Make Yourself Happy is the fifth book of poetry by Eleni Sikelianos issued since 2001 by the fine Coffee House Press, just north of me in Minneapolis. I’ve been reading and rereading this compelling book for the past two weeks. Kudos to Coffee House Press for turning out a beautifully designed and produced book that is visually elegant and wonderful to hold.
As a poet, Sikelianos like to think big. Her books deal with topics like science, mythology, history, ecology, extinction, and even, as she writes in one poem sequence in this new book, “the history of man.” Previous books have included a nearly 190-page poem dedicated to California (The California Poem) and a book-length biography in poems (You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek)). Sikelianos is also one of a handful of poets who regularly uses photographs in her books, with four of her Coffee House Press books having imagery of one kind or another.
Make Yourself Happy consists of three long poem sequences, followed by two short stand-alone poems. “Make Yourself Happy” is comprised of 39 individual poems. Superficially, one might say that the sequence explores the many meanings of “happiness,” whether it’s eating croissants in Paris or simply being alive. But Sikelianos is after something far deeper and more complex than that. Slowly but surely, as this nearly 60-page poem sequence evolves, Sikelianos unravels the whole notion of happiness. Yes, there is a true, indomitable form of happiness that “baffles what’s trying to get in” to destroy it, but there are also false states of happiness that are driven by things as simple as the consumption of sugar-filled snacks or the indulgence in drugs like heroin. Heroin, violence, misery, and other decidedly unhappy themes are always lurking in these poems. In one poem, we see happiness used with decidedly Orwellian intent:
In the United Arab Emirates there is now a Ministry of Happiness
“You can be happy as long as you keep your mouth shut.
The complex constellation of historical event, individual experience, and the poietic presentation of both events and experiences is at the heart of Sebald’s work and reveals why his texts elude established genre traditions.
If I were to pick one book for the passionate Sebald reader who might want to dip a toe into serious Sebald scholarship or for the non-Sebald scholar wishing to get a clear sense of Sebald’s contribution to literature and history, I would direct you to Lynn L. Wolff’s fine book W.G. Sebald’s Hybrid Poetics: Literature as Historiography (De Gruyter). First published in 2014 as a hardcover with a price aimed at specialists and libraries, DeGruyter has now reissued the book in paperback at a price aimed for the rest of us – 19.95 (in both euros and dollars). The book is widely available from the publisher, Book Depository, and Amazon.
In her introduction, “Why W.G. Sebald,” Wolff gives a compact biography of his adult life and then discusses the “Sebald phenomenon” – the rise in films, exhibitions, artworks, blogs, and other forms of public and creative response to Sebald’s books. She provides a succinct, but wide-ranging overview of the critical secondary literature that has sprung up around Sebald in a variety of academic disciplines, as well as the seemingly endless academic frameworks through which scholars have tried to view Sebald’s work – postmemory, Freudianism, intertextuality, etc. Yet despite the onslaught of literature about Sebald’s works, Wolff senses that “there are significant gaps” in the way that scholars have examined “the specificity of his poetics” and it is her intention to focus on the mechanics of his writing and their implications. In doing so, she examines all of Sebald’s texts – critical writings, prose fiction, and poetry – with an “open perspective” and in “a methodologically non-dogmatic way.”
Central questions of my investigation are: What is particular about Sebald’s writing? How is he “translating” history into literature? How and where does he emphasize this process? Where are his sources apparent? Where does he cover them up?…These questions prove productive in initiating the reader’s engagement with not only the text but also the broader questions of memory, history, and authenticity.
Why in fact did I come to write, why do I write books? Out of opposition to myself, suddenly, and against this condition – because to me, as I’ve said, resistance is everything…I wanted exactly this tremendous resistance, and that’s why I write prose…
For portions of three consecutive days in June 1970, the Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard sat on a park bench in a Hamburg suburb and gave an impromptu monologue for the camera of filmmaker Ferry Radax, a fellow Austrian. In the 52-minute film that resulted, Drei Tage (3 Days), Bernhard is restrained, self-contained, and utterly eloquent in the enforced brevity. His monologue wanders from his childhood to the problematics of writing to the pleasures of solitude to the literary figures that influenced him. Part of the charm of Radax’s engaging film is that it as much about the art of filmmaking as it is a brief portrait of Thomas Bernhard. At times, the camera shows members of the film crew at work or watching on a portable monitor the very film they are making, while at other times the camera ignores Bernhard entirely and settles for a minute on a tree rustling in the breeze or on one of Bernhard’s shoes as it calmly bobs and dips while Bernhard talks on. Drei Tage can be seen in two sections on YouTube: here, and here (in German, with no subtitles).
This summer, Manchester University Press released an affordable paperback edition of A Literature of Restitution: Critical Essays on W.G. Sebald, edited by Jeannette Baxter, Valerie Henitiuk, and Ben Hutchinson. The paperback version is priced at $29.95, compared to the 2013 hardcover edition, which runs around $99. For the most part, the various authors managed to at least partially focus on the theme alluded to in the book’s title, lending the volume a sense of unified purpose. Here are my brief summaries of the thirteen essays included in A Literature of Restitution. Keep in mind that I am in no way attempting to convey the rich complexity of each author’s argument. My goal has been to hint at the direction that each essay heads and to mention or quote ideas that stood out for me. It’s true (so far) that I have never met an anthology of essays about Sebald that I didn’t like, but this one holds a number of essays that provoked me to rethink some key things about his writing.
Part 1: Translation and Style
1. Quite fluent in English, Sebald worked closely with each of the translators who labored to bring his original German-language texts into English. Arthur Williams’ essay “W.G. Sebald’s Three-Letter Word: On the Parallel Worlds of the English Translations” closely examines the differences between the German and English versions and he concludes by saying that:
the translations reveal more about Sebald than his masterly use of language. We discover a writer polishing his expertise with his literary medium and understanding his oeuvre increasingly as one long story, with many varied parts and individual messages, but with a constant underlying ethos…We can chart how he used the opportunity afforded by the translations to refine structures, to create clarity, to moderate early moments which he, perhaps, later regretted (as in, for instance, the quite brutal caricatures of his fellow West Germans in Schwindel. Gefühle.)
I was obliged to return to a country inhabited by drooling freaks with criminal features.
For a longtime admirer of Thomas Bernhard, it was a little eerie to read Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador. Castellanos Moya’s mimicry of the narrative voice of some of Bernhard’s novels – especially Old Masters and Woodcutters – feels nearly pitch perfect, and the transposition from post-Nazi Austria to post-civil war era El Salvador is a brilliant piece of stagecraft. Read more
Eve walks by, her hair like foamy night, in her skin-tight jeans, and the others snigger and suck in their teeth in lust, but I – I just want to kneel down. She doesn’t look at us. She isn’t afraid of us. She has her solitude for armor.
Saad is one of the four teen-aged narrators who take turns telling us about their lives and interconnected friendships in the poor, gang-ridden Troumaron neighborhood of Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius. In Troumaron, “one day we wake up and the future has disappeared.” Saad, who worships Eve, has also fallen under the spell of Rimbaud and writes poetry on the walls of his room at home. Ananda Devi’s Eve Out of Her Ruins is a novel of conversations, emotions, aspirations, and setbacks. Forget where it takes place or the nationality of the author. This is a novel of haunting language with a powerful message about gender and violence.
Eve is the remarkable character at the center of Eve Out of Her Ruins. She is constructed from the different perspectives of Devi’s four narrators – the poet Saad, Clélio, who has already been to prison for his misdeeds, Savika, a young woman who is determined to give Eve her unquestioning love, and Eve herself. Eve is a student by day and prostitute by night. At home her father upbraids and beats her while her mother (“a small pile of shame”) weakly sits by. For years, boys and men have had their way with Eve. But Eve thinks she has found a way to avoid the fate that seems to await her and her friends. She has developed a kind of mind/body separation that allows her to think she is using the men who use her body. Read more
While recently recovering from surgery, I found myself needing something to read that was different from my usual diet. I looked at my stack of unread books with new eyes and lit upon a volume that had I had been passing over for weeks as simply too quirky. But now I was desperately in the mood for something off-beat.
A few months earlier, a long-time Vertigo reader had sent me a book he thought I might enjoy called I Cycled into the Arctic Circle: A Peregrination by James Duthie and Matt Hulse, published by the Saltire Society, Scotland in 2015. As it turns out, it’s a wondrous and utterly uncategorizable book that I read in a single sitting. In 1951, a deaf Scotsman named James Duthie decided to bicycle to Morocco. He headed south and crossed the Channel into France, where he suddenly veered east into Belgium, Holland, and Germany, before turning north into Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, ultimately reaching the Arctic Circle. A few years later, Duthie wrote a short book about his three-month trip, which he apparently sold door to door to fund future bicycle trips. Since then, Duthie’s I Cycled into the Arctic Circle has become a fairly rare book and a bit of a cult item that strikes me as the literary equivalent of outsider art. (While it’s a book of travel writing, it’s definitely not Patrick Leigh Fermor.) Duthie comes off as affable, intensely curious, and eternally optimistic – the kid of guy who will talk with anyone, anywhere. Read more
In Young Once, we meet Louis and Odile, married with children, living comfortably in Switzerland but feeling vaguely lost. They are only thirty-five years old, yet it feels like they have nothing more to expect from life. “Could anything new happen to them at thirty-five?” One day, while downtown, Louis hears the voice of a singer on a television program drifting out from open café windows. He can’t understand the words. A warm wind starts blowing. The first drops of rain appear. And just like that we are taken back to Louis at the age of nineteen, just demobilized from the French army. Louis immediately falls in with a man who promises to get him a job in Paris. The job turns out to be sitting at a desk at nights in a garage where men deliver cars, leaving them for someone else to drive them away later. Louis never does get an explanation of what is going on, but we suspect something illicit. Louis first meets Odile in a train station and before long they begin to live together, although they fail to display much that can be considered tender or loving. They are two aimless souls who seem to prefer letting other people make decisions for them. At nineteen, the can’t envision the future. “Lying down, looking at the ceiling, [Louis] would think about the future, or in other words about nothing.” Read more