Earlier this year, I read Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald (Penguin, 2002, tr. Anthea Bell). It’s about a Jewish architectural historian, Jacques Austerlitz, who escaped from Nazi Germany as a young child on a Kindertransport. His early past obliterated, in later life he embarks on a quest to recover his lost identity. The novel is illustrated throughout with black and white photographs – details of various buildings and spaces mentioned in the narrative; fragments of memory. Here is a quote I like very much. It’s in the context of Austerlitz talking about his youthful hobby of photography: “From the outset my main concern was with the shape and self-contained nature of discrete things, the curve of banisters on a staircase, the moulding of a stone arch over a gateway, the tangled precision of the blades in a tussock of dried grass” (p.108). This quote is on the same page as a block of four small photographs: a detail of coastline with the land in silhouette; a slightly blurred detail of leaves against the sky; tiles on a roof; and factory chimneys belching smoke.
Further on, Austerlitz finds his way into the abandoned ladies’ waiting room at Liverpool Street Station in London. The sight of the dilapidated splendour of this room sets him into a kind of reverie which ends with a vision of himself as a small child being met in that very same room by his foster parents. The book is full of rooms and other spaces which all point back to the past. When I started thinking about the abstract paintings I’ve been doing I realised that they seemed to derive from two or three distinct sources: the open landscape of the moors (or deserts), rooms and engineering structures, such as bridges and gantries. One motif, a rectangle with one corner chopped off, which I did a version of today, (it occurred to me) might derive from the plan of my bedroom in my parents’ house, which had a door in the corner, making the room have five sides (my bedroom in my current house is also like this, as was one of my bedrooms as a student). I’m interested in the idea that, if I let the ideas be themselves, then they will gradually show their meanings – that they all point back to something.
Part of the key to Austerlitz’s past is his recognition of details of his environment. The recognition he experiences in the ladies’ waiting room at Liverpool Street Station is the starting point of his journey of rediscovery. As he walks down the Sporkova, the street in Prague where he lived as a small boy, before his flight to Britain, he notices small details, which reconnect him with his past: “It was true that I could recognize nothing for certain, yet I had to keep stopping now and then because my glance was caught by a finely wrought window grating, the iron handle of a bell-pull, or the branches of an almond tree growing over a garden wall. Once I stood for a considerable time outside the vaulted entrance to a building, said Austerlitz, looking up at a half-relief set in the smooth plaster above the keystone of the arch. The cast was no more than a square foot in size, and showed, set against a spangled sea-green background, a blue dog carrying a small branch in its mouth, which I could tell, by the pricking of my scalp, it had brought back out of my past” (p.213).
Later, as he leaves Prague by train to retrace his journey to the Hook of Holland, he is convinced that he remembers seeing the pattern of semicircles, triangles, horizontals and verticals in the glass roof of the Wilsonova Station (there is a photograph of this on p.309). Then he gets out at Pilsen to photograph a detail of the station there, “which had touched some chord of recognition in me. What made me uneasy at the sight of it, however, was not the question of whether the complex form of the capital, now covered with a puce-tinged encrustation, had really impressed itself on my mind when I passed through Pilsen with the children’s transport in the summer of 1939, but the idea, ridiculous in itself, that this cast-iron column, which with its scaly surface seemed almost to approach the nature of a living being, might remember me and was, if I may so put it, said Austerlitz, a witness to what I could no longer recollect for myself” (p.311).
A few things interest me in this: the suggestive power of shapes, forms and simple things; the idea of inanimate forms impressing themselves on the mind of a child and then remaining there for the rest of the person’s life, hidden in the sediment of the soul and exerting a hold or a force; and the idea of inanimate aspects of one’s surroundings seeming to be alive. I remember walking with my mother to primary school up the hill beside Acomb Green, past an old house which had an iron gate with two gateposts. One, probably the older, was tall, round, slightly tapered and had an ornamental ball on its top. The second was shorter, square and had a flat square top. Both were painted green. I invested these two posts with complete personalities; or, more accurately, they just seemed to have those personalities. The shorter one always seemed to have just said something rude – the flat top probably reminded me of a pair of rude lips, or a jocund flat cap. The other seemed to be rather stuck up and to be telling the shorter post off. They were part of my everyday experience and it was rather like passing two old men who were always leaning over the same wall. “Now then, gentlemen!” “How do?!” “Morning!” (Now, when I pass them, I’m more likely to notice the painted false window on the wall of the house. I need to go down on my knees to be impressed by the posts again – height is everything).