Sebald’s sentences

Sebald’s sentences

I have spent the afternoon, as if in retreat from a world that does not welcome me, lying in bed and reading, much as I did as a teenage boy when I fled a family that tormented me into the world that I conjured from the novels of Trollope, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, a world which came to wrap my senses in muslin cloth and made me into a walking apparition of a no longer living sensibility; and the book that I have read, itself composed in a modern ghostly form of nineteenth century style, is Austerlitz by the great German emigrant writer, Winfried G. “Max” Sebald.

Sebald enjoys a renown that comes in part from the unclassifiable genre of writing that he practised; he combined personal memoir, fiction, travelogue and history into a cabinet of human curiosities, lined with a dark soft cloth of sadness: yet underneath all the strangeness of his forms, there is an ornate, stately, otherworldly beauty of his sentences.

The story is told of some writer who once was asked by a budding practitioner of the art what might sustain them on a journey to fame. “Do you like sentences?” the writer replied. So, to dwell on Sebald’s sentences seems the best way to honour his memory, and to hope to emulate his art, which found a way to speak of human destruction outside the boundaries of our own time and through a style schooled in the writing of German naturalist description of the nineteenth century.

Throughout Austerlitz, there fall these delicate strings, which also provide some kind of clue to the seemingly undirected perambulations of his melancholy mind. So from early in Austerlitz, Sebald writes, as if inscribing the fractal pattern of his intention deeply in the enigmatic curls and twists of his maze,:

From the first I was astonished by the way Austerlitz put his ideas together as he talked, forming perfectly balanced sentences out of whatever occurred to him, so to speak, and the way in which, in his mind, the passing on of his knowledge seemed to become a gradual approach to a kind of historical metaphysic, bringing remembered events back to life.” (Sebald, Austerlitz p 14)

There is too this graceful concatenation of, on the one hand, the precisely descriptive details of the outer world, of memories, of photographs, of the minor details of fortifications, and the forgotten stories of ambition behind the construction of the Central Railway Station of Antwerp, and, on the other hand, an ethereal uncertainty about our minds’ ability to grasp the experiences that beset them and to stop the torrent of emotions with which we perceive the world. Sebald’s enigmatic prose is born from this coupling of a strangely meticulous prose with the constant evocation that much of our lives are spent in mirages of our own conception.  The very first sentence of Austerlitz contains this quality of a dream, dreamt through the miscegenation of a gentlemanly scholarship with the perplexity of a mind that knows its own madness.

“In the second half of the 1960s I travelled repeatedly from England to Belgium, partly for study, partly for other reasons that were never entirely clear to me, staying sometimes for just one or two days, sometimes for several weeks” (Sebald, Austerlitz, p 1) my emphasis

The phrase that I have underlined (“partly for other reasons…) disrupts the reasoned preoccupations of the apparent narrative, and opens the reader to the disordered world of Sebald’s deeper meditations, which come to him with many qualifications, always with a question of whether he has been deceived. Many states of mind “seem” to be in this prose. They visit the narrator uninvited, unexplained, and lead from the seemingly solid into the always uncertain mists of our own minds.

This theme is conveyed in a passage in which Sebald finds in the image of a captive raccoon in the Nocturama of Antwerp, an image of the longing we have, those of us who sit and polish our words like the raccoon, to reach beyond the darkness that we see all around us.

“The only animal which has remained lingering in my memory is the raccoon. I watched it for a long time as it sat beside a little stream with a serious expression on its face, washing the same piece of apple over and over again, as if it hoped that all this washing, which went far beyond any reasonable thoroughness, would help it escape the unreal world in which it had arrived, so to speak, through no fault of its own. Otherwise, all I remember of the denizens of the Nocturama is that several of them had striking large eyes, and the fixed, inquiring gaze found in certain painters and philosophers who seek to penetrate the darkness which surrounds us purely by means of looking and thinking. (Austerlitz pp 2-3)

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Thomas Bernhard’s soliloquies

Thomas Bernhard’s soliloquies

Looking around my study this morning for a prompt for a post, still with the idea in the back of my head of doing versions of list posts on a Tuesday, I pulled out Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser from the shelves.

Selecting a page at random, I came upon this passage:

“Our starting point is always that we don’t know anything about anything and don’t even have a clue about it, he said, I thought. Immediately after setting to work on something we choke on the huge amount of information that’s available in all fields, that’s the truth, he said, I thought. And although we know that, we continue to set to work on our so-called human-science problems, to attempt the impossible: to create a human-science product, a product of the intellect. That’s madness! he said, I thought. Fundamentally we are capable of everything, equally fundamentally we fail at everything, he said, I thought.  [Thomas Bernhard, The Loser (1983, tr 1991) p 66]

That pattern of layers and layers of speech acts and cognition – he said, I thought – is characteristic of Bernhard. So too the desperate madness of the intellect that is dramatised in these strangely fugal rants.

This kind of narrative – from inside the head of an obsessed intellectual – is the one that I often default to, or it might be better to say it is the one that I am currently practising. The layers of speech acts and cognition – there might be  technical literary term for this mode of speech, but I do not know what it is – allow a dialogue of perspectives even within the lonely and obsessed monologues that are Bernhard’s novels.

As I am practising it, this kind of soliloquy is not really a stream of consciousness so much as an essay of consciousness, in which I take up and reflect upon my own mental events from different perspectives. And it allows a kind of interpenetration of the theme of an essay with the biography and self-presentation of the narrator. So my prose work does not seek to reproduce the typical scenes, dialogue and narrative arc of fiction. It follows my internal monologue about a set of related stories – about a breakdown, Ivan the Terrible, my encounters with the powerful, stories of violence and power from history, a train journey from Beijing to Moscow, and many reflections, fantasies and observations triggered by recalling all these narratives. If it works, it creates a kind of interesting set of associations and discoveries through the interleaving of these stories, which as the writing proceeds reveal many symbolic kinships between these several layers of the story.

Writing this down here reflects a new found confidence that this prose work will be completed. I had tried different forms before to tell the story of Ivan the Terrible. But, having read Berhnhard and Sebald, and having been entranced by this style of voice, I found writing a conventional prose historical fiction ultimately uninteresting. So I am giving birth to this odd monstrosity that perhaps only I will ever love.

Let me say my thanks, however, in this list post to those authors and their works that have influenced me in this project. I do not say I will match these authors’ artistic achievement. I only say that I am working through my own response to their influence by writing this book.

Books from my shelves that influence how I am writing my my main prose work

1 Thomas Bernhard, The Loser – which is an account from Wertheimer of his struggle with not matching Glenn Gould’s artistic virtuosity, leading ultimately to his self-destruction

2 Thomas Bernhard, Correction – which is a kind of account of a murder or a suicide through constant correction of differing perspectives.

3 Thomas Bernhard, Lime Works – which is another portrain of a strangely obsessed intellectual, which has the epigraph “But instead of thinking about my book and how to write it, as I go pacing the floor, I nfall to counting my footsteps until I feel about to go mad.”

4 Thomas Bernhard, Wittgenstein’s Nephew – which is perhaps his most accessible work, and is a deeply moving story of his friend Paul Wittgenstein, the philosopher’s nephew who suffered from mental illness and the treatment that society gives to we, the mad.

5. W.G. Sebald, Rings of Saturn – Sebald has acknowledged Bernhard’s influence, and for me this is Sebald’s most mesmerising work that interleaves essays on Thomas Browne, Roger Casement, Joseph Conrad, silk works and much besides, all with a dark bass note obsessing about the traces of destruction and ruin that can be found everywhere you look. This book is very much the model for my main prose work.

6 W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz  – a purer narrative than Rings of Saturn, more fictional in a way and less essayistic, but still with the echoes of refracted thought.

7 W.G. Sebald, Vertigo – a more divided work, less symbolically cohesive than Rings of Saturn, and with more accounts of the author’s own difficulties, and his experiences of vertigo when travelling to his homelands.

8 Marcel Proust, In search of lost time – Of course, Proust wrote before both Bernhard and Sebald, but his great book, that is the telling of the symbolic redemption of his life through art, is also a model for my own prose work, in which I must symbolically destroy power in order to serve art.