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Posts from the ‘Samuel Pepys’ Category

Sebald, Uncomfortable Modernist

Over at the Green Integer Blog there is a thought-provoking post in which the author tries to come to terms with his irritation upon reading W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo.  (Curiously, the essay was posted July 10, 2009, but it concludes with a writing date of December 23, 2001, about 18 months after Vertigo was released in the US.)  At first, the author of the post senses an internal contradiction within Sebald’s work, perhaps even a fatal failure:

In short, there is a sense of angst to Sebald’s world, and the writers he features, Stendhal and Kafka, share his feelings of displacement. It is as if Sebald were a high modernist who has discovered himself in a postmodern world, and he is not at all happy about that fact. He often seems to be working at odds to his own tales, as if all the disconnections, accidental photographs, and odd peregrinations he recounts were an expression of his failure to create a more coherent whole.

He points to one example in Vertigo (the rape scene involving the hunter Schlag and the barmaid Romona) where, he feels, Sebald “was purposely withholding information, refusing to reveal any logic in a world where he has painfully determined to be utterly mystifying.”  This leads the author to his final conclusion:

It is this desperate search for coherence under conditions where memory and significance are so vague, I believe, that draw so many readers to Sebald’s books. Like Sebald, they feel utterly ill-at-ease, even sickly, when they face the inexplicably dangerous terrain standing before them. I simply do not share the great dis-ease, and am somewhat irritated for having to endure it.

I think it is absolutely correct to say that Sebald was an uncomfortable modernist, especially in the sense that one of his basic concerns was epistemological: how do we know the past?  At the same time Sebald was deeply skeptical of modernism, having traced its true history from Napoleon through Hitler’s Germany.  As Sebald showed, modernism’s inherent belief in human progress was overtly false.  Only technology progressed, the very technology that made it easier and easier to enslave and murder millions, all the while hiding the truth behind a shimmering veil of lies.  In his conversion from pure academic to prose fiction writer, Sebald was venting his frustration with the limits of traditional scholarship to get at larger truths and, it seems to me, he dedicated himself to the task of trying to find a better way.  What Sebald did then was rather curious.  He borrowed some of the techniques of post-modernism – embedding photographs and the like –  and, in effect, smuggled them back across the border, brought them back through time, and he employed them in what was a very modernist enterprise.  I don’t imagine that Sebald ever had a desire to completely leave modernism behind, for modernism is, if anything, based on the firm belief that, at its very core, it is an undertaking of a very high moral order – as opposed to the seeming amoralism of the post-modernism.

Several times Sebald shows us his despair at his possibly Sisyphean task, and he does this most clearly in the final pages of Vertigo, where the narrator sits in a London train among a “defeated army” of commuters, reading Samuel Pepy’s diary, only to suddenly have a dream of walking through the Alps to come to the edge of a bottomless chasm.  Sebald briefly describes a post-human vision where “not a tree was there to be seen, not a bush, not even a stunted shrub or a russock of grass; there was nothing but ice-grey shale.”  The scene then shifts back to Pepys and another apocalyptic vision: Pepys’ description of the Great Fire of London.  The ending to Vertigo make me think of nothing so much as the conclusion of Melville’s Moby-Dick, which is just about as post-modern as any true modernist novel ever written.  In the end, mankind is nothing in the larger scheme of this universe.  Nothing.  (Perhaps Sebald was the last true artist of Romanticism.)

Caspar David Friedrich wandererCaspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818

The writer at Green Integer states a preference for a post-modern author like Javier Marias, who “is far more like a kind of amateur sleuth, who will gladly take on his adventures, but is more often just has happy to find no apparent answer.”  That’s the very premise of post-modernism – that there is no single answer, no single viewpoint.  In a funny, round-about way, this leads me back to my previous post on the exhibition at the Tate Britain called Altermodern.  Maybe it is time we defined something to supplant both modernism and post-modernism, something that can be committed to truth and history all the while knowing there is no single perspective.  It strike me that this is, in a sense, what a hologram achieves.  Every point of view is absolutely true and absolutely different from any other, yet it all adds up to one coherent image.  But I can’t bear the idea of calling this new ism “holomodernism.”

[Green Integer, in case any reader of Vertigo doesn’t know, is an essential modern publisher dedicated to “Essays, Manifestos, Statements, Speeches, Maxims, Epistles, Diaristic Jottings, Narratives, Natural histories, Poems, Plays, Performances, Ramblings, Revelations, and all such ephemera as may appear necessary to bring society into a slight tremolo of confusion and fright at least.” So says their website.  Go visit and buy books.]

Homage to Everyman

Some books are just friendlier than others. They feel good in the hand, they have wonderful paper and a typeface that lets the eye glide. Someone has given them a thoughtful page design and maybe a useful amenity like a ribbon bookmark. A few days ago at the (now defunct blog) Dovegreyreader, I greatly enjoyed the short homage to the reader-friendly editions of the Everyman’s Library:

It just remains to put all unfinished books onto a reading hold over Christmas and become a one-book wonder this week because Bleak House is proving to be positively all-consuming.I’ve opted for the Everyman’s Library edition with the lovely smooth paper, the lush burgundy cover and the ribbon bookmark.You know how easily impressed I am by a ribbon in a book.Then that beautiful little inspirational quote ‘ Everyman, I will go with thee, and be thy guide, in thy most need to go by thy side.’ I have a growing collection of Everyman’s Library, I’m starting to gather my most favourite reads in this very special edition.

everyman-endpapers.jpg Endpapers from Everyman’s Library, 1912.

This reminded me of the final pages of W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo, when the narrator leaves London’s National Gallery, where he was studying Pisanello’s painting of St. George, and wanders for miles to the western edge of the city. Tired, he enters the nearby underground station, which he likens to the entrance to Hades. As the train pulls out “past the soot-stained brick walls the recesses of which have always seemed to me like the parts of a vast system of catacombs,” the narrator contemplates his fellow passengers – “a defeated army” – and the dismal city where they work. Then, hoping to change his mood, he takes up his book. “Idly I turned the pages of an India paper edition of Samuel Pepys’s diary, Everyman’s Library 1913.” As he reads he starts to drowse and the London of Sebald and the London of Pepys blur together. He suddenly imagines that he is fleeing the Great Fire of London:

Is this the end of time? A muffled, fearful, thudding sound, moving, like waves, throughout the air. The powder house exploded. We flee onto the water. The glare around us everywhere, and yonder, before the darkened skies, in one great arc the jagged wall of fire. And, the day after, a silent rain of ashes, westward, as far as Windsor Park.

And so the book ends. (I love the over-punctuated, breathless phrasing.)

I have long looked for a 1913 Everyman’s Library edition of Pepys, but I’m beginning to feel that Sebald made up that particular edition. 1913 is a symbolic year in Vertigo and Sebald manages to find any number of ways to reference that specific year, some of them rather suspect. In the end, I settled for a two-volume 1912 Everyman’s Library edition, which is, technically speaking, a reprint of the 1906 edition (London: J.M. Dent and New York: E.P. Dutton). I’d like to think that this was the edition that Sebald’s narrator held in his hands as his train plowed into the year 1666.



As Dovegreyreader notes, the Everyman’s Library continues to produce books that like to be read. Now published by Random House’s distinguished Alfred A. Knopf imprint, their pages of warm creamy paper are sewn and bound in tactile cloth. The one I pulled off the shelf, not surprisingly, was printed and bound in Germany. In fact, I think I’ll just move to the couch and re-read Gabriel Josipovici’s Introduction to Kafka’s Collected Stories.