Someone said that W.G. Sebald’s stroke, suffered at the wheel of his car, coincided with a perfect idea for a novel, an enormous mental breakthrough. Maybe the two can be considered one: the stroke was the breakthrough. I don’t know where this account of Sebald’s last moments comes from. But remember, his death wasn’t really so long ago. He could have been using a cell phone, verbalizing his thoughts to a careful, trustworthy listener—perhaps his wife. Perhaps he died in the midst of telling his wife all about his mental breakthrough, dictating from one world to the next. Although if the breakthrough and the stroke were really the same event, he couldn’t have verbalized his idea—there wouldn’t have been time.
Perhaps I conflated details of Sebald’s death with the events of Thomas Bernhard’s novel The Loser, which presents a fictionalized version of Glen Gould’s death: a massive stroke in the middle of performing the Goldberg Variations. It’s a story about the death of desire. A pianist, the eponymous loser, is emotionally and psychically crushed by the musical ability of his friend, Glen Gould. Later, Glen Gould is crushed by a stroke. Why is it such a funny novel? Sebald once spoke of his admiration of Bernhard. Maybe he was thinking of The Loser when he died.
I began to worry that if I continued to associate these two ideas too closely—Sebald’s stroke and his mental breakthrough, his great idea for a novel—I would turn myself accidentally into a person who was afraid of great ideas. The other possibility was that I would turn myself into a person whose main goal in life was to have a stroke. I would spend years concentrating my energies on the target provided by Sebald, which was the stroke. Because the stroke leads to the breakthrough. It didn’t make any sense. I wanted to be Sebald, but the only way to do it that I knew of was to have a stroke. I was scaring myself. I tried to stop thinking about writing or Sebald, but I knew that eventually that would destroy me too, and ultimately I’d become a husk of a writer due to this notion—probably apocryphal, something I invented when I wasn’t paying attention—that Sebald’s best idea manifested as a stroke and killed him. An erroneous insight. How much truth can be mined from an erroneous insight? It doesn’t matter, I thought, I’ll never know with one hundred percent certainty which part is erroneous and which part is insight. Although if it’s one hundred percent error, pure error, wouldn’t that make it the perfect error? The perfect story. And perfect stories are usually true. I closed my eyes.
Recently, I was in the shower, thinking about Xanax. I thought, Xanax may be destroying my writing. I’ve got to quit. But quitting cold-turkey can lead to seizures. Seizures are sometimes indistinguishable from strokes, at least at first. I don’t want to have a seizure or a stroke; I don’t want to take off my costume before it’s time. Then I thought of Sebald, who left too early. Then I thought of writing this piece.
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