St Cuthbert’s ‘Life’ by Bede: Part II


BL Yates Thompson MS 26, f.17

BL Yates Thompson MS 26, f.17

From Ch 7 of Bede’s Life of Cuthbert: It chanced that Cuthbert was appointed to the office of receiving strangers, and he is said to have entertained an angel of the Lord who came to make trial of his piety. For, as he went very early in the morning, from the interior of the monastery into the strangers’ cell, he found there seated a young person, whom he considered to be a man, and entertained as such. He gave him water to wash his hands; he washed his feet himself, wiped them, and humbly dried them in his bosom; after which he entreated him to remain till the third hour of the day and take some breakfast, lest, if he should go on his journey fasting, he might suffer from hunger and the cold of winter. For he took him to be a man, and thought that a long journey by night and a severe fall of snow had caused him to turn in thither in the morning to rest himself. The other replied, that he could not tarry, for the home to which he was hastening lay at some distance.

Cuthbert exhorted the visitor to eat, but when he returned with freshly baked bread, found him gone, having left no footprints in the fresh snow.

From f.18: miraculous loaves

From f.18: miraculous loaves

The man of God was astonished, and revolving the circumstances in his mind, put back the table in the dining-room. Whilst doing so, he perceived a most surprising odour and sweetness; and looking round to see from what it might proceed, he saw three white loaves placed there, of unusual whiteness and excellence. Trembling at the sight, he said within himself, ” I perceive that it was an angel of the Lord whom I entertained, and that he came to feed us, not to be fed himself. Behold, he hath brought such loaves as this earth never produced; they surpass the lily in whiteness, the rose in odour, and honey in taste. They are, therefore, not produced from this earth, but are sent from paradise. No wonder that he rejected my offer of earthly food, when he enjoys such bread as this in heaven.” The man of God was stimulated by this powerful miracle to be more zealous still in performing works of piety; and with his deeds did increase upon him also the grace of God. From that time he often saw and conversed with angels, and when hungry was fed with unwonted food furnished direct from God.


f.26: at sea

As I posted last time, there are several stories in Bede’s Life that relate how animals or birds fetch Cuthbert food, or else he finds it miraculously provided for him. Ch. 11, for example, describes how he prayed for calm weather and the tempest subsided, allowing him and his brethren to sail safely home. On the shore beforehand   they found three pieces of freshly cut dolphin flesh laid out for them to eat.


In Ch. 19 he admonished birds



who were eating his barley crop which he had sown by his newly built hermitage on Farne island, and the greedy birds dutifully departed for good. Bede draws from this a typical hagiographical moral, based on saintly precedent:

Thus in two miracles did this reverend servant of Christ imitate the example of two of the fathers: for, in drawing water from the rock, he followed the holy St. Benedict, who did almost the same thing, and in the same way, though more abundantly, because there were more who were in want of water. And in driving away the birds, he imitated the reverend and holy father St. Antony, who by his word alone drove away the wild asses from the garden which he had planted.



Another sign of his sympathy with the world of nature is related in the next chapter, when crows took straw from the roof of his shelter and were reproved by Cuthbert. Shortly afterwards they returned, making gestures of repentance and sorrow, and dropped at his feet a gift of hog’s lard

which the man of God used to show to the brethren who visited him, and kept to grease their shoes with; testifying to them how earnestly they should strive after humility, when a dumb bird that had acted so insolently, hastened by prayers, lamentation, and presents, to obliterate the injury which it had done to man. Lastly, as a pattern of reformation to the human race, these birds remained for many years and built their nests in the island, and did not dare to give annoyance to any one. But let no one think it absurd to learn virtue from birds…

f.62: child cured of plague

f.62: child cured of plague

This time Bede’s moral is drawn from the Bible. Other miracles are told of the ‘obedience’ of the sea and other elements to ‘the venerable man’. He is also able to effect miraculous cures of people who are gravely ill. Even ‘brandea’ – items that have simply been in contact with his saintly body – are capable of curing the sick: his shoes, or hairs from his head, or  holy water, oil or bread.

It is a commonplace of hagiography that the telling of a saint’s miracles is calqued upon incidents in earlier Lives; this was not considered problematic in terms of verisimilitude.

f.73: death of Cuthbert

f.73: death of Cuthbert

As we have seen in this Life of Cuthbert, the author is at pains to point out parallels with biblical or  hagiographical precedents (early Lives of Gregory famously make this point). It is only in more recent years that the histor or author of a tale felt the need to be original: Shakespeare didn’t usually invent his plots. On the contrary, weaving your narrative from strands of already familiar storylines was considered not just normal but desirable.

Bede, Life and Miracles of St. Cuthbert, in a volume entitled Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation,. trans. J.A.  Giles, Everyman’s Library 479,(London: J.M. Dent; New York: E.P.  Dutton, 1910), 286-349; all quotations in this post are taken from the online version found here. All illustrations taken from the digital collection at the British Library, from BL Yates Thompson 26.

St Cuthbert’s ‘Life’ by Bede: part I


St Cuthbert, from BL Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 1v

St Cuthbert, from BL Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 1v

Today, 20th March, is the feast day of St Cuthbert (c. 634-687), the Anglo-Saxon monk, bishop and hermit. The Catholic tradition is to celebrate a saint’s feast on the day of their death, not of their birth, in the belief that this is the beginning of their immortal life.  I’ve used a variety of sources here, but chiefly the prose Life in Latin by Bede, written c. 721, for Cuthbert’s cult revived after the discovery of his incorrupt body when it was elevated from its grave eleven years after his death.


Anglo-Saxon England's kingdoms

Anglo-Saxon England’s kingdoms

Cuthbert was born only a decade after the conversion of King Eadwine, and Christianity struggled to gain ascendancy over paganism in the kingdom throughout Cuthbert’s lifetime. Cuthbert became a monk after seeing a vision of St Aidan, founder of Lindisfarne monastery, being transported to heaven by angels.  He later discovered that Aidan had died at the moment of his vision. He was initially instructed by Irish monks at Melrose Abbey, a daughter house of Lindisfarne, now in Scotland, but then part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. He later became prior there, and subsequently at Lindisfarne itself.

A magnificent illuminated MS copy from the last quarter of the twelfth century contains a

Scribe, possibly Bede, same MS, f. 2

Scribe, possibly Bede, same MS, f. 2

copy of Bede’s Life. This is BL Yates Thompson 26, and all of the images of Cuthbert’s life in this post are from this MS (link here to the BL Catalogue description and all the illuminations).

Bede relates many miracles attributed to Cuthbert. The most delightful stories indicate Cuthbert’s affinity with the natural world. In one he tells how one night he refused the offer of food from a generous hostess, but insisted that his horse be well fed. He rode on next day, but was obliged to spend the night in a derelict shepherd’s hut, no houses being nearby:

f. 14, from Ch. 5 of Bede's Life of Cuthbert

f. 14, from Ch. 5 of Bede’s Life of Cuthbert


but suddenly, as he was  singing a psalm, he saw his horse lift up his head and pull out  some straw from the roof, and among the straw there fell down  a linen cloth folded up, with something in it. When he had ended  his prayers, wishing to see what this was, he came and opened  the cloth, and found in it half of a loaf of bread, still hot,  and some meat, enough of both to serve him for a single meal  (from the English translation of Bede’s Life by J.A. Giles, found online here; all quotations here are from this translation.)

F. 28v: eagle brings him food

F. 28v: eagle brings him food

The description of this scene in the BL catalogue describes the food as bread and cheese (the meaning of ‘meat’ was originally food of any kind, not just flesh; Giles appears to be using the word in its original, broader sense here). Other stories tell how food was brought to him miraculously by an eagle and ravens. Once he found a freshly cut up dolphin, ready to be cooked for him.

My favourite is that which relates of his practice of immersing himself secretly all night in the icy waters of the North Sea, ‘praising God’. A fellow monk witnessed this one night, and saw how, when Cuthbert emerged on the shore to pray again:

[two] otters, came up from the sea,

Otters dry his feet, bottom right of f. 24

Otters dry his feet, bottom right of f. 24

and, lying down before him  on the sand, breathed upon his feet, and wiped them with their  hair after which, having received his blessing, they returned  to their native element.


Always a zealous preacher, he acquired a reputation as a great healer and visionary, although he favoured the ascetic life. He was given permission by his abbot to retire to a hermitage on the island of Farne, off the Northumbrian

Builds hermitage on Farne, Ch. 27, f. 39

Builds hermitage on Farne, Ch. 27, f. 39

coast. There he lived austerely, and eventually in virtual solitude.

He was consecrated Bishop of Lindisfarne, after much resistance on his part, in 685, but just over a year later he returned to his island cell.  After his death in 687 he was buried at Lindisfarne, but with the attacks of the Viking Danes becoming ever more dangerous in the late eighth century the monks undertook a long sequence of removals of his relics, which they carried with them in a portable reliquary. Bede says that eventually the remains themselves chose a spot as final resting place that became the site of Durham cathedral.

Many miracles were attributed to him after his

Priest heals woman with holy water blessed by Cuthbert, f. 58v, ch. 29

Priest heals woman with holy water blessed by Cuthbert, f. 58v, ch. 29

death, and he was a particular inspiration to King Alfred in his struggles against the Danes. His shrine at Durham became a popular pilgrimage site, until its destruction under Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. The relics survived the usually thorough destruction work of the iconoclasts, and are still at Durham.

Cuthbert was seen as a symbol of unity in a turbulent, divided early medieval England. When the Danes settled in England and converted to Christianity even they developed a reverence for this Northumbrian ascetic. Throughout the medieval period his shrine was visited by pilgrims who came from across Christendom, many of them drawn by stories of miraculous cures effected there by the sanctity of his relics.

Body found incorrupt, f. 77

Body found incorrupt, f. 77

When his sarcophagus was reopened in 1104 his relics were removed to a new shrine behind the altar of the recently completed cathedral. Inside the coffin was a small seventh-century copy of the Gospel of St John (now known as St Cuthbert’s Gospel, BL Add MS 89000). Its decorative original goatskin binding is said to be the oldest surviving of any western MS. This magnificent book, written in an Italianate capitular uncial hand, is currently on display in Durham in an exhibition on book-binding, where it will remain until the end of 2014, when it will return to the British Library.


I shall add more images from these two beautiful MSS in my next post. Once again time’s winged chariot has overtaken me, and I haven’t an opportunity to proof-read this too carefully – hope there aren’t many solecisms.

St Cuthbert's Gospel, f. 51: from John, 11: 18-25

St Cuthbert’s Gospel, f. 51: from John, 11: 18-25

Werewolves and fleas: Gerald of Wales, ‘Topographia Hiberniae’, part 2

Two Connaught men in a boat; a rider, f. 29 of the BL Royal MS 13. BVIII, f. 29

Two Connaught men in a boat; a rider, BL Royal MS 13. BVIII, f. 29

Last time I introduced Gerald of Wales (c. 1146-1223) and his Topographia Hiberniae, a Latin guide to twelfth-century Ireland, in the invasion and settlement of which the Norman branch of his family had played a prominent part.  I described some of the material found in the first of the three parts of the text, which focused on flora and fauna.  Here I shall turn my attention to part 2: Wonders & Miracles.  Translation from the Latin into English is by John J. O’Meara in the Penguin Classics edition, published as The History and Topography of Ireland.  Images are from the detailed record for BL Royal MS 13 B.VIII in the Catalogue of Illuminated MSS held in the British Library.

Man killed with axe, f. 28

Man killed with axe, f. 28

O’Meara points out that this section of the book consists largely of tall tales which would have been told to Gerald during his visits to the island, but he also made use of written Irish sources (themselves probably arising from an older oral tradition; see O’Meara, n. 15, p. 130).  As we saw last time, he makes use of the familiar hagiographic topos of insisting on the truth of his stories:

I am aware that I shall describe some things that will seem to the reader to be either impossible or ridiculous.  But I protest solemnly that I have put down nothing in this book the truth of which I have not found out either by the testimony of my own eyes, or that of reliable men found worthy of credence and coming from the districts in which the events took place (p. 57)

The fish with golden teeth, f. 16v

The fish with golden teeth, f. 16v (and a deer)

After relating the miraculous qualities of various natural phenomena such as wells and islands, he tells of the fish from Ulster ‘with three gold teeth’.   Strangely, this creature ‘seemed to prefigure the imminent conquest of the country’ – but Gerald neglects to explain how.

Royal 13.B.viii,  f. 17v. detailIn section 52 comes my favourite story in the book: the ‘wolf that talked with a priest’.  While travelling from Ulster to Meath this priest spent the night in a wood.  As he sat by the fire a wolf came up to him and said: ‘Do not be afraid!’  Naturally he and the small boy who was with him were terrified.  When the wolf spoke of God in a ‘reasonable’ manner the priest adjured him not to harm them, and to explain himself.

The wolf’s story was that he was a native of Ossory, where every seven years, because of the imprecation of abbot Natalis, a man and a woman are compelled to go into exile from their territory in the form of wolves.  If they survive seven years they will then be replaced by another couple, and restored to their former status.  The wolf’s companion, he went on, was lying nearby, close to death.  He begged the priest to perform the last rites for her.

The wolf led the priest to a tree in the hollow of which lay a she-wolf ‘groaning and grieving like a human being’.  He performed the last rites, but did not give the viaticum, insisting that he did not have with him the elements of communion.  The wolf pointed out, however, that he knew the wallet hanging from the priest’s neck contained consecrated hosts, and begged him not to deny his partner the ‘gift and help of God’.  Thereupon he pulled the skin off the she-wolf from the head to the navel, ‘folding it back with his paw as if it were a hand.’  He thus revealed the the torso of an old woman.  The priest, terrified once more, administered the sacrament and the skin resumed its former place.

Royal 13 B.VIII, f.18

Royal 13 B.VIII, f.18

The wolf spent the rest of the night with the priest by his fire, chatting amiably, and in the morning directed him the best route onward.  As they parted he thanked the priest.

Gerald says that two years later when passing near Meath his advice on this matter was sought, for the priest had passed on his version of these extraordinary events.  As a result the priest was sent to the Pope ‘with his documents in which was given an account of the affair and the priest’s confession’.  Sadly we never hear whether the wolf ever made it back to human shape.

I may return, in a future blog, to the subject of werewolves in medieval literature.

Bearded woman and man-ox of Wicklow, f. 19

Bearded woman and man-ox of Wicklow, f. 19

Other stories follow, mostly illustrated in the BL MS.  There’s the bearded woman with a mane on her back ‘like a one-year-old foal’.  She is no centaur, however, and followed the court of Duvenaldus, king of Limerick, ‘wherever it went, provoking laughs as well as wonder.’  Gerald seems to approve of her wearing the beard long, for such is the custom of her country (albeit among the men, not women).  Other hybrid creatures appear, and some less salubrious tales of bestiality.

St Kevin and his blackbird, f. 20

St Kevin and his blackbird, f. 20

Then comes the most famous story of all: St Kevin and his blackbird.  When taking eremitical refuge in a remote cabin he put his hand out of the window, as was his custom, and prayed.  A blackbird settled there, nested,  and laid its eggs.  St Kevin was so patient and sympathetic that he waited in that same posture ‘until the young were completely hatched out’.

The rats of Fernegigan, wandering bell of Mactalewus, f. 21v

The rats of Fernegigan, wandering bell of Mactalewus, f. 21v

St Colman’s teal, the fleas banished by St Nannan, the rats expelled from Ferneginan by St Yvor, the tame falcon of Kildare and other wonders follow, some involving bells, miraculous fires and books.

Part 3 deals with the history of Ireland, but even Gerald is sceptical about the veracity of some of these old legends.  It seems, for example, that the Basques were early settlers there.  He goes on to describe the contemporary condition of the Irish in fairly unflattering terms.  They are, he says, barbarous: ‘wild and inhospitable’, primitive, hirsute, lazy, ‘deplorable’, ‘wallowing in vice’, and largely heathen, despite the best efforts of saints such as Patrick and Bridget. All

St Colman's ducks, f. 21

St Colman’s ducks, f. 21

Irish saints are confessors; there were no Irish martyrs, he asserts.

As my surname attests, I’m of Irish ancestry myself, but it’s hard to find Gerald’s criticisms of my ancestors too offensive.  He writes in the medieval spirit of recounting tales collected from various sources, attested and unattested.  Notions of credibility were different from ours.  As the frequent Christian morals attached to the stories indicate, God is considered capable of all kinds of wonder, and it is therefore to be expected that miraculous events and objects abound in His world. Everything is a lesson to be interpreted by the cleric.

The Kildare Gospels falcon, f. 22

The Kildare Gospels and falcon, f. 22

As the Viking exhibition opens at the British Museum, I’m more inclined to marvel at the artistic skill and psychogeographic acumen of early medieval travellers.




Kingfisher mothballs, barnacles, cranes; Gerald of Wales, ‘Topographia Hiberniae’. Part 1 of 2. BL Royal MS 13 B.VIII illustrations

Part One:

Ten-legged spider, f. 11v

Ten-legged spider, f. 11v

Giraldus Cambrensis, Gerald’s Latin nom de plume, was born at Manorbier Castle, Pembrokeshire, fourth son of William de Barri, and grandson on his mother Angharad’s side to Nest ferch Rhys, mistress of Henry I (youngest son of William the Conqueror), who became, through marriage, mother of the first members of the illustrious and powerful Norman fitzGerald family, which included Maurice, one of the main leaders of the Norman invasion of Ireland.  This began in 1169, and continued under Henry II in 1171.  The Tudor royal family traced its descent from Nest (as did the Stuarts, President JFK and Diana, Princess of Wales).

Manorbier Castle (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Manorbier Castle (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Little is known of Gerald’s upbringing or education.   He became an Archdeacon in 1175, but seems never to have succeeded in his ambition to become Bishop of St David’s.  His first visit to Ireland in 1183 would have enabled him to meet members of his family.  In 1184 he joined the entourage of Henry II, and became tutor to his son John, with whom he came to Ireland a second time in 1185.

The Topographia was composed by Gerald between 1186 and 1188. He produced a second edition before the death of Henry II in 1189, followed by a third, fourth and various ‘late’ editions before his death in 1223.  It is from this text that most of what is known about Ireland in this medieval period derives.

Two snakes with legs.

Two snakes, one with legs, f. 11. Gerald reports the absence of poisonous reptiles, including snakes, banished according to legend by St Patrick

Among the wonderful digitised literary resources provided online by the British Library is a description and reproduced photos of the images from BL Royal MS 13 B VIII, date  c. 1196-1223, which contains at ff 1r-34v the text of the Topographia Hiberniae (Topographia Hibernica).  All the reproductions from the Royal MS in this post are taken from the BL site.

The illustrative programme of the BL Royal MS, with its 45 marginal miniatures of animals, wonders and people, was probably formulated by Gerald or under his direct supervision during his sojourn in Lincoln (1196-1198), according to the BL catalogue. There are three other manuscripts of the Topography illustrated with a series of marginal tinted drawings: Dublin, National Library of Ireland, MS 700, Bodleian Library, Laud. Misc. MS 720, and Cambridge University Library, MS Ff.1.27. According to Brown 2002, the Dublin manuscript is the closest to the original copy, whilst this manuscript, produced in Lincoln, probably in Gerald’s presence (1196-1198, or 1207-1208) is the earliest known.

Full-page image of f. 8v, with crane and barnacle geese

Full-page image of f. 8v, with crane and barnacle geese (see also below)

The Topographia is divided into three parts: Landscape, flora and fauna (which I shall focus on in this post); the Wonders and Miracles of Ireland (supposedly witnessed by Gerald first-hand, or else reported to him orally by reliable sources).  This is the most interesting part of the book, and the one I shall focus on next time.  Part 3 deals with the Inhabitants of the country, their history and culture.

In his introduction to the Penguin Classics translation from the Latin, John O’Meara scathingly describes Gerald’s account as indicating ‘the single-minded flattery of an ambitious flatterer’ (the text is fawningly dedicated to Henry II by his ‘Silvester’ or Merlin-like prophet), ‘the haughty contempt of one who came with his family to reform and invade, and the apparent credulity which must have delighted the hearts of the Irish’.  He writes in a lively rhetorical style, and embellishes almost every aspect of description with allegorical Christian moral tags.

Animals, f. 10v

Stag, hare, badger and beaver(?), f. 10v - but he says there are no beavers in Ireland, see below.

In Part I there are several unusual claims about Ireland’s flora and fauna.  There are bees, he says, but they are not plentiful, for they are ‘frightened off by the yew trees that are poisonous and bitter’.  Here in talking about the sources of stories about who first brought bees to Ireland he makes a statement similar to those found in numerous works of medieval hagiography about verisimilitude:

Neither would it be strange if these authors sometimes strayed from the path of truth, since they knew nothing by the evidence of their eyes, and what knowledge they possessed came to them through one who was reporting and was far away.  For it is only when he who reports a thing is also one that witnessed it that anything is established on the sound basis of truth.

Crane and barnacle geese, f. 8v

Crane and barnacle geese, f. 8v

There are no poisonous creatures in the island.  Cranes, he says, are numerous; O’Meara thinks Gerald might be mistakenly identifying herons here.  They stand on one leg, he says, ‘while in the other featherless claw they hold a stone’.  They do this so that if they fall asleep the dropping of the stone into the water will wake them.

He writes of the barnacle geese in the island what is described elsewhere in medieval bestiaries: that they hatch from shells sticking to seaweed on logs in the water (see the picture above).  Here he claims to have seen with his own eyes up to a thousand such hatchings; surely he was taken in by the popular belief that barnacles washed up on shore flotsam were incubating goose embryos.  Religious folk at the time felt it reasonable to eat the flesh of these geese ‘without sin at fasting time’, as they were regarded as more akin to fish than flesh.

Osprey, f. 9

Osprey, f. 9

Ospreys, he says, have talons on one foot for snatching prey, but the other ‘is closed and peaceful and suitable only for swimming’.  Kingfishers when they die, if kept dry, will not putrefy, Gerald claims.  Keep such corpses among your clothes and they will keep the moths away.  Storks, he thinks, are black, whereas crows are not: they are of many colours. 


Kingfisher, Stork, f. 9v

Kingfisher, Stork, f. 9v

Fox and wolf, f. 11v

Fox and wolf, the only ‘harmful’ creatures in Ireland, according to Gerald, f. 11v

There are badgers (or ‘melots’) but no beavers in Ireland, he asserts.

Part Two of this post will deal with the second and third sections of the Topographia: werewolves and priests, bearded women and other wonders.



A mass act of forgetting: Javier Cercas, ‘Soldiers of Salamis’

Javier Cercas, Soldiers of Salamis (Bloomsbury paperback, 2004; first published in Spanish 2001)

Cercas SalamisI intended writing a piece on this novel, which won the Independent Foreign Fiction prize of 2004 for Cercas and his translator, Anne McLean.  But the review I set out to do turned into something else.

David Shields would approve of Cercas, who specialises in novels that blur the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction.  In Soldiers of Salamis a narrator, also called Javier Cercas, divides his story into three parts.  The first and last narrate the investigation by ‘Cercas’ into the events in the life of the Falangist leader Rafael Sánchez Mazas during the Spanish Civil War.  More particularly, he becomes fascinated by the story of Mazas’ facing a Republican firing squad near Banyoles in Catalunya near the end of the war, when Franco’s fascist forces had the Republicans on the run.  Mazas had been arrested and sentenced at a time of turmoil and disarray in the Republican ranks as their army of disparate, feuding leftists faced certain defeat.

Cercas in Madrid, 2009

Cercas in Madrid, 2009

In the confusion of the mass shooting Mazas escapes.  Hiding in the forest, he hears his enemies searching for him.  Suddenly one of their number stumbles upon his hiding place.  He stares Mazas in the eye,  shouts to his comrades that nobody is there, then turns and leaves.  Mazas is subsequently sheltered and helped by local Catalan farmers and deserters.  The second section is about the life of Mazas as writer and politician before, during and after the Civil War.

The more he learns about this incident the more obsessed ‘Cercas’ becomes with discovering the identity of this mysterious, altruistic militiaman, and by his motives in letting Mazas go free.  The title of the book is first alluded to in the opening pages when ‘Cercas’, recently returned to his journalistic profession after family and literary crises, interviews Mazas’ son, Ferlosio.  The scene is curiously multi-layered and ambiguous; at first we’re told that Ferlosio evades his interviewer’s questions by discoursing on bizarre and obscure topics like ‘the causes of the rout of the Persian fleet in the battle of Salamis’.  On the next page, however, the narrator suggests he made these details up.

Sketch of Mazas by Daniel Vázquez Díaz

Sketch of Mazas by Daniel Vázquez Díaz

What’s not clear is whether he invented the story of Mazas’ escape.  Like W.G. Sebald, Cercas even inserts a grainy photo of a page of the squared notebook Mazas used as a diary, in which he recorded some of the events after his escape.

In the final section the real-life Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño plays an important part; he tells Cercas yet another story: of a Spanish Civil War veteran named Miralles, who fought for the losing Republican cause, and fled after Franco’s victory to join the French Foreign Legion.  During World War II he fought heroically in campaigns in Africa and Europe.  Cercas tracks him down to an old people’s home in Dijon and interviews him at length.  At the novel’s end he asks Miralles if he was the militiaman who spared Mazas.  His reply is as ambiguous as the rest of the stories in this book.

The Battle of Thermopylae

The Battle of Thermopylae


The point seems to be about truth v. history, stories of individual but forgotten heroes v. authentically documented chronicles of historical events.  The title points towards the retellings of the Greco-Persian wars and the battle of Salamis in 480 BC, first by ‘the father of lies’, Herodotus, and subsequently by a host of other writers and historians.

Originally discredited by his near contemporaries, the historical ‘Enquiries’ of

William Rainey, Death of the Persian General at Thermopylae: Stapleton Collection/The Bridgeman Art Library, Plutarch's Lives for Boys and Girls, n.d.

William Rainey, Death of the Persian General at Thermopylae: Stapleton Collection/The Bridgeman Art Library, Plutarch’s Lives for Boys and Girls, n.d.

Herodotus as ‘histor’ continued to be viewed with scepticism in the Western world until fairly recently, when the veracity or authenticity of his accounts has started to become accepted.

Bust of Aeschylus Capitoline Museums, Rome

Bust of Aeschylus: Capitoline Museums, Rome


Aeschylus (b. c 525 BC), one of the three great Greek tragedians, participated in the battle of Marathon and was later at Salamis too; he used the Persian war as material for his play The Persians.   He is also noted for turning events of history into literature, as Herodotus and Cercas do.

In Spain in 2000 the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory was founded after the efforts of a person’s quest to locate the resting place and remains of his grandfather, one of thousands who were shot by Franco’s forces and buried in unmarked graves (Lorca was one of the more famous).  At the time of transition to democracy after the death of Franco a ‘pact of forgetting’ reflected a lack of national mood to investigate such war crimes.  The grandiose memorial erected by Franco outside Madrid to the Fallen of the Civil War made no reference to the legions of murdered Republicans and their sympathisers.  In 2007 a Law of Historical Memory was passed to try to rectify this mass act of forgetting.

Cercas is perhaps attempting to redress the balance with these works in which the people of Spain who participated in the War – not just the famous leaders, but more especially the ordinary people, the farmers like the ones who gave shelter to Mazas or the militiaman who spared him – are commemorated and their memories preserved.  As Cercas says at the end of this deeply moving book, by writing about Miralles and these long-forgotten Catalan peasants their names will never die.

On looking through an old notebook as I prepared this piece I came across the following:

From my kitchen window I see my neighbour, the former vet, talking in the street with a van delivery driver.  He’s holding a small package –a wrongly addressed item? 

As I watch, not engaged, I see a movement beyond these men, eighty or so metres behind them at the end of the road.  A dark brown and black dog.  Where’s its owner?  This is a much-frequented dog-walkers’ route, as the road at the end leads up to a wood popular with walkers and dogs (badgers have a sett there, too).

Then the creature stops, and I realise that it’s not a dog: it’s a fox.  Much darker than usual – almost German shepherd colouring.  But indisputably a fox.  It’s three p.m. – bright sunshine.  Cars are passing in the next street.  And the fox pauses, looks our way, stares at us, then moves on up towards the wood.

Has it passed over into our world for a moment?  Or have we entered its?  Contiguous contact, at least.

I don’t recall this incident.   The notebook entry is undated, but the next piece is dated September 2008.  Did it really happen, or did I invent it?

All images reproduced here are in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons, except the photo of the book cover, which is my own.

‘Dangerous salvations’: Elizabeth Hardwick, ‘Sleepless Nights’ considered.

This will have to be a hastily written post – I have a plane to catch.

I just finished reading Elizabeth Hardwick’s 1979 novel, Sleepless Nights, reissued in their usual handsome designs by NYRB classics in 2001, and still in print.

I enjoyed this book in parts, rather like I do a fruit salad with prunes in it (I hate prunes).  There are phrases, clauses, sentences and paragraphs that are beautiful, lyrical, poetic and haunting:

I like to remember the patience of old spinsters, some that looked like sea captains with their clear blue eyes, hair of soft, snowy whiteness, dazzling cheerfulness.  Solitary music teachers, themselves bred on toil, leading the young by way of pain and discipline to their own honorable impasse, teaching in that way the scales of disappointment.

The rhythms, imagery and sounds of that paragraph are delightful.  But I feel a bit like Caliban on his island, hearing these enchanting noises, but unsure if they signify anything, whether they just disarm and waylay.

She’s good on cities: ‘This is New York, with its graves next to its banks.’ Elsewhere, equally good on the inhabitants:

How pleasant the rooms were, how comforting the distresses of New Yorkers, their insomnias filled with words, their patient exegesis of surprising terrors.

This is prose with a capacity to surprise and reward; she constantly yokes unlikely adjectives with nouns (‘the violent perfume’, ‘dangerous salvations’).  But she can also write powerfully lucid, poignant reportage:

A woman’s city, New York.  The bag ladies sit in their rags, hugging their load of rubbish so closely it forms a part of their own bodies.  Head, wrapped in an old piece of flannel, peers out from the rubbish of a spotted melon.  Pitiful, swollen sores drip red next to the bag of tomatoes.

Even here the opening minor sentence (Hardwick is perhaps excessively fond of these) resonates strangely (tough irony) with what follows.  And there’s that strange definite article: why ‘the’ bag of tomatoes?  It makes for a disconcerting precision in the portrait.

As with Renata Adler’s Speedboat, which I posted about here a while ago, this is a fragmentary, plotless novel.  More coherent than Speedboat, Sleepless Nights is nevertheless a collage of loosely connected or disconnected vignettes.  There are sections that build contiguously for a page or two, and we follow a character through those pages, but they then usually disappear, never to return.  There’s a touching section about Billy Holliday.

Hardwick 001 There’s no linear, chronological sequence, and occasionally there’s an interpolated date, as in a diary entry (but cryptic, usually just a year: ’1950′), but again with no apparent sequence.  There are pieces set out as letters, addressed to characters whose identity remains a mystery.

The narrator is a woman who shares the author’s name, looking back at her life: the ‘parade of people, the shifting background of place’ as the dustjacket blurb has it.  She writes apparently autobiographically about friends and family in New York City, childhood in Kentucky and subsequent visits there, and many other places Hardwick lived in real life, including Canada, Boston, Maine and a year spent in Amsterdam.

We know that Hardwick (1916-2007) had a tempestuous married life between 1949 and 1972 with her serially unfaithful husband Robert Lowell, but whether he is the ‘Michael’, or other men identified in the narrative only by their initials, is unclear.  She does touch intermittently on the themes of marriage, solitude and separation.  As Geoffrey O’Brien says in his Introduction to this edition, however, Hardwick said in an interview at the time of this book’s first publication that much of it is ‘made up’.

I probably need to read this again to do it more justice.  In parts this novel is wonderful, but I frequently found myself having to re-read pages, and still the words failed to abide.  Now I feel in need of a novel with a plot, connected characters and less self-consciously poetic style.  I’m taking Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr on my trip up-country (have to fly: trains to England cut off by storm damage to the rail tracks) – not sure this is a sensible follow-up.

Dérive part II: birds, beasts, explorers in Africa

Busy couple of weeks, hence the  posting hiatus.  My last post was about the wonderful collection of digital images made available by the British Library, via their Digital Scholarship Blog.  I came across a wonderful illustrated Portuguese book: Expedição portugueza ao Muatiânvua. Descripção da viagem á Mussumba do Muatiânvua … Edição illustrada por H. Casanova. [With plates, including portraits and maps.] vol. 1-3
Author: DIAS DE CARVALHO, Henrique Augusto (Lisboa, 1890); there’s an online facsimile edition available online at the Internet Archive site.

I focused on images of birds.  Today I shall finish with a few more lovely bird pictures, then move on to animals, people and places.

Let’s start with a few more birds whose images appealed:


Online edition p. 277

Online edition p. 277

First is Coracias Spatulata, or the Racket-tailed Roller.  Largely found in Angola, but also in other southern and central African countries.

There are some lovely public domain photographs of this bird:

The Secretary Bird, Sagittarius serpentarius, has a raptor’s body rather like an eagle’s, but with crane-like legs:

Called 'Secretario' in the 1890 book illustration

Called ‘Secretario’ in the 1890 book illustration





A Wikimedia Commons photo provides a slightly less dishevelled-looking portrait:

300px-Sagittarius_serpentarius_Sekretär wikiIt’s an unusual predator, in that it hunts terrestrially: it walks about the sub-Saharan savannah, flushing its prey out with its stamping.  Previously thought to subsist largely on snakes, hence the Latin name, it’s now known to eat all kinds of small mammals, reptiles and invertebrates.

Aca I’ve selected just a couple of animals, largely on the grounds that they resembled nothing I’d ever seen (in the 1890 illustrations): this is called ‘Aca’ in the book, but looks like a pangolin (or scaly pangolin) to me.  Named from a Malay word meaning ‘something that rolls up’ (in a ball, not arrives unexpectedly) – they’re found in tropical Africa and Asia – they have sharp claws for digging up termite nests.

Cavallo-marinho p26 The text calls this next creature ‘cavallo-marinho’.

No idea what this is.

Here it is on the online edition p. 400:



Here’s an image, from p. 671, of a lizard (or maybe a chameleon) eating an insect:

p671 lizard eats fly







And something called a Pelumba in Carvalho’s text, but all I can find is that’s the name of a place in Moxico region, Angola; this little chap looks like some kind of sloth to me.







Dias de Carvalho, photo from the BN de Portugal album

Dias de Carvalho, photo from the BN de Portugal album

These engravings can be compared with the extraordinary photos in an online album found here, taken from his expedition 1884-88, from the collection of the Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal. Here is Carvalho himself (1843-1909), who explored extensively in Africa, ending up in Lunda in 1895, where he ended up as governor.




I’ll finish this second part of the dérive with three typical portraits from BL site, compared with one from the online edition of the book:

Cacuata Tambu

Cacuata Tambu



'Major', from p. 291

‘Major’, from p. 291

O chefe p 475 online

O chefe p 475 online edition

O sub-chefe p89

O sub-chefe p89

A virtual dérive

This will be a virtual derive:

Theory of the Dérive, by Guy Debord: Les Lèvres Nues #9 (November 1956)
reprinted in Internationale Situationniste #2 (December 1958)

Translated by Ken Knabb (link here)

ONE OF THE BASIC situationist practices is the dérive [literally: “drifting”], a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.

But the dérive includes both this letting-go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities. In this latter regard, ecological science — despite the narrow social space to which it limits itself — provides psychogeography with abundant data.

The average duration of a dérive is one day, considered as the time between two periods of sleep. The starting and ending times have no necessary relation to the solar day, but it should be noted that the last hours of the night are generally unsuitable for dérives.


My drifting, however, was initiated this morning when I came across this link to the British Library’s blog, The Mechanical Curator: Randomly selected small illustrations and ornamentations, posted on the hour.   Rediscovered artwork from the pages of 17th, 18th and 19th Century books.  I browsed the links and followed this one:

Exped cover pg online edExpedição portugueza ao Muatiânvua. Descripção da viagem á Mussumba do Muatiânvua … Edição illustrada por H. Casanova. [With plates, including portraits and maps.] vol. 1-3
Author: DIAS DE CARVALHO, Henrique Augusto (Lisboa, 1890)

The image which first caught my eye, from the hundreds of thumbnails on offer at this site, was this one of an egregiously sulky-looking bird:

Sulky bird(Helotarsus ecaudatus)

aka ‘jester’, or Gaukler in German; I found this out from this site, which has been translated with customary inattention to idiomatic English, by

Bing (which gave up, evidently, on many words, and left them untranslated):

‘A beautiful matte black, head, neck, back and the whole bottom engaging, stands by that, Graulich Brown on the internal flag is made white, decorated with a wide, black end edge last four hand – and the consummation scapulars lively off from the bright chestnut coat, the similarly-colored tail, slightly thinner lower back, as well as a broad wing bandage, in opposition to the deep black first flight. The deck spring of the primaries are black, the arm swings brown-black with Brown Endsaume, the other upper deck feather wings dark brown, lighter margins who know under deck spring wing. The eye is nice and Brown…’

The bird is also called Short-tailed eagle (or kite), Bataleur (or Bateleur) eagle (‘tumbler’, or ‘tightrope walker’ in French), the name given by the ornithologist François Le Vaillant.  Born in Surinam in 1753, he studied in Metz (where I once lived - a nice situationist coincidence).  I found this about him at Wikipedia:

As a traveller in Africa, Le Vaillant tended to describe the African people without prejudice. He shared Rousseau’s idea of the “Noble savage” and condemnation of civilization. He described the beauty of Narina, Khoekhoe woman in Gonaqua named after a flower in terms that were not to be found later in the colonial period.[3] He was infatuated with Narina, and she stopped painting her body with ochre and charcoal and lived with Le Vaillant for many days. When he left, he gave her many presents but she was said to have sunk into deep melancholia.

Le Vaillant parrot by Jacques BarrabandThere’s this lovely image on the same site of this parrot from Le Vaillant’s Histoire naturelle des perroquets, 2 vols, 1801-05, illustrated by Jacques Barraband.

I wondered how accurate an image of the Bateleur eagle the one above was, so did some online searching…Bateleur Eagle (NY Public Library, image ID: 820528)

Bateleur Eagle (NY Public Library, image ID: 820528): from Gustav Mützel (1839-93), ‘The Royal natural history’, Warne 1894-96.

This bookplate doesn’t look much like the Portuguese one: nobler, less grumpy.  Digging deeper I came upon this alternative name for the bird:

Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, s.n. mountebank,  n. 3: The short-tailed African kite, Helotarsus ecaudatus: so called from its aërial tumbling. (via

The online images at the NYPL led me on to this plate of a collection of Accipitres (diurnal birds of prey):

Bateleur eagle is no. 6

Bateleur eagle is no. 6




Next was a bird called ‘bucorax’ (or Cazovo, I think the text in the caption to Carvalho’s image reads; it’s not very clear.)

Here it is: Bucorax p384 online edn






This is from an online edition of the book found via Google booksearch.   Mützel has a clearer image (also at the NYPL site, Image ID: 820820) where it’s called Hornrabe, Bucorax Abyssincus Bodd. It’s also called the Ground Hornbill, I discovered.Bucorax Mutzel

And now I’ve run out of time.  I’ll continue this post next time, with more images of birds, animals, people, places.


What would Gerald of Wales make of Gamel Woolsey?

My recent posts here have been mostly reviews or critiques of books.  I felt a change was needed today.  What else should I write about?  I’d begun drafting a piece about Rupert Thomson’s latest novel, Secrecy, that I’d heard discussed with the author on Eleanor Wachtel’s podcast for Canadian radio.  It sounded good, and I read it over Christmas.  As I drafted the post, though, I became disenchanted with the task: I hadn’t enjoyed the book much, and the piece tailed off.  Maybe I’ll incorporate the material in a roundup of 2014 reading later in the year.  (I meant to take a picture of the cover to include here, but have put the book away on some less-frequented bookshelf and can’t find it now.)

BL Royal MS 13.BVIII, f. 9v: a kingfisher and stork (from a 12C copy of Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hiberniae

BL Royal MS 13.BVIII, f. 9v: kingfishers watch fish in a river, and stork with a worm (or is it an eel?)(from a 12C copy of Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hiberniae)

This morning, having some time to devote to this post after a busy period at work, I sat at my desk waiting for inspiration.  My interest in medieval literature persists, even after spending years on postgraduate research into medieval hagiography.  I love clicking through the beautiful images of British Library digitised illuminated MSS, and found myself making notes on Gerald of Wales.  The project became too complicated for today’s post – it’s easy to see why it took so many years to finish my PhD, I’m so often side-tracked – so that piece is on ice.

Instead I thought I’d search for the Penguin Classics copy of his The History and Topography of Ireland that I thought I had on my shelves somewhere.  True to form I became distracted.  I couldn’t find the book, but what I did find is what I want to write about today. As I made these happy discoveries I started reshelving the books into themed clusters – a task I always find strangely (worryingly) satisfying.  Many of these books I’ve still to read, so I must stop buying new ones.

Celtic Misc 001I found my Penguin Classics copy of A Celtic Miscellany: Translations from the Celtic Literatures (odd plural), edited by Kenneth Hurlstone (splendid name) Jackson.  A student of the legendary medievalist Chadwicks at Cambridge, he went on to teach at Harvard and Edinburgh.  This anthology was first published by RKP in 1951; a revised edition in Penguin was published in 1971; this is the reprint from 1976.  I must have bought this secondhand in Cambridge, for pencilled inside the front cover is the price paid: 40p.  The retail price printed on the back cover is 95p, so if I bought it in the early eighties that’s not exactly a great deal.  Among the sections in the anthology are ‘Hero Tales and Adventures’, ‘Love’ and ‘Religion’, which includes an extract (from the Cornish-language miracle play of about 1505) dramatising the arrival in Cornwall (where I live) of the sixth-century (?) Breton St Meriasek (or Meriadoc) and his miraculous creation of a spring of fresh water.  This spring, near his oratory outside Camborne, was reputed to have healing powers.  He later returned to Brittany, founded monasteries and became a bishop.  Can’t say I’ve ever seen this spring.  My wife once bought me a wonderful book about the sacred wells of Cornwall; I must look again to see if Meriasek’s spring is mentioned.

Some years ago I taught at a college some miles from where I now live.  Because of a change of site the old college library was culling much of its stock of books; staff were invited to salvage what they wanted, and I acquired a pile which I rediscovered while searching for Gerald of Wales:

Books 2014 jan 008Hardback: a Chatto and Windus copy of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, from the 1970 Collected Edition.  Had I known I possessed this I wouldn’t have used the tatty paperback Penguin for my blog piece on this superb novel a few months ago.

A Chapman and Hall (1965, rather battered) edition of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, which I’d read in Books 2014 jan 013paperback a few years earlier, so I have still to re-read this early novel of his.

There’s a rather fine 3-volume edition of Coleridge’s extraordinary anthology of essays, Biographia Literaria; not surprisingly I could only find vols 1 and 2 for this picture (in which I’ve included the fine anthology of English Prose published in the now sadly defunct Pelican imprint – though I believe it’s about to be revived.)

Books 2014 jan 004Paperback: two rather interesting DH Lawrence volumes – Selected Literary Criticism (first published 1956; this is the 1969 reprint) edited by Anthony Beal; I have looked into this from time to time; and DH Lawrence: A Selection (also Heinemann, 1970), edited by R.H. Poole and P.J. Shepherd.  The title page tells us the disarming news that Poole was a Senior Lecturer at Wolverhampton Teachers’ College for Day Students, while Shepherd was SL at Eastbourne College of Education.  As a teacher in Further Education myself I’m intrigued, and wonder how many of my colleagues today would be commissioned to edit such prestigious academic tomes…

Books 2014 jan 005Two volumes of literary essays now sit together: Edmund Wilson’s The Wound and the Bow and the one that inspired one of my earliest blog posts, T.S. Eliot’s The Sacred Wood .  I like the symmetry of their austere covers.  All of these books still have the old library shelf-mark taped to their spines.

I still haven’t read the Penguin MC edition of e.e. cummings, The Enormous Room, or Edward Upward’s  The Railway Accident and Books 2014 jan 010other stories.  An anti-fascist in the thirties and member of the Isherwood, Auden and Spender set, he’s now largely derided or forgotten.  Must get round to reading this book.  I like the surrealist cover.

Also rather obscure now is Gamel Woolsey’s Death’s Other Kingdom, in the distinctive green covers of the early Virago Travellers series (this one dates from 1988).  An American by birth, and perhaps better known as a poet, she moved to the UK to be near her lover Llewellyn Powys, and later (1930) married the writer and Spanish scholar Gerald Brenan; Bertrand Russell had also wanted to marry her.  This book is an account of her experience, with Books 2014 jan 006Brenan, of living through the Spanish Civil War; it was first published in 1939.

There are two fine hardback Everyman novels: Moby-Dick, and the now neglected Thomas Love Peacock’s Headlong Hall and Nightmare Abbey (he featured recently in Robert McCrum’s weekly list of great novels in the Observer Books 2014 jan 007newspaper).

There are several elderly Penguin Classics editions, in the distinctive black livery with fine colour pictures on the front cover, of Balzac’s novels, including The Chouans and The Black Sheep.  I’ve read neither, but have fond memories of Goriot – a set text for A Level French.

Books 2014 jan 003Let me finish with some happily random rediscoveries – all from the one bookcase in my front porch (I didn’t get as far as the living room, or the boxes relegated to the cellar by my spring-cleaning wife, who found the double-stacked cases, with the inner layers hidden from view by the horizontal second layer, just too untidy to countenance; no doubt I’ll have more serendipitous discoveries when I look properly at these).

There’s one of the first books I recall owning: a purloined library copy of Scholes and Kellogg’s The Nature of Narrative (OUP, 1966; this is the paperback reprint of 1971).  I was an A Level student (English, French and Spanish; today my students are required to study four subjects, poor things), and this was one of the first works of lit crit I ever encountered; I was mesmerised by the authors’ erudition and by their fascinating thesis; I still look into this book occasionally, and always find gems in there.

Finally, also as yet unread, is a paperback copy of a novel by M.J. Hyland, Carry Me Down.  It’s a nice clean copy with an attractive cover.  Somebody left it on a train a few years ago, and as I’m a bibliophile magpie I rescued it and brought it home.

Maybe on my next free day I’ll go to the cellar and search the boxes for Gerald of Wales.  The nearest I’ve come up with from the one bookshelf so far is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history of the kings of Britain…

Heimat and Exile: WG Sebald, A Place in the Country


My first post of 2014 is a critique of this intriguing work, which I read back in the autumn, but have just got round to writing about.

WG Sebald, A Place in the Country  (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin 2013)

I have learned to grasp how everything is connected across space and time, the life of the Prussian writer Kleist with that of a Swiss author  [Walser]who claims to have worked as a clerk in a brewery in Thun, the echo of a pistol shot across the Wannsee with the view from the window of the Herisau asylum [where Walser spent his final years], Walser’s long walks with my own travels, dates of birth with dates of death, happiness with misfortune, natural history and the history of our industries, that of Heimat with that of exile.  On all these paths Walser has been my constant companion…the unmistakeable figure of the solitary walker just pausing to take in the surroundings.

In these words from his essay on the Swiss writer Robert Walser, the most engaging to my mind of the essays in A Place in the Country, most of W.G. Sebald’s motifs in this collection and in his other prose writings appear: a preoccupation with place and scenery, especially the rural, littoral and insular, and how history leaches into the landscape (‘everything is connected across space and time’);  with being estranged or exiled from home; and with the tendency for things to be contradictory (witness all those balanced, opposed clauses in the quotation above).


Photo: The Guardian newspaper

Photo: The Guardian newspaper

This collection of five essays on writers (and one about an artist, Sebald’s contemporary from the Allgau, Jan Peter Tripp) was originally published in German in 1998; it has been deftly translated into English by Sebald’s former colleague at the University of East Anglia, Jo Catling.  They are not dry academic studies: they are meditations full of understated wit and artistic sympathy with the subjects – but Sebald unobtrusively provides as much insight into himself as he does the subjects.


In the foreword Sebald sets forth his other central theme: he writes of ‘the awful tenacity of those who devote their lives to writing’, of ‘hapless writers trapped in their web of words’:


Evidently the business of writing is one from whose clutches it is by no means easy to extricate oneself, even when the activity itself has come to seem loathsome or even impossible.


All six of his subjects have intertwining connections with each other and with Sebald himself: they mostly spoke a language from the ‘Alemannic’ group, which originated in parts of southern Germany, where Sebald himself grew up, Alsace, Austria and Switzerland.  Most of these artists, like Sebald, were exiles from their homelands, either through their own choice, or involuntarily (in Walser’s case, it took the form of alienation from himself and the world, as he drifted into insanity); they tended to have unhappy love lives and a habit of solitary introspection, from which arose haunting works of literary or artistic beauty.  It is the aesthetic  and moral quality of these artists’ works on which Sebald focuses his attention, but not with soft-focus nostalgia or gloomy introspection: he unobtrusively brings his subjects to life, and illuminates what they mean to him.


Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826, born in Basel), subject of the first essay, was an obscure eighteenth-century author of popular almanacs, folktales and nature writings.  The poet Eduard Mörike (1804-1875) lived a sequestered life in and around Stuttgart in Swabia (Württemburg).  The other three writers here are Swiss; Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) came from francophone Geneva; Gottfried Keller (1819-90) and Walser (1878-1956) both wrote in German.  Sebald is interested in artists associated with borders, boundaries and divides, their similarities and struggles.


In 1965 Sebald first saw Lac de Bienne (close to Walser’s birthplace – another of these frequent connections) with its island of Saint-Pierre in the middle.  Years later he visited Rousseau’s insular retreat; Rousseau had been hounded out of pre-revolutionary France, and took refuge there in 1765.  It must have seemed, Sebald writes, a paradise – though Rousseau’s peace was sometimes shattered by unwanted visitors, from whom he hid in an under-floor space covered by a concealed trapdoor.  He spent two months on this island, a sojourn which prompts Sebald to another rueful reflection on the lot of the writer:


One could see writing as a continually self-perpetuating, compulsive act, evidence that, of all individuals afflicted by the disease of thought, the writer is perhaps the most incurable.


In this haven, Rousseau could study nature and get on with ‘the self-destructive business of writing to which he usually submitted himself’.   Another motif in the collection emerges here on this tiny island:


I don’t like large-scale things, not in architecture or evolutionary leaps.  I think it’s an aberration.  This notion of something that is small and self-contained is for me a moral and aesthetic ideal.


From Sebald’s painstaking evocation of the ‘abstruse details’ of the world Walser inhabited, ‘devoid of material possessions’ (he alludes to the ‘pencil method’ or ‘microscripts’ of Walser’s later years, described as an ‘inner emigration’) to the other writers discussed here with their preoccupation with the minutiae of their craft, this statement resonates throughout the collection.


Walser as a young man in the 1890s

Walser (1878-1956) as a young man in the 1890s

The essay on the isolated ‘outsider’ Walser is a poignant mini-masterpiece.  This ‘most unattached of all solitary poets’ is portrayed with delicate, loving sensitivity; we see the ‘precariousness’ of Walser’s existence, his loneliness and ‘virginal innocence’.  At the core of this ‘ragged soul’ was an ‘absence’ that was the source of his ‘unique strangeness’.   Although he was always ‘beset by shadows’, his writings are ‘illumined…with the most genial light’, striving towards ‘weightless[ness]’ in an attempt to ‘obliterate himself’.  He ‘almost always wrote the same thing and yet never repeated himself’, he was ‘a clairvoyant of the small’, his thoughts were ‘honed on the tiniest details’ but they became increasingly incomprehensible as his sanity faded, and he tended to ‘get lost in the clouds’ and dissolve into the ‘ephemeral’, into ‘thin air’, heading for the darkness of insanity and a solitary death in the snow one Christmas Day.


In this essay appears the largest selection in the book of Sebald’s trademark blurred, monochrome photographs; one of them represents his grandfather, who is forever associated in Sebald’s mind’s eye with Walser – the resemblance not just physical but almost mystical; they died in the same year, another of those eerie connections or coincidences which Sebald is so inclined to draw attention to, these ‘rebuses of memory’.   Are they, he wonders, ‘delusions of the self and of the senses’, or


the schemes and symptoms of an order underlying the chaos of human relationships, and applying equally to the living and the dead, which lies beyond our comprehension?


I recommend this volume to anyone interested in the craft of writing (and painting) and the nature of creative artists, with their mysterious capacity for conveying the healing power that comes from exploring the minute details of mundane existence in an increasingly expansionist, chaotic world.  It also provides heart-warming insight into the mind of Sebald.  When I peruse these essays I feel I’m in the presence of a kindly, modest but supremely intelligent artist and thinker, and his prose is a delight to read.  There are really seven subjects: the six I’ve mentioned, and Sebald himself.