The Unclassifiable Author and the Imaginative Ekphrasis

Intern Bailey reviews Gert Hofmann's Parable of the Blind

Parable of the Blind, by Gert Hofmann, translated by Christopher Middleton, 978-1-56792-563-0, $18.95, coming November 2016.

The German post-war writer Gert Hofmann (1931-1993) is, famously, an unclassifiable writer. This crisis of identification stems, in part, from the lack of a unifying thread of subject or medium in his work: It was only late in his career that he turned from his preferred medium of radio plays to the writing of novels, publishing his first in 1980 and continuing to produce one or two a year until his death.

When discussing why he eschewed an academic career at a young age and decided to pursue a creative life, Hofmann claimed that he lacked a certain stultifying pedantry necessary for the former. His work as a novelist is marked by this refusal to obsessively mine a single theme, to rest with feet upturned within the grooves of an entrenched style. Perhaps his most famous novel, The Spectacle at the Tower, winner of the Alfred Döblin Prize, concerns the trip a couple in a strained marriage makes through a sere landscape toward a tower.

The Parable of the Blind, published a few years later, while superficially similar, is something entirely different. It presents itself as an origin story, a sort of imaginative ekphrasis that tracks the beleaguered provenance of one of Western art’s most curious masterpieces: Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Blind Leading the Blind.

Our six protagonists are the variously purblind subjects of the painting. Some of them are named, some nameless. They recount in a leaky first-person plural narration the events of the day on which they are scheduled to be painted: They are woken by a knocking; they are fed; they relieve themselves; they are led and misled through the numinous countryside, on their way to the home of the painter.

Hofmann’s short novel, especially in its first half, is lightly redolent of Beckett. The blind troupe traipses aimlessly through an amorphous countryside; they trip and tumble and collapse in tragicomic pratfalls; they are fundamentally unclean, grotesque. Among the members of the group a senseless, circular call-and-response sometimes springs up—voices, as in Beckett, are set entirely at cross-purposes, while simultaneously deprived of an awareness of different states of being. One cannot even understand that one has been misunderstood.

But Hofmann is playful, too. In The Parable of the Blind, it is not, as in Beckett, the inherent blindness of literary representation that cauls the text. It is a very literal blindness. All of the derelicts have been blinded in different ways, and they are all in different ways blind—none is quite sure of the specifics of the former, nor the extent of the latter. The very perception of perception is deluded, stripped of any power. And that is enough, Hofmann seems to say, to muddle our conception of the text, of narrative.

Where Beckett’s vagrants are frequently nodes lost in a muted landscape, Hofmann’s cadre forms a line—though they’re invested with no trajectory because of this. In fact, senselessness multiplies as the blind ones crocodile through their shaded world. It is as if Hofmann is suggesting that even before the state of utmost solitude that Beckett so effectively limns there are still unimaginable depths of darkness to be plumbed. “Even if the world slipped away from us entirely, we wouldn’t miss it,” the blind ones say. “Instead of pressing forward into it with words, we curl up without words inside what’s still there” (34). The individual armed only with language is eschewed in favor of the instinctual will-to-community—the animalistic curling-up that the blind ones propone is a more tactile engagement with the world; Hofmann wants us to feel senselessness, not simply dread it.

Though Beckett’s not the only influence to be reckoned with, here. When the blinded finally reach the home of the famous painter (whose name, within the novel, is withheld), the influence of another writer begins to be felt. The painter speaks with an inborn aggression, cantankerousness, and cynical vitriol that recall the works of Thomas Bernhard, another German writer and heir to Beckett whose life was roughly contemporaneous with Hofmann’s.

The painter’s thoughts are curiously italicized, as those of Bernhard’s protagonists frequently are. Of the signs of destruction he notes everywhere in the world, the painter muses: “The sea boiling and very far off, the sky covered by a pall of smoke, glare of a fire behind soaring mountains—a memory of the far Alps—are signs that even the remoter parts of the world have been devastated” (89-90). Of the significance of the world’s dying: “Even himself the painter can easily identify in the pictures of these spaces…himself dying, dead already. At night he is walled in by these spaces with their pictures, thus also by himself” (90).

The cruel and barren logical extension of “thus also by himself” is classic Bernhard, and the disconcerting italicizations that give hint of a madness that is yet logical in its own mad way contribute to the sense of exaggeration that pervades The Parable of the Blind. The novel itself is an exaggeration, a blow-up, as it were, of a particular moment in time, a particular image. But there is a paradoxical tinct to the nature of this exaggeration: As, for Beckett, silence was in a way the ultimate form of eloquence, so for Bernhard and Hofmann exaggeration refines rather than dulls or occludes the senselessness of the world.

It is not for nothing that Hofmann’s blind ones search for comfort, that at the start of the novel they have just woken from sleep and at novel’s end they appear to be preparing once more for slumber. For Bernhard, and I think also for Hofmann, exaggeration is like a blanket that is draped over and occludes the subject matter—but that is draped, nevertheless, with care, and affection. It doesn’t annul the confusing welter of the world, but preserves it instead.

The painter’s art relies on traps, Hofmann tells us, “like the length or brevity of the brush strokes, pigmentation, peculiarity of texture, the arrangement of the background” (106). And while this trap keeps one still and reproduces one’s image, it is still a soulless and antagonistic affair. It is Hofmann’s aim to lay down a blanket and show us the creatures beneath it: sorry, tawdry, and grotesque, but undeniably there.

An Evasive Elegance

Intern Frederick reviews Pere Gimferrer's Fortuny

Fortuny, by Pere Gimferrer, translated by Adrian Nathan West, introduction by Octavio Paz, 978-1-56792-550-0, $17.95

“Of all the indoor and outdoor gowns that Mme. de Guermantes wore, those which seemed most to respond to a definite intention, to be endowed with a special significance, were the garments made by Fortuny….Is it their historical character or the fact that each one is unique that gives them so special a significance…?”—Marcel Proust

While its meaning has changed, the term vignette (“little vine”) originally referred to a small, borderless embellishment, often a vine, drawn on the page around some image or text. In this way, a vignette served more as an indistinct frame than an image or text itself—lending significance, but only by distinguishing something else.

Fortuny is a book of vignettes—in both senses of the word. In one way, populated by such figures as Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Charlie Chaplin, it is a work of the historical flâneur, a collection of fleeting impressions that arise in idle passing. Through these opulent images, though, Pere Gimferrer gives a borderless definition to Mariano Fortuny, framing his life and times without presuming to contain them, only once inserting dialogue when Fortuny recognizes himself in his father’s painting with the words “it’s me.”

While trying to convey Fortuny’s double character, others have compared it to a rich cloth, more significant in its weave than a larger structure; I, however, imagine it as a dress, revealing and concealing the body, but beautiful, shapely, and shifting nonetheless.

When glancing at the folds of this dress, much like Proust, I struggle to elucidate its special significance. True, it evokes a historical character, capturing a sense of saudade for the figures of the Belle Époque, a time that, by its very name, is forever tied to this feeling. True, it is unique, and the translation by Adrian Nathan West is exquisite, conveying much more than the book’s literal meaning and seamlessly imitating the poetic effects of Gimferrer, as with the voluptuous alliterative Vs in the section on Valentino. There is, though, something more that arises from all this, something elusive, something that sates our saudade and makes concrete what we desire from that different time. What this is I cannot say, perhaps it is the book’s evasive elegance, but it clings to Fortuny like a trailing vine or soft muslin, serving not to obfuscate the present, but to lend it with a hazy, salubrious glow.

Wit and Language are the Thread

Intern Olivia reviews Jeremy M. Davies' The Knack of Doing

The Knack of Doing: Stories by Jeremy M. Davies, 978-1-57423-227-1, $18.95 softcover with flaps.

Expect the unexpected. That is my advice to anyone planning to read The Knack of Doing. With his inventive short stories, Davies is constantly throwing his reader for a loop, and in the most delightful way. Each story features a uniquely eccentric character, yet somehow the thirteen fit seamlessly together as a whole.

Each story has a plot completely distinct from the rest: “Forkhead Box” tells of an executioner who breeds mice in his spare time. “Sad White People” gives us Chris and Chris, who are in love but meet a tragic end. “The Sinces” simply and perfectly captures the aftermath of an ended relationship. “Kurt Vonnegut and the Great Bordellos of the Danube Delta,” in a very meta fashion, takes aim at Kurt Vonnegut’s fiction writing advice and asks what exactly it means to write fiction. Davies’s work examines many aspects of human life and work, prompting a reader to look a little more closely at themselves and their own day-to-day life—that which may seem ordinary or mundane may not be at all.

Not only is his subject matter intriguing, Davies continues to surprise with the distinct structure of his stories. While many are typical—as much as one could label Davies’s work as typical—prose, many take on a more interesting form: that of a list, a letter, or some other kind of internal monologue. “Ten Letters” is formatted as of a father writing to his children. “The Dandy’s Garrote” is one long sentence that was once offered up for a book jacket blurb. “The Terrible Riddles of Human Sexuality (Solved)” is formatted, as the title would suggest, in a series of answered riddles to chronicle a day in the life of May, who works as a dominatrix. All different, and all compelling.

What really ties Davies’s stories together is his unwavering quick wit and careful mastery of language. Throughout The Knack of Doing the pace is measured and the tone is comfortably light even when the content gets a little dismal. Davies does not take himself too seriously, and that’s the key to why his writing is so effective. The stories in The Knack of Doing are a little bit strange, but that is what makes them so captivating: they’re all believable, and it’s as if as if I’m reading about the quirky neighbor across the hall. Davies’s fiction manages to blur the line between real and imaginary.

Davies writes to capture human consciousness and does so beautifully. He has created snapshots of the serious and the lighthearted, asked questions both mundane and profound, and left us with a work of art to endure.

 

 

 

 

An Philosophical Self-Help Manual

Intern Alyssa picked on of our more unusual backlist titles to review. Enjoy!

Cautionary Note

The author urgently recommends that before you act on the advice in this book, you have a thorough medical examination and get your doctors approval of the program. This probably is not necessary for normal, healthy adults, but who knows from normal? I dont want to get sued.

Richard Watson’s diet book, subtitled “how to lose weight & change the world”, is anything but a conventional how-to. Part philosophical exploration of health and life, part practical explanation of diet and exercise regime, Watson navigates topics likes food, running, sex, and “how to live” with singular wit and self-criticism. Rather than presenting a straightforward diet and exercise plan, Watson initiates a conversation with the reader about culture, habit, and self, all with a strong through line of humor. With his poignant insights and keen philosophical reflections Watson challenges the reader not only to lose weight but to adopt a certain lifestyle, one that involves caring about food, about oneself, and about making a difference in one’s life and one’s world.

First and foremost a philosopher, some of Watson’s finest advice comes in the penultimate chapter, How to Live, and its companion and the final chapter, How to Die. In these sections Watson imparts wisdom that goes beyond improving health, tackling the broad idea that “The only way to get a grip on your life is by taking hold. To take hold you must make a commitment to do this one thing: You must change your life.” This, he asserts, is what he hopes to offer readers who can successfully follow his program for weight loss (and by extension life change). In the final part of the book Watson gracefully discusses the end of life, from navigating it in relation to a family member to the argument for changing your life as an act of preparation. He offers the following profound statement to the latter, echoing back to his purpose in writing the book as a guide for others: “It really does not matter much to the rest of us what you do. But if you don’t do something you will be proud of later on, it will matter to you.”

The Knack of Doing – A Review

By Danielle Schwertner

Our wonderful intern of last semester, Danielle Schwertner, took some time out of her busy schedule to review one of our new book releases: The Knack of Doing, by Jeremy Davies, which is a collection of short stories. You can read his interview with The Paris Review here, and you can read an excerpt from The Knack of Doing in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine, here. And now, her review:

 

Short stories are tough to conquer. Authors have the daunting tasks of capturing their readers’ attentions quickly while simultaneously instigating emotions . . . all in the span of twenty pages or less. Short stories are tough to conquer.

Jeremy Davies is a conqueror.

The Knack of Doing is thirteen stories that made me laugh, contemplate everything I’ve ever thought, and remember why I fell in love with short fiction so many years ago. Davies’s ability to create and deconstruct characters through riddles and sentences that only begin with “since” is nothing short of inspiring—perfect examples of a truly talented writer.

The entirety of The Knack of Doing is a testament to Davies’s story-telling. No matter how carefully his stories are read, one might never really (without question, hesitation, or further evaluation) be sure of what Davies is doing. And that’s what makes his writing wonderful. What fun is a story if you’re given all the answers? What fun is a story if you’re not allowed to wo(a)nder? Davies sends his readers on an adventure . . . a strange, sometimes grotesque, always intriguing adventure. An adventure into a world where spiders, sheets of glass, and sentences become characters just as important as the humans who live amongst them.

Every one of Davies’s stories is admirable and thrilling to read, but there are two that, in my case at least, evoke multiple hushed gasps, widened eyes, and creased eyebrows. “Henrietta the Spider” and “Sad White People” give an intimate view into the dirtier and more complicated aspects of human lives—aspects we see in the mirror everyday and maybe even feel in our hearts. Though we may recognize these aspects, reading them in words that are not our own, but which echo so clearly what we can’t say, is what brings them to life and to our attention. Through Davies’s words we are better able to laugh at, love, and, maybe, understand ourselves at last.

Most of us do not deal so warmly with spiders, date people with the same name as our own, execute or track people for a living, or inspect so acutely the advice of Kurt Vonnegut as do those The Knack of Doing introduces. And yet, amid Davies’s stories about these fascinatingly obscure subjects, we might just find ourselves better able to laugh at, love, and, maybe, understand ourselves a bit better.

Throughout thirteen stories, Davies invites us, his dutiful readers, into a world of weird that, at once, seems both peculiarly unfamiliar and delightfully cozy. He invites us into a world of reality coated lightly in fiction. He invites us, in a sense, home.