The pedant's revolt

James Wood, London Review of Books, 20-Feb-2014:

In The Emigrants, [W.G. Sebald] wrote about four such wanderers: Dr Henry Selwyn, a Lithuanian Jew who arrived in Britain at the beginning of the 20th century, and who lived a life of stealthy masquerade as an English doctor, before committing suicide late in life…

I have it on very good authority that most people who commit suicide do so late in life.

Wittgenstein's Drachenflugexperiment

Thanks to my grandfather and a number of his contemporaries, I do not speak German. As you might have gathered, however, I am a huge fan of the late W.G. Sebald: a German author, who, despite speaking excellent English and living most of his adult life in Norwich, wrote almost exclusively in his native tongue. English monolinguals like me have Sebald's excellent translators, Michael Hulse and Anthea Bell, ably assisted by Sebald himself, to thank for the English translations of his masterpieces The Rings of Saturn, Vertigo, The Emigrants, and Austerlitz. We also, incidentally, have the same Anthea Bell to thank for the magnificent English translations of many of the Asterix books. But I digress, as usual.

In order to try to get my head around Sebald's writing, I am currently working my way through a rather academic book entitled W.G. Sebald—a Handbook (review to follow). I am enjoying the book very much—particularly those sections which I can understand. This is not mock-modesty on my behalf, as it turns out that a couple of the sections of the book are written in German, without any English translation.

As I was flicking uncomprehendingly through these German sections yesterday, a short Sebaldian paragraph leapt out of the page at me:

Auf den Pennines. 1910. W. und der Freund Eccles. Das Drachenflugexperiment. W. schaut dem Drachen nach, der immer mehr an Höhe gewinnt.

It was, of course, the word Pennines—the hills in which I now live—that caught my attention. I knew that Sebald had lived in Manchester for a number of years, and he mentions the Pennines once or twice in his writing, but I was intrigued to understand what the above paragraph meant.

Thanks to Google Translate, I have an answer. The above paragraph apparently translates as follows:

On the Pennines. 1910. W. and his friend Eccles. The kite-flying experiment. W. looks at the dragon that is gaining in height.

Ah, yes, but who is ‘W’? The obvious, although incorrect, answer is that it is W.G. Sebald himself. We know this is incorrect for three reasons:

  1. W.G. Sebald was not alive in 1910. It could be argued that 1910 refers to 7:10pm, but it clearly does not;
  2. W.G. Sebald's full name was Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald. For personal reasons, he tended not to use the names Winfried Georg—one reason being that his first name sounded like a girl's name to his English friends. He much preferred to be called Max. Therefore, if Sebald were writing about himself in the third person, using only an initial, he would probably have put either ‘M’ or ‘S’;
  3. an English footnote to the German chapter makes it perfectly clear that the ‘W’ in question is none other than the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

What's that you say? Ludwig Wittgenstein flying a kite in the Pennines?!

Anyone who has read Sebald will suspect that there is probably more than an ounce of truth to this story. And so it turns out. A bit more Googling soon revealed the following in John Dobson's online ‘Scrapbook’:

Wittgenstein Flies a Kite

Wittgenstein and a kite

It is not generally known that the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 — 1951) was an early researcher into the aerodynamics of flight. His first research post was at the University of Manchester (then known as Owens College) in the summer of 1908, when he moved to a kite-flying station at Glossop (near Manchester). In return for “constructing, sending up, and recovering the instrument-bearing kites” used for meteorological observation, he would get to use the equipment there for his own kite research. Apparently he was inexperienced, for he wrote home from Glossop that he first observed and then learned how to make a kite.

The work at the station was arduous and continuous. Sometimes there would be eight or ten ascents a day until as late as nine or ten at night. The kites would be sent up as high as 5,000 feet (naturally this demanded a train of kites). Sometimes the kites would escape or come down and then a correspondingly long distance would have to be traversed over rough pathless heather moors to recover them. The winch system used for that instrument-carrying kite system may well have been Cody's man-carrying kite system, and Cody likewise became interested in solving the problem of heavier-than-air flight through such inventions.

The photograph show[s] Wittgenstein (on the right) with his close friend and mentor William Eccles and the instrument-bearing kite on the moors above Glossop in the summer of 1908.

The story of this period of Wittgenstein's life is well researched and well told in Wittgenstein Flies a Kite by Susan Sterrett (Pi Press, New York: 2006), though the book is mainly concerned with his more successful and ground-breaking research into the philosophy of language.

Furthermore, there is even a website entitled In the Footsteps of Wittgenstein, which recently celebrated Wittgenstein's pioneering aviation work with a mass kite-flying over the Glossop hills.

We only get a few measly decades on this planet. How am I ever going to cram all this fascinating information in?

W.G. Sebald ten years on

The German writer W.G. Sebald died in a car crash near his home in Norfolk ten years ago today. I had only recently heard of him, having a short while previously read a review in the London Review of Books of what proved to be his final work of Sebaldiana, Austerlitz. I use the word Sebaldiana, because I do not know how else to describe the genre in which Sebald wrote: a haunting, inextricable amalgam of fact and fiction, interspersed with enigmatic, captionless photographs, paragraphs (and occasionally sentences) which run on for several pages, narrative nested several narrators deep, unlikely coincidences, dream sequences, panic attacks, curiously empty landscapes, and occasional dry humour. The books are, I think, about the unreliable nature of memory, with the holocaust nagging away, understated, in the background (overstatement being impossible). Or so I believe. But that, it seems to me, might be the whole point: I think you are supposed to work out what it all means to you. Or perhaps I am mistaken.

This year, I re-read three of Sebald's four works of Sebaldiana: The Rings of Saturn, Vertigo, and The Emigrants, and I am as perplexed as ever. Which I think must count as a ringing endorsement. If a ringing endorsement from me isn't enough to put you off, then it seems to me that you could do far worse than to pick up a copy of The Rings of Saturn—perhaps my favourite of Sebald's books—and read it twice: the first time to find it strange, haunting, and unclassifiable; the second time just to reassure yourself that your unreliable memory did not deceive you, and that the book really was as strange, haunting, and unclassifiable as you seem to think you might remember.

Or you could just listen to these five, fifteen-minute programmes about Sebald, which were aired on BBC Radio 3 last week. Or this half-hour American radio interview with Sebald made shortly before his untimely death.