AN ANTHOLOGY OF THOUGHT & EMOTION... Un'antologia di pensieri & emozioni

Sunday, 1 October 2017

RETURNING TO AUSTERLITZ

W.G. Sebald
Why You Should Read W. G. Sebald
By Mark O’Connell 
(writing on The New Yorker, December 14, 2011)

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the death of one of contemporary literature’s most transformative figures. On December 14, 2001, the German writer W. G. Sebald suffered a heart attack while driving and was killed instantly in a head-on collision with a truck. He was fifty-seven years old, having lived and worked as a university lecturer in England since his mid-twenties, and had only in the previous five years come to be widely recognized for his extraordinary contribution to world literature. Earlier that year, his book Austerlitz (about a Jewish man sent to England as a child through the Kindertransport in 1939, the memory of whose past has been lost) was published to universal acclaim, and the prospect of a Nobel prize was already beginning to seem inevitable. 

The weight of the loss to literature with his early death—of all the books he might have gone on to write—is counterbalanced only by the enigmatic pressure of the work he left behind. His four prose fictions, Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz are utterly unique. They combine memoir, fiction, travelogue, history, and biography in the crucible of his haunting prose style to create a strange new literary compound. Susan Sontag, in a 2000 essay in the Times Literary Supplement, asked whether “literary greatness [was] still possible.” She concluded that “one of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.” 

The anniversary year has been marked by a number of commemorative events, mainly in Europe. A book of Sebald’s poetry, Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems 1964-2001, was published last month by Penguin in the U.K. (out in the U.S. in April 2011). The British filmmaker Grant Gee—best known as a director of music videos for Radiohead, Blur, the Kills, and Nick Cave—has entitled his film “Patience: After Sebald.” The film is an oblique, impressionistic reflection on his work, in which Gee reenacts the walk around made a documentary Suffolk at the heart of The Rings of Saturn. It opened a weekend celebration of Sebald last February in the fantastically named town of Snape Maltings. The weekend concluded with a performance by Patti Smith who, between songs, read from Sebald’s long prose poem “After Nature.” 

Recently, BBC Radio 3 broadcast from people who knew Sebald (or Max, as he preferred to be called—he hated his first name, Winfried, because he felt that it sounded too much like the woman’s name Winnifred). Contributors include his English translator Anthea Bell, the poet GeorgeSzirtes, and the academic and novelist Christopher Bigsby, a colleague of Sebald’s at the University of East Anglia.

Bigsby suggests that 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. 

It is probably too early to predict the extent of the influence Sebald’s hybrid books will exert on the shape of the novel, but it isn’t an exaggeration to say that he erased and redrew the boundaries of narrative fiction as radically as anyone since Borges. British writers like Will Self and, in particular, Geoff Dyer, have been inspired by Sebald’s figurative and literal rambling. Dyer’s work—part essay, part travelogue, part fiction—sometimes reads like a less melancholy, more comic (and more English) variant of Sebald’s peregrinatory prose. One of this year’s most impressive novels, Teju Cole’s debut Open City, owes a clear debt to Sebald. James Wood, in his enthusiastic review in the magazine [The New Yorker], commented on the way in which Cole moves “in the shadow of W. G. Sebald’s work.” On a more superficial level, Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close adopted the trademark Sebaldian tactic of integrating photographs into its text. 

Ten years after his death, however, Sebald’s work remains more or less entirely sui generis. 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 a series of five fifteen-minute audio essays enthusiastic review in the magazine 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. Often what is on the page, the writing itself, gives the impression of being only the faint, flickering shadow of its actual referent. What Sebald seems to be writing about, in other words, is frequently not what he wants us to be thinking about. Take this passage, which comes at the very end of the oneiric history of sadness and futility that he presents in The Rings of Saturn. The topic under discussion is a film about the promotion of silk cultivation in Germany, for reasons of national self-sufficiency, in the early years of the Third Reich: 
Quite apart from their indubitable utility value, silkworms afforded an almost ideal object lesson for the classroom. Any number could behad for virtually nothing, they were perfectly docile and needed neither cages nor compounds, and they were suitable for a variety of experiments (weighing, measuring and so forth) at every stage in their evolution. They could be used to illustrate the structure and distinctive features of insect anatomy, insect domestication, retrogressive mutations, and the essential measures which are taken by breeders to monitor productivity and selection, including extermination to preempt racial degeneration. In the film, we see a silk-worker receiving eggs dispatched by the Central Reich Institute of Sericulture in Celle, and depositing them in sterile trays. We see the hatching, the feeding of the ravenous caterpillars, the cleaning out of the frames, the spinning of the silken thread, and finally the killing, accomplished in this case not by putting the cocoons out in the sun or in a hot oven, as was often the practice in the past, but by suspending them over a boiling cauldron. The cocoons, spread out on shallow baskets, have to be kept in the rising steam for upwards of three hours, and when a batch is done, it is the next one’s turn, and so on until the entire killing business is completed.
It was Sebald’s conviction that the recent history of his country could not be written about directly, could not be approached head-on, as it were, because the enormity of its horrors paralyzed our ability to think about them morally and rationally. These horrors had to be approached obliquely. It’s insufficient to say that silk cultivation is a “metaphor” for what happened to European Jews; this is not so much a way of understanding the Holocaust, so much as it is a way of making us think about how we can’t understand the Holocaust. 

The effect of this quintessentially Sebaldian passage is like that of a dream in which a lecturer is speaking drily about sericulture but also, somehow, about Auschwitz. That place and what it has come to represent is a vast and blank presence at the periphery—and yet somehow at the center—of narrative vision in Sebald’s work. He was born in Bavaria in 1944, and so grew up in the immediate aftermath of the war. His father, he learned much later, had served in the Army and had been among the troops who invaded Poland in 1939. Like so many German men of his generation, Sebald’s father refused to speak about his war experiences, and this reticence, with that of post-war Germany as a whole, is what impels Sebald’s narratives of shame and historical occlusion. 

His work is ghostly in any number of senses: thematically, it is troubled by the spectres of recent European history and, stylistically, it is delivered in a hauntingly impassive tone. Independent of the contingent fact of his death, Sebald’s books often read as though they are being narrated from beyond the grave. The past becomes suddenly present, and the present seems mediated by the long passage of years. “I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all,” Sebald has Austerlitz say, “only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry, between which the living and the dead can move back and forth as they like, and the longer I think about it the more it seems to me that we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead.” 

Geoff Dyer, in an essay on Sebald and Thomas Bernhard, comments memorably on this strange, spectral aspect of his writing:
The first thing to be said about W.G. Sebald’s books is that they always had a posthumous quality to them. He wrote—as was often remarked—like a ghost. He was one of the most innovative writers of the late twentieth century, and yet part of this originality derived from the way his prose felt exhumed from the nineteenth.
The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’s claim that “Sebald is more like a new kind of historian than a new kind of novelist” might be too provocative for its own good, but it is an indication of the extent to which his work has yet to be placed within a secure canonical niche. The books are fascinating for the way they inhabit their own self-determined genre, but that’s not ultimately why they are essential reading. There is a moral magnitude and a weary, melancholy wisdom in Sebald’s writing that transcends the literary and attains something like an oracular register. Reading him feels like being spoken to in a dream. He does away with the normal proceedings of narrative fiction—plot, characterization, events leading to other events—so that what we get is the unmediated expression of a pure and seemingly disembodied voice. That voice is an extraordinary presence in contemporary literature, and it may be another decade before the magnitude—and the precise nature—of its utterances are fully realized. 


And now two interesting reviews on AUSTERLITZ, a book that really impressed and disquieted me...
AUSTERLITZ, bookcover
Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald moved me as much as few novels have done
by A.N. Wilson
(Telegraph, 2008)

I enjoyed W.G. Sebald's discursive journey through East Anglia, The Rings of Saturn, but the title of Austerlitz, absurdly, put me off. I assumed it would be a ramble, a bit like The Rings, only around Napoleonic battlefields.

When I actually opened Austerlitz, something very different was in store. Very few novels have ever moved me so much. It creeps up gently, and then, at some point when you weren't looking, it comes round behind and hits you on the back of the head.

When we first meet Austerlitz – for he is a man, not a battle in this book – it is the 1960s, and he is a lonely, eccentric collector of architectural photographs.

The narrator, indistinguishable from the narrator of all other Sebald books, is a young German who seems to have limitless amounts of time on his hands simply to wander about sightseeing – in this case in Brussels.

From a chance encounter in the Antwerp Nocturama, there is spread out a lifetime's acquaintanceship, deepening to a strange kind of friendship with lonely, weird Austerlitz.

Because it is a famous book (first published in 2001), you will probably know the story. For some reason, I did not, and this makes me hesitate. Should I "spoil it" for you?

We first learn of Austerlitz's lonely upbringing in Wales, as the adopted child of a depressive, slightly mad preacher whose wife's death reduces him to despair. Austerlitz has already begun his miserable career at a boarding school.

These scenes are especially well evoked. At school, he makes one friendship, with a boy who is almost as unhappy as he is. Gerald Fitzpatrick comes from a landed Welsh Catholic family (not many of those) and a Victorian naturalist forebear was a friend of Darwin's.

Andromeda Lodge, where they live, is a sort of Natural History Museum. It is here that Austerlitz has his first taste of anything like human warmth or natural affection.

The book shimmers with something akin to menace. We are starting to become aware that Austerlitz is carrying around a terrible secret. The drama of his life, however, is that he does not know what that secret is.

He is a man burdened by memories that he does not possess. Little by little, sheer chance cracks the carapace and the memories come back. He was part of Hitler's Kindertransport. His mother was a Jewish opera singer in Prague.

Little Austerlitz was sent to England by train. His father escaped to Paris, where he was later arrested. His mother, arrested in Czechoslovakia, was herded off to the inevitable death in the camps.

The manner in which these memories are recovered, and in which Austerlitz then becomes an obsessive investigator of his mother's fate, is completely plausible. It is devastating. We had become used to Austerlitz the research-nerd, the collector of stray bits of information in libraries.

Now, rather than merely investigating Belgian zoos, he is piecing together what happened to the Jews of Prague after the Nazi seizure of that city. Austerlitz makes a "very W.G. Sebald" visit to the garrison town of Terezín.

Like some of the coastland wastes explored in The Rings of Saturn, it is all deserted, but here the ghosts are palpable. It is here that 60,000 people were rounded up into a ghetto of one square kilometre in preparation for their transportation to the death camps.

You might be one of those readers who thinks they have read all they ever wish to read about the massacre of the Jews by the Nazis.

Maybe you belong to that category who thinks there is something distasteful, even pornographic, about much of the literature relating to this ghastly theme. Even if you do not go so far as that, you might have supposed that it was impossible to "make it new".

But in focusing upon the story of this one, very strange, man and his recovered memory, Sebald has achieved the miracle. Starting in the lowest of keys, the book becomes quite extraordinarily affecting. I read the last 100 pages with tears cascading down my face.

Sebald died aged 57 in a motor smash, in the year that this masterpiece was published. It was an accident, and a dreadful loss to literature, but in an odd way, great writers die apt deaths. After writing such a masterpiece, it is hard to think how any writer could ever repeat such an effect.

Another time, another place
It may or may not be fiction, but WG Sebald's wartime narrative, Austerlitz, provides a hypnotic sense of the power of history
by Charles Saumarez Smith
(The Guardian/Observer, September 2001) 

I first came across the writings of WG Sebald by accident. I was browsing the shelves of the Travel Bookshop in north Kensington, looking for books that might help me plan a walk on the north coast of Norfolk with my nine-year-old son, when I came across a book, The Rings of Saturn, whose typography and quality of production so intrigued me that, although it could by no possible stretch of the imagination be described as a conventional guide, I took it away with me.

I was immediately hypnotised by the curious prose style, so flat and ostensibly inconsequential, which describes a kind of meditative interior monologue, not at all the world as it is seen and described by an ordinary person, but a view of the world seen through a glass darkly and refracted through the strange and sometimes uncomfortable imagination of a dyspeptic and exceptionally knowledgeable, middle-aged professor of German literature, whom one presumes has never been married and who decides to take a long and entirely purposeless walk round the shores of East Anglia meditating on aspects of its history and what he sees en route.

It included, by one of those coincidences of which Sebald is so fond, liking the accidental conjunction of history and chance, an account of a photograph of Edward FitzGerald, the translator of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, which was shortly afterwards offered as a gift to the National Portrait Gallery.

Austerlitz is, in many ways, another literary tour de force, using the same language of extended and ostensibly inconsequential melancholy to describe the life of someone whom he first meets in the railway station in Antwerp studying the architecture of its waiting room.

It is impossible to tell how much of this narrative, if any, is true, although it is illustrated, as was Rings of Saturn, with out-of-focus, grey photographs of people and places, which lend it veracity, most of all the picture of the narrator himself, with his distinctive wavy hair, looking out inquisitively at the photographer and dressed as for a fancy dress party in Prague just before the war.

The narrative, if it is true, is a remarkable one. The hero of the book, or more properly the anti-hero since he essentially does nothing especially useful with his life, was born in Prague, the son of a moderately successful opera singer and the manager of a small slipper-making factory who was also active in left-wing politics.

The rise of the Nazi party in Germany and the subsequent German invasion of Czechoslovakia meant that his father had to flee to Paris, never to be seen or heard from again, his letters to his family confiscated by the German authorities. His mother managed to arrange for her son to be sent on a Kindertransport to London. He was adopted by a Nonconformist preacher and his wife, near Bala in North Wales.

The boy was clever, went to a minor public school which he intensely disliked, apart from making friends with a younger boy, and was encouraged by his history teacher to go to Oxford. After studying the classification of nineteenth-century official architecture at the Courtauld Institute, he obtains a teaching post at an establishment whose name is never quite clear, while living in a small terrace house in Alderney Street (actually, from a subsequent description of its proximity to the Jewish cemetery, it must be Alderney Road) in the East End.

The basis of the fiction, if it is a fiction, is that the author and narrator periodically meet, not only in Antwerp, but also in the bar of the former Great Eastern Hotel in Liverpool Street Station, London, and in a café in Paris.

By way of long, gloomy, maundering accounts of his life which sometimes have the character of shaggy dog stories, the narrator builds up a sense of his persona which is essentially a deeply melancholy one, bereft of any friendships, save for that of a girl in the library who takes pity on him and goes on holiday with him to Marienbad, and later a librarian in the Bibliothèque Nationale who goes to visit him when he is confined to hospital with a nervous disorder induced by the discovery of the circumstances of his youth.

What are we to make of this? In some ways, the account is emblematic of many ostensibly ineffectual lives, of an academic intelligence wasted in a grandiose intellectual project that requires years of taking notes but never leads to the grand book that should have resulted from it, until the narrator decides to burn all the accumulation of material in a small bonfire in the garden of his terrace house. But, at the same time and in a way that is highly distinctive, the book provides a strangely transcendent and hypnotic sense of the power of history and of the relationship between an individual and the accidents of their life.

I have never read a book that provides such a powerful account of the devastation wrought by the dispersal of the Jews from Prague and their treatment by the Nazis. Austerlitz fails to make sense of his brutalised young life while wandering round the concentration camp at Terezen, where his mother was confined, which causes him to break down when he later remembers what happened.

And I have read few books that provide such an intense sense of place and the relationship of buildings to their history, including, for example, a hypnotic description of how Austerlitz discovers the streets where he was born, as well as of particular places, from Antwerp railway station to Tower Hamlets cemetery.

Sebald describes a universe which is peculiar but recognisable, the way experience of the world can be shaped by a strongly academic and historical intelligence. I can't really comprehend his prose style, so distinctive in the length of his sentences and the slight archaism of manner, the monotony of its cadences probably due to the fact that it was originally written in German and then translated. But I would strongly recommend anyone who has not experienced his writing to do so, because it succeeds in communicating issues of great importance concerning time, memory and human experience.
Plan of the Bibliothèque Nationale
Not least I would recommend reading Austerlitz's account of trying to find out what happened to his father in the new Bibliothèque Nationale and failing to do so because its design appears calculated to frustrate the aspirations of its readers, such that one realises that the mentality which led to the concentration camp at Terezen is perfectly capable of designing comparable buildings in the present.

Inhumanity does not cease. Is what Sebald writes true? It does not matter. It is the most powerful fiction.