“All that is Seen, Understood”: Jessie Greengrass’s Sight

There is nothing more horrible than this: a world elucidated and all that is seen, understood.

So concludes the narrator of Jessie Greengrass’s marvelous novel Sight (2018). Although I’m reluctant to think of novels as having keys—it suggests they’re problems to be solved, secrets to be transgressed—this sentence gets to the heart of the book. I almost wrote, “to the heart of Greengrass’s argument.” For Sight at times masquerades as an essay. At others it’s a compelling example of what people are calling autofiction (at least, I think so: I’m not actually sure what that means). Whatever it is, it’s wonderful. Maybe not to everyone’s taste. (If you want a lot of plot you will not love this book.) But definitely to mine. Reading it, in fact, I often had the rare, even uncanny feeling that the book was written just for me, which made me both eager to plough through it and reluctant to finish. Greengrass’s sentences are often long and always, as the example above suggests, complex. I don’t think it was just because I was squeezing the book into the ends of my mid-semester days that I often found myself going back and re-reading.

X-Ray HandSometimes when reading something I sense I’m the target audience for I get restive and grumpy, frustrated at having been pigeonholed, no matter how accurately. But with Sight I felt the difference between a book written for someone like me and a book actually written for me. Which of course is crazy. But I’m totally taken with the book’s central question: can there be seeing without knowing? The way I usually phrase it is: can there be experience without interpretation? Like Greengrass and the narrator with whom she seems to share so much, I always answer no. But I’m obsessed with what it might mean to answer yes. What is the cost of interpretation, of knowing? We can see what we gain when seeing turns into understanding. (Our very language, which offers seeing as a synonym for understanding, underlies this connection.) But can we see what we lose in that process?

Here I think of the paradox central to the Freudian enterprise. If the unconscious can be made conscious, much of its damaging power might be undone. But when the unconscious becomes conscious it dissipates, and even Freud was clear that we lose something—some energy, some power, some part of us that is larger than us but deeply part of us—in that evanescence. The goal of analysis, for Freud at least, was never just normativity. After all, symptoms aren’t just problems. (Symptom, for Freud, are compromise expressions: versions of unconscious desires that have been distorted enough to be acceptable to the censor of conscience and thus see the light of day: symptoms are things like dreams or slips of the tongue or obsessive behavior or bodily symptoms that have no physiological origin.) Symptoms are also who we are. We need to recognize them as valuable parts of ourselves, even as we work to mitigate their most harmful qualities.Freud_hansAll this talk of Freud is relevant to Sight. The narrator, who spends many of her days idly paging through books in the library at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine in London, weaves scenes from her own life (the death of her mother, childhood vacations with her psychoanalyst grandmother, vacillations over whether to have a child) with scenes from medical history: Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery of x-rays; Freud’s analysis of the child of an associate, a four-year-old patient he named Little Hans; and the eighteenth century surgeon John Hunter and his sometime colleague the medical illustrator Jan van Rymsdyk’s fascination with the anatomy of pregnant bodies.

When I compare Greengrass’s use of historical material to that of, say, Pat Barker or Giles Foden (I’m thinking of Toby’s Room and Turbulence), I can’t help but think that there is no point to the latter novels, despite their charms. These historical fictions are ruled by the principle of the info dump, no matter how skillfully applied. Why not, Greengrass’s novel made me wonder, be more honest and use that material the way a good essay might? Why not use the strategies of juxtaposition and reflection to come to a new way of seeing? Greengrass doesn’t try to naturalize her use of the medical material—despite her narrator’s days in the library she’s not trying to write a book about Röntgen, Freud, or Hunter. Instead, she asks us to think about the (oblique) connections between this material and the narrator’s life. For me, these connections center on the role of the unseen and the unspoken in the narrator’s life, her sense of living precariously amidst an incompletely understood past and an unknowable future.II-B-1Let me close with a couple of examples of the book’s prose. They’re concerned with time as the medium of experience, time as a way to see what—like the bones in the hand made evident by the x-ray, the phobia exposed by the analyst’s question, or the fetus revealed by the scalpel—would otherwise be hidden. A loss of mystery accompanies that endeavor: the hidden alters itself in some fundamental way the very moment it becomes the known. The consolation for that loss, like the song of Orpheus meant to compensate for the loss of Eurydice in the original instance of the treachery of sight, might be Greengrass’s beautiful sentences.

Here’s the narrator remembering the room she would stay in when she visited her grandmother in Hampstead every summer:

Before I was born [the room] had been my mother’s, and the white-painted bookshelf which leaned fifteen degrees west of true was still filled with books which had once been hers. Sometimes, opening them, I would disturb loose sheets of paper that fluttered downwards, drifting to the floor to settle gently amongst the swirling patterns of the rugs, disjointed lists of words, phone numbers or addresses or single pages cut from longer letters, descriptions of nameless places, congratulations on achievements since forgotten. I would pick them up and hold them and, trying to connect their recipient with my mother, so uncompromisingly grown up, so firm and sure, I would catch from the corner of my eye the outline of my own inescapable adulthood flicker against the yellowed walls, a long shadow cast by a low sun.

And here she is, reflecting on Röntgen and his rivals, men who discovered the same phenomenon yet who for reasons of chance have not gone down in history, and resisting the lure of the counter-factual:

To say that something other might have been is not to diminish the value of what was, the marvel of it or its solidity, besides which it is not the fact of Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery which fascinates but rather it is those days and nights through which he worked alone, bringing to this mystery’s unravelling all of his slow, systematic persistence until he possessed not just the sight of something but that extra thing that knowledge, understanding is—not the mere serendipity of discovery but the moment of its tipping into insight which draws our lonely curiosity. We are unsatisfied. Revelation is by definition isolate., it can neither be communicated nor transferred, and trying to comprehend it we feel only the chill of our exclusion.

What a ride that passage takes us on! A brilliant description of creating and discovering, which matters, it seems, only when it becomes something more than itself, something called knowing, is followed by a reversal, in which the narrator, even as she argues for the need to turn seeing into understanding, intimates (in part via that “chill”) how difficult, even unlikely that process is—and, moreover, that it might entail loss as much as gain.

 If these passages excite you as much as they do me, you need to read this book. They’re examples of the things I love about Sight: its intelligence, its beautiful language, its seamless blend of essayistic and novelistic. (This might have been the kind of thing Barthes had in mind when he imagined “the novelistic without the novel.”) And, truth be told, the fact that no one seems to know about this book. And yet here I am, giving up another secret. But in this case, the cost of making the unseen seen feels unequivocally worth it.



Short Fiction 2015 Week 5: Rachel Seiffert

Earlier posts can be found here, here, here, and here:

Week 5 was another short week because I was observing Yom Kippur on Wednesday. I warned the class that their string of Jewish holidays had run its course and we’d resume meeting for our allotted three times a week. (Actually it’s now the harvest festival of Sukkot, in some ways an even more important holiday than the High Holidays, but I’m not cancelling class for it.)

We discussed two very good stories this week: Malamud’s heartbreaking “The Lady of the Lake” on Monday and Rachel Seiffert’s “Field Study” on Friday.

Since we’ll be returning to Malamud later in the semester, I’ll concentrate here on “Field Study.” I can’t remember how I came across this story. I think it was when, newly hired at Hendrix, I was preparing a course on contemporary British Fiction. (I taught that class a couple of times but gave it up. Too dispiriting to find that books I’d really liked didn’t hold up to the scrutiny of teaching.) Seiffert was listed in the 2003 version of the Granta Best Young British Writers. Born in Australia, she grew up in England and lived for a while in Germany. Her first novel is about fascism in Germany and meant to be quite good. She has a few other novels now, too, though my sense is she’s fallen off the radar a bit. The only thing of hers I’ve read is the collection to which “Field Study” gives its name (2004). From the first I liked this story, drawn to it in some way I couldn’t explain. And now I’ve taught it probably four or five times, and it’s always a winner, by which I mean both the students and I like it.

“Field Study” came through for me yet again, even though this group continues to be reticent; it’s always just the right side of pulling teeth with them. There was a point about a third of the way through the class period when I thought, Jesus, it’s like I’m just doing this for myself, good thing I like the damn story, but then something broke, some resistance melted, and I felt good will and, more importantly, that hard to define but highly desirable sensation of things falling into place, light bulbs going off, you name the cliché.


“Field Study” is about Martin, a graduate student researching water pollution in a country next to his own. As he methodically takes samples from a river, he sees a young woman and her eleven-year-old son bathing. Later at the restaurant in his guesthouse, he recognizes the woman as his waitress. Her son is doing his homework at the bar. He strikes up a friendship with them, the boy, Jacek, translating between Martin and the mother, Ewa. The next day the boy comes to the river to help with the samples. The initial results show high levels of a dangerous chemical. Martin warns the pair not to swim in the river anymore. On the last night of the field study, Ewa invites Martin for dinner. Jacek translates until the wine loosens Martin and Ewa’s tongues; it gets late; the boy falls asleep at the table. Martin leans forward to kiss Ewa, but she says no, apologizes, covers her mouth and laughs. The next morning, as he is packing up, the final results come in from the lab back home. The new data contradicts the old. The chemical’s concentration is normal. Martin thinks about telling Ewa and Jacek it’s ok to swim again, but then he doesn’t. The road home follows the river; soon he is at the border. “His chest it tight with shame, but the border guard is waving him through now, and he is driving on again.”

I started by asking the class: What’s a field study? That was easy: It’s a way of researching where you collect data outside the lab and where the subjects are in their natural habitat. Why then is this story called “Field Study”? The guy is on a field study. And what is the guy studying? Pollution. Levels of a chemical that builds up in the human body and causes mortality. Right, I said. What else is Martin studying? A slight pause, but not too long. He’s studying another culture.

Good, I said. What is that culture? In other words, where is this story taking place? Pause. Then: Russia. How do you know that? The names. They’re like Russian. Also, there used to be Communism there. Not bad, I said. The names sound Slavic, don’t they? And the Communism is important. We’ll come back to that. Then I added: What do we know about Martin’s country? There’s a university there. Okay, what else? Silence. What about its geography, I prompted. It’s on a river. What river? The same river he’s studying. Okay, so Martin’s country is next door to Ewa and Jacek’s. That’s important, I said, because the story is very interested in the ideas of connection and interdependence. The factory that produces the chemical as a byproduct and flushes it into the water is in Ewa and Jackek’s country, but the river runs into Martin’s. We know Martin’s university has lots of sophisticated equipment. It seems prestigious, wealthy. What’s a big, prestigious country in Central Europe? (Here I was really leading them along, not especially jolly work or good form, but I had somewhere I wanted to go with all of this.) Germany, said a rising, tentative voice. Right. So if Martin’s from Germany, and the country with Slavic names is right next to it, Ewa and Jacek could be from the Czech Republic or, more likely, Poland.

But then why doesn’t Seiffert ever name these countries? It would be easy to do. Why make it at once fairly obvious and yet still obscure?

Now there was a longer pause. Finally one student—one of those smart but careless students that are for me the hardest kind to teach—said something like: The place doesn’t matter, it could be any place. I’d anticipated this response—“it makes it more universal” being a favourite of undergraduates everywhere—but I found it as unsatisfying here as I usually do. But if that’s true, I said, then why do we learn about post-Communist life, the difficult transition to capitalism exemplified by the “cartons of cigarettes and cake mix piled high along one wall” in the entrance to Ewa’s building. (Jacek explains the landlord gives them a break on the rent in exchange for letting him store goods that have presumably come from further west: “Every week is something new coming for him to sell.” Why the names pointing to a particular geographic and linguistic region, if not an exact place?

The story’s reticence, I suggested, is part of its exploration of cross-cultural communication. Borders in this story are at once porous, meaningless (they can’t stop pollution) and impermeable, effective. Jacek tells Martin about his Tata, who is in Martin’s country: “He is illegal. Too much problems at the border, so he don’t come home.” The father never appears in the story, but his effects are felt, both in the Jacek’s physiognomy (studying him, Martin realizes he doesn’t look much like his mother) and in Ewa’s memory (presumably he’s one of the reasons she rejects his overture). As the scenes of refugees from Syria and Iraq playing out on the news each day remind us only too vividly, borders are meaningless or artificial only for the privileged. For others, they are all-too powerful, able, for example, to separate families.

It’s a luxury to be waved through borders, as Martin is in the story’s final sentence. And in the end it suits Martin rather well that the border effectively shuts out Ewa and Jacek (who is learning Martin’s language as a way to better himself, and presumably become someone like Martin). That sentiment fits with Martin’s other attempts to seal himself off from the world, as in his insistence on wearing hip waders and rubber gloves while collecting samples and in his predilection for voyeurism. When Ewa and Jacek first come to the river, he keeps himself hidden, even abandoning the protocols of the study, which say he should take a sample every hundred meters, so that he can give them a wide berth. Of course, he can’t avoid them, on the contrary, he runs into them at every turn, until eventually he wants to encounter them—until he doesn’t.


But Martin’s wish to keep himself apart—to be only the perceiving eye, an image for the idea of scientific detachment—is continually foiled. (We looked at a scene in which Martin takes a day off from collecting samples to organize data; he is calling his lab from a phone booth when a distraught Jacek finds him and presses his face to the glass.) The difficulty of sealing oneself off from the world fits with the idea that borders don’t matter. But the motif of watching in this story isn’t simply directed outwards, at others. It’s also directed inwards, at the self.

Here I returned to the question of what Martin is studying. To the list of pollution and a foreign culture we had to add Martin himself. The story is full of examples of second-order awareness on Martin’s part. Here he is, catching himself staring at Ewa in the bar: “He looks away. Sees his tall reflection in the mirror behind the bar. One hand, left, no right, moving up to cover his large forehead, sunburned, and red hair.” Or here he is packaging up samples after the first results have come in: “His fingers start to itch…. He knows this is psychosomatic, that he has always been careful to wear protection, doesn’t even think that poisoning with this metal is likely to produce such a reaction.” No matter how objective Martin tries to be—reminding himself that what he sees as his left is really his right—no matter how clinically he diagnoses his own reactions, he can’t overcome his body or his emotions. Awareness doesn’t stop feeling. Martin is often flushing and blushing, lowering his eyes, feeling the tightness of shame well up in his chest.

Seiffert doesn’t believe in the so-called objectivity of science, but her point isn’t to discredit science as cold or dehumanizing. Rather it’s to undermine the certainty of those, like Martin, who persist, against the evidence of their own bodies, to believe in that objectivity. The story pursues this criticism through its use of the motif of measuring and observing. (One of the first things we learn about Martin is that he “has a camera, notebooks, and vials.”) These activities seem neutral, the “mere” description of the world. But as Martin’s data suggests, measuring tells contradictory stories. It can also be influenced by confirmation bias, as when Martin, knowing Ewa and Jacek swim regularly in the river, thinks they look healthy enough, but “perhaps a little underweight.” Even a seemingly healthy person, he adds, can carry malignancy hidden inside, the toxins imperturbably doing their sinister work: “nothing for a decade or two, then suddenly tumors and shortness of breath in middle age.”

This criticism of what we can call a scientific world-view so long as we agree that this is a naïve definition of science might make us wonder about how we’re supposed to feel about Martin. In the last part of class, students considered their feelings about him. Why doesn’t he tell Ewa about the new, inconclusive results? Why, when he remembers the expression of sadness on her face at the river, later explained when Jacek says his mother often used to go there with his father, is Martin “shocked at the satisfaction the memory gives him”? Is it, as some students suggested, simply that he’s angry with her for “shutting him down”? (Students tittered a little the first time one of them used this expression; they repeated it as often as they could.) Is he revenging himself on her, and by extension on her country? Is this why he feels shame for at the end? Would that shame be a sign of remorse? If so, would that make us feel better about him? And what, at the climactic moment in the apartment, does Ewa laugh about? Is she laughing at him? If so, would that legitimate his otherwise petulant revenge? Or is she laughing with him, at the absurdity or bittersweet piquancy of the situation? (The story sympathizes strongly with Ewa, making a joke of the possibility that she could be a temptress: she sends Jacek to Martin with a present of apples.)

I left the students with one last thing to think about, pointing out five examples of the story’s most characteristic stylistic quirk. Here’s one of them; it’s the story’s first sentence: “Summer and the third day of Martin’s field study.” Students correctly noted that the examples were all sentence fragments. (Interestingly, they didn’t note the present tense narration, which was fine with me; we’ll study that soon enough with Nathan Englander’s story “The Wig.”) Often these fragments are quite obstreperous, separated from the previous sentence by a period when they could easily, and more correctly, have been added to it with a comma. Sometimes they are disorienting, as in this description of the boy’s shoes when he mother carries him piggyback through a field: “Brushing the ears of rye as she walks, bumping at her thighs as she jogs an unsteady step or two.” These seem at first like dependent clauses, the beginning of a description of Ewa’s action, but then we realize they’re fragmentary descriptions of what the shoes are doing.

Why are there so many fragments in “Field Study”? It’s like a lab report, one student immediately said That’s how you write them, in shorthand. Direct. To the point. Indeed, I agreed. That would make the story itself a kind of field study. And its conclusions would be as provisional as Martin’s. By eliminating “to be” from so many of its sentences, the story reminds us of the very thing it is questioning: the notion of identity. I can’t decide, I told the class, as the hour came to an end and the murmuring of the calculus students waiting to come into the room grew louder, whether the fragments break up the text or actually, paradoxically, only tie it together more cohesively, by reminding us of what they separate. This consideration of connection and disconnection returned us one last time to the idea of borders and separations, communication and miscommunication. The story can’t seem to decide which of these opposed terms is more powerful. But it’s much more at ease with that uncertainty than its protagonist.

There was more to say—there always is—but it was time to stop. So I will too. Next week: Kay Boyle, Elizabeth Bowen, Nathan Englander.