The Vertigos in Vertigo

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).

Kim Novak in Vertigo; note the spiral. Also resembles the profile in Pisanello's fresco inspected by Sebald in Verona.

Kim Novak in Vertigo; note the spiral. Also resembles the profile in Pisanello’s fresco inspected by Sebald in Verona.

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.

Melville Patches His Jacket

August 6, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: White-Jacket, by Herman Melville.

It’s tough to read White-Jacket on its own terms, and not as The Book Before Moby-Dick.  Too much fun, for instance, to see how Melville’s approach to designing his narrative and combining his mini-essays, reminiscences, fictional events, and factual chapters into a cohesive whole changed from this book to his masterpiece.

Moby-Dick is, obviously, much more successful at this, but the earlier book is different in interesting ways.  W-J does not begin with a compelling narrative like the adventures of Ishmael and Queequeg, propelling the reader into the more various and philosophical chapters of the book’s middle; instead, it begins with a mildly humorous description of the eponymous white jacket, made of patches and scraps of fabric.  To the reader accustomed to Melville, the chapter and the device of the jacket are irresistible as a metafiction, a metaphor for the entire work, for his style in general: the patchwork, uncanny (“white as a shroud”), self-made, absorbent jacket is a fine symbol of Melville’s work.  Besides which, that whiteness: already creeping into (or back into, if such a coat actually existed) Melville’s mind, the pariah, mysterious whiteness.

(Also, as in M-D, the beginning of the narrative is not actually the beginning of the book.  Here, there’s a preface (in the English edition) or note (in the American) in which Melville states that he’s used his own “man-of-war experiences and observations” in the book.  Unlike the extravagant legend-building in the paratextual opening of M-D, here there’s an avowal of basis in fact and truth, in real life.  Melville still not over the sting of Mardi‘s dismissal, not yet ready to write another giant piece of fiction.)

After this opening, W-J slips into the kind of observations of nautical life loosely joined to a fictional framework which occupy much of M-D‘s middle — but without doing much of the work of helping us identify with the narrator or the other characters on the ship.  The observations are engaging enough, but the reader is left with a lot of unanswered, nagging questions about the narrator, and about how to read the book (interestingly, the preface in the English edition encourages the reader to read the book as fact-based fiction, while the American-edition note makes it seem a work of biography).

And yet the voice into which Melville is growing — has grown, it seems, by this point in his career — compels.  There’s a great section from chapters 16 to 19, including a furious chapter, full of complex, fascinating rhetoric,  about the injustice of war and worthless preparations for war; an ironic, contrapuntal chapter about the desperate attempts to save anyone fallen overboard on a man-of-war; a smooth segue into a beautiful statement of the man-of-war “full as a Nut,” a kind of floating city or world; and a gorgeous chapter, containing a premonition of the Icarus theme in M-D and a paean to sailors, who “expatriate ourselves to nationalize with the universe.”

Melville said he wrote Redburn and White-Jacket for the money, plain and simple; it’s a gross simplification, of course, because the man was full of interesting thoughts and interesting words, and got himself invested in whatever he was working on.  And yet (even a fraction of the way in, as I am into W-J) the difference is plainly there, between these works and M-D, or even between these and Mardi or Pierre.  To my own surprise, I find the difference is not so much one of sincerity, or deeper thinking, or even of finding a theme worthy of his best work.  No: the difference is one of artifice.  Melville was at his most rigorously artificial, his most fantastical and fictional, when he cared most, when he felt he was playing for artistic and aesthetic keeps.  For Melville, plain speaking could only lead to superficial understanding.

Decadent Surreality

March 22, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Against Nature, by J.-K. Huysmans.

This is regarded as the key text of the Decadent movement which is best known by the works of Oscar Wilde.  It is quite easily the most foppish book I’ve ever read: Literature Dandified.  So far, at least, it is quite persistent in its celebration of “taste,” its abhorrence of the mob, and its ugly streak of misogyny.

There are manifestos strewn here and there throughout the first four chapters, but the root of them all seems to be this, from chapter two:

The main thing is to know how to set about it, to be able to concentrate your attention on a single detail, to forget yourself sufficiently to bring about the desired hallucination and so substitute the vision of a reality for the reality itself.

As a matter of fact, artifice was considered by Des Esseintes to be the distinctive mark of human genius.

Nature, he used to say, has had her day; she has finally and utterly exhausted the patience of sensitive observers by the revolting uniformity of her landscapes and skyscapes….

So our “hero,” Des Esseintes, decides to isolate himself in a villa on a hill outside of Paris.  He spends his time alone, keeping vampire hours, contemplating the furnishings he’s chosen, his art collection, his book collection (and his walls are bound like books, in “orange morocco”), his perverse fancies and desires.  It’s amazing how much it reminds me of surrealism, and both Huysmans and Des Esseintes seem to be longing for just such a movement.

For instance, chapter four is devoted to Des Esseintes’ attempt to bring out “the silvery glints running across the weft of the wool” of an Oriental rug, by placing on it a “huge tortoise.”  However, the brown of the shell does not have the effect he anticipated — so he has it gilt.  Even this gilt does not prove to be enough, however, so he has a design of precious stones set onto the shell, simulating a Japanese drawing of flowers.  Leading to the image of an aesthetic turtle lumbering across a gorgeous rug.  (The turtle dies, of course: “it had not been able to bear the dazzling luxury imposed upon it.”)

This incident reminds me of nothing so much as Raymond Roussel: there are similar set pieces in Impressions of Africa.  It also reminds me of some of the OuLiPo writers, Harry Mathews especially, and Perec.  It’s also an extended example of the dominant metaphoric motif in the book: things from nature — insects, plants, weather — are compared to items in Des Esseintes’ artificial world, and, by the alchemy of metaphor, somehow transformed into them.

I love this stuff: so far, Against Nature is mostly description, metaphor, incident for the sake of striking image, and pure belletristic language.  There have been chapters devoted to an alternate history of Latin literature and linguistics, the aforementioned turtle chapter, and an ekphrastic chapter on two artworks by Gustave Moreau featuring Salome.

However, it is amazing how the book disregards both any concern about money and any feeling for people — in general, really, but especially those without taste, which really seems to be everyone but Des Esseintes.  There seems to be a pull back towards feudalism and a push forward towards fascism in the work.  Acting on the desire to be left alone, the hermetic, Decadent ideal, leads to those who would get into everyone’s business running the world.

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