With his Gothic meanderings and limp mimicry of Kafka, this unlikely darling of high European style is merely lost in an English cul-de-sacby Michael Hofmann / October 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
one of the most striking developments in English-language publishing in the past five years has been the extraordinary success of the books of WG Sebald. The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo were received-pretty unanimously, as far as I could tell-with deference and superlatives. This is the more unlikely as I don’t think such a success could have been predicted for them or their author. Sebald, a professor at the University of East Anglia for many years, and settled in England since 1970, nevertheless insisted on writing in his native German-and then taking a hand in the heavy, somewhat dated English presentation of his books. These books, furnished with, one presumed, the author’s own photographs, hovered coquettishly on the verge of non-fiction; certainly, their elaboration of what appeared to be painstakingly researched historical narratives and circumstances contained much of their appeal. They called themselves novels, but they were more like introverted lectures, suites of digression, their form given them by the knowledge they contained; like water, finding its own levels everywhere, pooling and dribbling, with excurses on such things as silk, herrings, architecture, battles.
It was strange to see so many of England’s hidden stops-snobbery, gossip, melancholy, privileged information, eccentricities, the countryside reliably full of rich Keatsian glooms, daylight ghosts, dead machines, hulks of buildings, your Edward Thomas, your Pevsner, your Larkin, your Motion-so expertly manipulated by someone not even writing in English. But what was even stranger was that Sebald operated without any of the rigmarole or the pleasantnesses of the novel. The complete absence of humour, charm, grace, touch is startling-as startling as the fact that books written without them could enjoy any sort of success in England. Or, to take a different measure, that books without much pretence of character or action, but where the role of story is taken by thought or reading-or even more starkly, by the memory of thought or reading-could catch on at all. It is almost unaccountable to me that in the culture of “the good read” or “the book at bedtime” people would bother with books where the action-history-is always going on elsewhere, where the connection between the speaker and the hero or the plot is unspoken, unexamined, possibly non-existent: where for the dearly loved cogs and springs of conventional fiction there is no greater lubricant or persuader than ruminant curiosity.
In Austerlitz, the unnamed first-person writer gives us his memories of encounters he has had with the eponymous Austerlitz, a figure who has obviously exercised considerable fascination over him: first in a station in Belgium, then in London, in Paris, and elsewhere. The encounters, the personality, the relationship, are never particularly keenly seen; most of the book is made up of the divagations of Austerlitz’s reported speech (a mode which in English is hard to distinguish over long stretches from ordinary narrative). Think of Thomas Bernhard’s monologising novels, but substitute repression for spill, airy scholarship for furious effect, and you have the general idea. Austerlitz’s story-there seems to be pressure on Sebald to make it matter, as though his shimmering vitrines of facts are not enough by themselves-is that of a European Jew, born in Prague in 1934, put on one of the Kindertransporte in 1939, raised by a Welsh nonconformist minister and his wife, and later made aware of his origins and possible “identity,” and finally consumed by them, and by the thought of Terezin and Drancy, where his parents presumably met their deaths. The story, told in easy sequence, in meetings with ordered witnesses, is inevitably trite.
Sebald’s writing has been more often praised than accurately described; the “beauty” so often reflexively attested to I frankly don’t see. The dominant gesture is of something rigid in its peculiarity, or rigid in response to peculiarity. (The closest you get to drama in Sebald are certain moments of vaunting strangeness, promontories built out into the ectoplasmic sea in which the books have their being.) The sentences are grammatically complex and strictly correct. There is something paralysed or immobilised about them. The manner is insouciantly-provocatively-grandiloquent, neither sharp nor blunt. Inevitably, anything modern or contemporary distinctly threatens it: Canary Wharf appears anonymously as “sparkling glass towers,” one meeting between the narrator and Austerlitz is claimed, to the reader’s utter disbelief, to take place in a McDonald’s. It is a style that moves between stiff correctness, cliche (“white as a sheet”) and jargon (boys at school who “hatched plots to extend their power bases”). A fire in an invalid’s room has “yellowish smoke that rose from the glowing coals”-an impossibility, I would have thought-while moths flying round a lamp at night are seen “describing thousands of different arcs and spirals and loops”-where I would similarly query “different” as a bit of descriptive cant.
To me, Sebald’s books have something Gothic about them, a chilly extravagance, a numbed obsessiveness. Even their placidness and vagueness are Gothic. On almost every page, I had the sense that I might have been reading Poe, or de l’Isle Adam, or Hofmannsthal’s Chandos letter, something learned and constrained and almost-frightful: “Soon I would be overcome by this terrible anxiety in the midst of the simplest actions: tying my shoelaces, washing up tea-cups, waiting for the kettle to boil.” At the same time, though, there is a complacency and lack of urgency in Sebald’s academic sleuthing and the pedantic rosters of his prose catalogues, that kept me from taking it as seriously as, say, Hofmannsthal.
Beyond that, the presence of descriptive tropes lifted straight from Kafka baffled me: the labyrinthine architecture of the Brussels Palace of Justice, ending “in dark cul-de-sacs with roll-top cupboards, lecterns, writing desks, office chairs and other items of furniture.” Or the two messengers “who were strikingly alike and had faces that seemed somehow indistinct, with flickering outlines, wore jackets with assorted pleats, pockets, button facings and a belt, garments which looked especially versatile although it was not clear what purpose they served.” Is Sebald using his novel to proclaim that Kafka was a realist? Or does he simply suspend his fiction for the occasional homage? Is he happy to be a postmodern pasticheur, to take the Observer’s praise for his originality, and run with it? Or has he merely gambled-probably correctly-that an English readership will be unfamiliar with the first page of The Trial, which goes on, in the new translation by Idris Parry, “a close-fitting black suit which was provided, in the manner of travelling outfits, with various pleats, pockets, buckles, buttons and a belt, and which consequently seemed eminently practical, though one could not be quite sure what its purpose was.” It might have been different if the bit of his own writing that the Kafka has been fitted on to had amounted to anything, but the faces are just “somehow indistinct,” in fact, they “seemed somehow indistinct.” This is like nailing literature on to a home-made fog-or perhaps a 19th-century ready-made fog.