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 Pittsthe  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.

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)