August 24, 2012

A lateral reading of W. G. Sebald's apocalypse

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.

PassageSebald and Hulse, VertigoPepys, 2 September 1666
1We 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.
2Pigeons 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.
3A 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.
4The churches, houses, the woodwork and the building stones, ablaze at once.The churches, houses, and all on fire and flaming at once ...
5The 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.
6And Bishop Braybrooke's grave is opened up, his body disinterred.(see Pepys, 12 November 1666)
7Is this the end of the world?
8A 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.
9We 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.
10The 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.
11And, 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


  1. Can you say what you mean by "lateral" reading? Do you mean reading "across" literature, incorporating additional texts the way you're reading the Pepys beside Sebald here?

    And risking the appearance (or acutality) of Philistinism, I might tentatively suggest that a lot of novelists use their "creative license to select real dramatic details to represent the essence of the thing and to introduce extra details to intensify the experience" of the novel. You can likely trace that back to Homer. Again I run up against ignorance of your term "lateral reading," so I'm likely mistaking your meaning here.

    But this is a cool post. I really like seeing Sebald's paraphrase next to Pepys' diary entry. I second his comment about aesthetics; in fiction, aesthetic judgments are moral judgments and vice versa. Or at least that sounds good this morning.

  2. Thanks for the interest, scott. Great questions.

    I understand "lateral" reading can have many meanings. I used it because I like the word play and ambiguity behind it. Your suggested meaning is the direct one and the obvious valid definition given the side by side comparison. For me it's not only confined to referenced texts in the book but also to other art forms like music (e.g., Hopscotch/Rayuela vs the jazz music referenced in it and collected in the album Jazzuela, Julio Cortázar y el Jazz) and visual arts (In Search of Lost Time vs. all the paintings mentioned or implied in the series collected in Paintings in Proust). The possible meaning I'm teasing out is a kind of "transtextual reading", which is similar to "close reading" or "contextual reading" in that it investigates and analyzes available references and the contexts behind them and tries to extrapolate more meanings. Example is plotting in Google Map the places visited by the narrator in The Rings of Saturn (

  3. For the second part of your question, thanks for letting me clarify this because going back to the post I should have qualified what I meant by "real dramatic details". This should have been details from "already existing available nonfictional representations" like the eyewitness account of the Fire in the Pepys diary. Representations that contained "real" details based on life is used for fictional purposes. I should add also that, in addition to the selection of poetic details from the diary and adding/inventing new ones, the novelist also resorted to revising or clarifying some of Pepys's observation. Like in passage 3 about the looters. My understanding was that Pepys was not actually implying that people were stealing goods from others. But it was a logical thing to assume for Sebald since we actually observed or heard about that kind of thing happening in some other similar calamities.

  4. P.S. What further makes this aesthetic decisions of Sebald interesting for me is the linguistic representation/transfer of reality. He wrote in German his version of the Pepys so he had to translate words from the source diary for the purpose. Now here comes the translator Hulse putting back the words into English. We can see from the vocabulary (ablaze, yonder) and the multiple commas and short, clipped phrases Hulse used that he must have been trying to approximate an effect dictated by the German. (It actually mirrors the rhythm of the opening sentence of chapter.) And I bet the translator consulted the diary himself and perhaps consciously avoided copying the exact words (e.g., "gruesome, evil, bloody" for "most horrid malicious bloody"). These things are also evident in Chapter III of The Rings of Saturn wherein Sebald appropriated a news article (also viewable online) in his narrative.

  5. I call this sort of reading "paratextual" but only because that's the first term I came across that deals with it. "Lateral" is, as you say, less precise and so possibly more useful. Language is fun that way, isn't it? I like the idea of the translator sitting with the Sebald on the left, the Pepys on the right and the translation-in-progress between them. "Do I make it more or less like the source text?" It's an interesting question, especially given Sebald's liberties with Pepys. As a hack novelist, I can't stop myself from looking at all of this from the point of view of Sebald (or an imaginary Sebald who is probably essentially just me with a thick mustache and a cartoon Austrian accent) and considering what I'd do were I writing the given passages and working from Pepys. Did Sebald read English, or would he have worked from a German translation (and how "faithful"--whatever that means in the world of translation--was the German translation to the original?), or does that matter?

    I'm increasingly amused by the idea (a pure fiction, too) that there is a way to read "just the text" in front of us, as if all reading wasn't paratextual/lateral. Don't we bring to bear the entire world of our experience on everything we read, like it or not? Certainly there's a way of reading that consciously invokes these paratexts, that deliberately places them alongside the text in question, but don't we seek some of our lateral texts at least in part because something in the text we're reading has reminded us of something? I wonder how Sebald would feel about this discussion. Did he intend for people to compare his passages to the passages in Pepys' diary? I am talking tangentially to everything you've said, I know. That's because I have nothing to add directly to your fine essay and responses to my questions. And yet I'll go on just a bit more, sorry in advance.

    In my own work, I make allusions to all sorts of books/writers I've encountered. I'm not doing anything like what Sebald is doing in his books, but I'm aware that a lot of my references are going to be lost on readers. I'm also sure that the primary meaning (whatever I mean by "meaning") of my novels isn't contained in the allusions; rather, those allusions are meant to expand the narrative here and there rather than to explain it, I think. So probably Sebald is working at a deeper formal level than I am; I've only read the one novel of his and I know I misread it so I'm guessing mostly. There's also something I wish I could say about how, to this reader anyway, when I read a novel I am constantly making connections between that novel and other novels and there's no sense of historical context; that is, in my head all of literature is contemporaneous so it makes sense for me to say that some Shakespeare reminds me of some Nabokov, etc. All the other arts work the same way, because I'm not engaging with history so much as I'm engaging with my sensory impressions and my own faulty memory. None of which was what I meant to say.

    1. scott, glad you liked the post and your long views are always welcome. Sebald is really fluent in English. He is founding director of the British Centre for Literary Translation in University of East Anglia. So he could translate Pepys alright.

      I'd like to believe that his target readers are active readers, or even more so "interactive readers" who are not averse to Googling relevant details. At the very least, one's personal engagement with the text in whatever degree is the ideal. He is one writer I know, like Cortazar and Bolano and Vila-Matas, who revels in constructing "literary games" within their seemingly elaborate texts so that their more tolerant readers feel like they are doing detective work or decoding, not just plain reading, whether they investigate further the "paratexts" or not.

      I understand what you mean by historical context. Sometimes we don't have enough background to approach the text and yet we read on ahead relying on "limited rationality" (a social science concept which I'd like to borrow here). If I read something where I don't know the references at all, or just couldn't be bothered to find out about them, I guess I can always just engage with the text at other levels (story, character, language). For Sebald though, I feel it's more enriching to find out. I'll be curious to read more about your own approach to your own novel on this.

    2. Sebald is doing something very different in his books than I am in mine, I think. I'm not sure what he's doing at all, but I suppose he's using external texts to point at things within his text, and to point at ideas not explicit in his text. What I'm doing with references is generally pulling my texts apart at the seams, by which I guess I mean pointing away from my texts, trying to open the door to more (and usually conflicting) interpretations of events/themes than are explicit within my text.

      No, that's all too obtuse. I think Sebald makes references to things outside his text that, once examined, will reinforce what he's saying in his books. I make references to things outside my text to muddy the waters and to make the fictional world of the novels appear larger than it is. I add unexplained extraneous matter that often runs counter to what my themes appear to be and who my characters appear to be in order to build a fictional world that's complex and open-ended. My novel-in-progress has two characters discuss Shakespeare for no reasons other than 1) it amuses me, and 2) to keep readers from seeing these as "stock" characters. I fight against cliche. In my earlier novels, these sorts of allusions were mostly set decorations, details from historical research to add flavor and verisimilitude. Now it's a way to show that reality is complex, shifting and unknowable. And stuff.

    3. It sounds like a well-developed writing style, scott. I like how you shifted your use of references from verisimilitude to something reflective of your fictional system.

  6. I am struck by how easy it is to come across as a real kook when talking about fiction this way.

    1. LOL. Let's agree that reading/writing/theorizing about fiction is a healthy obsession for writers and book bloggers.

  7. I'm not sure if these recent posts of yours are scaring me away from Sebald or the opposite. will have to grapple with my copy of The Rings of Saturn and come to some conclusion on this matter.

    1. Gary, I pray it's the latter! Eager to see what you make out of Rings. I'm maximizing my coverage of him as there's no more long fiction for me to read after this. But I'll follow Borges who thought that rereading is more important than reading.

  8. Gary, at one point, not pre-internet but when things were not so easy, I looked up every single reference in The Emigrants. Every place, every painting, everything I noticed. I read a biography of the real-life shadow of the painter who appears late in the novel.

    So my point is, Sebald inspires crazy behavior. No, my point is, none of this is necessary, but it is rewarding, and Sebald includes some indicators that it is rewarding.

    Not only has Rise's series been outstanding, but the conversation in these comments should be preserved too. Great questions, Scott!

    1. Thanks, Tom. My first WGS encounter was also The Emigrants, arguably his finest.