Friday, October 22, 2010

Fishing for Amber

Ciarán Carson's Fishing for Amber contains several passages that indirectly describe how the book works. Here's one:

For one thing leads to another, as it does in Holland. The cities, by means of canals, communicate with the sea; canals run from town to town, and from them to villages, which are themselves bound together with these watery ways, and are connected even to the houses scattered all over the country; smaller canals surround the fields, meadows, pastures and kitchen-gardens, serving at once as boundary wall, hedge and roadway; every house is a little port, in which you might hear stories from the seven seas. One can drift from any place to anywhere. (152-153)

While reading Fishing for Amber, I kept thinking of W. G. Sebald's books, so I was pleased to come across a reference to St. Sebald in Carson's Shamrock Tea (which I read immediately after reading Fishing for Amber). But when I was done with both these Carson books, I no longer thought of Shamrock Tea as being "Sebaldesque"; it ends up being quite different than anything Sebald wrote (except perhaps Austerlitz, which, like Shamrock Tea, is held together by a continuous narrative more than any of Sebald's other books, or than Fishing for Amber).

Instead, it is Fishing for Amber that actually feels Sebaldesque, with one significant difference: Sebald's work is very melancholy, even pessimistic, while Fishing for Amber uses similar associative techniques (encapsulated in the quotation above) but takes a much different kind of pleasure in those techniques, not the pleasure of melancholy that pervades Sebald but a pleasure in how full of wonders the world is. There is darkness in Carson as well (otherwise, the books would not be interesting), but the experience is of pleasure most of all, while in Sebald, the darkness is foregrounded, and the joy of reading his work comes in spite of the darkness, as it were.

In both Fishing for Amber and Shamrock Tea, Carson repeatedly contemplates paintings, especially Dutch paintings (the Arnolfini Double portrait by Jan van Eyck plays a crucial role in Shamrock Tea). But it was his description of a Vermeer painting in Fishing for Amber that struck me most, in part because I had just read another description of the same painting in Michael Donhauser's Nahe der Neige. Here's Carson on the painting:

... one of the essentials of comfort for a Dutch lady was the vuur stoof, a square box open on one side to admit an earthen pan filled with embers of turf, and perforated to allow the heat to ascend and warm the feet; it served as a footstool, and was concealed under the dress. The use of it was rarely dispensed with, whatever the season, indoors or out—the citizen's wife had it carried after her by her servant to church or at the theatre.

This, indeed, is the object depicted in the lower right corner of Vermeer's Woman Pouring Milk ... She's pouring white milk from a red earthenware jug into a brown glazed bowl and there's a loaf of bread in a wicker basket on the table and a lidded pitcher and other bits of broken bread on the tablecloth. (99-100)

What struck me was Carson's emphasis on the "vuur stoof" in his description of the painting, in contrast to his merely passing mention of the bread on the table. Donhauser emphasizes the bread, and mentions the stove only in passing:

Der Raum, worin das geschieht, ist ein Neben- oder Zwischenraum, der nicht wirklich als Küche erkennbar ist—es hängen da ein Korb und ein Messingbehälter, ein Stövchen steht auf dem Boden ... die Magd, die schaut nicht auf, sie bereitet ein Gericht namens Wentelteefje, wofür Brot gebrochen wurde und wofür die Magd nun Milch in eine Schüssel schenkt; das Brot wird dann etwa eine Stunde in der Milch eingeweicht werden ... (19-20)

I don't have anything to add to these two descriptions; I just enjoyed the (Sebaldesque?) coincidence of reading them both within a few days of each other, as well as how each author emphasized one thing while only barely mentioning the other, so that the two descriptions end up wonderfully complementing each other.

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