If my little conversation with W. G. Sebald went well, and I flatter myself that it did, it could not have hurt that I flattered the author by recognizing one of the cleverest parts of The Emigrants, his use of Vladimir Nabokov. A different fan might have singled out a particularly beautiful scene, but that does not sound like me. Praised for his cleverness, Sebald was willing to expand on it.
In the passage I used yesterday, Nabokov is never mentioned. The speaker does not know, no one in the chapter knows, who the man with the butterfly net is, and Sebald never actually says. Nabokov had been mentioned twice in earlier chapters about different characters, though, and a photograph of Nabokov with his net is on page 16, so Sebald had put me on notice, but I knew the butterfly man in that passage was also Nabokov because I knew his biography and knew that Nabokov was living in Ithaca, New York at the time Sebald's character was in Ithaca. Sebald’s fiction rewards, and perhaps demands, knowledge.
At one point – several years after I met him – I read The Emigrants with the goal of looking up every reference I did not know, and finding every location on a map. Please, no quizzes, but I did it. I had already made my great discovery, if I can call it that, the first or second time I read the novel:
Afterwards we were in the great hall of the palace, and I stood beside Uncle, craning up at Tiepolo’s glorious ceiling fresco above the stairwell, which at that time meant nothing to me; beneath the loftiest skies, the creatures and people of the four realms of the world are assembled on it in fantastic array. (185)
The internet was a bit primitive in those days, so I had to resort to a library book about the Residenz in Würzburg, a baroque masterpiece for which Tiepolo’s giant allegorical fresco is only a highlight. Actually, Würzburg itself was so charming, at least at Christmas-time, that I can say the Residenz is only a highlight. Yes, I was so interested I went to see it:
Strangely enough, said Ferber, I only thought of that afternoon in Würzburg with Uncle Leo a few months ago, when I was looking through a new book on Tiepolo. For a long time I couldn’t tear myself away from the reproduction of the great Würzburg fresco, its light-skinned and dark-skinned beauties, the kneeling Moor with the sunshade and the magnificent Amazon with the feathered headdress. For a whole evening, said Ferber, I sat looking at those pictures with a magnifying glass, trying to see further and further into them. (185)
The speaker here is not Sebald, but of course the author is also describing his own encounter with Tiepolo and the Residenz, and likely his way of looking at the world. Whether he is rewriting Stendhal’s autobiography (in Vertigo) or working through the natural history of the herring (The Rings of Saturn) or inventorying the contents of a shop window (Austerlitz), he is trying to see further, to know more, and inviting his readers to do the same.