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
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
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?
The “Being Human” festival in London is hosting a program this Wednesday, November 22 from 6-8 PM, called “A refugee child in London: on W G Sebald’s novel Austerlitz.” To quote from the program’s website (where you can also register to attend):
Today images and stories of child refugees, lost and found across Europe and beyond, challenge and haunt us. Come along for a free evening of talks, discussions and a film screening about one such story. The event focuses on one of our century’s greatest novels, W G Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001), about a child who comes to London in 1939 on a Kindertransport from Nazi-occupied Prague, and what happens to him afterwards. This book, entrancing, shocking and enigmatic by turns, recounts a search for Europe’s past and present, as well as a lost personal history. Academics and students from University College London will present their perspectives on the novel.
The program is being organized by the School of European Languages, Culture and Society of University College London. The event is being held at the Grant Museum of Zoology. According to organizers, the program will include talks and a discussion involving Zoltán Biedermann, Stephanie Bird, Mererid Puw Davies and Mairéad Hanrahan, and a film exploring different angles of Sebald’s book. “Amongst other things we will be talking about what drew us to link Austerlitz with the amazing specimens on view at the Museum.”
“I learned to use a camera to see what I could be.”
Mary Jo Bang’s A Doll for Throwing is, among other things, a book about photography, but it is also about photographs stolen and appropriated through, shall we say, the arrogance of gender and fame. But first, about the title. It comes from a soft type of doll designed in the 1920s by the Bauhaus artist Alma Siedhoff-Buscher. (Examples of the doll can be seen at the Bauhaus website.) The doll (or wurfpuppe in German) has a fiber body and wooden head and was meant to be safely tossed between children, but in Bang’s book it takes on an entirely different meaning.
The poems in A Doll for Throwing adopt the voice of Lucia Moholy (1894-1989), the Austrian photographer who met the Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy in Berlin in 1920, during the fraught early years of the Weimar Republic. They married and two years later he became one of the legendary professors at the Bauhaus. To an extent that is not fully known, she taught him about photography and collaborated with him on works for which credit is often given only to him (including the four images reproduced on the book’s cover). They divorced in 1929 and in 1933 Lucia had to hastily flee Germany when her new lover, a prominent Communist, was arrested in their apartment. She did, however, manage to leave her negatives in the care of Moholy-Nagy. When he himself became an emigre, he turned the negatives over for safekeeping to the famous German architect and founder of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, who proceeded to use some of Lucia’s photographs for decades without crediting her. Once she was established in England, Lucia began a long correspondence to try to regain her negatives from Gropius. In the 1960s, she finally managed to get a limited number of them back, but by then her work had become submerged beneath the reputations of two famous men and she was nearly forgotten to history. Read more
Detail from Albrecht Durer’s “Melancholia I” (1514)
Over at The Quietus, Adam Scovell has written an insightful review of the exhibition “Melancholia – A Sebald Variation” which I reported on recently. The exhibition is at the Inigo Rooms at Somerset House in London until the 10th of December. Scovell’s piece includes a wonderful photograph of a young Sebald riding a bicycle that is worth checking out.
Coming up on November 13, one of the exhibition’s artists Guido van der Werve will talk about his work with John-Paul Stonard and screen a film. Stonard is an art historian and writer who recently reviewed van der Werve’s work for The Guardian. The event is free but registration is required. Here’s the blurb from the web page where you can register:
The Dutch artist Guido Van der Werve makes films based on his personal interests, including extreme sports. For Nummer Vierteen: Home (exhibited in the Melancholia exhibition), he completed an epic 1000-mile triathlon between the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw, where Chopin’s heart is preserved, and the cemetery of Père Lachaise in Paris, where the composer’s body was laid to rest. Here Van der Werve will discuss this film and his other more recent work, alongside a screening.
And there is still time to register for the conversation on the exhibition with John Banville, Brian Dillon, and Lara Feigel tomorrow November 8.
Halfway through Anne Michael’s short, beautiful book, Infinite Gradation, we finally come across the two words that form the book’s title.
You said you wanted to keep your eyes open at the end; to miss nothing.
Four months before you died, during your last summer, you looked at the sea. For weeks, the most conscious act of looking. If you could take in that unending movement, that light, the moment water is displaced by water. You knew there was an answer there. In that infinite gradation.
Michael’s book about writing, art, memory, love, and loss is infused with death and grief on nearly every page. And yet, Infinite Gradation is a surprisingly celebratory and compassionate book. Death motivates Michaels to try to spin a fragile web of words that might help her (and us) understand the relationship between art and death. And the answer lies – as always – hidden, unspeakable, unseeable, but somehow known or felt in that “infinite gradation.” The art that Michaels writes about is not so much a product but a state of being, a way of “belonging,” an ability to participate in life using “the most conscious act of looking.” Read more
It was the hour when some dark utterance waxed within me, needing no words, no names, no logical thoughts…a language in which the nouns lost their meaning, the language of an awareness that responded only to wordless, fleeting moments, made from the nameless sensations of the breath that quickened my blood or made it pulse more strongly.
Old Rendering Plant, Wolfgang Hilbig’s allegorical novel about East Germany and the Stasi, begins benignly with its nameless narrator recalling the times as a boy when he would explore the forest at the edge of his small town. The book opens with “I recalled a brook outside town whose current, strangely shimmering, sometimes almost milky, I once followed for miles all autumn or longer” and the boy proceeds to do what many boys have done over the ages. He explores the brook and follows it as far as a high railway embankment. He plays warrior, brandishing sabers made from sticks. He’s alert to the flora and fauna and the traces of an old watermill, hidden by dense brush and a rickety old fence. It’s a place for the imagination to roam. In the forest he sometimes experiences a sense of vertigo and “the distant, skyward-flickering din of expanding infinitude.” The forest is also the place where he starts to grasp the inadequacies of language—and the first hints that language can be dangerous. “The relevant nouns at my command proved again and again to be treacherous tools, perpetually demonstrating the impotence of all descriptions…compared to the nuances of the visible they seemed, at best, to be sketchy information.”
But the forest also has a menacing aspect. It has eyes and voices. It’s full of ruins. The river can resemble “the bluish blade of a long, straight knife.” One day he becomes aware of a stench that originates beyond the railroad embankment, a stench which, for years, he had somehow been able to ignore. But eventually he realizes it was everywhere. Malodorous smells seep up from the ground and the brook is befouled.
The smell soaked the banks and seeped under the fields; the mist over the river channel was this smell, and that mist rose from the topsoil too, infecting everything that grew in the fields, and it rose from the meadows, the grass of the paddocks smelled of the river mist’s cloying essence, the bushes on the banks thrived amid this smell, a smell of flesh…old, useless flesh.
A couple of weeks ago I called attention to an exhibition that had just opened in London called “Melancholia: A Sebald Variation.” Poet and translator Will Stone recently paid a visit to the Inigo Rooms of Somerset House and wrote a review of the exhibition for The London Magazine. “This exhibition constitutes a rare gift” to the viewer, he wrote. Unfortunately, the magazine doesn’t provide online access to non-subscribers, so I asked Will if I could reprint small portions of his piece.
According to Will, the exhibition is really “about destruction, or rather W.G. Sebald’s eponymous work On the Natural History of Destruction (1999) and the way melancholy alluringly affixes to these tragic scenes, which, once having leaked away the reality of their human suffering, become artistically aligned images whose visual message creates a space for new creativity.” Read more
“A new order of space.”
Ann Quin’s Passages (1969) is a brilliant blur of a novel. When you are done with its 112 pages, you will know you have been on breathtaking roller coaster of a journey, but you won’t know where you’ve been or remember much of what you witnessed on the way. A man and a woman (both nameless) are traveling through some vaguely Mediterranean country. Part of the time the couple appear to be searching for the woman’s missing brother, who might already be dead. There are fleeting rumors of torture, a firing squad, detention camps, a sinister right-wing government, suggesting that they are most likely in Greece, which came under the rule of a military junta in 1967. The two suspect they are being followed. At one border crossing they are told their papers aren’t in order; a bribe is paid and suddenly they are told it’s “a case of mistaken identity, let’s say.” Read more