Over the next few weeks I shall be teaching some aspects of literary dystopia to sixth-formers at a school in Kent and it has prompted me to re-read Paul Auster’s terrifying vision from 1987, In the Country of Last Things. This itself acts as a prompting background to a review I am starting to put together for Lou Rowan’s wonderful magazine from Seattle, Golden Handcuffs Review. The review is of Leslie Kaplan’s book-length poem L’excès-l’usine (Hachette 1982) which has been recently translated for Commune Editions by Julie Carr and Jennifer Pap under the title Excess – The Factory.
The word dystopia is derived from the Greek for bad (δυσ) and (τόπος) place and deals with a community or society that is undesirable or frightening and is, of course, a direct opposite of the world conceived of by Thomas More in the early sixteenth-century book Utopia. The opening paragraphs of Auster’s novel take us immediately into a world of the unsafe:
“These are the last things, she wrote. One by one they disappear and never come back. I can tell you of the ones I have seen, of the ones that are no more, but I doubt there will be time. It is all happening too fast now, and I cannot keep up.
I don’t expect you to understand. You have seen none of this, and even if you tried, you could not imagine it. These are the last things. A house is there one day, and the next day it is gone. A street you walked down yesterday is no longer there today. Even the weather is in constant flux. A day of sun followed by a day of rain, a day of snow followed by a day of fog, warm then cool, and then today, in the middle of winter, an afternoon of fragrant light, warm to the point of merely sweaters. When you live in the city, you learn to take nothing for granted. Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing that was before you is suddenly gone. Nothing lasts, you see, not even the thoughts inside you. And you mustn’t waste your time looking for them. Once a thing is gone, that is the end of it.”
Leslie Kaplan’s poem is divided into nine circles and the echo of a medieval Florentine legacy cannot be ignored. In this world “You move between formless walls” and become aware that as there is no beginning and no end “Things exist together, all at once”. One of the immediately frightening introductory statements to the First Circle is quite simple:
“Inside the factory, you are endlessly doing.
You are inside, in the factory, the universe, the one that breathes for you.”
There are some interesting literary forbears to this dystopian world of Paul Auster and one is prompted to return to the world of Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit, 1844, where he describes a hidden neighbourhood in London called Todgers:
“You couldn’t walk about in Todgers’s neighbourhood, as you could in any other neighbourhood. You groped your way for an hour through lanes and bye-ways, and court-yards and passages; and never once emerged upon anything that might be reasonably be called a street. A kind of resigned distraction came over the stranger as he trod those devious mazes, and, giving himself up for lost, went in and out and roundabout, and quietly turned back again when he came to a dead wall or was stopped by an iron railing, and felt that the means of escape might possibly present themselves in their own good time, but that to anticipate them was hopeless.”
Or one might accompany Alice into her Looking-Glass World of the 1870s:
“The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things – but the oddest part of it all was that, whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty, though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold.”
Alice’s response is one of astonishment at this surreal world and she exclaims “Things flow about so here”! Anna, the narrator of Auster’s novel, responds more bleakly and with a sense of quickly-learned experience:
“The streets of the city are everywhere, and no two streets are the same. I put one foot in front of the other, and then the other foot in front of the first, and then hope I can do it again. Nothing more than that. You must understand how it is with me now. I move. I breathe what air is given me. I eat as little as I can. No matter what anyone says, the only thing that counts is staying on your feet.”
The translators of Leslie Kaplan’s poem added a shrewd and highly perceptive conclusion to their work:
“In writing L’excès-l’usine, Kaplan was wary of using an overproduced or too-familiar language to convey the workers’ experience of capitalist production. The usual discursive practices would only pervert, not reveal, her subject. A stripped-down language was needed, freed from the forms and expectations of discourse. Rather than being descriptive or explanatory, the poem’s language would be suspended, with objects and events seemingly let loose from their context.”
I now look forward this autumn to writing a full review of Kaplan’s poem for Golden Handcuffs Review. Thank you Lou, and I look forward to meeting you at this coming weekend’s Tears in the Fence Festival!
Ian Brinton, 9th September 2018