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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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River of Images, River of Memories

Kinsky River Blind Child

My days always followed the same route: downstream and back. I returned with photographs and small found objects such as feathers and stones, or the seed pods of withered flowers. Little by little the fluvial landscape took over my flat…The river itself would probably have been astonished.

What are we to make of the way that Esther Kinsky’s novel River begins? Immediately after the title page, the book reproduces the photograph shown above along with the dedication “For the blind child.” Then, after the Table of Contents, with the titles of the 37 chapters, there is an epigraph from the American poet Charles Olson: “Your eye, the wanderer, sees more.” Turn the page once more and there is a small reproduction of a photograph taken from the top of a hill, looking down on a line of trees and what appears to be a river in the distance. [If you haven’t read my earlier post on River, you might want to do so, as it will help provide context for what follows.] Read more

80th Anniversary of the Kindertransport

UCL Festival

All next week, University College London is holding its annual Festival of Culture. The list of programs looks great, especially this Sebald-related event:

A Refugee Child in WW2 London
Friday 8 June, 12.30-1.30pm
Institute of Archaeology G6 Lecture Theatre

This event marks the 80th anniversary of the first of the Kindertransports in 1938, in which thousands of refugee children came to Britain from Nazi-occupied Europe, many of them passing through London via Liverpool Street station. We’ll explore one of our century’s greatest novels, W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001), about a Jewish child who comes to London on a Kindertransport from Prague and recounts his search in later life for his, and Europe’s, lost past.

This is a panel event including talks, film screening and discussion with the audience. Speakers Dr Zoltán Biedermann, Prof. Stephanie Bird, Dr Mererid Puw Davies and Prof. Mairéad Hanrahan are from UCL’s School of European Languages, Culture and Society (SELCS).

All are welcome. Tickets are free and can be booked here:

http://www.ucl.ac.uk/festival-of-culture/events/festival-of-culture-friday-8-june-2018

I’m not sure how four speakers, a film screening, and a discussion will fit into a single hour…

Rivers of Memory, Rivers of Language

River Kinsky

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

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

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

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

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The Trouble with Secrets

Thus-Bad-Begins

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

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

The Heart, Drawn & Quartered

Wikswo Curving Scar

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

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

A New Melancholia Exhibition Opens in Brussels

Parmiggiani Melancholia

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

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

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London Review Bookshop Event – April 23

Patience Preview

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

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

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

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

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

Photography-Embedded Fiction & Poetry 2017

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

Ball Census

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

Bang Doll

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

Baume Walking

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

Benech Espion

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

Han Kang’s The White Book

Kang WHite Book

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

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

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