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.
“…retreat seemed only another cowardly act I’d have to shoulder on my journey. So I pressed ahead.”
Two Lines Press describes the books by Brazilian writer João Gilberto Noll, who died this March at the age of 70, as “reminiscent of the films of David Lynch,” which seems about as apt a description as I can think of. The two books that have been translated into English so far —Quiet Creature on the Corner and Atlantic Hotel — are strange, subversive, and compelling that share a sense of bleakness, violence, and anomie.
In Atlantic Hotel, which comes out this month, Noll’s nameless narrator wanders aimlessly across parts of Brazil. He’s rather like a human pinball, making decisions about his next direction abruptly, without forethought. He often says the first thing that comes to his head, which means he often seems to be lying. He has casual sex within minutes of meeting women. We learn almost nothing about his past or about his motivations. He might or might not have once been an actor on a TV soap opera, but now he gives his occupation as “unoccupied.” He is both running from something and searching for something, but he (and we) never know what. Read more
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
“I feel like a character in a novel written by myself who runs into a character in a novel written by himself.”
I’m not sure how a book as finely written and original as Mark Henshaw’s Out of the Line of Fire stayed under the radar for nearly three decades, but my guess is that it has something to do with the fact that the author is Australian. How could I resist a novel that opens with the purloined line: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler” and then invokes the name of Walter Abish, one of my favorite writers?
First published in 1988, then reissued in 2014 by Melbourne’s Text Publishing, Out of the Line of Fire reads like a compelling mystery, except that it is laced with bite-sized doses of philosophy drawn from the likes of Kant, Husserl, Hegel, and Wittgenstein. Most of the quotations that Henshaw extracts from their writings deal with the broad question of how language works and how we believe we experience the world, all of which he uses to raise questions about the nature of literature itself (and, by extension, the nature of the book we are reading). 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
Make Yourself Happy is the fifth book of poetry by Eleni Sikelianos issued since 2001 by the fine Coffee House Press, just north of me in Minneapolis. I’ve been reading and rereading this compelling book for the past two weeks. Kudos to Coffee House Press for turning out a beautifully designed and produced book that is visually elegant and wonderful to hold.
As a poet, Sikelianos like to think big. Her books deal with topics like science, mythology, history, ecology, extinction, and even, as she writes in one poem sequence in this new book, “the history of man.” Previous books have included a nearly 190-page poem dedicated to California (The California Poem) and a book-length biography in poems (You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek)). Sikelianos is also one of a handful of poets who regularly uses photographs in her books, with four of her Coffee House Press books having imagery of one kind or another.
Make Yourself Happy consists of three long poem sequences, followed by two short stand-alone poems. “Make Yourself Happy” is comprised of 39 individual poems. Superficially, one might say that the sequence explores the many meanings of “happiness,” whether it’s eating croissants in Paris or simply being alive. But Sikelianos is after something far deeper and more complex than that. Slowly but surely, as this nearly 60-page poem sequence evolves, Sikelianos unravels the whole notion of happiness. Yes, there is a true, indomitable form of happiness that “baffles what’s trying to get in” to destroy it, but there are also false states of happiness that are driven by things as simple as the consumption of sugar-filled snacks or the indulgence in drugs like heroin. Heroin, violence, misery, and other decidedly unhappy themes are always lurking in these poems. In one poem, we see happiness used with decidedly Orwellian intent:
In the United Arab Emirates there is now a Ministry of Happiness
“You can be happy as long as you keep your mouth shut.