The Unwanted Book

The epidemic has changed my ideas about a lot of things including food, money and London.   Before Covid we had our own plague of books, which were driving us out of the house, so we built the book-hut to relieve the pressure, which mysteriously increased at just the moment when I gave up my last book project.  Without a commanding tyrant of a subject my interests could irresponsibly fragment and seemed to replace one another at the rate of one a week, or even a new one on most days, each of which brought with it an exhibition catalogue and a supplementary volume or two.   I looked on in horror and knew at the same time that this was a way of asserting I wasn’t finished, that there was life in the old root stock yet, as seen from this unpredictable new growth.

It is a sobering thought that the process was well underway before Covid, though it is not easy to illustrate this in detail.  A lot of these important new topics existed only in lunchtime conversations now forgotten.

I want to rush ahead now to the current form of weedy growth – I made a strange purchase the other day, I ordered a book, immensely long, defined in fact by the way it had lost control of scale, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s concluding volume of his interminable family saga called Min Kamp in its native Norwegian.  This part of it alone was 1150 pages long and I didn’t intend to read it.  I had been captivated by a Canadian friend’s description of picking out a shortish digression within it and skipping over the novelistic wrapping that surrounded it.   The subject of this digression was the early life of Hitler, which provided the occasion for a comprehensive treatment of the poetry of Paul Celan, which my friend described as brilliant.  I love the idea of Hitler as the excuse for devoting oneself to Celan and, best of all, the absurd concealment of this discussion near the end of a 6000 page novel.   You wouldn’t understand why this piece of information seemed so magical if you didn’t know that for several weeks I have been obsessed by Celan’s poetry in two beautiful new volumes that add up to about the same number of pages as the last volume of My Struggle.

I don’t really read or speak German, but after reading a review of the new translations I decided these poems were a puzzle I had to crack.  When I ordered them I had no idea what my method would be.  But once I got the books, I saw what I must do.  In a sense they were only half as long as they looked, a truth already signalled by the book’s designer.  Half the pages were taken up by the German texts and the facing half by translations, and only the German pages were numbered.

I couldn’t let all the German pages go to waste, so I bravely set out on the originals, ignoring the translations until the German had well sunk in.  Certain words had crucial prominence, mostly nouns with capital letters, which even I could see were compounds made of two separate components.  I had met Celan’s special use of such compounds already in the titles of his various collections.  From the early 1950s onward he named his books of poems with one of these linguistic hybrids borrowed from one of the poems inside it.

For some reason one of these invented words took a special hold on me — Atemwende, breath-turning, breath-wandering — the name of one of the largest sub-sets, eighty poems written in 1963 to 1965 and collected in 1967.  The word was a poem in itself, an unlikelihood that became more comfortable with pondering, without losing its strangeness.  It was a beautiful name for poetry itself, a journey, physical but hard to hold in place, twisting like a wilful creature.

It didn’t bother me at first that I wasn’t understanding much of what took place in these poems.  The compounds were often so surprising, so uncomfortably joined, more inharmonious than soothing, like the acts of someone not at peace with thinking.   But I felt I was gaining admission to a new world of thought in which the speaker was starting over with the bare bones of language that refused to align themselves in the too-familiar forms of an exhausted medium.   A poet who felt the need of new words, or of objects which weren’t exactly words, though made from remnants of words, that he wanted to re-cast. 

Only very occasionally did Celan’s poems form themselves up into wholes for me.  More often they remain amazing moments surrounded by more pedestrian passings-through that I couldn’t relate to.  A great part of this was down to my insufficiency in German.  I didn’t always know which phrases were common locutions and which were strange inventions and distortions.  For now and for as far ahead as I could see, I had to let such things go.

How could I ever replicate here my instant recognition in English of when a poet strayed outside the bounds, or was outrageous in what he asked the words to do?  How could I duplicate my enjoyment of all the oddities of Shakespeare’s choices, a writer whom someone memorably described as having uncanny recall of all the ways the words had ever been used before?   But what I was getting in ‘reading’ Celan was enough, and something I hadn’t met anywhere else.

My friend remembered the sequence in Knausgaard wrongly, from a reading of who knows how long ago?  Knausgaard’s interpretations of Celan don’t arise from his reconstruction of Hitler’s youth but the other way around.   Celan’s poems lead onto Hitler, a crucial difference.  It isn’t that Knausgaard gets their merits as writers wrong – he doesn’t – but that his real object is understanding Hitler, and Celan is incidental to that.

There is something compelling in Knausgaard’s interpretation of books and also of paintings. He is wonderfully focussed on particulars.  With long novels he starts with a single sentence which he uses to represent the whole, the opening of Broch’s Death of Vergil for instance, which Knausgaard judges one of the greatest sentences of modern lit, or the opening of Olav Duun’s People of Juvik, a six volume saga which Knausgaard charmingly reveres, perhaps one of a more extensive crowd of Scandinavian monster-novels than I am aware, to which Knausgaard’s own contribution is greatly scaled down in literal scope and scaled up in gross extent.

So instead of the embracing treatment of Celan’s poems my friend remembered, Knausgaard singles out just two poems, one from early, the other from late, and describes both as Holocaust poems, Death Fugue and Engführung (a title obscurely rendered Stretto by my translator Pierre Joris).  To say a poem of Celan’s is about this or that is usually a doubtful assertion in my view.  Celan himself called Stretto the ‘atom poem’, referencing the debate about arming the Bundeswehr with atomic weapons in 1957-8 when he wrote it, but a subject which never crossed my mind when I read it, and honestly still hasn’t, though I couldn’t now write about it without mentioning that strange possibility.   Luckily Celan isn’t a writer ceaselessly referring to the Holocaust by name.  In fact it is Knausgaard’s central insight that this poet often leaves out the names of his subjects in every sense of the word.   One of the most haunting moments in this vein comes in Stretto

The place where they lay, it has

a name – it has

none.  They didn’t lie there.

The delivery of my copy of Knausgaard’s final volume, The End as it is called in English, was accompanied by melodrama, delivered to our door by a young woman with two small children.  Its large cardboard box had had a large hole punched in it by someone unused to Amazon packaging.  Apparently they had seen enough to know it wasn’t for them, two immense copies of The End and, under them, two copies of the more esoteric Bachmann-Celan Correspondence.  Now my argument with Amazon the day before made more sense.  The books had been ‘handed to resident’ after all, but not the right resident, and not at the address on the label. 

Two copies of the unwanted book – a deserved come-uppance – if I could throw away ten pounds, why not twenty?  The smashed package had to endure its traditional quarantine anyway, so I couldn’t find out just yet that the digression on Hitler filled four hundred pages.  It wasn’t long before I was wishing for a really detailed outline of this novel that would shorten my task.  Later, using Amazon’s ‘Look Inside!’ or Google Books’ ‘search’ (I forget which) as a kind of index to the novel, I chase Knausgaard to page 973 where I find him referring to his 400 page ‘essay’ on Hitler and discussing it with an audience before he’d even finished it.

My own clever dodge hadn’t really worked.  The short thing concealed in a longer one had turned out to be a long one itself, inside an inconceivably vaster container, in which the nugget’s separateness was lost in the great sea of print.

‘The Price of Everything’—money and the art world

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The title of this mainly hilarious and occasionally disturbing film avoids getting into the deeper waters called up by its missing other half–‘Someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’. The film avoids them too, mostly, opting for an entertaining procession of outlandish characters–artists, collectors, dealers, auctioneers, historians, one critic, one novelist–outlandish in themselves or in juxtaposition to whoever comes next.

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The story begins with the true mascot of an art world ruled by money, the richest artist of all, Jeff Koons, a ridiculous prankster whom no serious person could take seriously, except that they do. His fans include Marilyn Minter, an artist of some integrity who specialises in depictions of pubic hair, and the collector Stefan Edlis, the wittiest presence in the film, proud owner of a couple of Koons. Koons himself surfaces in a large studio where fifteen assistants are working simultaneously on fifteen famous Old Master paintings, of which they are making laborious copies. Koons gives an involuted explanation of how he is actually making every stroke of all the brushes, though he never touches any of them. A second high-flown explanation covers how these copies, each of them with a ‘gazing ball’ of blue mirror-glass inserted into the middle of it, will thereby become a profound representation of the five spheres of existence.

Later on, Edlis gives a more believable argument for gazing, in front of his own gazing-ball Koons. Edlis is a conundrum throughout, lively, seriously intelligent, not fooled by a lot of art-world silliness, yet captivated by much work that seems almost pure spoof to me, like Koons, Roy Lichtenstein and Maurizio Cattelan, whose ‘Him’, a child-sized Hitler saying his prayers or begging forgiveness, kneels between the bookshelves in Edlis’ flat looking at a wall.

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Koons is set off against another artist, Larry Poons, who was famous long ago for his dot-paintings, which he declined to keep turning out, dropped off the map, moved to a dilapidated house in the woods and went on painting furiously while the art world assumed he had died. Poons’ paintings are visceral (Koons’ always look machine-finished), painted entirely by him, and lack any handle or joke by which you could instantly grasp or describe them. We follow him trudging through the snow in old clothes like a trapper inspecting his catches. He even mentions Cooper’s Deerslayer, set nearby. A dealer has tracked him down and pushed him into showing his recent work in New York. Larry Poons seems very sane, but we tremble for him.

The dealers are a different race, exhibited in another pair–a shiny gesticulating man near the beginning who admits it’s all a bubble, the recent steep inflation in prices for contemporary art, ‘but it is doing so much good—please don’t pop the bubble!’. And on the other side, a scruffy English dealer who senses a crash on the way. He thinks he can already smell the smoke—of a bonfire or an apocalypse? And I think of climate change and the biosphere, something even bigger than the art world.

‘The Price of Everything’ sketches in–late in the day—how we got here. The supply of Old Masters was visibly drying up, and it seemed the whole game might be nearing its end. Then out of nowhere young collectors, fabulously rich on the boom in the financial sector, got interested in contemporary art, which not many years ago the bosses at Phillips wouldn’t even allow into the building, so off we went on the heedless spiral so amusingly surveyed by this film.

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The Price of Everything, a film by Nathaniel Kahn, 2018, 1 hr 36 min

George Condo is this how the painting he works on in the film ends up?, Jeff Koons Monet waterlilies with Gazing Ball implant, Larry Poons Trichordal 2016, Gael Neeson with Cattelan’s Him