I’ve always felt that it was necessary above all to write about the history of persecution, of vilification of minorities, the attempt, well nigh achieved, to eradicate a whole people. And I was, in pursuing these ideas, at the same time conscious that its practically impossible to do this; to write about concentration camps in my view is practically impossible. So you need to find ways of convincing the reader that this is something on your mind but that you do not necessarily roll out on every other page.….there is no point in exaggerating that which is already horrific.
Sebald’s already immortal book Rings of Saturn is being further etched into a visual medium. Grant Gee has made a movie on the book, Patience (After Sebald), which is premiering on January 28th. More on the movie can be seen here.
This picture, taken by Grant Gee, seems like a beautiful introduction to the walking journey Sebald took. I cannot wait to see the film, but getting my hands on the film will be a humongous task – it will certainly not come to India in any legal forms. (Sebald’s books hardly find their way here). I will have to find it online, which, something tells me will not happen soon.
My review of this beautiful book is here.
But it would be wrong to refuse to face the fact that everything is fundamentally sick and sad…
This single statement seems to define his work, his outlook, his themes.
Reading Gargoyle, or even the few pages of Frost, I find it difficult to see the parallel between Sebald and Bernhard. Sebald’s affair with misery is more of an external nature – a catastrophe, a natural decay, the destruction wrought by passage of time, a holocaust. His people are helpless people caught in this destruction, marked emotionally with the destruction. And his misery is as much about places as about people, while the harshness of Austria remains only a backdrop to Bernhard’s writing. What is common, perhaps are the monologues of their characters, but while Sebald’s stories are melancholic, Bernhard’s monologue is more desperate, taunting and bleak.
we all suffer in our different ways from being prisoners of birth..
I stumbled upon a book by Mark McCulloh on Understanding Sebald in Google books. The book contains Sebald’s biographic details, his writing style and chapters singularly dedicated to each of his four novels which have been published in English (I am quite proud of being the prospective owner of all four of them, now that I have ordered Emigrants and Vertigo from Landmark online!).
In the initial chapter on Sebald’s Literary Monism, McCulloh discusses Sebald’s fascination with the past – something which no reader of Sebald can ignore. He puts it as:
…Everywhere in Sebald’s work, beginning with his poetry, that the author recalls the past, recovers the past, and seeks to depict how the present fades imperceptibly into the past. His narrators and many of his characters are convinced that the dead are with us still, a part of who we are, and he is intent on telling their often obscured or suppressed tales…
Actually, Sebald’s narration of the obscured tales is what endeared his works to me most. His narration,too, is special in its own sphere, moving through the world noiselessly, observing a world which knows nothing of his presence. In McCulloh’s words,
His own narrative, as German readers have pointed out again and again, is archaic, that of a specter.
This may be a nice introduction for people intending to read Sebald, or others like me who are eager to delve deeper.
So what delight it can be, if the two of my favorite things come together in a travelogue, which delves deeper than a trip account and transports one into a totally different world. That too a world which lives not in the present but is only a decaying ghost of of an eventful, rich past.
Rings of Saturn by Sebald is an account of the narrator’s foot journey through East Anglia, covering the counties of Suffolk and Norfolk. Whether Sebald actually undertook this journey or if the book is a completely fiction is something I have not managed to find out. The narration, however carries the conviction of memoirs and as you walk through the pages, you feel that not only Sebald, but you yourself also made that journey. Page through page, you can hear the ‘rumble of thunder’, smell the acrid fumes and sometimes even feel the shuddering chill as the textual clouds cover the textual sky. In so many ways, Sebald has managed to paint on a canvas through words and make his picture come alive.
As I said earlier, the journey transcends the borders of time, and it seems that in stead of being unidimensional, time had in stead become a hall with many doors, and you could move through these times at will, or at least at the author’s will. The hall, however, is only a ghost of what lies beyond these doors. And Sebald heartbreakingly devours this ghost, through words and images, before entering through one of those doors in a flourishing time. He then makes us meet a lot of illustrious characters who live or lived in East Anglia – the learned and the eccentric, the dedicated and the talented. We see him uncovering the life of Conrad, pondering over the anatomical works of Browne or imagining himself to be a shadow of Michael Hamburger.
Many times, the book seemed to me, more than a travel account to be an account of destruction wrought over by time, almost as if time makes everything worse, and we are merely living in a fraction of the world that was. This thought is no better underlined than in these words:
…time has run it course and that life is no more than the fading reflection of an event beyond recall. We simply do not know how many of its possible mutations the world may already have gone through, or how much time, always assuming that it exists, remains.
At such times, the reading became very disconcerting and disturbing and I found myself wading depressively through my memories and weighing these words, of course never finding the answer, or even knowing if it exists.
While studying history, the two world wars captured my imagination more than any other historical event. However, even amidst these, I was most haunted by the holocaust – a tragedy of boundless dimensions that touched and wrecked the life of millions of beings. Since then, I have come across this horrific truth in many movies and books, and it is still a mystery to me as to why this ugliness fascinates me and the rest of the world so much that we pursue it time and again.
This fascination and a suggestion from a fellow blogger prompted me to pick up this book. It is said that Sebald is an authority on holocaust, and thus what I was expecting from this book was another vivid account of the misery afflicted on Jews. But in stead, this book completely stormed me by giving a haunting account of life after the holocaust and a victim’s almost violent denial and suppression of its memories.
The book is about the life of Jacques Austerlitz – an academician who, in his childhood, is forced to leave Prague as a refugee due to the Nazi accession of Czech territory. He lives in London under an alias and does not come to know his true identity until senior years of schooling. During this phase of anonymity, his subconscious mind suppresses all memories of his exile and childhood spent in Prague.
At some stage, perhaps after meeting the narrator of the novel (who almost seems indistinguishable from Austerlitz himself), he decides to go down the memory lane and uncover the fate of his parents, who, it turns out were not able to escape the holocaust. To piece together the history he goes first to Prague, then tries to trace his mother’s movements from one ghetto to another. Eventually he attempts to find an account of his father’s life.
Austerlitz’s life through these narratives, appears to be a tale of melancholy, disorientation and identity confusion. He is almost friendless and detached, seeking solace only in buildings and their stories. It is this silent loneliness and personality disintegration which makes the story so powerful and heart-wrenching.
Sebald’s narration is monotonous. He uses a narrator to convey Austerlitz’s story, but apparently the only purpose the narrator serves is to screen off parts of the story and emotions that a first person narrator could not have escaped. The gaps between the meetings of the two serve well to cover the gaps in the protagonist’s life. An interesting dimension is added by the use of pictures, and I understand that it is a dimension used by Sebald in most of his works. The pictures do not have any labeling and sometimes you have to struggle to find a connection between them and the accompanying text. While this may be disconcerting at times, the pictures also say their own story and somehow make the sense of a haunting isolation more acute. I particularly liked the use of Turner’s watercolor ‘Funeral at Lausanne’, which reminds Austerlitz of farewell and a funeral he himself attended.
It is difficult to imagine how many lives would have been shattered by a whimsical tyranny, and when we shudder it is only for those who met this terror. But it seems much harder to imagine the agony of those who lived in the aftermath of this terror and survived to face the tremors everyday.