Following Dangerous Recipes

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.

Absent Siblings

I was musing this morning on the mundanity of relations. Great men and women seem to us to stand apart from society, staring down at the sea of mediocrity like sharp rocks on a clifftop. They seem like random satellites, spinning alone in the dark vastness of space. They fly like kites above the clouds of the commonplace. What good does it do us to know that the most talented Hungarian novelist of the age has a sister who works part-time in a bakery?

I was as shocked as anyone to find out that Pyetr Turgidovsky, nihilist extraordinaire, was not a lone crow in a field of sparrows. Which is to say, not only does he have close family, but a fair amount of it too, including (indeed) another writer, his cousin Valery (see here). The same goes for Alexis Pathenikolides, whose brother Giorgos hit the headlines recently, for his crimes against squirreldom (wander this way). Now I discover that a close friend, Mr Jean-Pierre Sertin (author of the wonderful p.52) has been hiding a brother of his own.

Of course, many of us have hidden siblings. You can’t expect everyone to present the life stories of their brothers and sisters the moment one meets. And yet, when these things do, at last, dribble out, one always senses a shift in the relationship. One sees the person from another perspective, in a different role: as a family member, a little brother, a big sister, or the seventh of nine children. One forces oneself to remember that these people, these artistés, inhabit a world just like ours after all. Amidst profound conversations with fictional characters, they probably have to contend with a call from their sister telling them that their mother is going into hospital to have her hip looked at. Dusting off a chapter of undoubted literary excellence, they drop off a postcard to their cousin Ruth asking how the guinea pigs are and whether she still has the recipe for that cheesecake she made last autumn. Few of us are, or ever will be, free of family.

Stop the Olive Press

Last week I made what may be considered, in retrospect, a rather nebbishy attempt to analyse the life and work of the ever-controversial Greek novelist Alexis Pathenikolides. Truth be told, no sooner had I announced that I would be tackling this subject than I felt I had nothing special to say. Perhaps I ought to have concentrated on his book – The Twisted Olive Tree. I could have elaborated, for instance, on his much-discussed theory that life is, in many senses, much like an olive. Or else I could have scrutinized the various ways in which characters within that book wield bayonets; remarking succintly upon the symbolic significance of their respective styles. Instead, I flapped hither and thither, seeking needless permission from an invisible control tower before making any sort of landing on the helipad of simple good sense.

I can’t be the first, however, to have struggled with Pathenikolides. The truth is, no one really knows how to deal with him: thus the current fuss over his squirrel-smothering brother – but another in a long line of items brought forward in order to ‘explain away’ the perceived enigma that we call Alexis P.

What I might have been clearer about, yet, is that when all the snow has fallen, the foxes have hidden and the nuts have been gathered in a large muslin sack, one feels inclined to agree with Sebastien Cheraz regarding the pivotal riddle. As is often the case with people whom we find impenetrable, baffling and recondite, the real mystery probably lies in the lack of a real mystery. Which is to say, Alexis Pathenikolides is extraordinarily, unfathomably normal.

Crows and the Courthouse Roof

 Words like ‘beauty’, ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ are knocked softly from one lawyer to another like tennis balls: an endless rally of nothingness gradually sapping the will of the jury as the time ticks sluggishly by. Someone has come up with the idea that this trial is about the ‘universal themes of life and art’. Maybe it is, but trust me, that doesn’t make it any more fun to sit through  (From Jean Massonet’s review of the Pathenikolides Affair)

Now is the time, perhaps, to be partially submerging a toe or two in the story of Alexis Pathenikolides’ trial for plagiarism in 2006. I fear I haven’t the will, however, to dip any limbs into that particular water at present. What is more, I sense that a certain number of the essential themes would be best considered in the light of an article I hope to publish at Underneath the Bunker within the next week or so. Otherwise you may read of it all you like (simply click on the link above for the first of three exclusive reports). As for the other trial (that of Alexis’ brother Giorgos) I direct your attention once again to any scurrilous Greek newspaper you might be able to procure, where the latest ‘facts’ about his sordid little life may, I regret, be duly discovered.

On the first front, however, I will answer one question, asked of me several times one evening by a red-faced man at The Crippled Bee. ‘What?’ said the man, ‘ever became of the courthouse?’ A fair question. For those who have forgotten, the roof of the courthouse in question was, unknown to those who daily gathered under it, suffering from severe damp – leading to one of the most infamous denouements to a trial in Greek legal history, in which the roof (quite literally) fell in on the case.

Unsurprisingly, the rest of the courthouse followed in the wake of its roof – and it was soon adjudged wise to build a replacement on another site entirely. In the meantime, the judge took his seat beneath the hoop of a local basketball court (from which he was, it is said, reluctant to move when the time came, at last, to move into the new, purpose-built courthouse, designed by famous architect Spyros Terechitos).

But what became of the old site? There were suggestions to plant a grove of twisted olive trees: an idea so wonderful that it comes as no surprise to find it rejected. A children’s playground was also opposed, with many parents taking exception to the idea of their precious kids playing on a spot where murderers had once stood to be sentenced.

So what happened? Answer: nothing. The site is fenced off to all but the scavenging crows who gather there at dusk to discuss the latest carrion-ons. And so be it. The spirit of the law lives on.

Beard or Brother?

I met the man only three months ago at a small literary festival in Mantua. The legend of his beard has not been much exaggerated, nor the descriptions of his personality. The former is wild and wide, the latter dull and dead (which leads one to question – is it his beard that writes the books?)

Cheraz’s observation of Pathenikolides is both accurate and apt. If any Greek children have glimpsed an image of Alexis in the newspapers this last week, they would be forgiven for thinking it was Father Christmas. For his truly is an impressive beard: a living work of art. Possibly the greatest beard of any contemporary European writer, kick my shins if I am incorrect.

The irony, however, is that Cheraz’s paranthetical joke is almost becoming a reality – again. No one has gone so far as to suggest that Pathenikolides’ beard has special powers just yet, but, two years after Pathenikolides was cleared of plagiarism (well, sort of),  many a fresh-faced nincompoop seems convinced that his squirrel-smothering midnight-flute-blowing brother has had more than a major hand in his work – despite the fact that both brothers claim not to have had any kind of contact for the last eighteen years.

If Giorgos had written The Twisted Olive Tree, surely he would have admitted it? I can’t imagine a self-deluded egomaniac of his quality turning down the opportunity to be associated with the surreal brilliance of such a novel. I’d definitely jump at the chance.

Alexis and the Thing

He thought he was just writing a book. He hated the world, so he crept into fiction. He thought it would be the perfect escape. The world of words would cover him like quilt. He would be king of his characters. A happy king, hiding in an impenetrable castle.

He made his world of words. And it was good. Too good.  He thought of letting people into the world. The temptation was too great and so he flung open the gates. In they tramped, some in leather sandals, some in air-cushioned trainers: others in heavy black boots. They said ‘this is a great world, this is’ – and he was glad. Then they started walking across the flower beds.

He thought the castle was impenetrable. It wasn’t. They swam the moat. They scaled the stone towers. They looked as though they had been invited, as though there was nothing more natural than their being there, by his side, looking over his shoulders as he wrote, leafing through his filing cabinets, noting down the numbers in his phone book, leaving dirty marks on the carpet. ‘Is this how you always operate?’ he asked. ‘Pretty much,’ they said. ‘Are you looking for anything in particular?’ ‘We’ll know when we find it,’ they said.

They found a lot of things, some of which could have been the thing, others of which clearly weren’t the thing. One day something came along which many people were convinced was the thing. Was it? He didn’t know. To be honest, he didn’t know what they were talking about.

Cloud of Pomegranates

If my poor back permits me to do so, allow me to bend down and pick up on a point made in Sebastien Cheraz’s generally excellent review of Pathenikolides’ increasingly well-known novel The Twisted Olive Tree. He writes:

We are in Greece, late March, following the hushed conversation of a group of teenagers lying on a hill outside their village, overlooking an ancient, twisted olive tree. They are playing what is known to many of us as the ‘cloud game’. This antique pastime (thought by many to have been invented by Pythagoras’ uncle Praxinimbus) involves nothing more than an ability to detect clouds in the sky and, with a little imagination, to compare their shape to that of an additional object. Thus the immortal last words of the Danish poet and philosopher Ingemar Hölleston: ‘God above! A cloud in the shape of a pomegranate!’  – spoken before choking on his own vomit (revealing a conspicuous drawback to a game that involves lying flat on one’s back).

Laying aside the eternally controversial issue of Pythagoras’ uncle, let us settle instead on the subject of Ingemar Hölleston’s last words  – which appear here, it must be said, a little out of context.

First things first. Other than the fact that he spoke them in Danish, those were indeed Hölleston’s last words. His very last words, that is – not a sentence plucked from a range of those spoken around about the time when he made his final exit – nor a phrase invented posthumously by a team of last-word experts (such as those described by Koira Jupczek in the wonderful Death Charts). So, though I decline to name my sources, I would willingly stake my life (or, failing that, a really good wrist watch) on the authenticity of this legend.

A few pressing questions follow. What was Ingemar Hölleston doing staring at clouds in the first place? What caused him to vomit? And, most significantly: what would a cloud in the shape of a pomegranate actually look like?

It might help if I told you that Hölleston and pomegranates go back a long way. His notebooks are full of references to the fruit; almost as if he had a fixation with them. In fact, I take that back. There’s no ‘almost as if’ about it. He did have a fixation with them. Undeniably. Indeed, it was most likely due to the over-consumption of pomegranates that Hölleston was driven to spew himself all the way to the pearly gates. That he felt no remorse regarding this unhealthy obsession is, I think, confirmed by this final utterance of his – as is the possibility that his love of pomegranates had truly divine implications. Allow me to re-punctuate those closing words: ‘God above: a cloud in the shape of a pomegranate!’

Now it all becomes clear (or clearer, at any rate). Still, I haven’t explained what Hölleston was doing lying on his back staring at clouds in the first place. An army of sighs advances. Do I really need to do this? Goodness me: aren’t we all driven to do such things from time to time? Maybe so, though it will probably interest you to know that Hölleston was, by all accounts, a closet cloud-watcher. In fact, he relied on the sky (in its various shapes and forms) for the majority of his inspiration (and not, as is sometimes claimed, on strong black coffee). So there. ‘It’s written in the stars’ say some. Wrong. It’s inspired by them, perhaps, but it’s written in Ingemar Hölleston’s notebooks.

As for what a cloud in the shape of a pomegranate would look like, well, I leave that to your own over-ripe imaginations…