March 21, 2012
Between travel and other commitments, I’m very slow at making my way through the December 2011 issue of the Journal of European Studies, edited by Dr. Richard Sheppard and devoted to W.G. Sebald. My first post included the full Table of Contents and focused largely on a short travelogue intended for German visitors to East Anglia that Sebald wrote for a German publication in 1974. Even though I am only about halfway through the Journal, it’s clear that this is an important anthology of essays that delve into some of the core issues surrounding Sebald’s work and legacy. Needless to say, these are densely argued essays that can only be butchered by my minor remarks. I won’t even pretend to offer a full synopsis of any of the essays, I’ll try to just give the flavor of several of the papers that I’ve read so far.
Ben Hutchinson’s The Shadow of Resistance: W.G. Sebald and the Frankfurt School examines Sebald’s sizable debt to the Frankfurt School, especially in relation to his books on Carl Sternheim and Alfred Döblin and on Sebald’s four works of prose fiction. Hutchinson argues that a primary tenet that Sebald took from the Frankfurt School was their insistence on “literature’s relationship to a contingent historical context.” “Sebald consistently insisted that aesthetic problems were also ethical ones.” Hutchinson points out that Sebald’s praise for Thomas Bernhard (quoted from his 2001 radio interview with Michael Silverblatt) corresponds to the aesthetic values Sebald derived from the Frankfurt School. Bernhard’s fiction, Sebald said “wasn’t compromised in any sense…He only tells you in his books what he has heard from others. So he invented, as it were, a kind of periscopic form of narrative.”
In his essay W.G. Sebald as Critic of Austrian Literature, Ritchie Robertson proposes that Sebald related so well to Austrian literature because it is a “literature of displacement. Its writers and its literary figures are alienated from their childhood, their places of origin, and their native cultures.” He relates this, in part, to Sebald’s sympathy for schizophrenics and the literature that they have produced – most notably Ernst Herbeck, who he visits and describes in the opening pages of the “All’estero” section of Vertigo.
Lynn L. Wolff’s essay The ‘Solitary Mallard’: On Sebald and Translation, reminds us the extent to which Sebald’s fictions themselves are “translations.” Wolff points out, for example, how, in Austerlitz, the conversations between the narrator and Austerlitz were “originally” in English and French, and that Austerlitz often related prior conversations that presumably took place in Czech. But Sebald has “translated”, as it were, all of these conversations into German. Wolff discusses at length the many challenges that face Sebald’s translators and she notes some of the issues relating to the placement of images in various editions.
In The Calamitous Perspective of Modernity: Sebald’s Negative Ontology, Rob Burns and Wilfried van der Will argue that “for Sebald, the world is rotten to the core.” They believe that he saw no hope for mankind, that our history is a history of destruction, and that modernity’s promise of progress was hollow. So why did Sebald write? They argue that “Sebald was able to sustain his practice of writing partly because of his increasingly embattled belief that he was called to fashion literature as a record of resistance.”
Sebald’s negative ontology produced in him neither a state of complete apathy nor, by any manner of means, one of abject nihilism. On the contrary, his dominant mood of melancholic irony inspired a mode of writing where his inconsolability over history, nature, and, ultimately, the whole of Being provided constant motivation for further creativity, both fictional and essayistic….Sebald remarked that melancholia, “the contemplation of our continuing misfortune, has nothing in common with the craving for death,” being “a form of resistance…”
[I'll be traveling until early April.]
December 31, 2010
I thought I might complete my Thomas Bernhard trifecta with a post that crosses over into book collecting. Even though Bernhard is an ideal author for serious book collecting, there don’t seem to be many limited edition publications of his work. I have two and I can find reference to one more: a 1962 limited edition that consisted of two early poems.
The Voice Impersonator. New York: William Drenttel, 1995. Designed by Jessica Helfand and William Drenttell, The Voice Impersonator was issued in a limited edition of 100 cloth bound copies (binding by the Campbell Logan Bindery of Minneapolis) and an unnumbered edition in wrappers. (I can find one copy of each currently for sale online in the resale market, although it certainly looks as if both versions are still available directly from Drenttel’s Winterhouse Editions.). The book had wonderful handmade Japanese endpapers and a paper title label on the spine. In seventy-one pages, The Voice Impersonator (originally Der Stimmenimitator, 1978) contains 104 very short pieces of fiction translated by Craig Kinosian. This marks the first English translation of the book.
In 1997, when the University of Chicago Press released the same stories to a wider audience, now translated by Kenneth J. Northcott and under the title The Voice Imitator, this volume was also designed by Helfand and Drenttel.
Beautiful View. New York: William Drenttel, 1994. This piece consists of a single sheet (folded to make four pages) and a hand-sewn cover of handmade paper and was released in an edition of 120 copies. The stunning blue cover stock contains silver, mirror-like spirals. The text pages were hand typeset and printed on lovely, watermarked Johannot paper at the Aralia Press by Jessica Helfand, William Drenttel and Michael Peich. The extremely brief, enigmatic is story taken from The Voice Impersonator.
The single-paragraph pieces in The Voice Impersonator are marvelous exercises in tone. The narrative voice, whether first person or third, maintains a uniformly flat, slightly formal tone no matter whether the story ends with a banal punchline or an act of subdued violence. Here are two of the shorter stories in their entirety.
THE WALDHAUS HOTEL. We had no luck with the weather and also had guests at our table who were obnoxious in every way. They even succeeded in spoiling Nietzsche for us. Even when they had a fatal car accident and lay prostrate at the Church in Sils, we still hated them.
POST OFFICE. For years after our mother had died, the post office delivered letters addressed to her. The post office had not acknowledged her death.
Drenttel and Helfand have formed Winterhouse, an umbrella organization that constitutes an institute, a design studio, a publishing house, and numerous other activities, including the invaluable website Design Observer. Winterhouse Editions is responsible for a number of books that will be of interest to Vertigo readers, such as Hans Erich Nossack’s The End: Hamburg 1943 (which I have written about here) and Hans Zischler’s Kafka Goes to the Movies.
December 29, 2010
Prose is a group of seven short stories that Thomas Bernhard first published as Prosa in 1967, the same year in which he published his second novel, Verstörung (Gargoyles). While marked by the spleen and sputtering of later works, the stories in Prose aren’t yet boiled down to the intensity that the works of the late 1980s attain. It would be tempting but ultimately cheapening to call these stories Bernhard-lite. Perhaps it’s better to say he’s finding his voice, as the phrase goes. As I said in a recent post, these stories cover core Bernhard territory – crime and punishment, the ills of family and state, the ills of the body and soul – and I found them fascinating, if uneven. Admittedly, some of the appeal comes from watching Bernhard testing out various voices and playing with the volume knob.
In perhaps the most intense story of the group, The Crime of an Innsbruck Shopkeeper’s Son, the narrator, a student, maps out the boundaries of the life that led his roommate (the shopkeeper’s son) to commit suicide. Family is nothing more than a license to abuse with impunity. Business suppresses all hope for altruism. Provincial towns are poisonous while the capital city Vienna is a cemetery. And history is a “monstrous excess.” Faced with these prospects, the narrator and his roommate Georg set up “a system of protective conduits” by which they attempt to outwit their fate, by which nevertheless leave them physically stunted and with shrunken souls. In the end, both students fall prey to the “illness” of “fatal over-sensitivity.” But something differentiates the two young men, and one wonders if Bernhard isn’t making an important point here. While Georg became nothing more than a stain, the narrator survived to tell the story. “Wherever [Georg] went, wherever he stayed, he was an ugly spot of colour on the beautiful calm background.” “When he looked in the past, only terrifying occurrences were visible to him.” Whereas the narrator, for unexplained reasons, manages to see the past as comic.
It feels as if Bernhard was still fine tuning his tragicomic voice in Prose, and I think the best example is the brief story Is it a Comedy? Is it a Tragedy? The narrator, a scholar of the theater, vacillates outside a theater: should he go in to see a play or not? Even though he is currently writing a treatise on the theater, he is repelled by the theater, he despises actors, and he can’t stand plays. At eight o’clock, the moment that he must make his decision, a man asks him the time. They strike up a conversation. Eventually, the narrator observes that the man is wearing a pair of women’s shoes. They decide to talk a walk together and continue their conversation. Several pages and many blocks later, the narrator suddenly notices that the man is also wearing a woman’s hat on his head, which leads to the surprising revelation that the man is actually wearing women’s clothing from head to toe. They continue their walk to a bridge over the Danube Canal, where the stranger stops and, for the first time, acknowledges his clothing. “At this spot…I pushed her in quick as a flash. The clothes I am wearing are her clothes.” Bernhardian humor is often based on the size of the discrepancy between what is observed and what is missed. For us as readers, there is something deeply comic and oddly rewarding by watching his hyper-sensitive narrators’ perpetual inability to see the obvious.
In the story called The Carpenter, Bernhard switches gears and employs a more or less reliable narrator, an attorney who is visited by a released convict (the carpenter of the title), whom he once defended unsuccessfully. To my mind, this is the least successful of the seven stories in Prose, but in some ways it’s the most instructive because it shows us Bernhard’s themes without Bernhard’s voice. The attorney has none of the typical qualities of Bernhard’s usual narrators; he’s quite normal, in fact. But from his position in the legal profession he is able to observe the lives of the criminal and the poor and he tries his best to understand and be understanding. In fact, as he explains to the carpenter, everyone is really a criminal at some level. And by extension, everything is criminal. “Nature is by nature criminal.” But sympathy was not really a state of being that suited Bernhard very well and his lack of enthusiasm for his ordinary lawyer/narrator is obvious.
December 27, 2010
Complaining about the The New York Times Book Review is simply shooting fish in a barrel. It’s particularly infuriating when a reviewer uses a book merely as a soapbox on which to stand and expound. That extra inch or so of height allows certain writers to believe their heads now reach into the stratosphere where they think they suddenly have access to oracular visions. I don’t rant very often on Vertigo, but hardly a week goes by now that The NYTBR doesn’t embarrass itself. (Don’t even get me started on Kathryn Harrison’s unbelievably horrible piece on Lydia Davis’ new translation of Madame Bovary. Don’t take my word for it, night rpm says it better here.)
In the Sunday December 26 issue, it takes two slim books by Thomas Bernhard (Prose and My Prizes) to do the trick, but Dale Peck uses them to raise himself above the indentured slavery of being mere book-reviewer to muse on larger issues like Bernhard’s reputation, the literature of alienation, and a bit of other writerly stuff. In his cover review called “The Alienator,” Peck states his belief that Bernhard’s better-known books constitute “the most significant literary achievement since World War II.” But those two books under review? Swatted away like annoying flies. Prose, which “feels amateurish” to Peck, is dismissed in a half a paragraph without any exploration of why it might or might not be amateurish. And My Prizes, which Peck feels contains “a dozen or so pages” of real interest, is given only a couple of paragraphs that consist mostly of quotations from the book itself.
As a literary oracle, Peck has access to the secret pecking order to which writers are assigned and he graciously gives us a glimpse of the hierarchy as he sees it from his lofty perch.
Bernhard’s international reputation has never solidified in the manner of a W.G. Sebald, Christa Wolf or Peter Handke, let alone the three most recent German-language writers to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, Günter Grass, Elfriede Jelinek and Herta Müller – all of whom, one wants to say with a dash of Bernhardian bile, are vastly inferior talents when compared with the master.
What’s really going on in this claim? Does Peck really believe that Wolf, Jelinek, and Müller really have more “solidified” reputations than Bernhard? (Just for starters, go Google their names and see how many results there are; Bernhard outstrips each of these writers by a range of 800,000 to more than 2,000,000 references.)
Peck seems to have come to the conclusion that the chief attribute for a writer is to say cute things that sound amusing but signify little. Here is how he concludes his non-review:
What I mean is, perhaps it’s a good thing Bernhard isn’t more popular in the wide world. Perhaps acclaim of the kind he describes in My Prizes would smother the idiosyncrasies of his texts with bland, universalizing exegesis. No doubt I’m contributing to that process with these words, in which case probably the best thing you can do is forget everything I’ve just told you and go read one of Bernhard’s books instead.
Or, better yet, don’t.
I happened to be reading Prose when Peck’s piece came out. First published as Prosa in 1967, the seven stories in Prose reflect back to Bernhard’s experiences as a newspaper reporter assigned to the Salzburg courts. As translator Martin Chalmers writes, in a brief Afterword that is considerably more lucid and thoughtful than Peck’s disastrous piece, these stories deal with crime and punishment, the nature of evidence, and the types of petty issues one would find in any court system. In other words, this is core Bernhard territory.
What is so wonderful about Prose is Bernhard’s unmistakable voice. These are stories to read aloud, to catch their narrator’s breathlessness and the way Bernhard’s sentences veer and backtrack, halting and yet full of boundless energy at the same time. The quote below, from the story The Cap, demonstrates the discordance between Bernhard’s formality (“when and as I walk”) with the raw, emotional, violent actions of a man on the verge of going mad, as if clinging to the veneer of language is the last remaining hope for sanity.
I will have to run out of the house again and again…And it happens like this: I can no longer bear it and run out, I lock all the doors behind me, all my pockets are then full of keys, I have so many keys in my pockets, especially in my trouser pockets, that when I walk I make a frightful noise, and not only a frightful noise, a dreadful jangling, the keys pound, when and as I walk, when I chase over to Burgau or, as this evening, to Parschallen, my thighs and my stomach, and those in my jacket pockets pound my hips and injure my pleura, because, due to the great speed which I must attain immediately after leaving the house, they obstruct my restless body, from the trouser pocket keys alone I have several injuries, now even suppurating wounds on my stomach, above all, because in the darkness I again and again slip, fall on the brutally frozen ground.
December 10, 2007
Even with my poor tourist-only German, it is fascinating to watch Thomas Bernhard speaking. Thanks to This Space for pointing the way to a new page on the Thomas Bernhard website which provides links to an eight-part interview with Bernhard on YouTube. It’s actually not just a talking heads interview but also part documentary, with added extras like a visit to Bernhard’s house in rural Austria where he reads from one of his books (can’t tell which). See Bernhard smile like a sheepish young author.
There’s much, much more at the Bernhard website, so go and lose an hour or two some wintry evening. Who knew that Bernhard wrote a children’s book?