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Five Novels, Five Photographs

 

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.

Chronicle of a Sin

The most authentic thing about you is your sin…

Great, long novels are something the reader inhabits for days, like a visit to a foreign country where the history and the customs and the social mores are different and take time to untangle. Even the sins may be different there. Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle of the Murdered House is just such a novel. Originally published in Brazil 1959, it has finally been translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson and was issued last year by the fabulous Open Letter. It is currently the only novel by Cardoso (1912-1968) in print in English. This year it won the Best Translated Book of the Year Award for fiction.

As a family, the Meneses have seen better days and finer generations than the three brothers who live together at Chacara, the slowly rotting family estate in the rural state of Minas Gerais. Demetrio, the overly proud head of the family, is married to Ana, a drab and desperately unhappy woman. Timotéo is a cross-dressing alcoholic who rarely leaves his room. And the third brother, Valdo, upsets whatever equilibrium might have still existed at Chacara when he imports Nina, “a poisonously malevolent beauty,” from Rio De Janeiro to be his wife. The claustrophobic grounds of Chacara act like a hothouse, heating up and intensifying the emotions of its inhabitants. Read more

Bill T. Jones Debuts “Analogy Trilogy: Ambros: The Emigrant”

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.

Read more

Austerlitz CD

Austerlitz CD box1

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.]

Split Screen: Teju Cole’s “Blind Spot”

At such moments invisible and tangible become confused.
Yves Bonnefoy, The Arrière-pays.

An open book is naturally a split screen divided by the book’s gutter, although few books actually take full advantage of this. Teju Cole’s new book Blind Spot (Random House, 2017) manages to put each of some 160 or so double-page spreads into truly astonishing dialogues between text and image. Blind Spot balances Cole’s color photographs on the right hand side with texts that are generally very brief on the left. In the texts, which are titled according to the city where the photograph was taken, Cole recounts dreams, constructs compressed essays, and meditates on travel, photography, sight, religion, and art. Occasionally these texts serve as a commentary on the photograph across the page, but for the most part Cole makes the dialogue take place somewhere else, somewhere unexpected, somewhere, shall we say, off camera. Even in texts as brief as these, Cole shows once again his trademark mental restlessness, which matches the globe-hopping list of cities where he has photographed. Read more

Eating Oatmeal Soup with Robert Walser

“only the journey to oneself is important.”

On a mild, early spring Sunday in February 1950, the writer Robert Walser and his friend Carl Seelig were eating in a pastry shop in St. Gallen, Switzerland. “Robert rolls a misshapen cigarette,” Seelig writes. “Since it isn’t well tamped, it flares a bit. The couple next to us begins to giggle; they apparently take Robert for an unworldly farmer. He tells me that now he sorts and unravels twine for the post office. But he is content with the work. He simply takes what comes.” This episode delights me no end, in part because it occurred on the very day on which I was born, in part because it epitomizes the spirit of Robert Walser.

As we learn from Carl Selig’s book Walks with Walser, Walser was a man who was both simple and complex. A writer of tremendous invention and honesty, called by Susan Sontag “a Paul Klee in prose” and “the missing link between Kleist and Kafka,” Walser was content, if not delighted, to spend the final thirty-six or so years of his life in Swiss mental institutions, far from the big cities and the literary and artistic circles he had enjoyed in his youth. Much of what we know about Walser’s life we know because of this slim book written by Seelig and first published in 1957 as Wanderungen mit Robert Walser. Read more

Ali Smith: “Oh dear God – was that Sebald?”

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.

The Compass that Always Points East

Mathias Énard’s Zone, which I wrote about in 2011, is one of the best written and most urgent novels that I have read in this quickly aging century. Zones Homeric scale attempts to encompass some of the twentieth century’s most critical themes within the framework of the narrator’s memories during a train ride from Milan to Rome. In Énard’s view, history is perennially unable to free itself from the eternal male infatuation with violence, warfare, and other forms of “manliness,” which  in the last century alone resulted in misery and death for hundreds of millions of people. His narrator has fought in the Balkan wars and has served in the “intelligence” community, but has finally decided to opt out, sell his secrets, and retire to safety. Zone was also Énard’s heartfelt homage to a pantheon of Modernist writers, including James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Malcolm Lowry, Jean Genet, William Burroughs, Paul Bowles, and others. Written fours years after Zone, Street of Thieves was Énard’s next novel to appear in English. Using the first-person perspective of a young Muslim struggling to remain devout in a milieu of  violent radical Muslims, it seemed one-dimensional after the richness of Zone.

Compass, published in France in 2015 and just released in English by New Directions, reverts to the style of Zone. Franz Ritter is an aging scholar, a musicologist who lives in Vienna and has dedicated his life to studying the influences of “the Orient” on western classical music. He’s an erudite, cosmopolitan, old-world gentleman. He’s also an old-school Orientalist, the type of person that Edward Said critiqued in his 1978 classic Orientalism. Compass takes place during a single night when Ritter finds himself unable to sleep. Instead, he launches into an overnight voyage of fond reminiscences through a past that seemed to him fashionably risky, elegant, romantic, and, of course, full of scholarly gossip and feuding. Much of Compass is dedicated to Ritter’s warm, nostalgic memories of his Orientalist adventures, which took place in countries like Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Lebanon, but also at conferences in Vienna, Paris, and other European cities where the Orient was (and often still is) paternalistically stereotyped. One of the great pleasures of reading Compass is Énard’s astonishing command of literary, musical, historical, and other often fascinating references that pass through Ritter’s mind on this restless night. Énard manages to mention, quote, or discuss scores of composers, dozens of European and Middle Eastern writers, and an assortment of other notables that includes people as varied as Sigmund Freud and Edith Piaf, as well as many lesser known characters from history, such as the Baron Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, an Austrian Orientalist (1774-1856). Read more

Sebald Links June 2017

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).

Ω

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.

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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.

 

Sebald Roundtable Video

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.