Roger Lewinter believes that in the realm of art, “the distinction between life and death loses its relevance, the one taking place in the other”
Roger Lewinter, The Attraction of Things, Trans. by Rachel Careau, Bilingual ed., New Directions, 2016.
Stunning fragments that offer an epiphany of grace and beauty
The Attraction of Things concerns the entirety of beauty and the possibility of grace, relayed via obsessions with rare early gramophone records, the theater, translation, dying parents: all these elements are relayed in a dizzying strange traffic of cultural artifacts, friendships, losses, discoveries, and love. Roger Lewinter believes that in the realm of art, “the distinction between life and death loses its relevance, the one taking place in the other.”
Whereas Story of Love in Solitude is a group of small stories, The Attraction of Things is a continuous narrative (more or less) of a man seeking (or stumbling upon) enlightenment.
“The Attraction of Things,” states Lewinter, “is the story of a being who lets himself go toward what attracts him, toward what he attracts―beings, works, things―and who, through successive encounters, finds the way out of the labyrinth, to the heart, where the bolt of illumination strikes. This is the story of a letting go toward the illumination.”
“Short and vvvery powerful.” - Scott Esposito
“Roger Lewinter’s works, both humanly touching and artistically innovative, are spectacularly individual. Obsessively, and in the most incisive detail, they portray some of the crucial events and ideas of his life in prose at once headlong and passionate in its pacing, and tight and cerebral in its articulation. In this volume, Lewinter’s highly intricate syntax, which necessarily so closely reflects and reproduces his complexly layered thinking, has been meticulously and eloquently recreated by Rachel Careau in her masterful translation.” - Lydia Davis
“You absolutely must read Roger Lewinter, beginning with two perfect narratives: The Attraction of Things and Story of Love in Solitude.” - David Lispiau
Lewinter’s serpentine “fragments of an oblique life” nominally recount three years in a man’s life, but they more closely resemble a work that his narrator wants to translate: “a text that, improvised on each occasion in a state of concentration, was a simple verbal process” for its writer, but for the reader becomes a “labyrinth from which to find the way out.” The narrator is an accomplished translator and avid collector of antique records, Kashmir shawls, and other objets d’art, and is increasingly solitary. His elderly father, his only living parent, is growing fragile: “Making up for twenty years in three weeks he suddenly became an old man.” An ex-girlfriend whose new book is finally finished mentions that she’s “getting married in two hours.” The narrator’s relationships with men afford him the understanding that gender is ultimately unimportant, “since it is negated for the body that in its fulfillment is escaped,” but these relationships have also proven transitory. In this ephemeral world, the flea market offers consolations and coincidences within which the narrator locates a deeper meaning. Finding an intricately woven shawl, or the old sound recording of a dancer in which only the music and “a sharp tap of the castanets sufficed to evoke in its brilliance the entirety of beauty,” he moves closer and closer to revelation. Lewinter’s sentences can span several pages, moving backward and forward through narrative time; through their possible frustration, readers too may approach enlightenment. - Publishers Weekly
A reissue of the author’s 1985 novella, an elliptical meditation on possessions and their loss.
This work by French-born novelist Lewinter (Story of Love in Solitude, 1989, etc.) has a definite arc, following the declining health of the narrator’s parents. But it’d be off-base to say it has a plot: Lewinter is a prose poet, delivering long, sinuous, and complex sentences that switch back and forth in time and weave around the story. (This edition includes the original French text to compare to Careau’s translation.) So though he’s contemplating mom’s and dad’s mortality, Lewinter’s hero is doing so through the filter of objects: a coveted LP; a bespoke shawl; Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry; a set of vintage porcelain. Rather than suggesting that the narrator’s fixation on stuff is misguided, Lewinter delivers an appreciation of the spiritual power of things: the shawl, for instance, possesses a “serene luminosity” whose threads are “equal parts solid, liquid, ethereal”; a singer on a record “becomes an elaboration of the divine.” Compared to the blunter depictions of his father’s trips in and out of the hospital and ultimately to hospice, the narrator can seem shallow; a brief fling with a street drunk only bolsters the notion. But Lewinter’s narrator is more interested in aesthetics than in morals. He seeks “that which transfigures the void,” and because he feels that’s more likely to be found in a song that can’t die, his remove from his father has a certain poignancy. The wooliness of the narration doesn’t wholly sell the point, but Lewinter unquestionably brings a lot of gravitas to a brief, abstracted tale.
A provocative, sometimes-baffling set of riffs on inanimate objects and death, in that order. - Kirkus Reviews
Roger Lewinter’s The Attraction of Things is about things and a person’s attraction to them. But after finishing the book I keep misremembering the title as The Attraction of Things Past. In my mind that “past” aspect is inseparable from the other elements of the narrative and plays a key role in the book because the narrator is as much obsessed with the past as with the matter. He chases objects that once upon a time belonged to people who had to let them go, due to death or financial or emotional necessity. The things survive and find their way to flea markets.
The narrator spends a lot of time in flea markets, searching. Records, cashmere shawls, and porcelain cups are some of the objects we get to know in detail. Lewinter dedicates long passages to their descriptions, to why the narrator wants them, how he finds them, and what he sees in them:
“… when for the second time I unfolded it, its serene luminosity deceived me; and it wasn’t until after dinner, at home, the third time I unfolded it, that there appeared to me, in its all-encompassing motion, the thread whose molecules, in equal parts solid, liquid, ethereal, according to the interplay of the colors, constructed, through a network of veins, ponds, ferns, a system of gray stills saturated with a reddish glow in which, like a rainbow, …, suddenly appeared the Angel.” (29)
Through his strolls, the narrator also tells us about translating, reading Rilke’s poetry, doing yoga, acting in a play, even if, in comparison to the time he spends on objects, these are passing interests. Even more briefly, he glides over past relationships, loss, and death. We learn of his engagement coming to an end in less than half a page: “toward the end of the meal, officially that of an engagement, she announced to me that she had a new boyfriend; giving me formal notice, by this fail accompli, if I wanted to proceed to make my own choice” (45). He mentions the loss of his mother here and there, and actually speaks more directly and in detail about his father’s loss—his declining health, the hospitalization, the move to a nursing home, and finally, his death. This story of loss, however, comes to light through the story of scratched records and broken porcelain cups and flea markets. He weaves these two aspects of his life so tightly together that they seem inseparable, and of the same weight. Yet there is a moment when he begins to reveal that perhaps his passion for objects is his way of connecting to people and the past:
“…while that evening, going to bed after the lotus, just before midnight I sank into an unconsciousness from which the telephone pulled me: On Wednesday, March 23, at 1:05, had come death.
“On Saturday, April 23, I went to the flea market, telling myself that what I would find would be my father’s sign…” (75-56).
In telling this character’s story, Lewinter’s writing takes us on a stroll through a flea market of its own. His sentences are long and winding, full of phrases and clauses, moving in and out, back and forth, between stalls and spreads, from past to present. (The complexity of these chains of words makes one wonder how translator Rachel Careau found her way around, aiming for the same style in the target language.) It takes some patience to walk with Lewinter through these passages, but if you do stay with him, you might arrive at that gem you have been looking for, or one that you weren’t even aware you needed. - Poupeh Missaghi
Roger Lewinter, Story of Love in Solitude, Trans. by Rachel Careau, Bilingual ed., New Directions, 2016.
A notable discovery of a truly original voice
Several stories inhabit Roger Lewinter’s first small book to appear in English, Story of Love in Solitude. Each story takes the form of a loop: a spider who won’t stop returning; camellias that flourish and then die; dying parents whose presence is always yet felt; turning again and again to work on Rilke translations; a younger man whom the narrator sees each week at the Geneva street markets. All the tales touch on the possibility, the open possibility of love―a loop without end.
Lewinter’s short fictional works are at once prose poems and a form of dreaming; they are akin to the great French tradition of things sparking emotions and emotions sparking things―part Sarraute, part Robbe-Grillet, part Perec. Plot is not really the point of his meditative works. Lewinter concerns himself more with perception, apperception, and sudden inflections of grace: loss and beauty meet in an explosion of joy, which becomes, “in its brilliance, a means of transmittal.”
A trio of sketches, first published in 1989, about the nature of affection by the veteran Swiss experimentalist (The Attraction of Things, 1985, etc.).
Each story in this brief collection is a study of a particular incident. In “Story of Love in Solitude,” the narrator repeatedly spots a spider in his apartment and attempts to remove it. In “Passion,” he contemplates the frailty of a pair of camellia plants in his apartment, paired with his discovery of a mass of moths and maggots in his kitchen. In “Nameless,” the longest piece, he recalls his affection for a man he meets at a street market, rhapsodizing on the “density of his body in its unbearable splendor.” Lewinter means to link the three stories—the book is subtitled “Eros, Orpheus, Eurydice”—and share a narrator who’s a writer like Lewinter himself. But what connects a romantic fixation with a couple of bug infestations? In part, language. Lewinter approaches each subject with the same billowing, recursive sentences, thick with em-dashed digressions; he’s prone to riffs on writers he translates, such as Karl Kraus and Rainer Maria Rilke. But the stories are more broadly unified by his interest in the line between living and dying. The spider’s return speaks to our natures as creatures of habit; he watches the fate of the intertwined flowers, draining energy from each other, as if it were a relationship; his attraction to a man he can’t approach at the market speaks to our disconnection. The overall tone recalls stiffer existentialist and experimental fare by Camus and Robbe-Grillet—Lewinter hardly bats an eye when he discovers those maggots—and the recursive prose can be wearying. But his imaginative energies are easy to appreciate in these small doses. (This edition includes the original French text.)
A daunting but well-crafted and original look at relationships. - Kirkus Reviews
Comprising three stories of recurrence, death, and self-discovery, Lewinter’s collection is refreshing in its fundamental strangeness; his narrator’s road to realization dramatically eschews the linear and doubles back, many times, on itself. In “Story of Love in Solitude,” the narrator, living alone, welcomes the evening company of an unusually punctual spider, “the only animal, in practice, with whom it is possible to coexist within strictly defined, and respected, territories.” In “Passion,” the narrator grows attached to a camellia that he purchases for himself in 1986, 20 years after giving a similar flower to his parents for their anniversary. As he works on a translation of Rilke, the camellia grows “luxuriant... encircled with an armor of foliage that, under the low-angled rays of the afternoon sun, lit up... into which, often, in the evenings, with exultation, I would plunge my face.” Soon, however, the flower is attacked by insects, and the narrator must fight frantically for its survival. In “Nameless,” the narrator’s struggles with loneliness and desire—concurrent with the story of the camellia—are made explicit as he becomes enamored with a seller at the local market, with whom he fails to reach an understanding even as “the devourment of not knowing his name was exacerbated nearly to madness.” Lewinter’s prose—lengthy sentences, punctuated largely by commas, semicolons, and dashes—has hypnotic appeal when combined with his tendency toward meandering asides and lovely melancholy. - Publisher's Weekly
“The work of Roger Lewinter is essentially a work of reflection on meaning, on units of meaning and the logical problems posed by their ordering in the sentence: each word, each sense, leading to a calling into question of the text as a whole. This sentence, which can be compared to a Kashmir shawl in its infinite interlacing, woven in one piece and from a single thread, raises, beyond the simple syntactic difficulties, logical problems of thought that no writing had up to now approached.” - Lorenzo Valentin
Everything we experience, in each of our seconds of perception, is an intersection of time and space. Physicists call these “events.” They need not be significant. They are four-dimensional coordinates. Though, we are, if honest with ourselves, always waiting for coincidences to dog-ear the ceaseless events, or looking backward to find points that we later learned had coincidental significance. What elevates some of these to coincidence and smooths others into the rhythm of normalcy — until they may be called upon by future linked intersection? Roger Lewinter settles into this question in two serene novels, his first two books in English translation, The Attraction of Things and Story of Love in Solitude. Both diminutive books incant, with a singular voice of prose, the being of a limitless morass of people, objects, works of literature, and intellectual concepts all living in time, awaiting respite from their isolated vectors.
Hieronymus Bosch is a pivotal figure in The Attraction of Things, both as a person and an intellectual concept. The narrator translates a German text asserting that Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights does not depict the fall of man, but details a heretical notion that true salvation is found in a particular, unspecified, form of sexual relations. I finished reading Lewinter’s books on the 500th anniversary of Bosch’s death. Is it coincidence that for 500 years the churning dirge of physics led this book to fall in my hands, for my time to be managed in such a way that I finished it on this precise day? Or is the coincidence more that I happened to slow my scroll through Twitter at the precise moment that someone mentioned it was the 500th anniversary of Bosch’s death? We don’t know of all the things that don’t befall us.
The narrator of Lewinter’s two books exists in time, but does not wholly pass through it. He is more concerned with time as a location, an event, than time as a measure, or as duration. This conception is largely developed in the style of the prose, which I will discuss in detail shortly, but also through the inflection of the style by its vaguely narrative content, which, like the specification of a material, must be apparent before its methods of assembly are determined.
Coincidence is the knowledge of a relationship within the intersection that is occurring, or has occurred, the knowledge at last coinciding, perhaps after many unobserved repeats of the pattern, with the operands of the situation. It is the signification of the intersection by external forces of meaning. Relationships are aspects of time, not physicality. Lewinter’s narrative tendencies cultivate the novelty of coincidence in two ways. The first is through the narrator’s obsession with collecting. The narrator, a translator and writer, collects intellectual connections. His work as a translator seems heavily burdened with the subjective lineage and tenuous interconnection the works he elects to translate. Follow this: in Paris to work on a translation of Diderot’s Complete Works, he stays in the vacated room of a friend, who, deciding to learn Chinese, will no longer be translating the aforementioned work on Bosch, by Wilhelm Fränger, and offers him the chance to translate it in his stead, and this friend, when they first became acquainted, had insisted he read The Man Without Qualities, the English version of which had been translated by the same man who translated the Fränger into English. Of course this is meaningless, the asterism to bind the accident of stars, but it is as close to being meaning as can be found in the volume of his life. The facets of his biography, primarily these translations and taking care of his ailing parents, are also punctuated by collecting trips to various flea markets in search of early gramophone records and Kashmir shawls. In almost the opposite of Proust’s mnemonic triggers, which materialize without notice into the consciousness, Lewinter’s flea market discoveries are opportunities to mark events in time, to elect the physical form that will embody a memory. He does not always find the object of his desire. Yet, the emptiness of those moments, the absence of an object, or the sense of loss for an object unknown, is also an intersection. Collecting makes a specific kind of intersection. It is an active pursuit of the intersection with a known, or a category of knowns that lie waiting, distributed in space. A month after his father’s death, the narrator has the urge to give the event significance, as though it had none already:
On Saturday, April 23, I went to the flea market, telling myself that what I would find would be my father’s sign, and as I was arriving in front of the stand of the Ange du Bizarre, to whom, seven years earlier, I had precisely specified the shades of the Kashmir shawl that I would ideally want, Sabine was unfolding on the ground, to lay out her objects on, ragged but shining, the very one, which I bought for 160 francs: an embroidered square from which emerged, fringed in black, commanding the space in its fullness, a Saint Andrew’s cross whose arms erected at the center a cross elongated into domes — white, black, green, and turquoise blue — , gathering, at their junction, around the black heart formed from a square crossed by a diamond, eight concentric swirls, of precious stones and flesh at once: vermilion, yellow, purple; turning crimson to the eye, shot through with fire.
The second manner Lewinter’s narratives reflect on the intersections of coincidence is through considering its antonym, the insignificant passage of time, as it is observed in the decay of the most languishing operand, human life. It should be noted that, in light of the loving care of the shawl description, Lewinter’s overwhelming urge to cement its precise physiognomy in prose, we do not have a sense of what the narrator’s father looked like. In reading Lewinter I thought often of other writers’ fascination with the coincidences of human relationships, including the burden of those stretched through history. Sebald came racing to the forefront. As unpredictable as people and human relationships are, which tend to make their intersections more treasured, they are different to the collector, to Lewinter, for whom it is things that seem more happenstance and rarified, and it is they that are celebrated where someone like Sebald would place humans. In The Attraction of Things, the human things and the collected things seem quite separate, one in lieu of the other. In Story of Love in Solitude, the relationships focus on the collector’s urge for control over the inexorable change of living things, whether it be a spider in his apartment, a camellia that had belonged to his parents, or a produce vendor at the market. He follows the unpredictable march, awaiting, fighting for, a place where the balance will hold, where an intersection can bloom into an equilibrious relationship between two things, that always lies in the death of one of the operands. The ethos of both books is relentlessness, that these things are always “coming”, that they abide through our meager durations, and that we are the accidents.
I previously labored to establish the relationship between time and matter in coincidence because it helps contextualize the monolithic block of Lewinter’s prose, and how the prose, together with the narrative ethos, indulges in a specific form of Mechanism, the generally abandoned branch of scientific philosophy that describes all systems in terms of simple collisions of matter and indulges in deterministic fantasies of time and space. My supremely misguided intuition is that contemporary physics and cosmology have returned to somewhat of a similar perspective regarding time and matter. Here is physicist Sean Carroll from his book From Eternity to Here:
In philosophical literature this is sometimes called the “block time” or “block universe” perspective, thinking of all space and time as a single existing block of spacetime . . . Rather than carrying a picture in the back of our minds in which time is a substance that flows around us or through which we move, we can think of an ordered sequence of correlated events, together constituting the entire universe. Time is then something we reconstruct from the correlation of these events. We’re not committing ourselves to some dramatic conceptual stance to the effect that it’s wrong to think of ourselves as embedded within time; it just turns out to be more useful, when we get around to asking why time and the universe are the way they are, to be able to step outside and view the whole ball of wax from the perspective of nowhen.
When Lewinter writes, “ . . . connection by means of cross-invasion, where the question of knowing who is who ceases to be relevant — because one becomes the other, whom he fulfills . . . ” he is reflecting on the literary form of Mechanism in his prose style, albeit a contemporary form of such reductionism contextualized by the elegance of potential oneness found in string theory, or the nature of time being determined by the disposition of a particle.
Considered in the embodiment of prose, this oneness is a oneness of form and it is a oneness of time. The most immediate thing one notices in Lewinter’s writing is the preponderance of em dashes. The em dash glut could seem a gimmick at first, and it is, undoubtedly. Omnipresent in the two books, this is something that Lewinter has adopted as his “thing”. But an application this skilled, and this relentless, should be considered for what it does, less than what we think it might long to do (which is why we disgust so much in gimmicks, they long to do things that we know they can’t).
Lewinter is a prolific translator, primarily from German to French. Twain helps us understand the implications of this in his The Awful German Language (it should be noted that by parenthesis Twain means em dash):
An average sentence, in a German newspaper, is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all ten parts of speech — not in regular order, but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary — six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam — that is, without hyphens; it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects, each enclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parantheses, which re-enclose three or four of the minor parentheses, making pens with pens; finally, all the parentheses and re-parentheses are massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of the last line of it — after which comes the VERB, and you find out for the first time what the man has been talking about; and after the very — merely by way of ornament, as far as I can make out, — the writer shovels in “haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein,” or words to that effect, and the monument is finished.
The beclausened sentence is not rare in French letters. The memory projects of both Proust and Roubaud are saddled with more commas than periods. Claude Simon regularly spun his sentences into Rumpelstiltskinian thickets for pages. But Lewinter is doing something new with the morass. Rather than the sense of articulate informality in Proust and Roubaud, rather than the diffuse and topographic prose in Simon, Lewinter’s prose resembles the temporal and causal diffusion of a cut-up. It is disconcerting and frequently disruptive to the point of incomprehension, of jettisoning any sense of burden on one moment producing the next in time. The implications of actions are scrambled and the disposition of objects in time are loosened. The em dash and the content it separates are not as jarringly discontinuous as a cut-up; it is still highly contingent and masonry. But like Perec’s Life: A Users Manual, the masonry of events are not cataloged in sequence, more in the scatter of recollection, in an additive fashion, and sometimes temporally subtractive, with little concern or editorial valuation of its consequence on the primacy of the seed statement. In prose viewed with this eternalism, a perspective that Carroll describes as holding, “that past, present, and future are all equally real,” the mechanism of what we understand to be our relationships with people, things, and space becomes expressed in the diminishment of contingency. Through indulgence in coincidence Lewinter asserts that the block time of events lacks conscious motives for hierarchy. This accounts for both the nihilism of the truth — that all is oblivion —, and the inescapable inflection of our perceptions — that desire (collecting and love) is the only thing that can mark an intersection.
The best thing I can do is just share characteristic Lewinter with you at some length. This is approximately half of a 500-word sentence that opens the story “Passion” from Story of Love in Solitude:
A camellia which I identified — placed, in my parents’ living room, opposite my office —, in November 1978, one week after the death of my mother, had withered on the stalk, suddenly losing its leaves — I had given it to my parents, a dozen years earlier, for their anniversary, one December 27 — , while a second camellia, which was bought for the same occasion the following year and which my mother, six months later, when it wilted — I said she ought to throw it out soon —, not having a green thumb but remaining obstinate, had been able to bring back to life, flourished; from then on, having misunderstood what is beyond understanding, gripped, to the same degree that the second responded, by the impulse to buy a camellia that would restore the first — in December 1980, and whereas until then its buds had fallen, a sudden passion elating me, it had produced two long-blooming flowers, to flower again regularly when I had taken it home with me, in November 1982, shortly before the death of my father —, restraining myself: the one, however, that I saw, on the first of February 1986 at eight o’clock in the morning on my way to the flea market, in front of Fleuriot, riveting me on the spot — it was a shrub more than three feet high . . .
At first, Lewinter’s use of the em dash, and the way that it binds time and space, brings out about sympathies to the lauded long take in cinema (go read this interview with Janice Lee if you are interested in a more voracious catalog and perspective http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/observations-on-the-long-take/). But the reason it comes to mind here is more specifically thematic than formal. I think of the film Russian Ark. Certainly it is the most bravura of the long takes, the entire 99-minute film being one steady-cam shot meandering through the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg. Lewinter’s sentences are not remarkably long, not bravura, simply noticeably long. There is truly nothing interesting about the long take or the long sentence in and of themselves. These feats become noteworthy when they serve to illuminate an aspect of the conceptual project that would not percolate forth otherwise. In the case of Russian Ark and Lewinter’s works that is, inextricable from the duration and continuity of these tactics, time. Perhaps because of the difference in medium, but certainly because of the difference in tonal use of the duration, the two works manifest time very differently. Russian Ark, in its voyeuristic invaginations, sees time, although on a grand scale, in a quite a human way, as unfolding. Three hundred years of Russian history play out. However, the continuity of human life, the continuous gaze through history, makes it feel that, although our lives are very long, that that history is recent, and knowable, and within the realm of comprehension. Where durations like the time since the big bang (14 billion years) are silly and inhuman, the notion that only forty generations have passed since the Magna Carta was signed, seems easily within our grasp. Very similar in ethos, but different in its physics, Lewinter asserts that time, as a sentence, visible in its extent on the page, durational in its reading but not in its image, is a mass, present all at once, although aggregated like granite. The signing of the Magna Carta is not so long ago, it is present now. But the physics of Lewinter are far more inclusive than Russian Ark; the Big Bang is also present now, which of course we know it is, from our vantage, reaching us in the lugubrious protraction of electromagnetic waves from the cartographic precipice of time.
Lewinter is a prose stylist of lithic luminance. These tiny books are blocks. In a way, in a type of reading that is open to the spirit of the book as being in the world, Lewinter’s prose argues that literature, in its abstraction, is best to embody the coincident sameness of all manifestations and phenomena, whether they be objects, living things, or more matrix like as time or relationships, where other forms of static art exist more solely as material reflections, as things themselves, and do not as much smear, do not empty themselves so as to contain other things. - John Trefry
Recently some kind, intuitive soul at New Directions sent me advanced copies of two books that moved me a great deal by the to-me unknown writer Roger Lewinter: The Attraction of Things and Story of Love in Solitude, both translated by Rachel Careau. I had hoped to review them formally, but the two places I pitched to didn’t write me back, and the summer was so busy that I gave up on the idea.
A scholar of Diderot and translator of numerous writers from German, particularly the enigmatic physician Georg Groddeck, Lewinter was born in Montaubon to Austrian Jewish parents and now lives in Geneva. He reminds me very slightly of Francis Ponge, and of Jean Grenier’s Vie Quotidienne and Sur la mort d’un chien, the second of which is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. There is a curious acuteness of perception in Lewinter that has something to do with exhaustion, as though the author’s weariness excused him from overembellishment; “affective perception” I have written in the margins, because his portrayal of persons and objects, though disinclined to sentimentalism, never settles for mere scrutiny. The settings of the stories are dull, but longing renders them taut:
Svetlana, in welcoming me, had imbued my name with a softness that was foreign to me, making me wish to be this self, since it seemed that it could have some softness in it.
It is as if, at each moment, the author is asking himself first, if this is all there is, and second, whether it might not suffice. He speaks of the “possibilities” of a coveted shawl, and says of the sounds of antique LPs:
…at the flea market, I no longer remember at whose stand, I found two ten-inch Odeon records: four Spanish dances interpreted by La Argentina, which I listened to now, the body that played them having dematerialized, to dance through a scansion, ultimately purely abstract. where a sharp tap of the castanets sufficed to evoke in its brilliance the entirety of beauty.
Unusually, both books are published with the original French following the English translation. In the blurb, Lydia Davis has called the translation “masterful” (masterly, Fowler would say). I enjoyed the English versions, but I would have to reread the books more attentively, and look more closely at the French, to know what I think. “Having misunderstood what is beyond understanding” seems to me a strange rendition of “au scandale m’étant mépris,” (though the phrase on its own has an odd charm), and in places, the writing feels a little clotted. But this is not easy material: the sentences incorporate sinuous and staccato elements, their parts are delicately arranged as in a mobile sculpture; Careau is aware of this, is respectful of it, and has a good ear. Lewinter lulls, then trips up the reader, with a proliferation of dashes, colons, and semicolons; the effect of strain between elegance and the obsession for inclusion is remarkable. - Adrian Nathan West
This short but sweet collection combines three of Lewinter’s tales, ‘Story of Love in Solitude’, of the title, ‘Passion’, and ‘Nameless’. Intriguingly, rather than a facing-page translation, the publishers have decided to starkly separate the translation and its original counterpart in the book. This makes cross-referencing a lot more of a challenge, but equally forces the reader to take time with the translations and appreciate them as independent from their origin.
The first, and most lyrically titled of the three, begins with an all-too familiar scenario—spotting a spider before heading to bed. Except this occurrence becomes a sinister loop. The next night, another appears and the pattern continues. The scenario is episodic, a simple commentary in which the brevity of the encounters is such that they hardly have room to develop before being suddenly cut off.
This cyclic repetition reappears in the second and longest tale, which grapples with a more extensive narrative of recovery in the aftermath of the death of the narrator’s mother. The narrator seeks solace in the delivery of a camellia, and the promise of life that plants bring during a time of mourning: ‘one must devote one’s thoughts to a plant for it to thrive, I had concentrated, so that they grew to the point of becoming’. However, like the spiders of the first tale, in this episode we are again faced with creatures that come to invade and infringe upon the life of the narrator. Soon he begins to spot the first signs of death working its way into the plants: ‘depression hollowed out in the deep green thickness’, the leaves ‘reduced to a network of veins’. The story itself is rich with the keen perceptions and terminology of a botanist: ‘corolla’, ‘calyx’, ‘stamens’. Scientific terms pepper the text with insightful and illuminating usage and create poetic images that powerfully linger: ‘the lower petals atrophied like a ruff’. The life cycles of man, plant, maggot, moth, all converge in this tale. Time passes and life and death rear their heads again and again in a variety of forms.
With the stories just a few pages each, it’s easy to see why critics have often struggled to classify Lewinter’s work. Though generally termed short stories, these could just as easily drift gently into long prose poems or flash fiction. The brevity and intensity of the tales are their defining features, and the narrative arches and spirals the cement that keeps the book together.
In the last and most poignant of the tales, ‘Nameless’, the use of dashes becomes reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Lewinter’s lines stretch and contort, shifting the focus to individual words and phrases with a poetic hand: ‘–the thunder-stroke of joy–’, ‘–purity, a matter of a movement of exact madness, depending on that instant–’. His use of punctuation throughout the collection is notable, as is Rachel Careau’s in her wonderful translation, both creating a force that draws a reader to and fro with unfailing power.
In ‘Nameless’, we are finally introduced to a narrative that involves more than one character. The interplay between the narrator and a nameless man on whom he spies from a distance at a market becomes the crux of the episode. The narrator, like an author, is able to observe from a position of safe remove and control—apart from the person he views and yet openly a part (however distant) of this person’s life.
The narrator, like Lewinter himself, is a writer and translator, and his precarious mental state is reflected in his interactions with the man at the market stand. When he is given a book he begins to see his own life mirroring art—the tale of a character he reads strikingly similar to his own. Fate becomes a physical and influencing hand: ‘a force beyond my control gripping the nape of my neck had made me move away without a word’, maintaining the natural tendency of the observer to be fascinated without daring to approach, but to puncture ‘the solitude in which he seemed to move’. Again circularity becomes key, the strange infatuation of pure and platonic love becomes a cyclical act. To simply observe a man at a market stand and enjoy his life as it is without openly interacting or engaging with it presents ‘the open possibility of love a loop without end’, where the speaker is able to savor the brief encounters of transactional utility that bind them together at the market.
Lewinter perfectly captures the strangeness of infatuation and the way in which it becomes all too easy to project one’s own narrative onto the bodies of those around us. This collection ends with frustration, a hanging colon, a piece of punctuation that calls out for more, that radiates with suspense and the suggestion of what is to come next. Lewinter gives nothing away; leaving his reader at this cliff-edge, he retreats. He causes a reflection and suspension that may not be to every reader’s taste but intrigues nonetheless. More importantly the action calls into question the boundaries of such stories. Where does fiction end? Can there ever be a true ending? Lewinter’s answer is clear—the question itself is enough. - Thea Hawlin
Arriving in elegant, bilingual editions beautifully translated by Rachel Careau, The Attraction of Things and Story of Love in Solitude are the first two books by Roger Lewinter to be published in English. Although written in the 1980s, these works seem anything but dated. Instead they feel immune to literary fashion. They exert the fascination of something done carefully, even exhaustively, for its own sake rather than to please anyone else.
Each book is composed of a number of short sections: you could call them vignettes, or anecdotes, or prose poems. The ones in Story of Love in Solitude stand by themselves; those in The Attraction of Things cover various periods in the narrator’s life.
Lewinter is a French Swiss writer and translator. He’s also, it seems, a very private person. Most of what you’ll find about him online comes from what the publisher tells us on the covers of these editions. Lewinter’s parents were Austrian Jews. How and when they managed to make their way to France, where Lewinter was born in 1941, is unclear, as is how straightforward was their decision to move to Geneva when Lewinter was only two, at a time when Jews were unable to enter Switzerland from France.
At first glance, this reticence is strange. After all, Lewinter himself is at the center of these books. Yet we end up knowing hardly anything about him. Mostly we learn about his work, especially his translations of German language writers, including Rilke, Karl Kraus and, most importantly, the “wild analyst” Georg Groddeck, whose The Book of the It (1923) influenced Freud in his adoption of the term “the id.”
It’s tempting to think that Groddeck offers a key to Lewinter’s work. The Book of the It changed his thinking about the mind’s relation to the body: “if all sickness had to be understood as an oracle, the human body ceased to be materially an object and became, essentially, the space the mind takes in its sights: its field of instruction.”
Yet before deciding we’ve found the source of Lewinter’s fascination with perception we should remember that the very unorthodoxy that appealed to Lewinter about Groddeck also characterizes Lewinter’s unusual approach to Groddeck. After delving deeper into Groddeck’s work, Lewinter concluded The Book of the It was, “of no interest at all to me, precisely because that book was accessible.”
What interests Lewinter about Groddeck is everything in him he doesn’t understand. Although he calls Groddeck untranslatable, he translates him anyway, “through an act of faith, clearly blind.” The decision to translate Groddeck is the opposite of a decision: “it was vital, like predestination, to which one can only acquiesce; left to personal judgment was only the discovery of the means to respond, within the agreed-upon schedule, to life’s requirement.”
“Discovering the means to respond to life’s requirement” is a good way to describe the strange qualities of Lewinter’s prose, which struggles to describe the narrator’s response to a world that simultaneously attracts and resists him. The voice that narrates this struggle isn’t easy to follow. The syntax is at once convoluted and propulsive. Here’s a typical excerpt; the narrator has arranged to have a coffee with a man he’s attracted to, a vendor at a farmer’s market:
[A]s he approached me from behind, taking off his gloves to slap them together, exclaiming, “It’s hell out today,” turning back to him with a start—waiting for him, I was looking over some books at this stand at the flea market—, when I saw his body, which, lifting my eyes to his face, I suddenly had the feeling that I only had to stretch out my hand to make mine, a force beyond my control gripping the nape of my neck had made me move away without a word…
That last phrase captures in miniatures the experience of reading Lewinter: we succumb to the text as though to a force beyond our control, yet the force incites distance more often than intimacy with what we read. This quality makes Lewinter strangely, almost compulsively readable: strange because almost nothing happens in his texts, compulsive because the extraordinary sentences, replete with qualifications, hesitations, and parenthetical asides, pull readers along.
I often found myself lost, utterly unsure of where I was or what the narrator was even talking about, until I happened upon a sudden moment of illumination. For example, until I read the words “to make mine” in the flea market passage I couldn’t make sense of that “which,” especially since it is followed by the parenthetical clause “lifting my eyes to his face.”
To read Lewinter is to mimic his own sudden discovery, after months of debilitating back pain, that he is able, without ever before having practiced yoga or indeed physical exercise of any kind, to execute the lotus position: “its effect brought about, in one breath, relief: the body instantly reorganized on its axis, like a planetary system harmoniously entering into gravitation.” We labor through clauses that seem to have no relation to each other until we grasp a word or phrase that snaps everything into place—what was meaningless becomes meaningful.
Characteristically, Lewinter doesn’t set out to solve his back pain with yoga—it just happens: “suddenly the technique appeared simple to me, and, impulsively, I got up to execute at once the movement I had visualized.” What is true for the narrator is true for readers as well. We need to allow ourselves to be visited by sudden illumination. It’s like when you have a name at the tip of your tongue. Focusing on it gets you nowhere. But when you let your attention wander, it bursts unbidden into your memory.
Reading Lewinter is hard work, no question, but we have to learn to accept that we won’t always understand. If we can reach a state of free-floating attention, we are more likely to be able to experience sudden moments of illumination.
Echoing the subtitle of The Attraction of Things, “Fragments of an Oblique Life,” we might thus best describe Lewinter an oblique writer, less in the sense of indirection than of the slantwise. Obliquity is everywhere in these books. In one text, the narrator catches sight of a spider “on the transverse edge of the alcove, obliquely above [his] head.” In another, he maneuvers himself into position to check out a man he is attracted to: “I could… by placing myself at a slight angle let my eyes wander over him.” In a third, he prowls Geneva’s flea market, looking for collectibles, especially early opera recordings pressed in St. Petersburg and shawls from Kashmir.
Yet even though chance rules the way he acquires these objects, the objects themselves are highly patterned. The narrator values what comes from chance more than chance itself. Paradoxically, then, these chance encounters take on a quality of inevitability or fate. Perhaps this paradox explains the narrator’s otherwise puzzling response when his father gives him a secondhand volume of Rilke: “I didn’t even try to look at [it], putting it away on the shelf behind the headboard of my bed, to await the moment when I would no longer be unreceptive to it.”
The narrator understands both that he isn’t ready for Rilke, but also, as his “no longer” suggests, that one day he will be. Lewinter routinely shuttles between waywardness and certainty; he is an errant writer who always arrives at his destination. Nowhere is this oscillation more apparent than in his distinctive syntax.
Like so many of the great twentieth century prose writers, Lewinter is a master of the sentence, which, more than the anecdote or section or chapter or even the text as a whole, is the unit of significance that matters most to him. Most of these sentences stretch across several pages, making it hard to give an accurate sense of his style.
Take, for example, this excerpt from a seven-page-long sentence in “Passion,” the second of the three texts in Story of Love in Solitude. The narrator’s beloved camellia plant, once vigorous, has begun to drop its leaves. Perhaps not coincidentally, the plant’s distress coincides with the narrator’s struggles to translate Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, a struggle he fears may have been “irradiating” the plant even as the plant, and perhaps the struggle, has invigorated him. Increasingly alarmed—the leaves have been “reduced to a network of veins”—the narrator digs into the potted soil and finds a mass of decay:
[M]aggots, yellowish white, about a quarter of an inch long, crawling on the surface, immediately went back belowground; and removing the soil then with the tip of a leaf, I discovered yet another type of maggot, perhaps half an inch long, threadlike, translucent, like a fine rice noodle; and so, the insecticide sticks recommended by the florist seeming to me insufficient to check the likely proliferation of parasites—the leaves, invariably the strongest, of other branches were now decimated—, on September 23, reluctantly—dreading the effect on the swollen flower buds—, I applied a liquid pesticide—I had to water the plant with it, at the rate of one tablespoon diluted in a quart of water, three times at ten-day intervals—; the mixture absorbed, the soil—a sudden myriad of threadlike maggots, translucent, which lifted up twisting in every direction, contorting themselves in broken convulsions before slackening, struck down—heaved; and now, from everywhere, the yellowish-white maggots surged up, wandering across the surface, not dying instantly like the others, and two millipedes, driven from a clump of short branches at the base, streamed out, attempting to climb onto the trunk—so this was what I had found, ten days earlier, near the window, three feet from the pot, and had taken for a dead caterpillar—; faced with this devourment endlessly pouring forth—an hour, meanwhile, had gone by—, beginning to doubt that the treatment could be more than palliative—in the evening, by artificial light, the soil still shuddered—, and the second application, then the third, provoking the same cataclysm, I realized beyond any doubt that there was no other remedy than to transplant the tree—though this be fire and sword—, since the old leaves, pocked, fell in such numbers that wide gaps formed in the previously impenetrable thicket, while the flower buds, whose swelling had stopped with the first treatment, began to wither and soon fall as well; despite everything, still hesitating—I applied the pesticide six times—, when, in the middle of December—the Sonnets had been finished since October 5—, upon my return from a brief stay in Paris, discovering, in the evening, at the foot of the tree, the same teeming, I made up my mind and took the camellia, on December 18, to a horticulturalist to whom I had presented the case, by telephone, at the beginning of November—in a Tribune de Genève from the summer, I had read an article on the alternative approaches he used to combat parasites, and unlike other nurserymen and florists, he had listened to me—, his diagnosis now confirming my own: it would be necessary, though it would have been better to wait till spring, to cleanse the roots and changes the soil—that the rotting of the maggots was moreover poisoning—, and, he said, to cut back the tree because of the destruction of its roots; without my expecting that the camellia, when, on December 22, I came back to retrieve it, would be, broken lyre, the stump of its former self…
Even an attentive reader is likely to get lost in the passage’s many digressions. The narrator seems almost compulsive in his need to provide more and more detail, whether by piling on adjectives (as in his description of the second kind of maggot as “perhaps half an inch long, threadlike, translucent, like a fine rice noodle”) or by adding apparently superfluous information (do we need to know the narrator returns from Paris “in the evening” to find the plant still infested?). Verbs and nouns are separated both within parentheses and by parentheses, sometimes even within a single clause:
[T]he mixture absorbed, the soil—a sudden myriad of threadlike maggots, translucent, which lifted up twisting in every direction, contorting themselves in broken convulsions before slackening, struck down—heaved.
By the time we make sense of the logic of that parenthetical clause—in which “a sudden myriad of threadlike maggots” is “struck down,” though Lewinter’s phrasing is in fact even stranger, since “struck down” is used intransitively: he says the maggots “struck down,” not the maggots “were struck down by something” or “struck something else down”—we might be forgiven for being bewildered by that final “heaved.” It takes us a moment to remember that it’s soil from the first part of the clause that is heaving.
In fact, reading this passage again, I’m not sure that the parenthetical material isn’t simply an extended description of soil, likened via apposition rather than metaphor to “a sudden myriad of threadlike maggots” that is or has been “struck down.” The soil is absorbent, but readers might not be.
So determined is Lewinter to throw obstacles in our way that he divides and interrupts the flow of the syntax even when it would be more natural not to:
without my expecting that the camellia, when, on December 22, I came back to retrieve it, would be, broken lyre, the stump of its former self.
Lewinter could easily have written something like “when I came back to retrieve it on December 22” or “it would be like a broken lyre, the stump of its former self.” But in translating his prose into “good sense”—in smoothing over those abrupt, even awkward modifying phrases—much would be lost, most importantly, the challenge to grammatical and conceptual coherence at the heart of the way Lewinter understands the relation of consciousness to the world.
Lewinter’s obtruding parenthetical insertions overturn the conventional relationship between dominant and subordinate ideas. The very idea of the parenthetical suggests something unnecessary, an aside subordinate to the main point. In Lewinter, however, the main point is nothing without those seemingly extraneous elements. After all, when independent clauses are so interrupted by subordinate interjections, assertions, and qualifications that we can barely follow their through-lines, what does it mean to call them independent?
Yet to challenge coherence isn’t to overturn it: Lewinter’s texts are hard to read but they still make sense. Though the offsetting dashes and qualifying phrases hinder our ability to move smoothly from the beginning of a sentence or an idea to its end, the texts as a whole are carefully composed. We struggle with the texts’ meaning, but not because they’re meaningless.
Perhaps this undoing of the distinction between argument and aside, independent and subordinate clause, explains why so many of Lewinter’s little texts concern little things (the maggots and the potted plant of our example; elsewhere, a spider or a shawl). They are about the relationship between those things and a narrating consciousness.
Lewinter learned from Groddeck that the body is nothing other than “the space the mind takes in its sights.” But at the same time, the mind needs to set its sights on something. The narrator needs the things of the world he is so attracted to; in fact, that attraction effaces the narrator. It doesn’t much matter what he makes of the things he describes at such length. Look again at the long passage about the camellia. The narrator speaks once of “dreading” what the pesticide will do to the plant, once of “doubt[ing] that the treatment could be more than palliative,” and once of “realiz[ing] beyond any doubt” that he’ll need to transplant the tree. These are the only indications of his thoughts or feelings. The passage’s energy doesn’t come from his reactions. And yet it would be wrong to say that only the object matters, for what catches us in Lewinter’s prose is the way the often quite ordinary things in it are described. The self makes its presence felt indirectly (by describing the objects of its gaze) rather than directly (by telling us how it feels).
When we read the title The Attraction of Things we ought to hear not an attraction to things but rather the attraction that composes things, the attraction that things are. That attraction at once necessitates and exceeds a perceiving, narrating subject. The relationship between objects and the narrator is one of attraction-repulsion, a drawing closer and a pushing away. What’s true of objects is true of other people: the same paradoxical effacement and aggrandizement of the narrating self is evident. Attraction draws subjects and objects together, but without creating a fixed relationship between them. This is as true sexually as it is philosophically: objects and subjects cruise each other in Lewinter’s prose.
Indeed, in The Attraction of Things the narrator responds to an ultimatum from a woman he is apparently engaged to (it’s the first and last we hear of it) by cruising the public toilets on Place Saint-Gervais, where he had previously “encountered someone … who didn’t appeal to me but whose waiting affected me.” The encounters between these men, which might be sexual, and which end as abruptly as they begin, are described by the narrator as existing only in fleeting, often drunken moments, “which made of two bodies brought together the mere stopping-off point in an impersonal connection that, through the necessary surrender to his arbitrariness ravishing my body,” utterly drains the narrator.
An attraction that forms no attachment: perhaps this description explains what otherwise bewilders in this book. Namely, the narrator’s claim, just a few pages later that, after being invited to perform in a friend’s production of Sophocles, he has given up the theater because “it would be impossible for me to act without consenting to homosexuality, which would have overwhelmed me, whereas I was aiming for control over it.”
I don’t think the narrator wants to demonize homosexuality. He wants instead to reject the identity position that comes with a term like “homosexuality.” Lewinter is a queer writer, not a gay one. He resists the hetero-homo binary; he depicts states of feeling that can’t be reduced to a particular form of subjectivity or identity position.
To name desire is to reduce rather than to refine it, as we see most clearly in “Nameless,” the final part of Story of Love in Solitude and the most beautiful section of these two beautiful books. It’s about the narrator’s attraction to a man who sells vegetables at an outdoor market, though “attraction” doesn’t do justice to the currents that pass between them:
[S]o that, Thursday, when I saw him, lifting his eyes as he noticed me waiting at his stand, blush, overpowered then, lowering his eyes immediately, by a smile that transfigured him, in my incredulity that I could appeal to him—the enlightenment that had struck me when I saw him, was it anything over than this certainty?—, I remained before the sweetness of the gift in its simplicity, but the feeling that I had only to stretch out my hand—purity, a matter of a movement of exact madness, depending on that instant—, transfixed, while he now offered me the peas—I asked myself whether he knew that he was radiant—, in the fullness of his restrained happiness not seeming even to expect anything from me, speechless before his resplendence, which, in its modesty, I would have doubted as I moved away if his warmth, spreading to me, hadn’t lightened me until Saturday, when, at the return of the flea market, at eleven thirty, I again found myself in front of his stand—I no longer recall whether he was alone—, rebelling at there being only one admission, which I couldn’t accept, that wouldn’t be indecent—noticing me, he had blushed again—, so that I indicated—when to his look I had responded, “Oh you know…,” turning bright crimson he had cried out in a tone rendered despairing by its intensity, “But I know nothing!”—the peas, which he gave me, stammering, “Good day,” and turning away, flashing with anger; while on Monday, having regained his self-control, he greeted me with a neutrality he never again abandoned…
It won’t spoil anything to say that the encounter, narrated in a single sentence of which this excerpt is only a small part, ends inconclusively. But unlike all other sentences in these books, this one breaks off: a final, dangling colon suggests that the logical consequences of this act cannot be named.
But maybe they don’t need to be named. As this passage shows, the text has rendered subject and object, narrator and vendor, I and he interdependent.
Looking at any given clause in this excerpt, it’s easy to be confused about who is being referred to. Who, for example, is “overpowered” here? Is the narrator overpowered by the other man’s blush? Or is the man overpowered by his own transfiguring smile? Does the clause “in my incredulity that I could appeal to him” modify the way the smile transfigures the seller, by offering the reason for it? Or does it modify the way the narrator, after the parenthetical phrase about enlightenment, remains transfixed before the sweetness of the other man’s gift?
Lewinter’s idiosyncratic syntax challenges any clear distinction between observer and observed, self and other. Perhaps it is this uncertainty—expressed in difficult but thrilling prose—that constitutes, to paraphrase Lewinter on Groddeck, the thing in his writing we can’t understand. When I said at the beginning of this essay that Lewinter’s texts seem immune to literary fashion, I didn’t mean they’re like nothing else. They fit into a literary tradition that dates back at least to the early nineteenth century, from Büchner, say, through Proust and Rilke down on to Beckett and Bernhard and Sebald, and which continues in some of the most interesting English-language writers today, such as Teju Cole, Lydia Davis, and Garth Greenwell.
These writers employ extraordinary—often extraordinarily long—sentences offered by a first person narrating consciousness whose main preoccupation is with the very fact of his or her narration. Whatever their differences, these writers agree that the modulations of syntax are the best way to present consciousness. Yet the obliquity that appears so often in Lewinter’s texts also characterizes his relation to this tradition.
The narrator of a novel by Bernhard or Sebald, say, is so much more shaped by an overriding emotional tone (of hatred, say, or melancholy), so much more obviously a person than Lewinter’s narrator. The latter is elusive, barely cohering into anything like a coherent consciousness, let alone anything as solid as a character. And yet through the force of style, the peculiar way of narrating its relation to the world it is so attracted to, this narrator is just as palpable as if he’d told us everything about himself.
Although we can place Lewinter in a recognizable literary tradition, what makes him so distinctive—and the arrival of these works in English so exciting—is the demand his work places on us. To read Lewinter is to succumb to the power of a syntax that always flirts with unintelligibility and to accept that what we can’t fully understand in a text might be the most valuable thing about it.
- Dorian Stuber
Roger Lewinter was born in Montauban, France, in 1941, to Austrian Jewish parents. The family moved to Switzerland during the war, and he has lived much of his life in Geneva. For more than forty years he has worked as a writer (of both literary and scholarly works), an editor, and a translator (of Georg Groddeck, Karl Kraus, Elias Canetti, Robert Walser, and Rilke, among others). Among his dozen books are three works of fiction.