Briefly Beguiling to the Senses But Ultimately Annoying to the Soul

Teju Cole, Known and Strange Things

Faber, 416pp, £16.99, ISBN 9780571328055

reviewed by Laura Waddell

I wasn’t far into Teju Cole’s essay collection Known and Strange Things when I realised the book wasn’t what I had anticipated, drawn from the cover copy promising a ‘first collection of essays’ on ‘politics, photography, travel, history and literature.’ Rather than a series of cultural essays as such, it’s more a collection of brief reviews, many pre-published in magazines and reviews. Cole’s writing is elegant and his observations often insightful and enthusiastic; I’d previously enjoyed his novels Every Day is For the Thief (2007) and Open City (2011). But I couldn’t help but wonder whether the decision to publish a collection of reviews at this stage in his life and career does a very good writer something of a disservice.

Cole is an established and prolific reviewer. Seeing his byline on a review would encourage me to read it. No matter how eloquent or witty a reviewer, to read a number of reviews, one after the other, is a little fatiguing. Every few pages, a neat blurb-handy conclusion; a structural pattern of rising and falling running through the book like ripples. The pieces are not dense enough for the book to act as resource; and as much as I’m intrigued by Cole’s writing, I might expect collected review from a writer whose career has spanned five, six, seven or more decades. Reading the index, I was keen to arrive at essays on, say, John Berger. But I was surprised to find, when there, the essay was not some overarching view of Berger, situating him widely, as the title might suggest, but a rather brief appraisal of Bento’s Sketchbook. I waited for the punchline to an account of attending a dinner party with VS Naipaul, an up-close profile containing tensely rendered patronising racial undertones. When the piece is wrapped up neatly after a chummy hand on knee, perhaps to the demands of an original word count, I struggle to find the conclusion satisfying and wonder if it was mostly a brag of dinner with a famous, rich man and a skyline view.

Addressing the nature of the collection in the preface, appearing in retrospect somewhat defensive, Cole states ‘this book takes a more flexible approach to essays than most books of its kind. But it is not a compendium of all the nonfiction I have in print over an eight-year period of almost constant writing. . . I have excluded a large number of smaller pieces . . . there is another possible book that contains all that is not in this one.’ The book Cole goes on to describe – the one that does not exist, with its ‘different tenor’ and ‘more analytical in approach’ – is the book I’d really like to read.

There are some stand-out pieces. ‘Black Body’, on James Baldwin’s time in Leukerbad in Switzerland, sees Cole make the same journey, situating his own body there 60 years later. With empathy, the piece addresses the difference time has made – there is not the same curiosity in the small town about Cole’s skin colour as there was for Baldwin’s in the fifties. Describing their different relationship with artwork, and picking up on Baldwin’s discomfort – ‘he was sensitive to what was great in world art, and sensitive to his own sense of exclusion from it,’ Cole perceives his own encompassing passion for art of multiple origins, his willingness to ‘own all of it’ is ‘a dividend of the struggle of people from earlier generations.’ This essay represents the best in reflective writing: Cole contrasting himself to Baldwin reveals much about the latter, with intriguing historical and cultural reflection. It is a memorable read and a tender portrait.

Cole is also excellent on photography, combining in his essays on various photographers his illuminating knowledge of and passion for the medium with typical analytic flair, often panning historically around individuals profiled and honing in for exemplary close interpretation of individual artworks. In discussing Saul Leiter, Cole contextualises his work in practical terms, providing for the reader insight into film technique of the time, and how they were used to great effect. Malian photographer Seydou Keita used his commercial portrait studio to create ‘visual soliloquy,’ a line aptly summarising the depth of his portraiture. In ‘A True Picture of Black Skin’, Cole draws on the theme of protest in discussion of the work of Roy DeCarava, and how the photographer under-lit his works, using ‘soft, dreamy greys’ instead of the ‘Shirley card’ standard of commercial camera equipment of the time, which was calibrated to suit white skin. I finish these essays knowing more about the named subject and fascinated to find out more, with a greater appreciation of photography’s cultural resonance through the ages, from Cole’s perceptive interpretation of visual art. Cole is sensitive to and excited by innovation in technique and in the possibilities of communicating artistically; nonetheless it is unfortunate that three consecutive essays on photography take as their opening premise the vast number of photographs taken by camera phones every day. ‘In Place of Thought’, a cryptic dictionary from A to Z following the example of Flaubert and Bierce is an absolute joy to read for its wry, associative wit. 

In an essay on photographer Gueorgui Pinkhassov, in a section on camera phones and the immediate post processing of filters, I read a line that sticks in my throat:

The result is briefly beguiling to the senses but ultimately annoying to the soul, like fake breasts or MSG-rich food.

There are some immediate logical fallacies here. In using this as a comparative example to flesh out his point, Cole makes the assumption that his own personal sexual summarising of a woman’s body is a universally held perspective – that there is an objective view of this body type where titillation is followed by a sort of disgust, and he declares this unthinkingly. That there is – in troubling the soul – some moral or ethical weakness represented by this body type, and to gaze upon this feminine form bothers the very spiritual core of man (but go ahead and get off on it first). Whose soul does it bother, I wonder? Does the woman with fake breasts experience beguilement then annoyance tugging at her soul when she looks in the mirror? Does the woman who has undergone reconstructive surgery after cancer feel annoyed? Does the woman who has amended her body to please her own tastes feel it? Do other men and women without such surgery, but who do or do not find it sexually appealing, feel the same dichotomy between lust and a shrinking away of their soul afterwards? I imagine not. I’d ask of Cole, did you assume a woman with fake breasts wouldn't be reading this book? Did you assume a woman with fake breasts wouldn't be reviewing it?

There is much in Known and Strange Things that is a real delight to read, hard-hitting and poised in equal measure. It is regrettable that the strength of Cole’s best essays is weighed down by pieces less suited to a flagship essay collection. I look forward to the alternate book describe in the preface, should it come into existence.
Laura Waddell is a publisher and writer based in Glasgow. Her work has appeared in publications including the Guardian, TLS, the List, 3AM magazine, McSweeneys.