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“Let’s Do It A Dada” @almaclassics #dada

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Seven Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries by Tristan Tzara
Translated by Barbara Wright

What, exactly, is Dada? A good question, really. Dada is everything and nothing; Dada is playful yet profound; Dada is deep as well as superficial; Dada is all of those things or none of those things. Or maybe not… šŸ˜€

Striking cover featuring Picabia art, designed by Will Dady at Alma

The Wikipedia definition of the Dada movement describes it as consisting of artists who rejected the logic, reason, and aestheticism of modern capitalist society, instead expressing nonsense, irrationality, and anti-bourgeois protest in their works. The art of the movement spanned visual, literary, and sound media, including collage, sound poetry, cut-up writing, and sculpture. Dadaist artists expressed their discontent with violence, war, and nationalism, and maintained political affinities with the radical left.

Tzara was a key figure in the movement and is sometimes credited in coming up with the name for the group. However, the word Dada has a number of different meanings in several other languages and the etymology of the movement’s title is disputed! This volume, from the Calder collection and reprinted in a lovely edition from Alma Classics, contains a number of Dada manifestos written by Tzara over the years, as well as a series entitled “Lampisteries” – and it’s a bracing and stimulating read.

Dada is a quantity of life in transparent, effortless and gyratory transformation.

The manifestos are mostly short, written usually to be read out loud and yet featuring some fascinating typographical effects. They span the years 1916 to 1921, showing how Tzara’s view of the movement changed and evolved; and although they initially seem a little nonsensical, it soon becomes clear that they are anything but.

What are Beauty, Truth, Art, Good, Liberty? Words which have a different meaning for every individual. Words which claim to make everybody agree, which is why they’re usually written with capital letters.

Tzara rejects the norm, challenges the status quo and states the case for dismantling all the artistic certainties which have gone before. And out of this chaos and nonsense come truths – you read on and suddenly phrases jump out at you, making perfect sense and forcing you to reappraise what you’ve accepted up until now. The manifestos are contrary and contradictory, yet always invigorating.

The miracle. I open my heart to creation.

The manifestos are also surprisingly modern and relevant; a discussion of poetry and art early in the book rings true today, and when instructing how to create Dada poetry, he sets out the use of cut-ups decades before Burroughs and Gysin, then David Bowie, made them fashionable. Tzara’s writings are also surprisingly funny, although I suppose I should have expected this from a movement that wanted to tear up the past and produce a lot of nonsense!

So life is cheap. Death is a bit more expensive. But life is charming and death is equally charming.

The second part of the book contains Tzara’s “Lampisteries” and a translator’s note explains that a lampiste makes lamps, but the word is slang for a scapegoat. However, interestingly enough, to my English-speaking brain the word also suggests lampoon which is quite apt for Dada…

You know very well that this species is only distinguished from others by its mania for writing and reading books.

Tzara’s “Lampisteries” are short, poetic, artistic responses to different art forms rather than a formal ‘review’ and this is again a very modern conceit. He’s pungent and pithy, attempting to get under the skin of whatever he’s writing about, sharing his reaction to it and by doing do so creating another work of art himself. The language is often beautiful and the writing never dull; and the amount of phrases I’ve pulled out is testament to the unexpected depth on display here.

Tzara by Robert Delaunay [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Although I’ve always had an interest in Dada, I hadn’t actually read many works by members of the group (all I can be sure of is having read Breton’s “Nadja” many moons ago); that’s my loss, if this book is anything to judge by. The Alma edition comes with illustrations by Francis Picabia, another leading figure in the movement, and the lovely cover design is by Will Dady at Alma. Translator Barbara Wright was well-known for her translations of French surrealist and existential writing, and has made numerous appearances on the blog for her work with Raymond Queneau’s writings. She obviously did another marvellous job with Tzara’s work, and the book contains details of original publication dates and locations at the end.

Dada was a much too wide-ranging a movement to really do justice in a short review; a quick online search reveals myriad sources and resources, which could create a few dangerous research wormholes in which to get stuck… However, this book is a welcome reissue by Alma and a wonderful place to start if you want to begin exploring the wild, bracing and never dull world of Dada!

(Review copy kindly provided by Alma, for which many thanks!)

And just for the hell of it, here’s Blixa and the gang blasting out one of my favourite EinstĆ¼rzende NeubautenĀ songs that just might have a relevant title….

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Layer after layer after layer of storytelling… @almabooks

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Locus Solus by Raymond Roussel
Translated by Rupert Copeland Cuningham

The Argumentative Old Git had a really interesting post recently about the importance of plot in a work of literature. I’m in agreement with him that, actually, plot is not always relevant, and reading “Locus Solus” by Raymond Roussel kind of reminded me of that post; because the book has rather strangely got either masses of plot, or none, depending on how you look at it!

“LS” is a book that was obviously going to appeal to me; cited as an influence by members of OuLiPo and lauded for its imaginative strangeness, it’s part of the roster of the John Calder list now republished by Alma Books. Roussel (1877 -1933) was a French poet, novelist, playwright, musician, and chess enthusiast (so rather a polymath!) and although I don’t think he’s read so much nowadays, his influence seems to have stretched far and wide, taking in the Surrealists, the aforementionedĀ OuLiPo (he’s rated highly by Queneau), and the ‘nouveau roman’ authors like Alain Robbe-Grillet.

The story’s narrator introduces us to Martial Canterel, a rich scientist and inventor, who’s invited a group of associates to visit his country estate, from which the book takes its title. The grounds of Locus Solus consist of huge grounds filled to the brim with wonders, and Canterel takes his guests on a dazzling tour of the grand inventions it contains. Each chapter opens with the group being met with a strange scenario – for example a pile driver which constructs a mosaic made of human teeth; a giant glass diamond full of water which contains a dancing girl, a hairless cat and the head of Danton; or a set of scenes peopled by some very gruesome beings (about which I will say no more…) Once the group has witnessed whichever event it is, Canterel goes on to explain the story behind the scenario, which in some cases ends up being multiple layers of storytelling as the source of the tale reaches back through historical events and influences.

The stories become more and more bizarre and more outlandish as the book goes on, with tales from myth and legend, ancient times and ancient lands. Each chapter presents a series of increasingly precise, meticulous descriptions of scientific miracles and rather gruesome inventions and it seems that Canterel has conjured up some terrifyingly ingenious and phantasmagorical devices. The dense allusive text becomes almost a compendium of wonders and the imagery is stunning and imaginative.

The rather dapper Roussel – a model for his character Canterel?

“Locus Solus” is a fascinating, dazzling yet sometimes difficult read and I haven’t actually pulled out any quotes because it’s a book that’s very much a sum of its parts. I’ve seen it described as being like the written equivalent of a surrealist painting, and in many ways that’s an accurate interpretation as the strangeness of each scenario is so visually realised by the prose. The dizzying degree of detail can become boggling and because of this “Locus Solus” is perhaps best read in small doses a chapter at a time rather than all in one go as I did. The style of writing and depth of detail does create a certain distance from the narrative and events which makes this a book to admire rather than love. I’m someone who loves wordplay and clever writing, and LS has this in abundance; and it’s worth remembering that the book was published in 1914 when the world was embracing new sciences and also facing major conflict. Canterel is something of a control freak, attempting to tame the world with his inventions and his discoveries, and that need for order may well have been a reaction to the coming chaos of the world at large.

I’ve read that in the original French the book’s wordplay is even more pronounced, with numerous puns and constraints, though I’m not sure if these have transferred over to the English version. Nevertheless, “Locus Solus” is a fascinating, strange, often a bit grim but never less than intriguing read, and the imagery it contains will haunt me for some time.

(Review copy kindly provided by Alma Books for which many thanks!)

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