Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Wandering and Following

According to my own limited experience and observation, literary criticism is never read for pleasure even by the most steady and serious readers (who already represent a tiny percentage of the general population in the time and place where I happen to live). I might not read any literary criticism either if I were not exposed to so many examples in my work. Of course I ignore a great deal too, being lazy and indifferent much of the time just like anybody else, but on occasion some exceptional idea about some writer I already care about and know about will make me stop dead and rethink what I thought I knew. And those moments are the ones when I think about what a shame it is that criticism has such a slim to nonexistent chance of capturing the attention of the ordinary non-professional reading audience.

Here is an example of a literary critic who surprised me into seeing familiar texts in a new way. Below, a short extract about the writing of W.G.Sebald from John Limon's book, Death's Following : Mediocrity, Dirtiness, Adulthood, Literature 

"Several of his books in various forms have come out posthumously, but the four prose works in which Sebald discovers and perfects his genre – his documentary fiction – are Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz. Two, The Emigrants and Austerlitz, are more or less biographical (someone like Sebald investigates the lives – perhaps modeled on actual lives – of, mainly, melancholics). Two, Vertigo and The Rings of Saturn, are more or less autobiographical (someone like Sebald travels in East Anglia or on the continent, noticing, researching, occasionally following, thinking, dreaming, writing). The autobiographical fictions mainly take the form of wandering: the biographical fictions mainly take the form of following.

It is almost accurate to add that the wandering books are based on an extremely lonely yet vulnerable heterosexuality, and the following books on a defeated or repressed homosexuality.  

.     .     .

The curious effect is to associate Sebald's deeply informed and unblinking morality with a kind of inexplicit, unfaced, erotic strangeness. The strangeness consists of a debilitating vulnerability as to ghost and an inchoate desire; one produces a general flight (and constant dreams and occasional breakdowns), and the other a determined yet somewhat hypothetical or inexplicable tracking of the ghosts of other men's pasts. These tendencies in themselves produce a family resemblance with figures whose heterosexual susceptibilities are as fantastic as Stendhal's or whose homosexual desires are as doomed as Kafka's; family resemblance, with Sebald as the middle term between antithetical identities, abrogates the sexuality divide along with the religious. These tendencies lend mobility – tracking and fleeing – to Sebald's melancholy, and narrative energy to his melancholic texts; strangeness makes the digressive meditation plausible as a narrative."  

Because of Susan Sontag's long ecstatic essay in The New York Review of Books, I read each of the four crucial Sebald titles as they came out in English between 1996 and the year of Sebald's death in 2001. Since then I've reread each them, though not in any orderly way. And have talked with friends about his work over the past 15 years with consistent devotion. Yet it would never in a million years have occurred to me that his major books could neatly be split down the middle into separate symmetrical categories (called wandering and following by Limon). And I would definitely never have boldly assigned erotic significance to those categories, as Limon does. Yet his argument convinces me, not that his reading is exclusively true, but that it expands what is visible in the books themselves, extends their horizons.   

Image at top (cover of Limon's book) – Maggie's Cartwheel by Susan Rothenberg.