January 20, 2019

W.G. Sebald: Regrets of a Nazi’s son

W.G. Sebald pierces your psyche with brutal force that is couched in clouds of understated elegance and restraint.  His utterly original and devastating narrative voice is a churning cauldron of fact and fiction and semi-autobiographical confession.  Sebald sprinkles his narratives with black-and-white photographs, some chosen randomly in souvenir shops and others authentic, but all strategically placed to enhance his already complex and digressive narratives which focus predominantly on the lingering trauma of the Nazi regime.  Before his accidental death at 57, in 2001, he was just becoming famous internationally for his four masterpieces, which were released in the last decade of his life.  These four books, “The Emigrants,” “Austerlitz,” “The Rings Of Saturn,” and “Vertigo,” seduced readers and critics alike.  There was something incredibly different about Sebald’s voice that moved readers.  He seemed to possess a moral presence and muted empathy weighted down only by the shame and grief he clearly felt as a child of Germany.

Now, at last, we have Sebald’s latest book, “A Place in the Country: On Gottfried Keller, Johann Peter Hebel, Robert Walser, and Others,” translated from the German and with an introduction and notes by Jo Catling (Random House, $26.00), a compilation of essays about writers and artists he admires.

Sebald was the son of a Nazi father who actively participated in the army of the Third Reich, where he was promoted to sergeant.  He returned from a POW camp when Sebald was 3 and remained filled with a silent rage that kept father and son forever estranged.   After college, Sebald fled to England, where he remained and taught German literature to college students for more than three decades.  But he was haunted always by a sense of exile and displacement, and once admitted to an interviewer that he felt at home nowhere.  He wrote all of his work in German, fearful that attempting to write in another language would dampen his creativity.  Later on, when his works were translated, he worked tirelessly with translators to insure that the essence of what he was saying was properly transmitted. 

At first, it strikes the reader as odd that this distraught adult child of Nazi Germany should somehow become one of the most eloquent spokesmen of Jewish suffering and loss, but that is what he became.  He refused to tackle the Holocaust head-on, feeling it inappropriate and crude.  He disliked representations of the Shoah that were too visceral, like Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.”  His method of approach was always to first acknowledge in some palpable way the impossibility of ever comprehending the magnitude of Jewish suffering.  He began with a keen understanding of his own powerlessness, and was fearful to offend.  There is no sense of smugness in Sebald, no joy in his own wizardry.  He offers himself to the reader shyly; a man sickened by the transgressions of his own family.  His reticence to embrace any form of didacticism forces you to suffer alongside him; thinking obsessively like he does — about the Jews.

Still, there are times when you want to know more about Sebald.  He was rumored to be working on a family memoir before he passed, but no one is certain.  He has spoken about his father’s dangerous silence and the conspiracy of silence that enveloped his family and Germany after the war, but says almost nothing else about his relationship with any of them.  One wonders.  What happened to his sisters?  Did he ever have any Jewish friends growing up?  How did God disappear so quickly from his radar after being raised in a fiercely Catholic anti-Communist home?  What did he tell his only child, his daughter, about her grandparents?  One guesses that Sebald had little or no access to any sort of Jewish daily life; he seems devoid of a Jewish sensibility, secular, religious, or otherwise.  The Jews he knew in England after the war were already behaving in so many ways like Gentiles.  His protagonist in “Austerlitz” is a 15-year-old boy, who finds out after his adoptive parents’ sudden death that he is a Jew who was put on the kindertransport by his real mother when he was a tiny child.  Jacques Austerlitz becomes obsessed with finding out who his parents really were and what fate eventually befell them back in Czechoslovakia, but for all intents and purposes, it is already too late.  They are dead — long dead — and European Jewry has been wiped out along with them.  Austerlitz is ultimately a child of Great Britain and has spent his formative years as the child of a pastor and his wife, breathing in England’s charms as well as her self-consciousness.

For Sebald, Jews remained foreign creatures, exotic and untouchable.  One can’t help but think of him as having been a Righteous Gentile, but a Jew he was not.  His lens is always that of an outsider whose personal story was crucially different from the life of any Jew.  He is haunted by memories of traveling to Munich with his parents in 1947 and seeing mountains of rubble cushioned between bombed-out buildings that were demolished by Allied Forces in the last weeks of the war.  His work, “On the Natural History of Destruction,” attempts to analyze German silence about these events that took the lives of over half a million German civilians.  Munich was virtually flattened by the Allied bombardment.  There is a sense of sympathy and loss and regret when he recounts some of these events, understandable but still deeply disturbing to many Jews who would find his emphasis on any sort of Allied culpability questionable in light of what had just transpired.   

Sebald grew up in a small village in the Bavarian Alps and then spent the rest of his life in England with his wife and daughter.  He grew weary of the rigidity of academic publishing and began experimenting in his forties with the unique voice that would become known, simply and magisterially, as “Sebaldian.”  His writing impresses us as more than a mere attempt at surviving his own malaise; it is an act of repentance that he would repeat again and again as he found different ways to speak to the murdered Jews whose screams he heard, or perhaps just witnessed, in the cold bleakness of his father’s eyes.

All of the writers whom Sebald discusses in “A Place in the Country” hailed from the Alpine region where Germany, Austria, and Switzerland converge.  These men lived during different centuries, but all seemed to struggle with depression that could be interrupted by burst of spontaneous creativity.  Most of these men are ill at ease with the world, particularly with women, whom they view with a combination of excessive awe and regret.  Some of them seem almost prophetic in their fears for the future as revolutionary patriotism spread like wildfire amidst the masses but became tinged with something dangerous.  All of them seem to cherish the romantic pastoral world in favor of the changes that industrialization and rampant capitalism brought forth.  Like Sebald, they are sensitive to the suffering that infuses so many lives; and the invisibility of this suffering to others.  There is a moral integrity that connects all of them, and they all seem connected to Sebald — that is the sheer brilliance of his inventiveness.

For example, when writing about Robert Walser, who wrote several impressive novels revered for their lucidity, Sebald begins by telling us: “The traces Robert Walser left on his path through life were so faint as to have almost been effaced altogether.  Later, after his return to Switzerland in the spring of 1913, but in truth from the very beginning, he was only ever connected with the world in the most fleeting of ways.  Nowhere was he able to settle, never did he acquire the least thing by way of possessions.  He had neither a house, nor any fixed abode, nor a single piece of furniture, and as far as clothes are concerned, at most one good suit and one less so.  Even among the tools a writer needs to carry out his craft were almost none he could call his own, he did not, I believe, even own the books he had written.  What he read was for the most part borrowed.  Even the paper he used for writing was secondhand.  And just as throughout his life he was almost entirely devoid of material possessions, so, too, he was remote from other people.  He became more and more distant from even the siblings originally closest to him–…”  We begin to fantasize about Walser as a vagabond of sorts, writing his way through the world as he recedes more and more from those around him.  His characters become his closest friends and allies, men like himself who suffered silently from the neglect that had been heaped upon them, leaving them always afraid.  As we read about Walser, we know we are also reading about Sebald, and that neither of them is able to speak to us directly from beneath their own veils of pain.

In another essay, Sebald explores Jan Peter Tripp, who was known for his intense embrace of a hyperrealism in his oil paintings.  Tripp was born a year after Sebald in 1945 in Germany and suffered psychological difficulties throughout his life.  The two men were planning to collaborate on a project of some sort together before Sebald’s premature death.  Sebald viewed Tripp’s hyper-realistic works as offering up their own distortions that were worthy of closer examination.  He points out one particular painting that is shown in the book which reveals an elegant pair of ladies’ shoes thrown carelessly on a tile floor.  Sebald believes the painting urges the viewer to consider who might be the woman who wore these shoes.  He wonders, “Where has she gone?  Do the shoes now belong to anyone else?  Or, are they, in the end, simply a paradigm for the fetish which the painter is compelled to make of everything he paints? “ 

Six years before his death, Sebald spoke to an interviewer for The Guardian and told her about watching appalling silent films in school of the concentration camps being liberated.  Sebald was a hypersensitive 16-year-old boy, and was dumbfounded when no one spoke afterwards.  No teacher addressed the assembly.  No school administrator spoke.  Silence.  Just silence.  The same silence he met at home.  Only writing allowed him a venue where he could struggle with the demons that haunted him as he contemplated his parents’ role in such madness.   It seems as if it was always a burden that threatened to extinguish him.  And it finally did, as he drove around a curve near his home in East Anglia and a aneurysm burst inside his head.

This new collection of essays deserves the utmost attention, for it reminds us once again of his genius, his originality and his integrity.

Elaine Margolin is a frequent book reviewer for the Jewish Journal and other publications.