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“Art is our religion”: Saint Sebastian’s Abyss by Mark Haber

From Michel Houellebecq’s The Map & the Territory, a novel about the market-driven contemporary art world, I moved on to Mark Haber’s recent novel about the esoteric world of art history and the period known as the Northern Renaissance. Saint Sebastian’s Abyss (Coffee House Press, 2022) is about a painting of that name, a mere twelve by fourteen inches, but “a miracle, a masterwork, a trembling jewel” of a painting, and the two art historians who have built their careers admiring, studying, publishing on, and lecturing about this tiny gem. “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 whoring, “purchasing sex from both women and young boys” before succumbing to syphilis. “Count Hugo Beckenbauer,” we are told by the unnamed art historian who narrates the book, “was probably what we today would call a sex addict.”

The two art historians are the unnamed American narrator and Schmidt, an Austrian. The two have had a long and friendly professional rivalry until the narrator one day said a “horrible thing” that angered Schmidt and led to a rupture that ended their friendship thirteen years ago. But as the novel opens, Schmidt has summoned his ex-friend to Berlin, where he lies on his death bed. He has discovered the answer to the one secret to “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” that had previously flummoxed the two art historians, and now he wants to pass along the information in person to the narrator before he dies. The thoughts and memories that the narrator has as he makes his way to Berlin constitute this short novel.

To paraphrase the late, great stand-up comedian Rodney Dangerfield, artists and art historians “don’t get no respect” from Mark Haber, who has great fun exaggerating the stereotypes of the artist/genius and the hyper-fixated art historian. Based on the diary of Beckenbauer’s landlady, written nearly five hundred year ago, the two art historians have convinced themselves that Beckenbauer was ill, nearly blind, and daily exchanging paintings for sex when he painted “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss.” “Schmidt and I agreed that a sublime vision is the only way to account for the masterpiece, for even though I didn’t believe in God, and Schmidt didn’t believe in God, in fact we’d always taken great pride in being vigorous and committed nonbelievers, we always nurtured a conviction in something other. Hence something other was responsible for bestowing vision to the blind madman in the Düsseldorf farmhouse in the balmy summer of 1541 as he took a small canvas, no larger than twelve by fourteen, in fact exactly twelve by fourteen. . .” The painting was, in other words, the artistic equivalent to a virgin birth. But somehow, even as he headed out to the bordellos day after day, Beckenbauer “knew enough to leave the painting behind, sensing perhaps that he’d fulfilled his artistic legacy, creating a work that he hadn’t seen but felt, a work of unequivocal sublimity.”

In “true” academic fashion, both men have been able to wring long and steady careers out of this small, once-obscure painting hanging in a museum in Barcelona. The narrator has published ten books on Beckenbauer, and Schmidt nearly as many. Schmidt’s first book, August in Rhapsody, more than twelve hundred pages long, “explained in comprehensive, almost exhaustive detail with nothing left out, no stone unturned, no argument untested” that “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” was “the greatest painting in history.” And each art historian’s succeeding book sounds just about as silly.

But the heart of Haber’s book is not so silly. It’s the focus of the horrible thing that the narrator said in answer to a question at an art history conference on day in New York City. “I’d said, in essence, art is subjective and art is for everyone, namely a layman’s opinion is equal to an expert’s.” Schmidt’s response to this was to accuse his friend of “crimes of art criticism” and to cut off all communications between them. When the two art historians finally meet up again in Berlin, Schmidt vented to the narrator: “you want to criticize art but not offend, which is ludicrous, you want to exalt yourself, the art critic, while telling everyone else their opinions are just as valid, when their opinions, you and I both know, are less valid, in fact their opinions are valueless.”

Schmidt’s concern about his colleague’s objectivity actually goes back decades, dating, in fact, to the moment when they made their first trip to Barcelona to stand in front of “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” together for the first time. When the narrator started weeping at the power of the painting, Schmidt had berated him. “Leave the heart out of it, Schmidt had said, the moment the heart is involved you’re no longer a critic but a spectator and he’d said that word spectator as if it were the worst thing a person could ever be.” Schmidt, on the other hand, sees himself as an “authentic critic,” operating in a universe that sounds downright Darwinian. “Each time I’ve written about ‘Saint Sebastian’s Abyss’ . . . I’ve suppressed all the feelings and subjectivity I had . . . I’ve abolished my pulse . . . my job as a critic, was to lay waste to the work and when the work survived, when the work was resurrected despite my attacks, when the work prevailed despite my many attempts on its life, then I had succeeded as a critic.”

The narrator, however, doesn’t buy this. “Each time Schmidt insisted that I leave the heart out of it I knew it was his overabundance of heart that plagued his conscience, his flood of emotions that demanded he suppress and renounce the heart at all costs, and this contradiction or hypocrisy, I began to believe, originated from a youth in Vienna that Schmidt would mention in only the most superficial terms before quickly changing the subject.”

Head or heart? How should we react to art? Should critics and art historians leave their heart at home? This is a variation of the theme that rears itself throughout Michel Houellebecq’s The Map & the Territory as his artist, Jed Martin, tries to make all of his art honor “the essence of modernity, of scientific and technical apprehension of the world” that is the Industrial Age, which he believes is mankind’s highest achievement. Jed does this by trying as an artist to stay utterly neutral and detached, to strip his work of any political or social implications.

It’s clear where Mark Haber’s sympathies lie. As an art historian myself, I can say that there are fewer and fewer people like Schmidt and the narrator of Saint Sebastian’s Abyss in the discipline, men or women seeking refuge from the chaos of our world in the imagined order of another era. Haber deliciously nails this tendency to impose one’s own wishes on the life of an obscure artist in a distant century when he has the narrator brag about his book Hugo’s Paradox. In “this work of peerless and original speculative art criticism” (in the narrator’s own words), the narrator “conceptualized” the entire body of work by Beckenbauer that has been lost to history, imagining every painting that we can no longer see. Now that’s art history.

Michel Houellebecq’s The Map & the Territory

I picked up Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Map & the Territory, in part, because the front cover blurb said it was “a serious reflection on art, death, and contemporary society,” and I was curious to see how a writer of Houellebecq’s stature and reputation would deal with contemporary art. The Map & the Territory is the life story of Jed Martin, a fictional artist who develops a very quirky artistic career. His first important body of work, the portfolio that he used to gain admission to the prestigious Beaux-Arts de Paris, was titled “Three Hundred Photos of Hardware” and consisted of nuts, bolts, and other pieces of precision engineered metalwork that he had photographed in a “neutral lighting, with few contrasts” in order to take away “the menacing nature of the forms.” Once admitted to the school, he began his “grandiose and maniacal” project of “the systematic photography of the world’s manufactured objects. . . suspension files, handguns, printer cartridges, forks.” His goal was nothing less than to create “an exhaustive catalogue of the objects of human manufacturing in the Industrial Age.” Jed’s simple argument for his work was that “the history of mankind could in large part be linked to the history of the use of metals.” Some art historians agreed and saw this early work as a “homage to human labor.”

Jed’s next important body of work came about as a result of a road trip with his father. The two stopped at a service station and Jed purchased a Michelin Departments road map.

It was then, unfolding the map, while standing by the cellophane-wrapped sandwiches, that he had his second great aesthetic revelation. This map was sublime. Overcome, he began to tremble in front of the food display. Never had he contemplated an object as magnificent, as rich in emotion and meaning, as this 1/150,000-scale Michelin map of the Creuse and the Haute-Vienne. The essence of modernity, of scientific and technical apprehension of the world, was here combined with the essence of animal life. The drawing was complex and beautiful, absolutely clear, using only a small palette of colors. But in each of the hamlets and villages, represented according to their importance, you felt the thrill, the appeal, of human lives, of dozens and hundreds of souls—some destined for damnation, others for eternal life.

Eventually, Jed turned his interest from the products of modern technology to the leaders of various industries, including the arts (which Jed clearly thinks of as an industry of sorts), making a series of large painted portraits such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market and Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology, which depicted the two tech giants playing chess in Jobs’ living room.

In keeping with the industrial and corporate subject matter of Jed’s artworks, much of the writing in The Map & the Territory is very factual, resonant of a corporate report. Its pages are littered with the product names for everything from camera equipment to fashion items to automobiles to Jed’s artistic supplies, as well as the the names of the books and magazines on people’s tables and bookcases. But that’s not to say that the book is dry to read. Houellebecq’s otherwise omniscient, disembodied narrator gets gossipy and even a wee bit snide when dealing with the people in Jed’s life, becoming something of a social critic at all of the pretense Jed encounters in the art world. The narrator is quick to latch on to all of the clichés and code words drifting in the conversational ether. Here’s how the narrator describes why the architects at Jed’s father’s firm felt that they needed a new location for their headquarters (the italics are Houellebecq’s): “They had felt the necessity of going upmarket, and the headquarters now had to be in a townhouse, preferably in a cobbled square, or at least in an avenue lined with trees.”

Houellebecq’s narrator sees contemporary art—artists, curators, gallerists, publishers, collectors—as nothing but a vast market system, seemingly severed from any kind of aesthetics or non-monetary value. But Jed remains a bit of a naïf. With a big exhibition and catalog on the horizon, he can’t even manage to theorize about his work and has to turn to a writer to do this for him. In a move that is ripe with irony, Jed commissions a writer named Michel Houellebecq to write the this catalog essay for him. Houellebecq seems to have way too much fun satirizing himself. His character is lazy. He hasn’t managed to unpack, despite living in his new house for three years. He spends most of his time in bed, “watching cartoons on Fox TV” in his pajamas, depressed, drunk, and suffering from athlete’s foot.

His essay is late, of course, forcing Jed to delay his exhibition, but when the it arrives it “asserts for the first time the unity of the artist’s work.” Houellebecq declares that Jed’s subject has always been commerce, “hunting for the essence of the world’s manufactured products,” and he confirms that Jed’s work operates in a neutral and detached manner, without any political or social comment.

As payment for his promised essay, Houellebecq agrees to have Jed paint his portrait.

Houellebecq is standing in front of a desk covered with written or half-written pages. . . Captured at the moment of noticing a mistake on one of the pages on the desk in front of him, the author appears in a trance, possessed by a fury that some have not hesitated to describe as demonic; his hand holding the pen, treated with a certain blurring movement, throws itself on the page “with the speed of a cobra stretching to strike its prey” . . . The expression in the eyes appeared at the time so strange that it could not, in the critics’ view, be compared to any existing pictorial tradition, but had rather to be compared to certain archival ethnological images taken during voodoo ceremonies.

But then, after his exhibition, in mid-career, Jed suddenly becomes a hermit and makes no more art for many years. Decades fly by before he slowly gets back to work, secretly making short videos of nature near his rural French hideaway. Then he makes portraits of all his friends who are still alive before putting his final work together. Without any further explanation, Jed’s artwork takes an unpredictable turn.

The portraits of human beings who had accompanied Jed Martin through his earthly life fell apart under the impact of bad weather, then decompose and disappear, seeming in the last videos to make themselves symbols of the generalized annihilation of the human species. They sink and seem for an instant to put up a struggle, before being suffocated by the superimposed layers of plants. Then everything becomes calm. There remains only the grass swaying in the wind. The triumph of vegetation is total.

As Jed Martin dies, his final artwork signals the end of the Industrial Age. Houellebecq clearly knows his way around the art scene. The Map & the Territory is a cynical but relatively accurate portrayal of the contemporary art ecosystem (at least as it was a decade ago when the book was published), although I have yet to know any artists who managed to remain as unscathed by the tenacious claws of the art market as Jed Martin. The novel is generally very engaging to read, but it’s too comfortable in its own skin to stretch the novel’s form in any new way.

Jed’s hyper-methodical art practice and his interest in the aesthetic qualities of Industrial Age products will remind some readers of the photography of Bernd & Hill Becher, the German husband and wife team who rigorously photographed the industrial architecture of the twentieth century during the years of its growing obsolescence. A retrospective of their work is on exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until November 15, 2022.

Bernd & Hill Becher, Fördertürme, 1965–1996. ©ESTATE OF BERND AND HILLA BECHER

Michel Houellebecq. The Map & the Territory. NY: Random House, 2011. Translated by Gavin Bowd from the 2010 French original.

He told “fictions” rather than “lies”

Carole Angier’s massive biography of W.G. Sebald, Speak, Silence (Bloomsbury, 2021), has garnered dozens of reviews from around the globe, but a surprising number focused on her accounts of how Sebald would use parts of other people’s life stories in his books while feeling free to change some of the facts to suit his own literary needs. Some reviewers understood this to be an essential part of how every fiction writer works, but a handful turned this into an eye-catching headline and a controversial practice. Take Judith Shulevitz’s review in The Atlantic, for example: “W.G. Sebald Ransacked Jewish Lives for His Fictions: Why did he lie about his sources?” Or Lucasta Miller’s “W.G. Sebald’s Borrowed Truths and Barefaced Lies” in The Spectator.

Angier talks about this topic and much more in a new, 35-minute audio interview with J.C Gabel on LitHub‘s podcast Big Table episode 32. In his introduction to the podcast, Gabel writes: “One of the reasons I wanted to talk with her about [her biography]—apart from my longtime love of Sebald—was to ask for her thoughts on the controversy his work still seems to generate, even 20 years after his death. A great deal of the reviews of Speak, Silence, in the States at least, were hyper-critical of Sebald playing fast and loose with some facts in his fiction.”

Here’s part of Angier’s response:

I have to say, I regret having brought this opprobrium upon him, which was entirely unintended. . . when he told me these fictions about his characters, many, many different complex and interesting things were going on. To just boil them down to “lying” is really reductive and terrible. It’s not something I do in my book, although I did call one of the things he said a lie. I regret that now. I should have said he told “fictions” rather than “lies,” because I gave people the excuse to turn against him like that.

After the conclusion of the interview, the Big Table podcast excerpts six or seven minutes of audio from Sebald’s reading of a section of his book Austerlitz, held at New York’s 92nd Street Y on October 15, 2001. If you wish, you can access the entire 45-minute video of that event here. After Sebald’s 25-minute reading, Susan Sontag joins him on stage to talk for awhile before they answer questions.

Agota Kristof’s “The Notebook”

Somewhere near a war-torn European border that is never specified, a mother packs off her twin boys to live with their grandmother in a small, isolated village called Little Town, hoping that it is a safer place for them to live than near the fighting. The boys immediately resent having to live in a crude, backward place with a woman known locally as “the witch,” a grandmother who they have never even met before.

Grandmother never washes. She wipes her mouth with the corner of her shawl when she has finished eating or drinking. She doesn’t wear knickers. When she wants to urinate, she just stops wherever she happens to be, spreads her legs and pisses on the ground under her skirt. Of course, she doesn’t do it in the house.

The brothers commit to each other that they will do whatever it will takes to survive—and survive together. They begin by learning how to find food for themselves in the forest, how to forage and how to fish, so that they no longer need to be dependent on their grandmother’s terrible and scant offerings. Then they they begin a process of deliberately hardening their bodies and teaching their minds. Imagine a pair of ten-year olds creating an amateur Navy SEAL training course and you’ve got the idea. But their training quickly escalates and in no time they have the skills to steal, to blackmail, and to kill people. The way that they teach themselves composition is to write every day on sheets of paper for two hours about a designated topic and then make a judgement on the result.

If it’s ‘Not good’, we throw the composition in the fire and try to write about the same subject in the next lesson. If it’s ‘Good’, we can copy out the composition into the Big Notebook.

To decide whether it is ‘Good’ or ‘Not good’, we have a very simple rule: the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do.

For example, it is forbidden to write: ‘The Little Town is beautiful’, because the Little Town may be beautiful for us and ugly for someone else. . .

Words that define feelings are very vague; it is better to avoid using them and to stick to the description of objects, human beings and oneself; that is to say, to the faithful description of facts.

The Big Notebook they reference is, of course, the very book we are reading, Agota Kristof’s The Notebook. The rules that the brothers define for their own writing are the same rules that Agota Kristof must obey in writing The Notebook. No “words that define feelings.” Keep “to the faithful description of facts.” Much of the time, these strictures are largely invisible as you read about their daily activities, when you don’t expect to see much emotion intrude. But then you come across passages like the one below that should be exploding with emotions of one sort or another. After the village has been successfully invaded, a neighboring woman whose daughter has been raped and murdered by enemy soldiers tells the twins she doesn’t want to live under the rule of the conquering forces.

“Do you really want to die?”
“What else could I want? If you want to do something for me, set light to the house. I don’t want them to find us like this.”
We say:
“But it’ll hurt terrible.”
“Don’t bother yourselves about that. Set light to the house, that’s all, if you’re capable of it.”
“Yes, madam, we are capable of it. You can depend on us.”
We slit her throat with the razor, then we go and siphon off petrol from an army vehicle. We pour the petrol over both bodies and over the walls of the house. We set light to it and go home.

The twins became survivors by adopting the methods of perpetrators. They have the Grandmother and other villagers under their collective thumbs. When the village is overcome by the rampaging enemy army, they immediately switch sides, learn the new language, and take up bartering with the occupying soldiers. Their loyalty is only to themselves. Kristof is not interested in the psychology of survivors, she is probing the pathology of psychopaths and how their behavior, left unchecked, can lead to fascism, how the warped world-view of an individual (in this case, a pair of individuals) develops into a Hitler, a Putin, a Trump.

Students of Freud and philosophy (I am neither) will have an absolute field day with The Notebook. In the Afterword in the recent CB Editions translation of The Notebook, the controversial Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek excitedly declares in his opening sentence: “There is a book through which I discovered what kind of person I really want to be: The Notebook.” A trim four pages later he closes his with this statement. “This is where I stand, how I would love to be: an ethical monster without empathy, doing what is to be done in a weird coincidence of blind spontaneity and reflexive distance, helping others while avoiding their disgusting proximity. With more people like this, the world would have been a pleasant place in which sentimentality would be replaced by a cold and cruel passion.” Is this for real?

The Notebook is written in the simple sentences and easy words of a children’s book, which makes it all the more jarring when the twins turn out to be evil incarnate. By the end of the book the twins are presumably teenagers, but the language they (and Kristof) use hasn’t changed. Kristof (1935-2011), who was born in Hungary, fled that country in 1956 and settled in French-speaking Switzerland and wrote her novels in her adopted language of French, which she apparently learned rather late. It’s been speculated that this might have contributed to the simplicity of the French in The Notebook.

It’s also that strange, fairly rare book narrated by the plural first-person pronoun “we.” But the effect of this “we,” which is the voice of two boys, is very different from the “we” in a book like Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, where the “we” is the cumulative voice of many Japanese “picture brides” who came to America in the early twentieth century. In most cases, writers choose multitudes for their plural first-person “we” narrators so that the reader can’t focus on any single character as the narrator. Here, we can still envision a pair of boys as our collective narrators.

One of the things I found remarkable about The Notebook was just how much emotion I felt throughout the book, even though Kristof had deliberately stripped it of “words that define feelings.” The complete lack of emotion shown by the twins in the midst of wartime, violence, rape, and other crimes (many of which they were committing), brought out a range of horror, curiosity, and astonishment in me. The twins don’t seem to understand that their decision to stick to the facts in their notebook is no guarantee that readers will remain similarly emotion-free.

The Notebook is the first of a trilogy of novels that continues with The Proof (La preuve), 1986, and concludes with The Third Lie (Le troisième mensonge), 1991. In the last two novels, the twins are separated and the story line revolves largely around their easily confusing identities as twins and their conflicting stories about what has happened to them. One literary critic has suggested that these two novels are about “how malleable the past actually is,” especially for those “Central European countries who must reconstruct their history after decades of Communist subterfuge.” (Martha Kuhlman, “The Double Writing of Agota Kristof and the New Europe” Studies in 20th Century Literature) More than the last two parts of the trilogy, The Notebook feels like a standalone novel for its focus on the boys’ transition from victims to masters, from 98-pound weaklings to murderers. As unpleasant as The Notebook can sound, it is a brisk, captivating 160 pages that pulls me in every time I open it.

Ω

Agota Kristof. The Notebook. London: CB Editions, 2014. Translated from the 1986 French original Le Grand Cahier by Alan Sheridan.

This is book number 5 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.

A Few Reading Highlights—Midway Through 2022

This seemed like a good time to say something about a few of the best books that I have read this year which have not made it into Vertigo yet. Just as a reminder, every book I read during the year receives a short write-up on my 2022 Reading Log, which can be found at the top of this blog. Of the more than fifty books that I’ve read so far this year, I felt that these seven really stood out and deserved a little extra attention.

Eloísa Díaz. Repentance. Aberdeen, NJ: Agora Books, 2021. In the midst of the city’s December 2001 riots, Buenos Aires police Inspector Alzada finds himself with a delicate murder case that takes an unexpected turn, forcing him once again to come to the aid of his brother. Twenty years earlier, when he was a young policeman and his brother belonged to an anti-government guerilla group, he barely managed to keep his brother’s name off a list of those who were going to be disappeared by the regime. Now his brother is in trouble with the new regime, and Inspector Alzada has to risk everything (as book publicists like to say) to try to save his brother once again. Díaz’s first novel toggles back and forth between two dangerous periods in Argentina’s history with such ease that time, history, and memory become beautifully compressed and blurred. Repressive regimes (think Berlin) always seem to provide perfect backdrops for noir novels like this, and Díaz creates a Buenos Aires that is both stiflingly claustrophobic and yet rippling with energy as the anti-government protesters gain confidence. Nicely written with several well-drawn characters.

William Melvin Kelley. A Different Drummer. NY: Anchor Books, 1959. [I read the 2019 eBook edition.] One hot summer day in the South, a young Black man named Tucker Caliban burns his house, shoots his farm animals, salts his fields, and heads North, starting a movement that leads the state’s entire Black population to follow him Northward. Kelley’s fearless novel is told from the perspective of a rotating cast of characters, most of which are the white residents of Caliban’s tiny community. As the Black migration takes place before the puzzled, if not astounded eyes of the white community, we are given the backstory both for Caliban and for his rich, white counterpart, Dewey Willson III. Kelley’s brilliant book is leading up to the ultimate Southern question: What would the South be like if all the Blacks left? It’s only during the last few pages, as the last Black man is about to leave, that the white community suddenly realizes that this is the question they are being asked, and they panic. This is Kelley’s debut novel, written when he was 24. After reading it, I wasn’t surprised to find that he was a student of John Hawkes at Harvard. There’s a bit of devil-may-care attitude about the mechanics of the story that constantly remind you that Kelley has his eyes on something bigger than tidying up the fine points of his plot.

Alison Jean Lester. Glide. Bench Press, 2021. Leo, the book’s narrator, doesn’t know what to believe when his wife fails to return from a trip to Norway. Instead, a man shows up who claims to be a half-brother of hers that Leo has never heard about before and cannot verify in her absence. I don’t normally enjoy books of suspense where tension seems to be the main benefit for the reader. But Lester’s writing is smooth and she doesn’t artificially amp up the drama, so she managed to win my confidence and continuously tickle my curiosity. With each advance in the plot the mystery grew and a new surprise always seemed be around the corner, tightening the tension very slowly. I confess I enjoyed this to the very end. Mostly abstract photographs by Andrew Gurnett at the beginning of each chapter give a visual preview of the ominous level of what is to come.

Liam McIlvanney. The Heretic. World Noir, 2022. McIlvanney remains one of my current favorite writers of police procedurals, despite the fact that I could barely follow the plot of The Heretic‘s predecessor, The Quaker, at times. The Heretic is not much better in this regard, but at some point I just give up and let myself enjoy McIlvanney’s writing, pacing, great characters, and fine dialogue. He is more fearless than most police procedural writers about plunging the reader in over his or her head and letting the context bubble up slowly like oxygen, just before you drown. I won’t even try to explain the plot involving Glasgow, Scotland Detective Duncan McCormack, a deadly tenement fire, the body of a politician that turns up in a dumpster, and a crime lord with whom McCormack seems to have an unhealthily obsession. But it all makes for a few hours of good reading.

Tiya Miles. All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. NY: Random House, 2021. Sometime in the 1850s, a Black mother and her nine-year old daughter Ashley were sold separately at a slave auction in Charleston, South Carolina, never to see each other again. Before the auction, the mother managed to give a sack containing a ragged dress, a handful of pecans, and a lock of her hair to her daughter. In 1921 the woman who inherited the sack embroidered a brief narrative of less than sixty words on it, explaining that her great-grandmother Rose had given it to her grandmother Ashley. Rose told Ashley “It be filled with my Love always.” Using the sack as material evidence and those few words as a base, Miles conducted extensive research and employed the imagination of numerous scholars and a couple of artists to recreate Ashley’s world as a slave in Charleston, and the likely life for her and for the African American generations that followed her survival. At times it feels like an astonishing achievement conjured out of a wisp of evidence, but Miles’ book epitomizes the new direction of scholarship today—cooperative and not afraid to employ the imagination. Miles draws on a wide variety of disciplines: history, genealogy, literature, environmental history, botany, art history, and probably one or two more that I have forgotten. Plus, the book contains a color “visual essay” called “Carrying Capacity,” showing the artworks made by the artists who were engaged to respond to Ashley’s sack, its contents, and the key themes that it raised. Every page of Miles’ book is eye opening.

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 desperate, all wrapped up into one muddled sensation. It feels wrong to think of this a book of love poetry, since the poems are really, at heart, just as much about relationships, and the difficult, high wire act that they represent. There’s no safety net in this book. I’m a huge fan of his 2015 book War of the Foxes, too.

The way you slam your body into mine reminds me
I’m alive, but monsters are always hungry, darling,
and they’re only a few steps behind you, finding
the flaw, the poor weld, the place where we weren’t
stitched up quite right, the place they could almost
slip right through if the skin wasn’t trying to
keep them out, to keep them here, on the other side
of the theater where the curtain keeps rising.

from “Snow and Dirty Rain” by Richard Siken

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? It’s lyrical, carnal, angry, brilliant, and astoundingly beautiful. I just don’t understand how someone can write stunning sentences one after another without end. May his well never run dry. It’s partly a memoir, partly an angry diversion down the avenues of race, sexuality, and addiction, and it’s partly an indescribable genre of its own, written in the form of a letter from Vuong to his illiterate mother. For once, this is a book that is as powerful as everyone says it is.

Ukrainian Film Based on W.G. Sebald Book Debuts at Cannes Film Festival

Film still from Sergei Loznitsa’s The Natural History of Destruction.

As the Washington Post put it, “The war in Ukraine took a starring role on the opening night of the 75th Cannes Film Festival and it has rarely been far out of frame since.” One of the reasons for this was Sergei Loznitsa’s film, The Natural History of Destruction, which is based on the book of a similar name by W.G. Sebald. Loznitsa’s film received its premiere at the Festival on May 23. A regular at Cannes, Loznitsa has shown eight films at the Festival since 2010, including maidan, a film about the 2014 revolution in Ukraine, and last year’s Baby Yar. Context, a documentary about the slaughter of 300,000 Jews in 1941, at the hands of German soldiers, with the assistance of Ukrainian police, which occurred just outside Kyiv.

Loznitsa is no stranger to Sebald’s books. In 2016, he made a 94-minute documentary film called Austerlitz, which was related to Sebald’s novel of the same name, although his film did not follow the plot of Sebald’s book at all. For that film, Loznitsa followed tourists around as they spent a summer day at the Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz, in Poland. The film forces viewers to think about the uneasy mix of visitors who make their way to Auschwitz, ranging from those who view it as a sacred site of death, perhaps even where members of their own family were murdered, to more carefree tourists who treat the place as just another stopover on their summer vacation, almost like a Disney-type attraction. In a review of the film, Nicholas Rapold wrote:

“the film is perhaps above all a haunting meditation, in which the physical history of the camps battles with oblivion. In one sequence, visitor after visitor takes a selfie with the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign on the camp’s front gate. It is easy to be unnerved by the casual manner and lack of emotion of many visitors in the film, though others are shown in states of contemplation as they reckon with the camps.”

Nicolas Rapold, “Sergei Loznitsa’s Movie ‘Austerlitz’ Observes Tourists in Concentration Camps” New York Times Aug. 31, 2016
Film still from Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz.

Austerlitz, and several other of Loznitsa’s films, can be viewed on his website for a small fee.

Peter Bradshaw, writing in the May 24, 2022, Guardian, describes The Natural History of Destruction as a “docu-collation of archive footage meditating on the horrific aerial bombardment inflicted on cities and civilian populations by the British and Germans during the second world war.” But, unlike most documentaries, there is no voice-over. Instead, Loznitsa adds ambient sound, indistinct murmuring, and the music of a string octet. The overall effect, he says, is “sinister and dreamlike.” Bradshaw concludes that “the basic point about the waste and horror of war is entirely valid,” but he adds “I wasn’t sure that enough, and enough of original interest, was being said.”

In the Washington Post, Loznitsa was asked about his controversial opinion that Russian filmmakers should not have been kept from participating in this year’s Cannes Film Festival. “Our duty as filmmakers is to try to understand what’s going on around us,” he said. He was also kicked out of the Ukrainian Film Academy for not supporting a boycott of Russian filmmakers. “I believe our duty is defend culture, all culture. The culture of any nation, of any people, belongs to the entire world.”

Loznitsa’s film is based on Sebald’s 1999 book, Luftkrieg and Literatur, which was published in English in 2003 as On The Natural History of Destruction. The original German title refers to a series of lectures that Sebald gave in Zurich in 1997 on how German literature responded to the Allied carpet bombing of German cities toward the end of World War II. Sebald’s lecture was met with some anger, and the book has continued to create controversy ever since. In the book, Sebald discussed the Allied culpability for the massive civilian deaths that resulted from their carpet bombing of German cities, along with his perception that German writers had largely failed to do justice to this critical historical subject.

Although the Russian invasion of Ukraine had not taken place when Loznitsa was making his film, the Russian destruction of Ukrainian cities and murder of civilians clearly made Sebald’s book—and Loznitsa’s film— seem prescient. “It became clear that the lessons of 80 years ago haven’t been learned,” Loznitsa is quoted as saying by the Washington Post. “It seems possible for us as humans to be thrown back 80 years to the stage where all these atrocities and terrible things were possible. . . If we want to remain human, we need to stop this. This should not be acceptable to a civilized society.” Loznitsa said he next plans to make a film about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

There is currently no word on when or where Loznitsa’s film On The Natural History of Destruction will be shown next.

Don Mee Choi’s “Geopolitical Poetics”

I am a foreigner who writes in English
Because English is a foreigner like me
I write prescriptions for the injured and the sick
Scribble republic!

from “A Little Confession”

For several decades, poetry has become increasingly visual. It has been about words on a page, letters in space, words & images in relation to each other. Just pick up Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War (Wave Books) and let the pages flip through your fingers. Yes, a few of the pages look like poems “ought” to look like. But most of the pages don’t. There are photographs, tiny ones and full page ones. Drawings. A good deal of the book is written in solid blocks of text that look like prose and a long section that is laid out in the form of an opera libretto. And then there are the lines written in Korean characters, or the excerpts from musical scores (music is essentially a foreign language for me and, undoubtedly, for many readers). Finally, like more and more poetry and fiction titles do these days, the book ends with several pages of explanatory notes, which mostly provide the sources for the many quotations and references the poet has used throughout Hardly War.

The other thing that flipping through Hardly War with your fingers will suggest—and that reading will confirm—is that Choi has carefully thought out this as a book. This is not a collection of assorted random poems on various topics. It’s clear from a quick glimpse at the book that Choi has given herself an awful lot to juggle, so she uses her own biography as the spine on which to hang everything, along with a bare bones history of Korea during roughly the same years—1950 to 1968. Choi was born and raised in Korea, before eventually settling in the U.S. Her father was a photojournalist who covered the war zones across Southeast Asia and in Korea. She uses some of his photographs in the book, and she turns his camera into one of the characters in the opera libretto, “Hardly Opera,” which closes out the book.

Hardly War is a carefully orchestrated sequence of poems, prose poems, and images. It opens with a prose poem “Race=Nation,” which introduces the reader to the poet and her father, along with a few sentences about her idea of folding geopolitics into poetry. It basically serves as her elevator speech on twentieth century Korean history: occupied by Japan from 1910-1945; under the control of the U.S. military government through 1948; authoritarian president who had to be overthrown by a student-led revolution in 1960. South Korea still has not shaken this history off its back even now and we all know what North Korea is like.

“Race=Nation” is followed by “A Little Glossary,” which includes images that aren’t explained, languages that aren’t translated, and the word “gook” which isn’t defined. When we get to the end of the book, the Notes will tell us that these paired photographs show the Taedong River Bridge in Pyongyang, Korea in November 1950 (left) and December 1950 (right), before and after its destruction. Choi’s father, with a camera around his neck, is on the left. The mention of “5 petals” refers to the Rose of Sharon, the national flower of South Korea. On this page, Choi carefully and succinctly sets up the key devices that will she will use throughout the book: pluralingualism, uncertain equivalencies, non-translation, and repetition (of images, symbols, and words).

The first real “poem” of the book is “A Little Menu,” a very simple listing of the foods that an American G.I. might have had while stationed in Korea (e.g. wieners, canned fruit, crackers, soluble coffee, etc.), ending with the line “What did General Fatty eat?”. “General Fatty” is what Choi calls General Douglas MacArthur, who initially led the United Nations military command in Korea. Choi’s confidence in using humor—even silliness—is one of the reasons I have thought about Hardly War time and time again since I first read it nearly six years ago. After seeing black-and-white photographs of soldiers, war-damaged bridges, military equipment, and malnourished or orphaned children, we don’t expect poems that read like nursery rhymes or children’s taunts. This is her “hardly war,” her “faint history<‘ made up of the voices traditionally drowned out by the din of battle. In daring to contrast her “paper closet with real paper dresses in it” against “THE BIG PICTURE. War and its masses. War and its men. War and its machines.’, as she writes in “Woe Are You?” Choi knows that paper dolls and poetry won’t win wars, but that they can help change the way that history is told.

And changing history is her agenda. She wants to correct the stereotyped image of Korea which has been handed down across several generations now, defined almost exclusively by the American experience of the Korean War, even though the war ended nearly seventy years ago. She references two of the Hollywood moviesPork Chop Hill (1959) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962)that helped to perpetuate the colonialist trope of of the Korean conflict as the opposition between heroic G.I.s and the native Koreans, who were seen as inept, untrustworthy, and very likely Communists, and who were frequently referred to as gooks, the derogatory word that Americans often used for Asians and other “lower” races. Choi wants to tell Korea’s “own faint history in its own faint language.”

Geopoetics. . . involves disobeying history, severing its ties to power. It strings together the faintly remembered, the faintly imagined, the faintly discarded, which is to say race=nation gets to speak its own faint history in its own faint language. Its mere umbilical cord is hardly attached to anything at all. Hence, hardly=war.

Readers who are bilingual in Korean and English will undoubtedly read Hardly War differently than readers like me who know only one of the languages. But I think that Choi uses incomprehensionwhich is the first step toward demonization of the Otherintentionally throughout Hardly War.

The book’s narration constantly shifts between sections written in the voices of children, parts written in the pidgin English of Koreans, sections mimicking the pseudo-neutral voice of a slightly gung-ho journalist or newsreel narrator, and a loony version of an opera libretto in which most of the characters are flowers. But what is consistent about all of the voices in Hardly War is Choi’s peculiar sense of humor. She borrows wordplay tactics from nursery rhymes and other forms of children’s poetry to give her writing a slightly sinister innocence. “I was cheerily cherrily red and merely merrily washed my face in the yard and looked up at the stars. I decided to go alone as far as I could go south, do and do and to.” At the beginning of the photo/poem “With My Brother on My Back / I Was Narrowly Narrator” (shown below), Choi writes: “I was narrowly narrator / yet superbly so.” The turnabout from modesty to confidence in a seven word sentence is something I find astonishing.

I wrote about Hardly War when it came out in 2016 and I have incorporated a few bits and pieces from that review in this updated and enlarged piece. Choi’s next book, DMZ Colony, also from Wave Books, won the 2020 National Book Award for Poetry. Wave Books deserves huge kudos for the vision, support, and dedication they show to all of their authors.

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Don Mee Choi. Hardly War. Seattle: Wave Books, 2016.

This is book number 4 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.

River

Whenever the word ‘river’ came to mind, I imagined panoramas, views, images from childhood—the postcards memory had sent me. I ran these views and images by countless rivers, holding them up to each river landscape as if to interrogate it for something specific. For distinct shades of blue both in the sky and in the sky’s reflection on both sides of the river? For its capacity to make magic with mist, its seaward promise and pledge of a greater brightness? The comparative allure of its unknown opposite bank? I could not have said myself what it was.

The woman who narrates Esther Kinsky’s novel River doesn’t tell us why she has just moved to Hackney, in London’s East End, but she has abruptly “excised myself from the life I had led in town, just as one might cut a figure out of a landscape or group photo.” “Abashed by the harm I had wreaked on the picture left behind,” she is now living a “provisional existence” in a rented apartment full of unpacked boxes. Her neighborhood is a mix of Hasidic Jews, Croats, Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Bosnians, Romas, and immigrants from various African nations, and she has become a passionate observer of the people around her. Smells, sounds, or other aspects of their daily routines set off recollections of her childhood. She buys things she doesn’t need in the Kosher store just because they “called forth lost memories.” During the Jewish Feast of the Tabernacle, she walks the streets of the Hasidic community, listening to the sounds of “plates clattering, voices, and table prayers spoken in the festively decorated gardens and backyards of the pious,” something that had been part of her own growing up. She begins dreaming of the dead, of her father and her grandfather and her youth.

But what has really called to her to Hackney was the River Lea. Nearly every day the narrator spends time taking long walks, exploring the marshes of the river and its banks.

On its back the river carried the sky, the trees along its bank, the withered cob-like blooms of water plants, black squiggles of birds against the clouds. Between the empty lands to the east of the river and the estates and factories along the other bank, I rediscovered bits and pieces of my childhood, found snippets cut from other landscapes and group photographs, unexpectedly come here to roost. I stumbled on them between willows under a tall sky, in reflections of impoverished housing estates on the town side of the river, amongst a scatter of cows on a meadow, in the contours of old brick buildings.

Her river walks evoke memories of growing up near the Rhine, reminding her of her father’s work as an amateur photographer. When she digs some of his photographs out of her boxes she realizes that she is seeing the world through his eyes for the first time. “I was astounded how many of these pictures had been taken on or beside a river.”

Her memories tend to dwell on the travels which have taken her to rivers—to the Po River in Italy, the Tisza River in Hungary, the Hoogly River in Kolkata, or the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv. “Every river is a border; that is one of the lessons of my childhood.” Those borders may be peaceful, or, as the narrator knows first-hand, those borders might represent hate and near certain death if one attempted to cross it, like the Neretva River in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, “the most wrecked place I had ever seen.”

One day she remembers an old instant photography camera, packed away somewhere in her boxes. She locates it and begins to take pictures as she walks. When the prints are ejected from the old camera, she is surprised by what she sees.

What came to light when the developer foil was peeled from the black-and-white photo with its countless shades of grey was a memory I did not even know I had. These pictures showed something that lay behind the things the lens had focussed on, things which, for an imperceptible moment in time, the shutter release must have brushed aside. The images belonged to a past I could not even be sure was my own, touching on something whose name I must have forgotten, or possible never knew. There was something unquestionably familiar about these landscape scenes which, apart from the odd passer-by, were generally empty. Something waved to me, whispering: Do you remember? You do remember, don’t you?

“the town came closer on both sides of the river, darker from the west, with bricks, stone and broken window-panes facing the river…”

At first, we might take Kinsky’s narrator for the pastoral equivalent to Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, walking the marshy paths just outside the city rather than the paved streets within city limits. However, she turns out to be an equal opportunity stroller. It’s just that when she finally does explore her corner of London, she doesn’t go as a typical urban flâneuse. Instead, she haunts the difficult, unloved places, heading straight into London’s industrial ruins or down its far less affluent side streets.

Now and again I took a train in one direction or the other and studied the backs of the terraces, roofs, chimneys, gables, and rear gardens in varying light, the strips of waste ground with crows and cats, the whole hinterland of the city that stays hidden from bus-window views of street façades. With my finger on the map I followed the fine line cutting through the green and grey paper surfaces like the jagged outline of a distorted half-moon, wending across the red, brown and black threads of streets, thickening around stations, then trickling through no-man’s-land like the hairline strand of a brook. . .
I set off east, working my way through a wasteland of thorn-thickets, fox dens and rusty remains of old railway equipment near the edges of the big stations. Budding lilac nodded along semi-derelict fencing; battered shopping trolleys were rammed into bare spring bushes. Behind this zone of neglect and devastation, in the shadow of run-down factories and warehouses and within smelling distance of a sewage drain, the viaduct arches were home to goods that had been lost, given away, misappropriated or stolen elsewhere in the city, a loosely pitched series of junk-stall arches, selling anything which, for whatever reason, had been rejected, released or purloined from the commodity circuit. Under the rumbling trains trembled coach-loads of bicycles, chairs, fridges and tables, half-gutted washing machines, car seats, shelves full of fragile and unbreakable items, jackets, coats and flowery dresses, books and records, all darkened by dust that trickled from the pores of bricks and nipped by pigeon droppings. When the weather was fine the stallholders sat on camp-chairs and torn car tyres in front of their open arches.

Photographs and photography play a critical role in River, and a number of images are reproduced in the book. One day, while taking a photograph of the entrance to a building, something goes awry and the photograph shows only the feet of some passers-by, the pavement, part of the door, and a hand in a window, which she had not noticed when she took the picture.

A scrawny and presumably old hand, a hand that was unsure, reaching for something hidden to me. The picture was an image of my own uncertain future, one I would hold on to, and one day pick up, saying: Yes, Stamford Hill, London: that’s how the bricks felt under my fingertips, how the cracked paving stones with their sprouting grass and weeds felt under my feet, and how their great scattered flocks darkened my field of vision, this and no other lack of shadow was typical of the light there, that was my place, and this scrawny old hand will hang on to a piece of my life forever.

With the novel coming to an end, her seemingly aimless meandering stops and an actual destination is announced for the first time: the Thames must be found. Not only that, but she wants to find the specific location where she went with her father as a child, which means an expedition out of London toward Southend-on-Sea, where the Southend Pier extends more than 1.3 miles straight out into the Thames Estuary.

At the end of the mile-long pier that jutted into the heaving mass of waves and currents, I was practically on my own. The wind gusted across the platform from every angle and waves crashed against the steel girders below, between the rows of lights that were Sheerness to the South, and the gay blaze of colour that was Southend’s lit-up amusement park on the northern shore, between the enormous cupola of unbroken darkness over the sea in the east, and the distant glow of London in the west. Nothing began here, and nothing ended, and maybe that had been the message of the blinking lights I had seen from Sheerness. This place was the centre that never stood still.

After her experience where “nothing began” and “nothing ended,” the narrator packs up what few things she unpacked during her April to August stay in Hackney and prepares to move on in her “restlessness” to her next stay, which is in a country in “distant Eastern Europe.” As she prepares to depart, still as anonymous as when she arrived in her neighborhood, she watches one final sunrise.

Then a great torrent of light poured over the park. . . a luminosity that made each object stand out for a brief moment in an exuberant radiance that melted to fool’s gold and the sunburst delusions of cold spring days, glimmering, glistening, sparkling, and finally dissolving in a blinding, golden tremor, in which all that had accompanied me in the past months evaporated like a cloud succumbing to sunlight, and this effulgence, which broke over all I could see, transformed the marshland beyond the River Lea and the Lea itself into a shoreline that could barely be distinguished from the sea, and which, as it rose and fell like the surf, let all that was built on it founder.

There is no plot to River and only one character, about whom we learn very little. In fact, we learn more about the narrator’s childhood than her adult life. Kinsky plays with time in a curious way in River. Through memories, she exposes us to bits and pieces of the narrator’s childhood, but what we learn about her adult life is so meager that it’s like looking at a painting that has doesn’t really have a middle distance, just a foreground and some mountains very far away. Perhaps this is Kinsky’s way of telling us that it makes no difference what her narrator left behind (there’s mention of a child, although that episode seems many years earlier) or why she left her previous life in London. In any event, the book’s emphasis is on what kind of woman she is or aspires to be. We witness a woman of great curiosity and generosity of spirit. She is the sort of person to absorb everything she can about her international community of neighbors and, although she makes no deep friendships during her brief stay, she nevertheless routinely interacts with others just like a kind and helpful neighbor.

Photography tells us a little more about her. Early in the book, she looks at the images she took of some strangers and she “felt ashamed.” “It felt almost indecent to keep in my room these fragments of other people’s existence . . . snippets of the lives of strangers who knew nothing of the persistence in my possession, for the time being, of a fragment of their life.” After that, she “resolved to photograph only inanimate objects.” Later on, she buys an envelope of photographs at a flea market, only to discover that they seem to be the “testaments to a family visit” of some kind during a summer in Hackney.

What was I doing here, on this wind-buffeted, elevated station platform with its view over the zone of discontinuities gradually annexing the River Lea and its wild hinterland, with these snapshots of lives so remote from my own that I had been granted unsolicited access to them through some petty burglary or disappointing inheritance or ill-starred coincidence? I could not even think of names to give the two women who turned up in all of the photographs. I asked myself the unanswerable question of what name some other person might give me if they happened upon my photo?

Feeling like a voyeur, she abandons that envelope of flea-market photographs on the train. This obsession with names, I suspect, goes back to a temporary job she previously held in London at the Jewish Refugee Committee, where she did translations and answered inquiries “concerning the whereabouts of German Jewish refugees who had come to England in the 1930s.” She “reeled miles of microfilm,” “became embroiled in stories of strangers,” and was obsessed for days trying to solve cases. “I always took the names of the missing with me.”

The narrator’s instincts throughout the book are with the immigrants, the poor, and the struggling, those who live largely unseen and ignored in the underbelly of the city or in temporary shelters they have created among its marshy fringes. She flows through their community—almost like a river, one is tempted to say—then moves on, leaving little trace of her presence.

Three years ago I wrote about River in two posts in 2018 and I read the book rather differently then. Here is part one and here is part two of that review.

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Esther Kinsky. River. Translated from the 2014 German original Am Fluss by Iain Galbraith. Originally published by Matthes & Seitz Verlag. Published in English by Fitzcarraldo Editions (London) 2017 and Transit Books (Oakland) 2018.

This is book number 3 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.

Adam Scovell’s “Nettles”

In Nettles (Influx Press), his third novel in the last four years, Adam Scovell brings new life to the well-trod theme in British literature of being bullied at school. His narrator is revisiting the Liverpool area, cleaning his boyhood possessions out of his childhood home. He’s also revisiting vivid memories of twenty years ago when his school days were spent trying to dodge Himalways with a capital Hthe nameless bully who attacked him on his way to the first day of school, whipping him mercilessly with stinging nettles, and who proceeded to make his life miserable for the remainder of the school year.

It was the first day of term when He whipped my thin legs with nettle stems. The sun was glaring behind the clouds, and I knew then that I would have to kill Him. I did not know how or when, but as the stings lashed and my body quivered with pain, His fate was sealed, cast in marble.

The narrator, like nearly everyone else in the novel, has no name. He uses his wiles to try to avoid the bully and his gang as much as possible, but he also vows to himself that he will withstand whatever punishment they give him. But after one serious fight with the bully in the marshlands at the edge of the school grounds, he has to be rescued by a teacher.

A teacher dragged me through the building with my head held backward, my shirt dotted with bright red droplets, limping towards somewhere with first aid equipment,. I took pleasure in imagining the boys talking together about my new adulthood. I could not contain myself and I cackled viciously.
My body turned to hogweed.
I was the marsh and the stone.
Laughing.
The walls blurred and the teacher faded into ragwort and lichen
I drifted from the world and fainted in the chair they propped me up in.
I was utterly pathetic.

Eventually, a plan forms in the narrator’s mind. If he can lure Him to a nearby area called The Breck, a well-known and somewhat dangerous climbing spot, perhaps some sort of accident can be arranged. The Breck is famous for being the place where the first British man to ascend K2 had honed his skills as a young man. [If you are curious, you can see The Breck here.]

In the end, it turns out that we, as readers, are here to help judge the narrator, not the bully or anyone else in the novel. We are left to decide if the narrator interpreted his childhood correctly. The narrator is basically the only character with interior dimensions in the book. He seems incapable of viewing anyone else with any depth. Both of his parents are present, but neither becomes a three-dimensional person on their own. And the bully remains as elusive as if we were talking about the devil himself. All we get of Him is the physical description of “His severely shaved head and His bulky persona.” The bully and his disciples repeatedly beat up the narrator for pages on end without ever being described or characterized.

At first, it was Scovell’s “revenge” plot that made me want to keep read reading Nettles, but inexorably the narrator’s true plightthe one with his familytook over in importance. During his return visit, as the narrator looks back on this period in his youth, he began to ask himself if some of the assumptions he had made at the time about his family were correct.

Throughout his visit home, the narrator takes Polaroid photographs of the sites that were memorable to him in his youth. To us they look like square, rather blurry amateur snapshots of boring locales. As if to demonstrate how much these photographs mean to him, the only character in the book that the narrator names is Ellen, the “talented fashion photographer” who lends him the camera. But his photographs turn out to be bitter disappointments. At first he thinks he sees traces of the past in them, but then he decides, as he does with one photograph, “there was nothing there now but stone and memories.” The real story lies elsewhere.

Ironically, it is his mother who provides him with the one photograph that stings. As he is heading back to London, she hands him a photograph. . . It was more human than the reflection in the visor mirror. My eyes were light and carefree then. I couldn’t recognize the boy anymore. I would tear the photo in half later, unable to allow it to exist. It made me feel simultaneously alien and homesick.

The top half of this ripped photograph appears at the very beginning of Nettles, the torn bottom (and larger) half appears at the very end. Buried in Nettles is a bitter family story that stings the narrator far worse than the bully from his school days. It’s fascinating to watch Scovell expertly play the bullying story and the family saga against each other, until one strand emerges holding the narrator’s past at gunpoint.

With each of his three books, the way in which Scovell has deployed his photographs has become more and more tangential to the story as his writing has become stronger. In Nettles, I would argue that the only photograph that is really necessary to the plot is the torn image that we see at the front and back of the book. The other images are, as the narrator admits, “failures,” used only as evidence that there was no longer anything meaningful to him in those places. But even the torn image is one that many writers would verbally describe and then omit from their novels. I look forward to seeing how Scovell deals with photographs in his novels in the future. Here are my reviews of Mothlight (2018) and How Pale the Winter Has Made Us (2020). Nettles is just out from Influx Press this week.

“Explosion of Words” Exhibition in London

Hannes Schüpbach, “Explosion of Words,” detail of image 11 with words from Stephen Watts’ poem ‘For My Friend,
Max Sebald’ (Ancient Sunlight, London: Enitharmon, 2014/2021) © Hannes Schüpbach

Since one of the cornerstones of Vertigo is exploring poetry that includes photographs, a friend brought to my attention the current exhibition in London at Bow Arts’ Nunnery Gallery, “Explosion of Words,” a cinematic photo installation and imaginary library of modern poetry in translation. Here’s what the organizer’s webpage says about it:

Explosion of Words” is a cinematic photo installation, extending frieze-like over 30 metres of the Nunnery Gallery’s gothic walls, celebrating the power of language. The exhibition is the culmination of Swiss artist Hannes Schüpbach’s (b. 1965) response to the lived spaces of east London-based poet and language activist Stephen Watts (b. 1952), who works between extensive research on poetry and his own contributions as a poet and co-translator from many languages.  
Approximately 1600 pages of Watts’ ongoing Bibliography of Modern Poetry in English Translation will be mounted directly onto the gallery’s four-metre-high walls as a background for Schüpbach’s space-spanning photo installation, creating a cosmos of world poetry. Watts’ Bibliography, which is 40 years in the making, will be transformed into a physical experience, creating a ‘storehouse of language’, reflecting Watts’ own passion for poetry in every tongue. In the nave space of the gallery, an excerpt of Schüpbach’s new silent film Essais (2020), with Stephen Watts, will also be on display. 
Watts’ Bibliography opens up perspectives onto the rich wealth of poetry that has been, and still is being, written or performed out of many different histories and environments, as well as exploring the many cultural issues involved in translation.
A two-part artists’ publication has been published to coincide with the exhibition: Hannes Schüpbach: Explosion of Words. Dedicated to Stephen Watts, with an essay by Jo Catling and Stephen Watts: Explosion of Words, 19 Poems, with German translations by Hannes Schüpbach (192 pages, 19.5 × 26 cm, designed by Raphael Drechsel, GREAT, published by Verlag für moderne Kunst, Vienna), available to buy at the gallery.

PLEASE NOTE! Panel talk April 7.

Explosion of Words | ‘An Imaginary Library’: Modern Poetry and Translation Thursday 7 April, 6.30-7.45pm, Queen Mary University of London, £5/free for concessions Join a panel of speakers including Stephen Watts, Hannes Schüpbach, Jo Catling, Chris McCabe and Nisha Ramayya as they dig into the significance of Watts’ Bibliography and its crucial place in a full consideration of modern poetry and translation. (Booking is recommended as gallery space is limited. Book all events online at: bowarts.org/whats-on)

For more information on the exhibition, publication, and programming, check out the bowarts website.

The book Hannes Schüpbach: Explosion of Words contains poems by Watts and photographs by Schüpbach.

Double-page spread from Hannes Schüpbach: Explosion of Words. Photographs © Hannes Schüpbach.