Tuesday, August 6, 2013

More Sebald . . . and some thoughts on sharing books. . .

I've mentioned here before what a fabulous library we've had access to in the house we rent in Bordeaux.  French, English, poetry, travel memoir, autobiography, history, political analysis. . . it's all here. So many authors and titles I've long meant to get 'round to, as well as many that I now have to add to my list. Last year, I only managed to read one novel from these French shelves (Marukami's Kafka on the Shore), but this year I did a bit better with the stack I piled up for myself on the kitchen counter.

I've already written a bit about reading W.G. Sebald's After Nature while we were in Bordeaux. Sebald is a writer I'd been hearing about through conference papers over the years (my research interest in writing around memory, trauma, photography takes me right into his territory, although my work has been confined to Canadian writing). A few years ago, I finally read his Emigrants and wrote about it, but hadn't followed up with other titles. Now there were two, at my fingertips. Still, we were in Bordeaux, together, on holiday, and there were many distractions from reading. I was able to move through After Nature fairly quickly (although I'm going to have to get my own copy, because this is a book that deserves rereading), but I knew that Austerlitz was going to take more time than I could spare right away.

So with home and library owner Deborah's permission, I took the book away with me, planning to read it before sleep over the rest of the trip as well as on train and plane. Tucked away in my carry-on case, it came along with us to Espedaillac where I was enrolled in a week-long plein air painting class. That class was so busy that I found myself with no reading time at all during the day and too tired to turn pages at bedtime. So when one of the non-painting spouses in our group complained that he had exhausted all his English reading material, I looked at him appraisingly and then tentatively offered up Austerlitz with a number of provisos. . .

First, I wanted the book back by the end of the week when we'd be heading off in different directions --  and did I mention it weighs in at 414 pages?
Second, I doubted very much that it would be light reading, given Sebald's engagement, throughout his work as much as I knew it, with 20th-century European history, his thematic focus on memory and trauma both at the collective national level and at the level of individual identity.
And finally, I suspected it would pose stylistic/structural challenges that some readers would surely find exciting but others might be puzzled by. At the very least, its status somewhere between the cracks of genre would deter the less ambitious -- is it a novel or a memoir? is it history or fiction? and what are all those photographs littered through its pages?

But Don, a retired history teacher, was up for the challenge. In fact, I could scarcely have imagined a more open, keen, and discerning reader. He'd heard nothing of Sebald until I proffered the book, but he dove into it with as much alacrity as if he'd read this great New Yorker article, "Why You Should Read W.G. Sebald."
So the next morning, when we met in the little town square to arrange rides for the day's field trip, Don reported that he'd read to page 46 before putting the book down. And by page 46, he hadn't come to the end of a chapter, had not, indeed, arrived at the end of the paragraph. The stylistic challenge I'd suspected was most obviously manifest in the almost absolute lack of a break for a reader.

Don wasn't put off by this lack, though. Instead, an ideal reader, he was mesmerized by the construction, fascinated by the way one topic led into another, apparently seamlessly, as set of descriptive details gradually yields to another set. The details are so thick and intricate that it's tough to note the spot where they begin the shift, with the effect of grains of sand sliding slowly at first, then skittering together until their collective action moves the container in another direction. By the second day, he told me he was at page 140, still skeptical about my conviction that the novel would eventually have some connection to the Holocaust.  Instead, there had been intricate discussions of architecture, of train stations, zoology, the geography and sociology of a small Welsh village, the freedoms and constrictions of a British boys' boarding school.

I won't keep you in suspense but can assure you that Don finished the novel and returned it to me before we left for Paris, and if we ever meet again, I believe he'll tell me that he went on to read other titles by this writer who many consider one of the highlights of 20th-century literature. As for me, I waited until I got back home to pick the book up for myself, and when I did I found that there is, eventually, a place for a reader to rest. On page 165, marked by an asterisk. . .Take a deep breath here, because it's the last stop until page 414.

Some of you may already be questioning what literary aims could possibly be served by so discomfiting a book's readers. Even as I'll admit that this structural/stylistic approach presents a hurdle, I can hazard some good reasons for the choice. Too many novels turn their treatment of the Holocaust into entertainment -- harrowing entertainment, yes, cathartically tragic entertainment, sometimes even profoundly disturbing entertainment that continues to resonate long after the book has been closed. But entertainment nonetheless. Entertainment that inevitably exploits the deaths of tens of millions and as it commodifies those deaths, also tends to package them into closure.

I'm not sure there's any way a writer can avoid entertaining at some level, depending on how we define that verb. But I've read that Sebald troubled himself deeply about how he might respond, morally, as a writer, to the circumstances he was born into (German, born in 1944, his father a prisoner-of-war until 1947 having served under the Nazis, hints of some hidden/denied Jewish family connections).  How to address a collective will to forget, an ethical imperative to remember. . . but what to remember and how? Sebald's choice in the two novels I've read, is to muddy the lines between fiction and memoir, history and autobiography. . . always with recourse to photographs as an indexical symbol of the past and how we might access it.

In the novel's second section, when our narrator again meets Austerlitz, Austerlitz as the novel's real protagonist begins recounting his decades in London, all culminating in a moment when, after years of increasing depression and nightly peregrinations through the city, he ends up in Liverpool Station and, on impulse, follows a porter into the Ladies Waiting Room where he is struck by a hallucinatory memory: he finally remembers his four-year old self, being picked up by the dour and unhappy couple who fostered/adopted him. Within a few days, he hears a radio program that triggers fuller and more precise memories of his evacuation from the continent with scores of other children, and he begins to understand how much effort he has put, unconsciously, into suppressing any knowledge of this past, indeed of the history of Nazi Germany, throughout his life, despite being an architectural historian.

As readers of the novel, we contend with this revealed history (posed as memoir), occupying the place of witness, doubly so as we listen to the narrator, a fictional Sebald, tell us of his meetings, over several decades, with the historian whose mixed/Jewish heritage, unbeknownst to him, caused his evacuation and the subsequent and successive traumas of lost memory, knowledge denied, unknown, forgotten until late middle age. The long sentences, one piling on another, never a place to rest, force us to recreate the act of witnessing -- an act that is, arguably, the first ethical step for anyone concerned with any historical trauma. We must listen, attentively, carefully, allowing the story to unfold as its survivor directs, organically, broken, gradually cohering into some kind of meaning.

Thus we have the repetition, throughout the novel, of the phrase "said Austerlitz," or "So Austerlitz told me." The narrator wants us to notice, to attend to, the act of witness. Sometimes this gets amplified further, as when the fictional Sebald recounts Austerlitz's account of something he's gleaned from a third party -- a mise en abîme structure that works to emphasize how history gets passed along, how our access to the past is always mediated. As in: "so Ashman told us, said Austerlitz. . . ."

It's a wonderful, wonderful novel, thoroughly engaging, powerfully significant, one that I would urge on any reader willing to do the work. I was so happy to meet one of those readers so serendipitously a few months ago, and I would be delighted if anyone who reads my response here should also pick up and enjoy the challenge.

I'll leave you with a taste of the stylistic intricacies, a demonstration of what Sebald can do with a single sentence -- and kudos to translator Anthea Bell for wrestling all these sentences from German to English. (the link above, to my response to Sebald's After Nature, also offers examples of his sinuous, long sentences.) While I've commented about the dangers of Holocaust novels that entertain, the stylistic pleasures of such sentences remind me, instead, of something I once heard Toni Morrison say in an interview (and I've mentioned this before, here). I'm paraphrasing, but roughly, what she said was that while delivering hard truths to the reader, asking them to play the difficult role of witness to horrific histories (in Morrison's case, the horrific histories of racism and slavery), she also felt compelled to offer them some compensatory pleasures. These might be found in the intricacies of plot or in the stretching of an imagination to include the magical or in the rich depiction of wonderful characters . . . or in the pleasures of a brilliantly shaped sentence.

 Iver Grove had been built around 1780 by one of Ashman's ancestors, said Austerlitz, a man who suffered from insomnia and withdrew into the observatory he had built at the top of the house to devote himself to various astronomical studies, particularly selenography or the delineation of the moon, and consequently, as Ashman told us, he had also been in frequent contact with John Russell of Guildford, a miniaturist and artist in pastels famous beyond the frontiers of England, who for several decades at this period was working on a map of the moon laid out over an area measuring five feet by five feet, and easily surpassing all earlier depictions of the earth's satellite in its precision and beauty, those of Riccioli and Cassini and those of Tobias Mayer and Hevelius alike. (The bolding is mine, just to demonstrate what I've pointed out above)

Be sure to tell me if you've read this or if you go on to read it, or any other Sebald. I'd love to share impressions.


  1. I love to stay in other people's homes and to listen to their music and read their books. Sebald seems quite challenging for me right now. Anthea Bell did some great translations of children's literature.

  2. I have to be in the mood for these more challenging books -- from what you describe on your blog right now, you need a different fare to get you through the next while.
    I'm impressed that you made the connection with the translator's name -- too often, the translators get ignored, whereas I marvel at what they do.

  3. I attended several of Sebald's public lectures in London in the 90s. When I heard that he had been killed in a car accident (or rather by an aneurism whilst driving), somehow I felt personally bereaved. He came across as such a wonderful man: erudite, gentle, thoughtful, courteous, respectful, self deprecating yet with a twinkle that prevented any sense of academic dourness about his persona. An extraordinary writer. Such a loss that he went, in my opinion, too soon before his time (age 57). What else might he have written....

  4. How lucky you were, Letty, to hear and see Sebald in person. I can easily imagine that sense of bereavement, even just through meeting the man through his books. I find his writing remarkable, and I suspect he'll be seen as one of the 20th-century greats. . . a sleeper, as it were. . .

  5. I read Austerlitz many years ago, when it was first published and I remember being entranced and awed by it. I was thinking about this recently as I unpacked books, thinking that this may have been the last novel I was really able to savour slowly, to escape completely into, before my husbands descent into dementia took too much of my energy. Perhaps not.

    Anyway, I want to read it again, and read the other novels as well (have previously read Rings of Saturn). Of course I also seem to want to reread every book I've unpacked, so who knows. I hope I have a long old-age in order to keep up with all my intended reading.

  6. I haven't read Rings of Saturn yet, but soon . . . I might have known you'd have read Austerlitz and be well familiar with Sebald's writing. I'm feeling so blessed in my reading readers right now!

    And yes, I'll need an old age indeed to pay justice to having kept all these bookshelves full all these years -- some of these works are just screaming for renewed attention!