“On the Invisibility of Writing”

This text wad first published on Everything Experimental Writing, thanks to Rosemary Tantra Bensko.

On the Invisibility of Writing

“I am the boy

That can enjoy


“Turko the Terrible”, mentioned by James Joyce in Ulysses


It was in the end of 2013.

One year ago, my last novel Chaos brûlant[1], which my publisher[2] thought would be a best-seller of the Autumn 2012, was a commercial fiasco. It did not happen because of the novel itself (a fierce humorous description of the financial political sexual ecological and media dementia in our days – with the “DSK Case” in the background), but because of my terrible relationship with journalists, critics and some other writers in France. If you read Balzac’s masterpiece Illusions perdues[3], you will learn everything you need to know about French literary critics. How despicable they were 150 years ago, how despicable they remain nowadays. Add to this the biographical and bibliographical facts that :

1/ I am the grand-son of Polish Jews (who emigrated to Paris at the beginning of the 20th century and were persecuted during the Second world war, with my parents still children, by the French Police under Nazi Occupation),  living and writing in a traditionally antisemite culture and country…

2/ my wife (and  main character of one of my novels : Noire est la beauté[4])  is an African who migrated at 25 years old to an ex colonialist empire and country with still a lot of racist uncounscious (in the best of cases) intellectual reflexes (when not remarks)…

3/  I freely despise, denounce and castigate these floundering French journalists and cretinous critics inside my books since I was first published in 1991…

and you will have a slight idea of what it means to be me in Paris in the 21st century.

To make a long story short, I think – and wrote clearly – about critics what every serious writer knows. Take Hemingway, for instance : “All criticism is shit anyway. Nobody knows anything about it except yourself. God knows people who are paid to have attitudes toward things, professional critics, make me sick ; camp-following eunuchs of literature. They won’t even whore. They’re all virtuous and sterile. And how well meaning and high minded. But they’re all camp-followers.”[5]

As I don’t want to sound paranoid, I must admit I also have good friends amongst this putrefied hating pot called Parisian Literary Life. They like my writings, they admire my thinking, they enjoy my personality – it’s true I am a nice guy in private… –  and they defend me in the medias when they have the opportunity.  But this time, in the Autumn of 2012, my numerous foes shot first, and my few friends reacted too slowly and too late to save the public life of my book.

As simple as that.



The following months, I pondered about what writing meant to me. I remembered the pure joy, the intense pleasure  I felt in my twenties when, waking up early in my small student room – not because I had to go to the university but because I decided –, I was writing for myself all morning long (no computer, no internet, no email and no Facebook to distract you then), listening to some Mozart piano sonatas while drinking my italian coffee. From time to time, searching for the right word or expression, I stood up, a cup of hot coffee in hand, gazed at the horizon out of my window and thought : “This is happiness…”

And after 25 years of publication I knew it was still here, the great lonely joy of writing. But obviously, as the resentful reception of Chaos brûlant demonstrated, something went wrong. I was now published by some of the greatest Parisian houses; I had enjoyed everything a writer can savor around here : Tv talkshows, radio talkshows, good articles, bad articles, free travels, literary festivals, public debates, solo conferences, cocktails, diners, nice girls from many countries, nights spent discussing Philosophy, Literature and Art in La Closerie des Lilas at the very same table where Joyce and Hemingway sat 90 years before (their names are graven on a small copper plate fixed on a corner of a table)… If you ever dreamed to be part of a Woody Allen’s movie about intellectual life in Paris, you would worship the life I lived this last 25 years.

Yet, the intellectual, spiritual  and material collapsing of the world I describe in Burning Chaos was serious and real (it still is, in case you didn’t notice), and I could not not take it into consideration. In 2013, I was 50 years old, in good shape and health. God willing,  I might live some 30 more years, taking care of my beloved daughter who was only 4… What would I do during all this time, if not writing ? But what was the purpose to write even a single sentence about any subject, when I already knew whom would say what (mainly negative) about it in which newspaper, once the book would be printed, after one year or more of hard, meditative and solitary work…

Face to face, in a regular debate, or even in an article answering to a bad critic, I knew I rhetorically feared no one. But French journalistic system is made in such a way that you might never have the opportunity to express yourself about your own work. I am no Philip Roth[6], I could not write to Wikipedia, asking and getting a modification for some mistakes published about who I was, what I thought or did or didn’t write… So many bullshit was already online about me, even on my Wikipedia Page where antisemites, from time to time, were trying to change parts of my own biography… Welcome in Paris, guys, the place were a stupid neo-nazi gets millions of followers on Youtube !

But even this wasn’t the heart of the question.

Mallarmé  once wrote: “Why tamper about what, maybe, should not be sold, especially when it’s not selling…”[7]   What is the purpose of trying to deal with the work of my most intimate heart and soul with the greatest number of people (which is what “publication” is all about) when my words are pondered and written for nobody else but me and, in the best case, some happy few who devoted their life to what their heart and soul only would  enjoy.

The problem was not in not being a best-seller, whatever the causes were – and of course I had a major responsibility in the public fate of my books. It was in depreciating my writing by letting it suffocate inside a corrupted system where it had nothing to do with the essence ! I didn’t want my words to neighbour in bookshops the texts of so many lazy zombies I deeply disdained… Which is what publication is  about! I wanted my writing to get its rarity back, and by rarity I mean what I felt when I hand wrote powerful sentences in the lonely days of my youth, being so happy, feeling so special just because of the intense sparkling life of my brain, my heart and my imagination…

I think that’s about when  I got the first idea of RARE.



I noticed, when I bestowed upon one of my books to people who visited me (I have “stolen” a lot of my books to my publishers because I like making gifts, and for me what I write is the most precious gift I can make), they almost never read it nor speak to me about it anymore. It’s not only that readers are rare and good readers exceptional, but people don’t appreciate what they get too easily. Anyway, since what I write is not easy reading, why would I make it easy to get…

In a novel still in progress I began writing before Burning Chaos, I invented a guy who is so rich that he doesn’t need to sell his artbook – a personal encyclopedia about Balzac –, which is gorgeous and costs a lot of money to compose and print. He freely distributes it to people who write him a nice and smart letter explaining in what way they deserve to possess and read this masterpiece. If the writer doesn’t like the letter – because it is vulgar, stupid, or has too many spelling mistakes… – the reader never gets his exemplary. If the letter is agreed, the reader receives gratis a beautiful process color volume full of the most interesting and original facts, thoughts and analyses written about Balzac.

That’s the idea, I thought. A book is a “Spiritual Instrument” as Mallarmé  wrote. It should never be treated as a common merchandise.  A true book should be considered page after page by the reader with the same intensity and attention required by a painting or a work of art, because that is what writing is invisibly. After all, for centuries the most refined civilizations, including judaism[8], considered the art of writing as the most precious occupation a human being may have on earth !

Handwriting is the key, I thought. Manuscript, Colors, Beauty, Ink, Paper, Art are the keys…

In February 2014, when I penetrated for the first time inside Boesner, a huge shop for artists and art students, when I discovered these thousands of colored paint tubes, Chinese inks, papers, brushes, pens, canvasses, pencils, nibs, pastels, markers… I knew I made the good choice. I was jubilating exactly as when, as a kid,  I received a new paint box ! Maybe what you are going to do from now on is completely crazy, I thought, and maybe you will be the only one to understand and appreciate it, but the sincere and intense joy you feel now is a good guide. Follow it, wherever  it might take you.



What is RARE about ?

Well, mainly about what I just wrote here. The singular life of a Parisian writer who devoted his entire thoughts to literature, who wrote a novel about the nihilistic destruction of the world, then decided to save his own writing in some Noah’s Ark of Art, the very same calligraphic paintings, pictures and videos on which this story is written. RARE is about how it metamorphoses itself into a work of art…

I always admired the helicoid prodigy Proust accomplished in À la Recherche du Temps perdu[9], writing about a book to write, and achieving his novel with the idea he now was ready to write the exact same book the reader just finished reading.

Or Mallarmé’s typographic masterpiece Un coup de dés[10], describing the wreck of a ship with words scattered all over the pages like fragments from the wrecked ship.

Or Joyce’s Finnegans Wake in which he had “put the language to sleep” because it describes a full night wake.

I even like Apollinaire’s Calligrams, shaped in the form of the objects these poems are about…

And this is mainly what RARE accomplishes : telling about what it is, and being what it tells about.



Why did I decide to write RARE in this funambulistic Frenglish of mine ?

For two reasons, mainly. First, I wanted my prose to be considered with fresh eyes. Thanks to the internet, I could easily find new readers, English speaking poets, writers, artists, academics… At least, if no one was interested in my project, it would not be because of my bad reputation. Here, in France, in the Parisian literary hating pot, where everyone knows me, nobody would have an innocent  look at it. People who like me would like it, people who loathe me would detest it. Nothing new under the Parisian polluted fog.

Another reason was my desire to put a mute on my prose. In French, I could easily let my anger and my maledictions deploy themselves, as I did with the character of “Luc Ifer” in Burning Chaos. Anger may sometimes be good, rhetorically speaking, but too much anger decays into hate, and hate never gives good literature. In this new autobiographic novel, I couldn’t afford to get angry.

Also I wanted to tell my story from where I left it in Beauty herself is black, which is a love story between a French painter – Doppelgänger of myself – and an African woman who illegally imigrated to Paris. Fifteen years later, my life and my couple resembled more  to The Taming of the Shrew (or Philip Roth’s My Life as a Man, if you prefer a modern equivalent),  than to Romeo and Juliet… As I would not be able to hide my sentences forever – since it was also made to be exposed some day in a gallery –, writing honestly about my intimate life in French would give haters an easy way to take an advantage against my wife (my “spouse” as I call her in RARE). For me, I didn’t care. I received already numerous anonymous antisemite letters (welcome in Paris, guys…), and usually I don’t pay attention to the trash exposed online. But my wife, without knowing it, had recently been outraged by a racist writer in an article against me published  by my former editor in a French literary review, so I needed to be cautious, become invisible in another way. Since French generally suck at it, English would be my aegis.

Why then did I decide to come back to French at PAGE 72 ? Because, as I once wrote to Philip Roth (never got an anwswer), to write in English feels like playing piano with my tongue. It became too frustrating while I was describing the death of my grand-mother. I suddenly felt it was time to unmute my prose and let my verdant vocabulary take these sad and funny memories in charge. After all, Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake in many languages ; why wouldn’t I make RARE, more modestly, a bilingual novel, especially as the title is already valuable both in French and English ?

But there is another meaning, a deeper one, to what I call the invisiblity of writing. The prose of RARE will spread itself from page to page on various supports, in many colors, materials and shapes. The day it will be fully exposed, the coherent chaos of colours exhibited to the eyes of the visitors will make the real character of this story conspicuous by its absence, if I may say so.

As I said in the beginning, the real character of RARE is literally the writing itself, the handwriting gesture, the magical enigma which metamorphoses a thought – a feeling, a dream, an intuition, an emotion, a reasoning – into a living sentence, running from the soul and the brain to the extremity of the hand through the veins, the muscles, the nerves and the bones… You can see the result of it, but the process itself remains a mystery. The handwriting, with all its pentimenti, sketches, crossing out, is only the slipstream of a translucent boat which nobody ever saw and on which only the rarest spirits travel…

Stéphane Zagdanski © 2015

[1] “Burning chaos”,  from a quote by Nietzsche: “Civilization is only a thin film over a burning chaos.”

Cf. my dialog in English with Robert G. Margolis online: http://chaosbrulant.blogspot.fr/2012/09/the-eruption-of-verbal-audacity.html

[2] Éditions du Seuil : http://www.seuil.com/livre-9782021091533.htm

[3] Lost Illusions, written from 1837 to 1843, especially the second part, where  “Balzac denounces journalism, presenting it as the most pernicious form of intellectual prostitution”, cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illusions_perdues

[4] “Beauty herself is black”, from a sonnet by Shakespeare… Published in 2001 by Éditions Fayard: http://www.fayard.fr/noire-est-la-beaute-9782720214424

[5] Letter to Sherwood Anderson, 23 May 1925.

[6] http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/an-open-letter-to-wikipedia

[7] « À quoi bon trafiquer de ce qui, peut-être, ne se doit vendre, surtout quand cela ne se vend pas. » Quant au livre

[8] Cf. the proximity between RARE and Jewish Mystic in http://bit.ly/rareenglishpresentation

[9] “If at least, time enough were allotted to me to accomplish my work, I would not fail to mark it with the seal of Time,the idea of which imposed itself upon me with so much force to-day,and I would therein describe men, if need be, as monsters occupying a place in Time infinitely more important than the restricted one reserved for them in space, a place, on the contrary, prolonged immeasurably since, simultaneously touching widely separated years and the distant periods they have lived through—between which so many days have ranged themselves—they stand like giants immersed in Time.” Last lines of Time Regained

[10] http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/French/MallarmeUnCoupdeDes.htm

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