Today, two very different books by Mexican writers: Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd (Coffee House Press, 2013) and Sergio Pitol’s The Journey (Deep Vellum, 2015).
The subway, its multiple stops, its breakdowns, its sudden accelerations, its dark zones, could function as the space-time schema for this other novel.
Valeria Luiselli’s unnamed narrator is a young Mexican woman struggling to become a writer. There are three strands to her narrative: her years as a single woman working for a small publishing company in New York City, the succeeding years as a young mother in a dissolving marriage in Mexico City, and her ongoing research (which quickly becomes an obsession) on the Mexican writer Gilberto Owen (1904-1952). In rather formulaic fashion, the three narrative strands blend into one. Faces in the Crowd comes highly hyped: “fearless…precociously masterful” (Francisco Goldman) and “the best of all possible debuts’ (Enrique Vila-Matas), but I was underwhelmed. Here is Luiselli’s narrator in a subway car as she imagines seeing the face of Gilberto Owen in the window:
When there was once again darkness outside the window, I saw my own blurred image on the glass. But it wasn’t my face; it was my face superimposed on his – as if his reflection had been stamped onto the glass and now I was reflected inside that double trapped on my carriage window.
OK. Got it. Read more
If there is a Hell on earth, the Austrian novelist Josef Winkler seems to be nominating his own country for that honor. Winkler’s When the Time Comes is set in a small village in Carinthia in the south of Austria and the central figure in this novel is the bone burner, a man who fills “his satchel up with bones, especially in winter, when the farmers slaughtered their pigs and cows…”
All winter he kept the bones hidden from his dog in a niche in his goat pen. In spring, with the first thaw, before the draught horses were driven over the fields hitched to plows, the bone burner would rebuild his bone furnace. He would place the bone-filled clay vessel in a hole in the ground atop glowing coals, cover it with dirt and grass and let the bones simmer until they secreted the viscous pandapigl.
The pandapigl is then smeared with a crow’s feather onto the bodies of the field horses to protect them from biting insects. In the mind of the anonymous narrator of When the Time Comes, the bone burner also adds the bones of the deceased members of the village into his pandapigl.
As the title implies, the abiding motif of the book is death – violent death, suicide, and, occasionally, death by “natural” causes. We read of death from drinking bleach, drowning, amputation, insanity, cancer, tuberculosis, heart attack, lung cancer, tractor accident, carbon monoxide poisoning, traffic accident, hanging, freezing, battle, and undoubtedly a few more ways that I failed to note. Read more
W.G. Sebald greatly admired the writing of Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) perhaps above all others. The two men, separated by three centuries, were in many ways kindred spirits. Here is Sebald reflecting on Browne (and, by extension, himself) in The Rings of Saturn:
The invisibility and intangibility of that which moves us remained an unfathomable mystery for Thomas Browne, too, who saw our world as no more than a shadow image of another one far beyond. In his thinking and writing he therefore sought to look upon earthly existence, from the things that were closest to him to the spheres of the universe, with the eye of an outsider, one might even say of the creator. His only means of achieving the sublime heights that this endeavor required was a parlous loftiness in his language. On common with other English writers of the seventeenth century, Browne wrote out of the fullness of his erudition, deploying a vast repertoire of quotations and the names of authorities who had gone before, creating complex metaphors and analogies, and constructing labyrinthine sentences that sometimes extend over one or two pages, sentences that resemble processions or a funeral cortège in their sheer ceremonial lavishness. It is true that, because of the immense weight of the impediments he is carrying, Browne’s writing can be held back by the force of gravitation, but when he does succeed in rising higher and higher through the circles of his spiralling prose, borne aloft like a glider on warm currents of air, even today the reader is overcome by a sense of levitation. The greater the distance, the clearer the view: one sees the tiniest of details with the utmost clarity. It is as if one were looking through a reversed opera glass and through a microscope at the same time. And yet, says Browne, all knowledge is enveloped in darkness. What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, in the shadow-filled edifice of the world. We study the order of things, says Browne, but we cannot grasp their innermost essence.
In his compelling and entertaining new book The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century (Granta, 2015) Hugh Aldersey-Williams does his best to locate the innermost essence of Browne. The book opens as Browne sets off on a journey from Bury St Edmunds to his home in Norwich (where Aldersey-Williams also lives). “What was he thinking?” Aldersey-Williams wonders. Browne, a physician by trade, but also “a philosopher and writer, a coiner of words, a Christian moralist, a naturalist, an antiquarian, an experimenter and a myth-buster,” had just testified at the trial of two women accused of being witches. Browne’s testimony suggested that their actions reflected the subtlety of the devil. They were found guilty and were hanged. Aldersey-Williams, who clearly wished Browne had testified differently by exposing the unscientific thinking behind the charges of witchcraft, decides to retrace Browne’s journey home from the trial. And he was going to make the trip slowly, on a bicycle. “I want time to think about what was going through Browne’s head.” The portrait of Browne that emerges is at once thoughtful and impassioned. His complexities and contradictions are carefully weighed and examined. Read more
“Now the only thing I ask is that they respect the loneliness to come.”
The owner of the beauty salon in Beauty Salon is a gay guy who dresses in drag at work and cruises for men after hours. He raises tropical fish in aquariums placed throughout the salon for the amusement of his clients. But then a local gang called the Goat-Killer Gang begins causing havoc in the city and their wounded victims routinely become infected (and infectious) with a fatal disease. The salon owner renames his business The Terminal and takes in the dying victims who have been shunned by the rest of the city. But he rigorously prohibits any medicine in The Terminal. The disease is incurable, so why falsely prolong the process of dying? “I don’t know where we got the idea that helping sick people means keeping them away from the jaws of death at all costs. I made up my mind…that if there was no other option the best thing was a quick death under the most comfortable conditions I could offer the sick person.” Eventually, he, too, gets infected. And slowly, the tropical fish are dying off. Read more
Two books, both by French authors. One about cinema, one about photography.
A longtime Vertigo reader sent me a copy of Nathalie Legér’s newly published Suite for Barbara Loden, for which I am extremely grateful. Barbara Loden was an American actress, whose second husband was the film director Elia Kazan. Loden wrote, directed and starred in the 1970 movie Wanda. Shot in cinéma vérité on a ridiculously low budget, Wanda retells the real-life story of a bored coal-miner’s wife who gets involved with another man and helps him commit a bank robbery. The robbery fails, the man is killed, and Wanda seems relieved to be sentenced to prison. When Legér was asked to write a brief film encyclopedia entry about Loden, she found herself doing far more research than necessary.
Convinced that in order to keep it short you need to know a great deal, I immersed myself in the history of the United States, read through the history of the self-portrait from antiquity to modern times, digressing to take in some sociological research about women from the 1950s and 1960s. I eagerly consulted dictionaries and biographies, gathered information about cinéma vérité, artistic avant-garde movements, the New York theater scene, Polish immigration to the United States; I did research into coal mining (reading up about mining exploration, finding out about the organisational structure of the mining industry, collecting data on coal deposits in Pennsylvania); I knew everything there was to know about the invention of hair curlers and the rise of the pin-up model after the war. I felt like I was managing a huge building site, from which I was going to excavate a miniature model of modernity, reduced to its simplest, most complex form: a woman telling her own story through that of another.
Over at Virtual Memories, Gil Roth has recorded a long and fascinating interview with one of Sebald’s great translators, Anthea Bell. The entire interview is fascinating and the two talk about Sebald for about five minutes starting at 23:00.
Renowned literary translator Anthea Bell joins the show to talk about getting her start in foreign languages, the schisms in the world of literary translation, the most challenging authors she’s worked on, the one language she’d love to learn, translating everything from Asterix to Zweig, and more!Anthea Bell is a freelance translator from German and French. Her translations include works of non-fiction; modern literary and popular fiction; books for young people including the Asterix the Gaul strip cartoon series; and classics by E.T.A. Hoffmann, Freud, Kafka and Stefan Zweig.
The online magazine Five Dials has just posted their 36th issue, devoted to nature and travel writing. The issue includes a republication of Sebald’s 1995 essay “To the Brothel by way of Switzerland: Kafka’s Travel Diaries,” in a translation by Anthea Bell. This piece first appeared in English in Campo Santo. The rest of the issue is equally strong, especially the pieces by Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane. Deakins writes about the swallows which nest in his chimney and how they perennially remind him of “the promise of the south.” Macfarlane visits the archive of J.A. Baker and explores the evolution of the author’s obsession with birds and the creation of his famed book The Peregrine.
And even though this is not a new item, it is a timely one. Simon Prosser’s “An A to Z of W.G. Sebald” contain this entry under the letter K: “KANT. One of the most fugitive of Max’s works, which I have never managed to track down, is a radio play which he supposedly wrote for the BBC on the life of Kant. Does anyone know where we might find a copy?” The answer, as we now know, is that Sebald’s screenplay on Kant exists in Sebald’s archive in several versions and will be produced on German radio on July 11.
In her book Ariadne’s Thread: In Memory of W.G. Sebald, Philippa Comber wrote intriguingly of a screenplay that Sebald had written on Immanuel Kant, but which was never produced. Now, as a result of the efforts of Uwe Schütte, the script will be produced for radio by the German station WDR3 for airing on July 11. Jetzund kömpt die Nacht herbey: Ansichten aus dem Leben und Sterben des Immanuel Kant is the only extensive screenplay Sebald ever wrote and drafts of it remain in his archive in Marbach. The title of the screenplay, by the way, comes from the first line of a poem by Martin Opitz (1597-1639), which was set to music as a lovely song by Johann Nauwach around the same time.
Here’s the text of the press release from WDR3: Read more
The Polish journal Konteksty has just put out a giant issue devoted almost exclusively to “W.G. Sebald: Antropologia, literatura, fotografia.” Nearly 300 of the 408-page issue is dedicated to articles on all aspects of Sebald’s work. The journal is in Polish, but there is a six-page summary of all the articles in English. Even if you don’t read Polish, the many illustrations are fascinating by themselves. Below is the Table of Contents for the Sebald section, taken largely from the magazine itself, but with great help from my Polish contact Tomasz. The page numbers are given to provide the length of each essay. Read more