Every so often, driven by an inexplicable yearning, I go straight to one of my bookshelves and pull down a book I haven’t read in years. Last week, the book I seemed to need was Carlos Fuentes’ 1978 novel The Hydra Head (Farrar Straus Giroux). I had vague recollections of a complex and sinister spy story that involved Mexican petro-politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict. But what I remembered more distinctly from my reading and re-reading of that book some thirty years ago was an abrupt and almost shocking shift from third-person narrative to first-person. I was curious to read the book again and see how I reacted this time around.
The political backdrop of The Hydra Head is the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the 1973 oil crisis caused by the oil embargo imposed by the Organization of Arab Oil Exporting Countries. Fuentes framed his book around two distinctive and contrasting literatures: the plays of Shakespeare and the noir novels and films of the 19302 and 40s. Tellingly, the book is dedicated to the memory of Conrad Veldt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Claude Rains – four of the more compromised characters in the 1942 classic movies Casablanca.- and not to the film’s triumphant but tragic heroes Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart. Everybody in The Hydra Head is compromised and duplicitous in their own way, whether in their politics, their marital infidelities, their allegiances, or their abuse of power, privilege and class – including the main character Felix Maldonado, a former specialist in Mexico’s petroleum industry who is now a mid-level bureaucrat in the Office of Economic Development. Before long, needless to say, a naively over-confident Maldonado (his name means, more or less, “ill-favored) is swept up in a ever-shifting plot full of violence and intrigue. Portions of the dialogue are written in a pastiche of “tough-guy” conversation right out of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler or Casablanca, and it is clear that, for Fuentes, Mexico City seemed an ideal 1970s counterpart to the seedy ambitions of wartime Casablanca. But when Maldonado confers briefly on the telephone with his handler, the coded language they speak is a series of quotations from Shakespeare. Read more
W.G. Sebald’s Eyeglasses, from his archive at Deutsches Literaturarchivs Marbach
Kosmopolis15 continues to post new material to their Sebaldiana website. Articles recently added include:
“The Clocks of Austerlitz” by Graciela Speranza. “Two clocks mark our first encounter with Jacques Austerlitz, the protagonist of W.G. Sebald’s final novel which was launched into the new millennium in 2001 like a sombre coda to the history of the 21st century and a profession of faith in the art of the 21st century. A narrator, who is hard to distinguish from Sebald himself, approaches Austerlitz in Antwerp Centraal Station, intrigued by one of the few travellers who isn’t staring apathetically into space in the Salle des pas perdus, but paying close attention to the station’s monumental architecture while making sketches, notes and taking photographs.”
“Conversation between Bruno Galinda and Iain Sinclair.” “Born in Wales in 1943, a year before Sebald, Iain Sinclair has written a series of books exploring the themes and territories that are now considered the cornerstones of Sebald’s project. Years before the author of Austerlitz reached the height of his popularity, Sinclair had already brought an encyclopaedic breadth to some of his finest books, together with a concern to recover forgotten history and the aesthetic of the flâneur in the city. In the short conversation we are presenting here, the writer and journalist Bruno Galindo takes Sinclair’s work as a starting point in order to follow the traces of W.G. Sebald in one of the most interesting examples of English prose of the past few decades.”
“On Sebald’s Radicalism” by Uwe Schütte. “At the very core of Sebald’s melancholic Weltanschauung [worldview] is the fundamentally bleak insight that destruction – and not creation – is the organising principle of nature. Like Gnostics, he viewed the world as a process of decay, and he saw humanity as a helpless subject of the destructive machinations that govern human history. Wars, atrocities, and genocides of all kind are not exceptions but symptoms and indicators of an all-embracing Natural History of Destruction that crushes human aspirations in the name of a secure future, to create a better society or to build a world without war and misery.”
When he went out the next morning and headed for the square, he knew, even before he looked up, that he was no longer there: he had been replaced by his legend. A legend without beginning or end, a narrative as yet illegible, but therefore almost more credible than him, than the banal mediocrity of his impoverished existence.
Written between November 1929 and February 1931, The Game for Real (Hra Doopravdy in its original Czech) is a marvelously strange and inventive novel whose narrator is suspicious that life might be nothing more than the absurd theater of his own imagination. Deeply anxious about language and certain that he is guilty of something, the book’s narrator is nameless – “and rightly so, since his name is Shame.” Read more
A film adaptation of W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz premiered on the opening night at the Centre Pompidou’s Cinéma du Reél festival earlier this week. Directed by the Czech-born French director Stan Neumann and starring Denis Lavant as Jacques Austerlitz, the 90-minute film is described as “not so much a filmed book as it is a film about a book, breaking down the walls that divide documentary and fiction, just as Sebald blurred the lines between the two in his writing.” A 2:44 excerpt from the film can be viewed at the website of the Fondation de la Mémoire de la Shoah. (Be prepared to endure an annoying 30-second advertisement. Why would a foundation website link to advertising anyway?)
In Tess Jaray’s new book The Blue Cupboard (Royal Academy of Arts, 2014), there is a tantalizing illustration that reproduces the first page of an undated letter written by W.G. Sebald to Jaray, with whom he had collaborated on the 2001 book For Years Now, which paired his brief poems with her artwork. The letter, written on a curiously narrow and long piece of paper, makes me wish for Sebald’s letters to be collected and published one day. Here is my transcription of the visible part of the letter:
Dear Tess, Your letter did not come too soon by any means. I was much amused by your likening the company of the formidable Musil to the sensation of having a large rock in your room. When I first read The Man Without Qualities, in the winter of 1966/67, that was pretty much how I felt about it. There is this anecdote about Musil & Joseph Roth (a great favourite of mine): the two had always studiously avoided each other until one day in a Vienna coffeehouse, a mutual friend brought them together. Well, what do you think, the friend said to Roth afterwards. Well, said Roth, he speaks like an Austrian but he thinks like a German. [Perhaps that explains his intransigence.]
I am nothing. Nothing but a pale shape, silhouetted that evening against the café terrace, waiting for the rain to stop…
Published in French as Rue des Boutiques Obscures in 1978, Missing Person is a relatively early novel by Patrick Modiano, whose first book dates to 1968. Its narrator is a detective working for the Hutte Agency and we quickly learn that he himself is, in fact, the “missing person” of the title. “Hutte, as usual, sat at his massive desk, but with his coat on, so that there was really an air of departure about it. I sat opposite him, in the leather armchair we kept for clients.” Read more
The Centre de Cultura Contemporànea de Barcelona is devoting Kosmopolis15 to W.G. Sebald. Kosmopolis is an annual “amplified literature festival” with live and online components. From its website:
The CCCB presents The Sebald Variations, in which the German writer of some of the fundamental texts of our turn of the century such as The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz forms the leading thread in an examination of the history of the 20th century and its projections into our present. How useful are Sebald’s books to understanding 21st-century culture? How can we escape from the “pedagogical prison of memory” that anchors us in the horrors of the 20th century without blazing the trails of a social construction of the future? At K15, we embark on a series of conversations with writers, essayists and artists set on exploring the core themes of the exhibition, creating synergies by joining the spirit of the festival with the author’s unorthodox approach. The Kosmopolis website also offers the Sebaldiana blog, an online space to explore Sebald’s world.
The online contents are being added over the course of the next month. I am happy to say that my contribution “Writing after Sebald” is already posted. I look at a handful of writers who I feel are the most “Sebaldian” in one way or another: Alexander Kluge, Iain Sinclair, Christoph Ransmayr, Sergio Chejfec, Teju Cole, S.D. Chrostowska, Micheline Aharonian Marcom, and Frederick Reuss. Read more
If you are in New York City this Wednesday February 11, you might want to try to get to Symphony Space at 7:30 PM for a book club discussion covering W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn led by the amazing line-up of Rick Moody (The Ice Storm), Dinaw Mengestu (All Our Names), and Hari Kunzru (Gods Without Men). Denis O’Hare (American Horror Story) will read an excerpt from Sebald’s book. There is an admission charge. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets in advance. Symphony Space is at 2537 Broadway at 95th Street, New York, NY 10025-6990.