If Only We’d Fucking Listen to Helen DeWitt

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Writers toil for years to squeeze even an ounce of their soul into their work, but when it comes to the acknowledgements page, they happily bow before convention. It’s rare to find an author’s note that isn’t a list of names paired with phrases of gratitude, each paragraph rising in pitch as if announcing the next rank in a hierarchy of angels, rarer still to find one that quietly captures the full agony and ecstasy of its author’s being. On the final page of Some Trick, her first collection of short stories, Helen DeWitt writes:
Over the years visitors to my blog (paperpools.blogspot.de) have generously helped me live to fight another day. While The Last Samurai was out of print buyers of secondhand copies would send donations to the beleaguered author. More recently two dedicated readers have been thinking of ways to approach the challenge in a less haphazard manner; anyone who would like to be involved should contact me at [email protected] to be put in touch.
Some context: In 2000, when DeWitt was 43, her acclaimed debut The Last Samurai came out with Miramax Books. It was a victory after years of setbacks and menial jobs, but also the lone highlight in what became her long praying mantis courtship with the publishing industry, which began with a war over the novel’s typesetting and led to two suicide attempts. After Miramax Books went bankrupt, The Last Samurai fell into contractual purgatory, and DeWitt’s subsequent novels were either delayed for a decade (Lightning Rods), pulled due to technical challenges (Your Name Here) or deemed unpublishable. The familiar ivy of poverty re-encircled her life, even as critical appreciation for both Lightning Rods and The Last Samurai continued to grow; the latter was recently a broad consensus pick for the 21st century’s most canonical novel.

And so here is one our foremost authors, poor but nonetheless foremost, inviting her readers not just to send her a few bucks (which she does later in the note), but to get involved in a project that is, presumably then, more elaborate than direct donation, that involves joining a dedicated network of DeWitt supporters, and to do so by writing said foremost author at her personal email account. Can you imagine any of the Didions, Franzens, Ferrantes or Bolaños whom she beat out in the canon rankings extending that request to the world? Even less rarified authors would be warned off by an inkling that this was a thing one simply does not do.

DeWitt can ignore that inkling in part because she’s made a public persona out of questioning its merits, especially when it comes to what she calls “normative publishing.” In her interviews, wielding the sort of rationalism more commonly associated with economists, tech entrepreneurs and utilitarians, she picks apart the industry’s conventions, like the puritanical separation of authors and type-setters, the unwillingness to experiment with new revenue models, especially ones perfected by the art world, and even the norm of meetings editors in cafés, where table space is too limited for spreading out one’s papers. My favorite of her frustrations is how when she met with prospective agents she couldn’t get them to agree to squeeze as much marketing juice as possible from any future suicides she attempted. “If I could have sold off a suicide attempt,” she said in a 2008 interview, “I would have had more time for reading Spinoza.” Duh.

It’s not surprising, then, that she might try out unusual methods of financing. I can imagine her calculating out Spinoza time wasted from extraneous emails vs. Spinoza time gained from projected extra income (naturally I’d like to message her and ask what the scheme is all about, except then I remember my own income and have to admit that I’d be tipping the scales toward time wasted). But even a positive net expected value wouldn’t account for the note. To put such an entreaty out in the world requires something rarer than strict rationality; it requires, in large amounts and in equal measure, optimism and desperation. If DeWitt were merely desperate, she wouldn’t be the sort of person who burned bridges over type-setting; she’d write The Last Samurai derivatives and own a brownstone in Brooklyn. If she were merely an optimist, she would have accepted her lot and put her faith in posterity. Put the two together and you get one of our best writers leveraging her stature and her inbox for what is in all likelihood a moonshot of a fundraising scheme.

You also get what defines her fiction, even more so than the two themes most often used to describe it, genius and making ends meet. True, The Last Samurai begins with Sibylla, a single mother, earning scraps as a freelancer while teaching her son Ludo to speak a dozen languages and do advanced math, but what gives the novel its wheels is Ludo growing up to have the same need and daring as his creator. At 11 years old, he disobeys his mother and sets out to identify and meet his biological father, a travel writer named Val Peters. When he figures out that Peters is a mediocrity, Ludo is disappointed, but he doesn’t despair. He simply reasons that he should let Peters down easy and find someone better, and begins showing up at the doors of various impressive men, armed with a con man’s set of ruses and an appraising eye.

Ludo is, to quote another of DeWitt’s stories, a “go-getter … that quintessential American thing to be,” an archetype that reappears throughout her fiction. DeWitt’s characters don’t suffer from boredom, midlife crises, existential dread or a surplus of time. They engage with the world, and, like DeWitt, they do so with unusual requests and ingenious proposals. In “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” Peter, a highly successful fiction writer, wants to work with a mathematically literate editor for his next book, and he worries that his agent, Jim, won’t find one through the usual auction process. Struggling to convince Jim why this matters so much, Peter makes an unheard of but seemingly foolproof proposal: He offers an 85 percent commission, or roughly half a million dollars, in exchange for Jim finding him the right editor. “As ours is a business relationship,” he explains, “… it is entirely reasonable for me to determine my own ends and offer financial compensation to you for the inconvenience of promoting them.” Jim, though, brushes him off, making “a number of friendly American remarks” about being happy with the standard commission, friendly yet in a way that implies he has taken offense.

In her fiction DeWitt gets to be clear-sighted about how and why ingenious proposals fail, not without some irony: “Climbers” explores the pitfalls of dedicated readers trying to help an author they love. Peter Dijkstra, a reclusive Dutch writer, receives a series of emails from American literary types, utterly out of the blue, suggesting that a famous American writer is willing to give Dijkstra his apartment and all his things, out of respect for the European’s genius. It’s a strange and sudden altruism, born out of a New York loft-party conversation, but one that Dijkstra, pondering his debts, wants to talk advantage of, if only he can figure out how: “The fact that a fame-kissed young American would happily hand over all his worldly goods did not make it socially straightforward to write asking for a gift of 20,000 euros.” He doesn’t know how to survey, at a distance, the terrain of his admirers’ enthusiasm. Can he ask for a lifetime supply of cigarettes? Too shocking. A subscription to the Vienna Philharmonic? “An American … would see [such a gift] as too finely tuned.” Just how fully would the American writer move out of his apartment? “He could not think of any sentences that would ascertain the position in a socially acceptable fashion.”

The difficulty of ascertaining other people’s positions, and of conveying one’s own, is where many of these ingenious proposals run into trouble. DeWitt describes the problem more explicitly in “Sexual Codes of the Europeans,” a story that opens with a guidebook of systems developed in five cities for indicating certain sexual preferences. In Bilbao, for instance, people set out items on café tables to indicate the material in or upon which they wish to make love, whether sand or milk or acacia blossom honey. In Stuttgart, people leave out plastic figurines indicating a preference for a uniformed stranger, whether a Canadian Mountie or an Air Singapore stewardess. The practice is explained as arising from a scarcity of language:
The words for sexual practices and preferences are not included in a book for travelers, nor are the words that would accompany the speech acts of requesting a practice, expressing a preference. Perhaps you think: yes, but the words and speech acts must be known to the natives! If you buy a book in your own country you will find words for practices. You will not find an account of the speech acts in which the words may be deployed. The scarcity, it seems, is not one of vocabulary but one of speech acts.
More specifically, there is a scarcity of socially acceptable speech acts, or speech acts that carry only the precise information that one wishes to convey, with no surplus or remainder. When Peter offers 85 percent of the sale of his book in exchange for the right editor, what a robot or an economist might hear as a simple exchange sounds to Jim like a purely figurative hyperbole that politely says, “I’m worried you’re not going to do a good job.” Naturally, Jim is offended, as would be the airline employees who saw you walking around in your “I Prefer Sex With Air Singapore Stewardesses” T-shirt. As would be most literary agents when they realize you see them as the kind of person who would peddle their client’s suicide. To have a preference or proposal, even one justified by reason, is not enough. If the proposal is at all strange, one must also invent a sufficiently dexterous speech act, capable of slipping past the alarm system of prejudice, taboo and convention that protects us.

Perhaps it’s this idea that led DeWitt to write “The Wrong Stuff,” the essay she published in the LARB to accompany Some Trick. If her author’s note is the strangest example of its genre, “The Wrong Stuff” holds the crown among those now equally ubiquitous things, half artist statement and half college essay, used to publicize new fiction releases. It begins with a question Hans Ulrich Obrist, the renowned artistic director for Serpentine Galleries, posed to Zadie Smith, about whether she has any unrealized literary projects. DeWitt envies the question:
I could have explained that I had a hundred-odd unrealized projects immured on my hard drive, projects of which agents had said No Publisher Will Allow, projects that could change the face of 21st-century fiction. Projects that were not even books, so no agent or editor would know what to do with them. I would need a week to set out materials on tables, tack papers to walls, and talk nonstop.
Having dangled this prize, DeWitt offers the requisite humility: If that’s how the industry works, there could be thousands of authors with stalled century-changing projects. If any of these hypothetical projects were ever realized, she suggests, it will be because their hypothetical creators will have had a chance meeting with a well-financed visionary like, hypothetically, Hans Ulrich Obrist.

But of course, one of those authors is DeWitt and those projects exist in her hard drive and surely a few LARB readers are connected to Obrist. The essay is an elaborate speech act to convey what cannot be said directly: I have art that is too wild and expensive for New Directions, I’m running out of time, someone please give me the resources to make it. From various interviews one can piece together the problem: The projects she dreams of realizing need the help of graphic designers and computer programmers, individuals who need to be paid, but publishers won’t sign a contract until they see an almost fully realized book. Thus the elaborate plea, which, needless to say, our society doesn’t know how to readily parse, not coming from a 61-year-old writer, certainly not a woman. “The Wrong Stuff” sank to the bottom of the internet without a sound, without even inciting some jerk to call out claims which, coming from any other author, would seem outlandish. At least that might have started a conversation.

What makes it all the more depressing is that this plea could so easily have been unnecessary. One can imagine The Last Samurai propelling DeWitt into the same liberating echelon that Infinite Jest or Gödel, Escher and Bach (equally long, unorthodox and surprisingly popular works) propelled David Foster Wallace and Douglas Hofstadter, two famously inflexible writers who found forgiving editors in Michael Pietsch and Bill Kessel (who let Hofstadter do his own type-setting). Even Jonathan Safran Foer got to write Tree of Codes. One can imagine DeWitt getting a MacArthur “genius” grant, rather than setting the world record for torturously coy equivocations on a writer’s intellect (“Helen DeWitt’s great subject is genius … she may just be one herself …” “If we wanted to call Helen DeWitt a genius …” “She is one of those writers who seems to demand the description genius”). One can imagine how differently her rationalism and casual attitude toward suicide marketing would be coded and received if it came from a Peter DeWitt, rather than a Helen.

Or one can simply imagine a world such that when one of our best writers says she has projects that will change literature immured in her hard drive, we do better than plugging our ears, waiting until she’s dead, and giving our descendants the joy of opening her laptop and asking how we let this happen. If DeWitt wants to give our descendants a hint, she can set her login password to a line of Proust: “So it is that a well-read man will at once begin to yawn with boredom when anyone speaks to him of a new ‘good book,’ because he imagines a sort of composite of all the good books that he has read and knows already …”

How to convince you that there are new books, new languages, new speech acts, new ways of living or doing business, new textures upon which to make love? This is the true engineering feat of DeWitt’s writing. Its ambition is not merely refilling spent canisters of frisson. Proust speaks of jaded readers as an analogy for his own jaded attitude toward young girls, renewed by a milkmaid, but the analogy seems flawed—youthful beauty, like a party with guest list or a bull market, sells itself. We’re so susceptible to certain easy charms that economists warn investors against ever thinking “this time is different.” This time, beauty won’t come to bore me. This time, the party will be bacchanalia. This time, the bubble won’t burst.

Yet there are moments when this time really is different. Once in a rare while, some new pleasure or pain or art, one that pales doe-eyed youth or owning real estate, reveals life to be richer and more expansive than you knew it to be. These strange gems are not ones you find where you go panning for novelty. By definition, they exist beyond what you know, so your powers of induction cannot guide you to them. The best you can do, the only thing you can do, is sustain the belief that all of life is yet to be amassed within your composite existence.

This might comfort the patient and the lazy, but it’s also the tragic aspect of DeWitt’s work and life. No matter how ingenious their proposals, how elaborate their speech acts, or how airtight their arguments become, her characters struggle to surmount a latent, animal skepticism. And so does she. I’ve read most of DeWitt’s interviews from the past decade or more. Through them I can track all the subtle refinements to her theory of publishing’s failures and possibilities, all the way to “The Wrong Stuff,” succinct and dazzling. But what are all those refinements worth, and who are they for? In the end, it’s all one plea, endlessly repeated to those who, if they don’t already, probably never will: Believe me.

W.G. Sebald and the Malthusian Tragic

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In 1798, an unknown curate named Robert Thomas Malthus published the essay that would give his name to a new breed of anxiety. He argued that the growth rate of the population would always exceed the growth rate of the food supply, inevitably reducing every country to the brink of starvation, and turning the world into a Hieronymus Bosch painting: crowded, chaotic and cruel.

It was a unique, and uniquely grim, theory. For centuries, apocalyptic scenarios had been the sole purview of God, the price he would exact in exchange for sorting out our souls. Malthus demonstrated that not only did humanity possess the divine’s capacity for destruction, but also that the engine of this destruction could be as innocent an act as procreation. Friedrich Engels, joining a chorus of criticism, called it “the most barbarous theory that ever existed, a system of despair which struck down all those beautiful phrases about love thy neighbour and world citizenship.”

I wonder if Malthus knew he had discovered a new species of despair, and if he himself was affected by it. If he was the neurotic type, he must have struggled to suppress an uneasy foreboding at the sight of a festive crowd, a teeming market, or his own grandchildren. If he sought comfort in rural solitude, I doubt he found it. I picture him struggling to wave away a dismal image that his imagination was superimposing over a bucolic field, the muddy slum that he predicted it would become.

Malthus might have recognized himself in the narrators of W.G. Sebald. On seemingly every page of Sebald’s four novels, his narrators struggle to repress a feeling of horror at the most innocent scenes. For them, it’s the past that is always superimposing itself. This depressing tendency is so pervasive as to become almost absurd: when the narrator of Vertigo wakes up in Venice the beautiful stillness of a peaceful morning only reminds him of other, unpeaceful mornings: “How often, I thought to myself, had I lain thus in a hotel room, in Vienna or Frankfurt or Brussels, with my hands clasped under my head, listening not to stillness, as in Venice, but to the roar of traffic, with a mounting sense of panic.” He concludes with some choice words about humanity’s penchant for annihilation.

Sebald might seem like an odd choice to associate with Malthus. He is typically described as pioneering a new literary approach to the Holocaust, a tragedy synonymous with active human cruelty, not deterministic growth rates. In fact, it’s hard to associate any novelist with Malthus. Malthusian tragedies have not fared well in fiction. Global warming is the most empirically sound Malthusian threat that humanity has ever faced, but no good, let alone great, novel about global warming has yet been written. It’s not hard to see why. Try to see the world through the lens of global warming, and you experience a kind of narrative inversion. On the one hand, the physical reality of a warming planet makes your personal stories, the ones books are written about, irrelevant; acts of charity, love, or adultery don’t lower carbon emissions. On the other hand, the events that make up the forgotten background of your day-to-day—eating a meal, taking a plane, heating your home—take on a tragic significance. Look around and you will see a million tiny but irrevocable contributions toward an impending catastrophe.

A writer who succeeded in fictionalizing this unnatural dynamic without becoming unmarketably morose (already a tall order), would still struggle to avoid being misread. We don’t like to think our favorite writers are forsaking us. We don’t want the authors of beautiful phrases to be at the same time, as Engels said, striking down all those beautiful phrases. No matter how dark and depressing the prose, we like to claim it’s “redeemed” by the author’s “deep humanity,” as if the act of writing at all implies that a William Faulkner or a Cormac McCarthy cares about our happiness.

This kind of false redemption has been the fate of W.G. Sebald. His novels create precisely the narrative inversion I described, but this achievement of his, which points the way for a literature of climate change, has been overlooked, in part because of Sebald’s reputation as a Holocaust writer, but in larger part because we don’t like to acknowledge the hopelessness of Sebald’s vision, or to acknowledge it as the strength of his writing.

No one would say Sebald is an optimist, but many of his proponents have argued that a leavening agent exists in his prose, something that tempers the lugubriousness of his narrators, whether it be Sebald’s genuine sympathy for suffering or the sheer beauty of his sentences. For James Wood, who helped popularize Sebald among English-speaking readers, this leavening agent is comedy. In his most recent appraisal of the German author, Wood argues that an undercurrent of playful humor can be found in Sebald’s works, especially in moments when the repressed horror seems most exaggerated, like in this description of a defrosted fish the narrator is served in The Rings of Saturn:
The breadcrumb armour-plating of the fish had been partly singed by the grill, and the prongs of my fork bent on it. Indeed it was so difficult to penetrate what eventually proved to be nothing but an empty shell that my plate was a hideous mess once the operation was over.
Wood claims this passage, with its sense of disgust barely concealed behind pedantic language, is worthy of Evelyn Waugh.

The challenge of interpreting Sebald at the level of his sentences is that the meaning of each sentence is never entirely contained within the words that compose it. In this, his sentences mirror the effect of his novels, which, though we agree are broadly “about” the Holocaust, almost never mention it directly. Rather, they treat it as a kind of negative space, tracing its outline through a series of seemingly miscellaneous travel anecdotes, history lessons, and capsule biographies. The Rings of Saturn, which is framed as a walking tour around England, touches on topics as varied as the destruction of Beijing’s Summer Palace, Rembrandt’s paintings, the decay of British holiday towns, and the melancholy of weavers. What keeps these vignettes meaningful is the way they are linked, not narratively, not even, in a narrow sense, thematically, but associatively, through the repetition of certain words, the symmetries between certain images, and even the way Sebald uses typesetting. All writers use associations, but the density of these links in Sebald’s prose is genuinely astonishing. They create a halo around each sentence, which, though as weightless by comparison, is as essential to its effect as the rings that surround Saturn.

To accurately convey the real effect of the seemingly humorous fish dinner, I have to describe three other passages from the novel that deal with animals. In one, the narrator recounts the Biblical story of Jesus exorcising Legion. The demons he casts out enter the bodies of 2,000 pigs, who run into a lake to drown themselves. The narrator wonders if Jesus didn’t commit a serious error: does “human reasoning, diseased as it is, [need] to seize on some other kind that it can take to be inferior and thus deserving of annihilation?”

In another, he describes how silkworms were distributed as educational materials to schools in the Third Reich because they “afforded an almost ideal object lesson for the classroom,” on account of being “docile” and “suitable for a variety of experiments.” The narrator watches an educational video on how the silkworms are raised and ultimately killed: “The cocoons, spread out on shallow baskets, have to be kept in the rising steam for upwards of three hours, and when a batch is done, it is the next one’s turn, and so on until the entire killing business is done.”

Finally, there is a vignette on the mutilating experiments done in the 18th century on live specimens of herring, to test certain absurd beliefs about their mortality: “This process, inspired by our thirst for knowledge, might be described as the most extreme sufferings undergone by a species always threatened with disaster.” Two grainy photographs bookend this vignette. One is of fishermen standing over a pile of dead herring. The other is of piled corpses in the woods outside the liberated Bergen Belsen concentration camp.

This is how the novel’s associative web is threaded, tying together seemingly unconnected stories using language that we associate with genocide, like “inferior other kinds” or “the entire killing business,” folding suggestions of suffering and forced experimentation into the mention of animals, creating a kind of associative hypersensitivity, the way a horror movie attunes you to the sound of a dripping faucet. So when I read about stabbing a fork into a burnt fish, about the “hideous mess,” and especially the word “operation” (which Wood uses as an example of Sebald’s comically “calm control of apparently ponderous diction”), I experience a hard-to-characterize feeling, like a movement or a crowding in the peripheral vision of my mind’s eye, and if I allow my inner gaze to follow it, I see a single name, unmentioned in the book: Josef Mengele.

Of course, we have hotlines for people who intuit signs in their dinner. There is a paranoid quality to these endless associations and their constant foreboding, which even Wood deems at times excessive: “What the reader might take on faith if encountered in Büchner’s Lenz [a 19th-century novella about the titular character’s struggles with madness, and a favorite of Sebald’s] is a little stagy when it concerns merely an academic who happens to be doing a bit of book research in Italy.” In other words, unlike Lenz, Sebald’s academics don’t seem genuinely crazy, so why do they act as if they are?

Lenz’s insanity offers an interesting comparison, because it actually differs in kind, not degree. There are, for one, examples of healthy minds in his world, if not the dissolute cosmopolitans that Lenz is fleeing, then at least the kind pastor Oberlin to whom he flees, and in whom Lenz believes lies “the way of God.” On his so-called better days, Lenz is able to follow that way, to live in quiet appreciation of the world, but ultimately his disposition proves too extreme. He asks Oberlin to whip him, he obsesses over his sins, he demands of God to bring a dead child back to life. He is one of those people of whom we say, they were too much for this world.

Of Sebald’s narrators, it would be more accurate to say the world is too much for them. The narrator of Rings of Saturn describes only one so-called better day, when he begins his walking tour, “carefree” as he’s rarely felt before. But in the next sentence he admits he was soon overtaken by the “paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place [East Anglia].” The walk, which triggers the cascading associations recorded in the novel, ultimately results in a nervous breakdown. To call this insanity is too simple. If the patterns of destruction the narrator is confronted by are real, his sensitivity to them puts him in a double bind, one that would be familiar to Malthus and climate pessimists: to ignore the reality of the world, to calmly go about your book research as if you’re not walking atop a stratum of suffering, is delusional, but to look at that reality with any clarity for a sustained period of time is to be horrified to the point of mental collapse. This bind leaves no room for Oberlins. In Sebald’s novels, there are only those who suffer the pain of reality and those who, oblivious to it, ensure its perpetuity.

Take another example of Sebald’s alleged playfulness that Wood elaborates on. It comes from Sebald’s second novel, The Emigrants, in which Wood claims the narrator “lovingly seizes on” British contraptions after emigrating to Manchester. One such contraption is a teas-maid, a kind of physical portmanteau of an alarm clock and a tea-making machine that starts boiling the water right before it wakes you. It is given to him by his hotel manager. The narrator says it looks like a “miniature power plant,” a “weird and serviceable gadget,” whose mere presence keeps him “holding on to life” in a time of deep isolation.

Reading Wood’s essay, I felt a vague suspicion that Sebald would never compare anything good to a power plant. The Emigrants is the most narrative of Sebald’s novels; the narrator investigates and retells the life stories of various emigrants who fled the turmoil of Europe. Among them, there is Paul Bereyter, the narrator’s grade school teacher, who ends his life by laying his head on train tracks. The narrator learns that Bereyter had taken great solace in trains his whole life, had hung up train schedules all over his apartment, and had even given over a spare room to a miniature train set. Bereyter’s friend describes this train set as “the very image and symbol of Paul’s German tragedy.” There is also Henry Selwyn, who shoots himself in the heart with a rifle he once brought to India to keep himself safe from wildlife. There is Dr. Abramsky, driven insane by his years of administering electroshock therapy, whose curative promise he clung to after losing his father. And there is Max Ferber, who becomes ill from the coal dust born of his obsessive artistic production.

Trains, guns, shock therapy, and coal, all industrial symbols, like the “miniature power plant,” and all, like the teas-maid, offering pyrrhic comfort to solitary emigrants, whose troubles reflect another of Sebald’s preoccupations, the unsuspecting support that many Jews offered to the project of German industrialization. When I reread the passage about the teas-maid, it began to seem like the image and symbol of some impending British tragedy. And, most uncannily, as the shadows of these other emigrants flickered behind his words, the narrator seemed to see the glimmer of that coming betrayal. But what could he do? Smash the teas-maid? His only choice is repression. Wood claims the narrator describes this incident with “mock-solemn gingerliness,” but I see nothing mock about it. In the pedantic expressions and torturously construct sentences, I feel the strain of the narrator trying to repress that glimmer, to hide it beneath layers of abstracted, unfeeling prose.

Of course, like all repression, it’s doomed to failure. Every path he follows, every story he collects, and every word he writes only retraces the indelible outline of the unmentionable. That’s why you can take seemingly any sentence from a Sebald novel, no matter how innocent or playful, like (another of Wood’s examples) the teapot in The Rings of Saturn that emits “the occasional puff of steam as from a toy engine” and offers the narrator a moment of distraction, and if you pull on the associative thread—which leads to the steam-powered toy train that the Empress Dowager used to distract her son while she starved her country, the same Empress who wished her subjects were docile like silkworms, the insects that schools in the Third Reich were so fond of—you will discover that even this stray sentence forms a part of that outline.

Sebald’s obliqueness, the way he hides the worst of the Holocaust from view, is crucial to this effect. If he had, for example, in The Emigrants, described the amount of power needed to operate the gas chambers or the conditions of the cattle cars that took Jews to Auschwitz, it would perhaps be clearer that the teas-maid and the miniature train set represent echoes of these terrible events, but it would also allow us to maintain our sense of proportion, our ability to distinguish what is actually evil from what merely reminds us of evil. Instead, we hear only the echoes, which, without their source, grow louder and more disorienting. Everything in any way related to industry becomes equally suspect.

That would all too obviously be the goal of a novel about global warming. It’s less obvious, however, why Sebald was bent on applying this technique to the Holocaust. The answers he offered are unsatisfying. In one interview, he said the Holocaust could be approached only “by reference rather than by direct confrontation…to write about concentration camps in my view is practically impossible.” It makes a good quote, but it would be news to Elie Wiesel, Claude Lanzmann, and H.G. Adler. Many great works of art confront the Holocaust directly. Furthermore, many of Sebald’s allusions, like the pile of shoes outside an Italian kindergarten, would be meaningless to someone who had never seen pictures of the camps. Sebald relies on readers having made a direct confrontation.

The real reason, I believe, is that Sebald actually saw the Holocaust as a Malthusian tragedy. This suspicion is raised by his fiction, and is confirmed by his academic writings. Before he wrote novels, Sebald was a professor of literature, and he produced a number of largely Marxist critical works that dealt with the history and literature of the Holocaust. These works have been ignored in discussions of his fiction, in part because they remain for the most part untranslated. English readers can sample them only through academic volumes like Jo Catling and Richard Hibbitt’s Saturn’s Moons, or, more readily, through the excellent overview, titled “On Misunderstanding W.G. Sebald,” published by James R. Martin in the Cambridge Literary Review.

At first, reading about his academic scholarship feels like seeing Sebald’s other face. These works are highly polemic and strict in their judgments, tonally opposed to the later fiction. The central idea underpinning many of them seems to be that all of the so-called scientific, economic, and social progress that followed from the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution was nothing but a concealed effort by the ascendant bourgeoisie to purge the Other, and specifically the Jewish Other, from Western society. Even Enlightenment concepts of objectivity and human equality were only a way to disarm the Jews of their culture by encouraging assimilation into supposedly “universal” values. In this view, the Final Solution is not a historical anomaly realized by sheer Nazi will; it is the only possible endpoint to a long and violent process that started when humanity began burning coal and looking at things under a microscope. You can argue this is a Marxist take or a Malthusian one, both deal in historical inevitabilities, but it certainly sounds more like a system of despair.

Martin finds it curious that Sebald, given the faith he seems to have had in these theories, never provides, in his novels, “an account of why and how the Nazi genocide occurred.” But all the signs are actually there: the stories of betrayed assimilations, the mistrust of industry, the skepticism toward science, the awareness of modernity’s failures. And, of course, the all-encompassing sense of tragedy. If you believe the vision of history Sebald’s academic writings put forth, if you believe it so deeply that, as it does for Sebald’s narrators, it literally becomes your vision, embedded in how your brain processes visual information, then an defrosted fish really can arouse genuine horror, because it’s the product and continuation of scientific and commercial forces that have caused the most extreme sufferings in human experience.

Accounting for the influence of Sebald’s historical theories on his fiction, apparent as it is, opens Sebald up to a glaring objection, namely that his theories are wrong. They were, for one, received very poorly by the academic community. They have the strange effect of diffusing responsibility for the Holocaust away from committed Nazis and toward modernity as a whole. Sebald’s four novels were published between 1990 and 2001, a time when the reunited German state was peaceful, tolerant, and rich. The Nazis had long ago been vanquished, and not, after all, with scimitars and bows. Was it really fair of Sebald, as even some critics of his novels have wondered, to castigate modernity so thoroughly?

Purists might argue that if Sebald writes a private terror and writes it well then it makes no more sense to ask whether that terror is based in historical truth than it does to ask Franz Kafka whether people really turn into bugs. But the reason, I suspect, that Sebald has resonated with so many readers is not merely because he has captured the private terror of a narrator who sees suggestions of the Holocaust in fish and teas-maids, but because he has captured a precisely Malthusian terror, the terror that may define the 21st century. His narrators embody the submerged paranoia of living with the awareness of global warming. We know that our end is composed almost entirely of small contributions, that every flight, every cooked fish, and every humming appliance, even every day without war, during which we can produce goods more efficiently, all of these make that end infinitesimally less escapable. At the same time, we repress this knowledge, because to admit it would be to see the entire world as a coded message of its own destruction. Sebald’s narrators exist on the cusp of that admission. The cause of their suffering is different from ours, but the mechanics of it are identical.

Aspiring Malthusian novelists should note that Sebald remains the genre’s sole practitioner. While he has been hugely influential, his heirs have by and large applied his formal inventions to narratives that are more clearly individual in scale. Teju Cole’s Open City uses Sebald’s technique of writing associatively around an unmentionable tragedy, but for Cole’s narrator that tragedy is a rape he has possibly committed. In Rachel Cusk’s Outline, it is whatever caused the deterioration of her narrator’s marriage. The personal lives of Sebald’s narrators, by contrast, are insignificant. They are not complicit in the past that haunts them. And yet neither are they innocent. In Malthusian tragedies, individual innocence is an illusion. Like we in relation to the untenable heat of the future, Sebald’s narrators feel implicated in the brutality of the past, not by any moral choices they’ve made, but simply by their membership in a shameful species.

This mirroring of Sebald’s past and our future is not entirely fanciful. I draw it from the lone, oblique reference to global warming that I’m able to find in his novels. It appears in that peaceful morning the narrator describes in Venice, when he’s assailed by memories of waking up in other cities to the sound of traffic. “For some time now,” he says, “I have been convinced that it is out of this din that the life is being born which will come after us and will spell our gradual destruction, just as we have been gradually destroying what was there long before us.” In looking to the past, it was not just the pain that we have inflicted that Sebald witnessed. It was also a reflection of the pain that will be inflicted upon us.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Sexless Idiot


A riddle: a woman and a man get to know one another in the 21st century. They flirt, go on long walks, exchange poetic emails, and stay up all night in his apartment. This goes on for months. But they never so much as kiss. Why?

It’s a state of affairs that makes us suspicious. At a time when sex is the starting point rather than the goal of most romantic relationships, we don’t have a rich phrasebook for understanding why two seemingly interested people fail at step one. Our explanations tend to be base: one of the two must be ugly, or in the closet, or unfashionably religious, or simply not interested in sex. If they wanted to, we reassure ourselves, they would.

Elif Batuman is skeptical of these reassurances. Her first novel, The Idiot, is a love story about two people who can’t bring themselves to kiss. The book has been praised for its humor, style, and linguistic observations, less so for what it has to say about the problem of sex. The few reviews that have mentioned sex at all have largely complained about its absence. But it’s precisely that absence that animates The Idiot and allows Batuman to present a more nuanced answer to the riddle: two people might fail to sleep together because they either can’t or won’t negotiate the power dynamic that physical intimacy inevitably requires.

Selin Karadağ, the novel’s narrator, is a newly arrived freshman at Harvard in the early days of electronic mail, a teenager who’s spent more time wondering on what day she’ll die than to whom she’ll lose her virginity. She’s cynically funny, with a keen eye for the absurd, but also possessed of an unsentimental idealism: she isn’t afraid to say she wants “a life unmarred by laziness, cowardice, and conformity.” She’s drawn to these sorts of confident, precise expressions, finding an almost existential comfort in the descriptive capacity of language, and feeling unmoored whenever she’s at a loss for words.

In her introductory Russian course she meets Ivan. He’s a senior, a looming Hungarian mathematician with the rarified aura that mathematicians have for laypeople. Selin’s interest grows as she watches him move through space, as she hears him speak, and as they find themselves cast as dialogue partners performing “Nina in Siberia,” a bizarre, elliptical love story made for teaching Russian grammar. One day, after overhearing his last name, she finds his email and writes him an impulsive letter, a playful sequel to their Nina dialogue, the sort of note that demands either an earnest reply or none at all. Ivan replies.

Their relationship graduates from email to long walks around Cambridge and finally to sitting up all night in his apartment, talking about nothing. They lurch through cycles of heartbreak and reconciliation. Ivan disappears, Selin writes to him that she’s in love with him, Ivan writes her that she’s the most special person he knows, Ivan mentions a girlfriend who quickly becomes an ex-girlfriend, Selin calls him the worst insult she can think of, Ivan takes her to Walden on his motorcycle, etc.

Like all young lovers, they struggle with voicing their expectations and feelings to each other but, at least to herself, Selin is able to articulate a clear idea of what constitutes true love. At one point, discussing Ivan with a therapist, she says: “Most people, the minute they met you, were sizing you up for some competition for resources…They’re always separating people into two groups, allies and dispensable people.” Ivan, she says, no matter how complicated he is, genuinely seems to care more about understanding her than about figuring out if she’s dispensable. This, to her, means he loves her.

Nothing very tangible comes out of this love. The summer after her freshman year, Selin travels to Hungary as a volunteer English teacher, largely because Ivan will be there, and the cycle repeats. In the end they have a climactic heart-to-heart that resolves nothing, and he leaves for Stanford to begin his PhD. It’s unlikely they’ll see each other again.

In what amounts to almost a year of knowing each other, the closest they come to physical intimacy is when he playfully touches her ear.

Reviewers have found this fact — by far the most unusual fact about the story — hard to account for. Some have dismissed it as an unfortunate flaw, or else, by glossing over it, implied that if sex is lacking it’s because sex isn’t what the book is about. Others have blamed the characters: either Selin is too much of a brain for physical intimacy (obviously contradicted by the text) or Ivan is, variously, not into her, emotionally unavailable, or a bad boy whose advances Selin wisely rejects. We don’t have access to Ivan’s thoughts, and there’s plenty of evidence for a cynical reading of his character, but these explanations feel forced. He never makes a move on her. He always calls her first (when they agree once that she’ll call first, he later admits he couldn’t focus on his work, so wrapped up was he in waiting). He’s not a paragon of vulnerability, but he’s available in ways that matter to Selin: “All I had to do was write him an email, and then he walked around with me all day long. Who else in the world would do that?”

Still, they don’t manage to move beyond walking. Once in a while Ivan makes superficially enigmatic statements about how much “easier things would be” if they were intoxicated:
[Ivan said,] “I’m not saying we have to get hammered…You just bypass the suffering…Something breaks down. I don’t know what to call it — those blocks, that obstruct a connection in your mind.”

“Inhibitions,” I said.

“Yes, exactly,” he said. I felt my face flush. “I don’t mean,” he added, “that you never talk about sex, and then you get drunk and suddenly you can talk about sex.”

“Right,” I said.

Time passed. I was thinking about how much time we had, and how little, at the same time. At some point, Ivan ask if I liked doughnuts.
If your sexual initiation didn’t take place in a John Irving novel, perhaps this scene is familiar. You sit around with your love interest, talking in suggestive generalities, trying to bait them into making the first move. We usually call this shyness, a little-respected emotion, because we think of it as the fear of committing to an action that we’re sure is totally fine and normal. We tell shy people: “Get on with it!”

This seems to be the frustration that many reviewers circle around. But I don’t think Selin’s inhibitions are mere shyness. She seems, at least in those moments, certain of Ivan’s interest. What she unconsciously fears, I believe, is that introducing the demands of physical desire into their relationship would compromise the notion of love that she has articulated, according to which Ivan loves her because he lets no worldly concerns get in the way of trying to understand her.

One of two books that Selin reads in Hungary is Thomas Mann’s 1924 bildungsroman The Magic Mountain. The book’s protagonist, Hans Castorp, is a kind of proto-millennial: he visits his cousin in a sanatorium and ends up staying there for seven years, living off his trust fund, cultivating hobbies and becoming an unpaid DJ. Selin says she sympathizes with much in the book, especially how they always eat two breakfasts, but as I read The Idiot, I kept wondering what she thought about one of The Magic Mountain’s more objectionable scenes.

Midway through the story, Castorp sleeps with a very ill Russian girl named Clavdia Chauchat, who he’s been making eyes at for 250 pages. She promptly leaves the sanatorium, and he waits for her, feigning illness. When she returns, however, it’s as the “traveling companion” of a Dutch colonialist, Pieter Peeperkorn, who, despite his advanced age, radiates a charisma that’s both Dionysian and Christ-like. Castorp is disappointed but, amiable as he is, he develops a friendship with the Dutchman.

At one point the pair spend a drunk morning theorizing about the nature of female desire. They arrive at the conclusion that it’s essentially passive: “Desire intoxicates the male,” Peeperkorn sums up. “The female demands and expects to be intoxicated by his desire.” Castorp is then able to confess his liaison with Chauchat, because, as he assures his friend, this liaison was entirely the result of his desire, and so shouldn’t reflect on the girl. The Dutchman more or less accepts this, saying, in short, if I were younger we might have to duel, but since I’m old, let’s make a bond of brotherhood instead. They drink to it.

Not exactly edifying reading, but it states shamelessly the algebra of desire that was assumed to be true for centuries and which, though it has largely passed from our discourse, still governs, often against our wills, sexual dynamics between men and women. In this algebra, desire is not fulfilled by a man learning what a woman wants. What she wants is obvious — she wants to be overwhelmed. The man’s challenge is to rise to the occasion, not to speak the right words but merely to speak, as loudly and shamelessly as he can.

Desire, then, is inseparable from power. What we desire is either to overpower or to be overpowered, and pleasure stems not from some combination of physical stimuli, not from being understood, but from how purely we’re able to play one of those two roles. And you don’t need to be a dyed in leather BDSMer or under-informed about consent to admit, with however heavy a heart, that this dynamic remains for many people an aspect of sexual pursuit and fulfillment, and that the concept of “intoxicating male desire” remains embedded in customs of who makes the first move, who pursues and who encourages pursuit, who emulates strength and who emulates weakness.

These notions of desire disquiet Selin, and not because she worries about consent. To the possibility that Ivan is trying to “push” her in “the scenario known to us both in which boys pushed girls,” she says that was “so obviously not what was going on.” Rather, it’s the thought that power might in any way have anything to do with love that makes her anxious. This is most apparent in moments when Selin feels unexpectedly hurt, because it’s almost always when Ivan suggests, even in a trivial way, that he’s aware of a power dynamic in their relationship. In one scene, he gives her a box of cookies to hold, and a dog that he’d been teasing with the cookies jumps on Selin, ruining her dress. Ivan jokes that he didn’t do it on purpose. “The sense of hurt,” she says, “took my breath away. It would never have occurred to me that he had done it on purpose.” In their climactic heart-to-heart, when Ivan admits one of his hurtful emails was “a power thing”, her breath catches in her throat: “It had never occurred to me that power was something he would actually use, on me of all people.”

For Selin, power seems inseparable from the competition for resources that she sees as antithetical to love. Power, she suspects, is always used for extraction. She sees it in The Beatles, whose “harmoniously innocent warbling” hides for her a “calculating cynical worldview” where they’re “keeping tally, resenting [their girl] for making them show her the way, waiting to be pleased in return.” As in most Beatles songs (except “Run For Your Life”), power and sex are not explicitly linked in The Idiot, but the hints are clear. After their first long night together, when he walks her home, she pre-empts any possibility of a kiss by leaving suddenly, and thinks she’s “won.” By extension, if she’d lingered, and shown that she expected something from him, he would have won, by giving her what she wanted, by showing her the way. It’s their first moment of sexual tension, and one of the few times she uses such explicit language about winning and losing.

Ivan is caught in a similar bind. On the one hand, as the more sexually experienced man, the aesthetics of his situation are less ugly, because in any power dynamic he would be the stronger, the “winner.” On the other hand, he can’t bring himself to make the first move, because if he genuinely loves her he doesn’t want to see her in a weaker position. The best he can do is hint at the sort of role he could play, and see how she reacts (not well). In Hungary they walk by a river and Ivan says that he wants to throw a stray dog into it. She asks why he’d want to do such a thing. He says rivers make him want to throw things into them, and jokes that he can’t throw her in. She knows this is “meant to sound playful,” but feels “insulted and humiliated.” Ivan reads her mood correctly: “I think you don’t like to throw the dog into the river.” I don’t think Ivan would throw a dog into a river, and I don’t think they’re talking about dogs.

As the story progresses there are hints that Selin might be, if not coming to terms with power dynamics, then at least becoming more aware of their pleasures. She starts enjoying The Beatles. Even as she’s ashamed of it, she admits how much she likes following Ivan’s instructions. The most revealing moment comes during their heart-to-heart. At one point he asks her about one of her letters, and Selin feels “a shock, like when he had mentioned power, but this time the feeling was intoxicating. I felt it, his power — but like he was going to use it delicately —
but not like he wasn’t going to use it.” Batuman is a crystalline stylist. Whenever her sentence constructions feel awkward, a character is trying to express something that language has trouble expressing. Here, Selin glimpses, however hazily, a power dynamic redeemed, and immediately undoes her hair clip, letting her hair down. But the hair covers her face, her self, and within the same sentence, she clips it back up again. They talk for a while longer, and make some important admissions, but in the end nothing they say bridges the physical distance between them, not even when Selin consents to Ivan killing a moth that’s buzzing around her room. He doesn’t kill it. With her help, he lets it out the window.

The next morning Selin ponders the prescience of Dr. Seuss: “We would not, could not, here or there. We would not, could not, anywhere.”

The sermonic version of The Idiot might conclude with this: if power compromises love, and sex involves power, then sex always compromises love. To be intoxicated by someone’s power is to allow your love for them to be compromised. True love will not save you: the truer the love the deeper the compromise.

I don’t think Selin sees a way out of this predicament. After her big talk with Ivan, she has a dream. She’s in a bathhouse, and Ivan walks in, except in the dream he’s also her brother. He is followed by a deluge of water. They hold one another. They say I love you. The water will drown them. Coldness and wetness, throughout the novel, are associated with death. If sex is a debasement of love, only one option remains to stay true to that love — confess it and die, chastely in the arms of your brother.

I found something admirable about Selin’s stubborn skepticism, perhaps because it’s grounded in her faith in language. She’s not skeptical of what she’s able to articulate, like her notion of love or her dislike of The Beatles. But when she arrives at something she can’t justify or explain, like why power dynamics must exist between two people in love, or why we drink so much, she refuses to go forward, no matter how much convention nudges at her back. She’ll believe in something, but not before it is made legible.

Her insistence on an explanation stands in contrast to two ways in which the rest of us make do with our compromises (three if you count alcohol). The first is by not talking about them. Many of us have internalized some vague idea that sex, whatever its myriad pleasures, is symbiotic with love, and that the two together represent the highest interpersonal fulfilment we can reasonably expect to achieve. When this assumption almost inevitably fails to hold, we think, well, desire is a strange thing that can’t be put into words anyway. This idea may seem obvious, because it’s so pervasive, but I think Selin would call it willful ignorance.

The second, more subtle way is by labelling the power dynamics involved in sexuality and seduction as “performative” and “arbitrary,” as if anything as basic as sex could ever be purely performative. Even if it were, it’s not obvious that what we perform on a regular basis doesn’t change us or how we’re perceived. If we perform weakness for our partner enough times, they may begin to believe we are weak, or dispensable, no matter how much they love us. It’s the fear of this, I think, that keeps many people from expressing their desires precisely to the partners they love most. How can you really ask someone, whom you love and respect as an equal, to put either you or themselves in a position of desirable weakness?

In the absence of physical intimacy, there’s a limit to how deeply The Idiot can explore these questions. Batuman has said that this novel is the first of a series, and I suspect she’ll go farther in its sequels (about one of which she said, “I want to write more about sex in this one; I think sex is a really big problem that people don’t acknowledge enough.”). Still, if The Idiot only describes the tip of the problem, it nonetheless points out both the problem and how much our language, so at ease with describing linguistic theory and croissants, struggles to articulate it. At the same time, Batuman presents this struggle not as the product of a fundamental rift between what can and can’t be articulated, but as a basic tension in our development as people. What Selin, in her grasping attempts to say how she feels about Ivan’s power, comes to understand is that we will always be pressing up against a reality that we cannot yet put into words. We will always, at the margins of our experience, be struggling with a new language.