advanced) manuscript and destroys it.

Also, Kircher is in attendance at a feast that is getting out of hand in all sorts of ways, and Caspar finds himself in a delicate situation with his beautiful, and married, hostess, and just when you think it might be starting to get a little bit naughty, he switches to Latin. I cannot decide if this is funny, sexy, or simply weird.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Cloud of unknowing

Every morning on my way to work I pass La Grande Bibliothèque. It's an art installation by Guy Laramée.

I have mixed feelings. I recognize the encyclopedia set I grew up with, its yearbooks. It makes me feel nostalgic; I want to approach it and caress it. (It's behind glass; I can't even make out the volumes, the years.) But at the same time I feel revulsion — it looks moldy, cobwebby. (The books have been sandblasted.) And I'm horrified that someone has destroyed these books.

From Guy Laramée's Artist Statement:

We are currently told that the paper book is bound to die. The library, as a place, is finished. One might ask so what? Do we really believe that “new technologies” will change anything concerning our existential dilemma, our human condition? And even if we could change the content of all the books on earth, would this change anything in relation to the domination of analytical knowledge over intuitive knowledge? What is it in ourselves that insists on grabbing, on casting the flow of experience into concepts?

When I was younger, I was very upset with the ideologies of progress. I wanted to destroy them by showing that we are still primitives. I had the profound intuition that as a species, we had not evolved that much. Now I see that our belief in progress stems from our fascination with the content of consciousness. Despite appearances, our current obsession for changing the forms in which we access culture is but a manifestation of this fascination.

My work, in 3D as well as in painting, originates from the very idea that ultimate knowledge could very well be an erosion instead of an accumulation. [...]

So I carve landscapes out of books and I paint romantic landscapes. Mountains of disused knowledge return to what they really are: mountains. They erode a bit more and they become hills. Then they flatten and become fields where apparently nothing is happening. Piles of obsolete encyclopedias return to that which does not need to say anything, that which simply IS. Fogs and clouds erase everything we know, everything we think we are.

After 30 years of practice, the only thing I still wish my art to do is this: to project us into this thick "cloud of unknowing."

See also this interview with the artist.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Returning to the bosom of obedience

"Do you know what word the Jesuits use to describe one of their order who has renounced his vows? They say he has become a 'satellite,' by which they mean that despite himself he remains in orbit around the Society, in a trajectory in which the forces of repulsion are in equilibrium with an attraction which he will never manage to eliminate. One doesn't leave the Society, one moves a greater or lesser distance away without ceasing, basically, to belong to it. And I have to admit that there is some truth in that way of looking at things. One can escape from slavery, although with difficulty, but never from several years of domestication; and that is what it is: training the body and the mind with one aim in view, obedience. So to 'disobey,' you know . . . Under those conditions the word doesn't have much sense. All it expresses is a mere temporary rejection of the law, a digression to be condemned, true, but that is remissible within the body of obedience itself. And if you think about it, you will have to admit that it's more or less the same for everyone. Breaking a rule, all the rules, always comes back to choosing new rules, that is, to returning to the bosom of obedience. You have the feeling you are liberating yourself, profoundly changing your being, when all you have done is to change your master. You know, the snake biting its own tail."

— from Where Tigers Are at Home, by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès.

I have been very much enjoying Where Tigers Are at Home, but it is a dense read, and I'm short on time and patience this month, so I still feel as if I've barely made a dent in this massive novel, and I'm not anywhere close to having any idea how to go about synthesizing its varied parts.

The above passage is part of a modern-day exchange involving Eléazard, who is editing a strange biography. Woven throughout the novel are sections of the manuscript, chronicling the life of Athanasius Kircher.

Imagine my delight to discover that he really existed. Kircher is a colourful character with esoteric knowledge. The novel has been alluding to his interest in Egyptology and Sinology. His research methods are a little unorthodox, or at least uncomfortable for some more bookish sorts, as evidenced in his study of volcanoes. Also, he appears to be rather lucky, or watched over by a guardian angel.

He has been written about by Umberto Eco, is cited in connection with the Voynich Manuscript, and seems to enjoy something like cult status around the web:

400 years after his birth there is a revival of interest in Kircher, perhaps because Kircher can be considered as the premodern root of postmodern thinking. With his labyrinthine mind, he was Jorge Luis Borges before Borges. In the years before Kircher's death and for 300 years afterward, he was derided as a dilettante and crackpot. The rationalism and specialization of Descartes had taken over. But at the start of the 21st century Kircher's taste for trivia, deception and wonder is back.

Kircher's postmodern qualities include his subversiveness, his celebrity, his technomania and his bizarre eclecticism. In an age of polymaths, Kircher was perhaps the most polymathic of them all. Like other Jesuits, Kircher was a religious man and a world scholar trying to prove that Aristotle and the Bible were right. He knew Hebrew, Aramaic Coptic, Persian, Latin and Greek. But Kircher was also a wild man, he got away with all-out heresy.

Kircher was, of course, a Jesuit, and his definition of "obedience" was broad, yet exacting, or so Blas de Roblès makes it out to be. I do not yet know to what degree he became a satellite.

See also: Kircher's Cosmos: On Athanasius Kircher

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The soul is made of stories

"Hey, do you mind if I tell you a story? One you might not have heard? All the elements in your body were forged many, many millions of years ago in the heart of a faraway star that exploded and died. That explosion scattered those elements across the desolations of deep space. After so, so many millions of years these elements came together to form new stars and new planets, and on and on it went. The elements came together and burst apart, forming shoes and ships and sealing wax, cabbages and kings! Until, eventually, they came together to make you. You are unique in the universe."

— The Doctor in "The Rings of Akhaten"; Doctor Who.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

It's the same Johnny Panic

Maybe a mouse gets to thinking pretty early on how the whole world is run by these enormous feet. Well, from where I sit, I figure the world is run by one thing and this one thing only. Panic with a dog-face, devil-face, hag-face, whore-face, panic in capital letters with no face at all — it's the same Johnny Panic, awake or asleep.

— from "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams," by Sylvia Plath.

Join me Sunday, April 28, for a breakfast salon to discuss the work of Sylvia Plath, and The Bell Jar in particular.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Just some pennies that you pick up off the floor

Season six of Mad Men opens with Don Draper reading Dante's Inferno (tr John Ciardi), on the beach.

Midway in our life's travel, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood.

He is, of course, taking his own journey through hell.

The episode is entitled "The Doorway." Leave it to Roger, simple drunk, guru, to channel Aldous Huxley, to see things clearly:

"What are the events in life? It's like you see a door. The first time you come to it you say 'Oh, what's on the other side of the door?' Then you open a few doors, then you say 'I think I want to go over that bridge this time, I'm tired of doors.' Finally, you go through one of these things and you come out the other side and you realize that's all there are. Doors and windows and bridges and gates and they all open the same way and they all close behind you. Look, life is supposed to be a path and you go along and these things happen to you and they're supposed to change you, change your direction. But it turns out that's not true. It turns out the experiences are nothing. They're just some pennies that you pick up off the floor, stick in your pocket. You're just going in a straight line to you know where."

It brings to mind yet another journey through hell, William Blake's:

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.

Huxley in The Doors of Perception (which title was inspired by Blake's poem) also references "The Door in the Wall," a short story by H.G. Wells, whose protagonist reminds me of someone...

Now that I have the clue to it, the thing seems written visibly in his face. I have a photograph in which that look of detachment has been caught and intensified. It reminds me of what a woman once said of him — a woman who had loved him greatly. "Suddenly," she said, "the interest goes out of him. He forgets you. He doesn't care a rap for you — under his very nose..."

Yet the interest was not always out of him, and when he was holding his attention to a thing Wallace could contrive to be an extremely successful man. His career, indeed, is set with successes.

I rather suspect Don may meet a fate similar to Wallace's.

I am more than half convinced that he had in truth, an abnormal gift, and a sense, something — I know not what — that in the guise of wall and door offered him an outlet, a secret and peculiar passage of escape into another and altogether more beautiful world. At any rate, you will say, it betrayed him in the end. But did it betray him? There you touch the inmost mystery of these dreamers, these men of vision and the imagination.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

We haven't got anywhere yet

"For whom or for what are you in mourning?" she asked him point-blank, aware that this unexpected question shook him.

Eléazard felt his scalp tingle. He had reached the point of seeing the previous metaphor as representing his attitude to Elaine and of trying it out at random on the thousand and one aspects of his anguish, and with one word this stranger had hit the bull's eye.

"You're amazing!" he said with genuine admiration.

He thought: I'm in mourning for my love, for my youth, for an unsatisfactory world. I'm in mourning for mourning itself, for its twilight and for the soothing warmth of its lamentation. . .

But what he said was: "I'm in mourning for everything that has not succeeded in being born, for everything we do our best to destroy, for obscure reasons, every time it puts out a shoot. How can I put it . . . I can't understand why we always see beauty as a threat, happiness as degradation. . ."

The rain stopped, replaced by a silence spattered with drops and sudden trickles of water.

"We haven't got anywhere yet," said Loredana, screwing up her eyes.

— from Where Tigers Are at Home, by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès.

Why think one thing, but say another? Some days I too am in mourning for my love, for my youth, for an unsatisfactory world. What do you mourn?

Saturday, April 06, 2013


Kiki de Montparnasse is a graphic biography written by José-Louis Bocquet and illustrated by Catel Muller.

Kiki was, as I've always thought of her, the woman behind Man Ray, or the woman who inspired him, or, at any rate, the woman he most famously photographed. That is, I'd never given her much thought at all, but she was, of course, more than any of those things. Her name was Alice Prin, she was a model and an artist, and she lived a life.

This is actually a pretty thick book, more than 400 pages, which makes it probably the largest comic book I've ever read. And it's a biography — I don't read much nonfiction at all. So as an impulse purchase, it's a little out of character for me, but one I don't regret. That impulse speaks to how compelling both the artwork and the subject matter are.

The story covers the traditional chronological narrative trajectory of a life, from birth to death, and it's very Kiki-centric — there's barely a page where she's not present. That may sound like a stupid thing to say about a biography, but I mean by this that there are no asides or tangents to give historical or other context regarding events or personages that would have an effect on her life. We experience Kiki's life as she did, as it unfolded.

Kiki modelled for, and otherwise encountered, several historical figures better known than her: Modigliani and Picasso, Bréton and Duchamp, Cocteau (right), Hemingway. Thankfully the book includes biographical notes to help identify the faces and provide some background. There's also a timeline.

The artwork is black and white, not overly detailed, sketch-like, lively. It lightly skips across the decades of a vibrant Paris, and invites the reader to consider the nature of art, photography, dada and surrealism, love. Was Kiki modelling or whoring? Pitiable hanger-on or self-made feminist? A life of indulgence or artistic sensibility?

For a summary of Kiki's life in the context of her Paris, see the four-part blog series by Catel & Bocquet: At the crossroads of the world.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Little leaves opening stickily

April is poetry month, and thanks to Stefanie (So Many Books) I've discovered the glorious time-wastery that comes in the guise of poetry apps. In particular I love The Poetry Foundation mobile app, thanks to which I've discovered my new favourite poem (for April, anyway). My random "spin" gave me poems on disappointment & nature, and I found this:


To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

— Edna St. Vincent Millay

To what purpose, stupid April?! Disappointing indeed. (By which I mean only that it's bloody cold, this is no spring, what does April know? Nothing, obviously.)

Is it art?

Dada, or something like it, is alive and kicking in Montreal.

Earlier this week I attended a cabaret hommage to Codex Seraphinianus and its creator, Luigi Serafini. The show was sponsored by the Université de Foulosophie.

According to Douglas Hofstadter, the Codex to many people seems "to glorify entropy, chaos, and incomprehensibility," and this was clearly the spirit that embodied the Rialto theatre Monday night.

Some of it was music. Some of it was comedy. A lot of it was weird. Some of it may have been poetry or philosophy, or parody and social commentary. I'm not too sure. There was nudity. There were aliens. And it got political ("Tuons Harper!" they chanted).

By chance I was seated just across the aisle from Luigi. He was inscrutable. Amused, honoured, insulted, bored? No idea.

About the show
My favourite bit involved the two men in black with the shiny, featureless face masks, who used a child's doll dressed in white frills to demonstrate the phases of the sun. Or something like that. It was mostly nonverbal, and those bits that were spoken were distorted, with just enough real words seeping through to hint at a meaning.

Some highlights:

Chorale Bruitist Joker, a noise music choir. The piece was alien and cacophonous, but clearly also "composed" and musical. Audio samples on the website.

Natalie Cora, who plays a kora, an instrument that looks straight out of Serafini's world.

Soizick Hébert, whose hair looks to have been constructed using the Codex's geometry, was absolutely hilarious.

Daniel Heikalo, bearded and capped, performed a piece for recorder and voice, coming off as a kind of medieval Jethro Tull. The video here includes percussion, and relative to what I witnessed it's rather low key, but this clip hints at some of the weird and wild.

About the Codex
The Codex Seraphinianus: How Mysterious Is a Mysterious Text If the Author Is Still Alive (and Emailing)? — Justin Taylor tells you why the Codex so captivating.

Another Green World: The Codex Seraphinianus — John Coulthart tells you what Douglas Hofstadter and Alberto Manguel make of the Codex.

The Worlds of Luigi Serafini — Jordan Hurder explains the differences between editions.

Orbis Pictus — Italo Calvino's introduction to the Codex in its Italian and French editions.

Clearly, I'll be needing to acquire my own copy.