The Lady and the Unicorn

There must be a long tradition of literature inspired by (real) paintings or photographs or other artworks. Two examples from among many others, I guess: W.H. Auden’s poem ‘Musée des Beaux-Arts’ was inspired by Brueghel’s The Fall of Icarus, and Richard Powers’ novel Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance was inspired by the eponymous photograph by August Sander.

The nice thing, I guess, about this type of book is that it can ‘breathe some life’ into these pictures (if they need that at all), make them more directly accessible in a sense. It can tell the story either of the characters in the painting, or the people behind the artwork. In either case, a good story can always go a long way.

Like her earlier novel The Girl with the Pearl Earring, inspired by Vermeer’s famous painting of the same title, Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn (2003) fits in this tradition. It too is inspired by an artwork, a collection of six tapestries drawn in Paris and produced in Flanders in the late fifteenth century and currently hanging in the Musée de Cluny in Paris. Chevalier tells the story behind these tapestries through different characters and narrators, from the nobleman who commissioned them and his wife and daughter to the painter who drew them and the weaver who produced them, moving between different settings in Paris and Brussels, weaving (well, yes) her own tale into the tapestries and unfurling the different threads that connect these different characters together.

The trouble is that the story she weaves is so weak, so unreal that, instead of breathing life into these beautiful tapestries, it banalizes them, trivializes them, and thereby fails to stand on its own two feet. It’s good to know or to imagine that there are real people behind these works, that these tapestries were not always in museums behind glass cases but that they were made in the real world by real people with real desires and real problems, to imagine, for instance, as Chevalier does on the opening page, the painter going to ‘the nearest tavern for a drink and a laught and a grope’ to restore his spirits. But the trouble is that Chevalier fails on two accounts. She fails to make the characters convincing as human beings with real feelings. And she fails to give any sense of the absolute beauty of these tapestries and the fact that these poor mortals actually managed to create something so wonderful. If the fiction isn’t stronger than the original, I’ll stick to the original.The_Lady_and_the_unicorn_Desire

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Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe

Jonathan Coe’s Expo 58 tells the story of Thomas Foley, a rather bland British civil servant who works for the Central Office of Information, as he is dispatched to the first World’s Fair since WWII. His role? To keep an eye on the pub Britannia, a key element of the British presence in Brussels. The son of a Flemish mother and a publican father, Foley seems to be the man for the job. So, leaving behind his wife Sylvia and their baby girl, Foley escapes to Brussels, where he falls under the spell of the Atomium as much as of Anneke, one of the Fair’s hostesses. But shadowing him are two British secret service agents who remind him that his duties are to his country and that he has a small role to play in the cold war between the Americans and the Russians.

I was looking forward to reading Expo 58 on two accounts. Firstly, it’s a novel by Jonathan Coe, whose satirical novel What a Carve-Up! is widely seen as a modern classic but which I haven’t got around to reading yet. The second reason I was looking forward to Expo 58 is that it is set in Brussels, a city that is rarely the setting for any fiction, let alone fiction by English-language writers. But the novel never really takes off, never develops into anything.

The Fair apparently drew over 41 million visitors in six months but from the novel you get the impression that besides Foley and Anneke and a few other people, there weren’t really all that many people. You certainly don’t get much of a feel for the fair, the visitors, the national pavilions. Neither do you get any sense of Foley’s attraction to the modernity that the fair represents, not least in the construction of the Atomium. I’m not sure, but I think he doesn’t even visit it. Neither is the novel about Foley’s Flemish ancestors whose house was destroyed in the First World War, when his mother fled to England. Neither is it about Foley’s mariage or his fling with the fair’s hostess. Nor is it about British insularity. Nor is it really a spy novel, nor a comic novel. So what’s it about exactly? I don’t know. Foley’s blandness? His lack of choice? His lack of courage? The life not lived? All or none of these? Who knows…

In the acknowledgements, Coe claims that it was an interview he gave at the Atomium in September 2010 that sparked his fascination for this ‘extraordinary’ building and ‘soon afterwards the whole history of Expo 58.’ But somewhere along the way – early along the way – his fascination seems to have petered out. Instead of engaging with his subject and thereby engaging his readers, he seems to turned away from it.

Coe.Expo58Jonathan Coe will be at the Atomium on 16 October for the launch of his novel in both English and in the Dutch translation: tickets available from the international house of literature in Brussels, PassaPorta. And on 15 October Coe kicks off Passa Porta’s new reading club with a discussion of his novel The Rotters’ Club: tickets available from PassaPorta also (limited seating availability).

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Fiction set in Belgium: a very brief overview

Reading Teju Cole’s Open City (2011) the other day – part of which is set in Brussels, where the protagonist arrives shortly after the teenager Joe van Holsbeeck was killed for his MP3 player in the city’s central train station in 2006  – made me realise that I’ve never really paid any attention to novels set in Belgium. By that I mean novels by foreign authors, not Belgian authors, which, for one or other reason, I don’t really read much. So, after a little bit of research, it turns out that there are more novels by foreign authors than I thought that are at least in part set in Belgium. Besides some literary and general fiction, a number of recurrent subjects stand out: the Renaissance, World War I in Flanders and World War II in the Ardennes, and the battle of Waterloo (more from a romantic perspective than a military one). I also found a few crime novels and some real romance novels, and I’ve added a selection of works on the Belgian Congo. I haven’t included books that are out of print, nor books by Belgian authors. Virtually all book descriptions were found online. Needless to say, I haven’t read most of these books, so I don’t know what they’re worth… Leave me a comment if you have any suggestions or ideas.

Literary and general fiction

Sterne.ShandyLaurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-67) tops this list because it’s the earliest novel I could think of that is in part set in Belgium. It is indeed at the siege of Namur (2 July – 1 September 1695), in Wallonia, that Uncle Toby was wounded in the groin, triggering his lifelong obsession with the siege, which he and his faithful sidekick Corporal Trim seek to reconstruct in ever more detail.

Thackeray.VanityFairPublished in 1847-1848, William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair tells the story of the parallel destinies of Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley as they move (up and down) through society. The novel is partly set in Brussels around 1815, from where the British forces head to Waterloo to do battle with the ‘Corsican upstart,’ as he’s called in the novel.

Brontë.VilletteCharlotte Brontë’s novels The Professor (published posthumously in 1857) and Villette (1853) were both based on the time she and Emily spent at the Héger girls boarding school in Brussels between 1842 and 1844, not too long after Belgian independence in 1830. Villette is meant to be the better of the two, The Professor having been written before Villette.

The Bridge of Years (1946) by the Belgian-born American writer May Sarton, takes place during the years between the world wars and explores the life of a Belgian family, the Duchesnes, and their mutual devotion which intensifies under the shadow of impending disaster.

The Nun’s Story (1956) is a 1956 novel by Kathryn Hulme that is based partly upon the experiences of her friend, Marie Louise Habets of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary, a Belgian nurse and an ex-nun whom she met while working with refugees in post-war Europe.

Roberto Bolano’s novella Antwerp was apparently written in 1980, published in Spanish in 2002 and in an English translation in 2010. I don’t know whether it has anything whatsoever to do with the city of Antwerp or with Belgium for that matter, but the title alone means it deserves a place on this list.

Hollinghurst.StarAlan Hollinghurst’s The Folding Star (1994): Edward Manners – thirty-three and disaffected – escapes to a Flemish city in search of a new life. Almost at once he falls in love with seventeen-year-old Luc, and is introduced to the twilight world of the 1890s Belgian painter Edgard Orst. It was shortlisted for the 1994 Booker Prize and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction in 1994.

Sebald.SaturnIn The Rings of Saturn (1995), W.G. Sebald recalls his first trip to Brussels in 1964 and his visit to Waterloo, on the outskirts of the city, where the famous battle took place in 1815. Visiting the Panorama, a huge circular painting by Louis Demoulin depicting infantrymen and horses in the thick of battle, Sebald’s narrator meditates on the writing of history.

Sebald.AusterlitzW.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz (2001) opens in Antwerp, where the narrator visits the impressive train station and the local zoo and its nocturama. From Antwerp the narrator makes his way to the Fort of Breendonk, on the outskirts of the city, which the Germans used as a concentration camp in the Second World War. Brief trips to Brussels and Liège are also described briefly.

Carson.Shamrock TeaCiaran Carson’s Shamrock Tea (2001) moves between Northern Ireland and Flanders, and notably the city of Geel, in the province of Antwerp, famous for its innovative treatment of mental illness (see my short review here).

What The Eye Doesn’t See (2003) by Alice Jolly is a romantic thriller set in Brussels and London, and tells the story of an amoral politician who faces disgrace following the suspicious death of his best friend’s wife.

Unigwe.BlackSistersChika Unigwe’s On Black Sister’s Street (2009): At the house on Zwarterzusterstraat four very different women have made their way from Africa to claim for themselves the riches of Europe. Sisi, Ama, Efe and Joyce are prostitutes. The murder of Sisi, shatters their already fragile world and as the women gather to mourn, the stories they have kept hidden are finally told.

Kathe Koja’s Under the Poppy (2010) is a novel of childhood friends involving a love triangle, puppet masters, and reluctant spies. It moves between a wartime brothel to the intricate high society of 1870s Brussels.

Rear Entrance (2011) by David Barun Kumar Thomas is set in Brussels and discusses the lives and circumstances of four Indians looking to obtain a tourist visa to the UK. The timeline of the book is about a day and a half spanning the interview for the visas and obtaining it the next day. Much happens in the span of one day

Cole.Open CityTeju Cole’s Open City (2011), as mentioned above, is in part set in Brussels in the wake of the murder of a teenager for his MP3 player.

A Fish Trapped inside the Wind (2011), by Christien Gholson, begins in a small town in Belgium near the French border on the morning of the festival of St Woelfred. There are dead fish scattered everywhere seemingly blown in by the wind. The lives of six people who live in the town are about to be changed forever. A story with magic and fish – and the lost poems of Rimbaud.

Coe.Expo58Jonathan Coe’s Expo 58 (2013) tells the story of Thomas Foley, a British civil servant working for the Central Office of Information, who is sent to the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels to oversee the pub The Britannia. Awed by the Atomium as much as by one of the fair’s hostesses, he soon finds himself forgetting about his wife and child, just as he discovers the small role he is to play in these early days of the Cold War. See my short review here.

Renaissance (art)

Chevalier.LadyTracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn (2003) is a historical fiction set partly in a tapestry atelier in Brussels over the period 1490 to 1492 and concerns a series of six Flemish tapestries known as the lady and the unicorn tapestries. See my short review here.

Dunnett.NiccoloDorothy Dunnett’s Niccolo Rising (1986) is set in the 15th century, when intrepid merchants became the new knighthood of Europe. Among them, none is bolder or more cunning than Nicholas vander Poele of Bruges, the good-natured dyer’s apprentice who schemes and swashbuckles his way to the helm of a mercantile empire.

Rudy Rucker’s  As Above, So Below (2002) is a fictional account of the life and times of Pieter Bruegel the elder, the Dutch painter whose paintings have long defined our ideas of everyday life in 16th-century northern Europe.

Morgan.MasterofBrugesTerence Morgan’s The Master of Bruges (2010) follows master painter Hans Memling  in fifteenth-century Bruges as he falls in love with the daughter of his powerful patron, the Duke of Burgundy. Made reckless by his passion for Marie, he leaves to visit old allies in London, where he soon finds himself plunged into the final stages of the War of the Roses.

Battle of Waterloo (romance)

Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army: A Novel of Wellington, Napoleon, Love and War (1937) is set in Brussels in the months leading up to the Battle of Waterloo and it describes the almost frenzied behavior of the elite trying to make merry in the shadow of impending war

Teresa Grant, Imperial Scandal (2012): Nights filled with lavish balls, lush, bucolic afternoons… Removed to glamorous Brussels in the wake of Napoleon’s escape from Elba, Intelligence Agent Malcolm Rannoch and his wife, Suzanne, warily partake in the country’s pleasures. But with the Congress of Vienna in chaos and the Duke of Wellington preparing for battle, the festivities are cut short when Malcolm is sent on a perilous mission.

World War I (Flanders)

Barry.LongWaySebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way (2005) evokes not only the camaraderie and humour of Willie and his regiment, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, but also the cruelty and sadness of war, and the divided loyalties that many Irish soldiers felt. Tracing their experiences through the course of the war, this narrative explores the events of the Easter Rising within Ireland.

Elton.Casualty In Ben Elton’s The First Casualty (2006), a British officer and celebrated poet is shot dead. A young English soldier is arrested and charged with his murder. Now, Douglas Kingsley, a conscientious objector, previously a detective, has to secure a conviction in this drama which explores some fundamental questions about murder, justice, and honour. The book is dedicated to Elton’s grandfathers, who fought on opposite sides in the First World War. You can read my review here.

At Midnight in a Flaming Town (2011), by Lorraine Bateman with Paul Cole, is set in Belgium at the outset of the First World War and is based on papers and biographies of people caught up in the war. It traces the fortunes of civilians who find themselves enduring an increasingly vengeful invasion of Belgium as an impatient German Army hastens to break through to Paris.

World War II (the Ardennes)

In William Eastlake’s Castle Keep (1966), it is December 1944 and a detachment of American soldiers has been assigned to guard an ancient castle in Belgium inhabited by an elderly aristocrat, his wife, and countless valuable artefacts. The soldiers relax until they find themselves caught up in the carnage of Hitler’s Ardennes offensive.

William Wharton’s Midnight Clear (1982) is set in the Ardennes on Christmas Eve 1944. Sergeant Will Knott and five other GIs are ordered close to the German lines to establish an observation post in an abandoned chateau. Here they play at being soldiers in what seems to be complete isolation. That is until the Germans begin revealing their whereabouts and leaving signs of their presence.

William P. McGivern’s Soldiers of ’44 (1979) tells the story of Sergeant Buell Docker and his fifteen-man mobile gun unit as they face some uncomfortable moments and decisions during the German Ardennes counteroffensive in December 1944, and Docker faces them again, months later, before a hostile board of old-line officers.

Shreve.Resistance Anita Shreve’s Resistance (1995) is a tale of impossible love that leads us into a harrowing world where forbidden passions have catastrophic consequences. In a Nazi-occupied Belgian village, Claire Daussois, the wife of a resistance worker, shelters a wounded American bomber. Read my short review here.

Michael B. Oren’s Reunion (2003) is also set in the Ardennes, the site of a brutal, last-ditch assault by the Nazis in December 1944. The novel reunites the surviving members of the 133rd Infantry Battalion for one last chance to relive their youth, bury some old ghosts, and try to find answers to the mystery that has haunted them for 50 years.


In Michele Bailey’s The Cuckoo Case (1995), Matilda gets a call while her lover Luc is away, saying Luc’s stepson has been in an accident. She rushes to the hospital to visit him. After the boy is discharged she decides to visit him at Luc’s ex-wife’s house. She finds that Marie-Paule has been shot – and Luc is the prime suspect. The novel is set in Brussels.

In Nicolas Freeling’s Flanders Sky: A Henri Castang Mystery (1992), life in the cosmopolitan setting of Brussels proves more than either Inspector Castang or Vera bargained for. When his boss is arrested for murder and a child abuser becomes a crime statistic, Castang realizes that crime is universal–and his skills as an investigator are as relevant in the corridors of power as in the back alleys of Paris.

In Nicholas Royle’s Antwerp (2004), a brutal killer, inspired by the Belgian artist Paul Delvaux, leaves each of his victims posed as if in a painting. Meanwhile cult film director Johnny Vos is making a low-budget biopic about the same artist.

Gerard Readett’s Roadworks (2004) is technothriller set in Brussels in 2022: it’s the story of one man’s battle to be free of a system that oppresses him while dragging a hijacked city out of absolute gridlock.


Madeleine Ker’s The Bruges Engagement (1992): Destination: Belgium. Attractions: delicate lace, luscious chocolates, spired palaces and handsome Jan Breydel. Art expert Geraldine Simpson was awed by the Breydel estate’s collection of masterpieces. But businessman Jan Breydel was only interested in selling off the treasures – and persuading Geraldine that her fiance, Stuart, was the wrong man for her. Jan believed HE was the right man, of course–but she could hardly trust the ardent pursuit of such a legendary seducer…

Rebecca Buckley’s Midnight in Brussels (2009): In this captivating story of Amanda Conroy – a naive, inexperienced, young woman – whose husband of seven years disappears on Christmas Day, leaving her penniless in the Nevada desert outside of Las Vegas in a house trailer without a car and no means to support herself. Amanda’s married sister comes to the rescue, whisking her away to California to live in their new sprawling riverside home in the San Joaquin Valley – a far cry from the poor existence both girls experienced in the Arkansas hill country as they were growing up in their grandmother’s care. Amanda’s dream to one day travel to Bruges, Belgium – where lacemaking and medieval quaintness abound – at last becomes a reality. Now she must decide what she wants: an independent life in Belgium or a life in California with the man who adores her.

(Belgian) Congo

Bennett.CatastrophistRonan Bennett’s The Catastrophist (1997) is set in the Belgian Congo in 1959-1960 and tells the story of the country’s independence through the eyes of an Irish journalist, Gillespie, who’s in Léopoldville to win back his lover, Inès, but gets caught up in the political events happening around him.

Conrad.DarknessJoseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) passes briefly through an unnamed Brussels, “a city that always makes me think of a whited sepulchre”, the narrator says. The offices of the Société Anonyme Belge du Haut-Congo, which Conrad’s narrator visits briefly, were set in Rue Brederode, at the back of the Royal Palace.

Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt (2010) is a subtle and enlightening novel about a neglected human rights pioneer, the Irish nationalist Roger Casement, who was hanged by the British government for treason in 1916.

Kingsolver.BibleBarbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (1998) offers a compelling exploration of religion, conscience, imperialist arrogance, and the many paths to redemption. An American missionary and his family travel to the Congo in 1959, a time of tremendous political and social upheaval.

Lynn Nottage’s play Ruined (2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama): In her bar/brothel in the rainforest of the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, the shrewd, larger-than-life madam both protects and profits from the women who come to her seeking refuge from rape and violence at the hands of government and rebel soldiers alike.

Paul Pickering’s The Leopard’s Wife (2010) is a novel of love in an impossible land.

Graham Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case (1960) tells the story of Querry, a world famous architect, who is the victim of a terrible attack of indifference: he no longer finds meaning in art or pleasure in life. Arriving anonymously at a Congo leper village, he is diagnosed as the mental equivalent of a ‘burnt-out case’, a leper who has gone through a stage of mutilation.

Congo is a 1980 science fiction novel by Michael Crichton. In the heart of Africa, three intrepid adventurers are desperate to find the fabulous diamonds of the lost city of Zinj. They encounter the Kigani cannibals, flaming volcanoes and ferocious gorillas – and Amy, the cuddly gorilla who’s fluent in sign language.

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Invisible pictures (1): Don DeLillo’s The Angel Esmeralda

There’s a review in the TLS this week of Don DeLillo’s 2011 collection of short stories The Angel Esmeralda (published in the UK by Picador). It’s surprising that the review should only be appearing now since the book was published late last year, but what struck me even more was that there is no mention in the review of the pictures included in the book: indeed, each part is headed by a picture that ties in with one of the stories in that section.

Part One is headed by an uncredited photograph of the earth taken from outer space, a picture that ties in with the story “Human Moments in World War III” featuring two astronauts in orbit around the earth. Part Two shows a photograph of the Bull-Leaping Fresco of Knossos, which is on display at the Herakleion Archaeological Museum. The reproduction is from the book Herakleion Museum published by Ekdotike Athenon and shows a woman somersaulting over a bull. It ties in with the story “The Ivory Acrobat”, but doesn’t in fact correspond to the actual ivory figurine of a bull leaper mentioned in the story, which thus makes it a surprising choice. Part Three opens with a reproduction of a painting by Gerhard Richter from his Baader-Meinhof series and is “used with permission of the Marian Goodman Gallery. Digital image © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY”). It ties in with the story “Baader-Meinhof”, about a woman visiting an exhibition of this series of paintings.

The review in the TLS is not the only one not to mention the pictures: they go unmentioned in the reviews published in the Financial Times, the Guardian, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Irish Times. How come?

A few months ago I wrote in a post on David Peace’s Tokyo Year Zero that of 11 reviews of the novel I had gone through, not one of them so much as mentions the photographs included in that novel. And so, as with the reviews of DeLillo’s collection, I wonder how come? How come do these pictures go unnoticed or at least unmentioned in reviews? Are they invisible? Are they uninteresting? Irrelevant? Or is it simply that there’s nothing to say about them?

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Richard Benson’s The Printed Picture

Published in 2008 by The Museum of Modern Art in New York to accompany the exhibition of the same title that ran there from October 2008 until July 2009, Richard Benson’s The Printed Picture provides a fascinating historical overview of the various processes involved in the production of printed pictures from the Renaissance to the present: from woodcuts to early photography in silver, from etchings and engravings to silk screen prints, from the use of colour in printing to the digital processes of today if not tomorrow, and much more besides.

The book is divided into 13 chapters – six of which are devoted to photography in its myriad forms – and each chapter is subdivided into a number of sections focusing on a specific process. The chapter on early photography in silver, for instance, focuses on daguerreotypes, salted-paper prints, paper negatives, wet-plate photography, albumen prints (including stereo cards and cartes de visite), ambrotypes, tintypes, and gelatin-based printing-out paper. This is pretty technical stuff, of course, and so the glossary of terms Benson includes can come in handy. At the same time, Benson is anything but obscure: on the contrary, each process is clearly explained and illustrated.

Indeed, as can be seen from the example below, each section consists of one page of explanatory text (on the left-hand page) and one or more pictures chosen to illustrate that process (on the right-hand page). This example shows a sheet printed in Japan in the 1930s to announce the results of wrestling matches, and as in this example, the left-hand column of the left-hand page is sometimes used to highlight one or other detail. This method (1 page text, 1 page picture) has the advantage of breaking down into compact, manageable units what are otherwise long and complex historical processes involving many technological and thematic developments.

The overwhelming majority of the more than 300 beautifully reproduced pictures, some of which are either by Benson or from his collection, are not pictures “that reside in museums”, but everyday pictures taken from a wide range of sources. And this was, I think, a great decision, since it allows readers to focus on the technology, the form rather than on the picture per se, in a sense: had Benson used masterworks, then our attention would have been distracted from the actual process used to produce the pictures. This way we can focus on the actual printing method, and thus also on the picture itself.

A website accompanies the book/exhibition: the videos are drawn from a series of talks Benson gave in the museum’s galleries in May and June 2009.

Benson dedicated The Printed Picture to John Szarkowski (who was Director of Photography at MoMA from 1962 until his retirement in 1991 and who died in 2007), and in many ways Benson’s The Printed Picture and Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs: 100 Photographs from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art are very similar.

Szarkowski’s book provides a historical overview of photography from 1845 to 1968, by means of the same method and layout used by Benson: one page of text on the left to one picture on the right. Besides the method, both authors also share the same enthusiasm for their subject and are unafraid to voice the enjoyment they take in looking at pictures. While Szarkowski opens his book with such a statement – “This is a picture book, and its first purpose is to provide the material for simple delectation” – Benson concludes his: “we need to recognize that some pictures … are made for the human being to enjoy, and that they should continue to be made, to exist solely for our individual pleasure”.

You could ask yourself however whether their type of fragmentary method runs the risk of becoming too concise, perhaps even simplistic? I don’t think so. Although particular to a single photographer or even a single photograph, Szarkowski’s observations on technological developments, or composition, or subject matter, or the social impact of technical or artistic changes, for instance, are of wider use: they help readers/viewers look at photographs in general. And like Szarkowski, Benson, too, uses the particular to arrive at the general, at a way of looking at printed pictures. Rather than develop a certain argument, both authors teach us how to look.

The edition of Looking at Photographsshown here was published in 1976 by Idea Books International. The cover picture is a portrait by Alfred Stieglitz of his niece Georgia Engelhard (1921). The untitled picture of the chicken and tree shown below is by the French photographer Edouard Boubat and dates from 1951.

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Don DeLillo at Yankee Stadium?

As the couples pour into the stadium in their thousands – the “bridegrooms in identical blue suits, the brides in lace-and-satin gowns” – , ‘Rodge’ and his wife Maureen, armed with a pair of binoculars, scan the crowd from their seats in the grandstand in the hope of catching a glimpse of their daughter Karen. With her soon-to-be husband Kim Jo Pak, she forms one of the 6,500 couples to be married in a mass ceremony at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx conducted by the reverend Sun Myung Moon, the founder of the Unification Church. As he struggles to catch sight of his daughter, Rodge also struggles to make sense of the event, unsure even as to what to call this gathering – “the mass, the crowd, the movement, the membership, the flock, the following”. He himself sits among a crowd, the crowd of spectators, thousands of people who are there to watch the event, but also to photograph it. Whatever ‘it’ may be, Rodge knows only that the repetition of this “time-honored event” has created “something new”.

Crowds and images form an important part of Don DeLillo’s 1991 novel Mao II, and the photograph chosen to introduce the novel’s opening chapter “At Yankee Stadium”– pictured below and credited to UPI/Bettmann – could hardly have been better. It seems to be a perfect evocation of such an event: a mass event given the numbers of people involved and shown in the picture, but also an endlessly repeated event, like a photograph, perhaps, since the actual blessing is repeated thousands of times. The picture’s strength also rests on the fact that the couples in the foreground face away from us, remaining faceless, unidentified and unidentifiable, part of the group, while the couples facing us from further off, on the other hand, are sufficiently distant and depersonalized as to fade into the crowd. The columns of couples seem to extend indefinitely, while the wall of spectators at the back seems both to participate in and contain the event while also being hypnotized by it, in a sense. Like the event itself, there is something both fascinating and scary about the photograph, making it an excellent choice for the text. Indeed, it suits the text so well that I had always assumed that it was a photograph of the ceremony at Yankee Stadium.

This assumption was brought into doubt, however, when I recently came across an issue of Granta magazine (issue 34, dating from autumn 1990) which features this very opening chapter of Mao II. Indeed, I was surprised to see it featured a different photograph (pictured below, apparently uncredited). This ‘new’ picture (picture B, say) immediately struck me as substantially weaker than the one reproduced in the novel (picture A, then). First off, picture B is set indoors under a relatively low ceiling with artificial light. Contrast that with the sense of movement or perhaps momentum and space collected in the very opening line of the chapter – “Here they come, marching into American sunlight” –, a sense that seems to come through in picture A. What’s more, there are far too few people of course in picture B and far too much detail for it to be in any way evocative of the mass of people the text evokes. The proximity of the people in picture B raises too many questions: Why is the woman in the centre grinning? What moved her future husband to look at her? Is that his crutch next to him or does it belong to the woman standing to his right? And so on. The picture is too intimate, too individual for a sense of depersonalized anonymity to emerge: these individuals haven’t (yet) been absorbed by the masses. Also, contrary to picture A, there is no room for Rodge and Maureen in picture B: one assumes that neither of them would need a pair of binoculars to go over this small gathering.

So, since the ‘new’ photograph didn’t seem to match the text as well as the ‘old’ photograph, I decided to  reread the chapter to see how well picture A actually matches the text. I was struck first of all by the slight discrepancies between the two, first of all by the claim that all the bridegrooms were dressed in “identical blue suits”, which jarred with my (mental) image of this (black-and-white) picture: I can’t ‘see’ these blue suits. A more blatant (and more verifiable) discrepancy between the two concerns the claim that when Karen passes beneath Moon’s pulpit, it is said to be “rimmed on three sides by bulletproof panels”. There is no sign of these in the photograph, on the contrary: it appears rather to be open on three sides. And then, of course, it hit me: Who ever said this was an actual photograph of the said event at Yankee Stadium? And more than that, who ever said a mass wedding ever took place at Yankee Stadium? Mao II is, after all, fiction, a novel. So I searched for information on a mass Moon wedding at the stadium in the late 1980s but found nothing. According to this 1997 article on Moon in the Washington Post, a mass blessing involving 2,075 couples was held in Madison Square Garden in 1982, but no other similar event seems to have been held in the US in the 1980s. I then read this 1991 interview with Vince Passaro in the New York Times, in which DeLillo claims that he was notably inspired by “a photograph of a wedding conducted by Reverend Moon of the Unification Church . . . a wedding in Seoul in a soft-drink warehouse, about 13,000 people”. So there you have it, the magic of fiction, at work once again: the reimagining of a real event, made all the more real thanks to DeLillo’s use of a photograph. What these photographs are of is still a mystery to me: Perhaps picture A is of the wedding in Seoul and picture B of the event in Madison Square Garden? I don’t know, but if you have any ideas, I’d be happy to hear them.

Posted in Don DeLillo, Photography, Phototexts, Picture novels | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments