“Béton armé” de Philippe Rahmy

En revenant de Los Angeles l’an dernier, je ne trouvais pas de fil conducteur à mes expériences en essayant de les raconter. Je n’avais que des bribes difficiles à faire tenir dans un ordre chronologique. Ainsi, j’ai demandé à mes amis grands lecteurs des références de récits de voyage qui parvenaient à se passer de chronologie. @Invidiosa m’a de suite répondu en me conseillant “Béton armé” de Philippe Rahmy. Je l’ai commandé en un clic. Lorsque le livre est arrivé, il est resté longtemps sur la pile à lire (c’est une fatalité). Mais j’ai fini par le lire presque un an après: je savais qu’il me fallait le lire (sans doute était-ce aussi une fatalité).

J’ai bien fait car le narrateur de “Béton armé” se demande aussi comment décrire le voyage au début de l’oeuvre. Et sa réponse est très très bonne. Le récit raconte un voyage et une plongée dans un autre monde. Le narrateur tout comme l’auteur est atteint de la maladie des os de verre. Un mieux dans son état de santé coïncidant avec une invitation de l’Association des écrivains de Shanghai, il décide de partir. On suit le narrateur alors qu’il entre dans Shanghai, comme il le perçoit… La langue travaillée et poétique de Philippe Rahmy s’emploie, pleine d’élan, à décrire ses découvertes.

Le récit narre un voyage en solo souvent difficile. Le voyageur prend les transports en commun. Il aime revenir aux mêmes endroits et y passer du temps. Les obligations protocolaires draînent son énergie. Il est absorbé par les scènes de rue. Et comme tout voyage, c’est aussi l’occasion d’une touchante et fructueuse introspection: une exploration de souvenirs personnels.

Je n’ai pas fini d’y penser et mes idées autour de ce livre n’ont pas fini de prendre forme. “Béton armé” fait partie de ces oeuvres qui restent à l’esprit longtemps. C’est un beau voyage.

“Drawing Blood” by Molly Crabapple

Molly Crabapple is an artist, journalist and author. Her work is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. She’s drawn and reported from Guantanamo Bay, Abu Dhabi’s migrant labor camps, and in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank, and Iraqi Kurdistan. She is a contributing editor for VICE. Her byline appeared in The New York Times, Paris Review, and Vanity Fair among other publications. Most recently, her latest painting series “Annotated Muses” is on view at Postmasters Gallery in NYC until Oct. 15 and a video narrated by Jay-Z she illustrated entitled “The War on Drugs Is an Epic Fail” came out last week. She also published a memoir entitled “Drawing Blood” last year chronicling her life up to this point.

I don’t remember exactly how I became aware of Molly Crabapple’s work. It must’ve been through “Week In Hell” since I featured the project in this tiny blog posts in French. It was then housed on fabulousse.ch a long forgotten cultural blog I wrote alongside my cousin.

Not being able to thank whoever made me discover this artist saddens me. Attribution is so hard on the web and attributing the discovery of something is even harder. Tools like Instapaper could work to make that easier… but I digress. I digress because footnotes aren’t supported by WordPress Core but that’s another digression.

“Week in Hell” is an art/endurance experiment wherein every surface of a hotel room was covered with paper and then drawings. It lasted a week and many of her friends visited her as she drew. The project worked great and gave rise to a book and a mini-documentary.

To this day, I regret not having anything to pledge at the time and/or learning of the campaign too late — can’t remember the details. Of course, in the meantime, I got a job, bought most her books and a couple art prints too which make me very happy when I see them. They also lend charm and sophistication to my living room.

When her memoir was announced, I immediately pre-ordered it. It was in March 2015. It came out and I received it around December 2015. Much to my shame, I just read it the week before last. In the last few years, since I finished college, in fact, reading on paper got very slow. To make matters worse, my unread pile grew fast, got shuffled and reshuffled.

Now, I am well aware that none of the above ramblings could ever help you decide if you want to read the book or not. It shouldn’t even be a question: you do want to read that book. Writing a helpful review about it is difficult since I wouldn’t highlight anything in the beautiful illustrated hardcover. Such a prized object.

Seriously, though. Molly Crabapple’s memoir “Drawing Blood” offers insights into her path to becoming… her: a great artist and a distinctive voice. It is a tale of becoming. Many aspects of it were inspiring to me as I am living through my early 30s. Her focus and self-discipline in perfecting her craft push me to try harder with my writing. Her drive to get noticed and the business sense she developed to function in New-York City are inspiring to me as a young professional striving to show his work and get more in Geneva, another expensive and competitive city. Her search for meaning, purpose and political engagement makes me wonder how I can be more engaged with the world and find purpose for myself.

Not only does it contain inspiring facts. Her writing style is as distinctive as her art. I love her prose. Part of me can’t help being a little envious of it too to be quite honest. Her writing flows while also being, at once, precise and concise. She adds the exact amount of feeling and linguistic flourishes to convey her meaning and push the reader forward — never an ounce more. It is mastered, shows restraint and –unlike this blog post– merciless editing.

You do want to get acquainted with her work, follow @mollycrabapple on Twitter, and read her memoir. Trust me, you do.

“The Dead Ladies Project” by Jessa Crispin

“The Dead Ladies Project” opens with the author convincing police officers that she won’t commit suicide and will seek help. She sieves her life down to two suitcases and leaves for Europe in search of her dead ladies: expats from different times and places. In her quest, she stays in Berlin, Trieste, Sarajevo, Galway, Lausanne… among other cities.

From her travels, her confrontation with these dead people and her introspection, lessons emerge on how to be in the world and how to relate to it and how to relate to the self as well — “être au monde” as the French expression combining the three says.

The book is very much a tale of solo travel. In each city, she establishes a new temporary dwelling, new routines, overcomes hardships, meets people and describes the atmosphere in beautiful prose.

From Trieste on, street scenes come hurtling through her consciousness, her descriptions become breathless enumerations. In the midst of these momentous series of observations, there are always bitter-sweet gems of biting humour which never fail to connect with the curmudgeon in me.

She addresses darker moments with the same grace. Hardships of solo travel are often difficult to bear: making all the decisions and arrangements, schlepping luggage, feeling OK. She writes, for example, she wishes for a companion in her adventures: an Isabel to her Richard Francis Burton.

Reading “The Dead Ladies Project” provides literary discoveries on each page. Numerous authors, all of which should be more widely known, make appearances. The book might send you on a journey through the world or through a library or both. Her recommended reading section may very well house your next favourite author.

Jessa Crispin’s point-of-view is refreshing. Her prose moves forward with momentum and a quiet resolve, just like she travels through Europe staying in cities weeks at a time.

“The Dead Ladies Project” is a book of the best brand of criticism. Jessa Crispin searches for her dead ladies in their cities, their biographies, their texts and the spaces in-between. In doing so, she effectively questions key elements of our contemporary culture beyond literature. At one point, she questions self-help and the pathologizing of emotions. In her Maud Gonne chapter celebrating magic, spirituality and the power of story, she pokes giant holes into the reigns of materialism and rationalism. Much to this reader’s delight.

This memoir is a very enjoyable read. There are insights in there that spoke to me and my own issues. No doubt it will do the same for you. It gives me hope that one can open their own path. Change. Enter a truce with the self and the world. You should read it too.

Delayed reading and the pace of modern life

I can’t recall exactly how I became aware of Jessa Crispin’s work. Artists usually enter my consciousness through social media, interviews or recommendations from Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog. Jessa Crispin’s “The Dead Ladies Project” found its way to my wishlist three days after coming out. I must’ve started following her on Twitter at that point too. Even if I was aware of the book all the way back then, I’m only reading it now.

After finishing Molly Crabapple’s memoir in which her self-discipline and her quest for meaning shook me to actually write every day. The dull sadness of finishing a good book was starting to take hold. I knew I had to start “The Dead Ladies Project” right away. I pondered getting a physical copy but then the momentum would have been lost as I waited for the book to show up. So I am reading it on my tablet.

I wish I had started sooner. It always takes me that kind of time to come to a book, no matter how important it seems that I read it. My unread book pile gets shuffled and reshuffled as if the books want to be read in a certain order. This makes it very hard to connect with the conversation as it happens. The zeitgeist remains ever elusive. But then, I do not know that it makes a difference.

France has what they call the “rentrée littéraire”. Books come out all at once in September. There are more every year. It has therefore become impossible to read any significant portion of them. Not that I have tried. Of course, it’s the same online. Everyday seems to be a “rentrée littéraire”. Good long form magazine pieces come at you all the time through social media. It’s hard to discern what is important from what should be avoided.

We all have our own circles on social media and, therefore, we get different recommendations. It is freeing everyone to pursue their own interest but at the same time it is lonely. It is hard to find common ground with friends. I get a little ping of satisfaction when what I read during a particular week matches links in Ann Friedman’s newsletter (which I recommend) because I know a couple of my friends at least will have come across the pieces too.

There still are cultural moments, even if they concern fewer people at once, but they’re so fleeting as to be impossible to catch. Online life has a devilish pace. Even if you and your friends read something, will you have time to discuss it? A magazine piece, a book, a film is big on Twitter for a few hours and then, it drifts onto a pile: wishlists, read-later lists… to resurface again much later maybe or not at all.

A few good links, 2016-09-08

We have the day off in Geneva. Here are a few good links…

Theranos’s story shows Silicon Valley is terrible and we should think twice before mimicking it. White nationalism grows fast. The Swiss vote on intelligence and mass surveillance will never work. Yanis Varoufakis wants us to choose Star Trek over The Matrix as the template for our economic and political future. Star Trek politics chronicle the decline of US liberalism, according to Timothy Sandefur. This summary of The Matrix in French is funny, by the way.

Magic might save us all. Peter Bebergal, author of “Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll”, talks about magic and music with Marc Maron. Jessa Crispin points out feminism was born out of Spiritualism. Laurie Penny examines links between liberalism and Harry Potter.

And a calming GIF of a crab eating a cherry.