The Falling of Fabric

Over the weekend I read an article about the Slovenian illustrator Lubya Yesnk, best known for her work on Stilyan Bosnic’s magnum opus Empty Fingers Over the Sea and on the backpage of the ‘ruthlessly punctual’ Maribor Gazette.

Somewhere near the end of this pleasingly long piece of journalism Yesnk starts opening up about her domestic surroundings. She lives, it transpires, in an open-plan house overlooking the Drava. The walls of the house are painted the ‘colour of custard’ and remain ‘unadorned, relatively, by artwork’. There is very little furniture save ‘three wicker chairs and a table designed for children’s tea parties’. Her mother’s oven ‘stands in the corner, by the window, looking forlornly out, like a dog’.

The most distinct thing about Yesnk’s house however, is the amount of fabric flung about the floors. ‘I own seventeen duvets’, she explains, ‘all of different weights’. On top of this she possesses ‘no end of sheets, pillow cases, rugs and towels’. These are all thrown about the house: kicked into peaks and pushed against walls, folded into soft squares and rolled into misshapen balls. Every morning they are arranged into fresh, random patterns, from which the artist takes her inspiration. This, and this only, is how she begins: drawing not from the flesh, or from the landscape, but from fabric. The lie of the cloth is all. ‘The chance falling of fabric is my every starting point,’ she notes in her cracked-but-not-quite-broken English. ‘I am the woman of the crazy folds’.

The strange folds of fabric have, of course, fascinated artists for centuries. Had the Madonna worn less loose clothing, one might question whether painters would have created quite so many religious works. The robes, the robes – oh those delightfully tortured robes! Where would we be without them? One wonders, also, if there is a literary equivalent. So many visual artists turn to the curious visual stratagems of twisted cloth for inspiration. Do we men of words have a similar tool? Which is to say, is there such a thing as a linguistic drapery?

Not Over His Dead Body

‘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’.

Well indeed.

Treacherous Loses and Thoughtful Dots

Amongst the most recent reviews to have re-appeared over at Underneath the Bunker we may find Sebastien Cheraz’s reaction to Jarni Kolovsky’s …And I Lost: a novel made famous by its rugged simplicity – and by the unbelievable regularity with which reviewers mistype its title. How many times, for instance, have I seen And I Lost…? Too many to count. Also: And, I Lost, And: I Lost, And… I Lost, And I… Lost, ……And I Lost, And.I.Lost, And… I… Lost…. The list could go on: critics have been creative in their idiocy (as critics almost always are).

Lesser writers might shrug off these middling misptints: Kolovsky, however, has never taken kindly to such lapses. Rage is the word that scuttles across the paving stones of one’s mind. Pure rage. ‘It takes him days to recover,’ his literary agent admitted to me once: ‘he simply cannot abide the error in question. Cannot abide it at all‘.

One may wonder why. Is it, perhaps, on account of the time he takes over his titles? Most probably. Kolovsky is one of a large brood of writers for whom naming a book is a deeply serious endeavour – one that times up as much time as writing the book itself. To blithely misquote the title of a Kolovsky novel is, therefore, an act of treachery: it shows a fundamental lack of respect for the writer and his craft. Rest assured – every one of the three dots that precedes the three words in the title of …And I Lost has been put there for a very good reason. These are thoughtful dots.

A Wolverine in Bulgaria

To no one’s surprise, least of all my own, I have been flooded with responses to my last postage. Readers (yes, it is plural) seem keen to pick up on two particular points.

All in all, there is general dissatisfaction with the evidence I present in favour of Lurgsy’s wolverine. ‘Fourteen poems doth not evidence make,’ writes one disgruntled individual. It’s a fair point. Fourteen poems doth not evidence make. But then I never suggested that these fourteen poems made up the entire evidence. There are letters also, full of references to the wolverine. There is Birovnik’s daily journal.  There is even a photograph. Granted, it’s terribly blurred – and the wolverine might as well be a plump stoat, or a fur jacket rolled into a ball; but these are minor quibbles. The body of evidence is not as weak as you might think it is.

Point number two: wolverines in Bulgaria? From whence did this wolverine come? What was an orphaned wolverine doing so far south? All perfectly good questions, to which I have no obvious answer. It’s an anomaly, I won’t deny that. But then, life is full of anomalies, just as our cities are full of tigers and chimpanzees. Animals get places: it’s a fact. Strange people pack them up and drag them across the world. When someone gets bored with something, they don’t take it back to its birthplace. They leave it wherever it happens to have ended up.

Consider this.  A circus comes to Sofia. There are hundreds of animals on board, including a couple of ferocious wolverines. They’re smaller than lions, but they pack a punch: too much of a punch. One of them is especially ratty – and will attack anything, literally anything. It had a go at one of the elephants the other day. By the time the circus reaches the next city, the trainers have decided to let this wolverine go. Not in the city: that would be foolish. No – they’ll push it out of the trailer once they get into the countryside. Let it wreak havoc in the wilderness.

Little do they know, this frustrated wolverine is pregnant. Soon after being dropped in off the woods of western Bulgaria, it gives birth. Bulgaria has wolverines. One day their feisty mother decides to take on an axe-wielding farmer. Bulgaria has orphaned wolverines.

Enter Tomas Lurgsy…

Real Substance?

Leo Barnard’s last book, Love and Selfishness, surprised us all by its brevity. Not only are we used to Barnard producing doorstop-like tomes, but we struggled to see how this subject, of all those he has tackled, managed to inspire so few words. Surely there was cause for several volumes? Instead we got a forty-eight page pamphlet.

Hot on the heels of this comes a controversial second short work entitled Sentiment and Substance. This one makes it all the way to fifty-nine pages. Compare this to Barnard’s earlier works: The Eternal Dilemma (912 pages), The Unworking World (1034 pages) and History Schmystery (701 pages) and you may understand our bewilderment.

Barnard has, it seems,  followed many a writer in eschewing quantity for quality in his old age. I say that: most elderly writers only think they pursue this goal – in reality they drop quantity, only to lose their grip on quality also. But Barnard has always been a cut above. He has, in fact, managed to pull off the near impossible feat of compressing several hundred pages of unalloyed wisdom into fifty or so. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he has got shorter and better; he has merely managed to cut his losses; which is to say that he has got shorter without any discernible drop in quality.

Or, to put it another way, despite the hysterical gulf in the word count, Sentiment and Substance is much the same sort of book that History Schmystery was. These two brief books do not represent the dawning of a new writer. Leo Barnard is just as cantankerous, as casual, and as damnably clever as ever.

There has always been a pinch of the opinionated teenager in Barnard; a dab of the pretentious adolescent; a generous sprinkle of the obnoxious child lording it over his brain-dead parents with a strangely undefeated brand of logic. Sentiment and Substance has all these qualities in spades: it is the literary equivalent of a room of small boys throwing paper balls – essentially harmless, but not without a hint of animal malice. Maybe if I wait awhile a better analogy will spring to mind. Maybe not. And so I move on…

Barnard’s central – and indeed, single – concept is this: poets (and he uses the term loosely) rarely practice what they preach. Not a new idea by any means, but he tackles it nonetheless with unrestrained gusto. Indeed, he tackles it like a gang of hounds tackling a fox. Tread lightly? Pish, says Barnard. He picks up his poets by the scruff of their scrawny necks and shakes them like – and I quote – ‘the fearsome hypocrites they are’.

‘Who are they?’, he asks, ‘these so-called artists of ours? And why do we, why should we trust their emotional response?’ Anger creeps upon him quickly: ‘most of the great poems on love are written by hateful creatures’, he claims at one point, going on: ‘and yet we sup on them eagerly, like piglets sucking blood from a gorilla’s breast’. A simile after my own heart there.

It’s all slightly crazed stuff, but then you can’t say that he doesn’t back his statements up. There’s plenty of evidence stacked up on Barnard’s table, all pointing toward the possibility that the substance behind most sentiments is made of less than solid stuff. Still, the way he rounds on some of his subjects does seem overly cruel. Songwriters, in particular, get a rather rough ride: ‘peddling their coy harmonic tales of stolen kisses and small hands held, whilst sleeping their way through cities of whores’. It’s the age-old question: can you separate what people say from what they do? Barnard’s answer is charmingly abrupt: not in the slightest, he says. It’s all one.

It takes a brave writer to go about the task with as much ferocity as Barnard does – not least because it invites criticism of his own personality. Does Barnard practice what he preaches? Whilst he never claims to be morally incorruptible, for all the flaying he does of other people’s hides, he seems peculiarly comfortable in his own skin. But then, as he writes, ‘I have never pretended to have the last word on life. I speak with the wisdom of one who knows he knows nothing at all’.

All in all, it’s another typical work from Leo Barnard. Infuriating and illuminating, fanciful and fierce, beguiling and blunt. Barnard, for all his faults, never fails to stimulate discussion. And though it seems that he must be wrong, it’s usually very hard to prove him so. This is no less the case than it ever was; at fifty pages only, he is still the master of the wierdly-water-tight argument.

Stinkhorns, Mongrels and A Way with Words

As Domino has pointed out, with typical grace, the writer George Forthwith-James was, to all intents and purposes, ‘as slimy as a stinkhorn’. As I have countered, however, had she ever received a personal message from said scribe, she would have eaten her words pronto. For Forthwith-James had the rare gift of phenomenal charm: a magnetism that no logic could ever overcome. Face to face he was no great shakes – but when words began to spill from his pen there was no stopping him. He had a way with words – and god knows that this, much like a pretty face, makes up for all sorts of deficiencies. As waves re-sort the sand, so words strip the sinning beach clean.

Speaking of bastards, a month or so ago I devoted half a dozen posts to a loose review of Boris Yasmilye’s new novel The Bastard. The title, of course, does not refer to George Forthwith-James, or any sort of man: the bastard in question is the book itself, a bastard in the original sense (The Mongrel might have been a better translation of the title, but we’ll let it stand).

Having said this, The Bastard does deal with themes particular to Forthwith-James. Its main concern, after all, is the art of letter writing: our man’s favourite medium. And what it says about this appears to confirm the problem at the heart of this matter – that words written from one person to another have a power greater than words written to a general audience. Or should I say: words that appear to have been written from one person to another. For is this not what the best fiction does – it gives the appearance that the author has written it for us alone; that the novel is in fact a letter from them to us: a direct, personal appeal from one soul to another?

Intimacy shouldn’t be something one can ape – and yet Forthwith-James, like many a good writer, was painfully adept at doing just this. He used words to make connections; frequently false connections, or connections based on shaky foundations. But connections nonetheless…