Romantikus erector – Diane Williams
Translated by Niclas Nilsson
Ord & Bild Number 2012:4
By Torbjörn Elensky (Translated from the Swedish by Elizabeth Clark Wessel)
A writer, as Paul Valéry said, should be light like a bird with stability and control over its flight, not like a feather, not like a reed in the wind. Mastery is required to write with lightness without becoming trivial. There is a kind of everyday prose that plods along, putting the reader to sleep as surely as rain on a Thursday afternoon in October, whose studied simplicity falls flat, like an uninflated balloon that falls out of its package before ever having the chance to explode. In Swedish literature, I think Hjalmar Söderberg’s Historietter (Short Stories) might be the best example of successful lightness. His short, deceptively commonplace scenes, which seem to come from the author’s own life, do not make great moral or philosophical claims, but they have the precision necessary to hold up, to take off like little sparrows. In contemporary literature I think the master in this field is the American writer Diane Williams, whose slightly more than a half-dozen fastidious collections of mostly very short stories cut straight through both the commonplace and the fantastical with razor blade sharpness.
Williams, born in 1946, didn’t start publishing until she was in her 40s. So perhaps it’s maturity that made her work so precise from the very beginning? Or perhaps her early literary efforts never reached the public? She exhibits astounding consistency in the exactitude of her wording, and in the short stories she writes, which most resemble glimpses of lives still in progress.
Her titles—examples include This Is About the Body, the Mind, the Sound, the World, Time, and Fate; Some Sexual Success Stories Plus Other Stories in Which God Might Choose to Appear; and It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature—already function like highly condensed stories in their own right. Orosdi-Back has made an important contribution by publishing Williams’ collection Romancer Erector in a translation by Niclas Nilsson.
Diane Williams’ writing is the exact opposite of contemporary, confessional muscular prose. These are short texts with a fairly concrete approach, in which the language, without losing its concreteness, slides open to include double meanings and ambiguities, which must be quite difficult to capture in translation. Niclas Nilsson has done a solid job, conveying tone, contexts, and fractures. It’s not about the fantastic, not about flowery, baroque language, nor metaphors that dissolve until they might as well mean anything. No, sharp creases and cracks, sometimes difficult to detect, modify our view, requiring the reader to rethink—once, even twice—to avoid missing the point. The break, the cut, is never put in such a way that it can truly be said to have a point, rather it creates a sense of anxiety, watchfulness, and makes me, as the reader, suspicious. The text only seems to be self-evident; it would be easy to coast right through this newly published collection without understanding much of what you have read. But the reader who finds the right rhythm, preferably a slow one, will be richly rewarded by stories with titles such as “Actual People Whose Behavior I Was Able to Observe,” “Dear Ears, Mouth, Eyes and Hindquarters,” or “The Source of Authority.” The last story contains the following passage:
It feels so unsexual to complain, but when the weather is bad, I go walking. I wander about, but I go to the lake because I believe the lake is better than I am and I want to be in good company.
The clarity of Diane Williams’ images lies so close to trite kitchen sink realism that it is easy to miss, in a first reading, what might really be going on. And, as already noted, it is from concreteness that her particular form of estrangement arises, creating deceptively simple stories that leave behind indigestible remnants, forcing you to start over, rethink, refocus and to try to uncover a deeper meaning in the whole. If there is such a thing. She also has a brilliant sense of humor, connected by wordplay and verbal short circuits. In this case, it’s not the laughter that gets stuck in your throat, but the content, the consequences.
Beyond just her own writing, Diane Williams has devoted herself, like so many American writers, to teaching. In 2000, she also founded the literary annual NOON, which publishes a great deal of the kind of contemporary American literature that’s not intensely hyped and in mass circulation the world over. One example of a recurring name there is Gary Lutz, whose work would also be worth bringing into Swedish. A new challenge for Niclas Nilsson?
Diane Williams has a kinship with Gertrude Stein; however, Stein’s texts signal their otherness with somewhat obvious devices—in a sense allowing her readers to feel secure by showing them what she’s up to—while Diane Williams’ texts slip away—her language games, not ostentatiously brilliant, might as well be everyday misunderstandings. Here there is no big fuss. The settings and the characters seem quite commonplace. The American middle class, with ordinary anxieties—some sex, of course—who eat, talk, live totally normal lives, in which the extraordinary nature of their ordinariness is slowly revealed by deviations in the text, with subtle wordplay—or is it wordplay? Much could be characterized as feminist, since Williams writes about what are usually considered typical feminine perspectives and concerns, but I would argue that the feminine perspective, if there is such a thing, is also first and foremost human, and the troubles that appear in certain passages here are human first, female second.
There is something provocative about her evasiveness, which drove me to try to nail down sentences, meanings, to weave a web of references that would place her once and for all into the literary taxonomy. What is this exactly? Riddles, puns, mysteries, maybe koans? I associate them with a writer like Raymond Roussell, who based his texts on word games, similarities of sound, and multiple meanings of words from which he built scenes into complete “novels.” But where as Roussell was grandiose and fantastic, Diane Williams is toned down and intimate. Daniil Charms’ small, everyday absurdities lie much closer, his stories, on half or a whole page, that lead to absurd and paradoxical knots. Also, there is something in her concentrated texts and in her recurrent gallows humor that resembles an updated variation on Edward Gorey’s small tales, but without the illustrations, of course.
This is a common type of violence in literary criticism, no doubt useful in the seminar, but which does not actually say anything more than Y is related to Z. In Diane Williams’ world, we are all related to each other, linked by desire, longing, eroticism, but simultaneously separated by the fact that we are all different from who we want to be, can be, and by the fact that the dream of being healed by sexuality is doomed to fail, again and again.
In some texts I see traces of the idea that human beings are animals; there is fur on the neck of several characters, hair on the wife’s arm and above her mouth. What kind of fur? Is it just normal traces of down, or is the hair trying to tell me more? Then I follow a fly, which first appears in a shop, and thus “her inclination to be angry often creeps across a plate and folds back its wings.”
From the story “Tony,” in eleven lines:
May I please have a bronze flower vessel, a vase with tiger handles, edged weapons, affine goblet and cover, a blue and white underglaze painted dish. May I please rape you?
These texts evoke our desire to understand, to decipher, to project our own little buttresses in order to augment intelligibility. The texts are extremely realistic, since they would rather expose strangeness than put things into an order and explain them. Some of these texts approach satire, but never arrive at a punch line. She creates a fertile and varied uncertainty, which opens a reader’s eyes to the weirdness of her own everyday life. Or as Williams’ writes in “Very, Very Red”:
I behave myself.
I use simple words that you can understand – the vagina of Diane, the children of Mary. There isn’t any puzzle. I could have caught sight of you I realize now.
I felt as if they were doing your fucking for you when I saw some people fucking.
Can you remember my exact words out here in the blue?
You should receive my instructions today.
More people should be reading and studying Diane Williams. Beyond this volume—which does a good job reproducing her idiom in Swedish—I’d recommend continuing on to the selected stories of Excitability, or to any of her books in the original. It would be difficult to imitate her; she is far too specific. But I think she could very well become a writers’ writer within the Swedish literary landscape. There are already so many searching and groping in this direction, towards a prose that is simultaneously tighter and lighter, more everyday, but still multilayered. Diane Williams’ work would be excellent exercise for reading, for digestion, and for motivation. Anyone who writes or who is interested in prose as an art form should spend some time with her work. But even if you don’t write, you should read her. The only thing you risk is that much of the supposedly poetic prose being published these days will seem flat after a few rounds with Diane Williams.
The real story starts on Thursday —- pungent, warming — the translucent tale.