December 18, 2011
On July 10, 1997, scarcely a year after the publication of The Emigrants (his first book to appear in English translation), W.G. Sebald sat down with critic James Wood in New York city for an interview, which appeared the next spring in a relatively obscure literary journal out of Toronto called Brick. Wood had already come to realize that The Emigrants was a game-changer. “Walter Benjamin said that all great works found a new genre or dissolve an old one,” Wood wrote in his opening sentence. “The Emigrants is such a book.” Wood continued on to praise the book for its “fastidiousness” and the way “it forces the largest abstract questions on us, while never neglecting our hunger for the ordinary. It is full of this extraordinary, careful detail…”
Wood’s questioning of Sebald dealt with many of the issues that have come to define Sebald: his use of photographs, the intermingling of fact and fiction, the nature of Sebald’s prose, and his approach to narration. Here’s Sebald on the latter topic:
I think that fiction writing, which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself, is a form of imposture and which I find very, very difficult to take. Any form of authorial writing, where the narrator sets himself up as stagehand and director and judge and executor in a text, I find somehow unacceptable. I cannot bear to read books of this kind.
…I’d much rather read autobiographical texts of a Chateaubriand or a Stendhal, that sort of thing…I find there is a degree of realness in it which I can calculate. Whereas with the novels, I find we are subjected to the rules and laws of fiction to a degree which I find tedious.
Two years later, Wood elaborated on these ideas in his essay “W.G. Sebald’s Uncertainty,” published in his 1999 collection The Broken Estate. There, Wood discussed both The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn, emphasizing the way in which facts (including photographs) became fictive in Sebald’s work as a part of Sebald’s strategy of investing “his narration with scrupulous uncertainty.” For Sebald, “facts are indecipherable, and therefore tragic.” Quite in opposition to Proust, “in Sebald, we are defined by the terrible abundance of our lacunae.” Having read The Rings of Saturn, Wood views Sebald’s use of language with even greater clarity. “Sebald’s language is an extraordinary, almost antiquarian edifice, full of the daintiest lusters.” The “quality of melodrama and extremism running alongside a soft mutedness” is, Wood thinks, practically “Gothic.”
Last month, Wood returned to Sebald again, writing the introduction to Penguin’s tenth anniversary edition of Austerlitz, which he characterizes as a “journey of detection,” though, he warns, “the book really represents the deliberate frustration of detection, the perpetuation of an enigma.” Sebald noted in his 1997 interview that he was more interested in biography than in fiction and Austerlitz represents his most extended attempt to write a fictional biography on his own terms. In his introduction, Wood continues to elaborate on the aspects of Sebald that first attracted his attention in 1997, but he lingers on Sebald’s tactic of forcing the reader into Austerlitz’s shoes by strategically withholding information and by layering Austerlitz’s narrative behind his own narrator’s re-telling of Austerlitz’s story. “What is so delicate is how Sebald makes Austerlitz’s story a broken, recessed enigma, whose meaning the reader must impossibly rescue.” In the end, Wood says, “a life has been filled in for us but not a self.”
The new Penguin edition is really a reissue of their standard paperback edition of Austerlitz with the insertion of a new twenty-one page essay by James Wood and the addition of a faux gold seal on the front cover. Nothing else has changed – not even the blurbs on the cover. But since it does include a new introduction, most collectors will treat it as a new edition and will want the first printing, which Penguin has appropriately marked with a tiny “1″ on the copyright page.
November 16, 2010
In a recent issue of The New Yorker, James Wood uses his review of Howard Jacobson’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Finkler Question to dwell at some length on the disappointing and reductive nature of most comic writing, especially the self-conscious Comic Novel. At the other end of the spectrum are quiet, hauntingly comic novels like Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key, which I just finished reading. This is not laugh-out-loud comedy, it’s not even the kind of comedy that brings a slight smile to the reader’s face. Keilson’s comedy lies in his characters’ attempts to paper over harsh realities with a facade of routines, manners, and habits.
In the early years of the Second World War, Wim and Marie agree to shelter a Jew who goes by the name of Nico in the second floor of their Amsterdam house. After a few awkward adaptations, life goes on as normal. The world is menacing but Wim and Mimi keep their heads down and go about the business of surviving hardships, like the scarcity of cigarettes and the lack of decent laundry detergent. They seem like an old couple, whose days are well-scripted, until we find out they are only twenty-six and twenty-eight years of age. They seem to be well-meaning, if simple people, so it is quietly comedic when Marie deprecates some acquaintances with the comment that they are “good people, but a little simple.”
While Wim and Marie struggle to maintain normalcy, Nico struggles to remain grateful.
The little thorn that grows invisibly in anyone who lives on the help and pity of others grew to gigantic proportions, became a javelin lodged deep in his flesh and hurting terribly. How proudly they had given him this room, how gratefully he had received it. How imprisoned, abandoned, and wretched he had felt in it.
Nico ultimately dies, probably of pneumonia. In a remarkable scene that is painful, awkward, dangerous and yet somehow comedic, Wim and a doctor try to carry the stiffening body into a park where they plan to abandon it. In this instance, comedy has nothing to do with being funny, it seems to function almost as a framing device that threatens to undermine the seriousness of the events- but never does. In fact, at every turn Keilson threatens to make this book turn into comedy, but he never does, leaving the reader slightly unsettled.
As Marie cleans out the room of the deceased Nico, she discovers a secret.
A secret! It was not only that they had sheltered him – he himself, his person, his life, constituted the secret. It was as though a no-man’s-land lay all around him, alien and impenetrable. It was impossible to bridge the gap. Even while he was alive, everything she heard him say, everything she saw – his voice, his movements – was like something seen from the opposite bank of a river while mist hung over the water and masked any clear view. It almost melted away into the impersonal, colorless swirls of fog. Now he was dead and they had managed to get him out of the house – but a secret had been left behind, as one last thing. At first it seemed to her that she, tears in her eyes and alone in his room, had discovered it, as though the fog had suddenly lifted and the other riverbank had come closer, right up next to her, so that she could see it precisely and know everything about it: its slope, its bushes and shrubs and hollows. Yet the more she looked, the more it rose like mist from the water, enveloping everything. Marie was frightened when she realized that a secret you discover by chance only conceals another, still greater secret behind it, which can never be discovered. And that every bit of knowledge, every revelation, is only like egg whites whisked until they’re sweet and mixed into the dough to break it up and release its flavor…
Marie thinks, momentarily at least, that she has finally found a connection with their secret lodger. But within a day, she and Wim find themselves much closer to Nico than they ever imagined. After Nico’s body has been removed from the park by the police, Wim and Marie discover that they had dressed him in clothes that contained a laundry mark that could be traced back to them, leaving them no choice but to go into hiding just as Nico had done.
Amazingly, this is the first English translation of centenarian Keilson’s novel, which first appeared in 1947. Hans Keilson, Comedy in a Minor Key. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. Translated by Damion Searls.
December 21, 2008
A cottage industry has arisen to debate, dissect, and dump on James Wood, especially since the appearance of his book How Fiction Works. Personally, I like Wood’s book. I don’t always agree with him, but he never fails to make me look closer at the text of fiction and its organization. But that’s not where I’m headed.
I just finished the Fall 2008 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, published by Dalkey Press, which is devoted to New Writing on Writing. It contains eleven essays, every one of which contributed something to my reading experience or my Books To Be Read list. Most of the essays are by fiction writers, in keeping with Dalkey Archive’s writer-centric philosophy.
William Gass’ essay on diagramming sentences took me back to my youth when – I believe – I was the only kid in class who enjoyed diagramming sentences. Paul West, Nicholas Delbanco, and others write about the act of writing and the writer’s life. Gail Scott’s The Sutured Subject deals with what is often called “experimental” writing: “Each of my novels has attempted a different answer to this question of tension between texture and narrative.” In the midst of Dumitru Tsepeneag’s essay on Romanian fiction is a terrific reflection on Surrealism – especially automatism.
In one of my favorite essays, Warren Motte, who teaches at the University of Colorado, writes about Jean Rolin’s 2007 novel L’Explosion de la durite (The Explosion of the Radiator Hose). But in doing so he ranges across topics of intense interest to any adventurous reader, including the current debate over what constitutes a “novel”:
[The novel] is a much-contested word, to be sure; but it is also extremely resilient, because the novel, these days (at least the novel of the “serious” stripe), is almost always a hybrid form.
Much of Motte’s discussion (particularly on narrative instability) applies directly to the works of W.G. Sebald, and, in fact, it turns out that Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn served as “one of the principal intertextual touchstones” for Rolin’s novel L’Explosion de la durite. “Digression is a deeply purposeful narrative technique.”
Each of these essays bears re-reading and I’m currently doing just that with Olivier Rolin’s The Subtle Genius of the Novel. More on that later.
It’s hard to imagine how one could spend eight dollars more profitably than to acquire New Writing on Writing directly from Dalkey Archive. Even better, spring for a subscription for three issues for only seventeen dollars.