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Home » Archives for February 2012
February 16, 2012
February 01, 2012
On the back cover of my copy of W.G. Sebald's novel Austerlitz Susan Sontag muses “Is literary greatness still possible? What would a noble literary enterprise look like? One of the few answers still available to English-language readers is the work of W.G. Sebald.”
"Oh Susan!" I wanted to say. "Only a cultural grande dame like you could lay it out so beautifully". I felt bad, I confess, for how I laughed during the scene in that great modern-classic baseball flick Bull Durham where the scotch-drinking, hard-hitting, old-time baseball player Crash Davis recites his man credo to Susan Sarandon, sexy in décolleté and jangly bracelets and fresh from a listen of her Edith Piaf album (on vinyl). He believes AstroTurf should be outlawed and that Christmas presents should be opened on Christmas morning and not Christmas Eve, and "I believe the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent overrated crap!" I giggled. I was the owner of a copy of The Volcano Lover at the time.
But if Susan Sontag seemed incapable of casting a lucid eye on her own fiction (and not just her written fiction -- I think of how, dying, she created a universe in which anyone wishing to be close to her had to conform to the laws of the Sontagian system which did not admit talking or thinking about death, a harrowing experience her son David Rieff described with much thought and much pain in his memoir Swimming in a sea of death), the cultural criticism she performed throughout her life was impeccable. As with her thirty words on the Austerlitz cover, which for me capture the essence of what it means to read W.G. Sebald, the author who believed above all in "the carefully composed page", and who, sadly, died after writing four brilliant novels, at what might have been the top of his game, or maybe, probably, with the top still to come, in a car crash most likely caused by a heart attack (he swerved into the path of a truck, with his daughter in the car with him), ten years ago last month.
“I don’t know where it comes from but I like to listen to people who have been sidelined for one reason or another, because when they start to talk they tell you things you won’t hear from anyone else,” he says in a wonderful podcast on the “Bookworm” programme. In a rich, musical voice, rolling his r’s, Sebald talks about the literature which had been important for him, like “Virchinia Woolf” – he remembers a passage in a Woolf novel "Two pages only. A moth coming to its death on a windowpane in Sussex. No mention of the battlefields of the Somme.” Even if that was clearly what it was all about.
He talks about being inspired by 19th century German writers to whom the quality of their prose was more important than social commentary or plot, unlike, say, the 19th century French novel, and names two of them, both unknown to me, but not to the interviewer, who releases an ecstatic sigh at the sound of the names – it’s possibly worth listening to just for this moment out of "Saturday Night Live" -- who “like me are from the periphery of the German-speaking lands”. I love the way he says “the periphery”. Who talks like that anymore?
When I did finally start Austerlitz, I'd just been to Prague, where in a public garden we had come across a series of huge panels displaying photographs of the "Winton Train", a special train honouring Nicholas Winton, the organiser of the Kindertransport trains which had brought Jewish children out of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to safety in England. On the 70th anniversary of the date the last Kindertransport was to have departed Prague, in September 1939 -- I guess the date will tell you why it didn't -- the Winton train, drawn by a 1930s locomotive, travelled along the same route it would have taken, with some of the original "Winton's children" aboard, now in their eighties. It was met at Liverpool Station by Nicholas Winton himself, aged 100.
And guess what, the protagonist of Austerlitz, it turns out, is Jacques Austerlitz, who as a child had been sent to Britain on the last Kindertransport and raised in a dour Calvinist family in Wales, all the while retaining flickering memories of his Czech childhood, and who is eventually compelled to travel to Prague looking for an answer to the enigma of who he had been, what had happened.
Of course, as Sebald never tired of pointing out, it is all of Europe which should be asking the question. In an unforgettable scene near the end of the book, Austerlitz is standing in one of the towers of the babylonian-modern Bibliothèque Nationale, the French national library, repository of all that is published in France, as a friend describes how the ground the tower is built on had once held the warehouses where the Nazis stored the loot stolen from the 40,000 homes of the deported Paris Jews, everything that civilisation had ever produced, he says, down to boxes of rosin taken from the cases of confiscated violins.
One of the other things Sebald dwells on in his writing is time. I tend to live very much in the present, but -- or maybe because of that -- I always get a delicious yearning feeling when I read what other people less firmly rooted in the present have to say on the subject of time past or passing. I loved the scene where Austerlitz visits The Royal Observatory at Greenwich, the temple of timekeeping, and says that he hopes “that time will not pass away, has not passed away, that I can turn back and go behind it, and there I shall find everything as it once was or more precisely I shall find that all moments of time have co-existed simultaneously, in which case none of what history tells us would be true…”
On the tenth anniversary of W.G. Sebald's death, last month, I had finished Austerlitz and was reading Vertigo (which, after hearing the podcast I like to pronounce Vare-ti-go, not Vurr-ti-go, just as I now say "Say-bald" instead of "See-bald"), with its wonderful Kafka-inspired story "Dr. K. takes the waters at Riva". In the UK, where Sebald lived for thirty years - and died, filmmaker Grant Gee was getting ready to release his film Patience (After Sebald), inspired by Sebald's book The Rings of Saturn, which consists of a description of a long walk (Sebald loved long walks) around Suffolk, and the various tangents his thoughts went off on as he tramped.
Here is the trailer for the film, just uploaded to youtube by Soda Pictures, according to whom it is "coming soon".
In the meantime, people say that The Rings of Saturn is one of the best books to start reading W.G. Sebald with.
The emigrants by WG Sebald (1992, translated 2003)
The rings of Saturn by WG Sebald (1998)
Vertigo by WG Sebald (2000)
Austerlitz by WG Sebald (2001)
Swimming in a sea of death by David Rieff