Please Can We Bury the Bodies?

On the tenth of May, 2012, an amiable video went viral across the web. It featured Britain’s Prince Charles, gamely presenting the weather on BBC Scotland. A specially doctored weather map, featuring the crown prince’s inherited Scottish palaces, was displayed behind him, giving viewers the nod that the prince was not, after all, undertaking a real job of broadcasting work, but that he rather was performing in a charming publicity stunt. The video allows the prince to play the everyman, while adding sufficient signs of his inherited privilege and wealth to ensure that the viewer understands that this is a mere performance. It is intended to enhance the prince’s man-of-the-people appeal while simultaneously inculcating deference.

Whether coincidentally or not, the video went live on the same day that Hilary Mantel’s novel Bring Up the Bodies was published. It is the sequel to Wolf Hall, a phenomenally successful historical novel about Thomas Cromwell, one of the bully-boys and fixers of the sixteenth-century British king Henry VIII. Henry VIII, my teenage historical-fiction reading tells me, was very fond of precisely such masquerades, dressing up frequently as a humble huntsman to surprise his subjects, while at the same time ensuring that his retinue both protected him and signified his true royal identity. He might well have been amused by his descendent’s stunt, if unimpressed by the weather.

The publication of Bring Up the Bodies has been received with ecstasy and, indeed, a spot on the flagship BBC Today programme. In a wonderful critical essay on the novel, James Wood tells us just how Mantel performs the trick of letting us feel that we could, indeed, speculate about the mind of Henry VIII, as I did in the previous paragraph. His elegant textual analysis unpicks the techniques whereby Mantel makes us believe that we are witnessing history through reading the novel, as though it were unfolding before us now, without recourse to anachronisms nor to hackneyed clichés of Merrie England. Through her writer’s magic, she draws us invisibly back through four hundred years of history into Cromwell’s mind and world.

So why am I profoundly depressed by the enormous success of this series of novels? Mantel is a clever, accomplished and strange writer, who certainly deserves acclaim. Her Beyond Black is one of the creepiest novels I have read in recent years. Its wry turns of prose forced me to read on at the same time as I wanted to turn from it in fear and disgust. Here, she combines the uncanny – a medium who speaks to the dead – with the politically satirical – a journey around the soulless property boom of Blair’s Britain – with the unspeakable – a childhood harrowed by rape and abuse – to horrific effect. But where is the artistic or political merit in inducing readers to identify with her bourgeoisified Thomas Cromwell? Why should such writerly authority and ingenuity be pressed into the service of making British readers, once again, thrill to the stirring tale of the King’s Great Matter? What purpose does it serve if, once more, readers are drawn in by its false universalism to asking, will Henry VIII divorce Catherine of Aragon? Will he marry Anne Boleyn? Is she really being unfaithful to him? What literary purpose, truly, does reviving this snobbish Tudor soap opera serve?

The German writer Daniel Kehlmann writes that the pitfall of the historical novel is the sentence ‘Ha!’ said Napoleon. We’ll attack at first light. In Measuring the World he tries to evade this problem by using the German Konjunktiv I, a hard-to-translate subjunctive mode, and sprinkling the text with knowing irony. Yet his novel, like Mantel’s, is still a sleight-of-hand soap opera in which the bodies of the famed and powerful are brought up from their historical tomb and made to dance once more for our entertainment. Sebald and Adler tell us, rightly, that the panoramic view of history, which gives the illusion of showing us everything via a limited perspective from above while in fact showing nothing, is a betrayal of the dead. Returning to Prince Charles, it’s hard to believe that the acclaim for Bring Up the Bodies is not linked to the affectionate reception of the prince’s weather video. In a year when the British monarchy is carefully engineering publicity surrounding the queen’s diamond jubilee, revivals of the British royal family in literature, however clever and accomplished they may be, seem perilously close to just such twinkly propaganda as Prince Charles’s ‘Thank god it’s not a Bank Holiday weekend!’. Let’s bury the royal bodies, please, and turn to Mantel’s darker and stranger subjects to let the forgotten and repressed speak instead.

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Return to Sebaldian Manchester: the lost Jewish quarter

One reason that I was happy to abandon our Sebaldian tour of Manchester before the Northern Manchester Jewish quarter was that I had already made a pilgrimage there some years ago, when I first moved to Manchester. Here’s what I wrote about my pilgrimage at the time.

One time, driving into the city through the north inner-city wasteland, I saw a sign for the Manchester Jewish Museum, and one grey moody Sunday I decided to visit. It’s in the old Sephardic synagogue, ten minutes’ walk north from here; full of relics of a lively Jewish community, complete, in that very British twentieth century fashion, with a flurry of self-improving organisations: schools, charitable organisations, amateur dramatic societies, working men’s clubs, all the trappings of a lost community life.

But Jewish Manchester hasn’t gone. I am sadly used to wandering around the Scheunenviertel in Berlin and its equivalents in other European cities, stumbling over the Stolpersteine and realising the extent of the lives and communities destroyed by the Nazis. Manchester, though, is still one of the Jewish cultural centres of Britain. So why was this area – Red Bank and Strangeways, as it is properly called – devastated, triste and empty where once it was full of working-class Eastern European Ashkenazis, Sephardic lords of industry and Gentile Mancunians besides? The guide at the museum explained that it had been designated a light industrial zone after the war, so the dwellings were pulled down.

“Didn’t the Jewish community feel attacked?” I asked, the forced resettlements and ethnic cleansings of Europe on my mind. “Oh no,” she said breezily, “people were upwardly mobile, and most of them had moved to the leafy suburbs already.” The same story, then, as with Dublin’s Little Jerusalem, where I used to live, which was full of Jewish immigrants in 1900 who had mostly become middle-class and moved to Terenure and similarly salubrious pastures by 1930. No tragic tale, then, just… rezoning. But Little Jerusalem is still an immigrant district, boasting Ireland’s first mosque, full of halal southern fried chicken shops and callshops and African hairdressers. One set of immigrants moves up in society, another moves in; it’s the multi-cultural urban dream, right? And the energetic clash of cultures and influx of new citizens keeps areas alive? Whereas this utter abandonment of a district within ten minutes’ walk of the city centre to shabby warehousing, import-export businesses and decaying surface carpark is baffling to me.

Armed with a map of the old Jewish Quarter, I wandered around the district, and realised that it’s not dead at all. There’s the Sikh temple, for one thing, and the erstwhile Red Bank is now brimming with independent businesses – car hire or storage warehouses, but mostly the rag trade, with Asian names and hard-nosed discounts on the signs stacked up on the frontages of a wild array of disreputable buildings. These range from corrugated iron shacks, brave 1990s one-story brick buildings to mouldering palaces of industry of indeterminate age. And among them are the lost Jewish buildings: that is, those that remain and haven’t been used and re-used until they’ve been condemned and replaced. I’m still bewildered by the mentality that sternly deems the area for industry only, not for dwellings or heritage or art or leisure, but that’s the learning experience of emigration for you. Andere Länder, andere Sitten. And hey, there’s always the inexorable onward march of buy-to-let apartmentland to revive the area, right? I didn’t find any lawyer’s office, with the names Glickmann, Grunwald and Gottgetreu on it, but this is what I found…

Archived/Talmud Torah School, Bent Street. Founded in 1894 for teaching Hebrew and religion to the poor. Still standing and in use, just; the upper windows have no glass, and trees are growing out of the roof

Talmud Torah school. The Memorial Stones Of This Building

Were Laid August 6th 1894

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Sebald in Manchester

In between grant applications and entertaining evenings with German writers, my work teaching and reading Sebald continues. I’ve been lucky enough to host two fellow- Sebald scholars, Lynn Wolff and Dora Osborne, on my ‘W. G. Sebald: The Politics of Literature’ module, and their input into classroom debates has been really appreciated by the students. (Some of the students were kind enough to say that the seminars felt like a community of learning, rather than a traditional lecture – exactly what I hoped to achieve, and I’m so lucky that it worked. Thanks so much to my guest speakers!)

As well as the teaching, we went on a Sebald pilgrimage around my adopted home town of Manchester. The narrator of ‘Max Ferber’ in The Emigrants, you will remember, circles around Manchester when he first arrives, and then walks back in to Manchester when he says farewell to Ferber for the last time at the end of the book. We started at the very end, at the Midland hotel, of which the narrator says ‘Today the Midland is on the brink of ruin […] it is presumably only a matter of time before the midland closes its doors and is sold off and transformed into a Holiday Inn’ (E 233). The narrator spends a haunted night behind its ruinous facade. Anyone who’s been to Manchester recently will know that the Midland, far from being a Holiday Inn, has been restored to its former vulgar glory, with a terrifyingly over-priced tea room and plenty of exotic plants. I wouldn’t say that it was still ‘famous throughout the land for its luxurious plumbing’ (E 232), but I can report that it does have very fancy bathrooms. Indeed, the Free Trade Hall, from which the narrator imagines he can hear ‘(though it was utterly impossible) […] the orchestra tuning their instruments’ (E 234) is now a posh hotel as well. Double the bourgeois comforts for the spiritual descendants of mill owners! Manchester itself is so changed that there are barely any ruins at all to be found out at the Quays, by Trafford Park, where Sebald’s narrator finds his enticing sign ‘To the Studios’ (E160). In the semi-privatised Salford Quays spaces built by Peel and leased to the BBC, the only studios around are pretty expensive and decidedly high-tech.

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Cambridge Mills with Sebald scholars

So there’s not a trace of Sebaldian melancholy left in Manchester? Oh, of course there is. We walked back out from the Midland back along the route of Higher Cambridge Street, where Sebald’s narrator reports ‘warehouses where the ventilators were still revolving in the broken windows’ (E 232). In post-boom Manchester, these industrial relics have been transformed, Holiday Inn-style, into expensive flats, which provides a nice further turn in the ironies of history, particularly after the credit crunch. Further out along the narrator’s route, he encounters ‘the deserted Hulme estates, which had been rebuilt in the early Seventies and had now been left to fall down again’ (E 232). Infamously, the Hulme crescents – with their crime and their musical subculture – have now been completely razed, and there would have been no hope of recreating the photograph on p. 231.

So Sebald’s ruins are now bourgeois capitalist palaces again, and his relics of modernism are erased. At the end of the walk, we went to Angel Flags and I pointed out Strangeways, still the grim star-shaped panopticon that Sebald describes, with a little more infamous history attached now. And ‘the one-time Jewish quarter around the star-shaped complex of Strangeways prison’ that he reports in the north of the city is still there, mouldering away. ‘We could go wandering there too,’ I suggested, in the darkening March evening, ‘…but we are also next to the Marble Arch, and could have a legendary Manchester pint, also’. And so we did, which was a lovely end to our travels too, even if entirely un-Sebaldian.

(All references are from Sebald, The Emigrants, tr. Michael Hulse (London: Harvill, 1996).

Good news – I’ve been awarded a British Academy grant for ‘Literary witnesses to the Holocaust: H. G. Adler, W. G. Sebald and literary transmission of Holocaust testimony’

The grant supports a preparatory research trip to the German Literary Archive and a major international workshop on the transmission of Holocaust testimony in German literature

The project commissions international experts on Holocaust literature to write about the relationship between the almost forgotten Holocaust survivor and writer H. G. Adler (b. 1910), and the celebrated writer W. G. Sebald (b. 1944), as a case study of a late 20th-century Holocaust writer re-discovering and re-canonising an earlier witness. In 2001, W. G. Sebald drew on Adler’s Theresienstadt: Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft (1955) in his novel Austerlitz. This revived interest in the poetry and novels of Adler, which, although largely ignored on their initial publications between the 1950s and 1989, are now being translated into English and attract growing critical attention. This project uses this as a case study of the workings of the ‘cultural field’ (Bourdieu) in relation to the circulation and reception of Holocaust writing. It forms an initial investigation into the wider relationships between the first literary witnesses to the Holocaust and subsequent discourse about testimony to historical traumas. It questions how cultural legitimacy has been granted to certain ‘first voices’ of the Holocaust while being denied to others. The main output will be a volume discussing the wider significance of the Adler-Sebald literary relationship.

At the workshop, participants will present their draft chapters to ensure coherence, and a dynamic interaction of chapters. A final research trip to Adler’s and Sebald’s archives in Marbach by the editor will follow, to ensure a rigorous introduction to the volume. The volume’s detailed examination of the literary relationship between Adler and Sebald will also reflect on the wider literary-political implications of the remediation of literary Holocaust testimony and of the cultural field of Holocaust representation