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.

Melancholia

January 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

Finished: The Fifty Year Sword, by Mark Z. Danielewski.

Reading now: 20 Lines a Day, by Harry Mathews; Vertigo, by W. G. Sebald.

I find myself with shockingly little to say about T50YS.  Lovely, and I enjoyed it, but I found it rather more gimmicky and full of design-for-design’s-sake than the two “novels.”  I look forward to another book-length work from Danielewski.  (All the same, though, I’m still giddy that my parents got me the signed limited edition that comes in the five-latched box.  Nice to have a pretty, menacing object on the shelves.)

Mostly, I’m full of *FEELINGS* thanks to Sebald and Mathews.  Sebald I expected this from.  The possibility of bawling and/or hysterically laugh-sobbing comes with every page, and the second section of Vertigo, “All’estero,” is filling me with equal parts the quintessentially Sebaldian sense of uncanny melancholy, delighted wonder, and the weird pressure you get behind your eyeballs from too much emotion trying to spill out.  Here, he’s moved from Freud’s Vienna to Mann’s Venice to Pisanello’s Verona, where he encounters incredibly bad omens.  A pizzeria with the proprietors listed as “Cadavero Carlo e Patierno Vittorio.”  Cadavero?!

The man’s words seem to make me a mess for reasons as yet unclear.

Mathews, on the other hand, I also dearly love, but I didn’t expect such emotional investment in a book of writing exercises and journal entries, ostensibly written as starters to heavier labor of working on his novel-in-progress in the early 1980s.  The book opens with a few very lovely and very sad entries, from St. Bart’s of all places, preoccupied with the recent death of Georges Perec.  One, in which the wind is treated as a kind of didactic metaphor, or literal “plot” device, or neither, or both, is a kind of masterpiece of very short memoir or prose poetry.  He then moves on to his time teaching in New York, and a series of entries featuring “Billy Bodega” as an alter ego for Mathews himself are troubling, touching, and somewhat tricksy in their confessional tone.  Nevertheless, they kind of make me want to curl up in a ball, too.

I have a new theory that January and February are the months in which a person changes the most, precisely because they are the months when little is happening in day-to-day life.  I may have made a mistake, reading these books in January.  I’m loving them both but didn’t expect such a strong reaction to them.  Here’s hoping for plenty of sunshine this week.

Shame and Slavery: Tarantino, Lincoln, and Shelby Foote

December 31, 2012 § 2 Comments

Now reading: The Civil War: A Narrative, by Shelby Foote; Across the Land and the Water, by W. G. Sebald.

It’s the Emancipation Proclamation’s sesquicentennial tomorrow.  Big deal, y’all.  We’re in the midst of the every-fifty-years retrospectives of our Civil War, too.  And I’m in the midst of a confluence of culture concerned with these events: in addition to my beginning of Shelby Foote’s massive narrative history (which I’m reading intermittently, between other books, probably all of next year and then some), the past week has featured viewings of Django Unchained and Lincoln.  I can’t imagine three more different treatments of slavery and its end.  To my surprise, I’m most bothered by Foote’s history (though, of course, I’m very early in this 2000-plus-page project), though all of them are problematic in their own ways.

(Inescapable SPOILERS ahead, I’m afraid.)

Django is built around a hyperbolic version of slavery — a Tarantino “movie” version of slavery — featuring a capital-E Evil Slave Master whose passion in life is pitting slaves against each other in fights to the death.  This never happened, pretty obviously, or if it did, there’s no trace of it left to history.  But Tarantino’s stated mission in this movie is to “break that history-under-glass aspect” of slavery in other historical films: he wants it be visceral, and in 2012 you have to be pretty damn brutal to get popcorn-moviegoers to pay attention.  (Although, let’s be real, it’s not like Q has been a model of restraint in other movies.  You know what you’re getting if you go to his movies, including movies about slavery.)  The clever point here is that it could have happened: it would only take one decadent, imbalanced plantation trust-fund kid, after all.

The movie has a number of queasy-making scenes, and the reasons why they were queasy-making for me in a way that nothing was in Inglourious Basterds are interesting.  White American audiences are never comfortable with equivalencies between Nazis and anyone, but especially between Nazi Germany and what we still weirdly call “the institution of slavery.”  We tend, I think, to be acutely sensitive to “exaggerations” of the horrors of slavery.  We are also terribly uncomfortable with even discussing the subject, and I don’t think Django is going to do much to change that: it’s a satisfying cartoon revenge fantasy and that’s that.  It’s especially queasy-making, that Tarantino, Q, my fellow white American, chose to end his movie by encouraging us to heap scorn upon, and cheer the murder of, a loyal house slave.  But it’s of a piece with the rest of the film: it’s motivation is completely justified rage, a desire for exorcism, not white guilt.

And but so newsflash: for all the lazily scornful talk of “white guilt,” white Americans are very bad at feeling guilty and being ashamed, mostly because we remain mostly unwilling to atone for our shames.  We are also acutely uncomfortable with any notion of our history that does not follow lovely inevitable parallel moral, economic, and political slopes to paradise.  We just assume we’re going to win and that if we’re doing so, we’re doing so the right way.  (See also Hollywood, 1900-present; utter lack of national outcry about torture, 2001-present.)  I think that, by and large, the white citizens of this country have managed to convince themselves that the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of millions of African people, the marginalization of those peoples for a hundred years thereafter, and the silencing and abuse of women throughout our history, were inevitable “lessons learned” on our path to freedom.  In other words, no cause for shame.

The best thing about Lincoln — and however much it could be seen as a “history-under-glass” movie in Tarantino’s view, it affected me far more deeply than Django — might be how it makes clear that nothing about abolishing slavery was inevitable or easy.  It was messy and sordid and very nearly did not happen, even with no Confederate states represented in the government.  We, as a nation, were fighting this idea tooth-and-claw, 150 years ago, in both the Union and the Confederacy.  We were still fighting the concept of full equality less than fifty years ago.

It is worth remembering that slavery ended seven or eight generations ago.  That means that there are elderly people alive today whose grandparents or great-grandparents could have told them about their lives as slaves.

Imagine how they might feel watching a Civil War reenactment.  Imagine how they might feel seeing a Confederate flag above a state capitol.  Imagine how they might feel about those men dressing up as Confederate soldiers, fighting to keep millions of black people enslaved.  For that matter, I don’t need to imagine it.  I know how I feel.

What would you call a German reenactor of World War II battles? I think you’d call him a neo-Nazi.  You would not find him an eccentric history buff.

If you live in the South, you hear plenty about how lovely those old plantations are.  I do commend Tarantino for showing just how blood-soaked those white plantation walls were, and for blowing the damned building up at the end.  It’s refreshing.

If you live in the South, you also still hear a lot of comments along these lines:

I am a Mississippian.  Though the veterans I knew are all dead now, down to the final home guard drummer boy of my childhood, the remembrance of them is still with me.  However, being nearly as far removed from them in time as most of them were removed from combat when they died, I hope I have recovered the respect they had for their opponents until Reconstruction lessened and finally killed it.  Biased is the last thing I would be; I yield to no one in my admiration for heroism and ability, no matter which side of the line a man was born or fought on when the war broke out, fourscore and seventeen years ago.  If pride in the resistance my forebears made against the odds has leaned me to any degree in their direction, I hope it will be seen to amount to no more, in the end, than the average American’s normal sympathy for the underdog in a fight.

That’s Shelby Foote, in the “Bibliographical Note” to the first volume of his Civil War history, published in 1958.  That’s shocking, I think.  That should be far more shocking than blood-soaked Django, than the number of times the n-word is uttered in either that film or Lincoln.  “Sympathy for the underdog in a fight”: that has been the argument for Confederate pride for 150 years, now.  Sorry: underdogs are only sympathetic if they’re fighting the bad guys.  If you’re defending your right to keep people as property, and your economy is based on concentration camps, you’re not worthy of sympathy.  You’re worthy of shame.

Shame.  This is shameful.  And we’ve done our best to forget about it, these past 150 years, and especially these past four years, with talk of “post-racial” America.  The desire to “turn the page and move forward,” our most prevalent national mixed metaphor, is just another way of saying you’d like to bury history and leave it buried.  Reading Sebald is an antidote to that: the ways in which he reveals that the merest scratch beneath the surface of his life shows all the ways in which historical atrocity affect all of our lives.

Sebald’s “Winter Poem”

December 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Finished: Hard Times.

Now reading: Misfortune, by Wesley Stace; Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001, by W. G. Sebald.

I finished Hard Times deeply sad to see it go.  In a lot of ways, it’s the book that best displays the genius of Dickens, by being non-Dickensian: the salient features are there, but in their compressed state it’s hardly the same thing at all.  I was most sad that there wasn’t more of Sleary’s Circus, precisely the kind of secondary feature that Dickens would’ve explored in more depth and delight if this were a longer novel in monthly parts, as he did the Crummles troupe in Nicholas Nickleby, or the entertainers in The Old Curiosity Shop.  

Because it was so short, I’m reading the Victorian pastiche of Wesley Stace’s Misfortune, which is off to a fine start.  We have already had a preternaturally gifted, homeless balladeer named Pharaoh; a foundling; and a haunted “Gothick” manse called Love Hall (inhabited by the Loveall, no s in the plural, thank you very much).  Oh, and there’s a governess-turned-librarian named Anonyma, who is building a fine collection of bibliographical literature in Love Hall’s Octagonal Library.  (This private-librarian-to-the-rich-and-famous gig happens to be my partner’s dream career path for me.)  She’s already explained the making of parchment and the process of manuscript illumination to her young charges much more accurately than you normally see in contemporary novels.  This makes me happy.

Finally, I’m reading Sebald’s poems (translated by Iain Galbraith), which are ambiguous, melancholy, and beautiful.  The short poem below is not as simple as it seems, not as comforting; nothing ever is with Sebald.  He had in mind, I think, Herod’s massacre of innocents, and those Jewish children hidden in Flanders and elsewhere to avoid a much later massacre.  Nevertheless, as we deal with our own massacre of innocents here in the U.S., this poem did present itself as a worthy site for meditation, and a balm.

Winter Poem

The valley resounds
With the sound of the stars
With the vast stillness
Over snow and forest.

The cows are in their byre.
God is in his heaven.
Child Jesus in Flanders.
Believe and be saved.
The Three Wise Men
Are walking the earth.

Mines of Nonfiction, Veins of Fiction

April 22, 2012 § 3 Comments

Finished a while ago: The Emigrants, by W.G. Sebald, and The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi (translated by Raymond Rosenthal).

Reading now: Selected Writings, by Lady Gregory.

Reading next: My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, by Mark Leyner.

Wish I’d had the time to write about Levi via Sebald before now, when those thoughts have fossilized.  But the serendipity of having Levi on my shelf to read right after Sebald was so nice that I wanted to record the delight, however briefly.

Both of these books are about the central trauma of the twentieth century, the Holocaust — or more accurately, about the complicated ramifications of that trauma, ramifications which we are still living with, still trying our best to ignore.  (I’ve been reading a bit about Palestine lately.)  There is Adorno’s famous quote, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”; no artists have agreed (more or less by definition, else they would not be artists), and I don’t even know if Adorno’s beef was with prettification or adornment (pun intended) of bare fact, or untruth, or entertainment imperatives, or appropriation of survivors’ and perpetrators’ experiences, or if he meant the word “barbaric” more literally as a comment on Civilization.

Sebald and Levi each embed fiction in their nonfiction.  In “Nickel,” one of the more memorable sections of Levi’s memoir, he recounts his attempts as a chemist to extract and enrich the small percentage of nickel found in the rock extracted from an Italian mine.  During his time in these “asbestos-filled solitudes,” he feels the desire to write fiction for the first time since childhood, and composes two fascinating tales of lead and mercury, alchemical fables of a particularly poetic, gorgeous sort.  He includes both in the middle of his memoir, and introduces them as follows:

They have had a troubled fate, almost as troubled as my own: they have suffered bombings and escapes, I had given them up for lost, and I found them recently while going through papers forgotten for decades.  I did not want to abandon them: the reader will find them in the succeeding pages, inserted, like a prisoner’s dream of escape, between these tales of militant chemistry.

“I did not want to abandon them”: Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, had thought his fictional creations lost in the ravages of the war and its aftermath, but rediscovers them and inserts them “like a prisoner’s dream of escape” in his memoir.  Whether this loss and rediscovery is literal or metaphorical is an interesting question — did Levi really not know they were among his papers, or not know how to use them, in his years of working through his wartime experience?  Are these tales even to be understood as actual historical documents — are they fictional fictions (not truly written by Levi at the time, but fictions created later to reflect on his experience at this time, with a “nonfictional” frame of having been discovered later) or nonfictional fictions (actual historical documents rediscovered by Levi)? The kind of question that must be answered by resort to archival research.

Levi recollects the violence done to the land by the mining process, and admits that he “did not realize” that the end result of his work, were he successful, would have been to support the war effort of the Germans and Italians who would attempt to murder him and all his people.  And yet there are these tales “like a prisoner’s dream of escape”: already he felt a prisoner in his country, in his self, dreaming of islands and magical transformations.

Nickel mine in Canada.

It strikes me that, in creating The Emigrants, Sebald the writer acts somewhat like the reverse of Levi the chemist: he creates a mine of sorts, threading his nonfiction through with veins of fictional ore.  He creates a whole, an act of healing.  The fiction enriches reality, and is not to be so easily extracted, or at all.  It is to be understood as part and parcel of its context: history, consciousness, life.

Gone to Ithaca with the Butterfly Man

April 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

Finished: The Emigrants, by W. G. Sebald.

Reading next: The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi.

The Emigrants is perfect, and as such it is hard to talk about, because it doesn’t need any help in making itself understood.  But it’s also irresistible to talk about it, because it is so beautiful, and there are so many avenues of inquiry to pursue.  There’s its profound and necessary engagement with the legacy of the Holocaust in Germany, and in the collective memory of the German people; there are its style and structure, the very long paragraphs and sentences which do not really seem long, but only unhurried, patient, quiet, melancholy, and the enigmatic, fragmentary epigrams and photographs that are Sebald’s trademark; there are the dreams, my God! the dreams, and the dazzling array of characters that flit into and back out of the narrative, and the globe-trotting settings that Sebald sketches so well; there is, in the background always, an exploration of nature and the environment, and its manipulation and abuse by humans, and its resilience and its danger, that bears some relationship to Werner Herzog’s films (though Sebald’s gentler, and less crazed about nature being murderous).

Most of all, for me, there are the intertwined themes of memory, time, truth, and fiction.  And let me start, in this post, by just enjoying one of the motifs that draw these things together so beautifully.  I speak of the “butterfly man,” Vladimir Nabokov.

Nabokov appears, in one way or another, in each of the four stories here.  In the first, a slide of the subject, Henry Selwyn, resembles “a photograph of Nabokov in the mountains above Gstaad that I had clipped from a Swiss magazine a few days before.”  Sebald then inserts the photo of Nabokov (which you can see in this fine blog post on Sebald and Nabokov), holding his butterfly net in his dowdy shorts.  Speak, Memory is certainly the work most directly referenced here, with its emphasis on the fictional motifs which Nabokov delighted in finding in his own life story, its use of photographs to bring memory back to life.

But if anything, Sebald out-tricks the old trickster himself.  In the second story, Speak, Memory itself appears, being read by Lucy Landau when she first meets Sebald’s teacher Paul Bereyter, who is resting and trying to come to grips with his “condition” of claustrophobia and possible mental illness.  This seems a remarkable coincidence, but not impossible; it is only the fact of its being the second mention of Nabokov that tips the reader off that something beyond fact is going beyond here.

In the third story, “Ambros Adelwarth,” Nabokov himself becomes a presence in the book, an irruption of the fictional in the form of a real person.  This one story, incidentally, is an epic in its own right, and one of the most memorable reading experiences of my life, in a scant 80 pages (including photographs).  The words epic and Nabokovian become unavoidable and inseparable after the following passage:

In the mirror of the hall stand he had stuck a visiting card with a message for me, and I have carried it with me ever since.  Have gone to Ithaca.  Yours ever — Ambrose.  It was a while before I understood what he meant by Ithaca….The sanatorium, which was run by a Professor Fahnstock, was in grounds that looked like a park.  I still remember, said Aunt Fini, standing with Uncle Adelwarth by his window one crystal-clear Indian Summer morning.  The air was coming in from outside and we were looking over the almost motionless trees towards a meadow that reminded me of the Altach marsh when a middle-aged man appeared, holding a white net on a pole in front of him and occasionally taking curious jumps.  Uncle Adelwarth stared straight ahead, but he registered my bewilderment all the same, and said: It’s the butterfly man, you know.  He comes round here quite often.

Have gone to Ithaca.  In the context of Sebald’s tale of Adelwarth, the phrase resonates through many emotions, many meanings, many allusions.  When we first read the phrase (and see an image of the visiting card itself) it reminds us of the Odyssey: Ithaca is the long-awaited (or is it long-avoided?) homeland, and the homesickness that afflicts so many of the characters is foregrounded here.  But the deep loneliness of Ambros, and his evident feeling of homelessness, also leads one to believe that the Ithaca here may be an eternal home: the grave.  The sanatorium that Ithaca finally signifies partakes of both of these associations, especially as “home” (Germany) seems, as one character puts it, “some kind of insanity lodged in my head.”

But Ithaca is also home of Cornell University, where Nabokov taught for much of his life, so we are prepared for the appearance of the lepidopterist himself.  Its gorges and waterfalls provide the sublime landscape for the tragic demise of Ambros, the willful self-destruction of his submission to shock treatments.  At the end, he wears “armlets made of some satin-like material” and a “green eyeshade” to ease his headaches.  Dressed like a dealer in one of the gambling palaces he’d visited with his companion Cosmo, he is late for his last appointment because he is waiting for the “butterfly man.”

Nabokov makes his most important appearances in the last story, “Max Ferber.”  He “popped out of the bloody ground” to save Ferber from suicide in Switzerland.  And then he appears again, in the memoir of Ferber’s mother, Luisa Lanzberg, as a ten-year-old Russian boy, already chasing butterflies.  He sticks in Luisa’s memory when her beloved Fritz proposes to her:

…though everything else around me blurred, I saw that long-forgotten Russian boy as clearly as anything, leaping about the meadows with his butterfly net; I saw him as a messenger of joy, returning from that distant summer day to open his specimen box and release the most beautiful red admirals, peacock butterflies, brimstones and tortoiseshells to signal my final liberation.

A “messenger of joy.”  A beautiful, misguided phrase.  For the beauty of the first meeting of Luisa and Fritz is not a harbinger of joy and happiness: he is lost to her, and so is another beloved, and so, finally, is she herself, in the murder of the European Jewry.  And yet the joy existed: the joy was there, at the time, if inevitably lost to the irretrievable past, the past from which Germany has been cut off by the enormity of its guilt, from which its Jews have been cut off by the horror of their slaughter.  The indelible fictions that Nabokov prized above all others, those intricately patterned tapestries of language and image and metaphor, are the fictions of memory.  Beyond its status as fiction or memoir or autobiography, this book is a collection of memories, in all their messy, misremembered, pseudofictional glory.

Reading Hemon

January 19, 2009 § 1 Comment

Just finished: The Question of Bruno, by Aleksandar Hemon.

Reading next: Villette, by Charlotte Brontë.

I find it somehow hard to write about Hemon’s work.  This is not for lack of interesting ideas or techniques or even a lack of correspondence between my interests and his.  If anything, there’s too much to say: I like thinking about his idiosyncratic methods of narration, his strange way of inserting himself and/or people with his name into his stories,  his kinship with the great Bruno Schulz, his treatment of memory and childhood, his crazy surrealistic flourishes, the very specific details of Chicago in his stories, etc.  And yet somehow he defeats me: I could write about all of these things, and would like to, but it seems somehow beside the point.

This is a good thing, I think.

The experience of reading Aleksandar Hemon is strange.  I read Nowhere Man (his second book, after this one) a few years ago, and had the same kind of feeling then.  It always seems both vitally important and beside the point who is telling a Hemon story: the story typically works, and works beautifully, as the product of an anonymous Bosnian narrator, but can have additional resonance or a transformed meaning if a specific narrator is deduced.  For someone as interested in espionage and the breakup of the Soviet Union as Hemon is, the ways in which he reveals or seems to reveal his stories’ tellers can create a fascinating narrative of its own.

For instance, “The Sorge Spy Ring” tells of the great, non-fictional spy, Richard Sorge, a Soviet agent in Japan before World War II.  It tells Sorge’s story in footnotes, which are entertaining but more or less scholarly in tone and nature.  The footnotes, provoked by incidental correspondencies in the main text (the word “mother” leads to a footnote on the character of Sorge’s mother, along with the Sebaldian touch of a photograph of her), occur in a text about a boy who loves spy games, and comes to suspect his father is a spy in Tito’s Yugoslavia.

There’s reason to believe that the boy telling this story is Jozef Pronek, the protagonist of “Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls,” the masterpiece at the heart of this book, and also of most of Nowhere Man.  Pronek’s story is narrated by a self-consciously omnipresent (but only semi-omniscient)  “We,” which operates like a surveillance team, switching camera angles to view him and dropping in comments on his thoughts and predicaments.  There’s also this surreal touch, as Pronek looks at the miniature rooms in the Art Institute of Chicago:

…he was the only one to see a minikin figure, with long white hair, and an impish mini-grin, running across the miniature room.  Pronek could hear the tapping, the barely audible, evanescent, echoes of the creature’s tiny steps, which then disappeared into the garden.

Doubtless, a hallucination.

Is this an operative, monitoring Pronek?  Is Hemon equating fiction with espionage?

Perhaps because they are so often matter-of-fact about horrible and beautiful things alike, his stories can sometimes seem flat, or somehow I’ll read them and not be immediately affected by them.  It’s only when I look back at them, review and reread sections, that they gel for me and I see how brilliant they are.  In this collection, “Islands” and “Imitation of Life,” the first and last stories, were especially like that for me.  But really, I can open to any page of this book and find something incredible that my mind somehow passed over.  For instance, I open to p. 184, scan, and remember how the words “rotting,” “decay,” and “filthy” seem to be everywhere in “Blind Jozef,” and how strange this seems, considering that Jozef has escaped from Sarajevo into Chicago.  And yet it is somehow just right: uncannily correct, like so much of Hemon.

I feel like the key to all this might be that the stories tell themselves so effectively that my words seem beside the point.  The experience of reading them cannot be recaptured by my breaking them down into their constituent parts: they’re gestalt-ish, I guess.

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