The Gray Book

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Essay · Original title: Den grå boken (1994) · Translated by the author · From Swedish · Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999, 151 pages · Cover: Alberto Giacometti, »Gray Figure« (1957) · ISBN: 0-8047-3538-7


Generally considered the least lively and most bleak of casts, gray is the taint of vagueness and uncertainty. Marking the threshold region where luminous life seems suspended but death has not yet darkened the horizon, gray belongs to an evasive and evanescent world, carrying the tint of smoke, fog, ashes, and dust. As the ambiguous space of thought and remembrance where things blend and blur, it measures the difference between distance and proximity, shading into tinges of hesitation, hues of taciturnity, tones of time past and lost. Thus gray may also be the spectral medium of literature itself— that grainy gas of language.

Written with a lead pencil akin to those found in Nabokov, Rilke, Svevo, Poe, and Dickinson, The Gray Book chronicles the vicissitudes of such equivocal articulation— registering the graphite traces it leaves behind, but also recording the dwindling span of its life. The book situates itself in a region beyond criticism but this side of literature, characterized by forgetting and finitude, and investigates important yet seemingly inaccessible “gray areas” in texts as old as those of Homer, as recent as those of Beckett.

Loosely arranging these literary finds according to a revision of the four elements, The Gray Book departs from tradition and treats not water but tears, not fire but vapor, not earth but grain, not air but clouds. The narrative thus construed, proceeding in the meandering movements of volatile thought rather than in the prim steps of a treatise, appears gradually affected by its subject. Themes and facts previously confined to the realm of quoted texts leak into the narrative itself. The border between fiction and fact slowly dissolves as the book approaches the curious void that the author locates at the heart of “gray literature.” Shaped by an omnipresent though increasingly unreliable narrator, The Gray Book may thus ultimately yield a poetics cast in the form of a ghost story.


And it continues to elude us. Like ice cubes, for example, first dryly clinking, then damply crackling, then clearly dying on us in the drink. Or take the snowflakes, all ginger and pale, whose crystalline rotations we try to pursue in our slow, amazed way, but which make short shrift by disappearing into the teeming crowd of a drift. Or a word even, slithery like a slip of soap, surely unwilling to emerge from our vacant lips even if we were to increase our hapless hankering with a hand hitherto unproductive, in the hope that the word will now come forth thanks to a thumb numbly massaging the index and middle finger. Seizing the moment, we even allow the tongue to produce a spongy, palatal sound, as if testing the efficacy of the dentures, but the lips, gulping, close with an affected expression of Je ne sais quoi.

What a sham. It is all to no avail. Gray will continue to elude us. For what are we thinking? O. No. The word is not hidden inside us, taut and tacit, ready to emerge like a rabbit from a magician’s hat, tucked away in a fold of illusory nothingness. It has its own ways. We may rub our fingers and let tongue and teeth produce their crazed concoction of noise and notion, but the word we are searching for will refuse to materialize. We can be sure of that. Only if we are sufficiently patient, neither dither too much nor desire too little, may it conceivably at times very well perhaps finally eventually maybe at long last arrive. But it is not likely to do so in the manner of a lost son, or some foreign friend, or the old lover, who all return with an air of displaced fervor as if trying to need us as much we want them. None of that. Not here. If at all, the word is likely to emerge more in the manner of Lazarus, dressed in ambivalence and mellow misgiving. Reluctantly it will peer through the void still stabbing that hole in our sentence, with sensitive eyes unused to the rim of light, irresolutely poised on the threshold between oblivion and blending-in.

Gray is, we have attempted to argue thus far, when nothing is . . . but . . . what is that? Is it the shape facts acquire when they fuse with forgetting? the look faces assume when nobody is watching, so similar to the trees in Bishop Berkeley’s forest without God? Or is gray like the mirror in a hotel room (first floor), not giving us our identity, but granting us what is greater, anonymity? And by the way, now that we are here, what do we see there, swimming in that thin flat pool of foil and commotion? Perhaps a dotard who, shunning life and people, is about to come to an end the way a tape runs out? with a face made of hardened smoke and a batch of wrinkles of put-on wisdom? merging with nullity as if it had been scratched forth like the number on a losing lotto ticket? Perhaps he — for it does seem to be a he — it is a male — even sports glasses? or are those merely a pair of empty eye-sockets, big as a giant’s thumb prints, facial indentations whose sides are pressed against the nose as if held together by a clothespin? Or is it rather a sagging figure of eight, slung across the vault of the nose like saddle satchels across the back of a horse? And what about that nose . . . quite prominent, is it not? Arched like the glossy shell of some rare, oblong insect entrenched in a face like a regular nightmare. Yes. Well. What? The lips? Then there are the lips, of course, full as only lips can be. No need for metaphors there. And. What about hair? Do we see any? There is that scratch of hexagonal white on the forehead, quite noticeable it is, too, like a patch of erratic chalk relocated from a blackboard . . . but hair? Hard to see; harder to say. The figure has barely had the time to disentangle itself from the background, it seems; the contours are still uncertain, the shape too indistinct. Yet there are parts of clarity, obvious stretches of distinction. The right shoulder, for example, traces an edge of certainty on which that surrounding, unfathomably hovering void seems tilted. Like a block of frozen thunder. But no wobbly lines, really. Or take the chin and throat. Both support the centrality of the mouth in this picture, portrait, effigy — whatever it is. We did not mention that, did we? Well, the mouth isthe center here. No doubt about that. What with the obtuse angle and all. Like a flaw becoming flower. So . . . so the scene we are privy to, whatever else it is about, it must be about seeing speech, or observing a mouth.

Yes . . . OK . . . but . . . you know . . . maybe the figure is receding rather, first veering slightly out of focus, then out of view, growing fainter as our lense turns foggy, retreating like steps down a staircase? Perhaps this is all about silence instead, that sullen, sulphurous afterglow of speech? And who is the person anyway, so defiantly off-handed, conjured forth by both lapsus and lingua? With the looks of, we must admit, a piece of furniture? Has he just arrived from the country, still confused as he sits down in front of his facsimile on this his first visit to the city? No, that would not do. Such a scene seems unlikely. Not here. There is no . . . well . . . the setting must be infused with more tension . . . yes, to begin with, more tension and cunning might . . . yet it should not display a single trace of suspense. Then agitation has to be added, but neutrality must prevail. And like wisps of mist and forgetting, the picture has to remain both distinct and diverting. All is uncertain in it, except the outcome. So, are we instead facing a prisoner sentenced to death? There is a thought. Perhaps it is that solitary convict with his back to the cell door, facing the thick gray wall through which our interdimensional gaze may nonetheless peer, as if equipped with a vision able to filter through even the densest flurry of granitic atoms, a turmoil of tough particles and relentless void? Or are we merely confronted with some old hand well aquainted with the wasting of time? That cardboard con man? Furtively causing fancies to loiter like fragments of a melody may linger in our mind long before we notice it? And who every time he returns to the anonymous room where this scene is laid out in front of him behaves as if he had never been there before?

Nonsense. Whichever way, the shoulders are broad and powdered with frail white dust, as if light had settled into a thin pattern of granular precision. And the head’s straight posture, slightly bent back as it is . . . cheek protruding but forehead reclining, almost vanishing . . . yes, vanishing, like a flat stone slowly disappearing into a thick, gooey mass . . . well, such posture seems to suggest a certain confidence vis-à-vis whoever is the observer. “Resilience” is a word that may come to mind. But, oh, the overwhelming space of flatness and nullity that surrounds the figure is vastly more impressive than this hodge-podge of fog and profile for which our imagination is responsible. It is like a nebulous haze slabbed and polished into a slim plane; only wafts of white sediments are still making it fuzzy in certain areas. Come to think of it, the picture reminds us of a chalk-clouded blackboard, so we may even call it a “grayboard,” following Timofey Pnin’s fitting lead (no need to be coy about it, we have been saving his coinage for a moment like this). The odd thing, though, is that the figure hovers precisely at the level of the image’s surface, as if it were a thin membrane extended inside a depthless foil or the suspended silhouette of a zero sign slightly shaken, then stirred out of shape. For there is no third dimension here, we would like to remark, yet plenty of volume and density. A woozy naught in a slow sea of haze and cessation. What deathless precision.

Areas of this kind of gray are usually to be found somewhere in the umber abode of a well-constructed story, in the anonymous middle of a chapter, in the rented room of a paragraph — in the deft indistinction that defines every carefully crafted sentence, in which syntax is a question as much of shade as of shape. Yet such places cannot be visited, even less may we pace their length or trace the distance from imaginary floor to chimerical ceiling, their inventories cannot be investigated, and the furniture they contain does not allow us to settle in like an old friend amidst pillows and ongoing parlance. At best we come upon them and get lost.




There. Or here. For they are zones with the sensuousness of an empty pocket. Receding, always receding. Vain orbs akin to the last gasps emitted from that mouth. Or the quizzical pupils of fish as the drowner sinks vertically into obliteration, a declawed asterisk, etherially spinning, in search of its final footnote.

It is in this direction, at any rate, that we find the heart of gray literature, or so we are beginning to suspect, like a cavity within a vacuum (a reference we regret has gotten lost), and from where we are, slightly above and across, we may discern a voice at times speaking from it as neutrally as the arid monody of a mute. Lazarus, for example, Mr. Absence himself, must have rested in such an anonymous space, like the dry spot under a wet stone. (Some suspended animation.) Just a pale vessel of rusty remembrance, adrift in desuetude, lucklessly forced to coordinate his steady thickening into consciousness with the spacing of indispensable vacancy. All because of some conjuror’s need to impress. For what Lazarus had become, this frail pattern cast by joined jolts of missed heartbeats, could not be ignored or eradicated, however much he were brought to breathe again among those breathing. Traces of lead-hued vacuity always linger in any stab at second-degree existence. A memorable figure of . . . — forgetting, shall we call it?

This, at any rate, is the sort of nullity we have in mind. A living absence amidst the paltry props arranged by fate. It does not amount to mere avoidance and abstraction, but displays a certain keen distinction and that odd, somewhat dingy sort of delectability usually reserved for drop-outs. Yet to perceive such concoction of gray rootlessness and vibration as it wobbles through our present and living world with the tottery touch of cardboard is, of course, not an easy matter. For instance, it is not particularly noteworthy, or mellifluous, or variegated in the manner of certain people’s memories of a private drawing lesson during a long lost childhood —

Now the colored pencils in action. The green one, by a mere whirl of the wrist, could be made to produce a ruffled tree, or the eddy left by a submerged crocodile. The blue one drew a simple line across the page — and the horizon of all seas was there. A nonedescript blunt one kept getting into one’s way. The brown one was always broken, and so was the red, but sometimes, just after it had snapped, one could still make it serve by holding it so that the loose tip was propped, none too securely, by a jutting splinter. The little purple fellow, a special favorite of mine, had got worn down so short as to become scarcely manageable. The white one alone, that lanky albino among pencils, kept its original length, or at least did so until I discovered that, far from being a fraud leaving no mark on the page, it was the ideal implement since I could imagine whatever I wished while I scrawled.

— but quite clearly quite genuinely more insignificant, faintly reminiscent of an uncle from the old land, caught in a photo, who amidst abrasive, well-to-do relatives decorously attempts to hide his worn-out shoes by turning the toes inward, hands resting on shiny knees, hair flattened with fingers and saliva. Entirely unimportant. A liability, more likely. Yet there it is, that one thin carbony smudge on the picture: our implement with its supposedly awful power. All crummy yellow with metal-hued wrinkles and hair the color of a dirty carrot.

Unlike the blue memory, which encompasses seven waters with the lithe languor of ink, and thus the entire past as undeniably as the smooth, irreproachable horizon, gray memories only leave aching cavities, deposits of nullity at best saturated with the sensation of one’s own eminent non-thingness. Like a twelfth step on a staircase of eleven, say, with the sudden thrill of panic that is bound to follow, that wild contraction of muscles while the foot sinks down toward the phantom of a step, covered internally with its own infinitely elastic, though utterly barren material. Infused with forgetting. Always appearing in the rear mirror of remembrance, gray recollection thus does not jerk closer with every new detail we may gather up for pensive treatment, however much we try to sink into its peculiar past, but only continues to distance itself, like lachrymal discharges dissolving into the big Nihil. It provides the form in which oblivion only survives.

But we already said that. More than once. So let us return instead to our original inquiry before that line of carbon we assume we are following ceases to be an argument to wield like a stick and instead rolls back on us like a coil of thermal paper. The question was, was it not, what gray is when it is nothing. So. Is it nil null naught? Zilch? Vain? Void? Is it? Well, yes. Sort of. Sort of like zero, it is. For consider the situation: a designation quite as unsuitable as a school girl’s generous glory above the capital I, 0 does not belong because, simply, it is not. A figure for nothing, it acts as a placeholder marking vacancy in a symbolic system which otherwise would lack a word for lack. Could not gray, as nothing, be thus defined? That hollow traced by oblivion?

Thirteen-hundred years ago, this elliptoid figure was plucked from one of the shelves in the Hindu number system, polished and hung around the neck of an Arabic traveler’s camel. His name was not Mustapha or Abdul. Next, it went on a difficult journey through deserts as dry as the skin on which it was often written and over waters as bottomless as its own interior. Until it reached the Western frontier of the continent and was put in circulation within the Arabic Mediterranean culture with the slow ease of a snowmelt. Rome and Christian Europe did not understand the figure and therefore rejected it with customary ignorance. But admittedly, theological considerations, all shroud and solemnity, may also have played a role, at least in so far as they were based on principles borrowed from Greek philosophy, which could not conceive of creation ex nihilo. It was not until the fourteenth century, at any rate, when its mercantile importance dawned on capitalists in Northern Italy, that zero was introduced in Europe. For the tradesmen, artists, architects, and scientists of the Renaissance, a mobile and abstract arithmetic was the necessary prerequisite for economic and technological progress. Hence double book keeping and the incipient need to calculate future profits and losses soon saw to it that Hindu numerals entirely replaced Roman. The abacus was put aside, paper and pencil were honored, and graphic calculation replaced gestural computation. Objections were shamed into a corner and given hoods as pointed as the far corner of an isoscelous triangle.

Yet this arithmetic revolution required that zero be written. In the Roman abacus the sign had been marked by an absence which was used, but never mentioned. Zero was not even given a symbol, in fact, but constituted merely the absence of a pebble or a piece of either wood or bone on one or several rows of the counting-board. With the introduction of Arabic mathematics — where 0 marked a fixed symbol in a given numerical sequence that existed regardless of physical embodiment — zero acquired both name and face . . . nothing can to nothing fall, / Nor any place be empty quite . . . demanding, literally, to represent nothing. Thus 0 came to be the site for a nullity that had none. A place holder as empty as its own hold on — well, nothing, obviously.

No need to mention then, as we shall nonetheless do, that zero must fill a double function. It stands for what mathematicians term the “null set,” that is, the class of absences of some certain kind of objects, but it also marks the beginning of a process. On the one hand it is a cardinal number, on the other an ordinal. The end of a rope or the circle this forms when displayed on the floor. In both cases, however, zero is a number signifying the absence of numbers: it indicates the origin of an (empty) quantity or a point that excludes the possibility of precursors. Both container and mark, urn and stamp. Bath tub and float. The former figure cannot be perceived in any other way than as a circle, loop, or ring, whereas the latter can be imagined only as a score, a point, a wound. Ring and fingertip, as it were. Thus a catalogue of everything this double zero is not — the ultimate Null Set — should not only be without ending, like two loops braided together into the figure of eight, but it must also include everything which it is not, without letting itself be filled by it. It reflects the emptiness of infinity in the same manner as the frail pince-nez of Nabokov’s myopic French teacher, Mademoiselle O, fatidically mirrored his blue and ever bluer childhood.

So zero is no puppet, proxy, or person — let alone some dog of air. It is neither a weak number, nor the point at which water freezes, nor the intersection of the ink-hued horizon and a pen borrowing its tint, just as little as a page as blank as a vacant stare is nothing. The person in front of this sheet shining with emptiness is not null, even if the sign on his door asks for mail marked Null to be delivered here. The absence of daylight in the room in which he sits is not nothing, the silence to which he is listening not non-existent, and its breaking certainly not not an act of substance. Zero is neither a bald head, nor the navel hiding in the fold of a belly. The gear shift in neutral is not zilch and a happy divorce does not mean that the marriage had been without both profit and loss. Zero is not the breathless mouth of a poor swimmer or the vain fumbling of a person seized by unrequited love. Nor does 0 constitute the latter’s perpetually renewed apostrophe, as empty as the mouth of someone with too sweet a tooth, or the buoy thrown to the former when he, all fear and surprise, discovers that the water is deeper than at first assumed. Zero is not the island where the shipwrecked survived living on roots, berries, and a few fish, not the dinky raft on which he left this place of solitude, not the hole made by the poorly mounted mast which caused his craft to sink. Nor is it the equator where he was rescued by a boat commanded by a captain dressed in a navy shirt, the vessel further occupied by a woman with a child at her breast and two sailors in whose coats silver buttons shone like dry chilly ice. Zero is not God.

When Poe, in “X-ing a Paragrab,” had John Smith, decamped in Nopolis, ejaculate, Why, the fellow is all O!, his assessment of Mr. Touch-and-go Bullet-head was not worth null and nothing. And although in some northern parts of the world students are said to “nullify” their new colleagues during the first few weeks of the fall semester, and electricians everywhere do the same, it is claimed, when they ground the wall socket, their activities are neither the same nor nothing. Zero is not what is not found under the bed of a child fearful of the dark, the indentations made by high heels on semi-soft rugs, or the teeth’s unevenly folded imprint in an unfinished cheese sandwich. It is not the grainy aftermath of Krapp’s last tape, the silence gradually emerging when the train leaves the station, or the tunnel under the river through which its squeeking procession of cargo and commotion passes while above it a raft without mast is sinking. Odysseus’s homecoming to Ithaca does not signify zero, although his name begins with the letter with which it is often conflated, and although he called himself Nobody to avoid the Cyclop’s gluttonous hunger. Zero is not its own final o, losing itself in concentric void. Neither is it the giant’s single eye, nor the slippery hole after it has been put out, melting down the cheek like sluggish tears. Zero is not the candle burned down to the warm sludge in the middle of a holder or Ophelia’s lap where Hamlet wanted to rest his head. And it surely is not the dark crater appearing when an oak is uprooted from its slope during violent autumnal storms, or the empty envelope opened by Mr. Null on an incongruous Sunday (not nil, not void). Least of all is it the loop performed by a trapeze artist courting deadly danger before his hands clasp those of his partner, not naught either.

Zero times zero does not constitute the number of circles in Dante’s inferno, the buttons on an elevator panel, the rings that glasses may make, or flat bicycle tires, the retinal imprint of light bulbs when eyes are closed, nipples without baby mouths, or baby mouths without nipples. They are not the wiry spirals in a notebook, hollow cheeks, ice cube containers without water, or for that matter the word without in iterations without end. Neither are eggs, coins, or crowns null and naught, nor ears, testicles, nor solar eclipses. Zeros are not buttonholes.

The point — certainly not null — is obvious. A catalogue of everything zero is not remains inexhaustible, because even if we would succeed in writing down all the possibilities, listing each detail, every aspect, any item, which zero is not, ourselves included, the list itself would remain — also if we were to include it as the last article before the end. Which is to say that no matter how detailed the catalogue, and it must claim exhaustiveness, it cannot provide us with an empty quantity, and thus cannot be null. It falls outside itself like the rings left by a skittish stone skidding across shallow water. Zero is not zero is . . . not . . . zero is not . . . Still, the number is clever as a car dealer in hiding this one true fact about itself, for if we formulate our understanding mathematically — writing, say, 0+0+0+ . . ., or for that matter 0-0-0- . . . — the result would nonetheless remain =0. In the manner of Russian replicants our null is hiding the zero which it is not under the generous hem of its copious skirt.

At most, we may thus infer, squinting askance, zero is its own division, all double and naught, without it however being able to ascertain such truth by straightening out and insinuating itself as the thin slash separating two voids. Like that sign signalling percentage. Or closed scissors, say. (But more indecent metaphors could easily be concocted here.) King Lear — an O without figure, a nothing — was not able to fathom such truly odd equation, which, as we know, cost him everything, including kingdom, wit, and sight. Toward the end of Shakespeare’s play, this un-figure tries to appeal to Cordelia’s heart by evoking a family fantasy as suspect as the metaphor we just chose to pass over: a “prison” where the two of them alone, like “God’s spies,” “shall sing like birds in a cage.” Lear dreams of a place not to be found in any geography, alien to maps, missing in all topographies. A cell behind the heavy bars of things (I I I I I I). It is a site in want of a site, cloistered from tumultuous reality, inaccessible to the tentacles of power, spared the dismal decay of time. At this place of double removal, father and daughter may live in untouchable irreality. Hence: a gray zone, most akin to a spectral abode where things happen “comparatively,” to use the term C. contrived for himself. In this involute space (yet another article on our list, this time the o housed in every void), Lear believes he will be able to live with Cordelia as secret agents and divine representatives — that is, as signs for signs. Finally, Shapesphere, as Finnegans Wakeaddressed him, has Lear understand the uncanny quality defining the “nothing” he has become. But too late; Lear is, in Krautspeak, leer.

Pages 77–87.


“In Aris Fioretos’s odd and beautiful essay about grayness, its shapes and secrets, the richest of contents is extracted from this color of dearth and boredom.” — Allt om Böcker

“He writes with elegance. The style is both winding, searching, and utterly self-conscious . . . There are purely lyrical passages, many beautiful sections, and deft transitions in the text. At times, its lyrical, associative flow is interrupted, just in order to take a new turn and gain another cogency. Aris Fioretos is not afraid. He obviously knows what he is doing when publishing a book like this, so seductive and well-written, arguing against all narrow strictures of genre, yet anchored in solid theory. The reading turns kaleidoscopic, stimulating in abundance . . .” — Pär-Yngve Andersson, Motala Tidning

“Fioretos has written an essay as beautiful as poetry.” — Nina Björk, Helsingborgs Dagblad

“If you have dealt with books for a long time, it is almost unavoidable not to be enthused by Fioretos’s rhapsody in gray. . . . Despite his sharp ear for dissonance, he seems to me an extremely talented hunter for correspondences, in search of mysterious harmonies between sounds, colors, figures, and flourishes wherever they may be detected. . . . One has to consider the para-littérateur happy.” – Anders Cullhed, Dagens Nyheter

“He offers readings which are absolutely dizzying in terms of erudition and speculative acumen. . . . With Den grå boken, Fioretos enters the domain of poetry. The result is literature at the highest level.” — Carl-Henrik Fredriksson, Göteborgs-Posten

“. . . if one is attracted by Aris Fioretos’s elaborate style, so abundantly full of images, his book offers an almost bottomless source of inspiration and knowledge.” — Gabriella Håkansson, Sundsvalls Tidning

“[Book of the year] You have heard about food eroticism, but pencil pornography, what could that be? It is when everything that is gray, always associated with ennui and death, suddenly appears as sexier than banal colors. Aris Fioretos has succeeded in making this lamented non-color so delicious that you want to sink your teeth into it, wrap your tongue around it . . . Book of the year.” — Ulrika Kärnborg, Idag

“[Book of the year] Aris Fioretos, The Gray Book. This is the only book this year which has given me palpable, indeed physical, pleasure.” — Nina Lekander, Expressen

“. . . a tour de force . . .” — Jesper Olsson, Östgöta-Correspondenten

“. . . a rare, almost incomparable book . . .” — Mikael van Reis, Ord & Bild

“A bright, shining star.” — Björn Sandmark, Bohusläningen