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Andrzej Tichý’s ‘Wretchedness’

The cellist narrator tries to remember ‘the name of an Italian philosopher who’d written a long and exceptionally deep and incisive essay on {composer Giacinto} Scelsi’s importance’. What the cellist recalls instead of the essay is a fight on a housing estate, during which he (the narrator) choked another boy in a headlock, while a third kid burned the headlocked kid’s back with a lighted aerosol. In the opening pages of Wretchedness, Andrzej Tichý handles the transition between these two tones – discussion of avant-garde art and description of physical combat – so meticulously that it is almost invisible. Thrilled by the combination of Scelsi and a lighted aerosol, I am primed to read a novel – Tichý’s third, and his first to be translated from Swedish into English – which joins the dots between them. This is going to be a story about how a poor boy on an estate became a renowned cellist.

 

But this is not, thankfully, that story. This novel cannot join the dots because it is, ostentatiously, a novel without any middle. It’s intense: it soars with no middle flight, as Milton put it. It’s also full of jump cuts: one minute the narrator’s in a cruise ship kitchen, deafened by Slipknot’s ‘People = Shit’, arguing about the size of an alcoholic chef’s balls; the next minute he’s taking a stroll along a Stockholm canal with a guitarist and a composer, discussing open C tuning and the pentatonic scale. One minute, he’s remembering a Bosnian rave filling with human shit, or describing himself as ‘finger-fucking myself in the throat {…} as though I had a cunt in my face’; the next minute, he’s involved in an earnest discussion of the compositions of Terry Riley. The world is full of potential states of mind and action, I heard the book saying, and here are some of them recorded, for perhaps the first time, with beautiful transparency and power.

 

Then came the end. As a book without a middle, of course it ends where it begins. Almost. With a clever and forceful sleight of hand, the final page appears to change the narrative perspective, handing it from one character to another. This happens just as effortlessly as the writing switches codes, but its implications are significant. With this manoeuvre, the book splits off from itself – there is a crack running through that finely smoothed plane where Scelsi and Slipknot meet. All of a sudden, it seems as though there are two worlds after all, with an impasse between them. I had to go back to the book’s beginning and read the whole thing once more. In one dream passage, fighting at a bus stop bleeds seamlessly into listening to a John Cage composition. On first reading, that makes intuitive sense. The experiences are similar in some ways: repetitious, mixing pleasure with pain. But on a second read, this passage runs as a film, in which violence is made pretty by a soundtrack of minimalist piano that the bleeding ears of the characters cannot hear.

 

Giacinto Scelsi was a reclusive Italian aristocrat, whose deeply weird compositions, most of which were actually written down from Scelsi’s improvisations by ‘an underling, a so-called “negro” ’, include the 1959 ‘Quattro Pezzi su una nota sola’, a piece for twenty-six musicians, in which they all play the same one note. Not knowing anything about Scelsi, I went on Spotify, found a couple of podcasts online and emailed a friend. My friend told me that Scelsi was groundbreaking in how dramatically he shifted the expressive focus away from harmony and structure over to timbre and density. This was what I’d wanted to hear: a fine analogy with Andrzej Tichý’s book, where harmony and structure are the rough equivalent of the typical apparatus of the contemporary novel (scenes, dialogue, character development), from which Tichý dramatically shifts the focus, towards the rough textual equivalents of timbre and density, which are timbre and density. In dense, chapter-length paragraphs, it’s often difficult to tell who is speaking, whose memory is being recalled, where they are and why. What matters more is how it all sounds, the clashes and stresses in the language and the energy of the surface, how it strives, ascends, descends, and trembles, like a tug-of war between weight and levity (to paraphrase a description from the book of Scelsi’s Fourth String Quartet). Here’s an extended quotation:

 

Amine looked away and went down to his station, always the same thing, you know, Mush couldn’t really tell the names Andrea and Anders apart, he used to call Andrea Anders and vice versa, or he’d just call them both Andrews, so in the end they both wrote their names in Arabic on the fronts of those white disposable chef’s hats we had, so Mush could just shout his Yalla, yalla! Work, work! Andesh! Andrah! Move yourself! in between the Arabic harangues that had Tahar and Amine clenching their jaws in humiliation, dropping their gazes and going back to mopping the floors, loading up the dishes, scrubbing grease off the stove, or whatever they were doing. Same old, same old, said Rawna, it’s the same old shit. It’s still raining. What’s happening, Kiko? I say. Are we at the Elephant already? Who’s driving anyway? Cool it, bro, Rawna says, pulling her sleeve down over her messed-up forearm at last, and I look at her and say nothing at first, but I’m thinking about the mouse on the floor of my room that time she came to see me. Then I can’t help myself, and I say Rawna, do you remember? Do you remember that time you stayed with me, when you were trying to come off horse and all that?

 

Tichý’s style has drawn comparisons with Thomas Bernhard. They share long sentences of nested scenes, unbearably insistent on nothing in particular. Bernhard was also deeply interested in music, and critics have used musical form as a way of making sense of the Austrian novelist’s outrageous relationship with conventional plot. There are telling differences between Bernhard and Tichý: where Bernhard affirms in the negative – the more he disdains, the brighter the text burns – Tichý is more likely to affirm by affirming. The narrator wants to be in the car, wants Rawna to remember. Bernhard’s charisma is often felt in an exaggerated intolerance of others, at odds with the seeming abundance and generosity of the text itself. Tichý flirts with this – at one point the narrator suggests the extermination of the addict father of a friend’s children – but in Wretchedness the voice of judgment is so layered with other voices and tones that the overall effect is of refusing a vantage from which to pronounce. If the novel has what Jay-Z calls braggadocio, it’s in this virtuosic layering, rather than in the author’s (humble)brags – although the accompanying playlist is as carefully eclectic as anything on NTS or Pitchfork. The wretchedness of Tichý’s title is not, primarily, the wretchedness of one life as opposed to another, and nor does it describe the wretched real as opposed to conceptual purity. Tichý uses Simone Weil’s utterly mysterious and persuasive quasi-definition as an epigraph: ‘Contradiction alone is the proof that we are not everything. Contradiction is our wretchedness {…} It is true. That is why we have to value it.’

 

Bernhard’s world is the world of the sanatorium, the rustic retreat and the classical conservatoire. Wretchedness takes place in tower blocks, astroturf pitches and stolen cars. Most of the characters have lived in different cities, from North Africa to Scandinavia. The vocabulary operates on a microtonal scale, drawing on the ordinary lush counterpoint of languages that literary diction so often thins out, and which, as far as I can tell, Nichola Smalley transfers to, or reinvents in, English. Like the cruise ship kitchen, the book is always moving. It does not have a fixed centre, because there is no fixed centre:

 

you start thinking finally a little peace and quiet, finally a little respite, as they say, finally respectus, refugium, sanctum, the kind of stuff the coconuts come out with, and you know my dad told me this is paradise, and thirty years later he’d acknowledge that the whole thing had been a bluff, a lie, that he regretted the whole move, the whole emigration, as he put it, the emigration, cos, you know, he was ever an immigrant in his own mind, no fucking immigrant, he was an emigrant, man, an exile, brah.

 

That ‘brah’ – is it meant to ring as authentic or forced? In translation it’s difficult to tell which idioms are, in effect, already translated in the original text, and which just sound translated in translation. Sometimes, reading the book has the feel of the corner of a squat rave occupied by someone frightening and friendly, who wants you to see the face of God in the broken window; sometimes, it feels like dinner with a classical composition postgraduate, enthusing about their PhD on Mobb Deep and Kafka. Wretchedness is interested in this kind of contradiction. Do these voices come from the same person’s mouth? If not, why not?

 

The narrator remembers a former housemate foaming at the mouth in front of the TV. He’d started selling ketamine to stay solvent and could not resist snorting it himself. The friend is called Erik, sharing his name with that hero of the twentieth-century avant-garde, Erik Satie. I’m scrambling for an analogy: Gymnopédies = k-hole? It kind of works. Tichý seeds such speculations, while also making them feel absurd – we are not everything! Satie’s choice to reference a Spartan festival of naked wrestling as the title of his groundbreakingly disembodied piano compositions is, to borrow a phrase from Wretchedness, ‘almost a joke’. Tichý’s choice of Scelsi as one of the few fixed points in the torrent of the novel has a similar irony: Scelsi was notoriously detached from labour, even the labour of his own compositions. He is a most quintessential highbrow, in Virginia Woolf’s unintentionally ugly sense of an artist who, ‘for some reason or another, {is} wholly incapable of dealing successfully with what is called real life.’ ‘You spoilt bourgeois cunt,’ says Tichý’s narrator, using an intentionally ugly phrase, at a house party. But who is being denounced? The passage goes on: ‘Who said that? I’m ashamed. See myself as though from the outside: see Becca kissing Cody and pushing half an E into his mouth.’

 

This comes towards the end of Wretchedness, and what follows is a magnificent swansong description of getting mashed. There is a small argument about whether to leave the party because of a real-life baby in the corner. The narrator is freaked out by ‘that filthy junkie whore of a mother.’ Someone else replies: ‘What the fuck do you know bout that chick.’ It’s a vaporous, inconsequential piece of dialogue – an expression of the intense sensitivity that lets you know you’re about to come up. Then the prose lifts off, in a naff-cool way, spelling out the beat, ‘boom shaka tick click boom shaka tick,’ a parody of the critic’s favourite rhythmic prose. As the long, unusually continuous scene plays out, it becomes clear – at least in retrospect – that the swell of euphoria will not end well. The narrator loses track of the friends that have been the novel’s distraction and its central, joyful concern. Without them, he is vulnerable and uncertain, indistinguishable in fact from a hopeless, homeless stranger, as seen through the eyes of a privileged cellist, whose mind is elsewhere, attempting to remember something important.


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is the author, most recently, of the novel Fatherhood. His second collection of poetry, My Little Finger, will be published in 2021.

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