Under the Influence of Sebald (I)
The most obvious way in which Sebald’s legacy as a writer can be seen is in the number of works of fiction that have appeared in the past decade employing photographs.But there are a number of works of fiction and of poetry that pay homage to Sebald in other ways. I’ve just acquired three works of fiction that acknowledge their debt to Sebald without apparently trying to “do a Sebald,” as one author notes. At the moment, all three novels lie in my ever growing stack of unread books, but here are some preliminary notes.
The first book is Sarah Emily Miano’s Encyclopedia of Snow, published in Great Britain by Picador in 2003. Miano is a former student at Sebald’s University of East Anglia (though I have yet to discern if she studied with him). Dedicated to W.G. Sebald, the book has received decidedly mixed reviews and my first few minutes with it were not promising. According to the dust jacket, The Encyclopedia of Snow purports to be a manuscript discovered in the trunk of a vehicle abandoned in a Buffalo, NY blizzard. The manuscript contains alphabetically arranged entries somehow dealing with snow from Angel to Zenith. Following a Prologue, which is written in the form of a newspaper article describing the blizzard, there is a cagey two-page note Editor’s Note addressed “Dear Reader” that simply seems to me to be too staged. After the main body of the book (the alphabetical entries referring to snow) the book concludes with a twenty-page section of notes – including some useful entries on obscure authors (some of whom will be very familiar to Sebald’s readers) and some self-indulgent entries like a definition of an encyclopedia – and an overly-mysterious Epilogue. At first glance, it all looks a bit too structured for a manuscript found in a car.
Laird Hunt’s The Exquisite was published in 2006 by Coffee House Press of Minneapolis. It’s described as a “post 9/11” novel that takes place in downtown Manhattan. One blurb on the rear cover describes the book as being “as fun to read as [Raymond] Chandler, but spookier. A noir koan, in a New York designed by Escher.” Clearly, this is one of those blurbs that ought to set off warning bells. The book’s main character joins “a nefarious crew,” whose ringleader (a connoisseur of herring, no less) is somehow related to the corpse in Rembrandt’s famous painting The Anatomy Lesson (also familiar to all Sebaldians). At the end of his book, Hunt provides an Acknowledgements page. “While many books informed and inspired this one, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, translated from the German by Michael Hulse, provided key thematic and linguistic irritants throughout the writing of The Exquisite.” Recognizing that he was not alone in trying to figure out how to channel Sebald into his own work, Hunt says “I decided not to try, as it seemed to me so many were trying, to ‘do a Sebald’, i.e. truffle page with visual images, eschew novelistic sleight of hand in favor of quietly patterned and heavily mediated observation, and inject the whole with a steady drip of melancholia.”
Enrique Vila-Matas, the Spanish author of the generally well-liked Bartleby & Co., wrote El Mal de Montano (Montano’s Malady) in 2002, but it has only appeared in English earlier this year (2007) simply titled Montano and published by Harvill Secker, London. Montano turns out to be the son of the narrator (another “unreliable narrator” according to the dust jacket) and he is suffering from writer’s block, which seems to be a common topic for writers these days. The book jacket promises that many of the writers with whom Montano is obsessed will make an appearance in the novel, including “Cervantes, Sterne, Kafka, Musil, Perec, Bolaño, Coetzee, Sebald, and Magris.” Apparently, these writers have set the bar so high that poor Montano is reduced to describing his attempt to exorcise them.