“Notes on Ann Lewinson’s STILL LIFE WITH MEREDITH” by Peter Valente

Ann Lewinson’s novella Still Life with Meredith is fantastically perverse, erudite, essayistic, and precise as a laser as it navigates high and low cultures and literatures. With the passionate eye of a critic, the narrator flirts with Lacan and Derrida and with raw sexual language. The result is a novella that is funny, bizarre, unhinged, but linguistically sharp; the words as if incisions upon the “sacred” body of traditional fiction. Lewinson’s prose is a Pandora’s box of complex ideas, or is as wonderfully strange as one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes. The narrator is exposed but partly hidden; she is open to any digression, working by connections and inner dynamics rather than logical outward progression, as if the language is leading her where it wants to go. The language is in control; but it is also a humorous and witty book.

There are all those dead birds scattered throughout the novella: still life, indeed! But I’m thinking of a bird that appears in a poem by the French poet René Char that may, in comparison, reveal something about Lewinson’s prose strategies. In Char’s poem “The Warbler in the Reeds,” the bird is able to sing her “cavatinas” only after she has vanished from the sight of the hunter’s gun and become invisible.  There is a constant element of risk and danger in exposure, and the urgent problem of the writer is to determine how much to reveal and how much to hide. Char writes, “We suddenly got too close to something from which we’d been kept at a mysteriously favorable and measured distance. Since then, corrosion. Our headrest has disappeared.” The writer must respect a certain distance between herself and us. To show too much can be deadly, as is the case with the warbler. So too, the writer must be precise and specific enough to convey the mysterious while using ellipses to counterbalance the explicitness. In Still Life with Meredith, Lewinson negotiates the terms of exposure and invisibility, and this gives her prose a kind of electric force. It teases us into its ever-expanding and contracting worlds. Down the rabbit hole we go with pleasure.

Still Life with Meredith is like a series of derailments; perspectives change, new literatures infect the text; we are not on stable footing, but here is where insights appear, where we see things not given us otherwise. Is Meredith a mirror of the narrator, who is unreliable? Is Meredith an alias the narrator assumes? Are they one and the same person? It is these kinds of strange thoughts that occurred to me while reading the novella. Like that 80s song by Fun Boy Three, the lunatics have taken over the asylum! The novella reminded me of a funhouse mirror; things are not as they appear; one thing often means another; one text suggests another; there are connections, links; the possibilities are almost infinite; “I” is an other. As in a painting, the details can slip by if we are not careful. Step back and gaze at it awhile. Bask in its delicious prose. Take it all in.

In Modern Painters, John Ruskin, the 19th century art critic, speaking of the British landscape painter J. M. W. Turner, writes:

Turner, and Turner only, would rather follow and render on the canvas that mystery of decided line, that distinct, sharp, visible, but unintelligible and inextricable richness, which, examined part by part, is to the eye nothing but confusion and defeat, which, taken as a whole, is all unity, symmetry, and truth.[1]

In a certain sense, that could be a description of Still Life with Meredith. All is not as it appears on the surface, and not upon a first reading. Like when one views a painting. Speaking of Vermeer, the British painter Trevor Winkfield writes, “And only then, if the viewer assents to the difficult task of simultaneously looking, thinking, and feeling, do Vermeer’s canvases begin to parsimoniously unfold some of their true meanings, layer by layer ….” And so we have to orient ourselves in relation to the text, as one does when gazing at a conceptual painting or assemblage of objects.

While reading Still Life with Meredith, I kept thinking of this passage from Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva: “To create a being out of oneself is very serious. I am creating myself. And walking in complete darkness in search of ourselves is what we do. It hurts. But these are the pains of childbirth: a thing is born that is.” The “I” is unstable, multiple, and identity is fluid in Still Life with Meredith, as the narrator plays with the genres of fiction and autobiography, complicating the narrative “I.” Essentially, the book is a monologue; Lewinson assumes and discards roles, cutting at the edge where gender becomes fluid; the work is performative. This is how we are in society, adopting identities, “performing” in various social situations, adopting “roles” depending on where we are or who we are with. But there are moments when we are simply outside of ourselves, and in these moments, a kind of magic is possible.

Whether speaking of writing or art, Lewinson does not accept that which is regularized, formalized, predictable, but instead values what the stories that are disregarded, tossed away, marginal, can tell us. Take the mysterious case of Marie Bonaparte, whose exploration into the nature of female orgasm paved the way for future frank discussions of sexual pleasure in psychoanalysis. In an article entitled “Passivity, Masochism and Femininity,” published in 1935 in the Journal of Psychoanalysis, Bonaparte writes:

On the one hand, then, in the reproductive functions proper—menstruation, defloration, pregnancy and parturition—woman is biologically doomed to suffer. Nature seems to have no hesitation in administering to her strong doses of pain, and she can do nothing but submit passively to the regimen prescribed. On the other hand, as regards sexual attraction, which is necessary for the act of impregnation, and as regards the erotic pleasures experienced during the act itself, the woman may be on an equal footing with the man.

In speaking about “plot” in a novel, Lewinson relates the rising, climax, and resolution of a conventional novel to the male orgasm. The narrator explains: “I’m not saying that women cannot tell good stories; but in doing so we deny an essential part of our own experience, a sexuality that is nonlinear, irregular, unpredictable.” This could be a description of Still Life with Meredith in all its nonlinear complexity, favoring digressions instead of direct exposition, and its surprising phrases and rhythmic changes, which build through association rather than logic to a female orgasm of forms or rather, anti-forms.

Lewinson’s language is not hegemonic; it freely moves around the subject, pursuing lines of thinking, prompted by literatures and concepts she inserts into her novella; the language can be characterized as containing a multiplicity of voices that become the strategic means of re-ordering thought against the established norms concerning gender, language, and the body. And we must remember that the order of things is maintained by erasure, destruction, induced lack of memory, detention, punishment; the visible, as the State, is given priority over the invisible, the migrant, the homosexual, and asserts its dominance by the use of violence; and it’s violence against women, against children, against non-white men and women, against animals, against the planet as a whole, i.e. against those whose gestures and appearance are not socially accepted and considered inferior.

The book is also a kind of satire on the academic mindset that pores through a text, deconstructing it, to arrive at provisional solutions. It has that almost scientific rigor at times. But the narrator also delights in the complexity of such digressions, the tease of the intellect—that is its sinister or satanic quality! It is ultimately an unreliable exegesis; which is not to say that it’s untrue! True and False switch places, so to speak: not and/or but Both. This ambiguity in relation to ABSOLUTE TRUTH creates the wonderful momentum and complexity of the novella. Its various byways and twisted roads lead us toward the unexpected. Expect, dear reader, traps on the way!

As Sandra Newman suggests in one of the blurbs for the book, Still Life with Meredith is a kind of decadent literature; it is in the sense that the book is against nature, against “formal writing,” which in its fake simplicity attempts to mimic reality; Lewinson’s prose is at times baroque in its complexity; it is a kind of still life with a choir of voices! And you can hear them singing! She delights in the artificial, the unreal, the unexpected. For des Esseintes, the protagonist in Joris-Karl Huysmans’ novel Against Nature, Nature has been exhausted and God is dead. Lewinson asks, “What does one paint when one can no longer paint Jesus? All that is left is capitalism.” And the only recourse for the “damned” writer is to create a world of artifice, which acts as a substitute for the banality of human existence. The world of the imagination is the only escape from the world of convention. Ultimately, though, des Esseintes is brought back to the corrupt world of convention and the reality of suffering. The time of imagination is transitory and soon its comforts are exhausted. He is confronted with reality, the world of tradition, a world he temporarily negated in favor of the world of imagination, an “artificial paradise.” Lewinson: “I used to crave experience. But all experience is futile, I know that now. You think you’re doing something new, but it’s always the same. Heraclitus was wrong—you can step in the same river twice. You have to. There’s only one river.” Des Esseintes realizes that the world of imagination is a transitory illusion and soon fades; in Still Life with Meredith, the darkening, suggestive of a kind of final understanding, comes in the form of the impending storm near the end of the novella.

But at the center of Still Life with Meredith there is the intimation of silence and immobility: the storm again. Lewinson writes, near the end of the novella:

The clouds are darkening, thickening, looming lower, suffering the gravitational pull of the earth. They are bearing down on us, me and that braying junkyard dog. They will invade our lungs, they will suffocate us, and the dog knows. He is warning me before it’s too late.

Beneath the language we can sense the scars of loss, suffering, and disorientation that the narrator experiences. The language is not able to close the wounds, and so, the storm is coming to signal a final end. But this is not necessarily a conclusion; rather the text remains open-ended, like life itself. In the end, the novella offers us not a final resolution or a sense of redemption, as in a conventional novel, but rather it is mysterious and suggestive, again like life itself.

Still Life with Meredith, by Ann Lewinson. Outpost19, March 2020. 102 pages. $10.00, paper.

Peter Valente is a writer, translator, and filmmaker. He is the author of eleven full length books. Forthcoming is a collection of essays, Essays on the Peripheries (Punctum, 2021), and his translation of Nicolas Pages by Guillaume Dustan (Semiotext(e), 2022). He’s presently working on editing a book on Harry Smith.

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[1] Ruskin used the word “truth” in two ways: he distinguished between the essence of a thing when talking about the materiality of it and the aspect of something which, for Turner, had more to do with the immateriality of objects in nature. In this essay, “truth” is used to signify this latter sense of the word.