Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1967)


For the past few years, I have tried to pay closer attention to the prejudices that guide my reading habits, and to try, albeit slowly, to be more liberal in them. It is not easy for me, and I am rather at the beginning of this endeavor than the end. My reading tends to go hand-in-hand with projects which, however unlikely it is that I should complete them, are important to me, and that I would have to put off or postpone were I to make a resolution to read only women, say, for a year, as was fashionable for certain literary-minded people recently. I also would not care to start avowing – as I often get the sense some have – my enthusiasm for writers I don’t care for especially, in order to feel, and to give the impression, that I am on the right team, politically speaking. Jean Rhys, Gillian Rose, Christine Brooke-Rose, are all people widely praised who have left me indifferent. I do not say that they are bad – I am sure they are not bad – but that their writing didn’t move me. It is not a matter about which to be both decent and sincere, because sincerity, misread as “honesty,” so easily gives way to inconsideration and bluster, and there is always some measure of social reward ready for the person who breaks decorum and “tells it like it is,” even when telling it like it is involved willed ignorance, a lack of self-reflection, and plain meanness; to lie to oneself and others is ridiculous, and yet to imagine one’s tastes are pristine, and that my being unmoved by the aforementioned authors has to do with some unimpeachable facet of my personality immune to the contempt so long and so often shown to women’s writing would be naive.

At any rate, for reasons I have yet to clarify, I have found myself closer to women writers in certain genres than to those in others.  When I was writing Aesthetics of Degradation, I read a great deal of writing on traumatology, narratology, deviance, compassion, and so forth with no especial concern for its authorship, but when I put together the notes for it, I was surprised to find how important women scientists and scholars had been for me, from psychologist Katherine Nelson to neuroscientist Tania Singer to theologian Linda Holler, whose thesis that touch is integral to the development of moral sensibility I found intuitively convincing, despite her book’s mystical inclinations. For years, journalists like Alma Guillermoprieto and Anna Politkovskaya have impressed me with their bravery and rigor. And then there is poetry, which is a special case insofar as I have so little ear for it and am so easy to dismiss it. More and more, it is women poets who touch me deepest.

I don’t know why this should be, but maybe it has to do with a feeling for proportion in regards to the literary self. One of the worst habits evident in contemporary literature – derived, though I don’t think its perpetrators realize this, from the specious apologies so often profferred in business English – is the use of adverbs to qualify one’s own feelings. “I was deeply moved,” “I sincerely felt,” and the like. Not only is the English adverb always already suspect – a thing to be looked at askance, to be sounded out before use – not only is it often a mere spacer – in sentences of the “he caressed her softly” – but it also partakes of a twin arrogance a sensitive reader is likely to find repugnant: first, the need to take up space with oneself, to distinguish oneself by means of degree, to exaggerate the depth of one’s every sensation or thought, and second, the constant presumption of an understanding of oneself that flies in the face of psychology, of any intelligent person’s observations of human behavior, and often of the evidence the author gives of himself in his text.

The exaggeration of self, which finds its lowest expression in contemporary adverb-laden prose, is also, for me, the chief displeasure of so much poetry by men. Recently, for example, I have been reading Klaus Thewelet’s Book of Kings, devotes hundreds of pages to Gottfried Benn and particularly his “Death of Orpehus.” Benn is emblematic of the hunger for grandeur, the self-conscious ceremoniousness in donning the poet’s robes, a willed kinship with the classical that strikes me as no less infantile than the wish to imitate a superhero. This is not a criticism of Benn – I am not competent to criticize Benn – but simply a comment on my tastes. There is something unseemly to me about so much ambition.

Or to take another poet I enjoyed as a teenager, John Berryman – now so much of what I see in the Dream Songs is a pedantic inflation of sentimental self-regard.

The other day, my wife asked me to watch a film she had thought of showing one of her classes, The House is Black by Forough Farrokhzad – her copy of the film is subtitled in English, and she wondered whether her Spanish students would get bored if they didn’t understand the words. The film was moving (Mohsen Makhmalbaf has called it the most beautiful Iranian film): the images, which show affection not for suffering as an exemption, but for the world of those who suffer, and also the words.

Forough Farrokhzad published her first book of poetry at 19. She married young, had a son, and was early divorced. One has the impression that she lusted for freedom and suffered for it: her poems are filled with images of rupture, rebirth, and flight. She took several trips to Europe, and stayed some time in London, to study film. When she returned to Iran, she filmed The House is Black at a leper colony in Tabriz, the city whence Shams-i-Tabrizi, the spiritual teacher of Rumi, would travel, to Konya, where he encountered his student.


I cannot write about her work too much yet. I am only coming to know it. There are a few books in English, listen below. Here is the end of one of her long poems. Do not trust the translation; it is not from the original.

Perhaps the truth of those two young hands
those two young hands
remained buried beneath incessant snow
and when spring, in the coming year,
will sleep with the sky that lies past the window
and from its body the green fonts
will rise from the thin branches
then it will flower, my friend, my lone, close friend

Let us have faith in the coming of the cold season.

Hasan Javadi and Susan Sallee (trans): Another Birth: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad with her letters and interviews.
Farzaneh Milani, Veils and words: the emerging voices of Iranian women writers.
A Rebirth: Poems, translated by David Martin, with a critical essay by Farzaneh Milani.
Michael Craig Hillmann, An Autobiographical Voice: Forough Farrokhzad, in Women’s Autobiographies in Contemporary Iran, edited by Afsaneh Najmabadi.


Aditi Machado, Translator


Aditi Machado is a talented poet and translator as well as the editor of what is routinely the best part of Asymptote, its poetry section. I still remember how stunned I was at a selection of Romanian poetry from 2012*, though sadly, I have just discovered that the poem I remembered as beginning:
My compass aims north
But my dick still points to Romania

is a figment of my imagination. Occasionally, when I know the language of the original, I help Aditi sift through the slush pile, and am grateful for these occasions when I can think with another person, in a practical way, about what does and does not work in poetry and translation, and why. I also appreciate her indulging my curmudgeonliness.

Last year I found out she was translating Farid Tali’s Pospopopoeia** for Action Books, and recently I received a copy in the mail. I imagined I would like it, because the French publisher, Éditions P.O.L., is very good. The book opens with a poem by Jean-Baptiste Chassignet, a grim thing that reminds me of Andreas Gryphius. Aditi translates jointure, which might have been joint, juncture, or hinge, as swivel; it is an idiosyncratic choice, and it points to a particular vision in relation to the text.

The book consists of a young man’s observation of his brother’s body in in the course of a death that is not quite complete. His brother, a drug user, has died of AIDS at twenty-six. Later, the narrator will take a lover with his brother’s name.

A book of this kind succeeds or fails on the strength of its language, and the language of Prosopopoeia is rending.

The nose vanishes like sand on a dune. Ancient grains roll down, uncovering the virgin rock from which time had extracted them. One might say this nose is more perfect than the previous one. It too shall sink.

The green trees seemed greener, the sky bluer, how repugnant of them.

And with them the sheet rises releasing an odor like the end of breath.

It is the heel that dies most perfectly. Juvenile alabaster, it lets itself be mackled with death.

The bones, as though newborn branches, would wait prettily to fall.

My congratulations to everyone involved in the production of this book.

*See this essay by Cosmin Borza on contemporary Romanian poetry.

** I can never remember the definition of prosopopoeia. According to the Literary Encyclopedia:

Prosopopoeia identifies the specific rhetorical act of giving a voice to and speaking in the name of another person or an inanimate object. Greek in origin, prosopopoeia literally means “to make” (poeien) a “face” or “person” (prosopon) through the art, skill, or craft of rhetoric. Perhaps the most popular and enduring use of prosopopoeia is to make an absent or dead person present through speech. According to Abraham Fraunce in The Arcadian Rhetorike (1588), prosopopoeia is “a fayning of any person, when in our speech we represent the person… and make it speake as though he were in the present”

An almost seasonal translation


Cristina Campo is a magnificent poet, translator, and essayist I found out about from Flowerville. Since I first read her, I have wanted to translate a book of her into English, and I have done all the poems and an essay, but so far, no one has been interested. Part of the problem is that she wrote relatively little verse – around forty pages – so any volume of her work would have to be padded out with her essays and letters, which seems fine to me but is apparently an obstacle. It’s also possible that my translations are bad. Anyway, she wrote this poem on All Saints’ Day in 1954, for her fellow poet, Maria Luisa Spaziani, whom I have yet to read. I hope you enjoy it.

A Christmas Note to M.L.S.

Maria Luisa, how many times
Shall we gather our lives
in the cup of verse, like saints
cupping a turreted city in their palms?

Spring, how many times
will it hurl the grains of my sorrow
to the rain, and let them fall in your disconsolate
footsteps – in Saint Cloud or Giudecca?

Not even Christmas would suffice
to exchange the most complaisant fables:
the nettle shirts, the seven seas,
the dancing of the swords.

“Miraculously, time unfolds…”
It will bring back in time this minimal
current, a woman, an atom of fire:
us, who live without end.

All Saints’ Day, 1954


The Awfulness of Pablo Neruda

I posted this entry on my blog in 2014. Then someone introduced me to a Neruda scholar, and for assorted reasons, I thought it best to take it down. I remembered it when I saw the video of Bertolucci describing his plan to degrade the actress Maria Schneider in order to see “her reaction as a girl, not an actress.” Even the greatest art is worthless beside the real pain of another person, but I am also not sure that art in its highest expression is compatible with turpitude. Is Bertolucci great? I found Last Tango in Paris a meandering bore. Anyway, I am reposting this for whomever might care to read it.

For a long time, whenever someone used express admiration for Pablo Neruda, I assumed one of the following to be the case:

1) the person had not read Neruda, but has been convinced by some opinion-propagator of the Harold Bloom stamp that a stated appreciation of Neruda was de rigeur.

2) the person had read Neruda in English and had charitably assumed that the poetry was as good as people say it is in Spanish and that a great deal had been lost in translation.

3) the person majored in Spanish in college, was very likely a high school Spanish teacher, and was caught in the unpleasant situation of a) needing to be able to claim a favorite book or two in Spanish and b) never having cultivated a vocabulary sufficient to appreciate, for example, Valle-Inclán. Such people generally possess sufficient degree of shrewdness to appreciate that Paolo Coelho or Harry Potter, books they actually enjoy, don’t cut the mustard when it comes to impressing others, and tend to lean heavily of the books they read in their classes, two which are inevitably One Hundred Years of Solitude and Neruda’s Twenty Love Songs and a Song of Despair.

I began to think of Neruda again one day when my wife and I mused as to what possible justification might exist for the fame of the twenty-line emetic Me gustas cuando callas: a farrago of souls, stars, butterflies, smiles, and melancholy posing as a love poem although, like so much doggerel of its type, it is really an ode to the poet’s intuitions about the loftiness of his own feelings.

Periodically, “revelations,” as they are called, about the reprehensible behavior of some treasured creative figure or other prove an occasion for the trotting out, on the part of writers who enjoy posing provocative questions that they do not bother to answer, the old threadbare cliché about “separating the artist from the person”: Woody Allen, Klaus Kinski, Roman Polanski, and many others have fit the bill. When these scandals transpire, I am always dismayed by the mediocrity of the parties who, it is thought, might be redeemed by the value of their so-called contributions to culture. Of course, people like to bandy about the word genius, for the implied ability to appreciate genius is far more aggrandizing than a simple statement like, “I liked Annie Hall,” and this helps explain how frequently the term is abused. Do people really think Woody Allen and Roman Polanski are geniuses?  The good artist/bad person dilemma may relevant with someone like Céline, whose pages on the death of his cat Courtial’s failed attempts to grow potatoes via the telluric method really are as beautiful as his antisemitism was disgusting; but commoner by far is the bad artist who is also a bad person, upheld by admirers who ignore his depravity because to do otherwise would bring their own mediocrity to light.

It is remarkable the ease with which philandering poetasters can be resurrected as “great lovers of women.” In 1930 Neruda married Maria Antonieta Hagenaar, a Dutch woman of withdrawn character with only a partial grasp of Spanish (“I love you when you are silent.”). In 1934, she gave birth to their daughter Malva, who was hydrocephalic. Neruda described her in a letter as “a perfectly ridiculous being, like a semicolon.” Not long before before, Neruda had begun an affair with Delia del Carril. He abandoned his wife and daughter in Marseilles two years afterward. In a letter to Delia, he complains of having to trim his own fingernails, but celebrates that once again, he feels alive. After Malva’s death in 1943, with her home country overrun by Nazis, Maria attempted to gain passage to Chile, but Neruda, who was a well-connected diplomat by trade, managed to prevent her doing so.

In his memoirs, Confieso que he vivido, Neruda tells the following story:

When I rented [my bungalow], I tried to find out where the toilet was; I couldn’t see it anywhere. Actually, it was nowhere near the shower, it was at the back of the house. I inspected it with curiosity. It was a wooden box with a hole in the middle, very much like the artifact I had known as a child in the Chilean countryside. But our toilets were set over a deep well or over running water. Here the receptacle was a simple metal pail under the round hole.

The pail was clean every morning, but I had no idea how its contents disappeared. One morning I rose earlier than usual, and I was amazed when I saw what had been happening.

Into the back of the house, walking like a dusky statue, came the most beautiful woman I had yet seen in Ceylon, a Tamil of the pariah caste. She was wearing a red-and-gold sari of the cheapest kind of cloth. She had heavy bangles on her bare ankles. Two tiny red dots glittered on either side of her nose. They must have been ordinary glass, but on her they were rubies.

She walked solemnly toward the latrine, without so much as a side glance at me, not bothering to acknowledge my existence, and vanished with the disgusting receptacle on her head, moving away with the steps of a goddess.

She was so lovely that, regardless of her humble job, I couldn’t get her off my mind. Like a shy jungle animal she belonged to another kind of existence, a different world. I called to her, but it was no use. After that, I sometimes put a gift in her path, a piece of silk or some fruit. She would go past without hearing or looking. That ignoble routine had been transformed by her dark beauty into the dutiful ceremony of an indifferent queen.

One morning, I decided to go all the way. I got a strong grip on her wrist and stared into her eyes. There was no language I could talk with her. Unsmiling, she let herself be led away and was soon naked in my bed. Her waist, so very slim, her full hips, the brimming cups of her breasts made her like one of the thousand-year-old sculptures from the south of India. It was the coming together of a man and a statue. She kept her eyes wide open all the while, completely unresponsive. She was right to despise me. The experience was never repeated.

I could not help, when reading this, to recollect the hair-raising mendacity of Louis Althusser’s account of his murdering of his wife, recently examined by Anne Boyer in the New Inquiry. Although their rationales differ, both share the particular wispy tone common to men who have been made to believe, by what must in the end be condemned as a constitutional enervation of western high culture, that their feelings are more moving, their regrets more valid, their transports more ethereal, than those of other people.

It is bracing to recall, in this connection, that Chekhov, an artist and thinker incomparably superior to any mentioned here thusfar, when attempting to explain in a letter to his younger brother the nature of culture, ignored nonsense about art and nobility of spirit, and listed, as the first quality cultured people must satisfy, “a respect human personality, “ as the fruit of which “they are always kind, gentle, polite, and ready to give in to others.”

Roger Lewinter


Roger Lewinter, photographed beautifully by Jean-Marc Martin du Theil

Recently some kind, intuitive soul at New Directions sent me advanced copies of two books that moved me a great deal by the to-me unknown writer Roger Lewinter: The Attraction of Things and Story of Love in Solitude, both translated by Rachel Careau. I had hoped to review them formally, but the two places I pitched to didn’t write me back, and the summer was so busy that I gave up on the idea.

A scholar of Diderot and translator of numerous writers from German, particularly the enigmatic physician Georg Groddeck, Lewinter was born in Montaubon to Austrian Jewish parents and now lives in Geneva. He reminds me very slightly of Francis Ponge, and of Jean Grenier’s Vie Quotidienne and Sur la mort d’un chien, the second of which is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. There is a curious acuteness of perception in Lewinter that has something to do with exhaustion, as though the author’s weariness excused him from overembellishment; “affective perception” I have written in the margins, because his portrayal of persons and objects, though disinclined to sentimentalism, never settles for mere scrutiny. The settings of the stories are dull, but longing renders them taut:

Svetlana, in welcoming me, had imbued my name with a softness that was foreign to me, making me wish to be this self, since it seemed that it could have some softness in it.

It is as if, at each moment, the author is asking himself first, if this is all there is, and second, whether it might not suffice. He speaks of the “possibilities” of a coveted shawl, and says of the sounds of antique LPs:

…at the flea market, I no longer remember at whose stand, I found two ten-inch Odeon records: four Spanish dances interpreted by La Argentina, which I listened to now, the body that played them having dematerialized, to dance through a scansion, ultimately purely abstract. where a sharp tap of the castanets sufficed to evoke in its brilliance the entirety of beauty.

Unusually, both books are published with the original French following the English translation. In the blurb, Lydia Davis has called the translation “masterful” (masterly, Fowler would say). I enjoyed the English versions, but I would have to reread the books more attentively, and look more closely at the French, to know what I think. “Having misunderstood what is beyond understanding” seems to me a strange rendition of “au scandale m’étant mépris,” (though the phrase on its own has an odd charm), and in places, the writing feels a little clotted. But this is not easy material: the sentences incorporate sinuous and staccato elements, their  parts are delicately arranged as in a mobile sculpture; Careau is aware of this, is respectful of it, and has a good ear. Lewinter lulls, then trips up the reader, with a proliferation of dashes, colons, and semicolons; the effect of strain between elegance and the obsession for inclusion is remarkable.

Sebald’s Poetry and Constraint

Recently I was invited to Stockholm to participate in a seminar on the poetry of W.G. Sebald. For those familiar with his prose, myself included, Sebald’s poetry can prove cryptic. The following is my presentation, which I wrote largely in an attempt to clarify certain aspects of the poems to myself. I am posting it for those who might be interested, with thanks and acknowledgements to Axel Englund, the conference organizer, and the other participants.

The Poetry of W.G. Sebald copy.jpg

It is almost certainly asking too much that the right thing be liked for the right reason, and so, when a writer such as W.G. Sebald becomes a sensation, selling hundreds of thousands of books, while Jean Améry, Kluge, and many of those on whose shoulders he stood remain cult authors at best, I cannot help but feel a measure of suspicion. In my own country, the United States, which is not renowned for the thoroughness of its concern with the historical antecedents of disaster, I have the sense that it is may be too costly, psychologically, to take a proper inventory of the countless infamies to which we have been party, and that the periodic symbolic condemnation of nazism has come to stand in for proper self-reckoning. Hence, in a country that by European standards translates nothing, you find on the lists of bestsellers, year’s best, and various other bests, the whole menu of Holocaust entertainments: Bernhard Schlink for the followers of Oprah’s book club, Modiano for the upper-middlebrow, and Sebald somewhere near the top.

The poetry, though, has sidestepped somewhat the weight of Sebald’s legacy, in part because, being less explicitly condemnatory, it eludes readers whose enthusiasms reflect their vision of themselves as moral actors. The poems are vague, and have about them only the aftertaste of a melancholy that is expressed, in Sebald’s fiction, in a systematic form. Of course, it was also published well after the peak of the Sebald craze, and even in the most fortunate cases, poetry is a commercially dubious undertaking.

Before proceeding, I would like to delimit somewhat the boundaries of my own inquiry. When I speak of Sebald’s poetry, it is generally with reference to the more or less fragmentary verses of Across the Land and the Water. I ignore After Nature insofar as, to me, it represents an intermediate stage between the earlier poetry and the mature prose works; most of the poetic effects found therein have their equivalents in the novels, and the themes, the approach taken to them, and even the syntax are hardly distinguishable. I overlook as well the late poems For Years Now and Unrecounted, which for me are simply too gnomic to arouse any particular emotional effect.

An essential document for approximating Sebald’s thinking about poetry is his 1975 conversation with Rainer Kunze, in which he quotes from the poet’s book Zimmerlautstärke: “The poem as stabilizer, as an orientation-point of the I.” Later he describes poetry as a form of self-therapy, as a way of achieving a degree of freedom, as a method for making the earth inhabitable. I think it is clear these are not mere literary-critical remarks, but impend upon Sebald’s own evolving poetic praxis as well as on the later prose works, in which disorientation, the fragmentation of identity, and art as, at once, a symptom of and a countercharm against madness will have pride of place. From the beginning, the poetic object, for Sebald, is linked to a sense of instability which is first of all perspectival. This is apparent in the switch of viewpoints in the untitled opening poem of both the English and German editions of Sebald’s poetry, in which an observer from a train car is observed to vanish by the landscape he himself had seemed to be observing, as well as in the quote from Merleau-Ponty’s Le visible et l’invisible that Sebald arranges into a stanza in Unrecounted:

I have felt

On certain days

That it was

The trees which

Were watching me.

We see similar reversals throughout Sebald’s mature work, notably in the Nocturnium episode in Austerlitz. This perspectival instability has a passive and an active component; in other words a psychological and programmatic aspect. As far as the former, Sebald asserts that human history, humankind, must be observed not with reference to the liberal ideal of the emancipated individual as posited from the Enlightenment onward, but as a natural-historical, mass phenomenon within which the individual is borne along, to quote Georges Bataille, “like a wave lost among many other waves.” To the extent that consciousness transcends this organic or materialist aspect of human history, it does so less through resistance than through neurotic behaviors that incorporate and reproduce in miniature the nature-transfiguring movements of the larger mass: I am thinking here of the countless poets, scholars, artists, and tinkerers who populate Sebald’s work, whose disposition is inevitably saturnine and encumbered. This extends to Sebald himself, who frequently commented with evident displeasure on his métier as writer and scholar, its dubious merit, and its necessary kinship to melancholy and exhaustion, seen again, to return to the poetry, in his portrayal of “exhausted eyes” of the novelist Marianne Fritz in the fairly late poem In Alfermée.

The sense of self-displacement necessary, epistemologically, if one is to examine human conduct from the natural-historical perspective as opposed to that of individual freedom, necessarily stresses the moment of embodiment as an intermediate stage between generation and destruction, bordered at either end by the extinction of the consciousness-mechanism. Anyone who has considered life deliberately in this way knows how unsettling it is, and how urgently the need assails one to subsume the resultant horror, whether through the attenuation of consciousness into intellectual flights of fancy or more robust methods of self-abnegation.

Concerning the programmatic aspect, it might be best to turn to Sebald’s 1984 essay on Canetti, which is a categorical denunciation of the creative propensities of authority. Canetti, according to Sebald,

Describes the processes of power as those of a closed system which, in perpetuation of itself, continually makes victims of outsiders.

Sebald goes on to declare the “fundamental affinity between power-politics and paranoia” as the basis for a totalizing impulse, “a longing for total order” for which life is dispensable. Though initially, Sebald’s critique seems applicable to a more traditional understanding of power, the artistic implications of his words become clear in his disparagement of the attempt, on the part of novelistic culture in the course of the diffusion of bourgeois society, to develop comprehensive codices and systems. As examples he offers the brothers Mann, Broch, Musil, Arnold Zweig, and Döblin, contrasting them approvingly with Canetti’s assertion, after abandoning his intention to compose his own Comédie Humaine, that “Every work, by its sheer mass, is a violation. One must find other, purer means of self-expression.”

In this critique of power, of authority, lie the roots of Sebald’s inclination for the oblique and a preference for letting others speak to the detriment of his own voice. In the late prose work, this will evolve into an almost medieval method of attributing auctoritas to a select group of figures, most of them marked by exile and suffering, for whose words Sebald limits himself to providing annotations, as though there were something inherently validating about the standpoint of the victim. This approach develops over time, and is first fully evident the two initial cantos of After Nature, in the biographical sketches of Grünewald and Steller. The appropriation of biography, and in particular the absorption of others’ words into what thereby becomes an intersubjective text, are the culmination of writing as bricolage, such as Sebald practiced and sang the praises of throughout his life. Well known for his hostility to the traditional strictures of academic writing and investigation, Sebald praised bricolage as a “pre-modern form of research” that was, presumably, untainted by the totalitarian residue of ends-based rationality.

The process begins, as early as 1967, with scattered or occasionally more allusions: to Butor in the long poem Breston, to Félix Timmerman in Winter Poem, most significantly for me, because in the kind of source employed and the author’s slightly aloof perspective, Dürer in Pneumatological Prose. Slowly, acquired knowledge, arranged more or less cryptically, comes to stand in for the natural locus of sentiment in sensation and memory.

… I should probably say something about coincidence, since it was the ostensible subject of my presentation but has largely disappeared from its final version. Coincidence is a uniting thread of Sebald’s mature prose work, subsuming otherwise disparate themes and providing a sense of order, however haunting, for historical and organic processes tending toward entropy and chaos. Because it lies, or appears to lie, beyond the author’s or narrator’s influence, coincidence, like photographs and other documentary evidence, provides a means for establishing global narratives that dispense with the more dubious aspects of authorship. In general, whether because of formal restraints or a lack of definitive method, these ordering mechanisms are mostly absent in the poems, which thus become exemplary of the primitive aesthetic encounter between Sebald and his material. The poems’ subjects are fragmentary, but whereas the fragmentary form has at times been adopted, particularly in thrall to a certain probably fallacious notion of the aims and capacities of so-called Eastern poetry, to emphasize and draw attention to the sufficiency of the object in itself, in Sebald the fragment seems to be reaching outward, as though to alert the reader to an absence without which it is incomprehensible.

The question as to whether the fragmentary in itself is possessed of sufficient artistic vigor or whether it represents an intermediate stage to be contrasted with the highly finished later prose works is an open one, though it appears that for Sebald, the choice was not an absolute one. While Sebald recycled parts of his poems in After Nature as well as in the novels, he continued to write poetry throughout his life, indicating that there was, so to speak, a remainder that the prose works failed to subsume and for which poetry continued to be the most adequate means of expression.

An example of these contrasting methods is clear in the specific brevity of Sebald’s meeting with one poet, Jesse Kleemann, viewed against his extensive narration of an afternoon spent with the schizophrenic Ernst Herbeck, as recounted in Vertigo. Herbeck is introduced with a capsule biography and a photograph, is described at length, and two examples of his work are presented, including a very charming improvised verse about England.

Jesse Kleemann, on the other hand, appears as a pure anecdote, slightly sensationalized as a “living / Greenlandic / poet in the flesh” uttering “double vowels and double vees” with several words left in something approximating her original language. Given first that Kleeman’s appearance at the Literarisches Colloquium in Berlin took place in late 1997, second that the idiom of other Sebald poems from around that time is much closer to that of the prose works, and third that it was prepared for publication, Calm November Weather should not be thought of as a draft or an abstract; clearly Sebald, who was famously scrupulous in such matters, saw it as a proper piece of work.

It is perhaps wistful to say that it was only in brief snatches that Sebald could permit the intrusion of bare life, stripped of literary references, temporal coincidences, historical connections, and so forth, but it is true that here, and in such poems as I Remember, composed in English, a hint emerges of another, less laden, possibly warmer kind of writing toward Sebald might have tended toward, had it not been for his untimely death.

Sebald’s untranslated interviews

Only recently did I become aware of Auf ungeheuer dünnem Eis, an anthology of interviews with W.G. Sebald, edited by Torsten Hoffmann. Who knows why it isn’t translated? Beyond offering insight into Sebald’s early concerns, his sometimes surprising sources, and his manner of composition, it gives much to consider for writers inclined to reckoning with disaster and tragedy, but hopeful of sidestepping the sanctimonious kitsch and self-regard that often thwart the longing for gravitas.

Most interesting for me were the frequent references to natural history: concerning Karl Kraus, Sebald speaks of the “corruption of society as an almost natural-historical phenomenon”; the same goes for the degradation of syntax and grammar between the seventeenth and early twentieth centuries, and particularly of the conception of mankind:

What a Roussea produced in a single day in correspondence alone, composed in consummate French! For us today, such a thing is almost impossible, and I have the feeling that our weakening grasp of language across the course of time is a generalized, almost natural-historical phenomenon.

Mankind does not consist, as we still hoped in our liberal daydreams in the 19th century, of emancipated, autonomous individuals. It constitutes an at times heterogeneous, but in principal homogeneous mass. This mass has a molecular structure – that is, individuals – which may transition into another aggregate state. The more one heats a mass, the faster the molecules move, and all at once, the point is reached at which the fluid of mankind takes on a gaseous form.

… the individual, the lone autonomous essence, the superordinate, that is a mere dream we have elaborated in our bourgeois epoch. In fact, man is a collective phenomenon…

Regarding his method, Sebald speaks frequently of bricolage and of the need to foment coincidence, by travel and by an intimate engagement with primary source materials (an aspect of Sebald’s work seemingly lost on his legions of imitators):

This is a form of aboriginal labor, of pre-rational thinking, in which one rustles about in casually accumulated debris until a pattern somehow emerges.

On the importance of the material in his work: Things have a mute history… in objects, something like a mute, wordless history is condensed.

On Kafka: he experienced his own life as illegitimate.

He dwells as well on the diminished meaning of place-names in a time of unrelenting progress, of the relation between architectural monumentalism and paranoia, the evocativeness of black-and-white photography, the distinction between melancholy and depression, but I ought not quote too much here. The most painful and also most poignant impression the book leaves me with is Sebald’s sense of the transitory nature of the human perspective, which emerges as the outgrowth of overdetermining organic processes and will vanish, despite the delusion of individual sovereignty, at those same processes’ behest, leading one to wonder to what extent the longing for suicide inspired by the unfathomable magnitude of life on earth is actually a form of nostalgia…

NB: The translations here are approximate and should not be quoted.


From Josef Winkler, Graveyard of Bitter Oranges

I no longer remember Volker Lehrer, the older of the teacher’s two boys, save that he used to wear leather short pants and red wool stockings, that he was a dim-witted loser who tried too hard, and that he used to wrestle on the ground with his brother Gabriel, who liked to run up behind him and kick him in the seat of his leather trousers. Perhaps I remember Gabriel better because he is dead, and it arouses me more to write about the dead than to write while I think about the living. When his mother, Frau Bergjordan, as we used to call her, wanted him to come home, she would open the living room window in the schoolhouse where they lived, put a shrill black whistle to her lips, and empty her lungs into it. Does she stand sometimes before his grave, stuff the mouthpiece of her black whistle between her lips, and call out to him, telling him to come home? Dinner’s ready! You’ve got homework to do! There’s nothing else for you to do in the village once the evening bells have rung! Gabriel Lehrer took his life a few years after Jakob and Robert, who hanged themselves from the same rope in the parish house barn in my village. Gabriel was found dead by his mother and father, with a bullet in his blood-drenched head, in his parents’ room in Villach. His father, who taught me in my first two years of school, also took his own life a few years later. He died of an overdose of sleeping pills; shortly before, the doctor had diagnosed him with terminal cancer. He, who had spent his retirement traveling all over the world, said a few days before his death, Soon I will take my final journey! Sometimes, when he heard his mother’s long, shrill whistle, Gabriel would hide out on the Aichholzers’ farm, in the stables among the restive horses, in the hay shed, or behind the mill, and he would stay there for hours without moving. Ten or twenty times, and half an hour later ten or twenty times more, and again, ten or twenty times after another half-hour, and ten or twenty times after twenty more minutes had passed, his mother would blow her lungs out into the mouthpiece of the shrill black whistle, peering between the two flaps of the open window on the second floor of the schoolhouse and looking left and right before giving up for another hour. When she lies on her deathbed, will she breathe her last sigh into the black whistle she used in the village to summon her two sons, Gabriel and Volker? The church bells resounded through the village at eleven in the morning and seven in the evening. Through the snowcapped village, irregular and strident, Miss Bergjordan’s whistle would blare whenever she wanted her two boys, who were always fighting, closer to hand. Lunch is ready! The water’s running in the bathtub! The wood’s not been chopped yet! Back when I used to steal money from my father or mother –– I no longer know exactly from which, maybe from both, to split the blame, the debt they owed me for my birth –– I would go to Paternion and buy stacks of Fix and Foxi comics from the shortsighted tobacconist, whom I stole from often enough too, and after I had leafed through them, I would give them to Gabriel Lehrer to read. Sometimes we would sit in an old carriage in the Aichholzers’ tool shed behind the stables. Chickens would run past us or settle down not far from our feet, nestling their bodies in the warm, dry earth, and peacock feathers lay here and there, the warmth of the birds’ bodies still present in the feathers’ waxy white quills. Gabriel Lehrer would ask me where I got the money to buy the comics. I would give an evasive answer. I used to take the church circular from house to house, I was the first acolyte, and in the spring I sold bouquets of snowdrops to passing tourists, from a young age I earned my own money, like the street children in Naples. Besides the comic books, I bought profiteroles, macaroons, and cream horns that we devoured in the carriage shed, bent over those tawdry stories. Gabriel Lehrer would trade these pulps the next day at the high school in Villach, and that day or the day after, we would be able to settle in again, the sharp scent of chicken dung in our noses, and pore over our reading in the Aichholzers’ shed until his mother’s shrill whistle would make us raise our heads. We would hide the dime store sagas under a dusty board in the carriage shed and set a time to meet back there, so we could read further. Later he suggested I give him the money so he could go to Villach and buy new Fix and Foxi comics, because the selection, as he described it, was much better there than in the country tobacconist’s. Resolutely, while my mother wandered through the cemetery with her watering can, I walked into the pantry, opened a drawer, and took out her wallet. If there was only one tenner among the loose change, I wouldn’t touch it; but there were many mixed in, so I took one, maybe even two. A few days later, Gabriel Lehrer –– who has taken his own life, like his father, in the interim –– brought me the tattered, ratty pulps he claimed to have bought with my money. Does he now, lying beneath the earth –– with blood still pouring from the bullet wound in his head –– read to the end those Fix and Foxi comics we never managed to finish, because the shrill piping of his mother as she leaned out of the house, looking around between the two flaps of the windows, blowing over and over into her black whistle, always interrupted us?

Graveyard of Bitter Oranges is available from Contra Mundum Press

Selfies, Contemporary Literature, and the Presumption of Interest

Epidemiology offers a fruitful perspective to consider the malignancies evident in much contemporary writing. My perceptions here are far from universal, first because no one can get a proper grasp on what is happening in literature everywhere, and second because I am not an especially voracious reader. Yet more and more I am seeing not just the usual badness, but a particular and I think new kind of badness in the books I come across, which I doubt can be divorced from the documented rise in narcissistic traits in so-called Western countries – a real trend, even if most of the writing about it is vague, tawdry, and alarmist –  and from the peculiar distortions effected on subjectivity, not only by social media, but by the compulsion to identity that appears a part of our Zeitgeist.

The cardinal feature of the badness in question appears to be the presumption either of inherent interest or of a claim on others’ interest independent of the aesthetic virtues of the text in question (the word aesthetic is marked off here because in certain cases, other putative virtues appear to displace, substitute for, or supersede aesthetic value). Dividing the two is a thorny task: in general, one might say that exemplars of the first tend to enjoy the favor of some already extant mediator of regard or privilege, while those of the second seek to exploit some aspect of their alienation from said mediators as evidence of a reprehensible exclusion from consideration.

In books of this kind, though the author may believe himself to have produced something of value, the actual burden of generating interest is passed off onto the reader, who, if he fails in this task, is subject to one of two sorts of opprobrium: the age-old charge of philistinism, if the author is established, or that of bigotry, if the author is excluded, subaltern, or what have you. In either case, the predominant feeling for the reader who is aware of, but has not succumbed to, advance praise, browbeating, or the obligation to enjoy, is boredom, exasperation, and vague, persistent irritation.

Such writing finds its analogue in the perplexing phenomena of social media: the selfie and particularly the status update. In an essay on Ben Lerner and Teju Cole for Uwe Schütte’s Über W.G. Sebald, I used the term “literary selfie” to describe these writers’ work, which is less concerned with the places, circumstances, or persons described therein than with the authors’ prominent visibility against the backdrop they provide. A recent study in Toronto by Dr. Daniel Re, et al. concluded that “Selfies may therefore produce the photographic equivalent of a meta-perceptual blind spot,” and found that “Selfie-takers generally overperceived the positive attributes purveyed by their selfies.” I have the sense that similar illusions obtain in the literary selfie: that authors who believe they are conveying probity, sagacity, and acumen in general manifest obtuseness, inconsideration, and intolerable self-regard.

As these traits come to predominate, writing suffers in interesting ways. Plotting, traditionally the source of tension, becomes slipshod and piecemeal, because the presumption that the reader is always already interested strips it of urgency, and the rationale for a given incident’s presence in the text is often vague. Repetitions abound, because the author, like a friend who insistently posts photographs of his meals or of drunken nights out with friends, has lost sight of the possibility that he might be boring. In Leaving the Atocha Station, for example, there are forty-seven references to the narrator’s fluency in Spanish, or lack thereof, eighteen to taking pills, thirty-five to drinking coffee, fifty-three to cannabis, twenty-three to the narrator’s “project,” and fifty-eight instances of the word “whatever.” Less than plotting, in the traditional sense, or character development, such iterations privilege a view of the subject as an accumulation of self-perceptions or “status updates.” This may account as well for the preponderance of adverbs in many books of this sort, which qualify non-falsifiable gradations of emotion.

The trouble with such writing, beyond its obvious complicity with the self-commodification increasingly requisite for literary success, and the abominable nature of a world in which the enticement of embodying an image or a product eclipses the temptation to be, is its vast incuriosity, its retrograde supposition of the fixity of the self. Even at its most brooding, it seems affected, more concerned with the lineaments of meditation than with its mechanics or the strange shores it might lead to, as though its representatives, starting to cramp from the unnatural posture, are already rankling, ready to post their update and move on.

Aesthetics of Degradation

AOD cover.jpg

Today marks the publication of my first book, The Aesthetics of Degradation. I had considered posting some acknowledgements here, but when I started writing them, they came out too grandiose, so I nixed the idea. The book is about pornography, specifically pornography centered on the brutalization of women, a phenomenon that raises fewer eyebrows than it should and strikes me as an ominous symptom of the drift of present-day masculinity; but equally important are the themes of memory and justice and the integrity of the self over time. It is a novel, and I would like it to be taken as such, though publication also means relinquishment of control over how something will be read and interpreted.

Here is a link to the publisher’s page, with information about ordering: