What is ‘Vogue Rot’? Some kind of fungal disease found in cold and dark conditions, a form of wet anaerobic decay, or what? It sounds unpleasant, and it is. Fair warning.
Preamble: for some of us there is the sense that nothing ever happens (one could call this a peculiarly English sense of personal and collective history). We think we long for something to happen, but we spend all our energy avoiding the possibility and living our lives as if they form a single narrative. Occasionally however we meet someone whose life has been so fractured by an excess and constant happenings from birth and early childhood, that it breaks and collapses this idea of a single narrative.
I was lent a book last Sunday. It is called Ariadne’s Thread, In Memory of WG Sebald. It is a ficto-documentary written by Philippa Comber (‘PC’), using her diary and charting her encounters with ‘Max’ (as Sebald chose to call himself) from the time they first met in Norwich in 1980.
Sebald would not have liked the book’s title: Ariadne’s Thread smacks of mythological mish-mash, and exactly the kind “adornment” which he detested in writing and the pretence of strands woven into a single thread.
I began to suspect – In Memory of – was this a love/hate work? However, my mind was clouded by sentimental feelings for this particular writer who had first opened my eyes to the many strands and ‘constant happenings’ streams of mitteleuropa post-war literature. I also saw that PC had the advantages of speaking German, had lived among and knew the academic worlds of German literature, and she was a psychotherapist so she had the language of analysis at her disposal as well. So I opened the book on Sunday night and began to read.
I immediately noted the lack of any photographs in the book, of the kind which Sebald always included in his work, the images reproduced being faded through a particular process he employed of repeated photocopying. Here are some more sepia facts which were also omitted from the book. WG Sebald was born in Germany in May 1944 and died in a car crash in December 2001 in East Anglia at the age of 57. He married an Austrian born women called Ute in 1967, and they had a daughter, Anna, who was badly injured in the same car accident in which he died. His main translator was Anthea Bell with whom he worked collaboratively and simultaneously, Sebald sending her the first draft of chapters written in German, which she would send back translated into English with comments and feedback as he continued to write the later chapters. None of these facts are in the book, and the impression given is that PC was the only real woman in Sebald’s otherwise solitary life.
What is Vogue Rot? It is a kind of British monthly fashion magazine filled with photographs of models standing in various poses, and appeals to a particular aspirational social class of women. The magazine has been going for a very long time, and old copies are difficult to get rid of. Thick and glossy, they hardly burn even in a hot open fire, and natural decay takes a very long time. They rot very slowly even if added in a rich compost. Finally all text and images dissolve , but the resultant layer of grey wet dust adds no goodness to the soil.
An equivalent term to Vogue Rot might be “Utter Mess” – it was a favourite phrase of Sebald in conversation. Vogue Rot is also a style of English writing…
…Early on (p. 10) PC writes that from young adult life she liked to accumulate old copies of Vogue magazines, and that they filled her life and travelled with her in piles of “bricollage”. She says that Max enjoyed seeing these piles when he first visited. Rather than bricollage, the preferable word would have been in German (I am ignorant of what it would be – aka ‘grey wet dust’), and connected Sebald to the writing strand of Trummerliteratur (‘rubble literature’) and a post-war writer such as Heinrich Boll. Alexander Kluge (b 1932) continues in the tradition…
…Pulverised, wet, and in after shock from childhood. ‘In Memory…’ is not the way the likes of Penelope Fitzgerald would have researched and written a life of Sebald as Blue Flower, nor Anselm Kieffer painted a recollection of life in Morgenthau Plan land growing up like him in post-war Germany. Instead what PC tells is a singular English story held in the memory of a romantic crisis. This occurs shortly after the death of her father in 1981: she is in a “fair old turmoil”, contacts Max who she has been seeing quite frequently by then, and is rebuffed. The charged, as she puts it,”erotic” moment passed, but the pain has lingered on in the memory, analytically speaking her desire for comfort during this extreme experience of loss perhaps being aroused to resemble something else…
…Like an Ariadne’s Thread. I read to the end that same Sunday evening, not every word of course, but as much as I could bear to in the presence of this phenomenon Vogue Rot. Shudder of disgust, and unable to sleep I turned on Radio Benjamin and listened to one of his stories for children. It was called ‘On Swindlers’.
“Today I want to tell you about a great swindler…”, it began. A blessed transformational revolution swiftly followed and I soon passed into dreamless oblivion.
The book has since been returned.