Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Book reviews’ Category

Faking It: Real Monographs, Fake Artists, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

Spring 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A Passage North”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Krishan’s final insight is this:

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

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

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

This is book number 7 in my Vertigo 15 Books Project, in which I am looking back across fifteen years of my reading and writing Vertigo and I am selecting the fifteen titles that have really stood out during that time.

The Language of Colors in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye

We had defended ourselves since memory against everything and everybody, considered all speech a code to be broken by us, and all gestures subject to careful analysis; we had become headstrong, devious and arrogant. Nobody paid us any attention, so we paid very good attention to ourselves. Our limitations were not known to us—not then. Our only handicap was our size; people gave us orders because they were bigger and stronger. So it was with confidence. strengthened by pity and pride, that we decided to change the course of events and alter a human life.

Toni Morrison. The Bluest Eye.

I am slowly working my way through Toni Morrison’s novels, making up for unaccountably avoiding her books for many years. Did I think she was too popular and thus I wouldn’t enjoy her writing? My favorite so far is The Bluest Eye, from 1970, a startlingly confident and daring book for a first novel. But, then, sometimes writers, knowing no limitations and full of confidence, start out with a book that blasts through all the conventions of the novel. Just look at the opening three paragraphs of The Bluest Eye, each of which contain the identical sentences—a riff on the once famous Dick and Jane readers, which depicted the stereotypical middle-class, white siblings Dick and Jane in a series of reading primers that were used in grade schools across America from the 1930s through the 1970s. The first iteration, which is the first thing you read in The Bluest Eye, is exactly as you see it below.

Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white house. They are very happy. See Jane. She has a red dress. She wants to play. Who will play with Jane? See the cat. It goes meow-meow. Come and play. Come play with Jane. The kitten will not play. See Mother. Mother is very nice. Mother, will you play with Jane? Mother laughs. Laugh, Mother, laugh. See Father. He is big and strong. Father, will you play with Jane? Father is smiling. Smile, Father, smile. See the dog. Bowwow goes the dog. Do you want to play with Jane? See the dog run. Run, dog, run. Look, look. Here comes a friend. The friend will play with Jane. They will play a good game. Play, Jane, play

The second iteration repeats the same paragraphs but removes all capital letters and punctuation, while the third iteration of the text removes all spacing between the letters. The effect is to suggest that the text is speeding up in each version, finally spinning completely out of control:

HereisthehouseitisgreenandwhiteithasareddooritisveryprettyhereisthefamilyMotherFatherDickandJane. . .

After this opening, which manages to completely undermine the normally reassuring message of the Dick and Jane image of childhood (a distinctly white childhood, at that), Claudia, the book’s primary narrator, begins her story and takes us back to 1941, where she immediately shocks the reader by telling us that “Pecola was having her father’s baby.” But despite this opening sentence, which is about as far from the imagined perfect life of Dick and Jane as one could get, The Bluest Eye is not just about the aptly named Pecola Breedlove, the girl who desperately wants blue eyes. It’s about childhood, about growing up in a black (or mostly black) community in Ohio in a very different time from ours, and it’s about how children discover wisdom.

Here’s Claudia and her sister listening in as her mother and girlfriends gossip about a certain man:

Their conversation is like a gently wicked dance: sound meets sound, curtsies, shimmies, and retires. Another sound enters but is upstaged by still another: the two circle each other and stop. Sometimes their words move in lofty spirals; other times they take strident leaps, and all of it is punctuated with warm-pulsed laughter—like the throb of a heart made of jelly. . . We do not, cannot, know the meanings of all of their words, for we are nine and ten years old. So we watch their faces, their hands, their feet, and listen for truth in timbre.

To be clear, this is Claudia as an adult, reflecting back on her childhood, interpreting childhood intuitions through the language of a sophisticated adult. But she is describing how children often look for non-verbal cues to assess the reliability of information or the honesty of others.

While Pecola’s story is the backbone of The Bluest Eye, Morrison frequently drifts into the lives of others in the community. Scattered throughout The Bluest Eye are chapters in which the narration is taken away from Claudia and given over to an omniscient narrator, whose role at first seems to provide some context that Claudia has not seen necessary to provide, like an overview of the town and a brief description of the run-down storefront where Pecola Breedlove and her family live. But later on this narrator provides a chapter-long group portrait of a type of black woman who doesn’t really want to be black, who learns “how to do the white man’s work with refinement,” who learns “how to behave” and “how to get rid of the funkiness. The dreadful funkiness of passion, the funkiness of nature, the funkiness of the wide range of human emotions.”

One reason the novel seems so daring is that Morrison was unafraid to show black-on-black racism. In one example, a group of young black boys, “heady with the smell of their own musk, thrilled by the easy power of a majority,” encircle Pecola and begin to tease her with an extemporized verse about the color of her skin and an insult about her father.

It was the contempt for their own blackness that gave the first insult its teeth. They seemed to have taken all of their smoothly cultivated ignorance, their exquisitely learned self-hatred, their elaborately designed hopelessness and sucked it all up into a fiery cone of scorn that had burned for ages in the hollows of their minds—cooled—and spilled over lips of outrage, consuming whatever was in its path. They danced a macabre ballet around the victim, whom for their own sake, they were prepared to sacrifice to the flaming pit.

And Pecola’s parents are quite the pair, “an upright and Christian woman, burdened with a no-count man” named Cholly.

If Cholly had stopped drinking, she would never have forgiven Jesus. She needed Cholly’s sins desperately. The lower he sank, the wilder and more irresponsible he became, the more splendid she and her task became. In the name of Jesus.

No less did Cholly need her. She was one of the few things abhorrent to him that he could touch and therefore hurt. He poured out on her the sum of all his inarticulate fury and aborted desires.

Morrison is careful to point out that all of this—the black-on-back racism, Cholly’s alcoholism and fury, the black women who want to pass for white, and Pecola’s desire to have blue eyes—stem from the same causes: centuries of white racism against blacks and the history of slavery. But, as her narrator warned us at the outset of the novel, even understanding racism doesn’t mean that anything else comes any easier. “There is really nothing more to say—except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.” Morrison demonstrates this with the character Cholly, who, for three-quarters of the novel is little more than a drunk, evil man who impregnates his own daughter. But then we learn the source of his hatred and loathing. As a teenager, he and a young girl were caught making love in the woods by a small group of white hunters, who forced them to continue their lovemaking, much to the amusement and teasing of the white men.

Never once did [Cholly] consider directing his hatred toward the hunters. Such an emotion would have destroyed him. They were big, white, armed men. He was small, black, helpless. His subconscious knew what his conscious mind did not guessthat hating them would have consume him, burned him up like a piece of soft coal, leaving only flakes of ash and a question mark of smoke. He was in time to discover that hated of white menbut not now. Not in impotence, but later, when the hatred could find sweet expression. For now, he hated the one who had created the situation, the one who bore witness to his failure, his impotence. The one he had not been able to protect, to spare, to cover from the round moon glow of the flashlight.

Unable to hate the white men who had abused him and his girlfriend, Cholly turns the blame on herand on black women in general. He must flail back at them for making him feel small, helpless, and impotent.

One thing that is impossible to overlook when reading The Bluest Eye is Morrison’s use of color. On Saturdays, Claudia’s mother would often sing “about hard times, bad times, and somebody-done-gone-and-left-me time.” And when she did, Claudia said, “misery colored by the greens and blues in my mother’s voice took all of the grief out of the words and left me with a conviction that pain was not only endurable, it was sweet.” Because I read The Bluest Eye in eBook format, I could easily search and count the number of times various words appeared within the book. By my rough count, here are the number of times that several colors (and their variations, e.g. black, blackest, blue, blues, blueish, etc.) are found in The Bluest Eye: red 26 times, blue 123 times, green 44 times, black 104 times, white 104 times, and yellow 20 times. That’s a load of color.


Toni Morrison. The Bluest Eye. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. I read the Vintage ebook, 2007.

This is book number 6 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.

“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.

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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.
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.

The Man Who Dies: Robert Pinget’s “Passacaglia”

How do I write about Robert Pinget’s gem of a book Passacaglia? The dilemma is that Pinget has woven his novel about passion and guilt so tightly knotted up that to unwind it is to start releasing spoilers. The first problem that Pinget presents us is that his narrator has a great deal of trouble telling a very simple story about a man who dies. He doesn’t tell the story once, he tells it more than a half dozen times and each version is different. Thus the book’s title. The word passacaglia (or passacaille in Spanish) originally referred to the type of interlude music that Spanish street musicians would strum between the dance music they were performing. These interludes were usually variations on a theme played over a bass line or an ostinatoin other words, they were a persistent motif. Pinget is using the man’s death as the variations on a theme. The reader’s challenge is to figure out the persistent motif, the theme behind the death.

Here’s the first version of the man’s death from page one. The setting is the outskirts of a remote French village, at the well-to-do farm dwelling of a man referred to simply as “the master.” (Just think of him as a sort of gentleman farmer; he doesn’t seem to work very hard work at farming.) The time is vaguely in the middle of the 20th century. A local peasant, hired as a sentry because of the master’s “mania,” is checking on him and has just peeked through the masters’ window and has seen him “apparently distinctly . . . put the clock out of action and then sit there prostrate in his chair, elbows on the table, head in his hands.” Soon thereafter, the master will be found dead on the nearby dung hill. Note the phrase “apparently distinctly.”

Some six or seven pages later, in the second version, we are told that the village mayor and doctor have found the master slumped over, dead at his desk, having knocked a book to the floor. Remember the book.

The narrator’s inability to tell this story straight is being strangely echoed by the master’s inability to finish writing his memoirs. The master has been writing his memoirs in a bookyes, that bookbut he’s at a certain point where he has hit a wall. In the mean time he’s doing what many writers do in that event, he’s diddling with previous entries. “Working on marginal notes.” Over and over he tries to write further in his memoirs, but no. He will tell himself “source of information deficient” or that his memory is experiencing some sort of “hiccup.”

Throughout Passacaglia, Pinget demonstrates how language can be used to hide something, even our very own memories. We are given multiple versions of the master’s death to chose from, as if this were a lineup down at the police station. And we see the master hiding some memory away behind his ability to weave words into puzzlingly beautiful, but almost meaningless sentences, sentences which make him feel as if he has a genuine excuse not to pursue his memoir into certain territory.

Pinget’s poetic language may not be for everyone, but I happen to adore it.

Afterwards hours of pondering over all these snippets, there was nothing left on the page of memoirs but blots and graffiti, his life had emigrated elsewhere.

In the elms or the pine wood, in those carcasses everywhere, scintillations, nocturnal silences, dispersed, in disorder, irreparable, the book open at the old-fashioned illustration, the clock that doesn’t go, infinite disarray, words adrift like so many disavowals, pursued even into his dreams, the only history he would have now would be written, his only breath would be literary.

It was perhaps at this moment that the poultry dealer appeared at the gate, towards evening that is, the master became calmer, he asked the fellow to sit down and he let him go on about his obsessions, the doctor apparently said watch your liver, come and see me.

Blots and graffiti.

Other themes would emerge from disordered nerves. Working on marginal notes.

When the farm-hand had left the barn, it might have been half-past eight, night was falling, the last glimmer in the west, the line of the forest almost black, the terrace was deserted and the house had all its shutters closed, you could hear the frogs down by the marsh, it had been a hot day for the season.

Of that dreary, monotonous year.

There’s a kind of Where’s Waldo hide-and-seek when it comes to picking out what’s critical to know among all these phrases. Just as the master is hiding something from himself, Pinget seems to be hiding things from his readers. It feels like essential facts are buried in insignificant-looking passages or they get lost in flowery poetic language. For instance, it’s very easy to miss the moment when we are told that the master has been telling the doctor “the story of his death that he had imagined in detail, amplified over the years, tragic or touching according to the evening, by the fire, the bottle of spirits on the table.” In other words, all of these variations on the master’s deaths are just the late night ramblings that the master makes up when he and the doctor sit drinking in front of the fireplace. (Just as it’s easy to miss it when the master and the doctor are described as “intimate.”)

This is not an example of the “unreliable narrator” we see so often today. Part of what is going on is due to the fact that Pinget is sowing uncertainty in his reader’s mind as a matter of principle. He doesn’t want us to keep basing everything in our lives solely on reason. He wrote to his English translator, “Don’t bother too much about logic: everything in Passacaille is directed against it.” But Pinget is also showing us the lengths that the master will go to evade his sense of guilt over a child whose story only emerges toward the end of the book, although hints about this aspect of the master’s life have been laid since the early pages. The master, it seems, had “adopted” a child. “I was stuck with the child, how old could he have been, about fifteen, I always thought of him as ‘the adopted child,’ feeble in both mind and body, his mother entrusted him to us not knowing what to do with him, we didn’t either, we gave him little jobs to do which he always made a mess of.” There was only one thing the master has insisted on.

that I should soap him myself in his tub every Saturday or more or less, with neither calendar nor passion I sometimes made a mistake and I felt less alone at those moments, I have his skin under my hand, I soap him all over without exception from A to Z which naturally took us by way of P, to tell the truth it’s less a chore than a pleasure, or if in my haste to be less alone I soap him twice a week attributing my miscalculation to the absence of a calendar.

Then one day the boy dies after making what the master describes as a “wrong move” with a chain saw, and the master is not the same after that. But is never clear if this is an accident or a deliberate act of self-mutilation. This is the incident that the master keeps reimagining over and over in his memoirs, unable to move forward. He also keeps rewriting his will late at night in rambling prose that recalls, in shorthand, bits and pieces of the book’s plot.

I the undersigned in the cold room, hemlock, clock out of action, I the undersigned in the marsh, goat or bird’s carcass, I the undersigned at the bend in the road, in the master’s garden, maleficent old woman, sentry of the dead, sentry, scarecrow, in a van on the route deviated by the evil eye, plaything of that farce that is called conscience, no one, I the undersigned midnight in full daylight, overwhelmed with boredom, old owl, magpie or crow . . .

Depending on your point of view as a reader, either one of the more magical or more confounding aspects of Passacaglia is Pinget’s ability to bend time. Passages that begin at one moment in time segue invisibly a page or two later into events that are clearly in the past. The book’s final paragraph suggests, yet once again, that the master dies, “found deceased on the dunghill.” Or is this just another of the master’s late night tales by the fireplace?

I last read and wrote about Passacaglia in 2011. I clearly didn’t quite know what to make of it then and should have read it a few more times. One of the pleasures of rereading a book is finding passages missed the first time around. For example, on the second page, Pinget signals to the reader an essential clue to his book. He tells us that we need to pay attention to everything that alludes to the master’s past. (I have omitted the story of the master’s past and how he came to “adopt” the boy out of my commentary in order to not give away all the spoilers.)

The story would seem to have begun a long time before this, but talk about prudence, talk about vigilance, it looks as if only two or three episodes have been revealed, and that with some difficulty, the source of information being permanently deficient, that almost inaudible murmur interrupted by silences and hiccups, so that you might well have attached no importance to it and considered the whole thing started at the time when the clock was put out of action. Which side to take.

The reader has two basic choices with Robert Pinget’s Passacaglia: to read it straight through and enjoy it strictly for the beautiful writing, without worrying too much of having an accurate view of what is really taking place; or reading the book several times while parsing every sentence carefully. (It’s short, only 94 pages.) Both approaches are perfectly legitimate. But even the second approach won’t remove every ambiguity. In some novels, confusion is the story. Which side to take, indeed!


Robert Pinget. Passacaglia. Translated from the 1969 French original by Barbara Wright. My copy is the out-of-print edition published by Red Dust in 1978. The only English version of Passacaglia currently in print is part of the volume Trio, from Dalkey Archive Press, which includes two other short novellas by Pinget. It’s also the Barbara Wright translation.

This is book number 2 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.


Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel Visitation is a hugely ambitious book for its 150 pages. Rather than follow a family through generations as a traditional bildungsroman might do, Visitation follows a single tract of land through its various owners and occupants during the twentieth century. In a brief Prologue, we learn how the ice age, which lasted some 24,000 years, shaped the rivers, lakes, and valleys of the Wannsee area west of Berlin, which is where this piece of property lies. Compared to the span of an ice age, the century covered by this novel is a mere heartbeat. And in light of the catastrophic weather events, infestations, and wars that will sweep over this property during the twentieth century, the idea that anyone might actually “own” a piece of the Earth feels a lot like hubris. As Erpenbeck suggests, the property’s owners and occupants are merely paying this property a visitationas if they might be at their own funeral. In fact, the book’s original German titleHeimsuchungsuggests the kind of visitation that drops down out of the blue, such as an infestation of locusts, a plague, or the visitation that occurred to the Virgin Mary.

The central plot of Visitation really gets underway in 1939 when a nameless architect from Berlin and his wife purchase the tract of land from its Jewish owners, Arthur and Hermine. “He’d paid the Jews a full half of market value for the land. And this was by no means a paltry sum. They’d never have managed to find another buyer in so short a time,” reasoned the architect, who, incidentally, hid his own Jewish heritage from the Nazi hierarchy and managed to become one of Albert Speer’s most trusted architects.

After the architect purchases the land from Arthur and Hermine, the couple find themselves unable to emigrate before Germany’s borders are closed to Jews. Erpenbeck’s omniscient narrator briefly describes their final months of constant struggle with the Nazi bureaucracy. Here’s how we learn of their demise:

Two months after Arthur and Hermine get into the gas truck in Kulmhof outside Łodz, after Arthur’s eyes pop out of their sockets as he asphyxiates, and Hermine in her death throes defecates on the feet of a woman she’s never seen before, all their assets, together with the assets remaining in Germany that belonged to their son Ludwig, who has emigrated, are seized, all the frozen bank accounts dissolved, and their household goods auctioned off.

The architect, on the other hand, has imagined the fate of Arthur and Hermine differently. “By buying the property, he’d helped the Jews leave the country. No doubt they went to Africa. Or Shanghai. For better or for worse.”

Meanwhile, the architect has divorced his wife in order to marry his stenographer, and he designs for them a second home on “their little bit of sod” on the lake. Unfortunately, they aren’t able to enjoy it for too many years before they are forced to flee when the Russian army enters Berlin in 1945. They are able to return at the end of the war and repair the damage, but after endless tangles with the new East German government he gives up, and the architect and his wife decide to defect to the West. On his final morning on the property, the architect looks out across the lake and tries to remember.

When he will have swum here for the last time is something he no longer knows. Nor does he know whether the German language contains a verb form that can manage the trick of declaring the past the future. Maybe at some point in early September. The last time, it wasn’t yet a last time, that’s why he didn’t take note of it. Only yesterday did it become the last time. As if time, even when you grip it firmly in your hands, can still flail and thrash about and twist which way at will.

After they defect, title is then taken over by the socialist government of the new German Democratic Republic, which then leases it to a writer and her husband, who are permitted to occupy and fix up (but not own) “abandoned” property. Because the writer had been a communist, she and her husband had gone into exile during the Nazi and the war years, spending their time mostly in the Soviet Union. But after the war they returned to Berlin so that she could write. She had wanted her words “to transform the German barbarians back into human beings and her homeland back into a homeland.” Instead, what she found was a socialist government that operated on favoritism and elitism, which readily subverted its own laws and ideals for money and the powerful.

Throughout every change of ownership of the property there has been one constantthe gardener. The gardener keeps his head down and tends to the land, blind to the religion or politics of the property’s owner or occupant. “The gardener doesn’t speak much, and he’s never been heard to say anything at all about events in the village, whether someone has drowned in the lake, a smallholder has secretly changed the position of a border stone, or Schmeling has knocked out the American boxer Louis in the twelfth round.” The gardener is clearly designated to be someone who stands apart from all of the other characters in the book, neither a victim nor a perpetrator. He stands for the property itself. In an interview (see below), Erpenbeck has referred to the gardener as “the true owner” of the property, “because of his work, and because of his real connection to the place which is founded again and again, day by day, by physical doing, physical work.” Unlike the others, he hasn’t bought his way onto the property through money or power. It disturbed me that the gardener remained a silent, obedient land manager in the employ of a high-ranking Nazi architect for years, but in her interview Erpenbeck makes it clear this was not to be held against him.

The events that happened on or affected this one tract of land during the twentieth century were traumatic, to say the leastwar, a brutal occupation, rapes, decades of totalitarian regime, plagues of insects, lawsuits. But, as in her recent novels The End of Days (2016) and Go, Went, Gone (2017), Erpenbeck has opted for a poker-faced narrator, who can sound eerily like a Nazi or East German bureaucrat at times, a narrator who sticks to the facts and statistics and is blind to the emotional toll mounting all around.

Erpenbeck’s books are always concerned with the ways in which language is used to entrap us, as well as how we use language to liberate ourselves. The law is one such place, and Visitation includes several pages of faux legalese. These sections would be comic if we knew they weren’t being used to confuse and bully someone and ultimately rewrite the ownership of the property.

Reference to the registry of deeds will be required to determine with sufficient certainty. Registry of a first priority property lien. In the present settlement. Further: Upon fulfillment of the present settlement all claims with regard to the object of dispute are hereby. Further: All claims with regard to the object of dispute are hereby satisfied and further litigation is hereby. Is hereby excluded.

There are moments when Erpenbeck’s characters find themselves thinking about how language has a different kind of potential. In this example, we are peeking in on the thoughts of an elderly woman referred to as “the visitor,” who is the mother-in-law of the writer:

The dandelions are the same here as back home, and so are the larks. Now, as an old woman, she has grown into the sentence that her husband always said to her forty years before. The dandelions in her village were the same where he grew up, in the Ukraine, from where he’d come vagabonding along, and the larks too, that’s what he always said. . . Surely her husband’s great-grandparents had at some point or other uttered this very sentence another seventy or eighty years before. She wonders whether the sentences go out looking for people to utter them, or whether its just the opposite and the sentences simply wait for someone to come along and make use of them. . . Probably, she thinks, the sentences all get overtaken sooner or later and are spoken by someone or other, somewhere or other, just as everything belongs to everyone among people who are fleeingfactored over the length of a lifetime, the course of both objects and human beings was no doubt no different from the experiences of a refugee. In peacetime it was poverty, during the war it was the front that kept pushing people before it like a long row of dominos, people slept in other people’s beds, used other people’s cooking utensils, ate the stores of food that other people had been forced to leave behind. It’s just that the rooms became more crowded the more the bombs fell. Until in the end she arrived here, in this garden, and when the gong calls her to supper, she finds it quite plausible to think this gong was already calling her back then, when she turned her back on her farm for the last time and set off with her three grandchildren, carrying an eiderdown and with a blue-patterned kerchief on her head. When you’ve arrived, can you still be said to be fleeing? And when you’re fleeing, can you ever arrive?

At the end of the book, the house that had been built on the edge of a beautiful lake, the pride of a Berlin architect, has just been torn down and “the landscape, if ever so briefly, resembles itself once more.” The newest owners of the property, who have won their lawsuit, want to design and built a new house. From scratch. But the law has the final wordon how the house must be properly torn down.

. . . Care should be taken to minimize the vibrations when the demolition is carried out so as to reduce the environmental burdens of dust and noise and prevent cracks from developing in nearby buildings.

As it turns out, the intrepid Internet researcher can discover that much of what Erpenbeck wrote in Visitation was based on her own family history and her own experiences at a summer vacation home, which the family lost when Germany was reunified. During a Between the Covers podcast produced by the publisher Tin House (you can read the transcript here), Erpenbeck revealed that Visitation was the result of extensive research and nearly all of it was based on real people and real events. She also spoke about what the reader should think upon finding this out. “When I, myself, am a reader, I’m also interested to not only read the story but also to know the story behind the story, like the biography of the author and how come that he wrote this book or she wrote this book. I think you can be happy if someone doesn’t realize that it is based on research or on true stories and you can also be happy if you can answer the question with a, ‘Yes, it’s based on something’. . . But a story is always something that is made up.”


Jenny Erpenbeck. Visitation. NY: New Directions, 2010. Translated from the 2008 German original Heimsuchung by Susan Bernofsky.

This is book number 1 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.