Boundaries

Every group has its edge, its sense of in and out, and trickster is always there, at the gates of the city and the gates of life, making sure there is commerce. He also attends the internal boundaries by which groups articulate their social life. We constantly distinguish—right and wrong, sacred and profane, clean and dirty, male and female, young and old, living and dead—and in every case trickster will cross the line and confuse the distinction.

— Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World

When we push beyond a boundary, we often discover that what lies beyond is not so strange. We are still ourselves. But what we learn is that to bridge differences is better than to place barriers in front of them. Perhaps there is no waste ground, only ground with which we are not familiar.

— M. W. Bewick and Ella Johnston, The Orphaned Spaces

You can spend a lifetime seeking to kick dust over boundaries, to bridge over them, to tunnel under them, to blur them. It is the natural inclination of plural people who have multiple interests, who choose to live in more than one world. Many such people move back and forth from the local to the global more concerned with community than nationality or corporate identity.

For them, boundaries are negotiated, traversed or even ignored entirely. No man’s land, the in-between, is where they feel most at home, most energised. The liminal space is one of opportunity, of potential, of learning, of windows to peer though, doors to walk through.

The recent political gains of the right and the amplification of its fundamentalist rhetoric pose significant, existential challenges to the plural in society and in the workplace. Now the talk is of walls, hard borders, rebranded passports, specialist advisers, taking back control, and aversion to immigration and diversity. Boundaries are being reinforced rather than elided. Plural people with neo-generalist inclinations are being excluded in the face of complex global problems, precisely at the moment when their cross-pollinating, bridge-building skills are most in need.

The blinkered, my-way-is-the-right-way approach of a Trump or a Cummings is the path to disaster. Perhaps not immediately but almost certainly in the long-term. It disregards the future of the people these supposed leaders are meant to serve and the health of the planet we all inhabit.

How does a plural person navigate this? How do they retain relevance while all around them is retrenchment, the advocacy of singular expertise over multidisciplinarity, and of hard conviction and adamantine beliefs over curiosity and openness?

The feeling of danger was merged with an almost pleasurable sense of anticipation, as though some constraint or obstruction was about to be finally torn down, some boundary broken on the other side of which lay release.

— Rachel Cusk, Transit

As in every sphere of life, so too in this one everything starts to take on the structure of a net – changeable and dynamic, lacking any fixed points of reference. More and more people within it have problems defining their own identity, or determining their own social or cultural affiliation. They feel lost, and are increasingly susceptible to the suggestions of nationalists and racists, who tell them to regard the Other as a threat, an enemy, the cause of all the tiresome frustrations and fears.
— Ryszard Kapuściński, The Other

Bricolage

The following is a link to a PDF version of the bricolage series compiled between November 2019 and January 2020.

Bricolage PDF

Two novels published in the past few years have inspired this small experiment.

First, I was intrigued by the manner in which George Saunders incorporated passages quoted from other texts into Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury, 2017). They provided background context to the central narrative. They also raised a question, through their multiple, often contradictory voices, regarding to what extent history is itself a fiction.

The other novel was Jeremy Gavron’s Felix Culpa (Scribe, 2018), the entire narrative of which is composed of a patchwork of fragments stitched together from other texts. The novel as bricolage.

In both cases, quoted passages from different sources follow one after the other. There is no additional commentary. They are creative exercises in curation. Yet they also speak to the notion, in which I strongly believe, that books converse with one another – across time and space.

The pieces included in the PDF are:

Woven
Reading as creation
Legacy
Illumination
Time capture
Memory’s poetry
Bridging poles
Writing to understand
Book conversations
When I is we
Stories and genes
Viewed askew
Trickster
Palimpsest

Show your map

Like all people who feel uncomfortable in an uncomfortable world you want to make a map. Well let me tell you it is difficult to make a map in splintered times when whole worlds and histories collide.
— Deborah Levy, Beautiful Mutants

We organize information on maps in order to see our knowledge in a new way.
— Peter Turchi, Maps of the Imagination

The story is a map, the landscape a narrative.
— Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust

‘What do you do?’ is a conversational gambit that many people dread hearing. How to respond? What if you consider yourself hyphenate, a plural, multifaceted individual who, for pleasure or for income, does many things? What if you find it difficult to communicate this in a digestible way? What if your personal sense of identity and self-worth is founded upon the avoidance of neat labels and the impulse to categorise? Do you filter and select, presenting just part of who you are? Often this is the most convenient path to take.

The ‘What do you do?’ question requires a simplified response. It demands abstraction and clarity in the same way that a job application form, CV template and LinkedIn profile do. There is little allowance for the complexities and occasional chaos of our lived experience. Where there is space for commentary of any sort, we are expected to apply a degree of narrative coherence, making sense of memories and past events, creating connection and continuity. It is necessary to supply a beginning, middle and end, summarising what has brought us to this current juncture in our lives.

Reality is invariably more shambolic than this. More a hyperlinked web of avenues followed and retraced, jump cuts to elsewhere, occasional returns, disappearances and new beginnings. It is a ball of wool, a tangle of spaghetti, rather than a long straight line or a ladder extending ever-upwards. There are parallel paths too, simultaneously followed, within this entangled mess. Both/and rather than either/or. In his recent book Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, Alan Lightman observes, ‘From all the physical and sociological evidence, the world appears to run not on absolutes but on relatives, context, change, impermanence, and multiplicity. Nothing is fixed. All is in flux.’ Our lives in a nutshell.

This is what Kenneth Mikkelsen and I were grappling with when we were thinking through the theory behind The Neo-Generalist. It resulted in the continuum, which attempted to visualise the blending of specialism and generalism, and the disjointed, contextual experiences that characterise learning and work. While we walked and talked, we took in a Grayson Perry exhibition in Margate, which fuelled hours of additional conversation. While it was on, Provincial Punk, hosted by the Turner Contemporary gallery, provided me with several opportunities to spend time standing in front of Perry’s A Map of Days.

In the Map, Perry presents his complex personality and plural identity in the form of a walled city. Streets, buildings and other locales represent personal traits and behaviours, indicating a self-exploration that embraces both the positive and the negative, that poses questions, as well as providing answers, binding together truth and fiction. At the centre of Perry’s map is a labyrinthine garden, in which a figure walks, off-centre, pursuing ‘a sense of self’. Each time I look at the Map, either in a gallery or online, I question how my own version would differ from Perry’s. What words would I choose? What images?

As a reader, writer and erstwhile film academic, both words and images exert a certain magnetism on me. Together they are particularly powerful. Images, of course, were one of our earliest forms of communication, as evidenced by the rock and cave paintings that we continue to discover. Each of the letters we use to write are themselves images, so it could be argued that the bond between word and picture has always been hidden in plain sight as far as typography is concerned. Why, then, are we so limited when invited to sell ourselves to a potential employer? Why do only words matter to the recruiter? Why is such weight lent to words either of the most simplistic and anodyne variety or words so buzzy they are hollowed out of all meaning?

So much time is expended on the crafting of a CV. It is something that summarises our past, the schools we attended, the qualifications attained, the organisations worked with, the roles fulfilled. It is a record of selected facts, facing backwards, destined for the archive. It allows little space to present who we are and what we can do. An artist, at least, can show a portfolio of their work, making it as varied as they wish. They have images as well as words at their disposal.

Social philosopher Charles Handy has often spoken of the portfolio career. This is one that includes paid endeavour, charitable work, study and domestic chores. It all contributes to learning and the acquisition of skills. Something picked up in one field can provide insight in another. But how to present these multiple avenues via which we learn and work? How to capture and convey our multidisciplinarity and the potential this offers? The fact that we tend to live in more than one world?

Perhaps, like Perry, we need to draw our own maps, reflecting our convoluted journeys, our diversity of experience, the lessons we have learned, the places visited, the destinations yet to be attained. These could be maps of possibility, of intersections, convergence and mash-up. Maps that look to the future and what might be.

Such maps can be presented in numerous ways. They could be topographical, covering breadth and depth of experience. They could demarcate a series of islands, suggesting how you have navigated from knowledge to not knowing to yet more knowledge, dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty. Or perhaps a network map of connections and intersections or an infinite loop like the neo-generalist continuum.

A map can be presented and interpreted in many different ways, it prompts curiosity and questions, inviting a conversation that rapidly leaves behind the shallow waters suggested by a curriculum vitae. A living document that has the potential to enhance the organisational Atlas; a book of personal maps. Why not show your own map and move beyond the CV? Allow yourself to choose what defines you rather than conforming to a template.

The map of what we call reality is an ever-shifting mosaic of ideas.

— Marcelo Gleiser, The Island of Knowledge

Between words is silence, around ink whiteness, behind every map’s information is what’s left out, the unmapped and unmappable.

— Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

The process of making a map helps us rise above the limits of the local to see the whole, but this bird’s-eye view isn’t suitable for all audiences. Often we must aim for simple visuals that make the complex clear, focus attention, and transform ideas and understanding into decisive action.
— Peter Morville, Intertwingled

Telescope

I’m looking down time’s telescope at myself.
— David Mitchell, The Bones Clock

But my mind was like a puppy that wouldn’t remain on the sidewalk and I got tired of tugging the leash to bring it back.
— Kathleen Rooney, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

That is a shared promise of telescopes and literature: to create an illusion of interstellar or inter human travel within the confines of your own skull.
— Michael Chabon, Manhood for Amateurs

Could you stop time? Could you stop time playing itself through you?
— Ali Smith, Winter

Through poetry and song, Kate Tempest filters her observations of people and environment. Her work in verse, on stage and in fiction are filled with arresting images. In The Bricks that Built the Houses, she constructs a book on top of the foundations of her earlier album Everybody Down. As a Whitstable dweller, I was fascinated to learn that Tempest had spent time in the town, enjoying the benefits of a residency at 57a while working on her writing.

This knowledge made me sensitive to the influence of Whitstable and its seafront on the novel, even though it is very much of and about southeast London. Clearly, the book’s beach scene could have taken place there even though other potential destinations are mentioned in an exchange between Harry and Becky. But what really resonated with me was a half line, appearing earlier in the novel, when two of the principal characters first meet: ‘shining like sunlight on water reflecting back on itself and becoming heat’.

I realise, of course, that as the reader I bring my own baggage to this response to a short phrase many others would skim over. But that is the joy of the creative process, and it demonstrates how much a reader, a viewer, a listener, is invested in a work of art that someone else has crafted. They do not merely serve as receivers, as empty vessels to be filled by the artist. They too are active and engaged in the creation. Each reader, for example, brings a degree of freshness every time a book’s pages are cracked open. Your signifier may not be my signified.

These few words in Tempest’s novel have me telescoping back and forth through time, drawing in layers of cultural allusion and personal biography. At the most rudimentary level, I walk on Whitstable’s beach several times a week. I have lived in the town for most of this century. While it bears no resemblance to the Spanish beach location where I resided as a young child in the early-to-mid 1970s, moving there still felt like a homecoming after so many years living away from the coast in the middle of England.

At a certain time of the year, at a certain time of the day, the sun glistens on Whitstable’s waters in a way that I find wholly captivating. The light is magical, ever-shifting on the fluid surface. It is not a phenomenon unique to the area, I know. Indeed, it is something that has drawn the admiring gaze of painters, photographers and filmmakers around the globe and throughout the ages, no matter the hemisphere, the waterway or coastal location. Every time I see that shimmering light in Whitstable Bay, though, I am reminded of very specific images from my film-viewing past. Intriguingly, one influences the other, and both involve a formal play with time within the context of the film’s structure.

During the early 1990s, I spent many hours closely studying the films directed by Martin Scorsese. One of these was an adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel The Age of Innocence, the film version of which was released in 1993. In a key scene, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) stands on the Newport shoreline observing from a distance the object of his restrained passion, Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). Ellen stands by a railing looking out across the sparkling waters as the sun gradually sets.

A voiceover narrator informs the viewer that Newland gives himself this one opportunity. If she turns, he will go to her. In so doing, the film implies, he is ready to relinquish his membership of the closed New York society to which he currently belongs. Willing, too, to abandon his marriage to May (Winona Ryder), Ellen’s cousin. Ellen does not turn, and Newland walks away, entering another sliding door.

In the final sequence in the film, an elderly Newland sits in a Parisian street below Ellen’s current home. A flash of sunlight reflected from her apartment window suddenly transports him back in time. Once again he sees the sun-drenched sea but, in his mind’s eye, this time Ellen turns to him opening the way to an alternative life to the one he has lived.

Every time I see the sunlight dance across Whitstable Bay I am reminded of these two scenes. Then my recycled memories jump cut to another film that Scorsese and his collaborators overtly borrowed from: Black Narcissus, a 1940s production written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Set in a convent in India, this is another tale of disappointed love, suppressed emotions and alternative lives. It is vividly realised in Academy Award-winning Technicolor by the masterful cinematographer Jack Cardiff.

It is less a complete scene that I recall, rather a still image from it. While praying in the convent chapel, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) remembers her life before becoming a nun. She is in love, back home in Ireland, fishing. The water shimmers, moving gently in the breeze. She stands in a lake, in medium shot, rod in hand, surrounded by mirrored light.

All these images and reformed memories assail me, triggered by the simple play of light on water. Reading Tempest’s words in the past couple of days dredged them to the surface of my consciousness once again. A Russian doll assembly of childhood memories, images from films, cultural allusions and flashbacks within flashbacks. A telescoping of times and frames of reference. Everything is shaken up and reordered as I move across the beach.

It reminds me of Lillian Boxfish’s nighttime walk in New York in Kathleen Rooney’s wonderful novel. The octogenarian time travels across the decades as her journey stirs up memories from different moments in her life. It reminds me, too, of the late Michael Jacobs’s passage through the streets and galleries of Madrid as he recorded them in Everything is Happening. With each new location, he seems to find himself occupying the same space at multiple points in time.

For me, though, there is that added dimension. The thin boundary between fiction and reality has collapsed entirely, and I find myself simultaneously on a beach in Whitstable, in reconstructed memories and in filmscapes that are nothing more than fantasy. Now I have Tempest’s novel to add to the mix too. More baggage to carry to the place where artist and audience co-create.

That’s one of the things stories and books can do, they can make more than one time possible at once.
— Ali Smith, Winter

The only things which the mind cannot examine are memories of the future.
— Han Kang, The White Book

Time is not outside us, but inside. Only we live with past, present, and future, and the present is too brief to experience anyway; it is retained afterward and then it is either codified or it slips into amnesia. Consciousness is the product of delay.
— Siri Hustvedt, The Summer Without Men

We see very little of what really goes on around us. Science is our probe into invisible realms, be it the world of the very small, of bacteria, of atoms, of elementary particles, or the world of the very large, of stars, galaxies, and even the Universe as a whole. We see these through our tools of exploration—our reality amplifiers—the telescopes, the microscopes, and the many instruments of detection, the rod and line of the natural scientist. If we are persistent, once in a while we see Nature stir, even jump, revealing the simple beauty of the unexpected.
— Marcelo Gleiser, The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected

Adaptation

I was right inside the pattern, merging, part of it as it changed and, duplicating itself yet again, here, now, transformed itself and started to become real.
— Tom McCarthy, Remainder

Repetition. Repetition, not identity. Nothing is repeated exactly, even words, because something has changed in the speaker and in the listener, because once said and then said again and again, the repetition itself alters the words.
— Siri Hustvedt, The Summer Without Men

Someone once said life is all conjunctions, just one damn thing after another. But so much of it’s not connected. You’re sliding along, hit a bump and come down in a life you don’t recognize. Every day you head out a dozen different directions, become a dozen different people; some of them make it back home that night, others don’t.
— James Sallis, Black Hornet

In a celebrated short story by the Argentinian man of letters Jorge Luis Borges, his protagonist Pierre Menard is determined to recreate passages from Miguel de Cervantes’s literary masterpiece Don Quixote. Menard’s approach is one of immersion and appropriation. He intends not merely to copy from Cervantes’s book but to gain so deep an understanding of it that in writing his own version he produces a word-for-word duplicate. This while resolutely maintaining his perspective of a twentieth-century author, aware of the history and cultural changes of the years that separate his own literary efforts and those of Cervantes.

What Menard produces are passages that are exactly the same, in terms of vocabulary and register of language, as those in Cervantes’s own two-part novel. Yet they are wholly different too – precisely because of the disjunctures of time and place between the two authors. For the narrator in Borges’s story, the francophone Menard’s text is the greater, subtler achievement. He has had to imagine himself into another era, another location, another language entirely. His is an exercise that is simultaneously creation and re-creation. An adaptation that results in replication. It is also one that provides commentary on the historical, geographical and personal context in which it is written no matter that no overt reference is made to it.

For a translator, as Kate Briggs acknowledges in her book-length essay This Little Art, it is impossible to exactly reproduce source material. Translation is always an act of co-creation, of at least two levels of lexical selection and decision-making. It is impossible for the translator to get completely out of the way. They will have to filter the author’s original text through their own understanding and interpretation of it for the benefit of the new reader in a completely different language. They will have to ponder the meaning of paragraphs, phrases, single words, and render this in a way that makes sense to the reader while approximating the intentions of the author. You can read Menard’s story in the original Spanish, as written by Borges, and then in Andrew Hurley’s English translation. One story, two texts, one of which has two creators behind it.

Briggs questions whether it is legitimate to claim that you have read a book if you have not done so in the language in which it was first written. Can we ever claim to have read The Tin Drum or The Divine Comedy if we have only spent time with the English translations? When we do not have direct access to the linguistic nuances of Grass or the poetic devices deployed by Dante, is our appreciation of their work somehow poorer, watered down? Or do we, instead, take pleasure in the fact that a co-creator has opened up a literary universe otherwise closed to us? Accepting, of course, that they too are a presence in the book we read; the translator a shadow, a dæmon, that accompanies the author in this alternative version of the text.

Translation and adaptation do not have to relate only to the conversion from one language to another. They can take the form of what Briggs calls re-mediation, a shift from one artistic mode of presentation to a different one entirely. This can entail not just a change of medium, but of language too; a transformation across cultural boundaries. Radio, television and film provide numerous examples of adaptation within and between media.

Consider these examples:

Jon McGregor has reimagined the events leading up to the narrative of his highly-regarded novel Reservoir 13. In a series of short BBC radio plays, The Reservoir Tapes, characters from the local community featured in the book are interviewed by a journalist.

The popular Danish–Swedish television series Broen/Bron (The Bridge) has been adapted several times, relocated to the US–Mexican, British–French and Estonian–Russian borders. Each iteration, in their way, examines connections through similarity and the appreciation of difference.

Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning film The Departed explores concepts about identity and performance. It not only adapts the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, but nods and winks to its two sequels too.

The Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing traces a lineage. Dashiell Hammett’s novels Red Harvest and The Glass Key inspired Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo. This, in turn, provided a model for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars. Each one of these works by Hammett, Kurosawa and Leone are alluded to in Miller’s Crossing in a hermetically sealed world that is a celebration of the film medium itself and of the tradition of the hardboiled novel. Art about artifice, artifice about art.

Roman Polanski’s Chinatown reworks the myth of Oedipus for a 1970s audience despairing of the violence, corruption and impotent leadership that informed society and politics at the time of its making.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo reimagines the Pygmalion myth through an adaptation of D’entre les morts, a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. It is a film about obsession, fragmented identity and creativity. Another self-reflexive work about artifice.

Many films, of course, are based directly on novels, biographies and plays, as well as paintings, operas, cartoons and video games. They take source material and re-mediate it, sometimes with the input of the authors themselves. It is a co-creative endeavour, transforming one perspective of a story into something else again. On top of the author’s original vision are layered the ideas and insights of screenwriters, directors, cinematographers, art directors, designers, choreographers, actors, stunt people, editors and musical directors. This is a process that applies to all films and television shows that are not documentary in nature. For these depend on screenplays, on the written word, regardless of whether they have been adapted from another medium or not.

Reading a novel, our own imaginations take on all those roles, painting pictures, hearing voices, filling up our mindscreens, mobilising our other senses. The reader is a creative partner with the writer. In the cinema, the viewer abdicates some of these roles while seated before the screen, but resumes them as the credits roll and their brains carry on processing what they have seen and heard. They still share in the act of creation. With the novel and film there is a willing suspension of disbelief and, concurrently, an eagerness to fulfil this co-creative function. The novelist, for example, can take things so far, but at some stage the reader needs to build on the words they have read, filling in the gaps, giving the characters faces, hearing the birds, smelling the flowers, tasting the food, making the story their own.

Intriguingly, with corporate and political writing, there appears to be a reinforcement of disbelief. An unwillingness to participate, to translate, to lend meaning to the manifesto promises or vision statements. The novel and film both engage, while the bureaucrat’s prose, invariably written by committee, disengages. It is filled with empty words signifying nothing. The manifestos lie there unadapted, unrealised; the business plans dormant for the duration, never translated into meaningful action. They are texts in search of co-creators, of enactors, rarely closing the circle. It is no surprise, therefore, that some of the most powerful works about politics and business do not emerge close to home but are, in fact, to be found in the various domains of fiction: the novel, film, theatre, radio and television.

The work of anthropologists and the study of myth and fable have revealed the universality and timelessness of our stories. Frazer, Propp, Campbell, Lévi-Strauss and Warner, among many others, have helped illustrate how these are filled with archetypes and rudimentary structures that we repeat endlessly, revising and revisiting generation after generation. Every story is a translation, an adaptation. Our stories are always communal even when they appear extraordinarily personal. But in their retelling we grant them a new context, provide fresh insights about the contemporary culture in which we produce and situate them. So, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is transplanted to twenty-first-century London in Ian McEwan’s Nutshell. The Tempest is both staged and lived in a modern prison in Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed. Viking gods and heroes are revived for a fresh audience in Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. The Odyssey is spruced up in Emily Wilson’s new translation of Homer’s epic poem.

The lure of the tales envisaged and told by the Ancient Greeks has remained strong, as witness Wilson’s mammoth undertaking, the late work of poets like Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, or Stephen Fry’s most recent publication, Mythos. The Greek tales help us understand who we are, help us come to terms with the repetition of the same mistakes, the same lessons unlearned. One tale of protest in the face of injustice, of the outsider on the inside, remains particularly pertinent. In terms of their sequencing, Antigone is the third instalment in Sophocles’s cycle of Theban tragedies. Its heroine confronts the empty rhetoric and hypocrisy of the political leadership, the abuse of power by a tyrant, and the nationalism and fear of the other that informs their ideas.

Antigone’s story has been revisited, translated, reconceptualised, on numerous occasions. In 1944, for example, the French playwright Jean Anouilh premiered his own version, which was as much a commentary on the Nazi occupation of Paris as it was a reimagining of Sophocles’s Thebes under the reign of Creon. More recently, partly in response to US foreign policy during the second Bush administration, Seamus Heaney published his version of the play in 2004 under the title The Burial at Thebes. It was followed, a few years later, by Ali Smith’s children’s book adaptation, The Story of Antigone, illustrated by Laura Paoletti. This sought to provide a new bird’s-eye, or drone-like, view of Antigone’s story as it unfolded. Finally, there is Kamila Shamsie’s remarkable modernisation in the novel Home Fire.

This 2017, multi-narrator retelling examines the story from the contemporary perspective of a group of British Muslims. The familiar story twists and turns against the background of rising nationalism, overseas conflict, homegrown terrorism, religious and political fundamentalism. The shadows of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Brexit and Trump loom large. This is no Menard exercise in reproduction and duplication, but one in which the author willingly serves as conduit to the world around her, allowing current affairs to shape and influence her narrative. The reader brings their own experience of that world with them to the book. They look into its dark mirror, responding to the shifting perspectives, forced to question their own values and their role in society.

It is a text twice translated. Shamsie’s own reimagining of Sophocles’s play is then internalised and adapted by the reader themselves. A story, like all great narratives, as old as human civilisation itself yet somehow sparklingly new too. In the past, our future is already written.

The novel is a form that takes time, flips time, gives us time, renews old matter, reminds you what life is and how layered and dimensional it and language and thought and being are, allows understanding, allows fellow-feeling, analyses the notion of structure while being a structure of its own, demonstrates transformation, is micro and macro, by which I mean works on us synaptically and symphonically, and as a form always at the vanguard of its own form never stops finding the form to meet the needs of the time in which it is written and therefore the needs of all our time-cycles, the ones we’re here on earth for, the ones that went before, the ones still to come, all from the pivot-point of the present moment, the no-time and the always, that each novel engages in and holds us through.
— Ali Smith, ‘The Novel in the Age of Trump’

The fragmentation of the arts and humanities in the twentieth century has often revealed itself as an obsession with novelty for its own sake, rather than originality that expands on what we already know and accept.
— Peter Watson, A Terrible Beauty

All books are made from other books and so, in their way, all books are translations in one way or another.
— Kate Briggs, This Little Art

Masks

I was called Mask, I was called Wanderer
— Anonymous, The Poetic Edda

The path to the truth is doubled, masked, ironic. This is my path, not straight, but twisted!
— Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World

We’re all tricksters. We have to be, learn to be. Dissembling, signifying, masking.
— James Sallis, Bluebottle

A woman and a man stand before a camera. Each puts on a mask indicative of the other’s gender but otherwise Noh-like in its lack of expression. In donning the masks, they feel that they are stripping themselves of who they are. Through voice, gesture and movement they inhabit new characters, assume different personalities, unfamiliar behaviours, and venture into the unknown. They are creating art but, for at least one of the participants, the experience is visceral, unnerving.

Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, from which this scene is taken, is a novel concerned with revelation, unpeeling and identity. Its protagonist is the artist Harriet Burden. Harry is overshadowed by her famous art-dealing husband, and she is stymied by what she perceives as institutionalised and systemic gender prejudice and inequality. This affects galleries, critics and the viewing public, whose own opinions are often informed and shaped by the other two.

Following her husband’s sudden death, Harry gives vent to her simmering frustration, embarking upon an extended experiment she refers to as Maskings. This requires subterfuge on her own part, the cooperation of a select few and a high degree of creativity, as she produces works of art for three distinct exhibitions. These are The History of Western Art, Suffocation Rooms and Beneath, each fronted by a male artist, Anton Tish, Phineas Q. Eldridge and Rune, respectively.

Harry experiences life as wife, mother, grandmother, lover and artist. Each role requires her to adopt a different character, putting on the appropriate mask. Her experience of life is one of hyphenation, embracing, sometimes confounding, familial, workplace and societal expectations and norms. ‘All the world’s a stage’, as Jaques phrases it in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. ‘And all the women and men merely players; / They have all their exits and their entrances, / And one man in his time plays many parts’.

Through her role-play with Rune before the camera and, on a grander scale, her self-masking with the figures of the three male artists, Harry takes this notion of perpetual performance to another level. She challenges and subverts what masks represent, what they mean, how they both hide and reveal identities. Her grand plan is eventually to make public the Maskings project, announcing herself as the true artist behind the men’s work.

The novel is presented as an act of investigation, of ongoing academic research. Harry’s experiment is unravelled retrospectively through posthumous access to her journals and notebooks, as well as through interviews with those who were close to her. It is an act of unmasking that fails to answer the question, ‘Who are you?’ Behind the masks are yet more masks, ciphers, the ephemeral.

In one of her notebooks, Harry observes, ‘The Greeks knew that the mask in theater was not a disguise but a means of revelation.’ With the mask, we hide in plain sight. The parent takes on a role, for example, simultaneously admonishing and educating a child. Hiding the humour they might find in the situation, but displaying their own values and beliefs in the guidance they impart. They are both showing and obfuscating themselves.

The business executive, the politician, confronted with crowds and cameras, hides behind technical jargon, smokes and mirrors, a carapace of expertise. Yet they show other masks in different contexts, with different people. One mask replaces another. All is metamorphosis and shapeshifting. It is in the many performances that they reveal who they are. The courtroom, dinner table, conference podium, sports field or despatch box are all as much a stage as any walked on by a professional actor.

That is not to suggest that performance and the adoption of masks is the work of the con artist. Rather, it highlights that human identity is not rigid and fixed, but malleable and ever-shifting. We are all chameleons. Every experience we have, every interaction with another person, book, work of art, changes us in however small a way. They modify the masks we wear or endow us with new ones entirely.

Each person we encounter understands us, labels us, in slightly different ways. They associate us with whichever mask it is that we have faced them with. This creates a tension between perception and reality, our self-image and how others categorise us. It is a situation all too familiar to Harry. At the moment of revelation, as the woman behind the three exhibitions makes public what she has done, there are many who do not believe her.

The masks win out. The performance continues. Which recalls the celebrated line from John Ford’s western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’ Our fictions carry more weight, perhaps more truth, than our realities. An experience all too familiar to the author behind the pseudonym Elena Ferrante. In trying to hide behind a blank mask and let the books speak for themselves, the author has unwittingly created an industry of whispering and conjecture.

The answer to the question ‘Who are you?’ is ‘Not the same person I was yesterday.’  The context shifts and so do the masks we choose to wear.

The face of a person is a mask, and the person, in truth, is a role, not the one who plays the role.
— Alva Noë, Strange Tools

I believe that in fiction one pretends much less than one does in reality. In fiction we say and recognise things about ourselves, which, for the sake of propriety, we ignore or don’t talk about in reality.
— Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia

the mask that smiles
at acquaintances, that hides and upholds
the gulfs between them.
— Emma Sedlak, ‘The Man in the Mask’

Out of time

Our society has reoriented itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real time, and always-on. It’s not a mere speeding up, however much our lifestyles and technologies have accelerated the rate at which we attempt to do things. It’s more of a diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now—and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.
— Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock

We’re well past the end of the century when time, for the first time, curved, bent, slipped, flashforwarded and flashbacked yet still kept on rolling along. We know it all now, with our thoughts travelling at the speed of tweet, our 140 characters in search of a paragraph. We’re post-history. We’re post-mystery.
— Ali Smith, Artful

Five minutes later roots and fruits were abolished; the flower of the present tidily blossomed.
— Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

The 2016 film Arrival is a narrative of decipherment. Humans are intent on understanding the purpose of the recently landed aliens, which have appeared at twelve different locations on Earth. To understand, one requires language and communication. But one has to be mindful of the pitfalls of how language is interpreted. One person’s signifier does not always marry up with another’s signified.

In another recent film, Paterson, a Japanese visitor (Masatoshi Nagase) to the protagonist’s home town likens poetry in translation to standing under a shower wearing a rain mac. Nuance and beauty are lost. Misunderstanding is all too easy, which is one of the points on which humanity’s response to the aliens hinges in Arrival. Where some read weapon, others intend gift.

Arrival’s lead character, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), starts communicating with the aliens via single written and vocalised words. They respond with the occasional guttural noise, but primarily with ideograms. The first breakthrough for Louise and her colleagues comes with the realisation that these ideograms are complex combinations of words and phrases, which form full sentences and paragraphs.

The key discovery, however, comes when Louise alone encounters one of the aliens, nicknamed Costello. Where the linearity and structure of much human language is bound to time, Louise learns that the aliens’ language is non-linear. They are without the constraints of time as we perceive it. Her own fluency in their language unshackles Louise from the limitations of human time. With their language, she gains the ability to time travel, seeing into her own future and that of humankind. Past, present and future are simultaneously available to her. She is out of time.

In a starkly different approach to time, the citizens of Aldous Huxley’s futuristic 1931 novel Brave New World are slaves to the clock. Their happiness depends on it, rigidly following a routine of work and pleasure, both physical and chemically induced. These are rarely chosen, usually prescribed. Humans are produced in batches, and effectively have battery lives. They are created to fulfil designated functions, their own chemicals harvested once their use-by-dates have passed and their bodies have been incinerated.

Language – in the form of mantras, anodyne phrases, belief systems as sound bites – is imposed on the humans of Brave New World at different stages of their infancy and youth. This is achieved via hypnopaedia, a form of teaching through voice recordings heard during sleep. The citizens are conditioned to accept caste, brainwashed ideologically, and placed in thrall to the Fordian factory clock of Brave New World’s global society. Only those on ‘uncivilised’ reservations or exiled to island communities in far-flung localities like Iceland and the Falklands are able to escape the clock’s tyranny.

All of which cultural musings stir up reflections on my own temporal conditioning and experience. From late 1999 to the end of 2014, I lived the life of a commuter. A daily four-hour, door-to-door round trip from home to office and back again. The same faces on the train, the same seat occupied. The same coffee routine. Days filled with meetings and largely pointless correspondence. An eating, vegetating and sleeping routine that was far from healthy until the weekend’s release.

To be honest, I never got used to it. From the period 1993 to 1999, I had been home-based, first as a research student then as a freelancer. Office and commuting life was a shock to my body clock, to my introversion, to my effectiveness. I disliked the way time was regimented and controlled. It disturbed my desire for reflection and creative quality, which I preferred to the produce-on-demand, quantitative busyness that I encountered in each of the public, private and non-profit organisations I worked for during the next fifteen years.

Financial considerations aside, the option to return to freelancing in late 2014 was an attractive one, not least because it enabled me to dedicate myself to activities I am passionate about: writing and editing, both producing myself and helping others to realise their literary ambitions. But there has been another side effect that is relevant to my ongoing exploration of time and memory.

Freelancing has taken me out of time, at least time as I had come to know it as a commuter. The experience is somewhat different too as a forty-something to that of my twenty-something self in the 1990s. The day, of course, remains topped-and-tailed by family routine: wake-up alarms, meals, dad-taxi services. But otherwise, as a writer and editor, I find that my work can be done at any time. Sometimes there are early morning flurries, at other times inspiration takes hold late at night or during a midday walk on the beach.

In many respects, I am always working. But I do not mean that in an onerous way. Reading a book is work; it is research regardless of the subject matter or genre. Riding my bike or standing under the shower or mowing the lawn are all part of ‘office time’; periods for reflection, sifting, testing out phrases, composing. My interaction with clients is asynchronous, only occasionally regulated by in-person meetings or video calls. These are with people dispersed around the globe, in Canada, Australia, Denmark, France, Romania, the US, the UK. Change the place, and the clock changes too.

Family life provides a loose sense of structure, as do project deadlines. But otherwise the commuter’s distinction between weekdays and weekends, morning work and evening work, all dissolve. Which raises questions about my post-commuting relationship to time. Is time as I experience it throughout a 24-hour period always linear? Or is it determined by my engagement with other people? At certain points bound to the clock, at others unbound from it?

Do I reconnect with linear time only when I have a meeting, a call, a train to catch, or as the scattered members of my family begin to return home? When I write, lost in flow, scanning both the fictions and facts of memory, blending fantasy and reality, what aspects of time am I navigating? Finally, to what extent is all of our perception of time entwined with both language and our communication with others?

My sense is that, as with Louise in Arrival, our experience and perception of time is multifaceted. It can be linear or cyclical or boundaryless. Our physical and mental conceptions of it can diverge. Yet through language, spoken and scribed, we can in some way anchor ourselves to it. We are both in and out of time.

Our conscious brains invent the concept of time over and over again, inferring it from memory and extrapolating from change. And time is indispensable to our awareness of self. Just as an author does, we construct our own narrative, assemble the scenes in a plausible order, make inferences about cause and effect.
— James Gleick, Time Travel

So emotion, fear, age, isolation, body temperature and rejection can all affect our perception of the speed of time, as does concentration, or ‘attention’.
— Claudia Hammond, Time Warped

Likewise the spinning wheel turns, cyclical time revolving to draw out the linear time of a thread.
— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby