It is customary to establish reality before disrupting it, but some works are uncertain from the get-go. We all know that voice, of contemplation or reserve, into which madness gradually leaches, or in which it is revealed to have been lurking all along — the idea of a weird tale being to leave us without a place to stand, or a leg to do it on, before the vast, malign indifference. Still, there are stories where our first step falls not on firm ground, but on sand at the water’s edge. And already the tides, rushing out, are robbing us of foothold.
The water’s edge, that porous border, is a good place to start with Eugène Savitzkaya: a creature of limens, spaces of detente, unlikely juxtapositions. Belgian by birth of Ukranian descent, long admired but little known, Savitzkaya is generally classed as a poet despite having penned plays, essays, and more than twelve novels. And these novels — plotless, impressionistic, glories of language and consciousness, brief unchaptered bursts all from France’s leading avant-garde publisher, Minuit — surely they partake more of poetry than prose?
The intersections of the Weird and what is often called “experimental” writing have been covered before: Burroughs, Ballard, Donald Barthelme, Blake Butler, Brians Marcus and Evenson, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves… Like “world” literature, “experiment” is a baggy category, a catch-all for whatever balks the casual reader: strange line breaks, eccentric page layouts, lack of characters or plot, lack of setting or signposts… Another feature might be emphasis on language: meticulous, painstaking emphasis, the sense that at every moment the entire work hinges on, lives or dies by the next word choice, the syllable-by-syllable propagation of some established rhythm. It’s not that the prose is abstract — in fact, it is often exceedingly concrete, blunt, simple, stripped of metaphor and complex syntax — but that (as in Evenson, Butler, or even Beckett) something has been subtracted from it, making us work harder for a fuller picture of what is being described. The result is a certain destabilization, dislocation, an alienation that does not distance you so much from the text as lock you alone inside it. Hence the usual adjectives: hallucinatory, intense, incantatory… the feel and unease of Weird. You’re not sure where you are, because if you are where you think you are, it can’t really be that way, can it? The author can’t mean it.
Consider the opening paragraph of Savitzkaya’s short eulogy “In Memory of Tabacchino,” in the latest issue of Anomalous:
Tabacchino was a child. Tabacchino was a dormouse. Tabacchino was a dog, a bird, a squirrel, an almond tree, a living being. Child, dog, dormouse, bird, squirrel, or almond tree, he breathed, drank water, had a clean smell, a unique charm, and grew old. He bore inside him sap that flowed groundward through openings planned and improvised. The wind would muss his hair, rumple him, refresh and sometimes torment him. The first Tabacchino to get the coup de grâce was the almond tree: drought, then woodcutters. They wept then, lovers of almonds, the child first among them. No one could put the tree back as it had been. The dormouse, terrified by an owl, succumbed to a heart attack, rotted, and was scattered to the winds. Not the slightest sign of that bird in the skies now. Seek the dog’s grave in vain. Then came the child’s turn: crushed, ground, and scattered.
What, exactly, is Tabacchino? All of these things? None of them? Is he really a man; are these merely metaphorical comparisons? And if so, are his transformations meant as fable? If this is allegory, where is the key? (One might also dismiss this as “poetry.”)
Degrees of reification have sometimes been used to draw lines: between spec fic and lit fic, between allegory and story, between poetry and fiction. If the monster’s a metaphor, it’s lily-livered literary, but if the monster’s a monster — well, now we’re talking. Speculative fiction is the imagined made real, so that it must be contended with, at a physical, visceral level: blood and guts, meat and sweat. Literature, ever polite, merely entertains the imagined, as in a parlor of conjecture.
But I would argue Savitzkaya’s very power derives from his refusal to reify, his insistence on simply stating. Reification, Savitzkaya shows us, can in its own way be a kind of reassurance, a signposting, letting us know where we stand. When we tightrope between is-it? or isn’t-it?, a fuller reification tips us off, tips us to one side. As an elaboration of the simply stated, reifying is also a bringing-into-the-world that entails history and rules and a certain kind of sense-making: all the basics of that spec staple, coherent worldbuilding.
Savitzkaya’s Russian mother is said to have fed him on fairy tales, and “In the Rediscovered Book” (also in Anomalous) certainly owes more to that tradition, but as usual, slips from classifying grasp. Its sinuous first sentence takes us straight into the world inside a book inside the drawer of a small platen press in the cellar of a house in the mountains. We spend the rest of this short piece there, punctuated by something like a refrain. Three times throughout, it is stated that there is no point peering nearer, or bending closer to sniff: the world of the book, being described, is immediate and blindingly obvious, assaults the senses. Of course this organizing chorus, a tactic borrowed from lyric or joke, clarifies nothing, may not even organize, may indeed only provide the appearance of organization. The minutely detailed world of Savitzkaya, who once devoted a monograph to Hieronymous Bosch, is never far from violence, nor the blithe ignorance that is the other side of its coin:
All the book’s children were in love; they polished their nails, smoothed their hair, and painted their lips. At night in the book, trucks passing by on the road crushed the sheep, then the dogs who’d come to devour the dead or wounded sheep, then other wilder dogs drawn by the fresh flesh of the dead or wounded dogs and the reek of the sheep’s remains. Night in the book smelled bad… At the heart of the book, the balloon exploded, and the charred navigator landed on the pines. The young woman watching the scene let herself be bitten and eaten by ants. Only the children kept playing.
Or consider this vow of vengeance from “Tabacchino”, which smacks of Arcimboldo whimsy and childish caprice:
Whosoever scattered Tabacchino’s body: I would have shattered his bones, those of the torso and those of the head, I would have scored into his skin as into calf leather, annulled the order of his fingers and replaced his tongue with a pepper of the brightest red. And his nose with a sprouting potato.
We cling to every word as if to handholds in a rock face, because at every moment we have no idea what to expect. In the absence of conventionally established expectations, anything is possible. Every word defers the promise of sense; in fact this creeping progress is Savitzkaya’s narrative drive. Story lies in smithereens. This is narrative atomized, moving forward by crumbs; we can see no further than the next word, focus yoked to this infinitesimal progress, like a tile in a vast mosaic, a scrutiny of minutiae, while all around us is a spreading sensation of alarm that the bigger picture, could we but see it, is quite terrifying.
Through language, Savitzkaya lends, extrudes consciousness into things alien to him: animal, vegetable, and mineral alike. This, the imaginative process by which writers bring the strange closer to us, often finds itself inverted in Savitzkaya’s work: we are brought closer to the strange, the alien. As Rokus Hofstede (trans. Donald Gardner) notes at Poetry International, Savitzkaya’s voice,
“sometimes sombre, sometimes intimate, but always sensual… sings of metamorphosis, of unity and dissolution. The world appears to him as a garden in which everything and everyone – plants, insects and people – are doomed to change, to melt away and disappear.”
Among his more famous novels are pseudo-biographies of his son, then his daughter in their infancy, and of young Elvis. From the succinct sections of these novels something emergent arises, a portrait of development and transition through accretion of fantastical detail. His record of infancy — that of son Marin, daughter Louise, and even himself, in stories like “The Rubber Animal” — is something like a mushroom coming to life: the dawning of some powerfully alien intelligence.
In “Family Portrait,” (forthcoming in the next issue of Unstuck), this intelligence is applied to death, whose harbinger is a wasp:
A wasp visits my mother, who is lying in her room. The wasp is truly golden and soot-streaked. Its abdomen is separated from its thorax by only a filament thin as a hair, which seems very close to snapping. The wasp says to my mother:
I know this room, I’ve been here three times before and I drank a good amount of sugar from your glass of blackcurrant cordial, the walls of this room are much too close and the window cold and hard like the tall sky.
And the wasp says:
I am a woman you met in the train taking you to Germany; it was I who, having put you at ease — you, sad and shattered — stole the envelope containing all your photos, my heart and my nerves are in my thorax and my abdomen contains the rest, and this clear division makes me invincible.
And the wasp says:
I have always been a wasp, golden and soot-streaked, social, relentless and quivering; the world doesn’t frighten me, already I have begun to eat you, I devoured your children and soon I will tell you how I went about it, I work the best when ignored, I am most effective when believed absent, I am also all the women who have harmed you.
If writing is a record of thought, then the thought process here is lyrical, fractured, unpredictably foreign.
While Gian Lombardo has translated some of Savitzkaya’s prose poems in Rules of Solitude (Quale Press, 2004) and the anthology When the Time Comes: A Selection of Contemporary Prose Poetry (Quale Press 2002), the work of Savitzkaya’s that most clearly maps onto the Weird — while far from the majority of his oeuvre — has yet to be explored in English. Savitzkaya is minimal without being skeletal; in fact, in few words he is almost lush, an impression derived from the swerve of his language, coloration through unlikely word choice. Lusher, I think, than his avant-weird American counterparts, though both draw power from rhythmic devices. Above all he is authoritative. By refusing to say more, he makes us make do with what is said. Whatever is said simply is, though it can’t be.