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common place

:::: Learning to travel is another way of saying learning to read. (37)

there:::: For five months at the beginning of 2013, Lance Olsen was a visiting fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. [[there.]] is an account of that period.

:::: It is a book about place.

:::: It is a commonplace book.

:::: It is a more or less diary account of his stay in Berlin combined with a variety of apposite quotations, apercus on various subjects, memories of other journeys. He describes it as “a constellation of sense, thought, memory, observation, fast fact scraps” (10). It’s a fair description if not necessarily an exhaustive one.

:::: Travel stories are a mode of telling that forces others into non-attention. (73)

:::: It is tempting, in writing about this book, to fill the space with quotations. Quotations of quotations. The lines are sharp; mostly they bring things into focus, mostly we nod in agreement. But quotations of quotations of quotations …

:::: The book is made up of a sequence of short passages, each introduced by ::::, one of two new punctuation marks he introduces in the book. :::: is for “not-being-at-home”, for “what cannot be articulated accurately”. (28) It is a book of inaccurate articulation, or of accurate inarticulation. That is what travel does, what not-being-at-home does. But we’ll come to that later.

:::: The passages are short. Many are just one or two lines. Few are longer than three or four short paragraphs.

:::: If an idea is started in one passage, it will not be continued in the next one. There is always at least one intervening digression. It is a book that is intentionally not straightforward.

:::: The other punctuation mark he introduces is [[    ]] “for what must be removed from the chronic to be experienced”. (29) The disjunctions, the liftings, the musings, the asides are all out of time. But does out of time mean timeless?

:::: Sometimes, what makes most sense is also what is funniest. “In a U-Bahn station: someone spray painting across the filthy tiled wall: Question everything. Beneath, someone else spray-painting: Why?” (97)

:::: But if [[there]] is [[Berlin]], as we may assume, a city removed from the chronic, there is another, less easy, resonance of the double square brackets. For it encloses, cuts off, marks a sharp dividing line like a wall. If we remove time from the picture, then Berlin is always the city enclosed within the Wall, a wall whose breaking down constantly echoes through this book.

:::: And Berlin’s other past is never absent. They are on the shores of the Wannsee. Across the lake they see the villa where, 71 years before, Reinhard Heydrich organised the conference that put the banal bureaucratic seal on the Final Solution. Olsen’s wife, Andi, takes a photograph at the same time on every morning of their stay. Ostensibly this is to capture the extraordinary and ever-changing light of their new surroundings, but in reality, they come to realise, it is to mark what remains after that Conference.

:::: It’s always Stunde Null, Zero Hour, in Berlin. (46)

:::: The twin totalities that embraced the city in the twentieth century seem to be replicated here in the twin brackets that embrace the title city and remove it from time.

lance olsen:::: We look over his shoulder at the books he is reading during this period: Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, Kafka, Nabokov’s Lolita.

:::: We meet the writers he has met: David Foster Wallace, Jeff Eugenides, Larry McCaffrey.

:::: We recall other travels, to Finland and Cambodia and Kenya.

:::: We attend exhibitions and concerts, give readings, chat with fellow fellows over meals.

:::: We get glimpses of what he is writing at the time which, from the frequent references to Robert Smithson’s The Spiral Jetty, would appear to be Theories of Forgetting.

:::: In some passages, Olsen steps outside himself and looks back at a character identified only as O. There seems to be something Kafkaesque in this identification. (Kafka, even more than Wittgenstein, seems to be the abiding spirit of this book.) Yet there is nothing Kafkaesque about what befalls O.

:::: The replication of moments turning time bleary. (93)

:::: Time is another dimension of place. Place is another dimension of knowing. Knowing is another dimension of identity. Identity is another dimension of time.

:::: Reading and learning are constantly expressing in geographical metaphors: exile from knowledge, knowledge as a border.

:::: To travel is to read. To read is to be outside time. To read is to learn one’s own identity.

:::: What is the you? The I? … an ellipse of uncertainty, a space of unfurling consciousness without steady temporality, geography, identity. (76)

:::: Ellipse of Uncertainty was the title of Olsen’s 1987 book on Postmodern Fantasy. Are we here in the postmodern, or the fantastic?

:::: There comes a point in all travelling when you realise that you recognise the shops you pass, the cafes that you visit, the people that you see. It is the point when travelling stops, when you are in the place rather than passing through.

:::: Is five months long enough to be a resident of Berlin rather than a visitor to it? But it does seem to be a particularly welcoming, absorbing place. But even after five months we see it from the outside, inevitably. Though to be honest I’m not sure how much of the kaleidoscope of images and meetings and sidelong glances amounts to Berlin; much of this book is [[elsewhere]].

:::: Because … Which is to say that … How … So many of these passages begin as if we are already in mid-thought, as if we are carrying on a conversation that has always already lasted for some time. It makes the conversation as welcoming as Berlin would appear to be. But it also shows that we are getting only a glimpse, a part of the picture. Something has been going on for a long time before we got here, it will continue long after we depart. We grasp hold of the tangent as we slice past, and make of it as much sense as we are able.

:::: The tangent is what we read, it is all we see of the world, it is what we are. Olsen grabs all of these fragments and pushes them together and they are the book. A book. Part of a book.

:::: Learning to read is learning to travel, and we work always from insufficient evidence.

:::: In the end this book says what Olsen suggests all books say: “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here … aren’t I?” (109)

:::: But we have learned to distrust where or what here is. So we have learned to distrust what I am.


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