invisible words

There's currently an exhibition of invisible art on at the Hayward Gallery in London. It's unlikely I'll get to visit, but the idea of it, just reading about it — with exhibits like an invisible labyrinth and plans for an architecture of air — delights me. The tone of several articles I've come across about it has been mocking, so I've been trying to work out why I find it so appealing.

I wonder if it's partly because of my fixation with stories, which are, despite the words on the page, invisible. You can't see their realities or feel them, except in your mind. But within this world of invisible stories there are my favourite kind: stories with invisible fictions layered within in them. Books as invisible Russian dolls.

invisible places

'They invented a place' is possibly my favourite first sentence from a short story. It's the opening to David Constantine's 'The Shieling' (published in the brilliant collection of the same name), in which a couple are compelled to imagine a safe house for their thoughts and dreams. Through their behaviour in this place, which they each tend to visit in isolation, we get a haunting glimpse into their relationship.

In M John Harrison's The Course of the Heart, it's an imagined country to which a couple gravitate. Their need to shelter from and understand the implications of an unremembered ritual leads to the creation of a country — the Coeur — which lives within the fictional autobiography of Michael Ashman. We read of the Coeur that, 'For a time it blesses us all, then fades away again, corrupted or diluted by its contact with the World. Consequently we can detect it's presence as a kind of historical ghost.'

And then there is Harrison's 'Egnaro': 'a secret known to everyone but yourself'. A mesmeric story of the destructive nature of a place that can't be reached, only yearned for. (The story can be found in Things That Never Happen. Egnaro, I'm still looking for.)

I've mentioned before that I used to carry a copy of Calvino's Invisible Cities everywhere with me when my sons were babies. Within the walls, webs and concentric rings of wondrous cities laced with the familiar, I felt reassured. The book as lifebelt. 

More than any landscape of the possible, each of these places offers a home for restless thoughts.

forgotten things old apartments there are rooms which are sometimes forgotten. Unvisited for months on end, they wilt neglected between the old walls and it happens that they close in on themselves, become overgrown with bricks, and, lost once and for all to our memory, forfeit their only claim to existence. The doors, leading to them from some backstairs landing, have been overlooked by people living in the apartment for so long that they merge with the wall, grow into it, and all trace of them is obliterated in a complicated design of lines and cracks.   
from The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz 

remembered things

In The Book of Memory, Paul Auster says memory is 'the space in which a thing happens for the second time.' Recently, I've kept thinking about memories as casts or husks or shed skins that clutter the air around us, where they're inhaled and exhaled, forming and re-forming invisible tissue in unremarkable landscapes. I've been writing stories in which memories seed in a place and grow to become something else. In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard says, 'Our past is situated elsewhere, and both time and place are impregnated with a sense of unreality'. And our past is situated elsewhere, but it's also here, with and within us. Bachelard also tells us that Rilke, writing about a lost house, said
I never saw this strange dwelling again. Indeed, as I see it now, the way it appeared to my child's eye, it is not a building, but is quite dissolved and distributed inside me: here one room, there another, and here a bit of corridor which, however, does not connect the two rooms, but is conserved in me in fragmentary form. Thus the whole thing is scattered about inside me.

invisible books

Borges, master writer of invisible books said, 'It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books — setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.' And many writers have done just that. I like to think that imaginary books I've collected stand on an invisible shelf in one of my bookcases (The Book of Sandeon Heart, A General History of Labyrinths, Beautiful Swimmers, Iron Needles, Without Fear of Wind or Vertigo,  A Flock of Myths: the Legends, Lore and Literature of the Birds of Britain...

Whenever we get to the end of a picture book at the moment, my youngest son points at the endpapers and says, 'Now read the imaginary words.' This may just be a canny ploy to extend bedtimes, but I keep thinking about those imaginary words. They should be there at the end of any good story. I'm just not sure I'd ever want to articulate them.


I've found that one of the dangers or joys of being a writer is that you populate the world not only with your memories but with your imaginings, too, and that the boundaries between them can become confused. This happens most often with stories I've abandoned. Stubborn traces of them get lodged and congeal in the streets around my house. The invisible is often indelible.

We live with layers of thought and memory and story between us and the everyday world, and these are just three threads of our largely invisible reality. I read recently that many flowers have UV colouring to attract butterflies. We can't see it, but we can, almost imperceptibly, see the way it makes the light shimmer above a field of flowers. Is that the source of the delight, clues in the light, the unarticulated sense that there must be something there? And perhaps it's that if we can't see it, we can make it whatever we want it to be.

Invisible: Art about the Unseen 1957 - 2012 is on at the Hayward Gallery until 5th August.

Photographs from top to bottom: book cover taken from Scouts in Bondage, compiled by Michael Bell; a wall in my cellar; Kersal Moor, Salford; the Glass Stacks in the John Rylands Library, Manchester.