It was the hour when some dark utterance waxed within me, needing no words, no names, no logical thoughts…a language in which the nouns lost their meaning, the language of an awareness that responded only to wordless, fleeting moments, made from the nameless sensations of the breath that quickened my blood or made it pulse more strongly.
Old Rendering Plant, Wolfgang Hilbig’s allegorical novel about East Germany and the Stasi, begins benignly with its nameless narrator recalling the times as a boy when he would explore the forest at the edge of his small town. The book opens with “I recalled a brook outside town whose current, strangely shimmering, sometimes almost milky, I once followed for miles all autumn or longer” and the boy proceeds to do what many boys have done over the ages. He explores the brook and follows it as far as a high railway embankment. He plays warrior, brandishing sabers made from sticks. He’s alert to the flora and fauna and the traces of an old watermill, hidden by dense brush and a rickety old fence. It’s a place for the imagination to roam. In the forest he sometimes experiences a sense of vertigo and “the distant, skyward-flickering din of expanding infinitude.” The forest is also the place where he starts to grasp the inadequacies of language—and the first hints that language can be dangerous. “The relevant nouns at my command proved again and again to be treacherous tools, perpetually demonstrating the impotence of all descriptions…compared to the nuances of the visible they seemed, at best, to be sketchy information.”
But the forest also has a menacing aspect. It has eyes and voices. It’s full of ruins. The river can resemble “the bluish blade of a long, straight knife.” One day he becomes aware of a stench that originates beyond the railroad embankment, a stench which, for years, he had somehow been able to ignore. But eventually he realizes it was everywhere. Malodorous smells seep up from the ground and the brook is befouled.
The smell soaked the banks and seeped under the fields; the mist over the river channel was this smell, and that mist rose from the topsoil too, infecting everything that grew in the fields, and it rose from the meadows, the grass of the paddocks smelled of the river mist’s cloying essence, the bushes on the banks thrived amid this smell, a smell of flesh…old, useless flesh.
A couple of weeks ago I called attention to an exhibition that had just opened in London called “Melancholia: A Sebald Variation.” Poet and translator Will Stone recently paid a visit to the Inigo Rooms of Somerset House and wrote a review of the exhibition for The London Magazine. “This exhibition constitutes a rare gift” to the viewer, he wrote. Unfortunately, the magazine doesn’t provide online access to non-subscribers, so I asked Will if I could reprint small portions of his piece.
According to Will, the exhibition is really “about destruction, or rather W.G. Sebald’s eponymous work On the Natural History of Destruction (1999) and the way melancholy alluringly affixes to these tragic scenes, which, once having leaked away the reality of their human suffering, become artistically aligned images whose visual message creates a space for new creativity.” Read more
“A new order of space.”
Ann Quin’s Passages (1969) is a brilliant blur of a novel. When you are done with its 112 pages, you will know you have been on breathtaking roller coaster of a journey, but you won’t know where you’ve been or remember much of what you witnessed on the way. A man and a woman (both nameless) are traveling through some vaguely Mediterranean country. Part of the time the couple appear to be searching for the woman’s missing brother, who might already be dead. There are fleeting rumors of torture, a firing squad, detention camps, a sinister right-wing government, suggesting that they are most likely in Greece, which came under the rule of a military junta in 1967. The two suspect they are being followed. At one border crossing they are told their papers aren’t in order; a bribe is paid and suddenly they are told it’s “a case of mistaken identity, let’s say.” Read more
Albrecht Durer, “Melencholia I” [Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Here is more about the exhibition “Melancholia: A Sebald Variation,” which I posted about last week. From the Eventbrite invitation:
John Banville and Brian Dillon in conversation with Lara Feigel
Free discussion followed by a drinks reception
Is melancholy, as Freud thought, an indulgent, unproductive form of mourning? Or can it be a form of sadness that is ultimately uplifting for the consciousness it brings of life and its more startling possibilities?
The exhibition “Melancholia. A Sebald Variation” (Inigo Rooms, Sept 21-Dec 10) traces a melancholic path from Albrecht Dürer to W.G. Sebald to Anselm Kiefer to Tacita Dean. Here John Banville and Brian Dillon, both melancholic writers with an interest in Sebald, will use the exhibition as a springboard to reflect on the theme of melancholia.
Wed 8 November 2017 18:30 – 20:00 GMT.
Great Hall, King’s College London, Strand Campus
The tickets are free but you must register.
Guido van de Werve, Nummer Veertien: Home (video still), 2012*
At Inigo Rooms, King’s College London, Somerset House East Wing, the exhibition “Melancholia: A Sebald Variation” has just opened and can be seen until December 10, 2017. To quote from the exhibition’s website
“Melancholia: A Sebald Variation” takes the viewer on a Sebaldian journey from the ruins of 1945 to the present day. It begins at that ‘zero hour’ after the war when melancholy found its physical form in the rubble scattered throughout its cities after the Second World War and its human form in the refugees who wandered around them.
Tracing its way from the ruins of Britain and Germany to the suburbs of contemporary Holland, the exhibition aims to provoke reflection about the European condition and about the nature of melancholy itself. Is it, as in Freud’s formulation, an indulgent, unproductive form of mourning? Or can it be, as for Sebald, a form of sadness that is ultimately uplifting because it enables loss to bring with it a consciousness of life and its more startling possibilities?
Alongside Dürer’s Melencolia I this exhibition will display works from a wide range of international artists, including Dexter Dalwood, Tacita Dean, Susan Hiller, Tess Jaray, Anselm Kiefer, George Shaw, Guido van der Werve, and Jeremy Wood, as well as archival materials and a film of Sebald in discussion with Susan Sontag.
This exhibition has been done in collaboration with the Centre for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona (CCCB) which presented some of these works in their 2015 exhibition “Sebald Variations” curated by Jorge Carrión and Pablo Helguera, which I wrote about at the time.
*For more on van der Werve’s 54 minute video, click here or watch a brief clip of it here. A CD of the requiem he composed for the work can be purchased here.
As part of the Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin this year, Markus Joch and Uwe Schütte will talk about W.G. Sebald on Tuesday, September 12 at 19:00 at the Institut Français. Tickets here.
The full program (in German or in English) can be found here. The long list of invited guests is impressive and includes people such as Edward Snowden (via Skype), artist Christian Boltanski, László Krasznahorkai, Yoko Tawada, Yasmina Reza, mystery writer Donna Leon (one of my favorites), Salman Rushdie, and Hari Kunzru. Several other programs caught my attention:
Thursday September 7 at 22:30 is a screening of a new film about James Baldwin and race called I Am Not Your Negro, which I have seen and highly recommend.
Saturday September 9 at 15:00 is a meeting for people wishing to join book clubs; two of the books under consideration are Sebald’s Austerlitz and Peter Weiss’s The Aesthetics of Resistance.
Sunday September 10 is devoted to graphic novels.
Almost Island online literary magazine has published my essay “Five Novels, Five Photographs” in their Spring 2017 issue. In this essay, I look at five novels in which only a single photograph is used, examining both the different strategies that writers employ when they embed photographic images in their fictional narratives and looking at the impact a single photograph can have on a text. The five novels I chose to write about are:
Jeff Jackson’s debut novel Mira Corpora (Two Dollar Radio, 2013), a grimly beautiful coming-of-age novel that reminds me of Larry Clark’s infamous 1971 photobook Tulsa, with its insider’s vision of a group of teenagers whose lives centered around sex, drugs, and alcohol. Jackson’s second photo-embedded novel Novi Sad came out in 2016 from Kiddiepunk.
Nicholas Rombes’s first novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing (Two Dollar Radio, 2014), a noir-saturated exploration of images (both moving and still) and their relationship with truth. Rombes is currently a major contributor to the website The Lost Signals Collection, which describes itself as “an archive of speculative texts, images, sounds, and moving pictures lost to history. It is interested in interrogating what might have been, and what might yet be ….”
Wright Morris’s Plains Song (Harper & Row, 1980), is, as far as I know, unique amongst novels with embedded photographs, in that it uses one photograph which repeats at the opening of each of the book’s fourteen chapters. Plains Song is structured as a multigenerational family tree and thus the photograph that is repeated throughout the book serves as a refrain that encapsulates the gist of Morris’s story.
Konrad Bayer’s Der Kopf des Vitus Bering: Ein Porträit in Prosa (Walter Verlag, 1965), a deliberately fragmented, rambling, hallucinogenic prose work that is ostensibly (but only marginally) about the final days of Vitus Bering (1681–1741), the Danish cartographer for whom the sea that separates Siberia from North America was named.
Dubravka Ugrešiƈ’s The Museum of Unconditional Surrender (New Directions, 1999), a novel about what it means to be an exile, extensively references photographs and photography.
The most authentic thing about you is your sin…
Great, long novels are something the reader inhabits for days, like a visit to a foreign country where the history and the customs and the social mores are different and take time to untangle. Even the sins may be different there. Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle of the Murdered House is just such a novel. Originally published in Brazil 1959, it has finally been translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson and was issued last year by the fabulous Open Letter. It is currently the only novel by Cardoso (1912-1968) in print in English. This year it won the Best Translated Book of the Year Award for fiction.
As a family, the Meneses have seen better days and finer generations than the three brothers who live together at Chacara, the slowly rotting family estate in the rural state of Minas Gerais. Demetrio, the overly proud head of the family, is married to Ana, a drab and desperately unhappy woman. Timotéo is a cross-dressing alcoholic who rarely leaves his room. And the third brother, Valdo, upsets whatever equilibrium might have still existed at Chacara when he imports Nina, “a poisonously malevolent beauty,” from Rio De Janeiro to be his wife. The claustrophobic grounds of Chacara act like a hothouse, heating up and intensifying the emotions of its inhabitants. Read more
Three years ago I wrote about the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company’s plans to develop a dance around the Ambros Adelwarth segment of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants. “Analogy/Ambros: The Emigrant” just had its world premiere on July 21, 2017 at Dancer’s Workshop in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The dance is the final section of a trilogy which was first performed as a unit on the nights of July 27-29 at American Dance Festival 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. There is a 9 1/2 minute interview with Bill T. Jones on the dance on Soundcloud. The 90-minute dance was reviewed by Susan Broili in the Raleigh, North Carolina newspaper The News & Observer, in which the following excerpt appeared:
“Analogy/Ambros: The Emigrant” begins with the live sound of whispering voices and Bill T. Jones’ recorded recitation of evocative text from W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, a fictionalized history of four men, including Ambros Adelwarth, a German manservant who serves as companion to Cosmo, the privileged son of a wealthy Jewish family. The narrative tracks Ambros’ experience traveling with Cosmo, through Europe and the Middle East on the eve of WWII.
The recorded text describes how Ambros Adelwarth and his charge, Cosmo, asleep on the deck of a steam ship on their way to an excursion abroad, are visited by a quail, who lands on Cosmo, settles down to sleep, and then flies away in the morning.
In this work, Jones and collaborators, who include assistant artistic director Janet Wong, amaze with their scope and with the engaging quality of the multi-media elements woven seamlessly into the work.
The live music provides a rare treat as does the dancers’ singing with professional flare. Most of the time, their singing, both in solos and in harmony with others, is achingly beautiful.