Monthly Archives: October 2014

Dark horse

imagesThe Swedish Academy has named Patrick Modiano the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in literature. But could the prize in fact be an honorary award for another author? Did the prize committee mean to recognize someone else entirely when they awarded it to the French novelist? The new laureate seemed to suggest as much when he reacted with surprise and confusion to the announcement of his win. “I wasn’t expecting it at all,” Modiano said. “It was like I was a bit detached from it all, as if a doppelgänger with my name had won.” The author added that he was keen to learn why he had been selected, as if he had reason to doubt the committee’s motives.

The Swedish Academy’s pronouncements on the prize winner give some clues as to who Modiano’s “doppelgänger” might be. The selection committee stated that “this is someone who has written many books … about memory, identity and aspiration,” and praised him “for the art of memory with which he evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the Occupation.”

These broad descriptions seem carefully crafted to pay homage to the work of Modiano while also acknowledging the Nobel-worthy literature of his fellow countryman, Georges Perec, nine years his senior. Like Modiano, Perec’s work is haunted by the Nazi Occupation; having lost his Jewish parents to the Holocaust as a young boy, Perec returned obsessively to the place and time of his childhood in pre-war and wartime Paris, as can be seen in such texts as Je me souviens (I Remember) and W, ou le souvenir d’enfance (W, or the Memory of Childhood). “Memory, identity and aspiration” are the key themes of the prize winner’s work, as the Nobel committee aptly put it.

Literary reviewers and commentators also speak of the prize winner in terms that apply equally to Perec and Modiano. This is surprising to say the least, as it suggests that the Nobel committee has dictated its intentions to the reviewers and requested their complicity in a covert scheme of double homage. The scenario evokes the fictional worlds of both Modiano and Perec: literary reviewers and academics may be conveying the Nobel committee’s purpose in code, or perhaps even unbeknownst to themselves, unconsciously.

Writing for the BBC, one reviewer, Henri Astier, says of Modiano’s novels that “They usually centre on young men cast adrift […] in 1960s Paris. There is a sense of threat, but little is explained.” For readers of Perec, Astier’s description is sure to call to mind the author’s début novel Les Choses (Things), subtitled “A story of the 1960s.” Moreover, whole chapters of Les Choses consist of characters wandering aimlessly in Paris without plans or projects, while undefined terrors periodically take hold of them when they consider their uncertain place in the world. But the idea of being “cast adrift” applies also to Un homme qui dort (A Man Asleep), george-brassai1899-1984-1347120376_b_2whose protagonist abandons his studies and wanders without purpose or direction in Paris, just as it does the character in Perec’s film Les lieux d’une fugue, a child who runs away from home and sleeps in the street like a lost orphan.

Works such as Perec’s Les lieux d’une fugue embroider on the difficulty of reconstructing the events they portray, which at times makes the framing narration intrude significantly on the plot. But Astier remarks that “The plot, however, matters much less than the feelings evoked by his deceptively simple prose. Blurred memory plays a key role,” he adds. “Modiano’s narrators try to make sense of half-remembered events from their youth, looking back through a glass darkly.” Interestingly, Astier notes that “The lack of clarity goes hand in hand with geographical precision – with each Paris location overlaid with layers of imperfect memories.”

These references to geography make clear that the critic is referring to Perec’s role as chronicler of Parisian space. In abstract and reflective works such as Espèces d’espaces (Species of Spaces) and the meticulous documentation project Lieux (Places), Perec, the most spatial of modern writers, took upon himself the impossible task of exhaustively describing urban places, sometimes returning to certain areas over a period of many years to patiently record what he called the “infra-ordinary.” The most moving aspect of Lieux is no doubt the project concerning the street where Perec grew up before his parents were deported by the Nazis. Perec documented the demolition of houses along the rue Vilin in the 1970s, and his notes and photographs 1933 Brassai Graffiti 1933 _2of his ruined childhood home dramatize the traumatic legacy of the Occupation and the fragility historical memory. As Rupert Thomson succinctly puts it, speaking of Modiano, “[Perec] is the poet of the Occupation and a spokesman for the disappeared.”

Thomson may have tipped his hand, however, when he said that Modiano’s books are “puzzles,” as the statement refers quite unmistakably to Perec. After all, Perec composed the crossword puzzles for the magazine Le Point, and puzzles of various kinds can be found in many of his works, not only as a central motif, such as in La vie mode d’emploi (Life, a User’s Manual), but also as a principle of composition, such as in his tour-de-force La Disparition (A Void), a novel written entirely without the letter e. Anton Voyl, the novel’s protagonist, tries to uncover the haunting absence at the core of his world which remains quite literally unspeakable. Once again, Thomson’s assessment of Modiano obliquely hits its mark: “what seems to interest him most is the gaps in people’s lives – the bits that have been removed or repressed, the bits that can’t be accounted for.”

There remains the puzzle of the Nobel committee’s motive in their apparent work of double homage. Perec died in 1982, so he can’t of course be the official recipient of a Screen Shot 2011-09-14 at 9.49.19 AM_2lifetime award today. Perhaps the committee is attempting to make up for a lapse in judgment in the past. Perhaps, in a tragicomic error of taste, the dignified Swedish Academy simply could not envision the goofy, wild-haired genius at the podium in Stockhom.







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In 1506 a large sculpture lost since antiquity was found buried in a Roman vineyard. Word of the find spread fast, the Pope himself became involved, and a thirty-year-old Michelangelo was among those present at the excavation. The sculpture turned out to be none other than the famous Laocoön group, the dramatic portrayal of the Trojan priest and4377718201_8e8ae50bbd his sons in the throes of death, snared in the coils of sea serpents.

For Michelangelo the sculpture was a revelation. The Laocoön’s torturous Dionysian extravagance challenged the serene classicism of the sculptor’s early period and the influence of its figures can be seen his dynamic later works. His unfinished slaves, for instance, seem to writhe helplessly in a mineral substance as suffocating as the Laocoön’s serpents. Renaissance art had always been torn between pagan humanism and Christian pieties, but the Laocoön provoked a culture shock by bodying forth a virtually traumatizing scene of agony and unredeemed sacrifice.

When a five-ton boulder was excavated from a construction zone in Vancouver last month, it attracted comparatively little attention. No artist rushed to the site; no political figure or religious leader made a claim to the object. The boulder was merely set aside and marked off with reflector posts and caution tape. And yet there is cause to register an event of some magnitude, comparable even to the discovery of that ancient Roman artifact.


The Vancouver megalith is a glacial erratic that was quarried from the mountains by moving ice and deposited at its present location in Point Grey some 10 to 15,000 years ago by the retreat of the cordilleran ice sheet. Like the Laocoön, the boulder is a testament to another time, very different from our own, yet uncannily similar. At the start of the Neolithic period 10,000 years ago the planet’s warming climate spurred the swift development of agriculture, technology and cities. Comparing the Neolithic revolution to our time, Claude Lévi-Strauss argued that the former outstrips the present day for the sweeping extent of its technical and social transformations.* The anthropologist’s claim was meant to check modern humans’ self-regard and faith in progress. Pessimist though he was, Lévi-Strauss may have underestimated the relative ecological costs of the two periods. As neolithic humans spread across the warming globe they wiped out the great megafauna of the ice age. That impressive roster of extinctions pales, however, in comparison to the warming trend of our time, a trend of our own making; a just-released report from the WWF states that wildlife populations on Earth have declined by more than 50% in the forty years from 1970 to 2010.


Asphalt Rundown, Rome, October 1969

Who was paying attention to this impending calamity forty years ago? As it happens, Robert Smithson was in Vancouver in that benchmark year 1970. The artist had just begun creating his large-scale earthworks; in the first of these works he dumped a truckload of asphalt down a hillside of a quarry in Rome; three months later he poured the contents of a barrel of glue down a muddy slope in Vancouver’s Point Grey. Smithson’s trajectory is highly suggestive. To paraphrase the artist’s notorious quip about his New Jersey hometown, we might ask, “Has Vancouver replaced Rome as the Eternal City?”**


Glue Pour, Vancouver, January 1970

Smithson’s question is to be taken as a serious proposition. Moreover, our paraphrase accords with the artist’s evocation of the world’s cities “placed end to end in a straight line,” each mirroring the next in an “impossible progression” suggestive of “the limits of eternity.” Places like Vancouver’s muddy slope are meant to evoke an “eternity” quite unlike the timeless masterpieces dear to art history or the metaphysical paradises they portray, what Smithson calls “the incipient fascism of all dream worlds” (Writings, 269). Smithson’s entropic projects are not only a challenge to art history but to history itself; his vision of time telescopes into the prehistoric, geological past and an obsolescent posthuman future.

Each landscape, no matter how calm and lovely, conceals a substrata of disaster — a narrative that discloses “no story, no buoyancy, no plot” (Jean Cayrol: Lazare parmi nous). Deeper than the ruins of concentration camps, are worlds more frightening, worlds more meaningless. The hells of geology remain to be discovered. If art history is a nightmare, what is natural history? (Writings, 375)

Smithson’s long view of time put him somewhat at odds with ecological beliefs, and his plans for an “Island of Broken Glass” off Vancouver Island had to be scrapped in 1970 due to environmentalists’ objections. Smithson tended to see ecologists as idealists fixated on impossible edens; his own dialectical method eschewed sentimentality and anthropomorphism, viewing the landscape as always in flux and apprehended in a necessarily violent confrontation of mind and matter. This dynamic takes compelling form in the artist’s early Nonsites, which established a vital ecological correlation between the “here” of the consumer economy and the “there” of natural disruption. If such a dialectic seems to fit with “glocal” consciousness and eco-corporate commodity “sourcing,” its entropic perspective refuses to ally itself with any notion of a balance of forces or a détente in man’s war against nature.

In spite of this entropic vision, Smithson increasingly saw his work as a means to intervene concretely in issues of pollution and waste. His late works extended his process-based landscape interventions onto an enormous scale as he engaged with mining companies with proposals to mitigate pollution and landscape degradation through monumental earthworks. The artist unfortunately died before any of those projects could be completed. In a late unpublished fragment, typed entirely in upper-case letters (an urgent telegram from beyond the grave? A parody of grandiose Roman script?), the artist says that “Art can become a resource, that mediates between the ecologist and the industrialist” (Writings, 376). The fragmentary manifesto concludes with an evocation of prehistoric earthworks as evidence of “nature and necessity in consort.”

That “consort” still eludes us. In 2012 Michael Heizer installed a massive 340-ton megalith outside the LA County Museum of Art. Earth Art had never been such a public spectacle. The transport of the enormous boulder through the LA region entailed complex logistics and specialized equipment, and spectators gathered along the drought-stricken route as the boulder’s custom-built transporter slowly traveled its 100-mile journey from a quarry in the desert, burning prehistoric diesel fuel for a full 11 days. Heizer’s “Levitated Mass” is an ecological object-lesson, perhaps a monument “against the ages,” as Smithson once put it; it slams the door on an era of temperate climates that had opened with new human frontiers sown with glacial erratics.***

Michael Heizer, Levitated Mass, 2012

Michael Heizer, Levitated Mass, 2012


*Claude Lévi-Strauss, Race and History (1952), Unesco, 32.

**Smithson, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey” (1967), in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, 74.

***Smithson, “Entropy and the New Monuments” (1966), in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, 11.

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