The novel as potlatch inevitably begins with dedications.
Many novels are dedicated to family:
To the memory of papa—The Dilemma of a Ghost by Ama Ata Aidoo
This book is for my sons Carl Nicholas, Julien John, Elwin James—Scenes from a Receding Past by Aidan Higgins
This one is for MIMI—Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me by Richard Fariña
For Fatima, without whom I wouldn’t have, and with whom I have, lived and laughed these twenty years and who to conclude has transcribed the totally illegible manuscripts of these limbo things—Dream I Tell You by Helene Cixous
Some are dedicated to heroes:
For Bird, Babs, Bearden, Basquiat, and Brother Bill Traylor do I dedicate this book—Teducation by Ted Joans
This book is dedicated to Paul Garon, blues buddy and surrealist comrade, opener of many doors, and to Martha and the Vandellas who suggested what we might do once the doors were open—Dancin’ in the Streets by Franklin Rosemont
For Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Ludwig Wittgenstein—The Whole of Life by Jürg Laederach
In memory of Georges Perec—Cigarettes by Harry Matthews
For my old and dear friend Maria Jolas—Do You Hear Them? by Nathalie Sarraute
Some trend excessive:
I am indebted to Pat Mulcahy for her encouragement and astute editing; likewise to Veronica Geng of the New Yorker. I would also like to thank Maxine Chernoff for early readings of this novel—Saigon, Illinois by Paul Hoover
And others sublime:
For Stephen, Will and Joe, and for Kitty, who brought me cups of coffee all that dark autumn in Reykjavik—Magnetic Fields by Ron Loewinsohn
In his exacting new collection of short stories Writers, French author Antoine Volodine skewers these and so many more of the soft spots of literary life. Born in 1950 of French-Slavic origins, Volodine has published twelve books. This is Volodine’s third English-language publication, and Katina Rogers does a great job translating his frantic, graveyard humor.
In the short story “Acknowledgements,” Volodine skewers the tenderness that authors betray in their opening dedications. He delivers a striking satire in these messages, telling the story of a womanizing narcissist:
Thank you to Grigoria Balsamian who was the first to suggest that I recount the adventure of Mica Schmitz and her tragic exploration of Lac Bleu, an adventure which prior to my choosing it as the central theme of Sun of the Just hadn’t elicited any novelistic echo and remained totally unknown to the public and even to the authorities charged with protecting the lake. Thank you to Julius Ritchmann, father of Grigoria, who made the postcard from Mica Schmitz available to me, on the basis of which I was able to begin my investigation. Thank you to Bernardo Balsamian, husband of Grigoria, for having transported me several times from the train station to his country house, and for the discretion with which he distanced himself from the villa during the long afternoons when I exchanged with Grigoria the intimate words that would later enrich the first pages of Sun of the Just. Thank you, finally, to Grigoria Balsamian’s gardener, Halfar Sharanogar, who one day had the presence of mind to detain Bernardo Balsamian in the orchard while Grigoria and I showered and got dressed again.
As “Acknowledgements” demonstrates, Writers is strongest in its moments of deep black humor, when Volodine’s writers shine in their pettiness and excess. One writer stays awake every night, silently counting sheep, holding a revolver against his temple; another gains mild celebrity for his signature technique of naming all of his characters Wolf; a “post-exotic” surrealist encounters a new despair when the afterlife she encounters confounds her ability for understanding.
Yet in spite of the cynicism towards the artist in the world, Volodine obviously sees some value in artistic folly.
In “The Theory of the Image According to Maria Three-Thirteen” a “post-exotic” surrealist writer enters the underworld. During this katabasis, she encounters imagery “so powerful it could be heard by the deaf,” recalling “scenes from Ingmar Bergman, David Lynch, Andrei Tartovsky, and Werner Herzog.”
Volodine imagines and reimagines death, and suggests art can put us into some kind of proximity with death. He paints in darkness: “She feels the darkness that streams across her skin, that spreads out as it encounters her face…It’s a light shadow, without the faintest suggestion of future light.” And through this darkness, he evokes Georges Bataille’s emphasis on ritualistic death in art. Thinking about the persistence of sacrifice in human ritual, and the customs of harvest festivals Bataille writes: “Sacrifice burns like a sun, spreading radiation our eyes can hardly bear, and calls for the negations of individuals as such.” The ritual of sacrifice forces individuals to contemplate death. And while this doesn’t completely subvert the trappings of ego, it can provide a brief window of understanding, bolstering the Freudian precept that death is fundamentally beyond the limits of human understanding.
Maurice Blanchot identifies death as the natural territory of writers, interrogating Kafka’s remark, “on my deathbed, provided the suffering is not too great, I will be very content. I forgot to add, and later I omitted this on purpose, that the best of what I have written is based upon this capacity to die content.” He sees a grappling with death as the necessary precondition for compulsive creating. Blanchot proposes, “The writer, then, is one who writes in order to be able to die, and he is one whose power to write comes from an anticipated relation with death.” It is the compulsion towards death that encourages writing, and the writing that ultimately sates this compulsion.
In Volodine’s “The Theory of the Image According to Maria Three-Thirteen,” Maria Three-Thirteen encounters a panel of weird creatures in the underworld that initiate a literary conference: “Several creatures wake up, semi-human and semi-animal, seated on a tribunal dais.” From there, addressing the creatures, she articulates the “post-exotic” aesthetic: “In the beginning there is no word. There is no word but there is a bit of light, and even if there is no light there is the image of a place and of a situation, and only the image matters. Only the image becomes clear from the beginning, and imposes itself. It is stable, it has all its importance from the beginning, it is sufficient in itself and could be sufficient for us.”
This image reflects the imagined “art image,” or “work,” in Blanchot’s terms. In her proximity to death Maria Three-Thirteen identifies the negative implications of describing that image, just as people are negative descriptions of the universe they are born into. Both life and art are negative in these frustrated descriptions, and look for meaning against death and non-existence.
As I was reading Writers in the Central branch of our public library, I felt like I had embarked on something of my own katabasis. Somewhere at around the midpoint of the collection, a fellow patron stood up and began to sing Sylvester’s 1982 club classic “Do You Want to Funk?” at the top of his lungs, precipitating (yes, you guessed it) a very robust police showing, recalling yet another theater of violence.
Volodine is a writer of our time, with the courage to travel into darkness. He writes with all the wit, cynicism, and imagination we need; this saturates his short collection, which resonates with the clarity of a major work.