Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Emergence of Memory: conversations with WG Sebald

Sebald's voice is unmistakable in all his works. All his narrators, the reliable and unreliable ones, speak in his voice. The characters narrated by those narrators speak in his voice. To me, these works are as intimate as you could get with him. And yet, somehow these conversations have been able to achieve a slightly higher degree of intimacy, and I think most of its due to the understanding between the two people conversing.

the emergence of memory is an anthology which was published after Sebald's death. It is a collection of five conversations and four articles/essays which have previously appeared in various publications. They make a good collection, particularly the conversations, tied together by Lynne Schwartz's introduction which touches upon each of Sebald's works available in English, a little bit on his life, and his fascination for death and destruction. Some of the recurrent motifs in Sebald's works are explored here, and the editor has explained that some of these interviews/essays have been chosen to emphasize those motifs, but also to bring forth facets of all of Sebald's works. She also excuses herself for selecting Michael Hoffmann's essay on Sebald as 'one dissenting voice' as a 'skeptical corrective to what otherwise might be a gush of nearly unqualified enthusiasm.'

The two best conversations from this collection are 'Who is WG Sebald?' with Carole Angier which originally appeared in the Jewish Quarterly in 1997, and 'A poem of an invisible subject' with Michael Silverblatt of KCRW which was originally a voice broadcast in 2001 (it can be found here). In his conversation with Carole Angier, Sebald talks primarily about Emigrants, but also somewhat of his disappointments with growing up in Germany, about being shown a film about concentration camps, but hurriedly, without explanations. Carole Angier seems to say little during the conversation, but offers some of her perceptions as she recollects the interview (He can tell me this. I think, because his mother will never read the Jeweish Quarterly). She tries to understand the stories of the real people behind the Emigrants, and whether Sebald felt any discomfort in changing the stories of his models. Sebald evades answering this, and his discomfort becomes evident in this evasion. He has mentioned in a few places his unease with 'the questionable business of writing'.
Silverblatt's conversation has already been much discussed and praised for its perceptiveness. It is very perceptive ofcourse, and probes Sebald on his writing influences. The influence of 19th century German prose, or Thomas Bernhard. But this interview also brings out in the open the fact that Sebald kept circling the theme of holocaust without dealing with it directly in the prose. Sebald agreed:
I've always felt that it was necessary above all to write about the history of persecution, of vilification of minorities, the attempt, well nigh achieved, to eradicate a whole people. And I was, in pursuing these ideas, at the same time conscious that its practically impossible to do this; to write about concentration camps in my view is practically impossible. So you need to find ways of convincing the reader that this is something on your mind but that you do not necessarily roll out on every other page.
....there is no point in exaggerating that which is already horrific.
In the conversation with Joseph Cuomo, Sebald discusses lot more about writing, about the conflict between conjuring lies and giving liberty to imagination. It is a must-read to understand some of his conflicts. Sebald has been most expansive here. Some of the excerpts of this interview can be found here.
Amongst the essays, there is only Ruth Franklin's Rings of Smoke (Link) worth talking of. She has discussed each of Sebald's work, sieving through them, quoting the most essentials parts of them and connecting them together. And despite her enthusiasm for Sebald, she offers a counterpoint to his essays in On the natural history of destruction.
I do not even want to credit Michael Hoffmann's essay - it is an insult to counter-balance. There is unabashed criticism, but no critique and the reasons for his dissatisfaction in Sebald are altogether unclear.
Overall a good collection, though i think the essays could have been sacrificed for more interviews.


2 comments:

Alok said...

Have you read this review by Michael Hofmann? One of the most bizarrely negative reviews I have ever read. He even reviews his suicide note! (and finds it not upto his standards)

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n02/michael-hofmann/vermicular-dither

Madhuri said...

Wow! That is something. Looks like he should focus on translation (which he seems to be good at), and not bother with reviews.