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Christopher C. Gregory-Guider
Contemporary Literature, Volume 46, Number 3, Fall 2005, pp. 422-449 (Article) Published by University of Wisconsin Press DOI: 10.1353/cli.2005.0034
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C H R I S T O P H E R C . G R E G O R Y- G U I D E R
The “Sixth Emigrant”: Traveling Places in the Works of W. G. Sebald
laces do not remain in place in the works of W. G. Sebald. Like the restless narrator, they tend to roam, to wander. An inn in Woodbridge, England and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris become unlikely vessels whose helms pierce through successive spatio-temporal frames:
I heard the woodwork of the old half-timber building, which had expanded in the heat of the day and was now contracting fraction by fraction, creaking and groaning. In the gloom of the unfamiliar room, my eyes involuntarily turned in the direction from which the sounds came, looking for the crack that might run along the low ceiling, the spot where the plaster was flaking from the wall or the mortar crumbling behind the panelling. And if I closed my eyes for a while it felt as if I were in a cabin aboard a ship on the high seas, as if the whole building were rising on the swell of a wave, shuddering a little on the crest, and then, with a sigh, subsiding into the depths.
(Rings of Saturn 207–8)
You might think, especially on days when the wind drives rain over this totally exposed platform, as it quite often does, said Austerlitz, that by some mistake you had found your way to the deck of the Berengaria or one of the other ocean-going giants, and you would be not in the least surprised if, to the sound of a wailing foghorn, the horizon of the city of Paris suddenly began rising and falling against the gauge of the towers as the great steamer pounded onwards through mountainous waves.
Contemporary Literature XLVI, 3 0010-7484; E-ISSN 1548-9949/05/0003-0422 © 2005 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
Increasingly geographers and cultural critics emphasize the role of human subjectivity in representations of place. . as human beings. and loss. . Wright coined the term “geosophy” in the 1960s to refer to the “geographical ideas. but is. 1. The substance of this challenge rests upon the assertion that. place has become a highly unstable variable.” writes Simon Schama in Landscape and Memory (6–7). Newton astutely observes (60). it is now being explored with ever greater self-consciousness in the realm of literature and literary studies. Sebald’s works have also been considered as extensions of the travel-writing genre. place is “never simply itself .” which necessarily entail “subjective conceptions” (qtd. Allen et al. Cultural geographers and critical theorists have elaborated the various implications of the spatial practices that constitute the experience of place. Mack. In short. both true and false. of all manner of people. fears. Human Geography Today. in Zelinsky 171). The burgeoning genres of travel writing and life writing have mounted numerous challenges to the previously unquestioned status of place as a static geophysical category.1 While this truth may have been long since acknowledged philosophically.. Acknowledging the subjective experience of place as a legitimate field of inquiry. (See Allen et al. with its highly inventive and selfreflexive meditation on place. our encounter with place is an experience largely constructed by our individual (and culturally based) desires. “Before it can ever be a repose for the senses. we create the places in which we live as much as we register their objective reality. its own emigrant. Relph.) With respect to the field of life-writing.2 Rather than a constant in the ever more complicated calculus of the postmodern self. a quantity more likely to unsettle than to ground us. “Travel literature” is now understood by many to include fictional or semi-fictional works characterized by a self-conscious discourse of place and its traversal. and Tuan. (See the section entitled “Travel and Walking” in Long and Whitehead for some representative examples. Entrikin. landscape is the work of the mind.) Critics such as Roberto M. To endow place with the power of movement is a radical affront to its traditional status as reliably located in space-time. see the special edition of the journal Reconstruction on “‘Autobiogeography’: Considering Space and Identity” for theorizations of the ever more common triangulation of self and other through place in contemporary literary and cultural discourse.” as the critic Adam Z. Certeau. 2. and memories. . rather. City. the geographer John K. Soja.. memory. . Dainotto and Joseph Frank have attempted to apply some of these observations to the realm of literary studies. Casey.G R E G O R Y .G U I D E R • 423 In these and other such instances. a prime example of which is Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.
Jean Améry. Sebald’s scholarly writings on Austrian authors whose works and lives are marked by a tension between home and away provide an as of yet little explored lens through which to read his creative prose. On occasion. through. As Susanne Finke points out. there was nothing left but the grey table top. Die Beschreibung des Unglücks (Chronicling Catastrophe) looks at Austrian authors for whom . Leopold Kompert. I justify collapsing the narrators of Sebald’s works into the singular “narrator” on the grounds that there is an undeniable thematic and stylistic continuity that connects them. or withdrawing them from the game until . and that then. always with a new sense of surprise at what he saw.424 • C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E Sebald’s works provocatively portray place as fluid. Sebald’s own lost origin haunts the pages of his texts. his frequent references to the Alps of his childhood (215). a traumatic one). . collaged landscapes. or a geography whose physical surface is interpolated by remembered images of a personal past (in this case. Gerhard Roth. which examines the lives and works of Charles Sealsfield.3 So. and Peter Handke. Peter Altenberg. Regarding exile and the Alpine landscape. 4. I use “Sebaldian narrator” to draw attention to the near-perfect correspondence between the biographical details of the narrator and author. Franz Kafka. (167–68) The desire to resuscitate an origin lying buried beneath the accretions of time is one of the driving forces behind these constructed. pushing the pictures back and forth and over each other. he turned them over. as if playing a game of patience. Hermann Broch. Karl Emil Franzos. for example. arranging them in an order depending on their family resemblances.4 Finke contends that 3. This yoking together of divergent times and geographies later receives eloquent articulation in the narrator’s description of Austerlitz’s habit of rearranging photographs of his journeys into ever-new configurations: Austerlitz told me that he sometimes sat here for hours. laying out these photographs or others from his collection the wrong way up. unanchored. and interpolated with the disparate geographies traversed by the narrator and his biographical subjects. . one by one. among other things. Austerlitz’s departure from his parents in the Kindertransport is a trauma that he subsequently projects onto the Welsh landscape in the form of superimposed images of the Hebrew exile in the desert and European train stations. See. in particular. Unheimliche Heimat (Uncanny Home[land]). Recurring visions of trains and wandering nomads fuse these remembered fragments of places into a kind of psychogeography. Joseph Roth.
my translation). During an excursion with the author from Norwich to the North Sea coast. I can say that already as a young boy I felt ill at ease in this country” (“Wer ist W. while Logis in einem Landhaus (Lodging in a Cottage) explores the experience and representation of alienation in the works of Gottfried Keller. “Without further ado.” . 5. Raul Zelik. werde ihm bewuat. central to Sebald’s aesthetic. “Ich könnte jetzt ohne weiteres sagen. Sebald?” 44. etwas Groaes. die ihm früher vor Augen gestanden haben. even if conflicted. In an interview with Carole Angier. Selim Özdogan. of course. etwas wie die Alpen. JeanJacques Rousseau. Özdamar. G. the author remained in England from that point forward. Robert Walser. and Eduard Mörike. Sebald stated quite bluntly in regard to his native Germany. and in 1970 moving to the University of East Anglia. vitriolic condemnations of German society. where he taught until a profound sense of melancholy was central to their literary aesthetic. McCulloh’s monograph on the author. daß ich mich sogar schon als Junge unbehaglich gefühlt habe in diesem Land. as Finke does. Beatrice von Matt comments on Sebald’s uprootedness: “Not until he is standing on the coast does he become aware of the fact that something is lacking in the somewhat claustrophobic city of Norwich.5 A further indicator of Sebald’s lingering. and Kemal Kurt. Other literary influences on Sebald are discussed in Mark R.” 6. Johann Peter Hebel. Nevfel Cumart. particularly the provincial Bavarian village in which he grew up. like the Alps that once formed a backdrop to his gaze” (107. Some of these authors’ works go beyond a mere examination of cultural hybridity to engage in a metacommentary on place and its dispossession. And yet to ascribe homesickness to Sebald.6 It was this dissatisfaction that prompted an early emigration to England.G R E G O R Y . in 1966 taking up a position as assistant lecturer at the University of Manchester. a line of inquiry that is. Apart from a few temporary absences. my translation). something large. seems somewhat counterintuitive given his frequent.G U I D E R • 425 Sebald’s recurrent longing for this irrecoverable past qualifies him as the unofficial “fifth emigrant” of The Emigrants. “Erst wenn er hier am Meer sei. where he began work on his doctorate at the University of Manchester. Zafer Senocak. Not mentioned by McCulloh as a parallel in contemporary German letters to Sebald’s preoccupation with uprootedness is the “Migrantenliteratur” (migrant literature) phenomenon dominated by the works of Turkish and Turkish-German authors such as Emine S. attachment to the place of his birth was his decision to write in German despite living and working in England for decades. his account of the lives of four displaced Europeans. daa ihm in der Binnenstadt Norwich etwas fehle.
Only when we were 17 were we confronted with a documentary film of the opening of the Belsen camp. though. So it took years to find out what had happened. the abbreviation “W. . The exilic consciousness of the author and critic André Aciman is a helpful lens through which to view this superimposition of geographies.8 In his essay “Shadow Cities. Such instances are emblematic for the way shadows of past places are everywhere discernible in the Sebaldian landscape.” for “Wertach im Allgäu”).426 • C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E his death.7 Part of the impetus for his departure from Germany was Sebald’s early awareness of his parents’. McCulloh suggests that Sebald’s self-conscious distancing of himself from Germany may have created resentment among some German critics. While Germany’s critics and reading public certainly recognized Sebald’s literary greatness. There it was. (“Last Word”) Sebald’s relationship with Germany and Britain is thus highly ambivalent. as McCulloh points out). and we somehow had to get our minds around it—which of course we didn’t. and each of his residences becomes a site for imag7. . It is. For example. I had heard practically nothing about the history that preceded 1945. precisely this ambivalence that charges the presence of the author’s lost origin (and. those of his biographical subjects). How much this more or less offhand comment points to a more widespread current of feeling that may help to explain the author’s slightly more muted reception in Germany is difficult to gauge. and community’s “conspiracy of silence” regarding the Holocaust: Until I was 16 or 17. even if the nature of his displacement and aesthetic differs somewhat from Sebald’s. he seems always to have been somewhat more enthusiastically celebrated in the United States and the United Kingdom Despite the warm regard for Sebald expressed in the obituaries that appeared in German newspapers after his death (albeit three days after the fact. by extension.” Aciman writes that his native Alexandria projects itself onto everywhere he chooses to live. . a short obituary in Der Spiegel mentions that Sebald “kehrte seine Rücken” (turned his back) on Germany when he decided to emigrate permanently to Britain (“Gestorben”). . Kafkaesque signature of both the author (“W.” recurs like a wandering.” for “Winfried”) and his renounced home (“W. teachers’. 8. creating a constant undulation between here and there. home and abroad. allowing it to emerge as a watermark throughout the pages of his works. It is important to note that Aciman’s displacement from his native Alexandria (as a result of the rampant anti-Semitism that characterized Nassar’s Egypt) was a necessity rather than a personal choice.
” he continues. after all. all the other villagers—still down in the depths. is a particularly powerful example. Austerlitz imagines that the old village continues to exist beneath the depths of the reservoir: I imagined all the others—his [Elias’s.” def. (34) This impression of overlapping temporal and spatial realms—coupled with a recognition of the chimerical and unstable nature of here and elsewhere—is a key leitmotif in Sebald’s representation of place. his relations. infusing Straus Park itself now. .G R E G O R Y . a me that is no less a figment of time than this city is a figment of space. although sharing some things in common with Aciman’s. .and cityscapes. his brothers and sisters. fully submerged upon the completion of the Vyrnwy Dam in the autumn of 1888. . before I fell asleep in my cold room. Austerlitz’s foster father’s] parents. a shadow city” (29–30). the remanence of Alexandria. perhaps just me. Austerlitz uses the term “stereometry” to evoke the interlocking and often superimposed temporal and spatial realms that comprise Sebald’s land. so that in the end the Paris and the Rome I retrieve here are really the shadow of the shadow of Alexandria. versions of Alexandria. is much more “saturnine” (as Aciman himself observes) and evocative of a sense of almost metaphysical dispossession that knows no amelioration. a surrogate city. “is my home precisely because it is a place from which I can begin to be elsewhere—an analogue city. that I’ve invented. an Alexandria that does not exist. Meaning “the art or science of measuring solids. their neighbours. which. corresponds to the overlapping spaces of the present and past (“Stereometry. Like Aciman’s “shadow city. but unable to speak and with their eyes opened far too wide. “New York.” everywhere contains innumerable elsewheres in Sebald’s works. in this context.” stereometry. 1). At night. The phenomenon is at its most prevalent when he visits New York’s Straus Park in order to remember Alexandria. reminding me of something that is not just elsewhere but that is perhaps more in me than it was ever out there. that it is. sitting in their houses and walking along the road. I often felt as if I too had . or learned to cultivate in Rome as in Paris. albeit an unreal Alexandria.G U I D E R • 427 ining the elsewhere that he left behind and to which he can never return. The Welsh village of Llanwddyn.
The narrator frequently proclaims that while he finds himself always at a particular point in space-time. (72) Each place in Sebald’s works thus opens onto a ghostly version of its past existence. particularly around noon on hot summer days. Diasporic Itineraries and “Intertopography” In the spirit of Austerlitz’s linguistic mobility. and like the poor souls of Vyrnwy must keep my eyes wide open to catch a faint glimmer of light far above me.428 • C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E been submerged in that dark water. as well as the way in which such journeys are the only real sites of dwelling. he could just as easily be somewhere else and in some other time period. the narrator in Rings of Saturn remarks: There are indeed moments. Referring to the submerged inhabitants of Llanwddyn. While visiting the once resplendent country estate at Somerleyton. We are always somewhere between here and there. It’s as if the narrator occupies a kind of spatio-temporal nodal point that is a portal of access to—but also a point of removal from—various individual times and places. when one is not quite sure whether one is in a . as one passes through the rooms open to the public at Somerleyton. allowing a kind of traffic between the present and the past. I will use “intertopography” to connote the diasporic passage from place to place in Sebald’s works (inter-topos). these emergent past places wander across Sebald’s textual topographies. caught in an interstitial no-man’s-land that contains imprints of many disparate geographies. qualifying them as a kind of “sixth emigrant” of the author’s works. or out in the fields. for example. A profound sense of uprootedness results from these ceaseless movements of person and place. In moments that defy the conventional laws of space and time. The many peripatetic journeys of Austerlitz and the narrator are attempts to enter these liminal realms. Austerlitz states. “Sometimes I even imagined that I had seen one or other of the people from the photographs in the album walking down the road in Bala. when there was no one else about and the air flickered hazily” (74). to adumbrate an afterimage of a now vanished past or origin amidst the encroaching oblivion of the contemporary landscape. the living and the dead.
G R E G O R Y . merge. Here. a fact implied by a passage from Austerlitz in which the protagonist describes landscapes that he discerns in the passing clouds: There was something fleeting. said Austerlitz. the North-West Passage. forests bending to the storm. on the shores of the Arctic Ocean or in the heart of the dark continent. quaking grass and drifting smoke. In Vertigo. islands on the sea. Adela leaned towards me and asked: Do you see the fronds of the palm trees. coral reefs. It is the experience of displacement that produces and informs these phantasmagorical geographies. for many ages are superimposed here and coexist. fields full of flowers. Such instances allow the narrator to collate dissimilar locations. and coexist in ever-shifting configurations. times and places flow together. a phenomenon that the term “intertopography” seeks to convey. Nor can one readily say which decade or century it is. yet here. for instance. (36) In the narrator’s subjective perception. akin to Austerlitz’s shuffling of photographs of his travels into different configurations. something which never went beyond the moment of its generation. do you see the caravan coming through the dunes over there? (158–59) The references to “palm trees. similarly to the image from the same work that depicts a chart juxtaposing the height of the world’s tallest mountains with the length of the world’s longest rivers (220–21). the realm of the Aztecs. the continent of Antarctica. the narrator comments that his “mind thus gradually created a kind of ideal landscape in which the Arabian desert. evanescent about those sparse patterns appearing in constant succession on the pale surface. And once. deserts. in this intertwining of sunlight and shadow always forming and re-forming. I remember. high plateaux. you could see mountainous landscapes with glaciers and ice fields. the snow-covered Alps. so to speak.” a “caravan. as we gazed together at this slowly fading world. archipelagos and atolls. populated by all the figures proper to those places” (85).” and “dunes” imply that Sebald’s collaged landscapes are potential models for the way in . unrelated geographies are easily rearranged and transposed. the river Congo and the Crimean peninsula formed a single panorama.G U I D E R • 429 country house in Suffolk or some kind of no-man’s-land. steppes.
The diasporic travels of Sebald’s great-uncle. The sleeping inhabitants of London become “travellers of the past resting on their way through the desert” (179). Cosmo Solomon. and his friend (and implied lover). in fact. locations— hence Aciman’s observation that “Sebald is always elsewhere. If. a patchwork of these various sites? In this view. Ambros Adelwarth. Elsewhere. the place of one’s current residence is populated with “mnemonic correlates” of these other. one’s life consists of numerous transcontinental displacements. now unvisitable. The Sebaldian narrator journeys to New Jersey to visit his Aunt Fini and . at the outermost limit of the earth. the expulsive force of these places compels them to continue their journeys. the tentlike structures erected by Suffolk fishermen are products of “some nomadic people [who] had settled there. in The Emigrants (which Aciman calls “a long meditation on the subject of displacement” [“Novemberland”]) are a case in point. The patina of exile thus coats the entire Sebaldian topography. which amount to a never-ending series of leave-takings.430 • C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E which the exiled (self-chosen or otherwise) perceive and construct place. like Aciman’s. the narrator sees visions of faraway deserts amidst the congested centers of the European capitals. is it not logical that the mental geography of one’s habitation is. a goal that is always ultimately frustrated. as he is always from elsewhere” (“Shadow Cities” 29. and the encrusted metal columns of Liverpool Street station are described as palmlike in appearance (181). In the eyes of the perambulating narrator. while clusters of visitors to the new Bibliothèque nationale in Paris appear as “members of a wandering tribe encamped here on their way through the Sahara or the Sinai desert in the last glow of the setting sun. “Out of Novemberland”). This ceaseless wandering from topos to topos is part of an attempt to establish a connection between self and soil. the miracle which would justify all their erstwhile privations and wanderings” (Rings 51–52). in order to await the coming of darkness” (390). A “hot desert wind” blows in the face of exhausted commuters on the Paris metro (Austerlitz 355). The wanderers in Sebald’s narratives are refused entry to the places whose outermost surfaces they traverse. in expectation of the miracle longed for since time immemorial. in passages that affirm the intertopographical nature of Sebald’s prose.
the mountains of Delphi. Ramleh.” These disruptive journeys frequently unhinge Sebald’s biographical subjects. Adana. Sedom. most are genuine checkpoints in the pair’s diasporic movements between continents. Ambros accompanies Cosmo to a dizzying variety of locations: Monte Carlo. border.” the wandering subjects of Sebald’s narratives migrate (sometimes jarringly) from site to site. and the Middle East with great rapidity. With only “border” and “beyond. Lebanon. who take turns relating the discursive. Heliopolis. correspondences—Two strange stories—Through the rainforest. the Gulf of Corinth. Jericho. Beirut. Istanbul. While some of these sites are visited imaginatively.” “palintropically caroming off the treks made by its exiles and refugees” (60). Seadeh. wide-ranging journeys across several continents undertaken by Adelwarth and Solomon. Jaffa. Venice. never lingering at any one location. Kerkyra. and the mountains of Moab. . Gomorrah. Halifax. Ruma. and ship balconies. camel rides. Banff.G U I D E R • 431 Uncle Kasimir. Middleton—A Berlin childhood—Exile in England—Dreams. Ain Jidy. Boston.G R E G O R Y . Ithaca (Greece and New York). Paris. Eyeup. as is the case with Cosmo. Aleppo. The narration of these journeys gives the strong impression that very little time was actually spent in these places: the travels seem to center around hotel rooms. Seboah. Patras. the boundaries of their identities stretched ever more thinly as the increasingly densely layered projections of the places they’ve known crowd their mental geographies. Aunt Fini tells the narrator about the German film that precipitated Cosmo’s descent into madness: He was particularly disturbed by an episode towards the end of the film in which a one-armed showman and hypnotist by the name of Sandor Weltmann induced a sort of collective hallucination in his audience. After arriving to take up service as the Solomons’ butler. and beyond. Piraeus. The narrated arc of their journeys zigzags through America. Deauville. the Adirondacks. As Newton articulates it. the impression is of two men in ceaseless transit. Indeed. Europe. the mountains of Judaea. the Dead Sea. elective affinities. an effect conveyed by this representative extract of the hyphenated topoi in the table of contents of The Rings of Saturn: “VII Dunwich heath—Marsh Acres. place is always “already flight. the Jeshimon Mountains. Jerusalem. One might say that the accumulated weight of their journeys grows until it jeopardizes their very sanity.
A caravan emerged onto the stage from a grove of palms. an abrasive rubbing against “bare outcrops and rocky escarpments” (3). and destruction of European Jewry during the National Socialists’ reign of power. The terrible thing was (Cosmo insisted) that he himself had somehow gone from the hall together with the caravan. a journey whose conclusion he ultimately hastens by subjecting himself to horrific. in the hope of dispelling the . Ambros fares no better. Ambros has been banished to wander through the ashen landscapes of his memories and ailing mind. passed amongst the spectators. the opening sentences of Sebald’s work already announce this theme of punitive wandering. partly for study purposes. and vanished as mysteriously as it had appeared. and now could no longer tell where he was. staying sometimes for just one or two days. sometimes for several weeks. crossed the stage. prolonged sessions of electroshock therapy.432 • C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E From the depths of the stage (as Cosmo repeatedly described it to Ambros) the mirage image of an oasis appeared. on which he has scribbled. (98) Breaking the fourth wall of the stage. “Have gone to Ithaca” (103). who were craning round in amazement. As in the Odyssey. (Austerlitz 1) In August 1992. one day checking himself into a sanatorium after leaving one of his calling cards to alert Aunt Fini of his whereabouts. went down into the auditorium. leaving him adrift and anchorless (but also clairvoyant). when the dog days were drawing to an end.The obvious reference to the Odyssey indicates that. I set off to walk the county of Suffolk. as well as the profound loss of orientation felt by the survivors. Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn begin with open-ended departures that evoke feelings of malaise and oppression. The expulsive force exerted on Cosmo by his journeys finally removes the ground from beneath his feet. Vertigo opens with mention of Napoleon’s crossing (with thirty-six thousand soldiers) of the Great Saint Bernard pass. His status as a Jew living in the years immediately preceding the Holocaust lends to this passage a dark foreshadowing of the forthcoming mass emigration. In the second half of the 1960s I travelled repeatedly from England to Belgium. the caravan shatters Cosmo’s spatial field. like Cosmo. deportation. partly for other reasons which were never entirely clear to me.
In The Rings of Saturn. 4). or otherness. (Rings 3) Immediately following the excerpt from Austerlitz is the narrator’s comment that these Belgian excursions “always took me further and further abroad” in a centrifugal spiral that makes him keenly aware of the “uncertainty of my footsteps. an excursion frequently dogged by panic attacks and fits of black depression (in the narrator and in those whom he encounters) that almost border on the comical. it was as if I were looking down from a cliff upon a sea of stone or a field of rubble. The island is the location of an abandoned building complex that served as the government-funded Atomic Weapons Research Establishment during the cold war. the vertigo and exhaustion induced by these exilic perambulations result in the Sebaldian narrator’s complete incapacitation. We might read the narrator’s condition as a retributive aftereffect of his attempt to walk his way into the Suffolk landscape. heavily sedated. Here. “Where and in what time I truly was that day at Orfordness . Comparing his plight to that of Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. an utterly alien place. from which the tenebrous masses of multi-storey carparks rose up like immense boulders. multiple time perspectives merge. prompting the narrator to exclaim. I could not believe that anything might still be alive in that maze of buildings down there.” forcing him to compose himself in the waiting room of Antwerp’s Centraal Station. the Sebaldian narrator comments on the profound foreignness. observed from his hospital window: I too found the familiar city. (5) This sense of a landscape cluttered with the detritus of twentiethcentury civilization is at its most acute when the narrator visits the forsaken island of Orfordness just off the coast of Orford.G R E G O R Y . appropriately named “Salle des pas perdus” (room of lost steps) (1.G U I D E R • 433 emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work. which the narrator refers to as the “remains of our own civilization after its extinction in some future catastrophe” (237). indeed the narrative opens with him lying supine on a hospital bed. extending from the hospital courtyards to the far horizon. of the once familiar sites of the center of Norwich. rather.
(267) . This “outpost in the middle of nowhere” is itself a no-where. two catastrophes of near-biblical proportion render it almost as desolate as the forsaken island of Orfordness. I drove out to Hingham with Clara in search of somewhere to live” (3). “It seemed as if someone had pulled a curtain to one side to reveal a formless scene that bordered upon the underworld” (266): For a long time I stood choked with emotion amidst the devastation. we learn of the hurricane of 1987. The calamity turns the beautiful forest just outside the narrator’s window into an apocalyptic war zone marred by huge gouges and eerie silences. To the narrator. walking outside on the day after the hurricane. beeches and limes lay the torn and mangled shrubs that had grown in their shade. and beneath the huge oaks. with the narrator’s attempt to find a home: “At the end of September 1970. Thus it is “effectively no easier to reach than the Nevada desert or an atoll in the South Seas” (233). holly and rhododendrons. a storm “such as no one had ever experienced. for example. hazel and laurel bushes. thujas and yews. ash and plane trees. shortly before I took up my position in Norwich.” resulting in the death of “over fourteen million mature hard-leaf trees” (265). a mere jagged edge running along the fissured seam of the tectonic plates that separate “here” and “there” in Sebaldian geography. even now as I write these words. The Emigrants opens.” but only a fortnight later. causing capillaries to tighten and leading to the trees’ dying of thirst” (264). The first of the two plagues to strike is Dutch elm disease: “The virus spread through the root systems of entire avenues with unbelievable speed. At first. and dust before the autumn came. The narrator gains passage from a decrepit ferryman who conveys him across the Styxlike stretch of water that severs the island from the mainland. . . While the narrator does in fact find a house in the Norwich countryside. The ancient trees on either side of the path leading along the edge of the park were all lying on the ground as if in a swoon.434 • C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E I cannot say.” The island itself is a kind of black hole that immediately transports those who arrive somewhere else.” A page later. it appears as though an ancient. Any endeavor to position oneself on such shaky ground inevitably falters. massive oak near the narrator’s property will survive the scourge “which had obliterated its entire kind. . “all these apparently invincible leaves were brown and curled up.
but which. Inscribed into Sebald’s many anecdotes on phenomena of the natural world are encoded references to the human catastrophes of our century. Memorial Psychogeography and Stereometry Central to the uncovering of buried stories and to the opening of portals through which the past can emerge are the solitary peripatetics engaged in by the narrator and some of his biographical subjects. which Sebald presents as spatio-temporal disturbances that propagate forward and backward through time. violets and wood anemones. as Austerlitz tells the narrator: . every landscape is littered with the skeletons of other landscapes that have been forever left behind. the narrator tells us that the hurricane “had obliterated its entire kind. though. the seeds of which had lain in the depths for goodness knows how long” (268).G U I D E R • 435 This decimation of the narrator’s own out-of-the-way inhabitance underscores the all-pervasiveness of the condition of homelessness and decline in the Sebaldian universe. These seeds which had long laid hidden beneath the surface might be read as symbolic for the people and events of the past that society has repressed or forgotten. as well as the industrial boiling of silkworm cocoons (264). Importantly. It is this upwelling of the past. then. that is responsible for the unstable and ruptured quality of the Sebaldian topography. emerge to demand our acknowledgment. ferns and cushions of moss” that once covered the forest floor yield to huge mounds of “barren clay” propelled upward from deep within the earth by the massive oak trees as they toppled.G R E G O R Y . Sebald’s works are more than mere chronicles of destruction. Austerlitz’s extended nocturnal peregrinations through London trigger a vision of himself as a young child in Liverpool Street Station. psychologically). For the exiled (geographically. as a result of the rifts and fault lines opened by Sebald’s narration of place. In this “hard-baked earth” are “tufts of swamp grass. Referring to the capsized oak near his property.” while elsewhere we learn of the decline of the North Sea herring population and the inhuman experiments that were performed upon them. Increasing the sinisterness of this image are the recurrent references to the twentieth century’s colonial excesses and genocides. rupturing the surface of the present. In the aftermath of the hurricane. the “snowdrops. For example.
Austerlitz sees apparitions of “two middle-aged people dressed in the style of the thirties . . His excursions ultimately lead him to Liverpool Street Station. the site of his arrival in Britain on the Kindertransport of the summer of 1939. . but also visions of Austerlitz’s former self. These stereometric moments constitute what Amir Eshel characterizes as Sebald’s “poetics of suspension.436 • C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E My wanderings took me to the most remote areas of London. and the boy they had come to meet” (193). or behind the grey windows of a train just pulling out. which expresses more closely the way in which past times overlap with the present while. is marked by . into outlying parts of the metropolis which I would never otherwise have seen. and when dawn came I would go back to Whitechapel on the Underground .” while “rush[ing] headlong by in another”. I thought several times that among the passengers coming towards me in the tiled passages. Sitting in the perpetual twilight of the underground. Austerlitz proclaims. at the same time. . and evolves in no one knows what direction” (142–43). only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry. but I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all. . . on the escalators plunging steeply into the depths. . In this conception. Not only the dead return.” In Eshel’s conception. it “does not progress constantly forward but moves in eddies. . “I felt at this time as if the dead were returning from their exile and filling the twilight around me with their strangely slow but incessant to-ing and fro-ing” (188). between which the living and the dead can move back and forth as they like” (260). whereas I argue that the past is superimposed upon it. remaining distinct from it (85). ever-changing form. I saw a face known to me from some much earlier part of my life. . . time stands “eternally still and motionless in one place.” Reflecting on the nature of time and space as suggested by our memories. Austerlitz asserts: “It does not seem to me . (179) The weariness induced by Austerlitz’s sleepless perambulations enables him to summon up the truths of his past. the past is “engraved” in the contemporary cityscape in Sebald’s works. that we understand the laws governing the return of the past. but I could never say whose it was. Liverpool Street Station becomes a kind of vortex in which the laws that normally govern time and space are suspended:9 9. As I passed through the stations. an occurrence which corresponds to what the protagonist refers to as “stereometry.
showing you how the forum and the coliseum . going on for ever and ever in an improbably foreshortened perspective. Austerlitz regularly sights these pale. who explains to Austerlitz that the dead occupy the same space as the living. . at the same time turning back into itself in a way possible only in such a deranged universe. wandering among the dark corners of Liverpool Street Station. In this latter conception. . departing from the rectilinear and twisting in spirals and eddies before being swallowed up by the wavering shadows. Referring to the New York park that he frequently visits. or amidst the busy corridors and waiting rooms of buildings like the Bibliothèque nationale and the Gare d’Austerlitz. A powerful example is Austerlitz’s conviction that the inhabitants of the flooded Welsh village of Llanwddyn are still wandering the streets. Walking thus becomes a way of accessing the past. the missing or fallen parts suddenly reappear. who occupies a sort of privileged vantage point. . and secondly. Aciman explains: Straus Park allowed me to place more than one film over the entire city of New York. ghostly figures from the past. [T]he longer I stared upwards with my head wrenched painfully back. but are phased out ever so slightly into another dimension. These perambulations also endow Sebald’s narrator and characters with the ability to discern the many compressed. a superimposition of disparate times and places. (190–91) Two distinct but related deformations of conventional space-time are suggested by this and other such stereometric moments in Sebald’s texts: firstly.G U I D E R • 437 [B]eams of lights followed curious trajectories which violated laws of physics.G R E G O R Y . This belief is reinforced by Evan the cobbler. whose separation from the realm of the living is paper-thin. a spatialization of time such that the past is visible (perhaps even visitable) as a distant point on a physical plane. When you place a transparency over the picture of the ruin. the way certain guidebooks to Rome do. the more I felt as if the room where I stood were expanding. events from longer ago appear further away from the observer. occupying a past that somehow coexists with the present. Along with each photograph of an ancient ruin comes a series of colored transparencies. even if one of the consequences of this time travel is a radical uprooting. superimposed pasts that coexist at the same point. Aciman’s essay “Shadow Cities” again proves a useful point of comparison as it offers an excellent description of this stereometric coexistence of the past and present.
and it covered the entire plane of time. Pound. or how Rome looked in the Middle Ages.” however. is layered with superimposed “films” of different times and places. as Aciman suggests. which. and so on. .10 Austerlitz elaborates further on this phenomenon: I felt . The resultant image resembles a cubist portrait. is a loaded term in Sebald’s works. and Barnes: “All these writers ideally intend the reader to apprehend their work spatially. Joseph Frank claims that this heightened interest in spatiality and simultaneity is a key feature of modernist authors such as Eliot. Proust. . rather than as a sequence” (8–9). upon reflection. in a moment of time. it gives rise to a feeling of profound belatedness that torments his biographical subjects (particularly the Jewish ones) and is responsible for their eventual unraveling. the future of the station as a ruin and its past as a building in construction coalesce in the present moment. This trend particularly dominates The Emigrants and Austerlitz. But when you lift all the plastic sheets. all you see are today’s ruins. . and then in the late Renaissance. “Coincidence. fated quality. defy Euclidean laws and coincide. Tragic Belatedness Because the gravity of causality is so often perceived after the fact in Sebald’s works. all the suppressed and extinguished fears and wishes I had ever entertained.438 • C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E must have looked in their heyday. exhibits a predetermined. as if the black and white diamond pattern of the stone slabs beneath my feet were the board on which the endgame would be played. suggesting a random event that. Here. in which multiple spatio-temporal perspectives are represented simultaneously. Joyce. A photograph 10. that the waiting room where I stood as if dazzled contained all the hours of my past life. upon closer inspection. (192–93) This passage is emblematic of the way Sebald braids and effects junctures between divergent spatio-temporal lines that. Sebald’s spatio-temporal distortions constitute a more contemporary development of this phenomenon. (31) Austerlitz’s comment regarding Liverpool Street Station echoes this passage: “I could not stop wondering whether it was a ruin or a building in the process of construction that I had entered” (191).
The shock of the mind’s relation to the threat of death is thus not the direct experience of the threat. his powers of decision had been in some way impaired. that is. as his investigations proceeded. as if Paul had been gathering evidence. particularly the lengthy descriptions of Bereyter’s increasing urgency to reconstruct and understand his parents’ mistreatment at the hands of local villagers in the 1930s and the escalation of anti-Semitic acts of which this was a manifestation. This describes the classic latency period characteristic of the experience of trauma as articulated by Freud and reframed and rearticulated by Cathy Caruth in Unclaimed Experience. the currents of time propel Bereyter backwards into the future. Bereyter’s fevered writings in the final months of his life represent his attempts to reinscribe himself into this no-longer existing community and to align his fate with theirs. though. Like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History. after the fact: It is not simply. and murder that befell their family and friends. the fact that. his longtime companion remarks. “It seemed to me . Landau points out.G U I D E R • 439 of the site where Paul Bereyter ended his life opens the chapter devoted to the narration of his story in The Emigrants. and . the literal threatening of bodily life. prompting him laboriously to reconstruct precisely what happened to them. making it impossible for him to think even as far as a single day ahead” (54). .G R E G O R Y . but precisely the missing of this experience. the mounting weight of which. . Commenting on these writings. and this sense of arriving too late permeates the rest of the chapter. (62) This dynamic of guilt and belated trauma characterizes the experience of Bereyter and Sebald’s other Jewish or part-Jewish biographical subjects. finally convinced him that he . . it has not yet been fully known. detention. forcing him to watch helplessly as the aftermath of tragedy upon tragedy enters his field of vision. but the fact that the threat is recognized as such by the mind one moment too late. Their trauma is precisely their absence from the experiences of deportation. Caruth observes that the truly unsettling aspect of a survived trauma is that the intrinsic threat was experienced too late. However. he feels an overwhelming need to take some kind of ownership of his parents’ fate. In the last decade of his life. as Mme. . not being experienced in time. “when the bad news reached him it was always already too late to do anything.
or World War I. . “[i]n Sebald’s tales the Holocaust doesn’t just continue to haunt its survivors. in “Obituario”)—might be said to apply to Bereyter as well. 12. so to speak?” (360). prey to a longing forever disenfranchised” (245–46). At one point. Sebald’s preoccupation with events that preceded his birth can be viewed fruitfully through the lens of Marianne Hirsch’s concept of “postmemory.” Hirsch quotes Nadine Fresco: “[It is] as though those who were born after could do nothing but wander. and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time. Elie Wiesel’s comment about Primo Levi’s death—that he died “at Auschwitz forty years later” (qtd. he muses to the narrator. is sensitively attuned to the echoes created by past tragedies and traumas that continue to propagate through time. His desire—similar to Bereyter’s—to place himself back at events whose occurrence he missed motivates many of his stereometric reflections on the nature of time. in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished. resulting in an oeuvre whose content and tragic foreshortening by the author’s own untimely death qualify it as an extended and moving Beschreibung des Unglücks (chronicle of catastrophe). the way World War II. . is always just behind those who survived it” (“Novemberland”). Elsewhere.440 • C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E belonged to the exiles and not to the people of S” (58–59). that time will not pass away. that I can turn back and go behind it. The Sebaldian narrator. . The manner in which he chooses to kill himself (by lying in front of an oncoming train) needs no explication to illuminate the desperate logic that compelled this act. casting their spell over even those who never experienced these events directly. that we also have appointments to keep in the past. . “And might it not be . has not passed away. as someone who bears witness to these lives pulled asunder. he speaks of his attempt at “keeping myself apart from so-called current events in the hope . 11. Aciman comments. for that matter.11 Although “survivors” of the actual genocide.” which she describes as a “diasporic aesthetics of temporal and spatial exile that needs simultaneously to (re)build and to mourn. . it does something worse: it hunts them down.12 A tragic belatedness also characterizes Austerlitz’s attempts to come to terms both with his mother’s death and his eluding of the same fate. Sebald’s works meticulously chart the cataclysmic events that immediately preceded his birth. Levi and Bereyter remained haunted by its shadowy arm reaching forward through time to claim them.
irresolute in the hall. prompting him to remark ominously to the narrator. but. Landau’s subsequent admission. and that I would never see him alive again.” referring to the abandoned factory in Manchester’s industrial district where his studio is located. the small details that gradually emerge are responsible for generating the uncanny sensation of a (near) encounter. Art as Diasporic Journey While irrecoverable losses and irremediable displacements play themselves out in the foreground of Sebald’s works. the chapter on Paul Bereyter opens with an explicit statement of the fact and manner of his suicide. Having narrowly escaped the deportations to the concentrations camps in which his parents perished. more cataclysmic events narrated or alluded to in the texts. Art as Dwelling Place. Ferber feels his fate inextricably bound to that of his parents. as they used to say. but also with its status as . Such instances draw much of their power from their seemingly peripheral position in relation to the other. but also to the crematorium he escaped but which his studio disturbingly resembles (192). small details and passing comments announce the return of the dead. which. his parents’ tragic end. For example. Landau’s recollection of the morning of Bereyter’s death: “As I stood. past events have not yet occurred but are waiting to do so at the moment when we think of them” (144). or more precisely I shall find that all moments of time have co-existed simultaneously. or at least delay.G R E G O R Y . hoping that he can somehow suspend. as is often the case in Sebald’s works. A similar desire drives Max Ferber.” pierces us with its directness. I noticed that Paul’s windcheater was missing. The first is Mme. Two details stand out in particular. a Jewish artist to whom the final chapter of The Emigrants is devoted. in which case none of what history tells us would be true. Mme. wearing that jacket. to serve under the chimney. as he had happened to mention that morning. “I am here. “I knew at that moment that Paul had gone out.G U I D E R • 441 and there I shall find everything as it once was. Like Paul Bereyter. by proxy. The great quantities of dust produced by Ferber’s artistic endeavors further underscore his unconscious sharing in. the reality of her death. had been hanging there for almost forty years” (61). Ferber waits years before reading his mother’s diary.
and events is one way that he sketches alternative histories. the less I feel at home. In Germany. In the painting. they think I’m a native but I feel at least as distant there. places. Auden’s well-known poem). Selwyn’s act of shooting himself with his elephant rifle (61). Sebald would no doubt make something of my reference to Auden and Brueghel. unseen by sailors and farmers preoccupied with the mundanities of daily existence. Icarus’s tragic plunge into the sea appears off to the side.13 As 13. in fact. as well as Italy and Austria. The author’s sustained preoccupation with coincidences and unlikely connections between people. scanning the itineraries and preoccupations of these artists’ lives to find unseen points of intersection with his own. mostly dividing his time between England and the United States. As Pieter Brueghel’s masterpiece Landscape with the Fall of Icarus suggests (particularly when read through W. come to pass) resonates with Sebald’s joking aside to an interviewer that his true home would correspond to a hotel in Switzerland. In Auden’s frequently professed homelessness. someone whose darkly foreboding comment—reputedly made to a friend—that he would die in a hotel room (which did. . whom he told: “‘The longer I’ve stayed here [England]. Sebald’s comment about the Swiss hotel was made in an interview with Maya Jaggi. The other detail whose force far exceeds that which it initially seems to possess is Mme. he half smiles. such as Bereyter’s decision to lie in front of an oncoming train. or Dr. even those human deaths later hallowed through myth and memory are often scarcely noticeable footnotes in the moment of their occurrence. Sebald’s achievement is to bring to our attention the marginal position of the single life vis-à-vis the forward rush of time that piles wreckage upon wreckage. He died in September 1973 in Altenburgerhof in Vienna (Jenkins). ‘is possibly a hotel in Switzerland’” (“Recovered Memories”). H. The power of such details lies not just in their prophetic meaning but also in their collective suggestion that most human tragedies occur on the periphery of the relentless currents of time. allowing us to bear witness to lives that would otherwise remain shrouded in oblivion. Sebald would have recognized a fellow exile. Landau’s recollection of Bereyter’s uncle’s long-ago comment that his nephew “would end up on the railways” (62). My ideal station’. Auden visited twemty-seven countries over the course of his life.442 • C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E a mere passing remark compared to the more obviously horrific events detailed by the text.
my translation).14 This biographical digression is meant to inspire appreciation for the quasi-mystical (and incredibly delicate) fabric that weaves together the people and places of Sebald’s narratives into compelling configurations as intangible as the flight paths of the swallows observed by the narrator as a child. people. One stumbles by coincidence upon some fragment. ein Netz aus Verweisen und geheimen Querverbindungen. “Das Buch.G U I D E R • 443 some critics have pointed out. Sebald writes. and intertextual references referred to in the works. That Sebald perished while in transit strikes me as a tragedy that does share common ground with the endless wanderings of his narrators. Brueghel produced mulitple drawings of Alpine landscapes inspired by his formative journey through the region. ever-changing relationships that exist between these elements. gleicht so dem Wirkzeug eines Schmetterlingfängers. the Alpine backdrop of his German childhood frequently superimposed onto the flat broads and fens of Norfolk. Sulamith Sparre compares his narratives to “a net constructed out of references and secret coincidences [that resembles] the tool of a butterfly-catcher” (99. the seeming unnaturalness of Sebald’s death in an automobile accident was heightened by the author’s status as a peripatetic. organic. in exactly the 14. a landscape that stood in such stark opposition to his native Breda (now the Netherlands) and the sixteenth-century Flemish tradition in which he received his training as an artist.” . An intricate web of associations and allusions binds together the myriad places. 15. Sebald’s attention to the minutiae of biography would perhaps have seen a parallel between these contrasting topographies and Brueghel’s captivation with (and startling artistic rendition of) the towering Alps.and cityscapes than by the intangible.15 This immateriality extends to the author’s representation of place as constituted less by the physical fixtures of land. which caused him to “imagine that the world was held together by the courses they flew through the air” (Rings 67). Between 1553 and 1556. For Sebald was someone suspended between countries and landscapes. Evoking this quality of Sebald’s works. reveals something worthwhile. Commenting on this practice.G R E G O R Y . removed from its former resting place. which. And one collects in this very primitive way these fragments together and.
(Rings 8) Later. the Sebaldian narrator comments on the surfeit of papers that crowd the room. support beams. es wendet sich um und man sieht irgendetwas. While visiting the office of one of his colleagues. so to speak. Like a glacier when it reaches the sea. in the evolution of Janine’s paper universe. giving rise to a landscape of sorts: On the desk. Janine had been obliged by the ever-increasing masses of paper on her desk to bring further tables into use. with mountains and valleys. This is literature longing for physical substantiality. which was both the origin and the focal point of this amazing profusion of paper. 16.444 • C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E same way as the bricoleur labors in his back garden or in his small tool shed. and remembering. my translation)16 I would like to suggest that Sebald’s modest comment about connecting things belies his more radical exploration of whether such acts of literary bricolage might serve as dwelling places. Years ago. and these tables. it was like the snow in the fields. represented later epochs. façades. (qtd. was halt der Bricoleur in seinem Hintergarden oder in seiner kleinen Werkstatt macht und versucht. “[M]an stößt zufällig mit dem Fuß an irgendein Bruchstück. joints) and the twinned acts of walking. attempts to construct something that one can look at or read. This delicate linking of the physical and the ephemeral creates a kind of textual landscape that strains to achieve the materiality of solid ground. writing. when all of this paper seemed to gather into itself the pallor of the fading light. a virtual paper landscape had come into being in the course of time. it had broken off at the edges and established new deposits all around on the floor.” . the narrator remarks. Hence the constant preoccupation in his works with physical structures (foundations. beneath the ink-black sky” (9). in Schlodder 182. Und man sammelt tatsächlich auf eine sehr primitive Weise diese Dinge zusammen und macht dann genau das. hermeneutic habitations to ameliorate the lack of connection between self and soil that haunts the narrator and his biographical subjects. which in turn were advancing imperceptibly towards the centre of the room. long ago. where similar processes of accretion had subsequently taken place. aus diesen Bruchstücken irgendetwas zusammenzubauen. which effect intangible ligatures between these otherwise disjointed elements of the landscape. das man anschauen oder lesen kann. “It once occurred to me that at dusk.
18 Although they are often quoted. leathery paper. voller prächtiger Fronten und Säle. oriels. several centimetres thick at the centre and thinning out towards the outer edges. Sebald changed “Aurach” to “Ferber” and removed the reproduction of Auerbach’s painting in the subsequently published English translation (“Recovered Memories”. which never ceased except at night. The accretive deposits on the studio floor constitute an excrescence that is on the brink of becoming a nascent landscape. bid us to enter and take up residence (11. frequently going through half a dozen of his willow-wood charcoal sticks in the shortest of time. though? Or do they dissolve into the ether like Swinburne’s visions of Kublai Khan’s palace seen off the Suffolk coast? Max Ferber’s dust-producing art.17 Do these narrative worlds support the weight of our occupancy. to my knowledge. The German original refers to Max Ferber as “Max Aurach” and includes an image of an actual portrait by Auerbach. pointed out one of the key meanings of the passages that describe Ferber’s incessant scratching of paint from his canvases: He drew with vigorous abandon. Gewölbe. Due to Auerbach’s dissatisfaction with the transparency of these allusions. as well as the concomitant business of constantly erasing what he had drawn with a woolen rag already heavy with charcoal. and then repeatedly scratched it off the canvas as his work proceeded. the floor was covered with a largely hardened and encrusted deposit of droppings. my translation). (Emigrants 162) The emphasis on “dust.” in Hugo Dittberner’s formulation. really amounted to nothing but a steady production of dust. Sebald’s sentences. and that process of drawing and shading on the thick. which I’ve already mentioned briefly. of its worlds of the imagination into the harsher light of earthly existence. 17. and towers. arches.” “production of dust.” and “charcoal” signifies an attempt by the artist to bring about a kind of dwelling place that bridges the gap between creative inspiration and the physical world. no critic has. mixed with coal dust.G R E G O R Y . .G U I D E R • 445 for a translocation. engages intensely with this question. “full of magnificent façades and columns. a potential site of emigration (Sebald’s “seventh emigrant”?): Since he applied the paint thickly. or emigration.” 18. Erker und Türme. The full sentence reads: “Satz-Schlösser sind das. “Interview” 14). Sebald based the figure of Max Ferber on the British artist Frank Auerbach.
coal. suggesting that Ferber’s artistic predicament is. After the genocide of more than six million Jews.19 The beautiful reveries Sebald’s words inspire are. To avoid its petrifying gaze. Sebald’s art thus emphasizes the processes of traversal and translocation over the end products of arrival and occupancy. and excrescence. reclamation of place. and reimagining of boundary all name features of discourse” (6). (161) Ferber’s characterization of his efforts as a “failure” would appear to deny the possibility I’ve raised of art serving as an ersatz homeland for Sebald’s displaced biographical subjects. in the end. at least to some extent. Sebald’s. one must proceed hesitantly.” Sebald said in an interview. was the true product of his continuing endeavours and the most palpable proof of his failure.446 • C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E in places resembling the flow of lava. always interrupted by a ceaseless series of departures: each page abuts a preceding departure and a future leave-taking. marking. obliquely—hence the many literal and linguistic circumlocutions in Sebald’s texts. which. through their indistinct graininess and pictorial 19. elements in which destruction and creation are uncomfortably fused in an in-between state in which annihilation awaits a seemingly endlessly deferred redemption. ash. circuitously. The relentless application and subsequent scraping of paint is a moving image of the almost impossible task that critics such as Theodor Adorno and Jean-François Lyotard demand of post-Holocaust representations. consider the many photographs strewn throughout the works. but if you looked at it you’d be petrified” (“Recovered Memories”). This. crossing. to that which lies beyond the pale of representability. The postapocalyptic. art is forever allied with dust. “It’s like the head of the Medusa: You carry it with you in a sack.” speaking as it does in the “argot of terrain and passage”: “Departure from place. said Ferber. This predicament concerns the question of how one bears witness to the unsayable. To borrow Newton’s eloquent phrasing once again. As a concluding example. writing is already “exilic and fugitive at its very core. this passage on Ferber seems to say. “I don’t think you can focus on the horror of the Holocaust. postindustrial wastelands so frequently featured in Sebald’s works are eerily similar to Ferber’s dust-filled studio. .
University of Sussex WORKS CITED Aciman.” Rev. 1998.G U I D E R • 447 content. Even when I awoke it seemed to me for a moment that my people were resting all around me as we made our way across the desert” (84–85). which displays a dilapidated building in The Hague. It will not strike us as surprising to learn that the bones contained in the shrine’s sealed reliquary are those from the legs of the saint. from departure to departure. the opening handful of photographs in chapter 4 of The Rings of Saturn. But this moment of awakening is yet another departure. leading us to a photograph of the grave of Saint Sebolt in Nuremberg. and was home. serving as an indicator of direction but not a destination. . Each “documentation” supplied by the photographs is but an affirmation of the persistent leave-taking of the diasporic narrative in which they are embedded. New York Review of Books 3 Dec. Take.nybooks. an illustration of the skirmish of 28 May 1672 in which Dutch and English ships fought a costly battle in Sole Bay. disallow any loitering. a fact that—like the latter-day disinterring of Sir Thomas Browne’s remains and the perambulating droves of specters referred to in The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz—suggests the twinned themes of wandering and exile even beyond the supposed rest afforded by the grave. “above whose display a rudimentary fresco in four parts showed a caravan crossing the desert” and through whose doorway the narrator glimpses “a hundred pairs of well-worn shoes” (80–81).G R E G O R Y . in front of which the narrator lies on the beach and dreams that “for the first time in my life . We journey then to the next photograph.com/articles/641>. a man who wandered throughout his life on a ceaseless pilgrimage. I had arrived. André. “Out of Novemberland. . . of The Rings of Saturn. for instance. forcing us to keep pace from page to page. <http://www. The image following depicts a collection of vessels engulfed in flames just off the coast of Southwold. The first photograph is of the Southwold lighthouse in the distance. The next image is of a hotel in Scheveningen. The sinking ships are further reminders of the instability of Sebald’s geophysical surfaces. each of which ushers us forward to the next image.
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