Leading up to the release of their sixth issue, the editors of Music and Literature ran a series of three Volodine-related articles online last week: a review of the recently-published-in-English Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven; excerpts from Les Aigles Puent / The Eagles Reek; and an article by the musician and composer Denis Frajerman on his collaborations with Volodine over the years.
I mention this for two reasons: Volodine has occasionally been a subject of discussion at this blog before, and because I translated the latter of these articles from French. I recommend it as a good introduction to Frajerman’s (experimental) music, which I had the good fortune of discovering through the small translation assignment. You might enjoy it for similar (or different) reasons: there are a number of audio excerpts embedded in the article worth listening to.
The post-exotic project is, among others, to realize a literary object composed of forty-nine works (forty volumes have already appeared in French) in which the very last sentence is: “I remain silent.” I have heralded this numerous times. I hope to live long enough to lay down that last sentence on the post-exotic edifice, which will then be closed, complete.
– Antoine Volodine, in the “Interview with the Author” which serves as a preface to the advance uncorrected galley of Writers (Dalkey Archive, 2014)
I’m not inclined to believe this is anything but a bluff, but two facts:
* the title of his latest book, just out in France, is Terminus radieux ; Nov. 2014 – it has been awarded the Goncourt Prize, perhaps France’s most prestigious prize) ;
* the number of his published works, if you count the eight translations Volodine has done from the Russian, now totals 49 (or 41 without the translations).
This guy is a master of hype, full of interesting bluffs. That’s why I don’t think Volodine would give it up Philip Roth-style. If your curiosity is piqued read that essay of mine, “An Ism of One’s Own,” or one of the other two recent reviews of Writers (“After Revolution” and this one at FullStop).
Antoine Volodine first came onto my radar in 2008, when several of his books were assigned reading for a graduate course in French literature that I was taking. We read Bardo or Not Bardo (2004) and Le Post-Exotisme en dix leçons, leçon onze (1998), and I also read a little of Des Anges mineurs. So when I saw that Volodine had another book forthcoming in English translation (Writers, trans. Katina Rogers, Dalkey Archive Press, 2014; originally Écrivains, Editions du Seuil, 2010), I jumped at the opportunity to review it for The Quarterly Conversation.
There’s something about the essay I didn’t get quite right, but it’s nevertheless informative and fairly broad about Volodine’s project (although he has written over 40 books in thirty years! who can cope with that!). I discuss paratexts, pseudonyms/heteronyms, and why I think Writers is not Volodine’s best work. As I was finishing the essay, I began to think that the style pioneered by the great Yugoslavian writer Danilo Kis serves as a rough model for some of what Volodine is trying to do. In particular, Volodine and Kis both seem to approach their protagonists using a tone near to that of the encyclopedist or the biographer in order to describe individuals who struggle against a totalitarian state, often incarcerated, vehemently resisting to the bitter end.
It’s very hard to distinguish though, without doing some heavy comparative readings and research, to what extent Volodine’s style shares in common with Kis’s style a Soviet, totalitarian cultural milieu (you know, the kind of thing you get in Solzenhitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and the Granat Encyclopedia), and to what extent Volodine is really standing on Kis’s shoulders. For my part, I far prefer Kis’s The Encyclopedia of the Dead and A Tomb for Boris Davidovich to Volodine’s Writers. That, at least, is what I struggled to say in the essay.
And do be sure to check out the other articles in issue 37 of The Quarterly Conversation.
I’ve held on to this post so long, held on for so long to these ideas, I am letting this post go, rough as it is. It will never be finished. It is the story of a kind of failure, itself evidence of failure, a quest for understanding that remains forever incomplete. As more fragments will follow, I finally let go of these. Sebald’s work is, I have found, very difficult to talk about.
We have a habit of writing articles published in scientific journals to make the work as finished as possible, to cover up all the tracks, to not worry about the blind alleys or how you had the wrong idea at first, and so on. So there isn’t any place to publish, in a dignified manner, what you actually did in order to do the work. – Richard Feynman
Reluctant to enclose Gide in a system I knew would never content me, I was vainly trying to find some connection among these notes. Finally I decided it would be better to offer them as such–notes–and not try to disguise their lack of continuity. Incoherence seems to me preferable to a distorting order. – Roland Barthes, ‘On Gide and His Journal’
I knew the research paper would be about W.G. Sebald’s novels, but that was all I knew. I had fallen under Sebald’s spell, not on first reading The Emigrants in a ‘Continental Modernism’ course taught by the ribald WW II vet Robert Ganz, but in 2009 on reading The Rings of Saturn after seeing a poster for a lecture by Ross Posnock on Austerlitz, a poster prominently displaying Sebald’s provocative juxtaposition of Wittgenstein’s gaze with that of perhaps a rhesus monkey.
It was only a short time before I had read After Nature, the long poem Sebald published in the late eighties before his arrival as a published novelist; Vertigo, his first novel; and, of course, Austerlitz, his last. I was hypnotized and hooked on Sebald’s writing, fallen under the intense spell cast by Sebald’s long sentences and his visual materials.
Through work in a graduate seminar in contemporary French literature–La Fabrication de l’irréelle dans la littérature française contemporaine–I became familiar with a strange new term which would prove to be for me a challenge and a source of anxiety, later, to explain. Le post-exotisme en dix lecons by Antoine Volodine is not a difficult book, but it is, like Volodine’s other works, strange, however much it is consistent with Volodine’s conception of a mythological future-past of ruins, internment camps, political resistance. He expresses his vision through hybrid literary forms.
Post-exoticism resonated with what I found compelling in Sebald. Volodine’s vision, realized in his novels and elucidated in theoretical terms, amounts to:
- Une littérature de l’ailleurs, venue d’aileurs, allant vers l’ailleurs
- Une littérature internationaliste, cosmopolite, dont la mémoire plonge les racines dans les tragédies du XXe siecle, les guerres, les révolutions, les génocides et les défaites du XXe siecle
- Une littérature étrangere écrite en francais
- Une littérature qui mêle indissolublement l’onirique et le politique
- Une littérature des poubelles, en rupture avec la littérature officielle
- Une littérature carcérale de la rumination, de la déviance mental et de l’échec
- Un édifice romanesque qui a surtout a voir avec le chamanisme, avec une variante bolchevique de chamanisme (387)
From Volodine, Antoine. ‘A la frange du réel.’ In Défense et illustration du post-exotisme en vingt lecons (vlb, 2008).
Translation: post-exoticism is:
- a literature of elsewhere, arriving from, departing from elsewhere;
- an internationalist, cosmopolitan literature whose memory is rooted in 20th-century tragedies, wars, revolutions, genocides, defeats;
- a foreign literature written in French;
- a literature where the dream-like and the political are seamlessly joined
- trashcan literature, opposed to ‘official’ literature(s)
- an imprisoned, ruminatory literature, of pyschopathology and failure
- a novelistic structure closely tied to shamanism, especially a Bolshevik variant of shamanism.
Elsewhere: a cabal of prisoners secretly circulating texts, working to overcome the isolation imposed on them.
The proposal I wrote in anticipation of my research paper was lucid, engaged, clear, direct, promising. But as I researched and wrote my paper, and continued to over-research it, my focus was exploded and irreversibly lost. In the end I tried to stay close to Sebald’s text. But at times, for whole months, I felt I needed to write lengthy theoretical contextualizations and justifications for why I was talking about post-exoticism, a term that I was never comfortable with, because its sense was split.
On the one hand, Volodine and his elucidation of post-exoticism; on the other hand, a non-literary but totally contemporary post-exoticism, related to the breaking up of empires, the acceleration of travel, and the end of an era during which romantics like Pierre Loti, Paul Gauguin, Victor Segalen, and Jean-Léon Gérôme, and a whole host of other European artists, were able to see in other cultures a difference which they found attractive, sometimes repelling, and that they patronized and acted condescendingly towards. (Edward Said’s historical work on Orientalism is what I’m talking about here; in a post-exotic era, Orientalism and exoticism are not done away with, but their historical contours are entirely changed.) I’d also read exoticists like Loti and was aware of Victor Segalen (his law regarding the attractions of human diversity, expounded in his posthumously published Essai sur l’exotisme (1978)) from having reading Baudrillard’s books, where he refers repeatedly to Segalen and exoticism.
The first problem, which I could not circumvent must have been establishing a stable relation between exoticism and post-exoticism.
An antique photo-studio portrait included in the German edition of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants (1992), depicting the narrator’s great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth.
I couldn’t even define the type of exoticism that I was seeing in Sebald, it was too variegated and broad and heterogeneous.
Even now I can read in my notebook the organisational sketches I was making in 2009, but I can’t create true order out of them:
KINDS OF SEBALDIAN EXOTICISM
a) the collection (museum)
b) monumental architecture (inadvertent; neglect, disuse, decay…) (cf. The Eyes of the Skin; The Architectural Uncanny, Anthony Vidler)
c) tourist narrators
d) Jews, gypsies, circus performers
e) resort culture
f) ‘overheated, deterritorialized animals’ (cf. On Creaturely Life, Eric Santner)
g) formal syntax (syntactical)
h) Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination: Ruins, Relics, Rarities, Rubbish, Uninhabited Places, and Hidden Treasures. (Yale P, 2006.)
The problem was, I couldn’t describe the exoticist tropology at work in Sebald’s prose, because I wanted to read all five of his books–his entire ‘creative’ output– as if it were a single thing. This would have left no time for ‘close reading’ and it would have been abstracted from the individual context of any single book. But I felt a coherent exoticist strategy, complete with post-exoticist gesturing, was there; a coherent preoccupation with and nostalgic yearning for the historical ‘exotic,’ itself complicated by the knowledge that this was at best an impossible fantasy. Perhaps I ought to have chosen just one (or two) types of exoticism and pursued it as far as I could. But I could not relinquish my commitment to some larger, more elusive totality that always remained just beyond my conceptual, organisational grasp.
It was almost ironic that I discovered such excellent books on exoticism just as the time I had left to trim up my drafts was drawing to a close:
‘The phenomenon of the human zoo illuminates an interdependence, similar to that discussed and popularized by Edward Said in Orientalism (1978), between science, spectacle and colonial power’ (Forsdick 378).
‘Populations put on display were depicted in a variety of forms, ranging from posters t illustrated programmes, from postcards (reproduced and translated into several languages to early films, from amateur photographs to the front pages of newspapers. Visitors, readers and spectators would be fascinated by these human subjects, while at the same time being convinced by them of the ‘racial hierarchies’ central to the contemporary context of colonial expansion.’ (‘Human Zoos: The Greatest Exotic Shows in the West,’ illustration pages).
Barthes, Roland. 1982. A Barthes Reader. Ed. Susan Sontag. Hill and Wang.
Baudrillard, Jean. ‘Radical Exoticism.’ Transparency of Evil. Verso.
Blanchard, Pascal, Bancel, Nicolas, Boëtsch, Gilles, Deroo, Éric, and Lemaire, Sandrine . ‘Human Zoos: The Greatest Exotic Shows in the West.’ By 1-49.
Camus, Audrey. Her winter 2008 graduate seminar on the work of Volodine, Eric Chevillard and Pierre Senges.
Feynman, Richard. 1966. ‘The Development of the Space-Time View of Quantum Electrodynamics.’ Science 153 (3737): 699-708.
Loti, Pierre. Aziyadé. 1880s?
Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination: Ruins, Relics, Rarities, Rubbish, Uninhabited Places, and Hidden Treasures. (Yale P, 2006.)
Segalen, Victor. ‘Essay on Diversity.’