Even if a prose writer stuffs his book full of autobiographical material, he doesn’t care about reality as “real” than his colleagues who write about imaginary worlds, writes author Tommi Melender.
All narrative literature confuses fact and fiction.
There is no novel that is not based on true events in one way or another, but there is no novel that does not subordinate true events to the aesthetics of prose and the economics of narrative.
Every writer has to do tricks to capture the interest of readers.
According to an often repeated explanation, the popularity of autofiction is driven by hunger for reality. Readers miss books that have the magic of narrative but are at the same time “true”.
It is tempting to think that Tove Ditlevsen or Jenny Offillin individuals are not just the noise of the imagination in our consciousness.
That’s what they are, though. Even if a prose writer stuffs his book full of autobiographical material, he doesn’t care about reality as “real” than his colleagues who write about imaginary worlds.
There is hardly a reader who does not feel any hunger for reality.
I, too, feel it from time to time, even though I have lost my innocence in the writing profession. Ani rarely can I read prose so that I forget the built nature of the text.
German author W. G. Sebald (1944–2001) once managed to pull me on an excursion with his novel Austerlitz (Finnish) Oili Suominen, Tammi, 2002).
It’s one of those books with which I have felt a deep pleasure in reading. When someone characterizes Austerlitzia as a masterpiece, I’m not worried about overuse of overwords.
Austerlitzin on the cover is a photograph of a little boy with a flax head in an ornamental costume and a cloaked cape. The photo will also be received on the page of the book shortly after midnight.
Linen Head is the protagonist of the novel, Jacques Austerlitz as a child in Prague in 1939. Or so the narrator of the book claims.
Shortly after the picture was taken, Jacques was sent on a Kindertransport train to escape the Nazis, as were many other Jewish children. Her parents were sent to a concentration camp.
Jacques ended up in Wales and forgot his early childhood. He thought he was Dafydd Elias until he heard his real name as a teenager.
Austerlitz becomes a respected architectural historian in the book, but he suffers from an outrageous anxiety. Only in his sixties does he discover the horrors of his personal history.
The story is sad and touching, but it is sadly familiar. The atrocities of the Nazis filled Europe with tragic human destinies, of which there are many novels written.
From Auschwitz surviving author Imre Kertész called novels that turn Jewish suffering into a spectacle into Holocaust pornography.
Austerlitz does not fall into this category because it does not contain any trace of the flattening of mainstream prose.
“Sebald’s books stand out from all the other books. He managed to realize the impossible ideal of romance: to create something completely original, ”he says Carole Angier in Sebald’s biography published late last year Speak, Silence (Bloomsbury).
Sebald writes like the dead, described one of his creative writing students. The characterization is not entirely endless, as there is a strong sense of otherness in Sebald’s books.
The prose is outdated in tone, almost antique, and does not fit into any distinctive “present moment” but into some mystical dimension between the present and the past, truth and imagination, memory and oblivion.
Sebald also mixes fiction with non-fictional genres such as essays, travelogue, reportage – and pictorial material.
Just the text and the combined effect of the image made me lose my sense of fiction as I read Austerlitzia for the first time.
I believed the narrator’s word and saw the photo in the flax-headed little boy as the child of the protagonist of the novel. I was reading the omens of a catastrophic roll over his serious face.
It was impossible for me to view the photograph other than as a documentary. History spoke in all its brutality.
In interviews, Sebald suggested that the head of linen was indeed the childhood architect of Jacques Austerlitz.
That was a lie. The photograph was not taken in Prague in 1939, and it does not pose for a boy sent to flee the Nazis.
Sebald found an old British photo postcard at the flea market, which was staged as a childhood image of the protagonist of his novel. Linen Head is an unknown English child.
About the biography it turns out that Sebald had an overall creative relationship with facts and sources.
The pictorial materials related to the persons and events in his books – photographs, documents, newspaper clippings – are largely forged, not genuine archival finds.
In his prose, Sebald took advantage of the life stories of real people without asking permission and without mentioning sources.
“Steal as much as you can,” he said of creative writing to his students.
The instruction may sound bleak, but for a prose writer like Sebald who turned everything that came before him into a text, it was an everyday activity.
In Sebald’s honor, it must be said that he did not use his books as a means of revenge, unlike, say Philip Rothwho blackmailed her ex-spouses.
The name of the biography Speak, Silence crystallizes the starting point of Sebald’s production, the breaking of the silence surrounding Germany’s Nazi past.
Sebald was born in 1944 in a small Bavarian town, and did not hear of any Jewishness during his childhood. When the Holocaust was revealed to him in high school, he began to hate the conscious dumbness of his parents ’generation.
The guilt of the innocent participant would be angry. Sebald wore it like a lead jacket, it forms a deep flow of his production.
The biographer Angier, whose Jewish parents escaped the Nazis from Vienna at the last minute, talks about Sebald’s “unique empathy” for the victims of the Holocaust.
As for the literature can you tell about the horrors of history?
Sebald pondered this question throughout his career as a writer, which was sadly short due to his untimely death.
In a book about the bombing of German cities Air War and Literature Sebald emphasizes the ideal of truth. Only it provides a legitimate basis for dealing with total destruction.
But how does the ideal of truth go hand in hand with the fact that Sebald enticed his readers to believe the staged material to be authentic? Doesn’t such manipulation play at worst into the bag of far-right Holocaust deniers?
Such questions are legitimate and there are no exhaustive answers to them. Before wiggling your fingers, it’s worth remembering that Sebald’s books are, above all, narrative literature.
They do not seek objective truth, but the truth of fiction. They nurture our imagination rather than increase our amount of information. Both are needed to maintain historical memory.
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