“Yes, I’m Afraid These Are All Terrifying Abysses”

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 5 2014 9:15 AM

A Long Account of Calamities

Essays by W.G. Sebald on writers, art, and the abyss.

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Photo by Isolde Ohlbaum/Random House

Sebald has a way of viewing the world whereby seemingly minor misfortunes or cruelties are made to stand for catastrophes too terrible to be directly observed. Even the smallest of sadnesses seem to open onto an abyss. The collection’s beautiful final piece, on the contemporary painter Jan Peter Tripp (with whom he collaborated on the posthumous book Unrecounted), contains a haunting evocation of death in the tiny particularity of a dead mouse, depicted in one of Tripp’s eerily ironic still lifes. For Sebald, the dead always have something to tell us, and even this tiny corpse conveys its own “silent message.” “Nestling in nothingness,” he writes, “with neither ground nor background, the creature hovers now, its bat ears extended, through thin air. The black patch of fur around its eyes is reminiscent of a mourning band, or an eye mask worn by a sleeping passenger on a summer night’s flight over the North Pole.” The silent message conveyed by the dead mouse, and by the images in Tripp’s work as a whole, is for Sebald a synecdoche for some unspeakable communication:

The longer I look at the paintings of Jan Peter Tripp, the more I realize that beneath the surface illusionism there lurks a terrifying abyss. It is, so to speak, the metaphysical underside of reality, its dark inner lining. ... And what is the business of painting in any case but a kind of pathological investigation in the face of the blackness of death and white light of eternity? 

This is, of course, a highly idiosyncratic definition of painting—and one that obviously tells us a great deal less about the business of painting than it does about the writer’s desolate view of life, and his sepulchral approach to art. (I have a cartoonish mental image of Sebald being presented with a succession of Rorschach cards by a caricature shrink, and calmly interpreting each blot in exactly the same way: “That’s an abyss. Also an abyss. Another abyss. Yes, I’m afraid these are all terrifying abysses.”) It’s hard not to read this reflection on the pathological investigations of visual art as mirroring back upon Sebald’s own creative work, which is so alive with symbols of death, and which, in its sly and patient way, continually lays bare the dark inner lining of reality.

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Just as, in sketching the lives of six Swiss and German subjects, the essays travel back and forth over the Alps, the collection is itself marked by strange crossings between past and present, between the lives of the subjects, and between those lives and the author relating them. What draws him back continually to Hebel, he says, is the memory of his own grandfather, whose use of language reminds him of the writer’s, and who used to jot down weather patterns and saint days in Hebel’s almanac. (Photographs of these jottings are included in the text, as though to illustrate the ways in which the details of one’s own past overwrite the image of a text in memory.)

This grandfather reappears later in the book, in ghostly superimposition over the figure of Robert Walser. The Walser essay contains a clustered sequence of photographs of the writer at various ages—“stations in a life which hint at the silent catastrophe that has taken place between each.”  Two of these images feature an older Walser holding the hand of a young boy, both of them clutching walking sticks and posing for the camera against a rural backdrop:

There is something in the way that the poet, long since retired from the service of the pen, stands there in the landscape that reminds me instinctively of my grandfather, Josef Egelhofer, with whom as a child I often used to go for walks for hours at a time during those very same years, in a region which is in many ways similar to that of Appenzell. When I look at these pictures of him on his walks, the cloth of Walser’s three-piece suit, the soft collar, the tie-pin, the liver-spots on the back of his hands, his neat salt-and-pepper moustache and the quiet expression in his eyes—each time I think I see my grandfather before me. ... Perhaps that is the reason why now, when I think back to my grandfather’s death—to which I have never been able to reconcile myself—in my mind’s eye I always see him lying on the horn sledge on which Walser’s body, after he had been found in the snow and photographed, was taken back to the asylum. What is the significance of these similarities, overlaps and coincidences? Are they rebuses of memory, delusions of the self and of the senses, or rather the schemes and symptoms of an order underlying the chaos of human relationships, and applying equally to the living and the dead, which lies beyond our comprehension? 

There’s an odd pathos to the interlocking associations of these photographs in Sebald’s memory, and the somber movement of the prose as it gathers together its disparate elements, its transmutations. And of all the images alluded to here, it’s the one that doesn’t appear on the page that has the strongest impact: the photograph of Walser’s body in the snow, taken after he dropped dead of a heart attack on his last walk, in a field near the asylum where he spent the last 23 years of his life. That photograph would have made for a jarring insertion here, and perhaps a crass one; its absence is more haunting than its presence would have been. And by some occult means, it seems to reappear in the next essay, in Tripp’s hyperrealistic depiction of the dead mouse, sprawled against the wintry emptiness of a blank background, and backed by the white light of eternity. In Sebald’s writing, everything is connected, everything webbed together by the unseen threads of history, or chance, or fate, or death. The scholarly craft of gathering scattered sources and weaving them into a coherent whole is transformed here into something beautiful and unsettling, elevated into an art of the uncanny—an art that was, in the end, Sebald’s strange and inscrutable gift.

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A Place in the Country by W.G. Sebald, translated by Jo Catling. Random House.

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