Sunday, 12 December 2010

Saturday, 11 December 2010

'I, Coleoptile' by Ann Cotten & Kerstin Cmelka

The book project I dreamed up and oversaw this year came to life in November, with the first launch in Berlin comprising of a MicroCaberat. I'm very proud of it, lucky to have worked with such great talent!


I, Coleoptile

Ann Cotten & Kerstin Cmelka

2010 English

127 x 184 mm, 88 pages,

25 b/w photos 2 ill., softcover with French Flaps 

Design: FUK Laboratories


Ihre Gedichte gehören zum Größten, was deutschsprachige Lyrik dieser Tage kann: Ann Cotten

Her poems are among the greatest to be written in German poetry today: Ann Cotten

— Die Zeit

I, Coleoptile is the first full-length book in English by acclaimed Austrian poet Ann Cotten. A poet celebrated for her inventive, challenging work in the German language, often cited as one of the best poets in the language today, this collection marks an exciting chance for a wider European audience to enter the space of Cotten’s erudite, playful poetry. It also sees a unique collaboration with the visual artist Kerstin Cmelka, making the book at once a stimulating dialogue between two artists in full control of their art and a beautiful book of ekphrasis.

BDP has always been interested in these things: introducing the work of young, critically acclaimed writers into another language than the one they normally work in, as well as allowing visual-textual interaction between writers and visual artists. In this way the work is given space in an environment that can see it as considered avantgarde work: new, combative, unfamiliar, rigourous.

I, Coleoptile follows the unfurling of a series of lines of Cotten and Cmelka’s work: the unfurling of the personal in the world of an unruly, second language, the experience of travel (part of the book was realised on a residency trip to Ireland in July, 2010), the travails of Enzo, one of the book’s many ‘sprouts’, and the investigation into hooliganism and abrasion through Cmelka’s re-shooting of video stills from Vladimir Mayakovsky’s only foray into film, The Young Woman and the Hooligan.

The result is a tightly woven book of poetry and image, with a unique design realisation with FUK Laboratories from Berlin that gives the chance to enjoy some of Europe’s boldest, most original poetry and contemporary art.


Ann Cotten has publications include Florida-Räume (2010), Fremdwörterbuchsonette (2006) both with Suhrkamp Verlag. She has also published a book on concrete poetry Nach der Welt: Die Listen der Konkreten Poesie und ihre Folgen (Klever Verlag) in 2008.

Kerstin Cmelka most recently she has taken part in Gestures - Performance and Sound Art at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Roskilde, Denmark (2010), Scorpio's Garden in the Temporäre Kunsthalle Berlin (2010) and the Gegenwelten-Filmfestival at the Künstlerhaus in Vienna.

Speech At Humboldt-Universität Berlin, Dec 3rd 2010

Guten abend, meine damen und herren,

Madames, messieurs, bon soir,

Good evening, ladies and gentleman,

It’s with great pleasure that I can stand here tonight and address you all on this momentous occasion, I’m very honoured and humbled by the opportunity. For as you all know, tonight sees the graduation of the European Law School’s inaugural graduation class, an evening that sees nine students of remarkable calibre and ability from all over the continent enter into a Europe that now more than ever needs them.

Europe, as we all know, means many things. An economic system, a legal system, a cultural matrix, a dream, a nightmare, history, the future, our very present. Without daring to offer my own definition of Europe, I can only say that Europe for me is a sea of culture, its tide reaching as far as the Urals, the Dead Sea, the polar ice caps, a little island, called Ireland. For myself now today here in Berlin, in this wonderful university so resplendent of history, it’s been a long sea journey from my roots in a small little town on a very troubled border in northeast Ireland. First as a student and teacher in Paris, then in Norway and most recently in Germany, I’ve come to land in this culture, and working in it, embracing it, investigating it as thoroughly as I can, all this has brought me to places I could have only dreamed of as a boy, in front of people as fantastical as those who populated the adventure stories of childhood: it has taken me somewhere as special as in front of you, ladies and gentlemen, this evening. And how very lucky I am.

Dear graduates, as the first of hopefully many to have completed this unique, bold course, you are exceptionally well placed to go out and enter this heaving, shapeshifting sea we call Europe. Navigating it, working in it, living in it, does not mean something abstract, despite my reliance on metaphor! No – it means working like millions have for centuries, taking over the controls that have been so carefully made by your elders.

The only abstractions I would like to talk about this evening – based on my own experiences of wrestling with this sea, of understanding the world I live in – are courage and ambition.

Because what you have experienced during your time in the European Law School and what you will experience as soon as you step out into the world of work or further study, applying this education, is what the French historian and statesman François Guizot first identified as the prime characteristic of this difficult concept Europe – that is: diversity.

To leave the country you grew up in, where everyone speaks the language you’ve known your whole life, a place where you get all the pop-culture references and the cycles of the seasons never seem to surprise: this movement takes a certain, admirable amount of courage, and is only matched in intensity by the amount of ambition you each bring to bear on your successive, diverse worlds. And no matter what definition of Europe you hold to, no matter what form it takes in your head, it is merely like the Aral sea in Uzbekistan, slowly evaporating into non-existence, without the life-giving tributaries that are your, the next generation, ambitions.

And built into ambition is the idea of success. Success is a funny thing: in our present age success would seem to hold sway over many people’s actions and intentions. But success is a hungry animal in my experience: it is very seldom that one sates success’ appetite oneself. It is masked by ambition. But let me do the honours this evening: you have all sated this determined animal’s hunger by graduating from this novel, ambitious study programme. You embody that great thing: success where nobody has succeeded before. And before you let the mask of ambition be donned once more, before you start out on your plans to takeover the captaincy of this ship, pause a moment and enjoy this success.

Everyday now we are confronted with a new ‘crisis’ in Europe. There is no doubt that these are turbulent, and dare I say it, exciting times. My own country not least has felt the pressure. And while emigration has come back to haunt the youth of Ireland, I know myself the benefits to be gained from travelling and living abroad: I came to Berlin two years ago and since that time I’ve done my best to get lost in its cultural marvels, an endless conversation with people from all over the continent eager to create something, to interpret this difficult world. For if the leaders of our respective countries meet to discuss bail-out plans and interest rates, should not we also get to meet each other? And the courage it takes to go out there and meet each other, to find our way in this new place that is somehow supposed to be different because we were born in a foreign land and hold a different passport leads very clearly to personal enrichment, personal success. And it is this personal success each one of you have already achieved that enables the structures overarching the legal, economic and political levels of Europe to exist in the first instance.

My heroes, people who left that little island long ago in times no less turbulent, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, remind me constantly while I try and find my way working in this great diversity of Europe, of the courage that it takes to set no horizon too wide. Joyce roomed around Europe with his family – not always an easy journey, met with derision from friends and family – dodging a war here, a war there, and out of it he created a success many would deem today unsurpassable in the field of literature. Europe was his launching pad, and the cosmopolitan, international centres of Trieste or Zurich – so similar to so many of Europe’s cities today – were his pool of inspiration, and out of Europe he floated works of art that immortalised one little country and showed how even it, an Ireland not yet even sovereign, could join this diverse sea of culture we call Europe.

Beckett even more so: he made France his home; he fought for France; he adopted the French language.

Heroes such as these, for me, betray the lie that the difficulties inherent in Europe’s diversity halt progress, work or inspiration. On the contrary. If the courage is taken to ride out and cross these once barb-wired topped borders, the return is multiplied infinitely: success is yours to be had. There is no such thing anymore as exile in Europe, only a change of one’s scenery. For as another Irishman, Edmund Burke stated as long ago as 1796, ‘No European can be a complete exile in any part of Europe.’ And it is up to us to defend and bring to fruition the possibilities built into such an amazing idea – none of us can be an exile anywhere on this continent.

And while this for some opens an extremely exciting, new moment of history, for others it creates anxiety, and recourse to those perspectives that have plagued Europe through the centuries. Your challenges today as young legal professionals are legion. The very movement of a globalised world gives rise to a need to review the legal framework surrounding immigration. Free speech, the spread of information, a common EU foreign policy – the examples are endless of what you can work toward. There are forces amassing that echo back to the darkest days of the last century and this city knows all about this echo. And the rule of law, at a transnational level, offers the prospect of what the founding principles of the EU had as their ambition: peace in Europe. Peace built on mutual understanding, respect, justice.

To take on Europe then, whatever definition of it you wish to choose, is a courageous act, an ambitious one. For we must put ourselves out into its waters in dialogue with its great, difficult history. We must confront the wars, the catastrophes as our own, the genocide and betrayals that have plagued the continent: to do this is a real graduation, a real education. Because armed with this past we can work in Europe’s diversity for a remarkable future, a future that is predicated on us having the courage to be our own heroes.

L'avenir est inconnu, mais en même temps, c’est vous. Cela est certain. Et l’avenir dure longtemps.

Herzlichen Glückwunsch noch mal.

Vielen dank.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Blind Mirrors

Have written a new text and translated from the French another, to be included in the project Blind Mirrors. To be published in the first publication by the AADK Press. Also have recorded the sound installation to accompany book launch. 

Event September 9, 20h at Ostbahnhof. Straße der Pariser Kommune 8 in Dome Deluxe

Project co-ordinator: Thierry Decottignies

Design: Adam Green

Contributors:  Adam Green (England/Germany) / I.L. Koliner (Israel/Germany) Nicolas Donlon (France/Spain) / Vincent Calvet (France) / Saar Yachin (Israel) Thierry Decottignies (France/Germany) / Yaron Dahan (USA/Germany) / Asaf Koliner (Israel) / John Holten (Ireland/Germany)

Sunday, 22 August 2010

The Aedile (Or, the best training you can do for Philosophical Football is [probably] subconscious)

The Aedile

In my dream the girl knows what an aedile is, the Roman magistrate in charge of public buildings, and our conversations are tendrils of smoke underneath the obtuse right-angles of a perfectly platinum-white ceiling. The talk is of stairways and porticoes, the oneiric potential of the edifices we live in.

        Only of course the girl has a morbid fear of obtuse angles, borne from a bad trip in the Chelsea Hotel. And: There are other worlds than what you know. Obtuse angles bred from the girth of buildings and grow is what they do: they never stop.

                                                                      So what starts as chitchat over a cigarette grows into dreams and fantasy before turning in on itself into horror, terror, the daylight delusion of a bad trip’s flashback. There needs to be laws agaisnt such things; we need to contain the buildings we meet in: we need to try and and live without them such as we try to do in our dreams.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Stimuli + Tropisms

In the beginning is movement that comes from a need, itself being curiosity or neccessity: both presenting themselves as a need borne out of an active or passive stimulus.

Tropism can be a movement to acquire something new and previously not owned, or involuntary, a forced movement due to prevalent circumstances.

Tropisms can include remizing, translation, transcoding [as in the form art takes] pliage, bricolage, cut ups, etc.

Stimuli can come in many different shapes and forms and can be active or passive.

Tropisms can also be in the form of everyday life. 

The purest stilmuli for many today is distraction: reloading of internet pages, status updates, simultaneous channels of information and communication; we do not need the face of Janus, but rather a multifaceted face of some unknown monster.

What kind of tropism is a novel in the face of such a stimulus?

Monday, 5 July 2010

Talking about The Readymades and other tidbits

Displacement Series: Open Talks


In July PISO continues the series of open conversations with invited collaborators integrated in the Displacement Project.

These working tables will be documented to create an archive that will be integrated in the upcoming exhibitions of Piso Collective and it will be available in our webpage.

Our guests for this month are:

John Holten

John Holten has spent the last two years writing the novel The Readymades, which tells the story of a group of artists that move between Belgrade, Budapest, Vienna and Paris. The novel uses a mise-en-abyme between a thriller novel and a translation of a found academic text in order to tell these artists' story. In presenting the practice that formed the writing of The Readymades, ideas of displacement, translation and transcoding fiction will be discussed, branching out to look at the art of research, recent   debates in contemporary art (and their possible use for fiction), a writer's audience in today's Europe and the impact travel and living abroad have on the fiction under discussion.

Presentation will include short readings from the novel.


John Holten (b.1984) is a novelist and poet from Ireland. Since 2004 he has moved across Europe between the cities of Paris, Berlin, Oslo and Dublin. His fictional work has often taken the figure of the contemporary artist as its main subject matter, investigating the liminal existence of the nomad and the networked individual. His work as an associate editor with Broken Dimanche Press has also seen him involved in numerous trans-national translation projects.

-Altermodern Manifesto

-Three Ragnaröks


Nina Bendzko


Nina Bendzko studied Applied Cultural Sciences and a Masters in Creative Documentary Filming. During the past years she has worked and lived in Spain, France and Colombia, collaborating in various film projects. The most recent are the documentaries “Cuchillo de Palo” ( by Renate Costa, “La Terra Habitada” ( by Anna Sanmartí and a new film idea by José Luis Guerín. Now residing in Berlin she is developing her first feature length documentary project “Zwischenräume”. 

Further reading:


Doors open at 19:00

Entry is free.

How to find us:

Altes Finanzamt
Schönstedtstraße 7, access through the yard
U7, Rathaus Neukölln

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The Whiff of Sulphur in the Air

I'm just back in Berlin from a week in Ireland, where I travelled to Dublin, then up to Louth, and then over and down to Offaly, before finally returning to Dublin. A lot of running around and meeting people, from Austrian embassy staff on Ailesbury Road to cement truck drivers from Armagh.
Then I went to Dusseldorf where my sister had a show opening of her latest beautiful work which moves in and around The Golden Bough. (I also got to see some of this work the day before in Dublin at the Rubicon Gallery on Stephen's Green) I then went up to crash on the couch of my brother in Oberhausen before coming back to Berlin the following day for a long weekend of partying.
I list all this not becuase this is what I normally do on my blog and any readers (if there are any) know by now that I do quite the opposite here, but because during the last two weeks or so I had the distinct feeling that no matter where I went, or who I met, I was confronted with outright right-wing rhetoric and at times downright fascism. This, needless to say, became a little unsettling. It has felt as if I was attracted to it, as if I had been out looking for it.
From people I know voting for the Conservatives in the UK elections to the simple, almost jolly, throwaway remark that 'immigrants come here and take all the social welfare, leaving none for the Irish.' To other, more stranger sights such as a father reprimanding a teenage daughter in St. Stephen's Green, on a beautiful summer's evening, my last in the country for a while, decideing to quite forcibly hit her. I mean like raise his hand high above his head and whallop the girl on the head, swearing loudly. In public. I coughed, made my presence felt. He took a moment to turn around, as if forgetting that other people may exist, and that what he just did was out of hand, before raising his finger at me and saying rather cryptically: 'Excuse me.' I don't think he was apologising.
Everything about this little act stank of what is bad about Ireland: patriarchal (the mother just stood by, looking as remorseful as the seated daugher, smoking), misogynist, not afraid to use violence to uphold 'decent morality' (yes, let's blame the fucking church), and no doubt deeply hypocritical. The only strange thing about it was that it was in public. I had also been told that the victim of rape in Listowel town is still being ostracised (for my foreign readers, yes this sentence is strange, but I'm very sorry to say I have made no mistake). And was sad to hear that the literary festival seemed to go ahead without any attempt of a boycott or such.
I could go on; it has been a strange time when people just seemed too happy to casually add a jokingly racist comment or anti semitic rant - aided and abetted of course by  Isreal's own recent actions - and it is clear that no matter how well ordered and progressive us humans can be, we are just a moment away from letting out the fascist beast in us.
To round things off I was informed of someone who gave their second vote to the NPD in the recent by-election in Nord Rhein Westphalia. The person in question maintained that their first vote was for the SPD. I don't know what this means really,  or the motives, but it put a full stop to what has been a pretty depressing few weeks politically.
At least people still smile.
And this blog post is dedicated to the Persian man who gave me a lift from Oberhausen to Berlin, for free, and shared his stories and his sweets and nuts with me.
Long live generosity!

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

2nd Prize Karlspreis fuer die Jugen

So yes, surprise of all surprises occured a week ago in Aachen. BDP got 2nd prize in the huge Karlspreis for Youth. They recognised the quality of our content, our ambition to question the borders of not only 'Europe' but also what young artists and writers and activists can get away with regarding preconceptions toward them and their work. Free of any big organisation - unlike many of the other projects - our work was independent and yet sure of itself.

I was delighted to get to go on behalf of the team and pick up the prize. Line gets to go to the EU parliament this autumn.

I'd like to thank everyone here who worked with us on the book. All our great contributors, our translators (Joy!), our design team, all our hosts, all our supporters, our few and very special buyers of the book, and Youth in Action for first giving us the chance to start things.

Things went really strange just before we were all due to leave Aachen. After a week of drinking and making fun around town, I woke up with no clean clothes left, unwashed hair that was in a bad need of a haircut, a hangover, and a growing feeling that they might have meant what they said about sharing the stage with the bigwigs. An hour and a half later, live on German TV, I found myself about to vomit, and with my  great imagination sat through the first half hour of the live transmission of the prize ceremony for Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk picturing myself vomiting, or fainting, or simply standing up and walking (or running, why not?) out the door. I hate TV. Always have. Now I really hate it.

Who knew making books could be so surreal?

Monday, 17 May 2010

Rue Danielle Casanova

When I first went to rue Danielle Casanova I was homeless. But life was good and the swing of things went from very bad to very good via New York and back again. In the middle of listing all the places I'm sleeping this year, I think Danielle Casanova will remain hard to beat in terms of connotations, memoriesm setting. I think that's why I put it in The Readymades so much: I wanted to write about it the only way I could. Anyway, doing some half baked research I came across the above text. It's wonderful that Picabia - of all people! - lived just down the road, in I think the same building I went many a morning to buy tobacco. It was Picabia's work that started off my writing in my first story, Germania. He is, of course, big inspiration for Djordje Bojic and other LGB artists.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Cover Design - What's the Opposite of Covers Dictated by Marketing Departments?

Nice interview, that goes three ways, between Tom Mc Carthy, Dan Wagstaff and Peter Mendelsund around the Knopf cover of TMC's forthcoming novel 'C'. Interesting to hear that Mendelsund felt that it read less as a novel but more than a work of philosophy, that it left him 'changed'. WIll TMC follow up Remainder?

Nice to see a designer who got so into the book and wanted to reflect that as artistically as possible with an optimal design. With Broken Dimanche we of course talk a lot with FUK Laboratories on design and I think they're turning me into the type of guy that design matters to; I've found myself interested a lot in fonts and layout. I've always been taken in by texture and constuction of books of course, but it feels like it's going up a notch.  

Why do I find a Suhrkamp cover nicer than a Faber and Faber cover? And why are Gallimard covers more pleasing than both of them?

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Some of my recent words are over at Cristian Dragnea's Romanian-Spanish-French-English blog. Believe it. Outtakes from this long growing sprawl of pluralies Berlin is creating in me:

Tuesday, 6 April 2010


I will be reading on Saturday here:
The Buntesdruckerei
Axel-Springerstr 40, 3 OG. BERLIN

I think the nearest UBahn is Spittelmarkt

At around 8pm.

The reading will take place at the bottom of a large stairwell which should be nice, and when I heard this fact I thought of Bachelard - stairs being the ultimate metaphor for life, dreams and cauchemars. I think I'll read out a philiosophy of stairs.

Monday, 5 April 2010

We say goodbye to each other at Bornholmerstrasse, we say goodbye to ourselves on the road home in loud, or first road, the road of our first darkness; we lose ourselves on it as moon alone lights stones endless and ourselves are waved goodbye to, we become one with a world beyond islands - 

                               We grow - 

We say goodbye to each other on the quay of Pankstrasse unterbahnhof and once again a train carries us away, like at Ostkruez or Gare du Nord or Oslo sentralstasjon, we go on, we carry on, with precision and ease - 

We leave each other with tears and peristalsis going wrong, at Zentral Omnibus station, airports, doorways to new homes. We walk alone and go forth and each time we think we’re joining a party that’s been arranged for us singly when really it is just a waiting group, a waiting room, in caravan, that more or less or great and worse is not for one but noone and we go on - we carry on -

                        Regardless -

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Charlemagne Prize

Very honoured to have found out today that You Are Here was choosen by a couple of MEPs and the head of the Youth Council Ireland to be shortlisted in Aachen in May. The Charlemagne Prize, both for youths and elders is a very cool thing and I am down with it!

Irish winner who will compete for European Youth Prize announced

Charlemagne_Youth_Prize_2010'You are here', a book project including contributions from 14 young people across Europe, was today announced as the Irish winner which will go forward to compete for the Charlemagne European Youth Prize in Aachen in Germany on 11 May.  The project, which was submitted by John Holten from Ardee, Co. Louth, brought together young people born after 1980, 'who enjoy freedom of movement in Europe and work in a country they did not grow up in.'  These young people have also grown up without the shadow of the Berlin Wall.  Mr Holten said that the project had succeeded in creating 'greater European awareness among [the] group, including people who would normally not get a chance to meet each other or publish their work together.'

 Irish MEPs Gay Mitchell (Fine Gael) and Nessa Childers (Labour Party) were members of the Irish jury, along with Jean-Marie Cullen of the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI).   Ms Childers said that she was 'delighted to be involved in a competition which encourages young people to take an active interest in EU issues.'  Commenting on the point of departure chosen by the winning project, Mr Mitchell stated that 'to understand Berlin is to understand the European Union project.'  Ms Cullen said that 'the NYCI welcomes this initiative which rewards young people's creativity.'

The 'You are here' project, represented by Mr Holten will now join the winning project from each of the other 26 EU Member States at the award ceremony for the Charlemagne European Youth Prize in Aachen in Germany on 11 May 2010.  At the ceremony, overall winners will be chosen, and they will receive funding of between €2,000 and €5,000. 

The Charlemagne European Youth Prize is organised on an annual basis by the European Parliament and the International Charlemagne Prize based in Aachen.  Francis Jacobs, Head of the European Parliament Office in Ireland, commented on the range of projects submitted in Ireland this year.  He said that the 'variety of the projects was impressive' and spoke of the fact that 'they bring together young people across Europe, in order to exchange experiences and learn from each other.'

In 2009, a Polish youth project 'YOUrope Needs You' was the overall winner of the Charlemagne Youth Prize. Through a series of secondary school workshops run by university students, this project conveyed interesting facts about Europe to teenagers. The second and third prize went to projects from France and Germany respectively.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Review up on Papervisualart

New site, check them out.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Best European Fiction 2010 - Dalkey Archive Press


Best European Fiction 2010, Aleksandar Hemon, ed., Dalkey Archive Press, 2010

It has been said before, and often, that anthologies are difficult and prone to error, and even if they do their job right they can still leave their readers dissatisfied, yearning for more. Anthologising Europe, in any shape or form, is always a formidable challenge. Dalkey Archive Press have initiated a timely and ambitious effort to try and collect the continent’s best fiction, edited by Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon, translate it and present it to an international, mainly American readership.

Friday, 5 February 2010

This Exhibition is Not the Result of a Thesis, Bit It's Starting Point...

This qoute came from the exhibition catalogue of The Death of The Audience in Vienna's Secession which Line was lucky enough to see last summer. And the on-going 'transgressions' of the thesis in question is under discussion in the latest issue of the e-flux journal, no. 13

Meanwhile our own 'thesis' is set to continue with around half of issue 002 of The Kakofonie sourced. It's set to be an extremely interesting and mobile collection of propaganda and art. Send in anything you may have!

The conversation between Elisabeth Leibovici and the exhibition's curator Pierre Pal-Blanc is well worth checking out.

I found it fascinating because it's in the general space of the novel I've just finished writing and the avantgarde group LGB whom I've created and who lie at its centre. I could almost substitute my own creation, Djordje Bojic, into their conversation so similiar is it to what I've been working hard to create.
Take Djordje  Bojić   [André du Colombier] for instance, a Serbian [French] artist who is even less well-known than those named above, an incredible character who embodied a kind of late version of Dada from the '90s and early 2000s [‘60s to the ‘80s], but with a very precise and concentrated radicality. He constantly worked with common people, less showing work than giving it, a bit like a neighborhood poet, exchanging a piece of work for a pack of cigarettes, generally using the thread of the rumor, the web of the conversation. He used to call up artists or museum curators and make a work from the conversation.  Bojić  [Colombier] managed to represent a way of being marginal, of staying on the border of exhibitions even while being well-known by the whole art scene...
.... Of course it’s a bit too easy to hide behind the domination and exploitation of artists in authoritarian events such as biennials, but at the same time we can clearly see that the figure of the artist-hero is no longer current, but is rather a historicist view that tries to cling to the branches of the avant-garde. Similarly, in the context of the over-institutionalized Tate Triennial, “Altermodern” works like a parody of the work of the great critics of the twentieth century, up to Pierre Restany or Germano Celant, trying to create a movement. It’s still about trying to create a party, a power position, an adhesion, contrary even to how artists themselves work. Rather than oversimplify the role of the artist, it might make more sense to look outside this figure to a form of organization to be presented or prolonged, one in which the community is involved, where not only the artist but the audience provides a disseminated, deterritorialized experience for the exhibition.
- Pierre Pal-Blanc

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Monday, 4 January 2010

One Year Old Review

I thought I would republish this as Knausgaard, by all accounts, has taken the literary world over in Norway right now, with the publication, in six parts, of his latest novel Min Kamp. The whole enterprise sounds unique, huge in size, and very, very interesting.

Also I talk about Zadie Smith's review essay Two Paths for the Novel which is included in her new book, Changing My Mind, reviews of which I have been reading recently.

A Time To Every Purpose Under Heaven

Karl O Knausgaard

Portobello Books


So the debate is on. Or rather, it continues. Zadie Smith (of all people I’m tempted to say) has waded into the session of soul-searching going on over the future of the Anglophone novel. For the last eight years, thanks mostly to the Internet and the astounding uniformity of the ‘marketable’, bland books commercial, regressive and lazy book publishers have forced on everyone, an intellectually hardened, avant-garde yearning milieu have developed. International, well-connected, non-commercial. And I’m not talking here about Dave Mc Sweeney’s Eggers. Zadie Smith is late to the debate, in the New York Review of Books review-essay on Joseph O Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder she very eloquently and intelligently, it must be said, brought to the stall of the establishment sentiments long aired on countless websites such as or As Smith carefully pointed out, for the Anglophone novel, ‘These aren’t particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked.’[1] Well, turn-offs are open, Remainder has caused tail backs (it is the undisputed champion of the so-called Offbeat Generation, revelling in concrete literariness and avant-gardism), and Smith, well-used to the highway route of the conservative novel-writing tradition whose survival she admits to ‘cautiously’ hoping in, has merely turned off late, beeping her horn loudly at the rear. But at least she’s noticed. And at least she’s had the temerity to bring it to James Wood and company[2].


But, this is not a review of a review: it is a review of the Norwegian author Karl O. Knausgaard’s novel A Time To Every Purpose Under Heaven. It represents another, much more clearly signposted exit we all know well: translated foreign fiction. If Remainder does anything (and Smith did well to point this out) it highlights the easily won gains of taking non-Anglophone literary traditions seriously. But while McCarthy managed to write a French novel in English, Smith can’t even get her Robbe-Grillet right, she considers Flaubert to be somehow diametrically opposed to the New Novel! Robbe-Grillet considered the vogue for Flaubert a ‘triumph of my own views.’ It’s there in his Paris Review interview. In English. World literature is more nuanced than university modules would lead you to believe, or indeed, it would seem, the venerable pages of the New York Review of Books. Reading Knausgaard’s large, ambitious (I’m going to use that word a lot) novel I could hear the detractors immediately: far off, small, insignificant, reviewers in the Anglophone world who were going to scratch their heads, yawn rudely, and complain about the seriousness of Knausgaard’s novel, the unbridled ambition that drives this novel to a self satisfied righteousness, a grab at totality that demands the humility-liking, literary fiction with a good-plot-and-good-relatable-character type of reviewer to detract from its achievements. There are imperfections of course, but it’s telling what critics have to date pointed out as their points of dissatisfaction in the UK reviews.


This is a review of a novel, on the front cover of which is a picture taken from the 14th century fresco ‘The Dream of Joachim’ by Giotto di Bondone; it says beside a big angel that it is A Novel of The Nature of Angels and The Ways of Man. This all seems a bit boring and pedantic. The first page takes us to 1551, to Ardo, ‘a small mountain town in the far north of Italy’ and introduces us to the hero of the novel, Antinous Bellori. We’re presently told that we mustn’t turn our attention to the ‘inner’ world of our hero to understand him. ‘Even if the events and relationships of his life were to correspond exactly with a life in our own time, one that we understand and recognise, we would still come no closer to him.’ Zadie Smith and Joseph O Neill would be in trouble here. ‘Antinous was, first and foremost, of his time, and to understand who he was, that is what must be mapped.’  Knausgaard, still on the first page, draws our attention to the legacy of Freud whose ‘confusing of culture with nature, combined with his equally fatal insistence on the external event’s inner consequences’ has messed us all up, and nobody more so than our novelists. This novel’s over 500 pages are an effort in reconfiguring of what we normally expect a novel to deliver us: we are subjected to a treatise on the nature of angels in much the same manner as a readership of 16th century would expect and with which they would feel at home.


We’re well off the highway now, we’re lost down a turn-off with no signpost. A novel of ideas. A Novel On The Nature of Angels. A historical novel that’s thrown off the lyrical Realism whose survival Zadie Smith so cautiously hopes in; a period novel that adopts the dress of the day and goes about its imaginative business as it feels it must. I have a lot of hesitant feelings toward historical novels, I think writing a story set in the past in the garb of the present is, well, lazy and unprofitable, for both reader and writer. Colm Toibin, managed, with some success, to write in the time and character he plucked out of the defenceless ‘in-the-long-ago’ and managed to write about Henry James qua Henry James. There are other examples, and for all my reckoning (I haven’t read much 16th century treatises or even the Bible for that matter, young Irish ‘Catholic’ that I am) Knausgaard has managed to pull off the latest such literary transposition.


If Tom McCarthy’s Remainder has been read by many as so much 20th century French philosophy and Anglo-Saxon literary theory played out and repeated – re-enacted I should say– in a novel, than A Time To Every Purpose Under Heaven is, say Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham or even Saint Augustine summed up in a sumptuous retelling of all those stories from the Bible where angels make an appearance. It uses the fictional work by the fictional Bellori, On the Nature of Angels, as its bedrock in the book’s warped and altered biblical exegesis.


While Knausgaard suffers from the threat theoretical longueurs pose to his readers’ ability to enjoy themselves, I think, ultimately the sustained gaze he levels at his subjects, at his stories’ implications, will impress. We move from the first encounter with Bellori as an eleven year old stumbling across a couple of fearsome yet forlorn looking angels, to a miraculous re-envisioning of Cain and Abel. The sheer length of this particular fable (this seems like the most fitting word) is an example of what the Norwegian is doing. A commonplace story, one of the most primal tales we have, Cain killing his brother Abel, is given a telling that would seem to want to trick the reader into believing it is of the tale’s time: its insistence on Cain’s clumsy loneliness, Abel’s pugnacious all-roundedness, the cold aloof father constantly looking down on his eldest son Cain in favour of the more charming Abel. Something strange, in short, is going on here, and I think any reader with a love of stories, of authors who write so well they disappear into the texture of their character’s lives, will appreciate Knausgaard’s ‘longueurs’, will go with him on his long, round about engagements from sentence to paragraph to whole sections of this big book. Those fond of David Mitchell will be at home with Knausgaard.


There is no Freud brought in, that’s one of the rules of the book: this is Old Testament landscape, and I read it as convincing and, I imagine, more fun then the source text.


In the beginning was the word, the sacred Logos, but the word of God, we are reminded, was of no help to the victims of God’s great flood:


The reason no-one spoke was not due solely to weariness or fear, but also because by being silent they minimised themselves, made themselves less exposed, more like the forces that presently ravaged their world. The cellar was one hiding place, silence another. If one of them had broken it, the act of speaking, no matter whether it was nervous, despairing or encouraging, would have been demoralising, for there was demonstrated their vulnerability and helplessness in all their horror: the only thing they had that was their own, that was human, was words. Words made them what they were, and what are words when it comes to the crunch|? What help are words when things really get tough?

None at all?


We are constantly given man’s point of view. God – and his angels – are just a distraction really, the source for the ideas the characters group around often bringing them hardship and strife. Noah is portrayed as an albino-type child, photophobic and who grows up indoors, a scientist by night, a naturalist occupied by the make-up of the world. A world Knausgaard feels free to portray as he wishes seeing as the Great Flood completely obliterated it. Leaving us no trace of this sinful world (they have guns for instance, in this doomed terra obliterato). I would say to take or leave Noah’s bland thoughts on fire: they’re forced and not a little boring.


And while it isn’t to be read as Freudian, we are given lots of chances to read it as just that. Cain and Abel are tied up in a cold family that favours one son over the other; the tortured, often poignant inner world of the likeable Cain are mapped out carefully. This story lays out the ‘psychology’ of man’s first fracticide with precision. Noah’s childhood family is headed by a proud, prosperous patriarch named Lamech who ‘could go an entire day without saying a thing, and then suddenly sling out a sentence or two about whatever he was thinking, which his children, if they happened to be nearby just then, found almost sinister.’ It is testament to the imaginative breadth of this novel that the author can playfully lull the reader to enjoy so many strands of thought and narrative turns and on so many levels, without little heavy handedness. And without resorting to the tried and tested Freudian-Balzacian formulas of inner characterisation.


Translated fiction like this offers a turn off from the dominant highway of current English novels because it offers new takes on the novel that don’t feel new: this novel is comfortable within its own skin, it is fresh. This composure needs to be kept in mind when taking an axe to lyrical Realism. But it’s not a perfect road to follow if rejuvenation of the Anglophone novel is what you’re after: it is, after all, fraught with problems. James Anderson has provided a very fine translation, well-levelled and holding its pitch. Portobello Books are to be commended also for taking on such a distinctly challenging novel. But, without taking away too much of the singular experience of reading this novel cover-to-cover, one had to lament that they started here, with Knausgaard’s second novel. This novelist obviously has an extremely ambitious vision for his work, and this novel offers but a tantalising, somewhat enigmatic instalment of it. In terms of important European novels of this decade, Knausgaard’s first three novels will undoubtedly go down as a seminal roman-fleuve; let’s just hope Portobello Books will deliver us the other two books.


What I’m talking about is the Coda of the book – it ties us in with a bigger story Knausgaard would seem to be telling over the course of three books centring around a character called Henrik Vankel. Out of Old Testament concerns and into late 20th century neuroses we would seem, for the last 80 pages, to be back in the world of Freud. All the old anxieties. The anxiety Heidegger believed we have to pay for our spiritual freedom, our physical abandon in a savage environment. What Zadie Smith tried to put down in her review of Netherland by O Neill as that seemingly ‘too perfect’ expression of these old anxieties of our day and age (and literature!), are set against, in the last 80 pages of the book, a world set of free of Freud, of Balzac, that world were man met the divine in the form of angels, and ultimately suffered for it. It’s a telling contrast (a wound you could call it, a wound in the novel which the reader feels acutely) and intriguing in the possibilities it suggest. Now you just have to go and read all 518 pages to intimate what those possibilities may be.



[2] I completely agree with one of the more acute observations of this whole debacle, via Mark Twaite and readysteadybook: Anthony Cummins sums up what is going on behind the line of Smith’s camp, mainly self promotion for her forthcoming non-fiction book 'Changing My Mind'.