Critical Response: W.G. Sebald and Michael Ondaatje


This essay was supposed to examine reviews of two books, one of which I loved (Sebald's Rings of Saturn) and one I disliked (Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter) on first reading. On second reading, it grew on me quite a bit. Anyway, we had a page-limit, so I only ended up discussing the book I liked.

The articles mentioned in here are: 

Aciman, Andre. "Out of Novemberland." The New York Review of Books (1998). New York Review of Books. 3 Dec. 1998. Web. 16 May 2010.

Lewis, Tess. "W.G. Sebald: the past is another country." New Criterion 20.4 (2001): 85. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 16 May 2010.

Critiques of and essays about Sebald’s Rings of Saturn seem almost always universally focused on the form Sebald has chosen for his novel: a rambling travelogue, somewhere between fact and fiction, in which digression is the point of the exercise. What holds the narrative together is the creative force of the saturnine narrator’s mind imparting order on a collection of seemingly random bits of information. There’s a tension that arises from the way the narrator seems inevitably led to and finally overwhelmed by the way the violence of history claims us at every turn, but in fact this occurs as a result of the narrator’s own obsessive search for the traces the creative mind (both generative and degenerative) leaves on the human and geographic landscape: he is obsessed, in other words, with the act of remembering. This is the engine that drives the story.

Whether or not critics found this effective was dependent on what they felt Sebald’s goal was, and also, whether they viewed it as of-a-piece with his earlier writing in Vertigo andThe Emigrants. Andre Aciman, who compared it unfavorably to The Emigrants, in his review states that Rings is “about Sebald. All the rest is tangential, if we accept that he will always be portrayed tangentially, because it is not his portrait he is exactly after either…[“Rings”] is saddled with a problem it cannot resolve or even address: that of the dislodged identity…his fundamental concern is not so much with exile, or transmigration, as it is a long meditation on the subject of displacement, from one’s times, one’s society, and ultimately—this is the hardest to articulate—from oneself.” Later, he tells us, “the problem here is not that Sebald’s view of himself is recursive; the problem is the Sebald’s view of recursion…is interesting as an idea only; it is conveyed intellectually, not aesthetically; it is not experienced, it is merely worded. Ultimately it is drawn from the content of the author’s life, not worked into the form of the book about that life.”

On the other hand, Tess Lewis tells us that “faced with history, which ‘staggers blindly from one catastrophe to the next,’ the only certainty Sebald can establish is a variation on Nietzche’s eternal return that he calls the ‘phenomenon of apparent duplication’. Instead of being condemned to repeat our past, we are continuously pursued by the ‘ghosts of repetition’.” However, she later tells us “prominent as they are, the patterns of recurrence, eerie similarities, and the obscure laws of coincidence are not the most important element…it is the act of remembering the dead, the recalling of things lost or destroyed that is most significant… for Sebald, as for Chateabriand, a presiding spirits of Rings, ‘from the very outset, recapitulating the past can have only one end, the hour of deliverance’.” She concludes that “the past is always another country, and it is always Sebald’s true destination. His geographical sites, however picturesque or fraught with significant correspondences, are merely gateways into a past that is most likely absurd and appalling. Out of his despair, Sebald has created a kind of refuge. We can find comfort in his prose, but before long we, too, feel on our backs the wind from the deepest regions of death.”

I tended to agree more with Lewis, and if I had to write a review, it would probably fall closer to hers than to Aciman’s. Part of that is based on my my own initial impression of the book, which was that it worked well for me as a narrative. In reading the book, what struck me was not the recurrences Aciman mentions; those were unsettling, but only insofar as they pointed us to the imperfections of memory, which can never truly transcend the lonely individuality of mind and moment. After all, Sebald’s recurrences are never true returns, whatever resemblance they might bear to other experiences. What struck me was the implicit question that Sebald poses: how far can memory take us? It’s clear by the end of the book, that in the view of the immobilized narrator, decline and destruction are inevitable: that everything created is created to be lost.  If those who do not remember their history are doomed to relive and repeat it, what fate awaits those who do? The answer, perhaps, is the book itself: it is in transforming memory that we can achieve a sort of peace.


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