There is a very entertaining review written by Ben Marcus of Thomas Bernhard's novel Frost, which has recently been published in English, in this month's (November) Harper's magazine. Sadly the review is not online. It is also a very nice introduction to his work as a whole, though I think Marcus emphasises his negativity a little more than his unique style and voice and as a result it may drive away some of the potential but soft-hearted readers of Thomas Bernhard. Here is the opening paragraph of the review (I was thinking of copying the entire essay but it is too long, may be I will):
Thomas Bernhard, the ranting, death-obsessed Austrian novelist and playwright who died in 1989, was the ultimate Nestbeschmutzer, soiling his country with screeds against the landscape, the people, and their history. Not content with the limitations of his own mortality, Bernhard darkened his will with the dictum that his works could not be published or performed in Austria after his death, as if to suggest that his homeland was not even worthy to bathe in his hatred. Although Bernhard's executors have sashayed around his stipulation, his wrath has since matured into something far more universally toxic. In the end, Bernhard's concerns are not a single country and its political crimes but rather the sheer affront of life itself, what the Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran referred to as "The Trouble with Being Born."
Hermann Broch and Robert Musil, fellow countrymen of Bernhard's, reported on this trouble also, but in prose that was far more stately, tempered, and quite less given to spleen. Bernhard was altogether unconcerned with immunizing a reader against his surgical attacks on humanity, and if he made a blood sport of novel writing, he did it with a zeal and a gallows humour that is unrivaled in contemporary literature. His formally radical novels, which sometimes blasted into shape as a single, unbroken paragraph, were manic reports on such fixations as the futility of existence; the dark appeal, and the inevitable logic, of suicide; the monstrosity of human beings; and the abject pain of merely being alive. Bernhard's language strained the limits of rhetorical negativity: if his prose were any more anguished, it would simply transmit as moaning and wailing. Building interest in the grief experienced by people who look at the world and find it unbearable was a dark art of Bernhard's, and his characters do not resist the long walk to the death's door but run to it and claw at the surface, begging for entry. After all, says Strauch, the agonized painter in Bernhard's first novel, Frost, "there is an obligation towards the depth of one's own inner abyss," even if meeting that obligation destroys you.
A debut work of nearly unbearable bleakness, by a writer who would go on to produce some of the most nihilistic literature of the twentieth century, Frost, which was first published in German in 1963, is not so much a novel as a persuasive case against happiness, written in the relentless prose style that would become Bernhard's signature. An Austrian medical student accepts a perverse task from a teacher: go to Weng, where "the roadsides favour promiscuity" and "children fall into sudden fits of weakness," and clinically observe Strauch, the teacher's estranged brother. "Watch the way my brother holds his stick, I want a precise description of it," says the teacher. This is a perverse thing to want, particularly from someone who has not seen his brother in years, and it creeps towards suggesting that such cold, loveless interest from a family member has something to do with Strauch's miserable loneliness. It will turn out that other forces are bearing down on Strauch as well, and that misery happens to be one of his guilty pleasures. This is a man who excels at futility and unhappiness, and the performance of his grief will overpower every other spectacle in the novel.
Update: Few more excerpts from the review
A comparison between Sebald and Bernhard...
Bernhard's mortal impulses place him in the company of another contemporary German-language writer, W.G. Sebald. Both were perfect adherents to Kafka's credo to pursue the negative, because "the positive thing is given from the start." Each produced portraits of devastated characters, ruined by both circumstance and self-generated torment, but their techniques diverged in stark ways. Whereas Sebald built a tranquil moat around his characters' pain, Bernhard wheeled out the catapult and flung his characters into the fire, paying close attention to the sounds of their screams. In Sebald the emotion is buried under the veneer of manner and etiquette, and its repression and concealment create an exquisite pressure. We tiptoe around his characters and their elaborate denial, which, by its very banality, suggests to us extraordinary levels of pain that cannot be etched in language. They are so obliterated as to be beyond direct communication. Instead, they talk about the flora and fauna in wistful ways, they can reminisce dully, and we are left to infer the depth of their grief. Sebald promoted his credo of subtlety and indirection when he declared that atrocity could not be rendered directly in literature, a rule that would seem to stuff rags into the mouths of Bernhard's characters, who are so far from standing on ceremony that they may as well be crawling on their bellies through the dirt.
What does bind Bernhard and Sebald, beyond their instinct toward the inner darkness, is an interest in narrative techniques that moderate, and offset, the pain and anguish of their characters. Each frequently presents narrators whose chief function is to listen in on characters in pain, harvesting their suffering. Sebald's quiet narrators work like mollusks on the encoded confessions that come to them, and it's often the patience and curiosity of the narrators , or their simple drive to listen, that slowly draws in readers, until our own powers of detection and heightened and we can see the delicately buried signs of anguish. It is as though authorial choreography is not enough; an ally must be sent abroad into the text to witness the characters' wounds firsthand.
Bernhard, too, would prove to be obsessed with narrators who spy, effacing themselves in order to feed on a vaster world of feeling. In Frost, what keeps all of the madness and vitriol captivating is how elaborately it is mediated through the narrator, who breaks from direct quotation into stylized paraphrases, allowing the raw, spoken material from Strauch the refinements and range of literary prose. Strauch's consciousness is artfully parceled for us to sound both more deranged and more provocative than it would if we were to listen directly to his monologues. This is not your best friend's narcissism: boring and self-centered, repetitive, ignorant of its audience, Yet whenever Strauch worried his would for too long, the relentlessness of the wrath quickly becomes numbing and theatrical. It strangely loses its conviction.
And since I complained about his emphasis on negativity, I should add this para too where he explains why Bernhard is "uplifting and revelatory" (his focus is still on the content though):
If Frost is an apprentice work, a blast of raw feeling without the formal elegance of his later novels, it already heralds Bernhard's urge not just to look death in the face but to climb directly into its mouth and produce a fearless report of the architectural dimensions of a place that few of us care to imagine for very long. In writing that is remarkable for how close it takes us to our own ending, Bernhard is, finally, uplifting and revelatory, because he does not turn away from the most central and awful part of reality. His characters are so ruthlessly determined not to be fooled that they ruin themselves before our eyes. This is mercilessly honest work that shows the moral consequences of being highly alert to life, and it is terrifying to read. As the narrator of Frost says of his own report, "I could read the whole thing back, but I would only give myself a fright."
Thursday, November 30, 2006
There is a very entertaining review written by Ben Marcus of Thomas Bernhard's novel Frost, which has recently been published in English, in this month's (November) Harper's magazine. Sadly the review is not online. It is also a very nice introduction to his work as a whole, though I think Marcus emphasises his negativity a little more than his unique style and voice and as a result it may drive away some of the potential but soft-hearted readers of Thomas Bernhard. Here is the opening paragraph of the review (I was thinking of copying the entire essay but it is too long, may be I will):
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
"If there are more vicious quarrels in print than those in which these characters indulge their sadism I have not seen them. (...) That this is a novel that, once begun, will almost surely be read to the end is understandable, for it has in it the deep, slow pull of the ancient ooze where worms and serpents crawled; it reflects no codes, no restrictions, and none but the primordial necessities. It is a bath in sensation."
This is from a contemporary review of James Cain's novel Mildred Pierce. More reviews here.
I haven't read the book (it's not on the top of my list either) but saw the movie for the first time yesterday. Like all film-noirs of the time (on surface it is more of a melodrama, though of a very "un-family movie" type), it makes me wonder how did Hollywood lose all its viciousness? How did it become so tame?
Posted by Alok at 11:18 am
Saturday, November 25, 2006
Joseph Roth's novel has been praised by more than one nobel laureate so there is really no point in me adding my own enthusiastic recommendation (two thumbs way way up, btw). J M Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer have both called it a "masterpiece" while Joseph Brodskey, the Russian-American poet, said that "there is a poem on every page of the book." I will just add that though it is written by a comparatively obscure central european author, it is actually quite easy to read. (Just in case if you were wary of picking it up after seeing his name clubbed together with Musil, Mann or Kafka.)
I won't attempt to write a summary. Just a few thoughts after reading this otherwise very nicely written overview in The New Yorker of Roth's life and in particular this book. Joan Acocella in her essay says:
"Roth’s politics were not well worked out, and that fact underlies the one serious flaw of “The Radetzky March.” Lacking an explanation for the empire’s fall, Roth comes up with a notion of “fate,” and he bangs that drum portentously and repeatedly. I am almost glad the book has a fault. Roth extracted “The Radetzky March” from his very innards. This rather desperate, corny fate business reminds us of that fact, and counterbalances the crushing beauty of the rest of the book."
I think it was deliberate on Roth's part to keep the politics out of the narrative and quite in line with what he was trying to say in thematic terms. The novel, I felt, is a profoundly melancholic work, melancholic, in the Benjamin-ian or Sebald-ian (of Rings of Saturn) sense. It is not at all an objective account of a slice of life at a particular time or place or a fictional investigation into the historical causes of the demise of an empire. Otherwise, it could have easily become one of those tedious and pointless "historical epics". It is not an objective, realistic narrative at all. Everything is filtered through Roth's melancholic consciousness, so that he sees death everywhere from the very beginning. Whether it was the assassination of Archduke which precipitated the fall of the empire or something else, it doesn't matter. The point is, the empire and the social order was doomed like all empires and all social orders are. If it was not in 1914, it would have been a few years later. Same is true of individual lives too. Whether a life ends because of a particular disease or accident or it is because of the so-called natural causes (Bernhard style!) it doesn't matter. Life has to end, the cause is secondary and is assigned only in retrospect. The central truth is that everything has to end. Death is THE central fact of nature!
Also in this sense I think The Radetzky March resembles "the novel of ideas" more than the realistic Flaubert-Stendhal school of novel. (I also read somewhere that it is considered one of the best nineteenth century novels written in the twentieth century.) Indeed, if one reads it from a realistic novel perspective one will definitely get irritated with the repetitive metaphors, too many forced coincidences and a plot which is a little too tight for a "literary" novel. The dustjacket claims that Roth is "alongwith Robert Musil and Thomas Mann, among the greatest of the early twentieth century Central European writers." I think it fits better with a novel like The Magic Mountain than something like The Charterhouse of Parma. Roth may not be as sophisticated as Mann, but he shares many of Mann's preoccupations (e.g. the end of European civilization is one of the main themes of Magic Mountain too) and in the end, Radetzky March is far more moving, entertaining and gripping than Mann's novel.
I have copied some quotes from the book which will illustrate what I was trying to say. Also note that in most of the places death is spelled with a capital 'D'. My favourite is the fourth one.
"In those days there were a lot of men like Kapturak on the borders of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. They began to circle around the old empire like those black cowardly birds that ogle a dying man from infinitely far away. Dark and impatient, beating their wings, they wait for his end. Their slating beaks jab into their prey. No one knows where they come from or where they fly off to. They are the feathered brethren of enigmatic Death; they are his harbingers, his escorts, and his successors."
"He walked very slowly as if following a hearse."
"He calmly fell asleep, believing the worst was over. He did not know--old Herr Trotta--that fate was brewing bitter grief for him while he slept. He was old and tired, and death was already lurking, but life would not yet let him go. Like a cruel host it held him fast at the table becase he had not yet tasted all the bitterness that had been prepared for him."
"Trotta drank. The bare room grew homier. The naked electric bulb on its twisted wire, circled by whirring moths and swaying in the nocturnal wind, aroused fleeting cozy reflections on the brownish glass of the table. Gradually Trotta's disappointment mellowed into a pleasurable pain. He formed a kind of alliance with his grief. Everything in the world was extremely sorrowful today, and he, the lieutenant, was the midpoint of this miserable world. It was for him that the frogs were croaking so dolefully; the rueful crickets were lamenting for him. It was for him that the spring night was imbued with such a sweet, gentle sorrow, that the stars were so unreachably high in the heavens; for him alone their light twinkled with unrequited yearning. The infinite sorrow of the world fitted in perfectly with Trotta's misery. He suffered in utter harmony with the suffering universe. For behind the deep-blue vault of the sky, God himself gazed down at him in pity."
"Indeed, the appearance and the words of this strange district captain made them shudder. Perhaps they already felt the breath of Death, who was to grab them all a few months later--grab them by the throat! And they felt Death was breathing icily down their necks."
Posted by Alok at 7:08 pm
Friday, November 24, 2006
If you savor wine, you probably like traveling in France. If you appreciate good food, especially good food involving cured pork products, you're certainly drawn to Italy. If you love literature, however, the word-strewn, story-riddled, literary character-infested, continent-size country to which you most want to travel is probably Russia. It may be lazily regarded as "the East," but Russia's contributions are integral to the Western literary canon (as well as to the Western canons of music, dance and art). The universal themes of its greatest novels -- alienation, the individual's puniness against the forces of history, the struggle to invent a decent life, really bad weather -- make every reader feel Russian at one time or another.
I also want to go to Venice, with my copy of The Aspern Papers, Death in Venice and just in case I get bored with the two (they are quite boring, honestly speaking), I will have a DVD of Don't Look Now handy. The original novel I suspect will be too sub-literary for a noble enterprise like this!
Very disappointing that they left out Prague and Vienna! Two cities I really want to go to.
Posted by Alok at 6:20 pm
Thursday, November 23, 2006
The opening scene from Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies. See how he explains the phenomenon of solar eclipse with some poetic digressions towards the end. The whole scene is shot in a single cut, the original has a couple of minutes extra.
Have been meaning to read the Hungarian novel The Melancholy of Resistance on which this film is based, but haven't been able to lay my hands on it yet.
youtube has lots of clips from Bela Tarr's films. I particularly like this musical interlude from Damnation.
Posted by Alok at 8:35 pm
from Understanding W G Sebald, before I return the book back to the library.
As discussed earlier, Sebald's brand of humour is rooted in exaggeration. And here too the influence of Bernhard, as well as (although less frequently cited) Bernhard's aesthtically "quiescent" fellow countryman, the aforementioned nineteenth-century novelist Adalbert Stifter, can be felt. As the literary critic James Wood observes, "for all the apparent quietness of Sebald's prose, exaggeration is its principle, an exaggeration he has undoubtedly learned from Bernhard." Likewise, the pessimism in Sebald's works Wood likens to Bernhard's, except that Bernhard's "principle of exaggeration" is applied more consistently to the grotesque, whereas Sebald's concentrates more commonly on the elegiac, although the grotesque is by no means lacking. Sebald acknowledges the significance of Bernhard for his literary life and refers to Bernhard's particular brand of literary "extremism" as "periscopic writing."
Posted by Alok at 8:13 pm
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
"The director gives his main actors very little to do. Since their job is to embody a paradoxical romantic axiom — lovers may die, but love never does — they are trapped within a narrow range of emotions. Ms. Weisz’s role is to glow and sigh, while Mr. Jackman registers various forms of anguish and desperation. The intensity of their feeling never breaks the surface, and the frame encases them like a vitrine. It’s hard to sympathize with their hunger to overcome death, since neither one is credibly alive to begin with."
--from the new york times review of The Fountain, the new film by Darren Aronofosky.
Also, I generally never look at the so-called "health" section of newspapers, but this article from NYT made some sense.
Posted by Alok at 11:21 pm
Just saw this wonderful new movie from Pedro Almodovar. It is not as good as All About My Mother or Talk to Her but still it is masterly. Almodovar's (tragi-)comic humanism felt a little too generous for me initially but I was soon won over. By the time film ended most of my misanthropy was dissolved away! It is full of surprises and filled to brim with genuine feelings. Don't read the reviews, just go if you get a chance.
Two thoughts. First, I had no idea that La Mancha, where the story is set, really existed in modern Spain, let alone it even had wind-mills! I always thought Cervantes had made up the wind-mills bit.
Second, this film I think would be a sharp turn-around for Penelope Cruz's image. She looks so "maternal" in the whole film that it will be difficult for me to imagine her doing "regular" things after it (let me indulge in some patriarchal mother-whore dichotomy here :)). I don't know how she or Almodovar did it, but the more he shows her cleavage in focus (and he does it a lot throughout the film) the more maternal she becomes...
Two images, one from the movie and the other, the "maternal" actress with the director...
Posted by Alok at 8:41 pm
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
"Back then before the Great War, when the incidents reported on these pages took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a person lived or died. If a life was snuffed out from the host of the living, another life did not instantly replace it and make people forget the deceased. Instead, a gap remained where he had been, and both the near and distant witnesses of his demise fell silent whenever they saw this gap. If a fire devoured a house in a row of houses in a street, the charred site remained empty for a long time. For the bricklayers worked slowly and the leisurely, and when the closest neighbours as well as casual passersby looked at the empty lot, they remembered the shape and the walls of the vanished house. That was how things were back then. Anything that grew took its time growing, and anything that perished took a long time to be forgotten. But everything that had existed left its traces, and people lived on memories just as they now live on the ability to forget quickly and emphatically."
The above passage sums up the theme of The Radetzky March quite well. The Great War, mentioned in the first sentence of the paragraph, is not just the first world war, but also a metaphor for death and the end itself, the death of the "old world", of order and of European civilization itself. It is beautifully written dark masterpiece. It is almost as if Roth were obsessed with death, death is mentioned on almost every second page of the novel, he sees death everywhere:
"The people in this area were the spawn of the swamps. For the swamps lay incredibly widespread across the entire face of the land, on both sides of the highway, with frogs, fever germs, and treacherous grass that could be a horrible lure into a horrible death for innocent wanderers unfamiliar with the terrain. Many died, and their final cries for help went unheard. But all the people who were born there knew the treachery of swamps and had something of that treachery themselves. In spring and summer, the air was thick with an intense and incessant croaking of frogs. An equally intense trilling of larks exulted under the skies. And a tireless dialogue took place between the sky and the swamp."
I am almost finished with the book. Will add more later when I am done...
Posted by Alok at 10:41 pm
Monday, November 20, 2006
The New York Times reports on his latest film "My Blueberry Nights," the shooting for which it seems is already over. It won't be like 2046 and the article says it is a "smaller, off-the-cuff film."
Mr. Khondji said that he and Mr. Wong had intended to adopt a casually alert, near-documentary style, using a small crew and natural light. But once they got under way, perhaps through force of habit, the shots became more stylized. Still, Mr. Khondji added: “It’s not as perfect as his last two movies. There’s no time for perfection.”
Posted by Alok at 4:20 pm
Sunday, November 19, 2006
German literature is my second favourite national literature. (I naturally love my mother-tongue (it's Hindi btw), but the first prize has to go to the Russians.) I like the seriousness with which they go about doing things as compared to their anglo-american counterparts who, I think, generally aim a little too low. I am of course not talking of any individual authors but just a general trend an impression. Reading most of these anglo-american writers, it feels that they just went to the same creative writing school. And I hate the creative writing type prose -- poor clones of Flaubert, Chekhov or Nabokov.
I haven't read much of German literature, but I came across this which looks like a very useful resource. The entire German literature canon in a set of five carton boxes! The site is in German but you can check the names of the authors and books in each section. Only the novel section looked a little familiar to me. I have read The Sorrows of Young Werther and Elective Affinities and love them both. I have also read The Trial and The Tin Drum and struggled with The Magic Mountain too for a long time. After a lot of effort I reached around in the middle, around 300 pages, only then I realized that it is pointless to read the book unless you are an expert in nineteenth century German philosophy. Reading it just as a realistic story about life in a sanatorium is just too much. Death in Venice is not there, which I have read. I struggled with Alfred Doblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz which I bought earlier this year after reading Susan Sontag's rave about the fifteen hour TV film adaptation of the novel by Fassbinder. I read somewhere that the film is being restored and will come out on DVD soon. The book looked too difficult in the beginning for me. I am also currently in the middle of The Radetzky March, which is comparatively easy and quite interesting to read. My latest favourite Thomas Bernhard is also there with his novel Woodcutters which I have not yet read.
Also the critic who has compiled the canon, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, seems like an interesting figure. This article says that there are people in Germany who have never heard of Goethe, Nietzsche or Thomas Mann but are familiar with him. Also a novelist who got a bad review from him wrote a book called "Death of a Critic" which was denounced as an anti-semitic work (Reich Ranicki is a holocaust survivor.) There is also a very funny interview of him here.
When he groans as if he had to physically remove a sit-in striker from his office, when he runs his hand over his head as though looking for some hair, when he seems to be wishing you to outer space or looks like he's falling asleep, hoping you'll finally leave him in peace, you mustn't take it personally. Those who know Reich-Ranicki will tell you so. And they'll also recommend the following (no less difficult to accomplish): don't bore the old guy!
Posted by Alok at 5:44 pm
Saturday, November 18, 2006
Sloth is a part of series of books published by Oxford University Press on the seven deadly sins (Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Anger, Envy and Greed), which attempt to rescue their reputations and shed new light on their relevance and place in the modern age. Beasides that, this book is also a hilarious parody of the self-help genre of books. The author Wendy Wasserstein claims that this will be the last self-help guide you will ever need in your life and then goes on to prove it. It works very well as a satire about the contemporary society too, a society where we have either over-achieving idiots or else pathetic couch-patatoes. Although I am not too sure about her real intentions. She might even be sincere in her advice.
Link to the publisher's page and also a review of the book.
Some quotes from the book to give you a feel of its humour:
"As long as I can remember, I have been searching for the right self-improvement plan. I always felt I was on the verge of finding happiness, if only I could lose weight, develop a better vocabulary in thirty days, have tighter abdominal muscles and buns, speak Spanish, achieve inner peace, schedule my day more efficiently, become more assertive, communicate more clearly, express the full range of my emotions, get a man to marry me in ten dates, get my daughter into Harvard at age twelve, understand the subtext of everything a man said, eat only organic produce, have the heart of a rollerblader in south beach, Florida, learn the joy of having sex in four hundred different positions and loving every one of them, find my inner child, renew my outer adult, come to terms with bad things happening to good people, embrace the Hebrew God, embrace the Christian God, embrace the Muslim God, and learn to write poetry like the actress Suzanne Sommers."
"What's so great about the Sloth Plan, and why this plan is the fastest growing lifestyle change in the civilized world, is once you've got the idea, it can apply to every aspect of your life, not just exercise. Are you one of those supermoms who works all day, makes a delicious low-carb dinner for your family, does home-work with your teenager, gives your husband a blowjob, and then stays up to do the dishes? Well, get ready to have the power to say to your kid "do your own homework" and to leave the dirty pots and pans for somebody else. Unfasten your seat belt, kiddo, because the Sloth Plan will, for the first time in your life, allow you to hang loose."
"Forget about all the shoulds in your life. I should work harder, I should believe in God, I should make more money, I should get an erection, I should fit into size four, I should have four children at Yale. The Sloth Plan says have the courage to look should in the face and say, "Go to hell! I'm not getting up for you!""
The topic of sloth may sound light and fit for some exercises in humour but not many people know the history of how it came to be included in the roster in the seven deadly sins. Wasserstien touches on the historical side very briefly too but disappointingly doesn't go into the details. In the original usage sloth, or rather the latin word "Acedia" which preceded it, meant apathy, disinterest and melancholy. Acedia was distinguished from "Tristia" which is normal sadness resulting from a reaction to some real loss and which was seen more favourably since it brought people back to God. Acedia and melancholy were considered sins and blasphemies because the melancholic's despair suggested his faithlessness, and that he was not suffused with joy at the certain knowledge of God's divine love and mercy, and that he didn't believe in salvation. Dante mentions sadness in Purgatorio too, and calls it a sin originating from the absence of love, the love of one's soul and of God. (I can't find the exact lines from Dante though.) Update: Here is the chapter from Purgatorio.
If interested here is a link to a chapter in Summa Theologica where Thomas Aquinas explains why Sloth is a sin. Another nice and informative article about "fighting the noonday devil" here.
The phrase Noonday Demon has an interesting history too. I am copying a paragraph from the book The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon (highly recommended btw). (Next time you feel weary and listless in the afternoon, remember this.)
"In the fifth century, Cassian writes of the "sixth combat" with "weariness and the distress of the heart" saying that "this is 'the noonday demon' spoken of in the Ninetieth Psalm," which produces dislike of the place one is in, disgust, disdain, and contempt for other men, and sluggishness." The section is question occurs in Psalms and would be literally translted from the Vulgate: "His truth shall compass thee with a shield; thou shalt not be afraid of the terror of the night./Of the arrow that flieth in the day, of the business that walketh about in the dark: of invasion, or of the noonday demon"--"ab incrusus, et daemonio meridianno." Cassian presumed that the "terror of the night" refers to the evil; "the arrow that flies in the day" to the onslaught of human enemies; "the business that walketh about in the dark" to fiends that come in the sleep; "invasion" to possession; and "the noonday demon" to melancholia, the thing that you can see clearly in the brightest part of the day but that nonetheless comes to wrench your sould away from God."
Not surprisingly melancholy is a serious topic in religious studies. I always used to wonder whenever I saw monks and priests as a kid, as to how they could go on living alone, without being bored, doing the same thing over and over again for a being who doesn't even exist (I was stubbornly faithless even then.) There is an unforgettable and moving portrait of this religious melancholy in Bergman's Winter Light, which I saw sometime back but didn't write anything about. It's a must-see film if you haven't seen it. I am now curious about what Hinduism has to say about melancholia and insanity.
Posted by Alok at 6:28 pm
Thursday, November 16, 2006
At the premiere of Michael Haneke's last film but one, Funny Games - that intensely bewildering orgy of off-camera violence - audiences started staggering out after about 20 minutes, offended, revolted or maybe just winded. At the Cannes unveiling of The Piano Teacher this year, I like to think the critical community crossed the finishing line in better shape. We were just numbly silent, twitchily uncertain of when to speak. Only one person was in tears. I was reasonably calm but I think I remember leaving the auditorium on my hands and knees.
I think he is exaggerating but I remember being shaken and drained too by both the movies, but I really loved them both... And I think Code Unknown, that Haneke made in between, is even better than these two.
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
"A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."
--Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philiosophy of History, IX (from here)
W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn is more or less a 300 page illustration of this thesis. This line from the book is often quoted in the reviews for example:
"On every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation. For the history of every individual, of every social order, indeed of the whole world, does not describe an ever-widening, more and more wonderful arc, but rather follows a course which, once the meridian is reached, leads without fail down into the dark."
Posted by Alok at 10:10 pm
Museum of Modern Art in New York is holding a full-scale retrospective of the films of Italian director Roberto Rossellini starting from today. Of all his films, I have seen only Open City. I have been looking forward to watching his other films, specially the ones he made with Ingrid Bergman, ever since I saw the Martin Scorsese's documentary about the history of Italian cinema My Voyage to Italy. Scorsese devotes more than half of the documentary just to the films of Rossellini. I had written about the documentary here. If I can get over my melancholy and listlessness (sigh!) I will try to be there this Saturday for Stromboli and Voyage to Italy at least. More details on the MoMA website. Also more details in this excellent post on House Next Door.
By my usual standards I have been watching very few movies these days. Have been busy with Susan Sontag, Thomas Bernhard and WG Sebald (I have already added all three in my favourite authors list on my profile!) and in general feeling tired and totally disinterested in going out in general. Though I wanted to write about Two movies which I saw sometime back which provoked some extreme reactions in me, one very good and the other very bad.
First the good one. Carl Dreyer's Day of Wrath is a brilliant masterpiece, one of the best that I have seen in quite some time. The way he blends an eerie narrative about witchcraft, religious persecution and sexual and emotional self-expression together with his stark and austere visual style, is absolutely masterly and has to be seen to be believed. I was extremly impressed by it, even more than his other famous film The Passion of Joan of Arc, which is the only other film by him that I had seen before. Very highly recommended. Some details about the film here. Though really, you shouldn't be reading it if you haven't seen it, rather you should be running to your nearest DVD library.
Now the bad one. The French film L'Humanite directed by philosophy professor turned filmmaker Bruno Dumont is a vile, repugnant and deeply offensive piece of crap. This film really really rubbed me the wrong way. I don't know what was there exactly which provoked such violent reaction in me but not only I finished the whole film but also saw Dumont's interview which only multiplied my pissedoffness. IMDB link here. See it if you are curious. Contains some extremely graphic sex scenes.
Posted by Alok at 7:48 pm
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
An inspiring interview of Thomas Bernhard. Really worth reading even if you are not familiar with his work.
Another article also gives a good introduction to his life and works. It also mentions the name of the "Lebensmensch" ("life-person") who he talks of in his interview. It doesn't give any more details about the relationship though. Sadly not much information about his personal life is available on the internet. Looks like I will have to get a copy of his autobiography soon. The article also points to a review of his letters and private papers in TLS but I don't think I will be able to locate it here.
Which takes me to another interesting thing. Bernhard has written an autobiography called "Gathering Evidence." And Nabokov's autobiography Speak, Memory, a masterpiece and one of my all time favourite books by the way, was first published with the title "Conclusive Evidence." These both writers were trying to find and present evidences of their existence. I find it very interesting...
Posted by Alok at 10:23 am
Sunday, November 12, 2006
Susan Sontag's essay on German critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin, titled Under the Sign of Saturn, is really worth reading, even if you, like me (at least before reading the essay), don't know what the word Trauerspiel really means. It's a beautiful analysis of Benjamin's complex melancholy and a fascinating character portrait. I love this line from the essay in particular:
Dissimulation, secretiveness appear a necessity to the melancholic. He has complex, often veiled relations with others. These feelings of superiority, of inadequacy, of baffled feeling, of not being able to get what one wants, or even name it properly (or consistently) to oneself--these can be, it is felt they ought to be, masked by friendliness, or the most scrupulous manipulation.
I loved that oxymoronic phrase, "scrupulous manipulation"!
Speaking of Benjamin, I really wanted to see this documentary Who Killed Walter Benjamin, which played in New York a few months back. It is about the mysterious circumstances in which Benjamin committed suicide while attempting to escape the Nazi occupied France. You can also watch a trailer on the official site linked above.
Wiki page of Benjamin here. I have tried reading his essays on Proust and Kafka, which are considered classics and one of the best on the subjects, but it was a little too deep for me. Even Sontag's essay is very technical. Lots of things to learn, I think!
Posted by Alok at 6:14 pm
Saturday, November 11, 2006
So finally finished reading The Loser. Bernhard sure is very addictive and he has driven some of my gloom away too. Now I have to find another book by him to read, though my library doesn't have anything else by him.
Anyway, here is one more passage from the book which stuck to my mind (next time remember this passage when you are looking at your bookshelf)...
In the end the so-called great minds wind up in a state where we can feel only pity for their ridiculousness, their pitifulness. Even Shakespeare shrivels down to something ridiculous for us in clearheaded moment, he said, I thought. For a long time now the gods appear to us only in the heads on our beer steins, he said, I thought. Only a stupid person is amazed, he said, I thought. The so-called intellectual consumes himself in what he considers pathbreaking work and in the end has only succeeded in making himself ridiculous, whether he's called Schopenhauer or Nietzsche, it doesn't matter, even if he was Kleist or Voltaire we still see a pitiful being who has misused his head and finally driven himself into nonsense. Who's been rolled over and passed over by history. We've locked up the great thinkers in our bookcases, from which they keep staring at us, sentenced to eternal ridicule, he said, I thought. Day and night I hear the chatter of the great thinkers we've locked up in our bookcases, these ridiculous intellectual giants as shrunken heads behind glass, he said, I thought. All these people have sinned against nature, he said, they've committed first-degree murders of the intellect, that's why they've been punished and stuck in our bookcases for eternity. For they're choking to death in our bookcases, that's the truth. Our libraries are so to speak prisons where where we've locked up our intellectual giants,naturally Kant has been put in solitary confinement, like Nietzsche, like Schopenhauer, like Pascal, like Voltaire, like Montaigne, all the real giants have been put in solitary confinement, all the other in mass confinement, but everyone for ever and ever, my friend, for all time and unto eternity, that's the truth.
And it goes on and on....
Anyway, I was looking at my virtual bookshelf on Library Thing and it informs me that The Loser was 30th book that I read this year! If only I read even half of it related to what I do for living! Sigh! Anyway, My new year reading resolution was to read more history, specially about the Russian revolution and the Austro-Hungarian empire and more philosophy, specially Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer and the Romantics but actually hardly read anything on these subject. Next year may be...
I am also almost done with reading a brilliant companion monograph on W G Sebald, rather modestly titled Understanding W. G. Sebald, and I have no hesitation in calling it a masterpiece of explication and elucidation. I just wish there were more academic books like it. Will write about it later. I still have to read parts of it. Link to the publisher's page here.
Next book on the list is The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth. Here is a nice essay in New Yorker that I was reading and another essay by Coetzee also gives lots of background on Roth's life and works. Also learnt a new word, "delirium tremens." Roth died in a state of delirium tremens.
Posted by Alok at 9:45 pm
Friday, November 10, 2006
I was going through this list, rather ridiculously titled "1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die", and I just thought of finding out how many I had already read. Thank God before that, I did a random search and found out that it didn't have anything by Pushkin! No Onegin, just imagine! Then I searched for Lermontov and no results there too!
Anyway, idiocy apart, and speaking of Russian literature, Thomas Bernhard is a great fan of Russian literature too. This is from his autobiography Gathering Evidence. He is speaking about Dostoevsky's The Possessed (also translated as The Demons or The Devils)
Never in my whole life have I read a more engrossing and elemental work, and at the time I had never read such a long one. It had the effect of a powerful drug, and for a time I was totally absorbed by it. For some time after my return home I refused to read another book, fearing that I might be plunged headlong into the deepest disappointment. For weeks I refused to read anything at all. The monstrous quality of The Demons had made me strong; it had shown me a path that I could follow and told me that I was on the right one, the one that led out. I had felt the impact of a work that was both wild and great, and I emerged from the experience like a hero. Seldom has literature produced such an overwhelming effect on me. (335-36) from here
Specially noteworthy is the word "elemental". Indeed, what I like best about those nineteenth century Russian masters is that they don't use love or death as devices to move the plot forward but rather an end in itself. Plot works to explain what death means, rather than the other way, as would happen in regular novels.
Also this quote from The Loser:
All my tendencies are deadly ones, he once said to me, everything in me has a deadly tendency to it, it's in my genes, as Wertheimer said, I thought. He always read books that were obsessed with suicide, with disease and death, I thought while standing in the inn, books that described human misery, the hopeless, meaningless, senseless, world in which everything is always devastating and deadly. That's why he specially loved Dostoevsky and all his disciples, Russian literature in general, because it actually is a deadly literature, but also the depressing French philosophers [I think he means Pascal here].
The book that I get reminded of most while reading Bernhard is Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground. Only thing is that in Bernhard there is no, or very little, social, political and philosophical context. The narrators in Bernhard are similar to the underground man, only that we never get to know why the narrators became the way they are. Not that I think Bernhard is even trying to do the same thing, that is engage in socio-philosophical criticism, but it does take away some of the effect. In the end, in Bernhard, it remains just a portrait of a disintegrating mind, a mind going to pieces, and some interesting experiments with the language. In the end it really doesn't compare very favourably with Dostoevsky.
Don't you just envy these simple people? Or do they exasperate you? I am surrounded by all kinds of simple people and I don't know what to do with them... that might be the reason why this passage from The Loser made me laugh out loud and then made me think! :)
[...]as I happen to know, he first locked himself into the hunting lodge for three weeks, then went to the woodsmen and burdened them with his problem. But simple people don't understand complicated ones and thrust the latter back on themselves, more ruthlessly than any others, I thought. The biggest mistake is to think that one can be rescued by so-called simple people. A person goes to them in an extremely needy condition and begs desperately to be rescued and they thrust this person even more deeply into his own despair. And how are these supposed to save the extravagant one in his extravagance, I thought. Wertheimer had no choice but to kill himself after his sister left him, I thought.
Posted by Alok at 4:51 pm
Thursday, November 09, 2006
Update: Bhupinder has a great post on Kaifi Azmi on his blog. Please read it.
Kaifi Aur Main, an excellent play about the life and works of famous Urdu romantic poet and political activist Kaifi Azmi, is touring North America for quite some time. Here is the official website. (Link via email from Praba Mahajan.) Check the schedule and be there if you are even moderately interested in Ghazals, Urdu poetry or old Hindi movie songs.
I thought of adding my recommendation here because I attended the play when I was in Bangalore a few months back. The idea of the play is quite simple. The text is based on Shaukat Azmi's memoir Yaad ke Rehguzar which is about her life with her late husband. Shabana reads from the notes based on the text of the book while Javed Akhtar in his sonorous voice reads the thoughts of Kaifi Azmi, about his childhood, initiations into poetry and later politics. They both sit on two corners of the stage but the reading itself is very lively and animated with feeling. These readings are interspersed with excellent musical renditions of some of the best known of Kaifi's ghazals and lyrics.
I found the play very touching, even enlightening, specially when in these times when the word "romantic" is more or less used as a term of abuse, it is nice to come across something which restores the values of romanticism to its true, original, ethical roots.
Be there if you can! Link to Official Site.
You can also watch a song penned by Kaifi which I like (and which encapsulates my state of mind thse days too) on Youtube (has English subtitles too!)
The Wiki page is also quite good.
And also, last but not the least, Thank You Bhaya for sponsoring the tickets! :)
Posted by Alok at 6:41 pm
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
Thomas Bernhard, the gloomy Austrian, famous for his novels and plays actually started as a poet. He published his first volume of poetry when he was in his late twenties. The English translation of two of his poetry volumes has just come out. Here is one review. Also you can read parts of the poem at the publisher's page.
Link to pdf from the book. I don't know how good the poems are, I am not qualified enough to judge, but they do look characteristically bleak. (The title means "at the hour of the death.") Here is how it starts:
The flower of my anger grows wild
and everyone sees its thorn
piercing the sky
so that blood drips from my sun
growing the flower of my bitterness
from this grass
that washes my feet
the vain flower
that is choked in the wheel of night
the flower of my wheat Lord
the flower of my soul
God despise me
I am sick from this flower
that blooms red in my brain
over my sorrow.
The complete review page contains more links.
I am in the middle of reading his novel The Loser and well, I don't think words like bleak, gloomy, pessimistic will do any justice to what is there in the book. I think one book by Bernhard is enough to counter an entire library of positive thinking, self-improvement, you-can-be-happy-if-you-want-to volumes!
Though I must say, this is really not a book for me to read these days, when I am struggling so hard to resist the perverse pull of masochism and anhedonia and not succeeding at all (will I end up in a madhouse, that is the question I sleep thinking about each night)... I am not going to pick up another one by Bernhard till I feel better :)
Okay, here is something to test your sense of humour, I know this is just out of context and may not make sense but you will get a feel of what is there in the book:
It took me three days after Wertheimer hanged himself to figure out that, like Glenn, he had just turned fifty-one. When we cross the threshold of fiftieth year we see ourselves as base and spineless, I thought, the question is how long we can stand this condition. Lots of people kill themselves in their fifty-first year, I thought. Lots in their fifty-second, but more in their fifty-first. It doesn't matter whether they kill themselves in their fifty-first year or whether they die, as people say, a natural death, it doesn't matter whether they die like Glenn or whether they die like Wertheimer. The reason is that they are often ashamed of having reached the limit that a fifty-year-old crosses when he puts his fiftieth year behind him. For fifty years are absolutely enough, I thought. We become contemptible when go past fifty and are still living, continue our existence. We're border crossing weaklings, I thought, who have made ourselves twice as pitiful by putting fifty years behind us. Now I'm the shameless one, I thought. I envied the dead. For a moment I hated them for their superiority.
No one ever cast a more damaging light on his relatives than Wertheimer, descibed them into the dirt. Hated his father, mother, sister, reproached them all with his unhappiness. That he had to continue existing, constantly reminding them that they had thrown him up into that awful existence machine so that he would be spewed out below, a mangled pulp. His mother threw her child into this existence machine, all his life his father kept this existence machine running, which accurately hacked his son to pieces. Parents know very well that they perpetuate their own unhappiness in their children, they go about cruelly having children and throwing them into the existence machine, he said, I thought, contemplating the restaurant.
I haven't selected specific passages, just two almost at random. It is one continuous rant like this. A great example of what Susan Sontag called, "literature of mental restlessness." It is actually an extreme example, though I am enjoying it so far.
Anyway, here is one more review of Bernhard's first novel Frost in LA Times which has just been translated into English. I had linked to the NYT review earlier.
Tuesday, November 07, 2006
This essay by Susan Sontag is perhaps the best introduction to W.G. Sebald that I have read. It first appeared in Times Literary Supplement in 2000 and contains the appreciation of three of his books which were published at that time. This is not available on the internet. With this and the Ozick essay already here, now the excellent James Wood's essay on The Rings of Saturn remains. Will put that up here too. I have added some nice covers from English, French and German editions of his works. Formatting is slightly messed up, will try to change it later. Also the names in the original essay are in italics and there might be other minor errors. Will correct that later too.
A Mind in Mourning
Is literary greatness still possible? Given the implacable devolution of literary ambition, and the concurrent ascendancy of the tepid, the glib, and the senselessly cruel as normative fictional subjects, what would a noble literary enterprise look like now? One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.
Vertigo, the third of Sebald's books to be translated into English, is how he began. It appeared in German in 1990, when its author was forty-six; three years later came The Emigrants; and two years after that The Rings of Saturn. When The Emigrants appeared in English in 1996, the acclaim bordered on awe. Here was a masterly writer, mature, autumnal even, in his persona and themes, who had delivered a book as exotic as it was irrefutable. The language was a wonder--delicate, dense, steeped in thinghood; but there were ample precedents of that in English. What seemed foreign as well as most persuasive was the preternatural authority of Sebald's voice: its gravity, its sinuosity, its precision, its freedom from all-undermining or undignified self-consciousness or irony.
In W. G. Sebald's books, a narrator who, as we are reminded occasionally, bears the name W. G. Sebald, travels about registering evidence of the mortality of nature, recoiling from the ravages of modernity, musing over the secrets of obscure lives. On some mission of investigation, triggered by a memory, or news from a world irretrievably lost, he remembers, evokes, hallucinates, grieves.
Is the narrator Sebald? Or a fictional character to whom the author has lent his name, and selected elements of his biography? Born in 1944, in a village in Germany he calls "W." in his books (and the dust jacket identifies for us as Wertach im Allgau), settled in England in his early twenties, and a career academic currently teaching modern German literature at the University of East Anglia, the author includes a scattering of allusions to these bare facts and a few others, as well as, among other self-referring documents reproduced in his books, a grainy picture of himself posed in front of a massive Lebanese cedar in The Rings of Saturn and the photo on his new passport in Vertigo.
And yet these books ask, rightly, to be considered fiction. Fiction they are, not least because there is good reason to believe that much is invented or altered, just as, surely, some of what he relates surely did happen--names, places, dates, and all. Fiction and factuality are, of course, not opposed. one of the founding claims for the novel in English is that it is a true history. What makes a work fiction is not that the story is untrue--it may well be true, in part or in whole--but its use, or extension, of a variety of devices (including false and forged documents) which produce what literary theorists call "the effects of the real." Sebald's fictions--and their accompanying visual illustration--carry the effect of the real to a plangent extreme.
This "real" narrator is an exemplary fictional construction: the promeneur solitaire of many generations of romantic literature. A solitary, even when a companion is mentioned (the Clara of the opening paragraphs of The Emigrants), the narrator is ready to undertake journeys at whim, to follow some flare-up of curiosity about a life that has just ended (as, in The Emigrants, in the story of Paul, a beloved primary school teacher, which brings the narrator back for the first time to "the new Germany," and of his Uncle Adelberth, which brings the narrator to America). Another motive for traveling is proposed in Vertigo and The Rings of Saturn, where it is clearer that the narrator is also a writer, with a writer's restlessness and writer's taste for isolation. Often the narrator begins to travel in the wake of some crisis. And usually the journey is a quest, even if the nature of that quest is not immediately apparent.
Here is the beginning of the second of the four narratives of Vertigo:
In October 1980 I traveled from England, where I had then been living for nearly twenty-five years in a country whihc was almost always under grey skies, to Vienna, hoping that a change of place would help me get over a particularly difficult period in my life. In Vienna, however, I found that the days proved inordinately long, now they were not taken up by my customary routine of writing and gardening tasks, and I literally didn't know where to turn. Every morning I would set out and walk without aim or purpose through the streets of the inner city.
This long section, entitled "All' estero" (Abroad), which takes the narrator from Vienna to various places in northern Italy, follows the opening chapter, a brilliant exercise in Brief-Life writing which recounts the biography of the much-traveled Stendhal, and is followed by a brief third chapter relating the Italian journey of another writer, "Dr. K," to some of the sites of Sebald's travels in Italy. The fourth, and last, chapter, as long as the second and complementary to it, is entitled "Il ritorno in patria" (The Return Home). The four narratives of Vertigo adumbrate all of Sebald's major themes: journeys; the lives of writers, who are also travellers; being haunted and being light. And always, there are visions of destruction. In the first narrative, Stendhal dreams, while recovering from an illness, of the great fire of Moscow; and the last narrative ends with Sebald falling asleep over his Pepys and dreaming of London destroyed by the Great Fire.
The Emigrants uses this same four-part musical structure, in which the fourth narrative is longest and most powerful. Journeys of one kind or another are at the heart of all Sebald's narratives: the narrator's own peregrinations, and the lives, all in some way displaced, that the narrator evokes.
Compare the first sentence of The Rings of Saturn:
In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the country the Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.
The whole of The Rings of Saturn is the account of this walking trip undertaken to dispel this emptiness. For whereas the traditional tour brought one close to nature, here it measures the degree of devastation, and the opening of the book tells us that the narrator was so overcome by "the traces of destruction" he encountered that, a year to the day after beginning his tour, he was taken to a hospital in Norwich "in a state of almost total immobility."
Travels under the sign of Saturn, the emblem of melancholy, are the subject of all three books Sebald wrote in the first half of the 1990s. Destruction is his master theme: of nature (the lament for the trees destroyed by Dutch elm disease and those destroyed in the hurricane of 1987 in the next-to-last section of The Rings of Saturn); of cities; of ways of life. The Emigrants tells of a trip to Deauville in 1991, in search perhaps of "some remnants of the past," which confirms that "the once legendary resort, like everywhere else that one visits now, regardless of the country of continent, was hopelessly run down and ruined by traffic, shops and boutiques, and the insatiable urge for destruction." And the return home, in the fourth narrative of Vertigo, to W., which the narrator says he had not revisited since his childhood, is an extended recherche du temps perdu.
The climax of The Emigrants, four stories about people who have left their native lands, is the heartrending evocation--purportedly a memoir in a manuscript--of an idyllic German-Jewish childhood. The narrator goes on to describe his decision to visit the town, Kissingen, where this life had been lived, to see what traces of it remained. Because it was The Emigrants that launched Sebald in English, and because the subject of the last narrative, a famous painter given the name Max Ferber, is a German Jew sent out of Nazi Germany as a child to safety in England--his mother, who perished in the camps with his father, being the author of the memoir--the book was routinely labeled by most of the reviewers (especially, but not only, in America) as an example of Holocaust literature. Ending a book of lament with the ultimate subject of lament, The Emigrants may have set up some of Sebald's admirers for a disappointment with the work that followed it in translation, The Rings of Saturn.This book is not divided into distinct narratives but consists of a chain or progress of stories: one story leads to another. In The Rings of Saturn, the well-stocked mind speculates whether Sir Thomas Browne, visiting Holland, was present at an anatomy lesson depicted by Rembrandt; remembers a romantic interlude, during his English exile, in the life of Chateaubriand; recalls Roger Casement's noble efforts to publicize the infamies of Leopold's rule in Congo; and retells the childhood in exile and early adventures at sea of Joseph Conrad--these stories, and many others. With its cavalcade of erudite and curious anecdotes, and its tender encouters with bookish people (two lecturers on French literature, one of them a Flaubert scholar; the translator and poet Michael Hambuger), The Rings of Saturn could seem--after the high excruciation of The Emigrants--merely "literary."
It would still be a pity if the expectations about Sebald's work created by The Emigrants also influenced the reception of Vertigo, which makes still clearer the nature of his morally accelerated travel narratives--history minded in their obsessions; fictional in their reach. Travel frees the mind for the play of associations; for the afflictions (and erosions) of memory; for the savoring of solitude. The awareness of the solitary narrator is the true protagonist of Sebald's books, even when it is doing one of the things it does best: recounting, summing up, the lives of others.
Vertigo is the book in which the narrator's English life is least in evidence. And, ven more than the two succeeding books, this is a self-portrait of a mind: a restless, chronically dissatisfied mind; a harrowed mind; a mind prone to hallucinations. Walking in Vienna, he thinks he recognizes the poet Dante, banished from his hometown on pain of being burned at the stake. Sitting on the rear bunch of a vaporetto in Venice, he sees Ludwig II of Bavaria; riding on a bus along the shore of Lake Grada toward Riva, he sees an adolescent boy who looks exactly like Kafka. This narrator who defines himself as a foreigner--overhearing the babble of some German tourists in a hotel, he wishes he did not understand them; "that is, that he were the citizen of a better country, or of no country at all"--is also a mind in mourning. At one moment, the narrator says he does not know whether he is still in the land of the living or already somewhere else.
In fact, he is both: both alive and, if his imagination is the guide, posthumous. A journey is often a revisiting. It is the return to a place for some unfinished business, to retrace a memory, to repeat (or complete) an experience; to offer oneself up--as in the fourth narrative of The Emigrants--to the final, most devastating revelations. These heroic acts of remembering and retracing bring with them a price. Part of the power of Vertigo is that it dwells more on the cost of this effort. "Vertigo," the word used to translate the playful German title, Schwindel. Gefuhle (roughly: Giddiness. Feeling), hardly suggests all the kinds of panic and torpor and disorientation described in the book. IN Vertigo, he relates how, after arriving in Vienna, he walked so far that, he discovered returning to the hotel, his shoes had fallen apart. In The Rings of Saturn and, above all, in The Emigrants, the mind is less focussed on itself; the narrator is more elusive. More than the later books, Vertigo is about the narrator's own afflicted consciousness. But the laconically evoked mental distress that edges the narrator's calm , knowledgable awareness is never solipsistic, as in the literature of lesser concerns.
What anchors the unstable consciousness of the narrator is the spaciousness and acuity of the details. As travel is the generative principle of mental activity in Sebald's books, moving through space gives a kinetic rush to his marvelous descriptions, especially of the landscapes. This is a propelled narrator.
Where has one heard in English a voice of such confidence and precision, so direct in its expression of feeling, yet so respectfully devoted to "the real"? D. H. Lawrence may come to mind, and the Naipaul of The Enigma of Arrival. But they have little of the passionate bleakness of Sebald's voice. For this one must look to a German genealogy. Jean Paul, Franz Grillparzer, Adalbert Stifter, Robert Walser, the Hoffmansthal of "The Lord Chandos Letter," Thomas Bernhard are a few of the affiliations of this contemporary master of the literature of lament and of mental restlessness. The consensus about English literature for most of the past century has decreed the relentlessly elegiac and lyrical to be inappropriate for fiction, overblown, prententious. (Even so great a novel, and exception, as Virginia Woolf's The Waves has not escaped these strictures.) Postwar German literature, mindful of how congenial the grandiosity of past art and literature, particularly that of German romanticism, proved to the work of totalitarian mythmaking, has been suspicious of anything like the romantic or nostalgic relation to the past. But then only a German writer permanently domiciled abroad, in the precincts of a literature with a modern predilection for the anti-sublime, could indulge in so convincing a noble tone.
Besides the narrator's moral fervency and gifts of compassion (here he parts company with Bernhard), what keeps this writing always fresh, never merely rhetorical, is the saturated naming and visualizing in words; that, and the ever-surprising device of pictorial illustration. Pictures of train tickets or a torn-out leaf from a pocket diary, drawings, a calling card, newspaper clippings, a detail from a painting, and, of course, photographs have the charm and, in many instances, the imperfections of relics. Thus, in Vertigo, at one moment the narrator loses his passport; or rather, his hotel loses it for him. And here is document made out for the police Riva, with--a touch of mystery--the G in W.G. Sebald inked out. And the new passport, with the photograph issued by the German consulate in Milan. (Yes, this professional foreigner travels on a German passport--at least he did in 1987.) In The Emigrants these visual documents seem talismanic. It seems likely that not all of them are genuine. In The Rings of Saturn they seem, less interestingly, merely illustrative. If the narrator speaks of Swinburne, there is a small portrait of Swinburne set in the middle of the page; if relating a visit to cemetary in Suffolk, where his attention is captured by a funerary monument to a woman who died in 1799, which he describes in detail, from fulsome epitaph to the holes bored in the stone on the upper edges of the four sides, we are given a blurry little photograph of the tomb, again in the middle of the page.
In Vertigo the documents have a more poignant message. They say--It's true, what I've been telling you--which is hardly what a reader of fiction normally demands. To offer evidence at all is to endow what has been described by words with a mysterious surplus of pathos. The photographs and other relics reproduced on the page become an exquisite index of the pastness of the past.
Sometimes they seem like squiggles in Tristram Shandy; the author is being intimate with us. At other moments, these insistently proffered visual relics seems an insolent challenge to the sufficiency of the verbal. And yet, as Sebald writes in The Rings of Saturn, describing a favourite haunt, the Sailors' Reading Room in Southwold, where he over pored over entries from the log of a patrol ship anchored off the pier during the autumn of 1914, "Every time I decipher one of these entries I am astounded that a trail that has long since vanished from the air or the water remains visible here on the paper." And, he continues, closing the marbled cover of the logbook, he pondered "the mysterious survival of the written word."
Times Literary Supplement
[February 25, 2000]
So the French novel Les Bienveillantes ("The Benevolent Ones") which has been creating news for the last two months has won the Goncourt prize. I was intrigued by it when I had first read about it somewhere in the context of Frankfurt book fair. In case you have not been following, the 39 year old author of this 900 page novel, Jonathan Littell, is actually an American who lives in Spain and who is married to a Belgian and who writes in French. He claims that he chose French because that's the language of his literary heroes, Stendhal and Flaubert. I am a big fan of these two writers too but reading the account of his novel it doesn't look like he learnt a lot from either of them... It looks more like Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles (which I love by the way and which I think won the Goncourt too) than the great nineteenth century European novels.
Sign and Sight claims that his "aesthetics of horror, contrary to the French critics, has less to do with Stendhal's directness than with the horror film genre," which sounds very reasonable to me.
More reading stuff, if interested, from new york times, the guardian and the times.
What, all excited but don't know French? Too bad, because the English translation is scheduled for release sometime only in 2008.
Posted by Alok at 12:15 pm
Monday, November 06, 2006
I hope you subscribed to daily mails from Werther that I had linked to in this post.
This is today's email from him. He warns me not to laugh at him, but can't help. Really, how ridiculous one looks when one is on the other side! Anyway here it is:
Alok, what is the world to our hearts without love? What is a magic-lantern without light? You have but to kindle the flame within, and the brightest figures shine on the white wall; and, if love only shows us fleeting shadows, we are yet happy, when, like mere children, we behold them, and are transported with the splendid phantoms. I have not been able to see Charlotte to-day. I was prevented by company from which I could not disengage myself. What was to be done? I sent my servant to her house, that I might at least see somebody to-day who had been near her. Oh, the impatience with which I waited for his return! the joy with which I welcomed him! I should certainly have caught him in my arms, and kissed him, if I had not been ashamed.
It is said that the Bonona stone, when placed in the sun, attracts the rays, and for a time appears luminous in the dark. So was it with me and this servant. The idea that Charlotte's eyes had dwelt on his countenance, his cheek, his very apparel, endeared them all inestimably to me, so that at the moment I would not have parted from him for a thousand crowns. His presence made me so happy! Beware of laughing at me, Alok. Can that be a delusion which makes us happy?
Posted by Alok at 9:26 pm
Sunday, November 05, 2006
The last two posts attracted some frighteningly erudite comments and I now feel daunted so as an exercise in balance restoration here are a few Bollywood songs (yay!) that I really like. The first is an example of the genre of "jeep songs," which used to be ubiquitous in Hindi movies once but which are sadly nowhere to be seen in movies these days. I have such fascinating childhood memories associated with this vehicle. Anyway, here is the song:
For those who don't know Hindi, it is an example of "song of anticipation," a standard segment of any romantic narrative. The hero is asking out on his way if he can find some relief under the shadow of someone's hair or get a look filled with love from someone or a look on which his name his inscribed. I know, crazy translation, but I hope the meaning is conveyed...
The same song of anticipation from a feminine perspective here. Those sensitive to gender representation will note the contrast with the earlier song. How she prefers to passively wait for her "prince" rather than go out and ask for it. Also notice the way she looks at the camera and demolishes the fourth wall!
Okay so what about real romance? Sadly there are not enough good songs in Hindi movies that I like. These guys often start jumping around trees and the whole thing gets boring and cliched. Here is one exception which I like. Surprisingly this song is not very well known. Note how they move quietly and how overall unexcited they are. The whole thing is even tinged with a slight melancholy as if they are aware of the transience of what they are going through, as if they know that loss, separation and loneliness are just around the corner. Okay, I will stop blabbering now. Hope you like the songs!
Posted by Alok at 7:46 pm
Saturday, November 04, 2006
The Emigrants is the best book of fiction that I have read this year so far (I read it in January). I felt hopelessly incapable to write anything about it so I am reproducing a review by Cynthia Ozick first published in The New Republic. It is not freely available on the internet and don't ask me how I got access to new republic archives.
by W. G. Sebald
translated by Michael Hulse
(New Directions, 237 pp., $22.95)
There is almost no clarifying publisher's apparatus surrounding W. G. Sebald's restless, melancholy and (I am almost sorry to say) sublime narrative quartet. One is compelled--
ludicrously, clumsily--to settle for that hapless term, what is a "narrative quartet'?) because the very identity of this work remains murky. Which parts of it are memoir, which fiction--and ought it to matter? As external facticity, we learn from the copyright page that the date of the original German publication is 1993, and that the initials W.G. represent Winfried Georg. A meager paragraph supplies a handful of biographical notes: the author was born in Wertach im Allgau, Germany; he studied German language and literature in Freiburg (where, one recalls, Heidegger's influence as rector of the university, despite his earlier Nazi affiliations, extended well into the 1970s), and later in Francophone Switzerland and in Manchester, England, where he began a career in British university teaching. Two dates standout: Sebald's birth in 1944, an appalling year for all of Europe, and for European Jews a death's-head year; and 1970, when, at the age of 26, Sebald left his native Germany and moved permanently to England.
It cannot be inappropriate to speculate why. One can imagine that in 1966, during the high period of Germany's "economic miracle," when Sebald was (as that meagerly informative paragraph tells us) a very young assistant lecturer at the University of Manchester, he may have encountered a romantic attachment that finally lured him back to Britain; or else he came to the explicit determination, with or without any romantic attachment (yet he may, in fact, have fallen in love with the pathos of soot-blackened Manchester), that he would anyhow avoid the life of a contemporary German. The life of a contemporary German: I observe, though from a non-visitor's distance, and at so great a remove now from those twelve years of intoxicated popular zeal for Nazism, that such a life is somehow still touched with a smudge, or taint, of the old shameful history; and that the smudge, or taint--or call it, rather, the little tic of self-consciousness--is there all the same, whether it is regretted or repudiated, examined or ignored, forgotten or relegated to a principled indifference. Even the youngest Germans traveling abroad, especially in New York, know what it is to be made to face, willy-nilly, a history of national crime, however long receded and repented.
For a German citizen to live with 1944 as a birth date is reminder enough. Mengele stood that year on the ramp at Auschwitz, lifting the omnipotent gloved hand that dissolved Jewish families: mothers, babies and the old to the chimneys, the rest to the slave labor that temporarily forestalled death. Ah, and it is sentences like this last one that present-day Germans, thriving in a democratic Western polity, resent and decry. A German professor of comparative literature accused me not long ago--thanks to a sentence like that--of having a fossilized mind, of being unable to recognize that a nation "develops and moves on." Max Ferber, the painter-protagonist of the final tale in Sebald's quartet, might also earn that professor's fury. "To me, you see," Sebald quotes Ferber, "Germany is a country frozen in the past, destroyed, a curiously extraterritorial place." It is just this extraterritorialism--this ineradicable, inescapable, ever-recurring, hideously retrievable 1944--that Sebald investigates, though veiled and at a slant, in The Emigrants. And it was, I suspect, not the democratic Germany of the economic miracle from which Sebald emigrated in 1970; it may have been, after all, the horribly frozen year of his birth that he meant to leave behind.
That he did not relinquish his native language or its literature goes without saying; and we are indebted to Michael Hulse, Sebald's translator (himself a poet), for allowing us to see, through the stained glass of his consummate Englishing, what must surely be the most delicately powerful German prose since Thomas Mann. Or, on second thought, perhaps not Mann really, despite a common attraction to the history-soaked. Mann on occasion can be as heavily ornate as those carved mahogany sideboards and wardrobes--vestiges of proper German domesticity abandoned by the fleeing Jews-- which are currently reported to add a certain glamorous middle-'30s tone to today's fashionable Berlin apartments. Sebald is more translucent than Mann. He writes as Turner paints: "To the south, lofty Mount Spathi, two thousand metres high, towered above the plateau, like a mirage beyond the flood of light. The fields of potatoes and vegetables across the broad valley floor, the orchards and clumps of other trees, and the untilled land, were awash with green upon green, studded with the hundreds of white sails of wind pumps." Notably, this is not a landscape viewed by a fresh and naked eye. It is, in fact, a verbal rendering of an old photograph--a slide shown by a projector on a screen.
An obsession with old photographs is what separates Se-bald from traces of Mann, from Turner's hallucinatory mists, from the winding reflections of Proust (with whom, in his freely searching musings and paragraphs wheeling cumulatively over pages, Sebald has been rightly compared), and even from the elusively reappearing shade of Nabokov. The four narratives recounted in The Emigrants are each accompanied by superannuated poses captured by obsolete cameras; in their fierce time-bound isolations they suggest nothing so much as Diane Arbus. And, wittingly or not, Sebald evokes Henry James as well, partly for his theme of expatriation, and partly on account of the mysterious stillness inherent in photography's icy precision. In the late New York edition of his work, James eschewed illustration, that nineteenth-century standby, and turned instead to the unsentimental fixity of photography's Time and Place, or Place-in-Time. In Sebald's choosing to incorporate so many photos (I count eighty-six in 237 pages of text)-- houses, streets, cars, headstones, cobblestones, motionless schoolchildren, mountain crevasses, country roads, posters, roofs, steeples, hotel postcards, bridges, tenements, grand and simple rooms, overgrown gardens--he, like James with his 1909 frontispieces, is acknowledging the uncanny ache that cries out from the silence of solid things. These odd old pictures attach to Sebald's voice like an echo that cannot be heard, no matter how hard one strains; they lie in the crevices of print with a terrible helplessness, deaf-mutes without the capacity to sign.
The heard language of these four stories--memories personal, borrowed, invented-- is, as I noted earlier, sublime; and I wish it were not, or, if that is not altogether true, I admit to being disconcerted by a grieving that has been made beautiful. Grief, absence, loss, longing, wandering, exile, homesickness: these have been made millennially, sadly beautiful since the Odyssey, since the Aeneid, since Dante ("You shall come to know how salt is the taste of another's bread"); and, more venerably still, since the Psalmist's song by the waters of Babylon. Nostalgia is itself a lovely and piercing word, and even more so is the German Heimweh, "home-ache." It is art's sacred ancient trick to beautify pain, to romanticize the shadows of the irretrievable. "O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again": Thomas Wolfe, too much scorned for boyishness, tolls that bell as mournfully as anyone; but it is an American tolling, not a German one.
Sebald's mourning bell is German, unmistakably German; when it tolls the hour, it is almost always 1944. And if I regret the bittersweet sublime Turner-like wash of Beauty that shimmers over the whole of this volume, it is because sublime grieving is a category of yearning, fit for that which is irretrievable. But 1944 is always, always retrievable. There stands Mengele on the ramp, forever lifting his gloved hand; and there, sent off to the left and the right, are the Jews, going to the left and the right forever. Nor is this any intimation of Keats's urn--there are human ashes in it. The posthumous sublime is discordant; an oxymoron. Adorno told us this long ago: after Auschwitz, no more poetry. We resist such a dictum; the Psalmist by the waters of Babylon resisted it; Paul Celan resisted it; Sebald resists it. It is perhaps natural to resist it.
So, in language sublime, Sebald is haunted by Jewish ghosts--Europe's phantoms: the absent Jews, the deported, the gassed, the suffering, the hidden, the fled. There is a not-to-be-overlooked irony (a fossilized irony, my professor-critic might call it) in Sebald's having been awarded the Berlin Literature Prize--Berlin, the native city of Getshorn (ne Gerhardt) Scholem, who wrote definitively about the one-sided infatuation of Jews in love with high German culture and with the Vaterland itself. The Jewish passion for Germany was never reciprocated--until now. Sebald returns that Jewish attachment, although tragically: he is too late for reciprocity. The Jews for whom he searches are either stricken escapees or smoke. Like all ghosts, they need to be conjured.
Or, if not conjured, then come upon by degrees, gradually, incrementally, in rots and echoes. Sebald allows himself to discover his ghosts almost stealthily, with a dawning notion of who they really are. It is as if he is intruding on them, and so he is cautious, gentle, wavering at the outer margins of the strange places in which he finds them. In "Dr. Henry Selwyn," as the first narrative is called, the young Sebald and his wife drive out into the English countryside to rent a flat in a wing of an overgrown mansion surrounded by a neglected garden and a park of looming trees. The house seems deserted. Tentatively, they venture onto the grounds and stumble unexpectedly on a white-haired, talkative old man who describes himself as "a dweller in the garden, a kind of ornamental hermit." By the time we arrive at the end of this faintly Gothic episode, however, we have learned that Dr. Henry Selwyn was once a cheder-yingl, a Jewish schoolchild named Hersch Seweryn in a village near Grodno in Lithuania.
When he was 7 years old his family, including his sisters Gita and Raja, set out for America, like thousands of other impoverished shtetl Jews at the beginning of the century; but "in fact, as we learnt some time later to our dismay (the ship having long since cast off again), we had gone ashore in London." The boy begins his English education in Whitechapel in the Jewish East End and eventually wins a scholarship to Cambridge to study medicine. Then, like a proper member of his adopted milieu, he heads for the Continent for advanced training, where he becomes--again like a proper Englishman-- enamored of a Swiss Alpine guide named Johannes Naegeli. Naegeli tumbles into a crevasse and is killed; Selwyn returns home to serve in the Great War and in India. Later he marries a Swiss heiress who owns houses in England and lets flats. He has now completed the trajectory from Hersch Seweryn to Dr. Henry Selwyn. But one day, when the word "homesick" flies up out of a melancholy conversation with Sebald, Selwyn tells the story of his childhood as a Jewish immigrant.
The American term is immigrant, not emigrant, and for good reason, America being the famous recipient of newcomers: more come in than ever go out. Our expatriates tend to be artists, often writers: hence that illustrious row of highly polished runaways, James, Eliot, Pound, Wharton, Stein, Hemingway. But an expatriate, a willing (sometimes temporary) seeker, is not yet an emigrant. And an emigrant is not a refugee. A cheder-yingl from a shtetl near Grodno in a place and period not kind to Jews is likely to feel himself closer to being a refugee than an emigrant: our familiar steerage image expresses it best. Sebald, of course, knows this and introduces Dr. Selwyn as a type of foreshadowing. Displaced and homesick in old age for the child he once was (or in despair over the man he has become), Dr. Selwyn commits suicide. And on a visit to Switzerland in 1986, Sebald reads in a Lausanne newspaper that Johannes Naegeli's body has been found frozen in a glacier seventy-two years after his fall. "And so they are ever returning to us, the dead," Sebald writes.
But of exactly what is Dr. Selwyn a foreshadowing? Sebald's second narrative, titled "Paul Bereyter," is a portrait of a German primary school teacher Sebald's own teacher in the '50s, "who spent at least a quarter of all his lessons on teaching us things that were not on the syllabus." Original, inventive, a lover of music, a scorner of catechism and priests, an explorer, a whistler, a walker ("the very image ... of the German Wandervogel hiking movement, which must have had a lasting influence on him from his youth"), Paul Bereyter is nevertheless a lonely and increasingly aberrant figure. In the '30s he had come out of a teachers' training college (here a grim photo of the solemn graduates, in their school ties and rather silly caps) and taught school until 1935, when he was dismissed for being a quarter-Jew.
The next year his father, who owned a small department store, died in a mood of anguish over Nazi pogroms in his native Gunzenhausen, where there had been a thriving Jewish population. After the elder Bereyter's death, the business was confiscated; his widow succumbed to depression and a fatal deterioration. Paul's sweetheart, who had journeyed from Vienna to visit him just before he took up his first teaching post, was also lost to him: deported, it was presumed afterward, to Theresienstadt. Stripped of father, mother, inheritance, work and love, Paul fled to tutor in France for a time, but in 1939 drifted back to Germany, where, though only three-quarters Aryan, he was unaccountably conscripted. For six years he served in the motorized artillery all over Nazi-occupied Europe. At the war's end he returned to teach village boys, one of whom was Sebald.
As Sebald slowly elicits his old teacher's footprints from interviews, reconstructed hints and the flickering lantern of his own searching language, Paul Bereyter turns out to be that rare and mysterious figure: an interior refugee (and this despite his part in the German military machine)-- or call it, in ominous '30s lingo, an internal emigrant. After giving up teaching--the boys he had once felt affection for he now began to see as "contemptible and repulsive creatures"--he both lived in and departed from German society, inevitably drawn back to it, and just as inevitably repelled.
All his adult life, Sebald discovers, Paul Bereyter had been interested in railways. (The text is now interrupted by what appears to be Paul's own sketch of the local Bahnhof, or station, with the inscription "So ist es seit dem 4.10.1949," "This is how it has looked since April 10, 1949.") On the blackboard he draws "stations, tracks, goods depots, and signal boxes" for the boys to reproduce in their notebooks. He keeps a model train set on a card table in his fiat. He obsesses about timetables. Later, though his eyesight is troubled by cataracts, he reads demonically--almost exclusively the works of suicides, among them Benjamin, Klaus Mann, Koestler, Zweig, Tucholsky. He copies out, in shorthand, hundreds of their pages. And finally, on a mild winter afternoon, he puts on a windbreaker that he has not worn since his early teaching days forty years before, and goes out to stretch himself across the train tracks, awaiting his own (as it were) deportation. Years after this event, looking through Paul's photo album with its record of childhood and family life, Sebald again reflects: "it truly seemed to me, and still does, as if the dead were coming back"--but now he adds, "or as if we were on the point of joining them."
Two tales, two suicides. Yet suicide is hardly the most desolating loss in Sebald's broader scheme of losses. And since he comes at things slant, his next and longest account, the history of his aunts and uncles and their emigration to the United States in the 1920s--a period of extreme unemployment in Germany--is at first something of a conundrum. Where, one muses, are those glimmers of the Jewish ghosts of Germany, or any inkling of entanglement with Jews at all? And why, among these steadily rising German-American burghers, should there be? Aunt Fini and Aunt Lina and Uncle Kasimir, Aunt Theres and Cousin Flossie, "who later became a secretary in Tucson, Arizona, and learnt to belly dance when she was in her fifties": these are garden-variety acculturating American immigrants; we know them; we know the smells of their kitchens; they are our neighbors. (They were certainly mine in my North Bronx childhood.) The geography is familiar--a photo of a family dinner in a recognizable Bronx apartment (sconces on the wall, steam-heat radiators); then the upwardly mobile move to Mamaroneck, in Westchester; then the retirement community in New Jersey. To get to Fini and Kasimir, drive south from Newark on the Jersey Turnpike and head for Lakehurst and the Garden State Parkway. In search of Uncle Adelwarth in his last years: Route 17, Monticello, Hurleyille, Oswego, Ithaca. There are no ghosts in these parts. It is, all of it, plain-hearted America.
But turn the page: here are the ghosts. A photo of Uncle Kasimir as a young man, soon after his apprenticeship as a tinsmith. It is 1928, and only once in that terrible year, Kasimir recounts, did he get work, "when they were putting a new copper roof on the synagogue in Augsburg." In the photo Kasimir and six other metal workers are sitting at the top of the curve of a great dome. Behind them, crowning the dome, are three large sculptures of the six-pointed Star of David. "The Jews of Augsburg," explains Kasimir, "had donated the old copper roof for the war effort during the First World War, and it wasn't till '28 that they had the money they needed for a new roof." Sebald offers no comment concerning the fate of those patriotic Jews and their synagogue a decade on, in 1938, in the fiery hours of the Nazis' so-called Kristallnacht. But Kasimir and the half-dozen tinsmiths perched against a cluster of Jewish stars leave a silent mark in Sebald's prose: what once was is no more.
After the roofing job in Augsburg, Kasimir followed Fini and Theres to New York. They had been preceded by their legendary Uncle Ambros Adelwarth, who was already established as a major domo on the Long Island estate of the Solomon family, where he was in particular charge of Cosmo Solomon, the son and heir. Adelwarth helped place Fini as a governess with the Seligmanns in Port Washington, and Theres as a lady's maid to a Mrs. Wallerstein, whose husband was from Ulm in Germany. Kasimir, meanwhile, was renting a room on the Lower East Side from a Mrs. Litwak, who made paper flowers and sewed for a living. In the autumn, succahs sprouted on all the fire escapes. At first Kasimir was employed by the Seckler & Margarethen Soda and Seltzers Works; Seckler was a German Jew from Brunn, who recommended Kasimir as a metal worker for the new yeshiva on Amsterdam Avenue. 'The very next day," says Kasimir, "I was up on the top of the tower, just as I had been on the Augsburg Synagogue, only much higher."
So the immigrants, German and Jewish, mingle in America much as Germans and Jews once mingled in Germany, in lives at least superficially entwined. (One difference being that after the first immigrant generation the German-Americans would not be likely to continue as tinsmiths, just as Mrs. Litwak's progeny would hardly expect to take in sewing. The greater likelihood is that a Litwak daughter is belly dancing beside Flossie in Tucson.) And if Sebald means for us to feel through its American parallel how this ordinariness, this matter-of-factness, of German-Jewish coexistence was brutally ruptured in Germany, then he has succeeded in calling up his most fearful phantoms.
Yet his narrative continues as impregnable here as polished copper, evading conclusions of any kind. Even the remarkably stoic tale of Ambros Adelwarth, born in 1896, is left to speak for itself-- Adelwarth, who, traveling as valet and protector and probably lover of mad young Cosmo Solomon, dutifully frequented the polo grounds of Saratoga Springs and Palm Beach, and the casinos of Monte Carlo and Deauville, and saw Paris and Venice and Constantinople and the deserts on the way to Jerusalem. Growing steadily madder, Cosmo tried to hang himself and at last succumbed to catatonic dementia. Uncle Adelwarth was obliged to commit him to a sanitorium in Ithaca, New York, where Cosmo died--the same sanitorium to which Adelwarth, with all the discipline of a lifetime, and in a strange act of replication, later delivered himself to paralysis and death.
The yeshiva on Amsterdam Avenue, the Solomons, Seligmanns, Wallersteins, Mrs. Litwak and the succahs on the Lower East Side: this is how Sebald chooses to shape the story of the emigration to America of his Catholic German relations. It is as if the fervor of Uncle Adelwarth's faithful attachment to Cosmo Solomon were somehow a repudiation of Gershom Scholem's thesis of unrequited Jewish devotion; as if Sebald were casting a posthumous spell to undo that thesis.
And now on to Max Ferber, Sebald's final guide to the deeps. Ferber was a painter whom Sebald got to know-- "befriended" is too implicated a term for that early stage--when the 22-year-old Sebald came to study and teach in Manchester, an industrially ailing city studded with mainly defunct chimneys, the erstwhile black fumes of which still coated every civic brick. That was in 1966; my own first glimpse of Manchester was nine years before, and I marveled then that an entire metropolis should be so amazingly, universally charred, as if brushed by a passing conflagration. (Later Sebald will tell us that in its bustling heyday Lodz, in Poland--the site of the Lodz Ghetto, a notorious Nazi vestibule for deportation--was dubbed the Polish Manchester, at a time when Manchester, too, was booming and both cities had flourishing Jewish populations.) At 18, Ferber arrived in Manchester to study art and thereafter rarely left.
It was the thousands of Manchester smokestacks, he confided to the newcomer Sebald, that prompted his belief that "I had found my destiny." "I am here," he said, "to serve under the chimney." In those early days Ferber's studio, as Sebald describes it, resembled an ash pit: "when I watched Ferber working on one of his portrait studies over a number of weeks, I often thought that his prime concern was to increase the dust...that process of drawing and shading [with charcoal sticks] on the thick, leathery paper, as well as the concomitant business of constantly erasing what he had drawn with a woollen rag already heavy with charcoal, really amounted to nothing but a steady production of dust."
And in 1990, when Sebald urgently undertook to search out the life of the refugee Max Ferber and the history of his lost German Jewish family, he seemed to be duplicating Ferber's own pattern of reluctant consummation, overlaid with haltings, dissatisfactions, fears and erasures: "not infrequently I unraveled 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....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."
All this falls out, one imagines, because Sebald is now openly permitting himself to "become" Max Ferber; or, to put it less emblematically, because in these concluding pages he begins to move, still sidling, still hesitating, from the oblique to the head-on; from intimation to declaration. Here, terminally--at the last stop, so to speak--is a full and direct narrative of Jewish exile and destruction, neither hinted at through an account of a loosely parallel flight from Lithuania a generation before, nor obscured by a quarter Jew who served in Hitler's army, nor hidden under the copper roof of a German synagogue, nor palely limned in Uncle Adelwarth's journey to Jerusalem with a Jewish companion.
Coming on Max Ferber again after a separation of twenty years, Sebald is no longer that uncomprehending nervous junior scholar fresh from a postwar German education: he is middle-aged, an eminent professor in a British university, the author of two novels. And Ferber, nearing 70, is now a celebrated British painter whose work is exhibited at the Tate. The reunion bears unanticipated fruit: Ferber surrenders to Sebald a cache of letters containing what is, in effect, a record of his mother's life, written when the 15-year-old Max had already been sent to safety in England. Ferber's father, an art dealer, and his mother, decorated for tending the German wounded in the First World War, remained trapped in Germany, unable to obtain the visas that would assure their escape. In 1941 they were deported from Munich to Riga in Lithuania, where they were murdered. "The fact is," Ferber now tells Sebald, "that tragedy in my youth struck such deep roots within me that it later shot up again, put forth evil flowers, and spread the poisonous canopy over me which has kept me so much in the shade and dark." Thus the latter-day explication of "I am here to serve under the chimney," uttered decades after the young Sebald loitered, watchful and bewildered, in the exiled painter's ash-heaped studio.
The memoir itself is all liveliness and light. Sebald recreates it lyrically, meticulously from, as we say, the inside out. It begins with Luisa and Leo Lanzberg, a little brother and sister in the village of Steinach, near Bad Kissingen, where Jews have lived since the 1600s. ("It almost goes without saying," Sebald interpolates-- it is a new note for him--"that there are no Jews in Steinach now, and that those who live there have difficulty remembering those who were once their neighbors and whose homes and property they appropriated, if indeed they remember them at all.") Friday nights in Steinach juxtapose the silver Sabbath candelabrum with the beloved poems of Heine. The day nursery, presided over by nuns, excuses the Jewish children from morning prayers. On Sabbath afternoons in summer, before the men return to the synagogue, there is lemonade and challah with corned beef. Rosh Hashanah; Yom Kippur; then the succah hung with apples and pears and chains of rose hips. In winter the Jewish school celebrates both Hanukkah and the Reich. Before Passover "the bustle is dreadful." Father prospers, and the family moves to the middle-class world of Kissingen. (A photo shows the new house: a mansion with two medieval spires. Nevertheless several rooms are rented out.)
And so on and so on: the blessing of the ordinary. Luisa grows into a young woman with suitors; her Gentile fiance dies suddenly, of a stroke; a matchmaker finds her a Jewish husband, Max's father. "In the summer of 1921," Ferber's mother writes, "soon after our marriage, we went to the Allgau...where the scattered villages were so peaceful it was as if nothing evil had ever happened anywhere on earth." Sebald, we know, was born in one of those villages.
In 1991, fifty years after the memoirist was deported to Riga, Sebald visits Steinach and Kissingen. In the old Jewish cemetery in Kissingen, "a wilderness of graves, neglected for years, crumbling and gradually sinking into the ground amidst tall grass and wild flowers under the shade of trees, which trembled in the slight movement of the air," he stands before the gravestones and reads the names of the pre-Hitler dead, Auerbach, Grunwald, Leuthold, Seeligmann, Goldstaub, Baumblatt, Blumenthal, and thinks how "perhaps there was nothing the Germans begrudged the Jews so much as their beautiful names, so intimately bound up with the country they lived in and with its language." He finds a more recent marker: a relative of Max Ferber's who, in expectation of the outcome, took her own life. (The third suicide in Sebald's quartet.) And then he flees: "I felt increasingly that the mental impoverishment and lack of memory that marked the Germans, and the efficiency with which they had cleaned everything up, were beginning to affect my head and my nerves." A sign on the cemetery gates warns that vandals will be prosecuted.
The Emigrants (an ironically misleading title) ends with a mental flash of the Lodz Ghetto: the German occupiers feasting, the cowed Jewish slave laborers, children among them, toiling for their masters. In the conqueror's lens Sebald sees three young Jewish women at a loom and recalls "the daughters of night, with spindle, scissors and thread." Here, it strikes me, is the only false image in this ruthlessly moving and profoundly honest work dedicated to the recapture of phantoms. In the time of the German night, it was not the Jews who stood in for the relentless Fates, they who rule over life and death. And no one understands this, from the German side, more mournfully, more painfully, than the author of these sad and subterranean recreations.
By Cynthia Ozick
Cynthia Ozick's new novel, "The Puttermesser Papers," will be published by Knopf in the spring.