Saturday, August 16, 2014

Longing for a world both near and far (Books - The Emigrants by W.S. Sebald)

The force of the praise for W.G. Sebald from  the likes of Susan Sontag, A.S. Byatt, Richard Eder, Cynthia Ozick, Michael Dirda in The New Yorker, The New York Times, TLS and elsewhere, make it pretty near impossible to come to his work unswayedI felt less like I dove into a new narrative world with anticipation in reading Sebald's The Emigrants (New Directions, 1997, Trans. Michael Hulse) and more like I had been invited to an exhibit of fine porcelain at a small museum.  I mustn't run, I mustn't touch, but I may walk through the hallowed rooms, look, and breathlessly admire. Whatever the use of literary criticism, or even book jacket blurbs, I don't imagine that that was the intention of these writers.  Whatever I came to like about The Emigrants on my own, was come to slowly, after I was able to drop the obligation I felt to search for evidence of his genius yet, it was worth the effort.

The Emigrants is a collection of four portraits of Germans living in exile, more than four if you include the life stories enfolded within the four chapters, which are titled for their subjects: Dr. Henry Selwyn, Paul Bereyter, Ambros Adelwarth, and Max Ferber. These are interspersed with grainy black-and-white photographs offered, it seems, in evidence of the narrative. In large part, this is a book about the difficulty of being a post-World War II German, written by a non-Jewish German citizen born in 1948.  As such, if it is any good at all, it is likely to be the subject of  ardent enthusiasm, in much the same way that you can be sure that a halfway decent film about the victim of an illness, or a crippled left or even right extremity, is likely to be nominated for an Academy Award.  OK, that's a little jaded, but at the time it was published, Sebald's voicing of what was previously unspoken, and his energetic pursuit of understanding were rare and therefore welcome.  Sebald's father served in the Wehrmacht, but neither his father, nor his schooling, nor any other cultural outlet, gave satisfactory explanations or expressions to Sebald of the legacy of World War II, the murder of Jews and others declared non-citizens by the Nazis, or the decimation of German cities by Allied bombing.  Its legacy was suffering, one which had a clear source, yet at the same time, there was a sort of amnesia, producing for Sebald a restlessness, perhaps an emptiness.  He emigrated to England, a self exile.  What is striking about this book is that how it expresses his necessity to move in the face of this restlessness, his energy in struggling to fill the void, behind a narrative effort that seems not literary in its aspirations, but personal.  The product is something that lies between narrative history and a collection of artifacts of those parts of German-ness which have been enforceably forgotten. 

If you have been to Daniel Liebskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin, then you may have been struck by two cases of artifacts located in the basement near where one enters.  These are objects left behind or thrown from train windows on the way to likely death.  Books and exhibits about the Holocaust often speak of the void left after the murder or exile of the Jews who, although a minority, made a huge contribution made to the commercial, intellectual, cultural, and scientific life of Germany.  But those display cases commemorate the loss of the domestic: ordinary lives - the parent, the civil servant.  Sebald's book, like those cases, exhumes the school teacher, the manservant.  He does this in a voice that is at once direct and formal, as though a Victorian professor were listing the contents of a cabinet of curiosities.  But this is not idle curiosity, rather the objects are sifted through and examined as archeological artifacts to assemble a civilization only murkily known from its ruins, a murkiness that is evident in the photos that are part of The Emigrants.
Elli Selwyn was a factory owner's daughter, from Biel in Switzerland, and we soon realized that she had an excellent head for business.  She gave us permission to make modest alterations in the flat, to suit our taste.  Once the bathroom (which was in an annexe on cast-iron columns and accessible only via a footbridge) had been painted white, she even came up to approve our handiwork. The unfamiliar look prompted her to make the cryptic comment that the bathroom, which had always reminded her of an old-fashioned hothouse, now reminded her of a freshly painted dovecote, an observation that has stuck in my mind to this day as an annihilating verdict on the way we lead our life, thought I have not been able to make any change in it.  But that is beside the point.  Our access to the flat was either by an iron staircase, now painted white as well, that rose from the courtyard to the bathroom footbridge, or (on the ground floor) through a double door into a wide corridor, the walls of which, just below the ceiling, were festooned with a complicated bell-pull system for the summoning of servants.  From that passageway one could look into the dark kitchen, where at any hour of the day a female personage of indeterminable age would always be busy at the sink.  Elaine, as she was called, wore her hair shorn high up the nape, as the inmates of asylums do.  Her facial expressions and movements gave a distraught impression, her lips were always wet, and she was invariably wearing her long grey apron that reached down to her ankles. What work Elaine was doing in the kitchen, day in , day out, remained a mystery to Clara and myself; to the best of our knowledge, no meal, with one single exception, was ever cooked there. 
Sebald offers his reader a painstaking amount of detail, in an effort to create the totality of an experience and yet, it will always falls short of the experience.  So he fills the spaces with what he imagines.  This is what we all do. Gestalt psychology, and, subsequently, the field of neuroscience, has made ample study of the role our knowledge of the world plays in our perception of it. As Sebald observes of his subject Paul Bereyter, a teacher:
I was reminded then of how we had only ever spoken of him as Paul at school, not without respect but rather as one might refer to an exemplary older brother, and in a way this implied that he was one of us, or that we belonged together.  This, as I have come to realize, was merely a fabrication of our minds, because, even thought Paul knew and understood us, we, for our part, had little idea of what he was or what went on inside him.  And so, belatedly, I tried to get closer to him, to imagine what his life was like in that spacious apartment on the top floor of Lerchenmuller's old house, which had once stood where the present bock of flats is now, amidst an array of green vegetable patches and colourful flower beds, in the gardens where Paul often helped out of an afternoon.  
This, really, is the action of the entirety of The Emigrants - to get closer.  To imagine what his subject's lives were like - an act which is among the most generous that one human being can perform for another. But even at his most direct, when describing, for instance, the horror Paul's father Theodor felt about the violent attacks upon Jewish families in his home town in 1936, Sebald's descriptions can only sample the detritus.  They cannot reanimate the German lives lost, now hazily remembered in photographs and personal recollections.  The cost of choosing as one's form a relentless assembly of detail is a certain monotony of pace.  Sebald never achieves the thrust of a plot-driven narrative, but rather immerses the willing reader.  He insists that we study the evidence, taking the time to imagine for ourselves what these lives were like.  As Sebald's character Max Ferber, the painter, remembers:
The day was as bright as it had been the first time, and when I had reached the top, utterly exhausted, there below me was the country around Lake Geneva once again, seemingly completely unchanged, and with no trace of movement but for the one or two tiny boats that left their white wakes on the deep blue water as they proceeded, unbelievably slowly, and the trains that went to and fro at intervals on the far bank.  That world, at once near and unattainably far, said Ferber, exerted so powerful an attraction on him that he was afraid he might leap down into it, and might really have done so had not a man of about sixty suddenly appeared before him - like someone who's popped out of the bloody ground.  He was carrying a large white gauze butterfly net and said, in an English voice that was refined but quite unplaceable, that it was time to be thinking of going down if one were to be in Montreux for dinner.  He had no recollection of having made the descent with the butterfly man, though, said Ferber; in fact the descent had disappeared entirely from his memory, as had his final days at the Palace and the return journey to England.  Why exactly this lagoon of oblivion had spread in him and how far it extended, had remained a mystery to him however hard he thought about it.  If he tried to think back to the time in question, he could not see himself again till he was back in the studio, working at a painting which took him almost a full year, with minor interruptions - the faceless portrait "Man with a Butterfly Net".  This he considered one of his most unsatisfactory works, because in his view it conveyed not even the remotest impression of the strangeness of the apparition it referred to.  
Longing for a world both near and far and then failing to satisfy oneself in recreating what one has lost are Sebald's form and content interacting on the page.  Indeed such dissatisfaction is the subject of a great many works of art because it is a universal experience. Sebald shares with us the artifacts remaining from half-forgotten parts of recent German culture, because their loss haunts him.  The loss in this instance is specific and violent, but in some ways it evokes the loss that is experienced in the passage of time for any way of living that has past.  Sebald the art maker is always present as the narrator of his portraits, so it is his dissatisfaction driving the narrative. What drove my interest, despite any impatience I felt at the demand that I take time, first to examine and then to imagine, is the fact that this dissatisfaction felt personal.  The directness of his voice maintained my awareness of the narrator-character Sebald created of himself.  From the details Sebald left of the page through behavior and diction, I created an unassuming, friendly, even warm, character,  perhaps it is such a person whom I imagine would so relentlessly pursue the personal stories behind the artifacts of his fellow countrymen.  The result of this warmth was that I didn't want to disappoint him by not sharing his interest.  Sebald wishes his reader to both contemplate the subject of loss and experience by the book's end a cumulative loss of our own, of a people and a way of life violently erased from his culture - an experience in which he creates this same sense of something both near and far in that The Emigrants fully succeeds in helping us realize that impossibility of ever remembering fully enough.


deborah said...

Just a general response: Thank you. Great blog. Happy to find it. Good company, and destined to be part of my cure from the dreaded, wasting disease, news junky.

Ted said...

Thank you, D.M. Welcome.