January 22, 2013
W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo is steeped in the presence of Franz Kafka – even to the eye of the most casual reader. But, as Daniel L. Medin’s book Three Sons: Franz Kafka and the Fiction of J.M. Coetzee, Philip Roth, and W.G. Sebald demonstrates, Sebald’s debt to Kafka is deep, deeply nuanced, and complicated. Building upon (and simultaneously critiquing) the work of Harold Bloom – especially The Anxiety of Influence and A Map of Misreading – Medin describes his Bloom-like task with Roth, Sebald, and Coetzee as follows:
I have endeavored to distinguish between what I take to be two opposing methods of appropriation: those bent, Bloom-like, on usurpation through imitative violence and those that pursue misreadings with greater reverence, aspiring to stand alongside or in the company of an antecedent rather than above him.
To put it a little more bluntly, do Roth, Sebald, and Coetzee want to dine with Kafka or devour him? In Sebald’s case, Medin decides that from the beginning of his career, Sebald seemed to deliberately misread Kafka to suit his own ends. Ultimately, “Sebald’s portrayal of Kafka in Vertigo is purposefully and methodically selective.”
Three Sons derives from Medin’s doctoral dissertation and it immediately begs the question: Of the many writers who demonstrate some literary paternity to Kafka, why Roth, Sebald, and Coetzee? Medin say he chose them because each had “revisited” Kafka over the course of thirty years or more, although his primary focus is a single work of fiction by each author: Roth’s Zuckerman Bound, Sebald’s Vertigo, and Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. But there is another commonality between these three sons; each has addressed Kafka not only through fiction but also through works of literary criticism, and Medin, himself a scholar and literary critic, spends a fair amount of time analyzing that aspect of their oeuvre.
We in English-speaking parts can all rejoice that Sebald’s volumes of literary criticism are starting to be translated, with an English translation of Logis in einem Landhaus appearing sometime in the near future. As Medin says, these essays are a gold mine for the study of Sebald’s poetry and prose fiction. Medin begins by examining the essays that Sebald wrote for scholarly publications on Kafka and The Castle before embarking on Vertigo, essays in which it was already possible to detect how Sebald had absorbed Kafka. To greatly oversimplify Medin (and Bloom, for that matter), the question is exactly how does Sebald use Kafka. For Medin, the evidence is clear. Even when writing as a scholar and ostensibly trying to dissect the motifs in Kafka’s work, Sebald seems intent on employing “a blend of biography, fiction, and text.” Sebald’s critical interpretation of The Castle “swerves defiantly from Kafka’s novel.” In particular, Medin believes “his emphasis on the death motif skews rather than clarifies the work.”
Sebald said that in his prose fiction he often “tipped his hat” to other writers like Kafka and Robert Walser, but Medin suggests that this is a misleading metaphor for an act that “belied the aggression inherent in his approach” to the writers he admired and used. In Vertigo, Medin asserts that Sebald “forcefully bent the voices of Kafka, Walser, Conrad, and others toward that of his narrator, divesting them of their original spirit to reinforce his own thematic emphases.” Sebald, of course, knew what he was doing – or at least to a large extent. In Vertigo, his use of the appellation “Dr. K.” rather than “Kafka” signaled his strategy of playing loose with Kafka’s life and texts. Medin’s extended essay shows, through careful analysis of Kafka’s diaries and texts (primarily The Castle, “The Hunter Gracchus,” and “The Country Doctor)” how “the pattern of misreading” that Sebald employed permitted him to reshape Kafka more to his own obsessions. By the end of Medin’s careful and detailed reading of Vertigo I felt as if I had been watching him carefully separate two thin layers that had at first appeared to be nearly identical, one representing the historical and textual record left behind by Franz Kafka and the other representing the Dr. K. that Sebald needed. By the end, Medin had made it clear just how much those two versions diverged.
During the process of untangling Vertigo, Medin also builds a critique of Sebald’s literary criticism on the side. His summary judgment is severe; he takes Sebald to task for “critical manipulations…[that] mar his critical work” on Kafka and on other writers as well.
Most of the essays in Describing Misfortune (Beschreibung des Unglücks) and Uncanny Homeland (Unheimliche Heimat) fall short of the scrupulous standards exemplified by Coetzee. They are too fictive to convince as research, and too fettered by convention to successfully execute the sort of autobiographical exegesis pursued in later volumes (Lodgings in a Country House, Campo Santo).
By comparison, Medin expresses his admiration for Coetzee’s “critical reserve” and “interpretive restraint.” While Coetzee’s “less combative” stance toward Kafka seems to be Medin’s preference, I don’t think he is invoking a value judgment on Sebald or Roth for their approaches. His primary objective is to demonstrate that, contrary to Harold Bloom’s assertion, not every author-forerunner relationship needs to be murderously Oedipal.
Daniel L. Medin. Three Sons: Franz Kafka and the Fiction of J.M. Coetzee, Philip Roth, and W.G. Sebald. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2010.
April 14, 2012
After enjoying the recent movie, I reread John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974). About halfway through, it suddenly dawned on me the extent to which understanding all of the treachery and duplicity of le Carré’s Cold War spy novel hinge around the central concept of the archive. As George Smiley attempts to discover the identity of the Soviet mole that has been placed in the highest levels of the Circus (Smiley’s apt and marvelous name for England’s primary spy agency), he spends countless nights reading files that his colleagues filch for him from the Circus Archives.
Through the remainder of that same night, the light in the dormer window of Mr. Barraclough’s attic room at the Islay Hotel burned uninterrupted. Unchanged, unshaven, George Smiley remained bowed at the Major’s card table, reading, comparing, annotating, cross-referencing – all with an intensity that, had he been his own observer, would surely have recalled for him the last days of Control on the fifth floor at Cambridge Circus. Shaking the pieces, he consulted Guillam’s leave roster and sick-lists going back over the last year, and set these beside the overt travel pattern of Cultural Attaché Aleksey Aleksandrovich Polyakov, his trips to Moscow, his trips out of London, as reported to the Foreign Office by Special Branch and the immigration authorities. He compared these again with the dates when Merlin apparently supplied his information and, without quite knowing why he was doing it, broke down the Witchcraft reports into those which were demonstrably topical at the time they were received and those which could have been banked a month, two months before, either by Merlin or his controllers, in order to bridge empty periods…he was looking, in other terms, for the “last clever knot”…
Although there is a bit of old-fashioned cloak-and-dagger spycraft in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, one of the tensest chapters in the book, in fact, follows Guillam in an elaborately concocted scheme to steal some files right from under the watchful eyes of Circus Archives staff (only a small part of which is quoted below).
One girl stood on a ladder. Oscar Allitson, the collator, was filling a laundry basket with wrangler files; Astrid, the maintenance man, was mending a radiator. The shelves were wooden, deep as bunks, and divided into pigeon-holes by panels of ply. He knew already that the Testify reference was 4482E which meant alcove 44, where he now stood. “E” stood for “extinct” and was used for dead operations only. Guillam counted to the eighth pigeon-hole from the left. Testify should be the second from the left, but there was no way of making certain because the spines were unmarked. His reconnaissance complete, he drew the two files he had requested, leaving the green slips in the steel brackets provided for them.
The Circus Archives, neatly, if secretively, cataloged and shelved, are a far cry from the uncontrollable archives that lie at the heart of Kafka’s The Castle (J.J. Long refers to the “shambolic amateurishness of Kafka’s filing cupboard”). Probably more than any other writer, it is Kafka who is responsible for the threatening image of the archive that looms over the twentieth century. W.G. Sebald, of course, continued to explore Kafka’s vision of the role of archives in his four books of prose fiction, but especially in Austerlitz. As Long says in W.G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity, the archive “lies at the very heart of Sebald’s narrative project. His work is profoundly concerned with the material and infrastructural basis of knowledge systems…” Reading le Carré’s description of the Circus Archives made me immediately think of the room described by Jacques Austerlitz and reproduced in a photograph near the end of Austerlitz. “”I came across a large-format photograph showing the room with open shelves up to the ceiling where the files on the prisoners in the little fortress of Terezín, as it is called, are kept today.” These files held data on the inmates of the German concentration camp also known as Theresienstadt, where Austerlitz’s birth mother had been sent.
To Smiley, the Circus Archives represented “a very dull monument…to a long and cruel war.” As he embarks upon his research through the vast Archives he notes that “the files contained only the thinnest record of it; his memory contained far more.” Nevertheless, it transpires that the very thoroughness of the Circus Archives makes it possible for his research to succeed in helping unmask the Soviet mole.
“Operation Witchcraft,” read the title on the first volume Lacon had brought to him that first night. “Policy regarding distribution of Special Product.” The rest of the cover was obliterated by warning labels and handling instructions, including one that quaintly advised the accidental finder to “return the file UNREAD” to the Chief Registrar at the Cabinet Office. “Operation Witchcraft,” read the second. “Supplementary estimates to the Treasury, special accommodation in London, special financing arrangements, bounty, etc.” “Source Merlin,” read the third, bound to the first with pink ribbon. “Customer Evaluations, cost effectiveness, wider exploitation; see also Secret Annexe.” But the secret annexe was not attached, and when Smiley asked for it there was a coldness.
“The Minister keeps it in his personal safe,” Lacon snapped.
J.J. Long suggests that “the self-understanding of modernity itself is based not on a pervasive sense of epistemological chaos [referring to the slovenly archive of Kafka's The Castle], but on an unbroken faith in the rationality of the archive.” What le Carré and, to some extent, Sebald both show, is that the obsessively maintained archives of modern bureaucratic states creates a kind of rationality that can also be leveraged against those that created and maintained them. The Circus Archives held the clues that led to the identity of the Soviet mole, just as Nazi-created archives permitted Jacques Austerlitz to learn more about the fate of his mother. As le Carré’s wry description of file names implies, any agency that ruthlessly archives its customer evaluations and special financing arrangements is just asking for it.
The Cold War of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a desultory and hollow competition amongst faded empires in which men and nations pursue the false memory of nostalgia with tragic results.
August 16, 2007
Whenever anyone summarizes W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo, they usually paraphrase his American publisher New Directions and mention the “restless literary ghosts” that Sebald pursues in the book: Stendhal, Casanova, and Kafka. I’m a little surprised how long it took me to ask: What’s wrong with this list? Stendhal, Casanova, Kafka? Why is Casanova in that triumvirate? Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798), whose name has become has become a noun meaning “a man who engages in promiscuous love affairs” (Shorter OED 5th ed.), doesn’t immediately seem to fit into the Sebald pantheon.
So I went back this week and re-read the second chapter of Vertigo, called All’estero.In October 1980, Sebald’s narrator travels from Vienna to Venice, whereupon he starts to read the sections on Venice from Franz Grillparzer’s Italian Diary. On reading Grillparzer’s comments about the Doge’s palace, the narrator notes that
the resolutions passed here by the Council of State must surely be mysterious, immutable, and harsh, [Grillparzer] observed, calling the palace an enigma in stone. The nature of that enigma was apparently dread, and for as long as he was in Venice Grillparzer could not shake off a sense of the uncanny. Trained in the law himself, he dwelt on that palace where the legal authorities resided and in the inmost cavern of which , as he put it, the Invisible Principle brooded. (page 54)
Sebald’s narrator then shifts to “one of the victims of Venetian justice,” Casanova, who spent more than a year imprisoned there. (In 1788, Casanova published his memoir of imprisonment and escape.)
Casanova considered the limits of human reason. He established that, while it might be rare for a man to be driven insane, little was required to tip the balance. All that was needed was a slight shift, and nothing would be as it formerly was. In these deliberations, Casanova likened a lucid mind to a glass, which does not break of its own accord. Yet how easily it is shattered. One wrong move is all that it takes… It was soon apparent that the condemned in that gaol were honorable persons to a man, but for reasons which were known only to their Excellencies, and were not disclosed to the detainees, they had had to be removed from society. When the tribunal seized a criminal, it was already convinced of his guilt. After all, the rules by which the tribunal proceeded were underwritten by senators elected from among the most capable and virtuous of men. Casanova realised that he would have to come to terms with the fact that the standards which now applied were those of the legal system of the Republic rather than of his own sense of justice. (pages 56-7)
On reading this paragraph, which runs to more than four pages, I realized that Sebald seems to be suggesting the Republic of Venice as a kind of precursor to the “untouchable organization”(1) of Kafka’s The Castle or perhaps the legal bureaucracy of The Trial. One obvious difference is that Giacomo C. manages to escape the Doge’s prison while there is no escape for the land surveyor K. or the clerk Joseph K. I don’t think there is any way to read this brief section of Vertigo and not see strong Kafkaesque connotations.
Almost as if to reinforce the parallel Sebald draws between Casanova and Kafka, the same chapter of Vertigo continues with the narrator’s return visit to Venice seven years later. But rather than stay in Venice, the narrator immediately decides to follow in the footsteps of Kafka who visited Lake Garda in 1913. There, reading newspapers in a hotel, the narrator:
came across a report which did have a special meaning for me. It was a brief preview of a play that was due to be performed the next day in Bolzano. [pages 96-7]
The play is not named, but a photograph embedded in the text shows that its subject is Casanova, while Bolzano is the city in which Casanova first reappeared after escaping prison in Venice. Sebald’s pursuit of Kafka, at least momentarily, led him once again to Casanova. [Recommended reading: Sandor Marai's Casanova in Bolzano.]
One final note on Sebald’s interest in Casanova. In Austerlitz, Austerlitz dreams of Casanova, “the old roué“, serving out the end of his days as the librarian in Count Waldenstein’s castle in Dux (now in the Czech Republic). [pages 202-3]
Federico Fellini, Il Teatro Di Dresda, lithograph, ca. 1968. Fellini, who directed Fellini’s Casanova (1976), depicts Casanova on the stage of the Dresden Theater. In 1752, not long before his imprisonment in Venice, Casanova translated the libretto to Rameau’s opera Zoroastro for its performance in Dresden.
Note (1). W.G. Sebald, “The Law of Ignominy: Authority, Messianism and Exile in the Castle.” In Franz Kuna, Ed. On Kafka: Semi-Centenary Perspectives. London: Elek Books, 1976, p. 42.
May 16, 2007
Several of W.G. Sebald’s earliest monographs deal with German-language literature and authors and are extremely difficult to find in first editions. His MA thesis Carl Sternheim: Kritiker und Opfer der Wilhelminischen Ära (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1969) (crudely translated as “Carl Sternheim: Critic and Victim of the Kaiser Wilhelm II Era”) and his Ph.D. dissertation Der Mythus der Zerstörung im Werk Döblins (Stuttgart: Klett, 1980) (loosely translated as The Mythos of Destruction in the Work of Döblins) were monographs on single authors. Sternheim (1878-1942) was a German novelist and dramatist, while Döblin (1878-1957) made his name as a German expressionist writer and is most remembered for his sprawling novel Berlin Alexanderplatz.
In 1985, the Austrian publisher Residenz Verlag published Sebald’s Die Beschreibung des Unglücks: Zur österreichischen Literature von Stifter bis Handke, an anthology of previously published essays from 1972 through 1985. The title might loosely be translated as Describing Disaster: On Austrian Literature from Stifter to Handke (even though one author discussed – Kafka – can hardly be considered Austrian). It included essays on Adalbert Stifter, Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Franz Kafka, Elias Canetti, Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, Ernst Herbeck, and Gerhard Roth. Only the essay on Hofmannsthal had not been published earlier. The first edition is a simple, rather handsome volume bound in silver cloth with author and title black-stamped discretely on the spine. My copy lacks a dust jacket – was it issued with one?
Unheimliche Heimat: Essays zur österreichischen Literatur (a loose translation might be Uneasy Home: Essays on Austrian Literature) was published in 1991, also by Residenz Verlag. It, too, is an anthology of previously published essays from 1976 through 1989 on Charles Sealsfield, Karl Emil Franzos, Peter Altenberg, Franz Kafka, Joseph Roth, Leopold Kompert, Hermann Broch, Jean Améry, Gerhard Roth, and Peter Handke. Only the essay on Handke had not been not published earlier. The first edition is less elegant than the earlier volume by Residenz Verlag, being bound in bright orange boards with a somewhat bolder typeface used on the black-stamped spine. The simple dust jacket is orange and brown.
Since none of these titles have yet been translated into English, the only way a non-German reader can sample these early critical writings is to seek out the two essays on Kafka, both of which are on The Castle and have been published in English-language sources. The essay from Die Beschreibung des Unglücks,The Undiscover’d Country: The Death Motif in Kafka’s The Castle, appeared in the Journal of European Studies (2), 1972, while the essay from Unheimliche Heimat,The Law of Ignominy: Authority, Messianism and Exile in The Castle, can be found in the anthology On Kafka – Semi-Centenary Perspectives, edited by Franz Kuna (London: Paul Elek, 1976). Kuna was Sebald’s colleague on the Department of European Studies at the University of East Anglia.
The final work by Sebald that remains untranslated is Logis in einem Landhaus (Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1998). The volume includes essays on Robert Walser, Gottfried Keller, Johann Peter Hebel, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, and Jan Peter Tripp. Undoubtedly influenced by his earlier forays into fiction – Die Ausgewanderten (1992) and Die Ringe des Saturn (1995) – Sebald inserts images of all types into each of the essays in Logis in Einem Landhaus. Images include 18th century calendar pages, photographs of books, reproductions of historic etchings and drawings, a dozen portraits of the author Robert Walser at various stages of his life along with samples of his handwriting, examples of Jan Peter Tripp’s extraordinary contemporary etchings, and, in a typically Sebaldian move, an enigmatic, grainy photograph of a hot air balloon hovering over treetops. Furthermore, each of the six essays receives a large foldout image in full color. The only essay from Logis in Einem Landhaus to have appeared so far in English is the one on artist Jan Peter Tripp, which is included in the British and American editions of Unrecounted, the book on which Sebald and Tripp collaborated. The essay, originally titled Wie Tag und Nacht: über die Bilder Jan Peter Tripps, appears as Day and Night, Chalk and Cheese: On the Pictures of Jan Peter Tripp. It deals with trompe l’oeil, memory, and other Sebaldian subjects.This is the first book put out by Sebald’s new German publisher Carl Hanser Verlag and it is a beautiful production. It is bound in a dark, almost wasabi green cloth with a maroon and gold-stamped title on the spine.
If ever there was a subject to be avoided by novelists, it ought to be writer’s block, a theme that screams “self-indulgence.” Nevertheless, the opening paragraph of Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas’ novel Montano proudly proclaims that we are about to be subjected to 326 pages concerning one man’s “tragic inability to write”. Originally published in Spain in 2002 as El Mal de Montano (“Montano’s Malady”), Harvill Secker published Jonathan Dunne’s translation in 2007 under the simpler title Montano. I was drawn to the book by the jacket’s claim that “Vila-Matas has created a labyrinth in which writers as various as Cervantes, Sterne, Kafka, Musil, Perec, Bolaño, Coetzee, Sebald and Magris cross endlessly surprising paths.”
As the book opens, Montano’s narrator, a literature critic, has “literature sickness,” an apparently incurable obsession with literature. In this case, the sickness is so strong that it has started to inhibit his ability to write. Having recently finished a novel about writers who gave up writing, the narrator finds he can no longer write anything except his private diary (which he keeps sharing with us). Frankly, I found this first section, called Montano’s Malady, rough going. “It is well known that there is no better way to overcome an obsession than by writing about it,” the literature sick narrator says. What he doesn’t ponder is whether readers want to watch a writer struggling to figure out how to write. The book’s dust jacket generously calls him an “unreliable narrator” (in quotes, even), which is true. But more than unreliable, this narrator is grievously undecided.
When his editors send him W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn to review, he feels they have sent this title “so that its style of an extreme glacial beauty would finish me off.” Let’s pause for a moment and read the succinct summary of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn from the narrator’s diary: ”The narrator viewed the world dominated by a strange quietness, as if all we humans looked through various sheets of glass. At times the narrator did not know whether he was in the ‘land of the living or already in another place.’ Anxiety everywhere. The narrator set off to walk the county of Suffolk, ‘in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.’ Visiting small villages, landscapes and solitary ruins, he was confronted by traces of a past which referred him to the entire world. His pilgrimage along the coast lacked joy, light and vivacity. For a dead man – the narrator seemed to be saying – the whole world is one long funeral.”
The first section abruptly ends and the narrator begins the next by announcing that very little that was written in the first 96 pages was true. The narrator (not a literary critic after all, but a novelist) now declares that he is instead going to write “a short dictionary which would tell nothing but truths about my fragmented life and reveal my more human side and, in short, make me more accessible to my readers.” Determined that “I should not like to hide behind my creative texts, I am with W.G. Sebald when he says he has the sensation that it is necessary for whoever writes a fictional text to show his hand, to say something about himself, to allow an image of himself.”
Accordingly, the second section, Dictionary of Timid Love for Life, is structured vaguely like a dictionary devoted to the diaries of literary and artistic figures, interspersed with more of the narrator’s own diary entries. The cast of characters includes Samuel Beckett, Walter Benjamin, Jorge Luis Borges, Salvador Dalí, André Gide, Witold Gombrowicz, Franz Kafka, Katherine Mansfield, W. Somerset Maugham, Robert Musil, Cesare Pavese, Fernando Pessoa, Sergio Pitol, Jules Renard, Sebald, Paul Valery, Robert Walser, among others. On occasion, the dictionary entries read like extended book reviews, but mostly they spark Proustian memories that immediately distract the narrator and cause him to dwell on fragments of his own autobiography. The result is an episodic journey that circles and circles to very little purpose around the narrator’s largely uninteresting life.
Near the end of this section, the narrator uses Sebald as his touchstone for an entry called “Something Sparkles through the Worn Fabric” (pp. 189-195), a phrase torn from a sentence in The Rings of Saturn: “These are not coincidences, somewhere there is a relation that from time to time sparkles through a worn fabric.” This fabric, the narrator asserts, is the human need to connect with and commemorate the past and the dead.
The short third section of Montano is called Theory of Budapest, a reference to an entry in the previous section that consisted of an extract from his mother’s secret diary in which she wrote about the act of writing private journals. As the narrator explains, in spite of the title that his mother used for this piece of writing, it had nothing whatsoever to do with either theory or the city of Budapest. But perhaps as an act of closure, this section actually purports to be a speech that the narrator delivers in Budapest during a symposium on the diary as narrative. True to form, halfway through the speech he declares that most of what he has just said is untrue and he will try to speak only the truth for the remainder.
The spirits and the deaths of Franz Kafka and Robert Walser (aided by Robert Musil and Sebald) preside over Diary of a Deceived Man, the penultimate section. In a short episode that is both touching and telling, the narrator visits the room in Prague where Kafka died and has tea with an old lady down the hall, an old lady who does not read books at all, much less Kafka. Instead, she looks to the cosmic theories provided by Stephen Hawking for her conception of the larger world. A few pages later, when the events of September 11, 2001 intrude briefly into the narrator’s literary reveries, his response is to find a copy of Kafka’s diaries to see what he wrote on September 11, 1910. These two episodes present the core argument of Montano in a nutshell, stripped of the book’s endless diversions, repetitions, and re-tellings.
As I turned to the final dozen pages, called The Spirit’s Salvation, I had great hopes that Vila-Matas would pull off something that would cause the rest of Montano to snap into place. There was talk of the soul. There was a trip to the Swiss Alps, somewhat in the spirit of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, to attend an improbable gathering of writers. And the wise writing of Michel de Montaigne accompanied the narrator on his journey. Alas, the mountaintop event turns into a cartoonish version of a typical writer’s festival, in which the writers are all intent on their careers, killing literature in the process. The narrator’s summation in defense of literature is both lame and, significantly, pulled from literature itself – not from experience. At book’s end, he doesn’t seem to have learned a thing and neither had I.
To be fair, Montano cannot be summarized, it can only be experienced. It may well be a book in which the journey is more important that the goal. But most of the time I didn’t much care.
As I read I kept asking myself if Montano was a Sebaldian book in any sense. Vila-Matas forcefully invokes Sebald’s example when the narrator first decides that he can no longer “hide behind” his fictional text, but must aim for something more complex. The big Sebaldian themes are present: melancholy, death, the landscape, travel, literature, the past. And, of course, Kafka. Like Sebald – well, sort of like Sebald – Vila-Matas’ narration meanders and leaps between places and times. But reading Montano and thinking of Sebald was a bit like reading a bad graphic novel version of Moby Dick – it had no subtlety but instead hit the reader over the head not once but repeatedly with its message. Unfortunately, I am of the opinion that what Vila-Matas does with these themes doesn’t much resemble Sebald’s work nor does it compare favorably. Too, there is a danger to inviting such an all-star cast of authors into your novel and quoting them at length; the reader is inevitably going to be reminded how much better these other writers are.
This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy reading the book from time to time. Vila-Matas is an astute and original reader of literature and his observations on other writers were fascinating. (However, this is the first time I have ever wished that a novel was, instead, written as a work of academic exposition, complete with footnotes!) And even though it sometimes ran against the required grain of the narrative, there were moments when Vila-Matas indulged in some great descriptive writing. Now I do want to read Bartleby & Co., his first novel to be translated into English, and see what that is like.
As a coda, I should add that the choice of dust jacket illustrator is inspired. The dreamy, ethereal, and very tentative pencil sketches by the Swedish-born artist and illustrator Karin Ǻkesson, who currently lives in London, seems the perfect match for Vila-Matas’ style. Curiously, the drawing for Montano (shown on the left below) bears a resemblance for the detail of the Quint Buchholz painting used on the cover of Norbert Gstrein’s The English Years (also published by Harvill), which I have mentioned elsewhere because Sebald wrote the front cover blurb for the book.