Attention, abode, line of beauty, jellyfish, eyes, jolts, palms, finitude … By way of a series of desiderata — or »wished-for matter« —Aris Fioretos asks what the art of prose can amount to in times when diversity and transgression are celebrated, but people without papers are still undesired. Can a text offer respite? How is movement created through words? What do omissions have to do with writing, what role does pain play? And what is needed for Medusa’s throat to become the well of literature?
With the help of numerous key words, Fioretos guides the reader into his own works and out to an overwhelming world, tender and desirable and abundant in losses. In the course of the essay a kaleidoscope of dreams and wishes emerges, a little dictionary about the novel at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
When, toward the end of his life, Italo Calvino ruminated on the role of literature at the threshold of a new millennium, he did not wonder how the book would fare »in the technological age we term post-industrial.« His belief in the »special means« available to literature was much too stable for apocalyptic fantasies. As a writer, it is not difficult to share his attitude.
Since work on Six Memos for the Next Millennium was interrupted, however (Calvino died before being able to complete his last lecture, in 1985), the postindustrial age has evolved into a digital revolution changing, or at the very least challenging, the circumstances of the book. Media, distribution channels, reading habits — most things have been affected, and in a fundamental manner. The same could be said about the distinction between high and popular culture. The border between different art forms. Or a concept such as the canon. And there is reason to suspect that something similar is presently happening to our notion of national literatures. The days when the Hungarian Arthur Koestler, or Anaïs Nin with her French-Spanish-Danish pedigree, were virtually alone in writing in their second or third languages — German and English, respectively — are long gone. Literature’s and geography’s maps have never been identical, less so than ever today.
In this essay, I have allowed myself to dream about the novel. Like Calvino I wish to concentrate on »a few literary values, characteristics or specialties which are particularly close to my heart.« But the world has also become more restless since he wrote; this cannot be ignored. Over the last thirty years — distributed evenly either side of the turn of the millennium — we have lost not only a purview which we may merely have persuaded ourselves we possessed. Gone, too, is our belief in it. The question may well be whether it is even possible to say »we« and know what it refers to.
In order to live up — if only a little — to this instability, Calvino’s six memos have been added to. I also discuss an ancient ceramic painting which, in adapted form, may be viewed on the cover of this book. My thoughts are summarized in a series of words — techniques, characteristics, phenomena; dreams, nightmares — which, for convenience’s sake, have been placed in the margin. Most of them probably seem less dictionary entries than exhortations to maintain morale. My hope is nonetheless that the ruminations move like a school of fish: as a unit, that is, however many shifting parts it may consist of. Although this form of presentation may seem more searching than stipulative, the book does follow a line of thought. It is just that this line, which takes off from the myth displayed on the ancient vessel, would correspond on closer scrutiny to innumerable points — or »words« on the novel, which is the subtitle I have settled for. Moreover, I suspect that Calvino would have shared the opinion that the essay is a winding enterprise. If it possessed an emblem, it might well be the meander.
Should a designation be required for the words in the margin, a concept culled from the world of collectors will have to do. Desiderata is a list of »wished-for things« needed for a particular context. Less pompously, this catalogue might also be termed a search or wish list. On the one hand, that would emphasize the search for knowledge characteristic of the novel ever since a certain knight’s choleric rampaging through Spain around 1600. On the other, it would underscore the wish as its mode of existence. That is, the optative verb form that, in Latin as well as the Germanic languages, has been taken over by the subjunctive, which I suspect may be literature’s particular way of existing. (Surely the world in a novel consists more of potentialities than realities? Is it not always »so to speak«?) But I like the word desiderata. Perhaps because the plural suggests that desire is a multitude.
(Foreword, pp. 9—11)
»Fioretos’s essay is capable of a powerfully inspirational effect. It encourages the kind of writing that is boldly exploratory and experimental, and points to possible routes away from literary clichés and generic fiction. What’s more, it stimulates the desire to read and is, in itself, a very pleasant reading experience.« — Clemens Altgård, Skånska Dagbladet
»Intelligent reflections on the art of the novel.« — Thomas Bredsdorff, Dagens Nyheter
»It is a kaleidoscopic text, impossible to summarize. The greatest benefit is probably to be had if you consider it a visit to the author’s own workshop. Aris Fioretos is generous with thoughts on his own books, especially his ›Greek trilogy‹ — the novels Den siste greken (The Last Greek; 2009), Halva solen (Half the Sun; 2012) and Mary (2015). These three novels have placed Fioretos in the mainstream of important European literature and it is unceasingly interesting to follow his thoughts on his (ingenious) ways of composing them. . . . You will also find fine formulations of what I consider one of the crucial driving forces in Fioretos’s work — the desire for complicity. The writer and the reader create the text together. He writes: ›The narrative prose I dream of is not exclusive but inclusive.‹ This also applies to Vatten, gåshud (Water, Gooseflesh). Rarely have I felt more welcomed into a text than in this one.« — Stefan Eklund, Smålandsposten
»Prose is a matter of finding the proper pace for a text, it says somewhere. This also applies to essay prose in general and to
Vatten, gåshud (Water, Gooseflesh) in particular. Fioretos’s style is almost mischievously well-timed. With drastically chosen adjectives, wittily convoluted references, small somersaults of language which, at their most beautiful, tumble in time with his lines of argument. In his new book Fioretos reaches a level where his language exercise seems to tally with the poetics of the novel he explores: inclusive yet exact, full of pleasing effects and with a persuasive belief in the power of fiction.« — Kristofer Folkhammar, Aftonbladet
»Fioretos is no poser who puffs himself up with fancy terms in order to impress. He really seeks knowledge and clarity, and wants to share it with us. His reasoning may well be complicated, not to mention tightrope-walker perfect — but it must never be obscure. . . . With curiousity (yet never without his critical glasses on) he throws himself deep into feminist theories and looks for advantages and disadvantages of the écriture féminine, just as readily as he quotes Harold Bloom or some German plankton researcher. In his novels, he attempts to understand and give form to women’s experiences, and in this essay he shares everything he has thought, written, read and experienced in recent times, which, to say the least, is quite a lot. It has been a long time since I last felt that I wanted to linger in a book, but with Fioretos’s essay I really did. Vatten, gåshud (Water, Gooseflesh) could have been twice as long.« — Gabriella Håkansson, Sydsvenskan
»It is . . . an indulgence to partake of his observations. Perhaps because I so agree with his definition of the novel, the proper novel, that is, the one that wholly engrosses us. It is quite simply about rapture, amazement or — as the title has it — gooseflesh. Fioretos himself writes with such empathy and energy that it is difficult not to break out in involuntary gooseflesh while reading. A good book should make us lose our breath, he argues, and I think that is a reasonable requirement. With his elegant turns of phrase (another name for the novel: ›turning‹), he gives shape to the subject matter itself — that playful mobility.« — Björn Kohlström, Jönköpings-Posten
»The quick-witted, associative and restless has something aristocratic about it, and Aris Fioretos’s prose strides forth as briskly and demandingly as Diderot’s, but the form is more Baroque, in its abundance and transgressions, its graphic playfulness and interplay of image and text, the use of concetti. Fioretos sometimes posits himself at the center of the text, telling us how he reasons, what he has said thus far and what he intends to say next. A magician comes to mind, who talks all the while he performs his tricks, in order to guide the spectator’s gaze. . . . A book is a heart beating in another breast according to Rebecca Solnit, who, in Wanderlust, moves with heavier, more American steps through the same landscape that Fioretos traverses so lightly of foot. They have the nomadic in common, the refusal to submit to genres, even if Solnit lacks Fioretos’s artistic sophistication. The reader is left to his or her own devices but is not alone, separated from yet connected to other fates, Fioretos writes. Reading is the promise of an existence freed from the fetters of the ego. It can hardly be put more felicitously. Books such Vatten, gåshud (Water, Gooseflesh) are few and far between.« — Kristoffer Leandoer, Svenska Dagbladet
»It is impossible to paraphrase Aris Fioretos’s Vatten, gåshud (Water, Gooseflesh), subtitled ›Innumerable Words about the Novel.‹ It is at once a theory of the novel, a poetics, a commentary to his own works and a series of brilliant readings of literature as well as of ancient vessels and jellyfish. A meandering movement, beautifully free of intent, which winds its way between observations and interpretations, digressions and queries. Were I nevertheless to attempt a summary, I would describe the book as an argument for literature and the novel as a particular form of knowledge.« — Victor Malm, Expressen
»Fleet-footed, fun, unfailingly full of ideas.« — Jan-Ove Nyström, Norrbottens-Kuriren