Emergence of Memory
November 26, 2007
The novelist Lynne Sharon Schwartz and Seven Stories Press have added a new anthology to the growing shelf of books devoted to W.G. Sebald. The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald, which came out a few weeks ago, gathers together four previously published articles and five of the elusive interviews that were made with Sebald over the relatively short course (not much more than four years) of his fame, including two interviews which had previously appeared only on radio. This is the first non-scholarly anthology published in English designed to introduce Sebald to a general audience: no footnotes and relatively little jargon, as one would expect from pieces which first saw the light of day in places such as The New Yorker Online, The New York Review of Books, and The New Republic.
In each of the five interviews included here the truly remarkable voice of Sebald is laid bare upon the page. One gets a clear sense of the deep intelligence and the wry, self-deprecating humor so modestly displayed and so spontaneous. (For a real treat, go listen to Sebald speak with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s Bookworm.) Two of the interviews in The Emergence of Memory are made available in printed form for the first time: Eleanor Wachtel’s CBC interview and Silverblatt’s KCRW interview. The interviews conducted by Joseph Cuomo and Arthur Lubow, originally published in The New Yorker Online and The Threepenny Review, respectively, are presented here in expanded versions. Michael Silverblatt gains my vote for the most perceptive reader of Sebald, but I thought Carole Angier’s interview from The Jewish Quarterly vies for the most original piece of writing in the book; she intersperses a traditional interview format with her own astute observations. For whatever reason, Sebald attracted intelligent, well-read, curious, and articulate interlocutors.
Of the five essays here, Ruth Franklin’s Rings of Smoke, from The New Republic, is the outstanding one by a country mile. She discusses most of Sebald’s books and quickly gets to the heart of each one. She is also capable, as Schwartz puts it, of assessing “the risks involved in what she sees as Sebald’s aestheticizing of collective disaster.” Michael Hofmann, on the other hand, set out to be “the dissenting voice,” to quote Schwartz again, but he is a dissenter who seems to have an axe to grind. Hofmann is a translator I admire deeply, but his essay A Chilly Extravagance from Arts and Books, Prospect, betrays a deep misreading of Sebald: “the complete absence of humor, charm, grace, touch is startling,” he complains. I disagree that Sebald lack these traits. I also wonder what theory of literature requires them for greatness? Hofmann is even more startled that Sebald’s books “enjoy any sort of success in England,” suggesting that Sebald’s fans have been “expertly manipulated.” Hofmann, to put it bluntly, is simply the wrong reader for Sebald: “the ‘beauty’ so often reflexively attested to I frankly don’t see.” Scwhartz is correct that Sebald doesn’t have many nay-sayers, but Hofmann’s essay is not the way to redistribute the weight of opinion. The remaining two essays are from writers Tim Parks and Charles Simic. Parks provides a lucid review of Vertigo, but Simic’s piece, Conspiracy of Silence from The New York Review of Books, simply doesn’t hold up well against any of the other selections (how can anyone refer to Jacques Austerlitz as the “hero” of Sebald’s novel Austerlitz?).
The only new piece of writing in The Emergence of Memory is Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Introduction, which provides about as good an introduction to Sebald the man and Sebald the writer as one could hope for in less than fifteen pages. It’s a fellow writer’s appreciation for what Sebald accomplished and how he makes it happen on the page.
Baffling classification, [Sebald's books] take the shape of the author’s consciousness. What unifies them is the narrator’s distilled voice – melancholy, resonant as a voice in a tunnel, witty: the effluvia of their’s author’s inner life. And against all odds, from these stories of exile and decay, the voice wrests a magical exhilaration. Several of the writers included here mentioned the urge to go back and read his books over as soon as they reach the final page. They are not only magnetic, drawing you back. They are evanescent, evaporating as the pages turn.
Schwartz is a perceptive reader and I wish she had written more about Sebald in her own anthology.
The subtitle Conversations with W.G. Sebald initially led me to believe that The Emergence of Memory would exclusively consist of interviews with Sebald. Now that would have made for a great anthology. Instead, we have a hybrid. In her Introduction, Schwartz says what she believes each of these interviews and essays brings to the table, adding that she decided to nake sure the anthology possessed “cogent accounts of almost all of Sebald’s books.” I’m sorry that cogency trumped the better option of an anthology of interviews. By limiting herself to these five interviews from the dozen or so that exist, Schwartz skipped over some terrific contenders that need to be more widely available. I’m especially thinking of the essential interview conducted by Christopher Bigsby (from his book Writers in Conversation with Christopher Bigsby, volume two), a pair of pieces published by Maya Jaggi in The Guardian as a result of a single interview, James Woods’ difficult-to-find interview in the Canadian literary magazine Brick, Toby Green‘s nearly-impossible-to-find interview on Amazon.co.uk website, and Jens Mühling’s interview in Pretext, which goes off in some wonderfully unexpected directions. Ruth Franklin’s fine essay notwithstanding, we would have all been better served with a great gathering of interviews with one of the great voices in literature.