Extract > Šarotar on Sebald
I still recall the moment when, as I stood among the train platforms, I first raised my eyes towards the mighty steel dome that covers the railway station in Antwerp. I remember the tiny snowflakes that drifted slowly down from a grey sky, mingling with rain and fog that had risen somewhere over the sea, far away in the suburbs, which I would not visit that day, although I did not know that at the time; it was the same as now, as I write, and that moment, with dirty raindrops trickling down the glass panes, had already inscribed itself in a potential future memory, one that would later become my novel Panorama and thus something authentic and lasting. The narrator of Panorama, during his travels in Belgium – where he had arrived from Ireland and from whence he would later travel to Sarajevo – similarly finds himself in Antwerp Station: entranced by the magnificent sight, he recalls the opening scene of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, which takes place there. The narrator is sure (or perhaps it was I who was sure as I admired the station) that at that moment he and Sebald might actually meet; he has the feeling that Sebald is still there somewhere, that together they will marvel at the great arching construction of iron and glass and experience “a sense of being beyond the profane, in a cathedral consecrated to international traffic and trade”. Austerlitz is a monumental work about the memory that grows out of illusions, from the thirst for power and social status, and also, of course, about intimate tragedies, the loss of identity and the spiritual stuntedness of those who cannot remember. I know now that Sebald’s invisible railway station, which exists solely within the confines of his novel – just as my narrators exist solely in my Panorama – is infinitely more enduring, and also more real, than the station in Antwerp, because all the railway stations and cathedrals in the world are like this – ephemeral and unreal – so long as they are without a narrator, without a witness who can speak of them with nostalgia, in the manner of poetry.
Motifs of travel, of temporarily leaving home, of long solitary walks and rambles in the countryside, as well as permanent migration, forced deportation, and being a refugee, are central and, as a rule, recurring in the work of the poet and prose writer W. G. Sebald, who was born in Germany in 1943. His father was a German soldier who took part in the invasion of Poland at the start of the Second World War; he was later captured by the French and did not return home until 1947. The young Sebald went on to study at the University of Freiburg and then moved permanently to England, where he taught German literature at the university level. He also founded the British Centre for Literary Translation and served as its director until his untimely death, at the age of fifty-seven, in a road accident not far from his home. This occurred just eight months after the English publication of his most important work, Austerlitz, which, along with his novels The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn, has also appeared in Slovene, in the superb translation of Štefan Vevar. The Emigrants, in fact, was published in Slovenia in 2001, the year of the author’s death.
Austerlitz ensured its author a special place on the international literary map, if, indeed, he hadn’t had one before. This is evident from the novel’s many translations and scholarly editions, as well as specialized symposia and reviews in the world’s most respected magazines and newspapers. Sebald’s literary star, which lit up the skies in the decade after his death, continues today to kindle the imagination of admirers, as is readily seen in the many websites aimed at researchers, or merely followers, of Sebald’s work. In the years since his death there have also been several theatrical and operatic adaptations of his works, as well as documentaries and experimental and feature films based on the novels, including one based on The Rings of Saturn (the 2012 film Patience (After Sebald), directed by Grant Gee).
Cynics might say that given Sebald’s relatively modest output, with less than ten original works in all, and especially considering the enigmatic and self-referential nature of his slow, intricate and melancholy sentences, the enormous interest in the author is undoubtedly due in part to his tragic death, which so suddenly cut short what promised to be a brilliant career – indeed, when Austerlitz came out, Sebald was mentioned as a serious candidate for the Nobel Prize. But putting aside the doubters, speculators and prophets of easy reading, Sebald’s writings have clearly earned him a place among the most important modern writers in German, with many critics ranking him next to Kafka. These two emblematic authors both left profound marks on the twentieth century, Kafka in its early decades, Sebald at its end.
Bracketing for a moment the indisputable excellence of their writing in a common language, the connection between them is more than incidental (and deeper, even, than the fact that one of the characters in Sebald’s novel Vertigo is a Dr K). Both writers were, in a sense, exiles who lived on the margins of their time and space – Kafka as a Jew born in Prague, and Sebald, although born in Bavaria, spent more than thirty years in England, where he had a successful academic career and, ultimately, international recognition as a writer. Both men, then, lived and worked on the margins, or even outside, of the German language, even as they remained deeply attached to it, primarily through their linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Both wrote their literary works exclusively in German, and Sebald even retained his German accent (some of his recorded interviews and readings can be found on the internet) despite living, working and teaching in English almost his entire life. But apart from these external circumstances, which circle their biographies like the rings of Saturn, there is, certainly, something at the core, deep beneath the thick planetary crust and concealed by thick layers of toxic gases and ice, yet powerful enough to shine through the whole of the twentieth century, to escape gravity, as it were, and penetrate the black cosmic expanse, something in the depths, more essential and binding, that links Kafka and Sebald, spiritual contemporaries of the pen, though they lived on opposite sides of the century – and this is guilt and memory.
In Sebald’s last interview, a conversation with Maya Jaggi at the University of East Anglia in September 2001, which was later published in the Guardian, he said: “Memory, even if you repress it, will come back at you and it will shape your life. Without memories there wouldn’t be any writing: the specific weight an image or phrase needs to get across to the reader can only come from things remembered – not from yesterday but from a long time ago.”
Born in the midst of war, the son of an active German soldier and eyewitness to Nazi aggression, a child who grew up in Germany’s anxious post-war climate and, most of all, a man who voluntarily emigrated, at least physically and geographically, who went, moreover, to England, Sebald was profoundly aware of the moment, the situation, in which he was living and about which, years later, he would write in his novels. He found himself, perhaps, in an unbearable position – caught between his own innocence (for as a child he was guilty of nothing) and consciousness of the monstrous actions of his father, of an entire generation of parents, who through their involvement, or at least acquiescence, or (to state it unsympathetically) their mere knowledge of the crimes, had marked their descendants for generations. For the Holocaust had shattered the hitherto familiar world, and the lethal radiation it released, as from a star exploding in the universe, had debilitated, if not destroyed, everyone and everything. The Holocaust left only charred remains, human ashes, which grew cold and were soon scattered through the cosmos by an interstellar wind, and when the star is finally extinguished completely and self-implodes, nothing will remain but the black hole of memory, from which not even light can escape, and all will be dark. Sebald, certainly, was deeply versed in German literature and culture, despite living, so to speak, as an émigré, very much like the characters in his novels The Emigrants, Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn – in the first two he deals explicitly with the narratives and stories of emigrants, refugees and exiles who fled Nazi Germany before or during the Second World War.
On the one hand thematizing the issue of guilt and on the other attempting to salvage his German identity, Sebald of course is not naive; he knows that the Holocaust has been and will remain the central German topic, probably forever. Nevertheless, his narrator, who always speaks in the first person and whom we might easily identify with the author himself (although this is not as simple as it seems) – this lonely narrator, as he rambles through abandoned coastal areas and devastated industrial districts, lingers beneath the vaulted glass ceilings of railway stations, roams the suburban streets at night – a wanderer, then – sees and senses that, after the Holocaust, there is only scorched earth all around us; the wind has carried the ash the length and breadth of Europe, blanketing every meadow, scattering it over beaches and factories, on streets and in books, and most of all in our memories. Sebald’s narrators know that the world holds neither punishment for the criminals nor consolation for the vanquished nor glory for the victors; crime and guilt have, in a sense, buried everyone. The only thing that can bring meaning back to the world is writing; art alone can withstand the horror of memory. As he says in The Rings of Saturn: “The fact is that writing is the only way in which I am able to cope with the memories which overwhelm me so frequently and so unexpectedly. If they remained locked away, they would become heavier and heavier as time went on, so that in the end I would succumb under their mounting weight.”