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Recently Read: Michelle Bailat-Jones & Olga Medvedkova

Unfurled Going Where

Michelle Bailat-Jones. Unfurled. NY: Ig Publishing, 2018.
Olga Medvedkova. Going Where. London: Sylph Editions, 2018. The Cahiers Series 33.

Neither of us realized we had been living in a borderland all that time, a place where rules are too often unspoken, never declared. We didn’t understand there were passports and checkpoints involved. And that not all three of us would make it through.

So begins Michelle Bailat-Jones’s second novel Unfurled, whose narrator Ella is about to have one very bad week. Ella is a veterinarian, highly sensitized to the health and needs of animals, but prone to ignoring those things that make her own well-being precarious. Almost simultaneously, Ella’s father is killed in an accident and she discovers she is pregnant. What Bailat-Jones does here is to flip the obvious scenario, which would be to close down Ella’s past and open up her future. Instead, the death of Ella’s father reveals that there were secrets he had hidden from her throughout most of her life. And bearing a child is not a future that she envisions for herself. She decides she will eventually terminate the pregnancy. Read more

A New General Introduction to W.G. Sebald Is Published

Schutte Sebald Book Cover

Let me just say right from the start that Uwe Schütte’s new short, general introductory book W.G. Sebald is excellent. Published in Liverpool University Press’s “Writers and their Work” series, Schütte’s book is now the place to start with one’s study of Sebald. I am really surprised that something like this had not been done in the seventeen years since Sebald’s death. It seems so simple, doesn’t it—summarize an author’s life, books, and impact in 130 pages? Schütte makes this look easy, which is a credit to the clarity of his writing and critical thinking. But in truth this is not an easy genre to master. And undoubtedly, some passage of time is required so that a solid body of critical writing can amass and, in turn, be evaluated.

From 1992 to 1997, Schütte was Sebald’s sole post-graduate student at the University of East Anglia, and thus, he notes, “I could witness his meteoric rise to international literary fame from a close distance.” Schütte’s book contains seven chapters, five of which are dedicated to specific books by Sebald: After Nature, Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz. “From After Nature to Austerlitz, [Sebald’s] goal is always to create a poetic truth, to make visible the invisible, to allow the metaphysical to enter the profane.” Schütte is good at outlining the sources for these five books—how much originated originated from Sebald’s own life and personal experience, how much from his German upbringing, and what came out of his extensive research. The Rings of Saturn, for example, was not intended to be a book but was simply a plan to make ten walks in East Anglia and write ten articles for a German newspaper. Read more

“The sickness of my language”: Hilbig’s “The Females”

Hilbig Females

I had gradually begun to transform into a sickness.

Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Females (Two Lines Press) is an angry explosion of a novel. The target of Hilbig’s haunting wrath in this brief book is the nation of his birth, the German Democratic Republic. Hilbig (1941-2007) lived in East Germany until he was finally allowed to emigrate in 1985 to West Germany.

Whenever I’d felt within me the unforeseen power to examine myself, even to know myself, and consequently, perhaps, expunge the germs of my sickness, I found that the state snatched every tool from my hands . . . For me, reality had been stolen and annihilated, so by necessity I had to exist as a form of annihilated reality, as a mere delusion of reality, and by that same token had to annihilate the reality of the people around me.

This book is that annihilation. Read more

Sebald Symposium in London November 29, 2018

Leonardo da Vinci, Whirlpools of Water. Windsor, Royal Library.

The Institute of Advance Studies at University College London has announced a one-day symposium on W.G. Sebald. There is a call for papers “on any aspect of turbulence, in the widest sense.” Proposals are due November 8. See below for details, or visit the website. For more on the topic of turbulence, look here.

Call for Papers

Turbulence: The Work of W.G. Sebald

An Interdisciplinary Symposium

Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS), UCL, London, 29 November 2018

This symposium explores the theme of turbulence in the literary work of W.G. Sebald (1944-2001), from an interdisciplinary perspective.

Sebald’s work is celebrated for its rich and complex accounts of journeys, including by air, a mode of travel which we commonly associate with the distinctive feeling of turbulence. In addition however, our enquiry considers the idea of turbulence in wider senses. We link it for instance to the vertiginous sensations of travel in general in this writing, and recognise that turbulence may not end on arrival, for a destination, once reached, can itself seem disorienting and to shift in uncanny ways. We are interested too in turbulent experiences of travels into the past, memory and intertextuality; and those produced for the reader by Sebald’s complex poetics and narrative techniques. Crucially too, we will investigate the multi-disciplinary, multilingual travels which Sebald’s writing undertakes into new languages, media, forms and contexts as other artists engage with it in their own work, and we look forward to conversations with distinguished practitioners in a variety of fields. 

Speakers include poet Stephen Watts; novelist, academic and critic Angharad Price (Prifysgol Bangor) and visual artist Simon Faithfull (Slade School of Fine Art).

Our symposium will be followed on the morning of Friday 30 November by an exploration of parts of the East London featured in Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, on a guided walk with Stephen Watts and David Anderson (UCL).

 Call for Papers

We invite twenty-minute papers on any aspect of turbulence, in the widest sense, and attendant phenomena in the work of W.G. Sebald and others. We are especially interested in submissions which address interdisciplinary and comparative aspects of our themes.

Please submit an abstract (200 words) and a short biography (100 words) to Mererid Puw Davies, Department of German / SELCS, UCL (mererid.davies@ucl.ac.uk), by 8 November 2018. Speakers will be notified by 12 November 2018. 

Registration and Further Details

Both the symposium and the walk are free to attend. All are welcome and online registration will open soon. In the meantime, please send any questions or register your attendance with an email to mererid.davies@ucl.ac.uk.

Vienna Exhibition Focuses on Sebald

Croy Nielsen

Tess Jaray, “Sketch from a letter to W.G. Sebald,” circa 1999. Pencil on photocopy.

“All’estero & Dr. K.’s Badereise nach Riva: Version B,” a group exhibition at the Croy Nielsen gallery in Vienna, takes its inspiration from two chapters in W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo (Schwindel. Gefühle). Curated by Saim Demircan, this is part of an annual “gallery share” event called, appropriately, “curated_by,” which involves twenty-one galleries across Vienna. Read more

Littoral/Literal

cover

I been moving back and forth between three books by Forrest Gander recently, looking mostly at the various ways in which he has worked with photographs in his poetry. In Core Samples from the World (New Directions, 2011) there are four poem sequences in which photographs by Raymond Meeks, Graciela Iturbide, and Lucas Foglia are situated. The photographs are each given their own page, so they aren’t really embedded within the text of the poem. Instead, Gander seems to propose that the reader take in the photographs as a visual parallel to his words. Separate but equal. An earlier book, Eye Against Eye (New Directions, 2005), includes a poem sequence entitled “Late Summer Entry: the  Landscapes of Sally Mann,” in which Gander’s poems directly address their visual counterparts on facing pages.

Gander’s newest book, Be With (New Directions, 2018), is riddled with the “searing exquisite singularity” of death. In 2016, his wife, the poet C.D. Wright, died suddenly, and a number of the book’s poems deal with the “grief-sounds” and the “tetric silence” that he experienced after this loss. There is also a long, moving, deeply personal poem titled “Ruth,” about Gander’s aging, failing mother, who struggles physically and has memory issues. His response to familial grief is to write poems that are fractured and disjointed, that abruptly change direction, and have what he calls a “rhythm of farewell.”

For me, the most fascinating work in Be With is the closing poem sequence titled “Littoral Zone” in which Gander presents a combination of words and photographs in a new and more complex relationship than he has previously attempted. “Littoral Zone” has six parts, each consisting of a photograph by Michael Flomen on the left hand page and one section of Gander’s poem on the opposing page. The six sections have subtitles that alternate between “Entrance” and “Exit,” suggesting that the poem as a whole represents the influx and the ebb of the tide that is hinted at by the title word littoral, which, Merriam-Webster.com tells me, is “the shore zone between the high tide and low tide points.” Each of the six written sections of the poem is subdivided into three verse paragraphs, with the center one printed in italics.

Gander Be With

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The Cemetery Lover

Josipovici Barnes

You see? his wife—his second wife—would say when he came to this point in the story. At heart he is a romantic.
Perhaps I am, he would say.­
Perhaps, she would mock him. Perhaps. It is his favorite word.
What would we do without it?
We would live our lives more happily, she would respond.
More happily perhaps, he would come back at her, but more humanly? More richly?

Gabriel Josipovici. The Cemetery in Barnes. Carcanet Press, 2018. Fair warning! This post contains plot spoilers, although I doubt that knowing what happens will lessen anyone’s appreciation for this elegantly written novel.

By the time you reach the fourth page of Gabriel Josipovici’s newest novel, The Cemetery in Barnes, you might begin to think there has been an editing problem. On one page the main character lives in London, then in an apartment in Paris, while on the next page he lives in an old farmhouse in the Black Mountains in Wales. Throughout the novel time and place and wives seem to change between one paragraph and the next. Some sentences are repeated, then full paragraphs are repeated, sometimes with minor variations. Read more

Sebald Audio Books

I thought it might worthwhile to do a roundup of the W.G. Sebald audio books available as of today, August 2018. The first six of the titles below are available for individual purchase (as downloads) via Audible, either individually or through an Audible subscription. Click here to see Sebald’s titles on Audible, where sample sections may be heard. Three of these titles are also available for download purchase at Audiobookstore.com, where the prices are somewhat cheaper. Sample sections can be heard here, too. All English-language titles are available for download at iTunes—along with several podcasts in English & German about Sebald).

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English-language audio books.

Austerlitz audio

Austerlitz. Narrator: Richard Matthews. (Audible, Audiobookstore.com & iTunes)

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Baroni

Baroni Chejfec

“Artists naturally gravitate toward indeterminacy.”

Baroni: A Journey (Almost Island Books, 2017) is the fourth of Sergio Chejfec’s novels to be translated into English since 2011. In 2014, I wrote about the first three: “Cumulatively, they delve into weighty issues like existence, loss, time, geography, memory, and identity. There are no plots, simply a series of males narrating their thoughts, observations, recollections, and theories.” With Baroni, Chejfec continues in this tradition, meditating on themes that include art, chance, landscape, and the puzzling sense that he is suffering from a prolonged despondency, “sunk in the most complete indifference.”

The Baroni of the title is Rafaela Baroni (born 1935), a popular (and very real) Venezuelan self-taught sculptress. She is also a seer who has experienced miracles and had several remarkable episodes of catalepsy. Key portions of Chejfec’s book deal with two wooden sculptures that he has acquired from Baroni: El Santo Médico and Mujer Crucificada. Read more

A River in Hungary

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_Children_s_Games_-_Google_Art_ProjectPieter Bruegel the Elder, Children’s Games, 1560

Summer means beaches, beer, flirtations, rowdiness. For people in northern climates, the brevity of summer puts people who are in a rush to celebrate on a collision course with nature—with sand, water, heat, bugs, snakes, sudden storms. Written five years earlier than River (which I wrote about in two recent posts), Esther Kinsky’s novel Summer Resort is a condensed story of one very hot summer at an üdülő, or a resort, on an unnamed river in Hungary.  The book, which has no real main character, is reminiscent of paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, providing a macro view of the village, as if seen from a drone drifting overhead, replete with brief stories that convey the joys and irritations that comprise daily life.

Late in the evening two vehicles crashed at the corner of Main Road and Garageland Lane, a bright blue car and an egg-yolk yellow one, both made of soft pliant metal, the moon was high above the river and was orange, almost golden indeed and shone on the crushed and shifted metal, on the shards and splinters, on the now ruined lustre of journeys begun, on the pale faces of the injured, on whose temples the smile of departure still crouched in shock, it shone on the curiosity-crooked faces of the onlookers, on the last pale pink blooming hollyhock bell on a brown dried-up stand beside the Hotel Oasis where no one looked. So the day came to an end once and for all, and Katica stood on the cracked cement at the edge of the filling station, exactly at the point where the petrol station light and flashing blue light met, one shoulder raised, the other dragged down by her window cleaner’s bag, there she stood, profoundly exhausted by bearing witness to the evening.

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