Thursday, June 27, 2013

A photo of a facsimile of a drawing

And, to complete this uncharacteristic run of images: a photo of a facsimile of a drawing done, as the Franz Kafka Museum tells us, while the artist was working at the Assicurazioni Generali (1907-08), with glass, dust specks and damp stains (either facsimile or authentic).

The Franz Kafka Society has a facsimile of Kafka's library, which is open, as I discovered from the sign in the bookshop one Wednesday afternoon, on Tuesdays only.

You might then be able to imagine how I felt the next day when I decided to ask whether it were possible after all to have a look at the library, since it was my last afternoon in Prague and the adjoining bookshop still appeared to be open -- there were no barriers at all between the one and the other -- only to be told that, since it was a quarter past five, the facsimile library had only just closed.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A new life

Only to say that finally my novel Since the Accident, which went out of print last year, has a new life as one of those books that shrink and spread on a screen.

Friday, June 21, 2013

This head waiter, who stands like a dog in front of every guest

There's a Café Savoy in Prague, but it is not where Kafka once got to see performances in Yiddish by the Jewish theatre company from Lemberg in Galicia. These days the original Café Savoy is now a restaurant called Katr where you can grill your own meat, and where the suspended exhaust fans are not completely incongruous with any image you might have had of the dining facilities in a penal colony.

In Katr, when I was leafing through my Vitalis edition of Kafka's drawings, I came across the picture of a 'Grumpy Man in Black Suit' that the editors have placed alongside the following excerpt from his diaries:

Then suddenly we see Löwy, who had seemed to have vanished, being pushed towards a door by head waiter Roubitschek with his hands and possibly also his knees. He was simply to be thrown out. This head waiter, who stands like a dog in front of every guest, including us earlier and later on, with a dog-like nose which sinks over a large mouth closed by humble jowls. [Diary, 14th October 1911]

An image, of course, which I left clearly visible on the table for a short while.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Cut me to the ever-more prominent bone

Right from the start, in Fiona Wright's remarkable piece on Christina Stead's For Love Alone, illness, literature and the hunger for a disembodied notion of love twine themselves around each other in a deft feat of reflective writing:

That year I read, for the first time, Christina Stead’s For Love Alone (1945). I was nineteen. It was a set text. I remember I disliked the male protagonist Jonathan Crowe for his self-obsession and coldness, which I thought extended to the book as a whole. I remember that I thought it old-fashioned and too rigidly structured to feel poignant, to feel real. But there was one section that stopped me dead, and that remained for years as my overriding memory of reading the book. Teresa, the intelligent and passionate heroine, she who suffers for love alone, is working in a factory in Redfern and saving all her money in order to buy passage to London. Rather than pay for trams between the ferry terminal and the factory, Teresa walks. From Circular Quay to Redfern and back, every day. She saves money; she goes hungry rather than pay for lunch, and she walks, both ways, each day. And Stead’s description of Teresa’s physical exhaustion, of the ravages of hunger on her body, cut me to the ever-more prominent bone.

It is many years since I read For Love Alone, but I also remember the walking and the striving -- the hunger less so. Perhaps it was all of a piece and I simply took the hunger in the walking and striving for granted. In Stead's Seven Poor Men of Sydney, the city is netted with it. Louie, in The Man Who Loved Children, although described as fat and clumsy -- perhaps indeed because she is described as fat and clumsy -- is charged at her centre by a void that she hears, sometimes, as pulsing with the sound of the hooves of a stranger's horse.

Stead's vision, in these earlier books has such a desperate, highly charged, sensitivity to the vastness of place and the comparatively microscopic human interactions that occur within it that I remember, when I read what I only now realise was just a posthumously revised novel, I'm Dying Laughing: The Humourist (since given away), I was so disappointed that I allowed my interest in her work to die. It is very likely, then, that my view of her 'earlier books', at least as compared to the later ones, is considerably distorted by this hiatus in my reading. Fiona Wright's essay suggests, however, that I have not misremembered their effect. After all, I too read and starved and walked these strange gritty streets under their enormous, empty, buffeted skies that no tourist brochure on Sydney will ever get close to depicting.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

How many bloggers are really doing anything more?

At a symposium on e-literature that I went to earlier this week, Professor Joseph Tabbi, an expert on 'the effects of new technologies on contemporary fiction', as his bio puts it, made the observation that critical and reflective work wasn't happening in blogs, and while I must say that I've noticed this is often true -- how many bloggers are really doing anything more than operating a more dreamy, expansive version of Twitter, working (sometimes extremely hard) in their own newsagency-cum-corner-of-the-loungeroom-or-café to distribute or just describe chunks of sounds, words or images that someone else has made? -- I would like to think that the blog can do more than this. If it likes.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Without being able to say precisely what theatre is

Last night: the first of four previews of Sydney Theatre Company's The Maids by Jean Genet, with the director and co-translator, Benedict Andrews, climbing onto the stage before it started to alert us to the fragile, improvised aspect of the play, and the possibility that the live editing work of the video artist and the equally improvisatory work of the 'actresses', as he called Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert and Elizabeth Debicki, might be interrupted by 'technical hitches'. I am very glad to say that neither were.

This draws me to consider this vulnerable but in fact very important centre of the production more closely. While the video designer and operator (Sean Bacon), behind one of the tall dark sheets of mirroring glass on either side of the stage, seemed to pull against all the brighter gestures of the play with the concentration of his unchanging expression, it was hard not to attribute the audio delay in the images on the screen at the back of the stage to his very serious-seeming processing of the whole. I also couldn't help recalling, in contrast, the way the video artist-glued-to-camera figure in the opera Project Inc.'s production of The Audience and Other Psychopaths at the old Performance Space (nearly ten years ago) had ducked under a clothesline that was pulled across the middle of the stage and pushed into the nervous audience; the apparent necessity of keeping his eye pressed against the viewfinder turning the video artist into the object that was his camera, as if this hybrid creature, that kept wandering through and prodding at our vision, were just some strange extension of the stage itself. In The Maids last night, I could see, however, that such a monster could never have been born. The proscenium arch was there to make us conscious of our viewing and so conscious of needing to process what we were viewing, just as Sean Bacon was viewing and processing what he was seeing through the many layers of glass between him and the players and flowers and objects on the stage (and behind it): conscious of how the entire production was a viewing, and a momentarily delayed, processing of the whole; the eye and the camera having had to come loose. There could be, I had to admit, no other expression on the video artist's face but the one of concentrated watching: a watching that was aware that it was also being watched by the audience. In the director's note, Benedict Andrews writes that his 'first impulse for The Maids was the idea of the mise en abyme -- the mirror that reflects a mirror'. We participate, even as we are subjected to, the odd fragility of this labyrinth.

Jean Genet's instructions for the playing of The Maids begins with the one word: 'Furtive'. This is indeed the word that had to be moving Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in all their extraordinary, raw webbing of the stage. The moment the Mistress, played by Elizabeth Debicki, arrives, what seems to be her excessive height dwarfs them, when perhaps it is only, as Genet puts it, her inability to 'know just how stupid she is, just how much she's playing a role' which scatters the maids to either side of her, the extreme differences in stature between the players only adding to the wonder of the effect.

During the two hours of the production I found myself becoming pulled into the softly nodding but very private fakery of the world of The Maids (although Genet stipulates that the flowers on the stage should be 'real', the occasional stiff, gleaming green filigree of plastic stem, often enlarged on the screen, had been included, no doubt, in gentle defiance) only to emerge a little stunned and quietened at the end of it. From the seeming sobriety of the applause at the end I suspect that other audience members had been similarly affected. Like Marcel, in À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, it might take us some time to comprehend what we saw and heard.

Jean Genet is perhaps referring to this very intimate and, ironically -- for all the luxurious abundance of the staging -- unadorned experience, when he writes in those same instructions to the players:

Without being able to say precisely what theatre is, I know what I won't let it be: a description of everyday gestures seen from the outside: I go to the theatre to see myself, on stage (reconstituted in a single character or with the help of a multi-faceted character and in the form of a story), such as I wouldn't know how -- or wouldn't dare -- to see myself or dream myself, and such as I nonetheless know myself to be. So, the job of the actors is to don gestures and get-ups that allow them to show me to myself, and to show me naked in my solitude and the way I revel in it.