Archives for posts with tag: Art

Van Gogh's Bad Cafe, Emily M Keeler, Bookside Table

Van Gogh’s Bad Cafe is an unusually beautiful novel, built on the fault lines between worship and addiction, artist and muse. Yet despite the immediate intrigue associated with these themes, Frederic Tuten has taken time itself as his primary obsession in this work. And why wouldn’t he? The narrative form of the novel is the perfect tool for experimenting with time; events described therein are pulled along by the knotted rope of plot, and the reader can momentarily occupy a noumenal rather than physical time, collapsing space and time into a single and dynamic entity.

Tuten skillfully engages this possibility, and gently, brilliantly, manages to separate time from history. Van Gogh’s Bad Cafe tells the story of a woman caught between two lovers, who are themselves a century apart. Ursula is a photographer with a morphine addiction, trying desperately to capture the fleeting formal beauty of light bursting through space. She has her first lover, Vincent Van Gogh, haul her heavy plate camera into the fields where she hopes to trap the miracle on paper, catch it like a child would a lightning bug. Her second lover, an artist in 1990’s New York named Louis, equips her with a Diana and a Leica, and she breaks out on her own to try to intercept the east river’s rally with the fading day light. In addition to her ability to travel forward a hundred years, or perhaps because of it, Ursula is also fascinated with plugging up time, she has the addict’s peculiar ability to speed up time by slowing herself down, to literally kill time by entering a magic stupor, the warm blooded sleep of opiates slowing her blood and eating through the hours.

Ursula covers her ultra feminine body in the 1880’s by occasionally dressing in menswear, and carrying a revolver around to shut up guff givers as she runs into them. In the 1990’s, she transgresses gendered boundaries by shaving her hair, donning docs, getting pierced and reading Sylvia Plath. She eventually turns away from photography in order to make her body her primary mode of expression, and rather than escaping the women’s ghetto of the muse she becomes imprisoned by temporality. Her flesh will rot, her ideas shouted however loud will go unrecorded, and though she traveled through a century in her body she can never undo time, she can never reach forward with the miracle of light caught on paper.

Tuten’s prose is sensuous and lyrical, and this love story between art and time is charged with eros as it moves through the ages. Eric Fischl’s visual contribution of several eerie and diluted sketches offer so many small islands in the sea of yearning that makes up Van Gogh’s Bad Cafe.

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Should you be lucky enough to find yourself in NYC on December 4th, you might enjoy a marathon reading of Frederic Tuten’s astounding first novel, The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, hosted by The New Inquiry and BOMB Magazine in celebration of New Directions Publishing’s 75th anniversary. Click here to RSVP.

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Nightwood Book Cover, Djuna Barnes, E.M. Keeler

Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood is the story of a well loved woman: Robin Vote. In her name and character, Robin embodies certain freedoms. She is a pure line of flight, a painfully democratic animal that brings exquisite suffering to people just as she gives them pleasure.

Nora Flood, and Jenny, and Felix, the ignoble and decidedly ungentile Baron, all try their best to wrap her up in their civilized arms, but this woman who looks like a boy is wild, and willfully innocent. Robin is not a woman so much as a child, a bird, a doll, and a dog. Everywhere she escapes into images, into animals. Her children are fragile faced dolls and sensitive imbeciles. She denies the future in all things, and has no memories.

The story is told back to Nora by a madman, an illegitimate doctor, Mathew, a lost soul with a loud mouth who haunts the streets of Paris’ least reputable arrondissement. His cloaked and hunched body becomes the instrument of a Queer story, and yet he is reliable precisely because his narration is not official; he can only tell Nora and Felix what they need to hear. He is pure and pompous and yet he shifts the grounds of this story with such swift subtlety that you can just hold onto the thread of meaning even as the tapestry undoes and re-weaves itself.

This was a very complicated read, and I need to go back to it. More than once. T.S. Eliot went back into it again and again, and marveled at the dynamic power of this prose, of this story. I can only give you my very first thoughts, which are unstable and fragile.

Reading this hurt me, damaged me in some way. It was beautiful but never pretty, like a dying bird or a slab of meat. I couldn’t afford to read this the way it needs to be read. I need to go over each line with eyes like a scalpel, to parse out the beauty of every sinew of the beating muscle. There are treasures buried here, and though I saw the glinting gold I couldn’t bear to dig beneath the scarred surface. But I will. Next time.

1. Sheila Heti lives in my neighborhood, well kinda. She’s a youngish white woman in Toronto worried about what art should be like, and what people should be like.

2. How Should a Person Be? is like an incredibly localized map of the neighborhood of these concerns, and Heti’s cartographic co-adventurer is her invariable friend and painter Margaux.  I definitely definitely felt like this book was a map for me, specifically, in a lot of really good ways.

3. But not an official map, more like the kind of sweetly personalized map that a friend will draw of where the good croissants are and how to get back to their house when you visit them in the city that they live in, where you don’t live and only go because you want to see them.

4. But better than that kind of map because I’ve never worried, not deeply, about where to find great croissants, but I have worried about betrayal, and lonliness, and fame, and friends, and whether or not I’m good enough at blow jobs, and what it means to be accomplished at something, like painting or cutting hair or imagining grilled cheese sandwiches. And I’ve also felt that maybe I’m not important, in a lot of ways, and I’ve agonized over my own equivocal enjoyment of that feeling too.

5. That whole business of ‘recognition’ is only part of the reason I liked this book, though. In addition to filling in a little bit of my life by way of reading about hers, this book was also funny and sad and sweet.

6. I read this book because one of my pals said the second time I met him that Sheila Heti is one of his favorite writers. He’s also a Torontonian, and he likes Trampoline Hall and other little things that make Toronto a place worth living and really local and lovable. He said that that he likes her, but is kind of wierded out by the degree of that like because she’s not only ‘from around here, but she’s from around here.‘ Which I took to mean that she’s like us, more so than other people are like us, because not only does she go to the same bars and concerts and pop-up venues that we do, but somehow she’s even more like us, in the ‘we, all of us, are having a moment’ kind of way.

7. And, not to spoil anything, but I kind of felt like that moment, the one we are all having, and by ‘we all’ I mean a very small number, in the long run, but still, that moment is kind of the answer to “How should a person be?”

8.  So I guess a person should be themselves, but throwing their hands in the air, and making a go of it, having a moment.

9. If only we could all make a go of it with the grace and humor and deceptively light touch that Sheila Heti does in How Shoud a Person Be?.

Sometimes, when I’m going to a party, I stand outside for a really long time. Like, a realllly long time, and I just listen in. Then my mind starts going, and I think about all of the possible interactions and outcomes; I write the party, I mentally rehearse the party; bare shoulders and bold thumb prints on the bowls of wine glasses, condensation on beer bottles, exclamations and padding around the kitchen, always the kitchen, in stocking feet.

Mystery Guesy Book Cover, Presents

Of course, if you’re partying at Sophie Calle‘s house, chances are pretty good that you’ll find yourself drinking from champagne flutes and wearing your shoes. Then again, Sophie Calle lives in France, where a house party means something else entirely. And for Grégoire Bouillier in particular, this party takes on such psycho-symbolic significance, that it becomes in and of itself a sort of cosmic event in the small universe of his life.

The Mystery Guest is an involuted party. The pre-party preening is a whorling cortex of pain and the pathetic, wrapped around the peculiar French take on spurned love. Because Bouillier’s relationship with a woman who remains unnamed was of the type that ‘died suddenly at home,’ Bouillier spends about a third of the book attaching meanings almost ad hoc to the objects that are in his orbit; turtleneck shirts, light bulbs, bottles of wine, cut roses in a vase.

In other parts of the book, Bouillier manages to gracefully connect his own prismatic and kaleidoscopic  interiority to another famous party; he traces the outline of Mrs. Dalloway onto the remembered flesh of his former lover, and in so doing reveals anew the circuitry of the mind.

I enjoyed this book immensely! Not having anything like fluency in French, I can’t say if Paris Review editor Lorin Stein’s translation was faithful, but I can tell you that it was beautiful. Great stuff!

Woolf, To the Lighthouse book cover

I read this little gem on my sofa, with tea, as the diluted winter light spilled in through my large front window; all in all the  pretty much perfect conditions for reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

Now, I knew going into it that I was in for a treat (I’d read Mrs. Dalloway in school and “Street Haunting“on the bus), but I didn’t realize how pampered I would feel by the lush prose, or the lovingly rendered vignettes. The book is structured into three sections, and the first section is a psychological collage reflecting one end of summer afternoon on the Isle of Skye. The characters are the Ramsay Family and a loose collection of boarders in the their big country home, and the narrative is a tapestry woven together from the many dropped threads that make up each characters thoughts and impressions, which frays even as it is being woven.

Man, I liked this book. Woolf took on a lot of thematic content in this little volume, and I am not exactly qualified to unpack all of it, especially here. Nonetheless, I can’t help but come back, again and again,  to two specific little things that tie together a number of the characters. So many of the fragmented thoughts and observations that make up the bulk of the text are devoted to excellence, to creation, to worrying about being excellent, to the compulsive machinations of a mind racing towards excellence.  And yet, at the same time, these characters are equally obsessed with intimacy, with empathy, with sympathy, with that feeling of togetherness. They are always pairing off, teaming up, or taking measure of each others emotions, always crashing up against each other in search of admiration and intimacy. There’s something in the way that Lilly Briscoe, in particular, tangles up her ideas about love and about her work that is staggeringly beautiful.

I’m stoked to read some more Woolf this year! Flush and Moments of Being are both in queue.

Barthes

 

An autobiography written by the author of “the Death of the Author”? Who could resist? Not this nerdy-bird.

Barthes built a playground out of language, and never so much as in this text, a playground out of his own body, his corpus, his work.  Evading the prison of the self, this ramshackle autobiography celebrates instead the pleasures of liberal subjectivity, while at the same time shyly implicating itself in the closed and alienated world of a classed jargon.

My favorite passages are those that stem from the pleasure of praxis: Barthes evokes beautifully the joy of painting, of being an amateur, of hobbies (rather than occupations).

In a number of the fragments, Barthes plays a small joke on the reader, giving scraps of detail from his life, conventionally laying out his likes and dislikes, his memories of a street he walked down in childhood, driving through the country, and then suddenly annihilates those details, revokes the meaning from supposedly meaningful things, and shows us the raw face of the text instead.

All in all there underlies a passion and a hunger for more, for the beauties of experience to be caressed by the elegant hands of the text.