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Essay | ‘Time to Murder and Create’: When Fiction Bleeds into Nonfiction by Mathis Clément

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Pripyat, Chernobyl.

If I were to open by describing my setting  as a desk piled high with old issues of The London Magazine, the wine red May 1960 issue face down on top, rust-brown rimmed teacup marking the narrow No Man’s Land between the pile and my laptop, you would assume I were telling the truth. If I were to add that the red reminded me of blood spilled last week in rage, and the brown rimmed cup of the plughole down which that blood spiralled, you would assume I was either lying or mad. Let us call the first nonfiction and the second fiction. To do so is to say that nonfiction is a form for the quotidian, fiction for the deranged. But our little fiction is built from real details, facts, which can in turn be inhered from fictive obsessions. To segregate them is like trying to separate blood from water.

If dividing truth and fiction in these two sentences proves difficult, what about for a book of thousands of sentences? What about Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful, Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, and WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn? These books bring the methods of fiction to nonfictional experiences undermining the ostensible truthfulness of criticism, history, memoir, philosophy, and travel guide. In this way they differ from so-called autofiction like Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle or Rachel Cusk’s Outline, in that both these books lack a nonfiction parent genre from which they stray; without prior knowledge of the biographical subject, one could mistake both for works of fiction.

This other genre has been called creative nonfiction, and I have to agree with Geoff Dyer on this, who said that if ‘literary’ and ‘fiction’ are the two most depressing words in the English language, then ‘creative’ and ‘nonfiction’ are the ‘two most depressing in the American language’ (Paris Review, Issue 207, Winter 2013). As a disdainer of critical edifices, which risk becoming ‘opaque generalisations’ (Nabokov’s response to George Steiner’s essay on Ada), I prefer to examine these works individually to see how each brings fiction to bear on the particular pressure of its own factfulness.

But Beautiful consists of seven sections, each about a different jazz artist including Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Charles Mingus, and Thelonious Monk. These are difficult to categorise: neither short stories, nor biographies, but something in between. Each recounts a moment, sometimes a series of moments, in the musician’s life. Some are imagined, some recreate documented incidents; others fall somewhere in between, building on existing photographs to give movement, words, sounds, and smells, to static images. Dyer’s poetic style changes between each part, striving to embody in words the individualistic sound of each man’s music. Lester Young’s ‘wispy, skating-on-air tone’ produces images like the following: ‘he could see the moon clear through the broken windows at the front of the building. It was framed so perfectly by the window that it seemed as if the moon was actually inside the building: a mottled silver plate trapped in a brick universe.’ Such images seem to float up from a memory of the music and represent an attempt on Dyer’s part to make the writing into what it describes: jazz. But Beautiful is criticism as art, an ideal of George Steiner’s view as quoted by Dyer, that ‘the best readings of art are art.’

Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich is history without the historian. Alexievich presents direct testimony from her interviewees, including scientists, locals forced to evacuate their homes, widows of the soldiers who died in agony after the clear-up, and a hobo who has moved to the surrounding area since it has become overgrown with wildlife in the absence of human inhabitants. She has compared her work to the documentary Shoah, but we see Claude Lanzmann onscreen, hear his questions; in Chernobyl Prayer only the answers are there. We do not know what Alexievich asked to elicit such responses, nor to what extent she edits them. They are not structured as building blocks for an argument, but as a kaleidoscope of impressions. The resulting ambiguity is reminiscent of short story collections like Varlam Shalamov’s recently retranslated Kolyma Stories, in which one theme is relayed through multiple perspectives with the reader left to decide their respective fallibility and conclusiveness. Chernobyl Prayer cannot be counted as strict history; it is a palimpsest of memories which creates an atmosphere of surreal horror. The intangibility of radiation produces images which seem to come from technological folk tales: soldiers fell and bury trees, houses, wells, and gardens, all of them possessed by the invisible enemy; a pregnant wife stays by her dying husband, Vasya, in his hospital bed having lied to doctors about being with child, and after Vasya dies, she dreams of him ‘all in white, and he’s calling Natasha’s name. Our little girl, who still hadn’t been born. She is big already, and I am puzzled at how she’s grown so much.’ When Natasha is born she has cirrhosis and congenital heart disease and dies four hours later. The mother believes that her daughter formed a buffer for the radiation, sacrificing herself so she could spend Vasya’s last days by his side. This is history as it happened to ordinary people, before it could be called history, when it was just what was cursed, resisted, suspected, dreamed, imagined, blotted out.

Of the books selected, Bluets is perhaps the furthest from what is usually termed nonfiction. In some bookshops it has been placed in the poetry section, because its form, 240 sections ranging from a sentence to a page in length are elliptical, even gnomic, meditations on Nelson’s obsession with the colour blue. It’s not exactly something you could imagine next to a Churchill biography or Freakonomics. She ranges from melancholy (‘the blues’) to porn (‘blue movies’), through Goethe’s Theory of Colours by way of Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Colour. Nelson is obsessed with how we perceive people and objects and how these perceptions are emotionally reconfigured in ways that produce love, art, and music, as well as the most damaging self-deceptions, griefs, and hatreds. Her breakup with the mysterious ‘prince of blue’ drives the book and compels her to collect blue objects and begin correspondence with ‘a man who is the primary grower of organic indigo in the world, and another who sings Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” in heartbreaking drag’. At points Bluets is closer to theology than to any other genre. The book is a search for truth and its method is Joseph Joubert’s: ‘Truth. To surround it with figures and colours so that it can be seen.’ Nelson at first attempts to fill the absence at the book’s heart by obsessing over blue things, blue people, but she comes to an uneasy recognition of the necessity of loss, expressing herself in religious terms: is God one who rushes to fill an empty space, or is ‘the emptiness itself God’?

WG Sebald is one of the precursors to the contemporary vogue for books which merge fiction and nonfiction at invisible margins. His Rings of Saturn is probably the closest of his works (excluding literary criticism) to a traditional nonfiction genre: travel writing. It is a first-person account of a walking tour through Suffolk which ranges far in its thinking, encompassing Thomas Browne’s Garden of Cyrus, Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, the Taiping Rebellion of 1851-64, and the Voyager Golden Record. As a travel guide it is highly eccentric: several of the locations which form significant parts of the book are not even in Suffolk, Amsterdam for instance, or not visitable: the home of the poet Michael Hamburger. But Sebald’s focus is not on what is, but what has disappeared. The eponymous rings are ‘in all likelihood […] fragments of a former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effect.’ Everywhere Sebald travels, his mind turns in circles over thoughts of destruction and decline: he meets a gardener at Somerleyton Hall who was a pilot in the RAF during the fire bombings of German cities, he notes how the decline of the herring industry, caused in large part by the dumping of industrial pollutants into the North Sea, has damaged the economies of the towns through which he travels. For the most part Sebald adopts a melancholy tone in these descriptions, but there is also a subtle humour at work, as for instance when he stays in a formerly grand hotel in Lowestoft recommended by a turn of the century guidebook. The food is said to be ‘of superior description’. Not so anymore: ‘The breadcrumb armour-plating of the fish had been partly singed by the grill, and the prongs of my fork bent on it’.

Yet inherent in the very existence of this book is the idea that destruction is the basis of creation: ‘Our spread over the earth was fuelled by reducing the higher species of vegetation to charcoal, by incessantly burning whatever would burn. Combustion is the hidden principle behind every artefact we create.’ This reminds me of the paean to violence by counter-revolutionary thinker Joesph de Maistre: ‘From the lamb [Man] tears his guts and makes his harp resound…from the wolf his most deadly tooth to polish his pretty works of art, from the elephant his tusks to make a toy for his child: his table is covered with corpses’. But Sebald seldom relishes destructiveness. One of the most unsettling moments in the book comes when talking about the Voyager Golden Record, which was sent into space to introduce humanity and its achievements to other lifeforms and contains the music of Beethoven, Mozart and Blind Willie Johnson. The first words aliens will hear from mankind are those of then UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, who as Sebald explains, was a war criminal, responsible for the administration of concentration camps in Croatia during World War 2.

The coexistence of destructiveness and creativity in Sebald is akin to the symbiotic relationship between fiction and nonfiction in all of these works. If as I said at the start, fiction is a form of madness, the fictioneer a murderer of truth, then its blood waters the garden in which it spills. Brute facts alone do not always get to the heart of the matter. Sometimes they need also to wield the artist’s scalpel.

Words by Mathis Clément

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Essay | Personal Feeling is the Main Thing by Sue Hubbard

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Big blonde in Red Dress (2012) by Chantal Joffe, taken from the Victoria Miro website

By Sue Hubbard

I have long been interested in the work of Chantal Joffe and have written about her on several occasions. Her figurative paintings of family and friends are rooted in a gritty, observed reality which makes her unusual in an art world full of insouciant irony. She’s interested in people, their inner landscapes and what makes them tick. She’s also interested in the materiality and language of paint which she uses with verve and vitality. She’s obsessed with what paint can be made to do and what it can tell us.

There are many influences to her work. The American artist Alice Neel. Renaissance portraits of the Madonna and child. But there’s one influence that connects us directly, as writer and artist – the little-known German painter, Paula Modershon-Becker (1876-1907). There is a self-portrait of Paula in the Courtauld but you’d be hard pressed to see any more of her work in this country. Most of it is in Germany. Joffe’s new exhibition at The Lowry, which uses a quote from Modersohn-Becker as its title is, in many ways, a homage.

“Paula is a bubble between two centuries”, Joffe tells me.

In 2012, I wrote Girl in White, a novel based on Modersohn-Becker’s relationships with those she met when she settled in Worspwede, a remote artists’ colony on the North German moors. There, she mixed with others who wanted to live a life dedicated to art outside the strictures of 19th century German bourgeois society. These people included the older painter Otto Modersohn, who was to become her husband, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, with whom she had a passionate friendship, and the sculptor Clara Westhoff, who, disastrously, became Rilke’s wife.

Dan Eating a Banana by Chantal Joffe (2012) taken from the Victoria Miro website.

The Worpswede colony was very much part of the mood-music among late 19th century European artists who wanted to ‘return’ to nature. Essentially a Romantic movement, this nostalgia for a prelapsarian existence was precipitated by the growth of industrialisation and the effects of urban modernisation. Many believed these were destroying their relationship with the landscape and their folk traditions. When Paula arrived in Worpswede she too initially painted landscape but, as she grew intellectually, emotionally and artistically, she developed a different agenda. Her subject became people. She painted the old in the local poorhouse, breast-feeding women and the children of peasants with an empathy close to that of Van Gogh’s. It’s hard for us to realise just how radical such a decision was, especially by a young middle-class girl. Paula sought out the raw, the authentic and the marginalised in a way that was completely modern. There wasn’t a smack of the drawing-room sentiment anywhere to be seen. 

Talking to Chantal in her studio, on the battered sofa among postcards of Paula’s work and her own half-finished paintings, it becomes more and more evident that our interests overlap. We’re both mothers and creative women who, like many others including Paula, have struggled to find a balance between home, art, motherhood and career and, for whom, the intimacy of everyday life is central to our work. Though separated by more than 100 years, Paula’s intensity of vision and her commitment to the fullness of life, as an artist and a woman, reverberates throughout Joffe’s work. Like Freud, Joffe paints those from within a tight circle of family and friends. She not so much produces portraits, in the sense of a photographic likeness, but investigations – a sense of what it is like to inhabit the subject’s skin.

Self Portrait with Hand on Hip (2014) by Chantal Joffe taken from Victoria Miro website

“I was”,  she says, “hesitant, mindful of the danger of placing myself alongside such a strong painter. I was worried it’d be seen as a form of self-aggrandisement, but I’m interested in the intimacy Paula creates. Personal feeling is always the main thing. That’s why I love her. There’s never anything unnecessary, nothing extra or extraneous. Only what is needed. The work’s so strong, so modern, so ahead of its time. My decision to go ahead was helped by the fact that she’s poorly known here and that maybe, through this exhibition, her work will become more celebrated. She’s just so good.”

I ask why she chose Paula and she says that she was attracted to a painter she’ d never seen before – a woman who was both tough and romantic, vulnerable yet determined. She loves the works of Picasso and Bonnard but here was a painter she could relate to directly and in a very personal way. She wanted to explore what they shared. Her paintings, like Paula’s, are intimate and domestic. She’s painted fellow artists, such as Ishbel Myerscough, and charted the passage of her daughter Esme from new-born infant to adolescent, with many of the blips along the way. These works map the passing of time, the minute changes that occur day to day within emotional connections and bonds.

As we sit talking, with our tea and biscuits, about our mutual concerns – just as Paula did with her friend Clara in her Worpswede studio – it strikes me how similar Joffe looks like Modersohn-Becker. She has the same broad intelligent face, pulled-back hair and snub nose. I tell her my thoughts and she blushes. Of course, she has seen this herself, though she does not admit it. It’s there in her Self-Portrait as Paula II where she looks inscrutably over her shoulder with her back naked to the viewer. Self-Portrait at 21, with its Matisse-style patterned robe, echoes something of the background of Paula’s Self-Portrait on the Sixth Wedding Day.

Mother and Child II (2012) by Chantal Joffe taken from the Victoria Miro website.

Paula Modersohn-Becker had an uncanny sense that she was going to die young. Her quest, at the century’s turn, was ‘to become something.’ Her whole life was a struggle between the binaries of domesticity and artistic fulfilment, duty and self-determination, the security of home and the stimulation of adventure and new experience. She longed for a child. She would paint herself holding her stomach as if she were in a phantom pregnancy. She would then claim that she was actually pregnant with art. Despite Modersohn-Becker’s bourgeois upbringing, she had a restless sensuality which is mirrored in Joffe’s work. You can see it in her unsparing nude self-portraits that show her, for example, sitting naked on a striped chaise lounge. There’s nothing romantic about the dark circles under her eyes, her sagging breasts and stomach and the unflattering long black socks – the only things she wears. And, there is nothing flattering about the ¾ Length Self-Portrait where she stands against a barren, leafless tree like some menopausal Eve. There are also a number of paintings of pregnant women and women with children, and there’s an especial poignancy to those of her daughter, Esme, when we know that Paula died tragically at the age of 32 from an embolism – only weeks after giving birth to her own daughter, Mathilde.

Paula Modersohn- Becker’s life was brilliant but sadly her career cut short. Her passionate female nudes and portraits of prepubescent girls, which sought for ever-more simplification, are extraordinary, considering that convention demanded she was a wife first and a painter second. Spirited, brave, tender and fierce, Paula understood that ‘personal feeling’ is always the main thing. Fashions in art come and go but there’ll always be a place for what is authentic, for what is true.

It’s as if Joffe, with her broad strokes of expressive and nervy paint, has picked up Paula’s baton and is running with it into the middle of the 21st century.

Chantal Joffe’s artwork exhibition ‘Personal Feeling is the Main Thing’ is running at The Lowry Art Gallery until the 2nd September. You can find out more about the artist here

 

Essay | Re-reading Frankenstein by Alice Dunn

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It is tempting to read Frankenstein as a means of understanding Mary Shelley. 200 years after the novel was first published, Alice Dunn asks, is that a bad thing?

Things most of us know about the novel Frankenstein: that its author Mary Shelley first thought of the idea for it during a ghost story competition among friends (Lord Byron, Dr John Polidori and husband Percy Shelley). And, perhaps after a quick slip of the tongue, we remember that the name ‘Frankenstein’ does not refer to the monster pictured on the cover (who is actually unnamed throughout), but to Victor Frankenstein, the monster’s creator.

Our thoughts then turn to Mary Shelley. It is tempting to approach Frankenstein, her first and best-known novel, for insight into her life. Leafing through my dog-eared copy, my eyes land on a single line addressing this query in the Introduction, which Mary Shelley wrote 13 years after the book was first published. She writes: “I shall thus give a general answer to the question, so very frequently asked me – How I, then a young girl, came to think of and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?” How indeed? Re-reading Frankenstein swiftly followed by Mary Shelley’s biography, the similarities spookily emerge.

After many miscarriages and stillbirths, Mary Shelley had harrowing dreams about her lost children. Her own mother, the famous writer and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, died ten days after giving birth to her. So Mary was raised by her father William Godwin, the political philosopher and writer. He remarried when Mary was four, but she had a problematic and cold relationship with her stepmother. She met and fell in love with Percy Shelley, who was already married. They would reportedly meet regularly at Mary’s mother’s grave. She eloped with him and they travelled around Europe together, and she became quite alienated from her father and stepmother. Percy’s wife committed suicide and Mary and Percy married. Mary wrote Frankenstein and published it anonymously in 1818.

Now, to the story of Frankenstein briefly (warning – contains spoilers): Victor Frankenstein, weak and ill, is found by the captain of a ship and tells him about his life, his studies at university, his fascination with science and philosophy. He makes a creature out of old body parts (from “among the unhallowed damps of the grave”) and when his creation comes to life, he is repulsed by the sight of it. He has a series of nightmares about his mother as a corpse and the monster walks off into the night. He later meets the monster, who tells him about his battles with loneliness, constant rejection and need for companionship. The monster has learned to speak by observing a family living in a cottage and entering their house at night to read the books in their library. When Victor refuses to make a partner for him, the monster threatens to be with Frankenstein on his wedding night. Victor marries, and finds his bride murdered. Desperate for revenge, Victor catches sight of the monster just before meeting the captain, who finishes the narrative through letters: Victor becomes worse and dies. The monster vanishes into the distance to die.

If we look for traces of Mary Shelley in Frankenstein then we might see her in the monster: he is isolated and rejected, just as Mary was estranged from her family. His education in the cottagers’ library is reminiscent of her own: as a child, she had free reign of her father’s vast library. In her Introduction, she explains: “I am very averse to bringing myself forward in print”. The Monster is similarly shy, worried about putting himself forward until he has acquired conventional communication skills. But we can see Mary Shelley in Victor Frankenstein too: his travels in the novel, to Scotland and Geneva, mirror her own excursions. The thematic concerns with motherhood and creation reflect Mary’s tragic experiences.

Should we feel guilty for drawing these comparisons? It echoes criticism frequently (but not exclusively) discussed in relation to Jane Austen’s novels; that when we read work written by a woman, we are, by proxy, reading about their lives.

But if we see Frankenstein as broadly a work of autobiography, then aren’t we undermining the power of Shelley’s imagination and knowledge while doing a great disservice to her intelligence and skills as a writer? We know that Shelley was well read in contemporary science (she explains that the way Victor brings his creature to life was inspired by the experiments conducted by Dr Erasmus Darwin as he animated vermicelli in a glass). She attended lectures on science in London.

Although it’s surely wrong that women’s writing is so readily assumed to be autobiographical, we also can’t help but feel that it’s only natural that the author should write from personal experience. Perhaps one way round this problem is to broaden our understanding of ‘personal experience’. So in Shelley’s case, we should consider how her personal experience of literature and science shaped her writing. That way we are not ignoring the parallels between Shelley and her literary creations at the same time as taking into account her genius.

Whatever your stance, I think this debate only makes for even more colourful reading. And after 200 years, that is a wonderful thing.

Internet Poetry by Paul Gittins

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Stewart Butterfield

In the seventh of his twelve lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry, the late Geoffrey Hill took issue with the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, over her assertion in a Guardian interview that poetry was a form of texting. Hill, who was ‘policing his patch’, retorted that texting was no more than a truncated form of communication.  In view of the internet’s increasing influence and capacity for mass communication, he could also have commented on the Poet Laureate’s opinion that ‘the Facebook generation is the future’…. and that ‘poetry is the perfect form for them.’

In America now, the Academy of American Poets attracts more than three hundred and fifty thousand readers daily with its digital Poem-a-Day series, boasting the most comprehensive and robust website in the world for poets, readers and educators,  reaching more than twenty million Americans each year.  Membership of the Academy is rewarded with a card, rather like a credit card, which authorises various benefits as well as serving as a reminder of the critical role you play in nurturing the art of poetry.’  In England, the Poetry Society which has its own website and operates on Facebook and Twitter, uses the internet to publicise poetry events, features poetry by contemporary and past poets and covers poetry news in general.

There is, however, an essential difference between poetry (ancient and modern) that is accessible on the internet and poetry that is written specifically for the internet. The latter marks a complete break with what has gone before in relation to subject-matter and technique and uses the web as the basis for its work. The more light-hearted practitioners, such as exponents of Flarf, gather strange bits of language from Google searches and stick them together as poetry, while Spam poetry is composed primarily from the content of spam email messages. Alt Lit, another manifestation of internet poetry, has been described as ‘a kind of pointedly botched poetry whose writers cultivate bad spelling, weird punctuation and sincere statements of the obvious.’ More serious are the apologists for internet poetry, who believe that by abandoning anything that resembles traditional poetry, they are gaining freedom for poetry to be expressed in new ways, such as being allied to other art forms. But their use of  screenshots (selected images of what can be seen on a computer screen) and image macros (pictures with overlaid texts) is just computer wizardry rather than original thought – a skill rather than a creative process and is one step away from programming a computer to ‘write poetry’, or what might be called robotic poetry.  At the very least, this combining with other ‘host’ art forms in single images diminishes the nature of poetry to a fleeting impression. It is as if nothing of value is attributed to longevity or tradition, an attitude that is reflected in the use of instantaneous and simplistic ideograms as a form of criticism.

An association with another art form has, anyway, all been done before without diminishing the power of the text. William Blake’s illustrations to his ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ (1789) are an obvious example, where it is the text that is remembered, not the illustrations, however much they might be an attractive addition. The same goes for Edward Lear’s drawings for his nonsense poems or Stevie Smith’s sketches which accompany her poems.

It is unfortunate that the touch screen nature of computer use offers an easy platform for self-promotion in the field of poetry. But the writing of poetry is not an entitlement, although campaigns such as the Poetry Society’s 2015 National Poetry Day which featured the slogans ‘Love like a Poet, Speak like a Poet, Act like a Poet, Dream like a Poet, Live like a Poet, Think like a Poet’ might encourage one to think so.  The internet can and does play an important part in the promotion of poetry both past and present.  But what needs to be emphasised is the derivative nature of much of the poetry that is specifically written for the internet and its dependence on the web for material. Poetry should come from personal inspiration, not from an internet search engine.

By Paul Gittins


Paul Gittins: I was educated at Exeter College, Oxford where I read English Literature. My first book, a poetry anthology ‘Portraits in Verse’ was published in 1997 by The Perpetua Press, Oxford. In 2014, ‘Scratching Around’, a selection of my poems, was published by Editions Illador in English and bilingual English-French editions. Also in 2014, ‘On Track’, my biography of my grandfather, railway pioneer in Siam and Canada, was published by River Books (See review in Mail on Sunday 16/11/2014). Articles on poetry have been published in Oxford Today magazine (27/2/2015, 20/5/2015). I now live in Majorca, where I continue to write and give poetry recitals.

Kiss-Kiss-Kissuni by Frances Park

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Memories. Some lie dormant for decades then suddenly spring awake, fresh as yesterday. I like to think the writer in me brought Kissuni back to life but it was something else.

To me, a mere girl of seven, my grandparents’ maid was a big-boned, strapping woman, always barefoot, always moving. Her feet were cracked clay, her face a rock. With mandatory bows, she led a back-breaking life of cooking, cleaning, ironing and, like it or not, looking after me that summer. If I was thirsty, she brought me cool barley tea. If I needed to use the toilet, she carried me piggyback up a steep path that led to a church. If I couldn’t find her, she was scrubbing dirty clothes in the river, chasing lepers from the front gate or taking a meal in the closet where she slept.

No wonder Kissuni never smiled.

This was 1962 monsoon season in the mountainous fly-infested outskirts of post-war Seoul, halfway around the globe from our sweet brick rambler and blue morning glories in Springfield, Virginia. My world was a beautiful place. But here? Ugly. Forget drinkable water or indoor plumbing, even at my grandparents’ house. And they were the lucky ones – the other villagers lived in mud huts no match for the treacherous rains. Here one day, gone the next – I saw it with my own eyes.

“This is where you come from, Fran,” my dad, a World Bank economist who had fled war-torn South Korea eight years earlier with my mom, told me.

How could that be? My mom always brought me home clothes with Sears & Roebuck tags; here the whole country was in rags.

My family had arrived here in style via first-class cabins in sleek jets and a luxury cruise liner across the Pacific only to be met at the airport by beggar boys with bloodied, bandaged hands wanting American dollar! Their desperation scared me – the minute we landed, I wanted to board the next plane home. But I didn’t dare say a word to my parents, not one negative peep. I learned my lesson the time my dad and I drove past a rickety row of white shacks on the wrong side of Springfield and I innocently quipped out the window:

“Those are poor people houses, right, Dad?”

He frowned. Deeply. “Don’t call them poor people, Fran. That’s not nice.”

My dad, from whom I’d inherit a disdain for royalty, grew up in Korea under Japanese Imperialism. And these American shacks were castles compared to his childhood home.

 

With engagements in Seoul, my parents often left me to spend my days following Kissuni the maid around from room to room while chattering away in English – all pure gibberish to her Korean ear.

“Kissuni, let’s go for a walk.”

“Kissuni, it’s a very nice day.”

To my American ear, her name was lyrical – Kiss-Kiss-Kissuni – and I liked saying it, singing it, even if she ignored me like a fly she’d shoo back to America if she could. Why was Kissuni so moody? After all, she wasn’t yanked from a summer of drinking Kool-Aid and riding her bike with friends. One time for no good reason, she got irritated and closed, no, slammed the kitchen shutters on me so I couldn’t watch her preparing lunch. Boo. Without television, the view of her spooning out rice, soup and an array of side dishes was a main source of entertainment for me.

 

The day came when Kissuni cracked a smile, proving she was more than a stony stare.

“Beddy nice,” she said out of nowhere.

“You mean ‘very nice’?” I asked.

Her nod was like a deep bow. “Beddy nice.”

Kissuni’s beddy nice broke the ice. Soon we were inseparable, with our own language. Beddy good. Beddy funny. Memory: I’m on her back, we’re going up a mountain, up, up, up to the church, me happily latched and facing her sunbaked, sweat-soaked neck. Life, every step, was hard, for her. No string of pretty pearls in her future, only beads of perspiration.

“Biggyback,” she said.

Some words might stump Kissuni, like the meaning of fun. Given her nonstop toiling, it seemed unlikely that fun, in English or Korean, was part of her vocabulary. Meanwhile, I was missing it badly: the summer carnival and Fourth of July fireworks at Springfield Plaza, the rusty swing-set in our backyard where one of the poles lifted out of the ground every time I swung too high. I liked Kissuni a lot but I wanted to go home and if left alone, found myself sighing, lost in daydreams. But the moment steam from Korean soup drifted my way – radishes and scallions swimming in fragrant broth – I’d float back to reality: me and Kissuni.

After serving me a bowl at the table:

Mas-issneum?” she asked.

I nodded, wishing she could sit and join me. “Very delicious.”

For someone who had to dine in a closet, she looked satisfied. “Guk bap beddy delicious.”

Did she say – “Cook pop?”

Kissuni laughed. At last!

 

Every Sunday she would leave early in the morning and return at nightfall by bus.

“Where does she go, Mom?”

Unlike my dad’s English, my mom’s was never perfect. “To family.”

“But why doesn’t she live with them?”

“They are poor farmer. No rice to feed her.”

A child my age couldn’t make sense of war, much less understand that Kissuni was a faceless casualty. But I did know that her portrait saddened me. Maybe it wasn’t part of my glossary yet but I’d learn to despise the word hierarchy the way I despised the closet where Kissuni ate and slept but didn’t dream.

 

By summer’s end, I was speaking schoolgirl Korean and Kissuni was speaking schoolgirl English. Joined at the hip, we chatted from sunrise to sunset like we’d be chatting forever. But monsoon season was nearly over and our time in Korea was up.

“We’re leaving tomorrow, Kissuni.”

Hushed: “Go home?”

I danced, I sang: “Yes, yes, YES!”

“Beddy good…”

 

On the morning of our departure, Kissuni was permitted to accompany my grandparents to the airport. Queen-stoic, too proud to bend down to squirt-level, she held steadfast as I looked up at her. Sure, she was my buddy but honestly I couldn’t wait to land on American soil and do all the things I’d been missing like dive into a two-scoop sherbet from High’s Dairy, one orange, one raspberry. My favorites!

“Good-bye, Kissuni.”

Try as she might, her emotional guard collapsed and Kissuni wailed like an old woman in ruined rice fields.

 

By the time our airplane disappeared into the clouds, I forgot, no, not really forgot but rarely, if ever, thought about Kissuni again. I was too busy living my life. Growing up. One day I was a young girl and the next day, it seemed, a young woman dreaming-writing-falling in love, over and over. So many chapters. Granted, at any point if someone were to say, Tell me about that long-ago maid in Korea, I could probably do it, squint through ancient fog and drum up the image of a strong brown woman. Beyond that – hazy.

 

Decades after the summer of ’62, a more mature me was listening to my widowed mom reminisce about the good old days. Out of the blue, she mentioned Kissuni.

“She always want to learn.”

I blinked, detached but trying not to be.  “Yes…”

“So smart.”

“Yes…”

“You teach her English.”

“Right…”

In fact, how many English words did Kissuni memorize that summer? Dozens? A hundred?

Beddy nice. Beddy good.

“But she have no education,” my mom regretted. “Too poor to go to school.”

“Well,” I nodded definitively, “she was a smart, good woman.”

Woman? She not woman yet.”

“No?”

“No.”

“Well, how old was she?”

“Fifteen.”

So Kissuni, whose only pay was meals and a roof over her head, who carried me biggyback to the church toilet, was a mere child herself. Fifteen. No wonder she lost her temper a time or two. No wonder she cried like a baby.

 

Our Kissuni conversation was transporting. Resurrecting. Maybe her face had faded from my mind’s eye but her spirit flooded back to me and I found myself thinking about her, telling friends about her, even naming characters in my books after her. It felt like the tiniest little whisper of an honor, if that makes any sense.

Kiss-Kiss-Kissuni. Last name unknown.

Now, every so often I’ll ask my mom what she recalls about Kissuni’s fate, as if some lodged nugget might jiggle out of her brain, something old and gold and forgotten. But it’s always the same story:

“She very sad after we left grandparents’ house and quit.”

Unlike mine, Kissuni’s world was not a beautiful place. Indeed, it was ugly and unfair, and I will always wonder: She survived the Korean War but did she survive her lot in life? I don’t know. Did she marry a farmer and, if so, was he a good man and did he make a good living? I hope so. Is she even still alive? Only God, if there is a God, knows.

The End

 

By Frances Park


Frances Park began writing at age ten, and has kept the dream going. She’s an award-winning author of ten books including the novel When My Sister Was Cleopatra Moon (Hyperion/Chatto & Windus) and the memoir Chocolate Chocolate: Two Sisters, Tons of Treats and the Little Shop That Could (St. Martin’s Press). For her work, she’s been interviewed on ‘Good Morning America’, National Public Radio and Voice of America. Frances lives in the Washington, DC area and co-owns Chocolate Chocolate, a magical shop once featured on the BBC.

The Modern Eye – Edvard Munch exhibition at Tate Modern

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‘Without anxiety and sickness I would have been a rudderless ship…’

– E. Munch

At any given time of the year, somewhere on the continent, there will be another exhibition taking place of the paintings or prints of Edvard Munch. These regular airings of works both familiar and overlooked by the Nordic high priest of existential anxiety are often located in Germany, where from the early 1890s Munch’s revolutionary painterly technique instilled with an endemic morbid sensibility, was acclaimed through a series of exhibitions, which, either through scandal or reverence, served to establish his reputation in Europe. Munch spent much of his working life shuttling across the continent between exhibitions, or to meet patrons and dealers, primarily in Berlin and Paris. In Norway he was not properly recognised or elevated to his current iconic status as national artist figurehead until much later.

During the first decades of the twentieth century, in Germany and Austria, the so-called Expressionist generation would revere Munch alongside Van Gogh as a seminal father figure. But today France, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland and many other countries also feel compelled to show Munch’s works on a seemingly regular basis, such is that sense of belonging to a shared empathy as regards the difficulties of mortality that people of any era recognise are treated with uninhibited probity in Munch’s oeuvre. Furthermore, this giant of modern art seems robustly present; a visceral human force runs like a system of veins at the very surface of his art, imbuing it with an audacious expressivity, a blood rush of urgency and an uncompromising stance few others can muster.

This visionary power is further enhanced by the fact that it incorporates the lyrical and romantic rather than merely the apocalyptic and alienating. Munch is an artist wholly, almost pathologically concerned with the spectacular catastrophe of being human and having consciousness, the frailty and fragmentation of relationships, the omniscience of death, the repetitive lusts and self torture of attraction, all the necessary injustices consequent and necessary to being fully alive. Everywhere Munch is trowelling more onto his extant ‘frieze of life’ and few of his paintings are devoid of explicit or implicit human concerns.

Yet Munch is not a nihilistic or flamboyantly destructive painter, despite the pervasive melancholy and despair associated with his art. Almost never in Munch’s work does the viewer experience a feeling of repulsion or that unproductive unsettling sensation that the artist has overstepped his mandate and become rhetorically hysterical or is caught helplessly in the nets of a consciously reconstituted subjectivity. Above all Munch is an exemplary and steadfast solitary, who, though able to maintain some relationships and engage socially, to brush up against conventionality, was ultimately subordinate to an artistic calling, which for him at least was all pervading, demanded absolute submission and eventually broke him mentally.

It is perhaps not surprising that Munch really did see his paintings as his children and that they lived with him in and around his large house at Ekely just outside Oslo, from 1916 onwards. Here they were subjected to the so called ‘horse cure’, where Munch would leave them scattered about outside in all weathers to see how they would fare, to see if they could survive and how the elements extended or diminished their worthiness as works of art. Munch was to live at Ekely for twenty-eight years and eventually died there amongst his attendant surviving offspring on 23 January 1944. In later years the solitary left Ekely only to pursue the odd commission, a public fresco here, a frieze there, but holed up much of the time in his canvas-lined citadel, Munch spent his hours scrutinising his own bodily decay and welcoming the first feelers of non-existence, like a collector holding out the wings of a rare moth and peering intently at the colouring and pattern. But Munch had long been reconciled. ‘From my rotting corpse, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity …’

Although Munch is no stranger to the UK in recent years, as The Royal Academy in London also held an exhibition, Munch by Himself in 2005, there is always the feeling that this supreme outsider is somewhat out of kilter, a living memorial to genius before which people instinctively lay their tokens and wreathes of respect and awe without really knowing why. For what must avowedly self-possessed rational beings make of Munch’s evident fixation on death, madness and suicide?

When they pass by an early masterpiece such as The Sick Child, do they really encounter only a painting showing the pale jaundice-edged profile of a sick girl, her long red hair smeared and straggling about her round vulnerable head, exhausted with the sweat of long days and nights of fever, propped up in formal chair against a towering execution wall of pillows? Do they really see only a dark clad woman whose face cannot tolerate looking up to the light, the peering in of the viewer, or to contend with the sick girl’s face, captured at the borderland between life and death. Do they actually observe a mature woman inclining in exhaustion towards her own frail club hand which has reached for the even frailer one of the child, both of them suddenly joined, delayed together in the vestibule to imminent loss? Do they stand before this painting employing the same faculties of perception as for Manet’s famous Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, for example, or Vermeer’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring? or do they in fact experience the onset of a violent corporeally-lead intrusion into sanity, a delirious shifting they are ill-equipped to absorb, when faced with the repeated attempts of the artist to express in that wing width pencil line of the vanishing lips, a hitherto diverted truth suddenly emerging and groping for permanence, like an unwelcome face appearing through a half opened door? Or do they just file past after a brief inspection, unwilling fully to enter the emotional maelstrom of the painting, which they merely catch on as they pass, fearing the horrifying vortex of its implications, or worse see it only as an easy to file away reminder of the ravages of tubercular disease, the rhetorical depiction of a family member faithfully attending another who is soon to be laid out? As Antonin Artaud wrote in his notorious essay ‘Van Gogh – The Man Suicided by Society’ in 1948, concerning an exhibition in 1946 of the artist’s works at the Orangerie in Paris: ‘Are all these people who have been filing past the exhibit of his works at the Orangerie for the past two months sure they remember all they did and everything that happened to them on every evening of the months of February, March, April and May 1946? And was there not a certain evening when the atmosphere of the air and the streets became as if liquid, gelatinous, unstable, and when the light of the stars and of the celestial vault disappeared?’

In the UK today Munch is still the artist known by most as author of the melting ghoul figure of the notorious Scream, and little else. When contemporary artist and arch publicity adherent, Tracy Emin, went to Oslo to profess her adoration for and personal affiliation to Munch and let go a piercing scream outside the gallery, it was not only a cliché to crown all others but confirmed the popular response to Munch as unwitting talisman of a general public angst which everyone could buy into. The one-image-fits-all, mass-appropriated Scream of today corrupts the very authenticity of the impulse from which it was originally born. Repeated as a familial image on the retinas of millions as an angst cartoon, just one more communal tattoo in an age of cultural dislocation, its only mandate is mutual recognition by those who have joined, and by no fault of its own naturally exudes a weaker and weaker disclosing of its quite separate and necessarily restricted essence. In this respect Munch, or at least Munch’s most famous painting which he signed on the back ‘Could only have been painted by a madman’, has become a brand like everything else.

Thankfully, however, the maverick filmmaker Peter Watkins’s treatment of Munch in his film biopic of 1974 serves as a counterbalance. This necromantic film with its period costume drama trappings fused with a hallucinatory atmosphere of debilitated reverie, oleaginous Karl Johan promenades and Nordic interiors bleached by sorrow, was a hard to find VHS oddity a decade ago, but has now blossomed into an impressive DVD package with sumptuous accompanying booklet. Watkins attempts to expose cinematographically a crucial period of Munch’s life, from youth to his establishment as an artist, using as his lead an amateur without experience who bore an uncanny resemblance to the artist when young.

Watkins, as is often his wont, employs voiceover narration and gives a plausible account of Munch’s restless journeying, his darkly strewn love entanglements and ensuing vacillations, his gathering breakdown and death chamber vigils, the latter enhanced by his immersion from an early age in cyclical family bereavement amid the dreaded human furniture of the sick room. The film allows a dream-like gauze to settle over the mind of the viewer, an aura which Watkins went on to develop in his later study, The Freethinker (1994), a brilliant but little-known four-and-a-half hour biopic of Strindberg.

Watkins had only stumbled on Munch when he was visiting Oslo on other business. On entering the Munch museum by chance, he was completely overwhelmed, infected by what he found there. He realised he had stumbled on a genuinely fraternal figure who had fully articulated equitable existential concerns in the most emphatic and far-reaching manner possible. Watkins was irreversibly smitten and felt compelled to respond.

It is this hallmark, ‘infection’, which is the effect of Munch’s work on the peculiarly sensitive viewer, perhaps more than any other artist of the modern era, save Van Gogh. For Munch is recognised as the one who stands apart, the one who calls gravely and urgently across the room, in whichever gallery or museum we happen to be. Most art museums across Europe and beyond contain one or several canvases or prints by Munch, as they will by all artists of a certain rank. Why is it, though, that Munch has the power to draw the visitor from his carefully staked-out visual itinerary, once again to enthrall and unsettle him, to destabilise and worry the onlooker in a way few others can? Even a secondary painting by Munch may halt us in our tracks, for we recognise the familiar traits of the artist at once, his trademark dizzying perspective and featureless figures in groups, his entrails of flaming hair trussing the dark forms of mannequin-like masculine figures with black bauble eyes, abandoned on eerie boulder-strewn shores. Always the same judiciously applied but never overwrought or impetuous intensity is detected there, the same determination to flush out truths on the template of a landscape or scene, to constantly unveil the sculpture of expressivity before assembled reality.

The work of Munch, although of a distinct time, is not so much ahead of it, but able to exist fully in spite of it, almost without it. Munch’s art always appears to offer more credentials for permanence than the more physical reality from which it sprung, as if it had just been painted and was painted again and again for each new pair of eyes that fall upon it. The work does not date or appear forced, nor does it respond overtly to its time, unlike much of the art from the more recent past. It seems unable to bear anything peripheral or superfluous to it, any debris or algae that the years may have left disparagingly on a lesser artist’s works. This is why it shines with an intent which is always pure and lucid, like fresh barbed wire rolled out on a barricade in the sun.

Now Munch has arrived at Tate Modern on London’s Southbank, albeit by way of Paris and Frankfurt. For this exhibition, The Modern Eye, is on the final leg of its three-city tour. Like many exhibitions today of a famous figure, this one follows the well-worn route of offering a fresh perspective on an artist people thought they already knew well enough.

However, the curators here decided to show Munch’s development from a painter in the symbolist era of the late nineteenth century to that of the more Expressionist leaning period of the early twentieth. They have achieved this by showing a number of celebrated paintings in their first incarnation during the 1880s and 1890s opposite their later versions two decades or more on. These are placed on two sides of the long room near the start of the exhibition, so the impact is immediate.

The crowning work here is the aforementioned The Sick Child, first rendered as early as 1885-86, to which Munch, as with a number of his most cherished creations, always returned, compelled to search again for another route into the most plausible truthfulness of the vision. The earlier version, like the other paintings on display here, is darker in tone and more muted, more reserved in its painting technique, as one might expect. The later effort is looser, the lines broader, the forms more radically coloured and bolder in expressive intensity. The key for the viewer standing between them is to place oneself equidistant from the two epochs and simply turn from one to the other, allowing the development to impact and to marvel at the mastery of both styles in their ability to safeguard the seriousness and existential signification embedded in the scene.

In the haunting pine forest backed painting Ashes, dating from 1895, red and black are the dominant colours. These are accentuated thirty years later in the 1925 version, so that the head wound on the stricken man appears more prominent, a definite wound which he is either feeling for with his hand or covering in an attempt to prevent further blows. The woman figure’s features and eyes are more expressive in the later version, but her red hair seems to be separated from the blood lava layering the woods behind her. In the earlier version the hair is much more clearly merging into this. In the 1925 version everything seems sharper, more pronounced, almost as if the original had undergone a slightly overexcited restoration. Although the tense forbidding atmosphere is ratcheted up in the later canvas with keener contours and more explicit colouring, it is the earlier version which seems to have retained a more subtle air of suggestion and in this sense a stronger case for poetic utterance through paint.

In the next room one is immediately drawn to a painting from 1902, known as On the Operating Table. The general layout of the scene seems perhaps to have been influenced by The Anatomy Lesson by Rembrandt, painted in 1632. It also uncannily recalls the scene in a short poetic prose piece entitled ‘The Autopsy’, written by the German Expressionist poet, Georg Heym, a decade later. A clutch of faceless doctors are gathered by the prostrate naked body of the artist, discussing the prognosis. The robust seeming yet helpless body sports a clenched left fist almost frozen in rictus. The bloodstain on the sheet is in the shape of a heart and a nurse approaches bearing a blood-filled bowl before her. In the background, clone spectators also lacking faces look on silently and obediently from the public gallery, observing the show through windows. Has Munch here prophesied the modern execution chamber?

In the same room is the superb and ingenious painting, Galloping Horse, from 1919-12. Here Munch pushes his extreme perspective technique to the limit. Influenced by early cinema footage of a runaway horse appearing to gallop through the very screen towards the viewer, Munch, in a masterclass to forthcoming Expressionists, uses this device to create the illusion of the horse leaving the very frame of the painting and colliding with the viewer. The charging horse in an oval shape at centre seems literally to explode from the surface of the canvas, as if from an encasement of snow and ice. The driver on the sled behind just manages to stay upright and two figures to the right are as if blown backwards by the blast of the sudden unexpected release of the powerful form. On the left, adult figures look on rooted, expressionless, impotent, superfluous. Only the wild and unrestrained features of the horse are brought to the fore. Blocks of colours, piled up in rude juxtaposition, exacerbate the sense of something immeasurable happening. Here the horse represents all that is uncontrollable and ultimately beyond human reason.

Murder in the Road from 1919, Landscape and Dead Bodies of 1912 and The Murderess from 1907 show Munch’s obsessive preoccupation with death. More than that, a death that is more than likely unjust, brutal and unexplained. The first shows the scene of a murder on a country road with a dead body lying between a rural avenue of trees, with the outskirts of a village or town evident in the distance. It is a distinctly unsettling and curious work the longer one chooses to observe it. Using perspective as ever to heighten tension, Munch seeds the unnerving atmosphere immediately after the murderous act. The pathetic body is merely a dark shadow lying horizontally across the road; it has ceased to exist as a person. The victim lies across the muddy ruts as if run over, but a guilty face rapidly drawn, almost a cartoon face, looms large at the base of the painting, just about to exit the frame. Have we seen the murderer just before he flees the crime? The painting seems to have been executed at speed and at first glance seems rudimentary, but it is the precise positioning of the figures and the implicit loneliness which the scene arouses that leaves such a frisson of anxiety.

Similarly, in Landscape and Dead Bodies, a very sparely drawn and rarely seen watercolour and charcoal, two bodies freshly slain lie crumpled in the foreground of a lonely pine forest. No one else appears to be present but the atmosphere is heavy with silence – that oppressive silence which habitually encases atrocity. The medium of watercolour and the sparseness of the charcoal outlines of the bodies, making them almost like those traditionally made at a crime scene, heighten the effect. The scene seems nothing less than a prophetic fast forward to those mass executions of innocents which would happen in the forests of Eastern Europe forty years later.

In the next room two paintings exhibit the same horror-tinged suffocating atmosphere, made more so since they happen to occur in the same claustrophobic room with its sickly oppressive decor. The Murderess and Jealousy were both painted in 1907. In the former Munch again manages to freeze the moment just after the crime has been committed, leaving the assailant trapped with the implications of her deed. The woman stands rooted in shock at her violent action, forced by her fear to the far corner, in the incommodious narrowing of the perspective. From there she stares out at the lifeless bloodied corpse on the divan, of which we see only a portion. Something has happened here, Munch seems to say, that no one foresaw and no one understands, least of all the murderess.

One of the highlights of this exhibition are the series of amateur photographs Munch took to record his paintings in storage or at exhibitions and with often himself posed amongst them. Many of these are repetitive, as if Munch was keen on holding the camera up at arm’s length to snap himself frame by frame, a sort of rolling self-portrait. But even in those images which appear to show nothing of particular interest, such as the bare yard behind a house or the walls of an atelier, there is a presence resonating all the same. This muted sepia-tenderised ‘atmosphere’ is more pronounced it seems in the photographs than the brief, ten-minute film Munch took with his Pathé-Baby movie camera, purchased in France in 1927. Experimenting with his new toy, Munch takes it onto the streets of Oslo and points at whatever takes his fancy in the daily hustle and bustle. Even his pet dog gets in on the act.

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