St George slays the dragon on the front façade of Eglise St. Croix here in Bordeaux. I was pleased to come across the sculpture just after I began reading W.G Sebald's remarkable long prose poem, After Nature (translated from the German by Michael Hamburger). The first section of the book reflects on the life of medieval German artist Matthias Grünewald, and it opens with a meditative and closely observant description of the Isenheim Altar, which Grünewald painted. More specifically, the opening describes the panel of the altarpiece displaying St. George.
In fact, I was pleased, in the first place, by the serendipity of finding Sebald's book on the shelves of the house we are lucky enough to be renting for our three weeks in Bordeaux. Ever since I read The Emigrants several years ago, I've been meaning to read the rest of Sebald's work but somehow haven't gotten round to it. Here was my chance, although this is scarcely vacation reading.
Not vacation reading, no, not in the sense of being light, but it's stunning, compelling, not only for its profound meditations on the human condition and the state of the environment, but also for the brilliant challenges of the long sentences, their tortuous syntax. I follow the accumulation of images, concentrate to sense the idea growing, blading to a peak. Each sentence demands reflection; impossible to move quickly or easily from one to the next.
Examples? Mais oui . . .
"The panic-stricken / kink in the neck to be seen / in all of Grünewald's subjects, / exposing the throat and often turning / the face towards a blinding light, / is the extreme response of our bodies / to the absence of balance in nature / which blindly makes one experiment after another / and like a senseless botcher / undoes the thing it has only just achieved."
I'm using / to show the line-breaks because After Nature is a long prose-poem and its arrangement on the page is important. This will, of course, be a different arrangement than the original, German work, but I'm sure the translator worked hard to reflect Sebald's original line breaks in this English version- and of course Sebald was fluent in English as well and must have approved the translation.
One more? The sentence following the one above: "To try out how far it can go / is the sole aim of this sprouting, / perpetuation and proliferation / inside us also and through us and through / the machines sprung from our heads, / all in a single jumble, / while behind us already the green / trees are departing their leaves and / bare, as often they appear in Grünewald's / pictures, loom up into the sky, / the dead branches overlaid / with a moss-like glutinous substance."