Susan Sontag on W.G. Sebald

Susan Sontag on W.G. Sebald:

IS LITERARY GREATNESS still possible? Given the implacable devolution of literary ambition, and the concurrent ascendancy of the tepid, the glib, and the senselessly cruel as normative fictional subjects, what would a noble literary enterprise look like now? One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.

Vertigo, the third of Sebald’s books to be translated into English, is how he began. It appeared in German in 1990, when its author was forty-six; three years later came The Emigrants; and two years after that, The Rings of Saturn. When The Emigrants appeared in English in 1996, the acclaim bordered on awe. Here was a masterly writer, mature, autumnal even, in his persona and themes, who had delivered a book as exotic as it was irrefutable. The language was a wonder—delicate, dense, steeped in thinghood; but there were ample precedents for that in English. What seemed foreign as well as most persuasive was the preternatural authority of Sebald’s voice: its gravity, its sinuosity, its precision, its freedom from all-undermining or undignified self-consciousness or irony.

In W. G. Sebald’s books, a narrator who, we are reminded oc­casionally, bears the name W. G. Sebald, travels about registering evidence of the mortality of nature, recoiling from the ravages of modernity, musing over the secrets of obscure lives. On some mission of investigation, triggered by a memory or news from a world irretriev­ably lost, he remembers, evokes, hallucinates, grieves.

Is the narrator Sebald? Or a fictional character to whom the author has lent his name, and selected elements of his biography? Born in 1944, in a village in Germany he calls “W.” in his books (and the dust jacket identifies for us as Wertach im Allgau), settled in England in his early twenties, and a career academic currently teaching modern German literature at the University of East Anglia, the author in­cludes a scattering of allusions to these bare facts and a few others, as well as, among other self-referring documents reproduced in his books, a grainy picture of himself posed in front of a massive Lebanese cedar in The Rings of Saturn and the photo on his new passport in Vertigo. Continue reading “Susan Sontag on W.G. Sebald”

The Spanish Holocaust (Book Acquired, 7.09.2013)

20130709-141528.jpg

Paul Preston’s history The Spanish Holocaust is now out in trade paperback. Here’s publisher Norton’s blurb:

Long neglected by European historians, the unspeakable atrocities of Franco’s Spain are finally brought to tragic light in this definitive work.

The remains of General Francisco Franco lie in an immense mausoleum near Madrid, built with the blood and sweat of twenty thousand slave laborers. His enemies, however, met less-exalted fates. Besides those killed on the battlefield, tens of thousands were officially executed between 1936 and 1945, and as many again became “non-persons.” As Spain finally reclaims its historical memory, a full picture can now be given of the Spanish Holocaust-ranging from judicial murders to the abuse of women and children. The story of the victims of Franco’s reign of terror is framed by the activities of four key men-General Mola, Quiepo de Llano, Major Vallejo Najera, and Captain Don Gonzalo Aguilera-whose dogma of eugenics, terrorization, domination, and mind control horrifyingly mirror the fascism of Italy and Germany.

Evoking such classics as Gulag and The Great Terror, The Spanish Holocaust sheds crucial light on one of the darkest and most unexamined eras of modern European history.

And, from Adam Hochschild’s review last year in The New York Times:

An eminent and prolific British historian of modern Spain, Preston says this was “an extremely painful book to write.” It is also, unlike several of his other works, a difficult book to read. The newcomer to Spanish history will nowhere learn the difference between the Assault Guard and the Civil Guard, or between a Carlist and an integrist. Chapters roll on for 40 or 50 pages without a break. A blizzard of names of thousands of perpetrators and the towns where they carried out their tortures and killings overwhelms the reader. “The Spanish Holocaust” is not really a narrative but a comprehensive prosecutor’s brief. With its immense documentation — 120 pages of endnotes to both published and unpublished material in at least five languages, including corrections of errors in these sources — it is bound to be an essential reference for anything written on the subject for years to come.

 

Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (Book Acquired, 6.14.2013)

20130617-133539.jpg

Big thanks to Mr. BLCKDGRD for sending me this copy of Vasily Grossman’s enormous novel Life and Fate. Over the past few years I’ve come to admire and trust BLCKDGRD’s taste, and I generally love these types of novels, so I’m looking forward to getting into this later in the year.

Here’s publisher NYRB’s blurb:

A book judged so dangerous in the Soviet Union that not only the manuscript but the ribbons on which it had been typed were confiscated by the state, Life and Fate is an epic tale of World War II and a profound reckoning with the dark forces that dominated the twentieth century. Interweaving a transfixing account of the battle of Stalingrad with the story of a single middle-class family, the Shaposhnikovs, scattered by fortune from Germany to Siberia, Vasily Grossman fashions an immense, intricately detailed tapestry depicting a time of almost unimaginable horror and even stranger hope. Life and Fate juxtaposes bedrooms and snipers’ nests, scientific laboratories and the Gulag, taking us deep into the hearts and minds of characters ranging from a boy on his way to the gas chambers to Hitler and Stalin themselves. This novel of unsparing realism and visionary moral intensity is one of the supreme achievements of modern Russian literature.

Read our review of Grossman’s novel The Road.

 

“The Easter Hare” and “The Easter Hare Family” by Margaret Arndt

“The Easter Hare”  by Margaret Arndt

It is curious how little children of one country know about the lives and interests of the children of another. Perhaps if English people would send their children over to Germany, instead of their journalists, singers, etc., the danger of an International war would be lessened. The children would be sure to fall in love with Germany; for it is the land above all others that appeals to children. Women are said to come first in America, children are certainly the first consideration in Germany. Froebel’s motto: “Come let us live with our children,” is nowhere better carried out.

A little English girl, named Patsie, came over to visit her German friends, Gretel and Barbara, shortly before Easter this year; and she was much surprised to find all the shop-windows filled with hares; hares made of chocolate, toy hares, hares with fine red coats on, hares trundling wheelbarrows or carrying baskets full of Easter eggs. Moreover there was no end to the picture post cards representing the hare in various costumes, and in some connection with Easter eggs. One of these post cards represented a hare crawling out of a large broken egg just like a chicken.

Patsie asked her little friends eagerly what this all meant.

“Who is the Hare?” she said. “I do so want to know all about him.”

“Why, of course, it is the Easter Hare,” they replied.

“Is it possible that you have not heard of him? O, you poor English children! Why, he brings us the eggs on Easter Sunday morning!” said Gretel.

“O don’t you know,” said Barbara, “he hides them in the garden, unless it rains or is very wet; then we have to stay in our bedrooms for fear of frightening him, and he lays them downstairs in the dining-room or drawing-room. However, this has only happened once since I was born, and I am nine years old; it mustbe always fine at Easter.”

“We have to let all the blinds down before he will come into our garden, he is so dreadfully nervous,” said Gretel. “Then he hides the eggs in the most unexpected places, we have to hunt and hunt a long time before we have found them all. Last year we discovered an egg some weeks afterwards; luckily it was a glass one filled with sweeties; for if it had been of chocolate, we could not have eaten it, after it had lain on the damp mould, where the snails and worms would have crawled over it. Some of the eggs are made of chocolate or marzipan or sugar, and some are real eggs coloured blue or red or brown, or even sometimes with pictures on them.”

“We had two dear little baskets with dollies in them, and a big Easter Hare made of gingerbread, as well as the eggs this year,” said Barbara. “We hunt and hunt in every corner of the garden, and then we divide our treasures afterwards on two plates, so that is quite fair.”

“You are lucky children, why does not the Hare come to England?” said Patsie. “I am sure little English children would appreciate him too!” Continue reading ““The Easter Hare” and “The Easter Hare Family” by Margaret Arndt”

Barry Hannah on Southern Literature

From The Paris Review’s interview with Barry Hannah

INTERVIEWER

Do you think you can still say there is a Southern literature? That people aren’t just hanging onto something that no longer really exists?

HANNAH

Yes. Remember that the South—and this is what people forget—the South is sixteen states and it’s the biggest region. It and the West are enormous country. Of the sixteen states, from Texas on up to Virginia, there is a stamp that means love of language and stories. But that might be the extent of the similarities. Texas lit is nothing like Virginia lit. The Tidelands is nothing like Appalachian. We’re talking about an enormous nation. We’re talking about people who love blacks more than Northerners. We’re talking about people who deeply hate them more than anybody in the world. So, yes, that’s Southern lit but that’s like saying—oh, let us say German lit. Heavily philosophic is what we usually think.

But the Germans also command that you have fun. So we can say certain things about Germans but there are huge varieties, and Germany’s much smaller than the South.

 

“Goethe probably retards the development of the German language by the force of his writing” (Kafka)

 

Goethe probably retards the development of the German language by the force of his writing.  Even though prose style has often traveled away from him in the interim, still, in the end, as at present, it returns to him with strengthened yearning and even adopts obsolete idioms found in Goethe but otherwise without any particular connection with him, in order to rejoice in the completeness of its unlimited dependence.

From Kafka’s Diaries.

 

Krautrock (Full BBC Documentary)

Uncivil Society — Stephen Kotkin

Stephen Kotkin’s Uncivil Society earned rave reviews when it debuted last year in hardback; this week Modern Library releases the trade paperback version. Uncivil Society is a revisionist history that dispels the romantic myth that a “civil society” of dissenting citizens orchestrated the fall of Eastern European Communism (and its symbol, the Berlin Wall). Rather, Kotkin (along with colleague Jan T. Gross) concisely and methodically shows that the Eastern Bloc’s demise resulted from the corruption and incompetence of the ruling class of bureaucrats and ideologues–the “uncivil society” who borrowed massively from the West to buy consumer goods they could not afford. Kotkin finds case studies in East Germany, Romania, and Poland, but his analysis extends beyond these countries to indict the Soviet model.

Kotkin’s writing is direct and precise, stuffed with concrete facts and political analysis without sacrificing narrative integrity. In other words, he takes a murky subject and illuminates it. The narrative proper is slim at under 150 pages, making the book a quick and ideal survey of a widely misunderstood time. Students and politics of history will wish to take note of Uncivil Society, a straightforward and agile read.