A resident of England for much of his adult life, a professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia, Sebald was obviously fluent enough, 35 years after arriving in his adopted homeland, to write in English had he wished. His stated reason for not doing so, in an interview given (in [...]
A resident of England for much of his adult life, a professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia, Sebald was obviously fluent enough, 35 years after arriving in his adopted homeland, to write in English had he wished. His stated reason for not doing so, in an interview given (in English, to the British newspaper The Guardian) mere weeks before his death, at 57, in a car crash, was that “…I become self-conscious about having a funny accent. Unlike Conrad or Nabokov, I didn’t have circumstances which would have coerced me out of my native tongue altogether. But the time may come when my German resources begin to shrink. It is a sore point, because you do have advantages if you have access to more than one language. You also have problems, because on bad days you don’t trust yourself, either in your first or your second language, and so you feel like a complete halfwit.”
That time, of course, never arrived. He did, however, work closely with Michael Hulse and Anthea Bell, translators of his major works into English, and I often have to remind myself that these books were not originally written in English, such is their remarkably limpid prose. Much has been said, or written, about Sebald’s (full name —Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald, and apparently familiarly known as Max) preoccupation with memory, and rightly so, as memory was a major theme throughout his novels; but that’s not much better than saying about a writer that his preoccupation with writing is a major theme of his writing. Writing is by its nature an investigation of memory, and time, and death, and the infinite assortment of tangents associated with both personal and universal memory (which is to say history).
It is certainly a tragedy that he died so young, after having written and published four remarkable novels, which taken in sum, with their hybrid of fact and fiction, interspersed with enigmatic unlabeled photographs, drawings, and maps, seemed to this reader a radical reinvention of the novel form. Of course, every writer of talent radically reinvents the novel form, but Sebald’s innovations, for whatever reason, resonated with peculiar strength in me.
I was greatly looking forward to whatever Sebald, clearly at the height of his powers with the sublime Austerlitz, would turn his hand to next. I had devoured his three previous novels as well, and though his literary reputation had been steadily growing throughout the late 90s, I was nevertheless surprised and pleased to pass by a local bookstore in mid-December 2001 and find a front-window display of all his books. “At last!” was my first thought. “People are discovering him.” Then a second, more morbid thought, occurred to me, and I bought a newspaper, where my fears were confirmed: on December 14, 2001, Sebald had had a heart attack while driving and crashed somewhere near his permanent exile in Norfolk.
“I find that frightful – the incapacity to know what’s round the corner,” Sebald said in the interview referenced above, the last one he would ever give. For a writer whose use of irony seems inextricable from his concept of humanity, that confession is almost too perfect.
Inspired by the example of my betters, here’s a short film I made in France. It was shot at the Château D’hérouville, about an hour outside of Paris, which was once a famous recording studio – the “Honky Chateau” of Elton John fame – but is now overgrown and mostly a ruin. I [...]
Inspired by the example of my betters, here’s a short film I made in France. It was shot at the Château D’hérouville, about an hour outside of Paris, which was once a famous recording studio – the “Honky Chateau” of Elton John fame – but is now overgrown and mostly a ruin. I intended at first just to shoot some test footage of the location. But the test was meant to be in HD, and the HD cable on my rented camera broke, so I had go old school SD video. Looking at the footage later, I decided to construct a false narrative and write some dialogue. Which you can’t hear very well, which is intentional, but for which I apologize nonetheless. On the upside, it’s pretty short.
I provide subtitles for those who do not speak French. Unfortunately, those subtitles are also in French. Fortunately, (most of) the text is simply a French version of the Wikipedia page to which I linked above. The English text is a different matter. I take full responsibility for that.
The name of the film comes from when I was driving back with Constance Cardon, the non-actress actress featured here, and she was talking in her adorable deep gravelly voice to her boyfriend, who was asking her about the shoot. She told him that essentially she was playing the role of “la femme qui n’était rien,” which can be translated as “the woman who wasn’t there.” I thought that was a great title for something, and eventually, why not, for this.
One small note: it doesn’t really matter, but Constance’s accent renders the line “I think I may be a robot” into “I think I may be a rabbit,” at least to my ears. Just FYI.
I posted this a while back, around the time the novel was published, but I thought I’d re-post it here today because a) I’m really busy and don’t have time to find anything more interesting to post, much less actually write about something, and b) upon re-watching it, I remembered that it’s really good, due [...]
I posted this a while back, around the time the novel was published, but I thought I’d re-post it here today because a) I’m really busy and don’t have time to find anything more interesting to post, much less actually write about something, and b) upon re-watching it, I remembered that it’s really good, due mostly to the inclusion of a sonic death ray from Robert Pollard’s solo album We All Got Out of The Army that used to be called “Knapsack Buying Blues” but I can’t remember what it eventually ended up being called.
You’ll note that the website address to which the video directs you at the end is out of date and no longer in operation (my website address, that is; Akashic Books is still there and doing just fine.) But if you are watching the trailer then you already know the correct address, so there’s no point in me going all the way back into Final Cut Pro just to change some stupid text. Right?
I wrote this story long before the movie franchise of the same title appeared. I’m not saying the movie people stole the idea from me, even though I’m pretty sure I invented hangovers, but if Zach Galliafinakopolisopoulous wants to kick a couple of euros my way for, you know, “thanks, man” or [...]
I wrote this story long before the movie franchise of the same title appeared. I’m not saying the movie people stole the idea from me, even though I’m pretty sure I invented hangovers, but if Zach Galliafinakopolisopoulous wants to kick a couple of euros my way for, you know, “thanks, man” or whatever, I would not complain.
In fact, I wrote this story a long, long time ago, when I (briefly) attended college in Charlottesville, Virginia, a town and a state I had never visited before enrolling there, and which I have not visited since dropping out, which was either the best decision I’ve ever made or the worst, or both, or neither.
The story when I first wrote it was close to 15,000 words. In its current form it is less than 900. People should not subject other people to their prolix juvenilia, is my point.
Though the conceit of the story suggests that it takes place during the time it takes to listen to both sides of R.E.M.’s Murmur, I do not advise taking that conceit as veridical, though if someone wants to test the proposition, please do not let me stop you.
Two further notes: 1) this story originally appeared in the fine literary/music journal Yeti (issue 6), which can be found here; 2) the character Violet McKnight, keen-eyed observers may note, has the same name as the character Violet McKnight in my most recent novel The Failure. The two girls are not related and in fact remain unaware of each other’s existence. I’d prefer to keep it that way, if it’s okay with you. Thanks.
1. Calling out in transit (4:05)
Sam Anonymous had a drinking problem.
* * * * * * * *
Brown vinyl of the sofa peeled with sticking sound from humid flesh of back and legs as he sat up. Pattern of raised swirls on the vinyl were reproduced on skin: corresponding incarnadine impressions.
2. Your hate: clipped and distant (4:30)
Low whistle of kettle rose in pitch and volume to climax in piercing shriek that unmoored the murmur of Sam’s thoughts. From tin of instant coffee he spooned quantity of dark powder. Hands shook slightly as he struggled to fill the cup with sour-smelling coffee. Scratched idly at the corner of one sleep-swollen eye: steadied himself against the counter. A ribbon of water lined the front edge of sink where he had sloppily rinsed the mug. When he pressed against the counter water seeped into the waistband of his boxers.
3. Martyred: misconstrued (3:58)
Her name was Violet McKnight. Five foot two in bare feet. Short hair dyed unnatural red swept back from lunar face: cranberry strands fell in her eyes when she made an emphatic gesture. Nose small, well-formed, eyes the color of root beer, narrowed to skeptical slits when challenged.
* * * * * * * *
Spitting toothpaste into sink Sam noticed with equanimity that the spent paste was streaked with blood from his gums.
4. Not everyone can carry the weight of the world (3:24)
He was twenty-nine years old. In February he would be thirty.
5. Inside the moral kiosk (3:32)
A wave of nausea broke and receded. Sam hunched forward on the couch. Palpating his cheeks: annoyed by growth of stubble. Counting backwards could only manage four days before the fog of elapsed time refused to lift.
6. Shoulders high in the room (3:30)
Weaving unsteadily down the street, he saw her outlined against the black glass of her bedroom window, body limned by a nimbus of yellow streetlight.
1. Did we miss anything? (3:55)
Sam yawned, stretched his arms, stood and heavily walked across the room to turn over record. Returning to couch: revisited by a coil of his earlier nausea unwinding in his gut and feathering upwards through his chest. Unsnapped the cap from a plastic bottle on the table next to alarm clock, shook two aspirin into his hand, placed them with thumb and forefinger carefully in back of mouth, and swallowed with effortful gulp.
* * * * * * * *
What use is experience without memory?
2. We could gather: throw a fit (3:18)
One thing at a time: watching Violet bend towards him by light of a guttering candle.
3. All nine yards (3:05)
Scratched his hair in imitation of thought. Hoisted himself off the couch and began sorting through pile of clothes on ugly square of brown-and-white carpet.
Love is a crazy and unkempt thing that grows like a wild weed in the heart. It will suffer the cruelest attempts at eradication with quiet strength, and will take root and prosper in even the stoniest soil. True love, like true art, admits no moral influence. Had he read that or was it original?
4. Shaking through: opportune (4:30)
In frustration he ripped the front buttons and stripped off the shirt: left hand got tangled in the cuff: which he had abstractly buttoned moments earlier: and pull as he would: flap as he might: the shirt refused to let go. Sat down on the couch: head in hands, the tattered shirt trailing to the floor like captured flag of some defeated army.
5. Up the stairs to the landing (3:01)
World adheres to stringent rules of form and content: these rules, Sam knew from prolonged contact with books, were not frangible. Just as a story must have beginning, middle, end, so a soul must have one body to inhabit. Proliferation of the soul’s forms would mean rewriting rules of human contact.
6. Long gone (3:17)
The wind picked up and there was a smell of rain. Sam buttoned his overcoat with reddened fingers. The tips of a succession of telephone poles flecked the sky on the far side of the broad avenue: up one of these scrambled two squirrels.
Dark tracery of oak limbs: russet and orange and mustardy leaves: cold rain-scented air: combined to form an impression of remote beauty that reinforced and focused his sense of longing.
Continued past a brick house, windows ardent with citrine light. Fragrant gray smoke curled from its chimney: leaves of a silver poplar fluttered in the wind, undersides flashing white like a flock of luminous moths: from thick tangle of azalea bushes came sounds of a small animal scrabbling for food or shelter.
Fine rain needled his face but he did not mind the wet because in his heart he carried a word —finally! — that was the word he needed. He held the word before him like a lighted candle to ward off the rain, and the cold, and the black despair of night as he walked towards Violet’s house.
[Editor's note: In honor of the publication of Experienced: Rock Music Tales of Fact and Fiction, I am going to re-post an excerpt from the Hunting Accidents anecdote I contributed to that fine compendium of rock ünd roll arcana. This is part one of what was originally a two-part post about the [...]
[Editor's note: In honor of the publication of Experienced: Rock Music Tales of Fact and Fiction, I am going to re-post an excerpt from the Hunting Accidents anecdote I contributed to that fine compendium of rock ünd roll arcana. This is part one of what was originally a two-part post about the time Guided By Voices were courted by Warner Bros., who flew (some of) us to Los Angeles to meet various executives of that record company.]
By late August of 1994 Guided By Voices had determined that there were really only two serious contenders for our future record label: Matador Records, in New York City, and Warner Bros., all over the world but based, at that time, when major labels were not shriveled, powerless husks and record stores dotted the landscape like baseball diamonds or Starbucks, in Los Angeles.
This story is about the time Warner Bros. flew us to Los Angeles to try to convince us that they would be the better choice. I forget the legal technicalities, but because Matador at that time had a deal with Atlantic Records, and Atlantic was shaded by the same WEA umbrella as Warner Bros., it was not, unfortunately, possible for Warner to simply throw a bunch of money at us. You laugh, especially you in the third row, but this was a time when major labels were throwing a lot of money at unlikely prospects, because some band named Nirvana had made a very successful record and… well, you know the rest. If you don’t, go read one of the many helpful books on the subject, including but not limited to Artificial Light, which is kind of an alternative universe view of the alternative universe.
Upshot: there was some weird kind of non-compete clause between Matador and Warner Bros., so the latter could not woo us with money. What, then? Booze, cocaine, hookers? Please. There is not enough booze in the world to bribe Guided By Voices, we have mostly drunk it all already, and the rest is for pussies.
Food? That must have been the oblique strategy of Warner Bros., because I have never eaten so much food in my life as during that brief trip, and I have eaten a lot of food. The problem with this strategy is that when you bring Jimmy Pollard along, as we did, and you try to offer him anything other than cheeseburgers or pizza, you will have made (unknowingly, but still) an egregious error.
Whatever the case, we flew to Los Angeles — Robert Pollard, Jimmy Pollard, Tobin Sprout, James Greer — on an airplane, which despite Bob writing and singing so many airplane-related songs, and despite the fact that the Wright Bros, from Dayton, OH, invented the airplane (or possibly because of this fact) Bob hates to fly. He will do it only in extreme circumstances and then very reluctantly. We had to leave Mitch Mitchell and Kevin Fennell at home because Bob was wary of briar-related mayhem if he brought the whole band. That may or may not be the real reason. He then made us all drink Jack and cokes during the flight, because he had read that the Beatles had drunk Jack and cokes on their first American tour. None of us enjoyed Jack and cokes, especially Bob, but we were just following Beatles protocol, so, you know.
As a brief aside, you should probably know if you don’t already that it had been a life-long dream of Bob’s to be on Warner Bros. Records. He had hand-drawn the Warner Bros. logo on fictitious albums by fictitious bands in the fever dreams of his youth, so although they didn’t know it, WB had a big advantage simply by virtue of the fact that they were who they were. They had an equally big disadvantage for the same reason — because they were a major label, representing potential major change, Bob worried that they would in various unknown (but for that reason all the more terrifying) ways mess with us, screw up our sound, force us to do all kinds of unseemly promotion, and even more serious, screw with our money.
We were greeted at the airport by the A&R guy from Warner Bros., a not unsmall person I will call Beowulf to protect his identity, because he may still be alive somewhere despite his really impressive eating habits, which included but were not limited to roasting and devouring babies. Beowulf was affable, intelligent, possessed a giant record collection and the obsessive record geek knowledge that generally comes from owning a giant record collection, and a Warner Bros. credit card. He also drove like a maniac, because everyone in LA drives like a maniac, but also maniacs drive like maniacs, and how are you supposed to know the difference?
We were taken first to the Hollywood Hills house of one of the people who ran Warner Bros. I am to this day confused as to which one of these people, generally named Mo, or Lenny, or Curly, was our host, but I guess that’s not important. I think we then went on a guided-by-Beowulf star maps tour, tearing around the narrow and bendy Hollywood Hills roads like Sacha Baron Cohen in Talladega Nights. We would stop briefly at an overlook: “There’s Madonna’s house.” “There’s the house where the Manson murders took place.” We were a little confused by the tour, and more than a little thirsty, when we were finally deposited at the Roosevelt Hotel, which I have always consistently mispronounced as the Rews-a-velt, when everyone knows it’s pronounced Rose-a-velt, and which at the time was the standard rock hotel for those bands not rich enough to afford the Sunset Marquis. I don’t know if this is still the case, but I must have stayed at that place one hundred million times in the 90s. I don’t remember what happened next, except that the Roosevelt has a bar, and we woke up the next morning.
Bob was in a foul mood because Jimmy had ordered a pot of coffee from room service, which cost something like eighteen dollars, and Bob was not yet aware that Warner Bros. was paying for our incidentals as well as our rooms. We then went out to visit Lollapalooza, a kind of floating circus in vogue at the time, and said hello to a few bands we knew, and saw Drew Barrymore, which is only one of several times we saw Drew Barrymore throughout the course of our career, though I was never really sure if she was aware of that fact. Beowulf then came and fetched us to the Warner Bros. corporate offices in Burbank, where we were given another bewildering tour, and glad-handed a few more executives. One of the selling points that Beowulf stressed was that Warner Bros. was very faithful to its artists, and almost never dropped anyone, case in point our friends the Flaming Lips, who despite (at that point) never having sold a single record in ten years were still on the label. This selling point was almost immediately undercut when we sat down with the head of publicity, another very nice and knowledgeable rock fan, who played us a song from Nick Lowe’s new album, which he declared “genius” before telling us that unfortunately the record would not be coming out on WB, as Nick had just been dropped by the label.
The publicity executive then made the mistake that resulted in Bob deciding not to sign with Warner Bros. There were other factors, sure, but this was to Bob’s mind the finishing blow. Bob had insisted to everyone, from the start, that Alien Lanes be released as is, with no re-recording, no re-sequencing, no fussing with of any kind. The publicity guy made some kind of joke about how the cassette he first got was defective, because it sounded just like mud. “I know this is supposed to be lo-fi, but this is ridiculous,” is what he said, referring to the defective tape. Bob didn’t hear it that way, though. Bob thought the publicity guy was referring to the actual recording, and though he laughed and nodded at the guy’s joke, I could sense a certain temperature change in the room.
After this gaffe-tastic meet-and-greet came the grand round of eating, and more eating, including one particularly disastrous trip to some kind of gourmet Chinese restaurant where the menu was in Chinese, and which took (it seemed like) four hours to drive to, and eight hours back, and then stuff with me and Jimmy in a hot tub afraid to take our shirts off and Bob convinced that we were all going to Hell, for reasons which will have to be explained tomorrow, because this story is already too long, and I have other things to do. [Note: none of this will be explained tomorrow — that was then and this is now the time for you to buy the book wherein this anecdote is told in full, along with a fine assortment of wonderful stories, some fact, some fiction, all true, by writers who are not me. It's available both as a physical artifact and in the popular e-book format by clicking on the link above.]
- It's a long climb up the rock face at the wrong time to the right place
- James Greer's books on GoodreadsGuided by Voices: A Brief History: Twenty-One Years of Hunting Accidents in the Forests of Rock and Rollreviews: 24
ratings: 195 (avg rating 3.70)Artificial Light (Little House on the Bowery)reviews: 6
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ratings: 59 (avg rating 3.65)EXPERIENCED: Rock Music Tales of Fact & Fictionreviews: 4
ratings: 6 (avg rating 4.60)Two Letters Collection, Volume 2ratings: 5 (avg rating 4.60)
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Friendly Fire"James Greer, one of the nimblest and most multilayered American fiction writers, has, with his latest novel The Failure, pulled off a sublime and shivery-smooth literary hat-trick-cum-emotional-gotcha. I defy anyone to come up with an equation to explain how this book's first impression as a ridiculously clever, funny crime story can gradually disclose a metanovel built from far more encyclopedic scratch only to reveal upon its conclusion a central, overriding thought so heartfelt literally it trembles your lower lip. This is one stunning piece of work."—Dennis Cooper"James Greer's The Failure is such an unqualified success, both in conception and execution, that I have grave doubts he actually wrote it."—Steven Soderbergh"Greer has done it again: a big-city, techno-jargon-filled thrill-ride with slick medium-brow drop references to our (once-shared) mythological hometown. What could be more poignant?"—Robert Pollard"How do you assess if your life has been a success? For starters, take time and turn it on its head. You'll first need to find its head. Luckily, James Greer's novel The Failure will help--it's a brainy, boisterous, unsettling, and unsettled look at a group of people thrust into the most confounding of existences, complete with petty crime, high science, love, sex, and cars. The narrative winds and darts, gleefully uncooperative. The characters have funny names and sometimes funny existences. Still, you will recognize them. They are us."—Ben Greenman
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