A review of the novel Austerlitz by WG Sebald

Austerlitz, which I first read shortly after it came out, is like much of the author’s work, not an ‘easy’ book.  However, you don’t have to be an academic or look for the serious in literature to get a lot out of it. In fact I found that once it got going, the novel’s main story is fairly simple and very engaging.

The main thread of this story concerns the eponymous character Austerlitz, who is in the process of slowly piecing together the facts about his very early life in pre-War Europe. Austerlitz is a jew, and was sent to Great Britain as part of the Kindertransport programme in order to escape Nazi persecution. Much of Sebald’s other writing concerns the nature of memory and how it helps inform and shape our identities, and Austerlitz is in large part another essay in this vein.

However, Sebald also maintained that one of his main concerns as a writer was with Germany and its place in Europe and European culture. Of course this also meant that the crimes committed by the Nazis cast their shadow over his work, whether he alluded to them directly or not. By the time of “Austerlitz”, he finally engaged with the subject of the persecution of the Jews, by making his eponymous main character into someone touched directly that persecution.

Some complain about Sebald’s style, and certainly you have to bear with him, for a lot of the sentences are quite long (I don’t mean to patronise anyone in saying this. It’s just that tight, short syntax is so much the norm these days, from mainstream writing, to websites and daily papers, so that longer, snaking sentences take a while to get used to again). He’s also a very allusive writer, making reference to a myriad different cultural and historical facts and points of interest. If you read this novel then hopefully not only will you be engaged by the actual story, but you will also come away having learned a lot of other fascinating tidbits of information too.

There are actually two different edition of Austerlita in circulation (new and second hand) in the UK. Starved since the author’s death in 2001 of any new substantial ‘product’ to sell, you could accuse Penguin books of cashing in by reprinting “Austerlitz” in a ‘tenth anniversary’ edition a few years ago. Certainly those familiar with the work should think twice about buying this, since the text is the same. However, the anniversary book contains a very good introduction, which is long on insight and common sense interpretation, and aimed at our good friend General Reader rather than just at students and lecturers. This renders Sebald’s work more accessible to all, and in fact it’s useful not only as an introduction to this book, but also to the writer’s whole body of work. Overall I’d recommend this book as a good place to start with Sebald for those new to his work.

As I stated earlier, this is not an ‘easy’ book, because of the demands it places on the reader’s concentration and because of the weighty subject matter. However, the rewards are there if you put the effort in. “Austerlitz”, unfortunately, became something as a memorial to Sebald, since he died shortly after its publication. In it’s own way, however, the book also stands as a memorial to the suffering of so many. For once the hype was justified: Sebald is one of the great European writers, and this is a seminal work in our shared cultural heritage. This edition and Wood’s intro help to put all this into context.

WG Sebald: A review of his collection “Campo Santo”.

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Campo Santo is a posthumously published selection of works by the German writer WG Sebald. It would be unfair to say this book is for completists only, but it would help if you’ve read at least a couple of his major works before you come to this book, because I would not recommend it for people who are new to his writing. This collection stands as a companion to his longer works, since it amplifies some of the themes and concerns dealt with in those books.
“Campo Santo” actually refers to a few chapters of an aborted work about Corsica from the mid 90’s. These passages are full of Sebaldian atmosphere and observation and as such are worth reading. I’m guessing, too, that reading them is as close to looking into his notebooks as we are going to get: you can enjoy them as stand alone pieces, and there are some memorable passages of description, which as usual are leavened by interesting and quirky facts.  However, to my mind Sebald was clearly still finding his way through this material, trying to find the right perspective to bring to bear, and overall it lacks some of the focus and drive of a ‘finished’ work.

The rest of the book contains essays, reviews and speeches made over three decades. Again, they all help give us more perspective on the other books and may well send you off to re-read them. They also reveal much about Sebald’s views on his own writing and literature in general. There are two pieces on Kafka, several on the relationship between German writers and recent German history, and a review of Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography of Bruce Chatwin which, unlike most British reviews of anything by/ about Chatwin, doesn’t fall into the trap of either praising him to the skies on the one hand, or slamming him as overrated and repeating the more outlandish gossip about his life on the other. Sebald sticks to Chatwin’s writing itself, and confirms himself as a generous, perceptive and above all shrewd critic once again.

Overall this book overall exhibits a quality I really value in Sebald, which is how he tackles extremely important and fundamental questions about european culture in an engaging and original way.

A review of “On the Marble Cliffs” by Ernst Jünger

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Ernst Jünger in later life.
Although the above  photo shows Jünger looking every the inch the aesthete or scholarly type (which, in large part, he was) it’s important to know that this German man of letters was also a decorated soldier, and fought in the German army in both World Wars.
In Great Britain Jünger is known I think mostly in academic circles, and even then his most commonly cited book is Storm of Steel. For many years this has recognised as one of the most notable prose works concerning the First World War.
On the Marble Cliffs is a different kind of book, however. It concerns two brothers, living in a peaceful forest setting, who spend their lives studying botany, enraptured by the flora around them, and enjoying the tranquility and solitude of their surroundings. But their homeland and whole way of life are threatened by a marauding band of infiltrators under the command of the Chief Ranger. Things head for a bloody climax when those who live in the forest in the shadow of the marble cliffs realise they need to make a stand and fight, or else be overwhelmed by the Ranger and his men.
Like that book, Storm of Steel,  On the Marble Cliffs has passages that describe battle with evident skill, knowledge and even relish. However, this is a different kind of novel. Written in the late 30’s, it’s clearly a sideways take on Nazism. From a 21st century vewpoint, I also think it stands up as a general fable on the rise of all the regimes that use terror and coercion as their main weapons. Indeed, Junger goes out of his way to give this a ‘timeless’ quality, in the sense that a reader could imagine it taking place in virtually any epoch one cares to imagine. As a political fable, it’s a very good book of its type.However, Junger definitely had the Nazis in his sights when writing this, which makes it all the more noteworthy how it managed to get past the Nazi censors at all in the late ’30’s. It was a bestseller at the time and was only belatedly withdrawn from sale. (Apparently Goebbels is depicted as a character in the novel, and the Propaganda Minister was rather flattered by the portrait, which may have induced him to turn a blind eye…for a while. ) While its escape into the public domain remains something of a cause celebre for the book, it does stand up on its own terms, and is therefore much more than a historical curio or literary document forever tied to its era.

Try to get hold of a copy of this if you enjoy writers like Hermann Hesse. Junger writes in a similar style (i.e. a fable) in this novel, and deals with similar grand themes. Chief among these is the perennial European tension between those who want to dedicate themselves to great, peaceable works, and those who would rather go round tearing things up and imposing their own will and vision on people. I didn’t come away from the book feeling like Junger had provided many answers, but he depicts the tension vividly nonetheless.

Such a shame, then, that this book appears to be out of print and hard to find. I’m sure its time will come again, however. It remains a key work by Ernst Junger and an important work in the European canon.

Last words from ‘The Leopard’.

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Lampedusa, London, 1930’s: Publication and fame were still a long way off, but he demonstrated his ‘monster’ talent even then.

As I wrote the other day here the fact that Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa published only one full length novel is not grounds for too much sadness, since he did leave other literary remains behind.

The real Lampedusa fanatic will want to hunt down his various notes on literature. In the early 50’s he agreed to give informal lectures on writing and writers to a few select young acquaintances. Lampedusa was formidably well read and loved English literature most of all, and his lecture notes are the fruits of much of this reading. I don’t go out of my way to read literary criticism, but I enjoyed reading this and find it refreshing to get a non-english perspective on writers and writing we think we know so well based on our own received opinions and assumptions. If you can track them down it’s also worth reading Lampedusa’s perceptive notes on Stendhal, which I guarantee will make you want to look (or look again) into the Frenchman’s work.

If you want something a little less specialised, in recent years his Letters from London and Europe have been published. Between 1925 and 1930, long before The Leopard was even conceived of, Lampedusa travelled a little and wrote letters to his cousins back home in Sicily. Their nickname for him was the ‘monster’, and this is the term he uses to refer to himself throughout these letters. Most of them detail his travels around London and the rest of the UK.  Despite being a Southern European by birth, Lampedusa was an ardent anglophile. He loved our literature and our language, and these letters demonstrate how much he was fascinated by our country. Despite his status of published author lying a long way off in the future, even around the time he was writing the letters Lampedusa shows he was a born writer, with the power to engage his readers and bring what he describes alive. Just as well, then, because the Britain of the 20’s and 30’s was a radically different place. So not only do these letters reveal more about their author, but they also give glimpses of how life was in a very different time.

Anyone who loves Lampedusa’s work has to have a look at Ian Gilmour’s The Last Leopard, which is a fabulous book and first-rate biography. It combines a narrative of Lampedusa’s life with pithy commentary on his literary works, and relevant comments on the social and historical context. What I think truly makes Gilmour’s book a cut above is his seemingly total understanding of Italy, Sicily and Lampedusa’s works. Written with full access to Lampedusa’s archive (including items retrieved by the author himself from the bombed out shell of Lampedusa’s former Palermo home, some forty years after the US air raid that put paid to things) Gilmour gets right under the skin of this incredible writer. Coming in at just over 200 pages, this book has the additional virtue of being short (itself perhaps a reflection of the fact that Lampedusa’s day to day life was rather monotonous and his literary output pretty small). However, what Gilmour has to say he says with insight and authority and does full justice the man and his masterpiece. This being a shorter biography it gives you plenty of energy left to go straight back into The Leopard and other works. Lampedusa could have written more, but into his one novel he poured the experience and insight of a lifetime. His other works may be the literary equivalent of left-overs, but take everything together and you’ve got a whole banquet of words.

And  that’s that, surely?

Well thankfully. It seems the cupboard is note entirely bare just yet and I understand that Lampedusa’s letters to his wife are soon to be (perhaps even have been) published in his native Italy. Let’s  hope an english translation quickly follows.