:: Article

A House Divided

By Terry Pitts.

S.D. Chrostowska, Permission: A Novel, Dalkey Archive, 2014

In late July 2007, a man opened an email from his inbox and began reading. ”Permit me to write you today, beyond today…making this an experiment in the writing of a book…I want nothing in return, nothing tangible – only permission to continue this spectral writing, so disembodied and out of place, so easily disavowed.” Although the emails continued to arrive almost weekly, he never replied, never requested the identity of the author, never said “Stop.” Over time, the author of the emails – initially “F.W.”, but eventually “Fearn Wren” – became more comfortable, more familiar, telling him about her upbringing in Poland and her struggles to become a writer, and even confiding her family squabbles. She began attaching images. Then the emails abruptly stopped. And thus, after nine months, a book was born.

This is the premise behind S.D. Chrostowska’s Permission: A Novel. When it came out in 2013, it landed pretty much under the radar, despite a handful of enthusiastic reviews, a compelling blurb by Teju Cole, and several author interviews (including one here at 3:AM with Edwin Turner of Biblioklept and another “interview” between Chrostowska and herself at The New Quarterly). I found the book to be a complex, elusive, perplexing, and, at times, bold work that alternated between thrilling possibilities and frustrating gestures, but always a work that begged to be deeply pondered and reread.

Formally, Permission attempts to be a modern twist on the monologic epistolary novel, the strictly one-sided communication between a correspondent and a silent – in this case, non-responsive – recipient. The twist is that Chrostowska claims that the entire enterprise has been a real-life experiment; that she actually sent these emails under the disguise of a pseudonym to an unnamed individual. While this is hinted at within the book itself, one learns this definitively only after reading interviews with the author. In her conversation with Cailin Neal on the Dalkey Archive website, for example, Chrostowska talks about the one-way flow of emails: “This was the exciting part of the experience. Any day I could be told to stop, or worse: asked about my identity. I was never sure whether or not I was being read—except maybe once. In any case, the only way the addressee could prove they understood me was by not replying.”

Being told that the emails were really sent gives Permission a whiff of non-fiction that seems to receive further confirmation when Chrostowska remarks in her 3:AM interview, “I wasn’t writing a novel.” And yet the epigraph that begins the book was clearly chosen to cast a cloud of uncertainty over its real genre. It’s a quotation from Rousseau’s Second Preface to Julie, Or the New Heloise in which the following conversation “between the Editor and a Man of Letters” takes place:

N. My judgment depends on the answer you are going to give me. Is this correspondence real, or is it a fiction?

R. I don’t see that it matters. To say whether a Book is good or bad, how does it matter how it came to be written?

R. Let me return to our letters. If you read them as the work of an Author who wishes to please, or who has pretensions of writing, they are detestable.  But take them for what they are, and judge them according to their kind.

Just what kind of book is Permission? Is it really a novel? This essay attempts to address that question. To do so, we should try, as the book’s epigraph suggests, to understand and “judge [the emails] according to their kind.” The content of Fearn Wren’s emails can best be described as a patchwork comprised of memories, dreams, lies, family stories, philosophical propositions, literary meditations, photographs, and the mundane thoughts that pass through the mind of a woman who is haunted by death and who often thinks of writing as a form of illness. They are rambling (like many emails) and often lengthy (far lengthier than most emails). Frequently, Wren abandons any pretense that she has a reader at all and simply offers a meandering essay on whatever subject is uppermost in mind: genius, creativity, solitude, death, nostalgia, the Shoah, writing, walking, depression, books. But in truth, Fearn Wren’s emails bear no real relation to a 21st century electronic message and might well have been old-fashioned letters delivered by the post.

The recipient of these emails is a reader who is much discussed but utterly absent. “To think that you are absent from this book. You, to whom the entire book is addressed, are nowhere to be found in it. Instead, an oblong shadow seen flitting across its pages. I have written to you, written for you – still, I have written you out.”  If, for a moment, we might be tempted to think that all of those “yous” carry with them a sense of intimacy, we would be wrong, for the recipient of the emails is a stranger to Wren. The man who receives them over the book‘s gestation period is described simply as an artist – a filmmaker, to be exact.

Each time I reread Permission, I found that Chrostowska’s “novel” and Fearn Wren’s emails refused to be one and the same. This gap between competing claims of authenticity and fantasy, between author and narrator, between knowing and uncertainty, between voyeurism and giving, became for me one of the central sources of creative tension in Permission. The book’s curious authorial bifurcation, with two distinct sets of readers, is emblematic of a work which often seemed to be oddly divided against itself.

In addition to the epigraph from Rousseau, there is another page – a “short introduction”— tucked between Permission’s title page, which bears the name S.D. Chrostowska, and the first email, which is signed “F.W.”. Unsigned, its authorship seems ambiguous. Chrostowska or Wren? It is dated May 2008, after the final email has been sent. The author of this introduction imagines the reactions of the anonymous recipient as he read the emails over the past nine months, projecting a variety of responses upon her silent reader. This attempt to imagine a reader seems to act like a swinging door, pivoting back and forth  between Chrostowska and Wren, between a private, seemingly spontaneous correspondence and a thoroughly planned book.

Throughout, Fearn Wren offers her anonymous filmmaker a number of reasons for writing privately to him, an audience of one reader. He serves as her inspiration and her artificial Everest, passively providing challenge and focus.  “Whatever such works I have in me I can only conceive of writing with you in mind – you’ll make a writer of me yet!” she declares.  And a bit later: “But for you, this book would have spilled into formlessness.”  At one point she even refers to him as “dear Doctor,” seeming to place herself in the role of patient on the psychoanalyst’s couch.

Nevertheless, from the second sentence of her initial email, Fearn Wren has announced the very real possibility that her private emails might eventually become a very public book. The opening gambit contained in that first email is that Wren has embarked on “an experiment in giving.” She wants to see “to what extent can I pour myself into a vacuum.” Invoking Marcel Mauss, the French sociologist whose book Essai sur le don (The Gift) explores the reciprocal nature of most gifts, Wren says she is working out an “anti-Western” philosophy that tries to go beyond the exchange of “something for something” to a type of giving “without the faintest expectation or hope of authority, solidarity, reciprocity.” “Can my giving be unhinged from a sense of both investment and pointless expenditure?” Curiously, neither Wren nor Chrostowska waste any time wondering if perhaps the “gift” of words to the unwitting recipient might be undercut by the commercial and public sharing of those same words via the book we are reading, and I sometimes wondered if this “experiment in giving” wasn’t a way of having one’s cake and eating it, too. Nevertheless, it is this opening gambit that helps drive a wedge between the private texts written by Fearn Wren to an audience of one and a published novel written by S.D. Chrostowska for an audience of many. As “F.W.” slowly reveals herself and becomes “F. Wren” and then, finally, “Fearn Wren,” the reader can never completely rid herself of the notion of voyeuristically peering into a very private set of messages and confessions.

As Wren starts to feel more comfortable in the one-sided relationship with her anonymous recipient, she begins to include images. She mentions having a camera and some of the images are clearly implied to be of her own making. The images for which she was not responsible include several old snapshots of her own family and some images taken from newspapers. The first thing that struck me in looking at the images is that they are all visually compelling. One glances at them expecting to quickly consume the image and then move on with the text; but the images repeatedly stole my attention, and I found myself eventually going back to the text having been taken somewhere entirely unexpected and yet related. The variety of ways in which photographs interact with and act upon the text is intelligent and sophisticated and became for me one of the high points of the book. What is often of most interest in these images is not their literal content – the specific landscape or building or subject – but the manner of depiction, the lighting and focus, the framing of the image. Take, for example, the photograph of a path that is placed in the midst of a description of a walk in the Tatra foothills on the Poland/Slovakia border, an image that I found haunting and vaguely disturbing. The path, which seems to glisten with moisture or possibly just reflected sunlight, wends its way between a dense, dark, indistinct forest and a brighter open area. I was not sure if the forest might represent a threat or security, but something about the shift of focus from sharp to blurry and back to sharp echoed countless tense moments in noir films.

Like Chrostowska, Wren describes herself as an academic at a North American university, and she unloads an armful of complaints about the way in which academic knowledge has become severed from real life. Questions about knowledge and the role of education are posed in countless guises throughout the emails. Wren, it becomes apparent, has developed a strong sense of the limits of academic pretensions to knowledge. This is most clearly seen when Wren returns to Poland as a newly minted Doctor of Philosophy, but finds herself completely unable to doctor a dying newborn calf back to health. At another point, Wren toys “with the idea of writing an academic paper for a conference dedicated to obsession and addiction,” but she realizes if she did so that “actual obsession and addiction must be left at the door.” She tends to place more trust in “an avalanche of ideas” or a “thunderstorm of images” or a “torrent of words” than a carefully wrought and footnoted argument. With a nod to Pestalozzi, Wren declares that “knowledge is, above all, skill in living: to obtain it is to live more and more proficiently.”

Accordingly, when Wren employs images it seems like a strategy to foreclose conventional responses and directly access the reader’s imagination and emotions in the service of her big themes. She’s trying to reroute her academic passions through non-academic channels. A core section of the book revolves around her discussion of three dreams, which Wren realizes were provoked by seeing a photograph of Anne and Margot Frank standing on a beach in matching swimming suits. The image itself is graphically startling. The two girls, whose backs are to the camera as they look across a beach toward the water’s edge, are nearly identical in every way except for size; one is larger and presumably older than the other. Their swimming suits, postures, and even their shadows are duplicates of each other. It’s a Diane Arbus moment, made all the more complex by being told that these are two of the most universally recognized victims of the Holocaust. Wren examines and contrasts the three dreams that the image stimulated against the “detached knowledge of the Holocaust” that she, as a well-educated person, had cultivated over the years.

What does it even mean to learn from the Holocaust? How can one learn from it? The evidence is overabundant (“the most documented event in history”), but the event falls apart in one’s head…One must (I now see) think the unthinkable, imagine its most unimaginable details, and prepare oneself for the eventuality of being capable of or being manipulated into evil and, in effect, of participating in destruction of horrific proportions.

This vital shift in Wren’s understanding of the Shoah (that she – and by extension, all of us – might be capable one day of committing Nazi-like actions) was actuated through the interpretation of her dreams, through the imagination rather than a heavy dose of facts. “The language of dreams was in so many ways ideal for conceiving of the Shoah and living with its consequences.”

So let’s return to the question of Permission’s subtitle, and ask ourselves if this might not be the ultimate paradox – a novel that contains little or no fiction. Is Fearn Wren merely a pseudonym, or can we see her as a fictional narrator? Obviously, for Chrostowska’s basic premise to work she had to send her emails pseudonymously or the filmmaker could easily discover who he was dealing with. But Permission also suggests that Wren is not entirely synonymous with Chrostowska. In an email that comes almost exactly midway through the book, Wren writes of the “mask I wear and hide behind…a series of masks, created for speaking to you.” Significantly, Wren marks the moment by signing this email with her full, if fictional, name for the first time, as if to reinforce the duality of the author/narrator relationship. A mask “is not made solely of what it says or thinks it is saying, but of what it excludes.” The mask thus becomes a metaphor for the way in which the narrator of any novel is and is not the author in ways that the reader can never fully untangle.

In many ways, the book that Permission reminds me most of is Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, that wise, unclassifiable book written by an author had multiple authorial personas. Pessoa referred to the authors he created as “heteronyms,” which is the term for words that are different in pronunciation and meaning but not in spelling. Pessoa’s heteronyms are differentiated, then, by degrees of separation, which is perhaps a relevant way of looking at the relationship that Chrostowska has with her narrator Fearn Wren. Just as Fearn Wren confesses that she doesn’t know if she has written an “incantatory work” or nothing but “scraps,” Pessoa referred to his book as a “factless autobiography” and his “Confessions.” Both books embed deep meditations on sometimes weighty philosophical matters within the simple observations and minor events of daily life. Richard Zenith, who translated 2001 edition of The Book of Disquiet for Penguin, wrote a description of that book which could just as easily apply to Permission:

What we have here isn’t a book but its subversion and negation: the ingredients for a book whose recipe is to keep shifting, the mutant germ of a book and its weirdly lush ramifications, the rooms and windows to build a book but no floor plan and no floor, a compendium of many potential books and many others already in ruins. What we have in these pages is an anti-literature, a kind of primitive, verbal CAT scan of one man’s anguished soul.

Perhaps it was inevitable that a writer who didn’t want to write a novel and yet wrote something she called a novel would create a book that seems so deliberately evasive of its own identity. Each time I read Permission I found myself thinking of Fearn Wren as a narrator independent of her author. I cherished the gap between Wren’s texts and Chrostowska’s book, between Wren the writer of confessional emails and Chrostowska the “calculating” author. So it has been struck me as odd – and mildly disappointing –  that in recent interviews Chrostowska has eagerly disavowed her narrator,  repeatedly throwing Fearn Wren under the bus as a mere pseudonym. It feels to me that once Fearn Wren was created and her name placed at the end of every email, the genie can’t be put back in the bottle. Permission is often at its best when its author and narrator aren’t always on the same page.

Perhaps “the problem” I’ve had with Permission is that it is simply unclassifiable. Perhaps the subtitle was more of a preventative measure, added for the purpose of giving the book a genre, an identifiable place in the marketing stream and a specific shelf in the bookstore, to keep Permission from overly confining labels like “philosophy” or “memoir.” Early on, Wren predicts that her emails will form “a stuttering, piecemeal, plotless kind of work…one part detachable from the next and from the whole.” What kind of book is that? I think of the story of W.G. Sebald, who told his publisher that his book The Rings of Saturn deserved to be shelved under more than a dozen categories in bookstores. The more that I thought about it, the more I began to see that Permission is closely related to Sebald’s earlier genre-defying book Vertigo. Where Sebald, another disaffected academic, overlaid a narrative of literary explication onto a wandering character very much like himself, Chrostowska grafts philosophy-saturated essays onto her alter ego and near twin Fearn Wren. Both writers, in their own way, have tried to breathe new life into their academic discourse by tossing together a handful of genres as if they were the ingredients of a salad. Sebald chose to call his writing “prose fiction,” Chrostowska chose to call hers “a novel.” A better subtitle might just be “a book.”

Terry Pitts is a former curator and museum director, having spent 38 years between the Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona and the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He has a B.A. degree in literature from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana and an M.A. in art history from the University of Arizona. Since 2007, he has written the blog Vertigo, which often focuses on the literature of W.G. Sebald and other authors of fiction and poetry who include photography within their texts.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, October 1st, 2014.