In the Absence of Blanchot

Reading the Remove of Literature,
Nick Thurston
[287pp, £19.50, Information As Material,]

Reading the Remove of Literature is unlike any book I've looked at. I've read it too but the looking at it is the first essential. With all but a few books one reads without consciousness of seeing. Nick Thurston's book demands that one look at it constantly and never detach the seeing from the reading - and yet it is only marginally what we generally describe as a 'visual text'.

The first words of Craig Dworkin's introduction set the scene: 'The book you are holding is an edition of Maurice Blanchot's L'Espace littˇraire
, although not a word of Blanchot's text remains. Every page of this book has been assiduously erased by Nick Thurston. At the same time, Thurston has preserved his own marginalia, reset in the face and fonts of the original text.' To be yet more precise: it is an edition (if it is an edition - this is one of Thurston's challenges) of a translation of Blanchot's book by Ann Smock published by the University of Nebraska Press in 1982. Of course I'm being pedantic but not without point: the act of translation has already made one 'remove' from Blanchot's text and this is the locus of Thurston's entirely more radical remove. It needs saying too that Thurston has not erased every detail of his source. He preserves the section-, chapter- & sub-headings which therefore serve as landmarks in the general erasure and take on additional, sometimes eerie significance. The italic subheading 'The Young Kafka' for example floats alone as if in zero gravity in the white void of page 66. Thurston also preserves two details which belong to the design of his source rather than to Blanchot's text, the page numbers and running headers - so that above the void surrounding 'The Young Kafka' we read '66 The Work's Space and its Demand'. But these residua aren't usually so telling; they are mostly simply there, sometimes crowded by marginalia which refer not to them but to deleted text. Without them the reader would be lost. Thurston has been very careful in this regard as in many others. He knows about readers because he is self-confessedly 'the reader', as much as author, himself. And he needs 'the reader' in order to raise his questions not only about Blanchot and L'Espace littˇraire but about the conventions and transgressions of the codex.

And so, faced with Reading the Remove of Literature
, what should 'the reader' do? The principal options are mutually exclusive. One is to read it alongside the Nebraska edition and relate Thurston's annotations to their source text. The other is to read it exactly as presented, without outside reference. The first option will be in effect to regard it as a commentary, the second to see it wholeheartedly as an edition. I choose the second option, believing that to take the first would obscure what Thurston has done. I last read Blanchot twenty years ago; I remember the thrust of his work but little detail. The reader who knows nothing of Blanchot will be in a different position although Dworkin's introduction will help. Among several quotations from Blanchot he offers 'to write is to produce the absence of the work'. This one statement will do. With it in mind anyone will wonder whether Thurston hasn't produced a 'mere' jeu d'esprit, a kind of visual pun on the word 'absence' extended over 287 pages. I'd be quite happy myself to regard it as such but I think he achieves more than that.

The phrase 'the space of literature' offers several meanings but let's take it in its most mundane sense, as the space in which literature literally
appears, usually the pages of a printed book and in particular the area its margins enclose. This latter space in Thurston's book is sometimes wholly or largely blank but more commonly occupied by areas of horizontal lines. Were these once underlinings? Probably, although they now underline blank space. But for all the reader knows they may be cancel lines, now cancelling the same blank space. If they are underlinings we assume that Thurston as reader has marked passages he regards as particularly significant, perhaps agrees or disagrees with. And yet he may have been cancelling sentiments he thinks had been better not expressed. In either case these apparently unmeaning horizontal lines constantly remind us of the gesture which made them and we recognise in them the dedicated passion of a reader now as palpably absent as the text he has erased.

It is a different case with the marginalia which more forcibly assert an intervening presence at the same time as they remind us they are former
interventions, penned into what were once the only free spaces of the book - margins and interlinear spaces - and now transcribed and typeset; interventions of a former presence and imperfect too, for many of these remarks have been cropped at the page edges so that some whole words together with the ends of many more and odd fragments of their letters have disappeared into as it were the outer space of literature, where perhaps there is no literature, or literature specifically does not belong - and yet in most cases we can 'read' these missing words and know very well what they say and mean: as it turns out literature is very capable of such travelling in outer space, whether we mean by 'literature' the finer arts of writing or words written down for some other purpose or sheer fun. The term 'marginalia' is entirely neutral in this respect although it is surely not to Nick Thurston's purpose to offer his annotations as literature in the grander sense. Reading the Remove of Literature will be largely regarded in the genre of the 'artist's book' and yet a display of its artistry would be self-defeating.

The reviewer's difficulty is that Thurston's marginalia are of such specific shape and placement that they will be significantly altered if lifted for quotation. Thurston has already refused such alteration, choosing to reproduce them as they were originally recorded - they are squeezed on the pages at erratic and awkward angles, they disappear off the page or into the gutter, they are sometimes written around the textual residua with pleasant confusion; they overlap and are juxtaposed, their significance enlarged by contiguity; arrows are drawn to connect one with another, creating an indefinable syntax as they navigate the page, and sometimes the arrows point to drawn circular or oval rings which have transmuted into tiny empty speech bubbles. The remarks vary from stray reflections and queries (ranging from 'Q: writer + reader relate differently to this absence?' to the imponderable 'Q: What defo?') to densely-argued comments which in the context, or lack of it, sometimes seem maddeningly indeterminate; they ghost the deleted text as a perpetual reminder that this is an edition, of sorts, of an absent writing which proposes absence as the condition of its composition - in the face of which they delight in their own irregular presence. But they cannot be abstracted without damage from the pages they belong to: they demand to be seen in only that place in which they are visually embedded and embodied. If the textual angularities are sometimes reminiscent of the crafted poems of Susan Howe the resemblance is superficial. Thurston's text is unmediated by aesthetic or editorial decision - the typography approximates as best it can the impatience and imprecisions of the note-making hand and we feel its urgency, its sprawl and scrawl. A remark on page 242 reflects 'The work cannot be aestheticised - it is not principally aesthetic in it's (sense of) self'. There are words which are occasionally misspelt ('abssence' loses its double 's' after its first appearance), some regularly ('nihlistic', 'shaddows'), some gloriously ('voiceferous', 'invisbible'); some are clearly momentary slips of the pen happily preserved, such as  'death must over come me + I must be billing to enable that song'. There's no doubting Thurston wrote these remarks on a particular copy of a book and fitted them where he could: now they are documented in that fitting and the writer/reader is no longer present.

So that we the readers are left to read his reading. To view these full and empty pages. To smile or to fear or to puzzle. To turn this book around in our hands (since it cannot be read from one fixed angle) and consider what kind of codex it is which so announces absence in its physical presence. To look at its speckled fore-edge, the telltale traces of a text breaking out of its prison. We no more know what Thurston thinks about his marginalia than we know the extent to which we are reading or 'reading' Blanchot. Any of these pages may be seen as a figure of the unstable 'I' in relation to a world as indifferent to its real or imagined existence as to its written and unwritten reflections. How much is 'subjectivity mine to decide'? Sometimes Thurston clearly paraphrases and elaborates but he also likes to quarrel with his source. In one place 'then logically, so is falsehood', in another 'could still live in absolute despair'. For some reason I particularly enjoy the little bent arrow on page 38 pointing to the words 'surely it couldn't'.

The book has its temptations. Sometimes I want to draw all over these erased pages, maybe stick in some bits of collage. Or, in response to the marginalia, fill it all in with new text - and then, having erased the marginalia, publish this as a reprint. But suppose I then finally look at the Nebraska edition -  and let's not forget Borges' man who wrote Don Quixote
- I may discover I'm the author of L'Espace littˇraire.

         © Alan Halsey 2007