Saturday, August 28, 2010

UNDER THE VOLCANO by Malcolm Lowry

"Christ," he remarked, puzzled, "this is a dingy way to die."

In an essay on Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children (a book I seem to be alone in not loving), Randall Jarrell defines the novel as "a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it." Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano certainly has some things wrong with it--symbols so heavy-handed they would've embarrassed Melville; the irritatingly juvenile 'dialogues' between the Consul's 'good' and 'evil' inner voices--but on this reading I find them outweighed by everything that's right about the novel. I'm impressed by Lowry's prose (this is probably inevitable since I'm coming to Under the Volcano after trudging through the hardening lava of Dreiser's American Tragedy), that wonderful Modernist style he creates from a synthesis of Joycean license and Woolfian lyricism. And I'm impressed by the final synthesis, in the Consul's dying mind, of the novel's two dominant and contradictory symbols, the ravine and the volcano. The mountain with its Romantic connotations of upward striving and 'natural supernatural' transcendence and the barranca, a squalid, hellish open sewer cum open grave, are finally united on the novel's last page as symbols of the same dingy death.

"You are no a de wrider, you are de espider, and we shoota de espiders in Mejico."

All great writers are spiders, spinning wordy webs that entangle even the wariest readers. And every great writer is a great spy, his best works recording the most important things seen and heard during an extraordinarily observant lifetime. All great writers would be shot in Lowry's fascist Mexico.

An artist with a murderer's hands; that was the ticket, the hieroglyphic of the times.

Los Manos de Orlac, con Peter Lorre. Along with the ravine and the volcano, this paranoiacally ubiquitous movie poster is one of the novel's most insistent motifs. (The U.S. title was Mad Love, exactly what we should expect from an industry that turned An American Tragedy into A Place in the Sun.) Jacques Laruelle helpfully interprets the symbol for us in chapter one, but Orlac's multiply re-made hands are more than a confused allegory for Hitlerism. (Hitler, after all, was a murderer with a hack artist's hands). The poster symbolizes, among other things, the decay of art in the Orlacian hands of capitalism: a landmark German Expressionist film remade and renamed as a mediocre Hollywood horrorshow. It's thus also an early example of America's global cultural reach: Hollywood films are playing even here, in the asshole of Mexico. But more important to the entire novel's structure and meaning is the fact that the film, like all the movies in this Mexican province, is trapped in a cycle of repetition. Its seemingly eternal return to the local cinema every year on The Day of the Dead symbolizes the circularity of the novel as a whole. For Under the Volcano is as circular as Finnegans Wake, if in a less obvious way. The opening chapter is both prologue and epilogue, and a truly complete reading of this novel would require the reader to re-read chapter one immediately upon finishing chapter twelve. Much more than a mere structural gimmick, this circularity heightens the book's overall sense of fatalism, futility and doom. The narrative is inescapable; it keeps playing like a terrible tape loop, killing the Consul again and again, over and over. This reminds us that Under the Volcano is a novel of its historical moment (the moment of its conception, not its publication nearly ten years later), and it beautifully captures the existential malaise of the post-Spanish Civil War left during those mercifully few years when European fascism appeared unstoppable. If the fascists will always win, why resist? why bother? After all, look what they did to poor Geoffrey Firmin...

Somebody threw a dead dog after him down the ravine.

I don't want to say anything here that might detract from the terrible hopelessness of this novel, the tragedy and pathos of its fascist-dominated world, a place where even the literary impulse is less than useless. (...your fate would not be altered by your simile.) But we should note that Lowry's most compelling answer to the "why bother?" question comes in his description of Hugh's plans for the immediate future, his doomed expedition to aid the last remnants of Spanish resistance. However much Lowry ironizes it, Hugh's principled action in the face of defeat is the only virtue in Lowry's world, lost causes the only causes worth fighting for (to paraphrase another, and altogether more friendly, artifact of the late Thirties, Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington).

AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY by Theodore Dreiser

A widely acknowledged (but by whom, exactly?) classic of American literature and one of the hundreds of books on the litterateur's shopping list at the back of Harold Bloom's The Western Canon, Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy is also among the worst-written of canonical novels. As a writer, Dreiser is deaf to sentence rhythm and tone, and lyricism remains an undiscovered country--as does metaphor, except for the occasional teeth-grindingly hoary cliche. And speaking of cliches, it has become one to mention that American Tragedy and The Great Gatsby were published the same year. Aside from dramatically exemplifying the difference between modernity and Modernism (Dreiser being an example of the former and Fitzgerald of the latter), the comparison between these oddly similar novels emphasizes the vast aesthetic gulf between the two writers' styles (if, that is, we decide to call Dreiser's bizarre cornpone turgidity a 'style'). If Fitzgerald's prose slides and shimmers along like a limpid mountain stream, Dreiser's spreads slowly across the page like stale molasses. Clotted and cliched, prolix and pretentious, Dreiser's prose is a burden that renders An American Tragedy almost unreadable. I could quote an example from any of the book's 800+ pages, but to sledgehammer my point home, I'll give you a paragraph of Tone Deaf Ted at his very worst:

The "death house" in this particular prison was one of those crass erections and maintenances of human insensitiveness and stupidity principally for which no one primarily was really responsible. Indeed, its total plan and procedure were the results of a series of primary legislative enactments, followed by decisions and compulsions as devised by the temperaments and seeming necessities of various wardens, until at last--by degrees and without anything worthy of the name of thinking on anyone's part--there had been gathered and was now being enforced all that could possibly be imagined in the way of unnecessary and really unauthorized cruelty or stupid and destructive torture. And to the end that a man, once condemned by a jury, would be compelled to suffer not alone the death for which his sentence called, but a thousand others before that. For the very room by its arrangement, as well as the rules governing the lives and actions of the inmates, was sufficient to bring about this torture, willy-nilly.

Whew. As Dreiser might say, this is horrible and really bad prose. It's so bad it's almost funny--Dreiser as a literary Ed Wood. I especially appreciate the entirely unnecessary "willy-nilly" he tacks onto the end, presumably because this ass of a paragraph deserves an appropriate tail. And that "unnecessary and really unauthorized" always makes me smile.

Hardcore Dreiserians (if any still exist) might argue that the flat, bland mediocrity of Dreiser's style accurately reflects the ugliness of his characters' milieu, but I'm not buying that argument at any price. Dreiser isn't Flaubert or Joyce or Nathanael West or Pynchon, writers who specialize in parodying the dreadful discourses of their days. Nor is he Emile Zola, the writer Dreiser most resembles in both his journalistic realism (the best aspect of this book) and his undercooked scientism (one of the worst). It was briefly fashionable during the 1960s-70s heyday of the "nonfiction novel" (In Cold Blood, The Executioner's Song) to credit Dreiser as an American precursor of Capote and Mailer. And while it's undeniable that Dreiser, more than any other writer, was responsible for the importation of Zolaesque Naturalism into American literature (Dreiser is thus more important to literary history than to literature, an important distinction), he accomplished this almost by default: if Stephen Crane had lived, Dreiser's career would've been unnecessary ("and really unauthorized"). Crane would have given America a naturalist literature written in beautifully impressionistic prose (think of Zola's prose in La Bete Humaine). Dreiser's prose, on the other hand, is simply bad and nothing more. Well, actually, it is something more: it's bloody awful.

Friday, August 27, 2010

"Fat" by Raymond Carver

I am deeply ambivalent about Raymond Carver. My beef with this particular dead guy has less to do with his fine stories than with his 1980s-era apotheosis into an academic demigod, his canonization as St. Ray of the MFA programs, the way his works and style became paradigms to be slavishly imitated by a generation (maybe two generations now) of American writing students, a process of sowing that came to barren fruition in the bland, flat, snowy fields of zero-degree Minimalist prose. All this has been enough to keep me away from Carver for about a decade--a fruitful separation that weaned me from the stylistic Jonestown Kool-Aid of "See Spot run. See Jane drink. See Dick screw" Minimalism.

Now I have returned to Carver's first collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, and in its first story, "Fat," I find an excellent example of what has always impressed me about his best work. It's not the over-imitated, stripped-beyond-Hemingway prose, and not the lack of naturalistic description and certainly not the poverty of metaphor. No, I'm not impressed by the things Carver didn't (or couldn't) do. What I find most valuable, what sometimes even floors me, is the way his best stories move, with what seems in retrospect the logic of a mathematical proof, toward a culminating image that is enigmatic, multiply meaningful, and poetically complex. Carver is a writer who thinks in images rather than metaphors, and this may be a key to understanding the true, deep power of his style. His images accomplish, with seeming effortlessness, Auden's program for poetry:

The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

The power and genius of Carver's style reside not in any of the stylistic 'innovations' for which he has received so much praise--his prose, his irony--but in his creation of images that burst the straitjacket of his style. Derived from, but often more concentrated and powerful than, the Joycean or Chekhovian epiphany, the Carveresque image allows the reader to glimpse the terrible waste of his characters' lives (something the characters themselves can sometimes feel but rarely see) and forces the reader to reconsider the entire story in the image's dark light.

"Fat," a story that can be usefully understood as a Bloomian 'revision' of Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," is narrated by a waitress who one day serves a large meal to a grotesquely obese customer. The memory of the man subsequently haunts her in a way she cannot enunciate, perhaps because it lies at the root of her entire enunciation. The fat man incites her narrative and inspires the tale's ultimate image: the thin narrator's sexual fantasy of herself as an enormously fat woman serviced by her tiny husband. It's an image that, more economically and effectively than anything else in the story, bares the narrator's psyche, showing us the despair that expresses itself as a mixture of passivity and aggression. The image also accomplishes something even more remarkable: a shift in readerly identification from the narrator to her clueless listener, Rita (slant rhymes with 'reader'). The story's end leaves reader and Rita scratching their respective heads, uncertain of the proper interpretation of this "funny story" about which there is nothing funny at all.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

And one more thing about AUSTERLITZ...

A tiny detail in Austerlitz has bothered me for two readings now. Either Sebald or his translator mistakenly sets Austerlitz's East End home on 'Alderney Street.' In reality, the East End street is called Alderney Road. Alderney Street is on the other side of the City in Pimlico. And now the question arises: Is this merely a mistake, or is it an intentional error, a tiny alteration of reality that takes Sebald's novel out of the London A to Z and sets it in a fictional world?

Monday, August 16, 2010


If The Rings of Saturn is W. G. Sebald's most professorial performance, his most austerely intellectual book (and this case is at least arguable), Austerlitz is by far his most emotional. While the other three books impress me deeply, Austerlitz is the only one that also, each of the three times I've read it, has made me weep. (The moment that moves me so deeply is one of the book's simplest, the recognition scene between Austerlitz and Vera: Jacquot, dis, est-ce que c'est vraiment toi?) This heightened emotionalism is surely due to the facts that in Jacques Austerlitz Sebald gives us the only major character he ever lived to create (The only comparably complex figure in Sebald's fiction is the narrator, a seemingly consistent personage in the four books and an interestingly slippery character composed of equal parts neurosis, bitterness, paranoia, melancholia, sarcasm, and a capacity for perception that lies at the root of it all.) and that Austerlitz is Sebald's most traditional work, a psychological novel that reads like a late, late Modernist addition to the shelf that holds Dostoyevsky and Kafka. Indeed, I am struck on this reading by the way the discussion of fortifications near the beginning of the book is presented in a rhetoric that begs for psychological interpretation. For Austerlitz speaks here not merely of the antiquated fortifications of Belgium but of his own formidable psychological armor, a series of protective walls to which history, both personal and continental, will lay siege over the course of the book, ultimately forcing his mind back upon itself and into the childhood he has self-protectively repressed. Immediately after this early conversation, the narrator travels to the former Nazi prison in the fortress at Breendonk, and his experience there forms an anticipatory counterpoint to Austerlitz's subsequent encounters with his own past. Standing at the doorway of a torture chamber deep inside the fortress, the narrator is assailed by memories from his childhood in post-WWII Germany. His response will surprise no attentive readers of Sebald's previous novels: rather than force himself to face his personal past, he retreats into remembered texts narrating the horrific experiences of torture victims--experiences surely more horrible than anything we've been told about the narrator's childhood. So it's not a comforting retreat, but it's still a swerve away from the self, and therein lies the key to the narrator's fascination with Austerlitz. For Austerlitz does what the narrator cannot bring himself to do. When the past assaults Austerlitz, he does not turn away.

Jacques Austerlitz, like his creator, is a master semiotician. (Sebald would probably have bristled at this description of himself, with its air of the trendily academic.) So it's appropriate that the near-suicidal depression into which he descends manifests itself as a deconstructive melancholia, an inability to read any sign, that leads to a radical emptying of meaning from language. Austerlitz's description of the emotional impact of such emptying is the nauseating opposite of the aporistic jouissance beloved of deconstructionists:

"I could see no connections anymore, the sentences resolved themselves into a series of separate words, the words into random sets of letters, the letters into disjointed signs, and those signs into a blue-gray trail gleaming silver here and there, excreted and left behind it by some crawling creature, and the sight of it increasingly filled me with feelings of horror and shame"(124).

It is equally appropriate that when Austerlitz takes the first steps toward recovering his childhood by traveling to his old neighborhood in Prague, his excitement at each discovery expresses itself as a semiotic mania in which every object becomes a sign charged with personal meaning. (Austerlitz has much to say about the shadowy place where deconstruction and critical theory meet depression and repression; and critical theorists, if they are to live up to their adjective, should ponder the implications of Sebald's work. One thing he suggests is that labyrinthine academic critical endeavors are so many structures of repression, that critical theory is a vast airport where all flights travel away from the self.) So we should not be surprised when Austerlitz's investigation of his past takes a specifically semiotic form. The world of his childhood is tragically closed to him, all but obliterated by the Nazi genocide, so he is forced to search for traces, floating signifiers to which he might attach the signifieds that tear at his mind: Mother, Father. His investigation of his mother's past (or at least that portion of it narrated in the novel) concludes with his discovery of a photograph which he can, not entirely arbitrarily, identify as an image of his mother. The identification is confirmed by a family friend who may be lying in order to avoid adding yet another disappointment to Austerlitz's tragic life. But Austerlitz, driven by a desire to connect signifier and signified, is no longer critical enough to consider this possibility. (As Philip Larkin knew, "...where / Desire takes charge, readings will grow erratic...") So the investigation ends, like every successful investigation, with the construction of a sign, a union of signifier and signified, photograph and name. But this photograph, 'reproduced' on page 253, shows only the shadowy features of a woman's face looming out of a blackness darker than ink. It is a sign fading into nothingness. More than a possible image of Austerlitz's mother, it is a visual image of the murderous oblivion in which she remains lost.

The Nazi genocide obliterated even the signs of the past, and this process of obliteration by no means ended in 1945. The burden of Austerlitz's lengthy description of the Mitterrand Bibliotheque (and the reason for its prominent placement near the novel's end) is to show that Austerlitz's quest is rendered even more futile by the fact that the work of obliteration begun by the Nazis has now become one of the unspoken, unspeakable imperatives of modern culture:

"The new library building, which in both its entire layout and its near-ludicrous internal regulation seeks to exclude the reader as a potential enemy, might be the official manifestation of the increasingly importunate urge to break with everything which still has some living connection to the past"(286).

The library, built atop the site of a former warehouse where the Germans stored loot stolen from the homes of deported Jews, is a manifold symbol of the past's destruction--the exact opposite of what a library should be. (It is also one of the ugliest architectural excrescences I have ever had the displeasure of visiting; everything Sebald says about it is true.) If even libraries have become sites of forgetting, then forgetting is surely condition general.

Amidst all this hopelessness, the book leaves Austerlitz still searching for signs that almost certainly do not exist and follows the narrator back to Breendonk. Thirty years after his visit at the beginning of the book, the old prison is now an educational museum on the outskirts of encroaching suburbs. Schoolchildren dutifully troop inside, but the narrator cannot. Sitting outside he reads Dan Jacobson's Heshel's Kingdom, another narrative of the near-impossibility of recovering Eastern European Jewish memory, and the image of the abyssal abandoned diamond mine in that book (an image paralleling the abyss near the end of Sebald's Vertigo) becomes associated with the image of Breendonk, two unfathomable places where nothingness breaks terrifyingly out into the world, erasing the border between "ordinary life on one side and its unimaginable opposite on the other"(297). The narrator reads on, and his reading becomes that almost unimaginable thing, an act of historical recovery. Through signs, through words, through representation, through all these things that Sebald has spent his entire tragically truncated career as a novelist radically questioning, a connection is achieved to a group of prisoners who would otherwise have died unnamed and unremembered in a Nazi dungeon. The witness of writing is far from perfect, this ending tells us, but it is the best witness we have.

Friday, August 13, 2010


The Rings of Saturn is Sebald's Song of the Earth, his elegy for the Earth, a vast, Mahlerian symphony on themes of decay, destruction and death. Even the book's otherwise enigmatic title is drawn, as an epigraph shows, from the hypothesis that Saturn's rings are composed of fragments of a former moon that was destroyed by the planet's gravitational pull. (The title has many other connotations, two of which come immediately to mind: the saturnine circles through which Sebald's narrative digressively proceeds; Wagner's impossibly long operatic cycle that culminates in Gotterdammerung.) On the most superficial level, this is a travel book, an account of a solitary walking tour along the English coast south of Norwich (a tiny digression licensed by all of Sebald's: my direct ancestor Christopher Barrett served as Mayor of Norwich from 1634-1648), but this book is as far from Paul Theroux as Theroux's books are from a Frommer's guide. Sebald uses the travel form the way Joyce uses Homer, as a structural skeleton and gravitational center for an otherwise centrifugal text. The travel genre provides the familiar melody from which Sebald departs into the jazziest of improvisations. And while Sebald's digressions are overwhelmingly melancholy (this is a major composition in a minor key), they are rarely predictable, and his narrative is punctuated by a series of sharp, jolting shocks. The first of these is the horrible death of Frederick Farrar, a very minor character who is accidentally burned alive in his garden (Sebald's coldly aestheticized description of the death scene increases the shock). Even more effective is the way a description of a German educational film on herring fishing slides effortlessly into 20th century Europe's ultimate horror:

"...Then (so says the booklet accompanying the 1936 film), the railway goods wagons take in this restless wanderer of the seas and transport it to those places where its fate on this earth will at last be fulfilled"(54)

A date in the Nazi era...a railway..."wanderers"..."transport"...and a final circumlocution concealing the site of butchery. There is no need to be more explicit. This passage and the allied description of a Nazi-era film on silkworm farming near the end of the book show the extent to which every aspect of German society was infected by the rhetoric of Nazism. But these two episodes, as well as the novel's leveling of natural and unnatural disasters (hurricanes and genocide) into a single discourse of catastrophe, also accomplish something much more questionable. Implicitly equating the Nazi genocide to the wholesale slaughter of animals or any number of natural catastrophes serves to normalize the horror of genocide. And any view of genocide that sees it as a natural phenomenon, just another of history's horrors, tends to be exculpatory in that it de-emphasizes the element of human agency. The Nazi murder of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Communists, leftists, and other official enemies was neither a sacrifice nor a whirlwind (the literal meanings of "Holocaust" and "Shoah"). It was a system of organized murder made functional by the freely chosen actions of thousands, perhaps millions, of individual human beings, from the bureaucrats who oversaw the deportations to the railroad workers who drove the death trains, from the German burghers who whistled the "Horst Wessel Song" and asked no questions when their neighbors disappeared to the Nazi doctors who committed the most unspeakable atrocities. This was a very human crime. And that is the most horrifying fact of all.

Sebald knows this, of course, and he shows it at the chilling conclusion of chapter four, when a section on Balkan atrocities culminates with the image of the recorded voice of war criminal Kurt Waldheim traveling into outer space aboard Voyager II as an example of the best of humanity. This horribly ironic moment typifies the greatness of Sebald's book. It is a work of bleak, tragic power that reflects darkly back upon us all. My Sebaldian image for The Rings of Saturn is the obsidian mirror of Queen Elizabeth I's court necromancer, Dr. John Dee, an object currently displayed on a low shelf in an overcrowded decorative arts gallery at the British Museum. When I bend down to the mirror, I see my own reflection staring curiously back at me out of a flat, polished surface of the purest black. Sebald's book is an obsidian mirror for the human race.

The Rings of Saturn is also the Encyclopedia Sebaldiana. It seems to contain his entire tragic weltanschauung between two covers (and also, in the lovely New Directions paperback edition, between two appropriately black endpapers). It traverses continents and centuries, even travelling at one point, as I've noted, into the depths of interstellar space. But Sebald never loses sight of our own desert places. Of all his novels, Saturn projects the largest fictional world, and we should consider the extent to which this world is a projection, an externalization, in dreamily distorted form, of psychological realities the narrator fears to acknowledge. To what extent is the substance of this world a reflection of the narrator's and/or author's subjectivity? An answer may lie on the margins of Sebald's novels, among the minor characters--hotel clerks, waiters, tourists, townspeople--who appear as little more than a parade of interchangeable grotesques: dwarfs, hunchbacks, obsessives, eccentrics. They populate Sebald's novels like the monsters in the margins of medieval manuscripts, and they appear equally artificial. Readers must ask themselves to what extent Sebald's neurotic narrator is projecting upon the world a grotesqueness he fears to face within himself. We might then complete this circle of thought by asking to what extent a mad world constructs a mad mind.

For Sebald's narrator does repeatedly flee from an unnamed darkness within himself, some source of fear or guilt or shame that he does not allow himself to understand. Three examples should suffice to prove this statement, and not coincidentally the examples will be drawn from three of the novel's strangest moments. Late in chapter three the narrator vertiginously peeps over a cliff's edge at a lovemaking couple on the beach below. The description of their coupling is disturbingly defamiliarized (even moreso than the fucking of the hunter and the barmaid in the last section of Vertigo); it's akin to an entomological description of insect mating. Trembling at this sight and "[f]illed with consternation" (reactions the narrator does not, or more likely cannot, sufficiently explain), he quickly rises and leaves the place that, he writes, "seemed fearsome to me now." This is followed immediately by a move familiar to all attentive readers of Sebald's Vertigo, a retreat into representation. In this case, the narrator flees into Borges's great story "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius". The strategy, however, like the similar flights in the latter part of Vertigo, is less than entirely successful. In light of Borges's tale, the narrator appears as a kind of Tlonist, fleeing unpleasant reality for an intoxicatingly imaginary textual world. My second example is perhaps the book's weirdest moment: the bizarre, uncanny sense of deja vu the narrator experiences when he visits the home of Michael Hamburger.(It should be noted that however fictional the setting might be, Hamburger was a real man, an important German-British poet and translator whose versions of Celan, Holderlin, and Sebald's brilliant After Nature I value highly.) Walking around the house, the narrator has the feeling that not only has he seen this place before but that it is his place, a house he lived in years earlier. The line of thought breaks off here, but it seems obvious that the narrator feels an uncomfortable dissolution of self in the presence of Hamburger, a feeling that he is encountering his Nabokovian double. Again, rather than exploring this emotion, the narrator flees into an insufficiently removed text, Hamburger's memoir, the narrator's coincidental connection to which only succeeds in making his doppelganger fear seem even more hysterical. Third and last is the strangely beautiful ending of chapter eight. Alone in the Ballardian landscape of the abandoned military installation at Orfordness, a top secret Cold War site of R&D in Ultimate Destruction, the narrator is granted (or more likely, flees into) a curiously pastoral vision. Looking into the setting sun, he imagines he sees the omnipresent windmills of pre-industrial Suffolk rising above an agrarian plain. Here, at the place he is not yet prepared to understand as the ultimate goal of his pilgrimage, the site of a genuinely apocalyptic endeavor, the narrator retreats into a previous century. And the opening of the next chapter finds him speeding inland on a bus, his back turned to Orfordness, his feet not fast enough anymore. As I stated just a sentence ago, I interpret Orfordness as the true destination of Sebald's englische Wallfahrt ('An English Pilgrimage' is the original German subtitle of this book). Where else, after all, can a journey through destruction end but in a landscape consecrated to nuclear annihilation? But the narrator reaches Orfordness unaware that he has arrived at his destination--and unwilling, perhaps, to admit into consciousness the maddeningly nihilistic impulses that have brought him here. He rides and walks on, but the rest of his journey seems like an epilogue.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


"And so they are ever returning to us, the dead."

The occasion for this, Sebald's most often quoted and misunderstood line, is a newspaper article reporting the discovery of the remains of Dr. Henry Selwyn's mountain climbing companion, Johannes Naegeli, released by an Alpine glacier 72 years after his death. To fully understand the line, however, it's necessary to read it in light of the "Selwyn" section's enigmatic epigraph: "And the last remnants memory destroys." The lines are two halves of a complete thought, and they lock together like puzzle pieces to reveal the extraordinary complexity of W. G. Sebald's concept of memory. The Emigrants, like all of Sebald's novels, is a book of memories--memories mostly of the dead. (Susan Sontag was right to title her essay on Sebald "A Mind in Mourning.") But Sebald never loses sight of the difficulty, perhaps the impossibility, of authentic remembering. He (and/or his narrator) is constantly aware of the porous, wavering borderline between memory and imagination. Just a few lines above that epigram about the eternal return of the dead, for example, Sebald's narrator introduces a memory with the words "as I recall, or perhaps merely imagine..." Our memories inevitably fictionalize the past, falsify it, fit it to our contemporary needs and desires. Every present creates its own past, and the selective emphases of these created pasts can tell us much--about the present. And thus does memory destroy what it purports to preserve. It's easy to misread Sebald (and Proust, whose concept of memory is equally complex and problematic) as a literary version of Mr. Memory from Hitchcock's The Thirty-Nine Steps, the novelist as rememberer speeding his readers along the tangential autobahn of his photographic mind. But Sebald more often, and more profoundly, meditates on the near-impossibility of any authentic experience of the past. And there's a wonderful symbol of the past's unrecapturability in the first section of The Emigrants: a photographic slide of a beautiful Cretan landscape is held so long in the projector by its viewers' collective desire that it overheats and cracks. Significantly, the narrator tells us that this incident "later vanished from my mind almost completely."

While not as consistently brilliant as Vertigo, The Emigrants is still a very good book with moments of greatness. I'm tempted to say that Vertigo is poetry and The Emigrants is prose. The "Henry Selwyn" and "Paul Bereyter" sections are equally impressive, the longer "Ambros Adelwarth" less so (the long Deauville dream sequence is unnecessary), but the account of Adelwarth's decline and his suicide-by-psychiatry is greatly affecting. (It is suggested that Adelwarth's case represents the opposite pole of the memory problem stated elsewhere in the book. Adelwarth is tormented by a tragically photographic memory and therefore chooses to have his mind, self and ultimately life annihilated by electroshock.) The novel's greatest section, though, is its last, "Max Ferber." The story of a German refugee painter (reportedly based on Frank Auerbach), it contains many passages of such soul-searing intensity that they perhaps exemplify an artistic overcoming of the near-insuperable problem of contact with the past. The past can be recaptured, but only with the exertion of a life-consuming effort, and only (as Proust also knew) in art. Ferber's experience before the Isenheim Alterpiece and his conclusion that mental suffering is endless; the description of the pain of a torn vertebral disc; Ferber's notion that time is "a disquiet of the soul"; his likening of reading his mother's memoir to a deadly fairy tale compulsion--all these incidents and the memoir itself, every mundane line of it, are gathered shards of the past's broken vessel. The narrator's visit late in the section to a conveniently forgotten Jewish cemetery in modern Germany is a scene that I find almost unbearable in its intensity of communicated emotion. It is that all-but-impossible thing, a memory that doesn't destroy but recovers. The Max Ferber section lifts The Emigrants into greatness and leaves us with an ending as haunting and haunted as Vertigo's apocalyptic void. At a time when the narrator is musing dejectedly on "the entire questionable business of writing," he recalls an exhibition of photographs of the Lodz ghetto, one of which shows three young Jewish women working at a loom in one of the ghetto workshops. As the narrator examines the photograph, implicating himself in it by standing in the photographer's position, he wonders what their names were: "...Roza, Luisa and Lea, or Nona, Decuma and Morta, the daughters of night, with spindle, scissors and thread." History's victims, Sebald calmly informs us, are our Fate.

Monday, August 9, 2010

VERTIGO by W. G. Sebald

To begin with a brief and somewhat Sebaldian tale:

In the summer of 2002 I found myself in Waterstone's Piccadilly ("Europe's largest bookshop" boasted the sign outside) at the end of a day spent walking slowly across central London, from the Tate Britain to Tower Hill. I was examining a shelf of books by W.G. Sebald, whom I had not yet read, and trying to decide which novel I wanted to buy for the next day's flight home. For reasons I no longer recall, I chose Vertigo, and it rode across the Atlantic in my gesticulating left hand while I animatedly conversed with the friendly, pretty young woman in the seat beside me. Only after I arrived home and actually read Vertigo did I discover that the route Sebald's narrator takes from the National Gallery to Liverpool Street (in the book's closing pages) is exactly the path I walked a few hours before buying the book.

I've embarked on a systematic re-reading of Sebald's four long fictions--Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz--and I find Sebald's first novel, on this reading, to be a complex meditation on the prison house of representation and our use of visual and linguistic representations to shield us from unbearable realities. Vertigo is, as much as anything else, a novel about the impossibility of authentic experience in a world of representations. It is the Real--or more precisely, an insufficiently mediated image of the Real--coming unexpectedly upon us, that causes vertigo. Sebald's first novel is also his most difficult because it radically questions everything about itself--including its own status as a work of representation.

The book begins not with a word but an image: a reproduction of a 19th-century print (the 'original' of this image is thus also a 'reproduction') of Napoleon's army ascending the St. Bernard Pass. We tend to think of visual images as a more direct form of communication than words, but Sebald immediately problematizes this assumption by opening his book with an image that is as distant from historical 'reality' as any of the succeeding words. The opening page of Vertigo demonstrates how we have hermetically sealed ourselves off from reality. We have imprisoned ourselves within representations, be they images or words, that differ from, and defer contact with, any reality beyond them. In this novel, as in our daily lives, reality can only be approached obliquely, through madness and dream, and 'reality' might indeed be defined as that which is too terrifying for words (or images). "...[F]or in reality, as we know, everything is always quite different" (7).

Stendhal's vision of the vast human and animal boneyard on the Marengo battlefield in the book's first section induces a feeling of vertigo vis a vis popular representations of the battle that had effaced its reality, sanitized and aestheticized it. That's one side of the dialectic of reality and representation. The other extreme, the opposite pole, is exemplified by Beyle's fetishization of a cast of Methilde's hand. The synecdochic representation here becomes the whole object and incites emotions even more powerful than those Beyle felt for the real woman. (This should not be surprising. With the cast, after all, complete possession is possible.) Immediately after this passage, Sebald remarks upon Stendhal's creation of fictional characters from ostensibly 'real' models who may never have existed. These lines set up a textual mirror that reflects Sebald's own processes of composition, thus implicating Vertigo in the very process it indicts.

In the book's second section, the narrator's descent into madness in Vienna (and it is madness; Sebald exercises such magisterial control over his prose that it may be difficult to appreciate just how crazy his narrator becomes) culminates in a vision of the Real mediated through a Paul Celan-like pair of images: "Heaps of shoes and snow piled high..." The first is so familiar an image of the Nazi death camps as to require no explication; the second might remind us of the Jews forced to shovel snow on the streets of Nazi-occupied cities. At the bottom of his Viennese excursion, the narrator is vouchsafed a whiff of genocide, Vienna's great unspoken--and the horror that haunts, in some way, virtually every page of Sebald.

When the narrator flees Vienna, the protective process of retreat into representation quickly reasserts itself. The Venice train passes through a region recently ravaged by natural disaster, and the narrator retreats from this reality into the safely aestheticized horrors of a Tiepolo plague scene. The episode ends with an ironically recited prayer.

"Dr. K Takes the Waters at Riva," explicitly presented as a speculative narrative constructed by the narrator of sections 2 and 4 (this is also, by implication, the status of the "Beyle" section), highlights through its artifice the fictional, constructed nature of the novel's other sections. Parts I, II and IV are no more 'real' than the Kafka section. In fact, their realism might draw them away from reality, since the Real appears in them only where the web of words is broken, the texture torn: in dreams, visions, images of destruction.

Halfway through Vertigo I formed the hypothesis that over the course of Sebald's truncated oeuvre the function of the image shifts from screen to evocation, from a shield against horror to an effort at authentically communicating the unspeakable Real. Upon finishing the book, I detect this shift within Vertigo itself. Consider, as a kind of transitional case, the section of "Il Ritorno In Patria" that describes the work of Hengge, a provincial painter of 1930s kitsch murals and woodland scenes whose popularity peaked, unsurprisingly, during the kitsch-loving Nazi era. Aside from giving Sebald an opportunity for one of the novel's most exquisite understatements ("...after the war...for a variety of reasons his monumental works were no longer much in demand"), Hengge's work also functions dialectically to evoke (in Sebald's text) the very horrors it struggled to conceal (in historical reality). If the book's earlier images tend toward opacity, Hengge's work is a translucent screen. The black light of Nazism comes through.

The 'grey chasseur' scene, the aesthetic highpoint of part 4, continues this movement toward evocation. The cloth that turns to dust at the narrator's touch is a potent symbol of the quantum-like uncertainty of the past: we can never know the past exactly, and we cannot come into contact with it (i.e. attempt to narrate it) without altering or even destroying it. (I'm reminded of the great scene in Fellini's Roma where a team of archaeologists stumble upon a buried room decorated with ancient frescoes. They watch helplessly as the paintings quickly vanish before their eyes, erased by the polluted air of the modern city. Sebald surely knew this image; he cites Fellini's Amarcord in Vertigo.) It's important also that the chasseur is one of history's victims. He is in fact one of those corpses turned to bleached bones on the Marengo battlefield Beyle visits in section one. (This is but one example of the intricate, Joycean system of cross-references that sews the various cloths of Vertigo into a firm fabric.) The impossibility of contact implies an equal impossibility of any form of reparation with the victims of the past. At this moment, the narrator shifts into an explicitly fictional mode and fantasizes a dream chasseur. But he finds contact equally difficult here. The dusty, ashen residue left on the dreamer's hand after touching the chasseur is a Shoah-inflected symbol of the historical horrors that preclude reparation. But it is also more than this. It can be read alternatively as an image of a productive contact that stains and changes the living, a type of contact possible only in imagination (that is, art). Either way, the dream chasseur is an image that deepens rather than tames the terrifying reality that calls it forth.

This imagistic shift from screen to evocation culminates in exactly the right place: the novel's last two pages. The ending of Vertigo has haunted me for years now. That terrifying dream of the ultimate abyss, a lifeless, bottomless Alpine void, is a vision of nothingness as the reality beyond representation, a confirmation of Ahab's suspicion that there might be nothing on the other side of our pasteboard masks. The Pepysian passage that ends the book seems at first to arrive as yet another textual screen shielding us from an unbearable reality, an impression confirmed by the passage's multiple mediation. (How mediated is it? Let me count the ways. It is (1) a memory of (2) a text recording (3) another man's (4) memory. It is all remembered inside (5) a dream contained in (6) a narrative enunciated by (7) an imaginary character created by (8) Max Sebald of East Anglia. And that's surely a simplification.) But this image of the Great Fire of London is so extreme and apocalyptic that it overflows its screening function, bursts the bonds of reason, and becomes as irrationally horrifying as the abyss it was intended to overcome. The screen image fails utterly, becomes transparent, and instead of concealing "the horror, the horror," displays it in a kind of cinematic superimposition. The Alpine and London images become equally visions of the void.

I've borrowed the Lacanian 'Real' in this post, but we don't need a Lacanian interpretation of Sebald. (That would likely amount to little more than facile allegorization, Slavoj Zizek at his glib worst.) We might, however, profit from a Sebaldian reading of Lacan, one that historicizes and concretizes the Sorbonne Shrink's Slip'n'Slide vocabulary of undefined Reals and Imaginaries and Objets Petits a and Things. In Sebald, the Real is history, and history is what hurts.