Published in Spring 2014 by Book Works, Cardiff-based artist Samuel Hasler’s O; A Prayer Book is his first major volume of writing. The work is a potentially semi-autobiographical collection that “operates as both a story and as a material context for a body of work; a spine connecting performances, readings, installations and printing.” A disparate collection of outputs litter this volume then, producing a feeling akin to reading a lot of Burroughs, the dawning sense you’ve read, or heard, the words somewhere else before. Having seen Hasler perform readings a number of times over the last few years, featuring sections of text to later become part of the book, it made for an uncanny experience throughout.
The work has an opaque thread running through it, binding together the collection of stories. Each of the three main sections of writing is set in a different city, moving from Cardiff to Moscow to Venice, with two vignettes in-between. One of these vignettes takes place in Pablo Picasso’s studio, with the other being a pastiche of the Italian literary genre, ‘Giallo’, a crime and mystery genre known for it’s abundant use of violence and eroticism, itself originally born of Italian translations of British and American mystery novels. However, the drive of Hasler’s work here, the narrative tension which weaves through each of these cities is not the unravelling of a mystery towards it’s tentative climactic reveal, but rather both the reader and Hasler faced with the very lack of such a drive or motive.
“If only I could write the wild epic love story. The adventures that I crave… I’d give anything to write the love poems that would elevate me in the tearful eyes of the critic. But where would it come from? Nothing is happening. Not even dramatic failures. Just nothing. Just failure of substance. Failure of care. Failure of meaning.” P64, Hasler, ‘O; A Prayer Book’, Book Works
Even the Picasso vignette is beseeched with inadequacy, as Pablo, with horror in eyes, comes face to face with Kazimir Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ painting.
There’s an aimlessness to the narrator’s travels, he ponders what he’s doing in each city, questions the lack of narrative drive, and in turn worries this lack is born of his own creative incapacity. The faint glimmers of dramatic action that do flitter into view, for example at one point he believes he’s being tailed by the secret police - necessitating a double bluff to counter their (imagined) suspicions - provide sudden moments of respite, sweeping the reader up into a familiar flow of fiction. However, this narrative momentum is just as quickly dissipated, dismissed with a wave of the narrator’s hand as the mirage that it is. And this push and pull of wanting to invent a story, maintained by reader and writer in equal measure, the desire to be carried along by comfortable and comforting genre-tropes, whilst knowing their fictitiousness, the base-fantasy of convention as an escape from the real, reoccurs throughout the work. As this chase-scene comes into the light as the lie that it is, however, we are returned to something else, something like a more honest iteration of events perhaps, and it is this movement between these two poles that in fact gives the work it’s drive.
At times I was reminded of the opening few pages to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, “There are no more books to be written, thank God. This then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty…what you will.” (P10 ‘Tropic of Cancer’ Henry Miller, Harper Perennial, 2005)
But Hasler is far less bombastic, for this doesn’t feel like merely a doubt of the form, a recognition of the endgame of the genre, but rather feels born of a deeper, more personal doubt, existential in its timbre, and is all the more disconcerting for it.