June 2, 2010
Last week I had a forty-five minute spell in a waiting room and I was glad that I had downloaded a few books to my iPhone. I would have preferred to have a physical book on hand, but reading an iPhone book was a much better option than the selection of magazines nearby. I have tried several book apps on my iPhone, including Amazon’s Kindle, and I find myself longing for a better blend of the traditional book and the digital. Making notes in an ebook should be as easy as penciling something on the margin of a real page. And there should be real page numbers that correspond to those on the printed book so that readers of both formats can literally be on the same page with one another. But there is no denying that it’s wonderful to always have several books buried in the memory of my phone and to be able to conduct a word or phrase search through entire books.
Today I was pleasantly surprised to find an ebook version of W.G. Sebald’s Campo Santo on iTunes. As far as I know, this is the first ebook for Sebald. So, of course, I had to buy it ($9.99) and play with it. The publisher is Iceberg Reader, which provides a nice alternative to the Kindle app. Iceberg’s version of Campo Santo follows the printed Modern Library edition almost exactly, including front cover, inside blurbs, copyright page, notes, and so on. It only seems to lack an image of the back cover. I was pleased to see that Sebald’s trademark illustrations appear exactly where they fall in the printed text.
Unfortunately, Iceberg fails to deliver when it comes to pagination. The company’s website proudly states: “Iceberg maintains pagination. This means that there are individual book pages, just like in the print copy of a book. This helps keep you oriented while reading, and serves as reference points for our notes and search features.” Frustratingly, however, the page numbers on Iceberg don’t match those of the printed book. In the case of Campo Santo, Iceberg’s pages are about twice as long as the actual book pages.
One further suggestion for Iceberg while I am at it. Iceberg’s website oddly does not offer a way to see all of the titles it has issued for Iceberg Reader. Instead, it directs you to iTunes, where there are currently 9,679 items listed. Anyone who uses iTunes, knows that it’s not a place for browsing. Nevertheless, Iceberg’s website proclaims: “We… are thrilled to announce we will soon be bringing more than a million books, as well as more than 50 major magazines and over 170 daily newspapers to the iPhone.” If that’s the case, then they’d better start providing a decent way to browse their selection – and not on iTunes.
Iceberg Reader doesn’t support highlighting, but it has all the other key tools that are integrated into the Kindle app. It permits making notes, full text search, and the ability to cut, paste and email quotes from the book. It took me less than twenty seconds to search for a specific section of Sebald’s text, copy a paragraph, and email it to myself. Now that was fun.
February 13, 2010
In Campo Santo, W.G. Sebald writes about a hike he made – a sort of pilgrimmage, really – in Corsica, the site of some of the last great forests in Europe. Although the truly ancient forests were already gone, Sebald quoted witnesses and momentarily imagined that the forests had never been cut down.
The English landscape painter and writer Edward Lear, who traveled in Corsica in the summer of 1876, wrote of the immense forests that then rose high from the blue twilight of the Solenzara valley and clambered up the steepest slopes, all the way to the vertical cliffs and precipices with their overhangs, cornices, and upper terraces where smaller groups of trees stood like plumes on a helmet. On the more level surfaces at the head of the pass, the soft ground on which you walked was densely overgrown with all kinds of different bushes and herbs, Arbutus grew here, a great many ferns, heathers and juniper bushes, grasses, asphodels, and dwarf clyclamen, and from all these low-growing plants rose the gray trunks of Laricio pines, their green parasols seeming to float free far, far above in the crystal-clear air.
By an odd coincidence, two recent museum visits led me to two very dissimilar artworks, both based on creating something new out of a large tree trunk. At the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, I visited Mark Dion’s Neukom Vivarium, 2006, a wonderful stand-alone greenhouse that holds a sixty-foot long section of a real Western hemlock that has been moved from the site where it fell in the Duwamish/Green River watershed. This tree had fallen in 1996 and had become a nurse log, developing the unique ecosystem of plant and animal species that would help it eventually decompose. For its new home in Seattle, Dion, an artist who has created many installations based on museums and natural history, has tried to recreate an environment nearly identical to the one where the tree originally lay. The visitor experience, then, is to be able to “observe the teeming life forms that make the log their home” and to demonstrate “how difficult, indeed how futile, it is for humans to attempt to replicate what nature does by itself even in this age of high-tech science,” writes Lisa Graziose Corrin in the Field Guide to the Wildlife of Mark Dion’s Seattle Vivarium. While the green house environment is exceptionally high-tech, Dion’s project is deliberately history bound. The interior of the building is decorated in blue Delft-like tiles (too green in my photograph) that illustrate the insects, plants, and animals found in the tree’s ecosystem. Furthermore, the artist has stipulated that the greenhouse cannot open without the human presence of one of the trained docents who serve as “park rangers.” Here’s Dion talking about his piece.
“Dion creates artworks that question the distinctions between “objective” (“rational”) scientific methods and “subjective” (“irrational”) influences.” (Art21 Blog)
More recently, I have made several visits to the new Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago where one gallery is dedicated to a single artwork – a large log. Charles Ray’s 2007 sculpture Hinoki is an elaborate replica made of wood by Japanese craftsmen who copied a fallen tree trunk that Ray found in California. Here is Ray’s explanation of the piece, from the Art Institute website:
Ten years ago, while driving up the central coast of California, I spotted a fallen tree in a meadow just off the highway. I was instantly drawn to it. It was not only a beautiful log, but to my eyes, it was perfectly embedded in the meadow where it had fallen decades earlier. Pressure from the weather, insects, ultraviolet radiation, and gravity were evident. Total collapse appeared to be no more than a handful of years away. I was inspired to make a sculpture and studied many other logs, but I realized that I was only interested in this particular one.
At one point, I determined that its armature could be its pneuma, the Greek word for breath, wind, or life. Later, I considered making an inflatable sculpture but realized that the tailoring of the form would bring an unwanted complexity to the surface. It then struck me that the breath or life of the sculpture could be manifested in the very act of sculpting. Making a wood carving of the log by starting from the inside and working my way out would bring a trajectory of life and intentionality to this great fallen tree. With several friends, I transported the tree, cut apart by a chainsaw, back to my Los Angeles studio. Silicone molds were taken and a fiberglass version of the log was reconstructed. This was sent to Osaka, Japan, where master woodworker Yuboku Mukoyoshi and his apprentices carved my vision into reality using Japanese cypress (hinoki). I was drawn to the woodworkers because of their tradition of copying work that is beyond restoration. In Japan, when an old temple or Buddha can no longer be maintained, it is remade. I visited Japan often and had a difficult time bringing this work to completion and allowing it to go out into the world. When I asked Mr. Mukoyoshi about the wood and how it would behave over time, he told me that the wood would be fine for 400 years and then it would go into a crisis; after two hundred years of splitting and cracking, it would go into slow decline for another 400 years. I realized then that the wood, like the original log, had a life of its own, and I was finally able to let my project go and hopefully breathe life into the world that surrounds it.
Hinoki, it seems, could almost have been created as a direct challenge the idea articulated above by Corrin about the futility “for humans to attempt to replicate what nature does by itself.” (See Hinoki arrive at the Art Institute and get installed on the second floor.) It’s a tour-de-force act of mimicry that ends up existing (like so much of Ray’s work) more on the cerebral level than the sensual.
As I walked around and around Hinoki last week, I found myself remembering Mark Dion’s piece and playing a little parlor game: Which artwork is more in the spirit of W.G. Sebald? My initial inclination was that Dion’s piece, with its loving references to old natural history museums and its devotion to the everchanging cycle of nature, was clearly the Sebaldian artwork of the two. But then I was reminded of Sebald’s fascination with the obsessive skill of silk weavers and other artisans and of the interest he showed in The Rings of Saturn for a character he calls Thomas Abrams, who spent decades painstakingly creating an exact scale model of the Temple of Jerusalem. So in the end, my parlor game came to a draw. Both works led me think anew about Sebald’s beliefs in nature and in the man-made.
November 7, 2008
Verlag Ulrich Keicher in Warmbronn, Germany has recently issued a wonderful edition of W.G. Sebald’s Zerstreute Reminiszenzen, the speech he gave on November 17, 2001 at the opening of the Stuttgarter literaturhauses. This was published as An Attempt at Restitution in The New Yorker (December 20-27, 2004) and was anthologized in Campo Santo. What makes this publication is fun are the illustrations and the loose inserts.
The illustrations include many of the things mentioned by Sebald, from the Quelle mail-order catalog that his father showed him for Christmas 1949 to newspaper clippings (above) and photographs from the Sebald archive in Marbach. A few sections of Sebald’s own typescript of the speech are reproduced.
To add to the fun, two facsimiles are tucked into a small pocket on the final page. The first is a postcard of from Sebald’s collection referred to when Sebald recounts his memories of the “angular brutalist architecture” of Stuttgart Central Station (designed by Paul Bonatz). Sebald mentions a postcard he owns
written by an English schoolgirl of about fifteen (judging from the clumsy handwriting) on holiday in Stuttgart to a Mrs. J. Winn in Saltburn in the county of Yorkshire on the back of a picture postcard, which came into my hands at the end of the 1960s in a Salvation Army junk shop in Manchester, and which shows three other tall buildings and Bonatz’s railway station…
The second inserted facsimile is Sebald’s very first entry in the literary world – a 1961 student literary magazine called Der Wecker, co-edited by Sebald and his friend Jan-Peter Tripp. (Cover photograph below by Tripp.) All sixteen pages are reproduced including articles on Algeria and Albert Camus and ads for beer and Coca Cola.
This small pamphlet was issued in September in an edition of 800 for only 16 Euros, but seems to be available only from the publisher. [Note: a reader clarifies that the pamphlet is only available for purchase through the bookshop at the Stuttgart Literaturhaus - contact email@example.com or fax Frau Leutner 0711-2842905.]
May 18, 2008
To some extent, every artist creates his or her own artistic predecessors, and in doing so resequences the artistic DNA of their precursors to be a bit more in alignment with their own. Vladimir Nabokov’s photograph-laden memoir Speak, Memory is frequently mentioned as an important source for the memoir-like prose fictions of W.G. Sebald. As has been pointed out many times, Nabokov hovers as a ghostly presence throughout The Emigrants, even appearing in a photograph.
It’s a little hard to imagine two writers as different as Nabokov and Sebald. Raised amongst wealth and privilege in a close-knit family, Nabokov recalls his life in pre-Revolutionary Russia with nearly unbroken nostalgic pleasure. Whatever nostalgia Sebald might have had for his youthful years in a remote Bavarian village becomes largely tainted for him by the facts of German history. Nabokov’s father was an anti-Tsarist, imprisoned, exiled, and ultimately killed for his fearless activism. Sebald’s father served in the German military before and during World War II.
Early in Speak, Memory, Nabokov tells of two encounters his father had fifteen years apart with a man named Kuropatkin, both stories involving matches.
What pleases me is the evolution of the match theme…The following of such thematic designs through one’s life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography.
This is how Speak, Memory, operates then – thematically rather than chronologically. In each chapter Nabokov returns anew to his early childhood and reels in, as it were, the memories associated with certain themes. Then he turns, faces a new direction, and casts his line again. But, it must be said, the pleasure that the thematic approach gives Nabokov seems largely poetic, as if the highest ecstasy arises from making a great rhyme.
I witness with pleasure the supreme achievement of memory, which is the masterly use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past. I like to imagine, in consummation and resolution of those jangling chords, something as enduring, in retrospect, as the long table that on summer birthdays and namedays used to be laid for afternoon chocolate out of doors…Through a tremulous prism, I distinguish the features of relatives and familiars, mute lips serenely moving in forgotten speech.
Sebald, too, enjoyed the harmonies of memory and of history, but more often than not he used them to find the underlying horror. For Nabokov, childhood in Russia was a Garden of Eden. For Sebald, the Garden of Eden was a lie. In many ways, reading Speak, Memory serves as a reminder of what themes are not to be found in Sebald’s writing: innocence, romance, sexuality, and familial love, amongst others.
When Sebald himself wrote about Speak, Memory, as he did in Dream Textures, published in Campo Santo, he extracted a theme of spirits, of ghosts, of seances.
Nabokov repeatedly tries…to cast a little light into the darkness lying on both sides of our lives… [on the spirits who] tread the border between life and the world beyond.
Dream Textures is a remarkable piece of writing, a single paragraph ten pages long in which Sebald goes about the task of creating the Nabokov that he absorbed when Nabokov’s memories spoke to him.
December 8, 2007
One never knows how to classify his books. All that is obvious is that their structure and intentions place them in no known genre. Inspired by a kind of avidity for the undiscovered, they move along a line where the points of demarcation are those strange manifestations and objects of which one cannot say whether they are real, or whether they are among the phantasms generated in our minds from time immemorial. Anthropological and mythological studies in the tradition of Tristes Tropiques, adventure stories looking back to our early childhood reading, collections of facts, dream books, regional novels, examples of lush exoticism, puritanical penance, sweeping baroque vision, self-denial, and personal confession – they are all these things together. It probably does them most justice to see their promiscuity, which breaks the mold of the modernist concept, as a late flowering of those traveler’s tales, going back to Marco Polo, where reality is constantly entering the realm of the metaphysical and miraculous, and the way through the world is taken from the first with an eye fixed on the writer’s own end.
W.G. Sebald could have been describing his own books, but his article The Mystery of the Red-Brown Skin was about Bruce Chatwin. In their own ways, both Bruce Chatwin and Max Sebald were fascinated by history, by travel, by walking, and their books tore down the boundaries between autobiography and fiction. Both perfected the art of wildly digressing, forcing the reader’s attention to careen from topic to topic down their pages like a pinball.
I went back to re-read Chatwin’s In Patagonia in the Penguin Classics edition with Nicholas Shakespeare’s Introduction and fell under the spell again. As with Sebald’s books, the attraction to In Patagonia is slightly sinister because the book is a horrific tale of self-delusion, dishonesty, madness, suicide, and death – all conducted in one of the most dismal climates on the planet. Sebald greatly admired the way in which Chatwin’s obsession for a piece of ancient skin from in his grandmother’s cupboard – skin reputedly, but falsely, attributed to be mastodon flesh – propelled Chatwin on his fabulous quest for its source at the tail end of South America. (It was, in Hitchcockian terms, Chatwin’s MacGuffin.)
As many have remarked, In Patagonia is not even close to being a traditional travel book. Chatwin, in fact, wanted his agent to make sure it wouldn’t be placed in the Travel section of bookstores. Chatwin described In Patagonia as “a symbolic voyage which is a meditation on the restlessness and exile.” He scarcely describes the landscape at all, telling, instead, a series of loosely connected stories about the people he meets. His chapters tend to start like this: “Anselmo told me to go and see the poet. ‘The Maestro,’ he said.” And: “A man I met in Rio Grande passed me on to his cousins who farmed close to the Chilean border.” Chatwin was profoundly attracted to those exiles for whom the home country had become a myth, a myth as powerful as it is indistinct and incorrect. Chatwin’s brilliance, it seems to me, was to be able to nail the personalities in a handful of sentences, and by the end of the book we begin to see the many facets of the colonial mind as it disintegrates during the post-colonial world. For this is what In Patagonia is really about, the pathological kinship between colonialism and self-deception, which we witness through the inability and unwillingness of so many in this book to disentangle themselves from the past. Throughout all of In Patagonia, I think there is only one soul who has “gone native” and come to terms with his adopted country.
Just as the ever-present undercurrent to Sebald’s books was the Nazi-led Holocaust, the recurring theme to In Patagonia is the holocaust that led to the near-extermination of South America’s indigenous peoples – the Alakaluf, the Yaghan, the Onas, the Haush. (Collector that he was, Chatwin specialized in rare words.) In one example Chatwin describes the 1593 voyage of the Desire up the coast of Brazil, and the resulting slaughter of warriors from the Tehuelches and other tribes. During the respite between fighting the natives, the men of the well-named ship Desire take time to club to death 20,000 penguins, determined to return with a hold full of penguin meat. But on shipboard, the penguins carcasses took their revenge, breeding worms that nearly killed every sailor during the return voyage.
As craftsmen, though, Chatwin and Sebald could hardly be more dissimilar. Chatwin’s color-infused, perfunctory sentences are the polar opposite of Sebald’s meandering prose.
As we drove into Esquel, a bush fire was burning on one of the tight brown hills that hemmed in the town. I ate at a green restaurant on the main street. A zinc counter ran the length of the room. At one end a glass vitrine displayed steaks and kidneys and racks of lamb and sausages. The wine was acid and came in pottery penguins. There were hard black hats at every table. The gauchos wore boots creased like concertinas and black bombachas.
The style that Chatwin uses, seemingly straight off the pages of noir, tough-guy writers like Raymond Chandler, is perfectly suited to this book in which the threat of crime and murder lurks continually.
Nicholas Shakespeare writes about the influence of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and his idea of “the decisive moment” on Chatwin, not on Chatwin’s photographs, which are static, overly scenic images of Patagonia safely tucked into a clump of glossy pages in the middle of the book, but on Chatwin’s writing. With razor-sharp incisiveness, Chatwin can drop a decisive image onto the page when one least expects it. In Chapter 84, which is only two paragraphs long, Chatwin attends church in Puntas Arenas, where the minister asks the congregation to pray for General Pinochet, then the head of Chile’s repressive military junta. Here is the second and final paragraph of the chapter in its entirety.
I also met an American lady ornithologist, down here to study the fighting behavior of Darwin’s Rheas. She said the two males locked necks and whirled round in circles: the one who got dizzy first was the loser.
W.G. Sebald’s review of Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography of Chatwin was first published in German in 2000 in Literaturen, and is translated in Sebald’s anthology Campo Santo.