Kevin Breathnach

May-Lan Tan: Things to Make and Break

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Things to Make and Break is a difficult book to situate in both literary and geographical terms. Comprised of eleven stories that move between London and Los Angeles, Hong Kong and who-knows-where, the collection is all told in a tone of blank and deliberate disaffection which, though mostly well-worked, sometimes struggles to carry the text’s more heightened, surrealistic passages. Identities are forever in flux, so intermittently aligned. In ‘Candy Glass’, a transgender stuntwoman leaves LA and the lover for whom she is also double in an attempt to settle down in a small town and live ‘as a woman’, ‘where nobody knows’. She even plans to get a husband. If this desire to tie oneself down into tradition is not exactlypar for the course here, the condition of disposability and drift from which the desire arises certainly is. The names are androgynous, most parents are absent, and in ‘Legendary’ the narrator’s boyfriend keeps naked photographs of ex-girlfriends in a manila envelope marked ‘tax papers’. Things to Make and Break is a discreet economy of surfaces. ‘I have no depth perception,’ notes one character. ‘Everything just looks flat.’ Skin is the most important semiotic space in these stories. Scabs are picked, scars persist, and characters get on with the quiet business of being quietly anguished.

This review originally appeared in the April issue of Totally Dublin.

Patrick Keiller: The View From the Train

Just as the protagonist of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil arrives in Tokyo by slumberous ferry, so the narrator of London, the first of Patrick Keiller’s feature film-essays, returns to the city on a cruise liner. Keiller wears his influences well and without reservation. In this collection of thirteen essays published between 1982 and 2011, he constantly revisits the same figures – Aragon, Lefebvre, Wordsworth, Poe – in an attempt to develop what he calls ‘the transformative potential of images of landscape’. He is good on the production and ideological function of certain spaces. He argues convincingly that Britain is much wealthier than its dilapidated landscape has been made to suggest. ‘People whose everyday experience is of decayed surroundings,’ he continues, ‘are more inclined to accept that there might be less money for schools and hospitals.’ Without the gently weary voice of the late-Paul Scofield, though, Keiller’s writing comes off sounding quite a bit worse. In ‘Film as Spatial Critique’, for instance, he notes that ‘film from the past that depicts urban and other architectural space of its time can offer an implicit critique of similar spaces of the present’. In the same way, Keiller’s elegant and elegiac films offer an implicit critique of his surprisingly workmanlike prose. He has no idea how to end an essay, and his arguments are often weakened by too-long lists of supporting evidence. Still, Keiller remains an interesting and important thinker nonetheless. He is perhaps more relevant today than ever. The View From the Train ain’t pretty, but it’s important we look all the same.

This review originally appeared in the April issue of Totally Dublin.

Levy: The Unloved

Based on the reviews alone, you’d be forgiven for thinking Swimming Home represented a radical departure for Deborah Levy. Her earlier works always got a mention, but never without the inference that they were the weird younger siblings of the popularly and critically acclaimed novel in question. The critics must have been covering their backs for previous neglect. Republished over twenty years after it was written, The Unloved places an international cast of prosperous tourists in a château in Rouen to celebrate Christmas. All of Deborah Levy is here. The narrative is constructed around the investigation of a murder, but its resolution is somehow incidental to the sadness, sexuality and violence with which every stunning sentence is charged. (‘What are the right words to describe the kind of torture she knows the ex-military man practises on his wife?’) Indeed, while the setting of Rouen suggests touristic homage to Flaubert, the gestures the text makes to the Sadean eroticism of Desclos’s The Story of O are much more profound, not to say graphic. The body is such an important unit in Levy’s work, forever at work to express latent psychological trauma. She is certainly no Cartesian.

‘The application of physical and psychological pain makes people less secretive,’ says Inspector Blanc regarding the interrogation techniques he used during the Algerian War. It is a troubling dictum, and Levy dutifully brings it to the page. She is cruel to her characters. She tortures them and they reveal their secrets – not to the group, but to the author, to the narrator, to us. (‘O’s mouth is open. Wide open.’) This confessional aspect is perhaps where The Unloved differs from Swimming Home, a novel threaded through with a hidden narrative that finds no expression until its catastrophic closing pages. Catastrophe is all foretold here. We are inside all the characters here. All of Deborah Levy is here – all except for certain silences.

This review originally appeared in the March issue of Totally Dublin.

On Vermeer

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Tim’s Vermeer is every bit as enlightening as you’d expect a revisionist documentary about a 17th-century Dutch painter to be if it were made, as this one undeniably is, by libertarian magicians. Narrated by Penn Jillette and directed by Teller, the film follows Tim Jenison, a ‘technologist’ consumed by the photorealistic quality of Johannes Vermeer’s work, as he attempts to annul any joy you’ve ever taken in art, culture, or life itself.

Convinced that Vermeer used some sort of optical mechanism to make his pictures, Jenison creates an anachronistic mechanism of his own and, having never painted before, sets out to replicate Vermeer’s ‘The Music Room’. He builds the furniture, reconstructs the room, and places his modelling daughter’s head in a head-clamp. In just five years, Jenison manages to reproduce the painting almost exactly. In doing so, he is somehow able to convince Philip Steadman and David Hockney, both of whom have previously written that Vermeer must have used an optical mechanism, that Vermeer must have used an optical mechanism. Whether he did or not is interesting for about five minutes; what is more profoundly exposed by Jenison’s obsessive devotion to the question is the limitations of a TED-talk positivism where to know means nothing more than to know how. For all the attention Jenison offers ‘The Music Room’, he can tell us very little about what it represents or portends. He says nothing about the allusion to Caravaggio he has inadvertently reproduced, or the role of women in 17th-century Holland, or the fundamental shift away from representation in painting following the invention of mechanical reproduction. He spent five long years with a single painting, and all he can tell us about it is that ‘the amount of detail makes a general impression on the viewer’. Unable to see the woods, Jenison regards the trees more closely. He thinks he’s an artist, but he’s not. He’s a loser.

This review originally appeared in the March issue of Totally Dublin.

Peter Stothard: The Last Days of Cleopatra

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Alexandria is both more and less than an account of Cleopatra’s last nights. It is a disguised autobiography. It is a travelogue filled with grainy images. It is a book about trying to write a book. It is, in sum, an all-thumbs aggregate of every major trend in nonfiction narrative since the early 1990s. The book alternates between the ancient world of Cleopatra, the coming of age of Peter Stothard, and the time, in early 2011, when Stothard travelled to Egypt to finish this book, on the eighth attempt. He is good on antiquity. His focus on Rome’s bureaucrats suggests an interesting, if not appealing, Great Middleman theory of history. His take on 1960s Oxford, 1970s Big Oil and 1980s Fleet Street is less engaging, in large part decorated with deferential portraits of powerful reactionaries with an interest in the classics. Stothard relies on a series of effected coincidences to tie this narrative to contemporary Egypt. A less incidental consideration of the Arab Spring about to flare up outside his hotel might have revealed a more profound historical relationship between the two.

This review originally appeared in the Irish Times.

Understanding a Photograph: John Berger

John Berger possesses a remarkable prose style from which we have very little to learn. Where there should be a colon, there’s a comma; where there should be a comma, there’s nothing at all. It is as if these should-be terrible sentences are trying keep up a pace, but they’re not. They are wilfully slow, long-exposed, still developing even after the full-stop. There is no system here. For all his evident learning, Berger writes like he has never read a sentence that was not his own. In his editorial introduction to Understanding a Photograph, Geoff Dyer isolates something of Berger’s critical, rather than prosodic, self-sufficiency, noting that ‘the habits of the autodidact’ were ‘too ingrained’ for him to succumb to semiotics or discourse. The habits of the autodidact – that self-made (male) intellectual – are a mite overrated at this point, but this is a strong collection nonetheless. All the hits are here, including ‘Image of Imperialism’, ‘Paul Strand’ and ‘The Suit and the Photograph’, Berger’s magisterial essay on class hegenomy and August Sander’s ‘Three Young Farmers on Their Way to a Dance’ (1914). Here, he notes that by adopting the suit (‘the first ruling-class costume to idealize purely sedentary power’), the poor were condemned to be ‘always and recognizably second-rate, clumsy, uncouth, defensive’. He speculates, though, that after hanging up their jackets and taking off their ties, the three young farmers might still have danced with a certain style. Perhaps Berger has a system of prose after all.

This review originally appeared in the February issue of Totally Dublin.

Various Assumptions: The Still Lives of the Artists

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I write this essay every year and, every year, I see it morph to suit the quote that kicked it off a little better. ‘Every artist’s work changes when he dies,’ says John Berger in his essay on Giacometti. ‘And finally no one remembers what the work was like when he was alive.’ This was never as I remembered it, never as I needed it to be. What I remembered Berger saying was that death changes not the work of every artist, but the image. Berger makes his claim immediately after some remarks on Giacometti’s demeanour in a famous photograph showing him crossing the road in the rain, his coat pulled over his head for shelter. Berger says he looks ‘like a monk,’ but to me the photograph casts Giacometti closer to one of his own sculptures. It was an understandable slip of memory, in any case, and it caused no trouble in the end. I simply included the quote as I’d initially remembered it, and as usual nobody noticed. 

My gorse essay on the portraits of Henri Cartier-Bresson is extracted here.

Robert Walser: A Schoolboy’s Diary

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The virtues of the essay form have been extolled just a little too often of late. Repeatedly it has been underlined that when we talk about the essay we are not talking about those awful exercises we had to do at school. Yet when it comes to the work of Fritz Kocher, the tragic “author” of many of the pieces collected here, the school essay is precisely what we are talking about. Working in 1904, the elusive Swiss writer Robert Walser has his fictional schoolboy speculate on subjects as plain as politeness, careers and school in a faux-naif style betraying ominous attitudes to class, power and discipline. (“The teacher treats the poor boys more roughly than us, and he is right to. Teachers know what they’re doing.”) These are ostensibly simple stories beneath which we sense unresolved contradictions heralding war, modernity and the end of simple stories. Kocher’s thoughts are often cut short by the school bell. “Unfortunately time’s up,” is the abrupt conclusion to one essay. It would serve just as well as the collection’s title.

This review originally appeared in the Irish Times.

Declan Long Interview

All art is a commodity. That much seems inescapable at this point. But to what extent is any remaining artistic radicalism assimilated or neutralised by the Turner Prize and others like it? 

You’re right to say that all art is a commodity. Art has been based around its relationship to the market for a very long time. The role of banking was very important to the rise of Impressionism, for instance. But it goes much further back. The way art was commissioned was indeliably linked to certain power structures. Art is embedded in forms of market exchange. But if you look at this year’s Turner Prize shortlist, you see in Tino Sehgal an artist addressing this very point about the economic relationships underpinning art. So, instead of inviting people to pay to see a work of art, or even to buy it, ‘This Is Exchange’ pays people to participate in a conversation about economics. Since the 1960s, there have been artists attempting to flip these things by operating within what’s known as a ‘dematerialized mode’, where it’s not all about objects. Instead, the work is about some form of encounter or idea. Sehgal’s work certainly falls within that tradition.

My interview with art critic and Turner Prize 2013  jury member, Declan Long, appeared in the December issue of Totally Dublin.

Marie Chaix: The Summer of the Elder Tree

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Marie Chaix stopped writing when her editor, Alain Oulman, died unexpectedly in March 1990. His death backed her ‘against a wall’. It constituted yet another abandonment in a life that now seemed defined by them. Only this time it was worse. She couldn’t mourn without writing and she couldn’t write without Oulman. The once-prolific author published nothing until, in 2005, this short memoir of abandonments appeared at last. L’Été du sureau was an attempt to work through her writer’s block, to force the work of mourning. She has written nothing since, but the text is its own reward, its variously contemplative and aphoristic prose accumulating to form ‘a compendium of phantom books never finished’.

The translationis a travesty. It makes a full-phantom of its referent. Chaix’s prose is altered to include an outburst of disorienting commas and inelegant gerunds (‘their being islands’, ‘their evoking a journey’). New clauses come clunking in from nowhere. At one point, ‘l’héritage pesait lourd mais les passeuses étaient légères’ becomes ‘the legacy was heavy but the women who did the passing on had a light touch’. The Summer of the Elder Tree makes heavy work indeed. Still, despite its obvious failings, the translation is the much richer text. In ‘abandoning’ style, and sometimes meaning, it realises the concerns of the original. Infidelity, it turns out, is just a more profound way of being faithful. Or so I expect the translator tells his wife, the once-prolific author Marie Chaix.

This review originally appeared in the December issue of Totally Dublin.

Deborah Levy: Swimming Home & Black Vodka

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Black Vodka is an inexhaustible feast. Its richness can be ascribed in part to that style of weighted reticence we sense at work in Swimming Home. The recurring motifs and metaphors of the collection, which are each put down in such a way as to resist any singular interpretation, should also be considered instrumental. Levy records telephones, sirens and car alarms like others would record birdsong, while the grotesquely close attention she pays to wrists, thighs, skulls, bones, skin, meat, veins, blood and guts establishes an extremely rich, versatile symbolic code. Black Vodka sees Levy play surgeon, dermatologist and butcher all at once.

My review of Swimming Home and Black Vodka by Deborah Levy, which appeared in The Stinging Fly (Spring 2013), is now available to read online.

Jang Eun-jin: No One Writes Back

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No One Writes Back is either poorly written, or poorly translated, or both. Told by a young man who travels from motel to motel writing letters to his friends and family, this short picaresque attempts to relay its plot (which is not without conceptual promise) through a combination of epistolary speech, reported speech and direct speech. None of it quite comes off. The letters are mostly spent explaining aspects of the novel’s backstory to characters who already know it. ‘I met Eunyeong often without your knowledge,’ the narrator explains to his older brother, whose heart (he explains the same older brother) was broken long ago by exactly these secret encounters. The dialogue isn’t much better: for most of the novel, the narrator is engaged in conversation with a tedious self-published novelist who speaks at length about the advantages of, say, email. ‘You don’t have to pay for writing paper and envelopes and pens. Plus, they’re fast and you can check to see if they’ve been received, and you can cancel the dispatch if you change your mind.’ No One Writes Back is most successful as direct speech, where it sometimes hits upon a winning line or two. But even here the narrative seems mostly concerned with making no allusion whatsoever to the enormous plot twists that eventually fall upon the reader like a series of disappointed punchlines. Perhaps the dispatches containing their necessary augurs were cancelled upon some change of mind. In any case, they were not received.

This review first appeared in Totally Dublin's South Korean Reader feature.

John the Posthumous: Jason Schwartz

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This enormous novel is very short and does not resemble a novel. There are some characters here, I think, but they are never fleshed out. They come as names, existentially fragile inasmuch as they are pointedly graphic (‘Gertrude, in blue ink’, ‘William, in cursive’). It would take no more than ‘a table knife or a razorblade’ to excise them from a text that wants only to call attention to textuality. Several pages are spent comparing translations of the Bible until eventually even its pictorial representations become textual: ‘Satan is often shown without a right hand – or with the letter X in its stead.’

Methodically the narrative makes an inventory of archaic vocabulary and darkly suggestive etymologies. (‘Pigeon’s bone refers to a manacle or a shackle, especially at a hanging.’) But the exacting prose in which it does so turns out to reveal nothing but its own inexactitude. The narrator’s obscure dictionary is dubious at best; often its entries are outright false. ‘The word adultery derives from cry,’ he claims before confessing that actually it ‘does not; just as you had suspected’. What we find concealed within these falsified (read: creative) definitions is in fact an ontologically precarious murder mystery which, composed by an author for whom text is misleading and meaning unstable, comes largely resistant to spoilers. It is a case built on intimations. We are missing a killing. We are missing a crime scene. We are missing a body, too. If this information was ever put down in writing, it has since been removed. After all, it would take no more than a table knife. 

This review originally appeared in the November issue of Totally Dublin.

Through the Night & Self-Control

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Here, five pages before the truth is revealed to us, Meyer finally recognises what happened in the hours before he set out on his journey to Weinachtstadt, a small German town ‘lying illuminated and isolated, crowded with small, yellow houses, like scenery in a Christmas card of film’. This is not an imagined destination for Meyer: he really does arrive there. But in landscape and topography, Weinachtstadt resembles a fairytale. The town borrows from fiction, which Meyer will use to escape the unwanted truth.  As in Self-Control, fiction is a psychological space located not upon the truth, but away from it. Here, though, fiction is also a geographical space. To get to Weinachtstadt, Meyer must leave Norway. He must wait for trains and he must carry a suitcase. He must walk his way into forgetting. In Through the Night, it not implausible that being on the run would make your feet grow sore.

My review of Self-Control and Through The Night by Stig Sæterbakken, which appears in The Stinging Fly (Winter 2013-14), is available to read online.

Renata Adler: Speedboat

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Speedboat is a fragmentary and frequently hilarious novel about what it was to be an urban American in the 1970s. Here we have a narrator whose ‘I’ looks out, not in. Frain writes about her friends and work so keenly that at times she is almost effaced from her own narrative. In the space opened up by this near-absence, Adler achieves a prose that, despite the odd bum note, sounds disaffected and despondent and charismatic all at once.

My short review of Renata Adler’s Speedboat was in last weekend’s Irish Times.