A performance usually begins with an entrance, perhaps your own, perhaps that of the performer. One enters a theatre. One enters a stage. One enters a gallery. In this case, the work begins with an entrance to the library – the Islington Central Library to be precise. As an academic, I enter libraries quite frequently – the British Library, the National Arts Library, the Courtauld Institute Library. My relationship with books is quite formal, we don’t affect each other the way we used to. It is a strange pleasure. Books and words fill my mind, not often the space around me.
However, Mette Edvardsen’s piece Time Has Fallen Asleep in the Afternoon Sunshine does something different. Mette, herself, or with the help of participants, attends to bring books to life. I used to memorize poetry and prose this way when I was younger, in school. For me it was a fascinating and rewarding task, while most of my classmates cringed at the thought. It was a strange feeling of testing your memory as well as embodying stories, words, rhythms. I ate poems alive, I spat them back out. This rudimentary educational tool has long disappeared from my life, as it has, I imagine from the lives of many adults. And it isn’t only the fault of technology oversimplifying our lives, it is also a matter of ritual. It is vastly a matter of finding space, context, and an audience. How often does one attend informal salons or reading groups if one can barely find time to read? Gone are the moments of gathering around a book to hear its story travel through space and occupy the time alongside our bodies. Perhaps, this enigmatic piece is an attempt to recuperate that social encounter and experience between two bodies and a text between them?
As Rosemary Lee read a selection of Collected Poems by Michael Donaghy to me in a rustling corner of the library, the shuffle of our bodies carefully settling into our chairs, my mind started to drift. As words poured into space, my imagination let them surround the space around me. Other visitors passed by. I think there was some repair work being done on the ground floor. It mattered less than the intimate closeness to another human being allowing me to feel the rhythm of her spoken word. It was Donaghy’s words, but through Rosemary’s voice they seeped closer. As Lee stumbled, I noticed the brief moments of polite surrender to the failures of memory. We would re-adjust ourselves, we would gather our attention – Rosemary to her memory, mine to her presence. I wondered, in the meantime, what the words that were being spoken meant. I wondered how it could be possible to sit and listen to poetry all day, I wondered some more until it was time and I had to let Rosemary go. Books don’t happen this way often.
My anticipation grew for the next reading. Elly Clarke would give me a new experience of Oscar Wilde. It was The Nightingale and the Rose by Oscar Wilde. A silly, tragic love story as Wilde has liked them. A tale of pride, contempt and innocence. Elly’s was a tender touch. She echoes a certain Victorian sadness in her delivery and manner. I tried my best to not let these words soak into my already affected being, so I thought of the circumstances that brought these works and people together. I thought of constellations of chance meetings, of conversations and correspondences, of miles traveled, of time passed and moments gained. As the bloody rose was crushed under the wheel of a car and Elly and I lamented the crushing waves of technological change, my heart sunk a little for having lost so many simple traces of being – spoken poetry, memorised phone numbers, being able to navigate and wander through uncommon cities, or the smell of stillness of an early morning on my first day of grammar school. Walking out of the library, I raced to search for moments to fill my heart with memories. Like the words of Wilde or Donaghy that have been briefly and intensely alive, so was I.
“I am Aesop, Aesop’s Fables”
Time. It takes time for me to settle in to a listening mode. The tales are short, the morals sure, and I miss the first few whilst I get used to being spoken to directly by a person, a stranger sitting opposite me. The only things I have room to take in during the first few minutes are the tone and rhythm of his voice, the details of his face, his posture, the way he moves his hands. The act of watching someone remember, the stillness of forgetting, the repetition and the little quirks he uses to re-find the words, to reel the story back in.
At first the more I try to make myself hold onto the meaning, the more difficult it is. But I get there. It doesn’t take long before I settle in and sit back and am able to listen. We both start to take our time more and relax a little. It feels a surprisingly straight-forward relationship. I even like him checking the time on his mobile phone and looking to his notebook if he looses which fable comes next. And there are a lot of fables. I hear fifteen I think, and start joining all the Lions into one very generous, loving lion, and all the hares into the same hare, and the fox who just happen to have different adventures on different afternoons. And the fables are recognisable in that way that fables are, somehow so embedded in our culture that I am also surprised when I find the morals unexpected yet entirely sensical. I feel I already know them. But that also means I may have counted them too early as lessons already learnt.
The form of the fable and the ‘books’ way of telling them make me think about oral storytelling traditions. These fables feel like spoken stories that have been written, set, and translated in order to survive the many, many years of telling. With oral storytelling the teller usually re-interprets the tale each time s/he tells it for a new audience, new time, new place. The story evolves, the story lives and multiplies. This reading is an act of memory. The specific words of the text are absorbed in to his body, re-spoken each day to keep them lodged in place, and I become aware that the rhythm of remembering written text is something subtly different. I wonder about the Koran and my Muslim school friends in East London, who at 5pm each afternoon would go to mosque school to memorise the Koran in it’s original Arabic. What happens in the memorising? What happens to the lessons of these fables once they are “learnt by heart”?
And it was a sunny afternoon, and I could look down from our point in the library at other people reading both books and people, and the quiet hush of a library on a Wednesday afternoon.
“I am J.G, Ballard, Crash and I was first published in 1973.”
Aesop’s fables felt attached somehow to an oral tradition of stories told with a social function. Crash feels noticeably literary. The words are, and always have been, written words. He ‘reads’ me the first chapter, and it has an entirely different pace to Aesop’s short, precise Fables. These are words that build and unfold, words to set a scene, words to catch you, words that repeat and layer to build a single, although complex, impression. Mostly they are words about the life and death of a charismatic man with a sexual fetish for car-crashes and an obsession with celebrity. Metal, flesh, death, wounds, penetration, genitals, spraying, spilling, leaking bodily fluids.
Crash prompts in me different questions about the function of a book. As a child and then teenager I loved books. I buried myself in novels and short-stories, barely surfacing enough to notice the sounds around me, or, if the book was really good, to bother with sleep. It still happens every now and again. It feels like a perfect form of escapism from my own mind, the possibility of diving head-first into someone else. But it is also a private relationship in some ways. A moment where the rest of the world is shut out. Here the provocative nature of the words makes me more aware of how much stranger it is to hear them said out loud. We sit in the hush of the library, tucked in a corner by the CD’s. A woman walks past to browse a near-by shelf. I become aware of his posture, of my own. I also sometimes become aware of another person ‘reading’ a different book. Yet the words are so well-written, so disturbing and so curious that I stay with them. And it is to the credit of my ‘book’ that he not only speaks word-perfectly and without hesitation, but that his way of being makes me enjoy this tension between the subject and the setting.
We talk a little afterwards, which I am unsure about whether to do. I kind of like having the experience of the book, divorced from the norms of social interaction. But then it was interesting to see the gap between him as book and him as person. I am aware of the added layer of responsibility and slight tinge of betrayal I feel in writing about a one-to-one performance. It is so much easier to distance yourself from the artist and the performer when part of an anonymous and silent crowd in a theatre. Here I am aware of myself, of my own reactions, of the non-verbal dialogue between myself and the performer.
And that I think is also what makes Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sun so strong. Last week I was speaking with Chris Meade from the Future of the Book and if:book. We were speaking about the function of the book, our relationship with books and the ways in which those relationships could be expanded now that the book is no longer necessarily an object on a shelf. “I am J.G, Ballard, Crash and I was first published in 1973″ told me that he couldn’t imagine burning his copy of Crash now, as they do in Fahrenheit 451, as he feels so attached to it, almost as a part of his body. That whilst memorising it he had it with him at all times, carried upon his person, being marked by his fingers and his life, the object deteriorating as the words became clear in his mind. In sharing it to me directly and without the physical book itself, something else became possible, new tensions became revealed, new relationships established. The advent of the digitalisation of books has perhaps also revealed the opportunity to think again about books. About the transmission of information and stories, the voice of the author and about what it is about books themselves that we want to hold onto. The live performance aspect of literature is perhaps having a resurgence. Storytelling events for adults, performance poetry nights, book readings and signings are multiplying. The Human Library. The ever-expanding, never-ending narratives on fan-fiction sites, co-written, shared, changed, commented upon. I digress. I have moved away from the work I saw today in a library in Islington, but I also feel like one of the reasons I enjoyed this work so much is that, like a very good book, it made connections in me, and sparked ideas and a wish to think and speak.