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Sebald, Simon, Novelli and the Long-Drawn-Out Scream

Gastone Novelli, untitled, 1961,
Pencil, pastel, ball point pen and tempera on paper

In W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, during the first extended meeting between the narrator and Jacques Austerlitz, the two men stop for coffee at Antwerp’s Glove Market and discuss, among other things, the long architectural history of fortifications.  “It is often our mightiest projects that most obviously betray the degree of our insecurity,” Austerlitz remarks.  He then proceeds to talk about how the star-shaped dodecagon came to be seen as an ideal defensive shape in spite of the fact that, in real warfare, these fortresses turned out to have many disadvantages.  Furthermore, their complexity led to the fact that they were often obsolete by the time their construction was completed. The day after this conversation, the narrator takes a short train ride to visit Breendonk, one of numerous fortresses constructed at the beginning of the 20th century for the defense of Antwerp.  Breendonk, along with Antwerp’s entire fortress system, had proved utterly useless against Germany’s offense during both World Wars and it was subsequently converted into a museum of the Belgian resistance.  During the Second World War, Breendonk, built for the defense of Belgium, was instead used by the invading Germans as an infamous prison where many Belgians and others were tortured.

At this point in Austerlitz, as his narrator wanders through the fortress, he recalls two related stories of torture: Jean Améry’s account of being tortured at Breendonk (I presume this account is from Améry’s At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor of Auschwitz and Its Realities), and Claude Simon’s novel Le Jardin des Plantes, where Simon tells the story of Gastone Novelli, who had been similarly tortured (albeit at Dachau).   Upon his liberation, Novelli fled “civilization” for remote parts of the Brazilian jungle, where he lived with a small tribe whose language consisted “almost entirely of vowels, particularly the sound A in countless variations of intonation and emphasis” (to quote from Austerlitz).  When Novelli returned to Europe, one of the recurring themes of his paintings became the letter A, often “rising and falling in waves like a long-drawn-out scream,” as Sebald put it.

It is curious to see how the two books typographically depict this string of As.  In Sebald’s Austerlitz, on the left, the run of vowels is elongated into what could be a multi-row scream.  On the right we see how Simon’s The Jardin des Plantes (as it is called in English) turns the As into a tidy, block-like structure that strikes me as more visual than verbal.

The Italian painter Gastone Novelli (1925-1968) is little known in the US.  His work is likely to make many viewers immediately think of Cy Twombly, who moved to Italy in 1957, but the resemblances turn out to be fairly superficial.  I had never given Sebald’s reference to Novelli much thought until I ran across this excellent short essay by Rafael Rubinstein over at The Silo, a site that he describes as “a personal, revisionist ‘dictionary’ of contemporary art…to challenge existing exclusionary accounts of art since 1960 and to offer a fresh look at some canonical artists.”  The whole site is well worth exploring.

Claude Simon, The Jardin des Plantes.  Northwestern University Press, 2001.  Translated by Jordan Stump.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Good post ^^ nice to see that somebody remembers Novelli outside Italy (not that remembered even in Italy, by the way).

    April 10, 2011
  2. what a find, thanks Terry. so much to see over at Silo…

    April 11, 2011
  3. I love your comparison of Simon’s and Sebald’s typographic versions of Novelli’s lettering and I agree that Sebald’s is more screamlike. Thanks for your welcome comments about The Silo!

    April 16, 2011
  4. Does anybody happen to know which Amazonian language is being referred to here by W.G. Sebald (Austerlitz), citing Claude Simon (Le jardin des plantes), writing about the painter Gastone Novelli as he lived “in remote parts of the Brazilian jungle”?

    “… a small tribe whose language consisted “almost entirely of vowels, particularly the sound A in countless variations of intonation and emphasis””

    Is this a fictitious language, hence unknown to the linguistic department at São Paulo, or a real language (such as Pirahã)?

    August 26, 2012
  5. Ann Pearson #

    I discovered this with great interest having a long-term interest in both Claude Simon and Sebald, but I feel I should draw your attention to an error. Simon was not in Breendonk nor was he tortured: if you reread Sebald’s text you’ll see that that reference is to ‘Jean Amery’ (who changed his name after the war as a rejection of his Germanic origins and was, I believe, originally named Mayer). Typically in Sebald’s writing, references are so layered that it’s easy to miss one step.
    Hope to read more now I’ve discovered your site.
    All the best,

    March 4, 2013
  6. Ann, Great catch! Yes, Sebald’s nested storytelling tripped me up there. But I have rectified matters and properly separated the stories of Amery and Novelli.

    March 5, 2013
    • Ann Pearson #

      Dear Terry, Glad I was able to help. I learned much from you that I didn’t know since I’d never looked up Novelli, somehow imagining that he was an invented character. I can see why Simon would have liked his work. He himself made collages and montages of objets trouvs. I met him back in the early seventies when I was writing a Ph.D thesis on his novels. All the best, Ann

      From: Vertigo Reply-To: Vertigo Date: Tue, 5 Mar 2013 15:30:07 +0000 To: Ann Pearson Subject: [New comment] Sebald, Simon, Novelli and the Long-Drawn-Out Scream Terry commented: “Ann, Great catch! Yes, Sebald’s nested storytelling tripped me up there. But I have rectified matters and properly separated the stories of Amery and Novelli.”

      March 5, 2013
  7. Hannah #

    Here is how I found the SCREAM

    A few weeks ago I was in Vienna for a wedding. I arrived early and chose to go to Mathausen. It was the first time I felt I was courageous enough to visit a place that will, in a way, somewhat resemble Auschwitz. Too many family members have perished there. As I entered, I moved away from my friends .I walked slowly, in a daze. My legs took me as close as I dared go near the barbed wires. They used to be electrified, of course; a killing machine. Then I found the cemetery. Some people roamed the first, but it led to a second one and then to a third. Not one visitor entered that holy of holy area, only the souls of the departed. It was very quiet there, white butterflies in silence fluttering from flower to flower. By the time I moved back towards the cabins, my friends were done- and I was just beginning…
    It was there that Munch’s painting The Scream came to my mind. My head was filled with it; an endless, silent, scream.
    I wrote about it to an English friend, who wrote back the following:
    “Your words remind me of an author I wanted to share with you- one book in particular- SG Sebald ‘Austerlitz'”

    Of course, the moment I read the AAAAAA I knew my friend understood. And for now, it is enough.

    September 21, 2013

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