Confined escapism–pleasure reading in March

My immediate sense after finishing the Leonora Carrington collection produced by the Dorothy Project is that she has aged very well. Kelly Link, Angela Carter, Robert Aickman, and it seems the whole general tendency of fantastic or speculative or weird tales is toward this oneiric work that mixes the gothic with fairytales. The word for it now is fabulism. I still have this nagging feeling that SF as a whole has abandoned historical materialism in favor of thoroughly non-empirical imaginative writing. (Or what I’ve taken to be SF based to some extent on tendencies and contradictions among historical modes of production is no longer on the order of the day.) Fabulism as a concept may account for this. It also seems to create a continuity for fantastic fiction between canonical literature like Poe and Hawthorne to pulp magazines in the early and mid 20th century. The latter used to be an overhanging sin on fantasy that Jameson and Suvin used to speak of in the 70s and 80s.

And it’s not just the content Carrington established, but the style, which is plain and direct, completely transparent as it relates marvelous things. This is of course in line with the older gothic novels. Cesar Aira writes like this too. The writing is clear but it’s also loose, so that the events are hard to keep track of in your memory.

I’ve thought for a year now that Carrington is more ironical and darkly humorous than any of the above. I had that impression from her institutionalization memoir DOWN BELOW. The early pieces in this collection are terrific. Everyone loves to talk about “The Debutante,” with its face-ripping and then face-eating talking hyena, made more gruesome by the sultry narrator’s POV. But what really gets me this this moment, after the hyena has devoured the maid, leaving only her feet:

“I can’t eat any more. Her two feet are left over still, but if you have a little bag, I’ll eat them later in the day.”

“You’ll find a bag embroidered with fleurs-de-lis in the cupboard. Empty out the handkerchiefs you’ll find inside, and take it.” She did as I suggested. Then she said, “Turn round now and look how beautiful I am.”

The humor in these stories kills me, especially the ending of “The Happy Corpse.”

Many of the stories are translated from French and Spanish, and the prose there seems way more placid than the ones written in English, where a reflective tone and social observation come out. This is the opening of “White Rabbits”:

The time has come that I must tell the events which began in 40 Pest Street. The houses, which were reddish black, looked as if they had issued mysteriously from the fire of London. The house in front of my window, covered with an occasional wisp of creeper, was as black and empty looking as any plague-ridden residence subsequently licked by flames and smoke. This is not the way I had imagined New York.

The animals, the detailed designs of objects, the dark forests, the rotting meat, the rituals and magical correspondences, the tension between domestic comfort and wild freedom: all of these elements express unique insights about a woman’s position in Europe—”The Neutral Man” may well be a true anecdote, like Amy Hempel’s story about her motorcycle accident. I wouldn’t protest a re-centering of the Surrealism canon on Carrington’s writing and pictures.


I’m struggling to talk about DIARIES OF EXILE by Yannis Ritsos. I picked it up because I wanted to read something about confinement, in light of the coronavirus situation. I was blown away by its simplicity and honesty. The poems, which comprise Ritsos’s prison diaries in verse, between 1948 and 1950, are blunt but never brutal. There is a pureness and sensitivity to the speaker, who finds a placid consolation in productive activity with other people, even if they never communicate.

I do mean simple, in its repetitive observations and images—cigarettes, cigarette packaging (a source of paper for writing) the change of the seasons in a barren place—and the sentence structures, sometimes laid out line by line. Yet they layer sophisticated ideas. The first two stanzas of “November 17” stand out to me both for this reason, the way it talks about the forms of wood, as an object of labor and as an entity of nature, and a rare bit of religious imagery.

The wind assumes its original position
the trees return to their old shape
no longer the wood of the bed-frame, the coat hanger, the wardrobe,
the wooden bowl on the villager’s round table
the wooden spoon that ladles out food
but now the tree with its branches and its shade
in the clouds and wind that strip the land of color
that dress with a certain nakedness free of forgetting and of memory
the houses, the bread, people and their works.

Things are simpler than we thought
so much so that we are sometimes startled; we stand
looking and smiling precisely there where we pressed our nails into our palm.

And then this stanza:

All this happened slowly, bit by bit. We didn’t notice.
Maybe tomorrow the old things will happen again. Nothing is certain.
But maybe out of all this will remain a tighter grasp of the hand
two eyes that gazed into two other eyes with no tilt of hesitation
a lighter that lit five cigarettes without preference;
and the number five wasn’t one, two, three, four, five,
but only a single number—five.

Of course all this doesn’t make a poem
and here I toss it onto the page like a useless stone on the stones
that will maybe someday help to build a house.

I will also remember the poem about the dog at the end of the first Diary.

The poems get sparser the further we go into Ritsos’s internment. On Christmas Day:

The window brings in the sky
in little squares.

Everything is tormented
like the old women gathering radishes.
Even the stones.

Was Christ really born in a season like this?

Plus, this passage from a letter to his sister, quoted in the translator’s introduction, may be the best writing advice I’ve ever heard:

the image is always a means and not an end in itself – we’ve said this before – you know it – you should avoid mere decoration – Don’t cover up your heart – when there’s no heart, there’s nothing at all – of course heart alone isn’t enough – but it shouldn’t be missing, either. Guard against the allure of the word, which always leads to verbosity – but don’t ever neglect that allure in the name of an emotion or of spontaneity.


Nothing like one of Don Cesar’s short philosophical novels to clear your head. Like the last translation from New Directions, BIRTHDAY, ARTFORUM reads like a lightly fictionalized diary, about the author’s obsession with collecting back numbers of the magazine, scavenging at bookstores, trying to get an international subscription. He doesn’t seem that invested in the actual content beyond the reproductions of artistic dream states. What really attracts him are the magazine’s properties as an object, its square cut, its glossy pages etc.

Formally, the book is made of very short stories and sketches and ruminations. Some of them are dated; it’s possible Cesar wrote these pieces across 20 years and finally collected them into a very rich book, the funniest that I’ve read by him in a while.

A highlight is the first chapter, the only truly marvelous event in the plot, where an issue of Artforum sacrifices itself by getting wet to keep the other magazines on the table dry. “Can an object love a man? The entire history of animism was contained in that question.” All objects are carriers of information, and so books “fulfilled their condition as objects twice over by being specialized carriers of information; they were superobjects, because in their infinite variety and novelty they could supplant all other objects in imagination and desire.” I’d say my reading of Merce Rodoreda’s GARDEN BY THE SEA is supplanting my desire to be in a Spanish seaside villa rather than in self-quarantine in a Brooklyn apartment.

ARTFORUM is not directly about contemporary art but is about the experience of objects that aren’t useful but are enigmatic enough to appeal to us and call our attention—like broken clothespins. And then there’s the experience of waiting, its changing colors, its infinite plying.

I should write a story about what it was like to wait for it those many months, but it is impossible because the wait was made up of so many very tiny spiritual movements, so varied, that the story would never end.

Another small treat in this work is that Aira includes a moment of reflection on his mysterious writing process (I think the magazine articles are too credulous about this sometimes).

My work as a writer was a constant repetition of time’s surrender to waiting. I never could, and in fact never wanted to, write for more than one hour, and I spent the vast remainder of each day impatiently waiting for the next one. And within that hour the pattern of the day is repeated: I think of something and together with the thought comes its formulation. In a few seconds it’s written, and then I have to wait till I think of something else, something which doesn’t happen. I don’t want to dig more deeply into this, but I fear that within a few seconds that very thing is going to happen again.

This is quite theoretically oriented, similar to pages in THE LITERARY CONFERENCE, that business about “the velocity of thought and the thought itself,” which leads me to believe this is more “genuine.” Unless it’s another trick—that’s our Aira.

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