Sunday, 22 January 2017

‘botching the punch line’: Michael Augustin’s A Certain Koslowski: The Director's Cut (Arc Publications, 2016)

Alex Wortley reviews a new edition of Michael Augustin's book, twenty-four years after the original was published.

Michael Augustin’s A Certain Koslowski: The Director's Cut is translated by his wife, Sujata Bhatt, and Margitt Lehbert, a Swiss-German who has translated the likes of Paul Muldoon and Carol Ann Duffy into German. Here they translate from German into English. The most obvious adaptation the duo make is to the collection’s title: they prefix the original with the English-sounding formation ‘a certain’. This signals a poetic picaresque mode, where we are invited to follow the eponymous hero through life. Augustin chooses prose-poetry for each humorous episode filled with incidence, surrealism, and strangeness. Laugh-out-loud stuff, one would think.

And it is, largely, if you’re a fan of glib episodic flights into the realm of the absurd with no discernible purpose. The bizarre opening poem ‘Immaculatus’ is fantastically blasphemous, detailing how the immaculately conceived (meaning virgin-born?) Kowlowski ‘slept with his natural mother’ and found her to be, ‘without a doubt, still a virgin’. Augustin then lewdly concludes how ‘afterwards, something like that is pretty hard to prove’. A slightly off-colour opening, perhaps, but this is tempered by the second poem, ‘Birth Pains’. Here Augustin indulges in the surreal, purposely contradicting the biographical details revealed in the previous poem. After his being born, ‘two of [Koslowski’s] fathers reportedly staged a bitter shootout’. The surviving father of the virgin-born Koslowski is then impelled to drunkenness. It’s hard to see what the intended effect of all this is, and perhaps that’s the point, to baffle and amuse the reader.

The word-play in this collection has just such an effect. ‘A Misunderstanding’ riffs on the definition of ‘beheading’, and ‘An Experiment on Himself’ describes how the adolescent Koslowski discovers the inebriating effects of alcohol. Wanting ‘to make public his discovery’, he finds that everyone he encounters is already thoroughly au fait with drink. Learning this, and ‘sobered forever’, Koslowski gets drunk ‘a second time’. Not quite laugh-out-loud, but slightly humorous. Likewise, the poem ‘Question and Answer’ is quoted on the blurb of the collection, so it must be a highlight, and in a way it is. Koslowski’s interlocutor asks: ‘Regardless of what one asks you, one always receives a wrong answer?’. Koslowski replies, ‘That’s right!’ Quite funny, but it all seems a bit sub-Flann O’Brien.

Weak humour, with the occasional interruption, is often met with bad taste. After the off-colour opening poem, we have, about mid-way through the collection, two poems about suicide. The first, ‘A Suicide Attempt’, details how Koslowski is prevented from killing himself on the Paris underground by another man who jumps in front of his intended train before him. Koslowski slopes off ‘red faced and deeply insulted’. So, are we to infer from this that people who attempt suicide are attention-seekers? In the following poem, ‘Another Suicide Attempt’, Koslowski halts before the act on hearing news of a neighbour who, ‘during a suicide attempt’, had a serious accident and ‘died as a result’. I simply don’t see how this is funny, or in any way illuminating. I’m sure the subject can be tackled sympathetically, and in an amusing or satirical way, but Augustin utterly fails to do so here.

There is a revealing line in the aptly-titled ‘Jokes’ which reads: ‘Koslowski is blessed with the singular talent of botching the punch line of virtually every joke he tells’. Maybe this is Augustin slyly disclosing his strategy in this collection: to be purposefully unfunny. ‘Jokes’ concludes how Koslowski, on ‘faithfully botch[ing]’ the punchline of his jokes, provokes uncontrollable mirth among his friends (as ‘the whole room rocks with laughter’). Perhaps this was Augustin’s desired effect, but, for me at least, this collection largely succeeded in producing the inverse reaction.

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