Thursday, September 10, 2015

Trailing Panthers

Jon Steiner's video rings with a perfect threading of detail (I don't know how he managed to plunge through the layers of years to find this footage of a sign that doesn't exist any more), and the soundscape by Stephen Adams knocks and turns through your head long after you've closed the file. This video was shot in early winter, or so I remember -- see the slow rousing of the streets -- after all, who has adequate heating in Sydney? Who doesn't start the day prepared for the worst that so rarely comes? Of course, even in winter, the poles and crusted metal plates that are jammed into the footpaths (the same ones photographed by Bettina Steiner in the paper edition of Panthers) will be ticking with an almost summery benevolence by midday -- note how there is always something in flower in Sydney, some handful of leathery leaves that forgot to fall --  but then at about three or four in the afternoon the illusion dims.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Whether the book is a lion or an elephant

Recently, the Chinese writer Sheng Keyi told us, through her translator-interpreter Isabelle Li, that:

Before I came to Australia, the organiser of my tour told me there would be reading sessions. So I reread Death Fugue, to choose the sections for reading. To speak frankly, I felt bewitched, as if was reading the work of a stranger. I am not sure I could reproduce this kind of writing again.

She then paused or, should I say instead that Isabelle Li had paused as some of us laughed. At this, Sheng Keyi had smiled awkwardly -- in fact Isabelle Li had smiled before interpreting the Mandarin -- so we were ready for something audacious or at least amusing. Sheng Keyi had then said something self-disparaging in English. In the edited version of her presentation, I see that this awkwardness has disappeared: we feel her hesitation, and even her humbled retreat, which I don't remember from the spoken text. Although I have wondered since whether the sentence that followed the one ending with the word 'stranger' had not been there, I think it must have been and that the writer's own distinctive cadence, which is evident as far as it can be in the printed version of the translated text, had probably been lost as it passed through the enacted cadence of another.

Sheng Keyi then continued:

Hemingway said that a finished work is a dead lion. For myself, I hardly consider whether the book is a lion or an elephant. I always quickly bury myself in creating new work. Only when I have to speak of it, do I think about whether the beast is carnivorous or herbivorous.
This burial in the (presumably) still living matter of the writing whose innards we do not yet dare, let alone want to, rake through with our fingers.

Recently, too, in the The Guardian Belinda McKeon writes:
What unites novelists such as Knausgaard and Ferrante, such as Hardwick and Davis and Offill and Cusk – and, indeed Woolf – is the sense, in their fictions, that writing cannot be anything but autobiographical, and that to try for distance, for the narrative which is somehow purely imagined, would be the most nakedly autobiographical effort of all. In fact, it is always cringe-inducing, always a little shameful, the extent to which writing, all writing, comes from the well of the self. From the way the mind works; from the places to which the mind goes. I panic whenever someone reads a story I have written, let alone a novel; I panic because of what has been revealed of me, of my sensibility. But my panic is none of the reader’s business, and it is none of the writing’s business, either. The writing has its own room to live in now.
I suppose it is none of the reader's business, and nor of the writing's either -- whatever that might mean -- but I think of those odd beasts we form out of our minds: how outlandish they are -- how curious, in fact, that these are the strange and twisted creations we have chosen to tie to our wrists: the ridiculous animal balloons that they are.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Ad infinitum

It has taken me until now to realise that all the objects that we imagine ourselves to be surrounded by in Ulvi Haagensen's latest solo exhibition, Ad infinitum, at Defiance Gallery -- each apparent tea towel tucked onto its apparent hook -- the spectral clothesline perfectly, wantonly pegged (how I cram my own line!) -- a bobbing poppy field of vacuum cleaners -- a propped mop, stilled aprons -- that all of these conjured objects are themselves so alluring, so magical to me, precisely because the 'unimportant work', as Haagensen calls it, is the very work that I find most troubling of all -- this work whose restful, simple and rarely celebrated monotony and value has never had any simplicity for me whatsoever: I have to suspect that I have never felt it to be monotonous enough, so difficult I still find it -- never having experienced this work as restful or allowed it to be valuable, despite my conviction that without this very same netting of everyday tasks that I (mostly with the help of others) sort-of fashion, I'd be holing up in a doorway somewhere on King Street now, stiff and stinking in a cardboard box.

Men, perhaps, are more prone to this difficulty. In the meantime I hanker for wall after wall of nothing at all (except for a single drawn wire of one of Haagensen's tea towels). In her last showing, she drew -- what was it? soap? -- onto the floor only to clear the whole of it away; in another, strings of white washing multiplied itself into a fine, grey density on walls that were finally washed clean. Ah bliss.

Her work: perhaps the opposite -- or rather the epitome, the end-work? -- of not writing.

She writes:

I am interested in 'unimportant work' and professions, whether as unpaid in the home or outside. Cleaning and housework is generally an invisible 'art' that is only noticed when it hasn't been done. Why do we do these jobs day after day -- for love, money, a sense of duty or because it is expected of us? Or do we do them to appease, as a form of atonement or out of a sense of guilt.

How does it affect us to do a task repeatedly?

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Flying Away in Peter


Like Gerald Murnane, David Malouf has always been fascinated by a landscape that stretches out on all sides so that it takes over the mind -- the sheer overabundance of grasses and sky and the teeming of insects and the grains of crushed anthills -- but whereas, in Murnane, the mind itself is sounded for its infinitely replicating images of this overabundance and, perhaps more importantly, for the secret channels that are gouged through it, Malouf's world is smoothed of these inner chasms. The mind -- minds -- are located as regions of unknowing glow. Thoughts hover, hardly touching, in some larger and more perfect (than mine) contemplation. Whose is it? What is it? Thus I start to imagine the mind of Malouf. I've been rereading, after so many years, my precious but dust furred, stained edged -- stained, that is, with the commas of cockroach crap -- first edition of Malouf's Fly Away Peter, and immediately I recognise the wide, tussocky landscape of An Imaginary Life. Here Malouf has, in bringing his safe, calm, intelligent eye to the swamp scummed hinterland of Queensland and then to the trenches of northern Europe, dragged its netted scope south from the earlier book's classical anchorage in such a way that he is able to pull -- or at least seem to pull -- the whole globe of the world together into one vibrating whole. Delia Falconer shares something of this careful, dispassionate sensitivity to grass blade, bird, sky, mud, corpse's hand, as well as those quiet, nearly wordless minds that are somehow able to reflect it all, undistorted. And it is only as I note this that I remember, of course, that Elliott Gyger, whose opera of Malouf's Fly Away Peter premiers tomorrow, has also set the work of Delia Falconer.

There is a whole literature about the quiet, redeeming beauty of ordinary things -- even the notion of what constitutes this ordinary (what is it, this ordinary thing?) -- that rings us with such solid, valuable assuredness that, clearly, anyone who is compelled to rent a hole in it would have to be a cur.

After Saturday

Still thinking about the terrifyingly sticky/slippery-looking textured beauty of the white clay ziggurat on which the opera turned itself almost too earnestly at first, one step after another -- the awkward greeting between Jim and Imogen, the naming of birds hailed in the air over our heads -- but which then became wonderfully (appropriately) fractured -- blurred; the hypnotic setting out of the prussian blue buckets on all of the levels (buckets filled with clay, with water); the clay gradually consuming Jim (Ashley halting it, Imogen wiping the place from which to view it); the music, which pressed its beautiful, strange abstractions under my skin so that for some time afterwards I could still feel its coursing.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Which they believe to be a revival of the old manner

After reading Flowerville's cutting of Hans Blumenberg I couldn't rest until I found this journeying piece from Proust's Contre Sainte-Beuve (in the chapter on Nerval):

Today there is a school of writers who, being in rebellion -- it must be said, to good purpose -- against the bloodless Battle of Words now in vogue, have imposed a new manner, which they believe to be a revival of the old manner, on the art of letters; and these are their tenets; that in order not to overweight a sentence one will keep it from expressing anything whatsoever, that to sharpen the outline of a book one will exclude any impression, any thought, etc., that cannot be straightforwardly expressed, and, that to preserve the traditional mould of the language one will be ready at all times to accept existing turns of speech, without even troubling to think them over. If this results in a brisk style, a grammar of respectable coinage, a free and easy demeanour, there is no special merit about it. It is not difficult to cover one's journey at a canter if before starting one jettisons all the valuables one was charged to carry; but the speed of the transit, the graceful ease of arrival, are of no great significance, since there is nothing to deliver.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

There's no more to it than that

On Friday we went to the funeral of a family member who had died, finally, after many years of crises that had come about through his apparent determination to drink himself to death. We had been prepared to be saddened, if not immobilised by the terrible and depressing circumstances of his final years. After all, he had once been a conscientious academic in the faculty of Drama at a rural university. In his lifetime he had directed and performed many plays and cabarets, both his own and others'. In fact, it was this person who had first introduced me to the plays of Samuel Beckett, through a production of short pieces he had directed with his students. Although it was only about a year or so later that I saw productions of Beckett's most well-known plays by the company, as I've been reminded since, that Beckett himself directed, I know that it was the intimacy and even amateurish directness of those student pieces that had touched me more profoundly than the supposedly brilliant productions of Beckett I saw later.

Less than a decade ago, this family member who had directed his students in a series of Beckett short plays had taken very early retirement, and after this so much had gone wrong for him. His marriage split up, a computer crash saw the loss of most of his major literary and musical works — he was a prolific writer of songs, cabarets, plays, and poems — but while many people have copies of some of these, it was the long and complex novel that he supposedly wrote and finished on that one never-backed-up computer whose annihilation is most complete — all this and, what was far more devastating for everyone around him (especially his young adult children and his sister who looked after him in the years that followed), he took to alcohol in a serious and doggedly self-destructive way. He nearly died three years ago from some kind of internal bleeding in the brain that had been brought on by the sheer intensity of his drinking; several weeks ago, there was another crisis from which he never recovered. And yet his funeral — all of it: the eulogies, the tears, and the splendidly wild and energetic wake — was so exuberant and rich and not at all sober, that we knew by the end that we had celebrated a life that had been lived to the full. After all, he had been one whose summary, we'd learned, of Waiting for Godot could run (with a tune) to four simple lines:

I want to take my shoes off
I want a bigger hat
Intellectuals can piss off
There's no more to it than that

(vale Andrew McCue)

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

There are optical errors in time as there are in space

It's been half a week now since I saw Jim Sharman's 1978 film of Patrick White's screenplay, The Night the Prowler, and I have to say that the film works best at a distance since, as Proust writes, 'there are optical errors in time as there are in space'. Now, what even a day or two ago I still thought of as the more awkward attempts of the script seem mostly to have disappeared between scenes of beehive teas, leathered frumpings and the near smiling, high camping delight that the writers Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley take in their roles as nocturnal Centennial Park derros. The naked, emaciated man, whose death is signalled by a quiet runnel of urine, pulls the film towards something Beckettian, from which the film keeps itself, nevertheless, at a firm remove with all of its Easter Show bag, stiff cat artifice, as well as the whole 'Many and One' drag that Kerry Walker plays with such admirable, slow witted awkwardness -- because, how else to play that final, fatuous line?