Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet is complete with The Story of the Lost Child,making it possible to see the whole structure, which reveals itself in layers like Naples itself, where former cityscapes are buried by time, political violence, and natural disasters. Reading this final volume, it’s easy to forget that the first book, My Brilliant Friend, frames the entire work as a mystery—aside from the much-discussed secrecy of Ferrante, who uses a pen name, allows no photographs, and, with few exceptions, will only be interviewed via email or telephone. With this volume, Ferrante reminds us again that a question of authorship is embedded into the narrative—who is telling this story? Lila or Elena?
Stoic faces, stiff poses, graceful envelope rhyme—this book is built on the difference between a caption and a title, between identifying an image and re-animating it. As Adam Kirsch writes in his introduction to Emblems of the Passing World, August Sander’s photographs reveal “what is ordinarily hidden from us—the way we ourselves appear, and will appear to posterity, as types, when we stubbornly insist on experiencing ourselves as individuals.”
The poems that follow are based on photographs of citizens from Germany’s Weimar Republic, a period of political upheaval between the first and second World Wars. Despite severe economic inequality during these years, many of Germany’s most famous artists and writers flourished, including August Sander, a photographer with the ambition of documenting people from all walks of life. Rather than using names, the portraits identify their sitters by social class or occupation, and the poems use their captions as titles. Kirsch, who is both critical and admiring of Sander, carves these subjects from the geological strata of their history and attempts to give them back a semblance of individuality.
Review: Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander
In the cabinet in the atrium outside my office is a glass display case that holds, among other things, a beautiful kidney shaped vessel, its patina smoothed by use. Label: “Brass Pus Basin.” It is an object to stand and stare down at for a while, intentionally or idly, to move on from and return to, to see in passing. Nearby, as part of an exhibit on bloodletting and cupping, are 18th- and 19th-century thumb lancets with their sharp little blades and tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl handles. In the next case over, a collection of 40 or so calculi (“bladder stones”) of varied size and shape, all disturbingly large. This is the Warren Anatomical Museum, at Harvard Medical School’s Countway Library, where “the dead teach the living.”
The town was segregated, not by laws but by economics. The lines were almost too stark. The northeast side of town was the “black side of town” while the southwest side of town, the farthest away from northeast, was the well-to-do, upper-middle-class “nice neighborhood.” The truly well off lived outside city limits in large homes built along cul-de-sacs in the middle of hardwood forests. I lived in the giant trailer park north of town, just across the railroad tracks from the NE housing projects.
It had nearly 400 trailers, a hamlet of tin cans. The trailers were singlewides, mostly from the 60s and 70s, and placed close together with small patches of grass between. They were set on concrete pads and anchored with “tornado straps,” metal bands bolted into the ground. It was a cheap place to live. A guy I worked with at Domino’s Pizza had lived there and sold his trailer to me and my friend Jon for $2,000. Lot rent was $100 a month, including water and trash.
Driving on the Peak to Peak Highway through Colorado’s Rockies with my husband, Bill, and his mountain-climbing friend, Bob, I glimpsed in the valley beyond a cluster of low buildings painted blue, pink, and green. It looked as if a 19th century frontier mining town had been transformed by a happy band of pot-smoking hippies who had journeyed cross-country from Woodstock. The incongruity was so pronounced, I wondered if the air at 8200 feet had thinned my brain cells, causing hallucinations.