Sebald at Marienbad

I have been in the midst of a long-overdue reading of Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, and now, about 2/3 of the way through, I am delighted to find that the titular character visits the spa at Marienbad, Czechoslovakia.

This is, undoubtedly, unconsequental to many of you, but the Bioy Casares fans among us have probably already made the connection to Alain Robbe-Grillet’s film Last Year at Marienbad. Robbe-Grillet’s film was famously inspired by Bioy Casares’s masterpiece, The Invention of Morel, and both the movie and the book take memory and its workings as a central issue.

Anyone who knows anything about Sebald knows that memory is also one of his main concerns (perhaps the main concern), and many consider Austerlitz to be his novel in which memory is most significant of all. Thus I am more than tempted to wonder if Sebald’s invocation of Marienbad was not accidental; it seems certain that Sebald was aware of Robbe-Grillet’s film, and I  wonder if he was aware of Bioy Casares’s novel.

There would certainly be some reason to believe this. Morel is about a man who cannot ever speak to a woman he loves and Sebald’s episode at Marienbad deals with Austerlitz’s inability to speak his love (or much of anything else) to a woman. (For the record, Robbe-Grillet’s movie also turns on a similar point.) Here’s a good breakdown of what happens in Austerlitz, from a very interesting online Sebald essay that I have just discovered:

One of the most powerful and abstract passages contributing to the
water-time metaphor is Austerlitz’s cold-war visit to Marienbad,
the well-known spa resort which Austerlitz’s family had visited
just before World War II.  He accompanies Marie, the woman he
will later regret having lost through his own strange inability to
live in the present.  Of the reception clerk at the hotel Austerlitz
recalls “that although he could not have been much over forty
his forehead was wrinkled in fan-like folds above the root of his
nose” (208) and that he “went through the necessary
formalities without another word, very slowly, almost as if he were
moving in a denser atmosphere than ours” (208).  These are
the first of several details which portray Marienbad as a resort
submerged, for a man submerged in water would have wrinkled skin, be
unable to speak, and move slowly.  Moreover, there is a layer of dust
on the desk of their hotel room, a detail which perhaps refers to the
billiard table without dust in the sealed room which contained the toy
Ark.  Austerlitz initially felt deeply content lying next to Marie,
but as he fell asleep, his “mind became gradually
submerged” (211), and in the morning he “sat up and,
like a man seasick, had to perch on the edge of the
bed” (211).  Looking out the window he sees “the
grand hotels ranged in a semicircle rising to the heights, the
Pacifik, the Atlantic, the Metropole, the Polonia and Bohemia with
their rows of balconies, their corner turrets and roof ridges emerging
from the morning mist like oceangoing steamers from a dark
sea” (212).  Walking through the deserted town, he
“kept feeling as if someone else were walking beside
[him]” (212).

Sebald thus intimately links this passage to Austerlitz’s
childhood vision of the submerged village of Llanwddyn.  Compare, for
instance, Marie’s plea to Austerlitz: “why do I see your
lips opening as if you were about to say something, maybe even cry out
loud, and then I hear not the slightest sound?” (215-216)
to Austerlitz’s childhood vision of the former inhabitants of
Llanwddyn “still down in the depths, sitting in their houses and
walking along the road, but unable to speak and with their eyes opened
far too wide” (51-52).  Austerlitz is thus metaphorically
submerged in Marienbad’s past, in particular, the Marienbad he
once visited with Vera and his parents.

When Marie confronts Austerlitz about remaining
“unapproachable” (215) and “like a pool of
frozen water” (215) (this after warning him about
Schumann’s descent into insanity, leading to his attempted
suicide-by leaping into the icy waters of the Rhine), the two are
standing in a spa’s pump room.  “It isn’t true that
we need absence and loneliness” (216) she tells him; she is
here trying to rescue him from his submersion in the past, and this is
why Sebald sets the scene in the pump room.

All this happens at a very propitious time, as the Pacific Film Archive is screening Last Year at Marienbad this very Friday.



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Apologies Scott if you know this already, but I heard that the title “Last Year in Marienbad” comes from a line in letter from Kafka to Felice. If this is apocryphal, then the fact that they spent some time together in Marienbad is not. Sebald would have known this of course.

It’s probably just a typo, but Bioy Casares’ book is “The Invention of Morel.”

I read Austerlitz last month and had the same thought when I came across Marienbad. It made me think of the film and then Bioy.

What other fiction is Marienbad a setting in? I think in some of Nabokov’s work perhaps, but not sure which part… any others?

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