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18 Notable Books from My 2022 Reading

As I went back through the ninety or so books I read in the past twelve months, it was a challenge to decide which titles should be labelled the “best” of the year. I kept changing my mind until I finally settled on these eighteen as the most outstanding and memorable books of the last year’s reading. Seven of titles are novels, two are mysteries, two are volumes of poetry, one is a volume of photographs with text, and the remainder are various genres of non-fiction. Six of the titles were published for the first time in 2022, another five were from 2019 through 2021, with the remainder having been published as far back as 1959. For the second year in a row, Percival Everett has two books on my list. If you want to see everything that I read throughout 2022, you’ll find that list here underneath the tab for Old Reading Logs. I keep a running commentary on every book I read in my current annual Reading Log, which you can find as a pull-down menu elsewhere at the top of this page. And just for the record, I made ineligible for this list any of the books that I reread as part of my 15 Books Project; they’re getting enough attention on their own. So here are my notable books from this year’s reading, alphabetically by author.

Sara Baume. Handiwork. Dublin: Tramp Press, 2020. Baume, a writer with a growing reputation for her fiction, has a personal craft obsession: carving small birds out of plaster, at the rate of a bird a day. In Handiwork, she blends separate narrative threads about her craft habits, bird-watching, stories of bird migration, and bits of memoir about her husband and her father into a spiraling meditation on obsession and what it means to work with your hands. As she ponders the way in which migration patterns are passed on through generations of birds, she observes her father and herself, wondering what has similarly been passed from father to daughter—especially after his death. Nothing about this book feels superficial to me. Baume explores craft, craftsmanship, and craftsmen deeply and personally.

Last spring, after I had carved 100 plaster objects, a single day devoted to each one, I started to carve them in a slightly different style—a slightly sharper, odder, style—and after a while it became clear that the first hundred were inadequate; that the price of getting a single object right was 100 discarded objects and 100 days, an entire winter.

Kirsty Bell. The Undercurrents. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2022. After a move and then a sudden divorce, Bell found herself the owner of an apartment in one of the few 19th century buildings in Berlin that survived the devastation of World War II. Curious about the building’s history, she began to research it. Before long, she found herself expanding her purview to research the adjacent canal, then the neighborhood, and then the city itself. Throughout the book Bell keeps her building—and the family who built it and had lived in it for nearly a century—as the focal point. Along the way, she tells many fascinating stories about Berlin, and she has a knack for making history’s complications seem understandable. For example, she lays out a concise picture of Berlin’s dismal attempts at post-war city planning, and she gives the best summary I’ve read yet of what went wrong during Germany’s “re-unification.” Every city should have a book like this.

Annabel Dover. Florilegia. Nottingham: Moist Books, 2022. I was taken by Dover’s daring first novel, which is narrated by a woman who becomes enamored with the 19th century British botanist and photographer Anna Atkins. According to my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a florilegia is “a collection of choice extracts from literature; an anthology. . . a book describing choice flowers.” But this didn’t prepare me for what the narrator of Florilegia threw at me. Within the first few pages, she had referenced bear-baiting, the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace, Derek Jarman, AIDS, something called the Paper Museum, Windsor Castle, David Bowie, and well more than a dozen other famous names and obscure subjects, not to mention a mini-history of the poppy plant. The novel is really about the power of objects to provoke memories that, for this narrator, bring her back in touch with memories of her parents and siblings. Packed with nearly one hundred b&w photographs, mostly by Anna Atkins and the author. I wrote longer review of this book here.

Percival Everett. I Am Not Sidney Poitier. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2009. I’ve become a rabid follower of Everett in recent years. This is a funny, pointed satire that aims its sharpest arrows at white Southerners, colorism, and higher education. It’s impossible to give a brief synopsis of the complex plot, but suffice it to say that the main character is a young kid whose mother named him Not Sidney because his last name really was Poitier. He accidentally becomes phenomenally rich through a lucky stock purchase in the company that becomes CNN, which makes him an early partner of Ted Turner. But because he is black, very dark, and named Not Sidney, he must suffer—and suffer egregiously—at the hands of whites and blacks alike before becoming wise. The eventual payback is simply delicious.

Percival Everett. Suder. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1999. This is Everett’s first book from 1983, re-released sixteen years later. Although it seemed to start a bit slow, toggling between baseball and jazz, it turns out to be a doozy, complete with an elephant, a hijacked young girl, some liberated cash, and a man who has decided he wants to fly. Suder is a fairly brave first novel and sets a theme that Everett will return to frequently, that of a man who slowly decides he must come to the rescue of someone in trouble.

Mark Haber, Saint Sebastian’s Abyss. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2022. A delicious novel about the esoteric world of art history and the period known as the Northern Renaissance. “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” is one of only three paintings that survive by the (fictional) painter Count Hugo Beckenbauer (1512- ?), a man who spent most of his abbreviated adult life in Berlin drinking and “purchasing sex from both women and young boys” before succumbing to syphilis. Two highly competitive art historians have built their careers on this tiny gem of a painting—an unnamed American who serves as the narrator and Schmidt, an Austrian. The two have a long and friendly professional rivalry until the narrator one day says a “horrible thing” that angers Schmidt and leads to a rupture that will end their friendship until Schmidt, on his deathbed, reconsiders. Haber has crafted a novel about beauty and spite worthy of the master, Thomas Bernhard. I wrote a longer review here.

Gabriel Josipovici. 100 Days. Manchester: Little Island Press, 2021. During the worst of the Covid pandemic, Josipovici assigned himself to “keep a diary for a hundred days . . . with a short thought or memory, one a day, connected to a person, place, concept or work of art that had played a role in my life . . . not . . . perfect little essays . . . but rather a way of talking to myself.” The alphabetically-arranged entries move from Aachen and Abraham to [Georges] Perec and Piers the Plowman to Zazie dans le métro (Raymond Queneau’s 1960 novel) and Zoos. Josipovici’s erudition and his utter honesty shine through in these wonderful little pieces, each of which is preceded by a short diaristic encapsulation of the current political situation with regard to Covid (usually the British government’s botched handling thereof). If he were a regular diarist, Josipovici could have easily be this era’s Samuel Pepys.

William Melvin Kelley. A Different Drummer. NY: Anchor Books, 1959. [I read the 2019 eBook edition.] This is Kelley’s stunning debut novel, written when he was 24. After reading it, I wasn’t surprised to learn that he was a student of John Hawkes at Harvard. There is something fearless about Kelley’s writing in A Different Drummer. One day, a young Black Southerner named Tucker Caliban burns his house, shoots his farm animals, salts his fields, and heads North. In doing so, he starts a movement that causes the state’s entire Black population to also emigrate Northward. A rich and complex novel told from the perspective of a rotating cast of characters, most of which are the white residents of Caliban’s tiny community, this is a rich satire salted with bits of endearing tenderness, much like what we are seeing now in the novels of Percival Everett.

Ausma Zehanat Khan. Blackwater Falls. NY: Minotaur Books, 2022. In a foothills suburb of Denver, Afghani-American Detective Inaya Rahman pairs up with a Latina Detective to try to solve the murder of a Syrian refugee teenage girl. Although I think Khan stretches credulity a bit in order to demonstrate how racism works in America, I applaud her effort, and I enjoyed this fast-paced police procedural quite a bit. It’s apparently the start of a series and I look forward to more of Khan’s books in the future. Khan lets us look at America from the perspective of several immigrant police officers and their families, and it’s a very different mirror than the one most of us use every morning.

[Tom Lecky.] Peter Ward, ed. The Archive of Bernard Taylor. Hastings-on-Hudson: Understory Books, 2021. Can a spoof be beautiful and serious? At first, this appears to be a stunningly handsome book of formal b&w photographs taken in and around Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. The photographs are mostly of trees and suburban landscapes, which are full of subtle rhythms and symmetries that are hauntingly suggestive of hidden meanings. There are also some historic, vintage photographs and old maps reproduced, as well as finely-worded texts printed opposite many of the photographs. All of the contemporary photographs, we are told, were made by a Bernard Taylor and were purchased as a lot for all of $40 after his death by a Peter Ward, another resident of Hastings-on-Hudson. But the unsigned Publisher’s Afterword plants some doubts about the existence of these two characters and refers to this book as the “facsimile of a phantom.” A piece of paper slipped into the book like an errata sheet informs us that the texts opposite the photographs are actually quotations excerpted from a wide range of authors and notables, such as William Carlos Williams and Werner Heisenberg. The truth is that this book is the work of Tom Lecky, photographer and bookseller, who has decided to give his own smart photographs over to a fictional character, all the better to. . . to accomplish what? My guess is that it was just much more fun to do it this way.

Liam McIlvanney. The Heretic. World Noir, 2022. McIlvanney remains my current favorite mystery writer, despite the fact that there were times I could barely follow the plot of The Heretic or its predecessor, The Quaker. I’m a bit in awe of the writing and pacing, the great characters, and the fine dialogue. McIlvanney is more fearless than most mystery writers about plunging you, the reader, in way over your head and letting the context bubble up slowly, just before you drown.

Tiya Miles. All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. NY: Random House, 2021. This entire book is predicated on fewer than sixty words that a woman embroidered onto a cotton bag in 1920, words that identified the simple cotton sack as the gift her great grandmother gave to her grandmother when the two were being separated and the nine-year old daughter was being sold at a slave auction in South Carolina. Using those few words as a base, Miles conducted extensive research and employed the imagination of numerous scholars and artists to recreate Ashley’s world as a slave in Charleston and the likely life for the generations of African Americans that followed her. At times it feels like an astonishing achievement conjured out of a pittance, but Miles’ book demonstrates how one line of African Americans went from slavery to the Black middle class in Philadelphia in a handful of generations.

Stephen Mitchelmore. This Space of Writing. Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2015. Forty-four essays drawn from Mitchelmore’s invaluable blog This Space, where he has written about literature since 2000. Mitchelmore writes at a level unparalleled, in my opinion, and is one of the most acute thinkers about which books and writers really deserve our fullest attention and why. He has made me a much better reader.

Claudia Piñeiro. Elena Knows. Edinburgh: Charco Press, 2021. Translated from the 2007 Spanish original by Frances Riddle. Elena is positive that her granddaughter Rita would never have committed suicide, but the police won’t believe her. And so Elena is on a mission to find the one woman in Buenos Aires she believes will help her prove that her granddaughter must have been murdered. But Elena has Parkinson’s and it takes every bit of strength and courage that she has (plus a few pills) simply to cross town to knock on the door of a woman she hasn’t seen in twenty years, but on whose shoulders she has pinned all of her hopes. I can’t say any more without revealing the plot, but the denouement is not only unexpected but brilliant. The writing is compelling and Elena is a character I will never forget. This is my book of the year.

The trick is to lift up the right foot, just a few centimeters off the floor, move it forward through the air, just enough to get it past the left foot, and when it gets as far as it can go, lower it. That’s all it is, Elena thinks. But she thinks this, and even though her brain orders the movement, her right foot doesn’t move. It does not lift up. It does not move forward through the air. It does not lower back down. It’s so simple. But it doesn’t do it. So Elena sits and waits.

Emeric Pressburger. The Glass Pearls. London: Faber, 2022. (Originally published by Heinemann, 1966.) Karl Braun, a German emigre who works as a piano tuner and lives in a bedsit in Pimlico, always seems nervous about something. Before too long we find out why. He is really a Nazi war criminal in hiding, a surgeon who brutally experimented on concentration camp prisoners. A few of his fellow Nazis want him to join them in Argentina, but to do so he has to make his way to Zurich to withdraw money from a numbered checking account he created at the end of the war. Pressburger is more famous for the films he made with Michael Powell, but The Glass Pearls is a terrific example of sixties noir writing applied to something other than a classic crime story. Braun’s fears make him his own worst enemy in his race against time.

Richard Siken. Crush. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. After selecting Siken as the winner of the 2004 Yale Series of Younger Poets, Louise Glück wrote in the Foreword to this book of devastating and devastatingly beautiful poems, “this is a book about panic. . . The book is all high beams: reeling, savage, headlong, insatiable.” There are lines in here that take me to emotional places I’ve never felt from literature before, where love is dark, fearful, clinging, passionate, and much more, all wrapped up into one muddled sensation. I’m a huge fan of his 2015 book War of the Foxes, too.

Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake
and dress them in warm clothes again.
How it was late, and no one could sleep, the horses running
until they forget that they are horses.

From “Scheherazade”

Enrique Vila-Matas. The Illogic of Kassel. NY: New Directions, 2014. I re-read this largely because I thought I might go in September to see Documenta 15, that massive exhibition that is put on every five years in Kassel, Germany, but in the end I opted not to. Vila-Matas was a writer-in-residence at Documenta 13, which apparently meant he sat for a few days in a Chinese restaurant in Kassel and scribbled in a notebook and made himself available to anyone who might want to talk with him. As Vila-Matas interacts with some of the artworks and performance pieces he saw in Kassel, he writes articulately and intelligently about his personal experiences and responses. In the end, he feels that “some of the works at Documenta . . . helped me rethink my writing.” A book that is surprisingly rich with ideas and artistic interconnections. Vila-Matas recently wrote another excellent essay about contemporary art for the catalog Cabinet d’amateur, an oblique novel: Works from “la Caixa” Collection of Contemporary Art (#20 in my list of books read in 2022).

Ocean Vuong. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. NY: Penguin, 2019. What can I possibly say that hasn’t been said before about this book? Lyrical, carnal, angry, brilliant, astoundingly beautiful. I just don’t understand how someone can write stunning sentences one after another without end. May his well never run dry.

Will Self to Talk on Sebald Dec. 20, 2022

The online platform The Article, which refers to itself as “a troll-free zone. Entertaining exchanges. Civilised conversation,” has announced that the writer Will Self will deliver a talk called “The Ghost of Future Past: W.G. Sebald and the Trauma of Modernity” at 7 PM on Tuesday, December 20, 2022, at St George’s German Lutheran Church, Whitechapel, London E1 8EB. Rick Jones hosts the event. Tickets are £5. The Article says the event is both live and on zoom. But the church’s website says the event is by Zoom only. On December 4, Rick Jones clarified via email that tickets are to attend the talk in person in St George’s German Lutheran Church. Anyone wishing to watch via Zoom may request to do so via the Eventbrite ticket site.

St. George’s German Lutheran Church is the oldest surviving German Church in Britain. The church closed for regular worship in 1996 when it was taken into care by The Historic Chapels Trust. Although it is still occasionally used for church services by the German community from London and the surrounding area, it is now principally used for concerts, lectures, meetings, and a place of historical study. St George’s German Lutheran Church is a unique testament to common heritage shared by two nations, both in the past and in the present.

Will Self has a long history of writing and speaking about Sebald. He gave the 2009 Sebald Lecture, organized by the British Centre for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia, titled “Absent Jews and Invisible Executioners: W G Sebald and the Holocaust.” (That lecture can be heard here on SoundCloud.) More recently, he led a segment of BBC Radio’s Channel 4 Archive on 4 progam. “In the company of Sebald biographer Carole Angier and former friend, poet Stephen Wells, Self moves through the Sebaldian landscape of Southwold, Liverpool Street and the East End whilst exploring the archive devoted to one of the truly great writers of the late 20th Century.” (That program can be heard here.)

Self’s forthcoming book from Grove Press/Grove Atlantic, Why Read: Selected Writings 2001-2021, contains “a lengthy, dark, autobiographical piece on W.G. Sebald and the role of the Holocaust.”

New Books on Sebald

Two new books about W.G. Sebald have recently been published in Europe, one in Polish, the other in German.

Katarzyna Kończal. Sygnatury Sebalda. Zwierzęta – Widma – Ruiny. (Sebald’s Marks: Animals, Spectres, Ruins.) Wrocław, Poland: Wydawnictwo Ossolineum, 2022.

The following is based on a Google translation from the publisher’s website:

WG Sebald blurs the contours of the created reality. He tells a story about a world “after humans,”  bearing the stigma of decay and populated by ghosts of undefined identity; a story that forms a vision of history as a continuous series of catastrophes. The road to “Sebaldland” is on the fringes—you can get there only by questioning traditional boundaries and binary divisions.

Katarzyna Kończal’s new monographic book focuses on three selected aspects of Sebald’s work: his ways of representing animals, the human condition, and the process of environmental destruction. These interpretations fit in with the latest research tendencies—they capture the achievements of the author of The Rings of Saturn in an insightful and multi-contextual manner, which allows us to see in him not only a delightful stylist, but also an attentive critic of modernity.

“Sebald, like no other contemporary artist, exhibited the aberrant human attitude towards the world of animals and nature, the spectral structure of reality, and the omnipresence of destruction. I refer to these thematic formations as signatures, referring to the basic meaning of this concept (from Latin signare—to mean, seal), which implies both a signature and a set of signs used in creating maps. The three titles of the title—animals, ghosts, ruins—are therefore the hallmarks of Sebald’s prose, but also a collection of cartographic tools that allow you to better find yourself on the dense map of his work.”

Katarzyna Kończal (b. 1987) is a literary scholar, translator, doctor of humanities. She graduated in German philology and Polish philology at the University of Adam Mickiewicz in Poznań; her doctoral dissertation was devoted to the work of W.G. Sebald. She dealt with post-war Polish and German-language literature, incl. the writings of Jean Améry and Bogdan Wojdowski, Jewish culture, and the relationships between literature and photography. She works at the Poznań Publishing House.

Stefanie Stegmann and Torsten Hoffmann, eds. Verschachtelte Räume: Sebald Reminiszenzen von Clemens J. Setz, Nadja Küchenmeister, Jenny Erpenbeck und Michael Krüger.

The following is loosely based on a Google translation from the publisher’s website.

The Literaturhaus Stuttgart was opened on November 17, 2001, with a speech by W.G. Sebald, which appeared two days later in the Stuttgarter Zeitung. Shortly thereafter, on December 14, 2001, Sebald died in a car accident near Norwich. The Stuttgart speech is recognized as a summation of Sebald’s literary efforts, since it addresses both the literary processes and ethical convictions that are most important for his work in a particularly concentrated form. For the 20th anniversary of the Literaturhaus, Jenny Erpenbeck, Michael Krüger, Nadja Küchenmeister, and Clemens J. Setz were invited to talk on November 18, 2021, about their views of Sebald and his speech. The texts they wrote for that evening are collected in this volume.

The slim, 36-page booklet contains an Afterword by Torsten Hoffmann and costs 16 Euros.

He told “fictions” rather than “lies”

Carole Angier’s massive biography of W.G. Sebald, Speak, Silence (Bloomsbury, 2021), has garnered dozens of reviews from around the globe, but a surprising number focused on her accounts of how Sebald would use parts of other people’s life stories in his books while feeling free to change some of the facts to suit his own literary needs. Some reviewers understood this to be an essential part of how every fiction writer works, but a handful turned this into an eye-catching headline and a controversial practice. Take Judith Shulevitz’s review in The Atlantic, for example: “W.G. Sebald Ransacked Jewish Lives for His Fictions: Why did he lie about his sources?” Or Lucasta Miller’s “W.G. Sebald’s Borrowed Truths and Barefaced Lies” in The Spectator.

Angier talks about this topic and much more in a new, 35-minute audio interview with J.C Gabel on LitHub‘s podcast Big Table episode 32. In his introduction to the podcast, Gabel writes: “One of the reasons I wanted to talk with her about [her biography]—apart from my longtime love of Sebald—was to ask for her thoughts on the controversy his work still seems to generate, even 20 years after his death. A great deal of the reviews of Speak, Silence, in the States at least, were hyper-critical of Sebald playing fast and loose with some facts in his fiction.”

Here’s part of Angier’s response:

I have to say, I regret having brought this opprobrium upon him, which was entirely unintended. . . when he told me these fictions about his characters, many, many different complex and interesting things were going on. To just boil them down to “lying” is really reductive and terrible. It’s not something I do in my book, although I did call one of the things he said a lie. I regret that now. I should have said he told “fictions” rather than “lies,” because I gave people the excuse to turn against him like that.

After the conclusion of the interview, the Big Table podcast excerpts six or seven minutes of audio from Sebald’s reading of a section of his book Austerlitz, held at New York’s 92nd Street Y on October 15, 2001. If you wish, you can access the entire 45-minute video of that event here. After Sebald’s 25-minute reading, Susan Sontag joins him on stage to talk for awhile before they answer questions.

A Few Reading Highlights—Midway Through 2022

This seemed like a good time to say something about a few of the best books that I have read this year which have not made it into Vertigo yet. Just as a reminder, every book I read during the year receives a short write-up on my 2022 Reading Log, which can be found at the top of this blog. Of the more than fifty books that I’ve read so far this year, I felt that these seven really stood out and deserved a little extra attention.

Eloísa Díaz. Repentance. Aberdeen, NJ: Agora Books, 2021. In the midst of the city’s December 2001 riots, Buenos Aires police Inspector Alzada finds himself with a delicate murder case that takes an unexpected turn, forcing him once again to come to the aid of his brother. Twenty years earlier, when he was a young policeman and his brother belonged to an anti-government guerilla group, he barely managed to keep his brother’s name off a list of those who were going to be disappeared by the regime. Now his brother is in trouble with the new regime, and Inspector Alzada has to risk everything (as book publicists like to say) to try to save his brother once again. Díaz’s first novel toggles back and forth between two dangerous periods in Argentina’s history with such ease that time, history, and memory become beautifully compressed and blurred. Repressive regimes (think Berlin) always seem to provide perfect backdrops for noir novels like this, and Díaz creates a Buenos Aires that is both stiflingly claustrophobic and yet rippling with energy as the anti-government protesters gain confidence. Nicely written with several well-drawn characters.

William Melvin Kelley. A Different Drummer. NY: Anchor Books, 1959. [I read the 2019 eBook edition.] One hot summer day in the South, a young Black man named Tucker Caliban burns his house, shoots his farm animals, salts his fields, and heads North, starting a movement that leads the state’s entire Black population to follow him Northward. Kelley’s fearless novel is told from the perspective of a rotating cast of characters, most of which are the white residents of Caliban’s tiny community. As the Black migration takes place before the puzzled, if not astounded eyes of the white community, we are given the backstory both for Caliban and for his rich, white counterpart, Dewey Willson III. Kelley’s brilliant book is leading up to the ultimate Southern question: What would the South be like if all the Blacks left? It’s only during the last few pages, as the last Black man is about to leave, that the white community suddenly realizes that this is the question they are being asked, and they panic. This is Kelley’s debut novel, written when he was 24. After reading it, I wasn’t surprised to find that he was a student of John Hawkes at Harvard. There’s a bit of devil-may-care attitude about the mechanics of the story that constantly remind you that Kelley has his eyes on something bigger than tidying up the fine points of his plot.

Alison Jean Lester. Glide. Bench Press, 2021. Leo, the book’s narrator, doesn’t know what to believe when his wife fails to return from a trip to Norway. Instead, a man shows up who claims to be a half-brother of hers that Leo has never heard about before and cannot verify in her absence. I don’t normally enjoy books of suspense where tension seems to be the main benefit for the reader. But Lester’s writing is smooth and she doesn’t artificially amp up the drama, so she managed to win my confidence and continuously tickle my curiosity. With each advance in the plot the mystery grew and a new surprise always seemed be around the corner, tightening the tension very slowly. I confess I enjoyed this to the very end. Mostly abstract photographs by Andrew Gurnett at the beginning of each chapter give a visual preview of the ominous level of what is to come.

Liam McIlvanney. The Heretic. World Noir, 2022. McIlvanney remains one of my current favorite writers of police procedurals, despite the fact that I could barely follow the plot of The Heretic‘s predecessor, The Quaker, at times. The Heretic is not much better in this regard, but at some point I just give up and let myself enjoy McIlvanney’s writing, pacing, great characters, and fine dialogue. He is more fearless than most police procedural writers about plunging the reader in over his or her head and letting the context bubble up slowly like oxygen, just before you drown. I won’t even try to explain the plot involving Glasgow, Scotland Detective Duncan McCormack, a deadly tenement fire, the body of a politician that turns up in a dumpster, and a crime lord with whom McCormack seems to have an unhealthily obsession. But it all makes for a few hours of good reading.

Tiya Miles. All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. NY: Random House, 2021. Sometime in the 1850s, a Black mother and her nine-year old daughter Ashley were sold separately at a slave auction in Charleston, South Carolina, never to see each other again. Before the auction, the mother managed to give a sack containing a ragged dress, a handful of pecans, and a lock of her hair to her daughter. In 1921 the woman who inherited the sack embroidered a brief narrative of less than sixty words on it, explaining that her great-grandmother Rose had given it to her grandmother Ashley. Rose told Ashley “It be filled with my Love always.” Using the sack as material evidence and those few words as a base, Miles conducted extensive research and employed the imagination of numerous scholars and a couple of artists to recreate Ashley’s world as a slave in Charleston, and the likely life for her and for the African American generations that followed her survival. At times it feels like an astonishing achievement conjured out of a wisp of evidence, but Miles’ book epitomizes the new direction of scholarship today—cooperative and not afraid to employ the imagination. Miles draws on a wide variety of disciplines: history, genealogy, literature, environmental history, botany, art history, and probably one or two more that I have forgotten. Plus, the book contains a color “visual essay” called “Carrying Capacity,” showing the artworks made by the artists who were engaged to respond to Ashley’s sack, its contents, and the key themes that it raised. Every page of Miles’ book is eye opening.

Richard Siken. Crush. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. After selecting Siken as the winner of the 2004 Yale Series of Younger Poets, Louise Glück wrote in the Foreword to this book of devastating and devastatingly beautiful poems, “this is a book about panic. . . The book is all high beams: reeling, savage, headlong, insatiable.” There are lines in here that take me to emotional places I’ve never felt from literature before, where love is dark, fearful, clinging, passionate, and desperate, all wrapped up into one muddled sensation. It feels wrong to think of this a book of love poetry, since the poems are really, at heart, just as much about relationships, and the difficult, high wire act that they represent. There’s no safety net in this book. I’m a huge fan of his 2015 book War of the Foxes, too.

The way you slam your body into mine reminds me
I’m alive, but monsters are always hungry, darling,
and they’re only a few steps behind you, finding
the flaw, the poor weld, the place where we weren’t
stitched up quite right, the place they could almost
slip right through if the skin wasn’t trying to
keep them out, to keep them here, on the other side
of the theater where the curtain keeps rising.

from “Snow and Dirty Rain” by Richard Siken

Ocean Vuong. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. NY: Penguin, 2019. What can I possibly say that hasn’t been said before about this book? It’s lyrical, carnal, angry, brilliant, and astoundingly beautiful. I just don’t understand how someone can write stunning sentences one after another without end. May his well never run dry. It’s partly a memoir, partly an angry diversion down the avenues of race, sexuality, and addiction, and it’s partly an indescribable genre of its own, written in the form of a letter from Vuong to his illiterate mother. For once, this is a book that is as powerful as everyone says it is.

Ukrainian Film Based on W.G. Sebald Book Debuts at Cannes Film Festival

Film still from Sergei Loznitsa’s The Natural History of Destruction.

As the Washington Post put it, “The war in Ukraine took a starring role on the opening night of the 75th Cannes Film Festival and it has rarely been far out of frame since.” One of the reasons for this was Sergei Loznitsa’s film, The Natural History of Destruction, which is based on the book of a similar name by W.G. Sebald. Loznitsa’s film received its premiere at the Festival on May 23. A regular at Cannes, Loznitsa has shown eight films at the Festival since 2010, including maidan, a film about the 2014 revolution in Ukraine, and last year’s Baby Yar. Context, a documentary about the slaughter of 300,000 Jews in 1941, at the hands of German soldiers, with the assistance of Ukrainian police, which occurred just outside Kyiv.

Loznitsa is no stranger to Sebald’s books. In 2016, he made a 94-minute documentary film called Austerlitz, which was related to Sebald’s novel of the same name, although his film did not follow the plot of Sebald’s book at all. For that film, Loznitsa followed tourists around as they spent a summer day at the Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz, in Poland. The film forces viewers to think about the uneasy mix of visitors who make their way to Auschwitz, ranging from those who view it as a sacred site of death, perhaps even where members of their own family were murdered, to more carefree tourists who treat the place as just another stopover on their summer vacation, almost like a Disney-type attraction. In a review of the film, Nicholas Rapold wrote:

“the film is perhaps above all a haunting meditation, in which the physical history of the camps battles with oblivion. In one sequence, visitor after visitor takes a selfie with the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign on the camp’s front gate. It is easy to be unnerved by the casual manner and lack of emotion of many visitors in the film, though others are shown in states of contemplation as they reckon with the camps.”

Nicolas Rapold, “Sergei Loznitsa’s Movie ‘Austerlitz’ Observes Tourists in Concentration Camps” New York Times Aug. 31, 2016
Film still from Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz.

Austerlitz, and several other of Loznitsa’s films, can be viewed on his website for a small fee.

Peter Bradshaw, writing in the May 24, 2022, Guardian, describes The Natural History of Destruction as a “docu-collation of archive footage meditating on the horrific aerial bombardment inflicted on cities and civilian populations by the British and Germans during the second world war.” But, unlike most documentaries, there is no voice-over. Instead, Loznitsa adds ambient sound, indistinct murmuring, and the music of a string octet. The overall effect, he says, is “sinister and dreamlike.” Bradshaw concludes that “the basic point about the waste and horror of war is entirely valid,” but he adds “I wasn’t sure that enough, and enough of original interest, was being said.”

In the Washington Post, Loznitsa was asked about his controversial opinion that Russian filmmakers should not have been kept from participating in this year’s Cannes Film Festival. “Our duty as filmmakers is to try to understand what’s going on around us,” he said. He was also kicked out of the Ukrainian Film Academy for not supporting a boycott of Russian filmmakers. “I believe our duty is defend culture, all culture. The culture of any nation, of any people, belongs to the entire world.”

Loznitsa’s film is based on Sebald’s 1999 book, Luftkrieg and Literatur, which was published in English in 2003 as On The Natural History of Destruction. The original German title refers to a series of lectures that Sebald gave in Zurich in 1997 on how German literature responded to the Allied carpet bombing of German cities toward the end of World War II. Sebald’s lecture was met with some anger, and the book has continued to create controversy ever since. In the book, Sebald discussed the Allied culpability for the massive civilian deaths that resulted from their carpet bombing of German cities, along with his perception that German writers had largely failed to do justice to this critical historical subject.

Although the Russian invasion of Ukraine had not taken place when Loznitsa was making his film, the Russian destruction of Ukrainian cities and murder of civilians clearly made Sebald’s book—and Loznitsa’s film— seem prescient. “It became clear that the lessons of 80 years ago haven’t been learned,” Loznitsa is quoted as saying by the Washington Post. “It seems possible for us as humans to be thrown back 80 years to the stage where all these atrocities and terrible things were possible. . . If we want to remain human, we need to stop this. This should not be acceptable to a civilized society.” Loznitsa said he next plans to make a film about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

There is currently no word on when or where Loznitsa’s film On The Natural History of Destruction will be shown next.

New BBC Radio Program on Sebald

The BBC radio program Archive on 4 has a new episode “Self on Sebald,” narrated by writer Will Self, which can now be heard here for approximately the coming year. I listened to it and thought it was really engaging and had a terrific soundscape. The program was released on December 11, 2021, on the twentieth anniversary of Sebald’s death. Here’s the description from the program’s website:

WG Sebald created extraordinary fictions that hovered between the real and the imagined. With images and simple, yet fantastically powerful writing he told stories of loss, exile and loneliness that spoke to his own personal life. A German living in England, writing in his native tongue, haunted by history and existing in two worlds. That of his fatherland which had exterminated its Jewish populations and made a compact with memory and truth. And an England that had firebombed German cities during the war. The second silence in post war German writing and thought. In works like Austerlitz, where the burden of memory and forgetting unhinges its central character, a former Kindertransport refugee, the past silts up before breaking through in unexpected ways. The Emigrants delicately portrays the lives in exile and return of German Jewish survivors whereas The Rings of Saturn evokes landscape and the past in unsettling yet subtle ways

Will Self has long been drawn to the multi-layered worlds of WG Sebald’s fiction. Here, in the company of Sebald biographer Carole Angier and former friend, poet Stephen Watts, Self moves through the Sebaldian landscape of Southwold, Liverpool Street and the East End whilst exploring the archive devoted to one of the truly great writers of the late 20th Century.

John le Carré Pays Homage to Sebald

The main character in John le Carré’s posthumously published novel Silverview (Viking, 2021) is Julian Lawndsley, a man who had impetuously fled the rat-race in London for East Anglia, where, with no previous experience whatsoever, he has somewhat naively opened Lawndsley’s Better Books. As Silverview opens, Julian is confronted by a repeat visitor to his bookshop, one who has yet to buy a book but nevertheless has a suggestion for his inventory.

“It is my considered view that no local interest shelf in this magnificent county, or in any other county for that matter, should regard itself as complete without Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. But I see you are not familiar with Sebald.”

See from what, Julian wonders, even as he concedes that the name is indeed new to him, and all the more so since Edward Avon has used the German pronunciation, Zaybult.

Rings of Saturn, I must warn you in advance, is not a guidebook as you and I might understand the term. I’m being pompous. Will you forgive me?’

He will.

Rings of Saturn is a literary sleight of hand of the first water. Rings of Saturn is a spiritual journey that takes off from the marches of East Anglia and embraces the entire cultural heritage of Europe, even unto death. Sebald, W. G.”–this time using the English pronunciation and waiting while Julian writes it down. “Formerly Professor of European Literature at our University of East Anglia, a depressive like the best of us, now, alas, dead. Weep for Sebald.”

Not long thereafter, a dozen copies of The Rings of Saturn duly arrive at Lawndsley’s Better Books. But le Carré is not finished using Sebald in his final novel of twenty-first century spies. Edward Avon now asks Julian if he wouldn’t mind performing “a small errand” on his behalf the next time he is in London.

“And if the errand I am asking were to involve taking a confidential message to [a certain lady without my wife’s knowledge], might I count on your absolute and permanent discretion in all circumstances?” asks Avon. Julian is instructed to sit outside a certain theater holding a copy of The Rings of Saturn “for purposes of identification.”

Needless to say, since this is a novel by John le Carré, the mission that Edward sends the poor, innocent bookseller on is not between two lovers, and before long Julian is caught up in an international cat-and-mouse game between spies that is way above his pay grade.

Later, when Edward needs to say a mysterious farewell to Julian, he arranges for them to meet one more time and the location he picks is Orford Ness, a location of special interest to Sebald. Lawndsley “had battled his way through Rings of Saturn. He knew what to expect of the godforsaken loneliness of that outpost in the middle of nowhere. He knew that even fishermen supposedly found it unbearable.” Sebald’s own visit to Orford Ness, the abandoned secret research station of England’s Ministry of Defence, which he described in The Rings of Saturn, left him feeling as if he had found himself “amidst the remains of our own civilization after its extinction in some future catastrophe.”

le Carré’s playful homage to Sebald takes a little poke at Sebald’s reputation for a being a melancholy, “depressive” personality, but seems to bear a genuine message of appreciation for The Rings of Saturn. Silverview is an entertaining novel, but ultimately nowhere near le Carré’s high point.

Elina Brotherus: Photographs of Sebald’s Corsica

Plage de Sebald 2 / Sebald’s Beach 2 (diptych), 2019

W.G. Sebald’s posthumously published book Campo Santo (Hamish Hamilton, 2003) opens with a series of short pieces he wrote about the trip he took to Corsica around 1990. In the title piece “Campo Santo,” he described one of his days on the island: “My first walk the day after my arrival in Piana took me out on a road that soon begins falling away steeply in terrifying curves, sharp bends and zigzags, leading past almost vertical rocky precipices densely overgrown with green scrub, and so down to the bottom of a ravine opening out into the Bay of Ficajola several hundred meters below.” After a swim in the bay, during which he had a terrifying moment of vertigo, Sebald climbed the steep path back up to the village of Piana where he visited a graveyard, which resulted in what I think is one of his most evocative pieces of writing. As he carefully picked his way through the “rather desolate graveyard” with its “untidy rows” of gravestones, he thought about death and about the complicated, fraught relationship between the dead and the living. For seventeen pages he ruminated about such things as the weeds that had grown up around the graves “to form actual herbariums,” the “oval sepia portraits” of the dead that were embedded in some of the gravestones, the inscriptions and the names on the gravestones, and the history of Corsican burial rites and superstitions surrounding death. It’s obvious to the reader that Sebald had studied this subject with more than just a tourist’s interest.

In 2019, the Finnish photographer Elina Brotherus, one of the finest photographers working today, went to Corsica with “Campo Santo” in mind. There she created a project called “Sebaldiana. Memento mori,” which consists of thirty-six large color photographs and a group of fifty-seven cyanotypes that form her own “Herbarium Pianense.” She has generously given me permission to reproduce eight of the photographs from that series, along with her artist’s statement about the project, which can be read after the photographs.

A number of photographers and artists have created artworks that speak in conversation with Sebald’s books, but Brotherus has done so in an especially rich and complex manner. Brotherus herself always appears in her photographs, giving a strong element of performance to her art. In other projects she dances, acts, and more clearly “performs,” but in “Sebaldiana. Memento Mori,” she strikes more simple, contemplative poses. Her clothing is all black, with the exception of a scarf that matches the color of her bangs. (“Campo Santo” is, after all, largely about death and mourning.) I particularly like the way in which she breaks the fourth wall in several images in this series. We don’t often think of the fourth wall in photography. With the general exception of portrait photography, the subjects in the photography we find in art galleries and museums rarely acknowledge any awareness that they are being photographed or that they will ever be seen by an audience. By staring at us and eyeing us, Brotherus invites her viewers to share more personally in her exploration of Sebald’s Corsica, to imagine becoming participants, not just observers.

Tombeau imaginaire 7 / Imaginary Burial Place 7, by the way, might remind readers of Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer), 1818, the classic German Romantic painting of a man in a dark overcoat standing on a crag overlooking mountaintops wrapped in clouds and fog.

Hôtel de Sebald 1 / Sebald's Hotel 1
Hôtel de Sebald 1 / Sebald’s Hotel 1, 2019
Hôtel de Sebald 2 / Sebald’s Hotel 2, 2019
Tombeau imaginaire 7 / Imaginary Burial Place 7, 2019
Tombeau imaginaire 14 / Imaginary Burial Place 14, 2019
Tombeau imaginaire 18 / Imaginary Burial Place 18, 2019
Tombeau imaginaire 23 / Imaginary Burial Place 23 (diptych), 2019
Herbarium Pianense 55, 2019

Sebaldiana. Memento mori (2019), by Elina Brotherus

Before I first visited Corsica, I read a collection of text fragments by W. G. Sebald, building blocks for a book about Corsica that was left unfinished at his premature death. Sebald as a writer is highly unusual and difficult to classify: between essayist, novelist and historian, he is scholarly without being dry, poetic without sentimentality, touching on deeply humane topics of post-war Europe with a great sense of historicity. His use of photographs within his books has inspired many artists.

Sebald writes about a certain hotel on the steep red cliffs overlooking the village of Piana on the Western coast of Corsica. His narrator goes to swim from a close-by secluded beach and nearly doesn’t make it back to shore. In the village cemetery he observes the small weeds that grow between the tombstones, nature’s modest ones, unplanted and unplanned, in stark contrast with the looked-after but austere cemetery plantations of Sebald’s native Germany. He then talks about the relatively recent use of cemeteries in Corsica. The old habit was to bury the dead in a beautiful spot in their own land, perhaps under a particular tree, or on the slope behind the house where they could continue to contemplate the view on their ancestral territory. The poorest ones who had no land were simply put in a common grave or in ravine in the mountains.

Sebald became my guide to Corsica. I went to places he mentions: the forest of Aitone and the massif of Bavella, the hotel, the beach and the cemetery in Piana and its backcountry with sculptural rock formations. I was remembering my dead. I looked for places so beautiful that I would like to bury them there, were I Corsican. I collected humble weeds at the cemetery of Piana to make a herbarium.

My father was a hobby photographer and gave me my first camera. When my mother was widowed at the age of 37, she went to art school and had four years of fulfillment. I’m a photographer because of my father, but because of my mother I’m an artist.

My mother died four years later at the age of 41. She was born the same year as Sebald but died 16 years before him. Recently I found some aquarelle paper that she hadn’t had time to use. The sheets had suffered from humidity, were spotted, partly moldy. It is this paper that I used to create my Herbarium Pianense, the cyanotype herbarium of the cemetery. Thus this work became an homage not only to the Island of Beauty and to my favorite writer, but also to my mother, Ulla Brita Brotherus, née Sommar (1944-1985).

All photographs by Elina Brotherus are courtesy of the artist and gb agency, Paris. She gives special thanks to the Centre méditerranéen de la photographie. I urge you to visit her extensive website and view all of her photographic projects.

A View Between Thresholds: W.G. Sebald at the University of East Anglia

Annotations in a book borrowed from the UEA library by WG Sebald.

This December will mark the twentieth anniversary of the death of W.G. Sebald. His colleague at the University of East Anglia, Dr Nick Warr, Lecturer in Art History and Curation at School of Art, Media and American Studies, has written about Sebald’s life, legacy, and times at the University in a lovely piece called “A View Between Thresholds.” Read it and see what Warr is still discovering about Sebald, even today.