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“Behind Every Name Is a Story”: Trieste

Behind every name is a story.

In the middle of Croatian writer Daša Drndić’s documentary novel Trieste (MacLehose Press, 2012) there is a forty-four page, double-columned list naming the 9,000 or so Jews “who were deported from Italy or killed in Italy in the countries Italy occupied between 1943 and 1945,” starting with Clemente Abeasis and ending with Jerachmil Zynger. This memorial to the murdered is followed by another, much shorter listing—complete with mini-biographies—of the more senior S.S. members of the Aktion T4 group who worked in Trieste at the notorious prison known as San Sabba, which served as a transit center to Auschwitz and other concentration camps and housed its own gas chamber.

In this novel so dedicated to documenting victims and perpetrators alike, Drndić gives us a central character who is neither and both. Haya Tedeschi was born to a Jewish father and Catholic mother in Gorizia, an Italian town near Trieste. Now in her eighties (it’s 2006), Haya spends her day sifting through a basket of photographs, postcards, newspaper clippings, and magazines, the only remaining documents of her life. When the Nazis took over Gorizia in 1943 she was barely twenty and she—like the rest of her family—used her Catholic upbringing and membership in a fascist organization to be shielded from the persecution brought upon many of its Jewish residents. (Drndić’s list of murdered Jews includes more than forty people named Tedeschi, which, ironically, means German in Italian.) Haya even entered into a wartime romance with a German who already happened to have a family back in Germany, S.S. Untersturmführer Kurt Franz. This liaison led to the birth of a baby boy. But when Franz was ordered to a new post the baby boy mysteriously disappeared. Haya has spent the sixty years since then trying to find out what happened to her son. Read more

Sebald Talk in Berlin September 12, 2017

As part of the Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin this year, Markus Joch and Uwe Schütte will talk about W.G. Sebald on Tuesday, September 12 at 19:00 at the Institut Français. Tickets here.

The full program (in German or in English) can be found here. The long list of invited guests is impressive and includes people such as Edward Snowden (via Skype), artist Christian Boltanski, László Krasznahorkai, Yoko Tawada, Yasmina Reza, mystery writer Donna Leon (one of my favorites), Salman Rushdie, and Hari Kunzru. Several other programs caught my attention:

Thursday September 7 at 22:30 is a screening of a new film about James Baldwin and race called I Am Not Your Negro, which I have seen and highly recommend.

Saturday September 9 at 15:00 is a meeting for people wishing to join book clubs; two of the books under consideration are Sebald’s Austerlitz and Peter Weiss’s The Aesthetics of Resistance.

Sunday September 10 is devoted to graphic novels.

Five Novels, Five Photographs

 

Almost Island online literary magazine has published my essay “Five Novels, Five Photographs” in their Spring 2017 issue. In this essay, I look at five novels in which only a single photograph is used, examining both the different strategies that writers employ when they embed photographic images in their fictional narratives and looking at the impact a single photograph can have on a text. The five novels I chose to write about are:

Jeff Jackson’s debut novel Mira Corpora (Two Dollar Radio, 2013), a grimly beautiful coming-of-age novel that reminds me of Larry Clark’s infamous 1971 photobook Tulsa, with its insider’s vision of a group of teenagers whose lives centered around sex, drugs, and alcohol. Jackson’s second photo-embedded novel Novi Sad came out in 2016 from Kiddiepunk.

Nicholas Rombes’s first novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing (Two Dollar Radio, 2014), a noir-saturated exploration of images (both moving and still) and their relationship with truth. Rombes is currently a major contributor to the website The Lost Signals Collection, which describes itself as “an archive of speculative texts, images, sounds, and moving pictures lost to history. It is interested in interrogating what might have been, and what might yet be ….”

Wright Morris’s Plains Song (Harper & Row, 1980), is, as far as I know, unique amongst novels with embedded photographs, in that it uses one photograph which repeats at the opening of each of the book’s fourteen chapters. Plains Song is structured as a multigenerational family tree and thus the photograph that is repeated throughout the book serves as a refrain that encapsulates the gist of Morris’s story.

Konrad Bayer’s Der Kopf des Vitus Bering: Ein Porträit in Prosa (Walter Verlag, 1965), a deliberately fragmented, rambling, hallucinogenic prose work that is ostensibly (but only marginally) about the final days of Vitus Bering (1681–1741), the Danish cartographer for whom the sea that separates Siberia from North America was named.

Dubravka Ugrešiƈ’s The Museum of Unconditional Surrender (New Directions, 1999), a novel about what it means to be an exile, extensively references photographs and photography.

Chronicle of a Sin

The most authentic thing about you is your sin…

Great, long novels are something the reader inhabits for days, like a visit to a foreign country where the history and the customs and the social mores are different and take time to untangle. Even the sins may be different there. Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle of the Murdered House is just such a novel. Originally published in Brazil 1959, it has finally been translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson and was issued last year by the fabulous Open Letter. It is currently the only novel by Cardoso (1912-1968) in print in English. This year it won the Best Translated Book of the Year Award for fiction.

As a family, the Meneses have seen better days and finer generations than the three brothers who live together at Chacara, the slowly rotting family estate in the rural state of Minas Gerais. Demetrio, the overly proud head of the family, is married to Ana, a drab and desperately unhappy woman. Timotéo is a cross-dressing alcoholic who rarely leaves his room. And the third brother, Valdo, upsets whatever equilibrium might have still existed at Chacara when he imports Nina, “a poisonously malevolent beauty,” from Rio De Janeiro to be his wife. The claustrophobic grounds of Chacara act like a hothouse, heating up and intensifying the emotions of its inhabitants. Read more

Bill T. Jones Debuts “Analogy Trilogy: Ambros: The Emigrant”

Three years ago I wrote about the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company’s plans to develop a dance around the Ambros Adelwarth segment of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants. “Analogy/Ambros: The Emigrant” just had its world premiere on July 21, 2017 at Dancer’s Workshop in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The dance is the final section of a trilogy which was first performed as a unit on the nights of July 27-29 at American Dance Festival 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. There is a 9 1/2 minute interview with Bill T. Jones on the dance on Soundcloud. The 90-minute dance  was reviewed by Susan Broili in the Raleigh, North Carolina newspaper The News & Observer, in which the following excerpt appeared:

“Analogy/Ambros: The Emigrant” begins with the live sound of whispering voices and Bill T. Jones’ recorded recitation of evocative text from W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, a fictionalized history of four men, including Ambros Adelwarth, a German manservant who serves as companion to Cosmo, the privileged son of a wealthy Jewish family. The narrative tracks Ambros’ experience traveling with Cosmo, through Europe and the Middle East on the eve of WWII.

The recorded text describes how Ambros Adelwarth and his charge, Cosmo, asleep on the deck of a steam ship on their way to an excursion abroad, are visited by a quail, who lands on Cosmo, settles down to sleep, and then flies away in the morning.

 In this work, Jones and collaborators, who include assistant artistic director Janet Wong, amaze with their scope and with the engaging quality of the multi-media elements woven seamlessly into the work.

The live music provides a rare treat as does the dancers’ singing with professional flare. Most of the time, their singing, both in solos and in harmony with others, is achingly beautiful.

Read more

Austerlitz CD

Austerlitz CD box1

A new nine-CD audio set of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz has just been issued. The entire book is read by Michael Krüger, Sebald’s long-time friend and publisher. Plus, there is a section of Austerlitz read by Sebald in 2001 at the Unterberg Poetry Center of New York’s 92 Street Y, which can be seen on YouTube. Krüger gives an excellent reading of Sebald’s final novel, speaking in a gentle, slow intonation that sounds much like Sebald himself. There is also a related six-minute podcast reviewing the new CD set that can be heard (and downloaded) at the website of WDR3. From 1968 to 2013, Krüger worked at Carl Hanser Verlag, which was Sebald’s German publisher from 1998 until 2008.

In Europe, the CD set is available from multiple sources that have links on the Random House website. In the US, the set can be purchased from multiple sources through Amazon. The list price is surprising affordable at €29,99 in Europe, with prices starting at $35 in the US.

[This post was edited and updated after I received my copy of the CD set.]

Split Screen: Teju Cole’s “Blind Spot”

At such moments invisible and tangible become confused.
Yves Bonnefoy, The Arrière-pays.

An open book is naturally a split screen divided by the book’s gutter, although few books actually take full advantage of this. Teju Cole’s new book Blind Spot (Random House, 2017) manages to put each of some 160 or so double-page spreads into truly astonishing dialogues between text and image. Blind Spot balances Cole’s color photographs on the right hand side with texts that are generally very brief on the left. In the texts, which are titled according to the city where the photograph was taken, Cole recounts dreams, constructs compressed essays, and meditates on travel, photography, sight, religion, and art. Occasionally these texts serve as a commentary on the photograph across the page, but for the most part Cole makes the dialogue take place somewhere else, somewhere unexpected, somewhere, shall we say, off camera. Even in texts as brief as these, Cole shows once again his trademark mental restlessness, which matches the globe-hopping list of cities where he has photographed. Read more

Eating Oatmeal Soup with Robert Walser

“only the journey to oneself is important.”

On a mild, early spring Sunday in February 1950, the writer Robert Walser and his friend Carl Seelig were eating in a pastry shop in St. Gallen, Switzerland. “Robert rolls a misshapen cigarette,” Seelig writes. “Since it isn’t well tamped, it flares a bit. The couple next to us begins to giggle; they apparently take Robert for an unworldly farmer. He tells me that now he sorts and unravels twine for the post office. But he is content with the work. He simply takes what comes.” This episode delights me no end, in part because it occurred on the very day on which I was born, in part because it epitomizes the spirit of Robert Walser.

As we learn from Carl Selig’s book Walks with Walser, Walser was a man who was both simple and complex. A writer of tremendous invention and honesty, called by Susan Sontag “a Paul Klee in prose” and “the missing link between Kleist and Kafka,” Walser was content, if not delighted, to spend the final thirty-six or so years of his life in Swiss mental institutions, far from the big cities and the literary and artistic circles he had enjoyed in his youth. Much of what we know about Walser’s life we know because of this slim book written by Seelig and first published in 1957 as Wanderungen mit Robert Walser. Read more

Ali Smith: “Oh dear God – was that Sebald?”

In an interview in the current issue of The Paris Review, Ali Smith recounts going to a 1998 interview for a fellowship at the University of East Anglia.

I got met at the office by a man named Max—a very nice German man who took me along the corridor to the interview and who sat in as an onlooker. That night, I got home, I went to bed—and I woke up in the middle of the night, going, Oh dear God —was that Sebald?

It was. Smith got the fellowship and got to know Sebald a bit.

What I know, even from that tangent, is that he was an incredibly charismatic figure, he was like no one I’ve ever met. Plus, not many people know that he was funny, funny, funny. He was laugh-out loud droll. We haven’t yet begun to understand his rigor, as a writer.

On reading Sebald:

Austerlitz [is] the most uneasy novel I’ve ever read, a novel uneasy with the notion of being a novel. I read all of Sebald’s books again after his death, and it was very different from reading them when he was alive.He is utterly despairing, particularly in The Rings of Saturn. It’s terrible, beautiful, and there’s no hope. And then you get to Austerlitz, and in Austerlitz despair is ultimately a fiction, too.

I’m a big fan of the The Paris Review interviews, but the interviews with Ali Smith and Percival Everett in this summer’s issue (#221) are terrific. They are two smart writers. Kudos to the interviewers – Justin Taylor and Adam Begley.

The Compass that Always Points East

Mathias Énard’s Zone, which I wrote about in 2011, is one of the best written and most urgent novels that I have read in this quickly aging century. Zones Homeric scale attempts to encompass some of the twentieth century’s most critical themes within the framework of the narrator’s memories during a train ride from Milan to Rome. In Énard’s view, history is perennially unable to free itself from the eternal male infatuation with violence, warfare, and other forms of “manliness,” which  in the last century alone resulted in misery and death for hundreds of millions of people. His narrator has fought in the Balkan wars and has served in the “intelligence” community, but has finally decided to opt out, sell his secrets, and retire to safety. Zone was also Énard’s heartfelt homage to a pantheon of Modernist writers, including James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Malcolm Lowry, Jean Genet, William Burroughs, Paul Bowles, and others. Written fours years after Zone, Street of Thieves was Énard’s next novel to appear in English. Using the first-person perspective of a young Muslim struggling to remain devout in a milieu of  violent radical Muslims, it seemed one-dimensional after the richness of Zone.

Compass, published in France in 2015 and just released in English by New Directions, reverts to the style of Zone. Franz Ritter is an aging scholar, a musicologist who lives in Vienna and has dedicated his life to studying the influences of “the Orient” on western classical music. He’s an erudite, cosmopolitan, old-world gentleman. He’s also an old-school Orientalist, the type of person that Edward Said critiqued in his 1978 classic Orientalism. Compass takes place during a single night when Ritter finds himself unable to sleep. Instead, he launches into an overnight voyage of fond reminiscences through a past that seemed to him fashionably risky, elegant, romantic, and, of course, full of scholarly gossip and feuding. Much of Compass is dedicated to Ritter’s warm, nostalgic memories of his Orientalist adventures, which took place in countries like Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Lebanon, but also at conferences in Vienna, Paris, and other European cities where the Orient was (and often still is) paternalistically stereotyped. One of the great pleasures of reading Compass is Énard’s astonishing command of literary, musical, historical, and other often fascinating references that pass through Ritter’s mind on this restless night. Énard manages to mention, quote, or discuss scores of composers, dozens of European and Middle Eastern writers, and an assortment of other notables that includes people as varied as Sigmund Freud and Edith Piaf, as well as many lesser known characters from history, such as the Baron Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, an Austrian Orientalist (1774-1856). Read more