Monday, July 04, 2005

W.G. Sebald

I am reading W.G. Sebald's "Austerlitz." If you have never read or even heard of Sebald, that is a tragedy. He was a German writer, who taught in England, and wrote several pieces of fiction which won him worldwide literary acclaim, including the National Book Critics Circle Award. Sadly, he died in an automobile accident in 2001 in his fifties.

His work has a haunting, elegiac quality that remains with you long after you put down one of his books. He often uses the genre of a travel narrative, where he describes in great detail odd or quotidian bits of British or European life. His capacity for description is almost unequalled in modern literature.

Describing a seascape on the Welsh coast, for instance: "But on bright summer days, in particular, so evenly disposed a luster lay over the whole of Barmouth Bay that the separate surfaces of sand and water, sea and land, earth and sky could no longer be distinguished. All forms and colors were dissolved in a pearl gray haze; there were no contrasts, no shading anymore, only flowing transitions with the light throbbing through them, a single blur from which only the most fleeting of visions emerged, and strangely - I remember this well - it was the very evanescence of those visions that gave me, at the time, something like a sense of eternity" ("Austerlitz," p.95).

I believe this passage to be an interpretive key to much of Sebald's work, and his interpretation of life in a post-Holocaust world. For it is the Holocaust which hovers indirectly over everything Sebald writes. When reading his work, there comes over you a sense of dread, that an innocent description of a railway station will begin to evoke time-tables to Auschwitz, and trainloads of doomed Jews. Truth is veiled by the fog of the common-place, and therefore so is justice and accountability. By reminiscence, the links between action and consequence are revealed. This comes close to a Platonic epistemology of "anamnesis," i.e., we learn by remembering what we have forgotten. In Sebald's fiction, we learn by remembering what we have deliberately ignored or covered over.

His fiction has a prose-poem feel to it. There are no chapter breaks in "Austerlitz," and even more remarkably, almost no paragraph divisions. This same style is present in slightly adjusted form in his other works, "The Rings of Saturn" (another ostensible travel guide), and "The Emigrants." What is present in all his fiction, are numerous black and white photographs, which are used to create both the illusion of factuality - as if the work were non-fiction, but they also forge a connection of mood and sympathy with Sebald's sense of desolation and bemusement at a world so bent on destruction and killing.

As a pastor and theologian and Christian, I am compelled to see the parallels with our own moral ambiguities, and our own passive guilt as the slaughter continues unabated.


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