Monday, May 02, 2005

Sebald's Austerlitz, and Goats.

W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz is one of the best books I have ever read.
It tells the story of a man who goes in quest of his beginnings. In search of some clues as to the identity of his birth parents. I loved the story, on many levels.
But I do think that much of my fascination with it comes down to the emphasis in the book on the relationship between the realms of being dead and alive… I mean, this Austerlitz guy thinks a lot along the same lines as I do on this issue of the dead not being really dead (as in, annihilated). I have always felt that we will never be more alive, than when we are dead.

As he says, "When space becomes too cramped, the dead, like the living, move out into less densely populated districts where they can rest at a decent distance from each other."

Ah… there is a ton of this kind of stuff in the novel. And I won’t go on about it, because it’s so spooky and weird, and really, I am highly recommending here that you read the novel yourself.
It is a book about time, and more specifically, about continuity. The irretrievable aspect of the past.
Being "cut off from the past and the future" (p.101) we have only the present.
But, if we have only the present, we are disconnected. Austerlitz (the character) says he feels that no matter what he talks about, it arouses in him "a sense of disjunction" (p.109). His sense of time is so other-worldly that he doesn’t even bother to own a clock! For Austerlitz, the past is not "fixed." He says, "Past events have not yet occurred but are waiting to do so at the moment when we think of them."

This is why when he pictures the possible re-appearance of his parents, they are not at their actual current chronological age, but at a sort-of perfect optimal age ("mid-thirties at the most") p.185. There are laws governing the return of the past (recollection) but "we don’t understand them."
I love ruminating upon the kind of things that Sebald loved writing about. [Sadly, Sebald died in a car accident on Dec.14, 2001].
I feasted on Austerlitz!
For those of you who have looked at his books, you will know that Sebald uses black and white photographs as reference points in his work. It is fabulous. Pictures that always have just enough mystery locked into them that you find yourself staring and not knowing why you continue to do so. They contain just enough nuance to not really answer anything, and yet they add to the storyline and aid in the overall emotive quality... you feel the pictures.

I met a really nice girl as a result of reading Austerlitz in a public place!
It was because of one of these pictures.

I'm sitting there at a mega-bookstore (you know what I mean.... the type of place where you can get the best coffee ever, sit and read your book, AND get the oil changed in your car all at the same time???)... anyhoo, I'm sitting there reading Austerlitz when I come across a passage en francais and my various conjugations of "ouvrez la porte" and "fermez le fenetre" and “splash du jour” are just not helping me at all....
Over to my right, at the same long table in which I'm sitting, there is a girl studying anesthesiology. Books splayed all over the table. Right away, I realize she is more intelligent than I... so I ask her, "Do you read French?"
She does.
I ask "Can you tell me what this is saying?" and I show her the passage on page 264, which says "a travers une breche d'incomprehension."

She is stumped by this word "breche."
I am stumped by the entire sentence.
On the same page is a picture of a herd of deer imprisoned behind an enclosure...they are in a zoo! And they are looking outward toward the photographer through the wire-mesh fence.
The girl gets up from the table and runs off to the French/English Dictionary section of the store and she returns and tells me...
"In the context of what is being said here, the author is suggesting that the caged animals in the zoo look at us as though we too are imprisoned or unable to be free, and they find this hard to comprehend."
I thanked her and went on with Austerlitz. She went on with her anesthesiology book.

But the thought of those imprisoned deer continued to impress itself upon me. As Sebald intended (I’m sure)... I kept staring at the photograph.
I wondered what my cat thinks when I go to work.
Seriously though. Every morning, coffee in hand, I step across the threshold and shut the door and lock it.
My cat probably thinks I spend all day out there in the hallway! Absolutely no comprehension of an entire world outside of this apartment where he and I live.
In his case, I think he is quite content in his cute-as-hell ignorance. But when it comes to wild animals, no. I do not think they should be penned up. I mean, zoos are fun and all, (for us visitors) and I suppose they are educationally necessary, but generally, I think it is quite mean to put the genuine beasts behind bars.

I once met a wild mountain goat.
It was the earliest morning of my life, an Easter morning. Easter Sunday.
So I am driving along this windy mountain edge, you know what I mean? In the Rockies. The sort of place where if you drove off the edge some hiker would find you down there about sixteen years later. And by then you would have ferns growing out of your eye sockets type thing. Yeah. So, as I drive around this bend, there is all of a sudden this bunch of wild mountain goats sort of browsing along the road, on the mountain side of the road.... and I nearly died for the beauty of it. So I stopped, and most of them sort of clambered away. But this one just looked at me with his slanty eyes and walked up to my car.
He looked for all the world like he was going to ask me for my driver’s license and registration. My window was already down of course, and here this beast was so close I could have touched him. I wished that I had some food for him but I had nothing but a coffee and a muffin wrapper. He just stared at me like I too was part of the scenery. Soon I realized I had to move on... plus I am like right on the highway in a car and not moving (there was like zero traffic).... so I started to drive real slow like, and Mr. Goat here just began to trot alongside me. Right on the highway. It was funny as hell. I will never forget it as long as I live, the little puffs of goatsteam coming out of his mouth as he kept pace with my Oldsmobile.
It was like we were lovers and she [she, all of a sudden he is a she, did you catch that? As though its actual gonadular apparatus changed in response to my fantasy thoughts, is that narcissistic of me or what?] is running alongside the bus as I am being taken off to war..... [I get so romantic about these things] like as though she was saying "Write me... (puff) I love you (puff) I will... (puff)... miss you" as the bus speeds away and her nails scratch all the way down the side of it.... when in REALITY.... here is probably what is closer to the musical truth... here are the real goat-thoughts.....

"Just a... (puff)... crust of a (puff) sandwich or muffin (puff)... even Doritos....(puff, puff) any (puff) Doritos in there? I (puff puff) love Doritos."
And even if this goat was not in ACTUAL love with me it was still a holy moment I will never forget.

The moral of this story is twofold.
# 1) Read Sebald’s Austerlitz.
# 2) When driving through the Rocky Mountains, keep a bag of goat-chow nearby.


Merisi said...

Austerlitz forever!
I' want to quote the whole book, and right now you put me in a serious conflict: feed my very present loved ones lunch, or read Austerlitz. Again. You haven't mentioned the architecture. Remember the trains station sequences? Right out of Kafka, but drawn by the Sebaldian magic wand.
I walked and walked my dog in this glorious Sunday morning, air so clean and light so brilliant, raindrops still on the blossoms from 48 hours of non-stop rain. Sebald would have loved it.
Remember "Camposanto"?
Have a great Sunday,

Cipriano said...

DO NOT FEED ANYONE! [Even goats!]

Yes, my goal is to read everything Sebaldian!
I really want to get to The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn!