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Blind spot af Teju Cole
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Blind spot (udgave 2017)

af Teju Cole

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When it comes to Teju Cole, the unexpected is not unfamiliar: Hes an acclaimed novelist, an influential essayist, and an internationally exhibited photographer. In Blind Spot, readers follow Coles inimitable artistic vision into the visual realm as he continues to refine the voice, eye, and intellectual obsessions that earned him such acclaim for Open City. Here, journey through more than 150 of Coles full-color, original photos, each accompanied by his lyrical and evocative prose, forming a multimedia diary of years of near-constant travel: from a park in Berlin to a mountain range in Switzerland, a church exterior in Lagos to a parking lot in Brooklyn; landscapes, beautiful or quotidian, that inspire Coles memories, fantasies, and introspections. Ships in Capri remind him of the work of writers from Homer to Edna OBrien; a hotel room in Wannsee brings back a disturbing dream about a friends death; a home in Tivoli evokes a transformative period of semi-blindness, after which "the photography changed. . . . The looking changed." As exquisitely wrought as the work of Anne Carson or Chris Marker, Blind Spot is a testament to the art of seeing by one of the most powerful and original voices in contemporary literature.… (mere)
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Dangers of Following Sebald

Teju Cole is a Nigerian-American photographer, critic, and novelist who is also the photography critic of the "New York Times." (I imagine their choice puzzled some academics: there are so many qualified people, who know the literature better than Cole.) "Blind Spot" is the kind of book that can only be produced by an author with popular appeal: it's 330-pages, all-color, with heavy coated stock and a cloth cover with an embossed tipped-in front cover image. Yet the text is more like an artist's book than a popular novel: it has no continuous narrative, and it's full of allusions. Most of the book has photos on the right, and brief texts on the left, and each text is titled with the name of the place where the photo was taken. (There is also a map at the end of the book, and a two-page Postscript explaining how the author likes to travel.)

The narrator doesn't describe why or how he travels, which makes him seem much as he actually is: the privileged recipient of invitations "to literary festivals and to teaching programs," as he says in the Postscript. But the narrator doesn't talk about that in the book itself, which makes him a wandering observer of a number of cultures, superficially like the narrator of Sebald's books. But Cole's wanderings aren't directed like Sebald's were: he isn't circling around specific cultural memories. Instead he samples various atrocities and genocides as he goes (Balinese, First Nation, German, Syrian, even Swiss). When he's not commenting on historical events, the narrator usually wants to tell us about his own photographs. On a number of pages we're told what to look at--effectively, we're told why the photos are good. There are several sequences of text/image pairings that work as self-contained lectures, in which the narrator tells us how to notice things in his images (for example, pp. 64-71). And then there are a number of miscellaneous text and image pairings, where the texts might be anything from dreams to Christianity, but the images are nearly always formal compositions of depopulated corners of cities.

Unlike Sebald, Cole is just learning Western history and art, and it shows. In the Postscript he undertook research "as an art historian in training." His references are commonplaces of the art historical literature. Siri Hustbedt, who wrote a rambling poetic introduction to the book, lists "Caravaggio, Duerer, Degas"; there's also, for example, a text and image pairing inspired by Carel Fabritius's goldfinch. That page epitomizes a lot of what's awful about Cole's allusions: they're common, pretentious, and precious. Here is the text, called "Tripoli," in its entirety:

"The date to remember is 1654. He paints 'The Goldfinch' that year. The color harmonies are cool, the wall is as full of subtle character as a face. His life is like a brief and beautiful bridge. He studies with Rembrandt in Amsterdam. He teaches Vermeer in Delft.
"I am walking in the narrow alley between the castle of the Crusaders and the busy souk. There are children wild in the alley. There is a bird on the wall. It is him, Carel Fabritius. The bird suggests it (though this bird is a bulbul) but it is the wall that confirms it. Suddenly the gunbowder depot explodes. Fabritius is killed, and most of his paintings are lost to history. But not all is lost. The bridge has been built and it has been crossed, the bridge from shadow into light. He is not yet thirty-three years old." [p. 20]

The next-to-last line is an allusion to a cliche of art history, that Fabritius put light into Rembrandt's dark interiors, paving the way for Vermeer. It's also meant, I think, to resonate with the book's recurrent Christological themes. Fabritius's studio was near the Delft gunpowder storage facility. Cole's idea is to let Fabritius's story and his most famous painting (famous even in literary circles, as in Donna Tartt's "Goldfinch") echo in the photograph of a bird in a cage hung on a scarred plaster wall. The photo itself is unremarkable; the wall could be Tapies or Villegle or any one of hundreds of recent photographers who have fetishished the overlooked textures of cities. The birdcage only contributes another cliche.

What's worst about this is the way Cole twists his prose to avoid the appearance of lecturing. "The date to remember is 1654" is preachy and artificially literary. "Blind Spot" is full of pretentious allusions--to Homer's catalogue of ships, to the Divine Comedy, to Ondaatje, to Alkman (as Hustvedt notes). These allusions are settled uneasily into Cole's high-art prose, as if they were treasures brought up from a shipwreck. This is the opposite of Sebald's allusions, which are much more informed and are rarely about showing off their author's knowledge. Sebald's history is woven into his concerns: Cole's is "research." He drops names: a picture of a detail of a map reminds him of something "Elizabeth Bishop, Luigi Ghirri, and Italo Calvino have in common" (p. 24). What he retrieves from his allusions is often thin: in one photo, "the city is shorn of all superfluity and reduced to its essentials, as in a play by Beckett" (p. 226). Given that Sebald's recurring center of interest, he black hole that keeps drawing him back in time, is the Holocaust, it is especially trite that Cole doesn't develop the title of his own book: it isn't until p. 80 that we learn that his retina was detached, making him temporarily blind in one eye; and it isn't until the very last line of the Postscript thathe thinks to tell us that "To look is to see only a fraction of what one is looking at. Even in the most vigilant eye, there is a blind spot. What is missing?" (p. 325).

More successful pairings
"Bling Spot" can be read for individual text/image pairings, because some are very inventive. "Lagos," pp. 48-49, pairs a one-paragraph story about how the narrator's mother once forced him to stop striking out what he was trying to write, resulting in a clean page of "elegant-looking writing," with a brief second paragraph about the narrator's fascination with the white spaces around Cy Twombly's scribbles, and a photo (taken in Lagos), of a mirror or pane of wind glass resting one some newspapers in someone's a back yard. The slant rhymes of clean pages, blank margins, and empty reflections works well. Same, with similar imagery and a text on Swiss politics, on pp. 12-13.

The pairings that work best, I think, are the ones where the text does not try for literary tone, and it doesn't try to instruct us about how to see photographs, and it doesn't propose one-to-one correspondences between historical events and the everyday objects that are taken to allegorize them. Cole will be a better writer if he can give up his repertorial habits (as in novels like "Every Day Is For the Thief," about his return to Lagos and its politics), his art-historical ambitions, and his emulation of Europeans like Sebald. His photographs aren't often remarkable by themselves, but sometimes he finds things to say that glance off them, producing the kind of back-and-forth reading and looking that really illuminates both the writing and the images.
  JimElkins | Mar 18, 2018 |
Non male, ma preferisco quando nei suoi lavori c'è meno fotografia e più letteratura.
In altri termini: qua l'aspetto fotografico è preponderante e lui fotografo NON è. 3_stelle_3 [per me] ( )
  downisthenewup | Aug 17, 2017 |
Hardcover, 352 pages Expected publication: June 13th 2017 by Random House ISBN13: 9780399591075

This book of photographs paired with short essays is due out in the next two weeks. I want to give you ample time to order one for delivery on publication. Teju Cole’s art is exceptional at the same time it is accessible. In my experience, the confluence of these two things happens only rarely, which is how Cole has come to occupy an exalted place in my pantheon of artists. If I say his photography can stop us in our tracks, it says nothing of his writing, which always adds something to my understanding. Today I discovered his website has soundtracks which open doors. And there it is, his specialness: Cole’s observations enlarge our conversation.

This may be the most excellent travel book I have read in recent years, the result of years of near-constant travel by the author. Scrolling through the Table of Contents is a tease, each destination intriguing, irresistible, stoking our curiosity. Each entry is accompanied by a photograph, or is it the other way around?
“I want to make the kinds of pictures editors of the travel section will dislike or find unusable. I want to see the things the people who live there see, or at least what they would see after all the performance of tourism has been stripped away.”
Yes, this is my favored way of travel, for “the shock of familiarity, the impossibility of exact repetition.” It is the reason most photographs of locales seemed unable to capture even a piece of my experience. But Cole manages it. In the entry for “Palm Beach,” his picture is of a construction site, a pile of substratum—in this case, sand—piled high before an elaborate pinkish villa. His written entry is one of his shortest, only three sentences, one of them the Latin phrase Et in Arcadia ego, washing the scene with knowledge of what we are viewing, and what is to come.

Cole calls this work a lyric essay, a “singing line” connecting the places. There is some of that. What connects all these places for me are Cole’s eyes…and his teacherly quality of showing us what he is thinking. It is remarkable, and totally engrossing.
“Human experience varies greatly in its externals, but on the emotional and psychological level, we have a great deal of similarity with one another.”
Yes, this insight, so obvious written down, is something I have been struggling with for such a long time, going back and forth over the idea that we are the same, we are different. Cole tells us that this book stands alone, or can be seen as fourth in a quartet addressing his “concern with the limits of vision.” I want to sink into that thought, in the context of what he has given us, because outside the frame of a photograph, outside of our observation, outside of us, is everything else.

My favorite among the essays, if we can call them such, filled as much with what Cole did not say as with what he did, is the piece called “Black River.” Cole evokes the open sea, Derek Walcott, crocodiles, and white egrets. A tropical coastal swamp filled with crocodiles also had white egrets decorating the bushy green of overhanging mangroves, the large white splashes almost equidistant from one another, the closest they can be for maximum happiness, I like to think, t hough it could also be minimum happiness, I guess. Any closer and there will be discord, like the rest of us live.

The arrival in bookstores of a book by Teju Cole is an event. His pictures makes us look, and his words are like the egrets, spaced for maximum pleasure. Whether or not you read this as a series or alone, make sure you pick it up, just to gaze. You need have no agenda. His magic does not make much of itself. He takes us along for the ride. Bravo! ( )
  bowedbookshelf | May 26, 2017 |
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When it comes to Teju Cole, the unexpected is not unfamiliar: Hes an acclaimed novelist, an influential essayist, and an internationally exhibited photographer. In Blind Spot, readers follow Coles inimitable artistic vision into the visual realm as he continues to refine the voice, eye, and intellectual obsessions that earned him such acclaim for Open City. Here, journey through more than 150 of Coles full-color, original photos, each accompanied by his lyrical and evocative prose, forming a multimedia diary of years of near-constant travel: from a park in Berlin to a mountain range in Switzerland, a church exterior in Lagos to a parking lot in Brooklyn; landscapes, beautiful or quotidian, that inspire Coles memories, fantasies, and introspections. Ships in Capri remind him of the work of writers from Homer to Edna OBrien; a hotel room in Wannsee brings back a disturbing dream about a friends death; a home in Tivoli evokes a transformative period of semi-blindness, after which "the photography changed. . . . The looking changed." As exquisitely wrought as the work of Anne Carson or Chris Marker, Blind Spot is a testament to the art of seeing by one of the most powerful and original voices in contemporary literature.

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