There’s a school of thought, a mightily popular school of thought, which claims that great art springs from a place of darkness and struggle; that a genius is essentially a tortured soul; that one has to lose oneself in order to find oneself; that creativity flourishes only when someone has ‘been through it’ (whatever it is). The Flight of the Dusky Duck, a new novel by Alex Gronsky, perpetuates this well-worn myth.
It happens, of course it does. But it just as often doesn’t happen. Take Anton Perwahlsky, for instance: all the right ingredients mixed together in the right way. Madness, ambition and an immense will to create. The result: tedious nonsense. On the other side of the boat, Mr Alexis Pathenikolides: a dull man who creates twisted and troubled works. A genius hiding in an accountant’s clothes. Or to put it another way, a highly professional and deeply capable writer whose ability to organise the chaos raging inside of him makes him what he is. And when I say ‘chaos raging inside of him’ I do not mean to pretend that this makes him an irregular human. Chaos reigns within us all.
My fear is this: that young writer’s will read The Flight of the Dusky Duck and assume that externally-expressed pain is the norm. Worse still, that it is expected. That unless one is seen to suffer as a person, one’s work will suffer. This is clearly not the case. One can be a bore, outwardly, and still bear fruit. God bless the artists who simply ‘get on with it’. Other recipes may contain more spice, but they cannot guarantee a lasting flavour.
‘You don’t gain anything by urinating on a tomb’, claims the Argentine culture minister Jorge Coscia in this article: seemingly wise words, whatever the context. He is however, in this case, responding to Eduardo Labarca’s curious book-cover, in which the Chilean writer is photographed urinating (or so it seems) on the tomb of Jorge Luis Borges. Labarca, for his part, is not penitent; nor is he embarrassed. ‘I am not just a person who goes around peeing on tombs, but a writer with a serious oeuvre’, he says. Solid if not spectacular defense of his reputation there.
Those of us who are well-versed in the strange world of obscure European literature will know, of course, that peeing on tombs is the least of what we might expect from any ‘writer with a serious oeuvre’. Pyetr Turgidovsky, the self-professed bad boy of contemporary Russian literature, claims to have built houses on top of writer’s tombs. ‘I am a strong believer in karma’, he once wrote, ‘for which reason I insist that all my living spaces are thoroughly infused with the spirit of the dead’. Someone ought to have reminded him that, when one thinks about it, every inch of the ground on which we walk must contain traces of the dead. In the midst of life… (and so on and so forth).
Other writers have gone for a simpler, though no less disrespectful approach. Didier Lolo used to start every working day by ‘jumping all over the tombs of Pere Lachaise’. He now ends his days in the same way. ‘The graveyard is my playground’, he writes in his latest book. ‘What’s more,’ he points out, ‘tombs make excellent dining tables. Per Lachaise is simply a party waiting to happen’.
‘I take issue with foreboding,’ said Dinos Tierotis in an interview several years ago. ‘The sense of an inevitable disaster coming my way ruins so many stories for me. If I’m reading a novel and the characters embark on a long journey through a dark forest into unchartered territory, I toss the book away. I know what’s going to happen. Madness will descend, men will die and “civilisation” will take on all sorts of depressingly nuanced meanings. Everything we were warned of will come to pass, in agonisingly slow motion. All we will learn is that we shouldn’t have tagged along when the destination was so obvious from the start’.
Now for the counterpunch. After two books that offered cautious updatings of Greek myths, Tierotis has finally fixed his uncertain sights on the modern canon. There are no points awarded for guessing the primary source of his new novel: Heart of Sparklyness. Nor should it take too long to imagine the manner in which Tierotis ‘twists the familiar premise of the modern novel in smart and unexpected ways’. To simply turn something on its head is not exactly ‘smart and unexpected’ is it?
Or is it? I admit I’ve never been the greatest fan of Tierotis’ work. I thought his debut, Perseus and the Pepper Grinder, had its moments – but there was very little to love in The Golden Bomber Jacket, its desultory successor. Tierotis has, however, shown flashes of talent in shorter literary forms – with his pamphlet, The Tissues of Lies, receiving a surprisingly positive critical reaction. He has the ability, it is generally felt, to be a sharp satirist. He simply needs to rein in his leanings towards uninspired silliness: to understand – and safely navigate – the difference between an loose spoof and a penetrating satire.
This, then, is the question: will Heart of Sparklyness prove to be the making of the man? The early signs, as I have already suggested, are not good. The idea behind the book, as expressed in my opening paragraph, is not necessarily a bad one. The title of the novel, however, is. As for the synopsis, it reads rather like Hansel and Gretel on drugs. One looks forward to the full text with, well, a sense of foreboding…
In conclusion, let us return to the beginning – which is to say to the future. Oa Aayorta, as originally reported, has joined the worthy ranks of the Marginalists. Whither will this move take him? There is life, plenty of life, in the margins; but success depends very much on the particular approach the writer takes. To boil all of this down to one question: if Aayorta has taken to the margins, to which margins has he taken to? In what, or whose, margins has he been scribbling?
The answer, inevitably, is that we don’t really know. Quite possibly he is following the path of Johannes Speyer and writing in his own margins. Maybe an annotated version of An Everlasting Evening is on its way. Or has he taken to the margins of more recognised masterpieces? Nobody can do a better hatchet job on The Bible than Anthony Panner, I’m sure, but there are plenty of other ‘big’ works just waiting to be ‘written all over’. How about Proust, for example, or Tolstoy; even Wdj Szesz? Let the creative defacement begin…
Considering the case more closely, however, I suspect that Aayorta will have gone down the Mary Mistict line and chosen as his original text a book that is in itself marginal (in the non-canonical sense). A Victorian melodrama, perhaps? Lady of the Eight Lakes by Herbert Sparrow, with marginal notes by Oa Aayorta. This seems very plausible. Or else an Andorran guidebook: Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Andorra, with satirical asides by Oa Aayorta. This is, if anything, too likely. No – the best we can do is to expect the unexpected. If anyone can pull a rabbit out of the margins, Oa Aayorta is the man. One can only wait and see where the old man goes next…
What is Gdansk Haunting? It is a city built of letters. It is vast and vibrant: a bottomless ocean of stories. I struggle to pick a representative incident: there are too many. Push my head under the water, however, and this is what flows into the echo chamber of my mind. Mr and Mrs Glinka exchanging bread-based metaphors for life at No. 27 Szeroka Street. Magdelena’s opening night at the Teatr Minsky – also her last night, thirty eight years later. Two hours in the life of the canal cleaner’s son’s short-sighted girlfriend. The alarmingly fascinating chapters on the judicial system. Book Five, every brilliant word of it. The first and thirteenth chapter of the most recent volume – including the poignant denouement of the Szymon Gizdan storyline. Pretty much everything concerning the shipyard protests. The rambling religious musings of Braciszek Polowski. The deliriously abrupt description of Ursula Barva’s schooldays. The early history of BOP Baltia Gdańsk seen through the eyes of four elderly women. The second half of the chapter entitled ‘The Baltic Newt’.
There are many things I enjoy about this review, not least the following perceptive observation:
It’s remarkable how many recent American literary novels and short stories are set on ranches…
Nothwithstanding the accuracy of the comment, I should say that it has always been a source of tremendous pride to me that I have never read a novel set on a ranch. I did, sometime in 1972, read a short poem set on a ranch, but this is as far as I have ever travelled in that particularly barren landscape.
The Russian plains, on the other hand…
Marginalists are a naturally subversive sort. This is their game. It suits them, therefore, to work alongside, underneath or top of other people’s work. This is their usual playing field. Here they truly thrive.
Writers like to subvert the words and meaning of other writers. We know this. What we also know, however, is that many writers like to subvert the words and meaning of themselves. So many writers are, in fact, revisers. Nothing is ever written that cannot be rewritten, added to: subverted.
It is not a great surprise, then, to find writers appearing in the margins of their own texts. Novelists and critics alike have long developed a habit of defacing their own books. Take Johannes Speyer for instance. I own his copy of Riding the Crest of Culture, left to me after his death. Once published, Speyer often returned to this book, filling the margins with possible revisions, from the extreme to the middling. This applied not only to the original text itself, but to the margins also; which is to say that the margins had margins. He was incapable of leaving anything be. Everytime he returned he returned with a different colour pen. The end result, as you can imagine, is a veritable rainbow of revisions – a multi-coloured web of wilful comments.
‘A book is never finished’, Speyer once wrote (in an unpublished essay). This text proves that he was as good as his words. Being published was simply part of the process of re-writing. It was never an end in itself. The work itself went on, albeit in the margins.