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Talking to the Past—Part II: Edmund de Waal

At first, the letters are addressed to “Dear friend.” Then Edmund de Waal slips into the more formal “Cher Monsieur” and finally “Monsieur.” “I realise,” he writes, “that I’m not entirely sure how to address you, Monsieur le Comte.” How does one address a French count who died more than eighty years ago and whose only connection to you is that he was a cousin of your grandfather’s? And why would you choose to make a book in which you write letters to him rather than write a biography of the count or adopt some form of family memoir? These are just some of the questions that occurred as I read Edmund de Waal’s new book, Letters to Camondo (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021).

In Letters to Camondo, de Waal writes fifty-eight letters to Moïse Camondo (1860-1935), letters that ask questions which are never answered, that desperately seek conversation with the dead. For ceramicist and writer Edmund De Waal, the house of Count Moïse Camondo was but a few steps away from the house of his distant relative, Charles Ephrussi, who features prominently in his earlier book The Hare with Amber Eyes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), in which de Waal wrote about inheriting a collection of 264 netsuke, tiny Japanese wood and ivory carvings, from an uncle in Tokyo. The story of this collection of rare Japanese objects began in mid-nineteenth century Paris with de Waal’s relative Charles Ephrussi (1849-1905), a wealthy, Jewish collector who is one of the men used by Marcel Proust as he developed his character Charles Swann for In Search of Lost Time. Charles Ephrussi gave the netsuke collection to a Viennese cousin for a wedding gift. That cousin was Victor Ephrussi, de Waal’s grandfather. But with the coming of the Anschluss, Victor and his four children scattered around the globe, their art collections and possessions all confiscated by the Nazis, except for the Netsuke collection, which was smuggled away by a maid, who was later able to return them to the family. The Hare is an extraordinary tale that follows the precious netsuke collection from the Paris of the Impressionists to the Vienna of Freud and its famous cafe society to postwar Tokyo to contemporary London where de Waal lives and works.

Here, in a nutshell, is the necessary backstory to Letters. Born in Istanbul, Moïse de Camondo came from a distinguished family of Sephardic Jews. He moved to Paris, where he became enamored with the art of late eighteenth century France and began to collect obsessively. de Waal’s relative, Charles Ephrussi, was his neighbor and a fellow banker, and he helped him acquire some of the pieces of art that are still in the Camondo museum today. Moïse had two children, Nissim and Béatrice. When his beloved son Nissim was killed in World War I, Moïse decided to donate his house and its collections to the nation so that it could become a museum in Nissim’s honor. Today, the Musée Nissim de Camondo is a branch of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Moïse died in 1935, and then, during World War II, his daughter, Béatrice, her husband, and their two children were deported and sent to Auschwitz, where all four perished.

The Camondo house, built between 1911 and 1914, and designed, in part, to suggest the Petit Trianon of Versailles. GO69, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

de Waal begins Letters by informing the Count (and his readers) that “I have been spending time in the archives again.” He is studying in the archives of the Musée Nissim de Camondo. He guides the reader through various parts of the Camondo residence, discussing some of the mind-blowing rooms, the ornate furniture, and important artwork of this extraordinary house. By the end of the book, we have learned a fair amount about Camondo and French decorative arts, as well as the role that antisemitism played in the lives and deaths of the Camondo family.

Ever the good detective, de Waal intuitively goes for the gaps, the areas where there is no documentation, no evidence. The Camondo archive contains mountains of paper: “inventories, carbon copies, auction catalogues, receipts and invoices, memoranda, wills and testaments, telegrams, newspaper announcements, cards of condolence, seating plans and menus, scores, opera programmes, sketches, bank records, hunting notebooks, photographs of artworks, photographs of the family, photographs of gravestones, account books, notebooks of acquisitions.” Amazed at Camondo’s instinct for documentation, de Waal says, “I want to ask if you ever threw anything away?” He looks “for those things that have not been catalogued and filed and photographed.” He investigates “the hidden circulation” of servant quarters, kitchens, attic and cellars, and the stairways and passageways that connected all of those non-public spaces of the house. This is the part of history that is rarely written down, documented, photographed. The evidence is there if one searches properly. But maybe it’s found only in a footnote here, a quickly jotted reference in pencil there, a hint that “seems to weigh nothing” that finally tells us the story of the servant’s quarters and their lives.

By opting to write his book in the form of letters to Moïse Camondo, de Waal is forced into the curious position of telling Camondo the story of Camondo’s own life and the very details of his own magnificent house. For example, de Waal must tell Camondo “You were born in a ‘stone house’ at 6 Camondo Street in Galatea in Constantinople and spent the first nine years of your life looking out over the Bosphorus.” as well as all of the other biographical facts that Moïse Camondo would know perfectly well. This awkward narrative structure is apparent throughout the book, but most readers will manage to overlook it as soon as they realize that they are the really de Waal’s addressee, not a dead French Count.

As de Waal researches in the archives of the Musée Nissim de Camondo and wanders the rooms of the house, asking questions of Moïse Camondo that never receive answers, what becomes apparent is that he is making the point to us that history is derived from things—from the mute objects and the documents that survive—and that the people who actually made history are forever silent, unable to answer our questions. History is limited not only because the dead can’t speak, but also because we have only those few objects and documents that have survived.

Staircase, Musée Nissim de Camondo

Letters to Camondo is a hard-bound book with pages of thick, coated paper stock, and its numerous illustrations are beautifully reproduced, all for the publisher’s retail price of $28. Well worth the price. For a little more about the Camondo family and their house, I recommend an article over at Town and Country by James McAuley, whose new book is The House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France (Yale University Press, 2021).

New Volume of Sebald Interviews Published

Thomas Honickel. Curriculum Vitae. Die W.G. Sebald-Interviews: Schriftenreihe der Deutschen Sebald Gesellschaft. Bd. 1. Herausgegeben von Uwe Schütte und Kay Wolfinger. Würzburg, Germany: Königshausen & Neumann, 2021. 39,80 Euro.

The first volume in a series of publications from the recently established Deutsche Sebald Gesellschaft brings together extensive interview material from the director and documentary filmmaker Thomas Honickel. Made for Honickel’s acclaimed 44-minute documentary W. G. Sebald: The Emigrant (2007), the full interviews, which were used selectively in the film, were completely transcribed for this volume. The interviews average about ten pages each. The result is a sort of oral history about Sebald’s life and work. Uwe Schütte places the interviews in context in a foreword. Several of the interviews are in English: Peter & Dorothy Jordan (partly in German), Gordon Turner, Anne Beresford, Stephen Watts, and Susi Bechhöfer. The rest are in German.

From the publisher’s website: Thomas Honickel studied German and is a graduate of the University of Television and Film, Munich. He has made 30 documentaries for ARD/ARTE, including portraits of Elias Canetti and W. G. Sebald. His film W. G. Sebald: The Emigrant was premiered in the Literaturhaus Stuttgart in 2007 and was shown in numerous Goethe Institutes and literature houses in Europe and can currently be seen on YouTube. Uwe Schütte studied modern German literature and history at the LMU Munich and received his doctorate in 1996 from the University of East Anglia under W. G. Sebald. He teaches at an English university and is a private lecturer at the University of Göttingen. Kay Wolfinger is a research assistant in Modern German Literature and lecturer at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich.

The people whose interviews are included in the volume are:

Gertrud Aebischer
Jürgen Kaeser
Ursula Liebsch
Jan Peter Tripp
Heidemarie Nowak
Karl-Heinz Schmelzer
Franz Meier
Heribert Wagner
Reinbert Tabbert
Peter & Dorothy Jordan
Peter Jonas
Richard Sheppard
Gordon Turner
Anne Beresford
Uwe Schütte
Hans Magnus Enzensberger
Günter Herburger
Michael Hamburger
Wolfgang Schlüter
Peter von Matt
Sigrid Löffler
Franz Loquai
Ruth Klüger
Irène Heidelberger-Leonard
Michael Krüger
Wolfgang Matz
Stephen Watts
Susi Bechhöfer
Thomas Honickel provides excerpts from the shooting diaries of his film.

Talking to the Past—Part I: George Szirtes

She died in 1975. He, the son, was newly married, with his own new son, trying to scrape together a living for his new family. What did he know of his mother?

“I knew nothing then of her past, of anything that had happened to her and all she had survived. Nor did I know much about my father and his close brush with death. I had no sense of them as heroes or powers or even as people in their own right. They were my parents. They did not speak. I did not ask. What was it I was supposed to feel, after all? For whom? For her? For me?”

George Szirtes’ memoir/biography of his mother Magda, The Photographer at Sixteen (London: Maclehose, 2019) begins with the moment of her death in an ambulance in a London traffic jam. From her suicide, caused by depression and decades of ill health, Szirtes begins to work backwards in time like an archeologist, uncovering layer after layer of her life. Using family snapshots and a tape recorded conversation with his father, László, as reference points, he begins to discover the woman who became his mother and the man who became his father. He describes their two decades in London as refugees, struggling to build a life for themselves and their two sons, and then their earlier years in post-war Hungary, as they tried, and ultimately failed, to fit into the ever-shifting Communist system.

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The Emigrants via Virtual Book Club

Somehow, I only learned about this last night. A Public Space magazine and the poet & writer Elisa Gabbert are in the midst of doing a virtual book club which is reading W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants on Twitter through June 22. They are going into the book in some detail, so there are multiple posts per day. To catch up, you’ll have to do quite a bit of backward scrolling on Twitter. (There are only a few quotes on Instagram.) But it’s well worth it. The following is from the magazine’s website:

Elisa Gabbert | W. G. Sebald

May 6, 2021 Share: Read W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants with Elisa Gabbert in the June edition of #APStogether, our series of virtual book clubs, free and open to all. Starting June 10, you can read Elisa’s daily posts, and comments from our fellow readers, on our Twitter and Instagram accounts. And join us for a virtual discussion at the end of the book club, on June 22—register here.

W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants is a novel in four portraits, the stories of four men in exile: a doctor, a teacher, a painter, and Sebald’s Great-Uncle Adelwarth, the traveling companion of an American aviator. Written in Sebald’s signature indeterminate, essayistic style, intercut with photographs of people and places, The Emigrants explores post-war trauma and memory, guilt and displacement, and what it means to survive. Join us to read this book Larry Wolff called “an end-of-century meditation” on “the most delicate, most painful, most nervously repressed and carefully concealed lesions of the last hundred years.”

Elisa Gabbert is the author of five collections of poetry, essays, and criticism, most recently The Unreality of Memory & Other Essays and The Word Pretty. She writes a regular poetry column for the New York Times, and her work has appeared in Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, A Public Space, the Nation, and many other venues. Her next book of poems, Normal Distance, will be out from Soft Skull next year.

W. G. Sebald (1944-2001) was born in the Bavarian Alps. From 1975 he taught at the University of East Anglia, became Professor of German in 1986, and was the first director of the British Centre for Translation. His books include The Rings of Saturn, The Emigrants, and Vertigo (all New Directions).

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A Gallery of Clouds and The Gestural Image

Rachel Eisendrath’s A Gallery of Clouds (NYRB, 2021) has the best opening move of a book that I can recall in recent memory. Right off the bat the author declares: “I died and then found myself walking across a large, green field.” A few sentences later, she is holding a folder that contains the manuscript of the book we are reading and talking with Virginia Woolf (who is shown in a small photograph by Ottoline Morrell). Woolf takes the manuscript out of Eisendrath’s hands and begins to read.

Eisendrath describes the book we are holding in our hands as “a book of clouds.” “Clouds are ephemeral moments of light and color that stay still only as long as you look at them, but then—as soon as your mind wanders—change into something else.” In other words, Eisendrath is telling us she is going to be switching channels on us—switching between memoir and scholarly writing and fiction and images, etc.—without warning or explanation. That shouldn’t really be a problem these days, for readers became used to texts of this nature long ago. If you try to visualize the image of “a gallery of clouds” you just might see someone lying on their back staring up at the sky as clouds scud past in the shapes of whales or ships or the like. And so it is that A Gallery of Clouds is fundamentally a book about reading, and the fabulous image on the book jacket (designed by the renowned Katie Homans) is a photograph of the dreamy clouds that form the ceiling of the Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library, painted by James Wall Finn. Imagine yourself a fortunate reader in that famed reading room as you pause from your reading or research project and look up.

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A Few Reading Highlights, After a Third of a Year – 2021

This seemed like a good time to pick out a few of the best books that I have read this year that haven’t made it into my blog. Just as a reminder, I write a little bit about every book I read during the year on the 2021 Reading Log, which can be found at the top of my blog. (I know the link wasn’t working earlier this year, but that has been corrected.)

At the top of my list of favorites are two Virginia Woolf classics, Mrs. Dalloway and The Years, but I won’t say anything more about them here. And I have already written at some length about two outstanding books by Wolfgang Koeppen, Death in Rome and The Hothouse. If you’ve followed Vertigo for awhile, you probably know that I greatly value good detective stories and police procedurals. So far this year, three have stood out among the handful that I’ve read: Ben H. Winters, The Last Detective (Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2012); Nicholas Freeling, Love in Amsterdam (Gollancz, 1962); Kate London, Post Mortem (London: Corvus, 2015). But here are seven books that I thought warranted your attention.

Caryl Pagel. Out of Nowhere Into Nothing. Tuscaloosa, AL: FC2: 2020. The following statement is blandly appended to the copyright page of this book, but don’t overlook it: “This book is interested in memory, accumulating particulars, and retelling a good story. It is a work of nonfiction and fiction. Though it includes research and aims for veracity, the narratives ultimately rely on the author’s version of events. The author has been, and could still be, mistaken.” The pieces in this wonderful book (one hesitates to call them essays) morph slowly and mysteriously from subject to subject. Anything is game to Pagel’s curiously open mind—from sinkholes to Spiral Jetty, from Alexander Humboldt to Lucy Lippard. There are photographs, but they usually don’t explain or illustrate. Instead, they tend to complicate the words around them. Pagel seems obsessed with those moments when the wobbling mind daydreams about “strange associations, abstract anxieties, and bewildering, unintelligible images.” Most of us gloss over such moments, but Pagel probes them for the creative leaps they take across our mind’s synapses.

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Recently Read: Stephen Downes & Louis Armand

Here are two novels I recommend, both with embedded photographs and both, oddly, by Australian writers, although Louis Armand is now based in Prague.

Here’s the premise of Stephen Downes new book The Hands of Pianists (Fomite Press, 2021): “A neurotic freelance writer aims to prove that pianos kill elite pianists. For decades, he has grappled with the guilt that followed an accident in which he severed his talented sister’s fingers. ending her promising career at the keyboard. His investigations centre on the violent deaths at 31 of three great pianists.” At first, I will admit that I was skeptical. Downes’ narrator is an obsessive driven by his guilt and I don’t have much patience with obsessives. But as it turned out, I read the book in two non-stop sittings, fascinated and ready for more. My initial prejudices melted away when I saw that the narrator’s true obsession was a global search for meaning through music.

The three men whose deaths are being investigated by the narrator are genuine virtuoso pianists who all curiously died at the age of 31. American William Kapell died in 1953 returning from Australia when the commercial airplane he was in crashed south of the San Francisco airport. Australian Noel Mewton-Wood also died in 1953, committing suicide. He apparently blamed himself for failing to notice symptoms of the disease that would cause the death of his partner a few days earlier. New Zealand pianist Richard Farrell died as a passenger in a car crash in Sussex in 1958. In this well-written, digressive, almost Sebaldian novel, Downes takes the reader into the minds of pianists to explore what music and performance means to them. For someone like me, who frequently listens to classical music and attends concerts, Downes gives an insider’s window from the professional’s perspective. He writes about stage-fright, pianists hands, the quality of different pianos, recorded music, and much more, in addition to writing about the aesthetic qualities of music. The book moves from Australia to London to the Czech Republic. My favorite section is a visit to the Czech campus of Paul McNulty, the foremost builder of fortepianos, who builds them completely by hand for some of the foremost musicians of our time, one fortepiano at a time. In Prague, during a visit to the Kafka Museum, the narrator encounters a ghostly “Dr. K,” who challenges him on the nature of his quest. Have you transferred “your guilt about your sister’s accident,” he asked, “to a dead instrument?” By the end of the book, the narrator admits that “my notion that pianos kill pianists was unraveling.”

The Hands of Pianists includes several dozen small black-and-white photographs, many apparently by the author. A few are purely documentary in function, but many are very evocative, helping the narrative feel more like fiction.

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Passing Time, Weaving Time

Then I decided to write in order to get things straight, to cure myself, to explain to myself what had happened to me in this hateful town, to offer some resistance to its evil spell, to shake myself awake from the torpor it instilled in me with its rain, its bricks, its dirty children, its lifeless districts, its river and its stations, its sheds and its parks, in order not to become like those sleepwalkers who passed me in its streets, in order that the grime of Bleston should not seep into my blood, into my bones, into the lenses of my eyes; I decided to erect around me this rampart of writing, feeling how deeply tainted I must already be to have come to such a stupid pass and to be so distressed about it, feeling how completely Bleston had outwitted my pitiful vigilance and how, in a few months of loathsome caresses, its slow poison had oozed into my brain.

If you want to read one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century (in its English translation, that is), be prepared to pay at least $75 to obtain one of the six used copies currently available for sale on Michel Butor’s Passing Time has lamentably been out of print since 1969. I was shocked to see that my worn copy of two novels by Butor—Passing Time and A Change of Heart in one volume (Simon & Schuster, 1969)—was selling for at least $100. But my copy will probably be worthless in late May when Pariah Press of Manchester comes out with a new edition of Passing Time for the first time in fifty-two years. (See below for a special pre-publication offer.) Just imagine James Joyce’s Ulysses or any one of Virginia Woolf’s books being out of print that long. Inconceivable.

First published in France in 1956 as L’Emploi du Temps and in the U.S in 1960, the basic storyline in Passing Time is simple. Jacques Revel, a Frenchman, arrives in the English city of Bleston (modeled after Manchester), having been hired by a small company for one year to translate business documents between French and English. Over the course of his year he makes a few friends, starts to fall in love with one woman, then shifts his attention to her sister, all the while exploring the city on foot and by bus. Midway through his term, one of his acquaintances is nearly killed by a car in a hit-and-run accident, and Revel believes that something he did may have set off the chain of events that led to the attempted murder. So he sets out to play detective and try to discover if his actions were in any way connected to that event. To aid himself, he decides to recall and document in writing everything he can remember about his stay in Bleston, and that becomes the book we are reading.

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New Podcast About Sebald’s “Austerlitz”

The podcast About Buildings & Cities has recently done a two-part broadcast on W.G. Sebald’s final work of prose fiction, Austerlitz. You can track down episode numbers 77 & 78 through the website here.

Sebald’s novel is a natural for this podcast since Jacques Austerlitz is an architectural historian and a number of architectural spaces figure prominently in the book’s story, including London’s Liverpool Street Station, the Palace of Justice (Brussels), and the Bibliothèque Nationale (Paris). The podcast’s hosts, Luke Jones and George Gingell, read from Sebald’s book, give an overview of the plot, and discuss some of the key themes, including the kindertransport, the uses of photography in the novel, and, of course, some of the buildings referred to in Austerlitz. The two have a terrific conversation about the way in which Sebald continually hints at the Holocaust in Austerlitz, without quite discussing it overtly, and they ask if Sebald might have been too coy at times. Did Sebald see the Holocaust as a single aberrant event or part of a long-standing pattern of imperial genocides in Western history?

A long-time reader of Vertigo turned me on to the About Cities & Buildings podcast and now I’m a dedicated fan. Earlier episodes include subjects such as the filmmaker Patrick Keiller, New York’s Robert Moses, urbanist Jane Jacobs, and a four-part series on architect Zaha Hadid. Take a listen.

Photography-Embedded Fiction & Poetry 2020

Every year I post a bibliography of works of fiction and poetry recently published that containing embedded photographs. By the term “embedded photographs,” I mean photographs that are intended by the author as a part of the original “text.” Here is my list for books published in 2020. You can see bibliographies for the years 1970-2019 underneath the pull-down menu “Photo-Embedded Literature” at the top of Vertigo. If you know of a book that I have not mentioned, please let me know in a comment and I will add the book to this or any of my yearly listings. My thanks to the many Vertigo readers who have already pointed me to books that I had not known about. As far as I know, this is the only public bibliography of this kind. [Updated April 19, 21, May 18, 2021.]

Choi DMZ 2

Don Mee Choi. DMZ Colony. Wave Books, 2020. Poems, prose, photographs, and drawings that deal with the history of the U.S. involvement in Korea.

John Clark. Conversations with a Novel Virus. Sheffield: self-published in an edition of 100 copies, 2020. Quirky, humorous, angry, and thought-provoking poems in the form of conversations between the poet and the coronavirus. Appended to the back of the volume are beautiful pen and ink drawing by Sarah Grace Dye made from the windows of her Frankfurt, Germany apartment. Inside the book is a double-page spread photograph showing two pages of Dye’s sketchbook and her bookmark, which is a flattened Corona beer can top, dangling from a string. Who knew that talking with a virus could be so witty? I want one of Dye’s sketches.

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