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Encountering John Keene

To speak of culture is to foreshadow a battle.”

John Keene’s first two books of fiction take completely different paths toward the same goal: making sure that the Black experience is no longer buried in white shadows. Annotations (New Directions, 1995) is a brief autobiographical novel that can feel like a prose poem at times.  Counternarratives (New Directions, 2015) is a series of lush, thematically-related stories that span several centuries, with each story written in a style appropriate to the time period. Counternarratives is a punch straight to the gut of the traditional narration of history, reinserting black perspectives, voices, and lives that have been so consistently missing from white history and white literature.

Annotations opens with a grainy family snapshot of a seated young Black boy that might be Keene. He is holding his hands slightly apart in worried care, while something tall and slender—a toy rocket, perhaps—stands delicately poised between his open palms as if his own future lies in the balance. Then the book begins with the narrator’s birth: “It was a summer of Malcolms and Seans, as Blacks were transforming the small nation of Watts into a graveyard of smoldering metal. A crueler darkening, as against the assured arrival of dusk. Selma-to-Montgomery. Old folks liked to say he favored the uncle who died young, an artist. In that way, a sense of tradition was upheld, one’s place in the reference-chain secured.” In other words, it’s 1965, the year Keene was born.

As the title suggests, Annotations is made up of telegraphically short memories, brief mentions of key historical and cultural markers, and place names from the narrator’s childhood—the marginalia that might pencil in the outline for an eventual biography. There is an accounting of his family history: “vibrant miscegenation,” “Southern blood,” and “Osage whom we mistook for Cherokees.” And the usual topics of upbringing: family, school, friends, and sex (“that sublime sum of bodily attraction”). And of his exposure to the arts: the “Negro” poets, Scott Joplin, John Coltrane, Eldredge Cleaver, and so on. “Thus his musings, when written down, gradually melded, gathered shape, solidified like a well-mixed mâché, and thus, upon rereading them he realized what he had accomplished was the construction of an actual voice.”

Perhaps more importantly, Annotations is about the narrator’s slow, but eventual realization that biography is also geography, that place and history are integral to the person. “But oh, Saint Louis, such a colored town, a minefield of myth and memory.” During Keene’s years there, St. Louis experienced massive white-flight to the suburbs, hollowing out the city’s economic core, partly a result of the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling Brown v. Board of Education, which led to the desegregation of inner-city schools. As a young man, the narrator haunts the public library and reads late into the night. Dotted throughout the book are references, sometimes name-dropped with no explanation whatsoever, that allude to the history of Black life in St. Louis, like Douglass School, “the only accredited public high school for African-American students in St. Louis County until the end of segregation in 1957” (Wikipedia) and Meachum Park, (where “the line between what is blight and what is black becomes blurred“), to name two such occurrences.

Both poetry and fiction, however, find their roots in the act of making, a supposition grown gradually clearer as he explored the possibilities of reading. Upon your five-speed, across the asphalt, whirring as the blackbird flies. Dreams consequently assumed the contours, colors of the interior of the town’s modest main library, where months seemingly elapsed as he maundered among the stacks, yet these reverie-journeys sometimes transmogrified into horrifying, recurrent nightmares in which, after each withdrawal of a careful selection of books, he arrived home to find himself either blind or illiterate. Such fears, though they initially seemed to possess an immobilizing permanence, disappeared amid the evanescence of each day’s flux, a fact that displayed for him the shifting character of being, or phrased more prosaically, the process of the unreeling of the real. An alphabet, analphabet. All information will be kept confidential.

For someone like me, who lived as a young child in St. Louis in the 1950s (including a few years in then-mostly-white Ferguson), Annotations rewrites everything I thought I knew about the place where I lived for a decade. Every few pages, something that Keene has written detonated a little time bomb in my memory that rejiggered the past.

At one point in the book, the narrator says: “our generation lacks more than a cursory sense of the world that our ancestors faced, which surprises no one cognizant of the contempt in which the nuances of history are currently held. . . And so, in an effort to make so many shorter stories richer, these overtures ought to be read as a series of extended annotations.” This attempt to make the stories of what “our ancestors” faced “richer” is an apt description of what Keene’s second book, Counternarratives, aims to do.

If Keene found his voice in Annotations, he turned to mimicry in Counternarratives. If Annotations was deliberately modest, Counternarratives was wildly ambitious, nothing less than an attempt to reshape our understanding of the history of the New World, through stories that tell of the hubris and cruelty of slavers, the misery and death of slaves, the treachery and betrayal of the Church, and the untold bravery and creativity of ordinary Black men and women, as well as stories involving better known individuals, such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes. The book’s thirteen stories span the years 1613, when Juan Rodriguez, a Portuguese-African man became the first person known to live on Manhattan Island (read the story here), to sometime near the present, when we overhear a conversation apparently taking place between two African dictators.

Keene’s writing in Counternarratives is confident. It feels like he can write fluidly in any style he chooses. The voices in these stories are expansive; they delight in detail and in being time-specific. Take the long story with the long title “Gloss on a History of Roman Catholics in the Early American Republic, 1790-1825; or The Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows,” in which the narration shifts between the forced stiffness of a formal report written by a nineteenth-century Catholic Reverend on the status of “the ancient Faith. . . on the eastern shores of the Mississippi and its southerly tributaries” and the crabbed, hastily scribbled style of a diary of a nun involved in a scandal in one of the Kentucky convents covered by that report.

Perhaps the story most likely to stand out (at least for white readers) is “Rivers,” narrated by Mr. James Alton Rivers, aka Jim, from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It takes place in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, after Jim has signed up with the Union’s First Missouri Colored Troops, which is fighting the Confederacy in Texas.

Anderson urged several of us to crawl out to the far edge of the field, near the river, where there was a stand of Montezuma cypresses, which I did and when I rounded them flat on my stomach, creeping forward like a panther I saw it, that face I could have identified if blind in both eyes, him, in profile, the agate eyes in a squint, that sandy ring of beard collaring the gaunt cheeks, the soiled gray jacket half open and hanging around the sun-reddened throat, him crouching reloading his gun, quickly glancing up and around him so as not to miss anything.

Jim, a soldier for the North, has come face to face with Tom Sawyer, now a soldier for the Confederacy. And he will soon have him in his gunsight, “this elder who had been like a brother, a keeper, a second father.”

The stories in Counternarratives are subversive, restorative stories, aimed at making sure that we see the world and the past more fully.

Through a wonderful coincidence, Gil Roth has just posted a terrific in-depth interview (1’11”) with Keene on his wonderful podcast The Virtual Memories Show (episode 401). The two talk about Keene’s experience as a translator, his life growing up, his literary influences, and much more. They begin to discuss Counternarratives at 42″.

Three Rings

A stranger arrives in an unknown city after a long voyage. He has been separated from his family for some time; somewhere there is a wife, perhaps a child. The journey has been a troubled one, and the stranger is tired. . . He moves with difficulty, his shoulders hunched by the weight of the bags he is carrying. Their contents are everything he owns, now. He has had to pack quickly. What do they contain? Why has he come?

So begins Daniel Mendelsohn’s new book Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate (University of Virginia Press, 2020). Mendelsohn, a classics scholar and humanities professor, is a natural story-teller and he has managed to turn a multi-century saga of literary criticism and history into an immensely entertaining, readable, and short(!) book. Three Rings originated as the Page-Barbour Lectures, which Mendelsohn delivered at the University of Virginia in 2019, and if only more literary criticism (and scholarship, in general) were delivered this way, it would have a much greater audience and impact.

There are actually three “strangers” or “rings” in Mendelsohn’s book, as we shall see, but his story begins with Odysseus.

In Book 19 of Homer’s Odyssey, the hero Odysseus has finally returned to Ithaca. Disguised, he has entered his own home, determined to murder his wife’s suitors and announce himself to her after many years of wandering. An old woman from the household offers him the traditional welcome of washing his feet and she recognizes a scar on his thigh. It should be a moment of great suspense and excitement—the great Odysseus is home at last! But instead, Homer begins a long digression into the past. As Mendelsohn puts it, Homer does the unexpected. He delays. And then he delays some more.

At this suspenseful moment the poet chooses not to proceed to an emotional scene of reunion between the old woman and her long-lost master. Instead, Homer brings the narrative of that encounter to a halt as he begins to circle back into the past: of how Odysseus got his scar in the first place. . . But this ring turns out to require another, since (the author of the Odyssey assumes) we must understand why Odysseus happened to be visiting his grandfather [at whose house he received the wound] in the first place. And so the poet traces a second circle, spiraling even further back into time.

Eventually, Homer works his way back to the moment when the old woman recognizes Odysseus’s scar and the narrative proceeds once again. These digressions into the past are ring compositions, a technique in which the narrative appears to stray away from its obvious direction only to eventually return to the point where it originally left off. “The material encompassed by such rings could be a single self-contained digression or a more elaborate series of interlocked narratives, each nested within another in the manner of Chinese boxes or Russian dolls.”

Auerbach Mimesis

Mendelsohn says that he got the idea for this book during the writing of his previous book An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic, when he was thinking about Eric Auerbach (1892-1957), a German Jewish scholar who left Germany in 1935 to live in Istanbul for more than a decade. It was there that Auerbach wrote his masterpiece Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, which was first published in 1946 and remains in print today. (I still have the copy I studied in college fifty years ago.) Mendelsohn started to wonder about “the connections between political exile and narrative digression” in connection with Auerbach, and so Auerbach becomes the first of the three “rings” in his book.

In Auerbach’s “epic journey through the literature of the West” there are “two cultural pillars” or styles into which all of literature could be divided: the Homeric or Greek technique, in which everything can be known and there exists, through the gods, a supernatural connection between all things; or the Hebrew style, which acknowledges that it is impossible to know everything and that the world is subject to interpretation. Mimesis, in part, tracks the ??? of these two styles throughout literary history.

Fenelon_Telemachus_Curll_1715

Mendelsohn’s second “ring” is the story of François de Salignac de La Mothe-Fénélon (1651-1715), a Catholic archbishop and writer, whose 1699 book The Adventures of Telemachus he calls “a fan-fiction sequel to the Odyssey.” Fénélon’s Adventures were originally constructed as “ethically instructive tales based on Homer’s Odyssey” that he used to teach the son of the Duke of Burgundy (and eventual heir to France’s Louis XIV), but which evolved into a fantastically convoluted series of digressions loosely based on Homer’s exploits.  Unfortunately for Fénélon, his “fantasia on Homeric themes” contained a number of lectures on good kingship, which Louis XIV took as an insulting critique of his own rule, and he banished the archbishop to an obscure post in far northern France.

Nevertheless, the Adventures became hugely popular and Mendelsohn speculates that it might have been the most widely read book in Europe throughout the eighteenth century until Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther came along in 1774. Not only that, but the Adventures was so widely received in the nineteenth century that it was translated into “Turkish, Tatar, Bulgarian, Romanian, Armenian, Albanian, Georgian, Kurdish, and Arabic, among many other languages.” In the twentieth century, Fénélon deeply influenced Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, a novel which suggests to Mendelsohn “that a vast series of digressions could themselves form the largest imaginable ring, one that embraces all of human experience.”

Mendelsohn’s third “ring” is W.G. Sebald. “The circles in Sebald’s restless narration lead us to a series of locked doors to which there is no key.” For Mendelsohn, Sebald is the embodiment of Auerbach’s preference for the Hebrew approach over the Greek, for the style that “refuses to reveal” over the one that is “all-illuminating.”

Auerbach’s distrust of the Greek technique raises a larger question about the problems of representation in literature, about the means by which writers make their subjects seem “realistic.” Naturally this question has plagued all kinds of artists as they have struggled with difficult subjects, one of the greatest and most difficult of these being, in our own time, the event that landed Auerbach in Istanbul: the German plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe during World War II. The difficulty of representation posed by this unimaginably destructive vent was most famously, if controversially, expressed in the oft-quoted dictum of Auerbach’s fellow German refugee Theodore Adorno: “nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht ze schreiben, ist barbarisch,” “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.”                                                                                                                                          

In this section, Mendelsohn traces his personal attachment to each of Sebald’s four key books of prose fiction, but focuses on The Rings of Saturn as “the most emblematic of this author’s strange style.” “The narrative rings, circles, digressions, and wanderings. . . we find in Sebald seem designed to confuse, entangling his characters in meanderings from which they cannot extricate themselves and which have no clear destinations.” While Homer’s rings eventually lead back to where they left off and to a new beginning, for Sebald “the twisting history of the world is written by the hiders.”

Three Rings is a book you must read for yourself, to witness Mendelsohn as he unravels and lays bare the connections between Homer, Auerbach, Fénélon, Sebald, and others. In a way, it’s ironic that Mendelsohn relates so intimately with those who believe in the “irretrievability of the past,” because for him the stories of the past are vital to understanding the present. What he transmits so magically in Three Rings is his infectious passion for learning and sharing with others.

New Sebald Book

Uwe Schütte, who teaches at Aston University in Birmingham, U.K., has published a new book W.G. Sebald: Leben und literarisches Werk. The publisher, De Gruyter, describes it as a book that “provides a comprehensive and critical overview of his literary work and surveys the extensive secondary literature.” It looks like the first biographical chapter might well present the most detailed information on Sebald’s life available to date. The 471-page book contains thirty-two photographs and is priced at a modest $28.99 in the U.S., even less on Kindle.

The basic Table of Contents is listed below. An extended Table of Contents and a generous preview of the biographical chapter can be seen using Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature for this book.

Als Vorwort 
Zur Biografie
Nach der Natur: Ein Elementargedicht (1988)
Schwindel. Gefühle. (1990)
Die Ausgewanderten. Vier lange Erzählungen (1992)
Die Ringe des Saturn. Eine englische Wallfahrt (1995)
Aufzeichnungen aus Korsika und andere Interimswerke
Austerlitz (2001)
Ein Nachwort
Siglenverzeichnis
Abbildungsnachweis
Danksagung

Bruges-La-Morte

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Film still from Ronald Chase’s Bruges-la-Mortes

It’s time to go sight-seeing in canal-laced Bruges, Belgium. The city still retains many vestiges of its medieval architecture and its city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You might have already seen modern Bruges in the entertaining 2008 crime/comedy movie In Bruges with Colin Farrell, but you can also see Bruges depicted in two film versions of the nineteenth-century novel Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach (1855-1898), a Belgian Symbolist writer. Bruges-la-Morte (1892), probably the earliest novel to ever include photographs, tells the story of a widower whose grief over the death of his beautiful wife has turned him into a recluse in his own home, which is filled with reminders of his life with her. But then he attends an opera where he sees on stage a woman who looks very much like his deceased wife. He courts her, but this only leads to further tragedy. In the novel and in the films, the city of Bruges serves as one of the main characters.

Bruges-la-Morte, a 1978 film by Ronald Chase, has just been re-released and made available on available on Vimeo in a new hi-res, high definition restoration. Ronald Chase is primarily an director known for his innovative use of film and projection in the operas he has produced for companies around the US and Europe. On his website, Chase writes about the attraction that the city of Bruges held for Symbolists:

In the late 1800’s until the first world war Bruges was an escape for a certain type of romantic tourist.  The town had become almost deserted (the canals and waterways had dried up) and heavy fog and a feeling of sadness and despair hung over the city.  The English were especially drawn to Bruges, and often had a second house there.  A school of art around Symbolism was created by a small group of writers and artists surrounding the writer, Georges Rodenbach.  They gave Bruges a nickname – The Dead City.  The Symbolists believed in the power of dreams–they often felt dreams were filled with the real character of people, and were more truthful than waking life. Rodenbach wrote: “The essence of art that is at all noble is the DREAM, and this dream dwells only upon what is distant, absent, vanished, unattainable.”

Film still from Ronald Chase’s Bruges la Mortes

Chase writes more about the making of his film Bruge-la-Mortes on his website.

Film still from Roland Verhavert’s Bruges, die stille

The second version available on the Internet is Roland Verhavert’s Brugge, die stille, a 1981 film in Dutch. More entertaining than Chase’s version, it clearly had a much bigger budget, which means a great musical score, several strong actors, and a wonderful cinematographer in Walther van den Ende. But Verhavert veers off somewhere into cinematic Romanticism, while Chase managed to make a film that retained an integrity to Rodenbach’s Symbolist vision.

You can read more about Rodenbach’s groundbreaking book here at the post I wrote thirteen years ago. Since the publication of this first novel with photographs, many hundreds of novels and volumes of poetry have been written that also include photographs as an integral part of the author’s “text.” You can always see an extensive bibliography of these titles by hovering over the pull-down menu Photo-Embedded Literature at the top of my blog. My bibliography is currently complete from 1970 to 2019. I’ll be adding 1892-1969, in a few months.

Khnopff_-_Brugres-la-morte
Book cover design by Fernand Khnopff for “Bruges-la-Morte” by Georges Rodenbach, 1892, chalk and Indian ink on cardboard
{Public Domain-old}

Finally, for an absolutely wonderful vintage film tour of Bruges, watch the six-minute video of old film footage of the city, people, canals, and even some of the city’s animals from around 1910-12, painstakingly restored by Johan R. Ryheul.

Documentary Film of “The Natural History of Destruction” Receives Funding

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Film still from Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz, 2016.

The Lithuanian Film Centre has announced its second round of funding pre-approvals for 2020, which includes funding for a documentary film by Sergei Loznitsa about W.G. Sebald’s On The Natural History of Destruction. There is no word on how Loznitsa might make a film about such an argumentative short book (based on a series of lectures he delivered in Zurich). In On The Natural History of Destruction, Sebald writes about the astonishing devastation wrought by Allied air raids on German cities in World War II and the seeming absence of this history in Germany’s cultural memory, especially in its literature.

In 2016, Loznitsa made a film called Austerlitz, inspired by Sebald’s book of the same name. In that film, he simply followed tourists as they spent a summer day at the Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz in Poland.

Writing about this film in Unsung Films, Angeliki Coconi asked of the people wandering around Auschwitz,

Why are they here? What have they come to find? A memorial site that receives thousands of tourists every year; “this is the place where people were exterminated; this is the place of suffering and grief,” Loznitsa says. Yet there is a Disneyland feeling about this place, that we can’t come to grasp. . . This feels like an amusement park of death and torture, where genocide is seen as the ultimate holiday experience.

You can watch Austerlitz (and several other of Loznitsa’s films) here online (for a small fee).

Derecho

Monday, August 10, 2020. Derecho. I had never heard of the word before. I was just about to go to the grocery store when my wife turned on the noon news and we heard the weather gang talking about an oncoming storm of straight-line winds that might exceed 100 miles per hour. A derecho. It was headed for our town in less than twenty minutes. We would need to take cover in the basement by then.

When we emerged after a frightening forty minutes of listening to the wind thrashing, to the earth-shaking thud of falling trees, and to a real gusher of a downpour, we found our world had altered immeasurably. It seemed as if every tree in sight had been felled or broken in two. One tree was leaning against the front of our house, another lie across the back patio, having smashed everything that was once there.

In the end, the winds reached 140 mph at times. We lost all five of the large, old trees in our yard-an elm, a basswood, a locust, an ash, and a beautiful river birch. We were without electricity for eight and a half days, although we bought a generator to see us through. And we are still without local phone or Internet service twelve days later. I’m working off my iPad, which is tethered to my iPhone’s phone service at the moment. On the plus side, I passed my chainsaw merit badge.

All of this is to explain why I have been silent for so long. But now I am working on some new posts for Vertigo which should start going up before too long.

 

 

“Don’t Rush”: Andrew Zawacki’s “Unsun:”

Zawicki Unsun

Poetry geeks tend to write things about Andrew Zawacki’s poetry like: “Unsun takes on digital networks, international transit, the uneven movements of capital, and the unrelenting feedback loops of data surveillance, weather disaster, war” (from the Coach House Books blurb). In somewhat simpler terms, it’s fair to say that Zawacki is ever alert to all that is going on around him. Most of the poems in Unsun deal with nature, with walks outdoors, through forests, into a “fox field at evenfall.” He is especially attuned to the many ways in which industry and technology are attacking and, often, ruining our environment. “The sky is not falling it’s / failing” (From “Outside a Ruined Casino.”)

Many of the poems in his recent book  Unsun:f/11 (Coach House Books, 2019) draw on the terminology of scientific disciplines, including geology, mathematics, meteorology, and astronomy, plus the fields of medicine, computer programming, photography, and probably several others that I have forgotten, not to mention a couple of foreign languages. In other words, I spent a lot of time Googling things as I read his vocabulary-expanding poems.

We are all on our way
Out don’t
Rush

(from: “U9 to Zoo Station Sonnet”)

My take on these challenging poems is simple: don’t rush. One of Zawacki’s goals is to encourage (i.e., force) the reader to look at things differently. More precisely. More scientifically. This is implied in the book’s subtitle f/11, which represents the f stop, or aperture, of a camera lens. In this case, f/11 suggests a lens in which nearly everything should be in sharp focus.

A glassstar shrieks into
                                   starfall, its falllight
casting enriched uranium
shadows over the ruins

                                  of a city of
lead and cement : an early-
                                 warning satellite chitters, the end
times barely begun, no witness

protection program for any of us.

(from “END_PROGRAM_HELLOWORLD”)

I’d like to steal a short phrase from John Vincler’s recent essay “Grid Logic” (over at the Poetry Foundation), which is about the poetry of Susan Howe. He writes about Howe’s “atomistic attention to units of sound and typographical form.” Zawacki, I think, pays an atomistic attention to every detail—to every sound, movement, cloud formation, color—and he wants the most precise word or phrase for that detail, regardless of what discipline the word might come from. If one word comes from chemistry and the next from metallurgy, no problem. Few readers are likely to fully grasp some of Zawacki’s poems during the first read-through. Nevertheless, by the end of a poem like “END_PROGRAM_HELLOWORLD”, few readers will have trouble recognizing that Zawacki is describing the ecological catastrophe that unchecked technology has wrought on our planet.

Take four minutes and go over to Soundcloud and listen to Zawacki talk about and then read “Gratophoph,” a delightful poem from Unsun written for his young daughter, and I think you’ll see that clarity isn’t everything.

One section of Zawacki’s book is a series of poems and photographs called “Waterfall Plot,” which he says is “lifted from the ‘Wheel-Rim River’ suite by eighth -century Chinese poet, painter, musician, and politician Wang Wei.” Each of the twenty brief poems in this suite is accompanied by beautiful abstract, black-and-white photographs by Zawacki. The photographs were shot at “a compound of disused chicken coops in Athens, Georgia.” In his photographs, Zawacki makes the recognizable (chicken wire, windows, feathers, dirt) look otherworldly. He turns them into eerie, if not ominous landscapes and skyscapes that serve as the inspiration for each of the poems, just as Wang Wei’s poems were inspired by the Chinese landscapes he knew so intimately. (David Hinton’s translation of Wang Wei’s WheelRim Sequence can be read here.)

Here is the photograph and the poem that comprise “Waterfall Plot 2”:

WP4 001

Leaves in the wind a kaleidoscope—developer
amber, hypo pink—and chickens blind, asphyxiated

by contaminated streams. Root canal : ammonium
nitrate and diesel fuel, to fracas a mountain in half.

Photography is typically about framing the world. But in these photographs, Zawacki is mostly concerned with focus and scale. He wants to turn the micro—the grime or residue that has naturally built up over time on a scrap of screen or on a pane of glass—into something that resembles a landscape or skyscape. He uses the science of photography to aid the eye in seeing in more precisely and then he employs the vocabulary of the sciences to articulate more precisely. We often think of poetry as invoking mystery or pointing us to that which cannot be spoken. Zawacki is going in the opposite direction, towards a kind of rigor or exactitude. There are still mysteries in this world, but they are all the more stunning if seen clearly.

Coach House Books has produced an exceptional short video about Unsun that I highly recommend watching. No, it’s not a poetry reading. Think of it as a sort of sci-fi music video for the book’s opening poem “Optic Audio.” The video was edited by Paul Cunningham and the music excerpted from “Ice as the Sun” by the Berlin-based electronic music composer Hainbach.

The poems of “Waterfall Plot” are also available in a chapbook. Waterfall Plot. Greying Ghost, 2019. Chapbook. Limited edition of 100.

Sebald Issue of boundary 2 Journal

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Readers of W.G. Sebald are in something special. boundary 2: An International Journal of Literature and Culture has devoted the entire contents of Volume 47 Issue 3 to Sebald and it’s all available online for free.  Edited by Sina Rahmani , the title of the issue is “W. G. Sebald and the Global Valences of the Critical.” Here is what you can find in the issue.

Sina Rahmani, “Words, Not Bombs: W. G. Sebald and the Global Valences of the Critical.”

Sebald’s meteoric rise shines a light on the hegemonic role the anglophone literary market plays in the processes that authors and their texts undergo when they migrate from a national literary market to a planetary readership. Indeed, migration offers a key to Sebald’s oddball career and its place in literary history. Like many of the literati holy orders into whose ranks he has been admitted, Sebald’s biography is marked by a permanent departure from the land of his birth.

Uwe Schütte, “Troubling Signs: Sebald, Ambivalence, and the Function of the Critic.”

His unconventional authorial identity cannot be fully comprehended without an appreciation of the critical writings and, in turn, his transformation from scholar to writer. The most prominent feature of his work in the critical sphere is the stubbornly contrarian stance Sebald assumed toward his peers in German studies specifically and the Germanic literary establishment more generally. . . .Only when both sides of Sebald’s coin [his critical writings and his imaginative writings] are considered in concert can one begin to grasp the power and significance of his career.

Stuart Burrows, “The Roar of the Minotaur: W. G. Sebald’s Echospaces.”

I will describe the contours of this different dimension, in the belief that Sebald’s distinctive contribution to the global novel lies in his reordering of the space of representation. This reordering is both literal and metaphorical. It is literal, in the sense that Sebald’s work explores actual spaces: the pages upon which his novels are written, which become inextricable from the world being described, and the landscape being traversed, such as the Suffolk coastline in The Rings of Saturn (1998); it is metaphorical, in the sense that Sebald’s work explores a set of imaginary spaces nested within each other, those spaces occupied by his characters, who inhabit several worlds simultaneously, and those allocated to the narrative voice, which speaks to us out of a clearly demarcated yet ultimately unlocatable place.

Yahya Elsaghe, “Penelope’s Crossword: On W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.”

The crossword as a form has the upper hand over the rhizome as a metaphor for textuality—something it shares with other allegories of memory like a ‘wonderblock’ and ‘palimpsest’ as well as ‘signs and characters from the type case of forgotten things’.

Sina Rahmani, “The Stateless Novel: Refugees, Literary Form, and the Rise of Containerization.”

This ‘prose book of an undetermined kind,’ Sebald’s coy descriptor for Austerlitz, offers an instructive lesson about the novel of the global era, which has become a formal container providing refuge to any and all narrative and literary forms. In the same way that the shipping container is completely unconcerned with its own contents, Austerlitz furnishes us with incontrovertible evidence that in a stateless era, the foundational distinctions between written and visual, fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose, analytic and creative, and, as Stuart Burrows points out in his contribution to this issue, verbal and written have been eradicated.

Isa Murdock- Hinrichs, “Adaptation, Appropriation, Translation: Sebald on the Silver Screen.” Murdock-Hinrichs examines two films based upon books by Sebald: Grant Gee’s Patience (After Sebald) (2012) and Stan Neumann’s Austerlitz (2015).

Gee’s deliberate transformation of the visuals in the film into a maze of images whose uniform intelligibility is obscured represents a translation of Sebald’s disjunction between text and visual.

. . .

Neumann highlights the various qualities of visuals as he weaves static images, alternative film stock, and printed materials into the film. The camera is the translator of the narrative of the literary text by further portraying the instability of systems of meaning.

Global Critical Forum

“This special issue of boundary 2 has sought out translations of articles and reviews of different Sebald texts. The Global Critical Forum highlights the array of responses and mixed feelings Sebald solicits in different national contexts.”

Nissim Calderon, “Sebald or Gevalt?” [Originally published in Yedioth Ahronoth (Tel Aviv, Israel) in 2009.]

Sebald’s Rings of Saturn is a particularly bad text; bad precisely because it features his idiosyncratic and excellent style but lacks the content to justify it. It is an empty style, like the painter Salvador Dalí, who in his youth paved the way for art’s new surrealist path but in his later years became a serial producer of the “Dalí style.”

Rodrigo Fresán, “The Sebald Case.” [This is a slightly revised translation of an article published in Letras Libres, a Spanish- language monthly literary magazine published in Mexico and Spain, in July 2003.]

In the here and now, the departed Sebald is very, very interesting for those who have survived him, for the many that quietly concede in hushed tones, perhaps out of fear of falling victim to a Pharaoh’s curse, his some-what exaggerated prestige, and for the many more that swear by his divine name they continuously invoke in vain—to remain in good standing and to have a ready response to the question, What are you reading at the moment? Sebald serves, functions, protects, and refreshes best, and is so fashionable, so useful for the nouveaux riche of the intelligentsia. Sebald is practical and legible; he grants a certain prestige to his user and his consumer. Sebald is not only learned but also produces the agreeable effect, or impression, of cultivating and producing evangelical astuteness.

Maria Malikova, “Witnessing the Past in the Work of W. G. Sebald.” [This article was published in 2008 in Отечественные записки (Notes from the Home-land: A Journal for Slow Reading).]

Artist and photographer Jan Peter Tripp was a key figure in the career of German writer and critic W. G. Sebald. . . .[in Sebald’s 1998 essay on Tripp] he provides a graphic display of the evolution of the role of the visual in [his] poetics from photographs of objects, faces, landscapes, architecture, and paintings, to depictions of the very organ of sight, the mechanism of vision: eyes, fixed directly on the reader- viewer, demanding a reciprocal gaze, an ethical reaction.

He Ning, “The Bricolage of Words and Images: W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.” [This article is translated from a Mandarin article 文字与照片的拼接—评W. G.赛巴尔德的《奥斯特里茨》, which appeared in Trends of Foreign Literature (《外国文学动态研究》) in 2012.]

Austerlitz’s method of piecing together memories through recategorizing the photos he has into a spatial rather than temporal order reifies what I call a retroactive act of bricolage, an innovative way to reconstruct the protagonist’s own narrative. Inspired by the art of photography, he seems to find a psychological equilibrium between his defense mechanism (i.e., selective amnesia) and his desire to recover and rediscover his own identity.

The issue concludes with an article not about Sebald but one closely aligned with his lectures on “Air War and Literature,” included in On the Natural History of Destruction. Sina Rahmani conducts an interview with Emran Feroz entitled “Death from Above: An Afghan Perspective on the US Drone War.”

boundary 2 has an unusual editorial statement:

The editors of boundary 2 announce that they no longer intend to publish in the standard professional areas, but only materials that identify and analyze the tyrannies of thought and action spreading around the world and that suggest alternatives to these emerging configurations of power.

This Tilting World

Fellous tilting

In a recent post I wrote about a novel set in the mid-1950s Tunisia, just as the country was gaining independence from France. The Scorpion was written by the Tunisian-French writer Albert Memmi and was first published in France in 1969. Tunisia had gained independence from France in 1956 but promptly became one of the most corrupt and repressive “democracies” on the planet. That lasted until 2011, when a street vendor immolated himself at a protest and the President ultimately fled the country after 23 years in power, launching the Arab Spring. Tunisia subsequently became a more normal democracy but in 2015 the country was hit by several horrendous terrorist attacks that killed scores of foreign tourists. It continues to be a democracy today but is currently struggling with incidents where religion and free speech intersect.

In response to my post of The Scorpion, a Vertigo reader suggested in a comment that I should read This Tilting World, a novel by the Tunisian-French writer Colette Fellous. This Tilting World, first published in France in 2017, takes place just after those terrorist attacks of 2015. The narrator, who is probably a fictionalized version of the author, has just learned that a very close friend has collapsed and died of a heart attack while sailing in the Mediterranean. On the previous day, thirty-eight people, mostly tourists, were murdered by terrorists while on the beach of the Hotel Riu Imperial Marhaba. The narrator is in a friend’s villa, writing the novel that we are reading, wondering what to do, what is her relationship to Tunisia now? She looks back briefly over parent’s lives and her own childhood in Tunisia and then at her more complex relationship to the country of her youth.

This tilting world, how can we talk about it, make sense of it? Only by naming the appalling blow these deaths have dealt each one of us, the deep wound they have gouged that can never be healed, the birth of a new kind of warfare, and this terror that is taking root everywhere, even within our own bodies.

Although her family had been in Tunisia for generations, they were of European descent, and as she ruminates on her past, she begins to realize that there were really two Tunisias—an Arab Tunisia and a Tunisia for those of French and European descent. “We did not live so happily together,” she now sees, “we lived side by side, we tolerated each other, but only up to a point, up to a point and no further.” When her father finally decided to move the family to France sometime after Tunisian independence, he gave his tractor repair store to his Tunisian employees and walked away. Now, decades later, with terrorists trying to scare tourists out of Tunisia, the narrator realizes that once again “there was no longer a place here for the ‘foreigners’ we had become since choosing France.”

The brilliance of Fellous’s book lies in the vivid imagery and the intimacy of her self-examination. For example, take this admission:

And then there was the city. The battered sidewalks, the window bars on dilapidated buildings that were never repaired, the whitewash that peeled off in great flakes during the winter, the doors swollen with moisture, the strange skin diseases we saw on passers-by, leprosy, smallpox, bonnets worn to cover lice infestations, the torn dress of the enormous beggar women on the synagogue steps, surrounded by her great baskets and her dazzlingly white dog for which she knitted multicolored coats; that’s all she did: he was well dressed while she was in rags. All of this was strange and did not match up with my schoolbooks in which the poems and great texts bestrode the centuries, marked and measured them: each era had its own language and each of them was stunning, astonishing, the paper smelled so good, I wanted to sink into them, I wanted to be of books, and far from what I saw all around me. . .

. . . I chose pleasure, I chose love. Sensations, stories, shades of meaning. Now I think I got it all wrong. I should have been harder, sharper, more violent. I should have fought some other way.

This Tilting World reads like a memoir written in a moment of turbulence. Time is disjointed and memories of her deceased friend and her childhood keep intruding. The French title, Pièces détachées, or “loose pieces,” is probably a better description of the book. Either way, it has a sense of immediacy that I found very appealing.

There are a dozen photographs in the book, both in color and black-and-white. Most of the photographs suggest the personal attraction that Tunisia has to her—a sunset, a beach, flowers, a harbor, etc. There’s also one romantic film still of James Mason and Ava Gardner embracing on a beach (from Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, 1951) that is meant to recall the era when cities like Tunis once had a hundred movie theaters. Fellous, it should be noted, is an exhibiting photographer and so the photographs in the book are very well done. The book closes on a self-reflexive image.

Fellous Tilting 1

Colette Fellous. This Tilting World. San Francisco: Two Lines Press, 2019. Translated from the 2017 French original by Sophie Lewis.

Telephone

Everett Telephone

In Percival Everett’s latest novel Telephone (Graywolf, 2020), our narrator, Zach Wells, is a professor of geology and paleobiology. He knows a lot about fossils and caves, “especially the bones of creatures left a long, long time ago,” but he admits he’s not very engaged with the present moment. He tends to gravitate toward grand philosophical pronouncements, but usually fails to consider the little moral issues that pop up every day. He has basically lived his life safely and without much passion or introspection and now he’s depressed and has even had the occasional thought of suicide.

So what if I was not happy? My happiness was overrated. My daughter was happy. My wife was unworried. But I moved through my life with caution, and caution in love is the most fatal to true happiness.

He’s also African American, although completely apolitical. During a campus protest over the police shooting of a Black teenager, several Black students come to his office. “We were wondering if you would join us, talk to us at a meeting tonight.”

“Who is ‘us’?” Zach asks. He explains that he’s never felt discriminated against at this university and he won’t join their protest. “I just crawl into caves and find fossils and then identify them. I am a scientist. I should probably be more political in my thinking and dealings with the school. But I’m not.”

Then Zach and his wife learn that their daughter has a rare and incurable genetic defect that will kill her within a few years and will slowly take away her speech and motor skills in the meantime. This also threatens their marriage and Zach begins to spend long periods sitting in his office or at a campus bar. He becomes lost in a despair that leads him down to “a dark place, a place that I secretly began to recognize as a safe harbor.” And that safe harbor is actually the guilt in knowing that death is coming for his daughter, not for him. “Guilt,” he admits, “is a terrible thing.”

But it’s something trivial that finally drives Zach out of his funk and into action. He buys a jacket on eBay and when it arrives there is a note inside, written in Spanish, that reads “Help me.” Curious, he buys a shirt from the same seller and inside is another note. “Please Help to Us.” He buys another shirt. “Help us. They will not let us go.” The packages all originate from a small town in New Mexico and Zach begins to imagine that somewhere in the desert there are women being held in captivity, repairing used clothing to be sold on eBay. Perhaps these are some of the woman that are missing from Ciudad Júarez, Mexico. He decides that he must investigate. If he can’t save his daughter from her imminent death, perhaps he can help these women.

I knew absolutely nothing, but the notes were real, felt heavy in my hand, meaningful. This feeling, of course, fed my need to know something, anything at all, all the business with my child being nothing but questions. The nagging inquiry at the end of this red herring of a rainbow, though undeniably just another distraction, was epistemological. When intellectuals get scared, they run to fundamental philosophical problems: What is goodness What is beauty? What is it to know a thing? About knowing, I was not so much interested in whether I could know some thing but in what kind of thing I could know. I knew my cryptic notes were real, but I could not know what they meant, or whether they meant.

Throughout Telephone, Everett remains scrupulously non-judgemental about Zach. He doesn’t guide the reader toward any opinion of Zach. Zach might be worried about the “profound and yawning dullness” of his life, he doesn’t have many moralizing afterthoughts or pangs of guilt when he rebuffs the Black protesters or abandons his family in order to spend weeks searching the desert. The result is that the burden of worrying seems to shift to the reader. I found myself puzzling over these things. Why won’t Zach feel more sympathetic to the Black protesters? Why doesn’t he tell his wife why he’s going to New Mexico? What if his daughter dies while he is away scouting the desert for slave laborers? Zach may think he is the kind of narrator who confesses all to his reader, but a crucial part of him remains a mystery even to himself.

In the end, Zach leaves his wife and daughter behind to go out on his Quixotic search. But he has dedicated himself and his cause to his daughter. “I tried to tell my daughter, while she could understand, that women are hunted in this world.” He thinks of Ciudad Júarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, where hundreds of women have been “pursued, raped, imprisoned, tortured, and killed” over some twenty years or so.

The numbers were so very large, obscene, fescennine. Olga Perez. Hundreds of women have no name. Edith Longoria. Hundreds of women have no face. Guadalupe de la Rosa. Names. Name. Maria Najera. It was so uncomplicated, safe, simple to talk about numbers in El Paso, a world away. Nobody misses five hundred people. Nobody misses one hundred people. In Juárez, it was one. One daughter. One friend. One face. One name. Somebody misses one person.

This is what Everett does so well. He takes a simple scenario and turns it into a story that suddenly quivers with moral ramifications, forcing the reader to become uncomfortable enough to start asking deep questions. And there aren’t any easy answers.

If you need any further proof, it turns out that Percival Everett had one last trick up his sleeve. He wrote three completely different versions of Telephone, each with a different ending and each book has been published with a slightly different cover. There’s a recently recorded conversation with Everett over at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Take a listen.