America’s frontier is endless, just as any other aspect of our past, our history, is endless, and endlessly available to us. – Paul Metcalf
Certain books enthrall us, set us on a quest to discover more — not just the author’s complete bibliography, but the author’s influences and acknowledged peers. I think of them as gateway writers. — W.G. Sebald was one for me; because of my total admiration for his books I sought out I don’t know how many authors he mentioned in their pages or in interviews – Jean Améry, Alexander von Humboldt, Thomas Bernhard (did I already know Bernhard?), Adelbert Stifter, Gottfried Keller… Later there was Joseph McElroy, whose essays and interviews opened the door to truly dozens of books I might not have discovered until much later, or ever: Nicholas Mosley, Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas, A.R. Ammons, Michel Butor’s Mobile and Degrees, Harold Brodkey, Galway Kinnell’s terrible Book of Nightmares, E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, and last but certainly not least, PAUL METCALF.
In turn, the work of Metcalf came to occupy the same central place in my thoughts as Sebald’s & McElroy’s before, and Metcalf became a gateway author for me.
Why Metcalf? Metcalf’s work plunges us headlong into the history of the Americas in all its manifest plurality. Using sophisticated montage techniques and synthesizing reams of material, always with a poet’s ear, Metcalf constructs versions of the historical record that resound into the continuous present. (The past is not even past, to paraphrase Faulkner; indeed, Metcalf’s achievement is in part to have captured that immediacy.)
Metcalf’s landmark works include :
-Genoa, 1965. Metcalf’s early novel, written after he had systematically read through the entirety of Herman Melville’s work (Melville was in fact an ancestor of his), explores themes of teratology (monstruousness, and anatomical pathologies), genetics, seafaring, and the elusiveness of identity (in particular, those of Melville and Christopher Columbus).
-Patagoni, 1971. Part travelogue, part meditation on mobility across the American continent, via Henry Ford’s invention of the automobile and the native mythologies of Peru, this is as weird and wild as anything Metcalf published. It is segmented into three discontinuous sections. Beautifully published by The Jargon Society — see picture above.
-Apalache, 1976. A kaleidoscopic exploration of the geological and human history of eastern North America, Apalache might be the pinnacle of Metcalf’s œuvre. The book’s epic scope and its inventive visual prosody are unsurpassable, in my opinion.
-Waters of Potowmack, 1982. A documentary history of the Potomac River watershed, from its discovery and settlement on up to the 1960s, Waters of Potowmack eschews the irregular prosody so characteristic of much of Metcalf’s work, in favor of simple blocks of prose. What we have here is a chronological compendium of a place. In a similar vein is Mountaineers Are Always Free! (1991), Metcalf’s short history of West Virginia (recommended).
-Those are the big ones. But there are also a great many shorter works not to be missed, including Firebird, U.S. Dept. of Interior, Golden Delicious, and Both. And there are probably a dozen other short ones, in addition to The Middle Passage and I-57. More on these another time, perhaps.
Paul Metcalf as photographed by Jonathan Williams.
From the jacket of Metcalf’s Araminta and the Coyotes (Jargon Society, 1991).
Metcalf was never fashionable, come to think of it, although he did elicit the admiration of many of his peers, from Genoa (1965) onwards. I will be writing more about Metcalf, as I am writing an encyclopedia entry about his life & work. It’s going to take some time.
For those whose curiosity is piqued, here are some good links of freely available Metcalf. Anything I can to do to promote this man’s adventurous view of history, I will do. You’ll find some video footage of him jaunting about in Ohio, visiting Alex Gildzen, as well as a brief recording of him reading from Patagoni and Apalache.
One last word to the wise: Metcalf’s works can be found from used sellers in the U.S.A., often very cheap, sometimes in elegant first editions (see in particular Patagoni and Both, published by The Jargon Society), or very cheap indeed in the 3-volume Collected Works published by Coffee House Press in 1996-1997 ($8 for all 3 volumes + shipping, last time I looked). Also, a few of his books (The Middle Passage, Both, Araminta and the Coyotes) are available in 1st ed. new and sold by the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, who act now as the custodian of The Jargon Society’s remaining stock. (As for The Jargon Society, that’s a whole nother story.)
– Audio & images –
A selection of items from the Paul Metcalf archive, now in the possession of the New York Public Library. Some typewritten letters, photos, + lots more.
A four-minute video by Alex Gildzen, a friend & admirer of Metcalf’s, with home movie footage showing Metcalf gallivanting about in various locations over the years.
A recording of Paul Metcalf reading some of his work at a public reading in 1975. At about the 1 hr. mark, Metcalf reads “Darlington, South Carolina,” the opening section of his book Patagoni (1971); “Sable Island,” a section from Apalache (1976); and a very short poem called “Moby’s Brothel.”
– Interviews –
A long, in-depth 1981 interview with Metcalf by John O’Brien, publisher of Dalkey Archive.
1983 interview with George Myers, Jr. at Gargoyle Magazine.
– Miscellaneous –
Various bits about Metcalf, with some excerpts from From Quarry Road, over at Dan Visel’s blog, with hidden noise.
Various Metcalf discussion at John Latta’s blog, Isola di Rifiuti.
Metcalf’s obituary in the New York Times, after his death from a heart attack buying apples at a farmer’s market in 1999.
A 1999 eulogy of Metcalf and note on meeting Metcalf, by Allan Kornblum, founder of Coffee House Press, who published Metcalf’s complete works in 3 volumes.
A 1999 eulogy by Lucia Berlin, discussing a book project to which Metcalf contributed, Headlands: The Marin Coast at the Golden Gate.
A review by David McCooey of Metcalf’s 3-volume Collected Works.
My latest revelation has been the works of Susan Howe, an American poet and essayist. Since the 1970s, Howe has been fashioning original works from early American historical narratives, including those that document the violent encounter of New England colonists with Native Americans. It contains many other aspects, too, I’m sure, but for now this is what seems most present and palpable in her work — taking inspiration from historical and documentary texts, and the period of early American colonial conflict.
I was referred to her work by a Twitter acquaintance some time ago after mentioning in conjunction two other authors (Paul Metcalf and W.G. Sebald) whose work plunges us headlong into the past, and I have since read several of her books: That This (2010), The Birth-Mark (1993), Frame Structures: Early Poems 1974-1979 (1996), and Singularities (1990).
My enjoyment of her work I think stems from the disorientation and awe I feel on a first reading. These are texts that demand a second reading if we are to truly get at them. And those second readings, too, are limited in what they reveal. It would be very hard to succinctly say what she’s up to, in fact it’s quite varied among the works I refer to above; but as a general observation, her work seems to be constructed on principles of quotation, lexical borrowing and combination, unusual typographical arrangements. What’s really extraordinary, though, is the way her work confronts, sometimes obliquely, sometimes very directly, the power and violence that are implicit in conquest and (historical) interpretation.
In The Birth-Mark, for instance, in the context of an essay about Emily Dickinson (“These Flames and Generosities of the Heart: Emily Dickinson and the Illogic of Sumptuary Values”), Howe underlines the fact that
It is over a hundred years after her death; if I am writing a book and I quote from one of her letters or poems and use either the Johnson or Franklin edition of her texts, I must obtain permission from and pay a fee to
The President and Fellows of Harvard College / and the Trustees of Amherst College.
Indeed, that is outrageous. (It’s not hard, in light of this travesty of liberalism, to see why Howe titled another of her books My Emily Dickinson.) How can institutions like Harvard and Amherst claim to be advocates of scholarly inquiry, while controlling the dissemination of and access to Dickinson’s work in that way? For an institution of higher learning, this is rank hypocrisy.
As I read through Howe’s poems lately (what generalizations I’m making here refer mostly to Frame Structures and Singularities, her two books freshest in my mind), I am lost much of the time, as if in the American wilderness that forms the scenic background of the poems. I move along understanding only a fraction of what I read, grasping for bits and pieces that make me feel less lost. A fragment hoves into view for a moment, crystallizing the understanding —
infinite miscalculation of history (in Articulations of Sound Forms in Time, published in Singularities, p. 17)
and is gone. I have the sense the effect is itself calculated — not a sign of the poet’s failure to communicate or achieve coherence or cogency, but intentional. We are meant to be lost, phenomenologically, lexically. As we are lost in history, or in this present. We salvage what shards we can.
More on Howe later, maybe. I’m captivated. For now, I invite you to listen to any number of recordings of her reading from and discussing her work at PennSound.
Following on the theme of my last post on W.G. Sebald, I thought I’d drag out this old find to see if any of this blog’s readers can help my understanding of an unusual change that occurred to a photograph in Sebald’s Die Ausgewanderten: Vier lange Erzählungen (1992) when it was translated by Michael Hulse and published in English by Harvill as The Emigrants (1996).
Part three of The Emigrants is a kind of family history, or intimate biography, of the narrator’s great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth that ostensibly draws on and incorporates postcards, photographs, and a diary/travelogue directly into the text. In 1913, on the eve of WW I, Adelwarth and another man travel from France to Istanbul and to the Holy Land. “On the 27th of November Ambros notes that he has been to Raad’s Photographic Studio in the Jaffa Road and has had his picture taken, at Cosmo’s wish, in his new striped robe” (p. 140-41).
Oddly enough, the German-language text of the book (at least the one I consulted – Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1997) reveals a different image, one which encloses the portrait-sitter within a photostudio border.
Why the change? Supposing that there is a reason and that it wasn’t just due to some pressing difficulty in the layout process, – ? – I can only surmise that the publishers at New Directions acted deliberately in cropping out the frame. If so, they effectively scratched out the adjacent words Jerusalem and Palestine. Maybe it wasn’t deliberate, or Sebald ordered the crop. But if the move came from the publisher, I wonder if it wasn’t motivated by the judgment that it would be preferable to omit two words sure to remind readers of a conflict and an annexation that continue today and never fail to inspire strong sentiment. The irony is that the manipulation of historical, photographic evidence to political ends, which Sebald’s books often underline and portray, might have occurred in the process of reaching his English-speaking audience.
I might very well be reading too much into this, or not. In any case if you’ve anything to add, I’d appreciate your thoughts on this unusual find.
The first paragraph has been slightly revised since this article’s first posting.
It’s not that easy to review books well, I know. Novelist Joshua Cohen probably does too, as he’s been at it for a while now reviewing for Harper’s and now the New York Times.
In any case, there’s a few things that rankle in his review of W.G. Sebald’s latest posthumous publication, A Place in the Country (2014). I wouldn’t comment on this, except that I’ve read all of Sebald’s novels (and After Nature) twice and wrote a thesis on The Emigrants. Cohen:
W. G. Sebald was born in 1944 in Wertach im Allgäu in the Bavarian Alps, educated in Germany and Switzerland, taught literature in England for three decades, and between 1990 and 2001 became world famous for “Vertigo,” “The Emigrants,” “The Rings of Saturn” and “Austerlitz” — four novels about Jews, set variously in Vienna, Venice, Verona, Riva, Antwerp, Prague, Paris, Suffolk, Manchester and Long Island.
My lord, “four novels about Jews” just won’t work. Austerlitz and The Emigrants, yes, but the focus in Vertigo and The Rings of Saturn is hardly Jewry. My only guess is that he hasn’t read these novels, and so is relaying the commonly touted affiliation of Sebald with Jews and the Holocaust. Then he says
“A Place in the Country,” which contains profiles of five writers and one painter, is the third volume of nonfiction Sebaldiana to appear in English, and the most casually generous, not least because it’s the last.
“Sebaldiana”–I cringe, and ask, why? why invent this clumsy-ass word? Don’t other words work? Sebaldian, fine, but… ugh. This, and a few strange stylistic tics/flourishes, make this review rather inelegant. See that weird, smart aside concluding the opening paragraph:
Shortly after “Austerlitz” was published in English, Sebald died in a car crash. Mortal: the universal identity.
Anyways, we all err. Anyways.
I’ve held on to this post so long, held on for so long to these ideas, I am letting this post go, rough as it is. It will never be finished. It is the story of a kind of failure, itself evidence of failure, a quest for understanding that remains forever incomplete. As more fragments will follow, I finally let go of these. Sebald’s work is, I have found, very difficult to talk about.
We have a habit of writing articles published in scientific journals to make the work as finished as possible, to cover up all the tracks, to not worry about the blind alleys or how you had the wrong idea at first, and so on. So there isn’t any place to publish, in a dignified manner, what you actually did in order to do the work. – Richard Feynman
Reluctant to enclose Gide in a system I knew would never content me, I was vainly trying to find some connection among these notes. Finally I decided it would be better to offer them as such–notes–and not try to disguise their lack of continuity. Incoherence seems to me preferable to a distorting order. – Roland Barthes, ‘On Gide and His Journal’
I knew the research paper would be about W.G. Sebald’s novels, but that was all I knew. I had fallen under Sebald’s spell, not on first reading The Emigrants in a ‘Continental Modernism’ course taught by the ribald WW II vet Robert Ganz, but in 2009 on reading The Rings of Saturn after seeing a poster for a lecture by Ross Posnock on Austerlitz, a poster prominently displaying Sebald’s provocative juxtaposition of Wittgenstein’s gaze with that of perhaps a rhesus monkey.
It was only a short time before I had read After Nature, the long poem Sebald published in the late eighties before his arrival as a published novelist; Vertigo, his first novel; and, of course, Austerlitz, his last. I was hypnotized and hooked on Sebald’s writing, fallen under the intense spell cast by Sebald’s long sentences and his visual materials.
Through work in a graduate seminar in contemporary French literature–La Fabrication de l’irréelle dans la littérature française contemporaine–I became familiar with a strange new term which would prove to be for me a challenge and a source of anxiety, later, to explain. Le post-exotisme en dix lecons by Antoine Volodine is not a difficult book, but it is, like Volodine’s other works, strange, however much it is consistent with Volodine’s conception of a mythological future-past of ruins, internment camps, political resistance. He expresses his vision through hybrid literary forms.
Post-exoticism resonated with what I found compelling in Sebald. Volodine’s vision, realized in his novels and elucidated in theoretical terms, amounts to:
- Une littérature de l’ailleurs, venue d’aileurs, allant vers l’ailleurs
- Une littérature internationaliste, cosmopolite, dont la mémoire plonge les racines dans les tragédies du XXe siecle, les guerres, les révolutions, les génocides et les défaites du XXe siecle
- Une littérature étrangere écrite en francais
- Une littérature qui mêle indissolublement l’onirique et le politique
- Une littérature des poubelles, en rupture avec la littérature officielle
- Une littérature carcérale de la rumination, de la déviance mental et de l’échec
- Un édifice romanesque qui a surtout a voir avec le chamanisme, avec une variante bolchevique de chamanisme (387)
From Volodine, Antoine. ‘A la frange du réel.’ In Défense et illustration du post-exotisme en vingt lecons (vlb, 2008).
Translation: post-exoticism is:
- a literature of elsewhere, arriving from, departing from elsewhere;
- an internationalist, cosmopolitan literature whose memory is rooted in 20th-century tragedies, wars, revolutions, genocides, defeats;
- a foreign literature written in French;
- a literature where the dream-like and the political are seamlessly joined
- trashcan literature, opposed to ‘official’ literature(s)
- an imprisoned, ruminatory literature, of pyschopathology and failure
- a novelistic structure closely tied to shamanism, especially a Bolshevik variant of shamanism.
Elsewhere: a cabal of prisoners secretly circulating texts, working to overcome the isolation imposed on them.
The proposal I wrote in anticipation of my research paper was lucid, engaged, clear, direct, promising. But as I researched and wrote my paper, and continued to over-research it, my focus was exploded and irreversibly lost. In the end I tried to stay close to Sebald’s text. But at times, for whole months, I felt I needed to write lengthy theoretical contextualizations and justifications for why I was talking about post-exoticism, a term that I was never comfortable with, because its sense was split.
On the one hand, Volodine and his elucidation of post-exoticism; on the other hand, a non-literary but totally contemporary post-exoticism, related to the breaking up of empires, the acceleration of travel, and the end of an era during which romantics like Pierre Loti, Paul Gauguin, Victor Segalen, and Jean-Léon Gérôme, and a whole host of other European artists, were able to see in other cultures a difference which they found attractive, sometimes repelling, and that they patronized and acted condescendingly towards. (Edward Said’s historical work on Orientalism is what I’m talking about here; in a post-exotic era, Orientalism and exoticism are not done away with, but their historical contours are entirely changed.) I’d also read exoticists like Loti and was aware of Victor Segalen (his law regarding the attractions of human diversity, expounded in his posthumously published Essai sur l’exotisme (1978)) from having reading Baudrillard’s books, where he refers repeatedly to Segalen and exoticism.
The first problem, which I could not circumvent must have been establishing a stable relation between exoticism and post-exoticism.
An antique photo-studio portrait included in the German edition of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants (1992), depicting the narrator’s great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth.
I couldn’t even define the type of exoticism that I was seeing in Sebald, it was too variegated and broad and heterogeneous.
Even now I can read in my notebook the organisational sketches I was making in 2009, but I can’t create true order out of them:
KINDS OF SEBALDIAN EXOTICISM
a) the collection (museum)
b) monumental architecture (inadvertent; neglect, disuse, decay…) (cf. The Eyes of the Skin; The Architectural Uncanny, Anthony Vidler)
c) tourist narrators
d) Jews, gypsies, circus performers
e) resort culture
f) ‘overheated, deterritorialized animals’ (cf. On Creaturely Life, Eric Santner)
g) formal syntax (syntactical)
h) Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination: Ruins, Relics, Rarities, Rubbish, Uninhabited Places, and Hidden Treasures. (Yale P, 2006.)
The problem was, I couldn’t describe the exoticist tropology at work in Sebald’s prose, because I wanted to read all five of his books–his entire ‘creative’ output– as if it were a single thing. This would have left no time for ‘close reading’ and it would have been abstracted from the individual context of any single book. But I felt a coherent exoticist strategy, complete with post-exoticist gesturing, was there; a coherent preoccupation with and nostalgic yearning for the historical ‘exotic,’ itself complicated by the knowledge that this was at best an impossible fantasy. Perhaps I ought to have chosen just one (or two) types of exoticism and pursued it as far as I could. But I could not relinquish my commitment to some larger, more elusive totality that always remained just beyond my conceptual, organisational grasp.
It was almost ironic that I discovered such excellent books on exoticism just as the time I had left to trim up my drafts was drawing to a close:
‘The phenomenon of the human zoo illuminates an interdependence, similar to that discussed and popularized by Edward Said in Orientalism (1978), between science, spectacle and colonial power’ (Forsdick 378).
‘Populations put on display were depicted in a variety of forms, ranging from posters t illustrated programmes, from postcards (reproduced and translated into several languages to early films, from amateur photographs to the front pages of newspapers. Visitors, readers and spectators would be fascinated by these human subjects, while at the same time being convinced by them of the ‘racial hierarchies’ central to the contemporary context of colonial expansion.’ (‘Human Zoos: The Greatest Exotic Shows in the West,’ illustration pages).
Barthes, Roland. 1982. A Barthes Reader. Ed. Susan Sontag. Hill and Wang.
Baudrillard, Jean. ‘Radical Exoticism.’ Transparency of Evil. Verso.
Blanchard, Pascal, Bancel, Nicolas, Boëtsch, Gilles, Deroo, Éric, and Lemaire, Sandrine . ‘Human Zoos: The Greatest Exotic Shows in the West.’ By 1-49.
Camus, Audrey. Her winter 2008 graduate seminar on the work of Volodine, Eric Chevillard and Pierre Senges.
Feynman, Richard. 1966. ‘The Development of the Space-Time View of Quantum Electrodynamics.’ Science 153 (3737): 699-708.
Loti, Pierre. Aziyadé. 1880s?
Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination: Ruins, Relics, Rarities, Rubbish, Uninhabited Places, and Hidden Treasures. (Yale P, 2006.)
Segalen, Victor. ‘Essay on Diversity.’
“The Trouville Gazette reported that a veritable wave of the exotic had broken upon Deauville that year: des musulmans moldo-valaques, des brahmanes hindous et toutes les variétés de Cafres, de Papous, de Niam-Niams et de Bachibouzouks importés en Europe avec leurs danses simiesques et leurs instruments sauvages.” – W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants
The simplest way to describe Toute la mémoire du monde is to say that it’s a short documentary film of the setting and institutional practices of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris as they were in the late 1950s. The film begins in the basement of the library, where gross heaps of documents are consigned to a process of slow degradation. Parce que leur mémoire est courte, les hommes accumulent d’innombrables prosthèses, Dumesnil announces. [Because its memory is short, mankind accumulates limitless prostheses.]