This is a novel to be read slowly. I took my time, stopping to digest the sensations and really consider how I felt—I’m finding, as I did in high schoThis is a novel to be read slowly. I took my time, stopping to digest the sensations and really consider how I felt—I’m finding, as I did in high school and college (where I read a lot of German lit and studied a lot of German Expressionism in art) that German works have this effect in me. Ironic, really, considering I am now married to a German and living as an expat in Germany, an experience I find mostly baffling and not entirely comfortable!
The story is that of a middle-aged German literature professor taking a walk along the UK’s East Anglia shores and, in ‘professor-like’ mode, pondering on everything he sees. He seems British and yet not—because he’s a product of displacement: born before WWII in Czechoslovakia, where soon invasion by the Nazis breaks up his family, his father disappearing for good and his mother (later dying in a concentration camp) sending the boy via Kindertransport to London. There, he’s adopted by a Welsh Calvinist preacher. And so starts the process of reinvention—and thus, repression and distorted memory. What little plot there is deals with the fact-within-fiction moments when supposedly ‘author’ and ‘hero’ meet in different locations.
Sebald’s work has always been, as Alan Stewart puts it, about ‘history, loss and memory.’ This strikes a chord in me and goes to the bone, considering my life as the child of political exiles. In essence, the question is: what role does history play in psychological loss (an immense one) and how do we manage its memory? Is forgetting a way of repressing or do we repress, precisely, because we unwittingly forget? From experience and observation, I’d say the former is true: human beings cannot bear the horrors they themselves create in their evolutionary quest for survival, when along the way they destroy others and everything they hold dear. Nazism as an example, exposed as it is by a writer like Sebald, could only survive for as long as it did by the very act of repression which, in and of itself, unavoidably leads to forgetting. So memory becomes witness to history, and not the other way around. ...more
The first time I read Hoffman's short stories was in art school, where our main professor's most obsessive obsession was German Expressionism (which IThe first time I read Hoffman's short stories was in art school, where our main professor's most obsessive obsession was German Expressionism (which I love), a natural extension of German Romanticism (which I also love). They were a total revelation, especially because--more than, say, English-language Gothic writing a la Edgard Allan Poe, all which I also love--we were all blown away by the 'depth' of psychological insight. Sometimes it was almost uncanny, as if Hoffman's writing leaned literally close the nerve. Billed as 'fantasy' and 'horror', these stories actually are in line with themselves, crossing over into early 20th Century surrealism. It's easy to see how he influenced so many luminaries of other artistic forms--such as ballet creators or Hitchcock.
Now, rereading and continuing to read each and every one of his short stories--and IN Germany!--I notice things I missed 20 years ago. Like the similarities with, for example, Freud and even Kant. And the intense connection to that infamous and always present German 'Angst'.
'The Sandman' is, of course, a masterpiece, but I think my favorite is 'Doge and Dogaressa'. These stories have bite and need to be read more than once, which I plan to do. But I think I will try next one of his novels, see how he blends his sarcastic viewpoint in a long form....more