April 19, 2013
“This material,” the back page explains, “in an earlier form, was part of the first draft of American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light, a book due to be published in November 2013. It was decided, as the text moved through later stages in the editing process, that a London detour might be confusing. Now it stands alone.” That excerpt, Iain Sinclair’s Austerlitz & After: Tracking Sebald, has just been released as a chapbook that packs a real punch for its mere 28-pages.
This being Iain Sinclair, the reader should not be surprised to find that the Sebald pages are framed by a narrative of murder and dismemberment. During a morning walk in Hackney, Sinclair happened upon the crime scene where parts of the body of soap opera actress Gemma McCluskie had surfaced in the brown sludge of Regent’s Canal. The crime scene becomes a site of tribute and remembrance, “making murder into a soap-opera tragedy.”
Wreaths, flowers, bears, cards appear, overnight, woven into the fence, above the lock where the torso was found. Yellows and purples. Deep reds and pinks. Carnations, tulips, lilies. In funnels of cellophane and twists of green paper.
This tawdry story (she was murdered by her brother) helps displace Sebald from the East Anglian landscape where he lived and with which he has become inextricably identified, for Sinclair’s elegiac, almost tender, narrative is largely a tale of Sebald in urban London. It also serves as a contrast for the way in which Sinclair wants to memorialize Sebald. As Sinclair tracks Sebald through the neighborhoods of London, sometimes accompanied by the poet Stephen Watts, he writes about places that Sebald researched and wrote about in Austerlitz. Sinclair and Watts visit places like Liverpool Station and the Jewish burial ground in Brady Street that Sebald would have seen as his Norwich train approached Liverpool Street. Watts recalls stories of Sebald’s rucksack (which became Austerlitz’s rucksack) and of Sebald trawling through shoeboxes of old postcards in Spitalfields Market. Sinclair wants to unravel the “quiet cult of managed melancholy” that has been building up around Sebald’s legend, and so he gives us a Sebald who is flawed, worried, curious, determined, ill.
I wondered if Sebald ever wrote about driving. The published books present a man most comfortable with a scenario of waiting: station hotels, Swiss lakes, distant views of snow-capped mountains, flights into northern cities, walks through marches on sandy paths. Waiting for that single justifying encounter: the trapdoor of memory, the skewed quotation. the echo of a translated text.
Perhaps it takes someone as eclectic as Sinclair (whose website describes him as “a british writer, documentarist, film maker, poet, flaneur, metropolitan prophet and urban shaman, keeper of lost cultures and futurologist”) to give us a glimpse of a Sebald who seems, momentarily, at least, whole.
[Note added April 20, 2013: In a most curious coincidence, the day after I originally posted this, The Guardian published an essay by James Woods in which Sinclair says: "I only set eyes on Max Sebald one time. We shared a descending lift in Broadcasting House, pressed back into our safe corners, silent. He impersonated what I took him to be – writer, walker, culturally burdened European – so beautifully that I wondered if this was an actor, a hireling." This is not the impression Sinclair leaves in Austerlitz & After, where he is more coy about his actual relationship with Sebald. Sinclair rather seamlessly blends Watts recollections into his own narrative, leaving it less than clear who actually spent time with Sebald.]
Austerlitz & After is a publication of Test Centre in London. It was beautifully produced in a limited edition of 300 copies. Twenty-six copies (all now sold) were specially bound in buckram covers. Here is a view of the “extra holographic material” added to the copy which I managed to purchase.
December 31, 2012
Five Dials #26 is focused on German writing, with a number of new short stories by young German writers, plus three essays on W.G. Sebald: Uwe Schutte’s “Teaching by Example,” Amanda Hopkinson’s “A History of Memory or a Memory of History?,” and Anthea Bell’s “A Translator’s View.” These essays are three of the five originally commissioned and aired by BBC radio one year ago. (The two essays not reprinted here are those of Christopher Bigsby and Georges Szirtes.)
Helen Finch has added her thoughts to the discussion about the recent BBC radio dramatization of Austerlitz in a blog post wonderfully called “Sebald was more interesting than the husband: Austerlitz and l’effet du réel.” Finch makes the case that we should be judging the radio drama on whether or not it contains “the emotional truth” of the original book.
If Michael Butt tried to present the emotional truth of Austerlitz, as he felt it, in his radio drama, who is to say that his classic BBC drama version, complete with slamming doors and tearjerking music, does not represent that important affective aspect of Sebald’s work which might otherwise be lost behind his complex irony and academic erudition? Or is it the case that if we allow ourselves to be bewitched by Sebald’s artistry into thinking that his work is just a reproduction of the real, nothing more and nothing less, we have consigned ourselves to the realm of kitsch that is the death of art?
Over at The White Review is a nice piece by Will Stone called “Oradour-sur-Glane: Reflections on the Culture of Memorial in Europe” that speaks to some of Sebald’s preoccupations in Austerlitz with Holocaust sites, architecture, and memorials.
Entering Oradour and obeying bold signs to the memorial ruins, I was surprised to find myself in a vast car park, a limitless expanse of tarmac, more suited one would think to a sports complex or shopping mall. There on the sleek asphalt of the car park I observed luxury coaches with their tinted glass and climate controlled interiors spill their chattering cargoes, just as they will now in the newly constructed ‘reception area’ at Auschwitz I in Poland. Cars of suntanned visitors parked obediently between the freshly painted lines, disembarked and moved off all in the same direction, as if drawn by some unspecified magnetic source towards the giant modern bunker of a building that sat in a kind of man-made hollow. I realised as I followed them down the smart new concrete steps to the lower level that this was a relatively new visitors centre, inaugurated in 1999 by President Chirac, a largely superfluous building, the new scourge of every memorial site in Europe, whether merely ruins or formal cemetery. For today it is considered not quite enough to have solely the memorial itself before which to contemplate man’s destructive capability, the intricacies of murderous folly and the resulting nerve straining conclusion. Again and again some shadowy authority slips in between the individual and their private purpose and imposes an artificial construction in their path, which they have to wade through, straddle or circumnavigate before they can get back to the path they thought they were on.
Did Teju Cole deliberately write twelve essays in twenty twelve? I wouldn’t put it past him. Here are links to each and every one.
I’m sure of nothing, and writing essays is one of the ways I sort through my doubts.
And finally, among the books we can look forward to in 2013 is Jo Catling’s translation of Sebald’s important book A Place in the Country (originally Logis in einem Landhaus, by WG Sebald. According to The Guardian, the book is due to be released in Great Britain by Hamish Hamilton/Penguin May 2, but Amazon doesn’t have the US edition coming out from Random House until January 2014. It looks as if Random House is going to use the same cover as the German edition, which is a beautiful watercolor by the Swiss writer Gottfried Keller, who is the subject of one of the biographic essays in this. The only place I can currently find an image of a possible Hamish Hamilton cover is over at New Books in German, which shows something entirely different for the UK edition.
December 20, 2012
When the BBC recently announced that it was going to air a radio “dramatisation” of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, I am afraid I shuddered. Dramatizations (I’m stubbornly sticking with the American spelling) almost always go badly and if any author’s works seemed wrong for dramatization, those of Sebald seem seemed extremely wrong. In his prose fictions, Sebald filtered everything and every person through the singular voice of his narrator. Austerlitz, which actually has a plot of sorts and a handful of characters, is nevertheless told exclusively through one voice.
The BBC dramatization, which is credited to Michael Butt and was directed by John Taylor, has a cast of twelve that includes three different voices playing Austerlitz at different ages. There is background music to set the mood and there are plenty of sound effects to underscore the text. Sebald’s book has been taken apart, abbreviated, and remolded into a 90-minute radio play that at times is indistinguishable from a soap opera. The narrator is positioned as writer looking for a new project before his eyesight gives out and when he meets Austerlitz he realizes he’s found his ideal subject. And Austerlitz…well, there’s the rub. Much of the commentary that have been made by those that have listened to the play have focused on poor radio-Austerlitz who, I dare say, Sebald would not recognize. Here, Austerlitz is played as an extremely tentative, over-anxious, insecure worrier.
I happen to be a big fan of well-narrated audio books. Listening to a narrator who reads well and who does not try to act can often be just as good as reading the book silently to one’s self. (John le Carré, for example, is one reader I enjoy.) Sebald himself recorded the “Max Ferber” section of The Emigrants in a German-language audio CD in 2000, using a voice that scarcely moves beyond a clearly-enunciated monotone. It’s almost hypnotic to listen to him. Dramatizations, on the other had, almost always seem to be for lazy readers who need to hear cell doors slamming to know we’re now in a prison or who need to hear sobbing when someone dies. I’m sure there are some who might make the argument that a dramatization is a way of making fiction more accessible and thus opening it up to new audiences. Perhaps many people will have heard about Sebald and Austerlitz for the first time through this BBC radio broadcast. My problem with the BBC dramatization of Austerlitz is that it could have been done in a way that remained true to the intent of Sebald’s complex exploration of memory and identity. This is a dramatization that belies Sebald’s original from start to finish by drowning out the text in a miasma of ambiance, never permitting Sebald to try to win over readers on his own terms. The radio play conceived by Butt and Taylor is mainstream, unimaginative theater that doesn’t attempt to capture Sebald’s idiosyncratic form of narrative. They would have been much better off to let the narrator (well-played by Stephen Greif) to carry the entire production single-handedly. Instead, Sebald’s text was sacrificed so that the BBC’s audience wouldn’t have to.
There is still some time to listen to the broadcast online and judge for yourself. It’s only up until Saturday December 22nd. Follow this link and click on Listen Now. For inscrutable reasons, the audio session opens with in the middle of a program on Napoleon, but you can skip forward to about 16:30 where Austerlitz begins. The radio plays lasts 90 minutes.
December 17, 2012
It’s now possible to listen to the recently broadcast radio play based upon Sebald’s Austerlitz on the BBC website – but only for a limited time. It’s only up for six more days, presumably through Saturday the 22nd. Follow this link and click on Listen Now. For inscrutable reasons, the audio session opens with a short program on the poet Lord Byron and Napoleon, but you can skip forward to 16:30 where Austerlitz begins. The radio plays lasts 90 minutes. If you listen, feel free to comment about what you think of Michael Butt’s adaptation. Several people have already recorded their reactions in the comments to my prior post.
More on this in a few days.
December 12, 2012
On Sunday December 16, 2012, BBC Radio 3 will broadcast a new radio dramatization (or dramatisation, for those in the UK) of W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz. The 90-minute broadcast will begin at 20:30 GMT. Here are the details, according to the BBC website:
Duration:1 hour, 30 minutes. First broadcast:Sunday 16 December 2012
W G Sebald’s masterpiece novel about remembering the Holocaust, in a new dramatisation for radio by Michael Butt. The narrator meets a quiet stranger in the Antwerp station cafe and he begins to confide an unsettling story of vanished identity – which travels through 1930s Czechosolovakia, the Kindertransport of Jewish children to Britain and adoption in Wales.
Sebald came to prominence in the 1990s as an acclaimed German writer, living in Britain, whose novels tackled many aspects of Germany’s confrontation with its traumatic wartime past. He died in 2001 at the height of his critical appreciation.
Austerlitz ….. James Fleet
Narrator ….. Stephen Greif
Elias ….. David Sibley
Margaret ….. Poppy Miller
Evan ….. Michael Elwyn
Agata ….. Morven Christie
Maximilian ….. Timothy Watson
Marie ….. Amanda Drew
Vera ….. Deborah Findlay
Young Vera ….. Emma Powell
Young Austerlitz ….. Dyfan Dwyvor
Child Austerlitz ….. Kalum Guest
Directed by John Taylor
A Fiction Factory Production.
The evidence suggests that the program will eventually be available to Internet listeners via the BBC I>player Radio.