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Rivers of Memory, Rivers of Language

River Kinsky

The Oder drew a border line up and down the country, writing a Here and a There in the sandy earth. Under it, however, countless watery question marks and intertwining letters tugged in both directions, east and west, a water-script of histories granted continuity through the river, under it, beyond it, its tributaries and ramifications annotating the landscape, reversing its sides with befuddling mirror images of the sky and its blues of Here and There.

Esther Kinsky. River. Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017, translated from the German by Iain Galbraith.

The narrator of Esther Kinsky’s luscious, elegaic novel River is an unnamed woman who is living, albeit temporarily, in a very liminal part of urban East London that edges up against Tottenham Marshes, a handful of reservoirs, Leyton Marshes, Hackney Marshes, and the River Lea. Alone and apparently jobless, she spends her time exploring and mentally mapping her environs.

South of Hackney Wick, beyond the lake-like stretch of unfrequented, placid water formed by the confluence of the Hertford Union Canal and the tame arm of the Lea, the town came close on both sides of the river, darker from the west, with bricks, stone and broken window-panes facing the river, and grass and weeds breaking up the surfacing of the riverside path…Scrap sidetracked for recycling now reinforced the borders of Bow, which the city had once declared to be its boundary, and where bricks from the clay pits and brickworks of London Fields were once loaded and began their journey upstream to Stamford Hill, there to mutate into the new arms, fingers and arteries of the city. To the east of the river had once lain Essex, green and flat…

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The Trouble with Secrets

Thus-Bad-Begins

That’s the trouble with secrets, one can never ask for forgiveness.

In the highly refined world of Javier Marías, where any emotion, action, or statement can be surgically probed for pages in order to reveal every nuance and possible interpretation, the bar for what counts as an affront to the system is set frightfully low.  At the outset of Thus Bad Begins, Marías’s narrator, twenty-three year old Juan De Vere, is told by his new boss, the filmmaker Eduardo Muriel, that a friend of Muriel’s, a certain Dr. Van Vechten, has possibly committed some sort of heinous act in the past. It’s Madrid, 1980, five years after the death of Franco. Spaniards are tasting new freedoms, illicit drugs flow freely, the discos are packed until dawn, and unhappy couples await the legalization of divorce. “Is it something to do with the Civil War,” De Vere breathlessly asks? “Did he participate in a massacre? Did he carry out summary executions?” No, Muriel answers. His friend is believed to have “behaved in an indecent manner towards a woman or possibly more than one.” And with that bizarrely unexciting revelation, Marías sets in motion this fascinating, but overlong novel of lies and secrets. Read more

The Heart, Drawn & Quartered

Wikswo Curving Scar

Everything I had, I destroyed. Yet while I was alive I called myself a healer. We are all monsters, and I most among us. When we think we do the most good we commit the gravest arrogances. —Maw

Quintan Ana Wikswo’s first novel—A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be (Stalking Horse Press)—is a deeply ambitious book full of wild, unforgettable images, maximalist writing, and page after page of literary pyrotechnics. If I say that it’s a scathing, dystopian view of America, a diatribe against male privilege, and a send-up of the hypocritical sanctimony of the church—all of which it is—you might get the wrong impression. For this is a book full of passion and compassion, with tender, beautiful, sensuous writing that urges the reader to pause, re-read, and admire (or puzzle out) the lush sentences and the risks that Wikswo takes—risks that pay off most of the time. Her writing is a confident blend of fable, Gospel, and imagination that links to the gritty, fabulous tradition of Southern Gothic. Read more

A New Melancholia Exhibition Opens in Brussels

Parmiggiani Melancholia

© Claudio Parmiggiani, Senza Titolo, 2009
Book, plaster cast, clock

“Melancholia,” an intriguing new exhibition has just opened in Brussels at the Boghossian Foundation – Villa Empain. Although somewhat similarly named, this exhibition is not related to the Melancholia: A Sebald Variation, which recently closed at King’s College London.  The Brussels exhibit, on view through August 19 at the Boghossian Foundation – Villa Empain, Avenue Franklin Roosevelt 67, B – 1050 Brussels. From the press release:

“Melancholy: Sign of a refined heart and elevated mind”
Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, Gustave Flaubert

Curated by Louma Salamé

Present since antiquity in the East and West and named black bile, acedia or spleen according to the epoch; melancholy incessantly returns man to a lost origin and to the regret of a past world, which would take a painful charm. This temperament, which has historically been equated with both positive and negative feelings, has inspired some of the world’s greatest artists.

Melancholia presents works by major artists from different parts of the world, and installations specially designed for the Boghossian Foundation, such as Pascal Convert’s library or Animitas, Christian Boltanski’s installation in the Villa Empain’s garden. Other examples include the sculptures and installations by Claudio Parmiggiani and the fresco by Abdelkader Benchamma.

Through a dialogue between the works of modern and contemporary artists who inspire or are inspired by the nostalgia of an elsewhere or a before, and by representations of loneliness, ruins and passing time, the exhibition invites the public to explore the feeling of melancholy and its manifestations.

A link is woven through the works of 38 artists and a dialogue is created between the paintings of Rémy Zaugg, the self-portraits of Giuseppe Penone and Joseph Beuys, the sculpted work of El Anatsui, and the installation of Barbara Bloom or the sound work of On Kawara. The exhibition also features many Belgian artists such as Léon Spilliaert, Constant Permeke, Paul Delvaux, Jef Geys, Geert Goiris and the collective KRJST Studio.

If melancholy remains at the heart of the problems facing humanity today, it is because the world it has to face up to is an unavoidable source of concern, particularly in view of the current humanitarian challenges and the irreversible change in our climate regime. The “known” world will never be the same again and now seems like a lost paradise. The digital revolution of the 2000s ushered in a form of dehumanization of human relations, questioning the extent to which the individual remains a unique and irreplaceable being.

The catalogue accompanying the exhibition includes a selection of quotations from poets and writers as well as a collection of photographs from the exhibition.

Works by Etel Adnan, Manal Al Dowayan, El Anatsui, Farah Atassi, Abdelkader Benchamma, Barbara Bloom, Joseph Beuys, Christian Boltanski, Pascal Convert, Eli Cortiñas, Giorgio De Chirico, Paul Delvaux, Marlene Dumas, Lionel Estève, Jef Geys, Alberto Giacometti, Geert Goiris, Mimmo Jodice, On Kawara, Martin Kippenberger, KRJST Studio, Marwan, Mathieu Mercier, Melik Ohanian, Claudio Parmiggiani, Giuseppe Penone, Constant Permeke, Félicien Rops, Norbert Schwontkowski, Kiki Smith, Léon Spilliaert, Tatiana Wolska, Samuel Yal, Rémy Zaugg, Lamia Ziadé

London Review Bookshop Event – April 23

Patience Preview

I’ll be visiting London and Cambridge in April and the folks at the London Review Bookshop have invited me to join in a program celebrating the 20th anniversary of the publication in Great Britain of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Grant Gee will be screening his terrific film Patience (After Sebald). Here’s the LRB’s program preview:

Marking 20 years since the translation into English of the late W.G Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, one of the most remarkable books of the late twentieth century, Grant Gee introduces his acclaimed 2011 documentary essay film tracking both the journey taken in the volume, and the work’s own influence on numerous writers, artists and thinkers.

He will be joined in conversation by the film’s creative consultant, writer and critic Chris Darke, and Terry Pitts, founder of the remarkable literary blog Vertigo, founded out of a profound admiration for Sebald’s work. The evening is hosted by Gareth Evans.

You can purchase tickets for the 7:00 PM event at the LRB website. Come say hello!

In preparation for watching Patience, take a listen to the film’s hauntingly beautiful score by The Caretaker over at Bandcamp. Leyland Kirby (aka The Caretaker) used Franz Schubert’s 1827 piece Winterreise as his source material, which he “subjected to his perplexing processes, smudging and rubbing isolated fragments into a dust-caked haze of plangent keys, strangely resolved loops and de-pitched vocals which recede from view as eerily as they appear.”

Photography-Embedded Fiction & Poetry 2017

Here is my bibliography of works of fiction and poetry published in 2017 containing embedded photographs.  You can see bibliographies for other years underneath the pull-down menu “Photo-Embedded Literature” at the top of Vertigo.  I also maintain a more complete bibliography that spans 1892 to the present at Library Thing  (http://www.librarything.com/catalog/VertigoTwo).  I am always updating these lists as I learn of new books.  If you know of a book that I have not mentioned, please let me know in a comment. My thanks to Vertigo readers who have already pointed out books that I had not known about! [Updated February 15, 22, May 14, 15, 2018.]

Ball Census

Ball, Jesse. Census. NY: Ecco, 2017. Ball prefaces his novel by writing briefly about his deceased older brother, who had Down syndrome. In the novel, a father with a terminal illness and his son (who has Down syndrome) volunteer to conduct a census in towns from A to Z. At the end of the novel is a portfolio of family snapshots “from the author’s private collection.”

Bang Doll

Mary Jo Bang. A Doll for Throwing. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2017. A book-length series of poems about Lucia Moholy-Nagy and her circle. Lucia was married to the famous Bauhaus artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy for several years. When she fled Germany, her negatives ended up in the care of Walter Gropius, who used them for many years (without any attribution to Lucia) to bolster his reputation as an architect and founder of the Bauhaus. Lucia, who lived to be ninety-five, spent much of her life trying to regain her negatives from Gropius and restore her rightful place in the histories of the Bauhaus and photography. The book’s title is taken from a woven, flexible doll designed by Bauhaus artist Alma Siedhoff-Buscher that supposedly always landed with grace. The book ends with a single photograph by Lucia from 1926. It’s a stunningly Bauhausian image depicting a room Walter and Ilse Gropius’s house. See my review here.

Baume Walking

Sara Baume. A Line Made By Walking. London: William Heineman, 2017. The title of Baum’s book comes from the similarly-named work of art created by Richard Long in 1967. Long made an ephemeral straight line by tamping down the grass as he walked across a field. The line was then photographically documented, although Long referred to the line as a work of sculpture. In Baum’s novel, a young struggling artist hoping for an creative renewal moves to the countryside, where she contemplates life and ponders numerous well-known works of contemporary art. Each of the ten chapters is named after an animal found in the countryside and is accompanied by a photograph of a dead animal. Although not explicitly noted, the photographs are likely by the author.

Benech Espion

Clément Bénech. Un Amour d’Espion. Paris: Flammarion, 2017.  Bénech’s novel contains 27 snapshots by the author, a couple of maps, and simple line drawings. Read more

Han Kang’s The White Book

Kang WHite Book

Han Kang. The White Book. London: Portobello Books, 2017. Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.

Each moment is a leap forwards from the brink of an invisible cliff, where time’s keen edges are constantly renewed. We lift our foot from the solid ground of all our life lived thus far, and take that perilous step out into the empty air. Not because we can claim any particular courage, but because there is no other way. Now, in this moment, I feel that vertiginous thrill course through me. As I step recklessly into time not yet lived, into this book I have not yet written.

Every piece of writing is a performance of some sort, the execution of a task intended for public consumption. But Han Kang’s The White Book feels performative in a way that few books do. The book begins with a list of things that are white. “With each item I wrote down, a ripple of agitation ran through me. I felt that yes, I needed to write this book, and that the process of writing it would be transformative.” Over the course of the book, numerous small, modest performances—breathing, observing, walking, touching—lead Han Kang to powerful memories, flights of imagination, and life-changing realizations. Read more

Sebald, Dance, Seattle

Bill T Jones Adelwarth

Since 2014, the Bill  T. Jones/Arne Zane Company has been developing a trilogy of major, evening-length dances, one of which is based on the Ambros Adelwarth segment of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants. That trilogy is about to be performed in Seattle at the University of Washington on the evenings of February 1, 2, and 3. Here are the details from the University’s website.

Bill T. Jones’s latest work, Analogy: A Trilogy, is comprised of three evening-length works that reflect Jones’s fierce engagement with race, class, gender, history, and identity. Over three nights, Meany Center will present the entire trilogy (one of the first ever presentations in the country). The program, which features a live music soundscape, searches for the connection between three stories, focusing on memory and the effect of powerful events on the inner lives of individuals.

PROGRAM A | THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 1
DORA: TRAMONTANE
The first work from Analogy stems from an oral history Jones conducted with 95-year old Dora Amelan, a French Jewish nurse and survivor of WWII. Dora is a meditation on perseverance, resourcefulness and resilience while suggesting the amorphous nature of memory.

PROGRAM B | FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 2
LANCE: PRETTY AKA THE ESCAPE ARTIST
Based on an oral history Jones conducted with his nephew, Lance T. Briggs. Lance is a tragic, yet humorous journey through the sex trade, drug use and excess during the 1980s.

PROGRAM C | FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 3
AMBROS: THE EMIGRANT
This final program in Analogy is based on Ambros Adelwarth, a German valet to a dissipated, young scion of a wealthy Jewish family, from W. G. Sebald’s celebrated historical novel, The Emigrants. Ambros is an exploration of how trauma can go underground in the psyche to direct the course of an individual’s life.

Click here for more information and tickets.

Unmapped Country

Quin unmapped

Ann Quin. The Unmapped Country: Stories & Fragments. And Other Stories, 2018.

“The Unmapped Country,” which is the title story from this just-released collection of writings by Ann Quin (1936-1973), might well serve as the password to all of Quin’s work. Before drowning herself in the English Channel in Brighton, Quin published four novels, three of which I have written about in the last three months (Berg, Three, and Passages). In The Unmapped Country, Jennifer Hodgson has collected Quin’s published stories and tracked down unpublished fragments from personal collections and public repositories. The result is a collection of such stylistic diversity that I can’t help but pay homage to the drive that kept Quin pushing further and further into an “unmapped country” of writing.

Written over a brief period of something like seven years, these fourteen pieces could probably pass as an anthology by several different writers. While some writers seek to find their voice, Quin seemed to have a need to explore voices. Her narrators and main characters are female, male, children, passive, angry, feminist, conservative, well off, working class. In “A Double Room,” a woman, traveling on a train with her married lover, says to herself “Already, I’m thinking in the third person. Seeing us as another passenger might.” The male narrator of “Tripticks” tells us that his “special interests” are “living out other peoples’ fantasies,” which might be another way of saying—at least in part—what a writer does.

Quin was also a great mimic of the abbreviated and sometimes contorted fragments that pass for full sentences in our conversations. Here’s the speaker in the wonderfully titled “Motherlogue,” which gives us only one side of a telephone call between a mother and daughter:

you know Peggy who was found dead after a whole week the landlady discovered her only because of the smell coming out of the landing there she was a whole week rotting away well apparently she’s earth bound they’ve had several new lodgers in and each one hasn’t stayed long terrible things happening in the night bedclothes taken off furniture thrown about and one girl even had her nightie torn off…

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Go, Went, Gone

Go-Went-Gone

Jenny Erpenbeck. Go, Went, Gone. New Directions, 2017. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Writers of fiction (however you define it) have no obligation to make their writing relevant to the present moment; one of the great freedoms of fiction is its ability to be irrelevant, even frivolous. Still, there is a certain frisson that strikes me when a writer brilliantly encapsulates the specific now that we live in. Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone does just that. It’s a book that deals with the range of conflicting emotional, political, and legal responses to the current refugee crisis. Among the many things that Erpenbeck deftly accomplishes in Go, Went, Gone is to personalize the human consequences of government policies.

“So here in room 2017, we are, so to speak, in Nigeria.” Richard has just retired from his position as a distinguished professor of classics and, out of a curiosity he can’t yet explain, he has decided to visit a former nursing home that now temporarily houses some of the refugees that have flooded into Berlin. He is being led into a roomful of Nigerians  (“There’s also a Ghana room, a Niger room, and so on.”), with whom he will sit and talk, all the while taking notes. He’s still programmed to act like a professor on a research project; he’s prepared a long list of questions to ask: “Where did you grow up? What’s your native language? What’s your religious affiliation?” But his initial conversations with some of the refugees seem inadequate, and he wishes “he knew what questions would lead to the land of beautiful answers.” Read more