Writing, Being Here and There

Michael Leiris, Jenny Erpenbeck

When I write, I find myself cold and, after, tired. I always live with two dogs. One is a Deerhound, always a Deerhound, from an ongoing line of a canine family gifted to the world through the bewildering dedication of a breeder living in a place she named Fern Hill. Oh, Dylan Thomas—this writer’s first young literary passion. A Deerhound and a companion—to date, three rescue dogs in succession, “rescue” applying more to me and the hounds than to the rescued dog’s personal state, valued pups all, who were beautiful or handsome, glossy-furred and noble. One pair—Deerhound name: Tulip; and Water Spaniel name: Daisy—were a spring bouquet of sisters. Well into their lives, Daisy fell ill, grew weak almost suddenly, and a midnight trip to our veterinary clinic showed internal bleeding. An emergency, and out of time. But if the Deerhound could be the source of a one-time, on-the-spot transfusion and if it works … Sedating a Deerhound is not a casual decision or deed. Elevating a large hound, minimally sedated, to a hard examination table, shaving a foreleg, hooking up a line, cradling the Spaniel on the floor, me bending in an embrace with the Deerhound, Robert nesting the Spaniel below, our doctor and gravity in-between and time passing with the blood linking the canine sisters. After, Tulip didn’t look pale, but she was pallid and slow, tentative, while Daisy was buoyant, almost frisky with the rich soup from her sister temporarily revivifying her failing self. It gained her a month, and a month for all three of us to reconcile her death.

What revivifies me and takes me out of the state of chill and fatigue into which I voluntarily enter? It’s the unique, individual, confirming, reaffirming sense—I pile on the language as buttress—of being here. If I’m writing, I’m here.

We are all here, as we are. We can’t write to say this like Michel Leiris did in The Ribbon at Olympia’s Throat (Semiotext(e) Native Agents Series, 2019, South Pasadena, translated by Christine Pichini, foreword by Marc Augé). This remarkable book of meditations, essays, memoir fragments and profound reflections queries and asserts on his own behalf what it means to write.

Leiris said that when he first began to write, he would not have been able to predict how thoroughly it would have come to amplify his life—“a means of living in another way, of instantly gaining access to something I will call a second life,” and here he acknowledges his borrowing Gérard de Nerval’s phrase that Nerval had applied to dreams. Not so far from Leiris, whose writing state is an action even while he questions if he is actively engaging in the manufacture or passively waiting for the writing to be given as an inspiration bestowed from outside. Leiris seeks a state of being (“operation” here is too clinical) that is as elusive as a dream. Reading Leiris is itself a suspension and we must enter in in order to follow and be carried along by the writing, which weaves and dips and digresses, leaving us thrilled, confounded and slightly dizzy, as he, too, desires to be, in that interim productive frame. He asks himself what it is he wants from writing, wants his writing to be. Above all else it should be an event. He wished it to respond to two desires: “To extract from the real, the imaginary in which I can feel I am living another life, fuller than the real ordinarily is; to infuse the imaginary with enough reality for it to carry at least as much weight as, for many of us, dream carries.” And it is necessary. He must write: “When I am not writing, I actually experience a sickness I believe is comparable to what, for a junkie, is a state of withdrawal—in this case, being deprived of the drug that is the quest for poetry.” Poetry is writing; he is not writing poetry.

What has driven German writer Jenny Erpenbeck to write in her precise, spare but vividly clear language is perhaps not so much the need to confirm and elaborate her own being as it is an intention to communicate, to connect, which began more ardently when the Wall came down and what she’d known about her world, and thinking and speaking about her world, changed. In her recent book, a memoir, Not a Novel: A Memoir in Pieces (A New Directions Paperbook Original, 2020, New York, translated by Kurt Beals), she says simply, “In the course of just a few weeks what had been self-evident ceased to be self-evident.” She had to find language for herself and to speak to others. She was 22 years old and she wrote, “If the language that you can speak isn’t enough, that’s a very good reason to start writing.” Not so dramatically urgent a reason to write as Leiris had given, but compelling. She went on, “As paradoxical as it may be: The impossibility of expressing what happens to us in words is what pushes us toward writing.”

Erpenbeck’s language is precise but also idiosyncratic in the translation I am reading, and I want to know where exactly is she in her books. Translation is a mystery miracle genre of its own. Edith Grossman’s necessary book, Why Translation Matters (Yale University Press, 2010), is a book I’ve written about, trying to decipher this third-party player between author and reader. Erpenbeck elaborates, recognizes translation as its own essential state of being, where she says, “Literary writing is always, at the same time an act of translation, condensing everything you know, everything you have experienced into a few words—the writer’s choice of words always depends upon all those countless other stories that have been poured into those words, on the charges the words carry, on the world that has carried them forth.”

Translation from one language to another is the same and different from the way Erpenbeck is using it here. What is that transmogrification from life to language, from one tongue to another? This vaporous thing—language into writing—comes from where? Erpenbeck speaks about its mysterious emanation as a groping, where she tries to bring to the page something that doesn’t yet exist. “To make it materialize out of a blind spot; my search leads me out, that is, I lead myself—but the reverse is also true, as it is in every search, I’m led by the thing I’m searching for. So it’s a state in between the knowledge that something is there and the ignorance of what that something is.”

I’m seizing on her word “between”—the state between—to go back to Michel Leiris, for whom writing is that place, that state from which writing comes. He knows he is alive because he writes. The writing sustains him; he is alive and writing. It is his wish that he be found dead with an unfinished page at his hand because that would mean he was alive so long as he was writing and he was writing until his last breath.

But this space, this gap, not a void because it is always potentially generative, is, I would say, a much desired address—not fixed—hovering, buzzing “between” as Erpenbeck wrote.

Leiris said, “In the early morning between waking and sleep, it’s rare for me not to be seized by a dizzy spell while I’m still dreaming.” There are other references to being dizzy, a condition he doesn’t decry. Again, an interim state, that neither-nor before choice narrows the path. And death, which he intends to keep at bay through his writing, could slip into such a gap were he not wary, and writing. He is dreaming and, in the dream, is hiking on a challenging outdoor trail. Then he wakes and finds that his dream and the end of the trail correspond, as though contrived. He is content to have noted the tidy conclusion and remarks, “That life begins again exactly at the natural conclusion of a dream instead of senselessly interrupting it is a triumph analogous to the kind of miracle represented by death that, arriving unexpectedly, is almost tolerable because it is well-timed.” Of course, he doesn’t really believe that. For him, there is no such time.

He seeks to locate poetry’s source and identifies that it is neither fabrication nor truth but something else: the results of a conjunction or an “amalgamation of heterogeneous terms,” and therefore a hybrid, which he names “griffin,” “centaur,” “siren”—I add by familiarity with Deerhounds, “unicorn”—so the space from which it comes has to hover and oscillate. Naming it in order to offer what is an unnecessary validation, but still … it need “only abruptly announce that it is there, superimposed upon but integrated within what exists, and not alongside of it.” He suggests it is the surreal. Again the unicorn or griffin applies when he adds, “the surreal, something that concretizes … the effect of luminous stigmata that superimpose themselves on the reality, thus transfigured, of a landscape, or on the fictional reality of the photograph of a place.” Retreating in the declension of mirror images mirroring themselves, he looks to believe, pin down, “concretizes” something that is perfectly contradictory. That elusive, prevaricating, unfixable place of creation. No need; it’s there and he works inside and out of it. The doubt is sustaining, like desire, he said, which is only anticipatory or it ceases to be desire. The quest itself is a buoy. We know humming birds do cease their movement because they lay eggs in a nest they construct and some feathered form keeps them warm. So, the writing marks the page—he by hand to keep it near, Erpenbeck typing so that she can’t immediately recognize herself by her handwriting.

She remembers her childhood well, and is fine with it as remembered, but none of its physical markers and no current history readily acknowledge it existed. It resides only in memory— particular and precise pieces, like scent and texture and the recalled weight and place of objects. Leiris, too, engages past time. He tells us that language is based on a past tense, “words that previously existed and that, shaped by their extended adventures, carry along with them a mass of sedimentary meanings.” He tells us, “It is devoted to anachronism from the very start.” He asks if it could be from this contradiction—and “contradiction” is an ideal word because it carries the space of possible opposites in its very self—this contradiction “between,” again a word that implies space, and he suggests some contradictions and is it here “that a poetic text draws its power?”

Both Jenny Erpenbeck and Michel Leiris have included lists, those satisfactory accretive, oblique storytellers where the conclusion reached is yours, or theirs.

Erpenbeck’s subject is “Hope.” It’s a family history and speaks to all the possibilities and what-ifs that may negate the subject here and there, dashing the intention identified in the title. Here is some of her list. “When my grandmother was a young woman, she hoped to return home from a Soviet prison camp to her three children.” “When my mother was pregnant for the second time, she hoped that she would have the child this time, and that it would be healthy.” “When I was a child, I once hid in a wooden chest and hoped someone would notice I was missing.” “When my grandmother waved goodbye to me I hoped it was just an ordinary goodbye, like all of the ones in the previous years.” She concludes by writing that hope held the family together and some of the hopes were fulfilled.

Michel Leiris’s list asks “Who.” Seemingly abstract and general, it is in fact specific. A linear autobiography. “Who tries to bandage his irreparable original wounds with words.” “Who to escape, forages in the depth of himself.” “Who, when alarmed, busies himself and who, when busy, is alarmed.” “Who knows he is an animal but, in writing would like to claim otherwise.” “Who goes line-to-line as others go door-to-door.” “Who can’t eliminate his contradictions without erasing himself.” “Who, without being prouder for it, will not have made peace.”

Michel Leiris and Jenny Erpenbeck, two writers who would call different planets home. Both recognize, seek and inhabit the ineffable, unnameable space in which they write—that gap between. Words are abstractions, Erpenbeck writes, and never the actual thing that is their subject. “Because they must maintain a certain distance from the things they describe, it’s always possible for something to come between the word and the thing.” Between the word and the thing is exactly that expansive space of possibility where writers enter.

Michel Leiris resisted death, fencing and parrying with his pen. Death, he feared, would split the being, rend the individual, and he wrote that finally death was “the great leap that tears him from himself.” But hedging his bet with mortality, the fox prevaricated to the end. Torn from himself, the being is now two: one leaving and one looking on, noting the event, still there commenting, writing. ❚