To the victims of mass terror, and to their contemporaries, falls the painful duty of recording what happened, of counting the murdered and missing; to those who come afterward, and to their descendants, belongs the perhaps more complicated responsibility of remembering. How to commemorate the dead? Can victimhood – or guilt – be collective and inherited? How far does the blood-stained past reach into the present?
If these tortured questions are very much on everyone’s mind right now, they also happen to be at the heart of Austerlitz and Flights of Love, two striking new works of fiction by German writers whose obsession with the burdens of remembrance and guilt have brought them deserved acclaim of slightly different varieties. W. G. Sebald is the greater artist but the lesser-known writer: His intricately melancholy earlier novels (Vertigo, The Rings of Saturn, and The Emigrants) strangely juxtapose haunted narratives and grainy photographs. Bernhard Schlink is the author of the 1999 Oprah pick The Reader, a narratively simple allegory about German guilt whose moral implications are dizzyingly complex. Though they focus more or less explicitly on the Holocaust, these authors’ haunted and unsettling new works raise questions that seem, suddenly, to apply to events much more recent than the last World War.
Sebald’s Austerlitz, typically of this author, manages to seem vaguely hollow at the core and yet extremely dense. The hollowness, the feeling that there’s a gap at the center of things, is intentional: It’s a nod to what you could call the moral ground zero of the twentieth century. Appropriately, the novel’s main character is hollow, too. An architectural historian and amateur photographer who prefers things (banisters, stone arches) to people, Jacques Austerlitz was raised as Dafydd Elias, the son of a Welsh preacher. Only as a teenager did he learn that he was, in fact, adopted – the rescued child of Czech Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
Of this past Austerlitz remembers nothing. Suddenly his unruffled if emotionally vacant middle age is disrupted by a triggered memory of his childhood that sets him off in search of details about his real parents. That search forces him to confront not only his own history but that of Europe itself. The recovered-memory motif is hardly just a nod to current psychotherapeutic trends: In Austerlitz, whose ignorance about his own identity has, he admits, made him shamefully unwilling to learn about the Holocaust in general, Sebald has created the perfect “naïve” character, one to whom everything we already know – the deportations, the camps, the gassings – is brand-new. This allows Sebald to write about it as if it were brand-new. The reaction of his character is all too familiar, but still valid. “Every detail that was revealed to me as I went through the museum … far exceeded my comprehension.” Indeed.
And yet, most of the details that you get here aren’t details about the Holocaust. Like his other novels, Austerlitz is filled with intimate descriptions of a host of seemingly unconnected items: the architecture of star-shaped fortresses, the spa at Marienbad, scarlet macaws and horned parakeets, Turner watercolors, neglected Jewish cemeteries, porcelain figurines and old mortars in a Czech shop window. All these are catalogued in the detached, emotionless manner you associate with the descriptions of objects found at crime scenes. Which, in a sense, they all are: For Sebald, all of Europe is a crime scene, and part of the intense if daunting pleasure of reading him is to see how the clues start to add up – and who they point to. If the ancient Belgian fortress of Saarlouis and the eighteenth-century fortress city of Terezín, which later housed the Theresienstadt camp, both share the same star-shaped plan, or the healthful waters at luxurious Marienbad come from a spring called Auschowitz, perhaps Europe itself is inherently doomed and guilty? The breadth of Sebald’s fascinations with concrete things is merely the visible symbol of the breadth of his moral and historical imagination.
The metaphor of the crime investigation ultimately reaches out to envelop the reader, too. Anyone who’s read Sebald before knows the uncanny and slightly anxious effect that his use of photographs creates, forcing you to think back about what you’ve been told about them and how they look, compelling you to compare the narrative and the visual evidence, to wonder whether each hasn’t been fabricated to fit the other in order to create a palatable story we can tell ourselves. This, of course, is precisely what Austerlitz himself is forced to do. This book feels a little flatter than Sebald’s others, perhaps because here the author places a character, however hollow, at the center of the terrible event, rather than hinting at the enormity of what happened by working around it, by talking about the “collateral” damage, as he does in the other books; but it is still a shimmering work of art, one that seems particularly affecting just now. It is surely right that Austerlitz’s search for details, for words and pictures that will constitute an absolute truth of what happened, is never resolved, yielding instead an infinite and exhausting regress of more words and pictures. Some crimes, as all of us have recently realized, do “exceed comprehension,” no matter how many pictures we look at; when overwhelmed by actual events, as we all are now, we do well to turn to authors like Sebald to be reminded of history’s greatest lesson, which is that while “we keep staring … the truth lies elsewhere, away from it all, somewhere as yet undiscovered.”
Deceptive pictures, false identities, and individual and collective guilt are the themes that shape Bernhard Schlink’s Flights of Love. It’s easy to believe, after reading the crisp, no-nonsense prose in the stories collected here, that Schlink is a successful detective novelist: Like The Reader, the tales have a surface smoothness that conceals a fierce moral kick. Most are about betrayals – adultery in one, a Stasi informer in another, a failed father in a third – but the best story here is the one that goes to the heart of the questions that so brilliantly structured The Reader. How do the perpetrators of atrocities manage their guilt? In “The Circumcision,” a young German and the Jewish-American girl he loves find that, two generations after the Holocaust, a German can be reduced to a generic type as easily as a Jew could 60 years ago. There’s a lot of generic typing going on just now, of course; like Sebald’s, Schlink’s bold confrontation with this and so many other issues that have suddenly taken on vivid new urgency for us today – moral and political responsibility, the nature of betrayal and guilt, memory and commemoration – suggest that, at a time when to read anything but the news seems like a small betrayal itself, there are at least two books right now worth giving up the newspaper for.
By W. G. Sebald
Random House; 304 pages; $25.95.
Flights of Love
By Bernhard Schlink
Pantheon; 320 pages; $23.