Caught by the River

Versions of Himself

23rd August 2014

ariadne's thread_fb (2)

Ariadne’s Thread: In Memory of W.G. Sebald; Philipa Comber
w/foreword by Iain Sinclair
270 pages, hardback. Out September 5th on Propolis Books.

Review by Dan Richards

In his book Austerlitz, Sebald suggested that all the moments of a life might occupy the same space: ‘as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last, just as when we have accepted an invitation we duly arrive in a certain house at a given time.’

Yet anyone approaching Sebald’s life appears obliged to do so tangentially since he seems so rarely at home. So off the enquirer trudges, trailing in the wake of this mythical ‘W.G. Sebald’ who roves so Delphic, kin to Milne’s Heffalump: prolific rug-puller, goalpost mover & biographee absentee; a flâneur Godot — the desk empty but the tea still warm.
A writer who left behind a mesmeric, evasive canon of work which oscillates from delicate pointillism & brusque redaction — often within the same paragraph.
An anamorphic writer, but where to stand?
A writer swathed in excursus — and that’s the writer, never mind the man…

‘The idea of the digression was so intrinsic to the conception of both The Rings of Saturn and The Emigrants that one never doubted, however wayward and unfamiliar the territory, that Sebald knew exactly where he was going.’ wrote Geoff Dyer shortly after Sebald’s death in December, 2001… which begs the question whether the map of Sebald’s terrain was lost with him that day, the fibril thread exhausted.

Photo of PMC by Irene Leverenz Berlin April 1982Philippa Comber. Photo: Irene Leverenz, Berlin 1982

Philippa Comber was a friend of Sebald’s for many years and in this book she has set out to tell of her times with him — weaving his story about her own, a double helix memoir of a friendship — building a picture of the person stood behind the spectral projections of the work.

Philippa recalls and refracts Max by means of diary extract, retrospective reappraisal, layers of detail, sketch and gesture. It’s a subtle and tender story; respectful, funny, sad but never po-faced. As with Sebald’s writing, Comber often errs on the side of wry and the book is shot through with ironic tangents and unexpected parallels: when Werner Heisenberg, father of the Uncertainty Principle, crops up early on, encountered by perfect chance, the author is at pains to note how banal this seemed at the time.

‘We should value Ariadne’s Thread as much for the diversions into Comber’s own legacy, her European journeys, the acts and coincidences of a rich life, as for serial revelations of the Sebaldian persona.” suggests Iain Sinclair in his excellent foreword, and by turns we learn of Comber’s own remarkable past, meandering, itinerant and questing as she revisits those imponderables that govern our course through life, coming to know the pair through their reciprocal passions and shared concerns — an alliance based on long conversations, letters, years of silence.

A beautifully contrapuntal dance.

Sinclair suggests our fetish for the biographies of enigmatic personalities is binding and compulsive, a need to see the workings even if the mystery and magic spoil as a consequence. A professional psychotherapist, Comber resisted placing Sebald on the couch in his lifetime — despite his stated wish to be analysed and sussed — and perhaps the most affecting aspect of Ariadne’s Thread is that Comber’s Max emerges unsolved; manifesting instead through a palimpsest of correspondence, journal entries, poetry, translation, photographs, jostling memories, circuitous journeys, newspaper clippings and published prose.

‘When I met Max in 1981, he had been at a critical juncture in his life.’ she writes towards the book’s close. ‘During the 1990’s, versions of himself started to appear in his writing…’

This absorbing and vivid book is Comber’s version, you sense; a weaving together and teasing apart of their time together. An aptly equivocal love letter to Max Sebald: precision craftsman of ambiguity and antique sash-cords, teas-maid evangelist, car boot sale enthusiast, Gordian friend.

Ariadne’s Thread: In Memory of W.G. Sebald is published by Propolis, a new imprint based at The Book Hive, Norwich, where both Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and Jonathan Gibb’s Randall were brought to light by the owner, when home to Galley Beggar Press. Propolis seeks to unearth and release idiosyncratic works which may otherwise struggle to find a publisher. Ariadne’s Thread: In Memory of W.G. Sebald by Philipa Comber is their first book.

Pick up a copy for £14.99 here

Dan Richards on Caught by the River