Erasures and absences: WG Sebald, The Emigrants

WG Sebald, The Emigrants (Vintage Classics; first published in German, 1993. Translated by Michael Hulse)

But certain things, as I am becoming increasingly aware, have a way of returning unexpectedly, often after a lengthy absence.

The particular thing Sebald is referring to in this, the first of four sections (as in Vertigo) of semi-fictional (auto)biography/travel writing (I can’t find a suitable term for Sebald’s genre) – ‘Dr Henry Selwyn’ – is found in a report in a Swiss newspaper that catches his eye: the remains of alpine guide Johannes Naegeli, ‘missing since 1914, had been released by the Oberaar glacier, seventy-two years later.’

Naegeli was a close friend as well as mountain guide to Dr Selwyn, the elderly Lithuanian-Jewish emigrant owner of the crumbling Norfolk house that the narrator, presumably Sebald, rented with a woman named Clara – presumably his wife, although in real life she was called Ute. The method in most of Sebald’s fiction (for want of a more accurate word) is to present places and exiled people he encounters that interest him, usually because of something in their history that resonates with the Bavarian-born son of a soldier who served in the Wehrmacht through the Nazi era until the end of the war. He collates oral narratives from people who knew his subjects, or writings in scrapbooks, pictures in photo albums (many of which grainily illustrate this text) and other evidence of their lives in an act of literary bricolage and…what? Atonement? He mentions the ‘lack of memory that marked the Germans, and the efficiency with which they had cleaned everything up’. They had, he feels, collectively erased history.

Sebald Emigrants coverThe people who feature in these four chapters come from Jewish emigrant families, most of whom fled the anti-Semitic oppression that surged in Europe (and beyond) from the nineteenth century and on into the early twentieth. By writing about them and their families, the hardships and hatred they endured at the hands of the bigoted and intolerant, Sebald seems to try to exorcise the aching guilt his nation’s terrible past has caused in him and his compatriots – and all those who were complicit in the Holocaust. These fragments he assembles against ruin – his own, and the world’s. But they are as elusive as Nabokov’s butterflies – a recurring image in this novel. (His autobiography has the Sebaldian title, Speak, Memory).

That revenant mountain guide may or may not have existed in reality; such details are irrelevant and elusive in Sebald’s fictional world. He serves as one of countless instances in this strange and haunting novel, of the way the author’s act of testifying in writing simultaneously honours the sufferings of these victims of ultra-nationalism, while failing to assuage his profoundly melancholy unease. The Selwyn chapter ends with a passage that reminds me of Joyce’s ending to ‘The Dead’:

And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots.

But even as Sebald records these poignant, concrete details from the lives (and deaths) of emigrants, retrieved from the interstices of history (cemeteries and even glaciers can be historical repositories, mute custodians of the disappeared), he conveys the hopelessness of his task. Lives like the eccentric, reclusive Selwyn’s, who eventually killed himself with his ‘heavy hunting rifle’, or the artist Max Ferber’s, with whom the narrator became acquainted during his years in Manchester, or those of his peripatetic, flamboyant Uncle Ambros Adelwarth, whose own ‘infallible memory’ so haunted him he sought its erasure through ECT treatment, or his junior school teacher Paul Bereyter, who committed suicide when his sight began to fail him, but who had become obsessed with collecting his own archive of suicides. These lives are full of incident and similar factual, concrete details, meticulously set down by the narrator. Yet he despairs about his inability to provide the kind of testimony of their existence that he yearns for. ‘Memory’, great uncle Adelwarth had written as a postscript in his ‘agenda book’, ‘often strikes me as a kind of dumbness. It makes one’s head heavy and giddy…’

In that final chapter on Ferber the artist and the decaying post-industrial city of immigrants, Manchester, that he had made his home, he describes the artist’s obsessive technique of erasure – one that recalls Sebald’s own as a writer:

Ferber had set up his easel in the grey light that entered through a high north-facing window layered with the dust of decades. Since he applied the paint thickly, and then repeatedly scratched it off the canvas as his work proceeded, the floor was covered with a largely hardened and encrusted deposit of droppings, mixed with coal dust, several centimetres thick at the centre and thinning out towards the outer edges, in places resembling the flow of lava.

The meticulous accretion of details here, like a scholarly biographer-historian’s reconstruction of a man’s life and its significance, creates the kind of literary verisimilitude that is usually considered essential in a credibly authentic historical account. Near the end of this chapter, and of the novel, Sebald describes his frustration when trying to write this very chapter, using the documents and photos that Ferber had handed him – an archive of actuality:

It was an arduous task. Often I could not get on for hours or days at a time, and not infrequently I unravelled what I had done, continuously tormented by scruples that were taking tighter hold and steadily paralysing me. These scruples concerned not only the subject of my narrative, which I felt I could not do justice to, no matter what approach I tried, but also the entire questionable business of writing. I had covered hundreds of pages with my scribble, in pencil and ballpoint. By far the greater part had been crossed out, discarded, or obliterated by additions. Even what I ultimately salvaged as a “final” version seemed to me a thing of shreds and patches, utterly botched.

A postmodernist would doubtless seize upon this as a thrilling example of mise en abîme, a description of the futility of trying to articulate anything with signifiers that fail to adhere to the things they attempt to signify (‘the entire questionable business of writing’). I was discussing this feature with Mrs TD, saying that Emigrants was a fascinating example of Sebald’s self-reflexivity, his frustration with the limitations of language in writing this very novel – the act of narrating simultaneously erases what it tries to record.

She’s very sensible, Mrs TD. That’s ridiculous, she said.

My post on Sebald’s A Place in the Country

One of my earliest posts was about The Rings of Saturn

 

 

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.

 

Sebald, Rings of Saturn and humour

My copy of WG Sebald’s recently translated book of essays on German-language writers, A Place in the Country, arrived the other day; can’t wait to read it.  Robert McCrum wrote about WGS’s ‘quietly potent legacy’ in the Guardian yesterday.  Meanwhile I’d recommend taking a look at this piece by Claire Preston in The Public Domain Review, the online journal cited here yesterday, about Sebald’s references to other texts in The Rings of Saturn, a typically enigmatic work in  which he recounts his wandering along the ghost-haunted coast of East Anglia, musing on mutability, the holocaust, fishing, silkworms, skulls, and so on.  The thing is, much of the time he’s being funny; the erudition is often playful.  Just as Borges amuses himself and us with his witty Book of Imaginary Beings, so Max (as he preferred to be known) reflects that the Argentinian’s mention of the mythical Baldanders was borrowed from an equally strange work by Hans J.C. von Grimmelshausen, Simplicius Simplicissimus (1669; English tr. 1912: ‘the life of a strange vagabond named Melchior Sternfels von Fechshaim’; unfortunately this translation by Goodrick omits Bk VI, in which the imaginary creature is found, but it can be read about in the original German version which does include all six books, a link to which is given in the article by Preston).  It has to be said that Sebald wasn’t always a happy bunny, though, and there are passages in which the ‘shadow of annihilation’ darkens the narrative, and past figures and events leach into the present with melancholy power; this explains the reference to Sir Thomas Browne’s (1605-1682) remarkable Hydrotaphia, Urne-Buriall or a discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes lately found in Norfolk (1658).  Browne spent his last 50 years in Norfolk, hence Sebald’s interest in him (WGS taught at the Univ. of E. Anglia until his death aged just 57 in 2001).  Like Sebald, however, Browne was also capable of frivolity and playfulness, hence the citation in The Rings of Saturn to Browne’s Borgesian catalogue of (possibly) imaginary books, pictures, ‘sundry singular items’ and antiquities, the Musaeum Clausum (published in Certain Miscellany Tracts, 1684); a typical entry reads: ‘3.  An Ancient British Herbal, or description of divers Plants of this Island, observed by the famous Physician Scribonius Largus, when he attended the Emperour Claudius in his Expedition into Britany’.  Scribonius was indeed the court physician to the Roman Emperor Claudius, and in AD 47 he drew up a list of nearly 300 ‘compositiones’ or prescriptions.  Not everyone cares for this bookish mix of humour and darkness (or the complex authenticity of the orthography), but I find it fascinating and fun.

Other texts cited in Preston’s article (via Sebald) include Diderot’s Voyage en Hollande (1798), Chateaubriand’s Memoirs (Eng trans 1848), Flaubert, Swinburne, etc.

There’s a lively review of A Place in the Country by Tim Adams in The Observer, 27 April. I liked this bit: ‘He was, after all, in his writing, always in the company of ghosts, both of place and person, in anxious search, as he said, for “how everything is connected across space and time”; the books that have emerged since his absence from the realm of living writers only heighten this unsettling sense of willed limbo.’

Good stuff, but I’m not so sure about ‘willed limbo’…

One of the figures Sebald writes about in this posthumous book is Robert Walser (1878-1956), a Swiss writer of feuilletons, stories and novels, who was much admired by the likes of Kafka and Musil, and about whom I intend posting some time in the future; might even finish the story I’m drafting about him under the working title ‘The Walker’.  If you cared to explore him further, there’s an informative 1998 essay by Sebald, originally published as ‘le promeneur solitiaire’, and which can now be read in English translation as the introduction to the 2009 New Directions translation of Walser’s novel The Tanners; if you click on that last link you’ll find one of many informative pieces on Sebald (and the influence of Walser, in the linked piece), in an excellent online lit. journal: A Piece of Monologue.   More on Sebald, no doubt, in future posts.