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.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Girl with Curious Hair

There is no dearth of people who have read David Foster Wallace or DFW. His works have been looked and re-looked and re-re-looked into several times over for clues to understanding modern/post-modern lives. His iconic work Infinite Jest has appeared in at least 50 of the articles I have read since I subscribed to some literary magazines in my Google reader feed.
The reason I still did not pick up DFW after so much fuss over him was a certain hesitation I have towards American literature. From earlier writers to contemporary ones, I have hardly enjoyed an American author other than Steinbeck. The American books seem too dense, intentionally obscure and always spreading to 500 plus pages. It is almost as if the authors don't want people to read their words.
And Infinte Jest is certainly not inviting with its 1000 plus pages - it seemed to fall right into the category which I have come to identify with American literature. So I thought, let me ease into Wallace with a short story collection (a trick I tried with Joyce and it worked for me) - who knows may be I might end up liking him.
A few stories down in Girl with curious Hair, and my feelings have positively tilted in favor of DFW. And yet, there is some hesitation that remains. Some of the stories are brilliant. Take Here and There for example. A guy and girl narrate the story of their relationship (which is now over) simultaneously, going over the same summer and the same incidents. Eerily, it was almost as if it were two different stories - each of them seem wrapped up in their own worlds, disconnected from each other, living only with a perception of each other. The end summarizes it succinctly. The boy, an expert is theoretical electronics, falls to pieces while looking at a real circuit. A rather too obvious metaphor, perhaps. Yet, it uncannily describes that distance I feel with reality sometimes. Everything ends up as a concept inside the head, and while I conceptually know how to behave with a person, when to apologize, in reality things almost never go that way. Alienation, and the anxiety emanating from it could not be put more simply.

The other two engaging stories from the collection are - Little expressionless Animals and My Appearance. Both of them are doused in the world of television. Strictly speaking, the stories are perhaps a little out of date today, when television has already lost its ground to internet for devouring people's time and energy. But then, you only have to replace Jeopardy with Tumblr and Lettermen's show with Twitter, and the theme of the stories will become relavant to personal lives. There is a conversation in 'Little Expressionless Animals", where characters attempt to offer explanations about their lives to an imaginary TV audience. All of 'my Appearance' is about building and living a fake life, which is sensible and consistent. In both places, an artificiality, a simplification/justification arises because of the over-powering presence of media, because through it, you are now open to the world. (This also forces you to look into your own lives, analyze them more critically, do more, be more so that you could look better from that window, so in a way DFW is also celebrating media).
But then there are other stories which scare me - the title story for instance. Even though short, I found it tedious. It is about the punk life of a democrat and it appears to be written to shock. There is alienation of a kind in this story, a psycho-analysis and duplicity of life, but overall, it seems undeserving of being the title. Yet, DFW chose this as the title. It is this quirkiness that scares me from picking IJ - what if there is a lot of this quirkiness splashed over 1000 pages.
Nevertheless, his penchant for creating complex characters and have them come face to face with real ones is brilliant. And unlike the other Americans, his writing is clear, and written to be read.

As posted on Project Dogeared