Sebald was more interesting than the husband: Austerlitz and l’effet du réel

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

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.