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.
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…
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.