And so they are ever returning to us, the dead

Sebald’s characters live in memories and the past – this is perhaps the least kept secret about his books. Their dead keep returning to them, the possibilities of their own deaths continue to haunt them – until they can bear it no more and often embrace that death which has been following them.
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Open City – Teju Cole

That I embarked on this book was hardly serendipitous – ever since it came out, critics have been hailing it as a Sebaldian work, and it has found its way on all magazines, blogs which even remotely address Sebald and his fans.
I picked it up, hoping it was not an attempt to follow Sebald’s footsteps – there could be nothing exciting about sounding like someone else. In the initial pages itself, Teju Cole is quick to show us that though his narrator goes on long walks, it is in his own city (New York); his meditations on this walk do not transcend the border of time and are often impersonal observations of surrounding life. Contrast that to Sebald’s journeys through space and time – he rarely lived in the present, almost always wrote about some unknown village or coastal town far away, and his every reflection seemed to emerge from  or be part of his personal melancholia.
Standing outside of this shadow then, Open City is a great work. The narrator, Julius is a half Nigerian-half German man who is in his final year of Psychiatry fellowship. For a psychiatry student, he is a very detached observer, one who almost never tries to enter a person’s head or understand her motives. He instead has experiences which he narrates (mostly without adding his own judgement). The title Open City could as much apply to the city of New York which sees so many amalgamations in it, as it could to the narrator’s mind, which allows experiences to drop in one over another, without ever forming decisive opinions.
Some of these observations take place in Brussels: a large part of his Brussels experiences are with a young guy called Farooq who takes care of an internet cafe. During his interactions with Farooq, you can often see Julius swinging between sometimes feeling sympathetic towards him, and at other times feeling annoyed with Farooq’s unjust, rhetoric anger. He is impressed with Farroq’s reading, knowledge, and soon becomes bored of the excessive bookishness.
At several points the idea of racial identity enters these observations. Julius seems especially averse to belong to a ‘group’, and seems to hold his African past at bay. He avoids people who begin a kinship with him only because he is African, and yet when he sees a couple of Africans young guys in a deserted park, his reaction is one of relief. This response seems to be borne out of the same kinship which he shrugs off.
In the entire narrative, one place where Julius comes face to face with his own bestiality has been handled with most poise –  something so momentous handled with so little drama. (The ensuing parts give out some details of the plot – so if you have not read the book, you may want to skip this) Here a woman tells Julius how he had raped her long ago, when they were both in Nigeria. How the incident was so insignificant for him that he did not even remember it, and yet how much it had changed her life. She describes the evening with some details, describes how she still finds him the same careless, insensitive man.
Julius offers no thoughts on this encounter – he does not even admit to being ashamed or feeling belittled. You turn the page and he has already moved on to talking about something else. It almost feels like it was another story which he had been told, where he was only an impassioned observer like everything else that went before. He displays more emotion for forgetting his ATM pin. It looks Cole is trying to push the envelope on the level of alienation modern cities instill.

Emergence of Memory: conversations with WG Sebald

Sebald’s voice is unmistakable in all his works. All his narrators, the reliable and unreliable ones, speak in his voice. The characters narrated by those narrators speak in his voice. To me, these works are as intimate as you could get with him. And yet, somehow these conversations have been able to achieve a slightly higher degree of intimacy, and I think most of its due to the understanding between the two people conversing.
the emergence of memory is an anthology which was published after Sebald’s death. It is a collection of five conversations and four articles/essays which have previously appeared in various publications. They make a good collection, particularly the conversations, tied together by Lynne Schwartz’s introduction which touches upon each of Sebald’s works available in English, a little bit on his life, and his fascination for death and destruction. Some of the recurrent motifs in Sebald’s works are explored here, and the editor has explained that some of these interviews/essays have been chosen to emphasize those motifs, but also to bring forth facets of all of Sebald’s works. She also excuses herself for selecting Michael Hoffmann’s essay on Sebald as ‘one dissenting voice’ as a ‘skeptical corrective to what otherwise might be a gush of nearly unqualified enthusiasm.’
The two best conversations from this collection are ‘Who is WG Sebald?’ with Carole Angier which originally appeared in the Jewish Quarterly in 1997, and ‘A poem of an invisible subject’ with Michael Silverblatt of KCRW which was originally a voice broadcast in 2001 (it can be found here). In his conversation with Carole Angier, Sebald talks primarily about Emigrants, but also somewhat of his disappointments with growing up in Germany, about being shown a film about concentration camps, but hurriedly, without explanations. Carole Angier seems to say little during the conversation, but offers some of her perceptions as she recollects the interview (He can tell me this. I think, because his mother will never read the Jeweish Quarterly). She tries to understand the stories of the real people behind the Emigrants, and whether Sebald felt any discomfort in changing the stories of his models. Sebald evades answering this, and his discomfort becomes evident in this evasion. He has mentioned in a few places his unease with ‘the questionable business of writing’.
Silverblatt’s conversation has already been much discussed and praised for its perceptiveness. It is very perceptive ofcourse, and probes Sebald on his writing influences. The influence of 19th century German prose, or Thomas Bernhard. But this interview also brings out in the open the fact that Sebald kept circling the theme of holocaust without dealing with it directly in the prose. Sebald agreed:
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.
In the conversation with Joseph Cuomo, Sebald discusses lot more about writing, about the conflict between conjuring lies and giving liberty to imagination. It is a must-read to understand some of his conflicts. Sebald has been most expansive here. Some of the excerpts of this interview can be found here.
Amongst the essays, there is only Ruth Franklin’s Rings of Smoke (Link) worth talking of. She has discussed each of Sebald’s work, sieving through them, quoting the most essentials parts of them and connecting them together. And despite her enthusiasm for Sebald, she offers a counterpoint to his essays in On the natural history of destruction.
I do not even want to credit Michael Hoffmann’s essay – it is an insult to counter-balance. There is unabashed criticism, but no critique and the reasons for his dissatisfaction in Sebald are altogether unclear.
Overall a good collection, though i think the essays could have been sacrificed for more interviews.

A movie on Rings of Saturn

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.

Between the devil and the deep Blue Sea

Sebald’s On Natural History of Destruction is a collection of essays on German literature and its handling of World War II incidents. The four essays in this book are:
  • Air War and Literature, based on lectures given in Zürich in 1997
  • Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: On Alfred Andersch
  • Against the Irreversible: On Jean Améry
  • The Renorse of the Heart: On Memory and Cruelty in the Works of Peter Weiss
As mentioned above, the second essay, Between the devil and the deep blue sea is Sebald’s criticism of the mildly celebrated German author Alfred Andersch’s work. Even reading the epigraph gives an idea of what Sebald is going to say in the essay. It quotes a line from the cover of one of Andersch’s books where he is called a great German writer. Below the quote Sebald mentions that the words were written by Andersch himself.
So from the very onset, Seblad seems to be annoyed with Andersch’s sense of self-importance. His entire essay points out examples from Andersch’s work where he has twisted events and his memory of it to bring out a rather large self-image. Certainly from Sebald’s examples, Andersch seems to stand in a poor light. In his personal life, Andersch abandoned a Jewish wife right before holocaust reached its nadir thus compromising her security, he indulged in petty ego clashes with critics, and he spent three months in a concentration camp himself. Andersch’s work has dealt with many events in his life, but in neither has Andersch been honest, according to Sebald.
It is an interesting essay, particularly his criticism of the work Efrain makes me almost want to read Andersch. So far I have heard Andersch’s name only in the context of ‘internal-emigration’ – a term which I found delightful to hear. Sebald’s essay, however, takes away the enigma from this emigration and reduces it into an abeyance, an inertia to make the move.
I am a little surprised at classification of this essay as literary criticism – it focuses more on Andersch’s personal life and failings – his desertion in Italy and the divorce to his wife, his inability to take criticism. In comparison it speaks little of the literary quality of his work.
In the first essay of the book, Air, war and literature, Sebald has criticized German authors for maintaining silence on the bombing and complete destruction of the German cities in the last phase of World War II. Sebald’s demands from literature have been stringent in that essay, and that comes out in this essay as well. As in the previous essay, Sebald does not like Andersch taking a literary license to ‘fictionalize’ his accounts. In demanding a complete narration, Sebald seems to be very rigid, and arguably takes a restricted view of literature.
Surprisingly, this book is very Un-Sebaldian when it comes to its use of images. The book has very few images, and the lacuna is striking – especially when even in the description of Weiss’ paintings in the last essay Sebald keeps the pictures conspicuously absent. This could be a reason why I thought this work was less evocative than his other works, but I think Sebald’s rigid view of literature and its roles also had a significant part to play in my reaction to the work.

Reading Bernhard – Gargoyles

It is true that perhaps I would have paid little attention to Thomas Bernhard and his writing if Sebald had not been compared to him. By Sebald’s own admission, Bernhard’s influence on his writing is tremendous – an admission which makes it hard to ignore Bernhard.
It was surprisingly hard, then, to find Bernhard’s books. Even on the online bookstores, his books have remained elusive. I am still hunting for Wittgenstein’s Nephew (actually just recently found and ordered it), Old Masters – even the Losers. What I did manage to find, were two of his books – Frost & Gargoyles. I have already picked up and shelved Frost – it perhaps requires a different frame of mind, one upbeat enough to net the despair in stead of getting caught in it, and it will take me some time to get there.
Gargoyles, on the other hand has been a great read. (To describe Thomas Bernhard’s books a joy or delight would be perhaps a defeat of his oeuvre). Each of the character in the book, except for the narrator, seems to be a gargoyle – an ugly oddity which serves a vague role.
The narrator has come home from his mining college for a weekend, and goes out with his doctor father on one of his medical rounds of the region. As expected from a medical visit, there is an engulfing sickness, but wrapped with it is also the unsettling oddity of human nature. The road that starts with a senseless battering of an innkeeper’s wife, goes to a writer living in seclusion with his half-sister, to a caged young cripple tended by his young sister, to an old lady who had once sheltered her murderer brother. And then a mad prince, who rants about a flood, about some applicants for the role of his stewards, about family and a long long dream about what his son is writing. In this dream writing, he imagines his own death, his son’s insistence on the destruction of his estate and a dialogue between his son and the town clerk.
What could be more insane – everyone who is met seems to have a dark life. The despair seems to become most pronounced in the story of an avian massacre in a haunting gorge. The stench of the scene is so strong that it permeates through the book into the living room.
Why would someone want to write of so much misery, monstrosity? Bernhard seems obsessed with the idea of human fallacy and sees only the worst in humanity. The city of Salzburg which charms so many people visiting it, was to him a ‘terminal disease’.

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.

Head-On (Gegen Die Wand)

Every country bears a lot of weight on everyone who is born to it – all the history, the beliefs, fears, errors, successes and a lot more. When you chose to leave it, you also in a way try to offload all these weights and go out empty-handed to adopt something new with more openness. But no country is a new country. There are people already living there, weighed by the being of their nation. You can shed your weights, but it takes years before you can adopt theirs and become equal. That is the dilemma of emigrants – trying to lose and gain different weights at the same time, and stuck somewhere in between. A dilemma often propounded upon, but not always as well depicted and lived as the characters of Faith Akin’s German-Turkish movie Gegen Die Wand.
Both Cahit and Sibel are Turkish emigrants living in Germany. Both of them are unhappy, disoriented and sick of their lives, on which they have given up. They meet in a clinic after making failed suicide attempts, and end up in a convenient marriage on Sibel’s crazy insistence as she desperately seeks to move away from the dominance of her family and have an independent ‘sexual life’ as she puts it.
Both live as roommates, and slowly, even through their random and disjointed lives, a semblance of attachment begins to form between them, until they begin to fall in love. But just then a fit of anger lands Cahit in the prison, and Sibel disowned by her family. She moves to Turkey, and Cahit hangs on in the prison with only the thought of Sibel keeping him alive.
Sibel’s disorientation in Turkey is almost complete, and it is such a vivid description of how she is more comfortable in the foreign land than in her own country. Even Cahit, when he finally lands in his country, seems to be so out of place and puzzled in being there. There is a scene when he tries to speak to Sibel’s cousin in halted English to explain himself, because neither his German and Turkish appear adequate enough for expressing his emotions. That single scene says a lot about the emigrant’s confusion.
What I liked about the movie is that even with many dramatic turns, it is a very non-dramatic film. The listlessness and the slow resurrection of both people is subtle and very natural. They are reticent people, never truly giving in to emotion, but more susceptible to anger and depression. There are some very good scenes – Cahit’s Head-on in the beginning of movie being one, the English dialogue another. The last scene too, which reminded me of the last scene of Antonioni’s L’eclisse in a way – though of course the latter was far more powerful and poetic. The movie is tied together with powerful acting and little dialogue. I found myself both disgusted and sympathizing with the two people who seem to have come unhinged.
Recently, I was also reading Sebald’s Emigrants, which is such a subtly depressing but powerful book (as I have found each of Sebald’s works to be so far, because he is an incredible writer), and it takes us through the lives of four emigrants. I have only read two yet, and neither of them are dramatic lives, but each life feels so uprooted and restless and unhappy that you could only imagine them waiting for the end.
Also, read a quote recently which sums it up a bit:

we all suffer in our different ways from being prisoners of birth..

A perspective on Sebald

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.

A journey through shadows: Rings of Saturn

There are only two real hobbies that I have – reading and traveling (Yes, I am still only slipping into cinema and have a long way to go). In a way really they are quite connected because they are both about seeing the world. Of course with books, you can see more worlds than the one that lies before your eyes, because they can transcend the borders of time, and you have to spend far less on the journey 🙂

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.

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald

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.