The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald edited by Lynne Sharon Schwartz Seven Stories Press 2007
Today, I came across a book review I wrote years ago for ascent magazine. The ideas in it have influenced poignantly my current PhD research, so I couldn't help but post it here. Funny, how the ghosts of our reading and writing past come back to haunt and inspire us!
Before his death at age 57 in a car crash, Sebald spent much of his literary and academic career unremittingly devouring and displacing the past. With a lyrical and elegiac style, his narrative tales of absence, dislocation, loss and suicide won him critical acclaim. However, his narratives and narration prove as unreliable as memory itself; his works resemble the search of a dog running through a field, or a mourner rummaging through a loved one’s closet. Seamlessly shifting from third to first person and weaving anecdotes and digressions without so much as a paragraph break, Sebald’s narratives leave it up to the reader to make sense of his haphazard patterning. In The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald, the writer-as-subject proves just as elusive as his writing. With contributors including Michael Hofmann, Tim Parks and Carole Angier, this multi-authored exploration of Sebald leaves the life and mind of the subject an evanescent mystery and, much like Sebald’s own writing, as fragile and ephemeral as a pearl of smoke.
Framing Sebald through the perspective of his own and others’ eyes, Schwartz evokes this intangible author by gathering pieces — much the way Sebald himself gathered pieces to compose his narratives. CBC journalist Eleanor Wachtel inquires in her interview on Sebald’s nature as a “ghost hunter.” The past possessing Sebald’s present and his identity as a German living in postwar Europe have compelled him to explore his nation’s “collective amnesia.” He unveils to her his impression of memory as a phenomenon emerging from the “fault line” that runs through our “physical and emotional makeup,” a line that exists between the natural world and our brains. Those “tectonic plates,” he tells us, “rub against each other” and pain and memory surface from the friction.
Editor and critic Ruth Franklin similarly envisions Sebald as a Charon of a dark underworld of the twentieth century. She writes that Sebald’s books “have been about bridging gaps and about the impossibility of bridging gaps — between memory and forgetting, between art and reality, between the living and the dead.” She sees his work resembling origami, folding and unfolding to her with twists of the fingertips. Reality and fiction tug at our sleeves, with photographs interspersed among his words offering a spectral presence, a presence of the departed, haunting and evocative. Yugoslavian poet, essayist and translator Charles Simic explores the “conspiracy of silence” around Sebald’s dark subject matters. He writes how Sebald simultaneously unveils and veils issues that history has wished to bury even when the suffering and sorrow of the past are trodden on the soil.
Reminded of my own devouring of Sebald’s narratives years ago when living in Prague, I enjoyed revisiting this evocation of the past. Sebald’s narratives resemble a Penelope-like embroidering and unraveling with memory the material instead of thread. His work vanishes almost as soon as it appears, undone by the opposing forces it seeks to mesh. In the illusory workings of art against memory, Sebald admits that sometimes blankness comes closer to the truth. His narratives turn into paradoxically both the preserver and destroyer of memory.