The mysterious mystery of Sebald’s success

November 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Rings of Saturn do get better for me in the second half — first, when they begin to cover subjects I am not familiar with (e.g. Chateaubriand) — which explains perhaps why people love the first three chapters while I did not:  pop non-fiction has its place, but this is largely limited to novelty:  if you’re not learning, you’ll be bored. (This mechanism was at work as I read Herbert‘s travelogues:  I found his Holland mildly interesting, precisely because it is a country I do not know; but his Siena seemed dull because I do know it and the author gave me absolutely nothing I new).  So, OK, Swinburne, Chateaubriand, why not.

Second, The Rings begin to deliver original material — however scant — like the bit on Anglo-Irish landlords gone to ruin and dazed by what had happened to them, which is very touching and well written, even if the bit seems uncomfortably oddly misplaced (it can’t in any way be part of the “digressive geography of SE English coastline”, a la Pausanias, which the book clearly attempts to be).

And, finally, there is one bit of very good prose writing: the section describing the uprooting of ancient trees in a historical park by a freak hurricane; though, again, it isn’t clear who is speaking, and whether… the prose is actually Sebald’s.  (Tricly W. G.!)

In the end, I suppose, the book is like Vermeer’s Hat, certainly not better but not much worse, except for its haphazard structure:  Vermeer’s Hat at least tries to pretend its various anecdotes are somehow connected; and they are no worse than Sebald’s — the story of a fat, gross man, a mean, bossy, corrupt official, a Portuguese shipwreck somewhere on the wild coast of Mozambique ca. 1620, being abandoned by his porters to fend for himself in the bush is a priceless jewel and one a lot more obscure than Sebald’s digressions most of which could be gleaned from Wikipedia.  (The value of facts, like value of earths, is directly proportional to their rarity).

Yet, Timothy Brook isn’t slated to become a literary hero.  Why?  Is it because he didn’t pretend to be writing fiction?

What is the reason for Sebald’s success?  Why Sebald and not — Brook?


The dead hand of the market

May 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

How does a dullard like Pollini get to win the Chopin competition and go on to make an international career recording absolutely everything, all in the same colorless, soporific manner; with that signature 3D — dull, dead, and dreary — brassy sound of his; while an absolute genius like Drzewiecki gets to tour… Portugal and teach in… Bydgoszcz.  And Amazon — the long tail business, hain? — does not even carry his Etudes?

The People At The Party

May 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

The people at the party were not what Grandma would have called the better sort; rather they were — “successful and rich”.  I knew that.  What they wanted to know, each in turn, was where I lived and what my job was.  In other words, they wanted to know whether I was successful and rich.

But they went about asking the wrong way; and if you ask a dumb question, you get a dumb answer.

And thus:  where do you live, they asked, and when I said where, they could not place it on their mental map.  Their map lacked the location, they didn’t understand the reference, couldn’t decode the message. I wasn’t going to enlighten them:  god forbid, should one or two discover the place and move next door? Not likely, as the place is unfamous, but am I prepared to run the risk?

Then what do you do they asked, and when I said translate, again they didn’t understand.  Does translation pay? I could see themselves wondering.  (Two actually did ask it. No, I replied honestly).  But what they should have asked themselves was: do some people, perhaps, occupy their time with translation because their income is elsewhere?

It might seem self-evident to you that the truly rich person is the one who does not have a job.  Thus, when someone tells you that they do nothing, it may be that he is an unemployed bum, but it could also be that he is independently wealthy. But when a person asks you what you do for a living, and hearing “nothing” imagines you’re a lost soul, they betray the fact that, well, they haven’t yet figured it out.  Existence does define awareness:  generally, the working class can hardly see beyond the cotton spinner which they are busily working during their 18 hour days.  The cotton spinner is very large, you see, — it completely obstructs the view; and it has so many moving parts:  one can hardly keep up with them all, let alone get around to fancy stuff like speculating about other life forms.

And the people at the party were all working class.  Paid lots and lots, but cotton-spinners all the same.

Tellingly, they did not ask me what I drove:  they could see I arrived by taxi.  Poor buggerer, wheel-less, splurged in order to come see dear us, they thought, not knowing that taxi is some people’s preferred form of transport.  Public transport with guaranteed seats.

I did not ask them where they lived — no one there seemed to have the requisite imagination to live in an interesting place; nor what they did for a living — a certain kind of man, a man in a certain economic situation, has no need of networking.  What I wanted to know was what had happened to a sixteenth-century Chinese twelve-panel painted lacquer screen that it got divided in two, one half ending up at the Oriental Museum, the other in the hands of a Sr. Albuquerque; and who Sr. Albuquerque was and what else he collected; and why some Portuguese tiles feature Polish noblemen on horseback; which modern Portuguese do not know, imagining the representation to be of a Turk or a Hindoo.

Regarding these things, of course, no one there had any clue.

They did seem pretty knowledgeable about business class airport lounges, however; and talked about them animatedly, as truck drivers might talk about pit-stops.  Which is, of course, what the people at the party were:  truck drivers-class, only with a somewhat higher pay.

To be entirely fair to truck drivers, though, when they talk about pit-stops, they do not think to impress anyone.

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