Lovers of prose in these image-dominated times have no greater ally than W.G. Sebald. His four books demonstrate that long works of prose—whether they’re called a “long essay,” a “novel,” or some other descriptive not yet accepted by the gatekeepers of common discourse—remain our best means for meditating through the image-culture that assaults us daily. Sebald’s most discursive book, The Rings of Saturn, demonstrates the case. Flipping though its pages one sees such seemingly unrelated phenomena as: reproductions of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson; an illustration of a quincunx drawn by Thomas Browne; an extract from some German manuscript; a pastoral image of the British coast; what appears to be a photographic negative of Somerleyton Hall and Gardens; and so on. Yet the experience of reading Sebald is not overwhelming, quite the opposite: critics praise and detract from Sebald for his slow rhythms, which stand in sharp contrast to our iPhoned days. Sebald responded to the late 20th century’s turbulence with a rare, almost 19th-century repose.
The encyclopedic impetus was, of course, one of the great links of twentieth-century literature, capable of bridging the rationality of Thomas Mann and the ribald id of James Joyce. Sebald’s contribution is to place the idiosyncrasy of a mere human personality on par with vast, suprahuman forces—the ancient epic myth (Ulysses) or transnational, Illuminati-like conspiracy (Pynchon)—that encyclopedia novels typically bring to organize the world’s multitudes. With Sebald, one imagines the great enterprise of modernist literature reaching the end of the day, staring into the melancholy sunset, and seeing in that dimming disk and its inflected lavender clouds more truth than could be wrought from the elaborate, bureaucratic structures excreted by the humans laboring beneath them.
An astonishing moment in The Rings of Saturn comes when Sebald gives a reading of The Anatomy Lesson. After establishing that autopsies, like the one the painting depicts, are usually understood as a significant step in the transition from the darkness of medieval science to the light of Western rationalism, Sebald elegantly undercuts that theory. He invokes “the enthusiastic amateur anatomist René Descartes,” said to be present at the autopsy, and tells us that “Descartes teaches that one should disregard the flesh, which is beyond our comprehension”—the consummate Enlightenment figure, so decidedly against science. After striking this discordant note, Sebald continues in the same spirit with an extraordinary reading of The Anatomy Lesson, discussing the mis-drawn hand of the cadaver at the painting’s center:
Now, this hand is most peculiar. It is not only grotesquely out of proportion compared with the hand closer to us, but it is also anatomically the wrong way round: the exposed tendons, which ought to be those of the left palm, given the position of the thumb, are in fact those of the back of the right hand. In other words, what we are faced with is a transposition taken from the anatomical atlas, evidently without further reflection, that turns this otherwise true-to-life painting (if one may so express it) into a crass misrepresentation at the exact centre point of its meaning, where the incisions are made. It seems inconceivable that we are faced here with an unfortunate blunder. Rather, I believe that there was deliberate intent behind this flaw in the composition. That unshapely hand signifies the violence that has been done to Aris Kindt. It is with him, the victim, and not the Guild that gave Rembrandt his commission, that the painter identifies. His gaze alone is free of Cartesian rigidity. He alone sees that greenish annihilated body, and he alone sees the shadow in the half-open mouth and over the dead man’s eyes.
Identifying with a dead man is a strange enough gesture, yet it is matched in audacity by the claim that, of all the intellects there, only Rembrandt could see beyond the mind/body duality. But more yet!—that he, the artist, is the only one to see the body as human, that humanity consists of more than as what science and religion can interpret it. Per Sebald, we see it here in Rembrandt’s gaze—which might just be available to anyone who looks at his painting as did Sebald.
It is this gaze, crashing through rationality as much as it crashes through the bounds of mortality, which characterizes Sebald’s omnivorous books. It is a logic that speaks of subversion and revision, that makes new again a work of art made moribund by acres of erudition. It does this with the simple audacity and calm confidence of a writer who will simply point out what is standing right before him, yet to which we have all become blinded.
It is ironic that we still require writers of Sebald’s caliber to gaze for us. We live in a world more obsessed with images than ever before. We are all such well-trained, persistent gazers—why do we not see these things too? With the blob-like absorption of Western culture by reproductive technologies, we are finally capable of realizing our love of all things visual. It is an affair that has been long in consummation: we might recall that, for centuries before common people could read the Bible, the key myths were communicated by art created by the greatest geniuses available to civilization. As the familiar story goes, this all changed when the printing press liberated the Word—at least for the eyes of the middle class—and then words found themselves disseminated far and wide. After a good century or two on top, print was obliterated by an even greater explosion of images, beginning with the perfection of the consumer camera.
It is remarkable that the photographic medium—which, Sebald informs us, Kafka called “monstrous”—has in less than 100 years become a ubiquitous fact of life. In addition to the camera, we live with photography’s world-shaping descendants as well: television, film, and now, most of all, the Internet. They are conquerors and we live in their world; pace Kafka, what we would now find “monstrous” would be not the capacity for photography but rather the deprivation of the effortless possession of any image, whenever and wherever we want it.
The prevalence of images in our culture lends a certain flavor to the ever-present prediction of literature’s death. Although predictions of prose’s demise are easy enough to find throughout history, such claims in our era are distinguished by a common depiction of prose as the lumbering, pathetic recipient victim of the sleek, powerful image. In a world ruled by the economic values of speed, ease, and utility, the requirements of prose that we consume it slowly and laboriously are mere liabilities.
How strange then to find the last great writer’s writer from the Twentieth Century making an intimate partnership with images. Not only did Sebald place images in his books, they also thrive with text masterfully. Even more, Sebald frequently in interviews spoke of the great importance of images to his work as an author. “I believe that writing and photography are also very intimately linked with the art of recherché,” he says in one instance. “That’s something that today’s writers neglect for the most part.” This was not just a writer who could wield a clever photo—Sebald absolutely needed photography to produce the work that he did. In addition to noting photographs’ value as “aides-memoire,” Sebald used a peculiar photographic metaphor to describe Kafka’s writing, saying it had a “photographic” quality: “the smooth surface of Kafka’s work has remained an enigma in spite of what his interpreters have managed to dredge from its depth.” Sebald’s texts emulate Kafka in that smoothness of surface, recalling the smooth face of a photo.
Sebald fixed his gaze on the visual so as to almost annihilate it with the textual. This gaze is the predominant aspect of his work. Sebald developed his own unique category of gaze that could only exist in print. His camera was his pen. In print, Sebald most powerfully realizes his vacuum-like stare at everything from high art to consumerist artifacts to personal snapshots and random discards. He overcomes the very images on which he bases his work, proving the necessity of text in a culture of images. Under Sebald’s gaze, various phases of life are telescoped together, overlaid into a single presence. The texts resonate with a photograph’s uncanny power to make a reader want to draw herself into them. Take, for instance, Sebald’s description of fellow travelers waiting in the antechamber of the German consulate:
…among them a family of artistes who seemed to me to belong to an era that ended at least half a century ago. The head of this small troupe—for that was undoubtedly what they were—was wearing a white summer suit and extremely elegant canvas shoes with a brown leather trim. In his hands he was twirling a broad-rimmed straw hat of exquisite form, now clockwise, now anticlockwise. From the precision of his movements one knew that preparing an omelette on the high-wire, that sensational trick performed by the legendary Blondel, would have been mere child’s play for this grounded tightrope-walker whose true home, one felt, was the freedom of the air. Next to him sat a remarkably Nordic-looking young woman in a tailor-made suit, she too straight out of the 1930s. She sat quite still and bolt upright, her eyes shut the whole time. Not once did I see her glance up or notice the slightest twitch of her mouth. She held her head always in the same position and not a hair was out of place in her painstaking crimped coiffure.
The details that Sebald dwells upon—the “extremely elegant canvas shoes,” the “broad-rimmed canvass hat,” the “tailor-made suit” the “crimped coiffure” with “not a hair out of place”—are all details one might seize upon in a snapshot. Sebald presents these particularly photographic minutiae to get beyond the surfaces of the things he observes. They are photographic, and they pull us into the scene even as they hold us at an observational remove.
I begin this essay by dwelling on Sebald’s gaze because it is the best context for a reading of Argentine novelist Sergio Chejfec’s novel My Two Worlds. Chejfec’s publisher, Open Letter Books, has perhaps unwisely permitted this to be the first of Chejfec’s twelve works to appear in English. I say unwisely because this book, Chejfec’s latest in Spanish, is clearly a sort of summation and distillation of the decades of hard thought since (and undoubtedly before) he published his first book in 1990. Its daunting intelligence and clipped language create a situation of near-hermeticism that begs for some point of entrance. Whereas Spanish-language readers of Chejfec might turn to one of his earlier, surely less-perfected works, we who lack access to Chejfec’s Spanish works (or cannot read them) must turn to writers to whom we do have access, such as Sebald.
Make no mistake—though Chejfec’s work gains much when it is described in relation to Sebald, it is in no way derivative. Slim as it is, My Two Worlds stands on its own as a vast and complicated work of literature. The book is a substantial achievement, clearly the most interesting, original new work of literature I have read this year. The more I read this book, the more it devours me. One senses a fixed meaning at its center, but even as the book directs one’s attention toward that meaning, the reader is rushed further and further toward its constantly shifting peripheries.
My Two Worlds is a dance, a seduction that draws us right up to the palpable center and then fades away to the margin, drawing one back toward that center before fading into another marginal space—back and forth, round and round. It is that same haze of thought one feels when hovering around an idea that remains unelucidatable. Yet the book is merely Chejfec’s thoughts over the course of a walk. It is two hours of serpentine meditation, that same maddening dart and weave between significance and insignificance, transcendence and babble.
The best description for the book—one that might also be suitable for Sebald—is to call My Two Worlds a fragmentation of gazes. As with Sebald, mundane objects play a central role in provoking the narrator’s curiosity: the action of the book gets underway when, looking at his map and preparing to make his trip to the park, the narrator becomes fixated by “the great green blotch, as I called it.” On the map he sees “a small black 9 printed at the heart of the park … it strengthened my resolve to visit the park.” These are just the type of everyday, slightly obscure details that might become the object of anyone’s irrational fixation, giving the book an odd realism.
Curiosity about the mundane, of course, is a common enough quality in a writer. What distinguishes Sebald and Chejfec is how thoroughly they wed mundanities with defamiliarization, and its handmaiden, the uncanny. Sebald repeatedly demonstrates that the camera is an ideal tool for this: representations of everyday life that are at once realistic and unrealistic. Able to pause what we normally see in motion, photographs peel back motion’s invisible mask, showing us familiar things in unfamiliar ways. “I always have the feeling with photographs,” Sebald wrote, “that they exert a pull on the viewer and in this entirely enormous manner draw him out, so to speak, from the real world into an unreal world.” Chejfec likewise shows things that are only glimpsed on the margins of experience, when the mind has wandered far from the motion of normal human life. It is this speed that he at one point terms “the lethargic scale of banal discoveries.” Chejfec’s perspective is like our view when, looking at The Ambassadors, our eyes slip to the skull at the bottom of the painting.
One of these banal discoveries is discussed in the middle of the book, where Chejfec relates a short anecdote about finding a watch that runs backward in a German novelty store. Performing a characteristically modern activity—measuring time—in an uncanny way, the watch exhibits a double nature that comes to embody two tendencies core to My Two Worlds. The first is like straining to hear a murmur that we could comprehend but can never quite hear; Chejfec calls it “the ambiguity and the indifference with which reality speaks as it advances in its unbridled race toward the future.” It is seen in the watch’s indifference as it counts off each second in its disturbing, backward manner. The second tendency that the watch contains is “that unique zone where history was linked to a zone of my own identity”—as if, looking at a photograph in a history book, we suddenly recognize an uncle years younger than we ever knew him to be. This tendency is evoked by the way the canny and the uncanny are neatly unified in the backward sweep of the watch. This backward sweep stands at the center of My Two Worlds, a book that unfolds “in real time,” yet that constantly undercuts that sense of time as we normally experience it by imbricating it with uncanniness.
The strength of Chejfec’s gaze on the backward watch is typical of the gaze he brings to bear throughout My Two Worlds, making each item and interaction, no matter how mass-produced and common to everyday life, feel wholly its own. This sensation of singularity is related Chejfec’s special attention to the great idiosyncrasy that objects attain when they become our possessions. Discussing the backward watch, Chejfec parodies the idea of passing down such a device to his uncomprehending next of kin—who but its owner would understand what the watch means? He contrasts leaving the backwards watch with bequeathing a cigarette lighter and ivory binoculars, items that are easier to situate as new possessions and gifts.
Chejfec writes that they “offer no lessons, despite being excellent heirlooms.” As opposed to the backwards watch, whatever knowledge these objects might possess will be granted by their owners. Pondering the lighter, Chejfec concludes that such objects “conceal the history they have witnessed” and that “an entire industry has sprung up around making what’s silent speak.” In this way Chejfec touches on a concern central to both My Two Worlds and the postmodern reality it depicts: the ways in which the gaze—and thus our memory, our comprehension—has become subject to standardization and mechanization as images and memory have entered the realm of mass production and dissemination.
In contrast to this reified, institutionalized variety of memory stands Chejfec, who gives voice to what is silent throughout My Two Worlds in a way that resists becoming too concrete. Chejfec will gaze, but his gaze will be of the kind that cannot be mass-produced. This idea is made flesh late in the novel when Chejfec admits to his obsession with the artist William Kentridge, who places into his paintings dotted lines that emanate from his subjects’ eyes, representing “the gaze in the process of continuous renewal.” He continues, comparing himself to one of Kentridge’s subjects, saying he feels like
someone versatile set adrift in history and the course of the economy, but at the same time exaggeratedly indolent in the face of what surrounds him, things or individuals, to the point where he succumbs with no sense of shock to the consequences, at times definitive, of his actions.
As with Kentridge’s subjects, Chejfec at once feels himself devouring the capitalistic world through his gaze and yet equally devoured by that world. It is this transit between the outside and the inside of this gaze from which My Two Worlds derives its title, and which Chejfec evokes as he describes his meandering through the park. We begin to wonder, Which world better represents the truth? It is an uncertainty that Chejfec magnifies by continually letting his reminisces die off just before reaching a conclusive statement of their significance.
The cumulative effect of the book’s style is to make memory into a living thing: that final, unstated conclusion only exists in the act of reminiscing, and memory’s transcription onto the page necessarily lacks that final element.
The past, like myself an itinerant, acted like a meander, with no precise, let alone predetermined, direction, which could absorb all our free time, or might simply leave us cold. What’s more, like a sleep walker who’s forgotten his dream and doesn’t know whether he’s awake.
My Two Worlds achieves a sort of apotheosis of defamiliarization in a pivotal scene when Chejfec narrates the terror of being gazed at by animals. Toward the end of the book he is walking along the park’s lake when he notices that he has attracted a group of fish and turtles, who stare at him in rapt attention. “I found it impossible that this situation should be occurring,” he writes, “and nevertheless that’s what was happening.” He covers his face with his hands “to hide myself,” but then imagines that a human observer would mistakenly think he was “weeping.” Finally, he comes up with an absurd conclusion to this experience:
I knelt before the water as a means of getting out of the situation. My plan was to lift my hands suddenly from my face and give them a scare; once they’d been frightened off I’d go on my way as if nothing had happened. But it didn’t work. I waited a short while, the silence growing predictably deeper, and then all of a sudden I threw open my arms, gave a shout, leaned still farther over the water, and attempted to make a scary face. The front rows of the orchestra didn’t blink, as if each one of them had been sure of what to expect. Nothing was keeping me from turning my back on them and returning to the path, but we’d established a communication, and I didn’t want to be the one to put an end to it. Finally the solution came from someone also natural to the lake. First I noticed the waters roiling, and my audience as well; afterward I found out it was caused by a swan passing, though making its way relatively slowly. On board rode a father with his daughter, or so I imagined.
Although Chejfec experiences several instances of miscommunication with fellow humans in My Two Worlds, this one with animals is of a different character entirely. He goes beyond the boundaries of normal adult interaction; he treats these animals as one might a child, yet he is also threatened by them as an adult never would be by a child. This mundane void so commonly overlooked—the constant gaze of animals into our daily lives (matched in its ubiquity only by the unceasing gaze of the state)—is here made palpable by Chejfec in all its impossibility. It sits uneasily alongside the other subjectivities that dominate our daily lives—of the past and of other humans—to which we of course feel more entitled to supply answers. Chejfec does attempt to penetrate all of these subjectivities throughout My Two Worlds, but the purposely provisional, ironic nature of these depictions indicates that deep down Chejfec knows that they are all finally impossible to discern.
Chejfec uses the gaze of virtually any thing as a springboard for reflection. He links these gazes to contemplation, even writing that the light our eyes absorb when we gaze at something shows, “contemplation can itself become material.” My Two Worlds generates a panoply of linked theories from this single, simple action that its narrator unceasingly performs.
It is, of course, our destiny as denizens of the postmodern world to gaze. But how often do we ask: why do we gaze? What are we really looking at? My Two Worlds is written as though the idea of the gaze had become a concrete thing, taken on its own reality, and become conscious of itself—had become capable of asking itself just these questions. And I believe Chejfec is headed somewhere with his answer.
What Sebald and Chejfec have most strongly in common is the point where their gaze leads, toward something that Kafka called the “indestructible.” In The Western Canon, Harold Bloom equates this indestructible with “the spiritual center in Kafka,” or, more expansively, “a personal god … a metaphor for one’s sense of indestructibility, a sense that unifies us despite ourselves.” Drawing on Kafka’s aphorisms, Bloom has Kafka define the indestructible thus:
Believing means liberating the indestructible element in oneself, or more accurately, being indestructible, or more accurately, being.
Man cannot live without a permanent trust in something indestructible in himself, though both the indestructible element and the trust may remain permanently hidden from him. One of the ways in which this hiddenness can express itself is through faith in a personal god.
Sebald and Chejfec both express an undeniable belief in that indestructible element, that core, despite living in times that do everything to persuade them that only peripheries exist. Theirs is a search for truth despite the knowledge that truth is not of this world. They bravely reason their way out of Beckett’s abyss with those instruments of futility, irony and ellipticism. Sebald and Chejfec’s common drive toward the indestructible begin with a vague sense of discomfiture, pushing them toward a hidden aspect of themselves. They are scarcely aware of the indestructible’s presence in their lives until some minor incident ruptures their calm existence, soon taking on the force of pathology. Chejfec writes of his ambitions to find “a place where a person, moved by who knows what kind of distractions, withdraws, turns into a nobody, and ends up being vague,” to “discover an important book … that would allow me entrée into a rather difficult and half-guarded store of knowledge.” This sense of becoming nobody, of being vague, of discovering the knowledge that no one thinks to guard, is to look for a realm of suggestion. Objects start to appear not seen as they usually are but rather skewed, as though seen from a tangential gaze that only strikes them in the most obscure places.
My Two Worlds can be looked at as a series of such tangential readings of everyday occurrences in the life of one postmodern subject. It is the realism of the distracted, determined mind, of those two hours we have all spent obsessing over some matter that turns everything we encounter into another aspect of it. Chejfec bravely reveals to us a world seen all askew, wherein we will gaze at everyday objects, and perhaps glimpse their invisible, indestructible core. Reading this book is an indoctrination into this logic, showing for a short time a world of Kafka’s infinitely deep “smooth surfaces”—a necessary meditation in any time, and perhaps more than most in these days.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation, a magazine of literary criticism and essays. He also writes regularly on literary fiction for a wide range of publications.