Afterwords: The most exquisite of corpses

Agnieszka Taborska’s novel Niedokończone życie Phoebe Hicks (The Unfinished Life of Phoebe Hicks) was published in Poland in 2013. Selected excerpts of the completed translation by Ursula Phillips were published in Saturday European Fiction in B O D Y.

In extracts from Polish reviews of the novel translated by Julia Sherwood you can read about surrealism, ghosts and a book that is not quite what it seems.

Dorota Jarecka in Gazeta Wyborcza (January 30, 2014)

In the collages that illustrate this story, Selena Kimball uses old photographs to conjure up very contemporary compositions, while Taborska cuts out and stitches together various literary and historical motives, moulding them into something new, in spite of its traditional disguise. The vintage appearance, sepia colours and embroidery are deceptive. Taborska is not a belated practitioner of surrealism but rather its distinguished connoisseur who weaves a critical narrative of surrealism in a literary guise.  Phoebe Hicks represents that which was missing from surrealism, what has been marginalized, what surrealism did not express because it was incapable of expressing it, being, to put it quite bluntly – the product of its philistine and patriarchal era. Hicks is thus active rather than passive, aware rather than inert, intelligent rather than intellectually limited, prescient rather than naïve.

Surrealists revelled in charades, in the game of cadavre exquis, the exquisite corpse, they loved creating character collages from bits and pieces. Phoebe Hicks, who could not end her life because she had never lived, remains the most exquisite of corpses. And setting her story in a city called Providence carries a conflicting message. For Providence also stands for Divine Providence, symbolized by an eye within a triangle. The oldest collage perhaps?

Read the full review plus an interview with the author (in Polish) here

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Marek Zaleski in Dwutygodnik.com

Taborska’s earlier book “The Sleepy Life of Leonora de la Cruz”, a brilliant literary hoax that brings to life the figure of an 18th century nun, an alleged patron of the Paris surrealists, was a book that caused confusion at scholarly conferences.  Her latest apocryphal book, “The Unfinished Life of Phoebe Hicks”, illustrated by Selena Kimball’s collages, also seems to belong to the “performative biographism” genre. Its heroine is a woman, a spiritualist medium living in an idyllic small town in New England.  Phoebe’s career, dating back to the unsettling events launched in the autumn of 1847, a nosy local photographer, but also – let’s face it – to the state of mind of the good citizens of Providence, is at the centre of the narrative as well as being a game played with the reader.

What is behind the astonishing appearance of a “messenger from the nether world” – who, for all we know, may be a fraud? The misanthropic La Rochefoucauld has sneered: “True love is like ghosts, everyone talks about them but few have seen them.” In this story everyone talks about them and some are absolutely convinced they have seen them. Phoebe Hicks, as befits a self-respecting medium, emits ectoplasm during séances and has the gift of invoking ghosts that get up to the wildest pranks. “Magical Providence” is a “trap of a city” where the living already seem to be leading an afterlife.

Read the full review (in Polish) here

Photo – From The Unfinished Life of Phoebe Hicks, artwork by Selena Kimball

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Categories: Afterwords

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