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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

Uncertain Manifesto

Frédéric Pajak

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To purchase Uncertain Manifesto

Title: Uncertain Manifesto
Author: Frédéric Pajak
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2012 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 187 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Uncertain Manifesto - US
Uncertain Manifesto - UK
Uncertain Manifesto - Canada
Manifeste incertain (1) - Canada
Manifeste incertain (1) - France
Ungewisses Manifest 1 - Deutschland
Manifesto incerto - Italia
Manifiesto incierto - España
directly from: New York Review Books
  • Volume I
  • French title: Manifeste incertain (1)
  • Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting presentation and material

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Temps . 21/12/2012 Antoine Duplan

  From the Reviews:
  • "Frédéric Pajak a une approche tangentielle de l'Histoire (.....) L'écriture de Manifeste incertain est précise et fluide, la tonalité forcément mélancolique, mais relevée par une pointe d'humour qui doit plus à la politesse du désespoir qu'au comique. Les dessins en noir et blanc prolongent, amplifient, gauchissent le récit" - Antoine Duplan, Le Temps

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Uncertain Manifesto is the first in what has become a multi-volume series (apparently now completed with the ninth installment). It is a not-quite-sequence of eight quite short pieces, some personal and autobiographical, others reflections on the lives and experiences of well-known people -- notably and mainly, here, Walter Benjamin, but, for example, also artist Bram Van Velde (via Samuel Beckett). The essays are almost all illustrated, an accompanying black-and-white drawing on practically every page, the picture taking up more than two-thirds of each page. (Only one piece, the autobiographical 'Two Fascists', is entirely text, as if unillustrable.)
       In one of the pieces on Benjamin, Pajak notes:

     At the age of eight, his son Stefan produced a serial novel that appeared every night and every morning, which his father entitled Opinions and Thoughts. The "novel" in question consisted of texts and drawing.
     The boy alerted his readers: "You will of course understand that this can be called a novel."
       If not as insistent that it is a novel (or as regularly updated ...), Pajak seems to have had a similar project in mind with Uncertain Manifesto. (Never mind that the original collection of Opinions et Pensées seems to have in fact been Walter Benjamin's documentary record of his son's acquisition of language and then opinion.)
       The original French edition of this first Uncertain Manifesto is subtitled: Avec Walter Benjamin, rêveur abîmé dans le paysage, reflecting the focus on the figure, and while some of the later volumes appear to be centered on on other well-known artists -- Vincent Van Gogh, une biographie (V); Avec Pessoa (IX) -- several more return to the same subject: Avec Nadja, André Breton, Walter Benjamin sous le ciel de Paris (II) and La mort de Walter Benjamin. Ezra Pound mis en cage (III), for example.
       Pajak at one point notes about Benjamin: "The art of narrative was of ever greater concern to him. He wanted to tell 'a long story punctuated by revery'", and Uncertain Manifesto seems to follow this path as well -- especially when the series as a whole is considered. The biographical and autobiographical do not so much overlap here -- the pieces dealing with Benjamin et al. are separate from the ones in which Pajak writes of his own life and experiences -- but they do form part of a larger whole. The presentation is piecemeal -- sections of biography and autobiography -- like different pieces of a much larger puzzle (or puzzles), and there is some sense of this volume being just the beginning.
       A Preface already has Pajak describe his unusual life-path, and the long-held creative ambitions (which include the early publication of a short story titled .... 'Unsure Manifesto', described as: "a vague effort amounting to a youthful error") that ultimately led to this project; the personal pieces then offer some additional insight into parts of this -- including then the point where:
I decided to get down seriously to work on my "manifesto," to write and draw as the mood takes me. And to read, or rather reread enormities, contemporary or not. Read, and live. And share a little of what I read, of I live, and why, and how.
       The pieces are quite compelling, succinct and often just slightly off-beat (or off the beaten track, as is the case both with Pajak's personal experiences and, for examples, most of the parts of Benjamin's life he writes about), a neat mix of information and reflection. A nice dry, pithy streak also works well: Pajak mentioning: "At my table, I wait for the end of the world, or at least for the end of the meal", or describing Benjamin's self-isolating tendencies: "The children nicknamed him 'El Miserable,' not in a flattering way". The pieces often go off on smaller and larger tangents, often to good effect, as when a single page consists of only an illustration and the brief description of what became of one of those Benjamin was acquainted with on Ibiza: "Later, Maximilian Verspohl returned to Hamburg, where he was appointed leader of an SS unit".
       The illustrations are sharply drawn black and white -- often large fields of one and/or the other --, most dominated by black. (The lightly colored cover of the English-language edition -- it's unclear if the original French is too, but it doesn't seem to be -- is then a bit jarring). Significantly, the pictures do not necessarily strictly correspond to the accompanying text: Pajak is not so much illustrating what he writes about as complementing the text with a related -- but often at a considerable remove -- picture.
       Pajak's engagement with history -- general and also personal -- is intriguing and far-ranging, if more focused on specifics than a larger picture (something that perhaps comes together more obviously when all nine volumes of the series are considered together). The writing is very good, even as the pieces can feel both stark and abrupt; still, a short chronicle such as 'Two Fascists' certainly makes for a very powerful read. The illustrations are also by someone with clear command of the craft, and often also powerful in their dark bleakness (though I can't help but add a personal-taste observation, that I find many of his human representations and portraits unappealing to the point of them being off-putting; with some notable exceptions, they are very much not my style). The presentation -- almost all the pages dominated by the large illustrations, and then shorter bits of text below -- is effective; this would be a fine (if very short) collection if it was reduced to one that is text-only, but for most of the pieces the illustrations add more than just another dimension.
       Certainly of interest, and certainly engaging -- and leaves one curious about the volumes that follow, and the project as a whole.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 April 2021

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Uncertain Manifesto: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swiss-French author and graphic artist Frédéric Pajak was born in 1955.

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© 2021 the complete review

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