Big Loves: Andrew Allport on W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz

_MG_1814_BW_smallToday’s contributor to Big Loves is Andrew Allport. Andrew is the author of the book the body | of space | in the shape of the human (New Issues Press, 2012) and the chapbook The Ice Ship & Other Vessels (Proem Press, 2008). He holds a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California, and lives in Colorado.

I began reading Austerlitz in the fall of 2001 on a train heading east from Geneva, up the Interlaken valley and eventually to the tiny station at Hasliberg-Hohfluh, in the middle of the Swiss Alps. I had forsaken the United States after the 2000 election, which, as I saw it, had exposed a political system dependent on money and ignorance, offering two candidates whose inability to distinguish themselves from each other only underscored the fact that no substantial difference existed. In short, I was young: naïve, quick to judge others, and life in America seemed to involve an intolerable compromise of principle in order to survive.

The first uncanny quality of the book was that it, too, was populated by emigrants. The plot, such as it is, involves an unnamed German-born narrator who teaches in Britain, and the history of his chance encounters and interviews with Jacques Austerlitz, who is only gradually learning the story of his own life. It isn’t fiction, or at least it isn’t recognizable as fiction, but its symbolic structure is of a kind only possible through fiction—that is to say, through the reader’s apprehension of something unsaid. You never know the narrator’s background (you might assume he and W.G. Sebald are the same person), but as you follow him and hear the story of Austerlitz, as you pass through towns in Wales, Holland, Germany and France, you grow slowly aware of recurring images (sometimes these are actual photographs): doorways, lakes, monumental buildings, eyes, signs in foreign languages. Sometimes the photographs are explained by the surrounding text, but mostly their connections are implicit, and any specific relation to place and time is overridden by their resemblance to each other; Sebald seems only to be documenting a landscape of uncanny similarities. In this way, it’s closer to the experience of reading poetry than prose. But the cadences of the book are those of prose; the Sebaldian sentence, sometimes extravagantly long, often begins with an initial supposition that is gradually eroded by the speaker’s doubt and hesitancy, until the only firm ground is the grammar and rhythm of writing itself:

If language may be regarded as an old city full of streets and squares, nooks and crannies, with some quarters dating from far back in time while others have been torn down, cleaned up, and rebuilt, and with suburbs reaching further and further into the surrounding country, then I was like a man who has been abroad a long time and cannot find his way through this urban sprawl anymore, no longer knows what a bus stop is for, or what a back yard is, or a street junction, an avenue or a bridge….All I could think was that such a sentence only appears to mean something, but is in truth at best a makeshift expedient, a kind of unhealthy growth issuing from our ignorance, something which we use, in the same way as many sea plants and animals use their tentacles, to grope blindly through the darkness enveloping us.

In Austerlitz, no one lives in the present; the past is the only relevant territory. Therefore, nothing happens that has not already happened, and the movement of the narrative depends not on rising action, but uncovering what has already been done—monstrous things, most of the time. The confusion and passivity that such a structure engenders in its characters is, I think, an accurate reflection of how we perceive our position in relation to our vast ignorance: as creatures living in the darkness of an ocean floor, reaching out with tentacle and voice. For Sebald, the only possible representation of atrocity is the representation of its lack of representation: illustrating the ways that the unspoken crimes of fathers and grandfathers lie just beneath the surface of civic life. When the narrator travels to Nuremberg, he notices sturdy shoes and a mania for tidy yards and streets, and he remarks, “I could not see a crooked line anywhere…nor was there any other trace of past history.”

The second uncanny moment: on the afternoon of September 11, 2001, I had taken a walk down the mountain to the grocery store, where I filled up a backpack with bread, coffee, cheese, salami, chocolate and tuna fish to last the week. I decided to take the tram back up, since the walk from the station, while equally long, would be along the flat path that traversed the mountain. An old man with thick glasses and a purple scarf was listening to a hand-held radio in the tram, and through the fog of my poor German I could make out the outline of a small plane accident in New York City. In the following days I called family and friends in New York, and when I could finally access the internet, I watched the impact and collapse of the towers on Youtube, the streaking shapes of men and women jumping from the highest floors. Then I listened to a song that someone had written and sent to me—It’ll never be the same again, it went. Everyone I talked to seemed angry, resolved, fearful. I didn’t feel any of this; I had been reading Walter LaFeber’s Inevitable Revolutions and the COINTELPRO Papers, and to my mind, the government had amassed such a record of atrocity that a retaliatory attack was, if not deserved, unsurprising.aust photo

Needless to say, this position alienated me even further from American political discourse. It was with a mixture of companionship and awe that I kept turning back to Austerlitz, whose observations about architecture and capitalism seemed eerily prescient on 9/11: “outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.” I admit that this kind of language may strike some as intolerably abstracted from the actual events, and if this passage struck me at that moment as an insight into the falling towers, it was an insight made possible by my vantage point of safe remove. However, Sebald’s genius, like Virginia Woolf’s, endows abstraction with morality; like Woolf, he writes a mannered prose that is both aesthetically conservative and politically radical. For me, Austerlitz and Sebald revealed a new mode of political expression, relying on the tools of literature rather than the tools of rhetoric, and whose final goal is a recuperation of the truth, rather than an accusation of the lying parties. As he writes in “An Attempt at Restitution,” “There are many different kinds of writing…only in literature, however, can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of facts, and over and above scholarship.” History will be reshaped and retold, and facts, of course, can change with power and influence; literature confirms what remains unknown.

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