In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks and as police turn their attention to Brussels – especially its Molenbeek neighborhood – I couldn’t help but recall a long and prescient section in Teju Cole’s novel Open City (Random House), which I wrote about when it was published in 2011. For more than fifty pages (one-fifth of the book), Julius, the half-Nigerian, half-German narrator, lingers in Brussels, ostensibly searching for more information about his oma, his grandmother, who had moved there many years earlier. But most of the time he loiters, walks the city, hangs around the predominantly immigrant neighborhoods, and visits an Internet cafe to keep up on emails and to make telephone calls. Julius is surprised at the extent to which “Islam, in its conservative form, was on constant view” in Brussels, even more so than back home in New York City. Julius enjoys Brussels’ vibrant, diverse population, but also is aware that there have been a number of ugly incidents, hate crimes against Africans and Muslims. During his repeated visits to the Internet cafe, he becomes friendly with Farouq, a Moroccan who seems to run the place. Over conversations that begin casually but quickly turn up in intensity, the two talk about their backgrounds, literature, and politics. They discuss Sharia law, Israel and the Palestine situation, Hamas and Hezbollah, the Belgian literary theorist Paul De Man, and the Moroccan writers Mohamed Choukri and Tahar Ben Jelloun. Julius eventually learns that Farouq had nearly completed his M.A. in critical theory (he had once dreamt of being the next Edward Said), but his thesis committee accused him of plagiarism and Farouq quit school angrily. “I lost all my illusions about Europe.” Read more
Posts from the ‘Teju Cole’ Category
At the University of East Anglia’s #NewWriting website, former Sebald student Luke Williams has posted his article A Watch on Each Wrist: Twelve Seminars with W.G. Sebald, which originally appeared in the anthology Saturn’s Moons: W.G. Sebald – A Handbook. Williams’ vivid recollections of Sebald, the professor, provide wonderful and insightful reading. His essay gets its title from the fact that he would observe Sebald apparently wearing two wrist watches in class. “Why two watches? Why one digital and one analogue? Why was the analogue watch turned face down? I didn’t know.” The answer, which I found quite quite surprising, is revealed at #NewWriting in the comments section. So, click here to make your way over there and read Williams’ piece.
At the always-worth-reading Los Angeles Review of Books there is an essay called Imperfect Strollers: Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, and W.G. Sebald, and the Alienated Cosmopolitan by Michelle Kuo and Albert Wu. I’ve written about both Lerner and Cole.
What ultimately drives Sebald’s narrator is not doubt, but desire: to believe in a shadow world; to find evidence of it in the wondrous impossibilities of the natural world; to tell stories of metamorphosis, and therefore to imagine the indestructibility of soul, being, or spirit. Through these desires, we escape the mourning that we each have equally inherited. Thus, unlike Cole and Lerner, Sebald does choose a position from where his narrator speaks. In grief yet also in wonder, he invites us to observe alongside him. What certainties arise from his observations? The history of our world, for Sebald, is like a thread of a thousand yards woven by silkworm. Our recent past has broken it irrevocably.
Melilah: Manchester Journal of Jewish Studies 2012 Supplement 2 is devoted to Memory, Traces and the Holocaust in the Writings of W.G. Sebald, edited by Jean-Marc Dreyfus and Janet Wolff. (Yes, the official title given at the website and on the magazine title page doesn’t match the title shown on the sample cover.) At Melilah’s website, the entire issue can be downloaded as a PDF for free. Here’s the list of contents:
- Memory, Traces and the Holocaust in the Writings of W.G. Sebald by Jean-Marc Dreyfus and Janet Wolff
- ‘And So They Are Ever Returning to Us, the Dead:The Presence of the Dead in W.G. Sebald by Carole Angier
- Kindertransport, Camps and the Holocaust in Austerlitz by Jean-Marc Dreyfus
- The Peripatetic Paragraph:Walking (and Walking) with W.G. Sebald by Monica B. Pearl
- I Couldn’t Imagine Any World Outside Wales: The Place of Wales and Welsh Calvinist Methodism in Sebald’s European Story by Jeremy Gregory
- Utter Blackness: Figuring Sebald’s Manchester by John Sears
- Max Ferber and the Persistence of Pre-Memory in Mancunian Exile by Janet Wolff
- The Uses of Images: W.G. Sebald & T.J. Clark by Helen Hills
- Novel Crime, Hunting and Investigation of the Trace in Sebald’s Prose by Muriel Pic
- Notes on Contributors
Finally, to continue the Manchester theme, I’m going to make a link to something I wrote in 2011. I was invited to submit an essay to the French magazine Ligeia: Dossiers Sur L’Art for an issue devoted to “Ruines, Photo & Histoire.” My essay The Silent Catastrophe: Sebald’s Manchester, was published as La Catastrophe Muette, translated by Zaha Redman. I’m putting the previously unpublished English version up on Vertigo here.
Five Dials #26 is focused on German writing, with a number of new short stories by young German writers, plus three essays on W.G. Sebald: Uwe Schutte’s “Teaching by Example,” Amanda Hopkinson’s “A History of Memory or a Memory of History?,” and Anthea Bell’s “A Translator’s View.” These essays are three of the five originally commissioned and aired by BBC radio one year ago. (The two essays not reprinted here are those of Christopher Bigsby and Georges Szirtes.)
Helen Finch has added her thoughts to the discussion about the recent BBC radio dramatization of Austerlitz in a blog post wonderfully called “Sebald was more interesting than the husband: Austerlitz and l’effet du réel.” Finch makes the case that we should be judging the radio drama on whether or not it contains “the emotional truth” of the original book.
If Michael Butt tried to present the emotional truth of Austerlitz, as he felt it, in his radio drama, who is to say that his classic BBC drama version, complete with slamming doors and tearjerking music, does not represent that important affective aspect of Sebald’s work which might otherwise be lost behind his complex irony and academic erudition? Or is it the case that if we allow ourselves to be bewitched by Sebald’s artistry into thinking that his work is just a reproduction of the real, nothing more and nothing less, we have consigned ourselves to the realm of kitsch that is the death of art?
Over at The White Review is a nice piece by Will Stone called “Oradour-sur-Glane: Reflections on the Culture of Memorial in Europe” that speaks to some of Sebald’s preoccupations in Austerlitz with Holocaust sites, architecture, and memorials.
Entering Oradour and obeying bold signs to the memorial ruins, I was surprised to find myself in a vast car park, a limitless expanse of tarmac, more suited one would think to a sports complex or shopping mall. There on the sleek asphalt of the car park I observed luxury coaches with their tinted glass and climate controlled interiors spill their chattering cargoes, just as they will now in the newly constructed ‘reception area’ at Auschwitz I in Poland. Cars of suntanned visitors parked obediently between the freshly painted lines, disembarked and moved off all in the same direction, as if drawn by some unspecified magnetic source towards the giant modern bunker of a building that sat in a kind of man-made hollow. I realised as I followed them down the smart new concrete steps to the lower level that this was a relatively new visitors centre, inaugurated in 1999 by President Chirac, a largely superfluous building, the new scourge of every memorial site in Europe, whether merely ruins or formal cemetery. For today it is considered not quite enough to have solely the memorial itself before which to contemplate man’s destructive capability, the intricacies of murderous folly and the resulting nerve straining conclusion. Again and again some shadowy authority slips in between the individual and their private purpose and imposes an artificial construction in their path, which they have to wade through, straddle or circumnavigate before they can get back to the path they thought they were on.
Did Teju Cole deliberately write twelve essays in twenty twelve? I wouldn’t put it past him. Here are links to each and every one.
I’m sure of nothing, and writing essays is one of the ways I sort through my doubts.
And finally, among the books we can look forward to in 2013 is Jo Catling’s translation of Sebald’s important book A Place in the Country (originally Logis in einem Landhaus, by WG Sebald. According to The Guardian, the book is due to be released in Great Britain by Hamish Hamilton/Penguin May 2, but Amazon doesn’t have the US edition coming out from Random House until January 2014. It looks as if Random House is going to use the same cover as the German edition, which is a beautiful watercolor by the Swiss writer Gottfried Keller, who is the subject of one of the biographic essays in this. The only place I can currently find an image of a possible Hamish Hamilton cover is over at the New Books in German website, which shows something entirely different for the UK edition.
It feels premature to say that Teju Cole’s Open City is a profound novel, but it may just be. Infused with ideas, politics, history, literature and music (especially Mahler), Open City is intelligent, elegiac, beautifully written, and ambitious. Cole is a keen and astute observer of the complex concoction that makes up contemporary life and he slides easily between the micro and the macro. With the theme of immigration at its core, Open City tackles such topics as the politics of fearful post 9/11 America, radical Islam, post-colonial Africa, and a Europe that is getting crushed between its past and its future.
Julius, an immigrant from Nigeria who is of mixed German and Nigerian parentage, is in New York studying to become a psychiatrist. He is something of a loner with no apparent close friends, although people naturally open up to him, talk to him, tell him their story. Julius’ first-person narrative is written in hauntingly simple, almost documentary prose. It’s strength is the clarity with which it slowly, effortlessly exposes Julius’ mind to us in a way that becomes startlingly intimate before we even realize it. Perhaps Cole’s greatest success in Open City is his creation of Julius, who is one of the most vulnerable characters I can remember.
In his free time, Julius wanders the city by foot and by subway, describing what he sees and hears and thinks, giving us, among other gifts, a remarkable panoramic image of New York City and its history. Julius clearly loves his adopted city but he is dedicated to scraping below the veneer for the ghosts of New York’s shameful past. Like the wanderings of W.G. Sebald, Cole’s perambulations move through time as well as space. In one typical scene, Julius is in Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan, where “the Tetris-like line of buildings sat in the still afternoon air.” While women watch their children enjoy the playground there, Julius recounts the history of the slave trade that operated out of the city’s ports, bringing riches to the city’s bankers and merchants even well after slave trading became unlawful.
Although it takes place predominantly in New York, Open City also follows Julius on an extended trip to Brussels during a half-hearted attempt to locate his maternal grandmother. And it is there – not in New York – that Cole uses the phrase “open city.”
…there had been no firebombing of Bruges, or Ghent, or Brussels. Surrender, of course, played a role in this form of survival, as did negotiation with invading powers. Had Brussels’s rulers not opted to declare it an open city and thereby exempt it from bombardment during the Second World War, it might have been reduced to rubble.
An open city, then, is both guilty and saved. Or perhaps it must be guilty in order to be saved. Julius never makes it clear if he thinks Brussels’s decision was an act of shame or of realpolitik. (Perhaps it was both.) Open City deals with heady contemporary issues and throughout Julius is confronted with people who want to pigeonhole his identity and who want to recruit him to their vision or their cause. Africans claim his identity and heritage (even though he is half German), African Americans call him brother, Islamists try to radicalize him, but almost uniformly Julius wants no part of causes or labels.
The Buddhas smiled at the scene with familiar serenity, and all the smiles seemed to be one smile, that of those who had stepped beyond human worries, the archaic smile that also played on the lips on the funeral steles of Greek kouroi, smiles that portended not pleasure but rather total detachment.
Nevertheless, on at least one occasion, Julius wonders if his intense desire to maintain neutrality isn’t simply a mask for indecision.
It was a cause, and I was distrustful of causes, but it was also a choice, and I found my admiration for decisive choice increasing, because I was so essentially indecisive myself.
And elsewhere, at what seems like the crucial point toward which the entire novel has been headed:
A cancerous violence had eaten into every political idea, had taken over the ideas themselves, and for so many, all that mattered was the willingness to do something. Action led to action, free of any moorings, and the way to be someone, the way to catch the attention of the young and recruit them to one’s cause, was to be enraged. It seemed as if the only way this lure of violence could be avoided was by having no causes, by being magnificently isolated from all loyalties. But was that not an ethical lapse graver than rage itself?
Reviewers, along with one of the book’s blurb writers, Anthony Doerr, have been mentioning Teju Cole in the same sentence with W.G. Sebald (among other writers), and there are certainly many points that will bear comparison. But make no mistake about it, Cole is a strong new and independent voice and he is making his own determined way as a writer.
In January 2008, I wrote about his Cole’s first novel Every Day Is for the Thief, which was published in Nigeria. During a return visit to his homeland, the narrator begins to nurture his desire to be a writer. I wrote then:
In an internet cafe the narrator discovers the world of the “419 yahoo yahoos” (named after the section of the criminal code they violate), the young men whose endless email scams clog the in-boxes of computers around the globe. Horrified, yet fascinated, he begins to glimpse the creativity, hope, and persistence that is spawned by Nigeria’s desperation. The narrator, who has aspirations to be a writer, slowly realizes that there is a “wealth of stories available here” and no one to tell them. Like his literary heroes Michael Ondaatje, Vikram Seth, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he muses on the possibility of telling those stories himself.
And now he has done just that.