Saturday, September 17, 2011

I see shades of blue everywhere

If you bear in mind Chekhov's legendary advice that if you hang a gun on the wall during the first act of a play, it needs to go off in the last -- advice that is sound if you want the netting of your plot to be taut and ultimately unsurprising -- there's a curious effect in W. G. Sebald's The Emigrants. Certainly, the gun in the first chapter goes off a second time near the end of it: the man (Dr Henry Selwyn) who is observed testing the report of his old game hunting rifle in the framing of a window shoots himself with the selfsame rifle only eleven pages later. Then the guns repaired by Corradi in the second chapter -- in the narrator's childhood -- are taken out into the garden so that the gunsmith can 'fire a few rounds in the air for sheer pleasure, to mark the end of the job.' (p. 38) But after this, there are no further reports -- no obvious but delayed result -- only the muted sounds of cities coated with soot and ash and dust: the muffled layering of memories over the still discernible treasures of once splendid emporiums, laden docks, music and iridescent insects. The deaths -- and there are many to come -- are so quiet, even drained. In the Jewish cemetery near the end of the book, the grave on which the narrator lays a stone has only a single body in it, although four names have been cut into the gravestone. Sebald's narrators write both here and in On the Natural History of Destruction about how the sight of rubble had always been intimately associated with cities when they were young  -- and, strangely, with the excitement and possibility that these cities suggest to someone who has moved there from a small village or town. And yet these journeys elsewhere soon become haunted remnants of journeys, and there are always the shadows of birds flying overhead and the landscape itself, become an almost featureless plain, is left with only the faintest of tracings by the lives that have passed over it:

I see shades of blue everywhere -- a single empty space, stretching out into the twilight of late afternoon, crisscrossed by the tracks of ice-skaters long vanished. (218)

Others have written about the butterfly man. While I'm yet to read these accounts, I have to admit that I found the butterfly man to be the one occasionally forced element of the book. When Ambros Adelwarth is said to have told his doctor, just before his final and ultimately fatal session of electric shock therapy, that he forgot to turn up for a previous session because '[i]t must have slipped my mind whilst I was waiting for the butterfly man', the explanation is too fey, too neat; there is the butterfly man from the first chapter, we understand by then, and he must be included. The figure of Nabokov -- as both a child and an adult -- with his ridiculously large butterfly net, is definitely, in part, a comic figure with its seeming, if eccentric, healing powers, as Max Ferber discovers on the top of Grammont. But Ferber also finds that the meaning of its passing through his life eludes him. He can never succeed in making its portrait afterwards, and considers his attempt to do so 'one of his most unsatisfactory works' (p. 174). There is an ominous faerie quality to the 'messenger of joy', or so Luisa Lanzberg thinks of boy she had once seen with the butterfly net, '... to signal my final liberation' (p. 213 - 214) -- an image that only signals, in the end, the soundless death of her fiancé and a further narrowing of the path 'that grew narrower day by day and led inevitably to the point I have now arrived at' (p. 208) -- that is, to the imminence of her murder by the Nazis. In fact, the butterfly man -- at first just a clipping reminiscent of other photographs that the narrator sees (p. 16) -- is the strongest sign of the hand of the author -- that this book of 'prose writing', as Sebald liked to see the writing tradition in which he was working -- a kind of Speak, Memory as runs the unspecified title of the Nabokov autobiography that Mrs Landau is reading when Paul Bereyter of chapter two first speaks to her -- is actually more fictional, more artfully crafted, than it sometimes appears from the dizzying heights of reading, when like an entranced moth or bird, you pass over its nearly paragraphless pages and its blurred photographs -- all this evidence that is being gathered, as Landau puts it of Bereyter in a Berhardian moment -- at too great a speed, even as you appear to be hardly moving at all.

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