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Photographs as Disruptions

 Loss Library

The most compelling motive for including a photograph in a fiction is to discount it. There are forty-four plates in André Breton’s Nadja and not one of them clarifies a thing. The snaps from Koos Prinsloo’s family album seem more unreal, more obviously made up than his fictions. In Sebald, the images are cut down to size and drained of authority. They are always less than or more than illustrative; they do not live up to the text or they carry an excess that demands an explanation. Their purpose is less to define than to disrupt, to create ripples and falls in the beguiling flow of the prose. They are pebbles and weirs.

So writes Ivan Vladislavić in his book The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories (Seagull Books, 2012). It’s a fragment from his notebooks, written in 2003. Vladislavić is right. Photographs (and here, I imagine,we can safely substitute the term “images”) that are placed within a literary text – even those images that are essentially illustrative – disrupt our flow and force the reading brain to process, puzzle, recalibrate, accommodate. But don’t these terms also describe how we read most literary texts even thought they are purely textual? We all know texts in which every chapter, every paragraph, sometimes every sentence forces us to essentially rethink the entire book up to that point. In fact, I think it can be argued that one aspect of literature – perhaps especially of poetry – is that the text continually disrupts itself. So the real question, it seems to me, is whether images disrupt texts differently.  Read more

On Your Marker, Get Set, Go!

Marker Exhibition

It’s Chris Marker time in London. The exhibition “Chris Marker: A Grin Without a Cat” opens April 16, 2014 at the Whitechapel Gallery. I can’t imagine many better ways of spending time this spring than absorbing everything in this exhibition. Below is the exhibition description and program information from Whitechapel’s website.

Visionary French filmmaker Chris Marker (1921–2012) created vivid film-essays that lace realism with science fiction and lyricism with politics. Changing his name, declining to be photographed or interviewed, Marker was both enigma and legend. His influence extends across art, experimental film and mainstream cinema: his 1962 masterpiece La Jetée was the basis of Terry Gilliam’s 1995 Twelve Monkeys.

A photographer and director of 60 films, Marker was an inveterate traveller – his camera was his eye. His astonishing range of footage can encompass a temple in Tokyo devoted to cats to frozen flowers in a Siberian science station. Marker pictures our cultural rituals, ancient and modern – visiting a shrine, playing video games, protesting on the streets. He splices his images with found footage including fragments of movies, cartoons, ads and newsreels. Musical scores are interwoven with the noises of everyday life; haunting commentaries are narrated as if from the future, meditating on history and memory. ‘I compare dreaming to cinema and thinking to television’.

Darkness also underlines Marker’s portrayals of planetary cultures – memories of war ravaged France, the brutalities of colonialism, the failures of revolution. This exhibition takes us on a journey through the themes that absorbed him –the museum, travel, film, revolution and war. We also encounter portrayals of his friends including Christo, Roberto Matta and Andrei Tarkovsky. Great classics such as Statues Also Die (1953), Le Joli Mai (The Merry Month of May) (1962), A Grin Without a Cat (1977), Sans soleil (Sunless) (1982), Zapping Zone (Proposals for an Imaginary Television) (1990–94), alongside photographs and bookworks offer a sequence of multi-media environments saturated with sound and image. Read more

Emma Enters a Sentence (and loses her photographs)


…not knowing where
      or how she had arrived at her decision to lie down in a line of verse and be buried there, that is to say, be born again as a simple set of words, “the bubble in the spirit-level.” So, said she to her remaining self, which words were they to be? grave behaving words, map signs
      That became Miss Emma Bishop’s project: to find another body for her bones, bones she could at first scarcely see, but which were now ridgy, forming Ws, Ys and Zs…

Thirty years after William H. Gass published his photo-embedded novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (which I wrote about recently), he published another novella with photographs. I first read Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s in Conjunctions issue 30 (1998), where the story contains eight photographs by Michael Eastman. It’s a memorable piece of writing  and an unusually thoughtful example of an author carefully embedding photographs within a text. Eastman’s images seemed to have been custom-made for Gass’s story and each appeared to have been placed with precision on the pages of Conjunctions. But when the story appeared later that year in his book Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas (Knopf, 1998), the photographs had disappeared. In the book’s Acknowledgements,Gass referred to the missing photographs but he didn’t explain their absence and for years I have wondered what this meant. Were the photographs not as integral as I had thought? Why were they so expendable?

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Sebald & The Rings of Saturn – Links March 2014

Sebald Rings of Saturn British Edition

W.G. Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn gets some attention from non-literary disciplines in two recent posts elsewhere. Over at Celluloid Wicker Man, Adam Scovell has written about Grant Gee’s film Patience (After Sebald). He gives a thoughtful examination to the relationship between Sebald’s book and Gee’s film, especially the way in which the film and the book attempt to capture perception.

There are a number of reception possibilities attainable when watching Grant Gee’s 2011 essay film, Patience (After Sebald). Any film based on a book or around an author is always going to separate its viewers into two groups; those who have read the original source material and those who have not. While the latter will be seeking to latch onto the their initial experience of film as it happens, the former will be no doubt be cast in the inescapable lure of the original book and its contexts.


For a writer who is at once both extremely modern in his style but shot through with the prism of a classical antiquarian, the 16mm film perhaps is the most aesthetically pleasing and apt model left to us when exploring the writing of W.G. Sebald. Like his writing, it is just as littered with scratches, grooves and imperfections that make it both a leaping jump towards recreating perception and something deeply humanistic to experience.

Meanwhile, as part of his ongoing project Writing With Images (which I wrote about recently), art historian James Elkins has added a lengthy analysis of the images in The Rings of Saturn. Elkins writes about three specific photographs and ponders the “epistemological veracity of his images in this book, which are often manipulated and difficult to read.”

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Sebald’s Hybrid Poetics: New Book Announcement

Lynn Wolff

A new scholarly book on Sebald will be published this month: Lynn L. Wolff’s W.G. Sebald’s Hybrid Poetics: Literature as Historiography (Berlin: De Gruyter). From the publisher’s website:

This book offers a new critical perspective on the perpetual problem of literature’s relationship to reality and in particular on the sustained tension between literature and historiography. The scholarly and literary works of W.G. Sebald (1944–2001) serve as striking examples for this discussion, for the way in which they demonstrate the emergence of a new hybrid discourse of literature as historiography.

This book critically reconsiders the claims and aims of historiography by re-evaluating core questions of the literary discourse and by assessing the ethical imperative of literature in the 20th and 21st centuries. Guided by an inherently interdisciplinary framework, this book elucidates the interplay of epistemological, aesthetic, and ethical concerns that define Sebald’s criticism and fiction. Appropriate to the way in which Sebald’s works challenge us to rethink the boundaries between discourses, genres, disciplines, and media, this work proceeds in a methodologically non-dogmatic way, drawing on hermeneutics, semiotics, narratology, and discourse theory. In addition to contextualizing Sebald within postwar literature in German, the book is the first English-language study to consider Sebald’s œuvre as a whole.

Wolff’s book is number 14 in the De Gruyter series Interdisciplinary German Cultural Studies, which began in 2006 with W. G. Sebald: History – Memory – Trauma, edited by Scott Denham and Mark McCulloh. Wolff is currently an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the University in Stuttgart and has written about Sebald, H.G. Adler, and other German writers.

Gass and his Willie


“I held a small, limp pen.” – William H. Gass on the writing he did as a student at Kenyon College.

I want to devote two or three posts to a writer with a sporadic but intriguing relationship with photography: William H. Gass. I’ll start with the publication of his 1968 novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. In 1968, TriQuarterly magazine, which is still run out of Northwestern University, published the second of several independent “supplements” to their literary magazine. This supplement was Gass’s novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. The paper bound version, which was sent to subscribers, features front and back covers that have, respectively, frontal and rear photographs of a female nude. On the front cover, the undulating typography of the book’s title and author attribution gives the appearance that the text was projected onto the model’s body. So immediately, even before we’ve opened the book, we are presented with a strong correspondence between the physicality of the human body and of the work of literature, not to mention the overt sexualization of writing. Literature as a form of seduction. Read more

3 (Photo)Graphic Novels


Double-page spread from Aztlángst by Harry Gamboa Jr.

I am always a little surprised that there seem to be so few graphic novels that use photography and that the tradition of the Spanish and Italian fotonovella (essentially a soap opera in graphic novel format, using photographs) rarely crosses over into more creative fictional use. Nevertheless, here are three different examples.

Confessions of a ex-doofus Read more

A Place in [this] Country


We had to wait fifteen years for an English translation of W.G. Sebald’s terribly important 1998 book Logis in einem Landhaus, but last year British publisher Hamish Hamilton gave us Jo Catling’s excellent translation under the title of A Place in the Country. We American readers have had to wait another nine months for an edition of our own from Random House, which is, like Hamish Hamilton, a division of the enormous Penguin Group. The content of the American edition hasn’t changed significantly; the footnotes are tracked differently, a typo has been corrected, and Random House, having some spare pages at the end, added very brief sections called “About the Author,” “About the Translator,” and “About the Type.” So it would hardly seem like it was worth the wait, except that Random House has actually made a more handsome book on several counts. Read more

“The ‘Other’ Sebald” – A Conversation in Berlin

Brecht HausBertold Brecht Haus, Charlottenberg, Berlin-Mitte

Vertigo readers in Germany should be interested in an event happening in Berlin on March 6, 2014. Uwe Schütte and Sven Meyer will have a public conversation on “The ‘Other’ Sebald,” dealing with Sebald’s poetry and critical writings. The event marks the launch of Schütte’s newly published study on Sebald’s poetry Figurationen: Zum lyrischen Werk von W. G. Sebald (Edition Isele). Read more

Recently Read – Solnit & Duras

Solnit Faraway Nearby

Rebecca Solnit. The Faraway Nearby. Viking, 2013. “Pared back to its bare bones, this book is the history of an emergency and the stories that kept me company then…” The emergency was the onset of her mother’s Alzheimer’s, and, nestled within that emergency, came Solnit’s own brush with cancer. Solnit’s wonderfully digressive stories take us from the depths of the Grand Canyon to a lonely residency at the Library of Water on the coast of Iceland, through the world of myth and her own family history, weaving amongst the literature and lives of Hans Christian Anderson, Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf, and others. Solnit’s beautiful writing, her passion and compassion, her intense sense of place, and her firm moral compass always make her books a special event. This is a wonderful and wise piece of writing… Read more


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