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Recently Read: Nathalie Léger & Roger Grenier


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.

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Mario Bellatin’s Writers (2) – Yukio Mishima

Bellatin Mishima

Mario Bellatin is a trickster who loves to sow confusion. I recently wrote about Bellatin’s 2012 book Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction, his fake biography of a non-existent Japanese writer. In Mishima’s Ilustrated Biography, he gives us a biography (of sorts) about the real Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, but this biography doesn’t begin until after Mishima has committed suicide and after his ritual decapitation by a colleague.

Mishima is part of a slim, bilingual volume that contains two brief novellas – Flowers (Flores) and Mishima’s Ilustrated Biography (Biografía Illustrada de Mishima). But Mishima is the work that most interests me today. The Mishima we are introduced to seems to be quite alive but lacking his head. Bellatin sketches out a number of disconnected episodes from Mishima’s extended life, many of which are superficially banal; he travels, attends conferences, visits a university, goes to the mall. But nothing in a Bellatin novel remains banal for long. Events mutate and spin off in unexpected directions. Take the example of Mishima’s attempt to find a substitute for his missing head. At first, a craftsman makes him a “rudimentary” head that “looks more like an archaic grenade than an integral part of his body.” He then considers having a kabuki mask made, but later decides that the making of a new head should be a “community project” wherein everyone would have shared responsibility for the end result. And then suddenly the subject is dropped, never to reappear. In Mishima, ideas are thrown out, explored (or exploited), then forgotten, as if attention-deficit has set in. Read more

Sebald Miscellany for May 2015

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.



Sebald’s Screenplay on Kant Heads to Radio

Kant Stamp

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

Konteksty Magazine’s Giant Sebald Issue


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

Mario Bellatin’s Writers (1) – Shiki Nagaoka

Shiki Nagaoka

He considered it a privilege to include entire visual images within his texts that, in some way, instantly reproduced what the words and the ideograms were so pressed to represent.

from Shiki Nagaoka

A handful of the more than twenty books written by the Mexican writer Mario Bellatin have recently appeared in English, and three are books about writers and writing. Bellatin, like the Argentinian author César Aira, generally writes very brief and wonderfully bizarre novellas. In Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction (Los Angeles: Phoneme, 2012), Bellatin creates an obscure fictional Japanese author who suffered from an extremely oversized nose. After spending thirteen years in a monastery, Nagaoka emerged in 1933 and decided to open up a small film developing kiosk, in part because of his increasing curiosity about the nature of photographs. As a result, “an infinity of photographs passed through Shiki Nagaoka’s hands,” which eventually led him to publish his book Photos and Words (“possibly his most solid work”). Photos and Words quickly “made its way around the world,” influencing the great Japanese filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu and writers such as the Mexican Juan Rulfo (1917-1986) and the Peruvian José Maria Arguedas. Rulfo was also well-known as a photographer, while Arguedas (according to Bellatin) wrote in his diary that the ability “to be able to see reality modified not only by the lens of the photographer but also by the written word that accompanies those images is a path that infinitely strengthens the narrative possibilities of actual reality.” Read more

Sebald Variations: The Catalog

Sebald Variations

In recent months I have  written about Kosmopolis, the annual “amplified literature festival” with live and online components put on by the Centre de Cultura Contemporànea de Barcelona.  The 15th edition of Kosmopolis is being devoted to W.G. Sebald and there is plenty to read and see on its website, including a series of fascinating essays. But Kosmopolis15 also includes an exhibition called Sebald Variations, which is up through July 26 of this year. If you cannot make it to Barcelona, there is a very useful bilingual (Catalan and English) catalog available which can be purchased online. Here is a partial description of the exhibition, taken from its website:

The exhibition shows works by the following artists: Carlos Amorales, Mariana Castillo Deball, Simon Faithfull, Andrea Geyer, Pablo Helguera, Núria Güell, Susan Hiller, Josiah McElheny, Trevor Paglen, Fernando Sánchez Castillo, Taryn Simon, Jan Peter Tripp, Guido Van der Werve,  Jeremy Wood. It will also include contributions from the following writers: Piedad Bonnett, Jorge Carrión, Julià de Jòdar, Reinaldo Laddaga, Valeria Luiselli.

The exhibition “Sebald Variations” seeks to introduce a critical reflection, and recount the different ways his work has influenced and engaged in a dialogue with the visual arts and literature since his passing in 2001. The exhibition examines the way several conceptual strategies for using images with texts, for historical reflection, for the unexpected juxtaposition of scenes and narrativity as a whole, not only appear in Sebald’s work, but have, on countless occasions, been directly or indirectly alluded to and even included in the works of a number of artists. The exhibition takes into account the different exhibitions, publications and artworks associated with Sebald that have been produced since 2001, or which enter into a dialogue with his books, in order to look at his ongoing impact on the artistic endeavours of today from a new perspective.

The project has been conceived as a visual and textual essay that brings together the voice of the author and other creators working in different fields. It pursues Sebald, comments on him, prolongs him and draws him out of himself in order to create new proposals in his company.

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Anne Garréta’s Sphinx

Garreta Sphinx

I was only a few pages into Anne Garréta’s novel Sphinx when I became aware that something was mildly unsettling, but I didn’t know what it could be. It took another twenty or thirty pages before it dawned on me. I was having trouble pinning something down about the unnamed narrator and the main character – known simply as A*** – with whom the narrator seemed to be falling in love. Neither had been assigned a gender. There were no revealing pronouns or any other linguistic giveaways to indicate if the narrator or A*** were masculine or feminine. There was definitely a lot of flesh, however. The narrator worked as a DJ and A*** as an exotic dancer in a Parisian cabaret. Racially, one is black and the other is white. But none of the increasingly eroticized descriptions were providing a glimpse of gender. Read more

The Hydra Head

Hydra Head

Every so often, driven by an inexplicable yearning, I go straight to one of my bookshelves and pull down a book I haven’t read in years. Last week, the book I seemed to need was Carlos Fuentes’ 1978 novel The Hydra Head (Farrar Straus Giroux). I had vague recollections of a complex and sinister spy story that involved Mexican petro-politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict. But what I remembered more distinctly from my reading and re-reading of that book some thirty years ago was an abrupt and almost shocking shift from third-person narrative to first-person. I was curious to read the book again and see how I reacted this time around.

The political backdrop of The Hydra Head is the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the 1973 oil crisis caused by the oil embargo imposed by the Organization of Arab Oil Exporting Countries. Fuentes framed his book around two distinctive and contrasting literatures: the plays of Shakespeare and the noir novels and films of the 19302 and 40s. Tellingly,  the book is dedicated to the memory of Conrad Veldt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Claude Rains – four of the more compromised characters in the 1942 classic movies Casablanca.- and not to the film’s triumphant but tragic heroes Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart. Everybody in The Hydra Head is compromised and duplicitous in their own way, whether in their politics, their marital infidelities, their allegiances, or their abuse of power, privilege and class – including the main character Felix Maldonado, a former specialist in Mexico’s petroleum industry who is now a mid-level bureaucrat in the Office of Economic Development. Before long, needless to say, a naively over-confident Maldonado (his name means, more or less, “ill-favored) is swept up in a ever-shifting plot full of violence and intrigue. Portions of the dialogue are written in a pastiche of “tough-guy” conversation right out of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler or Casablanca, and it is clear that, for Fuentes, Mexico City seemed an ideal 1970s counterpart to the seedy ambitions of wartime Casablanca. But when Maldonado confers briefly on the telephone with his handler, the coded language they speak is a series of quotations from Shakespeare. Read more

Catching up with Kosmopolis15

Sebald's EyeglassesW.G. Sebald’s Eyeglasses, from his archive at Deutsches Literaturarchivs Marbach

Kosmopolis15 continues to post new material to their Sebaldiana website. Articles recently added include:

“The Clocks of Austerlitz” by Graciela Speranza. “Two clocks mark our first encounter with Jacques Austerlitz, the protagonist of W.G. Sebald’s final novel which was launched into the new millennium in 2001 like a sombre coda to the history of the 21st century and a profession of faith in the art of the 21st century. A narrator, who is hard to distinguish from Sebald himself, approaches Austerlitz in Antwerp Centraal Station, intrigued by one of the few travellers who isn’t staring apathetically into space in the Salle des pas perdus, but paying close attention to the station’s monumental architecture while making sketches, notes and taking photographs.

“Conversation between Bruno Galinda and Iain Sinclair.” “Born in Wales in 1943, a year before Sebald, Iain Sinclair has written a series of books exploring the themes and territories that are now considered the cornerstones of Sebald’s project. Years before the author of Austerlitz reached the height of his popularity, Sinclair had already brought an encyclopaedic breadth to some of his finest books,  together with a concern to recover forgotten history and the aesthetic of the flâneur in the city. In the short conversation we are presenting here, the writer and journalist Bruno Galindo takes Sinclair’s work as a starting point in order to follow the traces of  W.G. Sebald in one of the most interesting examples of English prose of the past few decades.”

“On Sebald’s Radicalism” by Uwe Schütte. “At the very core of Sebald’s melancholic Weltanschauung [worldview] is the fundamentally bleak insight that destruction – and not creation – is the organising principle of nature. Like Gnostics, he viewed the world as a process of decay, and he saw humanity as a helpless subject of the destructive machinations that govern human history. Wars, atrocities, and genocides of all kind are not exceptions but symptoms and indicators of an all-embracing Natural History of Destruction that crushes human aspirations in the name of a secure future, to create a better society or to build a world without war and misery.”



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