Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Laird Hunt’ Category

Vertiginous Links for January 2012

Ω  Three years ago, Five Dials, the online magazine from Hamish Hamilton published some of the notes that David Lambert and Robert McGill took down as they attended one of W.G. Sebald’s last classes on writing.  Their piece, then called “The Collected ‘Maxims’,” has reappeared unchanged as “Max Sebald’s Writing Tips.”  It’s too bad that Five Dials doesn’t get mentioned, and there is no link to that issue (number 5), which, as I noted at that time, was a “goldmine” of articles dedicated to Sebald.  So here’s a reminder of what’s in Five Dials 5:

The new issue of Five Dials is very much an issue devoted to W.G. Sebald.  Nearly half of the 32 pages are related to him in one way or another. The issue opens with a “Letter from the Editor” (Craig Taylor) entitled “On Translation and Sebald.”  This is followed by “A Little Trick of the Mind,” in which four translators ( including Sebald’s primary English translator Anthea Bell) discuss “the world’s second oldest profession.”  (Bell’s father edited The Times crossword puzzle, we learn.)  She talks about translating the Asterix books and Sebald, although most of what she says here about Sebald she has said elsewhere.

Joe Dunthorne, a writer and, perhaps more importantly, a striker for the England Writers’ Football Team, writes about reading Austerlitz and what it meant to him as he moved to London.

Simon Prosser (publishing director for Hamish Hamilton) provides An A to Z of W.G. Sebald, an alphabetical soup of reminiscences grouped under subheadings  such as Bavaria, Climate, Kant, Lac de Bienne (the one place Sebald felt truly at home), Smoking, and Zembla.

And lastly there is a short piece by the late author Roger Deakin.

Ω  Not too long ago I wrote about Laird Hunt’s great 2012 book Kind One.  Now there is an interview with him by Roxanne Gay over at Bookforum.  Laird gives a very interesting and articulate discussion on a wide range of topics, including the issue of literary genre.

The fact that all the ghosts and witches and detectives and space ships had to operate in the relative shadows for many years brought its own rewards and much brilliant work, some of which is being retroactively anointed (think of the canonizing of Philip K. Dick), but it has also presented us with the strange and distorting notion that there is anything inherently unusual about the inclusion of such elements in writing worthy of being celebrated far and wide.

My first and lasting literary light-ups were European, French in particular, and what we think of as being related to genre is everywhere in writings published by France’s biggest houses. Whether we’re talking de Maupassant or Robbe-Grillet, Jean Echenoz or Marie Ndiaye, S & M, the supernatural and the gangster are all there, unapologized for, and have been for years.

Ω  And don’t overlook László Krasznahorkai’s piece in the New York Times, “Someone’s Knocking at My Door.”  It’s just damned wicked writing.

“Yes, it’s the weak who invite violence who are the problem.”

Kind One

A time as I was coming up north through the twilight, heading for the river with its ferryman, a rider with black teeth leaned down off his horse and asked me what I was running from.

“You’re looking at it,” I said.

Let’s start with the language of Kind One (Coffee House Press, 2012).  Laird Hunt takes on one of the bigger risks in fiction by creating a primary narrator – Ginny – who is regional, poorly educated, and located in the distant past, all of which could be a recipe for cliched writing of the first order.  Instead, Laird gives her (and the other, lesser narrators) a voice that speaks with a hard shimmering kind of prose poetry.  Her awkward circumlocutions have the indefinable, almost Shakespearean energy of language that is being newly minted and constantly improvised.  I think it’s fair to say that what Laird has done is to create a simulacrum of a 19th century voice.  Is it authentic?  Arguably not, at times.  But is it convincing?  Yes, yes, and yes.  Here’s a nice example, as newly-married fourteen year-old Ginny and her much older husband Linus show her parents around his shack in Kentucky – the shack that he described as a mansion when her wooed her up in Indiana.

The next day Linus Lancaster took us on a tour of the house that wasn’t but that he said would soon someday be.  We walked in its corridors and took the airs of its rooms.  We climbed the stairs and stood in the Charlotte County sunshine on its balconies and looked out into the distances of Linus Lancaster’s fields.  Come suppertime, Linus Lancaster had Ulysses fetch up a table, and we broke our pork and corn pone in the middle of the future banquet room.  My father went along on this tour and snorted not a whit when my mother, dangling like ivy off Linus Lancaster’s arm, would marvel at the line of a wall that wasn’t any more than some milkweed floating through a sunbeam or nod at the clean crack of the glistening hardwood floors we were none of us walking on.  He even, at one point, when we were touring the airy attics, commented on the quality of the underroof and the clean lines of the ceiling beams.

In 1911, aging Ginestra Lancaster begins to tell her story.  At the age of fourteen, she married a distant relative who promised her a mansion and estate in Kentucky, not to mention an escape from her parent’s poor home in Indiana.  The mansion turned out to be a shack, the estate a modest pig farm, and her new husband a drunk with a violent streak.  Linus has a handful of black servants, who he abuses, lashing one man to death for a minor lapse.  At first, Ginny makes peace with her husband’s ways, largely by mentally drifting off to a better place.  But eventually, she, too, begins to abuse the two young girls who serve in the house.  One day the two girls turn the tables on their tormentors, killing Linus and confining Ginny to a shack where she is chained by the ankle.  I won’t spoil things by further describing the remainder of the storyline that lies half-submerged in the narrators’ haunting, beautiful prose.  But there is a jarring storyline that moves back and forth across the century from 1830 to 1930.  But the plot, powerful as it is, plays second fiddle to Laird Hunt’s language, which is truly something to behold.

Late in the book, Hunt inserts six small photographs, all rather blurry and overly infused with sunlight.  They suggest memories or scenes quickly absorbed by someone traveling through the landscape.

Kind One is not the kind of historical fiction that comes with period appropriate props and full stage settings.  It’s minimal, immersive, and utterly compelling.  Hunt never lets the reader get distracted or lets the intensity become diffused.  For the real subject here is violence – violence that manifests itself as a Lear-like rage against Life itself.

Comes a day when everything you had thought you had put behind you sets up a tent in the middle of what you were still hoping you could call tomorrow and yells out, “Right this way.”

Well, here I come.

[Here are my other posts on Laird Hunt’s books Ray of the Star and The Exquisite.]

Hunting for Laird Hunt

“I thought a thought but the thought I thought was not the thought that I thought I thought,” said Harry.

In Ray of the Star, Laird Hunt masterfully creates an alternate universe, a place made strange by simply exaggerating the world in which you and I live.  The book opens with sinister overtones of mysterious crimes, an accident, and guilt.  Harry has a sleeping disorder, Restless Leg Syndrome, and occasional bouts of visual aphasia, and the narrator suggests we might be entering “an endless Tarkovsky movie.”  Harry flees his home and his past in the American Midwest and heads for a more picturesque and dangerous city much like Barcelona, where he passively ricochets around until he at last becomes snared in someone else’s web.  On a boulevard much like Barcelona’s La Rambla, Harry discovers an avenue of living statues, those silver-and gold-painted mimes who perform on city streets for easily amused tourists.  But here, in Laird Hunt’s city, the living statues take their work more seriously and have an uncertain symbolic presence, and they are the subject of constant debate for a trio of foul-mouthed “connoisseurs” who observe and critique their performances.

Harry becomes taken with Solange, who performs as an angel on the avenue of living statues and who, after the loss of a lover, now paints herself silver rather than gold and sheds silver tears.  In order to better woo Solange, Harry joins the corps of living statues as the Knight of Woeful Countenance (the reference, of course, is to Don Quixote), at which he is a woeful failure, managing only to resemble “some kind of laminated hobgoblin or gigantic duck.”  His next tactic is to take up residence inside of a papier-mâché Yellow Submarine (yes, that Yellow Submarine), which permits him to observe Solange from close up.  For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the tenor of Ray of the Star changes dramatically midstream from noir science fiction, full of menace and dread, to a quirky and comic tale of living statues, talking shoes, and ghosts who return to their daily lives.  It’s a risky and curious change, and some readers will find that it threatens to undermine Hunt’s darker message about the mysterious and possibly shameful past that haunts Harry.

In addition to this questionable mood swing, Hunt also has a tendency, which I found baffling, to give the narratorial voice an intensely elevated vocabulary and syntax.

Solange and Harry emerged from the latter’s apartment contentedly aware that their exchange of confidences, no matter how satisfyingly thorough, could reasonably be thought of as no more than an additional incipit in what – barring any unforeseen accelerant – would require a whole cascading series in order to move them toward the something they had not, during their discussion of the matter, been quite willing to articulate, though we might reasonably infer that the potential of an intense acquaintance bolstered by duration was under discussion, meaning that high spirits were the order of the evening as they set off for the boulevard to recuperate and stow away Solange’s silver costume and Harry’s Yellow Submarine…

In another context, this nerdy, language-bound narrator might be very effective, but here the jokey bombast  struck me as counterproductive.  This was one of several tactics that left me feeling that the purpose of Ray of the Star was increasingly becoming mangled.  Each chapter, for example, consists of a single “sentence” that is usually three to four pages long, although, in fact, each “sentence” is really a string of sentences cobbled together with commas.  These artificially convoluted sentences, combined with Hunt’s pretzled grammar, seem to be saying something Joycean about the interconnectedness of everything.  But, for me, it all added up to a pervasive arbitrariness in Ray of the Star that I found problematic.  Hunt is a writer who can convincingly pull readers into dark territory that they might never have ventured on their own.  The opening pages of Ray of the Star are powerful, mysterious, unpredictable, and intensely risky, and when I returned to the beginning after finishing the novel I was even more astounded at what Hunt had pulled off in those early pages.  Unfortunately it seems to me that quirks of subject and style eventually loom too large, distracting the reader from the books’ real strengths.

Ray of the Star includes three full-page photographs.  There is no indication if these are actually to be considered part of Laird Hunt’s text or if the designer placed them as chapter breaks, although each image does relate to an object discussed in the section that follows it.  The largely gray photographs of a bell, a glass of liquid, and a clothes hanger have the stark and haunting simplicity of of X-rays of ordinary objects.

Laird Hunt, Ray of the Star.  Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2009.

Under the Influence of Sebald (I)

The most obvious way in which Sebald’s legacy as a writer can be seen is in the number of works of fiction that have appeared in the past decade employing photographs.But there are a number of works of fiction and of poetry that pay homage to Sebald in other ways. I’ve just acquired three works of fiction that acknowledge their debt to Sebald without apparently trying to “do a Sebald,” as one author notes.  At the moment, all three novels lie in my ever growing stack of unread books, but here are some preliminary notes.


The first book is Sarah Emily Miano’s Encyclopedia of Snow, published in Great Britain by Picador in 2003. Miano is a former student at Sebald’s University of East Anglia (though I have yet to discern if she studied with him). Dedicated to W.G. Sebald, the book has received decidedly mixed reviews and my first few minutes with it were not promising. According to the dust jacket, The Encyclopedia of Snow purports to be a manuscript discovered in the trunk of a vehicle abandoned in a Buffalo, NY blizzard. The manuscript contains alphabetically arranged entries somehow dealing with snow from Angel to Zenith. Following a Prologue, which is written in the form of a newspaper article describing the blizzard, there is a cagey two-page note Editor’s Note addressed “Dear Reader” that simply seems to me to be too staged. After the main body of the book (the alphabetical entries referring to snow) the book concludes with a twenty-page section of notes – including some useful entries on obscure authors (some of whom will be very familiar to Sebald’s readers) and some self-indulgent entries like a definition of an encyclopedia – and an overly-mysterious Epilogue. At first glance, it all looks a bit too structured for a manuscript found in a car.


Laird Hunt’s The Exquisite was published in 2006 by Coffee House Press of Minneapolis. It’s described as a “post 9/11” novel that takes place in downtown Manhattan. One blurb on the rear cover describes the book as being “as fun to read as [Raymond] Chandler, but spookier.  A noir koan, in a New York designed by Escher.”  Clearly, this is one of those blurbs that ought to set off warning bells.  The book’s main character joins “a nefarious crew,” whose ringleader (a connoisseur of herring, no less) is somehow related to the corpse in Rembrandt’s famous painting The Anatomy Lesson (also familiar to all Sebaldians).  At the end of his book, Hunt provides an Acknowledgements page. “While many books informed and inspired this one, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, translated from the German by Michael Hulse, provided key thematic and linguistic irritants throughout the writing of The Exquisite.”  Recognizing that he was not alone in trying to figure out how to channel Sebald into his own work, Hunt says “I decided not to try, as it seemed to me so many were trying, to ‘do a Sebald’, i.e. truffle page with visual images, eschew novelistic sleight of hand in favor of quietly patterned and heavily mediated observation, and inject the whole with a steady drip of melancholia.”


Enrique Vila-Matas, the Spanish author of the generally well-liked Bartleby & Co., wrote El Mal de Montano (Montano’s Malady) in 2002, but it has only appeared in English earlier this year (2007) simply titled Montano and published by Harvill Secker, London. Montano turns out to be the son of the narrator (another “unreliable narrator” according to the dust jacket) and he is suffering from writer’s block, which seems to be a common topic for writers these days. The book jacket promises that many of the writers with whom Montano is obsessed will make an appearance in the novel, including “Cervantes, Sterne, Kafka, Musil, Perec, Bolaño, Coetzee, Sebald, and Magris.” Apparently, these writers have set the bar so high that poor Montano is reduced to describing his attempt to exorcise them.