Tuesday, July 26, 2016

European vacation

It's not often that I'll do a book post on this blog with a judgment of "don't read it." And I'm not exactly doing that here. But...

The late German novelist W. G. Sebald has a high reputation as a humanist and a somewhat avant-garde author. His way of writing is his own, certainly. His books, often based on fact, tend to read like journal entries or New Journalism, with generous insertion of photos. I've read at least one, The Rings of Saturn before, and if it wasn't entirely my cup of tea it left me open to reading more of the author.

Austerlitz is his last novel and widely considered his masterpiece. It concerns an old German recounting his youth, when he was sent to live as a boy in Wales and given a new name. After his school days and discovery that he is really Jacques Austerlitz... To be honest I kind of lost track. There seems to be some tie to the Holocaust. Now if the Shoah rears its head in a book you read, or a movie you watch, you probably brace yourself for something good and depressing. But Austerlitz is too impenetrable and frankly too boring to depress.

Part of the problem for me is the formatting. There are no chapters or text breaks, which Sebald shares in common with later works by William Gaddis. But there are very few paragraphs either, and at least one sentence that goes on for more than five pages. If Sebald knew how people read, he bravely and perhaps foolishly set his work against it. Further frustrating me is the narrator, who isn't Austerlitz but meets him several times across European locations. He disappears effectively through most of the book, serving no purpose but to pepper the narrative with "Austerlitz said" and similar passages. Which don't help.

The upshot here isn't that Sebald was a bad writer. But while I like to consider myself a curious reader who can put up with and even delight in a lot of off-center approaches, it turns out I do have my limits.


susan said...

I haven't read any of his work, nor have I seen any of his books and been tempted to read one. From the little I've checked out so far it seems as though he's what might be described as a writer's writer - more fit for a connaisseur of the art than someone who reads for the pleasure of an unfolding narrative like me. I can understand your irritation with the formatting of the book as that would be a real turnoff for me as well. A five page sentence? That may be a record. Of course, James Joyce managed some pretty intense and intriguing prose as well, didn't he? I've read bits of his work but I never became a fan - just a distant admirer.

Hope you're doing well at the new place.

Hoping my link worked this time.. It was the New Yorker article called Why You Should Read W.G. Sebald.

Ben said...

You're pretty much on target as far as Sebald being a writer's writer is concerned. These sometimes work for me and sometimes don't. For example the one book I've read by Harry Mathews (Cigarettes) was quite interesting, although I probably wouldn't put him in heavy rotation.As for James Joyce I'm about where you are as far as fan vs. distant admirer goes. He did provide great Dublin atmosphere, especially when you consider he hadn't been to the city in years when he wrote those books.

The new position keeps me busy which is good. Mostly good, at least. I think I'm doing reasonably well.