Dara Horn on Laura Erber

Laura Erber & Dara Horn

GRANTA 121: BEST OF YOUNG BRAZILIAN NOVELISTS

Introduced by previous Best of Young Novelists


Laura Erber was born in Rio de Janeiro, and is a visual artist and a writer of short stories, essays and poetry. Her four books of poetry include Os corpos e os dias (2008), which was shortlisted for the Jabuti Award. She has collaborated with Italian writer Federico Nicolao on the book Celia Misteriosa (2007) and with artist Laercio Redondo on the video project The Glass House (1999–2008), and has exhibited her work across Europe and Brazil. Her book on the Romanian theorist and poet Ghérasim Luca is forthcoming this December. Erber is currently working on her first novel, Os esquilos de Pavlov, to be published in 2013. ‘That Wind Blowing through the Plaza’ (‘Aquele vento na praça’) is a new story. Here, as part of an ongoing series on the twenty authors from The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists issue – which was first published in Portuguese by Objectiva – Laura Erber is introduced by previous Best of Young American Novelist Dara Horn.

Do yourself a favour: do not read Laura Erber’s ‘That Wind Blowing through the Plaza’ only once. If you do, you might imagine that you’ve just read an aimless story about an artist who meets a senile old man. But when you read it again, you will plunge into a rabbit hole that leads to the looming question of the purpose of art.

Erber’s narrator goes to Romania to buy works by the actual artist Paul Neagu, a sculptor whose dance on the boundary of art and life included inventing alter egos whom he passed off as actual artists. In Erber’s story, Neagu’s works are being hoarded by a former French Cultural Institute janitor named Stefan Ptyx – whose name is an ancient Greek word referring to a folded writing tablet, and who may or may not be a double of the dead Neagu. The demented Ptyx owns a complete set of Balzac’s novels and spends his days copying them out, word for word. The novels were given to him by ‘a Mr. Barthes’ – that is, Roland Barthes, the literary theorist whose central work is a book-length copy of a Balzac story, analyzed line by line. (Barthes actually did teach in Romania, adding to the braid of reality and fiction.) Ptyx lives in the Romanian countryside, near where Prometheus was punished for stealing fire from the gods. One could write a Barthes-worthy analysis of every phrase in Erber’s story. Or perhaps that would give it no more meaning than Ptyx’s copying of Balzac in his happy resistance to mortality. Or would it?

Erber is a visual artist, and one senses here the wrenching disconnect between the physical world and art that pretends to represent it. ‘I wanted to show that language is an intensely physical force,’ Erber once wrote of her artwork. In this story, among the flies and the beets and a girl’s fragrant hair, one touches a reality that seems divorced from any artist’s glorious attempt to wrest fire from the gods. Beneath every detail is a profound and raw truth: the agony of mourning, and the strange freedom it allows. To the mourner, the world can seem meaningless, but also liberated from the burden of meaning – less grotesque than picaresque. Or as Erber’s narrator puts it, in words that seem an apt description of both art and life itself, ‘None of it made up a web of significance. Nothing guaranteed that life was more than a collection of fake men and copied novels.’

No, there is no guarantee. But in Erber’s hands, it feels real.

That Wind Blowing through the Plaza

I didn’t go for the dental treatment, or for the gypsy dancing, or for the tuicâ, or for Bran Castle. Nor did I go to settle old scores, to do genealogical searches or to buy rare copies of avanguardea literarea romaneasca. I wasn’t interested in the breeze over the Dâmbovi?a River, the nocturnal song of the strigoi or the wildlife in the Danube Delta. I went because I was asked to, and I met Martina. The bestsmelling locks in the East, the Caravaggio-esque locks of Martina Ptyx. They confused and attracted me.Was it a fetish? Maybe. But none of that matters much now. I went to Bucharest for Neagu’s boxes, I met Martina and returned with old Stefan’s things.

Last Thursday, at age 66, the
Romanian-born artist Paul Neagu,
a resident of Holloway, in the north
of London, passed away. Born in
Bucharest in 1938, he moved to the
British capital in the seventies. A fan of
bicycling, yoga and swimming, Neagu
liked to show off his enviable physical
form in arduous performances that he
had named post-apocalyptic rituals. Still,
in the last years of his life he faced many
health problems, aggravated by his
excessive consumption of coffee and
unfiltered cigarettes. In 1989, his sister
gave him a kidney. He was stubborn and
persistent: the more his illnesses spread,
the more monumental his sculptures
became. Under Victor Brancusi’s
influence – and perhaps that of his
father, a shoemaker who specialized
in women’s footwear – he moved from
painting to three-dimensional forms.
In his famous series of sculptures
Hyphen, he represented the geometric
trinity made by a triangle, a square
and a spiralling circle. He studied that
sacred geometry intensely, to the point
of believing that basic forms determine
all aspects of life. In 1969, he met
Richard Demarco, who introduced him
to Tadeusz Kantor and Joseph Beuys,
with whom he later became great
friends. To get by in London, he taught
at various art schools (Hornsey, Slade,
Chelsea, Royal College of Art), where
artists like Antony Gormley, Anish
Kapoor and Rachel Whiteread took his
classes. In 2001, he had a stroke that
affected his speech, but all the same he
continued to work and to communicate
his ideas. In 2003, the Tate did a show
commemorating the acquisition of an
important part of his body of work.
Neagu was seen for the last time on the
night of the opening with an iridescent
silk kerchief tied around his neck.

Translated by Anna Kushner.


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