By Edward S. Robinson
On 24th January, 2012, I learned – via Facebook, where else? – of the death of Carl Weissner. The details were sketchy, and despite the fact I’d never met him, and had only had the briefest of email exchanges with him a year or two before, I couldn’t help but feel an immediate pang of loss. On a personal level, we had only a couple of brief exchanges via email, and he had been extremely positive regarding my work on the cut-ups, which included some discussion of his writing, emailing me in his inimitable style with the remark ‘liked your chapter on Pelieu/Giorno and that snotty Kraut what’s-his-name’. More significantly, Carl’s sudden and untimely departure represented a significant loss to the literary world.
Although largely unknown, especially outside his native Germany, and certainly by no means a household name there, Weissner was one of the invisible men of literature whose contribution is perhaps hard to measure but would be equally hard to overestimate. For Carl was the man who brought Bukowski to Germany, and was instrumental in bringing Buk’s writing to a wider audience at a time when no-one wanted to know, not least of all in the US and UK. In fact, Carl translated a remarkable number of immensely important texts for German language editions, and over the course of 30 or so years, translated almost the complete works of both William Burroughs and JG Ballard, as well as books by Leonard Cohen, Allen Ginsberg, not to mention volumes of lyrics of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. Put simply, the catalogue of texts Carl translated reads like a list of the coolest and most significant non-mainstream and countercultural texts of the second half of the 20th century.
The role of the translator is often largely overlooked, but when it comes to reading a text written in a foreign tongue, a good translation can make a text, or can equally ruin it. The reason Weissner landed so much work as a translator was because he was passionate about the texts he translated, and perhaps more importantly, he was remarkably good at it, combining an extensive bilingual vocabulary with a genuine flair and a sensitivity to the nuances of the books he worked on.
Although I myself cannot read a word of German, I can nevertheless vouch for Carl’s outstanding feel for language. For despite the fact Weissner’s publishing credits are predominantly to be found on the works of other writers, he was a genuinely accomplished author in his own right. Again, in this capacity he remains largely unknown outside his native country, producing only a small corpus of German-language works in the form of Burroughs (1994), Manhattan Muffdiver (2010)and The Adventures of Trashman (2011). Yet Weissner’s contributions to literature in the English language are noteworthy: contributing to numerous underground magazines and anthologies in the 1960s and 1970s, Weissner was in many respect something of a cut-up evangelist for a time, and following So Who Owns Death TV? ,his three-way collaborative pamphlet with Burroughs and Claude Pélieu in 1967, went on to produce a number of Burroughsian texts, including the brain-sizzling cut-up novel The Braille Film (1970). A hybrid of Burroughs and McLuhan (Burroughs gave his endorsement in the form of an introduction, while the title is a reference to McLuhan), with input from countless (unwitting) collaborators, from Alistair MacLean and British United Press to Wolf Vostell, Claude Pélieu and William Burroughs.
Combining some of the most remarkable cut-up phrases with word / image juxtapositions and collage sections to distil potent images of a ‘media landscape’ (‘speeding through windtunnels of vast broken scenery coruscated jungles of abandoned machinery ruined suburbs overgrown with rotting solanum…A phantom trek passing through grey curtains of soft film that seems to consist of random footage from an old Hollywood SF set – ’), The Braille Film took Burroughs’ cut-up technique as its starting point and transported it somewhere else. Through the appropriated words of others, spliced together with truly bewildering, and occasionally amusing results, Weissner somehow forged a unique literary voice.
Death in Paris began life as an Internet-based project entitled ‘The Cutting Floor’, and as Jan Herman details in his introduction to the print edition, Weissner may have been a comparatively late adopter but rapidly caught up and figured out how to tap into the creative potentials offered by the foment that is cyberspace. Herman, who initially contributed in the early stages of the evolving project, also recalls how evolving text was initially intended as a collaborative piece, but he soon realised that it was ultimately Carl’s project, writing ‘it was clear to me from the start that the texts Carl was posting – raw, brooding, smartly written, filled with moody details – made “The Cutting Floor” his baby all the way… I felt that anything I posted – or, for that matter, anything that anyone else posted – would be interfering’.
Structurally, the print edition is fundamentally unchanged from the blogged on-line version (although of course, the chronology was in reverse on the original blog, and Keith Seward excised the other contributors’ segments and restored forward sequencing to the narrative before reproducing Death in Paris at The Reality Studio). The version which appeared at The Reality Studio, which Weissner edited, deleting the opening scene and adding final ‘Coda’ section is the one which would appear in print two years later. The brevity of the chapters may well belie the original formation of the text – the time-deficient lifestyles and ever-decreasing attention spans of readerships necessitates short blog posts for optimum results – but the short chapters equally correspond with the current vogue in contemporary fiction. At the same time, the short episodic sections hark back to the vintage hard-boiled novel it superficially represents and alludes to in the prefatory epigraph on the title page, which is attributed to Raymond Chandler and reads ‘There must be idealism, but there must also be contempt’. Ordinarily, such epigraph are prone to being superfluous, spurious or simply pretentious: here, Chandler’s pithy statement serves as a manifesto the the text that follows.
Weissner’s novel doesn’t eschew convention so much as devour, twist and mangle it with great relish. Stylistically, Death in Paris does ostensibly draw on the genre trappings of detective fiction, in particular the succinct stock-type descriptions (for example: ‘LANSKY (61 years old, ruddy face, unruly salt-and-pepper hair, tall, somewhat out of shape)’) and snappy dialogue. However, any notion of a unified style dissolves as rapidly as the conventionality of the plot. Indeed, just as the two detective characters appear to be taking shape, they evaporate into intangibility and cross over into a spirit world, and take the plot with them, initially into an audacious kind of paranormal thriller and subsequently into a far stranger place. It’s fair to say that the fundamental premise of the book is somewhat perverse: the central character is ‘your average psychopath who kills women and writes the occasional book’, who has a Japanese sex doll – a ‘reusable “victim”’ which has been custom-made to ‘produce exciting sounds when he strangles her’ – and with which he reenacts sex scenes from pulp novels. The narrative switches perspective and person with disorientating frequency, and the result is an entirely new genre unto itself: ‘Structuralist Death Metal Pulp’.
There’s a fine line between contempt and audacity, and Weissner is both contemptuous and audacious in this use of outlandish chapter headings. Some of the headings appear in the body of the chapters, others do not, and while some bear an obvious relation to the passage they preface, again, others do not, and appear to be either oblique references or simply for the author’s amusement. In this way, Death in Paris shares common ground with Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition (although it’s The Drowned World the book’s lead character is reading, remarking ‘I guess maybe Ballard wasn’t so wrong after all’ and that is quoted on page 131). This idea gains credence when considering the way in which some of the headings appear to mimic tabloid headlines and celebrity-focused sensationalism, with headings such as ‘Courtney Love Chased by Werewolf in Benedict Canyon’; ‘“I’m Full of Knife Scars” Angelina Jolie’; ‘Choking Game Claims 82 Young Lives in US’; and ‘Man Finds Condom in Burger’. Others are yet more bizarre and border on the absurd or even abstract – for example, ‘300 Pounds of Lesbian Death Bed’; ‘Head-On Collision of Avatars Fleeing Second Life’; ‘Mutants Beat Their Meat in the Street’. Other headings appear to be either cut from, or otherwise parody spam emails and / or blog comments: ‘Get Your Fight Club Sunglasses Today ($175)’, ‘A Braille Dildo for Your G-Spot, Jean’. The effect is that of a mirror on contemporary culture, not only it its apparent vacuity but also its overt commercialism and disparity, the fragmentation that is broadly agreed as representative of postmodernism at its most absolute.
While ‘Any Luck With the Semen in the Girl’ is a direct line of dialogue from a scene that’s pure CSI, ‘Asking for it in the Boondocks’ and ‘If You Can Swallow a Gnat, Why Gag at a Camel’ bear no obvious relationship to any aspect of the text. Still more of the chapter headings are older references that plug directly into the cut-up period, and are directly attributed to their authors – ‘Hit Men Sleeping in Shabby Hotels Covered in Bloody Dust (Pélieu)’ ‘The Mob Stirred Menacingly and Vomited. (Claude Pélieu)’. There is, of course something of a paradox in crediting a phrase created by use of the cut-up method (or any of its myriad variants) to the one who performed the cut-up. After all, Burroughs defended the cut-ups on the challenge of copyright infringement by suggesting asking “what does any writer dobut choose, edit and rearrange words at his disposal?”
References occur in a superabundance, to the extent that they form a significant part of the fabric of the text. Some of these references function in isolation – the chapter entitled ‘Pet Sematary’ alludes of course to Stephen King and possibly The Ramones – but exist as no more than intertextual fragments. Other references and willful contradictions are strung together to forge more complex prismatic refractions of intertext: ‘A Jane Doe named Lucy sits on the inmate’s abdomen and assumes the position of Rodin’s thinker’.
The chapter / section that begins on page 100 may only be 34 lines long but is a veritable collage of ideas and references. Entitled ‘A Clean Well Lighted Place’ – a title appropriated from a short story by Hemingway – the passage incorporates a line from Kafka in a description of the scent of lilies, mentions Hemingway by name (a framed picture of him and Janet Flanner hangs on the wall in the cafe Les Deux Magots (a real place) where the central character goes to write).It’s interesting to note that not only was Hemingway a patron of Les Deux Magots, but that The Deux Magots literary prize has been awarded to a French novel every year since 1933, the year Hemingway’s short story was first published. The passage also includes quotations which purport to be from a colour supplement from a liberal German weekly, and Le Parisien, the latter of which makes mention of ‘an all-girl grunge band called “J’vas enterrer ta bite” (I’ll bury your dick)’. There is, as far as I have been able to ascertain, no such band, and Death in Paris is littered with references to fictitious bands with names that are laughably far-fetched yet somehow have a ring of credibility: De Awesome Shitbirds; Ugly Niggahs with Ugly Clothes; Buttfucked Slasher Bimbos; The Seppukku Chihuahuas all crop up at various points to forge an imaginary soundtrack. Meanwhile, another scene is soundtracked by ‘a lone ghetto blaster, Celine Dion belting out “Near! Far! Wherever you are!”’ Roy Orbison and Del Shannon are also featured, and render the text a multisensory experience. One doesn’t simply read Death in Paris. One sees it, feels it, and hears it.
It’s this blurring of ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ – perhaps ‘blurring’ isn’t entirely accurate, as Weissner’s technique is more concerned with the juxtaposition of ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ if anything – that renders Death in Paris such an affecting and disorientating read. More than the fragmented plot construction, it’s the questioning as to what is truth or reality and what is the product of the author’s vivid imagination that really scrambles the reader’s mind. Could there really be a video on YouTube by the title ‘Cigarette Smoking Woman in Lingerie Stabbed to Death’ as the chapter by that title suggests? (The answer is yes, although the footage, posted on 25th February 2008 has since been removed and the user’s account closed). ‘What I Killed Today.com’ may be fictitious, but whatikilledtoday.blogspot.co.uk does exist, and the blog’s author’s introduction reads, ‘I work with a lot of injured wildlife. Also not wild animals that are just in a lot of pain. Sometimes I have to euthanize them. I decided to record each animal I euthanize here.’ Sometimes, you really couldn’t make it up.
However, to further provoke that questioning of what aspects of the text originate from Weissner’s imagination and which are culled from real – or virtual – life, either by design or coincidence, Keith Seward’s afterword recalls an email from Carl expressing his reluctance to publish the text as a book ‘because all of the stuff in it that is true, but reads like i made it up as i go along’. This remark calls to mind the adage that truth is stranger than fiction, and while it’s not only reasonable to assume that Weissner was aware of the phrase, but given the technological advances over the last years which have rendered not only the most extreme images contained in The Braille Film read more like reportage than science fiction, but the possibility of the paradoxical title of the book becoming actualised, it’s entirely fitting that with Death in Paris the author should look to the present for the most incredible scenarios, instead of an imagined future.
In this respect, Death in Paris marks a distinct progression from The Braille Film. Whereas Weissner’s 1970 anti-novel was a veritable riot of textual discord, a concerted attempt to follow Burroughs’ lead in the quest to shatter the tyranny of linguistic control by countering the media blizzard with a counterattack of textual white noise, Death in Paris harnesses the powers of the cut-ups and channels them to achieve somewhat different ends. If the cut-ups were an attempt to break down the order of things – those things being the dictates of control though language manipulation – then the appropriation prevalent in Death in Paris is more about turning the mirror back on the media – in particular the Internet – in order to reveal its emptiness and hypocrisy.
This is nowhere more evident than in the snippets of brutal violence that litter Death in Paris. While films and TV shows – in particular crime series, the likes of CSI – revel in gore and violence in clinical detail, and news media has become increasingly ‘gritty’, at the same time the same news media, from the tabloid press to the scrolling news channels – have decried the moral decline of our evermore violent society.
There are moments of clinical brutality within Death in Paris that are remarkable in their extremity, and equally remarkable in their narrative execution, which demonstrate Weissner’s capacity to conjure a crisp and photographically vivid image in a short sentence or two. ‘The photo showed a woman lying on a hardwood floor, nude, one of her breasts flayed open with a metal speculum’.
It’s all about the details, and Weissner’s snappy one-liners and wordplay transcends mere shock value. By the same token, the author shows a knowingness of the power of language – and its shortfalls – that could only be conveyed by a highly skilled writer, as he manages to addresses the way linguistic differences can impede communication within the dialogue, to humorous effect:
‘If that isn’t the girlfriend of our Hungarian perp.”
“Yeah right. Roger and out.”
“You didn’t even look you arrogant, heathen, ah, ah!”
“No. listen. C-z-e-ch. As is Czechoslovakian.”
But Weissner was a master linguist, and acutely aware of the capacity of a single word to alter the meaning of a whole sentence, even an entire paragraph. So when one of the detectives recalls ‘the awesome scene in the shy little Winsconsin farmer’s home’ with ‘headless corpses hanging upside-down in the kitchen, chairs upholstered with human skin, shoeboxes full of female genitalia’, it’s the choice of the adjective ‘awesome’ that stands out for its apparent incongruity. It’s not just incongruous: it’s funny. Granted, it’s a perverse sort of humour, but that’s entirely the point. Detectives are supposed to be cold, clinical, hard. They generally get their kicks out of justice. Such a scene may be grotesque, sickening, but awesome? But why not awesome? Why not permit a detective character to have a dark admiration for the mental workings of the criminal in their most extreme psychopathy? Such a seemingly strange word choice, however, would have been by no means accidental: there is nothing accidental in Weissner’s writing, so when he referred to Shift Linguals as my ‘opus magnum’ by email, that’s precisely what he meant. The precision of his writing is abundantly evidenced in his vivid and succinct descriptions: take, for example, ‘unlike the Elephant Man, the men with faces like melted plastic and transplanted penis cartilage will not cover up…’ or the image of ‘…a Pacman frog with a prolapsed ass…’
Weissner also had a keen eye / ear / nose for dialogue, and Death in Paris is laced with a remarkable number of one-liners that seem to come from nowhere. However, these sparks of dazzling surprise do not come from nowhere, and reveal his appreciation and understanding of the hard-boiled tradition. Indeed, as Weissner writes in the frontispiece, “I am not the author of every line in the book. It is, like The Braille Film, a book by several authors, living and dead. One of them myself.” Many of those authors are quoted directly, segments of dialogue lifted and given proper citations, and Weissner’s selection of sources in itself makes for interesting reading, as he incorporates the works of Lee Child, Elmore Leonard, Neil Gaiman, Charles Bukowski and a passage from a Kurt Cobain biography where the late musician references Burroughs. Elsewhere, American Werewolf in Paris is quoted, as well as a news story from The Guardian, and lines culled directly from Dennis Lehane’s 2005 play Coronado are also used.
In this way, Weissner appears to be returning full-circle after 40 years: The Braille Film is prefaced by the note ‘variations of Burroughs/Gysin cutup & fold-in technique applied to scans & cross-column readings from newspapers magazines books tape-recordings of radio & TV programs etc. have been used in putting together these texts which consequently are composite texts by many writers living and dead.’ However, with The Braille Film, the process of cutting and splicing to produce a textual collage was rendered less transparent in terms of its source material, and moreover, the purpose of the two books is very different. If The Braille Film was intended to break down the established order and attack linguistic tyranny on a literal level by assaulting it wildly with more language, then Death in Paris takes a scalpel to contemporary culture and methodically dissects it – and then stands back as the blood flows.
When Weissner mailed me, he said he was ‘in marseille(!) where I am doing research for another strange novel…..’ He followed this up with another short message, which read: ‘here’s a glimpse at (from?) the new strange one: One day, somewhere in the Quartier Saint-Michel, Maretta pointed out a crumbling villa overgrown with lichen and ivy, and with a For Sale sign stuck into the front lawn. “That’s the house of the doc who amputated Rimbaud’s right leg. He used the famous limb to fertilize the jacaranda tree you see over there.”’
One can only wonder where he might have taken it, but such conjecture is futile. In those four lines, Weissner manages to pack more imagination and inspired images than many authors manage in 400 pages. But just as Ballard composed The Atrocity Exhibition as a sequence of ‘condensed novels’, so we can feasibly view this fragment as a story in its own right. And why not? If there’s one thing Death in Paris demonstrates, it’s the countless angles from which a single fragment can be viewed, and the infinite possibilities that exists for recontextualising it, reshaping and manipulating it – without even altering its form. Weissner, the man, may be sadly departed, but his words live on, and resonate for an eternity through the amplification of those lifted fragments, references and citations. Nothing here now but the recordings…