Drifts: A Novel

Drifts: A Novel

by Kate Zambreno


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A lyrical, fragmentary, and heartfelt story about the beauty and difficulty of artistic isolation.Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Named a Best Book of the Year by The Paris Review, Elle, Harper's Bazaar, Esquire, Vulture, and Refinery29

“Reading all Zambreno feels like the jolt one gets from a surprise cut or burn in the kitchen, that sudden recognition that you’re in a body and the body can be hurt.” —Alicia Kennedy, Refinery29

Haunting and compulsively readable, Drifts is an intimate portrait of reading, writing, and creative obsession. At work on a novel that is overdue, spending long days walking neighborhood streets with her restless terrier, corresponding ardently with fellow writers, the narrator grows obsessed with the challenge of writing the present tense, of capturing time itself. Entranced by the work of Rainer Maria Rilke, Albrecht Dürer, Chantal Akerman, and others, she photographs the residents and strays of her neighborhood, haunts bookstores and galleries, and records her thoughts in a yellow notebook that soon subsumes her work on the novel. As winter closes in, a series of disturbances—the appearances and disappearances of enigmatic figures, the burglary of her apartment—leaves her distracted and uncertain . . . until an intense and tender disruption changes everything.

A story of artistic ambition, personal crisis, and the possibilities and failures of literature, Drifts is the work of an exhilarating and vital writer.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593087237
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/18/2021
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 1,151,768
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Kate Zambreno is the author of several acclaimed books including Screen Tests, Heroines, and Green Girl. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in nonfiction, she teaches in the graduate nonfiction program at Columbia University and is the Strachan Donnelley Chair in Environmental Writing at Sarah Lawrence College.

Read an Excerpt

Sketches of Animals and Landscapes

In the summer of 1907, in a letter to his wife from Paris, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke meditates on three branches of heather placed in a blue velvet-lined pencil box before him on his desk. The splendor of these fragments, which had arrived folded into her previous letter, he has been admiring for days. The poet notes the various tones and textures of the heather, the radiant green flecked with gold like embroidery woven into a Persian rug with violet silk, the complicated autumnal scents within it, the depth, of the grave almost, and yet again wind, tar, turpentine, and Ceylon tea, but also resinous like incense. At this point, his marriage is almost entirely epistolary. His wife, Clara, a sculptor, is back in their farmhouse in Germany, taking care of their young daughter, Ruth. She is no longer able to be the peripatetic artist, keeping her various studios in Paris and Rome, leaving Ruth with her grandparents in the country. Rilke writes to Clara that he is truly ashamed he was not happy when he could have walked in an abundance of this heather, when they lived together for that honeymoon year, noting the flowers of this urban summer—the dahlias and tall gladiolas and red germaniums. It is in these letters that he attempts a prose like the weather he details, language he will lift for his novel that will take him close to a decade to write. To see and to work, he writes to Clara. How different they are. It is in this letter, reflecting on the fragments of heather he had failed to observe when they were waving in fields before him, that Rilke delivers his insight into the impossibility of the day and its relationship to writing: “For one lives so badly, and one comes into the present unfinished, unable, distracted.”
In the summer of 2015, I was supposed to be at work on Drifts, a book I had been under contract for almost as long as I had lived in this city, renting the first floor of a shabby Victorian house in a tree-lined neighborhood so remote it was almost a suburb. The title of the book came from a feeling, and I wanted to write through this feeling. Drifts existed in the space of the day, in all the notebooks I filled up. What I really wanted to write was my present tense, which seemed impossible. How can a paragraph be a day, or a day a paragraph? But I couldn’t often exist in the room, or even in this paragraph, now. I found myself always distracted.  
The publishing people told me that I was writing a novel, but I was unsure. What I didn’t tell them is that what I longed to write was a small book of wanderings, animals. A paper-thin object, a ghost. Filled with an incandescence toward the possibility of a book, as well as a paralysis. Maybe I was writing a novel, in the Robert Walser sense, his short forms like moods and digressions. “For me the sketches I produce now and then are shortish or longish chapters of a novel. The novel I am writing is always the same one, and it might be described as a variously sliced-up or torn apart book of myself.”
What is a drift? Perhaps a drift is a sort of form.

For some time, I have been interested in the writing one is doing when one is not writing. All that summer, I email often throughout the day with Anna, a more successful writer, living in a different city. We have both been under contract for our respective novels for several years. Art is time, Anna writes me, a novel especially, it must be slow, it must take the time it needs. All that summer I attempt time. I try not to let the days bleed. I attempt to be in the room, outside of the internet. That summer, along with my daily black journals that accumulate in rows like gravestones, I begin keeping a notebook that I think of as the Drifts notebook, its cover a canary yellow that matches my copy of Walser’s The Tanners, which I read in short increments each season, never finishing.
I crane my head now and see the first of the yellow notebooks on the small table across the room, in a pile with other filled and partial journals, legal pads, printed-out notes, manuscript pages, photographs. Inside the yellow notebook I wrote my address and my name, except it was a slightly different version of my last name, which made me feel I had entered the space of fiction. The notebook was for a book called Drifts, but it is a different book from the one I’m trying to write now. I was surprised to find these notes inside the notebook. This Drifts desired to be a detective story, or maybe a murder mystery. Like something out of an Antonioni film. Searching for something lost or missing, but I didn’t yet know who or what.

How summers are spent following my little black terrier, Genet, as he shifts into various dark shapes on the rug or wooden floor, following patterns of light. He paces nervously in the office, waiting at the door, eventually settling for a time on the fake-sheepskin rug under my desk, all these soft spots I plant for him around the house. He does not like to keep still within the office, it isn’t close to any source of sunlight, to any window from which he can look out. To get any thinking done, I must ignore him, his desire to be fed, to play, his pushing the ball into my hand. I feed him my dried mango slices, which I eat so that I can chew on something leathery, chewing as thinking, thinking as chewing. In the morning, after John leaves for the museum, coffee after coffee, the key is not too many cups, and to remember to eat breakfast—granola, yogurt and fruit or toast after toast. The key is to remember to turn off the internet and to allow it to stay off. The key is to try to stay still. The distraction of Genet’s bark. His periodic eruptions at possible intruders. His call and response to Fritz, the absurd blonde Labradoodle next door who yelps from the window of the first floor of the pale yellow colonial. The psychotic burst of the mail slot, my dog’s heart beating inside his small barrel chest. A low growl that builds as he flies through the house, careening around the corner, nails scratching, toward the front window, erupting at another delivery for the apartment upstairs, his sympathetic nervous system that I sponge from, his paranoia and intensity that I share. I see the postman smoking his brown little cigarettes outside of the house. We wave at each other. I suspect he lights one after he visits here. He has seen me in various states of undress, after having been on the couch all day, staring at screens. How so often, when inside, I look at my inbox like an oracle, to remind myself that I still exist.
Fragile Fritz. Nietzsche’s nickname. I tried to pet him once. He doesn’t like other dogs or even other humans—a true loner. I also think of the Austrian writer Marianne Fritz, how she stayed inside with her scraps of paper, endlessly writing her dense and increasingly indecipherable body of work. Still, who is romanticized in literature as a hermit, and who, by staying inside, is viewed as simply crazy. The madness of writing versus the madness of not writing. Walser, who went to Waldau not to write, he said, but to be mad.
Throw away your notes, the unpublished male novelist advised me, in the depth of my spiritual crisis, the first summer here. This is when I was working on a different book, with the title of the name of a country. I wanted the book, like everything I have attempted these past years, to contemplate literary sadness. But all I had were my notes. Fragments of this book exist in open and wounded states, in notebooks, legal pads, boxes, endless notes and files on my desktop. The male novelist sends me his Notes on Nietzsche written during his undergraduate years, with his anxious marginalia listing which philosophers weren’t married. (Most, he observed, except Hegel.) Is it because of him that my fascination with the bachelor notetakers began? (Walser, Kafka, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Cornell, Pessoa, and Rilke too pretended he was a bachelor.) He was not yet thirty, frantic he’d not yet had a novel published. Like a twenty-eight-year-old Kafka, projecting himself, with ambivalence, as a forty-year-old bachelor in his diaries.
I am made of literature, Kafka confesses to Felice in an early courtship letter, recalling their conversation about Goethe when they first met, in the Brods’ living room. I am nothing else and cannot be anything else.

All summer I sit in the broken Adirondack chair on the porch, existing in the present tense, in that trancelike state of seeing, like the animals. My notebook in my lap, my books scattered around me. The frequent desire to do nothing. How Genet stares at me, with his amber eyes, and I stare back. Somewhere in the piles on my desk, I could excavate a stained, partial printout of Sontag’s “Aesthetics of Silence,” which tells me that animals don’t look but stare. I pull at my dog’s little white Sontag mohawk as he rolls over for me to scratch his soft pink belly or I pick him up to kiss his little monkey muzzle. Genet is tranquil on the porch, sedated by the sun, as he gets up and collapses, alternating between patches of light, or shadow when his coat overheats. In summer we stare at the purple butterfly bush at the bottom of the steps, as the butterflies loiter about. But the landlord will cut it back in the fall, and last summer it didn’t flower at all. A line from Sontag’s journals I keep writing down in my notes: “All great art contains at its center contemplation, dynamic contemplation.”
Quiet, quiet, I say to Genet as dogs walk by, which he obeys by ruffing softly yet firmly to himself. Together we watch the promenades of dogs in the neighborhood. I wave at the Nepalese woman who lives in the apartment building on the corner, walking the silver pit bull with sleek muscles who was a puppy when we moved here. There is the Yorkie who erupts constantly from her perch high up in a building in the middle of the block. How sensitive they really are, these city dogs, but they cannot see it in each other. The ice-eyed Alsatian puppy, gangly and manic, whose owner is an older muscular trainer, always in shorts, who lives with his wheelchair-bound mother in one of the houses on the street. Come to think of it, the Alsatian is no longer a puppy now but a full-grown dog, yet retaining a puppy’s jitteriness. I often wonder if the trainer thinks I’m lazy when he sees me on the porch in my sunhat, watching the procession of the neighborhood with my dog. But I am working, taking notes and thinking. Not just laziness, I’ve decided, but what Blanchot calls désouvrement, translated variously as “inoperativeness,” “inertia,” “idleness,” “unworking,” or my favorite, “worklessness.” A spiritual stance, more active, like decreation. The state where the writing of the fragment replaces the work. Kafka filling up notebook after notebook at night, sitting in the living room, blanket on his lap, having to cover his cage of canaries until they quiet, everyone else in the family asleep. In his notebooks he complains about the factory, Felice, his family, and later about how much time the publishing of his first little book, Meditation, takes away from his potential literary powers. Although when finally confronted with publishing his writing, he is panicked with how little work has accrued from the hours he spends in the middle of the night on his series of notebooks, the fragments he has published occasionally in journals. The artifice, he complains to himself, of trying to prepare a text for publication, when what he desires is to let a work take shape unforced. What he desires is a new prose.  I email Anna, asking whether I should rename my book Meditation, after Kafka, or Contemplation, an alternate translation. No!—a one-word reply. It is irritating, someone else’s book crisis. The lists of titles she sends me as well. All this of course, is fervent procrastination. That summer we were both on a deadline—now your book is out, is on all the best-of lists. I am still here.
Only inside the house can there actually be solitude, writes Marguerite Duras. Outside the house, there is a garden, there can be cats and birds. “But inside the house, one is so alone that one can lose one’s bearings.” Only now, Duras writes, does she realize that she’s been in the house where she’s written her books for ten years. Only now do I realize I’ve been here for seven.

In The Walk, Walser’s narrator takes leave of his writer’s block, his room of phantoms, and goes on a picaresque walk around the town and countryside. How Walser in his shabby suit would walk for ninety miles, as a way to not exist, to disappear into the landscape. His walking, like his writing, a sign of his absorption. I want to write about the looping reoccurrence of the elderly woman on my walks with the dog. She must be in her nineties, living alone in the large, dilapidated yellow-and-brown house on the corner—the pale brown shingles on the roof splintering off. She wears a headband in her silver bob, somewhat girlishly, and a version of the same worn patrician outfit around her skinny frame, usually a button-down blue or pink shirt with white stripes and a pair of men’s beige trousers belted high. When the weather allows she is often perched near the pillar on her front porch stairs, opening her face to the sun. Sometimes she will be sitting with a little cat who’s recently appeared, staring off into the distance. That is her outside cat, she tells me, she also has an inside cat. I wave at her, and sometimes she waves back. I will see her then taking in the chair. Sometimes for long stretches of time there will not be a chair outside and I will worry about the woman. I think of her often, in that large gaping house alone. Perhaps she goes somewhere, where there’s better weather. Maybe she has family somewhere.  
There are seasons when I see the old woman regularly, usually on morning walks to the train station to see John off to work. Other times, I will go a month without spying her. When we pass and exchange hellos, she repeats one of a few phrases. Nice day for a walk, she will say. Or: Nice doggy. Sometimes I see her away from her porch and her garden, moving slowly, glacially, down the street. There is something of my mother in this woman, if my mother had ever been allowed to grow old. Perhaps it’s that my mother was often found in our suburban front yard in the summer, crouching down, pulling weeds while dressed in her khakis. When I do speak to the old woman, she comes closer to me, as I suspect she cannot hear much of anything—which might also be the reason for her canned phrases—and reveals a mouth of gold and rotten teeth. A nice day for gardening, I say to her, and she follows her script: People think I’m poor, she says, because I don’t hire anyone, but my doctor says it’s good exercise. Your shrubs look elegant this year, I tell her, although the grass is becoming brown and dry, which I do not mention. Often she asks me what day it is, and sometimes I tell her, but in the summer, when all the days begin to bleed together, I sometimes will not remember either, and we will stand there, together, for a moment, having no idea where we are in the week.
Who are the characters in your novel, the publishing people ask me, and does anything happen?

In a book about architecture, I read that the space of the neighborhood is the space of childhood. And I feel like a child again, walking and biking around the tree-lined neighborhood, empty like a ghost town in the summer. Last summer, on a morning walk, I spied one of the little dogs I remembered from a missing-dog flyer, fresh ones continually replacing torn and faded ones, as he disappeared behind one of the vacant and rundown Victorian houses that look ruined in the light. For weeks afterward I biked around looking for the little white ghost Chihuahua, who had been so alarmed when we came near it, mostly because Genet had decided to freak out as well. I worried over it, scared and trembling, on its own.

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