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Time Traveling with Sir Thomas Browne

Thomas Browne

W.G. Sebald greatly admired the writing of Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) perhaps above all others. The two men, separated by three centuries, were in many ways kindred spirits. Here is Sebald reflecting on Browne (and, by extension, himself) in The Rings of Saturn:

The invisibility and intangibility of that which moves us remained an unfathomable mystery for Thomas Browne, too, who saw our world as no more than a shadow image of another one far beyond. In his thinking and writing he therefore sought to look upon earthly existence, from the things that were closest to him to the spheres of the universe, with the eye of an outsider, one might even say of the creator. His only means of achieving the sublime heights that this endeavor required was a parlous loftiness in his language. On common with other English writers of the seventeenth century, Browne wrote out of the fullness of his erudition, deploying a vast repertoire of quotations and the names of authorities who had gone before, creating complex metaphors and analogies, and constructing labyrinthine sentences that sometimes extend over one or two pages, sentences that resemble processions or a funeral cortège in their sheer ceremonial lavishness. It is true that, because of the immense weight of the impediments he is carrying, Browne’s writing can be held back by the force of gravitation, but when he does succeed in rising higher and higher through the circles of his spiralling prose, borne aloft like a glider on warm currents of air, even today the reader is overcome by a sense of levitation. The greater the distance, the clearer the view: one sees the tiniest of details with the utmost clarity. It is as if one were looking through a reversed opera glass and through a microscope at the same time. And yet, says Browne, all knowledge is enveloped in darkness. What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, in the shadow-filled edifice of the world. We study the order of things, says Browne, but we cannot grasp their innermost essence.

In his compelling and entertaining new book The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century (Granta, 2015) Hugh Aldersey-Williams does his best to locate the innermost essence of Browne. The book opens as Browne sets off on a journey from Bury St Edmunds to his home in Norwich (where Aldersey-Williams also lives). “What was he thinking?” Aldersey-Williams wonders. Browne, a physician by trade, but also “a philosopher and writer, a coiner of words, a Christian moralist, a naturalist, an antiquarian, an experimenter and a myth-buster,” had just testified at the trial of two women accused of being witches. Browne’s testimony suggested that their actions reflected the subtlety of the devil. They were found guilty and were hanged. Aldersey-Williams, who clearly wished Browne had testified differently by exposing the unscientific thinking behind the charges of witchcraft, decides to retrace Browne’s journey home from the trial. And he was going to make the trip slowly, on a bicycle. “I want time to think about what was going through Browne’s head.”  The portrait of Browne that emerges is at once thoughtful and impassioned. His complexities and contradictions are carefully weighed and examined. Read more

Bellatin’s Beauty Salon

Bellatin Beauty Salon-001

“Now the only thing I ask is that they respect the loneliness to come.”

The owner of the beauty salon in Beauty Salon is a gay guy who dresses in drag at work and cruises for men after hours. He raises tropical fish in aquariums placed throughout the salon for the amusement of his clients. But then a local gang called the Goat-Killer Gang begins causing havoc in the city and their wounded victims routinely become infected (and infectious) with a fatal disease. The salon owner renames his business The Terminal and takes in the dying victims who have been shunned by the rest of the city. But he rigorously prohibits any medicine in The Terminal. The disease is incurable, so why falsely prolong the process of dying? “I don’t know where we got the idea that helping sick people means keeping them away from the jaws of death at all costs. I made up my mind…that if there was no other option the best thing was a quick death under the most comfortable conditions I could offer the sick person.” Eventually, he, too, gets infected. And slowly, the tropical fish are dying off. Read more

The Hope of Floating

Wikswo Dedication-001Dedication page for The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us this Far.

I whisper my equations to her; they are orderly and balanced.

She knows this, and replies with the chemical formulas for salt, for devotion, for intimate confession.

The stories and photographs in Quintan Ana Wikswo’s The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us this Far (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2015) strike a balance of power that is exceedingly rare in books that combine fiction with photography. This has something to do with the fact that text and images each occupy a more or less equal amount of page space. But more important is the fact that Wikswo is equally deft with words and photographs. The densely-layered, impressionistic, and yet coherent images in her book seem to have been created with specific stories in mind and yet they can all stand on their own as complex, intriguing images. At the end of the book she briefly comments on her methodology as a photographer who uses salvaged government cameras.

Everything in the photographs is achieved in camera, through old fashioned mechanical and optical and chemical means – the colors, textures, shapes, and multiple layers in the photographs are all created using only the unique aberrations of the cameras’ optics and the chemistry of the film. The negatives are scanned and printed without digital manipulation. When working with an 80- or 100–year-old camera filled with rust, dirt, cracks, and battlefield detritus, each responds uniquely to the film, light, and lenses – most of their calibrations aren’t standardized. It takes a tremendous amount of time to build a sufficient working relationship with each camera to produce even one image. This level of obsession is a good way to learn to watch how the world glows.

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Recently Read: Nathalie Léger & Roger Grenier

IMG_2377

Two books, both by French authors. One about cinema, one about photography.

A longtime Vertigo reader sent me a copy of Nathalie Legér’s newly published Suite for Barbara Loden, for which I am extremely grateful. Barbara Loden was an American actress, whose second husband was the film director Elia Kazan. Loden wrote, directed and starred in the 1970 movie Wanda.  Shot in cinéma vérité on a ridiculously low budget, Wanda retells the real-life story of a bored coal-miner’s wife who gets involved with another man and helps him commit a bank robbery. The robbery fails, the man is killed, and Wanda seems relieved to be sentenced to prison. When Legér was asked to write a brief film encyclopedia entry about Loden, she found herself doing far more research than necessary.

Convinced that in order to keep it short you need to know a great deal, I immersed myself in the history of the United States, read through the history of the self-portrait from antiquity to modern times, digressing to take in some sociological research about women from the 1950s and 1960s. I eagerly consulted dictionaries and biographies, gathered information about cinéma vérité, artistic avant-garde movements, the New York theater scene, Polish immigration to the United States; I did research into coal mining (reading up about mining exploration, finding out about the organisational structure of the mining industry, collecting data on coal deposits in Pennsylvania); I knew everything there was to know about the invention of hair curlers and the rise of the pin-up model after the war. I felt like I was managing a huge building site, from which I was going to excavate a miniature model of modernity, reduced to its simplest, most complex form: a woman telling her own story through that of another.

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Mario Bellatin’s Writers (2) – Yukio Mishima

Bellatin Mishima

Mario Bellatin is a trickster who loves to sow confusion. I recently wrote about Bellatin’s 2012 book Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction, his fake biography of a non-existent Japanese writer. In Mishima’s Ilustrated Biography, he gives us a biography (of sorts) about the real Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, but this biography doesn’t begin until after Mishima has committed suicide and after his ritual decapitation by a colleague.

Mishima is part of a slim, bilingual volume that contains two brief novellas – Flowers (Flores) and Mishima’s Ilustrated Biography (Biografía Illustrada de Mishima). But Mishima is the work that most interests me today. The Mishima we are introduced to seems to be quite alive but lacking his head. Bellatin sketches out a number of disconnected episodes from Mishima’s extended life, many of which are superficially banal; he travels, attends conferences, visits a university, goes to the mall. But nothing in a Bellatin novel remains banal for long. Events mutate and spin off in unexpected directions. Take the example of Mishima’s attempt to find a substitute for his missing head. At first, a craftsman makes him a “rudimentary” head that “looks more like an archaic grenade than an integral part of his body.” He then considers having a kabuki mask made, but later decides that the making of a new head should be a “community project” wherein everyone would have shared responsibility for the end result. And then suddenly the subject is dropped, never to reappear. In Mishima, ideas are thrown out, explored (or exploited), then forgotten, as if attention-deficit has set in. Read more

Sebald Miscellany for May 2015

Over at Virtual Memories, Gil Roth has recorded a long and fascinating interview with one of Sebald’s great translators, Anthea Bell. The entire interview is fascinating and the two talk about Sebald for about five minutes starting at 23:00.

Renowned literary translator Anthea Bell joins the show to talk about getting her start in foreign languages, the schisms in the world of literary translation, the most challenging authors she’s worked on, the one language she’d love to learn, translating everything from Asterix to Zweig, and more!Anthea Bell is a freelance translator from German and French. Her translations include works of non-fiction; modern literary and popular fiction; books for young people including the Asterix the Gaul strip cartoon series; and classics by E.T.A. Hoffmann, Freud, Kafka and Stefan Zweig.

The online magazine Five Dials has just posted their 36th issue, devoted to nature and travel writing. The issue includes a republication of Sebald’s 1995 essay “To the Brothel by way of Switzerland: Kafka’s Travel Diaries,” in a translation by Anthea Bell. This piece first appeared in English in Campo Santo. The rest of the issue is equally strong, especially the pieces by Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane. Deakins writes about the swallows which nest in his chimney and how they perennially remind him of “the promise of the south.” Macfarlane visits the archive of J.A. Baker and explores the evolution of the author’s obsession with birds and the creation of his famed book The Peregrine.

And even though this is not a new item, it is a timely one. Simon Prosser’s “An A to Z of W.G. Sebald” contain this entry under the letter K: “KANT. One of the most fugitive of Max’s works, which I have never managed to track down, is a radio play which he supposedly wrote for the BBC on the life of Kant. Does anyone know where we might find a copy?” The answer, as we now know, is that Sebald’s screenplay on Kant exists in Sebald’s archive in several versions and will be produced on German radio on July 11.

 

 

Sebald’s Screenplay on Kant Heads to Radio

Kant Stamp

In her book Ariadne’s Thread: In Memory of W.G. Sebald, Philippa Comber wrote intriguingly of a screenplay that Sebald had written on Immanuel Kant, but which was never produced. Now, as a result of the efforts of Uwe Schütte, the script will be produced for radio by the German station WDR3 for airing on July 11. Jetzund kömpt die Nacht herbey: Ansichten aus dem Leben und Sterben des Immanuel Kant is the only extensive screenplay Sebald ever wrote and drafts of it remain in his archive in Marbach. The title of the screenplay, by the way, comes from the first line of a poem by Martin Opitz (1597-1639), which was set to music as a lovely song by Johann Nauwach around the same time.

Here’s the text of the press release from WDR3: Read more

Konteksty Magazine’s Giant Sebald Issue

Konteksty

The Polish journal Konteksty has just put out a giant issue devoted almost exclusively to “W.G. Sebald: Antropologia, literatura, fotografia.” Nearly 300 of the 408-page issue is dedicated to articles on all aspects of Sebald’s work. The journal is in Polish, but there is a six-page summary of all the articles in English. Even if you don’t read Polish, the many illustrations are fascinating by themselves. Below is the Table of Contents for the Sebald section, taken largely from the magazine itself, but with great help from my Polish contact Tomasz. The page numbers are given to provide the length of each essay. Read more

Mario Bellatin’s Writers (1) – Shiki Nagaoka

Shiki Nagaoka

He considered it a privilege to include entire visual images within his texts that, in some way, instantly reproduced what the words and the ideograms were so pressed to represent.

from Shiki Nagaoka

A handful of the more than twenty books written by the Mexican writer Mario Bellatin have recently appeared in English, and three are books about writers and writing. Bellatin, like the Argentinian author César Aira, generally writes very brief and wonderfully bizarre novellas. In Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction (Los Angeles: Phoneme, 2012), Bellatin creates an obscure fictional Japanese author who suffered from an extremely oversized nose. After spending thirteen years in a monastery, Nagaoka emerged in 1933 and decided to open up a small film developing kiosk, in part because of his increasing curiosity about the nature of photographs. As a result, “an infinity of photographs passed through Shiki Nagaoka’s hands,” which eventually led him to publish his book Photos and Words (“possibly his most solid work”). Photos and Words quickly “made its way around the world,” influencing the great Japanese filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu and writers such as the Mexican Juan Rulfo (1917-1986) and the Peruvian José Maria Arguedas. Rulfo was also well-known as a photographer, while Arguedas (according to Bellatin) wrote in his diary that the ability “to be able to see reality modified not only by the lens of the photographer but also by the written word that accompanies those images is a path that infinitely strengthens the narrative possibilities of actual reality.” Read more

Sebald Variations: The Catalog

Sebald Variations

In recent months I have  written about Kosmopolis, the annual “amplified literature festival” with live and online components put on by the Centre de Cultura Contemporànea de Barcelona.  The 15th edition of Kosmopolis is being devoted to W.G. Sebald and there is plenty to read and see on its website, including a series of fascinating essays. But Kosmopolis15 also includes an exhibition called Sebald Variations, which is up through July 26 of this year. If you cannot make it to Barcelona, there is a very useful bilingual (Catalan and English) catalog available which can be purchased online. Here is a partial description of the exhibition, taken from its website:

The exhibition shows works by the following artists: Carlos Amorales, Mariana Castillo Deball, Simon Faithfull, Andrea Geyer, Pablo Helguera, Núria Güell, Susan Hiller, Josiah McElheny, Trevor Paglen, Fernando Sánchez Castillo, Taryn Simon, Jan Peter Tripp, Guido Van der Werve,  Jeremy Wood. It will also include contributions from the following writers: Piedad Bonnett, Jorge Carrión, Julià de Jòdar, Reinaldo Laddaga, Valeria Luiselli.

The exhibition “Sebald Variations” seeks to introduce a critical reflection, and recount the different ways his work has influenced and engaged in a dialogue with the visual arts and literature since his passing in 2001. The exhibition examines the way several conceptual strategies for using images with texts, for historical reflection, for the unexpected juxtaposition of scenes and narrativity as a whole, not only appear in Sebald’s work, but have, on countless occasions, been directly or indirectly alluded to and even included in the works of a number of artists. The exhibition takes into account the different exhibitions, publications and artworks associated with Sebald that have been produced since 2001, or which enter into a dialogue with his books, in order to look at his ongoing impact on the artistic endeavours of today from a new perspective.

The project has been conceived as a visual and textual essay that brings together the voice of the author and other creators working in different fields. It pursues Sebald, comments on him, prolongs him and draws him out of himself in order to create new proposals in his company.

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