German author wed lucidity to mystery

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The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W. G. Sebald. Schwartz, Lynne Sharon (Ed.). Seven Stories Press, New York, 2007. ISBN 978-1-58322-785-5. RRP $44

Emergence of Memory Joseph Brodsky, praised for his poems, used to say they had all been waiting to be found there, in the Russian language. W. G. Sebald might, in the same spirit, have said that all of his prose was waiting to be found in the German language.

Had he done so, it would have been appropriate, in that his writing displays something in common with Brodsky's, namely a highly distinctive, and paradoxical, wedding of lucidity and mystery. In his novel Vertigo, he remarks at one point, 'in reality, as we know, everything is always quite different', which sounds at once commonplace and baffling; it is the way things go very often in his work.

To minds both confident and benumbed (for example, those which are instinctively political) it is obvious how the world is, and how accordingly it is to be dealt with. To all such, Sebald's writing will be an affront. For him, the prose is indeed 'waiting' in a more than lexical sense: it is waiting because the world it might characterise is not amenable to spontaneous description or appraisal.

His writing is that of somebody who seems to be evolving a new sensory capacity or a new vein of intellectual attention as he goes along, but in no way does it seem laggard or immature. It is as if he has found a unique pacing of attentiveness.

This takes place (as something analogous does in Brodsky) in a milieu dense with the particular and the palpable. The pictures which abound in his books are there in their own right, but they are also in effect tokens or emblems of Sebald's exposure to the world's self-presenting, item by item, instance by instance.

Which is not to say that he is one of those writers who invest in the material energies which they cannot bring to construal. For all his deferentiality towards the constantly renewed, he is as assiduous an interpreter as Beckett or Borges.

The Emergence of Memory will serve well both readers familiar with Sebald's work and those coming at him for the first time. It offers five interviews with the writer and four essays on him. The writing is skilful and the tone is enthusiastic for the most part, with the exception of a piece by Michael Hofmann, whose title, 'A Chilly Extravagance', signals what is to come.

It is true to say that for Sebald, at least as he presents himself in this book, life is a grave affair, and often a grim one. At one point he says:

It is a characteristic of our species, in evolutionary terms, that we are a species in despair, for a number of reasons. Because we have created an environment for us which isn't what it should be. And we're out of our depth all the time. We're living exactly on the borderline between the natural world from which we are being driven out, or we're driving ourselves out of it, and that other world which is generated by our brain cells.

And so clearly that fault line runs right through our physical and emotional makeup. And probably where these tectonic plates rub against each other is where the sources of pain are.

But few people will read Sebald at all extensively without realising that he also knows where some of the sources of joy exist, a joy one of whose modes is the brio of his writing.

W. G. Sebald (The Literary Encyclopedia)

Peter SteelePeter Steele SJ is a poet and scholar and a longtime contributor to Eureka Street. He is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Melbourne. He also holds a a visiting chair at Georgetown University in Washington DC, to which he will return in July.



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"To minds both confident and benumbed (for example, those which are instinctively political) it is obvious how the world is, and how accordingly it is to be dealt with. To all such, Sebald's writing will be an affront." What a piquant, accurate and rarely encountered observation!
Cassandra | 22 May 2008


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