Digression and the Literature of the Age of the Internet

DECEMBER 14, 2021, marked 20 years since the death of W. G. Sebald. The aneurysm that killed him at 57 while he was driving not far from his Norfolk, England, home sounds like a literary artifice: as good a way as any to close the lifelong digression of that German professor who arrived in the British countryside 35 years before to become, against all odds, one of the most prominent literary figures of our times. This brutal and unexpected death always reminds me of that of another German emigrant, Walter Benjamin, who took his own life in Spain while fleeing the Nazis.

Sebald wasn’t fleeing anyone. That night he was driving with his daughter, Anna. She survived the crash. But like Benjamin in the 1930s, he was peering down a precipice, staring at a world shattered by a sudden technological acceleration. If Benjamin foresaw better than anyone else in his time the effects of technology on the arts, in the 1990s, Sebald’s hypertextual writing opened the path for the new literature of the internet age.

It is often noted that Sebald’s peculiar literary technique anticipated by a decade those forms of web writing, especially blogs, that use both the juxtaposition of text and images and an unreliable first-person narrator suspended somewhere between confession and postmodernism (think, for example, of the beginning of The Rings of Saturn, where Sebald informs us of his admission to a Norwich hospital but doesn’t say anything about his alleged illness). Even more often, critics have insisted on the similarity between reading Sebald and browsing the web, with the shared feeling of drifting from one link to another, each connection taking us further away from the starting point until, as if we had fallen into a wormhole, we find ourselves on the main path once again.

Less often remarked upon, however, is the fact that Sebald’s books are virtually impossible to remember precisely, which is only an apparent paradox given that the main theme in his work is memory. Reading Sebald is a profoundly disorienting experience: the reader feels that she is lost — sometimes enjoyably so, and others distressingly so — somewhere in a random point of a hypertext that may not have an end. Sebald has a unique ability to blur the transition from one narrative block to the next, which makes reading his books a dreamlike experience: you read them and have the impression of entering and exiting a dream, or perhaps many interconnected dreams, similar to Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Like in dreams, when you wake up (but do you really wake up?), all you remember are vivid images torn out of context, fragments, and the impression of coming back from the underworld.

The extraordinary influence that Sebald has had on the fiction of the last 20 years can’t be explained by his literary talent alone. Moving from the most peripheral of positions, that of an unknown professor interested in themes like memory and exile, Sebald invented the literature of the future, blending fiction and nonfiction, mixing writing with photography, providing a literary dimension to the dizzying descents into rabbit holes and the apparently endless detours that make up our experience of the world in a time marked by the ubiquity of the World Wide Web.

There is yet another aspect of Sebald’s style that seems more and more like a prophecy. It’s something that I exemplified in the first paragraph of this essay when I compared Benjamin and Sebald, a comparison that could even be extended to include a certain physical resemblance: something that, in his last book, Daniel Mendelsohn calls “the kind of near-coincidence beloved of Sebald.”

Mendelsohn’s Three Rings is a peculiar book. The three undefinable texts contained within it tell the stories of, respectively, Erich Auerbach in Turkey; the 18th-century French archbishop François Fénelon, author of a spin-off of the Odyssey; and Sebald himself. Intertwined with these three biographical tales, we find Mendelsohn’s own story and the account of his difficulties in writing two books: a family history of the Holocaust and the memoir of a journey with his elderly father retracing the steps of Ulysses. And still, Three Rings is neither an autobiography nor a biography. More than anything else, it is a work of literary criticism dedicated to the narrative technique in which Sebald, like Homer, excelled: digression, or to be more precise that specific type of digression that Mendelsohn calls “ring composition.” He continues: “[T]he narrative appears to meander away into a digression […] although the digression, the ostensible straying, turns out in the end to be a circle, since the narration will return to the precise point in the action from which it had strayed.”

Mendelsohn notes that the Odyssey is the first example of a meandering narrative, or “polytropos,” many-turned storytelling, a narrative that meanders exactly like its hero. This is why, says Mendelsohn, the narratives based on ring composition are “optimistic,” because they affirm the “possibility of infinite digressions within an existing story, of a potentially endless series of smaller concentric circles nested within a larger one.” And this, he continues, is an idea of literature that has something in common with nomadism: the writer as a citizen of the world and, at the same time, essentially displaced. It is a version of literature that embeds all literatures, in which every individual (or national) literature is nothing but the smaller circle in the bigger circle of Weltliteratur — an idea without which Auerbach’s Mimesis, the subject of the first chapter of Mendelsohn’s book, would not exist.

Mendelsohn also highlights the substantial differences between Homer’s ring composition and that of Sebald: if the former uses digressions “both to illuminate and to enact a hidden unity in things,” similar to the plots of those TV shows that disclose key information about the story line using flashbacks that shed a new light on the life of the characters, in Sebald the digressions “seem designed to confuse, entangling his characters in meanderings from which they cannot extricate themselves and which have no clear destination.” By doing this, they force us to face the “disquieting possibility that there are stories that can have no ending, that merely spin on pointlessly […] with no hope of closure, of narrative satisfaction.”

This Kafkian possibility of stories without an end — of a narrative that, like Sebald’s own life, stops abruptly in an apparently random manner — is far from optimistic. But it is also a sign of the times: think of Lutz Bassmann’s (one of Antoine Volodine’s many pen names) short stories, or of the fact that Roberto Bolaño’s two great novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666, follow only very vaguely the idea of a “story line” and end up in nothing, or even better, in the very idea of nothingness.

In his 1967 classic, The Sense of an Ending, Frank Kermode argued a thesis that seems to me fundamental for literature in the age of the internet: when the end of times is perpetually deferred, we end up in a state of permanent “crisis.” Or, to use Kermode’s own word, the end, which was “imminent,” becomes “immanent.” It is no accident that, according to Kermode, this “immanentization” of the crisis finds its favorite literary technique in the Greek peripeteia, which we would translate in English as “digression.” Mendelsohn’s idea of lives “with no hope […] of narrative satisfaction” shows this very well: where there is no longer an end to storytelling, nor an end to life which could give it meaning, the quest for meaning becomes “immanent” too. Meaning, denied by the big narrative (the outer ring in Mendelsohn’s theory), comes back everywhere in the smaller narratives contained within it (the inner rings).

This is where the “near-coincidences” of Sebald’s writing come into play — the net of connections that in his novels gives us the impression, never confirmed nor denied, that the elements of a story are linked together to form a higher meaning, that there is a meaningful relation between the hecatomb of herrings and the history of coastal Norfolk, between Dr K. and the village of W., or between Austerlitz and Sebald himself. Sebald, who is a master in the art of vertigo, chases the amphetaminic ecstasy typical of our internet age, where everything seems connected to everything else. At the same time, he is too sophisticated, or perhaps just too disillusioned, to believe that a higher meaning actually exists. The reader is left with a powerful, yet disorienting, feeling of likeness, as happens in a déjà vu — as when a word stubbornly eludes our memory.

Near-coincidences are the leitmotif of a novel published in 2021, The Things We’ve Seen, written by Agustín Fernández Mallo and translated by Thomas Bunstead. Here, as in Mendelsohn’s case, using the word “novel” is misleading: the three texts that compose Mallo’s book are three independent novellas that form a triptych. At the same time, however, these texts are held together by a netted structure of cross-references that goes beyond the similarities of the three wars featured in the story lines, and that ends up producing an apophenic experience in which a number of elements recur. Once again, the reader has the impression of a higher unity that keeps escaping our comprehension.

Mallo’s work has been called, with some precision, the point of contact between Sebald and David Lynch. There are other clear references (Don DeLillo, Bolaño), but the comparison captures the dreamlike texture of his writing well. The three novellas work like Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, in which the opening of the mysterious blue box at the center of the film shuffles the elements to recombine them in unexpected new patterns, effectively creating an alternative drama staged by the same characters. Like Mulholland Drive, the atmosphere is numinous: seemingly mundane elements appear to signify something that we don’t really understand, but the tension is broken by moments of irony.

Sebald’s influence upon Mallo’s work goes beyond the content (the first of the three texts, for example, is about the Spanish island of San Simón in Galicia, used by Francisco Franco as a prison for political dissidents) and the most immediately recognizable form (the use of photographs as a commentary on the writing). What is Sebaldian in Mallo is, once again, the use of digression, which in the Spanish writer reaches a full-blown internet-like experience when the narrator suddenly wanders off to discuss insular dwarfism or the fact that on Venus a day lasts longer than a year due to its specific rotations and revolutions.

We are again confronted by the concentric rings of Mendelsohn’s theory and, at the same time, by their fundamental inability to signify a meaningful whole, to be contained in and summarized by the larger outer ring. The storytelling cannot really tell a story. Instead, it explodes into thousands of eccentric trickles. The meaning denied by the absence of an ending gives way to the semblance of meaning — a ghostly meaning. Literature turns into the report of a diffused pareidolia: the subtly paranoid feeling that the world is dotted with significant resemblances and the distressing perception that these never come together to form a broader and consistent narrative.

Mallo’s world, like that of Sebald and Mendelsohn, appears like a dream: entering and exiting a dreamlike state, in a succession of images and stories that cross our minds like shadows projected by a magic lantern: Fénelon at the court of Louis XIV; a cow that chooses to give birth among the Marines that have just seen the body of a Vietnamese man eaten by birds; a character that may or may not be Salvador Dalí, or Kafka, or Stendhal; Cesárea Tinajero, who may or may not exist, like visceral realism or post-exoticism. We chase the stories of the dead of the Holocaust as Ulysses was chasing his ghosts during his return to Ithaca, following ephemeral traces, sinking into a narrative impossible to distinguish from reality.

It is a literature influenced by the ADHD that we all suffer, in one way or another, in a world constantly connected, unable to remain focused on a single narrative for more than a few moments. But it is something I would call “hypnagogic literature,” to borrow the term that David Keenan used to describe the electronic music of the late 2000s, in a crucial moment when the analog sound of the 20th century was about to disappear forever. It is a literature that speaks about a new way of perceiving the world and resembles the imagery, vivid but also fleeting, that we see projected on our closed eyelids in the moments before we fall asleep. It is, therefore, a literature that has something to do with a state of hallucination.

Indeed, there is something hallucinatory in the idea of a “potentially endless series of smaller concentric circles nested within a larger one” described by Mendelsohn. We are, again, in the world of Inception, but perhaps even more in the realm of DeepDream: the computer vision program developed by Google in 2015 to create seemingly lysergic images looking for resemblances where, in reality, all that’s actually there is a meaningless cluster of pixels. DeepDream sees the face of a dog everywhere, just as Philip K. Dick, in Emmanuel Carrère’s account of his life, saw the face of Palmer Eldritch, the demiurge, in the cloudy skies of Northern California.

Even Sebald’s death, only three months after the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, is a near-coincidence: the writer who, better than anyone else, drew a line between 20th-century fiction and the literature of the age of the internet could only make his exit shortly after the event that marked the beginning of the new millennium. A new ring opens up where the old one has closed down. Where this will lead, only time will tell.

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Gianluca Didino is an Italian writer, essayist, and cultural critic based in London.

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