OK, Mr. Field—the debut novel from the South African-born, London-based writer Katharine Kilalea—is the story of a man and a house. Mr. Field, a concert pianist who lives in London, suffers a wrist injury after a performance of Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude.” With the payout he receives, he buys a house in Cape Town that he had read about on the train before the accident occurred and moves there with his wife, to her mild dismay. The house, known as the House for the Study of Water, is no ordinary structure. It’s one of a number of replicas of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, a modernist building that stands outside Paris.
As Mr. Field and his wife begin their new life in the House for the Study of Water, their home’s alienating architecture begins to take a toll—first on their relationship, and ultimately on Mr. Field’s grip on reality. Take, for instance, this passage, in which he gazes out a window after a gust of wind blows out the glass:
Everything was exactly the same as it always had been, of course it was, but there was something vague about the way my eyes registered the world. Whereas previously I could see things clearly—the trees, even their individual leaves—now when I looked out the low-flying gulls were almost indistinguishable from the white specks that came off the tops of the waves. Things were on the cusp of not being themselves. I had the idea that it wasn’t my vision deteriorating but the very glue which held the objects of the world together growing old and weak.
Kilalea’s lucid prose absorbs the reader into Mr. Field’s increasingly uncanny experience of his surroundings and himself. This slow, steady unhinging reveals the strangeness of his world—and ours—anew.
Kilalea was kind enough to answer my questions about the novel over email.
The Millions: What was the initial impulse behind writing OK, Mr. Field? How did that first idea develop into what the novel became?
Katharine Kilalea: Some time ago I visited the Villa Savoye, which most people seem to love, and hated it. I’d already spent over a year writing a dissertation on the perversity of the building—the unnaturally narrow shape of its windows, the coyly hidden position of its entrance—without seeing it in its actuality, so I was surprised to discover that the building, which in my imagination had been something wonderful, was in fact very ordinary. And so unsexy! The stud walls were so porous that I could hear people in other rooms, talking, going to the toilet—presumably, if you lived there, having sex. It reminded me of the overexposed feeling I’d get when writing (or publishing) poetry. I was working for Farshid Moussavi, the architect, at the time. “Why are you writing a book about a building that you hate?” she said. Sometimes it occurred to me that if I could work out why I hated the Villa Savoye I might understand what I hated about writing poetry. Sometimes it seemed like I was using the Villa Savoye to write about a feeling, a kind of desire I suppose, which I was reluctant to write about directly because (in the same way as one ought not to take too much pleasure in an ice cream, say, or a dog, or a question) there’s an element of perversity in it. The building stood in front of that feeling, or stood in for it, as if substituting the words “feeling close” with “being close.”
TM: OK, Mr. Field is concerned, in part, with the interplay between outward order and internal disarray. I see that conflict as embodied in the House for the Study of Water, which is this impeccably designed living space that becomes the site for its occupant’s unraveling. It’s a feature, too, of the way you’ve designed the novel itself: Its motion is careful and its prose restrained as the world of its protagonist comes apart. Do you see that tension between order and disorder as an animating force in the novel? Is it a feature of the act of writing?
KK: The idea of order in a novel is, I think, quite literally the ordering of events. That’s what animates a novel, the knowledge I have from the moment I open it that something is going to happen, the business of waiting, trusting that one thing will lead to another to some climax or conclusion. It’s interesting; in poetry, “order”—rhythm, especially—guards against disorder, whereas in a novel, order stands against dullness. Which differentiates fiction from life—makes it more sexlike than lifelike—because in life, of course, there’s the possibility that nothing will change, nothing will happen. The tension, for me, is the wedge which this idea of progress drives between fiction and life. Is what makes a novel worth going on reading so different from what makes a life going on living? (What makes me go on living? Nothing. I just do!) I paid attention to climaxes while I was reading. The climaxes of some of my favorite books, instead of being moments of clarity or revelation, seemed to be points of disappearing or dissolving. They had a vague, misty quality. In The Magic Mountain, having spent hundreds of pages waiting for Hans Castorp to finally speak to Claudia Chauchat, their conversation is in French so I can’t understand it. Having spent weeks reading about K.’s quest to reach the Castle, Burghel’s offer to help is met with a smile, not because the object of K.’s desire is finally within reach but because he’s about to fall asleep.
TM: Another contradiction that seems to lie at the heart of the novel is the way that structures meant to foster intimacy can instead inspire isolation. As a definition we encounter in the novel has it, a house is “a machine for living in together,” yet it’s the House for the Study of Water that drives Mr. Field and his wife irrevocably apart. Music, too, often functions as a way of bringing people together, but in the novel it works in the opposite way: Mr. Field’s performance of Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude” early in the novel alienates him from his audience, and when he plays it again later, alone, it carries him further into himself. What is it about those structures for connecting us—homes, songs—that can instead cut us off from one another? What makes that an interesting subject to you?
KK: I’m fascinated by the difference between loneliness and too much intimacy. The Villa Savoye seemed to think of intimacy as a kind of heightened proximity to other people—seeing each other and hearing each other and being with each other constantly. That much “togetherness” would drive me mad. In fact, Le Corbusier’s descriptions of how his buildings bring their inhabitants closer to nature reminds me of Daniel Schreber (famously analyzed by Freud), whose psychosis took the form of an overly intimate relationship with the outside world: The sun spoke to him, birds read his thoughts. Schreber tried to drown out the voices by reciting poems and playing the piano. So he used music as a way of keeping things out, shutting himself in. That’s my experience of music: The more I’m carried away by it, the more I find myself thinking about myself.
TM: This is your first novel but your second book. Your first was a book of poetry. How was writing this book different from writing poetry? In what ways, if any, do you see the novel as continuous with your poetic project?
KK: Somewhere between writing my book of poetry and this novel, I wrote a long poem which I think of as the hinge between the two. The poem is the opposite of prosaic—the images don’t make sense, the syntax doesn’t make sense, some of the words are nonsense. It was written at a time when, for reasons that were never clear, I had great difficulty in expressing myself. I was unable to speak properly; I couldn’t finish sentences and often couldn’t find the right word at the right time. Perhaps the music of the poem supplemented those unfinished thoughts and made sense of them, because I couldn’t write poems after that. Then, after a while, sentences started to appear. I miss poetry, but it’s a great relief to be able say something rather than having to convey it intravenously, as is the way of poetry.
TM: Many of my favorite recent novels were written by writers who began their careers as poets—Ben Lerner, Garth Greenwell, Anna Moschovakis, and you. Would it make sense to you to think of the contemporary English “poet’s novel” as a form with certain specific characteristics? What might those be?
KK: I’m not at all confident about this, but here goes … I wonder whether Ben Lerner and Garth Greenwell’s novels (I’m looking forward to reading Anna Moschovakis) share a cynicism about instinct, or the naturalness of feelings. There is a sense of feelings behind feelings, thoughts beneath thoughts; you settle on something only to discover, a moment later, something different buried beneath it. It makes it impossible to land anywhere, which is something I recognize from poetry, the sense that everything must be unsettled, that you think of a thing one way, but really …
TM: One of the features of OK, Mr. Field I found most compelling is the subtle prominence of animal life, from the sea or sea-adjacent creatures (seals, squid, seagulls) discussed when Mr. Field goes to the restaurant to the spider that he sets on fire to the dog that becomes his companion. What role do you see animals as playing in the novel?
KK: It’s not easy to describe feelings. You can only describe what caused them or what it looks like when a person is smiling, crying, etc. The thing about animals is that, since they can’t speak, perhaps, their bodies are very articulate—they seem to register feelings with their whole bodies through tail wagging, head cocking, etc. Also, although animals seem to experience roughly the same feelings as we do—guilt, affection, enjoyment, being left out, etc.—they’re not expected to be moral. For example, whereas people are expected to experience attraction to other people, preferably ones of a similar age, background, and so on, dogs are allowed to hump table legs or handbags.
TM: In an early scene, when Mr. Field meets Hannah Kallenbach, he notices a shelf filled with “big books, the kind of grand European novels which concern themselves with the human condition.” I thought of this as a winking way in which the novel both acknowledges the tradition of which it is a part (it’s also a novel that explicitly concerns itself with the human condition) and differentiates itself (it’s not a big book). Elsewhere, you’ve mentioned The Magic Mountain as an influence. What other books do you consider OK, Mr. Field in conversation with?
KK: I do miss the modernist project’s ambition to tackle death, love, the meaning of life. I’m still anxious about the meaning of life! There were a few books which were—are—always on my desk while writing: The Magic Mountain, Correction, The Castle, and Peter Sloterdijk’s Bubbles, all of which I treat as odd love stories: for death, a castle, a soap bubble, a foetus, a placenta … Bernhard’s Correction and The Loser were too thematically similar to OK, Mr. Field to ignore, though anyone trying to write while reading Bernhard knows how terribly infectious his style can be.
TM: In the novel, Mr. Field moves from England to South Africa, which is the reverse of the path of your own life. What, if anything, do you see as distinctly English or South African about the novel, or even distinctive of the interchange between the two?
KK: OK, Mr. Field was initially set in the Alps—as an homage to The Magic Mountain, I think—but I’d only been there once, so halfway through, I transposed it into South Africa, which I knew better. I realized, then, how dominating a presence South Africa can be, because suddenly I felt the need to write in great detail about its sunsets, the seaweed, etc. (which felt wrong: too much looking out, not enough looking in). There is a perverse pleasure in withholding that visual description, because the landscape is beautiful, yet that restraint seems common among South African novelists: Their books have an arid quality; they don’t sing. The changing of countries at the last moment was also willfully contrary, a corrective to the unspoken regulation that a South African writer should concern themselves primarily with South Africa and things associated with South Africa.
TM: What are you reading and working on now?
KK: I’m about to re-read Lolita. It’s not my favorite Nabokov, but I’d like to write about, and think about, sexuality, in an amoral way.
The first story of Patty Yumi Cottrell’s that I encountered was about a harsh school mistress chastising her students during a trip to the zoo. Her voice struck me as singular, her characters, haunted, abject, and captivating. They still do. But don’t take my word for it, read her “Young Robert,” read her “Peace.” She has said that when she writes she pictures herself “as a lonely old man who has just taken a room in a decrepit boardinghouse. He sits at a desk and tries to write himself out of the present moment. Anything can happen.” Yes, anything can and does happen in her stories, but also this lonely old man stands beyond time. There are switches of wood, bedbugs, and pitiable schoolmistresses. Her first novel, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, has garnered comparisons to Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, and Robert Walser.
Patty Yumi Cottrell and I spoke at length via email about her novel, her fascination with Thomas Bernhard’s houses, and the “grotesquely strange” human soul. For our correspondence, we agreed on a prearranged process: each message would be written after having taken a walk, and each message would contain an image. What follows are are the results.
Before my walk today I put on a jacket I haven’t worn in ages because it’s 70 degrees in February — in Chicago. I detest the long winters here and relish this interjection of warmth, but I also can’t escape how obscene it is to enjoy this first wave of global warming. When I put on the jacket, in the pocket I found a fortune from last year. It says “You will be awarded some great honor.” And I thought, what an auspicious beginning to our conversation. Of course I am thinking of your novel, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, and how each time I read the book it succeeds in both destroying me while making me laugh and my heart swells with empathy for Helen as she attempts to piece together the reasons behind her adoptive brother’s suicide. I’ve never read such a delightful yet devastating novel about suicide and loss. I would posit: I think Helen would hate the phrase “my heart swells” — she wouldn’t want it. I do think she wants to be seen, and she isn’t by her family. She is in her 30s, shares a cramped studio apartment in Manhattan with a roommate, and is estranged from her adoptive family. When her adoptive brother kills himself, her parents don’t reach out to her, they let her Uncle Geoff make the call and he emphasizes that no one expects her to come home for the funeral. She does return to Milwaukee, to seek out clues to her brother’s suicide, attempting to keep her grasp on the universe, it seems? She’s unhinged and, yes unreliable too, yet as I see it she’s perhaps the truest, sanest person in her family: unable or unwilling to play their games of social propriety, keeping up appearances, she’s blamed for not forging a connection. For her severity toward her family she was once called admiringly “a coldhearted bitch.” Perhaps this ability to tell the truth, or at least her truth, and cause (their) displeasure is where Helen is/was divergent from her adoptive brother?
I like what you’ve said here. Thank you. I don’t know what’s the truth or insane or sane. I wrote the book in a state of feeling unhinged and uncertain about reality. Life was unraveling. In a way, it was the perfect moment to write a book. Or to begin writing.
Helen is a fairly resourceful character despite all of her flaws. Her investigation is about discovering the truth, but even that seems problematic, as if anyone can ever know the truth about a person’s life and death. I think that’s impossible, so the search itself is flawed. I can empathize with that choice though. She does the best she can considering the circumstances and who she is. That’s pretty admirable even if she’s kind of an asshole at times. Her brother is my favorite character though. He’s tender, delicate, and strong.
Right now I’m in the desert. It’s clearing to come out here. The plants are special. Two men just walked by me and one of them said, “It’s very Chinese.” I kind of hate overhearing other people’s conversations.
I love eavesdropping, the glimpses into other conversations, intruding on an intimacy you haven’t earned, briefly, then falling out. I like peering into windows of houses for the same reason, imagining how the lives within intermingle and part. Today I walked past a large modern structure under construction, the house looks like a series of connected boxes and has large desk in the front window — but from my vantage point the window appeared to contain another smaller, cozier house.
I have been thinking so much about houses and dwellings in relation to your book: what a house means to Helen’s adoptive parents, Helen’s own shared studio that her brother thought suited her, the homeless woman in Helen’s chapbook: “How to Survive in New York on Little to Nothing.” Helen admires doorways, and her brother too says he wants to keep doors shut — metaphorically. Can you talk about the houses in your book, what a doorway offers, the threat a door poses? What does one’s dwelling say about them? And also of your fascination with Thomas Bernhard’s house?
The space of the house is one of inertia and avoidance. The furniture is off-putting, the rooms are suffocating and at the same time places of rest. No one in the house knows how to communicate with one another. I don’t know what the doors represent. It’s weird to talk about doors without thinking about the band The Doors. They’re not that cool, but when I was in high school I used to love them. A friend and I would try to smoke really gross weed and drive around and listen to them. What a recipe for disaster and trouble!
I was just telling a friend how sometimes I Google street view some of my houses from childhood. I walk around the neighborhood and look at the plants and trees. I have no idea if that’s normal or not. In my favorite house, which was in suburban Pittsburgh, I had my own bathroom. There was a skylight above the toilet. I always thought that was weird. It’s my favorite house because there I was the most miserable. Every day I can wake up grateful I don’t live on Wedgewood Drive anymore, so that’s kind of a gift.
I love looking at images of Thomas Bernhard’s houses in Austria, how their exteriors seem harsh and weird, like his writing. That mirroring between his houses and his writing appeals to me, maybe because I’ve been a lifelong renter, scrounging around for scraps to inhabit. You never saw where I lived in Brooklyn, but my bedroom was windowless, the walls were curved, there was a foot of space between the bed and these dressers that had been in the bedroom for years before we moved in. One day, I was cleaning behind them and I found a few bullets.
Childhood misery can become such an attachment. It’s a conundrum. I just saw that Whistler’s “Mother” is on view in Chicago — I was forced to stand in line to see it as a child, and when I actually saw it I thought people were crazy. It was so overrated, so muted. My first thought hearing of its current tour was disbelief that it’s still this thing — but also, that I want see it. Will I have a different experience? It was the first piece of art I detested.
Helen’s childhood misery is demonstrated as one long act of refusal. Makes me think of Bernhard’s misandry, but then also it’s Bernhard I think of with the balding European white male apparition. I sense an anxiety of influence but also of disconnect, that Helen isn’t his heir, can’t be. He may be Helen’s father’s wet dream but as the biological daughter of a Korean woman, there’s so much distance. The balding European man, too, is helpful in some way isn’t he? How do you see his role? What does Helen need? I’m also curious about writers you read as a child, and now, who are your influences/guides?
I feel certain you will love that painting as an adult because it will remind you of that exact moment you realized it was possible to detest a piece of art.
I like what you’ve said about anxiety and disconnect. I tried to see clearly this balding European man, but from where he came or what’s his role, I can’t say. I don’t know. I think it’s okay to admit that. Brandon Shimoda linked his appearance to whiteness and suburbia. I think the European man could be an accumulation and materialization of those suburban experiences. But I don’t really know. For me, writing this book was about freedom. I wanted to work with a voice in which anything could materialize at any point. That freedom is the main thing that compelled me to continue on, even when I had trouble. So Helen is sitting on a chair, starting to freak out a little at her inability to communicate with her parents, and a balding European man appears. In my opinion, that’s perfectly reasonable.
Let’s see, when I was little I liked Anne of Green Gables. I related to her situation as an orphan and outsider. As an adult I’ve probably been the most influenced by my friends who are artists and musicians. Many of them live in Milwaukee and Chicago. I admire people who have figured out a way to navigate the madness of this world. Russell Westbrook, Bill Callahan, Jesse Ball, Fiona Apple, Renata Adler, Kara Walker, etc.
When put that way, I see the balding European man as a kind of proxy for Helen in her adoptive parents’ house, whether imagined, hallucinatory, or not, he is a needed (albeit aloof) companion in her investigation, and an injection of Western rationality. As in, he assures her there are clues and thus a logic behind her brother’s suicide. Though I guess there is, really: Helen discovers he orchestrated his death in a way that he didn’t engage in his life.
For me the suburbs surface in the blandness Helen’s brother attempts to hide behind: the white rice, the vanilla ice cream, the ways he hid his difference. I’m thinking too of lies he tells to appease: the interest in fly-fishing, the professor he told Helen he assisted. It’s generous and tragic, this denial. He’s very good at keeping secrets.
To me, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is very much about navigating the madness of a world where more time and energy is spent in denying or mitigating the extent of its madness. Beauty lies in acknowledging this, and finding a way through it? I just saw Annie Baker’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya, and I was so relieved and frustrated to see Uncle Vanya fail at any attempt of ordering his life. It was cathartic. He couldn’t even hit, let alone kill, the man he took shots at! Helen’s adoptive brother is perhaps as forlorn as Vanya, but he has agency, and, well, he succeeds.
This navigating the madness of the world: is this process ever past tense? Perhaps the beauty of finding a way through it lies in showing that it’s possible? How is anyone supposed to live with anything? Helen asks this of Elena and now I ask it of you.
The navigation of the madness of the world is endless. I agree with you, that Helen’s brother does have agency, and perhaps integrity, too.
I don’t know how anyone lives with anything. I do the best I can, but there are days I just want to zone out and watch the NBA and listen to Royal Trux and smoke a cigarette, if I smoked cigarettes, which I do not. I used to smoke a lot. I remember Jesse Ball suggested lucid dreaming an impossibly large cigarette, to cope with the effects of withdrawal.
In my opinion, the way through the madness is to see things clearly, to allow yourself to be surprised, and to have a sense of humor. Now that I’m looking at what I just typed, it sounds like advice for a marriage. Not that I’ve ever been married. Maybe another way to navigate the madness of the world is to not get married. This is what I’m thinking today. It might change tomorrow.
Oh, Patty, I loved smoking too. I had my first cigarette on my 14th birthday; later that year I was caught smoking in the graveyard at school. As I recall my mother was pissed but amused — something in line with:
“The continuous work of our life is to build death.”
That’s Simone de Beauvoir quoting Montaigne in the opening line of her Ethics of Ambiguity, which I just started rereading. As soon I read the sentence I was struck by how it’s a defining tenet in STDTP.
And maybe life is like a long marriage? I feel like Helen needs new coping strategies, the waterfall coping strategy is soothing, but like bad self-help, the Fiona Apple coping strategy was perhaps more effective?
Your narrators can be so severe, abject and so gripping. I’m thinking of Helen, but also the narrator of your recent story in The White Review. I know you spoke of freedom being significant to writing the novel, but what draws you to a character?
That quote from Montaigne reminds me of the Bernhard phrase from his novel Correction: “deathward existence.” A page after “deathward existence” appears, there is, “The question has always been only, how can I go on at all, not in what respect and in what condition.”
Out of context, that line seems dramatic, but when I came across it, I remember finding it dry and funny and serious.
In general, I am repulsed by my characters, and yet, I’m drawn to them, sometimes I even admire them. I like characters who are engaged with their world, their circumstances, their flaws. I have a fondness for neurotic and delusional humans, so why wouldn’t I write about them? I think my short stories are closer to poems and drawings in terms of content and form, rather than traditional short stories with fully developed characters and plots. I draw my short stories with thin, ugly, haphazard lines. So the characters themselves can be thin and flat. They stay the same, because there’s not enough space in the stories for them to change.
I’ve passed a number of sidewalk lending libraries during our exchange, and whenever I have I’ve peeked inside. Perhaps because I’m already thinking of your novel, I’ve been surprised by how the titles engage:
Twenty Things Adopted Children Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew (I could see Helen’s adoptive parents having this book, but also it failing to bridge their distances)
Contribuer à votre succès (a French, bougier version of Helen’s guide: How To Survive in New York on Little to Nothing)
Esmé Wang’s The Border of Paradise (opening with a passage about never having known someone who killed themself, never having read a suicide note)
Franz Kafka’s Letters to Milena
This last book I took. Most of the correspondence is one-sided, Kafka’s letters published in a series without Milena’s responses. He writes of lung health and sanatoriums and Milena’s critiques of German spas. One of Milena’s essays in the appendix concerns whether letters of notable people should be published. She chastises those who are disappointed by artists lives —–“If you are disappointed by an artist, my dear girl, this is only because you haven’t understood how to find him, and don’t know how grotesquely strange the human soul is.”
The grotesque strangeness of the human soul! This is what you’re saying about character, no? I then thought of Egon Schiele, the way he conjures this too. Perhaps your work is neo-expressionist? It made me wonder, which books, which visual artists/movements do you feel your work shares an affinity with?
I love Esmé Wang’s The Border of Paradise. You should go back to the sidewalk library and get it. Go, immediately! I’m excited for her next book, The Collected Schizophrenias on Graywolf.
I own Letters to Milena, but haven’t opened it. I don’t know if I’m afraid to, or what, but that line you’ve quoted makes me want to read it. It makes me sad that Milena’s responses do not exist. Isn’t that sad?
You’re right about the grotesqueness of the human soul. I like Egon Schiele. I don’t think I’d align my work with any artistic movements. I pick and choose the artists I like, disregarding time or movements. So I like Brueghel, Kara Walker, José Lerma, Glenn Ligon, Allison Schulnik, Mark Bradford, Tintoretto, etc.
I think my work has a lot in common with Tyson and Scott Reeder and John Riepenhoff, and many other artists from Milwaukee. They were all part of this scene at The Green Gallery, one of of my favorite places in the world. We would play basketball on the weekends and have dance parties in attics. All of this informs what I write about and how I see the world. There’s a lightness to what goes on at The Green Gallery. It’s never heavy-handed, it’s playful and fun. John Riepenhoff and his brother Joe were some of the first people who acknowledged me as a musician and artist. So I would align myself with them. Of course, I was a failure as an artist and musician, and that’s why today I write. But I’m in debt to them because they encouraged me to fail. And that’s a beautiful thing to do for another human, to encourage him or her to fail.
Painting by John Riepenhoff.
Albert Parry’s Garrets and Pretenders, the best and most colorful cultural history of Bohemian artists and their “skylight-addicts,” was first published in 1933. Over the intervening 80 years, the coffee shop seems to have displaced the garret as the prime source of real or imagined literary production, but caffeine is no match for the afflatus that drafty garrets provide. As affordable real estate becomes increasingly scarce — and as a new breed of “micro-units” are cropping up in cities — we should pause to reflect back on the enduring appeal of an imperiled genre: the garret novel.
The two classic 19th century examples are Henri Murger’s Scenes from the Life of Bohemia and George du Maurier’s Trilby, which sings of the “happy times of careless impecuniosity” and of artists “with Paris for a playground, and its dear old unregenerate Latin quarter for a workshop and a home!” Ever since, the increasingly fraught search for an ideal room of one’s own has produced surprising variations on the garret novel.
Despite the garret’s military roots as a watchtower from which “to defend, preserve” (from the Old French, garir), our cultural imagination has long associated those cramped quarters less with archers than with easels. And yet the connection between watchtowers and workshops holds. All good art is obsessive, driven by a compulsion to express and shape, and to be obsessed, etymologically, is to be watched closely, occupied, besieged; Samuel Beckett would describe his postwar burst of writing as the “siege in the room.” Both the observant artist and the watchful sentry, then, are each under attack in their garrets, the latter from without and the former from within.
The following garret novels introduce memorably reclusive protagonists, skylight addicts who, in their zealous guarding of their charmed rooms, stay true to the fortifying history of garrets.
Two female artists, Sirena and Nora, the former internationally renowned and constructing a sprawling installation entitled “Wonderland,” the latter a schoolteacher and artist manqué building dioramas of Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Alice Neel, and Edie Sedgwick in their own “habitats,” agree to share a workshop in a converted Somerville warehouse. The studio is enclosed by a “high chicken-wire fence, in which fluttered the tattered remnants of plastic bags, like flags of the apocalypse.” The insides are of a “bleakness unimagined,” and next door is a factory producing “millions of tiny Styrofoam beads, a particularly noxious undertaking that seemed designed to cause horrible cancers in those who worked there.” There is a mephitic whiff of the demonic about the place that renders the women’s artistic Eden as ripe for corruption as was Adam and Eve’s.
The workshop, at once pestilent and beatific, ultimately teaches Nora a painful but productive lesson: creation and “fouling” are intertwined. Indeed, each woman’s project is an attempt to recreate private worlds even as it exposes them to view. If the studio is a retreat from the world — Sirena’s husband likens it to an elves’ workshop — it finally launches Nora into it, no longer as “the woman upstairs” but as a “murderously furious” artist intent to “fucking well live.”
In Danilo Kiš’s The Attic, we encounter the garret novel in its purest, uncorrupted form:
Hic tandem stetimus nobis ubi defuit orbis. (“Here we finally stand, a place that has fled our earth.”)
So reads the maxim carved into a wall of the titular attic in this enchanting Serbian work. Kiš’s first novel, an English translation of which appeared last year from Dalkey Archive Press, is about a young writer, Orpheus, who is “bound to [his] attic by an unusual, sick passion.” Orpheus devises a site-specific cocktail, “Brandy à la Mansarde,” tames the garret’s legion cockroaches with his lute playing, and sees on its damp walls “wondrous designs of the flora and fauna that bloom and thrive only in dreams.” Who needs an interior decorator amidst such fecund rot?
Among the Belgrade garret’s other advantages, for example a “proximity to the stars,” Kiš stresses its inviolability: “Lord, I’ve been living in that attic as if on another planet!” the protagonist realizes at novel’s end. The Attic is a parody of both the bildungsroman and the classic Bohemian novels of the 19th century, dramatizing as it does the protagonist’s growing awareness of the need to descend from his empyrean heights. For him and his art to mature, he must lower himself, literally, into the world and observe his fellow apartment dwellers rather than the stars.
Orpheus’s dilemma — whether to reign hermetically in his aerie or participate in the “colorful jumble of life” — demonstrates a crucial tension in all novels between a reclusive and an expansive drive; between a retreat into a world of private obsessions and a headlong rush into the great wide world.
Nowhere is this tension more amusingly expressed than with the misadventures of Murphy, Samuel Beckett’s doomed garretphile. Murphy, itself a parodic bildungsroman, chronicles one man’s doomed quest to separate himself from the “big blooming buzzing confusion” around him, a quest that is thwarted — comically and tragically — by the decidedly un-Murphy-like characters around him. That quest is bound up with the anti-hero’s search for the ideal garret. Ever since residing in a Hanover garret as a student, Murphy has been searching for similarly charmed living quarters. However, “what passed for a garret in Great Britain and Ireland was really nothing more than an attic. An attic! How was it possible for such a confusion to arise?” When he stumbles into a job at the Magdalen Mental Mercy seat asylum in London, he is less excited about the prospects of steady employment than his new living quarters: not an “attic, nor yet a mansard, but a genuine garret.”
Paradise at last, it seems, but this is Beckett we’re talking about. The protagonist’s inevitable and explosive demise arises from a faulty gas pipe extending into his garret, a noxious violation of his Edenic space (or the fouling of his Wonderland, to put it in Messud’s terms), the perfect garret he had long sought and finally found. For Beckett, the possibility of establishing such an inviolate cell within the “mercantile Gehenna” of London proves as illusory as Godot’s arrival.
The protagonist of John Cowper Powys’s Maiden Castle, Dud No-man seems as immune to the demands of social life as Murphy. Maiden Castle opens as No-man, a “nameless bastard” and widowed historical novelist, looks up from his bed in his new Dorchester garret and finds that the beams “took the shape…of an elongated and distorted cross.” The rest of the furnishings are similarly charged with its owner’s intensely cerebral, masochistic eroticism and diabolical grotesquerie — martyrs, condemnatory wraiths, and monstrous heraldic carvings. As most Powys heroes do, No-man thrives on such daemonic energies. His garret, with its view of a “region charged with so many layers of suggestive antiquity,” stimulates his historical, psychological, and elemental senses as he writes the erotically charged tale of Mary Channing, the adulteress hanged in 1705 in the nearby Maumbury Rings amphitheatre for allegedly poisoning her husband.
The novel’s conflict derives not from within the spiritually magnetic garret but from without. Maiden Castle is about a man with an intense attachment to solitary enjoyment — sexual, oneiric, imaginative, ambulatory, and masochistic — who is drawn into the very set of social, filial, and romantic relationships from which his intense egotism had so long protected him. But again, the developmental narrative can’t gain traction within the psychically saturated world of the novel’s protagonist. No-man, who describes himself as a “Bronze Age invader” with the soul of a “neurotic nun,” proves ultimately too bizarre, too attached to his garret and environs, to become anything other than what he is.
It would be quite the feat to out-cathect Dud No-man, but Godfrey St. Peter comes close in his attachment to his garret study in Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House. Throughout the novel, St. Peter is exhausted by the professional and familial responsibilities he is too moral to shirk. His malaise obliquely stems from his memories of the “richly germinating” Tom Outland, the deceased student, amateur archeologist, and inventor who had appeared at the Professor’s house years earlier with tales of excavating an Ancestral Puebloan settlement, Cliff City, perched atop the Blue Mesa (a fictionalized Mesa Verde).
The Professor’s House opens as St. Peter is reluctant to move into a new and garret-less house. Despite being “the most inconvenient study a man could have,” it is not without its charms. The attic has a distant view of “a long, blue, hazy smear—Lake Michigan, the inland sea of his childhood,” an idyllic framing that blends into Tom Outland’s similarly hued Blue Mesa. As the Professor lets Outland into his study (to the jealous disapproval of his wife), so does Outland admit the Professor to his elevated sanctuary and shares with him that “glorious feeling…of being on the mesa, in a world above the world.”
If The Professor’s House is dominated by these elevations — Cliff City and the less sublime attic — it is also about the pain of being expelled from them. Both the mesa and the attic are prone to contamination, by a disillusioning commercialization or by (yet another) noxious gas leak. Of all the works, Cather’s is the most elegiac in tone. It best captures the vulnerability of such precious spaces, the pathos of sacrificing them and learning to “live without delight.”
The previous garret novels have staged a struggle between isolation and inclusion, but Thomas Bernhard’s Correction boldly and unequivocally asserts a reclusive vision. As his protagonist, Roithamer, epigrammatically explains: “What we do secretly, succeeds.” A scientist, Roithamer embarks on an architectural project whose audacity would make Howard Roark blanche: a giant Cone in the exact center of the Kobernausser forest (supposedly designed to ensure the perfect happiness of his sister). Roithamer secretly plans the construction from within the garret of an equally audacious project, a house built by his friend Hoeller in “the most impenetrable and so the darkest possible” section of the Aurach gorge. The builder takes possession of Hoeller’s garret so completely that it soon becomes Roithamer’s garret and infused with his thoughts. After the Cone’s completion and Roithamer’s suicide, the unnamed narrator himself takes possession of the garret and undergoes a kind of siege himself, possessed by its Hoeller-garret-thoughts, a Germanic compound noun so mellifluous that it is a small wonder it hasn’t yet gone viral.
At one point, Roithamer calls humans “chronic deserters of original ideas,” a definition of mankind as elegant as it is rueful. The Cone, monstrous in its perfection, is one such original idea, and as such demands a kind of desertion from life. Roithamer wholeheartedly embraces the terror and splendor of isolation, the dreadful necessity to “be absolutely alone in our room” in order to experience the supreme, if awful, majesty of inhabiting a world of one’s own making.
If I have focused too much on the obsessive aspects of garret-thoughts (there’s that Germanic construction again), let me remedy that with a brief demonstration of their conjuring power. In Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan, Gormenghast Castle’s forbidding stone walls virtually seal its inhabitants into a world of “iron ritual.” However, Fuchsia, the reclusive daughter of the castle’s lord, manages to carve out her own “attic kingdom” from within the stony realm, a “world undesecrate” that she fills with imaginary characters:
This was the loft which was for Fuchsia a very secret place, a kind of pagan chapel, an eyrie, a citadel, a kingdom never mentioned, for that would have been a breach of faith — a kind of blasphemy.
It is this wondrous element — secretive, reverential, mythic — that best explains why the garret is so treasured and fiercely guarded by their visionary inhabitants, who devise dreamscapes from within the elevated confines that rival the awesome landscapes without: private Wonderlands, the mystical Dorchester ruins, the sublime darkness of the Aurach gorge, and the richly “germinating” intimations of Cliff City.
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