‘Ah, Ravicka. Where the bookstores are all independent, language swoops through the body, and buildings disintegrate. A city-state in flux and crisis. Belgians know about it. Citizens are disappearing. There’s still good coffee, though it’s the end of the world.
‘In her first novel of Ravicka, Event Factory, Renee Gladman constructs the city from the outside. Our guide is a linguist-traveler fluent in Ravic, the native language. She moves us through the city, using the word “yellow” to describe the air, a sickness in the air, and the emptiness suffusing Ravickian architecture. Architecture, we learn, is Ravicka’s at-risk ecology. The structures are massive, sublime, and shifty. Something is wrong; everything is OK. Our guide is nameless and perpetually walled-off, trying to read Ravicka’s ills by walking the city. She can’t seem to arrive, second-guessing at every turn her ability to report fully.
‘If you’ve ever fallen for another city and felt yourself bereft and flooded—welcome to Ravicka. What makes us most welcome here is Gladman’s linguist-traveler, able and at-sea as she navigates the city:
But there was a gesture I was to make upon entering a place that was already peopled, something between ‘hello,’ ‘sorry,’ and ‘congratulations I’m here,’ and I could not remember what it was. As subtly as I could, I bent here and there trying to jog my memory: was I to do a shake, a roundoff? I kept thinking, ‘How great it would be to enter.’ If only traveling were about showing off your language skills, if only it did not also demand a certain commitment of body communication, of outright singing or dancing—I think I would be absolutely global by now.
‘This kind of travel—running on uncertainty, fluency, and vulnerability—makes Event Factory wildly engaging. Gladman’s linguist-traveler puts in mind another rare contemporary travelogue, Awayward by Jennifer Kronovet. (A disclosure: Kronovet is a friend of mine.) In Awayward, a linguist-traveler from New York City named Jennifer learns Chinese. She goes there to live. Where reportage and narrative fail, poetry fills in. She writes:
There is architecture
and there is your view
of architecture and then
there is the house you can’t
leave: Comparison House
brought to you by English.
‘Gladman’s linguist-traveler wears a related translation-exhaustion (wonder-agony?) as she presses herself to interpret Ravicka for us, knowing full well that she can’t know. She seeks a companion (lady preferred) to help/make out with her. Some good prospects show up, including a salsa dancer in a skyscraper. No keepers, though. She can’t get her footing, entering bakeries is very complicated, and the friendly hotel concierge disappears. She’s hungry, lost, and reading. We’re reading. Where is Ravicka? The map keeps changing. What’s wrong with Ravicka? No one can or will say. The city center doesn’t reveal and field trips involving possibly sexy informants prove nothing. But something clicks when she heads toward the mountains to ask Luswage Amini, the “Great Ravickian Novelist,” what the hell is going on.’ — Elaine Bleakney
Renee Gladman and the New Narrative
Where Is the Thing We’re Chasing? Renee Gladman and Her Invented City of Ravicka
A Voice of Leaving: Renee Gladman’s The Ravickians
A Year with Renee Gladman
I Began the Day, by Renee Gladman
Renee Gladman in Conversation with Anna Moschovakis
‘Five Things Right Now’, by Renee Gladman
RENEE GLADMAN’S ‘HOUSES OF RAVICKA’
‘Untitled (Environments)’, by Renee Gladman
Audio: Renee Gladman @ PennSound
THE COMPANY THAT NEVER COMES
The Shifting Literary and Ecological Landscapes of Renee Gladman’s Calamities
HOUSES OF RAVICKA BY RENEE GLADMAN @ Strange Horizons
‘Untitled’, by Renee Gladman
from ‘Studies’, by Renee Gladman
Buy ‘Event Factory’
Prose Architectures Flipthrough
Renee Gladman « Small Press Traffic
This Side of Real: Renee Gladman’s New Narrative
Renee Gladman Reads
Zack Friedman: I’ll start things off with some comments based on Event Factory. To me, a central theme of this book was fluency. The narrator has a formal intellectual understanding of the language and culture of Ravicka, but lacks the practical understanding that comes from lived experience within the city and its traditions or the native speaker’s true facility with natural speech. I was struck by the detail that went into this—the slightly awkward or clumsy phrasing of the narrator is rendered perfectly. What elements of your own personal background with language learning, teaching, and translating (not to mention iffy tourism) went into these books? Are there certain ideas about language and culture that influenced you or that you find coming through in the books?
Renee Gladman: I wrote the first two books of the series without ever having left the North American continent. At the time of the writing, I experienced a kind of paradox. It had something to do with the filmmaker Béla Tarr. I’m not sure how to explain this. Seeing his work, in particular the 7.5-hour Satantango—as well as the work of the Polish filmmaker Kieslowski, and the Russians Tarkovsky and Sokurov—created in me some instinct of belonging. It made no sense, but at a gut level I felt that those dreary, silent, beautiful landscapes, that sense of exhaustion and isolation, were my own. I wanted to place a narrative within a possibility or convergence of those spaces. I also—and I don’t have a rational explanation for this—wanted to push it farther east. A desire began to form for places like Latvia, Croatia, Slovenia. I dropped Ravicka down, perhaps in pieces, over this entire region. Though, at the same time, not really. Something entirely different had happened. I had wanted to escape my monolinguism, so (and you can find seeds of this in The Activist) I began to make up a language that I spoke with my lover on the streets of San Francisco. I would say some words of this language and she would respond with other words, apparently also of this language. Within that exchange was the space of the city, questions of the built environment, of community, occupancy. You think long enough about something and it comes to life in some alterity adjacent to your own. Those alterities have been my fictions.
ZF: What about the presence of, for lack of a better word, genre elements in the Ravicka books? There’s a bit of a sci-fi or fantasy feel (who else writes trilogies these days?), including an invented language (although I’m going to guess you didn’t go the full Tolkien on that) and you mention Samuel Delany in the acknowledgments. I almost want to call Event Factory a social science fiction book, with the sciences being linguistics and anthropology. But you seem very rooted in literary fiction and poetry, with an emphasis on what can be done with the individual sentence. What traditions do you see yourself working with when you write about an imagined city?
RG: I definitely would prefer social science fiction to science fiction, as I really didn’t intend these books to ask deep questions about technology or bioengineering or inter-galaxy relations. Instead, they wonder about city living, architecture, language and communication, desire, and community—the same things I wonder about in my own life. It is true that the air there is yellow, but, equally true is the fact that Luswage Amini, the great Ravickian novelist, argues that “yellow” is a mistranslation of the word “dahar,” so we really don’t know what color the air is. And yes, there is an underground ancient city, but so are there underground cities in Atlanta and Montreal. I guess my resistance is that I don’t know what people mean when they say sci-fi, what it is they wish to qualify. Maybe EF is sci-fi because a black lesbian poet wrote it. That’s pretty otherworldly. My concern, the more I think about this, is that “sci-fi” or “fantasy” are applied to assuage the deep confusion and disorientation experienced by the characters of the two books EF and The Ravickians or to justify why someone might have to do a backbend in order to eat. For me, it needs to stay on this side of reality, and it needs to be pushing for physical space in this world.
As far as traditions or influences go, the emptied-out city of Delany’s Dhalgren was a portal into Ravicka. But, aesthetically, these books are more aligned with novels like Cortázar’s 62: A Model Kit, Handke’s On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House, Gail Scott’s Heroine and My Paris, Michal Ajvaz’s The Other City—city novels or novels of walking. But not stories that happen to take place in cities, rather stories where “city” is an idea toward which the author or characters reach, a kind of reflective space that leads to questions about subjectivity or time. I love these questions regardless of the atmosphere in which they’re formulated, but inside urban space, alongside buildings, traffic, transport, the encroaching crowd, the desolate part of the city, they take on dimension. I can move “the problem of the person” around as though it were a thing. Also, as a writer of the English sentence, I am very conscious of the assertion of subjectivity. You can’t get very far in the sentence without having to make a big gesture of identity. “I,” “The man,” “She”—these solids inside which a certainty is assumed to exist. I like to think of moving through the sentence (as writer or reader) as moving through a kind of terrain. The sentence is at once a map of where we have gone and where we wish to go. You can see how dropping a city over this “map” might allow one to work on a figurative level. Your question about progression can become a character itself.
ZF: I’m fascinated by your parallel between the sentence and physical space. Is the disorientation and excitement an individual sentence, made slightly “off,” can produce, like moving through a city? Does a sentence have architecture, or is there a kind of urban planning that goes into writing? What makes it physical?
RG: Beautiful questions. In a way, I feel that most of the fun is in the asking rather than the answering. Like, what happens to your mind after you think those things? But, I will venture a response. On one hand what I’m talking about is syntax, how words are ordered to create meaning, how moving through that order is a kind of unfolding, each word being a “sign” of sorts that tell us about where we are and where we are going. Punctuation affecting our pace. A few years ago, I wanted to draw a parallel between the duration of maintaining self (the always-unraveling thread of experience) as one moves through a diverse city and the becoming of “subjectivity,” particularly as one navigates difficult sentences. Now, it is more trying to see the architecture of a sentence or group of sentences, and getting from there into a drawing space, where I’m thinking of the line as translation/conversation of thought.
Renee Gladman Event Factory
Dorothy, a publishing project
‘A “linguist-traveler” arrives by plane to Ravicka, a city of yellow air in which an undefined crisis is causing the inhabitants to flee. Although fluent in the native language, she quickly finds herself on the outside of every experience. Things happen to her, events transpire, but it is as if the city itself, the performance of life there, eludes her. Setting out to uncover the source of the city’s erosion, she is beset by this other crisis—an ontological crisis—as she struggles to retain a sense of what is happening.
‘Event Factory is the first in a series of novels (also available are the second, The Ravickians; the third, Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge; and the fourth, Houses of Ravicka) that Renee Gladman is writing about the invented city-state of Ravicka, a foreign “other” place fraught with the crises of American urban experience, not least the fundamental problem of how to move through the world at all.’ — Dorothy, app
from The Brooklyn Rail
Crossing into the old city took the better part of the day when you were as hungry as we were, which was not a nutritional hunger but rather something deeply emotional. The iron of the bridge becoming stone, becoming ancient and rough as we moved along it, without having altered our course, but the world around us changing. “Eat before you leave,” was more like “forget where you have been,” because it was impossible to hold this crossing in your mind. The contemporary city did not align with this old one, which, in its preserved state, made a mess of our eyes. How could it just sit there, seven hundred years old? We clamored with our bodies to remain upright: Dar with her eyebrows, me with my pelvis, pointing at the sand-colored stone surrounding us. The bridge led to the Barabas wall, now only half-standing, the eastern side of the city exposed. It brought us to the much-celebrated threshold, where you are supposed to hold your breath, with a hand against the back of your neck as you walked through. It was not necessary to complete pareis with the customary speech about “the long and short of night,” as there were no residents here. Old Ravicka, the ancient city, was a museum.
We were alone. This was dramatic and strange. But, what was more odd was how hard we found it to take in the city visually. We walked through the gate and almost immediately came upon a wall. The back or side of a building. It was one of those situations where you could not step back to see the height of it. The sky was too low, or too far away, we could not determine. But the walls pulled you to them. Dar and I slid along the wall, looking for something. A door. A plaque. A window by which to see the vaulted chapels I had heard so much about. There were no openings, just this length of building, which Dar took to calling “The Alamai.” I did not pursue the reference. We stopped when we reached what looked like a street, perhaps an avenue that ran through the center of the dense city. It was not a street. I could not call it that. It was a side, a walkway. It could not have held traffic. The whole city was this one building, reproduced dozens of times, placed haphazardly into the ground, and what separated the one from the other were these narrow lanes. The city was a maze; it was cramped. I wanted to rub my face in it.
After a long time of sliding and squeezing ourselves between structures, we found Hos Centali, the mythologized first castle of the country. Except that it was not the actual castle we found but the exterior wall that encircled its former grounds; there was a deeper city inside, or so goes the story about castles. This meant that the labyrinth we had just navigated was once the castle’s moat. “This is not possible,” Dar argued. There were thin grooves dug into the wall that seemed to bear a message. I stepped back to grasp it, but something from the opposite building fell on my head. Dar stood to the side, trying to direct me. The space between the buildings was diminishing, the stone waking, closing in. The wall I had been reading was now inches from my face, the building behind me, against my back. I had to slither out. “I want to see the houses of genuflection,” Dar said, giving up on the wall. But getting to them would not be any easier. These houses—“cathedrals” would be the better name—had been constructed below ground; to reach them we had to find the famous staircase, which lay in the center of the stone park.
It was hard to imagine that a grass-covered clearing existed within the maze of these thirty-foot walls. The light of the day was falling. Our supply of produce was nearly exhausted, yet we were in search of this place. Something in the architecture had to give. One of the walls needed to turn away, become a courtyard, become a plaza. Lethargy began to dictate our turns; we hardly moved. We appeared to be circling the same block of streets. That feeling which attacks even the most seasoned travelers derailed our motivation. One of us went so far as to put it in words, “What am I doing here?” To which, in the case of being boxed in by dense, desolate streets, there was no answer.
Yet, the maze kept you turning until eventually you found that park, and sprinted through it beside yourselves. “Hello,” I shouted at the top of the stairs. “Hi,” I said, more calmly, as we descended into the depths.
The exquisitely woven banner of the Cathedral Sanní Almaniq hung like a painting before us. For a long time we studied it. It was real, tangible yet unmistakably older than anything we had ever seen. Touching stone is predictable, no matter how far in time it precedes you, but cloth—you cannot imagine cloth that is a hundred years older than the language you speak. Or this is how Dar convinced me, exhausted as I was, to go on standing there. “Older than these words?” I asked her repeatedly in the many dialects of the seven languages I spoke. And she answered “yes” in her mostly one. You stare at it, the cloth, hoping a breeze will lift it, but the scene produces nothing further.
“Dar,” I said some moments later.
The way that time indicates it is moving in a place where there is no sky is by the sound of the natural objects that inhabit it. Such as by the drawbridge expelling air we knew it was night.
A call came from the corner perpendicular. It went, “Gurantai!”
I answered immediately, “A ’rantai, my Cousin. Who’s there?” and turned to Dar as she opened her mouth to extend a greeting. “Achnee,” she seemed to have said.
A woman appeared in a cloak, carrying a small bell in her hand, which she tapped lightly in her approach. I had heard of this custom, but only seen it illustrated in books.
“Hep, hep,” I called as I had learned earlier.
“We couldn’t wait any longer,” she hailed in a thick accent, speaking Dar’s language. “I’m the emissary,” she continued, then clapped her hands. “No, I’m cooking,” she corrected.
“We’ve come from the outer yellow,” Dar declared in a voice far lower than usual. I elbowed her subtly. She cleared her throat and spoke again but in that same voice. She said, “Everybody talks about your depths where we’re from, but they never mention people. You know, you’re several meters below ground level, and just last year the Councils of City named . . .” And she turned to me for the Ravic. I said, “Dueles Delín.” She continued, “Named this place . . .”
The woman interrupted, “Yes. We know all of that,” and nodded compassionately. Then continued, more upbeat, “My name is (then gave a puff of air). Will you come with me?”
And that was what I had feared: she was not Ravickian and, what was worse, she used air instead of hard sound for speech.
There was an entire race of them, gathered in that cathedral. While clearly they had been there a long time, they were in no way medieval. They were moderns, if conclusively anything. Dressed in leathers and flared pants. They put a slant on the place. Talking in gaps and breaths, which Dar and I struggled to imitate. All the same, Sanní Almaniq belonged to them. In Ravicka, and apparently this place beneath, possession was gained through comprehension. We were a threat only if we knew more. Fortunately for them, the names of things that filled this cavern caused no light to turn on in me. And Dar seemed stuck in translation. They talked to us; we were fed.
The woman who had greeted us was not their leader as I had supposed but was their scout. They were trying to map the depths, which, they told us, was becoming more and more populated. From the bit of time we had spent in the square, Dar and I found this hard to believe. But the woman and some of the others (who could find their Ravic) argued passionately. They were not aliens, and this cathedral was not another planet, but remembering this took a great deal of discipline.
The food they served us did little to assist me. I would have sworn the bulky ingredient in most of the courses was shredded paper, which seemed to have been stewed in various dark and spicy sauces. The suspicious grinding during the cooking hour was the first thing to tip me off, but there were other signs, such as the minute scraps of letters that one found occasionally in the grated “cheese.” They did reside below ground; there was no sky. That their menu did not include meat or vegetables should not have surprised me, nor that the food was actually delicious and the ritual that organized our eating mystifying. That first night, they honored us by reading from “the great manuscript” written by someone whose name sounded like “Fooshu Uh Uh Ja(click),” and who, they insisted, was not their leader, but a friend they had long lost. The recitation was punctuated every minute or so with a round of backslaps and one person every ten minutes grabbing an empty plate from the center of the table, walking 180 degrees to the other side of the table, replacing the plate, then usurping the chair in front of her, requiring all in attendance to move over one. Going through the machinations brought out the athlete in us. We ate deep into the night.
By the end of our first week with the Esaleyons (I actually never learned to write their name) I had secured a space of my own in their upper studios. Though I had not come to Ravicka with any anthropological purpose—I studied languages, not people—I felt rather drawn to this clan. Yet, I did not want to turn the space they had given me into an office, where I would burrow in. They seemed to feel this way as well, for I was not left alone very often. Musicians roamed the halls of the cathedral, “taking requests,” they said, and were never far from my room. As soon as I would consider taking a moment to reflect, the drums would get going, followed by the strings. Even my travel companion colluded against me, bringing me trays of food at odd hours, sometimes minutes after the conclusion of our group meals.
The Esaleyons, we found out, were at one time Ravickians. There had been a rebellion many years ago, and a small group left its former race to become these new folks, the Esaleyons, speaking a language, Esaléye. This, of course, was not a first for human existence, but something in the way they lived, perhaps it was just how gymnastic they were—even the older people—something in how they occupied this space enthralled me. I could not control how much I stared, nor could I close my mouth. Events had found me, and I wanted someone, at the very least Simon, to know about it. However, bringing something back proved difficult. Listening to them was like gathering water without a pail. They never ceased explaining the shape and nature of things, but did so in too twisting a narrative to become memorable. Water gathered around my feet. I tried to capture it with my mind. I asked Dar to hold some. But it was water. Water you cannot hold. I looked around: everything filling that space shone magnificently, shining with this or that iconic power—old and extraordinary and arranged completely out of sync with time.
Yet, what words besides “old” and “extraordinary” can I use to describe life there? And were I to write the description in the language of these hidden people what symbol would I use to represent air? You would want to listen to this language. I am sure of this, because to hear a person speak in gaps and air—you watch him standing in front of you, using the recognizable gestures—opening the mouth, smiling, pushing up the eyebrows, shrugging the shoulders—and your mind becomes blank as you try to match this with the sounds you hear. An instinct says tune it out, but something deep within fastens your attention. Your mouth falls open. You taste the strangeness; you try to make the sound with your mouth. That is speech. Now, how do you do this in writing?
p.s. Hey. If you’re in Paris by chance, please come to the premiere of PERMANENT GREEN LIGHT tonight, 8 pm, Cinéma L’entrepôt – Lieu secret, 7 rue Francis de Pressensé, Paris 75014. We’re ready to celebrate because this morning the film got a really great review in France’s best newspaper Liberation. Here if you’re interested and speak French. ** David Ehrenstein, Is Ludlum’s partner Everett Quinton still alive? He staged Ludlum’s works after his death for some years, but seemingly not for a while now. Doris Day seemed like a really good egg. Well, Tim having those kinds of feelings for Roman is definitely not in the film’s intentions and schematic. But the way the film is laid out, and given that the film’s disinterest in all but one of the character’s interest or lack thereof in romance and desire results in a blankness and openness that doesn’t try to ward off interpretation, people personalising what’s going between the characters is fair game. I’d never heard of ‘Nice Girls Don’t Explode’. Ha! And with Wallace Shawn, no less. I’ll investigate. Thank you. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hey, Ben. Awesome. ** Dominik, Hi! Welcome back! Well, to the blog at least. A heavy heart, oh, sign of an amazing time, but, yes, painful on the rebound. Do you have thoughts of moving to Prague? Is that realistic or feasible or just wishful thinking? But, yes, how great that you had a totally splendid time! Boy, you deserve it! I’m good, kind of crazed because PGL premieres tonight and opens in France tomorrow, and I’ll be spending the rest of this week traveling around presenting the film in a couple different cities and then in Paris again on Friday. So, kind of stressful. But it looks good. We’ve gotten mostly great reviews so far! But there’s not much else happening in my life or head at the moment. I wish you could be there tonight! But have a fantastic Tuesday whatever you do! xo, me. ** Kyler, Hi, K. Great that you were able to see a lot of Ludlum’s work. I knew him personally just a little bit. He was a riot. ** Armando, Hi, man. Yeah, no, it’s just nuts at the moment with the film’s release eating everything else except this blog, basically. I would never deny Bresson’s huge influence on everything I do. And I totally understand seeing ‘LDP’ and ‘PGL’ as a couple. It’s just that, being inside/behind our film, I see the differences more than the similarities. I’m happy you’re liking Palm Springs. I haven’t been there since, jesus, decades and decades ago. Will you go to nearby Joshua Tree or other more deserted places around there? Enjoy it all! ** Misanthrope, Hey, G. Well, 16 hours over two days ain’t bad. Sure, I’ve stayed in a fair amount of AirBnB. Personally, I’ve never had a bad experience and mostly quite surprisingly excellent experiences. I would go for it. For sure. Did you make chapter headway, one hopes? ** Steve Erickson, Hi, Steve. Thank so much again! It was a trip! Cool, I look forward to the youtube playlist. I’m most curious to discover your selection. ** Corey Heiferman, Hi, bud. Very cool post-related links. I’m not Steve, but I’ll go encroach and scour them anyway. I don’t know the Jeanines. Huh. I’ll click that link as soon as I click the publish button. Thanks! And for the premiere luck! Nerve-wracking of course, but it should be good. A Eurovision follow up post is totally A-okay, of course. Another thank you! Oh, when I was a teen I was pretty into my gold Schwinn 10-speed bike and rode it all over the place and even great distances that I can’t believe I did, you bet. And I often think of grabbing one of the rental bikes here in Paris and tooling here and there, but I haven’t. But I will, gosh darn it. Happy Tuesday! ** Okay. Today I’m, spotlighting a book by one of my very favorite younger fiction writers, Renee Gladman. It’s the first book in her sequence of ‘Ravicka’ novels, and it (and they) are really incredible, so, obviously, I urge you to check into the post if you don’t already know her work, or, of course, if you already do. See you tomorrow.