There is a line in Teju Cole’s remarkable debut novel, “Open City,” that still stumps me. The protagonist, a medical doctor, has come to visit a beloved college professor who sits dying of cancer in his art-lined study. Asked about his unfinished reading, the protagonist says, “No sooner do I buy a new book than it reproaches me for leaving it unread.” The professor responds more simply, saying he doesn’t read much anymore, either. I couldn’t tell: Was Cole making fun of the protagonist, having him speak in such an elaborate way about reading while his professor, who is literally at home among the art of the world, answers so casually? It was a riddle.
His new collection of essays, “Known and Strange Things,” doesn’t quite solve the riddle, but it does come close, revealing fascinating aspects of Cole’s searching and unusual mind. Though the bulk of the pieces are on photography (he’s the photography critic for the New York Times Magazine), he wanders far afield, omnivorously exploring everything from Virginia Woolf to his now-famous essay on the White Savior Industrial Complex. Cole’s takes on everything are seen through the alternating long and short lenses of a modern writer steeped in history. His short essays are the best, simple and elegant, and they sent me to Google to learn more about a wide range of people, including artist John Berger and composer Peter Sculthorpe. The essay on his doppelganger, Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski, is so remarkably done, its content and structure so finely balanced, that I shook my head in admiration at Cole’s skillful hand.
The longer pieces can be less satisfying. Cole, for example, spends some 4,000 words retracing the steps of James Baldwin, who, in 1953, visited a tiny, all-white Swiss village that had apparently never seen a black man in the flesh. Cole concludes, as he wanders through the tiny town, that, unlike Baldwin, who felt alienated by the Europe he encountered, he believes the artifacts of European culture belong to him, too. This isn’t much of a revelation and, more, it could strike one as a bit uncharitable for Cole to accuse Baldwin, born into a different world than Cole, of being small-minded because Baldwin felt like a cultural outsider in 1950s Europe. There does not seem a world or language or culture that Cole feels alien in. Yet even the poet Rita Dove, in Germany on a Fulbright scholarship some 20 years after Baldwin, has written about feeling like a stranger in a town where white children openly stared at her and wanted to touch her hair. She would also write the miraculous poem “Medusa” out of that experience. Alienation can be a source of beauty, too.
And no one can argue with Cole’s appreciation of or capacity for beauty, especially of the visual variety. His essay on three great African photographers, all but one unknown to me, is a minor gem and made me angry that we in the West remain largely ignorant of the art and culture of so much of the rest of the world. Cole’s photographic obsessions can help explain his literary ones, too. It makes sense that the mind that notices the series of crosses in photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work might also love the visually arresting poetry of Seamus Heaney, whose poem “Lightenings” is organized around a series of crossed parallel and perpendicular lines.
But anyone who knew Heaney knew that he also possessed a preternatural ease inside his difference, a permanent and justified sense of himself as an outsider, a feeling that Cole seems to quarrel with in Baldwin. This extravagant cosmopolitan-ness, this porous ease in so wide an array of cultures and art forms, is somewhat unconvincing in Cole. No young writer has taken the idea of the generalist more to heart than Cole has. He was born in the United States but moved to Nigeria with his parents as an infant, and he writes voluminously about both cultures; he has described himself as feeling connected to the culture of his Indian-born wife, and in the bio of “Open City” he describes himself as a “professional historian of early Netherlandish art.” Cole is inviting us to trust in him a wisdom on the art and culture of four different civilizations that have almost no points in common. It is an ambitious ask.
Cole tells a fascinating story at the end of this book about going suddenly blind while at a writer’s retreat in Upstate New York, two months after “Open City” is published. Once he leaves the doctor’s office, he stumbles his way to a diner, and after struggling to read the menu, “I handed the menu back to the waitress, explaining to her that my pupils were dilated and I was ambushed by a sudden shame: that she would think me illiterate and a liar.” This is a startling admission for one so deeply learned and suggests that some of this elaborate display of erudition might conceal an anxiety over not being seen as erudite (even by someone quite likely less educated than he). In our still heavily racially and economically stratified world, this is a burden black people and poor people, no doubt, still carry, but an anxiety that Heaney, born further from the halls of literary prestige than Cole (Heaney was the son of a farmer; Cole the son of an MBA), eventually overcame and never allowed to crease his prose. Like Heaney (and Dove and Baldwin), I’d wish for Cole more comfort with his cultural and intellectual limitations (we all have them), which might, ironically, in these crucial, anxious moments, provide, like the mentor in “Open City,” a more convincing ease among the art of the world.
Cinque Henderson reviewed this book for the Washington Post.