March 9, 2013
In Repetition, Handke allows the peculiar light which illuminates the space under a leafy canopy or a tent canvas to glisten between words, placed here with astounding caution and precision; in doing so, he succeeds in making the text into a sort of refuge amid the arid lands which, even in the culture industry, grow larger day by day.
W.G. Sebald’s essay Across the Border: Peter Handke’s Repetition has just been translated for the first time into English and is now posted as a downloadable PDF over at thelastbooks. The essay, on Handke’s 1986 book Die Wiederholung, was originally published in Sebald’s 1991 anthology of literary essays Unheimliche Heimat under the title Jenseits der Grenze. This translation of Sebald’s essay is by Nathaniel Davis and is apparently to be included in a forthcoming reissue of Ralph Manheim’s 1989 translation of Handke’s book, which is currently out-of-print. As a bonus, thelastbooks also includes a PDF of Gabriel Josipovici’s review of Repetition. Josipovici called the book “one of the most moving evocations I have ever read of what it means to be alive, to walk upon this earth.”
I have not read Repetition, so I can’t say much about Sebald’s commentary on Repetition, but Stephen Mitchelmore calls it a “remarkable essay, and he links to a post he wrote several years ago on three of Handke’s books, including this one. I also recommend taking a look at Lars Iyers lengthy essay on Repetition at Ready Steady Book.
The novel meant much to Sebald, whose essay, somewhat uncharacteristically for him, contains unrestrained praise for what Handke achieved in this book.
What I want to do now is not to discuss the particularities of this distancing from Peter Handke – nor do I want to be tempted by the considerable task of sketching the psychology and sociology of the parasitic species that takes literature as its host; instead, I simply want to experimentally process a few things regarding the book Repetition, which upon first reading in 1986 made a great and, as I have since learned, lasting impression on me.
And here’s a nice comment by Sebald on the mysterious nature of the act of writing:
I don’t know if the forced relation between hard drudgery and airy magic, particularly significant for the literary art, has ever been more beautifully documented than in the pages of Repetition describing the roadmender and signpainter.
Sebald wrote about Handke several times: first in an essay that appeared in Literatur und Kritik in 1975 and which is translated in Campo Santo as Strangeness, Integration, and Crisis: On Peter Handke’s Play Kaspar; and again in his 1985 anthology Die Beschreibung des Unglücks: Zur österreichischen Literatur von Stifter bis Handke, where he reprinted an essay on Handke originally published in 1983. He writes at some length about The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick in the latter essay, which is, unfortunately, not translated into English yet. I’ve done several posts about Handke over the years.
Jo Catlings catalog of Sebald’s library, published in Saturn’s Moons, demonstrates how much Sebald admired Handke; the catalog lists nineteen books by Handke and one book about him. Only a few German-language authors had more books in Sebald’s library, notably Goethe and Thomas Bernhard.
For yet another look at Handke’s book, head over to the great site Handke Online where there is an essay about Handke’s notebooks for Die Wiederholung, along with images of the notebooks.
December 9, 2011
As I read Robert Pinget’s 94-page long Passacaglia (originally published as Passacaille in 1969) I knew I was falling under the spell of one of those works of unsettling originality whose profundity was initially elusive and indescribable. Even as the story became more and more fractured, I found myself succumbing to Pinget’s writing, to his beautiful phrasing and masterful control of voice and pace.
The location is rural France. We have the Master of the farmhouse that serves as the main setting for the book, the local doctor, a plumber, a goat herder, and various other neighbors and villagers. A local idiot has died, a gentle youth of limited mental capacity who had been abandoned by his parents and informally “adopted” by the Master. Like a musical passacaglia, which involves the playing of a series of variations against a bass line, the narrator’s tale is recounted over and over, each time a new variation of the basic story. However, unlike the story of Rashomon, in which each character has a distinct perspective on the central event, the variations in Passacaglia do not represent a search for evidentiary truth. Here, it’s not the characters but the narrator who changes the tale each time, randomly and without fanfare reconfiguring events and relationships. Pinget himself is quoted on the back cover of the book saying “Don’t bother too much about logic: everything in Passacaglia is directed against it.”
Woven through Pinget’s narrative, like a thread of a different color, is a more oracular voice that issues blunt phrases or sentences, gnomic status reports that function almost like a Greek chorus.
Something broken in the mechanism.
Something broken in the engine.
Leave nothing of memory’s suggestions intact.
The time is out of joint.
Source of information deficient.
Turn, return, revert.
As the book stutters forward, the chronology splinters and backtracks, the facts change willy-nilly, the variations contradict each other, and the omniscience of the narrator comes and goes like uncertain cellphone coverage. Passacaglia openly resists closure and yet it plunges the reader inexorably into its own vortex. About three-quarters of the way through, the Master suddenly tells the doctor how the boy came to live with him, and in doing so he reveals his special relationship with the idiot.
There was only one thing I insisted on, that I should soap him myself in his tub every Saturday more or less, with neither calendar nor passion I sometimes made a mistake and I felt less alone at those moments, I have his skin under my hand, I soap him all over without exception from A to Z which naturally took us by way of P, and maybe even concentrating on P, to tell the truth it’s less a chore than a pleasure, or if in my haste to be less alone I soap him twice a week attributing my miscalculation to the absence of a calendar
After this, Passacaglia seems to spin faster and faster toward its endpoint, as the collision of images becomes nearly hallucinatory. Here’s the Master, who has decided to rewrite his will.
I the undersigned in the cold room, hemlock, clock out of action, I the undersigned in the marsh, goat or bird’s carcass, I the undersigned at the bend in the road, in the master’s garden, maleficent old woman, sentry of the dead, satyr, scarecrow, in a van on the route deviated by the evil eye, plaything of that farce that is called conscience, no one, I the undersigned midnight in full daylight, overwhelmed with boredom, old owl or crow…
It’s probably worth noting that Passacaglia got onto my reading list last summer when I read Gabriel Josipovici’s praise for the book in his Whatever Happened to Modernism? Here’s Josipovici:
It leaves one, as one finishes it, with the sense of having lived through a half dozen or more potential novels: Simenon-like novels about murder in the rural hinterlands of France, Mauriac-like novels about petty jealousies behind tightly shut windows, Proust-like novels about authors in search of their subjects; of having lived through them or half-lived through them, and through so much else – child murder, desperate solitude, the system by and for which one has lived collapsing round and perhaps even within one. But more than that, the book leaves one with the sense of having participated in the birth of narrative itself.
Robert Pinget, Passacaglia. NY: Red Dust Books. Translated from the French by Barbara Wright.
March 23, 2010
It is customary now to quote Susan Sontag when praising W.G. Sebald, but perhaps the earliest and most prescient notice of Sebald’s promise came from Gabriel Josipovici, the British novelist, playwright, and critic. Sometime shortly after May 1996, when Harvill published The Emigrants – the first of Sebald’s quirky prose narratives to appear in English – Josipovici wrote a review entitled The Forces of Memory, which was published in Jewish Quarterly (volume 43 number 4, 1996/7). Many months ago a reader of Vertigo sent me a text of the review that he had re-typed himself from the original pages, so I am not able to confirm the complete accuracy of the version below. However, a recent post over at This Space prompted me to retrieve my copy and post it here, with the kind permission of Gabriel Josipovici. (Thanks to Stephen for the help.)
The Forces of Memory
By GABRIEL JOSIPOVICI
A review of W.G Sebald, The Emigrants, trans. From the German by Michael Hulse.
A title: Dr Henry Selwyn, and, beneath it, a mysterious epigraph with no acknowledged source: “And the last remnants memory destroys.” On the next page: a photo of an English country churchyard dominated by a large yew tree. Beneath it, the text begins: ‘”At the end of September 1970, shortly before I took up my position in Norwich, I drove out to Hingham with Clara in search of somewhere to live.”
The jacket has told us that W.G Sebald was born in Wertach im Allgau in Germany in 1944 and has been a lecturer at the University of East Anglia since 1970; ‘Clara’ rather than ‘my wife’ suggests that this is a personal memoir, not one addressed to the general public. The text goes on:
For some 25 kilometers the road runs amidst the fields and hedgerows, beneath spreading oak trees, past a few scattered hamlets, till at length Hingham appears, its asymmetrical gables, church tower and treetops barely rising above the flatland. The market place, broad and lined with silent facades, was deserted, but still it did not take us long to find the house the agents had described. One of the largest in the village, it stood a short distance from the church with its grassy graveyard. Scots pines and yews, up a quiet side-street.
Now we know what the photo represents. But why is it there? Because the writer of this personal memoir slipped it in to remind him of the place? Or, since this is after all a printed book we are reading, in order to persuade us of the truth and accuracy of what he is describing? Or is it perhaps out of some kind of postmodern attempt to make us realize that the whole thing is an invention, since the photo after all proves nothing and need not even be of that churchyard at Hingham, if there is such a place? None of these explanations quite seems to fit. Rather, the quietness emanating from the photo, placed without any caption above the text, corresponds in some sense to the quietness of the prose which in turn reflects the silence of the East Anglian country-side and of the village itself.
The evenly-paced narrative continues, describing the house with its broad driveway, graveled forecourt, stables and outbuildings, the Virginia creeper growing over the façade and the black front door with “a brass knocker in the shape of a fish,” the sash windows glinting “blindly” in the sun, “seeming to be made of dark mirror glass.” Again, is this simply a careful description of a specific place visited by Sebald one day in September 1970, or is it, like Poe’s House of Usher, heavily symbolic? The narrative refuses to come to rest on one side or the other: the fish-shaped knocker may be significant or it may not, the house may reflect the mind of its owner or of the narrator, or it may not.
After wandering round the grounds for some time without seeing anyone the visitors eventually come across an old man lying face downwards on the lawn. He gets up hurriedly and introduces himself as Dr Henry Selwyn. He has, he explains, a habit of counting the blades of grass on his lawn, an irritating pastime, he admits.
Since the house belongs to his wife he cannot say whether or not the flat has been let. However, he shows them round the grounds, past the disused tennis court and the decaying kitchen garden (photos provided), talking all the while. But we never hear the words directly, they remain embedded in the smooth flow of the narrator’s account, thus adding to the silence that seems to engulf the place. The flat is available, and the couple move in and meet Mrs. Selwyn, who is Swiss and rarely at home since she is always seeing to her many properties in the neighborhood. There is, however, an old female servant who looks and behaves like the inmate of an asylum, thus maintaining the tension between the ordinariness of an autumn in 1970 and the hidden horrors of the Gothic novel. Dr Selwyn keeps to himself, spending most of the time in a flint-built hermitage in a remote corner of the estate (photo provided), though he is once glimpsed at a window of the big house holding a hunting gun to his shoulder and firing up into the sky. One day, Mrs. Selwyn being away, their landlord invites them to dine with him and an old friend, an entomologist called Edwin Elliott. Dinner is served in the vast dining room by the old servant and consists entirely of produce from the garden. Dr Selwyn recounts the story of his stay in Berne shortly before the First World War and of his great fondness for an old Alpine guide, Johannes Naegeli, with whom he undertook numerous expeditions, and who disappeared in the early days of the war, presumed to have fallen into a crevasse. After dinner an old slide-projector is wheeled in and the guests are shown slides of a trip Dr Selwyn and his friend took to Crete. One of the photos reminds the narrator, down to the tiniest detail, of a picture of Nabokov in the mountains Gstaad which he had only recently cut out of a Swiss magazine (a photo is reproduced, but whether it is of Nabokov or Dr Selwyn we are not told). Another slide, a view of the Lasithi plateau taken at noon from high up, makes a deep impression on the narrator and is then immediately forgotten, only to be recalled years later when watching Herzog’s Kaspar Hauser, the scene in which Kaspar tells Daumer of his dream of the Caucasus (no still reproduced).
A few months later the narrator and his wife move out, having bought a home of their own. Dr Selwyn, however, is a frequent caller, bringing them vegetables from his garden. One day, when Clara is out, he happens to ask the narrator if he is not homesick, and then suddenly launches into the story of his life (though again his own words are embedded in the narrative). Recently, he confesses, he has become more and more homesick. In 1899, at the age of seven, he and his family left a village near Grodno in Lithuania, and though he has never been back he has taken to seeing details of that village in his head, the teacher at the cheder, the house they lived in, then the journey, Riga, the ship that was to take them to the New World but landed them in London instead. There he grew up, he says, in Whitechapel, a brilliant student, winning a scholarship to Merchant Taylors’ School and then to Cambridge to study medicine. That was the moment, he says, when he changed his name from Hersch Seweryn to Henry Selwyn. And it was at this moment too that his ability to learn seemed suddenly to slacken, though he went on doing well in his studies. Then came the visit to Berne, where he met his future wife, the war, his marriage to Elli, from whom he concealed his background for a long time. Her wealth enabled them to live a life of comfort, almost luxury, with frequent trips through Europe by car in the summers. But, perhaps because of the disparity in their wealth, his revealing his origins to her or “simply the decline of love,” they drifted apart:
The years of the second world war and the decades after were a blinding, bad time for me, about which I could not say a thing even if I wanted to. In 1960, when I had to give up my practice and my patients, I severed my last ties with what they call the real world. Since then, almost my only companions have been plants and animals, said Dr Selwyn with an inscrutable smile, and, rising, he made a gesture that was most unusual for him. He offered me his hand in farewell.
Later that summer they learn that he has taken his own life, sitting on the edge of his bed with the gun between his knees and blowing off his head. Many years later the narrator, in Switzerland for a few days, comes upon an item in the local paper: the Bernese Alpine guide Johannes Naegeli, missing since the summer of 1914, had been released by the Oberaar glacier seventy-five years after he had fallen in (the page on which the item occurs is reproduced).
I have spent so long describing what is only a twenty-page story because it is not every day one is sent a masterpiece to review (I suppose one is lucky if it happens more than once or twice a lifetime). And this story is what it is because, like all good art, the form and the style bring into being what would otherwise have remained in darkness and silence for ever, so that a mere account of what the story was ‘about’ would not have begun to do it justice.
The use of unattributed photographs and epigraphs, of reported speech and narratorial restraint which holds the borderline between sober fact and high fantasy, is in evidence also in the other three stories of this volume. The second, twice as long as the first, is just as masterly and just as moving, telling the story of the narrator’s primary school teacher in an Alpine village and his eventual return to commit suicide there, another victim of his past. The last two stories, twice as long again, seem to me less successful (though only when set against the high standard of the other two). The third concerns a German “gentleman’s gentleman” who, after a long and rich life, eventually dies in a sanatorium in upstate New York; the last a painter vaguely reminiscent of Frank Auerbach, met by the narrator in Manchester. Both stories make use of diaries, and the direct access to the subject somehow lessens their impact. For all four stories depend ultimately on Sebald’s ability to find ways of saying the unsayable, of conveying, through the scrupulous refusal of easy empathy, how unknown we are not only to others but to ourselves, and what deep forces drive us, even to death.
Those forces, here, are the forces of memory as it tries to come to terms with the horrors of our century, and those who are driven in this way are those who have been touched by the shoah or uprooted by earlier manifestations of European anti-Semitism. Quietly, deftly, Sebald brings these wounded creatures and the forces that have wounded them to light, revealing in the process, that the alternatives are never, for the true artists, those banalities beloved of theorists, silence or betrayal: there is always a third way.
Sebald, like Bernhard, has his Old Masters, and they include Wittgenstein, who is referred to once and quoted once without attribution; Nabokov, who makes a token appearance in every one of the stories (and twice – too much I think – in the last); Perec, whose influence is most in evidence in the third story; and of course Bernhard himself. But Sebald is no apprentice. His is an utterly distinctive voice, which Michael Hulse has miraculously transferred into English. Harvill too are to be congratulated on producing a beautiful volume and introducing English readers to a great German writer. It does one good, in the age of fast food, fast bucks, recycled clichés and hype, to know that authentic writing still exists, quiet, poetic, witty, self-aware, open to the world.
[Corrections made March 24, March 31 and April 14, 2010.]
January 12, 2008
I’ve been reading even more than usual lately. There are quite a few books rotating in the stack… short stories by Julio Cortazar and Alexander Kluge, Lydia Davis’ recent translation of Proust’s Swann’s Way, Michal Govin’s novel Snapshots (which I’ll write about here shortly), Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise, Walter Benjamin’s Archive and Denis Donoghue’s Speaking of Beauty. (I think from now on I ought to call this practice multibooking.) But the book I am currently taken with is Gabriel Josipovici’s The World and the Book: A Study of Modern Fiction (Stanford University Press, 1971). The original connection between Josipovici and W.G. Sebald was Josipovici’s prophetic review of his book The Emigrants. But the more I read Josipovici the more I see new ways to look at writers like Sebald.
Josipovici writes: “The failure [of Romanticism] made it clear to the moderns that art is not the expression of inner feelings but the creation of a structure that will allow us to understand what it means to perceive, and will thus, in a sense, give us back the world.” Modernism is epistemological in nature, demanding, among other things, to know how we know things, why do we trust that we know something, and how do we share this knowledge with others? I can think of no better example of this than the photography of Edward Weston, who placed the world before our eyes, stripped of all symbolism, ornament, and narrative, and forced us to look again without the habits of the past.
“Art is more discovery than communication.” Josipovici favors art “that makes the spectator work,” art which aims “to recreate within the willing listener or spectator the liberating experience of the artist himself as he makes the object.” And: “all the great modern writers have struggled with: Why write at all?” These ideas resonated with me as a partial explanation for the energy that I receive from reading Sebald (among others) even though the ostensible subject ought to be relentlessly depressing. In a way, the world was simply a tool that Sebald used to discover himself – and even though he depicts a world of endlessly cruelty and destruction, the very process of discovery managed to give the world back to him (and us) in all of its wonderment. And for Sebald, one imagines, this process of recuperation probably helped mitigate the ever-impending sense of melancholy.
Josipovici writes criticism, novels, stories, and plays. Mark Thwaite’s excellent interview with him over at ReadySteadyBook is a good introduction. His own website is currently running a short story called A Glass of Water, with illustrations of Chardin’s paintings as part of the text.