August 13, 2013

An outsize toyland

The third section of W. G. Sebald's The Emigrants (trans. Michale Hulse) was about the narrator's great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth and his ward Cosmo Solomon, a scion of a rich American businessman. Ambros's story began with the narrator's early memory of his great-uncle during a family reunion in Germany and later, when the narrator traveled to America, it was picked up by the reminiscences of Ambros's relatives and fellow emigrants there. The narrator also interviewed a doctor's assistant his great-uncle came into contact with during his last days in the sanatorium.

After leaving his home as a teenager, Ambros took jobs in Germany, Switzerland, England, Japan, and America before finally hired as a personal assistant of Cosmo Solomon and later as a butler in the Solomon household. Despite the suggested emotional conflict and loneliness brewing inside Ambros, he was a portrait of decorum, according to the narrator's aunt.

Uncle Adelwarth had more than half a dozen servants under him, not counting the gardeners and chauffeurs. His work took all his time and energy. Looking back, you might say that Ambros Adelwarth the private man had ceased to exist, that nothing was left but his shell of decorum. I could not possibly have imagined him in his shirtsleeves, or in stocking feet without his half-boots, which were unfailingly polished till they shone, and it was always a mystery to me when, or if, he ever slept, or simply rested a little. At that time he had no interest in talking about the past at all. All that mattered to him was that the hours and days in the Solomon's household should pass without any disruption.

This was after the death of his close friend and ward Cosmo, who wasted away in a sanatorium. The image of Stevens the elegant, dedicated, but ultimately pathetic and stiff butler in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day came to mind here. At least in terms of repression of memory and apparent unreliability, these two characters shared some affinity. By the end of the story, the words of Ambros himself was transcribed from a notebook diary where the whole tricky exercise of excavating events from traitorous memory was encapsulated in a postcript.
Memory, he added in a postscript, often strikes me as a kind of dumbness. It makes one's head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.

It seemed like an elaboration of the pun of the German title of Sebald's previous novel Schwindel. Gefühle (Vertigo). Like the previous two subjects, Dr. Henry Selwyn and Paul Bereyter, Ambros was at first hesitant to talk about the past. It was only when he was old and felt the intimations of death did he begin to share stories to a relative.

Even the least of his reminiscences, which he fetched up very slowly from depths that were evidently unfathomable, was of astounding precision, so that, listening to him, I gradually became convinced that Uncle Adelwarth had an infallible memory, but that, at the same time, he scarcely allowed himself access to it. For that reason, telling stories was as much a torment to him as an attempt at self-liberation. He was at once saving himself, in some way, and mercilessly destroying himself. [emphasis added]

Compare "astounding precision" with Paul Bereyter's "greatest clarity" ("He said that he could see things then with the greatest clarity, as one sees them in dreams.") or Dr. Selwyn's memory ("returning once again") of his family's exodus ("all of it ... I can now live through again, as if it were only yesterday"). So, reconstruction of the past for these men was a kind of necessity and salvation; at the same time it also seemed to hasten their undoing. Where previously they were not open to talk of their past lives, there was now somehow a compulsion for them to do so, as if the last shreds of meaning in their lives were incumbent upon uncovering their untold stories. Stories which were, however, marked not only by lasting friendships but by bitterness and anguish.

The narrator's journalistic investigation into these sad lives added a hyper-real dimension to the increasingly dream-like quality of the writing. The concept of dreams was alluded to in so many ways. Reading the profusion of remembered or recorded past events in the book was like watching an unrestored black and white film. The photographs and references to old films in the book only seemed to reinforce the grainy texture of its reality.

The interlocking motifs, devices, and concerns within The Emigrants and among the other prose fiction made me rethink Sebald's deliberate and careful selection of details as opposed to free association of images and ideas. The whole intertextual tapestry governed by a balance of spontaneous delivery of memories and perfectly timed deployment and repetition of images.

I still remember, said Aunt Fini, standing with Uncle Adelwarth by his window one crystal-clear Indian Summer morning. The air was coming in from outside and we were looking over the almost motionless trees towards a meadow that reminded me of the Altach marsh when a middle-aged man appeared, holding a white net on a pile in front of him and occasionally taking curious jumps. Uncle Adelwarth stared straight ahead, but he registered my bewilderment all the same, and said: It's the butterfly man, you know.

A lot had been said about the figure of the butterfly man, the book's resident literary angel or spirit, the same way Kafka's spirit presided over the previous novel and Borges's over the next one. Let me just note how the passage was here characteristic of Sebald's clean and transparent prose, accessible in spite of the profusion of prepositions. Crystal-clear like the Indian Summer morning being described, like the prose of Adalbert Stifter (incidentally the author of a book translated as Indian Summer).
The continuity of vision was also apparent in the powerful scene of Ambros's electroshock therapy in the sanatorium which reminded one of Rembrandt's painting of the violation of the subject in "The Anatomy Lesson" in The Rings of Saturn. It seemed again like a critique of the "progress" of science (and civilization): the vicious assault on the helpless human body standing for the assault on humanism. The insensitivity to the afflictions of the body, the fanatical zeal of the doctor who administered the shock treatment and who believed he had discovered a "psychiatric miracle cure" with his cruel method. These tendencies were symptomatic, as one character put it, of "our appalling ignorance and corruptibility", perhaps of our fallibility to unthinkable, single-minded ideologies and prejudices.

More ominous lines in this passage: "I felt as if I and the car I sat in were being guided by remote control through an outsize toyland where the place names had been picked at random by some invisible giant child, from the ruins of another world long since abandoned. It was as if the car had a will of its own on the broad highway." An extraordinary passage, with a hint of darkness and lightness to it, but also unsettling, given the tragic circumstances of the author's death.


  1. This series has been very interesting. I should do this someday, write about the book piece by piece. Back in the old days, without so much help from the internet, I looked up every proper name in the novel - I mean, the real ones, place and paintings and so forth - and did some supplementary reading. Sebald deepened as a result. I should do it again.

  2. You did it the Sebald way. Good, old-fashioned hunting for clues in books and places. I find the reread is still enlarging my memory of the book.