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Jan Peter Tripp’s Portraits of Sebald

In Heike Polster’s book The Aesthetics of Passage: The Imag(in)ed Experience of Time in Thomas Lehr, W.G. Sebald, and Peter Handke, which I wrote about recently, Polster reproduces a painting that I had never seen before by Sebald’s close friend Jan Peter Tripp, which he created in 2003 as a memorial portrait of Sebald. Titled “L’Oeil oder die weisse Zeit” (“The Eye or the White Time”) the acrylic on canvas painting is divided into five sections, four of which represent Sebald seen from different angles. Looked at sequentially, the four portraits depict Sebald gradually disappearing and a bright light coming into view over his head, while the bottom section represents a mysterious still life comprised of pencil stubs and other objects, some of which appear to be small, polished stones. According to Polster, the painting was made on the second anniversary of Sebald’s death and is currently owned by Sebald’s widow, Ute Sebald.

The reproduction below is more or less how the painting appears in Polster’s book.

SONY DSC Read more

“Gazing into Eternity”: Sebald & The Aesthetics of Passage

Garrard and Temple

Now, as the edges of my field of vision are beginning to darken, I sometimes wonder if I will ever finish the Temple and whether all I have done so far has not been a wretched waste of time. But on other days, when the evening light streams in through the window and I allow myself to be taken in by the overall view, then I see for a moment the Temple with its antechambers and the living quarters for the priesthood, the Roman garrison, the bath-houses, the market stalls, the sacrificial altars, covered walkways and the booths of the moneylenders, the great gateways and staircases, the forecourts and outer provinces and the mountains in the background, as if everything were already completed and as if I were gazing into eternity.

This is W.G. Sebald’s narrator summarizing for the reader the statements made to the narrator by “Thomas Abrams” in The Rings of Saturn. Abrams, a pseudonym for Alec Garrard, spent some thirty years making an archeologically-correct model of the Temple of Jerusalem from 1980 until his death in 2010. To scholar Heike Polster, a professor of German at the University of Memphis, “the parallels between Abrams’ model building and Sebald’s poetics warrant a comparison.”

In her 2009 book The Aesthetics of Passage: The Imag(in)ed Experience of Time in Thomas Lehr, W.G. Sebald, and Peter Handke (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann), Polster “investigates how we came to image time and space in the first place, and how specific narratives and aesthetic images  can probe philosophical concepts of temporality and spatiality.”

The point of this book is to map an alternative to the concept of simultaneity, one which is oriented toward Deleuzian models of the imaging of time. This innovative concept, which I call “heterochronicity,” denotes visual strategies that seek to parallelize temporally non-identical acts of visual reception…It builds on recent work in anthropology and social geography that has emphasized the evocative potential of space….Hence, this book develops a nuanced vocabulary able to determine the narrative and aesthetic strategies of images and texts which attempt to show past times, and unfolding times without changing the frame of observation. Read more

The Deconstructive Theatre Project’s “Searching for Sebald”

Searching for Sebald play

Based in Brooklyn, The Deconstructive Theatre Project has announced that its upcoming project is Searching for Sebald. Here’s the description of the project from their website:

Suggested by the life and writings of “memory’s Einstein” W.G. “Max” Sebald, The Deconstructive Theatre Project’s newest hybrid media experience, Searching for Sebald, is a fractured ghost story that excavates the hidden spaces lurking between geography and time, the imagined and the real, and the language in a book and the cinema in your mind. An innovative and striking collision of live movie making, analogue film reels, live Foley soundscapes, and animation, Searching for Sebald is the second in the company’s series of projects exploring the neuroscience of creativity through the construction of vivid and emotional theatrical events.

The group describes itself as an “ensemble creative laboratory that exists to devise and premiere new multidisciplinary work… at the intersection of live performance, neuroscience, and interactive technology.” Two preview performances showing Searching for Sebald as a work in progress are scheduled for October 21 & 22, 2015, with the world premiere scheduled for the spring of 2016. The previews will be held at The Green Building 452 Union St Brooklyn, NY, 11231. More details here. They have posted a very brief trailer on Vimeo.

The Triumphant Humiliation of Enrique Vila-Matas

Illogic of Kassel

In 2012, Enrique Vila-Matas was among a small number of writers invited to participate in thirteenth version of the massive quinquennial art exhibition Documenta held in Kassel, Germany. Vila-Matas was asked to serve as “writer-in-residence” at a local Chinese restaurant called Dschingis Khan and to deliver a lecture. In the novelized version of his time in Kassel, The Illogic of Kassel (New Directions, 2015), the entire experience was a blow to his self-esteem, a humiliation that Vila-Matas seemed to fully enjoy. All in all, he writes, he spent a few miserable half days in the restaurant where he was only visited by a couple of unpleasant characters, while his lecture was attended by two to three dozen largely uninterested people. And yet, Vila-Matas, much to his surprise, finds that he was utterly euphoric in Kassel, instead of being his usual anguished and melancholic self.

The Illogic of Kassel has all of the trappings of being an ephemeral, let’s-make-something-out-of-this-lousy-experience book. And yet, to my mind, it’s Vila-Matas’ best book to date for several important reasons. First, he has finally nailed his own character. In previous books, we are usually meant to see the main characters as versions of the author himself – a cranky, often miserable, writer deeply enmeshed in literature but struggling with his own writing. In Illogic, Vila-Matas has retouched the outline of his character to be marvelously endearing Chaplinesque writer who is bumbling and canny and honest to a fault. His character has a mercurial temperament that can shift instantaneously from suspicion to guilt, from deviousness to feeling wounded, from being petty to displaying inordinate pride, all in the space of a few sentences. Stuck for a week amongst the international art set of Documenta, Vila-Matas portrays himself as an inarticulate amateur in the art-speak that is their lingua franca. And yet his character gives us, his readers, a highly sensitized and affecting response to the many works of contemporary art he encounters. Read more

Interiorizing Mexico City

Interior Circuit

Between 1977 and 2000, I traveled to Mexico City a dozen times or more, exploring the neighborhoods and suburbs of this bewildering megalopolis which often feels more like an endless series of villages than one giant city. After an absence of nearly two decades I began to read Francisco Goldman’s recent book The Interior Circuit (Grove Press, 2014) and immediately felt that I had been plunged back into the heart of Mexico City.  The book’s title refers both to the expressway that rings the interior of the city as well as a poem by Efraín Huerta. But it also serves as a trope for Goldman himself as he restlessly tries to define the power that his adopted city holds over him.

On the fifth anniversary of the death of his wife Aura from a bodysurfing accident, Goldman, at nearly sixty years of age, decides to take driving lessons as a way of conquering his fear of Mexico City’s notorious traffic. It’s a way of pretending to take control over an uncontrollable situation. By the end of the book, Goldman has successfully navigated his rental car to a site chosen by chance on a map of the city, and his journey has led the reader through his ongoing grief for Aura, the dismaying 2012 election of Enrique Peña Nieto, and the disturbing expansion of violence brought down on the country by its infamous drug cartels. Read more

Recently Read: Valeria Luiselli & Sergio Pitol


Today, two very different books by Mexican writers: Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd (Coffee House Press, 2013) and Sergio Pitol’s The Journey (Deep Vellum, 2015).


The subway, its multiple stops, its breakdowns, its sudden accelerations, its dark zones, could function as the space-time schema for this other novel.

Valeria Luiselli’s unnamed narrator is a young Mexican woman struggling to become a writer. There are three strands to her narrative: her years as a single woman working for a small publishing company in New York City, the succeeding years as a young mother in a dissolving marriage in Mexico City, and her ongoing research (which quickly becomes an obsession) on the Mexican writer Gilberto Owen (1904-1952). In rather formulaic fashion, the three narrative strands blend into one.  Faces in the Crowd comes highly hyped: “fearless…precociously masterful” (Francisco Goldman) and “the best of all possible debuts’ (Enrique Vila-Matas), but I was underwhelmed. Here is Luiselli’s narrator in a subway car as she imagines seeing the face of Gilberto Owen in the window:

When there was once again darkness outside the window, I saw my own blurred image on the glass. But it wasn’t my face; it was my face superimposed on his – as if his reflection had been stamped onto the glass and now I was reflected inside that double trapped on my carriage window.

OK. Got it. Read more

Hell on Earth

Winkler When the Time Comes

If there is a Hell on earth, the Austrian novelist Josef Winkler seems to be nominating his own country for that honor. Winkler’s When the Time Comes  is set in a small village in Carinthia in the south of Austria and the central figure in this novel is the bone burner, a man who fills “his satchel up with bones, especially in winter, when the farmers slaughtered their pigs and cows…”

All winter he kept the bones hidden from his dog in a niche in his goat pen. In spring, with the first thaw, before the draught horses were driven over the fields hitched to plows, the bone burner would rebuild his bone furnace. He would place the bone-filled clay vessel in a hole in the ground atop glowing coals, cover it with dirt and grass and let the bones simmer until they secreted  the viscous pandapigl.

The pandapigl is then smeared with a crow’s feather onto the bodies of the field horses to protect them from biting insects. In the mind of the anonymous narrator of When the Time Comes, the bone burner also adds the bones of the deceased members of the village into his pandapigl.

As the title implies, the abiding motif of the book is death – violent death, suicide, and, occasionally, death by “natural” causes. We read of death from drinking bleach, drowning, amputation, insanity, cancer, tuberculosis, heart attack, lung cancer, tractor accident, carbon monoxide poisoning, traffic accident, hanging, freezing, battle, and undoubtedly a few more ways that I failed to note. Read more

Time Traveling with Sir Thomas Browne

Thomas Browne

W.G. Sebald greatly admired the writing of Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) perhaps above all others. The two men, separated by three centuries, were in many ways kindred spirits. Here is Sebald reflecting on Browne (and, by extension, himself) in The Rings of Saturn:

The invisibility and intangibility of that which moves us remained an unfathomable mystery for Thomas Browne, too, who saw our world as no more than a shadow image of another one far beyond. In his thinking and writing he therefore sought to look upon earthly existence, from the things that were closest to him to the spheres of the universe, with the eye of an outsider, one might even say of the creator. His only means of achieving the sublime heights that this endeavor required was a parlous loftiness in his language. On common with other English writers of the seventeenth century, Browne wrote out of the fullness of his erudition, deploying a vast repertoire of quotations and the names of authorities who had gone before, creating complex metaphors and analogies, and constructing labyrinthine sentences that sometimes extend over one or two pages, sentences that resemble processions or a funeral cortège in their sheer ceremonial lavishness. It is true that, because of the immense weight of the impediments he is carrying, Browne’s writing can be held back by the force of gravitation, but when he does succeed in rising higher and higher through the circles of his spiralling prose, borne aloft like a glider on warm currents of air, even today the reader is overcome by a sense of levitation. The greater the distance, the clearer the view: one sees the tiniest of details with the utmost clarity. It is as if one were looking through a reversed opera glass and through a microscope at the same time. And yet, says Browne, all knowledge is enveloped in darkness. What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, in the shadow-filled edifice of the world. We study the order of things, says Browne, but we cannot grasp their innermost essence.

In his compelling and entertaining new book The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century (Granta, 2015) Hugh Aldersey-Williams does his best to locate the innermost essence of Browne. The book opens as Browne sets off on a journey from Bury St Edmunds to his home in Norwich (where Aldersey-Williams also lives). “What was he thinking?” Aldersey-Williams wonders. Browne, a physician by trade, but also “a philosopher and writer, a coiner of words, a Christian moralist, a naturalist, an antiquarian, an experimenter and a myth-buster,” had just testified at the trial of two women accused of being witches. Browne’s testimony suggested that their actions reflected the subtlety of the devil. They were found guilty and were hanged. Aldersey-Williams, who clearly wished Browne had testified differently by exposing the unscientific thinking behind the charges of witchcraft, decides to retrace Browne’s journey home from the trial. And he was going to make the trip slowly, on a bicycle. “I want time to think about what was going through Browne’s head.”  The portrait of Browne that emerges is at once thoughtful and impassioned. His complexities and contradictions are carefully weighed and examined. Read more

Bellatin’s Beauty Salon

Bellatin Beauty Salon-001

“Now the only thing I ask is that they respect the loneliness to come.”

The owner of the beauty salon in Beauty Salon is a gay guy who dresses in drag at work and cruises for men after hours. He raises tropical fish in aquariums placed throughout the salon for the amusement of his clients. But then a local gang called the Goat-Killer Gang begins causing havoc in the city and their wounded victims routinely become infected (and infectious) with a fatal disease. The salon owner renames his business The Terminal and takes in the dying victims who have been shunned by the rest of the city. But he rigorously prohibits any medicine in The Terminal. The disease is incurable, so why falsely prolong the process of dying? “I don’t know where we got the idea that helping sick people means keeping them away from the jaws of death at all costs. I made up my mind…that if there was no other option the best thing was a quick death under the most comfortable conditions I could offer the sick person.” Eventually, he, too, gets infected. And slowly, the tropical fish are dying off. Read more

The Hope of Floating

Wikswo Dedication-001Dedication page for The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us this Far.

I whisper my equations to her; they are orderly and balanced.

She knows this, and replies with the chemical formulas for salt, for devotion, for intimate confession.

The stories and photographs in Quintan Ana Wikswo’s The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us this Far (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2015) strike a balance of power that is exceedingly rare in books that combine fiction with photography. This has something to do with the fact that text and images each occupy a more or less equal amount of page space. But more important is the fact that Wikswo is equally deft with words and photographs. The densely-layered, impressionistic, and yet coherent images in her book seem to have been created with specific stories in mind and yet they can all stand on their own as complex, intriguing images. At the end of the book she briefly comments on her methodology as a photographer who uses salvaged government cameras.

Everything in the photographs is achieved in camera, through old fashioned mechanical and optical and chemical means – the colors, textures, shapes, and multiple layers in the photographs are all created using only the unique aberrations of the cameras’ optics and the chemistry of the film. The negatives are scanned and printed without digital manipulation. When working with an 80- or 100–year-old camera filled with rust, dirt, cracks, and battlefield detritus, each responds uniquely to the film, light, and lenses – most of their calibrations aren’t standardized. It takes a tremendous amount of time to build a sufficient working relationship with each camera to produce even one image. This level of obsession is a good way to learn to watch how the world glows.

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