From the Portuguese original of Llansol’s Geography of Rebels
In lieu of writing critically about Maria Gabriela Llansol’s first ever publication in English; The Geography of Rebels, from Houston’s Deep Vellum, I’m posting this sly reference (below, plus). However, as I said re Mallo, these and some of 2019’s forthcoming books (mostly in translation), call out for serious, passionate, engaged, authoritative responses from writers. I hear the call and am going to be responding again after a long interlude.
Spend a life attempting to capture the resistant poetics of your existence (what/why else?) and you do gain special access to other writing. You’ll see right through most of it, but locate what magic there is, know and observe or instinctively recognise how it is done. It’s all in the writing. If you make original sentences or lines, then you know about each word, each in between, and all their potentialities.
Thus I detect a new Khaled Khalifa (Death is Hard Work: wow!), a forthcoming Vila-Matas, works on Mohamed Makiya or by Yasser Elsheshtawy (temporary cities in an Arabian context), but also intriguing books located more locally by E J Burnett, or Laura Beatty, etc. The call is urgent and easily matched by the urgent response that books pages call a review. Books pages tend to agree on what is important, especially viz work in translation, exceptions are treasured like monsoon rain. I almost always felt differently and it was a significant motivator in paying and generating attention to awkwardness, the resistant or ‘difficult’, complex or subtle, and the ‘foreign’ (work in translation not -generally- otherness filtered in English for the British market -who pull-up at all borders!). No apologies.
Relatedly, I convinced myself -at least- of the value even of even tiny reviews while wrestling with John Barth in 1991 (for the New Statesman). What’s the point of writing a few hundred words on Barth -author of vast Post-Modernist novels like The Sotweed Factor or Giles Goat Boy- especially in response to one of his more pedestrian novels; The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor? I tried hard to condense something worth saying in the writing itself for those that knew* but in prose still cunningly able to pass in the public domain (surpassing academic corners/plod). It felt worthwhile, put a lot of Barth under my belt and gave me a true measure of writing of that kind in its last stages, periodising David Foster Wallace as ‘the last of’, for example. Temporalities like this are fluid, obviously, but it’s was definitely worth understanding where DFW and his ‘transgressions’ locate, even if he’s a wriggler (and an original essayist)!
The Geography of Rebels! Well, I am not going to attempt much more than I set out to do, but her writing is astonishing in the best ways, and resists datability as vigorously as you might hope. We badly need more of her work in English, most notably for me, her Holder, de Holderlin (1993). The appeal is twofold; firstly, the sheer vertiginousness of her writing, it’s crazy scales and ratios, its refusal to sit down in that over-comfy prose chair, from which it is so hard to stand up again (it seems). Her references are particular to her own self and an exilic life, most obviously in Belgium amongst her contemporaneous mystics, but they never settle, especially here as they run like river water past windows that we glimpse Llansol’s world through.
You have to read her; there is no point in a very short summary, because it is experiential, performative, writing. As such, I’ll just refer to another rare quality which is that the marked formalism of her work is not quite what it seems. It appears, especially in Portuguese, to be a very cerebral formalism of silence, blankness, rigid refusals and hard-edged territorialising of page and mind. In fact, it’s much more generous than that, and a refutation in a way of DFW in that it is a form of footnoting her thinking and writing processes in the moment of encounter on the page. It’s softer, more embracing than that sounds and for that I thank translator Audrey Young for making it possible to discover. I have a lifetime of fierce appreciation for all kinds of formalism, familiar enough to no longer expect surprises in new or recovered versions. Llansol is the same and then very different. You have to read her!
Lastly, the closest reference that I can think of to get a quick grip on Llansol, is to Clarice Lispector whose writing seems relatively quaint in it scales and velocities! I mean or include the Lispector of The Hour of the Star, for example, that stunning first paragraph;
“All the world began with a yes, one molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born. But before prehistory there was the prehistory of prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes. It was ever so. I don’t know why, but I do know that the universe never began.”
Which rocks, flows and ricochets around the known universe of mind, doesn’t it? Llansol takes this to a whole other series of levels and breathlessness in The Geography of Rebels…
So, after all that, here is a very short excerpt from my subtly constructed talk (5-6000 words) given in October with some wonderful company, at Camera Austria’s The Violence of Images symposium in the Kunsthauz Graz during the steirischerherbst’19 festival Thanks to all of those involved, my fellow talkers and blessings to new and old friends who made Graz such a warm place for a few days and nights. This will be published in one form or other (reworked as a more written form. For anyone present and now reading, I would remove the end to the middle to then lay out those very fragile, subtle, necessarily tentative, nonviolent image selections and propositions), in time and I will post links to that, of course.
Any Place for a Nonviolent Image?
I am going to leap out of my own locally shared/European intellectual history and its relationship with the violence of the (photographic) image to think about the absence of violence in images, the violence of that absence, and specifically to think about and articulate what a nonviolent image might or ought to be. I will proceed by speculation; story and anecdote, rather than statement; theory and footnote. I hope you’ll bear with me…
“… Contra Barthes, I can see that this is my mother but what I find in the image is trust and love, not a common if definitive interior quality a la Barthes. This is why mine is a just image!
So along with accident and gift, trust and love are constitutive of a nonviolent image. Again, run that thought through a VR headset, or the totalising visual culture of our time and it’s obviously a counter current to it, even a radical gesture…
25 Llansol/Places/Lugares/ This is an even more tricky image (above) to unpack and convincingly demonstrate nonviolent qualities, yet it was the first that came to mind when I received Reinhard’s invitation. I can reassure you that it has been rigorously tested ever since!
I’m fond of the kind of formalism that I knew MGL (1931-2008) produced; spatial interventions, long dashes and blank lines, columns within the texts (Oh and her characters are saints, mystics and heretics, she’s published her diaries and a book of fragments on Holderlin), but though I can speak or read Spanish I have no Portuguese. I knew of her by repute, but held little expectation of revelation. Recently I discovered that the first of her work would be translated into English as Geography of Rebels and so I picked up 1970s Portuguese editions of the books and studied them page by page and this page fascinated me.
When I read the same pages in translation I found that while her writing style is vertiginous, this box of space is not really an incision or intervention so much as an elaboration. Kindness in place of ellipsis. The text to the right is an aside, incorporated. It takes this form rather than a footnote, generously keeping all the thoughts together, palpably live. And this quality or qualities; including-in, informality or improvisation on the page, kindly attention within a still very demanding written text, are constitutive of a nonviolent image.
Llansol’s book, incidentally, is divided into sections titled lugares, or Places. And in the forthcoming translation, a brilliant introduction by Gonçalo Tavares suggests that sentences and her sentences in particular can take up space, by which he means place, “one square metre of reality”. He describes it as a blanket being placed on a “stone” or “giant rock” of the planet, warming, accommodating, and implicitly topic. A nonviolent image ought to perform like an accident, a gift, act of trust or love, explicatory aside, kindly adaptive voice and a small blanket on the desert or plateau of the real, too.
26-27 JB. Again, I ought to finish here and draw together at least a prolegomena to a theory of nonviolent imagery. However, I have my own aside, as you might expect…
That’s it, yes! You should know that my reference and very particular scale for what I mean by nonviolence is from Jainism;
“Nonviolence is a key imperative for the Rains Retreat. In Jainism all life deserves attentive protection from violence, an exacting imperative which extends to near invisible ‘tiny creatures’ (including) the eggs from fleas, for example.”
The Tavares reference/quote is here;
“We carry (Llansol’s) sentence with us to reality and and lay it down like someone laying a blanket upon a stone. And this is the image—a blanket upon a giant rock, a small blanket, with specific dimensions, a warm blanket, a blanket that raises the temperature placed upon a rock of gigantic proportions. Every sentence is a blanket… a sentence sometimes allows us to understand one square meter of the world, one square meter of reality, let’s think about it like this—as if reality could have this unit of measure … To make at least a few square meters of reality lucid.”
Lastly, there are excellent academic texts on elements of Llansol, inevitably also making comparison with Lispector, out there in journals (by Clare Williams, and Raquel Ribeiro). I assumed that if there were any mainstream books page space allowed for Llansol, one of these would certainly have been given it. (Williams, in particular, having written a model obit for The G which you should read here, which makes my point about the potential density of a short piece beautifully). Apparently this important find and unique voice was less worthy than blanket coverage of whatever… It was impossible for me to carve time out to write last year when it mattered, but I still regret it!
Moved reviews of Geography from Comments:
Jessica Sequeira/Full Stop/May2018: “The experience is that of reading a kind of poetry, in which the primary objective is not necessarily clarity of content, but rather the production of a certain emotional state. The text itself often splits into a visual poetry of columns, staggers into fragments ragged in unusual ways, and dissolves from solid paragraphs into sections cut by line breaks … This “river of the idea” is extended in explorations of the Tagus, Tigris and Euphrates, and is suggestive of a notion of both flowing prose and flowing time … Llansol develops the idea of a community of consciousness. A community is a group that we belong to by choice, aesthetic association, closeness in tone, and preference for levels of hardness or softness, irony and sincerity … A great part of the appeal of Llansol’s work is the way that it follows the consequences of dissolution to their extreme”.
Lindsay Semel/Asymptote/June2018; “(Re) conventions like spacing, punctuation, line breaks, and page layout. At once illogical and impactful, they invite active, participatory reading, which attests to the skill of Young’s translation. To maintain across languages such deliberate and such unconventional units of meaning with weight, grace, and whimsy is an impressive feat. Allusion grounds the reader. It creates meaning by anchoring the text to a larger historical, spiritual, and literary narrative. The trilogy is peopled by a cast of religious rebels. Carmelites, Cathars, Beguines, and even Sufis, they live by and write of an unmediated love for God, often compared and intertwined with earthly loving relationships. They choose lives of poverty, they care for the poor and sick, they write (and) form a community that transcends time and geography, united through their common ideals and most crucially, through the exchange and inspiration of words … I read the Geography of Rebels Trilogy very slowly, with my journal at hand and Google accessible. Both were indispensable … to write back is exactly the text’s invitation to the reader, just as the text itself writes back to earlier ones, which in turn converse with each other.”
Tara Chessman/The Quarterly Conversation/Dec2018; “Anyone coming to Llansol with any kind of “normal” expectations at all will likely be disappointed. Plot, logical structure, continuity, a sense of linear time and/or space— you won’t find any of that here. At least not in any form that is readily apparent. Instead, Llansol immerses her readers in a shared hallucinatory vision, seemingly fueled by religious hysteria and open to multiple interpretations … And accepting that this is someone else’s vision or dream with no tether to the logical world allows the reader the freedom to enjoy the unique character of Llansol’s prose … sentences gurgle and babble and slip through the consciousness like running water. Even the way the text is laid out on the page is unusual … And, still, the more I think (and write) about Maria Gabriela Llansol, the more intrigued I am by her work. There is a phosphorescent brilliance here. And for those who can stay the course, rewards to be had..”
Annie McDermott/TLS/June2018; “The three linked novellas that make up the Portuguese writer Maria Gabriela Llansol’s trilogy Geography of Rebels are nearly impossible to summarise … Dallas-based publisher Deep Vellum is to be commended for the bold and inspired choice, and Audrey Young for a bewitching translation in which each word feels both carefully weighed and feather-light. This is an astonishing, otherworldly and utterly original book, and it reveals Llansol as one of the most fascinating Portuguese writers of the twentieth century.”
Link is paywalled, so.