“Ho sempre sentito di non avere posto nella realtà, come se non ci fossi affatto”
To The Emigrants
The Emigrants was Sebald’s breakthrough book, as we know. And because it’s also my own favourite, as I’ve confessed, I’ve already dealt with it in detail, and won’t say more here.
This is a biography, not a work of literary criticism. So for the other books I shall concentrate again on biography: that is, on their origins and development. But this book exists only because of what, and how, Sebald wrote, and something must be said about that too. Particularly how it hangs together as the project of his life, and presents us (to steal a line from The Rings of Saturn) with a cross-section of his brain.
After Nature started, he said, when he read The Head of Vitus Bering – an extraordinary work by the Austrian writer Konrad Bayer – and saw a passing reference to the German explorer Georg Wilhelm Steller. Already the great themes of coincidence and connection lit up in his mind. There was the coincidence of their shared initials, and of Steller’s birth in Windsheim, where Rosa had passed her panic to her son in the womb; when he moved on to the Grünewald story, he linked that to Windsheim too, and to himself again, via 18 May, and the artist Sebald Beham, and Grünewald’s face burdened with grief, the eyes ‘sliding downwards into loneliness’ like his own. (And is it obsessive to notice that ‘Grünewald’ also pivots around the letters G and W, and ‘Windsheim’ around W and S?)
After Nature connects to Vertigo through its form: two portraits of others and a self-exploration. But it connects above all to The Rings of Saturn, through its pessimism about nature and history, and its concentration on horror and pain. This first work, written out of the crisis of the author’s thirty-fifth year, is the most pessimistic and pain-filled of all. Someone who liked and admired him, but saw him clearly, said that he ‘mythologised his own private affairs into… the human condition’. That is undoubtedly true. But for all of us some of the time and some of us all of the time, it also is the human condition, seen with the clarity of a sufferer.
The next step, Vertigo, was a big one. It is orchestrated around the motif of repetition: Kafka repeats Stendhal’s Italian journey a century after him; the narrator repeats both nearly seventy years after that, and again seven years later. He begins with a walk into W. and ends with one around London, and in the middle the doublings multiply into dark comedy – the Kafka-like twins, the alliterative sisters Babette and Bina, the two doctors Piazolo and Rambousek; and Piazolo and the priest, who at one point mix up their rucksacks, so that the doctor drives off to his next patient ‘equipped for the last rites’, while the priest brings medical equipment ‘to the next member of his congregation who was about to expire’.
If The Emigrants is Sebald’s main fact-fiction mix, Vertigo is the prime example of his collaging his text from other texts: not only the ones in plain sight, such as Stendhal’s De l’amour and Life of Henry Brulard, Casanova’s Histoire de ma fuite des prisons de la République de Venise, Grillparzer’s Italian Diary and Sciascia’s 1912 + 1, but innumerable other hidden ones. The opening of ‘All’estero’ recalls that of Death in Venice and the end of ‘Il Ritorno in patria’ recalls The Winter’s Tale; there are bits of Walser, Améry, D. H. Lawrence and Edward Thomas, and echoes of Thomas Bernhard and Hoffmann’s The Sandman; the key scene of the narrator’s childhood, in which the hunter Schlag has sex with the serving girl Romana, is practically lifted from Peter Weiss’s The Shadow of the Body of the Coachman. But more than anyone else, as Sebald said himself, the text is ‘one big homage to Kafka’.
Dr K. Takes the Waters at Riva’, the third chapter of Vertigo, is a mass of quotations and half-quotations from Kafka’s letters and diaries. But there is a great deal more than that. For example, the central episode of the grey chasseur in the attic of the Alpenrose comes almost word for word from a fragment of Kafka’s called ‘In the Attic’.8 The fearful stranger Sebald’s narrator imagined as a boy, with the curved sabre in his lap, comes from Kafka; and when in his dreams the narrator finally touches the chasseur, and sees with horror his hand black with dust, that too comes from Kafka. And most importantly, the figure in Kafka’s attic tells the boy his name: Hans Schlag, from Kossgarten on the Neckar. Hans Schlag from Kossgarten on the Neckar is the man in Vertigo who copulates with Romana and dies, soon after which the narrator-as-a-boy, who has witnessed their tryst, sickens and nearly dies himself.
The link between sex and death couldn’t be clearer. And not only in Vertigo – it was already there in Kafka, in the man’s sabre and the boy’s blackened hand. Was it in particular touching a man that both narrators feared? And their authors as well? We are back to the question of homosexual fear. Both episodes are fictions, in Sebald’s case borrowed from Kafka and Weiss. But just because they are borrowed doesn’t mean that they aren’t crucial to him – on the contrary. Some scholars have argued that the answer in both cases is yes. In Vertigo Sebald certainly says yes about ‘Dr K.’.10 This was the time, I have suggested, of his own greatest fear. The identification with Kafka was, perhaps, a consolation.
But there’s more. The ‘chasseur’ was a Tyrolean soldier, a Feldjäger, and the meaning of Jäger, as of chasseur, is hunter. Vertigo’s Hans Schlag is a hunter, and that comes from Kafka too.
Hans Schlag in ‘In the Attic’ is a first sketch for another Kafka character: the Hunter Gracchus, in the story of that name, set in Riva on Lake Garda, where Kafka stayed in 1913. And the Hunter Gracchus is as important to Vertigo as Nabokov to The Emigrants. He links the four stories of Vertigo as Nabokov links those of The Emigrants, with a fleeting, enigmatic appearance in each, which at first you hardly notice, but which grows stronger with each repetition, until you realise that the whole delicate lacework of the book is held together by this one unnamed figure.
At the start of Kafka’s story a boat enters the harbour of Riva. On it two men ‘in dark coats with silver buttons carried a bier, on which, under a large silk cloth with a floral pattern and fringe, a man was plainly lying’. In 1813 Beyle sees this apparition, in 1980 and 1987 the narrator does, in 1913 Dr K. does, and identifies him as Gracchus the huntsman. Finally, in ‘Il Ritorno in patria’ the bier returns one last time, morphed into a woodcutter’s sledge, on which the boy who will become the narrator sees ‘what was plainly the body of a man under a wine-coloured horse-blanket’. The man is Schlag, and the autopsy on his body records that a sailing ship was tattooed on his left upper arm. Schlag is thus the Hunter Gracchus, in Sebald as in Kafka.
Who is Gracchus? He is a hunter from the Black Forest who fell from a rock while chasing a chamois and died. But then something irretrievable happened: the boatman to the next world, distracted by his beautiful homeland, took a wrong turn and lost his way. Since then Gracchus has wandered over the waters of the earth, no longer alive, but unable truly to die.
He is thus the ultimate image of the wanderer with no home in this world, either in reality or in metaphor: like all three writers, Stendhal, Kafka and Sebald. Especially, of course, like Sebald: at home but not at home in W., his life already disappearing into his writing. At the same time, Gracchus is Schlag, in whom sex and death meet. And again, in both Kafka and Sebald, Gracchus’s fear may be of homosexual love, as he touches the knee of the mayor of Riva.
Max said repeatedly that Vertigo was about love. Or rather, he added, about the problems of love.
More precisely, it is about the impossibility of love. In it, Dr K. runs away from the threat of marriage to Riva, where he enjoys the only kind of love he can bear, a fantasy without a future. The terrors of love, Sebald wrote, ‘stood foremost among all the terrors of the earth’ for Dr K. That, I think, is the truth about both Dr K and the narrator of Vertigo: love itself, including physical intimacy with another human being, either man or woman, is terrifying. It hardly happens – and then only disastrously – within the covers of this book or any other by W. G. Sebald.
‘Beyle’ is explicitly about love – entitled ‘Das Merckwürdige Faktum der Liebe’ in German, in English ‘Love is a Madness Most Discreet’ (quoting Romeo and Juliet – and we all know how that ends). Like After Nature, Vertigo began from another book: Stendhal’s De l’amour, the story of his great unrequited love for Métilde Dembowski Viscontini. Now Sebald read more Stendhal, evidently including his Vie de Henri Brulard, an extraordinary work not unlike Sebald’s own, mixing autobiography with fiction and studded with diagrams and drawings. Some of these are reproduced in Vertigo, including Stendhal’s list of the dozen or so women he loved, whose initials he scratched (he tells us) in the dust above an Italian lake. Few of them returned his love any more than Métilde, and though one or two did, the ‘habitual condition of my life’, he wrote, ‘is that of an unhappy lover’.
In fact Stendhal, who has always been seen as a womaniser, the opposite of Kafka and Sebald, is like them after all: certainly in Sebald’s portrait, and probably in reality as well. Love was a chimera for him, something that existed only in art and his imagination. Thus the love duet from Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto, ‘Cara non dubitar’, moves him (in Vertigo) more than any actual experience; and the plaster cast of Métilde’s hand ‘meant almost as much to him’, Sebald wrote, ‘as Métilde herself could ever have done’. Angela Bereyter, with whom Stendhal lived, took him out of his imagination, and he never loved her; Métilde, who was the most inaccessible of all, he loved most of all.
One of Sebald’s gifts is to capture his themes in unforgettable images. So we see the dead return to us when Johann Naegeli’s body emerges from the ice; and here we see his picture of Kafka and himself – homeless wanderers, melancholics more dead than alive – in Hunter Gracchus on his bier. And in ‘Beyle’ he embodies his idea of love in an image taken from De l’amour. On their visit to the salt mines near Salzburg, Beyle’s companion is presented with a twig brought up from the mine, where it has become encrusted with thousands of glittering crystals. This ‘truly miraculous object’ seems to him ‘an allegory for the growth of love in the salt mines of the soul’. That is: love is a miracle created in our own minds, covering a small and ordinary thing.
Sebald does not, for once, include a picture of the crystallised twig in Vertigo. But there is such a picture somewhere else, we know – in ‘Max Ferber’, when the narrator visits the salt frames at Kissingen. There it is an image of art, and also of the narrator’s life, petrified by years of turning it into words. The beginning of that process is here, when he recognises the illusion of love.
da Speak, Silence. In search of W.G. Sebald.
(estratto della affascinante autobiografia non autorizzata ma meticolosa e onesta di Carole Angier)
Suddenly there was a whirring of wings and they all looked up. A robin with its bright red breast swooped down from a tree and landed on the foot of the grave. There it stayed for a few long moments, then flew off. Everyone realised they had held their breath. Beryl’s clear voice broke the silence. ‘It’s Max!’ she said. Soon afterwards Michael Hamburger wrote a poem for dead friends, ending with that memory.
An icy wind blew
On the bird safe there among the living
And those more truly levelled
Than sunlight lets creatures be –
All reduced, irreducible there
In one darkness stood and lay.
da Speak, Silence –