Anne Carson’s Nox

The Canadian poet Anne Carson’s brother Michael died in Copenhagen, Denmark in the year 2000, some 22 years after he had left Canada to avoid going to jail (what for remains unsaid, but he seems to have been involved in dealing drugs). During this time, he had little contact with his sister or their mother: a few laconic postcards, a single letter, at most half a dozen telephone calls to his sister. At the time of their mother’s death, three years before Michael’s death, she had not received a letter from him in seven years, and had started to think he was dead: “When I pray for him nothing comes back”. Carson and her mother stop talking about him. When he calls some six months after the mother’s death, he has, Carson says, nothing to say. His name was Michael, but she tells us that he changed it (his family name at least, it seems). What his new name was remains unsaid.

Carson learned of her brother’s death two weeks after it happened, when his widow found her phone number among his papers. Carson then travelled to Denmark, met the widow, learned that his ashes were scattered at sea near Helsinor castle. From his widow she received a translation of the text of the funerary service, of the priest’s speech and of the widow’s words, as well as diaries and photographs. Carson then created an epitaph, she says, in the form of a book, consisting of a word-by-word translation/ interpretation of a poem by Catullus on the death of his brother (poem 101). The lexical entries filled the left-hand pages, while the facing pages contained memories, reflections, fragments of letters, photographs and other materials. In an interview earlier this year with The Irish Times, Carson explains that she met a German publisher of art books who proposed to release a facsimile copy of it. Nothing came of it, however, and she only recovered the manuscript three years later, in what must have been 2004 or thereabouts. Nox, the book published by New Directions in 2010 and whose cover is shown above left, is, Carson says, a replica of that original book, or at least, “as close as we could get”: an accordion-like assemblage of text and photographs.

Nox was well received when it was published last year – see for instance these reviews by Meghan O’Rourke in The New Yorker and by Andrew Motion in The Guardian – but it doesn’t really do it for me, and this, not least because of the utter disconnect between the format of the book and its very contents. Indeed, there could hardly be a greater discrepancy between the weight and voluminousness of the book itself, on the one hand, and the lightness or emptiness of its contents, on the other. The accordion-like text comes in a cardboard box: the entire object weighs a total of 1.2 kg. Of course, one could say that it’s more than just a book, that it’s the book as artefact or as object. And Carson is certainly entitled to take pleasure in the fact that it is “un-Kindle-isable”, as she said in the above interview. But that in itself doesn’t make for a good book.

Catullus wrote poem 101 for his late brother he had not seen in many years, and he too travelled far to visit his grave. It’s striking that such a short poem – a mere ten lines! – could be at the very core of this weighty object. I liked Carson’s idea of creating a lexical entry for each word of the poem and providing a translation and some context, always related to nox itself, the night. Catullus’s poem is dissected, disassembled and enlarged under Carson’s microscope, as it were, but the trouble is that there is nothing there. Like Nox, Catullus’s poem 101 revolves around an absence, a void that has only been made larger by time and space. However, Catullus, despite the concision of his poem, manages to open it up by concentrating on the funerary service itself, and thus his nameless brother can stand for any dead brother, any funeral rite. Carson, by contrast, in attempting to provide some fragments of her brother’s life, merely highlights her very real ignorance of his inexistent life, as it were. I realize that this is precisely in part about the difficulty or impossibility of knowing someone else, yet here this is all I get out of it: the sense that she really does not know who or what she is writing about. Neither the extracts from his letters or diaries nor the photographs can fill that void, and neither can the weight of the book itself.

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Sebald event in Brussels: Austerlitz at the Kaaitheater

Terry Pitts of Vertigo recently highlighted a number of events being held in North Carolina, London and Berlin to mark the tenth anniversary of the death of W.G. Sebald, who was killed in a car crash ten years ago already, on 14 December 2001. Another event can now be added to this list, as can be seen from this ad I came across recently for a similar event, which is to be held at the Kaaitheater in Brussels on 14 December.

Presented as a musical-theatrical homage to W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz is a collaboration between the composer Jérôme Combier, the video-maker and scenographer Pierre Nouvel, and the contemporary music ensemble Ictus. Performed in French by the Flemish actor Johan Leysen, Austerlitz was commissioned by the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence and the Ictus Ensemble. It premiered on 19 July already at the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume in Aix-en-Provence, and was also performed on 18 and 19 November at the Opéra de Lille.

The above picture is taken from the Kaaitheater website, which also features a short three-minute clip of the show: the clip already gives an idea of the overlapping of music, images and voices used to convey the layers of history and memory Jacques Austerlitz has to sift through during his (mental and physical) travels through Europe. I’m not a big fan of the novel and I’m not sure I’ll be going to see the performance, but it is interesting to see that Sebald’s work is still inspiring artists from a range of disciplines.

More information on this performance is also available on the Ictus Ensemble website (in English) and blog (in French).

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The Brontës in Brussels

If asked, I would of course have claimed that I knew – naturally! – that the Brontë sisters had spent some time in Brussels at some point in their lives. But if truth be told, I wouldn’t have been able to say much more, if even that. So I was glad to discover the website of the Brussels Brontë Group, formed by Brontë Society members and gathering anyone interested in the work and life of the Brontë sisters.

It is on the group’s website that I discovered that Charlotte and Emily Brontë stayed at the Pensionnat Heger in the Quartier d’Isabelle next to the Royal Palace in 1842-43, and that it is their stay in Brussels which inspired both The Professor (published posthumously in 1857) and Villette (published in 1853). As can be seen from the overlapping maps below (and which I borrowed from the website of the Brussels Brontë Group), there is not a trace left of the school. In its stead stands the Bozar Centre for Fine Arts, which was completed in 1928.

The group’s website contains more useful information on the sisters, their stay in Brussels and the novels. It also contains a number of interesting pictures of the school and its surroundings.

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Don DeLillo’s Mao II and Johan Grimonprez’s dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y

It opened just over a month ago, on 15 October, and although I haven’t found time to go to it, I thought it might be worth mentioning already. I’m talking about the retrospective exhibition of work by Johan Grimonprez entitled It’s a Poor Sort of Memory that Only Works Backwards: On Zapping, Close Encounters and the Commercial Break. The exhibition is being held at S.M.A.K., the Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art in Ghent, until 29 January 2012. Born in Roeselare in Flanders in 1962, Grimonprez is a filmmaker and artist whose video work, I read on the S.M.A.K. website, “manoeuvres graciously between art and cinema, documentary and fiction, practice and theory”. Grimonprez’s most recent work is, I believe, Double Take, a feature film which centres on Hitchcock’s, well, double.

What interests me about the exhibition is that it will be an opportunity to see dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, the film with which Grimonprez made his international breakthrough at Documenta X in 1997. Using footage from a wide range of factual and fictional sources, the film centres on the televised representation of airplane hijackings and terrorism. Interestingly, I learned that Grimonprez notably drew on Don DeLillo’s 1991 novel Mao II, which explores the role of the writer in a society whose attention can be captured more quickly and more lastingly by acts of terrorism, leaving the writer in DeLillo’s book wondering what his place is in such a society. And then it struck me that Mao II is also, of course, a novel with pictures in it, although I had never thought of it as such.

The above is a film still from dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y which I borrowed from the S.M.A.K website. Although I don’t have the precise identification of the above picture, it seems to be a colour version of the picture of the mass Moon wedding at Yankee Stadium with which the first chapter of DeLillo’s novel opens (the picture below is taken from the 1992 Vintage paperback edition).

Besides the above photograph, DeLillo’s novel features four other pictures, of a mass demonstration on Tiananmen Square, of the Hillsborough football tragedy, of the Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran, and of some young boys in Beirut. Each of the pictures is placed at the opening of a chapter, except for the Tiananmen picture which opens the novel. As such, they might be seen as illustrations to the novel rather than pictures that are an integral part of the novel. There may be some truth to that, but I prefer to think of them as being as much a part of the novel as the text.

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Nadja in French, and Nadja in English

It is a well-known fact of course that something gets lost when you read a work in translation, but sometimes the loss can be greater than expected. Take André Breton’s Nadja, for instance. To the best of my knowledge, the only English translation available is the one by Richard Howard. It was initially published in 1960 and is still published today by, I think, at least two publishers: Penguin and Atlantic Books. The Penguin edition (pictured below right) dates from 1999 and includes an introduction by Mark Polizzotti. Howard’s translation, however, is of the first edition of Nadja, which was published in 1928, long before Breton brought out his second, revised edition in 1964. Strangely enough, this fact is not mentioned on the front or back covers of the Penguin edition, although Polizzotti does mention it in his introduction, albeit in a footnote. I haven’t ever read the two works closely, but the second edition notably includes an “avant-dire”, a preface of sorts, in which Breton evokes his use of photographic illustrations in the book, of which there are indeed more in the later edition.

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Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

The only curious thing about Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is that it actually was a critical and popular success when it was published in 2003, selling millions of copies and winning a number of awards, not least the Whitbread Book of the Year award.

The only reason I mention it is because the novel contains a photograph (pictured below right), a reproduction of the first of the five photographs of the Cottingley Fairies. The photograph is included in a passage in which the adolescent hero of the novel evokes his dislike of Arthur Conan Doyle, who did believe in fairies. Why Haddon felt compelled to include this single photograph in his novel will remain a mystery to me.

The picture below right is taken from the 2004 Vintage Contemporaries edition of the novel, which is pictured below left.

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Grand Hotel Europa, a tribute to literary translators

If you’re in Brussels in early December and if you’re in any way interested in literary translation, then the following event might just be the thing for you.

Organized by PETRA, the European Platform for Literary Translation (or “Plateforme européenne pour la traduction littéraire”), “Grand Hotel Europa” is intended as a tribute to literary translators. It is one of a number of events that will be organized between December of this year and March 2012 with that aim in mind, and as such it is an initiative that, I think, deserves to be applauded and supported.

The event is being held on 2 December at the Flagey Centre for the Arts in Brussels. Tickets will apparently be available directly from Flagey, but since the event itself is not yet mentioned on their website, you might have to wait before booking your ticket.

The two speakers on the programme are the writer and translator Alberto Manguel, the author of A History of Reading (1996, below left), and Michael Cunningham, the author of The Hours (1998, below centre). Regardless of what one might think of these writers or their works, the event might still be an interesting one, since we are told that translators from all over Europe will be making live translations of work by Fernando Pessoa (pictured below right is Always Astonished, a selection of Pessoa’s prose translated by Edwin Honig and published by City Lights in 1988).

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A photo-text is a phototext is a photo text. Or is it?

One of the funny things about “novels with pictures in them” is that, as I’ve said before, no one really agrees on what to call them, be it “illustrated novels”, or “iconotexts”, or “image-texts”, or “novels with photographs”, or “photography-embedded fiction”, or “pictorial/visual fiction”, or indeed “picture novels”, as I’ve been calling them so far, somewhat unhappily (perhaps I should just stick to “novels with pictures in them”).

Yet another term that is sometimes used to refer to this type of book is “photo-text”. Or, since nothing is ever simple and straightforward, perhaps that should be “phototext”, or, why not, “photo text”. I don’t know. Gertrude Stein had it easy, I think, since she could claim without too much doubt that “a rose is a rose is a rose”. Likewise, I’d be inclined to say that “a photo-text is a phototext is a photo text”. But is that really the case? Perhaps not.

I had initially thought that it was Wright Morris who had coined the term “photo-text”. Indeed, in an article in an issue of The Yale Journal of Criticism, Alan Trachtenberg claims that Morris used the term – in its hyphenated version – to describe the books he composed using his own texts and black-and-white photographs: The Inhabitants in 1946, The Home Place in 1948, and God’s Country and My People in 1968 (Morris’s Love Affair – A Venetian Journal, published in 1972, includes colour photographs). Trachtenberg refers to a volume edited by James Alinder and entitled Wright Morris: Photographs & Words for Morris’s account of the origins of the “photo-texts”, but I still need to get hold of a copy so as to be able to read the account myself.

But then, as I discovered a couple of weeks ago while reading Pierre Assouline’s biography of Georges Simenon, in 1931 the French publisher Jacques Haumont launched a new series of novels combining text and image entitled “Phototexte” (no hyphen). Due to disappointing sales and a dispute between Simenon and the publisher, the first and ultimately only book in the series turned out to be La Folle d’Itteville by Simenon and the photographer Germaine Krull.

This would seem to mean that Haumont was the first to use the term, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that Trachtenberg was mistaken, of course. It would be surprising if Morris had heard of Simenon, let alone read La Folle d’Itteville, so perhaps Morris, too, paradoxically, was also the first to use the term “phototext”, though at a later date. But then again, who’s to say that Haumont was the first to use it, if he was at all? Perhaps he wasn’t. But then, when was it first used? And by whom? And what did the term refer to?

Turner and Badger's Photo TextsI got to thinking about all this recently when I came across a series of essays on photography in a small volume entitled Photo Texts (published by Travelling Light in 1988), a collection of writings by Peter Turner and Gerry Badger on photography: it consists of reviews of photography exhibitions and books, and essays to accompany exhibition catalogues. So there’s another meaning and another spelling. Photo Texts contains only one photograph, by Brian Griffin.

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Museum of Letters and Manuscripts, Brussels

A new Museum of Letters and Manuscripts (MLM) opened here in Brussels in late September. Housed in a former clothes shop located in the beautiful Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert or Koninklijke Sint-Hubertusgalerijen in the city centre, this is the Belgian branch of the Paris MLM, launched in 2004 by Gérard Lhéritier and which is currently located on the boulevard Saint-Germain.

The Brussels branch is spread out over two floors. The ground floor houses, besides the unavoidable gift shop, the temporary exhibitions. The first of these, running until 24 February 2012, is dedicated to none other than the best-selling Belgian writer of all time, Georges Simenon. The exhibition uses manuscripts, typescripts, photographs, first editions and more to provide a general overview of Simenon’s life, from his early days as a journalist in Liège to his conquest of Paris, from his residence in the United States after WWII to his return to Europe in the mid fifties.

Located on the first floor, the permanent exhibition consists of five sections: Art, Literature, History, Music, and Science. While there is some emphasis on Belgium and Belgian history – from Ensor to Magritte, from Jacques Brel to Hergé – there is also room for other nationalities: from Beckett to Hemingway, from Courbet to Einstein, from Dali to Wagner.

The collection is both relatively small and thus easy for visitors to take in in a couple of hours, while also sufficiently vast to offer a glimpse of a broad range of disciplines. I quite enjoyed it, since it is not often that one gets to see the letters, drawings, manuscripts, music scores, telegrams, typescripts and whatnot of such figures. One of my favourite pieces was a beautiful quatrain by Goethe in near-perfect French from 1829. Goethe was 80 years old at the time (the photo is slightly out of focus, but I hope it’s still readable):

Goethe quatrain at MLMMore info on the museum and the exhibitions on the museum’s website.

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Where are the women?

I see from that among their top ten most expensive sales in September there is a copy of Dessins, thèmes et variations by Henri Matisse. First published by Fabiani in Paris in 1943, this volume features an introduction by Louis Aragon and a poem by Tristan Tzara. It recently sold for £3,674, but if you’re interested, there are still copies available on AbeBooks, starting from £3,829.27 (plus shipping costs, of course): you can get your copy here.

Pictured above left is the drawing by Matisse shown to illustrate the volume on AbeBooks, and it immediately made me think of two Matisse drawings I saw reproduced in the novel The Art Lover by the New Jersey-born novelist Carole Maso (first published by North Point Press in 1990, the novel was issued in 2006 by New Directions: see the cover shown below left). The first of these two drawings (picture below centre) is entitled Head of a Woman, while the second (pictured below right) is entitled Virgin and Child on Starry Background.

And it struck me that, although I’ve already published close to 20 posts here, I haven’t yet written about The Art Lover, despite the fact that it is one of my favourite novels and, I would say, one of the best picture novels I’ve read. It tells the story of a (woman) writer dealing with the death of her father and that of a friend in a most refreshing manner, and besides these two drawings, it features other artworks, photographs, and newspaper clippings, all of which form a powerful and coherent whole with the text: both the pictures and the text are equally powerful and work well together.

What’s worse, I realized that so far I hadn’t published a single post on any woman writer, not one. And yet I’ve read, perhaps not all, but quite a lot of picture novels by women writers – from Leanne Shapton to Lynne Sharon Schwartz, from Theresa Cha to Marianne Wiggins, from A.S. Byatt to Lauren Groff – and I have no excuse for not writing about them earlier. So shame on me (but I will return to these writers and books in more detail in the future).

Last but not least, this in turn brought to mind another page in The Art Lover, featuring two posters by Guerrilla Girls on the position of “women artists and artists of color” in the art world. Their posters speak for themselves, I think:

Is it any different in the world of literature or of books? I don’t know, but it’s worth pointing out that of the above ten most expensive titles on AbeBooks, there is only one by a woman writer, namely P.D. James: a first edition of her novel Cover Her Face, published by Faber in 1962, sold for £3,281. Ironically, fifty years on, that title does not seem to have lost any of its relevance.

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