Campo santo, p.15
Campo Santo, p.15W. G. Sebald
And how surprised I was to see this tragic closing scene, which until then I had almost entirely forgotten, in a London cinema thirty years later, performed incredibly enough in almost identical costumes. Klaus Kinski, with his yellow hair standing out from his head as if electrified, stares out of the background of the stalls in the Teatro Amazonas of Manaus at the point when the action of the opera, set in the sixteenth century among Spanish grandees and mountain brigands, is just reaching the last of its many turns of fortune. Silva, wrapped in a black cloak, has handed the dagger to Hernani, played by Caruso in a kind of maternity smock. Hernani plunges it into his breast, rises heroically once more to the upper registers of song, and then falls sideways at the feet of the inconsolable Elvira, or rather Sarah Bernhardt, who shortly before, in an unprecedented bravura achievement, has come down the stone steps of the castle with her wooden leg.
Her face made up to look as white as a sheet, and clad in a rather shabby gray-blue lace dress, the actress looked exactly like Bella Unsinn thirty years earlier on the stage of the Ochsenwirt, while Enrico Caruso, who Fitzcarraldo believes pointed to him in the last moment of his life, looked with his broad-brimmed brigand’s hat, twirled mustache, and purple tights just like Gschwendtner the upholsterer as I remembered him.
The closing sequence of the film Fitzcarraldo also had special associations for me. Amid unspeakable difficulties, a path is cut through the jungle and the steamer is hauled by means of primitive winches over the mountain crest between the two rivers until finally, when the mad plan has been as good as realized, it rocks gently in the water again. On the night of the festivities, however, the Jívaros, wishing to take another route, cut the cable and the steamer goes racing out of control down to the valley, between the rocky walls of the Pongo des Muertas. Fitzcarraldo and his Dutch captain see nothing but disaster coming, while the Jívaros, gathered on deck, merely look ahead in silence, believing that it is not far now to the better country they long for.
And in fact the ship does miraculously escape the cataracts of death. Somewhat battered and out of shape, but with the elegance of a prima donna, it moves out of the dark jungle in a great arc on the river, which is radiant with bright light. This is the hour of salvation in which—another miracle—news comes of the arrival in Manaus of an Italian company with an opera by Bellini, and here they come in several boats, to climb aboard and begin to play and sing. Behind the Puritans’ pointed hats rises the cardboard backdrop of the mountains, which the libretto assures us are near Southampton. Chubby-cheeked Indians blow the French horn more beautifully than angels, and Rodolfo and the crazed Elvira, who has regained her reason now that the plot has taken a happy turn, unite their voices in a duet raised by the separation of their bodies to a state of pure bliss, ending with the words Benedici a tanto amore. All this time the ship of fools is drifting down the silvery river, so Fitzcarraldo’s dream of an opera in the middle of the wilderness at last comes true. He himself stands leaning on a red theater seat smoking an enormous cigar, listening to the wonderful music and feeling the slight breeze of their passage on his brow.
I encountered I Puritani for the first time at the age of twenty-two, in the house of a colleague who was a Bellini enthusiast and lived on Fairfield Avenue in Manchester, not far from Palatine Road, where the young engineering student Ludwig Wittgenstein stayed in 1908. It was a day as fine as another more than twenty years later, when I was sitting in my garden with a bad headache after finishing a work about torture that had occupied me for some time, and I heard the same opera again through the open window, broadcast from Bregenz. I still remember my sensations as the painkillers gradually began to work, and I felt the music of Bellini mingling with their analgesic effect like a relief and a blessing. I could hardly take in the fact that in addition it came through the summery blue of the ether from Bregenz, for the Bregenz Festival was inextricably bound up in my memory with the Singspiel Zar und Zimmermann, always performed in the lakeside theater there year after year without fail.
The Bregenz Festival and the clog dance had been one and the same thing in my mind as far back as I can remember. If you went from S. to Bregenz on the Alpenvogel bus, you were going there to see the clog dance. The clog dance, along with various pieces by the composer Flotow and the famous aria from the Evangelimann, used to be the music that always came top in the Sunday request concert broadcast every Sunday by Bavarian Radio; we regularly listened to it at home after the children’s program. Nothing could compete, except perhaps the Don Cossacks and the Soldier on the Banks of the Volga, or the chorus of captives from Nabucco.
I could not really account for the nature of this potpourri at the time, but today it seems to me that these dubious German preferences had something to do with the time when the sons of the fatherland were sent east. So dazzlingly bright were the vast Ukrainian fields of grain, I read not long ago, that many of the German soldiers who passed through them in the summer of 1942 wore sunglasses or snow goggles to avoid damaging their eyes. When the 16th Panzer Division reached the Volga at Rynok north of Stalingrad on August 23 as the light was fading, they saw beyond the opposite bank a country of deep green woods and fields apparently stretching away to infinity. Some of them, we know, dreamed of settling here after the war; others may have sensed already that they would never return from that distant land.
Teure Heimat, wann seh’ ich dick wieder (“Dear homeland, when shall I see you again?”) runs the opening of the German version of the chorus “Va pensiero,” and in a way it was code for the vague feeling, never to be uttered aloud, that the Germans were the real victims of the war. Only in the aftermath of the so-called reparations did anyone think of giving the Hebrews their own rights and, for instance in a production of Nabucco at Bregenz in the mid-nineties, making the anonymous slaves into real Jews in striped uniforms. Soon after the beginning of that particular season I took part, as I still regret, in one of the events in the framework program of the festival, and in addition to my fee was given two tickets for the performance of Nabucco that evening. Holding these tickets, I stood undecided outside the theater until the last of the spectators had disappeared through the entrances: undecided because with every passing year I find it increasingly impossible to mingle with an audience; undecided because I did not want to see the chorus dressed in costume as concentration camp inmates; and undecided because I saw a storm coming up behind the Pfänder and unlike other visitors to the festival had not thought of bringing an umbrella. As I stood there a young lady came up to me, probably because I looked like someone let down by his companion, and asked whether by any chance I had a spare ticket. She had come a long way, she said, and was disappointed to find that there were no tickets available at the box office. When I gave her my two tickets and wished her a pleasant evening she thanked me, a little dismayed to find that I did not want to see the Bregenz performance of Nabucco with her, as she might well have expected.
Half an hour after missing this opportunity I was sitting on the balcony of my hotel room. Thunder rolled across the sky; the rain soon began pouring down and it suddenly turned very cold, which did not surprise me, for it had snowed the day before in the upper Engadine even though it was midsummer. Now and then lightning flashed, briefly lighting up the Alpine garden that covered the whole slope behind the hotel. It had been laid out in long years of work by a man called Josef Hoflehner, with whom I had struck up a conversation on the afternoon when I saw him working in his rockery. Josef Hoflehner, who must have been well over eighty, told me that during the last war he was a prisoner in a wood-cutting squad in Scotland, working in Inverness and all over the Highlands. He had been a schoolteacher by profession, he told me, first in upper Austria and then in Vorarlberg. I don’t remember what made me ask him where he had trained, but I remember he told me it was in Kundmanngasse in Vienna, in the same institution and at the same time as Wittgenstein. He called Wittgenstein a prickly character, but would say no more about him.
Before going to sleep that
An Attempt at Restitution
I can still see us in the days before Christmas 1949 in our living room above the Engelwirt inn in Wertach. My sister was eight at the time, I myself was five, and neither of us had yet really got accustomed to our father, who since his return from a French POW camp in February 1947 had been employed in the local town of Sonthofen as a manager (as he put it), and was at home only from Saturday to midday on Sunday. In front of us, open on the table, lay the new Quelle mail-order catalog, the first I ever saw, containing what seemed to me a fairy-tale assortment of wares, from which it was decided in the course of the evening and after long discussions, in which our father got his sensible way, to order a pair of camel’s-hair slippers with metal buckles for each of us children. I think zip fastenings were still quite rare at the time.
But in addition to the camel’s-hair slippers we ordered a card game called the Cities Quartet based on pictures of the cities of Germany, and we often played it during the winter months either when our father was at home or when there was another visitor to make a fourth. Have you got Oldenburg, we asked, have you got Wuppertal, have you got Worms? I learned to read from these names, which I had never heard before. I remember that it was a long time before I could imagine anything about these cities, so different did they sound from the local place-names of Kranzegg, Jungholz, and Unterjoch, except the places shown on the cards in the game: the giant Roland, the Porta Nigra, Cologne Cathedral, the Crane Gate in Danzig, the fine houses around a large square in Breslau.
In fact, in the Cities Quartet, as I reconstruct it from memory, Germany was still undivided—at the time of course I thought nothing of that—and not only undivided but intact, for the uniformly dark brown pictures of the cities, which gave me at an early age the idea of a dark fatherland, showed the cities of Germany without exception as they had been before the war: the intricate gables below the citadel of the Nürnberger Burg, the half-timbered houses of Brunswick, the Holsten Gate of the Old Town in Lübeck, the Zwinger and the Brühl Terraces.
The Cities Quartet marked not only the beginning of my career as a reader but the start of my passion for geography, which emerged soon after I began school: a delight in topography that became increasingly compulsive as my life went on and to which I have devoted endless hours bending over atlases and brochures of every kind. Inspired by the Cities Quartet, I soon found Stuttgart on the map. I saw that compared with the other German cities it was not too far from us. But I could not imagine a journey to it, any more than I could think what the city itself might look like, for whenever I thought of Stuttgart all I could see was the picture of Stuttgart Central Station on one of the cards in the game, a bastion of natural stone designed by the architect Paul Bonatz before the First World War, as I later learned, and completed soon after it, a building that in its angular brutalist architecture already to some extent anticipated what was to come, perhaps even, if I may be permitted so fanciful a mental leap, anticipated the few lines written by an English schoolgirl of about fifteen (judging by the clumsy handwriting) on holiday in Stuttgart to a Mrs. J. Winn in Saltburn in the county of Yorkshire on the back of a picture postcard, which came into my hands at the end of the 1960s in a Salvation Army junk shop in Manchester, and which shows three other tall buildings in Stuttgart and Bonatz’s railway station, curiously enough from exactly the same viewpoint as in our long-lost German Cities Quartet game.
Betty, for such was the name of the girl spending the summer in Stuttgart, writes on August 10, 1939, barely three weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War—when my father was already approaching the Polish border in Slovakia with his convoy of trucks—Betty writes that the people in Stuttgart are very friendly, and she has “been out tramping, sunbathing and sightseeing, to a German birthday party, to the pictures and to a festival of the Hitler Youth.”
I acquired this card, with the picture of the railway station and the message on the back, on one of my long walks through the city of Manchester, before I had ever been to Stuttgart myself. When I was growing up in the Allgäu in the postwar period you did not travel much, and if you did go for an outing now and then as the “economic miracle” set in, it was by bus to the Tyrol, to Vorarlberg, or at most into Switzerland. There was no call for excursions to Stuttgart or any of the other cities that still looked so badly damaged, and so until I left my native land at the age of twenty-one it was still largely unknown territory to me, remote and with something not quite right about it.
It was May 1976 when I first got out of a train at Bonatz’s station, for someone had told me that the painter Jan Peter Tripp, with whom I had been to school in Oberstdorf, was living in Reinsburgstrasse in Stuttgart. I remember that visit to him as a remarkable occasion, because with the admiration I immediately felt for Tripp’s work it also occurred to me that I too would like to do something one day besides giving lectures and holding seminars. At the time Tripp gave me a present of one of his engravings, showing the mentally ill judge Daniel Paul Schreber with a spider in his skull—what can there be more terrible than the ideas always scurrying around our minds?—and much of what I have written later derives from this engraving, even in my method of procedure: in adhering to an exact historical perspective, in patiently engraving and linking together apparently disparate things in the manner of a still life.
I have kept asking myself since then what the invisible connections that determine our lives are, and how the threads run. What, for instance, links my visit to Reinsburgstrasse with the fact that in the years immediately after the war it contained a camp for so-called displaced persons, a place which was raided on March 20, 1946, by about a hundred and eighty Stuttgart police officers, in the course of which, although the raid discovered nothing but a black market trade in a few hen’s eggs, several shots were fired and one of the camp inmates, who had only just been reunited with his wife and two children, lost his life.
Why can I not get such episodes out of my mind? Why, when I take the S-Bahn toward Stuttgart city center, do I think every time we reach Feuersee Station that the fires are still blazing above us, and since the terrors of the last war years, even though we have rebuilt our surroundings so wonderfully well, we have been living in a kind of underground zone? Why did it seem to the traveler on a winter night, coming from Möhringen and getting his first sight from the back of a taxi of the new administrative complex of the firm of Daimler, that the network of lights glittering in the darkness was like a constellation of stars spreading all over the world, so that these Stuttgart stars are visible not only in the cities of Europe, the boulevards of Beverly Hills and Buenos Aires, but wherever columns of trucks with their cargos of refugees move along the dusty roads, obviously never stopping, in the zones of devastation that are always spreading somewhere, in the Sudan, Kosovo, Eritrea, or Afghanistan?
And how far is it from the point where we find ourselves today back to the late eighteenth century, when the hope that mankind could improve and learn was inscribed in handsomely formed letters in our philosophical firmament? At the time Stuttgart, nestling amid vineyards and overgrown slopes, was a little place of some twenty thousand souls, some of whom, as I once read, lived on the top floors of the towers of the collegiate church. One of the sons of the country, Friedrich Hölderlin, proudly addresses this small, still sleepy little Stuttgart where cattle were driven into the marketplace early in th
Soon afterward he sets off again to Hauptwil in Switzerland, accompanied by friends through the wintry Schönbuch to Tübingen, then alone up the rugged mountain and down the other side, on the lonely road to Sigmaringen. It is twelve hours’ walk from there to the lake. A quiet journey across the water. The next year, after a brief stay with his family, he is on the road again through Colmar, Isenheim, Belfort, Besançon, and Lyon, going west and southwest, passing through the lowlands of the upper Loire in mid-January, crossing the dreaded heights of the Auvergne deep as they are in snow, going through storms and wilderness until he finally reaches Bordeaux. You will be happy here, Consul Meyer tells him on his arrival, but six months later, exhausted, distressed, eyes flickering, and dressed like a beggar he is back in Stuttgart. Receive me kindly, stranger that I am. What exactly happened to him? Was it that he missed his love, could he not overcome his social disadvantage, had he after all seen too far ahead in his misfortune? Did he know that the fatherland would turn away from his vision of peace and beauty, that soon those like him would be watched and locked up, and there would be no place for him but the tower? A quoi bon la littérature?
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