I’m halfway through W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, in which you can read, for example, the following comment on Newtonian time:
If Newton thought, said Austerlitz and pointed through the window down at the in the last reflection of the day glimmering water curve, that surrounded the so-called Isle of Dogs, if Newton really thought that time was a stream like the Thames, where then is the source of time and into which sea does it finally flow?
(That’s my translation, which captures just a bit of the tortuousness of Sebald’s German syntax that English can’t accommodate.) Also this question:
In what way do things that are immersed in time differ from those that are never touched by it?
The relevance of this question to mathematics should be obvious. The following quotations from a New Yorker article by Mark O’Connell, published on the 10th anniversary of Sebald’s death in a road accident, are not obviously relevant to mathematics, but some readers may find them relevant to the MWA‘s peculiar style, which some readers seem to find irritating. It’s no accident that Sebald’s The Emigrants was one of the books I was reading while I was writing MWA: I find that I naturally tend to adopt the rhythm and tone of whatever I’m reading in my own writing, and I choose what I read as a function of what I’m trying to write. (And that’s one reason I’m now reading Austerlitz.)
…it was out of frustration with the strictures of academic publication that Sebald turned to creative writing (a vague and ungainly term that, by default, winds up being the most accurate generic description of his work). “He’d originally taught German literature,” says Bigsby, “and had published the kind of books that academics do. But he got increasingly frustrated, and began to write in what he called an ‘elliptical’ way, breaching the supposed boundaries between fact and fiction—not what you’re supposed to do as an academic.” Sebald himself sometimes described his work as “documentary fiction,” which goes some way toward capturing its integration of apparently irreconcilable elements.
Reading him is a wonderfully disorienting experience, not least because of the odd, invigorating uncertainty as to what it is, precisely, we are reading. His books occupy an unsettled, disputed territory on the border of fiction and fact, and this generic ambivalence is mirrored in the protean movements of his prose.
The “him” in question is Sebald, of course, but I can’t deny that “wonderful disorientation” is what I’m after when I read pretty much anything.