Alternative Prepositions for Sebald’s Writing

January 26, 2013 § 1 Comment

Reading now: 20 Lines a Day; Vertigo.

In surely the most interesting passage I’ve ever read about prepositions, Harry Mathews discusses their use in the common phrases for writing, and alternatives used more rarely:

Would it be possible, and if so what would it be like, to write around, or in, or into — to write around politics, write in compost preparation, write into love, write at fiction, write inside the genesis of the universe, write outside a friend?… Writing around a subject or person seems a promising possibility.  The subject or addressee would play a role like the letter e in La Disparition — never appearing and at the same time figuring as an object of unrelenting attention, staring us in the face all the harder for never being named.  Writing in might require participation in the subject at the moment of writing… (All writing would be an act of writing in writing.)  Writing into: discovery, aggressive curiosity.  Writing at: against, or towards, or in haphazard approach…. And writing outside: out of a context larger than the subject, so that we can at last see it whole, as if we had only five minutes left to live, or five seconds.

A brilliant entry in 20 Lines a Day, and a lovely, tangential description of many of the productions of the Oulipo.

This is also a useful framework for thinking about Sebald’s work: in its idiosyncratic blending of memoir, criticism, biography, fiction, etc., it seems to make more sense from the application of prepositional phrases like Mathews’ than from describing it as writing “about” any one thing, or within any one genre (or even any combination of genres).  I suspect, in fact, that Sebald might have thought of his own works in similar terms, though I doubt he ever read Mathews’ work.  Sebald and Mathews, writing in the 1980s, were both catching something in the mental atmosphere of the time.

In the “All’estero” section of Vertigo, Sebald describes the narrator’s (his) arrival in Milan, and purchase of a map:

My bag slung over my shoulder, I strolled down the platform, the last of the passengers, and at a kiosk bought myself a map of the city.  How many city maps have I not bought in my time?  I always try to find reliable bearings at least in the space that surrounds me.  The map of Milan I had purchased seemed  a curiously apt choice, because while I was waiting for the quietly rumbling photo-booth where I had had some pictures taken to yield up the prints, I noticed on the front of the map’s cardboard cover the black and white image of a labyrinth…

sebald

The arrow at the top of the map’s labyrinth is crucial: Sebald writes in and into labyrinths, and reading him requires plunging into that labyrinth, as well.  Labyrinths of memory, history, and geography, as well as labyrinths of fiction and nonfiction.  That this passage gives a glimpse of Sebald waiting for the development of those photos that would, at least potentially, populate his published books is a fine example of how he’s writing (and photographing) in the labyrinth as he experiences it.  (Incidentally, that inexplicably poignant image of the mustached German awaiting his snapshots make this one of my favorite passages thus far in the book.)  At other points, the narrator describes times on a train, at a hotel, in which he is successful in writing: he’s writing in the labyrinth as he himself experiences it.  Meanwhile, the first section of the book, a meditation and biography of the 19th-century writer Marie Henri Beyle, comes to be seen retrospectively as writing into the labyrinth.

At the same time, and to introduce additional prepositions to Mathews’ alternative lexicon, Sebald also writes atop or, perhaps, alongside.  Here, he is writing atop Kafka’s story “The Hunter Gracchus,” with some sentences quoted verbatim in new contexts, and alongside much of Kafka’s oeuvre.  Indeed, “All’estero” seems a fine example of the concept of “critical fiction” currently being advocated by the writer and publisher Henry Wessells, interrogating the earlier work “to form a critical response and a satisfying fiction.”  (Kafka appears to lend himself particularly well to this form; Guy Davenport, for instance, has also explored his stories and biography in this way.)

Finally, and most obviously, everything I’ve read so far by Sebald is very much a writing around: of the Holocaust, of overwhelming grief.  And, in many ways, it is also writing against cultural amnesia and personal loneliness.

Melancholia

January 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

Finished: The Fifty Year Sword, by Mark Z. Danielewski.

Reading now: 20 Lines a Day, by Harry Mathews; Vertigo, by W. G. Sebald.

I find myself with shockingly little to say about T50YS.  Lovely, and I enjoyed it, but I found it rather more gimmicky and full of design-for-design’s-sake than the two “novels.”  I look forward to another book-length work from Danielewski.  (All the same, though, I’m still giddy that my parents got me the signed limited edition that comes in the five-latched box.  Nice to have a pretty, menacing object on the shelves.)

Mostly, I’m full of *FEELINGS* thanks to Sebald and Mathews.  Sebald I expected this from.  The possibility of bawling and/or hysterically laugh-sobbing comes with every page, and the second section of Vertigo, “All’estero,” is filling me with equal parts the quintessentially Sebaldian sense of uncanny melancholy, delighted wonder, and the weird pressure you get behind your eyeballs from too much emotion trying to spill out.  Here, he’s moved from Freud’s Vienna to Mann’s Venice to Pisanello’s Verona, where he encounters incredibly bad omens.  A pizzeria with the proprietors listed as “Cadavero Carlo e Patierno Vittorio.”  Cadavero?!

The man’s words seem to make me a mess for reasons as yet unclear.

Mathews, on the other hand, I also dearly love, but I didn’t expect such emotional investment in a book of writing exercises and journal entries, ostensibly written as starters to heavier labor of working on his novel-in-progress in the early 1980s.  The book opens with a few very lovely and very sad entries, from St. Bart’s of all places, preoccupied with the recent death of Georges Perec.  One, in which the wind is treated as a kind of didactic metaphor, or literal “plot” device, or neither, or both, is a kind of masterpiece of very short memoir or prose poetry.  He then moves on to his time teaching in New York, and a series of entries featuring “Billy Bodega” as an alter ego for Mathews himself are troubling, touching, and somewhat tricksy in their confessional tone.  Nevertheless, they kind of make me want to curl up in a ball, too.

I have a new theory that January and February are the months in which a person changes the most, precisely because they are the months when little is happening in day-to-day life.  I may have made a mistake, reading these books in January.  I’m loving them both but didn’t expect such a strong reaction to them.  Here’s hoping for plenty of sunshine this week.

Our 22nd Century Mental Block

January 17, 2013 § 3 Comments

Maybe it’s all the descriptions of science fiction, especially of utopian or dystopian inclination, that I’ve been reading at work lately.  Or maybe it’s the turn of another year to another futuristic number (2013, for pete’s sake!).  Whatever the cause, it’s just occurred to me recently to wonder:

Why are we not talking about the 22nd century the way that people from the fin de siecle forward (and even before) have talked about, prepared for, fetishized, longed for our 21st century?  Why have we never done so?  (I mean “we” in the broadest sense: humans, though of course I filter primarily through my Western lenses. I think it applies broadly.)

Wondering that has led me to hypothesize.  My hypothesis is that we aren’t thinking about, writing about, and planning for the 22nd century to the same extent that we did for the 21st because, deep down, on a kind of Jungian global subconscious level, we don’t think we’re going to make it that far, as a species.  Partly this is a matter of the narratives of progress and improvement and various ideologies of purity (racial, governmental, sexual, etc.) that drove so much utopian and dystopian thinking in the past 150 or so years having been dismantled and disproven.  And partly I think that numerology does have something to do with it: those 2000s always seemed so sexy as numbers.

But really, aren’t we also at a time in world history that seems deeply short-sighted, deeply unable to look more than a generation ahead?  The space program is an underfunded shell.  We’re still concerned about the price of gas.  We’re more bogged down in sectarian and political conflict than ever.  The ice is melting. Emblematic of all of this is the tired, tired gag of wondering why we don’t have the flying cars we were promised by 1999, or 2001, or 2010, or whatever date.  The tiredness is what’s emblematic: we’ve been making this joke for decades because our reality has outstripped our dreams.  We don’t believe anymore.

I’m fascinated by this idea that we’ve reached a kind of collective block on visions of the future (though of course it’s not complete, just highly noticeable).  It also seems really terrifying.  Every fictional depiction of the far future that I can think of is post-apocalyptic, and many imply that that apocalypse takes place in this century or the next.

Doesn’t it seem so much harder to look 87 years into the future and imagine anything encouraging?  Doesn’t the 22nd century seem like an impossible dream?  Wouldn’t a utopian thinker from Brazil, or China, or wherever — someone with a convincing vision that’s not utterly bleak — be a godsend?

Or am I just out of touch with all of the folks who are busy building the 22nd century’s castles in the sky?  Are these conversations taking place, convincingly?

Varieties of Weirdness in the American Short Story

January 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

Finished: Misfortune, by Wesley Stace; What He’s Poised to Do, by Ben Greenman.

Reading next: The Fifty-Year Sword, by Mark Z. Danielewski.

An odd connection to make, but Ben Greenman’s book of short stories reminded me of something that Stephen King wrote about one of his own stories, “The Moving Finger,” about a very long finger coming out of a toilet.  King writes to the effect (I don’t have the text directly to hand) that short stories are the form in which you’re still allowed, occasionally, to let weirdness happen with no logic or explanation, and that it’s one of his favorite things about writing stories as opposed to novels.

The comment’s always stuck with me, and I’ve come to think that short stories are an inherently weird form.  They are, by their nature, too short to explain everything.  In their own ways, short story masterpieces by Raymond Carver or James Joyce are as full of unexplained or inexplicable weirdness as “The Moving Finger,” just of a different kind: weirdness of character, of expression, of incident that would take far too many words to attempt to decipher completely.

I might suggest that this inherent condition of the short story has, perhaps contrary to expectations, been exacerbated in U.S. fiction by MFA writing programs in which everyone’s struggling to churn out stories, and looking for new angles to take.  Greenman is very skilled, and I enjoyed the book.  But some of the stories here are redolent of workshop and exercise.

The most obviously weird decisions in Greenman’s book are the settings of his stories “Seventeen Different Ways to Get a Load of That” and “The Govindan Ananthanarayanan Academy for Moral and Ethical Practice and the Treatment of Sadness Resulting from the Misapplication of the Above.” Each story in the book is introduced with a “postmark,” in keeping with the theme of old-fashioned paper correspondence that runs through each story.  The postmark for “Seventeen Different Ways” is “Lunar City, 1989.”  It’s set on a moon colony, in the year 1989.  “Govindan…” is from “Australindia, 1921.”  It is set in a “former boomerang factory… on the border between India and Australia.”

But there’s other oddity that’s not so overt.  The first and last stories, each a single four-page paragraph (EXERCISE: write a story in one sentence/paragraph/quotation), exhibit Carver-style weirdness: characters left unnamed for stylistic and thematic effect, acting like strangers to themselves.  And another story with a truly excessively long title, “Country Life Is the Only Life Worth Living, Country Love Is the Only Love Worth Giving,” is narrated by a hilariously horny monster, with questions abounding from his every objectionable statement.  And yet it’s perhaps my favorite story in the book: you can get away with this over eight pages, with nothing but questions and laughter.  It’s the nature of the form.

Where Am I?

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