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Posts from the ‘Embedded photographs’ Category

“Behind Every Name Is a Story”: Trieste

Behind every name is a story.

In the middle of Croatian writer Daša Drndić’s documentary novel Trieste (MacLehose Press, 2012) there is a forty-four page, double-columned list naming the 9,000 or so Jews “who were deported from Italy or killed in Italy in the countries Italy occupied between 1943 and 1945,” starting with Clemente Abeasis and ending with Jerachmil Zynger. This memorial to the murdered is followed by another, much shorter listing—complete with mini-biographies—of the more senior S.S. members of the Aktion T4 group who worked in Trieste at the notorious prison known as San Sabba, which served as a transit center to Auschwitz and other concentration camps and housed its own gas chamber.

In this novel so dedicated to documenting victims and perpetrators alike, Drndić gives us a central character who is neither and both. Haya Tedeschi was born to a Jewish father and Catholic mother in Gorizia, an Italian town near Trieste. Now in her eighties (it’s 2006), Haya spends her day sifting through a basket of photographs, postcards, newspaper clippings, and magazines, the only remaining documents of her life. When the Nazis took over Gorizia in 1943 she was barely twenty and she—like the rest of her family—used her Catholic upbringing and membership in a fascist organization to be shielded from the persecution brought upon many of its Jewish residents. (Drndić’s list of murdered Jews includes more than forty people named Tedeschi, which, ironically, means German in Italian.) Haya even entered into a wartime romance with a German who already happened to have a family back in Germany, S.S. Untersturmführer Kurt Franz. This liaison led to the birth of a baby boy. But when Franz was ordered to a new post the baby boy mysteriously disappeared. Haya has spent the sixty years since then trying to find out what happened to her son. Read more

Split Screen: Teju Cole’s “Blind Spot”

At such moments invisible and tangible become confused.
Yves Bonnefoy, The Arrière-pays.

An open book is naturally a split screen divided by the book’s gutter, although few books actually take full advantage of this. Teju Cole’s new book Blind Spot (Random House, 2017) manages to put each of some 160 or so double-page spreads into truly astonishing dialogues between text and image. Blind Spot balances Cole’s color photographs on the right hand side with texts that are generally very brief on the left. In the texts, which are titled according to the city where the photograph was taken, Cole recounts dreams, constructs compressed essays, and meditates on travel, photography, sight, religion, and art. Occasionally these texts serve as a commentary on the photograph across the page, but for the most part Cole makes the dialogue take place somewhere else, somewhere unexpected, somewhere, shall we say, off camera. Even in texts as brief as these, Cole shows once again his trademark mental restlessness, which matches the globe-hopping list of cities where he has photographed. Read more

The Compass that Always Points East

Mathias Énard’s Zone, which I wrote about in 2011, is one of the best written and most urgent novels that I have read in this quickly aging century. Zones Homeric scale attempts to encompass some of the twentieth century’s most critical themes within the framework of the narrator’s memories during a train ride from Milan to Rome. In Énard’s view, history is perennially unable to free itself from the eternal male infatuation with violence, warfare, and other forms of “manliness,” which  in the last century alone resulted in misery and death for hundreds of millions of people. His narrator has fought in the Balkan wars and has served in the “intelligence” community, but has finally decided to opt out, sell his secrets, and retire to safety. Zone was also Énard’s heartfelt homage to a pantheon of Modernist writers, including James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Malcolm Lowry, Jean Genet, William Burroughs, Paul Bowles, and others. Written fours years after Zone, Street of Thieves was Énard’s next novel to appear in English. Using the first-person perspective of a young Muslim struggling to remain devout in a milieu of  violent radical Muslims, it seemed one-dimensional after the richness of Zone.

Compass, published in France in 2015 and just released in English by New Directions, reverts to the style of Zone. Franz Ritter is an aging scholar, a musicologist who lives in Vienna and has dedicated his life to studying the influences of “the Orient” on western classical music. He’s an erudite, cosmopolitan, old-world gentleman. He’s also an old-school Orientalist, the type of person that Edward Said critiqued in his 1978 classic Orientalism. Compass takes place during a single night when Ritter finds himself unable to sleep. Instead, he launches into an overnight voyage of fond reminiscences through a past that seemed to him fashionably risky, elegant, romantic, and, of course, full of scholarly gossip and feuding. Much of Compass is dedicated to Ritter’s warm, nostalgic memories of his Orientalist adventures, which took place in countries like Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Lebanon, but also at conferences in Vienna, Paris, and other European cities where the Orient was (and often still is) paternalistically stereotyped. One of the great pleasures of reading Compass is Énard’s astonishing command of literary, musical, historical, and other often fascinating references that pass through Ritter’s mind on this restless night. Énard manages to mention, quote, or discuss scores of composers, dozens of European and Middle Eastern writers, and an assortment of other notables that includes people as varied as Sigmund Freud and Edith Piaf, as well as many lesser known characters from history, such as the Baron Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, an Austrian Orientalist (1774-1856). Read more

The “Wandering Souls” of Panorama

A tiny dot had been flashing and circling slowly over a virtual point beside the road on the Google map until the satellites intercepted and correlated my precise position in the imaginary landscape; then the dot stopped moving, coming to rest on the road precisely where I was standing; that’s me, I thought, and as I slid my thumb and forefinger across the tablet to shrink the map, I saw my pulsating point, the beating of a heart, melt into an ever vaster landscape, as if my eye had separated from my body and was ascending high into the sky, swiftly, to the edge of space, from where I could see the entire planet.

It’s tempting — and partly right — to think of the Slovenian writer Dušan Šarotar as a modernized W.G. Sebald, as a restless, observant wanderer equipped with a streak of melancholy and a notebook, but also with a tablet and a smart phone. Šarotar’s Panorama: A Narrative About the Course of Events is written in extended sentences that can meander for pages, weaving around the many black-and-white photographs he embeds in his text. Like Sebald, he has apocalyptic visions in which a powerful and indifferent nature can wipe out mankind in a single stroke. When Šarotar’s narrator finds himself in Brussels Central Station, he even name-drops Sebald’s “superb novel Austerlitz.” But Šarotar is also trying to turn the Sebald ship with all of its baggage in a somewhat different direction. Read more

“Or is there a point that I am missing?”

Imagine if The Paris Review gave you 156 pages in its Spring issue. What would you do?

What Jean-René Étienne and Lola Raban-Oliva did with 156 pages (that’s more than half the issue, by the way) was to create a photo-novella called “Formentera Storyline.” The storyline is simple. “An ad hoc group of ten longtime and tentative friends rents a house on the Spanish island of Formentera,” which is just south of Ibiza. They take Pilates classes, eat a strict diet, and basically try to “remedy the deteriorated lifestyle inherent to their high-pressure, low-stakes, medium-impact jobs in the fashion industry.” They also hope that Paul, who is staying on his yacht in the harbor, will deign to pay them a visit. When it becomes clear that Paul is not going to visit, their utopia quickly descends into dystopia. Alcohol and drugs begin to appear. On the twentieth day they run out of water. The tank on the roof is empty and no one knows what to do. Then things really go to hell. “The top symbolic resource is the lone operational MacBook charger.”

“Formentera Storyline” consists of photographs that are printed nearly full-page, beneath which is the sparse text – usually just a sentence or two per page. No people appear in the photographs, just architectural details, interiors, and images of the surrounding woods. The photographs are much more accomplished and more polished than the text. Perhaps not surprisingly, Étienne and Raban-Oliva are a Paris-based duo that work under the name Partel Oliva, creating fashion videos and music videos.  (Just Google “Partel Oliva” to see examples.) Read more

Photography-Embedded Fiction & Poetry 2016

Here is my bibliography of works of fiction and poetry published in 2016 containing embedded photographs.  You can see bibliographies for other years underneath the pull-down menu “Photo-Embedded Literature” at the top of Vertigo.  I also maintain a more complete bibliography that spans 1892 to the present at Library Thing  (  I am always updating these lists as I learn of new books.  If you know of a book that I have not mentioned, please let me know in a comment. My thanks to Vertigo readers who have already brought books to my attention! [Revised January 29, February 11, April 4, July 23, September 13, 2017.]


Jesse Ball. How To Set a Fire and Why. NY: Pantheon, 2016.  A rather wild high-school girl who reads authors like Antonin Artaud and Alfred Jarry decides to join an Arson Club as her way of rejecting modern life. The novel contains a single photograph – a very grainy version of a well-known image (from a stereograph) of several men standing around the open coffin of Jesse James.


Nick Bantock. The Pharos Gate: Griffin & Sabine’s Lost Correspondence. SF: Chronicle Books, 2016. Heavily illustrated. A continuation of the famous series.


Carmen Boullosa. Before. Dallas: Deep Vellum, 2016. Translated into English from the 1989 Spanish title Antes by Peter Bush. Boullosa’s incandescent novel about “the non-verbal world I invented or inhabited as a child” contains a single, very blurry photograph of a landscape with a waterfall. See my review here. Read more

“Confounded by textures”: The Pink Institution



After he shot himself, my grandfather’s face was a spangle bouquet that made grass die. What is difficult about looking at something like that is not that the mind resists fragmentation in general, but that it is confounded by textures which refuse the tensions one desires through edges.

I recently discovered Selah Saterstrom’s well-received first novel The Pink Institution (Coffee House Press, 2004), a tiny but powerful book of sparse poetic prose. Setting her book in the deep South, Saterstrom gives us a disorienting, visceral vision of four generations struggling with poverty, alcoholism, pills, abuse, rape, violence, and more. Instead of a linear narrative, The Pink Institution has dozens of brief, focused sections that are rarely longer than a page. Each section tells a fragment of a story or lingers over an object, a list, or a setting, forcing the reader to slow down and try to fit each loose puzzle piece into some sort of whole. In several sections, Saterstrom employs different tools to make the reader approach her prose as poetry – in effect, pacing the reader’s progress. She will wrap each word within extra spaces or insert semicolons after every second or third word. I loved reading this book, but when I was done I found myself incapable of encapsulating what I had just read. I think that’s the point. This is a book to linger over and re-read. Read more

The Scattered Shrapnel of the Unknown: Carmen Boullosa’s “Before”

Boullosa Before

But I’ll start at the beginning. Sure, I was like those children, I was one of those awkward children, and here I am cut off from their world forever. Children! I was like you once!

Carmen Boullosa’s narrator is reliving and re-exploring memories of her childhood. It’s a childhood like many – full of blissful moments, mysteries, embarrassments, misunderstandings, intense fear. This is a common – if not cliched – theme in countless novels, but the return to childhood that Carmen Boullosa has given us feels unlike any other book that I have read. I can’t say enough about Boullosa’s incandescent writing, which glows from within, radiating possibilities, contradictions, ambiguities.

In Before, it is we, the readers, who are made up, invented:

When I decided to tell you this, to invent you in order to tell this, and by having an interlocutor to have words myself, I didn’t imagine the bliss my memories would bring. Though I can exaggerate slightly my epiphany, I might say I’ve come alive again.

And what’s real are the memories:

They all rush up, want my hand, as if they were children, shouting “me first,” and I don’t know which to take first, for fear that one will rush out, decide not to come back in a fit of pique.

Read more

“Midpoint”: John Updike’s Pointillist Poem

Updike Midpoint_0001-001

Engraver and Apprentice, in their room
Of acid baths and photophobic gloom,
Transform to metal dots ten shades of gray…

I have never been a fan of John Updike’s writing, but I have to admit I was really curious when a Vertigo reader mentioned that Updike had published a book of poetry in 1969 that contained numerous photographs. “Midpoint,” the long poem that opens Midpoint and Other Poems (NY: Knopf, 1969), was written “to take inventory of his life at the end of his thirty-fifth year – a midpoint,” as the book’s dust jacket puts it. As it turned out, “Midpoint” was written a few years prematurely, since Updike (1932-2009) lived to be nearly seventy-seven.

“Midpoint” has five sections or cantos.  X.J. Kennedy referred to the poem as “a personal history in heterogeneous parts —terza rima; a family photo album; a celebration in Spenserian stanzas of metals, ceramics, and polymers; Poundian cantos, complete with glosses; and a meditation in heroic couplets…” (April 1993, New Criterion). Each canto begins with an “argument” that sets forth the poet’s own summary of that section. In Canto 1, the “Introduction,” Updike writes of “early intimations of wonder and dread” and opens with the telling line “Of nothing but me, me.” Then comes Canto II, “The Photographs,” which consists only of a brief argument and twenty-one photographs of Updike and his family – grandparents, parents, siblings, himself at multiple ages, his wife (the book came out five years before his divorce from Mary), and his children. Read more

Photo-Embedded Literature – 1970-1989: Bibliography

Here is my bibliography of works of fiction and poetry published in the years 1970-1989 containing embedded photographs.  You can see individual bibliographies for other years underneath the pull-down menu “Photo-Embedded Literature” at the top of Vertigo.  I also maintain a comprehensive bibliography that spans 1892 to the present at Library Thing ( As of today, July 5, 2016, that bibliography contains 228 fiction titles and 68 poetry titles. I am always updating these lists as I learn of new books.  If you know of a book not included on my list, please let me know in a comment. [Updated July 15, 25, October 12, November 29, 2016, February 8, 2017.]


Kobo Abe.  The Box Man.  NY: Knopf, 1974. Contains nine b&w photographs, almost assuredly by Abe himself. This is the first English translation from the Japanese original Hako Otoko, published in 1973. For my review of this book, click here.

Bayer vitus bering rigmarole

Konrad Bayer.  The Head of Vitus Bering: A Portrait in ProseMelbourne: Rigmarole of the Hours, 1979. Bayer’s novel is often called the most important work issued by the Vienna Group. It’s an hallucinogenic transformation of the ill-fated exploration that led to the death of Bering and his crew on the Aleutian island named after him. It contains a single b&w photograph on the opening page. This is the first English translation from the original German edition of 1965. A “revised” translation was published by Atlas Press in 1994. Click here to see the connection between Bayer and W.G. Sebald.

Breton Mad Love

Andre Breton. Mad Love.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987. Surprisingly, it took fifty years for this first English translation from the French original of 1937 L’Amour Fou., Breton’s Surrealist classic about the mysteries of love. Mad Love contains twenty black-and-white photographs, some of which are credited to Man Ray, Brassaï, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and others. About half of the photographs reproduce Surrealist works of art.


Anthony Burgess. Beard’s Roman Women. NY: McGraw Hill, 1976. Ronald Beard is a writer living in Rome, haunted by the death of his first wife – but not enough to prevent him from hanging out with Paola, a photographer. The novel, based on Burgess’s second wife, Liana, includes seventeen photographs meant to be by Paola, but actually by British photographer David Robinson.

Dictee Front Cover

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Dictee. NY: Tanam Press, 1982.  Now recognized as one of the key works in twentieth century avant-garde literature, Dictee is an experiment in autobiography that blends poetry and prose, history and memoir. It also contains numerous uncredited news photographs, portraits and reproductions of documents, including some depicting the author’s own manuscript for Dictee, thus anticipating Sebald’s use of embedded imagery by years. For my review of this book, click here.

Peter De Lory

Peter De Lory. The Wild and the Innocent. Riverside: California Museum of Photography, 1987. A very brief story accompanied by photographs by de Lory, along with a song by artist Terry Allen. This is a fairly rare example of a photographer who ventures into the world of fiction.

Duncan Caesar

Robert Duncan. Caesar’s Gate: Poems 1949-50. With paste-ups by Jess. n.p.: Sand Dollar, 1972. Life partners Robert Duncan and Jess collaborated on a number of books that consisted of Duncan’s poems and writings and Jess’s paste-ups (photo collages). This is a beautiful example that demonstrates the way in which their collaborations work in parallel, while remaining thematically distinct.

Gardner Ghost

John Gardner. Mickelsson’s Ghost. NY: Knopf, 1982. With a number of photographs by the author’s son Joel Gardner. A labyrinthine tale of a professor of philosophy who retires to a rural Pennsylvania farm in an attempt to remake his life.


Paul Hewson and Linda Marie Walker. Cherished Objects: An Illustrated Novel. Adelaide: Experimental Art Foundation, 1989. A collaborative work by two artists. The text is about a cartographer who creates maps of imaginary places and an aging detective who files fanciful reports to his employer. There are black and white deadpan photographs on nearly every page, some of which illustrate aspects of the text, while others seem to have little relationship to the absurd and amusing story.


Richard Howard. Lining Up: Poems. NY: Atheneum, 1984. Contains the nine-part poem “Homage to Nadar,” which is comprised of sections on nine key 19th century artists who were photographed by Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon): Eugène Delacroix, Jean-François Millet, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Giuseppi Verdi, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Hector Berlioz, Jules Michelet, Gérard de Nerval, and Anatole France. Each section is accompanied by Nadar’s portrait of the subject. In addition, the poem “Impersonations” contains a reproduction of a painting by Henri Rousseau and a photograph by E. Montastier of the French novelist Pierre Loti impersonating the Egyptian god Osirus.

Kluge Neue Geschichten

Alexander Kluge. Neue Geschichten. Hefte 1-18. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1977. Stories by Kluge with numerous photographs. Kluge’s writing and use of embedded images greatly influenced Sebald. One section of Neue Geschichten (unillustrated) was translated into English in an anthology of Kluge’s writings published under the title Air Raid (Seagull Books 2014). Air Raid concludes with Sebald’s essay on Kluge called “Between History and Natural History. On the Literary Description of Total Destruction. Remarks on Kluge.”

Lucas What a life

E.V. Lucas & George Morrow. What a Life!: An Autobiography. NY: Dover, 1975. Reprint of the 1911 original. Fictional autobiography illustrated entirely with images cut out of a Whiteley’s (London department store) Catalogue. This reprint contains an introduction by poet John Ashberry.

Lucas what a life

E.V. L[ucas]., & G[eorge]. M[orrow]. What a Life!: An Autobiography. London: Collins, 1987. Yet another reprint of the 1911 originalThis fictional autobiography is illustrated solely with images cut out of a Whiteley’s department store catalog. An earlier reprint was put out in 1975 by Dover (see above). Nearly all of the illustrations seem to be engravings, but several look suspiciously like photographs. Nevertheless, this represents a very early example of a work of fiction in which the text and illustrations carry equal weight.

Wright plains song

Wright Morris. Plains Song: For Female Voices. 1980. A remarkable novel about three generations of Midwestern women. Each chapter begins with the same photograph – an oval image (as if seen through an oval mirror) of the corner of a room in which stands a table full of framed family portraits.

Ondaatje Billy

Michael Ondaatje. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1970. Poems about Billy the Kid, with seven black and white photographs, some of which are credited to Montana photographer L.A. Huffman (1854-1931) and several reproductions from old books.


Michael Ondaatje. Coming Through Slaughter. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1976. Ondaatje’s first novel is the story of legendary New Orleans jazz cornet player Buddy Bolden (1876?-1931). Contains two photographs: one of Bolden’s band and one showing a series of three sonographs of dolphin sounds that relate to the manner in which Bolden played the cornet. See my review of this title here.

Roubaud Incendie

Jacques Roubaud. Grand Incendie de Londres. Paris: Seuil, 1989. Contains a single photography by the author’s wife Alix. For my review of the 1991 English translation, click here.

Sukenick Blown Away

Ronald Sukenick. Blown Away. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1986. Sukenick’s often amusing tale of Hollywood, starring a mind reader named Boris O. Ccrab. Contains one illustration: a photocopy of a page from the October 24, 1978 LA Times, showing photographs of a forest fire around Malibu.

Van der Zee

James Van Der Zee, Owen Dodson, and Camille Billops. The Harlem Book of the Dead. Dobbs Ferry: Morgan & Morgan, 1978. Photographs by Van Der Zee, poems by Dodson, and texts by Billops. This collaborative work uses Van Der Zee’s photographs of Harlem funerals to explore the African American culture of Harlem. Foreword by Toni Morrison.


Ivan White. Removal of an Exhibition. London: Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative, 1976. Poetry and some prose by White, with 36 b&w photographs (mostly snapshots and portraits) credited to Robert Golden. This was announced to be the first in a series of books called “Poetry in Progress,” volumes of poetry which were meant to include photographs, but it appears that no other title in the series was issued. ” Whenever possible, individual books shall employ photographic images. These are not merely decoration. Pictures – and especially photographic ones – are representations of facts out of a world we know but do not always acknowledge. Pictures are reminders of the ‘lost and found’ aspect of experience.” Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative was the original publisher of Susan Sontag’s first novel The Benefactor (1983).