The Irreal Reader: Fiction & Essays from the Cafe Irreal, edited by GS Evans and Alice Whittenburg (Guide Dog Books, 2013).
The Kafka Effect
Although Franz Kafka died in 1924, having written fiction rooted in his life as a Jew in early Twentieth Century Prague, his influence continues. The nightmarish logic of stories such as The Trial and The Metamorphosis seems to spring from a source common to all humanity, and has made the Kafkaesque an easily identified and understood quality, in need of no further explanation. It is only to be expected, then, that numerous authors not lacking in individuality have nevertheless written in a Kafkaesque vein. The stories of Jacques Sternberg, Roland Topor’s Le locataire chimérique and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled typify a mode of writing, or rather an outlook, that I suspect would have come about anyway at some point in the last century, but which is described as Kafkaesque in recognition of the man who expressed it first.
GS Evans and Alice Whittenburg, editors of the handsome Irreal Reader, make no bones of the fact that the contemporary fiction they describe as “irrealist” belongs to a tradition traceable to Kafka. Borges is acknowledged too, as is Kobo Abe, but of the three Kafka is probably the writer whose work best exemplifies irrealism.
What is Irrealism?
The second section of the book comprises theoretical texts, explaining irrealism. Arguably, the notion of the ism is a quaint one; the Twentieth Century abounded with isms (with attendant theories and manifestos, the academic’s delight), but I wonder if we need a new one now. An ism generalises and divides, and often an author or artist’s idiosyncrasies are overlooked, to accommodate him or her in the school or movement. The fiction in The Irreal Reader is diverse in style and spirit, which perhaps explains the inclusion of the theoretical texts; without them, what would “irrealism” mean to the reader?
In his essay “What is Irrealism?” GS Evans writes:
In an irreal story… not only is the physics underlying the story impossible… but it is also fundamentally and essentially unpredictable… and unexplained.
Evans makes the useful distinction between irreal and fantasy fiction, stating that impossible events in the latter are explicable in terms of the physical laws of the setting. So a man might turn into an insect because of a spell or curse. But in The Metamorphosis there is no physical explanation for Gregor Samsa’s transformation into a dung beetle. Neither is there a metaphysical one; we might interpret the story in terms of castration anxiety or the effects of anti-Semitism, but an allegorical reading will feel inadequate and incomplete. The power of Kafka’s fiction lies in its elegant enigmas. By extension, contemporary irreal fiction is inscrutable and dream-like, taking as its starting point the threshold between the real and the unreal. In Evans’s words, irrealism is “a device that can… reveal and enlighten us in respect to reality (in this case, an absurd and ambiguous one.)”
Irrealism & Surrealism
Comparisons between irrealism and surrealism are inevitable, and it is here that I found the theoretical texts in The Irreal Reader unconvincing. In “Irrealism and the Visual Arts” Garrett Rowlan makes the case that Giorgio de Chirico was a painter who could be considered irrealist because his art depicts real objects in disquieting combinations, creating a sense of mystery. Exactly the same could be said of René Magritte, an artist who identified himself as a surrealist. So what’s the difference between the two isms? In “Irrealism Is Not Surrealism” GS Evans offers a distinction (namely that surrealists are researchers of the unconscious, whereas irrealists are self-conscious artists), but it’s based on a very narrow definition of surrealism, implicit in a statement made by the Group of Czech and Slovak Surrealists in 2002 and deriving ultimately from the theories of André Breton. Although Breton’s pronouncements on surrealism, its aims and practices have been useful to cultural historians, they don’t tell the whole story, and many of surrealism’s most interesting writers (for example, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, Joyce Mansour and Leonora Carrington) don’t count as surrealists at all, if we apply Breton’s famous “pure psychic automatism” definition and assume, as Evans does, that the surrealists were less preoccupied with aesthetics and the activity of creating art than other writers and artists. And what would Evans make of the writings of Marcel Lecomte? My guess is that he’d see the spirit of irrealism in the work of the Belgian surrealist.
In short, I see no evidence that an irrealist text has characteristics that aren’t to be found in the writings of that most disparate of groups, the surrealists.
However, there is one crucial difference between irrealism and surrealism. The former, according to GS Evans, is concerned solely with art, while the latter (I, too, lapse into generalisation) was an attempt to change the world, through revolutions on both a social and a personal level. Surrealism was far more ambitious than irrealism.
So much for isms. Let’s move on.
The anthology’s strength lies in the quality of the short stories and prose poems it contains, some of which are by big names in the world of literature. Collected under the Borgesian heading “Fictions”, several of the pieces show a debt to the great Argentine writer (notably Emilio Martinez’s “News from Burgundia” and Michal Ajvaz’s “The City and Heaven”), but are deftly executed. All of the writers in the anthology deserve a mention, but I’ll touch on just a few, to give a flavour of the book.
Ana María Shua’s miniatures are witty and idiosyncratic, and constitute virtuoso exercises in prose poetry. Peter Cherches is equally impressive, the extracts from “Mr Deadman” recalling Michaux’s “Plume” sequence in their deadpan and often darkly humorous treatment of the unreal; anyone who has read my Bird King poems will not be surprised that as soon as I started reading Cherches I recognised in him a kindred spirit! The wonderful Ewald Murrer is represented too (in extracts from The Diary of Mr Pinke), as are Charles Simic (“Seven Prose Poems”) and (what a discovery!) Richard Kostelanetz, whose vertiginous “Openings” reads like a brilliant parody of an exercise undertaken by a student of creative writing. Kevin Sexton’s intoxicating piece, “The Spindler”, is at once delirious and controlled. Other authors whose work left a particularly strong impression on me were D Harlan Wilson, Lee Williams, Vít Erban and the mischievous Tomáš Pridal.
It would be interesting to know if all of the authors in The Irreal Reader consider themselves irrealists. The variety evident in the book suggests that they are linked by an interest in the unfettered imagination, rather than by a philosophy or programme. Not that it matters; this superb book offers the reader an experience of delightful, disturbing inner worlds, and, at times, sheds fresh light on that domineering but uncertain thing called “reality”. Highly recommended.
You can buy The Irreal Reader here (US) and here (UK). Visit the Cafe Irreal here.
Funnily enough you’re the second person this week (and it’s only just started) that has recommended this book. Another one for my bulging Amazon basket….:)
Thanks for the nice shout out, and your perceptive catch of the Michaux influence. Interestingly, my new collection, Lift Your Right Arm, which includes the complete Mr. Deadman sequence, also has a sequence called “A Certain Clarence,” an even more explicit Michaux reference. Mr. Deadman is the slightly less alive brother of Clarence.
My pleasure, Peter! On the strength of what I read in the Irreal Reader, I have downloaded the Outtakes and ordered a physical copy of Lift Your Right Arm. I’m also following you on twitter. It would be great to chat at some point; it’s a rare pleasure to encounter an author with whom I feel such an affinity. JK
I’ve abandoned tweeting. What part of the world are you in?
The UK. Is that yahoo email connected with the comments you’ve posted correct? I could drop you a line.
Yes, that email is correct.
You raise some interesting points around the questions of whether to “–ism” or not to “-ism,” on the one hand, and the issue of whether irrealism might not really be a surrealism — albeit not a surrealism of the type propounded by the “official’ surrealist movement that closely follows the ideas laid down by Andre Breton.
On the question as to whether –isms might not be a thing of the past, we would argue that they are still quite important. We believe that the value of such -isms, so long as they don’t become rigid and dogmatic — an admitted danger — is that they force people to address issues of what art is, what it needs to do and succeeds or fails in doing, and what types of art accomplish what. We would argue that one of the reasons for the generally mediocre monoculture of discussion in recent decades about art and literature is a result of the drift away from the –isms (and the discussions and disputes that they spawned). Nor has this lack of discussion helped non-realist modes of writing challenge, especially, the American realist orthodoxy, which I think has taken advantage of the fading of the –isms to reestablish its dominance, almost as though it were the default option.
Regarding the surrealist question, we would certainly agree that some of the most interesting surrealists broke from Breton (or were expelled by him) and his specific set of ideas. None, however, succeeded in setting up an effective counterpoint within the surrealist movement. Magritte, who we would agree paints in a very irreal manner, had serious issues with Breton and his Freudianism and even issued a manifesto, “Surrealism in full sunlight,” that articulated his alternative. It, however, went nowhere as a movement, perhaps because of the difficulty, given Breton’s position as the initiator and ideological founder of surrealism, of establishing an independent position within the surrealist rubric. And since there is still a global surrealist movement loyal to Breton, one which, in the Czech Republic (where we spend part of every year) is very prominent (producing regular exhibitions, revues, an important print journal and, in the person of member, co-chair and world renowned director Jan Svankmajer, films), we felt that to call ourselves surrealists would not only be problematic in a literary sense by taking the emphasis away from Kafka, but would also lead to us having interminable squabbles with the surrealists.
We would also like to point out that, when we embarked on the rather ambitious project of publishing The Cafe Irreal, these questions of theory had a very practical side to them. Wanting as we did to promulgate a genre of fiction flowing from Kafka, Abe, etc., and knowing that we would be soliciting and reading thousands upon thousands of submissions, we needed a set of criteria for what we were planning to publish so as to be able to write a coherent writer’s guidelines and maintain editorial consistency. We couldn’t, in other words, just publish according to our whim. And if the process of articulating these criteria led us to create an –ism, and if, in some small way, this –ism forces literature, especially Anglo-American literature, to address its bland assumptions and maybe, ultimately, philosophy itself then, in our view, so much the better.
A very thorough and interesting response: thank you! We’ll have to agree to disagree about surrealism though; despite Breton’s apparent dominance it was highly heterogeneous, encompassing artists and writers of diverse outlooks and modes of expression. The writers I had cited were not expelled from the movement by Breton; I used them to illustrate the variety within “official” surrealism. And Belgian surrealism, guided by the theories of Paul Nougé, was a very different beast from the Parisian variety. Nougé admitted he and his colleagues started calling themselves surrealists for the sake of convenience, having begun their activities independently of their French comrades.
But I do understand why you need to define irrealism as something distinct from anything else. And the guidelines you produced have clearly been helpful to the writers you have published. The Irreal Reader is a spectacular achievement, and one of the best books of 2013.
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