Book review / Cultural Theory and Concepts

Abstract Narratives, and No End

By Jan Baetens

Four wattsébastien conard

fo(u)r watt

het balanseer, 2019, limited edition (10 euros)


“Abstract comics” are a vital strand of contemporary avant-garde comics, nowadays well-represented and largely accepted in various countries and traditions. Yet rather than trying to define what abstracts comics are, where they come from, or where they are going to, it is necessary to start reading them. The publication of fo(u)r watt, an attractive joint project of publisher Het Balanseer (by far the most daring of independent literary publishers in Flanders: and Sébastien Conard (whose creative work hovers between visual art and comics) is a good opportunity to do so.

Based on a string of four quotations from Samuel Beckett’s Watt (written in 1942-1944, published in 1953), fo(u)r watt is a work that demonstrates the formal and imaginative power of a type of visual narrative in print that does not need the alibi of a precomposed scenario to display a wide range of stories, characters, and places -the three inevitably intertwined aspects or dimensions of any narrative whatsoever. The sequential arrangement of the drawings in this book follows the fundamental structure of the diptych as suggested by its first images: the whole string of drawings unfolds between the four quotations by Beckett, which one finds in the beginning (1 sentence), in the middle (2 sentences, each of them on of the pages of the central double spread) and in the end (1 sentence), the covers of the book being deprived of visual images (they just contain “printed matter, which rapidly morphs into a visual sign as well, given the mirror effect between front and back cover: a chronology is thus established by purely formal means, but this chronology is not unilinear, since one is encouraged to read from A to Z and then back again from Z to A).

The images of fo(u)r watt do not “illustrate” Beckett’s text. Neither are they “abstract” in the traditional sense of the word: it is possible to identify as well as to name some of its components (a keyhole or a railroad track, for instance). But the lack of a directly visible narrative or thematic link between these images invites the reader to disclose another and perhaps more important layer of their meaning: the way in which they present a fictional world by taking their inspiration from the material properties of the book itself. The two pane window is not a “symbol” of the book; corollarily, the keyhole and the railroad track are not symbols of the reader’s focusing on the unknown territory and her or his trajectory from one page to another, respectively: they are nothing more or nothing less than the fictional transfer of it. However, this transfer is also something to be read in two ways: from the underlying material to the emerging fictional equivalent, but also from the latter to the former – and “resistance” of some drawings to nicely tie in with this type of reading scheme is also there to prevent us from opting for one type of reading at the expense of the other one.

The essential structure of the book exceeds the debate on the meaning of the drawings themselves. What matters is the dynamics created by the visual montage, which obeys a movement of fort-da. fo(u)r watt emerges as a fan-like or accordion-like structure, which can be opened and closed at will, but whose manipulation reveals –and each movement brings this structure more prominently to the fore– an endless spiral. The very last image, which reframes the initial representation of the diptych, shows the interplay between circle and point, the circle being broken, the point being elsewhere than in the center of the circle: a nice way as well to add a critical counterpoint to the initial quotation, which states that “all is said”.

Four watt 2