February 24, 2013 § Leave a comment
Just finished: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf.
Reading next: Tales of the Unexpected, by Roald Dahl.
Some alternate titles that popped into my head while reading To the Lighthouse:
Ulysses Takes a Holiday.
Art Is Hard.
The Decline and Fall of the British Empire.
None quite right to summarize the entire book, though. It’s a demonstrably great work of literature; a work great enough to title its tour de force middle section covering the years of World War I “Time Passes,” the ultimate boring title. As it happens, time passing is one of the main areas of inquiry for Woolf, one of the central mysteries of life as a human.
“Time Passes” is beautiful, full of gorgeous allusion and lyricism, in fifteen or so artful pages documenting the death and misery of the Ramsay family as World War I approaches and ends, and the decay in their vacation home, which sits abandoned for ten years. Nature’s operations on the island form a kind of expressionist depiction of the war. Deaths occur in subordinate clauses, in passing.
This short section comes between two much longer sections which each document less than a day each, slowing time to a crawl, skipping from one mind’s workings to another, as not much of anything happens. As incredible as “Time Passes” is, it’s much easier for me to understand how it was written, and to see myself writing something similar to it, than to understand how Virginia Woolf could possibly have had the patience to write out the excruciating details of interpersonal minutiae which, to be honest and more than a little ashamed, drive me crazy about so much of the English high modernists. I simply cannot imagine myself sitting down and facing the blank page day after day and continuing to write about nothing happening, continuing to parse every single motion and interaction for its sexual, socioeconomic, political, and/or generational significance. To build up a collage of impressions of the eminent Victorians, the Ramsays, and the doubtful artist, Lily Briscoe, from symbols, and flights of mental fancy, and memory and dream, as time stands still for pages on end. It would drive me to despair.
As an example, there are the long, comma-larded sentences like this:
Mrs Ramsay, who had been sitting loosely, folding her son in her arm, braced herself, and, half turning, seemed to raise herself with an effort, and at once to pour erect into the air a rain of energy, a column of spray, looking at the same time animated and alive as if all her energies were being fused into force, burning and illuminating (quietly though she sat, taking up her stocking again), and into this delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself, like a beak of brass, barren and bare.
Sentences like this provoke in me equal parts exasperation and awe, a mixture that seems unique in my experience to reading modernists such as Woolf, Forster, and Beckett, though oddly hardly ever Joyce (with whom I hardly ever feel exasperated — well, maybe the “Oxen of the Sun” section of Ulysses). The transition into and out of “Time Passes,” with its wonderful and elegiac movement, lyricism, is so beautiful and poignant as to justify the investment in such sentences, the investment in the fine web of allusion and symbol that Woolf creates. The way in which time passes only very slowly in the rest of the book is precisely the point: the capturing in amber of the days in which art is created, insights discovered, people remain alive, learning how to live and understand each other.
February 3, 2013 § Leave a comment
Just finished: Vertigo; 20 Lines a Day.
Reading next: The Encantadas, by Herman Melville.
There are physical and metaphysical kinds of vertigo in Vertigo. Sebald also incorporates the themes of the better-known text entitled Vertigo, the Hitchcock film, into his text. He makes his meditative, memoiristic work a kind of thriller, too. A tongue-in-cheek reference to this aspect of the work occurs when he says to the manager of the hotel he stays at in Limone that he’s writing what may be “a crime story” that “revolved around a series of unsolved murders and the reappearance of a person who had long been missing.” And indeed, the serial murders perpetrated by the “Organizzazione Ludwig” do appear as a subplot in the work.
A motif of vertiginous seasickness appears throughout, as does vertigo inspired by standing at the edge of high places; people are often standing at the edge of a cliff, abyss, or void, and trips in a boat or ship also appear throughout the text (sometimes in dreams or paintings). These two kinds of vertigo inspired by physical conditions both refer to one of Sebald’s touchstones, Kafka’s story “The Hunter Gracchus.” The hunter falls to his doom from a high cliff in the forest after chasing a chamois; he then sails the seas in a state of living death.
The more metaphysical vertigo, the feeling of standing at the edge of the cliff of life, of existence itself, afflicts Sebald and others in the book. Marie-Henri Beyle (aka Stendhal) experiences “a vertiginous sense of confusion” at “The difference between the images of the battle which he had in his head and what he now saw before him as evidence that the battle had in fact taken place.” Earlier, Sebald tells us that “Beyle’s advice is not to purchase engravings of fine views and prospects seen on one’s travels, since before very long they will displace our memories completely, indeed one might say destroy them.” In Sebald’s telling of tales, it is difficult to untangle art from reality, especially given the presence of photographs as “evidence.” Art, in memory, can take the place of reality, as lines from “The Hunter Gracchus” infiltrate the apparent reality of Sebald’s travelogue. In Vertigo the film, art also infiltrates reality and memory, as in the portrait that Madeleine adores (of Madeleine’s ancestor, whom she resembles — and of course, Sebald’s narrator is also gazing obsessively at art throughout his Vertigo) and the reenactment of her suicide (both in staged artifice and then in accidental reality).
When else does Vertigo strike? It hits Sebald when he wanders the streets of Vienna, following (as Jimmy Stewart’s detective, Scottie, follows) a series of ghostly figures from his past; people long missing, either from the world or from his memory. It recurs when he returns to his hotel after his epic, compulsive walks, and sees that his shoes are in tatters. An association occurs to another episode of vertigo earlier that day, hearing children singing Christian songs in a Jewish community center. A series of murders. Missing persons.
Later, twin boys who look just like young Kafka on a bus provoke another bout of vertigo, and the doppelganger theme so important in both Vertigos is introduced: the uncanny return of the dead, and/or the remaking of the living in the image of the dead. (Sebald’s imagining of Kafka himself will also encounter twins and doppelgangers in the third section of the book.)
Finally, there are a number of references to vertigo symptoms from contact with others, from an encounter with the reality of other people. Kafka, Sebald writes, feels “the terrors of love” to be “foremost among all the terrors of the earth.” Stendhal suffers from “giddiness… roaring in his ears… shaking” due to his syphilis and the attempts to treat it. (He also idealizes past lovers, and returns to woo his Beatrice, who he calls “Lady Simonetta,” eleven years after first conceiving his love for her.) Sebald’s vision goes blurry when lightly touched by women he barely knows: a landlady, an optometrist.
The book is structured around returns and reenactments of the past, and the final section of the book “Il ritorno in patria,” acts something like the final act of the film Vertigo, as Sebald returns to his childhood villages and encounters as much of his life there as remains, just as Scottie convinces Judy/Madeleine to reenact the scene of the earlier, staged suicide. And here, too, a “real” death, that of Schlag the hunter, is narrated, after (through chronologically earlier, in Sebald’s telling, creating a complex labyrinth of memory) the earlier “staged” deaths of the hunter Gracchus in Kafka’s stories, in the mannequin in the attic, dressed as a gray hunter, that has been haunting Sebald’s dreams for decades.