words. music. pictures. scheherazade.
Sven Birkerts has written a very personal essay on Sebald’s Vertigo for AGNI, for which I have Anthony to thank for prompting me there via - what else - twitter. The essay is unusual in that Birkerts begins with a disclaimer that most critics would hesitate to make: he hasn’t read most of Sebald’s work, despite the immediate connection that he’d made with The Rings of Saturn. One pleasure among many which Birkerts’ essay affords the reader is that it relates the experience of reading and loving Vertigo from the perspective of a neophyte to the work.
Toward the end of the essay, Birkerts is startled when he revisits the first section of Vertigo centering around Stendhal’s travels in Italy. He realizes - via Guy Davenport’s essay on Kafka’s “Hunter Gracchus” - that Sebald’s account of Stendhal and Mme. Gherardi’s encounter with two men carrying a bier ashore a port of Riva, draped with “a large, frayed flower-patterned silk cloth” under which lay a human body, is neither a scene from Sebald’s nor Stendhal’s imagination, but a doubling of the scene from Kafka’s “Hunter Gracchus.” Birkerts writes that even when he didn’t realize this, he could feel the “specific density of significance.” He muses -
The scene—it felt so deliberately placed—aroused my curiosity. Where would it lead? Why this vibration of the uncanny?
Birkerts leaves his questions tantalizingly unanswered, reminding the readers that what Sebald intended thematically with the Gracchus reference is not the subject of his current essay.
Sebald’s appropriation of Kafka’s Gracchus in Vertigo in the passage below, which so stunned Birkerts with its uncanny power -
Beyle [Stendhal] and Mme Gherardi… entered the small port of Riva… Beyle drew Mme Gherardi’s attention to an old boat, its mainmast fractured two-thirds of the way up, its buff-coloured swails hanging in the folds. It appeared to have made fast only a short time ago, and two men in dark silver-buttoned tunics were at that moment carrying a bier ashore on which, under a large, frayed, flower-patterned silk cloth, lay what was evidently a human form.
This scene recurs many times in Vertigo and throughout his other works in different manifestations. In the passage above, Sebald slyly embeds the opening scene from Kafka’s “Hunter Graccchus” within his account of Stendhal’s travels in Italy, specifically the journey from Bologna to Rome related to in De l’Amour during which Stendhal and Mme Gherardi enter the port of Riva.
It is not a mere coincidence that Sebald interjects the fictive Gracchus moment into Stendhal’s travelogue right before recounting Stendhal’s visit of the underground galleries of the Hallein salt mines with Mme Gherardi. One of the miners presents Mme Gherardi with a twig encrusted with thousands of crystals, and Stendhal notes that the rays of the sun makes the twig glitter in a dazzling show. From Vertigo –
The protracted crystallisation process, which had transformed the dead twig into a truly miraculous object, appeared to [Stendhal], by his own account, as an allegory for the growth of love in the salt mines of the soul. [bold mine]
And below is the corresponding passage from Chapter 2 of De l’Amour, when the two lovers retrieve the dead twig from the salt mines in Salzburg -
Two or three months later they pull it out covered with a shining deposit of crystals. The smallest twig, no bigger than a tom-tit’s claw, is studded with a galaxy of scintillating diamonds. The original branch is no longer recognizable… What I have called crystallization is a mental process which draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one.
The process of crystallization, in other words, is the process of transformation from a dead twig (indifference) to glittering crystals (perfect love). The crucial point being that “the perfection of the loved one” is generated by our own mental faculties and volition. Stendhal extends his idea of crystallization to his theories on art and fiction in general; the crystallization of a work of literature happens through the observer-reader’s perfection of what he reads, the work of the writer. Art can only then be “crystallized,” when the writer and reader meet at a point of significance: the point which Birkerts astutely refers to in his essay as when he felt a “specific density of significance,” the appearance of Gracchus in Sebald’s Stendhal narrative.
Hence, to me, the rationale by which Sebald sneaks Gracchus into Stendhal’s narrative makes sense. “Hunter Gracchus” is about a man who is eternally roaming the seas, undead. As mentioned, it’s no coincidence that Sebald plants this “fiction” just before the description of the crystallization of the dead twig. Given this context, is it not likely that the story of Kafka’s Gracchus - literally undead - is crystallized in both Stendhalian sense – “perfected” in fiction by the reader and writer Sebald - and also in a Benjaminian sense, the desire of his Angel of History to “awaken the dead, make whole what has been smashed”?
I’ll spare you from bulletpoints listing where in Sebald’s fiction Gracchus appears, in Vertigo and elsewhere. But I do have to mention that Gracchus is resurrected in the section, Il ritorno in patria, in Vertigo, the most autobiographical section in which Sebald’s narrator returns to his childhood town of W. in 1987, after spending time in Verona (Sebald was from Wertach im Allgäu). One of the memories that the narrator relates is his childhood infatuation with a beautiful girl named Romana. One December evening - wait for it - when “a myriad minute crystals glittered in the snow” (!), the narrator says that he witnessed his Romana having sex with a man he refers to as Schlag the hunter in a woodshed. This Schlag, the Gracchus analogue, is later found dead at the bottom of the ravine later in the narrative, just as Gracchus had tripped and fell to his death in the Black Forest in Kafka’s tale. And when Schlag the hunter’s corpse is carried into town, it is on a woodcutters’ sledge. When the sledge appears, borne upon it was -
plainly the body of a man under a wine-coloured horse blanket.
which all but confirms Schlag as another Gracchus doppelgänger, a fictional crystal.
Of course. It should have been obvious that Sebald would weave the fiction of Gracchus into his own “true” childhood memories. As evidenced by the excerpt from Kafka’s diaries which Guy Davenport quotes in his essay on Hunter Gracchus, an old ship docks at the small port in Prague by which his sister was renting a place. When Kafka asks a workman on the harbor wall whose ship it was, the workman replies that it belongs to the Hunter Gracchus.
Highly unlikely that Sebald - a lifelong devotee of Kafka - would have missed the fact that Kafka took this real-life memory and conflated it into fiction. Rather, it seems that it was Sebald’s intention all along to plant “fiction” - Gracchus or otherwise - into what we normatively perceive as truths and reliable memories. The original German title of Vertigo is Schwindel. Gefühle. (Schwindel also means “fraud” or “a con trick”). The title betrays Sebald’s uneasiness with dealing with fiction as a vehicle to convey any kind of truth, an uneasiness that he never quite shook off until his untimely death. In an interview with Joseph Cuomo, published in The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald, Sebald identifies with Flaubert’s “fear of the false,” before sheepishly commenting -
Well, yes, writing, as I said before… you make something out of nothing. It is a con trick.
Yet this “con trick” is more nuanced, paradoxical. Schwindel, according to Sebald -
You have this string of lies, and by this detour you arrive at a form of truth which is more precise, one hopes, that something which is strictly provable.
A form of truth by way of a string of lies. Through fiction, especially given Stendhal’s theory of crystallization to which Sebald devotes a significant attention in Vertigo, there is literally a resurrection of something dead (a twig, a Gracchus doppelgänger) into something miraculously glittering. By art.
In fact, as Sebald’s narrator travels to his childhood hometown of W., he himself transforms into a Gracchus -
Outside, snowflakes were drifting past the small window, and presently it seemed to me as if I were in a boat on a voyage, crossing vast waters.
Finally, there’s a vague allusion to the Gracchus story earlier in Vertigo which is easy to miss, in All’estero section. At a terrace in a hotel in Limone, the narrator writes in his notebooks, fluidly, with a remarkable ease that astonishes him. Then the proprietress of the hotel asks if the narrator is a journalist or a writer. The narrator replies that neither description is quite right. When asked what he’s working on -
I replied that I did not know for certain myself, but had a growing suspicion that it might turn into a crime story, set in upper Italy, in Venice, Verona and Riva. The plot revolved around a series of unsolved murders and the reappearance of a person who had long been missing.
In many ways, this seems to me a transmuted but somehow aptly telegraphed summary, not just of Vertigo itself but of Sebald’s ethos of fiction in general. The “missing person” referred to in the passage above could variously be Gracchus, Schlag, or many others populating the enigmatic skies of Sebald’s fiction, not the least of whom is the writer himself: all of them will reappear, crystallized through the art of fiction, out of the dark mines of history by the author’s hand, by the reader’s gaze.
(Images in this post: stills from Frank Borzaga’s Street Angel, a photograph of Central Park in 1916, by Mikko Rantanen, by Anthony Goicolea, Garin Horner, etc.)