Wednesday, 27 April 2011


Below is a little play-within-a-play extract from Raymond Queneau's wildly creative 1932 re-imagining of Descartes Pensees as a novel (in this book instead coming to the repeated conclusion "I think, therefore I get myslef into a load of crap and a world of mirages"... think Burn After Reading), set in the petit-bourgeois Paris suburbs, "Witch Grass" was his literary debut, the version of which quoted here being currently published by New York Review Books Classics, was translated by Barbara Wright, and is available to buy here on Amazon. See here for an earlier post on Queneau and Perec.


"Marcheville, some thirty miles from Torny, the industrial centre, is more like a large village than a small town; a peasant population, a few bourgeois, among whom are the lawyer and his dog. The lawyer’s dog is a white poodle, answering to the name of Jupiter. Jupiter is highly intelligent; if his master had had the time, he would have taught him arithmetic, perhaps even the elements of formal logic, fallacies and all. But his various pursuits have obliged him to neglect Jupiter’s schooling, and he only knows how to say woof woof from time to time and sit on his behind to get a lump of sugar. However, though there may be some doubt as to the extent of his learning, there can be nothing but admiration for the care he takes of his person. Shorn like a lion, he swaggers about within a radius of fifteen yards of the notarial house. At any greater distance, enormous beasts, jealous of his elegance, menace him with their vulgar, ill-bred fangs.
On this particular morning, Jupiter’s habits are upset; so are those of the lawyer and his family. Everyone is restless, and dressed in black. Forsaken, Jupiter goes to sleep in the hall. A person with a small suitcase in his hand comes in; woof woof, says the poodle intelligently; the lawyer, who has lost his collar stud, comes down in his shirt-sleeves. Good morning, good morning, he seems to be saying; Jupiter shows his approval with his tail and gets a smack on the thigh for his pains. Then another meussieu arrives, a very tall, very fat one. The greetings start all over again; Jupiter wants to take part in the palaver, but the tall-an-fat person treads on his toe nails. Owch, owch, says Jupiter, and goes and hides under a chair. The meussieus talk with restraint and compunction, like the day of the little boy’s first communion. Eulalie brings some coffee. Maybe there’s a chance of a lump of sugar. Jupiter sits up and begs, but he realises from the uninterested looks of the meussieus that he’s put his foot in it. This isn’t the moment for playing the fool. He goes over to the door to get some air; so far and no farther, because Caesar, the Butcher’s dog, is watching for him out of the corner of his eye.

The meussieus start walking. He follows at their soles. Caesar is close behind. They get to a house that Jupiter knows well; it belongs to an old lady who’s generous with her sugar. The old lady isn’t there; there’s a meussieu dressed up as a widow, it’s true, but that’s not the same thing. The meussieu in petticoats starts singing, accompanied by two little boys dressed up as girls whom Jupiter recognises only too well as being the bullies who, last Sunday, tied a corned beef tin onto his stump of a tail. Then they take a great big packing case out into the street; he goes and has a sniff to see what it is; it smells of the old lady. A kick in the rib teaches him to respect the dead.

With the big packing case being towed in front, and the crowd following behind, the ensemble makes its way toward a garden surrounded by walls and planted with huge great stones sticking up at right angles. Jupiter runs up and down and is amazed that his master, who’s usually in such a hurry, doesn’t try and get in front of the big box; he’s walking slowly, leading the way, with the young man with the suitcase and the tall, fat meussieu.

At the entrance to the garden, Jupiter’s heart misses a beat; he’s just noticed Caesar waiting for him, with an ominous look. So it’s advisable not to stray too far from the blackened bipeds. Everyone has come to a standstill around a hole. In the middle of the gathering, the man-woman mutters a menacing song; the bullies wave steaming teapots. Two professional drunks lower the box into the bottom of the hole. Then the guests toss in drops of water. Jupiter is losing interest, and he wanders off and goes scrounging from grave to grave; but, just behind that of Madam Pain, that most worthy lady whokept her idiot daughter in seclusion for fifteen years, he finds himself muzzle-to-ass with Caesar. This encounter gives him wings; he gallops, he flees, he decamps; he jumps onto a mound of loose soil, near his master; the soil is loose, as we said, it crumbles, and Jupiter tumbles, in a cloud of humus and compost, onto the grandmother’s coffin. Some people burst out laughing; other’s exclaim: How shocking! And a few murmur: Putrefaction! The lawyer let out a kind of strident shout, his personal roar of laughter, and then recovered his dignity. But he wasn’t going to forgive Jupiter.

That evening, the young man said to the poodle, as he handed him a lump of sugar:
“Will they put a chin-strap on you when they bury you?”
“Woof woof,” says the other, who hasn’t understood a word.

The next day Jupiter is hanging at the end of a rope, because he has assailed the dignity of the dead and of the living.


Tuesday, 19 April 2011


RELICS by Marcel Proust

"I have bought up all of her belongings that were put on sale -that woman whose friend I would like to have been, and who did not even condescend to talk to me for a few minutes. I have the little card game that kept her amused every evening, her two marmosets, three novels that bear her coat of arms on their boards, and her bitch. Oh, you delights and dear playthings of her life, you had access -without enjoying them as I would have done, and without even desiring them- to all her freest, most inviolable, and most secret hours; you were unaware of your happiness and you cannot describe it.

Cards that she would hold in her fingers every evening with her favourite friend who saw her getting bored or breaking into laughter, who were witnesses to the start of her liaison, and whom she threw down to fling her arms round the man who thereafter came every evening to enjoy a game with her; novels that she would open and close in her bed, as her fancy or her fatigue bade her, chosen by her on impulse or as her dreams dictated, books to which she confided her dreams and combined them with dreams expressed by the books that helped her better to dream for herself -did you retain nothing of her, and can you tell me nothing about her?

Novels; she dreamt in turn the lives of your characters and of your authors; and playing cards, for in her own way she enjoyed in your company the tranquillity and sometimes the feverishness of intimate friendships -did you keep nothing of her thoughts, which you distracted or filled, or of her heart, which you wounded or consoled?

Cards, novels, you were so often in her hands, or remained for so long on her table; queens, kings or knaves, who were the still guests at her wildest parties; heroes of novels and heroines who, at her bedside, caught in the cross-beam of her lamp and her eyes, dreamt your silent dream, a dream that was nonetheless filled with voices: you cannot have simply let it evaporate -all the perfume with which the air of her bedroom, the fabric of her dresses, and the touch of her hands or her knees imbued you.

You have preserved the creases left when her joyful or nervous hand crumpled you; you perhaps still keep prisoner those tears which she shed, on reading of a grief narrated in some book, or experienced in life; the day which made her eyes shine with joy or sorrow left its warm hues on you. When I touch you, I shiver, anxiously awaiting your revelations, disquieted by your silence. Alas! Perhaps, like you, charming and fragile creatures, she was the insensible and unconscious witness of her own grace. Her most real beauty existed perhaps in my desire. She lived her life, but perhaps I was the only one to dream it."

extract from NOSTALGIA by Marcel Proust

"Desire makes all things blossom, and possession makes them wither away."

Tuesday, 5 April 2011


^Peckham, South London (photo by author)

Thankfully, most of our lives are played out through a chain of objectively unimportant, low level events that are on the whole unremarkable in the grand scheme of things, quotidian. In the same way, we tend to grow up, live, work, fall in love, have families, and fade away in entirely ordinary, run-of-the-mill architecture, built stuff that gets the job done, that holds in the heat and humidity in the local pool, and manages to pass planning because it has a gable roof and red brick fa├žade, stuff that answers similar questions in similar ways in a million different variations from Perth to Plymouth.

If you took a picture of any of this low level architecture that fills Britain, the image would present a depressingly mute mediocrity, nothing but the complete factual averageness of the building or space which, if of recent vintage would no doubt end up, to howls of anguish, on Bad British Architecture. But Architectural photography severs the container from what it contains, it shows the aesthetic failure, but not how that failure is really a triumph.

It is precisely these places’ anonymity, their almost total lack of outstanding independent qualities, that ramps up the value of any uniqueness that does exist to such a degree, meaning that we become like archaeologists digging for clues, constructing local significance from minute fragments of singularity that are gathered slowly, over time. It takes longer to become attached to places so messy and banal, their qualities are not handed to you on a Haussmannian plate, one must work for it. And everyone does, instinctively, attaching their memories cumulatively to slight peculiarities, like the unusually large traffic island where the ice cream van sits vampiricaly, opposite the school, or the incredibly narrow gap between two wings of the sports centre, that is just the right size for kids to squeeze between to sneak a smoke, or a snog. Memories which gradually fill the most mediocre of piles with magic, memories which we all tot-up, and that cling to apparently inhospitable places and thrive there, generating an ambient, splendidly subjective beauty, a beauty which only stands out in its greatest relief when the objects of architecture sink, or rather rise, into glorious mediocrity.

NB, this post was initially published in The BiBlog