A resident of England for much of his adult life, a professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia, Sebald was obviously fluent enough, 35 years after arriving in his adopted homeland, to write in English had he wished. His stated reason for not doing so, in an interview given (in [...]
A resident of England for much of his adult life, a professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia, Sebald was obviously fluent enough, 35 years after arriving in his adopted homeland, to write in English had he wished. His stated reason for not doing so, in an interview given (in English, to the British newspaper The Guardian) mere weeks before his death, at 57, in a car crash, was that “…I become self-conscious about having a funny accent. Unlike Conrad or Nabokov, I didn’t have circumstances which would have coerced me out of my native tongue altogether. But the time may come when my German resources begin to shrink. It is a sore point, because you do have advantages if you have access to more than one language. You also have problems, because on bad days you don’t trust yourself, either in your first or your second language, and so you feel like a complete halfwit.”
That time, of course, never arrived. He did, however, work closely with Michael Hulse and Anthea Bell, translators of his major works into English, and I often have to remind myself that these books were not originally written in English, such is their remarkably limpid prose. Much has been said, or written, about Sebald’s (full name —Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald, and apparently familiarly known as Max) preoccupation with memory, and rightly so, as memory was a major theme throughout his novels; but that’s not much better than saying about a writer that his preoccupation with writing is a major theme of his writing. Writing is by its nature an investigation of memory, and time, and death, and the infinite assortment of tangents associated with both personal and universal memory (which is to say history).
It is certainly a tragedy that he died so young, after having written and published four remarkable novels, which taken in sum, with their hybrid of fact and fiction, interspersed with enigmatic unlabeled photographs, drawings, and maps, seemed to this reader a radical reinvention of the novel form. Of course, every writer of talent radically reinvents the novel form, but Sebald’s innovations, for whatever reason, resonated with peculiar strength in me.
I was greatly looking forward to whatever Sebald, clearly at the height of his powers with the sublime Austerlitz, would turn his hand to next. I had devoured his three previous novels as well, and though his literary reputation had been steadily growing throughout the late 90s, I was nevertheless surprised and pleased to pass by a local bookstore in mid-December 2001 and find a front-window display of all his books. “At last!” was my first thought. “People are discovering him.” Then a second, more morbid thought, occurred to me, and I bought a newspaper, where my fears were confirmed: on December 14, 2001, Sebald had had a heart attack while driving and crashed somewhere near his permanent exile in Norfolk.
“I find that frightful – the incapacity to know what’s round the corner,” Sebald said in the interview referenced above, the last one he would ever give. For a writer whose use of irony seems inextricable from his concept of humanity, that confession is almost too perfect.
Part One – Sunderland
Thomas Quin was aware, with the acute self-consciousness pubescent boys suddenly acquire — a hilly solipsism from which they daily tumble into an abyss of despair — that he was unusually thin, and awkward, and afraid of everyone. His formerly natural friendliness and curiosity disappeared, replaced by morbid insularity. He went, [...]
Part One – Sunderland
Thomas Quin was aware, with the acute self-consciousness pubescent boys suddenly acquire — a hilly solipsism from which they daily tumble into an abyss of despair — that he was unusually thin, and awkward, and afraid of everyone. His formerly natural friendliness and curiosity disappeared, replaced by morbid insularity. He went, as most teenagers do, insane. For instance, he was under the impression that he had invented masturbation.
Learning came so easily to Thom that he did not bother to learn anything; rather, with the arrogance which accompanies extreme shyness, he expected that things would learn him. He invented biographies for his future selves. He had many future selves, who accomplished great and wonderful things, though without effort — Thomas could see only the accolades, and the esteem, and never the work, because any kind of work directed toward anything other than his daydreams seemed pointless and silly. He would sit in the waiting room of the dentist’s office with a few children his own age or slightly younger, or slightly older, and imagine their future surprise to learn that they had once shared a dentist’s waiting room with Thomas Quin — so unprepossessing, so lacking in the qualities one normally finds in a hero, in a Great Man. And yet there he was. Waiting to have his teeth drilled.
The history of Sunderland, Massachusetts, despite its best efforts, has been and in all likelihood will remain unremittingly dull. There are only a few sources: a pamphlet encompassing the period from the town’s incorporation in 1639 through 1939, funded by President Roosevelt’s WPA act and executed by a group of talentless school teachers who based most of their work on Rambling’s much more thorough earlier history covering the years 1639-1889; and Bearhart’s unimaginably tedious gap-filler, from 1939 through the mid-eighties, which consists mostly of the results of various budget meetings, or midget beatings, sorry.
Sunderland lies sixteen or perhaps thirteen miles west and south of Boston, using the old Boston Post Road, established for obvious reasons three hundred and fifty years ago and which ran through Sunderland on its way west to Marlborough. The Wayside Inn on the south-western edge of Sunderland, along the Post Road, was celebrated in a collection of poems called Tales From A Wayside Inn by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was not a particularly talented poet but who had a knack of coining memorable lines (“One if by land, two if by sea” from his poem — included in the Tales — about the midnight ride of Paul Revere, silversmith, to alert the citizenry to the approach of the British Regulars at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, foremost among these rote rhymes).
In the ensuing war, various noble-hearted citizens of Sunderland took up arms and fought with tennis raquets and muskets against the cowardly and brutal and slightly confused British, distinguishing themselves at the Battle Of Bunker Hill and at Valley Forge and at the Battle Of Old Bill Battle’s Battlefield, on the site of which is now a factory that produces board games of famous battles. Since that exciting era, nothing much has happened in Sunderland, with the minor exception of the first public performance of the rock opera Tommy, written and recorded by The Who, which had been licensed for public performance in the United States by one of the heirs to nature writer Rachel Carson’s fortune, who discovered too late that he had purchased a license for exactly one public performance, which thus took place at Sunderland Regional High School sometime in the early nineteen-seventies, according to reliable and friendly sources at the Sunderland Historical Society, which also sells maps. These sources unfortunately cannot remember the name of Carson’s heir, and speculate that his involvement in hard drugs may be responsible for the absence of any further information on his whereabouts or disposition. The performance, by an ensemble of local musicians, was well-received.
Young Thom Quin had a paper route, since age nine, delivering the evening edition of the Boston Globe to a new development of colonial-style homes in south-eastern Sunderland. He had a ten-speed bicycle, attached to the handlebars of which was a wire basket suitable for carrying the forty-odd papers that constituted his daily route. He also delivered the morning paper on Saturday, but the bulky Sunday edition was left to a specialist who employed the particular efficiency of an automobile. Thom was expected to deliver his papers in every kind of weather, and though on exceptionally snow-bound and frigid afternoons he would beg his mother to drive him in her dark green Ford Granada across the blustery tundra of Sunderland’s winter-dark streets, her firm belief in the value of persistence and self-reliance and hard work rarely melted in the face of Thom’s whining. He would suit up in a snorkel jacket, woolen mittens, and a scarf wrapped around his face which his breath soon dampened uncomfortably before freezing solid.
On the worst days he would put the papers in his Boston Globe carrier bag and sling it over first one shoulder, then the other, stamping through the snow which inevitably crept down his frozen-buckled rubber boots, soaking his thick socks, and adding to the torture of his travails. On one well-blizzared occasion he resorted to hauling the papers on his Flexible Flyer, fastened thereto with characteristic shoddiness by Thom, so that half-way through the route a strong gust swept the remaining papers into the white-quilted landscape, the papers unfurling like the mainsails of the Tall Ships that had earlier that year ported into Boston Harbor in celebration of the nation’s bicentennial, on the exact day of which Sunderland had lent its patriotic zip code, 01776, to Philadelphia. Thom made a half-hearted effort to save what few papers remained intact, which numbered exactly two, delivered those to the nearest two houses, who incidentally did not happen to subscribe to the Globe, and hurried home. He spent the rest of the night huddled in bed staring at his wallpaper, which featured a montage of Revolutionary War emblems, pretending to be sick in order to dodge calls from angry residents who unreasonably expected the timely delivery of their newspaper regardless of the weather, regardless that a fourteen-year-old boy has limits, both physical and mental, that should be tested only with great care.
Despite occasional irritations, Thom liked his paper-route very much, not least because it was an entirely solitary activity. His imagination was not constricted by the need to interact with anyone, and as such was free to tackle all the important questions a fourteen-year-old boy must confront: Is the world a dream, and if so is it my dream, are all these people, places and things a product of my dream, or am I part of someone else’s dream, and therefore unreal, but so thoroughly unreal that I’m unaware that I’m unreal? He had been taught in church to believe that the world was an illusion, and Thom had little difficulty absorbing that patently obvious fact, but he was endlessly absorbed by the question: whose illusion? Because his religion made no use of images or icons or representations of God, he saw everything and everyone as God-in-potential. But his favorite fancy was to imagine himself God, to invest himself with omnipotence and omniscience, though not yet omnipresence, as he had at that point very limited experience with life outside of Sunderland. Like many adolescent boys, he longed deeply for two seemingly contradictory things: to be accepted, to be well-liked, to appear normal in all aspects and not in any way weird; and to be special, to stand out above all others either by virtue of having been marked by God for some secret task, or, better yet, to have been invested with some magic ability — superhuman strength, mind-reading, invisibility — that no one realized but that would one day be revealed to the astonishment of all.
Walking backwards down Warren Road so as to avoid the cutting easterly wind that regularly buffeted that quarter of his paper-route, Thom could see Mount Nobscot, a few miles away in Framingham. He liked to imagine that an enemy force of great strength and determination lay hidden just behind Nobscot’s peak, which in truth was not so much a peak as the round back of a gently-sloped hill, but the maps provided by the Sunderland Historical Society do not lie. Mount Nobscot was a mere blip of earthwork, sparsely forested, on the crest of which sat awkwardly a water tower, whose tip bisected Thom’s oriental view. The hill sloped gently on either side, and disappeared behind occlusions as occur in many suburbs: bushes, streetlight, roof, the wafted smoke of twilight fires.
The enemy force could be ghosts, demons, humans, or some concatenation of the infinite congeries of evil — Thomas had recently finished reading Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary on an idle weekend — depending on the mood set by the setting sun, but what this enemy force did not suspect, lying in wait and chuckling to themselves at the excellence of their surprise attack, was that a great general had divined their plans, and was in the process of marshaling forces that would hide in the stands of birch and spruce and maple and oak, waiting, ready to meet force with force. This fantasy would last usually until he passed the frozen pond near Lands End Lane, where he could see the frost of breath from skating kids scrapping with sticks to push a puck through a goal carved from a snow bank, which distracted him to dream of the glory of sports.
I was at a dinner party recently at which I met a Famous novelist, who told a story about meeting the Very Famous novelist Thomas Pynchon, who I’m sure you know has a reputation for being, shall we say, a very private person. He doesn’t give interviews. He doesn’t do readings. It’s big news when a decades-old photo of his wrist appears. Nobody knows what he looks like. Etc.
Pynchon came up in conversation because FN and I were talking about the strange phenomenon of author readings, with which we have both long since made our peace, and the daunting task of establishing and maintaining an online “presence” that nowadays comes with the business of writing books. Understand that no one forces us to do readings, or to establish and maintain an online presence, but it is expected, and because of the changing ways in which people discover and consume cultural artifacts, it’s almost inescapable.
So much so, that when FN met Pynchon, Pynchon was musing about the possibility of doing a book tour for his new novel. To which a horrifed FN replied, “No! You can’t! Don’t you see, you have what we all want. You did it. You got away with it. Why throw that away now?”
To which Pynchon replied that, yes, he had “gotten away with it,” but he was pretty sure that if he’d come along twenty years later, he wouldn’t have been able to do so.
There’s a lot to be said for participating in the writerly conversation, for interacting with both readers and other writers, for the free exchange of ideas and enthusiasms. I get that, I really do. But I still struggle with the opposing urge towards hermetic solitude that is, I think, at the root of any writer’s being.
And I still envy the fuck out of Pynchon.
- It's a long climb up the rock face at the wrong time to the right place
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