W. G. Sebald and "The Questionable Business" of Post-Holocaust Writing

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One will find very few references anywhere to the "philosophy of writing," yet such a category deserves a far more prominent place in today's postmodern and post-Holocaust catalogue of ideas. For implicit in most contemporary philosophizing is the question itself of the status of our very writing about our experience. The best philosophy being done on this issue today, however, is by those writers who grapple in fiction with the heritage of the Holocaust. This essay is an attempt to make more explicit the philosophy of writing underlying the novels of one such artist.

W. G. Sebald had his first of four novels translated into English in 1996. Between that year and his tragic death in 2001, there were many who thought he might yet attain a Nobel Prize. Many readers are fascinated by his mysterious and melancholic "novels," despite the fact they seem so difficult to classify. Are they fiction or based on fact? Are they biographical or autobiographical? Are they really narratives at all or some strange form of contemporary hypertext? Indeed, are they intended to merely entertain in a world fit only for despair, or does Sebald wish to make a political difference by means of his meditative offerings?

Critics are only now beginning to answer such questions. I will argue in this essay that Sebald's originality can only be properly assessed in terms of his commitment to writing about the Holocaust from a postmodern perspective. Indeed, I will argue that his work also reflects contemporary chaos theory, a scientific correlate to postmodernism. And, if it is true that Sebald seems so elusive to readers due to the prevalent allusiveness of his writing itself, T will argue that Vladimir Nabokov and Thomas Bernhard are not only important influences on his work, but that they can also best serve as analogues for understanding his artistic objectives.

W. G. Sebald, born in Germany in 1944, lived permanently in England beginning in 1970 and was a professor at the University of Manchester before his death. His self-imposed exile is due to his disdain for the continued "collective blindness" his homeland displays regarding the events of the Holocaust.1 What needs to be confronted before exploring his response to the Holocaust is the very question of why he chose to write his novels in German at all. Thomas Bernhard wrote primarily to chastise his fellow Austrians for their collaboration with the Nazis and so, understandably, wrote in German. Vladimir Nabokov, moreover, suffered exile from his homeland, and understandably wrote his earlier works in Russian, later translating some of them into English. However, the majority of his masterpieces were written in English. We need to discover why Sebald did not follow the example of Nabokov.

Carol Bere acknowledges the influence on Sebald of Bernhard's original narrative style and points out that Sebald's German prose is not only "difficult" but "old fashioned" as well, conveying a sense of not quite being here in the present.2 Indeed, Bernhard himself remarks in one of his novels about "the stupidity of entrusting oneself to the German language."3 Nevertheless, one might expect the same deficiencies noted in English translations of Bernhard to be present in Sebald's English translations as well. The English versions are said to lose the performative element of Bernhard's language, break up the convoluted length of his sentences, and fail to retain the German transformation of verbs into nouns, to name just a few problems.4 In fact, Bernhard remarks in one of his plays that, though translations make him money and cannot be avoided, they necessarily are "disgusting" because they cannot help but "distort the originals."5

Now it is true that Sebald's translators, Michael Hulse and Athena Bell, have received accolades for their work. While I am not yet aware of any full-scale study of their translations of Sebald, James Chandler does make some passing remarks about their achievement that might help us answer why Sebald chose to use them. …