Mary Gaitskill’s collection of short stories, Bad Behaviour, first published in 1988, are mostly set in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, New York and are vignettes into lives of, often, young, white-collar workers and aspiring actors and artists suffering social and economic dislocation and despair. Gaitskill’s focus is upon relationships, with economic struggle in the background.
Though sometimes written from the male point of view, women seem to be the primary focus of the stories. Often they are caught in uneven power dynamics but Gaitskill rarely presents simple scenarios of victim and abuser. The abusive men are sometimes depicted as vulnerable, in their own way, or, in the case of prostitution, a party in a transaction. There is an acceptance, at times, by the young female office worker and writer characters of transactional and/or exploitative, sexual relations, perhaps, reflecting a reality that goes largely ignored.
When it comes to moral judgment, Gaitskill seems, often, to be directing the reader to look beyond individuals to the nature of our society: “It was a busy corner; traffic ran savagely in the street, and people stamped by, staring in different directions, clutching their packages, briefcases and huge screaming radios, their faces concentrated but empty.”
Gyula Krúdy’s short tragi-comedy tale, Death and the Journalist, captures the extreme loneliness and emptiness of living with hopeless dread. It follows a character who is due to participate in a duel with an expert marksman the following day. The eponymous journalist, Titus Finehouse moves between familiar pubs and cafes, having desultory encounters with acquaintances and strangers from the underclasses of Budapest.
One of the most pitiful moments is when Finehouse returns to his room, in which an obituary of his mother hangs on the wall, and hears creditors come to the door, demanding satisfaction. One, an instalment agent, sits outside his door, determined to wait it out: “He scratched his palms, he scratched his head; he dug around in his ears with a match, gurgling blissfully during the operation; he rubbed his legs against each other. There are people who are never bored, because they always find something to occupy their bodies. And so Mr. Munk, when he could think of nothing better to amuse himself with, kicked his shoes off his feet and sat about in his stockings.”
Hours before, Finehouse was drinking champagne with a former scullery maid, who was now the mistress of a rich cabinetmaker. She approached him, sitting alone in the upmarket Orpheum Cafe, having heard of his fate and they sat together whilst his two duel seconds, who he had accompanied to the cafe, talked private business. “But when the head waiter, at last, arrived with the bill on a silver tray, the cunning expression of a highwayman on his face, our hero suddenly realized that he would be left, after paying the bill, with barely enough money to pay the janitor for opening the house door, and even that only if he could, somehow, manage to cheat the waiter out of part of his tip. Eliza drifted away towards the washroom. The two seconds got into their cab and shouted to the journalist through the window: “See you at half past four tomorrow afternoon, Francis Joseph barracks!””
Finehouse receives mostly superficial interest from those he meets, despite the publicity surrounding his duel, and quite a lot is made of his green Tyrolese hat and a cane he has acquired. The most kindness Finehouse receives, aside from advances from his editor at the newspaper, on his meanderings, is from Olga, a cashier at the Franciscan cafe: “weary, melancholy, hopeless, as always at the break of dawn, after another night devoid of events worth mentioning.” It is Olga who has given Finehouse the so-called sowgelders hat and the cane from the ‘lost property’ collection at the cafe. Later, Finehouse goes back to her to propose marriage: “My name would be surrounded by a nimbus of sorts, and people would know that I did not live light-mindedly, from one moment to the other, but had a purpose in life which I fulfilled.” Olga offers him brandy and suggests they talk about it the following day.
On the day of the duel, having slipped his creditors, Finehouse finds himself admiring his hat and cane, when he remembers his fate: “All of a sudden, he remembered the duel in the afternoon, the duel he had not had the time to think of because of his visitors. In the face of other troubles, we sometimes forget even death.”
The story is typically descriptive and tragi-comic and, as with other Krúdy stories, there is a narrowness of portrayal of female characters that also limits his storytelling. Nonetheless, the story is not only entertaining and vivid but it is a fine depiction of overwhelming dread and loneliness. It painfully highlights the futility and degradation of distractions in the face of such dread – but, nonetheless, the appeal they hold over us.
An essay on Gyula Krúdy – “a truly significant innovator in the person of Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933), who produced a narrative technique which had no direct antecedents in the diversity of literary currents, and which in many respects was a forerunner of the trend that became finally shaped as ‘stream-of-consciousness’ in the writings of such great authors as James Joyce or Virginia Woolf in the 1920s.”
Review of N.N by Gyula Krúdy – “the story of a man who, after being famous in Budapest, comes home to Eastern Hungary and wanders between dream and reality on his childhood land. He resuscitates his youth, the people, the places, the customs.”
In our age of anxiety and with the rise of extreme nationalism and xenophobia globally, Turkish academic and writer, Elif Shafak has urged a need for greater “emotional intelligence:” “(w)e need to talk about anxiety, fears, expectations, hopes, frustrations. It’s okay to have all of these feelings, and together we can find a better way forward than the way suggested to us by all of these populist demagogues.”
Today, the UK has the legacy of the so-called “hostile environment” policy which turned banks, employers and landlords into immigration officers, resulting in treating, “every immigrant as an illegal unless they could prove otherwise — and then often rejected their proof even when it was overwhelming.” Particularly targeted, in what became known as the ‘Windrush Scandal’ were immigrants born in former British colonies, especially, from the Caribbean, who were legally in the country as citizens under the British Nationality Act 1948. As well as cases of being threatened with removal, detained, denied medical care, at least eighty-three were wrongfully deported.
Immigration enforcement raids have been conducted with disproportionate severity and/or force. Under the amended Licensing Act 2003, s.179, immigration enforcement officials claim the right to forcibly raid any restaurant, hotel or other licensed premises to investigate suspected immigration law breaches. No cause, evidence, warrant or named senior authorising person need be provided. Two-thirds (63%) of those arrested for illegal working are Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani or Chinese with, “the inference for other nationals working illegally, especially if they were not employed in restaurants and takeaways, was that the likelihood of being arrested for working illegally was low and the likelihood of removal was negligible,” according to a review by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration.
The UK participates, too, in a European “hostile environment” policy whereby the rescuing of migrants in the Mediterranean is not only neglected but opposed and, also, criminalised. Pia Klemp, a captain of a rescue ship from Sea-Watch, responsible for helping to save hundreds of migrant lives, has been charged with aiding and abetting illegal immigration in Italy after arrest in 2017 and faces up to 20 years in jail if found guilty. Carola Rackete, another rescue ship captain, was arrested in June, this year, after bringing 40 migrants into port in Italy but was released. Rescue NGOs risk fines of up to £50,000 if they enter Italian waters. In 2014, the British government revealed that it will not fund any planned EU search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, arguing that saving lives incentivises illegal migration and increases deaths. The EU has suspended naval patrols after disagreements over how to share responsibility for those rescued at sea.
The UN estimates that 2,275 migrants drowned or went missing in the Mediterranean in 2018, at an average rate of six people a day. This was down from the over 3,000 who died in 2017. Approximately, 700 have died so far this year, with up to 150 people dying, including children, in an incident in July when two boats capsized off the coast of Libya. The UN commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi called for European nations to resume search and rescue missions and for an end to migrant detentions in conflict-ridden Libya.
The situation has been described as a “moral crisis” for Europe and one that has deep historical roots. 100 years ago, in 1919, racialised violence erupted in port cities in the UK, fuelled by high post-war unemployment, Mobs targeted, in particular, black communities, including seaman who had served on British ships during the war. The government were under pressure from wider social unrest, as police, soldiers and workers went on strike. A voluntary repatriation scheme aimed particularly at black and mixed race men was introduced. The Home Office informed authorities in Liverpool, “while it is not possible to deport compulsorily any coloured men who are British subjects it is considered desirable that so far as possible all unemployed coloured men should be induced to return to their own countries as quickly as possible”.
Postcards from Berlin brings together the artwork of four very different ‘migrants’ to Berlin as part of a project lead by Brits, Tim Free and Brian Neish, a writer and artist team who collaborate under the name, Timelapse. They reached out to photographer/filmmaker, Abdulsalam Ajaj who is amongst the 6.7 million Syrians to have fled the civil war in Syria, which has entered its eighth year since the pro-democracy uprising of 2011. Ajaj arrived in Germany from Damascus as a self-taught photographer and digital artist in 2015. Also joining the project was Slovenian-born, Veronika Ban who settled in Berlin, in 2009, having studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice.
Whether resident or visitor, refugee or migrant, it is clear that all the artists, who largely worked independently before bringing their work together, experience and are concerned with a sense of alienation. How the alienation manifests is, however, very different for each artist and provides suggestions about personal histories, as well as commentary on modern urban life.
The distorted and blurred light of Ajaj’s work appears to go beyond social alienation to the temporal – as the city escapes beyond sight and humans and other features are barely identifiable. Veronika Ban’s colourful collage work of shadowy figures and signs suggest a world of exclusion, secrecy and memory. Brian Neish’s works juxtapose vivid close-ups of walls with images of built structures. There is beauty and comfort in the “noble decay” of the walls – a pause from troubling existentialism, offered by stillness and attention.
Tim Free’s stream-of-consciousness text responds to each image, meanwhile, and suggests a traveler searching for something evanescent: “…An invisible presence in a free city. The compulsion to reinvent, if only for aesthetic pleasure or to invoke a tsunami of likes?” He ponders on the relation between past and present as he ‘walks’ the streets in the images and of his own experience of Berlin, observing: “…the healing of wounds and a new pragmatic generation, ready for their time in the sun…”
Postcards for Berlin is not the end of the story, of course. Migrants lay down roots and, as artists, strive for new expression. Notably, Ajaj has moved from abstracted images of light to telling stories of fellow refugees in Germany and recently has been capturing ‘naked interventions’ by volunteers that present the naked body in public places. Participants and artists have spoken about experiencing a new connection with their city and their bodies through such actions and activism.
There is an important anxiety not visible in these artworks, naturally, and that is the “intellectual insecurity of Alternative Right Nationalism,” referenced in the preface to the book version of the art project. As much as the insecurity of recent migrants, we need to engage with the fears of ‘natives’ too, if our age of anxiety is not to disintegrate our society. Postcards from Berlin is a valuable project and shows us how our fear of certain conversations might be overcome.
A public exhibition of Postcards from Berlin is planned for 2020. To find out more about the project and other Timelapse works, visit: http://www.timelapse95.com or @timelapse95
Abdulsalam Ajaj is a Berlin-Neukölln-based artist who works with film and photography. He settled in Berlin in 2016 having left his native Damascus, Syria, during the ongoing civil war which arose from pro-democracy uprisings in 2011 and has descended into a fragmented conflict involving various fundamentalist militant groups and international powers.
Ajaj was educated at Jawdat Alhashimie High (scientific branch) and studied Archaeology and Museums, University of Damascus, Syria. He is a self-taught photographer, retoucher and graphic designer with further education in Germany from Weißensee Kunsthochschule, Berlin and UDK Art performance workshop for Professional Berlin.
He and his collaborator, Mischa Badasyan, have received international attention for their naked public tableau works, including the photography collection, WeilIch Dich Liebe (Because I Love You) – a series of images of volunteers posing nude in Berlin’s metro stations. Having unsuccessfully sought permission for the shoots for several years, the artist/activists went ahead with the project without permission. Badasyan has suggested that the experience helped participants reconnect with the city and their own bodies.
Veronika Ban was born in Slovenia in 1985 and is of Slovenian-Italian heritage. She has a background in dance and theatre and wrote poetry before focusing on visual arts. She has worked with collage, murals, painting, sculpture, film and performance. She spent time in Barcelona working and performing in a “squatting socio-cultural centre” before formal study from 2004 to 2009 in Venice at the Academy of Fine Arts. She has lived in Berlin since 2009, where her daughter Teodara was born.
Ban’s is concerned that: “Art should be a mirror and should give an option of perception to reach the truth about life, however it is colored, personally or politically, whether it speaks about emotions of an individual or about the society we live in…”
Ban says of her approach, “(t)he main symbol I’ve always used for describing the society are bricks. Bricks are like particles, together creating something bigger. As in life, moments create time, experiences compose life stories, and individuals make society… For example, in music we have melody which is composed of musical notes. However, in my artworks you can find many different symbols speaking about secretes of life.”
Brian is a full-time artist based in his home county of Derbyshire who, alongside Tim Free, is creator of the Timelapse public art projects. He is fascinated by painted surfaces and the exploration of time and experience – “noble decay” – through the layering of paint, colour and texture. It was in 2010 that Brian became a full-time artist. Prior to this he worked as a Senior Lecturer in Art Education at LSU College of Higher Education and the University of Chichester. This followed his time in Primary Education specialising in Art & Design. He originally studied at King Alfred’s College, Winchester where he graduated in 1985 with a First Class Honours Degree in Art & Education. He also completed a post-graduate year of study in 1990 at Dartington College of Arts in Devon.
Tim Free is a London-based writer and actor with a background in theatre, music and performance. As a writer, he is strongly influenced by social history and the Mass Observation Movement, a social research organisation started in 1937 with the objective of capturing everyday life through volunteers and, in some cases, paid investigators. As well as exploring ideas and history, Free seeks to “try and capture the essence of the event, thereby giving the material a vitality that might lend itself to later reading and interpretation.”
The Clothes in the Wardrobe, the first in a three book series telling the same story from three female perspectives, is an illuminating insight into the experiences and depression of a young, middle-class bride, Margaret, soon to be married to a much older man she finds detestable. In its dream-like short episodes of domestic scenes, the short novel captures the complex array of emotions and injustices which elicit depression and resignation in a woman who feels herself a fish in a gilded cage.
As well as a portrait of depression, the book casts a light on the grey area between a marriage of choice and a forced marriage. Margaret says. “I had known that I couldn’t go on living with my mother. I had nowhere else to go and now I was being carried along – that ship bound for wrecking.”
Margaret’s own mother, a divorcee, fussing over the bride, is an instrument of oppression: “In a sane world, I thought, we would have discussed the state of my feelings, debated whether I loved Syl sufficiently to commit the rest of my life to him, questioned my views on the institution of marriage, examined my mother’s motives in striving to introduce me into this state, have said something of some interest. But the cake had been ordered and that was that. There was no more to be said.”
However, there is a strong sense in the book that society as a whole is corrupt and oppressing Margaret:“I wished I was dead, but I had been too well brought up to snatch at death without being invited. It was not there for the asking but had to be deserved or – sometimes – offered as a gift…Perhaps the death-fearers perceived life differently from me. For me it was being a vessel of evil afloat a sea of evil. If I broke it, it would take the power of God to separate my elements from the elements of the sea…”
Margaret is helpless and afraid but in the days leading up to the wedding an old friend of her mother, Lili, comes to stay. Opinionated, irreverent and, apparently, unafraid, Lili is a comfort to Margaret: “I wondered if she could see into my mind, and I didn’t care, for during that one short walk I had come to believe that Lili would not harm me.”
Lili (whose narration of events forms book three – The Fly in the Ointment) laughs and gleams with “deathlessness” and “the pride of life.” She is full of bold suggestion and opinion – to Margaret’s mother’s annoyance: “What nobody ever did was go to bed with someone because he was virtuous.” Lili, detached and, apparently, hedonistic, is Margaret’s one comfort during this crisis period.
The Clothes in the Wardrobe provides a fascinating insight into Margaret’s depression, brought about by utter disempowerment in choosing her fate – as well as the strength and vitality of Lili, in the face of abusive social conventions and situations. The book questions approaches to happiness, the nature of relationships and questions a society that treats a young woman as a commodity.
In a 1994 New York Timesreview of the three book series, of which The Clothes in the Cupboard is one, combined into one book under the title, The Summer House, Francine Prose wrote: “The book is so edgy, bright and subversive about women’s inner lives and experience — with sex and men, with youth and old age, with the domestic and the spiritual, with morality and amorality — that one can plainly understand why such fiction might be patted nervously on the head or ignored, like the smart, ill-advisedly outspoken girl we remember from our school days.”