W.G. Sebald is one of my favorite writers, and, as luck would have it, I picked up a copy of Vertigo this weekend (we talked about this already). Vertigo is a story so very concerned with memory and the strange evolution of our recollections (hell, Sebald is a writer so very concerned with memory and the strange evolution of our recollections) so it’s pretty fortuitous that I picked up a copy at a time when I’ve started to seriously think (again, finally) about my own motivations for the way I write. When I finally decided to dive back into the strange and satisfying and frustrating pool of writing after lounging on the beach for much of the summer.
Of course Sebald’s grappling with his past is much different than mine; to say it’s much more fraught is to be woefully understated. With a father who was a member of the Wehrmacht during the Second World War, Sebald certainly had horrifying and confusing demons to contend with and those specters cast a long shadow over all his work. But it’s the way in which Sebald treats those memories, or rather, does not treat them, that interests me. When his father returned from the PoW camp where he had been held until 1947, the family never spoke of his father’s role the war, in the Holocaust. Apparently they never spoke of any aspect of the war and Sebald could only draw conclusions the way many of us did—from the outside looking in. He saw the physical ruined remains of this country—the destroyed buildings, the ravaged countrysides. He saw images from Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. He read history books in school. And so imagine what that kind of circuitous journey does to one trying to piece together one’s past. THAT past. Then, imagine trying to actually articulate it. To describe not only what happened (and you could read every single novel in the canon of Holocaust literature and realize that no one, even the most gifted and eloquent and brave writers have come close), but your own strange and uncomfortable relationship to it. So, I think to deal with a very charged past, Sebald had to come at it slanted. His stories, littered with images as blurry as the lines he draws between memoir and fiction, are often meditations on the unreliability of memory. The protagonist in most, who goes by the not-terribly-disguised name of WG Sebald (sometimes he’s referred to as “Max” which is the diminutive of his second middle name, Maximillian), is peripatetic, wandering, rucksack slung over his shoulder, over England and parts of continental Europe. (It’s hard not to see the wandering as a kind of necessary movement, the way a shark must keep swimming.) He visits historical sites and old friends. He takes trains and re-traces the steps of long-dead family members. He includes photographs, hazy, black and white ones, as if their inclusion would somehow make whatever it is he’s trying to access clearer. It’s not clear, though. At least it’s not well-defined (is that the same thing?). But his intent, I think, slowly starts to emerge from the words on the page. He’s clearly a man who was trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.
But isn’t that what recall is, in a way? Our memories are tricky things. We think we have a hold on them, but really, it’s the other way around (like John Irving wrote in A Prayer for Owen Meany, “You think you have a memory; but it has you!”). No matter why; our memories have a mind of their own, so to speak. Our recollections twist and contort, all the while as the light that shines on them dims. It’s so hard to see them clearly.