This Space

Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Lamees Najim by Ellis Sharp

This novel appears to be a response to the public success of Karl Ove Knausgaard and various other writers in the news for the very personal content of their published work. It is presented as a journal noting with lab-technician impartiality the media consumption of 'Ellis': reports on current affairs from television, radio, newspapers and internet, book reviews in the arts pages, films watched on DVD, music listened to on YouTube, all blended with personal details familiar to readers of My Struggle such as toothache, shopping trips and the effects of eating asparagus on urine.

Friday, August 07, 2015

The Imperative to Write: Destitutions of the Sublime in Kafka, Blanchot and Beckett by Jeff Fort

"My compulsion to write does not occlude the uselessness of filling pages with words" writes Fernando Sdrigotti. "I know that what I do is pointless, one more message in a bottle in a moment when everyone else around me is also casting messages adrift". He expresses sadness at the sight of so many washed up on the shores of labyrinthine bookshops and, to mitigate the condition, offers a mutated version of Borges' infinite library in which an infinite number of alphabets are postulated with their own infinity to be filled, leaving more spaces than even Borges allowed for: "We go after those gaps, selfish that we are".

This admittedly contrived excuse to continue is one response to a problem that has confronted writers for over a century, with perhaps Samuel Beckett's response to Joyce being emblematic, though curiously it's a problem that fails to affect filmmakers, composers or painters. At least, it isn't visible in what they produce. While biographical material might reveal Alfred Hitchcock self-harmed in the presence of so many other psychological thrillers, what he produced does not bear its scars; or, rather, those scars are indistinguishable from perfectly powdered skin. For writers, however, consternation at the pointlessness of adding to an infinite number of books leads to at least three outcomes, the last of which is perhaps unique to writers: first, silence, in the form of never writing again, or at least never being published; second, denial or indifference, in the form of publishing regardless, and third, subjecting the writing to the condition. The last is unstable ground for sure, threatening idiosyncratic, fragmented structures invariably prompting disillusion and contempt from marketing departments and consumers wandering the aisles. Why not give up writing to make a living in what everyone says is the art form of the modern era? Well, if you need to ask, you might be free of the compulsion.

So what are the details of this pathological condition exactly? Sdrigotti does not analyse, preferring to leave the personal need to write in the shadow of the shelves, and given the historical conditions in which the publishing industry has come to define literature, setting mass market genre fiction and celebrity biographies alongside Beckett's novels and the poems of Paul Celan, it should be no surprise. Yet, as soon as the industry in the form of conglomerate publishing, chain bookshops and careers as a bestselling author is recognised as inimical to the compulsion, as soon as its shadow is removed, that sadness, that sense of pointlessness, is replaced by something much more interesting.  

God, goodness and silence 

Jeff Fort does this in his study of three writers who experienced "the literary vocation as an all-consuming task" when the time for such a vocation had apparently long passed. What results is a revision of the focus and purpose of modern fiction and should be vital reading for the sad writer. He begins by examining each author's stated reasons or excuses for writing. Kafka's grand self-torment is familiar to us – “God does not want me to write, but I, I must” – as is Beckett's self-deprecating manner – Bon qu'à ça; writing is "all I'm good for" – but the third less so. Maurice Blanchot's author biography heading his collection of essays The Book to Come includes the line: "His life is entirely devoted to literature and to the silence that is proper to it”. As this is both hyperbolic and self-effacing, it embodies Fort's contention that all three keep a flame alive however faint for "unparalleled satisfactions, not to say ecstasy" in writing and, what's more, some kind of transcendence, and this is what makes them stand out among so many others. The need for goodness is easily missed in the "good" of Beckett's statement, as is the need for salvation in Kafka's letter, but they are there, and both are sought in silence.

All three expressions are included in Fort's "downward displacements" of intellectual history following Luther's stand at the Diet of Worms and Kant's philosophy, making it clear The Imperative to Write places the predicament of the modern fiction writer in deep history and seeks to confirm the significance of these writers' work through its modesty, as it completes a trajectory from church pulpit through university lectern to solitary writing desk.

All three writers trail in the wake of the Kantian revolution in which reason replaced divine authority, disabling in its wake the religious function of art. In what Fort calls a cruel compulsion, but might also be called a categorical imperative, the artist, philosopher or scientist, is nevertheless left with reason's immanent drive to colonise what is beyond its limits, what we might call the ideal or the sublime. In doing so the imagination substitutes an image for the departed authority (hence words like 'ideal' and 'sublime'). In art this appears to have no more than a decorative function, while in more rational discourse it is a means of dismissing what cannot be contained. Resisting both, Fort argues the specific condition – the imperative to write – is the echo of the sublime behind the attractive images, which makes the impulse to write fiction significant. The echo is heard in as the uncanny space of Kafka's castle village, Beckett's 'timeless void' and Blanchot's 'literary space'; images haunting the pursuit of the ideal into the fictional void:
What is “real” in this radically fictive space has nothing to do with representational realism, but emerges rather from the sort of insistent and irreducible drive ... that stubbornly inhabits literary speech.
He calls this habitation "a literary alterworld," one that punishes the writer as much as rewards, as it "separates language from the world it names" and sets the author at "an irreducible remove" from the everyday world, perhaps embodied by the unpublished writer traipsing the aisles, where a book has at least an alibi for its emptiness in its physical, commercial reality. While this is also the celebrated freedom of creative writing – let your imagination run wild – it is also never far away from real world contempt and its timid apologists with their so-called Reality Hunger. However, writing fiction is not quite reality and it is this 'not quite' that is the "irritating breach, a hollow kernel in the language that cannot be voided" and one that "opens the spaces of an imperative that cannot be fulfilled". Such a residue, Fort says, "is all that is left of writing's sublimity".

Kafka, Blanchot and Beckett 

It is this residue that the three writers pursue in their own ways. Fort's three central chapters present close readings of their fiction in order to see how the imperative compels or structures specific works of fiction. These chapters were extremely difficult for me to summarise, so what follows is a crude outline that leaves out a great deal and may misrepresent as a result, for which I apologise in advance.

Fort characterises Kafka's cries of despair and defiance, anxiety and guilt, as a means of heightening the value of writing and dramatising his position when, in his time, as in ours, writing is essentially a discipline, an office job with all the conventions and competencies that this entails. When Kafka is not writing, he is defying the earthly powers who employ him and yet, when he is writing, he is going in the opposite direction, against society's grain, which may perhaps get him closer to God or what God forbids. The fictions of trial and punishment that result from this risk are those we know so well: the innocent one who is also guilty, the salesman who becomes a giant vermin and the son sentenced to death by his father. What sets Kafka apart from his precursors or those who might now be labelled Kafkaesque is that in these stories writing is at war with the writer:
The protagonists of these stories must plead a case for innocence before a hostile, aggressive, or at the very least highly skeptical judge; and the failure of their self-defense casts into doubt the very medium in which Kafka himself struggled to conjure them: language as the persuasive presentation of an otherwise occluded interiority.
The enigma of Gregor Samsa is that his innocence remains "invisible and unpresentable," as he is visible only in his socially beneficial role, which correlates with writing as a means of interactive and commercial utility rather than an extension into the voided sublime. Kafka's great task then is mount a self-defence in the very form taken by the accusation; with Fort's emphasis: "to take hold of power in speech, in such a way as both to appropriate and undo that power in the very grounds of its possibility". The imperative in these works, which Fort gathers together as "judgment stories", is to present the inner reality of an individual against the law or as part of a sublime law now out of reach.

The later fiction is notable for being less melodramatic and more clearly projecting 'the destitution of the sublime' into writing. In A Hunger Artist, Kafka's great talent is presented as a negative, with showmanship displayed as a withdrawal from showmanship. This is the paradox in which his fiction must breathe. The story ends with the artist saying he didn't starve himself out of choice but because couldn't find the food he needed. But this is only another image of the void where there is no image: "the hunger artist's search is not for a food he 'never found' but rather for the nothing that he cannot grasp or make graspable". The sublime is as destitute as the showman.

What distinguishes Blanchot from what has passed so far is the premise that, in using language, we are already subject to "the abyssal fault by which 'the world' and 'life' are always already removed, remote, distanced". For our everyday reading and writing lives, the astonishment of this separation invariably passes by unnoticed, so it's one of Blanchot's great gifts in his critical writings to reanimate this revelation:
Apparently we read only because what is written is already there, laying itself out before our eyes. Apparently. But the first one to write, the one who cut into stone and wood under ancient skies, was hardly responding to the demands of a view requiring a reference point and giving it a meaning; rather, he was changing all relations between seeing and the visible. What he left behind was not something more, something added to other things; it was not even something less – a subtraction of matter, a hollow in relation to a relief. Then what was it? A gap in the universe: nothing that was visible, nothing invisible. I suppose the first reader was engulfed by this non-absent absence, but without knowing anything about it. And there was no second reader ...
                    (from The Infinite Conversation translated by Susan Hanson)
But it is in Blanchot's fiction that Fort wonders whether "ghostly returns" might traverse this gap, "an unloseable something that is not a thing", specifically something left behind by the 'feminine specters' in the récit Death Sentence, and present as we gaze at the death mask of l'inconnue de la seine, an image that Blanchot displayed on the wall of his study in Èze and is on the cover of this book. The separation is present in the movement of writing fiction, with the abyssal fault borne in these figures so that their presence in a life evokes "an extreme mode of loss". It is the imperative to write that provokes the haunting of these fascinating images, with fiction originating in the ghostly encounter rather than something reported after the event, not a confession projected into genre features but "something yet to come, an imminence whose lack of reality awaits its realization in the récit itself".

In this chapter, Fort takes issue with Blanchot's insistence on the separation of the biographical facts of a writer's life and the work, and this is also the focus of the chapter on Beckett, whose fiction lives in a similar relation to Blanchot's but differs in "the carefully cultivated melancholy, and even nostalgia" in responding to the loss of the world, which in Beckett's case maintains clear parallels to his life. Fort is especially good on the tension between formal precision of Beckett's fiction, which might hold these at a distance, and the "lyrical transports" that bring them close. The latter evidently allows what others call Beckett's experimentalism an alibi into mainstream appreciation. In July 2015, the actor Richard Wilson presented a documentary in which he conceded that Beckett's work "can be difficult and obscure" but added "there is one heartbreaking play that he wrote...his most autobiographical", so that his work is received as displaced self-expression alone, whereas it is according to Fort precisely the incompatibility of the abstract character of the fictive voice with the particularities of a singular life that sets Beckett's work apart. If the condition of possibility of such fiction is "the loss of the world" in the destitution of the sublime, the voice is also driven "by the indescribable charge produced by the unbridgeable distance from what has been left"; a distance, as we have seen, that is opened by language. And it is with this in mind that Fort makes a key point when he says "the words we read when we read The Unnamable are written words, and not the supposed stream of a supposed consciousness". It is in this novel that fiction is divested of characters and events, making it rely on its sources in the now-destitute sublime, which nonetheless, in an apparent paradox, allows the intrusion of reality "in a way that is impossible in more conventional or 'realistic' fictions".


We've come a long way from the initial compulsion to write, with the image of an infinite library replaced by an infinite nothing beyond its infinite shelves, and perhaps as a result a greater sense of the uselessness of writing. Except it is in the denial of reality in its widest sense as characterised in The Unnamable that our sad and frustrated compulsion to write persists. What excites me about The Imperative to Write is that it presents a perspective on what we carelessly call experimental writing that might catalyse many a writers' despondency and turn it into the work they were born to write. It is certainly one of the most extraordinary books about literature that I have ever read, one that has compelled me to write about in order to raise awareness of its ideas.

In the months it took me to read (the text including the notes reaches a quarter of a million words) I couldn't help but wonder about its own relation to the destitution of the sublime, and this intensified during my troubled attempts to summarise such a complex and detailed book, steeped as it is in philosophy and close readings of all three writers in their original languages. That is, what relation does this have in terms of literary history to the works under discussion, or, more specifically, are the works under discussion themselves kinds of summaries, albeit a highly stylised, of what such a profound study thickens and fills out, so that critical exposition is not so much secondary text feeding like a parasite on the larger organism but a continuation of the same movement in the form specific to our time, much as Luther and Kant might be considered as part of the genealogy of modernism despite the forms taken by their writings? In one aside, Fort refers to modernism as "a name for the sounding and unfolding of depth and interiority, its radical externalisation: inwardness as boundless exteriority," which happens to be a good way to summarise the first two volumes of Knausgaard's My Struggle, books that transcend their rather mundane, non-experimental form because they reach toward the distant horizons of a life. And remember, the writings by which we know Kafka, Blanchot and Beckett take many different forms – diaries, letters, short stories, novels, plays, poems, even critical essays and book-length studies – with not one demanding any fundamental priority. In contrast, contemporary works of such dispersed singularity and focus appear to be impossible, as if the disenchantment of the world, which might be another name for the destitution of the sublime, has been internalised to such an extent that fiction in particular is content to be trapped in its own freedom, its own blank space of infinite invention.

A book like The Imperative to Write might be able to jolt some writers out of such complacency, though I wonder if another version might be necessary to do that, one that is abridged to make it more financially accessible, much as My Struggle requires its excessive length to achieve its unexpected goal. Fort himself wonders if Blanchot "did not work too hard to maintain his noble manners" while Beckett’s "bawdiness and vulgarity" allowed for "a more palpably painful scattering of remains," and, when discussing Blanchot's preoccupation with dates and numerology, he inserts a moving footnote pointing out that Blanchot's fifth birthday on September 22, 1912 is the day Kafka famously wrote The Judgment, and that it is also the birth date of his late brother, to whom he pays "discrete homage" each time this date arises in his reading. What this latter signifies is left open to speculation and leaves one wanting more. What it also does is to reveal the possibilities of alternative forms that may be open to us to explore this strange imperative. As the contrast of noble manners and vulgarity suggests, the form of such explorations is also subject to the chance conditions, and perhaps only in submitting to the initial compulsion to write allows us to transcend them, a suggestion that itself contains the paradox in which writing must begin.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

This Space as a book

When this blog turned ten years old in 2014, I decided to make a selection of the best posts to see what it looked like minus blog apparatus. Reading them together in this form, I was pleasantly surprised.

Zero Books is now publishing it as a book with a brilliant introductory essay by Lars Iyer and a cover photo by the exceptionally talented Flowerville. Take a look at the page for some words from, among others, Gabriel Josipovici, Lee Rourke, John Self and Lars himself:
Stephen Mitchelmore was the first literary-critical blogger, and has remained the best. His blog, This Space, ten years in existence, and commanding a wide readership, contains exquisite long-form meditations on literary fiction of the kind only the blogosphere can allow. Gathered here, Mitchemore’s essays show a cumulative power, developing a philosophy of literature in a manner that recalls Blanchot’s The Space of Literature.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Both together: Migrations by Gabriel Josipovici

The main reason I still write this blog is to maintain a contact with the need or condition that drove me to read and write in the first place; a need often misdirected in pursuit of what the industry is talking about. Long silences here report stout resistance to the temptations of disinterested reception. But what is this need? Only chance can reveal it, as a fall might graze a knee. So one night at 10pm I happened to be looking for the availability of another book when I noticed a bookseller had priced Gabriel Josipovici's 1977 novel Migrations at £90. My copy is in better condition, I thought, and picked it off the shelf for an inspection.

Beneath the epigram in Hebrew I had written a translation: Arise and go, for this is not your rest (Micah 2:10). Fortunately, it was in pencil and I scrubbed out the words. But why? I have no intention of selling and the copy stands for sentimental memories of my first reading as a student in January 1992: the anonymous protagonist pacing his bedroom, vomiting into a basin, drinking directly from the tap, walking about town under a burning sun, looking into shop windows at bundles of shoes tied together, slumped beneath a lamppost or over a café table with a nearby stranger offering him a cup of tea: Ere, the man says. Av some of mine.

The scenes never stop to clarify a traditional back story, nor even to insert narrative conjunctions, so that the café scene in one paragraph moves straight into another in which the man is pacing to and fro in his bedroom. A scene from adulthood moves then without pause to a scene from childhood, yet not as in stream of consciousness but something less secure, less comforting, not contained within a mind but as if the meaning of each lived moment is sought in repetition and in order to resist the constant migration of mind and self. The apparent distress of the protagonist in this quest is described with a mixture of clinical distance and romantic metaphor and simile.
The bulb hangs down in the middle of the room. It is lit, making the curtainless window appear like a black mirror in which only the blub itself is reflected. But the light is poor and seems to have difficulty reaching the walls of the big room. Even the washbasin and the bed are in shadow.

Silence flows away from him in dark rivers.

Falling backwards, in a wide arc, he stretches out his hand to grip the lamppost and encounters only air. The black sky presses on his face like a blanket.

Everything flows away from him. It flows outwards and away in dark rivers.
The rhythms of repetitions and returns build an uncommon presence, as if the words have been typed directly onto the page, indenting the paper with the urgency and confusion of a writer trying to catch up with the world and himself. So, soon after 10pm, I had started reading Migrations and before midnight I had read 50 pages. And this is why I read: the gifts of chance rediscovery, of being returned to real needs, which is also why I remember Thomas Bernhard, aged 19 and on the edge of death, reading Dostoevsky's The Demons: "Never in my whole life had I read such an engrossing and elemental work ... it had shown me a path that I could follow and told me that I was on the right one, the one that led out".

The elemental in literature is often misconstrued from outré subject matter or writing described as raw and unmediated, yet in Migrations the elemental appears as the subjection of form and content to the logic of its title: constant becoming in constant undoing; constant undoing in constant becoming; the logic of birth and death. So the man is unnamed not in order to protect identity but to loosen the binds of identity, to allow time to colonise the means by which the identified resists time and self erasure. The man senses constant movement in everything around him – when he orders a beer it tastes of urine: "of everything that has been ejected".

The paradox here is that the attempt to inhabit migration in a narrative automatically includes the quest for unity and permanence; a novel is a monument to unity and permanence. Literature takes possession of the elemental, becomes a still point in the hub of its vicious circle and thereby becomes a means to express, analyse and perhaps to lead out of terror and comfort without denying either. The man explains to someone what is like in this space:
–First of all, he says, there is this stifling. This effort to draw breath. As if time had become a blanket someone was stuffing into your mouth and the more you opened your mouth the more blanket was stuffed in and the less chance there was to breathe.
–Go on, she says.
–I–he says. I don't–
She watches him. She smiles. – Go on, she says.
He looks down at his hands.
 –Well? she says.
 –Lazarus, he says.
To be alive is to sense the winding sheets of burial as they take hold and then as they unwind to leave not fresh air to breathe but a pile of dust. Lazarus, he says, embodies despair and desperation, and he, the man without name, embodies the madness of the paradox thrashing beneath the surface of the paper:
What man wants, he says, is to speak in the way as he eats. He wants to cry out, to talk, and then for his words to fill himself and the person he is addressing as substantially as a great big chunk of animal meat. That's what we all want. Not the one, not the other. Both together.

Migrations was Josipovici's fourth novel, with Hotel Andromeda last year being his eighteenth, but very little else compares with its extreme expression of the major themes of his work. At 230 pages it is also by far his longest novel, and yet it is perhaps closest to Everything Passes of 2006, which at 60 pages is by far his shortest. A few years after it was published, Josipovici wrote a short afterword to a collection of his reviews in which he describes the reception of this and two later novels:
It is a shock to any artist who has only thought of getting things 'right', of pinning down that elusive feeling which is the source and end of all creative activity, to wake up one morning and find himself labelled 'experimental'. Yet this is what happened to me.
The Times and the Daily Telegraph, he says, used the term to patronise or damn with faint praise what didn't fit into the familiar round of English novels. Worse, the London Review of Books referred to him as "prominent among those who are anxious to free the novel from any hampering subservience to the outer world" and having "a lingering but still severe case of the Robbe-Grillet syndrome", the first part of which makes no sense with Migrations, steeped as it is in the physical reality of London's streets, unless one assumes the novel should be a branch of reportage. The furore after the publication in 2010 of What Ever Happened to Modernism? and lack of reviews, let alone major awards, for a novel as great as Infinity in 2012 suggests things have not improved. But if, like me, you wish to maintain a contact with the condition that drives you to read in the first place, there is a way to arise and go from such travesties. Watch out for your knee.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Panthers and the Museum of Fire by Jen Craig

"Where now? Who now? When now?"

The famous opening lines of Samuel Beckett's The Unnamable constitute a modern invocation to the gods at the start of an epic. Only this one appears not at the beginning, not even in medias res, but at the end, where there are no gods, and no end.

"I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know"

Answers emerge to provide aesthetic balance, if nothing else, but at least one is conclusive: the unnamable has a name of sorts ('the Unnamable') and the positive spin placed on the words that follow – "you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on" – has enabled writers to accommodate them as gee-ups from a personal trainer as they climb the purgatorial mountain of Literary Achievement. Pick up any contemporary novel, read the first paragraph and see how each sets down the where, the who and the when right from the start, as if to go on is rather to go back.

Appeals to explicit subject matter and dramatic events have become invocations in a godless time, as we seek a grounding in the hereafter of writing. What's especially notable then about Jen Craig's Panthers and the Museum of Fire is how it destablises such invocations:
For a long time I have dreamed of such a breakthrough, I thought as I set off from my flat in Glebe on that Monday morning – walking to a café in Crown Street for no other reason than to meet the sister, Pamela, so that I could give her back the manuscript Panthers and the Museum of Fire supposedly unread, as she had insisted on the phone only two days after she'd given it to me.
This is both straightforward and unaccountable: the specific where is an anonymous spot on the way between the two places where the ostensible action is, the who is the narrative I, perhaps Jen Craig herself – but then who wrote the manuscript with the same title as the book we're reading? – and when is the walk itself, except it appears incidental to the reports of the breakthrough and the café meeting, which seem far more significant whens and, as a result, all three entwine to displace any certainty on their priority.

Perhaps priority should be placed on the narrative itself, which would be convenient because writing is exactly what the dreamer regards as the breakthrough she had been seeking, now given so unexpectedly by Panthers and the Museum of Fire, a manuscript written by Sarah, an old school acquaintance, into whom the narrator had bumped on the street one day, leading to a series of events, including Sarah's death, possibly as an indirect result of her excessive weight, culminating in the supposed non-reading of the manuscript. Each event and the narrator's commentary is reported with reference to where she is on the walk between Glebe and the café on Crown Street, with the events that occur on that walk included too, and also with recollections of how she had related the events before the walk to her friend Raf at some point in the recent past, either at a gastropub in Potts Point, or over the preparation of prawns before a dinner back in Glebe, or over the phone to report the remarkable breakthrough she had experienced the night before.

Confused? You won't be.

Sarah's surviving sister had asked the narrator, knowing she had literary flair, to read the manuscript discovered in her papers, with a view to making something of it, perhaps redemption for Sarah's otherwise sad and lonely existence, an existence not helped by the narrator's tactical avoidance of her. Instead it redeems the narrator's existence, with the odd parallel being that the narrator's name is the same as the Jenny Craig weight loss company, or would be had she not shortened it, which is expanded upon in another odd parallel when the narrator explains she had been anorexic at the time the company had made its name, causing her all kinds of social grief.
No anorectic can bear advice, and particularly no advice that touches on or even seems to touch on our inviolate selves. [...] All those who haven't been anorexic themselves have no idea about anorexia because they have never led an anorexic existence, and it is the anorexic existence – the nature of this existence – which matters more than anything else in the world to an anorexic. An anorexic needs to exist in this way because there is nothing else in their existence but existence itself; everything else in the world they have given up for this existence; the anorectic is an addict of the anorexic existence.
While this might draw us to comparisons with the self of Kafka's Hunger Artist unviolated by nourishment and, like Sarah, dying off-screen, except in her case apparently from too much nourishment, it would be better read in tandem with Metamorphosis, as change is the horror driving that story, with the previously inviolate selves of Gregor and Grete undergoing transformations right at the beginning and right at the end, with Sarah as Gregor to the narrator's Grete; one's death allowing the other to stretch her limbs or, in this case, make a breakthrough in her writing.

Such assertive monologues do then suggest a neurotic focus on self and the inevitablity of change: the stability of former being dependent on the latter only in its stubborn resistance. This is a theme consistent with Jen Craig's first novel Since the Accident, in which the narrator's sister, the one for whom change came in catastrophic form, describes how a closing door had changed her attitude to the art workshop she had just attended as part of her recovery:
It was stupid, she said, and it was only a measure of her suggestibility after the workshop that she should have let herself be panicked by a door that was sliding shut. She'd thought until that moment that, unlike the others, she hadn't been affected by all the talk of creativity and images at the workshop, but the door had shown her otherwise. Before the workshop, she thought, the door would just have been a door and not a symbol of an impending disaster or an urgent and life-changing choice.
The fear of impending disaster, caused by an excessive attention to signs, is of course the disaster itself and, worse, appears to be prompted by what we otherwise assume to be its consolation: artful self-expression. The comedy and distress of the situation is very much in keeping with the experience of Panthers and the Museum of Fire, which is neither one of comedy nor of distress but both at the same time, impossible to separate, and in which the entangling energy of the narrative is at one with the panicked immobility of the narrator.

The bizarre title, about which I'm sure you're still asking, embodies these dynamic oppositions, as the intrigue and promise in panthers and fire is then displaced by mundane facts. The words come from road signs pointing to a rugby league club called the Panthers and a genuine museum of fire, both with gift shops selling even more signs on T-shirts and mugs. Except the title, like the signs on the T-shirts and mugs, retains the promise of something beyond rugby club and museum, even if they are found in the rugby club and museum, a promise found in a manuscript only ever present as a title, as a sign of things to come. Where now? Who now? When now?

Such promise and its displacement reminds me of the author of the line Es ist alles lächerlich, wenn man an den Tod denkt, and anyone who loves the work of this author will find similar, blessed relief in Jen Craig's fiction. For all their differences, they share an unaccountable joy in writing within absurdity and impossibility, despite and because of absurdity and impossibility. It is from Thomas Bernhard's acceptance speech when he received the Austrian State Prize for literature and caused a government minister to storm out of the building in disgust. Everything is ridiculous when one thinks of death – perhaps the ultimate breakthrough.

Jen Craig blogs at Being in Lieu and Absurd Enticements.


Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

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