The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

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JUNE 2020 Issue


For some time, I have been interested in the writing one is doing when one is not writing. I email often throughout the day with Anna, a more successful writer, living in a different city. We have both been under contract for our respective novels for several years. Art is time, Anna writes me, a novel especially, it must be slow; it must take the time it needs. All that summer, I attempt time. I try not to let the days bleed. I attempt to be in the room, outside of the internet. That summer, along with my daily black journals that accumulate in rows like gravestones, I begin keeping a notebook that I think of as the Drifts notebook, its cover a canary yellow that matches my copy of Walser’s The Tanners, which I read in short increments each season, never finishing.

I crane my head now and see the first of the yellow notebooks on the small table across the room, in a pile with other filled and partial journals, legal pads, printed- out notes, manuscript pages, photographs. Inside the yellow notebook I wrote my address and my name, except it was a slightly different version of my last name, which made me feel I had entered the space of fiction. The notebook was for a book called Drifts, but it is a different book from the one I’m trying to write now. I was surprised to find these notes inside the notebook. This Drifts desired to be a detective story, or maybe a murder mystery. Like something out of an Antonioni film. Searching for something lost or missing, but I didn’t yet know who or what.

How summers are spent following my little black terrier, Genet, as he shifts into various dark shapes on the rug or wooden floor, following patterns of light. He paces nervously in the office, waiting at the door, eventually settling for a time on the fake-sheepskin rug under my desk, all these soft spots I plant for him around the house. He does not like to keep still within the office, it isn’t close to any source of sunlight, to any window from which he can look out. To get any thinking done, I must ignore him, his desire to be fed, to play, his pushing the ball into my hand. I feed him my dried mango slices, which I eat so that I can chew on something leathery, chewing as thinking, thinking as chewing. In the morning, after John leaves for the museum, coffee after coffee, the key is not too many cups, and to remember to eat breakfast— granola, yogurt, and fruit, or toast after toast. The key is to remember to turn off the internet and to allow it to stay off. The key is to try to stay still. The distraction of Genet’s bark. His periodic eruptions at possible intruders. His call- and- response to Fritz, the absurd blond Labradoodle next door who yelps from the window of the first floor of the pale yellow colonial. The psychotic burst of the mail slot, my dog’s heart beating inside his small barrel chest. A low growl that builds as he flies through the house, careening around the corner, nails scratching, toward the front window, erupting at another delivery for the apartment upstairs, his sympathetic nervous system that I sponge from, his paranoia and intensity that I share. I see the postman smoking his brown little cigarettes outside the house. We wave at each other. I suspect he lights one after he visits here. He has seen me in various states of undress, after having been on the couch all day, staring at screens. How so often, when inside, I look at my inbox like an oracle, to remind myself that I still exist.

Fragile Fritz. Nietzsche’s nickname. I tried to pet him once. He doesn’t like other dogs or even other humans— a true loner. I also think of the Austrian writer Marianne Fritz, how she stayed inside with her scraps of paper, endlessly writing her dense and increasingly indecipherable body of work. I’m still obsessed with who is romanticized in literature as a hermit, and who, by staying inside, is viewed as simply crazy. The madness of writing versus the madness of not writing. Walser, who went to Waldau not to write, he said, but to be mad.

Throw away your notes, the unpublished male novelist advised me, in the depth of my spiritual crisis, the first summer here. This is when I was working on a different book, with the title of the name of a country. I wanted the book, like everything I have attempted these past years, to contemplate literary sadness. But all I had were my notes. Fragments of this book exist in open and wounded states, in notebooks, legal pads, boxes, endless notes, and files on my desktop. The male novelist sends me his notes on Nietzsche, written during his undergraduate years, with his anxious marginalia listing which philosophers remained unmarried. (Most, he observed, except Hegel.) Is it because of him that my fascination with the bachelor notetakers began? (Robert Walser, Kafka, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Joseph Cornell, Fernando Pessoa, and Rilke, too, pretended they were bachelors.) He was not yet thirty, frantic he’d not yet had a novel published. Like a twenty- eight- year- old Kafka, projecting himself, with ambivalence, as a forty- year- old bachelor in his diaries.

I am made of literature, Kafka confesses to Felice in an early courtship letter, recalling their conversation about Goethe when they first met, in the Brods’ living room. I am nothing else and cannot be anything else.

All summer I sit in the broken Adirondack chair on the porch, existing in the present tense, in that trancelike state of seeing, like the animals. My notebook in my lap, my books scattered around me. The frequent desire to do nothing. How Genet stares at me, with his amber eyes, and I stare back. Somewhere in the piles on my desk, I could excavate a stained, partial printout of Susan Sontag’s “The Aesthetics of Silence,” which tells me that animals don’t look but stare. I pull at my dog’s little white Sontag mohawk as he rolls over for me to scratch his soft pink belly or I pick him up to kiss his little monkey muzzle. Genet is tranquil on the porch, sedated by the sun, as he gets up and collapses, alternating between patches of light, or shadow when his coat overheats. In summer we stare at the purple butterfly bush at the bottom of the steps, as the butterflies loiter about. But the landlord will cut it back in the fall, and last summer it didn’t flower at all. A line from Sontag’s journals I keep writing down in my notes: “All great art contains at its center contemplation, dynamic contemplation.”

Quiet, quiet, I say to Genet as dogs walk by, which he obeys by ruffing softly yet firmly to himself. Together we watch the promenades of dogs in the neighborhood.

I wave at the Nepalese woman who lives in the apartment building on the corner, walking the silver pit bull with sleek muscles who was a puppy when we moved here. There is the Yorkie who erupts constantly from her perch high up in a building in the middle of the block. How sensitive they really are, these city dogs, but they cannot see it in one another. The ice-eyed Alsatian puppy, gangly and manic, whose owner is an older, muscular trainer, always in shorts, who lives with his wheelchair- bound mother in one of the houses on the street. While writing this, I realize that the Alsatian is no longer a puppy now but a full-grown dog, yet retaining a puppy’s jitteriness. I often wonder if the trainer thinks I’m lazy when he sees me on the porch in my sun hat, watching the procession of the neighborhood with my dog. But I am working, taking notes and thinking. Not just laziness, I’ve decided, but what Blanchot calls désoeuvrement, translated variously as “inoperativeness,” “inertia,” “idleness,” “unworking,” or my favorite, “worklessness.” A spiritual stance, more active, like decreation. The state where the writing of the fragment replaces the work. Kafka filling up notebook after notebook at night, sitting in the living room, blanket on his lap, having to cover his cage of canaries until they quiet, everyone else in the family asleep. In his notebooks he complains about the factory, Felice, his family, and later about how much time the publishing of his first little book, Meditation, takes away from his potential literary powers. Although when finally confronted with publishing his writing, he is panicked with how little work has accrued from the hours he spends in the middle of the night on his series of notebooks, the fragments he has published occasionally in journals. The artifice, he complains to himself, of trying to prepare a text for publication, when what he desires is to let a work take shape unforced. What he desires is a new prose. I email Anna, asking whether I should rename my book Meditation, after Kafka, or Contemplation, an alternate translation. No!—a one- word reply. It is irritating, someone else’s book crisis. The lists of titles she sends me as well. All this, of course, is fervent procrastination. That summer, we were both on a deadline— now your book is out, is on all the best-of lists. I am still here.


Kate Zambreno

is the author of several acclaimed books including Screen Tests, Heroines, and Green Girl. She teaches in the writing programs at Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College. The above excerpt is from her latest novel, F, published this month by Riverhead.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

All Issues