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The Heart, Drawn & Quartered

Wikswo Curving Scar

Everything I had, I destroyed. Yet while I was alive I called myself a healer. We are all monsters, and I most among us. When we think we do the most good we commit the gravest arrogances. —Maw

Quintan Ana Wikswo’s first novel—A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be (Stalking Horse Press)—is a deeply ambitious book full of wild, unforgettable images, maximalist writing, and page after page of literary pyrotechnics. If I say that it’s a scathing, dystopian view of America, a diatribe against male privilege, and a send-up of the hypocritical sanctimony of the church—all of which it is—you might get the wrong impression. For this is a book full of passion and compassion, with tender, beautiful, and sensuous writing that urges the reader to pause, re-read, and admire (or puzzle out) the lush sentences and the risks that Wikswo takes—risks that pay off most of the time. Her writing is a confident blend of fable, Gospel, and imagination that links to the gritty, fabulous tradition of Southern Gothic. Read more

A New Melancholia Exhibition Opens in Brussels

Parmiggiani Melancholia

© Claudio Parmiggiani, Senza Titolo, 2009
Book, plaster cast, clock

“Melancholia,” an intriguing new exhibition has just opened in Brussels at the Boghossian Foundation – Villa Empain. Although somewhat similarly named, this exhibition is not related to the Melancholia: A Sebald Variation, which recently closed at King’s College London.  The Brussels exhibit, on view through August 19 at the Boghossian Foundation – Villa Empain, Avenue Franklin Roosevelt 67, B – 1050 Brussels. From the press release:

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London Review Bookshop Event – April 23

Patience Preview

I’ll be visiting London and Cambridge in April and the folks at the London Review Bookshop have invited me to join in a program celebrating the 20th anniversary of the publication in Great Britain of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Grant Gee will be screening his terrific film Patience (After Sebald). Here’s the LRB’s program preview:

Marking 20 years since the translation into English of the late W.G Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, one of the most remarkable books of the late twentieth century, Grant Gee introduces his acclaimed 2011 documentary essay film tracking both the journey taken in the volume, and the work’s own influence on numerous writers, artists and thinkers.

He will be joined in conversation by the film’s creative consultant, writer and critic Chris Darke, and Terry Pitts, founder of the remarkable literary blog Vertigo, founded out of a profound admiration for Sebald’s work. The evening is hosted by Gareth Evans.

You can purchase tickets for the 7:00 PM event at the LRB website. Come say hello!

In preparation for watching Patience, take a listen to the film’s hauntingly beautiful score by The Caretaker over at Bandcamp. Leyland Kirby (aka The Caretaker) used Franz Schubert’s 1827 piece Winterreise as his source material, which he “subjected to his perplexing processes, smudging and rubbing isolated fragments into a dust-caked haze of plangent keys, strangely resolved loops and de-pitched vocals which recede from view as eerily as they appear.”

Photography-Embedded Fiction & Poetry 2017

Here is my bibliography of works of fiction and poetry published in 2017 containing embedded photographs.  You can see bibliographies for other years underneath the pull-down menu “Photo-Embedded Literature” at the top of Vertigo.  I also maintain a more complete bibliography that spans 1892 to the present at Library Thing  (http://www.librarything.com/catalog/VertigoTwo).  I am always updating these lists as I learn of new books.  If you know of a book that I have not mentioned, please let me know in a comment. My thanks to Vertigo readers who have already pointed out books that I had not known about! [Updated February 15, 22, May 14, 15, August 30, 2018.]

Ball Census

Ball, Jesse. Census. NY: Ecco, 2017. Ball prefaces his novel by writing briefly about his deceased older brother, who had Down syndrome. In the novel, a father with a terminal illness and his son (who has Down syndrome) volunteer to conduct a census in towns from A to Z. At the end of the novel is a portfolio of family snapshots “from the author’s private collection.”

Bang Doll

Mary Jo Bang. A Doll for Throwing. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2017. A book-length series of poems about Lucia Moholy-Nagy and her circle. Lucia was married to the famous Bauhaus artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy for several years. When she fled Germany, her negatives ended up in the care of Walter Gropius, who used them for many years (without any attribution to Lucia) to bolster his reputation as an architect and founder of the Bauhaus. Lucia, who lived to be ninety-five, spent much of her life trying to regain her negatives from Gropius and restore her rightful place in the histories of the Bauhaus and photography. The book’s title is taken from a woven, flexible doll designed by Bauhaus artist Alma Siedhoff-Buscher that supposedly always landed with grace. The book ends with a single photograph by Lucia from 1926. It’s a stunningly Bauhausian image depicting a room Walter and Ilse Gropius’s house. See my review here.

Baume Walking

Sara Baume. A Line Made By Walking. London: William Heineman, 2017. The title of Baum’s book comes from the similarly-named work of art created by Richard Long in 1967. Long made an ephemeral straight line by tamping down the grass as he walked across a field. The line was then photographically documented, although Long referred to the line as a work of sculpture. In Baum’s novel, a young struggling artist hoping for an creative renewal moves to the countryside, where she contemplates life and ponders numerous well-known works of contemporary art. Each of the ten chapters is named after an animal found in the countryside and is accompanied by a photograph of a dead animal. Although not explicitly noted, the photographs are likely by the author.

Benech Espion

Clément Bénech. Un Amour d’Espion. Paris: Flammarion, 2017.  Bénech’s novel contains 27 snapshots by the author, a couple of maps, and simple line drawings. Read more

Han Kang’s The White Book

Kang WHite Book

Han Kang. The White Book. London: Portobello Books, 2017. Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.

Each moment is a leap forwards from the brink of an invisible cliff, where time’s keen edges are constantly renewed. We lift our foot from the solid ground of all our life lived thus far, and take that perilous step out into the empty air. Not because we can claim any particular courage, but because there is no other way. Now, in this moment, I feel that vertiginous thrill course through me. As I step recklessly into time not yet lived, into this book I have not yet written.

Every piece of writing is a performance of some sort, the execution of a task intended for public consumption. But Han Kang’s The White Book feels performative in a way that few books do. The book begins with a list of things that are white. “With each item I wrote down, a ripple of agitation ran through me. I felt that yes, I needed to write this book, and that the process of writing it would be transformative.” Over the course of the book, numerous small, modest performances—breathing, observing, walking, touching—lead Han Kang to powerful memories, flights of imagination, and life-changing realizations. Read more

Sebald, Dance, Seattle

Bill T Jones Adelwarth

Since 2014, the Bill  T. Jones/Arne Zane Company has been developing a trilogy of major, evening-length dances, one of which is based on the Ambros Adelwarth segment of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants. That trilogy is about to be performed in Seattle at the University of Washington on the evenings of February 1, 2, and 3. Here are the details from the University’s website.

Bill T. Jones’s latest work, Analogy: A Trilogy, is comprised of three evening-length works that reflect Jones’s fierce engagement with race, class, gender, history, and identity. Over three nights, Meany Center will present the entire trilogy (one of the first ever presentations in the country). The program, which features a live music soundscape, searches for the connection between three stories, focusing on memory and the effect of powerful events on the inner lives of individuals.

PROGRAM A | THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 1
DORA: TRAMONTANE
The first work from Analogy stems from an oral history Jones conducted with 95-year old Dora Amelan, a French Jewish nurse and survivor of WWII. Dora is a meditation on perseverance, resourcefulness and resilience while suggesting the amorphous nature of memory.

PROGRAM B | FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 2
LANCE: PRETTY AKA THE ESCAPE ARTIST
Based on an oral history Jones conducted with his nephew, Lance T. Briggs. Lance is a tragic, yet humorous journey through the sex trade, drug use and excess during the 1980s.

PROGRAM C | FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 3
AMBROS: THE EMIGRANT
This final program in Analogy is based on Ambros Adelwarth, a German valet to a dissipated, young scion of a wealthy Jewish family, from W. G. Sebald’s celebrated historical novel, The Emigrants. Ambros is an exploration of how trauma can go underground in the psyche to direct the course of an individual’s life.

Click here for more information and tickets.

Unmapped Country

Quin unmapped

Ann Quin. The Unmapped Country: Stories & Fragments. And Other Stories, 2018.

“The Unmapped Country,” which is the title story from this just-released collection of writings by Ann Quin (1936-1973), might well serve as the password to all of Quin’s work. Before drowning herself in the English Channel in Brighton, Quin published four novels, three of which I have written about in the last three months (Berg, Three, and Passages). In The Unmapped Country, Jennifer Hodgson has collected Quin’s published stories and tracked down unpublished fragments from personal collections and public repositories. The result is a collection of such stylistic diversity that I can’t help but pay homage to the drive that kept Quin pushing further and further into an “unmapped country” of writing.

Written over a brief period of something like seven years, these fourteen pieces could probably pass as an anthology by several different writers. While some writers seek to find their voice, Quin seemed to have a need to explore voices. Her narrators and main characters are female, male, children, passive, angry, feminist, conservative, well off, working class. In “A Double Room,” a woman, traveling on a train with her married lover, says to herself “Already, I’m thinking in the third person. Seeing us as another passenger might.” The male narrator of “Tripticks” tells us that his “special interests” are “living out other peoples’ fantasies,” which might be another way of saying—at least in part—what a writer does.

Quin was also a great mimic of the abbreviated and sometimes contorted fragments that pass for full sentences in our conversations. Here’s the speaker in the wonderfully titled “Motherlogue,” which gives us only one side of a telephone call between a mother and daughter:

you know Peggy who was found dead after a whole week the landlady discovered her only because of the smell coming out of the landing there she was a whole week rotting away well apparently she’s earth bound they’ve had several new lodgers in and each one hasn’t stayed long terrible things happening in the night bedclothes taken off furniture thrown about and one girl even had her nightie torn off…

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Go, Went, Gone

Go-Went-Gone

Jenny Erpenbeck. Go, Went, Gone. New Directions, 2017. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Writers of fiction (however you define it) have no obligation to make their writing relevant to the present moment; one of the great freedoms of fiction is its ability to be irrelevant, even frivolous. Still, there is a certain frisson that strikes me when a writer brilliantly encapsulates the specific now that we live in. Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone does just that. It’s a book that deals with the range of conflicting emotional, political, and legal responses to the current refugee crisis. Among the many things that Erpenbeck deftly accomplishes in Go, Went, Gone is to personalize the human consequences of government policies.

“So here in room 2017, we are, so to speak, in Nigeria.” Richard has just retired from his position as a distinguished professor of classics and, out of a curiosity he can’t yet explain, he has decided to visit a former nursing home that now temporarily houses some of the refugees that have flooded into Berlin. He is being led into a roomful of Nigerians  (“There’s also a Ghana room, a Niger room, and so on.”), with whom he will sit and talk, all the while taking notes. He’s still programmed to act like a professor on a research project; he’s prepared a long list of questions to ask: “Where did you grow up? What’s your native language? What’s your religious affiliation?” But his initial conversations with some of the refugees seem inadequate, and he wishes “he knew what questions would lead to the land of beautiful answers.” Read more

Greb v. Berg

Quin Berg

In Ann Quin’s first novel, the black comedy Berg, “Alistair Berg, alias Greb, commercial traveler, seller of wigs, hair tonic, paranoid paramour” has set out to murder his father, a semi-itinerant womanizer living in a flop house with his current girlfriend Judith. Alistair’s father abandoned him at such a young age that he does not know that the young man who has moved into the adjacent room is his own son, bent on parricide. Alistair befriends the couple, then proceeds to spy on them, listening to them making love and fighting through the thin partition that separates their rooms. He slowly insinuates himself into their lives, but, when presented with several opportunities to murder Berg, Alistair falters, and in a role reversal, he suddenly becomes his father’s rescuer, more than once steering his hopelessly drunken father safely home. By the end of the novel, the hapless Alistair has displaced his father and is living with Judith. Beyond that brief plot summary, don’t ask. It’s complicated. Read more

“Disrupt the certainties”: Ann Quin’s Three

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One of the extraordinary gifts the British writer Ann Quin had was to see the real discourse going on beneath the surface of ordinary conversation, the prejudices, messages, and class distinctions encapsulated in tiny, seemingly innocuous phrases, the roiling power struggles in the daily chatter of couples. In Three, her second novel, published in 1966, a good portion of the text is devoted to the conversations that take place between Leonard and Ruth, a married couple, who are puzzling over the disappearance of a young woman—known only as S.— who rented a room from them and had become part of their family, so to speak. They suspect she has drowned by swimming too far out to sea, either recklessly or on purpose. Quin often gives us their conversations as if they were a verbatim transcript, interspersed only with brief indications of what the two are doing as they speak. These sections are written without any quotation marks or line breaks or indication of who is speaking. At first, this is likely to make the reader a little seasick until, slowly, the text begins to level out as the mind learns to sort out the dialogue.

Do you think she was in love with you I mean. . . .Good heavens what makes you say that Ruth? Well it’s conceivable after all you’re attractive lots of young girls look at you I’ve noticed and don’t pretend you hadn’t realised that. I wasn’t denying it. How long did you in fact know her Leon before—well before I met her? Can’t remember exactly came to work for me let’s see must be a year or so. Did you know she had an abort—abortion? When? Before she came here in fact that’s what she said and not the illness we were led to believe. Oh. Is that all you can say Leon? What is there to say I know you don’t agree with that sort of thing but she was a practical girl in many ways. He continued reading, turning the pages carefully over. She fell back against the pillows, stared at the folds in the curtains. More tea love?

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