Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The most palpable proof of his failure - reading along with Sebald

Although I once looked up every person, place, and painting mentioned in The Emigrants (1992), I can hardly imagine doing the same thing with The Rings of Saturn (1995).  It is too full of stuff, of facts, of knowledge.  In the guise of documenting a walking tour along the East Anglia coast, Sebald wanders wherever he wants.

A bridge over the river Blyth, real enough, leads him to the fact, from “local historians,” that its tracks used to carry a train “built for the Emperor of China.”  Chinese dragons make a cameo – as Nabokov is the presiding spirit of The Emigrants, Borges inhabits The Rings of Saturn – and then we are plunged into nineteenth century Chinese history, particularly into the life of the Dowager Empress Cixi.  Then we are pulled back onto the seashore, to visit the sunken city of Dunwich, followed by six pages on the life of poet Algernon Swinburne.  How this is a novel - eh, you have to see it for yourself.

I was once in a book group that stumbled upon - crashed against - Pearl Buck’s Imperial Woman (1956), a historical novel about the Empress Dowager, a fascinating subject embedded in tedious prose.  Searching for a better book on the subject, I tried Marina Warner’s biography The Dragon Empress: Life and Times of Tz'u-hsi 1835-1908 Empress Dowager of China (1972), yes, much better, but with odd moments, passages I had read before, and not in Buck.  Passages like:

On the morning of the 15th of November, still in reasonably good health, she presided over the grand council’s deliberations upon the new situation, but after her midday meal, which in defiance of her personal doctors’ warnings she had concluded with a double helping of her favourite pudding – crab apples with clotted cream – she was stricken with an attack resembling dysentery, from which she did not recover.  (153)

To be clear, I am quoting Sebald, not Warner.  Sebald is paraphrasing Warner, pilfering all of the good bits.  I do not have Warner’s book here, so I cannot compare passages (I need the last few pages of the biography), but the apples in cream, which Sebald moved directly from one book to the other, are memorable enough.  Sebald certainly read more on the subject than this one book, but based on the evidence he did not necessarily read a lot more.

Another “Sebald book” I found more deliberately.  Max Ferber, the painter in the last chapter of The Emigrants, is a composite character but is based in part on Frank Auerbach.  I must have read that somewhere.  So I read Robert Hughes’s monograph Frank Auerbach (1990) and was amused to discover that Sebald had obviously read this very book.  Ferber’s studio is Auerbach’s:

Since he applied the paint thickly, and then repeatedly scratched it off the canvas as his work proceeded, the floor was covered with a largely hardened and encrusted deposit of droppings, mixed with coal dust, several centimetres thick at the centre and thinning out towards the outer edges, in places resembling the flow of lava.  This, said Ferber, was the true product of his continuing endeavours and the most palpable proof of his failure.  (161)

But Sebald is writing fiction, so he can have his painter insist that nothing in the studio ever changes, nothing but the paint and dust, while the real Auerbach can remodel:

‘I changed the lino three times,’ Auerbach says.  ‘The last time quite recently, less than ten years ago.  If I didn’t, the paint would be up to here.’  He gestures at thigh-height.  (Frank Auerbach, 13)

Sebald borrows Auerbach’s studio, biography, and techniques, but turns him into a Sebald character.  The line about failure above, that’s Sebald, as is:

And indeed, when I watched Ferber working on one of his portrait studies over a number of weeks, I often though that his prime concern was to increase the dust.

I had experienced an obvious but still useful demystification with these non-fiction books.  How did Sebald do what he did?  One important step:  he read widely.  That part I can do!  There are also other parts, yes.

See here for a painting of Auerbach's studio and other samples of his work.  It would take an imagination more powerful than mine, now that I know Auerbach’s work, to separate the fictional painter from the real paintings.  Terry, at Vertigo, has a fascinating article on another part of the connection between the real and imagined painters.


  1. When we visited Terezín (Theresienstadt) a few years ago, it seemed as if the town were following "instructions" about itself from Austerlitz - even the display in the window of the antique shop (which, of course, was closed) seemed the same as in the book. In the former concentration camp, there was a feature that would have been distilled by Sebald - in one cell was a fresh wreath, from the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro to mark some anniversary of Gavril Princip, whose assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was the cause of World War I, according to my school history book.

  2. I read an article in The Guardian about the existence of that train in Southwold with a dragon motif being not factual. I think listing the numerous instances where Sebald fictionalized a fact and invented images is an illuminating exercise. It gives us an idea how he dramatized news and historical events. There really are a lot of these "inventions" in The Rings of Saturn. The whole novel is like a network of false leads. A deliberate puzzle left for the reader to uncover.

    @ martin: Princip was referenced in The Rings of Saturn, through the infamous snapshot showing him and his victim, Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

  3. Rise - how interesting, but not at all surprising. Sebald, as I understand him, was not always comfortable with the word "novel" but made no pretense that he was not writing fiction, despite all of the "fact" in his books. Maybe I will write about this tomorrow, at least obliquely. The photos, which I have not mentioned at all, their tempting facticity, is an important tool here.

    Martin, your story is like a blending of writers, Alexander Hemon showing up in a Sebald novel. Princip is a major figure for Hemon. Or a major trivial figure. What a strange thing to find, although like you, coming across that antique shop window would be even stranger.

  4. I've only read The Rings of Saturn (and that too long ago for me to have anything the least bit meaningful to say about it), but I'll certainly have to read more after these posts. It's not a new idea, of course, but certainly an appealing one - this digestion of fact and fiction and regurgitating them into new forms. I'm reminded of that Woody Guthrie line about a fellow singer: "Aw, he just stole from me. I steal from everybody."

  5. Yes, that's right, an antique idea refurbished for contemporary use.