“Sitting with my wife in a small and unpretentious hotel somewhere to the east of Bremen in the August of 2005, my thoughts turned to the wine menu. Before us the garden lay verdant and well-tended while in the air hung an atmosphere suggestive of those lines of Holderlin which I have never quite managed to remember despite considerable efforts.
Our children were playing at a distance, their cries reaching us at intervals, a reminder of the inextinguishable ‘espoir’ of youth. As for the other guests, they were of advanced years and sat staring out across the garden as one might imagine a sailor surveying an expanse of ocean unsure of the beckoning horizon.
A waiter approached. His face bore a moustache which in its hirsute exactitude evoked for me an actor I once saw in an out of the way amateur production taking place under the auspices of the Bath Theatre Arts Centenary in 1985. The name of the said thespian escapes me and yet his embodiment of Friedrich in Thomas Mann’s much-overlooked play ‘Der Spiegel im Spiegelei’ was uncanny to say the least.
On asking whether we desired red or white, I was nonplussed. Who, indeed, would order red in such a locale? Yet, on pressing the jolly individual, I was apprised that they possessed no less than three red wines of unsurpassed excellence. I ordered accordingly.
Was it Montaigne, the renowned spider of Nantes, who argued that a thing untried was a thing beyond belief? I can only assert that when the said bottle arrived I understood the apothegm with an unforeseen force. The ruby liquid that coursed into the glass bearing, I noticed some three years later, the imprimatur of Johann Van Den Dinn the illustrious glassblower of Utrecht, was of a quality comparable only to urine extracted from rats kept in the manner made famous by the Emperor Tchi-Tchi-Tchang-Tzu …
(extracted from a hitherto unpublished novel by W.G. Sebald ‘The Lecturer’s Sabbatical’)
Somewhere – maybe – there exists a rather cruddily made book bearing the title ‘The Shabbiness of Intent’. I made it for Ben Watson (aka ‘Out To Lunch’) by way of a thank you for his hospitality and chat about Zappa and other stuff during a week up in Leeds. Typically, Ben sent this around and it ended up with Iain Sinclair (the target of the parody). According to Ben, when asked what he thought of it, Sinclair replied he’d found it amusing but self-parody was implied in his own project. So why would someone else try it on?
So, Sunday evening, trying to make sense of reading Sebald’s ‘Rings of Saturn’ from cover to cover f-i-n-a-l-l-y, I’m thinking back to to my parody of Sinclair.
I’ve tried to read R.o.S. several times and abandoned it. The tone of the initial pages grated. Like the waiter in the German hotel there seemed too much earnestness, self-belief, uninflected irony – a text which took itself too seriously. (As if anyone is going to drink German red wine!).
Then, on moving into Chapter 6, I began to think more seriously about the novel, Sebald, the ‘Sebald phenomenon’ if you like.
I began to realize I can use this text. A text which is – as I now realize – about detecting patterns, recurrence, a sense of a Grand Design. Yet, at the same time, questioning such desires, playing with such hopes, wondering if they are ultimately a trap.
I like the astronomical-astrological metaphorics: Saturn the planet of rules, discipline, structure, melancholia, Aquarius, coolness.
I like the opening epigrams –
Crystallizations and fragments of a former moon circling the main planet (my Reading Cosmos model of last week is proof enough)
Conrad’s statement about those who follow the shoreline (a periplum, of sorts)
And the page from the silk pattern book – “the only true book” as the text asserts later – which is, as such, what W.G.S. is doing throughout: sampling.
Yet we cannot ignore how in the b&w reproduction the colours are lost. How the figures once denotative of orders are now suggestive of ciphers or magical numbers. How “dyeing” carries its inevitable punning dark double. How the elegant calligraphy is both aesthetically satisfying and poignant in terms of a long lost culture of the living hand.
That W.G.S. interleaves this ‘hors-texte’ and then as pages 284 and 285 confirms the significance: text and sampling. (And, of course, the whole thematics of silk manufacture).
It doesn’t require great insight to realize that W.G.S. is exploring what is real, incontrovertible, tangible, proveable, actual – the list goes on – in modern society. He employs a narrator who is seemingly plausible and the use of photographic ‘proof’ seems to serve to confirm the documentary veracity of the ‘story’.
And then it occurs to me: what if W.G.S. is – himself – a posture? In other words, quite how far back does one ironize this text?
I don’t know much about the biographical W.G.S. beyond what the back cover and Google searches throw up. As a German academic he’d be the witness of the destruction and radical questioning of a German identity (Wim Wenders and ‘Wings of Desire’ come to mind). He then ‘adopts’ England as his homeland and – judging by R.o.S. – becomes a target for that cliché: “more English than the English”.
In my notes (you see, it’s catching!) I find many questions: Where are we? In a hospital room? In another writer’s book? In a gallery looking at a painting? In another writer’s house? Walking the East Anglian coast?
Who are we? Or “I”?. No quotation marks allow a gliding into and out of other I’s. What else is citation? How many voices are there?
There’s a recurrent interest in the activity of the writer – W.G.S. connects this with the silk worm and the spinner of shimmering fabrics. There’s the desire to find and give order while at the same time an awareness that this might be nothing but self-delusion and an exercise in futility. (Thus, W.G.S. talking with Michael Hamburger; the man making his model of the Temple – a re-working of Kafka’s ‘The Man Before The Law’ surely?; explicit and implicit references to Coleridge).
There’s the recurrent theme of human atrocities – damage, destruction, killing, maiming, torturing, wars.
There’s the fascination with pattern, of underlying order and Thomas Browne’s texts. Yet, at the same time, a fascination with the anomalous, the freak, the deformity, the exception to the rule.
It’s a text which is microscopic and telescopic at the same time. Broad sweeps and then a focusing upon a single detail. And it occurs to me that this is how we conceive of the vast: planets and galaxies. We bring them down to the size of our own thoughts. (Thus, the typical exercise of conceptualizing the Cosmos as Wembley Stadium, the sun is an orange on the centre spot, then the earth is … and so on.)
AND THIS IS JOSEPH CORNELL’S BOXES !
And speaking of coincidences … R.o.S. is full of them. Yet how many other coincidences and symmetries were – are – will there be? Is it simply a degree of subtlety and refinement of attention? And thus R.o.S. is another text about the ability of the human mind to know – fully - any one moment (and which, just maybe, contains them ALL?).
And would we really cope – (and here I’m reminded of that Rilkean cry to the Angels) with a Being so ultimately mapped, so intense in its significance? If I should sneeze ... then what?
And are we not – dare we suggest? – simply projecting? Hopeless paranoiacs seeing systems and correspondences everywhere? Writing ourselves into random events in an attempt to give ourselves a sense of purpose?
Sebald’s text invites such a reader looking for clues and correspondences. Yet how many are there? (e.g. the speckled throat of the Flaubert scholar and the waitress serving fish in the seedy hotel). Were these ‘actual’ coincidences? Are they novelistic embellishments? Was one ‘really’ observed and the other added for thematic purposes? And does it really matter in any case?
The ‘real’ and its textual doubling become hard to differentiate – no concidence, then, that W.G.S. uses Borges. Maybe it is no longer the case of the one standing over from the other. The fictional has already taken over ‘the real’, parasited it, become absorbed within.
A good question: is Sebald purveying an elaborate hoax. Or is he deadly serious?
And that’s what I began to sense round about Chapter 5. Sometimes the publisher’s puffs are quite revealing. Take this:
“the workings of a wonderfully learned and rigorous mind”
Lucy Hughes-Hallett, The Sunday Times
What suddenly dawned on me was the possibility that W.G.S. was even prepared to play with his own professional ‘persona’. To enter into a parody of the (from an English point of view) so desireable European intellectual emigre figure. The kind of shabby-genteel figure I remember so well in places such as the British Library Reading Room or the lesser-known alcoves of the Bodleian. No one quite knows what they are working on but it will emerge in instalments in obscure publications shelved and un-read. That the metropolitan media would shower praise on such a figure is no great surprise. They’re far too busy at publishing lunches to actually read the stuff. ("A book which changed my life" Felicity Forbes, Time Out, - which is why she still lives in Wimbledon). They’re much happier being able to project an aura of ‘authenticity’ upon such figures, a kind of aesthetic deodorant for their profit-driven desires, to then get back to the spread sheets.
I think W.G.S. knew this. I think it is like a hollow laugh running through the text. A 'sort-of' novel (great gimmick W.G.!) which mimes so well the academic-foot-note-library-stack-Casaubon-pipe-sucking-tweedy jacket-corduroy trouser-Senior-Common-Room-visiting-Professorship-stereotype. Yes, those long sentences – but don’t they go on just a bit TOO long? The references to pausing to note down one’s reflections – are they not just TOO studied and precious (Nabokov? Rilke?)? Would anyone REALLY cultivate a Sailor’s Reading Room in such a fashion ("there's that Professor Sebald again - shame he hasn't a home to go to")? Who would painstakingly keep clippings of the Eastern Daily Press (other than your eighty-year-old grandma or Sherlock Holmes)?
Is this what is truly “haunting” – to use another of those reviewer’s words – about Sebald’s text : a papery ghost hovering above modern literary publishing houses which will consume so readily anything with the whiff of the library candle burnt at both ends?
"The authentic authenticity still exists! That will shift another million copies! Shelve the Harry Potter biography!"
In the Bloomsbury pubs, calls of “Doubles all round!”.
Phew! Got that off my chest.