One of the most interesting books I’ve come across recently, or one I’ve thought about the most, is one that only has small blocks of text every few pages—Purism in Concept, Form and Materials: The Pioneering Works of Hermann Rosa by Martin Bruhin. This book shows and discusses the houses and apartments that Rosa and his family lived in and built or drastically modified largely by hand during the 50s and 60s. Rosa was a German sculptor, and the book is fascinating for a number of reasons. Firstly, we get small narrative-like snippets of information about the life of the family—Rosa’s daughter Eva, for instance, talks about how the family and the friends they enlisted cleared sites and dug foundations with shovels, carting away rubble with wheelbarrows, like it was an archaeological dig. Rosa pulled down the interior walls of an early apartment they lived in and carried the broken-up material to nearby skips in a backpack. His wife Maria Rosa, a potter, mentions how the spaces, even when lived in by kids, were spare as though uninhabited.
It seems much of Rosa’s pre-war sculptural work was destroyed in Prague and Dresden during the war. His work is perhaps akin to that of Henry Moore, with large semi abstracted bodies or parts of bodies that look like they’d been crudely finished with a large spatula. Whether because of the destruction or for some other reason, Rosa was a kind of purist, who, while being very much a part of the art scene in Munich, was less concerned with producing work to sell and more concerned with creating work with a certain feeling of life. He stopped producing figurative work for a fourteen-year period while working on one particular house for the family, treating it as though it were a 1:1 model of itself. He designed as he went. Maria quotes Eva complaining that as soon as, say, a wall was finished it would be knocked down and remade slightly differently. Everything was considered for its functional ornamentation, including the gravel under the slab. The building work was ‘calm, rhythmic and contemplative’. We feel the labour that’s gone into it, we feel the thought processes, but also that it’s somehow natural, that it’s always been there.
There are sculptures that we can enter, and there is architectural work with sculptural elements, but here Rosa was using architectural elements—planes, surfaces, light (‘sunlight flows, spreads, leans, sits or lies’)—to create what was both pure sculpture, but also sculpted or determined how the family lived. On one hand, Rosa wanted to create spaces that were illegible—bedrooms that didn’t look like bedrooms, that were the wrong shape and that didn’t have permanently laid out places to sleep (there’s a beautifully detailed timber coffee table that unfurls into a bed). Even the kitchen wouldn’t be immediately recognisable as such, with only a fridge, small cooktop and a shelf (no sink). On the other hand, the elements of the building are all single materials and their distinctness is carefully articulated. We see how things are joined or meet. Rosa wouldn’t, for instance, use a bracket to join a steel handrail to a concrete wall. He would carve into the concrete wall so the handrail inserted cleanly into the concrete. This is this part; this is this part. To make the shower base, he intentionally poured the concrete too thick then chiselled it out.
Every piece is its honest self: the roughly formed concrete walls (inspired by the early brutalist buildings of Corbusier like Ronchamp or Unite d’Habitation—it’s easy to forget that intentionally roughly formed concrete was intended to soften and humanise), the built-in timber shelves, the frameless planes of glass.
And while there’s a clear relationship between these works and not only those of Corbusier, but also, say, Charles and Ray Eames, Jean Prouvé, Robin Boyd and North Queensland’s overlooked Eddie Oribin, there’s a simplicity here that has an out-of-timeness (Louis Kahn who looked as much to ancient Rome and Greece as much as fellow modernists might then be the best analogue). This isn’t obviously ‘mid-century’. And with Rosa’s strange sculptural forms scattered around this hard yet soft ascetic bareness, this quiet place, again, we feel something archaeological.
What I like about this approach, and this brings us back, or nearly brings us back to writing, is that Rosa knows where to expend effort. He’s not concerned with beauty or perfection for the sake of those things. He has clear rules or tendencies—as above, domestic function obscured, material construction clarified, for instance—but what should remain rough remains as such. Ultimately, he understands that particular elements and choices will create that feeling of life, will move us.
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There’s a certain humour about these extremities of ascetic pragmatism, as there is with Pierre Jeanneret’s timber and rattan Chandigarh chairs that look as though they might shuffle away, and the folded metal props that are like giant callipers or tweezers in the middle of Prouvé’s demountable houses.
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The title of David Chang’s new food show Ugly Delicious similarly gets at what’s important, and what’s not.
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When I think about enjoying reading, I think of reading multiple books (or books, films, podcasts, or what have you) at once, and how they talk to each other, and rework each other. Though the process is always flawed—books fall away, are forgotten about, or aren’t that good to begin with. Or rather, you can only read so much at once, and there’s only so much you can hold onto.
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I recently read the Albanian author Ismail Kadare’s fascinating essay ‘Aeschylus, the Lost’, written in 1985 but recently collected along with an essay on Shakespeare and one on Dante in Essays in World Literature. Some years ago, I read a number of Kadare’s books, the first of which was good—Broken April, about Albanian blood feuds. The rest are less good, though this was so long ago that I wouldn’t trust my opinion on these either way. As for Aeschylus, I’ve found him the hardest to read of the three surviving Ancient Greek playwrights, but that’s beside the point. What is fascinating here is how Kadare uses Aeschylus’ ‘Oresteia’ and the strictly ritualised and strangely preserved (until relatively recently, at least) oral Albanian law, the Kanun—which the practices of the blood feuds were part of—to re-contextualise each other or, rather, to make sense of each other. Similar laws, he argues, were once in place all around and down the Balkan Peninsula. Did Agamemnon gather the Greek forces to retrieve and avenge Helen, or because Paris had violated the rules of the guest? Similarly, it can seem somewhat convenient that the netting Clytemnestra had thrown over Agamemnon before murdering him is discovered hanging on the wall. But is this related to the way, in an Albanian blood feud, one would display in their house the victim’s shirt so their relatives could read in the pattern of the blood how they’d experienced death? Many of the laws of the Kanun, it seems, and many reasons for blood feuds are about a violation of the rules of the guest—your house, it is stated, belongs to God and the Guest.
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When I discussed Kadare’s essay with my partner, she told me about Jenny Diski’s book In Gratitude and how Doris Lessing—whose son had attended the school Diski had been expelled from, though they hadn’t been friends—had invited the slightly wayward and neglected teenage Diski to live with her. My partner explained how Diski, needing reassurance, had asked Lessing what would happen if she didn’t like her—where would she go then? Lessing’s face dropped; she stormed out, slamming the front door downstairs. The next day Diski found a note explaining that, like her mother, she had been manipulative and this wasn’t a household where that kind of behaviour was acceptable. Diski had to constantly negotiate the difficulty of being a guest in a house to someone who had been so kind, continued to be so in many ways, and yet was so unforthcoming with legible affection.
My partner said to me, you should write an essay about the idea of the guest. You could also write about Garner’s The Spare Room. Yes, I said. A moment later she said, no, she should write the essay. Okay, I said, nodding the way they do on the Japanese reality show Terrace House that meant I’m being polite, but I’m forcefully saying no and the conversation is over and bye.
Later, my partner said, do you think Hermann Rosa ever had guests? As though she were a friend of Hermann Rosa, she then said, Hermann Rosa, may I stay with you? As Hermann Rosa she said okay, nodding in the way that I had.
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Diski also talks of having her stories taken and used by Lessing. This is something, I guess, my partner can relate to.
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I picked up Kadare’s essay at the end of reading a number of books from or about Russia, following a peculiar conversation that didn’t go the way I had expected with a woman who had moved to Australia from Poland. She had come into the bookstore where I work and we discussed the current Polish government and Putin. Several of the books I read were superb. The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen, who currently seems to be the most insightful commentator on both Russia and our current batch of ‘strong men’ leaders, looks at how Putin steadily and doggedly entrenched himself. Anne Garrels’ In Putin Country takes us out of the more familiar areas, exploring the poverty and almost abandonment of rural Russia. At the time of the Russian Revolution, the writer Teffi was one of the most famous authors in that country. Her incredible memoir Memories, From Moscow to the Black Sea tracks her, as a famous author, fleeing a world suddenly turned on end (I kept thinking about our own authors, and who, in similar circumstances, would let them flee, and who would ensure they didn’t.). Finally, I read Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War, which, like all her works, is a kind of testimony project, with most of the text being edited speech from interviews. In this case, she has interviewed Russian women involved WWII (or The Great Patriotic War), as cooks, as medics, as soldiers. We hear of women who pulled men much larger and heavier than themselves from burning tanks, of women who found lifelong partners during the war, and others who destroyed evidence of their involvement and were silent for decades, so as not to be seen as unfeminine or, as it were, unwomanly.
Using so many voices, and having spoken to hundreds of women and some men, Alexievich has created a rich panorama—we get the repetitions, the contradictions, we get the humour, the anger, the sadness, the loss, the pride. What is tricky though, or what leaves me uneasy, is that we only get a few paragraphs from each woman—they’ve each been edited down to one small note or point (including one who berates Alexievich for being a journalist and therefore presumably wanting to hear that death is the worst thing about war, when really the worst thing about war, she says, is having to wear men’s underwear for four years). Each entry feels like the outline to a Maupassant or Hemingway story that reshapes and re-contextualises the next.
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Reading Kadare’s essay on Aeschylus after reading the books on Russia, or from Russia, made me think of the impossible depth of trauma embedded in particular places and countries, the depth of trauma through time. Kadare points out how unusual it is that the Greeks of Aeschylus’ time were so remorsefully preoccupied with what their people had done, or apparently done, several hundred years earlier, the destruction of Troy.
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In the last few years I’ve been more interested in informal or seemingly (or aesthetically) incidental works, those lacking obvious plotting and structure. In his book Out of Sheer Rage, which is about DH Lawrence (or, rather, about writing a book about DH Lawrence or, more accurately, about Geoff Dyer writing a book about DH Lawrence or, simply, about Geoff Dyer) Dyer talks about not having any want to read Lawrence’s actual books, or what might be called his commercial works. He’s concerned only with his letters and diaries. He suggests that the commercial work is a training ground for more intimate work. I would agree or at least, if I don’t entirely agree, it’s because in recent years there seems to be a greater number of works that are more intimate, less structured—more like the kinds of books Dyer himself writes, books that are held together by something less constricting or linear than plot.
Another way to think about it is, whenever I write or attempt to write, say, an essay, I invariably struggle with synthesis, with the ‘this plus this, therefore this’, preferring instead something more like ‘this; but this; but this’, leaving the gaps, repetitions, restatements and contradictions exposed, or legible. I suppose, relating to above, I’ve thought a lot about the intentional, designed-in, perhaps impressionistic crudeness of certain architectural works or artworks (say, those by Van Gogh, Francis Bacon, Barbara Hepworth or today’s William Kentridge or Peter Doig), and how that can relate back to writing and literature, with its editorial traditions and the need to constantly ensure the reader knows where they are.
A few such works in this vein are Jenny Offill’s seemingly autobiographical novel Dept. Speculation, or Alejandro Zambra’s novels and stories, particularly his collection My Documents, or the small amount of writing by Semezdin Mehmedinovic that’s translated into English or most recently, in terms of what I’ve read, Heide Julavits’ superb The Folded Clock, a year-long diary (packaged as a memoir), but one that has a great deal of temporal depth, as Julavits—like any of us telling a story, whether it’s about the strict unspoken laws and ruthlessness of Maine garage sales, or giving the seemingly wrong kind of sexual advice to her daughter, or contemplating infidelity—has to fall back on telling another story to explain the story. There’s no obvious shape other than the shape of the diary, but over time, we return to or circle back on certain subjects—how objects speak to us, why they matter to us, the problems of desire and domesticity—and so gradually we build a picture of Julavits and the life around her. But at the sentence level, there’s so much care and elegance and thought, so the book, like the houses and apartments of Rosa, is very much alive. She’s also just very funny, and candid about her own questionable past behaviour.
At one point Julavits mentions that a friend once said to her that she could get a Pulitzer for her emails. I haven’t gone on to read her novels, but I’d love read her correspondence.
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(I should say, as a kind of postscript, that after I read The Folded Clock, when I felt more than ever that I liked something piecemeal, that felt like it could go anywhere, I read Elizabeth Strout’s very finely crafted first novel Amy and Isabelle, largely about a complicated lock-jaw relationship between a single mother and her teenage daughter, and found that I completely disagreed with myself—the payoff of the fine plotting was utterly worth it. So I don’t know.)
Oliver Driscoll co-runs the Slow Canoe Live Journal. His stories, essays and poems have appeared in Kill Your Darlings, Rabbit, and Sleepers, among other places. He lives in Melbourne.