Vogue Rot

 Posted by at 1:48 pm  Catastrophe Games, Fundamental Perversions, ON the STREET  Comments Off
Jan 092015
PC faded151

What is ‘Vogue Rot’? Some kind of fungal disease found in cold and dark conditions, a form of wet anaerobic decay, or what? It sounds unpleasant, and it is. Fair warning.

Preamble: for some of us there is the sense that nothing ever happens (one could call this a peculiarly English sense of personal and collective history). We think we long for something to happen, but we spend all our energy avoiding the possibility and living our lives as if they form a single narrative. Occasionally however we meet someone whose life  has been so fractured by an excess and constant happenings from birth and early childhood, that it breaks and collapses this idea of a single narrative.

I was lent a book last Sunday. It is called Ariadne’s Thread, In Memory of WG Sebald. It is a ficto-documentary written by Philippa Comber (‘PC’), using her diary and charting her encounters with ‘Max’ (as Sebald chose to call himself) from the time they first met in Norwich in 1980.

Sebald would not have liked the book’s title: Ariadne’s Thread smacks of mythological mish-mash, and exactly the kind “adornment” which he detested in writing and the pretence of strands woven into a single thread.

I began to suspect – In Memory of – was this a love/hate work? However, my mind was clouded by sentimental feelings for this particular writer who had first opened my eyes to the many strands and ‘constant happenings’ streams of mitteleuropa post-war literature. I also saw that PC had the advantages of speaking German, had lived among and knew the academic worlds of German literature, and she was a psychotherapist so she had the language of analysis at her disposal as well. So I opened the book on Sunday night and began to read.

I immediately noted the lack of any photographs in the book, of the kind which Sebald always included in his work, the images reproduced being faded through a particular process he employed of repeated photocopying. Here are some more sepia facts which were also omitted from the book. WG Sebald was born in Germany in May 1944 and died in a car crash in December 2001 in East Anglia at the age of 57. He married an Austrian born women called Ute in 1967, and they had a daughter, Anna, who was badly injured in the same car accident in which he died. His main translator was Anthea Bell with whom he worked collaboratively and simultaneously, Sebald sending her the first draft of chapters written in German, which she would send back translated into English with comments and feedback as he continued to write the later chapters. None of these facts are in the book, and the impression given is that PC was the only real woman in Sebald’s otherwise solitary life.

What is Vogue Rot? It is a kind of British monthly fashion magazine filled with photographs of models standing in various poses, and appeals to a particular aspirational social class of women. The magazine has been going for a very long time, and old copies are difficult to get rid of. Thick and glossy, they hardly burn even in a hot open fire, and natural decay takes a very long time. They rot very slowly even if added in a rich compost. Finally all text and images dissolve , but the resultant layer of grey wet dust adds no goodness to the soil.

An equivalent term to Vogue Rot might be “Utter Mess” – it was a favourite phrase of Sebald in conversation. Vogue Rot is also a style of English writing…

…Early on (p. 10) PC writes that from young adult life she liked to accumulate old copies of Vogue magazines, and that they filled her life and travelled with her in piles of “bricollage”. She says that Max enjoyed seeing these piles when he first visited. Rather than bricollage, the preferable word would have been in German (I am ignorant of what it would be – aka ‘grey wet dust’), and connected Sebald to the writing strand of Trummerliteratur (‘rubble literature’) and a post-war writer such as Heinrich Boll. Alexander Kluge (b 1932) continues in the tradition…

…Pulverised, wet, and in after shock from childhood. ‘In Memory…’ is not the way the likes of Penelope Fitzgerald would have researched and written a life of Sebald as Blue Flower, nor Anselm Kieffer painted a recollection of life in Morgenthau Plan land growing up like him in post-war Germany. Instead what PC tells is a singular English story held in the memory of a romantic crisis. This occurs shortly after the death of her father in 1981: she is in a “fair old turmoil”, contacts Max who she has been seeing quite frequently by then, and is rebuffed. The charged, as she puts it,”erotic” moment passed, but the pain has lingered on in the memory, analytically speaking her desire for comfort during this extreme experience of loss perhaps being aroused to resemble something else…

…Like an Ariadne’s Thread. I read to the end that same Sunday evening, not every word of course, but as much as I could bear to in the presence of this phenomenon Vogue Rot. Shudder of disgust, and unable to sleep I turned on Radio Benjamin and listened to one of his stories for children. It was called ‘On Swindlers’.

“Today I want to tell you about a great swindler…”, it began. A blessed transformational revolution swiftly followed and I soon passed into dreamless oblivion.

The book has since been returned.

Oct 232014

Brothers: I read this on the London Underground on Monday night, and wrote it down.

(Maniaro 15 July 1916)

What regiment are you from

World trembling
in the night

A leaf just opening

In the racked air
Involuntary revolt
Of man face to face
With his own fragility


Guiseppe Ungaretti

While still thinking of the beauty of Roberto’s life in Genoa (see previous post), here we go – ‘God loves simple things’ (Simple Song – Bernstein Mass) I sing.

The ‘Brothers’ poem was printed on one of the hoardings to be found at head height above the carriage windows (alongside dating and other ‘dot.com’ adverts etc), and also the Italian original. Here it is -


Di che reggimento siete

Parola tremante
Nella notte

Foglia appena nata

Nell’aria spasimante
Involontaria rivolta
Dell’uomo presente alla sua


From Guiseppe Ungaretti, Selected Poems (Carcanet, tr AndrewFrisardi). I have now seen several different versions of the poem in English.

Guiseppe Ungaretti (1888-1970) – “The Life of a Man”Ungaretti142
Modernist poet: family came from Lucca, and grew up influenced by D’Annunzio, the Futurists, and others. In 1915 enlisted with the infantry after Italy entered the First World War and was sent  to the front line in northern Italy.

Terrors and Horrors: began to write and his first collection of poems Il porto sepolto (“The Buried Port”) was published in 1917.

Ups and Downs: spent a brief period as a member of the Fascist party in the 1920′s after the war, then (re)discovered his spiritual faith. Thereafter lived a life of beauty overcoming nothing and being broken up between travelling, teaching, losses and writing.

Il Mattino:

This is his most famous poem and is frequently to be found on T shirts. Of course it defies translation, and Ungaretti is altogether difficult to translate* into English. The Carcanet book gets bad reviews and I am inclined towards Bastianutti’s bilingual work (mainly because I like the look of b-diego blogspot).

Allegria (published in 1931) is Ungaretti’s most highly rated work, and his collected works Vita di un uomo came out around the time of his death in 1970.

* SEE: Walter Benjamin ‘The Task of the Translator’ – asking how the imaginative life of the source text has been prolonged, what has been done by the translation, what it points to, throws light on, or mimes (from LRB review of GU 2003).

Aug 212014

“I am ready to take the stand”, the middle-aged man said in a gesture of willed objectivity which reminded me of the work of another writer, George Perec. Not Life A User’s Manual. No, nothing so large, I was being reminded of a minor, mostly forgotten piece called Espece d’espaces written by Perec in 1974. The work is less than 100 pages in all, and is to be found in the ficto-documentary collection called Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (tr John Sturrock, 2008).

Perec begins Espece d’espaces with a Foreword. The first sentence goes like this, “The subject of this book is not the void exactly, but rather what there is round about it or inside it (cf fig 1)”. Figure 1 itself is printed on the front papers of the book before the contents and the foreword. The Figure is called ‘Map of the Ocean’, and consist in a drawing of a square on an otherwise blank page, except for the title underneath and then under that in brackets ‘(taken from Lewis Carroll’s, Hunting of the Snark)’.

As much as I know already from this beginning that this is an autobiographical work which Perec is giving in to, so too I knew that the sentence spoken by the middle-aged man was also the beginning of his autobiography. He himself is the subject. Of course like Perec no facts about his life will be revealed, but he will be telling what is round about it or inside it.

Giving in to becoming the subject, and it will seem to us is that it is a void. But not exactly because in this autobiographical work by Perec or a middle-aged man we are already aware of some things. For one thing we are aware of his absence. He is absent from the story, and this has already created an intensely sad atmosphere (what we know from Perec’s life: he was a Parisian Jew born in 1936, whose father enlisted as a soldier and was killed in action by the time he was six and his mother murdered in Auschwitz before the end of the war). He will not provide this information, nor he will add to or adorn his account with any other biographical details because he is confident we already know this sadness simply having opened the cover and turned the blank front pages, perhaps not even noticing the Figure 1 in the first instance.

So too the middle-aged man’s remark, “I am willing to take the stand”. As if written at the start of a foreword to his own work of autobiography, and I know already that nothing will follow, that no narrative will be provided, and no life story is to be told. There is the same absence as with Perec. And there is the same oceanic quality of sadness as in the front papers of Espece d’espace, because he has already told all the information about his life that it is necessary to know. Oceanic, and the sadness seems all in shadows, but just as Perec account of Espece d’espace unfolds, when we look closer and listen deeper what is around about it or inside it is suffused with lightness and with light.

(Espece should have a grave accent on the middle ‘e‘ . Please who can show me the key to write this?)

Not in Our Life Times!

 Posted by at 6:08 pm  Anti-Gravity Surgery, Echo Effects, OVER and BEYOND  Comments Off
Dec 042013

The lost book has been found, the last writings of Walter Benjamin! It is out: Charles Baudelaire: Un poeta lirica nell’ eta del capitalismo avanzato (in Italian and edited by Giorgio Agamben and others). I gasped as I read that it has been out since December 2012, (London Review of Books Vol 35, No 22 (21 November 2013), P 21-22).

I am even more shocked to read that the missing manuscript was found over 30 years ago, since Uncle Wally for many years was wont to whisper in my ear that it was in the black briefcase which he always carried with him. And there were plenty of other eye-witness reports who would swear an oath to say that was true, and that they saw him with it when he fled Paris and on his way to the Pyrenees. That was Susan Sontag’s view too as I have it from what she wrote, and the idea of the loss of his briefcase in which were contained his last written words in 1940 had entered into a kind of folklore of our imaginations that had added to the poignancy of his failed walk to freedom, and the desolation of his subsequent suicide on the border between France and Spain.

I am shocked with the cold water of disillusionment, and the awakening to the ‘now of knowability’, as Uncle Wally is wont to say .

The allegorical element of history does provide us with a necessary context (Theses on the Philosophy of History) and corrective – the hare drinking pauses to observe. But that hysteria over, another expands as I realize that there is no English translation, nor likely to be one soon (apart from the Italian version, the German edition is not now expected until 2016 at the earliest). I begin to calculate my years, and distantly consider how the delay to the ‘now of readability’ for the anglophone world of this last book may continue long past my own sell by/read by date.

So I die and I don’t die.  Slowly re-awakening to life the hare resumes drinking from the “common pond”.

What is meant by the phrase “common pond”? One might say that the pond is no larger than a tea saucer or even less, sufficient to be scooped up and fill the palm of our left hand. Tradition, as Uncle Wally might have added if he were here at this moment, has it that we are extending the fingers of our hand in a gesture where simultaneously the index finger points towards a recollection of death, Momento Mori, the middle finger is reaching forward in vulnerability to meet with you in the strangeness of all our differences, the ring finger is for the recollection of our breath, and the last finger is for the recollection of our bodies, including the elements of earth, air, fire and water.

Here begins ducks and fishes and all creation. And it is equally right to say that we will not be here to see the end of this beginning.

Sep 112013

Stop right here for a conversation between fox and crow - or rather Mr and Mrs Fox on Passagiata having some words with a close call relative of crow.

We are walking along the seashore not far from Chesil Beach last week in the afternoon of one of the last warm sunny August days of this long summer, when we come across Raven. Shining black of course we recognise him at once, being too big and clever to be just crow. He is eating ice cream. Nothing strange about that either, as we are close to a beach café, well known to the locals in these parts where cold drinks, freshly fried fish dinners, and delicious flavours of local ice cream are to be had. Nothing strange about that, or the care he takes eating, Raven doesn’t smash his beak into the cone like crow would do. No, that would never do, Raven has good manners and carefully puts his long beak into the cone to suck out the liquid inside. Sticky, white streaked with red – strawberry vanilla.

Hello Crow, Mr Fox says kicking sand with his toes , Raven to you, he says giving Mr Fox the eye, Don’t get too close to him, Mrs Fox says grabbing Mr Fox by the arm, Sorry Crow, Mr Fox says. There is a tense pause.

Slowly turning his head and taking his beak out of the ice cream cone for a moment, You don’t get it do you, says the bird. His beak is glistening white with the wet cream liquid, white and flecked with streaks of red.

Yes, I agree, it has been a bumper copy – the last late August London Review of Books (29 August 2013) that is. It almost reads all of piece; just like a modernist novel, the various voices of the narrators criss-crossing through the narrative.

The first calamity it begins. Stawberry vanilla ripple. How was it for you, Mr Fox asks Mrs Fox, but the calamity the reviewer is focussing on is the First Wold War (‘…the calamity from which all other calamities sprang’ quoting Fritz Stern). The summer before, the original August, and all explanations are improbable, and equally opaque – it is history as ‘raw modernity’, the narrator says. Mr and Mrs Fox are also wondering how far Raven’s glistening white beak would be able to sink into any one of their bare leg. Which of us will be first, they both are thinking.

How do you know that, Raven asks, strawberry vanilla rippling, mimicking what Uncle Wally constantly keeps pointing out over all our shoulders – fragmented causation. The next section is called ‘Rah, Rah, Cheers, Queers’, in which Terry Castle names her dirty little secrets, or is it next chapter of this golden notebook August LRB issue. What a weirdo, Terry writes in italics. It is Mummy speaking, the self styled “Reverend Countess Mavis the Portable of Frome Valley”, according to pieces of her writing that Terry found.

We live there too, Mr and Mrs Fox say together, turning towards each other in amazement. The Frome Valley, what a surprise! Raven is back sucking more ice cream out of the cone. Have you come for therapy then, Raven asks, The August 1913 postcard from Marcel Duchamp to Max Bergman comes as the next section/chapter: the great icon of modernity – the postcard is from Herne Bay.

Now that is strange, you say confusing reader and writer for a moment, but not really when you think I was so close by on the Kent coast only the week before in August. It was Ramsgate, and I wrote about it here. There is a ‘need for rotating circles’ we are told Duchamp put in one of his notebooks afterwards, indicating something possibly to do with the pavilion and pier (which blew down in 1973).

Zugwang (‘almost complete’), the succeeding sections/reviews/chapters spin by: Unfinished Business, Half-Fox, Vanity and Venality (including the review of Wolfgang Streek’s Gekaufte Zeit… who we first met speaking at an International Conference in Florence 2 years ago – the transcription issued in the NLR and reported in a previous feuilleton here), … , … , Adrenaline (actually this is the name of the book reviewed), Five Star Billionaire, and then finally – Diary – the piece you dealt with last week too… “In or around June 1995″.

Mr and Mrs Fox continue to watch Raven finish his ice cream, expertly sucking the last dregs so not a single drop falls on the sand. On The Concept of History and so on, and while we are on about coincidences or causation, as it happens there are also bits of Ted Hughes’s poem ‘The Thought-Fox’ in the Oratorio being sung in the Frome Valley – Cattistock Church 0n Sunday October 6th, 4pm. Mr Fox is singing the tenor line: ‘…Each shred a wound and a petition. Pity, Terror, covert before Oedipus Rex…’. Or at least I think the words are the poet’s but I am not always to be trusted. You need to check.

Welcome to my world too, says Raven warmly putting his sticky white red flecked beak into the extended right hand of the rippling Uncle Wally, And do please call me August. In my opinion, the great bird continues, Rebecca Solnit goes on too long in that Diary piece, at least far too long for my limited attention span, and her piece could have done with the BIG RED PEN. And, while we are on about it, stop pretending time has not always come in fragments and shards – been in “deteriation” as you put it – far longer than the last 20 years, at least since 1913.

Jun 112013
KEN_0513_ 0004

You’ll remember me saying.

Well, perhaps I don’t, the other replies.

Two men in conversation: it is not difficult to find many explanations for the disconnect in what they are saying to each other – reinventing the tradition, as Walter Scott said reputedly, always comes easy:

- Walter Benjamin walking with Baudelaire in Paris and transcribing what he once said or wrote in long sections of  The Arcades Project

- Joyce and Beckett walking on I’Ile aux Cygnes, Paris at the Francis Kyle Gallery (London from July)

KEN_0513_ 0002

- “Ulysses’ ship in the Grand Basin of the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris”, my friend DRK says, searching for the right words and failing to find them, as he says he commonly does.

It is not exactly unsafe here, but it is always possible to detect danger, and hunched forward around a small cafe the four of us are speaking quietly together and being careful with our words. For one thing it is quite possible the large monumental figure on the pedestal above us is listening. He appears to belong to the apparatus of state authority and in a state of excitement with his erection, and something on a stick is pointing down towards us: a microphone. Or perhaps it is a weapon, something electronic and threatening.

Anything is possible on this bright and beautiful day isn’t it? While  the tourists are happily milling through the city gardens, jumping for joy, great red spots are beginning to fall from the sky. Or blood is exploding from somewhere, a body perhaps, and it could very quickly become a crime scene. The police will be arriving from every direction in the next instant, and the whole place will be locked down.

Something else red and intense and also exploding is under the bridge by the river Seine below where the two writers Joyce and Becket, if the two small waling figures precisely unrecognisable at such a distance are them – (DRK ”She  glanced at her lovely echo. Joyce and Beckett walking on I’Ile aux Cygnes, Paris.”).

The chances are there could be several kinds of explanations for these explosion altogether. Go to Firenze to try to find out and whether such phenomena are also to be found in that city. Her lovely echo: under the Ponte Vecchio, once walking close by I remember noticing the dusty dried out grass thick with discarded hypodermic needles, and plastic bags, occasional used condoms, and piles of black plastic garbage bags were scattered close by on the flat ground between river wall and the flowing water. Another time, I watched a group of young men playing football on a cleared grassless area, and skillfully avoiding letting their ball go out of play on the river side. And along the arcades –  lungo i portici - there were to be found young men and women, some of them wild eyed and revolutionary, sat beneath the grafitti of political slogans.

And so on, reinventing the tradition. lungo i portici : I also understand that the Grillini are now already in total disarray.

Thinning Membranes

 Posted by at 1:25 pm  ON the STREET  Comments Off
Apr 122013



Dear Bernie,

I thought I would write as it seems ages since we talked. Yeah, I do remember why that might be. I remember that ranting evening and I remember stomping, swearing and swearing that that was it! Never again! Still the months pass and I thought to myself, come on, get over it, so what is it, when it comes down to basics, what is a slight difference of opinion or even, come to that, a murderous gulf of difference, a tsunami of different views.

I miss you, you old bastard.

Shall we meet up for another round of bare-knuckle fighting.

Come on, it would be fun, right!

Yours in jest




‘Outrage inspires resistance.’ I borrow those three words and tentatively taste them, try to chew them but I’m too tired, too preoccupied with other stuff. Could I ever be outraged enough to act. This is an terrible confession to make: could I stand up for what I believe? Especially when it seems to be so hard to define just what it is I believe.

But then the text goes on: ‘two views of history.’ Let’s have a look at this. ‘When’ (he continues) ‘I try to understand what caused fascism , the reason we were overtaken by it . . . It seems to me that the rich, in their selfishness, feared a Bolshevik revolution.’ He might be right and what do they do? Terrorise some and corrupt others. Pinochet set out to terrorise a whole population, while a few years later, his friend Maggie T, apparently (and perhaps reluctantly) acknowledging that she would be unable to get away with thousands of tortured and disappeared, moved more circumspectly. Following military success a very, very long way away, like a fairy tale adventure – if it wasn’t for television – then having gained confidence and popularity, terrorised much of the unions and the left, and corrupted the rest of us, promised us a new world of promised wealth if only we would agree to give up the idea of there being such a thing as society.

‘There is, of course, a conception of history, which sees the progress of history, which sees the progress of liberty, competition and the race for ‘more and more’ as a destructive whirlwind. That is how a friend of my father described history. This was the man who shared with my father the task of translating Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past into German. I am speaking of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin. He drew a pessimistic message from a painting by a Swiss painter, Paul Klee, called Angelus Novus, which shows an angel opening it’s arms as if to contain and repel the tempest that Benjamin equates with progress.’

It must be the angel that is welcoming – at this very moment – Maggie. Come here Maggie, let us have a little chat about things. Ding dong . . .


Dear Constance,

I think of you often. Those soft grey eyes of yours belying the harshness of your incisive judgements. It seems a lifetime since we met. I feel very trusting that this letter will reach you though rationally I have to admit it is far more likely that you’ve moved many times since I last saw you. And that was before this wondrous age of emails and Facebook. I did try googling you but no success yet. Who knows Hermes might help this letter’s onward journey.

Did you marry that guy you were going out with – I can’t (or don’t want to) remember his name?

Warm good wishes



(Quotations from Stephane Hessel’s Indignez-vous – Time for Outrage)