Monthly Archives: August 2015

Photos inside story telling

. .  none of the books [ of W.G. Sebald] published while he was alive were labeled as fiction or nonfiction, novel or essays. And he made sure that storytelling was at the heart of it. In Austerlitz, for example, he does what I term (for personal use) “concentric narration” (he said that she said that he said . . . ) whereby whatever comes from the past passes through people. The only way to have an organic connection with the past is by way of narration, while the knowledge of (as opposed to information about) history has to be shared in language. I always thought that Sebald used photographs in his books in order to expose their failure as documents. He places photos to interrupt the narration so as to show that they mean nothing unless they are inside storytelling. Photography might be self-authenticating (as Roland Barthes thought) but their authentic truth is available only in language, as practiced in narration.

 Aleksandar Hemon (interviewing Teju Cole) (from here) 

 Rose wilting

©Clara Brack, Roses, awaiting a story to enfold them

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Fact and fiction


When Raymond Carver wrote a story about Chekhov’s death, he invented details and a character. Janet Malcolm traced how subsequent biographies now include the character from his fiction. History grabbed him up.


Yes, and once you know that you are working with historians in that way, then you have to raise your game. You have a responsibility to make your research good. Of course, you don’t mean for these things to happen. In A Place of Greater Safety, Camille Desmoulins wonders why he was always running into Antoine Saint-Just. We must be some sort of cousins because I used to see him at christenings, he says. It’s now become a “fact” that they were cousins. Things get passed around so easily on the Internet. And fact becomes fiction and fiction becomes fact, without anyone stepping in to ­arbitrate and say, What are your sources? (From here) 


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Writers who love paintings

‘Sebald had a special love for paintings: they are half object, half window into another world.’

Teju Cole, W.G. Sebald’s Poetry of the Disregarded (from here) 

Sebald colour cardA page from Austerlitz with a colour reproduction of Turner’s page superimposed in a collage

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Mystery in writing

‘All writing gives you away. You are always consciously giving things away that the reader doesn’t recognize , and all the things he does recognize are things in which you may be unconsciously giving yourself away. Your writings are very personal to you, but how they are related to your actual person is not visible, or clear. . . .

One of the things that writing, or everything that claims to be art, wants to deal with, is what is mysterious, what is not capable of being answered yet, or known, the inexpressible. What hasn’t been expressed, and what maybe can’t be expressed, is precisely what tempts you each time. . . . I like books that retain an essential mystery, because that is what seems to be lifelike about them. That is what life is like.’

David Malouf Conversations: Interviews with Australian writers ed Paul Kavanagh Pete Kuch

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The encounter between two Buddhist teachers

‘In the early days of my interest in Buddhism and psychology, I was given a vivid demonstration of the difficulty of forging an integration between the two.  Some friends had arranged for an encounter between two prominent visiting Buddhist teachers. These were teachers from two different Buddhist traditions who had never met and whose traditions had had very little contact over the past thousand years. The teachers, seventy-year-old Kalu Rinpoche of Tibet, a veteran of years of solitary retreat, and the Zen master Seung Sahn, the first Korean Zen master to teach in the United States, were to test each other’s understanding of the Buddha’s teachings for the benefit of the onlooking Western students.  This was to be a high form of what was being called _dharma_ combat (the clashing of great minds sharpened by years of study and meditation), and we were waiting with the anticipation that this historic encounter deserved.

The two monks entered with swirling robes — maroon and yellow for the Tibetan, austere grey and black for the Korean — and were followed by retinues of younger monks and translators with shaven heads.  They settled onto cushions in the familiar cross-legged positions, and the host made it clear that the younger Zen master was to begin.  The Tibetan lama sat very still, fingering a wooden rosary (_mala_) with one hand while murmuring, _”Om mani padme hum”_ continuously under his breath.

The Zen master, who was already gaining renown for his method of hurling questions at his students until they were forced to admit their ignorance and then bellowing,

“Keep that don’t know mind!” at them, reached deep inside his robes and drew out an orange.

“What is this?” he demanded of the lama.

“What is this?”  This was a typical opening question, and we could feel him ready to pounce on whatever response he was given. The Tibetan sat quietly fingering his mala and made no move to respond.

“What is this?” the Zen master insisted, holding the orange up to the Tibetan’s nose. Kalu Rinpoche bent very slowly to the Tibetan monk near to him who was serving as the translator, and they whispered back and forth for several minutes.  Finally the translator addressed the room:

“Rinpoche says, ‘what is the matter with him?  Don’t they have oranges where he comes from?”‘

The dialogue progressed no further.                                                                 Mark Epstein Thoughts without a thinker

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Faith in words

‘As for Arnold Wyburd, he realized he had lost his faith in words, when his life of usefulness had depended on them: they could be used as fences, smoke-screens, knives and stones; they could take the shape of comforting hot water bottles; but if you ever thought they were about to help you open a door into the truth, you found, instead of a lighted room, a dark void you hadn’t the courage to enter.’

Patrick White: The Eye of The Storm p258

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Blue is the colour of interior life

“Blue is the color of the mind in borrow of the body; it is the color consciousness becomes when caressed; it is the dark inside of sentences, sentences which follow their own turnings inward out of sight like the whorls of a shell, and which we follow warily, as Alice after that rabbit, nervous and white, till suddenly — there! climbing down clauses and passing through ‘and’ as it opens — there — there — we’re here!… in time for tea and tantrums; such are the sentences we should like to love — the ones which love us and themselves as well — incestuous sentences — sentences which make an imaginary speaker speak the imagination loudly to the reading eye; that have a kind of orality transmogrified: not the tongue touching the genital tip, but the idea of the tongue, the thought of the tongue, word-wet to part-wet, public mouth to private, seed to speech, and speech… ah! after exclamations, groans, with order gone, disorder on the way, we subside through sentences like these, the risk of senselessness like this, to float like leaves on the restful surface of that world of words to come, and there, in peace, patiently to dream of the sensuous, and mindful Sublime.”

William H Gass, On Being Blue

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The most beautiful blue

Van Gogh’s description of the clothes of peasants in and around Nuenen:

‘The people here instinctively wear the most beautiful blue that I’ve ever seen. It’s coarse linen that they weave themselves, warp black, weft blue, which creates a black and blue striped pattern. When it’s faded and slightly discoloured by wind and weather, it’s an infinitely calm, subtle shade that specifically brings out the flesh colours. In short, blue enough to react with all the colours in which there are hidden orange elements, and faded enough not to clash.’

Julian Barnes, Selfie with Sunflowers: The letters of Van Gogh (from here) 


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No children to play with

‘The short personal story which follows is so familiar in its outline that it may seem stale, but I cannot explain how I allowed such strange things to happen to me unless I tell it.

My parents separated from one another, with great and protracted bitterness, at about the time I was born, in 1926, and I hardly ever saw them together. In infancy I was looked after, in various country houses in Sussex and Kent, by nannies and governesses as well as by a fierce maiden aunt who shook me violently when I cried. My mother, though frequently in bed with what she called ‘my pain’, was a poet, playwright, pianist, composer and actress, and these activities took her away from home for long and irregular periods of time. When she rematerialised, we had long goodnights during which, as she sang to me, I undid her hair so that it fell over her shoulders. She used to parade naked in front of me, and would tell me (for instance) of the intense pleasure she got from sexual intercourse, of the protracted agony and humiliation she had suffered when giving birth to my much older half-sister, Ann, who grew up retarded and violent (screamed, spat, bit, kicked, threw), and of her disappointment when my father was impotent, particularly on their honeymoon. The intimacies we shared made me love her ‘over the biggest number in the world’.

My father was shadowy to begin with; he was an elderly man – always approaching sixty. I first perceived him as an invalid – disturbingly unlike other children’s fathers. But he had great personal authority, distinction and charm, which I could identify in the responses of other people to him. Occasionally he gave me superlative presents – a toy launch which got up its own steam, a flying model of a biplane.

Neither of my parents had a social circle. No one came to stay. There were no children next door to play with.‘(From here)

Wynne Godley,Saving Masud Khan, London Review of Books, Vol 23, no.4  22 Feb 2001

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