Jonathan Littell, W.G. Sebald

My attention was drawn to the reviews of Littell’s The Kindly Ones in the USA. Take this one from the Los Angeles Times, for instance (thanks, Isabella!), and better-known very harsh reviews in the New York Times and the Literary Saloon (for a different view, see here). The reception was much more positive in France, I read – and it certainly was in Germany. I haven’t read the book but the temptation is growing. I don’t like the sound of the past life Littell has given his main character, but I can’t help feeling the reactions have something to do with distance from Europe. Then again, the book was written in French by an American who grew up in France, so I can’t judge it as if it were a German book. Part of the German reaction was that it needed a non-German to actually put the holocaust into a novel.

I just recently finished W.G.Sebald’s Austerlitz, another book about the holocaust. Sebald seems to have emigrated from Germany to some extent because of the silence about the recent past in 1950s and 1960s Bavaria (people kept quiet about the past in Britain too in those times, but what they kept quiet about did not have the same dimensions). He seems to have believed that the holocaust could not be written about directly, only indirectly. Maybe that’s why it takes such a very long time for Austerlitz to put its cards on the table.

Searching for people writing about Sebald in English on the Web, it’s striking how much adulation there is in English-speaking countries. It’s odd how Sebald is taken on as if he were an English-language writer (fortunately the translators, Michael Hulse and Anthea Bell, do get some praise). One person even expressed surprise that Sebald, whose English was so good, decided to write in German. But they are very German books, to my mind. In Text und Kritik no. 158, on Sebald, Rüdiger Görner considers this aspect:

Seltsam genug, aber vielleicht nicht unbedingt verwunderlich: Sebalds durchaus kritisches England-Bild und das beinahe auf Kritik verzichtende Bild, das sich (vor allem) englische Kritiker von ihm gemacht haben, sind nur bedingt deckungsgleich.

The first thing of Sebald’s I read was Die Ausgewanderten (The Emigrants), when it first came out in the Andere Bibliothek in 1992. That was his second novel, but the one that led to the breakthrough, especially when it first appeared in English in 1996. It’s not actually about four Jewish emigrants, as is often said – one of the stories is about relations of Sebald’s, Germans who went to the USA. In the last story, of Max Ferber (still called Max Aurach in my edition), the diaries of the artist’s mother conjure up a world where Jewish life and German life could mean the same thing – this is another indirect evocation of the horror of the holocaust. (And this book might be the best place to start reading Sebald).

Last year I read Die Ringe des Saturn (The Rings of Saturn), enjoyed it at the same speed as I had Die Ausgewanderten. I reread Die Ausgewanderten this year to see how it stood up to the test of time.

(The only other Sebald I have read is part of Logis in einem Landhaus – essays on Robert Walser, Hebel, Keller, Rousseau, Mörike and Tripp).

Two things that struck me about Die Ausgewanderten: in connection with the theme ‘The dead are always returning to us’, there is a clear reference to Hebel’s Unverhofftes Wiedersehen, a story unlikely to be known to an English reader. That almost needs a footnote, but I suppose it is not essential. (I see that a translation appeared in Penguin Books in 1994, translated by John Hibberd: The Treasure Chest: Unexpected Reunion and Other Stories). Another thing is the topos of the butterfly collector, a reference to Nabokov and presumably to his autobiography Speak, Memory. That would be far too obvious in an English novel, but in German it may work.

Wikipedia has a list of all the influences on Sebald. Adalbert Stifter strikes me as the strongest. And I think a good description of both Stifter and Sebald is ‘Boring, but in a good way’. I can’t remember where I came across the word ‘boring’ in connection with Sebald, but it struck me as a good one immediately. Boring and yet hypnotically fascinating at the same time. I can see the Bernhard influence now, at least in the language as well as in the sentence length, but their subjects don’t seem closely related.

Five Dials is an online literary magazine (PDF file) from the publisher Hamish Hamilton. The fifth edition features W.G. Sebald.

dovegreyreader on The Emigrants

Via Vertigo

Interview with Sebald, interviewer Michael Silverblatt, dated 2001.

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