Saturday, January 31, 2009

AUSTERLITZ by W. G. Sebald

There are good writers, great writers, the greatest writers, and then there are those writers who are just scary. W.G. Sebald, a great writer at the belated beginning of his career, by the too-early end of his life achieved a level of frightening brilliance.

Great books compel re-reading, but the very greatest improve and deepen upon re-reading, providing a second or third experience even more profound than the first (at which the reader was, presumably, already blown away). Sebald's Austerlitz, Vertigo (which I didn't like much the first time through), and probably his other two prose fictions are in this category.

Here's a disturbing thought: A darker motivation for some American intellectuals' interest in the Holocaust may be the necessity of focusing on the crimes of official enemies in order to avoid seeing our own. We speak of Lidice but not of Gnaddenhutten, Babi Yar but not My Lai. The discourse of one nation's atrocities facilitates the erasure of another nation's crimes. This is not, however, to suggest a facile equivalence and curse all houses with pox from a position of godlike superiority. There's an equal danger in 'losing' the uniquely shocking technocratic horror of the Holocaust by blending it into that darkest night where all atrocities are blacker than black.

We must 'preserve' the shocking nature of violence, for if we ever become immune or inured or numb to it, we cease to be human.

These thoughts are occasioned by a second reading of Sebald's Austerlitz, which reminds me that Modernist novels can only be re-read by revealing the meaning of an ending I presumably didn't understand the first time through. The novel's last scene, in which the narrator sits outside the former Nazi prison at Breendonk and reads Dan Jacobson's Heshel's Kingdom, gives us on this novel's penultimate page another image of the abyss of death and meaninglessness comparable to that near the end of Vertigo. But here, instead of being overwhelmed by a text (as Vertigo's chasm is 'overwritten' by a memory of Pepys's description of the Great Fire of London), the image is itself carefully textualized and accompanied by, as well as encapsulated within, images of reading as recovery--recovery of personal and historical memory. At the end of the book, we the readers, the narrator and his protagonist are left reading the signs that history has left us, even as they are being erased...And interestingly,the ending might suggest that the written sign, a text in a book, is among the most durable of all. Buildings, as Sebald shows us, can be obliterated. Towns like Terezin can change utterly. But the witness of writing is more tenacious. It is still possible to track down the traces of the past, and we exist--if we desire an authentic existence--under a moral imperative to read the writing on the prison walls. The work may be all but impossible, but the past remains recoverable. This is as hopeful as Max Sebald gets.

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