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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