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.

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.

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)

Quirky Treasure-House of Sebald’s Mind

Leafing through an anthology of articles and essays called The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with WG Sebald, it strikes me how little of his work I’ve spent any time with. My love of his books is based solely on Rings of Saturn, his digressive narrative of a 30-mile walk. That book lit a fire under my reading and I spent months reading it repeatedly, following the questions it raises.

I went straight from Rings of Saturn to Austerlitz, started reading but half way through my initial enthusiasm for the book dissolved into disappointment. I resolved to tackle Sebald again another time, which may as well be now, starting with Vertigo.

The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with WG Sebald includes a piece by Arthur Lubow called Crossing Boundaries. It offers up the following passage which draws me back to Sebald:

…the joy of reading Sebald is the pleasure of stepping into the quirky treasure-house of his mind. “I don’t consider myself a writer,” he said. “It’s like someone who builds a model of the Eiffel Tower out of matchsticks. It’s a devotional work. Obsessive.” His books are like some eighteenth-century Wunderkammer, filled with marvelous specimens, organized eccentrically.

In truth, I am drawn back to Rings of Saturn, but if I reread it now, I suspect I’ll never deepen my exploration of Sebald’s other works. I’ll drop off a favourite passage as a substitution:

I suppose it is submerged realities that give to dreams their curious air of hyper-reality. But perhaps there is something else as well, something nebulous, gauze-like, through which everything one sees in a dream seems, paradoxically, much clearer. A pond becomes a lake, a breeze becomes a storm, a handful of dust is a desert, a grain of sulphur in the blood is a volcanic inferno. What manner of theater is it, in which we are at once playwright, actor, stage manager, scene painter and audience?

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2015 (updated)

These are not reading resolutions. Writers promising literary gifts lead me astray too easily for these ideas to be fixed in any way.

This year I read widely covering fifty or so writers, concentrating my reading more deeply only twice on Houellebecq and Anne Carson’s work. In 2015 I’d like to read more deeply into the work of some of my favourite authors: alternative Dante and Homer translations (and Adam Nicholson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters) ,  more Ballard’s short stories, always more Beckett, John Berger, Roberto Calasso, more Anne Carson, the new Tom McCarthy, Robert Musil’s diaries, Hélène Cixous, Coetzee, Jenny Diski, Dostoevsky, Marguerite Duras, Pierre Hadot, Houellebecq’s new one if translated next year, Kafka’s short stories, László Krasznahorkai, Clarice Lispector, Bourdieu, Doris Lessing, Nabokov, Alice Oswald, Robert Macfarlane, Nietzsche, Atiq Rahimi, WG Sebald, Thomas Mann, Christa Wolf and Virginia Woolf.

Beyond these ‘old chestnuts’ (as Beckett called his favourite authors) I’m looking forward to unexpected surprises within the pages of the following new books, either missed in 2014 or due in 2015, by authors I have not read before:

  1. Kirmin Uribe – Bilbao – New York – Bilbao
  2. Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric
  3. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor – Dust
  4. Ceridwen Dovey – Only the Animals
  5. Karin Wieland (trans. Shelley Frisch) – Dietrich & Riefenstahl: The dream of the new woman
  6. Can Xue – The Last Lover
  7. Anna Smaill – The Chimes
  8. Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith) – The Vegetarian
  9. Paul Celan – Breathturn Into Timestead
  10. David Winters – Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory

There are several other writers whose older works I’d like to get around to exploring sometime soon including Jens Bjørneboe, Martin Shaw, Ivan Illich, Eva Hoffman, Ivan Goncharov, David Abram, Ágota Kristóf, Rebecca Solnit, Tomas Espedal and Elfriede Jelinek.

As always, distractions are greater than my ambition, but if I manage to take in a decent selection of the above I’m expecting a good year in reading. There are several other titles I have my eye on but I’m mindful of your patience and Molloy’s admission that ‘if you set out to mention everything you would never be done.’

The Epic of Words

Time and again in my afternoons on the plateau, I applauded the epic of words. And I laughed as well, not the laughter of ridicule, but the laughter of recognition and complicity. Yes, there is a word for the bright spot in a cloudy sky, a word for the way an ox runs back and forth on a hot day when he’s stung by a horsefly, for flame suddenly bursting from a stove, for the juice of stewed pears, for the star on a bull’s forehead, for a man on all fours extracting himself from the snow, for a woman’s stocking up on summer clothes, for the sloshing of liquid in a half-empty bucket, for the trickling of seeds out of seedpods, for the skipping of a flat stone over the surface of a pond, for icicles hanging from a tree, for the raw spot in a boiled potato, for a puddle in clayey ground. Yes, that’s the word.

In trying to select a favourite passage to reveal the languid beauty of Peter Handke’s Repetition I could have selected from so many pieces. I have a notebook filled with passages from Repetition. It is an extraordinary book, which I urge you to read. WG Sebald has written a wonderful essay [PDF] about Repetition.

Book List

In no particular order, this is a list of my favourite writers/books. Of course, it is incomplete.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Pale Fire and Speak, Memory and literary lectures
Franz Kafka
Geoff Dyer
JG Ballard
Simone de Beauvoir
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
Hélène Cixous
Judith Butler
Peter Handke’s The Weight of the World
Søren Kierkegaard
Marguerite Duras
JM Coetzee
Robert Walser
Roland Barthes
Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup
Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows
John William’s Stoner
Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea
AM Homes
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Jay Griffith’s Wild: An Elemental Journey
Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s War and War
Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness
Samuel Beckett
Simon Critchley
Noam Chomsky
Roger Deakin
Carlos Fuentes’s Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone
Ruth Reichl’s Endless Feast
Teju Cole’s Open City
Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Visitation
Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? and The Lessons of Modernism
Virginia Woolf’s later novels and diaries
Jospeh Heller’s Something Happened
WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn
Don DeLillo’s Underworld
Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Marcel Proust
Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Kate Zambreno’s Heroines
Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych
James Joyce’s Ulysses
Richard Power’s The Time of our Singing
Will Ferguson’s Hokkaido Highway Blues

Open City by Teju Cole

Open City is narrated by Julius, a part Nigerian, part German psychiatry student. Beginning with a strong Sebaldian influence as Julius aimlessly wanders around the streets and parks of New York, the story develops into a modern inquiry into the foundation of personality, memory, nationhood and dislocation.

Although written in the first person the narrator remains at a distance, a lonely, bookish character, more comfortable discussing literary or musical influences (Mahler, Coetzee, Barthes) than developing a relationship with a childhood friend or dying professor. This distance allows Cole, as James Wood explains below, to make his novel ‘as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition.’

In The Western Canon, as Biblioklept mentioned recently, Harold Bloom argues ‘that it is the strangeness and originality of a work that confers its literary power.’ Both terms are comfortably conferred on Teju Cole’s Open City, a staggeringly good novel of great potency.

Cole’s novel is subject of a strong review from James Wood:

But I hope the prospective reader will turn that first page, because the novel soon begins to throw off its obvious influences. The prose relaxes into a voice rather than an effect, and it becomes apparent that Cole is attempting something different from Sebald’s project. Eschewing the systematic rigor of Sebald’s work, as well as its atmosphere of fatigued nervous tension, Cole has made his novel as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition. This is extremely difficult, and many accomplished novelists would botch it, since a sure hand is needed to make the writer’s careful stitching look like a thread merely being followed for its own sake. Mysteriously, wonderfully, Cole does not botch it.

Pure Literature

Biblioklept’s excellent post ‘Why I Abandoned Chad Harbach’s Over-Hyped Novel The Art of Fielding After Only 100 Pages’  is worth your time, as are the comments that follow about the nature of ‘literary fiction.’

One commenter adds, “Also, have you heard of the distinction made in Japanese between literary fiction and ‘pure literature?'” I haven’t but it sounds suspiciously like the old high/middlebrow debate, interesting in an abstract way but endlessly open to debate and reinterpretation. When I have some time I will follow up the sources of the argument .

Biblioklept kicked off a list of ‘strong/strange’ literature, based on a Bloom argument that, ‘it is the strangeness and originality of a work that confers its literary power.’ This position makes sense to me, as does Biblioklept’s ‘short list of relatively contemporary books (past thirty or fifty years) that I think will challenge readers who want more from their novels than a retread of the old-fashioned and well behaved.’

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, David Foster Wallace’s novels and short stories, Cormac McCarthy’s novels (especially Blood Meridian and Suttree), Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker or Kleinzheit, Barry Hannah’s Airships and Ray, anything by W.G. Sebald, William T. Vollmann’s The Rifles or Butterfly Stories, Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, Lars Iyers’s Spurious, PK Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Gordon Lish’s short stories, Denis Johnson’s Angels, Thomas Pynchon’s V, Don DeLillo’s Underworld or White Noise.

To which I added, over coffee and cornflakes (a dozen others occur to me now):

Most of Geoff Dyer’s work (especially Out of Sheer Rage: In the Shadow of D.H.Lawrence), Peter Handke’s Across, Thomas Bernhard’s Correction, Tejo Cole’s Open City, J. M. Coetzee’s novels, Lydia Davis’s novels and short stories, Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch and Vyacheslav Pyetsukh’s The New Moscow Philosophy.

UPDATE

Words Beyond Borders offered the following suggestions: The Dictionary Of Khazars by Milorad Pavic and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow. Saramago and Murakami works would also make my list. Thank you for the two titles, both new to me, and I would endorse Saramago and Murakami.

I don’t wish to poach any suggestions from Bibilioklept, so I have closed this post for further comments. If you have any additions to Biblioklept’s list, please head over to add them here.

Twentieth Century German Novels

Whether due to common themes and/or the willingness to experiment with form and technique, I am drawn to German-language literature (in translation) more than any other. I am excited by two new studies due this autumn, both edited by Stuart Taberner.

Emerging German-Language Novelists of the Twenty-First Century (Camden House) offers fifteen essays examining in detail the major work of contemporary German-language novelists like Daniel Kehlmann, Karen Duve and Alina Bronsky. “Between them they represent a range of literatures in German, from women’s writing to minority writing (from Turkish immigrants and Eastern Europe), to “pop literature” and perspectives on the former GDR and on Germany’s Nazi past.”

The Novel in German since 1990 (Cambridge University Press) presents close readings of a series of brilliant novels including W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Elfriede Jelinek’s Greed, Herta Müller’s The Land of Green Plums and Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World. “Each novel discussed in the volume has been chosen on account of its aesthetic quality, its impact and its representativeness.”