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.
“Beautifully organised displays of despair”: Cate Blanchett in the Botho Strauss play “Big and Small”
April 1, 2012
As luck would have it, I was in Paris last week for the European premiere of the Sydney Theatre Company’s new production of Big and Small by Botho Strauss, starring Cate Blanchett. This version used a newly-commissioned English translation from by the British playwright Martin Crimp. Big and Small (the allusion is first and foremost to Alice in Wonderland) is an episodic play of a dozen scenes in which we follow Lotte Kotte (Blanchett) on a road trip, struggling to make sense of her life after separating from her husband.
Gross und Klein (as it’s called in German) was first staged in 1978 and its themes are redolent of that era: alienation, the inability to communicate, and utter disdain for bourgeois life. Scenes are full of conversations overheard and half-heard and communications devices – telephones, intercoms, and a tiny portable television set – which serve only to limit Lotte’s ability to communicate. Lotte suffers from moments of inarticulation that Blanchett pulls off with stunning eloquence as she suddenly erupts into stammering, wordless speech or spasmodic, liberating dance steps.
Strauss was the subject of an essay in A Radical Stage: Theatre in Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, edited by W.G. Sebald: “Myth and Mythology in the Drama of Bothy Strauss” by Irmela Schneider. Although she doesn’t discuss Gross und Klein, Schneider’s commentary on several other plays by Strauss contain references that seem equally applicable to this play, including Wim Wenders’ 1984 film Paris, Texas and the writing of Peter Handke, especially The Left-Handed Woman. “What characterises” Strauss’ plays, she writes, is “the insistence that while the search may be something meaningful in itself, it can no longer produce any meaning.”
In his own Introductory Remarks to this volume, Sebald offered a fairly cool response to Strauss’ work:
Strauss may not have remained sufficiently resistant to the temptations of beautifully organised displays of despair, which can be as insincere as they are ostentatious. On the other hand it is true to say that Strauss does attempt to reflect the process which gave rise to the discontinuity in his dramatic inventions. His plays mark a phase of societal evolution where the dynamics of social intercourse have become almost entirely opaque and where conflict – the stuff of drama – can only be represented, figuratively, in terms of battles fought and lost many times before.
A play like Big and Small is a very gutsy undertaking for someone like Blanchett, but it’s clear why Lotte is so appealing as a character (Blanchett calls her “a female Candide”). Lotte is on stage nearly every minute of the more than two hour-long play and her mercurial emotions provide an extraordinary canvas on which to work. Lotte is a physically and emotionally demanding role as she teeters precariously between optimism and despair within the space of a single sentence.
Big and Small is in Paris until April 8, then moves to the Barbican in London from April 13-29, followed by stops in Austria and Germany.