Uneasy Bridges to Writing a Fine Madness

Helen DeWitt and Robert Walser

The market is a mean destructive place. The motivation each day to lift the flaps, wind the blinds, unlatch the metal screens and draw back the locked gates in the the market’s shops is greed. Not profit. Profit is okay; every one needs a little something for bread and cheese. The children should be warm and fed. It’s not profit; it’s the oiled, sliding, burgeoning, bloating, amorphous, rolling greed—the kind, for example, that is driving America to the achievement of its motivating ideal (not freedom of speech as the cornerstone of democracy, not even the right of every American to own a gun or 12) but the actualization—the gimme in my hands, both hands—of wealth, money. Not rent money. More.

Artists’ studios most often are rented spaces and usually spaces that have lost their productive efficacy as warehouses or factories for the goods that had been adbundantely produced. Empty for years, with their softened worn floorboards or stained and cracked concrete, they are subsequently inhabited by artists who pull in a piece of worn upholstery, a potted plant or two if there’s a window, some rigged-up lighting, an old CD player and a plug-in kettle for tea. They become interesting architecturally—the bare wooden beams and concrete supports now seeming intentionally attractive. The lively exchanges among the artists make the air buoyant. The dust that soiled lungs for all those early years hangs like glitter in the air and the landlords look with real affection at what had earlier been only an unremitting tax burden.

“She was two months behind in the rent on the studio. If she would get kicked out she would never find another studio for £300 a month.” She, Nuala, is the artist in “Brutto,” the opening short story in Helen De Witt’s collection, Some Trick (A New Directions Book, 2018). Tone perfect with what has to be close experience, De Witt’s “Brutto” is the market, the art market and the art world conjoined—a rough, and at once vapid, solipsistic entity, a complete world.

Where, in a person, is it that art comes from? What is the space that gives it room, the connection that sparks it, the heat that incubates it, the goad that drives the impulse and the brew that loosens the constraints of reason? Where does it come from, this sure sense that you can’t hear your own voice unless you’re saying something that hasn’t been said before? Something has to lift the trill so that it rises up from the thrum. Saying, making something new—it has to be something not already absorbed into the norm, has to be out of the ordinary, extra-ordinary. It’s what Susan Sontag said, too, in her opening essay on Antonin Artaud (Antonin Artaud, Selected Writings, University of California Press, 1988). “Art becomes a statement of self-awareness—an awareness that presupposes a disharmony between the self of the artist and the community. Indeed, the artist’s effort is measured by the size of the rupture with the collective voice (of reason).”

Two stories in particular in De Witt’s collection of 13 speak with poignant truthful clarity about the price the artist must pay to “get the art out,” to realize the task to which they are driven as though without choice. Interesting, the monetary terms of exchange: cost and pay, because unavoidably, a strong ethical core and resolute intent are not sufficient to circumvent the issue of money. One story, “Brutto,” is set in the visual arts milieu. The other, “Climbers,” is about writing and publishing. The artist, Nuala, the primary figure in “Brutto,” grew up in East Germany where the Wall’s containment kept time static. Her father determined she wasn’t sufficiently bright to go on to university and forced her into a three-year-long apprenticeship, a Geselle, in dressmaking, which she completed in 1962. Done, she fled and hitchhiked around Asia for six years, finally settling in England where she enrolled in art school. To be an artist, it wasn’t enough just to have hitchhiked around Asia, but without the hitchhiking she wouldn’t have been an artist, and odd, she noted, that while art in the ’70s was supposed to be transgressive, still, you had to get a degree to be an artist.

In the story “Climbers,” the protagonist, Peter Dijkstra, speaks about a bridge that has to be crossed if you are to make any money as an artist, and in a smart article on Helen De Witt in the June 4 & 11, 2018, issue of The New Yorker, “Funny Ha-Ha, Funny Peculiar,” writer James Wood says most of the stories in Some Trick “play out, as it were, on that bridge.” The bridge features with some consistency in “Brutto.” It seems a bridge between maintaining integrity and selling out is a difficult tightwire balance to hold, especially if the rent is overdue. The issue of “selling out,” of betrayal, is raised in “Brutto” in five unusual and freighted instances beginning with the story’s beginning, and the artist’s own. Her father, she explains, was an engineer who worshipped Daimler, who had “no particular opinion on the Jews; if you would ask him he would not be interested, probably it was an inadequate race but he wasn’t interested.” As an engineer, then, racial purity was of no interest. This is the opening paragraph.

She is in her studio; it is an open studio, and in the building that contains a number of artists’ spaces, people are coming and going. She is uneasy. Her conversation is maybe nervous chatter; she moves from one topic to another, describing her paintings, the cost of materials, notes a man expensively dressed in black with the punctuating flair of red cowboy boots, the £5,000 the building’s co-ordinator, who is a curator or agent or gallerist—this is unclear—still owes her from the London Art Fair two years earlier, and again the War. She said people didn’t talk about it when she was growing up. “They didn’t talk about the camps,” she said and she didn’t know about them until at 16 a friend, Max, told her and she went crazy so she hitchhiked for six years around Asia. And then Adalberto, who is the man in the red cowboy boots, an Italian genius curator, star-maker who was on the committee for the Venice Biennale, saw, hanging in a closet in her studio, the woollen suit that had been her graduation piece for her apprenticeship, her Gesellenstuck, a suit of rough dirty-mustard-coloured wool, which displayed in full all the skills necessary: buttoned epaulettes, cloth straps, pockets with buttoned flaps—tucks, piping, a lining and self-covered buttons. “In the white light of the studio the sullen mustard wool, the psychotic stitching, the brutal dowdiness snarled at the world.” Adalberto with his practised curatorial eye seeking always for something obscure, something new, the next thing, said, “Ma che brutto!,” said, “Madonna,” said he wanted it, wanted 20 like it, which she the artist would make and he the curator would show in his gallery in Milan. She can’t now, she almost couldn’t then in 1962, the piece that caused her to flee the brutality that making it represented in every measure. His offer, if she will do it, rises. He will give her £2,500 a piece. It took her a full week to make one; he wants 20 in two months. She can’t. “It’s easy to say you can just walk away from it” is what runs in her head, and there’s the rent still to be paid.

Together they fly first class to Leipzig where she can find the cloth from before the Wall fell, and they do, those awful colours. “They were not utilitarian colours, just colours of cloth meant to end up in respectable clothes and you would not imagine a body inside and you would not imagine that people would sign a form to put people on a train to go off and be butchered.” This is her inherited history about which she’d known nothing and that, too, is a betrayal and people did cross a bridge here. And Adalberto in his enthusiasm for this new project and with his large gestures, is an Italian, and they are impulsive and inconsistent and unpredictable, Nuala tells us, and were not at all keen to exterminate the Jews, who, after France was occupied, would go to Italy to escape. “And that is what you have to love about them,” she recognizes. And in that sense, if you looked at Germans who love the south, like Goethe she says, “That is what they do love about it, that love of the moment.” De Witt, who is a linguist, has a perfect ear for the cadences of language, and Nuala, whose first language is German, uses English that way and we do hear it and also read and hear the jumps, the flips a mind makes in finding meaning through telling its own history and why and how it is. That love of the moment is also telling because there is a time when things happen and if not seized even if you loved the moment, it won’t return. She tells us, “But if you would put cold water on the idea of someone like Adalberto he would not find a way around the problem or give you another month, he would just lose interest and do something else.” She goes on, and again, “People think it would be easy to walk away.” With concision De Witt has captured the character of the in-the-moment curator, the collector, the gallery director. The artist has the integrity of her work; she always knows which art is good and what she can do. She crosses the bridge because the rent is there on the other side. “People think it would be easy to walk away.”

Is it her being once again in the home country she’d left decades earlier that brings the Holocaust to her mind, is it choosing one thing and not the other because one is expedient and the other choice “not interesting,” as her father had said? De Witt writes the mind in its tenuous interior hold on decisions and judgments and justification. Maybe, Nuala tells herself, words are not her medium and for someone else they are and maybe Adalberto is manipulating her, but here she might understand because if Italians are excited about something, you are not going to stop them and she, too, has been swept up into this. “Nazis would send directives to the Italians about extraditing Jews and they could not get them to cooperate.” About that they felt no excitement. The Holocaust can only stand in for itself; it’s a curious repeated entry in “Brutto.”

The 20 suits made a stunning exhibition in Milan. Miuccia Prada bought out the show. It travelled to New York and looked very fine and then Adalberto was declared bankrupt. The artists are on one side of the bridge and the market is on the other. The dirty mustard Gesellenstuck was still hers and this was the last year she could qualify for the Turner.

In “Climbers” the bridge crosses a different abyss: on one side a functioning life; on the other, insanity. But also the same questions of holding integrity uncompromised and intact on one side, and on the other earning sufficient to pay the credit cards. In the way that Robert Walser wrote the essence or atmosphere or metaphoric presence of something without its referent so that the written description or tale or parable or meme usurped or displaced the original subject but drifted off as a vapour or scent once you’d experienced his telling, so Walser seemed to be in his person. He was writing, he was a writer like a dancer is movement. He was, as William Gass wrote, “busy about the business of being mad.” In his essay “Robert Walser” from the collection Finding a Form (Cornell University Press, 1996), Gass follows Walser in his peripatetic ambulations, as he moves from one job to another, from one apartment to another, relying on family, on friends for a space under the eaves, to Berne where he lives for 12 years, the final four when he commits himself to an institution and then almost a quarter of a century—23 years—in an asylum at Herisau where he passes his years. Gass writes, “Taking walks, busy about the idle business of being mad, waiting for the blank which would blanket his attendant blankness and finding it, we might say, when his heart failed in a field of snow.” Gass is a wonderfully sympathetic reader of Walser, addressing his writing and describing his “transitions as abrupt as a table edge,” saying that “non sequiturs flock his pages like starlings to their evening trees,” reminding us not to look for directions, instructions or lessons when we read him since there is little continuity, and that his thoughts on the page will not generate others. “Not even nothing does he do,” writes Gass, having subsumed Walser, Walser inside his skin.

Peter Dijkstra is a celebrated Dutch writer whose books are the kind agents and publicists refer to as “cult classics.” Only some have been translated into English, read and admired in America— New York—by writers who hold his works in high esteem. He is a remote and elusive figure revered almost talismanically as the source of the kernel of how a writer maintains his integral purity. After five years in an asylum Peter Dijkstra guards his sanity and the freedom it brings. He is living at present in a very small austere but tastefully designed hotel in Vienna. He is comfortable in the city where, as he describes them, “the Viennese have the mechanical predictable charm of a music box.” There will be no effusive, spontaneous, warm and confusing contacts with them such as could be the case if he were to meet his slavishly attentive circle of American readers. But they do find him, through a series of “small world” encounters. “He did not want to be locked up again,” he told himself. “He was sane enough as long as he lay on the bed watching TV or stood in the street smoking a cigarette, but it’s true, the bills did mount up.” Emails can fly like Walser’s starlings on a page, across the ocean in the flash of a wing, and Dijkstra finds himself now writing in English, “partly to keep madness at bay, and partly to take the most direct route to keeping his credit cards afloat.”

The character Helen De Witt has drawn here is as convincing as Walser’s is immaterial, astral. James Wood in his New Yorker piece notes that De Witt encourages a kind of contamination between her autobiography and her fiction. This may well contribute to the credibility of the figure Dijkstra. Dijkstra writes on file cards words or phrases that catch his attention. Linked and elaborated, they could become stories. The stories he wrote in notebooks. He wrote in a careful, orderly European hand, a script that carried the trace of its author. He mailed the cards and a notebook to his acolytes in America. “If you want those words in a notebook to be a solution to the credit card debt, there is a bridge that has to be crossed,” he told himself, having placed them in a padded envelope and mailed the envelope to New York where the reader recipients, writers themselves, sensed that the objects now in their fingers had been in a room with a guy who was maybe crazy or labouring to keep that at bay.

We are familiar with Walter Benjamin’s sense of the aura around the original work of art, and Benjamin wrote with a kind of rapture about Walser’s writing. Walser’s Microscripts, once thought to be encoded marks, came to be recognized as a miniaturized form of a Kurrent script used in German-speaking countries into the 20th century. The small sheets and tiny scraps and matchbook covers on which he wrote volumes are beautiful in reproduction and have been brought together as a handsome art book. Dijkstra’s significant auratic cards and journals were, as he described them, “marks your pen or pencil left on the paper.” The artist was present when he drafted the page. We seek that presence and they, the artists, seek the space that shouldn’t oblige them to cross a bridge to one side or the other. ❚

Volume 37, Number 3: Painting

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #147, published August 2018.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.