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Dust, Like Pollen

Rebecca Stott

There are a few books to which I return again and again. I have recently moved them together on to a single bookshelf above my desk: Melville’s Moby-Dick, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Poems, Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium, W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn and Emigrants. They are not favourite books as such; they are books that goad; they not only say See, all of this is possible, see what can be done, if you are bold enough, but they know things that evade me. I reach for them at the beginning of the day sometimes when the words won’t come, opening randomly, whispering a sentence or two to feel the sentences against my tongue. I return to them because I want to know what they know.

What is it that Sebald’s two strange books know exactly? I open them for many things – the beauty of the prose, the strange mixture of memoir, travel writing and history, the narratives that loop, the sense of perpetual erosion and decay, the melancholy poetry of it all, the effortless audacity. But, as a historian, most of all I come back to be reminded of the paradox at the heart of all history writing, that whilst we might pursue the dead, quarry out the past, try to connect and order fragments and search out ancestors, family trees and origins in archives and record offices, meanwhile the papers, records and photographs are perpetually turning to dust in our hands.

Sebald describes the restless, impossible pursuit of the dead in a passage in Emigrants. He has been searching for his long-dead great-uncle, the gambler Cosmo Solomon, and his lover-valet Ambros Adelwarth, across the cities of Europe for some time: ‘I was looking for Cosmo and Ambros night and day,’ he wrote.

Now and then I thought I saw them disappear into an entry or a lift or turn a street corner. Or else I really did see them, taking tea out in the courtyard, or in the hall leafing through the latest papers, which were brought early every morning at breakneck speed from Paris to Deauville by Gabriel the chauffeur. They were silent, as the dead usually are when they appear in our dreams, and somewhat downcast and dejected. Generally, in fact, they behaved as if their altered condition, so to speak, were a terrible family secret not to be revealed under any circumstances. If I approached them, they dissolved before my very eyes, leaving behind them nothing but the vacant space they occupied. [1]

Sebald describes the vacant space that haunts all writers who work in the archives – the quarried object or the elusive dead flicker down corridors and in and out of files and sometimes entirely disappear. The archives eventually come to an end.

Sebald’s work is full of dust and the creatures of dust: moths, mites and worms. In The Emigrants he describes arriving at the sanatorium in Switzerland where Ambros once lived, only to find that the institution’s archives had long since been destroyed, not by officials, but by mice, as the principal explains:

They took over the madhouse when it was closed and have been multiplying without cease ever since; at all events when there is no wind blowing I can hear a constant scurrying and rustling in the dried-out shell of the building, and at time, when a full moon rises beyond the trees, I imagine I can hear the pathetic song of a thousand tiny upraised throats. Nowadays I place all my hope in the mice and in the woodworm and deathwatch beetles. The sanatorium is creaking, and in places already caving in, and sooner or later they will bring about its collapse. I have a recurring dream of that collapse […] before my very eyes, infinitely slowly, and a great yellowish cloud billows out and disperses, and where the sanatorium once stood there is merely a heap of powder-fine wood dust, like pollen. [2]

Wood dust is not really ‘like pollen’. They are both powders, yes, but wood dust is dead matter returning to the earth, whereas pollen pollinates; it is fruitful. It disperses and inseminates; it brings things to life. In Sebald’s hands historical source material – photographs, archives, records, files, memories – both disintegrates and pollinates; nothing entirely disappears; everything is turning into something else. The shorelines of East Anglia coastline are being eroded, battered by the sea and wind, but the land doesn’t disappear, it just moves somewhere else. The dead don’t disappear either; they linger, they return.


When Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker prize in 2009 with Wolf Hall, and went on to win the new Walter Scott prize for historical fiction in 2010, she went on the road. She gave eloquent lectures to crowded auditoriums. She explained how she worked – the archives, the records, the mounds of evidence and books she read, the notebooks she filled with minute facts and details. She talked about labour and scholarship, but she also talked about ghosts. She implied that in some important ways her work was a kind of clairvoyance as well as excavation or detective work. She bravely reasserted the powers of the visceral, spoke about the persistent presence of the uncanny in the process of historical discovery. For reviewers, this self-analysis – the co-presence of facts and ghosts – has sometimes proved a disconcerting juxtaposition.

Mantel’s writing teems with ghosts – flickerings on the stairs, hallucinations of taste or smell and unaccountable voices. It is disconcerting, often uncanny. While writing Beyond Black, her novel about a suburban middle-aged psychic who is hounded and assaulted by ghosts she wishes would leave her alone, Mantel clearly drew on autobiographical experience.

‘I am not perturbed,’ she writes in her memoir, in a passage in which she described having once seen her stepfather’s ghost. ‘I amused to seeing things that aren’t there. Or to put it in a way more acceptable to me – I amused to seeing things that “aren’t there”.’ [3]

Those inverted commas tell us – with a glint in the eye – that Mantel does not doubt that the things she sees, though they are – apparently, reportedly, rationally – not there, are distinctly there.

Although Mantel’s writing is freighted with material objects and thick with sensual detail, one feels that the world she describes might easily disappear at anymoment. Her consistent use of the present tense, sustained through the 650 pages of Wolf Hall, suggests that she is conjuring something for us, like a soothsayer, a shaman or a clairvoyant. There are shades of George Eliot here, who began her first novel – a historical novel, Adam Bede – by introducing herself as a sorcerer:

With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertakes to reveal to any chance comer far-reaching visions of the past. This is what I undertake to do for you, reader. With this drop of ink at the end of my pen, I will show you the roomy workshop of Mr. Jonathan Burge, carpenter and builder, in the village of Hayslope, as it appeared on the eighteenth of June, in the year of our Lord 1799. [4]

But whilst we may rarely feel any ghostliness in George Eliot’s novels, Mantel’s use of the present tense throughout Wolf Hall makes us feel that if she stops concentrating, stops being the medium through which we see these images, it might all disappear:

It is a spacious chamber with a high carved bed; his eye flickers over it. In the candlelight, the bed hangings are ink-black. The bed is empty. Henry sits on a velvet stool. He seems to be alone, but there is a dry scent in the room, a cinnamon warmth, that makes him think that the cardinal must be in the shadows, holding the pithed orange, packed with spices, that he always carried when he was among a press of people. The dead, for sure, would want to ward off the scent of the living; but what he can see, across the room, is not the cardinal’s shadowy bulk, but a pale drifting oval that is the face of Thomas Cramner. [5]

Historical fiction can recreate the materiality of the past, bring it back out of the darkness, the archives and the libraries, reconstruct it for us solidly, as Mantel does with smell, taste, sound, colour and texture; it puts us on the ground so that we can sit on a velvet stool in a Tudor bedroom as Henry VIII anticipating the arrival of his cardinal, walk around it, open drawers and look through windows, but it can do much more than this. It can simultaneously freight and flicker its reconstruction of the past to remind us of the paradox at the heart of all historical writing, that paradox that forms the melancholy refrain at the heart of all Sebald’swork – that the past must be recovered and yet can never be recovered.

In On Histories and Stories the novelist A. S. Byatt suggests that the proliferation of historical novels over the last fifty years has been stimulated by a rise in self-consciousness in historical practice. The more we take for granted that we cannot know the past, she writes, the more we tell ourselves it is another country, the more we reiterate the anxiety that ideology blinds, that all interpretations are provisional and that therefore any interpretation is as good as any other; the more we tell ourselves that history is a form of the sublime, the past becomes something to be approached but never reached, increasingly desired but impossible to touch. It is this sense of epistemological unease, Byatt argues (a compulsion to know the past that springs from a sense of the impossibility of that knowing) that provides the key to the flowering of the historical novel in the last fifty years. [6]

But if we are seeing a return to narrative in history writing at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a renaissance in the historical novel, as well as a new attention to the problems of knowing in history writing, [7] we are also seeing historical narratives which attend more closely to the precise and particular distillations of micro-histories, to material objects that show how, in the words of the philosopher of space Gaston Bachelard, ‘the miniscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world. The details of a thing can be the sign of a new world which, like all worlds, contain the attributes of greatness. Miniature is one of the refuges of greatness.’ [8]


Though, as a literary historian, I had probably long understood some of the provocative paradoxes of writing history, I only felt them for the first time a few years ago when I came across a strange drawing: a cross-section of an eyeball suspended in a tangle of handwriting. It provoked me into writing historical fiction for the first time. Isaac Newton had drawn it in one of his notebooks; it described an experiment he had undertaken in the dark of his rooms in Trinity College Cambridge in 1665. Determined to find out if pressure on the eyeball affected how we see colour, he had bought a wooden needle called a bodkin from a Cambridge market stall; back in his room he had inserted it into the back of his own eye socket. After repeating the experiment several times, he blinded himself. It took three days for his eyesight to return.

Looking into Newton’s drawing was like opening a Pandora’s box. Once opened, I couldn’t get the lid closed on it again. All manner of ghostly images issued from it. I could see the young Newton in his rooms in Trinity College – the unmade bed, piles of books and paper, diagrams spread out on the floor amongst discarded food – a young man reading so much that he often forgot to eat, spinning from one experiment to another, sleepless, his mind racing. I could smell it: the fug, the unwashed clothes, the damp, the tallow smell from the candle smoke, wood smoke from the fire.

The audacity and singlemindedness of Newton’s experiment shocked me. What if he had punctured his own eyeball that day? What if he had just put a little too much pressure on point r, just a little too much curvature onto the surface at t? What if he had ruptured one or both of his eyeballs or stared at the sun so long that his vision failed to return? He must have been possessed, I thought, so driven that he was prepared to put a wooden needle into his own eye, just to know. He began to seem a kind of Faust figure, the man who wanted to know certain things so much that he had been prepared to sell his own soul to the devil and suffer the consequences. The drawing had drawn me into its orbit. It knew things and pointed a way forward. It created a fierce new curiosity, a desire to know what this drawing knew about human ambition and the dangers of curiosity.

What I had begun to see was, of course, what W. G. Sebald knew: that the only way to understand this historical object, this gate opening into a new world, was to join fiction to non-fiction. Sebald once talked about reaching this turning point. When he had been solely an academic, he told interviewer Chris Bigsby, ‘I constantly came up against a borderline where I felt, well, if I could go a little bit further it might get very interesting, that is, if I were allowed to make things up. That temptation to work with only very fragmentary pieces of evidence, to fill in the gaps and blank spaces and create out of this a meaning that is greater than that you can’t prove, led me to work in a way which wasn’t determined by any discipline.’ [9]

I think I have come to understand what Sebald means by that phrase ‘to create a meaning that is greater than that you can’t prove’. I couldn’t prove much about Newton’s comings and goings in Cambridge in 1666, at least not in any detail, but I did know that I was reaching for a meaning that was greater than any footnoted fact. Only a complete freedom of form would allow me to explore the connections and webs in Newton’s drawing, to try to unearth feelings as well as ideas, and to understand a history that tangled out from a room on Trinity Street in Cambridge to London, King’s Lynn and Venice.

That experiment became a novel called Ghostwalk, a story about Faustian over-reaching, a ghost story that was at the same time heavy with material objects. The story was all in the drawing of the eye: it spoke of the dangerous consequences of curiosity; of obsession and the dark arts; it told me about a man who was prepared to risk anything, even his own sight, even his own life in what was after all a plague year, in order to better understand nature’s secret laws.

I cycled to Newton’s college rooms, only a quarter of a mile from my own study in Cambridge; I stood still in the street outside amongst the passing shoppers, students and cyclists, listening. I walked across the patch of lawn beneath Newton’s window that had once been the clipped hedges of his physic garden. I listened at the foot of the worn stone staircase that twisted down from his rooms and into the college courtyard. I retraced the daily web of paths he walked between his rooms, the staircase, the refectory, the chapel, the garden, the market and St Mary’s Church. I searched the library for seventeenth-century maps and prints.

In the dust of libraries and rare books rooms, the seventeenth-century college room began to open out into a city. Dust had begun to behave like pollen. The world immediately beyond Newton’s rooms in that summer of 1666, I discovered, the world beyond the shutters, outside the frame of the drawing that enclosed the intimacy of his private experiment, was devastated by bubonic plague. It was the first of two plague years. In the summer of 1665, when Newton began these experiments, the university authorities, expecting the mysterious sickness to arrive from London, where it had killed tens of thousands, and fearing the worst for the university town, had closed the colleges and banished the students and tutors to the country.

In Trinity College during a plague summer, there was no food to be had; no laundrywomen; no bedmakers. The city councillors had ordered all the entrances and exits to the city to be sealed up; everyone passing through the city gates had to be fumigated.

On street corners, men tended fires slaked with lime in the hope that smoke and fire would drive out contagion. Every now and again the carts that rattled past Newton’s window carried bodies and the sick out to the pest houses on the outskirts of the city. Everywhere Newton walked he would have overheard people taking about death, the Book of Revelation and the four horsemen of the apocalypse; preachers claimed that the plague was divine retribution; God was punishing his people. Newton heard the sounds of those plague carts and he smelled those fires slaked with lime. Smoke from the city streets drifted into his room with the sunlight. It covered everything in a film of dust.

I discovered that one of Newton’s prisms, a three-sided wedge of glass about eight inches long, sits in a cabinet in the tiny Whipple Museum of Science in Cambridge, a prism that Newton used to split and refract light as it passed through those shutters.

It had several chips along one side as though it has been dropped or thrown. To buy that prism, Newton recorded, he had walked to Stourbridge Common from Trinity College, along a path that the Newmarket Road follows now, with precise questions about light and colour lurching around in his head, his eyes sore from the series of optical experiments he had already begun.


My collection of curiosities – which now included the gatehouse of Trinity, the staircase up to Newton’s rooms, the patch of lawn where Newton had once grown botanical herbs in a physic garden beneath his window, the drawing of the eyeball and the prism – told stories about alchemy, plague, glassmaking, the birth of modern experimental practices and scientific networks which, as they cohered around that scene in Trinity in 1665, were all connected. They demanded completion. Discovering the connections might mean finding a new way of seeing Newton and understanding this important corner of the seventeenth century, this moment of enlightenment.

Over and over again, I kept coming to the end of the archives as I tried to bring the collection of objects together and excavate their individual histories. I read books on seventeenth-century English and Venetian glassmaking practices, on plague, alchemy, on industrial espionage. I wrote to historians and they confirmed that there was nothing more to be known about glassmaking or about the impact of plague in the seventeenth century, nothing more to know than I already knew. Where do you go as a historian, I wrote in a notebook at the time, when the archives come to an end? What do you do when you come to the end of what is footnotably knowable? Where does speculation become justifiable as a way of bridging the gap? At what point might the objects demand a story that begins in the archives, but does not end there?

Ghostwalk is fiction, yet it is also, to the best of my ability, true to that moment in 1665, true to that collection of objects and their connections to each other and to that secret, fuggy-smelling, self-fashioned laboratory and the man who put a needle into the back of his own eye socket. The picture in the notebook knew something that Christopher Marlowe also understood in 1604 when he wrote Doctor Faustus – that sometimes you would risk your own life just to know something once and for all, that curiosity is dangerous and deeply seductive. When the archives come to an end, a storyteller, using a different set of tools, might then be able to pull those objects together across the darkness. A novelist might pick up the missing pieces where the historian might have been forced to abandon them. Yes, Max, yes, W.G. Sebald, exactly: dust is sometimes just like pollen.


1 W. G. Sebald, The Emigrants (London: Vintage, 2002), p.122–3.
2 Ibid., pp.112–3.
3 Hilary Mantel, Giving Up the Ghost: A Memoir (London: Fourth Estate, 2010), p.1.
4 George Eliot, Adam Bede (London: 1859), p.1.
5 Hilary Mantel,Wolf Hall (London: Fourth Estate, 2009), p.274.
6 A. S. Byatt, On Stories and Histories: Selected Essays (Vintage, 2001), p. 67.
7 On the return to narrative in history writing see the collection of essays in Geoffrey Roberts (ed.), The History and Narrative Reader (London and New York: Routledge, 2001).
8 Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: BeaconPress, 1994; first published 1957), p. 155.
9 W. G. Sebald in Writers in Conversation: With Christopher Bigsby (Norwich: AMC Publishing for the Arthur Miller Centre for American Studies), vol. 2, p. 152.

Extracted from Body of Work: 40 Years of Creative Writing at UEA (Full Circle, £28).

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