Friday, September 28, 2007

Piece on Sebald, Gaddis, and Bernhard

On the Posthumous Trail of W.G. Sebald and William Gaddis

Asked last October why he didn't translate his own books, the German-born British writer W.G. Sebald told an audience at the 92nd Street Y, in his meticulous English, Well, the main reason is that I started writing very late, in my mid forties, and I haven't got the time. Because I can already see the horizon looming. . . . Warm laughter met the typically Sebaldian reply: considered, droll, and ever with an eye to the end. But one could scarcely imagine how low that horizon hovered. Two months later, Sebald died in a car accident in Norwich, England. The news came down like some arcane punishment, ending the strange gifts that had appeared here at a steady clip since 1996. The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, Vertigo, Austerlitz: To reread them is to witness that immaculate style, those vast and intimate paragraphs as unpredictable and inexorable as nature. He discerned so acutely the mortal lining in things that any page of his oeuvre could have supplied his epitaph, or at least an epigraph for this piece. All his work is designed as a visit to the dead, he said of the writer and painter Peter Weiss. His own books were like paper reliquaries, admitting photos, news clippings, sketches by Stendhal, pizzeria receipts—everything save a single false step, even though one of the quiet anxieties of his sui generis creations is the implosion, under a drizzle of memory, of story and source. In German his title for Vertigo (Schwindel. Gefuhle.) conveys not just a feeling of dizziness but the swindle that shades all negotiations between the real and the imagined; the three long poems in After Nature, his newly published opus posthumous, anatomize the correspondence between the life and the work, the work and the world, the world and the life. Wary of abstraction, alert to history's detours and infernal turns, Sebald had the ability to consort with the unspeakable, such as the contention in Austerlitz, published last October and the last of his novels we will have, that somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins. In New York, half a century ago, in William Gaddis's The Recognitions (1955)—a debut novel dizzy with swindles artistic, monetary, and otherwise—a character wondered, Who could live in a city like this without terror of abrupt entombment? Almost exactly three years before Sebald's death, Gaddis passed away at age 75 at his home on Long Island. His career was the inverse of Sebald's late but meteoric rise, his four novels—the others are JR (1975), Carpenter's Gothic (1985), and A Frolic of His Own (1994)—surfacing every decade or so. They remain more revered than read, promising unknown ratios of frustration to amazement and setting the bar for authorial ambition. Stephen Dixon, himself a daunting if rewarding fictioneer, reveals in his latest novel, I., the mixture of awe and ambivalence Gaddis (ą clefed Fels) could provoke in budding penmen: A fantastic writer even though I only understand every other line he writes and am not even so sure about that. The Recognitions drew hysterical notices—called foul-mouthed and disgusting and evil (according to fire the bastards!, Jack Green's 1962 Gaddis defense). Since we've always hated failure in America, Gaddis went underground, making ends meet with corporate PR jobs for everyone from the army to Pfizer. Twenty years passed before his next novel, the even more audacious JR, which won the National Book Award; at 53 he was both advance guard and éminence grise, or greasy eminence, as that book's titular hero, an 11-year-old tycoon, would put it. JR's concerns about the impossibility of art under the sign of commerce float on an ocean of cranky, exuberant, anthropologically precise dialogue, unfolding in real time and elevating the comma splice to an art form, sometimes forgetting the comma for good measure. The result can verge on madness but never without music—viz., No no wait Major you're Vern wait you're knocking over the Dan Dan wait—and all of it ends with the acquisitive prepubescent's voice leaking out of an unattended phone: Hey? You listening . . . ? These days, it can be hard to tell. Jonathan Franzen recently revived the tradition of public hostility toward Gaddis in "Mr. Difficult," a self-aggrandizing New Yorker smackdown, shredding every Gaddis novel save The Recognitions and dismissing in a paragraph the long-awaited posthumous work Agapē Agape. (The Rush for Second Place, a new collection of occasional nonfiction, fares even worse.) He confesses to sounding a little Freudian in condemning the writing as anal-retentive, yet seems blind to what might be his own oedipal urge to dethrone postmodern literature's most imposing father figure. Like B.R. Myers grimly dissecting White Noise, Franzen turns a tin ear to JR's abundant humor, resorting to emetic formulae like Think of the novel as lover. As one of JR's lazier characters says of a work in progress vertiginously titled Agapē Agape: Hate it man like how can I hate it I mean I don't even know what it's about. It is hard to say whether Franzen even finishes the book; he gloats that he can't get past page 523 of JR's 726, then blithely dismisses the last ten pages. There are 956 pages in this book, wrote a Chicago Tribune hack of The Recognitions nearly half a century ago (quoted in Green), and I must confess that I did not stay until the last had been turned. Gaddis once remarked that Timesman Christopher Lehmann-Haupt admitted in his Carpenter's Gothic review to not having read JR, a book he had reviewed a decade earlier. (He actually called it virtually unreadable.) Little has changed, then; but this state of affairs may be appropriate: Gaddis's last blast, Agapē Agape, ultimately leads the reader back to The Recognitions itself. The new book, completed before he died, is as difficult and pleasurable as its title. It is many things: a gloriously messy précis of his decades-long obsession with the player piano and the sundering of the communal love (agapē) he believed it signaled; the materialization of a book by the same name that JR's Jack Gibbs toils over; and a feedback-leaking cover version of Concrete, a 1982 novel by the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, whose novels Gaddis started reading late in life and whom Sebald acknowledged did mean a great deal to me, in more than one way. With one final draught of inspiration and a holy breath, Gaddis's ailing narrator abandons hope of writing his great scholarly treatise and instead fashions an address to his detachable self, a Greek notion of the soul that here turns out to be something very much like the reader, to whom he thrice implores, I've got to explain all this, because I don't, we don't know how much time there is. It unfolds as a single 96-page-long paragraph, a nod to Bernhard's similarly seamless novels. Our nameless American even takes the same mania-inducing medicine (prednisone) as Concrete's Rudolf, who is himself unable to finish, or even effectively start, his important study of the composer Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Agapē Agape may seem to reach us too late, after its author's death, but it actually comes at the proper time: posthumously. Player pianos required minimal input from the living: Their phantom hands could play back rolls perforated with the performances of composers now dead. Agapē registers, with similar fidelity, the contents of a frenetic mind. Some stretches pass so rapidly they read as palimpsest, with references ranging from Vaucanson's Duck to du Maurier's Trilby; the remnants of a triple-daughtered Lear plot are discernible. Though the piece swarms with the ghosts of a lifetime's research, Gaddis cuts back at the proper time. When one passage threatens to devolve into a gloss on Walter Benjamin's and Johan Huizinga's theorizings on authenticity, he spins it into a comic dialogue: Choose the fake, Mr. Benjamin. Absolutely, Mr. Huizinga!, ending with Positively Mr. Benjamowww! as the narrator accidentally sticks himself with a pencil, returning to the grim real world. The book's ceaseless motion suits its central obsession, the player piano, with its punched paper roll at the heart of the whole thing; an endnote in Gitta Honegger's recent Bernhard biography provides the term Rollenprosa, rolling prose—Hermann Beil's coinage for the Austrian's later style, also apt here. It all turns into what it's all about, prednisone turns his skin parchment-thin, and one can follow the paper trail through Gaddis's previous fictions: in The Recognitions, the currency counterfeiter Sinisterra's suit of paper and composer Stanley's cardboard practice keyboard; McCandless's note-swamped room in Carpenter's Gothic; the paper kingdoms of finance and law elaborated and epitomized by JR and A Frolic of His Own. Agapē rolls to a stop with a piercing sense of time running out—an emotional look backward, across the years and the thousands of pages, at the works of arrogant youth and the book I wrote then, my first book. Call it The Recognitions, which bore on its title page the alchemical ouroboros, the serpent devouring its own tail. A breathless epilogue to an immense body of work, an acid tirade all too human with sentiment, Agapē Agape could not have cut a more affecting path back to the source, a nearly 50-year course that affirms the ideal of the opus alchymicum, the work as self-generating recirculation. The Gaddis canon has gold, not paper, at its heart. — Right before his death, Gaddis incarnated his ever-mutating Agapē Project as a play for German radio titled Torschlusspanik, the fear of missed opportunities—literally, of closing doors. Sebald's After Nature begins with a bit of Torschluss, informing us that Whoever closes the wings/of the altar in the Lindenhardt/parish church will see Saint George, painted by and resembling the German artist known as Matthias Grünewald (1475?-1528). In the first of the book's three narrative poems, Sebald enumerates Grünewald's other self-portraits, and etches the known and envisioned contours of his shadowy life, from his wife's Jewish-Catholic conversion to his doppelgänger, a young waterworks artist named Mathis Nithart. The longest section, devoted to the Isenheim Altarpiece, Grünewald's masterwork, joins history and deft ekphrasis for an apocalyptic worldview that seems to bend time, extending from the early Christian era to the end of the world. The poet locates his second subject two centuries hence: Georg Wilhelm Steller, the gifted, arrogant German naturalist attached to Vitus Bering's Russian expeditions to Alaska. He would expire in the most remote geography, and his detailed descriptions of Arctic flora and fauna would be perverted into travel charts for hunters,/blueprint for the counting of pelts. When Sebald himself comes into view for the final poem, his restless, saturnine nature has been prefigured. Birds and mills, sickles and Saturn, forge connections between him and his surreptitious self-portraits, but the most significant recurrence is the town of Windsheim. Here Grünewald visits a workshop in 1525 (and meets an artist named Sebald Beham); here Steller is born in 1709; and here, in 1943, Sebald's mother takes temporary refuge—her husband off to war, and Nürnberg burning—realizing, for the first time, she is with child. Sebald, or the idea of Sebald, has entered the world. Though in his books he comes across as a modern nomad, abandoning (in Vertigo) a trip to Vienna for a sojourn to Venice and then Verona, Sebald was in fact a career academic in England long before his writing life. It was a state of affairs from which, at one point, he needed some way out, as he told an interviewer. He found the cure to this Torschlusspanik quite by chance in a German book called The Head of Vitus Bering. In a footnote he discovered Steller, with whom he shared Windsheim and initials. Favored to become chair of botany at Halle, Steller instead made for Russia, and perhaps his escape, as much as private coincidences, resolved Sebald to stray from purely academic writing. After Nature is in fact his first book (published in German in 1988), and though the patient verse approximates his later prose, the shattered lines and the lack of graphic material (photos, etc.) deepen or (we convince ourselves) anticipate his absence, and even the title takes on a calm prescience: To be after nature is to be dead. Fragments and images will land in his other works, such as the Chinese woman optician, whose gentle touch profoundly unsettles him, later immortalized in Vertigo. This dispersal and deepening over time suggests some private alchemy, and indeed throughout After Nature, as in The Recognitions, one encounters traces of that abandoned and derided science. Among the rare paints in Nithart's workplace is alchemy green. Steller, to comfort his dying patron, speaks of the light of nature, an alchemical conceit known as lumen naturae; his friend responds, all things, my son, transmute into old age. In Manchester, where Sebald studied, and where in 1966 he was appointed to his first academic post, the poet spends days on end reading the alchemist Paracelsus. The city itself, a husk of its 19th-century industrial might, separates elementally, smoke and sulphuric acid, salt and ashes, and becomes an alembic from which can only emerge a stunted Mancunian race. No, here we can write/no postcards, can't even/get out of the car, he says of the land near a nuclear power plant, where, in a new alchemy, slowly/the core of the metal/is destroyed. An engineer tells him, one thing always/the other's beginning. For the English-speaking world, After Nature is Sebald's alpha and omega, at once the first and last of his literary works, and a seedbed for his later projects. (On the Natural History of Destruction, his critical inquiry into post-war Germany's literary consciousness, will appear in 2003.) Gaddis, who began one novel with Money? and another with Justice?, once ended a film treatment (for IBM) with Gertrude Stein on her deathbed, where she asked "What is the answer?," and her friend professed ignorance. "In that case," she said, "what is the question?" Sebald, near the end of After Nature, under a lowering sky, writes, What's dead is gone/forever, then a shard from Lear: What did'st/thou say? More questions follow, and the section dissolves into Water? Fire? Good?/Evil? Life? Death? It's the one moment in his entire body of work where he gives the impression of losing control, and the effect is liberating and haunting. No elaboration of a metaphysics, just a helpless irresolution. These questions carry me/over the border.

—VLS, Fall 2002