(notes to November hurricane)

“Oh, if only I could write!” she cried (for she had the odd conceit of those who write that words written are shared). She had no ink, and but little paper. (Virginia Woolf, Orlando, 1928).

I’m writing down something I’ve been thinking about for a while; or I’d better say I’m typing. Typography is the currently available tool, for me to write, and for anybody to read – if someone is reading these notes right now, either printed on paper or displayed on screen.

I keep using this old and worn-out system, while it’s still here and works well enough for me. I admit that I would enjoy some new tool – a mental dictaphone, or a thought-to-text converter for example: I would have it write down what I think in the morning travelling on the underground (or having lunch, as in this case). I heard that someone is working on it: the system is still in development, and involves having a 4 mm chip implanted into your skull. I’m not ready for it, so I’ll keep writing, or typing. That is:

First – tracing words with pen on paper (or any other combination of tool and material). These words, or a part of them, were first quickly written on a notebook, in a language different than my own. They were hardly readable, even for me, and bore all the signs of the changes done in the process.

Then – typing, as I’m doing now (even if now is an incongruous word here, completely detached from the time of the reader). Taking a flow of words, fragmenting it into meaningless (beautiful) units, until it becomes another substance, a kind of weightless gravel that can be transported and transformed easily. Once the text has survived this process, almost anything can be done with it: it’s an endlessly re-processable material.

Then – a continuous reworking. In the end, the text will have completely changed, losing some of its lapses and imperfections, meeting new ideas along the way, and eventually finding its final shape.

(Here I can’t help thinking about something a friend of mine told me some time ago. She was in the very early stages of a relationship with a man who lived in another town; after exchanging some emails with him she found out that he could read everything in her messages, including what she had decided to “edit out”. Somehow, her emails kept track of the words she had deleted and delivered them to him anyway, regardless of her intentions. She doesn’t complain, anyway: they’re still happy together, maybe also thanks to something she unintentionally told him.)

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In a beautiful page from his book Listopadovy uragán (November hurricane) the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal tells about how he sees his thoughts slowly typed onto an imaginary sheet, or the windows of a bus, or any other surface, by a giant mental typewriter. I transcribed (again, typed) this page a few years ago, and today, while I write, I start to understand my obsession with this text. I had it translated into English, so that I could share it with you:

I am on the bus, on the way to see my kittens, I am telling a story I have been told, I even find that I am able to slow down my speech so that I can see it typed on a typewriter on the driver’s cabin’s front shield, this is my writing, I see what I tell written onto pretty much any surface, now I even recall, riding the bus, lying down and unable to sleep, seeing the large surface in the darkness, that similarly, tapes used to tick the latest news letter by letter on the rooftops in the cities, so do I see what I am saying to myself as if written with a giant typewriter, the shining keys of my machine glisten in the darkness, now I even recall, on the bus, that, at other times, when I repeat to myself what I have been told or what I tell, I recall how I put my fingers slowly onto the imaginary typewriter keys, I transfer the text directly from the keys into my brain, where it is placed onto a white paper of size 25… (Bohumil Hrabal, Listopadovy uragán, 1990, translated by Olga Neumanová.)

Most of all, what attracts me to this text is that the writer makes the act of writing visible again – in all its dimensions, including time. While he tells about what he does, hears, thinks, sees – about what he writes, too – his words are slowly displayed in front of him, and in front of us. In a way, they are also read out loud, made public, and the reader can almost see it happening. What is usually lost in the printed page here is somehow preserved, or at least seems to be.

Hrabal’s words – and my personal struggle with writing – returned to my mind on a November day in Paris, while I visited the Yves Klein exhibition at the Centre Pompidou. In the middle of it, in a dark room, you could sit on a bench, lean on the wall and listen to Klein’s voice talking about the process of artistic creation. The sound was low, and his words hard to understand, as if he was mumbling to himself. You had no choice but to enter his flow of words at a random point in time, and try to make your way into it. On the wall, his explanation of the work:

It’s very difficult to hear oneself dream, to dream awake. It’s very difficult to pronounce one’s thoughts. I have attempted the experiment essentially because I would prefer not to have to write. (Yves Klein, Dialogue avec moi-même, sound work, 1961)

The tape was recorded on one evening in November 1961, when Klein was alone at home and felt a sudden urge to take note of what was coming to his mind. Whatever the reason, he surely found writing unfit for his purpose, and decided to explore another mode of delivery, more direct and spontaneous: he could just let words out as they came. But recording them on a tape in fact he opened the way for their endless repetition.

Hrabal’s writing and Klein’s speaking are similar: not only in recording their ideas, but also in describing how they took shape in their mind. Even if they chose two opposite ways, the results share the same quality: they apparently let us in, allowing us to become spectators while something happens. Like any other writer or speaker, they both need us, as only readers, or listeners, can give their words a destination.

Readers can meet writing in many ways – but rarely in its time-based form, while it happens. In written (typed or printed) text, the writer’s time is hidden, and only the reader’s time exists: she decides rhythm, pauses, delays. The irregular, fragmented process that has produced what now seems a whole disappears, and ceases to matter.
While writing has already happened, recorded speech keeps happening; it has become ever more often a matter of files stored on a computer or mp3 device, where it can be replayed at will. It is still transmitted on the radio, an on-the-air rendez-vous with good-willed people. And sometimes it lives in a specific place, waiting to meet a listener; but without the right junction of time and space, it might be missed and remain unheard.

In 1968 John Barth published a short story collection titled Lost in the Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice. The subtitle and Barth’s opening note explain how every text, even if they all belong to the same book, was meant to be delivered in a different form. The reader can turn herself into a performer, acting or at least imagining a reading of the text as proposed by the author. Or she can simply close the book, silencing the voices, like one of the characters seems to ask:

You who           listen           give me life           in a manner of speaking.
[…]
Then if anyone hears me, speaking from here inside like a sunk submariner, and has a means to my end, I pray him to do us both a kindness. (John Barth, Autobiography: A Self-Recorded Fiction, from Lost in the Funhouse, 1968.)

This reminds us that reading is the performance needed by any written text to become alive, to live at least in one reader’s mind. The visible form of a text may be endlessly repeatable in print or on a screen, but not its many possible readings.

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At some time during the writing I decided to start keeping track of the changes I was making to this text. From time to time, while working on it, I switched the view on my screen from plain text to palimpsest, and realised how time-consuming and uneconomic is writing the way I do it: I could never earn a living with it. But I like the image of the multilayered text; it’s beautiful, and – most of all – it shows the trace of time.

…he would write until midnight chimed and long after. But as he scratched out as many lines as he wrote in, the sum of them was often, at the end of the year, rather less than at the beginning, and it looked as if in the process of writing the poem would be completely unwritten.(Virginia Woolf, Orlando)

I only have to choose a moment in time to stop this process, and let a new one begin, out of my control, in the eyes and hands of someone else: what I’m doing now.

In the end, now that a final version exists and all the traces have been hidden, not much remains; a few words, nine thousand characters more or less, written down on a white sheet of paper size 25. They have a space, and a shape. Anything else is up to you.

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(note: in this text, the words now and today can refer to any day between July 2006 and February 2008.)

twd