Sunday, February 21, 2010

Books of disquiet

Two references to Thomas Bernhard made last month by two of Britain's most prominent novelists are unremarkable in themselves, yet still surprising. Eleven years ago, when I wrote an introductory essay for Spike Magazine, such references by such people were unthinkable. On Radio 3's Nightwaves, following up his impressive and moving lecture, Will Self acknowledges that WG Sebald has strong affinities with "the lapidary monologuing" of Bernhard, yet also different because he moved to England in the Sixties. "If he had remained at home", Self wonders:
might he not have become – at the very least – a German version of Thomas Bernhard, a refusenik, an internal exile, his solipsism not modulated by melancholy but intensified until it became a cachinnating cynicism? Instead, Sebald’s writing is anecdotal in feel, and furnished with plenty of English quotidiana – Teasmades and coal fires, battered cod and dotty prep schoolmasters, branch line rail journeys and model-making enthusiasts; enough, at any rate, to submerge any disquieting philosophizing.
A modulated solipsism is nice way of putting it: no cure here, only mitigation; palliative care. The centrality of melancholy to Sebald's work is probably the equivalent of Bernhard's cynicism; manifestations, that is, of contingent facts of life: the peace of the East Anglian landscapes, for example, compared to the venal denial of Vienna. Writers become who they are for many reasons, some more obvious than others. Self's thesis is that distance from Germany and closeness to the Jewish community in Manchester guided Sebald's determination to bear witness to the Holocaust and thereby help to remove the taint on Germany. But more than that: to bear witness to the presence of destruction in the peace of the English present. He writes about the destruction of German cities by the Allies and the destruction of nature in the abattoir of industry. Self's lecture is particularly welcome for bringing the English taint to our attention:
Sebald had no need of a Holocaust Remembrance Day – and I believe that if we read him rightly nor have we English. In Germany a Memorial Day for the Victims of National Socialism is indeed an appropriate response – if not an atonement – for crimes committed, but here Tony Blair might have done better to inaugurate a Refusal to Grant Refugee Jews Asylum Memorial Day, or an Incendiary Bombing of German Cities Memorial Day, or even – casting the shadow forward – an Iraqi Civilians Memorial Day, for these are deaths that more properly belong at our door. For Sebald and for those of us who hearken to his work, there is no need to remember, because the Nazis’ Holocaust is still happening in an interlocking space, while before us are the poisoned seas, the glowing piles and the cold putrefaction of an environmental one.
The blind eye we turn to the implications of Sebald's novels is emphasised by the disproportionate attention given to his least best novel Austerlitz. Had this been less explicitly about the Holocaust, as the three others are, one wonders if this novel would be regarded so highly. When he turned his attention to the Allied bombing of German cities, reviewers used it as a stick to beat opponents of the invasion of Iraq, to align them with 1930s appeasers. Self says "it is hard to imagine Sebald subsuming the emotional reality of the Holocaust to an intellectual abstraction", yet not subsuming the live incineration of Iraqi families is precisely what agitates the cognitive dissonance of mainstream gatekeepers like Daniel Johnson. A cachinnating cynicism would be required instead perhaps. Which brings me to the second mention of Bernhard. In Prospect Magazine, the house paper of the English liberal intelligentsia, Martin Amis caused a fuss by dismissing JM Coetzee by claiming "his whole style is predicated on transmitting absolutely no pleasure":
Amis: People assume that it’s the gloomy buggers that are the serious ones — but in fact, anyone who has ever been anywhere in fiction is funny. Yet there are whole reputations built on not being funny. Who’s that German writer doesn’t even have paragraph breaks?
Tom Chatfield: I don’t know him, I don’t tend to read that kind of German writer.
Steven Poole was the first to point out that "Amis might have been thinking of the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, who in my opinion is extremely funny". Are there any other writers in German who don't use paragraph breaks? Perhaps Amis is being funny himself; after all, who ever gets pleasure from paragraph breaks ("Hit return, baby, one more time")?  My own bewilderment at comments like this – another one would be Jonathan Jones' dismissal of Saul Bellow in favour of a much lesser writer – suggest that Will Self is right to raise the biographical influence on Sebald's fiction. I wonder if this could be the reason why Amis' novels leave me cold, books written by a stranger in a strange land. I have to say the same of Will Self's novels and those by almost every other big name in current English fiction, whereas Sebald and Bernhard and so many other European novelists give me the air in which to live and breathe. Perhaps it's something to do with internal and external exile. High modernism in English is peopled by exiles and aliens: Conrad, Eliot, Joyce, DH Lawrence and Woolf in their own ways, while contemporary writers whose novels have moved me also tend not to be inward with the culture in which they live and work: Sebald himself, Hugo Wilcken, Tao Lin, Jonathan Littell, Agota Kristof, JM Coetzee, Aharon Appelfeld. Of course it doesn't hold entirely and, Colin Wilson-like, one can overplay Outsider art, but what it does offer is an initial diagnosis of the long-term malaise in English fiction. Whereas Sebald and Bernhard expose their fellow countrymen to the taint, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan seem happier to criticise the official enemy than the genocide being perpetrated in their name by young Christian white men (it's not just Amis displaying "­narcissism and [an] inability to empathise"). What is to be done? I'm not implying that English fiction needs to address this subject as such but, to quote another writer not of his land, to find words for what would otherwise remain wordless.

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