Friday, May 4, 2012

A passage that I can no longer find - Borgesian Brownian Sebaldian Sebald

The photographs in Sebald’s novels undermine the facts of his fiction by seeming to guarantee them.  A man in a dark coat stands on an empty winter beach.  The text says “this picture” was taken by Uncle Casimir and is of the narrator of The Emigrants, who is also more or less the author.  Sebald possesses the picture because his uncle sent him a copy “two years later, probably when he had finally shot the whole film, together with his gold pocket watch” (89).

I mention this photo not because it is particularly interesting – in fact it is particularly dull – but because I was amused to find a second reference to it in the new book of poems – confirmation! – although  of what I cannot say.  But this is one of Sebald’s recurring jokes, the inclusion of fragments of evidence of some vague something that actually prove nothing.  The reproduction of a pizza lunch receipt in Vertigo is a highlight of the technique.  The story must be true – here is the receipt!  I am always tricked for a moment, too.

I wonder what the ratio of fact to fiction is in Sebald’s books.  High, I assume.  In The Rings of Saturn Sebald spends a couple of pages summarizing the Borges story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” which begins with the discovery of an encyclopedia  “which contains four pages that are not in any other copy of the edition in question,” pages that are fictional in the sense that Borges made the whole thing up, but have an indeterminate status within the story itself.  Four fictional pages are enough to reshape the world, at least within a text.  The chapter ends with the Borges story colonizing the Sebald novel. 

And then see how the novel ends (the chapter has been about silk and silkworms):

And Sir Thomas Browne, who was the son of a silk merchant and may well have had an eye for these things, remarks in a passage of the Pseudodoxia Epidemica that I can no longer find that in the Holland of his time it was customary, in a home where there had been a death, to drape black mourning ribbons all over mirrors and all canvasses depicting landscapes or people or the fruits of the field, so that the soul, as it left the body, would not be distracted on its final journey, either by a reflection of itself or by a last glimpse of the land now being lost for ever.

In the Borges story, Uqbar is in some sense discovered in a mirror, and the story (and Sebald’s chapter that employs it), both end with a mention of Browne, so Sebald deliberately linked these endings.  But the key of course is the lost remarks.  I assume that enterprising Sebaldians have either identified the passage or proven that it does not exist.  I am not sure which outcome I prefer. 

Someday all of this work will have been done, indexed and catalogued, the relevant parts of every book Sebald identified in footnote, or, who knows, linked directly to the text.  I must admit that part of the fun of reading Sebald is that my own little discoveries still feel fresh.


  1. Pseudodoxia Epidemica is a voluminous writing which few readers are fully acquainted with. W.G. Sebald's knowledge of Browne though appreciative was extremely slender, (he lived near Norwich teaching at UEA for over 25 years before 'discovering' Browne when recuperating at hospital encountering a mould of Browne's skull, NOT the real skull). It's therefore most likely he's playing a Borgesian bluff here confident he was unlikely to be challenged on this statement. A clever academic literary smoke and mirrors passage, he once admitted to me he was no expert on Browne. Note well when reading RoS he never uses quotation marks when citing Browne thus making it near impossible to discern where Browne's imagery ends and his begins. German-born academics not always the best authorities on 17th century Brit. lit.

  2. A probable Borgesian bluff by Sebald was also apparent when he referred to the "twenty-sixth volume" (in my Rings edition) containing the four unaccounted-for pages of the encyclopedia. In the actual story, the questionable entry on Uqbar was contained in the 46th volume (Volume XLVI) of the encyclopaedia. And Sebald paraphrased Borges's "On occasion, a few birds or a horse have saved the ruins of an amphitheatre" (trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni) into "I read of how a few birds saved an entire amphitheatre".

  3. Given that Borges was a great admirer of Browne it looks as if my reply combined with Rise's Tom, suggests that Sebald's literary and aesthetic appreciation may have been highly influenced by the Argentian master. My main grievance with some of Sebald's writing and the gathering cult surrounding him is that as a literary magpie, he's credited with far more than achieved in reality.

  4. The Rings of Saturn is an especially Borgesian exercise, but yes, Borges is a major figure for Sebald. And what would be the point, as Rise suggests, of getting Borges exactly right in a work of fiction? Would kinda violate the spirit of the thing.

    Thanks for the always-useful Browne information. One would hope that Sebald was not an expert on Browne, regardless of his birth.