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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

July Reads

A list of the books I read and what I thought of them.

A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

This 1929 debut novel by British/Welsh writer Richard Hughes is a fast-paced, thrilling, and tumultuous adventure tale depicting a high-stakes seafaring voyage which goes awfully awry. Set sometime in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the novel follows the Bas-Thornton children, John, Emily, Edward, and Rachel, who have been raised by their English parents in Jamaica. But after a giant monsoon destroys their home, their parents decide to send them back to their original home in London aboard the merchant ship Corinda, accompanied by their two friends Margaret and Harry Fernandez. Captain Marpole commands the ship and vows to protect the children who, though weary at first, soon grows to enjoy the voyage. But not long after they set sail for England, they encounter a rogue ship out on the open water aboard which is a cast of vicious pirates who seize and ransack the Corinda and abduct all the children. Commanding the pirates is Captain Jonsen who, with his first mate Otto, are initially ambivalent about the kids, but over the course of their voyage, they begin to grow fond of them, a feeling reciprocated in the children. But all is not at ease out on the open waters, and as is wont to occur with pirates, conflicts arise–including a clash with a Dutch merchant vessel– which put the children’s lives in danger. However, it is not simply the external events which prove perilous for the children, threatening to compromise their safety, but the inner relations between themselves and with the pirates, too, grow heated, and as tensions rise amid coming of age in the Atlantic Ocean, what ensues is a journey much greater than a passage across the water.

British writer Rebecca West called it “a hot draught of mad, primal fantasy and poetry,” which I think is an apt description; it is a novel whose wind which blows within its pages seems, too, to blow without, often sending the reader tumbling into a typhoon spinning excitement and anxiety with each forceful revolution. But there’s much more to this wondrous novel. On the surface it is but a tale of pirates kidnapping children and the perilous journey such events entail; yet diving below the novel’s surface, a deeper tale emerges, one more sinister and more devious in its unspoken rendering. British novelist Ford Madox Ford summed it up beautifully when, describing Hughes’s novel, he wrote: “There used to hang on the walls of country public houses and farm laborers’ cottages a lithograph that, seen from close quarters, represented two innocent children against the light on a balcony beneath an arched window. When you receded from it you saw that in truth it showed as a skull, with crossbones complete beneath. Mr. Hughes’s book is that lithograph come to life in another art.” Ford’s formidable analogy is every bit transfixing as it is accurate. Along with Francine Prose’s masterful introduction, which itself has amounted a popularity of its own in the wake of the novel’s reawakened readerly admiration, Ford’s words, printed neatly in the back-cover blurb, is what sealed the deal for me: I picked up the novel, finally, and read it over the course of a week, speeding across the chapters, sailing through the passages, tumbling and turning through the wind and water of the written waves which wend the reader through such a whirlwind of a novel. I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment in recommending this devious nautical classic to anyone.

Vertigo by W.G. Sebald

This 1990 debut novel by German writer W.G. Sebald tracks the vertiginous peregrinations of one nameless narrator over land and water, across city and village, by foot and by train, as he traverses both the European continent and its history. The novel is split into four interlinking parts: the first, “Beyle, or Love is a Madness Lost Forever,” depicts a concise biography of the famous nineteenth-century French writer Stendhal (whose actual name was Marie-Henri Beyle); the second, “All’estero,” follows our unnamed narrator as he travels to and through the Alpine region of Europe, staying in various hostels and hotels, riding in trains, and encountering, sometimes conversing with, numerous fellow travelers, patrons, and staff of the establishments he visits; the third, “Dr. K Takes the Waters at Riva,” presents a slice-of-life biopic of a tumultuous chapter in Franz Kafka’s life, a section overlaying biographical detail with thematic currents lifted from Kafka’s short story “The Hunter Gracchus,” resulting in a blend of life and short story, tinged with historical veracity; and the fourth, “Il ritornio in patria,” recounts the narrator’s return to his hometown, a German village referred to only as “W,” which he hasn’t visited in many years and which, once he’s arrived, invites a frenzy of transtemporal connections, epiphanies and revelations, that weave together memory, literature, and history with his own rediscovered identity.

This wondrous novel inaugurated the brief but undeniably prolific literary career of one of my favorite all-time writers. I first read Austerlitz, his final novel, back in April of 2021 and ended up listing it on my best-of-the-year list. I vowed to read the rest of his work eventually, and now I’ve taken the plunge, to the read his only three other novels in his short catalogue of four fiction works. Opening Vertigo was like jumping back into that month when I first discovered Sebald, as I fell back into the winding, twisting, turning form of the narrative, soaring through decades of history, as enamored and captivated with these coiling stories as I was with those in Austerlitz. It was like revisiting a place which I hadn’t realized I had missed so much, a place to which I had subconsciously longed to return–a sentiment that eerily mirrors the narrator’s own sojourn and subsequent experience traveling across great distance in the text and finally winding back in the place from which it all began, his home. “Traveling,” “winding,” “twisting,” and “turning” aptly describe the flow of Sebald’s prose, so much so I’ve taken to calling his work “meandering novels,” a name in which one may detect an air of whimsy, frivolity, capriciousness. But in truth, anxiety runs rampant throughout the text; the narrator seems constantly on the precipice of instability and we, the readers, can never really tell if at any moment he is going to step off the ledge and plummet into madness. Vertigo, for this reason, is a fitting title. This anxiety unmoors the reader along with the narrator, thwarting both from attaining solid ground: our narrator’s “solid ground” is always shifting–literally, as he traverses across the countries, cities, villages, etc.; and figuratively, as he never finds himself content or comfortable to stay in any one place, that is until the very end. But it isn’t just the physical and mental terrain from which Sebald detaches the narrator and, in consequence, the reader; it is also, perhaps most significantly, time, which the novel seems all but to obliterate. It was a delightfully haunting novel which only reignited my belief and conviction that Sebald’s work is singular in that annals of late twentieth century literature, a belief kept aflame by the subsequent works I read in tandem.

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald

This 1992 second novel by German writer W.G. Sebald is, like Vertigo, follows an unnamed narrator and his perilous peregrinations into the past, particularly those of four emigrants forced to flee from their homes during the Second World War. Like its predecessor, The Emigrants is also split into four interlinking sections: the first is the fable of one Henry Selwyn, the husband of our narrator’s landlady who owns a cottage in the English countryside in which our narrator has taken board for the short-term. Selwyn is an eccentric man in his old age, prone to hosting dinner parties and engaging in long discursive conversations, one of which depicts a friendship from his youth that ended sadly when the two were separated in the wake of WWI. Sadly, Selwyn’s story also ends in sorrow. The second section is the tale of Paul Bereyter, a schoolteacher from our narrator’s childhood, whose passion for teaching was often thwarted by the turmoil and unrest of the Second World War. Forced to relocate repeatedly, Bereyter’s tale is one of stifled love, suppressed agency, and tragic conclusion. The third tells the tale of Ambros Adelwarth, great-uncle to the narrator and a man he never truly knew, who, as our narrator learns mostly from an old still-living friend of his, traveled the world in his youth, with his close friend Cosmo, working and gallivanting across the European and Asian continents, making memories all the while. But when Cosmo unfortunately falls ill and is subsequently institutionalized, Ambrose, wracked with grief, emigrates to the states, finds work as a butler, but later falls much to a similar fate as his fallen friend. The final section presents the tale of Max Ferber, a painter who, for forty years, has worked in his tiny studio in the port of Manchester, England, painting pictures ranging from portraits to landscapes. Befriending our narrator, Ferber regales his family’s story: how his parents, being Jews during the Holocaust, sent him away to live with an uncle in England, whereupon they were soon sent to concentration camps. Ferber’s family story is rife with grief, to the point of incompletion, and Ferber gives our narrator a collection of memoirs written by his mother (who was a nurse during WWI in her early adulthood) replete with photos. It is her continued story which sets our narrator onto the final journey of the novel, to retrace her steps and reawaken the memories of a youth long withered and wrought by time.

Another powerful installation in W.G. Sebald’s “meandering novels,” I was unable to put it down. It is slightly longer than his first, more detailed, in-depth; one can see Sebald settling into his craft, spreading his proverbial wings, and flying pen in hand through the pages. Given the palpably heightened prowess in his sophomoric work, it might come unsurprising that I enjoyed this one more than Vertigo. However, beyond the prosaic and structural aspects which, for me, propel Sebald’s second novel ahead of his first, another reason contributes to my favorability: The Emigrants is discernibly darker than Vertigo. While the first was dark in its various shades, settings, silence, and motifs (one recalls the recurring shrouded corpse image), The Emigrants dives deeper into the ghosts of the World Wars, particularly WWII, and the trauma which has persisted across time. While the prevalence of death carries from the first and remains constant throughout, it is how death is portrayed and considered, its role and description, that darkens this tragic novel. The Emigrants is a sober novel, solemn in its deep and sweeping reflections, and the anxiety or vertigo which pervaded Sebald’s debut seems transmogrified into a despair which seeps through the text in unrelenting torrents, never for a moment to dwindle or vanish. Even the lighter moments are shaded with an ominous gloom, which inspires a certain melancholy at once individual and collective, existential and sublime, historical and atemporal. The four emigrants whose stories comprise the narrative have all experienced enormous grief in their lives, and while at times that grief is remaindered, downplayed, and stifled, it nonetheless spills through the barriers that contain it and into both the words and photos which convey their tale. This was a powerful one, a more serious, solemn novel than his first, and one which I absolutely fell into, captivated with each of the four tales. Each one left me breathless, awed, and reverent.

The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald

This 1995 third novel by German writer W.G. Sebald, like his previous two novels, follows a nameless wanderer, the narrator, as he ambles his way across the Suffolk coast along the North Sea, ruminating, reminiscing, and remembering all the while. Split into ten sections, each with a synoptic chapter heading inscribed in the table of contents, the novel, following the path paved by its predecessors, mixes myth and memoir, history and legend, fact and fiction, tale, testimony, and travelogue, replete with the black-and-white photographs scattered about which trademark Sebald’s work. As his feet maintain his wandering, so our narrator’s mind wanders too, drifting from historical anecdotes, scientific facts, and various musings on the environment, art, and above all, people. Each section contains a biography of sorts; recollected fragments of one’s life. Subjects include the English polymath Thomas Browne, the Polish-English author Joseph Conrad, the English diplomat Roger Casement, the Empress Dowager Tz’u Hsi, German translator Michael Hamburger, German poet Frederick Hölderlin, and the French writer François-René de Chateaubriand, to name only a few. Filling the intervals between are accounts of devastation, the razing of cities, burnings, ravaging at the hands of oppressive forces, as well as discursive contemplations on the emergence of silkworm cultivation in Europe, which recurs as a motif throughout, along with the literature of Borges, in particular his famous short story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” its lines and themes reemerging at random moment and peppering the present with added dimension of meaning. What unfolds is the tertiary installment of Sebald’s “meandering novels,” his longest and most ambitious, and one of the most interesting, thought-provoking, and strikingly unique novels I’ve ever read.

Eluding definition, skirting category, and spurning easy description, The Rings of Saturn caps the trilogy of novels whose reputation has permeated throughout contemporary literature and elevated the name Sebald into the upper echelons of literary prowess. I was initially hesitant to read The Rings of Saturn, or rather to finish it, foreseeing the inevitable onslaught of bittersweetness and ennui that would befall me soon after turning the last page. But such was not the case; instead, I discovered that, even in completing my introductory round with the novels, in concluding that sweet first reading, a thousand more lay in wait: countless new reading experiences, new interpretations, and the potential to uncover new treasure troves and decipher the secrets which evaded me this time around. Such is a testament to the well of wealth which these novels are, especially The Rings of Saturn. The novel concludes with a thorough account of the European history of sericulture, the cultivation and agriculture of silk, which seems a fitting ending to a book through whose chapters and plenteous pages run countless threads weaving myriad topics, people, and images into a grand narrative tapestry. The novel is less a book than it is a textile depicting in its marveling intricacy snapshots of history, stilling frames of time and turning intangible experience into a corpus all its own. Sebald brings moments which once were into moments that are, that continue to be, and will continue to be. And therein lies the brilliance and beauty of his work: from the tension between permanence and ephemerality arises the potential for something or someone–a memory, an event, a person–which/who once existed to come back into existence again, returning to be experienced and re-experienced forevermore. Few novels accomplish this feat, even fewer in such a magnificent, profound, and affecting way. And I’ve come to believe that it is this very achievement for which Sebald is so highly regarded, so widely read, and so greatly remembered.

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