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Posts from the ‘Recently Read’ Category

Recently Read: Stephen Downes & Louis Armand

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

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

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

The Hands of Pianists includes several dozen small black-and-white photographs, many apparently by the author. A few are purely documentary in function, but many are very evocative, helping the narrative feel more like fiction.


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

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

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

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

Recently Read: Writing Slantwise

Tell all the truth but tell it slant
Emily Dickinson

Two terrific books that I recently read both approached their subjects slantwise, or indirectly. They did so in ways that strengthened their messages and kept this reader more engaged. The two books are Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, An Address Book, A Life by Brigitte Benkemoun (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2020) and Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars (NY: Tim Duggan Books, 2020) by Francesca Wade.

Finding Dora Maar

Finding Dora Maar (which was translated from the French by Jody Gladding) has a remarkable backstory. Benkemoun set out to find a replacement vintage Hermes address book for her husband after he lost his. She bought one on eBay for seventy euros and when it arrived she found that it still had a twenty-page index of telephone numbers from a previous owner tucked inside one of its pockets. Flipping through the pages, she immediately recognized that some of the names were famous, names like Jean Cocteau, André Breton, Louis Aragon, Tristan Tzara, Balthus, and Brassaï. In fact, the address book was full of the names, addresses and phone numbers for key figures in the Parisian art and literary world of the 1920s and 1930s! So whose vintage address book had she just purchased? With a bit of reverse engineering, Benkemoun finally figured out that it belonged to Dora Maar (1907-1997), a painter and photographer. But perhaps more famously, Maar was the lover of Pablo Picasso from the late 1930s through about 1943 and the subject of scores of his paintings and prints

Tete de Femme No 3, 1939

Pablo Picasso, Tete de Femme (Dora Maar), 1939, etching
Musee Picasso, Paris

In Finding Dora Maar, Benkemoun writes short chapters for about thirty-six of the entries from Maar’s telephone directory. Most of these cover the high-profile artists and writers that Maar knew, but others deal with some of the more day-to-day people from her life, such as the architect who helped restore one of her houses, a friend who was a civil servant and police officer, a graphologist (Maar believed in handwriting analysis as a way to explore psychology), a doctor, and a manicurist. For each entry, Benkemoun describes how she identified the person (Maar sometimes had indecipherable handwriting and was prone to misspelling names) and what their relationship was to Maar. Maar was tough on friendships. She was suspicious of everyone’s intentions (she thought they were after her valuable collection of paintings by Picasso) and, as she aged, she became increasingly difficult to deal with. By the end of the book, we learn that few of the people in her address book were still on friendly terms with Maar.

By mimicking the format of an address book, Benkemoun ignores chronology and approaches biography from a friendship by friendship basis. In the end, I felt like a had a much better sense of Dora Maar than if I had read a traditional biography of her. Sure, I missed out on a lot of facts, but I felt like I was given the heart and soul of Maar in this slantwise approach to her life. My only regret about the book was that it has no reproductions of the address book itself, aside from the glimpse shown on the front cover.


Wade Haunting

Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars explores the lives of five very different women through the prism of London’s Mecklenburgh Square, where each of the woman lived for a spell sometime between 1916 and 1939. The five women are Hilda Doolittle (the poet and writer known as H.D.), Jane Harrison (a pioneer of classical and anthropological studies), Eileen Powell (groundbreaking medieval historian), Dorothy Sayers (mystery writer), and the writer Virginia Woolf. In the heart of Bloomsbury and near both the British Museum and the University of London (now University College London), Mecklenburgh Square was “a radical address” favored by artists, writers, and thinkers of all kinds between the two World Wars. By focusing on a single city square, Wade demonstrates how cities contribute to intellectual life through their ability to bring people and resources from diverse disciplines to nurture each other and create cross fertilization between disciplines. While the great universities of Oxford and Cambridge continued to discriminate against women, barriers came down much earlier in cities and in some of the universities in cities, like the University of London, which had been granting degrees to women since 1878. Oxford didn’t grant degrees to women until 1920, Cambridge not until 1948.

While each of Wade’s five biographies are much longer than Benkemoun’s and they are slightly more academic in tone, they nevertheless are written equally slantwise. Wade’s mini-biographies first focus on how the time that each woman spent in Mecklenburgh Square was “formative.” “They wanted to break boundaries and forge new narratives for women.” Wade summed up her book by saying that “the legacy of these women lives on . . . in future generation’s right to talk, walk, and write freely, to lead invigorating lives.”

Recently Read: Two Slim Books by Josipovici and Berger/Platonov


The first release from the new House Sparrow Press is a beautifully produced book/CD combo called A Sparrow’s Journey: John Berger Reads Andrey Platonov. The book contains a short story by Platonov (1899-1951) called “Love for the Motherland, or A Sparrow’s Journey: A Fairytale Happening,” along with a piece of writing by Berger that is obliquely about Platonov called “That Have Not Been Asked: Ten Dispatches about Endurance in Face of Walls,” a brief essay about Platonov’s story by Robert Chandler (who co-translated it with his wife Elizabeth), and an even briefer piece about discovering this previously untranslated story by Gareth Evans, editor of House Sparrow Press (among other things). Platonov’s story about a fiddler and a sparrow was written in 1936 in homage to Alexander Pushkin in advance of the one hundredth anniversary of his death in 1937.

A Sparrow’s Journey is one of those publications that remind you how wonderful it is to hold and read a book. Smartly designed and nicely printed on thick paper, handling this small volume is like holding a sparrow in your bare hands. The accompanying CD of a recording of Berger reading the Platonov story is housed in it’s own paper folder with artwork by Georgia Keeling.  The story fits into 25 slim pages but Berger takes a full 44 minutes to read it in his quiet, luscious, and deliberate voice and I didn’t want the reading to come to an end. Somehow, Berger’s reading gave me insights into Platonov’s story that I never suspected were there. More information about A Sparrow’s Journey can be found at the publisher’s website.

As I was writing this yesterday, word spread that John Berger had died at the age of ninety. Do yourself a favor and get this publication and listen to his voice over and over.

cd-sleeve-sample-content-3 Read more

Recently Read: Blackwell, Bailat-Jones…


Every year I read many more books than I can find time to write about on Vertigo, and so I use the category Recently Read as a way of bringing attention to the occasional book that stands out but isn’t quite at the heart of what I tend to write about here. Two books have lingered in my imagination over the last couple of months – Elise Blackwell’s The Lower Quarter (Unbridled Books, 2015) and Michelle Bailat-Jones’ Fog Island Mountains (Tantor, 2014).

Reading The Lower Quarter is like closely examining an inset that magnifies a small neighborhood on a map of New Orleans. Obliquely a mystery that centers around a missing artwork and the murder of the last man who possessed it, the book explores the intersecting paths of four characters who, post-Katrina, are trying to rebuild their lives even as the lower French Quarter rebuilds itself. Blackwell only hints at some of the critical events that have shaped and propelled Johanna, Eli, Marion, and Clay on stage, leaving it to the reader to try to piece together the backstory of each character. The book spans a few months during which the quartet of characters warily venture into each others’ lives. The Lower Quarter has a 21st century noir sensibility, with gnarly things like online revenge, sadism, and sex trafficking scrolling across the background. Blackwell has a knack for always leaving the reader slightly off balance; every time that one loose end gets resolved, another strand starts to unravel.

Here’s Johanna, an immigrant who makes a living as an art restorer:

How the change had occurred she could not have articulated if pressed, but across time, mostly gradually and unconsciously but occasionally with moments of leap and clarity, she began to feel as if she was part of the city. This nourished an understanding that a history can be adopted, that the history of the city could be her history and that she could become part of its history, regardless of where she’d been born or how recently she’d arrived. After all, that was what New Orleans had always been: a receiver of outsiders and immigrants, a blender, a granter of new identities, a place where you could disappear and then resurface under new terms…

This way of thinking had something to do with her work, too. She understood that her vocation made her, by choice, a person who believed that at least some damage can be undone, that original states can be recovered or at least approximated, that life can go on as though some things never happened. She knew, too, that you could also simply paint over a canvas, change the picture for good, so that without an x-ray machine it looked like the former story had never even existed.

Fog Island Mountains is a lush book, rich in language and vibrant in imagery. It centers around a married couple that live in a mountain village in Japan. As the book opens, Alec (originally from South Africa) is learning that he has terminal cancer, while his Japanese wife Kanae, already sensing the calamitous news and fearful of what lies ahead, is about to run away. An approaching typhoon mirrors the inner turbulence that consumes the couple. Much of the power of the novel comes from the omniscient narrator Azami, a mysterious elderly lady who is their neighbor. Azami, who is referred to an “an old fox,” is cast in the role of a kitsune, the fox which, in Japanese myth, has supernatural powers and can take the form of a human. Azami watches the typhoon as it sweeps over the village and, in her own discrete fashion, tells us how Alec and Kanae separately cope with his prognosis. Here, Azami watches as Kanae finally breaks down in tears:

Let us give her this moment, let us turn away, because the relief in letting herself cry will be ugly for us to look at, we can step outside the door so as not to hear her whimpering, we can stand here a moment feeling the force of the wind and the sound of the crashing up in the forest, and when she’s ready, it won’t be long, Kanae has always been the stronger one, we can step back inside…

I thoroughly enjoyed both of these weather-inflected novels. As Azami says (in Fog Island Mountains): “The clever thing with stories is that they are never really fixed, they are meant to change as often as the listener needs them to be something else entirely.”

Recently Read: Valeria Luiselli & Sergio Pitol


Today, two very different books by Mexican writers: Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd (Coffee House Press, 2013) and Sergio Pitol’s The Journey (Deep Vellum, 2015).

The subway, its multiple stops, its breakdowns, its sudden accelerations, its dark zones, could function as the space-time schema for this other novel.

Valeria Luiselli’s unnamed narrator is a young Mexican woman struggling to become a writer. There are three strands to her narrative: her years as a single woman working for a small publishing company in New York City, the succeeding years as a young mother in a dissolving marriage in Mexico City, and her ongoing research (which quickly becomes an obsession) on the Mexican writer Gilberto Owen (1904-1952). In rather formulaic fashion, the three narrative strands blend into one.  Faces in the Crowd comes highly hyped: “fearless…precociously masterful” (Francisco Goldman) and “the best of all possible debuts’ (Enrique Vila-Matas), but I was underwhelmed. Here is Luiselli’s narrator in a subway car as she imagines seeing the face of Gilberto Owen in the window:

When there was once again darkness outside the window, I saw my own blurred image on the glass. But it wasn’t my face; it was my face superimposed on his – as if his reflection had been stamped onto the glass and now I was reflected inside that double trapped on my carriage window.

OK. Got it.

Luiselli’s approach to this intertwined narrative is standard fare (especially, it seems, in first novels) and, to be honest, nothing revelatory or innovative arises from the rather obvious ways in which she weaves the three threads together.

And I guess this is what is meant when Goldman refers to her “fearless, half-mad imagination”:

Dakota moved to her new house at the beginning of summer. It was an apartment in Queens, near a cemetery. The day they handed over the keys we went to buy three cans of paint. She wanted her whole house to look like Juliet Berto’s cobalt-blue bathroom in Céline et Julie vont en bâteau. We opened all the windows and stripped down to our panties. We painted the bathroom, the kitchen, but only half of the bedroom because we ran out of paint. We painted each other’s nipples cobalt blue. When we’d finished we lay face up on the bedroom floor and lit a cigarette apiece. Dakota suggested we swap panties.


Oddly enough, Luiselli and (once again) Enrique Vila-Matas wrote blurbs for my next book. The Journey (Deep Vellum Publishing) is the second volume in “Trilogy of Memory” by Sergio Pitol, a writer with a long history of serving his country as a cultural attaché.  (I have not read the first volume, The Art of Flight, while the third, The Magician of Vienna, has not been issued yet.) The Journey concentrates on trips that Pitol made to Prague, Russia, and the Georgian city of Tbilisi sometime during the Gorbachev era. Wherever he goes, Pitol’s main interest is literature, and so most of this volume deals with the writers he meets, the books he reads, and the literary venues he visits. Even when the writers and their work were utterly unknown to me, The Journey made for lively, enlightening reading. As his publisher’s website puts it, Pitol “imaginatively blends the genres of fiction and memoir in a Borgesian swirl of contemplation and mystery, expanding our understanding and appreciation of what literature can be and what it can do.” While that might be overstating it a bit, it’s pretty close. Actually, the best summary of Pitol’s style comes from Pitol himself, when he describes the works of the Russian writer Marina Tsvetaeva, who he reveres:

In her writing of this period, the thirties, always autobiographical, everything dissolves into everything, the miniscule, the jocose, the digression on the task, on what is seen, lived, and dreamt, and she recounts it with unexpected rhythm, not without a certain delirium, an alacrity, which allows the writing itself to become its own structure, its reason for being.

It is nearly impossible for me to find a short, exemplary quote from Pitol’s book because he tends to pile impression upon impression until the reader finally intuits the complex point that Pitol has been making through his seeming aimless meandering. But here, with the use of a few ellipses, is a good example from the section on Prague:

I’m almost certain that the same day I allowed myself to be dazzled by the [Matthias] Braun exhibit, I was able to find, with the aid of a city map, the Café Arco, one of the holiest sites of interwar literature, where Franz Kafka met with his closest friends…They considered themselves provincials, disconnected from the living language, unconnected to contemporaneity, to the prestige of the metropolis, and the truth is that their very existence represented, but at the time neither they nor the world knew it, the zone of maximum tension of the German language…From the street and especially inside, the establishment could not be seamier. It looked like all the bleak and filthy fifth-rate establishments that Hašek created for his soldier Švejk…Imagining those young geniuses talking around a table in that dreary space, devoid of atmosphere, its floor littered with cigarette butts, greasy pieces of paper, and dirt, exchanging ideas and discussing them, or reading their latest texts to each other, had an obscene quality.

I read these two books back to back and was quite surprised by the result. Pitol’s book had been sent to me by the publisher and I had to convince myself to give it a try, whereas Luiselli’s book had been on my wish list for months, based on the intriguing publicity it had been receiving. But in the end, it was Pitol’s book that riveted me, even though I knew next to nothing about the literature of the Soviet Union or Georgia that was his main subject, while I frankly struggled to finish Luiselli’s book. Both of these writers traffic in fragmented moments to tell a larger story and both rely on deliberately blurred literary boundaries to create their signature styles. What Pitol brings to his writing is an exuberant passion that is leavened with a mature intelligence. In his search for whatever is truly original in literature and in life, he skewers any and all forms of pretentiousness. What Luiselli seems to be trying to do is to magnify the mundane details of daily life in hopes of locating significance. Luiselli, who references Hemingway on the first page, writes in a dead-pan language that seems desperate to sound as unliterary as possible, and it is only within such a deliberately barren context that the sudden appearance of cobalt-blue nipples or swapping underwear or casual sex might possibly be considered as some sort of shock value.

Recently Read: Nathalie Léger & Roger Grenier


Two books, both by French authors. One about cinema, one about photography.

A longtime Vertigo reader sent me a copy of Nathalie Legér’s newly published Suite for Barbara Loden, for which I am extremely grateful. Barbara Loden was an American actress, whose second husband was the film director Elia Kazan. Loden wrote, directed and starred in the 1970 movie Wanda.  Shot in cinéma vérité on a ridiculously low budget, Wanda retells the real-life story of a bored coal-miner’s wife who gets involved with another man and helps him commit a bank robbery. The robbery fails, the man is killed, and Wanda seems relieved to be sentenced to prison. When Legér was asked to write a brief film encyclopedia entry about Loden, she found herself doing far more research than necessary.

Convinced that in order to keep it short you need to know a great deal, I immersed myself in the history of the United States, read through the history of the self-portrait from antiquity to modern times, digressing to take in some sociological research about women from the 1950s and 1960s. I eagerly consulted dictionaries and biographies, gathered information about cinéma vérité, artistic avant-garde movements, the New York theater scene, Polish immigration to the United States; I did research into coal mining (reading up about mining exploration, finding out about the organisational structure of the mining industry, collecting data on coal deposits in Pennsylvania); I knew everything there was to know about the invention of hair curlers and the rise of the pin-up model after the war. I felt like I was managing a huge building site, from which I was going to excavate a miniature model of modernity, reduced to its simplest, most complex form: a woman telling her own story through that of another.

After this semi-comic confession of overreach, Legér realizes she has become obsessed with Loden in the same way that Loden became obsessed with her film character Wanda and the real woman she was based on – Alma Malone. Using film techniques like montage, jump cut, and flashback, Suite for Barbara Loden is a stunningly beautiful book in which the lives of these four women -Nathalie Legér, Barbara Loden, Wanda, and Alma Malone – become one. Or, as Legér puts it:

To sum up. A woman is pretending to be another, in a role she wrote herself, based on another (this, we find out later), playing something other than a straightforward role, playing not herself but a projection of herself onto another, played by her but based on another.

There is a great review of Suite by K. Thomas Kahn over at Music & Literature.


Several Vertigo readers have suggested I get Roger Grenier’s A Box of Photographs, and I’m glad I did. Grenier writes movingly and with a light touch  about the power of photographs to engage the viewer’s curiosity, to galvanize memories, to provoke responses. At just over 100 pages, this is a compact book that ranges far and wide. Grenier has given us a series of meditations on photography, photographs, and photographers, all with brief glimpses into his own life as a member of the Resistance, journalist, amateur photographer, and longtime editor at Éditions Gallimard. Oddly, the book only contains sixteen photographs and they often aren’t the photographs I most wanted to see. Grenier includes a snapshot of his dog, who receives only a brief mention, but fails to include an image showing us an image of the murderess Sylvie Paul, the subject of one of the longest essays and about whose striking appearance Grenier can’t stop writing. Her “steel-gray eyes captured the reader, even in the poorest quality photos that appeared in the press.” But alas, we are denied the pleasure of seeing Sylvie Paul.

Nathalie Legér. Suite for Barbara Loden. London: Les Fugitives, 2015. Translated by Natasha Lehrer & Cécile Menon.

Roger Grenier. A Box of Photographs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. Translated by Alice Kaplan.

Recently Read – Two from Full Circle Editions



Full Circle Editions is a small publisher based in East Anglia that has produced sixteen books since it began operations in 2008. I’ve written about two of their books before: Audio Obscura by poet Lavinia Greenlaw and photographer Julian Abrams and After Sebald: Essays and Illuminations. I’ve recently finished two more of Full Circle’s handsome, well-designed books: Body of Work: 40 Years of Creative Writing at UEA (2009) edited by Giles Foden and The Burning of the Books (2014), a poem sequence by George Szirtes with photocollages by Ronald King.

Going to a university to “study” creative writing is a vexed topic lately. Can writing even be taught? Maybe not. But almost uniformly, the contributors to Body of Work agree that something important happened to them during their time at the University of East Anglia’s writing program. Body of Work is a rich testament to the creative writing program at the University of East Anglia, where W.G. Sebald taught for most of his professional career. The fifty or so essays each address in one way or another the experience of attending the UEA as a writing student or serving as a faculty member – or, in numerous cases, doing both. While the bulk of attention is paid to the department’s long-term head Malcom Bradbury and the influential teacher Angela Carter, there are several essays on Sebald: Rebecca Stott’s “Dust, Like Pollen,” Luke Williams’ “A Watch on each Wrist, Twelve Seminars with W. G. Sebald,” and Andrew Motion’s “After Nature and So On (W.G. Sebald).” A partial list of some of the other contributors gives an idea of the importance of the UEA writing program: Mohammed Hanif, Amit Chaudhuri, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, David Lodge, Marina Warner, Adam Mars-Jones, George Szirtes, Richard Holmes, and Rose Tremain. Body of Work ought to be required reading for any writer thinking of heading off to a graduate writing program.

Szirtes Burning 1-001

Full Circle Editions is an outgrowth of Circle Press, founded in 1967 by artist Richard King as a way for artists to publish limited edition prints and books. In 2008, Circle Press published The Burning of the Books, a limited edition with fifteen original etchings of photocollages by King  and a poem sequence by Szirtes, inspired by Elias Canetti’s 1935 novel Die Blendung (Auto-da-Fe, in English). A trade edition of this became the first title issued by Full Circle. King’s images consist mostly of faces, body parts, and texts, jumbled together in combinations  that often recall classic Surrealist photocollages, although the opening double-spread is a clear homage to Picasso’s Guernica. Szirtes describes his poems “as a kind of marginalia” written around Canetti’s book. In fourteen poems, Szirtes beautifully addresses some of the complex topics found in Canetti’s story of a book-obsessed scholar who marries his ignorant housekeeper with tragic results.

Szirtes Burning 2-001



Recently Read – Susan Howe & Simon Critchley

Howe Jonathan Edwards

This edition of “Recently Read” features two books – both blue! – that are as delightful to read as they are to hold. Some books – particularly small books, I think – just feel right in the hand when the publisher has put extra care into the design and production. And today’s books come from publishers who do things right: the Christine Burgin imprint at New Directions and the new Fitzcarraldo Editions. Both are physically handsome, modestly sized, modestly priced, and short (80 and 68 pages respectively). Howe’s book comes hardbound with blue cloth covers and a reproduction of a cyanotype photograph pasted down on the cover. Critchley’s book has stiff French wraps that open up to reveal indigo blue endpapers.


Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives by Susan Howe is the latest of several spectacular trade book productions from Christine Burgin that include Robert Walser’s Microscripts, A Little Ramble, and Thirty Poems and The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems. Spontaneous Particulars was “originally conceived as a lecture” and slide show that has been turned into a free-form, genre-busting essay illustrated with photographs of archival objects that Howe has had the opportunity to view in various research libraries. The photographs show manuscripts by William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, Jonathan Edwards, Hart Crane, Charles Pierce, Noah Webster, and Gertrude Stein, plus several images that were used in Howe’s limited edition publication Frolic Architecture (which was released in a trade version called This That). Like everything Howe writes, Spontaneous Particulars is tender and rigorous at the same time, with her unique mix of the spiritual and the analytic. To my mind, Howe’s essays achieve the status of poems and this one is dedicated to the objects that show us the moment during which creative ideas are first transferred to paper – typed and hand-written manuscripts, doodles and scribbles. Physician William Carlos WIlliams often wrote parts of poems on the pages of prescription pads. But my favorites are the manuscript books of Jonathan Edwards written on “discarded semi-circular pieces of silk paper his wife and daughters used for making fans.” About these Howe writes: “Surface and meaning cooperate to keep alive in one process mastery in service, service in mastery.” (All of my posts on Susan Howe can be found here.)

Memory Theatre

“I am dying. That much was certain. The rest is fiction.” So begins Simon Critchley’s Memory Theatre, a books that meanders around the concept of the “memory theater” of sixteenth century Italian Giulio Camillo, who featured prominently in France Yates’ 1966 book The Art of Memory. Critchley – or, perhaps, “Critchley” – finds he has inherited a number of boxes left to him on the death of his teacher, the French philosopher Michel Haar. Among the papers are astrological charts accurately predicting the death dates of several philosophers, plus one that ominously predicts the day on which Critchley himself will die. With his own death date approaching, Critchley weaves dreams, hallucinations, autobiography, and doses of fiction into a fascinating prose piece on memory.

I peered through the magnifying glass at my destiny. The detail was fascinating. Working through the concentric circles, I moved from briefly noted events in my life that Michel couldn’t possibly have known about…I tried to resist looking through at the centre of the circle, with the date of my death. But there it was: “le 13 Juin, 2010, 1551h, Den Bosch, hémorragie cérébrale.” Cerebal haemorhage. OK. I was expecting lung cancer. But where the fuck was Den Bosch?

The book includes a sequence of photographs of a skyscraper under construction by the British artist Liam Gillick. The photographs appear in reverse sequence and so we effectively watch the building’s dismantling.  I suppose that’s a metaphor for something, but I thought Gilliam’s concept was rather flat and the execution left something to be desired. The images are all reproduced on blank pages, suggesting that they aren’t meant to mingle with the text but to proceed in parallel with it.


Susan Howe. Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives. NY: Christine Burgin/New Directions, 2014.

Simon Critchley. Memory Theatre. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2014.

Recently Read – Solnit & Duras

Solnit Faraway Nearby

Rebecca Solnit. The Faraway Nearby. Viking, 2013. “Pared back to its bare bones, this book is the history of an emergency and the stories that kept me company then…” The emergency was the onset of her mother’s Alzheimer’s, and, nestled within that emergency, came Solnit’s own brush with cancer. Solnit’s wonderfully digressive stories take us from the depths of the Grand Canyon to a lonely residency at the Library of Water on the coast of Iceland, through the world of myth and her own family history, weaving amongst the literature and lives of Hans Christian Anderson, Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf, and others. Solnit’s beautiful writing, her passion and compassion, her intense sense of place, and her firm moral compass always make her books a special event. This is a wonderful and wise piece of writing…

We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or by numbness and the failure to live; tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown, stories of justification, of accursedness, of luck and star-crossed love, or versions clad in the cynicism that is at times a very elegant garment. Sometimes the story collapses, and it demands that we recognize we’ve been lost, or terrible, or ridiculous, or just stuck; sometimes change arrives like an ambulance or a supply drop. Not a few stories are sinking ships, and many of us go down with these ships even when the lifeboats are bobbing all around us.

To get a flavor for this book, I highly recommend listening to her conversation with KCRW’s Michael Silverblatt.

Duras War

Marguerite Duras. The War. New Press, 1994.

Opposite the fireplace and beside me, the telephone. To the right the sitting room and the passage. At the end of the passage, the front door. He might come straight here and ring at the front door. “Who’s there?” “Me.” Or he might phone from a transit center as soon as he got there. “I’m back – I’m at the Lutetia to go through the formalities.” There wouldn’t be any warning. He’d phone. He’d arrive. Such things are possible.

In April 1944, Marguerite Duras waits anxiously in her Paris apartment for word about her husband, who had been arrested by the Gestapo and eventually deported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Duras gives a riveting account of the roller coaster emotional ride that drags on for weeks. In spite of her personal horror and uncertainty, though, Duras also thinks anxiously about the future of a victorious Europe, a liberated France, and a defeated Germany. “Peace is visible already,” she writes, adding ominously: “It’s like a great darkness falling, it’s the beginning of forgetting.”

If you give a German and not a collective interpretation to the Nazi horror, you reduce the man in Belsen to regional dimensions. The only possible answer to this crime is to turn it into a crime committed by everyone. To share it. Just like the idea of equality and fraternity. In order to bear it, to tolerate the idea of it, we must share the crime.

Her husband Robert returns, unrecognizable and nearly dead. “If he had eaten when he got back from the camp his stomach would have been lacerated by the weight of the food, or else the weight would have pressed on the heart which had grown enormous in the cave of his emaciation.” She carefully nurses him back from death and then she drops this bombshell:

I told him we had to get a divorce, that I wanted a child by D., that it was because of the name the child would bear. He asked if one day we might get together again. I said no, that I hadn’t changed my mind since two years ago, since I’d met D. I said that even if D. hadn’t existed I wouldn’t have lived with him again. He didn’t ask me my reasons for living. I didn’t tell him what they were.

The War contains three separate memoir fragments and a pair of very brief stories, all relating to the end of World War II, all marked by her brutal form of in-the-moment honesty 

Recently Read – January 25, 2013

Three recent books from my Kindle.

1. Javier Marias. The Infatuations. Knopf, 2013. For the moment at least, The Infatuations is my favorite book by Javier Marias. While it doesn’t have the scope of the three-volume series Your Face Tomorrow, it benefits from an unwavering intensity of focus that is both exhilarating and harrowing at times. With five main characters and a noirish murder mystery plot, The Infatuations focuses in on the psychology of the characters and minutely examines the social and interpersonal dance of their interactions.

Maria, the narrator, analyses seemingly every sentence, every movement that the other characters make in her presence. And when there are gaps in her knowledge, she obsessively fills the gaps with speculations, with stories carefully crafted to fit the facts as she knows them. “When we get caught in the spider’s web – between the first chance event and the second – we fantasize endlessly.” There is a continual push-pull relationship between knowledge and uncertainty. Each of the characters hungers to have their questions answered, their fears resolved, their hypotheses confirmed.  And yet each feels equally sure that there is never a final, definitive truth. “Being certain of anything goes against our nature.” Maria works in a Madrid publishing house, which allows Marias to toss off some jibes at the unpleasantness of self-important writers and, at times, to perhaps have a bit of fun at his own expense.

He had a marked tendency to discourse and expound and digress, as I have noticed to be the case with many of the writers I meet at the publishing house, as if it weren’t enough for them to fill pages and pages with their thoughts and stories…

2. David Rose. Vault: An Anti-Novel. Salt Publishing, 2013. An aspiring professional cyclist, who spent the Second World War as a sniper, reads a fictionalized account of his life, retelling the story in his own words and correcting the novel’s errors chapter by chapter. (“Hasn’t he checked any of the history?”) While Vault is not really the anti-novel it sounds like it ought to be, there is a beautiful spareness to Rose’s writing in this short debut novella. 

Surrender to the bias of the weight in my pocket? My God. Is that what my life has been reduced to? Amateurish purple?

Look, I don’t so much mind my life being borrowed. It’s what novelists do. They have to make a living. I understand that. And besides, I can correct it, put the record straight.

What I do mind is having my death stolen.

3. Donald Richie. The Inland Sea. Stone Bridge Press, 2002. When this was originally published in 1971, Donald Richie had already lived in Japan for more than two decades. Richie, who just died last year, was the consummate guide to the people and culture of Japan, and The Inland Sea deserves to be one of the great travel classics. He combined an impeccable insider’s knowledge with the awareness that he would always be an outsider. The reader quickly learns to trust the set of eyes through which we view Japan. As the book moves farther into the Inland Sea, Richie brings us deeply and intimately into his own interior. This edition includes a insightful new Introduction by Pico Iyer.