05 April 2012

Thirty-Five New Pages

Thirty-Five New Pages
by Lev Rubinstein
translated by Philip Metres and Tatiana Tulchinsky
Ugly Duckling Presse,  2011.

Reviewed by P. Nelson

Many of us recall the careful little Emperor from Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus”, who encountering a baffling scene in Mozart’s operatic rehearsal, tactfully inquires “Is it modern?” That no one today asks the question testifies to the success (and also the failure) of the great modernist project. In an age of reactionary finance and Tweety Bird attention spans, who, aside from aesthetic antiquarians, academic row-hoers and the tabula rasa’d young, takes Picasso, Stravinsky, Joyce or Le Corbusier seriously, however much we admire their energy, wit and nerve? (The Villa Sovoye is a very clever structure but you wouldn’t want to live there. Almost no one has.)

But if these great monuments of modernism stand as carefully preserved barely ruined choirs, there is the still active and vital, like nibbling mice, other modernist motif of refusal, obliquity and off-beat critique, a movement whose particles continue to proliferate along the cyclotron of the long 20th century, its taxonomy extending at least from Dada to Zaha  (and includes Radical Randomists, Found Objectivists, Rushing Constructivists, Situationalists, Saturationalist,  Atmanic Confabulists,  Fruit Oulipoists and Branch Derridians (a term I co-invented back in 1984 when it was already old).
Lev Rubinstein’s (the librarian and artist) Thirty-Five New Pages is placed somewhere in that spectrum. This device for reading consists of thirty-five 3x5 inch cards (with a colophon card) of the type:
The major integerial presentation, with the modification of a mathematical or editorial super- scripture conveys a kind of lexical authority, belied by the subordination of the rather gnomic (Gnostic?) text in red ink. These elusive/allusive propositions, proposals of what should appear, are linked / generated via a loose bell change effect, a not quite continuity of phrases that suggests but doesn’t constitute a continuum. Card 35 (which we won’t spoil) is a surprise ending-or is that a beginning? So what does this rosary for reading do, apart from looking nice and feeling good in the fingers? Well, it would violate the spirit of Rubenstein’s project to tell you what. (But questions come readily to hand : what is reading? Narrative? The frame of art?) Suffice it to say, after reading a hundred conventional chapbooks—“man passing misery to man” (Sophocles or was that Larkin?) Thirty-Five New Pages comes on like a crisp cracker after predictably acrid wine. And some credit, surely, to the translators who midwife us to the humanity and clarity of Rubinstein’s desiderata.

The folks at Ugly Duckling Presse are always turning out hard to pigeon hole objects that make you think.  I recommend their work (and website) for its interest and stimulation Theirs is a risky enterprise; they are surely more aware than me how the radical object can easily transmute, via reverse alchemy, into just another bit of conceptual bric- a-brac.
P. Nelson is a librarian and the pseudonymous author other of, among other things, “Distractions”(1980)  a novel written on twenty 3 x 5 file cards, designed for reading and shuffling.