Saturday, June 12, 2010

`The Quirky Treasure-House of His Mind'

A reader in New York City shares a fantasy I harbor:

“I've often thought I could be very happy in a tiny room big enough for bookshelves and little else.”

What do we need but light, food and drink, something to write with and a few carefully parsed books? Somewhere Henry Miller says we don’t own things, they own us, and that’s not always an unhappy arrangement. I’m content to own and be owned by Religio Medici, Boswell’s Life of Johnson and Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Poems.

Another reader, this one in British Columbia, has sent me a copy of The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald (2007) edited by Lynne Sharon Schwartz. I still sometimes forget, after eight and a half years, that Sebald is dead. He was the last living writer whose arrival (The Emigrants appeared in English in 1996) came as a revelation, a reminder that literature can still matter. We’ve subsequently lost Saul Bellow, Guy Davenport and Anthony Hecht but I had devoted decades to them. Sebald I knew as a living presence for only five years.

Included in Schwartz’s volume is “Crossing Boundaries,” Arthur Lubow’s account of his meeting with Sebald four months before the German’s death. Lubow writes:

“…the joy of reading Sebald is the pleasure of stepping into the quirky treasure-house of his mind. `I don’t consider myself a writer,’ he said. `It’s like someone who builds a model of the Eiffel Tower out of matchsticks. It’s a devotional work. Obsessive.’ His books are like some eighteenth-century Wunderkammer, filled with marvelous specimens, organized eccentrically.”

I love Sebald’s books which are at once contemporary and old-fashioned. So too does Kay Ryan who published “He Lit a Fire with Icicles” in the Feb. 2005 issue of Poetry and included it in The Niagara River (2005). The poem carries a dedication -- “For W.G. Sebald, 1944-2001”:

“This was the work
of St. Sebolt, one
of his miracles:
he lit a fire with
icicles. He struck
them like a steel
to flint, did St.
Sebolt. It
makes sense
only at a certain
body heat. How
cold he had
to get to learn
that ice would
burn. How cold
he had to stay.
When he could
feel his feet
he had to
back away.”

In the fourth chapter of The Rings of Saturn, Sebald mentions his visit to the grave of “my patron saint in Nuremburg” – that is, “the holy prince of heaven St Sebolt.” Sebald recounts some of the miracles his near-namesake performed:

“At Regensburg he crossed the Danube on his cloak, and there made a broken glass whole again; and, in the house of a wheelwright too mean to spare the kindling, lit a fire with icicles. This story of the burning of the frozen substance of life has, of late, meant much to me, and I wonder now whether inner coldness and desolation may not be the pre-condition for making the world believe, by a kind of fraudulent showmanship, that one’s own wretched heart is still aglow.


Dave Lull said...

Kay Ryan can be heard reading her poem here:

The Storialist said...

Ahh...I loved The Emigrants! Thanks for the Kay Ryan poem. I hadn't seen it before.