According to my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a florilegia is “a collection of choice extracts from literature; an anthology. . . a book describing choice flowers.” But this didn’t prepare me for what the narrator of Annabel Dover’s Florilegia throwing at me. Within the first few pages, she had referenced bear-baiting, the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace, Derek Jarman, AIDS, something called the Paper Museum, Windsor Castle, David Bowie, and well more than a dozen other famous names and obscure subjects, not to mention a mini-history of the poppy plant. The narrator, a woman of indeterminate age, was veering from one topic to another, sometimes lingering for only a paragraph before moving on, constantly searching for something. She quickly sifted through history, the arts, and literature, sometimes simply listing a kind of daisy-chain of events, as if trying to understand the hidden mechanics behind history.
Mathematician and daughter of Byron, Ada Lovelace dies. The first public toilet for women opens as does Great Ormond Street Hospital and the House of Commons, designed by Barry and Pugin. Pugin dies. Thomas Edison draws a quincunx on his forearm with his tattoo pencil machine; maybe his wife Mina’s name in Morse code. The cicada grub that John Pelly Atkins brings his wife, Anna, back from Haiti remains underground, buried at the edge of the asparagus patch in their Kent garden for another 17 years. When the cicada finally hatches in 1869, it is surrounded by dahlias. Anna has two years left of her life. Rasputin, Edwin Lutyens, Typhoid Mary, Matisse and Gandhi are born.
We’ve seen these kinds of lists before, when an author is trying to take the temperature of an era. But something different was going on here. Trying to get my bearing amidst all that Dover’s narrator was skimming past, I started to jot down recurring themes: women, women’s bodies, pregnancy & ripening & bursting, collections, objects & their surfaces, plants, family, Anna Atkins. Ultimately, more space in Florilegia is given over to Anna Atkins than any other subject. Atkins (1799-1871), an unusually educated woman for her era, was a British botanist and photographer who also happened to be the first person to ever create a photographic book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, in 1843. She seems of personal interest to Dover, Florilegia‘s author, an artist who has been writing about Atkins in art magazines recently. (This is Dover’s first novel.) Dover’s photographic work has been done in cyanotypes, the same print medium that Anna Atkins used more than one hundred fifty years ago. Why does Dover’s narrator identify so closely with Atkins and her cyanotypes? Because Atkins made her cyanotypes by placing plant specimens directly on top of the photographic paper, before exposing her arrangements to light, a practice without camera or lens. In traditional photography, objects are never in direct contact with the photographic paper; whatever is being photographed is, shall we say, translated by the light which passes through the lens. But in a cyanotype, an object might be said to speak directly to the photograph, and Dover’s narrator intuitively suspects that she needs objects to tell her the stories she requires.
The tempo of Florilegia eventually slows down, and throughout the book we see the narrator in the process of trying out and accepting Atkins as her artistic antecedent, the way you try on and acquire a new overcoat. The narrator also discovers several biographical parallels between herself and Atkins and, at times, the story lines of the two women start to blur.
But the narrator is also searching for objects that might help unlock her relationship with her mother and her father. About halfway through the book, she tries to delve into her history with her mother by recalling the artifacts and the pictures in her mother’s bedroom. This exercise leads to many memories but few revelations. “I wanted to break my mother’s paperweight apart, to find the living breathing truth within. But when I tried to get to the heather which, magnified, looks fresh with ecclesiastical purple flowers, and bubbles of dew upon them, it was just a dried piece of twig fused to the glass forever.” Later on in the book, she tracks down her father, who has been missing in her life since she was thirteen. He’s a man in his seventies, watering his garden in his torn underpants, with a paunch and “a huge fuzz of white hair and beard.” She can not identify with this man who is her father. But buried in his house, amongst the towers of old newspapers, are a few objects which bring memories flooding back of her childhood, of her sisters, and of how strange her parents seemed to her and her siblings.
The objects that she has both sought out and remembered from her family home have served as catalysts for memories, memories that can be scrutinized and interrogated, that may now be written about, and that sometimes conjure up images of flowers, artworks, animals, and strange, sometimes fantastical objects. These images are represented in the book by nearly one hundred small, b&w photographs. Even though the book’s photographs are identified with figure numbers, they rarely correspond exactly to the surrounding text. Instead, they often tease us to make some blind leap of faith at the poetic connection between the image and the text. (The figure numbers are only used to link to the List of Illustrations at the back of the book.) Some of the images in Florilegia are by Anna Atkins, many are by Dover herself. Other photographs are from sources such as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, film stills from Jean Cocteau and Alfred Hitchcock & others, and various art museums.
In the opening sentence, the narrator offers an alternate description for her book, beside a florilegia. She describes the print room at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum as “a hospital for fragments,” reflecting the many centuries’ worth of disparate and often fragile collections held there. Originally, it had seemed to me as if she hoped to heal her relationship with her mother and her father. But, in this novel of many small discoveries, perhaps the most important one was for the narrator to become reunited with memories of her sisters, with whom she joined in childhood rebellion against her parents. The book’s ending, an observation on how Anna Atkins organized her albums of cyanotypes of algae, seems to confirm this. “Anna, following Linnaeus’ binomial nomenclature, which presents plants as belonging to various branches of a family tree, with a ‘mother’ (genus) and a ‘father’ (family) arranges her algae into groups of siblings.”
This is a daring first novel, one that packs many micro-packets of information on every page and yet feels like an efficient, brief, novel. (The novel, which has no page numbers, is only about 120 page long.) Florilegia is published by the brand-new Moist Books, a Nottingham-based publisher which currently issues only three books a year. You can view a complete copy of Anna Atkins’ book Photographs of British Algaehere. Annabel Dover has an extensive website of her artwork.
In 2021, a number of novelists and poets used photographs in their books with surprising creativity. Every year, I post a listing of works of fiction and poetry that have been published that year which have embedded photographs, and this year’s list includes books by authors from Chile, Spain, Mexico, Japan, Denmark, Great Britain, and the U.S, as well as a translation of a 1935 volume by a Czech Surrealist poet. Novels by Bruno Lloret and Agustín Fernández Mallo continue to push the edge of what we think of as fiction in new directions. And then there is Annabel Dover’s wonderfully uncategorizable novel Florilegia (from the brand-new publisher Moist Books), which is a partly about the nineteenth-century British botanist and photographer Anna Atkins and partly an ode to objects and the very human stories that they can tell.
You can see previous listings for the years up to 2020 underneath the pull-down menu Photo-Embedded Literature at the top of Vertigo. If you know of a book of photo-embedded fiction or poetry that I have not listed, please let me know in a comment. My thanks to the many Vertigo readers who have already pointed me to books that I had not known about.
Caroline Clark, Sovetica. London: CB Editions, 2021. Clark’s book of poems is based upon her Russian husband’s childhood in the Soviet Union, with twenty color and b&w reproductions of his photographs.
Alejandra Costamagna. The Touch System. Oakland: Transit Books, 2021. A novel, translated from the 2018 Spanish original by Lisa Dillman. Ania, who seems to feel at home nowhere, journeys from Chile to Argentina to stay with her dying uncle. When he passes away, she uncomfortably inhabits his house, remembering summer vacations there as a child and discovering family mementos and photographs. The novel includes unattributed family snapshots and photographs of documents.
Annabel Dover. Florilegia. Moist Books, 2021. This little book, which defies description, seems to coalesce around the sensibility that objects, history, and the body are intertwined in unforeseeable ways. Dover’s novel is partly about the British botanist and photographer Anna Atkins (1799-1871), known for her cyanotypes of plants. With nearly one hundred small b&w photographs, many by the author. One of the publisher’s first books.
Paul Griffiths. The Tomb Guardians. London: Henningham Family Press, 2021. A novel about a pair of intertwining conversations. One is between two intellectuals discussing a series of four paintings (which are reproduced in color) by Bernhard Strigel (c.1461-1528) and the second conversation is amongst the guards depicted in those paintings.
James Hannaham. Pilot Imposter. NY: Soft Skull Press, 2021. Pilot Imposter is flash fiction that is partly a response to reading Pessoa & Co., Richard Zenith’s English translation of Fernando Pessoa’s selected poetry. Many of the brief pieces—either very short prose pieces or brief poems—deal with airplane crashes or other disasters and with identity. Interspersed are numerous photographs, usually of airplanes, credited to numerous public sources.
Ben Lerner & Barbara Bloom. Gold Custody. MACK, 2021. Described as a “collaborative book,” Gold Custody brings together Bloom’s artworks and Lerner’s prose poems. The publisher says the book deals with “false fathers, lice, stone fruit, Casper Rappaport, color words, alephs, forever stamps, and Goethe’s corridor.” and other topics.
Alison Jean Lester. Glide. Bench Press, 2021. A psychological mystery with semi-abstract b&w photographs by Andrew Gurnett.
Bruno Lloret. Nancy. San Francisco: Two Lines Press, 2021. Translated from the 2015 Spanish original by Ellen Jones. Lloret’s novel is about a Chilean woman who recalls her life from her deathbed. It employs unusual typography, x-ray photographs, stained pages, and other types of images, as she tells a story that deals with religion, violence, her husband, the disappeared, and more.
Agustín Fernández Mallo. The Things We’ve Seen. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021. Translated from the Spanish original by Thomas Bunstead. A novel of three seemingly unrelated sections involving three people and their strange journeys, with images that include such things as vintage snapshots and old newspaper clippings.
Valerie Mejer Caso. Edinburgh Notebook. Notre Dame, IN: Action Books, 2021. Translated by from the Spanish original Michelle Gil-Montero. A book-length poem written after her brother’s suicide. The poem contains a number of photographs by the American photographer Barry Shapiro. Valerie Mejer Caso is a writer from Mexico.
Minae Mizumura. An I-Novel. NY: Columbia University Press, 2021. Translated from the 1995 Japanese original by Juliet Winters Carpenter. This semi-autobiographical novel takes place over the course of a single day in the 1980s. A Japanese writer has lived much of her life in the U.S., but decides one day to return to Japan and write only in Japanese. It contains a number of uncredited, full-page b&w photographs.
Vítězslav Nezval. Woman in the Plural. Prague: Twisted Spoon Press, 2021. Translated from the 1936 original Czech by Stephan Delbos and Tereza Novická. Poems, diary entries, poetry for the stage, and surrealist experiments by the Czech poet, with photocollages by the well-known Czech avant-garde modernist Karel Teige.
Ursula Andkjær Olsen. Outgoing Vessel. South Bend, IN: Action Books, 2021. Translated from the 2015 Danish original by Katrine Øgaard Jensen. A series of poetic suites that serve as a single, long poem interspersed with photographic works by Sophia Kalkau (as seen on the cover). These poems of pain and loss stay at the spiritual level and read like beautiful hymns of despair.
David Peace. Tokyo Redux. London: Faber & Faber, 2021. The overdue, final book in the Tokyo trilogy by the British writer David Peace, who lived in Tokyo for many years. The novel revisits the true story of the mysterious death of the Head of the National Railways of Japan in 1949, a day after he had to lay off tens of thousands of workers. Run over and mauled by one of his own trains, it still hasn’t been definitively proven if Shimoyama’s death was a murder or suicide. In addition to investigating the days surrounding the death of Shimoyama, Peace’s novel also revisits two other episodes in Japan’s history. In 1964, a private detective, trying once again to solve the case, goes stark raving mad, and in 1988, as Emperor Hirohito slowly dies, translator and scholar Donald Reichenbach revisits his grim memories of the time when Shimoyama disappeared. The novel includes five uncredited photographs, one at the start of each chapter or section.
Sunjeev Sahota. China Room. London: Harvill, 2021. The British novelist’s first book has two intertwined stories. In one part, it’s the Punjab region, 1929. Three teen-aged women have just been wed to three brothers, but the men’s mother prevents each woman from knowing which brother is her husband. Their mother-in-law only permits their husbands to come to them in the dark in a room called the china room, in order to make love to their wives, and then depart. The alternating storyline is that of the book’s narrator, the eventual grandson of one of the three women, who lives in today’s London. He has decided to return to his aunt and uncle’s village in the Punjab to go cold turkey on his heroin addiction. But when they shun him because of his addiction, he opts to dry out in the same china room where his Grandmother once lived. The book ends with one uncredited photograph of an elderly woman holding a crying baby, which suggests that the book has a background in Sahota’s own biography.
Paul Scraton. In the Pines. London: Influx Press, 2021. A novella in which the narrator tells stories about the forest. With numerous photographs by the Berlin-based photographer Eymelt Sehmer. The photographs were made using the difficult nineteenth-century process of collodion photography, which was introduced in 1851 and became obsolete by the 1880s. The author and photographer discuss the book here.
John Jeremiah Sullivan. “Uhtceare.” In Paris Review 236 (Spring 2021) pp. 43-62. Sullivan’s story contains one full-page reproduction of part of a page of a newspaper from 1916 showing a photograph “Sleeping Quarters in British Trenches.” Uhtceare is an Old English word that refers to the anxiety experienced just before dawn. “It describes the moment when you wake up too early and can’t get back to sleep, no matter how tired you are, because you are worried about the day to come,” according to etymologist Mark Forsyth. Sullivan’s multi-part story is about sleep.
All things considered, 2021 was a very good reading year. What follows are the eighteen titles that I found outstanding or memorable in some way out of the eighty-plus books I managed to read in the past twelve Covid-clouded months: ten novels, seven non-fiction titles, and, just for fun, one work of detective fiction. Six of the titles were published for the first time in 2021, while the remainder range from 1925 through 2019. If you want to see everything that I read throughout 2021, you’ll find that list here underneath the tab for Old Reading Logs. I keep a running commentary on every book as I read it in my current annual Reading Log, which you can find as a pull-down menu elsewhere at the top of this page. So here’s my 2021 Favorite Books List, alphabetically by author.
Renata Adler. Speedboat. NY: New York Review Books, 2013. First published in 1976, Adler’s novel center’s around Jen Fain, a journalist and member of an unnamed New York City English faculty/ It’s the model for a whole genre of novels that consist of seemingly disconnected paragraphs or short sections, such as Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights or just about anything by Maggie Nelson. It’s brilliant and funny and cutting and the whole is much, much more than the sum of its parts, even if it is difficult to say just what the book is about. But it’s clear that Adler nailed the 70s without ever leaving her novel feel dated. “There are only so many plots. . . Maybe there are stories, even, like solitaire or canasta; they are shuffled and dealt, then they do or they do not come out. Or the deck falls on the floor.”
Carole Angier.Speak, Silence: In Search of W.G. Sebald. London: Bloomsbury, 2021. For those expecting a traditional biography, refereed by a neutral and omniscient power, Speak, Silence will be seen as flawed. Angier was hobbled from the start by powers beyond her control: several key people would not speak to her and the Wylie Agency would not grant her permission to quote from many of Sebald’s letters or from his books and interviews. I, however, am terribly glad she persisted with this book, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Limited as it is, it’s still is a remarkable and welcome achievement, chock full of new biographical information from start to finish. For my much longer review, see here.
Anuk Arudpragasam. A Passage North. NY: Random House, 2021. A Passage North is in the running for my book of the year. The plot is simple: Krishan, working for an NGO in Colombo, Sri Lanka, takes a long train journey north to attend a funeral. But the book is a complex meditation on freedom, men and women, duty, the aftereffects of war, and so much more. Arudpragasam is a student of philosophy, a stunning writer, and a very observant human being. I was bowled over by his powerful first novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage (Granta, 2016), which follows roughly twenty-four hours in the life of Dinesh, a young man living in a desperate refugee camp of some tens of thousands of people in Sri Lanka, and this is even stronger.
John Banville. Athena. NY: Knopf, 1995. I first read Athena twenty-five years ago and it entranced me even more this second time around. There are times when I wondered if Banville ever met an adjective he didn’t like, but I really admire the power of his prose style in books like Athena and The Book of Evidence (1989). Their long spiraling sentences, written with a robust vocabulary that make me keep my dictionary by my side, are perfectly fitted to Banville’s quirky story that blends snobby art history and Dublin criminal underworld. So when Banville breaks stride and writes a simple declarative sentence, it stops you dead in your tracks and you realize you are in the hands of a master writer at the top of his game.
Michel Butor. Passing Time. Manchester: Pariah Press, 2021. First published in France in 1956 as L’Emploi du Temps. Pariah Press has undertaken the wonderful job of republishing for the first time the 1960 English translation by Jean Stewart, which has long (and criminally) been out of print. Passing Time tells the story of Jacques Revel, a Frenchman who arrives in the English city of Bleston (modeled after Manchester), having been hired by a small company for one year to translate business documents. Over the course of his year he makes a few friends, starts to fall in love with one woman, then shifts his attention to her sister, all the while exploring the city on foot and by bus. Midway through his term, one of his new acquaintances is nearly killed by a car in a hit-and-run accident, and Revel believes that something he did may have set off the chain of events that led to the attempted murder. So, halfway through his year, he sets out to play detective and to see if his actions were in any way connected to that event. He tries to remember everything he can about his stay in Bleston and, to aid himself, he decides to document it all in writing, which becomes the book we are reading. The result is that time—past, present, and future—forms the three interwoven strands of the text we are reading. Passing Time is genetically related to two important artistic movements taking place in the mid-1950s in France—the New Novel (or Nouveau Roman) and the Situationist International. I think it’s one of the great novels of the twentieth century. See my longer review here.
Laynie Browne, ed. A Forest on Many Stems: Essays on the Poet’s Novel. Brooklyn: Nightboat Books, 2021. I couldn’t resist a book with this title, even though it was 580 pages long. It has fifty-some-odd essays, each discussing a single author and usually a single book. What is a poet’s novel? Well, too many of the essayists tried to answer that question to let the reader come to any clear conclusion. But here’s how the book’s editor tried to answer that question: “The texts represented in this book are the result of writers who are not content to reside in the known, who in the face of limitations of one form will create another. The leap from one textual behavior to another suggests an emphasis on process, and an impulse against completion in favor of detour, fracture, digression, displacement and discontinuity.” In other words, it’s a bit like trying to nail ice cream to the wall. A few too many of the essays are too hyper-academic for my taste, but the great joy of reading A Forest on Many Stems is that it led me to look into novels I had never heard about or considered reading before. There are essays on writers as disparate as Lewis Carroll. H.D., Lyn Hejinian, Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde, Mina Loy, Michael Ondaatje, Fernando Pessoa, Leslie Scalapino, Gertrude Stein, Jean Toomer, Rosemarie Waldrop, and Phillip Whalen. Dan Beachy-Quick writes about W.G. Sebald’s book The Ring of Saturn. He suggests that “one marker of a poet’s novel is a willingness to trust distraction, to follow digression.” So true.
Edmund de Waal. Letters to Camondo. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021. The British ceramicist and memoir-writer Edmund de Waal writes some fifty-eight “letters” to Moïse Camondo (1860-1935), who had been a friend and neighbor of his relative Charles Ephrussi (1849-1905), who featured prominently in his earlier book The Hare with Amber Eyes. During World War II, Camondo’s daughter Béatrice, her husband, and their two children, all Jews, were deported and sent to Auschwitz, where all four perished. In this beautiful and haunting book, we learn a fair amount about Camondo and about the French decorative arts, which he collected passionately. But we also learn about the French antisemitism which affected the lives and deaths of the Camondo family. Today, the Camondo mansion in Paris is the Musée Nissim de Camondo, a branch of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.
Percival Everett. Erasure. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2001. In the first of Percival Everett’s two novels on this list, Thelonius “Monk” Ellison is a an academic and a novelist accused of writing “dense, obscure novels.” He’s initially scornful, when he sees the kind of money and movie offers thrown at the authors of books like We Lives in Da Ghetto. But eventually, under personal economic pressures, he writes a ghetto novel of his own in pseudo-vernacular Black argot under a pseudonym and strikes it rich. The dialectic between his academic desire to remain a pure, marginalized novelist read by an elite few or to be an economically independent black entrepreneur who caters to popular demands, becomes a fascinating tug of war in Everett’s hands.
Percival Everett. The Trees. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2021. I binge-read Everett’s satirical novel about lynching and Emmett Till and two weeks later I could barely remember many of the plot details. That’s the risk Everett takes in this farcical, biting book. The gruesome murders of white folks, accompanied by the bodies of seemingly lynched Black corpses, are offset by Everett’s almost breezy narrative, with its Keystone Kops, stereotypical hillbilly rednecks, and characters with names right out of Thomas Pyncheon—delicious names like Delroy Digby, the Doctor Reverend Fancel Fondle, Philworth Bass, Junior Junior, Chester Hobnobber, McDonald McDonald, Helvetical Quip, Pick L. Dill, and Pinch Wheyface. But the book is deadly serious and, like America itself, we have to ignore a world of distractions if we’re going to be able to see Mama Z’s filing cabinets, where there is a record of “almost everything ever written about every lynching in these United States of America since 1913.” Powerful. Read it twice. See my review here.
Ruth Franklin. A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. An exceptional book about some of the writers who ignored Theodor Adorno’s infamous maxim that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” although in this case Franklin focuses on novelists. A terrific writer and a judicious thinker, she studies six “witnesses” (writers who have written novels about their own Holocaust experiences), four “who came after” (writers who didn’t experience the Holocaust first hand but still wrote about it, including W.G. Sebald), and a couple of second- and third-generation writers (Jonathan Safran Foer, etc.). One of her main achievements is to try to untangle the various ethical conundrums that hover about these books, deserved or not.
Dan Gretton. I You We Them. Journeys Beyond Evil: The Desk Killers in History and Today. Volume 1. London: William Heinemann, 2019. This true doorstop of a book (1,089 pages) is an extended attempt to understand how people “sit at desks” or otherwise act remotely at jobs that knowingly result in the deaths of people, whether these people are Nazi criminals ordering the Final Solution or are corporate executives making decisions that will kill locals in the Niger Delta or some other far-off location. Gretton’s book is simultaneously an act of research (who knew what? who did what?), an exploration of the psychology of desk killers, and a tentative exploration into the subject of repentance. Needless to say, this is a tough book to read and it must have been even tougher to spend twenty years or more researching and writing it. But Gretton wisely intersperses the tough stuff with both snippets and longer pieces of memoir-like writing that are more or less unrelated to the bulk of the book. At first I thought this was really gratuitous, but I came to see that, amongst a thousand pages of horrendous acts, we need to see what normalcy looks like now and then.
Wolfgang Koeppen. Death in Rome. NY: Norton, 2001. Translated from the 1954 German original by Michael Hofmann. Throughout this novel, the reader follows members of the Pfaffrath family members as they explore the Eternal City of Rome, meet in various combinations, plot, sin, and discover family secrets. The two most prominent family members are Gottlieb Judejahn, a former SS general who has been convicted and sentenced to death in absentia at the Nuremberg Trails, but who now runs the military of an unnamed Arab nation under an assumed name, and Siegfried Pfaffrath, a young German composer whose composition is having its premiere soon at a concert hall here. But family secrets and irrepressible personal urges will ultimately prove fatal. It is Koeppen’s conceit is to bring these Germans to Rome, a city “built on the bodies of its victims,” let them loose, and watch them self-destruct. In doing so, everyone’s true nature shines through, exposing the forces that Koeppen felt led the German people astray. Full review here.
Wendy Lower. The Ravine: A Family, A Photograph, A Holocaust Massacre Revealed. NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021. A discomfiting detective story. Historian Wendy Lower takes a single newly-discovered photograph of the horrific final moments when a mother and two children are actually being shot by German officials and local collaborators and tracks it back to the site where the murders occurred in 1944 in the Ukraine. Along the way, she discovers the identity of the photographer, the shooters, and the likely victims. This is how Holocaust research is really done. A short, utterly fascinating book. Thanks to Dorian at https://eigermonchjungfrau.blog/ for pointing me to this one.
Javier Marias. Berta Isla. NY: Knopf, 2019. Translated from the 2017 Spanish original by Margaret Jull Costa. In many of his books, Javier Marias is obsessed with the trappings of traditional marriage. He has found ways to put the marital ideals of faithfulness and trust to the ultimate test through infidelity, murder, and other trials. Here he tests a marriage by dishonesty, disappearance, and silence. A Spaniard, Tomás Nevinson, is a spy for Britain’s MI6. He’s married to Berta Isla, has two children, and goes off frequently for weeks or months at a time on jobs he is not permitted to explain to her. Much of the book is told from her perspective as she tries to cope with a husband she can never really, truly know. And then, without warning, Tomás disappears, apparently for good, and with no explanation from MI6. This thought-provoking and compelling novel, which returns to some of the characters of his Your Face Tomorrow trilogy from a decade ago, is set among the ethical uncertainties of post-Franco Spain.
Ali Smith. The Accidental. NY: Penguin, 2005. A young woman’s car breaks down near the rental home of the Smart family during their summer holiday in Norfolk. Amber, youngish, but of indeterminate age, serves as the agent of change who transforms each member of the Smart family into a magnified version of themselves. Thirteen-year old Aster, teen-aged Michael and the parents, Eve and Michael, each become individually ensnared in Amber’s world in different ways, until the summer comes to a dramatic and traumatic ending. I’ve tried and failed to like two previous novels by Ali Smith, but this one, her breakthrough novel, hit it out of the park. It’s formally inventive, if not groundbreaking, and it’s terrifically funny and nicely cynical. It’s one of those rare novels that seems as if it must have been absolutely thrilling to write, day after day.
Rebecca Solnit. Wanderlust: A History of Walking. NY: Penguin, 2001. Solnit gives the reader much, much more than you would expect from the title. In addition to a history of walking, hiking, pilgrimages, marches, and just about everything else that happens when people move their two feet, Solnit deals with the issues women face on the streets, the problems of the suburbs, and recent attempt to curb walking on sidewalks and other normally public thoroughfares through a variety of legal means. Any book by Solnit is a winner as far as I am concerned.
Charles Todd. A Test of Wills. NY: HarperCollins, 1996. The first of the Inspector Ian Rutledge mysteries takes place in Warwickshire, just after WWI. Rutledge has to deal with a death in a small village where the primary witnesses seem to be an unreliable war veteran with shell shock and a hysterical child. But Rutledge also has to deal with his own war-related issues: is he still the detective he was before enduring the trenches of France and coming home to find that his fiancé has left him? This is the best writing I have run across in a mystery in some time. Rutledge is a well-rounded character, the time and place seem realistically portrayed, not set pieces, and the key characters are given psychological depth. I look forward to more of these pleasant escapes, although, sadly, one half of the “Charles Todd” team has just passed away as I write this.
Virginia Woolf. Mrs. Dalloway. 1925. This is a re-reading and it still astonishes. Every page is a delight to read. Mrs. Dalloway is even better than I remembered, though I think Woolf struggled to make the party section work as well as the rest of the book. What I had forgotten was how little of the book is seen through Clarissa Dalloway’s perspective—maybe one-tenth?
The main character in John le Carré’s posthumously published novel Silverview (Viking, 2021) is Julian Lawndsley, a man who had impetuously fled the rat-race in London for East Anglia, where, with no previous experience whatsoever, he has somewhat naively opened Lawndsley’s Better Books. As Silverview opens, Julian is confronted by a repeat visitor to his bookshop, one who has yet to buy a book but nevertheless has a suggestion for his inventory.
“It is my considered view that no local interest shelf in this magnificent county, or in any other county for that matter, should regard itself as complete without Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. But I see you are not familiar with Sebald.”
See from what, Julian wonders, even as he concedes that the name is indeed new to him, and all the more so since Edward Avon has used the German pronunciation, Zaybult.
“Rings of Saturn, I must warn you in advance, is not a guidebook as you and I might understand the term. I’m being pompous. Will you forgive me?’
“Rings of Saturn is a literary sleight of hand of the first water. Rings of Saturn is a spiritual journey that takes off from the marches of East Anglia and embraces the entire cultural heritage of Europe, even unto death. Sebald, W. G.”–this time using the English pronunciation and waiting while Julian writes it down. “Formerly Professor of European Literature at our University of East Anglia, a depressive like the best of us, now, alas, dead. Weep for Sebald.”
Not long thereafter, a dozen copies of The Rings of Saturn duly arrive at Lawndsley’s Better Books. But le Carré is not finished using Sebald in his final novel of twenty-first century spies. Edward Avon now asks Julian if he wouldn’t mind performing “a small errand” on his behalf the next time he is in London.
“And if the errand I am asking were to involve taking a confidential message to [a certain lady without my wife’s knowledge], might I count on your absolute and permanent discretion in all circumstances?” asks Avon. Julian is instructed to sit outside a certain theater holding a copy of The Rings of Saturn “for purposes of identification.”
Needless to say, since this is a novel by John le Carré, the mission that Edward sends the poor, innocent bookseller on is not between two lovers, and before long Julian is caught up in an international cat-and-mouse game between spies that is way above his pay grade.
Later, when Edward needs to say a mysterious farewell to Julian, he arranges for them to meet one more time and the location he picks is Orford Ness, a location of special interest to Sebald. Lawndsley “had battled his way through Rings of Saturn. He knew what to expect of the godforsaken loneliness of that outpost in the middle of nowhere. He knew that even fishermen supposedly found it unbearable.” Sebald’s own visit to Orford Ness, the abandoned secret research station of England’s Ministry of Defence, which he described in The Rings of Saturn, left him feeling as if he had found himself “amidst the remains of our own civilization after its extinction in some future catastrophe.”
le Carré’s playful homage to Sebald takes a little poke at Sebald’s reputation for a being a melancholy, “depressive” personality, but seems to bear a genuine message of appreciation for The Rings of Saturn. Silverview is an entertaining novel, but ultimately nowhere near le Carré’s high point.
W.G. Sebald’s posthumously published book Campo Santo (Hamish Hamilton, 2003) opens with a series of short pieces he wrote about the trip he took to Corsica around 1990. In the title piece “Campo Santo,” he described one of his days on the island: “My first walk the day after my arrival in Piana took me out on a road that soon begins falling away steeply in terrifying curves, sharp bends and zigzags, leading past almost vertical rocky precipices densely overgrown with green scrub, and so down to the bottom of a ravine opening out into the Bay of Ficajola several hundred meters below.” After a swim in the bay, during which he had a terrifying moment of vertigo, Sebald climbed the steep path back up to the village of Piana where he visited a graveyard, which resulted in what I think is one of his most evocative pieces of writing. As he carefully picked his way through the “rather desolate graveyard” with its “untidy rows” of gravestones, he thought about death and about the complicated, fraught relationship between the dead and the living. For seventeen pages he ruminated about such things as the weeds that had grown up around the graves “to form actual herbariums,” the “oval sepia portraits” of the dead that were embedded in some of the gravestones, the inscriptions and the names on the gravestones, and the history of Corsican burial rites and superstitions surrounding death. It’s obvious to the reader that Sebald had studied this subject with more than just a tourist’s interest.
In 2019, the Finnish photographer Elina Brotherus, one of the finest photographers working today, went to Corsica with “Campo Santo” in mind. There she created a project called “Sebaldiana. Memento mori,” which consists of thirty-six large color photographs and a group of fifty-seven cyanotypes that form her own “Herbarium Pianense.” She has generously given me permission to reproduce eight of the photographs from that series, along with her artist’s statement about the project, which can be read after the photographs.
This December will mark the twentieth anniversary of the death of W.G. Sebald. His colleague at the University of East Anglia, Dr Nick Warr, Lecturer in Art History and Curation at School of Art, Media and American Studies, has written about Sebald’s life, legacy, and times at the University in a lovely piece called “A View Between Thresholds.” Read it and see what Warr is still discovering about Sebald, even today.
“We got ourselves some kind of crime here, Lordy.”
If it weren’t for the subject of Percival Everett’s novel The Trees, it might be tempting to think it slightly off-beat like Thomas Pyncheon’s comic, conspiratorial The Crying of Lot 49, with its two-dimensional characters and the loopy names that Everett doles out, like Junior Junior, Delroy Digby, the Doctor Reverend Cad Fondle and his wife Fancel Fondle, Philworth Bass, Chester Hobnobber, McDonald McDonald, Helvetica Quip, Pick L. Dill, and Pinch Wheyface. On a superficial level, The Trees (Graywolf Press, 2021) is a loose parody of the classic murder mystery. Who murdered Junior Junior, Wheat Bryant, and Granny C and left the bodies of the men genitally mutilated? The local “idiot deputies” are inept—and racist, to boot—so a couple of African American Special Detectives from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and a Special Agent from the FBI are brought in to try to solve the case. But Everett keeps upping the ante. Why are there Black corpses next to each of their bodies? Bodies that keep disappearing from the morgue or from police custody! And what’s with the copycat murders that start cropping up all over America? What’s in Mama Z’s back room? For a short spell, this could almost pass as a Pyncheon novel.
Except that The Trees turns out to be about lynching. It’s also about a particular lynching. The first clue, which I didn’t catch, is the novel’s location: Money, Mississippi (“named in that persistent Southern tradition of irony”). It turns out that the fathers of Junior Junior and Wheat Bryant—men named J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant—were the two men who belatedly confessed to the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955, after being found innocent at trial. Granny C is Carolyn Bryant, whose false claim that Emmett Till flirted with her led to his lynching. Someone in Everett’s novel is seeking a kind of “retributive justice,” more than a half century after the original event.
David Anderson’s recent book, Landscape and Subjectivity in the Work of Patrick Keiller, W.G. Sebald, and Iain Sinclair (Oxford, 2020), begins by quoting from Rebecca Solnit’s book Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Solnit has made it clear to us how closely related walking and creativity are. “To write,” she says in that important book, “is to carve a new path through the terrain of the imagination.” Since the age of Wordsworth, walking and literature, along with the other arts, have become increasingly entwined. Anderson has chosen three of my favorite artists—two writers and one filmmaker—for whom walking plays an essential role. Although, I must say that walking somehow seems to me like the exact wrong word for what these three did within the context of their art. Anderson uses the word “peregrination” once or twice and I think this is where we should start.
A peregrination usually implies a long, often meandering walk, perhaps somewhat geographically aimless and often directed by goals other than a physical destination. Anderson first examines Patrick Keiller’s trilogy of pseudo-documentary films, London (1994), Robinson in Space (1997), and Robinson in Ruins (2010), in which an enigmatic and melancholy flaneur named Robinson takes meandering journeys around parts of England, while a narrator recites an often ironic text that is somewhat, but not always, related to whatever we are watching on screen. Keiller uses “melancholia and estrangement” to achieve his goal to create a “compelling reimagination of [the UK] landscape.” Keiller (like the other two artists in this study) often focuses in on the human impact on the landscape, especially the ways in which technology and bad public policy have changed, damaged, and restricted the use of the land. If you haven’t seen these films—especially London—I encourage you to seek them out.
One of the latest projects of London-based Artangel Trust, which prides itself on going “where others fear to tread,” is Afterness at Orford Ness, a long, strangely angled spit of land on the Suffolk coast on England’s east side. In the 1920s, Orford Ness was taken over by Britain’s Ministry of Defence and over the next eighty or so years was used for a variety of often top-secret military experiments, including radio navigation and radar. It is now owned and operated by the National Trust, which tightly controls access to the land because of its fragile habitats and the site’s former military history.
W.G. Sebald famously described and inserted photographs of the visit he made to Orford Ness sometime in the early 1990s in The Rings of Saturn. He had a local fisherman ferry him over and leave him to wander the landscape and inspect the abandoned military ruins. “The closer I came to these ruins, the more any notion of a mysterious isle of the dead receded, and the more I imagined myself amidst the remains of our own civilization after its extinction in some future catastrophe. . . wandering among heaps of scrap metal and defunct machinery”
For Afterness, the artists Iain Chambers, Alice Channer, Graham Cunnington, Brian d’Souza, Axel Kacoutié, Ilya Kaminsky, Paul Maheke, Emma McNally, Rachel Pimm, Tatiana Trouvé, and Chris Watson have each done a site specific project at Orford Ness. Several artists have made work that can also be experienced online. When you’re browsing the website, simply click on the “Read More” button for each artist to see what options exist.
The reviews have been fantastic. I especially like what Laura Cumming wrote about Afterness in The Guardianearlier this summer. Here’s partof one paragraph:
Everything irresistibly proposes a question on this island. Why are the poppies yellow and cerise, like a colour-blindness test? Why are there miniature deer in a reserve without any trees? Why are the hares so huge and what do they live on? What did the scientists really discover in these crumbling structures, and who designed them?
Afterness continues through October 30. Visits to Orford Ness are limited to certain days of the week and access is by ferry only. See this page on the Artangel website for more details on how to visit and purchase tickets.
For a different artist’s response to Orford Ness, take a look at Emily Richardson’s six-minute video Cobra Mist over on Vimeo. Made in 2008, Cobra Mist explores the landscape of Orford Ness using a 16mm anamorphic camera lens and time-lapse and motion control techniques.
The lighthouse that appears in Cobra Mist was decommissioned in 2013 and demolished in 2020. Upon learning this, the pop musician Thomas Dolby (who I listened to endlessly in the 80s and 90s) made a documentary film about it called The Invisible Lighthouse, which he took on the road through the US and UK, accompanying the film with live music, narration, and sound effects. There is a great five-minute teaser at his website.
In his new book Golden Apples of the Sun (Mack, 2021), Teju Cole’s photographs, which in the past have reflected the tensely energized vision of a global citizen, have become contained, muted, domestic. Their primary subject is now the kitchen. Instead of looking out across Berlin or Beirut or Brazzaville, we’re looking down at his dark counter tops and the burners of his gas stove, which is black, so that the backgrounds of the photographs are dark, somber, practically reflectionless. There are utensils, pots and pans, dishes, towels, a jigger, a creamer, glass and plastic storage containers, not much in the way of food, an apple, an egg, a lime, a boule, some lemons, half an onion, a sprig of thyme. The framing is tight, turning some objects into geometric shapes, cutting others off abruptly. This is not about cooking, it’s about post-cooking detritus.
The images themselves seem a bit buried somewhere within the matte printing on the matte paper selected by the designer Morgan Crowcroft-Brown. I find myself peering close to the page, looking for the edges of objects, looking for details that have fallen into the creamy blacks and lush blackish blues of Cole’s photographs. It is clear that Cole wanted these to be modest images. What he had in mind were Dutch seventeenth century still life paintings of fruits and vegetables and the tabletop paintings of Giorgio Morandi, many of whose works depict endless rearrangements of nearly monochrome jars and bottles.
But should we think of Cole’s photographs as domestic images? Domesticity implies something that relates to a home or a family or a person who performs menial tasks. These kitchen images seem inert. They depict a stasis, a frozen now. Rarely do we have any sense of what has happened the moment before the photograph was taken or what was likely to happen next. Interspersed between the kitchen photographs are full-page photographs that show hand-written recipes for dishes like puddings and marmalade, plus helpful instructions for cooking-related tasks, such as how “To Collar a Calves Head.” The recipes are printed on brown paper reminiscent of that which a butcher might use to wrap meat. Both the immaculate penmanship and the language of the recipes are obviously antiquated, and Cole tells us in his essay in the book that these pages are from an anonymous eighteenth-century cookbook from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Cole lives. Cole photographed them so that the recipes are legible, but are sometimes cropped, making them serve as a kind of wallpaper for the kitchen images. Some of the eighteenth-century Cambridge households from which this cookbook might have come would have had domestics, black kitchen help, maybe even slaves. Very suddenly the innocent question “Should we think of Cole’s photographs as domestic images?” becomes fraught. Now we are in the realm of history. Here’s Cole, from his essay:
I cannot now find the interview in which W.G. Sebald said that not only had he never been to Auschwitz, but that he would never wish to do so. You see everything there is to be seen—I seem to recall him saying—and then, what, they have a restaurant there, and you go and sit down to eat? But, in counterpoint: I think of those who experience an entire terrain as the site of atrocity. In the United States of America, for instance—especially for indigenous people and for Black people—there is no part of the terrain that does not reverberate with horror, torture, and the most perverse brutalities. The site of the massacre is not delimited. The map is equal to the territory and yet we must live. We still have to go in and sit down to eat.
In the upper corner of every page where there is a kitchen photograph there is a faint date stamp, like the kind you find on digital images. The dates begin SEPT 29 13:13 and progress chronologically through NOV 3 16:02. The year, Cole tells us in his essay, is 2020. Pandemic Year. George Floyd Year. Election Year. Thus the final photograph was taken on Election Day. Cole says he did not rearrange anything for his photographs but he surely he knew what he was doing when he photographed the edge of a knife on Election Day, 2020 for the final image in his book.
Some photography is about showing, the photographs in this book are about seeing, observing. Seeing is a democratic process. No two of us will concentrate on the same details, follow the same flight path around these rectangles, draw the same conclusions. For Cole, these photographs were part of a process, one with its own set of rules. Take photographs every day. Don’t arrange anything. Observe. Repeat.
The untitled essay that comes at the end of Golden Apples serves as a kind of running commentary on some of the things that Cole observed and remembered and pondered during the same time in which he took the kitchen and cookbook images. Photographing in his kitchen and reading the centuries-old recipes reminded him of the hunger he experienced as a child, the still life paintings of the French painter Chardin, the music of the Smashing Pumpkins, the poetry of Louise Glück, slavery, Zen, John Cage, Cargill and the salt trade, hunger strikes, Covid-19, the photographer Chris Killip (who had just died), Giorgio Morandi, J.M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello, voting, and much more. It’s a solid thirty-page block of writing that morphs from one subject to another the way that dreams often do.
The Song of Wandering Aengus
By William Butler Yeats
I went out to the hazel wood, Because a fire was in my head, And cut and peeled a hazel wand, And hooked a berry to a thread; And when white moths were on the wing, And moth-like stars were flickering out, I dropped the berry in a stream And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor I went to blow the fire a-flame, But something rustled on the floor, And someone called me by my name: It had become a glimmering girl With apple blossom in her hair Who called me by my name and ran And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering Through hollow lands and hilly lands, I will find out where she has gone, And kiss her lips and take her hands; And walk among long dappled grass, And pluck till time and times are done, The silver apples of the moon, The golden apples of the sun.
I began Vertigo in 2013 primarily as a vehicle for writing about W.G. Sebald and the history of fiction and poetry with photographs embedded as part of the author’s original text. I now write about a broader range of books that interest me. You can see my 11 favorite posts (from more than 600) by clicking on the Top Posts tab. And check out my yearly Reading Log, where I write something about every book I read. The categories below are only a handful of the topics covered in this blog over the years. Please use the Search field below to see if an author, book, or topic has been mentioned or discussed. To contact me, just leave a comment at any post and I will answer. Enjoy! Terry