Friday, December 25, 2009

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald

The strange thing about Sebald is the double voice I hear when I read it; there is the voice of the text - so clean and precise - and then a second, which is warm and fuzzy - the voice of an older man.  I've never read a book that I imagined so strongly as sound.

I love the way that Sebald writes.  Somehow his concrete descriptions swallow the metaphors and imagery, so that no matter how extraordinary they are I read them as muted, the tone smooth, sort of damp.  Like here: "He said that he could see things then with the greatest clarity, as one sees them in dreams, things he had not thought he still had within him, doubtless because he himself was small, but also because the shelves reached all the four meters up to the ceiling.  The light in the emporium, coming through the small transom windows let into the tops of the display window backboards, was dim even on the brightest of days..."

Here's another: "ever since I had once visited Munich I had felt nothing to be so unambiguously linked to the word city as the presence of heaps of rubble fire-scorched walls, and the gaps of windows through which one could see the vacant air."

The blurb on the back of the book says that Sebald had a "quarrel" with Proust (I can only assume that the word quarrel is meant to signify respectful disagreement - although, actually, it occurs to me that Proust would have had different feelings about memory if he'd had the kind of memories that Sebald writes about) and I have a note scrawled on page 141 of my book: "the quarrel is this: for Proust, memory brings completion, wholeness.  Sebald seems to see memory as destructive - almost an active force.  His precision may be an attempt to subdue memory, to tame it, order it, make it unnatural and foreign."

The book is really haunting.  Of course, not unlike Proust, it's an excavation - a search for lost time - an attempt to attach images, places, names to stories told by dead and dying friends.  To fill out details and gaps.  But everywhere, the people Sebald meets are passionately dedicated to the destruction of the past.  Destroying themselves (it's a book full of suicides), destroying the houses that sheltered the horrors.  But it doesn't do them any good, they can't escape.  They surround themselves with debris, like Ferber haunting the periphery of the rotting asylum, or the doctor eating the fruits of the abandoned garden.

The conclusion, at the end, is that the only thing worse than remembering is willing forgetfulness ("I felt increasingly that the mental impoverishment and lack of memory that marked the Germans, and the efficiency with which they had cleaned everything up, were beginning to affect my head and my nerves").

If you do not remember, you are contemptible...but if you do, you are doomed.

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