Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The teeming black scrawl - Sebald makes connections

Sebald is discussing the Robert Walser story “Kleist in Thun.”  He describes his discovery, “in a three-volume biography of Gottfried Keller which had almost certainly belonged to a German Jewish refugee,” of an old photograph of a house where Heinrich von Kleist lived and wrote.   Kleist, Keller, Walser, Sebald.  “Since then I have slowly learned to grasp how everything is connected across space and time” (158-9) Sebald writes, and if anything tells us that I am not reading one of his prose fictions, it is the directness of this statement, which would have been cloaked in some way in the novels.

Eduard Mörike and his friends, as young German radicals, wear “open-necked shirts with wide flowing sleeves, Renaissance berets and suchlike extravagant headgear, sideburns and unkempt locks and those strange small steel-rimmed spectacles which have clearly been the hallmark of the conspiratorial intelligentsia since time immemorial” (76).  That is a joke there at the end.

All of this is visible in a drawing of the young writer and his friends on p. 75 of the essay on Mörike, but also in a drawing of young Gottfried Keller and his radical pals, no less than three of whom, including the author, who is leading the charge with a drum and top hat, wear the little glasses.  “It is difficult to imagine that these five heroes are off to storm the barricades” (96).  The theme is pinged again in the Walser essay, in a passage about his youthful dandyism, his cane and “loud checked suit,” but now “[a] fondness for conspicuous costume and the dangers of indigence often go hand in hand” (137).

Just as an example.  Everything is connected when made to be so by an artist of Sebald’s caliber.

Sebald does hide himself in A Place in the Country, or I think he does, and in one of the most common ways, by writing about visual art.  For example, when describing a painting of a bowl of grapes on a white tablecloth (reproduced in the book), Sebald writes:

The more I look at the paintings of Jan Peter Tripp, the more I realize that beneath the surface illusionism there lurks a terrifying abyss…  The dark background, the white linen cloth with the embroidered monogram – already we have begun to sense that it is spread out not for a wedding breakfast, but on a bier or catafalque.  And what is the business of painting in any case but a kind of pathological investigation in the face of the blackness of death and the white light of eternity? (177)

The question is absurd if taken literally, but I note that writing, and for that matter the act of reading, are generally a matter of a contrast between blackness and whiteness.

The word “pathological” is also questionable, but the previous five essays have been about people for whom writing is in fact pathological or close to it with Walser the most extreme case.  “No one… recognized the pathological aspect of thought as acutely as Rousseau, who himself wished for nothing more than to be able to halt the wheels ceaselessly turning within his head,” (58) – not even writing, but thought

So Walser, at the end of his essay, drifts off in a balloon provided by Nabokov; Keller writes to “contain the teeming black scrawl which everywhere threatens to get the upper hand, in the interest of maintaining a halfway functional personality” (122-3), and Mörike is last seen with his family, “not very content in his role as a poet from which – unlike his clerical calling – he can no longer retire.”  A painter friend

relates how on several occasions he observed Mörike noting things down which came into his head on special scraps and pieces of paper, only soon afterward to take these notes and “tear them up again into little pieces and bury them in the pockets of his dressing gown.”  (91)

Today’s Mörike would perhaps instead do what I am about to do.

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