Monday 17 April 2017

The Team

For W. G. Sebald, in Vertigo* (English translation, 1999), the life of Stendhal offers insights into 'the various difficulties entailed in the act of recollection'. Visiting the scene of the Battle of Marengo, Stendhal, or Beyle as Sebald correctly but playfully insists on calling him throughout, experiences a 'vertiginous sense of confusion' as he acknowledges the gulf between his fantasy and the stark reality before him. Thus Stendhal is put to work for Sebald; Stendhal becomes a Sebaldian.

Stendhal has other functions for Anita Brookner. In Soundings (1997), in a review of a Stendhal biography, Brookner emphasises his contributions to Romanticism, his commitment to the 'supreme emotional adventure'. In Strangers (2009) he is invoked several times. Stendhal, Sturgis's one-time favourite author, collapsed in the street and was taken to a cousin's house, where he died. 'That was the way to go, the relative, whether liked or disliked, put in charge,' thinks Sturgis. An anxious passage follows, in which Sturgis or the author weighs up Stendhal's good fortune in having a relative on hand in this way. Thus Stendhal does his Brooknerian duty.

As it happens, Vertigo's chapter on Stendhal ends with details of the incident in question. Stendhal collapsed, we learn, on the evening of 22 March 1842 in the rue Neuve-des-Capucines. Sebald, however, insists Stendhal was then taken to his own apartments in what is now the rue Danielle-Casanova.

What matters is the way writers recruit other writers to their causes, and do so with differing purposes. Where their teams are shared, as they are in the cases of Brookner and Sebald, we get to witness some intriguing interplay, dialogue, and tension.

Sketch of Stendhal by Henri Lehmann, 1841

Brookner herself reviewed Vertigo, praising its 'freedom ... and also the price that must be paid if such freedom, such extreme non-attachment, is sought by those unfitted to withstand the terrors which must be their accompaniment'.

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