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“We are speaking for our lives”: Carole Maso’s The Art Lover

In the first two brief chapters of Carole Maso’s novel The Art Lover (North Point Press, 1990), we watch a happy family of four—Alison, Candace, and their parents—at play on a beach on a lake in the Berkshire Mountains of New England. These two chapters actually represent the novel that Caroline, the narrator of The Art Lover, is in the midst of writing at the moment when her father dies and she must leave her residence at the Cummington Art Colony and return to New York City to attend to his estate. Her father, Max, was an art historian and professor and is one of several art lovers in Maso’s novel. When she first returns to his apartment and walks among his large library, his paintings, his papers, and even the women’s shoes left in his closet, remnants of his many lovers, she begins to talk to him, which she will do at length throughout the novel. After the very early death of Caroline’s mother, whom Max adored, Max became a distant father, chasing women in a futile effort to find a woman who could equal her. Caroline tells Max (and us) what she has been doing recently. She went to film school for awhile. “I wanted to make documentaries. I wanted to gather evidence. I wanted to record the truth.” But in the end she came back to writing. “I missed language. I missed words.”

I am a big fan of The Art Lover because it is many novels in one. It is a great New York City novel. It’s a novel about art. It’s a novel about the AIDS crisis. It’s a novel filled with photographs, reproductions of artworks, and other kinds of imagery. And it’s a novel about writing a novel. The first time I wrote about The Art Lover in 2016, I was reading a later edition that used Vermeer’s The Art of Painting, ca. 1666-68 on the cover. While two Vermeer paintings are reproduced in The Art Lover (not, however, The Art of Painting), it’s much more appropriate that the true first edition (shown above) reproduces a detail from Giotto’s Resurrection (Noli Me Tangere), ca. 1304-06, one of the series of frescoes in the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy. Excerpts from this painting are reproduced four times in Maso’s novel, and the subject of this painting and the Arena Chapel play key roles in the book. In addition to the obvious allusion of not touching anyone in the early days of AIDS for fear of catching the AIDS “plague,” “noli me tangere,” which is generally translated from the Latin as “touch me not,” also seems to refer to Caroline’s attempt to get some distance from her feelings so that she can better understand the complicated relationship she had with her father when he was alive. And it also refers to her need to write.

I am going to write now. It is a way of telling the truth. Or nearing the truth.
The absolute truth? The literal truth?
Well, yes. Well, no. But something of the whole. Something of what it means to be alive.
I think of the family of father and mother, of two daughters, Candace and Alison, just a word picture for now.
Writing too can keep the world at a distance. One uses “one” instead of “I.”

Giotto. Resurrection (Noli Me Tangere). From the Arena Chapel, Padua, ca. 1304-06

In the novel that Caroline is writing, the older daughter, Alison, visits the Arena Chapel and appears to have a conversation with Jesus, who comments on his mother Mary as she is depicted in the fresco of the Nativity scene.

“Isn’t she beautiful?” he asks, gazing off.
“Why is she so sad?”
“I will die in an oven in Auschwitz. I will be humiliated and killed in Soweto. I will suffer with a young woman who swallows pill after pill, seeing no way out.”
What are you talking about?” Alison thinks.
“I will die a horrendous death over and over and over again from a plague in the late twentieth century.”

Giotto. Nativity. From the Arena Chapel, Padua, ca. 1304-06.

The central plot point of the novel that Caroline is writing comes when the father walks out on his family to live with a much younger woman with whom he has become besotted, much to the disgust and anger of his two daughters. Caroline seems to be taking out her somewhat buried feelings about her own father in the attitudes that she gives Candace and Alison to their errant father. She can’t seem to be angry with him when she talks to his absence in his old apartment. Instead, she speaks to him through her novel-in-progress.

The Art Lover is a blend of memories, conversations with the dead, reactions to real events (e.g., the AIDS crisis and the space shuttle Challenger disaster), and Caroline’s novel-within-the-novel. But Caroline’s ability to hold everything together comes to a head about halfway through the novel, when her close friend, the artist Steven, checks himself into St. Vincent’s hospital. He has AIDS. Steven is a stand-in for Carole Maso’s real friend, the artist Gary Falk, and it is is Falk’s art which is reproduced in the book as Steven’s (a nice extension on my previous three posts about artists invented by writers). Steven’s illness further fragments Caroline’s narrative and causes past and present to elide and the dead to come alive. (It is no surprise that Caroline’s previous novel was titled Delirium.) Jesus has conversations with Candace and Alison. Caroline has a conversation with her dead father that lasts more than ten pages. Carole Maso even drops all pretense of writing a novel several times and writes directly about her relationship with Gary Falk. Maso’s novel ought to be going into free fall by now, but instead it only seems to get richer.

Gary Falk, untitled, n.d.

As Caroline/Carole goes through hell with the increasing illness of Steven/Gary, she can’t help but think of how happy the two friends were growing up and of her recent ecstatic love affair with a married man at the Cummington Art Colony. “Was it our mistake,” Carole asks Gary, “that we loved everything so much?

This is book number 8 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.

“It could have only been written by a Spaniard” — Two More Fake Artists

In his slim little book Because She Never Asked Enrique Vila-Matas tells a story about the artist Rita Malú,* who looks like the famous French artist Sophie Calle, who “dreamed of the day when Sophie Calle would finally realize that she existed,” and who “had become the best Sophie Calle imitator in the world.” (Calle is a conceptual artist who, as Wikipedia concisely says, “is recognized for her detective-like tendency to follow strangers and investigate their private lives.”)

Getting a bit bored one year, Malú decided to open up a detective agency and see what might come her way. Her first client was a woman who asked her to track down her husband, rumored to be in the Azores. To make a short story even shorter I’ll omit numerous complications that occurred along the way. In the end, Malú goes to the Azores and sees a red house that she has dreamed about. Indeed, the missing husband lives there and answers the door.

“A ghost haunts this house,” he tells Malú.
“What ghost?” she asked.
“You,” the old man said, and he softly closed the door.

In the next chapter, Vila-Matas tells us that he wrote “The Journey of Rita Malú” because Sophie Calle asked him to. He writes that she had phoned him and asked him to meet her in Paris, where she requested that he write her a story that she could act out for a year. He agreed to and soon thereafter sent her the story we have just read. Then, in typical Vila-Matas fashion, there were a series of delays, during which 1) he discovers, much to his chagrin, that Calle had asked Paul Auster and numerous other writers first, all of whom turned her down, and 2) he is hospitalized with kidney failure and has to wear an embarrassing catheter and urine bag wherever he goes.

Them abruptly, Vila-Matas back-pedals and admits he made this all up. Sophie Calle never called him.

Why did I pretend that Sophie Calle telephoned me at home? And why did I make believe that she had asked me to write something for her to bring to life? Perhaps I made it all up precisely because she didn’t ask.

And then Vila-Matas writes that he calls a friend who knows Sophie Calle and he asks that his friend ask Sophie Calle to telephone him. Sophie Calle calls him and they agree to meet in Paris where she asks him to write a story that she could act out for a year. Villa-Matas tells us that he turned her down.

(*Rita Malú is also a character who appears in Vila-Matas’ book Bartleby & Co.)

Because She Never Asked (New Directions, 2015). Translated by Valerie Miles from a story first published in Spanish in 2007.


According to the text on the dust jacket, Max Aub’s Jusep Torres Campalans (Doubleday & Co., 1962) is “a fully documented biography of the Catalan painter” who hung around with Picasso in the cafés of Barcelona and then the Paris during the heady days of Cubism, before removing himself to a remote location in Chiapas, Mexico, where he became utterly forgotten until rediscovered by Aub. The biography reproduces a small catalogue from a planned exhibition of Campalans’ work at the Tate Gallery in London in 1942, which reproduces forty-nine of the artist’s (very mediocre) Picasso-esque paintings. (The exhibition was never held because of the war, but the catalogue was printed anyway.)

Only the very end of the book’s long description on the back flap might give the potential reader a hint that Aub’s biography might not be what is seems.

Max Aub’s writing is full of verve and lucidity realistic [sic]; it demonstrates that characteristic quality of Spanish writers, ingenuity. He brings Torres Campalans and the moral and intellectual history of his times to life as if in a picaresque novel. (Is it, in fact, perhaps, a sort of novel?) It could have been written only by a Spaniard, a fellow-countryman of Cervantes—and of Don Quixote.

Aub used aspects of his own life in writing Campalans’ biography. Born in 1903 in Paris to a French mother and a German father, the family had to flee France at the outbreak of World War I because his father’s nationality made him an enemy alien. They went to Spain where Aub took Spanish citizenship. But as a partisan on the losing Republican side during the Spanish Civil War, Aub had to return to France as an exile from his adopted country. Then, at the outbreak of World War II, he was interned in a French concentration camp under suspicion (erroneously) of being a Communist. After nearly two years in a forced labor camp in Algeria, he escaped in 1942 and made his way to Mexico, where he eventually became a citizen. Wikipedia say that while he wrote “nearly 100 novels and plays and is very well known in Spain, only two works are available in English,” one of which is Jusep Torres Campalans.

Ultimately, an astute reader will probably realize that Aub’s biography has a few too many coincidences and other slightly improbable events, but nothing in the book ever comes right out and says that the whole things is a fraud. Which it is.

” The Artist [Jusep Torres Campalans] with Pablo Picasso” from Jusep Torres Campalans. Photomontage by Josep Renau.

In 1964, Aub published a double set of playing cards that he claimed were hand-drawn by Torres Campalans. On the back of each card is the text of a novel about the life of a man named Máximo Ballesteros, a novel which can be read in any order. This was just a year after Julio Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch, which offered readers two possible ways through the novel and it was several years before B.S. Johnson’s now infamous 1969 novel The Unfortunates, which consisted of twenty-seven loose, unbound sections held in a box which could be read in any order the reader desired.

Max Aub, Juego de Cartas. Mexico City: Alejandro Finisterre, Editor, 1964.

Faking It: Real Monographs, Fake Artists, Part 2

At first—and possibly second—glance, The Archive of Bernard Taylor (Understory Books, 2021) looks like a pretty normal, if unusually handsome, photobook. It’s a lovingly produced volume of rather formal b&w photographs taken in and around Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, based on a group of prints that a lucky guy named Peter Ward bought at an estate sale for $40. Bernard Taylor’s photographs are mostly of trees and suburban landscapes, and they are full of subtle rhythms and symmetries which suggest that the photographer saw hidden meanings in his subjects. On the opposing pages of many of these photographs are finely-worded unsigned texts on grand topics like nature and vision. The book also includes a few vintage photographs and old maps of Hastings-on-Hudson for context. There is an “Editor’s Preface” written by Ward in which he briefly tells us how he purchased the photographs and describes his passion for these images and the region they depict. Ward’s discovery of Taylor’s photographs will undoubtedly remind many people of the story of the posthumously-famous Chicago-area nanny, Vivian Maier, whose storage locker full of previously unseen photographs and negatives was auctioned off for non-payment of rent.

Ward participated in an email interview with the British photo-scholar Eugenie Shinkle at her online journal C4, who wrote, somewhat mysteriously, that “my short interview with him raised more questions than it answered. . . I’m reluctant to share what I know, because it may well change the meaning of this book for subsequent readers.”

The unsigned “Publisher’s Afterword to the second edition” (which can be read here) at the end of The Archive of Bernard Taylor should begin to plant some doubts about the existence of these two characters—Bernard Taylor and Peter Ward—and should send warning signals to the careful reader that something is amiss with this book. The Publisher admits he has never met Peter Ward (“Wherever he is now”) and opines on Ward’s “lack of clear and focused editorial practice.” After initially planning to do a greatly revised second edition, the anonymous Publisher ultimately could not bring himself “to undermine the experience” of the first edition and so for the second edition he reprinted the book just as it stood.

So in the end I decided that this new edition should merely reproduce Ward’s original book, free of any changes. It is a facsimile of a phantom.

In what may be my greatest mistake as a publisher, I have left it alone, and I ask you to forgive what I feel compelled not to explain.

Spring 2024

Note that the date that is three years in the future from when this book was actually published.

A piece of paper slipped into the book like an errata sheet says it is “for the benefit of taxonomical specialists, [and] is best discarded by the reader.” This list identifies the source of all of the quotations that appear in The Archive of Bernard Taylor, quotations that have been excerpted from a wide range of authors and notables, such as Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, and Werner Heisenberg, plus a number of more obscure names.

If you found The Archive of Bernard Taylor in the wild, you would not be able to discover who actually produced it and who took the photographs without some serious digging. You could do some lucky Googling or you could get inventive and go to the website of the copyright holder and publisher, Understory Books. There you would finally be able to deduce that the person responsible for the book is Tom Lecky, a publisher, photographer and rare book dealer. He was formerly the head of the Printed Books & Manuscripts Department at Christie’s auction house in New York where he managed to have been involved in some of the most historic book sales of the past quarter century. He now runs Riverrun Books, an online bookstore that “specializes in rare, antiquarian, and unusual books & literary manuscripts of all periods, with an emphasis on illustrated and artist’s books, the fine and decorative arts, photography, architecture, design, fine literature, travel & exploration, science & technology, and Americana.” But the only way to really discover that Lecky is actually the photographer behind Bernard Taylor’s images is to follow the link for one of the book’s blurbs to an interview Lecky gave Kim Beil for Bomb Magazine.

Bernard evolved out of photographs I had been making of my hometown, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, over the past several years. When lockdown began last year, my photo itch really intensified. About a month into this intensive exploration of the local, Bernard materialized, and I suddenly could look back through all of the images and see his work as distinct from mine. There were Tom photos, and there were Bernard photos. Getting rid of “Tom Lecky” allowed the work to be free to play and experiment without the burden of attribution. The textual accompaniments to Bernard’s photos—all quotations appropriated from other authors—emerged out of various associative strategies with an emphasis on layering American history and literature with the history of the book and book design, and to scratch at the relationships of objects to people, architecture, and literary history.

“The Multiple Becomes Unique: Tom Lecky Interviewed by Kim Beil

Lecky, it would seem, decided to give his some of his own photographs over to a fictional character, partly because he saw a different aesthetic evolving in certain images, but also, I think, so that he could create a mostly fictional bibliographical entity. What more fun could a rare book dealer and collector have than to toss a little puzzle into the system? The author doesn’t exist, the photographer doesn’t exist, and even the first edition doesn’t exist. That’s just delicious.

In Part 1 of Faking It, we looked at several examples of real monographs that were created depicting the lives and artworks of fake artists. In this post, we are dealing with a real artist deliberately hiding behind a fake artist.

Before disappearing completely, “Peter Ward” issued a pamphlet-sized addendum publication, Hillside: Further Selections from The Archive of Bernard Taylor (Understory Books, 2020), which consisted of photographs made solely in Hillside Woods and Park, Hastings-on-Hudson.

Faking It: Real Monographs, Fake Artists, Part 1

Everybody knows what it means to forge a work of art, to create a Salvador Dali print that Salvador Dali never touched. Or to try to create and pass off a fake Rembrandt. There’s a real incentive for all of the effort it takes to forge artworks: money. But what’s the incentive for inventing an artist out of whole cloth?

The classic case of an invented artist is Nat Tate, who was dreamed up by the British novelist William Boyd. Tate was said to be an American Abstract Expressionist painter who burned all of his artworks one day in 1960 and shortly thereafter committed suicide. Boyd wrote his “biography” and illustrated it with snapshots from a collection he had built through flea market purchases. He painted all of Tate’s artworks himself. David Bowie published Nat Tate: American Artist in 1998 through his own small art publishing house called 21, and he wrote the Preface, guaranteeing attention to the book, which is still in print today. Boyd claimed he never intended to create a hoax, that he simply wanted to “introduce some fiction into the mix of artists’ profiles, exhibition reviews and general essays” of the art magazine on whose board he sat (Modern Painters). But after the book launch, a British newspaper called his project a hoax and it has been a label he has never been able to live down. In 2011, Boyd put one of his Nat Tate paintings up for sale at Sotheby’s, London, with the proceeds going to a charity. According to Wikipedia, the winning bid was a handsome £7,250.


Bruno Hat, Still Life with Pears, 1929

An earlier, now-half-forgotten group of paintings by a made-up artist actually was a deliberate hoax. In 1929, the British brewery heir Bryan Guinness and some friends “discovered” an unknown artist working in a tiny village. Bruno Hat, a German immigrant, was said to be a naif who painted on cheap bath mats and framed his paintings with nautical rope. Guinness held an exhibition of Hat’s paintings at his house, accompanied with a catalog written by the novelist Evelyn Waugh. In 2009, Hat’s “Still Life with Pears” was sold at auction at Sotheby’s, London, having been given an estimate of £15,000 – 20,000.


In a somewhat similar vein, writer Lance Olsen and his wife the artist Andi Olsen have created a fictional video artist named Alana Olsen and have created her first exhibition catalog, There’s No Place like Time: A Retrospective (Lake Forest, IL: &NOW Books, 2016), which has been curated by her fictional daughter Aila Olsen. The first clue that a mystery is afoot is the date for the exhibition on the front cover of the catalog—December 2018—which was two years after the book was published. The catalog included essays, still images from her videos, and reminiscences about Alana Olsen (a character who first appeared in Lance Olsen’s 2014 novel Theories of Forgetting). Curiously, the publisher reports that the Olsens actually exhibited Alana’s video art in galleries in Berlin and elsewhere. The videos were presumably been made by Andi Olsen, who is a filmmaker.


Now there are two new entrants to the rarefied circle of fictional artists, each of whom has earned his own monograph: Allun Evans, a British Conceptual artist, and Bernard Taylor, an American photographer. We’ll look at these two books in the two parts of “Faking It.”

Typos: The Story of a Reluctant Art Work (Peculiarity Press, 2021) purports to be a retrospective of the art of one Allun Evans (1950- ), a British artist whose life was changed when he saw Jenny Holzer’s famous “Truisms” series at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1977, while he was an MA student at the famous Saint Martins School of Art. Holzer’s “Truisms” are nearly 300 brief aphorisms or slogans, such as “PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT” or “ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE,” which she has deployed in any number of ways—as posters, on t-shirts or fake postage stamps, etched on marble benches, etc. In Allun Evans’ “Typos,” each aphorism is the result either of a typographic error, such as “THE FAMILY IS LIVING ON BORROWED WINE” (instead of “borrowed time”) or it is an aphoristic near miss, such as “INHERITANCE MUST BE POLISHED.”

In physical manifestations “Typos” were not made to be exhibited in galleries or museums. They existed “only beyond the boundaries of the art world,” most frequently taking the form of throwaway signs or everyday objects left in public spaces to be randomly encountered by unsuspecting people and either taken away or eventually destroyed by the elements. Thus, for the most part, they apparently exist now only through the various ways in which they happen to have been photographically documented at the time they were made.

Typos is a substantial monograph—8 by 10 inches and 148 pages, with scores of color photographs that reproduce the many works of art by Evans. There are several essays on his work and two interviews with him, in which he is utterly evasive about himself. There is no photograph of the artist included in the monograph. One of the many ingenious aspects of Typos is the sheer variety of ways in which Evans’ cryptic or humorous aphorisms have been turned into signs or other objects. The creators of Typos (Jane Glennie and John Clark) have also done a very convincing job of making the “documentation” of Evans’ work look as if it really does span a four decade career. This documentation includes some faded earlier color images, grainy b&w images, Polaroid photographs, faked newspaper articles, sketchbook and notebook pages, images of emails, and crisp contemporary color photographs.

The blurb on the back cover of Typos concludes with this statement: “In setting out to produce a book about the enigmatic in art, the publisher and authors inadvertently raise questions about the nature of fiction and the nature of art.” They have certainly proven how easy it is to mimic/rip off/forge the work of conceptual artists like Jenny Holzer. But if Jenny Holzer and her artwork didn’t exist, what would we think of Typos? Would we even understand Allun Evans’ work as art? Typos can be seen as a kind of homage to Holzer, but it can also be thought of as a cheeky way of prompting us to ask ourselves What is really so original about dreaming up some catchy phrases and printing them on t-shirts and such?

Nevertheless, every artwork attributed to Evans shown in the book’s many images seems to have been actually created by one or both of the book’s real authors. These aren’t forgeries, since forgeries are copies and these are originals (assuming they still exist). We can admire them with our own eyes and consider them in aesthetic terms, even though we know the artist to whom they are attributed is non-existent. Considered as a whole, they represent a sizeable body of work with a consistent aesthetic—an oeuvre, in short. Not only that, a critical monograph has been written to provide the necessary underpinnings. Perhaps, reluctantly, the creators of this artworld Frankenstein realized that they really had, after all, made art.

Allun Evans is a fiction; Long live Allun Evans!

Photography-Embedded Fiction & Poetry 2022

Photo-embedded literature—novels and books of poetry which use photographs as an essential element of the “text”—is a core interest of mine and is something I have written about extensively on this blog since I began it in 2007. In 2022, I managed to see or be informed about a small number of newly published examples of photo-embedded literature by writers from Australia, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Great Britain, Ukraine, and the United States. The stories in the anthology Visible: Text + Image include writers from France, Martinique, Mexico, and Poland.

This preliminary listing for 2022 adds to my extensive bibliography of such books for the years from 1892 to the present that can be found underneath the pull-down menu Photo-Embedded Literature at the top of Vertigo. If you know of a book of photo-embedded fiction or poetry that I have not listed yet, please let me know in a comment anywhere on Vertigo. My thanks to the many readers who have already pointed me to books that I had not known about. [Last edited on March 20, 2023.]

Yevgenia Belorusets. Lucky Breaks. NY: New Directions, 2022. Translated from the 2018 Russian original by Eugene Ostashevsky. In her timely book of stories about the impact of war on the ordinary women of Ukraine, writer and photojournalist Belorusets includes a group of twenty-three of her own photographs.

Maud Casey. City of Incurable Women. NY: Bellevue Literary Press, 2022. Casey’s novel about the famous psychiatric ward of the nineteenth century Parisian hospital Salpêtrière includes historic photographs of the hospital and some of the well-known images of its patients made by the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, who single-handedly invented the idea of hysteria.

Joshua Edwards. The Double Lamp of Solitude. Galveston: Rising Tide Projects, 2022. This is an ambitious book of poetry and photographs which Edwards has published without copyright and placed into the public domain. The first section consists of “Three Landscapes,” dedicated to the poets Friedrich Hölderlin, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Miguel Hernández. Each of these “landscapes” consists of a description of a particular landscape that Edwards visited that is associated with one of the poets, several photographs by Edwards, and a translation of one of that poet’s works. The second section consists of twenty-eight poems, most of whose titles begin with “The Lamp of.” Edwards says this is an adaptation of a story in Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style. This is followed by Edwards’ translations of poems by Gabriela Mistral and Gérard de Nerval. The book ends with “Five Plans for Walking Around a Mountain”—five poems, each facing a page with a grid of either four or eight b&w photographs of a hike Edwards made on Mt. Rainier.

Forrest Gander and Jack Shear. Knot. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2022. Gander’s poems respond to twenty-three b&w photographs of a male nude and a black cloth “performing a provocative ballet.”

Sam Jenks. Robinson in Chronostasis: A Surrealist PsychoGeographical Non-Romance. Magdalen Yard Books, 2022. Two men (apparently Jenks and Tsukada) appear to be in the same city as each other and repeatedly fail to meet (although it’s more complex and more fun than that). With many photographs attributed to Koji Tsukada.

Esther Kinsky. Rombo. Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2022. A novel about the effects of two 1976 earthquakes on the lives of people in a small village in northeastern Italy. A thousand people were killed and tens of thousands were left homeless. Rombo focuses on the voices and memories of a handful of villagers. The book includes seven nearly abstract b&w photographs of the surviving fresco in the cathedral at Venzone, Italy. The novel was translated into English by Caroline Schmidt and published in London by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the same year. New York Review Books will publish the American edition in 2023.

Robin Coste Lewis. To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness. NY: Knopf, 2022. This is a monster of a book—380 pages of powerful poetry and an amazing collection of photographs that Lewis’ grandmother had left behind in a suitcase beneath her bed when she died twenty-five years ago. The poems deal with a wide range of topics, including the generation of Lewis’ grandmother, family, the Great Migration north, and Black life in general. The photograph collection mysteriously gathered together by her grandmother shows Black people and daily Black life across the first half of the 20th century. The phrase “perfect helplessness” comes from Matthew Henson, a Black explorer (1866-1955) who went with Robert Peary on seven trips to the Arctic and is believed to have been the first of Peary’s men to reach what they thought was the North Pole. (It probably wasn’t.) Parts of several poems in the book refer to Henson’s experiences. This is a rare book in which the poetry and the photographs interact in sophisticated, often unexpected ways.

Thomas McGonigle. The Bulgarian Psychiatrist. Brooklyn: ‎ Spuyten Duyvil Publishing, 2022. According to Tom Whalen (on Amazon), McGonigle’s novel “examines an immigrant Bulgarian doctor in the US and the US within the immigrant, as narrated by its US author/narrator via free indirect discourse, interviews, photos, monologues, etc.”

Ewald Murrer. The Diary of Mr. Pinke. Prague: Twisted Spoon Press, 2022. Translated from the Czech original by Alice Pišťková, with additional translations by Jed Slast. From the publisher’s website: “Written as a compilation of diary entries, [this book] relates the strange happenings witnessed by a group of villagers—among whom are a rabbi, a magic goat, an ancient Gypsy, a family of unicorn hunters, and a fortuneteller—in an atmospherically surreal Galicia where people and beasts float across the landscape, leaving only cryptic traces of their passage. . . This new English edition includes Murrer’s original full-color collages and is based on the 2018 Czech re-edition that was substantially revised and augmented by the author.”

Caryl Pagel. Free Clean Fill Dirt. Akron: University of Akron Press, 2022. Within this book of poetry are three poems—”Windows I,” “Windows II,” and “Windows III”—which consist exclusively of b&w photographs.

Johny Pitts and Roger Robinson. Home Is Not a Place. William Collins, 2022. Color and b&w photographs by Pitts and poems by Robinson. The pair decided to examine Black life in Britain by exploring the country’s “often overlooked coast,” beginning at Tilbury, where Pocahontas is buried and the Empire Windrush docked in 1948, bringing a new wave of British citizens who were immigrating from the British West Indies.

Bronwyn Rennex. Life with Birds: A Suburban Lyric. Perth: Upswell Publishing, 2022. A memoir that includes poetry and photographs, such as family snapshots and images of a diary. From the publisher’s website: “Told in fragments, it contains a mix of speculation, imagination and guesswork. The reader fills in gaps just as the author has had to. Rather than describing her mother’s grief at her father’s death, Rennex uses her love letters to him alongside her claim for a war widow’s pension.”

Ellis Sharp. Alice in Venice. York: Zoilus Press, 2022. Sharp’s photo-embedded novella is titled to remind us of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, while its only characters—Alice and Alain—overtly track Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 film “Don’t Look Now” throughout Venice. Roeg’s film, in turn, was based on Daphne du Maurier’s last short story of the same name. “Alice feels as if she’s wandered into Roeg’s film.” Sharp’s writing is deliberately disjointed, giving the novella, which is written in the present tense, a hectic feeling. There are scores of b&w photographs of Venice by the author.

Amalie Smith. Thread Ripper. London: Lolli Editions, 2022. Translated from the 2020 Danish original by Jennifer Russell. A double-stranded novel (even the right- and left-hand pages are numbered identically) about 1) young, contemporary weaver undertaking a large digitally woven tapestry for a public building, and 2) Ada Lovelace, the 1830s mathematician who pioneered what we now think of as computer programming, who thinks about Penelope, who wove and unpicked a shroud while putting off her suitors until Odysseus returned. With a number of photographs, some of which reproduce drawings and other works of art.

James Wilson. Eclectica Canticorum. London: Duchy of Lambeth, 2022. A collection of short texts, each accompanied a b&w photograph, “under the influence of selected songs” and each approximately the duration of the song. Nearly all of the photographs are by the author.

James Wilson. In cages, as in dreams. London: Duchy of Lambeth, 2022. Stories, meditations, and parables, each centered around the theme of an animal. With a number of b&w photographs by the author.

Visible: Text + Image. San Francisco: Two Lines Press, 2022. Six short stories that use images in innovative ways. Five of these stories use photographs. Mexican writer Veronica Gerber Bicecci’s “Words and Images” (translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney) contains both drawings and photographs. French writer Marie NDiaye’s “Step of a Feral Cat” (translated from the French by Victoria Baena) contains a single photograph. Mexican writer Rodrigo Flores Sanchez’s selection of poems from “Closed Window” (translated from the Spanish by Robin Myers) includes several photographs printed as negatives. Polish writer Monika Sznajderman’s selection from “The Pepper Forgers” (translated from the Polish by Scotia Gilroy) contains a number of old family photographs (plus reproductions of the backs of each photograph that show the handwritten notes found there). Martinican writer Monchoachi’s poem “The beautiful dream that we unfold and extend” (translated from the French by Eric Fishman) contains a number of b&w photographs by David Damoison.

“A Passage North”

He couldn’t help thinking, as the train hurtled closer toward his destination, that he’d traversed not any physical distance that day but rather some vast psychic distance inside him, that he’d been advancing not from the island’s south to its north but from the south of his mind to its own northern reaches.

If literature had an equivalent to the culinary slow food movement, then the Sri Lankan writer Anuk Arudpragasam would surely be one of its leading proponents. He can spend paragraphs, sometimes pages, observing characters in his two novels as they go about simple activities such as sleeping or bathing. His first novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage, plunged the reader deep into Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war which lasted from 1983 to 1989. In that book Dinesh is a young man living in a crowded refugee camp of some tens of thousands of people. He volunteers at a clinic where he meets a young woman Ganga, whose father immediately suggests that the two marry. Marriage just might provide a modicum of protection from some of the risks they face as individuals from the soldiers from both sides of the war when they occasionally raid the camps. Single men are more easily forced into conscription and taken away to fight. Single women are routinely raped.

In his second novel, A Passage North (NY: Random House, 2021), Arudpragasam tells us right off the bat that one of his main subjects is going to be time.

The present, we assume, is eternally before us, one of the few things in life from which we cannot be parted. It overwhelms us in the painful first moments of entry into the world, when it is still too new to be managed or negotiated, remains by our side during childhood and adolescence, in those years before the weight of memory and expectation, and so it is sad and a little unsettling to see that we become, as we grow older, much less capable of touching, grazing, or even glimpsing it, that the closest we seem to get to the present are those brief moments we stop to consider the spaces our bodies are occupying, the intimate warmth of the sheets in which we wake, the scratched surface of the window on a train taking us somewhere else, as if the only way we can hold time still is by trying physically to prevent the objects around us from moving. The present, we realize, eludes us more and more as the years go by, showing itself for fleeting moments before losing us in the world’s incessant movement, fleeing the second we look away and leaving scarcely a trace of its passing, or this at least is how it usually seems in retrospect, when in the next brief moment of consciousness, the next occasion we are able to hold things still, we realize how much time has passed since we were last aware of ourselves, when we realize how many days, weeks, and months have slipped by without our consent.

Sure, there are other capital letter topics in A Passage North, like Love, War, and Death, but nearly every paragraph of this novel is imbued with an almost desperate attempt to stop the present from rushing on too quickly, or an attempt to recall and reexamine the past at a much slower pace. Very little occurs in real time in the book. Krishan, the main character, receives a phone call which informs hims that Rani, the woman who had taken care of his aging grandmother Appamma for many years, has died in the far north of Sri Lanka. He takes a long walk along Colombo’s Marine Drive, which faces the sea, and then he makes the slow train journey northward in order to attend Rani’s funeral. That’s it. Everything else that fills the pages of this novel is something that takes place in Krishan’s mind, either the result of a deliberate recollection from the past or Krishan’s observations about the things he sees during the two or three days in which the events of this book take place. Arudpragasam has a Ph.D. in philosophy, so it is perhaps not surprising that he has created a main character whose primary activity is thinking.

Krishan, a Tamil from Sri Lanka, attended a university in India and didn’t experience the civil war first hand. While in India, he had an on-and-off affair of several month’s duration with Anjum, a bisexual Indian woman with such “unwavering dedication to the women’s and labor movements” that she scarcely seemed to have time for a lover. During his affair with Anjum, “almost as a kind of self-defense . . . driven by a need to prove both to himself and to her that he had a cause of his own,” Krishan started to think that he ought to do some kind of work back in his native Sri Lanka working with refugees from the civil war. And so he eventually returned to his native country and worked for a succession of NGOs doing just that.

Arudpragasam writes long, uncomplicated sentences and long paragraphs. There is no dialogue in A Passage North; all conversation is reported obliquely by the book’s omniscient narrator. After a phone call, for instance, Krishan thinks of “what he had learned.” And instead of quoting the “three or four carefully rendered sentences” of an email Krishan receives, the narrator rephrases them so that everything comes to us in his voice, filtered through his sensibility. A Passage North is set into three sections: “Message,” “Journey,” and “Burning.” “Message” acts as a prelude of sorts, setting up the necessary conditions for the train ride north, which occurs in “Journey.” In “Burning” we read about Krishan’s experience in the small Tamil village in the north of Sri Lanka where the funeral and cremation take place.

The phone call from Rani’s daughter “had compelled him to think, paradoxically, not about Rani but himself, to look at himself from the outside and to see from a distance the life in which he’d been immersed.” Coincidentally, moments before this phone call, Krishan had also received an email from Anjum, whom he hadn’t seen or heard from in several years. These two communications set the stage for Krishan to begin a self-examination and a reevaluation of his relationship with the three women—Rani, his grandmother Apamma, and, most of all, Anjum.

Just prior to the train journey to the north, Krishan feels “something close to a sense of liberation.” This feeling comes from realizing that

at such times, he was permanently suspended in the blissful but always vanishing space between desire and satisfaction, in that region of the self where one is no longer anguished by the absence of something one feels to be necessary for one’s salvation, but not yet saddened by the disappointment that attainment of desire always seemed to bring. . .

In short, Krishan realizes that when we are young, desire and yearning make us want to know what is on the other side of the horizon and that is an unachievable goal which prevents us from truly perceiving and appreciating everything that happens to us from day to day, the “waking up, working, eating and sleeping, the slow passing of time that never ends.” And so it is through this lens of the the slow observation of the mundane and the ordinary that Krishan begins the long train journey northward.

During the passage north, Krishan reviews and questions his memories of his relationship with Anjum. “Maybe she’d never even felt the same way about him as he did about her, maybe he’d been mistaken thinking his feelings reciprocated to begin with.” At one point their relationship was so intense that the two were

hardly eating and hardly sleeping, as if their time together were some kind of ascetic practice, the more dangerous being together somehow seemed, their personalities beginning to disintegrate, their private moods beginning to dissipate, as if in the time they spent together they were pushing farther and farther into some realm of existence or being that was connected to the so-called real world by only the slenderest of threads, so that the farther they went into this other realm the more possible it seemed that the thread might be cut, that they might find themselves suspended, suddenly in some other place, unable to return to the familiar selves.

Krishan hints that such a state might have been fine for him but the only yearning that was capable of fulfilling Anjum was her political work. “No single person, no love or romantic relationship, could ever fill the absence in her soul.”

As Krishan’s train nears its endpoint in the northern tip of Sri Lanka, his thoughts at last turn to Rani, a melancholy woman who had left her home and come south to be the in-home help for his grandmother for the last few years. One of Rani’s two sons had died as a fighter in the civil war, the other had died in in a shelling on the day before the war ended. This leads Krishan on to the subject of his country’s terrible civil war, which has haunted him since his days as a college student. Krishan then recalls becoming obsessed over the life and death of one of the Tamil leaders, Kuttimani, who was captured by the government in 1981, convicted of murder, and sentenced to death. But before the government could execute him, he was murdered in an infamous prison massacre in which Sinhalese mobs of prisoners, most likely aided by their government jailers, brutally tortured and murdered a number of Tamil Tiger inmates, included Kuttimani.

In the book’s final section, “Burning,” Krishan arrives at the small village in the northeast of Sri Lanka where Rani lived and where she will be cremated. This section is a brilliant piece of writing in which Arudpragasam blends the exterior world of a remote Sri Lankan village and a Hindu funeral and cremation ritual with the interior world of Krishan’s thoughts on both the bravery and sacrifice of the Tamil Tigers and what he knows about Hindu philosophy. He walks to the house where her daughter lives and where a large crowd of two or three hundred people are mourning the open casket. Outside the house, drummers are are accompanying the “collective lamentation” of the mourners. At the center of the swirling village scene is the open casket containing the body of Rani. According to Hindu custom, mourners are invited to drop a piece of rice into the open mouth of the deceased. Finally, the procession of men gets underway, “only men being allowed to accompany the body to the cremation grounds.” Somewhere along the way to the cremation field, Krishan is reminded of a documentary film he once watched about the Black Tigers, an elite division of Tamil women who were suicide bombers. “No Black Tiger had ever returned alive from a mission.” The more that Krishan thinks about separating from Anjum and the more he ponders the dedication of the Tamil fighters and Tamil refugees, the more powerfully he feels the prospect of “a sudden, silent shift in the geology of his mind, a fact he responded to not with anxiety now or desperation, as he had in the past, but with the silent conviction that he too had a path ahead of him, that he too had a history and a destiny of his own.” Standing at the edge of a tiny village in the northeast, Krishan has “the strange sense that there was nowhere left for his to go.” Perhaps his destiny is here, where the Sri Lankan government had taken pains to try to erase the memory of those thousands of dead Tamil fighters. For “whenever forgetting was imposed in this way it would always give rise to people who insisted stubbornly on remembering, people who resisted not only the specific erasures of the past by those in power but also the more general erosion that would anyway have been brought on by time.”

Krishan’s final insight is this:

To desire, in a sense, was to know or think one knew what one wanted, to know or think one knew the paths by which it might be reached, even if those paths turned out to be too difficult to follow, even if the things they led to, the things one desired, turned out not to provide the liberation one thought. To yearn on the other hand was to be lost, to lack bearings in the world because one did not know what one was seeking or where it could be found.

A Passage North is a novel rich with ideas, and yet I know there were still bits and pieces of the novel that completely escaped me— topics that had to do with Sri Lankan politics, Tamil poetry, and Hindu religion, for example. It’s a novel that is rich with sensory descriptions. And it is Arudpragasam’s goal to slow the reader down, all the better to appreciate the beauty of the moment and to understand ideas that may take him several paragraphs to develop.

Anuk Arudpragasam. A Passage North. New York: Hogarth/Random House, 2021.

This is book number 7 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.

18 Notable Books from My 2022 Reading

As I went back through the ninety or so books I read in the past twelve months, it was a challenge to decide which titles should be labelled the “best” of the year. I kept changing my mind until I finally settled on these eighteen as the most outstanding and memorable books of the last year’s reading. Seven of titles are novels, two are mysteries, two are volumes of poetry, one is a volume of photographs with text, and the remainder are various genres of non-fiction. Six of the titles were published for the first time in 2022, another five were from 2019 through 2021, with the remainder having been published as far back as 1959. For the second year in a row, Percival Everett has two books on my list. If you want to see everything that I read throughout 2022, you’ll find that list here underneath the tab for Old Reading Logs. I keep a running commentary on every book I read in my current annual Reading Log, which you can find as a pull-down menu elsewhere at the top of this page. And just for the record, I made ineligible for this list any of the books that I reread as part of my 15 Books Project; they’re getting enough attention on their own. So here are my notable books from this year’s reading, alphabetically by author.

Sara Baume. Handiwork. Dublin: Tramp Press, 2020. Baume, a writer with a growing reputation for her fiction, has a personal craft obsession: carving small birds out of plaster, at the rate of a bird a day. In Handiwork, she blends separate narrative threads about her craft habits, bird-watching, stories of bird migration, and bits of memoir about her husband and her father into a spiraling meditation on obsession and what it means to work with your hands. As she ponders the way in which migration patterns are passed on through generations of birds, she observes her father and herself, wondering what has similarly been passed from father to daughter—especially after his death. Nothing about this book feels superficial to me. Baume explores craft, craftsmanship, and craftsmen deeply and personally.

Last spring, after I had carved 100 plaster objects, a single day devoted to each one, I started to carve them in a slightly different style—a slightly sharper, odder, style—and after a while it became clear that the first hundred were inadequate; that the price of getting a single object right was 100 discarded objects and 100 days, an entire winter.

Kirsty Bell. The Undercurrents. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2022. After a move and then a sudden divorce, Bell found herself the owner of an apartment in one of the few 19th century buildings in Berlin that survived the devastation of World War II. Curious about the building’s history, she began to research it. Before long, she found herself expanding her purview to research the adjacent canal, then the neighborhood, and then the city itself. Throughout the book Bell keeps her building—and the family who built it and had lived in it for nearly a century—as the focal point. Along the way, she tells many fascinating stories about Berlin, and she has a knack for making history’s complications seem understandable. For example, she lays out a concise picture of Berlin’s dismal attempts at post-war city planning, and she gives the best summary I’ve read yet of what went wrong during Germany’s “re-unification.” Every city should have a book like this.

Annabel Dover. Florilegia. Nottingham: Moist Books, 2022. I was taken by Dover’s daring first novel, which is narrated by a woman who becomes enamored with the 19th century British botanist and photographer Anna Atkins. According to my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a florilegia is “a collection of choice extracts from literature; an anthology. . . a book describing choice flowers.” But this didn’t prepare me for what the narrator of Florilegia threw at me. Within the first few pages, she had referenced bear-baiting, the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace, Derek Jarman, AIDS, something called the Paper Museum, Windsor Castle, David Bowie, and well more than a dozen other famous names and obscure subjects, not to mention a mini-history of the poppy plant. The novel is really about the power of objects to provoke memories that, for this narrator, bring her back in touch with memories of her parents and siblings. Packed with nearly one hundred b&w photographs, mostly by Anna Atkins and the author. I wrote longer review of this book here.

Percival Everett. I Am Not Sidney Poitier. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2009. I’ve become a rabid follower of Everett in recent years. This is a funny, pointed satire that aims its sharpest arrows at white Southerners, colorism, and higher education. It’s impossible to give a brief synopsis of the complex plot, but suffice it to say that the main character is a young kid whose mother named him Not Sidney because his last name really was Poitier. He accidentally becomes phenomenally rich through a lucky stock purchase in the company that becomes CNN, which makes him an early partner of Ted Turner. But because he is black, very dark, and named Not Sidney, he must suffer—and suffer egregiously—at the hands of whites and blacks alike before becoming wise. The eventual payback is simply delicious.

Percival Everett. Suder. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1999. This is Everett’s first book from 1983, re-released sixteen years later. Although it seemed to start a bit slow, toggling between baseball and jazz, it turns out to be a doozy, complete with an elephant, a hijacked young girl, some liberated cash, and a man who has decided he wants to fly. Suder is a fairly brave first novel and sets a theme that Everett will return to frequently, that of a man who slowly decides he must come to the rescue of someone in trouble.

Mark Haber, Saint Sebastian’s Abyss. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2022. A delicious novel about the esoteric world of art history and the period known as the Northern Renaissance. “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” is one of only three paintings that survive by the (fictional) painter Count Hugo Beckenbauer (1512- ?), a man who spent most of his abbreviated adult life in Berlin drinking and “purchasing sex from both women and young boys” before succumbing to syphilis. Two highly competitive art historians have built their careers on this tiny gem of a painting—an unnamed American who serves as the narrator and Schmidt, an Austrian. The two have a long and friendly professional rivalry until the narrator one day says a “horrible thing” that angers Schmidt and leads to a rupture that will end their friendship until Schmidt, on his deathbed, reconsiders. Haber has crafted a novel about beauty and spite worthy of the master, Thomas Bernhard. I wrote a longer review here.

Gabriel Josipovici. 100 Days. Manchester: Little Island Press, 2021. During the worst of the Covid pandemic, Josipovici assigned himself to “keep a diary for a hundred days . . . with a short thought or memory, one a day, connected to a person, place, concept or work of art that had played a role in my life . . . not . . . perfect little essays . . . but rather a way of talking to myself.” The alphabetically-arranged entries move from Aachen and Abraham to [Georges] Perec and Piers the Plowman to Zazie dans le métro (Raymond Queneau’s 1960 novel) and Zoos. Josipovici’s erudition and his utter honesty shine through in these wonderful little pieces, each of which is preceded by a short diaristic encapsulation of the current political situation with regard to Covid (usually the British government’s botched handling thereof). If he were a regular diarist, Josipovici could have easily be this era’s Samuel Pepys.

William Melvin Kelley. A Different Drummer. NY: Anchor Books, 1959. [I read the 2019 eBook edition.] This is Kelley’s stunning debut novel, written when he was 24. After reading it, I wasn’t surprised to learn that he was a student of John Hawkes at Harvard. There is something fearless about Kelley’s writing in A Different Drummer. One day, a young Black Southerner named Tucker Caliban burns his house, shoots his farm animals, salts his fields, and heads North. In doing so, he starts a movement that causes the state’s entire Black population to also emigrate Northward. A rich and complex novel told from the perspective of a rotating cast of characters, most of which are the white residents of Caliban’s tiny community, this is a rich satire salted with bits of endearing tenderness, much like what we are seeing now in the novels of Percival Everett.

Ausma Zehanat Khan. Blackwater Falls. NY: Minotaur Books, 2022. In a foothills suburb of Denver, Afghani-American Detective Inaya Rahman pairs up with a Latina Detective to try to solve the murder of a Syrian refugee teenage girl. Although I think Khan stretches credulity a bit in order to demonstrate how racism works in America, I applaud her effort, and I enjoyed this fast-paced police procedural quite a bit. It’s apparently the start of a series and I look forward to more of Khan’s books in the future. Khan lets us look at America from the perspective of several immigrant police officers and their families, and it’s a very different mirror than the one most of us use every morning.

[Tom Lecky.] Peter Ward, ed. The Archive of Bernard Taylor. Hastings-on-Hudson: Understory Books, 2021. Can a spoof be beautiful and serious? At first, this appears to be a stunningly handsome book of formal b&w photographs taken in and around Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. The photographs are mostly of trees and suburban landscapes, which are full of subtle rhythms and symmetries that are hauntingly suggestive of hidden meanings. There are also some historic, vintage photographs and old maps reproduced, as well as finely-worded texts printed opposite many of the photographs. All of the contemporary photographs, we are told, were made by a Bernard Taylor and were purchased as a lot for all of $40 after his death by a Peter Ward, another resident of Hastings-on-Hudson. But the unsigned Publisher’s Afterword plants some doubts about the existence of these two characters and refers to this book as the “facsimile of a phantom.” A piece of paper slipped into the book like an errata sheet informs us that the texts opposite the photographs are actually quotations excerpted from a wide range of authors and notables, such as William Carlos Williams and Werner Heisenberg. The truth is that this book is the work of Tom Lecky, photographer and bookseller, who has decided to give his own smart photographs over to a fictional character, all the better to. . . to accomplish what? My guess is that it was just much more fun to do it this way.

Liam McIlvanney. The Heretic. World Noir, 2022. McIlvanney remains my current favorite mystery writer, despite the fact that there were times I could barely follow the plot of The Heretic or its predecessor, The Quaker. I’m a bit in awe of the writing and pacing, the great characters, and the fine dialogue. McIlvanney is more fearless than most mystery writers about plunging you, the reader, in way over your head and letting the context bubble up slowly, just before you drown.

Tiya Miles. All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. NY: Random House, 2021. This entire book is predicated on fewer than sixty words that a woman embroidered onto a cotton bag in 1920, words that identified the simple cotton sack as the gift her great grandmother gave to her grandmother when the two were being separated and the nine-year old daughter was being sold at a slave auction in South Carolina. Using those few words as a base, Miles conducted extensive research and employed the imagination of numerous scholars and artists to recreate Ashley’s world as a slave in Charleston and the likely life for the generations of African Americans that followed her. At times it feels like an astonishing achievement conjured out of a pittance, but Miles’ book demonstrates how one line of African Americans went from slavery to the Black middle class in Philadelphia in a handful of generations.

Stephen Mitchelmore. This Space of Writing. Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2015. Forty-four essays drawn from Mitchelmore’s invaluable blog This Space, where he has written about literature since 2000. Mitchelmore writes at a level unparalleled, in my opinion, and is one of the most acute thinkers about which books and writers really deserve our fullest attention and why. He has made me a much better reader.

Claudia Piñeiro. Elena Knows. Edinburgh: Charco Press, 2021. Translated from the 2007 Spanish original by Frances Riddle. Elena is positive that her granddaughter Rita would never have committed suicide, but the police won’t believe her. And so Elena is on a mission to find the one woman in Buenos Aires she believes will help her prove that her granddaughter must have been murdered. But Elena has Parkinson’s and it takes every bit of strength and courage that she has (plus a few pills) simply to cross town to knock on the door of a woman she hasn’t seen in twenty years, but on whose shoulders she has pinned all of her hopes. I can’t say any more without revealing the plot, but the denouement is not only unexpected but brilliant. The writing is compelling and Elena is a character I will never forget. This is my book of the year.

The trick is to lift up the right foot, just a few centimeters off the floor, move it forward through the air, just enough to get it past the left foot, and when it gets as far as it can go, lower it. That’s all it is, Elena thinks. But she thinks this, and even though her brain orders the movement, her right foot doesn’t move. It does not lift up. It does not move forward through the air. It does not lower back down. It’s so simple. But it doesn’t do it. So Elena sits and waits.

Emeric Pressburger. The Glass Pearls. London: Faber, 2022. (Originally published by Heinemann, 1966.) Karl Braun, a German emigre who works as a piano tuner and lives in a bedsit in Pimlico, always seems nervous about something. Before too long we find out why. He is really a Nazi war criminal in hiding, a surgeon who brutally experimented on concentration camp prisoners. A few of his fellow Nazis want him to join them in Argentina, but to do so he has to make his way to Zurich to withdraw money from a numbered checking account he created at the end of the war. Pressburger is more famous for the films he made with Michael Powell, but The Glass Pearls is a terrific example of sixties noir writing applied to something other than a classic crime story. Braun’s fears make him his own worst enemy in his race against time.

Richard Siken. Crush. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. After selecting Siken as the winner of the 2004 Yale Series of Younger Poets, Louise Glück wrote in the Foreword to this book of devastating and devastatingly beautiful poems, “this is a book about panic. . . The book is all high beams: reeling, savage, headlong, insatiable.” There are lines in here that take me to emotional places I’ve never felt from literature before, where love is dark, fearful, clinging, passionate, and much more, all wrapped up into one muddled sensation. I’m a huge fan of his 2015 book War of the Foxes, too.

Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake
and dress them in warm clothes again.
How it was late, and no one could sleep, the horses running
until they forget that they are horses.

From “Scheherazade”

Enrique Vila-Matas. The Illogic of Kassel. NY: New Directions, 2014. I re-read this largely because I thought I might go in September to see Documenta 15, that massive exhibition that is put on every five years in Kassel, Germany, but in the end I opted not to. Vila-Matas was a writer-in-residence at Documenta 13, which apparently meant he sat for a few days in a Chinese restaurant in Kassel and scribbled in a notebook and made himself available to anyone who might want to talk with him. As Vila-Matas interacts with some of the artworks and performance pieces he saw in Kassel, he writes articulately and intelligently about his personal experiences and responses. In the end, he feels that “some of the works at Documenta . . . helped me rethink my writing.” A book that is surprisingly rich with ideas and artistic interconnections. Vila-Matas recently wrote another excellent essay about contemporary art for the catalog Cabinet d’amateur, an oblique novel: Works from “la Caixa” Collection of Contemporary Art (#20 in my list of books read in 2022).

Ocean Vuong. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. NY: Penguin, 2019. What can I possibly say that hasn’t been said before about this book? Lyrical, carnal, angry, brilliant, astoundingly beautiful. I just don’t understand how someone can write stunning sentences one after another without end. May his well never run dry.

Update on Will Self’s Upcoming Talk on Sebald

Two days ago I posted that the writer Will Self is to deliver a talk called “The Ghost of Future Past: W.G. Sebald and the Trauma of Modernity” at 7 PM on Tuesday, December 20, 2022, at St George’s German Lutheran Church, Whitechapel, London, with Rick Jones as the event’s host. At that time, The Article said the event would be both live and on zoom while the church’s website said the event is by Zoom only. I advised “Proceed with caution.” On December 4, Rick Jones clarified via email that tickets are to attend the talk in person in St George’s German Lutheran Church. Anyone wishing to watch via Zoom may apparently request to do so via the Eventbrite ticket site. Tickets are £5.

I wish I could be there.

Will Self to Talk on Sebald Dec. 20, 2022

The online platform The Article, which refers to itself as “a troll-free zone. Entertaining exchanges. Civilised conversation,” has announced that the writer Will Self will deliver a talk called “The Ghost of Future Past: W.G. Sebald and the Trauma of Modernity” at 7 PM on Tuesday, December 20, 2022, at St George’s German Lutheran Church, Whitechapel, London E1 8EB. Rick Jones hosts the event. Tickets are £5. The Article says the event is both live and on zoom. But the church’s website says the event is by Zoom only. On December 4, Rick Jones clarified via email that tickets are to attend the talk in person in St George’s German Lutheran Church. Anyone wishing to watch via Zoom may request to do so via the Eventbrite ticket site.

St. George’s German Lutheran Church is the oldest surviving German Church in Britain. The church closed for regular worship in 1996 when it was taken into care by The Historic Chapels Trust. Although it is still occasionally used for church services by the German community from London and the surrounding area, it is now principally used for concerts, lectures, meetings, and a place of historical study. St George’s German Lutheran Church is a unique testament to common heritage shared by two nations, both in the past and in the present.

Will Self has a long history of writing and speaking about Sebald. He gave the 2009 Sebald Lecture, organized by the British Centre for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia, titled “Absent Jews and Invisible Executioners: W G Sebald and the Holocaust.” (That lecture can be heard here on SoundCloud.) More recently, he led a segment of BBC Radio’s Channel 4 Archive on 4 progam. “In the company of Sebald biographer Carole Angier and former friend, poet Stephen Wells, 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.” (That program can be heard here.)

Self’s forthcoming book from Grove Press/Grove Atlantic, Why Read: Selected Writings 2001-2021, contains “a lengthy, dark, autobiographical piece on W.G. Sebald and the role of the Holocaust.”

Visiting “The Milk of Dreams,” the 59th Venice Biennial

59th Venice Biennial, U.S.A. Pavilion. Two works by Simone Leigh. Photo © Terry Pitts 2022.

In early October, I spent a week in Venice, during which I spent most of four days in the Biennial, which this year was under the artistic direction of Cecilia Alemani. She had chosen the theme “The Milk of Dreams” for the Biennial, based on the book of the same name by the British-Mexican artist Leonora Carrington (1917–2011).

Alemani and her crew created an exceptional Biennial. They set out some relevant, but flexible themes to explore, and they filled the two large exhibition halls—in the Arsenale and in the Giardini—with several hundred works of art each, encompassing nearly every media imaginable, all of which made for very compelling viewing. As always, the many individual national pavilions were hit or miss, but several were particularly noteworthy as I will mention shortly. Now, more than a month later, I am still thinking about and processing what I saw in Venice. I thought I would share some of the themes and a few of the images that have really stuck with me.

What is real? In a time when the boundary between fiction and non-fiction has been erased, when there is a daily debate over what is truth and what is a lie, when artificial intelligence is beginning to perform increasingly intelligent-looking activities, it’s not surprising that visual artists are challenging viewers to rethink what is real and what is not, what is living and what is not. In the Danish Pavilion, the multi-room installation by Uffe Isolotto suggested a dystopian time either in the distant past or in the distant future. Was the horse woman dead? Her eyes were half-open. Was she watching us? In an adjacent room, a male of the species hung from the tall ceiling from a rope around his neck, as if he had been executed. What possible narratives linked the rooms?

In the Venetian Pavilion, Paolo Fantin’s three-room installation showed Daphne from Ovid’s The Metamorphosis, who is seen slowly decomposing in the first two rooms before turning into the laurel bush seen on the bed in the last room. But a steady stream of visitors found themselves staring at the figure of Daphne, half-convinced it was a real person.

At the other end of the spectrum was the work of Yunchul Kim in the Korean Pavilion, which dealt with “transmatters.” To quote the Pavilion’s website, “The Korean Pavilion is rematerializing as a living body through which the artworks flow like blood vessels and connect themselves like vast neural networks.” Chroma V, 2022, (shown below), was a giant machine that pulsated and breathed just like any typical living creature.

Memory. Numerous artists and several national pavilions dealt with the theme of memory in one way or another. Faced with a German Pavilion designed in 1938 by Hitler’s Fascist architects, the German artist Maria Eichhorn originally proposed to move the entire Pavilion offsite for the duration of the Biennial, thus entirely eliminating the offensive building from sight. When that concept was understandably denied, she opted to make architectural interventions to the interior of the Pavilion that would visibly expose parts of the original Bavarian Pavilion which was constructed in 1909. She did this by carefully removing numerous elements of the 1938 Nazi redesign and simply laying bare the raw materials beneath. This kind of forensic examination of a museum building in lieu of filling the pavilion with art objects is always risky, because the visitor enters into an empty space, devoid of any clearly defined works of art, unaware that the building itself has been deemed the artwork. Needless to say, I watched many puzzled and unaware visitors simply turn and walk out of the German Pavilion without looking for guidance as to what was really going on. But by reading the prepared text (available at tables and kiosks outside the Pavilion) and the subtle “wall labels” (sometimes written on masking tape), the visitor could slowly grasp how the Fascist architects had dramatically altered the building to suit their propaganda needs in 1938. The partially deconstructed building made for a strangely beautiful exercise in architectural education, although it took time and commitment on the part of the visitor.

In addition to the work she did on the German Pavilion, Eichhorn collaborated with a local Venetian group to produce an educational booklet that directed visitors to the surprisingly numerous sites of remembrance and anti-fascist resistance all across Venice.

Augusto Murer, Monument to the Partisan Woman, 1969. Base by Carlo Scarpa. “Places of Resistance,” Relocating a Structure. German Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale. Photo: Jens Ziehe.

In the French Pavilion, the French artist of Algerian heritage Zineb Sedira created an elaborate multi-room mis-en-scene called Dreams Have No Titles. Several of the rooms resembled sets from 1960s films that were co-productions between France, Italy, and Algeria, suggesting a non-violent response to France’s Algerian crisis. Other rooms in the Pavilion were set up to look like the areas in studios where films are edited and stored. More than just a nostalgic look at the past, Sedira’s work seemed like a potent reminder that the heavy-handed responses of governments, which inevitably lead to violence, aren’t the only possible responses to political crises.

Non-traditional Ways of Knowledge. My favorite national pavilion was that of Mexico, entitled Until the Songs Spring. It was created by four artists—Mariana Castillo Deball, Naomi Rincón Gallardo, Fernando Palma Rodríguez, and Santiago Borja Charles—who in an interview said that their their collective goal was to explore “other ways of doing, being, thinking.” The result was a poetic pavilion that was as playful as it was disturbing, which hinted at paths of wisdom derived from indigenous sources even if the subject matter might be entirely modern, such as the human genome or violence against women.

Great Characters. Fiction today is filled with strange characters and odd narrators, including the occasional animal narrator. Similarly, the art within the Biennial was full of curious human, half-human, and animal characters. Here are just a few of my favorites.

The Cuban artist Belkis Ayón (1967-1999) created a number of collographs that explored Afro-Cuban religious iconography, focusing on imagery associated with lamentation and grief and creating mysterious, androgynous personages. [I’ve lost the title for this particular print.]

The British-Nigerian artist Precious Okoyomon created an immense indoor landscape of tropical plants overrun by kudzu. In the midst of To See the Earth before the End of the World were strange bear-like creatures either emerging from or being overtaken by the ravenous flora.

The Italian artist Diego Marcon’s operatic 7-minute video The Parents’ Room dealt with the aftermath of a man who murders his wife and two children. But there was something uncanny and eerie about the manner in which the characters were transformed through prosthetic make-up and CGI digital effects.

And finally, here are two images of great characters from the many I saw by painters: the Portuguese-British artist Paula Rego (1935-2022) and contemporary Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña.

Paula Rego, Sit, 1994.
Cecilia Vicuña, Leoparda de Ojitos, 1977.

[You can click on any of the smaller images to enlarge them.]