Jan Svenungsson

"Hebdomeros", in: TEXT – Revue, Heft 7, 2009

In 1999, I created an unusual reading experience in a gallery in south Sweden. The installation was the culmination of my love affair with a novel, an affair that had then lasted for 13 years. When I had first read the book, I had identified so intimately with its content and tone of voice that I wanted it to become my own. I began to translate it into Swedish, and later also to illustrate it. I then became the graphic designer of my ‘book’, and instead of printing it, I wrote it out by hand on large sheets of Arches watercolour paper, interspersed with dry-mounted colour photographs. In the resulting exhibition[i] I invited the visitor to quite literally step inside the book and be surrounded by its pages, allowing all sorts of non-linear reading methods, revealing several layers of meaning at once. The 108 pages of the book were mounted on all available walls of the gallery, in clockwise order. A visitor to the gallery could read the whole book through in order, or connect between pages and words in a visual manner, or jump between pages randomly, or look at the handwritten pages as images, or look only at the photographs, or, or, or... The narrative space of the book had been joined with the physical space of the gallery. My exhibition was a grand attempt to appropriate a text that I love, and to make it mine, as much as possible, in as many ways as possible.

This text, Hebdomeros, is a surrealist novel by the Greek-Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico. It was written in French[ii] and first published in 1929 in Paris. De Chirico is one of the most influential artists of the modern era. Without him, surrealism would not have happened – and the impact of surrealism on our culture today is immense. One strange aspect of de Chirico’s case is that his “metaphysical period”, which had these repercussions, lasted only a few years, until about 1917. Then he began to change his style and his thinking. He was only 29 years old. Something happened to him at this time: he was beset by doubt, he needed to reaffirm his belief in art, he started looking for his national roots... As a result he changed, and art history has given him bad marks for this ever since. By the mid-twenties, he found himself in the odd situation of being, while still relatively young, both revered as a father figure by the most exciting avantgarde movement in Paris – and at war with that very same movement, who didn’t like his further development. At one time when de Chirico showed new work in a gallery, the surrealists mounted a concurrent exhibition in another, with old work by de Chirico. It must have been a terrible situation to experience. What was his answer? He wrote a book! In it, he brought it all together, his visual world, his ideas and understanding of life, his disappointment and anger, his sense of poetry. The book became one of the few masterpieces of surrealist literature[iii]. Even his enemies — the surrealists — celebrated it. They likened the advent of the book to sitting at the bedside of a dying man, who suddenly rises and utters a few brilliant final words.

In English translation by John Ashbery[iv], this is the opening sequence of Hebdomeros:      

And then began the visit to that strange building located in an austerely respectable but by no means dismal street. Seen from outside, the building looked like a German consulate in Melbourne. Large shops took up the whole ground floor. Though it was neither a Sunday nor a holiday the shops were closed at the time, which gave to this portion of the street a weary, melancholy air, that particular dreary atmosphere one associates with Anglo-Saxon towns on Sundays. A faint smell of docks hung in the air, the indefinable and highly suggestive odor given off by warehouses adjoining the wharves in a port. The idea that the building resembled a German consulate in Melbourne was a purely personal one of Hebdomeros’, and when he spoke about it to his friends they smiled and said they found the comparison odd, but they immediately dropped the subject and went on to talk about something else. Hebdomeros concluded from this that perhaps they had not really understood what he meant, and he reflected on the difficulty of making oneself understood when one’s thoughts reached a certain height or depth. “It’s strange,” Hebdomeros was thinking, “as for me, the very idea that something had escaped my understanding would keep me awake at nights, whereas people in general are not in the least perturbed when they see or read or hear things they find completely obscure. They began to climb the stairs, which were very wide and made throughout of varnished wood; running up the middle was a carpet; at the foot of the stairs on a little Doric column carved out of oak and joined to the end of the banister stood a polychrome statue, also carved in wood, representing a Californian Negro with his hands stretched above his head, holding aloft a gas lamp whose burner had an asbestos mantle over it. Hebdomeros felt as though he were going upstairs to visit a dentist, or a doctor specializing in venereal diseases; this perturbed him a little, and he felt the onset of something like the colic; he tried to fight down this uneasiness by reminding himself he was not alone, that two of his friends were with him — strong, athletic fellows carrying automatics with spare magazines in the pockets of their trousers. [v]

Re-reading Hebdomeros, I am always moved in a most profound way. I can’t really say why. Were I to choose five books for a desert island, Hebdomeros would definitely be one of them. I would no longer need to bring the Man Ray.

A typical characteristic of this text is the simultaneous presence of high and low. Hebdomeros feels superior towards his friends, but his stomach is nervous. Also note the precise but odd characterisation of things observed: “Seen from outside, the building looked like a German consulate in Melbourne”. This is a very telling picture in words, which nevertheless does not enable us to describe the building in any physical detail. De Chirico never visited Australia[vi]. While reading, we see the world of de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings come alive – but in a fundamentally different medium.

The hero of the novel, Hebdomeros, is a man without age or features who moves between places and in time with the freedom normally found only in dreams, but his is a waking dream. All that happens in this text has a weird sense of reality which distinguishes it from other surrealist literature. The personal traits of Hebdomeros evade exact definition: he is simultaneously sentimental and precise, enthusiastic and ironic at his own expense, a naturalist and a romantic. He loves to explain the most peculiar occurrences to his friends... and there are always friends around. In contrast, de Chirico was a notorious loner.

Is this not just fiction then, and of the most self-indulgent kind!? No, it is not that easy: the book is fiction and at the same time a kind of grand translation of the whole of de Chirico’s visual art into a verbal narrative. The text includes several subtexts, and to my mind, it is one of the most touching accounts of the experience of being an artist ever written. It is precise about a very contradictory condition, exhilarating and humble by turns. It is impossible to say where de Chirico’s irony starts or ends. Impossible — until you dare make your own decision!

...this is why I say to you, my friends: be methodical, don’t waste your strength; when you have found a sign, turn it round and round, look at it from the front and from the side, take a three-quarter view and a foreshortened view; remove it and note what form the memory of its appearance takes in its place; observe from which angle it looks like a horse, and from which like the molding on your ceiling; see when it suggests the aspect of a ladder, or a plumed helmet; in which position it resembles Africa, which itself resembles a huge heart: the heart of the earth, a vast, heated heart; I dare even say overheated, it beats too fast and needs to adjust itself. According to the predictions of a great poet who died about twenty years ago, it is the continent where the world will know its last great civilization before growing cold forever and sharing the fate of the moon. But for the moment these gloomy predictions don’t worry anybody, particularly as you all have long been involved in the difficult game of reversing time and switching your angle of vision; this may be said without flattering you, for you have always pitted your obstinacy as metaphysical seekers and the tolerant and generous nobility of your elect souls, the souls of born poets, against the mockery of skeptics. And you, who at heart believe even less in space than in time, you have always had faith in the rhythmical march which carries forward the great human races, a march which nothing can resist; you have always lived in the comforting half-light given to your cool rooms by the shutters closed against the ardor of the noonday sun, and in meditation on theorems learned by heart and never to be forgotten, like the evening prayer taught by the bigoted tutor to the wanton child.” Thus spoke Hebdomeros, and his disciples, who had been joined by several sailors and some local fishermen, listened to him in silence; but they pressed more and more closely around him and he was obliged finally to do as Christ did in the same circumstances on the advice of an apostle: he climbed onto a boat moored by the shore and, standing on the prow, continued his inspired discourse. Far off, behind the hills overlooking the town to the east, the first paleness of the dawn was creeping chastely into the sky.[vii]  

Back in 1986, when I had begun reading Hebdomeros and settled into the peculiar character of this text, I noticed something strange happen: the text came alive, and its action became visible. To me, it was like seeing a film being projected on the inside of my eyes, so convincing, because dense with detail like life itself. I became engrossed with the text and wanted all my friends to read it, but none of them spoke French (I didn’t know of any English translation at the time[viii]). I had to translate it myself. I started — and it soon developed into an obsession. I produced several versions of the full book text, none of them really good. I took a break for a few years, then took up the project again. I travelled to the city in Greece[ix] where de Chirico had spent his earliest childhood to photograph invented ‘traces’ of the book’s action and scenery. Finally, I ‘published’ my illustrated and translated version of this book in a three-dimensional exhibition in which you could finally move freely between the pages of this great adventure. A multiple transformation had taken place, from de Chirico’s picture sources to his text, from his text in French to mine in Swedish, from the imagery contained in the words of his text to precise photographs in my ‘book’, and finally from the space betwen letters to real physical space between readers. None of these connections or translation layers are verifiable in any rational sense – they all depend on our intuition for confirmation that they are exact.

De Chirico attempted to create an art in which ideas and enigmatic philosophical concepts take on visual form. Then, one day, he decided to take another step and render again, in words, a version of this world which he had introduced and let grow in a visual form. The art historian Gerd Roos is working on a study in which he shows that for almost every part of this text visual sources have been precisely quoted. Paintings and postcards. A vision evoked is in reality an image remembered. In this sense (as in many more), de Chirico is a precursor to post-modernism.

Another connection to the visual is the way we read information in a picture simultaneously... in Hebdomeros, there is no respect for common logic and the integrity of time and space. At the same time, the text is implacably precise in the logic of its details – which is an attitude I’m happy to identify as an artist’s privilege.

We see Hebdomeros move through space, imaginary or almost real, as an incarnation of the ideal artist with access to all layers of society and all layers of knowledge. His heroic stance becomes possible (or rather, becomes attractive) through his ever present awareness that the distance between sublime greatness and ridicule is always much smaller than we would like it to be. As he points out the way with surprising clarity, Hebdomeros is touching, and he is one of us – the marvelous lies latent within all of us!

In this text, I find a kind of moral imperative which says that you may talk about anything, in any manner, as long as you do it with a maximum of precision.

Jan Svenungsson