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Posts from the ‘Embedded photographs’ Category

“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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Ω

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 January 11, 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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. [Last updated January 18, 2022.]

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.”

Stephen Saperstein Frug. Happenstance: A Photographic Novel. Ithaca, NY: Spark and Boojum Press, 2019. A long (over 400 pages) and complex photo-novel about friendship, love, and faith.

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. See my full review here.

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.