Writers by Antoine Volodine[Dalkey Press; 2014]

Tr. by Katina Rogers

What does it take to write? A cursory search through Google for writers’ writing habits reveals strangely normal circumstances — normal because the idea of writing itself seems to be imbued with mystery, and often, in present times, sold to a reading audience as a process of genius that harks back to the process of divinely-inspired creation from the time of the first oral storytellers. This is part of the allure of creation: that it occurs outside of a time and space that is recognisable as everyday and banal. The reality is that to sell a book in a capitalist world, one must necessarily adopt a capitalist work ethic. This means schedules.

In a compilation of the “The Daily Routines of Famous Writers, we learn that Susan Sontag had to remind herself to wake up every morning at no later than eight. Henry Miller’s routine included going to cafés in the evenings and seeing friends. Simone de Beauvoir started off with fortifying tea but also made time during the day to see friends. Haruki Murakami wakes up at four, works solidly for a few hours, incorporates running and swimming into his day, and is apparently in bed by 9 pm. This might explain the no-frills muscularity of his prose. There is something to be said about modes of production and how writing comes to be: writing that is marketable and accessible to readers must be produced in conditions that are generally recognisable, by writers whose position in the world mirrors that of most people (or whose position is one that others aspire to). Financial stability, for the most part — and, crucially, time. Friends to see. Food to eat. A roof over one’s head, writing implements at one’s side, and ideally a room of one’s own.

The writers in Antoine Volodine’s Writers, recently published by Dalkey Press and translated by Katina Rogers, don’t have the luxury of a plan or a schedule, or writing implements, even. Some are not even alive. Writers consists of seven stories of characters — individual writers, or possible heteronyms for one of the writers? Volodine himself? It doesn’t really matter, in the end. These stories are “loosely interlocking,” as the jacket copy explains, and there is a tenuous connection between all of them in that they are post-exotic writers.

I am new to Volodine’s work, but I’m aware of his heteronymous publishing existence that includes the works of Manuela Draeger and Lutz Bassmann. Volodine himself is a heteronym for a French schoolteacher, as this introduction to Volodine’s self-interview in Three Percent reveals. In post-exoticism, which I take to mean a sort of post-experimentalism, the stories are less about things than a mode of seeing. The post-exotic writers in this book are fighting the state, capitalism, Western civilisation in general. (One of them, for instance, edits a pamphlet “against Western society”.) They have taken their fight to the furthest limit — beyond words, and into actions — and are revealed to be guerrilla fighters and “assassins.” They have killed the powerful, the oligarchic and the dictatorial, the evil and the rich and the corrupt. This is why, when we meet these writers, most of them are in penitentiaries, asylums, or dead.

The first story is about Mathias Olbane, a man who had served time for his politically motivated murders and was ready to start life anew, outside the walls of prison, when he was diagnosed with an extremely fast-advancing degenerative genetic disorder. When we meet him, Olbane is at a convalescent home, trying every night to kill himself. We learn that the public career of Olbane “as a man of letters” was brief and by the market’s standards, a failure. However: “During his trial in which he was accused of having gunned down several of those responsible for unhappiness, Mathias Olbane had vehemently denied being a member of a terrorist organization. Despite the judge’s sarcasm, he insisted obstinately that he was a writer and that he lived by his pen.” Several of his works were produced in court, but his words betray his politics, his own writing testifies against him: “several paragraphs, which admittedly had nothing syrupy, nothing ambiguous, and nothing kind to say about the world of real capitalism, were considered clear calls to political murder and were retained as corroborating evidence.”

The second story brings us a similar personality, a woman the narrator calls Linda Woo. One imagines her as a character in a Hong Kong film — the name seems apt for a celluloid femme-fatale assassin. Woo, like Olbane, has also killed. She has killed “the enemies of the people that many would have liked to kill if they had had the courage.” We are far from the world of champagne socialists and armchair activists, writers carefully adopting the language of leftism in order to write profitable novels that bring them acclaim, fame, and invitations to writers’ retreats. In an interview with Volodine that is included at the start of the review copy of this book, Volodine says that these are writers who “speak, knowing that no one is listening to them,” “removed from the mechanisms of the editorial world, with its rituals and obligations, its charming words; its permanent self-censorship (in order to please journalists, critics, readers).”

The writers in Writers refuse the labour of self-promotion; no one here is tweeting in order to increase their brand presence online. They are, in fact, caught in an existential struggle — again, not in the manner of a philosopher who takes walks in the afternoons and meets with friends for drinks at night. They are literally fighting for life, to be seen, and to be heard. Does anyone read them? The writing they produce is of a piece with their political interventions, but does anyone care that they have killed “the enemies of the people,” gunned down “those responsible for unhappiness”?

The state, as expected, wants to put them away, and the writers themselves, as Volodine explains in the interview at the beginning, “don’t know what is worse: speaking or refusing to.” In the story of one character named Maria Three-Thirteen, for example, speech has brought her to her death, and death brings her back towards speech. In voicing the theories of another post-exotic writer and fellow inmate, Maria Three-Thirteen explains that they all “speak without language, with a deaf voice, with a natural and deaf voice.” What is a deaf voice? Is it, like hers, a voice that comes from death? And if so, are the ears that are meant to receive this voice attentive to the sounds, to the nature of the speech which may not arrive in the form and manner that one is generally used to?

The post-exotic writers speak through their writings and their murders of the various instruments of the capitalist, fascist machine. Post-exoticism appears to be a collapse between speech and act, mirroring the collapse of both capitalism’s promise of plenty and the revolution that saw through its promise. There is a sense of what Blanchot refers to as “the relation between the terror and the word,” “the monstrousness that is choked with the impossible voice, unable to utter anything” in his “The Rising Speech: Are We Still Worthy of Poetry?” In this sense, then, one wonders if the deaf voice is just the voice of political nihilism. Although Volodine’s writers seem to speak through their actions their position on the current system, there is a sense of futility to a political resistance that tries only to annihilate the members of the ruling class — as though capitalism is not Hydra-headed and new members will not appear to take the place of the old ones.

But while these writers rarely seem to regret their political assassinations or acts of courage (or terror, depending on your class position), they do seem to recognise the uselessness in the act of writing itself. The chapter on Bogdan Tarrassiev, written in the detached and observant tone of a piece of literary criticism — or to be more precise, written in the manner of what counts as literary criticism in the Western publishing industry — reveals to us that while Tarrassiev wrote important works, unclassifiable and uncategorisable and hence unsellable works, there is a “disdain for writing itself, a sort of self-mutilation intended to ridicule and degrade the notion of the book, the notion of the author, and the false values that are associated with them.” This disdain for writing seems to make itself real through the acts of assassination by these post-exotic writers, acts that seem to want to destroy what counts as “false values,” but what remains in their place or what takes their place?

The seductive value of stories is something the writer of the final chapter, Nikita Kouriline, grapples with, for he is not really a writer of words on paper, but of words uttered to a silent and invisible public. On one level, Volodine shows how Kouriline, having heard the story of his inauspicious birth several times from his grandmother, of his entering the world when his mother departed it, rearranges the images of the story in his head once his grandmother is no longer alive to retell these stories anew, and permits himself to watch these images “with a shrug of his shoulders.” In this way, stories can seduce a person into compliance or indifference. This can also be taken as a comment on the act of reading, or the politically neutralised industry of “literary studies” within the academy. It also speaks of memory and commemoration; how being told a story over and over again can act, in a political system where change is always seen as mere reform, as mere consumption. Stories that are told precisely because they function as an analgesic that makes it easier to forget.

On another level, however, Kouriline understands the value of fiction in allowing one to exercise control where one has none in actual life and so, as his story goes, “That is how, in 1983, Nikita Kouriline was struck by the need to write.” Kouriline comes to writing by means of necessity, but does not write in the accepted sense. Instead, as his material circumstances deteriorate, Kouriline speaks his words to an unseen audience, and lives in meagre conditions. There is no publishing deal here, no financial advance, no fame, no recognition, no writing career, no actual book or literary masterwork. There is, however, profound loneliness, poverty, and the risk of being seen and constructured as a lunatic. There are only words uttered in what Maria Three-Thirteen might call a deaf voice. The reader learns that Kouriline was born during the time when the Soviet NKVD was performing its mass-executions in an area in the Butovo village that is referred to as the Butovo Polygon, and his fictional recreation of his own life necessarily includes the real names of those who were executed by the Soviet secret police. He entered the world when thousands, in fact, were being forcefully departed.

Out of all the stories in Writers, Kouriline’s is the one that is most explicitly political; it deals with the reality of the Soviet state for people who believed — and still do — in the communist vision. As expected, Volodine provides no resolution. These stories are not salvific. There is only death, or to be precise, the list of names of people killed in Butovo for being what the state deemed “counterrevolutionary.” Kouriline tends to the dead, as Volodine reminds us, by talking to them nightly and “soothing” them, but he also has his doubts, thanks to his grandmother who raised him to believe in the communist vision. He wonders if, “all things considered, they might not in fact be active enemies of the society that we are building, that we are trying to build.”

It’s this question that renders Volodine’s book both necessary and deeply troubling. Do a certain class of people have to be annihilated in order for the world to be built anew? This seems to be one answer. Volodine’s writers, as it turns out, write because they must kill. Their political awareness accepts this violence, but at no point does Volodine make it seem that this awareness comes at no cost. In fact, it costs these writers everything. It does seem as though as there is no other way of being in the world — the present capitalist world as we know it — once one has stared the world straight in the face and understood it for what it is.

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