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.
Follow this link for more information at the BBC website.