note_15 On Maria Gabriela Llansol’s The Geography of Rebels in Graz; locating a nonviolent image…

LlansolNonviolence

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. Continue reading “note_15 On Maria Gabriela Llansol’s The Geography of Rebels in Graz; locating a nonviolent image…”

note_05 Wilson Harris (1921-2018) -an inadequate tribute from 1990 #polyhistoric

WilsonHarris Ph Eamon McCabe

Photo Eamonn McCabe (The Guardian)

While adding to Chapters_Essays and Culture_Crit, I’ve been discovering how much material there is -its drives and formations- and came across a very short double review from the New Statesman, September 1990. You can scroll a long way down the Culture-Crit page for those very early pieces. Please! This one (or these short paragraphs), on The Four Banks of the River of Space (the last part of Harris’ Carnival Trilogy published by Faber, like all his books), is not exactly a major critical work but does, in its concentrated little way, resonate with me. The G.’s obituary for Wilson Harris does too.

In 1990 there was still something called Commonwealth Literature, a peculiarly handy way of keeping peoples, histories and cultures in place. It’s tempting to write ‘Foreign and…’. Publishing was on the turn Continue reading “note_05 Wilson Harris (1921-2018) -an inadequate tribute from 1990 #polyhistoric”

on appetite and a mystic chef, george steiner essays, new statesman 1995

George Steiner August 2008

Or; If Kafka were Hindu…

Every now and then I wonder about George Steiner. Mostly it’s positive wondering but something bugs me about him and it’s not what seems to bug most people I know or read that have met him or committed their view of him to print. Much of the latter is merely a distaste for overt intellect, especially a passionate ‘continental’ mind as well as distrust of the whole dynamic of translation, literally and metaphorically.

There are pedagogic and vulgar ego issues when it comes to Steiner but let me say in brief that I dissociate myself from the cynical Brit approach to him. What continues to bug me is essentially what bugged me when I committed myself to print 15 years ago [in the New Statesman, see below]; I hate it that he won’t credit Kafka, Mozart, even little me with the capacity -effort, hours/years of silent striving and error, the beauty of the attempt- to invent.

Instead, it wasn’t Kafka or Mozart it was “god”. Who? you might say. Religious faith is one thing [later, in Errata, he described himself as a “messianic agnostic”, which is anticipated in what I wrote below], but to misrecognise the grand smallness of human effort, endeavour and appetite is wrong as well as pitiful.

Steiner is a man with a good brain and that brain has famous and all too real appetite but it strikes me therefore as worse that he closes it all down when he approaches a peak to indulge in ‘god’-whistling instead. Such vacuity is the opposite Continue reading “on appetite and a mystic chef, george steiner essays, new statesman 1995”

nb, visual art noticeboard [alternatives to friezing…]

Dirk Stewen untitled [bronx monkey II]

Dirk Stewen untitled [Bronx Monkey II] at Maureen Paley

I’ve been enjoying quite a few shows recently which are likely to be blown out of the water by the imminent frieze fair and so with mighty respect to the latter I thought I’d flag them up as alternatives…

Future Movements Jerusalem at Liverpool Biennial [18 Sept-28 Nov 2010] is an essential exhibition of work from and about Palestine. I posted on Raouf Haj Yihya’s Meter Square here, the New Statesman bravely ran a rather muted piece here and my own review will run at Babelmed shortly. Surprise yourself if you can get to it, or wait for it to travel south as I know it is scheduled to do. But be sure to see it.

Otherwise, Liverpool is a far better Biennial than scarce notice of it by lazy old journos suggests; everyone rightly notes the almost painfully compelling acid-Warhol-mashup-vids of Ryan Trecartin’s but there’s much else, including NS Harsha’s very nice installation [right] at 52 Renshaw Street and not least at Tate Liverpool -where a dubiously conceived but actually nicely put together show called The Sculpture of Language by Carol Anne Duffy exhibits some great and rarely aired works.

Dirk Stewen at Maureen Paley [08 October — 14 November 2010] is the most winning new work in town for me. If you do make it to the frieze jamboree then add this show to your bottom-line schedule otherwise you’ll have failed yourself and London. If you’re not friezing it then take advantage and spend some time in a show spread over two floors, beautifully arranged/hung works combining utopian gesture with extraordinary concentration, tentativeness and beauty. The work seems hardly there at all and yet surprises/delights with a precision that makes for indelibility. It’s Stewen’s first show in London, I’d never seen the work before and this exhibition made me happy to be alive; don’t miss it! Continue reading “nb, visual art noticeboard [alternatives to friezing…]”

penelope fitzgerald; the blue flower on the road of the impossible, 1995 revisited and again

Penelope Fitzgerald [1916-2000] has become the exemplum of a writer I want to admire more than I can.

Who cares? you might say. Well, I wrote about The Blue Flower back in 1995 [see below]. I knew the novels and very little about their author except that her previous novel, The Gate of Angels, had been universally hurrahed. I liked the work and felt that probably I would like the author of such work, but also that there was something lacking in it.

The Blue Flower –about the life of romantic poet and philosopher Novalis at the difficult moment of his idealisation of 12 year old Sophie von Kuhn, his ‘true Philosophy’- was the perfect vehicle to address that lack and I responded to it accordingly. Everyone else loved and admired it greatly. Of course, they could be wrong or merely reflect an established taste that I don’t share. In any case, so what?

Well since then Fitzgerald has taken centre stage beside and in place of her work. This would not make much difference to me except that in a famous instance an earlier novel and eventual winner of the Booker in 1979, Offshore, was poo-pooed by judges and programme-makers as womanly stuff of the side-plate. Even PF’s publisher was famously condescending towards her work.

If I’d known more about her biography or been old enough to have heard the lit chat at the time, I would have critiqued The Blue Flower more cautiously. I wrote with sincere, albeit slightly sceptical, admiration and meant it when I tried to indicate that her writing was as good as post-war Anglo-Saxon writing gets. I admired her for attempting to take on the terrain of Idealist abyss, just didn’t think she’d pulled it off.

That old male literary establishment was and is repulsive with its pathetic boyish sneering. An establishment is always invisible to itself and takes a no less complacent form nowadays, cohering without much thought around a very settled idea of what a novel is. However, it no longer defines it as an exclusively male preserve. Indeed, so long as it’s a roast potato they really don’t mind at all who cooks it.

Continue reading “penelope fitzgerald; the blue flower on the road of the impossible, 1995 revisited and again”

11.09. two. from brecht to benjamin and back

Erdmut Wizisla is Director of both the Brecht and Benjamin archives in Berlin and the authority on their relationship. His book began as post-graduate work in the GDR and emerged finally in a brilliant English translation with an account of the controversy of Adorno’s role in editing the works of WB in German removed. For that story see here [scroll down to NEWS 10 dec 08].

I reviewed Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht; the Story of a Friendship [Libris 2009] for The Independent and include the short text below. It mentions the National Theatre’s staging of Mother Courage and Her Children, which utilised all the technologies of our time within a confidently theatrical experience. It’s dependence upon theatrical effect was surely closer to Brechtian intention than the still-impressive if neutered, straight-to-movie Enron.

I hadn’t read Brecht for years and discovered here [and/or in Ronald Hayman’s biography from 1983, OUP] that he began writing Mother Courage on Lidingö island, Sweden in 1939-40 after fleeing Denmark. Lidingö is linked by road and rail bridge to Stockholm and provided Brecht with a refuge for about a year. I know it and the archipelago well; 1039s seconds is set there essentially, and revisited the quiet now suburban lane where Brecht holed up when I was there in chilly October.

Benjamin’s work has long been everywhere and yet somehow nowhere, or anyway partial, not fully present; often more badge than book. Reproductions of some of his extensive archive were published by Verso as Walter Benjamin’s Archive, which I also reviewed in The Independent here. His entire archive is being published across 40 volumes in German, edited in part by Wizisla, here.

The best short introduction in English is Esther Leslie’s here but the four volumes of Selected Writings here are essential, as is The Arcades Project here, which I reviewed too here. Momme Brodersen wrote an honorable, well illustrated first-shot biography of WB here, which I wrote about in the New Statesman in 1996.

Harvard UP’s SWs accumulate a useful book-length chronological account of WB and his work, written by Michael Jennings and Howard Eiland. They are still at work on a full life; The Author as producer: A Critical Biography of WB [for HUP] which will be essential reading when it finally appears.

Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht, By Erdmut Wizisla trans Christine Shuttleworth

LIBRIS £30 (242pp)

Twin illuminations in dark times

Reviewed by Guy Mannes-Abbott

Friday, 27 November 2009

Bertolt Brecht is back at the National Theatre this season and Enron, Lucy Prebble’s hit, has been lauded as Brechtian epic theatre. Enron restages high capitalist folly in a compelling performance which merges YouTube, art installation and musical theatre. If “epic” in intention, its sheer spectacle proves inconsequential as political theatre.

But political consequence was crucial to the work of Walter Benjamin and Brecht, as Erdmut Wizisla’s extraordinarily potent “story of a friendship” underscores. Benjamin the “pure man of genius” as critic and philosopher, and the younger “unwashed” Brecht, were a controversial enough pairing to generate sneers about sexual submissiveness from their Berlin contemporaries. At last, here is an authoritative account of their “astonishing closeness”.

Wizisla oversees both the Benjamin and Brecht archives in Berlin and is editing the former’s Complete Works. His story began in scholarly research and emerged in German in 2004. It exists in dialogue with Gershom Scholem’s own “story of a friendship” with Benjamin, written from his own archives and published in 1975. The renowned scholar of mystical Judaism was horrified by the New Left’s embrace of Benjamin’s work on its appearance in English. Scholem responded by asserting Benjamin’s “true” religiosity. Wizisla recreates this crucial relationship with forensic precision, printing vital scraps for the first time, typically supplying three diverse examples to support conclusions. He traces a prehistory to the friendship before its explosive intimacy developed between 1929 and Benjamin’s death in 1940. Starting in 1930, Benjamin made eleven attempts to articulate the radicalism in Brecht’s work. Even after 1933, with Benjamin exiled to Paris and Brecht in Denmark, Wizisla calculates they spent almost a year working in close proximity.

Central to Wizisla’s story is the collaboration on an abortive journal called Krise und Kritik during 1930-1. Its aim was to be “active”, “interventionist” and “consequential” in the cultural and political arenas. Wizisla examines what was meant by these terms, cross-referencing manuscripts, unpublished minutes and complete texts. For Brecht, “criticism is to be understood in the sense that politics is its continuation by other means.” In “The Author as Producer”, Benjamin argued that “the politically correct tendency includes a literary tendency”; a continuation of politics by other means. For both, “high artistic standards” were identical with “politically advanced ones”.

Benjamin admired Brecht’s timeliness; his was a theatre for the “scientific age”, an “apparatus” to effect change. Wizisla quotes Benjamin’s benchmark: “A total absence of illusion about the age and… an unlimited commitment to it.” Benjamin perceived Brecht as the poet “most at home in this century” according to Hannah Arendt. Benjamin’s remark contains potent ambiguity, as does our recognition of him as a key 20th-century figure.

While Benjamin’s celebration of Brecht is well known, Wizisla excavates for us Brecht’s admiration for Benjamin. Brecht promoted Benjamin’s work, commissioning it directly, begging for critical feedback. His writing bears Benjamin’s influence to the point of direct appropriation. Wizisla dismantles the legend of Brechtian “terror”, concluding that the pair were “like-minded people” whose intellectual sparring was “based on closeness, intimacy and accord”. Much of the exaggeration of conflict originated in Scholem. Repulsed by Marxism, he implied that Brecht was a knowing Stalinist, and Benjamin’s work in the 1930s was prostitution. Wizisla reprints Benjamin’s letter to Gretel Karplus which criticises Scholem, long settled in Palestine, for his “wretched” reaction to Brecht.*

Wizisla, like Stanley Mitchell before him, is drawn to Benjamin’s radically optimistic analysis of Brecht’s poetry, in particular a poem about enforced exile published in 1939 which Benjamin recited in French internment camps. The message of Brecht’s Lao-tzu poem is that the “soft water” of friendly unity “vanquishes in time the mighty stone”; “what is hard must yield.” Wizisla’s story of artistic and political radicalism in the darkest of times is a landmark publication. These two friends “inhabited” their times supremely well; their traces ought to inspire us in ours.

* He kindly leaves out Benjamin’s description of his Zionist friend as “cloaked in self-importance and secrecy.” [Correspondence 1930-1940 Gretel Adorno and Walter Benjamin, Polity Press 2008]