5/17/22

Interstitial Artelligence finds two writers circling around ideations of theory-fiction, poetry, the labyrinth, the semi-organic, and more. In the lineage of the tete-beche, both march towards the center of the book-object, crossing the thresholds of the paratext to find what is at the nodal point–the center of the zone–the bibliomantic fetish

 


Interstitial Artelligence (vol. I), Center for

Experimental Ontology, 2022


The CEO finally launches its biggest project yet, with a whopping 500+ pages and experimental formatting, it presents our biggest step in making this a viable venue for more robust projects beyond the journal. This is volume I out of III, with volume II already finished as well. A multi-continental babe.

Interstitial Artelligence finds two writers circling around ideations of theory-fiction, poetry, the labyrinth, the semi-organic, and more. In the lineage of the tete-beche, both march towards the center of the book-object, crossing the thresholds of the paratext to find what is at the nodal point–the center of the zone–the bibliomantic fetish.

Featuring essays by Emanuel Magno, German Sierra, Patricia McCormack, Amy Ireland, and Mike Corrao. Artwork by Mia-Jane Harris, axolotl and Gabriel Magno.


5/6/22

Kyle Coma-Thompson & Tristan Foster - The intimate, globe-spanning microportraits of human crisis in 926 Years are at once sobering and uplifting, clarifying and mystifying.This collection is a field of stars with no predetermined constellations mapped out. It shimmers in the void and pulls you in with its spectacular gravity

 


Kyle Coma-Thompson & Tristan Foster, 926

Years, Sublunary Editions, 2020


Through twenty-two linked stories, Tristan Foster and Kyle Coma-Thompson explore the creative potential of people's native estrangement from themselves and each other. Two writers who have never met, who live on opposite sides of the globe--one in Australia, the other in the United States--tracking the pattern of probable lives and fates that co-exist between them, from Korea to England, Senegal to Argentina. Their conclusion/suspicion: imagination is stronger, and subtler, than God, and offers more than mere consolation for the difficulties of living.


"The intimate, globe-spanning microportraits of human crisis in 926 Years are at once sobering and uplifting, clarifying and mystifying. Tristan Foster and Kyle Coma-Thompson's collaboration is a nonpareil of short-form virtuosity." —Gari Lutz


"Entering the world of '926 Years' was really exciting because it felt like anything could happen in these stories. Together, Kyle Coma-Thompson and Tristan Foster have created sharp, seamless prose that guided me through these inventive, unexpected stories full of images that will stay with me long after reading." —Chelsea Hodson


926 Years is a collaboration between Kyle Coma-Thompson and Tristan Foster. The book consists of 22 stories, each a paragraph long, and each paragraph no longer than the front and back of a 4.5″ x 7″ page. Each story is titled after a character plus the character’s age (e.g. “Chaplain Blake, age 60”; “Sebastian, age 30”; “Marty Fantastic, age 81”). (I have not done the math to see if all the ages add up to 926.) Although the characters never meet in the book’s prose, key sentences suggest that they may be connected via the reader’s imagination.

Indeed, the blurb on the back of 926 Years describes the book as “twenty-two linked stories.” After reading it twice, I don’t see 926 Years so much as a collection of connected tales, but rather as a kind of successful experimental novel, a novel that subtly and reflexively signals back to its own collaborative origin. Coma-Thompson lives in Louisville, Kentucky and Foster lives in Sydney, New South Wales. They’ve never met in person. And yet they share a common language, of course, and other common cultural forces surely shape their prose. (Melville’s Ishmael refers to Australia as “That great America on the other side of the sphere” in Ch. 24 of Moby-Dick.)

The book’s prose offers a consistency to the apparently discontinuous narrative pieces that comprise 926 Years. My first assumption was that Coma-Thompson and Foster traded narratives, but as I read and re-read, the prose’s stylistic consistency struck me more as a work of synthesis, of two writers tuning to each other and humming a new frequency. The sentences of 926 Years are predominantly short, and often fall into fragmentation, or elide their grammatical subject. Here’s an example from “Shelley Valentine, age 34”:

A flare of sansho pepper on the tongue tip. Catch the tree at the right time of year and the fruit bursts, raining peppercorns down. Maybe like the season when pistachios open, the night snapping like broken locust song. Used for seasoning eel. Sansho leaves for garnishing fish. Clap it between the hands for aroma, make a wish, the finishing touch to the perfect soup. In Korea, the unripe fruit was used for fishing. Poisonous to the smallest ones. That was cheating wasn’t it? Or was pulling up the fish all that mattered?

Eventually we can attribute these fragmented thoughts to Shelley Valentine, now well out of her magic twenties, drinking sansho-peppered gin and tonics in a “New bar, same lost , of course.” She’ll leave alone.

The characters in 926 Years move between isolation and connection, between fragmentation and re-integration. Here’s Larry Hoavis (age 47, by the way), sitting in a lawn chair in his rural backyard:

Why does it feel lonely, sitting and watching? Nature in its subtle power and monotony, pre-Internet to the core, unconscious of its enormity. No one. No one knows he’s even here. The house at his back. Divorced. His ex elsewhere, how he loved her, hurt her, himself. Why’s it beautiful, why’s it comforting, that no one knows?

Hoavis’s lonely transcendental private (and tequila-tinged) reverie of disconnection reinforces 926 Years’ themes of interconnection coupled with disintegration. In one of my favorite tales, “Lew Wade Wiley, age 55,” we learn of the “Spoiled heir of the Prudential fortune” who collects other people’s lives. He has them brought to his Boston penthouse to offer

their worst fears, desires, the messy embarrassments of their commonalities…these he worked into undead monotone prose, the diary of Lew Wade Wiley, and so lived fuller than anyone who’d opened a newspaper to read those advertisements, wrote to that listed address, knocked at his penthouse door.

The adjective “undead” above fits into a resurrection motif that floats through 926 Years, whether it be the lifeforce of currency or the proverbial powers of cats to cheat death. Sometimes the resurrection is a kind of inspiriting force, as one character, overwhelmed by aesthetic possibility that “knocked the air out of him” experiences: “It had reminded him of a moment in a childhood that wasn’t his.”

Elsewhere, we see resurrection at a genetic level, as in “Mrs. Anderson, age 67,” whose psychologist describes to her the “cherry blossom” experiment, the results of which suggest that fear and anxiety to specific aesthetic stimuli can be passed down from generation to generation.

Reincarnation becomes both figurative and literal in the case of the lounge star Marty Fantastic, “Eighty-one-year-old darling with ten faces (one for each lift)…The plague of identities—who to be tonight, Peggy Lee, Rod Stewart, Cole Porter, Journey?” The oldest (and penultimate) character in 926 Years, Marty reflects on his own death as he gazes at his audience: “The songs of their future–what about those? They lyrics set in stone, the melodies: unknown.” The lovely little couplet suggest a complex relationship of aesthetic substance and aesthetic spirit.

The final piece in 926 Years–well, I won’t spoil it, I’ll simply say it kept me thinking, made me happy in a strange, nervous way. It features the youngest character in the book, and it points clearly if subtly to the book’s affirmation of imaginative and aesthetic possibility as a kind of crucial lifeforce. I’ll close instead with something from the book’s third tale, a little moment early on when 926 Years clicked for me:

Much as the geese and other such birds at the beginning of winter months fly south towards more temperate climates, it’s the nature of human beings to move in unconscious arrow formation as well. They take turns, leading the pack. The burden of cutting resistance through the air, something they share. Others fly, you see, in the wake; and that is why they form a V. The wake makes for easy flying, particularly at the furthest, outermost edges. The ones in the rear work less, conserve strength, eventually make their way towards the top of the V, tip of the arrow, then when it’s time and the leader has tired, assume the vanguard position. It is written into them by instinct to share the effort, burrowing southwards through the sky; that nevertheless sky we all live below. - https://biblioklept.org/2020/01/30/that-nevertheless-sky-we-all-live-below-a-review-of-kyle-coma-thompson-and-tristan-fosters-926-years/



926 years is a collaborative project by two writers who have purportedly only met via email & in the 17th issue of The White Review: the Louisville-based Kyle Coma-Thompson, & the Sydney-based Tristan Foster. According to the book’s witty annotation, between the two of them, the writers “track the pattern of probable lives and fates that co-exist between them, from Korea to England, Senegal to Argentina.” Their conclusion: imagination “offers more than mere consolation for the difficulties of living.”

926 Years takes its motto from a January 1, 1942 diary entry by Victor Klemperer: “It is said children still have a sense of wonder, later one becomes blunted.—Nonsense. A child takes things for granted, and most people get no further; only an old person, who thinks, is aware of the wondrous.” The slim book contains 22 single-page-long pieces of micro-fiction which sketch situations—as meaningful as banal, both repetitive & unique—in the lives of 22 different characters, with the name & age of each protagonist providing their titles (e.g. “Chaplain Blake, age 60”; “Sebastian, age 30”; “Marty Fantastic, age 81”). The ages—if one does do the math—adding up to a total of 926 years. In Joseph Schreiber’s words, this book is “a sideways glance into 926 cumulative years of human existence”.

To call the stories, as does the annotation, “linked” is to speak conceptually rather than in the literary terms of plotline connections or thematic analogies. These 22 characters have never met, lead very different lives, & face situations of a highly variegated kind. They are as disconnected by place (geographic location) & time (age) as they can be: perhaps these vignettes take place simultaneously, perhaps sequentially, perhaps partly both. Perhaps they are all set in the weirdly distanced & isolated year of 2020, perhaps they are atemporal.

Distanced & isolated is the 47 year-old Larry Hoavis, pondering in the backyard of his native town the looming radio towers, darkly distant:

Why does it feel lonely, sitting and watching? Nature in its subtle power and monotony, pre-Internet to the core, unconscious of its enormity. No one. No one even knows he’s here. The house at his back. Divorced. His ex elsewhere , how he loved her, hurt her, himself. Why’s it beautiful, why’s it comforting, that no one knows? The crickets bleeping in the grass around him, the corn growing before him. Far lights pulsing like heartbeats, waiting for lives and bodies to grow around. Loneliness, it’s inarguable isn’t it? Crowns a person like some kind of common wisdom. Then overthrows him. (16)

Some stories are thusly wistful & poignant, others are informed by a Lynchian surreal humour, as in the “Minda, age 35” vignette, which concerns a couple of hippies who after the birth of their child eat its afterbirth, only to find out that due to a mix-up they ate the “wrong slime,” becoming “cannibals” thereby (19). Following a victory in a year-long suit, they get “the rights to the afterbirth, which, by this time, mind you, is A YEAR OLD” (20). Laugh-out-loud stuff.

Many stories are thematically engaged with the subject-as-multitude motif. “G.W.W., age 54” concerns a woman who spends a lifetime getting engaged to prison inmates, just at when she has reached her fortieth engagement, with forty different purses containing forty different ID’s & identities. “Lew Wade Wiley, age 55,” tells the tale of the suicide of a Prudentia company heir who collects other people’s lives by having them brought to his suite & relate

their worst fears, desires, the messy embarrassments of their commonalities…these he worked into undead monotone prose, the diary of Lew Wade Wiley, and so lived fuller than anyone who’d opened a newspaper to read those advertisements, wrote to that listed address, knocked at his penthouse door. (27)

Reviewing 926 Years for Biblioklept, Edwin Turner notes how the adjective “undead” in the passage above fits into “a resurrection motif that floats through 926 Years, whether it be the lifeforce of currency or the proverbial powers of cats to cheat death.”

These multiple narratives of a “multiple-personality order” reach a literalised climax in the penultimate instalment with “Marty Fantastic, 81”, described as “eighty-one-year-old darling with ten faces (one for each lift)” & who is “plagued by identities—who to be tonight, Peggy Lee, Rod Stewart, Cole Porter, Journey?” (51) Marty “do the police in many voices”, but his own death is only one & his. But perhaps not, perhaps it points elsewhere, connecting to another place.

When searching for the stories’ interlinkage, Schreiber was similarly at a loss:

One imagines each author taking turns, challenging the other, triggering the next effort. Perhaps there were complex rules, elaborate algorithms. Perhaps a roll of the dice or a measure of blind faith. […] Entering one world after another, spaces filled with souls that seem somehow disconnected from their lives—from their jobs, their relationships, their health, or from the simpler beings around them—a curious reader might be inclined to look for points of reference loosely linking one story to the next.

Turner even summoned the ghost of the novel:

After reading it twice, I don’t see 926 Years so much as a collection of connected tales, but rather as a kind of successful experimental novel, a novel that subtly and reflexively signals back to its own collaborative origin. [… The two authors] have never met in person. And yet they share a common language, of course, and other common cultural forces surely shape their prose.

One kind of these stories’ cohesion is the stylistic one: “the same melancholy voice seems to narrate all these pieces” (Mario Galeano). The sentences of these vignettes are short, & usually spring from the first-/third-person sphere of the free-indirect-discourse. Another kind of cohesion is the pragmatic one: the “effect” of this stories leaves one humbled, aware that “there are 7.8 billion live people in the world, each with their own story” (Jyoti Verma).

But if the socially-distanced 2020, happening in quarantine & via Zoom for so many of us, was the year of “distance connections” & of “connecting the unconnected,” of loneliness en masse hitherto unseen, the great connector among these might indeed be their exploration of “the creative potential of people’s native estrangement from themselves and each other.” Wildly imaginative, complexly interlinked, & generically innovative, 926 Years offers an arresting image for this loneliness in multitude & connectedness in distance early on, in story no. 3:

Much as the geese and other such birds at the beginning of winter months fly south towards more temperate climates, it’s the nature of human beings to move in unconscious arrow formation as well. They take turns, leading the pack. The burden of cutting resistance through the air, something they share. Others fly, you see, in the wake; and that is why they form a V. The wake makes for easy flying, particularly at the furthest, outermost edges. The ones in the rear work less, conserve strength, eventually make their way towards the top of the V, tip of the arrow, then when it’s time and the leader has tired, assume the vanguard position. It is written into them by instinct to share the effort, burrowing southwards through the sky; that nevertheless sky we all live below. (5) - David Vichnar

https://equuspress.wordpress.com/2021/01/08/to-miniaturize-is-also-to-conceal-the-recent-work-of-vik-shirley-jessica-sequeira-christina-tudor-sideri-and-kyle-coma-thompson-tristan-foster-sublunary-editions/



The universe is a big empty space, small clusters of stars and planets stretch across impossible horizons and, even if you are lucky enough to find yourself on one of the statistically unlikely chunks of rock that might just support (apparently) intelligent life, the chances that you will gather around yourself a few precious like-minded souls to nourish your own creative dreams and endeavours within spitting distance is another statistical unlikelihood, though much less unlikely than finding enough oxygen and water available to allow for your own existential possibility. Period.

Imagine, then, the good fortune that led one somewhat cynical Australian writer in Sydney to chance upon the work of an American (sorry but I have no idea what his temperamental tendencies are) writer from Louisville, Kentucky in the 17th issue of The White Review. What started as writerly admiration grew, thanks to the magic of email, into a friendship and now, some three years or so later a book-shaped collaboration. Twenty-two pieces of micro fiction. A literary game of call and response. A sideways glance into 926 cumulative years of human existence.

Each story, or vignette, is titled after the central character and his or her age. One imagines each author taking turns, challenging the other, triggering the next effort. Perhaps there were complex rules, elaborate algorithms. Perhaps a roll of the dice or a measure of blind faith. I don’t know. Entering one world after another, spaces filled with souls that seem somehow disconnected from their lives—from their jobs, their relationships, their health, or from the simpler beings around them—a curious reader (okay, I’m guilty) might be inclined to look for points of reference loosely linking one story to the next. Yet, the opportunity to slip in and out of a variety of experiences is its own reward. A connection to the unconnected. Like 47 year-old Larry Hoavis, sitting in his rural backyard, reflecting on the radio towers in the distance, their lights flashing in the darkness:

Why does it feel lonely, sitting and watching? Nature in its subtle power and monotony, pre-Internet to the core, unconscious of its enormity. No one. No one even knows he’s here. The house at his back. Divorced. His ex elsewhere , how he loved her, hurt her, himself. Why’s it beautiful, why’s it comforting, that no one knows? The crickets bleeping in the grass around him, the corn growing before him. Far lights pulsing like heartbeats, waiting for lives and bodies to grow around. Loneliness, it’s inarguable isn’t it? Crowns a person like some kind of common wisdom. Then overthrows him.

Each moment, painful, precious, perfect.

926 Years by Kyle-Coma Thompson and Tristan Foster, the American and Australian co-conspirators, is the second small book to emerge from Joshua Rothes’ Sublunary Editions (I reviewed the first, Falstaff: Apotheosis here, and interviewed Rothes for 3:AM Magazine here). The collaborative effort—not just between the authors but with the editor/publisher—gives this project its energy and sets a wonderfully realistic and realizable model for creating literature that is fresh and original. One that invites and encourages other like-minded spirits to imagine their own projects and help make this lonely habitable rock a little less lonely. - https://roughghosts.com/2020/01/22/older-than-yesterday-younger-than-god-926-years-by-kyle-coma-thompson-and-tristan-foster/



This month on the podcast, we’re featuring a conversation betweenTristan Foster and Kyle Coma-Thompson, co-authors of the new book 926 Years, a series of twenty-two linked stories ruminating on imagination and god and life. It goes deep. It goes there.


Kyle Coma-Thompson is the author of the short story collections The Lucky Body and Night in the Sun. His work has been anthologized in New American Stories (Vintage, 2015) and Twenty-Five Rooms (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019). He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.

Tristan Foster is a writer from Sydney, Australia. His short story collection Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father was published by Transmission Press.



Erich Mühsam - made his ironic bid for authorial immortality by announcing his discovery that immortality in fact exists--specifically in the person of the Rich Aunt. Through 25 case studies, arranged alphabetically, Mühsam argues his case: the Rich Aunt is able to live forever provided she has a nephew waiting for her demise and for his inheritance

 


Erich Mühsam, Psychology of the Rich Aunt:

Being an Inquiry, in Twenty-Five Parts, Into the

Question of Immortality, Trans. by Erik Butler,

Wakefield Press, 2018 [1905]


With Psychology of the Rich Aunt, German author Erich Mühsam made his ironic bid for authorial immortality by announcing his discovery that immortality in fact exists--specifically in the person of the Rich Aunt. Through 25 case studies, arranged alphabetically (from Aunt Amalia to Aunt Zerlinde), Mühsam argues his case: the Rich Aunt is able to live forever provided she has a nephew waiting for her demise and for his inheritance. The corollary revealed in these tales, of course, is that a Rich Aunt's eternal rest is directly tied to her nephew's deprivation of said inheritance. The pathways to an immortal's demise can thus be the result of anything from the vagrancies of sexual proclivities or the stock market to the unforeseen expenses of literary ambitions. The Rich Aunt emerges as the enduring fly in the ointment of Church, Family and State, the undoing of fate personified and the transformation of morality into mortality under the aegis of Capital.

Originally published in German in 1905, Psychology of the Rich Aunt is a caustically tongue-in-cheek portrayal of greed under capitalism in the bourgeois epoch.



Once upon a time, when families were larger and women’s lives were more circumscribed than now, the category of “Rich Aunt” arose. (Mühsam’s book was originally published in 1905.) Spinster or widow, these were women who—according to Erich Mühsam’s taxonomy—were assumed to by avaricious kin to possess enormous fortunes that would surely all be theirs one day. The psychology of the rich aunt depends equally upon the psychology of the (non-) deserving nephews and nieces, who often do what they can to speed up the mortality process in the wretched beast they would otherwise have nothing to do with, in order to pay off bills they have accumulated in anticipation of future riches. In other words, the 25 profiles of rich aunts, alphabetically arranged, serve as a catalog of schadenfreude for readers.

https://www.thebookbeat.com/backroom/2021/01/31/wakefield-press/



Erich Mühsam, Liberating Society from the State and Other Writings: A Political Reader, Trans. by Gabriel Kuhn, PM Press, 2011


Featuring a riveting collection of anarcho-communist poetry, essays, articles, and diary entries, this translation of Erich Mühsam’s legendary writings introduces the German revolutionary’s ideas to English speakers for the first time. Uniting a burning desire for individual liberation with radical, left-wing convictions and bohemian strains with syndicalist tendencies, this diverse body of work not only includes his main political pamphlet and one of the key texts in the history of German anarchism but also some of his best-known poems, unbending defenses of political prisoners, passionate calls for solidarity among the proletariat, recollections of the utopian community of Monte Verità, debates on the rights of homosexuals and women, and the role of intellectuals in the class struggle. Perfect for anarchists, activists, or those interested in German history, this expansive and enlightening compilation provides a deep understanding of this important historical figure.


 “It has been remarked before how the history of the German libertarian and anarchist movement has yet to be written, and so the project to begin translation of some of the key works of Mühsam—one of the great names of German anarchism, yet virtually unknown in the English-speaking world—is most welcome. The struggles of the German working class in the early 20th century are perhaps some of the most bitter and misunderstood in European history, and it is time they were paid more attention. This book is the right place to start.” —Richard Parry


“We need new ideas. How about studying the ideal for which Erich Mühsam lived, worked, and died?”—Augustin Souchy


Erich Mühsam (1878–1934), poet, bohemian, revolutionary, is one of Germany’s most renowned and influential anarchists. Born into a middle-class Jewish family, he challenged the conventions of bourgeois society at the turn of the century, engaged in heated debates on the rights of women and homosexuals, and traveled Europe in search of radical communes and artist colonies. He was a primary instigator of the ill-fated Bavarian Council Republic in 1919 and held the libertarian banner high during a Weimar Republic that came under increasing threat by right-wing forces. In 1933, four weeks after Hitler’s ascension to power, Mühsam was arrested in his Berlin home. He spent the last sixteen months of his life in detention and died in the Oranienburg Concentration Camp in July 1934.

Mühsam wrote poetry, plays, essays, articles, and diaries. His work unites a burning desire for individual liberation with anarcho-communist convictions, and bohemian strains with syndicalist tendencies. The body of his writings is immense, yet hardly any English translations have been available before now. This collection presents not only Liberating Society from the State: What Is Communist Anarchism?, Mühsam’s main political pamphlet and one of the key texts in the history of German anarchism, but also some of his best-known poems, unbending defenses of political prisoners, passionate calls for solidarity with the lumpenproletariat, recollections of the utopian community of Monte Verità, debates on the rights of homosexuals and women, excerpts from his journals, and essays contemplating German politics and anarchist theory as much as Jewish identity and the role of intellectuals in the class struggle.

An appendix documents the fate of Zenzl Mühsam, who, after her husband’s death, escaped to the Soviet Union where she spent twenty years in Gulag camps.

[name of author] - Presented as a detailed, chapter-by-chapter outline of post-modern novel, this is a tip of the hat to Lawrence Sterne’s Tristan Shandy (with the works of many other authors alluded to) and a parody of literary conventions, genres, and tropes.


[name of author], [title], [independent “prestige” press (aka / Sublunary Editions), 2021


"It would open with a formulated flourish (ideas rather than things), which is not to suggest an absence of the conventional flora and fauna, fabricated objects, location with human figures in it, etc., but merely to admit the immaterial evidence of any such mise-en-scène. Presuming this caveat’s taken as read, the flourish would leave it foregone and proceed with unremarked artifice to its point of departure."

“Perfunctory mentor blurb” —Venerable literary figure who directs [name of author]’s Creative Writing Program

“Prestige by association blurb” —Acclaimed [novelist/poet/essayist/playwright] who won the prestigious award given to individuals who excel in that particular genre

“Conceptual buzz words blurb” —Post-modern [theorist/artist/filmmaker]

[Title] is a book that pulls apart the relationships among reader, writer, and text, doing it with [humor/pathos] and [aplomb/wanton disregard], in the spirit of [undersung writer's writer].

[Name of author] was born in [#### Anno Domini], in [major metropolis/rural outpost/overseas] and was educated at [prestigious university/notable MFA program/public library]. He’s written a number of other books, several of which were [praised/ awarded/banned/remaindered]. He now lives in [university town/upstate village/parts unknown] where he [academic post and/or marital status] and where he continues to [etc., etc.] or recently perished in a tragic [etc.]



Presented as a detailed, chapter-by-chapter outline of post-modern novel, [name of author]’s [title] is a tip of the hat to Lawrence Sterne’s Tristan Shandy (with the works of many other authors alluded to) and a parody of literary conventions, genres, and tropes. As with some of the finest avant-garde literature, [title] has no plot—Fictional Character is usually just waking from sleep or a bad fall as the Narrator wonders on Fictional Character’s behalf why he (“pronominal evidence suggests male”) should get up and what he should do. Clearly, [name of author] has been collecting examples of avant-garde clichés for a long time. I don’t know the background to the [title]’s composition, but I can imagine its origins as a list of conventions and clichés which were then transformed—solely for the author’s own amusement—into a book. It’s kind of an in-joke for a certain set of readers and well worth the read. I suspect that [title] will fly—or sputter, more likely—under the radar, but it really deserves a wider audience. Apart from a good bit of intellectual fun, it also can serve as a type of study in rhetorical structures and choices building materials.

https://www.thebookbeat.com/backroom/2022/03/11/ten-books-under-100-pages/


excerpts:


Chapter 1


It would open with a formulated flourish (ideas rather than things), which is not to suggest an absence of the conventional flora and fauna, fabricated objects, location with human figures in it, etc., but merely to admit the immaterial evidence of any such mise-en-scène. Presuming this caveat’s taken as read, the flourish would leave it foregone and proceed with unremarked artifice to its point of departure.


At this particular point (for narrative’s sake we’ll posit particularity) the volume would open into a well-lighted room. There (here), you’d comprise the only organic matter (the ersatz human figure), drawn in by the aforementioned flourish and then:


Fictional Character would make an appearance. Or rather, you would (he’d presumably have been where he is). An arrival met with no niceties (you’re not greeted, asked in, etc.). There’ll be no interlocution, nor human contact, but you’ve made such visitations before and are familiar with the protocol. Fictional Character would take you for a fly on the fourth wall and go about his business.


Who is this Fictional Character? you’ll wonder as a matter of course and make the preliminary deduction that since he is solitary, he must be Protagonist (by default). And pronominal evidence suggests male. Over the course of the narrative you may begin to question the efficacy of deduction, but for now you’re decided: Protagonist. Male.


And what race is he? What faith? What socio-economic class? you’ll need to know because you’re intrusive and exacting in this role. Here (there), minding your own business would be counterintuitive.


And what’s he look like? You’ll want his hair, eyes and skin colored in, informing a visage of tone and contour. You’ll want his build built (will want his body). You’ll want a full measure of “flesh” and won’t be satisfied until you get it.


You’ll want the time of day, month, year (past, present, future?). You’ll want his whereabouts divulged (and by association, yours). All in due time (one can only imagine).


For now you’re compelled to situate Protagonist in the Anglophone world.


You don’t know where you are in this world, could be literally anywhere or more precariously—elsewhere. Protagonist’s failsafe being that he won’t, strictly speaking, be where he is, whereas you’ll have no such exemption.


Chapter 2


Would reopen with another formulated flourish. Be forewarned, the text will be riddled with writing. You’ll grow so wary (and/or weary) of words that by the uppermost arc of the narrative you’ll be craving action and want to just get on with your life. This prospect may prove daunting, however, and so there’s a good chance you’ll opt to read on (and on).


As you read the first sentence of the second paragraph of Chapter 2, you notice that Protagonist has not, as yet, moved a muscle. Nor, to be sure, evinced aught of his appearance. He is merely there (here) in this (that) well-lighted place.


Then you note the “facial tic” (introducing the still featureless “face”). The “brow” beginning to “furrow.” The almost perceptible sound of “grinding teeth.”


You’re beginning to make out Protagonist’s form when he suddenly “thrusts himself out of his chair” like an/a [undetonated firework/arthritic jack-in-the-box/ flightless bird having a last go at gravity]. On his feet, he begins to pace with a captive animal’s gait reminiscent of [Rilke’s panther/MacNiece’s wolf/Nabokov’s ape]. Is always already restless when you happen upon him.


You do not see Protagonist pacing or if you do it’s a Protagonist of your own making in the mind’s eye. Perhaps you’ve featured him, provisionally. Colored in and contoured his superficies. Perhaps even performed a pronominal gender reassignment— or what you will.


And yet such initiative would be out of character. More likely you’re awaiting a tug at the leash of our story’s seeing-eye-dog and the only Protagonist you see pacing is “Protagonist paces.” In this same regard, you’ll read his thoughts as they proceed to stream across the page. You have telepathic powers from this point of view, but are otherwise impotent. You can know everything, but do nothing about it.


Chapter 3


More writing (re: the passage of time, human nature, etc.).


Fictional Character’s plight plotted. Woes chronicled and present perils posed. Distinctive traits emerge.


Tonal calibration. Mood set. Adumbration of major conceit.


…Foreshadowing…? Could be. Could very well be.


[photo of author with his dog of indeterminate breed]

https://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/title-an-excerpt/



CHAPTER 17


Agon established, the narrative begins its initial thrust. After the fact. It is another flashback, but so distinctively incarnated you mistake it for the present at present. (Truth be told, the well-lighted room is fixed and ever-present, so this is an honest mistake. Therein [herein], one can only pretend to move back and forth in time/space.)

An anachronistic, Victorian epistle arrives for Protagonist and the two of you read it silently (though you can almost hear Protagonist mumbling the words under his breath like a child who needs to sound everything out). You expect it to introduce an antagonist or love interest, shed light on the past and present, or at the very least set a course of events in motion. Perhaps it does, but you can’t tell how. Protagonist writes out an equally esoteric reply and deposits it in the postbox at the corner of those two busy thoroughfares of his resident anywhere.

A few days later another letter arrives. And the next day several more letters. By the end of autumn (it’s always already the fall where he is), Protagonist is receiving whole sacks of mail. He could never have dreamed he had so many correspondents. He’d been theretofore unaware he had any.

This epistolary episode lasts for well over ten thousand thousand [sic] pages, spanning more than two decade’s duration in the narrative and bringing Protagonist to the moment you’d met him in this (that) well-lighted place. Each day Protagonist kneels over his prie-dieu, reading and feverishly scribbling away, but is unable to stay the course of this paper trail. After what seems like a lifetime (or a more daunting prospect: has been), Protagonist concedes the comprehensive futility of this preoccupation and vows to “get on with it”—it being life presumably. (Though his recidivism is inevitable, essential, in progress.) He goes to the post office and puts a hold on his mail. Returns to the formerly well-lit room and sits quietly in the dark like a [Carthusian monk/root vegetable/museum piece after hours].


CHAPTER 18


There is great significance in the aforementioned missives, which Protagonist now proceeds to dispose of (into the voluminous recycling bin beside the gargantuan dumpster out back). The narrative’s cipher key is, in fact, embedded in this colossal haystack of letters (you could pinpoint the crux of the curse therein), but you weren’t about to plough through a million plus pages of what seemed to you to be the maniacal ravings of Freemasons, pyramid scheme solicitations and litigious letters to Santa. You don’t have that much spare time to give and you’d have had to give years, if not the rest of your life in the endeavor (to not just read, but comprehend).

You’re beginning to get the feeling that this is precisely what the narrative requires of you. The rest of your life.


CHAPTER 21


Now the room is empty and the lights are off. Protagonist is elsewhere (once removed from his resident anywhere) and Narrator omits informing you of his whereabouts. You’re compelled to imagine where he is and what he might be doing.

And true to form, that is exactly where he is and what he’s doing.

https://minorliteratures.com/2021/12/10/title-excerpt-name-of-author/



Rocío Ágreda Piérola - Think philosophy—Wittgenstein, Derrida, or Merleau-Ponty—rendered via poetry, borne along by elements of surrealism, dream-journaling, and ecstatic communion. “I’m an illiterate man” who is “going to learn to write” to “cure myself of you” by “spitting out a book.”

 

Rocío Ágreda Piérola, Horses Drawn with Blue

Chalk, Trans. by Jessica Sequeira, Ugly

Duckling Presse, 2021


The work of the philosopher-poet Rocío Ágreda Piérola is full of ghostly traces, smudged lines from the past turned with care into new forms through references to writers like Héctor Viel Temperley and Dante, rewritings of Biblical verses, redraftings of personal memory, and forays into history with the Spanish conquistadors. In Horses Drawn with Blue Chalk, Ágreda Piérola’s sensuous language is populated by animals (hyenas, wolves, birds, cats, shoals of fish), parts of the body (the tongue, the nervous system), and the physical stuff of childhood (those horses drawn with blue chalk, erased from the wall yet forever archived in memory, to be drawn and redrawn). The questions here of how to create meaning from solitude and silence do not rely on any facile premade identities or autobiographical intimacies, but seek constantly to unsettle the known, challenging given truths to forge a meaningful communication.


Thinking always leads to madness, according to Maurice Blanchot. Poetic writing could be the trace of that madness, at least the writing of Rocío Ágreda Piérola. She speaks in a language unknown even to herself, for it is the clear, strange language of the illiterate who conceals and spits her vision through her voice of night. She might take as her own the words of the mysterious poet Héctor Viel Temperley: "I meet with my poetry when I don't know how to write it.” Opening Horses Drawn with Blue Chalk, we witness the radiance of this meeting, swimming through her house of water. - Stéphane Chaumet


Horses Drawn with Blue Chalk, by Bolivian poet Rocío Ágreda Piérola as translated by Jessica Sequeira in a well-fashioned bilingual edition from Ugly Duckling Presse, challenges and frustrates for all the best reasons. Think philosophy—Wittgenstein, Derrida, or Merleau-Ponty—rendered via poetry, borne along by elements of surrealism, dream-journaling, and ecstatic communion. Ágreda Piérola uses language (“despotic words,”18) to subvert, interrogate and refute language itself—her work exhilarates in its daring. When language as a tool cannot define or defend itself, Ágreda Piérola reduces words to “delirious fragments” (3), finds language in silence and in illiteracy, attempts to make isometric the event experienced with the event recounted (or possibly foretold). Heady stuff, which she manages with aplomb. Sequeira's translation is more than up to the challenge (no easy feat!), and her notes are also very helpful.

Ágreda Piérola focuses on the temporality of language, on time's passage between the start and ending of any utterance or writing. In so doing, she erases the illusion of language's fixed points in time, of the seeming permanence of text through time. “Maybe if I could at least lend a hand to time,” she writes (1); “We'll always be late or too early never on time”(10); “Yet what matters isn't arrival but the journey, to weave, knit time or unknit it” (4). Hence the title image, that of horses drawn with blue chalk on the walls of her childhood street, gone when she returns in adulthood (6). The symbol existed once, and now does not. And language may not be enough to preserve meaning, it may be an “amnesiac goddess” (8). How then can we can resist its siren call (Ágreda Piérola refers to the Sirens several times)?

Our religion has been silence” (10) is Ágreda Piérola's first response. She insists on the vital sanctity of “ precious solitude” (page 4): “I plow this desert. I cultivate the onions of silence” (page 2). She summons allies, with quotes from Maurice Blanchot, Franz Wright, and Héctor Viel Temperley. Like them, Ágreda Piérola offers a way forward—silence as a cure, not a calamity. She aims to “unwork” language to re-create time, to yield “a secret movement / an unknown music” (18), to “cultivate a form of speaking that isn't collapse” (13). She yearns for reconstruction: “...from the depth of language a certain intelligence speaks […] Somehow I must make even language arrive” (4).

Ultimately, the goal is to make a language as it might have been in the very beginning, completely limpid. “It's as if my language were a material that molded itself perfectly to my thought, with no tension, no need for agony” (1). Her effort reminds me of, among others, Duchamp's work, that of Ribemont-Dessaignes, Tzara and other Dadaists, of Ionescu and Robbe-Grillet—breaking into the internal workings of meaning to repair and transcend it. Joyceans are likely to enjoy Horses Drawn with Blue Chalk, perhaps aficionados of Anthony Braxton or The Art Ensemble of Chicago may as well.

Most impressive of all, Ágreda Piérola delves into paradox and phenomenology without being either glib or sententious. Indeed, she maintains a sense of play throughout, with sly, tantalizing references to (among others) Dante, E.T.A. Hoffmann, the Russian actress Margarita Terekhova, Spinoza, perhaps Ingeborg Bachmann. We should all be grateful that Ugly Duckling Presse published Horses Drawn with Blue Chalk, and hope that Ágreda Piérola continues to gain a wider audience among Anglophones (with Sequeiros as translator and guide). As the poet says in the translator's words (4):“the absence you've imposed on me is priceless, my love. How will I repay you?” - Daniel A. Rabuzzi

https://www.overheardlit.com/post/rabuzzi-review



The prose poem that opens Horses Drawn with Blue Chalk, “Sunlight Will Win,” reads like an invocation to the book’s themes. Openly unreliable, the narrator states about the story he is going to tell, “It was dictated to me, or maybe I’m inventing it right now. . . This isn’t completely true.” “I’m in a hospital. . . I have no inner world.” The narrator’s uncertainty regarding what is truthful, we are assured, is not an evasion or due his inability to articulate his thoughts: “It’s as if my language were a material that molded itself perfectly to my thought.” And yet, “I’m not happy about this way of describing. It’s too imprecise.” “I’m an illiterate man” who is “going to learn to write” to “cure myself of you” by “spit[ting] out a book.”

If this is the book, the spit consists of time, solitude, and silence, and the ambiguous malleability of language. Just as a word’s semantic content changes over time, what happens over time as a cultural practice can change too:

within that silence I build my house I sharpen my pencils

and brush my hair

within that house I bless the light and its caress

within that house I laugh like a madwoman

I pick out my dress my century and my country

at the exact level of my error

within that house I undo and outdo myself

I convince myself it’s been the only way century after century

until now

(from “Autumn Stabs Us from Its Pages”)

It’s that “until now” the poem builds toward, transforming the words into a poem. Every verb represents a self-chosen and self-building act—the uncertainty and incoherence of the book’s beginning have been channeled through and transformed by the discipline of gaining literacies of the self, culture, and communication into “a form of speaking that isn’t collapse, / a serpent’s language to save me / when I plummet.”

Jessica Sequira’s translation is, as usual, lucid, with rhythms that match English’s natural patterns.

- https://www.thebookbeat.com/backroom/2022/03/11/ten-books-under-100-pages/



Translated from the Spanish by Jessica Sequeira, Horses Drawn with Blue Chalk (42 pages; Ugly Duckling Presse) is Bolivian poet Rocío Ágreda Piérola’s first English publication, a bilingual presentation of poems from her 2017 chapbook, Detritus, and prose fragments from her working manuscript Quetiapine 400mg. In her introduction, Sequeira aligns the collection with the work of Argentine poets such as Hugo Mujica and Héctor Viel Temperley, situating Horses Drawn with Blue Chalk at the interstice of “carnality, communion and the word.”

The opening excerpts from Ágreda Piérola’s manuscript make a bid for fragmentation as a means of “reconstructing and vanquishing [time],” setting the tone for the collection’s halting exploration of what Sequeira describes as the written word’s “poetic abyss.” “Somehow I must make even language arrive,” the poet writes. The prose segments and proceeding ten poems in Horses Drawn with Blue Chalk address this imperative. In Ágreda Piérola’s words: “I go yellow/I confront no answer.”

Sequeira accurately describes Ágreda Piérola’s poetic project as an “unworking” of language, an “un-inhabiting” made manifest in different forms of lyrical absences (“empty spaces, temples, deserts and wastelands, somewhere between ruins and new worlds”). The work appears to emerge from the negative space “between an event and the way it’s narrated,” a sense bolstered by Ágreda Piérola’s greater refusal of language as an instrument of order or sense-making (“a wasteland of symbols”).

I’ve seen despotic worlds

leading armies

putting out fires

I’ve seen silences

ghosts of dentures

[…]

an unknown music

As she plainly states, “To see what I want it’s necessary/to not look to leave things boiling jumbled as possibility.” The absences afforded in fragmentation seem to allow for this sort of jumbling, making space for what Ágreda Piérola calls the “expansive flocks of being.”

silence is a minefield with mute children running

as an imprecise heart beats

Horses Drawn with Blue Chalk imagines language as an “unlimited spectrum of micro-visions,” one whose fragments or possibilities belong to infinite terms—possibilities sustained, too, in the collection’s bifurcated form (you turn the book upside down to read the other language). This ambiguation of language lends well to the “un-inhabiting” she’s after: “I disorder my habits,” she writes, “I twist my tongue out of tune.” - Chiara Bercu

https://www.zyzzyva.org/2022/01/18/horses-drawn-with-blue-chalk-by-rocio-agreda-pierola-language-as-an-unlimited-spectrum/



Literature will lose, sunlight will win, don’t worry.” —Franz Wright

It doesn’t happen in any place. It’s not a story. I don’t know what it is. It was dictated to me, or maybe I’m inventing it right now. I’m in a hospital, everything is white disinfection and all I remember is a horse’s neigh. I give thanks that it’s the only thing that fills my memory, save for the harmless structure of my language.

I don’t know what language I speak, but I feel I’m fluent in it, as one is fluent in a vision that spans an unlimited spectrum of microvisions. Let me explain myself. It’s as if my language were a material that molded itself perfectly to my thought, with no tension, no need for agony. I can speak exactly what I think, as fast as I want to say it, if I do want to say it. I don’t remember a thing, and think that just by having the potential ability for speech, I must somehow possess the keys to hell. If I have to create metaphors, all that’s needed is to open my mouth.

*

I must not be a coward.

I need to tell something first. The boy I met on the way to the cemetery was called Xllul. He was brown, he had big eyes and a small, hawk nose. He had cold hands and a trickster’s eyes. I’m not happy about this way of describing. It’s too imprecise, it adds no extra dimension to my tale. Maybe if I could at least lend a hand to time. You are Xllul. You are time. You are the first and last little boy I met and will meet, I’ve evoked you in all others. This isn’t completely true. It is not.

The problem is that I have no inner world, or it’s stuck. How poor of spirit I have been, and am. Suffering shrinks one. And how.

*

And this is how I could continue the tale, if only breathing had given me something to tell. I’ve had no friends, this time hasn’t left me a thing. I owe and owe and owe. I’m an illiterate man. My sentimental education has tyrannized the time. I’m out of time. I plow this desert. I cultivate the onions of silence. The world is one more appendix. I’ll surrender these pages to the fire. I won’t live long. I have neither faith nor desire. I don’t know the true blaze, from myself I hoped to extract a spurious shine, a tinsel of perishable tendernesses brief but alluring as fraud.

*

(I won’t give myself easily. I have to forget you. I’ll cross the ocean, will take an exit every time I drive down the highway. I refuse to look at this spectacle of dinosaurs anymore, this circus of the subconscious.

I’m a very shy man, I won’t show you my face. Make no mistake. I must remove everything and cure myself of your vacuum. Great, immense, monstrous and at the same time nothing, a few vulgar words and expectations. This is how a universe collapses. Blue, nebulous, an impossible universe. The last, and now nothing. Go on and break, I crush you against the rocks like a mollusk, all mouth and apologies, all excuses and I squeeze just one blue chlorophyll drop from you, the blood of greed.)

*

I’ve just taken communion and am in ecstasy. I’m beyond myself. I’ve just taken communion and balance outside myself. I don’t want. I don’t want. Heart, arrhythmic, come, stop despite everything. Come. Overcome everything and come, in pursuit of something, a deserted word. Quench my thirst; early on this morning the birds chirp and peck at rice. Before the deluge, come, to contain my ecstasy. Come. I won’t wake. I won’t wake. I won’t wake. Go, it’s late and I’m dead.

Malina Bach

It seems that we knew something about art when we felt the meaning of the word “solitude.”

Maurice Blanchot

*

I hug a tree. My friends are drunk, scattered by cold. Now I’m going to learn to write. I’ll copy out a story for you and transform it as it happens. I’ll see colors that I’m unable to see. I’ll paint a desert for you. I’ll tell you an atrocious story one day, to heal. To cure myself of you I must spit out a book. A beautiful book and my saliva will be the star with five points . . . I’ll write with light and life. And a little rage. I’ll tell you an atrocious story in the most gorgeous way. A redheaded woman. She devoured my heart like a bird of prey. She flew through airs and in the middle of her siren song, I saw the ugliness smooth on her beautiful face.

*

To write about the book that Xllul wanted to search for. To make him a character. Sehnsucht: to start from an error. To write about such a Structured topic, about characters. A woman obsessed with the sign and with H. The recurring dreams are Sehnsucht, the real episodes. To take care of a junkie. In hindsight. Coppelius. Defenestration. A female writer who doesn’t write. A blind poet. To investigate: the political?, poetry or madness. Investigative style. Delirious fragments.

*

I don’t have time. I must fragment it with the aim of reconstructing and vanquishing it. I’ve got twenty years to my name sir, and a woman like a song. Of sirens. I have to fragment time to reconstruct it down to its smallest parts, lapse, duration, experience, breath. My life is spent on this, and my verses. What must I do now. I have no order assimilated, my thought runs in pursuit of nineteen different directions at least. I possess a certain rhythm, rhythm has given me harmony. I must lie to you. My country is unreason. Dionysian pessimism. Love, because I must lie to you, I write. So that you return. So that you’ve never left. Language is a danger to temporality. The tragic situation in which the latest events have submerged me makes me laugh. I don’t forget, I don’t forget you, the habit of loving and taking care of a stranger. I’ll never hurt from the time lost. But at a certain age, one must be a little more sparing with time, if one wishes to do something with it. Precious solitude, the absence you’ve imposed on me is priceless, my love. How will I repay you?

*

Hector Viel I read you day and night with my two eyes with my two hands.

My nature: to be born at 33.

All I must do is channel my novel, I have time, I have it, I have it. I have time. I remember, I hear attentively, from the depths of language, a certain intelligence speaks. A certain meaning, a certain order that I’ve lost. I must listen, write, breathe, keep breathing, assimilate myself in my hearing to that murky depth, from which the chaos speaks that isn’t me. I am not what happens, so then what am I. Am I the system? I must begin again, I must breathe, I must write and give an account of something. That there’s nothing behind this mask? It might be a shortcut. But what matters isn’t arrival but the journey, to weave, knit time or unknit it. Somehow one arrives. Somehow I must make even language arrive. There are zones in it that repel me. Not to speak of certain things? One must speak of them, then. Precisely of that which one cannot speak. That’s the only thing that interests me. To speak. Of what one cannot. - Sunlight Will Win       https://www.arkint.org/roco-greda-pirola



Rocío Ágreda Piérola (Cochabamba, 1981) studied philosophy and literature. Her work has appeared in anthologies in Peru and Chile, and she has collaborated with the Bolivian publishing projects “Género aburrido” and “Lenguanegra.” In 2017 she published the poetry collection Detritus (Maki_Naria), and is currently working on a manuscript called Quetiapina 400mg.


4/2/22

Ursula Scavenius - A girl in a wheelchair feeds her sister in the cellar through a crack in the wall, whilst Neo-fascism rages outside. Three siblings transport their dead mother in a coffin through Europe. Not knowing what she is running from, a woman with amnesia flees for her life.

 


Ursula Scavenius, The Dolls, Trans. from the

Danish by Jennifer Russell, Lolli editions, 2021


Stories from a world both fantastically strange and gruellingly familiar where isolation, ruin, prejudice, and misinformation soar in an irresistible, susurrant fugue of displaced families yearning to belong

In the four stories that make up The Dolls, characters are plagued by unexplained illnesses and oblique, human-made disasters and environmental losses. A big sister descends into the family basement. Another sister refuses her younger brother. A third sister with memory loss is on the run and offered shelter by Notpla, a man both an ally and an enemy. A fourth set of siblings travel to Hungary with their late mother in a coffin. They each have a different version of their mother’s story.

Drawing on the likes of August Strindberg, Franz Kafka, Andrej Kurkov, Knut Hamsun, T.S. Eliot, Béla Tarr, and Hieronymus Bosch, Scavenius’s universe is chilling and excruciatingly seductive. In it, nothing can be said to be true anymore. After all, anything can be propaganda today.


Read the story ‘Compartment’ on Granta.com


“Here is a writer of extremely unusual imaginative powers. I found myself completely entranced. This is one of the most extraordinary pieces of writing I've ever read.”– Editor’s Pick Open Book, BBC Radio 4


“From a Rear Window-like position, a girl in a wheelchair watches extremely sinister happenings at a refugee centre with her complicit parents while her sister refuses to leave the basement of their house. A woman seeks refuge from the ever-present threat of war or the chaos of climate change with a man whose identity is as unclear as his intentions… These are artful, singular stories which, with rigorous inventiveness of language and technique, vividly evoke the calamities that form our nightmares.”– The Irish Times


“Fiercely anti-establishment and addictively macabre. The translation is appropriately atmospheric: Jennifer Russell has done a marvellous job of weaving the narrative seamlessly between an almost dreamlike lyricism and a grisly reality.”– Translating Women


"Generally in quite a lot of short story collections, you prefer one story over the other but I absolutely adored each and every story because all of them are extremely strong, independent stories and doing their own things."- Allaying Art -Literature and cinema


“The story Compartment reminded me of Guy de Maupassant crossed with Kafka: Three siblings have to carry their dead mother with them on a train heading out of Russia and towards Hungary so that they find a decent burial area.”

“These stories have a realistic edge, which makes the reader empathise with the characters. I will say that I wanted the three siblings to succeed in their mission and shared in their desperation. I was sharing the narrator’s curiosity when seeing his cellar bound sister’s nails. I felt the unease the narrator had about Notpla. Despite the darkness The Dolls’ is very human in scope.”– The Bobsphere


“Ursula Scavenius is one of the most exciting Danish short story writers at work today. The Dolls, in Jennifer Russell's magnificent translation, is a literary page-turner: haunting, mesmerizing, and unforgettable in all its grotesque glory.”– Katrine Øgaard Jensen


“A universe in which everything is painted forth in grey, muted strokes. It is contagious and all-consuming; even a space car can appear without the reader raising an eyebrow. A silver thread of ethical and moral degradation runs through the entire collection, all fig leaves are burnt, and humankind cannot escape its responsibility of having destroyed the world. Dramatic, hysterical, and supremely well-written.”– POV International


“Because of the Scavenian style and method, these allegorical sets become effectively and thoroughly, almost claustrophobically, intimidating. The more and the longer the narrative gets stuck into its dark morass, the more diabolical the reader experiences their own confinement, and they become desperate about not being able nor willing to escape, all because of the very power of fascination.”– Weekendavisen


”Scavenius’s language draws the reader into a floating, dream-like state, making the reading experience disturbingly beautiful.”– Litteratursiden


“Skilfully crafted and shocking stories that are uncompromising in their insistence on describing without explaining. Or put differently: the stories feel like testimonies from people who do not themselves understand what is going on. Scavenius’s dystopian narratives are hard to put down, recalling both historical crimes and current crises.”– Information


“The Dolls is grotesque, a little bit humorous and above all, very well-written. Scavenius is her very own thing, her prose is carried by sensations and moods. Although she is not without predecessors, it is truly spectacular that Scavenius’s books are so unlike other Danish works being written today.”– Mikkel Krause Frantzen, Politiken


“When you read Scavenius you often and suddenly have doubts about whether you can ever truly share an experience with someone else in that place we call reality. Scavenius writes like that! Here, the weird and the ordinary speak the same language. Her beautiful prose, which draws not only on the traditions of Kafka and Poe, but also on M.R. James, Henry James, Arthur Machen, Astrid Ehrencron-Kidde and others, is a quiet but powerful attack on the security we have in life that all too often keeps us from asking the most relevant questions about being human.”– Danish Arts Foundation



The epigraph to Ursula Scavenius’ collection reads: “I’ll tell the story, even if no one is listening.” It’s also the opening line of her story ‘Notpla’s House’ and a stark establishing of the world she writes from; contrary, apathetic, disconnected.

It is this disconnect that propels her fiction, fashioning it as if from the magnetic repulsions and attractions of the sentences to each other. It is a poetry of joinings and intersections.

Sometimes the disconnect occurs across sentences, like this one from the title story: “Father hums. He has never looked happier. I hand him a spoon larger than the one in his hand and he starts tapping my metal shin. It’s rusty. Then Mother and Father stand up and clear the table.”

Sometimes the mismatch is within a sentence, asthis from ‘Compartment’ when Anna, the protagonist, tries to wake her sleeping brothers: “Your fingers are getting so thin.”

The incongruities shift her stories away from the convention of escalating event and climax, using tone instead to create the contractions of an increasingly claustrophobic world.

And so naturally, the connections she does make feel almost like clumsy parodies, maybe it seems, because no one is listening. This from a family eating as they listen to music: “The violin bows gnaw at the strings the same way we gnaw at chicken bones.”

It is a weird simile, like one found growing in a post-literary landscape.

The reader gets the impression Scavenius’ writing is a repudiation of contemporary conventional storytelling for, considered next to her pieces, most other people’s stories feel short-sighted, anaesthetic, a Disneyfying of the world we live in. Her stories are instead a response to the violence and repression that serves our privileges, a literature moulded like a plaster cast to the shape of horror.

Her refusal to write a ‘normal’ narrative seems initially like a speechlessness, a cringing from narration itself, doubting its possibility even, as if her pieces doubt the goodness and heart necessary to form a story.

However, as we learn more and more how to read her, we see an alternative, subversive mode of story forming: as each sentence follows another, our understanding of the world is strengthened or, more often, undermined. Which gives us the sense that above all other narrative considerations, the moment is sovereign. It demands more than is fair or equable. It can override, endanger or even destroy what has come before, although sometimes–conversely, preciously–it can augment and enrich.

Where a lesser writer might show us to ourselves with the clanking machinery of polemic, Scavenius’ greater skill is to make something all too familiar from such defamiliarization, creating an art from a despotic language.

Which makes describing the stories a curious endeavour, for in a Scavenius story the plot is only what happens; it isn’t fully what the story is about.

The collection opens with the title story. Agnes, the narrator lives with her mother and father and sister. Last year they found children’s bodies at the bottom of their well, which was when Agnes’ leg first went lame and her sister elected to live in their cellar below them. Beyond their house is the Centre from which a shifting music comes.

And then there are the piles of dolls, a sack of gold teeth, the bus that is only ever full in one direction, empty the other; the Centre has the marks of a concentration camp. But people are stupid, father especially. He builds a wall to keep out the music. We need to defend ourselves, he says.

The dreamy elision of ideas create something odd that sticks in the throat, something slightly surreal, something slightly, alarmingly, real, an distillation of our world.

At over fifty pages it is a long short story, its relentlessness a necessary part of its conjuring of oppression.

The second story is ‘To Russia; Ermelunden Forest, 1888.’ In this, the male narrator leaves his village, his wife and son, aiming to walk to Russia, where he feels he might belong. Although, on the way, he finds his old childhood home, and stays with the spinster there, his sister grown-up, though she fails to recognise him. He finds out his village has pronounced him dead and he climbs a tree to watch his funeral, the experience of which gives him greater determination to go to Russia.

In this story, more than a mere solipsism, Scavenius’ exposes the unconnectedness within our very existence, our failure to relate even to our own lives.

And despite life and therefore narrative being more muted than we had hoped, this story works surprisingly well, its closing section brilliant in the way it multiplies the story, in a single line re-framing and re-telling the events anew, ushering us out from within the lone perspective in which we’d been imprisoned.

‘Notpla’s House’ echoes again the urge to return to a childhood home, though, of course told by Scavenius, it overshoots, goes beyond where it should.

Notpla is a father-figure of sorts, his house a refuge against “something barbaric.” Although, when the narrator comes back, she brings the threat of the adult world with her. Is she the threat she seeks to escape? Is Notpla the local murderer?

In its oddity, its violence, its sly humour, the dreaminess here unfurls a full and satisfying tale.

The opening of the final story, ‘Compartment’ comes as a surprise; adapted from her own play, it is made of slightly different material to the others. In this, unexpectedly, the narrator ‘sets the scene’, helps us out with exposition. She is on a train with her two brothers on the way through Europe to Hungary. Her mother had been with them but has died on the way, although she is in the compartment with them still, in the coffin their feet rest on.

Scavenius has contrived a compelling dramatic scene and so, as opposed to ‘The Dolls’–which was so fractured it resisted narrative flow–here the reader feels the tug of a story, which is welcome in a probably bourgeois kind of way, its ending even striking a hopeful note (“we alter the story around us,”) despite the narrator’s horrific interpretation of this.

The book is brilliantly translated by Jennifer Russell, evoking the stark tone with great sensitivity, language like a dilute wash of watercolour exposing the terrifying images and themes underneath–so integral that, emerging from Scavenius’ world, we recognise the cruelty and threat and bewilderment as not only the domain of the world she’s writing from, but also a powerful and poetic compression of where we live. - Tom Conaghan

https://www.exactingclam.com/issues/no-2-autumn-2021/ursula-scavenius-emthe-dollsem/


Similar to her debut Fjer (Feathers) published in 2015, Ursula Scavenius‘ Dolls is a collection of enthralling and rebellious stories that observe and depict modern society in an innovative manner. Her stories are inhabited by people plagued by feelings of powerlessness; in exile, traumatized, fleeing for their lives. A girl in a wheelchair feeds her sister in the cellar through a crack in the wall, whilst Neo-fascism rages outside. Three siblings transport their dead mother in a coffin through Europe. Not knowing what she is running from, a woman with amnesia flees for her life. A fire breaks out in a provincial town and a massacre begins, but no one intervenes. The figure of a doll operates on several levels in the book.

Scavenius‘ style has been labelled ’un-Danish‘, ’rebellious’, ’mature’, ’beautiful’ and ’eastern European’ in its refusal to explain itself; instead, her writing delivers an atmosphere with razorsharp attention to detail. Her stories are driven by a personal quest to understand. Best of all, just as you feel beguiled by magic, realism creeps in.

https://www.kunst.dk/english/literature/books-from-denmark/fiction/ursula-scavenius-dolls



Ursula Scavenius has created an inexplicable environment in The Dolls, a collection of four stories that render the common traditions of narrative into cerebral mystery. Perhaps our characters are in Denmark, but what iteration of Denmark is it? She does not seem to call upon any particular reality or time period in which to place her characters; even the mention of actual years or eras, be they 1888 or 1999, don’t seem to hold much meaning. Amidst this ambiguity, you might say something is rotten in the state of Denmark. The epigraph of the text, deftly translated from the Danish by Jennifer Russell, reads: “I’ll tell the story, even if no one is listening.” While not necessarily a unique sentiment, it aptly sets up a book that comes to us in English translation, which has found itself a new set of readers who are ready to listen.

Fittingly, this book is part of Lolli’s New Scandinavian Literature series—and it does seem to live within that hint of reinvention, avoiding any stereotypically Danish or Scandinavian elements. There’s no hygge—that adulated brand of upper-middle-class coziness—here: everyone is decidedly uncomfortable. Nor can they be categorized under the beloved genre of Nordic noir—no outright crime exists in these stories. Instead, we have paranoia, dread, perhaps some doomsday prep, but no hardboiled investigation or detective work. Although Scavenius may not explicitly belong to the traditions of Scandinavian literature, you could thread her particular type of psychological penetration and sense of displacement with the likes of Clarice Lispector, Wuthering Heights, perhaps Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss or Amparo Dávila’s The Houseguest and Other Stories (translated by Matthew Gleeson and Audrey Harris), taking part in a global narrativization of women who find themselves in archaic or alternative lifestyles, or otherwise alone—either by their own accord or against their will. A timeless situation.

Each of Scavenius’s stories drops the reader directly into the tumult, without providing much backstory or explanation, giving over to the book’s universe. The reader enters directly into the character’s world, and is able to leave just as easily, almost floating through the tales and their various worlds; it’s a bit like The Twilight Zone—the reader simply must accept the current reality until it switches to a new one.

The first story—which shares its title with the collection—reverses the trope of the woman hidden in the attic. Instead, we’re confronted with a girl choosing to hide herself in the basement; in some ways, it recalls the gritty crime shows that proliferate in today’s media landscape, of girls thrown in a cellar or an attic against their will. But what is there to do about the daughter who chooses to stay downstairs, slip notes between the floorboards, and receive a boiled egg once a day? It’s not too much of a stretch to compare this situation to our recent quarantines, wherein we are both being subjected and deciding to stay inside, away from others, receiving our daily food and having some minimal interaction with others. The motivation to hide, to shelter in place, can be attributed to anything: safety, predictability, reliability—the reasons are cloaked in shadow. “The Dolls” leaves you with a simple, haunting feeling—what is enough for a life?

Not to mention that our narrator—the sister of the basement girl—is in a wheelchair with a newly implanted metal shin, rolling herself from the table to the window and back, taking the notes from her sister and dropping her the hard-boiled eggs. Would she join her sister below the floor if she wasn’t in her chair? Would she leave the house, or is she, too, happy to stay inside? Is this something more sinister going on in the house, or is it only in the mind?

The second story, “To Russia: Ermelunden Forrest 1888,” though stamped with a date, does not give many particularities of the nineteenth century. Juxtaposed with the prior narrative of two girls who don’t go very far, this tale focuses on a man who is running away. He leaves his wife and daughter behind, ending up at his long-lost sister’s house. The close proximity of the two stories insinuates automatically the commentary of men’s mobility and women’s stasis or abandonment—behind, upstairs, below the floor, at home. Scavenius capitalizes here on the themes of identity, interpersonal relationships, new and old homes, new and old selves, and getting lost and belonging. The man’s sister, who lives still in their childhood home, doesn’t seem to recognize him, but nevertheless offers him domestic safety out of the simple kindness of her heart. She houses him, feeds him, doesn’t let on. Then, she takes off to Russia, which had originally been his plan all along—leaving him stuck at the house, and finally revealing that she knew who he was the whole time. It’s a delicious turn of events. The note she leaves for him says “I’ve gone on ahead.” This word choice seems important—being one step in front, taking advantage when opportunity strikes.

The last two stories also capitalize on the themes of safety and home. Characters seek refuge, whether in the form of a physical roof over their heads for the night, or the more symbolic and heavyweight return to a country from which their ancestors were once exiled, to bury a dead mother who may or may not be a hero. In “Compartment,” the children question heavily where their mother’s coffin belongs, all within the physical confines of a train compartment, while at the same time speeding along across country lines.

Some of the best writing in the book appears in the form of descriptions that work to build setting and character rather than move along some of the absurd plotlines. Lines such as “His eyelashes flutter like the tails of cows swatting flies in the summer heat” give us a taste of the Scandinavian pastoral landscape where these stories supposedly take place. “There’s an artichoke leaf stuck in my throat and I am trying not to listen” is such a specific and detailed thought, spelled out before us so as to not be ignored. Rarely do we get insight into what others are trying not to think about or do. These details slow down the otherwise sparse prose, calling attention to themselves. And much of the writing is quite visceral, like nails on a chalkboard:

It’s as if those violins are inside my head, says Father and passes Mother the saltshaker. Mother sprinkles salt on her food and stares out the window. The sound of violins from the forest grows louder. When chicken bones scrape against your teeth, it screeches in your ears. The violin bows gnaw at the strings the same way we gnaw at chicken bones. Violins, we keep calling them, but really it sounds like something else. Like chicken bones scraping against teeth.

Scavenius’s book is filled with impressive observation and uncomfortable characters, all bound together by her peculiar and gritty prose, beautifully told in Russell’s immaculate translation. - Sabrina Parker Greene

https://www.asymptotejournal.com/blog/2021/11/10/something-is-rotten-but-what-onthe-dolls-by-ursula-scavenius/



URSULA SCAVENIUS is a writer based in Copenhagen. She is a graduate of the Danish Academy of Creative Writing and holds an MA in comparative literature and Italian from the University of Copenhagen. She debuted in 2015 with the short story collection Fjer [Feathers], which won the Bodil and Jørgen Munch-Christensen Prize and was nominated for the Montana Prize for Fiction. Her second book, The Dolls, was published in January 2020 and was shortlisted for the Edvard P. Prize that same year, as was Feathers in 2015.