By Andrew Hodgson, Contributing Editor
Stumbling into the home stretch of the PhD, I gather it might be best to stack all the books out of arm’s reach, as is the tendency of the researcher to read too much and write too little, or maybe I have that the wrong way. Either one, being an arch-procrastinator, there is a modest pile I perpetually intend to get around. Today I am reading Pol Bury’s Les petits moutons blancs qui sortent en rang du lavoir, which is accompanied by eight illustrations of Chairman Mao slowly turning into a potato. In a similar vein I found a collection of what Michel Thévoz terms ‘écrits bruts’ at the Halle Saint Pierre bookshop, taken from Jean Dubuffet’s vast repository of Art Brut down in Lausanne. It is one of several collections by Thévoz of experimental texts written by clinically institutionalised artists and writers, the pieces are often signed simply by a first name, written on scraps of paper and napkins. There is a handmade and private air to the texts, the writers often take concepts akin to Queneau’s ‘doukipudonktan’, or Hains and Villeglé’s Hepérile eclaté to interesting extremes. Hopefully this summer I can find the time to get down to Lausanne for a better look.
Some time ago I read Jacques Yonnet’s Rue des Maléfices (in English rendered Paris Noir), which is an amazing book where urban myth and history collapse into each other and feed an account of Yonnet’s activity as a hitman in the resistance during the war. Though he was most famous for his newspaper work, in particular an article in Résistance in which he managed to incite the arrest of a Parisian doctor, too a decorated hero of the resistance, who claimed to have helped hundreds of Jews escape to Argentina. Yonnet accused him of murdering them, and, when the police raided the doctor’s house they found a homemade gas chamber, crematorium, and piles and piles of luggage, including baby clothes, filling the doctor’s basement. For which the doctor was executed.
Yonnet’s writing documents his life laying low amongst the rag pickers and homeless in the bars around the Rue de Bièvre with other figures whose books are looking at me now from the bookshelf, who I promise daily I’ll get to. Bob Giraud’s Le vin des rues is a similar conceit, he was also apparently the first to record and define Parisian argot, too Jean-Paul Clébert with Paris insolite, and the photographer Robert Doisneau made observing the grey hues in the dark underbelly their lifework (it is also, arguably, Doisneau’s fault that the bridges in Paris are now falling into the river).
Largely unconnected to my research but borne out of boredom with a perceived repeated critical reliance on Kafka I too intend to properly get to grips with Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, whose collections Autobiography of a Corpse, The Letter Killers Club and Memories of the Future (relatively) recently came out on NYRB. I would pitch (to cast just such a comparative reduction to Franz) the writing as a meeting of the narrative mechanisms of Kafka, and the humour and resignation of Dostoevsky’s promethean man, or The Master and Margarita. Krzhizhanovsky’s shrugging cynicism is refreshing.
Along with piles of photocopied (fair use!) articles by/on Gustav Metzger and the collection by him/on him damaged nature, auto-destructive art, which looks like it might be of use in connection with contemporaneous British novel disintegrators, this should all just about fill my summer. As well as, of course, those 60,000 words missing from the next word document over from this. Wish me luck.
First posted: Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014.