Sophie Calle - I found an address book on the Rue des Martyrs... I will contact the people whose names are noted down. I will tell them, “I found an address book on the street by chance. Your number was in it. I’d like to meet you.”.... Thus, I will get to know this man through his friends and acquaintances. I will try to discover who he is without ever meeting him


Sophie Calle, The Address Book, Siglio, 2012.

The Address Book, a key and controversial work in Sophie Calle's oeuvre, lies at the epicenter of many layers of reality and fiction. Having found a lost address book on the street in Paris, Calle copied the pages before returning it anonymously to its owner. She then embarked on a search to come to know this stranger by contacting listed individuals--in essence, following him through the map of his acquaintances. Originally published as a serial in the newspaper Libération over the course of one month, her incisive written accounts with friends, family and colleagues, juxtaposed with photographs, yield vivid subjective impressions of the address book's owner, Pierre D., while also suggesting ever more complicated stories as information is parsed and withheld by the people she encounters. Collaged through a multitude of details--from the banal to the luminous, this fragile and strangely intimate portrait of Pierre D. is a prism through which to see the desire for, and the elusivity of, knowledge. Upon learning of this work and its publication in the newspaper, Pierre D. expressed his anger, and Calle agreed not to republish the work until after his death. Until then, The Address Book had only been described in English--as the work of the character Maria Turner, whom Paul Auster based on Calle in his novel Leviathan; and in Double Game, Calle's monograph which converses with Auster's novel. This is the first trade publication in English of The Address Book (Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles released a suite of lithographs modeled on the original tabloid pages from Libération in an edition of 24). The book has the physical weight and feel of an actual address book with a new design of text and images which allow the story to unfold and be savored by the reader.

In the August 2nd, 1983, edition of the French daily newspaper, Libération, Sophie Calle published the first in a series of entries: "I found an address book on the Rue des Martyrs. I decided to photocopy the contents before sending it back anonymously to its owner, whose address is inscribed on the endpaper. I will contact the people whose names are noted down. I will tell them, 'I found an address book on the street by chance. Your number was in it. I'd like to meet you.' I’ll ask them to tell me about the owner of the address book, whose name I'll only reveal in person, if they agree to meet me. Thus, I will get to know this man through his friends and acquaintances. I will try to discover who he is without ever meeting him, and I will try to produce a portrait of him over an undetermined length of time that will depend on the willingness of his friends to talk about him—and on the turns taken by the events…"  


Never before published in its entirety in English, The Address Book is a key and controversial work in Sophie Calle’s oeuvre. Having found a lost address book on the street in Paris, Calle copied the pages before returning it anonymously to its owner. She then embarked on a search to come to know this stranger by contacting listed individuals—in essence, following him through the map of his acquaintances. Her written accounts of these encounters with friends, family and colleagues—juxtaposed with Calle’s photographs—originally appeared as serial in the newspaper Libération over the course of one month in 1983.
As the entries accumulate, so do the vivid impressions of the address book’s owner, Pierre D., while also suggesting ever more complicated stories as information is gifted, parsed, and withheld by the people she encounters. A multitude of details, from the seemingly banal to the potentially revelatory, are not only collaged into a fragile and strangely intimate portrait of Pierre D.; they also accumulate into a collection of miniatures of the people around him as they reveal something, often unknowingly, of themselves. Further layering The Address Book is Calle’s first person narrative in which she interrogates herself—her fears, obsessions, and assumptions—over the course of her pursuit.
When Pierre D. learned about the work and its appearance in the newspaper, he threatened to sue (and demanded that Libération publish nude photographs of Calle as a reciprocal invasion of privacy). Calle agreed not to republish the work until after his death. In the almost thirty years since its original publication in France, The Address Book has never been published in full again, only described—in Double Game, Calle’s monograph which converses with Paul Auster’s novel Leviathan, and again in the novel itself as a work thought up (but not executed) by the fictional character Maria whom Auster based on Calle.
Part conceptual art, part character study, part confession, part essay, The Address Book is, above all, a prism through which desire and the elusory, persona and identity, the private and the public, knowledge and the unknown are refracted in luminous and provocative ways.
This is the first trade publication in English of The Address Book (Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles released a suite of lithographs modeled on the original tabloid pages from Libération in an edition of 45). Designed in collaboration with Calle, Siglio’s book has the physical weight and feel of an actual address book, creating an intimate space that allows the story to unfold and be savored by the reader.

She would set out in the dark, knowing absolutely nothing, and one by one she would talk to all the people listed in the book. By finding out who they were, she would begin to know something about the man who had lost it. It would be a portrait in absentia, an outline drawn around an empty space . . . . She wanted encourage people to open up to her when she saw them, to tell her stories about enchantment and lust and falling in love, to confide their deepest secrets in her.—from Leviathan by Paul Auster

The Address Book is never about one thing. One the one hand it is a simple character study and straightforward conceptual art project (task-based with a priori scheme, black-and-white documentation, and text). On the other, it's an unsettling confessional story with deeply erotic subject matter. It unnerves readers by striking a balance between submission and control, winding them through a maze of seduction and pursuit only to leave them deprived of fulfillment. - Lauren O'Neill-Butler

Given the ease with which we can access the lives of strangers in 2012, Calle's snooping might register as a quaint trespass from another era, an analog and ultimately harmless kind of proto-Facebooking. But her old-school sleuthing is daring, more so than it was in her earlier projects, such as Suite venitienne, in which Calle followed strangers, and La Filature, for which she hired a detective to tail her. The Address Book's adventure is riskier and more unpredictable. - Heidi Julavits

One of the things that keep a person reading a book is “suspense” – you don’t know what’s going to happen next and you want to know. Or there’s a general feeling of tension that mysteriously holds you. I hate this in a book. It feels like eating salty chips. No, you can’t eat just one. You eat more and more without wanting to. But so what? When I turn the pages of a book that quickly, it’s often because what I’m reading feels as bad for me as a chip. I don’t admire the author’s technique. I resent the suspense for keeping me there, when I would rather be somewhere else (or, if I love the book, for not letting me linger on what I’m loving; for forcing me to rush).

In Sophie Calle’s The Address Book, created in the 1980s in France and now being released as a book in English for the first time, one turns the pages that fast. You gobble it up like a bag of chips, but instead of it being bad for you, it’s just bad. I don’t mean that as a criticism. I mean, it’s wicked. It’s wonderful, brilliant, breathtaking – but bad.
In 1982, the artist Sophie Calle found on the streets of Paris a man’s leather-bound address book. She was curious about its owner, but that curiosity didn’t lead her to call him up, meet him face-to-face, and return the book. Instead, she decided to make appointments with the people whose names he had collected in the book, and ask them about him, taking notes, writing up briefs of the interactions. Each meeting became its own article, published in the prominent French newspaper, Libération, over the course of a month.
This is how she did it: she would call someone up, explain that she had found an address book in which their name was written, and ask to meet with them to talk about the owner, saying she would disclose the name of the book’s owner only at the meeting. She called former lovers, friends, family, distant acquaintances. Some reacted with outrage at the call, others agreed to meet. One has feelings about these people by their initial reactions. (I felt most admiring of those who yelled at Calle, suspecting I would not be one of the yellers.)
The suspense and tension in The Address Book comes from seeing someone do something so outrageous, so morally suspect, so ethically questionable. Does the artist have the right to do whatever she wants if it adds to our understanding of who we are (which this book does)? The tension in this book doesn’t come from the dynamic between the characters an author has invented, but out of the real dynamic between the author (Calle), the man about whom she is writing, and us.
Amazingly, a unified portrait of the man (Pierre D.) is created through the successive interpretations of him. He becomes more and more clear; it’s a sometimes paradoxical image, but more often consistent, and even the paradoxes make him seem human. When you’re writing a novel, making up a character, one of the difficulties is in how many seemingly personality-incongruous things a character can hold while still seeming like a unified character. But because we know this man exists as a man, one can stretch the elastic band of character traits and actions so wide. It makes him more real than if he was more “truly” unified.
Pierre D. is mysterious, admirable, reclusive, charming, stubborn, oblique, unique. Would every address book yield up such a compelling and complex soul? Are we all so distinct, as fascinating as Pierre? Or was this some act of grace from the art gods?
Calle spends only a few moments worrying about what she is doing. Her freedom is part of what makes this document such a thrill to see; an unrepentant criminal is more thrilling to witness than a repentant one. More different from us. Pierre felt her work was a great trespass, an outrage. He threatened to sue her and demanded the paper print a naked picture of Calle in retaliation.

I can understand why. A lot is revealed. The project’s illicitness is huge part of its meaning and effect; the suspense that exists in this text is the suspense of partaking in an act that feels wrong: we are invading his privacy each time we read her words, knowing he didn’t want us to. This book is only being published now because Calle agreed to withhold it from a second publication until after his death. Thirty years later, here it is.
The suspense that propels this book is not only, How far will Calle go? but, How far will I go with her? It does something unpleasant to you to you to read a book that a man could only bear to have exist once he was no longer on this earth. His letting her publish it a generous act; he considers her artistic legacy, and weighs it against his own desires.
Most books, most artworks, are so civilized, they hardly matter. They exist in the realm of please and thank you. But art at its best is a kind of gamble with civility, with ethics, with boundaries, with good citizenship, and with the question of what we can endure in life, and death. - Sheila Heti

It’s fascinating to read the French conceptual artist Sophie Calle’s “The Address Book” in the age of social media. The project, originally published as a serial in the newspaper Libération between Aug. 2 and Sept. 4, 1983 — and translated into English now for the first time — grew out of the most random of occurrences: an address book that Calle found on a Paris street.
Calle returned the address book to its owner, a man she identifies as Pierre D., but not before she photocopied its pages so she could contact all his contacts, as it were. The result is an impressionistic portrait, as much about the process of looking for Pierre as it is about Pierre himself, and a provocative inquiry into privacy, identity, intimacy and the borders we construct around ourselves. (When Pierre discovered the serialized publication in Libération, he demanded that the paper publish a nude photo of Calle as recompense.)
For those who don’t know her, Calle has long sought to blur the boundaries. At the urging of Paul Auster — who based a character on her in his 1992 novel “Leviathan” — she once turned a lower Manhattan phone booth into an interactive installation, placing cigarettes, water, pads of paper and other materials there to see the reaction they would get.
“The Address Book” operates in similar fashion, looking beneath the surface of the mundane, the everyday, to mine a more elusive reality. The central question, of course, is: “Who is Pierre?” But the thrill of the book is that as Calle works through his acquaintances, she ends up learning as much about herself.
After one friend “reacts violently” to being approached (“I’ll have no part in this! It’s an outrage!”), she wonders at his reaction: “Why did that man refuse to understand me, to listen to me? I can’t take his refusal. I should have explained to him that I don’t want to hurt Pierre. Suddenly, I am afraid of what I am doing. Pangs of conscience. But I must continue. I will beg his friends to talk to me.”
Although in the wake of its initial French publication Calle agreed not to reissue “The Address Book” during Pierre’s lifetime, the book feels strikingly contemporary, with its sense of a life constructed out of pieces, interpreted at a distance, through a variety of poses, or façades. Pierre is both not real to us and utterly real to us — a compendium of anecdotes, of images, that provoke our fantasies, even as we confront the violation (of privacy, of discretion) at the project’s heart.
The same could be said of Facebook or Twitter, where the public display of our address books, our diaries, our relationships — manipulated to create a certain set of impressions — both reveal and conceal us at once.
In Calle’s pursuit of Pierre, then, we get a glimpse of the future that we now inhabit, suspended between reality and the image of reality, between a life and the impression of a life.
“Pierre, I have ‘followed’ you, ‘searched for’ you, for over a month,” Calle writes at the end of the book, in a statement that could easily function as a post on his (on anybody’s) Facebook wall. “If I ran into you on the street, I think I could recognize you, but I would not talk to you. I have met your friends. I have listened to them. I no longer need them. Tonight, I will leave Paris, I could have gone to your native Reims to see your school, your house. I could have tried to join you in Lapland. Instead, I have chosen to buy a train ticket for Rome, where you spend every summer, where you would like to live.” - David L. Ulin

This is quick, but I wanted to repost a great interview I came across in BOMBlog, wherein a writer set out to interview Sophie Calle and, for various reasons, failed.

Microsoft Word - Calle.doc
Sophie Calle’s controversial project, The Address Book, was recently translated in English as a proper, purchasable book by Siglio Press. The book itself is based on a real-life address book of Pierre D. Calle found the book, and (after xeroxing ever page) returned it to its owner. With the facsimile at her disposal, Calle contacted everyone inside this stranger’s address book and interviewed them about the address book’s owner. When Pierre D. discovered what the artist was up to, he was outraged. “Eventually Pierre D. stumbles onto Calle’s plan and, as you may have guessed, was outraged. He threatened to sue the artist and bizarrely demanded that Libération publish nude photographs of Calle in return. To resolve the turmoil, Calle agreed not to publish her complete findings until Pierre D.’s death, which occurred earlier [in 2012]” (Huffington Post). This mode of inquiry gave Calle a means to understand certain things about this stranger, through the experience his contacts relayed. Like much of Calle’s work, there is an intensely voyeuristic aspect, what is now furthered by her now-totally-public findings. The interview I refer to doesn’t actually ever present Calle’s answers to any questions. Instead the artist remains remote as one of her subjects.
excerpt from “The Address Book,” Sophie Calle.

The interviewer is left with unanswered questions that nevertheless offer insight into the project. I have included an excerpt below:

I thought Sophie Calle was blasting Van Morrison in her studio when I called for an interview. A few minutes later she told me to turn my music down. The hold-songs were a comically misread sign that the third party conference-call site was not in fact recording our conversation. We ultimately forfeited to the mechanical obstacles that foiled our attempts to start over. Had I understood the technology, had we had more time, had “Born to Run” not drowned out our brief interaction, I would have interviewed Sophie about The Address Book—her project from 1980 newly translated into English and published by Siglio Press.

The controversial project has attracted a sizable viewer/readership, but for those who aren’t familiar: it is a compilation of text and images that documents Sophie Calle’s encounters with the acquaintances listed in an address book she found on Rue des Martyrs. Before returning the book to its owner, known to us as Pierre D., Sophie photocopied its contents in order to build a portrait of a missing subject by contacting his contacts. Each documented encounter yields a new impression with a new valence; overlay them all and a figure may start to take shape. Toward the end Calle reflects, “The descriptions merge together. The picture gets more defined and exhausts itself at the same time.” Some examples: Paul B. characterizes Pierre as “a child forgotten in an airport;” Jacques O. remarks on his “well-mastered incongruity;” and Marianne B. describes him as “a cloud in trousers.” Other encounters yield nothing besides Calle’s reconsideration and doubt concerning her work. Pierre’s brother, a psychoanalyst, declined the invitation because the project was “too inquisitive.” The accompanying photos—a chair Pierre liked to sit in, his building’s peeling ceiling, the crotch of an informant—are equally inquisitive, and quietly illustrative. (read more)
That said, if you’re like me and still curious, I also found the following youtube video where Calle talks about her approach to editing (among other things)… - Caroline Picard

Excerpt: www.newyorker.com/

Sophie Calle: Blind

Sophie Calle, Blind, Actes Sud, 2012.

With Blind, French conceptual artist Sophie Calle (born 1953) revisits three earlier works constructed around the idea of blindness. In “Les Aveugles” (“The Blind”), created in 1986, she questioned blind people on their representation of beauty; in 1991, in “La Couleur Aveugle” (“Blind Color”), she asked blind people about their imagination of perception and compared their descriptions to artists’ musings on the monochrome; “La Dernière Image” (“The Last Image”), produced in 2010 in Istanbul, involved questioning people who had lost their sight on the last image they could remember. By establishing a dialectic between the testimonies of several generations of blind people and Calle’s photographs based on these accounts, the artist offers readers a reflection on absence, on the loss of one sense and the compensation of another and on the notion of the visible and the invisible.

Featured image, from Sophie Calle's The Last Image series (2010), is reproduced from Blind. Of the series, Calle writes, "I met blind people whose loss of sight had been sudden. I asked them to describe to me the last thing I saw." The image is captioned, in traditional print and Braille, "There is no last image – my loss of eyesight was gradual – but there is an image that remains, the one that's missing: three children that I can't see, sitting side by side, facing me, on the living-room sofa, where you are now."


 http://ep.yimg.com/ca/I/artbook_2235_91189861Sophie Calle: Take Care of Yourself






























Sophie Calle, Take Care of Yourself, Dis Voir/Actes Sud; Har/DVD edition, 2007.

In this remarkable artist's book, French conceptual artist/provocateur Sophie Calle presents 107 outside interpretations of a "breakup" e-mail she received from her lover the day he ended their affair. Featuring a stamped pink metallic cover, multiple paper changes, special bound-in booklets, bright green envelopes containing DVDs and even Braille endpapers, it is a deeply poignant investigation of love and loss, published to coincide with the 2007 Venice Biennale--where Calle served as that fair's French representative. All of the interpreters of Calle's breakup letter were women, and each was asked to analyze the document according to her profession--so that a writer comments on its style, a justice issues judgment, a lawyer defends Calle's ex-lover, a psychoanalyst studies his psychology, a mediator tries to find a path towards reconciliation, a proofreader provides a literal edit of the text, etc. In addition, Calle asked a variety of performers, including Nathalie Dessay, Laurie Anderson and Carla Bruni, among others, to act the letter out. She filmed the singers and actresses and photographed the other contributors, so that each printed interpretation stands alongside at least one riveting image of its author, and some are also accompanied by digital documentation. The result is a fascinating study and a deeply moving experience--as well as an artwork in its own right. Already a collector's item, this is a universal document of how it feels to grieve for love.

 http://ep.yimg.com/ca/I/artbook_2235_91277742Sophie Calle: Double Game













Sophie Calle, Double Game, D.A.P./Violette Editions, 2007. [1999.] 

With the participation of Paul Auster.

The original edition of Double Game, published by Violette Editions in 1999, was the first important book by Sophie Calle to be published in English and earned fervent international praise for its concept, content and stunning design. Writing for Bookforum, Barry Schwabsky called "this elegant, ribbon-wrapped compendium … My vote for the most beautiful art book of 1999." And Eye magazine judged it, "That rare thing, an artist's monograph that is actually a work of art in and of itself, a furthering of Calle's vision." That edition quickly sold out and has since been out of print.

This new edition, published to coincide with the 2007 Venice Biennale, at which Calle represented France, is identical in content to the first, and reprises all of the cherished qualities of the original in a smaller hardback format--including the signature ribbon around its middle.

The story begins with Maria, the fictional character in Paul Auster's novel, Leviathan. Most of Maria's "works" are, in fact, based on those of Sophie Calle. The first section of Double Game takes us through the few original works by Maria that Sophie makes her own, shown both in their fictional context and illustrated by Calle's actual reproduction of them. The second section takes the story further into the heart of Calle's world, with a series of Calle's seminal narrative and abstract works in text and images that were appropriated by Maria in Leviathan. The third section of the book takes the dialogue directly to Maria's inventor, Paul Auster, who in turn takes Calle as his subject, inventing for her the Gotham Handbook, which offers "Personal Instructions for SC on How to Improve Life in New York City (Because she asked...)." 


Sophie Calle, Appointment with Sigmund Freud,  Thames & Hudson, 2005.

A unique assembly of Calle's own thoughts and photographs of her belongings juxtaposed with objects from Sigmund Freud's personal collection, still kept in the house where he lived.

‘In February 1998, I was invited to create an exhibition entitled Appointment at a house at 20 Maresfield Gardens, London, where Dr Freud lived and died. After having a vision of my wedding dress laid across Freud’s couch, I immediately accepted. I chose to display relics of my own life amongst the interior of Sigmund’s home.’—Sophie Calle

A unique and beautifully produced assembly of Calle’s own texts and personal objects juxtaposed with objects from Sigmund Freud’s personal collection, still kept in his Hampstead house, Appointment features fragments from the artist’s own fascinating life story, characteristic texts that reveal intimate secrets and unravel some of Calle’s childhood memories as well as her adult relationships.
Calle’s references to certain mementos and the emotionally charged events with which they are associated have many parallels to Freud’s own psychoanalytic theories and his passion for collecting. 80 illustrations, 50 in color

SOPHIE CALLE (b. 1953, Paris) is an internationally renowned artist whose controversial works often fuse conceptual art and Oulipian-like constraints, investigatory methods and fictional constructs, the plundering of autobiography and the artful composition of self. Using a range of media—photography, film, writing, performance, installation—Calle explores the tensions between the observed, the reported, the secret, and the unsaid; desire and voyeurism are often agents to expose the multiplicity of truth as well as its absence. Her 2007 Venice Biennale French Pavillion installation Please Take Care of Yourself has been exhibited worldwide to great acclaim. It will be installed at The Pulitzer Foundation in St. Louis later this year. The Whitechapel Gallery in London organized a retrospective in 2009, and her work has been show at major museums such as Musee d’art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; De Appel, Amsterdam; The Museum of Modern Art and The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Hayward Gallery and Serpentine Gallery, London; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; among others. She lives and works in Paris.

Sophie Calle, Absent
by Wendy Lotterman Feb 11, 2013


Sara Bremen: He Can’t Know Whether Knowledge Will Save Him or Kill Him: Sophie Calle’s Curiosity

It is nothing new to say that Sophie Calle is a curious person.  Her artwork revolves around investigating other people, their habits, and their reactions to her.  Examining her work within the context of psychological curiosity, however, illuminates some of her choices and projects.  Though curiosity has been a subject of research since antiquity, only recently are psychologists and researchers beginning to understand and define it in terms of emotion and of its own specific motivations.  The current models for looking at curiosity echo the motivation and structure of many of Calle’s pieces.  Curiosity exists as a unique emotion with a special relationship to happiness and a capability of self-perpetuation.  Calle takes full advantage of curiosity’s cyclical structure as her pieces often branch out and take her in unexpected directions.  In addition, Calle chooses to present her work to an audience primarily through photographs, a medium conducive to the continuing nature of curiosity.  Her work serves not only as an excellent example of psychological curiosity but also as a motivation for curiosity in others.
I address some of Calle’s numerous projects, which I will briefly describe here.  In 1979, Calle begins to follow people through Paris.  She cites loneliness as the main motivation.  This activity eventually leads her Venice when she secretly follows a man there.  Her documentation of this trip appears in Suite Véntienne.  Also in Venice, Calle is hired as chambermaid at a hotel in 1981.  While cleaning the rooms, she photographs the daytime scenes left behind by their temporary inhabitants, culminating in The Hotel.  That same year, she asks her mother to hire a private detective to follow Calle for a day.  The photographs from this experiment appear in a collection of her work, Double Game.  In 1983, Calle produces The Address Book, a series of articles published in the French newspaper, Liberation, about a man whose address book she finds.  Without ever speaking directly to the man, she compiles stories and descriptions from the acquaintances found in the address book.  I also reference The Gotham Handbook, a project Calle undertakes when she follows instructions for living in New York City provided by Paul Auster, and photographs from early in Calle’s carreer when she works briefly as a stripper.
Without being privy to a psychoanalysis, one cannot evaluate Sophie Calle’s actual psychological state based on her work and writings.  It is clear, however that she leads her life intertwined with her artwork.  As Paul Auster, Calle’s collaborator and former partner—a clear overlap—writes, her “activit[ies] didn’t stem from a desire to make art so much as from a need to…live her life precisely as she wanted to live it” (Burton).  Calle is unconcerned with the possibility of art as a result of her life.  Her “work is linked to improving [her] life” and sometimes the material manifests into a presentation and sometimes it does not (Riding).  The closeness, if not imperceptible distinction, between her life and her artwork allows for us to investigate both her and her work in terms of curiosity.
As we examine Calle’s work, another assumption I make is the definition of curiosity as an emotion.  Author and psychology professor Paul J. Silvia considers curiosity as one of the “knowledge emotions: states such as interest, confusion, surprise, and awe” (Silvia 2008 57).  As an emotion, curiosity is released from some confinements of logic.  Emotions “come from subjective evaluations of events” and may resonate as irrational or illogical.  Knowledge emotions also have “no obvious functional relations to immediate adaptational crises” (Silvia 273).  That is, being curious can’t save your life, though, as I address later, curiosity comes into play concerning higher learning and development.
Calle makes two references to her work being emotionally-based.  Her earlier projects involve following strangers, one of which culminates in Suite Vénitienne.  As she was documenting Suite Vénitienne, she learned of Vito Acconci’s Following Piece.  In this work from 1969, Acconci picks a person at random to follow throughout New York until he or she enters a private space.  Concerned that her work is simply a copy, Calle seeks out Acconci to “ask his permission” (Riding).  Their conversation reveals that while Acconci’s interest is in the gesture of following, Calle’s is interwoven with her emotional reaction to the act of following and is therefore a completely different work of art (Riding).  Her attention to emotion harkens back to the way in which her art is a direct result of her life.  Secondly she mentions that one motivation for the work is her general lack of control in (daily) emotional relationships.  The artwork is “a way to have control” in an emotional framework (Burton).  Calle’s acknowledgement of the emotional quality of her work further supports her and her work as examples of curiosity.
Though research is unclear on source of curiosity, there are agreed-upon labels for different motivations for curiosity.  Psychologists suggest that curiosity is itself “a source of intrinsic motivation” and drives organisms to pursue “stimulus patterns…‘for their own sake’” (Silvia 2008 57; Berlyne 25).  Professor D.E. Berlyne, writing in the late 1950s, focuses his definition of curiosity on the “internal states of arousal and excitation which modulate attention and orientation to the external world” (Mayes 12).  Berlyne sees external forces, such as stimulus, novelty, and even monotony, as affecting one’s internal arousal state.  Curiosity, then, “modulates that level of arousal and maintains a tonic level of interest or activation” (Mayes 12).  Looking at outside stimulation, J. Piaget (1930s) focuses on the need for novelty as the motivation behind curiosity.  He claims that there is simply an innate “interest in novelty” (Mayes 12).  Finally, R.W. White, also writing in the late 1950s, suggests a third model that emphasizes the link between curiosity and a desire for satisfaction and mastery of information.  A source of curiosity will remain potent as long as the viewer can continue to find new things about it and the source refrains from being too challenging to be mastered.  This idea of balance and threshold, as seen later, is a core and unique component to curiosity.
Silvia, writing during the last decade, draws from these historical models to give us four new frameworks: novelty, complexity, uncertainty, and conflict:
Novelty reflects conflict between present and past experience and expectation. Complexity reflects conflict between different part-whole organizations and construals of the total complex stimulus. Uncertainty is conflict resulting from incompatible actions implied by incomplete and thus ambiguous information…And conflict refers to the simultaneous presence of noncompatible possibilities. (Silva 275)
These four categories clearly echo Silvia’s predecessors and, though not perfectly, match Sophie Calle’s
work.  Though I believe there is much overlap among the models, one could label her photographs as a stripper (seen in Double Game) as “novelty,” The Hotel as “complexity,” the event of being followed by a private detective as “uncertainty,” and Suite Vénitienne as “conflict.” Working as a stripper, despite a feminist tendency against it, is completely new and different for Calle and, therefore, enjoyable.  It is the unfamiliarity with the job that drives her curiosity about stripping.  In her photographs of private hotel rooms in The Hotel, Calle investigates the details of specific people within the greater context of not only hotels and traveling, but also fellow human beings.  Although she eventually grows bored with the project, it is the complexity of the details that help drive her initial motivation.  Calle is uncertain about herself in a reversed role when she asked her mother to hire the private detective.  In her interview and review, Jane Burton describes how the “friction” between the “[enrapture] at the thought of an unseen pursuer, and the plodding banality of the detective’s report and photographs…gives the work its edge” (Burton).  Finally, I see the dual existence of familiarity and strangeness, control and lack of control, and pursuit and chase in Suite Vénitienne as evidence of conflict as its motivating factor.  Also of interest are the original Latin definitions of curious—“(1) careful, diligent or painstaking; (2) inquisitive, eager for knowledge; and (3) meddlesome and interfering” which call to mind Calle’s work as well (Mayes 5).
Dr. Linda C. Mayes and Professor Berlyne also comment on the relationship between curiosity as defense and curiosity as development.  I am reminded of Calle’s reason for her inital travels and adventures: “it was a mixture of curiosity and running away…from not knowing what to do” (Burton).  These seemingly conflicting feelings are in fact united under curiosity. Berlyne writes:
Approach (for the sake of obtaining additional information or perhaps simply for the sake of relief through habituation) and escape are, after all alternative ways of alleviating a disturbance due to a conflicting sight or sound… (Berlyne 30)
Calle’s statement points to her process of dealing with her situation by both running away and seeking out new alternatives.
Curiosity evolves within different people in different ways, though all research agrees that it aids in the general development of a species.  In an individual, psychologists are keen to point out that curiosity not only is unique to that person but also can change throughout a person’s life (Silvia 271; Silvia 2008 58).  In examining the motivations of Calle’s work, they are often seen as slightly frivolous and, as they are so intertwined with her own life, cannot help but change over time.  Silvia goes on to argue against any generalities associated with curiosity.  He uses the term “interest” when referring to curiosity:
Even some modern theories assume that some things (e.g., themes of sexuality and death) are inherently interesting to nearly everyone, an assumption that is probably wrong. (Silvia 2008 58)
As Calle and her work reveal, however, people themselves share a fairly common interest in other people.
Despite what the interests are, higher thinking species, like humans, use curiosity to expand intellectually and socially.  Early in her life, a human will use curiosity to engage with the world around her.  The experiences in turn help create “cognitive structures to be modified or conserved on the basis of new information” (Silvia 273).  As young children, curiosity is often “directed toward learning about others, about the subtleties of social communication and affective cues” (Mayes 23).  In general, adult humans broaden their use of curiosity and use it to base scientific and artistic endeavors (Mayes 31).  The work of Sophie Calle reflects perhaps a heightened sense of curiosity, though her work is clearly based in the structure of curiosity as a tool to learn about people and to further her artistic process.
It is interesting to note here that most analytical research on curiosity to date falls within the field of education and learning development.  There is no doubt that curiosity is a, if not the, key component of learning.  Silvia notes education theorists since John Dewey have lamented “the American education system for failing to capitalize on children’s curiosity (Silvia 270).
As an ever-changing, oblique, and “non-fundamental” knowledge emotion, curiosity is driven in unique ways.  First, to reiterate the weight of its status as an emotion, Silvia points out that without the emotional component, “interest will not develop, regardless of why the feelings of interest arose in the first place” (Silvia 285).  An activity must have some kind of emotional resonance to draw curiosity.  Silvia also references William McDougall’s early research into curiosity and magnification.  Writing in 1908, McDougall notices that in order for the emotional reaction to further curious investigation, the activity must be repeated or magnified.  This theory brings to mind Calle’s persistent note-taking during The Gotham Handbook and repetitive photographs from The Hotel.  After providing an emotional connection and undergoing a magnification process, however, curiosity is “not usually satiated even for a time by exposure to the instinctual aim” (Mayes 11).  That is, curiosity cannot be “fixed” because it only leads to further interest.
Curiosity is in continual balance between interest and happiness and therefore perpetuates itself.  It is significant to note here that multiple psychological studies show an inverse relationship between interest and happiness.  Whether looking at visual patterns of varying complexity or listening to music of varying complexity, people tended to like simple and find interesting the more complex (Silva 276; Berlyne 32).  In general, “because they motivate different actions, interest and happiness can conflict” (Silvia 2008 59).  To clarify this point, Silvia gives an example of two Thai restaurants.  One is your favorite—you know it makes you happy.  The other restaurant is new—you’re not sure if you will like it or not, but you’re curious (Silvia 2008 59). If happiness didn’t exist, Silvia goes on, people would continually try new things as there would be no “proven sources of enjoyment” (Silvia 2008 59).  At the same time, there is an innate happiness found in the act of discovery and the sustained state of curiosity (Mayes 28).  Perhaps the relationship between happiness and curiosity is more complex.  Calle herself refutes the either/or relationship as she claims that her “happiness has not been a disaster.  I have many new ideas” (Burton).  Calle can not only be happy and curious at the same time, but also has found true enjoyment in the state of being curious.
There is also a balance within interest—a threshold at which an interesting object becomes incomprehensible, confusing, or scary and therefore of no interest.  There is a balance between being noticeable “yet…not evok[ing] fear or surprise” (Silvia 275).  This balance point, like the general sources of curiosity, varies widely among people and among populations (Berlyne 29).  Professor Berlyne describes an experiment in which subjects are shown blurred and clear pictures:
Furthermore, we have some hint that a clear picture is most rewarding when it replaces a picture with an intermediate degree of blurredness.  This seems to be a degree at which some differentiation is beginning to emerge but no objects or detail can be recognized, so that there is maximum scope for competing hypotheses. (Berlyne 30)
In this example, the subject is curious about the blurred picture and then rewarded by finally understanding the (clear) picture. Once information is gathered and understood, the curiosity about that particular object dissipates and “the new knowledge, in turn, enables more things to be interesting” (Silvia 2008 59).  Curiosity sustains itself not by ever satiating the thirst to know, but by allowing the learned knowledge to lead to further curiosity in other objects, activities, or ideas.
Sophie Calle provides her own example of this balance between interest and fear in her reaction to the end of The Address Book and during Suite Vénitienne.  In the first project, Calle uses the information from the address book to “piece together a profile of the owner like a jigsaw” (Burton).  When the owner of the address book sees his life story in the paper, he sends his own submission, a nude photograph of Calle he obtained through the process she used on him—calling people associated with her.  Despite this “punishment,” which Calle says didn’t bother her, having already worked as a stripper, Calle declares that she would do the project again.  She says that “the excitement was stronger than the guilt” (Burton).  In her project Suite Vénitienne, Calle writes of less confident feelings, though she remains more interested in her pursuit than scared or confused:
His solitude made me audacious.  I’ve diverted him from his course.  He’s intrigued.  I should keep my distance, and yet I stay close. (Calle 105)
For her, the threshold may be very high overall, but it fluctuates over the course of different projects and different times.
After discovering her own balance and threshold, Calle directs (or allows to develop) her curiosity towards a naturally interesting and evolving subject: other people.  In order to strike the right balance between complex and comprehensible, intriguing and safe, a familiar object is most successful.  When a person is familiar with the object of interest already, “more numerous and stronger divergent associations” are possible (Berlyne 32).  What is more familiar—and yet ripe with variation—than another person?  At the same time, this interest in other people is naturally self-centered as much as it is human-centered.  As Francis Bacon said during an interview with David Sylvester, “…art is an obsession with life and after all, as we are human beings, our greatest obsession is with ourselves” (Sylvester 63).  Either way, Calle’s work revolves around a subject matter that only helps in perpetuating her curiosity and the curiosity of her viewers.
The fact that she chooses primarily to present her work in photographs also aides in the continuation of curiosity with and within her audience.  Photography scholar Vicky Goldberg points out that, throughout history, looking at something holds more weight than either reading or hearing:
Lot’s wife looked back and was turned to salt; Orpheus looked back and lost Eurydice forever; and Peeping Tom, the only many to steal a glance at Lady Godiva, was struck blind. (Goldberg)
The photograph, then, serves as our ultimate voyeuristic tool.  We can look all we want at a photograph, even when we are not supposed to see its subject matter.  The photograph provides the viewer with an accurate account, but from a removed point of reference.  Bacon goes on to describe how photographs are “remove[d] from the fact, which returns [him] onto the face more violently” (Sylvester 30).  With a photograph, there is room to consider the object without running a risk of looking at the thing in real life.  Sophie Calle is aware of the protection photographs provide.  She uses the “shield of art” to get at the questions she is curious about (Burton).  If photographs can provide this safe form of voyeurism, perhaps it explains her calm reaction to the “revenge” photograph being printed in the paper after Address Book.  (She was also pleased because, in doing so, the man used his real name and therefore validated her project which some were skeptical had been fabricated.)
Photographs also change our relationship with time.  Looking at a photo, there is time to unlock details and time for photographs to move beyond being “points of reference…[and into] triggers of ideas” (Sylvester 30).  In this sense Calle’s photographs of other people spark her audience’s curiosity not only in what the photographed people are doing, but also in themselves and in other possibilities for themselves.  As one editorial review of The Hotel describes, “it [is] an outrageous breach of privacy, yet a viewer [cannot] help but stare…The fascination is rooted in a sense of connection to those strangers…” (Editorial).  During a show of hers in 1999, Calle sets herself up to listen to suggestions for her next project; it is of no surprise that visitors come to her with their own secrets.  She and her work has sparked a sense of curiosity in people of themselves and of other people.  Not only is the curiosity self-perpetuating, but also the subject matter.  At the same time, Silva writes, “…things are valuable only to the extent that interest is taken in them” (Silva 277).  Calle’s work imparts value on herself, on her audience, and on all people.
Works Cited
Berlyne, D.E.. “Curiosity and Exploration.” Science 153(1966): 25-33. Print.
“Breathing Room.” The Boston Globe 10 Apr 2004: Print.
Burton, Jane. “Sophie’s World.” The Independent 17 Jan 1999: Print.
Calle, Sophie, and Paul Auster. Double Game. Violette Editions/D.A.P., 2000. Print.
Goldberg, Vicki. “Photography View; Photography and the Sin of Voyeurism.” The New
York Times 8 Mar 1992: Print.
Mayes, Linda C.. “Exploring Internal and External Worlds–Reflections of Being
Curious.” The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 46(1991): 3036. Print.
Riding, Alan. “How Rituals Can Create a Reluctant Artist; Intimacy and Strangers
Structure Her Life.” The New York Times 28 Apr 1999: Print.
Silva, Paul J. “Interest and Interests: The Psychology of Constructive Capriciousness.”
Review of General Psychology 5(2001): 270-290. Print.
Silva, Paul J. “Interest-The Curious Emotion.” Current Directions in Psychological
Science 17(2008): 57-60. Print.
Sylvester, David. Interviews with Francis Bacon. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1987.

The art of stalking

In search of Sophie Calle, Vito Acconci and Christopher Nolan
Films such as Following by Christopher Nolan (whose 2006 film The Prestige is out now in Europe) and artworks such as Sophie Calle’s and Vito Acconci’s are about following perfect strangers for the kick of it. The art of stalking comes to mind.
The comparison of Calle with Acconci is inevitable:
The cultural and social question of who is using whom is always at issue in artwork that gives others a voice (Krzysztof Wodiczko’s enlistment of people with stories of cultural dislocation is one relevant example) or relies on their presence in some other way (the inevitable comparison, to Calle’s early work in particular, is Vito Acconci’s 1969 Following Piece) –Art in America, Sept, 2005 by Nancy Princenthal
For a picture of the Following Piece click here.
On Sophie Calle’s Address Book (1983):
One of Calle’s first projects to generate public controversy was Address Book (1983). The French daily newspaper Libération invited her to publish a series of 28 articles. Having recently found an address book on the street (which she photocopied and returned to its owner), she decided to call some of the telephone numbers in the book and speak with the people about its owner. To the transcripts of these conversations, Calle added photographs of the man’s favorite activities, creating a portrait of a man she never met, by way of his acquaintances. The articles were published, but upon discovering them, the owner of the address book, a documentary filmmaker named Pierre Baudry, threatened to sue the artist for invasion of privacy. As Calle reports, the owner discovered a nude photograph of her, and demanded the newspaper publish it, in retaliation for what he perceived to be an unwelcome intrusion into his private life.
On Following:
Bill is a young, jobless aspiring writer. He tells a story about himself to a man, explaining how he began to follow random people on the street in an attempt to understand them. He sets up a number of rules to separate himself from the people he follows, but breaks them when he begins following a specific man, Cobb, day after day. Cobb wears a suit and leaves several different apartment buildings carrying a bag. He eventually confronts Bill at a diner and reveals that he is a burglar. Cobb invites Bill to accompany him on his next burglary.

On Following piece (1969) – Vito Acconci:
Following Piece is one of Vito Acconci’s early works. The underlying idea was to select a person from the passers-by who were by chance walking by and to follow the person until he or she disappeared into a private place where Acconci could not enter. The act of following could last a few minutes, if the person then got into a car, or four or five hours, if the person went to a cinema or restaurant. Acconci carried out this performance everyday for a month. And he typed up an account of each ‘pursuit’, sending it each time to a different member of the art community. –http://hosting.zkm.de/ctrlspace/d/texts/01?print-friendly=true [Mar 2005] - jahsonic.wordpress.com/


Christine Macel, Yve-Alain Bois, Olivier Rolin, Sophie Calle: Did You See Me?, Prestel, 2004.

This comprehensive retrospective of Sophie Calle not only celebrates the breadth of her iconoclastic work but also leads to a deeper understanding of her unique artistic vision. The work of conceptual artist Sophie Calle embraces numerous media: photography, storytelling, film, and memoir, to name a few. Often controversial, Calle's projects explore issues of voyeurism, intimacy, and identity as she secretly investigates, reconstructs and documents the lives of strangers - whether she is inviting them to sleep in her bed, trailing them through a hotel, or following them through the city. Taking on multiple roles - detective, documentarian, behavioral scientist and diarist - Calle turns the interplay between life and art on its head. The book presents Calle's best-known works, including "The Blind", "No Sex Last Night", "The Hotel", "The Address Book" and "A Woman Vanishes", as well as lesser known and earlier projects that have largely escaped the public eye. The book also includes diary excerpts and video stills, along with three critical essays, a revealing interview with the artist and a dialogue with fellow artist Damien Hirst.

Is it just a coincidence that this fantastical catalogue of French artist Sophie Calle's projects over the years ever so slightly resembles, in its intimate size (23.5 cm x 16.8 cm) and padded cover, a diary? Indeed, the first "piece," which accompanies Calle's exhibition "M'as-tu vue" (meaning, alternately, "did you see me?" or "a show-off") at the Pompidou Center in Paris this spring, consists of excerpts from Calle's own journal. Calle's work is at its core an exploration of the seemingly infinite number of facets of identity, either mimetic, representational or essential. She has followed strangers to Venice ( "Suite vénitienne,"); had herself followed by a detective, twice ("The Shadow" and "Twenty Years Later"); contacted names found in a lost address book ("The Address Book"); worked as a chambermaid ("The Hotel"); followed instructions given to her by writer Paul Auster for "How to Improve Life in New York City" ("Gotham Handbook") and lived out certain episodes from his fictional character, Maria, in Leviathan ("The Chromatic Diet" and "Days Under the Sign of B, C & W"); filmed her disintegrating relationship ("No Sex Last Night"); was psychologically evaluated in a collaboration with Damien Hirst ("Psychological Assessment"); and developed negatives from the burned apartment of a missing woman ("A Woman Vanishes"), among many other enticing projects. In the pieces, ranging from 1978 to 2003 and generously documented in 500 color illustrations, it is Calle's own intense emotional involvement that prevents them from becoming cold, ironic, detached or overly "conceptual." The preface by Alfred Pacquement and introductory essays by editor Christine Marcel and Yve-Alain Bois are heavy on academic artspeak, but luckily fail to block the immediacy of Calle's intimate reflections. - Publishers Weekly


Sophie Calle
By Louise Neri
Photography Craig Mcdean

Sophie Calle’s art mixes image and text to provoke the kind of intense emotional response usually inspired by epic literature or film. Her most extraordinary works address rather ordinary human tendencies, from the morbid curiosity informing L’Homme au Carnet (The Address Book, 1983) to the amorous betrayal of Douleur Exquise (Exquisite Pain, 1984–2003), but Calle knows how to up the ante and amplify a generic foible into a tragic flaw. She’s a master manipulator who has taken the pushing of personal buttons to the level of fine art.

Following the resounding success of her introspective retrospective “M’as-Tu Vue?” (“Did you see me?”) at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2004, Calle moved into new territory with Prenez Soin de Vous (Take Care of Yourself, 2007), the talk of the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007, which goes on view at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York this month. It is a tour de force of feminine responses to a breakup letter that Calle received by e-mail from a man. The 107 contributions that she solicited from a diverse group of professional women are executed in a wild range of media including song and dance, scientific analysis, crossword puzzle, origami, a shooting target, and a forensic study. The extraordinary breadth of response to this seemingly simple—but universal—dilemma is a testimony to the diversity of the feminine spirit and the triumph of imagination over negative emotion. Here Calle discusses art and life and her exploration of the shifting space between them.

LOUISE NERI: Take Care of Yourself is not the first time you’ve created a work that involves a large social response. Can you describe the difference in your approach to works that involve you personally constructing a story—such as Suite Vénitienne [Please Follow Me, 1983], where you followed a man through the streets of Venice; L’Homme au Carnet, where you contacted all the people in an address book that you found and published their impressions of its owner in weekly entries in a newspaper; Où et Quand? [Where and When? 2008], where you obeyed the advice of a clairvoyant—and your broader pieces that incite any number of unimagined responses?

SOPHIE CALLE: The rules of the game are always very strict. In Take Care of Yourself I asked the participants to answer professionally, to analyze a breakup letter that I had received from a man. The parameters were fixed. For example, I wanted the grammarian to speak about grammar—I wanted to play with the dryness of professional vocabulary. I didn’t want the women expressing sentiment for me. Except maybe my mother . . .

NERI: Yet, typically, she was one of the least sentimental! [laughs]

CALLE: I have my own sentiment—I don’t need that of others. This work was not about revenge. Even so, all the women spoke from their own points of view and, probably, many of them had been abandoned by men at some point in their lives.

NERI: The various professional text analysts were particularly tough on the subject.

CALLE: These women each took their job very seriously, but they were also playing with me. I wanted to avoid any pathos or pathology. I really enjoyed it, for example, when the whole discussion would turn around a single comma, like the philologist, who discusses the world existing between two sets of quotation marks. The more detailed and specific the analysis, the more I liked it. I could have gone on and on. There was no reason to stop—other than the opening date of the Venice Pavilion!

NERI: How did you find all the women?

CALLE: First I asked two girlfriends, one of whom happens to be a journalist, the other a writer. And that’s how I got the idea. I told them, “Speak from where you are.” I began to think about the more obvious jobs whose work it is to analyze words—the psychoanalyst, the corrector—then I tried to specialize: the philosopher, who then gave me the philologist, who in turn gave me the moral philosopher, and so on. Each one said, “Did you think about this person or that person?” After a while, the process became more distant from me: I found a crossword writer because she works with words, a markswoman because she works with targets, and so on. Initially I wanted only one actress and one singer, just as I had chosen only one psychoanalyst. I ended up with 33 actresses, singers, and dancers, from Camille to Nathalie Dessay to Sussan Deyhim.
NERI: Why?

CALLE: This was largely because of the situation in Venice: The work had to be in French, because it was the French Pavilion, but most people visiting Venice don’t speak French. So I faced the problem of translation that I face all the time with my work, but in Venice this would have meant translating the texts into 20 or more languages. So I introduced nonverbal responses to make things easier.

NERI: Nonverbal meaning performance, like the Indian classical dancer, the Bunraku, and the ballerina?

CALLE: Yes, exactly. As usual, problems bring solutions. This problem brought so many responses that I couldn’t have imagined before. I think about this process in terms of the French word interpréter, which has a double meaning: to think about meaning or analyze, and to act theatrically. An actor is un interpréte. All the women were between me and the letter, as interprètes.

A conversation about "self-burial" between artist Sophie Calle and a man without identity. In this video the two artists meet for the first time, to discuss an artistic idea which they have discovered that they share: arranging and attending your own funeral.
French artist Sophie Calle (born 1953) meets a Danish writer that has no name to talk about attending your own funeral. At first it seems they have had the same idea, but it turns out that their reasons and thoughts about their respective projects are very different.
Sophie Calle is a French photographer, writer and conceptual artist. Her work frequently depicts human vulnerability, and examines identity and intimacy.
The artist formerly known as Claus Beck-Nielsen (born 1963) declared himself dead in 2001 and a silicone effigy of him was buried in 2011 at the Assistens cemetery in Copenhagen.
The body Claus Beck-Nielsen used to occupy remains living, and worked for the corporation Das Beckwerk until 2011, when Das Beckwerk closed.
Das Beckwerk Museum opened in 2011 in order to continue the remains of the artist who now calls himself ’Nielsen’.
”The reason why your mother's funeral became fantastic was that she was actually dead.” Says the nameless man to Sophie Calle.
”It's a light fantasy for me, it's not a heavy fantasy, it doesn't mean I want to die…” Sophie Calle compares arranging her funeral to arranging her wedding. She explains that she is a control freak and she wants to have a magnificent theatrical funeral, organizing where her friends are seated etc. – and importantly, is present to see what happens.
The conversation between Sophie Calle and the nameless man was filmed at the Louisiana Museum in 2010.
Camera: Kim Hansen
Edited by Kamilla Bruus
Produced by Christian Lund.
Copyright: Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.
Meet more artists at channel.louisiana.dk

Urs Widmer - a moralist certainly lurks in Urs Widmer, but a moralist with humour and linguistic wit who recognises the human comedy implicit in tragedy and knows the melancholy of cheerfulness

Urs Widmer, My Father's Book, Trans. by Donal McLaughlin, Seagull Books, 2012.

In this companion to Urs Widmer’s novel My Mother’s Lover, the narrator is again the son who pieces together the fragments of his parents’ stories. Since the age of twelve, Karl, the father, has observed the family tradition of recording his life in a single notebook, but when his book is lost soon after his death, his son resolves to rewrite it.

Here, we get to know Karl’s friends—a collection of anti-fascist painters and architects known as Group 33. We learn of the early years of Karl’s marriage and follow his military service as the Swiss fear a German invasion during World War II, his political activity for the Communist Party, and his brief career as a teacher. We are told of Karl’s literary translations of his favorite French books, and, most important, the eerie and ever-present coffins outside the houses in the home village of Karl’s father, one reserved for each individual from the day he or she is born.
Widmer brilliantly combines family history and historical events to tell the story of a man more at home in the world of the imagination than in the real world, a father who grows on the reader, just as he grows on his son.

“One of the best representatives of Swiss literature.”—Le Monde

Urs Widmer, woefully underappreciated in the English-speaking world, is one of Switzerland’s most prominent and prolific writers. And My Father’s Book is one of Widmer’s very best. A fictionalized biography of his own father, Walter Widmer, this novel is by turns heart-wrenching and laugh-out loud funny. Heady, intellectual passages alternate with slap-stick comedy in this exploration of how much we can know even those closest to us.
The narrator’s father, Karl Widmer, is an unworldly, intellectually voracious man whose fiery temper is balanced by his essential good nature and extreme absent-mindedness. He lives primarily through the great works of French literature he translates—Stendhal, Flaubert, Rabelais, Balzac, and Diderot, whom he treasures above all others—and dies in his fifties of a heart ailment exacerbated by a life of chain-smoking. Karl is an inveterate idealist who venerates the Encyclopédistes and the rationalism of the dix-huitième. He becomes a Communist for a time, but is too impolitic for the Party. What he loves, he loves ardently. He only occasionally registers the fact that his beloved wife’s tendency to withdraw is a sign of unhappiness, and always too late.
According to tradition in Karl’s remote ancestral mountain village, on his twelfth birthday he was given a book for him to record each day’s events throughout his life. On the day after his father dies, the narrator learns to his horror that his mother had already disposed of Karl’s book along with mountains of manuscripts and unpaid bills. The narrator, who had only glanced through it the night before, resolves to rewrite his father’s book, now in the readers’ hands. Widmer not only recalls the events and circumstances of Karl’s life, he is able to render a sense of the man’s internal life by quoting imagined passages from the imaginary book.
As the Germans advance through Europe, Karl, until now unfit for service, is called up along “with a few other oldish men with weak hearts” to protect Basel from the Wehrmacht. In the barracks at night Karl dutifully makes his daily entries in which mundane events alternate with vivid meditations on things literary.
19.5.40 Letter from Clara,’ my father wrote, once he’d saved the quill from the hobnailed boots of a comrade racing to the toilet. ‘Kitchen duty for insubordination (the corporal asked me—it was to do with the dismantled gunlock I wasn’t able to put together again—whether I thought he was stupid and I said yes). The Germans still aren’t here yet. General mobilization nonetheless. —In the ancien régime, ladies vaginae could speak too. Not just their mouths. Often the gentlemen would sit with their countesses and ducal lovers, having tea, and chatting to one another about an especially good bon mot of Madame de Pompadour or the Pope’s last bull, while, simultaneously, from beneath their skirts—many-layered mountains of material—came a chattering and sniggering, the sense of which they didn’t quite catch. At any rate, there was almost constant chat from down there. The many different materials muffled the voices, but people sometimes thought they would hear their names, without knowing what the braying laughter beneath all the other skirts was all about. —The light! The light of the dix-huitième, you don’t get light like that nowadays.
My Father’s Book is a boisterous, expansive novel, an encapsulation of twentieth century Swiss life through an idiosyncratic and highly concentrating prism. This sense of breadth comes not only from the contrast of Karl’s engagement in politics and his ludicrous stint as a soldier with his wife’s extreme introversion, but also from his appetite for life and the arts, which Widmer evokes beautifully. The sheer artistry of the writing in this novel alone would be deserving of the Best Translated Book Award, but in addition Donal McLaughlin’s translation is pitch-perfect, capturing the various registers and tonalities of Widmer’s prose and, most difficult of all, the many shades of his humor. - Tess Lewis

Deviation From The Norm, or The Realistic Fantast
A look at the work of writer Urs Widmer
By Roman Bucheli

Urs Widmer, born in Basel in 1938 but for many years now an inhabitant of Zurich, is without doubt one of the most significant and versatile talents currently at work in the field of contemporary German-language literature as well as one of the most successful. His sales are invariably in the high five-figure bracket and, as for prizes, the Friedrich Hölderlin Prize awarded to him last year was merely the latest in a collection which already included the 2002 Grand Literature Prize of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts (Grosser Literaturpreis der Bayerischen Akademie der Schönen Künste, awarded to a writer for a lifetime’s work). Widmer studied German, French and history at the universities of Basel and Montpellier. After completing his PhD he worked briefly as an editor at Suhrkamp Verlag, but left the publishing house during the Lektoren-Aufstand (‘Editors’ Revolt’) of 1968.*
That was also the year in which his literary debut, Alois, was published. Since then he has created a body of work which is hard to beat for its technical versatility and thematic breadth. Widmer has also had success as a playwright, an essayist and a short story writer. To date he has only produced one published poem, but it would come as no surprise if, tucked away in a drawer, were some stabs at lengthier verse. He has also translated books from English and French, among them Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and dramatic works by Alexandre Dumas and Eugène Labiche.
Urs Widmer’s technical virtuosity is perhaps most evident in the books he published between the years 2000 and 2006 and which form a sort of informal trilogy. Der Geliebte meiner Mutter (‘My Mother’s Lover’) was the first to appear. It is a thinly veiled depiction of the unhappy love affair between Widmer’s mother and the musician and patron of the arts Paul Sacher. Both a quiet maternal requiem and a savage critique of the corrupting power of money, it manages to accentuate the potential pathos of suffering and grieving both by emphasising the sensual element and adding touches of burlesque. Following this novel four years later came Das Buch des Vaters (‘My Father’s Book’). While in the mother’s book the figure of the father was almost ghost-like in its absence, here the father receives his narrative due. Now the mother is in the background, a figure seen to be suffering in silence; while, in stark contrast, the father takes centrestage, eccentric, obsessed with literature – when he dies, he leaves his son a notebook completed almost to its very last page. If in the mother’s book grieving is kept at bay by narrative ingenuity and linguistic wit, the life of the father, apparently richly imbued with humour, sensuousness and zest for life even in dire times, is peppered with gentle melancholy. This, too, is a book of farewell, and thus also a kind of requiem; and yet Widmer counterpoints his father’s own biography, a man less at home in the real world than in the imaginative worlds of writers, with a realism that occasionally drifts into the fantastic. In his Frankfurt lectures on poetics ** (Vom Leben, vom Tod und vom Übrigen auch dies und das, 2007), the author said that literature is always ambivalent and that in everything lies its opposite: ‘When literature concerns itself intensively with death, it is concerned in equal measure with life.’
This ambivalence of narrative that constantly casts its subject in a light tinged slightly with its converse is beautifully executed in both these books. Finally Urs Widmer undergoes a further transformation with the third book in this unofficial trilogy: in 2006 Ein Leben als Zwerg (‘Life as a Dwarf’) was published and, following on from the books of the mother and the father, this is a kind of autobiography. In it Widmer recounts his childhood and youth – albeit from the perspective of one of his toy dwarves made of hard rubber which he’d loved playing with as a boy. The ageing writer has kept one of these dwarves from his childhood; it stands aloft on a shelf in his study and tells his own story and the stories of the other dwarves who were lost over the years – and through this dwarf’s tale we learn a certain amount about the life of the writer as a child. Though this seemed to be a never-ending playsession with the dwarves, the book strikes the reader as a merry, but serious, memento mori: for what the dwarves speak of is nothing less than the irrevocable process of their material disintegration. They are at one and the same time the cheeriest and yet saddest actors in this spectacle of transience.
In his Frankfurt lectures Urs Widmer emphasised that literary writing is based upon a subtle shift, a deviation from the speaking norm. It is this difference that defines the work of art, but it also gives rise to the critical awareness that makes us question the world and the effectiveness of its institutions. Particularly in his plays, Urs Widmer poses insistent critical questions of the time. In the play Frölicher – ein Fest (premiered in 1991) Widmer discusses the role of Switzerland in the Second World War through the figure of the controversial Swiss envoy to Berlin who stubbornly stayed put to the bitter end, while in Top Dogs (premiered in 1996) he examines the relentless nature of an achievement-orientated society. Managers themselves made redundant try to feel their way into their new existence, but not one of them succeeds in returning to ‘normal’ life. What they dealt out as bosses to their employees in spades is now happening to them. Just a moment before still top of their game, they’ve now fallen victim to their own criterion of success. With razor-sharp analysis Widmer explores in this play the inhumane ideology of maximising profit and efficiency.
Yes, a moralist certainly lurks in Urs Widmer, but a moralist with humour and linguistic wit who recognises the human comedy implicit in tragedy and knows the melancholy of cheerfulness.

Translated by Rebecca Morrison

* A group of editors and authors approached the then publisher Siegfried Unseld asking to be more involved in the decision-making and running of the house, following a ‘model of participation’; when he refused they left, some setting up their own publishing house, Verlag der Autoren – Urs Widmer was one.
** This renowned series of lectures began in 1959/60 with Ingeborg Bachmann, who was followed by names such as Böll, Enzensberger, Christa Wolf, Dürrenmatt, Muschg, Grass and Jandl. They are held in Lecture Hall VI at the University of Frankfurt – where Adorno once taught and the tumultuous events of 1968 took place.

Urs Widmer,  My Mother's Lover, Trans. by Donal McLaughlin, Seagull Books, 2011.

It’s Switzerland in the 1920s when the two lovers first meet. She is young, beautiful, and rich. In contrast, he can barely support himself and is interested only in music. By the end of their lives, he is a famous conductor and the richest man in the country, but she is penniless. And most important of all, no one knows of her love for him; it is a secret he took to his grave. Here begins Urs Widmer’s novel My Mother’s Lover.

Based on a real-life affair, My Mother’s Lover is the story of a lifelong and unspoken love for a man—recorded by the woman’s son, who begins this novel on the day his mother’s lover dies. Set against the backdrop of the Depression and World War II, it is a story of sacrifice and betrayal, passionate devotion, and inevitable suffering. Yet in Widmer’s hands, it is always entertaining and surprisingly comic—a unique kind of fairy tale.

“Dichten = condensare” but it’s the rare German novelist who has the gift for it. Urs Widmer is a happy exception, and Donal McLaughlin’s translation of Widmer’s My Mother’s Lover (Der Geliebte der Mutter) renders that succinctness beautifully. I won’t say much about the author or the book — you can find good information on both elsewhere — but I have a few words about the translation and its publisher.

My Mother’s Lover is pseudo-autobiographical account of the failed love affair that overshadows all events personal and political in the life of Clara, the narrator’s mother. The book has a naturally stilted quality, owing to the fact that the narrator is a derivative product of a shadow of a being living only for the solidity of her erstwhile lover. I mean stilted in a good way, and as I said, the book is incredibly dense. Add to this that Clara’s voice, her verbal tics, shine through and warp the narrator’s account, and you have one very complex narrative voice to translate.

The book’s pacing, and the translation of it, is truly stunning. As noted, its richness is not something I’ve come across often in German, and it may be that I like it so much in English because (a prejudice of mine) I think of English as a ‘dense’ language. (I don’t mean this as an indictment of the German original, which was enchanting.)

Here it’s a moment captured (or is it many moments?):

She liked the town, especially the countless streets, full of nooks and crannies, around the cathedral. The shops, the tradesmen. She saw a cobbler with such a long beard that it kept getting between his hammer and the sole of the boot he was working on. A goldsmith was bent over a ring, his magnifying glass up at one eye. A barber with round metal-rimmed glasses was soaping his client’s hair in a shop so small that he himself was out in the street. Green-grocers, potters, junk dealers. And again and again, old men: their black cloaks, black hats, long beards and plaited hair. They spoke with their hands — really! — My mother turned away so they couldn’t see how much they made her laugh.
Again and again the immensity of the world, of history, of time, contracts to fit into Clara’s withdrawn existence. You can feel the view magnify, from the town, to its streets and buildings to the people on them, the details of their persons, down to that magnificent ‘really!’ at which point we fall through the looking glass and into Clara’s consciousness. In my opinion it’s things like McLaughlin’s ‘really!’ (or maybe all of the work leading up to ‘really!’ and allowing me to be stunned by ‘really!’) that make this book what it is.

A word on Seagull Books. They’re one of the most fascinating English-language publishers out there; they’re certainly doing some of the most interesting German translations available. Though I would categorize My Mother’s Lover as ‘the sort of thing that gets translated’ (literary fiction written by a hoary prize-winning male septuagenarian, albeit Swiss), Seagull often also surprises me with curve balls — eg. a copy of Rights, “an informed insight into the daily practices of the rights and permissions departments of a leading European publishing house,” just landed on my desk.

Seagull itself is a curve-ball, in that it’s an India-based publisher getting world rights to major translations. Viewed cynically, you could say that the one upshot of the US/UK’s lack of interest in translation is that it’s driven German publishers to give up their own prejudices and treat India as an equal player in the field. Alternately, you could say Seagull is snatching up the opportunities other English-language publishers won’t (or can’t or assume they can’t) take advantage of, and this globalized world of ours has made their location irrelevant, or even an advantage. Either way they’re doing a bang-up job of it. Oh, and see Katy Derbyshire’s post on the dream-job they gave her! -
Clara is the only daughter of a self-made-man from Italian origins. In the 1920s and in her twenties, she gets involved in the creation of a young orchestra whose brilliant conductor is Edwin. Clara volunteers for the orchestra, taking charge of the organization of concerts. Edwin and Clara have an affair but aren’t on the same page. He’s looking for a sexual partner; she’s in love with him. Edwin marries someone else. Clara never falls out of love with him.

Of course, I couldn’t help thinking of Letter from an Unknown Woman by Stefan Zweig. There are similarities. Two women desperately in love with a famous man (a writer / a conductor); two men unaware of the consuming love they have kindled. Contrary to Zweig’s woman, Clara is unbalanced, she’s had a hard childhood with a dominating father, has known poverty, rejection. She’s madly in love with Edwin, in the literal sense of the word. She behaves like Virginia Woolf, going into the water at night, all dressed up, carrying a heavy rock, as if she intended to drown herself. She’s suicidal, a terrible mother dragging her boy in her crazy behaviors. I pitied the poor boy and I wondered where his father was. (I think there’s a book about the father’s story)
Clara’s son relates her story, as the title shows it. I didn’t find it convincing. How did he get to know how his mother felt? How did he know about her sex life, her internal turmoil, her personal demons? Is it healthy for him to know that? Clara had no friend, she couldn’t have confided in anyone. Now I found that I miss the 19thC device that consists in an introductory chapter in which the narrator explains where he/she knows the story from.
When I was reading, I saw black and white news films from before WWII. People move slightly faster than their real pace, there’s no sound, only a voice over. I saw the images of Clara’s life and heard her son’s detached tone commenting. A voiceover, flat, matter-of-factly describing things with well-chosen words, maybe taking a necessary distance with it to protect his sanity. I remained aloof too, it didn’t reach me. Plus I had guessed one of the key things of the story, which irritated me a bit.
I wonder if I could rate the books I read according to the number of quotes I note down. I guess on this scale of stars, it wouldn’t grant a high rating to this book. No quote at all. The style is good though despite a wild use of punctuation. Sometimes I was tired of exclamation marks, constant insertion of text in brackets or – and so on. It has a musicality but it didn’t move me. Honestly, that’s me, not the book. Caroline loved it; I perfectly understand and it’s worth reading her review as it covers parts I didn’t mention. What she writes is absolutely true but didn’t have the same effect on me. I recommend reading it in one to three reading sessions (It’s short) to have the time to enter the book and hear the music of Widmer’s words. Something else may have prevented me from fully enjoying it: I’m a zero in classical music and I didn’t get the references included in the book. For someone better informed, it can be more enjoyable. So, to sum it up, it didn’t work for me but it’s a good book, very well-written. - bookaroundthecorner.wordpress.com/

       He’d been a musician, a conductor. Three days before he died, he conducted his final concert in the Stadthalle. Gyorgy, Ligeti, Bartok, Conrad Beck.–My mother loved him all her life. Not that he noticed. That anyone noticed. No one knew of her passion, not a word did she ever speak on the subject. ‘Edwin,’ mind you, she would whisper when she stood alone at the lake, holding her child’s hand. There, in the shade, surrounded by quacking ducks, she’d look across at the sunlit shore opposite. ‘Edwin!’ The conductor’s name was Edwin.

     Many may not have heard of Urs Widmer, but if you’re wanting to get a good taste of modern Swiss literature, he’s definitely the man to start reading. Born in 1938, he looks like the love child of Perec and Gene Hackman. And if it weren’t for Seagull Books, we may not have had the pleasure of reading this contemporary author. My Mother’s Lover is a quick-paced and tragic tale of obsession. If you’re into grim fairy tales about unrequited love, this is the book for you. Beginning around the turn of the century, it chronicles the love affair between Edwin and Clara.
At turns digressive and narrative, the first part of the book focuses on their burgeoning relationship and their familial heritage. They meet in the ’20′s in a town in Switzerland. Edwin is a poor musician and Clara is rich and beautiful. Edwin, remote and talented, conducts The Young Orchestra which dares to bring the works of new composers to his town. Half the audience would cheer and half would hiss in disapproval. Clara, a devout music lover, becomes a volunteer secretary for Edwin and the Young Orchestra who are youthful, eager, and all working for free. Clara does an excellent job fixing whatever problem arises and without much notice from Edwin. Until a trip to Paris when after a joyous performance, the go back to her room and consummate their relationship.
After this, the Depression hits and tragedy strikes Clara. Her father dies (her mother had been dead many years) and she loses everything. Because Edwin is becoming successful, he offers her a room. Soon after her father’s death, she visits his relatives in Italy. Welcomed with love and fanfare, she feels a unity she has not felt before and admires the strength of her uncles. When she returns home, Edwin is cold and cruel, only visiting her to sate his sexual needs. She becomes pregnant. Edwin cannot abide this at his point in his career. She aborts. Edwin’s best friend, Wern, than asks her to escort him on a trip to Frankfurt. When they return, she is heartbroken to learn that Edwin has married a rich heiress and lives on the lake in huge mansion. By this time, she has quit her job with The Youth Orchestra
out of anger.
This is when Widmer covers a lot of historical ground. Clara marries and lives on the other side of the lake from Edwin. Widmer decides never to mention the husband’s name or anything about their relationship, which is because her love is for Edwin only and he doesn’t matter to her. At night, she walks along the lake and takes the heaviest stone she can find in her arms and walks into the lake repeating ‘Edwin’. This ritual continues, even when she has a child and replaces the stone with a child. This is a gruesome image and it is explored more in the dreams she has which are blood-filled and violent.
This obsession with Edwin is never revealed to anyone. And is often the case with unrequited love, if it is not processed, it implodes and madness becomes the result. As her madness becomes frenetic, Edwin’s success and riches abound. Eventually, she becomes hospitalized and given electroshock treatments. When she returns home, it is during the lead-in to WWII, and she rips out all the flowers and begins to plant trees and vegetables. This is where Widmer’s intention of paralleling the rise of Hitler and the demise of Clara who could be seen as the blind followers of the Nazis and the Fascists, as he cleverly shows in this passage:
She put wood wool beneath the still green strawberries. She sprayed poison. (Hitler bombed Coventry to bits.) She ran with the wheelbarrow, full of peat or old leaves, along the paths between the vegetable patches, paths the width of her feet. Yes, she ran, she didn’t ever walk. She forced the garden hose into a mouse hole, turned the water on, and used her shovel to kill the mice that fled from the other holes. (Hitler had now reached Narvik too, the North Pole, or almost.)

The her use of the garden hose on the mice symbolizes Hitler’s hunt for Jews. These political themes are present in the beginning but grow much more ominous as the novel progresses. When Clara decides during this time to visit her Italian relatives, she is ignored because of the arrival of Il Duce (Mussolini) at her relatives house for a meal. They have succumbed to Fascism, but Clara is oblivious to who Il Duce is and to the horrific war happening. All she has is her love for Edwin.
The prose is clipped and sparse. Nothing seems extraneous which also speaks well for the translation because his minimal style loses nothing in the translation by Donal McLaughlin. This reportage style contrasts the sadness that permeates
My Mother’s Lover. Edwin’s name is used most often and Clara is most often referred to by the narrator, Clara’s son, as ‘my mother.’ This emphasizes the rich and powerful vs. the poor and powerless construct that threads through the narrative as well.
It’s obvious that this isn’t going to end well for Clara. Until her death, she keeps her devotion as her link to life. A tragic story, told in a fairy talesque manner,
My Mother’s Lover examines how love destroys in many manners–love of nation, unrequited love and love of self. The males in the novel are regarded highly while Clara represents the silenced women of a patriarchal society. And like the men who wage wars, Edwin dismisses Clara and smites a life and a love of a person her never really knew. - Monica at www.salonicaworldlit.com

Urs Widmer, one of the living greats of Swiss literature, based My Mother's Lover on a real-life affair. Set against a backdrop of the footloose 1920s, the Depression, the Second World War and its changing fortunes for citizens of a neutral Switzerland, and the effects of Italian fascism on a Piedmont wine-producing family, its deceptively simple narrative explores the destructive nature of yearning for what, or whom, one cannot have, and the cruelty of carelessness. Musical references, grand gestures, and eccentric characters abound. The pathos of mother Clara's situation, her love for the renowned conductor Edwin, is portrayed with a lightness of touch and fairy-tale quality that enchants, but does not detract from the pain of unrequited love nor the absurdities and horrors of war. There is whimsy in the description of Edwin's Zurich-based Young Orchestra.
Clara, its manager, is still a young lady of means. In Paris, after a concert attended by Ravel, we read of "thirty sleeping musicians, their dreams all in major". Clara's obsession grows even as the maestro marries into wealth: "Every fibre in my mother's body called 'Edwin'. Soon all the birds were singing 'Edwin' ... The wind whispered it, the sun burned it into her skin." Donal McLaughlin's translation delivers all the charm, sweet sorrow and gentle humour of the original. - Rebecca K Morrison

The unnamed narrator in this deceptively thin novel is a man trying to tell — through a mix of elision and detail — the story of his mother’s life and death in (and as) the shadow of her lover, a great conductor, during the early and post-war years of the 20th century in Switzerland. Towards the end, when the mother is an old woman, long after her years as “maid-of-all-work” for the youth orchestra set up by the conductor, the son tells us how she dreams that “her child ate his own heart because he was afraid of what his mother fed him”. “She dreamt,” he writes — and then stops for a moment to wonder, “Or was it her child that dreamt this?”
This sudden slip in the narrator’s memory — mother and child, who is the object of whose imagination? — fleetingly lights up the treacherous web of remembering and empathy that the Swiss writer, Urs Widmer, unravels in My Mother’s Lover, translated by Donal McLaughlin. Logically, there are two possibilities. Either the son combines real memories of his mother with what she has told him about her past, filling in the gaps with hearsay and imagination. Or the mother actually tells him, minutely and relentlessly, every detail of her inner and outer lives, including dreams, traumas and sexual experiences — a series of tender or monstrous confidences and unspeakable handings-down. Which of these two, equally compelling but sinister, explanations we lean towards as readers depends on how, in our own lives, we carry our parents, especially our mothers, inside our heads, and on the extent to which we relish or resist turning into their historians and archivists, allowing their stories and voices to become ours.
Within this framework of transferences, identifications and transmissions, Widmer explores another psychosexual phenomenon, rather more predictably: female devotion, service and servitude to male genius. The mother’s total, abject, yet profoundly suffered self-effacement founded on depths of self-hatred is given not only a prehistory and afterlife by Widmer, but also a historical and political setting. This setting interlaces the rise and fall (or normalization) of European fascism (the Führer and the Duce) with the emergence of a “new music” in Stravinsky, Bartók and Ravel, among others, and with the story of how these interlaced historical, cultural and psychic upheavals settle into the unreal feel of modern ‘normality’ and Swiss neutrality.
Interestingly, one of the works in the conductor’s repertory is Willy Burkhard’s Lieder nach Tagore, suggesting an avant garde context for Rabindrasangeet largely ignored or wished away by Tagore’s devotees today. In fact, Widmer’s novel casts a fascinating light on the bevy of women who had devoted themselves to the poet with such competitive ardour. In this, My Mother’s Lover is a psychological kin of Mircea Eliade’s La Nuit Bengali.
Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher, Michael Haneke’s film of her novel, Liliana Cavani’s film, The Night Porter, and Coetzee’s Summertime are among several contemporary works that explore the disturbing underbelly of European, especially Germanic, classical music — the tense reconciliation of opposites within the ‘Classical’ itself that could, in a moment, tear itself apart in an explosion, or implosion, of power gone terribly wrong. But the psychic theatre in which this happens exists beyond right and wrong, whatever the judgments of history; and at the heart of this theatre is usually a damaged woman. Think of Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher or Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter. Widmer’s novel is in this lineage.
Aveek Sen

An extract
‘Shall I start with ninety?’—‘I’d say so, yes. We can always go higher.’—The electric shock was like an explosion. A flash in her head, a whip lashing through every muscle. She writhed, bit into the rubber, forced her eyes shut, tore them open again. Howled inwardly, like a wolf; she was a wolf. A storm within her until she lay there motionless; remaining so, once the fetters were undone. The piece of rubber was taken out, her mouth stayed open. ‘Okay. That’s us finished.’ She was moved back to her room where she lay on her back, staring at the ceiling. Every morning she was brought to the treatment room, often enough for her—now an empty shell—to start lying down of her own accord, putting her hands, without hesitation, in the leather fetters. For her to feel as much before the electric shock as she did afterwards; as little. The rest of the time, she lay in her white room—light, more light, the curtains moving in the breeze; it was spring again—until one of the doctors came and told her she was healthy and could go home again. ‘Isn’t it wonderful you’re now so well again?’ And so my mother got up, packed her nightdress and toothbrush in her little case, took her coat with the fur collar from the hanger, and went home where her child, me, was still, or again, in the doorway and wet himself when she appeared at the open gate.)—Now, the sun was shining again, the trees were in blossom, the grass a bright green. Invisible, in the distance—invisible for the moment—was the war. (Hitler had ravaged Poland.) My mother put her case in the bedroom, hung her coat in the wardrobe, put on her oldest dress and her mountain boots, and went into the garden. She felled the lilac tree and the whitethorn, and ripped out all the narcissi, tulips, daffodils, irises and cowslips. With a spade, she turned over the flower garden she’d just cleared—a bare field now, from one horizon to the other—without any help. There were no men any more. She broke the clods of earth up with a hoe, throwing all the stones—a great many, countless, the field was very rocky—on a pile that soon became a mountain. She raked the broken-up clay, again and again, and then once more. Until it was grainy; flour-like almost. (At Dunkirk, Hitler hounded the British into the sea.) My mother dug holes with a dibble, made furrows with the back of her hand. She scattered seeds from small packets, and pressed seedlings into the earth. Watered them, individually, with rainwater that wasn’t too cold, taking it from a rusty drum, surrounded by a little marsh, beside the tool shed. Walking at a slant, with one arm in the air, she dragged watering cans from which the water splashed. She rammed wooden poles into the ground, long ones for the climbing beans, and short ones for the peas. Beneath the chestnut tree and the beech tree she spread cloths out and, standing on a ladder, beat the cockchafers down. Thousands of brown beetles (Hitler marched into Paris, his arm extended, in the air) that she filled into buckets and, for five rappen per litre, brought to the collection point by bike, the buckets either side of the handlebars; she was thrown from her bike several times, of course, into the nettles where the beetles disappeared.—The dog was always around somewhere too, she now had a dog.—She tied the tomatoes up with yellow bast and broke off the shoots she didn’t want. She put wood wool beneath the still green strawberries. She sprayed poison. (Hitler bombed Coventry to bits.) She ran with the wheelbarrow, full of peat or old leaves, along the paths between the vegetable patches, paths the width of her feet. Yes, she ran, she didn’t ever walk. She forced the garden hose into a mouse hole, turned the water on, and used her shovel to kill the mice that fled from the other holes. (Hitler had now reached Narvik too, the North Pole, or almost.) With one of her buckets and a shovel in hand, she followed the farmers’ horses, collecting the droppings. She picked camomile from alongside the paths and dried it on cloths. On all her windowsills lay half-green, half-red tomatoes. The aroma of them! The granite slabs in the path to the garden gate were burning hot! Lizards would vanish between the stones! Every now and then, my mother would straighten up—she was always bent over a barrel of rose-hip syrup or a weed—and, turning her upper lip up, would blow down her blouse. Even she was finding it hot! Mosquitoes, the drone of mosquitoes was everywhere. Swarms of flies round her head. Crouching between the green plants, she hunted Colorado beetles. She would dig out molehills and crush cockchafer grubs with her foot. Mole crickets, if ever a mole cricket flew over the vegetable patches, you’d hear her scream! (Now Mussolini went mad too, marched into Greece.) On the compost heap, more of a mountain, huge cucumbers were growing. Courgettes and zucchetti, resembling primeval creatures, were bulging over each other. (Hitler met Pétain, who was wearing a feathered hat.) When it got colder, when rain poured down, my mother, wrapped in a black cape, would crouch among the potatoes and dig them out. She filled crate after crate and, with a rolling gait, carried them down to the cellar. She would string onions together and hang them up in the shed. Even with the door closed, you could smell the strings of onions, the scent went as far as the water drum that smelled of moss. At harvest-time there was no festival, my mother didn’t do festivals. But apples, pears, quince and nuts were piled up everywhere. My mother would stand in the kitchen, making jam. Steam. There was no sugar, but she got some from somewhere. It was just for the preserves, though, not for sweet things. Cellophane, red rubber rings. For the bottled pears, apricots and plums, she had green jars from Bülach. That they were from Bülach was somehow important.—She cleaned, ran, cooked, scrubbed. Rose with the sun—she who, once, had been too fond of her bed—and lay down at midnight.—Then snow fell. Now—if she wasn’t clearing the paths or stamping around in the sauerkraut barrel—she would sit in the one room she was prepared to heat, and that she called ‘the warmth’. She would sew trousers, darn socks, knit pullovers and clean the old silver, the silver from before, until it glistened and sparkled and shone. She’d then lock it away again; she never used it to eat.—She no longer went to the lake. From time to time, she would just stop at the little table, the altar; but not really praying. At most, she would flick through a programme, then put it back. Sometimes she’d stand at the window and look across at the forest. But rarely, you’d have to say it was rarely.—This was how she lived. Hitler attacked Russia and my mother planted onions. Hitler laid siege to Moscow. My mother pulled out turnips. Rommel’s tanks chased Montgomery’s across the Sahara. My mother stood in the smoke from a fire that put an end to old branches. Hitler reached the Don. My mother in among the corn. Stalingrad! My mother sewed black curtains, put them up in all the windows and, trudging through snow, checked from outside to ensure no light whatsoever was getting through. The Americans took Sicily. My mother stood, wringing her hands, at the sight of tomatoes rotting before they ripened. The Americans, the British, the Canadians and the French landed in Normandy. My mother removed a silvery film from the beans. De Gaulle, bigger than everyone else, marched into Paris, leading his troops, while my mother was feeding the rabbits. When the Allies reached the Rhine, my mother was filling the fruit and vegetable racks in the cellar with russet apples. And when Hitler, crazier than ever, gave the command for the Ardennes Offensive, my mother was chopping a young fir down in the forest—at dusk, so as the forester didn’t catch her because it was Christmas and my mother had never ever spent Christmas without a tree with candles. The Russians fought their way through to Berlin, and my mother was getting new vegetable patches ready. On 8 May 1945, around midday, all the bells were ringing. In the distance, beyond the horizon —my mother didn’t live near a church. It was as if the earth itself were ringing. My mother dropped the hoe she’d been using to break up clay onto the ground, and sat down on the garden bench that, for five years, had served only as a place for her gardening clothes or the hedge-clippers. She breathed in, breathed out. The cherry trees were beginning to blossom, and the swallows were circling their nests. You could hear the goldfinches. The laburnum was flowing from its branches, the wisteria was in bloom. From far off, over the fields and up the road, black dots were approaching. Were getting bigger and, finally, big. The men. The men were returning, in their uniforms, with their knapsacks and carbines over their shoulders. They were laughing and waving, each and every one of them recognizable now. My mother raised her hand, waved too. ‘Dog,’ she said to the dog, ‘From today, the two of us will have to pull through peacetime, we will.’ She stood up, stepped over the child that was on the ground, using stones to build a castle, an impregnable fort, and went into the house.
THE war was over. Everyone who was still alive raised their heads and looked around, my mother too. What had become of the others? Far from the town, at its outermost edge, my mother didn’t get to hear much. And so the first piece of news that was important didn’t reach her until a burning day, at the height of summer. It came from Wern, from that very person. My mother met him at the gents’ underpants bargain basket in EPA, a department store in the town centre. She blushed,—would have fled perhaps, had she been able to do so, unseen—as she’d been caught in a shop that a Lermitier lady or a Bodmer lady or Edwin’s wife would never have entered. Not ever. Wern, who was holding flag-sized white underpants out from his stomach to gauge the size of them, was not in the least embarrassed, on the contrary. He was pleased to see her, hugged my red-faced mother and kissed her on both cheeks. ‘Clara! How nice!’ He was accompanied by an exotic-looking lady, a minute beauty with almond eyes and a radiant smile. She was from Bali, and his wife. It turned out both had arrived in town just two days before, after an adventurous trip on the backs of donkeys and on ships that had stopped in every, literally every, port, and so they’d been travelling for more than two months. They had set out on the day peace was declared. ‘Why from Bali?’ my mother said. Wern laughed, throwing the underpants back in the basket. ‘Good luck, or bad luck, judge for yourself.’ He’d been travelling through the South Seas when the war spread to Asia. No way of getting home. He made the best of the situation by wooing a young island beauty who, when he won her over, turned out to be the daughter of a local king. Wern told the latter he was a king back in Europe, and a conjurer who, by snapping his fingers, could make the greenfly ruining the king’s plantations vanish. He snapped his fingers, sprayed his product, snapped his fingers again, and the king saw, with amazement, how his plants began to flourish. His daughter did too, the princess, and so he gave Wern her hand. Wern now lived in a luxury palm hut, slept in a hammock with golden threads, drank pineapple juice and sugarcane schnapps from elaborately carved bowls and smoked cigars he rolled himself, using local tobaccos—the only hint of bitterness in this chalice of complete and utter bliss.