“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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Illustration by Gustavo Duarte

Whenever I read the work of the late German writer W.G. Sebald, I get distracted here and there by a preoccupation with the fact that he worked for most of his life as an academic. Probably this is because I’ve spent many of my years in a similar environment, and I often wonder about the formative pressures this has exerted, over time, on my own writing and thinking. His relationship with the academy was not that of the standard contemporary writer, who is typically housed within the disciplinary annex of “creative writing” and who does not concern himself with the business of academia per se. Sebald, although he did also teach creative writing, was a full-blown scholar, a company man of long standing who lectured in the department of German literature at the University of East Anglia from 1970 until his death in 2001. In ways that are both subtle and pronounced, this shows through in his writing—in his essays and novels (which he preferred to call his “prose narratives”).

Mark O'Connell Mark O'Connell

Mark O'Connell is Slate's books columnist and a staff writer for the Millions.

Books like The Rings of Saturn and The Emigrants, for instance, are, in much of their content if not their form, works of deep research. The Sebaldian narrator—let’s just go ahead and call him Sebald—is a meandering presence, of course, picking his way across the secluded routes between landscape and subject; but there is always the sense of him emerging into the world after a long tenure in the artificial light of libraries and lecture halls, breathing the fine dust of scholarship. It’s always tempting to compare Sebald to Borges—among other narrative oddities, The Rings of Saturn contains a detailed synopsis of Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”—but where Borges’ fiction tended to use the apparatus and affectations of scholarship in service of a kind of structural irony, Sebald’s art is scholarly in a much more fundamental way. As Adam Phillips has put it, he was “more like a new kind of historian than a new kind of novelist.”

So one of the things that’s always interesting about this writer is how close he seems to come, in his methods, to creating works of scholarship, and how far the books themselves are from the sort of thing typically produced by academics. In Sebald’s essay collection A Place in the Country, originally published in German in 1998 but only now translated into English, there’s a sustained proximity to, and distance from, straight scholarship. Reading it, I kept thinking about how its basic materials might have been incorporated into a more conventional academic text, how its various strands might be tied together into an overall argument about Alemannic literature from the Enlightenment to the prewar era, or the themes of place and exile as they are manifested in same. How it might, in other words, present itself as that most humbly learned of cultural products, a contribution to the literature on some topic or other.

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The book is a collection of six critical essays, on five writers and one painter, which coheres into a thematic whole in ways that are often only glancingly apparent. Of the literary figures Sebald writes on here—Johann Peter Hebel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, Gottfried Keller, and Robert Walser—only Rousseau and Walser are likely to be well-known to Anglophone readers. All are writers for whom Sebald holds a deep and abiding affinity, an “unwavering affection,” as he puts it in his short foreword to the book. That foreword inaugurates proceedings with a familiar Sebaldian note of autobiographical exactitude, a customary laying out of the specifics of place and time. “I can still remember quite clearly how, when I set out from Switzerland for Manchester in the early autumn of 1966,” he writes, “I placed Gottfried Keller’s Der grüne Heinrich, Johann Peter Hebel’s Schatzkästlein des Rheinischen Hausfreundes, and a disintegrating copy of Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten in my suitcase.”  These are writers who have stayed with him, who have over time become part of his intellectual makeup, and he feels that he must “pay my respects to them before, perhaps, it is too late.” 

And this front-and-center placement of the personal is one way in which A Place in the Country distinguishes itself from more traditionally academic modes of critical writing. It’s tempting, here and there, to read these pieces as oblique works of self-portraiture, on the (probably spurious) principle that any writer writing about another writer is always, to some degree, writing about himself. Certainly, you do feel in these essays the gravitational pull of the historical preoccupations that characterize so much of Sebald’s own creative work. Although the writers discussed are all figures of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, the Second World War is still an unavoidable presence here, like a sinkhole in the landscape of time into which everything on either side is always at risk of falling. (Sebald’s books, with their oneiric logic and frequent invocation of the labyrinthine horrors of Europe’s past, are a constant reaffirmation of Joyce’s idea of history as a nightmare from which there can be no awakening.)

In the first piece, we see Hebel—a popular German almanac author of the early 19th century, beloved of Benjamin and Kafka—listing figures to enumerate the vast devastation of the Napoleonic Wars. Sebald quotes him at length striking a distinctly proto-Sebaldian tone on the destruction wrought by the French occupation of Moscow: “If one stood and looked down from a height, as far as the eye could see there was nothing but sky and Moscow. Thereafter, nothing but sky and flames. For hardly had the French occupied the city than the Russians themselves set fire on all sides. A steady wind quickly spread the flames into every quarter of the city. In three days the greater part of the latter was reduced to rubble and ashes, and for anyone passing that way, there was nothing left to see but sky and desolation.” 

European history is not, to Hebel or Sebald, a succession of linked occurrences, but one terrible event that is always happening, always echoing back and forth across time—“our history,” as he puts it in The Rings of Saturn, is “but a long account of calamities.” Sebald suggests the possibility that Hebel may, in this way, have foreseen something of the disasters to come, that he may have “already had a sense, in 1812/13, that the fall of Napoleon and the rise of the German peoples signaled the beginning of a downward path which, once embarked upon, would not be easy to halt, and that history, from that point on, would amount to nothing other than the martyrology of mankind.”

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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.

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.

Mark O'Connell is Slate's books columnist and a staff writer for the Millions.

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