The Darkness That Gives Back Nothing
the dead, they are always with us. W.G. Sebald
On the final three pages of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, the narrator concludes his story of Jacques Austerlitz by summarizing a book that Austerlitz had given him earlier – Heshel’s Kingdom by Dan Jacobson. I recently finished rereading Heshel’s Kingdom after a lapse of several years and I was even more impressed the second time around.
“This is not an autobiography,” Jacobson writes. “Of the many threads that run through my earliest years, I intend to follow only one: that of the connection I had, or did not have, to the distant part of the world where my parents had come from.” South African born Jacobson attributes his own existence to the fact that his maternal grandfather Heshel Melamed died prematurely, forcing his mother’s family to emigrate from Lithuania to South Africa in 1920, where she would eventually meet her future husband. Mildly but persistently curious about the grandfather he never knew, Jacobson would question family members or do some research to try to comprehend Heshel’s life as a village rabbi. But with each attempt he resigned himself to feeling that he could not bridge the gulf between his life and his grandfather’s. At one point he tries on his grandfather’s eyeglasses only to find “it was a kind of torture to look at the world through his spectacles.”
The first half of Heshel’s Kingdom is about the failure of the imagination. For most of his life Jacobson could only imagine the Eastern Europe where his grandparents had lived and his parents had been born as a kind of black hole of terror – pure, undiluted terror. Every relative and every friend of his relatives who had stayed in Lithuania had perished. “Is it possible to have ‘roots’ in such an abyss? I think not.” Describing the open pit mines near where he grew up in Kimberley, South Africa, Jacobson writes: “That is what the past is like: echoless and bottomless. Only its shallowest levels, those closest to us, have recognizable colours and forms. So we fix our gaze there. Below them is a darkness that gives back nothing.”
Sometime in the 1990s, when he was in his sixties, Jacobson finally went to Lithuania, accompanied by his son. Uncertain of what he will find and deeply afraid that the trip will not lead to understanding, he nevertheless plunges into visits to historical museums, Jewish cemeteries, the villages where his family originated, the sites where Jews were massacred by the Nazis and their local collaborators. At first he is puzzled and disappointed that almost nothing remains of the past he wants to find. But before he realizes it, his skepticism gives way to a vigorous engagement with the past. Small epiphanies draw him further and further into Lithuania’s landscape and its history.
“How shaming it was that I had to visit the country where these things had been done, and go to some of the places where the murdering took place, to feel the horror of it so intently.” Jacobson’s ultimate realization – one obviously shared by Sebald – is that place matters. It makes no difference if a place is emptied of every sign of the past, stripped of every trace of its historical violence – place, in collaboration with the imagination, serves to make the connections necessary to understanding the past.
So this is not a story in which a series of riddles is proposed in order to have them resolved in the last chapter, as in a detective novel. Nor is it one of a mystical reunion beyond the grave. On the other hand, I did learn something about my grandfather I had not expected beforehand; it had not even occurred to me that it might be possible to do so. Looking about me in Lithuania, searching for him in the midst of a devastating absence and emptiness, I was surprised to find myself grasping for the first time the full reality to itself of the obliterated community he had belonged to. Seeing him in the context of his vanished people, of the nation that is now not, I began to understand for the first time how it could once have seemed to him sufficient; as much as he needed; as much as a man like himself could expect to find on God’s unredeemed earth.
It’s easy to see why Sebald was so sympathetic to Jacobson’s modest, almost self-denigrating voice, his willingness to turn minor events (even non-events) into moments of deep meaning, his abiding belief in the power of evidence, and his pessimism. “Evil can never be quantified or aggregated. It can only be inflicted and suffered.” And: “Only the globe’s most uninhabitable wastes remain wholly innocent and undefiled.” These are sentiments that run through Sebald’s writings, as well.
Here’s how Austerlitz ends:
Sitting by the moat of the fortress of Breendonk, I read to the end of the fifteenth chapter of Heshel’s Kingdom, and then set out on my way back to Mechelen, reaching the town as evening began to fall.