I already knew about the Rhodes protests before I left Leeds. I had been sent an email by our South African colleague, telling us that the University of Cape Town was alive with student activists protesting at the slow pace … Continue reading
Sabbatical came to an end, and with it the spare time and reflective capacity for regular blogging. This makes me sad, and my new year’s resolution is to communicate far more on this blog, for there are many brilliant projects I would love to share with you and hear your input on. In lieu of a proper narrative post, I am going to give you what has become known as a listicle; a list of all the books I read this year, on trains, planes and late at night, when I wasn’t reading articles or academic books. The Holocaust novels were work books, but the rest were read for pleasure, if only, I fear, the childish pleasure of sneering, in some cases.
Novels about the Holocaust
Der Siebente Brunnen, by Fred Wander was probably the best, Ruth Klüger’s unterwegs verloren was as well as a memoir of post-Holocaust damage, a salutory warning about life in the German studiesacademic trade. Also, Chasing the King of Hearts, by Hanna Krall, a Polish Holocaust melodrama; Jakob der Lügner, Der Boxer and Bronsteins Kinder by Jurek Becker, who is schmaltzy and strangely sad, and Nackt under Wölfen by Bruno Apitz, now fallen out of favour owing to having been a communist. I cannot say I recommend the novel, precisely, but I do think it is a fascinating phenomenon. Also Mendelssohn is on the Roof, by Jiri Weil, a Czech survivor, an unbearably beautiful and elegant Holocaust novel about the occupation of Prague. Read it.
Otherwise, novels in rough order of reading:
Translated by Jamie Bullock: Birgit Vanderbeke, The Mussel Feast, a timeless classic about a domineering father, perhaps a little dated thanks to its link to the fall of the Wall, but then not.
– The Taste of Apple Seeds, by my beautiful ex-DAAD-lektorin, Katherina Hagena, who fed my imagination with German Romantic water nymphs and lent me a bike in Hamburg in 1997. A satisfying family saga with a happy ending, drenched in the atmosphere of the apple country around Hamburg.
Capital, by John Lanchester: Why don’t people write capacious nineteenth-century Trollope-esque books any more, critics cry? Well, now they do, in spades, and they clank and creak and groan with their oldfashionedness. In Capital, Asians are all hardworking corner shop managers or impressionable young terrorists, bankers are wankers and African refugees clever, hard-working and doomed. The property bubble serves as a metaphor for the British nation, except when deserving people inherit the unearned wealth. Very, very readable, and certainly an improvement on the dreadful December, where Sebastian Faulks tried the same trick from a sour rightist perspective.
Room, by Emma Donoghue. Why not take the tragic Fritzl case, strip it of all its political aspects, set it in milchtoast American suburbia, and turn it into an allegory for attachment parenting? Because you’d get this mawkish book.
Claustria, by Régis Jauffret. A far darker, nastier, more political retelling of the Fritzl story. I am still not convinced that it is a story worth re-telling.
Poor Miss Finch, by Wilkie Collins. LOFELY FEENCH, a beautiful rustic English maiden, is blind! With a terror of the colour blue! And then she falls in love with a man who TURNS BLUE! And then she’s cured of her blindness, so his NON-BLUE TWIN must masquerade as him! Poor Miss Finch! This is a great book.
Metropole, by Karinthy Ferenc. This was a random Kindle purchase, but perhaps the best book of the year: elegant Hungarian modernist allegory of the absurd and the existential in the city, Miéville meets Kafka meets Zamyatin. Excellent, and wonderfully translated by George Szirtes.
The Devil I Know, by Claire Kilroy. Another elegant allegory, this one of the Celtic Tiger. Also wonderful, and genuinely unheimlich in parts, with the devil dancing rings around Howth Head.
The Mill for grinding old people young, by Glenn Patterson. A Belfast historical novel that I wanted to love, and that sung with description, but didn’t really speak to me.
Dotter of her father’s eyes, by Mary M. Talbot. Graphic memoir about her own life story interwoven with Lucia Joyce’s. I enjoyed it, but my Joycean knowlege is too coloured by the O’Brien Nora biography for me to buy Talbot’s sympathetic portrayal of Lucia as a victim at the hands of her uncaring father. By all accounts I have read, Lucia was very sick and Jim did his absolute best to support her independent and creative life.
The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling. Now if you are going to do latter-day nineteenth-century bourgeois novels, this is how to do them: with a searing Labour-driven rage about social injustice, vile and horribly real teenagers, the toxins of snobbery and the nastiness of the housing market, in a wee English town. Much, much better than Harry Potter, and a real treat.
The Soldier’s Song and his two lachrymose companions, by Alan Monaghan. Irish First World War saga. Excellent comfort reading in the dog days of summer.
Railsea, by China Miéville. He quits the discredited Socialist Workers Party, he writes rollicking classics like these. He’s on a roll. Hooray for Miéville.
Far North, by Marcel Theroux: A dystopian fantasy too icy to melt my heart. And one that makes little emotional sense, saving as it does its brutalised heroine’s innocence to the end. But well put together, if you like that kind of thing.
The Dinner, by Hermann Koch, because it was a quid on the Kindle. A Dutch Lionel Shriver. This is not a compliment.
A Few Green Leaves , by Barbara Pym. WILL the village spinster marry the vicar? I am sure none of us can wait to find out!
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Now THIS, this is what excellent middle-brow fiction is all about. Hilarious, absorbing, political, internetty, sexy, with good fashion and astute observation of displacement, adolescence, America, Nigeria. I wanted it never to end.
1913: The Year before the Storm, by Florian Illes. Illes made his name with a pop book called Generation Golf, and this drops just as many brand names, only this time they are modernists – Mahler! Mann! Proust! – instead of 80s consumer gadgets. But the effect is the same.
TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann: about the arduous crossings between Ireland and America, of one family’s story and the unexplored undersides of transnational Irish history. I adored its unhurried but absorbing tales: the link between Frederick Douglass and the unimaginable horrors of the Famine, the first airmen’s adventures and the devastation left behind by the Troubles. Then I read a review that pointed out it was more than a little sugary and uncritical, and felt a little ashamed of myself. However. I enjoyed it immensely.
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen: Oh, Franzen, your questionable Kraus Project, even if it does focus on Austro-Hungarian modernism, has done little to endear your writing to me. Guess what? Locking yourself in a room away from the internet does not seem to yield brilliant insight into a world of literature and imagination! I fear that such celebrated isolation might instead produce smug and introverted fiction that is witless about reality. Freedom is supposed to be another neo-realist novel that saves plot and character from the clever-clever onslaught of postmodernism, but unlike proper C19 novels, and unlike Lanchester and Rowling, not one of his Mid-Western characters has to worry about money. I repeat: the novel is a State of the Nation take on the Dilemma of Freedom, but without money constraints. It’s the worst kind of white man’s fantasy about human nature. Franzen, please recall: from Austen to David Lodge, the motor of the bourgeois novel is money, who has it, who inherits it, who steals it, who dies for lack of it. Also, your writing style is leaden and your book is far, far too long.
Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner: one of the neo-cosmopolitan novels written by young brilliant Americans in the wake of Teju Cole. Chilly, perhaps frozen by history; it is a good book, drenched in booze and sex and intellectual failure, but not a perfect one.
Rivers of London and all her foxy daughters, by Ben Aaronovitch. I am late to this party, but what a party it is. I and the rest of the planet adore these books. You like silly fantasy? You like escapist Londony fiction? You like Miéville but could do without the pompous intellectual fireworks? Run, don’t walk.
Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan. But run AWAY from this one. If Mr. Penumbra had been published fifteen years ago, it would have been called an Internet Novel, because it’s all about the tussle of Google versus the Book. Nowadays, all novels are internet novels, so it has lost its novelty. This is NaNoWriMo-esque drivel, featuring a nerd, a manic pixie dream girl and a Mysterious Magic Bookshop, reconciles Google and the novel overnight in a sugary marriage not unlike the end of Metropolis. Mr. Penumbra makes me sorry about the future of the novel; the Kindle hasn’t killed it off, but what has it done to impressionable writers’ skills?
The Property, by Ruta Modani. Israeli graphic novel about a family returning to Warsaw to try and claim the family home. Bittersweet, with some vicious satirical bite, and quite a bit of sentiment. The love stories overwhelm the politics, in the end; how very heartwarming.
Long Walk To Freedom, by Nelson Mandela. Read just before he died. It is somewhat hard work, and you can tell when the editor pleads with the inveterate politician to put in some personal colour among the endless committee meetings, but gosh, it is an education. Essential.
In Love’s Place, by Etienne Van Heerden. A serendipitous discovery; I wouldn’t have read this if I hadn’t met Van Heerden at an event in Bloemfontein, but I actually think it’s rather good. Sombre, reflective, sprawling saga of post-apartheid life in Cape Town and the impoverished badlands thereabout.
NW, by Zadie Smith: some called this a daring modernist experiment; I say that modernism is a hoary old box of tricks invented a hundred years hence, and NW reprises some of them without any great aesthetic innovation. The heart of this novel, about a working-class Londoner’s education as a lawyer and the vicious multiple obstacles put in the way of poor black kids, is wonderful, the rest could go and hang out in Lanchester’s Capital. Definitely worth it, but perhaps would be better as an incisive novella, not a baggy Smithy novel.
When We Were Bad: A Novel, by Charlotte Mendelssohn. Family saga in Jewish North London. Funny, somewhat truthful and absorbing, if a little heartwarming in the end.
Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, by Helen Fielding. Oh, we all love Bridget. We love her most pissed and on Twitter, and least having a mawkishly perfect relationship with her angelic posh moppet children, but she’s still always great fun to hang out with.
Stoner: A Novel , by John Williams, the Rediscovered Classic of the year. Beautifully sombre mid-century modernism, and the pains and truths of a life in academic literary studies unfolded. Stoner never publishes but the one book, the book of his thesis, and he dies holding the book, all alone. Nonetheless, his students love him and Stoner truly believes in letters; perhaps that belief and that love is all a life needs. I can see why John McGahern loved this novel. A truly great novel would have turned to look at the nasty gender and race issues that it pushes aside in favour of the white male American tragedy, though.
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt: endlessly self-indulgent, dear, and with that ghastly middle-brow fascination with high art. Stop telling me how wonderful the seventeenth-century painting is, how noble the unworldly furniture restorer, how vile Las Vegas is and how poetic your tiresome drunk Russian teen. Stop talking, Donna. Now look around. Where has your plot gone? Is it about that manic pixie dream girl? That terrorist event in New York? That implausible painting heist? Stop and think. Oh, all right then, don’t bother, just keep on chundering out those drug-addled monologues. Everyone will buy you and review you anyway.
Another Country, by James Baldwin, my current read. Blistering mid-century modernism that turns around and snarls brilliantly, queerly in Stoner’s lumpen mid-western face. While freshening everyone’s drink, of course, because that is what everyone does even in the most luminous and scorching of mid-century modern American novels.
Valentines Day, 2013: what better date for a joyful and emotional conference to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Tendencies? I was privileged and not a little surprised to be invited to participate, commenting on Sedgwick’s essay ‘Nationalisms and Sexualities … Continue reading
It’s not often that I’m down in London and able to swank around all the amazing literary and German-language events here, but that’s the joy of sabbatical! Yesterday, I was lucky enough to be able to go to an Open University-sponsored event on Writing, Creativity and Translation at the British library, with German literary hero Birgit Vanderbeke, translation hero Jamie Bulloch, and new literary heroes Jordi Punti, Miha Mazzini and Maja Visenjak Limon.
I first encountered Vanderbeke’s work eight years ago, when I taught Geld oder Leben (Your Money Or Your Life) to first year students at Trinity College Dublin, and was enchanted by how angry the students were at the critique of capitalism in the seemingly guileless novel. How dare Vanderbeke suggest that there might be a way of living outside capitalism! How dare her deceptively simple prose lead the teenagers into an unexpected linguistic critique of marketing! I developed a healthy respect for her dark literary arts.
The British Library didn’t showcase one superstar, though – it created a brilliant, transEuropean dialogue on literature between five brilliant, opinionated and collegiate literary experts. I livetweeted the discussion under the hashtag #wct, if you’re interested in reliving the experience via breathless Twitter, but what’s missing there is the repartee, the translation heresies and the shared vision of European literature that emerged.
Translation heresy was definitely a theme – Limon confessed to translating into her second language, Bulloch to not knowing or caring much about literary theory, and Vanderbeke vigorously asserted that translation had to disrespect, indeed destroy the text to bring it closer to a new audience. Quite fabulous.
But even more moving than the translation heresy was the passionate commitment to translation in evidence. Although all three writers declared emphatically that writing with a translator in mind would be impossible, all three argued that translation is essential to literature, and indeed to human communication – it allows us to see the human in someone who is far away. Punti argued eloquently that European culture has in fact been constituted by inter-European translation, from the first Catalan translations of Dante in the fifteenth century onwards, and that Europe can be seen as a space of distinct but interlinking translation traditions – the Mediterranean tradition, the Slav tradition, and the declining but crucially important U.K. tradition.
There were many more insights in the mix, from discussions about new readability and the influence of Anglo-Saxon plot-driven fiction on other languages, to concerns about the number of national literatures that are becoming increasingly insular. I even managed to ask Vanderbeke and Bulloch a question about the Nachleben of Vanderbeke’s Muschelessen: what does it mean to have a text translated almost 25 years later? (Vanderbeke said that this book is an exception, it has stayed alive through readings and dialogues and constant publications ever since she first wrote it in 1989). I didn’t get a chance to tell her how delighted I was that her work managed to outrage my students so thoroughly eight years ago, but instead I left with a new reading list and a renewed passion for translation – an even more important gift.
Terry Pitts has written a wonderful post on Sebald’s essay ‘Across the Border: Peter Handke’s Repetition‘, which is available as a download in English for the first time. I wrote an essay on this, ”Die irdische Erfüllung”: Peter Handke’s Poetic Landscapes and W. G. Sebald’s Metaphysics of History’, in: W. G. Sebald and the Writing of History, eds Anne Fuchs, Jonathan Long (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2007), pp. 179-197. (I’ve made it available on academia.edu.) Sebald’s Bachelors has a section on homoeroticism in this essay, too… watch this space for more details…
In Repetition, Handke allows the peculiar light which illuminates the space under a leafy canopy or a tent canvas to glisten between words, placed here with astounding caution and precision; in doing so, he succeeds in making the text into a sort of refuge amid the arid lands which, even in the culture industry, grow larger day by day.
W.G. Sebald’s essay Across the Border: Peter Handke’s Repetition has just been translated for the first time into English and is now posted as a downloadable PDF over at thelastbooks. The essay, on Handke’s 1986 book Die Wiederholung, was originally published in Sebald’s 1991 anthology of literary essays Unheimliche Heimat under the title Jenseits der Grenze. This translation of Sebald’s essay is by Nathaniel Davis and is apparently to be included in a forthcoming reissue of Ralph Manheim’s 1989 translation of Handke’s book, which is currently out-of-print. As…
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It would be wonderful, of course, to write an elegant in-depth review of every book I read, but that is an aspiration reserved for the more serious book bloggers out there. Instead, I have compiled a short, ascerbic and in no way particularly reflected selection of my leisure reading this year below. Kafka, Adler and my colleagues’ monographs predominate in my non-leisure reading, but on the train, late at night and in the bath, here’s what I finished and, mostly, enjoyed, in 2012:
Book of the year, of the decade: Open City, by Teju Cole. So wonderful and Sebaldian and cerebral and beautiful that I need to wait a year and read it again and make it part of my life.
Other runners-up: Traveller of the Century, by Andres Neuman, lovely whimsical romance set in Biedermeier Mitteldeutschland, full of the sounds of Schubert and the plots of E. T. A. Hoffmann and the daffy ideas of German idealists.
South Riding, by Winifred Holtby, which is completely absorbing, combining Brontëesque passions with some good solid Marxism. Excellent stuff.
Tales from the Mall, by Ewan Morrison: half Fast Food Nation anti-capitalist rant, half flash fiction set in Scottish malls. Wildly entertaining.
Edward St. Aubyn’s Melrose novels, which I glugged down one by one in Germany, as thirsty as the aristocratic alcoholic protagonists. They left little trace, but were wonderfully biting.
The empty family, and A Guest at the Feast, by Colm Tóibín, who cannot write an untrue sentence.
Hope. A Tragedy, by Shalom Ausländer. Post-Holocaust, riotously impious novel. What would you do, dear reader, if you found an aged, filthy and spiteful Anne Frank in your attic?
Kraken, by China Miéville: squiddy fantasy fun from everyone’s favourite Socialist Worker
Pack Men, by Alan Bissett: aaaah, so brilliant! Masculinity tenderly filleted, with a side order of Manchester streetscape, Scottish culture and queer sex. Just: fab.
The Journey, Oh! What a beautiful Sunday and Literature or Life, by Jorge Semprún: amazingly sharp, moral literature by a Marxist philosopher who survived Buchenwald.
The Ministry of Special Cases, by Nathan Englander: conventional but gripping and moving novel about disappearances in the Argentinian dictatorship.
HHhH, by Laurent Binet: Binet manages to pull off both a meta-reflection on the ethical pitfalls of writing historical fiction, and an utterly gripping and moving account of the heros who assassinated Heydrich.
Inoffensive: Disgrace, by Coetzee: very well-done, yes, and I certainly learned a lot about white people in South Africa. I suspect the correct adjective is ‘fine’, or even more dispiriting, ‘Booker-prize-winning’.
Daylight Gate, by Jeanette Winterson: she really is gloriously unhinged at times, but such madness is ideally suited to Pendle witch fiction.
Thursbitch, by Alan Garner: Perhaps it is the Manchester hinterland that sends writers gloriously mad. More dark magic lurks in the Cheshire hills.
Stasiland, by Anna Funder: not the GDR I know from friends who grew up in the former East, but quite gripping, still.
Story of the Eye, by Georges Bataille: WELL GOSH.
Pleasured, by Philip Hensher: fun, well-done fall-of-the-Berlin-wall saga.
Gewalten, by Clemens Meyer: fantastic, foulmouthed prose fizzing with energy and intelligence.
There but for the, by Ali Smith. Wry, well-observed State of the Middle Classes epic in miniature.
Imperium, by Christian Kracht: rollicking adventures of a deluded German vegetarian in the South Seas before the outbreak of WW1. Enjoyable and not remotely racist, despite some odd fight on the matter in the media.
Entertaining Trash for those brainfree moments: Historical tosh by Karen Maitland, feminist chicklit by Mhairi McFarlane, scabrous Jude in Ireland by Julian Gough.
Not So Amazing: Time’s Arrow, by Martin Amis: evidently initiated the manic, maximalist, magical voice–of-the-Nazi-perpetrator narrative that Jonathan Littell continued two decades later. I still think it’s a meretricious kind of achievement. Mass murderers are not interesting.
Zoo Time, by Howard Jacobson: I loved the rants about middlebrow fiction, but not so much the creaking misogyny. Sigh.
Childish Loves, by Benjamin Markovits: I really wanted to love this, but in the end just couldn’t. Byron is horrible, and effete New York writers with midlife crises just too dull.
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman: the premise of a self-conscious meta-magic-novel set in Narnia is brilliant, but why make the protagonist really miserable all the way through?
There were a lot of books that I ordered from the library and never read, including most of the Booker shortlist. Whoops. Perhaps I should call them up again. This was also the year I got a Kindle and, much to my surprise, I find I really dislike reading books on it, find it stressful and unsatisfying, and would far rather have the comforting heft of a paper book in my hand. It is wonderfully convenient for travelling, but I always look forward to picking up real books when I come home.
I always mean to read more history and sociology, but never do, and am sure I have missed some wonderful new gems. Readers, what have I left out?
On a wintry day in November 2009, I boarded a rattly train bound southwards over the Pennines in the dark hour before the dawn. Sleet turned to snow as the little train climbed higher into the mountains. I had a … Continue reading
In wintry mid-December 2012, BBC Radio 3 broadcast a ninety-minute dramatisation of Austerlitz in its Drama on 3 series. Such a lovely surprise! Sebald has been dead over ten years, and I’m never sure the extent to which he is still alive for the general reading or listening public. So I was absolutely delighted that Michael Butt wrote the adaptation and BBC3 put it on; it shows that there are passionate Sebald lovers out there.
I’ll confess, I missed the original broadcast in favour of the pub, and only listened back the next day. I listened with half an ear, and then focussed back on my work. It was pleasant to hear words I knew so well dramatised, re-arranged, given voice and life, but I knew the words themselves very well, whereas the dramatisation, with its plethora of voices with inexplicable English accents, was something of a confusing Babel. It was well done, but it wasn’t my Austerlitz, the complex, slippery text I have lived with for a decade, with its images and vertiginous plunges into the fissures between meaning, its sonorous German sentences and Austrian intertexts. I was thrilled that it was produced so perfectly, and reached such a wide audience, but found little for me there. Terry Pitts of Vertigo felt that the adaptation entirely missed the point, and I can’t say I disagree with him:
Sebald’s book has been taken apart, abbreviated, and remolded into a 90-minute radio play that at times is indistinguishable from a soap opera. The narrator is positioned as writer looking for a new project before his eyesight gives out and when he meets Austerlitz he realizes he’s found his ideal subject. […] This is a dramatization that belies Sebald’s original from start to finish by drowning out the text in a miasma of ambiance, never permitting Sebald to try to win over readers on his own terms.
Pitts argues that a more sensitive adaptation would have remained faithful to the voice of the narrator, refusing to ‘soap-operify’ the story with Agáta’s gasps and mawkish background music. But then, I am not sure. For one thing, the problems surrounding adaptations of literary works are a field of study in themselves – indeed, my colleague Catriona Firth has just published a book on this very issue. Adaptations are works of art in themselves, and the very idea of ‘originality’ and ‘derivation’ seem inappropriate for such densely intertextual works as Sebald’s. As an adaptation of Austerlitz, the drama was lacking for me; as a drama in itself, it drew in its listeners.
And that is a unique feature of Sebald; his ability to draw people in, to make them feel recognised. In my viva voce exam, my external examiner asked me, ‘But why is it that people read Sebald and feel that he has captured some aspect of their lives they themselves couldn’t describe as well? I had a friend who grew up in Wales, and he says that Sebald wrote about that austere chapel-going childhood in a way that no-one before or since has managed to…’ There’s a tension at the heart of Sebald’s work here, one grounded in what he himself describes as l’effet du réel, the effect of the real. When he writes about his friend Jan Peter Tripp’s photorealistic works, he says that his breathtaking artistry is not simple simulation, because on the one hand it is artistry, and carefully modifies nature. And on the other, it contains the tiny flaws – the punctum, in Barthes’s words – that push both observer and painter over the boundaries of reality itself.
(c) Jan Peter Tripp, Ein leiser Sprung, from http://www.desitinpharma.com/?id=949.
Sebald’s work shares these characteristics also, and that is why, although Sebald never grew up in a cold manse in Wales, it manages to create a perfect illusion of that world. That is the wonder of his technique. So of course, no dramatisation can ever reproduce precisely Sebald’s artistry, and the moment a dramatist attempts to pull Austerlitz apart and extract a reality – a story – from Sebald’s complex textual artifice, the result is nothing like Sebald’s work, any more than an actor playing the subject of Tripp’s painting above could ever approach the effect of his painting, with its tell-tale crack in a non-existant sheet of glass.
But then, it also seems to me (to use the Sebaldian subjunctive with which I’m currently infected) that perhaps it is possible to be too engrossed by the minutiae of Sebald’s technique, and not also acknowledge the emotional effect of his narratives – their affect. Serendipitously, Barbara Graziosi wrote a diary piece on Sebald just this week in the London Review of Books. She has just been enraptured by The Emigrants, so much so that she starts to read reflections of her husband’s life history in its depths. Can it really be a coincidence?
I reverted to reading: Sebald was more interesting than the husband. Except that the two started, somehow, to echo each other. There were the place names: Lake Constance, Lindau, Ulm, the Bernese Oberland – the settings of childhood memories and Alpine excursions. There was the shock of encountering the British city: ‘I looked out in amazement at the rows of uniform houses.’ And there was a Jewish artist remembering his arrival in 1939: ‘My first night in England was sleepless not so much because of my distress as because of the way that one is pinned down … by bedding which has been tucked under the mattress all the way round.’ Johannes pulls out all the sheets and blankets when confronted with a tucked-in bed…
L’effet du réel, once more. Graziosi feels that The Emigrants says something emotionally and historically important about her life with her husband. Does it matter, in this context, that the ‘Jewish artist’ of The Emigrants, called ‘Max Aurach’ or ‘Max Ferber’, is partly based on a real painter, who felt hurt and betrayed at Sebald’s appropriation of his life story? Does it matter that the affecting scene where Agáta bids farewell to Austerlitz is lifted from Kafka’s diary, or that the moving, possibly melodramatic scene where Austerlitz sees a vision of her blue shoe in the theatre, fifty years after her death, is taken from Hofmannsthal’s Andreas, a novel about which Sebald was very ambivalent? Should we have to read Sebald with an erudite concordance to hand before we can begin to respond to him? If Michael Butt tried to present the emotional truth of Austerlitz, as he felt it, in his radio drama, who is to say that his classic BBC drama version, complete with slamming doors and tearjerking music, does not represent that important affective aspect of Sebald’s work which might otherwise be lost behind his complex irony and academic erudition? Or is it the case that if we allow ourselves to be bewitched by Sebald’s artistry into thinking that his work is just a reproduction of the real, nothing more and nothing less, we have consigned ourselves to the realm of kitsch that is the death of art? But after all, if we think back to Agáta’s twinkling shoe, it is not as though Sebald is himself innocent of his own moments of kitsch and melodrama.
Vertiginous questions, and even after writing a book on Sebald that focusses more on affect than technique, I am not sure whether or not this was a legitimate exercise. And precisely for that reason, soap-operatic techniques or not, I’ll range myself on the side of Michael Butt.
As a nice Christmas present, I’ve had my abstract for the Association for German Studies in Great Britain and Ireland conference next year accepted for the History and Remembrance panel. I love going to the AGS – German studies is a small and geographically fragmented community in the UK, but it’s also extremely friendly and supportive. Many of the scholars I meet there every few years are not only leading researchers on the cutting edge of German, cultural and literary studies, but also old friends and mentors. There’s something really wonderful about our community, I feel; as anyone who is interested in modern languages in the UK will know, some in our research community have had a challenging time of it recently, as some departments have been forced to close and fewer students have been taking German at A-level. But the vibrancy of German studies research hasn’t been damaged, and neither has the spirit of camaraderie and solidarity shared at our annual gatherings in the AGS and WIGS. It’s fantastic to watch the intellectual development over years and decades of my community of scholars – and the socialising should be fun too.
It’s also really great – on a less elevated note – to have events to look forward to in the New Year! I’m at the stage in sabbatical that I dubbed ‘pyjamas and ballgown’ during my PhD; that stage of research where I rarely leave the house and start wearing pyjamas all day, and then dress up to the nines to compensate whenever a rare opportunity to meet my fellow-human beings arrives. So if you’re going to the AGS, and spot a researcher in a sequinned ball gown declaiming about Holocaust literature in spangly high heels, that’ll be me.
Here’s my abstract: I’d better book my archive trips so that I’ve done the research by then!
The Frankfurt trials and the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem in the 1960s have been viewed as turning points in German memory of the Holocaust. While Arendt’s ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ created a new discourse of perpetrator guilt, Peter Weiss’s ‘Die Ermittlung’ created what many saw as a groundbreaking German aesthetic response to the Holocaust. This paper examines this so-called ‘testimonial turn’ (Wieviorka 2006) using a Bourdieusian model of the literary field to examine the extent to which the 1960s truly saw a turn to the voice of the victim in the developing German ‘Holocaust canon’. Using the works of Weiss, Adler and Hilsenrath as case studies, it argues that implicit aesthetic and ethical norms, imposed by gatekeepers from Adorno to publishers, still set limits on the form and content of German literary testimony to the Holocaust. The shifting status of ‘Die Ermittlung’, from celebrated cultural event to a text accused of erasing the specificity of Jewish victimhood, is set against the tepid reception accorded to Adler’s Holocaust testimonial novels ‘Eine Reise’ (1962) and ‘Panorama’ (1968), and the difficulty Hilsenrath had in finding a German publisher for ‘Der Nazi und der Friseur’ into the 1970s. The paper thus argues that the voice of the victim still struggled to find German publishers and audiences into the 1970s.
This Thursday, I’ll be speaking in the University of Manchester German seminar series, on a topic related to their Public Intellectual theme. My PhD. thesis was a comparative study of Strauß, Handke and Sebald, but I’ve developed the sections on Sebald into my new book (Sebald’s Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life), and haven’t given Strauß and Handke much thought since my viva back in 2008. At the time, I researched the public controversies that the three writers engaged in in the 1990s – Strauß’s ‘Anschwellender Bocksgesang’ essay, Handke’s interventions on Milosevic and Serbia, and Sebald’s Luftkrieg und Literatur lectures. I tried to see whether theories of generational guilt and of a very German version of poetic autonomy could explain these three seemingly neo-conservative interventions in the public sphere.
It’s really exciting to be able to return to that material and to reconsider it in the lights of my new research interest in literary canon, and of the Manchester seminar series and its overarching theme of the public intellectual. So far, my notes for the talk include the scrawled questions ‘Do public discourse and the ideal of communicability conflict with poetic concept of language grounded in the image’? and ‘Where do left-wing and right-wing attempts to redeem the past coincide’? I think this will be quite a speculative talk, but I’m really glad to have the opportunity to discuss my ideas in the brilliant company of the Manchester Germanists. For a long time, I’ve thought I should write up this section of my PhD as a standalone article, so I’m really grateful to the University of Manchester for giving me the impetus to do so!
Sabbatical has its own rhythm, very distinct to that of term, I’m discovering; weeks of quiet reading and writing and sudden frenetic bursts of public activity and engagement. This is one of the frenetic weeks, with lots of exciting announcements which I’ll be posting here soon. But in the meantime, I’ll have to keep trying to integrate my PhD. research and new theoretical questions into a stimulating talk by Thursday. Wish me luck!