In the middle of Mac’s Problem, the recent novel by Enrique Vila Matas, Mac, our narrator, tells a story of two strangers getting drunk in a bar in Basel, Switzerland. One man tends to embellish every aspect of his story, the other sticks strictly to the facts. “Fiction and reality, an old married couple,” Mac remarks. At the end of the story, he tells us “fiction and reality fuse so intensely that, at certain moments, it seems impossible to separate them.” Like a torero and a bull, they “appear to be engage in a game of reciprocal influences.”
Mac’s Problem is full of short stories that are all stitched together with a narrative that primarily focuses on Mac (a man whose prosperous family business has just imploded) and his neighbor, Sánchez (the “celebrated Barcelona writer”). Mac, who has always aspired to be a writer, decides to keep a private diary, which is the book we are reading. One of Mac’s many problems is that the diary keeps trying to become a novel. It keeps drifting off into literature. And Mac is not too happy about that.
I’ve noticed that these two sequences together form a very slight novelistic plot: as if, all of a sudden, certain autobiographical incidents had decided to piece together for me a single story, and one with literary overtones to boot; as if certain chapters of my daily life were colluding and crying out to be turned into fragments of a novel. But this is a diary! I shout. . .
Mac’s compelling fantasy is to take up one of Sánchez’s early, nearly forgotten books called Walter’s Problem, which Mac finds “insufferable,” and completely rewrite it. Every chapter of Walter’s Problem is a short story written “in a style reminiscent of” another author, a list that includes John Cheever, Djuna Barnes, Ernest Hemingway, Jorge Luis Borges, Jean Rhys, and Raymond Carver. Throughout the first half of his diary, Mac will very briefly outline for us his version of each of the ten chapters in Walter’s Problem. In the second half of his diary, Mac tells us what was wrong with Sánchez’s version and how he would write a story to replace the original. As Mac writes his own version of each story in his imagination, he is, in effect, erasing Sánchez’s version of the ten stories, one by one.
Proud that he had survived the Second World War in his homeland of Germany without somehow having to serve in Hitler’s military, the German writer Wolfgang Koeppen once said “I asked myself what I had been waiting for all those years, why I had been a witness and why I had survived.” (From his obituary in The Independent.) The question I kept asking myself as I read the triptych of novels that Koeppen wrote in the early 1950s was: What did Koeppen’s role as a “witness” play in the outcome of these novels? What might we, as readers turning the pages of Koeppen’s novels, identify as evidence of “witnessing” Hitler’s rise to power, propelling the Nazi movement, and turning the German nation into sheep while he and his generals pursued the Final Solution against the Jews and a World War that killed tens of millions of people? Were these novels really different from those of someone who had not lived through what Koeppen had experienced, someone who might observed the Nazi years from Canada, say?
The first book in his trilogy, Pigeons on the Grass, set in postwar Munich (reviewed here), involves some ordinary German citizens—along with a handful of Americans. At most, this novel suggests that we don’t actually listen to other people very well. The final novel in the series, Death in Rome (reviewed here), involves several truly heinous Germans, including an SS officer who has been found guilty and condemned to death in absentia at the Nuremberg Trials. This novel, which I think is the best of the three, provides the most serious indictment of German mindset and German civilization through its critique of Teutonic ideals that extol dangerous hypermasculine traditions. The Hothouse, on the other hand, which is the series’ middle novel, is about bureaucracy of the postwar West German government in Bonn. It deals exclusively with postwar life and its main character, Herr Keetenheuve, was not in Germany at all from 1933 through 1949, but was in self-imposed exile in Canada.
From the title until the last words of the novel, Wolfgang Koeppen’s 1954 novel Death in Rome moves relentlessly towards its predicted fatal end. In our era, when novels so often consist of one digression after another, it’s a little startling to read a novel that signals its intentions from the start and never wavers for a moment. Like the first novel in Koeppen’s triptych, Pigeons on the Grass (which I wrote about recently), Death in Rome funnels everything toward one culminating event—in this case, a performance of a new piece of symphonic music by the young German composer Siegfried Pfaffrath, which will take place in a concert hall in Rome sometime in the years shortly after World War II. Siegfried doesn’t know it yet, but his parents, one of his brothers, and an uncle are also in Rome for a unique kind of family reunion. The most prominent of these relatives is Gottlieb Judejahn, a former SS general who has been convicted and sentenced to death in absentia at the Nuremberg Trails, but who now runs the military of an unnamed Arab nation under an assumed name. The family hopes to convince Judejahn to return to Germany to help revive the struggling National Socialist cause. Unbeknownst to everyone, Judejahn’s son Adolf is also in Rome, waiting to be ordained as a Catholic priest. Throughout the novel, we will follow these family members as they explore the Eternal City, meet in various combinations, plot, sin, and discover family secrets.
No sentence is wasted in this compact book of a mere 202 pages. The opening sentences let us know right away that Koeppen is not likely to allow any of his characters get through his novel unscathed. A group of tourists passing through Rome’s Pantheon.
Once upon a time, this city was a home to gods, now there’s only Raphael in the Pantheon, a demigod, a darling of Apollo’s, but the corpses that joined him later are a sorry bunch, a cardinal of dubious merit, high-flying civil servants, scholars that made it into the reference books, artists of academic distinction. Who gives a damn about them?
It will be family secrets and irrepressible personal urges that will ultimately prove fatal in Death in Rome. Koeppen’s conceit is to bring a handful of Germans to Rome, a city “built on the bodies of its victims,” let them loose in an inviting atmosphere, and watch them self-destruct. In doing so, Koeppen intends to let everyone’s true nature shine through, exposing, if everything goes according to plan, whatever might have led the German people to go astray in the first place.
A few weeks ago, as I went through my own 2020 Reading Log, (a pull-down menu at the top of this page), I realized that some of the best books that I had read this year had never made it into my blog at all for one reason or another. This convinced me to do my own “best books of the year” list for the first time since I launched Vertigo in 2013. I wanted to create a truly manageable and readable list, so here you will find the eighteen titles I found most outstanding of the more than seventy books I have read this year. My list contains ten novels, three non-fiction titles, two volumes of poetry, one collection of essays, one book of detective fiction, and one collection of art journalism. Seven of the titles were published in 2020, five in 2019, and the remaining six are scattered across the years 1949-2016. So here goes, in order by author.
Rachel Cohen. A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Artists and Writers, 1854-1967. NY: Random House, 2004. Cohen is now much more well-known for her recent book about Jane Austen, Austen Years: A Memoir in Five Novels. But, not being much of an Austen fan, I prefer her earlier book of thirty-six short biographical essays about how writers and artists affected each other, how their meeting—chance or otherwise—changed their work or their life. One of the reasons I’m such a fan of this book is that Cohen is such a good writer. What she does so well is give sharply observed introductions to artists and writers we all need to know better or ones we should take a second look at, like William Dean Howells, W.E.B Du Bois, Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, Carl Van Vechten, Katharine Anne Porter, Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Beauford Delaney, and Richard Avedon. It’s a bit like chemistry class; put two people together and watch for a reaction.
Tressie McMillan Cottom. Thick and Other Essays. NY: The New Press, 2019. Cottom is a sociologist and MacArthur Fellow and someone everyone should read and follow. Her essays are entertaining, edgy, and wise. Although she writes primarily about the perspective and roles of Black women, her pieces range far and wide, so it’s really hard to say what any piece is really about. Let’s just say I adored Thick. Here’s Cottom on the title of her book: “Sociology comes as close to the core of where my essays start as anything else I have explored. Drawing on what ethnographers have called thick description, I finally found a label as complex as my way of thinking.” A powerful book.
Percival Everett. Telephone. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2020. Everett’s understated style is really beginning to grow on me. It’s so easy to read his novels for their compelling story lines and miss the subtle but powerful undercurrents that are playing out just below the surface. In Telephone, Zach Wells, a professor of geology and paleobiology, and his wife learn that their daughter has a rare and incurable genetic defect that will kill her within a few years and, in the meantime, will slowly take away her speech and motor skills. Unable to do anything to help save his daughter, Zach instead heads out on a quixotic mission aimed at rescuing some women he imagines are being held captive in the New Mexican desert. Full review here.
Colette Fellous.This Tilting World. San Francisco: Two Lines Press, 2019. Translated from the 2017 French original by Sophie Lewis. A novel that poses as a memoir, This Tilting World is situated in Tunisia just after the beginning of the Arab Spring. The narrator, who is probably a fictionalized version of the author, grew up in that country, but has lived in France for many years. Her family of European origins suddenly felt unwelcome there after Tunisian independence in 1956. But she has just returned to Tunisia after a very close friend has died of a heart attack. On the previous day, thirty-eight people, mostly tourists, were murdered by terrorists on the beach not far from Tunis. So what is her relationship to Tunisia now? She looks back over parent’s lives as Europeans embedded in Tunisian life, on her own wonderful childhood there, and then at her more complex relationship to the Tunisia of today. The power of this book lies in its vivid imagery, the immediacy of Fellous’s writing, and the intimacy of the self-examination of her narrator. The novel includes a number of photographs by the author. Full review here.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths.Seeing the Body. NY: W.W. Norton, 2020. If any book speaks directly to the year 2020, it is this one. Griffiths’s poems are tender and fearless and timely. Her grief is punctuated with anger over the killing of black men and the trauma of rape. This is both a deeply personal book of poems born out of the passing of her mother and a startlingly public book that is called into being whenever events happen and Griffiths knows she cannot be silent. “Threading the silver crust / of a nightmare with stars, I stitch / & pull my mother’s name / through white stones that do not burn / in the riverbed of blood / beneath my tongue. The moon / is a knuckle, the crown of a nightly fist / pressed against my mouth. Tears / pour from my mouth. In absentia / someone votes for my life.” (From “Good Night”) Full review here.
John Hawkes. The Cannibal. NY: New Directions, 1949. This is writing I would follow anywhere. In his first novel, Hawkes seems barely in control of a wild, exuberant, almost runaway story that feels like a series of scenes crazily stitched together without much continuity. He takes the reader on a bizarre trip through a very strange Germany, mostly during the final days of World War II. The novel is filled with immensely original writing that seems to come straight out of a fever dream. I haven’t read all of Hawkes’s subsequent novels, but I’m guessing that he never achieved the same intensity ever again. Full review here.
Wolfgang Koeppen. Death in Rome. NY: Norton, 2001. Translated from the German original of 1954 by Michael Hofmann. From the title page until the last words of the novel, Koeppen’s Death in Rome moves relentlessly towards it fatal end. In our era, when novels are often full of endless digressions, it is startling to read one which signals its intentions from the start and never wavers for a moment. Not a sentence is wasted in this compact book of a mere 202 pages. Like Koeppen’s first novel, Pigeons on the Grass, Death in Rome funnels everything toward one culminating event, an evening performance of a new piece of symphonic music by the young German composer Siegfried Pfaffrath in a concert hall in Rome sometime in the years shortly after WWII. Unbeknownst to Siegfried, his extended family is assembling for a reunion in Rome, including a former SS general, currently in hiding, who has been convicted in absentia at the Nuremberg Trails for his role in the Final Solution against Jews. Family secrets and irrepressible personal urges will prove fatal.
Gabriel Josipovici. Forgetting. Manchester: Little Island Press, 2020. I debated for a while whether to chose this book or the two novels I read by Josipovici this year, Contre-jour: A Triptych After Pierre Bonnard (1986) or Hotel Andromeda, (2014), which I just recently finished. But in the end, the choice became obvious. What a remarkable little book Forgetting is! Josipovici takes the subject of memory and forgetting across an incredible spectrum of subjects and writers, from Alzheimer’s to the Holocaust, from Homer to Hamlet, from Nietzsche to Donald Trump, from Laurence Sterne to Kafka. What I love about Josipovici is that he leaves little unexploded mind nuggets on nearly every page, little hints at things for the reader to go off and explore on her own. After reading Forgetting, my understanding of Hamlet is forever changed. And this is the first book I have read that coherently addresses the issue of American Civil War monuments and other relics of the “memory wars” that are currently taking place over who should be honored from our past. How Josipovici packs so much into small books never ceases to amaze me.
Esther Kinsky. Grove. Oakland: Transit Books, 2020. While not as powerful as her 2017 novel River, I found this meditative, observational, understated novel made me continually meet her halfway and not just be a passive receptor. In Grove, a recently widowed narrator (not unlike Kinsky herself, whose husband died in 2014) goes to rural Italy to walk and reorder her life. In the process, she thinks deeply about death, nature, family, memory, and the role of art—most notably pondering the books of the Italian writer Giorgio Bassani and some of the paintings of Fra Angelico. For a novel in which literally nothing “happens” except that a woman goes on daily walks, there is exceptional richness to be had here.
I can’t recommend highly enough the unclassifiable triptych of books by Nathalie Léger, put out by the extraordinary publishing group called The Dorothy Project. This trio of smart, short books by Léger, which blur the boundaries between novel, documentary, contemporary art, art history, and memoir have all have been translated from the French by Natasha Lehrer. Asked to write a short entry for a film encyclopedia about American actress and film director Barbara Loden’s only film Wanda, Léger “got carried away,” studied everything she could about Loden and her film, and in the end created this book, Suite for Barbara Loden (2016), a rather amazing book about identity, biography, and so much more. Is it a novel? Is it a piece of documentary writing? Whatever, it’s brilliant. Exposition (2020) is about the Countess of Castiglione, supposedly the most photographed woman of the nineteenth century, and a museum exhibition that the author failed to create. And The White Dress (also 2020) is a powerful dual story about the Italian artist Pippa Bacca and Léger’s mother. To create an art performance piece, Bacca decided to hitchhike through mostly war-torn countries in Europe wearing a wedding gown, but part way through she was raped and killed in Turkey. Léger pairs Bacca’s story with revelations she learns about her own mother to create an unforgettable story about two women.
Emily St. John Mandel. Station Eleven. NY: Penguin Random House, 2014. Mandel gives us the interwoven stories of a handful of people before, during, and after a pandemic that kills nearly everyone on Earth. (And you thought Covid-19 was dire?) Although the core of the book is about theater and a troupe of traveling actors and musicians who manage to perform Shakespeare’s plays to groups of survivors twenty years after the pandemic, I was just as fascinated by the role that the comic book series titled “Station Eleven,” which was created by one of the novel’s characters, also manages to impact the lives of so many of the book’s characters. This is a very good story, told well and tightly, not unlike watching a Hitchcock thriller.
Liam McIlvanney. The Quaker. NY: Europa Editions, 2019. I’m a sucker for a great police procedural or detective story or mystery or any creative mashup of these ingredients. I want a good mystery and I want solid writing—in other words, a guaranteed page-turner. My gold standard is a book like Laidlaw by William McIlvanney, who happens to be Liam’s father. (Who knew that writing great police procedurals was genetic?) Sometimes, the internal dynamics of the police station can be just as interesting as the actual search for a serial killer. That’s the case in this well-written police procedural, when Duncan McCormick. an outside detective, is assigned to an already grim 1969 Glasgow police station after the crew there have failed to make any progress on a case. The local cops aren’t happy. Well-written, with (to my American ears, anyway) great Scottish dialogue.
David Salle. How To See: Looking, Talking, and Thinking about Art. NY: W.W. Norton, 2016. For true enlightenment about what is really going on in an artist’s work, I would always want to turn to painter David Salle, who writes brilliant, jargon-free pieces from an artist’s perspective. Salle does not write as a critic, but I think of him as an ideal writer of the kind that I aspire to here at Vertigo. “I think the task is to describe how the sensation evoked by a work of art emerges from the intersection of talent, formal decisions, and cultural context.” These are mostly reviews gathered from magazines and exhibition catalogs, but you can tell from the book’s four sections what Salle is up to: 1. “How To Give Form to an Idea,” “Being an Artist,” “Art in the World,” “Pedagogy and Polemics.”
Olga Tokarczuk. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. NY: Riverhead Books, 2019. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. A wise and often funny novel that makes great use of the work of William Blake. The narrator, Janina, dabbles in astrology and speaks up for the rights of animals. In an obscure Polish village that is filled with wonderful characters, she is looked upon by many of the locals as the crazy lady. The village becomes roiled when, one by one, a series of important local officials become murder victims. Every time that I was about ready to think that the quirkiness was getting to be over-the-top, a brilliant piece of writing pulled me right back. I can see why it won a Man Booker International Prize last year. I liked this much better than her book Flights.
Francesca Wade. Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars. NY: Tim Duggan Books, 2020. Despite being perhaps a bit overlong for my taste, Wade’s fascinating collective biography of five prominent women writers focused on how each dealt with the challenge of being female in world where females were not meant to succeed. Between the two World Wars, each of these writers lived on London’s Mecklenburgh Square, in the heart of Bloomsbury: Virginia Woolf, Hilda Doolittle (the poet and writer known as H.D.), Jane Harrison (a pioneer of classical and anthropological studies), Eileen Powell (groundbreaking medieval historian), and Dorothy Sayers (mystery writer). Wade uses this fact to weave a story of central London’s intellectual history over several decades.
Andrew Zawacki.Unsun:f/11. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2019. Unsun is a book of poetry that will force you to look at things differently, more precisely. Zawacki pays an atomistic attention to every detail—to every sound, movement, cloud formation, color—and he wants the most precise word or phrase for that detail, regardless of what discipline the word might come from, whether that’s from chemistry or metallurgy or wherever, no problem. I couldn’t grasp most of Zawacki’s poems during the first read-through, but I knew I was reading something astonishing. Most of the poems in Unsun deal with nature, with walks outdoors, through forests, into a “fox field at evenfall.” He is especially attuned to the many ways in which industry and technology are attacking and, often, ruining our environment. “The sky is not falling it’s / failing.” Full review here.
Support your local bookstore! Mine is the terrific Next Page Books, run by my friend Bart Carithers and Frank (below), who manages the bookstore’s Facebook page.
“Eighty million Germans had been shielded against reality and factuality by exactly the same self-deception, lies, and stupidity that had now become ingrained in Eichmann’s nature. These lies changed from year to year, and they frequently contradicted each other; moreover, they were not necessarily the same for the various branches of the Party hierarchy or the people at large. But the practice of self-deception had become so widespread—almost a moral prerequisite for survival—that even now, eighteen years after the collapse of the Nazi regime, when most of the specific content of its lies has been forgotten, it is sometimes difficult not to believe that mendacity has become an integral part of the German national character.” Hanna Arendt, “Eichmann in Jerusalem, The New Yorker, Feb. 16, 1963.
That was Hanna Arendt, the great political philosopher, as she observed the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the Nazi organizers of the Holocaust, play out in Israel in 1963. She came to think that the “self-deception, lies, and stupidity” of the German population had played an important role in the ability of the Nazi party to dominate that nation for more than a decade and lead it into a war that caused tens of millions of deaths.
A dozen years earlier, the German writer Wolfgang Koeppen was also thinking about his fellow Germans as he began writing a triptych of novels that would also explore the mindset of the nation during this same period. Pigeons on the Grass, just translated by Michael Hofmann (New Directions, 2020) but originally published in Germany in 1951, is the first of the trio. In this wonderful, often antic but deadly serious novel, we follow the actions of approximately two dozen characters through a single day in post-war Munich. The Germans, along with a handful of their American “conquerors” who now occupy the city, shop, have coffee, run errands, pawn their valuables, and generally go about their daily lives. Everything is leading up to one main evening event: a lecture by an important American visiting poet, Edwin.
“When a scene has little or no apparent structure, we are likely to be confused and frustrated: the eye will roam fruitlessly seeking interest and points of connection, from one fixation to the next, without much success.” Simon Bell. Landscape: Pattern, Perception and Process.
The sublime prose of Esther Kinsky’s 2017 novel River has made it one of my favorite books of this still young century. The writing in River transformed ordinary moments—walking in a London park, taking instant photographs with a Polaroid-like camera, rummaging at a flea market—glimmer with the magic and potency of a Vermeer painting, suggesting that an introspective, watchful life could lead to small, miraculous epiphanies on a daily basis.
The events in her new novel Grove (Transit Books, 2020) take place in the first year or so after the death of “M.,” the partner or spouse of the German narrator, who has temporarily moved to rural Italy to try to reset her life. “Each morning I awoke in an alien place. . . Each morning it was as if I had to learn everything anew. . . Dressing. Washing. Applying bandages. The imposition of my hands.” It’s hard not to see Grove as an autobiographical novel, since Kinsky’s husband, the literary translator Martin Chalmers, died in 2014.
The narrator begins by telling us that her house sits at the midpoint between the cemetery and the small village, halfway between death and life. This is more than just a symbol for how she feels in her bereavement, it’s a signal to us for what we should be looking for as we read further in Grove: themes dealing with patterns and mapping. Each day the narrator chooses to walk to the village by a different lane, attempting to mentally map her surroundings.
As she ventures on foot or in her car further and further out into the countryside around her rented home in Olevano, a hillside village east of Rome, she often becomes lost and has to ask for directions back. “I became dizzy looking at this unfurled country which was laid so bare yet remained so incomprehensible to me. A rugged terrain with a restless appearance—it presented itself differently from each side.” Even when she stays in the house, she is intently gazing out the windows at the fields and the woods below and at the hills across the valley, trying to make sense of the landscape. She is also constantly listening, attempting to recognize the calls of birds both seen and unseen, mapping the soundscape, as it were.
The bulk of Grove is dedicated to the narrator’s daily explorations. Some days she wanders aimlessly, at other times she visits museums, Etruscan ruins, Rome, the mosaics at Ravenna. But more than anything else she visits cemeteries, including Cerveteri, the famous necropolis outside Rome that features in Giorgio Bassani’s novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. She and M. had planned to go to Cerveteri one day, and as she stands among the graves she thinks: “I could imagine M. next to me on these paths, his gait and gaze, more clearly than in any other place yet in Italy.”
The book’s second section is devoted to memories of the narrator’s childhood and the many vacations that her family took in Italy. Her father was obsessed with Italy and in retirement even became a tour guide there. Now, years after her father’s death, the narrator realizes that these trips she is making to Italy after M.’s death are being guided by a plan that seems to have somehow been handed down from her father. “I suddenly felt as if I had to fulfill a mission. To complete some set of instructions. To visit places, inspect terrains, to fumble my way along the thin string of clues between my memories and pictures, places, names.”
In the third section it is the second year after M.’s death and she stays in a house in the Po Valley, near Ferrara. Here, there is a breakthrough. Over the course of a five-page chapter that focuses on a view looking down into the Po River valley, the narrator begins to describe the landscape in terms of language. Pieces of heavy machinery are described as letters. A church steeple is a punctuation mark, and exclamation mark against the sky. A flock of pigeons creates a script in the air. The river below “is a sentence to the plain” with a forward slash. A motionless man fishing beside an imperceptibly moving river becomes a short verse. There are the “rattling winter syllables of sparrows.” [Always my italics.] It seems clear that the narrator is no longer lost in the landscape, but can now read it clearly. And perhaps in her life, as well. For in the midst of this scene, a woman appears. “The sun lies low, encircling her figure in a halo of light.” The woman strides “decisively” and “resolutely” and is dressed in the clothing of “another time,” as if she were “an extra from one of the many films shot here in the past.” I couldn’t help but see this mysterious, almost unlikely figure as a symbol of the narrator emerging from her bereavement.
Grove is not really so much about bereavement as it is about what comes after. It’s a book that examines how one reestablishes the self that has gone missing in bereavement, the self that gets jarred loose when a loved one dies. For Kinsky’s narrator, that rebuilding process occurs through reestablishing patterns, by learning the language of the world all over again, by understanding one’s place inside the structures that one finds meaningful—like nature or family.
By chance, I just happened to be reading Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, where she writes that for her, the point of keeping notebooks was never about other people, they were always about her. She kept notebooks in order to “remember what it was like to be me,” she says. Perhaps this is what Grove is really all about. Esther Kinsky’s narrator must remember what it was to be herself again—alone, without M.
I wrote about Esther Kinsky’s novel River here in Part 1 and in Part 2.
Esther Kinsky. Grove. Oakland: Transit Books, 2020. Translated by Caroline Schmidt from the 2018 German title Hain: Geländeroman (or Grove: A Novel of the Land).
John Keene’s first two books of fiction take completely different paths toward the same goal: making sure that the Black experience is no longer buried in white shadows. Annotations (New Directions, 1995) is a brief autobiographical novel that can feel like a prose poem at times. Counternarratives (New Directions, 2015) is a series of lush, thematically-related stories that span several centuries, with each story written in a style appropriate to the time period. Counternarratives is a punch straight to the gut of the traditional narration of history, reinserting black perspectives, voices, and lives that have been so consistently missing from white history and white literature.
Annotations opens with a grainy family snapshot of a seated young Black boy that might be Keene. He is holding his hands slightly apart in worried care, while something tall and slender—a toy rocket, perhaps—stands delicately poised between his open palms as if his own future lies in the balance. Then the book begins with the narrator’s birth: “It was a summer of Malcolms and Seans, as Blacks were transforming the small nation of Watts into a graveyard of smoldering metal. A crueler darkening, as against the assured arrival of dusk. Selma-to-Montgomery. Old folks liked to say he favored the uncle who died young, an artist. In that way, a sense of tradition was upheld, one’s place in the reference-chain secured.” In other words, it’s 1965, the year Keene was born.
As the title suggests, Annotations is made up of telegraphically short memories, brief mentions of key historical and cultural markers, and place names from the narrator’s childhood—the marginalia that might pencil in the outline for an eventual biography. There is an accounting of his family history: “vibrant miscegenation,” “Southern blood,” and “Osage whom we mistook for Cherokees.” And the usual topics of upbringing: family, school, friends, and sex (“that sublime sum of bodily attraction”). And of his exposure to the arts: the “Negro” poets, Scott Joplin, John Coltrane, Eldredge Cleaver, and so on. “Thus his musings, when written down, gradually melded, gathered shape, solidified like a well-mixed mâché, and thus, upon rereading them he realized what he had accomplished was the construction of an actual voice.”
Perhaps more importantly, Annotations is about the narrator’s slow, but eventual realization that biography is also geography, that place and history are integral to the person. “But oh, Saint Louis, such a colored town, a minefield of myth and memory.” During Keene’s years there, St. Louis experienced massive white-flight to the suburbs, hollowing out the city’s economic core, partly a result of the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling Brown v. Board of Education, which led to the desegregation of inner-city schools. As a young man, the narrator haunts the public library and reads late into the night. Dotted throughout the book are references, sometimes name-dropped with no explanation whatsoever, that allude to the history of Black life in St. Louis, like Douglass School, “the only accredited public high school for African-American students in St. Louis County until the end of segregation in 1957” (Wikipedia) and Meachum Park, (where “the line between what is blight and what is black becomes blurred“), to name two such occurrences.
Both poetry and fiction, however, find their roots in the act of making, a supposition grown gradually clearer as he explored the possibilities of reading. Upon your five-speed, across the asphalt, whirring as the blackbird flies. Dreams consequently assumed the contours, colors of the interior of the town’s modest main library, where months seemingly elapsed as he maundered among the stacks, yet these reverie-journeys sometimes transmogrified into horrifying, recurrent nightmares in which, after each withdrawal of a careful selection of books, he arrived home to find himself either blind or illiterate. Such fears, though they initially seemed to possess an immobilizing permanence, disappeared amid the evanescence of each day’s flux, a fact that displayed for him the shifting character of being, or phrased more prosaically, the process of the unreeling of the real. An alphabet, analphabet. All information will be kept confidential.
For someone like me, who lived as a young child in St. Louis in the 1950s (including a few years in then-mostly-white Ferguson), Annotations rewrites everything I thought I knew about the place where I lived for a decade. Every few pages, something that Keene has written detonated a little time bomb in my memory that rejiggered the past.
At one point in the book, the narrator says: “our generation lacks more than a cursory sense of the world that our ancestors faced, which surprises no one cognizant of the contempt in which the nuances of history are currently held. . . And so, in an effort to make so many shorter stories richer, these overtures ought to be read as a series of extended annotations.” This attempt to make the stories of what “our ancestors” faced “richer” is an apt description of what Keene’s second book, Counternarratives, aims to do.
If Keene found his voice in Annotations, he turned to mimicry in Counternarratives. If Annotations was deliberately modest, Counternarratives was wildly ambitious, nothing less than an attempt to reshape our understanding of the history of the New World, through stories that tell of the hubris and cruelty of slavers, the misery and death of slaves, the treachery and betrayal of the Church, and the untold bravery and creativity of ordinary Black men and women, as well as stories involving better known individuals, such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes. The book’s thirteen stories span the years 1613, when Juan Rodriguez, a Portuguese-African man became the first person known to live on Manhattan Island (read the story here), to sometime near the present, when we overhear a conversation apparently taking place between two African dictators.
Keene’s writing in Counternarratives is confident. It feels like he can write fluidly in any style he chooses. The voices in these stories are expansive; they delight in detail and in being time-specific. Take the long story with the long title “Gloss on a History of Roman Catholics in the Early American Republic, 1790-1825; or The Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows,” in which the narration shifts between the forced stiffness of a formal report written by a nineteenth-century Catholic Reverend on the status of “the ancient Faith. . . on the eastern shores of the Mississippi and its southerly tributaries” and the crabbed, hastily scribbled style of a diary of a nun involved in a scandal in one of the Kentucky convents covered by that report.
Perhaps the story most likely to stand out (at least for white readers) is “Rivers,” narrated by Mr. James Alton Rivers, aka Jim, from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It takes place in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, after Jim has signed up with the Union’s First Missouri Colored Troops, which is fighting the Confederacy in Texas.
Anderson urged several of us to crawl out to the far edge of the field, near the river, where there was a stand of Montezuma cypresses, which I did and when I rounded them flat on my stomach, creeping forward like a panther I saw it, that face I could have identified if blind in both eyes, him, in profile, the agate eyes in a squint, that sandy ring of beard collaring the gaunt cheeks, the soiled gray jacket half open and hanging around the sun-reddened throat, him crouching reloading his gun, quickly glancing up and around him so as not to miss anything.
Jim, a soldier for the North, has come face to face with Tom Sawyer, now a soldier for the Confederacy. And he will soon have him in his gunsight, “this elder who had been like a brother, a keeper, a second father.”
The stories in Counternarratives are subversive, restorative stories, aimed at making sure that we see the world and the past more fully.
Through a wonderful coincidence, Gil Roth has just posted a terrific in-depth interview (1’11”) with Keene on his wonderful podcast The Virtual Memories Show (episode 401). The two talk about Keene’s experience as a translator, his life growing up, his literary influences, and much more. They begin to discuss Counternarratives at 42″.
A stranger arrives in an unknown city after a long voyage. He has been separated from his family for some time; somewhere there is a wife, perhaps a child. The journey has been a troubled one, and the stranger is tired. . . He moves with difficulty, his shoulders hunched by the weight of the bags he is carrying. Their contents are everything he owns, now. He has had to pack quickly. What do they contain? Why has he come?
So begins Daniel Mendelsohn’s new book Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate (University of Virginia Press, 2020). Mendelsohn, a classics scholar and humanities professor, is a natural story-teller and he has managed to turn a multi-century saga of literary criticism and history into an immensely entertaining, readable, and short(!) book. Three Rings originated as the Page-Barbour Lectures, which Mendelsohn delivered at the University of Virginia in 2019, and if only more literary criticism (and scholarship, in general) were delivered this way, it would have a much greater audience and impact.
There are actually three “strangers” or “rings” in Mendelsohn’s book, as we shall see, but his story begins with Odysseus.
In Book 19 of Homer’s Odyssey, the hero Odysseus has finally returned to Ithaca. Disguised, he has entered his own home, determined to murder his wife’s suitors and announce himself to her after many years of wandering. An old woman from the household offers him the traditional welcome of washing his feet and she recognizes a scar on his thigh. It should be a moment of great suspense and excitement—the great Odysseus is home at last! But instead, Homer begins a long digression into the past. As Mendelsohn puts it, Homer does the unexpected. He delays. And then he delays some more.
At this suspenseful moment the poet chooses not to proceed to an emotional scene of reunion between the old woman and her long-lost master. Instead, Homer brings the narrative of that encounter to a halt as he begins to circle back into the past: of how Odysseus got his scar in the first place. . . But this ring turns out to require another, since (the author of the Odyssey assumes) we must understand why Odysseus happened to be visiting his grandfather [at whose house he received the wound] in the first place. And so the poet traces a second circle, spiraling even further back into time.
Eventually, Homer works his way back to the moment when the old woman recognizes Odysseus’s scar and the narrative proceeds once again. These digressions into the past are ring compositions, a technique in which the narrative appears to stray away from its obvious direction only to eventually return to the point where it originally left off. “The material encompassed by such rings could be a single self-contained digression or a more elaborate series of interlocked narratives, each nested within another in the manner of Chinese boxes or Russian dolls.”
Mendelsohn says that he got the idea for this book during the writing of his previous book An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic, when he was thinking about Eric Auerbach (1892-1957), a German Jewish scholar who left Germany in 1935 to live in Istanbul for more than a decade. It was there that Auerbach wrote his masterpiece Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, which was first published in 1946 and remains in print today. (I still have the copy I studied in college fifty years ago.) Mendelsohn started to wonder about “the connections between political exile and narrative digression” in connection with Auerbach, and so Auerbach becomes the first of the three “rings” in his book.
In Auerbach’s “epic journey through the literature of the West” there are “two cultural pillars” or styles into which all of literature could be divided: the Homeric or Greek technique, in which everything can be known and there exists, through the gods, a supernatural connection between all things; or the Hebrew style, which acknowledges that it is impossible to know everything and that the world is subject to interpretation. Mimesis, in part, tracks the ??? of these two styles throughout literary history.
Mendelsohn’s second “ring” is the story of François de Salignac de La Mothe-Fénélon (1651-1715), a Catholic archbishop and writer, whose 1699 book The Adventures of Telemachus he calls “a fan-fiction sequel to the Odyssey.” Fénélon’s Adventures were originally constructed as “ethically instructive tales based on Homer’s Odyssey” that he used to teach the son of the Duke of Burgundy (and eventual heir to France’s Louis XIV), but which evolved into a fantastically convoluted series of digressions loosely based on Homer’s exploits. Unfortunately for Fénélon, his “fantasia on Homeric themes” contained a number of lectures on good kingship, which Louis XIV took as an insulting critique of his own rule, and he banished the archbishop to an obscure post in far northern France.
Nevertheless, the Adventures became hugely popular and Mendelsohn speculates that it might have been the most widely read book in Europe throughout the eighteenth century until Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther came along in 1774. Not only that, but the Adventures was so widely received in the nineteenth century that it was translated into “Turkish, Tatar, Bulgarian, Romanian, Armenian, Albanian, Georgian, Kurdish, and Arabic, among many other languages.” In the twentieth century, Fénélon deeply influenced Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, a novel which suggests to Mendelsohn “that a vast series of digressions could themselves form the largest imaginable ring, one that embraces all of human experience.”
Mendelsohn’s third “ring” is W.G. Sebald. “The circles in Sebald’s restless narration lead us to a series of locked doors to which there is no key.” For Mendelsohn, Sebald is the embodiment of Auerbach’s preference for the Hebrew approach over the Greek, for the style that “refuses to reveal” over the one that is “all-illuminating.”
Auerbach’s distrust of the Greek technique raises a larger question about the problems of representation in literature, about the means by which writers make their subjects seem “realistic.” Naturally this question has plagued all kinds of artists as they have struggled with difficult subjects, one of the greatest and most difficult of these being, in our own time, the event that landed Auerbach in Istanbul: the German plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe during World War II. The difficulty of representation posed by this unimaginably destructive vent was most famously, if controversially, expressed in the oft-quoted dictum of Auerbach’s fellow German refugee Theodore Adorno: “nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht ze schreiben, ist barbarisch,” “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.”
In this section, Mendelsohn traces his personal attachment to each of Sebald’s four key books of prose fiction, but focuses on The Rings of Saturn as “the most emblematic of this author’s strange style.” “The narrative rings, circles, digressions, and wanderings. . . we find in Sebald seem designed to confuse, entangling his characters in meanderings from which they cannot extricate themselves and which have no clear destinations.” While Homer’s rings eventually lead back to where they left off and to a new beginning, for Sebald “the twisting history of the world is written by the hiders.”
Three Rings is a book you must read for yourself, to witness Mendelsohn as he unravels and lays bare the connections between Homer, Auerbach, Fénélon, Sebald, and others. In a way, it’s ironic that Mendelsohn relates so intimately with those who believe in the “irretrievability of the past,” because for him the stories of the past are vital to understanding the present. What he transmits so magically in Three Rings is his infectious passion for learning and sharing with others.
In a recent post I wrote about a novel set in the mid-1950s Tunisia, just as the country was gaining independence from France. The Scorpion was written by the Tunisian-French writer Albert Memmi and was first published in France in 1969. Tunisia had gained independence from France in 1956 but promptly became one of the most corrupt and repressive “democracies” on the planet. That lasted until 2011, when a street vendor immolated himself at a protest and the President ultimately fled the country after 23 years in power, launching the Arab Spring. Tunisia subsequently became a more normal democracy but in 2015 the country was hit by several horrendous terrorist attacks that killed scores of foreign tourists. It continues to be a democracy today but is currently struggling with incidents where religion and free speech intersect.
In response to my post of The Scorpion, a Vertigo reader suggested in a comment that I should read This Tilting World, a novel by the Tunisian-French writer Colette Fellous. This Tilting World, first published in France in 2017, takes place just after those terrorist attacks of 2015. The narrator, who is probably a fictionalized version of the author, has just learned that a very close friend has collapsed and died of a heart attack while sailing in the Mediterranean. On the previous day, thirty-eight people, mostly tourists, were murdered by terrorists while on the beach of the Hotel Riu Imperial Marhaba. The narrator is in a friend’s villa, writing the novel that we are reading, wondering what to do, what is her relationship to Tunisia now? She looks back briefly over parent’s lives and her own childhood in Tunisia and then at her more complex relationship to the country of her youth.
This tilting world, how can we talk about it, make sense of it? Only by naming the appalling blow these deaths have dealt each one of us, the deep wound they have gouged that can never be healed, the birth of a new kind of warfare, and this terror that is taking root everywhere, even within our own bodies.
Although her family had been in Tunisia for generations, they were of European descent, and as she ruminates on her past, she begins to realize that there were really two Tunisias—an Arab Tunisia and a Tunisia for those of French and European descent. “We did not live so happily together,” she now sees, “we lived side by side, we tolerated each other, but only up to a point, up to a point and no further.” When her father finally decided to move the family to France sometime after Tunisian independence, he gave his tractor repair store to his Tunisian employees and walked away. Now, decades later, with terrorists trying to scare tourists out of Tunisia, the narrator realizes that once again “there was no longer a place here for the ‘foreigners’ we had become since choosing France.”
The brilliance of Fellous’s book lies in the vivid imagery and the intimacy of her self-examination. For example, take this admission:
And then there was the city. The battered sidewalks, the window bars on dilapidated buildings that were never repaired, the whitewash that peeled off in great flakes during the winter, the doors swollen with moisture, the strange skin diseases we saw on passers-by, leprosy, smallpox, bonnets worn to cover lice infestations, the torn dress of the enormous beggar women on the synagogue steps, surrounded by her great baskets and her dazzlingly white dog for which she knitted multicolored coats; that’s all she did: he was well dressed while she was in rags. All of this was strange and did not match up with my schoolbooks in which the poems and great texts bestrode the centuries, marked and measured them: each era had its own language and each of them was stunning, astonishing, the paper smelled so good, I wanted to sink into them, I wanted to be of books, and far from what I saw all around me. . .
. . . I chose pleasure, I chose love. Sensations, stories, shades of meaning. Now I think I got it all wrong. I should have been harder, sharper, more violent. I should have fought some other way.
This Tilting World reads like a memoir written in a moment of turbulence. Time is disjointed and memories of her deceased friend and her childhood keep intruding. The French title, Pièces détachées, or “loose pieces,” is probably a better description of the book. Either way, it has a sense of immediacy that I found very appealing.
There are a dozen photographs in the book, both in color and black-and-white. Most of the photographs suggest the personal attraction that Tunisia has to her—a sunset, a beach, flowers, a harbor, etc. There’s also one romantic film still of James Mason and Ava Gardner embracing on a beach (from Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, 1951) that is meant to recall the era when cities like Tunis once had a hundred movie theaters. Fellous, it should be noted, is an exhibiting photographer and so the photographs in the book are very well done. The book closes on a self-reflexive image.
Colette Fellous. This Tilting World. San Francisco: Two Lines Press, 2019. Translated from the 2017 French original by Sophie Lewis.
In Percival Everett’s latest novel Telephone(Graywolf, 2020), our narrator, Zach Wells, is a professor of geology and paleobiology. He knows a lot about fossils and caves, “especially the bones of creatures left a long, long time ago,” but he admits he’s not very engaged with the present moment. He tends to gravitate toward grand philosophical pronouncements, but usually fails to consider the little moral issues that pop up every day. He has basically lived his life safely and without much passion or introspection and now he’s depressed and has even had the occasional thought of suicide.
So what if I was not happy? My happiness was overrated. My daughter was happy. My wife was unworried. But I moved through my life with caution, and caution in love is the most fatal to true happiness.
He’s also African American, although completely apolitical. During a campus protest over the police shooting of a Black teenager, several Black students come to his office. “We were wondering if you would join us, talk to us at a meeting tonight.”
“Who is ‘us’?” Zach asks. He explains that he’s never felt discriminated against at this university and he won’t join their protest. “I just crawl into caves and find fossils and then identify them. I am a scientist. I should probably be more political in my thinking and dealings with the school. But I’m not.”
Then Zach and his wife learn that their daughter has a rare and incurable genetic defect that will kill her within a few years and will slowly take away her speech and motor skills in the meantime. This also threatens their marriage and Zach begins to spend long periods sitting in his office or at a campus bar. He becomes lost in a despair that leads him down to “a dark place, a place that I secretly began to recognize as a safe harbor.” And that safe harbor is actually the guilt in knowing that death is coming for his daughter, not for him. “Guilt,” he admits, “is a terrible thing.”
But it’s something trivial that finally drives Zach out of his funk and into action. He buys a jacket on eBay and when it arrives there is a note inside, written in Spanish, that reads “Help me.” Curious, he buys a shirt from the same seller and inside is another note. “Please Help to Us.” He buys another shirt. “Help us. They will not let us go.” The packages all originate from a small town in New Mexico and Zach begins to imagine that somewhere in the desert there are women being held in captivity, repairing used clothing to be sold on eBay. Perhaps these are some of the woman that are missing from Ciudad Júarez, Mexico. He decides that he must investigate. If he can’t save his daughter from her imminent death, perhaps he can help these women.
I knew absolutely nothing, but the notes were real, felt heavy in my hand, meaningful. This feeling, of course, fed my need to know something, anything at all, all the business with my child being nothing but questions. The nagging inquiry at the end of this red herring of a rainbow, though undeniably just another distraction, was epistemological. When intellectuals get scared, they run to fundamental philosophical problems: What is goodness What is beauty? What is it to know a thing? About knowing, I was not so much interested in whether I could know some thing but in what kind of thing I could know. I knew my cryptic notes were real, but I could not know what they meant, or whether they meant.
Throughout Telephone, Everett remains scrupulously non-judgemental about Zach. He doesn’t guide the reader toward any opinion of Zach. Zach might be worried about the “profound and yawning dullness” of his life, he doesn’t have many moralizing afterthoughts or pangs of guilt when he rebuffs the Black protesters or abandons his family in order to spend weeks searching the desert. The result is that the burden of worrying seems to shift to the reader. I found myself puzzling over these things. Why won’t Zach feel more sympathetic to the Black protesters? Why doesn’t he tell his wife why he’s going to New Mexico? What if his daughter dies while he is away scouting the desert for slave laborers? Zach may think he is the kind of narrator who confesses all to his reader, but a crucial part of him remains a mystery even to himself.
In the end, Zach leaves his wife and daughter behind to go out on his Quixotic search. But he has dedicated himself and his cause to his daughter. “I tried to tell my daughter, while she could understand, that women are hunted in this world.” He thinks of Ciudad Júarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, where hundreds of women have been “pursued, raped, imprisoned, tortured, and killed” over some twenty years or so.
The numbers were so very large, obscene, fescennine. Olga Perez. Hundreds of women have no name. Edith Longoria. Hundreds of women have no face. Guadalupe de la Rosa. Names. Name. Maria Najera. It was so uncomplicated, safe, simple to talk about numbers in El Paso, a world away. Nobody misses five hundred people. Nobody misses one hundred people. In Juárez, it was one. One daughter. One friend. One face. One name. Somebody misses one person.
This is what Everett does so well. He takes a simple scenario and turns it into a story that suddenly quivers with moral ramifications, forcing the reader to become uncomfortable enough to start asking deep questions. And there aren’t any easy answers.
If you need any further proof, it turns out that Percival Everett had one last trick up his sleeve. He wrote three completely different versions of Telephone, each with a different ending and each book has been published with a slightly different cover. There’s a recently recorded conversation with Everett over at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Take a listen.