Winfried Georg Sebald


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Winfried Georg Sebald (1944)

"Die Ausgewanderten/ The Emigrants" (1992) is a collection of four autobiographical "stories", something in between Proust and Levi, about four ordinary men as they move through space (hence the "immigrants") and time (from before World War II and the Jewish holocaust to the economic boom of the 1950s/60s). It is not a particularly engaging book, and way less lyrical than "The Ring of Saturn".

It begins with the memory of his trip to England with Clara (presumably his wife) and how they took a room in the house of the Selwyns. That's when the narrator met Henry Selwyn, who lived in the garden, a ruined man separated from his wealthy wife Elli, the daughter of an industrialist, who was the owner of the house. Henry introduced the narrator to his friend, the botanist Edwin, with whom he had traveled to Crete. Henry, who had lived through the first world war, now lived like a seclude with his animals and plants, and years later committed suicide.

Another man who committed suicide was Paul, the narrator's old teacher, who let a train ride over his body. His was considered an eccentric if not a madman. As a primary school teacher he used to take the children outdoors as often as possible. The narrator visits the town and meets with Lucy, the woman who took care of the funeral. She told him of his increasing claustrophobia that led him to live by himself and spend most of the time reading, but eventually his eyesight began to deteriorate.

Ambros, the narrator's great-uncle, was part of the contingent of his family that emigrated to the USA. They generally had a low opinions of the uncultured people of the USA. The narrator grew up imagining that some day he himself would move to the USA, but eventually came to despise the country. On a visit to his aunt Fini and uncle Kasimir the narrator learns Ambros' story. Originally a humble hotel worker, who was lucky to be the guest of an un married Japenese gentleman, he traveled with his friend Cosmo to Istanbul and Jerusalem. When Cosmo died, Ambros took a job as a butler in a giant mansion. Ambros died in a sanatorium that he had entered of his own will. Puzzled, the narrator visits the town where the sanatorium used to be and meets with the man who used to be the assistant of the chief psychiatrist. This former assistant is now ashamed of what the psychiatrist did to Ambros: the cure consisted in merciless electric shocks. Surprisingly, Ambros submitted to them meekly, and, in retrospect, the former assistants views it as a former of suicide. Ambros must have realized that those electroshocks were causing him a progressive paralysis. Ambros wanted to die. Back at his relatives' place, the narrator finds Ambros' old diary and reads of his travels with Cosmo. That friendship between two unmarried men had aroused quite a bit of gossip.

The last chapter is for Max Ferber, a painter the narrator met when he moved to England, staying near the ghostly industrial zone of Manchester. The narrator learned much later from a magazine article that Ferber's parents had been killed in Nazist extermination camps during World War II. Then he travels back to meet the aging Ferber and get the full story. Ferber tells him of how initially his Jewish parents and relatives tried to maintain the appearance of a normal life, although one took her life and another was planning to leave the country. His father found a way to send him to safety in Manchester, a city with a large Jewish population. Before parting from Ferber, the old Jew hands the narrator the memories that his mother Luisa left behind. These memories begin from before World War I, when Luisa was a child, and then continue to her engagement with a poor musician who had waited years to propose and who died almost right after their engagement. Then Luisa enrolled as a nurse during World War I and fell in love with a wounded lieutenant, but he died too. She suffered a major depression and was then married off to Ferber's father Fritz, an arranged marriage. Impressed by Luisa's memories, the narrator decides to travel to her hometown and visits the Jewish cemetery, where he finds the monument to Fritz and Luisa. The narrator is busy writing this novella of Ferber's life when he learns that Ferber has been hospitalized. They visits him, staying at what used to be a fancy hotel. He is reminded of photos of a Polish ghetto that depicted the laborious life of Jews, ironically contributing to the war economy that would decimate them.

"Die Ringe des Saturn/ The Rings of Saturn" (1995) is the diary of a German tourist who is visiting the coast of England, mostly a pilgrimage on foot to places of his past. The book comes with a set of photographs, but Sebald's vivid descriptions provide a much more visual companion to his erudite impressions and meditations. In some cases he stops the narrative to dive vertically into a subject matter, turning to methodical erudition. His analysis can be so detailed that he seems to be impersonating the characters he analyzed. The chapters flow by free association, without any logic. There are moments that sound like brief Freudian detours: dreams and traumas that briefly interrupt the stream of consciousness. The book is mostly melancholy, as it finds decay and decline in just about everything everywhere, if not the horrors of human history. The protagonist of this irregular flow of memories is the tragic and sometimes humorous contradictions of human history.

One year after some kind of surgery that confined him to a hospital bed, the narrator takes a train along the coast of England. He is reminded of two unmarried scholars, Michael and Janine, who died relatively young. Janine was a scholar of Flaubert and helped the narrator, who is busy translating Thomas Browne's "Urn Burial", track down where Thomas Browne's skull is preserved. The narrator speculates that Browne might have attended the famous dissection of criminal Aris Kindt after he was hanged, an operation carried out by Dr Tulp and immortalized by Rembrandt's odd "Anatomy Lesson" (in which one arm is obviously wrong). The narrator wonders whether the young Descartes was also present. Browne became famous for his treatise on urn burials around the world, but also studied the quincunx, a geometric patterns that he found ubiquitous in nature.
The narrator then visits a country home and chats with a gardener (even assuming his identity) about the bombing raids on Germany during World War II. He then walks through empoverished neighborhoods. He is the only guest at the beach hotel. These are places that he was familiar with when they were wealthy and beautiful. He remembers his friend Frederick, a retired lawyer who died a bizarre death in his rose garden. More decay awaits him at the beach, where fishermen used to camp. We also get a lesson herring habits. An eccentric major bequeathed his mansion to the loyal housekeeper who stayed with him after he had fired the rest of the staff. We get a gospel parable. Then the narrator stumbles onto two lovers at the beach and runs away terrified. And then he mentions Bioy Casares' imaginary world Tlon that is rapidly replacing and obliterating the real one.
That beach reminds him of the 1692 naval battle in which the Dutch were humiliated, a moment that probably marked the ascendency of Britain as the main sea power of the world. He remembers his last trip to Holland, ostensibly to study Rembrandt's "Anatomy Lesson". Memories of Holland are littered with historical trivia, even about his patron saint in Nuremberg. He visits the sailors' reading room that used to be crowded and now hardly sees any visitors anymore, and finds an illustrated book of World War I. He is reminded of the death camp of Jasenovac in Croatia, where the Ustasha tortured and killed 700,000 Serbs, Bosnians and Jews. He bitterly comments that a Viennese lawyer who documented the mass deportation of orphans ended up being elected secretary general of the United Nations and his voice is on the tape that the Voyager II is carrying to distant extrasolar civilizations.
The narrator then painstakingly reconstructs the teenage years of Joseph Conrad, orphan of a Polish patriot, as he traveled around the world. Then we are introduced to Roger Casement, a British diplomat who exposed the atrocities committed in Congo by the Belgians, and then later the atrocities committed in Latin America by the London-based Amazon Company (both actions for which he was praised by his government), and then helped the Irish revolutionaries, a crime for which he was executed by his government but not before his diary had been widely publicized to discredit him (he was homosexual).
A bridge over a desolate landscape, that used to be part of a vibrant wool economy, leads him to the mass suicide of the Taiping rebels, and the role played by the British, and to the evil dowager empress who ruled China after that episode, usurping the throne and dispatching rivals to the afterlife. His attention than turns to a run-down town that used to be one of the greatest ports in the 13th-century, but now is a "place of pilgrimage for melancholy poets", from which he singles out Swinburne, a living aberration since childhoold.
The narrator laments the deforestation that has followed human civilization, first caused by agriculture, then by construction, shipbuilding and to make charcoal. Human civilization is fueled by combustion. After getting briefly lost in the woods, the narrator reaches the house of an older German writer, Michael. The narrator feels like he has lived in that house himself before. There are striking coincidences between their lives. For example, they both met an eccentric lecturer, Stanley, who had a passion for Japanese culture, but 22 years apart. Michael's wife Anne tells the story of the amnesiac Squirrel who always wore mourning although he couldn't remember whose death he was mourning. She then tells the narrator of a dream in which she was driven by a driverless cab through a forest of which she could see the most minute details. As she ends her story, the narrator is terrified by the sight of a beetle.
The narrator summarizes the life of a FitzGerald character from his birth in a very rich family to his lonely death, having accomplished only the translation of the "Rubaiyat". Then a dream reminds him of his stay in Ireland at the mansion of the Ashburys, a widow living with her son and three unmarried daughters, one of which, Catherine, briefly captures his attention. The widow confessed that the family was totally inept at business, and he was their first guest in the ten years that they had advertised a room for rent. The narrator continues his hike through a sparsely populated and rather desolate countryside, as if he were looking for more and more signs of decay, more run-down and neglected estates and manors. He reaches Oxford and visits the ruins of the secret weapons research center, where he can meditate on human folly before taking a ferry back to the present.
The narrator makes one more stop to visit Thomas, a man who is devoting his life to recreating the Temple of Jerusalem. He is becoming an international celebrity, now respected as a scholar after being long believed to be a madman by his own family. The village is where Chateaubriand once lived after having escaped the terror of the French revolution, and where a rector offered him his 15-year-old daughter Charlotte in wife. Chateaubriand couldn't accept because he was already married in France. Many years later he was a diplomat in England and Charlotte appeared to him one more time, married to an admiral and mother of two children. The narrator ends his story in the park where he used to live. Over the decades a virus, a drought and a hurricane have killed most of the old trees. Now the narrator can return to Browne, but not to his main works, instead to an obscure catalog titled "Musaeum Clausum" that concerns a museum of imaginary antiquities. Among them Browne listes the cane used by the two friars who stole the secret of silk from China and brought silkworm moths to Constantinople. The narrator relates in detail how silk cultivation thrived in Italy and spread to France, but never took hold in Germany until Hitler's time, when Germans were told to become self-sufficient in everything. And the last sentences of the book quote Browne, the son of a silk merchant, about how silk was used for mourning the dead.
(Translation by/ Tradotto da xxx)

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(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )