Snap! Snap!

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In the final essay of her final (posthumous) collection, Still Pictures: On Photography and memory (2023), Janet Malcolm describes a small black-and-white snapshot of a “man and woman wearing shorts, walking one behind the other on a tennis court”. For years this picture was displayed on the desk of her husband, Gardner Botsford. Malcolm assumed the couple were people he was fond of – but when she finally asked it turned out he had no idea who they were. The picture appealed to him merely as “an example of an outstandingly terrible snapshot”. Keeping it was a joke, “a wonderful exercise in absurdism”.

Malcolm mischievously reproduced Botsford’s crap photograph in Diana and Nikon (1980), a collection of her pieces on photography. It featured alongside three deliberately artless, avant-garde snapshots by celebrated photographers. Mostly this prank went unnoticed, though the Botsford picture was cited by one irritated reviewer as evidence of Malcolm’s inability to distinguish between real art and a worthless snapshot. In a final, delicious twist, Botsford’s photograph was, Malcolm tells us, then respectfully included in a historical and critical analysis of snapshots as an example of a “professional study”. “I look forward to the day when the picture of the couple on the tennis court will assume its place in an important collection”, the author concludes, “and I will take up mine in the annals of horsing around.”

The Nigerian American writer Teju Cole is also a photographer, with several exhibitions and photobooks to his name. His fiction and essays engage directly and indirectly with the medium of the photograph, garnering him repeated comparisons to W. G. Sebald. Tunde, the protagonist of Cole’s new novel, Tremor, is a teacher of photography at an unnamed New England university. (Cole teaches creative writing at Harvard; both character and author moved to the US from Nigeria aged seventeen.) The book’s fourth chapter muses on the low success rate of the swiftly snapped shot: “Seldom did he take a photo in a hurry and later on find it worth keeping. Due time and consideration were almost always necessary”. Later Tunde explains why he no longer takes pictures of people:

I fear the demands that portraits of people make. Portraits are high risk and require familiarity, vulnerability, and strangeness. I have also developed an aversion to the theft of anyone’s face. For portraiture not to be a theft I would have to be even more patient and intent than I am now.

Contemplating cultural appropriation in the Harvard Art Museums, Tunde makes a distinction between the way he thinks about his own photography as compared to that of others: “‘Taken’ I say when describing other people’s photographs but for mine I default to ‘made’ – because I can vouch for my own intentions?”

The intention behind a photograph, how it is framed, the final image as part construction, part found object: these considerations have permeated Cole’s fiction since his taut, unforgettable novella Every Day Is for the Thief (2007). Both that first book and his highly acclaimed debut novel, Open City (TLS, September 9, 2011), featured a protagonist of German-Nigerian heritage who moves to the US from Lagos to study medicine aged seventeen. Looking back these two works feel like part of contemporary autofiction’s advance guard, at least to anglophone readers (see also Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, 2011). Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, which was first published in Norwegian between 2009 and 2011, didn’t appear in English until 2012, and the first book in Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, which shares much with Open City, both conceptually and tonally, was published in 2014.

In many ways autofiction is the literary equivalent of the artfully artless snapshot. In this revealing extract from Every Day Is for the Thief, the narrator finds himself feeling sorry for John Updike:

I suddenly feel a vague pity for all those writers who have to ply their trade from sleepy American suburbs … Had John Updike been African, he would have won the Nobel Prize twenty years ago. I feel sure that his material hobbled him. Shillington, Pennsylvania, simply did not measure up to his extravagant gifts. And sadder yet are those who haven’t even a fraction of Updike’s talent and yet must hoe the same arid patch for stories. No such aridity here [i.e. in Lagos] …

Cole’s prose occasionally includes stylish touches, but his gifts are not extravagant. He is an arranger, a curator, a framer, a documenter. In Every Day Is for the Thief the subject, the view through the camera lens – as he acknowledges in the passage above – is its own strong argument: the violent vitality of Nigeria. Cole wisely treats his unique material with restraint, resulting in a focused portrait of a very particular place and time. Open City offers subtler (and arguably duller) pleasures. The narrator, Julius, rambles through New York and Brussels; he ruminates on art and music; he strikes up conversations, reported at length, with a favourite patient, with a detained immigrant, with a stranger on the plane. Both books employ the first person, with the protagonist’s consciousness and physical meanderings providing a crucial unifying thread.

Tremor tries for something more radical. Tunde is the protagonist, but the book’s eight sections are presented discretely, almost like essays rather than sections of narrative. The opening four sections are focalized for Tunde in the third person. The first section coalesces around the colour violet. The second is dominated by the colour black: grit, smoke, tar soap, the night sky. The third section is haunted by various kinds of ghost. Biographical details emerge. We see Tunde with his students; we see him visiting West Africa and recalling his Nigerian childhood; we learn a little about his long-term relationship with a woman called Sadako, a tender, cerebral affair currently experiencing a period of mild turbulence. At intervals the narrative addresses a mysterious “you”: “Bach was not merely arranging notes, you said to Tunde at the time”. “You” turns out to be a beloved soulmate of Tunde’s, recently deceased, and this circled absence contributes to the book’s pervasive elegiac flavour.

Biography and event are secondary to Tremor’s thematic preoccupations, which include authenticity, the appropriation of African objects and bodies, and the brutality of history. On all these subjects Cole is scrupulously intelligent. His range of musical, artistic and cinematic reference is also formidable. But the extended passages of ekphrasis are one of the book’s turn-offs – into the margins, the stagnant peripheries. You see yet another page listing multiple renditions of a single song, or yet another detailed film precis coming your way, and you find yourself squirming in your seat, itching to skim. Tunde’s seriousness starts to chafe:

Often when he is entertained by music he is also displeased by having been entertained, as though he had forgotten something or gotten something wrong.

This is not to suggest that these subjects are inherently uninteresting: as an essayist Cole is absolutely worth reading (see his lively and varied collection Known and Strange Things, 2016). But packaged as fiction this discursive, ostentatiously scholarly mode makes for aridity and even pretentiousness, as it does in the similarly essayistic “novels” of Garth Greenwell and Jessie Greengrass.

The fifth section is an actual lecture, delivered by Tunde, on paintings by J. M. W. Turner and Herri met de Bles. The seventh section is a vague description of an unnamed city, “a city of doubles, a pluripotential city of echoing selves and settings” – territory already too well trodden by the likes of Italo Calvino, Paul Auster and Gerald Murnane. The eighth section, delivered in Tunde’s first person, contains some tea-towel platitudes: “Life is hopeless but it is not serious. We have to have danced while we could and, later, to have danced again in the telling”.

But it is the sixth section that is most emblematic of a fundamental shift in Cole’s aesthetic. The writer of Every Day Is for the Thief saw the city of his birth as a legitimate source of material. Now his older self is working with his hands behind his back, in hock to that fashionable “aversion to the theft of anyone’s face”. The sixth section is a series of page-length monologues, seemingly delivered by residents of Lagos: a teacher, a bereaved mother, the victim of a robbery. Most of these cameos are, however, only mildly interesting. I suspect they are direct transcripts of interviews with real people, offered up diffidently, virtuously, unmodified.

We have, in short, a pile of artfully artless snapshots, with the onus on the reader to make something of the arbitrary juxtapositions between them. Malcolm again, in the title essay of Diana and Nikon: “Photography perhaps more readily than any other medium complies with the Duchampian Dictate – ‘If I call it art, it becomes art’ – whereby a urinal assumes the stature of a work of sculpture”. Is Tremor art? Is it a novel, or a vehicle for ideas? Were these snapshots worth keeping? One thing is for certain: this book trembles under the weight of its own politesse. There is a lesson that Teju Cole would do well to learn from his fellow New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm, who knew that it is perfectly possible to be both serious and entertaining; to think deeply about difficult subjects – while making room for the occasional, essential bit of horsing around.

Claire Lowdon’s novel Left of the Bang was published in 2015

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS here

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