Skip to content

River

Whenever the word ‘river’ came to mind, I imagined panoramas, views, images from childhood—the postcards memory had sent me. I ran these views and images by countless rivers, holding them up to each river landscape as if to interrogate it for something specific. For distinct shades of blue both in the sky and in the sky’s reflection on both sides of the river? For its capacity to make magic with mist, its seaward promise and pledge of a greater brightness? The comparative allure of its unknown opposite bank? I could not have said myself what it was.

The woman who narrates Esther Kinsky’s novel River doesn’t tell us why she has just moved to Hackney, in London’s East End, but she has abruptly “excised myself from the life I had led in town, just as one might cut a figure out of a landscape or group photo.” “Abashed by the harm I had wreaked on the picture left behind,” she is now living a “provisional existence” in a rented apartment full of unpacked boxes. Her neighborhood is a mix of Hasidic Jews, Croats, Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Bosnians, Romas, and immigrants from various African nations, and she has become a passionate observer of the people around her. Smells, sounds, or other aspects of their daily routines set off recollections of her childhood. She buys things she doesn’t need in the Kosher store just because they “called forth lost memories.” During the Jewish Feast of the Tabernacle, she walks the streets of the Hasidic community, listening to the sounds of “plates clattering, voices, and table prayers spoken in the festively decorated gardens and backyards of the pious,” something that had been part of her own growing up. She begins dreaming of the dead, of her father and her grandfather and her youth.

But what has really called to her to Hackney was the River Lea. Nearly every day the narrator spends time taking long walks, exploring the marshes of the river and its banks.

On its back the river carried the sky, the trees along its bank, the withered cob-like blooms of water plants, black squiggles of birds against the clouds. Between the empty lands to the east of the river and the estates and factories along the other bank, I rediscovered bits and pieces of my childhood, found snippets cut from other landscapes and group photographs, unexpectedly come here to roost. I stumbled on them between willows under a tall sky, in reflections of impoverished housing estates on the town side of the river, amongst a scatter of cows on a meadow, in the contours of old brick buildings.

Her river walks evoke memories of growing up near the Rhine, reminding her of her father’s work as an amateur photographer. When she digs some of his photographs out of her boxes she realizes that she is seeing the world through his eyes for the first time. “I was astounded how many of these pictures had been taken on or beside a river.”

Her memories tend to dwell on the travels which have taken her to rivers—to the Po River in Italy, the Tisza River in Hungary, the Hoogly River in Kolkata, or the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv. “Every river is a border; that is one of the lessons of my childhood.” Those borders may be peaceful, or, as the narrator knows first-hand, those borders might represent hate and near certain death if one attempted to cross it, like the Neretva River in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, “the most wrecked place I had ever seen.”

One day she remembers an old instant photography camera, packed away somewhere in her boxes. She locates it and begins to take pictures as she walks. When the prints are ejected from the old camera, she is surprised by what she sees.

What came to light when the developer foil was peeled from the black-and-white photo with its countless shades of grey was a memory I did not even know I had. These pictures showed something that lay behind the things the lens had focussed on, things which, for an imperceptible moment in time, the shutter release must have brushed aside. The images belonged to a past I could not even be sure was my own, touching on something whose name I must have forgotten, or possible never knew. There was something unquestionably familiar about these landscape scenes which, apart from the odd passer-by, were generally empty. Something waved to me, whispering: Do you remember? You do remember, don’t you?

“the town came closer on both sides of the river, darker from the west, with bricks, stone and broken window-panes facing the river…”

At first, we might take Kinsky’s narrator for the pastoral equivalent to Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, walking the marshy paths just outside the city rather than the paved streets within city limits. However, she turns out to be an equal opportunity stroller. It’s just that when she finally does explore her corner of London, she doesn’t go as a typical urban flâneuse. Instead, she haunts the difficult, unloved places, heading straight into London’s industrial ruins or down its far less affluent side streets.

Now and again I took a train in one direction or the other and studied the backs of the terraces, roofs, chimneys, gables, and rear gardens in varying light, the strips of waste ground with crows and cats, the whole hinterland of the city that stays hidden from bus-window views of street façades. With my finger on the map I followed the fine line cutting through the green and grey paper surfaces like the jagged outline of a distorted half-moon, wending across the red, brown and black threads of streets, thickening around stations, then trickling through no-man’s-land like the hairline strand of a brook. . .
I set off east, working my way through a wasteland of thorn-thickets, fox dens and rusty remains of old railway equipment near the edges of the big stations. Budding lilac nodded along semi-derelict fencing; battered shopping trolleys were rammed into bare spring bushes. Behind this zone of neglect and devastation, in the shadow of run-down factories and warehouses and within smelling distance of a sewage drain, the viaduct arches were home to goods that had been lost, given away, misappropriated or stolen elsewhere in the city, a loosely pitched series of junk-stall arches, selling anything which, for whatever reason, had been rejected, released or purloined from the commodity circuit. Under the rumbling trains trembled coach-loads of bicycles, chairs, fridges and tables, half-gutted washing machines, car seats, shelves full of fragile and unbreakable items, jackets, coats and flowery dresses, books and records, all darkened by dust that trickled from the pores of bricks and nipped by pigeon droppings. When the weather was fine the stallholders sat on camp-chairs and torn car tyres in front of their open arches.

Photographs and photography play a critical role in River, and a number of images are reproduced in the book. One day, while taking a photograph of the entrance to a building, something goes awry and the photograph shows only the feet of some passers-by, the pavement, part of the door, and a hand in a window, which she had not noticed when she took the picture.

A scrawny and presumably old hand, a hand that was unsure, reaching for something hidden to me. The picture was an image of my own uncertain future, one I would hold on to, and one day pick up, saying: Yes, Stamford Hill, London: that’s how the bricks felt under my fingertips, how the cracked paving stones with their sprouting grass and weeds felt under my feet, and how their great scattered flocks darkened my field of vision, this and no other lack of shadow was typical of the light there, that was my place, and this scrawny old hand will hang on to a piece of my life forever.

With the novel coming to an end, her seemingly aimless meandering stops and an actual destination is announced for the first time: the Thames must be found. Not only that, but she wants to find the specific location where she went with her father as a child, which means an expedition out of London toward Southend-on-Sea, where the Southend Pier extends more than 1.3 miles straight out into the Thames Estuary.

At the end of the mile-long pier that jutted into the heaving mass of waves and currents, I was practically on my own. The wind gusted across the platform from every angle and waves crashed against the steel girders below, between the rows of lights that were Sheerness to the South, and the gay blaze of colour that was Southend’s lit-up amusement park on the northern shore, between the enormous cupola of unbroken darkness over the sea in the east, and the distant glow of London in the west. Nothing began here, and nothing ended, and maybe that had been the message of the blinking lights I had seen from Sheerness. This place was the centre that never stood still.

After her experience where “nothing began” and “nothing ended,” the narrator packs up what few things she unpacked during her April to August stay in Hackney and prepares to move on in her “restlessness” to her next stay, which is in a country in “distant Eastern Europe.” As she prepares to depart, still as anonymous as when she arrived in her neighborhood, she watches one final sunrise.

Then a great torrent of light poured over the park. . . a luminosity that made each object stand out for a brief moment in an exuberant radiance that melted to fool’s gold and the sunburst delusions of cold spring days, glimmering, glistening, sparkling, and finally dissolving in a blinding, golden tremor, in which all that had accompanied me in the past months evaporated like a cloud succumbing to sunlight, and this effulgence, which broke over all I could see, transformed the marshland beyond the River Lea and the Lea itself into a shoreline that could barely be distinguished from the sea, and which, as it rose and fell like the surf, let all that was built on it founder.

There is no plot to River and only one character, about whom we learn very little. In fact, we learn more about the narrator’s childhood than her adult life. Kinsky plays with time in a curious way in River. Through memories, she exposes us to bits and pieces of the narrator’s childhood, but what we learn about her adult life is so meager that it’s like looking at a painting that has doesn’t really have a middle distance, just a foreground and some mountains very far away. Perhaps this is Kinsky’s way of telling us that it makes no difference what her narrator left behind (there’s mention of a child, although that episode seems many years earlier) or why she left her previous life in London. In any event, the book’s emphasis is on what kind of woman she is or aspires to be. We witness a woman of great curiosity and generosity of spirit. She is the sort of person to absorb everything she can about her international community of neighbors and, although she makes no deep friendships during her brief stay, she nevertheless routinely interacts with others just like a kind and helpful neighbor.

Photography tells us a little more about her. Early in the book, she looks at the images she took of some strangers and she “felt ashamed.” “It felt almost indecent to keep in my room these fragments of other people’s existence . . . snippets of the lives of strangers who knew nothing of the persistence in my possession, for the time being, of a fragment of their life.” After that, she “resolved to photograph only inanimate objects.” Later on, she buys an envelope of photographs at a flea market, only to discover that they seem to be the “testaments to a family visit” of some kind during a summer in Hackney.

What was I doing here, on this wind-buffeted, elevated station platform with its view over the zone of discontinuities gradually annexing the River Lea and its wild hinterland, with these snapshots of lives so remote from my own that I had been granted unsolicited access to them through some petty burglary or disappointing inheritance or ill-starred coincidence? I could not even think of names to give the two women who turned up in all of the photographs. I asked myself the unanswerable question of what name some other person might give me if they happened upon my photo?

Feeling like a voyeur, she abandons that envelope of flea-market photographs on the train. This obsession with names, I suspect, goes back to a temporary job she previously held in London at the Jewish Refugee Committee, where she did translations and answered inquiries “concerning the whereabouts of German Jewish refugees who had come to England in the 1930s.” She “reeled miles of microfilm,” “became embroiled in stories of strangers,” and was obsessed for days trying to solve cases. “I always took the names of the missing with me.”

The narrator’s instincts throughout the book are with the immigrants, the poor, and the struggling, those who live largely unseen and ignored in the underbelly of the city or in temporary shelters they have created among its marshy fringes. She flows through their community—almost like a river, one is tempted to say—then moves on, leaving little trace of her presence.

Three years ago I wrote about River in two posts in 2018 and I read the book rather differently then. Here is part one and here is part two of that review.

Ω

Esther Kinsky. River. Translated from the 2014 German original Am Fluss by Iain Galbraith. Originally published by Matthes & Seitz Verlag. Published in English by Fitzcarraldo Editions (London) 2017 and Transit Books (Oakland) 2018.

This is book number 3 in my Vertigo 15 Books Project, in which I am looking back across fifteen years of my reading and writing Vertigo, and I am selecting the fifteen titles that have really stood out during that time.

Adam Scovell’s “Nettles”

In Nettles (Influx Press), his third novel in the last four years, Adam Scovell brings new life to the well-trod theme in British literature of being bullied at school. His narrator is revisiting the Liverpool area, cleaning his boyhood possessions out of his childhood home. He’s also revisiting vivid memories of twenty years ago when his school days were spent trying to dodge Himalways with a capital Hthe nameless bully who attacked him on his way to the first day of school, whipping him mercilessly with stinging nettles, and who proceeded to make his life miserable for the remainder of the school year.

It was the first day of term when He whipped my thin legs with nettle stems. The sun was glaring behind the clouds, and I knew then that I would have to kill Him. I did not know how or when, but as the stings lashed and my body quivered with pain, His fate was sealed, cast in marble.

The narrator, like nearly everyone else in the novel, has no name. He uses his wiles to try to avoid the bully and his gang as much as possible, but he also vows to himself that he will withstand whatever punishment they give him. But after one serious fight with the bully in the marshlands at the edge of the school grounds, he has to be rescued by a teacher.

A teacher dragged me through the building with my head held backward, my shirt dotted with bright red droplets, limping towards somewhere with first aid equipment,. I took pleasure in imagining the boys talking together about my new adulthood. I could not contain myself and I cackled viciously.
My body turned to hogweed.
I was the marsh and the stone.
Laughing.
The walls blurred and the teacher faded into ragwort and lichen
I drifted from the world and fainted in the chair they propped me up in.
I was utterly pathetic.

Eventually, a plan forms in the narrator’s mind. If he can lure Him to a nearby area called The Breck, a well-known and somewhat dangerous climbing spot, perhaps some sort of accident can be arranged. The Breck is famous for being the place where the first British man to ascend K2 had honed his skills as a young man. [If you are curious, you can see The Breck here.]

In the end, it turns out that we, as readers, are here to help judge the narrator, not the bully or anyone else in the novel. We are left to decide if the narrator interpreted his childhood correctly. The narrator is basically the only character with interior dimensions in the book. He seems incapable of viewing anyone else with any depth. Both of his parents are present, but neither becomes a three-dimensional person on their own. And the bully remains as elusive as if we were talking about the devil himself. All we get of Him is the physical description of “His severely shaved head and His bulky persona.” The bully and his disciples repeatedly beat up the narrator for pages on end without ever being described or characterized.

At first, it was Scovell’s “revenge” plot that made me want to keep read reading Nettles, but inexorably the narrator’s true plightthe one with his familytook over in importance. During his return visit, as the narrator looks back on this period in his youth, he began to ask himself if some of the assumptions he had made at the time about his family were correct.

Throughout his visit home, the narrator takes Polaroid photographs of the sites that were memorable to him in his youth. To us they look like square, rather blurry amateur snapshots of boring locales. As if to demonstrate how much these photographs mean to him, the only character in the book that the narrator names is Ellen, the “talented fashion photographer” who lends him the camera. But his photographs turn out to be bitter disappointments. At first he thinks he sees traces of the past in them, but then he decides, as he does with one photograph, “there was nothing there now but stone and memories.” The real story lies elsewhere.

Ironically, it is his mother who provides him with the one photograph that stings. As he is heading back to London, she hands him a photograph. . . It was more human than the reflection in the visor mirror. My eyes were light and carefree then. I couldn’t recognize the boy anymore. I would tear the photo in half later, unable to allow it to exist. It made me feel simultaneously alien and homesick.

The top half of this ripped photograph appears at the very beginning of Nettles, the torn bottom (and larger) half appears at the very end. Buried in Nettles is a bitter family story that stings the narrator far worse than the bully from his school days. It’s fascinating to watch Scovell expertly play the bullying story and the family saga against each other, until one strand emerges holding the narrator’s past at gunpoint.

With each of his three books, the way in which Scovell has deployed his photographs has become more and more tangential to the story as his writing has become stronger. In Nettles, I would argue that the only photograph that is really necessary to the plot is the torn image that we see at the front and back of the book. The other images are, as the narrator admits, “failures,” used only as evidence that there was no longer anything meaningful to him in those places. But even the torn image is one that many writers would verbally describe and then omit from their novels. I look forward to seeing how Scovell deals with photographs in his novels in the future. Here are my reviews of Mothlight (2018) and How Pale the Winter Has Made Us (2020). Nettles is just out from Influx Press this week.

“Explosion of Words” Exhibition in London

Hannes Schüpbach, “Explosion of Words,” detail of image 11 with words from Stephen Watts’ poem ‘For My Friend,
Max Sebald’ (Ancient Sunlight, London: Enitharmon, 2014/2021) © Hannes Schüpbach

Since one of the cornerstones of Vertigo is exploring poetry that includes photographs, a friend brought to my attention the current exhibition in London at Bow Arts’ Nunnery Gallery, “Explosion of Words,” a cinematic photo installation and imaginary library of modern poetry in translation. Here’s what the organizer’s webpage says about it:

Explosion of Words” is a cinematic photo installation, extending frieze-like over 30 metres of the Nunnery Gallery’s gothic walls, celebrating the power of language. The exhibition is the culmination of Swiss artist Hannes Schüpbach’s (b. 1965) response to the lived spaces of east London-based poet and language activist Stephen Watts (b. 1952), who works between extensive research on poetry and his own contributions as a poet and co-translator from many languages.  
Approximately 1600 pages of Watts’ ongoing Bibliography of Modern Poetry in English Translation will be mounted directly onto the gallery’s four-metre-high walls as a background for Schüpbach’s space-spanning photo installation, creating a cosmos of world poetry. Watts’ Bibliography, which is 40 years in the making, will be transformed into a physical experience, creating a ‘storehouse of language’, reflecting Watts’ own passion for poetry in every tongue. In the nave space of the gallery, an excerpt of Schüpbach’s new silent film Essais (2020), with Stephen Watts, will also be on display. 
Watts’ Bibliography opens up perspectives onto the rich wealth of poetry that has been, and still is being, written or performed out of many different histories and environments, as well as exploring the many cultural issues involved in translation.
A two-part artists’ publication has been published to coincide with the exhibition: Hannes Schüpbach: Explosion of Words. Dedicated to Stephen Watts, with an essay by Jo Catling and Stephen Watts: Explosion of Words, 19 Poems, with German translations by Hannes Schüpbach (192 pages, 19.5 × 26 cm, designed by Raphael Drechsel, GREAT, published by Verlag für moderne Kunst, Vienna), available to buy at the gallery.

PLEASE NOTE! Panel talk April 7.

Explosion of Words | ‘An Imaginary Library’: Modern Poetry and Translation Thursday 7 April, 6.30-7.45pm, Queen Mary University of London, £5/free for concessions Join a panel of speakers including Stephen Watts, Hannes Schüpbach, Jo Catling, Chris McCabe and Nisha Ramayya as they dig into the significance of Watts’ Bibliography and its crucial place in a full consideration of modern poetry and translation. (Booking is recommended as gallery space is limited. Book all events online at: bowarts.org/whats-on)

For more information on the exhibition, publication, and programming, check out the bowarts website.

The book Hannes Schüpbach: Explosion of Words contains poems by Watts and photographs by Schüpbach.

Double-page spread from Hannes Schüpbach: Explosion of Words. Photographs © Hannes Schüpbach.

Recently Read: Kirsty Bell & John Hawkes

You know that if something begins with a leak in the living room ceiling and ends up as a book that serves as a mini-history of a major city, you have a very tenacious person behind the whole project. Kirsty Bell, a new owner of an apartment in a nineteenth century building in central Berlin that somehow survived World War II, became curious about its history, the previous owners, and the odd neighborhood, bounded by railway tracks and the Landwehr Canal. In The Undercurrents, Bell tells the story of the family that once owned and lived in the building and how they all fared during and after the war. While she does that, she widens her scope to explore the area surrounding her building, including the history of the canal and the railways. But that leads her even farther afield, and soon she’s giving the reader a mini-lesson in the city’s history. She places all of this within the context of Berlin’s intellectual and artistic history. Anyone who visits Berlin after reading her analysis of the sad history of post-war city planning will be better prepared to see the city with new eyes, especially a place like Potsdamer Platz, Berlin’s highly touted destination showplace. Finally she gave me the best summary I’ve read yet of all that went wrong during “re-unification.” Every city should be so lucky as to have a book like this. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2022. (Other Press is the U.S. publisher, with a release date of September 6.)

Ω

Who knows what it’s like in real life, but in the crime worlds of cinema and literature, death is dirty and meaningless at the lower end of the food chain. It offers no drama, no sustenance. Push the bodies aside and move on. In The Lime Twig, John Hawkes explores the chaos, confusion, terror, the small-time treachery, the illusions of grandeur, and the outsized dreams of success that are the prelude to several cheap and terrible deaths. A motley gang of petty English crooks hatch a plot to steal a race horse and insert it in a rich race under a false name. It’s all just an excuse for lots of wild Hawkesian writing and carefree plotting, although this is somewhat more restrained than the earlier novels I have written about—The Cannibal (1949) and The Beetle Leg (1951). If Graham Greene had taken a pair of scissors to Brighton Rock, it would have turned out something like The Lime Twig (NY: New Directions, 1961). The Introduction by the late, great Leslie A. Fiedler feels like a Hawkes’ short story unto itself.

The Man Who Dies: Robert Pinget’s “Passacaglia”

How do I write about Robert Pinget’s gem of a book Passacaglia? The dilemma is that Pinget has woven his novel about passion and guilt so tightly knotted up that to unwind it is to start releasing spoilers. The first problem that Pinget presents us is that his narrator has a great deal of trouble telling a very simple story about a man who dies. He doesn’t tell the story once, he tells it more than a half dozen times and each version is different. Thus the book’s title. The word passacaglia (or passacaille in Spanish) originally referred to the type of interlude music that Spanish street musicians would strum between the dance music they were performing. These interludes were usually variations on a theme played over a bass line or an ostinatoin other words, they were a persistent motif. Pinget is using the man’s death as the variations on a theme. The reader’s challenge is to figure out the persistent motif, the theme behind the death.

Here’s the first version of the man’s death from page one. The setting is the outskirts of a remote French village, at the well-to-do farm dwelling of a man referred to simply as “the master.” (Just think of him as a sort of gentleman farmer; he doesn’t seem to work very hard work at farming.) The time is vaguely in the middle of the 20th century. A local peasant, hired as a sentry because of the master’s “mania,” is checking on him and has just peeked through the masters’ window and has seen him “apparently distinctly . . . put the clock out of action and then sit there prostrate in his chair, elbows on the table, head in his hands.” Soon thereafter, the master will be found dead on the nearby dung hill. Note the phrase “apparently distinctly.”

Some six or seven pages later, in the second version, we are told that the village mayor and doctor have found the master slumped over, dead at his desk, having knocked a book to the floor. Remember the book.

The narrator’s inability to tell this story straight is being strangely echoed by the master’s inability to finish writing his memoirs. The master has been writing his memoirs in a bookyes, that bookbut he’s at a certain point where he has hit a wall. In the mean time he’s doing what many writers do in that event, he’s diddling with previous entries. “Working on marginal notes.” Over and over he tries to write further in his memoirs, but no. He will tell himself “source of information deficient” or that his memory is experiencing some sort of “hiccup.”

Throughout Passacaglia, Pinget demonstrates how language can be used to hide something, even our very own memories. We are given multiple versions of the master’s death to chose from, as if this were a lineup down at the police station. And we see the master hiding some memory away behind his ability to weave words into puzzlingly beautiful, but almost meaningless sentences, sentences which make him feel as if he has a genuine excuse not to pursue his memoir into certain territory.

Pinget’s poetic language may not be for everyone, but I happen to adore it.

Afterwards hours of pondering over all these snippets, there was nothing left on the page of memoirs but blots and graffiti, his life had emigrated elsewhere.

In the elms or the pine wood, in those carcasses everywhere, scintillations, nocturnal silences, dispersed, in disorder, irreparable, the book open at the old-fashioned illustration, the clock that doesn’t go, infinite disarray, words adrift like so many disavowals, pursued even into his dreams, the only history he would have now would be written, his only breath would be literary.

It was perhaps at this moment that the poultry dealer appeared at the gate, towards evening that is, the master became calmer, he asked the fellow to sit down and he let him go on about his obsessions, the doctor apparently said watch your liver, come and see me.

Blots and graffiti.

Other themes would emerge from disordered nerves. Working on marginal notes.

When the farm-hand had left the barn, it might have been half-past eight, night was falling, the last glimmer in the west, the line of the forest almost black, the terrace was deserted and the house had all its shutters closed, you could hear the frogs down by the marsh, it had been a hot day for the season.

Of that dreary, monotonous year.

There’s a kind of Where’s Waldo hide-and-seek when it comes to picking out what’s critical to know among all these phrases. Just as the master is hiding something from himself, Pinget seems to be hiding things from his readers. It feels like essential facts are buried in insignificant-looking passages or they get lost in flowery poetic language. For instance, it’s very easy to miss the moment when we are told that the master has been telling the doctor “the story of his death that he had imagined in detail, amplified over the years, tragic or touching according to the evening, by the fire, the bottle of spirits on the table.” In other words, all of these variations on the master’s deaths are just the late night ramblings that the master makes up when he and the doctor sit drinking in front of the fireplace. (Just as it’s easy to miss it when the master and the doctor are described as “intimate.”)

This is not an example of the “unreliable narrator” we see so often today. Part of what is going on is due to the fact that Pinget is sowing uncertainty in his reader’s mind as a matter of principle. He doesn’t want us to keep basing everything in our lives solely on reason. He wrote to his English translator, “Don’t bother too much about logic: everything in Passacaille is directed against it.” But Pinget is also showing us the lengths that the master will go to evade his sense of guilt over a child whose story only emerges toward the end of the book, although hints about this aspect of the master’s life have been laid since the early pages. The master, it seems, had “adopted” a child. “I was stuck with the child, how old could he have been, about fifteen, I always thought of him as ‘the adopted child,’ feeble in both mind and body, his mother entrusted him to us not knowing what to do with him, we didn’t either, we gave him little jobs to do which he always made a mess of.” There was only one thing the master has insisted on.

that I should soap him myself in his tub every Saturday or more or less, with neither calendar nor passion I sometimes made a mistake and I felt less alone at those moments, I have his skin under my hand, I soap him all over without exception from A to Z which naturally took us by way of P, to tell the truth it’s less a chore than a pleasure, or if in my haste to be less alone I soap him twice a week attributing my miscalculation to the absence of a calendar.

Then one day the boy dies after making what the master describes as a “wrong move” with a chain saw, and the master is not the same after that. But is never clear if this is an accident or a deliberate act of self-mutilation. This is the incident that the master keeps reimagining over and over in his memoirs, unable to move forward. He also keeps rewriting his will late at night in rambling prose that recalls, in shorthand, bits and pieces of the book’s plot.

I the undersigned in the cold room, hemlock, clock out of action, I the undersigned in the marsh, goat or bird’s carcass, I the undersigned at the bend in the road, in the master’s garden, maleficent old woman, sentry of the dead, sentry, scarecrow, in a van on the route deviated by the evil eye, plaything of that farce that is called conscience, no one, I the undersigned midnight in full daylight, overwhelmed with boredom, old owl, magpie or crow . . .

Depending on your point of view as a reader, either one of the more magical or more confounding aspects of Passacaglia is Pinget’s ability to bend time. Passages that begin at one moment in time segue invisibly a page or two later into events that are clearly in the past. The book’s final paragraph suggests, yet once again, that the master dies, “found deceased on the dunghill.” Or is this just another of the master’s late night tales by the fireplace?

I last read and wrote about Passacaglia in 2011. I clearly didn’t quite know what to make of it then and should have read it a few more times. One of the pleasures of rereading a book is finding passages missed the first time around. For example, on the second page, Pinget signals to the reader an essential clue to his book. He tells us that we need to pay attention to everything that alludes to the master’s past. (I have omitted the story of the master’s past and how he came to “adopt” the boy out of my commentary in order to not give away all the spoilers.)

The story would seem to have begun a long time before this, but talk about prudence, talk about vigilance, it looks as if only two or three episodes have been revealed, and that with some difficulty, the source of information being permanently deficient, that almost inaudible murmur interrupted by silences and hiccups, so that you might well have attached no importance to it and considered the whole thing started at the time when the clock was put out of action. Which side to take.

The reader has two basic choices with Robert Pinget’s Passacaglia: to read it straight through and enjoy it strictly for the beautiful writing, without worrying too much of having an accurate view of what is really taking place; or reading the book several times while parsing every sentence carefully. (It’s short, only 94 pages.) Both approaches are perfectly legitimate. But even the second approach won’t remove every ambiguity. In some novels, confusion is the story. Which side to take, indeed!

Ω

Robert Pinget. Passacaglia. Translated from the 1969 French original by Barbara Wright. My copy is the out-of-print edition published by Red Dust in 1978. The only English version of Passacaglia currently in print is part of the volume Trio, from Dalkey Archive Press, which includes two other short novellas by Pinget. It’s also the Barbara Wright translation.

This is book number 2 in my Vertigo 15 Books Project, in which I am looking back across fifteen years of my reading and writing Vertigo and I am selecting the fifteen titles that have really stood out during that time.

Visitation

Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel Visitation is a hugely ambitious book for its 150 pages. Rather than follow a family through generations as a traditional bildungsroman might do, Visitation follows a single tract of land through its various owners and occupants during the twentieth century. In a brief Prologue, we learn how the ice age, which lasted some 24,000 years, shaped the rivers, lakes, and valleys of the Wannsee area west of Berlin, which is where this piece of property lies. Compared to the span of an ice age, the century covered by this novel is a mere heartbeat. And in light of the catastrophic weather events, infestations, and wars that will sweep over this property during the twentieth century, the idea that anyone might actually “own” a piece of the Earth feels a lot like hubris. As Erpenbeck suggests, the property’s owners and occupants are merely paying this property a visitationas if they might be at their own funeral. In fact, the book’s original German titleHeimsuchungsuggests the kind of visitation that drops down out of the blue, such as an infestation of locusts, a plague, or the visitation that occurred to the Virgin Mary.

The central plot of Visitation really gets underway in 1939 when a nameless architect from Berlin and his wife purchase the tract of land from its Jewish owners, Arthur and Hermine. “He’d paid the Jews a full half of market value for the land. And this was by no means a paltry sum. They’d never have managed to find another buyer in so short a time,” reasoned the architect, who, incidentally, hid his own Jewish heritage from the Nazi hierarchy and managed to become one of Albert Speer’s most trusted architects.

After the architect purchases the land from Arthur and Hermine, the couple find themselves unable to emigrate before Germany’s borders are closed to Jews. Erpenbeck’s omniscient narrator briefly describes their final months of constant struggle with the Nazi bureaucracy. Here’s how we learn of their demise:

Two months after Arthur and Hermine get into the gas truck in Kulmhof outside Łodz, after Arthur’s eyes pop out of their sockets as he asphyxiates, and Hermine in her death throes defecates on the feet of a woman she’s never seen before, all their assets, together with the assets remaining in Germany that belonged to their son Ludwig, who has emigrated, are seized, all the frozen bank accounts dissolved, and their household goods auctioned off.

The architect, on the other hand, has imagined the fate of Arthur and Hermine differently. “By buying the property, he’d helped the Jews leave the country. No doubt they went to Africa. Or Shanghai. For better or for worse.”

Meanwhile, the architect has divorced his wife in order to marry his stenographer, and he designs for them a second home on “their little bit of sod” on the lake. Unfortunately, they aren’t able to enjoy it for too many years before they are forced to flee when the Russian army enters Berlin in 1945. They are able to return at the end of the war and repair the damage, but after endless tangles with the new East German government he gives up, and the architect and his wife decide to defect to the West. On his final morning on the property, the architect looks out across the lake and tries to remember.

When he will have swum here for the last time is something he no longer knows. Nor does he know whether the German language contains a verb form that can manage the trick of declaring the past the future. Maybe at some point in early September. The last time, it wasn’t yet a last time, that’s why he didn’t take note of it. Only yesterday did it become the last time. As if time, even when you grip it firmly in your hands, can still flail and thrash about and twist which way at will.

After they defect, title is then taken over by the socialist government of the new German Democratic Republic, which then leases it to a writer and her husband, who are permitted to occupy and fix up (but not own) “abandoned” property. Because the writer had been a communist, she and her husband had gone into exile during the Nazi and the war years, spending their time mostly in the Soviet Union. But after the war they returned to Berlin so that she could write. She had wanted her words “to transform the German barbarians back into human beings and her homeland back into a homeland.” Instead, what she found was a socialist government that operated on favoritism and elitism, which readily subverted its own laws and ideals for money and the powerful.

Throughout every change of ownership of the property there has been one constantthe gardener. The gardener keeps his head down and tends to the land, blind to the religion or politics of the property’s owner or occupant. “The gardener doesn’t speak much, and he’s never been heard to say anything at all about events in the village, whether someone has drowned in the lake, a smallholder has secretly changed the position of a border stone, or Schmeling has knocked out the American boxer Louis in the twelfth round.” The gardener is clearly designated to be someone who stands apart from all of the other characters in the book, neither a victim nor a perpetrator. He stands for the property itself. In an interview (see below), Erpenbeck has referred to the gardener as “the true owner” of the property, “because of his work, and because of his real connection to the place which is founded again and again, day by day, by physical doing, physical work.” Unlike the others, he hasn’t bought his way onto the property through money or power. It disturbed me that the gardener remained a silent, obedient land manager in the employ of a high-ranking Nazi architect for years, but in her interview Erpenbeck makes it clear this was not to be held against him.

The events that happened on or affected this one tract of land during the twentieth century were traumatic, to say the leastwar, a brutal occupation, rapes, decades of totalitarian regime, plagues of insects, lawsuits. But, as in her recent novels The End of Days (2016) and Go, Went, Gone (2017), Erpenbeck has opted for a poker-faced narrator, who can sound eerily like a Nazi or East German bureaucrat at times, a narrator who sticks to the facts and statistics and is blind to the emotional toll mounting all around.

Erpenbeck’s books are always concerned with the ways in which language is used to entrap us, as well as how we use language to liberate ourselves. The law is one such place, and Visitation includes several pages of faux legalese. These sections would be comic if we knew they weren’t being used to confuse and bully someone and ultimately rewrite the ownership of the property.

Reference to the registry of deeds will be required to determine with sufficient certainty. Registry of a first priority property lien. In the present settlement. Further: Upon fulfillment of the present settlement all claims with regard to the object of dispute are hereby. Further: All claims with regard to the object of dispute are hereby satisfied and further litigation is hereby. Is hereby excluded.

There are moments when Erpenbeck’s characters find themselves thinking about how language has a different kind of potential. In this example, we are peeking in on the thoughts of an elderly woman referred to as “the visitor,” who is the mother-in-law of the writer:

The dandelions are the same here as back home, and so are the larks. Now, as an old woman, she has grown into the sentence that her husband always said to her forty years before. The dandelions in her village were the same where he grew up, in the Ukraine, from where he’d come vagabonding along, and the larks too, that’s what he always said. . . Surely her husband’s great-grandparents had at some point or other uttered this very sentence another seventy or eighty years before. She wonders whether the sentences go out looking for people to utter them, or whether its just the opposite and the sentences simply wait for someone to come along and make use of them. . . Probably, she thinks, the sentences all get overtaken sooner or later and are spoken by someone or other, somewhere or other, just as everything belongs to everyone among people who are fleeingfactored over the length of a lifetime, the course of both objects and human beings was no doubt no different from the experiences of a refugee. In peacetime it was poverty, during the war it was the front that kept pushing people before it like a long row of dominos, people slept in other people’s beds, used other people’s cooking utensils, ate the stores of food that other people had been forced to leave behind. It’s just that the rooms became more crowded the more the bombs fell. Until in the end she arrived here, in this garden, and when the gong calls her to supper, she finds it quite plausible to think this gong was already calling her back then, when she turned her back on her farm for the last time and set off with her three grandchildren, carrying an eiderdown and with a blue-patterned kerchief on her head. When you’ve arrived, can you still be said to be fleeing? And when you’re fleeing, can you ever arrive?

At the end of the book, the house that had been built on the edge of a beautiful lake, the pride of a Berlin architect, has just been torn down and “the landscape, if ever so briefly, resembles itself once more.” The newest owners of the property, who have won their lawsuit, want to design and built a new house. From scratch. But the law has the final wordon how the house must be properly torn down.

. . . Care should be taken to minimize the vibrations when the demolition is carried out so as to reduce the environmental burdens of dust and noise and prevent cracks from developing in nearby buildings.

As it turns out, the intrepid Internet researcher can discover that much of what Erpenbeck wrote in Visitation was based on her own family history and her own experiences at a summer vacation home, which the family lost when Germany was reunified. During a Between the Covers podcast produced by the publisher Tin House (you can read the transcript here), Erpenbeck revealed that Visitation was the result of extensive research and nearly all of it was based on real people and real events. She also spoke about what the reader should think upon finding this out. “When I, myself, am a reader, I’m also interested to not only read the story but also to know the story behind the story, like the biography of the author and how come that he wrote this book or she wrote this book. I think you can be happy if someone doesn’t realize that it is based on research or on true stories and you can also be happy if you can answer the question with a, ‘Yes, it’s based on something’. . . But a story is always something that is made up.”

Ω

Jenny Erpenbeck. Visitation. NY: New Directions, 2010. Translated from the 2008 German original Heimsuchung by Susan Bernofsky.

This is book number 1 in my Vertigo 15 Books Project, in which I am looking back across fifteen years of my reading and writing Vertigo and I am selecting the fifteen titles that have really stood out during that time.

The Vertigo 15 Books Project

I have been pondering how to mark the fifteenth anniversary of Vertigo for some time. I finally decided that the most appropriate response was to assign myself to read some more books. But this time, I would commit to re-reading books. I have selected the fifteen novels and books of poetry that really stood out to me during these years and I am going to read them again in the months to come. To make the cut, each book had to have struck me both emotionally and intellectually in a memorable way. Each book had to have some real word magic. And I asked myself if these were the books that came to mind while I was reading other books. Were they my benchmarks? Thinking along those lines left me with a list nearly twice as long as I wanted. So I gave myself some additional criteria and thought about the types of books I have always wanted to champion on Vertigo, books that most people might not run across or opt to read on their ownbooks in English translation, books by writers considered “tough” to read, and, of course, novels and poetry with photographs. That helped me whittle my list down to fifteen titles. After I re-read each book I will write about it here. I’ll be posting about the first book on my list very shortly. The full list won’t be revealed until the very end.

New BBC Radio Program on Sebald

The BBC radio program Archive on 4 has a new episode “Self on Sebald,” narrated by writer Will Self, which can now be heard here for approximately the coming year. I listened to it and thought it was really engaging and had a terrific soundscape. The program was released on December 11, 2021, on the twentieth anniversary of Sebald’s death. Here’s the description from the program’s website:

WG Sebald created extraordinary fictions that hovered between the real and the imagined. With images and simple, yet fantastically powerful writing he told stories of loss, exile and loneliness that spoke to his own personal life. A German living in England, writing in his native tongue, haunted by history and existing in two worlds. That of his fatherland which had exterminated its Jewish populations and made a compact with memory and truth. And an England that had firebombed German cities during the war. The second silence in post war German writing and thought. In works like Austerlitz, where the burden of memory and forgetting unhinges its central character, a former Kindertransport refugee, the past silts up before breaking through in unexpected ways. The Emigrants delicately portrays the lives in exile and return of German Jewish survivors whereas The Rings of Saturn evokes landscape and the past in unsettling yet subtle ways

Will Self has long been drawn to the multi-layered worlds of WG Sebald’s fiction. Here, in the company of Sebald biographer Carole Angier and former friend, poet Stephen Watts, Self moves through the Sebaldian landscape of Southwold, Liverpool Street and the East End whilst exploring the archive devoted to one of the truly great writers of the late 20th Century.

Photo-Embedded Poetry – Where To Start

Page from Don Mee Choi. Hardly War.

Poets have been placing photographs in their books since the end of the nineteenth century, often in the form of illustrations. On occasion, the visual materials that poets have included are actually an integral part of the book’s poetry. In these volumes of poetry, the photographs (or other images) are part of and essential to the text.

In my post called Photo-Embedded Fiction—The Seminal Works, I wrote about the handful of books that have been the most influential for other writers and also for building an audience of receptive readers for this hybrid form of the novel. For a variety of reasons, there isn’t a similar situation in poetry. Looking back over the long history of poetry with embedded photographs, there simply aren’t single titles that have acted as powerful influences on other poets or readers. If any book gets mentioned or talked about with any regularity, it would probably be one of two books by Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2004) or Citizen: An American Lyric (2014). Both of these are books of poetry filled with imagesphotographs and reproductions of artworksand both found a readership far beyond the traditional bounds of poetry fans. But they are both so recent that any influence they have is limited to the last few years.

Instead, in poetry, over the last several decades a few poets have produced title after title of poetry volume filled with embedded photographs. So, it’s more reasonable in this case to speak of a handful of poets than a handful of books. I picked five poetsSusan Howe, Leslie Scalapino, Suzanne Doppelt, Claudia Rankine, and Eleni Sikilenoswhose work probably created the acceptance which exists now for this kind of hybrid poetry. So, I suggest you start with them, along with a very short list of additional titles that are personal favorites of mine.

Image from Susan Howe. Concordance.

Susan Howe. Howe, a graduate of the Boston Museum School, was originally a visual artist, publishing her first book of poetry in 1974. Many of her books include photographs, but the images are often of other texts. These texts are usually handwritten or reproduced from other books, and sometimes they are even folded or cut up. In one of her poems in Concordance (Grenfell Press, 2019), she wrote, “I have composed a careful and on one level truly meant narrative and on another level the Narrative of a Scissor.” Start with either The Midnight (New Directions, 2003) or This That (New Directions, 2010).  Here’s a link to all of my posts about Susan Howe’s books.

Double-page spread from Leslie Scalapino. Crowd and not evening or light: a poem.

Leslie Scalapino. Scalapino, who died in 2010, was a relentlessly experimental writer who often employed photographs, unusual typography, and handwriting in her poetry. The book to start with is Crowd and not evening or light: a poem. (O Books/Sun and Moon Press, 1992), a book-length poem with seventy-six black and white snapshots. It’s a book that constantly allows the reader permission to reassess the very nature of meaning itself. Scalapino doesn’t offer the reader any easy connection between the photographs and the text in her books. She leaves the task of determining meaning up to the reader. I’ve written previously about Crowd and not evening or light. Here is a link to all of my posts on several books by Leslie Scalapino.

Suzanne Doppelt. Lazy Suzie.

Suzanne Doppelt. Like the novelist Wright Morris, Suzanne Doppelt is one of those rare beings who is equally skilled at writing and making photographs. Since the early 1990s she has been exhibiting her photographs and publishing books that mix her poetry and her images. Her poetry often looks like a block of prose on the page, but it definitely reads like poetry and reflects her background in philosophy. Her photographs tend to appear in pairs or in grids of three or more, and the images rarely refer directly to anything in the text. This leaves the reader free to forge their own loose relationships of meaningrelationships between the images themselves and between the images and the text. Doppelt’s books might be said to share one central concernperception in all its forms. I have written about her books The Field Is Lethal (Counterpath, 2011) and RING RANG WRONG (Burning Deck, 2006) here, but the book I now think is the best place to start is Lazie Suzie (Litmus, 2014), which the poet Eleni Sikelianos says is “a meditation on the senses, and in particular the enchanted lazy susan of the eye.”

Image from Claudia Rankine. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely.

Claudia Rankine. Claudia Rankine is quickly becoming a national treasure as she writes about America and racism. Three of her books (to date) include photographs, and you can start with any one of them. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (St. Paul: Graywolf, 2004) is a powerful book about the struggle to find and maintain a moral position, to stave off loneliness and hopelessness, but to not fall prey to what Dr. Cornel West calls the blind and blinding “American optimism.” The most common visual trope in this photograph-filled book is an old-fashioned, mid-century family television set, into which Rankine has overlaid news media images or anonymous snapshots, suggesting the way in which we are confronted daily with a relentless tide of insults and tragedies and deaths that threatens to benumb us while we struggle with our own personal crises. I wrote more about the book here. Citizen: An American Lyric, (Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2014) uses photographs and other images to address the racism that is still so endemic in American life and that has permanently stained our history. And Just Us (Graywolf, 2020) focuses on whiteness and white privilege in America.

Image from Eleni Sikelianos. Make Yourself Happy.

Eleni Sikelianos. Eleni Sikelianos has included photographs and other images in most of her books for the last twenty years or so. As is obvious from the example above, she can get very playful with the way she deals with the images in his poems. There are two terrific book choices to start with. The California Poem (Coffee House Press, 2004) is a book-length poem that attempts to give the reader an epic history of California from its glacial past to its rapaciously capitalist present. The book includes photographs, drawings, and a painting. Or try her more recent book Make Yourself Happy (Coffee House Press, 2017), which deals with science, mythology, history, ecology, extinction, and a host of other topics. I wrote more about that title here.

Ω

Page from Don Chee Moi. Hardly War.

Don Mee Choi. Hardly War. (Wave Books, 2016). In Hardly War, Choi blends several languages, photographs, and drawings into a unified whole. She has a distinctive voice that is playful and confident, and Wave Books, as always, has produced a brilliant design that turns Hardly War into a bravura visual performance. Choi was born in South Korea and her father was a photographer and cinematographer who mostly worked in Asian war zonesincluding the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Choi deploys many photographs by her father in this book. She also borrows wordplay tactics from nursery rhymes and other forms of children’s poetry to give her writing a slightly sinister innocence, and she creates a strange and wonderful mashup of American and Korean cultures. See my longer post on this book here.

Anne Carson. Nox.

Anne Carson. Nox. (New Directions, 2010). Physically, Nox is a stunning accordion-fold book housed in a clamshell box. The poem Nox is comprised of dictionary entries, snapshots, scraps of paper, postage stamps, written memories, and other texts, all laid down across a scroll nearly 1,000 inches long on which we watch Carson cope with the death of her brother, as she tries to comprehend “the smell of nothing,” “the muteness,” and the meaning of memories scattered across a lifetime. Just as the physical book unfolds and then collapses back into itself, the unifying structure of Nox is the unfolding and collapsing of a short poem by the Roman poet Catullus. Nox opens with the poemknown as Poem 101in Latin. As the scroll/book unfolds, Carson presents us with the individual dictionary entries for every Latin word in Catullus’ poem, along with her slowly evolving English translation of his poem. In parallel with the unfolding/translating of the Catullus poem, Carson examines the meager scraps that constitute her memories and communications with her brother, who lived his life largely abroad and estranged from his family. I wrote more about the book here.

Image from Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Seeing the Body.

Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Seeing the Body. NY: W.W. Norton, 2020. Griffiths’ powerful book deals with the death of her mother, the killing of a black man (Michael Brown) by police, her own rape, and other deeply personal topics. The book also contains a section of photographs entitled “daughter:lyric:landscape” that serves as a visual poem. We understand through implication that Griffiths is using these photographs to look back at herself through her deceased mother’s eyes. Like the novelist Wright Morris and the poet Suzanne Doppelt, Rachel Eliza Griffiths is an extremely talented photographer in addition to being a superb poet. She is known for her self-portraits. I wrote more about her book here.

Andrew Zawacki Unsun.

Andrew Zawacki. Unsun:f/11 (Coach House Books, 2019). Many of the poems in Unsun draw on the terminology of scientific disciplines, not to mention a couple of foreign languages, as Zawacki tackles big subjects like the environment and technology. But mostly, he’s just walking in the fields and woods, thinking deeply. We often think of poetry as invoking mystery or pointing us to that which cannot be spoken, but Zawack’s writing aims at a kind of rigor or exactitude. There are still mysteries in this world, but in his hands they are all the more stunning if seen clearly. One section of Unsun is a series of poems and photographs called “Waterfall Plot,” which is an homage to the ‘Wheel-Rim River’ suite by eighth-century Chinese poet Wang Wei. Each of the twenty brief poems in this suite is paired with an abstract, black-and-white photograph by Zawacki. In these photographs, Zawacki makes the recognizable (an ordinary chicken coop) look otherworldly, turning it into ominous landscapes and skyscapes that serve as the inspiration for each of the poems. I have written more about the book here.

Page from John Updike. Midpoint and Other Poems.

If it’s beginning to seem like using photographs is only for more experimental poets, consider John Updike. Updike, normally thought of as a novelist and short story writer, whose main subject, he once told a Life magazine interviewer, was the “American Protestant small-town middle class,” also wrote a considerable amount of poetry, including one significant poem sequence using photographs. In 1969, he used his own family photographs in a very innovative way in the title poem of his book Midpoint and other Poems (Knopf). “Midpoint” was written “to take inventory of his life at the end of his thirty-fifth yeara midpoint,” halfway toward his life expectancy of seventy. (He lived to be seventy-six.) I wrote more about the poem here.

Ω

You can find all of the relevant posts on this subject simply by clicking on the category Poetry with Embedded Photos. For purposes of clarification, on Vertigo and in my bibliography of photo-embedded literature, I generally ignore the whole world of artist’s books and what is often called visual poetry or concrete poetry, not because I am not interested in them (I am!). But my goal has been to keep the focus on works which seem to me to have their roots in the field of poetry and wish to be judged by literary standards.

You can explore my bibliography of nearly 1,000 title of works of fiction and poetry with embedded photographs by hovering over the pull-down menu Photo-Embedded Literature at the top.

Photo-Embedded Fiction – The Seminal Books

“What’s the use of a book, thought Alice, without pictures or conversations?”

Alice in Wonderland
Adam Scoville. Mothlight. Influx Press, 2019.

If you have never explored the pull-down menus at the top of my blog, the one titled Photo-Embedded Literature can serve as an Open Sesame! to a very curious collection of fiction and poetry titles. At first glance, photographs and works of fiction seem as if they ought to mix like oil and water. Although we now know otherwise, fiction is supposed to about, well, fiction, stuff that is made up, not real. And, although we now know otherwise, photography is supposed to reflect reality. When one of photography’s first inventors, the British gentleman scientist named William Henry Fox Talbot, published the very first book using photographs, he called it The Pencil of Nature (1844-1846), representing the widespread belief that nature itself drew the images we were seeing in photographs.

It took a while for novelists and poets to come around to the idea of embedding photographs into their texts in ways that were more nuanced than simply illustrating the characters and places they were writing about. They were able to do so once photography was perceived to have values beyond the pure depiction of reality. In the 1870s, a significant number of photographers began to argue that photography possessed an aesthetics that could rival that of painting and the other arts. When the Belgian Symbolist writer Georges Rodenbach began to serialize his novel Bruges-la-Morte in the Paris newspaper Figaro before publishing it in book form in 1892, he saw the potential for a certain type of photography to convey distinctive attitudes about cities, loneliness, longing, and even death. Since then, many hundreds of books of fiction and poetry have been published in which the author has inserted photographs in his or her text. They’ve been written in dozens of languages by writers from scores of countries around the globe. This blog, Vertigo, is the only active online resource for photographic text/image fiction and poetry. My bibliography, which currently lists nearly a thousand titles, covers the period from 1892 to the present and is updated continuously as I learn of new books.

At the suggestion of a Vertigo reader, I have thought long and hard about the many hundreds of books in my list and these are the handful that I consider to be the seminal works of photo-embedded fiction that have been published over the last one hundred twenty-plus years. In chronological order, these are the few books that I feel have been the most influential on other writers considering their own image-text works of fiction and for creating an audience of receptive readers to this mix of media. If you want to know the truly key books, start here.

1. Georges Rodenbach. Bruges-la-Morte. Paris: Flammarion, 1892. Someday we may learn that someone other than the Belgian Symbolist writer Rodenbach (1855-1898) was the first person to think of combining photographs with a work of fiction or poetry, but his book Bruges-la-Morte is the one widely known and recognized for its daring and originality. This was the book that made the combination of a fictional text and photographs to seem like a natural marriage. The dreamy images of Bruges and its canals that he inserted into the pages of his book are a perfect match for his death-infused story of a man grieving for his dead wife. The images were supplied by two Paris commercial photography studios. Flammarion has reissued the French edition recently, and as of 2022 I am told that their paperback edition is currently the only edition that still reproduces all thirty-five of the original photographs. The most useful modern edition in English is the one published by Atlas Press (1993), which includes some, but not all of the original photographs. For more about Bruges-la-Morte on my blog, look here.

2. Andre Breton. Nadja. Paris: Gallimard, 1928. Nearly a century after it was published, the diversity and inventiveness of the imagery in Andre Breton’s photo-embedded Surrealist novel Nadja still serves as a touchstone for writers thinking about using photographs in their fiction. Nadja tracks the narrator’s brief infatuation with a woman he meets by accident one day. Her wildness and lack of inhibition unlocks new and unforeseen possibilities for the narrator, who is immediately captivated by her eyes. But he stops seeing her after he realizes that she is truly mad, and she is eventually committed to a sanitarium. In his imagination, though, the memory of their time together comes to feel even more powerful than the days they actually spent together. The book includes forty-four photographs, some of which are by the famous American Surrealist photographer Man Ray. I highly recommend the enjoyable, readily-available English translation of Nadja from New Directions. In 1937, Breton (1896-1966) wrote a second, equally famous photo-embedded novel called l’Amour Fou, or Mad Love, but it isn’t quite the touchstone that Nadja is. I have written more about Nadja here.

3. Wright Morris. The Inhabitants. NY: Scribner’s, 1946. Wright Morris (1910-1998) was a true cross-over artist. He was an established novelist, who published nineteen novels and won the National Book Award for Fiction twice—in 1957 and again in 1981. He had his photography exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art for the first time in 1941 and had five books devoted to his own photographs published. The Inhabitants was the first of three novels that Morris wrote, specifically intended to be accompanied by his own photographs. In general, this book is laid out with his images printed fully on one page and his ongoing text on the opposite, creating an equality between text and images that is rare. Morris followed this up with The Home Place in 1948, but Scribner’s refused to let him pursue a third photo-embedded novel. Though he eventually published a number of non-fiction titles that included his photography, it wasn’t until 1980 that he was able to release his third and final novel with photographs, Plains Song: For Female Voices with a new publisher (Harper and Row). Morris’s 1999 book Time Pieces: Photographs, Writing, and Memory (Aperture) devotes several essays to the subject of combining images and text. Unfortunately, The Inhabitants is the only one of the six books I am writing about in this post that is currently not in print.

4. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Dictee. NY: Tanam Press, 1982. Now recognized as one of the key works in twentieth century avant-garde literature, Dictee was ignored for years by mainstream readers and critics, although it instantly became something of a cult classic, especially among Asian American artists and writers. Cha’s book is a multilingual experiment in feminist autobiography that blends poetry and prose, history and memoir. As the title suggests, one of its central concerns is language and the construction of meaning. To make her points, Cha makes liberal use of film theory and radical typography. Dictee contains numerous news photographs, portraits and reproductions of documents, including some depicting the author’s own manuscript for Dictee, thus anticipating the way in which Sebald used embedded imagery by years. Poet, writer, and filmmaker Cha (1951-1982) was raped and murdered by a total stranger in New York City just days after her book was published. I have written more about the book here. On January 10, 2022, nearly thirty years after her death, The New York Times published an “Overlooked” obituary for her here. Thankfully, the University of California Press is keeping this essential book in print.

5. Nick Bantock. Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence. SF: Chronicle Books, 1991. Griffin & Sabine, written and created by the British artist and book cover designer Nick Bantock (b. 1949), is the first volume of a now-famous trilogy of fanciful stories for children of all ages that uses photographs, maps, postage stamps, and all manner of images with great freedom and imagination, as well as the inclusion of actual letters and envelopes and postcards—all in service of an epistolary novel of romance and mystery. Bantock single-handedly started a genre of books, which I think of as interactive graphic novels. As he says in his sort-of autobiography The Artful Dodger, “when word and picture marry, the left and right sides of the brain operate simultaneously.” The success of Bantock’s books has undoubtedly opened the doors for more photo-embedded books. Literary critics may not pay books like this much attention, but publishers do.

6. W.G. Sebald. The Emigrants. 1996. There’s no doubt that the publication in English of The Emigrants opened the floodgates for new books of fiction and poetry which employed photographs. (It had been previously published in German.) Combined, Sebald’s four great photo-embedded books—The Emigrants, Vertigo, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz—also did more than those of any other author to tilt the world of literature in the direction of autofiction. By refusing to call his books fiction and insisting on the term “prose fiction,” Sebald (1944-2001) showed the way for writers to hue much closer to non-fiction and still have their books thought of as works of the imagination. And with the exception of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha‘s Dictee and a small handful of other books, Sebald used photography in a far richer and more complex manner than almost any previous writer.

I’ll be dealing with books of poetry with embedded photographs in the near future.

John Updike. Midpoint and Other Poems. Knopf, 1969.

.