:: Article

Letters Not About Brexit

By Joanna Walsh.


At the end of  his book, Zoo, or Letters not about Love, the Russian writer and theorist Viktor Shklovsky, in exile in Berlin in the 1920s, stopped writing love letters to the unresponsive Alya (IRL the writer and translator Elsa Triolet, also exiled in the city in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution), and began to write her letters about politics. Why did he do that?

I find, when I am writing a love letter—or nowadays an email, or even a DM—that there must be material for my words, beyond (and especially before) there can be declarations of love. “Every letter is a love letter,” writes Chris Kraus in I Love Dick, noting that in her love letters she wrote about “snowy woods and female art and finding the 1st person.” The material of love is not love only, and is not the only subject by which it is transmitted. Love is not self-reflexive, but forces me to think on different subjects, compels me to use words sometimes only for the sake of communication with its object. Often I think things only because I write them to you, but my thinking crosses borders into the world beyond.

The French philosopher Alain Badiou agrees: “I believe there really is an encounter with the other, but an encounter is not an experience, it is an event that remains quite opaque, and only finds it reality in its multiple resonances in the real world… It is an existential project: to construct the world from a decentered point of view other than that of my mere impulse to survive or re-affirm my own identity.⁠1

Shklovsky’s letters to Alya morphed from declarations of love to a passionate call to the Soviet government to allow him re-cross the border into the country where he felt most at home, and they lead me to ask why he crosses love with geographical space. Is it because love is, as Badiou says, itself to do with crossing and if so, how is this association characterised? So often, when it can’t cross physically, immediately, love crosses in writing. And so often our only evidence of its crossing is its inscription on something that crosses between people: a letter, an email, or a book. Look at the dedications in books and you will find that they are usually, in the broadest meaning of the word ‘sentimental’: addressed to lovers, spouses, friends. We find it normal that words are ‘dedicated’, and that writing begins less with general audience in mind than one reader in particular. But it reaches a wider readership nonetheless.

Votes for Brexit have been votes against border crossings. “The relationship our sector has with the EU is complex, ranging from finance to State Aid, copyright regulation and the movement of artists across European borders,” states the Arts Council England’s website. A vote for Brexit has not only been a vote against the €s coming into the UK from EU funding, but against the relationships carefully built between British and EU writers, publishers and cultural organisations, which are now under threat.

It may seem that writing, especially the writing of fiction, sometimes on only indirectly political subjects, like love, has no role to play in fighting this process of isolation, but the very nature of writing exists in the tension it produces by crossing, in the gaps between one word and the next, in the pull between the words (the writer) and the reader. Writers cross borders at every point where character, description, plot make the personal political and the political personal. Each time a reader is ‘moved’ by a work, something is transgressed, a barrier is broken: when readers are moved by something from a page outside their direct experience, culturally, linguistically, there is a greater leap of love.

While we are still here, making revolution on the page, as writers, as publishers, as readers, these borders remain open. 

Joanna Walsh, Fiction Editor 3:AM


1 In Praise of Love, Serpent’s Tail 2012, trans Peter Bush

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, July 3rd, 2016.