As I neared the end of Witnessing, Memory, Poetics: H.G. Adler & W.G. Sebald I began to feel a bit claustrophobic as a succession of scholars resolutely examined the relationships between these two writers. But the final section, “Literary Legacies and Networks,” introduced a new set of faces to the volume – Franz Kafka, Theodor Adorno, Hermann Broch, and Heinrich Böll. In the first of three essays in this section, Martin Modlinger examines “The Kafkaesque in H.G. Adler’s and W.G. Sebald’s Literary Historiographies.” Adler made numerous references to Kafka in his books and short stories and, significantly, warned against viewing Kafka primarily as a prophet of the Holocaust. Adler believed that “totalitarianism makes up just one chapter of many equal, disturbing developments in modern history that Kafka’s work addresses.” Although Sebald’s use of Kafka has been written about frequently, Modlinger brings some new insights of his own, comparing Jacques Austlitz’s inability to gain access a real understanding of Theresienstadt (where his mother perished) with the surveyor’s inability to penetrate the castle in Kafka’s novel The Castle.
As a place of suffering and death, [Theresienstadt] cannot – and should not – be fully accessible to the living. Where literature approaches history, especially the history of the Holocaust, it needs to keep its proper distance. For Sebald, literary historiography can never claim to be able to present the factual or emotional truth of suffering; it can only describe the path of necessary failure toward such an understanding.