Campo santo, p.14
Campo Santo, p.14W. G. Sebald
The locked glass-fronted cupboard with its mysterious contents became, Shakespeare writes, a central metaphor for both the content and the style of Chatwin’s work, and the remnant of the extinct animal was his favorite object. “Never in my life have I wanted anything as I wanted that piece of skin,” wrote Chatwin to Sunil Sethi.
That skin, I think, is the key, and sums up the longing that sent him on his first major expedition across the Atlantic Ocean and down through the whole American continent, all the way to Tierra del Fuego at the other end of the world, where he really did think he found a tuft of sloth hair in the same cave. At least, his wife said that he brought something of the kind back from his journey. There is no mistaking the fetishistic character of the sloth relic. Entirely without value in itself, it inflamed and satisfied the lover’s illicit fantasy.
Something of this fetishist greed went into his mania for gathering and collecting, and then into turning the fragments he found into significant mementos endowed with a wealth of meaning, reminding us of what we, as living beings, cannot reach. This is probably the deepest of the many layers of the writing process. The fact that Chatwin tended so much that way is the reason why his work was read far beyond the frontiers of Great Britain. The universality of his vision lies in the way his descriptions evoke the recurrent themes of our imagination—an account, for instance, of an extraterritorial region where a community of Welsh settlers who emigrated over a hundred years ago still sing their Calvinist hymns, and where, under an ice-gray sky, the wind constantly blowing through the thin grass stunts the trees and bends them to the east.
The story of the shipwrecked sailor Charles Milward immediately reminded me of Georges Perec’s autobiographical study W ou le souvenir d’enfance (“W, or the Memory of Childhood”), a work full of the most terrible and painful sensations and phantom anxieties, which begins with the account of a mentally sick boy called Gaspard Winckler whose mother, a famous soprano, takes him on a voyage around the world, hoping to cure him, and who finally disappears somewhere off the Cape of the Eleven Thousand Virgins or in the Todos los Santos straits. The Gaspard Winckler story is itself the paradigm of a destroyed childhood, and not for nothing does the similarity of name conjure up the unfortunate Kaspar Hauser. Chatwin too saw his journeys to the ends of the earth as expeditions in search of a lost boy, and thought he might have found him, as if in a mirror, in Gaiman when he met the shy pianist Enrique Fernandez, who has since died of AIDS (like Chatwin himself) at the age of forty.
The key myth, in any case, was always that piece of strange skin, a relic that, like all mortal remains devoutly preserved and put on show, has something perverse about it, and at the same time something pointing far beyond the realm of the secular. It is an item that, as in Balzac’s novel La Peau de chagrin, grants even our most secret and shameful wishes, but shrinks a little with the bestowal of each desired object, so that the gratification of our amorous longing is intimately related to the death wish. In a television interview given by Chatwin not long before his death we see him already wasted to little more than the proverbial skin and bone, with eyes dreadfully widened, but talking with an innocent and unprecedented passion about his last fictional character, Utz the china collector of Prague. It is the most shattering epiphany of a writer that I know.
The reader who begins Balzac’s novel about the wild ass’s skin, which is also and perhaps primarily the skin of grief and suffering, will soon come upon the passage in which Rafael, still called merely “the young unknown” at this point, enters the crumbling building several stories high where he acquires the fateful talisman. In those dozen pages, in the description of the lumber piled high in the storehouse, Balzac uninhibitedly sets out his whole mania for reality and words before us in what amounts to an act of authorial prostitution, but at the same time he reveals insights in the depths of the dreaming imagination. In the fantastic storehouse, designed as a kind of casket containing the world and inhabited by a desiccated little man over a hundred years old, the writings of the geologist Cuvier are recommended to Rafael as true works of poetry. In reading them, says the assistant leading him through the galleries of the emporium, you will glide over the unlimited chasms of the past, raised aloft by his genius, and as you discover the fossils of antediluvian creatures stratum by stratum in the stone quarries of Montmartre and the shale of the Urals, your soul will shrink with dismay at the sight of the billions of years and millions of nations forgotten by the short memory of mankind.
In September 1996, on a walking tour on the island of Corsica, I happened to be sitting during my first rest day in a grassy clearing on the outskirts of the Aitone forest, which lies at high altitude. I looked across hollows and valleys, deep blue to almost black in their depths, and saw a semicircle of granite crags and peaks, many of them towering up to a height of two and a half thousand meters or more. To the west was a wall of cloud looming darker and darker, but as yet the air was so still that not a blade of grass stirred. An hour later, when I had reached Evisa just as the storm broke and had taken refuge in the Café des Sports there, I spent a long time looking through the open door at the torrential rain slanting down into the street. The only other guest was an old man already equipped for the winter months in a woolen jacket and an old army anorak.
His eyes, dimmed by cataract, which he tilted slightly toward the light as a blind man would, were of the same ice-gray as the pastis in his glass. It did not seem to me that he had noticed the woman of curiously theatrical appearance who passed by under her umbrella a little later, or the half-grown pig that was following her. He kept looking up all the time, and as he did so he turned the six-sided stem of his glass jerkily with the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, as regularly as if he had the clockwork of a watch inside his breast instead of a heart. The sound of a kind of Turkish death march came from a cassette recorder behind the bar, and now and then a high-pitched laryngeal male voice sang, reminding me of the first musical sounds I ever heard in my childhood.
For immediately after the war there was almost no music at all in the village of W. on the northern outskirts of the Alps, apart from occasional performances by the severely depleted yodelers’ group and the solemn music of the wind band, itself now reduced to a few elderly instrumentalists, which played for processions going around the fields and on Corpus Christi Day. Neither we nor our neighbors had a gramophone at this time, and the new Grundig radio that Aunt Therés in New York bought us just before I began school in 1950, for the fabulous sum of five hundred marks, was hardly ever switched on during the week, probably because it stood in the parlor and no one used the parlor on working days. Early on a Sunday morning, however, I would hear the Rottachtal ensemble or other local musicians on the radio with their dulcimers and guitars, for my father, who came home only on weekends, had a particular liking for this kind of traditional Bavarian folk music, which to me has taken on in retrospect the character of something terrible which I know will pursue me to my grave. A few years ago, for instance, after spending a restless night in the Hotel Kaiserin Elisabeth in Starnberg, I was woken from the sleep into which I fell at last toward morning by a clock-radio broadcasting two such Rottachtal folksingers, whom I could only imagine, judging from the sounds they produced from the radio’s tinny interior, as deformed and infirm; they were performing one of their merry songs about martens and foxes and all kinds of other animals, with each of its many verses ending in a Holadroo-yoohoo, holladree-yo.
The ghostly impression made on me by the Rottachtal singers trapped inside the radio that Sunday morning, when all was overcast by dense mists rising from the lake, was reinforced in a most uncanny way a few days later after my return to England, when I was searching through a box full of old photographs in a junk shop near Bethnal Green underground station in the East End of London, and almost to my horror came upon one of those picture postcards produced by the International Postal Union around the turn of the century, showing a painted panor
After we had moved, in December 1952, from our home in W. to the small town of S. nineteen kilometers away, with the aid of the Alpenvogel moving van, my musical horizons were gradually extended. I listened to Bereyter, our teacher, who always took his clarinet with him in an old kneesock on our class outings, just like the philosopher Wittgenstein, and played a number of beautiful pieces and arching melodic phrases, although without knowing that they were from the works of Mozart or Brahms, or an opera by Vincenzo Bellini. Many years later, when by one of those mere coincidences that are really no such thing I switched on the car radio one night while driving home, I was just in time to hear the theme from the second movement of Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet that Bereyter had so often played, and recognized it again after all the time that had passed. At that moment of recognition I felt touched by the sensation, so rare in our emotional lives, of almost complete weightlessness.
Such was the enthusiasm inspired in me by Bereyter that at the time, in the summer of 1953, I wanted to learn the clarinet myself. But we had no clarinet at home, only a zither, so I had to go twice a week past the long wall of the riflemen’s barracks to Ostrachstrasse, where Kerner the music teacher lived in a little terraced house with a tiled roof, and a dark, turbulent sawmill canal flowing little more than five or six meters behind it, a canal from whose waters drowned bodies had quite often been pulled, as I could never help remembering at the sight of it, the most recent being the body of a boy of six whose brother was in my class at school.
Kerner the music teacher, a rather gloomy and melancholy man, had a daughter of my own age called Kathi, a child prodigy known even abroad who had appeared in Munich, Vienna, Milan, and God knows where else. Whenever I came for my zither lesson she was out of sight behind a closed door, seated under her mama’s supervision at the grand piano, which filled the whole parlor. The mighty rise and fall of the cascading notes of the sonatas and concertos she was practicing made their way into the cramped little cubbyhole of a study where I was toiling away on the zither, while Kerner sat beside me, impatiently tapping his ruler on the edge of the table when my fingering was wrong. Playing the zither was a torment to me, and the zither itself a kind of rack on which you twisted and turned in vain and which left your fingers crooked, even leaving aside the ridiculous nature of the little pieces written for the instrument.
Only once, and at the end, as it was to turn out, of my three years of zither lessons, did I willingly take out of its case the instrument I had come to hate: when my grandfather, whom I loved dearly, lay dying during the first föhn storm after the Siberian winter of 1956, and as he drowsed, half unconscious already, I played him the few pieces I did not loathe from the bottom of my heart, ending, as I still remember, with a slow ländler in C major, which even as I played it, or so it appears to me now, seemed to be very long drawn out and to go on in slow motion as if it would never end.
I do not think that at the time, aged twelve, I could have guessed something I read much later, in one of Sigmund Freud’s studies unless I am much mistaken: an observation that immediately struck me as convincing, suggesting that the deepest secret of music is that it is a gesture warding off paranoia, and we make music to defend ourselves against being overwhelmed by the terrors of reality. But after that April day I refused to go to any more zither lessons or even to touch the instrument again.
Among those moments musicaux which were accompanied by a first shadow cast over the feelings and which I have never been able to put out of my mind is, as it happens, a silent scene. In the single-story annex of the half-ruined railway station of S., which was closed down after the war, Zobel the conductor of the choir gave music lessons twice a week late in the afternoon. Especially in the winter months, when everything around was already dark, I would often stop outside what had once been the little waiting room on my way home to watch the music master in the bright lamplight inside, a thin and rather crooked figure conducting the muted music that I could hardly hear through the double window, or bending over the shoulder of one of his pupils. Among them were two to whom I felt particularly drawn: Regina Tobler, who tilted her head so prettily against her viola as she played that I felt a strange tugging in the region of the heart, and Peter Buchner, moving his bow back and forth over the strings of his double bass with an expression of utter bliss. Peter, who was so long-sighted that he had to wear glasses which made his moss-colored eyes look at least twice as large as they really were, wore the same buckskin breeches and green jacket all the year round. Since he had no proper case for his instrument, which was much mended with sticking plaster, and anyway he could not have carried such a case from the Tannach housing project, where he lived, to the middle of town, he tied his double bass, usually covered with a piece of flower-patterned oilcloth, to a little handcart with string, and fixed the axle of the cart to his bicycle carrier, so that Peter was to be seen several times a week before or after the evening music lesson cycling from the Tannach project to the old railway station, or back from the old station to the Tannach project, sitting curiously upright on the saddle, his Tyrolean hat worn sideways on his head and his rucksack over his shoulder with the bow of the double bass sticking out of it, pulling the rattling little handcart along behind him either up or down Grüntenstrasse.
Zobel, the music teacher and conductor of the choir, was also organist of the parish church of St. Michael, from which he barely escaped with his life on Sunday, April 29, 1945, when the tower suffered a direct hit during high mass. For an hour, I was told, the music master wandered around among the bombs that were still exploding everywhere in the lower part of town, and the falling buildings, until just as the all-clear sounded he entered the sickroom where his wife had been lying for months; he was covered from head to foot with plaster dust and looked like the specter of the catastrophe that had befallen S.
A good decade later—the bells had long ago been hung in the rebuilt tower again—I always climbed to the loft during mass on Sunday to watch the music master playing the organ. As I remember, he once remarked to me there was something wrong with the singing of the congregation assembled down in the nave, and said you could always pick out the people who sang out of tune from all the others. Easily the loudest of the untuneful singers was a certain Adam Herz, said to be a runaway monk, who made a living as a cowman on his uncle Anselm’s farm.
Every Sunday, Adam Herz stood on the extreme right of the back row of pews, and thus beside the steps up to the organ loft, where the enclosure in which for centuries lepers were penned during divine service used to stand. With the fervor of a man driven mad by a terrible grief of the soul, Herz bawled out the Catholic hymns, all of which he knew by heart. His face was turned up and wore an expression of torment; his chin was thrust forward and his eyes were closed. Summer and winter alike, he wore a sturdy pair of hobnailed boots on his bare feet and a pair of working trousers that were covered with cow manure and scarcely reached his ankles, and even in the iciest weather neither shirt nor vest, but only an old overcoat, his bony chest covered with curly gray hair visible between its lapels, as it strikes me today just like poor Barnabas’s chest under his messenger’s suit in The Castle.
The music master, who played the accompaniment to the usual couple of dozen hymns loudly sung by the congregation more or less half asleep, came back to his proper senses again only at the end of Mass, when he virtually swept the herd of the faithful out
If you went from the parish church up the former Ritter-von-Epp-Strasse toward the middle of the town of S. you passed the Ochsenwirt inn, where the Liedertafel, or singing society, met to perform every Saturday in the festive hall, which stood empty during the week. I remember that once, when everything was buried deep in snow, I was lured by the sounds, strange to me, coming from the Ochsenwirt into the soundless winter air, went into the hall, and there, all alone in the dim light, watched a rehearsal of the closing scene of the opera that, as I had already heard, was soon to be performed on the stage, which still dated from before the First World War and seemed to me miles away at that rehearsal.
I did not know what an opera was at the time, nor could I imagine what it might have to do with the three figures in costume and the shining dagger held first by Zweng the distiller and then by Gschwendtner the upholsterer, finally passing to the tobacconist Bella Unsinn, but I could tell from the despairing, intertwining voices that the scene unfolding before my eyes could only be a tragic one, even before Franz Gschwendtner took his own life, and Bella next moment sank unconscious to the ground.
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