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The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald
Edited by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
Seven Stories Press
W.G. Sebald's literary world is complex; it blurs fact and fiction and mixes historical reality with imagined characters based on people the author knows. He litters all of his books with stark black-and-white photographs that eerily complement his narrative.
Some of the photos are fake, others authentic and culled from family albums; but it no longer seems to matter. With Sebald, you are immediately transfixed into the mind of his narrators, who all seem to be some version of the author himself.
Sebald's work has the feeling of a new literary happening. It is bold and anarchical and simultaneously old-fashioned and filled with an aching restraint. He is an acute observer of things and places.
The most resistant Jewish psyche, which might resent or be fearful of this German author's obsessive preoccupation with Jewish suffering and the travesty of German atrocities, will find itself falling prey to his vision. Sebald offers poison and purification; it is an irresistible combination.
It is presumptuous for any critic to assume he understands all the forces that drive any writer; our deepest compulsions are usually hidden. But the reader can't help but sense that Sebald feels tainted and incomplete. There appears to be a darkness that threatens to envelop him. His writing feels like an unburdening of sorts, a way for him to both disguise himself and discharge his darkest impulses.
Born in 1944 in Germany, Sebald could never forgive his stern father for his participation in the German genocide and his subsequent silence about it. His father returned home from a prisoner-of-war camp when Sebald was only three. The war was never discussed within the family home, or at school, or at college, or among his friends and acquaintances, a condition he later called "a conspiracy of silence."
He left Germany for Manchester while still a young man and spent over 30 years teaching at the University of East Anglia. He too would remain silent until 46 when he began writing his masterpieces The Emigrants, Vertigo, Austerlitz, The Rings of Saturn and the controversial On the Natural History of Destruction which focused on the Allied bombings of Germany at the end of the war. At 57, he was killed in an automobile accident.
In The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald, a book of essays and published interviews with the author before his untimely death, esteemed critics and scholars attempt to penetrate Sebald's creative process. It is a difficult endeavor. Editor Lynne Sharon Schwartz claims that what she finds distinctive in all of Sebald's work is "the narrator's distilled voice-melancholy, resonant as a voice in a tunnel, witty: the effluvia of their author's inner life."
Michael Silverblatt contends that Sebald's radical contribution to literature is "to bring the sensibility of tininess, miniaturization, to the enormity of the post-concentration camp world," and adds that he finds a unique tenderness in Sebald's writing that is coupled with "bewilderment, horror, infinite pity, and a kind of almost willed self-mortification."
Ruth Franklin believes Sebald's literary work shows him to be unique among German writers in his understanding of the catastrophe that befell the European Jews, but is troubled by a feeling that there is a lack of sensitivity in some of his writing that tends to present "suffering without its cause, as merely a part of the great pain that defines the human condition."
Franklin is uncomfortable with the "distance from actual horror" his narrators usually take.
The published interviews with Sebald reveal a man who feels uncomfortable being questioned. He seems shy, awkward and cagey, and somewhat irked at being asked to explain how he is able to do what he does. He often, when answering questions, tends to fall back on irony and word games and a misleading simplicity that may remind some readers of a young and rebellious Bob Dylan. The more praise that is heaped upon him, the more he withdraws, always leaving his questioner hungry for more. But some nuggets do surface.
Sebald explains that he uses photographs in all of his books since they help him feel as if he can find a living presence in a life that has already been extinguished. He discusses his fear of being too invasive in anyone's life, claiming "It's a received wisdom that it's good to talk about traumas, but it's not always true. Especially if you are the instigator of making people remember, talk about their pasts and so on, you are not certain whether your intrusion into someone's life may not cause a degree of collateral damage which that person might otherwise have been spared. So there's an ethical problem there."
In a more revealing interview, he tells of being traumatized when he first saw the film footage of the concentration camps in grade school in Germany, claiming "I didn't know what to make of it at all."
He admits he is unable to go back to Germany, and has felt physically sick when he has tried. He confesses that "though my father is still alive, at eighty-five... It's the ones who have a conscience that die early, it grinds you down. The fascist supporters live forever. Or the passive resisters. That's what they all are now in their own minds. I always try to explain to my parents that there is no difference between passive resistance and passive collaboration - it's the same thing. But they cannot understand that."
Sebald describes his family as working-class Catholics who were typical of those who supported the Nazi regime with a certain amount of enthusiasm.
If this interesting book of criticism and interviews introduces you to Sebald or encourages you to return to him, it will have served a noble purpose. Sebald doesn't pretend to understand the magnitude of what happened under the Nazis; he knows that much of it is unapproachable. He does not claim to have a grasp of the unique anguish and unbearable suffering of the Jews. Sebald attempts to come to some sort of knowingness through digression, by averting his gaze and then forcing himself to look back, over and over again.
The pulse in his novels escalates slowly and tension builds, but he, in the role of narrator, always remains at a respectful distance, conscious of his role as outsider; both to himself and to the Jews. There is no false empathy here, only a compulsion to know and understand and record and imagine. His books often digress for long passages on paintings and art history and architecture and entomology but always there is a return to one life, usually a Jewish one, looking for some part of himself amidst the ashes of Europe.
As for W.G. Sebald, the narrator of Vertigo seems to speak for him when he admits: "How I wished during all those sleepless hours that I belonged to a different nation, or, better still, to none at all."
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