Saturday, November 19, 2016

Plainly this was the moment immediately before a disaster - a glance at the Italian journeys of W. G. Sebald and Yves Bonnefoy - I was thus flattered in my Gnostic tendencies

W. G. Sebald’s first novel, for some reason called Vertigo in English (1990, tr. Michael Hulse), describes a number of Italian journeys – those of Stendhal, Kafka, and a version of himself – that cross paths with Goethe in a number of ways.  Sebald deflects the comparison, declaring that in Venice he is reading not Goethe but

Grillparzer’s Italian Diary, written in 1819.  I had bought it in Vienna, because when I am travelling, I often feel as Grillparzer did on his journeys.  Nothing pleases me, any more than it did him; the sights I find infinitely disappointing, one and all; and I sometimes think that I would have done far better to stay at home with my maps and timetables.  (53-4)

The fantasy of Italy has a power that the actual place, full of murders and bad pizza and impending disaster, lacks or even violates.  See pp. 77-80 for details on all of that, one of my favorite passages in Sebald, where he includes a photograph of a receipt from the Pizzeria Verona, “which even from the outside made a disreputable impression,” as if to prove he were there, not to me, who thinks of Vertigo as fiction, but to himself “Plainly this was the moment immediately before a disaster” – that is some bad pizza – perhaps the disaster he foresaw a dozen pages earlier in Venice.  “For some time now I have been convinced that it is out of this din that the life is being born which will come after us and will spell our gradual destruction, just as we have been gradually destroying what was there long before us” (63).

Sebald is inverting Goethe, yet he finds himself “occupied more or less exclusively with my study of Pisanello, on whose account I had in fact decided to travel to Verona” (72).  There is no end to Bildung.  He describes a Pisanello fresco in detail.  “A landscape of a more northerly character rises (the word is suggested by the nature of the depiction) into a blue sky” (74).  Please see a recent post at Tony’s Reading List for more.

It is exactly that kind of landscape that Yves Bonnefoy uses in The Arrière-pays (1972, tr. Stephen Romer) to explain the title of his book, the “hinterland,” the “back country,” the strong sense, with him from his childhood, of the place that exists beyond wherever he is and whatever he knows.  In art, this place revealed itself first through the skies of Poussin, but eventually, once he travelled to Tuscany, through the detailed landscapes of 15th century Italian art. Or even before his Italian journey, described in Chapter III of The Arrière-pays, when he becomes lost in the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico and Paolo Uccello.

His first surprise in Italy is that the surrealism of Chirico is real,

that what I’d taken in Chirico for an imaginary, even an impossible, world existed, in fact, on this earth, except that here it was renewed, re-centred, made real and habitable by an act of spirit as novel for me as my own being, memory, and destiny became at a stroke… (67, ellipses in original)

Perspective itself, as in Uccello’s paintings, is imbued with meaning – “I was thus flattered in my Gnostic tendencies” (67) – by its implication of a world beyond the flat canvas.  The real Italy replaces the imaginary, works in person replace reproductions, yet the result is only the removal of the imagined world to some other place.  Visiting Italy awakens a lifelong, intense interest in art yet is destructive, and simultaneously creative.  “All sophistry, of course, because I was considering art, which is an order with its own laws, as merely an epiphenomenon which would provide a clue” (76).

Everything works out in the end – the Seagull Books edition includes several later, related essays attesting to the fact – due to the passage of time and Bonnefoy’s eventual recognition of the limits of his Gnosticism, perhaps in large part due to the writing of this book.  How I would love to know if Sebald knew it.  They are kindred books.


  1. Bravo for pointing out this border crossing between Bonnefoy and Sebald. I had no idea. Ditto for Seagull Books. Not sure I had been aware of them, but I'll pay more attention now. Have very much enjoyed your Goethe-inspired mini-series this month, by the way.

  2. The Bonnefoy book is extraordinary. It's a lovely edition, too, with extra-thick paper to handle the color illustrations.

    I have thought about doing a big Goethe re-read. It would be valuable, but exhausting.