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.
Helen Finch, one of the book’s editors (along with Lynn L. Wolff) writes about “Generational Conflicts, Generational Affinities: Broch, Adorno, Adler, Sebald.” Calling on Pierre Bordieu’s theory of literary capital, she looks at “the links between Adler and Sebald as part of a network of intellectual relationships that constituted the field of discourse in postwar Germany.” Ironically, even though Adler and Sebald represented different generations, both tried to jumpstart their literary careers early on by seeking the support of Theodor Adorno, the powerful faculty member of the influential Frankfurt School, whose theory of the dialectical nature of history and culture made him one of the leading gatekeepers of postwar critical thinking. Finch also looks at the different responses that Adler and Sebald had to one of Germany’s other leading writers, Hermann Broch, whose 1932 novel The Sleepwalkers is often viewed as portraying the steps by which Germany descended over the course of several decades into the state in which Nazi Socialism could flourish.
And in the concluding essay, Frank Finlay examines “‘Der verwerfliche Literatbetrieb unserer Epoche’: H.G. Adler and the Postwar West German Literary Field.” Finlay draws upon the correspondence between Adler and Heinrich Böll to delve into the question of why Adler repeatedly failed to attain the same literary status and readership that Böll attracted with his work.
Witnessing, Memory, Poetics is, in the final analysis, an important anthology, in part because it is as much about the two writers H.G. Adler and W.G. Sebald as it is about the subject that they attempted to write about – the Holocaust. The very nature of the Holocaust exacerbated the generational and personal differences between Adler and Sebald – the Jew and the non-Jew, the target of Nazi policies and the son of a German soldier, the concentration camp survivor and the boy who scarcely experienced the war. Adler and Sebald shared the goal of memorializing one of the monumental tragedies in human history, but circumstances demanded that they respond differently. But in truth, as we move further and further away from the Holocaust (which will be seventy years in the past for children born in 2015), we need both the testimony of Adler and his generation and the guidance of Sebald and others if this terrible event is to have any meaning whatsoever in the future.
Helen Finch and Lynn L. Wolff, editors. Witnessing, Memory, Poetics: H.G. Adler & W. G. Sebald. Rochester: Camden House, 2014. For all of my posts on this book, click here.