Personal Essays

Reading With Scissors

If not for a tragic car accident in 2001, W.G. Sebald would be celebrating his senior citizenship next week. Recalling an obsessive introduction to the author’s unclassifiable genre.

There was a time when I feared that if I didn’t move W.G. Sebald’s books from the bedside table, I would take scissors to them.

For months I had read him compulsively and exclusively. I wrote down half of what I read verbatim. The other half I linked to passages I had transcribed with code words like nomad, buttons, shroud, or gruesome cafeteria. Then I sorted my notes. I made outlines, flowcharts, even a storyboard. I studied Sebald like calculus. I couldn’t say what I hoped to learn.

Sebald is a tour guide for the spirit world of history, spinning battles, biographies, biology, and botany from the loose ends of his narrative. Within the scant 2,000 pages that comprise his published oeuvre are didactic elegies on the mackerel, hallucinations of the infamies of silk cultivation, whispered exposés about the desolation of Manchester, and an ode to Vitus Bering’s ship doctor. But it is not for this wealth of tangential trivia that I labored over his books. I was searching from one to the next for the seeing eye of the visions inside.

A unique blend of masked-memoir, stream-of-conscious history, and travelogue for melancholics, Sebald’s prose has troubled American publishers and booksellers ever since his debut. Many poor genre-blending taxonomies have been devised—the worst, perhaps, being “faction.” He wrote poetry too, and made his early career in literary scholarship. But it is the prose works—four perfect specimens (The Emigrants, Vertigo, The Rings of Saturn, Austerlitz)—that reveal Sebald to be (as Adam Kirsch recently, rightly, wrote) the “Scheherazade of destruction.”

And it is in those four books that I worried over the pictures that appeared throughout these texts—planted captionless and random under the guise of ephemera—that made me quite maniacal about Sebald’s photo-prose. To this day I have trouble separating the visions of actual photographs scanned into his stories and those I have conjured myself. I have searched his books for photographs of behemoth clocks, neon-lit newspaper stands, pyramids of bottled water, and ash on the hedges of the Tuilleries Gardens—none of which exist. These are the images that Sebald has implanted with words only, yet they are more vivid to me than those I have glanced over a half-dozen times before.

It was to get at the photos, to excise them from Sebald’s hypnotic tropes and leave the spines blinded, that inspired me to dream of scissors. I figured that the author, with his ancient wonder and respect for the natural sciences, would approve of the autopsy. The books’ owners, I also figured, would be less forgiving. This too-physical obsession with the written (and photographed) word was either the cause or the result of my not owning my own copy of any Sebald works until I had already read each of his “novels” several times through.

At closing time I left the pliant but still pristine paperback with its Fauntleroy chevalier on the reading chair and walked quickly away. I borrowed the first three from a friend. I read them sitting upright at the kitchen table, a pile of index cards at my elbow. I read slowly and wrote quickly. I inserted each card between the appropriate pages of the text and left them there when I mailed the books back to their owner. I haven’t seen my initial notes on Vertigo, The Rings of Saturn, and The Emigrants since.

Austerlitz was a library book. I’m a civil and grateful patron of libraries, which is the only reason I didn’t return the book with its image of rose windows painted highlighter yellow and its depiction of a great Welsh flood irrigated by a deep graphite furrow. When I needed to reread the novel (for Austerlitz, unlike Sebald’s other three fictions, has a true plot-driven narrative) I spent the day in a bookstore. With restraint I drifted through the space-time continuum of Europa without a recording device. There would be no dog-eared pages. Instead I closed my eyes and etched somewhere in black the eyes of Ludwig Wittgenstein and the unholy arches of a Belgian train station. At closing time I left the pliant but still pristine paperback with its Fauntleroy chevalier on the reading chair and walked quickly away.

Campo Santo, published posthumously, became the first of Sebald’s books I owned. I had avoided possessing my own copies for about four years, to have them float in and out of my reach, bringing with them some slight trace of the hands that held them previously. Not notes—no hideous exclamations or cross-references—but sometimes a store receipt or other forgotten bookmark, to tell me that someone had taken Sebald to the Oyster Bar on South Main Street, or needed to contact Marlene at the DMV. Opening up the stiff cover of Campo Santo, stuffed with the packaged praise of a publicist, made me nearly queasy.

Nonetheless, having committed myself to ownership, I resolved to acquire all of Sebald’s books. It’s been a slow process, as yet incomplete. I dislike the idea of buying them new—an action as perverse as buying a brand-new grandfather clock. And so I wait, for the chance run-in with a perfectly turned-out copy of The Rings of Saturn: one with clean margins and minimal dog-ears that nonetheless bears inarguable traces of an excavating reader. I did find it, and an equally suggestive copy of Austerlitz. As I pick them up for their second, third, and fourth reading, the previous notes are swept clear and new markers are placed in their wake. Frequently, I believe, over the very same passages, coded in the very same notes to self. They lie, all four of them along with some fellow travelers brought to print by sad demand after Sebald’s early death, on the bookshelf, bristling with yellow post-it notes like a paper stegosaurus.

Just last night my husband laughed at my stack of Sebald. He asked if I ought not just start marking the pages that contained no clues for me. He suggested, better yet, that I cut out those pages. Then I would be left with the essence, he inferred. I was startled that he also had arrived at the solution of scissors.


TMN Contributing Writer Elizabeth Kiem is the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy. More by Elizabeth Kiem