Almost Island online literary magazine has published my essay “Five Novels, Five Photographs” in their Spring 2017 issue. In this essay, I look at five novels in which only a single photograph is used, examining both the different strategies that writers employ when they embed photographic images in their fictional narratives and looking at the impact a single photograph can have on a text. The five novels I chose to write about are:
Jeff Jackson’s debut novel Mira Corpora (Two Dollar Radio, 2013), a grimly beautiful coming-of-age novel that reminds me of Larry Clark’s infamous 1971 photobook Tulsa, with its insider’s vision of a group of teenagers whose lives centered around sex, drugs, and alcohol. Jackson’s second photo-embedded novel Novi Sad came out in 2016 from Kiddiepunk.
Nicholas Rombes’s first novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing (Two Dollar Radio, 2014), a noir-saturated exploration of images (both moving and still) and their relationship with truth. Rombes is currently a major contributor to the website The Lost Signals Collection, which describes itself as “an archive of speculative texts, images, sounds, and moving pictures lost to history. It is interested in interrogating what might have been, and what might yet be ….”
Wright Morris’s Plains Song (Harper & Row, 1980), is, as far as I know, unique amongst novels with embedded photographs, in that it uses one photograph which repeats at the opening of each of the book’s fourteen chapters. Plains Song is structured as a multigenerational family tree and thus the photograph that is repeated throughout the book serves as a refrain that encapsulates the gist of Morris’s story.
Konrad Bayer’s Der Kopf des Vitus Bering: Ein Porträit in Prosa (Walter Verlag, 1965), a deliberately fragmented, rambling, hallucinogenic prose work that is ostensibly (but only marginally) about the final days of Vitus Bering (1681–1741), the Danish cartographer for whom the sea that separates Siberia from North America was named.
Dubravka Ugrešiƈ’s The Museum of Unconditional Surrender (New Directions, 1999), a novel about what it means to be an exile, extensively references photographs and photography.
Three years ago I wrote about the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company’s plans to develop a dance around the Ambros Adelwarth segment of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants. “Analogy/Ambros: The Emigrant” just had its world premiere on July 21, 2017 at Dancer’s Workshop in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The dance is the final section of a trilogy which was first performed as a unit on the nights of July 27-29 at American Dance Festival 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. There is a 9 1/2 minute interview with Bill T. Jones on the dance on Soundcloud. The 90-minute dance was reviewed by Susan Broili in the Raleigh, North Carolina newspaper The News & Observer, in which the following excerpt appeared:
“Analogy/Ambros: The Emigrant” begins with the live sound of whispering voices and Bill T. Jones’ recorded recitation of evocative text from W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, a fictionalized history of four men, including Ambros Adelwarth, a German manservant who serves as companion to Cosmo, the privileged son of a wealthy Jewish family. The narrative tracks Ambros’ experience traveling with Cosmo, through Europe and the Middle East on the eve of WWII.
The recorded text describes how Ambros Adelwarth and his charge, Cosmo, asleep on the deck of a steam ship on their way to an excursion abroad, are visited by a quail, who lands on Cosmo, settles down to sleep, and then flies away in the morning.
In this work, Jones and collaborators, who include assistant artistic director Janet Wong, amaze with their scope and with the engaging quality of the multi-media elements woven seamlessly into the work.
The live music provides a rare treat as does the dancers’ singing with professional flare. Most of the time, their singing, both in solos and in harmony with others, is achingly beautiful.
A new nine-CD audio set of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz has just been issued. The entire book is read by Michael Krüger, Sebald’s long-time friend and publisher. Plus, there is a section of Austerlitz read by Sebald in 2001 at the Unterberg Poetry Center of New York’s 92 Street Y, which can be seen on YouTube. Krüger gives an excellent reading of Sebald’s final novel, speaking in a gentle, slow intonation that sounds much like Sebald himself. There is also a related six-minute podcast reviewing the new CD set that can be heard (and downloaded) at the website of WDR3. From 1968 to 2013, Krüger worked at Carl Hanser Verlag, which was Sebald’s German publisher from 1998 until 2008.
In Europe, the CD set is available from multiple sources that have links on the Random House website. In the US, the set can be purchased from multiple sources through Amazon. The list price is surprising affordable at €29,99 in Europe, with prices starting at $35 in the US.
[This post was edited and updated after I received my copy of the CD set.]
In an interview in the current issue of The Paris Review, Ali Smith recounts going to a 1998 interview for a fellowship at the University of East Anglia.
I got met at the office by a man named Max—a very nice German man who took me along the corridor to the interview and who sat in as an onlooker. That night, I got home, I went to bed—and I woke up in the middle of the night, going, Oh dear God —was that Sebald?
It was. Smith got the fellowship and got to know Sebald a bit.
What I know, even from that tangent, is that he was an incredibly charismatic figure, he was like no one I’ve ever met. Plus, not many people know that he was funny, funny, funny. He was laugh-out loud droll. We haven’t yet begun to understand his rigor, as a writer.
On reading Sebald:
Austerlitz [is] the most uneasy novel I’ve ever read, a novel uneasy with the notion of being a novel. I read all of Sebald’s books again after his death, and it was very different from reading them when he was alive.He is utterly despairing, particularly in The Rings of Saturn. It’s terrible, beautiful, and there’s no hope. And then you get to Austerlitz, and in Austerlitz despair is ultimately a fiction, too.
I’m a big fan of the The Paris Review interviews, but the interviews with Ali Smith and Percival Everett in this summer’s issue (#221) are terrific. They are two smart writers. Kudos to the interviewers – Justin Taylor and Adam Begley.
Peter Mendelsund cover design for The Emigrants, (New Directions, 2016)
In the current issue of The New Yorker (June 5 & 12, 2017), James Wood writes at length about W.G. Sebald. It’s a nice, modestly insightful overview of Sebald’s four books of prose fiction, interspersed with bits and pieces of Sebald’s biography, but its basically a rehash of several essays Wood has previously written about Sebald. Perhaps in an effort to find some new way to approach the writer, Wood decides this time to examine “W.G. Sebald, Humorist.” Wood has to work hard to uncover examples of Sebald’s dry, ironical humor, which is more apparent in interviews than in his prose fiction. It’s not at all clear what prompted Wood to write about Sebald now, although he does reference the “handsome new editions of Vertigo, The Emigrants, and The Rings of Saturn” designed by Peter Mendelsund and published by New Directions a full year ago (editions, unfortunately, that did nothing except package the old editions in new covers).
There will be a symposium “Po Sebaldzie” (“After Sebald) at the Goethe Institute in Warsaw on June 10, 2017. Everything I can find is in Polish. There is a website and a Facebook page.
Finally, H.G. Adler’s massive scholarly book Theresienstadt 1941-1945: The Face of a Coerced Community has been published in an English translation for the first time, thanks to a collaborative effort between the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Terezin Publishing Project. There is more information and a complete Table of Contents here. The translator is Amy Loewenhaar-Blauweiss. Unfortunately it’s not cheap! I’ve written about Adler a number of times in recent years.
The City University of New York has just put up an excellent video of a distinguished roundtable on the work of W.G. Sebald, which was held just a few weeks ago on May 6, 2017. It’s an intriguing and revealing discussion that is an hour and 22 minutes in length. At about the 40-minute point, the group talks about Sebald’s use of images in his books. The roundtable was part of the “Fictions of History” conference.
In this roundtable, Mark Anderson (Professor of German and Comparative Literature, Columbia University), Daniel Kehlmann (Novelist and Fellow, The New York Public Library), and Judith Ryan (Robert K. and Dale J. Weary Professor of German and Comparative Literature, Harvard University) discuss the relationship between fiction and history in W.G. Sebald’s work. Sebald situates his work in the gray zone between fiction and history, positioning himself with both proximity and distance to his subject matter, alternating between first-hand victim and third-hand witness. At the center of Sebald’s writing is the taboo of the “wrongful trespass:” a fear that either he will falsely identify with events he himself has not experienced or that his objectivity will dilute the emotional impact of what he describes. This roundtable, moderated by André Aciman (Distinguished Professor, The Graduate Center CUNY) examines how Sebald responds to this concern by creating works that straddle the boundary between fact and fiction in order to portray and grapple with historical events. Presented on May 6, 2017, with the Critical Theory Certificate Program, the Writers’ Institute, and the Center for the Humanities.
I’m very grateful to a Vertigo reader who called this video to my attention.
A call for papers is making the rounds:
Call for Papers
Beyond Sebald: New Trajectories in Sebald Studies
A One-Day Postgraduate Workshop
University of Leeds, Tuesday 2nd May 2017, 12:30–16:30
We invite you to join us for a one-day postgraduate workshop at the University of Leeds to discuss the opportunities and challenges of studying W. G. Sebald today. We are particularly interested in two interrelated questions: first, what are the new directions for Sebald scholarship? And second, how do contemporary writers, artists, and filmmakers respond to or challenge the “Sebaldian”? Read more
[print for the Arca Project by Steven Scott]
More than fifteen years after his death, the writings of W.G. Sebald continue to inspire artists and exhibitions. The latest example is an announcement by the PayneShurvell gallery, whose next exhibition will be “The Arca Project: An Exhibition Inspired by the Work of W.G.Sebald.” According to their website, “The Arca Project is an exhibition consisting of 16 visual and 16 textual responses to one single image. Each response has been realised as a limited edition print, developed and made by Invisible Print Studio.” The exhibition is scheduled to open April 1 at a location about a half hour north of Ipswich in Suffolk, England (details at their website).
In the same way that The Rings of Saturn takes a single idea, a walking tour, to open up a wide range of ideas and conversations, The Arca Project sent 16 international artists and 16 writers exactly the same image and asked them to interpret the image as they wished (the only limitation was the uniform paper orientation and size). The recurrence of this image offers many interpretations. All are fictitious. It is a game of false interpretations. The idea is to have artists and writers in a Sebaldian mix of fact and fiction, documentary and reality. Read more
Springer Verlag and J.B Metzler have just announced a significant handbook on W.G. Sebald. W.G. Sebald-Handbuch: Leben – Werk – Wirkung, edited by Claudia Öhlschläger and Michael Niehaus. I don’t have any further information about the volume’s contents, beyond what can be found on the publisher’s website. The hardcover version is scheduled for release on March 22, 2017. An ebook is also forthcoming. Details here.
The volume contains contributions from a number of Sebald researchers, who deal with his entire body of work as a writer. Essays cover Sebald’s themes (trauma and memory, the natural history of destruction, the Holocaust, home, etc.) as well as the characteristics of his writing (intertextuality, the connection of text and image, etc.), his guiding motifs (melancholy, travel), and the presence of other media (photography, painting, architecture) in his texts. From the publisher’s website: Read more
from Valerie Constantino’s “Performance with Spyglass”
A new exhibition based on W.G. Sebald’s After Nature has just opened up in Sacramento, California. Here’s the information from the website of Sacramento State University:
Valerie Constantino presents “Crossing Sublime (After After Nature),” an exhibit of recent works that kicks off Sacramento State’s art shows for the spring semester. The show runs Jan. 23 to Feb. 22 at the Robert Else Gallery with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 27, and an artist talk from 4 to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 7. Regular gallery hours are noon to 4:30 p.m.
A lecturer at Sacramento State and American River College, Constantino has created new works inspired by W.G. Sebald’s narrative poem After Nature. The pieces consider the fluid crossings of time, matter, and being, and include photo-montages, collages, mixed media on paper, sculptural elements, writing, and an audio component. Sebald’s publisher describes his work as a “haunting vision of the waxing and waning tides of birth and devastation that lie behind and before us.” For Constantino, Sebald’s ruminations of the interrelatedness of materiality and transcendence substantiated analogous themes in her work.
“Sebald composed his text from a presumed kind of intimacy with two historically notable figures in tandem with a third voice, a variant of his own,” Constantino says. “My presentation alleges firsthand knowledge of its own selected subjects: artist Anne Ryan and cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova.”
Constantino’s process of making art is one of personal expression and investigative research. “Such explorations are themselves worthwhile and may not necessarily convey an overarching message,” she says. “Because the work in this exhibition is diverse and based on interpretations of the lives and works of others, an appreciation for each individual work, as well as its conceptual relationships to the whole, would be ideal.”
I recently finished reading Dušan Šarotar’s book Panorama (Peter Owen World Series, 2016), which I plan to write about soon. It’s a book that was openly done in admiration of Sebald. Now, Šarotar has written the introduction to the first Slovenian translation of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, and his English-language publisher has posted a translation of Šarotar’s piece. Take a look.