Ghost Stories - Federico Clavarino

1. Ghost Stories is a meditation on the interconnectedness of everything. An ode to the inevitability of (unspoken) relationships, to the impossibility of simply being without stepping on the toes of other histories.

2. Clavarino’s photographs stretch like an accordion, backwards into the past and then forwards into the present.

3. Ghost Stories orbits four islands: Ratonneau, Pomègues, If and Tiboulen. Together they make up the Frioul archipelago, two miles off the coast of Marseille. I find a photograph of them on Wikipedia. It’s a bright, carefree image; taken atop a hill looking over the terracotta roofs of Marseille and then on to the four islands, spread almost parallel to the almost straight horizon. I don’t know which island is which, but Google says Ratonneau is two and a half kilometres long and at most 500m wide. The weather today is fourteen degrees and cloudy. Saturday looks sunny. Pomègues is the largest of the four, popular with tourists although less busy than Ratonneau. If is the smallest, home to a retired fortress and prison. It’s also the home of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo which Ghost Stories partly retells. I haven’t read the novel or seen the film adaptation. Neither have I seen The French Connection, which I’m told also features If. Tiboulen is a mound of rock in the most literal sense. In a way, Ratonneau, Pomègues, If and Tiboulen are unremarkable. And yet, after reading Ghost Stories, they have a certain pull. Clavarino has thrown light on the strands that connect them with countless histories. In doing so, they feel fuller. What were just four islands, condensed to a handful of Google results, now feel almost bottomless.

4. The serendipity of using the verb “orbit” in note 3. whilst thinking how much Ghost Stories reminds me of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.

5. Clavarino rambles like Sebald; has the same way of walking obliquely to the wind.

6. Ghost Stories is as much a novel as it is a book of photographs. Words and images walk hand in hand, twin narrators.

7. Histories in Ghost Stories seem more like fables. They are more permeable, less certain, told through photographs that hint there is something else to find. What makes this feeling more acute are the words that accompany them. Events far in the past are described with an unexpected clarity, as though the narrator witnessed them first-hand. Although I know this is not true, lucidity muddies the boundary between history and imagination until it is hard to see at all.

8. In note 8., I used the passive voice, “are described” rather than saying “the narrator describes”. The passive voice obscures the actor, relegates them to instead underline the object of the sentence. Admittedly, this makes it harder for the reader, but in that instance, it felt apt. Perhaps it is because in Ghost Stories the narrator is knowingly obscure; a voice with no face that sits at a distance, reciting stories of Dantès and Ganda the rhinoceros. Just like in the passive voice, who they are is unimportant — they are only here to narrate.

9. Melancholy persists — yellowing books and bleached rubble. Sebald tips his hat.

10. Is it possible to take a photograph of one place in one time? Ghost Stories would say it’s not.

11. Ghost Stories is part fiction, part travelogue, part documentary, part something else.

12. Who is Clavarino in all of this? I presume he is “the photographer” referred to in the book, but in the third person I can’t be sure. It’s probable, but why conceal your own name in your own book? Does it even matter?

13. At the back of Ghost Stories, there’s a section titled Notes. Numbered, each note describes a photograph; what it is and where it was taken. Some are terse: “an opening, Île Pomègues”. Others elaborate at length, with dates, names, details and, at times, comments that border on the whimsical. What is most striking though is that Clavarino’s notes divulge that not all of the photographs in Ghost Stories were taken on the four islands. Paris, Dresden, Morocco, London amongst others. At first, this surprised me. On second thought it didn’t. Histories aren’t static; they shift and morph, perpetually changing. And neither are they bound by place. Histories move, whether through photographs, film or souvenirs. When you pair this unavoidable fact with Clavarino’s Sebaldian tendencies, it seems all too obvious. Ratonneau, Pomègues, If and Tiboulen are indeed fixed places, but their histories are free to wander and be found elsewhere.

15. In some photographs, it feels as if Clavarino has seen a thread of one of his stories. A sculpture, a ruin, a half-buried piece of metal. They are photographs with a kind of certainty; framed with such intent that there’s no desire to look beyond them. Everything Clavarino wants us to see is here, in front of us. In others, there’s not the same feeling. They are more passive. It’s as if he is still searching, with a purpose but no clear direction. Often these photographs are of the sea.

16. There is one photograph in Ghost Stories I think about a lot, the last photograph in the book. It’s a simple image, black and white, with three-quarters of the framed filled by a landscape of arid, crumbling rock. The rest is sea. In the centre, however, there’s a rectangular pit, its bottom hidden from view. Its sides are neat, precise, straight — made with purpose and care, at odds with the land around it. A resolute form against the grain of nature. Yet its purpose, its history, is unclear, and the photograph’s footnote does little to alleviate my curiosity: “Île Pomègues, Frioul”. It is this, I think, that perplexes and fascinates me: not knowing how it fits into the constellation of these four islands. Perhaps Clavarino meant it to be this way. A pit in the middle of Pomègues waiting for someone to discover its histories.

17. Ghost Stories reminds me of the utter complexity of life.