Admirably Grey

Following our retrospective glance at an oft-ignored portion of Oa Aayorta’s oeuvre (see below) today’s scholarly sunbeam shines on future projects. I reported a while back on rumours that everyone’s favourite Andorran novelist was thinking of releasing his third in ‘twitter’ form. I probably need my wife’s nephew to explain exactly what this would entail (and how it might differ from the ‘facebook novel’ he is himself considering). Having said that, the possibility that Aayorta would use an internationally known website to peddle his obscure literary wares seems, to me at least, to be a small one. More personal methods will, I suspect, be employed.

Still, I can confirm that the title will be A Rather Lengthy Afternoon (following on from his previous works, The Endless Winter Night and An Everlasting Evening) and that the web will be involved ‘in some shape or form’.

Which reminds me. Things haven’t been moving very fast at Underneath the Bunker recently. A few articles have been edited, a few loose ends tied up and so on – but no obvious improvements as yet. This may change soon, as I consider the options regarding site re-decoration. I don’t think I’m wrong when I say that the whole operation could be smartened up a little, though I’ve to decide just how this will be managed.

Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time that the website has undergone changes. When it first appeared online, back in 2005, it was blessed with a concrete grey background, making it near impossible for any of my readers to digest the words scattered within. I took a certain pleasure in this fact, for a while, before submitting to the desires of those who appreciate a tad more clarity in that which they consume. It seems the time may have come, once again, to bow down to the needs of my readers, and sacrifice my stubborn faith in low-fi aesthetics for the sake of something a little more pleasing to the eye.

A Mural of My Ascent

Early last year the Andorran novelist Oa Aayorta was presented with ‘The Henrik Stofferson Award for an Autobiography of No More than Five Sentences’. This, as you probably know, has always been one of the more contentious prizes out there, ever since, well, Pablo Diemar’s victory in 2004 (no need to rake over that, is there? No, I thought not…) Just why a man of Aayorta’s standing would want to be associated with such a soiled mattress of a competition was a question few people could answer at the time. Still, pondering its unanswerableness proved far more interesting than exploring the content of the entry itself. In rushing to the conclusion that Aayorta’s offering was some sort of joke, no one stopped to consider the possibility that it held a little more meaning than your usual two sentences. Time, then, for a re-evaluation:

I painted on the wall a mural of my ascent over it. This filled me with hope, though in the time taken to complete the painting I had missed the opportunity to ascend for real (‘Autobiography’ by Oa Aayorta)

Right. So, maybe people were right to dismiss the work. It’s succinct, and not without a certain elan. But it’s also yawningly typical: yet another slice of self-indulgent, solipsistic writer’s pie, complete with a side-order of sugary paradox. ‘I’ve wasted my life thinking about life’ – how many elderly writers have screamed these words towards an indifferent sky? It’s a tiresomely common complaint. You need to experience life, in some sense, to write well; but by dedicating oneself to writing well, the opportunities to ‘experience’ life diminish. Which may explain why so few people write well: it’s near impossible. You either get murals on walls, or nothing at all. As someone once said: ‘the real writers never wrote a word – they were too busy living’.

I exaggerate: some sort of balance can, on rare occasions, be maintained. Some artists will paint on, and ascend the wall (possibly returning to paint another brick or two before departing, once more, into the regions beyond). Most artists, nevetheless, will never paint a sufficient mural, nor ascend the wall. Many will fall, and be crushed, by the wall. And no one will paint a mural of their being crushed, because no one much cares. Wall-related fatalities will happen.

To bring this back, however, to Oa Aayorta. After all, this is his autobiography – or so he claims. All of which makes the whole thing so much more intriguing, no? After all, Oa Aayorta is most definitely not your archetypal writer-type. His first novel wasn’t a repository for turgid teenage angst, or some middling mid-life crisis. He started later than that; he was in his sixties, I believe, when he first put finger to keyboard. Which is to say that he would seem to have fit in rather a lot of ‘life’ before he got around to the process of documenting (and/or avoiding) it. So why issue forth a semi-cryptic statement suggesting the contrary? Is he having some fun at the expense of his contemporaries? Or is he wondering why, after half a happy lifetime crouched under the comfortably cruel wings of reality, he has leapt out into the sadly thrashing winds of fiction? Does it matter that he only turned to art late in life? 

Sometimes one ascends a wall only to find another wall behind it. Sometimes the wall you thought you ascended wasn’t a wall at all. One reads Aayorta’s two sentences, at first, as an expression of exasperation. After a while, however, one comes to realise that it isn’t this at all. It’s simply a statement of fact. He missed the opportunity. Who’s to say whether or not that was a bad thing?

Panting for Nonik

As the deer pants for water, so our souls long for a collection of essays exploring the life and work of the late great Yevgeny Nonik, Russian madman and avant-garde writer extraordinaire. Earlier in the year I announced the existence of such a project, claiming that it would appear before the end of the year. Someone wrote in, mocking my confidence. I replied, mocking his mocking.

Did I speak too soon? It wouldn’t have been the first time. Still, I had every reason to believe that Full Stop?: A Tribute to Yevgeny Nonik would be completed before 2010 poked its mule-like head through December’s cheery pane of glass. What’s more, it should be said that Egg’s argument (for it was he) was illogical at best. It did not revolve around a sensible suspicion of publishing dates for important literary projects. It revolved around the fact that he doesn’t like me, and thinks I am lazy.

He may be startled to discover, therefore, that any setbacks from which the Nonik project has suffered (and there have been a few) cannot be blamed on my having done too little work, but too much. A hungry child first in line at a church buffet has less on its plate than I do at the moment. Eschewing my duties I am most certainly not. Duty and I roll in the hay like two young lovers. I barely have time to pause for breath.

What does all this amount to? Well, firstly, I think I can safely say that the Yevgeny Nonik book will be arriving a little later than I’d hoped it would. When it does arrive, however, I can confidently claim that it will be much the better for its long gestation period. When one oversees a project as important as the first collection of critical essays on Yevgeny Nonik, one doesn’t wish to scrimp on quality. Suffice it to say, the wait will have been worth while.

Secondly, there are other projects on the horizon (if not a little closer than that). One of these is at least as exciting as the Nonik book, if not more. In fact, I’m almost certain that it will stuff a sock into the mouths of all my critics. I can’t say any more than this at present, for various reasons, but I trust that this is enough to turn all your anticipation meters up to some high number (seventy-seven, perhaps, or eighty-two).

Needless to say, more on this later.

Spirit Lifting Signage

A typically erudite postage from the swooningly magnificent Hooting Yard reminds us of an old article by the art historian D H Laven, concerning the famous toilet sign competition held by the West Melbourne Sports Centre a year or so ago.  I can’t recall which artist emerged victorious from this particularly well-fought contest, but I do remember having a soft spot for the designs of local artist Nancy Rose-Willaker, whose incorporation of figures from the paintings of Manet and Cezanne would look good on any lavatory door. I reproduce them, for your impending edification, below.



Shuffle this way for more on this ‘going concern’.

Two Ruinous Percent

‘An optimist never fails to delight me. What gorgeous creatures. They really do represent tragedy in its purest form. To imagine that one loves life! What a perfectly wonderful delusion; what a beautiful misunderstanding. What a joke! Oh yes: an optimist is always better than a half-hearted pessimist. One ought to go the whole hog, even when one is disastrously wrong.’ (Pyetr Turgidovsky)

There are many pleasures one can get from reading Pyetr Turgidovsky, not least the realisation that, however depressed you are, you will never have so little faith in humankind as he. I took to the garden this morning and buried myself in a sandpit before re-reading the closing chapters of Turgidovky’s most recent work, Delicious Air of Life (or the Ugly God-damned Wife). Here I encountered a previously forgotten passage in which a character called Alexsei castigates a character called Yuriy for his ‘tiresome allegiance to mere melancholia’. Yuriy, it turns out, is a fan of films by Swedish melancholy-monger Ingmar Bergman. Alexsei, it turns out, is not.

‘These charlatans drive a weasel up my arse,’ he complains, charmingly. ‘They only take it so far, you see. They show that life is miserable; they remind us that death is near; they explore the innate selfishness and ultimate incompatibility of human beings, only to relent at the last minute with some airy-fairy nonsense about how life is ninety-eight percent tragedy, but every now and again one has an interesting conversation with someone on a sunny day which almost makes it worth while. Almost makes it worth while! Nonsense. Such moments, if they ever occur, make nothing worthwhile. In fact, they make everything all the more tragic. Heed not this soft-headed approach; this ruinous two percent of life-making delightfulness. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that one sweet sunset makes fifty years of pain worth living. It simply doesn’t’.

Lovely stuff, representing Turgidovsky at his miserable best. Also a timely reminder of this year’s most interesting literary discovery: Turgidovsky juvenalia. Okay, so there’s a fair amount of dross to be found amongst Turgidovsky’s early, unpublished work. But there are gems too. Incompatible (a poem, of sorts) is probably not one of them, though it deserves a mention nevertheless. After all, it can only interest us to know that the ‘ultimate incompatibility of human beings’ (as mentioned above) has been a Turgidovskian motif right from the beginning. Or can it? I suppose we might expect a teenager to think himself essentially incapable of forging any kind of human relationship – and in this sense, Incompatible is no more than typical. ‘I am incompatible with my family. I am incompatible with my friends. I am incompatible with the girl I passed on the street the other day. I am…’  – so on and so forth. Relatively uninspiring, and unsurprising stuff. Still, it does show a remarkable consistently, reminding us of Turgidovsky’s admirable refusal to cast off teenage angst – to enter the adult world with all his scars intact, unhealed, and bleeding profusely over all the pages of his pleasantly unpleasant novels.

Stripping Style

For those who care about such things, the second novel by the Lauserre brothers will be published, in French, at the end of next month (otherwise known as September).

This, as these things go, is somewhat of a big thing. Not massive, mind you, but big. Which is to say it isn’t a blue whale of a thing, or even an elephant of a thing, but neither is it a dormouse of a thing. It’s a sort of portly buffalo of a thing, if you can imagine that. I could say ‘obese bison’ if that makes it any easier. Or even ‘fat cow-like creature’. Yes? No? All right.

Having cleared up the size of the news, let’s consider the news itself. Those who know anything about the Lauserre brothers will know that their books take a long time to write, which explains the nine year gap between this work (named, I believe, The Scent of Lime) and their 2000 debut, We Are Bread. Not bad work when you consider the fact that the novel was written three times over during this period. Firstly, in French, by Philippe Lauserre; secondly, translated into English, by Louis Lauserre; and thirdly, translated back into French by Matthias Lauserre. A three-part editing process in which each brother plays a crucial role, led from the front by Philippe, the conceiver, but controlled in no small part by Louis and Matthias, whose textual transformations recast the story, twice, adding as they do a subtle sprinkling of their own personalities.

It’s a strange way to work – and who’s to say it’s the best way? After all, we never get to read the first two versions. When the English translation appears, it won’t be Louis’, but a translation of Matthias’ French version. The novel, as written by Philippe and Louis, is burnt. It is, they say, ‘meaningless’: a means to an end. They put their faith in Matthias, the youngest brother, to carry the story through to its final form.

When I say ‘put their faith’, I really do mean this. People think of the Lauserre brothers as a team, which is in many ways correct. However, in so far as it goes, they don’t work alongside each other. When they write, they don’t seek advice from one another. In fact, they don’t even talk to one another. When Philippe passes on the manuscript to Louis, Louis has no idea what it contains, likewise when Matthias receives it from Louis. Whilst working on their translations, Louis and Matthias never go back to Philippe, or turn to each other, at any point in the procedure. Matthias never reads Philippe’s manuscript: he takes his cue from Louis – and does his bit alone.

The obvious question leaps like a salmon from the dribbling stream of our thoughts. What is the point of all of this? The truth is, it’s hard to say. Since we never know how Philippe’s story differs from Matthias’ story, we can’t say what is gained, or lost, in the somewhat tortuous process. All we can say is that the brothers themselves believe that this is the best way of working. Although Matthias will never see Philippe’s novel, Philippe will always see Matthias’, for this is the version that will be published. This is the book. And Philippe is never less than confident that Matthias’ version (or the version) is far superior to his own. ‘Sure,’ he says, ‘I may create the story. The characters, the plot, the essential mood of the book is mine. Maybe even some of the style. But at the same time, much is stripped away. Not chapters, not sentences, not anything of any size. And yet everything changes, everything shifts. And this shift is for the good.’

Questioned as to whether he is ever disappointed, even slightly, by the final result, he is adamant. ‘My style is stripped in the translations. It is washed in the machine of my brothers’ minds. This is as it should be. Oh yes it is’.