When your reading list looks like this, there’s only one thing to do.
I awoke this morning with a question: would my grandmother have tweeted?
She passed away before twitter was even a germinating notion and before email was as ubiquitous as it is now. The most prevalent form of social media were the conversations during which she and I would dissect plot and motive from a recent episode of “Murder She Wrote” or “Hunter.”
But she was a correspondent. True, she had a readership of just one: her younger brother who lived in India. But to him she told the news of the day, of the goings-on in her corner of the States, and general musings about her quotidian observations. She wrote in Tamil, a script I only recognized by shape but whose meaning eluded me. Sometimes my grandmother would translate what she was writing; only now does it occur to me that she could have been lying! I doubt it, but…
If she were to tweet, I bet she would have adopted a less publicly public persona. That’s not to say her tweets would be protected. But they might be somewhat disguised, and her twitter handle would likely hearken back to the days of early email usernames when people relished in concocting absurd monikers for themselves, a time when anonymity reigned supreme (rather than the branding and self-marketing that marks today’s norm).
@Kalpathi4eva (she was born in the village of Kalpathi, and so…)
@Hunterfan (self explanatory)
@Breadupma (would take too long to explain)
@Loosekanji (so would this)
As for the content, I wonder if her tweets would contain bits of song she would often invoke to underscore a point, draw out unexpected contours of experience, or simply as an excuse to break up the afternoon. Or might they be quotes from the Bhagavad Gita or the Ramayana, two books she read and reread incessantly? Or perhaps, if she were to continue with her flaneuse-like tendencies and resume circumambulating our childhood neighborhood as once used to do, perhaps she would recount odd bits of conversations that caught her as she passed by — below, snippets I overheard during last night’s walk:
[Young man to a young woman he was walking with]: “Do you smell that?” deep breath “I love the smell of late evening in the spring.”
[Teenage girl crossing the street with two girlfriends]: “Omigod, I am fat. No, I am. I am! I am fat.” Over her friends’ protestations: “That’s rubbish.”
[Young woman sitting next to a young man on a bench in the park]: “I’ve never had a one night stand.”
[Two men standing on the corner smoking cigarettes, the one with worried eyes did the talking]: “Have you heard anything? Has there been any communication?” The other shakes his head.
So, would grandma have been a tweeter? I can’t say for sure, but given the way the platform keeps people in the forefront of my mind’s eye, I’d like to think so.
One evening in December T showed me a manuscript copy of A place in the country, a collection of Sebald’s essays that was originally published in German nearly two decades ago. This spring, the English translation was published (and available May 2nd) and I can finally get my hands on Sebald’s take on Rousseau and others whom, it is said repeatedly, he brings “lovingly to life.”
This past week, articles in the key of Sebald found their way again and again into my virtual inboxes — either via email or twitter feed.
A link to the first — Out of the Shadows — was emailed to me by a friend and is written by Uwe Schütte, a former student of Sebald’s. One line in particular stood out to me and suggests to me something about why the sensibility of this writer strikes such a chord with me.
“I never liked doing things systematically,” Sebald declared in the 1990s. “Not even my PhD research was done systematically. It was always done in a random, haphazard fashion. And the more I got on, the more I felt that, really, one can find something only in that way, ie, in the same way in which, say, a dog runs through a field.”
I was alerted to a second piece by a friend via twitter who I turned onto Sebald’s works and whose father, it turns out, had been an avid reader of the author in the years before his death: WG Sebald: Reveries of a solitary walker. Four writers (James Wood, Will Self, Iain Sinclair and Robert Macfarlane) reflect on the significance of Sebald for them and their work. Macfarlane gets it just right when he says:
Sebald’s seemingly passive prose was in fact – to borrow Marianne Moore’s memorable phrase – “diction galvanised against inertia”
At the bottom of this piece was a link to a third piece — the pièce de résistance, as it turned out — penned by Sebald, himself. And for just the smallest of split seconds the truth seemed like it might be a beautifully crafted nightmare… The Guardian had printed an excerpt from Sebald’s newly published collection and called the piece: A Place in the Country by WG Sebald – extract. And from the first words, I heard his voice* begin to spin a tale.
At the end of September 1965, having moved to the French-speaking part of Switzerland to continue my studies, a few days before the beginning of the semester I took a trip to the nearby Seeland, where, starting from Ins, I climbed up the so-called Schattenrain.
The long sentences stretch out before the reader like a guide, comforting without revealing too much truth at once. The information is meted out in metaphor, location, and imagery that provides necessary details while resisting the trap of over description. Sometimes called wandering, other times called poetic, and often evoking the feeling of traveling from one where to another, these sentences beckon, are invitational and unfolding, are an apt form of the pedagogical (if the reader will let them be so).
I thought immediately of another excerpt, this time from Emerson’s essay “Experience” in which he writes:
Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion. Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus. … We animate what we can, and we see only what we animate. Nature and books belong to the eyes that see them. It depends on the mood of the man, whether he shall see the sunset or the fine poem. There are always sunsets, and there is always genius; but only a few hours so serene that we can relish nature or criticism.
I often read Sebald as both composer and conductor, orchestrating the reading experience as a transportive one in which a casual glance at a lamp or a stone carving is an instance license to travel through time and space and to feel both local and global resonance at once. Nothing is unconnected everything, which is not to say that everything is necessary connected; rather, he seems to be writing with the purpose to move the reader to consider each words as tethered to a portal of further inquiry. He is an artful master of stringing beads, in the Emersonian sense, and describing while also delivering experience. And yet, Sebald strikes me as one who is free from the trappings of the current academic epidemic of writing as self aggrandizement; his purpose seems to be driven by a different purpose, while maintaining a palpable gentleness and humility.
In the excerpt reprinted by The Guardian, Sebald has written about Rousseau and his affection for the monastic Île St. Pierre in Switzerland. Here, he ponders the ways that returning to the island effected Rousseau’s writing:
Compared with these dark days, the Île Saint-Pierre must truly have appeared to Rousseau, when he arrived there on 9 September, as a paradise in miniature in which he might believe he could collect himself in a stillness, as he writes at the beginning of the “Fifth Walk”, interrupted only by the cry of the eagle, the song of an occasional bird, and the rushing of the mountain streams.
And now, I must order my copy of his volume, which I glimpsed in hard copy during a weekend sojourn with a friend — images, photographs, drawings jumped out from a very abbreviated flip-through. It promises to be as engaging and moving a read as the rest of Sebald’s oeuvre.
*To hear Sebald in his own voice, you can listen to him being interviewed by Michael Silverblatt on the radio program Bookworm, transmitted a few days before his death.
here are some things I was thinking during today’s monthly herding of faculty into a room:
- i should have grabbed a muffin before sitting down.
- people have such unlikely wave gestures and some do *not* match the wo/man.
- so that’s what a restrained collective gasp sounds like.
- don’t look up, don’t look up, don’t look up…
- i blame the accidental decaf for stifling my ability to be appalled.
- did every generation not learn the “pointing is rude” rule?
- finger snaps seem to come out of nowhere; i’m never prepared for them.
- why are there three empty rows in front of me? aka: no cover for texting in plain sight.
- don’t get caught texting. please don’t get caught texting.
- people who haven’t gone through tenure really don’t understand tenure and probably shouldn’t use tenure as a throwaway noun.
- what fool am i to donate two hours to these shenanigans?
- if this were a tv show, who would play _____ and who would play _____? oh, and there would definitely be dire straits montage.
- that’s the second time i’ve heard or read the phrase “advanced organizer” in the span of two days.
- damn, i am lucky L is my friend. ok, glad i stayed.
- no “short” story ever began with “One day in the summer of 1978…”
- is it noon yet?
and then it was noon.