Category: Collected Items

The Nowaks’

Collected Items 01.08.13

I pushed open the door and, in doing so, jarred the handle of the frying pan on the stove which stood just behind it. In the tiny kitchen there was barely room for the two of us together. A stifling smell of potatoes fried in cheap margarine filled the flat.

The living room had a sloping ceiling stained with old patches of damp. It contained a big table, six chairs, a sideboard and two large double-beds. The place was so full of furniture that you had to squeeze your way into it sideways.

I descended slowly the five flights of stairs to the courtyard. The bottom of the court was clammy and dark, although the sun was shining on a cloud in the sky overhead. Broken buckets, wheels off prams and bits of bicycle tyre lay scattered about like things which have fallen down a well.

Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye To Berlin (Penguin: Harmondsworth, [1939] 1958) pp. 102-106.


Collected Items 25.02.13

The virtue of Kandinsky’s theoretical work, the fact that it is not a dry intellectual construction but an organic and vital creation opening wide perspectives to the future, is due, in large part, to the personal qualities of the author. A free and independent spirit, he sought in a union of knowledge and concrete experience a new universalism embracing life in its entirety – daily existence, thought and feeling, the arts & the sciences – a universalism which he himself possessed to the highest degree. The spiritual life was for him an immanent reality, communicable by means of created signs (in the realm of the visual as well as of vocal language) by sounds and rhythms as well as colors, points, lines and surfaces. By means of these broad and deep conceptions of art Kandinsky tended toward a new conquest of the world. It was in this sense that he sought the essential spiritual basis of all phenomena, uniting in a creative harmony the infinitely tiny with the macrocosm. In like manner his paintings are always filled with mental vibrations, communion, meditation and ecstacies from which there well up gaiety, humour and dramatic passion. The liberation from all material causation created an irrational time and space wherein this world of spiritual forms soars aloft, and it does so in the very name of “that final unity of the human and the divine”, such as Kandinsky defined it.

Carola Giedion-Welcker, ‘Kandinsky the Theoretician’ in Wassily Kandinsky (Poligrafa: Barcelona, 2009) p. 63.

Collected Items 27.01.13

Franz said, ‘Beauty in the European sense has always had a premeditated quality to it. We’ve always had an aesthetic intention and a long-range plan. That’s what enabled Western man to spend decades building a Gothic cathedral or a Renaissance piazza. The beauty of New York rests on a completely different base. It’s unintentional. It arose independent of human design, like a stalagmitic cavern. Forms which are in themselves quite ugly turn up fortuitously, without design, in such incredible surroundings that they sparkle with a sudden wondrous poetry.’
Sabina said, ‘Unintentional beauty. Yes. Another way of putting it might be “beauty by mistake”. Before beauty disappears entirely from the earth, it will go on existing for a while by mistake. “Beauty by mistake” – the final phase in the history of beauty.’
Franz said, ‘Perhaps New York’s unintentional beauty is much richer and more varied than the excessively strict and composed beauty of human design. But it’s not our European beauty. It’s an alien world.’

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being trans. Michael Henry Heim (London: Faber and Faber, 1985) p. 97-98

Collected Items 14.01.13

[S]ometimes, on the other hand, the small bedroom with the very high ceiling, hollowed out in the form of a pyramid two storeys high and partly panelled in mahogany, where from the first second I had been mentally poisoned by the unfamiliar odour of the vetiver, convinced of the hostility of the violet curtains and the insolent indifference of the clock chattering loudly as though I were not there; where a strange and pitiless quadrangular cheval-glass, barring obliquely one of the corners of the room, carved from deep inside the soft fullness of my usual field of vision a sight for itself which I had not expected; where my mind, struggling for hours to dislodge itself, to stretch upwards so as to take the exact shape of the room and succeed in filling its gigantic funnel to the very top, had suffered many hard nights, while I lay at full length in my bed, my eyes lifted, my ear anxious, my nostril restive, my heart pounding, until habit had changed the colour of the curtains, silenced the clock, taught pity to the cruel oblique mirror, concealed, if not driven out completely, the smell of the vetiver and appreciably diminished the apparent height of the ceiling.

Marcel Proust, The Way by Swann’s trans. Lydia Davis (London: Penguin, 2003) p. 12


Collected Items 28.10.12

A snippet from the one and only Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust. Who to eviscerate a lived-in space better than he?

But I had seen sometimes one, sometimes another, of the bedrooms I had inhabited in my life, and in the end I would recall them all in the reveries that followed my waking: winter bedrooms in which, as soon as you are in bed, you bury your head in a nest that you weave of the most disparate things: a corner of the pillow, the top of the covers, a bit of shawl, the side of the bed and an issue of ‘Debats roses’, that you end up cementing together using the birds’ technique of pressing down on it indefinitely; where in icy whether the pleasure you enjoy is the feeling that you are separated from the outdoors (like the sea swallow which makes its nest deep in an underground passage in the warmth of the earth) and where, since the fire is kept burning all night in the fireplace, you sleep in a great cloak of warm, smoky air, pierced by the glimmers from the logs breaking into flame again, a sort of immaterial alcove, a warm cave hollowed in the heart of the room itself, a zone of heat with moving thermal contours, aerated by draughts that cool your face and come from the corners, from the parts close to the window or far from the hearth, and that have grown cold again;  -tbc

Marcel Proust, The Way by Swann’s trans. Lydia Davis (London: Penguin, 2003) p. 11

Spatial synthesis through work

Collected Items 23.09.12

I picked up a copy of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space at Shakespeare and Company in Paris this summer. I love this brilliantly quoted fragment of Rilke which, in the words of Bachelard, “offers each one of us a means of becoming aware of our room by strongly synthesizing everything that lives in it, every piece of furniture that wants to be friends”. Read on:

In Lettres a une musicienne, Rilke writes to Benvenuta that in the absence of his cleaning woman, he had been polishing his furniture. “I was, as I said, magnificently alone . . . when suddenly I was seized by my old passion. I should say that this was undoubtedly my greatest childhood passion, as well as my first contact with music, since our little piano fell under my jurisdiction as duster. It was, in fact, one of the few objects that lent itself willingly to this operation and gave no sign of boredom. On the contrary, under my zealous dustcloth, it suddenly started to purr mechanically . . . and its fine, deep black surface became more and more beautiful. When you’ve been through this there’s little that you don’t know! I was quite proud, if only of my indispensable costume, which consisted of a big apron and little washable suede gloves to protect one’s dainty hands. Politeness tinged with mischief was my reaction to the friendliness of these objects, which seemed happy to be so well treated, so meticulously renovated. And even today, I must confess that, while everything about me grew brighter and the immense black surface of my work table, which dominated its surroundings . . . became newly aware, somehow, of the size of the room, reflecting it more and more clearly: pale gray and almost square . . ., well, yes, I felt moved, as though something were happening, something, to tell the truth, which was not purely superficial but immense, and which touched my very soul: I was an emperor washing the feet of the poor, or Saint Bonaventure, washing dishes in his convent.”

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space trans. by Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon, 1994)

Mapping England

Collected Items 16.09.12

My daily commute from South London to Paddington has its advantages. The very best of these is an hour-and-a-half every weekday of (relatively) undisrupted reading time. Lately, I have come to the end of what I have come to think of as Hilary Mantel’s wonderful lump of Tudor brick, Wolf Hall. As with any exceptional novel, the end comes with a small amount of grief-at-passing. So here, by way of a eulogy, is a beautiful quote from the final pages. It is especially apt as, in recent days, my proper job has involved a fair bit of cartography.

 There are maps, of a kind; castles stud their fields, their battlements prettily inked, their chases and parks marked by lines of bushy trees, with drawings of harts and bristling boar. It is no wonder Gregory mistook Northumbria for the Indies, for these maps are deficient in all practical respects; they do not, for example, tell you which way is north, it would be useful to know where the bridges are, and to have a note of the distance between them. It would be useful to know how far you are from the sea. But the trouble is, maps are always last year’s. England is always remaking herself, her cliffs eroding, her sandbanks drifting, springs bubbling up in dead ground. They regroup themselves while we sleep, the landscapes through which we move, and even the histories that trail us; the faces of the dead fade into other faces, as a spine of hills into the mist.

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate: London, 2010) p. 648-49.