This is the third of four posts on the recently published anthology Witnessing, Memory, Poetics: H.G. Adler & W.G. Sebald, edited by Helen Finch and Lynn L. Wolff. The third section of the volume is “Memory, Memorialization, and the Re-presentation of History”and contains two essays, the first being Dora Osbourne’s “Memory, Witness, and the (Holocaust) Museum in H.G. Adler and W.G. Sebald.” With their occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939, the Nazis converted Prague’s Central Jewish Museum into a storehouse for material goods confiscated from the city’s Jewish population. It also served as a private museum for Nazi officials, offering “a grotesque parody [of] the traditions of the Jewish people” that portrayed them as an inferior race. After the war, however, H.G. Adler worked at the Museum for almost two years, participating in the restoration of its original function and collecting new objects for the purpose of building “an archive of persecution and of Theresienstadt,” the nearby concentration camp/ghetto. Osbourne examines the way in which the Museum functions in two of Adler’s novels – indirectly in The Journey and directly in The Wall.
Ruth Vogel-Klein’s essay “History, Emotions, Literature: The Representation of Theresienstadt in H.G. Adler’s Theresienstadt 1941-1945: Das Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz” has two primary goals. The first is to suggest that Adler’s so-called “documentary” book is actually more literary and more emotional than Sebald and others have claimed. She demonstrates how Adler injects elements of sympathy, fear, accusation, pity, and moral indignity into his writing, which he viewed as a paradigm of sober impartiality. Her second goal is to assert that Sebald “subverts elements of Adler’s text in several ways” by insisting that Adler wrote in a “purely documentary mode.” This is not surprising. As we have seen in his essays in Logis in einem Landhaus (A Place in the Country), Sebald – like most writers and artists – gleans only selectively from those he views as his predecessors. Vogel-Klein concludes:
Adler is very far from Sebald’s melancholy world. The Theresienstadt camp is for Adler a warning, while for Sebald, it appears to be the confirmation of a malign world order. One element does connect both authors however: the fight against oblivion and silence which is carried out unceasingly and with ever new and increasing energy.
Helen Finch & Lynn L. Wolff, editors. Witnessing, Memory, Poetics: H.G. Adler & W.G. Sebald. Rochester. NY: Camden House, 2014. Here is a link to all of my posts on this book.
Almost a year ago I wrote about Will Stone’ book of poetry Glaciation, which includes a poem entitled SS Fort Breendonk, dedicated “In memory of WG Sebald.” (Glaciation, by the way, recently won the 2008 Glen Dimplex Prize for poetry from the Irish Writers’ Centre.) In a few days the British film magazine Vertigo will publish poet Will Stone’s new essay At Risk of Interment – WG Sebald in Terezin and Breendonk, which deals with the holocaust-related aspects of Sebald’s book Austerlitz. Stone’s essay will includes his own photos of Breendonk.
It would be easy to miss Rick Poynor’s piece on W.G. Sebald called Writing in Pictures, which feels somewhat misplaced in his book Designing Pornotopia: Travels in Visual Culture (NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006). Who would think of finding something about Sebald in a book that promotes itself as an exploration of “the past decade of advertising and design and the invasion of sexual imagery into everyday life”? Designing Pornotopia is largely about graphic design, architecture, men’s magazines, and fashion. Nevertheless, Writing in Pictures, Poynor’s multi-layered reflection on Austerlitz, and his brief history of the cover designs for J.G. Ballard’s cult book Crash (1973) should not be overlooked.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, typographers and book designers are intrigued by the challenge of the embedded photographs in Sebald’s books, so it really is not a surprise that Poynor would write about Sebald, as he has done in several places that are easily found online. Poynor calls Sebald “one of the greatest European writers of recent years” and he feels that Austerlitz is a “masterpiece” and represents “Sebald’s most sophisticated marriage of writing and imagery.” In Writing in Pictures, he intelligently addresses Sebald as a “brilliantly visual” writer, both in his prose and his use of photographs. Poynor zeros in on one of the central issues in Sebald’s work: memory. “His eye records with photographic accuracy and then these perceptions are recovered from memory and reconstituted as fictional experience with the same exhilaratingly scrupulous fidelity.” Although he doesn’t elaborate, Poynor is suggesting that a necessary transformation has occurred when experiences re-emerge from memory.
Poynor, who is extremely interested in Sebald’s use of photography, extracts a revealing comment Sebald made in an interview: “I’ve always collected stray photographs; there’s a great deal of memory in them.” The question this raises for me is: are these two types of memories the same? Do the memories drawn from experience function the same as memories drawn from photographs – especially these “stray” photographs (by which I assume he means the anonymous photographs he collected in flea markets and antique stores)? To some extent, this depends on what kind of memories Sebald referred to when he talked about his “stray photographs.” Was he selecting photographs that invoked his own memories, that reminded him of something in his own experience? Or was he suggesting that some element of the original owner’s memory is contained in and transferable from photographs? I think it is fair to say that memory is the central process in Sebald’s work, but I don’t think memory is limited to one function.
[Pages 194-5 of Austerlitz]
In an appropriately Sebaldian move, Poynor visited Terezin (or Theresienstadt), the Czech Jewish ghetto and concentration camp that is a key location in Austerlitz, while attending a conference in Prague in 2004. He was curious “to find out how closely Sebald’s description of the town compared with reality.” He was especially interested in especially the two sequences of photographs undoubtedly taken by Sebald which appear between pages 190 and 197 of the American edition. The first is a series of four photographs of doorways, ending with “the brutal last door, with its heavy iron bands, [which] cannot fail to suggest a death-camp gas chamber, although no such thing is stated in the text.” The second series depicts the window displays of a store called the Antikos Bazar on the town square. Poynor re-photographed in color some of the locations shown in Austerlitz and he includes three of his own versions in Writing with Pictures.