I was seduced
in the car, on my way to pick up the third grader from school just four days ago. Thursday is the day I like to collect him the most, for there it is, free for the listening, on KCRW 89.9 FM in Santa Monica—Michael Silverblatt's rapturous program Bookworm
. For anyone who reads, and particularly for anyone who writes, Silverblatt's incisive and respectful interviews of authors as diverse as Salman Rushdie
and Jonathan Franzen
are not to be missed.
Even the third grader likes the show. There's a catchy little tune at the beginning:
"You are a human animal
You are a very special breed
For you are the only animal
Who can think
Who can reason
Who can read."
I had missed the beginning of the show and did not recognize the author. He spoke with a slight British accent, I thought, until I listened a bit more and realized that, no, his accent was German. Bavarian, perhaps, like the old Germans who'd built the church I attended as a boy. But British too. Interesting. A soothing, educated, expert storyteller's voice.
He spoke of classic German prose as being the basis for the tone of his latest work. He spoke of the importance of memory, for an author and for his audience. And he spoke of the Holocaust as being an invisible—but far from distant—presence in his latest novel, Austerlitz.
Ah yes, I thought. Austerlitz. I remember reading about Austerlitz in the New York Times Book Review. It stuck in my mind because many of those Germans from my church lived in Austerlitz, New York. A lovely place. "It looks like Germany," said my wife, the first time she visited. She grew up in Heidelberg, the daughter of an OSS man.
I resolved to buy the novel and systematically go back through the writer's other work, because apparently I'd somehow missed the fruits of a modern master.I ALWAYS listen to Michael Silverblatt, the purest READER I know. He and everybody else were going crazy over this author I'd never heard of, and I hate it when that happens.
I was going to buy the book today, but kids and Christmas and lights and the tree and the show I had to shoot tonight kept me away from the bookshop
. I have just read my New York Times Online, just now, well after midnight in California.
His name was W. G. Sebald, and he was killed yesterday in a car accident in Norfolk, England, not far from his home of 30 years in Norwich in East Anglia. He was 57 years old. He had so many more books to write.
Regarding the work we are privileged to possess, The New Republic critic James Wood wrote: "Anxious, daring, extreme, muted—only an annulling wash of contradictory adjectives can approach the agitated density of W. G. Sebald's writing. For this German who has lived in England for over 30 years is one of the most mysteriously sublime of contemporary European writers."
Jon Cook, dean of the School of English and American Studies at the University of East Anglia, where the author taught, described him as "inventing a genre of his own."
"It was a special kind of mixture of fiction, memory and history," he said. "He was deeply concerned with the nature of memory, whether the past is lost or not."
Susan Sontag called Sebald's The Emigrants, published in America in 1996, "an astonishing masterpiece." His 1998 work The Rings of Saturn, a phantasmagorical travelogue across southeastern England "obliterates time and defies comparison," said Roberta Silman in her New York Times Book Review.
Sebald's first novel, Vertigo was published in Germany in 1990. These four titles alone have caused their author to be regarded as a future candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
He was born Winfried Georg Sebald in Wetach im Allgäu in 1944. He credits his visit to Munich at the age of three as the seed for much of his work. "It seemed to me," he said, "the natural condition of cities, houses between mountains of rubble."
This memory, and the fact that his father fought in the German army as an officer who was promoted through the ranks yet never spoke of it, collide, it seems, in all his work, but it is in Austerlitz that Sebald apparently found his most comfortable, if idiosyncratic, voice. The book's text is interrupted by black and white photographs: butterflies, a football team, a graveyard. His method was to visit junkyards and archives and collect postcards, advertisements, anything of the period in which he and we are immersed.
His intention, it seems, was to plumb the difference between the Real, the Perceived, the Remembered and the Fictional. It was the Nazis, after all, who doctored photographs, to their own ends, and called them "real."
Of Germany itself Sebald remarked, regarding one of the reasons he lived in England for the last thirty years of his life: "There was truly this conspiracy of silence, nationwide and in every family." It created in him something haunted, something ultimately unfathomable, at least in 57 short years.
I read a portion of the first chapter in W.G. Sebald's final work online, since all the bookstores are closed at this hour. Given the circumstances of this weekend I set it down here:
"Our Antwerp conversations, as he sometimes called them later, turned primarily on architectural history, in accordance with his own astonishing professional expertise, and it was the subject we discussed that evening as we sat together until nearly midnight in the restaurant facing the waiting room on the other side of the great domed hall. The few guests still lingering at that late hour one by one deserted the buffet, which was constructed like a mirror image of the waiting room, until we were left alone with a solitary man drinking Fernet and the barmaid, who sat enthroned on a stool behind the counter, legs crossed, filing her nails with complete devotion and concentration. Austerlitz commented in passing of this lady, whose peroxide-blond hair was piled up into a sort of bird's nest, that she was the goddess of time past. And on the wall behind her, under the lion crest of the kingdom of Belgium, there was indeed a mighty clock, the dominating feature of the buffet, with a hand some six feet long traveling round a dial which had once been gilded, but was now blackened by railway soot and tobacco smoke. During the pauses in our conversation we both noticed what an endless length of time went by before another minute had passed, and how alarming seemed the movement of that hand, which resembled a sword of justice, even though we were expecting it every time it jerked forward, slicing off the next one-sixtieth of an hour from the future and coming to a halt with such a menacing quiver that one's heart almost stopped.
"…These borders between the dead and the living are not hermetically sealed. There is some form of travel or gray zone. If there is a feeling, especially among unhappy people, that there is such a thing as a living death, then it is possible that the reverse is also true."
I, for one, plan to read everything W.G. Sebald ever wrote, Lord willing.