Michael Silverblatt: It seems to me that this book is truly the first to pay extended stylistic respects to the writer who, it’s been said, has been your mentor and model, Thomas Bernhard. I wondered, was it after three books that one felt comfortable in creating a work that could be compared to the writing of a master and a mentor?
W.G. Sebald: Yes, I was always, as it were, tempted to declare openly from quite early on my great debt of gratitude to Thomas Bernhard. But I was also conscious of the fact that one oughtn’t to do that too openly, because then immediately one gets put in a drawer which says Thomas Bernhard, a follower of Thomas Bernhard, etc., and these labels never go away. Once one has them they stay with one. But nevertheless, it was necessary for me eventually to acknowledge his constant presence, as it were, by my side. What Thomas Bernhard did to postwar fiction writing in the German language was to bring to it a new radicality which didn’t exist before, which wasn’t compromised in any sense. Much of German prose fiction writing, of the fifties certainly, but of the sixties and seventies also, is severely compromised, morally compromised, and because of that, aesthetically frequently insufficient. And Thomas Bernhard was in quite a different league because he occupied a position which was absolute. Which had to do with the fact that he was mortally ill since late adolescence and knew that any day the knock could come at the door. And so he took the liberty which other writers shied away from taking. And what he achieved, I think, was also to move away from the standard pattern of the standard novel. He only tells you in his books what he heard from others. So he invented, as it were, a kind of periscopic form of narrative. You’re always sure that what he tells you is related, at one remove, at two removes, at two or three. That appealed to me very much, because this notion of the omniscient narrator who pushes around the flats on the stage of the novel, you know, cranks things up on page three and moves them along on page four and one sees him constantly working behind the scenes, is something that I think one can’t do very easily any longer. So Bernhard, single-handedly I think, invented a new form of narrating which appealed to me from the start.
From W.G. Sebald’s December 2001 interview with Michael Silverblatt; republished in The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald (Lynne Sharon Schwartz ed.).
- I can barely keep up with these “book acquired” posts this fall.
- I was actually reading Sebald last night—his essay on Rousseau in A Place in the Country. “How difficult it is in general to bring the machinery of thought to a standstill“—yes, yes, of course. Machinery! If there was just a switch…
- I mean that I would love to be like, transcendentalist (transcendent? transcending? to transcend? trance? tr….) but the feeling of the feeling, the machinery of thought gets in the way. But anyway—
- (Sebald in this picture, and a few others, looks so much like my father that it frightens the fuck out of me. It’s horrifying).
- [Optometry joke]
- I was going somewhere with this (or not): Sebald’s Vision by Carol Jacobs. Publisher Columbia University Press’s blurb:
W. G. Sebald’s writing has been widely recognized for its intense, nuanced engagement with the Holocaust, the Allied bombing of Germany in WWII, and other episodes of violence throughout history. Through his inventive use of narrative form and juxtaposition of image and text, Sebald’s work has offered readers new ways to think about remembering and representing trauma.
In Sebald’s Vision, Carol Jacobs examines the author’s prose, novels, and poems, illuminating the ethical and aesthetic questions that shaped his remarkable oeuvre. Through the trope of “vision,” Jacobs explores aspects of Sebald’s writing and the way the author’s indirect depiction of events highlights the ethical imperative of representing history while at the same time calling into question the possibility of such representation.
Jacobs’s lucid readings of Sebald’s work also consider his famous juxtaposition of images and use of citations to explain his interest in the vagaries of perception. Isolating different ideas of vision in some of his most noted works, including Rings of Saturn, Austerlitz, and After Nature, as well as in Sebald’s interviews, poetry, art criticism, and his lecture Air War and Literature, Jacobs introduces new perspectives for understanding the distinctiveness of Sebald’s work and its profound moral implications.
How difficult it is in general to bring the machinery of thought to a standstill is shown by Rousseau’s description of his apparently so happy days on the island in the Lac de Bienne. He has, as he writes in the fifth Promenade, deliberately forsworn the burden of work, and his greatest joy has been to leave his books safely shut away and to have neither ink nor paper to hand. However, since the leisure time thus freed up must be put to some use, Rousseau devotes himself to the study of botany, whose basic principles he had acquired in Môtiers on excursions with Jean Antoine d’Ivernois. “I set out to compose,” writes Rousseau in the fifth Promenade, “a Flora Petrinsularis and to describe every single plant on the island in enough detail to keep me busy for the rest of my days. They say a German once wrote a book about a lemon peel; I could have written one about every grass in the meadows, every moss in the woods, every lichen covering the rocks—and I did not want to leave even one blade of grass or atom of vegetation without a full and detailed description. In accordance with this noble plan, every morning after breakfast I would set out with a magnifying glass in my hand and my Systemae Naturae under my arm to study one particular section of the island, which I had divided for this purpose into small squares, intending to visit them all one after another in every season.” The central motif of this passage is not so much the impartial insight into the indigenous plants of the island as that of ordering, classification, and the creation of a perfect system. Thus this apparently innocent occupation—the deliberate resolve no longer to think and merely to look at nature—becomes, for the writer plagued by the chronic need to think and work, a demanding rationalistic project involving the compiling of lists, indices, and catalogs, along with the precise description of, for example, the long stamens of self-heal, the springiness of those of nettle and of wall-pellitory, and the sudden bursting of the seed capsules of balsam and of beech. Nonetheless, the leaves of the small herbaria which Rousseau later compiled for Madelon and Julie de la Tour and other young ladies take on the aspect of an innocent bricolage in comparison with the self-destructive business of writing to which he usually submitted himself. A faint aura of unconscious beauty still hovers over these flower collections, in which lichens, sprigs of veronica, lilies of the valley, and autumn crocuses have survived, pressed and a little faded, from the eighteenth century. They can still be admired today in the Musée Carnavalet and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. The herbarium Rousseau compiled for himself, meanwhile—eleven quarto volumes—was, up to the Second World War, preserved in the Botanical Museum in Berlin, until, like so much and so many in that city, it went up in flames one night during one of the nocturnal bombing raids.
From W. G. Sebald’s essay “J’aurais voulu que ce lac eût été l’Océan.” Translated by Jo Catling and collected in A Place in the Country.
Does [the novel’s] ironic tone (which often feels like a reflex, a tic) preclude sincerity? Is all this talk of community no more than an artful confection, the purest kind of cynicism? The question is impossible to resolve, so each of these episodes — and indeed the book as a whole — takes on a sort of hermetic undecidability.
Ryan Chang: Hey man, I just skimmed the NYT review—per the excerpt you provided—because I don’t want Kunzru clouding any of my response. It’s certainly a question I too grapple with, and I think Kunzru is right insofar that the question is “undecidable” but not for the reason(s) he suggests. I agree with you that he dodges the question, whether or not from editorial pressure or a reticence to actually address “hermetic undecidability.”
For one, I’m not sure myself if The Author ever arrives at the Whitmanic model of democracy he posits. I’m also not sure if he is supposed to “arrive” in the sense that a finality is set. I guess I also want to riff a bit on how finality might be described. Is finality then something static; as in, somehow 10:04 transmits–electrocutes, reverberates–through its readership, now coeval (the when negligent, the position of the reader enmeshed in the text is the same at 10 PM here as it is at 5 AM there), the novel’s theses and everything is suddenly Whitmanic? Community successfully reimagined and cemented? That sounds too easy, too convenient, too short-sighted. Or is it a kind of arrival into an embodiment of time that exists outside of conventional literary clocks, which is also a Market-based clock — it’s my sense that the kind of democracy Whitman envisions in his work is one constantly in flux, a “reality in process” and thus in opposition to the capitalist clock? That is, we know we are supposed to “stop” working at 5, the embodiment of the currency-based clock disappears after 5, but it’s a contrasting relationship. Our time outside of the currency then absorbs a negative value (I think The Author only mentions once or twice how we are all connected by our debt, a negativity projected into the future), though the illusion of the clock is that we are “free” in our time. OK: in a literary sense, wouldn’t this be a sense of a text’s world stopping, a suspension that retroactively pauses the whole book? That 10:04 ends not only with a dissolution of prose into poetry, but also The Author into Whitman and thus recasting the first-/third-person narrator into a lyric-poet mode suggests the book’s integration into our, the reader’s, time (and also, retroactively, the entirety of the text). In that sense, for me, the issue whether or not The Author of 10:04 integrates the book fully into a Whitmanic model is not necessarily the point — it is that he, and also we hopefully through him — actively participate in remaking a “bad form of collectivity” less so. Continue reading “A Conversation about Ben Lerner’s Novel 10:04 (Part 2)”
Illustration for a syllabus by Ben Marcus. (via)
Kafka himself is known to have distrusted all utopianism. Not long before his death he said that he had been exiled from Canaan for forty years, and even the community which he sometimes longed for was basically suspect to him; he wanted only to dissolve away by himself, as the water runs into the sea. Few people ever seem to have been as much alone as Kafka appears in the last pictures of him, to which we may add one extrapolated from them, so to speak, and painted by Jan Peter Tripp. It shows Kafka as he might have looked had he lived eleven or twelve years longer. That would have been in 1935. The Reich party rally would have been held, just as Riefenstahl’s film shows it. The race laws would have come into force, and Kafka, if he had had his photograph taken again, would have looked at us as he does from Tripp’s ghostly picture—from beyond the grave.
From W.G. Sebald’s essay “Kafka Goes to the Movies,” collected in Campo Santo.
In trying to frame a review of S.D. Chrostowska’s novel Permission, I have repeatedly jammed myself against many of the conundrums that the book’s narrator describes, imposes, chews, digests, and synthesizes for her reader.
I have, for example, just now resisted the impulse to place the terms novel, narrator, and reader under radical suspicion. (I realize that the last sentence carries out the impulse even as it purports not to). Permission, thoroughly soaked in deconstruction, repeatedly places its own composition under radical suspicion.
This is maybe a bad start to a review.
Permission pretends to be the emails that F.W. (later F. Wren, and even later, Fearn Wren) sends to an unnamed artist, a person she does not know, has never met, whom she contacts in a kind of affirmation of reciprocity tempered in the condition that her identity is “random and immaterial.” She aims to work out “an elementary philosophy of giving that is, by its very definition, anti-Western.” Her gift is the book she creates — “Permit me to write to you, today, beyond today,” the book begins.
What I want to measure—or, rather, what I want to obtain an impression of, since I do not claim exactitude of measurement for my results—is my own potential for creatio ad nihilum (creation fully within the limits of human ability, out of something and unto nothing). To rephrase my experimental question: can I give away what is inalienable from me (my utterance, myself) without the faintest expectation or hope of authority, solidarity, reciprocity?
F.W.’s project (Chrostowska’s project) here echoes Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction of giving, of the (im)possibility of authentic giving. F.W. wants to give, but she also deconstructs that impulse repeatedly. This is a novel (novel-essay, really) that cites Gilles Deleuze and Maurice Blanchot in its first twenty pages.
Her project is deconstruction; as she promises at the outset, her giving, her writing “is not solid, and does not lead to solidarity.” On the contrary,
it is solvent, and leads, through its progressive dissolution, towards the final solution of this writing (my work), which meanwhile becomes progressively less difficult, less obscure.
“Will it?” I asked in the margin of my copy. It does, perhaps.
After an opening that deconstructs its own opening, Chrostowska’s F.W. turns her attention to more concrete matters. We get a brief tour of cemeteries, a snapshot of the F.W.’s father (as a child) at a child’s funeral, a recollection of her first clumsy foray into fiction writing, a miniature memoir of a failed painter, color theory, the sun, the moon. We get an overview of our F.W.’s most intimate library—The Hound of the Baskervilles, a samizdat copy of Listy y Bialoleki [Letters from Bialoleka Prison], 1984. We get an analysis of Philip Larkin’s most famous line. Prisons, lunatic asylums, schools. Indian masks. Hamlet. More cemeteries.
My favorite entry in the book is a longish take on the “thingness of books,” a passage that concretizes the problems of writing—even thinking—after others. I think here of Blanchot’s claim that, ” No sooner is something said than something else must be said to correct the tendency of all that is said to become final.”
The most intriguing passages in Permission seem to pop out of nowhere, as Chrostowska turns her keen intellect to historical or aesthetic objects. These are often accompanied by black and white photographs (sometimes gloomy, even murky), recalling the works of W.G. Sebald, novel-essays that Permission follows in its form (and even tone). Teju Cole—who also clearly followed Sebald in his wonderful novel Open City—provides the blurb for Permission, comparing it to the work of Sebald’s predecessors, Thomas Browne and Robert Burton. There’s a pervasive melancholy here too. Permission, haunted by history, atrocity, memory, and writing itself, is often dour. The novel-essay is discursive but never freewheeling, and by constantly deconstructing itself, it ironically creates its own center, a decentered center, a center that initiates and then closes the work—dissolves the book.
Permission, often bleak and oblique, essentially plotless (a ridiculous statement this, plotless—this book is its own plot (I don’t know if that statement makes any sense; it makes sense to me, but I’ve read the book—the book is plotless in the conventional sense of plotedness, but there is a plot, a tapestry that refuses to yield one big picture because its threads must be unthreaded—dissolved to use Chrostowska’s metaphor)—where was I?—Yes, okay, Permission, as you undoubtedly have determined now, you dear, beautiful, bright thing, is Not For Everyone. However, readers intrigued by the spirit of (the spirit of) writing may appreciate and find much to consider in this deconstruction of the epistolary form.
Permission is new from The Dalkey Archive.
This realization of the impossibility of salvation matches the unrelated condition of melancholy which, in developing its own rituals, promises some relief but not release from suffering and the “feral deseases” so often mentioned in Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. Among these rituals, in the narrator’s case, are the nocturnal reading of telephone directories and timetables, the unfolding of maps, and the making of plans for imaginary journeys to the most distant of lands, countries that might well lie beyond the sea shown in the background of Dürer’s Melencolia. Like Robert Burton, who was familiar with melancholy all his life, the narrator is a man “who delights in cosmography … but has never travelled except by map and card.” And the summer bed with room enough for seven sleepers where he meditates on stories such as that of the Black Death, with all its paths and coincidences, is of the same century as Burton’s compendium, an era of anxiety when the fear was first uttered “that the great mutations of the world are acted, or time may be too short for our designes.” The narrator’s digressive excursions from the starting point of this realization open up the view—again, a reminiscence from Hamlet—of a world lying far below melancholy, a “dead globe crawling with parasites” whose power of attraction is spent and forfeit. The icy sense of distance as the narrator turns away from all earthly life represents a vanishing point in the dialectic of melancholy. However, the other dimension of the Saturnian circumstances responsible for melancholy does point, as Benjamin has said and in the context of the heavy, dry nature of that planet, to the type of man predestined to hard and fruitless agricultural labor. It is probably no coincidence that the narrator’s only utilitarian occupation seems to be growing herbs. He sends these herbs, dried and in carefully adjusted mixtures, to various delicatessens in Milan and Amsterdam as well as to Germany, to Hamburg and Hannover. Perhaps they bear the words “Rosemary, that’s for remembrance” written in Ophelia’s hand.
From W.G. Sebald’s essay “Constructs of Mourning,” collected in Campo Santo.
Susan Sontag on W.G. Sebald:
IS LITERARY GREATNESS still possible? Given the implacable devolution of literary ambition, and the concurrent ascendancy of the tepid, the glib, and the senselessly cruel as normative fictional subjects, what would a noble literary enterprise look like now? One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.
Vertigo, the third of Sebald’s books to be translated into English, is how he began. It appeared in German in 1990, when its author was forty-six; three years later came The Emigrants; and two years after that, The Rings of Saturn. When The Emigrants appeared in English in 1996, the acclaim bordered on awe. Here was a masterly writer, mature, autumnal even, in his persona and themes, who had delivered a book as exotic as it was irrefutable. The language was a wonder—delicate, dense, steeped in thinghood; but there were ample precedents for that in English. What seemed foreign as well as most persuasive was the preternatural authority of Sebald’s voice: its gravity, its sinuosity, its precision, its freedom from all-undermining or undignified self-consciousness or irony.
In W. G. Sebald’s books, a narrator who, we are reminded occasionally, bears the name W. G. Sebald, travels about registering evidence of the mortality of nature, recoiling from the ravages of modernity, musing over the secrets of obscure lives. On some mission of investigation, triggered by a memory or news from a world irretrievably lost, he remembers, evokes, hallucinates, grieves.
Is the narrator Sebald? Or a fictional character to whom the author has lent his name, and selected elements of his biography? Born in 1944, in a village in Germany he calls “W.” in his books (and the dust jacket identifies for us as Wertach im Allgau), settled in England in his early twenties, and a career academic currently teaching modern German literature at the University of East Anglia, the author includes a scattering of allusions to these bare facts and a few others, as well as, among other self-referring documents reproduced in his books, a grainy picture of himself posed in front of a massive Lebanese cedar in The Rings of Saturn and the photo on his new passport in Vertigo. Continue reading “Susan Sontag on W.G. Sebald”
W. G. Sebald reading from his novel Austerlitz at 92nd Street Y. October 15, 2001, just two months before his death.
He later takes questions (beginning at the 28 minute mark), including a discussion of how he uses photography in his work. Susan Sontag then takes a question in which she addresses “cowboy rhetoric” after 9/11. They then discuss which of their books might be their “favorite.”
(Via prefer-not-to on Twitter).
Composed in 1836, Georg Büchner’s novella-fragment Lenz still seems ahead of its time. While Lenz’s themes of madness, art, and ennui can be found throughout literature, Büchner’s strange, wonderful prose and documentary aims bypass the constraints of his era.
Let me share some of that prose. Here is the opening paragraph of Lenz:
The 20th, Lenz walked through the mountains. Snow on the peaks and upper slopes, gray rock down into the valleys, swatches of green, boulders, firs. It was sopping cold, the water trickled down the rocks and leapt across the path. The fir boughs sagged in the damp air. Gray clouds drifted across the sky, but everything so stifling, and then the fog floated up and crept heavy and damp through the bushes, so sluggish, so clumsy. He walked onward, caring little one way or another, to him the path mattered not, now up , now down. He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head. At first he felt a tightening in his chest when the rocks skittered away, the gray woods below him shook, and the fog now engulfed the shapes, now half-revealed their powerful limbs; things were building up inside him, he was searching for something, as if for lost dreams, but was finding nothing. Everything seemed so small, so near, so wet, he would have liked to set the earth down behind an oven, he could not grasp why it took so much time to clamber down a slope, to reach a distant point; he was convinced he could cover it all with a pair of strides.
Büchner sets us on Lenz’s shoulder, moving us through the estranging countryside without any exposition that might lend us bearings. The environment impinges protagonist and reader alike, heavy, damp, stifling. Büchner’s syntax shuffles along, comma splices tripping us into Lenz’s manic consciousness, his mind-swings doubled in the path that is “now up, now down.” We feel the “tightening” in Lenz’s chest as the “rocks skittered away,” as the “woods below him shook” — the natural world seems to envelop him, cloak him, suffocate him. It’s an animist terrain, and Büchner divines those spirits again in the text. The claustrophobia Lenz experiences then swings to another extreme, as our hero, his consciousness inflated, feels “he could cover [the earth] with a pair of strides.
And that baffling line: “He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head.” Well.
The end notes to the Archipelago edition I read (translated by Richard Sieburth) offer Arnold Zweig’s suggestion that “this sentence marks the beginning of modern European prose,” as well as Paul Celan’s observation that “whoever walks on his head has heaven beneath him as an abyss.”
Celan’s description is apt, and Büchner’s story repeatedly invokes the abyss to evoke its hero’s precarious psyche. Poor Lenz, somnambulist bather, screamer, dreamer, often feels “within himself something . . . stirring and swarming toward an abyss toward which he was being swept by an inexorable force.” Lenz is the story of a young artist falling into despair and madness.
But perhaps I should offer a more lucid summary. I’ll do that in the next paragraph, but first: Let me just recommend you skip that paragraph. Really. What I perhaps loved most about Lenz was piecing together the plot through the often elliptical or opaque experiences we get via Büchner’s haunting free indirect style. The evocation of a consciousness in turmoil is probably best maintained when we read through the same confusion that Lenz experiences. I read the novella cold based on blurbs from William H. Gass and Harold Bloom and I’m glad I did.
Here is the summary paragraph you should skip: Jakob Lenz, a writer of the Sturm and Drung movement (and friend and rival to Goethe), has recently suffered a terrible episode of schizophrenia and “an accident” (likely a suicide attempt). He’s sent to pastor-physician J.F. Oberlin, who attends to him in the Alsatian countryside in the first few weeks of 1778. During this time Lenz obsesses over a young local girl who dies (he attempts to resurrect her), takes long walks in the countryside, cries manically, offers his own aesthetic theory, prays, takes loud late-night bath in the local fountain, receives a distressing letter, and, eventually, likely—although it’s never made entirely explicit—attempts suicide again and is thusly shipped away.
Büchner bases his story on sections of Oberlin’s diary, reproduced in the Archipelago edition. In straightforward prose, these entries fill in the expository gaps that Büchner has so elegantly removed and replaced with the wonder and dread of Lenz’s imagination. The diary’s lucid entries attest to the power of Büchner’s speculative fiction, to his own art and imagination, which so bracingly take us into a clouded mind.
In Sieburth’s afterword (which also offers a concise chronology of Lenz’s troubled life), our translator points out that “Like De Quincey’s “The Last Days of Immanuel Kant” or Chateaubriand’s Life of Rancé, Büchner’s Lenz is an experiment in speculative biography, part fact, part fabrication—an early nineteenth-century example of the modern genre of docufiction.” Obviously, any number of postmodern novels have explored or used historical figures—Public Burning, Ragtime, and Mason & Dixon are all easy go-to examples. But Lenz is more personal than these postmodern fictions, more an exploration of consciousness, and although we are treated to Lenz’s ideas about literature, art, and religion, we access this very much through his own skull and soul. He’s not just a placeholder or mouthpiece for Büchner.
Lenz strikes me as something closer to the docufiction of W.G. Sebald. Perhaps it’s all the ambulating; maybe it’s the melancholy; could be the philosophical tone. And, while I’m lazily, assbackwardly comparing Büchner’s book to writers who came much later: Thomas Bernhard. Maybe it’s the flights of rant that Lenz occasionally hits, or the madness, or the depictions of nature, or hell, maybe it’s those long, long passages. The comma splices.
Chronologically closer is the work of Edgar Allan Poe, whose depictions of manic bipolar depression resonate strongly with Lenz—not to mention the abysses, the torment, the spirits, the doppelgängers. Why not share another sample here to illustrate this claim? Okay:
The incidents during the night reached a horrific pitch. Only with the greatest effort did he fall asleep, having tried at length to fill the terrible void. Then he fell into a dreadful state between sleeping and waking; he bumped into something ghastly, hideous, madness took hold of him, he sat up, screaming violently, bathed in sweat, and only gradually found himself again. He had to begin with the simplest things in order to come back to himself. In fact he was not the one doing this but rather a powerful instinct for self preservation, it was as if he were double, the one half attempting to save the other, calling out to itself; he told stories, he recited poems out loud, wracked with anxiety, until he came to his sense.
Here, Lenz suspends his neurotic horror through storytelling and art—but it’s just that, only a suspension. Büchner doesn’t blithely, naïvely suggest that art has the power to permanently comfort those in despair; rather, Lenz repeatedly suggests that art, that storytelling is a symptom of despair.
What drives despair? Lenz—Lenz—Büchner (?)—suggests repeatedly that it’s Langeweile—boredom. Sieburth renders the German Langeweile as boredom, a choice I like, even though he might have been tempted to reach for its existentialist chain-smoking cousin ennui. When Lenz won’t get out of bed one day, Oberlin heads to his room to rouse him:
Oberlin had to repeat his questions at length before getting an answer: Yes, Reverend, you see, boredom! Boredom! O, sheer boredom, what more can I say, I have already drawn all the figures on the wall. Oberlin said to him he should turn to God; he laughed and said: if I were as lucky as you to have discovered such an agreeable pastime, yes, one could indeed wile away one’s time that way. Tedium the root of it all. Most people pray only out of boredom; others fall in love out of boredom, still others are virtuous or depraved, but I am nothing, nothing at all, I cannot even kill myself: too boring . . .
Lenz fits in neatly into the literature of boredom, a deep root that predates Dostoevsky, Camus, and Bellow, as well as contemporary novels like Lee Rourke’s The Canal and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.
Ultimately, the boredom Lenz circles around is deeply painful:
The half-hearted attempts at suicide he kept on making were not entirely serious, it was less the desire to die, death for him held no promise of peace or hope, than the attempt, at moments of excruciating anxiety or dull apathy bordering on non-existence bordering on non-existence, to snap back into himself through physical pain. But his happiest moments were when his mind seemed to gallop away on some madcap idea. This at least provided some relief and the wild look in his eye was less horrible than the anxious thirsting for deliverance, the never-ending torture of unrest!
The “never-ending torture of unrest” is the burden of existence we all carry, sloppily fumble, negotiate with an awkward grip and bent back. Büchner’s analysis fascinates in its refusal to lighten this burden or ponderously dwell on its existential weight. Instead, Lenz is a character study that the reader can’t quite get out of—we’re too inside the frame to see the full contours; precariously perched on Lenz’s shoulder, we have to jostle along with him, look through his wild eyes, gallop along with him on the energy of his madcap idea. The gallop is sad and beautiful and rewarding. Very highly recommended.
In the fall of 2001—only a few months before his too-early death—W.G. Sebald taught a fiction workshop at the University of East Anglia. Two of the students from the workshop, David Lambert and Robert McGill have revisited their notes from that workshop and have compiled Sebald’s writing advice into a fascinating document, posted at Richard Skinner’s blog.
My favorite section:
On Reading and Intertextuality
- Read books that have nothing to do with literature.
- Get off the main thoroughfares; you’ll see nothing there. For example, Kant’s Critique is a yawn but his incidental writings are fascinating.
- There has to be a libidinous delight in finding things and stuffing them in your pockets.
- You must get the servants to work for you. You mustn’t do all the work yourself. That is, you should ask other people for information, and steal ruthlessly from what they provide.
- None of the things you make up will be as hair-raising as the things people tell you.
- I can only encourage you to steal as much as you can. No one will ever notice. You should keep a notebook of tidbits, but don’t write down the attributions, and then after a couple of years you can come back to the notebook and treat the stuff as your own without guilt.
- Don’t be afraid to bring in strange, eloquent quotations and graft them into your story. It enriches the prose. Quotations are like yeast or some ingredient one adds.
- Look in older encyclopaedias. They have a different eye. They attempt to be complete and structured but in fact are completely random collected things that are supposed to represent our world.
- It’s very good that you write through another text, a foil, so that you write out of it and make your work a palimpsest. You don’t have to declare it or tell where it’s from.
- A tight structural form opens possibilities. Take a pattern, an established model or sub-genre, and write to it. In writing, limitation gives freedom.
- If you look carefully you can find problems in all writers. And that should give you great hope. And the better you get at identifying these problems, the better you will be at avoiding them.
1. Thomas Bernhard’s novel Correction is nominally the story of an unnamed narrator who leaves England after a severe illness to return to his native Austria to “sift and sort” the writings of his childhood friend Roithamer.
Roithamer, a brilliant but insane scientist, is the self-exiled son of an old, wealthy family. He uses an unexpected inheritance to fund an idealistic project: the building of a perfect Cone in the isolated heart of the Kobernausser forest. Roithamer envisions this Cone as the perfect home for his sister to live in (although he doesn’t bother to actually, y’know, talk to her about it). Roithamer’s sister dies almost immediately after taking up residence in the Cone. Roithamer then commits suicide.
Correction is divided into two sections, each a single, long, dense paragraph with no text break for the reader to rest upon. Bernhard’s sentences wind and unwind and rewind, sometimes snaking out for pages at a time; like Samuel Beckett, to whom he is often compared, Bernhard is a master of the comma splice. The effect is exhausting.
The first section of Correction is “Hoeller’s Garret,” named after the novel’s primary physical setting. Hoeller is a taxidermist who has built his own house in the Aurach gorge as a sort of dare to nature itself. Hoeller’s house inspires Roithamer’s Cone, and Hoeller’s garret becomes Roithamer’s work space—which is to say thinking space—for planning and executing his idealistic project.
Following Roithamer’s suicide, the unnamed narrator too moves into Hoeller’s garret, one of many formal repetitions in Correction (these formalizing plot repetitions are echoed in Bernhard’s syntactic repetitions).
In “Hoeller’s Garret” we learn about the childhood friendship between the narrator, Hoeller, and Roithamer. The paragraph (or chapter, if you will) includes details about Roithamer’s troubled family as well as an early horrific encounter with death, themes that will repeat throughout the novel.
The second section, “Sifting and Sorting,” finds the narrator working though Roithamer’s (mostly autobiographical) papers. The narrator appends a simple tag like “thus, Roithamer” or “so Roithamer” as attribution to Roithamer’s first-person statements, but this device pops up less and less as the book progresses, and it becomes clear that Roithamer has ventriloquized the narrative.
“Sifting and Sorting” focuses on Roithamer’s unhappy childhood, his endless fights with his mother, and his wish to perfect an idealization (namely, his Cone). The narrator channels Roithamer who channels the voices of his mother and father (and occasionally his detested brothers)—and of course, the reader channels all. The narrator slowly gives over to Roithamer’s voice as the novel’s final pages rush out in a series of diary entries, and Bernhard’s taxing syntax performs a mesmerist act on the reader, who, stunned, must return to the text in yet another repetition.
2. I’ve thus far failed to illustrate any of the above claims with an example of Bernhard’s prose.
It’s possible to plunder Correction for tight phrases, sharp, dark aphorisms, and other little bits of strange wisdom, but that doesn’t really convey the effect of what it’s like to read Bernhard’s sentences.
Better then to offer an example. Here’s the novel’s second sentence:
The atmosphere in Hoeller’s house was still heavy, most of all with the circumstances of Roithamer’s suicide, and seemed from the moment of my arrival favorable to my plan of working on Roithamer’s papers there, specifically in Hoeller’s garret, sifting and sorting Roithamer’s papers and even, as I suddenly decided, simultaneously writing my own account of my work on these papers, as I have here begun to do, aided by having been able to move straight into Hoeller s garret without any reservations on Hoeller’s part, even though the house had other suitable accommodations, I deliberately moved into that four-by-five-meter garret Roithamer was always so fond of, which was so ideal, especially in his last years, for his purposes, where I could stay as long as I liked, it was all the same to Hoeller, in this house built by the headstrong Hoeller in defiance of every rule of reason and architecture right here in the Aurach gorge, in the garret which Hoeller had designed and built as if for Roithamer’s purposes, where Roithamer, after sixteen years in England with me, had spent the final years of his life almost continuously, and even prior to that he had found it convenient to spend at least his nights in the garret, especially while he was building the Cone for his sister in the Kobernausser forest, all the time the Cone was under construction he no longer slept at home in Altensam but always and only in Hoeller’s garret, it was simply in every respect the ideal place for him during those last years when he, Roithamer, never went straight home to Altensam from England, but instead went every time to Hoeller’s garret, to fortify himself in its simplicity (Hoeller house) for the complexity ahead (Cone), it would not do to go straight to Altensam from England, where each of us, working separately in his own scientific field, had been living in Cambridge all those years, he had to go straight to Hoeller’s garret, if he did not follow this rule which had become a cherished habit, the visit to Altensam was a disaster from the start, so he simply could not let himself go directly from England to Altensam and everything connected with Altensam, whenever he had not made the detour via Hoeller’s house, to save time, as he himself admitted, it had been a mistake, so he no longer made the experiment of going to Altensam without first stopping at Hoeller’s house, in those last years, he never again went home without first visiting Hoeller and Hoeller’s family and Hoeller’s house, without first moving into Hoeller’s garret, to devote himself for two or three days to such reading as he could do only in Hoeller s garret, of subject matter that was not harmful but helpful to him, books and articles he could read neither in Altensam or in England, and to thinking and writing what he found possible to think and write neither in England nor in Altensam, here I discovered Hegel, he always said, over and over again, it was here that I really delved into Schopenhauer for the first time, here that I could read, for the first time, Goethe’s Elective Affinities and The Sentimental Journey, without distraction and with a clear head, it was here, in Hoeller’s garret, that I suddenly gained access to ideas to which my mind had been sealed for decades before I came to this garret, access, he wrote, to the most essential ideas, the most important for me, the most necessary to my life, here in Hoeller’s garret, he wrote, everything became possible for me, everything that had always been impossible for me outside Hoeller’s garret, such as letting myself be guided by my intellectual inclinations and to develop my natural aptitudes accordingly, and to get on with my work, everywhere else I had always been hindered in developing my aptitudes but in Hoeller’s garret I could always develop them most consistently, here everything was congenial to my way of thinking, here I could always indulge myself in exploring all my intellectual possibilities, here my intellectual possibilities, here in Hoeller’s garret my head, my mind, my whole constitution were suddenly relieved from all the outside world’s oppression, the most incredible things were suddenly no longer incredible, the most impossible (thinking!) no longer impossible.
If you’re interested, that’s 722 words (I wrote about 500 words before Bernhard’s sentence, if you need a point of contrast).
The repetition is easy to note even by absently gazing over the passage. The repeated phrase “Hoeller’s garret” stands out in particular, introducing the reader to the novel’s primary setting and establishing this “ideal place” in context against Altensam (the hated aristocratic home), England (self-imposed exile of a sort), and the Cone (the ideal ideal place).
We can also track a subtle shift in the final third of the sentence, as Roithamer’s voice ventriloquizes the narrator’s. Note how in the first third of the sentence, the narrator employs the first-person pronoun “I” which soon disappears in the middle third to be replaced by “he” (referring to Roithamer), until finally transforming into an “I” again in the final third—only this “I” is Roithamer’s “I.” This sentence demonstrates not only the demanding sentence structure that characterizes Correction as a whole, but also its narrative program of ventriloquism.
3. Okay. So I’ve offered plot summary, a lump of text, and a few comments on Bernhard’s prose—but I’ve hardly made a go of untangling the knotty density of Correction. (Although is that really what I came here to do? I don’t know. I hope not). Here are some stray, loose thoughts on Correction, offered here with little support (and the vague promise that I’ll write more about Correction in the future—shorter, more focused posts that hopefully expand on these ideas):
Correction shows how idealism, and specifically the will to create and perfect the ideal, leads to breakdown, death, insanity, suicide.
The Cone is a massive idealized phallus that reduces the agency of Roithamer’s sister, isolates her, and becomes her tomb.
Roithamer is part of a long tradition in literature of strange sister-lovers, dudes who dote on—and idealize—their sisters too much.
Roithamer seems to suffer from a sort-of reverse Oedipus complex, where he identifies with the strength of his father and hates his mother, who he sees as a cultural philistine, lower class, anti-intellectual. This complex leads to chauvinism against women in general, and possibly prevents him from better understanding his sister, who he essentially imprisons.
Correction reminded me often of Poe’s story “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
Correction reminded me often of W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, although Correction obviously came first, and Sebald clearly cited Bernhard as an influence.
At some of its rantier points, Correction reminded me of Notes from Underground.
Correction took me forever to read, mostly because every time I picked it back up I had to twist my way into its circular, repetitive rhythms anew. Lots of rereading.
My auditory imagination: In time, it was Werner Herzog’s voice that read Correction to me.
Correction performs its own deconstruction.
Correction is often so scathing and harsh in its treatment of humanity as to be difficult to swallow. One has to step back repeatedly and remind oneself that Roithamer is not sane.
Correction is also very, very funny at times—astonishingly so, even. Its humor is truly absurd, the absurdity of a parent’s funeral, or the absurdity of simply having to go on. I can’t help but cite a favorite line here—“waking up is the always frightening minimum of existence.”
The other side of “waking up is the always frightening minimum of existence” is of course death in general, or suicide in particular. Correction posits suicide as the ultimate correction, the final clearing gesture. The ideal.
And, not a thought on Correction, but a question for readers: What next? — Concrete, The Loser, or Yes?