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.

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.

Dream Hunting

January 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic.

Reading next: The Jade Cabinet, by Rikki Ducornet.

Pavic (there should really be an accent on that final c, but I can’t seem to find it among the symbols) died in December, spurring me to finally get around to reading this, his first book.  I loved Landscape Painted with Tea, a novel inspired by crossword puzzles, able to be read “Across” or “Down.” He’s like the Serbian love-child of Borges and Kafka.

I’m afraid I haven’t loved Dictionary of the Khazars as much, though it certainly has interesting elements (maybe a few too many, actually).  As was the case with Landscape, reading it is both an education and an entertainment: I knew nothing about the existence of a people known as the Khazars before I started reading this, and thought them an invention of the author, when they really are a historical fact, dominant in Eastern Europe from the 7th to 10th centuries (just as I never knew of the existence of the monasteries of Mount Athos before reading Landscape).  Of course, Pavic is using both groups — and many other things we never get taught in school in the U.S. — as devices for his literary concerns, furiously embellishing and inventing.  But it gets you peeking into encyclopedias, poking around the Internet, and you find, not only that you don’t know much about much, but  that you don’t know as much as you think you do about what’s made up and what’s not.

The dream hunters are an invention, but what an invention!  In their entry in the Dictionary, they are introduced like so: “A sect of Khazar priests whose protectress was Princess Ateh.  They could read other people’s dreams, live and make themselves at home in them, and through the dreams hunt the game that was their prey — a human, an object, or an animal.”  This thread of the “plot” woven through the novel’s entries — especially the interconnected tales of Avram Brankovich, Yusuf Masudi, and Samuel Cohen — is what I’ve enjoyed most about the book.  The core of the dream hunters’ essential mission is explained to Masudi by an old mystic:

“The goal of dream hunters is to understand that every awakening is just one step in the many releases from dreaming.  He who understands that his day is merely another person’s night, that his two eyes are another person’s one, will search for the real day, which enables true awakening from one’s own reality, just as one awakens from a dream, and this leads to a condition where man is even more wakeful than when conscious.  Then he will finally see that he has one eye as opposed to those with two, and is blind compared with those who are awake….”

This is not only some real pre-Matrix metaphysically deep shit, it also seems to be a core tenet of the (limited amount of) Eastern European literature I’ve read, as practiced by Kafka, Bruno Schulz, and their ilk.  The importance of being “even more wakeful than when conscious” — of paying attention to dreams as something which can awaken us to a truer reality than our mundane lives — and of realizing that there are layers of meaning, connection, and “reality” among the many forms of life and consciousness: I do not know why, but these seem to be central to the concerns of the Eastern European fabulists.

Pavic puts his own spin on these ideas, by expanding them into the idea that the true, impossible goal is the reconstruction from “all human dreams” of Adam Ruhani (also called Adam Cadmon in the Jewish portion of the dictionary — both real concepts in Islam and Judaism, respectively, though extensively embellished here).  Adam Ruhani “thought the way we dream,” before his fall.  The dream hunters try to put Ruhani back together, finding and tracking key elements shared in people’s dreams.  Awesome idea.

The Top Ten Goofs of Vineland

August 8, 2008 § 1 Comment

Just finished: Vineland.

In case my scintillating analysis hasn’t convinced you to read (or re-read) Vineland, I’m listing below my ten favorite jokes, digressions, fables, and goofs (the majority of the book, really). Print it out, take it with you to the library, enjoy in air-conditioned splendor. (Plus, if you don’t check it out, the Feds can’t track you and your dangerously socialist borrowing habits!)

In paginated order:

-The first chapter is almost completely detachable, a zany, slapstick, perfect little mini-narrative of lumberjack-themed gay bars, Valley girls, DEA agents, transfenestration, and, of course, the Tube. Read it. Pretend it’s a short story.

-The Marquis de Sod commercial, p. 46-47. Please tell me a California landscaping company has co-opted this schtick by now.

-Takeshi’s adventures at Wawazume Life and Non-Life, p. 142-48. The inevitable Godzilla subplot.

-Sister Rochelle’s alternate version of the Garden of Eden, p. 166. Pretty close to the heart of the book’s sex stuff.

-The crazy preacher on p. 213 who interrupts the weather crew. This whole chapter about the People’s Republic of Rock and Roll is pretty great, actually.

-Weed’s adventures with Dr. Larry Elasmo, p. 225-229. Pynchon does Kafka!

-The Federal Emergency Evacuation Route, p. 248-49. Believable and paranoid.

-Brock on the airplane, p. 277. What the little girl sitting next to him shouts made me laugh harder than anything else in the book, but it’s also more than a throwaway. Great paragraph.

-The Noir Center, p. 326. Bubble Indemnity! (The whole interaction of Prairie and Che is great, actually, and I’m deeply impressed by how Pynchon uses Brent Musberger to make maybe his best point about how TV’s affected us: our desire to “be the one to frame,” to comment on our world and our lives rather than to act, to move.)

-The running gag of biopics starring wildly unusual actors, culminating on p. 370-71. This is a movie that must get made. (Just after this there’s a movie about the ’83-84 NBA playoffs with the Lakers as heroes, the Celtics as villains, but let me remind you that Pynchon’s always commenting on how the Tube distorts events, so I don’t think he’s necessarily a Lakers fan. Please, God, let it not be so.)

Some of the songs are funny, too, and there’s a passage in the last paragraph which might (it’s a very qualified might, even) explain the cartoonish sections of the book (more metafiction, if you choose to read it that way).

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