An interview with S.D. Chrostowska

To dream is not simply to give in to our innermost desires; it is an extremely necessary period of consolidation and recombination for our minds, a period of metabolism for the brain, one made less effective by both glut and famine, in keeping with the metaphor. What then becomes of us when sleep is seen as a nuisance, a barrier to productivity, a problem area to be disrupted in favor of making more valuable use of our time?

Such is the conceit of The Eyelid, the latest book from author and scholar S. D. Chrostowska, a book that can be read simultaneously as fairy tale and withering social critique, as timeless fable and paean to the struggles of May 1968. But if there is a utopian vision in The Eyelid, it is obscure and well-guarded, leery of how easily fantasy and desire, once expressed, become a blueprint for further colonization of the spirit. Through erudite prose, by turns limpid and lyrical, Chrostowska does not seek to provide answers, and the hope that is alluded to is more workmanlike than radical. You might come away with the impression that Candide needed only to have napped, but to have napped with the proper care and attention, to have reached El Dorado, proper name Onirica, republic of dreams, wherein he would find that the immutable currency was not gold, but the kind of sound sleep that is more and more denied us.

Read the interview at 3:AM Magazine

— Joshua Rothes

An interview with Mónica Belevan (2019)

The following interview appeared alongside the first monthly mailing from Sublunary Editions in June 2019.

Josh Rothes: I’ve always seen literature as a kind of epistolary enterprise, literature as an ongoing conversation and all that. With whom are you conversing?

Mónica Belevan: An aggressive and perceptive question (I approve!). You have noticed I exchange information with a number of Swiss Army selves, who sometimes manifest externally. Writing as retrofeedback.

JR: Donald Barthelme once said of Beckett that he “made it possible for me to write”. Is there anyone in particular who made it possible to write as you do? Someone from whom you sought permission, of a sort?

MB: Not permission, really, because I’m so drawn to drunken master types whom one must take up, then put down; but strategies, for sure: a trickster learns through systematic, almost scientific, trial and terror. If I were to describe to you my premature love for Dostoevsky, for example, the key to understanding that fixation would be in just how pre-mature it was, in a developmental sense. Joyce and his entourage —including Beckett— came very shortly after, with the onset of adolescence. Over time, names like Pynchon and Burroughs and Musil and Durrell and Jarry and Daumal and Roussel became integral parts of my roadmap as I charted out a territory for myself.

More significantly, though, I’ve always cultivated non-literary, even non-narrative, interests. I am haunted by the history of the visual arts and painting, and it may be an accident of marriage that I tipped towards architecture instead. I studied and continue to study philosophy and perception. I’m unhinged about film. Last year, I picked up the theremin. So I would think of myself more as an Arctic explorer of language than as one of Schwob’s imaginary lives.

Have you noticed that the Serious Writer is persistently portrayed as someone stuck on(to) a path of innermost necessity, like von Uexküll’s tick? It’s what Steiner once referred to as the fatal nature of the Dichter, the poet as a terminal condition. My interest in literature may be less devotional, more prurient: it responds to possibility. But then, I’m not a Serious Writer.

JR: Speaking of Jarry, I would characterize aspects of “Baroque Barrens” as pataphysical, with the propositional form and objective tone. Is that accurate? (Accurate in the ‘pataphysical sense, at least.)

MB: It’s not inaccurate. You may see Jarry in there, or Wittgenstein, or Lichtenberg or Kraus. But I never yield completely to my fathers. One is (also) what one eats; that is all.

JR: How does having an architecture and design background come to play in terms of how you approach the space of the page?

MB: I remember that being a concern before ever joining the design world. The page always seemed to me to be of a piece, a part of rather than apart from, the writing. I also think it can be a salutary distraction: fiddling with space can be a consolation for those struggling with time.

JR: How do you rate the health of narrative in language? Do you have a stake in either its convalescence or demise? Or perhaps I should rephrase this as, do you have any interest in words as a simple means of conveyance, or as more of a psychoactive substance, working along less direct pathways?

MB: I have found that using narrative in psychoactive settings can be extremely therapeutic. Rewiring, like blows, needs connection. So in entheogenic practice, I favour narrative more than I do as a writer; which is not to say I do not use it there, but I treat it like an instrument among many. There’s a poem of mine you know that’s called “The Peacock Room”. It’s outstandingly straightforward by my standards, and it clearly hails to the storied dispute between Whistler and his patron, Frederick Richards Leyland. I think one can read it on an anecdotal level and find it satisfying, even wanting. But once you realise how loaded it is with hints and references, you may also remove the safety catch and play Russian Roulette with it, if that’s your kind of thing.

JR: Your writing is so rich with allusion and wordplay. Do you write these bits (“imitation-leather bhoots”) with any reader in mind, real or idealised, or just for the sheer pleasure of it?

MB: I have been publishing since my teens with no semblance of a readership. Interactions with people who take an interest in my work or know it have been few and far between. I think I have become completely solipsistic in believing one’s work has to be its own reward, because there may not be more to it. But as it turns out, I now have readers; the sort of readers who want to get behind me. I don’t think this will change my general approach to writing, but it will likely add to my enjoyment of it. I don’t think I ever expected that I would be able to share what I do, on my terms, in my time.

JR: What comes next? Are we to be treated to a bound object?

MB: There is a tome of juvenilia in Spanish (Díptico gnóstico) that’s been set for release for some years, but beset by complications until now. It should be out next month. And I have a book of poetry or two I seem unable to place.

Appropriately, dear reader, Mónica’s most complete collection of poetry to date, in both English and Spanish, is due out from Sublunary Editions in July 2020. Pre-order The Wreck of the Large Glass / Paleódromo here.

— Joshua Rothes

An interview with Christina Tudor-Sideri (2019)

The following interview appeared alongside the July 2019 mailing from Sublunary Editions. It was recently announced that Christina Tudor-Sideri’s debut book, Under the Sign of the Labyrinth, would be released by Sublunary Editions in September of 2020.

Josh Rothes: Is writing an escape, or a means to see things as they are?

Christina Tudor-Sideri: It’s both. It might start as an escape. Not necessarily from a place or a certain moment in my life, but more towards a lost something. A gathering of memories—a home that no longer exists. I write guided by a form of metaphysical exile. It is my corner of soothing darkness in a world much too eager to be blinded by light. So yes, it is also a means to see things as they are. Beautiful, restless, mutilated, wounded, in the shadows.

JR: I’m reminded of the line from Beckett’s Murphy, where the character Neary says, “We look on the dark side[.] It is undeniably less trying to the eyes.”

CTS: Perhaps yes, the dark side is less trying on the eyes, but I am not sure if it’s less trying on the self. Lucian Blaga, one of my favorite Romanian poets, has a beautiful line in his philosophical writings: “When you want to see something clearly, don’t shine too much light on it—don’t exile all the shadows from its surface.” I think the way we strive to experience light might sometimes belittle all the beauty there is to be found in darkness.

JR: How would you characterize your relationship to Milena? Today, do you feel more like Kafka or Milena?

CTS: This question made me pause for a long time, as I found myself pondering on how people actually see Kafka, on how I see Kafka, and most of all, on why I might find it uncomfortable to feel more like him than her. My relationship to Milena is that of wanting the world to see her, and all other ‘muses’ of famous artists, for who they were, for the pieces of themselves that they gifted the world. In some ways, I am like Kafka: I hide, and I am afraid of many things. But I am also like Milena: I stroke the edges of the world with my writing, expecting to save from oblivion the very parts of myself that make me value silence and erasure more than I value words.

JR: From what I know, you seem to read extensively on folk culture… customs, fairy tales, etc. How does this aspect of your reading come through in your writing? Do these things exist in the shadows, in your earlier metaphor, the things that reason seeks to extinguish with its light?

CTS: I grew up in a world utterly shaped by religion, folk beliefs, fear of death, superstitions, and having to behave in a certain way in order to get to where everyone was trying to get. To reach a sort of paradise constructed not on the lightness of finding yourself and understanding what drives you, but on the numbness of conformism and of being sheltered under the umbrella of being just like everyone else. I no longer wanted to be the little girl who believes in fairy tales. So for many years, I willingly denied my love for these things, since it felt like a justification of that world I no longer wanted to be a part of. Recently, I allowed for that part of myself to resurface, in my mind and in my writing. I rediscovered the ‘real’ fairy tales, so to speak. Everything that was hidden from me as a child. And it freed me of something I didn’t even realize I was doing—it freed me of carving away at myself. To answer your question, yes, these things exist in the shadows. They exist for me, at least. Perhaps not in the traditional sense, however. They exist in the moments they left me with, in the warm embraces of my grandmother, in the memories of dancing uncaringly around an outdoor fire on midsummer nights.

JR: In your mind, how does writing differ from memory?

CTS: Perhaps it depends on what you are writing. For me, writing offers more control over my memories. Sometimes taking a painful moment and turning it into a story helps me accept the past. It also creates a place in the world for memories that time would have otherwise altered to the point of non-existence.

JR: Does writing allow us to reframe the past in a way more acceptable to us, or would such writing always ring false?

CTS: I think that reframing the past in a more acceptable way is an illusion. Something we turn to when we don’t know which way to go. When unable to choose a path, we look back toward the past and force ourselves to see it in whatever light will allow us to carry on. To make a choice. It took me years to finally understand what Emil Cioran meant by, “write books only if you are going to say in them the things you would never dare confide to anyone.” I use my past in my writing a lot, often revisiting moments I never shared with anyone, tunneling in search of those dark truths I never even confessed to myself. No, I don’t think such writing rings false. Every retelling of the past has a bit of untruth in it.

JR: Do you always write in English?

CTS: Yes. I have been writing mostly in English since I was about ten years old.

I’m not sure I remember the exact moment when I started writing in English. I used to watch old films on TV before going to school, which is how I learned to write, since sometimes they would run the film with its English subtitle by mistake. I have a memory of myself writing in English in my journal after watching Lilith, the 1964 movie with Jean Seberg, but I am not sure if that’s when it started.

Sometimes I translate my writing into Romanian, either for fun or to see if it ‘means’ the same thing, but I haven’t written something in Romanian in a long time, nor do I think I will anytime soon.

JR: The word “flesh” reoccurs in your work, and a frequent theme seems to be the struggle of an embodied language, or else as an anchor, as certain philosophers remind us that consciousness is an embodied phenomenon.

CTS: It’s a beautiful word, though, isn’t it? Perhaps after reading so much of Merleau-Ponty’s work, I too came to the conclusion that the body is the primary site of knowing the world. We are embodied in existence through our bodies, same as we are embodied in writing through language.

Writing of this struggle, as you call it, provides me with a way through which to recover the flesh of the past without having to bear witness of its rottenness. I pick up a pen, or sit in front of the keyboard, and I turn restlessness inside out with the help of whatever tools I have at my disposal. The body, the mind, craving; the world, rivers, rage, ink, echoes, fragrances, daggers, absence, the tumors of time and the coldness of my hands–anything that gives me the ability to stay rooted in both the fantasy and reality of language and its limitations. Writing is a therapy that deepens the wound it soothes. Yet without it, the heaviness of ephemerality would suffocate me. Writing is an anchor.

JR: What might the limits of writing look like? Is it bounded on all sides?

CTS: This reminds me of something Blanchot said about writing… “Writing is the curve that the turn of seeking has already evoked for us and that we find in the bending of reflection.”

I have not yet experienced the limits of writing, aside from those moments in which I denied myself the embrace of words. There might not be any. There might be countless limits. It depends on the self. If the self is bounded, so is writing.

Christina Tudor-Sideri is a writer and translator living in Eastern Europe. Her work deals with the absent body and its anonymous rhythms, myth, memory, narrative deferral, and the imprisonment of the mind within the time and space of its corporeal vessel. Her upcoming book-length essay, Under the Sign of the Labyrinth, will be released on September 8, 2020 by Sublunary Editions. It can be pre-ordered here.

— Joshua Rothes

A roundabout introduction to the brief essays of Fabio Morábito

The following appeared alongside the October 2019 monthly mailing from Sublunary Editions, which featured three short essays from Fabio Morábito, taken from his collection El idioma materno (Mother Tongue), translated by Curtis Bauer.

Literature has two functions: to show us the promise of language as either a beacon or salve, or two disavow us of the idea that language can at all make sense of the world. Its history is blighted by false dichotomies. As such, what’s one more?

The former case often happens by pure happenstance, though it can be engineered once in a while, though it becomes painfully obvious when the well is approached one too many times. The spark of this kind of literature is often a novel juxtaposition, of words, phrases, images. The root of all art is in juxtaposition, and these are the quickest ways to forge new neuronal pathways. A physical rewiring of the brain is unavoidable, in fact, for the attentive reader, and, if the impression is strong enough, this connection may last some time, even until death. These small sparks can be thought of as metaphorlets, the kind of quantized packages that, in their larger, more complete forms—though how many grow to adulthood? very few—may well become fully functional metaphors, and I use functional in the sense of to do work. Our modern culture is propped up on metaphors, our foundations dug deep into the sediment of subsumed ideas, and atop our foundation, a stack of chairs atop which we sit, counting our modern blessings. This is the vantage afforded by metaphor. Ask the bricoleur to show you what he carries on his back, and you will see something akin to this stack of chairs, though just enough for one man. So we all proceed.

The discomfort we feel, fumbling for words, must be for some deeper part of our minds like watching an infant attempt to perform surgery on a capillary-rich organ. For most everyday speech we rely on patterns which sand down the edges of the truly novel, which we encounter far more than we realize. This typically comes out of the view that language is that in which we swim, and that our world is so shaped by it, that our minds produce it as the apex of an evolutionary process, that it is sometimes jarring when it fails—really fails, not just in the slip of the tongue, but at a fundamental level. I say sometimes, because this happens with astounding frequency, we are mostly just unaware of it and thus do not learn from it in useful ways. “[I]f we stick to the picture of language as a medium, something standing between the self and the nonhuman reality with which the self seeks to be in touch, we have made no progress”, wrote Richard Rorty in the opening chapter of his excellent Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. But language evolves within the ecology of our minds, though I do not mean to suggest it can be at all private, an essay for another time.

All of this is to pay homage to the work of Fabio Morábito, in particular the texts of Mother Tongue, three of which are excerpted here. The eighty-four short fictions that make up the collection, many of which have not yet been published in English, are each illustrative of some way in which language proves a loose grip on a wet rock, where we thought it the rope and anchor. In “Vallejo’s Lookout”, he expresses deep affinity for the work of César Vallejo, even though he has only read lines and never complete poems by the Peruvian. Language is here subverted by something deeper as the medium of connection between writers, a sense of the language. In “Short Sentences”, Morábito laments the advice he was given at all stages of his education, to write “short sentences, short paragraphs, clear ideas”, sheering off the messy and unstable clauses that are the stuff of self, of style. And in “Poets Do Not Write Books”, Morábito expresses first dismay then a calm and reasoned acceptance at a remark by his mother that the books of poetry and plays that preceded his first novel, published at the age of fifty-five, were not really books. “[G]iving a title to a collection of poems,” he concedes, “is to ignore the anti-bookish and anti-official nature of poetry,” echoing Valéry when he wrote, “Most people have such a vague idea about poetry that this vague feeling itself is their definition of poetry.”

The essays of Mother Tongue are a model for dealing with the messy and contingent nature of language, not as dispassionate cynic, but as Camus’s happy Sisyphus, loving the brace of the boulder, but minding his toes near the top.

— Joshua Rothes

Revelation and spectacle: dead cows as seen from trains in Monterroso and Bernhard

“While I was traveling on the train the other day, I suddenly stood up, happy on my own two feet, and began to wave my hands with joy, and invite everyone to look at the scenery and see the twilight that was really glorious. The women, the children, and some gentlemen who interrupted their conversation all looked at me in surprise and laughed; when I quietly sat down again, there was no way for them to know what I had just see at the side of the road: a dead, a really dead cow moving past slowly with no one to bury her or edit her complete works or deliver a deeply felt and moving speech about how good she had been and all the streams of foaming milk she had given so that life in general and the train in particular could keep going.”

“Cow”, Augusto Monterroso, Complete Works and Other Stories, translated by Edith Grossman

“Last week we witnessed the spectacle of five cows running, one after the other, into the express train in which we had to return to Vienna and of seeing them cut all to pieces. After the track had been cleared by the train crew and even by the driver, who came along with a pick-ax, the train proceeded after a delay of about forty minutes. Looking out of the window I caught sight of the milkmaid as she ran screaming towards a farmyard in the dusk.”

“The Milkmaid”, Thomas Bernhard, The Voice Imitator, translated by Kenneth J. Northcott.

Why does Monterroso’s narrator take such joy in the sight of the deceased cow? Why does Bernhard’s remain aloof? No essayist in their right mind aspires to the truth, in the strictest sense, so with that in mind, I’ll venture a notion or two.

 Of primary important is the fact that, in Monterroso’s story, the cow is seen, presumably, by only the narrator, whereas there is a “we” present in Bernhard’s, and, given the duration of that stop, it seems likely that many interested parties aside from the narrator and his immediate coterie saw the grisly results of the collision. In a sense, what we have is the difference between a revelation and a spectacle. Being the sole recipient of the sight of the cow, Monterroso’s narrator experiences something like a religious fervor, a desire for others to come and see, a responsibility to communicate to others the sacrifice that has been made, by an artist no less (echoes of Mayakovsky, “the wheels of a locomotive will embrace my neck” (t. Pierre Sokolsky)). But he is received indifferently by the other passengers, who only briefly interrupt their conversations. As Thomas Paine wrote in The Age of Reason, “Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication.” Therefore, the revelation loses not only its luster but its content once Monterroso’s narrator seeks to convey it to his fellow travelers. Bernhard’s narrator, on the other hand, is part of a group that witnesses the spectacle firsthand of the cows running headlong into the train, and, presumably, with the delay it caused, even more passengers would view the grisly aftermath. There is a cold indifference on the part of Bernhard’s narrator (indifference being one of Bernhard’s great themes), but neither does he mention much of a reaction from the others, even an impatience at having their express train delayed (an impertinence Monterroso’s passengers would certainly not have withstood without comment). In this case, there is no responsibility; everyone has seen it, the milkmaid plays the mourner, and the train company’s employees must deal with the bloody remains with their pickaxes. Meanwhile, what can be said of meaningful content in a scene we all observe simultaneously, a scene like many we have seen before, furthering Debord’s point that the spectacle must be confronted and critiqued as “a visible negation of life.”

 If Bernhard’s great theme is indifference, its counterpart is surely annihilation, and the short stories of The Voice Imitator approach this theme in a variety of ways, exploring the forces of nature, society, and self that cause us to break, that ultimately lead to the annihilation of human beings, the indifference of others—and here lies the crux of Bernhard’s critique (or utter disdain) for the kind rewriting of Austrian history by the prevailing cultural forces of his day—being perhaps chief among them. Here I might also venture a Freudian reading of the two stories, an idea I take from Fernando Valerio-Holguín’s 1999 paper, “La Perversio’n del texto en ‘Obras Completas (y Otros Cuentos)’ de Augusto Monterroso”. The death instinct, which, as he explains, prefigures an ultimate moment of relaxation, comes in response to the tensions of life, often as a result of serial displacement, a mourning for a more authentic mode of existence. (On the case of mourning, I couldn’t get past this essay without mentioning as a potential source of inspiration Platonov’s (considerably longer) short story, “The Cow”, in which a mother, having long her calf, wanders into the path of a train, which is to be taken as a suicidal gesture, and very likely, a nod to Anna’s suicide in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Oddly enough, “The Cow” was made into an Oscar-nominated children’s animated feature in 1989.) In this way, a more modern story might instead feature deer encountering semi-trucks, a more relatable symbol of the tension between man and nature, as man segments nature according to his needs, leaving the deer in a state of tension resolvable only, in the Freudian sense, by death. You can imagine, in Monterro’s story, the long passenger on a crowded bus to notice a dear on the side of the road, or in Bernhard’s, a more forceful impact, a doe and fawn, that causes a stop to tie off a loose bumper and replace a radiator cap.  

 But cows are not the most reliable symbols of nature, their habitats are human-made, therefore already segmented, and I would conclude, ultimately, that the two stories can be most effectively read as a Debordian critique of the spectacle. Cows, divorced from nature proper, are commodities, as real as commodification gets, physical impediments. As György Lukács put it, “all the social and economic conditions necessary for the emergence of modern capitalism tend to replace ‘natural’ relations which exhibit human relations more plainly by rationally reified relations.” In the scenes from the two stories, you have the image of the cows, reified commodities, mediating the relations between the people aboard the train. Monterroso’s narrator may then therefore be exemplary of the pre-spectacle individual, who experiences the dead cow with nerve endings bared, while the individuals aboard the train in Bernhard’s story—and for that matter, the others in Monterroso’s—are the dispassionate observers of a spectacle, or, in the latter case, perhaps even too wearied to participate at all. The experience of the cows, in all the gruesomeness of the scene, is no longer lived directly.

There is another sense in which annihilation is important to both Bernhard and Monterroso. In the aforementioned essay, Valerio-Holguín more broadly associates the idea of death with Monterroso’s recurring theme of the “complete works”, a motif which appears in three stories in the aforementioned collection. In Bernhard as well, the pursuit of completion or perfection in a work of art is frequently tied to the destruction of either the art or the artist, most famously in The Corrections, but sprinkled liberally throughout his oeuvre, including The Voice Imitator, in which a chorister is beheaded for singing a wrong note, a comic actor throws himself off a ledge to escape the trail of laughter that follows him (he fails), and a first-time playwright murders his audience for an incongruous reaction. I do not think Bernhard had this intention while writing “The Milkmaid”, but it draws an interesting parallel to what Monterroso may have had in mind with “The Cow” and other of his stories in Obras Completas. 

 What then stands as my thesis? Well, that this was an interesting coincidence.

 We pull the string. The cow says nothing, because it is dead.

— Joshua Rothes

Literary atomism: from ‘The Recognitions’

And when unrest showed on those gray shoals, he put them as dismal ease once more by reminding them that they were, even at that moment, being regarded from On High as a stiff-necked and uncircumcised generation of vipers: they found such reassurances comforting.

William Gaddis, The Recognitions.

There is a subtle, shifting consonance that gives it a quality of rhythm William Gass (forwarder of the work in question) would call “by the mouth for the ear”. Those light repetitions give the line, and indeed much of the work, a sermonic tone, of language audibly gaining steam.

— Joshua Rothes

Literary atomism: from Juan José Saer’s ‘The Clouds’

In three or four days the bodies had reached, from the net of tissue and blood where they once struggled, from the constant pull and throbbing of doubt and passion gnawing at them, a freedom from the grueling chicanery of the particular and reached the immutability of universals through the white simplicity of their bones, passing first from subject to object and now, rediscovered by human eyes, from object to symbol.

Juan José Saer, The Clouds. Translated by Hilary Vaughn Dobel.

A journey after death, the coldness by which the particular is ascended to the universal (there is no way to humanize this). Saer paints decomposition as a transaction, more importantly, a reduction, or better still (“net”) a subtraction. What is lost is lost (and gained) only in the eye of the beholder, a trick of the lush narration, a foothold even for narrative authority. The narrator, not the author here, imbues humanity on simple bones, a godlike power on the flood- and fire-ravaged plains of Argentina.

Originally posted on a now-defunct blog somewhere in 2016.

— Joshua Rothes

Against flash

I read the word “flash”, in the context of “flash fiction”, in one of two ways: that the work was written quickly, dashed-off; or that it is meant to be, or is at least capable of being, read quickly. In the first sense, it conjures the notion of a writing exercise, something perhaps meant to limber up the author for the real work ahead, the quick bout of calisthenics before the grueling race, and so an artifact of the sidelines. While I’m certain the formal constraint is alluring to some subset of writers, I would argue that the vast majority of well-known works that fall into this category are, to their authors, exactly as long as they need to be. The form of the short prosaic text is then, in this way, very different than the haiku. The second, while true in one sense, does a disservice to the work and to the author, putting the emphasis on the minimal time investment required. To be immersed is not a function of the length and breadth of a body of water, but the depth, which, in all but the shallowest cases, cannot be discerned from the most readily apparent dimensions. It is also hard to spot an analog across artistic media, even limiting the search to other forms of writing. If Howl is a poem proper, then surely Rilke’s Der Panther is a flash poem. The term then reads like permission, to read quickly, assuming the writer has written quickly, as one takes in a caricaturist’s sketch. Categories of text like this—see also the proem, the novelita, sudden fiction, the longread—are much the same as the new neighborhoods that are always appearing in established cities, which is to say, the product of marketing, and should likewise be avoided for the sake of their constituents.

— Joshua Rothes