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Posts from the ‘Embedded photographs’ Category

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, Spain, Mexico, Japan, Denmark, 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 May19, 2022.]

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.

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.

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. 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.

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.


Canicule is French for the dog days of summer. In Louis Armand’s Canicule (Equus Press, 2013), three men struggle with their pasts, their passions, and their failures. The book culminates with two of the men, Hess and Wolf, meeting to scatter the ashes of the third, aptly named Ascher, who has committed suicide by self-immolation.

Hess is our first-person narrator. He’s a screenwriter who can’t get anyone to return his calls anymore. But he has a dream about “the perfect film. . . about three characters whose lives are completely empty.” “But why not tell it like it really is? Begin with that much, keep it in the margins, let the story speak for itself. The full two reels’ worth.” And so some of the chapters are written in third-person, free-indirect mode, with Hess just another character in his own story.

“Three boys in a fading kodachrome” first met in 1983, “the year the US embassy in Beirut got bombed. . . the sunset of a world with no future.” Wolf’s father was murdered on live television during an airplane hijacking in the 1970s. Depressed, his mother tried but failed to commit suicide and murder Wolf by putting rat poison in their milk one day. Ascher, an East German, was orphaned at ten, when his parents were killed in an auto accident. When the Berlin Wall came down he found himself angry “at having grown up at the fag-end of a defeated ideology” and proceeded to join “a succession of more and more radical groups. . . looking for the edge.” But in the end, Ascher’s wife walked out on him and took the children, and he ended up impoverished and friendless in an attic in Hamburg, where he finally killed himself.

Canicule is bleak and, to some extent, the men’s lives seem to be a reflection of the times they in which they live. But after a while I didn’t give two cents about the male characters in Canicule. Their masculinity had left them utterly adrift as adults and they were blithely ignorant about the damage they did to the women that got drawn into their circle. But what kept the novel intriguing was Armand’s ragged, inventive writing and Hess’s continual attempt to re-imagine his story as a film. Each chapter begins with a photograph, most of which appear to be film stills from classic movies (none of the images are credited or identified). Hess tends to see the world filtered through film terminology. “All of a sudden Ada turned towards him, tears in her eyes. Like Maria Falconetti in Dreyer’s Jean d’Arc. That silent terror in the exchange of looks, shot-reverse-shot, between Falconetti and the mad monk Artaud. Martyr and prelate. History’s revenants, like blackened celluloid dolls. And right before his eyes she began to dissolve, a piece of film erupting into invisible flame.” But, in the end, even Hess questions his own belief in film. “Somebody dies and right before your eyes they turn to celluloid. Is that all there is?”

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. [Last updated June 24, 2022.]

J.W. Böhm. This Wounded Island. Berlin: Institute of Liminal Studies/Probability Books, 2020. The title page notes that the book has been “translated by Michael Rudolph,” but it does not provide any original language or title. The author and the institute are, apparently, both nonexistent. The book is a collection of three previously published volumes of This Wounded Island, with a new Foreword by Mark Valentine. “Writer, photographer and wanderer J.W. Böhm’s pictorial survey of contemporary England finds a country overwhelmed by doubt. . .” This Wounded Island is best compared to Patrick Keiller’s trio of sardonic films about Great Britain, starting with London (1994). The books are comprised of b&w photographs and (usually) ironic texts on opposing pages. A terrific, but accurate, farce.

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.

Camille de Toledo. Thésée, sa vie nouvelle. Verdier, 2020. His novel contains a number of snapshots (often cropped to non-standard sizes) and reproductions of both handwriting and well-known artworks.

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.


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.

Rian Hughes. XX. London: Picador, 2020. This sprawling novel by Hughes, a graphic designer and comics artist, uses mostly typographic tricks to convey its message, but there are photographic images as well. This novel is about what ensues when an artificial intelligence expert starts decoding messages of extraterrestrial origin.

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.

Maria Negroni. Elegy for Joseph Cornell. Dalkey Archive, 2020. Translated from the 2013 Spanish original by Allison A. deFreese. Interconnected prose poems, interspersed with line drawings, concrete poetry, handwritten notes, quotations, and a single photograph, a still from one of Cornell’s films.

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.

Claudia Rankine. Just Us: An American Conversation. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2020. Another one of Rankine’s unclassifiable, necessary books about race. It’s partly poetry, partly essay, and full of photographs and images of documents, graphs, screen grabs, etc. The emphasis in Just Us is on whiteness in America.

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.

Lauren Shapiro. Arena. Cleveland: Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2020. Set against the backdrop of a father’s repeated suicides, these powerful poems explore the ways in which violence affects our selves and our society, the ways in which it slowly erodes our core being. In the group of poems each called “Arena,” Shapiro confronts our apparent puzzling need to witness violence as a spectator, anxiously waiting for more blood to be spilled. With uncredited, full-page b&w photographs.

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.

Amor Towles. You Have Arrived at Your Destination. Independent Bookstore Day Publishing, 2020. The special signed, hardcover edition of this short story, originally published by Amazon Original Stories, includes uncredited photographs at the beginning of each chapter. It’s not clear who chose the images or if they should be considered part of the text, but I thought I would include this title regardless.

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.”