Waiting for the Trapdoor of Memory: Iain Sinclair on Sebald
“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.