Saturday, March 12, 2005

Proust to Sebald



The New Yorker interview with German novelist W G Sebald makes me feel a lot better: fragmentary writing is more common than one imagines. And therefore is not a sign of madness. That is if was Sebald was not mad. Was he a manic-depressive though ?

Don't feel annoyed dog-sniff writing analogies and metaphors come from the mind of Sebald raher thanb your own. He remarks on the fragmentary nature of his writing method, adding the observation dogs have a strange way of following a scent. I have written privately of this based on a newspaper report of scientific research.

Scent dogs appear to wander about because the scent both disintegrates over time and is an archive of a gradient: itself representing a direction. The odour on the bottom of the man's boots is laid down time determined and linear. When the dog sniffs over the traces, he has to work backwards and forwards to determine the direction: as soon as he feels sure of the gradient/direction, he then moves on in a more purposeful manner.


What is odd is not having read any books of either of these authors but be writing about them and their work. This evening I found two web pages one by Arthur Williams of the University of Bradford and another A Symposium on W.G. Sebald, at The Threepenny Review.

Reading Sandra's description and quotes from Rings of Saturn, that he has lived close to me - I might even have walked past him at the UEA Library since he had been a fixture since the 70s - and a hint of a memory of the local news of the his death, in December, 2001, it was the this from the Three Penny Review which make me think hard about how one can slip into synch with a writer - even if in an uneducated and ill-formed way.

Sebald was “Proustian,” people often said. Since his tone was elegiacal and his sentence structure was serpentine, this pigeonholing arose predictably. Furthermore, Sebald and Proust were alike in their creation of a unique format; one might aptly say of Sebald’s books, as Walter Benjamin once wrote of Proust’s, that “all great works of literature found a genre or dissolve one.” That said, it strikes me that the differences between Sebald and Proust are more instructive than the similarities. When people call something “Proust-ian,” they are usually referring to Proust’s fascination with involuntary memory, the way in which sensory associations conjure up the past. Yet the French writer elaborated just as extravagantly on the joys and tortures of anticipation. (The present moment is what disappointed him.) Sebald, temperamentally, preferred to keep his eyes averted from the future, which for him impended heavily with disaster. And he accumulated his recollections not in windfalls, but through diligent dredging and mining. Having been born in Germany in 1944 and raised in a society that willed itself into amnesia, he regarded remembering as a moral and political act. When I said offhandedly that by now his mother, in her late eighties, could probably no longer remember the war years, he replied quickly, speaking of his mother’s generation: “They could remember if they wanted to.”

Arthur Lubow

Learning of the walk from Southwold to Dunwich in Rings of Saturn was as if I had been with him on that trip. Remembering a visit to the Orwell estuary I had made 18 months ago with my son on a trip to get some details and atmosphere for a fiction I was creating, where we had wandered back north along the coast, stopping for a rest at Orford Castle, sitting entranced at the shimmering sea across Orford Ness, eventually winding our way along narrow, empty lanes, slowly up till we reached a late afternoon panoramic view taking in Iken Church and the muddy flats of the widening River Alde. This was not the same place, but it was a landscape of similar evocations. I could see it, visualise it : and see, too, the glistening mud flats and muddy gulleys in David Lean's "Great Expectations", the Essex marshes lit to make the mud look black. Dickens Dickens and his chum had marched mile after mile along these coasts in search of the details of gory stories he had read about.

No I had not read the book, but wanted desperately, immediately, to set off to find the book and do the walk, though mid-March would be too cold. Late summer, with the sun low in the sky to the west, as it had been for us on our magical mystery tour between Felixstowe and Aldeburgh, would be good, or sun on backs after a good lunch, across the Walberwick ferry or the foot bridge further up.

Reading Anne M. Wagner :



As anyone who has ever driven it will tell you, the Norwich/London road cuts, slack and dull, through low-lying fields. I say fields, knowing that the word might imply ample vistas. Not in Norfolk. In Norfolk it is sometimes hard to think there is a landscape present in any ample or comforting sense. If you see twenty feet ahead, you count yourself lucky. Fog and rain are as frequent as landmarks are few. Towns are fewer. Coming or going there is only one road, whose two lanes quickly clog with traffic. The fast follow the slow, and vice versa. The carts and tractors do eventually pull over, slowly yielding to speed, but there isn’t much of anywhere for their concessions to lead.

I finished reading Austerlitz on the day Sebald died. This is true. I was on a plane (which has its own hazards), and did not learn at once that “he was gone.” I know the phrase is dramatic, and Victorian: I hope it captures how it felt to register that something as vast as Sebald’s writing was at an end.

At first I was angry that the end came, of all places, on the Norwich/ London road. His was a mind that was anything but linear; it could switch lanes, jump in time and place, and maybe not bother to signal that something new (really new) was on the way. Lapses and leaps are frequent in his pages. Chaos threatens—think of the untidy piles in Austerlitz’s study—and patterns are agonizingly hard to find. They demand endless details—large facts, faint traces—and time is essential for connections to emerge. I was angry that such a mind, such a way of understanding time and thought and history, could have been so fatally boxed in. Now, however, when I think of Sebald’s death, I realize how much its irony fits with the very patterns his writing taught us to perceive.

made me think he had lived on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, Bungay or Beccles, perhaps. This would make walks along this strech of coast a sunday afternoon jaunt. These places would have been visited and revisited many times, as all lovers of the East Anglian coast would do on their favourite stretches of Essex, Suffolk or the North Norfolk Coast.

It is possible to lead yourself into an authors work in gentle stages, as I am with Proust, reading more and more about the person, putting off the books themselves.

Though Sebald was said to be affable, I don't think I was far wrong in guessing, from the way he researched and constructed his essays and essay-novels, a hint of melancholia. No sign of mania so far!





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