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The Language of Colors in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye

We had defended ourselves since memory against everything and everybody, considered all speech a code to be broken by us, and all gestures subject to careful analysis; we had become headstrong, devious and arrogant. Nobody paid us any attention, so we paid very good attention to ourselves. Our limitations were not known to us—not then. Our only handicap was our size; people gave us orders because they were bigger and stronger. So it was with confidence. strengthened by pity and pride, that we decided to change the course of events and alter a human life.

Toni Morrison. The Bluest Eye.

I am slowly working my way through Toni Morrison’s novels, making up for unaccountably avoiding her books for many years. Did I think she was too popular and thus I wouldn’t enjoy her writing? My favorite so far is The Bluest Eye, from 1970, a startlingly confident and daring book for a first novel. But, then, sometimes writers, knowing no limitations and full of confidence, start out with a book that blasts through all the conventions of the novel. Just look at the opening three paragraphs of The Bluest Eye, each of which contain the identical sentences—a riff on the once famous Dick and Jane readers, which depicted the stereotypical middle-class, white siblings Dick and Jane in a series of reading primers that were used in grade schools across America from the 1930s through the 1970s. The first iteration, which is the first thing you read in The Bluest Eye, is exactly as you see it below.

Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white house. They are very happy. See Jane. She has a red dress. She wants to play. Who will play with Jane? See the cat. It goes meow-meow. Come and play. Come play with Jane. The kitten will not play. See Mother. Mother is very nice. Mother, will you play with Jane? Mother laughs. Laugh, Mother, laugh. See Father. He is big and strong. Father, will you play with Jane? Father is smiling. Smile, Father, smile. See the dog. Bowwow goes the dog. Do you want to play with Jane? See the dog run. Run, dog, run. Look, look. Here comes a friend. The friend will play with Jane. They will play a good game. Play, Jane, play

The second iteration repeats the same paragraphs but removes all capital letters and punctuation, while the third iteration of the text removes all spacing between the letters. The effect is to suggest that the text is speeding up in each version, finally spinning completely out of control:

HereisthehouseitisgreenandwhiteithasareddooritisveryprettyhereisthefamilyMotherFatherDickandJane. . .

After this opening, which manages to completely undermine the normally reassuring message of the Dick and Jane image of childhood (a distinctly white childhood, at that), Claudia, the book’s primary narrator, begins her story and takes us back to 1941, where she immediately shocks the reader by telling us that “Pecola was having her father’s baby.” But despite this opening sentence, which is about as far from the imagined perfect life of Dick and Jane as one could get, The Bluest Eye is not just about the aptly named Pecola Breedlove, the girl who desperately wants blue eyes. It’s about childhood, about growing up in a black (or mostly black) community in Ohio in a very different time from ours, and it’s about how children discover wisdom.

Here’s Claudia and her sister listening in as her mother and girlfriends gossip about a certain man:

Their conversation is like a gently wicked dance: sound meets sound, curtsies, shimmies, and retires. Another sound enters but is upstaged by still another: the two circle each other and stop. Sometimes their words move in lofty spirals; other times they take strident leaps, and all of it is punctuated with warm-pulsed laughter—like the throb of a heart made of jelly. . . We do not, cannot, know the meanings of all of their words, for we are nine and ten years old. So we watch their faces, their hands, their feet, and listen for truth in timbre.

To be clear, this is Claudia as an adult, reflecting back on her childhood, interpreting childhood intuitions through the language of a sophisticated adult. But she is describing how children often look for non-verbal cues to assess the reliability of information or the honesty of others.

While Pecola’s story is the backbone of The Bluest Eye, Morrison frequently drifts into the lives of others in the community. Scattered throughout The Bluest Eye are chapters in which the narration is taken away from Claudia and given over to an omniscient narrator, whose role at first seems to provide some context that Claudia has not seen necessary to provide, like an overview of the town and a brief description of the run-down storefront where Pecola Breedlove and her family live. But later on this narrator provides a chapter-long group portrait of a type of black woman who doesn’t really want to be black, who learns “how to do the white man’s work with refinement,” who learns “how to behave” and “how to get rid of the funkiness. The dreadful funkiness of passion, the funkiness of nature, the funkiness of the wide range of human emotions.”

One reason the novel seems so daring is that Morrison was unafraid to show black-on-black racism. In one example, a group of young black boys, “heady with the smell of their own musk, thrilled by the easy power of a majority,” encircle Pecola and begin to tease her with an extemporized verse about the color of her skin and an insult about her father.

It was the contempt for their own blackness that gave the first insult its teeth. They seemed to have taken all of their smoothly cultivated ignorance, their exquisitely learned self-hatred, their elaborately designed hopelessness and sucked it all up into a fiery cone of scorn that had burned for ages in the hollows of their minds—cooled—and spilled over lips of outrage, consuming whatever was in its path. They danced a macabre ballet around the victim, whom for their own sake, they were prepared to sacrifice to the flaming pit.

And Pecola’s parents are quite the pair, “an upright and Christian woman, burdened with a no-count man” named Cholly.

If Cholly had stopped drinking, she would never have forgiven Jesus. She needed Cholly’s sins desperately. The lower he sank, the wilder and more irresponsible he became, the more splendid she and her task became. In the name of Jesus.

No less did Cholly need her. She was one of the few things abhorrent to him that he could touch and therefore hurt. He poured out on her the sum of all his inarticulate fury and aborted desires.

Morrison is careful to point out that all of this—the black-on-back racism, Cholly’s alcoholism and fury, the black women who want to pass for white, and Pecola’s desire to have blue eyes—stem from the same causes: centuries of white racism against blacks and the history of slavery. But, as her narrator warned us at the outset of the novel, even understanding racism doesn’t mean that anything else comes any easier. “There is really nothing more to say—except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.” Morrison demonstrates this with the character Cholly, who, for three-quarters of the novel is little more than a drunk, evil man who impregnates his own daughter. But then we learn the source of his hatred and loathing. As a teenager, he and a young girl were caught making love in the woods by a small group of white hunters, who forced them to continue their lovemaking, much to the amusement and teasing of the white men.

Never once did [Cholly] consider directing his hatred toward the hunters. Such an emotion would have destroyed him. They were big, white, armed men. He was small, black, helpless. His subconscious knew what his conscious mind did not guessthat hating them would have consume him, burned him up like a piece of soft coal, leaving only flakes of ash and a question mark of smoke. He was in time to discover that hated of white menbut not now. Not in impotence, but later, when the hatred could find sweet expression. For now, he hated the one who had created the situation, the one who bore witness to his failure, his impotence. The one he had not been able to protect, to spare, to cover from the round moon glow of the flashlight.

Unable to hate the white men who had abused him and his girlfriend, Cholly turns the blame on herand on black women in general. He must flail back at them for making him feel small, helpless, and impotent.

One thing that is impossible to overlook when reading The Bluest Eye is Morrison’s use of color. On Saturdays, Claudia’s mother would often sing “about hard times, bad times, and somebody-done-gone-and-left-me time.” And when she did, Claudia said, “misery colored by the greens and blues in my mother’s voice took all of the grief out of the words and left me with a conviction that pain was not only endurable, it was sweet.” Because I read The Bluest Eye in eBook format, I could easily search and count the number of times various words appeared within the book. By my rough count, here are the number of times that several colors (and their variations, e.g. black, blackest, blue, blues, blueish, etc.) are found in The Bluest Eye: red 26 times, blue 123 times, green 44 times, black 104 times, white 104 times, and yellow 20 times. That’s a load of color.


Toni Morrison. The Bluest Eye. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. I read the Vintage ebook, 2007.

This is book number 6 in my Vertigo 15 Books Project, in which I am looking back across fifteen years of my reading and writing Vertigo, and I am selecting the fifteen titles that have really stood out during that time.

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.

Revisiting Bruges-la-Morte

Image from: Georges Rodenbach, Bruges-la-Morte. Flammarion, 1892.
Photo by Ch.-G. Petit et Cie., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Over the last fifteen years, I have written about or mentioned Georges Rodenbach’s 1892 novel Bruges-la-Morte numerous times, mostly because it has the distinction of being the first work of fiction in which an author embedded photographs as part of the text, which is one of the themes that I write about often on this blog. But Rodenbach’s novel is also a terrific book to read. Hugues Viane, the main character, is despondent over the death of his wife, which occurred five years earlier. He spends much of his time walking the streets and along the canals of the ancient city of Bruges. During one of these walks he will spot his deceased wife’s doppelgänger, a dancer who looks exactly like her. At this moment, his grief becomes transformed into an obsession. He must possess this woman! He pursues her and woos her and ultimately convinces her to try to live and act like his previous wife. Needless to say, this ends in tragedy.

The photographs Rodenbach selected for his novel came from a French commercial photographer and depict a city of ancient buildings, melancholy canals, and bridges nearly emptied of people. He wanted to echo Viane’s inner loneliness and longing, but he also realized that photographs would help convey his idea that the city itself was a principal character in his book. “What we seek to suggest,” he wrote in his Preface, was that the city was “directing the action; its urban landscapes no longer mere backdrops.”

Rodenbach (1855-1898) was a Belgian lawyer turned writer who is variously described as a Symbolist or a Decadent. Ironically, although his father and grandfather had lived in Bruges, Rodenbach never lived in the city himself. “Every city is a state of mind,” he wrote, and Bruges seemed to be his state of mind.

And that is why, since these scenes of Bruges impinge upon the story, it is vital to reproduce them here interspersed between the pages: quays, deserted streets, old houses, canals, beguinages, churches, silversmiths offering liturgical wares, belfries, so our readers will also be subject to the presence and influence of the City, feel the contagion of the neighboring waters, sense in their turn the shadow of the high towers reaching across the text.

The writer, poet, and translator Will Stone has made a new translation of Bruges-la-Morte for Wakefield Press, which is “devoted to the translation of overlooked gems and literary oddities.” This edition is also notable for being the only English edition of Rodenbach’s novel still in print to include all thirty-five of the original photographs that appeared in the first French edition.

Georges Rodenbach. Bruges-la-Mort. Flammarion, 1892, page 1.

The English speaker who wishes to read Bruges-la-Morte actually has four choices, so I thought it might be useful to briefly compare the editions available. I will also quote the translation of the book’s second paragraph so you can get a tiny sense of each translator’s voice.

Atlas Press, 1993

The first is a 1903 translation by Thomas Watson Duncan, done for the London publisher Swan Sonnenschein & Co. (I’ve taken the quote just below from the Google Books version of this edition). In 1993, London’s avant-garde Atlas Press reissued this translation, newly revised by Terry Hale (who also wrote an introduction). Perhaps because Duncan was still writing within the same time period as Rodenbach, his translation feels very evocative to my ear. This edition also reprinted the original photographs from the first French edition. It is now out-of-print, but used copies can be found online here and there.

Hugh Viane made his preparations for the desultory ramble with which it was his wont to close the afternoon. Solitary and unoccupied, it was his custom to kill the ennui of his existence by reading a little among the old volumes that lined the walls of the vast apartment of the Quai de Rosaire which he rarely quitted; smoking a great deal, and dreaming much at the open window of a bygone happiness.

Translation by Thomas Duncan, 1903.
University of Scranton Press

In 1986, Philip Mosley, professor of English and comparative literature at Penn State Scranton, made the first contemporary translation of Bruges-la-Morte for the Scottish publisher Wilfion Books, but it is now kept in print by the University of Scranton Press and distributed through the University of Chicago Press. This stripped-down version of the book contains an Introduction by Mosley but no images at all. Mosley has also written Georges Rodenbach: Critical Essays (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996), a French/English bi-lingual book that is now out-of-print.

As was his daily custom in the late afternoon, Hugues Viane was getting ready to go out. Lonely and idle, he tended to spend whole days on the first floor in his vast bedroom, whose windows overlooked the Quai du Rosaire along which, mirrored in the water, stretched the frontage of his house.

Translation by Philip Mosley, 2007.
Dedalus Books, 2005

The Dedalus Books edition from 2005, with a new translation by veteran translator Mike Mitchell, has been frequently reprinted and is also the only edition currently available as an ebook. It has a wonderful Introduction by the British novelist Alan Hollinghurst, and it took the innovative step of substituting contemporary photographs made by Will Stone for the nineteenth-century ones of Bruges that Rodenbach had used. While I longed for the original images, this fascinating experiment demonstrated how little Bruges has changed in some ways since Rodenbach’s day well more than a century ago. The Dedalus edition also includes a bonus translation by Will Stone of a shorter Rodenbach essay called The Death Throes of Towns, written in 1889, that “leads the reader to the ‘cemetery’ of dead towns in old Flanders” and “feels like a blueprint” for Bruges-la-Morte, according to Stone.

Hugues Viane was preparing to go out, as was his daily habit at the end of the afternoon. Solitary, with nothing to occupy his time, he would spend the whole day in his room, a vast retreat on the first floor whose windows looked out onto the Quai de Rosaire, along which the façade of his house stretched, mirrored in the canal.

Translation by Mike Mitchell, 2009.
Wakefield Press, 2022

The newest kid on the block is the translation made by Will Stone, although he is no newcomer to translating Rodenbach. In addition to his translation of the essay The Death Throes of Towns, he selected and translated the poems and wrote the Introduction for Georges Rodenbach: Selected Poems (Arc Publications) in 2016. In this newest edition, Wakefield Press has wisely gone back to the original French photographs. This Wakefield edition is is comfortable pocket-sized volume (7 x 4 1/2 inches) with French flaps, which I like.

Hugues Viane was preparing to go out, as was his custom toward late afternoon. Solitary and with little to occupy his time, he would spend the whole day in his large room on the second floor, whose windows gave onto the Quai du Rosaire along which his house extended, mirrored in the water.

Translation by Will Stone, 2022.
Flammarion, 1892

If you’d like to try your own hand at translating, here is Rodenbach’s paragraph in its original French.

Hugues Viane se disposa à sortir, comme il en avait l’habitude quotidienne à la fin des après-midi. Inoccupé, solitaire, il passait toute la journée dans sa chambre, une vaste pièce au premier étage, dont les fenêtres donnaient sur le quai du Rosaire, au long duquel s’alignait sa maison, mirée dans l’eau.

Georges Rodenbach. Bruges-la-morte. Paris: Flammarion, 1892.

The Italics of Disdain

Can we talk about italics for a minute? In the last two books that I have written about here on Vertigo, both authors have used italics in what I think of as the italics of disdain. It’s a way of making clear to the reader that the speaker or narrator dislikes or wishes to distance himself or herself from the very set of words he or she is uttering.

In Mark Haber’s book Saint Sebastian’s Abyss, for example, a novel about two art historians, the Austrian-born Schmidt looks down his nose on his colleague simply for being American. The narrator tells us how Schmidt laid into him one day: “I couldn’t help myself being American, he hastened to add, I’d been stunted and impaired and because of this geographic shortcoming, I suffered a lack of nutrients readily found in the ancient soils of Europe, Austria especially, its soil as dark and rich and awash with history as one could ever dream of, the complete inverse of the anemic American soil on which I’d regrettably been raised, he’d said, a wasteland, he’d called it, a revolting abyss, he’d added.” Here, we not only have several instances where Schmidt cringes from the very words he is forced to tell his American colleague—detestable words like “wasteland” and “revolting abyss“—but we have an example of one italicized phrase—”ancient soils of Europe“—that serves as the exact opposite from the italics of disdain. These are the italics of triumph, the sound of slapping down the winning hand, of showing up the poor schlub who has forced you to say all these distasteful things.

Anyone who has read the novels of Thomas Bernhard will recognize even in this partial sentence that Haber is paying homage to the great Austrian writer in Saint Sebastian’s Abyss, not least through his similar use of italics, but also in the sentence construction of non-stop short clauses (and I’ve only quoted less than half of the original sentence) and the repeated insertion of variants of “he said,” to remind us that the narrator is telling us his own, possibly rephrased version of what Schmidt said to him.

Michel Houellebecq’s The Map & the Territory has an omniscient narrator, which is quite a bit different than having a known character as a narrator. Omniscient narrators are generally neutral, but Houellebecq’s narrator likes to use italics to point out whenever any of the book’s characters speak in clichés or use phrases that seem faddish. Here’s the narrator commenting on the main character Jed Martin, an artist: “he had produced a body of work, as they say, without ever encountering, or even contemplating, happiness.” Characters are chastised on the page for uttering trite phrases such as “a genuine human drama” or a “stupefyingly strong desire” or for using tired business phrases like “core target.” Sometimes the narrator makes fun of his own choice of words when even he resorts to clichés, as he does here in writing about one aging couple: “You could say that they still had some beautiful years ahead of them.” Houellebecq seems to be in love with italics in The Map & the Territory, using them to emphasize words and phrases, to indicate foreign words, and sometimes simply to make a point.

Thomas Bernhard was a master of italics of all kinds. Beginning with his second novel, Gargoyles (1967), his narrators begin using italics with increasing frequency, at first just for emphasis or little cries of anguish over the annoyances of the world. But by mid-career, there seem to be moments in every novel when his narrators just drip with disdain for whomever they are talking about or to, as Bernhard targeted pretensions of every sort throughout Austrian society and government. In Woodcutters (1984), his satiric novel about a literary dinner party, the narrator makes fun of the pretensions of the hosts by referring to the event as an “artistic dinner” on innumerable occasions throughout the book (lest we forget!). And he skewers one of the hosts for the “vulgar and repellent” way in which she continually refers to someone as “altogether the most important actor and the greatest living actor, an assessment with which the narrator apparently disagrees” Later on, the narrator snidely notices that an actor at the dinner party pronounced the phrase “dream role” “as though it denoted some culinary delicacy.” When the dinner ends, the narrator flees towards his home, determined to begin writing the first sentences of what will become the tell-all novel that we have just finished, letting the italics of urgency pile on. “And as I went on running I thought: I’ll write something at once, no matter what—I’ll write about this artistic dinner in the Gentzgasse at once, now. Now, I thought—at once, I told myself over and over again as I ran through the Inner City—at once, I told myself, nowat once, at once, before it’s too late.”

Bernhard’s narrators also loathe colloquialisms, even as they frequently resort to using them. On the opening page of The Loser, his novel about the pianist Glenn Gould, the narrator writes: “while now of course he didn’t kill himself like Wertheimer, but died, as they say, a natural death.” Later on: “The Wertheimers have always lived, as the saying goes, in grand style.” Or: “the three of us were, as one can say, friends for life.” It’s a way for the narrator to simultaneously use a cliché and allow the italics to let the reader know that he’s holding his nose while he utters it. Toward the end of the book, the narrator (and Bernhard) vents his spleen toward both the Austrian people and its government: “They all wanted a socialist government, I said, but now they see that precisely this socialist government has squandered everything, I purposely pronounced the word squandered more clearly than all the others, I wasn’t even ashamed of having used it at all, I repeated the word squandered a few more times with regard to our bankrupt state and our socialist government. . . Never before in its history has our country sunk so low, I said. . .”

Thomas Bernhard. Gargoyles. NY: Knopf, 1970. Translated from the 1967 German original by Richard and Clara Winston.
Thomas Bernhard. The Loser. NY: Knopf, 1991. Translated from the 1983 German original by Jack Dawson. Thomas Bernhard. Woodcutters. NY: Knopf, 1987. Translated from the 1984 German original by David McLintock

“Art is our religion”: Saint Sebastian’s Abyss by Mark Haber

From Michel Houellebecq’s The Map & the Territory, a novel about the market-driven contemporary art world, I moved on to Mark Haber’s recent novel about the esoteric world of art history and the period known as the Northern Renaissance. Saint Sebastian’s Abyss (Coffee House Press, 2022) is about a painting of that name, a mere twelve by fourteen inches, but “a miracle, a masterwork, a trembling jewel” of a painting, and the two art historians who have built their careers admiring, studying, publishing on, and lecturing about this tiny gem. “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 whoring, “purchasing sex from both women and young boys” before succumbing to syphilis. “Count Hugo Beckenbauer,” we are told by the unnamed art historian who narrates the book, “was probably what we today would call a sex addict.”

The two art historians are the unnamed American narrator and Schmidt, an Austrian. The two have had a long and friendly professional rivalry until the narrator one day said a “horrible thing” that angered Schmidt and led to a rupture that ended their friendship thirteen years ago. But as the novel opens, Schmidt has summoned his ex-friend to Berlin, where he lies on his death bed. He has discovered the answer to the one secret to “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” that had previously flummoxed the two art historians, and now he wants to pass along the information in person to the narrator before he dies. The thoughts and memories that the narrator has as he makes his way to Berlin constitute this short novel.

To paraphrase the late, great stand-up comedian Rodney Dangerfield, artists and art historians “don’t get no respect” from Mark Haber, who has great fun exaggerating the stereotypes of the artist/genius and the hyper-fixated art historian. Based on the diary of Beckenbauer’s landlady, written nearly five hundred year ago, the two art historians have convinced themselves that Beckenbauer was ill, nearly blind, and daily exchanging paintings for sex when he painted “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss.” “Schmidt and I agreed that a sublime vision is the only way to account for the masterpiece, for even though I didn’t believe in God, and Schmidt didn’t believe in God, in fact we’d always taken great pride in being vigorous and committed nonbelievers, we always nurtured a conviction in something other. Hence something other was responsible for bestowing vision to the blind madman in the Düsseldorf farmhouse in the balmy summer of 1541 as he took a small canvas, no larger than twelve by fourteen, in fact exactly twelve by fourteen. . .” The painting was, in other words, the artistic equivalent to a virgin birth. But somehow, even as he headed out to the bordellos day after day, Beckenbauer “knew enough to leave the painting behind, sensing perhaps that he’d fulfilled his artistic legacy, creating a work that he hadn’t seen but felt, a work of unequivocal sublimity.”

In “true” academic fashion, both men have been able to wring long and steady careers out of this small, once-obscure painting hanging in a museum in Barcelona. The narrator has published ten books on Beckenbauer, and Schmidt nearly as many. Schmidt’s first book, August in Rhapsody, more than twelve hundred pages long, “explained in comprehensive, almost exhaustive detail with nothing left out, no stone unturned, no argument untested” that “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” was “the greatest painting in history.” And each art historian’s succeeding book sounds just about as silly.

But the heart of Haber’s book is not so silly. It’s the focus of the horrible thing that the narrator said in answer to a question at an art history conference on day in New York City. “I’d said, in essence, art is subjective and art is for everyone, namely a layman’s opinion is equal to an expert’s.” Schmidt’s response to this was to accuse his friend of “crimes of art criticism” and to cut off all communications between them. When the two art historians finally meet up again in Berlin, Schmidt vented to the narrator: “you want to criticize art but not offend, which is ludicrous, you want to exalt yourself, the art critic, while telling everyone else their opinions are just as valid, when their opinions, you and I both know, are less valid, in fact their opinions are valueless.”

Schmidt’s concern about his colleague’s objectivity actually goes back decades, dating, in fact, to the moment when they made their first trip to Barcelona to stand in front of “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” together for the first time. When the narrator started weeping at the power of the painting, Schmidt had berated him. “Leave the heart out of it, Schmidt had said, the moment the heart is involved you’re no longer a critic but a spectator and he’d said that word spectator as if it were the worst thing a person could ever be.” Schmidt, on the other hand, sees himself as an “authentic critic,” operating in a universe that sounds downright Darwinian. “Each time I’ve written about ‘Saint Sebastian’s Abyss’ . . . I’ve suppressed all the feelings and subjectivity I had . . . I’ve abolished my pulse . . . my job as a critic, was to lay waste to the work and when the work survived, when the work was resurrected despite my attacks, when the work prevailed despite my many attempts on its life, then I had succeeded as a critic.”

The narrator, however, doesn’t buy this. “Each time Schmidt insisted that I leave the heart out of it I knew it was his overabundance of heart that plagued his conscience, his flood of emotions that demanded he suppress and renounce the heart at all costs, and this contradiction or hypocrisy, I began to believe, originated from a youth in Vienna that Schmidt would mention in only the most superficial terms before quickly changing the subject.”

Head or heart? How should we react to art? Should critics and art historians leave their heart at home? This is a variation of the theme that rears itself throughout Michel Houellebecq’s The Map & the Territory as his artist, Jed Martin, tries to make all of his art honor “the essence of modernity, of scientific and technical apprehension of the world” that is the Industrial Age, which he believes is mankind’s highest achievement. Jed does this by trying as an artist to stay utterly neutral and detached, to strip his work of any political or social implications.

It’s clear where Mark Haber’s sympathies lie. As an art historian myself, I can say that there are fewer and fewer people like Schmidt and the narrator of Saint Sebastian’s Abyss in the discipline, men or women seeking refuge from the chaos of our world in the imagined order of another era. Haber deliciously nails this tendency to impose one’s own wishes on the life of an obscure artist in a distant century when he has the narrator brag about his book Hugo’s Paradox. In “this work of peerless and original speculative art criticism” (in the narrator’s own words), the narrator “conceptualized” the entire body of work by Beckenbauer that has been lost to history, imagining every painting that we can no longer see. Now that’s art history.

Michel Houellebecq’s The Map & the Territory

I picked up Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Map & the Territory, in part, because the front cover blurb said it was “a serious reflection on art, death, and contemporary society,” and I was curious to see how a writer of Houellebecq’s stature and reputation would deal with contemporary art. The Map & the Territory is the life story of Jed Martin, a fictional artist who develops a very quirky artistic career. His first important body of work, the portfolio that he used to gain admission to the prestigious Beaux-Arts de Paris, was titled “Three Hundred Photos of Hardware” and consisted of nuts, bolts, and other pieces of precision engineered metalwork that he had photographed in a “neutral lighting, with few contrasts” in order to take away “the menacing nature of the forms.” Once admitted to the school, he began his “grandiose and maniacal” project of “the systematic photography of the world’s manufactured objects. . . suspension files, handguns, printer cartridges, forks.” His goal was nothing less than to create “an exhaustive catalogue of the objects of human manufacturing in the Industrial Age.” Jed’s simple argument for his work was that “the history of mankind could in large part be linked to the history of the use of metals.” Some art historians agreed and saw this early work as a “homage to human labor.”

Jed’s next important body of work came about as a result of a road trip with his father. The two stopped at a service station and Jed purchased a Michelin Departments road map.

It was then, unfolding the map, while standing by the cellophane-wrapped sandwiches, that he had his second great aesthetic revelation. This map was sublime. Overcome, he began to tremble in front of the food display. Never had he contemplated an object as magnificent, as rich in emotion and meaning, as this 1/150,000-scale Michelin map of the Creuse and the Haute-Vienne. The essence of modernity, of scientific and technical apprehension of the world, was here combined with the essence of animal life. The drawing was complex and beautiful, absolutely clear, using only a small palette of colors. But in each of the hamlets and villages, represented according to their importance, you felt the thrill, the appeal, of human lives, of dozens and hundreds of souls—some destined for damnation, others for eternal life.

Eventually, Jed turned his interest from the products of modern technology to the leaders of various industries, including the arts (which Jed clearly thinks of as an industry of sorts), making a series of large painted portraits such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market and Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology, which depicted the two tech giants playing chess in Jobs’ living room.

In keeping with the industrial and corporate subject matter of Jed’s artworks, much of the writing in The Map & the Territory is very factual, resonant of a corporate report. Its pages are littered with the product names for everything from camera equipment to fashion items to automobiles to Jed’s artistic supplies, as well as the the names of the books and magazines on people’s tables and bookcases. But that’s not to say that the book is dry to read. Houellebecq’s otherwise omniscient, disembodied narrator gets gossipy and even a wee bit snide when dealing with the people in Jed’s life, becoming something of a social critic at all of the pretense Jed encounters in the art world. The narrator is quick to latch on to all of the clichés and code words drifting in the conversational ether. Here’s how the narrator describes why the architects at Jed’s father’s firm felt that they needed a new location for their headquarters (the italics are Houellebecq’s): “They had felt the necessity of going upmarket, and the headquarters now had to be in a townhouse, preferably in a cobbled square, or at least in an avenue lined with trees.”

Houellebecq’s narrator sees contemporary art—artists, curators, gallerists, publishers, collectors—as nothing but a vast market system, seemingly severed from any kind of aesthetics or non-monetary value. But Jed remains a bit of a naïf. With a big exhibition and catalog on the horizon, he can’t even manage to theorize about his work and has to turn to a writer to do this for him. In a move that is ripe with irony, Jed commissions a writer named Michel Houellebecq to write the this catalog essay for him. Houellebecq seems to have way too much fun satirizing himself. His character is lazy. He hasn’t managed to unpack, despite living in his new house for three years. He spends most of his time in bed, “watching cartoons on Fox TV” in his pajamas, depressed, drunk, and suffering from athlete’s foot.

His essay is late, of course, forcing Jed to delay his exhibition, but when the it arrives it “asserts for the first time the unity of the artist’s work.” Houellebecq declares that Jed’s subject has always been commerce, “hunting for the essence of the world’s manufactured products,” and he confirms that Jed’s work operates in a neutral and detached manner, without any political or social comment.

As payment for his promised essay, Houellebecq agrees to have Jed paint his portrait.

Houellebecq is standing in front of a desk covered with written or half-written pages. . . Captured at the moment of noticing a mistake on one of the pages on the desk in front of him, the author appears in a trance, possessed by a fury that some have not hesitated to describe as demonic; his hand holding the pen, treated with a certain blurring movement, throws itself on the page “with the speed of a cobra stretching to strike its prey” . . . The expression in the eyes appeared at the time so strange that it could not, in the critics’ view, be compared to any existing pictorial tradition, but had rather to be compared to certain archival ethnological images taken during voodoo ceremonies.

But then, after his exhibition, in mid-career, Jed suddenly becomes a hermit and makes no more art for many years. Decades fly by before he slowly gets back to work, secretly making short videos of nature near his rural French hideaway. Then he makes portraits of all his friends who are still alive before putting his final work together. Without any further explanation, Jed’s artwork takes an unpredictable turn.

The portraits of human beings who had accompanied Jed Martin through his earthly life fell apart under the impact of bad weather, then decompose and disappear, seeming in the last videos to make themselves symbols of the generalized annihilation of the human species. They sink and seem for an instant to put up a struggle, before being suffocated by the superimposed layers of plants. Then everything becomes calm. There remains only the grass swaying in the wind. The triumph of vegetation is total.

As Jed Martin dies, his final artwork signals the end of the Industrial Age. Houellebecq clearly knows his way around the art scene. The Map & the Territory is a cynical but relatively accurate portrayal of the contemporary art ecosystem (at least as it was a decade ago when the book was published), although I have yet to know any artists who managed to remain as unscathed by the tenacious claws of the art market as Jed Martin. The novel is generally very engaging to read, but it’s too comfortable in its own skin to stretch the novel’s form in any new way.

Jed’s hyper-methodical art practice and his interest in the aesthetic qualities of Industrial Age products will remind some readers of the photography of Bernd & Hill Becher, the German husband and wife team who rigorously photographed the industrial architecture of the twentieth century during the years of its growing obsolescence. A retrospective of their work is on exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until November 15, 2022.

Bernd & Hill Becher, Fördertürme, 1965–1996. ©ESTATE OF BERND AND HILLA BECHER

Michel Houellebecq. The Map & the Territory. NY: Random House, 2011. Translated by Gavin Bowd from the 2010 French original.

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.

Agota Kristof’s “The Notebook”

Somewhere near a war-torn European border that is never specified, a mother packs off her twin boys to live with their grandmother in a small, isolated village called Little Town, hoping that it is a safer place for them to live than near the fighting. The boys immediately resent having to live in a crude, backward place with a woman known locally as “the witch,” a grandmother who they have never even met before.

Grandmother never washes. She wipes her mouth with the corner of her shawl when she has finished eating or drinking. She doesn’t wear knickers. When she wants to urinate, she just stops wherever she happens to be, spreads her legs and pisses on the ground under her skirt. Of course, she doesn’t do it in the house.

The brothers commit to each other that they will do whatever it will takes to survive—and survive together. They begin by learning how to find food for themselves in the forest, how to forage and how to fish, so that they no longer need to be dependent on their grandmother’s terrible and scant offerings. Then they they begin a process of deliberately hardening their bodies and teaching their minds. Imagine a pair of ten-year olds creating an amateur Navy SEAL training course and you’ve got the idea. But their training quickly escalates and in no time they have the skills to steal, to blackmail, and to kill people. The way that they teach themselves composition is to write every day on sheets of paper for two hours about a designated topic and then make a judgement on the result.

If it’s ‘Not good’, we throw the composition in the fire and try to write about the same subject in the next lesson. If it’s ‘Good’, we can copy out the composition into the Big Notebook.

To decide whether it is ‘Good’ or ‘Not good’, we have a very simple rule: the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do.

For example, it is forbidden to write: ‘The Little Town is beautiful’, because the Little Town may be beautiful for us and ugly for someone else. . .

Words that define feelings are very vague; it is better to avoid using them and to stick to the description of objects, human beings and oneself; that is to say, to the faithful description of facts.

The Big Notebook they reference is, of course, the very book we are reading, Agota Kristof’s The Notebook. The rules that the brothers define for their own writing are the same rules that Agota Kristof must obey in writing The Notebook. No “words that define feelings.” Keep “to the faithful description of facts.” Much of the time, these strictures are largely invisible as you read about their daily activities, when you don’t expect to see much emotion intrude. But then you come across passages like the one below that should be exploding with emotions of one sort or another. After the village has been successfully invaded, a neighboring woman whose daughter has been raped and murdered by enemy soldiers tells the twins she doesn’t want to live under the rule of the conquering forces.

“Do you really want to die?”
“What else could I want? If you want to do something for me, set light to the house. I don’t want them to find us like this.”
We say:
“But it’ll hurt terrible.”
“Don’t bother yourselves about that. Set light to the house, that’s all, if you’re capable of it.”
“Yes, madam, we are capable of it. You can depend on us.”
We slit her throat with the razor, then we go and siphon off petrol from an army vehicle. We pour the petrol over both bodies and over the walls of the house. We set light to it and go home.

The twins became survivors by adopting the methods of perpetrators. They have the Grandmother and other villagers under their collective thumbs. When the village is overcome by the rampaging enemy army, they immediately switch sides, learn the new language, and take up bartering with the occupying soldiers. Their loyalty is only to themselves. Kristof is not interested in the psychology of survivors, she is probing the pathology of psychopaths and how their behavior, left unchecked, can lead to fascism, how the warped world-view of an individual (in this case, a pair of individuals) develops into a Hitler, a Putin, a Trump.

Students of Freud and philosophy (I am neither) will have an absolute field day with The Notebook. In the Afterword in the recent CB Editions translation of The Notebook, the controversial Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek excitedly declares in his opening sentence: “There is a book through which I discovered what kind of person I really want to be: The Notebook.” A trim four pages later he closes his with this statement. “This is where I stand, how I would love to be: an ethical monster without empathy, doing what is to be done in a weird coincidence of blind spontaneity and reflexive distance, helping others while avoiding their disgusting proximity. With more people like this, the world would have been a pleasant place in which sentimentality would be replaced by a cold and cruel passion.” Is this for real?

The Notebook is written in the simple sentences and easy words of a children’s book, which makes it all the more jarring when the twins turn out to be evil incarnate. By the end of the book the twins are presumably teenagers, but the language they (and Kristof) use hasn’t changed. Kristof (1935-2011), who was born in Hungary, fled that country in 1956 and settled in French-speaking Switzerland and wrote her novels in her adopted language of French, which she apparently learned rather late. It’s been speculated that this might have contributed to the simplicity of the French in The Notebook.

It’s also that strange, fairly rare book narrated by the plural first-person pronoun “we.” But the effect of this “we,” which is the voice of two boys, is very different from the “we” in a book like Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, where the “we” is the cumulative voice of many Japanese “picture brides” who came to America in the early twentieth century. In most cases, writers choose multitudes for their plural first-person “we” narrators so that the reader can’t focus on any single character as the narrator. Here, we can still envision a pair of boys as our collective narrators.

One of the things I found remarkable about The Notebook was just how much emotion I felt throughout the book, even though Kristof had deliberately stripped it of “words that define feelings.” The complete lack of emotion shown by the twins in the midst of wartime, violence, rape, and other crimes (many of which they were committing), brought out a range of horror, curiosity, and astonishment in me. The twins don’t seem to understand that their decision to stick to the facts in their notebook is no guarantee that readers will remain similarly emotion-free.

The Notebook is the first of a trilogy of novels that continues with The Proof (La preuve), 1986, and concludes with The Third Lie (Le troisième mensonge), 1991. In the last two novels, the twins are separated and the story line revolves largely around their easily confusing identities as twins and their conflicting stories about what has happened to them. One literary critic has suggested that these two novels are about “how malleable the past actually is,” especially for those “Central European countries who must reconstruct their history after decades of Communist subterfuge.” (Martha Kuhlman, “The Double Writing of Agota Kristof and the New Europe” Studies in 20th Century Literature) More than the last two parts of the trilogy, The Notebook feels like a standalone novel for its focus on the boys’ transition from victims to masters, from 98-pound weaklings to murderers. As unpleasant as The Notebook can sound, it is a brisk, captivating 160 pages that pulls me in every time I open it.


Agota Kristof. The Notebook. London: CB Editions, 2014. Translated from the 1986 French original Le Grand Cahier by Alan Sheridan.

This is book number 5 in my Vertigo 15 Books Project, in which I am looking back across fifteen years of my reading and writing Vertigo, and I am selecting the fifteen titles that have really stood out during that time.

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.