View of Père-La-Chaise Cemetery from the Entrance, likely in 1804. Public domain.

An environmental assessment for a cemetery recently crossed my path. Glossing over the details, the report concluded the main contamination concern was “necroleachate,” decomposing organic material leaching into the ground and, potentially, aquifers. That is to say, the cemetery was contaminated with dead people who just would not stay put.

The conclusion inspires me to revisit a theme of my 2019 novella, Death Train of Provincetown, a sadly miscategorized exploration of modern heroism. You see, the issue of cemetery contamination came to a head with all the people moving to cities in the modern period. Much has been made of…


By Trent Portigal

In 1870, France became a republic with universal male suffrage. It was the country’s third try at that style of government and the first that lasted an appreciable amount of time, until the second World War. French anarchists, decimated and scattered at the outset of the Third Republic, following the failure of the 1871 Commune, had reorganized by the 1880s. In 1883, one of the more important Francophone anarchist newspapers of the time, Le Révolté, printed the manifesto of and a discussion around an “abstentionist candidate” in Bordeaux. From the manifesto:

We who are your companions of the workshop and…


Arbat District, Moscow, where Krzhizhanovsky lived. Photo by Andrey Filippov. CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

When a Twentieth Century writer describes themself as a homo urbanus, my first thought is they are claiming a common trait, perhaps somewhat pretentiously. The world has been becoming increasingly urban for quite some time, so the character of most modern writers one comes across will be at least suburban, if not fully urban. The second thought is they take themself for a flâneur, likely in the Baudelairean tradition. Not only has much of their life unfolded in and around cities, they have wandered the streets seeking out and taking in the broader urban experience.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, the Moscovite writer…


1812 Moscow Fire,. A. Smirnov, 1813. Public Domain.

One of the most popular pencils versus pens stories is the Space Race tale claiming that, when Americans and Russians realised the lack of gravity in space would make ordinary pens unusable, NASA spent millions of dollars developing a space pen. The Soviets just used a pencil. Despite being nonsensical — the brittleness of graphite is not exactly space-friendly — and false, the story has a certain “keep it simple, stupid” appeal that has kept it alive. It was also not the first time the pencil has been used as a symbol of Russian culture.

The literature of Moscow is…


Watercolour from a 1950s poster discouraging drinking and smoking. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, an early Twentieth Century Russian writer, has become famous for his invisibility — as far as such a thing is possible. The scholar who pulled his writing from obscurity, Vadim Perelmuter, came across a scribbled line in the poet Gueorgui Chengueli’s notebook: “Today, the 28 December 1950, has died Sigizmund Dominikovich Krzhizhanovsky, author of fantastic literature and neglected genius. Not a line of his was published in his lifetime.” Chengueli ordinarily held scathing opinions of his contemporaries, so this uncharacteristic praise sparked Perelmuter’s interest. …


Sketch from Sanatorium Pod Klepsydrą (Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass). Bruno Schulz, 1937.

I have been reading the works of Bruno Schulz of late. Asked about who he was, my quick and casual response has generally been along the lines of: a Polish-Jewish writer and visual artist killed in his hometown’s ghetto during World War II. I could have said he was an early Twentieth Century Polish-Jewish writer and visual artist. Instead, I have tended to include the circumstances of his death. This has not only offered a sense of the time period, but also Schulz’s tragic role in one of the period’s major events. …


“Have you lunched, Jaco?”, lyrics from Alkan’s Funeral March for a Dead Parrot.

The first time I came across the name Charles Valentin Alkan was in the proceedings of a 2002 conference, The Literary Mad, New Explorations (Fous littéraires, nouveaux chantiers):

Michel Braudeau: For a mad musician, there is a composer named Alkan. Not mad, but really in the end…author of the symphony for a parrot.

Christian Laucou: Yes, for the burial of a parrot. He was lightly monomaniacal, as he had a number of parrots. Though besides that, he was one of the virtuoso composers one could compare a little bit to Liszt, in the virtuosity of execution. …


Ernst Neizvestny’s The Prophet. Photo: Bengt Oberger.

John Berger, the late British art critic, argues in his essay “An Article of Faith” (1968) that prophecy in art is “not indulging in idle fancy but responding intuitively to a concrete situation.” Prior to the First World War, “this atmosphere of promise and prophecy found its purest expression in cubism.” The Dutch de Stijl (The Style) movement, between 1917 and 1931, pursued “the logic of cubism further than the cubists dared to.” For Berger, however, “what were still intuitively real prophecies for the cubists became utopian dreams for the artists of de Stijl.”

Berger uses this notion of prophecy…


Despite appearances, King Wenceslas was not actually a solitary king.

In the first half of the 1930s, the French writer Raymond Queneau researched and prepared a study on the forgotten literary works of those likely suffering from mental illness in Nineteenth Century France. The Literary Mad (Les fous littéraires) was primarily based on published works lost to the larger world but preserved in the National Archives, as well as studies and notes from periods the authors spent in mental hospitals and under observation.

In 1930, after his break with surrealism, Queneau felt “maladjusted, neurotic and powerless.” He found himself unable to write, so instead explored the work of those even…


Michel de Montaigne began his essay on cannibalism with an appeal to readers to avoid knee-jerk reactions and, instead, to approach the subject with reason. I can’t help but agree, even if the reason should avoid reasonableness and, instead, approach the subject with that of madness, cutting satire and a penchant for Greek roots. In this way, we can find an appropriately nuanced take on, to switch to Greek, anthropophagy.

In his Apologia for Herodotus, Henri Estienne, Montaigne’s contemporary and fellow Sixteenth Century humanist, argued that it was “necessary to compare the madness of one with the madness of others.”…

Trent Portigal

Writer of eclectic curiosities. Novels: Our New Neolithic Age (‘21), Simulated Hysteria (‘20), Death Train of Provincetown (‘19), The Amoeba-Ox Continuum (‘17).

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