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Posts from the ‘Witnessing Memory Poetics (Book)’ Category

Literary Legacies & Networks – Witnessing, Memory, Poetics, Pt 4

Witnessing

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.

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“The fight against oblivion and silence” – Witnessing, Memory, Poetics, Pt. 3

Witnessing

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. Read more

“The Poetics of Witnessing” – Witnessing, Memory, Poetics, Pt. 2

Witnessing

In the second section of the new book Witnessing, Memory, Poetics: H.G. Adler & W.G. Sebald, edited by Helen Finch and Lynn L. Wolff, we find essays by Katrin Kohl, Kirstin Gwyer, and Lynn L. Wolff grouped under the rubric “Witnessing Trauma and the Poetics of Witnessing.” The first essay is Katrin Kohl’s “Bearing Witness: The Poetics of H.G. Adler and W.G. Sebald.” Using as a touchstone Theodore Adorno’s now-infamous statement that “to write poetry after Aushwitz is barbaric,” Kohl examines how Adler and Sebald cope with the ethical issues of “bearing witness” through their poetry and fiction, focusing mostly on Adler’s novel Eine Reise (The Journey) and exclusively on Sebald’s Austerlitz. The principal contrast, of course, is that Adler was a survivor of the concentration camps while Sebald’s life was essentially untouched by the war or the concentration camps. Read more

Witnessing, Memory, Poetics

Witnessing

Toward the end of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Jacques Austerlitz tells the book’s narrator that he has just read a “heavy tome, running to almost eight hundred close-printed pages, which H.G. Adler, a name previously unknown to me, had written between 1945 and 1947 in the most difficult of circumstances, partly in Prague and partly in London, on the subject of the setting up, development, and internal organization of the Theresienstadt ghetto, and which he had revised several times before it was brought out by a German publishing house in 1955…” It was a struggle for Austerlitz to understand the difficult German and he often spent an entire day translating a single page. “I might as well say it was almost as difficult for me as deciphering an Egyptian or Babylonian text in hieroglyphic or cuneiform script. The long compounds, not listed in my dictionary, which were obviously being spawned the whole time by the pseudo-technical jargon governing everything in Theresienstadt had to be unraveled syllable by syllable.” But Austerlitz persisted until the end and “read down to the last footnote,”anxious to absorb every detail of the terrible place where he had been imprisoned and where his mother had perished. Sebald’s retelling of Adler’s seminal study Theresienstadt 1941-1945: Das Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft. Geschichte, Soziologie, Psychologie,embodied in a single sentence some ten pages long, has resulted in new and widespread interest in Adler’s books, most of which had languished during his lifetime before falling into oblivion.

Hans Günther Adler was born in Prague in 1910. In 1941 he and his family were sent by the Nazis to a Jewish workcamp, then to Theresienstadt, where they remained for two and a half years before being moved to Auschwitz. Adler was the sole member of his family to survive the Holocaust. At the end of the war, he began his immensely detailed study of Theresienstadt, which was finally published in 1955. Taking up residence in London, he eventually produced more than twenty books, including the three novels. Until recently, none of Adler’s books were available in English translation, but by the end of 2014, it will be possible to read all three of his published novels in English for the first time thanks to Modern Library: The Journey (2009), Panorama (2012), and The Wall (December 2014).

In October 2012, a conference was held in London on the subject H.G. Adler/W.G. Sebald: Witnessing, Memory, Poetics, coordinated by Helen Finch and Lynn L. Wolff. Thankfully, Camden House has just published a volume of essays that emerged from the conference: Witnessing, Memory, Poetics: H.G. Adler & W.G. Sebald. In the first section of the book we hear from Finch and Wolff, Adler’s son Jeremy Adler, Adler’s translator Peter Filkins, and scholar Jo Catling. Read more