Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Burwell, Lincolnshire

One image, two lives

Although I have a literature degree, I no longer read as much fiction as I once did. There is too much else to read: books about Victorian architects, journals by 18th-century travellers, topography, psychogeography… But there is no accounting for it. Sometimes the Sirens sing, and the lure of the novel is too much to resist. They sang for me, those Sirens, some time in 2001, when I picked up in a bookshop a copy of what seemed to be a novel, read the first couple of pages, and found myself confronted by four photographs of pairs of eyes staring at me from page 3, surrounded by text describing the Antwerp Nocturama, home to night-waking jerboas, racoons, opossums, lemurs, and owls, whose large eyes and inquiring gaze remind the narrator of ‘certain painters and philosophers who seek to penetrate the darkness which surrounds us purely by means of looking and thinking’. This was the novel Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald and I had been introduced to the world of Jacques Austerlitz, a man in search of his identity, not in some hippy ‘I need to find myself’ sense, but in the real sense that he does not know his place of birth, his parentage, even, when he was a boy, his real and extraordinary name.

Austerlitz, it emerges, was sent as a small child on a train to England and thence to Wales, one of the many Jewish children rescued from the holocaust by the Kindertransporten, and adopted by parents who wanted to erase any vestiges of his early life, his former identity. As an adult he sets out on journeys, in part to fuel his work as an architectural historian, in part to seek his own history. As he describes these journeys, Sebald scatters images (both the verbal images that pervade his mesmeric prose and the haunting, slightly fuzzy photographs with which the book is sprinkled) of themes, ideas, and objects that at first seem random, later seem to make patterns, and later still chime with events in Austerlitz’s background or his lost early life. And so Austerlitz’s adult interest in railway stations, fortifications, empty houses, luggage, things that fly, stars, builds in significance and throws light on his identity. The result is that his dour upbringing in Wales (his adoptive parents are Calvinists and seem unable either to show emotion or to stimulate him very much at all) is contrasted with a background of culture and wordliness in prewar Central Europe. This odd combination accounts for Austerlitz’s curious character, a mix of the analytical and the driven, of an austere daily life balanced by a taste for grandiose architecture. 

The photographs that punctuate the book (photographs of butterflies and nocturnal animals, railway stations and fortifications, a rucksack and a mosaic) are particularly fascinating. After Sebald died I heard the writer A. S. Byatt reminiscing about her friend ‘Max’ Sebald on the radio. She had asked him about the photographs, which seem to have a fluid, shifting relationship with the text that surrounds them. ‘Those photographs, Max, in your books,’ she said (I quote from memory). ‘Do they show what you say they show?’ To which Sebald replied, helpfully, ‘Sometimes they do, Antonia, sometimes they don’t.’ And so we have pictures that are said, or implied, to be of Austerlitz that may be of the young Sebald himself, but also photographs of real buildings (ones in Prague and Terezin in the Czech Republic, for example) that are exactly the buildings that the book says, or implies, they are, and I know they are because I have been to Prague and Terezin and seen them.

One photograph of an English building brought me up with a jolt. On page 147 of the novel, Austerlitz describes a house he calls Iver Grove, which he sees as a young architectural historian in a period of his life when he visits many of the English country houses that were abandoned, threatened, often ultimately demolished. At Iver Grove he finds a hall, ‘ornamented with baroque stucco work’ in which ‘hundreds of sacks of potatoes leaned against each other.’ This bizarre sight is reproduced in a photograph of such a room, the floor covered with sacks: a country house used an as agricultural store. As soon as I saw this image I recognised it, because it appears in another book I’ve come across, one of the countless non-fiction works that I read and that give me so little time for fiction: John Harris’s No Voice From the Hall: Early Memories of a Country House Snooper (1998), in which the architectural historian John Harris describes his own early life, visiting abandoned and soon to be demolished country houses in England in the 1950s. The house in the photograph is Burwell Hall on the Lincolnshire Wolds (not far from where I was born), and when Harris visited it in 1957 it was full of heaps of grain, sacks of potatoes, even a flock of sheep.

I want to record this parallel not because I’m the only person to have noticed it (others have spotted it too), but because I did notice it for myself and wanted to share the surprise I felt when I came across this picture in its new setting. And also because it is typical of the surprises that await a reader of Austerlitz. The fact that Sebald acquired this image from Harris’s book (presumably he asked permission, although the book contains no photographic acknowledgements*) doesn’t spoil the book for me. It’s still no less Harris’s image for this creative repurposing: the image now has another life too.

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* As printed in Austerlitz, the photograph is framed by a black rule, just as it is in No Voice from the Hall. None of the other pictures in Austerlitz has such a frame. I suppose the frame acts as a silent acknowledgement, if one might use such an oxymoronic term, of the image’s source. 

Photograph from John Harris, No Voice From the Hall: Early Memories of a Country House Snooper (1998) and W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz (2001)


Hels said...

I would like to read Austerlitz. My mother kept all her official and personal family records from Russia but my uncle arrived from Germany via Britain on the SS Dunera. About his experiences, nothing remains.

Thank you for this, the story of a Jewish lad sent to the UK on the Kindertransporte in 1939, and although I have read and written a lot about the Kindertransporte, I had not read Austerlitz. My only concern is the notion of combining memoir, fiction, travelogue, history and biography in prose fiction. Where does the biography start and the fiction end?

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

I wonder where in Wales he found the Calvinists who didn't show emotion: not in this stretch of the woods, I suppose. Ever read the hymns of William Williams Pantycelyn ("Guide me, O thou great Redeemer...)? An emotionless Calvinist Methodist would be a fish out of water, methinks.

George said...

I presume he found the unemotional Calvinists in the same area he found a Calvinist minister who would dare to preach on "the lurid fires of purgatory". John Calvin regarded the doctrine of Purgatory as a blasphemy.

It is most interesting about Burwell Hall. I left Austerlitz half finished some months ago, and should go back to finish it.

bazza said...

Austerlitz would seem to be a work that is hard to categorise. I like that and also novels that mix genres such as Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and, possibly Tristam Shandy. I also like the idea of coming across an unusual photograph that you knew from another place. It reminds me of when one discovers that two totally separate friends from different part of your life are actually Facebook friends of each other!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s never knowingly novaturient Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Philip Wilkinson said...

Joseph and George: Thank you both. I'd assumed he found the Calvinist minister in his head! The character's emotional coldness does not extend to his sermons, by the way. I find the cold side of his character, as portrayed by Sebald (and as merely touched on in my brief and inadequate summary) quite convincing. But yes, Purgatory. What's that Catholic phenomenon doing there? Odd.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: Yes, I don't mind a bit of genre-bending either!