It’s an interesting coincidence (though not quite surreal) that reading about a given subject often leads to suddenly encountering it again. So it was that after finishing Joanna Moorhead’s new biography, Surreal Spaces: The Life and Art of Leonora Carrington, I started Chloe Aridjis’s Dialogue with a Somnambulist: Stories, Essays & a Portrait Gallery, a collection of fiction and nonfiction that, along with haunting short stories and essays, includes profiles of figures such as, yes, Leonora Carrington and her husband, the Hungarian photographer Emerico “Chiki” Weisz. Re-meeting Carrington through Aridjis’s enchanting lens is surprisingly revelatory, even after finishing a thorough biography on the artist. Aridjis commands her narratives — whether fact or fiction — with a beguiling dream logic whose mood feels something like reading Borges to a Cocteau Twins soundtrack.
This is Aridjis’s first collection to include short fiction, though she’s published three novels, including, most recently, Sea Monsters, winner of the 2020 Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Her previous book, Asunder, concerns a museum guard at the National Gallery in London, and Aridjis herself was guest curator of a Leonora Carrington exhibition at the Tate Liverpool. Of Dialogue with a Somnambulist, she told Lydia Millet in a recent event at City Lights bookstore, “I sort of thought of the book as a little museum.” She is, in short, no stranger to art and the places it inhabits, whether the National Gallery or Berlin bars, Mexico City dance floors, or Swedish films. That her subjects are both intimate and international is no doubt thanks to her own far-flung biography: born in New York City, childhood in the Netherlands, adolescence in Mexico, studying in the United States and England, years in Berlin, and now living in London.
The pieces in Dialogue with a Somnambulist unspool not via the chronological order of when they were written or published, but through the strange rationality of dreams. Her technique is not unlike a plastic bag in the titular first story that its narrator follows through a cityscape:
The plastic bag, insubordinate, seemed intent on resisting the fate of the other bags lining the street. The wind had dropped and yet it was unwilling to settle, now blown by a mysterious current. On and on. I followed it from one street to the next, taking routes I’d never taken.
A plastic bag leads to a mysterious stranger, leads to a bar not on any map and a girl with gold teeth who works there, where they play Gogol Bordello and Einstürzende Neubauten. The somnambulist of the title is a wax man the protagonist names — after sifting through possibilities from Merlin to Percival — Pompeii. Western fantasy to fantastic historical fact. And what could be more magical, or more wonderful, than a silent midnight lover who tidies up your apartment? In her telling, Aridjis makes any part of it seem as utterly possible as the improbably preserved bodies of Pompeii.
It’s all pretty delicious, like mixed bags of candy with bonbons for every taste. In her novel Sea Monsters, Aridjis created a teenage girl who reads Baudelaire and listens to Joy Division. It’s a telling high/low juxtaposition (and familiar to a certain kind of 1980s outsider kid; or maybe that’s just me), and in Somnambulist she adds a heady geographical assortment of cities, languages, and cultural references that feel just right for the global hallucination we currently inhabit: ahistorical, transnational, sometimes fabulous, often terrifying.
Aridjis moves easily in and around cultural history, breezily kicking off a short story with, “It was a busy day at the headquarters of the Franz Kafka society,” while in her nonfiction she connects Soviet-era cosmonauts and circus aerialists to a poet like Baudelaire and painters like Picasso and Rouault. In the essay “Baroque” she describes Mexican culture and the Baroque, from church facades to lucha libre, as sharing, “a natural bent for the strange and the marvelous.” It’s a bent that aptly describes Aridjis as well
Still, I wasn’t quite prepared for a line about her own life like, “For two years, I was writer in residence at the Swedenborg Society, which has hundreds of lantern slides in its archive.” But of course she was, Swedenborg being that 18th-century Swedish mystic who bridged science and spirit, the way Aridjis’s crisp narratives describe a landscape of uncanny happenings, whether real or fabulist. Dialogue with a Somnambulist is the title of her book, and its title story, and the tone of the entire endeavor: dreamy and awake, channeling a deep intelligence that marries both intellectual knowledge and some collective unconscious. A haunting, revelatory dreamscape.
Can any review do such an achievement justice? A quote from Aridjis’s story “The Kafka Society” feels appropriate to reviewing such a book as this one, “Whether someone had formally analyzed a story or novel was irrelevant — the only requirement was unconditional admiration.”
Dialogue with a Somnambulist: Stories, Essays & a Portrait Gallery by Chloe Aridjis is published by Catapult and is available online and in bookstores.