Tag Archives: Art

Freed from the Block: Bento’s Sketchbook by John Berger

I had intended to finish the year reading a stack of German literature that I have acquired, but instead I have fallen down a John Berger rabbit hole.  Bento’s Sketchbook is one of those titles recommended by a friend with the very strong assertion that it is something I “must read.”

We know from different sources that the philosopher Baruch (Benedict or Bento) Spinoza (1632-1677) enjoyed drawing and that he always carried his sketchbooks around with him, none of which seemed to have survived.  When John Berger’s friend gives him a virgin sketchbook, he decides, “This is Bento’s!”  Berger begins to making drawings “prompted by something asking to be drawn.”  He comments about the development of his book, “As time goes by, however, the two of us—Bento and I—become less distinct.  Within the act of looking, the act of questioning with our eyes, we become somewhat interchangeable.  And this happens, I guess, because of a shared awareness about where and to what the practice of drawing can lead.”

For Berger a cluster of irises, a painting in the National Gallery, a friend’s old bicycle all become subjects for drawing and reflection.  The stories and the sketches are simple yet fascinating.  My favorite, one of the more abstract and philosophical pieces, begins:

Around her is a block.  The block is invisible because totally transparent.  Nor does the block restrict her movements.  Is the block what separates Being from Becoming? I don’t know, for this is happening where there are not words.

Normally, we face words frontally and so can read them, speak them or think them.  This was happening somewhere to the side of language.  Any frontal view of language was impossible there.  From the side I could see how language was paper thin, and all its words were foreshortened to become a single vertical stroke—I—like a single post in a vast landscape.

The task was to dismantle the block—to take it apart and lift it off piece by piece.  She allowed this to happen—No. Active and Passive have merged together.  Let us say: She happened this to herself with the utmost ease.  I was with her in what she (we) were doing.

The lovers slowly begin to dismantle the block starting from her head.  The task is tiring, he says, and he needs to take breaks.  But when he is tired he also embraces her and they gain strength from one another.  Finally the block is completely gone and:

She was there whole, looking exactly as she had at the beginning, capable of the same actions and no more, having the same name, the same habits, the same history.  Yet, freed from the block, the relations between her and everything which was not her had changed.  An absolute yet invisible change.  She was now the centre of what surrounded her.  All that was not her made space for her.

This passage of Berger’s pulled my thoughts toward Ovid’s version of the Pygmalion myth.  Although it is oftentimes viewed as a commentary about unattainable standards of beauty, I’ve always seen more in the Latin than this message.  Pygmalion, in his daily solitude, uses the utmost care and love to gently coax a form out of the white block of marble that will become his beloved: “Pygmalion is amazed at his creation and drinks up the with his heart the passionate fires of her simulated body.”  Both stories demonstrate the power that love, kindness, and, most importantly, patience can have on our relationships.



Filed under Art, British Literature, Nonfiction

Review: Justine by Iben Mondrup

My Review:
justine-front_frame_largeJustine is another example of the cutting-edge, fascinating, and experimental writing that Open Letter seeks out and publishes from authors around the world.  Originally written and published in 2012 in Danish, it has taken a few years for Mondrup’s work to become available in English.  It is just the type of creative, sensual, interesting book that was screaming out for Open Letter to translate and publish.

When the book opens, Justine’s house has just burned down and along with the house all of her artwork for an upcoming exhibition has gone up in flames.  Justine inherited the house and her artist sensibilities from her grandfather.  We are given some vague hints about what started the fire and whether or not Justine herself is to blame.  Most of the book is taken up with  Justine’s jumbled thoughts about her life past and present, about her experimentations with her art, about the sexist world of the Dutch art school, about her varied sexual relationships and about her disintegrating state of mind.

Sex is available to Justine no matter whom she encounters in art school; professors, graduates and students alike, male or female, will sleep with her.  I can’t help but think that the author chose the name for her title and main character, Justine, as a literary nod to de Sade who also penned a book with this title.  Justine is officially dating a woman named Vita, whom she appears to have genuine affection for: “I love her,” she writes, “I already loved her that New Year’s Eve when the light had long since departed, everyone had gone home, it was only us tough dogs left.”  Notice the interesting mix of past and present tense—the polyptoton love and loved is especially fitting— even in this one short sentence spoken by Justine.

But despite her feelings for Vita,  Justine keeps cheating on Vita with an interesting variety of men.  It turns out that Vita has also been seeing another woman behind Justine’s back and Justine becomes extremely jealous when she finds out.  Like the writing and some of the plot in the book, Justine’s sexual orientation is ambiguous.  Her sexual encounters with men and women are, like her state of mind, frenzied, intense, dark and highly erotic.  She describes a drunken escapade with a man named Bo she regularly meets for sex:

I can perch atop him and ride.  In my hand he’s an animal I’m bringing down.  I’ll ride him like he’s never been ridden, until he spurts until he dies.  I unzip his pants.  There’s softness in the warmth between the hairs.  I ride him with my hand.  I transform him to a fountain that shoots high in the air.

When her Grandfather and Ane, a good friend from art school, are described the narrative is more straightforward, more traditional.  But when she tells us about her various erotic interludes the text becomes poetic, scattered, broken.  Grandfather, who was himself a painter, discusses art, life and family history with Justine.  Grandfather himself has not had an easy existence because his wife, Justine’s grandmother, suffered from a nervous breakdown after she gave birth to Justine’s mother.  Justine’s mother is also mentally unstable and a drunk who accidentally burns herself to death.  Mondrup subtly weaves patterns of images throughout Justine’s scattered narrative: fire, burning, passion and madness.

Another significant stylist detail to note about the book is that several of the pages of the text are very short, a paragraph or even a sentence in length.  Since Justine jumps back and forth between past and present sometimes we are thrust into the midst of one of these short meditations and we aren’t sure if she is talking about past or present.  Many of her thoughts are eerily foreboding:

Is it even possible to find a cut-off?  An exact moment when it all went wrong?  A point around which all events are distributed?  Before and after?  A crime scene?  A weapon cast in a backyard?  The road to murder is a slippery slope of things that are said and done.  An eye that saw amiss.  Something that should’ve remained hidden.  Or something that  didn’t happen.  After the murder there’s the clean-up.  The cover up.  Someone must pay the penalty.  Others must receive it.

Justine finally manages to pull enough of her art work together to have a successful showing at a local gallery.  But the ending of the book can only be described as ambiguous.  Normally I would find this frustrating, but it is a fitting end for Justine whose own ambiguities abound throughout the novel.

About the Author:
mondrupIben Mondrup is a trained visual artist from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts who is also the author of four novels, including Justine, its sequel, and Godhavn.

Read an conversation with Mondrup from The Rumpus: http://therumpus.net/2016/12/the-rumpus-book-club-chat-with-iben-mondrup-and-kerri-pierce/


Filed under Art, Literature in Translation

Tempus, Aevum, Aeternitas: a review of December by Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter

This title was published in the original German in 2010 and this English version has been translated by Martin Chalmers and published by Seagull Books.

My Review:
decemberDecember comes from the Latin word decem, meaning ten because in the original Roman calendar December was the tenth month of the year.  When two new months were added to the beginning of the Julian calendar, thus pushing back December to become the twelfth month, no one bothered to change the name.  As the month which concludes the Julian and Gregorian calendar years it is naturally a month of reflection, of looking back, of becoming more aware of the passage of time.  Kluge and Richter use this last month of the year for the inspiration behind their collection of stories and photographs; there is one entry for each day of the month in December and together the writings and art work serve as a philosophical and poetic commentary about time, fate, choice and even love.

The entries or pieces of writing for each day in December are a mixture of short story, poetry and philosophy.  The dates for the entries vary widely, from 12,999 B.C. to 2009 A.D.  Kluge does tend to favor the events of December 1941 and 2009 as many of the entries are set during one of these two years.  My favorite entry is the one for December 18th, 1941 entitled, “A WRONG DECISION IN WARTIME.”  Kluge describes Marita, the wife of the surgeon Dalquen, who had come to Berlin from her provincial town to stay at the Grand Hotel Furstenberg on Potsdamer Platz.  She falls in love with First Lieutenant Berlepsch but refuses to make love to him on that night because she had not wanted to prematurely hasten their relationship by engaging in one evening of unbridled passion.  Kluge writes, “Only three weeks later she would regret her decision.  The young officer fell in the fighting in northern Russia.”  Marita is deeply upset because she did not take the chance to be with the First Lieutenant when she was presented with a choice.  When Marita is faced with the opportunity later in the war to have one night of passion she takes it, and although it is not with Berlepsch whom she truly loved, she does not regret it.  Kluge’s last quotation in this story is very striking:

For one night full of bliss

 I would give my all


Kluge’s story about Marita and her fallen love brings up many more questions than answers.  Do we live our lives to the fullest and take advantage of every precious moment, whether there is a war or a crisis raging around us or not?  Do we take time to embrace and appreciate those whom we love?  And if we make the wrong choice is it irrevocable? Or can we find a way to learn from our mistakes and move on?

December is the month of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, so the cold and the snow and the shorter days feature  prominently in Kluge’s stories and in Richter’s photographs.  Another story that stands out is the one dated the 20th of December, 1832: “UNEXPECTED CONVERSION OF A HEATHEN.”  Dr. Wernecke has just helped a woman give birth in the village and is setting out through the snow and the woods to go back home.  Kluge writes:

At first he took the path which the villagers, either out of habit or out of superstition, had created as a kind of VILLAGE EXIT INTO DEAD NATURE, because in this hard-frozen winter such a ‘track’ led into nothingness.

As the doctor gets farther along on his snowy journey he becomes increasingly tired and bewildered.  He keeps on moving so he doesn’t freeze but he is becoming tired and disoriented.  The snow and the woods around him are closing in:

The endless expanse of snow produced a certain brightness in the night.  Wernecke could neither say ‘I don’t see anything at all’ nor ‘I see something.’ For that a clue would have been needed, a difference in the monotony of the snow-covered land.

december-2The doctor estimates that he has about four or five hours to live when suddenly he sees a faint, flickering light in the distance.  He isn’t sure if this light is a figment of his bewildered mind but he chooses to follow it anyway.  The light, which is indeed the very thing that saves him, was the lamp of the cathedral verger who at that precise moment was climbing the stairs of the cathedral to ring the nightly bells.

Dull-eyed, Dr. Wernecke nevertheless resolved to trust the light that had soon disappeared.  The light had guided his obstinate heart.  So the doctor found his way to the first houses of the town.

Because the good doctor is saved by this light, he, the “heathen” pays to have an iron lamp installed in the tower next to the bells.  Once again, Kluge poses many deep, philosophical questions with this brief story.  Why do we choose to follow certain paths and not others?  When a light appears in life do we choose to let it guide us, or do we let our obstinate heart convince us to take a less fortunate and unhappy path?  Do we choose to trust and to follow the light like Dr. Wernecke did, or do we ignore it at our own peril?

Each of the 39 photographs in the collection are a variation of trees in a forest that are covered with snow.  The photos are taken up close and give one the feeling of being closed in by the forest and the snow.  Dr. Wernecke’s description of his time in the snow-covered forest, as being able to see something and yet nothing at all, is a fitting description for Richter’s art.  In one picture there is, in the distance, a tiny image of a deer and in the very last photo in the collection a small cottage appears in a clearing through the trees.  Like Dr. Wernecke, can we make our way out of this claustrophobic woods and find that faint glimmer of light?

The second part of the book entitled, “CALENDARS ARE CONSERVATIVE” contains various discussions and meditations on calendars, time, and the passage of time.  One passage in particular caught my attention because of its reference to Latin words for time.  In “Tempus, Aevum, Aeternitas’, an Islamic astrophysicist from Bangladesh and a European ambassador who is a medievalist are discussing different kinds of time by using the Latin names for them.  TEMPUS is time associated with the clock, with checking our watches, it is earthly time that we are always fighting against.  AEVUM, however, is celestial time, experienced only by the angels or other celestial beings.  In Latin it can be literally translated as “Time regarded as the medium in which events occur, indefinite continuous duration, the time series.”  It is oftentimes translated as a “span of time,” a “generation,” or an “age.”  Finally AETERNITAS is brought up by the scholars which, they argue, is the sense of time experienced only by the highest divinity.  It is translated as “infinite time,” eternity,” or “immortality.”  This tricolon crescendo of time presented by the men makes us step outside ourselves and think about time as something other than that ticking clock on the wall or that alarm that wakes us up or that watch which is constantly staring up at us from our wrists.

Seagull Books has published another extraordinary, thought-provoking, beautiful book.  This book is worth owning not only for the literature, philosophy and poetry contained within, but the beautiful prints reproduced on glossy, heavy weight paper make it a very special piece.

About the Author:
Alexander Kluge is one of the major German fiction writers of the late- twentieth century and an important social critic. As a filmmaker, he is credited with the launch of the New German Cinema movement.

About the Artist:
Gerhard Richter is one of the most respected visual artists of Germany, and his seminal works include Atlas (1964), October 18, 1977 (1988) and Eight Grey (2002).





Filed under Art, German Literature, History, Literature in Translation, Seagull Books, Short Stories

Thieving Magpie: The Artwork of Sunandini Banerjee

Regular followers of my website may have noticed a bit of a remodel in the last few day.  I am so thrilled to feature the artwork of Sunandini Banerjee who is the multi-talented editor, translator and graphic designer at Seagull Books.  She designs all of those stunning covers that we are used to seeing from Seagull Books.  I purchased three of Sunandini’s pieces and she has graciously agreed to let me also use one of the prints as the background to my website.

I put a lot of time and effort into making my site visibly pleasing and inviting.  I had been using stock images that I bought from a stock photo website  but I am so pleased to now feature artwork that is unique and has great meaning for me.  Suandini’s artwork can be viewed on the Seagull website: Seagullindia.

The image that currently occupies the background of The Book Binder’s Daughter is from a piece entitled “Come Back In Winter” and is part of Suandini’s Thieving Magpie collection.  This is a digital print on archival paper, 11.8″ x 14.5″, Edition of 7, 2010.

come-back-in-the-winterCome Back In Winter by Sunandini Bangerjee

I also purchased this print which will be most fitting to decorate the walls of my office.  This is a digital print on archival paper 17.7″ x 14.5″, Edition of 7, 2010:

cartography-02Cartography 02 by Sunandini Banerjee

The final piece that I purchased will be displayed on the walls of my newly decorated and reorganized book room.  This is a digital print on archival paper 11.8″ x 14.5″, Edition of 7, 2010:

love-and-deathLove and Death by Sunandini Banerjee


Filed under Art

Review: Willful Disregard by Lena Andersson

I received an Advanced Review Copy of this title from Other Press.  The original book was published in Swedish in 2013 and this English version has been translated by Sarah Death.

My Review:
Willful DisregardOne of my favorite poems from the Roman elegiac poet Catullus is his shortest, which contains two very powerful and vivid lines:

Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris? nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

(I hate and I love.  Perhaps you may ask why I do this?  I don’t know,  but I feel that it is so and I am tortured)  -Catullus, poem 85

At the time of composing this poem Catullus had been in the throws of an illicit affair with a woman twenty years his senior.  In the beginning the affair is intense and all-consuming; but the woman slowly grows tired of poor Catullus and the agony he experiences as a result of what turns out to be a one-sided love affair is aptly expressed in this poem.  When love is not reciprocal, and expectations are higher for one person and not the other, feelings of torment and torture are the result.

Lena Andersson, in her latest novel, also employs a brevity of powerful words to express a woman’s disappointment and torment when an affair becomes one-sided.  When the book opens, the  main character, Ester, is a strong, independent, hardworking, artistic woman who has a successful career writing articles for art magazines and journals.  She is hired to give a lecture about one of Sweden’s most prominent modern artists, Hugo Rask; what ensues is a year’s worth of frustration, torment and false hope for this woman who was once strong and independent.  Even as she researches Hugo to give her lecture he becomes a larger than life, heroic artist and her interest in him borders on obsession.  When she meets Hugo in person she is immediately attracted to him and wants to be around him all of the time.  She breaks up with her live-in boyfriend, a kind man named Per, because she wants nothing more than to have a relationship with Hugo.

Ester begins her tentative interactions with Hugo through dinners and long conversations.  There is an interesting subtext that is cleverly at work in the novel as well since many of Ester and Hugo’s conversations deal with fascism, totalitarianism, freedom and independence.  The exact details of the conversations are not always given since the book mainly deals with Ester’s inner dialogue.  Ester tells us that the conversations with Hugo are erotic and emotionally charged and she fully expects that they will become lovers.  She appears desperate to be in the full throws of a relationship with this artist whom she idolizes and she becomes very impatient when the relationship does not advance as quickly as she expects.

The author’s foreshadowing in this book is brilliant.  At the beginning, when Ester begins to talk about Hugo and her interactions with him she oftentimes describes them as causing her torment and pain, much like the torture that Catullus feels in the above mentioned poem.  There are quite a few things that neither we, the readers, nor Ester know about Hugo.  He mysteriously disappears every other weekend to another city in Sweden.  Ester assumes that he might have a relationship with another woman with whom he is spending so much time on the weekends, but she doesn’t really know.  And she never asks him directly!  Hugo also puts her off from showing her his apartment and only ever meets her at his work studio.  Ester chalks all of this up to Hugo’s mysterious nature as an artist, but the astute reader understands that this secretive nature of his doesn’t bode well for their relationship or any chance of them having a future together.

When Ester and Hugo finally end up in bed her feelings intensify and she becomes even more obsessed with the progression of their relationship.  She analyses and over analyzes every text message and e-mail from him.  She waits impatiently for him to return her phone calls.  She can’t stand it when days go by without seeing him.  I found myself wanting to scream at her while reading, “He’s not worth it.”  “Run the other way and never look back before this ridiculous farce of a relationship destroys you!”  Her friends, which she describes as the “girlfriend chorus” do give her this wise advice but she cannot tear herself away from the emotional attachment she feels towards Hugo.  We are left wondering page after page when poor Ester will finally come to her senses and regain her independence and free herself from these destructive feelings.

This author truly has a gift for philosophical writing; the description of hope and the negative effects in has on the lover at the very end of the book are nothing short of brilliant.  Andersson compares hope to a parasite that” has to be starved to death if it is not to beguile and dazzle its host.  Hope can only be killed by the brutality of clarity.  Hope is cruel because it binds and entraps.”

I always tell my students that it is no wonder that hope was in Pandora’s box of evils.  If you have ever been in the throws of love and have been tortured by hope because of a futile love then you should read this book.

About the Author:
L AnderssonLena Andersson (born 18 April 1970 in Stockholm) is a Swedish author and journalist. She won the August Prize in 2013 for the novel Wilful Disregard . In the same year, the same book, won her the Literature Prize given by the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.


Filed under Art, Literature in Translation