There’s nothing especially novel about putting the work of a writer together with work by a visual artist in the same volume. That diminishes The Cahiers Series from Sylph Editions, in collaboration with The American University of Paris, not one bit. Thus far the series includes eighteen discrete titles, and in each of them “image and text coexist, conceived as one.” But even that unified purpose is no guarantee of anything unusual or remarkable. What sets this series apart is the caliber of talent on display. There’s an edition of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Animalinside, with 14 stark, powerful images by the German artist Max Neumann. Lydia Davis’s Proust, Blanchot and a Woman in Red collects her problems and solutions in translating Proust. Nobel laureates are well-represented. Gao Xingjian’s libretto Ballade Nocturne comes with five of Gao’s wash drawings. Elfride Jelinek’s play Her Not All Her, is accompanied by thirteen paintings by the British artist Thomas Newbolt. That’s to say nothing of selections from Muriel Spark and Paul Muldoon, among others. These are brief, powerful pieces, the type of writing often included as part of a collection of essays or miscellanea and perhaps compromised slightly by that, robbed of a measure of power that’s preserved when the work is presented alone.
The Krasznahorkai/Neumann collaboration alone is reason enough for this series to exist. Krasznahorkai, the writer Colm Toibin notes in his introduction, “worked first from one of Neumann’s images and then Neumann, spurred on in turn by the words, made the rest of the images to which Krasznahorkai, his mind let loose by the captured visuals, responded by writing the other thirteen texts.” There’s always tension in Krasznahorkai’s work, of the sort that suggests some shift is imminent, perhaps some catastrophe even. Animalinside is no exception, from the very outset:
“He wants to break free, attempts to stretch open the walls, but he has been tautened there by them, and there he remains in this tautening, in this constraint, and there is nothin g else to do but howl, and now and forever he shall be nothing but his own tautening and his own howling, everything he was is no more, everything that could shall never be, so that for him there is not even anything that is.”
The shift that comes is from longing to a growing defiance, an assertion of will in the face of those early restraints. “You can’t touch me,” the second section concludes, “If I get out of here.”
The defiance builds to frenzy: “I’m not of woman born, I did not become, I just am, I do not need to eat, I do not need to drink, and I don’t even need to fuck, and I have no need of air…”. It’s a powerful series of proclamations that builds further still in intensity: “And I am strong. Too strong. So strong that I break a knife in two with my teeth, that I break a sword in two with my teeth, that I break a house in two, that I break one hundred houses in two, one after the other…I break the continents in two, I smash the floor of the Atlantic Ocean…”. In time this gives way to despair and later, renewed hope.
In fact the narrative thread is less compelling than the sheer power of the prose, the condensed intensity. Neumann’s images are an ideal accompaniment, raw and uncluttered, often composed of only primary colors.
The black dog which appears in each is effectively the center of every composition, regardless of where it’s framed, for it’s there that the viewer’s attention is invariably drawn. Neumann is a significant figure in his own right, certainly notable enough to serve as a foil to Krasznahorkai.
I’ve only set eyes on two of the eighteen Sylph titles thus far. Elfride Jelinek’s Robert Walser-inspired play is the other. I read Women as Lovers at some point and felt I should’ve liked it more than I did; the translation felt stiff, though admittedly I’m unable to speak to the composition of the original text. Stiffness is not an issue with Damion Searls’s translation of Her Not All Her. Reto Sorg’s Afterword observes that, “When it comes to the heaped-up juxtapositions of different styles, themes and motifs that give Jelinek’s text its stubbornly idiosyncratic character, she is in good company, since Walser’s style too is unorthodox, ironic, hybrid, associative, and comic.”
Indeed, Jelinek here is lively and playful, a different writer altogether from the one whose work I remember finding a bit of a slog: “Is your room as thin as mine? Why has it lost so much weight? I was given permission to take the key whenever I wanted, but I don’t do it. I let them lock the door for me, for I am content with the hope that I might return healthy from this outing or excursion into the cheerful zone of the deceased.” But my knowledge of Walser, alas, is too scant for me to really appreciate what Jelinek has done here. I’m hanging my head in shame. The silver lining: another reason to read Walser. In the meantime, Thomas Newbolt’s paintings are the more striking element, with their thickly painted, almost tactile surfaces. His recent recognition with the top prize in the Ruth Borchardt Self-Portrait Competition comes as no surprise in light of these. The surprise is that he should need to enter a competition in the first place. But then, there are discerning eyes and minds at work behind this series. Several numbers have already sold out; get the rest while you can.
– John McIntyre