Monday, January 20, 2020

The creatives are rude

"That's the thing about corporate philanthropy, it's not obvious what you get out of it. You do it for a lot of reasons, like public image and employee morale. But also in a bigger sense, it's one way big business convinces people that you don't need the government to support public services. If corporations are benevolent and investing in plant-a-tree day and nice buildings then people won't pressure government to do its job and interfere. Philanthropy is the cornerstone of neoliberalism, as they say."
Oval, by Elvia Wilk, is described as reality-adjacent. It's about sustainable housing, sustainable living, the gig economy, and the redistribution of wealth. And the weather is crazy out of control.

I admire several things about this book.

Although Oval is set in a near-future Berlin, technology (very realistically) keeps breaking down. For example, they can't get the bluetooth on the speaker system to work, so it's wired, ruining the whole aesthetic. Some vital equipment is encased in a storage space with a stainless steel door, which defeats the climate sensor entirely. Technology fails us, not in disaster events, but in everyday ways.
Anja skidded down the slope, which was becoming muddy from overuse by feet. It still hadn't been paved or even scattered with gravel, since Finster didn't want to admit that the state of the pathway could no longer reasonably be called temporary. Rather than upgrade the provisional solution to make it slightly more functional in the interminable interim, it was ignored, as a signal that something better, something great — the best possible path — was coming.
This near future is a gig economy where art degrees are parlayed into consultancies — not just liberal arts, but fine art, conceptual art, performance art. (It makes Tom McCarthy's corporate anthropologist of Satin Island look quaint.) "Thinkers" in this world have more value than scientists.
His job was twofold: to generate press-garnering experiments on the edge of what could be called traditional corporate boundaries, and in the process to enhance the corporate culture and strengthen corporate values from within. He was not supposed to be tinkering with one specific issue in any specific area — say, urbanism in Lagos or sanctions against vaccines in the Philippines — he was not to make this place or that place a better place, but to make Basquiatt a better place and therefore to help Basquiatt make The World a better place. He showed the institution how to think better, how to critique its its institutionality. He kept the institution hip and fresh just by being there. His creativity was both the means and the end.
Everything is covered by NDAs. I don't recall the specific terms of my employment contract, but I suspect I talk about work far more than I should. Oval's NDAs are so vague and so broad, and their employers' reach so vast, encompassing housing and insurance and the company you keep and the borders you cross, it leaves people with very little to talk about. This goes some way to explaining the rampant recreational drug use. (Also, "Berlin, the last place on Earth you can smoke in indoors.")

Everyone's into clubbing and posturing (and I wonder if this is what it is to be young and prosperous in Berlin today).
"The only real difference between the people working in the creative industry and the people working at the airline counter is that the creatives are rude," he said. "Everyone we know assumes they're intellectually and morally superior to normal people, but our friends are just as normal, just as conservative and boring as anyone else. The main difference is that they're rude all the time. And they pan that rudeness off as authenticity."
And that's where reality TV rears its ugly head. But Oval isn't about that either.

It was all so compelling and swift and readable. I was halfway through before I realized the story had barely touched what the back cover promised. This novel is not about flipping real estate or reengineering our brain's reward centres. Not obviously, anyway. Not exactly. Not at first.

Anja and Louis's eco-house is falling apart, as is their relationship, which may or may not have something to do with his mother having died. While Louis has grief issues, Anja has body issues — she doesn't eat enough, is intensely insecure, and develops a rash. They're avoiding the house and each other.
People liked to think they were having a relationship with each other, but really they were having a relationship with the relationship itself.
Louis as an art consultant is spearheading a pharmacological solution to income inequality, a pill that makes people more generous. It turn out that people perform generous acts only because it makes them feel good (as we suspected all along), and as it's triggering economic pressure points in the brain, it's the act of spending that causes well-being, regardless of the recipient of the benevolence. It won't be over-the-counter either; Louis intends to drop it on the scene, dress it up as a street drug.
In a world where her structural critiques were cast as personal insecurities, no one would ever believe that she was politically opposed to O; they'd only believe that she was having problems with her boyfriend.
Anja's body issues felt very out of place in this novel. Ditto the occasional feminist outburst, and the melting mascara. Maybe this is supposed to be just another dimension of a fully fleshed out character, incidental to the plot. Or maybe it's intended to say something about appearances and authenticity.

After her lab was shut down, Anja is also working as a consultant, but this arrangement seems to have been carefully designed by her employer just to keep her mouth shut. Her science experiment involved some organic structural compound — it's not clear whether it's a problem or a solution that's being suppressed.

Anja goes off-grid and maybe a bit crazy, but somewhat ironically, she finds herself living self-sufficiently, resourcefully, sustainably. While Berlin burns, she ultimately find her authentic self.

Review
Full Stop

Excerpts
From Chapter 1
Chapter 9 — the gym
Chapter 17 — the drug

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Tragedy belonged to other people

I didn't expect to enjoy Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips, as much as I did. It's about girls gone missing, after all. Grim subject matter.

Rather than follow the investigation, the novel shows how the disappearance of the young sisters ripples through the community. The peninsula of Kamchatka is so closed off from the world that it's difficult to believe the girls could've been removed from it, whether by road, sea, or plane.

Laura Miller in the New Yorker notes that:
Dead-girl mysteries are often set in such sleepy, half-forgotten corners of the world: small towns, rural backwaters, suburbs that pride themselves on their tranquillity and safety. Dead girls don't just force detectives to reckon with their own capacity for evil and virtue; they also cause them to turn over the rocks in insular communities and expose wriggling secrets to the light.
The disappearance affects people in indirect ways. Keep your daughter close. Keep your girlfriend close. Suspect everyone; discover nothing.
Tragedy belonged to other people.
Each chapter takes a different female character's perspective, one as each month passes after the incident. With increasing temporal distance, the women are unravelling, but they are bound to their lives. They ache to go far away and go nowhere. They ache for love and sex, and for men to be responsible, to be aware of them, to treat them fairly. The men are traditional and entitled, even when they are incompetent; they are oppressive, even when they are absent.

It's also a xenophobic society, racist, with an indigenous population whose social realities and concerns are largely ignored. A native girl who disappeared years earlier was written off by authorities (and much of the community) as a runaway; nobody cared enough to look for her.

Some people pine for the Soviet era.

These are the stories of women who are smart and accomplished, with so much potential, all of them made to disappear within their own lives.
She, too, believed in the migrants' power — not the power to steal children, but the power to take a woman, to transform her, to turn her life that was growing smaller all the time into an existence that was dark and mighty.
Excerpts
August.
October.

Friday, January 03, 2020

The most fantastic and uptight and uninhibited person alive

Knots, by Gunnhild Øyehaug, is a heartbreak of insightful short stories. I stumbled upon this book in an outlet store, and it felt familiar and right to be reading it while visiting family and traveling home. It felt fantastic.

[I read Wait, Blink, a novel by the same author, just a few months ago and while I haven't (yet?) managed to write about it here, I was deeply moved by it.]

Most of these stories make me ache. Øyehaug uses repetition of certain phrases to great rhythmic effect. A few characters make appearances in more than one story. Everything is knotted together.
"Can't we sit down for a while?" she says. I nod. We find two green chairs and sit down. I look at her and think, almost in wonder, that this is the girl, this is the girl who straddled me and rode me hard on the jangling hotel bed less than an hour ago. That her fair hair had swayed back and forth above me. That she had had no one to bump into then, no boats to lose control of, no parents who thought that their child was hopeless at this, that she should let go of her inhibitions and not be so uptight. I am gripped by love, want to shake her, tell her that she's the most fantastic and uptight and uninhibited person alive. But I know that if I lean over and whisper that in her ear, and that I want to be with her for the rest of my life, that it's very likely that we'll do just that, stay together for the rest of our lives, I know that she won't say anything, her eyes will slip away, but she'll take my hand and squeeze it. That's all. Because she's not in love with me. I know that. I know she's in love with someone else in this town. Obsessed. Someone she tries not to talk about. Someone she tries not to look for on every street corner, in every gallery we go to. Someone we were supposed to meet here by the pond two days ago, but who didn't show up, someone she thinks she sees everywhere — I can feel it in the hand that's holding hers, a a faint start, she thinks she sees: a tall guy, with broad shoulders, a thin dark line. An ex. She looks at me: "Shall we go and get something warm to drink? I'm cold," she says. She's done with longing. Or rather: she wants to long a little more, as we leave the pond and she thinks that it's perhaps the last time that we'll pass this place. We stand up, and she takes my hand. Always takes my hand.
[From "The Girl Holding My Hand."]

The stories are simple, understated, short. I want to say that they're very female, but even though I read more women than men last year, I don't really know what that means. It's not the domesticity and the love and sex, but something about the matter-of-factness and the poignancy; everything is obvious and tragic. At any rate, they speak to me.

I can't pick a favourite. There are scenes of hurt and tenderness. There's death and violence. There's a deer. There's Rimbaud. Performance art and Arvo Pärt. There's when you need to pee, and when you need to run away. Longing and fear and regret. In "Transcend," a woman longs for an eternity of total fusion and considers protesting her current situation by not having an orgasm. "Meanwhile, on Another Planet" has a very Cosmicomics feel about it.

Excerpts
"Nice and Mild"
"It's Raining in Love"

Reviews
New Yorker: A Norwegian Master of the Short Story: Gunnhild Øyehaug dramatizes the critical consciousness, by James Wood: "She can produce stabs of emotion, unexpected ghost notes of feeling, from pieces so short and offbeat that they seem at first like aborted arias."

Blog // Los Angeles Review of Books: Something Like Love but (K)not: Gunnhild Øyehaug's Radical Fictions, by Kasia van Schaik: "erotic, mysterious, awkward, precise."
It seems pertinent, even polemical, then, that the characters in Øyehaug's stories are all concerned with the need to be seen and heard. From lonely women to existential deer to two-timing husbands stranded in snow banks, Øyehaug's characters yearn for acknowledgement and reciprocity, and for the equilibrium that such a bond, or knot, promises. Most often, though, they’re denied recognition.

In the place of recognition, the characters are left with a sense of longing, paired with a deep-seeded disappointment, which announces its presence on every page of this book. Øyehaug's work constructs an ecology of longing. Of failed epiphanies. Of unsatisfied women.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

There are some places in the Universe where the Fall has not occurred

The other day Dizzy told me that in a small bookshop in the Czech town of Náchod he found a nice edition of Blake, so let us now imagine that these good people, who live on the other side of the border, and who speak to each other in a soft, childlike language, come home from work in the evening, light a fire in the hearth and read Blake to one another. And perhaps, if he were still alive, seeing all this, Blake would say that there are some places in the Universe where the Fall has not occurred, the world has not turned upside down and Eden still exists. Here Mankind is not governed by the rules of reason, stupid and strict, but by the heart and intuition. The people do not indulge in idle chatter, parading what they know, but create remarkable things by applying their imagination. The state ceases to impose the shackles of daily oppression, but helps people to realize their hopes and dreams. And Man is not just a cog in the system, not just playing a role, but a free Creature. That's what was passing through my mind, making my bed-rest almost a pleasure.

Sometimes I think that only the sick are truly healthy.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk, surprised me by being so funny.

The narrator is bright and quirky. Actually, she's downright crazy. Janina Duszejko. She hates her given name, thinks she ought to have been named Irmtrud or Medea. A person's name ought to reflect their Attributes, and they rarely do. (The reviews I'm perusing now, and I refuse to link to any of them here, insist on referring to the protagonist as Janina, which would piss her off and to which she might not respond, rather than Duszejko.)

A former engineer, she lives on the Plateau (hey, I live on the Plateau!), is employed as the winter caretaker for some of the homes in the area (that serve primarily as summer residences), teaches English classes at the school in town, is helping a former student translate the works of William Blake. She sees the ghosts of her mother and her grandmother in her boiler room, and she's an astrologist, intent of predicting people's date of death.

She's a vegetarian, and an animal rights activist, to the extent that she complains about hunting and poaching and reports her neighbour to the police for abusing his dog. This neighbour starts the novel off dead.

She has her Ailments, suffers Attacks, and is visited upon by Anger.
Anger makes the mind clear and incisive, able to see more. It sweeps up the other emotions and takes control of the body. Without a doubt Anger is the source of all wisdom, for Anger has the power to exceed limits.
What makes her so sympathetic is her directness. As she says, "One has to tell people what to think. There's no alternative. Otherwise someone else will do it."

Although sometimes, she speaks with a Blakeian crypticness.
I didn't yet know what I was going to do. Sometimes, when a Person feels Anger, everything seems simple and obvious. Anger puts things in order and shows you the world in a nutshell; Anger restores the gift of Clarity of Vision, which it's hard to attain in any other state.
She talks to herself ("The best conversations are with yourself. At least there's no risk of misunderstanding."), and while she resents being invisible, as women of a certain age are, she plays it to her advantage. She is dismissed as a madwoman, and she's stopped caring.

But this is a murder mystery! More dead bodies turn up! Duszejko's theory, about which she is very vocal, is that the animals are taking revenge on the poachers in the area.
The human psyche evolved in order to defend us against seeing the truth. To prevent us from catching sight of the mechanism. The psyche is our defence system — it makes sure we'll never understand what's going on around us. Its main task is to filter information, even thought the capabilities of our brains are enormous. For it would be impossible to carry the weight of this knowledge. Because every tiny particle of the world is made of suffering.
This is not the book I expected to read based on its description and the tone of the reviews ("existential thriller"). I expected something weighty and noirish. Instead, I found a light and accessible story (with serious underlying themes) told in a fairly traditional way, peopled with colourful characters, and narrated with a touch of crazy. I recommend it as an entrypoint to Tokarczuk's work.
In a way, people like her, those who wield a pen, can be dangerous. At once a suspicion of fakery springs to mind — that such a Person is not him or herself, but an eye that's constantly watching, and whatever it sees it changes into sentences; in the process it strips reality of its most essential quality — its inexpressibility.
Excerpt.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Slightly to one side of reality

For a moment I forgot what I was doing and where I was going: so it seems to be anytime I experience happiness, it always has to be slightly to one side of reality.
There is a quality about Optic Nerve, by Maria Gainza, that I find compelling and elusive, much like art itself. There's something about it I need to work out.

Looked at from one side, this book is a series of essays of art criticism, each focusing on a particular painting of an artist's oeuvre and sprinkled with anecdotes of the artist's life. This novel is perhaps an attempt to rectify the narrator's observation that "Carelessly administered, the history of art can be lethal as strychnine." Here, the lesson is by turns sedative and invigorating, therapeutic for the narrator. For me, this jumble of fact and opinion poses a puzzle to be sorted out.

From another angle, it relates episodes from the narrator's life, in some ways only very tangentially related to her encounters with specific artworks. I can't say whether the art essays complement her biography or if it's the other way round. They feel to me very separate, and the points of intersection confuse me. "You write one thing in order to talk about something else." So which is the thing, and which is the something else?

I wasn't swept away by this book, and there are bits I thought boring, and I don't understand how the thing as a whole hangs together, yet I want to return to it someday. I feel there might be hidden here some key — to art, to seeing, to the stillness and joy and understanding I think art should bring, and even (as seems to be the narrator's quest) to happiness.

It's a slim novel, densely packed. Cándido López thought that in order to touch the heart of reality, it had first to be deformed. When the world is precarious, Hubert Robert's paintings seem to say to her, the idea of finishing anything stops making sense. She struggles with the coexistence of dogmatism and sensuality in El Greco. She dismisses Monet as a one-trick pony. She plumbs Toulouse-Lautrec's depth in the floating Paris he saw from his unique perspective. Rothko leaves her "fuck me" dumb.
People say you have to approach a Rothko in the same way you approach a sunrise. The work has a clear beauty, but that beauty can be either sublime or decorative.
The story of Rothko is, for me, the centrepiece of this book, and his life's battle of "stopping the black from swallowing the red." Clearly the narrator relates and is deeply affected by Rothko's work.
It gives me a feeling of my singularity: a clear sense of the brutal solitude of this slab of sweating flesh that is me. I'm alive, I remember, and I can't help but immediately feel saddened, like anytime happiness is promised and you embrace it, but you know it isn't going to last.
She is unhappy with her husband, with her pregnancy, with her mother, with her clients. She's seeing a doctor about the twitch in her eye. She seems impregnable in conquering physical illness, but is lost in the face of emotional difficulties.
Light red over dark red, 1955-57, Mark Rothko
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
Yeats spoke of the Celtic twilight, and warded off his melancholy by pouring himself into Greek translations. Dead languages have never been your forte, but you have other things, a manicure being the cheapest option you've come up with to keep your darkness at bay. And in general it's worked, helping you to stay present, restricting your focus to that tiny portion of your self. Nowadays, if you let yourself become distracted, if there is some pause in the application of the nail varnish, why lie? You're the very first to let ruins enchant you. Some days you are liable to be devastated by a broken nail, or a cuticle that's ever so slightly too big, or the nail varnish chipping; and cracks suddenly appear in the dam that keeps all of your sadness in check.
She starts out in the fog of ash from nearby meadow fires, but she feels something like "poetic joy" in the end, in the snow.

"Isn't all artwork — or all decent art — a mirror?" So this is a book about how we see the world, and how we see ourselves. Maybe this is why I'm struggling with — I'm having a hard time seeing myself these days.

I'm feeling very arty lately — doing sculpture workshops and some crafty things. But I absolutely aspire to the sublime, not merely decorative. In fact, I don't even want a thing at the end of it; it's the process that's sublime, something sublimated into something else. I just don't know what the thing is.

Gainza as an art critic may be onto something in terms of how we talk about art. I went to a gallery yesterday and the curatorial statement was just so much bullshit. Because art is so subjective, we couch it in all this academic jargon to objectivize it. But by creating this distance, we're diminishing the thing, the meaning, the significance, the "fuck me," that makes it art. The only way to talk about art in any significant way is deeply personal.

From The Nation:
Optic Nerve’s episodic iridescence—the way each chapter shimmers with the delicacy of a soap bubble—belies its gravity. Gainza has written an intricate, obsessive, recherché novel about the chasm that opens up between what we see and what we understand. Late in the book, María is asked to write an essay for the retrospective catalog of an artist she’s only just met. Unenthusiastic about the work, she nevertheless agrees, fascinated by his tales of religious fervor and gay ’80s nightlife. “Deep down I think I am a destroyer of images,” she says, an incredible admission for someone in such obvious thrall to art. But María destroys images only insofar as she refuses their interpretation, at least initially. Like any good critic, she is less interested in the static image than in that image’s nexus of potential connections. We lack a satisfying name for that first confrontation with meaningful art—the gleaming, white moments of wordless perception. This is María’s state of grace. Optic Nerve, a radiant debut, enlarges that moment and invests it with ecstasy.
Excerpt: The Red and the Black (translated by Jane Brodie)

(Also, how much do you love this book cover?)

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

"Languages that are not our mother tongues are like cats"

Slavic languages, with the freedom proffered by their declensions, presented an added difficulty for the writer faced with a blank page, for if an Antarctic writer was met with innumerable possibilities, then a Polish writer came up against infinity.
The Palimpsests, by Aleksandra Lun, is funny and clever. It's also pretentious as fuck, but charmingly so.

Read for yourself how it starts.

I'd almost forgotten having ordered this book. There it was, sitting on my desk when I arrived at work one morning. A slim, brown envelope. When the contents were revealed to me, I was disappointed. I set it to the back corner of my desk and eyed it suspiciously. I'd been anticipating a tome, not this pamphlet. I'd planned on losing myself in the palimpsests, not skimming across them. I'd hoped for a book I could burrow inside for the length of Christmas vacation. But this would last me only a couple hours. Now I was burdened with not only determining which hours would best be suited to the endeavour, but also finding other reading to fill the days.

And so I opened it as the train pulled out of the station.
"You're a writer," the psychiatrist was making a note in her notebook, "you have to belong to a culture. All writers belong to one."
Who does a language belong to, anyway? What gives some people more than others a right to a language?

Our protagonist, Czesław Przęśnicki, finds himself in a Belgian lunatic asylum undergoing Bartlebian therapy with the aim to stop him from writing in a language that is not his mother tongue. He writes in Antarctican, which he studied when he travelled to that continent with his lover, Ernest Hemingway. He is working on his second novel, scribbling it across the pages of a Flemish newspaper, while obsessing about his unsatisfactory sex life. His roommate is a Polish priest upset over his canary that was killed by sparrows in the same spot Hitler used as a pretext for invading Poland. And the asylum is peopled with several notable writers.

(What language do the birds speak, and the dogs?)

There are several running gags about Belgium not having had a government for the past year, Karol Wojtyła trotting the globe in a white dress (the Polish pope being referred to always by his birth name, a very Polish thing to do, lest we forget he was Polish), Eastern European communism in general and the privileged shop assistants who had unlimited access to toilet paper, and Hitler receiving radiofrequencies from the past.
"What gives you the idea that you can invent whatever you feel like and write it in any language you fancy?"

"A writer, doctor," Kosiński shrugged his shoulders, "is issued a special license, a poetic one, and that license is good for own life too."

The doctor made a note in her notebook.

"If I wrote in my mother tongue," continued Kosiński, "what I wrote would become personal. I write in my stepmother tongue, so that it may be universal."
Lun is clever to have her protagonist write in Antarctican — it avoids being political, which it easily could be. I wondered for a while if there was a statement being made in the fact that the characters were all male, with the exception of the woman psychiatrist. That is, until Karen Blixen turned up with her straight-shooting talk. And then Ágota Kristóf. So no, the gender imbalance is just the world, not a commentary.

There is a parade of mother-tongue-forsaking writers barging in on Czesław's sessions: Vladimir Nabokov, Jerzy Kosiński, Samuel Beckett, Emil Cioran, Joseph Conrad, Karen Blixen, Eugene Ionesco (why do we even call him a Romanian writer?), Ágota Kristóf. Most of them remark on the pretentiousness of the plot of the novel he's working on. Witold Gombrowicz also makes an appearance, despite having written in Polish. And Simenon also plays a role in our protagonist's story.

Beckett: "You and your kind have never been foreigners, that's your bad luck," he lowered his voice, "and you don't know that the mother tongue is always burdened with automatism and that, to simplify things, exiling oneself from the language is necessary."

Cioran: "For a writer, to change language is to write a love letter with a dictionary."

Writerly references abound, and I'm sure plenty more zipped past me. Czesław also reminisces about the many writers with whom he never got close: Melville, Zweig, Bruno Schulz, Witkiewicz, and others.

The Palimpsests is lively and madcap. It's a thoughtful frolic through the philosophy of language, the absurdities of our world, and the joys of our reading life.

I read this book in English translation. It was written in Spanish (by a woman born in Poland but living in Belgium, and working as a translator of multiple languages), but I'd venture to say it's a very Polish book.

Interviews
Godine
csyty

Excerpt.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Only if this were a film would I consider it real

Saturday, November 23
I started reading Of Walking on Ice today, Werner Herzog's journal of his pilgrimage from Munich to Paris, to the deathbed of Lotte Eisner.

It begins with a diary entry on Saturday 23 November. Today is also Saturday 23 November, only 45 years later.

I'm at a spa near Orford National Park, and the world is white here. The ice on the lake is thin, but blanketed in fresh snow. The book is white against my white robe. I look up from the white page to see white everywhere, whitewashing the dirty secrets of this world.

There is an indoor Turkish sauna circuit and an outdoor Finnish sauna circuit. The air is subzero. Last night we sat in the pool outside as the snow fell. I love this feeling, being bathed in warm but exposed to the cold.

"Only if this were a film would I consider it real."

Sunday, November 24
This morning I light a fire in the hotel suite and crawl back into bed to read.

Herzog's prose is visual and loaded, somewhat opaque. I like the idea of the daily diary entry, written by Herzog at the end of his day, reading it at the start of mine.
From a hillock I gaze across the countryside, which stretches like a grassy hollow. In my direction, Walteshousen; a short way to the right, a flock of sheep; I hear the shepherd but I can't see him. The land is bleak and frozen. A man, ever so far way, crosses the fields. Phillipp wrote words in the sand in front of me; Ocean, Clouds, Sun, then a word he invented. Never did he speak a single word to anyone. In Pestenacker, people seem unreal to me.
I can see through the camera lens of his eyes, how the camera pans into the distance, and lingers, how the cuts imply a relationship between things and so form a treatise on the vastness of the world and the passage of time, how we are alien here.

Monday, November 25
I realize that when Herzog wrote this text, his film career was still ahead of him. He had not yet produced the work that he would be most known for.

Today his feet are blistered, and the crows are constant.

Tuesday, November 26
The man at the petrol station gave me such an unreal look that I rushed to the john to convince myself in front of the mirror that I was still looking human.
Thing are all too real, or seemingly unreal. As in film.
The cigarette packets on the roadside fascinate me greatly, even more when left uncrushed, then blown up slightly to take on a corpse-like quality, the edges no longer sharp and the cellophane dimmed from inside from the dampness, forming water droplets in the cold.
More crows.

Wednesday, November 27
"Why is walking so full of woe?" Werner's walk is woeful as he is walking toward death.

I have not yet figured out if my own sometimes compulsive walking is toward something. Maybe I am walking away.

Why is he walking? Surely he wasn't living in poverty at the time. Hitchhiking was something of a lifestyle in those days. But I think there'd be some urgency to see a dying friend. By walking he is postponing the death, or prolonging it.

Friday, November 29
I skipped a day. Such a slim book, and I couldn't manage a day's entry. At three and a half pages, it's a relatively long entry, but still. I worked from home: no commute, no reading.

He has been spending nights in barns, breaking into holiday homes. But he buys a cap and long johns. He changes in a church. Is he testing people's charity and goodwill? To what end? Did he not bring more money? Did he not think he needed more money? Was 1974 Germany so different that it didn't occur to him that he might need to pay for lodging, incur expenses?

On Thursday he writes:
Haile Selassie was executed. His corpse was burned together with an executed greyhound, an executed pig, and an executed chicken. The intermingled ashes were scattered over the fields of an English county. How comforting this is.
This isn't true. Haile Selassie was deposed in 1974. He didn't die till the following year. But on November 23 of 1974, Wikipedia informs me, several former high officials of the imperial government were executed by firing squad without trial. Did Herzog confuse the facts? Or was the news so confounded, without the instant self-correction our uberconnected world demands? Is this merely a symbolic dream, a kind of wish? Why even mention it? I cannot read anything further as true.

On Friday, he telephones. Who?

From Friday's entry I learn that Herzog has a young child. They've begun showing his film (Kasper Hauser, I deduce). "I don't believe in justice." Why not? For whom?

Saturday, November 30
Is it memory or dream? A film or an idea for a film? I know better than to believe it to be true.

Snow still storming. "Trees and bushes seem completely unreal, with even the thinnest twigs cloaked in fluffy snow."

Sunday, December 1
An almost toothless cat howls at the window.
How closely has Herzog examined it to affirm its state of toothlessness?

Monday, December 2
Is the Loneliness good? Yes, it is. (In this text translated from German, whose decision is it to capitalize "Loneliness"?)

Tuesday, December 3
Who's M?
I suddenly ask myself seriously whether I've lost my mind, as I hear so many crows but see so few.
Wednesday, December 4
This is a season that has nothing to do with the world anymore.
Very little has anything to do with the world anymore. Something about Sighing Trees. And Bruno. He must be scripting something. But it's never clear. What is real, what is dream, what is past film, what is future film?
Three people are sitting a glassy tourist café between clouds and clouds, protected by glass from all sides. Since I don't see any waiters, it crosses my mind that corpses have been sitting there for weeks, statuesque.
This sounds like a movie I've seen. Not a Herzog film.

Friday, December 6
Cows loom astonished.
I cannot express the joy this weird sentence gives me. I repeat it to myself all day long, like a mantra.

He says the loneliness is deeper than usual today, but I don't feel sympathetic. I can't get past the fact that it's of his own making. Is it really deeper? It's hard to tell.

Sunday, December 8
Me: I am restless. I feel burdened, I need to shake things off. The sun sets early and I go for a walk in the cold. I walk and I walk and I walk. It's back, the walking urge.

I realize that is was just the day before that Herzog "walked, walked, walked, walked."

Wednesday, December 11
I am reading, but I am not paying attention. I'm in the waiting room of the psychotherapist's office. I arrived on time, a few minutes early, I'm sure I did, and I doublechecked the email to confirm that I had her instructions straight, that she would come call me in the waiting room to the right of the main entrance.

I think the babbling brook babbles a little too loudly. This ambient noise, is it to make it impossible to listen at anyone's door? But I close my eyes and feel myself begin to calm down.

It's ten minutes past the appointment time. I am reading again, and still not paying attention. I think I detect shadows moving across the crack at the bottom of her door, but then I realize that all the cracks of all the doors are stuffed with black foam. Is it to muffle the noise or to prevent people from peeping under the door? Is it to prevent me from detecting the therapist's whereabouts?

At twenty minutes past the appointment time, a woman sitting near me makes a telephone call. She and her daughter were there before I arrived. She is calling the same therapist I am to see, wondering what's taking so long. I engage the woman in conversation as it seems that not only is the therapist late, she's double-booked. The therapist said she would be there in seven minutes. Oddly specific. After seven minutes elapse, the office door opens and the therapist emerges. She calls the mother and daughter, and I wonder if this is a test, is this what psychotherapy is like? We spend tedious minutes rescheduling, but I'm not sure I'll come back.

Saturday, December 14
Evening approaches. It's cold and raining. I spent a portion of the day preparing my mask for the office Christmas party masquerade. I'm feeling nervous anticipation about the party, as I don't know many people who are going. It's too early to go yet.

I suddenly realize that today is the date of the book's end. I should take a few minutes to read, as I may not return before midnight. I arrive to the party fashionably late.

All the snow is being washed away.

After
Since the early days, I have been continually reminded of Béla Tarrr's Satantango. The walking, endless walking, in wind and rain, and the cows. I wonder if Herzog made a film like that.

One review astutely notes:
For Herzog, art and life are inextricable. That would be too trite to write in connection with most people, but it seems wrong not to say it about Herzog.

It's only in passing that Herzog mentions Eisner. While she is ostensibly the reason for this walk, she is absent from this journal. We think something is about one thing, but it's almost always about something else.

I was unable to keep pace. Most days I wanted to rush ahead, but I was content also to let the days pile up. This may not be the right content for me to undertake slow reading, thoughtful and careful reading. Reading is either too much an entertainment and escape to warrant much thought. Or it is altogether too close and intimate and verging on impossible to reflect upon coherently. (I had considered reading Uwe Johnson's Anniversaries in "real time" but am grateful that I decided against it.)

Werner Herzog Takes a Walk

Excerpt.