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Posts from the ‘Embedded photographs’ Category

Last Exit

Craig Panthers

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

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

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

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


[Three photographs from Panthers & the Museum of Fire from]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Photography-Embedded Fiction & Poetry 2018

Here is my bibliography of works of fiction and poetry published in 2018 containing embedded photographs.  If you know of a book that I have not mentioned, please let me know in a comment. My thanks to the many Vertigo readers who have already pointed out books that I had not known about. [Added to March 6, 11, April 24, June 5, November 12, December 3, 18, 2019, January 21, March 31, April 8, 22, July 27, August 6, 2020, January 5, 2021.]

Averill Found

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

Stephanie Bishop. Man Out of Time. Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2018. A non-linear study of a father’s mental illness, from the perspective of his daughter. With black-and-white photographs.

Boglione Foul Weather 1

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

Chiykowski Postcards

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

Dickinson Anatomic

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


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

decarava sweet flypaper

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

iduma pose

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

Jackson Riddance

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

bosun new juche

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

kluge temple

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

kopf brother

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

Lerner Snows

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

Lilley tilt

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

nguyen ghost of

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

Chronology Patterson

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

Peace patient x

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

Prynne oval

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

Riggs Map

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

robertson take

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

tillman men

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

Walsh Break

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

Ybarra dinner

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



I needed her to say the words, I needed her to spell it out. But the conversation continued, driven by useless bits of information.

Adam Scovell’s Mothlight is a quietly unsettling novel narrated by Thomas, a young academic lepidopterist who specializes in studying and collecting moths. Growing up, Thomas was obsessed with two elderly women—Phyllis, a professor of entomology and a collector of moths, and her sister Billie. At first, Thomas’s obsession revolved around a mystery—why did Phyllis treat her sister with such open disdain? “What had Billie done, I thought, that Phyllis Ewans considered so awful as to behave so coldly towards her?” After Billie died, Thomas became the elderly Phyllis’s caretaker, and his obsession switched to something else entirely. “Our lives were somehow mimetic of each other,” Thomas noticed that he and Phyllis shared a “synchronicity.” Then, when Phyllis dies, Thomas inherits her house and her extensive moth collection. But her death “cast my obsessions into a startling cage from which I could not escape.” He feels that Phyllis’s memories are starting to intermingle with his own and that she is sometimes eerily present, even touching him. His obsession is now an illness and to cure himself he decides he must unravel the mystery of Phyllis and Billie.

The “synchronicity” between Thomas and Phyllis reflects a theme of gender fluidity that is deftly woven throughout Mothlight. It unsettles young Thomas to feel that his memories and maybe even his self might be blending with a female counterpart who is generations older.

I had even felt at times that I was Miss Ewans which, as a thought, would shake me to the very core. “I am a boy and my name is Thomas,” I would often say to myself as a mantra, though it felt hollow.

Scovell seems fascinated by Thomas’s almost willful self-blindness, pushing him to deny the obvious time and time again.

My need to dominate Phyllis Ewans’ house grew to startling proportions. In my mind, I was convinced that the quickest way to answer my questions regarding her life was to organise the house. Her life was, so I kept repeating to myself, now contained only within these walls, within these objects, these photographs, these dead insects, these unfinished papers on the breeding patterns of privet hawk moths. As my obsession grew, my appetite lessened; I allowed for the occasional daydream, which often involved the proud display of a new collection of specimens on the walls of the department: my crowning achievement for an underfunded and disavowed segment of the university. My daydreams would continue, shaking hands with people more important than I was, showered with gratitude for the immense amount of work it clearly must have taken to organise, document, and restore the many moths in the collection.

Needless to say, his daydream that the university will be grateful for the gift of the moth collection that he has inherited from Phyllis and which he meticulously organizes will prove to be woefully unfounded.

mothlight page (2)

Scattered across the book’s pages of Mothlight are about thirty snapshots from a collection that Scovell inherited. Elsewhere he describes them as “unnerving and eerie.” I didn’t find them particularly so, but then Scovell seems to know the people who took the photographs and who appear in them and that could change one’s reactions. Scovell uses some of the photographs to provide structure for his novel, building scenes and locations around specific images, as in the image of a hotel shown above.

Scovell writes in a formal style that reminded me at times of Kazuo Ishiguro. This kept me at an emotional distance from Thomas, but then he’s not a character one is likely to relate to very closely. He’s a lonely, haunted man who repeatedly sends himself down paths that the reader recognizes lead only toward certain disappointment.

Mothlight struck me as an oddly repressed novel for the year 2019. It scrupulously avoids and dances around Phyllis’s mystery—a secret lesbian affair—for 150 pages. And even in the end the novel cannot bring itself to be definitive. On its final pages, Thomas visits Heather, the daughter of Elsa, the mysterious woman who seems to have been Phyllis’s lover. She shows him an album of photographs from several trips the two women took together, but Thomas refuses to admit the obvious.

Heather was to show me one final photograph. The Polaroid simply had the pair of women together, and I could see that Heather was hopeful that this would be enough, that nothing else would need to be said.

But the photograph was not enough; it could have meant anything.

Thomas finally demands a definitive answer. “But what did Elsa mean to Miss Ewans?” To which Heather answers cryptically: “Phyllis Ewans walked,” she said, “and that is all.” And so the novel ends.

Adam Scovell is a filmmaker and writer. He writes the great blog called Celluloid Wicker Man, which is mostly about film. Mothlight comes out in early February 2019 from Influx Press, which has created a short film that eloquently introduces the book.



I been moving back and forth between three books by Forrest Gander recently, looking mostly at the various ways in which he has worked with photographs in his poetry. In Core Samples from the World (New Directions, 2011) there are four poem sequences in which photographs by Raymond Meeks, Graciela Iturbide, and Lucas Foglia are situated. The photographs are each given their own page, so they aren’t really embedded within the text of the poem. Instead, Gander seems to propose that the reader take in the photographs as a visual parallel to his words. Separate but equal. An earlier book, Eye Against Eye (New Directions, 2005), includes a poem sequence entitled “Late Summer Entry: the  Landscapes of Sally Mann,” in which Gander’s poems directly address their visual counterparts on facing pages.

Gander’s newest book, Be With (New Directions, 2018), is riddled with the “searing exquisite singularity” of death. In 2016, his wife, the poet C.D. Wright, died suddenly, and a number of the book’s poems deal with the “grief-sounds” and the “tetric silence” that he experienced after this loss. There is also a long, moving, deeply personal poem titled “Ruth,” about Gander’s aging, failing mother, who struggles physically and has memory issues. His response to familial grief is to write poems that are fractured and disjointed, that abruptly change direction, and have what he calls a “rhythm of farewell.”

For me, the most fascinating work in Be With is the closing poem sequence titled “Littoral Zone” in which Gander presents a combination of words and photographs in a new and more complex relationship than he has previously attempted. “Littoral Zone” has six parts, each consisting of a photograph by Michael Flomen on the left hand page and one section of Gander’s poem on the opposing page. The six sections have subtitles that alternate between “Entrance” and “Exit,” suggesting that the poem as a whole represents the influx and the ebb of the tide that is hinted at by the title word littoral, which, tells me, is “the shore zone between the high tide and low tide points.” Each of the six written sections of the poem is subdivided into three verse paragraphs, with the center one printed in italics.

Gander Be With

There’s a further pattern to these six sections, as I’ll show using the example of the third and final “Exit” section of the poem sequence. The first verse paragraph is essentially an attempt to provide a verbal equivalent for what is visible in the photograph.

Mobbed phosphorescence, gaseous swarm. And breathbeats blazed into an invisible integument. To begin in intimacy on this volcanic tuff. Here to cling.

The middle verse paragraph tends to address the subject of sight or the act of seeing and seems to address the reader.

For though we have no criterion for how to see and are not sure what we are seeing, we are plunged into sensation. As into a novel ache. But what ever has dispassionate description delivered?

And the final verse paragraph shifts into the zone of erotics, with the poet intimately addressing a lover.

Your impact marks
throng the resin
of my mind. Declension
a focal spasm. When your
eyelids release their tension,
nocturnal pods, in-
vertebrate and
membranous, surge
into my dreams. From
afar, do you see me now
briefly here in this phantasmic
standoff riding
pain’s whirlforms?

Gander is poet who is not afraid to cause readers to consult their dictionaries once in a while, but “Littoral Zone” is chock full of specialized terms. (Hands up if you know the definitions of  “pelagic” or “lampyrid” or “levorotatory isomers,” for example.) I think Gander is both insisting on the highest level of precision he can attain and also reveling in wonderful terminology from disciplines that most of us don’t bump up against on a daily basis. I immediately thought of the way in which writer Robert Macfarlane introduces us to the lost or unfamiliar vocabularies of nature when he tweets his “word of the day”.

Flomen’s black-and-white images are about as abstract as something can be that is still recognizable as a photograph. In fact, they are cameraless photograms that Flomen makes using only sheets of photographic paper, moonlight, and whatever he can find in forests or streams, including grass, branches, snow, rocks. He made these images by plunging unexposed photographic paper into a stream or pond and letting water and more solid objects like grasses and pebbles create the images directly on the paper. In other words, nature is literally creating a photographic image of itself. (For more on Michael Flomen’s photographs, check out this video on Vimeo or his new website, where twelve photographs from his “Littoral Zone” project can be found by clicking on “Series”.)

No matter how many times I read “Littoral Zone” it remains elusive and impossible to grasp as a whole. It’s a poem about the difficulty of knowing and the complex relationship between seeing and saying. I think the challenge he faced when confronted by the abstraction of Flomen’s photographs, knowing that they represent nature in its purest form, seems to have freed Gander. There is barely a hint of narrative to be found in Flomen’s stark images of light and darkness; therefore Gander’s poetic response could be, well, anything at all. And what he chose to do was go “optically active.” He riffs off Flomen’s images to create his own intimate landscapes and bodyscapes.

Struck by the pointlessness of comparison, but what more can one want?
For seeing not to degenerate into habit? And what if the demands for
another kind of seeing cannot be regarded as what we take to be “seeing”? As
one turns away, the retained image vitiates what swings into view.


In his Acknowledgements, Gander tells us that the sections of “Littoral Zone” were published individually “in earlier drafts” online in alligatorzine. The poems that appear in Be With have been pared down, made even more angular and abstract than their earlier versions. In several cases they have been almost entirely reworked. Here’s the original version of the poem I quoted above, which Gander previously titled “Littoral Zone 19,” and which was 18 words longer when first published:

Mobbed phosphorescence, a gaseous swarm upon which (impossibly) watermarks are stamped, rings clinging to invisible membrane, discrete, unrelated to the (lower) dimension of volcanic tuff, stone sponge, suggesting ground.

But though we have no criterion for how to see and are not sure what we are seeing, we are plunged into sensation. As into a novel pain. And yet pointing to it yields no shred of information.

The privilege of intimacy, a
kind of blackmail, would
face it out, the bally show
glimmerous as a trinket ring
to fetch code in the night
quarter and smell of lavender
may be partly regarded as a sinkhole
where strange laxities prevail on
the strength of what is
going to take place there.

I haven’t said much about the rest of Be With, but Dan Chaisson’s review in a recent issue of The New Yorker nails it.

Gander two books


River of Images, River of Memories

Kinsky River Blind Child

My days always followed the same route: downstream and back. I returned with photographs and small found objects such as feathers and stones, or the seed pods of withered flowers. Little by little the fluvial landscape took over my flat…The river itself would probably have been astonished.

What are we to make of the way that Esther Kinsky’s novel River begins? Immediately after the title page, the book reproduces the photograph shown above along with the dedication “For the blind child.” Then, after the Table of Contents, with the titles of the 37 chapters, there is an epigraph from the American poet Charles Olson: “Your eye, the wanderer, sees more.” Turn the page once more and there is a small reproduction of a photograph taken from the top of a hill, looking down on a line of trees and what appears to be a river in the distance. [If you haven’t read my earlier post on River, you might want to do so, as it will help provide context for what follows.]

This opening sequence underscores the centrality of photographs and photography to understanding Kinsky’s central themes of River—especially the intertwined themes of memory and trauma, which are introduced scarcely four pages into the novel when the unnamed narrator hints that some sort of breakup or divorce or argument has led her to move into a cheap flat in a London neighborhood “where I knew none of my neighbors.” Immediately after this move she begins to dream “of the dead: my father, my grandparents, people I had known.” Every day she goes for walks, taking a camera with her that is described as something like an old, cheap Polaroid instant camera, and each time she pulls the developing print out of the camera, “the same thought entered my mind:”

The secret of this rather unsightly plastic box was probably that its pictures had less to do with the things seen than with the person seeing them. What came to light when the developer foil was peeled from the black-and-white photo with its countless shades of gray was a memory I did not even know I had. The pictures showed something that lay behind the things the lens had focussed on, things which, for an imperceptible moment in time, the shutter release must have brushed aside. The images belonged to a past I could not even be sure was my own, touching on something whose name I must have forgotten, or possibly never knew.

Photography, then, might be a process that can open up new paths of access to one’s past, even one’s unremembered past. At other times, her photographs seemed more like evidence of a trauma than a memory:

Sometimes, on my way home in cold weather, I would remember a picture I had inserted into my jacket pocket to develop. It was difficult, then, to separate the foil from the photo; the former would remove strips of surface coating with it, leaving a wounded landscape. A rent would gape in the middle of the grey, fuzzy scenery of the traduced and fragmentary reminiscence, and through this cleft broke a formless world of dull colouring, unmasking the black-and-white surface as a flimsy disguise for a wild variegation that was wholly unconnected to memory. These shattered images scared me sometimes, as if they were evidence of a trauma. They had nothing to do with my walks along the no-man’s-edge of the river Lea, but I returned to them again and again, as if their unmasking of the degenerative process of imaging might provide a clue to unraveling the secret of the relationship between picture-taking and memory.

On the other hand, Kinsky’s narrator consistently reacts very differently to photographs that she herself has not taken, even those made by her own father. One day, she comes across a box of old family photographs that had been taken by her father, who, with his tripod and light meter, was clearly a serious amateur photographer.

I realized for the first time that I was seeing all this—my mother, my siblings and myself, as well as bridges, squares, Alpine peaks, the pale light of northern Italy in springtime, Renaissance palaces in Florence, the angels of Fra Angelico—through my father’s eyes. These tiny fragments of the world showed the decisions he had taken behind the camera’s view-finder, and he too must have viewed them with astonishment sometimes, since they would have reminded him of things to which the scenes depicted held the sole remaining clue, a clue only he was capable of finding.

The clues to any deeper implications within these particular photographs died when her father did and are not accessible to her. Then, in an even clearer instance that the photographs of others do not speak to her in the same way, the narrator impulsively purchases a group of snapshots of one family at a flea market, only to discover that they make her feel uncomfortable.

They gave no hint of a narrative, revealed no intensity of feeling, no suspense of any kind, no loose thread of some drama to pick up. I found it impossible to attribute anything to these faces and figures, found no way into the scenes portrayed, and the emptiness that presented itself in this bundle of tiny segments of life I had purchased on some off-chance made me feel intrusive.

This is not the only moment that Kinsky’s narrator mentions the intrusive nature of certain photographs. After she makes a few photographs that included people in the image, she says “it felt almost indecent to keep in my room these fragments of other people’s existence. . . Following this experience I resolved to photograph only inanimate subjects.” But, after photographing some industrial ruins along a canal, she admits “there was not much to see on [such] photographs.”

The narrator spends time with a young woman named Sonja, who makes photographs using a pinhole camera. Sonja is convinced that she sees angels in several of her pictures made in a nearby cemetery. But when the narrator looks, she sees only “a blot of the kind that had occasionally appeared  in the photos I took with my old instant camera: white shadows, caused by light penetrating the primitive casing.” Kinsky is once again implying that only the photographer can see special elements in his or her photographs, although in this case Sonja’s photographs do not connect to memory, but to a kind of visionary spirituality. One of Sonja’s photographs also raises the specter of photographic intrusion anew. When Sonja gives the narrator a photograph she made that includes the roof and window of the narrator’s own flat, the narrator is taken aback. “I felt watched.”

The Charles Olson epigraph and its accompany photograph of the blind girl might provide a clue to what is going on here. The epigraph, “Your eye, the wanderer, sees more,” is from his poem “A Discrete Gloss,” originally published in Cid Corman’s Origin 6 in the summer of 1952. Elsewhere in the poem Olson writes:

In what sense is
what happens before the eye
so very different from
what actually goes on within…

In The Poetry of Charles Olson: A Primer (University of Delaware Press, 1982), Thomas F. Merrill suggests that “‘mere sight’ or, for that matter, mere sensory perception in its broadest sense, is what ‘A Discrete Gloss’ militates against. . . . Experience from within, the memory and emotions, enriches and shapes the visual sensations from without.” This was a theme that Olson seems to have borrowed from Alfred North Whitehead’s writings on perception. Sight, to express it poorly, is not merely a method for transferring images from the world into the brain in some neutral fashion. Instead, it is nearly impossible for us to “see” without involuntarily engaging our memory and emotions—in short, our past. Kinsky, in turn, seems to be suggesting that photography can act as a specialized form of sight, in that sometimes the images that a photographer takes can act on the photographer —and the photographer alone—in an even more complex voyage of memory and emotion, even to the point of arousing a sense of past trauma.

Esther Kinsky. River. Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017, translated from the German by Iain Galbraith.


Rivers of Memory, Rivers of Language

River Kinsky

The Oder drew a border line up and down the country, writing a Here and a There in the sandy earth. Under it, however, countless watery question marks and intertwining letters tugged in both directions, east and west, a water-script of histories granted continuity through the river, under it, beyond it, its tributaries and ramifications annotating the landscape, reversing its sides with befuddling mirror images of the sky and its blues of Here and There.

Esther Kinsky. River. Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017, translated from the German by Iain Galbraith.

The narrator of Esther Kinsky’s luscious, elegaic novel River is an unnamed woman who is living, albeit temporarily, in a very liminal part of urban East London that edges up against Tottenham Marshes, a handful of reservoirs, Leyton Marshes, Hackney Marshes, and the River Lea. Alone and apparently jobless, she spends her time exploring and mentally mapping her environs.

South of Hackney Wick, beyond the lake-like stretch of unfrequented, placid water formed by the confluence of the Hertford Union Canal and the tame arm of the Lea, the town came close on both sides of the river, darker from the west, with bricks, stone and broken window-panes facing the river, and grass and weeds breaking up the surfacing of the riverside path…Scrap sidetracked for recycling now reinforced the borders of Bow, which the city had once declared to be its boundary, and where bricks from the clay pits and brickworks of London Fields were once loaded and began their journey upstream to Stamford Hill, there to mutate into the new arms, fingers and arteries of the city. To the east of the river had once lain Essex, green and flat…

Through countless place names and references to maps, Kinsky’s rootless narrator continually makes an effort—futile in the end—to locate a place where she belongs.  Looking at a map of Canada, where she once lived, “under my fingers I felt the still, pale blue of the cold estuary, the countless small elevations of the islands, white and pale green in the river.”

The narrator is the central enigma in River. We are slowly given the basic arc of her life, but the nearer we get to the present the less we know.  She was born and raised in Germany, but moved to Canada with a newborn son (who never reappears in her narrative). At some point (years are never mentioned) she moves London where she struggles to find work. “I regretted never having learned something practical, something that might have impressed people.” At the end of the book, without ever having fully unpacked, she is already leaving again for parts unknown. She seems driven by forces beyond our—and probably her—understanding. There are only a few hints at the melancholy so obviously embedded in her history. “After many years I had excised myself from the life I had led in town, just as one might cut a figure out of a landscape or group photo. Abashed by the harm I had wreaked on the picture I left behind, and unsure where the cut-out might end up next, I lived a provisional existence.”

Her “provisional existence” is primarily consumed with walks, which form the basic content of River. As Kinsky’s title suggests, most of her narrator’s walks are rural (or, at least as rural as you can get within London city limits). Kinsky depicts the world that surrounds her narrator as an anthropomorphized being that speaks. Things like rose beds, a cafe, and hedges “signified a town.” The city tells tales to the river that passes through it. But to the narrator, the world prompts memories. “I heard curlews, lapwings, bitterns, melancholy calls from throats not at all in mourning, and saw my grandmother standing at the window again.”

Many of these family memories are not fully revealed to the reader. They remain mysterious scenes from a disconnected life. One day, for example, walking along the River Lea, something put the narrator “in mind of an oxbow by the Rhine on which my father once took us rowing in an old wooden boat.” “An incident of some kind,” she goes on, “had caused him to remove us from the house with barely concealed haste.” She remembers the details of that sudden outing, but we never learn what caused her father to abruptly gather up his family and flee in a rowboat.

“Hidden in the middle of the large Hackney Marshes Playing Fields…were memories I was only learning to read.” Seeing the goalposts on these playing fields sends the narrator back into an extended memory of her own childhood school’s sportplatz, or sports ground. Notably, this memory, as do several others, repeatedly spirals around a single word. In this instance it is turnwart, which is translated as “gymnastics supervisor.” “Turnwort—what a word, redolent of the reek of summer rubbish, the smell of linoleum from the gym, the odour of sweat, which, an invisible flag, is the marker of any sports facility.”

While the Lea is central to Kinsky’s novel, other rivers make an appearance, too, rivers from the narrator’s childhood in Germany and rivers that she encounters during her travels: the Oder River in Poland, the Neretva River in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the St. Lawrence River, which separates the U.S. and Canada, the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv, the Tisza River in Hungary, the Hooghly River in Kolkata, the Rhine, and, of course, the Thames. Every river, she notes, is both a border and a “bustling stage” for the gaze of the walker.

Still, some segments of the book take place in the narrator’s gritty, urban neighborhood, which is populated with Hasidic Jews and immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. As a fellow immigrant (although with a very different backstory), she is a sympathetic participant in their daily life of her neighborhood and gives voice to the people she befriends. There are hints that her sense of statelessness (she never suggests any emotional ties with Germany, where she was born and raised) might well be the source of her feeling of melancholy. At one time in her past, she worked briefly for the Jewish Refugee Committee in London, dealing “with enquiries concerning the whereabouts of German-Jewish refugees who had come to England in the 1930s.” As she left work each day she “took the names of the missing with me.”

Kinsky’s narrator seems to be one of the missing. Her walks are, at least in part, an antidote to the “purposelessness of my life in this place,” a place where she has come in order to experience an unexplained and “protracted leave-taking” during the “uncertain months ahead.” River will remind readers of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and the urban roaming books of Iain Sinclair, like London Orbital and Lights Out for the Territory, but something else is going on here. For her narrator, simple sensory acts like seeing, listening, smelling, and moving are ends unto themselves, in keeping with the book’s epigraph from the poet Charles Olson: “Your eye, the wanderer, sees more.” But Kinsky’s prose continually reminds us that the process of reconstructing the world through language is actually a radical act of translation, and the result is more like a memory than a photograph—shifting, contingent, and personal.

Photography and photographs play an integral and complex role in River. I write about this aspect of Kinsky’s novel in a second post.


The Trouble with Secrets


That’s the trouble with secrets, one can never ask for forgiveness.

In the highly refined world of Javier Marías, where any emotion, action, or statement can be surgically probed for pages in order to reveal every nuance and possible interpretation, the bar for what counts as an affront to the system is set frightfully low.  At the outset of Thus Bad Begins, Marías’s narrator, twenty-three year old Juan De Vere, is told by his new boss, the filmmaker Eduardo Muriel, that a friend of Muriel’s, a certain Dr. Van Vechten, has possibly committed some sort of heinous act in the past. It’s Madrid, 1980, five years after the death of Franco. Spaniards are tasting new freedoms, illicit drugs flow freely, the discos are packed until dawn, and unhappy couples await the legalization of divorce. “Is it something to do with the Civil War,” De Vere breathlessly asks? “Did he participate in a massacre? Did he carry out summary executions?” No, Muriel answers. His friend is believed to have “behaved in an indecent manner towards a woman or possibly more than one.” And with that bizarrely unexciting revelation, Marías sets in motion this fascinating, but overlong novel of lies and secrets.

Eventually, a second and somewhat more meaty mystery arises. Why does Muriel, a man deeply offended because his friend might have “behaved in an indecent manner toward a woman,” verbally abuse his own wife night after night? For a dozen years or so, he and Beatriz have had separate bedrooms and separate lives. But on multiple occasions, De Vere has overheard them arguing bitterly, during which Muriel maliciously insults his wife. Apparently, Beatriz once lied to Muriel in a manner that estranged the couple. But this tragic secret has somehow only managed to strengthen the force field that keeps the two clinging to each other despite their almost nightly bursts of anger. What is this terrible lie that Beatriz has told?

...[Muriel’s] was not, to put it in pedantic terms, a quotidian or perfunctory aggression. There was on his part a deep-seated antagonism, vital and pulsating and far from ordinary, and a kind of strangely inconstant desire to inflict frequent punishments. It was as if he had to force himself to remember (once the right ice-cold button had been pressed) that he must behave towards her with a complete lack of consideration, with revulsion and scorn, to make it clear to her what a curse and a burden it was to endure her presence; to mistreat and even abuse her, and certainly to undermine her and make her feel insecure and even hopeless about her personality, her work, her body, and he was doubtless successful; after all, anyone can do that, even the most stupid of us, it’s the easiest thing in the world to destroy and wound, you don’t have to be especially wily or astute, still less intelligent, a fool can easily crush someone cleverer, and Muriel was a clever man.

So far, all of this is standard operating procedure for Marías, who is a master at promising a big reveal and then diving into the minutiae of daily life for hundreds of pages. At one point, De Vere even seems to speak on behalf of Marías’s readers, as he listens to one of Muriel’s particularly long-winded tales :

I had a sense that he was enjoying keeping me hanging on: now that he had agreed to tell me the story, he would do so at his own pace and in his own way. That is the prerogative of the one doing the telling, and the person listening has none at all, or only that of giving up and leaving.

It will take Marías 400 pages before the answer to the initial mystery is finally laid bare, and the revelation of why Muriel’s friend “behaved in an indecent manner” is shockingly anticlimactic. Next, he discloses the secret to the second mystery, and, fortunately, the backstory to the ongoing arguments between Muriel and Beatriz is considerably more interesting than the first disclosure. But even then, Marías takes a leisurely and digressive thirty pages to slowly unwind the surprise.

So, with over 500 pages behind me and just a handful of pages left to go in Thus Bad Begins (the title comes from Hamlet), I found myself thinking that these revelations did not seem worthy of the promise held out at the beginning of the novel. And then, without warning, Marías dropped two bombshells that changed everything. And instantly I began to recognize and track some of the little breadcrumbs that he had dropped along the way and which I had overlooked, thinking they were insignificant. Like a great magician, Marías had me looking in the wrong direction all along.


Lying just beneath the surface of this novel of a marriage and its secrets is the troubling ethos and guilty conscience of post-Franco Spain. On several occasions, Marías’s characters speak about the almost Faustian bargain that Spain made to exit the four-decade era marked by the Spanish Civil War and the rule of Francisco Franco. “One of the conditions for granting us democracy and for that astonishing act of hara-kiri had been an agreement that, to put it bluntly, no one would call anyone else to account,” the narrator tells us. How one was likely to feel about this bargain, depends on which side of the Franco divide one was on. Regardless, “something strange happened.”

The social pact became so internalized that we ended up fulfilling the condition almost too scrupulously, especially when it came to talking about the past. It made good sense for us not to get embroiled in the courts and for the courts not to get clogged up with painful lawsuits that would have made it impossible for us to continue to live together and would have ended very badly. Preferring not to know and not to talk about it was another matter entirely. And yet most people chose that route, chose to remain silent, certainly in public, but often in private too.



There are two images in Thus Bad Begins. The first reproduces an 18th century painting owned by Muriel that depicts a cavalier on horseback. The painter is identified as “Casanova’s brother,” which is to say, Francesco Casanova, the brother of the more famous Giacomo. Muriel often stares at this painting during his often lengthy talks with De Vere. The cavalier looks back over his shoulder in the direction of the viewer, “as if,” Muriel muses dramatically, “wishing to retain, before he rode off, the image of the deaths he had caused.”

The other image is a press photograph of Mariella Novotny, a woman who appears as an extremely minor figure in Marías’s novel. The photograph shows her “wearing a ridiculous and yet very modest hat,” at the moment she is bring arrested by a thug-like FBI agent from the era of J. Edgar Hoover. Novotny was involved in several 1960s sex scandals (including a rumored fling with President John F. Kennedy). She was later associated with the notorious Christine Keeler, the woman at the heart of the Profumo Affair, which brought down the government of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. (If only it were so easy today.) For De Vere, this image demonstrates the “effect passing time has on reality, turning everything into fiction, and when we ourselves are long gone, any photograph of us will suffer the same fate and we, too, will look like invented people who never existed.”


Javier Marías. Thus Bad Begins. London: Penguin, 2016. Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa.



The Heart, Drawn & Quartered

Wikswo Curving Scar

Everything I had, I destroyed. Yet while I was alive I called myself a healer. We are all monsters, and I most among us. When we think we do the most good we commit the gravest arrogances. —Maw

Quintan Ana Wikswo’s first novel—A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be (Stalking Horse Press)—is a deeply ambitious book full of wild, unforgettable images, maximalist writing, and page after page of literary pyrotechnics. If I say that it’s a scathing, dystopian view of America, a diatribe against male privilege, and a send-up of the hypocritical sanctimony of the church—all of which it is—you might get the wrong impression. For this is a book full of passion and compassion, with tender, beautiful, and sensuous writing that urges the reader to pause, re-read, and admire (or puzzle out) the lush sentences and the risks that Wikswo takes—risks that pay off most of the time. Her writing is a confident blend of fable, Gospel, and imagination that links to the gritty, fabulous tradition of Southern Gothic.

Set in a Southern city ominously called Lynchburg, the novel tells the story of Maw and her twin daughters Whitey and Sweet Marie. Much to her regret and disgust, Maw briefly fell for a white ladies’ man known as Lafayette, who is fancifully described as “a man who lived in a dog’s house, a man with four legs, who barked at raccoons and gnawed bones.” But after the twins are born, Lafayette wants no part of parenthood and flees farther south to live with the Gulf Girls in their brothel. Men don’t come off very well in A Long Curving Scar. The male gender’s unquenchable thirst for control without responsibility, for unending sexual conquest, and for violence is thoroughly cataloged here.

In order to survive as a single parent, Maw converts her home, which is located “far beyond the edges of the map of what should be,” into a hospice.

She decided to open a home for the elderly, the veteran, the sick and the discarded. The unwanted. The unbelonged. Their warm needy dying bodies coming in and never going out except in death. Every room in the unwanted mansion with a bed. Each bed with a body. Each body crying out for her, each body seeing her as a saint, an angel, a minister of relief—

…Maw taught her twins how to pull out their own ribs for use as splints and back braces. She invited them closer—into the surgeries and doomed birthings, diagnoses at dawn, to bear exhausted candles at unanticipated wakes.They saw how they should thread crosses of absolution through the closures of a shroud. Never to avert their eyes from those of the misshapen and dehumanized, the cast off and secret people, tucked into invisibilities of all sorts by families of all kinds.

A Long Curving Scar is also an extremely bawdy novel. Maw teaches her twins “a wanton compassion: to weave a long plait of yes.” In other words, she wants them to be survivors in a world dominated by men. Grown up, Whitey ministers sexually to the men of Lynchburg, just as she ministers to the dying in the hospice. Wikswo loves archaic words—especially when it comes to sex—partly from an obvious love of language and partly as a way to place her story outside of time.

And rare is the man in Lunchburg who does not think of Whitey and then of his love-stalk, his love dart, his lily, his lark. His bowsprit, his broomstick, hid bird dog, his bark. His sternpost, his short arm, his spigot, his spark.

Of her acorn,her apple, her all’s-well, her ache.

Her copper, his clovermeat.

Her coupler, her cake. Her pudding, her plug-tail, her pinter, her pant.

His gardener, his grinder, his gimcrack, his gap.

Her cuntache, his todger, her tonguer, his tash.

Meanwhile, during a trip to New York City, Sweet Marie has a brief, torrid fling with a woman called the Jazz Girl, which leads to a miraculous pregnancy.

She had known for some time, suspected, that something tiny and good was growing inside her, a low note…those words rolled around in her head like a lozenge. A tiny note. A low note, baby. Part fist, a musician’s hand wedged up inside her, filling her, making her swell. A knowledge baby. A wake-up-now-and-get-it-on baby.


The novel is divided into four sections, each named after the two atria and two ventricles of the heart. There is also a brief fantasy prologue in which Maw and her twins discover that all of the men of Lynchburg except Lafayette are dead, each carefully wrapped in tobacco leaves and hung up to dry from the rafters of a barn. But, alas, that dream was fake news.

Wikswo is a brutal and relentless mythologizer, dissolving the everyday and spinning it into something grandiose, preposterous, and yet stunningly apt. This is a story that is all about the telling. The book has the Baroque feeling of horror vacui, of plastering the known world with words. And yet no amount of words seems to erase the pain, the shame, the guilt, the grief, and anger that the three women share as a result of their relationship and kinship with Lafayette, their own version of original sin.

The grief in the house was not articulated, but it was ancient, it was larger and longer and bigger than the women, it went back to ripped apart continents, to the center of the earth, it fed on magma of loss, its lava the only trace of injustice in the void, every inch a measurement of grief, felt in the morning upon rising or in the evening as the light changed from thick to thin and part of them, unconscious, wondered, each to herself, unspoken and incoherent, did the world contain this pain for all people? Is it just us?

A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be is a lush parable that ends in murder and suicide. But it’s not clear that even Wikswo thinks these sacrifices will be enough to cleanse the American heart.

Once upon a time there was a big white house on the hill, an evil house, some folks say, though nobody really knows for sure where it went except to say that not all the people who lived in or near that old white house ever came out alive. African slaves. Our family. The patients when it once was a hospital.


Like her earlier book of short stories, The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far (she does like titles, doesn’t she?), A Long Curving Scar is filled with dozens of Wikswo’s own photographs. As an activist artist with deeply held principles (which she writes about in an afterword), she uses “repurposed” cameras and outdated film, which combine to create color photographs that have light leaks splaying at the edges, an imprecise focus, and ghostly double exposures when the film fails to advance properly. These images are meant to suggest memory and, placed as sequences that separate the book’s many chapters, they are also, perhaps, meant to serve as a respite to Wikswo’s intense prose. But after a while, I found the images began to pale against the onslaught of the text. In part, that seems due to the fact that the images as they appear in A Long Curving Scar might have been printed in colors that are too muted. If you take a look at an excellent interview with Wikswo about this book and her other work over at Volume 1: Brooklyn , you can see several of the book’s photographs which are reproduced with much richer color saturation. Check out the interview and read this book. Buckle up!

Photography-Embedded Fiction & Poetry 2017

Here is my bibliography of works of fiction and poetry published in 2017 containing embedded photographs.  If you know of a book that I have not mentioned, please let me know in a comment. My thanks to the many Vertigo readers who have already pointed out books that I had not known about. [Updated February 15, 22, May 14, 15, August 30, 2018, March 22, September 30, 2020. Re-posted April 12, 2021.]

Ball Census

Jess Ball. Census. NY: Ecco, 2017. Ball prefaces his novel by writing briefly about his deceased older brother, who had Down syndrome. In the novel, a father with a terminal illness and his son (who has Down syndrome) volunteer to conduct a census in towns from A to Z. At the end of the novel is a portfolio of family snapshots “from the author’s private collection.”

Bang Doll

Mary Jo Bang. A Doll for Throwing. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2017. A book-length series of poems about Lucia Moholy-Nagy and her circle. Lucia was married to the famous Bauhaus artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy for several years. When she fled Germany, her negatives ended up in the care of Walter Gropius, who used them for many years (without any attribution to Lucia) to bolster his reputation as an architect and founder of the Bauhaus. Lucia, who lived to be ninety-five, spent much of her life trying to regain her negatives from Gropius and restore her rightful place in the histories of the Bauhaus and photography. The book’s title is taken from a woven, flexible doll designed by Bauhaus artist Alma Siedhoff-Buscher that supposedly always landed with grace. The book ends with a single photograph by Lucia from 1926. It’s a stunningly Bauhausian image depicting a room Walter and Ilse Gropius’s house. See my review here.

Baume Walking

Sara Baume. A Line Made By Walking. London: William Heineman, 2017. The title of Baum’s book comes from the similarly-named work of art created by Richard Long in 1967. Long made an ephemeral straight line by tamping down the grass as he walked across a field. The line was then photographically documented, although Long referred to the line as a work of sculpture. In Baum’s novel, a young struggling artist hoping for an creative renewal moves to the countryside, where she contemplates life and ponders numerous well-known works of contemporary art. Each of the ten chapters is named after an animal found in the countryside and is accompanied by a photograph of a dead animal. Although not explicitly noted, the photographs are likely by the author.

Benech Espion

Clément Bénech. Un Amour d’Espion. Paris: Flammarion, 2017.  Bénech’s novel contains 27 snapshots by the author, a couple of maps, and simple line drawings.


J.W. Böhm [pseudonym?]. This Wounded Island, Volume One: The Condition of England. Berlin: Institute of Liminal Landscape Studies, 2017. Everything about this book seems to be a fiction, including the Institute, the author, the Introduction writer (Frederic Stiller), and the translator (Michael Randolph). A satirical, fragmented text alternates with black-and-white photographs. In the text, Böhm and his traveling companion, Green, explore and comment on England, following “some cataclysmic event that had irreparably damaged the psychic landscape of the place” (Brexit?). The result echoes Patrick Keillor’s sardonic, pseudo-academic Robinson filmsLondon (1994), Robinson in Space (1997), and Robinson in Ruins (2010).

Brecht War Primer

Bertolt Brecht. War Primer. London: Verso, 2017. Originally published in East Germany in 1955 as Kriegsfibel, this is Brecht’s reaction to World War II and its immediate predecessor, the Spanish Civil War. While in exile in Finland, Sweden, and the US, Brecht created these “photo-epigrams” by clipping photographs and articles from newspapers and magazines (including Life) and writing brief four-line poems that relate to the images. Although partly anti-war, Brecht’s poems mostly direct their vitriol toward the politicians, generals, and national leaders – or, in his term “misleaders” – who sent their young men off to murder each other and kill or maim millions of innocent civilians. An earlier English-language edition was published in 1998 by Libris. The original edition had only 70 photographs and poems, while later editions like this one have 85.

Chen Olympic Exertions

Anelise Chen. So Many Olympic Exertions. Los Angeles: Kaya Press, 2017. Chen’s novel, which includes anecdotes about extreme examples in the history of sport (the longest tennis match, etc.), contains a number of sports-themed photographs that are credited to a wide variety of sources.


François-Henri Désérable. Un Certain M. Piekielny. Paris: Gallimard, 2017. In his memoir The Promise of Dawn, the Lithuanian-born French writer Romain Gary wrote that he had promised a childhood friend – a certain M. Piekielny – that he would tell him about all of the famous people he would meet when he grew up. This novel is an attempt to discover who M. Piekielny was. Contains eight variously credited photographs, along with reproductions of a document and a painting.

Drndic Belladonna

Daša Drndiƈ. Belladonna. London: Maclehose, 2017. Drndiƈ’s devastating novel about some of the horrors of the Holocaust, includes numerous photographs and other illustrations (drawing, musical notation). Originally published in Croatian under the same title in 2015.

Enard Compass

Mathias Énard. Compass. NY: New Directions, 2017. Énard’s novel about an aging Orientalist includes nine photographs of postcards, documents, and book pages. Translated from the French 2015 original Boussole. See my review here.

Garcia Berlin

Cristina García. Here in Berlin. Berkeley: Counterpart, 2017. Garcia’s novel about the city of Berlin contains several photographs (some of which are by the author), a map of Berlin, and a reproduction of a musical score. García cites W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction as one of the inspirations for this book.

Gibson Criminal

Ross Gibson. The Criminal Re-register. Crawley: University of Western Australia Press, 2017. Poetry inspired and accompanied by blurry portrait photographs found in a junk shop.


Rainald Goetz. Insane. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017. First published in German in 1983 under the title Irre, Insane delves into the world of madness, drawing on the author’s own clinical psychiatric experience. It includes reproductions of artworks (presumably painted by insane patients) and uncredited photographs, some of which have been manipulated by the author.

Howe Debths

Susan Howe. Debths. NY: New Directions, 2017. Four poems, which include photographs of printed texts (sometimes distorted) and a fingerprint.

Kang WHite Book

Han Kang. The White Book. London: Portobello Books, 2017. Kang’s profound, often poetic, meditation on life, death, and much more contains a seven photographs and film stills (cover photo included) by Choi Jin-hyuk, which document a performance made by Han Kang. Originally published in Korean in 2016 under the title Hŭin. You can read my review here.

kinsky river

Esther Kinsky. River. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017. First English-language translation (by Iain Galbraith) from the 2014 German original Am Fluß. Kinsky’s novel contains several uncredited snapshots of rivers. See my review here: Part I and Part II.

Kluge Captain Lied

Alexander Kluge. Kong’s Finest Hour: A Chronicle of Connections. Milan:Fondazione Prada, 2017. Currently, the first and only English-language translation of Kluge’s book Kongs große Stunde – Chronik des Zusammenhangs (Suhrkamp/Insel, 2015) is one volume of a two-book package titled The Boat is Leaking. The Captain Lied, which served as the catalog for an exhibition held at Fondazione Prada that brought together the work of three artists: writer and filmmaker Alexander Kluge, stage and costume designer Anna Viebrock, and sculptor and photographer Thomas Demand. Kluge’s book, with King Kong as a character, includes many photographs and other illustrations.

Krauss Forest

Nicole Krauss. Forest Dark. NY: Harper, 2017. Krauss’s novel of two intersecting stories that take place in Israel contains four uncredited photographs, presumably by her.

Kumar Lovers

Amitava Kumar. The Lovers. New Delhi: Aleph, 2017. A novel a young Indian man who comes to the United States and studies at Columbia University, structured around some of the women that the narrator has loved or known. Includes twenty-three photographs in all. In addition to snapshots, some of the photographs reproduce works of art, clippings, and other texts.

Lafarge Night Ocean

Paul La Farge. The Night Ocean. NY: Penguin, 2017. A novel about a man’s obsession with the cult writer H.P. Lovecraft, and what that does to his marriage. Contains four photographs (two credited to the author) of the ocean, Lovecraft, and documents.

McGregor Reservoir

John McGregor. Reservoir 13. London: 4th Estate, 2017. A novel about what happens within a village over many years after a young girl mysteriously vanishes. It opens with a photograph by Sandra Salvas of a young girl in a swimming suit in the midst of jumping into a lake or river.

Mcintosh Mystery

Matthew McIntosh. TheMystery.doc. NY: Grove Press, 2017. A massive book of 1664 pages, containing many photographs, including snapshots, film stills, press photos. From the publisher’s website: “Rooted in the western United States in the decade post-9/11, the book follows a young writer and his wife as he attempts to write the follow-up to his first novel, searching for a form that will express the world as it has become, even as it continually shifts all around him. Pop-up ads, search results, web chats, snippets of conversation, lines of code, and film and television stills mix with alchemical manuscripts, classical works of literature—and the story of a man who wakes up one morning without any memory of who he is, his only clue a single blank document on his computer called themystery.doc. From text messages to The Divine Comedy, first love to artificial intelligence, the book explores what makes us human—the stories we tell, the memories we hold on to, the memories we lose—and the relationships that give our lives meaning. Part love story, part memoir, part documentary, part existential whodunit, theMystery.doc is a modern epic about the quest to find something lasting in a world where everything—and everyone—is in danger of slipping away.” More about the book can be seen at its website.

Melois Oublie

Clémentine Mélois. Sinon J’Oublie. Paris: Grasset, 2017. Mélois creates short fictions based upon grocery lists that she has found, saved, and photographed.

Alma Moreno

 Javier Moreno. Alma. NY: Quantum Prose, 2017. Moreno’s novel of a narrator rambling on about literature, life, and memories contains seven uncredited photographs. Originally published in Spanish under the same title in 2011.

Preston War Brides

Caroline Preston. The War Bride’s Scrapbook. NY: Harper Collins, 2017. Preston’s second “scrapbook novel,” done in the same nostalgic scrapbook format as her Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt (2011).

Robinson overcoat

Jack Robinson (pseudonym of Charles Boyle). An Overcoat London: CB Editions, 2017. Robinson/Boyle transports the French writer Henri Beyle (1783-1842), also known as Stendhal, along with several of the characters from his novels, into the 21st century and lets them loose to live again and interact with the public. Contains a page with six photographs of pedestrians walking past the entryway to 48 Via Condotti, where Beyle lived in 1840.


Eleni Sikelianos. Make Yourself Happy. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2017. Sikelianos’ book of poetry engages science, mythology, history, ecology, extinction, and other topics, and includes numerous images and photographs, credited to various sources. See my review here.

Sims WHite

Bennett Sims. White Dialogues: Stories. Two Dollar Radio, 2017. The title story in this collection includes eleven different film stills from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, one of which is reproduced several times.

Isabel Waidner. Gaudy Bauble. Manchester: Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2017. “Gaudy Bauble stages a glittering world populated by Gilbert & George-like lesbians, GoldSeXUal StatuEttes, anti-drag kings, maverick detectives, a transgender army equipped with question-mark-shaped helmets, and pets who have dyke written all over them. Everyone interferes with the plot. No one is in control of the plot.” (from the publisher’s website)  With two small images.

Wikswo Curving Scar

Quintan Ana Wikswo. A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be. Santa Fe: Stalking Horse Press, 2017. A novel of “southern fabulism and gothic fury” with many photographs by the author. See my review here.

Wodin natascha

Natascha Wodin. Sie kam aus Mariupol. Berlin: Rowohlt, 2017. After the death of her mother, who had been born in the Ukraine, a women goes in search of her story and discovers that she was taken by the Nazis and placed into forced labor in Germany. With seven photographs.

Kate Zambreno. Book of Mutter. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2017. A meditation on photography, memory, and art with three embedded photographs: one is a screenshot from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Jeanne d’Arc, one is from a stage production of Brecht, and the third is the juxtaposition of two photographs—one of the author’s mother, the other a shot from the movie Wanda by Barbara Loden. The cover image of an artwork by Louise Bourgeois is also important, since she is one of the artists Zambrano engages with in this book.



“Behind Every Name Is a Story”: Trieste

Behind every name is a story.

In the middle of Croatian writer Daša Drndić’s documentary novel Trieste (MacLehose Press, 2012) there is a forty-four page, double-columned list naming the 9,000 or so Jews “who were deported from Italy or killed in Italy in the countries Italy occupied between 1943 and 1945,” starting with Clemente Abeasis and ending with Jerachmil Zynger. This memorial to the murdered is followed by another, much shorter listing—complete with mini-biographies—of the more senior S.S. members of the Aktion T4 group who worked in Trieste at the notorious prison known as San Sabba, which served as a transit center to Auschwitz and other concentration camps and housed its own gas chamber.

In this novel so dedicated to documenting victims and perpetrators alike, Drndić gives us a central character who is neither and both. Haya Tedeschi was born to a Jewish father and Catholic mother in Gorizia, an Italian town near Trieste. Now in her eighties (it’s 2006), Haya spends her day sifting through a basket of photographs, postcards, newspaper clippings, and magazines, the only remaining documents of her life. When the Nazis took over Gorizia in 1943 she was barely twenty and she—like the rest of her family—used her Catholic upbringing and membership in a fascist organization to be shielded from the persecution brought upon many of its Jewish residents. (Drndić’s list of murdered Jews includes more than forty people named Tedeschi, which, ironically, means German in Italian.) Haya even entered into a wartime romance with a German who already happened to have a family back in Germany, S.S. Untersturmführer Kurt Franz. This liaison led to the birth of a baby boy. But when Franz was ordered to a new post the baby boy mysteriously disappeared. Haya has spent the sixty years since then trying to find out what happened to her son.

Unbeknownst to Haya, her child had been kidnapped as part of the Nazi’s Lebensborn program, which aimed to place racially desirable children—many of whom were forcibly removed from their parents—into adoption with “good” German families. Presumably on instructions form Kurt Franz, her child had been sent to Schloss Oberweiss, a centuries-old Austrian castle that housed the Lebensborn nursery and adoption program.

Towards the end of the novel Drndić shifts focus to Hans Traube, an Austrian professional photographer who has learned from his dying mother that she was not really his birth mother. He, too, has accumulated “a terrible mess” of “strewn letters and documents, books, testimonies, photographs, heaps of photographs,” all during the eight-year search of his own origin. After considerable research he manages to discover who his real parents were. Horrified by what he learns of his father, he nervously heads to Gorizia to locate his mother. As the son enters the room to meet her, the novel ends.

Trieste is a book with a mission. Drndić has embedded a substantial amount of historical writing within her fictional story of the Tedeschi family. There are detailed histories of San Sabba and Schloss Oberweiss, along with excerpts from Holocaust survivor testimonies and the transcripts of several Nazi trials, all of which makes for grim but compelling reading. Drndić avoids writing a traditional historical novel by writing as if it her story was, indeed, history. Drndić’s language is precise, clinical, and the novel is written in the present tense, giving us the sense that history is unfolding before our eyes. And when writing about the past, she never enters the minds of characters. We only observe them without knowing what they are thinking, so we are left to determine their motivation solely from the facts we are given. Drndić also includes numerous images (photographs, maps, sheet music, and documents) that are dropped like breadcrumbs into her text. Their purpose is to be indisputably real, to serve as proof.

INTERVIEWER: How do the archival materials in your fictions—photographs, sheet music, testimony—help you articulate or complicate the trauma of history?

DRNDIC: They do not help me, they are supposed to help the reader. The reader who has lost the capacity to imagine, to rely on the word, on language, and its immense possibilities that are less and less recognized and abused. Language has turned into tweeting, ideas are blogged, so, accordingly, the process of thinking has become shamefully simplified. But I’ve decided to give up. In my latest book, there are few photographs and hardly any documents. The word is there to fight for its rite of passage.

[From an interview with Dustin Illingworth in The Paris Review]

Kurt Franz was an actual Nazi, Haya Tedesci is largely the creation of Drndić, although based in part on a real person. This borrowing of parts of another person’s life led to a controversy after Maclehose Press released the first English translation (by Ellen Elias-Bursać) of Trieste in 2012. In an interview, Drndić described how she developed the character of Haya:

There are these Internet pages where you have stories of victims of the Holocaust, the survivors, their families. And among these web pages I found some kind of confession by a man from a family in Italy. This novel is settled in Northern Italy and part of Slovenia, that was then called Adriatische Kusterland. This family survived because some of the members joined the fascist party of Mussolini, they had the fascist party’s membership cards. They were Jews, of course. They were transferred to Albania, when the fascists conquered the country. And it was very pathetic, it made me angry, this story did not fit, they were not victims of the Holocaust. OK, they found a way to survive, but it was not fair to have this pathetic little story among these horrible stories of survivors. And I said, aha, now I am going to write a book about this. And I made one of the members of this family have a relationship with an existing SS officer, which was an invention. I had a lot of complications with that book, because some of the members were alive and they came to the promotion, in Great Britain. So, anyway, I had her have a relationship with an SS officer, who died, and they had a son. It was at this point that I introduced the relatively unknown or recently uncovered story about the Lebensborn, the children who were stolen from Eastern Europe in order to be educated as Aryans, because not enough Aryans were being born, so 250.000 were stolen and educated as Germans.

One of those “Internet pages” that Drndić read was the story “My Mother’s Autobiography,” Frank J. Gent’s brief biography of his mother, Fulvia Liliana Schiff, written for a extensive family-run genealogy website. (Gent also published the same piece in 1996 as an Amazon Kindle edition called Trieste: The True Story). When Drndić read this she obviously lit upon the the moment when Gent describes Fulvia’s sister being surrounded by Italian partisans who were looking for Germans and German sympathizers: “I was fortunate; I was carrying in my pocket membership of the Fascist Republic of Saló. If they had found that I doubt I would have survived.” When the Schiff family found out about Drndić’s use of Fulvia’s life story, they were outraged. Drndić eventually conceded that she had borrowed from Gent’s story.  The controversy is detailed over at Gogol’s Overcoat. (Make sure to read the comments, which includes Drndić’s reply and justification. As a result of the family’s complaint, the American edition (Houghton Mifflin, 2014) of Trieste bears this statement on the copyright page:

The early life of Haya Tedeschi is based upon an account by Frank Gent of the life of Fulvia Schiff and her family (“My Mother’s Story,” 1996). The affair with an S.S. officer and the subsequent birth of a son are fiction. In reality the Schiffs fled from Sicily to Albania in 1938, and lived there for six years, when they returned to Italy via Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Austria. Fulvia met a British soldier, Frank Dennis Gent, in Milan in 1945. She return with him to England—where they still live—married, and had six children.

Perhaps not surprisingly, “My Mother’s Autobiography” no longer includes the reference to membership card of the Fascist Republic of Saló, although it remains in the Kindle version.