Fragments, miracles, recurrences and likenesses: A review of F.M.R.L. by Daniela Cascella
By C.D. Rose.
Daniela Cascella, F.M.R.L. (Zero Books, 2015)
As I sit here trying to write this review, squinting at the words on the screen, I become intensely aware of a forlorn, ignored car alarm flailing away outside, the rustle of wind in the trees, the distant rumble of traffic punctuated by the grind of the bin lorry and the whine of a workman’s saw downstairs. The phone calls and arguments of passers-by, the wind on this breezy morning taking their voices and mutating them into something other. I am listening, and I am writing, and I am reading. Each sound has its own trajectory into memory and into the future, and it seems words, these inadequate marks on paper or screen, are the only way we can hold those vibrations in the air.
Blimey. That’s what this book does to you.
Initially, Daniela Cascella’s F.M.R.L. frustrates and mystifies, revealing little. Yet a book which modestly subtitles itself ‘Footnotes, mirages, refrains and leftovers,’ and whose own author describes it as an “improvisation in writing, listening and reading”, slowly teases out the significance of those four letters in an enterprise which constantly interrupts and echoes itself — much like the processes of remembering and writing which are its focus. Finally, it manages to reveal lots. Like the Akio Suzuki performance Cascella recalls, what may at first seem fragmentary, muddled, recalcitrant and left-field later realises itself as miraculous and fully-formed. Or the Giacinto Scelsi string quartet she describes as “a series of beginnings that curl back onto themselves and begin nothing other than a muted, repeated, flawed and ever-incomplete involvement with sounds” — a canny description of the book itself.
Fifteen short chapters begin with a playful dialogue between sound and a writer, as Cascella seems to work out what she’s doing on the page before you, and then moving straight into the tangled yet lyrical description of that Scelsi quartet. As soon as you are oriented to that, Cascella moves again, to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford where a brass amulet triggers a moving memoir of her Neapolitan grandmother casting her final spell. And so it continues.
Cascella, an Italian now resident in London, has worked as a curator, lecturer and writer working largely in the field of sound and uses her experience as the mulch of F.M.R.L. Her first book, En Abîme circled similar areas, using personal experience as trigger for reflection in listening, reading and writing. Yet F.M.R.L. takes the approach a step further, defiantly becoming even more fragmentary, picking up on tiny clues and memory traces (those ‘footnotes, mirages, refrains and leftovers’), piecing them together to make a book which is ultimately more successful than its predecessor.
There are several reasons for this. First is the sheer fact that Cascella writes so well. This is even more of a feat when remembering that English isn’t her first language. Reflecting on this very fact she writes: “Deprived of proper words and of horizon I have no voice here, nor song, but a tongue tied to a thick rope of hemp right in my throat. It chokes me inside the barrel of my every London morning, in sawdust days of tea and tar.”
Her writing draws on the models she refers to throughout the book (de Filippo, Malaparte, Rhys, Lispector), yet her English has a demotic edge, a journalistic sharpness and no truck with international artspeak. This lends the writing a directness, avoiding the occasional vagaries of her influences, which in turn gives the book another reason for its success: its emotional heft.
The red thread linking a number of the book’s fragments is a box of semi-forgotten tapes, CDs, books and notes, disinterred from her parents’ house and dragged, bit-by-bit to a new home, refound after many years (an experience I would hazard is familiar to many of us). As Cascella goes through the box it triggers memories and reflections, and through the book mixes them with stories of friends, mothers, relatives or lovers, wondering to herself, “Are these boxes all that’s left of a life? …Over the years since I packed and moved, they keep returning unevenly, harmonic frequencies of myself. This archive is not a keepsake…it is a sibylline presence. It won’t answer any of my questions, so I have to reinvent myself in a silent state of hearing and find the answers in everything that the records in the archive do not keep and do not tell me.”
Added to this, Cascella is a great storyteller. Her process moves toward the abstract, theoretical or intangible from a close engagement with the sensual and with lived experience. A description of a two-hour walk with the artist Paolo Inverni into an underground cave in the Italian Alps (“in total darkness…humidity 100%, temperature 5.5°C”) is Robert Macfarlane-esque, an adventure I’d be tempted to try myself, full well knowing I’d probably never have the balls to do so. On the other hand, her rapt description of walking through Berlin at 6am after seeing “the dawn break from the huge windows at the Panorama Bar in Berghain above bodies and techno bedazzlement and movement and thick air and euphoric thoughts of abandon,” drew me back to my own memories of such times.
The stories are not all personal. Moving on from thinking about de Filippo and Malaparte, she goes on to tell the grand guignol story of the Palazzo Sansevero in Naples, home to the Faust-like Enlightenment alchemist Prince Raimondo di Sangro and Carlo Gesualdo, madrigalist and murderer. Folly, madness, recklessness, lunacy. And listening.
F.M.R.L. was the longest 120-odd pages I’ve read in ages: it sent me down Wikipedia holes, chasing references, looking through old books, buying new ones, Googling and YouTubing to find or re-find that Scelsi quartet, the Sardinian polyphonic singers Tenores de Bitti, 90s Neapolitan dub act Almamegretta, an obscure Arthur Russell track, or to remind myself of Canto 13 of the Inferno, or Gianni Rodari’s Lamberto Lamberto Lamberto, scrambling to learn more about Michel Leiris or Henri Michaux. Having the ability to find the sounds, places, writers and music referenced in the book opened up the experience of reading immeasurably, turning it into one of listening, too.
And yet, the book avoids what is at its centre: there are no gushing descriptions of being rapt by sound, no blog-standard music crit thinkpieces. Cascella instead reveals the ghosts that the haptic experience of listening arises from, the gain and loss of their translation into the written word.
I would contest Cascella’s idea that “if I believed that these words could stand forever on their own, and keep any experiences of sounds still within, I would be beaten: they are eroded by what they do not say. Like sounds, words won’t outlast me.” F.M.R.L. — a book of fragments, miracles, recurrences and likenesses, findings, memories, revenants and lacunae — is far from ephemeral.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.D. Rose is the editor of The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure (Melville House), a book described as being comparable to Borges by The Washington Post, and as comparable to Grumpy Cat’s Grumpy Guide to Life by The Guardian. He is also the author of a trail of short stories (including ‘Arkady Who Couldn’t See And Artem Who Couldn’t Hear,’ forthcoming from Galley Beggar Press). He is at home anywhere there are good second-hand bookshops, dusty libraries and dark bars.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 13th, 2015.