Something sacred about getting his hair cut, this half hour of enforced blindness, his glasses folded away on the ledge in front of him. A half hour of meditation. He closes his eyes to the blurred reflection in the mirror and takes stock instead of the sounds around him, the piped pop music, the hairdryers, the snip of scissors; accepts the sensation of another man’s hands in his hair, of cuttings settling on his face, in his ears, down his neck.
This itinerary begins in the historic centre of the city and finishes up in the New Quarter, the centrepiece of the government’s urban regeneration programme. It’s a pleasant, easy 3–4-hour walk (longer if you choose to dally in the city museum, with its fine Renaissance frescoes) and is perfect for a sunny afternoon if you are only spending one day in the town. For longer stays, consider combining it with a boat trip to the river mouth or the excursion to St Hilbert’s castle (see p. 175).
The Great Square was completed in 1789, the product of the architect Brunelleschi’s grand vision to transform the mediaeval town, up to that point a great rambling knot of narrow lanes, into a city worthy of the presence of the recent Hohenzollern conquerors. Laid out along classical lines, it is bright, airy and solid – signalling precisely the enlightened outlook the Hohenzollern wanted to communicate to their vanquished peasant foe. On the north side is the Duke’s palace, open to visitors from 11 till 3 every day. Lavish outside, the palace is surprisingly modest inside and not really worth more than a quick walk around. On the south side of the square, pause to admire the stained glass windows of St Nikolai’s cathedral, designed by Erwin Wurm in 1952 to replace the original 16th-century windows destroyed during the firebombing that ravaged much of the city during the First World War.
Back on the Great Square, turn and face east down the broad prospect of Elysian Avenue. Built as the main thoroughfare of Brunelleschi’s re-visioned town, the avenue is a postcard-perfect expression of rigidly geometric neo-Classical composition, affording unhindered views out across the valley beneath the town.
Today Elysian Avenue houses the top-end jewellery and couture houses you would expect to find in any international metropolis. Favourable tax rates, however, mean that prices may be more affordable here than elsewhere; do stop in at Cartier, whose premises, a mediaeval weavers’ guild house, have been beautifully restored. Continuing down the avenue, you will pass on your left a small alleyway leading to the town’s oldest tavern, which has been serving wines from the surrounding vineyards, according to a plaque on the wall, for the last 720 years. The Barolo Classico had an excellent year in 2009 and is particularly worth sampling. Just after the tavern, Elysian Avenue starts to bend to the right; follow the curve round to find yourself looking up on both sides at the city’s twin skyscrapers, designed by I M Pei in 1992. Both towers are glass and at first glance you would be forgiven for thinking you can see straight through them. After a moment it becomes clear, though, that the glass is completely opaque and what you are seeing is the reflection of the sky in the other tower. Typical of Pei’s experiments in Supermodern architecture, the towers today house the ministries for Defence and for the Interior.
Follow the grand staircase down from the twin towers, with its Art Nouveau ornamentation, and you will come to a fork in the avenue. The left fork takes you to the city’s bar and nightlife district with its burgeoning gay scene, still enjoying a period of experimentation after homosexuality’s legalisation in the late ’90s. The right fork takes you up the hill to the city’s prime residential neighbourhoods of Seaview and St Hilda’s. The weather is often noticeably cooler here in summer, providing respite from the sweltering streets below. If you decide to go out into the outskirts of the city to visit the vineyards and the Belvedere vodka distillery at North Point, be sure to stop at the chapel of San Antonio, where the composer Rimsky-Korsakov is buried in the graveyard. If you decide to visit the catacombs beneath the city, guided tours leave from the Great Square at 10am every day except Mondays. Coaches to the surrounding villages and to the ski resort of Kittsbühel depart from the central train station, notable for the fretwork on its iron roof. If you have your own car, don’t forget that it is obligatory to carry a reflective jacket and a warning triangle in the boot in case you break down.
The notebooks of Pasqal Josepe, published in French at the beginning of April this year (Cahiers, Éditions du Seuil), have allowed prospective readers of this Spanish-Albanian author a first vision through the looking-glass of his fractured body of writing.
Although drafts of his work are estimated to stretch to some thirteen thousand pages, none of Josepe’s three novels or numerous short stories has been published to date. None was completed to his satisfaction. An obsessive perfectionist, he would rework a passage of prose over and over, changing it beyond recognition before finally abandoning it as unsalvageable. His novels and stories exist only as splintered arcs of these rejected prose fragments, loosely held together by theories and proposed connections outlined in these notebooks.
Josepe’s sole and compulsive subject was his own body. His writing constitutes a self-obsessed, overwhelmingly detailed examination of it: in space, in time, as memory, through the eyes of others, in imagination. The three novel arcs attempt – and fail – to synthesise these disparate facets into a single, living vision of his corporal existence. Instead, they show only how Josepe pulls his body apart.
The Cahiers end by reproducing one of Josepe’s later fragments in all its laborious iterations. The passage deals with the plucking of a hair from his eyebrow, eventually becoming an attempt to reinsert the hair into its follicle. This half-page fragment takes up, in total, the final fifty-five pages of the book. Forcing oneself to read and re-read this shard of his body an excruciating eighty-nine times, one cannot but be overwhelmed by the intense self-fascination with which Josepe scrutinised himself in the mirror of his writing – and by the equally powerful self-loathing which forced him to reject what he saw over and over again.
In a separate section, he writes (reviewer’s translation): “My writing is my body. I sculpt and shape it until what I see is perfect. And this means cutting away what is not perfect. It is a necessary mutilation.” Ultimately, the peculiar appeal of Josepe’s work lies in reading the constant and unresolved struggle between his self-perfection and his self-mutilation; a struggle which demands his work remain impossibly multiform and, therefore, unreadable. It is not clear whether Josepe himself understood that to reach a final, perfect version of his work would be to destroy it completely.
The writer’s long-standing partner Heco, who is not mentioned anywhere in the notebooks, took on the task of editing Josepe’s three unfinished novels after the latter’s death from AIDS two years ago. The first of the three, Pâris–Achille (‘Paris–Achilles’), is scheduled for publication at the end of this year. If it is readable as a novel, it will certainly be a bloodless mutilation of Josepe’s work and his body.
Image: Pasqal Josepe, Cahiers (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2009)
[Published on www.introducingart.com, Issue 2]
This is one of the things they keep arguing about. He finds it very difficult to explain to her. She wants him to say it to her all the time, imagining that every time it becomes more lustrous, more deeply rooted, that it fertilises and replenishes itself. She seems to have a whole garden of words in her head, an orchard full of trees whose fruit, once picked, immediately replaces itself. He, in the same way he was born with only a limited number of teeth in his mouth, knows that each one is precious, that there is only a small number of times he can say these words before there are none left in him. He counts them repeatedly to check they are still there, running his tongue over the outline of each enamelled word. Every time she makes him say it is like a tooth being torn out by the roots.
Over time your bodies have taken on the shape of each other, grooved and indented by the friction of your nights. Looking down at your body tonight, you see only the absence of his. You count your ribs as you would count his fingers slotted into them. Your collarbone remembers his chin; your thighs remember his hips. Your body exists only where the memory of his repeats itself against you. Try as I might, I cannot bring you to life. Your bodies are too deeply confused. I feel his fingers in your ribs, his hips between your thighs. I cannot fit between your body and his.
We photograph ourselves to close the gap between us. The photographs do not show our arguments and failures, the things we cannot talk about. The clothes and the smiles hide the calluses and burns on our bodies, the patches where we have worn away the skin to reveal the marble and metal bulk of our incompatibility. I want to believe these photos as everyone else believes them. We surround ourselves with images of beach holidays, temple visits, shared meals; we apply these healing icons directly to the exposed flesh of our bodies. I want to believe this accumulation of photographs will be enough to bind tight the wounds we inflict on each other in private, to safeguard us against the attrition of every passing day.
Alf has forgotten to buy himself a chocolate Easter egg again this year. He remembers only while he is cooking dinner. What reminds him is taking a real egg from the carton and noticing that it misses a seam. The memory of the seams in chocolate eggs comforts him. He used to relish the challenge of knocking an egg against a surface at just the right point and with just the right force to split it perfectly in two along the seam. Some eggs, the expensive ones with more chocolates inside, simply fell apart when you unwrapped the foil. This always disappointed him. Others had been melted together so enthusiastically by some machine that the chocolate along the seam was thicker than anywhere else and it was impossible to split them cleanly in half. He runs his fingertips over the smooth body of the real egg in his hand and, just before cracking it as usual against the edge of the saucepan, contemplates biting into its white shell, its two perfect halves melting in his mouth. As he stirs the yolk into his rice he has the taste of chocolate on his tongue.
Twenty years passed before he touched the instrument again. It sat forgotten in the attic of his parents’ house until his mother’s accident, when he came back to look after her. He found it one afternoon in the darkness under the eaves as his mother slept in her armchair downstairs, looking for old photo albums at her request, its black case filmed with dust. The clasps made the same sound as they always had when he unlatched the case, and inside the cello lay swaddled and undisturbed in its velvet upholstery. There was still rosin dust on the varnished surface of the body, on the strings which lay slack on the fingerboard; he felt the skin on his hands tingling. In a daze he took the cello gingerly out of its case and sat with it between his legs. It fit perfectly, as if his body and its body had continued to grow with each other over the years, separate but connected by some invisible cord. He took the bow in his hand, tightened it and watched how his fingers formed without thinking into the proper hold, the memory stored in his muscles. He sat motionless, not daring to move, the taut bow hair hovering above the loose strings; and like someone in a dream he floated with his cello in the dark space of the attic as if suspended, waiting, unable to break the silence of these twenty years.
Late for rehearsal she tripped while trying to run with her cello along the street and fell with it. At the sound of the crack time paused for a moment and her mind replayed the wood cracking, trying to discover which part of the instrument would have produced such tone and quality of sound. She lay for a moment pressed into its fallen body on the pavement, not daring to confirm whether her suspicions were correct, before becoming aware of herself again. Ignoring the lunchtime crowds around her she got to her knees and gingerly turned the cello so it lay on its back, unzipped it up its side, peeled off the slipcase. Kneeling in front of its exposed body she ran her eyes along its splintered haunch and shattered shoulder into its hollow chest and felt it was her own body that had been smashed, laid bare, emptied out. She wanted to touch it, to heal it by the placing of her hands on its wounds, to stroke it and sing to it, to lie back down alongside it on the pavement and hold it to her like a doll, like a baby trying to sleep.
In his first lesson he had to learn how to sit properly, then how to hold the cello, where it should touch his body. He had to pretend to be comfortable with this awkward wooden box lodged between his knees and digging into his chest. The next week the teacher showed him how to hold the bow, had to bend his fingers with force into the right position on the stick. It seemed to him immensely badly designed, composed of blades and angles that cut into the pads of his fingers. He was supposed to carry it with just his fingertips when he wanted to clutch it in his fist; he felt he would drop and break it at every moment. The next week when he finally put bow to string he kept losing the correct hold, and when he retrieved it he would forget how to move the bow in a straight line or at the right angle to the string. When he had it almost right the teacher made him put his other hand on the neck of the instrument and he immediately forgot everything again. The sound he made was agonising, laughable. After a couple of months he started to despair that he would ever be able actually to play the instrument. Was this what he had been dreaming of all these years? In his mind’s eye he had seen himself playing Elgar to audiences in rapture to every note; between here and there he now realised had to be overcome the distance between him and this alien body of wood and catgut, that he and it had to be bound together with the stitches of a thousand repeated rituals, ten thousand repeated movements.
She sings in the candlelit choir stalls looking across at the mouths on the other side opening and closing like trapdoors as if she is looking into each of them in turn for something that has been hidden from her. She sings, though she may in this moment have forgotten why she sings, in order to resurrect the voice she held in her hands five years ago playing the cello from morning till evening every day for weeks on end practising for her concert, practising too much, playing for too long and ignoring the staccato of pins and needles on her nerves which crescendoed to a pain like nails being pushed through her wrists, her palms, her fingertips. And still she played. The sharper the pain, the worse she sounded, the harder she practised. One morning a week before the concert she woke up and the pain was excruciating; she couldn’t hold her toothbrush or a spoon and certainly couldn’t play a cello concerto; she wanted to cry out in agony each time she had to move her hands. When she sings five years later it is with the voice of her cello, her clean soprano in counterpoint to the echo of its tenor, the solo she never played in concert and the cello she never played again; when she sings it is with the voice of her silent and crucified hands.
It was practice which made his hands and his cello seem to fuse into a single limb during those months with the orchestra. He no longer felt the bow in his hand or the body of wood between his legs; the movement of his fingers on the cello’s neck seemed to occur of its own accord. His body expanded to include his cello and its voice. He could hear the note he was playing before he had played it, could predict exactly its tone and quality. On those occasions when he was separated from his cello because he had to travel or had to eat, he refined this inversion of sequence so he could practise without an instrument; he recreated his cello within him. After the accident which left him unable to play, it was this technique which held him back from complete despair. He would ask to be wheeled to the window and would sit in the oblique square of sunlight running through études and concertos in his mind’s ear. Once he asked for his cello to be brought in for him to look at while he was playing but he could not bear his longing to hold it. He started playing instead on people he could see from the window, the backs of women walking along the street. He imagined their rich deep voices singing as he held them between his legs. He would fall asleep in front of the window and dream of complete and perfect bodies, and when the angle of the setting sun woke him he didn’t remember having dreamt at all.
across the grain of
the glass we cut
between our teeth jagged
we squeeze words
into stone, silence into
mortar we reveal
on our tongues black
clots. i pile you
stack these stones across
the glass we break our
teeth one by one.
i can’t stop not looking
at you. you see i cut
my hands our words
reaching across our
the great wall of china.
Slipping outside i lost her in this huge ship Alone
and tiny, tossed and sorry, the daily duties lie
too heavy The weight of rain on me, shards of bone
and broken skin, mane never dried by sun. At night
now, the clouds drown out the heavens I know
nothing but water, water And salt deafens. Roaring
wood, rope screaming Repair me. Far below
the threat of a final splash Always almost falling
i feed the birds that ache to fly, they clench their teeth
at the smell of their dead But luckily, salt preserves.
I’m ravenous to taste of earth – a spoonful of mud will
do. Then quiet, breathing sleep, my little lamb beneath
Her nuzzle would mend the flesh, smooth the nerves
The sweat sweet on our bodies. I want us still.
valse triste de ces rues qui se contournent qui débouchent sur leur source qui aboutissent à leur début. valse saoule où trébuche le temps qui s’écrase les pieds qui s’écroule en s’extasiant qui a mal. valse solitaire et claustrophobe entre des visages de béton et de verre qui me bloquent le chemin des doigts de fer qui se moquent de moi qui commence à perdre le sens à sauter à tomber.
(sad waltz of these streets which skirt around themselves which flow into their source which end up at their start. drunken waltz where time trips up which tramples its feet which collapses in ecstasy which hurts. lonely waltz and claustrophobic between the faces of cement and glass which get in my way of iron fingers which mock me who start to lose my balance to jump to fall.)
like pearl she curl round swollen belly ballbearing like hungry tooth of grapeshot spoilt stubborn to extract, knots of spine coiled like cat o’ nine tails round fist gnawed to knuckle like blister boil necklace caught round throat, choke, her Adam’s apple, pits of pupils blood sore like angry husks of roasted nuts like eyelids shut tight i harden like wound, round and smooth suddenly exposed like flesh sprung open like oyster by knife and glistening still alive sweet wait to be cut free like chicken-foetus.