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Conversations with the Dead: Patti Smith’s M Train


I let my coffee run cold and thought about detectives. Partners depend on one another’s eyes. The one says, tell me what you see. His partner must speak assuredly, not leaving anything out. But a writer has no partner. He has to step back and ask himself – tell me what you see. But since he is telling himself he doesn’t have to be perfectly clear, because something inside holds any given missing part – the unclear or partially articulated.

Patti Smith’s M Train (I presume the M stands for memory) is essentially a series of conversations with the dead and pilgrimages to the haunts and grave sites of writers past: Rimbaud, Burroughs, Bowles, Genet, Wittgenstein, Camus, Sebald, Plath, Mishima, Akutagawa, Dasai. Comprised of a patchwork quilt of genres, it combines autobiography with a book of dreams, a touch of travel writing, a salute to coffee houses, an ode to memory. Smith, who is a latter-day Beat and an admitted Romantic, blends a deep, if non-denominational spirituality with an unshakable commitment to fate. She reads Tarot cards, believes in dreams, isn’t concerned if she loses a camera or a favorite overcoat or realizes she has forgetfully left all of her luggage in a hotel room as she boards a flight. Unlike the A train that Smith takes to her ramshackle bungalow on the boardwalk of Far Rockaway, her M train delightfully meanders through time and place without warning or direction. Read more

The Double Life of Liliane


Double Life of Liliane Cover2-001

In the final pages of her recent autobiographical novel The Double Life of Liliane, Lily Tuck seems to tell us how we should be reading her book. She is writing about her university days as a student of the literary theorist Paul de Man. One day in class, de Man says:

Autobiography occurs when it involves two persons building their identities through reading each other. This requires a form of substitution – exchanging the writing “I” for the written “I” – and this also implies that both persons are at least as different as they are the same…In this way, I consider autobiography as an act of self-restoration in which the author recovers the fragments of his or her life into a coherent narrative.

The Double Life of Liliane (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015) is a coming-of-age story of the author’s childhood and youth, ending while Liliane/Lily is still a college student. Born in Paris just before the Second World War to German parents who had both left their Jewish roots behind them, Liliane is precocious, observant, and skeptical – and she has decided at an early age that she wants to become a writer. At the outbreak of the War, when the French government sends her father, Rudy Solmsen, to a detention camp, Lilian and her mother Irène flee to Lima, Peru, where some of Rudy’s family lives. After the war, Rudy (who eventually joined the French Foreign Legion in Algeria as a pathway to French citizenship), Irène, and Liliane reunite briefly in Paris, but the parents soon divorce and Irène takes Liliane to New York City, where Irène will eventually remarry. The double life referred to in the title, while vaguely referencing the quote from Paul de Man, refers to the transatlantic life that Liliane leads as she shuttles between her parents (Rudy becomes a prominent movie producer in Rome). Read more

Sebald Program in Göttingen, Dec 14, 2015

The Literarisches Zentrum in Göttingen, Germany will host a program led by two Sebald experts – Sven Meyer und Uwe Schütte – on Monday, December 14, 2015. The program is called “W.G. Sebald: Zwischen Kanon und Außenseitertum” (Between Canon and Outsider). Tickets are required and may be purchased online. Here is the description of the program from the website:

Acht zahlende Gäste waren anwesend, so will es zumindest die Legende, als W.G. Sebald 2001 im Literarischen Zentrum aus Austerlitz las. Als er am 14. Dezember desselben Jahres bei einem Autounfall ums Leben kam, war der Autor gerade zu Weltruhm gelangt. Selten ist eine so rasch vollzogene Kanonisierung zu beobachten gewesen wie die Sebalds in den 2000ern. Aber zugleich galt der gebürtige Allgäuer und Literaturprofessor im englischen Norwich immer als Außenseiter des deutschen Literaturbetriebs.

An seinem Todestag laden wir zu einem Rundgang durch sein Werk ein, um dem insularen Phänomen Sebald auf die Spur zu kommen, geleitet von zwei Kennern: Uwe Schütte, Autor mehrere Bücher zu Sebald, hat seinerzeit bei ihm promoviert und Sven Meyer ist der Herausgeber zweier Bände – u. a. der Lyrik – aus dem Nachlass.

A Pair of Threesomes from Patrick Modiano

Modiano Threesomes

After a gap of nine months or so, I returned to Patrick Modiano’s novels again. By sheer chance, I selected two books written six years apart that each involve a young man who is taken in and sheltered briefly by a couple: Honeymoon and Out of the Dark. In Honeymoon, first published in 1990, Jean B. is a Parisian documentary filmmaker who decides to disappear from the lives of his wife and his daughter and his wife’s lover. He fakes a trip to Brazil, hides out in Milan for a while, and then returns to Paris determined to live the remainder of his life in cheap hotels. In typical Modiano fashion, the narrator’s decision turns on an event that happened long ago. Eighteen years earlier, while in Milan, Jean had accidentally learned of the recent suicide of a Frenchwoman. Honeymoon is the story of the connection between Jean and the woman who committed suicide, whose name was Ingrid. Read more

Teju Cole’s Brussels


In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks and as police turn their attention to Brussels – especially its Molenbeek neighborhood – I couldn’t help but recall a long and prescient section in Teju Cole’s novel Open City (Random House), which I wrote about when it was published in 2011. For more than fifty pages (one-fifth of the book), Julius, the half-Nigerian, half-German narrator, lingers in Brussels, ostensibly searching for more information about his oma, his grandmother, who had moved there many years earlier.  But most of the time he loiters, walks the city, hangs around the predominantly immigrant neighborhoods, and visits an Internet cafe to keep up on emails and to make telephone calls. Julius is surprised at the extent to which “Islam, in its conservative form, was on constant view” in Brussels, even more so than back home in New York City. Julius enjoys Brussels’ vibrant, diverse population, but also is aware that there have been a number of ugly incidents, hate crimes against Africans and Muslims. During his repeated visits to the Internet cafe, he becomes friendly with Farouq, a Moroccan who seems to run the place. Over conversations that begin casually but quickly turn up in intensity, the two talk about their backgrounds, literature, and politics.  They discuss Sharia law, Israel and the Palestine situation, Hamas and Hezbollah, the Belgian literary theorist Paul De Man, and the Moroccan writers Mohamed Choukri and Tahar Ben Jelloun. Julius eventually learns that Farouq had nearly completed his M.A. in critical theory (he had once dreamt of being the next Edward Said), but his thesis committee accused him of plagiarism and Farouq quit school angrily. “I lost all my illusions about Europe.” Read more

The City as Memory Machine: Ricardo Piglia’s “The Absent City”

Absent City

“Political power is always criminal.”

In Ricardo Piglia’s novel The Absent City, the central figure, if you will, is a machine that embodies the memories of one Elena Obieta, the wife of Macedonio Fernández, a writer who, upon her early death, wanted desperately to keep his wife’s memories intact and thus had them transferred to a machine built by an engineer named Richter.

OK. At this point we need to take a momentary time out to properly set the stage for the preceding sentence. Macedonio Fernández was a real Argentinian writer (1874-1952) who is generally regarded as the most important mentor to Jorge Luis Borges. His wife Elena died in 1920. Ronald Richter (1909-1991) was an enigmatic Austrian scientist who emigrated to Argentina and, with huge financial support from Juan Péron, claimed in 1951 to have discovered an inexpensive way to create atomic energy, a claim that was soon proven to be false. What Piglia does in The Absent City is take actual figures from Argentinian history, morph them slightly, and transpose them to a later date (roughly the mid-1990s) to create the cast of characters that populate his novel. Read more

“Assumed Name”: Early Stories by Ricardo Piglia

Assumed Name

The six stories in Assumed Name (five written in 1975 and one in 1968) show Ricardo Piglia working out the strategies that he will exploit in his later novels, two of which I have written about in my most recent posts.  In these stories we witness his ingenious reinvention of the genre of noir crime fiction, his tendency to leave unresolved the primary conflicts that occur in his fiction, and his deft manner of encoding the history and politics of Argentina into the backdrop of his writing. These highly compact stories focus on the lives of losers and rebels. There are boxers, under- and unemployed men in boarding houses, small time criminals, a madwoman, prostitutes, an anarchist on the run from the police. In “The End of the Ride” (which features the journalist Emilio Renzi, who also appears in several of Piglia’s novels), the exaggerated noir atmosphere of an overnight bus ride through a nightmarish landscape of darkness, rain, and fog, with occasional stops in dreary small towns for cheap food and gin, seems to stand in for the dominate mood in Argentina in the 60s and 70s. Renzi is traveling to see his dying father one last time after a suicide attempt. “One can become accustomed even to this,” he grimly tells his seatmate, an ex-opera singer who “emitted a sweet perfume like that of dead flowers.” Read more

The Paranoid Fiction of Ricardo Piglia’s “Target in the Night”


Every once in a while you need to spend some time in the nuthouse, or in jail, to understand what this country is all about.

Ricardo Piglia’s  Target in the Night takes place in a small rural town in Argentina about 1972, toward the end of the long exile of Juan Perón. Target in the Night is a tale of betrayal and corruption, written loosely in the form of a police procedural. Here’s the obligatory summary of the plot: A mysterious American of Puerto Rican heritage moves into town at the invitation of the two daughters of the town’s richest industrialist. When the American is murdered in his hotel room and a rumored $100,000 seems to have gone missing, witnesses point to the night porter, Yoshio Dazai, an Argentine of Japanese descent. (Piglia loves to remind the reader that Argentina is a nation of immigrants.) Police Inspector Croce is skeptical, though he has no choice but to arrest the hapless Dazai. Croce ultimately becomes convinced of Dazai’s innocence but is out-maneuvered by the Chief Prosecutor, a devious man by the name of Cueto, who forces Croce into retirement.  Emilio Renzi, a reporter who has arrived from Buenos Aires to cover the story, begins to collaborate with Croce to solve the mystery.

Croce is a wonderful character who “loved everyone like a son” – because, the narrator quickly adds, “he didn’t really know what that feeling was like.” He’s an eccentric, intuitive detective who “sees things that others didn’t” and continues the lineage of Poe’s Auguste Dupin and Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Read more

Deciphering the “Secret Message of History”: Ricardo Piglia’s “Artificial Respiration”

Piglia Artificial Respiration

Artificial Respiration, the 1981 novel by Argentinian Ricardo Piglia, is a dense, challenging book about the problem of history and the role that literature plays in trying to decipher “the secret message of history.” Should we write history backwards, as one character (Marcelo Maggi) tries to?

I am sure, besides, that the only way of capturing the sense that defies his destiny is to alter the chronology, to go backwards from the final madness to the moment when Ossario takes part with the rest of the generation of Argentinian romantics in founding the principles and bases of what we call the national culture.

Or is it better to write forward, to write the history of the future, as another character named Enrique Ossorio decides to do when he announces that “I am writing this first letter from the future” from exile from New York City in 1850?

I have thought of writing a utopia: there I will narrate what I imagine the country’s future to be. I am in the best possible position to do so: removed from everything, outside of time, a foreigner, caught up in the webs of exile. What will the country be like in a hundred years? Who will remember us? Those of us now – who will remember us? I am writing about those dreams.

Thus, I will write of the future, not wanting to remember the past. One thinks about what will happen when one thinks to oneself: How can it be that I wasn’t able to see then what seems so obvious now? And what can I do to see in the present the signs that announce the course of the future? I have begin reflecting on all of that and also upon my life and that is why I am writing to you.

Read more

Jan Peter Tripp’s Portraits of Sebald

In Heike Polster’s book The Aesthetics of Passage: The Imag(in)ed Experience of Time in Thomas Lehr, W.G. Sebald, and Peter Handke, which I wrote about recently, Polster reproduces a painting that I had never seen before by Sebald’s close friend Jan Peter Tripp, which he created in 2003 as a memorial portrait of Sebald. Titled “L’Oeil oder die weisse Zeit” (“The Eye or the White Time”) the acrylic on canvas painting is divided into five sections, four of which represent Sebald seen from different angles. Looked at sequentially, the four portraits depict Sebald gradually disappearing and a bright light coming into view over his head, while the bottom section represents a mysterious still life comprised of pencil stubs and other objects, some of which appear to be small, polished stones. According to Polster, the painting was made on the second anniversary of Sebald’s death and is currently owned by Sebald’s widow, Ute Sebald.

The reproduction below is more or less how the painting appears in Polster’s book.

SONY DSC Read more


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