Friday, November 23, 2007

Sebald - Chapter Analysis - Part Two

My thanks to Geoff for this in-depth analysis of what Sebald is doing within chapter five:

In section five we can see why Sebald considered this work fiction. On page 104 he comes out of a dream and into a world where he half remembers a documentary on Roger Casement. What follows may appear to be a disingenuous reconstruction of something half remembered used as a tool to allow Sebald to bring Conrad and Casement into the narrative. There follows an extensive 'remembered', exact quotation from Conrad beginning 'I've seen him start off…' which could be taken at face value but is surely too precise. Sebald takes a device (a 'few' lines remembered) and stretches it's credibility for a reason. It sets the scene.

This sleight of hand eases the reader into Sebald's intention, to talk about Conrad and Casement in a way that reflects on the nature of history and reality. We're not given a reason for the decision to retell the stories but given the stimulus. In approaching Conrad, Sebald marshals his research and presents us with something approaching 'faction' - facts dramatised. At the top of 105 he imagines how Conrad would have felt. Sebald complements this with a direct intervention by Conrad - an extract from his letters, which prepares us for another 'reimagining' - leaving the family home in the Ukraine. Sebald imagines the time where Grandmother behaves 'stoically', Mama is 'inconsolable' and a cousin 'indicates horror'. What follows, Conrad's life story, for another half page is a mini historical re-enactment/historical fiction.

The historical reconstruction moves through Conrad's life with his father and at one point (page 108) becomes almost lyrical - Apollo burns his manuscripts and a 'weightless flake of soot ash like a scrap of black silk would drift through the room'. As his father dies Conrad has 'fear in his heart'. Given Sebald's dislike of sentimentality and cliché there seems at this point to be a degree of contradiction inherent in the retelling. Again on 109 Sebald makes no pretence of attempting objectivity, instead he speculates as to whether or not the funeral prompted Conrad to think of becoming a 'sea captain'.

Sebald manipulates the reader's response at this point. He has prepared Conrad to be launched on the world but delays that first with a diversionary picture (Mount Pele) and then with a digression into the life of Dona Rita who may or may not be Paula Horvath. It's as if at this point Sebald wants us to see that he is holding together both what is real (the photograph) and what is uncertain (the question of Rita's identity).

Again Sebald moves Conrad's life along but throws in an attempted 'suicide' to hold our attention before reminding us again of the overall physically journey of the book by returning us with Conrad to Lowestoft and the East Anglian coast.

As if to mark this moment of restatement on Page 114 we see again one of the book's constant preoccupations, Sebald's concern to look at the way in which life and expectations, reality and imagination are layered. Using the local papers from the time Sebald shows how Conrad's arrival in England was insignificant. Sebald shows how the world turned without him, how time changes perspectives.

Returning to Conrad's life Sebald can't resist the storyteller's urge to enliven a tale - he uses Conrad's journey home to entertain us with the story of the deaf mute with a map of the small country world in his head. In some ways this light, almost magical interlude, works to reassure the reader and leave him unprepared for Sebald's real intention in this section - to reveal man's darkness, inhumanity and depravity. What follows is a terrible indictment of the Belgian rule and exploitation, grimly mocked by Sebald on 122 where he depicts their Belgian descendants as a population blighted by ' a 'strikingly stunted growth'. He damns Belgium as a country where in a day he encountered 'more hunchbacks and lunatics than normally in a whole year'. It's as if he wants the race to be poisoned by their past. He wants us to see their spiritual sickness made physical.

At this point, Sebald wanders off into a Belgian interlude and we visit Waterloo. Here he slyly introduces us to mummers re-enacting the war. That is what Sebald had been doing in his prose. Remaking the past. To make sure we register the point he says simply, 'This then, I thought as I looked about me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective.' To make sure we dwell upon the heart of the book Sebald asks 'Are we standing on a mountain of death. Is that our ultimate vantage point?'

(Interestingly Sebald fails to connect with the battle until in his minds eye he sees 'a cannonball smash through a row of poplars'. It's not damage to people that moves him but damage to nature (126) an emotion echoed in the later storm section.

Sebald finally introduces Casement after conjuring up the picture of a contented Belgian pensioner cutting up meat. This is how people are who have forgotten the 'utterly merciless exploitation of the blacks'. Casement is someone who cannot forget. In Sebald's hands Casement becomes a tragic hero. Sebald presents Casement's lone and ineffective fight to change conditions in Africa. Equally we see in this fight the seeds of Casement's own destruction. It's inevitable that Casement, exposed and sensitised by his experience should respond so strongly to the plight of Ireland. Casement's story is not romanticised - that history is factual, objective, complemented by pictures of the man and his writing as if to say, this was real.

Only in the ending does Sebald become subjective - he draws a conclusion - Casement's own isolation as a homosexual sensitised him to the oppression of others. By being this overt Sebald demands a response from the reader. After all the facts he turns to them and asks them to make choices. Responding to history, approaching reality, is all about making choices.

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