Sebald Tribute I

    The Other Side of Silence:


       Rereading W. G. Sebald





I MET W. G.  SEBALD almost twenty years ago, in New York City. He spoke with me for a public interview at the PEN American Center. Afterwards we had dinner. It was July 1997. He was fifty-three; the brief blaze of his international celebrity had been lit a year before, by the publication in English of his mysterious, wayward book The Emigrants. In a laudatory review, Susan Sontag had forcefully anointed the German writer as a contemporary master.

   Not that Sebald seemed to care about that. He was gentle, academic, intensely tactful. His hair was grey, his almost-white moustache like frozen water. He resembled the photographs of a pensive Walter Benjamin. There was an atmosphere of drifting melancholy that, as in his prose, he made almost comic by sly self-consciousness. I remember standing with him in the foyer of the restaurant, where there was some kind of ornamental arrangement that involved leaves floating in a tank. Sebald thought they were elm leaves and was prompted into a characteristic reverie. In England, he said, all the elms had disappeared, ravaged first by Dutch elm disease, the remainder well and truly finished off by the great hurricane of 1987. All gone, all gone, he murmured.   Since I had not read The Rings

of Saturn, I didn't know that he was almost quoting a passage from  his own work   (where, beautifully, he describes the trees, uprooted after the hurricane, lying on the ground 'as if in a swoon'). Still, I was amused even then by how very Sebaldian he sounded, encouraged by a glitter in his eyes and by a slightly sardonic fatigue in his voice.

     During dinner, he   returned sometimes to that mode, always with a delicate sense of comic timing. Someone at the table asked him if he might be interested in leaving England for a while and teaching elsewhere.  New York, for instance?  The great city was at his feet. It was part question, part flattery. Through clear round spectacles he pityingly regarded his interlocutor, and replied with naive sincerity: 'No, I don't think so.' He added that he was too attached to the old Norfolk  rectory he had lived in for years. I asked him what else he liked about England. The English sense of humour, he said. Had I ever seen, he asked, any German comedy on television? I had not, and I wondered   aloud what it was like. 'It is . . . “unspeakable”,' he said, stretching out the adjective with a heavy Germanic emphasis, and leaving behind an implication, also comic, that his short reply sufficed as a perfectly comprehensive and German humour. Sebald may have been playing with something he had said earlier in the evening, when I had asked him about his relation to his adopted country.  He said that although he did not feel at home, he liked 'the almost total absence in that country of any authoritarian structures', and the fierce British respect for privacy. Then he got that glitter in his eyes, and told a funny story:


   A friend of mine once broke an ankle on the beach. There

   was nobody else there except an elderly English couple sitting

   in a car, having a cup of tea. He was desperately trying to

   catch their attention so that they would call an ambulance. In

   order to do so, he tried to make his way towards them, very

   much like a soldier in the battlefield. They just looked at him

   quizzically and didn't say anything. They just thought this

   is how he goes for his walk and that's fine, it's his business!


Something about the insertion, 'very much like a soldier in the battlefield', is what turns a sweet anecdote into an on piece of English farce.

   Comedy is hardly the first thing one associates with the of W.  G. Sebald, but that's partly because his reputation quickly associated with the literature of the Holocaust, a still shaped by the two books of his that deal directly with catastrophe: “The Emigrants”, a collection of four partly fictional history-haunted biographies, and his last book, Austerlitz (2001) a novel about a Jewish Englishman who discovers, fairly late in life, that he was born in Prague but rescued from imminent extermination by being sent at the age of four and a half to England,in the  summer of 1939, on the so-called Kindertransporr. The typical Sebaldian character is estranged and isolated, visited by depression and menaced by lunacy, wounded into storytelling by historical trauma. But two other works, “Vertigo” and “The Rings of Saturn”, are more various than this, and all of his four major books have an eccentric sense of playfulness.

    Rereading him, I'm struck by how much funnier his work is than I first took it to be. Take, for instance, “The Rings of Saturn” (brilliantly translated by Michael Hulse), a kind of comic- mournful travelogue, in which the Sebald-like narrator spends much of the book tramping around Suffolk. He muses on the demise of the old country estates, whose hierarchical grandeur never recovered from the societal shifts brought about by the two world wars.   He tells the life-stories of Joseph Conrad, the translator Edward Fitzgerald, and the radical diplomat Roger Casement. He visits a friend, the poet Michael Hamburger, who left Berlin for England in 1933, at the age of nine and a half. The tone is elegiac, muffled, but also curiously intense. The Hamburger visit allows Sebald to take the reader back to the Berlin of the poet's childhood, a scene he meticulously recreates with the help of Hamburger's own memoirs. But he also jokily notes that when they have tea, the teapot emits 'occasional puffs of steam as from a toy engine'.

    Elsewhere in the book,  Sebald is constantly provoked to humorous  indignation  by the  stubborn intolerability of English service. In Lowestoft, once a prosperous resort but now impoverished and drab, he puts up at the hideous Albion Hotel. He's the only diner in the huge dining room, and is brought a piece of fish 'that had doubtless lain entombed in the deep-freeze for years':


    The breadcrumb armour-plating of the fish had been partly singed by the grill, and the prongs of my fork bent on it. Indeed, it was so difficult to penetrate what eventually proved to be nothing but an empty shell that my plate was a hideous mess once the operation was over.

còn tiếp




Popular posts from this blog


Nguyễn Ngọc Tư