“BLESTON:A MANCUNIAN CANTICAL”(SEBALD “ACROSS THE LAND AND WATER”, TRANS GALBRAITH, 2011):AN EXPLORATION, BY STEVEN BENSON

From 1966-68 Sebald was an Assistant Teacher at Manchester University. I have written my OWN response to his experience of Manchesterhttps://decayetude.wordpress.com/2012/04/29/two-sebaldian-poems1-dark-satanic-mills/, his experience being detailed in the Max {sic!Sebald was known to his friends as Max}Ferber section of “The Emmigrants” and the last part of “After Nature”(“Dark night sallies forth”). At this time it is documented (in “Saturns Moons” ed Caitling et al)how Sebald would read Michel Butor’s novel “L’Emploi du Temps”(translated as “Passing Time”, 1956)which, amongst other things, is about Butor’s experience also as a Teaching Assistant at Manchester University(1956-8), and where Bleston appears as the name for Manchester. There is an excellent blog on Butor, Sebald, music, time and space and related issues athttp://cathannabel.wordpress.com/about/#comment-539

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Part 1:”Fete Nocturne”

Sebald’s usual precoccupations arise immediately:

1. Death and what happens/doesnt happen thereafter(“Now that death is all of life”)

2. Nocturama(night-time animal/bird life, cf near opening of “Austerlitz”){“The starlings have forgotten their old life../Staying in Bleston all winter”})

3.A “mute” world of shadows and wraith like images, which are “shuttered”, that is, not quite real/alive(a metaphor which very often recurs in Sebald, such as also exists in the maze-like physical{mirroring psychological} lostness of the sebaldian narrator’s walk across Dunwich Heath in “Rings of Saturn” later). “And without image” could be a reference to the doppelganger, which has no reflection/image in a mirror;and to the idea of Benjamin of the photographic “capture”, which purports to “capture” forever a lost moment in time; but here there is a capture/”capture” of NOTHING. The months are “lifeless and the trees “sootcovered”. The usual psychogeographical link is made:these starlings are “screaming at night in the heart/In the brain of the city huddled together” and “sleepless”(Co-incidentally, there is a reference to the old Lewis’s department store warehouse, Lewis’s having had till 2001 a branch in Manchester:I have a post on the last remaining Lewis’s, with “captures”,as it died, in 2010 herehttps://decayetude.wordpress.com/2010/06/29/desuetudeimages-and-text-on-decay-and-memory-inspired-by-sebald-and-the-death-of-a-department-store/ ). So the city has, metaphorically, human attributes, which lead to the characteristic sebaldian feeeling of malaise and uneasiness and occlusion of the personality, as an implied(via metaphor) mirror of the darkness of the (external), geographical city.

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Part 2. Concensus Omnium.

The theme of dark abandonment persist here(a “blank” and “foresaken place”). There may be a conscious/ unconscious reference to TS Eliot here, in regard to the latter’s timeless Rose Garden in “Four Quartets”(opening of “Burnt Norton”), a dead rose having already been introduced in part 1:”Bleston knows an hour/Between summer and winter/Which never passes and that/Is my plan for a time/Without beginning or end”; this could be Eliot’s still point of the turning world too. However, it is not at all Eliot’s Edenesque vision of eternity/outside time here: “All we experience/Becomes bitter{sic} Bleston”

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Part 3:”The sound of Music”

Sebald here, implicitly, introduces his theme of how little “right” has he , compared to those who have suffered atrocities and been persecuted(“the history/Of  torture a travers les ages”), with hidden early reference to the inexpessible, limitless suffering of those caught up in the Holocaust(as usual, an oblique reference); there is guilt at allowing oneself to experience ONE’S OWN sadness(“whose right it really is “). Again, everything is “defunct”;”The mere shadow of a feast-day phantom”; “burnt husks”(Again a conscious or unconscious reference to Eliot’s “burnt -out ends of smoky Days”??). We somehow do not believe “the sick are /Miraculously healed” in this God/god-forsaken place(the “ships waiting in the fog”).

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Part 4. “Lingua Morta”{“Language of the Dead”}

This section is especially reference-laden, a precursor to the consciously ironic and playful last section; we are, indeed, in danger of being “lost in the filaments” of obscure references and the traps of language (Eliot’s “slippery words”). The title obviously continues the pre-occupation with  a spectral, shadowy, dark, even dead, city, reflecting back, externally, the poetic narrator’s own INNER derelict psychological condition,though this is not as overt as in the later wasteland spaces of the occasion when the sebaldian narrator gets lost in the labarynth that is Dunwich Heath(“Rings of Saturn”).

This new theme of the maze of words(“fil d’ariane”,”Ariane’s thread”), an echo of Butor’s novel, with which Sebald was concerned  at the time (see references to it in “Saturns Moons”, ed Caitling et al, 2011); where , to Butor, the labarynth is the maze of words and also of his fighting to escape from Manchester(Bleston).There are two references to revenants, again a major pre-occupation of Sebald’s in his prose fiction: 1. “Kebad Kenya” refers to soemone who, as a revenant, takes possession of other men’s bodies.2. “opgekilte schottns” are frozen shadows(tellingly, probably from the Yiddish, with disturbing associations of concentration camp corpses or inmates, subject to unspeakable tortures); but also, according to Galbraith, (in his notes to his translation,p.179)”revenant murderous shadows”. So Bleston is not only dark and unwelcoming and full of wraiths but these shadow-dwellers are vengeful, and this adds to the growing feeling of menace.The MICROcosm of Sebald’s(or at least the poetic sebaldian narrator’s) and Butor’s  experiences of Bleston/Manchester extrapolates outwards, MACROcosmically, into a typically (but early)sebaldian meditation on “the natural history of {human-caused} destruction”(“If the years of all humanity lay/Strewn about him in their thousands debris”). See also my post on Eric Santner’s hypothesis,in ” On creaturely Life:Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald”(2006), developed by myself,(herehttps://decayetude.wordpress.com/2012/02/05/thanks-to-eric-l-santneron-the-sebaldian-narators-repressed-homoeroticism-homosexual-panic-and-natural-catastrophecatastrophization/): that catastrophe in Sebald is on both a global scale and on an inner psychological scale, and relates to, firstly, the sebaldian narrators’ concern for, but also sometimes identification WITH, marginalized and persecuted groups, especially homosexuals and Jews and Jewish homosexuals; the implications of which (Santner and I discuss) are strongly indicative of Freud’s theory that outer obsession with catastrophe and dereliction and destruction is, in essence, a sublimation of unexpressed homoerotic desires in both the characters/”characters”(they often merely MIRROR the narrator) AND in the sebaldian narrator himself-though sometimes,like the Cosmo and Ambros story(in the later “Emmigrants”. 1993) the characters’ sexuality is, presumably, expressed and actualised, but at the cost of social ostracisation at the least and persecution and/or death, at the worst. This disturbing psychological underlay is oddly present through many of the sebaldian narratives and, in fact, seems one of the most connecting, overarching of the many threads, in my opinion.

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Part 5 Perdu dans ces filamants(“Lost in these traces/filaments”)

Well, here Sebald is playful, in his characteristically doleful manner!The title is a quotation from “L’emploi du Temps”(itself probably a reference to Proust and “A la recherche du temps perdu”; or an anti-reference, if time can’t be regained, if, even via memory, it just passes/vanishes), translated as “Passing Time”, by Michel Butor, where it refers, in its literal meaning, to a virus lost amongst its own branches; and the feeling of abandonment(“foresakeness”) is re-inforced by the  part quotation “Eli, ELi”( from “Eloi, eloi,lama sabachthani”{“My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?”, Mark 15:34.}). Next, we have an anti-peaen  to Bleston’s libraries where even a “World Bibliography of Bibliographies”, Sebald ironically says, cannnot furnish a solution to the word’s terrible problems(of man’s destruction of man). Sebald then quotes Adorno, in turn quoting Pascal(thanks again to Iain Galbraith’s invaluably elucidatory notes): “On ne doit plus dormir”-“It is not possible to sleep any longer”), that is, after all the atrocities committed throughout the centuries of man’s inhabitation of this planet. Books are not the solution, despite their accumulated attempts at wisdom. Also, there is an implicit refernce here, I believe, to the Nazi’s burning of books by “unacceptable” writers(“A revision of all books at the core/Of the volcano has long been overdue”). There is a further reference to Benjamin: his famous “Angel of History” who tries to look, positively, into the future, but is simultaneously dragged back into the horrific past (cf Adorno’s “negative dialectics” and Benjamins “interregnum” where we need time to reflect to stop the merciless dialectic of history and to change direction): “No glance back to the future survives”. And we end with a musical lament:”Flutes of death for Bleston”

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This longer poem, and many of the shorter ones, in this posthumous and masterly translation by Galbraith, are very beautiful. The translation is so redolent, it can almost stand alone as an independent work of art.

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Comments and your own interpretation of any of the poems in “Across the Land and The Water” very welcome!

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Published by: decayetude

ENTHUSIASMS: CLASSICAL MUSIC, ESPECIALLY OBSCURE ROMANTIC COMPOSERS; BACH/HANDEL LITERATURE, ESPECIALLY THOUGHTFUL, WELL-WRITTEN(STYLISTICALLY)NOVELS W G SEBALD WALTER BENJAMIN THEODOR ADORNO(JUST BEGINNING!) AESTHETIC PHILOSOPHY GAY MEN'S WRITING;QUEER THEORY STIMULATING DISCUSSIONS(EMOTIONALLY AND INTELLECTUALLY) GOOD RICH THICK ESPRESSO MICHAEL PONTI SPRITUALITY/LIFE'S "AURA"(BENJAMIN), WHATEVER TRANSCENDENTAL THING YOU WANT TO CALL THIS MEMORY-the elusiveness thereof. LOST TIME AND AN ATTEMPT AT ITS REDEMPTION(NON THEISTICALLY/RELIGIOUSLY)

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