My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Given my mild ambivalence about Sebald, I thought I would make this small book, the author’s first, my next destination on the gray-toned walking tour of European ruin that is the Sebaldian oeuvre. I think of Sebald’s gift as essentially lyric, in the sense that the lyric poet projects his subjectivity onto the world and that his composition is accordingly of one tone and mood—the lyric poet “turns his back on the audience,” writes Frye; similarly, Lukács claims that “the language of the absolutely lonely man is lyrical, i.e., monological”—as opposed to the incorporation of difference and disputation that characterizes the epic, the drama, and the novel. Is Sebald, the “last man in Europe,” to borrow a very different writer’s rejected title, not “the absolutely lonely man”?
Again, this poem, published in 1988 in German, is Sebald’s first literary work. It was published posthumously in 2002 in Michael Hamburger’s translation, which most critics agree is superb—though this book could really use a translator’s preface or editorial introduction explaining its provenance and context. The title, as far as I can tell, means “from nature,” in the sense of “painted from nature,” thus suggesting an argument about mimesis as the representation of nature’s profound strangeness and alienation.
The poem is a triptych: its first part (“…As the Snow on the Alps”) is about the painter Matthias Grünewald, whose works carry the medieval aesthetics of Christian art into the Renaissance; the second part (“And If I Remained by the Outermost Sea”) concerns the naturalist Georg Steller and his northerly Russian expedition with the explorer Vitus Bering; and the third part (“Dark Night Sallies Forth”) is narrated by the Sebaldian persona who will become familiar from the author’s later work. The third section is rather opaque, seeming at times to be a somewhat private autobiographical discourse. What, for instance, does this mean?
A long series of tiny shocks,
from the first and the second pasts,
not translated into the spoken
language of the present, they
remain a broken corpus guarded
by Fungisi and the wolf’s shadow.
While it has some compelling moments, such as its concluding discussion of Albrecht Altdorfer’s’s extraordinary painting The Battle of Alexander at Issus, whose vast vista the narrator is taught to construe as a prophecy of conquest and colonialism—
did the clever chaplain, who
had hung up an oleograph
of the battle scene beside
the blackboard describe the outcome
of this affair. It was,
he said, a demonstration
of the necessary destruction of all
the hordes coming up from the East.
and thus a contribution to the history
—I much prefer the first two parts, both narrated in the third person to create fragmentary portraits of Grünewald and Steller.
In the Grünewald part, a beautifully cryptic poem of mysterious doubles, doomed marriages, terrifying eclipses, Christian anti-Semitism and misogyny, and religious hospitals where the sick are treated with “rituals of purification,” Sebald emphasizes the painter’s apprehension of the sheer horror of life, as displayed in his famously grotesque paintings of the Crucifixion:
To him the painter, this is creation,
image of our insane presence
on the surface of the earth,
the regeneration proceeding
in downward orbits
whose parasitical shapes
intertwine, and, growing into
and out of one another, surge
as a demonic swarm
into the hermit’s quietude.
In the background is the failed revolution of Thomas Müntzer and the first stirrings of German fascism. Grünewald, the poet tells us, “must have tended / towards an extremist view of the world” and “will have come to see the redemption of the / living as one from life itself.”
My philistine tendencies as a reader of Sebald continue here, as my favorite section of this poem is the second, wryly describing the adventures of the scientist Steller, a man who, in contrast to Grünewald, rejected the other world of Christianity for the world of nature:
shouldn’t that read,
perscrutamini naturas rerum?
Whatever precursors in German literature Sebald is calling upon are alas lost on me, but in the troubled northern expedition I heard echoes of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Frankenstein and Moby-Dick, which is generally in keeping with Sebald’s brand of rueful “after Auschwitz” neo-Romanticism. This section evokes everything from St. Petersburg (perhaps recalling Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman”)—
Kronstadt, Oranienbaum, Peterhof
and last in the Torricellian void,
a thirty-four-year-old bastard,
marooned on the Neva’s marsh delta,
St. Petersburg under the fortress,
the new Russian capital,
uncanny to a stranger,
no more than a chaos erupting,
buildings that began to subside
as soon as erected, and nowhere
a vista quite straight.
—to an illicit handjob—
He spends the whole summer
bent over the jumble of cards,
while the naturalist’s neglected
wife, gaudily dressed, sits
beside him and with her split
fin strokes the glans that throbs
like his heart. Steller feels science
shrinking to a single slightly
painful point. On the other hand
the foam bubbles, to him, are
a paradigm. Come, he whispers
into her ear in his desperation,
come with me to Siberia as
my true wife, and already hears
the answer: wherever
you go I will
go with you.
—suggesting, as a first book ought to do, all the different writers the writer might have become.
I cannot judge the translation, admittedly, but I love the short lines of free verse, organized, as you can see from the quotations above, as long sinuous hypotactic sentences that both irresistibly draw the eye down the page and force the eye back up the page to read again for meaning and beauty. This is a poem, in English at least, beautifully ordered by intricate syntax rather than rhyme or meter.
I recently came across this observation about literary judgment (via) from W. H. Auden:
For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.
Sebald has moved from the second to the third category for me, and will perhaps be arriving at the first any day now. I look forward to the two books of his that I have not yet read, The Emigrants and Vertigo.