Doomed by Egotism

Ugolino Surrounded by his Three Children

Ugolino Surrounded by his Three Children

I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his own prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, ethereal rumours
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus.

TS Eliot, The Wasteland

…it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

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A Radically Altered Human Species

The implicit starting point for Sebald’s literary essays is the melancholy conviction that, during the course of the twentieth century, the history of mankind finally showed itself to be on a downward path and that, therefore, the two disastrous world wars were simply preludes to a total and imminent catastrophe, and that, additionally, a creeping process of exploitation is perpetually destroying the natural basis of our lives. He cites Franz Kafka as someone who shared this dark sense of history, reading those of his stories which deal centrally with evolution as a way of acquiring a better understanding of the destabilising factors of human history:

“The hypotheses which Kafka explores in his story of transformation are of crucial concern at a time like the present, when humankind seems poised on the verge of a far-reaching mutation. It is strange how little critical attention has thus far been paid to this, despite the fact that it is precisely the epistemological dimension of anticipating a radically altered human species which most persistently preoccupied Kafka.”

Uwe Schütte. Against Germanistik: WG Sebald’s Critical Essays. (2011) trans. Richard Sheppard, Jo Catling [In the second paragraph Schütte quotes Sebald.]

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Sebald’s The Emigrants and Phantasms

Walking England’s oldest pathway in between immersing in WG Sebald, placing foot after foot on a path used by walkers 5000 years ago, reflecting on the memories and stones and truths in The Emigrants. A grass trackway crosses chalk downs beside clumps of trees sitting on barrows, ancient burial grounds, and I’m pondering the accrual of events that combine places, artefacts and persons in an act of transformation.

In a late essay-The Mystery of the Red-brown Skin. An Approach to Bruce Chatwin, included in Campo Santo-Sebald wrote of Bruce Chatwin’s writing, situating him in a literary limbo. His words in this passage serve equally to locate his own legacy:

Just as Chatwin himself remains an enigma, one never knows how to classify his books. All that is obvious is that their structure and intentions place them in no known genre. Inspired by a kind of avidity for the undiscovered, they move along a lin where the points of demarcation are those strange manifestations and objects of which one cannot say whether they are real, or whether they are among the phantasms generated in our minds from time immemorial. Anthropological and mythological studies in the tradition of Lévy-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, adventure stories looking back to our early childhood reading, collections of facts, dream books, regional novels, examples of lush exoticism, puritanical penance, sweeping baroque vision, self-denial and personal confusion-they are all these things together. It probably does them most justice to see their promiscuity, which breaks the modernist concept, as a late flowering of those early travellers’ tales going back to Marco Polo where reality is constantly entering the realm of the metaphysical and miraculous, and the way through the world is taken from the first with an eye fixed on the writer’s own end.

My deepest gratitude goes to a friend that suggested I might find the Ridgeway uniquely fascinating, this ancient pathway following the Chiltern Hills; roaming respectfully over ancient long barrows, white horses and old forts – there is no better way to continue the preceding movement, a journey of phantasms, that of reading Sebald’s writing. They are not so vastly different in character. As Bergson wrote, ‘the following instant repeats the preceding instant’, or, at least, that is how it feels.

One way or another I’m going to have to acquire Die Ausgewanderten [The Emigrants] in the German original. Lise Patt in Searching for Sebald: What I Know for Sure writes, ‘Many scholars have noted the loss of language subtleties in the translation. The interplay between German and English that marked the original is almost entirely lost when all sentences are translated to English. But the assault to the images and to the multiple visual dialects that Sebald has carefully built over the last ten years is even more egregious’. Patt explains at length the slippage in text and imagery between translated versions, a point also touched on in Philippa Comber’s Ariadne’s Thread of Sebald’s correcting, and eventual falling out with translators.

My intrigue with Sebald’s writing compels me to continue reading, moving into his poetry and  critical essays, but also reading some of the better secondary literature. I’ve been quietly building up a small collection of both (Terry Pitts-the  blog for Sebald enthusiasts-probably has an extensive list of worthwhile secondary material; if not I’ll compile one sometime soon). But Sebald’s work is also drawing me back to two other writers that seem to have a similar range of concerns: Woolf and Herodotus.

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Discovery: Giovanni Battista Lusieri

In preparation for a few days in Venice (travelling down by train across the Swiss Alps) I’ve read much of Ruskin on Venice and gazed dreamily at Canaletto’s hallucinatory paintings. As often happens, in my unsystematic research for a trip, I discovered a once much-admired artist whose work is new to me: Giovanni Battista Lusieri.

Known to his admirers-which included Lord Byron who described him as ‘an Italian painter of the first eminence’-as ‘Don Tito’, his only recent show was at The Scottish National Gallery in 2012. His graceful watercolour of the Naples coastline is enchanting, a painting I could lose myself in for hours, as is his fastidiously detailed Herculaneum Gate at Pompei. The painting that I chose to hang on my blog today (would that I could hang it on my study wall) is his sharp, true depiction of an ancient vase hidden inside a marble urn.

A Bronze Vase within a Marble Urn (1804) - Giovanni Battista Lusieri

A Bronze Vase within a Marble Urn (1804) – Giovanni Battista Lusieri

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Canetti: Right Moment for a Book

Though not a huge Canetti enthusiast, the passage below feels apt, given how long it has taken me to get around to Sebald’s Vertigo. The temptation is to dive straight into The Emigrants but I shall delay my last of Sebald’s fictions and read around him with Ariadne’s Thread: In Memory of W.G. Sebald by Philippa Comber.

There are books, that one has for twenty years without reading them, that one always keeps at hand, that one takes along from city to city, from country to country, carefully packed, even when there is very little room, and perhaps one leafs through them while removing them from a trunk; yet one carefully refrains from reading even a complete sentence. Then after twenty years, there comes a moment when suddenly, as though under a high compulsion, one cannot help taking in such a book from beginning to end, at one sitting: it is like a revelation. Now one knows why one made such a fuss about it. It had to be with one for a long time; it had to travel; it had to occupy space; it had to be a burden; and now it has reached the goal of its voyage, now it reveals itself, now it illuminates the twenty bygone years it mutely lived with one. It could not say so much if it had not been there mutely the whole time, and what idiot would dare to assert that the same things had always been in it.

Elias Canetti. The Human Province. trans. Joachim Neugroschel. Seabury Press, 1978. (1973)

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The Drunken Boat by Arthur Rimbaud

I followed deadpan Rivers down and down,
And knew my haulers had let go the ropes.
Whooping redskins took my men as targets
And nailed them nude to technicolour posts.

I didn’t give a damn about the crews,
Or the Flemish wheat and English corn.
Once the shindig with my haulers finished
I had the current take me where I wished.

In the furious riptides last winter,
With ears as tightly shut as any child’s,
I ran, and unanchored Peninsulas
Have never known such carnivals of triumph.

The storm blessed my maritime wakefulness.
Lighter than a cork I danced on the waves
Which some call eternal victim-breakers-
Ten blind nights free of idiot guiding flares.

Sweeter than sour apple-flesh to children
Green water slid inside my pine-clad hull
And washed me clean of vomit and cheap wine,
Sweeping away rudder-post and grapnel.

From that time on, I bathed in the Poem
Of the Sea, lactescent and steeped in stars,
Devouring green azures; where a drowned man
Like bleached flotsam sometimes sinks in a trance;

When suddenly tinting the bluities,
Slow deliriums in shimmering light,
Fiercer than alcohol, vaster than lyres,
The bitter rednesses of love ferment.

I know skies splintered by lightening, breakers,
Waterspouts, undertows; I know the dusk,
And dawn, exalted like a host of doves –
And then I’ve seen what men believe they’ve seen.

I’ve seen low suns smeared with mystic horrors
Set fire to monster fires of violet;
Like actors in the very oldest plays
Slatted light shimmered, away on the waves.

Green nights I dreamed bedazzlements of snow,
A kiss rising to sea’s eyes slowly,
Circulation of undiscovered saps,
Blue-yellow wakefulness of phosphorsongs.

For whole months on end I followed the swell
Charging the reefs like hysterical beasts,
Not thinking that luminous Maryfeet
Could force a muzzle onto breathy seas.

I struck, you know, amazing Floridas
Where flowers twine with panther eyes inside
Men’s skins! Rainbows flung like bridles under
Sea horizons harnessed the glaucous herds.

I saw great swamps seethe like nets laid in reeds
Where a whole Leviathan lay rotting,
Collapse of water in the midst of calm
And distances tumbling into nothing.

Glaciers, silver suns, pearl seas, firecoal skies!
Hideous wreckages down in brown depths
Where enormous insect-tormented snakes
Crash from twisted trees, reeking with blackness.

I’d have liked to show children blue-water
Dorados, golden fish and fish that sing.
Foam-sprays of flowers cradled my drifting;
At times I flew on ineffable winds.

Sometimes, martyr tired of poles and wastelands,
My pitching was stilled by the sobbing sea
Which raised to me its yellow-sucker
Shadow-flowers – and I, like a woman, knelt.

Floating islands where the brawls and the guano
Of fierce albino birds bounced off my sides,
I sailed, while down among my fraying ropes
Drowned men descended backwards into sleep.

Now, I, boat tangled in the hair of bights,
Hurled high by hurricanes through birdless space,
Whom no protection-vessel in the world
Would fish up from the drink, half-drowned, half-crazed;

Free, smoking, got up in violet spume,
I, who holed the sky like a wall in flames
Which bears, good poet’s exquisite preserve,
Lichen of sun and cerulean snot;

Mad plank streaked with electric crescents, flanked
By dark formations of speeding sea-horse,
When Julys bludgeoned ultramarine skies
And pulverized them into scorching winds;

Trembling as I heard the faraway groans
Of rutting Behemoths and swirling storms;
Eternal spinner of blue stillnesses,
I long for Europe’s ancient parapets.

I’ve seen star-sown islands cluster; others
Whose delirious skies summon sailors.
Do you sleep banished in the pit of night,
You myriad golden birds, the Strength to come?

I’ve wept too much, it’s true. Dawn breaks my heart.
All moons are atrocious, all suns bitter.
Acrid love has pumped me with drugged torpor.
Let my keel burst, let me go to sea!

If I want Europe, it’s a dark cold pond
Where a small child plunged in sadness crouches
One fragrant evening at dusk, and launches
A boat, frail as a butterfly in May.

Steeped in your slow wine, waves, no more can I
Cadge rides in the cotton-freighters’ slipstream,
Nor brave proud lines of ensigns and streamers,
Nor face the prison-ship’s terrible eyes.

Arthur Rimbaud. Poems 1869 – 1871. trans. Martin Sorrell

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Peculiar, if not Deranged

I have this fascination for fictional libraries, imagining myself absorbed for hours checking out the titles and editions on their shelves. Aside from Borges’s speculations about fictional books, one of my favourites is detailed by Anne Michaels in Fugitive Pieces (I’ve long pondered the ‘philosophy of rain’). In Vertigo Sebald writes of inheriting Mathild’s library of almost a hundred volumes, which are ‘proving ever more important to me':

Besides various literary works from the last century, accounts of expeditions to the polar regions, textbooks on geometry and structural engineering, and a Turkish dictionary complete with a manual fro the writing of letters, which had probably once belonged to Baptist, there were numerous religious works of a speculative character, and prayer-books dating back two or three hundred years, with illustrations, some of them perfectly gruesome, showing the torments and travails that await us all. In among the devotional works, to my amazement, there were several treatises by Bakunin, Fourier, Bebel, Eisner, and Landauer, and an autobiographical novel by the socialist Lily von Braun. When I enquired about the origins of the books, Lukas was able to tell me only that Mathild had always been a great reader, and because of this, as I might perhaps remember, was thought of by the villagers as peculiar, if not deranged.

Sebald also refers later to a book he has often tried to find, one that “is undoubtedly of the greatest importance for me, it is, alas, not listed in any bibliography, in any catalogue, or indeed anywhere at all”. That title is Mila Stern’s The Seas of Bohemia.

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Vertigo by WG Sebald

The Vision of St. Eustace – Pisanello (1436-1438)

Freud claimed that a mourner perceives the world as empty after the loss of a love-object. Sebald’s narrator in Vertigo is filled with this sense of melancholy, which coloured my days reading this book. This mood finds an echo, not the acerbic, comic melancholy of Beckett, but the colder, more nondescript disposition of Virginia Woolf that often brings to life memories that are ludicrous yet painful.

It is easy to forget the radical modernity of Sebald’s form, now that bookshop shelves are filled with semi-autobiographical books complete with narrators that wander around digressing wildly. His more nuanced ways of exploring identity and memory have come to shape so much contemporary fiction, but it takes more than apparent formlessness and lack of plot to resolve the artistic challenges of this type of novel. Sebald is not merely playing with form, he is fundamentally a storyteller.

In Vertigo, Sebald often uses visual arts, notably Pisanello and Tiepolo, as points of reference, exploring how the visual arts can create a parallel narrative of our memories. The effect is reinforced with Sebald’s now-signature, cryptic photographs scattered throughout the text. No better excuse to post The Vision of St. Eustace, one of my favourite of Pisanello’s paintings from the National Gallery.

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One Wrong Move

What does human reason become when it steps outside its limits?

There’s this chilling passage in Sebald’s Vertigo, a digression into Giacomo Casanova’s incarceration in the Doge’s Palace prison chambers

Casanova considered the limits of human reason. He established that, while it might be rare for a man to be driven insane, little was required to tip the balance. All that was needed was a little shift, and nothing would be as it formerly was. In these deliberations, Casanova likened a lucid mind to a glass, which does not break of its own accord. Yet how easily it is shattered. One wrong move is all it takes.

And, of course, now I want to read Casanova’s Memoirs. If you’ve read an edition that you’d recommend please let me know in comments. This new edition looks like the most interesting, though it might take a while for a version to appear in English translation.

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Notes on Stendhal, via Sebald, Beckett et al.

Sebald chooses soldier, lover and would-be writer Marie-Henri Beyle to open the first section of Vertigo. He never mentions him by his better known pen-name Stendhal, nor does he reveal that his ‘essay’ and photographs are drawn from Stendhal’s fictionalised autobiography La Vie de Henri Brulard.

This first section of Vertigo contrasts the tragedy and comedy of Beyle’s life, using prose and photographs as a form of parallel narrative. Although presented as a historical essay, Sebald uses the text to ask questions of the nature and recording of memory. Aside from drawing me further into his story, Sebald reminds me to continue, at some point, my exploration of Stendhal’s work. A few passages below from notes taken on other writer’s thoughts on Stendhal, and indirectly, comparable writers:

  • “Beckett’s lectures indicate he found paradigms of indeterminacy and incoherence early in the history of the French novel, specifically in the school of the ‘Pre-Naturalists’. Flaubert and Stendhal were his models in this regards, and were given the compliment of being the ‘real ancestors of the modern novel’. What is most important about these writers is that through engaging with the multiple facets of reality through a numbers of modes and perspectives, their work leaves ‘some material indeterminate’. In contrast to Prousts’s vision of aesthetic consolation and transcendence, there is ‘No such solution on Stendhal’.” (Beckett and the Modern Novel. 2012)
  • “[…] reservations regarding linearity and continuity may have directed Beckett’s thoughts toward the tradition of doubting a uniquely rationalist view of the world. In the notes on Stendhal in Beckett’s Dream Notebook from the early 1930s the word imprévu is found three times. In his letter dated 16 September 1934 to Thomas McGreevy, Beckett also quotes from Stendhal: ‘Maintenant la civilisation a chassé le hasard, plus d’imprévu. [Nowadays civilisation has eliminated chance, and the unexpected never happens.] Beckett is interested in Stendhal’s complaint about a world that is ruled by linear sequences of cause and effect.” (Beckett and Musicality. 2014)
  • Contrasting with his aversion to Balzac, Beckett thought Flaubert and Stendhal the ‘real ancestors of the modern novel'; “the former for his ‘impersonality’ of style and the ‘absence of purpose’ in his texts, and the latter for ‘his deliberately incoherent duality’ – his presentation of contrasting components without resolution, and the convenient ‘implication that [the] psychological real can’t be stated, [that is] imperceptible from every point of view.'” (Rachel Burrow’s lecture notes, via Briggite Le Juez)
  • “The secret of Stendhal may be that he conceived of life as a novel, but did not confuse the novel with life. He improvises because he knows that he is not Shakespeare; he cannot write as life does. Who, besides Shakespeare, could? Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Homer, the Bible, and post-Stendhal-Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce. Stendhal would not prevent to be of that visionary company, but he did not need to be.” (Harold Bloom, 2002)
  • In 1914 Ezra Pound wrote of Joyce, about the prose style of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “[…] His style has the hard clarity of a Stendhal or of a Flaubert.” Also, “I think the book is permanent like Flaubert and Stendhal. Not so squarish as Stendhal, certainly not so varnished as Flaubert. I think [Joyce] joins on to Hardy and Henry James.” (Ellman, Letters, II)
  • “‘I admire him, not as a model, but as a better self, one that I shall never really be, not fro a moment,’ said Elias Canetti. Inspired by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, he used to turn to Stendhal, reading a few pages of Le rouge et le noir each day to keep his language fit and the detail precise and sufficient. For his part Stendhal dod not go to fiction, but getting himself in voice to dictate La Chartreuse he told Balzac in 1840 that he read two or three pages of the Code Napoléon to establish the objective tome, to be always natural, and never to use factitious means to intrigue the reader. No wonder Ford described him as ‘a cold Nietzsche.'” (Michael Schmidt. The Novel. 2014)
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