Saturday, January 24, 2009

W. G. Sebald, Die Ausgewanderten

Max Sebald

"The moral backbone of literature is about that whole question of memory. To my mind it seems clear that those who have no memory have the much greater chance to lead happy lives. But it is something you cannot possibly escape: your psychological make-up is such that you are inclined to look back over your shoulder. Memory, even if you repress it, will come back at you and it will shape your life. Without memories there wouldn't be any writing: the specific weight an image or phrase needs to get across to the reader can only come from things remembered - not from yesterday but from a long time ago."

from the "The Emigrants"

Dr Henry Selwyn

"When we received the news, I had no great difficulty in overcoming the initial shock. But certain things, as I am increasingly becoming aware, have a way of returning unexpectedly, often after a lengthy absence. In late July 1986 I was in Switzerland for a few days. On the morning of the 23rd I took the train from Zurich to Lausanne. As the train slowed to cross the Aare bridge, approaching Berne, I gazed way beyond the city to the mountains of the Oberland. At that point, as I recall, or perhaps merely imagined, the memory of Dr. Selwyn returned to me for the first time in a long while. Three quarters of a n hour later, not wanting to miss the landscape around Lake Geneva, which never fails to astound me as it opens out, I was just laying aside the Lausanne paper I'l bought in Zurich when my eye was caught by a report that said the remains of the Bernese alpine guide Johannes Naegeli, missing since summer 1914, had been released by the Oberaar glacier, seventy-two years later. And so they are ever returning to, the dead. At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots."

Paul Bereyter

"I was reminded then of how we had only ever spoken of him as Paul at school, not without respect but rather as one might refer to an exemplary older brother, and in a way this implied that he was one of us, or that we belong together. This, as I have come to realize, was merely a fabrication of our minds, because, even though Paul knew and understood us, we, for our part, had little idea of what he was or what went on inside him. And so, belatedly, I tried to get closer to him, to imagine what his life was like in that specious apartment on the top floor of Lerchenmuller's old house, which had once stood where the present block of flats is now, amidst an array of green vegetable patches and colorful flower beds, in the gardens where Paul often helped out of an afternoon. I imagined him lying in the open air on his balcony where he would often sleep in the summer, his canopied by the hosts of the stars. I imagined him skating in winter, alone on the fish ponds at Moosbach; and I imagined him stretched out on the track. As I pictured him he had taken off his spectacles and put them on the ballast stones by his side. the gleaming bands of steel, the crossbars of the sleepers, the spruce trees on the hillside above the village of Altstadten, the arc of the mountains he knew so well, were a blur before his short-sighted eyes, smudged out in the gathering dusk. At the last, as the thunderous sound approached, all he saw was a darkening grayness and in the midst of it, needle-sharp, the snow-white silhouettes of three mountains; the Kratzer, the Trettach and the Himmelsschrofen. Such endeavors to image his life and death did not, as I had to admit, bring me any closer to Paul, except at best for brief emotional moments of the kind that seemed presumptuous to me. It is in order to avoid this sort of wrongful trespass that I have written down what I know of Paul Bereyter. "

"The doctor who had operated on his cataracts had advised him that peaceful spells spent simply looking at the leaves would protect and improve his eyesight. Not, of course that Paul took any notice whatsoever of the doctor's orders at night, said Mme Landau. His light was always on till the small hours. He read and read - Altenberg, Trakl, Wittgenstein, Friedell, Hasenclever, Toller, Tucholsky, Kalus Mann, Ossietzky, Benjamin, Koestler and Zweig: almost all of them writers who had taken their own lives or had been close to doing so. he copied out passages into notebooks which give a good idea of how much the lives of these particular authors interested him. Paul copied out hundreds of pages mostly in Gabelsberg shorthand because otherwise he would not have been able to write fast enough, and time and again one comes across stories of suicide. It seemed to me, said Mme Landau, handing me the black oilcloth books, as if Paul had been gathering evidence, the mountin weight of which, as his investigations proceeded, finally convinced him that he belonged to the exiles and not to the people of S."

Ambros Adelwarth

"The rest of the time I was looking for Cosmo and Ambros night and day. Now and then I thought I saw them disappear into an entry or a lift or turn a street corner. Or else I really did see them, taking tea out in the courtyard, or in the hall leafing through the latest papers, which were brought early every morning at breakneck speed from Paris to Deauville by Gabriel the chauffeur. the were silent, as the dead usually are when they appear in our dreams, and seemed somewhat downcast and dejected. Generally, in fact, they behaved as if their altered condition, so to speak, were a terrible family secret not to be revealed under any circumstances. If I approached them, they dissolved before my very eyes, leaving behind them nothing but the vacant space they had occupied. Whenever I caught sight of them, I contented myself with observing them from a distance. Wherever I happened upon them it was as if they constituted a point of stillness in the ceaseless bustle. It seemed as though the whole world had gathered there in Deauville for the summer of 1913."

"I only saw him in a three-piece suit and waring a flawlessly knotted bow tie. Nonetheless, even when hew as simply standing at the window looking out he always gave the impression of being filled with some appalling grief. I do not think, said Dr abramsky, that I have ever met a more melancholy person than your great-uncle; every casual utterance, every gesture, his entire deportment (he held himself erect until the end), was tantamount to a constant pleading for leave of absence. At meals - to which he always came, since he reamined absolute in matters of courtesy even in his darkest times - he still helped himself, but what he actually ate was no more than the symbolic offerings that were once placed on the graves of the dead. It was also remarkable how readily Ambrose submitted to shock treatment, which in the early Fifties, as I understood only later, really came close to torture or martyrdom. Other patients often had to be frogmarched to the treatment room, said Dr Abramsky, but Ambrose would always be sitting on the stool ouside the door at the appointed hour, leaning his head against the wall, eyes closed, waiting for what was in store for him."

"at a time, that is, when psychiatry was primarily concerned with subduing those in its custody, and keeping the in safe detention. For that reason he was naturally inclined to interpret the recurrent desolation and apathy of sick patients exposed to continued shock therapy, their growing inability to concentrate, their sluggishness of mind, their muted voices and even when patients entirely ceased to speak, as signs of successful therapy. So to his mind the docility of Ambrose was a result of the new treatment. Ambrose was one fo the first of our patients to undergo a series of shocks, over a period of weeks and months; but that docility, as I was already beginning to suspect, was in fact due simply to your great-uncle's longing for an extincition as total and irreversible as possible of his capacity to think and remember."

"Their visit to Egypt seems to have been made at rather short notice, said Aunt Fini, and from what Uncle Adelwarth told me it was an attempt to regain the past, attempt that appears to have failed in every respect."

"For long stretches not a tree, not a shrub, scarcely so much as a meagre clump of weeds. Cosmo very taciturn. Darkened sky. Great clouds of dust rolling through the air. Terrible desolation and emptiness. Late in the afternoon it cleared once more. A rosy glow lay upon the valley, and through an opening in the mountainous terrain we could see the promised city in the distance - a ruined and broken mass of rocks, the Queen of the desert ..."

"The more recent buildings of an ugliness hard to describe. Large quantities of filth in the streets. On marche sur des merdes!!! Pulverized limestone ankle-deep in places. The few plants which have survived the drought that has lasted since May are covered in this powdery meal as if by a blight. Une malediction semble planer sur la ville. Decay, nothing but decay, maramus and emptiness. Not a sign of any business or industry. All we passed were a tallow-and-soap factory and a bone-and-hide works. Next to this, in a wide square, the knacker's yard. In the middle a big hole. Coagulated blood, heaps of entrails, blackish-brown tripes, dried and scorched by the sun ... Other wise one church after another, monasteries, religious and philanthropic establishments of every kind and denomination. -"

"In the afternoon (he continues) out of the city to the Mount of Olives. We pass a withered vineyward. The soil beneath the black vines rust-coloured, exhausted and scorched. Scarcely a wild olive tree, a thorn bush, or a little hyssop. On the crest of the Mount of Olives runs a riding track. Beyond the valley of Jehosaphat, where a the end of time, it is said, the entire human race will gather in the flesh, the silent city rises from the white limestone with its domes, towers and ruins. Over the rooftops not a sound, not a trace of smoke, nothing. Nowhere, as fasras the eye can see, is there any sign of life, not a anime scurrying by, or even the smallest bird in flight. On dirait que c'est la terre maudite ..."

"And then came the age of destruction. Every settlement up to a four-hour journey away in every direction was destroyed, the irgation systems were wrecked, and the trees and bushes were cut down, burnt and blasted, down to the very last stump. For years the Caesars deliberately

"Whenever his eye fell on me I felt as despised and cold as a stray dog. Later, too, outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a continuing feeling of oppressiveness and misery. No matter which direction we went in, we always came up at one of the steep ravines that crisscross the city, falling aways to the valleys. By now the ravines have largely been filled with rubbish of a thousand years, and everywhere liquid waste flows openly into them. As a result, the water of numerous springs has beome undrinkable. The erstwhile pools of Siloam are no more than foul puddles and cesspits, a morass from which the miasma rises that causes epidemics to rage here almost every summer. Cosmo says repeatedly that he is utterly horrified by the city."

"From the depths of the stage (as Cosmo repeatedly described it to Ambros) the Mirage image of an oasis appeared. A caravan emerged on to the stage from a grove of palms, crossed the stage, went down into the auditorium, passed amongst the spectators, who were craning round in amazement, and vanished as mysteriously as it had appeared. The terrible thing was ( Cosmo insisted) that he himself had somehow gone from the hall together with the caravan, and now could no longer tell where he was. On day, not long after, Aunt Fini continued, Cosmo really did disappear."

"The whole house was always very neat and tidy, down to the last detail, like the room in this photograph. Often it seemed to me as if Uncle Adelwarth was expecting a stranger to call at any moment. But no one ever did. Who would, said Aunt Fini. So I went over to Mamaroneck at least twice a week. Usually I sait in the blue armchair when I visited, and Uncle sat at his bureau, at a slight angle, as if he were about to write something or other. And from there he would tell me stories and many a strange tale. At times I thought the things he said he had witnessed, such as beheadings in Japan, were so improbable that I supposed he was suffering from Korsakov's syndrome: as you may know, said Aunt Fini, it is an illness which cause lost memories to be replaced by fantastic inventions. At any rat, the more Uncle Adelwarth told his stories, the more desolate he became. After Christmas '52 he fell into such a deep depression that, although he plainly felt a great need to talk about his life, he could no longer shape a single sentence, nor utter a single word, or any sound at all. He would sit at his bureau, turned a little to one side, one hand on the desktop pad, the other in his lap, staring steadily at the floor."

"You climb a bare hillside forever and find yourself once more in a shady valley, enter a house gate and are in the street, drift with the bustle in the bazaar gate and are suddenly amidst gravestones. For, like Death itself, the cemeteries of Constantinople are in the midst of life. For every one who departs this life they say, a cypress is planted. In their dense branches the turtle doves next. When night falls they stop cooing and partake of the silence of the dead. Once the silence descends, the bats come out and flit along their ways. Cosmo claims he can hear every one of their cries. - Whole districts of the city built entirely of wood. Houses of brown and grey weather-worn boards and planks, with flat-topped saddleback roofs and balconies. The Jewish quarter is built the same way. Walking through it today, we turn a corner and unexpectedly have a distant view of a blue line of mountains and the snowy summit of Olympus. For one awful heartbeat I imagine myself in Switzerland or at home again ..."

"The last entry in my Great-Uncle Adelwarth's little agenda book was written on the Feast of Stephen. Cosmo, it reads, had had a bad fever after their return to Jerusalem but was already on the way to recovery again. My great-uncle also noted that late the previous afternoon it had begun to snow and that, looking out of the hotel window at the city, white in the falling dusk, it made him think of times long gone. Memory, he added in a postscript, often strikes me as a kind of dumbness. It makes one's head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds."

"I was still sitting up in our bed, which was open to the heavens, in the light of the swaying lantern. Cosmo, curled up slightly, was sleeping at my side. Suddenly a quail, perhaps frightened by the storm on the Sea, took refuge in his lap and remained there, calm now, as if it were its rightful place. But at daybreak, when Cosmo stirred, it ran away quickly across the level ground, as quail do, lifted off into the air, beat its wings tremendously fast fora moment, then extended them rigid and motionless and glided by a little thicket in an utterly beautiful curve, and was gone. It was shortly before sunrise."

Max Ferber

"As for myself, on those Sundays in the utterly deserted hotel I would regularly be overcome by such sense of aimlessness and futility that I would go out, purely to preserve an illusion of purpose, and walk about amidst the city's immense and time-blackened nineteenth-century buildings, with no particular destination in mind. On those wanderings, when winter light flooded the deserted streets and squares for the few rare hours of real daylight, I never ceased to be amazed by the completeness with which anthracite-coloured Manchester, the city from which industrialization had spread across the entire world, displayed the clearly chronic process of its impoverishment and degradation to anyone who cared to see. Even the grandest of the buildings, such as the Royal Exchange, the Refuge Assurance Company, the Grosvenor Picture Palace, and indeed the Piccadilly Plaza, which had been built only a few years before, seemed so empty and abandoned that one might have supposed oneself surrounded by mysterious facades of theatrical backdrops. Everything then would appear utterly unreal to me, on those sombre December days when dusk was already falling at three o'clock, when the starlings, which descended upon the city in dark flocks that must have numbered hundreds of thousands, and, shrieking incessantly, settled close together on the ledges and copings of warehouses for the night."

"When I think back to our meetings in Trafford Park, it is invariably in the same place in front of a fresco painted by an unknown hand that showed a caravan moving forward form the remotest depths of the picture, across a wavy ridge of dunes, straight towards the beholder. The painter lacked the necessary skill, and the perspective he had chosen was a difficult one, as a result of which both the human figures and the beasts of burden were slightly distorted, so that, if you half shut your eyes, the scene looked like a mirage, quivering in the heat and light. And especially on days when Ferber had been working in charcoal, and the fine powdery dust had given his skin a metallic sheen, he seemed to have just emerged from the desert scene, or to belong in it. He himself once remarked, studying the gleam of graphite on the back of his hands, that in his dreams, both waking and by night, he had already crossed all the earth's deserts of sand and stone. But anyway, he went on, avoiding any further explanation, the darkening of his skin reminded him of an article he had recently read in the paper about silver poisoning, the symptoms of which were not uncommon among professional photographers. According to the article the British Medical Association's archives contained the description of an extreme case of silver poisoning: in the 1930s there was a photographic lab assistant in Manchester whose body had absorbed so much sliver in the course of a lengthy professional life that he had become a kind of photographic plate, which was apparent in the fact (as Ferber solemnly informed me) that the man's face and hands turned blue in strong light, or, as one might say, developed."

No comments: