Aris Fioretos - The book situates itself in a region beyond criticism but this side of literature, characterized by forgetting and finitude, and investigating important yet seemingly inaccessible "gray areas" in texts as old as those of Homer, and as recent as those of Beckett

Cover of The Gray Book by Aris Fioretos
Aris Fioretos, The Gray Book, Stanford University Press, 1999.

Generally considered the least lively and most bleak of casts, gray is the taint of vagueness and uncertainty. This book situates itself in a region beyond criticism but this side of literature, characterized by forgetting and finitude, and investigating important yet seemingly inaccessible "gray areas" in texts as old as those of Homer, and as recent as those of Beckett.

Generally considered the least lively and most bleak of casts, gray is the taint of vagueness and uncertainty. Marking the threshold region where luminous life seems suspended but death has not yet darkened the horizon, it belongs to an evasive and evanescent world, carrying the tint of smoke, fog, ashes, and dust. As the ambiguous space of thought and remembrance where things blend and blur, gray measures the difference between distance and proximity, shading into tinges of hesitation, hues of taciturnity, tones of time past and lost. Thus it may also be the spectral medium of literature itself—that grainy gas of language.

Written with a lead pencil akin to those found in Nabokov, Rilke, Svevo, Poe, and Dickinson, The Gray Book chronicles the vicissitudes of such equivocal articulation—registering the graphite traces it leaves behind but also recording the dwindling span of its life. The book situates itself in a region beyond criticism but this side of literature, characterized by forgetting and finitude, and investigating important yet seemingly inaccessible "gray areas" in texts as old as those of Homer, and as recent as those of Beckett.

Loosely arranging these literary finds according to a revision of the four elements, The Gray Book distances itself from tradition and treats not water but tears, not fire but vapor, not earth but grain, not air but clouds. The narrative thus construed, proceeding in the meandering movements of volatile thought rather than in the prudent steps of a treatise, appears gradually affected by its subject. Themes and facts previously confined to the realm of quoted texts leak into the narrative itself. The border between fiction and fact slowly dissolves as the book approaches the curious void that the author locates at the heart of "gray literature." Shaped by an omnipresent though increasingly unreliable narrator, The Gray Book may thus ultimately yield a poetics cast in the form of a ghost story.

In Aris Fioretos’s odd and beautiful essay about grayness, its shapes and secrets, the richest of contents is extracted from this color of dearth and boredom.” — Allt om Böcker

“He writes with elegance. The style is both winding, searching, and utterly self-conscious . . . There are purely lyrical passages, many beautiful sections, and deft transitions in the text. At times, its lyrical, associative flow is interrupted, just in order to take a new turn and gain another cogency. Aris Fioretos is not afraid. He obviously knows what he is doing when publishing a book like this, so seductive and well-written, arguing against all narrow strictures of genre, yet anchored in solid theory. The reading turns kaleidoscopic, stimulating in abundance . . .” — Pär-Yngve Andersson

“Fioretos has written an essay as beautiful as poetry.” — Nina Björk

“If you have dealt with books for a long time, it is almost unavoidable not to be enthused by Fioretos’s rhapsody in gray. . . . Despite his sharp ear for dissonance, he seems to me an extremely talented hunter for correspondences, in search of mysterious harmonies between sounds, colors, figures, and flourishes wherever they may be detected. . . . One has to consider the para-littérateur happy.” – Anders Cullhed

“He offers readings which are absolutely dizzying in terms of erudition and speculative acumen. . . . With Den grå boken, Fioretos enters the domain of poetry. The result is literature at the highest level.” — Carl-Henrik Fredriksson

“. . . if one is attracted by Aris Fioretos’s elaborate style, so abundantly full of images, his book offers an almost bottomless source of inspiration and knowledge.” — Gabriella Håkansson

“[Book of the year] You have heard about food eroticism, but pencil pornography, what could that be? It is when everything that is gray, always associated with ennui and death, suddenly appears as sexier than banal colors. Aris Fioretos has succeeded in making this lamented non-color so delicious that you want to sink your teeth into it, wrap your tongue around it . . . Book of the year.” — Ulrika Kärnborg

“[Book of the year] Aris Fioretos, The Gray Book. This is the only book this year which has given me palpable, indeed physical, pleasure.” — Nina Lekander

“. . . a rare, almost incomparable book . . .” — Mikael van Reis
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Aris Fioretos, The Truth About Sascha Knisch, Vintage, 2007.

'My name is Knisch, Sascha Knisch, and six days ago my life was in perfect order.'
Knisch, who works as a projectionist at the Apollo movie theatre, is a person with special sexual habits. One night, he sees the enigmatic Dora Wilms. A week later, she is dead and Knisch is charged with murder. As he tries to clear his name, he discovers a scientific conspiracy and is drawn into the rich tangle of a story in which nothing is as it seems. How can he prove what didn't happen? What goes on at the Foundation for Sexual Research? And why is it important to have testicles?
A biological thriller set in the steamy underworlds of Weimar Berlin in the sweltering summer of 1928, The Truth about Sascha Knisch deals with the so-called 'sexual question', its lures and seductiveness, dangers and temptations, but also with the shrewd passion between two young people in a Germany at the brink of disaster.

The kinky sex business in pre-Hitler Germany spawns a suspicious death in a murky novel by Swedish author Knisch that often reads more like a treatise than a thriller.
It’s the summer of 1928 in an unnamed city that is evidently Berlin. The narrator, 29-year-old Sascha Knisch, moved there a few years earlier from his hometown, Vienna; he’s a part-time projectionist at a movie theater. Sascha is also a transvestite who makes regular visits to Dora Wilms, who’s a softer version of a dominatrix. Their current session is interrupted by the doorbell. Sascha, dressed as a schoolgirl, hides in the closet. He later emerges to find the visitor gone and Dora dead. That’s the setup, but don’t expect a suspenseful narrative. For most of the novel Dora is alive, in flashbacks; we don’t learn until almost the end whether she died of natural causes. What’s front and center is the “sexual question,” by which Fioretos means the “obscure drives” that shape sexual identities. For Sascha the key moment came in a high-school art class, when Sascha was the model and his fellow students, prompted by their teacher, drew him as a woman. Dora’s past involved exhibitionism, sex with her brother, a teenage pregnancy and a baby given up for adoption. Their interests take them to the Foundation for Sexual Research, where they learn about the “grey sex” and the wondrous properties of semen and testicles. Periodically Fioretos returns to the investigation, while adding complications. Is some missing film the key to Dora’s death? Is Sascha’s best friend Anton, a porn filmmaker, playing a double game? What is the significance of the Brotherhood, a band of vigilantes? A final difficulty: Fioretos wrote his novel in his native Swedish. His own translation leads to some awkward locutions (e.g., “my heart inched up a few notches.”)
A dismal farrago that illuminates neither character nor sexuality. - Kirkus Reviews

Swedish author Fioretos’s first novel to be translated into English is an eerie, erotic tale set in 1928 Berlin about a part-time movie projectionist turned accused killer. Sascha Knisch’s humdrum life turns scandalous after Dora Wilms, the madam who indulges him in his peculiar sexual tastes, is found dead. Sascha becomes suspect number one, and to try to prove his innocence, he digs into Dora’s mysterious past, uncovering a psychosexual plot involving one of Dora’s former confidantes and the sinister Foundation for Sexual Research. But the more Sascha learns about the plot and Dora’s possible involvement, the less makes sense to Sascha. Simultaneously, Sascha reflects on what is obliquely referred to as the “sexual question” and tries to discover his “true self.” An odd supporting cast of characters—most notably “One-legged Else”—provide comic relief in this dense and atmospheric novel. It has all the markings of a cult favorite. - Publishers Weekly

Set in the oppressively hot summer of 1928 Berlin, this is a fascinating, though often obscure novel. The eponymous Sascha is an occasional cross-dresser with an intimate friendship with Dora, a similarly part-time prostitute. There are multiple time changes throughout the novel, but the essence of the story concerns the apparent murder of Dora by an unknown visitor, while Sascha is hiding in her closet in her flat (whilst also enjoying the proximity of her hanging clothes!) and the subsequent requirement for Sascha to exonerate himself from police suspicion and find out who did it. Unfortunately for the reader, however, Sascha is the archetypal unreliable narrator, and leads us down various blind alleys flinging in our direction a variety of red herrings along the way. The other major theme of the novel is a wide variety of (then) legally dubious theories of sexual-culture and research in decadent Weimar Germany, which emerges, according to Sascha, as the key to the mystery. The reader is shown sufficient glimpses of the emerging nationalist and intolerant right-wing movement in Berlin that was soon in the following decade to sweep off the streets those such as Sascha and others involved in what it considered as perverted and decidedly un-German activities.
Such is the overall fog of the plot that at the end the reader is not totally sure what happened and who was responsible, though the epilogue either solves the conundrum or just adds another possible interpretation. The story demands effort and certainly there is no clear conclusion, but I enjoyed the ride. -

‘This is the first novel in English by this rising international lit star, and what a smashing erotic thriller it turns out to be.’ — Diane Anderson-Minshall
‘Aris Fioretos has many similarites to Vladimir Nabokov, whose works he has translated into Swedish. Like Nabokov, Fioretos has a profound knowledge of English, which is not his first language. . . . His prose style, too, is playful, attentive and deft (at one stage, in classically Nabokovian style, a man is described and dismissed in four parenthetic words — “moist forehead, nervous hands”). But the similarities are not overbearing, and Fioretos has his own voice. Most impressively, he is able to make it seem that something macabre is happening just off-camera, something that is being deliberately withheld. As a result, the reader has to keep coming up with ideas about what the next twist or payload will be; few, however, will work out the denouement in advance. There is a conflict in this novel between the dramatic and the poetic. There is the classic, noir-ish murder story and the ensuing revelations that move the narrative along. But the dense, colourful writing insists that the eye stops to admire just as it wants to return to the action. The clash is a strength rather than a weakness, since it creates an energy of its own, as the reader tries to balance the need to rush on and the urge to slow down. By the end of this involved, at times wilfully oblique, novel, the truth about Sascha Knisch may remain uncertain, but the formidable qualities of his creator have been well established.’ — Simon Baker

‘A stylish, intelligent and eerily entertaining novel.’ — Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski
‘In a world dominated by extremes, Fioretos, a Swedish-born novelist living in Berlin, presents an honest and astonishing study of the marginalized and often stigmatized people who attempt to exist between the two, specifically, those who don’t fit neatly into traditional sexual roles. . . . This extraordinary novel is destined to be much discussed and is highly recommended for public and academic libraries.’ — K. H. Cumiskey

‘When Sascha Knisch finally totters from the closet on high heels, in his yellow blouse, brassiere stuffed with napkins, his hair braided and a red satin bow tied around his rampant . . . (well, use your imagination), there is a body on the bed, and his life — previously in perfect order — will never be the same again. There is much to marvel at in this often hilarious erotic thriller set in the hot summer of 1928 in Berlin. Aris Fioretos expertly explores the camp edge of Weimar Germany, a society pressing at social and sexual boundaries but also yearning for order and preparing itself, unconsciously perhaps, for authoritarianism.’ — Matthew Lewin 

Sascha’s sexual needs are quite prominent in this funny, unusual novel by a sublimely gifted all-rounder. Set in cabaret country, between the wars Berlin, it’s a whodunnit seething with enough deviancy to make you not care whodidit. The tale twists and turns like an orgy at a contortionists’ convention. It’s quite funny, too; clever without being smart-arse.’ Sunday Sports

‘. . . It’s hard to imagine a sexy, sophisticated urban thriller . . . Yet Aris Fioretos, a Swedish diplomat based in Germany, manages exactly that in The Truth about Sascha Knisch. Any fan of Isherwood or Cabaret won’t find the ambience too remote: decadent Berlin in summer 1928, as our decent hero with a little quirk (he’s a cross-dresser) finds himself caught up in a murder plot that leads not only to the pioneer sexologists of Weimar but a macho cult with far more sinister connections. Fioretos (who translates his own work, with panache) seduces with a fiendish plot and a risqué wit. . . .’  Boyd Tonkin

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Aris Fioretos, Word Traces: Readings of Paul Celan, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

The fact that Paul Celan's poems have already anticipated and explored the complicated relation between poetry and reading seems to have served Aris Fioretos as the selective criterion and raison d'être for the unique constellation of essays that Word Traces represents. What distinguishes this collection of articles on Celan from previous ones is their attention to Celan's insistence on the singularity of his texts. This means that the contributors are willing to (re-)trace the specific way in which Celan's texts raise the enigma of their (un)readability as it is inscribed in word-traces left in particular poems and across Celan's oeuvre.
Fioretos has divided the volume in five segments, each of which contains three essays that emphasize -- albeit differently -- the specific relations and constellations in which word-traces have been articulated by Celan. Although some might argue about the in- and exclusion of particular contributions, especially given that many essays have already appeared elsewhere (although not always in English translation), the segments and articles chosen by Fioretos address the most pertinent aspects of contemporary literary criticism and continental philosophy. Thus, the volume achieves a multiplicity of goals: it reads Celan in the light of contemporary criticism, casting a light from the former onto the latter; it (hopefully) introduces Celan to a larger, predominantly English-speaking world of contemporary critics; it demonstrates the political dimensions of poetic activity and critical reading; and it underscores the relevance of patient, attentive readings of seemingly hermetic texts for any specialist willing to probe the limits of his/her discipline, including those study programs (cultural, modern, German, comparative, etc.) that call themselves interdisciplinary.
Given Celan's poetic and political concentration on singularity, any reading that seeks to do justice to this concentration is bound to be(come) political. And any reading is bound to consider the possibility, if not necessity, that it will miss its mark, that it will miss the "masked difference of languages" (32) in Celan's poem as well as the "differential mark" (28) that constitutes the secret of Celan's poetry. This at least according to Jacques Derrida, whose "Shibboleth: For Paul Celan" has in more than one way been singled out by Fioretos: it is the sole entry for the first segment, which, like Word Traces itself, uses a quote or title from Celan as its title; it is unique in that it "first" raises the difficulty of reading Celan's poetic singularity; and it is unique because it unfolds this difficulty in reading the traces of the differential mark and its possible corruption in the "single" word and poem entitled Shibboleth:
Derrida's reading of Celan's poetry is exemplary not because it is authoritative, but because it allows itself to be exposed to the "cut," which, in turn, opens a space for the other readings to explore, among them Werner Hamacher's essay, "The Second of Inversion: Movements of a Figure Through Celan's Poetry."
Hamacher takes up Celan's and Derrida's concern for that same "cut of a nonsignifying difference," and explores it as the effect that the temporality and figurality of Celan's poetic language has upon its own readability. As his title demonstrates, Hamacher traces the cut to and in the rhetorical figure most likely to dissimulate it: the politico-philosophical figure of inversion, a figure that has dominated speculative dialectics as well as the tradition of a poetic conception of subjectivity. By tracing the movement of inversion in Celan's poetry, Hamacher is able to show how Celan gradually moves from a poetics of...  - Volker Kaiser

A professor of Aesthetics at Södertörn University in Stockholm, Sweden, Aris Fioretos was educated at Stockholm and Yale Universities. The recipient of numerous prizes and fellowships, most recently from the Swedish Academy and All Souls College, Oxford, he has published several novels and book-length essays in his native Sweden and has rendered the works of Paul Auster, Friedrich Hölderlin, and Vladimir Nabokov into Swedish. His latest, award-winning novel is entitled The Last Greek (2009). Fioretos is also the general editor of the first commented edition of the complete works of Nelly Sachs in German.