Ekphrastic Literature

Michael Hayward

In 217, Ben Lerner was included among Granta magazine’s “best of young American novelists.” His short story The Polish Rider first appeared in the Summer 216 fiction issue of the New Yorker. If a short story were capable of ambition and could dream, it might dream of exactly this: a second life as a slim hardcover volume published by MACK, a UK-based small press, with embossed lettering on the cover, the text accompanied by full-colour illustrations printed on fine paper. The Polish Rider is a meta-fictionalized take on a real-life event that occurred to Lerner and his friend, the painter Anna Ostoya: just before a gallery showing of her paintings, Ostoya accidentally left two of the canvases in an Uber in New York City. The story describes the efforts of an unnamed narrator (Lerner) and the artist (renamed Sonia) to recover the lost paintings. Along the way the narrator muses on “platform capitalism,” the clash of technologies, high art and popular culture, and differences between the visual arts and literature. At one point the narrator, who describes himself as a writer of “ekphrastic literature” (consult your OED if needed), confesses to a feeling of jealousy, his sense that “a work of visual art is more real, more actual, than writing,” before eventually taking some comfort from the realization that “literature’s lack of actuality relative to the plastic arts [is] a power, not a weakness.” Ironic, then, that the beauty of this book comes in part from its non-literary elements, which include reproductions of a number of Ostoya’s paintings.

For even more Ben Lerner, check out The Snows of Venice (Spector Books), another beautifully produced collaboration, this time between Lerner and the German writer, philosopher and film director Alexander Kluge. The book brings together eight of Lerner’s poems (from his 24 collection The Lichtenberg Figures) and fourteen brief stories by Kluge, which were inspired by individual lines from those poems. There are also conversations between Lerner and Kluge, which touch on art and angels, on Paul Klee and Walter Benjamin, on sleepwalking, and on Lerner’s 216 book The Hatred of Poetry. There are “slow sonnets” written by Lerner, for Kluge; there are photographs of Venice by Gerhard Richter, accompanied by texts from Kluge; and there are photographs of the Lichtenberg figures themselves, the stigmata left by lightning on landscapes, and on humans. It makes for a fascinating and thought-provoking miscellany.

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