A Fortnightly Review
Four Times EightyOne: Bespoke Stories
by Michelene Wandor.
Odd Volumes | 978-0999136591 | Florilegia
by Annabel Dover.
MOIST Books | 978-1913430047 | £9.45
by Sharon Kivland.
MOIST Books | 978-1-913430-10-8 | £11.95
By ANTHONY HOWELL.
Having “found my stride” in the seventies, I am always interested in books which demonstrate a concept. But art exists at some remove from philosophy. It’s not the depth of the thought so much as its freshness, its originality. So concepts need to be flipped—even if nonsense appears to be the result. I still admire a sense of irony or paradox that was made manifest in the work of Duchamp. Literature can be deep at times, that’s for sure, as can visual art, but it can also be a joke—and sometimes it’s the joke that proves profound.
Michelene Wandor’s Four Times EightyOne (Odd Volumes 2021) epitomises the jest that can reside in a conceptual undertaking. In a single year she wrote eighty-one stories. She calls these “bespoke stories”—since they are written to fit a specific requirement—that each story should incorporate four words chosen for her by a friend, a family member or a passing acquaintance. These stories are short—on average about two pages long. The four words in the first story are clock, coronavirus, cat and and. The four words in the last story are level, glass, winter and suppose.
It takes some ingenuity to fashion a story out of whatever is given. However, the limitation enables the imagination to run freely from start to finish, and as if it were a riddle the reader can enjoy ‘discovering’ the requisite words. The restriction provides a motive for these stories—which can be as surreal or as whimsical as the author wishes, so long as the bespoke words are included. Just as the seer Odin sacrificed an eye in order to gain the mystic lore of female seers, Wandor is taken in directions that might not have been revealed were it not for the givens which constrain her. This is surely what the restraint of a verse-form brings to a poem.
The specified words stimulate an initiative that may often pick on an unexpected grammatical turn. For instance in story 28 (sunshine, fruit, falls, softly) the first sentence is a question: “Did you know that Niagara Falls?” Here a noun is turned unexpectedly into a verb—although perhaps we supposed falls to be a verb in the first place—but not when placed next to Niagara. I appreciate this, as I have often thought that it is misleading to designate this word a noun, that one a verb. Sequence is all in sentences. A definite or indefinite article placed in front of it (possibly interrupted by an adjective) will usually give us a noun—a (bad) fall, the (lofty) falls. A noun or a pronoun placed in front of it may give us a verb—the petals fall, he falls. So should children be told that this word is a noun, that one a verb? As used, it depends on the word’s position in the sentence. The poetical instinct understands this, and many a novel verb can be fashioned out of a noun and vice versa.
I also get the sense that Wandor has her own “secret” store of given words—allowing for hidden rules which may affect her stories. Manuka appears thrice in story 28—also Mantegna—which has some affinity with Manuka. Pillow appears thrice. I detect several other repetitions. It is in the nature of stories to return to words already used (as most narrative ends are reflective of beginnings). I guess this is why one of my favourite novels is Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles, because it is genuinely surprising how the close-knit relationship described at the start is allowed to simply unravel and wander off in different directions, breaking this habit of reflection.
It is refreshing how Wandor’s four given words allow her stories to wander where they will—ends may reflect beginnings or they may not. The one requirement allows for liberation in a host of other ways. I find this to be a key to innovation.
Florilegia by Annabel Dover (Moist 2021) is another intriguing book. Perhaps it is what the French would call a text. The author is also an artist using esoteric and sometimes historical forms of photography, and one of the inspirations for this book is the cyanotype—meaning a dark blue mark in Greek. It is a slow-reacting photographic printing formulation sensitive to a near ultraviolet and blue light spectrum known as UVA radiation. It produces a cyan-blue monochrome image and in reprography it generates blueprints. The method was used to advantage by Anna Atkins, in the mid-nineteenth century, who, with the assistance of Anne Dixon, hand-printed several popular albums of botanical and textile specimens, especially Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. These were effectively the world’s first photographically-illustrated books. In her introduction, Annabel Dover suggests that Atkins was as much an artist as a scientist and may have collaged specimens together, producing attractive images that were actually fakes. Atkins was also a novelist, but apart from details which may be gleaned from her various albums, she remained reticent about her own life. It seems to me that Dover senses some affinity with the creator of these cyanotypes.
In medieval Latin, a florilegium was a compilation of excerpts or sententia from other writings, as in a commonplace book. The word is from the Latin flos and legere: literally a gathering of flowers, or collection of fine extracts from the body of a larger work—you could call it “a bouquet of writings”. Dover’s bouquet is illustrated with reproductions of cyanotypes, and her text brings together a sense of printing with flowers, explorations of backstreets, esoteric traditions, curatorial oddities’ and quiddities. This is a tough book to describe though. Dover takes no prisoners.
After seeing an elephant on the frozen River Thames George Davis walked home from the last Frost Fair to create the drawings that became Frostiania: Or a History of the River Thames in a Frozen State, 1814, recalling the fair of 1536 when King Henry VIII skidded passed in a sleigh on his way to Greenwich, and people ate hot roasted ox. Bear baiting was commonplace just 3.8 miles away from this spot, or a 28 minute tube ride to Bankside, and home to the young Derek Jarman in 1973. Babies died at the rate of one per two births, and the average life expectancy for a person living in Whitechapel was 45 years old.
Time seems simultaneous. Place reminds us of all the times that place has been that place. Details, incidents and anecdotes are hoarded, explored, returned to in other contexts. When I think of writing I am reminded of wood and its diverse nature. Deal is soft: it has no density. It is easy to saw, plane, make joints in and fit together, but it has no intensity of grain (a criticism I would level at Joyce’s Ulysses), however extravagant its constructions. Teak, on the other hand, is extraordinarily dense in its grain. It is hard to work, but it has a compact integrity to it, and that is what I find in this text by Dover. Each sentence, each phrase, is atomic, powerful in itself, laced with surprise:
All she can think about is the seersucker she wore meaning sugar and milk: the smooth of the milk stripe and the jagged crystal lumps of sugar for the yellow stripe.
The metaphor of a bouquet only goes so far when describing this dazzling medley. There is much that is dark here too. We are never quite sure of our ground. There are snippets of autobiographical writing, but whose autobiography is it? Is it that of Atkins? Or that of Dover? Or that of some fictitious amalgam of catalogue artist, botanist, photographer, historian and poet? I am reminded of the anthropological art of Susan Hiller. Florilegia provides me with a huge variety of details, questions, alternative views. I am fascinated by this writing, although it can hardly be said that it provides answers to its own conundrums.
Sharon Kivland wrote a strange book in French and English—A Lover’s Discourse—Un discours amoureux (Ma Bibliothéque 2018). She read unsolicited ‘encounter’ emails as if they were intended for her alone. On each page there is a woman’s name (and the names themselves are poetry). Then below this heading there is Kivland’s description of the email—“Today Louise gets in touch with me because she would like to get to know me” — describing the email and its author in the third person. Below this description there is a paragraph in French translating the description above into the first person — “Je te contacte car j’aimerais faire ta connaissance.” Thus each page represents an exchange, an encounter. It’s a poignant collection of potential intercourse and very poetic in a French way with lots of white on each page.
Now she has written Abécédaire (Moist 2022) which again might be described as a text, or a collection perhaps. None of the books I am reviewing here fit standard definitions of stories or of novels. As an ABC might begin with A for Androgyny, the B for Barnacle etc., the reader gets the impression that Kivland may have written a page a day. The book is prefaced by this (possible) definition:
An alphabet primer (based on the first four letters of the Latin alphabet: A, B, C, D) is a visual support (book, poster, embroidery) presenting all the symbols of the alphabet, almost always listed in alphabetical order, then followed by one or more words with the first letter starting with the initial.
The book is interspersed with pictures from Kivland’s archive for the most part: family photos, a wolf at a door, vintage advertisements, a pair of prostitutes. Each image is enigmatic and may or may not refer to the context. But here the rule seems to be the breaking of rules. As we begin reading there are lots of Annas and initial As, but these do not evolve into Bs, Cs and so on. Kivland lingers on the A. Frequently she returns to Anna Freud and her relation to her father. But we also get caught up with Kivland’s relationship with her own father, and then we get Anna P—who I recognise as Pavlova (who adopted a swan as her child), and an Anna K and perhaps Walter Benjamin for B and later on the cyclamen for C—but Benjamin is not located where B is meant to go and that there was no name and no grave for him in Portbou—where he committed suicide while fleeing from the Nazis—is something Hannah A discovered. Meanwhile the cyclamen appears somewhere in the middle of the book. Are you confused? So be it. Whether the reader is confused or not hardly matters. Each page is eminently readable. One way or another, we learn more about Pavlova and the ballet, more about the cyclamen, Ariadne Puzzles, knucklebones.
It is a book that deals with the embroidery of psychoanalysis. Not so much the method as the anecdotes that embellish it, and one anecdote leads to another as one letter leads to another in the alphabet. But the text reminds me of the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle spread out across the table, a chaos we can piece together maybe. I note that there is a jigsaw puzzle of a Jackson Pollock painting. Now that must be tough.
When discussing entropy, the mathematician Stephen Wolfram points out that when a state of matter comes ready-packed we can understand it and compute what happens when it disperses. But once unpacked and dispersed, as when heat is applied to gas molecules, we call it a chaotic state. What human intelligence cannot do is compute from a chaotic state how it got to be in that state. In other words, when the triangle is lifted off the billiard balls and those balls are struck we can follow how they arrived in the configuration they ended up in, even predict where they will end up. What we can’t do is compute how an apparently random state of the balls on the table got to be in the state that they are in. So we can compute forwards in time, but not back. It is feasible to imagine that a higher or an artificial intelligence might be able to do this. The observer affects the outcome by perceiving it, but Wolfram reminds us that this observer is human, and we perceive time as travelling forwards, not back. A nonhuman observer might affect the outcome in a different way, and we can conceive of an observer whose perception allows for a two-way motion of time.
Ok, so that was a digression, but Kivland’s writing here celebrates digression, and I am reminded of Wolfram’s notion when reading the Abécédaire. While we may piece together a jigsaw, and perhaps turn it into a complete picture, we can’t say with any certainty how the pieces scattered on the floor got to be where they are/were when they spilt out of the box. At its conclusion there is a double page subtitled “how this book came to be written”. Here she maintains that she wrote each day for the length of the analytic hour.
I wrote is as/in free association, on/in the page, in the production of new material from extant material, and with what preceded from memory, but not entirely. I followed Freud’s model of train travel for his theory of free association, acting “as though, for instance, (you were) a traveller sitting next to the window of a railway carriage and describing to someone inside the carriage the changing views (you) see outside.”
Maybe she did. So must we assume that Kivland wrote the first page we encounter first? Well, I am reminded that the simile of a train moving is also used in many an attempt to describe the theory of relativity—given that the moving train might be viewed from the window of another train (by one who might be the reader in this case). I maintain that any autobiographical confession, even that of how you wrote a book, becomes a fiction as soon as it is written down. So could the author be fibbing? There is no way of telling. This is an enigma which seems compelling and relevant to our confusing times. Language together with its syntax appears to travel as we do in one direction. A name becomes a pronoun later, and a previous passage may be “referred to” on a subsequent page. From this a narrative continuity may be detected. But this could be contrived.
Can the “pieces” of Kivland’s puzzle be fitted together into one picture? Who knows? Perhaps the pages are fragments from several puzzles. B. S. Johnson wrote a book that came in a box. When he met a potential publisher he opened the box and let the pages spill out onto the floor. And that was how his book was meant to be read. It just depended on which page you picked up first. The publisher was shocked.
The Abécédaire is a moebius strip—a term Lacan uses when considering traumatic events. Kivland’s book encourages me to be subjective as a reader, in that I read into it as much as I read it (simply). My probably garbled version of Wolfram’s solution to entropy, my sense that this text could be opened anywhere and read to its end and then from its beginning to where it was opened at random (but could the supreme AI calculate where I might open it?), all of this comes from the mental stimulation her text affords me. The sense of there always being stories within stories (which I also get from Jan Potocki’s Manuscript Found in Saragossa) comes out of the experience that I’ve had while immersed in this Abécédaire. Our perception is subjective, and this is obviously as true for a book as it might be for a war or for a love affair.
ANTHONY HOWELL, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Editions, are here. In 2019, his exploration of psychic chaos, Consciousness (with Multilation), was published by the Fortnightly’s imprint, Odd Volumes. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).