20 August 2013

An exercise in destruction


This wraps up my posting on W. G. Sebald's The Emigrants, a haunting prose work on memory, falsification, and amnesia. The poet Michael Hulse has to be acknowledged for his sterling version of Sebald's language and idioms. As in the case of Javier Marías's masterful exploration of memory and guilt in Your Face Tomorrow (2002-2007, trans. Margaret Jull Costa), I am reminded of the philosopher Paul Ricoeur's appropriation of Freud's idea of work in On Translation (2004, trans. Eileen Brennan): The work of translation is a work of remembering and a work of mourning. In Hulse's writing, these two kinds of work are not mutually exclusive.

In "translating" the story of his fourth and last subject (Max Ferber), Sebald might as well describe the quandary of all translators. This can be gleaned from his narrator's despair after thoroughly investigating the life of the painter Ferber. It is a metafictional moment of self-consciousness and inadequacy.

During the winter of 1990/91, in the little free time I had ... I was working on the account of Max Ferber given above [the foregoing text]. It was an arduous task. Often I could not get on for hours or days at a time, and not infrequently I unravelled what I had done, continuously tormented by scruples that were taking hold and steadily paralysing me. These scruples concerned not only the subject of my narrative, which I felt I could not do justice to, no matter what approach I tried, but also the entire questionable business of writing. I had covered hundreds of pages with my scribble, in pencil and ballpoint. By far the greater part had been crossed out, discarded, or obliterated by additions. Even what I ultimately salvaged as a "final" version seemed to me a thing of shreds and patches, utterly botched.

Capturing memory is hard work. It can be likened to producing early drafts of translation – "crossed out, discarded, or obliterated by additions" – or at least revising and rewriting several thoughts (passages) and fine-tuning one's perception of events (language). This passage comes right after describing a natural template of perpetual destruction, that of the production of salt through the "ceaseless flow" of water: "that theatre of water ... the long term and (I believe) impenetrable process which, as the concentration of salts increases in the water, produces the very strangest of petrified or crystallized forms, imitating the growth patterns of Nature even as it is being dissolved."

It is not that different from Ferber's unusual approach to portrait painting, described as "an exercise in destruction". It is a combination of successive erasures of paint off the canvas and the continuous reconstruction and application of paint over the surface: "The moment the model had sat down and he had taken a look at him or her, he would erase the portrait yet again, and once more set about excavating the features of his model, who by now was distinctly wearied by this manner of working, from a surface already badly damaged by the continual destruction." For the narrator, it all "amounted to nothing but a steady production of dust." Dust is the constant material hovering all around Ferber's work.

The routine of remembering is a form of work; it can be physically and mentally taxing. It can be unsettling, literally backbreaking and extremely painful, especially if it requires unearthing memory within a memory within a memory.

The flood of memory, little of which remains with me now, began with my recalling a Friday morning some years ago when I was suddenly struck by the paroxysm of pain that a slipped disc can occasion, pain of a kind I had never experienced before. I had simply bent down to the cat, and as I straightened up the tissue tore and the nucleus pulposus jammed into the nerves. At that moment, all I knew was that I mustn't move a fraction of an inch, that my whole life had shrunk to that one tiny point of absolute pain, and that even breathing in made everything go black.... I also remember that the crooked position I was forced to stand in reminded me, even in my pain, of a photograph my father had taken of me in the second form at school, bent over my writing. In Colmar, at any rate, said Ferber after a lengthy pause, I began to remember, and it was probably those recollections that prompted me to go on to Lake Geneva after eight days, to retrace another old memory that had long been buried and which I had never dared disturb.... On my train journey through Switzerland, which truly is amazingly beautiful, I was already remembering these scenes and images of thirty years before, said Ferber.

This extended remembrance within a remembrance is not without its side effect of forgetting. There are gaps in the narrative of remembrance, stretches of unaccounted for events – "memory block", we might call them. The work of remembering may induce not only vertigo but physical infirmity. In the case of Ferber, it seems to confirm even his "inner constitution" at a young age, an apparent scoliosis or propensity to be bent while concentrating at work. The one who remembers, voluntarily or accidentally, with such "painful clarity" (as if the events happened only yesterday), carries the load of memory on his back like a sack or baggage, sometimes so heavy he is forced to stoop and become crooked and bent. It is a handicap experienced by those who spent their lives doing the same things over and over. How memory can bring physical infirmity is prefigured early on in the second section of the book when the narrator encounters the aged porter of an inn: "He was so doubled over that he cannot have been able to see more than the lower half of anyone standing in front of him. Because of this handicap, no doubt, he had already taken a quick glance at the latecomer outside the glazed door before he crossed the hall, a glance that was the more penetrating for being brief."

The "business of writing" is questionable in the first place because the writer exercises his creative license in selecting and falsifying some details and elements of his "historical" narrative. Ethics and aesthetics collide in the process. In order to get his ideas across, the writer is forced to invent connections in the narrative, connections that may not be there in the first place. There is inherent contradiction in the reliance on memory to tell a story and in acknowledging the unreliable turns memory sometimes make. Between memory and forgetting, however, the writer has already made his choice. The path of least resistance is not for him. The balance of truth and fiction must remain precarious and suspect. In interviews, Sebald has expressed his personal reservations on his appropriating the lives of real people (like the painter Frank Auerbach) in his narratives. Yet the aesthetic choices he makes in the service of his art brings to the forefront the function of fiction to produce not a tidy reality but untidy composites of that reality.

In consciously altering historical, reality-based narratives and in bringing to the surface the falsifications of memory, Sebald treads the line between moral and aesthetic scruples. What makes for great art – or what makes for a strong potential for greatness in certain art – seems to be its capacity to exercise the memory of those who read, view, hear, or see it. Great art must prick the conscience, let loose the sympathetic imagination. Thus, pictures of great suffering like Grünewald's "Entombment of Christ" or Tiepolo's fresco or breathtaking natural landscapes (as opposed to man-made art) seen up close, occasioned in Max Ferber a flood of remembrances – "one thing had led to another" – of his childhood and youth. And thus, his mother Luisa, facing an imminent threat, suddenly takes the task of remembering to articulate her childhood memories. Resisting death through memory and mourning. It seems the most natural thing to do.

From the top, the road runs down, along the edge of the woods, to Höhn, where the fields open out and the hills of the Rhön can be seen in the distance. The Saale meadows spread before you, the Windheim woods nestle in a gentle curve, and there are the top of the church tower and the old castle – Steinach! Now the road crosses the stream and enters the village, up to the square by the inn, then down to the right to the lower part of the village, which Luisa calls her real home.

Luisa's first person memoir occupies a large part of Ferber's story. It continues to describe the minutiae of life in her village, the rise and fall of her family fortunes, the impending danger from Nazism. The obvious model for Luisa's clean and clear prose style is Adalbert Stifter in Rock Crystal (1843, trans. Elizabeth Mayer and Marianne Moore): "Among the high mountains of our country there is a little village with a small but needle-fine church spire. Conspicuous above the green of abundant fruit-trees, this spire—because the slates are painted vermilion—can be seen far and wide against the faint blue of the mountains. The hamlet nestles in the very center of a fairly wide valley that is an almost perfect ellipse...."

In her restrained and devastating memoir, Luisa lists the names of her neighbors and their occupations: the Lions who supply oil for the lamps, Meier Frei the merchant, Gessner the baker, Liebmann the slaughterer, Salomon Stern the flour merchant, Fröhlich the plumber, and so on. It is not now surprising to observe how in this work of fiction, Sebald's subjects and their relatives and acquaintances are portrayed as dedicated to their work, some of them to the point of obsession: Paul Bereyter as tutor and schoolteacher, Ferber as painter, the narrator's uncle Kasimir as a construction worker atop skyscrapers, his great-uncle Adelwarth as majordomo and butler, Dr. Selwyn's father as proprietor of emporium, etc. They are emigrants who work for a living, braving the wear and tear of life and its accompanying experiences and memories. To work and remember is to postpone dying.

It is thus fitting that the book ends with a series of photographs (described, not shown) of ghetto workers in Polish production sites – women sitting making baskets, child apprentices in metalwork shop, men making bullets, men in the nail factory or rag depot, three young women behind a loom. The narrator sees in the workers a resigned engagement in the daily grind of production. They, the dutiful workers, are not entirely voiceless in the photographs. They proclaim in a silent chorus the assumption of their work, the source of their salvation and destruction.

... faces, countless faces, who looked up from their work (and were permitted to do so) purposely and solely for the fraction of a second that it took to take the photograph. Work is our only course, they said.


  1. It was only a few months after I read The Emigrants that I realized how Sebald was using/describing the act of remembering as a sort of pathology, a negative agent in life, almost a form of infection though perhaps that goes too far. I was thinking at the time of Proust's use (or maybe conception) of memory as a way to experience life and how Proust used memory as a positive force, an artwork and an artistic method. Though both Proust and Sebald are using memory and language as the basic building blocks of art, and placing art above ideas of literal truth (which is either unattainable or meaningless (or both), depending on who you ask). Clearly they had different ends in mind when they sat down to write. Anyway, this was a helpful post as I continue to roll around my experience of The Emigrants. All of your Sebald posts have been helpful.

  2. Thanks, Scott. That was a good comparison of Sebald and Proust’s motivations. Reminds me to pick up where I left off Swann’s Way (not even halfway, the book made me sleepy). A form of infection is a suitable description with Sebald, I think. I guess he is melancholic while Proust is nostalgic. Though that’s reductive.

    Ah, the mouthwatering memory of madeleine.