Sebald Shakespeare and Stendhal

Sebald, Shakespeare and Stendhal in the world of `post-truth’.


Hearing that I was working on Stendhal, a colleague suggested I should read Vertigo, inadvertently reminding me of one of those secrets you only tell your doctor and that I have an allergy to Sebald.  I’ve tried all his other books and had to struggle through them.  One of the reasons must be that I hate sight-seeing and am such a poor traveller: a prime candidate for that notorious `Stendhal syndrome’ supposed to afflict those who thread their way between the highly-fortified houses on each side of some Florence street and are oppressed by the weight of cultural expectation they then find bearing down upon them.  It gives me no pleasure to be tramping round foreign cities and poring over maps, which is what the protagonists in Sebald’s books spend so much of their time doing.  It would of course be impossible to deny that he is in many ways a gifted writer, with impressive descriptive powers, especially when it comes to landscape; or that his writing is quirkily observant and not without its dull gleams of humour.  But I don’t find his various narrative personae attractive and feel that they are all suspiciously too much like one another.  Above all, however, I struggle to understand the point of the multiple items of information he imparts and find his narrative drive exceptionally sluggish.  He makes me feel like a man who is taking his morning constitutional along a very long beach and decides to walk thigh-deep in the water rather than on the sand, in order to strengthen his legs.

          All this grumbling aside, Vertigo was a good tip.  Often described as Sebald’s `first novel’, it is divided into four sections, the first of which is a potted biography of Stendhal, although one which is strangely lopsided since so many major structuring details of its subject’s life have been left out of the pot.  The opening part is an account of how, when he was only seventeen, Stendhal was a member  of an army contingent which crossed from Switzerland into Italy via the St. Bernard pass, shortly after Napoleon had made military history by doing the same thing with an army which would then go on to defeat the Austrians at Marengo in June 1800.  The main source is Stendhal’s own description of this crossing in his splendid autobiography, La vie de Henry Brulard.  The second part of the first section of Vertigo comes largely from De l’amour, inaccurately characterised by Sebald as Stendhal’s `first real advance into the world of literature’.  It describes a probably fictitious journey, with an almost certainly invented `Mme Gherardi’, around parts of Austria and Northern Italy and includes a visit to a salt mine close to Salzburg.  It is there that Stendhal is shown that when you leave a bare twig in the mine it will soon be covered in beautiful crystals, a natural phenomenon which allows him to claim that the most appropriate way to talk about falling in love is in terms of `crystallisation’.

          It seems at first puzzling why Stendhal should have figured so prominently in what can now be envisioned as the launch of Sebald’s career as a novelist.  The title of Vertigo’s first section is `Beyle, or Love is a Madness most Discreet’, a reminder of Stendhal’s family name and two of his chief interests (Shakespeare as well as love).  But the infatuation which often accompanies falling in love is hardly one of Sebald’s prime concerns in his books, and they have long descriptive passages Stendhal himself would have found tedious.  I assume this from the way he objects to descriptions of scenery in Walter Scott, claiming that they bored him and that, if he was not prepared to include that kind of writing in his own novels, it was because he was too lazy.  The one practitioner in this vein whom he did admire, was the author of The Mysteries of Udolpho although he did then add that what made the relevant passages in Mrs. Radcliffe so successful was not so much that they actually described anything but that they were like the sailor’s song which launches its listener into a world of reverie.  He thought that for the ideal travel book one would need to combine her powers of description with the elegance and refinement of the 18th century author of Letters from Italy, Charles de Brosses.  In his own four travel books, his narrative persona is witty and sprightly, two words that go a long way towards defining Sebald by negation.

          Strange as it is that Sebald should have shown so much interest in Stendhal, there are at least two ways in which he might well have found the French writer an inspiration.  La vie de Henry Brulard was not published until the 1890s so that we have no idea how its author meant it to appear; but the text he left behind is littered with sketches which are clearly intended to help him record his memories more accurately.  These are the equivalent, if not one possible origin, of those smudgy photographs in Sebald’s books which give them what I take to be their mildly avant-garde appeal and which, as far as Stendhal’s crossing of the Alps is concerned, are mostly taken from the Album Stendhal edited by V. del Litto in 1966.  More important, however, is that Stendhal is preoccupied in his autobiography with the problems of memory and of how difficult it is to recover the past.  Sebald is a darling child of academic and when they come to answer that naïve enquiry about the point of what he writes, their answers invariably involve issues of memory.  In Brulard, there is a well-known image of our recollections of the past being like a damaged fresco.  Sebald includes this in the opening section of Vertigo, as he does Stendhal’s description of how even bad illustrations of landscape or paintings can come to replace our own memories of them.  He is intrigued also by Stendhal’s recognition that his memory of having seen General Marmont as he was crossing the Alps must be in some way false because, as he recalls him, Marmont was wearing not his army uniform but the one he later acquired as a member of Napoleon’s Council of State.  Instances like these are meat and drink to Sebald, who in The Emigrants defines Korsakov’s syndrome as `an illness which causes lost memories to be replaced by fantastic inventions’; and they mean that Stendhal can provide him with a keynote for Vertigo, as indeed for much of his later work.

          There is nevertheless at least one significant difference between the ways in which Sebald and Stendhal approach the autobiographical past.  In his travel books, Stendhal is often what it would be no exaggeration to call an inveterate liar, frequently claiming to have met famous people he hadn’t (Shelley would be good example), or describing places he had never visited.  In Rome, Naples and Florence in 1817, the third of his books to be published and the one which did in fact represent his first `real advance into the world of literature’, he tells his readers that it took him three months of living in England before he got used to the rhythm of the English language.  But that was before he had ever set foot in this country.  Some of these lying habits are so instinctive that they infiltrate Brulard (especially in its beginning), but in general he is concerned in that work to be as truthful as it is possible to be and clearly believes that telling the truth about the past is not an impossibility.  `Speaking truth is the very first recommendation of a writer of memoirs’, Stendhal writes in one of his journal articles.  In Brulard itself, he claims at one point, `I am sure of my perfect good faith and my adoration for truth’, and at another, `To be truthful, simply truthful is the only thing that has any value’.  He knows that such is the nature of writing that, once he puts pen to paper, he will be in danger of confabulating.  Describing in Brulard how, when he was heading for the St Bernard with his colleagues, he heard the church bells ringing out over Lake Geneva as he passed through one of the towns on its shores, he asks how he could convey the pleasure he then felt `without lying and slipping into a novelistic mode’, and this is just after he has referred to the fear he has of `lying with skill, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau’.

          Remarks like these might make it seem as if Stendhal’s preoccupation with trying not to lie belonged to a dark age, before post-modernists had confirmed there was no need to bother (or Bernard Williams had attempted to refute them in his Truth and Truthfulness).  The mild avant-garde impression Vertigo makes comes not only from mixing media (print and photography), but also literary genres.  If sections one and three are chiefly biographical sketches, the second section is largely a travel diary and the fourth more obviously autobiographical.  The inclination critics nevertheless show to call the book a novel presumably derives from Sebald’s willingness to accept that his mixing of genres will also imply an indifference to the old distinction between fact with fiction, a habit not without its implications.  How much does is it matter, for example, that the portrait the book’s first section offers of Stendhal is not only lopsided but woefully inaccurate, and that the impression it therefore conveys must necessarily be false?

          It is not true, for example, that Stendhal was part of the army with which Napoleon crossed the St. Bernard, although it makes it more dramatic to say that he was, and his account of this crossing is more likely to have been written in Rome than Civita Vecchia where he did not merely `sojourn’ from time to time (as Sebald puts it), but caught up with the official duties he had as French consul there.  The performance of Cimarosa’s comic opera Il matrimonio segreto, which he saw once he had first set foot in Italy, and which had such a profound effect on him, took place not in Ivrea but Novaro, and Sebald has no authority to add to the specificity of the occasion by telling us that the leading soprano’s `right upper canine was missing’ since Stendhal only says she had `une dent de moins sur le devant’.  With that false precision he is so fond of, Sebald writes that Stendhal took quicksilver and iodide of potassium for the venereal disease he caught in Milan, although the medicine always usually mentioned in this context is mercury.  He badly confuses the time of Stendhal’s first meeting with Angela Pietragrua with the period eleven years later when she first became his mistress; and the account in Stendhal’s journal of his visit to the battlefield of Marengo is considerably jazzed up.  The claim that Stendhal only began to make serious efforts to be a writer once Napopleon’s empire began to crumble is wrong, and so is the suggestion that he was on the point of winning the affections of Metilde Dembowski before he made the disastrous error of following to Volterra, where she had gone to see her two sons.  Having to make points like these is tedious and seems necessary only because part of Sebald’s appeal is that he conveys an impression of being so full of information on such a wide variety of topics so that reading him is an education.  But although there may be a lot to learn from Vertigo, it is not about Stendhal.

          Even if the first section of Vertigo is an isolated case, it raises the question of how a reader who happens to be in a position to recognise its falsity, but who does not know much about Kafka, will then approach section three?  Insofar as truth in biography (as indeed in history) can still be regarded as a legitimate issue, no progress is ever likely to be made without a taxonomy.  Of what aspects of a subject’s life is it possible to be truthful?  A good example here is Shakespeare about whom enough information survives to establish what might be called a framework or chronicle of his life, but not to write what we usually think of as biography.  Making this point in the early 1990s, at the same time as he demonstrated that most lives of Shakespeare were worthless because no new material of any major biographical significance had been discovered since 1909, the great Samuel Schoenbaum showed that what biographers write can be `taxonomised’ also and suggested that, when it came to Shakespeare, it could be divided into three categories: `the probable, the possible and the preposterous’.  This was characteristically pithy but it misses out the verifiable (Stendhal, whose real name was in fact Henri Beyle, did in fact cross the Alps in 1800), and it left open the floodgates by including the possible since, as the man says, almost anything and everything is possible.  The proof of that was the avalanche of new biographies of Shakespeare which appeared after Schoenbaum had so effectively shown that they should no longer to be written.  Many of these were by celebrated scholars who should have known better but there were other figures who chipped in also.  Only very recently, for example, the papers carried the news that Boris Johnson had been offered more than half a million pounds to write a new life of Shakespeare, although for a man willing to stand in front of a campaign bus which announced that, on our leaving the EU, £345 million a week would be diverted into the NHS, signing the contract for this biography was not perhaps such a stretch.  That he was then called to higher duties, and decided not to go ahead with this biography, would be worth a rigorous cost/benefit analysis.

          `Post-truth’ strikes me as a foolish category and the suggestion that those in public life often tell lies is hardly news.  For several years Stendhal worked for Napoleon whose notorious army bulletins, because they received so much publicity, may be said to have inaugurated a whole new age of misinformation.  Yet if in recent years a climate has developed in which it has become even easier for people to say what they like, because telling it as it really is can no longer be regarded as possible, a very small part of the blame must go to literary critics, and an even smaller one to those who have lavished their praise on Sebald.  Of course, autobiography is a special case and the memory is indeed desperately fallible, so much so that those therapists who describe the self as `the stories we tell ourselves’ are almost justified (although never in my view quite).  It matters, it seems to me, when autobiographers are like Stendhal and make things difficult for themselves by trying as hard as they can to recall their past life accurately, but any success they then have can only be partial.  Biography is a different matter because it does not rely so much on memory.  Anyone who offers to tell their readers about Stendhal (or indeed Kafka), and leave them with the only impression of these two figures they might ever get, has responsibilities which cannot be evaded with a weary shrug at the groundless anxieties of the unsophisticated.

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