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Posts from the ‘Audiobooks’ Category

Dramatizing Austerlitz

BBC3

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.

I Might Give Up Reading for This (Almost)

As a big fan of Georges Rodenbach’s novel Bruges-la-Morte, the first fictional work to include photographs, I’m delighted to learn about the LibriVox version of the book.  LibriVox (“accoustical liberation of books in the public domain”) creates free, easily downloadable audio books.  Because they use works that are in the public domain (at least within the US), many of the titles are fairly obscure.  Tucked in and around long-forgotten works like The Briefless Barrister by John Godfey Saxe and The Romance of Modern Chemistry (1910!) by James C. Philips, one can find other titles by Sophocles, William James, Wilkie Collins, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, just to name a few authors whose works were added in the month of July.

Take a listen to Bruges-la-Morte (in French), excellently read by “Ezwa.”

(Thanks, Anette!)

Die Ausgewanderten Audiobook

Ausgewanderten Audiobook

I’m grateful to a Vertigo reader for letting me know that W.G. Sebald’s book Die Ausgewanderten (The Emigrants) is available as a German-language audio book on 7 CDs, published by Winter & Winter.  The reader is Paul Herwig.  It can be ordered directly from their website.  It was apparently released in late 2007.

Previously, the Max Ferber section of Die Ausgewanderten was available on  a pair of CDs issued by Eichborn Verlag in 2000, with Sebald himself reading.

Sebald’s Voice

Max Ferber CD Cover

Audio CD
There are a couple of ways to listen to W.G. Sebald speaking or reading.  Sebald personally recorded only one audio CD during his lifetime – Max Ferber (Frankfurt am Main: Eichborn Verlag, 2000). In this double compact disc set, Sebald reads in German from the “Max Ferber” section of Die Ausgewanderten.

Max Ferber CD Insides

KCRW Interview
Sebald can also be heard in a superb interview conducted on December 6, 2001 by Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW radio’s exceptional “Bookworm” program. In this thirty-minute interview, held only eight days before the automobile accident that killed Sebald, he talks at length about his debt to Thomas Bernhard, who he feels was practically the only German-language author to have not compromised his writing. To be morally compromised, Sebald says, ultimately leads to being aesthetically “insufficient.” Sebald describes Bernhard’s style as a “periscopic form of writing” in that he only tells you what he sees – nothing more, nothing less – a style Sebald uses to some extent in Austerlitz. It is a great pleasure to listen to Sebald’s voice and his immaculate, slightly obsolete English responses to Silverblatt’s intelligent observations and questions.  Click here to go to the Sebald interview on Bookworm.

Sebald at 92nd Street Y

Reading at 92nd Street Y
On October 15, 2001, a few weeks before the radio interview mentioned above, Sebald gave a public reading at New York’s 92nd Street Y, which can be seen on YouTube.  The video is 49:23 long.  Sebald introduces his just-published book Austerlitz for about five minutes and then reads for twenty-five minutes from the section in which Jacques Austerlitz and Marie travel to the spa town of Marienbad.  That selection is not only a very important part of the book, it’s an interesting one to watch Sebald read since it contains segments in both French and German and so we hear Sebald actually reading in three different languages.

That night at the 92nd Street Y, Sebald shared the stage with Susan Sontag and so they are seen sharing the question-and-answer period.  Sontag is asked about her admiration for Nabokov and to elaborate on the consequences of the controversial essay she wrote for The New Yorker immediately after 9/11.

Sebald is shown answering two questions.  The first has to do with his use of photographs.  He explains that often the photographs precede the writing as was the case with the cover image for Austerlitz, which was “the point of departure” for the whole book.   Sebald says that photographs “hold up the flow of discourse” in the text, slowing down the reader’s path down the “negative gradient” of a book.  All books must come to an end, therefore the book is inherently an “apocalyptic structure.”  Photographs also serve as an affirmation to the reader that the story is based in truth.  But, at the same time, “pictures can be used as means of forgery” and Sebald confesses to have tampered with “not a few” in his books and he admits that he uses photographs to “develop complex games of hide and seek.”  Sebald notes that historic photographs “demand” that the reader address the lost lives they represent.

The second question posed to Sebald had to do with translation and why he uses a translator.  In the midst of his response, Sebald mentions that authors occasionally have to “intervene” with a translator and he hints – not for the first time – that he had to do so himself.  As to why he uses a translator, he offered two reasons.  He doesn’t completely trust his English and, because feels he is running out of time, he doesn’t want to spend his days translating himself.  He says he “sees the horizon.”  (Two months later he was dead.)

The final question was addressed to both Sontag and Sebald: What is their favorite book of the ones they’ve published.  Sontag: “the last two novels” Volcano Lover and In America.  Sebald’s answer is to say that “books written look like abandoned children” and so he cannot pick a favorite.  But there are certain rare sections of his books that are his favorites, namely those pages that came to him “without hesitation”.  Here, Sebald talks a bit about the “Il ritorno in patria” section of Vertigo, which flowed from pencil to pad.

[This post updated August 2013.]