I just re-read this book a few days ago and reading back on my initial impression of Sebald is both humbling and embarrassingUpdate February 22, 2011:
I just re-read this book a few days ago and reading back on my initial impression of Sebald is both humbling and embarrassing. I kind of missed the point, didn't I?
I still see what I was saying back then, and think you have to either be in a certain mood or be willing to be enchanted into that mood in order to fall in love with this work. Nevertheless, I am glad I didn't give up on him and moved on to read his entire works. This book, on second read, is the least memoir-like of his books, I think. Even though that element is still in there, it is weaved in with so many other elements from his research and ideas.
And perhaps that makes it even more fragmented and hard to follow than his other books... though I've learned that part of the joy of reading Sebald is to lose yourself, to let go, to feel slightly out of control of what you are reading, but to be enjoying it anyway, to be on the receiving end of a magical act... or to be the object in which magic has already taken place. To be the rabbit who is just now emerging from the hat.
Original review (3 stars) from August 1, 2008:
It's one of those books that sound better on paper as an idea than when you're actually reading it. I feel like it gets more credit than it deserves simply because people consider it "innovative", but taken passage by passage, there is nothing very innovative about it. It's simply a blend of memoir and historical essay. If it were categorized as either, nobody would raise an eyebrow, but the simple fact that it has the "Novel" label attached to it has everybody in a frenzy.
But I don't judge a book by how innovative it is, so even if it's not innovative, that's not the main problem. The main problem is that it never rises above a level of good or merely interesting, never feels completely spontaneous, never totally alive (though it tries so hard to be free form... "like jazz"). Everything feels so well "considered" (not that it shouldn't actually be, but it shouldn't feel labored when read) that at times I would say it's even lifeless. Thankfully, Sebald is good at avoiding the jargon of an academic, but at heart he IS an academic. Only in novelist's clothing and with a taste for occasionally delving into the personal.
Above all, the book never changes course, it is steady as can be. It's like listening to an album all the way through and then realizing that all the songs (though different in melody) have the same level of intensity, the same register of emotion, never building up to anything or calming down from something, just one flat line of consistently being merely "good".
The one exception is the very beginning. The first chapter of the book is the most interesting and cohesive and I was actually beginning to expect great things from the book. Despite my complaints, I did enjoy the book, and am interested in reading more of Sebald to see if his other novels have anything different to offer.
At times, the book achieves what I call "so boring it's bold", which is a characteristic I really like in some of my favorite films... like in those Kiarostami films where he intentionally repeats some visual motif to the point where it's at the risk of losing the viewer's interest. But at the same time, there is something intriguing about it and you keep watching, and it has something to do with the pacing or something else interesting in the frame that is not the main object of concern but that forces it out of merely "boring-boring" into the "so boring it's bold" category. The very nature of the category (in my mind) is that it rides that fine line between "boring" and "interesting" so dangerously.
I think the boring-ness makes your mind wander which is exactly the point: so that you're paying less attention to the "main thing" and more on the visceral level of the word (or image if you're talking about film). I've rarely encountered this effect in literature, except in VS Naipaul's novels, though I can't even get through one of his novels because they eventually become just "boring-boring" to me. But there is a point early on in Naipaul's novels that I admire the same quality, where I feel viscerally connected to something lying right beyond an obstinate rhythm....more
Might I confess to finding that it is exquisite to be of two minds regarding works of art? To find fault with something that I welcome on the whole, hMight I confess to finding that it is exquisite to be of two minds regarding works of art? To find fault with something that I welcome on the whole, how nice I find this!
These are quiet, quirky stories. Some are very funny. Some are very modest, not even stories, just sketches, just thoughts captured in a weird head. Most end not with a bang, but with a whimper. But this is a good thing, in the hands of Walser. These stories are meant to be read really slowly, I think, not in the hurry that we are so used to these days. He often rambles and he often walks. He gives voice to very obvious sentiments sometimes, as in "Winter", but in a way that is both charming and earnest; you almost start to feel those long-trite emotions anew:
See how in the middle of winter love is radiant, brightness smiles, warmth shines, tenderness twinkles, and the glow of all that may be hoped for, all kindness, comes toward you.
In a world where everyone takes 3 lefts to get to the right, it's refreshing to see someone just take a right. Sometimes one of his alternate personalities takes over and he is paranoid, or A.D.D., or slightly off as in The Street(1) or Nervous.
My favorites: Kleist in Thun, A Little Ramble, The Pimp
Here is the "A Little Ramble" in its entirety:
A Little Ramble
I walked through the mountains today. The weather was damp, and the entire region was gray. But the road was soft and in places very clean. At first I had my coat on; soon, however, I pulled it off, folded it together, and laid it upon my arm. The walk on the wonderful road gave me more and ever more pleasure; first it went up and then descended again. The mountains were huge, they seemed to go around. The whole mountainous world appeared to me like an enourmous theater. The road snuggled up splendidly to the mountainsides. Then I came down into a deep ravine, a river roared at my feet, a train rushed past me with magnificent white smoke. The road went through the ravine like a smooth white stream, and as I walked on, to me it was as if the narrow valley were bending and winding around itself. Gray clouds lay on the mountains as though that were their resting place. I met a young traveler with a rucksack on his back, who asked if I had seen two other young fellows. No, I said. Had I come here from very far? Yes, I said, and went farther on my way. Not a long time, and I saw and heard the two young wanderers pass by with music. A village was especially beautiful with humble dwellings set thickly under the white cliffs. I encountered a few carts, otherwise nothing, and I had seen some children on the highway. We don't need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.
Well, this sounded really good from the description: slightly crazy Rousseau at the end of his life, walking, thinking, bitterness, misanthropy, etc.
HWell, this sounded really good from the description: slightly crazy Rousseau at the end of his life, walking, thinking, bitterness, misanthropy, etc.
However, in practice, it was like listening to that drunk guy at the bar telling you how everybody is against him, and how he really deserves better, and how he's really a great guy and that he's not really mad at these people (he calls them his 'persecuters')... no, in fact he's found peace. But he emphasizes those last points a little too pointedly, so that you start to think he doesn't really believe it. Like he's just saying it to convince himself that it's true. Because, really, he's not over the fact that certain people don't like him. And you end up not caring if he's really a good guy or not, you just want him to stop talking so you can enjoy your beer.
While there are some good ideas and thoughts in here, none of them really blew me away, they all seemed like stuff I would write down in my own diary, only to look back on them and feel a slight twinge of shame. And there's not the meandering quality I would associate normally with a walking narrative. These are ten well-formed essays, with forceful agendas. He didn't stop to tell you about his walk, or about something he observed at the corner of Rue Such-and-such and Avenue de So-and-So. No, none of that, it's all Rousseau all the time. He is so much in his own mind that I felt like I was reading a case-study in how not to drive yourself crazy. I see these tendencies in myself sometimes and I hope I don't ever become like him.
Reduced to my own self, it is true that I feed on my own substance.
And while the writing is not bad, he repeats his points to the point of tedium, and takes so long in saying it, that I fell asleep reading a few of them.
PS - the Introduction, written by the translator Peter France, is pretty good though, and gives a good context of how these writings fit into Rousseau's larger body of work. I do want to read more of Rousseau, he was probably a great thinker before he turned sour and inward....more
I never really understood the appeal of Les Fleurs du Mal, but so many people love it that I started to feel bad. What was I missing? Along comes thisI never really understood the appeal of Les Fleurs du Mal, but so many people love it that I started to feel bad. What was I missing? Along comes this book, Paris Spleen, which is full of prose poems made of equal parts humor, cynicism, and insight (and often all three within a paragraph). I like these poems because reading it, I feel like I have a sense of who Baudelaire might have been as a person...
Plus, his humor is so odd:
Soup and Clouds
My adorable little minx was serving me supper; through the dining room's open window I was contemplating the shifting architectures God creates from vapour, those marvellous constructions of the evanescent. As I watched, I thought: "Those apparitions are nearly as beautiful as my sweet lady's eyes, the mad little green-eyed monster."
Suddenly a violent fist landed in my back and I heard a charming, raw voice hysterical and brandy-damaged, the voice of my little darling, saying: "Get on with your bloody soup, cloud merchant."
The unlikely eventual existence of WG Sebald's four novels presupposes the writing of this book. But that's saying it all backwards, isn't it? The facThe unlikely eventual existence of WG Sebald's four novels presupposes the writing of this book. But that's saying it all backwards, isn't it? The fact is Handke wrote first, and Sebald took what he started to its illogical conclusion with a magically sustained prose. Handke can be a bit dull and dour, his prose a bit labored, and his revelations a bit forced. But that is a given. He's also intensely and seriously sincere, to the point of humorlessness. But that's also something I have a love/hate relationship with. I admire his guts: to write so humorlessly requires true fearlessness. But what he achieves is a rhythm that is the beginning of enticement, if only he had more charm. Parts of this book were amazing!
In the first section, the narrator recounts his family past, Rinkenberg, the Austrian village he comes from, and all his mixed emotions having to do with that. This was the most convincing section, because he was not trying to convince me of anything. The paralysis of prose would practically sing at times when an image came out of the clauses (closet?) so unexpectedly and so senselessly, but gleamed bright in the sun with significance. Some of his descriptions transcended description because they were always more than surface descriptions. That's what I mean by significance. Everything means so much to this narrator. When you see the blind window the way he sees it, it bowls you over.
In the second section, the narrator is on foot and in trains in search of his older brother who he's never met but has heard countless stories about. He is in Slovenia, and you realize why that first section was necessary. Knowing where he was from makes this section so much more powerful, since much of what he sees holds its power precisely because of its difference. You rejoice with him at being finally away from home, where he can truly feel at home with the Slovenes who had no real home. (Then there's the other part about how his whole family was likely Slovene, and one of their ancestors may have been a leader in a revolt). Much of this section deals with language and history, and two little books that his brother left behind: a copybook filled with school notes, and a Slovenian-German dictionary with check marks next to the words his brother had a fondness for.
Random story: I was having a nice lunch at the bar when a lady sat down next to me. She had a French accent and we started talking about books and travel. Somehow the topic veered towards Barcelona, a city I've stayed in and loved. Then, out of nowhere she says: "I love Barcelona, but I hate that they speak Catalan. It's just so annoying, it's like if all of America spoke English except one city, and I understand about their heritage, but it's not even a beautiful language," I almost choked on my food. So unexpected was this outburst, so utterly shocked was I at this proposition, that I had no way of responding. Would she have rather the whole city change their language for her convenience? Did she think there was no cultural, artistic, or historic value in a language's preservation, no matter her personal aesthetic judgements on its 'beauty'?
The end of the second section of Repetition dealt with exactly this: the beauty of a language, the pure abstract thing that a language is, an experience conjurer, that it must be appreciated purely for its own existence and not just for any practical usage. I want to show that lady this section of the book, but she would likely not have understood. To her, a language is purely functional. But Filip Kobal, our narrator, is (like me) a sad-sack dreamer, a hopelessly impractical wanderer, and a storyteller.
In the last section, our narrator reaches the Karst, a region of stunning beauty and wondrous natural formations. Caves abound. But his meditations, until this point quite moving, have perhaps a quality of over-reaching. He is trying to say something a bit too much, something about storytelling, and about finding his brother who he never finds, and the significance of it all was too much for me. It felt forced, like a coming of age story that happens all in his head. Or like trying to recount a dream's emotions without any of the dream imagery.
Whereas earlier versions of this worked for me, like the blind window image, they worked even without logic, despite logic. I could understand the pure emotion of something that strikes one for myriad unexplainable reasons, not unlike Proust's madeleines, and guides one back to one's home where a scene unfolds almost as in a dream. A revelation out of nowhere. A something in real life that feels separated out in your memory, as if someone else had lived it. But here at the end of the book, the stretching for revelation was not accompanied by any specific image, or with anything really. The ending, with its hifalutin harping on storytelling seemed more like Handke putting his agenda down, rather than the narrator's own organic musing....more
Sometimes I feel bad for comparing every book I read to something I've read in the past. But a lot of times it seems helpful, especially when comparinSometimes I feel bad for comparing every book I read to something I've read in the past. But a lot of times it seems helpful, especially when comparing books that have nothing to do with each other, in that they bring out a different way of reading, shadows of each reading experience accentuating the other.
Every once in a while, it isn't helpful, but also unavoidable. In cases like this, for instance. My Two Worlds is so firmly in the shadow of Sebald that I cannot not invoke his name. Chejfec uses many of the same devices, but doesn't achieve any of the magic of Sebald.
The question is: does he achieve anything else? Something of his own? That is hard to say. There are some good passages, but they quickly run out of steam, or become way too noodly, caught in a thought about a thought, instead of transcending it into a sort of meditation. A lot of it, while reading, seemed trivial while trying to be deep. The language, while interesting, doesn't sustain long enough for me to lose my breath. There is something here, but it's not enough of its own thing yet for me to truly love.
Next up on my Sebald-inspired reading list... Teju Cole's Open City
PS: But wait! This awesome review makes a good case for this book. Maybe you should give it a chance....more