THE SEARCH FOR HEINRICH SCHLÖGEL
by Martha Baillie
Tin House Books, 352 pages
reviewed by Jamie Fisher
____’s fourth novel navigates the tension between fact and fiction, readership and voyeurism, the impersonality of the archive, and the personal voice of the archivist.
If you guessed W.G. Sebald, you’re not far off. He was known for writing in luminous ellipses around historical catastrophe, particularly the Holocaust, with an intellectual restlessness mirrored by his travels. But the author in question is Martha Baillie, and the book not Rings of Saturn but The Search for Heinrich Schlögel.
Baillie likes to lay her influences plain; she has named Sebald as one of the patron gods of “elegance and lucidity” guiding her previous novels. In The Shape I Gave You, a novel studded thickly with “archival” photographs, she obsessed over authenticity and travel. Her Incident Report was narrated entirely through (admittedly unorthodox) workplace documentation. Sebald’s Rings and Baillie’s Search even begin with similar whodathunkit reference-book citations, Sebald’s describing the eponymous rings of Saturn and Baillie’s digging up an obscure usage for erratic: a rock “transported from its place of origin, esp. by glacial action.”
Here our erratic is Heinrich Schlögel—a restless walker in the Sebaldian model, who finds himself transported first from his native Germany and then from his native decade, plopped thirty years into the future. The book emphasizes, very early on, the concept of motion: Baillie starts us off with a blurred walking profile of Heinrich; she pays careful attention to his relatives’ feet. But unlike Sebald, Baillie separates the walking impulse from the archival, yolk from egg. Heinrich, the walker is being followed by the book’s narrator and archivist, who dogs the poor kid with obtusely contemplative humor: “How did Heinrich feel about his mother’s feet? I too am German (from Munich, to be precise) but this gives me no special insight. I cannot know how he felt about his mother’s feet.”
But, of course, the project of fiction is to know about those feet, and our archivist’s job is to know about Heinrich, reconstructing his daily activities and inner life. Why is she trailing Heinrich? We won’t know for several hundred pages. Exceptional lives don’t need to be eventful to be interesting, but a few hundred pages with Heinrich makes it clear that some pretty explosive happenings will need to justify our involvement with him—or, at minimum, the highly involved efforts of his archivist. He rides his bicycle, buys a camera, and photographs his deeply depressed sister Inge without her consent, and, in his life’s first great erraticism, travels from Germany to Canada.
The narrative soon hits a polar dead zone that mirrors pretty well Heinrich’s own journey through the upper reaches of Canada. His week-long hike becomes perforated with performance-arty hallucinations, including a priest anointing the tongues of young children with his ejaculate. Somewhere in the middle, Heinrich undergoes his second major displacement when he is mysteriously catapulted thirty years into the future, an opportunity that feels a little wasted on him. Heinrich is more bemused than troubled by the transition; he tries half-heartedly to contact his father and looks for his sister after a long period studying Inuktitut.
At its best, the novel asks worthwhile questions about what reading and writing do for us, beyond voyeurism. “Would my life be easier,” one character wonders, “if I knew less about everyone?” Who would ever choose to spend years chasing an archive—or, for that matter, writing a novel—when you could be working in social services, or couching the planet’s ecological downfall? “Am I leading an irresponsible life,” the archivist asks herself, “given how little time is left?…What I want from Heinrich is immense. Something immense is required and time is short.”
Baillie’s fresh-feeling contribution is to imagine that the project of fiction is important because it is participatory—in her novel it’s not just the author at work, but passersby who “[pull] out their iPhones to capture” Heinrich as he passes, creating a network of interaction that blooms outward. It’s observation that redeems her archivist’s existence and dignifies her characters, even as it violates them. As Inge thinks, in the novel’s most touching brother-sister moment, “When he spoke to her, when he looked at her, she almost believed in her own existence, that she was perhaps a worthwhile experiment.”
Along with the archivist’s footnotes, Baillie has taken participatory readership one step further with social media and a tribute site, where readers can find postcards with passages from the novel written on one side, and audio from the recipients reading their postcards out loud. “I wanted to explore,” she explains, “how authors and readers relate to each other in our time. The prospect of creating a hand-written-illustrated-audio-e-book that nobody would ever bother to explore in its entirety delighted me.”
This last quote is a little telling. While she tries to make the novel participatory, Baillie hasn’t created a world interesting or coherent enough to want to participate in. Here the original sin may have been Baillie’s decision to split the wanderer and the wonderer into two characters—Heinrich travels without taking any of it in, and the archivist enthuses over his journey without telling us much about his motives, or participating much in her own life. We always know exactly what’s happening to Heinrich, but we never feel that it matters. We aren’t, finally, “bothered to explore.”
Heinrich, too, is never motivated to look too deeply. If the author has made Heinrich intentionally obtuse, as a modern-day Candide thrust among marvels, he still commits the unpardonable sin of being boring; the novel’s great tragedy isn’t that Heinrich gets ripped from his own decade, but that neither spiritual transmigrations nor temporal shenanigans can transform him into good company. Here’s a representative diary entry from his young-adult years:
Inge believes that I can become an adventurer. But is this what I really want? I hope that in Canada I’ll see lots of animals. Perhaps in Canada, I will also make a few friends?…Who knows what will be possible in Canada? In any case, I am going there.” Is this really the same Heinrich who considers, ringed by glaciers a few pages later, that “immensity is a form of silence”?
It’s one of many moments when you can see Baillie’s fingers jerking inside the puppets. The characters here bound from dialect to dialect, her fake archival materials shifting faithfully between the idioms of Baffin Bay Inuits, Tettnang Germans, Toronto newspaper clippings, and hallucinated eighteenth-century polar explorers. Yet it all comes across as a kind of dead ventriloquism, since all these people do is take pages to say hello, he doesn’t live here, sorry, goodbye. They also say each other’s names a lot, approximately three times per half-page of conversation.
The least well-drawn character may be the archivist herself, who pops up reliably every few paragraphs to announce how (very) excited she is: “I catch myself smiling each time I think of the delight that Heinrich felt the moment he tore open the gift his sister gave him.” Or, after a recent archive acquisition: “What giddy happiness!” I kept wondering whether the narrator might fluctuate along a broader palate of emotions than the narrow airspace between enthusiastic and excited. Monomania doesn’t have to be this dull—the history of the novel is happily spangled with one-track minds whose progress is nonetheless unpredictable and (to use Baillie’s term) pleasurably erratic: Ahab, for example, or Humbert Humbert.
Eventually the footnotes start to sketch out an archivist desperately seeking points of connection between Heinrich’s life and her own, leaning towards the wanderer/wonderer merger Baillie denies us from the beginning. Several of these parallels feel potentially significant, if thinly sketched—both Heinrich and the narrator, for example, share a father silent about his wartime complicity. But just as frequently she jumps in nearly unprovoked. Inge feels anxious about making physical contact, followed by a footnote: “I once had a boyfriend who couldn’t stand to have his ears touched.” Pathologically irrelevant commentary gets paired with not-quite-on-the-spot archival material, telling us what Heinrich would have seen if he had looked down, or reproducing pamphlets that must have been of limited interest even to Heinrich, and which watching the archivist watch him read doesn’t much improve.
More troublingly, Baillie undermines the novel’s repeated themes of witnessing and pain by an apparent lack of empathy for any of the characters. Baillie trusts that her readers are intelligent enough to laugh at her creations, but never seems to trust us to feel for them, or to recognize symbolism that’s already glaring strongly from the page. The archivist catalogues every detail of Heinrich’s life even as she notes that being photographed always disturbed him! You have to ask how much dot-connecting can compensate for other expectations, like narrative coherence and psychological depth. Or how much precision can augment a narrative for you: “He’d kissed a girl exactly one hour and thirty minutes ago.” What is this, exactly, this collage of inanity and exactitude, not quite funny and not quite tragic?
Baillie leaves hints earlier in the novel, as Heinrich’s father reads Schiller, that “only the experience of art and beauty can offer true freedom,” which we must reach for “obliquely.” This is also, of course, an answer to what an archival novel can accomplish, ideally, through indirection: a second answer, beyond outright irony, to the question of how earnest fiction can exist in a skeptical age. Irony brackets the whole project in quotation marks; indirection expands fiction’s mission.
While Sebald often wrote at the edges of confrontation with historical tragedy, he always seemed to be rendering habitable new territory, not stepping around the question. His books were projects of reclamation, and their indirection felt dangerous. Baillie’s project comes across as timid, dogged by an exhaustive complacency. She knows what she’s going to find, mainly because all of the archival goodies she needs seem to be right at her fingertips. But accurately retracing Heinrich’s life is, apparently, not enough to locate the man himself. Even New Media isn’t enough. In this sense, her novel functions obliquely as an allegory for the Internet, that big sizzling warehouse of information that can spit back exactly what we were searching for but is incapable of answering the big existential questions we all choke on, too afraid to ask. It isn’t too much of a spoiler to say that by the end, we still don’t know where Heinrich Schlögel is. But maybe that was never the right question.
Jamie Fisher is a freelance writer, Chinese-English translator, and budding manuscript conservationist working out of Philadelphia. She graduated recently from the University of Pennsylvania, where her majors were Linguistics and East Asian Languages & Civilizations. She can be reached at email@example.com.