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Blue MaxW.G. Sebald: A Tribute

1 Love

A first reading. A thirst. A coincidence.

In the great building known locally and jocularly as ‘the Pantheon’, a group of the elect gathered in the antechamber, moved forward slowly, and in turn, leaned into the current of time, breaststroking beneath the giant dome while the audience whispered and clapped, making a sound of dry leaves turned by a light breeze. Outside, we waited while a fog descended, though I am unsure as to whether it was really a fog, for a mist is always fused around a lover’s eyes, and while we waited, a light drizzle began, bringing a sulphurous smell up from the wet cobbles, and it was then that K., an enigmatic woman of great beauty whom I had known for some years off and on and who periodically flung me a writer she had mysteriously encountered on her travels, produced a book from her briefcase which was written entirely in German. Thrust into my hand in this way, I grew increasingly depressed, believing this to be a combination of a farewell, a gift which would have to be returned unread, and an introduction to the mouth of a labyrinth from which I would surely never emerge. Without another word, K. hailed her limousine, submerged herself in its swollen upholstery and disappeared into the night. Beneath a street lamp in the Zeltnergasse, I opened the book to read its title: Schwindel. Gefülhe. Two words. Vertigo. Feelings. Just a moment. Even with a limited grasp of German, I became instantly suspicious. Schwindel of course can also mean swindle, fraud or trick. Have I just been deceived by giddiness, by feelings?

Two weeks later, back in my rooms in the country in which I had always been an orphan, I continued my unending classification of a never-to-be-completed library according to the natural order of things. For instance, having exhausted the few authors who seemed to me to have shared the colour of amber (cautionary fellows like Melville, though he would have undoubtedly preferred ambergris, something of another hue entirely; or Nabokov, whose entombed insects became electric when rubbed), I am now engaged exclusively in analysing writers who are coloured blue. Beckett, for instance, as William Gass reminded us, is a very blue man. But sucking-stones aside, Gass also takes us to the fifth degree of desire, which he categorises as ‘the use of language like a lover…not the language of love, but the love of language, not matter, but meaning, not what the tongue touches, but what it forms, not lips and nipples, but nouns and verbs.’1

What is love then, I ask, but a continuous reading and re-reading? And so I order my writers, many of whom the delightful K. had mailed to me in bulging envelopes decorated with exotic stamps, envelopes which in the past have contained a number of blue writers: Kafka and Canetti, Broch and Bernhard. So much so that in order to appease my benefactress and to quench my own undying thirst, I have begun an obsessive and intense re-translation, working with texts opened in German and in English, trying to catch everything that has fallen between: all the grammatical and syntactic possibilities; all the rhythms and incantations, the doublings, humours, variations and repetitions which illuminate disjunction; all the anapaests, trochees, choriambs and dochmiacs; in other words, all the dreams which only a language of the inner ear can make possible. A useless and thankless task, but one which stretches the possibilities of love, one could call it an epistolary and lexical love, netting long letters from elsewhere, the charm of which is the impossibility of closure. And so to the long sentence, which is much more suited to German, the add-ons, the supplements and sub-clauses. Love, in brackets or outside of them, is reading with an inability to move forward; not out of incomprehension or impenetrability, but from being held by forces in equal and opposite tension. Love, as we are told in Vertigo, is a ceaseless journey which is ‘a penitence for a longing for love’2 from which one can perish…all for an elusive chamois or amphibrach, a gnarled sub-clause or a hanging participle. All lovers are false, as Dr K. informs us, burdened with their bodies, watching the mermaid at the ship’s rail being borne wordlessly away, making a sign with her hand…for what we really desire are words, words and more words, to stave off the terrors of vulgarity, mediocrity, the shabby horrors of ordinary love.

The French have a word for this ceaseless journey which is far more suitable: le périple…a difficult passage, a voyage of exploration which is often circular…periplus in English, but that doesn’t convey the ripple-effect to which our blue writer attaches his lovers: Stendhal, Casanova, and yes, Kafka. These move in eccentric circles, in vertiginous swirls of sensibility which may well be extinct in today’s tawdry world, a sensibility appealing to an aesthetic described erroneously as transgressive, and which can only be understood in its illusory formation like that of Professor Aschenbach’s for instance. And death comes to them all, not just in Venice, but in venal and venereal places; in the dark forest, the Doge’s Palace, giddy Paris, in castles and casemates and in the fortress of Terezín, where the files of its inmates could still be heard uttering their stifled sighs. All because there once was culture, feelings and a longing for love, and lovers are easily punished, rendered mad, imprisoned, slaughtered; their wits are not sharpened for the brutality of the fallen world. ‘It is thanks to my evening reading alone that I am still more or less sane,’ says Sebald’s Salvatore. This is perhaps the trick, to stave off death by reading. But our blue writer is careful not to make this Arabian point, where we might spin off into arabesques and symmetries, and he informs us that even though tiny details may decide everything, it is through whimsy, ‘by a turn of the helm’, or by a ‘wrong turn of the tiller’, by a distraction, a crisis, a look of love, that we fail to make the crossing.3 We are swindled by love; of country, of nature, of others.

And yet the real beauty of the soul of these hunter-travellers, the beauty of their sadness, one could say, is that as lovers they are great profligates when it comes to the word. They are, as Roland Barthes called them, ‘subjects of Expenditure’.4 And that is why the title of W.G. Sebald’s first fictional work is called Schwindel. Gefühle. It is a cerebral-coronary affair.

2 Friendship

Let us begin with a brief account of Simonides of Keos, that ancient Greek poet who was the first poet to take money for his poems. ‘Money,’ as Anne Carson wrote, ‘offers a design for thought.’5 Simonides stood on the brink between the ritualised friendship of gift-giving and a society based on the idea of the commodity.

Simonides had been invited to a banquet by a nobleman called Scopas. The latter, like all millionaires, meanly informed the poet that he would only pay half the sum for a lyric poem in his honour, and that the poet was to obtain the rest from the gods to whom the second half of the poem was devoted. While Simonides was taking a break from this duty no one had filled his goblet and he was thirsty with all that declaiming two young men arrived outside and asked to speak with him in the antechamber. Suddenly the banquet hall collapsed and caved in, crushing Scopas and all the guests. Simonides, in a famous moment of panoptic recall, remembered where the dead were seated, and could thus name them all, no doubt readying to compose their epitaphs as well. The two young callers were, of course, gods.

So there is a connection here between memory and architecture, between place and time, between friendship and the nature of transaction. As Stendhal’s imaginary travelling companion declared: ‘love, like most other blessings of civilisation, was a chimaera…a passion that pays its debts in a coin of its own minting, and thus a purely notional transaction.’6 In order therefore, to understand our blue writer better, to whom we have given the name of Sebald, we should know that his narrators always based their friendships upon meetings in significant places, usually in buildings of some architectural interest: railway stations, waiting rooms, cafés, hotels, monuments, museums and archives. It is, in essence, a friendship-society of travellers.

It was with this in mind, having recently read Schwindel. Gefühle., that I agreed to meet K. at Centraal Station in Amsterdam, which my guide informed me was a magnet for pickpockets, crazies and urine-soaked drunks. And there she was, arriving first-class and on time, her hair somewhat displaced by the energetic winds which periodically swept through the platforms from the menacing North Sea. Without further ado, K. thrust once again into my hands a book she had been reading on the journey, a book much dog-eared and place-marked with little slivers of golden chocolate-foil, entitled Die Ausgewanderten, or, as I took it, the outward-bound wanderers. And it was with this in mind that K. began discoursing on how the English-speaking world, probably on account of its pragmatic preoccupation with profit and loss, its fascination with mass markets, the English-speaking world was extremely slow in unearthing writers of this kind, though once published in that language these writers usually receive great critical acclaim, these long essayists, obsessive grammarians, purveyors of invented logic and embedded narratives from another time. And so, K. was saying, Sebald was really taking flight in his fugues, his fuga, from time, which is constantly capitalised by market-value, fleeing from memoir, which is a price paid on lives, escaping from style-less prose and common plots. Sebald, she went on, (we were at this point accosted by a druggist intent on selling a chemical), Sebald, like Simonides, adds surplus value to the real, straddling both worlds, giving the récit éclaté, the extended fragment, a value wrought by a balanced and elastic syntax, while delivering the sense of a long dream which excavates the law of immanence…indeed, at times unearthing the voices of the gods, at work in coincidence and nuance. This is why these semi-invented memories, these mémoires imaginaries, are formed by accretion, collection, addition and supplementation, adding up, as Anne Carson says, to a doubling of ‘the negative of death’, a denial of oblivion.7 It is why, said K. as we made our way along the Leidsekade, Sebald’s prose attracts like a magnet the friendships of refugees, eccentrics, solitaries and the dying, so that they all form a skein over the eyes as we work our way through the maze, since that is the only way of documenting these souls, reading their lights and colours. It is a melancholic but steady affirmation.

Eyes and light and colours. As I read I am aware of personal and physical ailments, the depressive architecture of fortresses and brickworks, the sooty landscapes of mental breakdowns, the blindness, the increasing inner radiance behind the silk tissue through which we glimpse armies of the dead, elliptical worlds, lost worlds mapped only by their reappearances in subliminal light.

Such surplus value without mortality makes it seem almost impossible to be published commercially, I said to K. as we sat over our evening meal at the Bilderberg Garden Hotel, what with shelf lives and writers as commodities, though it is apparent that in Britain and Europe, literary publishing is still viable, since, I said, it has been rumoured that Austerlitz was signed over a six-figure sum. But certainly, literary publishing in Australia is in deep crisis, since a writer these days has to be a circus act or a no-risk novice, and literature may never recover in that country, I said, because no one really understands quality any more, nor do they have any means by which they can acquire taste, nor any measure with which they can gauge talent, since, I said to K., a manuscript these days goes straight to the publisher’s sales department, where one could safely say quality, talent and taste are in short supply. Besides, and here I quoted to her Michael Wilding’s analysis of publishing in Australia, ‘there is the further issue that the industry is controlled by foreign interests’.

There is legislation against foreign control of broadcasting and newspaper interests in Australia; there are no such controls over book publishing. Consequently the shaping of the national literary culture is in the hands of interests that have no commitment to that culture; indeed, it is the nature of transnationals to have no commitment to any national culture, to be concerned only with profit and tax minimisation.8

K. nodded. A writer like Sebald would almost certainly never have been discovered in Australia, she said. For one thing, there is a question of genre. How would they classify something which is neither novel, travelogue, memoir, history nor photography, but which is a combination of them all? In addition, this kind of work has at its heart a cosmopolitanism which continually critiques volksverbunden iconography, that blood-and-soil culture so beloved of the Nazis. Then there is a question of the photos, which form the border between life and death, signifying in silence, but possessing a mnemonic power in their textual spaces. They are, in some sense, a mental self-portrait, more personal than the text. Indeed, K. said, it is at the Gare d’Austerlitz that Austerlitz, another of those imaginary companions, perhaps a mirror of Sebald, recognises himself, and death:

And I also remember that I felt an uneasiness induced by the hall behind this façade, filled with a feeble light and almost entirely empty, where, on a platform roughly assembled out of beams and boards, there stood a scaffolding reminiscent of a gallows…9

And here, K. continued, we have all the saturnine melancholy of Baudelaire and Benjamin, blue writers if ever there were, who collected fragments and ruins, photos and books for instance, not for their monetary value but for their contemplative possibilities. It was then that I perceived what K. was doing, sending me all those books, making them my friends, so that in their company she would be able to slip quietly away from love to friendship.

Friendship. It is essentially a kind of potlatch; a competition in giving more; an expenditure. But friendship, as Nietzsche and Derrida tell us, must depend on silence. ‘Preserved by silence,’ says Jacques Derrida, ‘to resist the vertigo or the revolution that would have it turning around itself. Friendship is founded, in truth, so as to protect itself from the bottom, or the abyssal bottomless depths.’10

This is what all blue writers do, resisting the vortex while speaking the vortex, carrying in its eddies all manner of things; strange facts, coincidences, collections, objets trouvés, passions, parrots, moths, curiosities; the shapes and ‘self-contained nature of discrete things.’11

It is, in fact, the method of attaining friendship at the rim of the apocalypse.

‘More and more, the shrewdest thinkers and artists are precocious archaeologists of these ruins-in-the-making,’ says Susan Sontag, archivists of ‘a world whose past has become…obsolete, and whose present churns out instant antiques, invites custodians, decoders and collectors.’12

One proffers what one has collected, preserved and compressed, and one offers it in the most ethical way possible: with great intellectual generosity. A friendship of thought.

There are some friendships in Sebald’s work which appear more obvious, like the one with the writer Michael Hamburger in The Rings of Saturn. We are told less directly about others: Austerlitz rents an apartment at 6 ave. Émile Zola, near the Pont Mirabeau, which was of course the address of the poet Paul Celan, who leapt to his death from the nearby bridge. Celan, that poet of excision, who knew how to double the negative of death until he met his own.

And then there is Thomas Bernhard, whose book Extinction I shall deliberately not complete reading, for since his death there will be no more books from this great blue writer; Bernhard, with his distinctively long sentences and acerbic distaste for family, country and that national schizophrenia peculiar to Austria; Bernhard, with his special kind of warmth, humour and friendships, imaginary or otherwise, with Wittgenstein, Glenn Gould, Persian women and common labourers; Bernhard, with his love of forests and architecture. And suddenly, in Sebald’s Austerlitz, there is Bernhard on page 120, looking obliquely away from the camera, with a parrot on his shoulder, probably a superimposition of a younger Bernhard from his Obernathal days, the Bernhard who used to sling a rucksack like a parrot over his shoulder.

Bernhard and Sebald: the collectors; the rucksack archivists of music and motion, whose prosody, in German or English Sebald was notoriously meticulous in overseeing translations, when at times the translator’s presence was perhaps only a touchstone, a verification reads like Landor’s or De Quincey’s, and whose recurrent rhythms and serious dreaming float, as George Saintsbury remarked of the latter, ‘the dreamer over the most irrational and impossible transitions and junctures (or rather breaches) of incident and subject, without jolt or jar’.13

Next morning, the atmosphere at Schipol airport was so strangely muted that one might have thought one was already a good way beyond this world. As if they were under sedation or moving through time stretched and expanded, the passengers wandered the halls or, standing still on the escalators, were delivered to their various destination on high or underground.14

The next morning I was at Schipol waiting for my flight to Prague for its ninth Writers’ Festival when I caught sight of a tall, rather depressed-looking man gazing out at the tarmac. Neither sedated nor transported, he seemed to teeter on the edge of the glass. From his jacket photographs, I knew immediately that this was indeed W.G. Sebald.

So our périple leads us back to the Merlin Theatre in Prague, where that evening K. and I watched Sebald read from The Emigrants in English, and K. couldn’t help remarking that Sebald looked very like a bereft schnauzer, so depressed he seemed, and it took all my firmest hand signals to urge K. to be silent. Later, at a reception given by the Goethe Institute I was finally introduced to Sebald and was somewhat taken aback by the warmth, the quiet laughter behind the spectacles, the ingenuous manner. ‘Call me Max,’ he suggested, when I struggled with his initials, and I believe that was when I gathered the courage to make a small medical diagnosis of the narrator in The Rings of Saturn, whom I recognised immediately as one suffering from a slipped spinal disc, whereupon Max, noting this observation, said that when one walks clockwise around Britain, the left leg is invariably lower than the right, since the right is leeward and the left sloping seaward, so to speak, causing back pain, which seems to afflict more tall people than stocky people. I introduced him to K. and went in search of some Pilsener, though I heard Max gently say that he was allergic to beer and what he desired most of all, something which was probably not available, was a fernet with ice.

Two days later, on our way towards the river Vltava, hoping to cross the Charles Bridge to see the castle, K. and I became hopelessly lost, since we were following an old map drawn in Kafka’s time, when all the streets were in German, the Národni being the Ferdinandstrasse and the river the Moldau, and since we had just passed the insurance company where Kafka worked, on the Wenzels Platz (Václavské námìstí), where I suddenly made the connection between Václav Havel and Wenceslas the good king, we veered to the left, shouting river! and Schloß! in the hope someone would show us where they were, when a tall man carrying a rucksack turned and remarked that he could not help recognising our Australian accents. It was then that Max suggested lunch at the Slavia Restaurant, since we were standing near the entrance, and before too long we were studying his maps, sitting at the same table Václav Havel sat at during the last days of the Prague Spring, a table once bristling with KGB bugs. That was when Max told us about his long friendship with Thomas Bernhard, whom he said never enjoyed himself as much as when he, Bernhard, drank and ate with forest workers, with whom he would exchange hilarious stories abounding in those strange regions, places he knew well, but where he had never felt at home, nor did he, Sebald, feel at home in Britain, Max said, adding that he was probably a perpetual orphan. And it was also then that Max told us he was researching the records of a friend who once lived in Prague as a child, and that he was spending quite a few hours in the archives outside of central Prague, near Terezín, and he made the remark over a glass of fernet that what will be used from this massive research will always be a tiny fraction, and that it was important to preserve the silence. At this point, we, in our customary writers’ festival manner which I have always thought rather unbecoming, at this moment, in ritual festival fashion, we exchanged addresses with Max, who insisted on paying for lunch in veritable potlatch mode, depositing my card in his voluminous rucksack where I knew it would be destined for oblivion, but which would at least be honoured by silence.

On our way out of the Slavia Restaurant, which was famous for its ‘Blue Bar’, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, the well-known Australian writer F., sitting alone, and knowing that he liked it that way, so to speak, sitting in the Blue Bar in solitary fashion, I did not disturb him as he would have probably been meditating on loves, friendships, ineffable sadness perhaps…

Soon after that Prague trip K. and I parted forever, (letters, letters, letters: K. kein, renunciation, meaninglessness), not least because I had broken the silence over what should never have been discussed among friends, the three things never uttered, which, when set in motion, causes the avalanche. Nur das Sprechen war unerwartet, K. wrote.

3 Grief

I wrote a final letter to K. in which I discussed, probably in too prolix a fashion, the connection between morality and style, and in doing so, drew up a phrase from Theodor Adorno, that same Adorno who said his concept of art was that of lending a voice to suffering which cannot be unified with the present, to which I added that this acknowledgement of suffering was perhaps the only aesthetic truth left to us, that blue writers worked all their lives with the vain hope that there will be a future understanding in which their work will not be autonomous, but will be connected to a critical and historic context, a morality of style finally, a hope as tenuous and as strong as the image of a bird with a branch in its beak.

And so the Noah’s Ark, so recurrent a motif in Austerlitz, (the flood being the Creator’s inadvertence – His moment of distraction and second thoughts), carries the hunter-traveller back to Schwindel. Gefühle., where death has cheated us of another writer whose blueness borders Schopenhauer’s wavelength, where sadness is smoky violet and where through the blue haze we glimpse the bier brought back during our evening reading, and while leaning into the wind and time, we read of another journey scarcely begun:

A curious lightness such as he had never known took hold of him, and it is the recollection of that lightness which informs the account he wrote seven years later of a journey that may have been wholly imaginary, made with a companion who may likewise have been a mere figment of his own mind.15

  1. On Being Blue (Boston: David R. Godine, 1979), p. 11.
  2. W.G. Sebald, Vertigo (London: The Harvill Press, 1999), p. 165.
  3. Vertigo, 128,157,165.
  4. A Lover’s Discourse (N.Y.: Hill & Wang, 1983), p. 154.
  5. Economy of the Unlost (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999), p 80.
  6. Vertigo, 24.
  7. Economy of the Unlost, 108.
  8. ‘Australian Literary and Scholarly Publishing in its Intellectual Context’, Australian Literary Studies, 19 no. 1 (May 1999): 64.
  9. Austerlitz (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2001), p. 406.
  10. Politics of Friendship (London: Verso, 1997), p. 53.
  11. Austerlitz, 108.
  12. Styles of Radical Will (London: Secker & Warburg, 1969), p. 75; Under The Sign of Saturn (N.Y.: Vintage, 1981), p. 120.
  13. A History of English Prose Rhythm (London: Macmillan & Co., 1912), p. 311.
  14. The Rings of Saturn (London: The Harvill Press, 1998), p. 89.
  15. Vertigo, 23.

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