At the end of Vertigo, W. G. Sebald's narrator was travelling on a train and fell into sleep after browsing "at random" through the diary of Samuel Pepys (Everyman's Library, 1913). He had a dream, a dessicated mountain landscape fading into a vision of apocalypse:
Into that breathless void, then, words returned to me as an echo that had almost faded away – fragments from the account of the Great Fire of London as recorded by Samuel Pepys.
The Great Fire of London lasted for all of three days in early September 1666. The "fire" in the narrator's dream is a recreation of memory and subconscious as right before falling asleep, the narrator "found [himself] going over the same few lines [passages in the diary] again and again without any notion what they meant."
Here I'm juxtaposing the dream account of Sebald's narrator and Pepys's first hand account of the fire. I borrow the method of comparison from James L. Cowan's "Sebald’s Austerlitz and the Great Library". All emphases below are mine.
|Sebald and Hulse, Vertigo
|Pepys, 2 September 1666
|We saw the fire grow. It was not bright, it was a gruesome, evil, bloody flame, sweeping, before the wind, through all the City.
|When we could endure no more upon the water; we to a little ale-house on the Bankside, over against the ‘Three Cranes, and there staid till it was dark almost, and saw the fire grow; and, as it grew darker, appeared more and more, and in corners and upon steeples, and between churches and houses, as far as we could see up the hill of the City, in a most horrid malicious bloody flame, not like the fine flame of an ordinary fire.
|Pigeons lay destroyed upon the pavements, in hundreds, their feathers singed and burned.
|And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.
|A crowd of looters roams through Lincoln's Inn.
|Soon as dined, I and Moone away, and walked, through the City, the streets full of nothing but people and horses and carts loaden with goods, ready to run over one another, and, removing goods from one burned house to another.
|The churches, houses, the woodwork and the building stones, ablaze at once.
|The churches, houses, and all on fire and flaming at once ...
|The churchyard yews ignited, each one a lighted torch, a shower of sparks now tumbling to the ground.
|... and every thing, after so long a drought, proving combustible, even the very stones of churches, and among other things the poor steeple by which pretty Mrs. ———— lives, and whereof my old school-fellow Elborough is parson, taken fire in the very top, an there burned till it fell down.
|And Bishop Braybrooke's grave is opened up, his body disinterred.
|(see Pepys, 12 November 1666)
|Is this the end of the world?
|A muffled, fearful, thudding sound, moving, like waves, throughout the air. The powder house exploded.
|... and a horrid noise the flames made, and the cracking of houses at their ruins.
|We flee onto the water.
|Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that layoff; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another.
|The glare around us everywhere, and yonder, before the darkened skies, in one great arc the jagged wall of fire.
|We staid till, it being darkish, we saw the fire as only one entire arch of fire from this to the other side the bridge, and in a bow up the hill for an arch of above a mile long: it made me weep to see it.
|And, the day after, a silent rain of ashes, westward, as far as Windsor Park.
From this we can get a glimpse of how novelist's "aesthetics of falsification" works by (i) summarizing the event from a source text and (ii) adding in some details from his own imagination.
We can also observe how Sebald and translator Michael Hulse reproduced or reworded phrases from Pepys's diary. The "filter of memory" was not a perfect reproduction and was prone to periphrastic addition of details that tried to capture the sense of the apocalyptic.
The 6th passage is notable for its lack of counterpart to the day's diary. There is no mention of Bishop Braybrooke in the diary entries from September 2 to 6. But in a later entry, two months after the fire, Pepys did mention the fate of Bishop Robert Braybrooke's remains.
This afternoon going towards Westminster, Creed and I did stop, the Duke of York being just going away from seeing of it, at Paul’s, and in the Convocation House Yard did there see the body of Robert Braybrooke, Bishop of London, that died 1404: He fell down in his tomb out of the great church into St. Fayth’s this late fire, and is here seen his skeleton with the flesh on; but all tough and dry like a spongy dry leather, or touchwood all upon his bones. His head turned aside. A great man in his time, and Lord Chancellor; and his skeletons now exposed to be handled and derided by some, though admired for its duration by others. Many flocking to see it. (Pepys, 12 November 1666)
This detail of the bishop's miraculously unburnt corpse was too far advanced in the diary, and it was amusing that Sebald's narrator included this in his dream account. For the novelist, the preserved state of the corpse after the conflagration was a posthumous fact that was just too good to pass up (see this commentary about the state of the corpse and also this one about a strange case of necrophilia).
The chilling question, "Is this the end of the world?", is also pure Sebald. It is the kind of statement a person in the midst of a tragic event, or while observing one, is expected to make. (During this month's heavy flooding in Manila, for example, J. texted me the same thing, which I immediately contradicted. I realized, however, that in these times we indeed live through a series of apocalypses.)
The final sentence in Sebald's depiction of the fire is another passage that I cannot correlate from Pepys's diaries. Windsor Park and Lincoln Inn (in passage # 3) are also absent in the diaries.
The blog Vertigo mentioned that the original German edition of the novel ends with the number "2013" before the word "Ende". It also speculated that the 1913 edition of Pepys's diary could be made up by Sebald.
Depicting a true catastrophic event with a few imaginative alterations is Sebald's way of imagining himself in the narrative and appropriating the role of first hand witness for himself. What feels aesthetically right is morally right, he said in an interview. He is one sublime novelist who used his creative license to select real dramatic details to represent the essence of the thing and to introduce extra details to intensify the experience of lateral reading.
Pepys's eyes; Sebald's eyes; Related posts