Disciplined even in death. Erwin Mortier, While the Gods Were Sleeping

Erwin Mortier, While the Gods Were Sleeping. Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent. Pushkin Press, 2015. First published in Dutch, 2008. It forms the first part of a trilogy; the second has already appeared in Dutch.

Despite some initial misgivings, I was not immune to the poetic and emotional power of this novel. It comprises the vivid, fragmented memories of Helena, a very old lady of French-Belgian origin, from her life before, during and after WWI, in which she lost the people she loved most. But like some of those whose reviews I give links to at the end I also found the ornate, image-laden style a little too dense and indigestible at times. The translator, Paul Vincent, has done a good job with what must have been a difficult task.

Mortier While the Gods coverI find as I flick through its pages again, reminding myself of its textures and resonances, that the novel is not so much a story about recollections of things past as a congeries of stories, memories and images that swirl through the narrator’s mind as her body fails her and she lives increasingly in her head.

The prose therefore works better when dipped into and savoured. Mortier, the Belgian author of several other novels, is also a poet. This novel reads like a prose poem, a non-linear anthology, in which chronology is regularly telescoped, focused back and forth, time’s strata exposed and disclosed by Helena’s mining memory.

Take for example the second paragraph on the opening page. Helena is setting out her approach – writing down in notebooks the recollections of her lengthy past as they crop up irregularly in her mind, and breaking off occasionally to apostrophise her kind Moroccan carer, Rachida:

I’d give a lot to be able to descend into the subterranean heart of our stories, to be lowered on ropes into their dark shafts and see stratum after stratum glide by in the lamplight. Everything the earth has salvaged: foundations, fence rails, tree roots, soup plates, soldiers’ helmets, the skeletons of animals and people in hushed chaos, the maelstrom congealed to a terrestrial crust that has swallowed us up.

Wow. That’s a hefty accumulation of the kinds of images and objects that form the ‘heart of our stories’. It fuses mighty abstractions with highly visual, painterly details: the detritus of time’s encounter with human warfare. It’s the verbal equivalent of the scattered contents of an occupied wartime trench after being hit by a shell; the narrator comes by afterwards and inspects, like an archaeologist poet, or a photographer-artists, the fragments out of which we’ve ‘salvaged’ our savage ruins.

I came to this novel shortly after the very different, much more conventional Not So Quiet…by Helen Zenna Smith. That fictional autobiography of a woman ambulance driver’s traumatic experiences in the same war is more direct, consciously unpoetic, and thus more immediately accessible. After my initial struggle to come to terms with the slow-burning, meditative approach of Mortier I’m finding While the Gods is more moving in many ways.

Like Smith, Mortier is good at conveying the horrific experiences of women who lived through WWI. Although, unlike Helen in Smith’s novel, Belgian Helena lived behind the front line, ostensibly away from the action, many of her memories involve the sense-impressions of that war of attrition: she could see the flashes of the huge guns in the distance, hear the thunderous booms they made, and feel in her very entrails the vibrations they made. She tells how a little village girl was killed by a random shard of shrapnel as she ran to play. There was no front line when artillery shells could travel miles.

She also gives vivid descriptions of journeys to the front with her English lover, Matthew, a photo-journalist. These sections indicate that she too has the sensibility and artistic eye of an artist-photographer. One of the most powerful sections in the novel is her description of her snapshot of her lover, taken from behind as he inspected the site of trench years after the war, and as the photographic plate looms into focus with the action of the chemicals on the plate, she starts to see details that had eluded her vision at the time: the jagged, scattered limbs of long-dead soldiers reaching out of the frozen mud, like images from Picasso’s Guernica.

Similar scenes recur, indelibly printed (or congealed) on her memory. For example when Matthew takes her to other such battle-scarred sites long after the war’s end, when he:

meticulously documented what I call the congealing, the great levelling, in all respects after the ravages and the euphoria of peace. The smoothing-over of the tormented earth.

She’s appalled by the ‘cemeteries where the fallen were gradually put in straighter and straighter ranks, disciplined even in death’. She bitterly reflects on the ‘wry euphemism’ of these ‘charming cemeteries’ that cover up cosmetically with ‘solemn temples, carved mourning statues, lit eternal flames…the bones and the corpses and the countless shattered lives’ in ‘an arcadia stretched out.’

She also evokes with heart-breaking pathos the ways that the women in her world, excluded from the infernal horrors of front-line action, had to bear a terrible burden of their own: it’s also the women who ‘take the blows’. Another memorable vignette from this montage of such images is that of her otherwise bohemian uncle, who’s taken on the responsibility of travelling from house to house in his small town, conveying the dreaded news of the latest casualties at the front. More women with lost sons, brothers, husbands, lovers. Lives smashed and frozen as graphically as those exposed limbs in Helena’s photo.

This novel was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2015, the year it was won by Jenny Erpenbeck for her novel The End of Days. I agree with Tony: it would have made a worthy winner itself.

But it takes perseverance, and perhaps a second reading to reveal, like the images in Helena’s stark photo, the shards of war that penetrate and wound a person’s memory like shrapnel.

Other bloggers who have posted on this novel find echoes in its themes and style, quite justifiably, of Proust and Sebald, among others. Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong also portrays vividly and poetically the connections between passion, love, loss and death in that terrible war:

Rough Ghosts

Dolce Belleza

David’s Book World

Tony’s Reading List

The Book Binder’s Daughter

 

Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger

Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger. Penguin paperback. First published 1987

An old lady – Claudia – lies dying in a hospital bed, appearing out of it most of the time, but we are privy in this novel’s first-person sections in a multi-voiced narrative to her still functioning, brilliant mind as it savours memories.

‘“Was she someone?” enquires the nurse’, who patronises her and fails to acknowledge the humanity and intelligence of this impetuous, spirited woman: to the nurse she’s just a delirious, rather querulous and troublesome patient, who needs placating and humouring.

But the doctor, reading her notes, confirms what Claudia’s thoughts had alerted us to a few lines earlier: ‘”Yes, she does seem to have been someone’ – and he recites her history as recorded there:

…”evidently she’s written books and newspaper articles and … um…been in the Middle East at one time…typhoid, malaria…unmarried (one miscarriage, one child, but he does not say)…” [ellipses in the original text]

Penelope Lively Moon Tiger coverMoon Tiger, Penelope Lively’s tenth novel, won the 1987 Booker Prize, and it’s easy to see why: it’s a moving account of Claudia’s tempestuous, richly textured life in the context of the history of the world in which she lived. That terse list of her achievements – of the scars life left on her and the legacy she left – is brought dramatically to life in this novel. Claudia lives on in the reader’s memory long after finishing it – a difficult, prickly, assertive woman who scared many who knew her with her uncompromising confidence and glamorous good looks: ‘sometimes she squashes people,’ is one comment about her from someone who loved her.

The novel opens with Claudia saying that she’s writing a history of the world, ‘And, in the process, my own’:

fact and fiction, myth and evidence, images and documents.

The raw material of the historian and journalist that she had been. In writing this personal and universal history in her head, however, she is attempting to make ‘real history’, her story. ‘Everything and nothing’ is her method, a refrain that recurs throughout the narrative.

Coming to this novel after WG Sebald’s The Emigrants was illuminating. Like Sebald, she’s concerned not just with events, evidence, data, but with something more profound and important, more elusive.

She recalls a trip with Gordon, the dying brother with whom she had an intense, even sexual, love-hate relationship. As usual he has challenged her, deprecating her kind of history writing. She vehemently refutes his suggestion that she disdains theory, preferring to write popular histories that appeal to less discerning readers, about ‘action’ and the big names: Tito, Napoleon –

“That’s not real history. History is grey stuff. Products. Systems of government. Climates of opinion. It moves slowly. That’s why you get impatient with it. You look for spectacle…[and this] may mislead. What’s really happening may be going on elsewhere.”

“Oh, come on,” cries Claudia. “You’d tell the prisoner on the guillotine that the action is really somewhere else?”

Yet in that opening hospital scene Claudia had reflected on the nature of her history:

The voice of history, of course, is composite. Many voices; all the voices that have managed to get themselves heard. Some louder than others, naturally. My story is tangled with the stories of others…their voices must be heard also, thus shall I abide by the conventions of history. I shall respect the laws of evidence. But truth is tied to words, to print, to the testimony of the page. Moments shower away; the days of our lives vanish utterly, more insubstantial than if they had been invented. Fiction can seem more enduring than reality…History unravels; circumstances, following their natural inclination, prefer to remain ravelled.

The novel’s longest and most vivid section – an evocation of the central and most important episode in her ‘composite’ life when she was a war correspondent in Egypt in the 1940s, and met the love of her life – reveals the cause for this philosophy of Claudia’s. She sits trying to file copy in her room while worrying about her soldier lover’s fate. There are the statistics of retreats and advances, tanks and aircraft lost, men taken prisoner:

Figures dance on bits of paper, tenuously related to machines, to flesh and blood. There is out there, where these things or something like them are supposedly happening, and back here where ice clinks in glasses at six and hoses play on the gardens of Gezira.

Like Sebald, she reflects on the ‘disorder’ that follows war, its ‘aftermath’:

The aftermath of war should, correctly, be another war; it usually is. But the conventional aftermath is the struggle to set straight that which is awry; the taking stock, the counting of the living and the dead, the drift of the dispossessed back to their homelands, the apportioning of blame, the extraction of penalties and, at last, the writing of history. Once it is all written down we know what really happened.

Like him, she attempts to articulate a response to reading the entries in a loved one’s diary at the end of the novel. It’s more poignant and revealing than any accumulation of evidence:

I cannot analyse and dissect it, draw conclusions, construct arguments. You tell me about gazelles and dead men, guns and stars, a boy who is afraid; it is all clearer to me than any chronicle of events but I cannot make sense of it, perhaps because there is none to be made. It might be easier if I believed in God, but I don’t. All I can think, when I hear your voice, is that the past is true, which both appals and uplifts me.

She needs these memories:

And I can only explain this need by extravagance: my history and the world’s. Because unless I am a part of everything I am nothing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

Sir Thomas Browne: ‘Religio Medici’ and ‘Urne-Buriall’.

Image from the NYRB Classics website

Image from the NYRB Classics website

Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici and Urne-Buriall. Edited by Stephen Greenblatt and Ramie Targoff. NYRB Classics. New York, NY, 2012

In their detailed and entertaining Introduction the editors describe the ‘idiosyncratic and often surprising ways of thinking’ of Sir Thomas Browne. Coleridge praised him for his ‘brain with a twist’. The eclectic and somewhat eccentric list of topics covered in his works includes a study of the quincunx in gardening, and an encyclopaedic exploration and refutation of ‘credulity and supinity’ and ‘false opinions’ (the Pseudodoxia Epedemica, or Enquiry into Very Many Received Tenents and Commonly Presumed Truths, first published in 1646, and subsequently much revised and augmented): here he considers such beliefs as ‘Glasse is poyson’ (in a chapter on Minerals and ‘vegetable bodies’); ‘Of the pissing of Toads, of the stone in their head, and of the generation of Frogs’ (in a marvellous chapter on animals, which includes the notion ‘That all Animals in the land are in their kinde in the Sea’, which I cited in a recent post on Marvell’s poem ‘The Garden’), or that children, without instruction, would naturally grow up speaking Hebrew.

Born in London in 1605 and educated at Oxford and then in the field of medicine in Italy, France and Holland, he was a typically polymathic, Baconian enquirer into all phenomena and esoterica in the natural and metaphysical worlds. His erudition was profound and extensive, but untrammeled by the scientific methods of his contemporaries: he was, as the editors put it so admirably, a ‘connoisseur of uncertainty’ who ‘delighted in circuitous methods and ambiguous conclusions’.

He settled in Norwich to practise medicine in 1637 and lived there until his death in 1682.

Like Shakespeare he was an aficionado of neologisms: the OED ranks him at no. 70 of the most prolifically cited sources (above Shelley, George Eliot and Ruskin [about whom I posted several times recently ]), and in the list of sources responsible for the first evidence of a word he ranks among the great, at an impressive no. 25, with 788, including the nouns ‘electricity’, ‘hallucination’ and ‘suicide’, and adjectives such as ‘medical’, ‘ferocious’ and ‘ascetic’. He was particularly fond of Latinate vocabulary, so for example snails are not ‘boneless’, they are exosseous; he writes not of birds’ flight but of their volitation; earwigs aren’t wingless but impennious; there’s a highly entertaining article on his contribution to English vocabulary on the Oxford Words blog here.

Title page of 'Religio Medici', 1642 edition

Title page of ‘Religio Medici’, 1642 edition; Wellcome Trust via Wikimedia Commons

The title of his first published work, Religio Medici, is intentionally paradoxical and controversial. It alludes to a contemporary proverb that two out of three doctors are atheists and sceptics, as the opening sentence shows:

For my religion, though there be severall circumstances that might perswade the world I have none at all, as the generall scandal of my profession, the naturall course of my studies, the indifferency of my behaviour, and discourse in matters of Religion, neither violently defending one, nor with the common ardour of contention opposing another; yet in despight hereof I dare, without usurpation, assume the honourable stile of a Christian…

Here he’s also referring to his medical education at three famously free-thinking European universities, where the pursuit of science was demarcated from the usual theological approach, and where the practice of anatomical dissection, which was considered a blasphemous transgression in other institutions, was an essential part of the curriculum. In this same sentence he alludes also to his refusal to be caught up in the doctrinal disputes that had grown increasingly virulent in the 1620s and 1630s, and which were threatening to ‘tear England apart’, and led to the Civil War of 1642-51 (Greenblatt and Targoff). His unorthodox examination of his religious faith in the light of his medical profession proved highly controversial, and like many Protestant works it was (in 1645, three years after its first unauthorised publication, to which Browne responded by bringing out an expurgated edition a year later) placed on the Vatican’s Index expurgartorius – the notorious Index of prohibited books.

Browne’s self-exposure in the Religio was unusual but not unprecedented: Montaigne’s Essays, first published in 1580 (and translated into English by John Florio in 1603) were a similar attempt to explore the questing motions of its author’s mind, and of his learning and beliefs.

Like Montaigne, Browne is addicted to digressions in his labyrinthine pursuit of his mind’s movements, and the text lacks discernible method. As you will have seen in my quotation of his opening sentence, his style is ornate, eloquent and sonorous, full of literary and theological allusions, subordinate clauses and rhetorical flourishes, with parallelisms and mellifluous symmetries; it also has an elegance, ruggedness and verbosity that verges on the obscure and pedantic. His writings were gruffly praised by Samuel Johnson, and admired by the Romantics. More recently WG Sebald wrote with fascination (in The Rings of Saturn, first published in German in 1995 and in English in 1998) about Browne’s ‘Musaeum Clausum or Bibliotheca Abscondita’ –  a playfully imaginative catalogue of his imaginary collection of rarities ‘never seen by any man now living’ (it’s discussed in my blog post here).

The craze for such cabinets of curiosities and wonders in the seventeenth century became the basis for some of the great scientific museums that were founded about this time, like the Ashmolean in Oxford, or the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, parts of which were bequeathed to the nation and formed the heart of the British Museum. But unlike the rational spirit of classification and organisation that underpinned these Baconian enterprises, Browne’s was a mind that delighted in paradox and contradiction, and occult mysteries, and he wasn’t averse to the dangerous voicing of doubts about accepted religious tenets and implausible Bible stories. He sums up his thinking as being dominated by ‘an unhappy curiosity’.

Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall, first published in 1658, was Browne’s prose meditation on the discovery in a field near the village of Great Walsingham in Norfolk of between forty and fifty urns containing human ashes, bone fragments and funerary objects. He reflects upon the different funeral practices of people from earlier cultures, and how they thought about the afterlife. He mistakenly believed the urns contained the remains of Romanised Britons; subsequent scholarship has shown they were probably Anglo-Saxon, dating from around the year 500. But he was far more disposed to link them with the sophisticated Romans, and not the pagan savages (as he saw them) of their successors in Britain’s history.

 

Portrait after a miniature by FH van Hove, now in the Wellcome Trust

Portrait after a miniature by FH van Hove, now in the Wellcome Trust, via Wikimedia Commons

He speculates on the practice of funerary cremation, but is effectively conducting a ‘diagnosis of the human condition’ – principally our hopes and fears about the afterlife:

To be gnaw’d out of our graves, to have our sculls made drinking-bowls, and our bones turned into Pipes, to delight and sport our Enemies, are Tragicall abominations, escaped in burning Burials./Urnall enterrments, and burnt Reliques lye not in fear of worms, or to be an heritage for Serpents.

In a typically elegant but uncharacteristically emotional section he ponders the apparent evidence that some of the urns contained the remains of more than one person, which leads him to consider the origins of the impulse for couples to indulge in the practice of joint burial:

The ashes of Domitian were mingled with those of Julia, of Achilles with those of Patroclus: All Urnes contained not single Ashes; Without confused burnings they affectionately compounded their bones; passionately endeavouring to continue their living Unions. And when distance of death denied such conjunctions, unsatisfied affections conceived some satisfaction to be neighbours in the grave, to lye Urne by Urne, and touch but in their names.

He ultimately finds little consolation, however, in this desire to find solace in the hope that death is not the end of life; ‘Vain ashes’, he concludes, ‘which in the oblivion of names, persons, times, and sexes, have found unto themselves a fruitless continuation, and only arise unto late posterity, as Emblemes of mortall vanities.’ Earthly commemoration is as futile as the hope for posthumous life – but we can’t help pursuing this magnificent endeavour.

I’ll finish with perhaps the most famous lines in the text:

What Song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling Questions are not beyond all conjecture. What time the persons of these Ossuaries entred the famous Nations of the dead, and slept with Princes and Counsellours, might admit a wide solution.

NYRB Classics has yet again done us a service in publishing this pair of texts in such a handsome edition, and I congratulate them and their editors for retaining the original spellings and orthographical practices: this is not just antiquarian quaintness – it enables the modern reader to appreciate the richness of the prose. The ample notes are learned and helpful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.