notes_33 On Moyra Davey, a confessional index. My TT essay on Index Cards & i confess

This is why her films feel so casually alert; they resemble in content and their form how we live and make now; the promiscuous solutions of our common workworlds. This is true of her apparently bookish essays too, rewilded by serial fragmentation… It is work I feel fierce kinship with, but it is also kinship-at-work in the unfenced present.

Guy Mannes-Abbott – Third Text – September 2021


Moyra Davey’s ‘Index Cards’

Fitzcarraldo Editions, London, 2020

264pp, ISBN978-1913097264

‘I Confess’

Dancing Foxes Press, 2020

168pp, ISBN978-0888849960


Guy Mannes-Abbott

1/ Index Cards collects fifteen of the essays Moyra Davey has published since 2003 into a single volume for the first time. Two began as talks; most of the others generated the self-narrated voice-overs of her films, of which i confess is the tenth since Hell Notes in 1990. Usually, Davey’s texts appear in busily illustrated volumes with modest print-runs to accompany the films, which have become annual productions. The latest example of that is I Confess, which marked her new film and retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in 2020. Index Cards, however, is a definite departure with its twenty-seven small black and white images cleverly punctuating 264 pages.

2/ Davey is primarily a visual artist and ‘a maker not a thinker’, she says, but her outputs dissolve such distinctions. Born in Toronto in 1958, she enrolled in the Whitney Programme in 1989 when it was at its most theoretically proscriptive. Critical discourses around the politics of representation constrained her relationship to the body in image-making for many years. This is a frequent reference, even central thread, of her writings and films in their anxious, whittling and iterative way. For a decade or so her photographic images have taken the form of aerograms; printed, folded, taped and posted C-prints (35 x 45 cm), opened-out and assembled on gallery walls where they own a frugal worldliness.

3/ Davey returns obsessively to quotidian elements; the ‘general squalor of the domestic scene’ [1] as she says; dust and disrepair, heaped possessions and papers, as well as text; images of highlighted quotes, books in whole or part; The Private Diaries of Stendhal being relieved of lavic dust; words and names inked by the artist’s hand, blown up from receipts or the correspondence of Alice B Toklas, ornate letters from the first Greek edition of the Iliad set in moveable type. These intersperse with cyclical images of herself, her sisters, undergrad-age son and friends, and dogs and horses – all naked by degrees.

Moyra Davey, Nine Photographs from Paris (Group 1) (mailers), 2009, inkjet print on Fuji Film Crystal Archive Paper with ink, tape and postage stamps, 30 × 45 cm, courtesy of the artist

Continue reading “notes_33 On Moyra Davey, a confessional index. My TT essay on Index Cards & i confess”

note_13.1 Les Chiens Nauman/ tears in the rain in the context of catastrophe/ DG-F TH.2058


My young connoisseur -or collector of urgent life-impressions and artful invention- has begun school-life so close to the TM that a liquid-chocolate balm combined with ‘two rooms’ has become a fixture in our lives. In the process, he has elevated El Anatsui to quite a pedestal, but I continue trying my best to broaden his horizons. Bruce’s revolving head, tick, Bruce’s Violent Incident, getting there, Bruce’s dogs, well; there’s time…

not the nauman obvOf course, these are not Les Chiens de Nauman. But those in the Art Room selection reminded me recently of their spirited precedents in Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s TH.2058. I was led there by a number of things; my own work-in-progress (articulating or #Rivering the Roding), and thus echoes of the river-beggaring I did floodplain-to-floodplain in Rotterdam; a ruined world of mud to be embraced with curiosity, reminded of that when receiving Defne Ayas’ archive of her WdeW years; Blessing and Transgressing; A Live Institute, which includes that first use of ‘rivering’ as a way of trying to articulate muddy-footed actualities with urgent recognitions of coming urban life, by a recent taste of DG-F’s work which reminded me of how much there is to enjoy and admire in it (esp. with a clear view of its span), close rubbing-ups against Vila-Matas (about whom much more some day, the writerly intimacies are too elemental. Dostoevsky once more or less literally saved-by-enabling my life, a very long time ago. V-M is a similar interior intimate on an extremely short list). They, as you know, have been working together since 2007 (when only Bartleby & Co, perhaps Montano too had been translated into English), and so I found myself thinking about TH.2058, a work that has remained with me more as a puzzle, or query, than a settled memory, or answer. Continue reading “note_13.1 Les Chiens Nauman/ tears in the rain in the context of catastrophe/ DG-F TH.2058”

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”

james salter; readers revenge & the sixth sense


James & Kay Salter         –         Osip Mandelshtam

In Life is Meals A Food Lover’s Book of Days, by James and Kay Salter [Knopf 2006], there is the following entry for the 29th May: 


One cannot think well, love well, slep well, if one has not dined well


Brillat-Savarin recognised the five basic senses -taste, touch, hearing, sight and smell- but he  believed there was a sixth sense: physical desire, a unique and distinctly French idea.

Everything subtle and ingenious about the first five senses, he wrote, was due to this sixth, “to the desire, the hope, the gratitude that spring from sexual union.”

Well, call me Anglo-Saxon, but BS is a bore if he doesn’t understand the mutual implication of desire in the five senses. Desire uncompromised and desire realised.

I prefer Osip Mandelshtam’s notion of a sixth sense, mooted during his journeying to Mount Ararat:

Ashtarak. “I have cultivated in myself a sixth sense, an “Ararat” sense: the sense of attraction to a mountain.

Now, no matter where fate carry me, this sense already has a speculative existence and will remain with me.

[p. 57 Journey to Armenia Next Editions 1980. Orig. Puteshestviye v Armeniyu Zvezda 1933.]

Do we have to choose? Does a mountain sense include desire etc. or desire include “the sense of attraction to a mountain”? Then again, what is it with mediators and authorisation?

A mountain sense is my candidate because it adds something distinct and dimensional to the core senses in ways that desire doesn’t. I write that having climbed Shatrunjaya, ‘the mount that realises all desires’, more than once…

NB See my Note ‘js; reader’s revenge & last night 2006’ on the entanglements and ambivalence of these things.

puttermesser is dead; cynthia foster wallace (nee) ozick is 92

Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers was published in 1999 in the UK and short-listed for the IMPAC Award (Updated Apr2018) aka the Dublin Lit Award. I see that when David Foster Wallace read his HB copy he noted some of the same words [as news of his papers arriving at the HRC Texas reveal] as I did. Tellurian, for example. I’m posting two images that speak for themselves and a light-weight review I wrote for The New Statesman during a divertingly busy year. Within a few months, the tanks had re-entered occupied territories shattering any last delusions/illusions.

I remain a fierce reader and admirer of Ozick’s work, despite her quixotic blindness towards/repellant views about Palestinian dispossession -which obviously undermines her fondness for exception and the you-can’t-be-entirely-serious rhetoric around “winners”. I was re-reading The Messiah of Stockholm in late December 2008 [trapped again, wrestling with her singular sentences], just before the white phosphorus went in to Gaza’s already besieged schools and, even now, am re-reading the essays collected in The Din in the Head [2006]. Fortunately, the cold obscenity of what she wrote in the same year about Rachel Corrie’s Journals (link to myth-busting re RC not CO’s toxic piece) is not included.

Ozick is a curious and extreme instance of a vexatious problem and in posting this I’m forcing myself to come back to it, soon (not yet; Apr 2018!). Nothing I say will reduce the brilliance (in every sense and so its own limit) of this novel and others because writerly singularity outplays historical anomaly however grotesque the views. At least, on the billionth loop around it, that is what I feel, but I know the ice is very thin hereabouts (hmmm and hmmm again and again). Meanwhile, roll on the day that nakba-denial is also a crime and when universal crimes already constituted are actually prosecuted.

Puttermesser Paper, Cynthia Ozick

by Guy Mannes-Abbott

July 1999

Like an eager parliamentarian, I should confess my ‘interests’ in this new novel of Cynthia Ozick’s. My 7 year old cat is named after Ruth Puttermesser -lawyer, Mayoress and murderee- the heroine of these stories. I’ve also got form, having greeted the publication of her 1993 collection of essays What Henry James Knew with extravagant polemic in these same pages. I was championing her astonishing stylistic precision, singular appetites and general awkward brilliance. I don’t retract a word.

If you don’t know Ozick, you’ll find an infectious deep mining and celebration of writing, ranging from the thunder of James and Bellow to the lightning of Bruno Schultz and JM Coetzee, in her essays. In them she animates the Classics and invests her fascination with mystical Judaism to great effect, just as she does in her short and long fiction. All of this is apparent in The Puttermesser Papers which, if you do know Ozick, you’ll recognise as a cycle of stories from the last 20 years. The Puttermesser Papers earnt substantial praise when it was published in the United States in 1997 and was nominated for the 1999 IMPAC Award. Such recognition came late to Ozick and remains incomplete while novels like The Messiah of Stockholm are still unavailable here.

So, what is it about Ozick? Well, it’s difficult to convey the astonishing fecundity of this novel in summary. There’s just so much in it, for one thing; all condensed into a swiftly flowing stream of exquisitely placed words. But this is not writing for swooners because Ozick means what she writes. She’s serious, high minded and literary in that sense and yet her’s is a gleeful kind of seriousness.

We first meet Ruth Puttermesser as a 46 year old lawyer in the New York Mayor’s office. She’s insistent that her married lover, Morris Rappaport, allows her to finish Plato’s Theaetetus before they have sex. The previous night she’d read him a line of Socrates, defending the enquirer’s mind “for being so eager to know what was happening in the sky that he could not see what lay at his feet.” This is typical of Ozick; to begin a story with a quote like that, but also for the quote to be one expressive of unbounded yearning.

Puttermesser goes on to lose her job unfairly and to conjure a female golem into being who becomes her peculiarly loyal public servant; successfully campaigning for Puttermesser to become Mayor. As Mayor she establishes a paradisal realm in Manhattan for a while until Xanthippe the golem does what golems do and runs amok. So with Puttermesser’s reputation and the city in ruins Xanthippe is dispatched back to the earth from where she came.

We next meet Puttermesser in her mid-50s as she falls in and out of love, through a filter of the life and work of George Eliot which is, I promise, no less vivid for that.  Eventually we witness the aged Puttermesser being murdered and then raped, in that order, after which she describes life in paradise -where the quality of timelessness proves bitterly disappointing.

Ozick’s insistent awkwardness is her great attraction for me. She does things writers of fiction are not supposed to do, like giving dismissive summaries of plot which “must be recorded as lightly and swiftly as possible.” She also tells you things in a spirit of enthusiastic sharing, so you end this book knowing all about golems, for instance. There is the Prague golem as a protector of the Jews but also the earlier mystical golem conjured out of nothing but unformed matter. This latter quality of blooming impossibility is also her work’s great strength.

Puttermesser embodies notions of Jewish as well as American redemptiveness and utopianism. Ozick writes, “Puttermesser craved. Her craving was to cleanse the wilderness … of injustice”. She is encouraged in this by Xanthippe’s notes saying things like; “No reality greater than thought.” She is the kind of retired Mayoress whose tea bags come with Nietzschean aphorisms saying “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” Before retiring she’d dreamt about appointing PB Shelley, to honour his principle that “poets are the legislators of mankind.”

These are not exactly belly laughs but there are plenty of smiles in The Puttermesser Papers. However both Ozick and her heroine are yearners for ideas and a better world. Yet if this book is an embodiment of that yearning, it is a kind of visceral, sexy tango of yearning -strange as it sounds. It’s this crazy exuberance along with her singular style that makes me recommend this book to you in the way that I would recommend Kafka or Calvino, Jean Rhys or Virginia Woolf.

james salter; readers revenge & last night 2006

James Salter photo

I wonder if anyone really cares or wants to linger with what Norman Mailer thought or wrote about sex, nor what any of the Jonathans haven’t thought or written about it.

I’m intrigued however by the way that Kate Roiphe’s much-blogged piece in the NYT left out any mention of the great and complex James Salter’s thoughts and writings about it. Of course, it’s because he doesn’t fit the schema; old existential roisterers and silly braggers vs new pseudo-feminised feyboys/merchants of self-mortification.

The key line is this one comparing the old with the weary:

“In contrast to their cautious, entangled, ambivalent, endlessly ironic heirs, there is something almost romantic in the old guard’s view of sex: it has a mystery and a power, at least. It makes things happen.”

Roiphe’s not-mentioning Salter maps too neatly over the way that his many non-mentioners perceive him as nothing more than a 2-D ClassicMan served in pricey after/over dinner sauce. Or as marginal old-school, perhaps? Instead, sticking with the schema, I think that Salter knows that sex can make things happen, but that those ‘things’ involve plenty of entangling ambivalence too, no? [Who isn’t weary of cautious irony?]

Salter’s non-readers also think of him as typical New Yorker product when, just for instance, he was far too much, too singular, too difficult for the New Yorker for decades while producing brilliantly crystalline short stories [hunt down Dusk and other Stories]. The same non-readers managed to dampen the fact that Salter’s fiction is now in Penguin Modern Classics where it belongs [amongst books not to be approached with cliché, at least] and what isn’t is well published in the UK in Picador paperback.

So, while for many years it was hard to get at or read his classics; A Sport and a Pastime [published in the UK 20 years after the US!], Light Years and Burning the Days, it no longer is. At the same time, his almost impossible to find earlier or less concentratedly Salteresque/Salterine books, The Hunters and Solo Days are now also in print. Easily available, not to be missed.

Readers can get one over critical and consensual incuriosity and, frankly, ignorance, by reading books like Solo Faces and forming their own judgment on exactly how good it is in Salter’s mini canon of greatness. A tip; get over the first few pages up on that church roof and you’ll find yourself finishing it at a sitting -on a ledge thousands of metres above the ground.

Salter’s non-mention in the story of 20th American sex-writing came at the same time, slightly unfortunately, as the issue on DVD on a film he scripted for Robert Redford, Downhill Racer. I haven’t seen it yet but the combination demonstrates a rare breadth of ability  no less and generated attention in places like GQ on the one hand and Slate on the other.

Any trigger to read Salter is welcome, but I think GQ’s notion that he is [‘merely’] a great sex writer is wrong. No no it’s more than that; he’s a great writer of desire, in the theoretical and quotidian sense. This is why his 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s writing feels so alive, generating ambivalence with a very particular nakedness of the spirit -and very much more.

So every time Salter is not-mentioned, take the reader’s revenge and enter a world founded not on comfortable certainties, leering vantage points or, I’m afraid, sexual possession/disgust, but on what a character in his earliest fiction describes as “indigenous doubt”; a world of conflicting desires, ideas, roles, intentions, hopes and expectations. One very like how we all experience being alive in 2010, no?

I’m posting a short celebratory review I wrote as Salter’s second collection of stories, Last Night, was published in the UK in 2006, when his other work was still very hard to get hold of.

Early in 2007 he was in London and gave an irresistible reading at the LRB bookshop. By then I’d drafted a highly singular and -dare I say- pretty authoritative essay called Meeting James Salter.  I sent my 7000 word essay to one or two people with sufficient appetite in London. That led indirectly to me actually meeting JS and then to him mailing substantial comments and factual corrections to my essay.

I haven’t succeeded -or tried hard enough- in ‘placing’ Meeting James Salter, surprise, surprise. The only journal in the UK that publishes at any such length told me they’d done something on him recently, meaning an ill-read review from the this-man-is-a-sexist-cliché school in 2004. Such things are telling if forgivable for a young critic; not so for the well-seasoned publication itself.

For now, anyone interested in reading or publishing my essay can email me at the address in About: queries [at] g-m-a [dot] net.

Screenshot 2018-03-12 10.30.56

Last Night. By James Salter

Penetrating tales about life from an American master of fiction

Review by Guy Mannes-Abbott

Thursday, 30 March 2006

“Aplomb” is a favourite word of James Salter’s. He praises Virginia Woolf for hers, adds it to the physical glories of a busy mistress, and, in Nedra Berland, heroine of his novel Light Years, wrote a study of it. He uses it like this; “I liked the way he spoke, the speed of his conclusions, the breadth of his scorn, the exactness of his references. Also his aplomb.”

Famously, albeit not famously enough, Salter is the Jewish-American fighter pilot and film writer/maker, transformed in mid life into a master of ecstatic prose fiction and non-fiction. Even this legend has a singular footnote containing two early novels, straighter accounts of airborne daring-do, recently revised. Literary canons are risible, as Harold Bloom’s choice of Light Years and Solo Faces for his parade, The Western Canon, demonstrates. However, Salter has written three books that everyone should read before they die; A Sport and a Pastime [1967], Light Years [1975] and his book of recollection, Burning the Days [1996].

Death and the life achieved against it is Salter’s obsession. As a fighter with more than 100 missions over Korea in the 1950s you might expect as much. Similarly hard earned experience helped make Solo Faces a brilliantly authentic portrait of mountaineering. Both pursuits promise much and demand absolutely everything of you. Aplomb incorporates this dauntlessness as well as Nedra’s “self conquest”, a freedom gained only by risking all. Otherwise, she adds, “life is only appetites until the teeth are gone.” Salter’s world, most obviously the idyll memorialised in Light Years, may appear exclusive but is shaped by “lives achieved in agony”, gamblers who have lost, a peculiar dissidence.

All of this is exemplified in his new collection of ten short stories written since the early 1990s. Last Night follows Dusk and other stories, a collection which began with Am Strande von Tanger from 1968. From the first Salter was fully present in stories which have all the precise interiority and penetrating perspective of his novels. They share something else. At least half of Dusk’s stories are milestones of the form, yet were spurned by The New Yorker, for instance, and remain out of print. His novels have struggled to find publishers, only to immediately fall from view. Now, two of them will shortly become Penguin Modern Classics.

Last Night opens with Philip and Adele’s marriage, their fifth -jointly. Around a Salteresque dinner table with friends, Philip resists the consensual reaction to news of infidelity. Then, while Adele guts her husband’s failed marriages he holds to their joys; he’d do it all again. Outside Adele finds him staring at a comet; “It won’t be there tomorrow. One time only.” She turns away, shrinking as she recrosses the lawn “reaching first the aura, then the brightness, then tripping on the kitchen steps.”

Elsewhere a young couple’s agreement to correct irritating flaws in each other with a ‘give’ founders when Anna asks Jack to “stop the sex” with Des, their semi-resident poet and child’s inspired friend. In Platinum we encounter the downside of aplomb, when Brian and his powerful father-in-law find themselves sharing the “forbidden happiness” of busy Pamela. In Bangkok, a book dealer shucks off a former lover’s fantasy offer, preferring his settled existence: “It was not a pretend life.”

Salter has described finding part of “one’s never complete mosaic … abroad” -as seductively elaborated in A Sport and a Pastime. Similarly, his characters are made whole by their secrets and deceptions. This is true even of Walter Such in Last Night -first published in The New Yorkerwho is to administer a lethal injection for his terminally ill wife, Marit, after dining with their young female friend. Classic Salter and as good as living writing gets, the story collides with a comet, ricocheting unpredictably.

Last Night tops a beautifully weighted collection fully the equal of Dusk. These stories, like Solo Faces, have been written with the sun directly overhead, in contrast to the angular, retrospective veils of evening light which are so much Salter’s style. The recognisable present occasions some stylistic dilution but no loss of exactitude or exquisitely crafted velocity. Last Night is an urgent and deeply gratifying reminder of what reading is for.

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