by W. G. Sebald
The Rubble Artist
A review by John Banville
For a novelist, the Holocaust is at once a safe subject and a dangerous subject. Safe, because the emotional reaction of practically all readers will be already primed; dangerous, because almost any attempt to deal imaginatively with a crime that is well nigh unimaginable is likely to result in bathos. There is also the moral question of whether an artist has the right to turn such horrors into the stuff of art; Adorno was sure he knew the answer to that one, while even the supremely scrupulous Celan was criticized for the musical beauty of his death-camp poem "Deathfugue." Perhaps the most succinct statement of the matter was made by Larkin, who in a comment on a poem about another twentieth-century catastrophe said that he had used Roman numerals for the title of "MCMXIV" because "once you've said Nineteen Fourteen, everything after that is superfluous."
It would be an injustice to W.G. Sebald to suggest that he has made the Shoah his subject. Indeed, it would be an injustice to claim that he has a "subject" as such, unless it be the lachrimae rerum in general. His books deal with a bewildering range of topics, from the works of Thomas Browne to the loves of Henri Beyle, via the history of silk-making and the ground plan of the fortress of Breendonk outside Antwerp, and cover a very great deal of ground, from the mud flats of East Anglia through an artist's studio up a yard in Manchester to the killing fields of Croatia. Always in the background, however, is the dark echo of the persecution and the murder of the Jews.
Sebald's work is reminiscent of the stories of Borges, of the mysterious pictorial conundrums of Escher, of the precisely vague films of Resnais, though he is much more emotionally affecting than any of those overly cerebral magicians. He is perhaps a direct descendant of Kafka, except that Sebald's books are blessedly free of the transcendent boringness that breathes out grayly from Kafka's novels, though not from the stories or the diaries. Anyway, seeking influences is particularly fruitless in the case of Sebald, for he is unique.
His books — it is hard to know what else to call them; his paperback publisher employs categories such as "fiction/travel/ history," but why stop there? — have appeared in English in a chronologically jumbled fashion. What seems to have been the first one, Vertigo, was first published in German in 1990 and appeared in Britain in 1999; The Emigrants came out in German in 1992, and in English in 1996; The Rings of Saturn, one of his best-known works but not necessarily his best, was published in Frankfurt in 1995 and in London in 1998; and now comes Austerlitz. The first three books were very finely translated by Michael Hulse — that is to say, the English into which Hulse turned them is very fine — while the translator of the new one is Anthea Bell. It may be that Sebald, who came relatively late to fiction writing, or at least to publishing fiction in book form, has by now achieved a poised immaculacy of style that was not quite there before, but certainly Austerlitz, in Bell's pristine translation, strikes a more profound and more moving note than that sounded in the earlier books.
Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald was born in Wertach im Allgäu, in Bavaria, in 1944. He studied in Freiburg, later in Switzerland, and then in Manchester, where he moved in 1966. In 1970, he transferred to the University of East Anglia, where he has been professor of European literature since 1987, and where he was the first director of the British Centre for Literary Translation, a vigorous and very necessary organization in a country that remains resolutely suspicious of literature not written in English. East Anglia was also the college where the first creative-writing course in England was instituted, run by, among others, Angus Wilson and Malcolm Bradbury, and numbering among its graduates Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. The characterizing marks of the East Anglia school are a plain prose style largely free of metaphorical frills, and a fascination with the eerie depths underlying the most ordinary-seeming lives. Although Sebald is not connected with the famous course, his work does bear a superficial resemblance to that of Ishiguro and McEwan. The difference is that he is an infinitely greater artist than either of them.
Sebald's effects are achieved through what seems a sort of superhuman selfcontrol. The narrative walks along at a steady unvarying stride, matching its pace to that of the peripatetic narrator, who is forever on the move, whether ambling through the Norfolk Broads, or down the shell-shocked streets of postwar Manchester, or over the bridges and along the alleyways of Prague. The browser flicking through these books, with their dense, dialogue-free pages amply illustrated with blurry, anonymous, and yet curiously affecting photographs, will acknowledge the veracity of the description "travel/ history," but will wonder where the "fiction" comes in. Sebald's work probably requires an entirely new category.
It has been apparent since literary modernism guttered out in the nouveau roman that fiction would have to find new forms if it was to survive. Signs of a possible instauration have been appearing in the past couple of decades. Claudio Magris's Danube, a novel of ideas cunningly disguised as a travel book, which Sebald's The Rings of Saturn uncannily resembles, and Roberto Calasso's The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony pointed out possible new directions, while the extraordinary popular success of Milan Kundera's essay-fictions — who would have expected that a book that opens with a citation from Nietzsche, as does The Unbearable Lightness of Being, could ever become a best-seller? — showed to novelists, and, not insignificantly, to publishers and booksellers, that the reading public was ready for a new kind of literature, and would welcome books that flouted the categories.
Sebald is a triumphant culmination of that process of change and experimentation, though his work has all the marks of a new beginning. To the hurrying eye in search of plot, characters, dialogue, these books will appear flat and cold. The text looks dauntingly clotted: the first paragraph of Austerlitz is twenty-five pages long, and toward the middle there is a sentence, a marvelous sentence, describing the detention camp at Terezín, that lasts for seven pages. The photographs, viewed out of context, can seem positively twee, and sometimes they do indeed smack of literal-mindedness: one finds oneself recalling the BBC television comedy sketch mocking the illustrative obsessions of the compilers of newscasts, in which mention of the government position of Lord Privy Seal is backed by shots of Jesus Christ, an outdoor lavatory, and an aquatic mammal balancing a ball on its nose.
But Sebald knows what he is up to. At the bottom of page fifty-nine of The Rings of Saturn, in a passage about an English eccentric, a certain Major Le Strange, we are told in the very last line that he was with an anti-tank regiment that liberated Bergen-Belsen in 1945; and when the page is turned it is a genuine shock to be confronted by a two-page spread showing bodies piled at random in a pine wood. Less direct, but no less effective, are the three pages in Austerlitz illustrating doorways in the present-day town of Terezín, the third of which unerringly resembles the door of a gas chamber. (An incidental source of speculation is where these photographs come from — Sebald must spend a lot of time in junk shops — and whether the writer searches them out to illustrate the text or allows the pictures themselves to direct the narrative.)
The tone of all Sebald's books is vaguely autobiographical, mainly in the sense that they seem to chart something of the writer's inner life, his struggles, speculations, nervous turmoils. In Austerlitz there is a gruesome photograph, from a museum of veterinary medicine in Paris, of a three-foot-high tree of bronchial tubes, its "petrified and rust-coloured branches looking like coral growths," which might be an emblem in general of Sebald's somber, inward, uncanny books. Of Sebald himself we learn little of a concrete nature. He is an unenthusiastic teacher, he has a wife, he likes to hike about the countryside in solitude but with a lively curiosity. There are hints of serious inner troubles, losses, breakdowns. A description in Austerlitz of writer's block is as immediate and as horribly compelling as the predicament of Lord Chandos in Hofmannsthal's "Letter"; the process that begins with writing being "such hard going that it often took me a whole day to compose a single sentence, and no sooner had I thought such a sentence out, with the greatest effort, and written it down, than I saw the awkward falsity of my constructions and the inadequacy of all the words I had employed," and it ends with the character feeling "in my head the dreadful torpor that heralds disintegration of the personality," and sensing that "in truth I had neither memory nor the power of thought, nor even any existence, that all my life had been a constant process of obliteration, a turning away from myself and the world."
The character thus afflicted is not Sebald, or even "Sebald," but the book's eponymous central character. Austerlitz is cast in a form reminiscent of Diderot's Rameau's Nephew and Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." One day in the 1960s, on a visit to Antwerp, the nameless narrator, whom we are to understand is Sebald himself, encounters in the waiting room of that city's baroque Central Station a solitary traveler like himself, "a man who then, in 1967, appeared almost youthful, with fair, curiously wavy hair of a kind I had seen elsewhere only on the German hero Siegfried in Fritz Lang's Nibelungen film." This man is Austerlitz. The dreamy drift here, from the man's appearance to the recollection of a movie, is typical of Sebald's method. Over the ensuing three decades the two men meet, occasionally but momentously, and Austerlitz's story gradually emerges.
Having been brought up in a small town in Wales "in the home of a Calvinist preacher and former missionary called Emyr Elias who was married to a timid-natured Englishwoman" — this extended Welsh episode is a bravura piece of mock-Gothic description that is at once deeply gloomy and highly comic — the boy discovers, when Elias has descended into madness, that he is not a son of the manse, but that he was fostered by the Eliases. His real name is Jacques Austerlitz. After many years of dogged detective work, he succeeds in uncovering the identity of his parents. They were the Prague businessman and political activist Maximilian Aychenwald and his actress wife Agáta, both Jews. When war came, his parents sent him to England, and shortly afterwards Maximilian fled to Paris, intending that Agáta should follow, but next day the German tanks rolled into Prague, and she was trapped. Eventually Agáta was sent to Terezín, and perished there or in one of the extermination camps.
Sebald's narrative control in the recounting of this terrible tale is remarkable. The creeping horror of the fate of the Austerlitzes is communicated all the more effectively because the narrative never raises its voice. Instead it maintains a masterly and unnerving evenness of tone. The moment, toward the close of the book, when we are finally shown a photograph of a woman who is almost certainly Agáta, is one of the most moving moments that a reader is likely to encounter in modern literature. There are passages of breathless beauty in this book, as when Austerlitz describes watching in slow motion a propaganda film of life in the Terezín camp: "The men and women employed in the workshops now looked as if they were toiling in their sleep, so long did it take them to draw needle and thread through the air as they stitched, so heavily did their eyelids sink, so slowly did their lips move as they looked up wearily at the camera." Mysteriously lovely, too, is the account of a performance by a traveling circus that Austerlitz attends in Paris, at the end of which the whole troupe, accompanied by a white goose, gathers to play on a motley of instruments a tune that Austerlitz does not recognize but that moves him deeply. Looking back, however,
it seems to me as if the mystery which touched me at the time was summed up in the image of the snow-white goose standing motionless and steadfast among the musicians as long as they played. Neck craning forward slightly, pale eyelids slightly lowered, it listened there in the tent beneath that shimmering firmament of painted stars until the last notes had died away, as if it knew its own future and the fate of its present companions.
The Europe through which Sebald, or his narrator, wanders is not the Europe of treaties and economic miracles and social progress. The eye that he casts upon his continent is cold and utterly undeceived. The places that he visits are not the grand boulevards, the glittering esplanades, the statued parks, but the unconsidered corners, the bricked-over wastelands and soulless architectural sites. There is a splendidly disgusted visit to Paris's new Bibliothčque Nationale on the quai Francois Mauriac, a building "devised...on purpose to instill a sense of insecurity and humiliation in the poor readers," where the reverberations of catastrophe are still unmistakably to be felt. For Sebald, the "new" Europe is as neat and clean and orderly as the vast cemeteries in Flanders where the fallen of World War I are laid out under row upon endless row of white crosses.
The seriousness of Sebald's endeavor is plain and impressive. His work is nothing less than a chronicle of the end of a civilization. Europe, Sebald is telling us, committed suicide in the first half of the twentieth century, and what remains is, for all the carefully applied cosmetics, a lifeless object of desperate veneration and uneasy nostalgia, like Lenin's corpse in its mausoleum in Red Square. As Austerlitz remarks of the Palace of Justice on Gallows Hill in Brussels, "At the most we gaze at it in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsized buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins."
Austerlitz itself is a kind of majestic and mysterious ruin, a place of secret chambers, of hushed and anonymous spaces, of star-shaped structures crouching in silence under glass domes and peopled by the dead, and by the living dead. Yet for all its bleakness, this book, like Sebald's other books, is peculiarly invigorating and, dare one say, filled with hope, of no matter how tentative a variety. Sebald's voice is speaking out of the rubble, erecting the edifice of art.
John Banville's most recent novel is Eclipse
four weeks of the New Republic Digital absolutely free
For nearly 90 years, the New
Republic has provided its readers with an intelligent and rigorous
examination of American politics, foreign policy, and culture. Today,
we're proud to offer a faster, easier, and more economical way to enjoy
the magazine TNR Digital. Subscribe today and we'll give
you 4 weeks absolutely free. That's less than 36 cents/week for every
word of content available in the print version, a downloadable replica
of the print magazine, and an array of special online-only features!
to sign up.