Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole

There are moments in reading which elevate the experience beyond mere enjoyment to something more. I find in such moments a suspension, a feeling as though I am levitating above a great, vast plain of possibility and I know that something wonderful has happened, that I have been marked and that this book, whatever the book happens to be, will forever influence my way of thinking. I’ve heard the term ‘resonant’ a lot recently, and perhaps resonance is what it is – that the book vibrates in tune with something deep in ourselves, an unknown kind of knowledge buried in our subconscious. It doesn’t happen often, thankfully in some respects (I would hate for the experience to become tawdry), but as I was reading on the way home this week, and it was dark outside and I was tired and feeling, perhaps, a little feverish (my daughter has a nasty respiratory virus which she has, generously, passed on) I reached this, the opening section to a short essay on the work of photographer Gueorgui Pinkhassov in Teju Cole’s essay collection Known and Strange Things:

“We are not mayflies. We have known afternoons, and we live day after day for a great many days. This long experience of how days turn – how afternoons become late afternoons and late afternoons become night – informs any photographic work we do with natural light. The time of day at which the light is most glorious photographers call the golden hour: you’ve seen them toting cameras on street corners and in abandoned lots, coming at 5:30pm or 6:30 or later, depending on the latitude and time of year. They wait for a certain intensity of shadow, for the yellow sunlight to spill just so, before it dies away into the night. But Gueorgui Pinkhassov (Russian, b. 1952, based in Paris) has done something more than wait: he has detected the golden hour in unexpected hours. A low and fractured light shimmers across his oeuvre. He has a fluency in the language of the light at rest in all things. The light that is at rest and invisible to most eyes.”

And there it was, the suspension, the strange sensation that this singular configuration of words had reached into my mind and discovered something known there, a known thing strange to myself. It jolted me. I stopped, read the words again and the vibration was still there. I read on, the whole essay taking on an aura of something significant as Cole discusses the influence of Instagram on photographic experience, the surfeit of ‘bad’ photographs and the difficulty in finding the good ones, likening Instagram’s filters, applied often without thought or artistic awareness, to fake breasts and MSG-heavy meals, instantly appealing to the senses but without that ongoing, deep gratification that comes with love or a sustaining meal. I looked at the picture by Pinkhassov stored in the middle section of the book and it is, indeed, incredible – all reflections and shadows, light and uncertainty. In his essays, particularly those covering photography, images, and reading Cole refers in a number of places to the ‘oneiric’ quality of things. It is a word I didn’t know, I think I may have encountered it before but I had to look it up, and it means ‘related to dreams or dreaming’ or, in another way, ‘dreamlike’ and there’s a sense that Cole finds appeal in the shadowy edges of things, the dreamlike quality which is at once strangely concrete and yet foggy around the edges, missing something, an important gap. He writes that “I am a novelist, and my goal in writing a novel is to leave the reader not knowing what to think.” and this dynamic, his intent, filters through his essays too. He challenges us not to think in concrete terms, though facts are dispersed liberally throughout the essays, solid yet blurring at the edges. If anything is certain, it is that nothing is.

Cole writes with erudition, with confidence. Many of the essays confront the issue of racism, the pervasive and insidious way it shapes the life experience of those who happen to be of darker skin. As a Nigerian-American, Cole has an insightful view into the issue and like his country-woman Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie he confronts it with a direct gaze, refusing to look aside at ancillary arguments. In what would be commonplace North-West English parlance (and elsewhere, no doubt) he ‘says it as it is’ without obfuscation or equivocation, but also without denying nuance which elevates (that word again) his view beyond the commonplace. Some of the essays are difficult to read, one in particular about mob violence in Nigeria confronts acts of astonishing cruelty and some of the things that he discusses will forever be burned in my mind, very real and unnecessary cruelty, which is what all our societies are capable of. There is humour too, and humility, and a willingness to question which is both humble and demanding. Cole explores the world, rigorously and with depth. Yet there’s a sense he’s taken time over his explorations, that he is willing to be proven wrong or change his mind if circumstances turn in that direction.

We are not mayflies. We have known many strange things and yet we know nothing. This beautiful collection shows the shadowy edges of literature, of photography, of travel as a lone Black man, of the experience of always being reminded of being a lone Black man and the shadowy way it shapes behaviour – his and others’ – of the subtle ways in which we denigrate or accept each other, of the wonder in a line of poetry or the way in which an admired artist frames a shot. It is an uplifting experience. It is what I hoped for when attempting to read more slowly. I have experienced this sensation before, but not in a long time. I have wondered if the reason has been that I’ve been reading so fast that these moments have been slipping by. Perhaps I was simply in the right frame of mind, receptive to it. I don’t know. But I do know that irrespective of this Known and Strange Things is an extraordinary essay collection, wide-ranging in its scope, direct in its appeal and worth taking a little time over.

Known and Strange Things is published by Faber & Faber

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About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
This entry was posted in Art, essays, politics, travel, writers. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole

  1. JacquiWine says:

    I’m interested in what Cole says about his intent as a novelist: “my goal in writing a novel is to leave the reader not knowing what to think.” I think he achieved this with Open City, to a certain extent at least. Something happened toward the end of that novel that made me to question my previous impressions of the central figure, and I was left feeling rather uncertain about certain aspects of his character. Have you read it? If not, I would certainly recommend it.

    These essays seem very thought-provoking, and I particularly like the sound of the one on Pinkhassov’s photography. Lovely review as ever, Belinda.

    • bookbii says:

      I haven’t read Open City. This was my first introduction to Cole but I am very tempted to read his fiction now. This collection is definitely worth a read. He’s an articulate and interesting writer.

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