Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Polylogical Chinese Restaurant or My Occasionally Postmodern Mind

The Illogic of Kassel by Enrique Vila-Matas

In the aftermath of World War Two, when virtually every German city had been destroyed by Allied bombing, the city of Kassel decided to postpone its reconstruction until 1955, when its citizens opted to turn their backs on the headlong industrial re-development embraced by such cities as Dresden and Cologne and devote themselves to the promotion of culture instead. It seemed to them a fitting rejoinder to Hitler and his contempt for modern and avant-garde art. 

Founded there and then, by painter and academy professor, Arnold Bode, was  the first of a series of 100 day-long exhibitions called documenta, a pioneering art festival, still running today, that initially included the works of such now world-famous artists as Picasso and Kandinsky. Writes Michael Glasmeier and Karin Stengel:

Again and again, the documenta has shattered the world of art, whether on poor postwar times when people thirsted for art, whether in rebellious years of revolution, whether in the lighthearted era  at the end of the 20th century or whether at the turn of the century dominated by globalisation. The history of documenta is a history of defeats, of doubts, of scandals and, at the same time, of renewal, of discovery and artistic creativity. Above all, however, it has always been a history of success.

Indeed the most recent documenta, dOCUMENTA (13), the exhibition of which Vila-Matas writes in his novel, drew a record-breaking 904,992 visitors.

The Illogic of Kassel tells the strange, funny, consistently beguiling story of a sixty-three year old Catalan avant-garde writer who receives a phone call from an enigmatic woman one day, inviting him to participate in this selfsame festival. Perplexed as to why the committee would invite him, a writer, to take part in such an exhibition, generally the preserve of sculptors, painters, and dancers, he soon discovers that his mission, his charge, is in fact quite novel, indeed distinctly avant-garde: for three weeks he is merely to sit down every morning at his own special table in a nondescript Chinese restaurant on the outskirts of Kassel and write—a living, breathing art installation. In essence he is told: “Here’s an invitation to a Chinese restaurant, we’re asking you for art, now let’s see what you make of it.”

The puzzled narrator, long intrigued by the idea of the avant-garde, indeed curious to discover whether the avant-garde as a movement still exists, decides to accept this singular invitation to Kassel. There, he soon finds himself seated at his appointed table in the Dschingis Khan each morning, surrounded by sometimes curious, though mostly indifferent diners as he toils away at his craft, only to spend his afternoons and evenings, like the other visitors there, wandering through the many exhibitions, “that great garden of contemporary marvels”, a few photos of which are included below.

What compounds the wonder of this funny, affectionate, and highly inventive novel is that the story itself—at least the premise of it—is true: Vila-Matas himself was actually working at his desk in his apartment in Barcelona one day when he was interrupted by a call from a mysterious-sounding woman who made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Featured below is the author Vila-Matas at work in the Dschingis Khan.

Enrique Vila-Matas was born and raised in Barcelona. He has written numerous works, including Bartleby & Co., Dublinesque, Montano’s Malady, and Never Any End to Paris. The Illogic of Kassel was translated by Anne McClean & Anna Milsom.

Peter Adam Nash 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Erotics of Luck

Dostoevsky's Last Night, by Cristina Peri Rossi

That's the inside of Donald Trump's Taj Mahal, built with leveraged funds by Mr. Trump on prime ocean-front property in decrepit Atlantic City in 1978, a joint that was once the chief draw on the briefly revitalized boardwalk, a dump today, bankrupt since 2014, purchased on the cheap by Carl Icahn, who is now involved in a court battle as 1,000 former employees seek to recover their pension and health funds. As if. Meanwhile The Donald has moved to greener pastures--Bloomberg's Disney/Manhattan, Chicago, and maybe 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Why not? The golden boy from Queens who was born on third base has evinced little concern for the misadventure on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. You win a few, you get bailed out, and then you win a few more. Maybe run for president. It's a great country.

My father loved the high life and I've always loved the low, so the Taj was perfect for both of us. We went together once, in 1984, to the very room pictured above--a glitzy Crystal Palace without the optimism--faux art deco, rooms reeking of prime ribs, furtive sex, and disinfectant. A louche airplane hanger of a casino brimming with slots and roulette wheels and blackjack tables; crowded with pensioners bused in from dumps like Rahway free of charge, blue-haired ladies given a paper sack of quarters as seed money, gimpy gents wearing baseball caps and banlon slacks (as was my Old Man)  who pumped nickels into the one-armed bandits and gawked at the hookers strolling the worn carpets, cocktails in everyone's hand (you couldn't stand it sober) babes wearing too much make-up adorned in seedy evening wear stroking the necks of the high rollers at the poker tables. Nothing is as depressing as money, nothing, that is, except those who lust after money. 

I'd gambled some before. I liked horse races and spent a fair amount of time betting on the ponies at Monmouth Park. With horses you have a chance; the contingencies are under control. Handicapping is a form of scholarship, Talmudic. How does Serendipity run in mud? Who's riding her, who's her trainer? How did she run at Belmont last week? Not to mention the horses are beautiful to watch, not like staring at a dealer pulling cards out of a shoe. I'd avoided casinos most of my life. Tagging along with my father, I played a few hands of blackjack and hung around the craps table (always the best action). The drinks were watery; we saw a good show, ate steaks, and had a nice time. But gambling, casinos, the whole obsession with luck and beating the unbeatable house--this I never understood. Though I now live a few miles from three or four casinos I'm never tempted, maybe because the desire to see if I could dip my toe in the game--just once, with a limited stake--is too risky. Maybe because of the horror stories about folks who bet their houses (no bailouts for them), or maybe because there are other things to gamble on every day, like whether or not you can get through twenty-four hours intact.

Are there any great books about gambling aside from Dostoevsky's "The Gambler"? The Hustler and The Color of Money, both by Walter Tevis come to mind, but I can't find any others on my shelves--Leaving Las Vegas is a suicide novel with a gambling on the side. I'm not even sure the book under review  is actually about gambling.What I suspect is that the author, a highly regarded Spanish woman, wanted to write a book about the folly of male sexuality and used gambling as a metaphor--a vain man trying to seduce Lady Luck. What is gambling after all but a flirtation with the erotic--with intense pleasure or, more likely, with exquisite pain willingly submitted to--a fundamentally masochistic pastime. As with sex or love, you never beat the house.

Reading "The Gambler," or reading Joseph Frank on Dostoevsky's obsession with games of chance, one immediately makes the connection between desire and gambling. Rossi has paraphrased, to good effect, many of the most evocative sections of Dostoevsky's short novel. Here's the Master:

“I wanted to fathom her secrets; I wanted her to come to me and say: "I love you," and if not that, if that was senseless insanity, then...well, what was there to care about? Did I know what I wanted? I was like one demented: all I wanted was to be near her, in the halo of her glory, in her radiance, always, for ever, all my life. I knew nothing more!”

And Rossi:

"There are other days, however, when I wake up feeling a terrible anxiety and can't wait for time when I can be alone with a slot machine (as if it were a lover), when I can caress it, seduce it, listen to it sing, plug it with coins like bullets, strip it, humiliate it, rape it."

Dostoevsky's Last Night abounds in such passages (to an embarrassing extent). Jorge, the journalist- gambler at the novel's center, casts his addiction in erotic terms: he seduces, yearns for, rapes--never lusting after money--he has no interest in money, nor does he care if he wins or loses--all of his desire is directed at conquest, of Luck or of every woman he encounters.  He tries to seduce his psychoanalyst in precisely the way one asks for another card when one knows to stand pat--there's no chance of winning, it's absurd to try, but there's that momentary pleasure that comes of thinking for a fleeting second that the woman or the cards might turn your way.

I can't help but think that Cristina Peri Rossi dislikes men--who can blame her? She imagines at one point that all men "speak daily to their sex" but that women never do so. Her journalist is a pathetic creature, led about by his twin obsessions--to bet and to bed. Rossi generously allows him to seduce every woman he meets, but the couplings are not only passionless, they're routine in the way betting on roulette is routine--an activity that is simply boring.

But I liked the book in spite of its mawkishness. The pointlessness of Jorge's existence was refreshing: surely, living in Barcelona, one could live exactly in this fashion and still be happy. The novel, despite the loose framework (a cheap trick) of character revelation through psychoanalysis, lacks psychological complexity. Jorge gambles and seduces for the pleasure each affords him. A charming motivation in a world where every action appears to be reducible to a utilitarian or pragmatic calculation. Unadulterated narcissism--taking a gamble on the sheer inexhaustibly of pleasure. Freud wouldn't have condoned such a life, but he would have understood it.

"Dostoevsky took the train to Hombourg on May 4, filled more with trepidation and remorse than excitement as he left Anna in tears at the station. He wrote her a day later: 'I'm acting stupidly, stupidly, even more, badly, and out of weakness, and there is just a minuscule chance hell with it, that's enough.'" Frank reports dryly that after four days of "winning and losing," Dostoevsky was "wiped out completely." He would return to Russia--escaping debtors prison--and write three of the greatest masterpieces of world literature.

"Nothing could be more absurd than moral lessons at such a moment." ("The Gambler")

Vera Coking beat Trump in an eminent domain lawsuit in 1995. Trump wanted to bulldoze Ms. Coking house, adjacent to his Plaza, for limousine parking. Needless to say, I never returned to the Taj Mahjal, though my father did, many times. He always enjoyed himself.  


Dostoevsky's Last Night is available from Picador Press; it was published in 1992.

George Ovitt (2/18/16)

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Dark Terminus Of All We Know

through the night by stig sæterbakken

Is this what death looks like? A house with nothing in it?

Driven from his home by his irate wife, Eva, following her discovery of his affair with a young woman in town, the narrator, a modest Norwegian dentist named Karl Christian Andreas Meyer, has just returned home to his sullen and resentful family after a period of contrition, when his teen-aged son, Ole-Jacob, commits suicide, shaking him to the core of his being:

Grief comes in so many forms. It’s like a light being turned on and off. It’s on, and it’s unbearable, and then it goes off, because it’s unbearable, because it’s not possible to have it on all the time. It fills you up and it drains you. A thousand times a day I forgot that Ole-Jakob was dead. A thousand times a day I remembered it again. Both were unbearable. Forgetting him was the worst thing I could do. Remembering him was the worst thing I could do. Cold came and went. But never warmth. There was only cold and the absence of cold. Like standing with your back to the sea. Ice-cold ankles every time a wave came in. Then it receded. Then it came in.

An arresting, truly brilliant study of guilt and misgiving, Through the Night is a the story of one man’s deeply affecting struggle to come to terms with his grief. Yet to say this, to state it in such prosaic, conventional terms, is to trivialize the force of such feeling, as it is described in this novel. Indeed so consuming, so total, is the loss this narrator feels that even of this commonplace objective—his own mental health—he remains fearful, unsure: “What will we do, I wondered. When this is over. When we’re finished with all the grief. When we’ve gotten through it, if we get through it, what on earth will we do then.” 
Perhaps one of the most frightening aspects of grief, as it is depicted in this darkly radiant tale, is its potential to isolate one from others, from the people one knows and loves. The writer C.S. Lewis captured this poignantly in his famous 1961 book, A Grief Observed, a work—written immediately following the death of his wife—in which, fumbling brilliantly for the words to do justice to the experience, he describes it as something akin to fear, though not fear itself, only to add, "At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me."

This is very much the case with Karl Meyer, the protagonist of this novel. And no wonder. Can even someone who has experienced grief firsthand truly fathom the grief of another? Is such an experience actually relative, commensurable, at all? Or is it—like its sister, love—in fact stubbornly, intrinsically personal, always and necessarily unique? For how else could we bear so many depictions of it—in the literature we read, in the films we watch, in the music to which we listen at night—but as signal variations on this grave and universal theme. 

As with any fresh depiction of grief, indeed with the fresh depiction of any emotion in fiction at all, the devil lies squarely in the detail. One has only to think of Joyce’s story “Araby” with its ‘high, cold, empty, gloomy rooms,’ its ‘dark, dripping gardens,’ its rusted bicycle pump, and the ‘brown imperturbable’ faces of the houses in the streets to reminded of this fact. Sæterbakken himself is especially adept at stringing his protagonist’s grief upon the nails of so many stark and original details. Undoubtedly one of the most effective, most jarring of his touches in this novel, that single detail that opened up this character’s grief to me, that made me feel it in the pit of my stomach, in the marrow of my bones, is the narrator’s habit, started almost by accident one day, of calling his dead son’s cell phone number, which continues to glow, to implore him, in the directory of his phone.

Ole-Jakob. I know that you’re there. You’re there somewhere, and I’ll find you.

Stig Sæterbakken (1966-2012) was one of Norway’s most acclaimed contemporary writers. His novels include Siamese and Self-Control, both published by Dalkey Archive Press. He committed suicide in 21012. Through the Night was translated by Seán Kinsella.

Peter Adam Nash