Labyrinthine look at an enig­matic em­i­grant

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Delia Fal­coner

Ari­adne’s Thread: In Mem­ory of WG Se­bald By Philippa Comber Propo­lis, 270pp, $44.99 (HB) WHEN Ger­man-English au­thor WG Se­bald died in a car ac­ci­dent in 2001, aged 57, his oblique and haunt­ing nov­els were al­ready seen as mak­ing him a se­ri­ous con­tender for the Nobel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture — yet his ca­reer as a lit­er­ary fig­ure had spanned only 10 years.

Se­bald em­i­grated from his na­tive Ger­many to Eng­land in the 1960s. A lec­turer at the Univer­sity of East Anglia, he be­gan to write po­etry and fic­tion in the 80s be­cause he was frus­trated by the lim­its of aca­demic prose (though he was still an aca­demic when he died).

The Em­i­grants, his first novel in English trans­la­tion — his third in Ger­man — was a sen­sa­tion when it ap­peared in 1992: melan­choly, peri­patetic, its pages in­ter­leaved with grainy pho­tos, it hov­ered in a strange ter­ri­tory be­tween novel, trav­el­ogue and es­say. Like the nov­els to follow — The Rings of Saturn, Ver­tigo and Auster­litz in or­der of English pub­li­ca­tion — it de­rived a disturbing power from cir­cling the Holo­caust while never de­pict­ing it di­rectly.

The Em­i­grants told the story of four dam­aged emi­gres from Europe, and their meet­ing with an ob­ses­sive, melan­choly nar­ra­tor who bore a great re­sem­blance to Se­bald. I still have a yel­low­ing copy of Bri­tish lit­er­ary em­i­nence Robert McCrumb’s col­umn, hail­ing Se­bald as a ma­jor tal­ent, tucked into my own copy, a great dis­cov­ery of my read­ing life.

Each of Se­bald’s nov­els de­rived its ter­ri­ble power from the sense that its nar­ra­tor’s ev­ery step was con­nected to catas­tro­phe; the de­bris of a blood­stained Europe but also a sick land­scape. In ret­ro­spect, Se­bald may be the first writer of the An­thro­pocene: this terrifying era in which we are be­gin­ning to un­der­stand hu­mans as agents of plan­e­tary change. His rep­u­ta­tion has only grown since his death. His post­hu­mous out­put in­cludes lec­tures, po­etry, es­says and the un­fin­ished Cor­si­can novel Campo Santo.

He is also the sub­ject of a large num­ber of crit­i­cal books, pa­pers and con­fer­ences, and less clas­si­fi­able trib­utes such as Grant Gee’s moody 2011 es­say-film Pa­tience (After Se­bald), which re­traces the East Anglian pil­grim­age of The Rings of Saturn. In­evitably, given the mys­te­ri­ous aura of his nar­ra­tors, there is an emerg­ing body of work at­tempt­ing to un­der­stand the enig­matic “Max”, as friends knew Se­bald, such as the BBC’s 2011 se­ries of 15-minute in­ter­views with friends and col­leagues.

Philippa Comber’s Ari­adne’s Thread is the first book-length por­trait. A psy­chother­a­pist and long-term Berlin res­i­dent, Comber ar­rived in Nor­wich in 1980 after her mar­riage failed, to run a psy­chi­atric day­care cen­tre. In 1981 she met Se­bald, also in his late 30s, on a group out­ing to Ro­man Polan­ski’s film Tess. They hit it off and Se­bald be­gan to drop round; vis­its in­volv­ing long dis­cus­sions of writ­ing and film.

There was a fris­son, on Comber’s side at least, though her hopes dimmed the week her fa­ther died. When she en­treated Se­bald to come round and keep her company, he de­clined be­cause, he said, needed to walk his dog. When Comber be­gan a new re­la­tion­ship in 1985, the friend­ship went into hia­tus, reignit­ing spo­rad­i­cally be­tween 1988 and 1996, then pe­ter­ing out un­til just be­fore Se­bald’s death.

Though fo­cused on a four-year pe­riod, the book of­fers a valu­able por­trait of Se­bald strug­gling to move into fic­tion: over­worked, elu­sive and per­for­ma­tively lugubri­ous, able to re­duce friends to fits of help­less laugh­ter with his ac­counts of per­sonal dis­as­ter, though Comber sug­gests, this was a kind of pro­tec­tive mask. In Rings of Saturn the nar­ra­tor al­ludes cryp­ti­cally to a pe­riod of ill­ness spark­ing his trav­els. Here Comber re­veals Se­bald suf­fered two pe­ri­ods of se­ri­ous men­tal tur­moil and hinted at some se­vere trauma block­ing his writ­ing. In 1982, he asked Comber to act as his an­a­lyst, a re­quest she re­fused be­cause she still hoped for a closer friend­ship.

Comber’s de­tailed ac­count of their shared read­ing is fas­ci­nat­ing. A keen gar­dener, Se­bald de­lighted in quizzing Comber about her English fam­ily’s links to 17th-cen­tury gar­dener and di­arist John Eve­lyn; to­gether they read his de­scrip­tion of vis­it­ing the great East Anglian es­say­ist Thomas Browne and his riv­et­ing ac­count of the Great Fire of London. Browne’s es­say Urn Burial would be­come one of the touch­stones of The Rings of Saturn — and Se­bald would end Ver­tigo with di­arist Sa­muel Pepys’s apoc­a­lyp­tic vi­sion of London in flames dur­ing the same fire.

But this is no straight­for­ward mem­oir. As her ti­tle sug­gests, Comber pays homage to Se­bald by adapt­ing his labyrinthine ap­proach, in­ter­leav­ing their story with ex­cur­sions into her own very full life. This works bril­liantly when Comber tells us about her life­long friend, Chris­tine. Her fa­ther, she would learn later, was Werner Heisen­berg, re­spon­si­ble not only for the fa­mous un­cer­tainty prin­ci­ple but Ger­many’s nu­clear pro­gram — a truly Se­bal­dian con­nec­tion. Comber’s jux­ta­po­si­tion of Heisen­berg’s di­ary ac­counts of World War II bomb­ings with Se­bald’s Ger­man child­hood pow­er­fully in­vokes the role of co­in­ci­dence — of ter­ri­ble chance that is not chance — in Se­bald’s fic­tion.

As a psy­cho­an­a­lyst, Comber is also a kind of Ari­adne (Mi­nos’s daugh­ter con­trolled his Cre­tan maze). But her decision to of­fer pro­fes­sional in­sights into Max works against the al­lu­sive, web-like del­i­cacy of her nar­ra­tive model. ( A man “deeply afraid of his phys­i­cal­ity” is her di­ag­no­sis, which seems a lit­tle un­fair.)

Over­all, this first non­fic­tion book from Propo­lis, the small Nor­wich pub­lish­ing company that dis­cov­ered Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, doesn’t quite co­here. Comber’s di­ary ex­tracts (“Max rang no less than three times!”) sit awk­wardly with her higher lit­er­ary am­bi­tions. Her travel di­ary of a pil­grim­age around his child­hood Bavaria reads like pad­ding, though it has its pierc­ing mo­ments; while Comber is charmed, Chris­tine, as if chan­nelling Se­bald, sees only a “Nazinest”.

Per­haps out of tact, Comber doesn’t dis­close Se­bald’s own do­mes­tic sit­u­a­tion and there’s no men­tion of the wife and daugh­ter the obituaries listed, though for me, at least, this seems like es­sen­tial in­for­ma­tion for as­sess­ing mo­ti­va­tion.

In the end, Comber’s Max re­mains an enigma. In a beau­ti­ful im­age bor­rowed from his poem After Na­ture, she de­picts Se­bald as a stingray: “so sound­lessly I glided, scarcely mov­ing a wing”.

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