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Posts from the ‘Embedded photographs’ Category

“We are speaking for our lives”: Carole Maso’s The Art Lover

In the first two brief chapters of Carole Maso’s novel The Art Lover (North Point Press, 1990), we watch a happy family of four—Alison, Candace, and their parents—at play on a beach on a lake in the Berkshire Mountains of New England. These two chapters actually represent the novel that Caroline, the narrator of The Art Lover, is in the midst of writing at the moment when her father dies and she must leave her residence at the Cummington Art Colony and return to New York City to attend to his estate. Her father, Max, was an art historian and professor and is one of several art lovers in Maso’s novel. When she first returns to his apartment and walks among his large library, his paintings, his papers, and even the women’s shoes left in his closet, remnants of his many lovers, she begins to talk to him, which she will do at length throughout the novel. After the very early death of Caroline’s mother, whom Max adored, Max became a distant father, chasing women in a futile effort to find a woman who could equal her. Caroline tells Max (and us) what she has been doing recently. She went to film school for awhile. “I wanted to make documentaries. I wanted to gather evidence. I wanted to record the truth.” But in the end she came back to writing. “I missed language. I missed words.”

I am a big fan of The Art Lover because it is many novels in one. It is a great New York City novel. It’s a novel about art. It’s a novel about the AIDS crisis. It’s a novel filled with photographs, reproductions of artworks, and other kinds of imagery. And it’s a novel about writing a novel. The first time I wrote about The Art Lover in 2016, I was reading a later edition that used Vermeer’s The Art of Painting, ca. 1666-68 on the cover. While two Vermeer paintings are reproduced in The Art Lover (not, however, The Art of Painting), it’s much more appropriate that the true first edition (shown above) reproduces a detail from Giotto’s Resurrection (Noli Me Tangere), ca. 1304-06, one of the series of frescoes in the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy. Excerpts from this painting are reproduced four times in Maso’s novel, and the subject of this painting and the Arena Chapel play key roles in the book. In addition to the obvious allusion of not touching anyone in the early days of AIDS for fear of catching the AIDS “plague,” “noli me tangere,” which is generally translated from the Latin as “touch me not,” also seems to refer to Caroline’s attempt to get some distance from her feelings so that she can better understand the complicated relationship she had with her father when he was alive. And it also refers to her need to write.

I am going to write now. It is a way of telling the truth. Or nearing the truth.
The absolute truth? The literal truth?
Well, yes. Well, no. But something of the whole. Something of what it means to be alive.
I think of the family of father and mother, of two daughters, Candace and Alison, just a word picture for now.
Writing too can keep the world at a distance. One uses “one” instead of “I.”

Giotto. Resurrection (Noli Me Tangere). From the Arena Chapel, Padua, ca. 1304-06

In the novel that Caroline is writing, the older daughter, Alison, visits the Arena Chapel and appears to have a conversation with Jesus, who comments on his mother Mary as she is depicted in the fresco of the Nativity scene.

“Isn’t she beautiful?” he asks, gazing off.
“Why is she so sad?”
“I will die in an oven in Auschwitz. I will be humiliated and killed in Soweto. I will suffer with a young woman who swallows pill after pill, seeing no way out.”
What are you talking about?” Alison thinks.
“I will die a horrendous death over and over and over again from a plague in the late twentieth century.”

Giotto. Nativity. From the Arena Chapel, Padua, ca. 1304-06.

The central plot point of the novel that Caroline is writing comes when the father walks out on his family to live with a much younger woman with whom he has become besotted, much to the disgust and anger of his two daughters. Caroline seems to be taking out her somewhat buried feelings about her own father in the attitudes that she gives Candace and Alison to their errant father. She can’t seem to be angry with him when she talks to his absence in his old apartment. Instead, she speaks to him through her novel-in-progress.

The Art Lover is a blend of memories, conversations with the dead, reactions to real events (e.g., the AIDS crisis and the space shuttle Challenger disaster), and Caroline’s novel-within-the-novel. But Caroline’s ability to hold everything together comes to a head about halfway through the novel, when her close friend, the artist Steven, checks himself into St. Vincent’s hospital. He has AIDS. Steven is a stand-in for Carole Maso’s real friend, the artist Gary Falk, and it is is Falk’s art which is reproduced in the book as Steven’s (a nice extension on my previous three posts about artists invented by writers). Steven’s illness further fragments Caroline’s narrative and causes past and present to elide and the dead to come alive. (It is no surprise that Caroline’s previous novel was titled Delirium.) Jesus has conversations with Candace and Alison. Caroline has a conversation with her dead father that lasts more than ten pages. Carole Maso even drops all pretense of writing a novel several times and writes directly about her relationship with Gary Falk. Maso’s novel ought to be going into free fall by now, but instead it only seems to get richer.

Gary Falk, untitled, n.d.

As Caroline/Carole goes through hell with the increasing illness of Steven/Gary, she can’t help but think of how happy the two friends were growing up and of her recent ecstatic love affair with a married man at the Cummington Art Colony. “Was it our mistake,” Carole asks Gary, “that we loved everything so much?

This is book number 8 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.

“It could have only been written by a Spaniard” — Two More Fake Artists

In his slim little book Because She Never Asked Enrique Vila-Matas tells a story about the artist Rita Malú,* who looks like the famous French artist Sophie Calle, who “dreamed of the day when Sophie Calle would finally realize that she existed,” and who “had become the best Sophie Calle imitator in the world.” (Calle is a conceptual artist who, as Wikipedia concisely says, “is recognized for her detective-like tendency to follow strangers and investigate their private lives.”)

Getting a bit bored one year, Malú decided to open up a detective agency and see what might come her way. Her first client was a woman who asked her to track down her husband, rumored to be in the Azores. To make a short story even shorter I’ll omit numerous complications that occurred along the way. In the end, Malú goes to the Azores and sees a red house that she has dreamed about. Indeed, the missing husband lives there and answers the door.

“A ghost haunts this house,” he tells Malú.
“What ghost?” she asked.
“You,” the old man said, and he softly closed the door.

In the next chapter, Vila-Matas tells us that he wrote “The Journey of Rita Malú” because Sophie Calle asked him to. He writes that she had phoned him and asked him to meet her in Paris, where she requested that he write her a story that she could act out for a year. He agreed to and soon thereafter sent her the story we have just read. Then, in typical Vila-Matas fashion, there were a series of delays, during which 1) he discovers, much to his chagrin, that Calle had asked Paul Auster and numerous other writers first, all of whom turned her down, and 2) he is hospitalized with kidney failure and has to wear an embarrassing catheter and urine bag wherever he goes.

Them abruptly, Vila-Matas back-pedals and admits he made this all up. Sophie Calle never called him.

Why did I pretend that Sophie Calle telephoned me at home? And why did I make believe that she had asked me to write something for her to bring to life? Perhaps I made it all up precisely because she didn’t ask.

And then Vila-Matas writes that he calls a friend who knows Sophie Calle and he asks that his friend ask Sophie Calle to telephone him. Sophie Calle calls him and they agree to meet in Paris where she asks him to write a story that she could act out for a year. Villa-Matas tells us that he turned her down.

(*Rita Malú is also a character who appears in Vila-Matas’ book Bartleby & Co.)

Because She Never Asked (New Directions, 2015). Translated by Valerie Miles from a story first published in Spanish in 2007.


According to the text on the dust jacket, Max Aub’s Jusep Torres Campalans (Doubleday & Co., 1962) is “a fully documented biography of the Catalan painter” who hung around with Picasso in the cafés of Barcelona and then the Paris during the heady days of Cubism, before removing himself to a remote location in Chiapas, Mexico, where he became utterly forgotten until rediscovered by Aub. The biography reproduces a small catalogue from a planned exhibition of Campalans’ work at the Tate Gallery in London in 1942, which reproduces forty-nine of the artist’s (very mediocre) Picasso-esque paintings. (The exhibition was never held because of the war, but the catalogue was printed anyway.)

Only the very end of the book’s long description on the back flap might give the potential reader a hint that Aub’s biography might not be what is seems.

Max Aub’s writing is full of verve and lucidity realistic [sic]; it demonstrates that characteristic quality of Spanish writers, ingenuity. He brings Torres Campalans and the moral and intellectual history of his times to life as if in a picaresque novel. (Is it, in fact, perhaps, a sort of novel?) It could have been written only by a Spaniard, a fellow-countryman of Cervantes—and of Don Quixote.

Aub used aspects of his own life in writing Campalans’ biography. Born in 1903 in Paris to a French mother and a German father, the family had to flee France at the outbreak of World War I because his father’s nationality made him an enemy alien. They went to Spain where Aub took Spanish citizenship. But as a partisan on the losing Republican side during the Spanish Civil War, Aub had to return to France as an exile from his adopted country. Then, at the outbreak of World War II, he was interned in a French concentration camp under suspicion (erroneously) of being a Communist. After nearly two years in a forced labor camp in Algeria, he escaped in 1942 and made his way to Mexico, where he eventually became a citizen. Wikipedia say that while he wrote “nearly 100 novels and plays and is very well known in Spain, only two works are available in English,” one of which is Jusep Torres Campalans.

Ultimately, an astute reader will probably realize that Aub’s biography has a few too many coincidences and other slightly improbable events, but nothing in the book ever comes right out and says that the whole things is a fraud. Which it is.

” The Artist [Jusep Torres Campalans] with Pablo Picasso” from Jusep Torres Campalans. Photomontage by Josep Renau.

In 1964, Aub published a double set of playing cards that he claimed were hand-drawn by Torres Campalans. On the back of each card is the text of a novel about the life of a man named Máximo Ballesteros, a novel which can be read in any order. This was just a year after Julio Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch, which offered readers two possible ways through the novel and it was several years before B.S. Johnson’s now infamous 1969 novel The Unfortunates, which consisted of twenty-seven loose, unbound sections held in a box which could be read in any order the reader desired.

Max Aub, Juego de Cartas. Mexico City: Alejandro Finisterre, Editor, 1964.

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.

Photography-Embedded Fiction & Poetry 2022

Photo-embedded literature—novels and books of poetry which use photographs as an essential element of the “text”—is a core interest of mine and is something I have written about extensively on this blog since I began it in 2007. In 2022, I managed to see or be informed about a small number of newly published examples of photo-embedded literature by writers from Australia, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Great Britain, Ukraine, and the United States. The stories in the anthology Visible: Text + Image include writers from France, Martinique, Mexico, and Poland.

This preliminary listing for 2022 adds to my extensive bibliography of such books for the years from 1892 to the present that can be found underneath the pull-down menu Photo-Embedded Literature at the top of Vertigo. If you know of a book of photo-embedded fiction or poetry that I have not listed yet, please let me know in a comment anywhere on Vertigo. My thanks to the many readers who have already pointed me to books that I had not known about. [Last edited on March 20, 2023.]

Yevgenia Belorusets. Lucky Breaks. NY: New Directions, 2022. Translated from the 2018 Russian original by Eugene Ostashevsky. In her timely book of stories about the impact of war on the ordinary women of Ukraine, writer and photojournalist Belorusets includes a group of twenty-three of her own photographs.

Maud Casey. City of Incurable Women. NY: Bellevue Literary Press, 2022. Casey’s novel about the famous psychiatric ward of the nineteenth century Parisian hospital Salpêtrière includes historic photographs of the hospital and some of the well-known images of its patients made by the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, who single-handedly invented the idea of hysteria.

Joshua Edwards. The Double Lamp of Solitude. Galveston: Rising Tide Projects, 2022. This is an ambitious book of poetry and photographs which Edwards has published without copyright and placed into the public domain. The first section consists of “Three Landscapes,” dedicated to the poets Friedrich Hölderlin, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Miguel Hernández. Each of these “landscapes” consists of a description of a particular landscape that Edwards visited that is associated with one of the poets, several photographs by Edwards, and a translation of one of that poet’s works. The second section consists of twenty-eight poems, most of whose titles begin with “The Lamp of.” Edwards says this is an adaptation of a story in Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style. This is followed by Edwards’ translations of poems by Gabriela Mistral and Gérard de Nerval. The book ends with “Five Plans for Walking Around a Mountain”—five poems, each facing a page with a grid of either four or eight b&w photographs of a hike Edwards made on Mt. Rainier.

Forrest Gander and Jack Shear. Knot. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2022. Gander’s poems respond to twenty-three b&w photographs of a male nude and a black cloth “performing a provocative ballet.”

Sam Jenks. Robinson in Chronostasis: A Surrealist PsychoGeographical Non-Romance. Magdalen Yard Books, 2022. Two men (apparently Jenks and Tsukada) appear to be in the same city as each other and repeatedly fail to meet (although it’s more complex and more fun than that). With many photographs attributed to Koji Tsukada.

Esther Kinsky. Rombo. Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2022. A novel about the effects of two 1976 earthquakes on the lives of people in a small village in northeastern Italy. A thousand people were killed and tens of thousands were left homeless. Rombo focuses on the voices and memories of a handful of villagers. The book includes seven nearly abstract b&w photographs of the surviving fresco in the cathedral at Venzone, Italy. The novel was translated into English by Caroline Schmidt and published in London by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the same year. New York Review Books will publish the American edition in 2023.

Robin Coste Lewis. To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness. NY: Knopf, 2022. This is a monster of a book—380 pages of powerful poetry and an amazing collection of photographs that Lewis’ grandmother had left behind in a suitcase beneath her bed when she died twenty-five years ago. The poems deal with a wide range of topics, including the generation of Lewis’ grandmother, family, the Great Migration north, and Black life in general. The photograph collection mysteriously gathered together by her grandmother shows Black people and daily Black life across the first half of the 20th century. The phrase “perfect helplessness” comes from Matthew Henson, a Black explorer (1866-1955) who went with Robert Peary on seven trips to the Arctic and is believed to have been the first of Peary’s men to reach what they thought was the North Pole. (It probably wasn’t.) Parts of several poems in the book refer to Henson’s experiences. This is a rare book in which the poetry and the photographs interact in sophisticated, often unexpected ways.

Thomas McGonigle. The Bulgarian Psychiatrist. Brooklyn: ‎ Spuyten Duyvil Publishing, 2022. According to Tom Whalen (on Amazon), McGonigle’s novel “examines an immigrant Bulgarian doctor in the US and the US within the immigrant, as narrated by its US author/narrator via free indirect discourse, interviews, photos, monologues, etc.”

Ewald Murrer. The Diary of Mr. Pinke. Prague: Twisted Spoon Press, 2022. Translated from the Czech original by Alice Pišťková, with additional translations by Jed Slast. From the publisher’s website: “Written as a compilation of diary entries, [this book] relates the strange happenings witnessed by a group of villagers—among whom are a rabbi, a magic goat, an ancient Gypsy, a family of unicorn hunters, and a fortuneteller—in an atmospherically surreal Galicia where people and beasts float across the landscape, leaving only cryptic traces of their passage. . . This new English edition includes Murrer’s original full-color collages and is based on the 2018 Czech re-edition that was substantially revised and augmented by the author.”

Caryl Pagel. Free Clean Fill Dirt. Akron: University of Akron Press, 2022. Within this book of poetry are three poems—”Windows I,” “Windows II,” and “Windows III”—which consist exclusively of b&w photographs.

Johny Pitts and Roger Robinson. Home Is Not a Place. William Collins, 2022. Color and b&w photographs by Pitts and poems by Robinson. The pair decided to examine Black life in Britain by exploring the country’s “often overlooked coast,” beginning at Tilbury, where Pocahontas is buried and the Empire Windrush docked in 1948, bringing a new wave of British citizens who were immigrating from the British West Indies.

Bronwyn Rennex. Life with Birds: A Suburban Lyric. Perth: Upswell Publishing, 2022. A memoir that includes poetry and photographs, such as family snapshots and images of a diary. From the publisher’s website: “Told in fragments, it contains a mix of speculation, imagination and guesswork. The reader fills in gaps just as the author has had to. Rather than describing her mother’s grief at her father’s death, Rennex uses her love letters to him alongside her claim for a war widow’s pension.”

Ellis Sharp. Alice in Venice. York: Zoilus Press, 2022. Sharp’s photo-embedded novella is titled to remind us of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, while its only characters—Alice and Alain—overtly track Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 film “Don’t Look Now” throughout Venice. Roeg’s film, in turn, was based on Daphne du Maurier’s last short story of the same name. “Alice feels as if she’s wandered into Roeg’s film.” Sharp’s writing is deliberately disjointed, giving the novella, which is written in the present tense, a hectic feeling. There are scores of b&w photographs of Venice by the author.

Amalie Smith. Thread Ripper. London: Lolli Editions, 2022. Translated from the 2020 Danish original by Jennifer Russell. A double-stranded novel (even the right- and left-hand pages are numbered identically) about 1) young, contemporary weaver undertaking a large digitally woven tapestry for a public building, and 2) Ada Lovelace, the 1830s mathematician who pioneered what we now think of as computer programming, who thinks about Penelope, who wove and unpicked a shroud while putting off her suitors until Odysseus returned. With a number of photographs, some of which reproduce drawings and other works of art.

James Wilson. Eclectica Canticorum. London: Duchy of Lambeth, 2022. A collection of short texts, each accompanied a b&w photograph, “under the influence of selected songs” and each approximately the duration of the song. Nearly all of the photographs are by the author.

James Wilson. In cages, as in dreams. London: Duchy of Lambeth, 2022. Stories, meditations, and parables, each centered around the theme of an animal. With a number of b&w photographs by the author.

Visible: Text + Image. San Francisco: Two Lines Press, 2022. Six short stories that use images in innovative ways. Five of these stories use photographs. Mexican writer Veronica Gerber Bicecci’s “Words and Images” (translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney) contains both drawings and photographs. French writer Marie NDiaye’s “Step of a Feral Cat” (translated from the French by Victoria Baena) contains a single photograph. Mexican writer Rodrigo Flores Sanchez’s selection of poems from “Closed Window” (translated from the Spanish by Robin Myers) includes several photographs printed as negatives. Polish writer Monika Sznajderman’s selection from “The Pepper Forgers” (translated from the Polish by Scotia Gilroy) contains a number of old family photographs (plus reproductions of the backs of each photograph that show the handwritten notes found there). Martinican writer Monchoachi’s poem “The beautiful dream that we unfold and extend” (translated from the French by Eric Fishman) contains a number of b&w photographs by David Damoison.

Revisiting Bruges-la-Morte

Image from: Georges Rodenbach, Bruges-la-Morte. Flammarion, 1892.
Photo by Ch.-G. Petit et Cie., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Over the last fifteen years, I have written about or mentioned Georges Rodenbach’s 1892 novel Bruges-la-Morte numerous times, mostly because it has the distinction of being the first work of fiction in which an author embedded photographs as part of the text, which is one of the themes that I write about often on this blog. But Rodenbach’s novel is also a terrific book to read. Hugues Viane, the main character, is despondent over the death of his wife, which occurred five years earlier. He spends much of his time walking the streets and along the canals of the ancient city of Bruges. During one of these walks he will spot his deceased wife’s doppelgänger, a dancer who looks exactly like her. At this moment, his grief becomes transformed into an obsession. He must possess this woman! He pursues her and woos her and ultimately convinces her to try to live and act like his previous wife. Needless to say, this ends in tragedy.

The photographs Rodenbach selected for his novel came from a French commercial photographer and depict a city of ancient buildings, melancholy canals, and bridges nearly emptied of people. He wanted to echo Viane’s inner loneliness and longing, but he also realized that photographs would help convey his idea that the city itself was a principal character in his book. “What we seek to suggest,” he wrote in his Preface, was that the city was “directing the action; its urban landscapes no longer mere backdrops.”

Rodenbach (1855-1898) was a Belgian lawyer turned writer who is variously described as a Symbolist or a Decadent. Ironically, although his father and grandfather had lived in Bruges, Rodenbach never lived in the city himself. “Every city is a state of mind,” he wrote, and Bruges seemed to be his state of mind.

And that is why, since these scenes of Bruges impinge upon the story, it is vital to reproduce them here interspersed between the pages: quays, deserted streets, old houses, canals, beguinages, churches, silversmiths offering liturgical wares, belfries, so our readers will also be subject to the presence and influence of the City, feel the contagion of the neighboring waters, sense in their turn the shadow of the high towers reaching across the text.

The writer, poet, and translator Will Stone has made a new translation of Bruges-la-Morte for Wakefield Press, which is “devoted to the translation of overlooked gems and literary oddities.” This edition is also notable for being the only English edition of Rodenbach’s novel still in print to include all thirty-five of the original photographs that appeared in the first French edition.

Georges Rodenbach. Bruges-la-Mort. Flammarion, 1892, page 1.

The English speaker who wishes to read Bruges-la-Morte actually has four choices, so I thought it might be useful to briefly compare the editions available. I will also quote the translation of the book’s second paragraph so you can get a tiny sense of each translator’s voice.

Atlas Press, 1993

The first is a 1903 translation by Thomas Watson Duncan, done for the London publisher Swan Sonnenschein & Co. (I’ve taken the quote just below from the Google Books version of this edition). In 1993, London’s avant-garde Atlas Press reissued this translation, newly revised by Terry Hale (who also wrote an introduction). Perhaps because Duncan was still writing within the same time period as Rodenbach, his translation feels very evocative to my ear. This edition also reprinted the original photographs from the first French edition. It is now out-of-print, but used copies can be found online here and there.

Hugh Viane made his preparations for the desultory ramble with which it was his wont to close the afternoon. Solitary and unoccupied, it was his custom to kill the ennui of his existence by reading a little among the old volumes that lined the walls of the vast apartment of the Quai de Rosaire which he rarely quitted; smoking a great deal, and dreaming much at the open window of a bygone happiness.

Translation by Thomas Duncan, 1903.
University of Scranton Press

In 1986, Philip Mosley, professor of English and comparative literature at Penn State Scranton, made the first contemporary translation of Bruges-la-Morte for the Scottish publisher Wilfion Books, but it is now kept in print by the University of Scranton Press and distributed through the University of Chicago Press. This stripped-down version of the book contains an Introduction by Mosley but no images at all. Mosley has also written Georges Rodenbach: Critical Essays (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996), a French/English bi-lingual book that is now out-of-print.

As was his daily custom in the late afternoon, Hugues Viane was getting ready to go out. Lonely and idle, he tended to spend whole days on the first floor in his vast bedroom, whose windows overlooked the Quai du Rosaire along which, mirrored in the water, stretched the frontage of his house.

Translation by Philip Mosley, 2007.
Dedalus Books, 2005

The Dedalus Books edition from 2005, with a new translation by veteran translator Mike Mitchell, has been frequently reprinted and is also the only edition currently available as an ebook. It has a wonderful Introduction by the British novelist Alan Hollinghurst, and it took the innovative step of substituting contemporary photographs made by Will Stone for the nineteenth-century ones of Bruges that Rodenbach had used. While I longed for the original images, this fascinating experiment demonstrated how little Bruges has changed in some ways since Rodenbach’s day well more than a century ago. The Dedalus edition also includes a bonus translation by Will Stone of a shorter Rodenbach essay called The Death Throes of Towns, written in 1889, that “leads the reader to the ‘cemetery’ of dead towns in old Flanders” and “feels like a blueprint” for Bruges-la-Morte, according to Stone.

Hugues Viane was preparing to go out, as was his daily habit at the end of the afternoon. Solitary, with nothing to occupy his time, he would spend the whole day in his room, a vast retreat on the first floor whose windows looked out onto the Quai de Rosaire, along which the façade of his house stretched, mirrored in the canal.

Translation by Mike Mitchell, 2009.
Wakefield Press, 2022

The newest kid on the block is the translation made by Will Stone, although he is no newcomer to translating Rodenbach. In addition to his translation of the essay The Death Throes of Towns, he selected and translated the poems and wrote the Introduction for Georges Rodenbach: Selected Poems (Arc Publications) in 2016. In this newest edition, Wakefield Press has wisely gone back to the original French photographs. This Wakefield edition is is comfortable pocket-sized volume (7 x 4 1/2 inches) with French flaps, which I like.

Hugues Viane was preparing to go out, as was his custom toward late afternoon. Solitary and with little to occupy his time, he would spend the whole day in his large room on the second floor, whose windows gave onto the Quai du Rosaire along which his house extended, mirrored in the water.

Translation by Will Stone, 2022.
Flammarion, 1892

If you’d like to try your own hand at translating, here is Rodenbach’s paragraph in its original French.

Hugues Viane se disposa à sortir, comme il en avait l’habitude quotidienne à la fin des après-midi. Inoccupé, solitaire, il passait toute la journée dans sa chambre, une vaste pièce au premier étage, dont les fenêtres donnaient sur le quai du Rosaire, au long duquel s’alignait sa maison, mirée dans l’eau.

Georges Rodenbach. Bruges-la-morte. Paris: Flammarion, 1892.

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.

Photo-Embedded Fiction – The Seminal Books

“What’s the use of a book, thought Alice, without pictures or conversations?”

Alice in Wonderland
Adam Scoville. Mothlight. Influx Press, 2019.

If you have never explored the pull-down menus at the top of my blog, the one titled Photo-Embedded Literature can serve as an Open Sesame! to a very curious collection of fiction and poetry titles. At first glance, photographs and works of fiction seem as if they ought to mix like oil and water. Although we now know otherwise, fiction is supposed to about, well, fiction, stuff that is made up, not real. And, although we now know otherwise, photography is supposed to reflect reality. When one of photography’s first inventors, the British gentleman scientist named William Henry Fox Talbot, published the very first book using photographs, he called it The Pencil of Nature (1844-1846), representing the widespread belief that nature itself drew the images we were seeing in photographs.

It took a while for novelists and poets to come around to the idea of embedding photographs into their texts in ways that were more nuanced than simply illustrating the characters and places they were writing about. They were able to do so once photography was perceived to have values beyond the pure depiction of reality. In the 1870s, a significant number of photographers began to argue that photography possessed an aesthetics that could rival that of painting and the other arts. When the Belgian Symbolist writer Georges Rodenbach began to serialize his novel Bruges-la-Morte in the Paris newspaper Figaro before publishing it in book form in 1892, he saw the potential for a certain type of photography to convey distinctive attitudes about cities, loneliness, longing, and even death. Since then, many hundreds of books of fiction and poetry have been published in which the author has inserted photographs in his or her text. They’ve been written in dozens of languages by writers from scores of countries around the globe. This blog, Vertigo, is the only active online resource for photographic text/image fiction and poetry. My bibliography, which currently lists nearly a thousand titles, covers the period from 1892 to the present and is updated continuously as I learn of new books.

At the suggestion of a Vertigo reader, I have thought long and hard about the many hundreds of books in my list and these are the handful that I consider to be the seminal works of photo-embedded fiction that have been published over the last one hundred twenty-plus years. In chronological order, these are the few books that I feel have been the most influential on other writers considering their own image-text works of fiction and for creating an audience of receptive readers to this mix of media. If you want to know the truly key books, start here.

1. Georges Rodenbach. Bruges-la-Morte. Paris: Flammarion, 1892. Someday we may learn that someone other than the Belgian Symbolist writer Rodenbach (1855-1898) was the first person to think of combining photographs with a work of fiction or poetry, but his book Bruges-la-Morte is the one widely known and recognized for its daring and originality. This was the book that made the combination of a fictional text and photographs to seem like a natural marriage. The dreamy images of Bruges and its canals that he inserted into the pages of his book are a perfect match for his death-infused story of a man grieving for his dead wife. The images were supplied by two Paris commercial photography studios. Flammarion has reissued the French edition recently, and as of 2022 I am told that their paperback edition is currently the only edition that still reproduces all thirty-five of the original photographs. The most useful modern edition in English is the one published by Atlas Press (1993), which includes some, but not all of the original photographs. For more about Bruges-la-Morte on my blog, look here.

2. Andre Breton. Nadja. Paris: Gallimard, 1928. Nearly a century after it was published, the diversity and inventiveness of the imagery in Andre Breton’s photo-embedded Surrealist novel Nadja still serves as a touchstone for writers thinking about using photographs in their fiction. Nadja tracks the narrator’s brief infatuation with a woman he meets by accident one day. Her wildness and lack of inhibition unlocks new and unforeseen possibilities for the narrator, who is immediately captivated by her eyes. But he stops seeing her after he realizes that she is truly mad, and she is eventually committed to a sanitarium. In his imagination, though, the memory of their time together comes to feel even more powerful than the days they actually spent together. The book includes forty-four photographs, some of which are by the famous American Surrealist photographer Man Ray. I highly recommend the enjoyable, readily-available English translation of Nadja from New Directions. In 1937, Breton (1896-1966) wrote a second, equally famous photo-embedded novel called l’Amour Fou, or Mad Love, but it isn’t quite the touchstone that Nadja is. I have written more about Nadja here.

3. Wright Morris. The Inhabitants. NY: Scribner’s, 1946. Wright Morris (1910-1998) was a true cross-over artist. He was an established novelist, who published nineteen novels and won the National Book Award for Fiction twice—in 1957 and again in 1981. He had his photography exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art for the first time in 1941 and had five books devoted to his own photographs published. The Inhabitants was the first of three novels that Morris wrote, specifically intended to be accompanied by his own photographs. In general, this book is laid out with his images printed fully on one page and his ongoing text on the opposite, creating an equality between text and images that is rare. Morris followed this up with The Home Place in 1948, but Scribner’s refused to let him pursue a third photo-embedded novel. Though he eventually published a number of non-fiction titles that included his photography, it wasn’t until 1980 that he was able to release his third and final novel with photographs, Plains Song: For Female Voices with a new publisher (Harper and Row). Morris’s 1999 book Time Pieces: Photographs, Writing, and Memory (Aperture) devotes several essays to the subject of combining images and text. Unfortunately, The Inhabitants is the only one of the six books I am writing about in this post that is currently not in print.

4. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Dictee. NY: Tanam Press, 1982. Now recognized as one of the key works in twentieth century avant-garde literature, Dictee was ignored for years by mainstream readers and critics, although it instantly became something of a cult classic, especially among Asian American artists and writers. Cha’s book is a multilingual experiment in feminist autobiography that blends poetry and prose, history and memoir. As the title suggests, one of its central concerns is language and the construction of meaning. To make her points, Cha makes liberal use of film theory and radical typography. Dictee contains numerous news photographs, portraits and reproductions of documents, including some depicting the author’s own manuscript for Dictee, thus anticipating the way in which Sebald used embedded imagery by years. Poet, writer, and filmmaker Cha (1951-1982) was raped and murdered by a total stranger in New York City just days after her book was published. I have written more about the book here. On January 10, 2022, nearly thirty years after her death, The New York Times published an “Overlooked” obituary for her here. Thankfully, the University of California Press is keeping this essential book in print.

5. Nick Bantock. Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence. SF: Chronicle Books, 1991. Griffin & Sabine, written and created by the British artist and book cover designer Nick Bantock (b. 1949), is the first volume of a now-famous trilogy of fanciful stories for children of all ages that uses photographs, maps, postage stamps, and all manner of images with great freedom and imagination, as well as the inclusion of actual letters and envelopes and postcards—all in service of an epistolary novel of romance and mystery. Bantock single-handedly started a genre of books, which I think of as interactive graphic novels. As he says in his sort-of autobiography The Artful Dodger, “when word and picture marry, the left and right sides of the brain operate simultaneously.” The success of Bantock’s books has undoubtedly opened the doors for more photo-embedded books. Literary critics may not pay books like this much attention, but publishers do.

6. W.G. Sebald. The Emigrants. 1996. There’s no doubt that the publication in English of The Emigrants opened the floodgates for new books of fiction and poetry which employed photographs. (It had been previously published in German.) Combined, Sebald’s four great photo-embedded books—The Emigrants, Vertigo, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz—also did more than those of any other author to tilt the world of literature in the direction of autofiction. By refusing to call his books fiction and insisting on the term “prose fiction,” Sebald (1944-2001) showed the way for writers to hue much closer to non-fiction and still have their books thought of as works of the imagination. And with the exception of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha‘s Dictee and a small handful of other books, Sebald used photography in a far richer and more complex manner than almost any previous writer.

I’ll be dealing with books of poetry with embedded photographs in the near future.

John Updike. Midpoint and Other Poems. Knopf, 1969.


Prosopagnosia & Other Predicaments in “Happenstance,” the Graphic Novel Done in Photographs

Meet Rebecca & Paul and Alex & Chris, two youngish couples who live in Ithaca, New York. Paul and his significant other, Rebecca, are Jews, except that Paul is secretly exploring the idea of converting to Christianity. He and his new acquaintance, Chris, who is struggling with her evangelical Christianity and with religion in general, go for long walks and talk about God, the universe, faith, and other weighty matters. Chris and her girlfriend, Alex, are a lesbian couple, a relationship that is troubled by the fact that Chris won’t come out to her parents. It’s Paul, a would-be novelist who works in a bookstore, who has prosopagnosia, which means he has face blindness and usually cannot recognize faces—even, on embarrassing occasions, Rebecca’s face. He can only recognize people by what they say or something they are wearing or that they carry, like a purse.

Welcome to Happenstance (Ithaca: Snark and Boojum Press, 2019), Stephen Saperstein Frug’s photographic novel. Printed with the help of a Kickstarter project and the result of a decade of work, Happenstance can be read as an internet comic, although I highly recommend and prefer the print version (available at Amazon or through the publisher). Happenstance is that rare thing, a graphic novel made using photographs instead of drawings. Frug used a variety of techniques to create exceptional literary nuance: innovative speech ballooning, embedded Google maps, single-image spreads broken into multiple frames, stripped-down b&w images to suggest interior thoughts or past tense, and multiple ways of toying with his photographic images.

At 450 pages in length, Happenstance takes as long to read as a regular novel. It’s also as rich as a textual novel because the photographs provide such a wealth of information about each character—information that can more easily change from one frame to the next than from one sentence to the next. At the same time, that very specificity can become a limiting factor. I will forever see Rebecca & Paul and Alex & Chris as Frug wanted me to envision them—with specific faces, specific gestures, and specific clothing—which is not how I would have imagined my own Rebecca & Paul and Alex & Chris had I been reading a text-only novel. I’m not saying that one way is better than the other; but these are two very different ways in which I think readers construct characters in their minds. Happenstance is a very visual novel.

There have been only a handful of graphic novels using photography that I am aware of, and I have included them in my ongoing bibliography of novels and poetry with embedded photographs. To make it easier to find them, I have given them their own listing called Photo-Embedded Graphic Novels, which can be found under the pull-down menu Photo-Embedded Literature, at the very top of this blog. Go check them out!

“A hospital for fragments”: Annabel Dover’s Florilegia

According to my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a florilegia is “a collection of choice extracts from literature; an anthology. . . a book describing choice flowers.” But this didn’t prepare me for what the narrator of Annabel Dover’s Florilegia throwing at me. Within the first few pages, she had referenced bear-baiting, the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace, Derek Jarman, AIDS, something called the Paper Museum, Windsor Castle, David Bowie, and well more than a dozen other famous names and obscure subjects, not to mention a mini-history of the poppy plant. The narrator, a woman of indeterminate age, was veering from one topic to another, sometimes lingering for only a paragraph before moving on, constantly searching for something. She quickly sifted through history, the arts, and literature, sometimes simply listing a kind of daisy-chain of events, as if trying to understand the hidden mechanics behind history.

Mathematician and daughter of Byron, Ada Lovelace dies. The first public toilet for women opens as does Great Ormond Street Hospital and the House of Commons, designed by Barry and Pugin. Pugin dies. Thomas Edison draws a quincunx on his forearm with his tattoo pencil machine; maybe his wife Mina’s name in Morse code. The cicada grub that John Pelly Atkins brings his wife, Anna, back from Haiti remains underground, buried at the edge of the asparagus patch in their Kent garden for another 17 years. When the cicada finally hatches in 1869, it is surrounded by dahlias. Anna has two years left of her life. Rasputin, Edwin Lutyens, Typhoid Mary, Matisse and Gandhi are born.

We’ve seen these kinds of lists before, when an author is trying to take the temperature of an era. But something different was going on here. Trying to get my bearing amidst all that Dover’s narrator was skimming past, I started to jot down recurring themes: women, women’s bodies, pregnancy & ripening & bursting, collections, objects & their surfaces, plants, family, Anna Atkins. Ultimately, more space in Florilegia is given over to Anna Atkins than any other subject. Atkins (1799-1871), an unusually educated woman for her era, was a British botanist and photographer who also happened to be the first person to ever create a photographic book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, in 1843. She seems of personal interest to Dover, Florilegia‘s author, an artist who has been writing about Atkins in art magazines recently. (This is Dover’s first novel.) Dover’s photographic work has been done in cyanotypes, the same print medium that Anna Atkins used more than one hundred fifty years ago. Why does Dover’s narrator identify so closely with Atkins and her cyanotypes? Because Atkins made her cyanotypes by placing plant specimens directly on top of the photographic paper, before exposing her arrangements to light, a practice without camera or lens. In traditional photography, objects are never in direct contact with the photographic paper; whatever is being photographed is, shall we say, translated by the light which passes through the lens. But in a cyanotype, an object might be said to speak directly to the photograph, and Dover’s narrator intuitively suspects that she needs objects to tell her the stories she requires.

Anna Atkins, Cystoscura Granulata

The tempo of Florilegia eventually slows down, and throughout the book we see the narrator in the process of trying out and accepting Atkins as her artistic antecedent, the way you try on and acquire a new overcoat. The narrator also discovers several biographical parallels between herself and Atkins and, at times, the story lines of the two women start to blur.

But the narrator is also searching for objects that might help unlock her relationship with her mother and her father. About halfway through the book, she tries to delve into her history with her mother by recalling the artifacts and the pictures in her mother’s bedroom. This exercise leads to many memories but few revelations. “I wanted to break my mother’s paperweight apart, to find the living breathing truth within. But when I tried to get to the heather which, magnified, looks fresh with ecclesiastical purple flowers, and bubbles of dew upon them, it was just a dried piece of twig fused to the glass forever.” Later on in the book, she tracks down her father, who has been missing in her life since she was thirteen. He’s a man in his seventies, watering his garden in his torn underpants, with a paunch and “a huge fuzz of white hair and beard.” She can not identify with this man who is her father. But buried in his house, amongst the towers of old newspapers, are a few objects which bring memories flooding back of her childhood, of her sisters, and of how strange her parents seemed to her and her siblings.

The objects that she has both sought out and remembered from her family home have served as catalysts for memories, memories that can be scrutinized and interrogated, that may now be written about, and that sometimes conjure up images of flowers, artworks, animals, and strange, sometimes fantastical objects. These images are represented in the book by nearly one hundred small, b&w photographs. Even though the book’s photographs are identified with figure numbers, they rarely correspond exactly to the surrounding text. Instead, they often tease us to make some blind leap of faith at the poetic connection between the image and the text. (The figure numbers are only used to link to the List of Illustrations at the back of the book.) Some of the images in Florilegia are by Anna Atkins, many are by Dover herself. Other photographs are from sources such as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, film stills from Jean Cocteau and Alfred Hitchcock & others, and various art museums.

In the opening sentence, the narrator offers an alternate description for her book, beside a florilegia. She describes the print room at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum as “a hospital for fragments,” reflecting the many centuries’ worth of disparate and often fragile collections held there. Originally, it had seemed to me as if she hoped to heal her relationship with her mother and her father. But, in this novel of many small discoveries, perhaps the most important one was for the narrator to become reunited with memories of her sisters, with whom she joined in childhood rebellion against her parents. The book’s ending, an observation on how Anna Atkins organized her albums of cyanotypes of algae, seems to confirm this. “Anna, following Linnaeus’ binomial nomenclature, which presents plants as belonging to various branches of a family tree, with a ‘mother’ (genus) and a ‘father’ (family) arranges her algae into groups of siblings.”

This is a daring first novel, one that packs many micro-packets of information on every page and yet feels like an efficient, brief, novel. (The novel, which has no page numbers, is only about 120 page long.) Florilegia is published by the brand-new Moist Books, a Nottingham-based publisher which currently issues only three books a year. You can view a complete copy of Anna Atkins’ book Photographs of British Algae here. Annabel Dover has an extensive website of her artwork.

Photography-Embedded Fiction & Poetry 2021

In 2021, a number of novelists and poets used photographs in their books with surprising creativity. Every year, I post a listing of works of fiction and poetry that have been published that year which have embedded photographs, and this year’s list includes books by authors from Chile, Mexico, Colombia, Viet Nam, Japan, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, and the U.S, as well as a translation of a 1935 volume by a Czech Surrealist poet. Novels by Bruno Lloret and Agustín Fernández Mallo continue to push the edge of what we think of as fiction in new directions. And then there is Annabel Dover’s wonderfully uncategorizable novel Florilegia (from the brand-new publisher Moist Books), which is a partly about the nineteenth-century British botanist and photographer Anna Atkins and partly an ode to objects and the very human stories that they can tell.

You can see previous listings for the years up to 2020 underneath the pull-down menu Photo-Embedded Literature at the top of Vertigo. If you know of a book of photo-embedded fiction or poetry that I have not listed, please let me know in a comment. My thanks to the many Vertigo readers who have already pointed me to books that I had not known about. [Last updated March 7, 2023.]

Caroline Clark, Sovetica. London: CB Editions, 2021. Clark’s book of poems is based upon her Russian husband’s childhood in the Soviet Union, with twenty color and b&w reproductions of his photographs.

Alejandra Costamagna. The Touch System. Oakland: Transit Books, 2021. A novel, translated from the 2018 Spanish original by Lisa Dillman. Ania, who seems to feel at home nowhere, journeys from Chile to Argentina to stay with her dying uncle. When he passes away, she uncomfortably inhabits his house, remembering summer vacations there as a child and discovering family mementos and photographs. The novel includes unattributed family snapshots and photographs of documents.

Stephen Downes. The Hands of Pianists. Fomite Press, 2021. The narrator is investigating the deaths of three virtuoso pianists who all curiously died at the age of 31. For decades, the narrator has grappled with the guilt that followed an accident in which he severed his talented sister’s fingers, ending her promising career at the keyboard. The book ranges from Australia to London to the Czech Republic, while the narrator writes about stage-fright, pianist’s hands, the quality of different pianos, recorded music, the aesthetic qualities of music, and much more. It includes several dozen small black-and-white photographs, many apparently by the author. A few are purely documentary in function, but many are very evocative, helping the narrative feel more like fiction.See my longer review here.

Annabel Dover. Florilegia. Moist Books, 2021. This little book, which defies description, seems to coalesce around the sensibility that objects, history, and the body are intertwined in unforeseeable ways. Dover’s novel is partly about the British botanist and photographer Anna Atkins (1799-1871), known for her cyanotypes of plants. With nearly one hundred small b&w photographs, many by the author. One of the publisher’s first books.

Sesshu Foster & Arturo Ernesto Romo. ELADATL: A History of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines. San Francisco: City Lights, 2021. A “surrealist mashup constructed out of photographs, drawings, cataloged historical artifacts, and a variety of narratives, Foster and Romo present a detailed history of fictional events in which a coalition of air-travel supporters worked to promote the giant airships of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines and revolutionize society.” (ALTA Magazine)

Paul Griffiths. The Tomb Guardians. London: Henningham Family Press, 2021. A novel about a pair of intertwining conversations. One is between two intellectuals discussing a series of four paintings (which are reproduced in color) by Bernhard Strigel (c.1461-1528) and the second conversation is amongst the guards depicted in those paintings.

James Hannaham. Pilot Imposter. NY: Soft Skull Press, 2021. Pilot Imposter is flash fiction that is partly a response to reading Pessoa & Co., Richard Zenith’s English translation of Fernando Pessoa’s selected poetry. Many of the brief pieces—either very short prose pieces or brief poems—deal with airplane crashes or other disasters and with identity. Interspersed are numerous photographs, usually of airplanes, credited to numerous public sources.

Sylvia Legris. Garden Physic. NY: New Directions, 2021. Poems with “maps, illustrations, and photographs by the author.”

Ben Lerner & Barbara Bloom. Gold Custody. MACK, 2021. Described as a “collaborative book,” Gold Custody brings together Bloom’s artworks and Lerner’s prose poems. The publisher says the book deals with “false fathers, lice, stone fruit, Casper Rappaport, color words, alephs, forever stamps, and Goethe’s corridor.” and other topics.

Alison Jean Lester. Glide. Bench Press, 2021. A psychological mystery with semi-abstract b&w photographs by Andrew Gurnett.

Bruno Lloret. Nancy. San Francisco: Two Lines Press, 2021. Translated from the 2015 Spanish original by Ellen Jones. Lloret’s novel is about a Chilean woman who recalls her life from her deathbed. It employs unusual typography, x-ray photographs, stained pages, and other types of images, as she tells a story that deals with religion, violence, her husband, the disappeared, and more.

Agustín Fernández Mallo. The Things We’ve Seen. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021. Translated from the Spanish original by Thomas Bunstead. A novel of three seemingly unrelated sections involving three people and their strange journeys, with images that include such things as vintage snapshots and old newspaper clippings.

Valerie Mejer Caso. Edinburgh Notebook. Notre Dame, IN: Action Books, 2021. Translated by from the Spanish original Michelle Gil-Montero. A book-length poem written after her brother’s suicide. The poem contains a number of photographs by the American photographer Barry Shapiro. Valerie Mejer Caso is a writer from Mexico.

Minae Mizumura. An I-Novel. NY: Columbia University Press, 2021. Translated from the 1995 Japanese original by Juliet Winters Carpenter. This semi-autobiographical novel takes place over the course of a single day in the 1980s. A Japanese writer has lived much of her life in the U.S., but decides one day to return to Japan and write only in Japanese. It contains a number of uncredited, full-page b&w photographs.

Vítězslav Nezval. Woman in the Plural. Prague: Twisted Spoon Press, 2021. Translated from the 1936 original Czech by Stephan Delbos and Tereza Novická. Poems, diary entries, poetry for the stage, and surrealist experiments by the Czech poet, with photocollages by the well-known Czech avant-garde modernist Karel Teige.

Hoa Nguyen. A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure. Seattle: Wave Books, 2021. From the publisher’s website: “A poetic meditation on historical, personal, and cultural pressures pre- and post-“Fall-of-Saigon” with verse biography on the poet’s mother, Diệp Anh Nguyễn, a stunt motorcyclist in an all-women Vietnamese circus troupe.” The book of poems includes a number of photographs of the poet’s mother performing with her motorcycle and at least one photograph of a document.

Ursula Andkjær Olsen. Outgoing Vessel. South Bend, IN: Action Books, 2021. Translated from the 2015 Danish original by Katrine Øgaard Jensen. A series of poetic suites that serve as a single, long poem interspersed with photographic works by Sophia Kalkau (as seen on the cover). These poems of pain and loss stay at the spiritual level and read like beautiful hymns of despair.

David Peace. Tokyo Redux. London: Faber & Faber, 2021. The overdue, final book in the Tokyo trilogy by the British writer David Peace, who lived in Tokyo for many years. The novel revisits the true story of the mysterious death of the Head of the National Railways of Japan in 1949, a day after he had to lay off tens of thousands of workers. Run over and mauled by one of his own trains, it still hasn’t been definitively proven if Shimoyama’s death was a murder or suicide. In addition to investigating the days surrounding the death of Shimoyama, Peace’s novel also revisits two other episodes in Japan’s history. In 1964, a private detective, trying once again to solve the case, goes stark raving mad, and in 1988, as Emperor Hirohito slowly dies, translator and scholar Donald Reichenbach revisits his grim memories of the time when Shimoyama disappeared. The novel includes five uncredited photographs, one at the start of each chapter or section.

Atsuro Riley. Heard-Hoard. University of Chicago Press, 2021. Riley’s book of poetry contains at least one full-page b&w photograph, which can be seen in the Amazon preview, which stops at page 7. No information about photographs is provided by the publisher. I have not examined the book.

Sunjeev Sahota. China Room. London: Harvill, 2021. The British novelist’s first book has two intertwined stories. In one part, it’s the Punjab region, 1929. Three teen-aged women have just been wed to three brothers, but the men’s mother prevents each woman from knowing which brother is her husband. Their mother-in-law only permits their husbands to come to them in the dark in a room called the china room, in order to make love to their wives, and then depart. The alternating storyline is that of the book’s narrator, the eventual grandson of one of the three women, who lives in today’s London. He has decided to return to his aunt and uncle’s village in the Punjab to go cold turkey on his heroin addiction. But when they shun him because of his addiction, he opts to dry out in the same china room where his Grandmother once lived. The book ends with one uncredited photograph of an elderly woman holding a crying baby, which suggests that the book has a background in Sahota’s own biography.

Paul Scraton. In the Pines. London: Influx Press, 2021. A novella in which the narrator tells stories about the forest. With numerous photographs by the Berlin-based photographer Eymelt Sehmer. The photographs were made using the difficult nineteenth-century process of collodion photography, which was introduced in 1851 and became obsolete by the 1880s. The author and photographer discuss the book here.

John Jeremiah Sullivan. “Uhtceare.” In Paris Review 236 (Spring 2021) pp. 43-62. Sullivan’s story contains one full-page reproduction of part of a page of a newspaper from 1916 showing a photograph “Sleeping Quarters in British Trenches.” Uhtceare is an Old English word that refers to the anxiety experienced just before dawn. “It describes the moment when you wake up too early and can’t get back to sleep, no matter how tired you are, because you are worried about the day to come,” according to etymologist Mark Forsyth. Sullivan’s multi-part story is about sleep.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Songs for the Flames. NY: Riverhead Books, 2021. Translated from the 2018 Spanish original by Anne McLean. Nine short stories. The last one, “Songs for the Flames,” contains a single photograph by the author of a double-page spread of a book.

Rosmarie Waldrop. The Nick of Time. NY: New Directions, 2021. One poem from this collection, “Cut with the Kitchen Knife,” is about the artist Hannah Höch, the Wiemar Republic, and the role of women in Germany at that time. The poem begins with a reproduction of Höch’s photo-collage “Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Wiemar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany,” 1919. One strand of the poem is to dissect various parts of the Höch image.