I read these in the wrong order. Mainly because they arrived out of order. So I read Fair Rebel first, which is Steph Swainston’s most recent Castle novel, the first after her return to writing after a few years retirement, and then jumped back to her last before, Above the Snowline.
This is something of a minor work next to the gigantic, continent-shaping events of the original Castle trilogy and Fair Rebel. Her concern here is the life of Jant, the Messenger, also known as Comet. If we see anything of the world of the Castle through someone’s eyes, it’s through his, yet he is also deliberately reticent in sharing much of himself. It is up to the events of Above the Snowline to rectify that, but even here he — by which I mean Steph — does a fine job of keeping private private.
I’m not much of a reviewer. I’m not writing a carefully structured synopsis, methodical analysis and criticism; there’s a world where I do, but it’s not this one.
I spent the novel convinced the action took place over the peaks of the Darkling Mountains on the west coast, when it in fact took place barely on the shoulders of the eastern flanks. It’s nonetheless a pitiless world of vast glaciers, peaks, and alpine forests, where winter, snow and darkness collapse the action in on itself. Just as Steph writes warfare and battle with the dispassionate attention of a sniper at the side of a commander, so does she write mountains like a climber on the wrong end of a rope and a storm.
I’m curious why she writes hetero males (long-limbed, winged, and drug-addicted ones) as main characters, and the binary pairings that seem especially pronounced here. I think she can justify it to herself, the world of the Castle is her lifelong fantasy world, and probably as real and familiar as this world. Yet it always jars me when an author has such familiar and recognisable romantic or gendered relationships in a world so very much not ours, as though the base reality for the multiverse was a 20th century European historical revisionism of its imagined self. Not that I’d throw it down and refuse to read it. Swainston is currently very much on my Will Always Read list.
So, Above the Snowline, I probably wouldn’t read more of Swainston if I’d started with this, even though it chronologically precedes the first Castle novel, The Year of Our War, and would make an interesting order to read. It’s like a novella exploring the main character of her other novels, yet somehow he remains elusive, as though she doesn’t really want to share him with us. As for Shira Dellin, the Rhydanne who sets off the novel when her partner is murdered by colonialists, she is and remains an enigmatic Noble Savage, the object of Jant’s immature infatuation, too blinded by his imagined superiority to see she is fighting for her and her people’s lives. I’d like to think the current world of fantasy and sci-fi is grown up enough to not actually be seriously writing this, but then I remember Avatar is getting four sequels. I’m a little iffy about some of this.
Worth reading? If you’re like me and get a kick out of reading everything from an author, then sure. Otherwise the Castle trilogy followed by Fair Rebel is a hugely accomplished quartet, starting with The Year of Our War. If that one doesn’t do it the rest probably won’t.
That’s what one of the pair of old, white-haired German women said across the gallery to the other while standing before the pink and blue scribbling of Zwei Badende. Shortly after, she snorted at Max Liebermann in seinem Atelier, offered the faintest of praise for Sängerin am Piano, and as we tacked our separate ways through the exhibition continued her derision, as if she was a good jury member for Entartete Kunst. I’d like to think she was unaware of the irony, but this is Germany at the end of 2016 and even in the heart of Berlin there are Nazis who tell themselves and each other they’re not Nazis.
So, me at Neuen Galerie im Hamburger Bahnhof seeing Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Hieroglyphen, and also my first museum visit where I arranged to bring my camera. Most of the special exhibitions in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin are No Cameras Allowed. Without photographing plus subsequent blogging there isn’t much point to my museum trips, thanks then to the Kommunikation department for making it easy (even though it turned out cameras were anyway allowed).
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Hieroglyphen presents the 17 works in Berlin’s currently closed for renovations Neue Nationalgalerie collection, plus works from Kirchner Museum Davos, Brücke Museum, and private collections. Besides the core paintings, there are sketches and works on paper, wood sculptures, photographs from Kirchner’s various ateliers, books, and some dancing. It’s not a huge exhibition, if you were slamming Hamburger Bahnhof you could whip through in 15 minutes. I spent an hour there and could have easily used up another. These works and the accompanying text deserve contemplation.
Kirchner used the word Hieroglyph himself in articles published under the pseudonym Louis de Marsalle, to describe how he worked with a symbolic language in his work as part of “the radical abbreviation and reduction of his imagery.” The exhibition starts with this text, and an essay in a book, accompanied by the sketch Tanzduo. Which I thought looks exactly like Dasniya, down to the face and bloomers under tutu.
In this first section are works I’m most familiar with of his, Haus unter Bäumen, Badende am Strand, both from Fehmarn, up on the Ostsee north-east of Hamburg. It then returns to dance. He, like many artists then, frequently painted dancers, possibly the influence of Ballets Russes who blew away the ballet world in 1909.
Opposite the dance section is Davos, where he moved after having a breakdown and while dealing with drug addition and alcoholism. There was a beautiful, huge tapestry hanging on the wall, unfortunately under perspex and unphotographable — the only work to suffer this, all the other artworks were under that magical unreflective glass — and probably the pick of the exhibition. His style changes here too, the late-’20s, early-’30s of Wiesenblumen und Katze or Sängerin am Piano flatter and with Cubist elements, almost alien to his earlier frenzy.
Berlin forms its own section, with some of my favourite pieces I would love to steal. The incredible Potsdamer Platz is here, as is Rheinbrücke in Köln and Der Belle-Alliance-Platz in Berlin. These form yet another distinct style, at first glance not different from the Fehmarn works, but they’re far lighter, faster, almost like watercolour on paper. Erna Schilling also arrives, his life partner from then on. These aren’t easy works. Kirchner populates the cityscape with what he called ‘Kokotte’, coquettes, sex workers, and the men, always diminished figures on the sides carry an anonymous menace.
Around the next corner, and one of the contextually most interesting for me. But first, Sitzender Akt mit erhobenen Armen, which I cannot help look at and see a nice plate of two fried eggs, sunny side up beside the naked woman. I know they’re supposed to be flowers in vases, but it’s all eggs to me. What’s more pertinent here is his use of colour on the shadows outlining her body. They’re a turquoise that contrasts the apricots and light salmon colours of her skin. When I look at this and compare it to Zwei weibliche Akte in Landschaft, with the hallucinogenic greens, yellows, pinks, blues of their bodies, it becomes clear how the latter in no way denotes a non-natural skin colour, nor do the greens and yellows of the Potsdamer Platz women or other portraits.
This painting was in the section called “Signs of Other Worlds” and discusses the influence of non-European art and culture on his and other Brücke artists’ work and life. Both African and Oceania form influences, and both were sites of German Colonialism until the end of World War I. It’s difficult for me to know where Kirchner sits in this. On one side he was horrified by the treatment of Jewish Germans even in the early-’30s, and was expelled by the Nazis from the Prussian Academy of Arts when they came to power in 1933, yet he also saw what he and the Brücke artists were doing as encouraging “truly German art, made in Germany”. So there’s this tension between radical aspirations and uncritical nationalism and colonialism.
Carl Einstein’s (a German Jewish writer, art historian, anarchist and critic) book Negerplastik is described as an important influence, and two copies are presented alongside Kirchner’s work. This influence is immediately apparent in his sculpture, even without prompting, but I like that this connection was explicitly made.
There’s also one photo that achieved the glorious down-the-rabbit-hole I love about museums. All the photos are postcard-sized, and being a hundred years old, not sharp or clean at all. This one, from Kirchner Museum Davos was captioned “Die Artisten Milly und Sam in Kirchners Atelier, Berliner Straße 80, Dresden” from circa 1910/11. It’s set in a chaotic room, artworks, hangings, and sculpture propped up against walls, littering the floor. There are two naked figures, Milly, in the bottom-left corner, and Sam, standing, one arm on his hip, the other stretched along the top of a painting. Both of them are black. They have names, are called ‘artists’ (Artisten), so what were they doing in Berlin in 1910?
For a start, this isn’t the only work they appear in. Milly is the subject of Kirchner’s Schlafende Milly in Kunsthalle Bremen, both were the subjects of numerous sketches by Kirchner, and Milly probably appears in more than one work without being named. Both of them are said to have also modelled for Erich Heckel. An alternate title for the photo is “Sam und Millie vom ‘Zirkus Schumann’”, and they are variously described as ‘circus’, ‘jazz dancer’, and ‘Black American’ artistes in sources cited in Face to Face? An Ethical Encounter with Germany’s Dark Strangers in August Sander’s People of the Twentieth Century. So there’s this whole history of early-20th century Afro-Germans, colonialism, immigration in this one small, easily missed photo, which is a lot to put on a naked man and woman, about whom not much is known. It’s these traces though that history is all about. A single photo, a name, and a world opens up.
A little note on the nudity: Kirchner and friends were all down with getting naked and running around. Freikörperkultur (Free Body Culture) was and is a deeply German thing. There were several photos of “naked but for a cigarette” in the exhibition. It might be this one was only one of a series, though how comfortable they were with nudity, whether they felt objectified, how Kirchner and the other artists regarded them, I can’t speculate.
A final note: Shortly after Nazi Germany annexed Austria in the Anschluss, Kirchner, living in Switzerland and fearing a similar invasion, killed himself.
Wandering down a side street in Kraków Old Town, I see a Geological Museum. I knew there is a mineral museum somewhere. This wasn’t it. I was a little chafed at both museums housing the large mediæval art collections were closed for restoration, and having no real aim in mind and liking all things geo and tectonic, decided to go in. The archæological museum as well was directly around the corner.
It’s a really small museum, more of an exhibition, a room about 60 square metres. What it doesn’t have in size, the Muzeum Geologiczne makes up for with an utter lack of wasting of time. There was a really nice guy on the desk who gave me a folder for english translations of everything … everything, but wow if every museum took attention to detail like this one did. Information overload? Yes! And! “The rocks. You can touch, also.” Excitement!
A clarification, it’s a museum of the geologic history of Kraków and neighbourhood predominately, with some general Poland and Carpathians thrown in as required. It starts with a nice geologic map of the area and NS and WE cross-sections. Then it throws a wall-sized map of all the impact craters and other stuff that’s slammed into Poland from above.
The main room is split into three areas: the left wall with covering several geologic periods from Precambrian to Holocene, the right covering plate tectonics in the region (with some tasty photos of limestone cliffs), and the centre display cases of wood, plant, and shell fossils from the various epochs. Plus a monstrous cubic block of salt.
It’s brief, consistent, and comprehensive for such a small exhibition. Each period has a stratigraphic log, text explaining the different processes at work and the resulting rocks, minerals, landforms, samples of minerals, rocks, ore, crystals, all in a glass case, and then a few bits to pick up and turn over. It sounds a little dry but for me it wasn’t. Probably because it wasn’t 3 hours of room after room of this. It’s obviously been assembled by knowledgeable and passionate geologists, who don’t dumb down the information, yet also present it carefully and attractively. And yes, nicely lit. Actually, it needed about half a room more, to give more room for information to the fossil display cases and the geologic maps.
I wasn’t sure what to blog; I photographed almost everything. So, a few samples and minerals because it’s been a while since pretty invaded supernaut. And that block of crystal salt? It’s about the size of a small person. (And some of the translations I did myself as the fossils weren’t translated in the folder.)
Holiday deviation. Instead of Zagreb, Krakow. With an ‘´’ above the ‘o’ and pronounced Crackuff, ah I feel so ignorant. So, deviated to the bus station because all trains were overnight and the primary reason why I like slow ground travel is to look at things; looking at night not included. Bus then. A little narrow in the knee space, but no one next to me. And getting ahead of myself here: getting up at 0445 and using the sublime Budapest public transport at 0530 to get arse on seat and into gear an hour later.
So, Poland? Not Zagreb? Well, I’ve lived in Berlin a while, and Poland’s only 100km eastwards and the busses/trains are cheaper than a meal (seriously, bus from Budapest to Kraków was under 19€, for about 400km). But even before I decided to go north-ish instead of south-west-ish I’d been looking at maps and excuses not to go south, as much as I want to see the ocean and south. Krakow was the closest city I’d never been to that I also thought might be interesting. I also seem to be in high museum mode (as recent blog posts show), and Krakow has mediæval coming out all over the place. Monstrous black wooden mediæval churches in the countryside, frocked up nuns and monks strolling the pavement, frothy explosions of churchy spires.
Anyway, 630am on a bus. I just stuck the camera at the slightly dirty, slightly reflective window and went click click click. Mist, fog, haze, low cloud, greyness, everything leeched of colour and out of focus, eventually, once we got into the Carpathians (the best name for a mountain range ever) some snow (but honestly this winter’s been a wash out for the white stuff), below zero and the liquid, dry, glarey light that brings. I liked the effect of all these layers of reflection, light bouncing around, diffuse brightness, somehow managed to capture a bit of it in between over-excitement at the glorious beauty of the journey. I was so thrilled I only nodded off for about half an hour in Poland, that after less than four hours sleep last night.
Oh, and the piglets. Skoda. White. Ahead of the bus. Driver and co-driver laughing and talking animatedly with couple in the front seats about it. Bus tries to pass for a long while, so sitting on the Skoda’s bumper. Little pink pig ears and head pops up over the back seat. As we overtake, we see the entire rear is packed with piglets.
Away from Berlin with my backpack. To Prague. Grey mist hung and obscured visibility the entire journey. It snowed in Sächsische Schweiz along the Elbe in Elbsandsteingebirge. Prague arrived 5 hours later. I’m staying in the 5th district, the funicular up Petřín runs past my window across the park. In the evening I walked through the part of the old city.
By way of (I think) Black Metal Theory, Notes from the Vomitorium, The Whim, coming to my attention around the time I heard of Dayal Patterson’s Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult, and acquired also earlier this year, the strange and oddly poetic work of Lieutenant Nab Saheb of Kashmir, with a preface by Denys X. Abaris, O.S.L, Bergmetal: Oro-emblems of the Musical Beyond, sits near Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia in an unnamed field of philosophy, theory, fiction, fantasy. It’s a little book, not even 100 pages, with small illustrations of mountaineers plunging to their doom high on a storm-wrapped mountain, covers of black metal albums, more pictures of mountains, chapter titles swinging between black metal and Werner Herzog films (that’d be Scream of Stone). I’m not sure I understand what I’m reading, but I like it; it appeals to me in a non-verbal way, drawing the aesthetic and philosophy of black metal towards the corporeal experience of climbing and mountains – also a philosophy. It’s a book that sits well near Michel Serres, who also loves mountains, and who understands bodies and thoughts in a way that for the moment seems lost or dismissed.
A day off. Not a day off. My morning wander up the steep Uetliberg hill behind the house didn’t begin until dinner-time. The sun was lighting the gold coast of Lake Zürich by the time I’d reached the radio antenna, the silver coast side already in shadow. Above, paragliders rode the updrafts; to the south, mountains hung like billowing clouds, throwing shadows eastwards, slanting upwards into the sky from the sun already below them. I walked down and home in darkness.
The Helmis live and work together. We work now in Rote Fabrik, beside the lake, and live in a house up the hill, a 15 minute walk or so. Behind us is the Uetliberg and forest. A shard of the lake is just visible off to one side of an apartment tower from my attic room. It has rained every day, wreathing the hills in scraggy mist and cloud. Late last night we ate fondue in the turquoise kitchen.
So far this year I’ve had a bit of a lapse in reading. There’s been a pile beside my bed that I haven’t made much progress on despite being writers and subjects I’m dead enthusiastic over. I decided to order a few extra to add to said pile, hoping they would get me back on the goat-pulled reading cart.
Planetary Surface Processes by Distinguished Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Science, H. Jay Melosh at Purdue University has been on my want list for at least a couple of years. It’s a university-level textbook, with accompanying price (even for Germany), suitably thuggish weight and page count, and gets straight into formulae on the second page of Chapter 1. My first encounter with it was a review by Emily Lakdawalla of The Planetary Society (which is one of the very best space science news sites around, and Emily one of my favourite writers), late-2012. She said, “I could tell from the first page that this book was going to become a primary resource for this blog.” and I thought, “Oooh, ok, off to the bookstore!” She does point out it’s heavy on the physics and light on the chemistry, for which a commenter suggests McSween & Huss’ Cosmochemistry, now also on my list … nonetheless, her recommendation is good enough for me.
It fits in on one side with Mike Searle’s Colliding Continents: A geological exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, and Tibet, which I found a fantastic read, and on the other with my daily reading of space science, of which extraterrestrial geology and planetary processes, specifically those within our solar system, is a longterm interest for me. I’ve been following Curiosity on Mars (even getting up early for the Seven Minutes of Terror), Cassini around Saturn, New Horizons on its way to Pluto, Dawn on its way to the asteroid Ceres, and having a book like this is something of a necessary addition for me. So, I will be taking this brick with me on my upcoming travels, unportable as it is.