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.

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