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Review of Andrea Scrima’s new novel Like Lips, Like Skins by Elisabeth Wagner

Published April 19, 2022 in the taz

(excerpts translated from the German)

An “I” has to save itself, has to get away from home. Via London, the English Channel, and the East German transit route to West Berlin and a winter that smells like coal dust and bites the lungs. A single furious first paragraph is enough for the escape, a single breath. One could almost say the text inhales. It does this to remember: out of love, out of fear, for reasons that go deep and don’t lend themselves to being easily summarized, whose urgency, however, is beyond question in the prose of the New York-born writer and artist Andrea Scrima. 

(…) The world and the narrator’s own life present her with scenes of varying degrees of danger. As moments of decision, of escalation, of quiet observation that is anything but harmless. The “I” draws a brush across a canvas and watches the excess paint collapse to either side; tracks in snow melt, freeze over, wear away. Dreams are a part of reality, a parallel world that leads to new discovery. The text retains its inner logic with virtuosic ease. How lightly and yet how powerfully this “I” holds the narrative reins in her hand. 

(…) In every family, says the first-person narrator, there is a geometry at work, a concatenation of secrets and taboos. Scrima, who translated Like Lips, Like Skins together with Christian von der Goltz, incorporated both fictional and autobiographical material into the novel. Like the “I” of the book, she was born in New York, lives in Berlin, and has a son. The author lends the narrator several of her artworks, as well as much in the characters of the parents. Yet Scrima rejects the label of autofiction. The term causes people to underestimate the importance of the form, she explains in a mail, and one would like to respond that it’s hard to imagine not admiring the formal sophistication of this book. The delicate transitions between grammatical forms of past and present, for instance, which slip by unnoticed as one moves through time and space. Indeed, there’s great precision in the way recurrent patterns demarcate the various layers of experience. So precisely that one could read this novel as a poetic research text that tells the story of the end of a depression and takes on the spell of repetition in its own injured and, yes, passionate way. So much happens in this wise and beautiful book, and it’s all described without the slightest hint at an exclamation mark. The power of its appeal is all the stronger for it. 

here is an excerpt from the original German text, which takes off from the concept of autofiction: