Time and silence

“Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us? Laurence Durrell, Justine

Durrell’s silence, of course, is of the metaphysical variety. Call it the silence of God in the face of all that grieves or frightens us. Or, it’s the silence of the cosmos, indifferent to individual happiness or pain, striving merely to endure. Call it what you want, but we need, now more than ever, the seers, the artists, the visionaries of one kind or another, to interpret the silence for us. German writer W.G. Sebald is just such an artist. Arriving out of nowhere with the English publication of his book The Emigrants, in 1996, he has quickly become indispensable.

I am sitting here staring at the photograph on the cover of Sebald’s latest book, Austerlitz: a portrait of a child wearing a white harlequin costume, cape over his shoulder, tri-corn hat in hand. The boy stands alone in an empty field of brown grass, the photo blurring at the edges. It is, like all the photos sprinkled throughout Sebald’s work, singular, haunting, strangely muted. The image excites curiosity and leaves one feeling wary at the same time. Simply put, the boy in the field suggests a story, or a life, and not necessarily a happy ending.

But then no one has accused Sebald of happy endings. He’s about bigger business, and as each new book appears, his critical reputation grows. It is difficult, and perhaps even counterproductive, to describe exactly what Sebald does. What you can say is that no one else is doing it. Maybe no one else can do it. Like his precursors Kafka and Borges, Sebald’s brew is both potent and inimitable. With surprising clarity and power, given the scope of his work, Sebald melds fiction, history, science, philosophy, biography, travelogue and memoir into an organic whole. The stories he tells meander and crisscross, turn back, retread, mirroring their peripatetic narrators, who seem fated to shuffling along every byway of a dark European continent … snapping pictures as they go. These images (maps, drawings, as well as photos) serve as odd emblems: notes of authenticity or, paradoxically, simply the building blocks for elaborate fabrication. Regardless of provenance, the pictures manage to be ordinary and startling at the same time. As Susan Sontag remarks, they “ … infus[e] the plainest idea of verisimilitude with enigma and pathos.”

Whether or not Austerlitz, the central character (and narrator once removed) of the new book, is real or invented, makes no difference. I suspect he is both, and the story he tells, while no doubt peppered with fancy, is essentially the sad chronicle of Europe’s tumultuous 20th century. Orphaned at 4, Austerlitz, through the final efforts of his parents, is sent from Prague to England to live with foster parents. The older couple who take him in, though well-meaning, are emotionally ill-equipped to raise him. Most of his childhood is spent in boarding school and vacationing in his best friend’s happier, though no less odd, home.

The narrative then makes a substantial leap, and we next encounter Austerlitz in middle age. He has spent most of his adult life as an architectural historian roaming the cities of Europe and carefully avoiding any thoughts of his origin. Gradually, though, he begins to sense a history, personal as well as general, underneath the façades of the structures he studies. Ghosts and memories begin to manifest out of the very brickwork and stone, and soon Austerlitz is unable to continue as he always has. To Sebald’s credit, he doesn’t resolve this crisis in any pat or condescending way. The crisis, in a sense, defines Austerlitz and allows him to finally find his way home.

If what Austerlitz ultimately learns isn’t fully satisfying, it does offer moments of reprieve. Sebald, after all, didn’t create the world; he is merely a chronicler. His achievement, through erudition, imagination and what I can only call spirit, is to construct a reality that mirrors, and amplifies, the time in which we find ourselves. Within the pages of his books, at least, the dreadful silence becomes imbued with meaning and hope. That is no small gift.