The Other Side of Silence: On W.G. Sebald, by Evelyn Toynton

The Other Side of Silence: On W.G. Sebald, by Evelyn Toynton

March 26, 2010

Originally published in Harper’s in April 2008, recently republished in full online by Powell’s in honor of the release of the trade paperback edition of The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald, here’s a portion of Evelyn Toynton’s review:

In the nineteenth century, the period when Romantic and idealist philosophy had its great flowering in Germany, the novel, too, became a vehicle for philosophical speculation, taking on a uniquely “reflective, spiritually questing, poetic register,” as one scholar has put it. Despite his meticulous observations of physical scenes and objects, we always get a sense, with Sebald, of the immanence of some other, only dimly perceived world beyond this one: “intuitively we know that we shall never be able to fathom the imponderables that govern our course through life.” It is this, as much as his old-fashioned diction and his long, somberly beautiful sentences, that connects Sebald to the nineteenth-century German tradition.

Still, in The Emergence of Memory, as in most considerations of his work, it is Sebald’s relationship to a later period of German history that is most frequently alluded to. Questioned by his interviewers about the Nazi era, he describes the “conspiracy of silence” that prevailed while he was growing up after the war; he is convinced that his parents, who had been supporters of Hitler, never spoke about what had happened even when they were alone. “But then pressure eventually saw to it that in schools the subject would be raised,” he tells the writer Joseph Cuomo. “It was usually done in the form of documentary films which were shown to us without comment. So, you know, it was a sunny June afternoon, and you would see one of those liberation of Dachau or Belsen films, and then you would go and play football.” He talks, too, about his discomfort, later on, as a student at Freiburg University — a sense of some falseness he could not exactly pin down. Eventually, he realized that all his professors had received their doctorates in the 1930s and early ’40s; he even hunted up their dissertations: “If you . . . looked at what their Ph.D.’s were about, your hair stood on end.” When Wachtel asks him about his feelings for Germany, Sebald begins, “Well, I know it’s my country,” and winds up by saying, “in a sense it’s not my country. But because of its peculiar history and the bad dive that history took in this century . . . because of that I feel you can’t simply abdicate and say, well, it’s nothing to do with me. I have inherited that backpack and I have to carry it whether I like it or not.”

Three of the four stories that make up The Emigrants are about Jews or half-Jews, the other being about a German gentile who goes to America and works for a wealthy Jewish family there. But the Holocaust is present only as a shadow that darkens all their lives. (As Andre Aciman has said, “Supremely tactful, Sebald never brings up the Holocaust. The reader, meanwhile, thinks of nothing else.”) Austerlitz, the last of Sebald’s books to appear before his death, and the only one to take the form of a conventional novel — with many Sebaldian digressions — deals with it more directly. The title character was sent to England on the Kindertransports from Prague at such an early age that, unlike the painter in The Emigrants, he remembered nothing about his past. Adopted by a dour Welsh pastor and his wife who renamed him Dafydd Elias and never spoke about his antecedents, he went to Oxford and became an architectural historian. The narrator meets him first in the late 1960s, in a railway station in Antwerp (the Sebaldian narrator is always wandering somewhere or other in the hopes of shaking off some vague melancholy that afflicts him). Austerlitz talks learnedly, discursively, like Sebald himself, about the madness and dark history of the grandiose fortifications around them, and of many similar monuments to power. “Outsize buildings,” he says, “cast the shadow of their own destruction before them.” Following a series of accidental encounters over a period of thirty years, Austerlitz and the narrator meet once again, in Liverpool Street Station this time, where Austerlitz tells his story: After a breakdown that wore away his resistance to “the emergence of memory,” after the failure of his one real hope for love, after realizing that he has never really inhabited his life, he set out to learn his history. He has been to Prague, where he met his old nurse, and learned the fate of his parents insofar as she knew it; he has been to Theresienstadt, where his mother died. In some sense, then, he has reclaimed his own identity. But this is not a book about a healing journey into the past, a therapeutic process; it is an elegy for broken lives. Austerlitz, like the dispossessed figures in The Emigrants, remains an almost spectral being, haunting his solitary life like a ghost.

Other German writers have written about the Holocaust, Heinrich Boll and Gunter Grass chief among them (though The Tin Drum, the World War II novel for which Grass remains best known, hardly refers to the Jews at all). Yet there always seems to be something coy and evasive in their fictions. In Boll’s sentimentalized Group Portrait with Lady and Grass’s From the Diary of a Snail, the focus is on innocent souls who looked on helplessly, or heroic figures who tried in vain to help. (Sebald once wrote a scathing essay about Alfred Andersch, a now almost forgotten novelist, once highly acclaimed in Germany, whose fictional alter ego nobly protects his Jewish beloved, though Andersch had actually divorced his Jewish wife to protect himself.) In Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, one of the few German novels to feature a “perpetrator” — a concentration-camp guard — an equally coy strategy is employed: She took on the job, we learn, because she could not read and was too ashamed to acknowledge the fact. Almost always the focus is on the Germans themselves; the victims are largely an abstraction.

It is of course a delicate matter, the whole vexed question of how a German gentile should write about such things. Sebald talks about it in several interviews in The Emergence of Memory: “I’ve always felt it was necessary above all to write about the history of persecution . . . the attempt, well nigh achieved, to eradicate a whole people. And I was . . . at the same time conscious that it’s practically impossible. . . . This is why the main scenes of horror are never directly addressed. . . . The only way in which one can approach these things, in my view, is obliquely, tangentially.” Even in Austerlitz, he does not take us right into the nightmare of the camps; instead he evokes the doomed inmates’ suffering by cataloguing the grotesque trades they were forced to learn, by describing a propaganda film they were made to take part in, by enumerating the pitiful relics left behind in a junk shop in the town. And when the narrator visits Breendonk, a fort used by the Germans as a prison and labor camp, he tells us, “I could not imagine how the prisoners . . . could have pushed those barrows full of heavy detritus over the sun-baked clay of the ground, furrowed by ruts as hard as stone . . . it was impossible to picture them bracing themselves against the weight until their hearts nearly burst, or think of the overseer beating them about the head with the handle of a shovel when they could not move forward.” Supremely tactful, as Aciman says, Sebald acknowledges his inability fully to imagine such suffering and at the same time makes it harrowingly vivid. He goes on to say,

. . . when I finally entered the fort itself and glanced . . . into the so-called mess of the SS guards with its scrubbed tables and benches, its bulging stove and the various adages neatly painted on its walls in Gothic lettering, I could well imagine the sight of the good fathers and dutiful sons from Vilsbiburg and Fuhlsbuttel, from the Black Forest and the Bavarian Alps, sitting here when they came off duty to play cards or write letters to their loved ones at home. After all, I had lived among them until my twentieth year.

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