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Posts from the ‘Embedded photographs’ Category

Recently Read: Stephen Downes & Louis Armand

Here are two novels I recommend, both with embedded photographs and both, oddly, by Australian writers, although Louis Armand is now based in Prague.

Here’s the premise of Stephen Downes new book The Hands of Pianists (Fomite Press, 2021): “A neurotic freelance writer aims to prove that pianos kill elite pianists. For decades, he 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. His investigations centre on the violent deaths at 31 of three great pianists.” At first, I will admit that I was skeptical. Downes’ narrator is an obsessive driven by his guilt and I don’t have much patience with obsessives. But as it turned out, I read the book in two non-stop sittings, fascinated and ready for more. My initial prejudices melted away when I saw that the narrator’s true obsession was a global search for meaning through music.

The three men whose deaths are being investigated by the narrator are genuine virtuoso pianists who all curiously died at the age of 31. American William Kapell died in 1953 returning from Australia when the commercial airplane he was in crashed south of the San Francisco airport. Australian Noel Mewton-Wood also died in 1953, committing suicide. He apparently blamed himself for failing to notice symptoms of the disease that would cause the death of his partner a few days earlier. New Zealand pianist Richard Farrell died as a passenger in a car crash in Sussex in 1958. In this well-written, digressive, almost Sebaldian novel, Downes takes the reader into the minds of pianists to explore what music and performance means to them. For someone like me, who frequently listens to classical music and attends concerts, Downes gives an insider’s window from the professional’s perspective. He writes about stage-fright, pianists hands, the quality of different pianos, recorded music, and much more, in addition to writing about the aesthetic qualities of music. The book moves from Australia to London to the Czech Republic. My favorite section is a visit to the Czech campus of Paul McNulty, the foremost builder of fortepianos, who builds them completely by hand for some of the foremost musicians of our time, one fortepiano at a time. In Prague, during a visit to the Kafka Museum, the narrator encounters a ghostly “Dr. K,” who challenges him on the nature of his quest. Have you transferred “your guilt about your sister’s accident,” he asked, “to a dead instrument?” By the end of the book, the narrator admits that “my notion that pianos kill pianists was unraveling.”

The Hands of Pianists 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.

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Photography-Embedded Fiction & Poetry 2020

Every year I post a bibliography of works of fiction and poetry recently published that containing embedded photographs. By the term “embedded photographs,” I mean photographs that are intended by the author as a part of the original “text.” Here is my list for books published in 2020. You can see bibliographies for the years 1970-2019 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 and I will add the book to this or any of my yearly listings. My thanks to the many Vertigo readers who have already pointed me to books that I had not known about. As far as I know, this is the only public bibliography of this kind. [Updated April 19, 21, 2021.]

Choi DMZ 2

Don Mee Choi. DMZ Colony. Wave Books, 2020. Poems, prose, photographs, and drawings that deal with the history of the U.S. involvement in Korea.

John Clark. Conversations with a Novel Virus. Sheffield: self-published in an edition of 100 copies, 2020. Quirky, humorous, angry, and thought-provoking poems in the form of conversations between the poet and the coronavirus. Appended to the back of the volume are beautiful pen and ink drawing by Sarah Grace Dye made from the windows of her Frankfurt, Germany apartment. Inside the book is a double-page spread photograph showing two pages of Dye’s sketchbook and her bookmark, which is a flattened Corona beer can top, dangling from a string. Who knew that talking with a virus could be so witty? I want one of Dye’s sketches.

Donoghue Akin

Emma Donoghue. Akin. NY: Little, Brown and Co., 2020. A retired chemistry professor and a young boy attempt to figure out the origins of a handful of puzzling photos that the man discovered relating to his mother’s wartime years in France. Donoghue’s novel includes a number of images that look like the old snapshots with crinkly-cut edges. The copyright page gives the credit for “photographic illustrations” to Margaret Lonergan. There are also several stock photographs in the book.

Caleb Femi. Poor. NY: Penguin, 2020. Poems, largely about the North Peckham estate in London where Femi grew up, along with color and b&w photographs by the author of residents and friends from the same neighborhood.

Ferrante

Elena Ferrante. “The Lying Life of Adults.” The New York Times Magazine August 16, 2020. Special fiction section. An excerpt from her forthcoming novel with “photo illustrations” by Kensuke Koike that appear to slice up and rearrange old snapshots to suggest the duplicity of people. These images were done especially for the Times excerpt and don’t appear in the novel as published by Europa Editions in 2020.

Fonseca History

Carlos Fonseca. Natural History: A Novel. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020. Translated from the 2017 Spanish original by Megan McDowell. The novel contains a number of photographs. In his Acknowledgements, Fonseca thanks Gabriel Piovanetti and Jorge Méndez for “their talent as photographers.”

Peter Gizzi. Ship of State. Kingston, NY: The Brother in Elysium, 2020. Peter Gizzi’s poem “Ship of State,” a meditation on death, grief, empathy, and survival, is combined with unique photo collages by artist and designer Jon Beacham. The book produced in a very limited edition of 12, no two copies exactly alike.

Griffiths Body

Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Seeing the Body. NY: W.W. Norton, 2020. The book contains a section of poems entitled “daughter:lyric:landscape” that consists of poems dealing with the death of Griffith’s mother and self-portrait photographs. She writes that these images show herself as “woman as ghost, woman as body, geography, and imagination, woman as a self, as a resistance, that is ever tense in the progression of frames, woman in the perpetuity of language, and woman in the sanctity of intuition.” See my review here.

Bruno Lloret. Nancy. San Francisco: Two Lines Press, 2020. Translated from the 2015 Spanish original by Ellen Jones. A deathbed novel with photographs by the Chilean writer.

Mayer memory

Bernadette Mayer. Memory. Catskill, NY: Siglio, 2020. From the publisher’s website: “In July 1971, Bernadette Mayer embarked on an experiment: For one month she exposed a roll of 35mm film and kept a daily journal. The result was a conceptual work that investigates the nature of memory, its surfaces, textures and material. Memory is both monumental in scope (over 1100 photographs, two hundred pages of text and six hours of audio recording) . . . This publication brings together the full sequence of images and text for the first time in book form, making space for a work that has been legendary but mostly invisible. Originally exhibited in 1972 by pioneering gallerist Holly Solomon, it was not shown again in its entirety until 2016. The text was published without the photographs in 1975 and has been long out of print.”

mccann aperiogon

Column McCann. Apeirogon: A Novel. NY: Random House, 2020. This novel, based on the true lives of two men—one Israeli, one Palestinian— whose daughters were both killed as a result of the ongoing conflict in Israel, contains about a dozen photographs, mostly from stock photo agencies.

olsen heaven

Lance Olsen. My Red Heaven. Ann Arbor: Dzanc Books, 2020. Olsen’s novel, inspired in part by an abstract painting by Otto Freundlich called “Mein Roter Himmel” (My Red Heaven), 1933, takes place on a single day in 1927 Weimar Berlin. Olsen brings to life numerous German luminaries, including Otto Dix, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Vladimir Nabokov, among others. The final pages of the book include ten b&w uncredited photographs of the interior of a decaying building that was once obviously quite grand.

Bojan Savić Ostojić, Ništa nije ničije. Belgrade: Kontrast, 2020. A novel in Serbian (“Nothing Belongs to Anyone“) with photographs, dedicated to Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller. While exploring Belgrade flea-markets, the narrator finds many libraries that had belonged to dead writers, a heritage to the former Yugoslavia.

Caryl Pagel. Out of Nowhere Into Nothing. Tuscaloosa, AL: FC2: 2020. On the copyright page of this book is the following statement: “This book is interested in memory, accumulating particulars, and retelling a good story. It is a work of nonfiction and fiction. Though it includes research and aims for veracity, the narratives ultimately rely on the author’s version of events. The author has been, and could still be, mistaken.” The pieces in this wonderful book (one hesitates to call them essays) morph slowly and mysteriously from subject to subject. Anything is game to Pagel’s curiously open mind — from sinkholes to Spiral Jetty, from Alexander Humboldt to Lucy Lippard. There are photographs, but they don’t often explain or illustrate. They suggest, instead.

Riggs Conference

Ransom Riggs. The Conference of Birds. NY: Dutton, 2020. The fifth in the series of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children’s books based on Riggs’s extraordinary collection of snapshots, cabinet cards, cartes-de-visites, etc., all used to tell stories largely intended for young adult audiences. To quote the publisher, this volume’s story is: “With his dying words, H—Jacob Portman’s final connection to his grandfather Abe’s secret life entrusts Jacob with a mission: Deliver newly con­tacted peculiar Noor Pradesh to an operative known only as V. Noor is being hunted. She is the subject of an ancient prophecy, one that foretells a looming apocalypse.”

Schad Paris Bride

John Schad. Paris Bride: A Modernist Life. California: Punctum Books, 2020. Schad recreates the life of a completely obscure woman who, in 1924, after twenty years of marriage, walks out and seems to disappear. He borrows from texts by a number of authors from the time, including Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, several Paris Surrealists, Stéphane Mallarmé, Oscar Wilde, Katherine Mansfield, and Walter Benjamin. And he includes thirty-two period photographs, some of which show documents or works of art. Several of the images are stills from René Clair’s 1924 film Entr’acte.

Tabucchi Stories

Antonio Tabucchi. Stories with Pictures. Brooklyn: Archipelago Books, 2020. Tabucchi responds to photographs, drawings, and paintings from his dual homelands of Italy and Portugal, among other countries.

Manuel Vilas. Ordesa. NY: Riverhead, 2020. Translated from the 2018 Spanish original by Andrea Rosenberg. An “autobiographical novel” with photographs by the author. A nostalgic love letter to the town in which Vilas grew up (Ordesa, Spain), to his father, and to the 1970s.

Hans Jürgen von der Wense. A Shelter for Bells: From the Writings of Hans Jürgen von der Wense. Point Reyes Peninsula, CA: Epidote Press, 2020. Von der Wense is described as a “composer, translator, folklorist, wanderer, aphorist, encyclopedist, poet, and consummate mystagogue of the landscape” and “A radical, tireless, nearly obsessive walker (not unlike his Swiss contemporary Robert Walser or German compatriot W. G. Sebald).” This volume is “a collection of fragments and aphorisms” that includes photographs and other types of images. Von der Wense appears to be the creation of artist Herbert Pföstl.

Kate Zambreno. Drifts. NY: Riverhead, 2020. A novel about writing a novel (this novel), creativity, and what it means to be an artist, with photographs by Peter Hujar, Sarah Charlesworth, the Rodin Museum (Paris), and the author.

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.

Although her family had been in Tunisia for generations, they were of European descent, and as she ruminates on her past, she begins to realize that there were really two Tunisias—an Arab Tunisia and a Tunisia for those of French and European descent. “We did not live so happily together,” she now sees, “we lived side by side, we tolerated each other, but only up to a point, up to a point and no further.” When her father finally decided to move the family to France sometime after Tunisian independence, he gave his tractor repair store to his Tunisian employees and walked away. Now, decades later, with terrorists trying to scare tourists out of Tunisia, the narrator realizes that once again “there was no longer a place here for the ‘foreigners’ we had become since choosing France.”

The brilliance of Fellous’s book lies in the vivid imagery and the intimacy of her self-examination. For example, take this admission:

And then there was the city. The battered sidewalks, the window bars on dilapidated buildings that were never repaired, the whitewash that peeled off in great flakes during the winter, the doors swollen with moisture, the strange skin diseases we saw on passers-by, leprosy, smallpox, bonnets worn to cover lice infestations, the torn dress of the enormous beggar women on the synagogue steps, surrounded by her great baskets and her dazzlingly white dog for which she knitted multicolored coats; that’s all she did: he was well dressed while she was in rags. All of this was strange and did not match up with my schoolbooks in which the poems and great texts bestrode the centuries, marked and measured them: each era had its own language and each of them was stunning, astonishing, the paper smelled so good, I wanted to sink into them, I wanted to be of books, and far from what I saw all around me. . .

. . . I chose pleasure, I chose love. Sensations, stories, shades of meaning. Now I think I got it all wrong. I should have been harder, sharper, more violent. I should have fought some other way.

This Tilting World reads like a memoir written in a moment of turbulence. Time is disjointed and memories of her deceased friend and her childhood keep intruding. The French title, Pièces détachées, or “loose pieces,” is probably a better description of the book. Either way, it has a sense of immediacy that I found very appealing.

There are a dozen photographs in the book, both in color and black-and-white. Most of the photographs suggest the personal attraction that Tunisia has to her—a sunset, a beach, flowers, a harbor, etc. There’s also one romantic film still of James Mason and Ava Gardner embracing on a beach (from Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, 1951) that is meant to recall the era when cities like Tunis once had a hundred movie theaters. Fellous, it should be noted, is an exhibiting photographer and so the photographs in the book are very well done. The book closes on a self-reflexive image.

Fellous Tilting 1

Colette Fellous. This Tilting World. San Francisco: Two Lines Press, 2019. Translated from the 2017 French original by Sophie Lewis.

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, November 13, 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.

Maaza Mengiste. The Shadow King. NY: Norton, 2019. Mengiste’s novel about Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, in which photography plays a significant role, opens with a single image of an seated African woman enveloped in a large cloak.

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