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Among Kafka’s Sons: Sebald, Roth, Coetzee

Medin

W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo is steeped in the presence of Franz Kafka – even to the eye of the most casual reader.  But, as Daniel L. Medin’s book Three Sons: Franz Kafka and the Fiction of J.M. Coetzee, Philip Roth, and W.G. Sebald demonstrates, Sebald’s debt to Kafka is deep, deeply nuanced, and complicated.   Building upon (and simultaneously critiquing) the work of Harold Bloom – especially The Anxiety of Influence and A Map of Misreading – Medin describes his Bloom-like task with Roth, Sebald, and Coetzee as follows:

I have endeavored to distinguish between what I take to be two opposing methods of appropriation: those bent, Bloom-like, on usurpation through imitative violence and those that pursue misreadings with greater reverence, aspiring to stand alongside or in the company of an antecedent rather than above him.

To put it a little more bluntly, do Roth, Sebald, and Coetzee want to dine with Kafka or devour him?  In Sebald’s case, Medin decides that from the beginning of his career, Sebald seemed to deliberately misread Kafka to suit his own ends.  Ultimately, “Sebald’s portrayal of Kafka in Vertigo is purposefully and methodically selective.”

Three Sons derives from Medin’s doctoral dissertation and it immediately begs the question: Of the many writers who demonstrate some literary paternity to Kafka, why Roth, Sebald, and Coetzee?  Medin say he chose them because each had “revisited” Kafka over the course of thirty years or more, although his primary focus is a single work of fiction by each author: Roth’s Zuckerman Bound, Sebald’s Vertigo, and Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello.   But there is another commonality between these three sons; each has addressed Kafka not only through fiction but also through works of literary criticism, and Medin, himself a scholar and literary critic, spends a fair amount of time analyzing that aspect of their oeuvre.

We in English-speaking parts can all rejoice that Sebald’s volumes of literary criticism are starting to be translated, with an English translation of Logis in einem Landhaus appearing sometime in the near future.  As Medin says, these essays are a gold mine for the study of Sebald’s poetry and prose fiction.  Medin begins by examining the essays that Sebald wrote for scholarly publications on Kafka and The Castle before embarking on Vertigo, essays in which it was already possible to detect how Sebald had absorbed Kafka.  To greatly oversimplify Medin (and Bloom, for that matter), the question is exactly how does Sebald use Kafka.  For Medin, the evidence is clear.  Even when writing as a scholar and ostensibly trying to dissect the motifs in Kafka’s work, Sebald seems intent on employing “a blend of biography, fiction, and text.”  Sebald’s critical interpretation of The Castle “swerves defiantly from Kafka’s novel.”  In particular, Medin believes “his emphasis on the death motif skews rather than clarifies the work.”

Sebald said that in his prose fiction he often “tipped his hat” to other writers like Kafka and Robert Walser, but Medin suggests that this is a misleading metaphor for an act that “belied the aggression inherent in his approach” to the writers he admired and used.  In Vertigo, Medin asserts that Sebald “forcefully bent the voices of Kafka, Walser, Conrad, and others toward that of his narrator, divesting them of their original spirit to reinforce his own thematic emphases.”  Sebald, of course, knew what he was doing – or at least to a large extent.  In Vertigo, his use of the appellation “Dr. K.” rather than “Kafka” signaled his strategy of playing loose with Kafka’s life and texts.  Medin’s extended essay shows, through careful analysis of Kafka’s diaries and texts (primarily The Castle, “The Hunter Gracchus,” and “The Country Doctor)” how “the pattern of misreading” that Sebald employed permitted him to reshape Kafka more to his own obsessions.  By the end of Medin’s careful and detailed reading of Vertigo I felt as if I had been watching him carefully separate two thin layers that had at first appeared to be nearly identical, one representing the historical and textual record left behind by Franz Kafka and the other representing the Dr. K. that Sebald needed.  By the end, Medin had made it clear just how much those two versions diverged.

During the process of untangling Vertigo, Medin also builds a critique of Sebald’s literary criticism on the side.  His summary judgment is severe; he takes Sebald to task for “critical manipulations…[that] mar his critical work” on Kafka and on other writers as well.

Most of the essays in Describing Misfortune (Beschreibung des Unglücks) and Uncanny Homeland (Unheimliche Heimat) fall short of the scrupulous standards exemplified by Coetzee.  They are too fictive to convince as research, and too fettered by convention to successfully execute the sort of autobiographical exegesis pursued in later volumes (Lodgings in a Country House, Campo Santo).

By comparison, Medin expresses his admiration for Coetzee’s “critical reserve” and “interpretive restraint.”  While Coetzee’s “less combative” stance toward Kafka seems to be Medin’s preference, I don’t think he is invoking a value judgment on Sebald or Roth for their approaches.  His primary objective is to demonstrate that, contrary to Harold Bloom’s assertion, not every author-forerunner relationship needs to be murderously Oedipal.

Daniel L. Medin.  Three Sons: Franz Kafka and the Fiction of J.M. Coetzee, Philip Roth, and W.G. Sebald.  Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2010.

Sebald’s Translator Troubles?

W.G. Sebald’s annotations to Michael Hulse’s draft translation of the ‘Conrad chapter’ (Part V) of Die Ringe des Saturn.
(From Saturn’s Moons)

The other night I continued to make my non-sequential way through Saturn’s Moons: W.G. Sebald – A Handbook by reading short accounts written by two of Sebald’s English-language translators: “Englishing Max” by Michael Hulse and “Translating W.G. Sebald – With and Without the Author” by Anthea Bell.  A fair amount has already been written about turning Sebald’s German into English, a process that always involved the considerable participation of Sebald, who, of course, was extremely articulate in English.  The two essays in Saturn’s Moons add to the well-established image of Sebald and translator collaborating almost as equals.  As the illustration above shows, Sebald was perfectly capable of rephrasing – or even completely rewriting – the work of his own translator, which might well have been unnerving for those who took on the task of “Englishing” his German.

But Hulse provides a rare glimpse into the break-up of their professional (and personal) relationship that seems to expose a rarely seen side of Sebald.  Having already translated Die Ausgewanderten into The Emigrants in 1996 and Die Ringe des Saturn into The Rings of Saturn in 1998, Hulse “agreed against my better judgment to translate Schwindel. Gefühle,” which, in 1999, became Vertigo.  Hulse says he had already heard reports of Sebald complaining in public that he had had to “correct” Hulse’s translations.  Hulse, who was juggling multiple literary projects at once, also sensed that Sebald thought he slowed the translation process down too much.  Eventually, Hulse says, he informed Sebald’s publisher (Harvill) that he would not translate Sebald’s next book.  In January 2000, Sebald wrote Hulse to say that “Perhaps you would agree that, from your point of view also, our partnership has now reached its limits.”  After that they never communicated again.

This admission by Hulse immediately reminded me of Michael Hamburger’s oddly confessional “Translator’s Note” at the beginning of Unrecounted, the book of poems that he posthumously translated from Sebald’s German in 2005.

Although Max Sebald had given me copies of all his books published since our first acquaintance, he never so much as mentioned the writings of these miniatures to me and gave me no copy of For Years Now [the 2001 book in which some of the same poems had been previously published in English, apparently translated by Sebald himself].

Hamburger described the final period of Sebald’s life “as a time of crisis…full of enigmas, conflicts and contradictions he chose not to clarify.”  As a longstanding friend, Hamburger expressed some pique that Sebald was “readily accessible for interviews that probed matters he would not divulge to his closest friends.”

In an intriguing aside, Hamburger mentioned that his wife had received an autographed copy of the English edition of Austerlitz that, surprisingly, “contained emendations in his hand.”  Was Sebald unhappy with aspects of Anthea Bell’s translation, as well?  Bell, who has both written and spoken in interviews about her experiences with Sebald, has never hinted at any issues.

Saturn’s Moons – Apocalypse 2013

In the final pages of W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo the narrator takes a train out of London while reading Samuel Pepys account of the Great Fire of London, which occurred in 1666.  In his fatigue, the voice of the narrator and Pepys become one.

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 thus ends Vertigo.  Or so I thought.

Reading “Echoes from the Past: A Conversation with Piet de Moor,” in Saturn’s Moons: W.G. Sebald – A Handbook, my eyes froze upon reading a question that de Moor asked Sebald about the end of Vertigo: “Does that end with the apocalypse that you have taking place in 2013?”

2013?  Vertigo was first published in German in 1990.  Had Sebald intended the final scene of the book to happen twenty three years into the future?

Of course [Sebald replied], I don’t know what 2013 will bring, but whether we shall carry on for that long, either individually or collectively, is uncertain. Even so, it is amazing that we still learnt at school that the world is eternal and that we are all very secure within the balance of Nature.  Less than half a century later, this comforting certainty has simply vanished; one day we shall be presented with the bill.  Since reaching that insight, we have been under enormous psychic pressure.  I believe that because of this the last foundation stone of our secure existence in this world has been removed.  The theocratic supports fell away much earlier.  After that, we could find solace on the notion that we, as mortal individuals, depend on a greater process that ends in a comforting form.  But now, even transcendence can no longer be taken for granted either.

The editors of Saturn’s Moons kindly placed a footnote here that cleared up my confusion.

In the German original, and Dutch (and most other) translations, Schwindel. Gefühle. ends with the lines ‘ – 2013 – | Ende’. This is omitted in the English translation.

Sebald’s use of the year 2013 brings a numerical rhyme to three of the four sections of Vertigo.  As de Moor notes, the sections describing the Italian trips of Stendhal and Kafka take place in 1813 and 1913 respectively.

I suppose the mystery of the missing 2013 lurks in various places in the Sebald literature, but this was the first time it grabbed my attention.

Undiscover’d Country.3

[Film still from Alain Resnais, L’année dernière à Marienbad]

The second triptych of essays in The Undiscover’d Country: W.G. Sebald and the Poetics of Travel uses the heading Textual Excursions, Expeditions, and Adventures to focus on some narrower aspects of Sebald’s writings.

The best essay of this section, in spite of its title, is Alan Itkin’s “Eine Art Eingang zur Unterwelt”: Katabasis in Austerliz, which examines Austerlitz within the tradition of epic literature, notably Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil, Dante, and Milton, showing how Sebald structured Austerlitz as a venture in the underworld.  Itkin makes the case that Austerlitz is Sebald’s most novel-like work of prose fiction and that with this book Sebald broke the pattern in which he had formerly used the trope of travel.  In his first three books of prose fiction, Sebald’s model of travel writing was to “demonstrate that it is the uncanny position of the modern subject never to be sufficiently lost.”  But with Austerlitz, he returned to something more closely approaching the classic model of  travel writing in which the narrator loses his way, then finds it again.

Itkin sees Sebald making the case that National Socialism was inextricably linked to “the senseless expansion of the bourgeois age” that preceded it.  The dark side of progress is “an equally strong compulsion to destruction,” a theme that weaves in and out of all of Sebald’s books.

The remaining two essays are exercises in diminishing returns.  Each left me feeling that the needles I finally found in these haystacks were blunt and only marginally useful.   Martin Klebes’ essay If You Come to a Spa: Displacing the Cure in Schwindel. Gefühle and Austerlitz, looks at two of Sebald’s travelers and their visits to spas.  He looks at the Dr. K. Takes the Waters at Riva section of Vertigo and at Jacques Austerlitz’s trip to the spa at Marienbad.  Each man undergoes a transformation at the spa that has nothing to do with the expected “medical regimen” function of a spa.  Instead, “Sebald’s narrative strategy is to ‘renew’ his protagonists at the spas …through intertextual references that reveal the split within each of them not as a feature of their psychological constitution but rather as a division visible on the textual surface itself.”  What does this mean?  Well, in both of the situations that Klebes cites, Sebald creates uncertainty and tension surrounding the identity of the protagonist, both of whom echo characters in other works of art.  In the Vertigo example, “Dr. K. both is and is not ‘Franz Kafka’.”  While in the Austerlitz example, Sebald overlays references to characters from Alain Resnais’ film L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad).

James Martin’s essay Campi deserti: Polar Landscapes and the Limits of Knowledge in Sebald and Ransmayr examines the middle section of Sebald’s long  poem  Nach der Nature (After Nature) and Ransmayr’s 1984 novel Die Schrecken des Eises und der Finsternis (The Terrors of Ice and Darkness), which I wrote about earlier.  In this section of After Nature, Wilhelm Georg Stiller joins the Great Northern Expedition of 1741, led by Vitus Bering (of the Bering Sea and Strait).  Martin sees Sebald making the point that these polar expeditions represent “the limits of the Enlightenment’s quest for knowledge” and “the extreme limits of the knowable world.”  Like some of the essayists in the earlier section of Undiscover’d Country, Martin sees Sebald rejecting a totalizing view of history: “Science in the Enlightenment takes a totalizing character as a system for understanding the world under the banner of an unwavering belief in progress and rationality.”  In After Nature and elsewhere, Sebald seems to completely reject this belief.

Other posts relating to this volume are here.

Summer in Baden-Baden, Part II

The literature of the second half of the twentieth century is a much traversed field and it seems unlikely that there are still masterpieces in major, intently patrolled languages waiting to be discovered.  Yet some ten years ago I came across just such a book, Summer in Baden-Baden, which I would include among the most beautiful, exalting, and original achievements of a century’s worth of fiction and para-fiction. Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag’s Introduction to Leonid Tsypkin’s novel Summer in Baden-Baden tells us that Tsypkin (1926-1982) wrote this remarkable novel while he worked as a scientist at Moscow’s Institute for Poliomyelitis and Viral Encephalitis.  It appears that he started writing in earnest in 1977 after being demoted as punishment for the fact that his son and daughter-in-law had just emigrated to the United States.  Tsypkin conducted archival research on Dostoyevsky and, Sontag tells us, made many photographs of “places associated with Dostoyevsky’s life as well as ones frequented by Dostoyevsky’s characters during the seasons and at the times of day mentioned in the novels.”  Faced with the realization that he would never receive his own exit visa Tsypkin decided in 1981 to ask a friend to smuggle the completed manuscript and some related photographs out of the Soviet Union.  The following year Tsypkin’s novel, illustrated with his photographs, began to appear in the weekly New York-based Russian-émigré periodical Novaya Gazeta.  Tsypkin never lived to see it.

In 1987, Summer in Baden-Baden was finally translated into English and published – without any photographs – in London by Quartet Books, and presumably this is the book that Sontag read.  Its romantic cover design suggests a marketing scheme more appropriate to a title like E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View than a frenetic book about Dostoyevsky’s summer in the gambling halls of Germany.

Baden-Baden Quartet

In 2001, New Directions took a chance on an American edition with a cover that more appropriately represents the intensity of the fiction within.  (It’s is a great example of the power of typography.)  This edition also included the newly-commissioned Introduction by Susan Sontag, but only one of Tsypkin’s photographs, which was placed opposite the title page.

Baden-Baden New Directions

The New Directions volume is the edition that I bought and read when it first came out, and then subsequently shelved for another eight years – until a reader of Vertigo asked me if I’d ever seen the photographically-illustrated version of Summer in Baden-Baden issued in London by Penguin in 2006.  Needless to say, I ordered a used copy immediately.

The Publisher’s Note in the Penguin edition explains “This edition is the first to be published in book form with the author’s original photographs.”  Full captions for each photograph are located at the end of the book.  Unfortunately, the reader is left not knowing if the author had a hand in placing the photographs within the text.  I tend to doubt it.  Tsypkin never traveled outside the Soviet Union and his photographs were restricted to Leningrad (Dostoyevsky’s St. Petersburg).   A main point of Tsypkin’s book is the suggestion that an authentic bridge can be erected between past and present, that we can temporarily comprehend some other time and become someone else through an act of the imagination.  Tsypkin, like W.G. Sebald, believed that the power of the imagination is strengthened – if not dependent upon – visiting the actual locations where events happened.   “In front of me was the Kuznechny Market, and to the right and behind me the Vladimir Church – I had reached exactly the right spot, and my heart was pounding with joy and some other vaguely sensed feeling…”  And he talks about making sure that the locations for his photographs were accurate: “I was anxious not to mistake the street or the number of the building supposed to appear before my camera lens.”  This does not sound like the kind of author who would shift images from Russia to Germany just for the sake of having photographs more or less equally spaced throughout his book.

Nevertheless, in the Penguin edition a number of photographs of St. Petersburg can be found in the areas of text relating to Baden-Baden.  While these images vaguely add to the atmosphere of Baden-Baden, this ambient use strikes me as inimical to Tsypkin’s methodical research methods.  For example, in the first example shown below, Tsypkin’s photograph of the the dark stairway leading to the location that Dostoyevsky used for Raskolnikov’s apartment is inexplicably dropped in the midst of a gambling scene in Baden-Baden.  On the other hand, the second example – a St. Petersburg street image appearing in the midst of a discussion of the streets of that city – is at least contextualized a little more closely.

Baden-Baden 1

“The steps leading up to the room where Raskolnikov lived.  These steps no longer exist as the building has been renovated.”

Baden-Baden 2“Gorokhavaya Street, which frequently features in Dostoyevsky’s novels.”

Even though the Penguin edition has the advantage of being the first English edition to include some of Tsypkin’s photographs, Penguin didn’t seem to have really understood what kind of book it was dealing with.  Their disastrous cover design suggests a fin-de-siècle farce or light romance.  Innocent purchasers were probably more than a little surprised at the powerful – and heavy – work of art behind this loopy image .  Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Summer in Baden-Baden has completely disappeared from Penguin’s website as if it had never been published.  What we need now is a new edition of Summer in Baden-Baden that answers questions about Tsypkin’s photographs and their placement.

My post Summer in Baden-Baden, Part I is here.

Summer in Baden-Baden, Part I

Baden-Baden New Directions

Why was I so strangely attracted and enticed by the life of this man who despised me and my kind…

Written between 1977 and 1980, Leonid Tsypkin’s remarkable novel Summer in Baden-Baden (NY: New Directions, 2001) is a strange and exhilarating reading experience.  Slightly reminiscent of W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo, Summer in Baden-Baden is largely about Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  Tsypkin’s unnamed narrator is traveling by train to Leningrad probably during the 1970s, with the intention of walking streets that Dostoevsky walked, visiting the buildings mentioned in some of his books, and spending time in the museum dedicated to the writer.  On the train he reads a book borrowed from his aunt’s library (and which he has no intention of ever returning): the diary of Anna Grigor’yevna Dostoyevskaya, Dostoyevsky’s wife.  As the reader quickly learns, the boundary between the narrator and Dostoyevsky is porous; Tsypkin simply moves without warning between the two men and the century that separates them.  In fact, the narrator’s identification with Dostoyevsky is so complete at times that he seems to struggle to awaken from a deep dream in order to return to his own time and place.

Tsypkin leads us in and out of the fields of consciousness of the three main characters – the narrator, Fyodor and Anna – in long intoxicating, cinematic sentences that drive the reader breathlessly across time and space  using long tracking shots followed by sudden shifts in focus.  The narrator’s train trip and his own memories of post-Second World War Soviet Union frame the story of the recently-wed Dostoyevsky’s own train trip to Germany and their short intense stay in Baden-Baden in 1867, primarily so that Dostoyevsky can indulge in his compulsion for gambling.

The train was speeding along a narrow track twisting capriciously between round-topped hills covered by dark-green forests of beech, elm and other native trees of the plains and the uplands of central Germany – Schwarzwald, Thuringer Wald and all the other mountain areas – a toy train made up of tiny little carriages and a miniature steam-engine with red spokes on its wheels and a tall chimney, the sort you see nowadays on special stamps depicting the history of locomotives – and in one of the carriages of this doll’s train, in a second class compartment, was seated a man no longer young, in a dark suit obviously made in Berlin, with plain Russian face, receding temples and greying brown beard – and next to him was a youngish woman, not unlike a student but with heavy, glowering gaze, wearing a hat and travelling shawl and with a cardboard box on her lap – and sometimes she would begin to doze off leaning her head against her husband’s shoulder while he, squinting his eyes, would carefully and suspiciously inspect her face, as if trying to read something.

Dostoyevsky is paranoid, superstitious, jealous, impulsive, argumentative, constantly afraid of being cheated,  prejudiced against foreigners and Jews, and haunted by recollections of his own harsh imprisonment and exile some fifteen years earlier.  Each gambling episode takes him through a cycle of optimism, ecstasy, despair and abasement, as he pawns nearly everything they own in order to continue losing.

Is this not the explanation of the so-called crisis that Dostoyevsky went through during his penal servitude? – could his morbid pride ever have become reconciled  with the humiliations to which he was subjected there? – no: he only had one way out: to consider these humiliations as his just desserts.

Toward the end of the book, as Dostoyevsky and his wife make their way by a series of trains back to St. Petersburg, the narrator’s train arrives in the same town, renamed Leningrad.  He makes his way through the snow-filled streets to the apartment where will stay, a tiny flat occupied by an assortment of women of several generations, one of whom is his elderly friend.  In passages of Vermeer-like delicacy, Tsypkin describes the apartment and the women, painting a haunting miniature of life at the tail end of the Soviet era.

…then, getting out my towel and walking on tip-toe so as not to wake up the neighbors, I would go into the bathroom – a large room with doors on either side, crammed with old furniture and wash-tubs, with the bath itself taking up only part of the space and partitioned off by screens hung with washing to dry, as were the numerous pieces of rope strung out across the room, so that it resembled the backstage of a theatre more than anything else.

In an episode reminiscent of several from Sebald’s books, the narrator visits Dostoyevky’s apartment, which has been made into a museum filled with memorabilia of the writer’s life – the old photographs, furniture, clippings, books, the writer’s hat and umbrella, and, of course, the same views out the window that Dostoyevsky stared at as he wrote.

Reading Dostoyevsky on the apartment’s small couch, the narrator muses at length on what is probably the real core of the book: Dostoyevsky’s vehement anti-Semitism,

hoping to discover…at least some ray of hope, at least some movement in the other direction, at least some effort to view the whole problem from a new angle…and it struck me as strange to the point of implausibility that a man so sensitive in his novels to the sufferings of others, this jealous defender of the insulted and the injured who fervently and even frenetically preached the right to exist of every earthly creature and sang a passionate hymn to each little leaf and every blade of grass – that this man should not have come up with even a simple word in the defense or justification of a people persecuted over several thousands of years…

Part II of my post on Summer in Baden-Baden is here.

Mystery Promotional Copy of Sebald’s Vertigo

Vertigo Softcover ARC

I now own a mildly mysterious copy of W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo as published by New Directions.  An alert reader of this blog noted that elsewhere I had written: “Curiously, Vertigo is the only one of Sebald’s major books for which I have never seen a British or American proof or advanced readers copy offered for sale. I wonder if one even exists.”   He saw just such a title advertised for sale and let me know so that I was able to buy it for my collection.

New Directions published the first American edition of Vertigo sometime in 2000 (the New York Times reviewed it June 11, 2000).  More than a year later, when they finally decided to release a soft cover edition, New Directions seems to have sent out an unknown number of advance promotional copies to promote the forthcoming soft cover version – using copies of the hard cover edition.  They simply took a jacket-less hard cover copy, slapped a small image of the book’s cover and two pre-printed stickers on the front cover, and then stapled a single page from their October newsletter into the front endpaper.  Unfortunately, it probably isn’t possible to know if this copy is from the first or second New Directions printing, because New Directions places information about subsequent printings of hard cover editions on the dust jacket – not in the book itself as most publishers do.  Note that the upper sticker misspells the name of the British publisher Harvill.

The mini-book cover for Vertigo that is pasted onto the promotional copy above presents another – admittedly minor – puzzle.  Semadar Megged’s front cover designs for the hard cover and soft cover editions of Vertigo (shown below) are essentially the same with only minor changes to adjust for the smaller cover area of about three quarters of an inch in both directions.  Although it is closer to the dust jacket of the hard cover edition since it does not reproduce the blurb by Richard Eder that appears in the final design of the soft cover edition, the cover shown above differs from the final designs of both hard cover and soft cover.   If you look closely you will see that the relationship between the text and the photograph of the volcano does not match the final designs and we see a second peak to the left of the spewing volcano.

Vertigo HC Cover
Left: hard coverVertigo PB Cover

Right: soft cover

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.]

A Down-Under Vertigo

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In Amanda Lohrey’s recent novel Vertigo (Melbourne: Black Inc., 2008), the vertigo of Anna and Luke is a disabling panic that occurs whenever the past lunges forward into their lives, usually in the form of their still-born child who appears hauntingly on the periphery as “the boy.”  Hoping to escape, they move from the city to a remote Australian coastal settlement where they purchase a fix-up property and try to begin anew.  They garden, meet the neighbors, take up bird-watching, and buy a canoe for paddles around the lagoon.  But more than anything, they struggle to adjust to the ongoing drought that is affecting their region.  Luke buries himself in work, hobbies, and chores, while Anna becomes estranged and resentful. p.85.

At that moment she falls into a spiral of panic; it is as if she is encountering a stranger.  She finds she is looking at her husband in an almost impersonal way, as though at a figure in the landscape, or one of those birds he is always gazing at.  Perhaps that’s all any of them are, figures in a landscape.  In each era, new figures come, others go, but the land remains and their sense of ownership is an illusion, a mirage brought on by too many days in the hot sun.  So what is this pointless dance that they are engaged in, this dance where they whirl together in an endless circle, locked in the illusion that they are going somewhere, that what they do has meaning beyond their own day-to-day survival?  At any moment they could disappear from this place and nothing would change, nothing of consequence, so vast is the land and so small are they.  And the thought of this brings on a rush of vertigo, a dizzying sense of disorientation, as if she is about to fall, but that when she falls she will be weightless.

Everything changes with the approach of a bushfire.  The locals utter hollow-sounding reassurances that the annual fires never reaches their settlement, but this one does.  Trees explode, a few nearby houses burn, fireballs start landing on their property, and the very air – filled with ash and embers – seems to be on fire.  Before they know it, they are cut off from escape and are only saved by luck when a passing firetruck hauls them out.  As they head to safety at the lagoon, “the side mirror on the truck begins to melt and buckle out of shape.”

Although the book makes no mention of W.G. Sebald, Lohrey’s Vertigo contains a number of Sebaldian touches so that it could easily be seen as a modest homage.  First, there is the very Sebaldian device of a parallel historical narrative.  In their new house, Luke find several trunks of old travel literature and he starts to read Sir Frederick Treve’s The Land that Is Desolate: An Account of a Tour in Palestine (1912), Treve’s attempt to find “meaningful consolation” after the death of a daughter.  Treves (1853- 1923), who was a British surgeon, is much better known for his book about his famous patient, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences.

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Then there are the ten embedded photographs by Lorraine Diggs.  By themselves, Digg’s tiny images are evocative of the key themes of the novel – the beautiful, harsh landscape, birds, the fire.  The images work well in small scale, but I’m not convinced that they add anything to Lohrey’s  taut descriptive text.  In fact, they feel a little gratuitous, anchoring Lohrey’s text unnecessarily.  Lohrey is a very visual writer and I’d love to see her abandon her occasional drive to be literary (the over-insistent bird symbolism, for example) and perhaps take on something non-fiction.  Her present-tense narrative of the fire is harrowing stuff.

By the way, I have found that an easy way to order books from Australia is through Readings.

Prolonging Long

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Several critics have liked J.J. Long’s book W.G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity more than I did, and that’s fine. Scott Esposito’s s recent post at Conversational Reading, How Sebald Explains Modernity, does justice to Long’s complex and dense book and also gives me a chance to prolong the conversation a bit.

Conversational Reader writes “I found all [Long’s] cultural studies-type information to be valuable context for understanding Sebald; however, if you do not share my favor for this kind of contextual information and prefer criticism that sticks more to the text [and here he links to my post on Long’s book here on Vertigo], this book is probably not for you.”  As I tried to say elsewhere, my unease with Long’s methodology is not that he is providing “context” for Sebald, but that I feel Long doesn’t draw a clear line between when he is providing his own “context” and when he is teasing out Sebald’s “text”.  I know there is no black and white answer here, that this is a question of where one falls on a spectrum, but trying to negotiate this demarcation throughout Long’s book made me queasy.

There is one place that I would disagree with Conversational Reading‘s reading of Long and that has to do with Long’s “reading of Sebald’s photographs,” which comes in for very high praise.  I’ll just throw down the gauntlet here and now and say that “reading” photographs is a parlor game not unlike interpreting dreams; it’s not a suitable academic exercise.  Long’s “readings” of some of the photographs embedded in Sebald’s books amount to wish-fulfillment on his part.  As perhaps the most egregious example, I would send readers to pages 55-61 of Long’s book where he attempts to tell us what one particular photograph from Vertigo means.  As Long notes, Sebald is “strangely inconclusive” about any meaning for this photograph (is Sebald ever “conclusive” about what any photograph means?).   So Long proceeds to do two things more or less simultaneously.  He places the photograph within a larger historical context (no problem there).  And, inappropriately, to my mind, he minutely analyzes the photograph as if it had a clear and fixed meaning.

By coincidence, Brian Oard at Mindful Pleasures has just posted some thoughts upon rereading Austerlitz.  Some of his concluding remarks seem relevant.

At the end of the book, we the readers, the narrator and his protagonist are left reading the signs that history has left us, even as they are being erased…And interestingly,the ending might suggest that the written sign, a text in a book, is among the most durable of all. Buildings, as Sebald shows us, can be obliterated. Towns like Terezin can change utterly. But the witness of writing is more tenacious.