The contrast between two autobiographical writers whom I hold in reverence is never clearer than when they are contemplating Rembrandt’s painting of The Anatomy Lesson in the Mauritshuis.
W.G.Sebald, in Rings of Saturn, contemplates the picture through a palimpsest of recollections and bodily sensations as he lies in a featureless Norwich hospital . We are taken through layers of his consciousness, as he thinks of the Norwich doctor, Sir Thomas Browne, and wonders whether he was present at the lesson, or indeed whether he is depicted in the painting. It appears that Sebald, the consciousness drawing these apparently random thoughts together, is giving nothing of himself away, that his narrative, on one level all about himself and his experience of exile in England from Germany, is only semi-present.
Yet by the end of this hypnotic
book, mysteriously, we have learnt to know him (to use the evocative German phrase). No wonder he has spawned so many dozens of imitators, though it must be said, as it was originally said of another, “within that circle none durst walk but he”, and the Sebald imitators merely serve to illustrate whatever the mysterious “it” is which we find in his pages.
If we stand today before the large canvas of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson in the Mauritshuis we are standing precisely where those who were present at the dissection in the Waaggebouw stood, and we believe that we see what they saw then: in the foreground, the greenish, prone body of Aris Kindt, his neck broken and his chest risen terribly in rigor mortis. And yet it is debatable whether anyone ever really saw that body, since the art of anatomy, then in its infancy, was not least a way of making the reprobate body invisible. It is somehow odd that Dr Tulp’s colleagues are not looking at Kindt’s body, that their gaze is directed just past it to focus on the open anatomical atlas in which the appalling physical facts are reduced to a diagram, a schematic plan of the human being, such as envisaged by the enthusiastic amateur anatomist René Descartes, who was also, so it is said, present that January morning in the Waaggebouw. In his philosophical investigations, which form one of the principal chapters of the history of subjection, Descartes teaches that one should disregard the flesh, which is beyond our comprehension, and attend to the machine within, to what can fully be understood, be made wholly useful for work, and, in the event of any fault, either repaired or discarded. Though the body is open to contemplation, it is, in a sense, excluded, and in the same way the much-admired verisimilitude of Rembrandt’s picture proves on closer examination to be more apparent than real. Contrary to normal practice, the anatomist shown here has not begun his dissection by opening the abdomen and removing the intestines, which are most prone to putrefaction, but has started (and this too may imply a punitive dimension to the act) by dissecting the offending hand. Now, this hand is most peculiar. It is not only grotesquely out of proportion compared with the hand closer to us, but it is also anatomically the wrong way round: the exposed tendons, which ought to be those of the left palm, given the position of the thumb, are in fact those of the back of the right hand. In other words, what we are faced with is a transposition taken from the anatomical atlas, evidently without further reflection, that turns this otherwise true-to-life painting (if one may so express it) into a crass misrepresentation at the exact centre point of its meaning, where the incisions are made. It seems inconceivable that we are faced here with an unfortunate blunder. Rather, I believe that there was deliberate intent behind this flaw in the composition. That unshapely hand signifies the violence that has been done to Aris Kindt. It is with him, the victim, and not the Guild that gave Rembrandt his commission, that the painter identifies. His gaze alone is free of Cartesian rigidity. He alone sees that greenish annihilated body, and he alone sees the shadow in the half-open mouth and over the dead man’s eyes. We have no evidence to tell us from which angle Thomas Browne watched the dissection, if, as I believe, he was among the onlookers in the anatomy theatre in Amsterdam, or indeed what he might have seen there. Perhaps, as Browne says in a later note about the great fog that shrouded large parts of England and Holland on the 27th of November 1674, it was the white mist that rises from within a body opened presently after death, and which during our lifetime, so he adds, clouds our brain when asleep and dreaming. I still recall how my own consciousness was veiled by the same sort of fog as I lay in my hospital room once more after surgery late in the evening. Under the wonderful influence of the painkillers coursing through me, I felt, in my iron-framed bed, like a balloonist floating weightless amidst the mountainous clouds towering on every side. At times the billowing masses would part and I gazed out at the indigo vastness and down into the depths where I supposed the earth to be, a black and impenetrable maze. But in the firmament above were the stars, tiny points of gold speckling the barren wastes. Through the resounding emptiness, my ears caught the voices of the two nurses who took my pulse and from time to time moistened my lips with a small, pink sponge attached to a stick, which reminded me of the Turkish Delight lollipops we used to buy at the fair. Katy and Lizzie were the names of these ministering angels, and I think I have rarely been as elated as I was in their care that night. Of the everyday matters they chatted about I understood very little. All I heard was the rise and fall of their voices, a kind of warbling such as comes from the throats of birds, a perfect, fluting sound, part celestial and part the song of sirens. Of all the things Katy said to Lizzie and Lizzie to Katy, I remember only one odd scrap. I think Katy, or Lizzie, was describing a holiday on Malta where, she said, the Maltese, with a death-defying insouciance quite beyond comprehension, drove neither on the left nor on the right, but always on the shady side of the road. It was not until dawn, when the morning shift relieved the night nurses, that I realized where I was. I became aware again of my body, the insensate foot, and the pain in my back; I heard the rattle of crockery as the hospital’s daily routine started in the corridor; and, as the first light brightened the sky, I saw a vapour trail cross the segment framed by my window. At the time I took that white trail for a good omen, but now, as I look back, I fear it marked the beginning of a fissure that has since riven my life. The aircraft at the tip of the trail was as invisible as the passengers inside it. The invisibility and intangibility of that which moves us remained an unfathomable mystery for Thomas Browne too, who saw our world as no more than a shadow image of another one far beyond. In his thinking and writing he therefore sought to look upon earthly existence, from the things that were closest to him to the spheres of the universe, with the eye of an outsider, one might even say of the creator.
Sebald, W.G.. The Rings of Saturn: 1 (pp. 15-19). Random House. Kindle Edition.
But now, turn to Simenon’s long autobiographical novel, Pedigree. It was Gide who persuaded Simenon to publish it as “fiction”. It is relatively unknown in the English-speaking world. It appears to start in a totally random manner in Liege, at the beginning of the 20th century, with a a very dull insurance clerk called Desire, and his even duller wife, who gives birth in the early stages of the narrative. Only at about the stage we meet here – where, once again Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson comes into play, do we realize what she has given birth TO! She has given birth to a pair of eyes and a pair of ears which belong to the novelist, and as he grows, the little monster – Simenon himself – is noticing everything. Whereas Sebald distances himself, apparently, from his narrative, and gives the historical background of the painting, for Simenon, it gives the scornful child, in this scene little more than three, the grown-up capacity to cut his petit-bourgeois family down to size. The only pictures on the walls of the boring uncle were free gifts from Dutch biscuit manufacturers, of which the Rembrandt is one!
The first half of the book happens in the years leading up to the First World War. Simenon’s relatives, anatomized as ruthlessly as the corpse in Rembrandt’s painting, are only one quarter French=speaking Belgian. One of the grandparents is German, the other two are Flemish. Like Rembrandt, this master of the chiaroscuro came from the Low Countries, a borderland around the River Meuse, where France, Belgium and Germany meet. No wonder he felt fear and indifference mixed , as he contemplated the 20th century wars.
They had put a couple of cushions under the child, who looked all around him. He would not forget certain things which the others had probably never noticed. For instance, all the pictures in the house were inscribed with gilt lettering on the frames, for they were free gifts distributed by the leading manufacturers of biscuits, tinned goods or chocolate. Opposite Uncle Hubert’s armchair there hung a picture which was darker than the others, showing some people in black hats standing round a naked man who was a greenish yellow colour. Roger would have liked to ask: ‘What are they doing?’ It was a reproduction in colour of The Anatomy Lesson. These men in black standing round a corpse were associated in the child’s mind with the hard, grey silhouette of Uncle Schroefs, with his bowler-hat which he had taken off only to sit down at table, and with the spicy smell which filled the house, mixed with the smell of the rough wooden crates. Aunt Marthe kept stuffing things into his pockets, sometimes things which he could not eat, not only chocolate or biscuits which crumbled straight away but tins of anchovy fillets. Why did his mother take them from him? Why did she scold him when they had scarcely turned the corner of the street? ‘You mustn’t accept anything from Aunt Marthe. You must say: “No, thank you, Aunt.” ’ And this no thank you became a sort of proper name for him. ‘Nothankyou.’ Why did he have to say: ‘No thank you’? Why, when the two women were together in the bedroom or the box-room, especially the box-room, did they start crying, wiping away their tears quickly if anybody came in? And why, when they met, did they nearly always say: ‘Poor Élise.’ ‘Poor Marthe.’ Yet it was the most beautiful house in the world. When the grown-ups wanted to be by themselves, Léontine took Roger away. She was a queer girl, very thin, very flat-chested, who had a habit of squeezing him too tightly when she kissed him. She took him round the warehouses. She let him touch everything. She had taken him to see the horses; and the man who was in the yard—or in the stables when it was raining—a shabbily-dressed old man, had made him a whip, a real one, with a string which cracked. When the daylight began to fade, Élise looked at her husband and tried to attract his attention, making signs to him which everybody understood. ‘But no! It isn’t late,’ Marthe or Hubert protested. It was time to lay the table for supper. The children would be coming home soon. They were in the way. Couldn’t Désiré feel that they were in the way? For the past quarter of an hour, Schroefs had had enough. He was only just managing to restrain himself from yawning, and, now that the day was nearly over, he wanted to settle down in his corner, in front of his gas-fire, and to look through his papers, sighing all the time. Désiré believed everything he was told. If somebody said to him: ‘But no, do stay …’—he stayed! At last! Van Camp had got up, though he would have liked to stay. Everybody went towards the door. They said good night two or three times, once before putting on their outdoor clothes, then on the landing, then again downstairs. ‘Come this way.’ The shop door was opened a little way, revealing the violet shadows of the street, the silence outside, the trams in the distance. ‘A week on Sunday, then. Thank you, Marthe. Désiré, carry the child. We’ll be able to walk faster like that.’ A few steps. ‘They made him eat three pieces of tart again.’ Désiré did not understand, did not manage to feel indignant or offended. ‘I’m sure Hubert’s going to say that you come on purpose to smoke his cigars.’ ‘I smoked two.’ ‘Let’s buy a bit of ham for supper. The fire will have gone out.’ The child, on his father’s shoulders, saw the gas-lamps go by almost on a level with his head. In the Rue Puits-en-Sock, he saw, one after another, all the dimly lit shops which stayed open on Sunday and would stay open until ten o’clock at night, with the shopkeepers eating behind a curtain or behind the glass panes of a back room, and goods of all colours in the windows. And he saw the tram which suddenly emerged from the shadows of the Place de Bavière. ‘Désiré, mind the tram!’
Simenon, Georges. Pedigree (New York Review Books Classics) (pp. 159-163). New York Review Books. Kindle Edition.