Monday, August 27, 2007

Ruefle, footnotes, Sebald

Thanks to Karin, who sent me the link in the comments to one of my posts on Coetzee's Youth, I read Mary Ruefle's short essay "Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World."

Here's the bit about footnotes that I liked:

'For years I planned a theoretical course called "Footnotes." In it, the students would read a footnoted edition of a definitive text--I thought it might as well be The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge--and proceed diligently to read every book mentioned in the footnotes (or the books by those authors mentioned) and in turn all those mentioned in the footnotes of the footnoted books, and so on and so on, stopping only when one was led back, by a footnote, to The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.'

Now that is a beautiful idea for a course!

And here's the bit about Sebald that I liked:

'I had recently one of the most astonishing experiences of my reading life. On page 248 in The Rings of Saturn, W. G. Sebald is recounting his interviews with one Thomas Abrams, an English farmer who has been working on a model of the temple of Jerusalem--you know, gluing little bits of wood together--for twenty years, including the painstaking research required for historical accuracy. There are ducks on the farm and at one point Abrams says to Sebald, "I have always kept ducks, even as a child, and the colors of their plumage, in particular the dark green and snow white, seemed to me the only possible answer to the questions that are on my mind." It is an odd thing to say, but Sebald's book is a long walk of oddities. I did not remember this passage in particular until later the same day when I was reading the dictionary, where I came upon the meaning of the word speculum: 1) an instrument inserted into a body passage for inspection; 2) an ancient mirror; 3) a medieval compendium of all knowledge; 4) a drawing showing the relative position of all the planets; and 5) a patch of color on the secondary wings of most ducks and some other birds. Did Sebald know that a compendium of all knowledge and the ducks' plumage were one and the same? Did Abrams? Or was I the only one for whom the duck passage made perfect, original sense? I sat in my chair, shocked. I am not a scholar, but for the imaginative reader there can be discoveries, connections between books, that explode the day and one's heart and the long years that have led to the moment. I am a writer, and the next step is inevitable: I used what had been revealed to me in my own writing.'

This perfectly captures one element of the magic of Sebald's work: his particular gift for spinning out associations leads the reader to spin out associations as well. The most uncanny feature of the Sebald reader's free association on his works is how often the process leads back to his work again, as if he had anticipated the reader's personal response to the book. For a memorable example, see Tim Parks's essay "The Hunter," in his collection Hell and Back.

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