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Posts from the ‘Embedded photographs’ Category

This Tilting World

Fellous tilting

In a recent post I wrote about a novel set in the mid-1950s Tunisia, just as the country was gaining independence from France. The Scorpion was written by the Tunisian-French writer Albert Memmi and was first published in France in 1969. Tunisia had gained independence from France in 1956 but promptly became one of the most corrupt and repressive “democracies” on the planet. That lasted until 2011, when a street vendor immolated himself at a protest and the President ultimately fled the country after 23 years in power, launching the Arab Spring. Tunisia subsequently became a more normal democracy but in 2015 the country was hit by several horrendous terrorist attacks that killed scores of foreign tourists. It continues to be a democracy today but is currently struggling with incidents where religion and free speech intersect.

In response to my post of The Scorpion, a Vertigo reader suggested in a comment that I should read This Tilting World, a novel by the Tunisian-French writer Colette Fellous. This Tilting World, first published in France in 2017, takes place just after those terrorist attacks of 2015. The narrator, who is probably a fictionalized version of the author, has just learned that a very close friend has collapsed and died of a heart attack while sailing in the Mediterranean. On the previous day, thirty-eight people, mostly tourists, were murdered by terrorists while on the beach of the Hotel Riu Imperial Marhaba. The narrator is in a friend’s villa, writing the novel that we are reading, wondering what to do, what is her relationship to Tunisia now? She looks back briefly over parent’s lives and her own childhood in Tunisia and then at her more complex relationship to the country of her youth.

This tilting world, how can we talk about it, make sense of it? Only by naming the appalling blow these deaths have dealt each one of us, the deep wound they have gouged that can never be healed, the birth of a new kind of warfare, and this terror that is taking root everywhere, even within our own bodies.

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The Scorpion

Memmi Scorpion

I was midway through Albert Memmi’s novel The Scorpion; or The Imaginary Confession (NY: Grossman, 1971) when I saw in the New York Times that the Tunisian-French writer had died. I first became intrigued with The Scorpion when I saw that it included seven photographs. As far as I am aware, this made it one of the first European novels to have photographs as an integral part of the text after a gap of almost twenty-five years, since André Breton’s Nadja came out in 1945. I wonder what prompted Memmi to take the then radical idea of including images in his novel? He even went so far as to propose that the different “voices” in his book be printed in different colors, but the publisher refused, saying the cost would be prohibitive. Instead, the publisher used different typefaces within the book. In his Washington Post obituary of Memmi, Matt Schudel correctly pointed out that “Memmi’s technique in The Scorpion pointed towards the fiction of W.G. Sebald and later writers by incorporating commentary, invented memoirs and diaries,” not to mention images.

The narrator of The Scorpion (which was translated from the 1969 French original by Eleanor Levieux), is Marcel, who is a Tunisian ophthalmologist. His brother Imilio has disappeared and he is trying to intuit his brother’s state of mind by investigating a drawer full of texts and images that Imilio, a writer, has left behind. The plotless novel is essentially a set of philosophical arguments about life, loyalty, and colonialism. (Tunisia was just gaining independence from France as the events in the novel take place). As Marcel reads Imilio’s stories and bits of memoir, he can’t help but argue with his brother, both factually and philosophically. And as the novel progresses, the ideas of two other men are also introduced: an Uncle Makhlouf and a certain J.H. (for Jeune Homme or young man), a former student of Imilio’s. J.H. is a young idealist, unwilling to compromise. Imilio’s accounts of his weekly meetings with J.H. show that their conversations had been growing more argumentative with each session as the two men hardened into opposing positions. One day, Imilio learns that J.H. has committed suicide and Marcel can’t help but wonder if this is this the cause of his brother’s disappearance. The title of the book is a reference to the popular notion that a scorpion, when cornered, will sting itself.

At times, The Scorpion can feel like a relic of the Existentialist period, when men argued about big ideas, women were relegated to minor roles, and one could still believe in absolutes. Just before the J. H. kills himself, he declares “Either literature is an exploration of limits or it is no more important than the art of arranging flowers.” As Isaac Yetiv has suggested in an article, J.H. might remind the reader of an impatient, radical version of the young Marcel himself. But these kinds of absolutist positions no longer sit well with Marcel, who has become increasingly disillusioned as he ages. As an ophthalmologist, Marcel is acutely aware of the limits of human perception and, therefore, he’s convinced we’ll never fully understand our own existential circumstances.

Now, how much of [the spectrum] do we manage to take in? Hardly anything—between four thousand and seven thousand angstrom units. Ah, our perception of the world is terribly limited! . . . In all events, a mystery of some sort envelops us, no doubt about it, even if that’s a word I don’t like to use. Let’s say I hesitate between two ways of putting it: “I don’t know, but I know there’s an explanation,” and “There’s an explanation, but we’ll never know what it is.”

The majority of the seven photographs in the book seem to do little more than illustrate, albeit somewhat indirectly, specific passages in the book, although one photograph seems to suggest the reader’s experience with Memmi’s book.

Memmi 1

We explored the labyrinth of rooms, nooks, stairways, and garrets constantly without ever exhausting its resources.

The events in The Scorpion take place around 1956, at the moment when Tunisia was separating from France. From the beginning, Marcel senses the oppressiveness of the native government that is about to take over from the French and that will eventually become one of the most corrupt regimes in the area. It wasn’t until in 2011 and the protests that began the Arab Spring, that this regime in Tunisia was finally brought down.

Albert Memmi seemed to have been the quintessential outsider. He was born in 1920 in Tunisia of Jewish and Arab heritage, but emigrated to France after Tunisia’s independence. “I am Tunisian, but Jewish, which means that I am politically and socially an outcast … I am a Jew who has broken with the Jewish religion and the ghetto, is ignorant of Jewish culture … a Jew in an antisemitic universe, an African in a world dominated by Europe.”

Take a Train Journey with Sebaldsound

Ear Edgeland Sebald 2

Here’s another audio piece about W.G. Sebald to help you through whatever level of confinement you are subjecting yourself to these days. Nick Warr and Guy Moreton recently taped a fascinating conversation about Sebald while taking a train journey and the recording they made is now up on Soundcloud. Warr and Moreton meander through many topics, including Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn, his use of photographs, and the significance of the trains that keep appearing in his work. Here’s their description of the thirty-three minute program.

The third episode in the [‘Ear of the Edgeland’] series finds us back on the rural railways, from Norwich to Lowestoft.

Commissioned by Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, ‘Sebaldsound’ acts as a complimentary audio piece to the 2019 exhibition ‘Lines of Sight’ about the artist W G Sebald.

In this episode ‘Lines of Sight’ curator Nick Warr talks to artist and academic Guy Moreton about the landscape, Sebald’s life and work, whilst travelling on part of the journey featured in Sebald’s much revered book The Rings of Saturn.

Sebaldsound includes field recordings by Oliver Payne with ‘Increasingly Absorbed In His Own World’ and ‘When the Dog Days Were Drawing To An End’ composed by The Caretaker for his album ‘Patience (After Sebald)’.

Guy Moreton is a photographer and teaches at Solent University, Southampton. Dr. Nick Warr is Curator of Photographic Collections, University of East Anglia and co-author of the forthcoming book W.G. Sebald: Shadows of Reality.

History as Amnesia: Adam Scovell’s “How Pale the Winter Has Made Us”

How_Pale_sales_cover

‘… I am a voluntary exile, a wanderer by design, unwise with a purpose, everywhere a stranger and everywhere at home, letting my life run its course where it will, rather than trying to guide it, since, in any case, I don’t know where it will lead me.’
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey

How often is the main character of a novel a city and not a person? In Adam Scovell’s new novel How Pale the Winter Has Made Us, the first thing we see (after the epigraph from Goethe quoted above) is a reproduction of a 19th century photographic postcard of the cathedral of Strasbourg, France towering over the roofs and chimneys of the city. Isabelle, our narrator, who is staying in Strasbourg while on break from her university, has just learned that her father has committed suicide back in London. She is living at her partner’s apartment while he is conveniently on business in South America. Stunned by the death of her father, a failed painter, and at war with her “harridan mother,” Isabelle contemplates extending her stay in Strasbourg indefinitely. The idea comes to her “to stay in the city, and in some sense map it.”

And so it is that Isabelle spends the winter alone in Strasbourg, exploring its streets and its history. As a scholar, perhaps it’s natural that she pours herself into research as a way of dealing with the mixture of grief and guilt she feels over her father’s death and her failure to return home to help her mother deal with the estate. Isabelle wanders, sits in coffee shops, and examines antiques. Eventually, a sense of melancholy settles in as Isabelle begins, in a strange way, to enjoy her isolation and loneliness, as she explores the lives of some of the intriguing citizens of Strasbourg’s history, several of whom Scovell has conveniently invented.

As in Scovell’s previous novel Mothlight, his new book is partly structured around reproductions of photographs. On several occasions the photographs that Isabelle collects or sees during her visits to antique stores and flea markets serve as the pretext for Scovell to invent characters that are supposedly from Strasbourg’s history, such as the “celebrated” photographer of trees, Oliver Franck, or “the Keller Group,”

– a mixture of explorers, botanists, geologists and artists, all from the city of Strasbourg – [which] was one of the key instigators of the Naturkunst revival of the last century. The group produced visual art and writing with a basis of creative endeavour in the rigour of natural history and science, but in a more casual and empathetic way than such individual fields often required.

Keller Group2

The “Keller Group”

But most of the characters that Isabelle researches were once actual residents of Strasbourg, like Johannes Gutenberg, who lived in Strasbourg in the mid-1400s for about fifteen years before inventing movable type; or Jean-Baptiste Kléber, the famous General of the French Revolutionary Wars; or the French artists Gustave Doré and Jean Arp, who were both born in Strasbourg.

Isabelle’s wanderings and research seems aimless, yet she also feels that something is steering her. “Perhaps it was the Erl-King guiding my hands.” The Erl-King, or Erlkönig, is central to Isabelle’s story. She seems to see or sense the elf-king everywhere, and as she studies the history of this bit of folklore, she discovers that Johann Gottfried Herder and Goethe, the two German poets who wrote the most important poems about the Erlkönig, met in Strasbourg in 1770 in what might be described as one of the most momentous events in German literary history. Isabelle is irresistibly drawn to the past as a form of escape. “History was always more tangible than the present,” she says.

Ironically, Isabelle has rich, meaningful encounters with some great contemporary characters—with antique dealers, a skate boarder, and with others she meets on the streets of Strasbourg. There’s the homeless guy named Michel who likes heavy metal music and calls her “the Duchess.” She gives him food and they talk about the lyrics he writes in a notebook. “Every vulnerable man is my father,” she decides. These seemingly incidental episodes are, to me, some of the best and most interesting pieces of writing in the novel.

As spring approaches and Isabelle feels that “the streets were now mapped over my skin,” she has a critical revelation: “I was not mourning, I was petrifying.”Her experiment in isolation is coming to an end.

I could feel my country many miles away slowly sinking into the abyss as my quiet tears fell onto the stone floor. I had mourned through the tramping of pavements, through conversations with the elderly, through strange and wonderful objects and the history of Strasbourg. I wanted to die, for my body to follow my mind in finality towards darkness along with the Erl-king on his journey back through the void, feeling that there was no more that I could know or learn. There were no streets upon my arms really, just a collection of red scars and lines on a thin-looking layer of skin, so white as to almost seem translucent.

How Pale the Winter Has Made Us is a big step forward from Scovell’s first novel Mothlight. The underlying connective tissue is more substantial. There’s much more for the reader to ponder and in so many more directions. The writing, though it still reflects Scovell’s signature tendency towards restraint, is getting looser and more emotive. I also have a theory that as he becomes less reliant on the use of photographs as a stimulus, the writing gets better. This is one of those novels I enjoyed even more on the second and third readings.

Adam Scovell. How Pale the Winter Has Made Us. London: Influx Press, 2020.

 

 

Photography-Embedded Fiction & Poetry 2019

Here is my bibliography of works of fiction and poetry published in 2019 containing embedded photographs.  You can see bibliographies for other years underneath the pull-down menu “Photo-Embedded Literature” at the top of Vertigo. If you know of a book that I have not mentioned, please let me know in a comment. My thanks to the many Vertigo readers who have already pointed out books that I had not known about. [Added to on January 21, February 4, 5, 11, April 22, 2020.]

Barnes coat

Julian Barnes. The Man in the Red Coat. London: Jonathan Cape, 2019. Barne’s novel contains a number of reproductions of well-known 19th century paintings and cartes-de-visites of Parisian personalities.

Chlala paper camera

Youmna Chlala. Paper Camera. n.p.: Litmus Press, 2019. This Beirut-born, trilingual (Arabic, English, French) author combines poetry about life between languages, air strikes, real-life and possibly fictional bits of narrative… with a few photographs and a lot of stills from one of her Super 8 film projects. She deliberately chooses motion-blurred, overexposed, grainy frames that dialog with the text without there being an explicit link.

Christle crying

Heather Christle. The Crying Book. NY: Catapult, 2019. Brief prose pieces and excerpts from other writers about crying, interspersed with occasional photographs.

Ash Cooper

Jeremy Cooper. Ash Before Oak. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019. A novel in the form of a diary, with numerous photographs by the author and some credited to Helen Knight, Frances Richardson, and Corinne Schneider of Lower Terhill, in rural Somerset.

 Croft Homesick

Jennifer Croft. Homesick. Los Angeles: The Unnamed Press, 2019. A novel with photographs by the author and her mother Laurie Croft. I reviewed the book in December.

Donoghue Akin

Emma Donoghue. Akin. NY: Little Brown, 2019. Her novel contains five photographs credited to various sources.

drndc eeg

Daša Drndić. EEG. NY: New Directions, 2019. Her final novel contains photographs, as did a number of her other titles. Translated from the original 2016 Croatian of the same title by Celia Hawkesworth.

Erlichman lithium

Shira Erlichman. Odes to Lithium. Farmington, Maine: Alice James Books, 2019. Poems that serve as a love letter to lithium, Erlichman’s medication for bipolar disorder. With photographs and her own line drawings.

finbow-cover

Steve Finbow & Karolina Urbaniak. Death Mort Tod. London: Infinity Land Press, 2019. “A country-to-country death trip, a necro-travel guide, a Baedeker of bereavement, incorporating myth, folklore, maps, reportage, photographs, recordings, illustrations and poetry . . . A European Book of the Dead . . . All photographs, photomontages, collages, drawings and installations [by Urbaniak] were originally produced to illustrate the text without use of any external sources/materials. Clay, sand, ash, animal bones, blood, paint, salt, thread, mud, or human hair can be found among a variety of used materials.”

Johnson Wig 2

David Johnson and Philip Matthews. Wig Heavier Than a Boot. Queens: Kris Graves Projects, 2019. Photography by David Johnson and poetry by Philip Matthews. This collaborative project “reveal[s] dynamic relationships between author, character, and observer. . . .[that] opens up a conversation about gender expression through an art-historical lens.”

users-manual Kolar

Jiří Kolář. A User’s Manual. Prague: Twisted Spoon Press, 2019. 52 poems paired with 52 collages that contain photographs, other types of imagery, and words. From the publisher’s website: “Taking the form of directives, largely absurd, the poems mock communist society’s officialese while offering readers an opportunity to create their own poetics by performing the given directions. The collages on the facing pages to the poems are composed of layered documents, image cutouts, newspaper clippings, announcements, letter fragments, reports, or decontextualized words, oftentimes forming concrete patterns or the outlines of figures, to create a sort of “evidential” report on the year. Text and image taken together, the volume displays Kolář’s enduring interest in extracting poetry from the mundane to demolish the barrier separating art from reality, or even to elevate reality itself through this dual poetics to the level of art.” A translation by Ryan Scott from the 1969 Czech original.

Luiselli lost

Valeria Luiselli. Lost Children Archive. NY: Knopf, 2019. In Luiselli’s novel, an author much like herself, accompanied by her husband and their two children, narrates their journey west, a westward journey that has echoes of sojourns made by countless 19th families in Conestoga wagons. Her husband is heading to the Apacheria territory of Arizona to make a documentary on Geronimo, while the narrator is following the plight of Central American children who have been separated from their parents at the US border as they attempt to cross into this country. As she tries to understand how best to document this story, both parents are trying to explain to their children the tragic stories of the Apaches and the family separations. Eventually, the two children become lost for a few frantic days and the boy narrates their attempt to locate their parents. The book includes maps, drawings, historical photographs, and a number of Polaroid photographs purportedly taken by the young boy.

lab mallo

Agustin Fernandez Mallo, Nocilla Lab. London: Fitzcarraldo, 2019. Only this third volume in Mallo’s Nocilla series includes photographs. Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead.

juche devils

New Juche. The Devils. n.p. Amphetamine Sulphate, 2019. Part true crime, part memoir, part occult, always unnerving. With four photographs.

pavonne paris

Christopher Pavone. The Paris Diversion. NY: Crown, 2019. The fourth book in this mystery/spy series contains stock photographs of famous Paris’s tourist sites on the title page and at the beginning of each of the book’s five sections.

 

mothlight

Adam Scovell. Mothlight. London: Influx, 2019. A novel about a lepidopterist and gender fluidity using about thirty snapshots from a collection that the author inherited. See my review of Mothlight here.

Shapton Guest

Leanne Shapton. Guestbook: Ghost Stories. NY: Riverhead Books, 2019. Short stories based around images that include drawings by the author, found photographs, stock photographs, and other images.

Wright Shade

C.D Wright. Casting Deep Shade. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2019. Poetry and prose on beech trees with photographs by Denny Moers. Posthumously published.

unsun zawicky

Andrew Zawicki. Unsun. Toronto: Coach House Press, 2019. Zawicki’s poems deal with “the possibilities and dangers of a ‘global pastoral,’ exploring geographies alternately enhanced and flattened out by digital networks, international transit, the uneven and invisible movements of capital, and the unrelenting feedback loops of data surveillance, weather disaster, war” (publisher’s blurb). Some photographs by the author.

Zawicki Waterfall

Andrew Zawicki. Waterfall Plot. Boston: Greying Ghost, 2019. A chapbook that excerpts a series of poems and photographs from his book Unsun (above). Zawicki’s poem is loosely based on the “Wheel-Rim River” suite by eighth-century Chinese poet, painter, musician, and politician Wang Wei. The accompanying photographs by Zawicki resemble landscapes and skyscapes, but were actually taken at a compound of chicken coops.

Homesick

Croft Homesick

“This book is a work of creative nonfiction. Names, identifying details, and places have been changed.” So reads part of the copyright page of Homesick: A Memoir, the recent book by Jennifer Croft, the widely known translator of 2019 Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights and numerous other books from Polish, Ukrainian, and Spanish. Homesick tells of the lives of Amy and Zoe, sisters in Tulsa, Oklahoma, over the span of about two decades.

In addition to the fact that the main character is not named Jennifer Croft, her “memoir” lets you know right away it is going to be an unusual work of “creative nonfiction.” The book begins with a pair of epilogues on photography by well-known photographers that are immediately followed by a color photograph of a bridge upon which parts of a phrase or sentence have been written in bright red marker, then four more color photographs, each of which are accompanied by a single sentence that forms a prologue in which the narrator recalls teaching her younger sibling to speak. This book—or so that scribbled-on photo seems to suggest—wants to be the bridge across which the two languages of words and images will cross as equals.

Croft Pont des Arts

The two epilogues are curious in themselves, suggesting that we are holding a book in which secrecy is going to prevail over revelation.

Henri Cartier-Bresson: “We photographers deal in things that are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished, there is no contrivance on earth that can make them come back again.”

Diane Arbus: “A picture is a secret about a secret. The more it tells the less you know.”

If this is Croft’s own memoir (and it sure looks that way), she tells the story in fairly distant third person, with only minimal omniscience into the mind of Amy, who would be her stand-in. Amy and Zoe build a close relationship, often around shared secrets, as they grow up in a slightly dysfunctional family that is forced to face a series of challenges. The first challenge is the concussion Zoe receives as a preschooler while playing with her grandfather, which will have lifelong, frightening consequences for her. The second is the suicide of Sasha, Amy’s Russian tutor, and Amy’s sense of guilt that something she did might have contributed to his decision. The third is Amy’s own suicide attempt at college. Each of these three events happen mostly, if not completely, out of our sight, as if the narrator is still not ready to deal with these issues. Here is the narrator describing how fifteen-year old Amy learns from her mother about the suicide of Sasha, on whom she had a huge crush.

She tells her. Amy says oh the way she’d say it to someone she didn’t know, like she means to say okay but forgot to finish.

Then their mother tries to give her a hug, but now Amy recoils, eyes bulging, blood cold. Their mother tries again. Amy pushes her away, hard as she can. Their mother staggers back, and for one split second, she doesn’t seem to know what she should do. Amy stares and backs away.

Amy runs out of the house and stays away until late in the night. We don’t learn until six pages later what Amy has been told—that Sasha has shot himself. Croft’s sparse narrative and minimal commentary makes these tragic moments somehow all the more shocking. Throughout Homesick a number of disturbing events are quietly mentioned almost in passing and I found myself stopping to reread the brief part about the young boy who killed himself at summer camp or the crazy neighbor who shot his family then climbed into the tree in the backyard before he killed himself or the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City or the uncle who raped and tried to murder his girlfriend or. . .

What keeps Amy afloat, beside her love for her sister, are her language studies and her photography. Early on she discovers an affinity for foreign languages, especially Russian. “Each time a Russian word meets an English word it generates a spark.” When she is just twelve, her parents recruit the handsome Sasha (who is probably a college student) to be her tutor. Here is Amy studying one of her Russian language textbooks:

The final chapter is titled What We Need for the Table. It teaches the dative singular and the ordinal numerals. . . .The sub-chapters in the final chapter of the first-year textbook are Buying Groceries; Age; Expressing Fondness, Need, Uncertainty, and Desire; and Time by the Clock. Amy finds it impossible not to say something incriminating when she tries to use the dative singular in expressions of fondness, need, uncertainty, and desire, so in her homework, she focuses on food.

At fifteen, Amy becomes the youngest student ever to enroll in the Tulsa University. After she graduates she moves to Europe and by the end of the book “she has just won the world’s largest translation prize.” But she has now failed to keep in touch with her sister for years.

As young children, both Amy and Zoe had taken photographs with the family’s Polaroid camera. Amy eventually graduated to her own camera and took up photography seriously. But one day, living in Europe, she lays out rows and rows of the photographs she has made over the years—landscapes, animals, flowers, and more—and decides “first, that every picture she has every taken has been a portrait, and, second, that every portrait is a portrait of Zoe.” “What she wants—what she’s always wanted—is to capture and to fix forever the presence of her sister, to contain her, to never let her go, or break, or even change.” She phones her sister and soon Zoe joins her in Paris for a reunion.

The book’s secretiveness carries through to the very end of Homesick. The final brief chapter has the heading “The last portrait Amy takes of her sister is a picture of some hot pink letters on the thick transparent railing of the Ponts des Arts.” I’m not sure how to interpret “the last portrait.” Is Zoe now dead and is this book her memorial? Or does that simply indicate the Paris reunion was the cut-off date for the memoir? Homesick feels exceptionally personal, private, and I felt like a trespasser at times, wanting to ask questions that suddenly seemed too intimate (but that really weren’t).

It is through the book’s photographs and their accompanying texts that Croft allows the adult Amy to directly address her sister. What Croft does is add text beneath most of her images, texts that are written in Amy’s voice and sometimes speak directly to her sister about their relationship, but occasionally reflect on language, the original meaning of certain words, and on translation. But even then, I suspect, they reflect back on her relationship with Zoe.

Screen Croft 2

Words are worlds, with capacities enough for polar opposites, like left, meaning remaining and departed, or oversight, both supervision and failure to see.

In the long history of novels that add photographs into their “text,” the photographs remain secondary citizens 99% of the time. I can think of only a handful of novels in which the photographs are given parity with the text in any meaningful way—as Croft does in Homesick—and they nearly always occur when the writer also thinks of himself or herself as equally a photographer: Wright Morris and Quintan Ana Wikswo come immediately to mind. Croft’s book contains family photographs (credited to herself and her mother), as well as numerous color and black-and-white photographs that she took of her sister, of still lifes, on her travels. The relationship between the images and text pairings is never obvious. At times I would intuit a connection but usually I found I couldn’t prove it existed.

Homesick, published this year by The Unnamed Press in Los Angeles, is a remarkable book for the unique way in which Croft manages to make text and photography work through and around each other as equals. It’s a memoir that is as much about privacy and shared secrets as it is about revelation. And in this age of rampant self-exposure, this seems strangely welcome.

 

 

 

The Backlisted Podcast Visits ‘The Rings of Saturn’

Backlisted

My favorite literary podcast does Sebald! Yes! The crew at Backlisted: The Literary Podcast (John Mitchinson and Andy Miller) plus guests Philip Hoare and Jessie Greenglass discuss W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn in episode 105, which was let loose on the world November 11. Here’s the description of the full episode from the podcast’s website:

In this episode John and Andy are joined by Philip Hoare, a broadcaster, curator, filmmaker and writer whose books include biographies of Stephen Tennant and Noel Coward, the historical studies Wilde’s Last StandSpike Island: The Memory of a Military Hospital, and England’s Lost Eden.  His book Leviathan or, The Whale won the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction. His most recent book, RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR, is published by Fourth Estate. Philip presented the BBC Arena film The Hunt for Moby-Dick, and directed three films for BBC’s Whale Night.  He is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Readhttp://www.mobydickbigread.com.  

The second guest is the writer, Jessie Greengrass, the author of two books. Her first, the short story collection, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It, won the Edge Hill Prize and a Somerset Maugham award (and was enthusiastically praised by John in the episode of Backlisted devoted to Huysmans). Her novel, Sight, was published in 2018, and was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and longlisted for the Wellcome Prize. Jessie lives in Northumberland with her partner and their two children.

The main book under discussion is The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald, first published in German by Eichborn Verlag in 1995 and in an English translation by Michael Hulse by the Harvill Press in 1998. Before that, John ventures back in timed space with The Years by Annie Ernaux and Andy is blown away by Vertigo & Ghost by Fiona Benson.

The foursome have an intelligent, wide-ranging discussion of the book, including Sebald’s use of photographs. Hoare, who goes swimming every morning at 3:00 AM (think about that for a moment!), talks about the “echo space” wherever photographs appear in Sebald’s texts—”where the words stop and the picture takes over.” Greenglass thinks of Sebald’s books as those “curious complicated cabinets” in which you can’t see the joints. I was so inspired by the comments on the books by Annie Ernaux and Fiona Benson that I immediately ordered both. Go have a listen.

A Stranger’s Pose

Iduma Stranger

Emmanuel Iduma’s A Stranger’s Pose is a discontinuous journey that zigzags across parts of north Africa. As a traveler who often lacks the local language, Iduma and the people he meets are constantly forced to assess each other with little or no language. The camera that he carries can be perceived as a threat or an invitation. Finding a common language—even if it is simply gestural— is the first priority.

The book consists of seventy-seven short pieces that include brief stories, conversations, dreams, reflections, poems, and photographs that are credited to Iduma and a dozen or so others. The book covers a swath of the continent that spans from Casablanca and Rabat in the North to Dakar in the West and Addis Ababa in the east. The seeming lack of structure, be it geographic or temporal, struck me as one of the book’s strengths, because it instantly converts the reader into a traveler, waking up in a new place daily, coming across strangers in a strange land every few pages. As Rebecca Solnit’s book A Field Guide to Getting Lost constantly reminds us, travel is a kind of dream state in which we are unmoored from almost everything familiar.

A Stranger’s Pose is occasionally haunted by the submerged history slavery. But more frequently, it briefly crosses paths with a few of the millions of African refugees and would-be asylum seekers. In Kidira, Senegal, for example, Iduma is casually talking with a man who is headed toward Europe to seek asylum when the police approach and ask for their papers. Iduma has a passport but the other man has no papers and is taken away. “Now,” Iduma suddenly sees “it is clear that our relationship  was not among equals.” He ponders going to the police station to try to help the man but realizes he hadn’t even asked his name yet.

The book is the result of numerous trips, some made alone and some with a “rotating group of photographers, visual artists, and writers” called the Invisible Borders Trans-African Photographers’ Organization. And thus the book vacillates between the collective experiences of the group and the more personal, sometimes riskier experiences that Iduma has when he travels alone, negotiating such things as road blocks, corrupt police, and drug dealers. All of this—the group travel, the continual movement, the uncertain strangers—forces Iduma to stay focused on the surface. He describes people’s poses, the look in their eyes, what their hands do. He has the photographer’s conviction in the visual, but often I wanted him to linger, to write more, to look deeper. But that’s another book. In this one, Iduma is content to mostly look for the decisive moment and move on.

Along the way, Iduma writes about other photographers (notably Malick Sidibé) and a number of his fellow African writers. He tells one story about a very peculiar photograph that was related to him by a Yoruba octogenarian. She had been one of three triplets, the other two being boys who had been tragically killed. Her parents, believing that a photograph would substitute for a traditional effigy of the deceased, commissioned a photographer to “make a portrait” of the triplets. The girl posed as herself, then dressed in her brother’s clothes. Two versions of the male portrait stood in for the dead brothers in the portrait of the triplets.

I was really surprised and pleased to see this particular story appear in Iduma’s book, because a copy of this photograph is in the Stephen Sprague Archive at the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography, where I was Curator and then Director for nearly twenty-five years. I helped acquire the Sprague Archive, which included the materials he collected for his MIT Press book Yoruba Photography: How the Yoruba See Themselves. Sprague was a professor of photography and film at Purdue University when he died way too young at the age of thirty-seven.

Sprague Triplets 2

 

 

Last Exit

Craig Panthers

I’m not sure why authors sometimes want to signal to us in advance what the experience of reading their book is going to be like. Maybe it’s a momentary crisis of self-doubt or an honest attempt to assist the reader. On pages 5 and 6, Jen Craig tells us what we should expect as we read her book Panthers & the Museum of Fire. “You have to imagine a book,” the narrator (also named Jen Craig) tells us, before clarifying that the book she is referring to is really a manuscript.

As soon as you started the manuscript, you would find yourself waiting for it to start, to really start. You kept flicking pages and reading and flicking—not skipping any pages, but flicking them all the same—and the whole time you were reading you were waiting for the story in the manuscript to start for real. This feeling, you have to realise, kept up the whole time. There was never a moment when you thought you had started on the section of the manuscript where the real part began. At first you would have been flicking the pages and thinking, well she could have cut these paragraphs and all of these pages here, cut all of it so far, and yet this feel of needing to cut most of what you were reading persisted until the end. In fact the whole of the reading seemed to be just the prelude to a reading; it pulled you along from one sentence to the next, and you held on for some reason, never doubting for an instant that the real part of the story would be about to begin; and even when you knew, later on, when it was evidently too late, that there was no real part—when you watched yourself holding on to your role in the reading like an idiotic fool, holding on for the real part to begin when all the time there never was a real part, all the time there was nothing but the reading of the manuscript one word after another.

This is, more or less, is an accurate description of what it is like to read Craig’s basically plotless book. The narrator is in Sydney, Australia where she is in the midst of a 90-minute walk that is probably calculated to be the time it might take to read this 121-page book. She is carrying the aforementioned manuscript which was written by her friend Sarah, whose funeral she attended the previous week. Jen is returning the manuscript to Sarah’s sister, Pamela. But here’s the thing. Jen has desperately wanted to be a writer her whole life though she has failed to produce anything of value. Sarah, on the other hand, who had never hinted at any interest in writing, has left behind a manuscript called “Panthers & the Museum of Fire,” a manuscript that, now that Jen has read it, is everything Jen wishes she could have produced. And then before you know it, Jen has had her coffee with Pamela, the manuscript has been returned, and suddenly we realize the circle has been completed and we have just read a book conveniently called Panthers & The Museum of Fire.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently put the verb “to complexify” in the public’s forefront in his remarkable exposé of the attempt to blackmail him using sexually explicit photographs. Complexify is what writers often do when they want to simulate human consciousness. As Jen walks, Craig layers her prose with the the sights and sounds of the streets of Sydney, with Jen’s memories of Sarah, with various other memories from Jen’s past, with conversations Jen had with Pamela, and with the conversation Jen had as she cooked dinner last night for her best friend Raf. And, instead of having Jen narrate directly to the reader, Craig often has Jen narrate something in the guise of “as I said to Raf that time…” Complexifying. Every once in a while (six times in all), the reader is reminded of the physicality of Jen’s walk by the appearance of a full-page photograph of pavement.

panthersdecember

[Three photographs from Panthers & the Museum of Fire from shortaustralianstories.com.au]

If you strip away all the complexifying from Craig’s book, there seems to be no there there. One of Craig’s points is that we read for the pleasure of the complexifying. And, yes, it is a pleasure to read Craig’s book. But by the end of the book it is apparent that some sort of transformation did happen to Jen as she read the manuscript, a transformation that allowed her to write the book we have just read.

In the opening sentence Jen mysteriously announced “For a long time I have dreamed of such a breakthrough,” but it’s not clear for a long time what this refers to. Once upon a time Jen had had a pseudo-religious conversion. She had said to God: “I will believe in You so long as You will make me a great, a famous writer.” Despite all of her attempts, this had never happened. There are hints that Jen somehow worked in the wrong way as a writer, that she looked in the wrong direction for her subject matter. Jen’s father has also tried to be a writer, but in a way that she found embarrassing and demeaning, and several times she mocks her father for his failures.

Sarah’s manuscript is all the more extraordinary to Jen because “it has arisen from someone who appeared to have no longing, no wish for such an achievement at all.” Sarah, by never talking about her ambition, had somehow let the writing come naturally to her. (Is this reflected in the fact that Sarah had been obese while Jen struggled with anorexia?) After reading Sarah’s manuscript, Jen sees the world differently.

All the time I have believed myself to be the protagonist of a writing story—the story of a writer —the kind of story that is as mysterious and alluring as the title of Sarah’s manuscript—a protagonist who herself writes stories that are similarly mysterious and alluring. All the time, wanting to be this kind of writer rather than the one that is staring at my father in his study mirror, that rust-spotted mirror in his writing room under the stairs—where everyday he gets up from the couch he keeps in the room for the purpose of resting his eyes and washes out his socks and his underpants in the garage sink so that his wife (my mother) will have no excuse to intrude on his writing space—where every day since his retirement from Pennant Hills High School he’s sat in his corduroys at his desk in the room under the stairs and stared at his ancient IBM with the DOS instructions and the half-dead printer (whose ribbon he re-inks by hand, purpling his reddening, calcifying, blistering fingers—his circulation slowing down), trying to get out the writing, as he puts it, this writing that is killing him, this writing that is the cancer that is destroying his life, which fouls his breath, which drives away his only child and falsifies his wife, which has constructed a warren of impossibilities around him.

As is pretty obvious, many of the quirks in Craig’s style are nicely adapted from Thomas Bernhard—reconstructed conversations, pointing out our reliance on clichés by placing them in italics (“you take your life into your hands” or “being on the ball“), etc. But without any access to Sarah’s manuscript, we don’t really understand what caused Jen’s breakthrough. There might be some clues here and there, but I don’t think they tell us why Jen suddenly found herself able to become a writer.

The title of Sarah’s manuscript and Craig’s book, by the way, refers to an exit sign on a highway in Sydney. The Panthers are a rugby team and the Museum of Fire is exactly that.

Jen Craig. Panthers & the Museum of Fire. New South Wales, Australia: Spineless Wonders, 2015. Cover design and photography credited to Bettina Kaiser. There is a nice, short video clip of someone (the author perhaps?) reading from the book over on Vimeo.

 

 

Photography-Embedded Fiction & Poetry 2018

Here is my bibliography of works of fiction and poetry published in 2018 containing embedded photographs.  If you know of a book that I have not mentioned, please let me know in a comment. My thanks to the many Vertigo readers who have already pointed out books that I had not known about. [Added to March 6, 11, April 24, June 5, November 12, December 3, 18, 2019, January 21, March 31, April 8, 22, July 27, August 6, 2020.]

Averill Found

Thomas Fox Averill. Found Documents from the Life of Nell Johnson Doerr. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2018. An entirely fictional biography told through journals, letters, photographs, drawings, notes, and clippings supposedly left behind by Nell Doerr, who lived in Lawrence, Kansas, between 1854 and 1889.

 

Boglione Foul Weather 1

Riccardo Boglione. It Is Foul Weather In Us All. Hastings, England: Ma Bibliothèque, 2018. Following a tradition that started with Marcel Duchamp with “Readymade Malheureux,” Boglione asked twelve artists to leave copies of Shakespeare’s The Tempest out in the rain. He then photographed pages from each of the examples and recreated the play in this volume.

Chiykowski Postcards

Peter Chiykowski. Postcards from Impossible Worlds: The Collected Shortest Story. Peterborough, Canada: ChiZine Publications, 2018. Hyper short stories, often in the form of jokes or a brief sentence or two, typeset on postcard-shaped photographs.

Dickinson Anatomic

Adam Dickinson. Anatomic. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2018. “The poems of Anatomic have emerged from biomonitoring and microbiome testing on the author’s body to examine the way the outside writes the inside, whether we like it or not. Adam Dickinson drew blood, collected urine, swabbed bacteria, and tested his feces to measure the precise chemical and microbial diversity of his body. To his horror, he discovered that our “petroculture” has infiltrated our very bodies with pesticides, flame retardants, and other substances. He discovered shifting communities of microbes that reflect his dependence on the sugar, salt, and fat of the Western diet, and he discovered how we rely on nonhuman organisms to make us human, to regulate our moods and personalities. Structured like the hormones some of these synthetic chemicals mimic in our bodies, this sequence of poems links the author’s biographical details (diet, lifestyle, geography) with historical details (spills, poisonings, military applications) to show how permeable our bodies are to the environment.” (From the publisher’s website.) With b&w and color photographs scattered throughout the book, plus a separate plate section.

cover

Forrest Gander. Be With. NY: New Directions, 2018. Contains a poem sequence called “Littoral Zone,” which consists of six photographs by Michael Flomen, each facing a section of the poem that, at least in part, includes verbal equivalents and/or references to the image. See my review of this book here.

decarava sweet flypaper

Langston Hughes and Roy DeCarava. The Sweet Flypaper of Life. NY: First Print Press, 2018. First published in 1955, this classic collaboration about life in Harlem began when Langston Hughes saw Roy DeCarava’s photographs and decided to base a new story around them. A beautifully-produced new edition that pays special attention to the printing of stunning DeCarava’s photographs. With a new Afterword by the photographer’s widow Sherry Turner DeCarava.

iduma pose

Emmanuel Iduma. A Stranger’s Pose. Abuja, Nigeria: Cassava Republic Press, 2018. From the publisher that launched Teju Cole back in 2007, comes this book of travel writing and b&w photography across parts of Africa. Iduma acknowledges that the book is an “imaginative gesture” and in his Foreword Cole calls the book “a ballad in which there is no need to separate dreams from the things which one experiences in a waking state.”

Jackson Riddance

Shelley Jackson. Riddance. n.p. Black Balloon, 2018. Jackson’s novel about a school for “Ghost Speakers & Hearing-Mouth Children” contains many photographs.

bosun new juche

New Juche [pseudonym]. Bosun. Paris: Kiddiepunk, 2018. A book that reads at times like a 21st century version of Jean Genet, with photographs by the author of the aging, deteriorating architecture in Rangoon.

 

kluge temple

Alexander Kluge. Temple of the Scapegoat: Opera Stories. NY: New Directions, 2018. Contains more than a dozen uncredited photographs (many of which are film stills) and reproductions of several old prints – all opera themed.

kopf brother

Alicia Kopf. Brother in Ice. Sheffield: And Other Stories, 2018. English translation from the Catalan original Germà de gel of 2015 by Mara Feye Lethem. A hybrid novel blending research into polar explorations with a coming-of-age story of becoming an artist and having an autistic brother. Contains drawings and uncredited photographs.

Lerner Snows

Ben Lerner & Alexander Kluge. The Snows of Venice: The Lerner-Kluge Container. Leipzig: Spector Books, 2018. Poems, stories and conversations by Lerner and Kluge, along with a series of 21 photographs that Gerhard Richter took in Venice in the 1970s, as well as images by Rebecca H. Quaytman and Thomas Demand.

Lilley tilt

Kate Lilley. Tilt. Sydney: Vagabond Press, 2018. Poetry with three photographs and several other small images.

nguyen ghost of

Diana Khoi Nguyen. Ghost of. Oakland: Omnidawn, 2018. Poems with ten altered family photographs, several of which are used more than once.

Chronology Patterson

Zahra Patterson. Chronology. Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018. The publisher calls this a work of “nonfiction/essay,” but Patterson’s book converses so directly with Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s 1982 book Dictee that I felt it has to be included in this collection. Chronology is about Patterson’s failed attempt to translate a Sesotho short story into English, which, among many other topics, leads Patterson to reflect on the relationship between language and colonialism. The book combines emails, bits o memoir, handwritten notes, press releases, other texts, lists of words in Sesotho and English that verge on poetry, and loose reproductions of photographs that are inserted between specific pages of the book as illustrations.

Peace patient x

David Peace. Patient X: The Case-Book of Ryûnosuke Akutagawa. NY: Knopf, 2018. Stories based on the stories and life of the Japanese writer Akutagawa. Each one is preceded by an illustration, some of which are historic photographs that relate to the story.

Prynne oval

J.H. Prynne. The Oval Window. Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2018. This “new annotated edition” of Prynne’s 1983 poem is now combined with photographs he made at the time and place of the poem’s composition.

Riggs Map

Ransom Riggs. A Map of Days. NY: Dutton, 2018. The fourth in the series of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children’s books, in which Riggs uses his collection of vernacular photographs to support the storyline.

robertson take

Robin Robertson. The Long Take. London: Picador, 2018. A book-length “noir narrative” poem that takes place in the US between 1946 and 1953, focusing on a D-Day veteran with PTSD. With nine historic photographs.

tillman men

Lynne Tillman. Men and Apparitions. NY: Soft Skull, 2018. Tillman’s narrator is an ethnographer of family photographs who embarks on a study of the “new man,” born under the sign of feminism. With numerous family snapshots reproduced.

Walsh Break

Joanna Walsh. Break. up. South Pasadena: Semiotext(e), 2018. Walsh’s narrator pursues an affair mostly online through texts, emails and DMs as she travels across Europe. Scattered throughout are snapshots that suggest travel without explicitly depicting places.

Ybarra dinner

Gabriela Ybarra. The Dinner Guest. London: Harvill Secker, 2018. First English translation. A novel about the 1977 kidnapping and murder of Ybarra’s grandfather. With two photographs of the author’s father, the famous photograph of the Swiss writer Robert Walser lying dead in the snow, and a grouping of twenty-eight tiny photographs taken off a computer of the author’s mother and some gravestones. A translation by Natasha Wimmer from the 2015 Spanish original El Comensal.