Interlocking spaces: Self, Sebald, Zweig
First, congratulations to Anthea Bell, who has won the 2010 Schlegel-Tieck prize for German translation, for her work on Stefan Zweig’s compelling novella Burning Secret. It has been a good season for Bell, one of the finest translators around. In December, The Independent named her one of its “literary heroes of the Noughties”, and she has now been appointed an OBE in the New Year Honours for services to literature and literary translations.
Nothing if nor versatile, Anthea Bell has worked on everything from Astérix, to Freud and Kafka, and in recent years she and the admirable Pushkin Press have done much to bring the works of Stefan Zweig to an English-speaking readership and revive his reputation as a major writer of the 20th century. (You can listen to the novelist Paul Bailey discussing Zweig with Anne McElvoy on Radio 3’s Night Waves here.)
Bell's translation of W G Sebald's final novel Austerlitz – on which she worked closely with the author (pictured) – won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2002. It was appropriate, then, that the award was among those presented, at a ceremony at Kings Place in London on Monday night, by the British Centre for Literary Translation, founded in 1989 by Sebald himself.
The prizegiving was followed by the annual W G Sebald lecture, which this year was given by the novelist Will Self, and introduced by Professor Amanda Hopkinson of UEA. Entitled Absent Jews and Invisible Executioners: W G Sebald and the Holocaust, it was a searching examination of Sebald’s work in the light of Theodor Adorno’s (subsequently retracted*) statement that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” (By coincidence, Radio 4’s In Our Time this week featured an informative discussion of Adorno and the Frankfurt School.)
Born in Bavaria at the end of the Second World War, Sebald studied under Adorno at Frankfurt before coming to Britain in the 1960s, and taught at the University of East Anglia for many years. Since his death in a car accident in 2001, his books, an utterly sui generis blend of fiction, history, travelogue and memoir, interspersed with enigmatic “found” photographs, have gained a wide following.
Sebald’s works, which include The Emigrants, Vertigo, The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz, are almost unique among postwar fiction by non-Jewish Germans for their depiction of the lives of Jews affected by the Holocaust; Self contrasted them tellingly to Schlink’s The Reader, which has no named Jewish characters, and is all about the effect of the Holocaust not on its victims but on its perpetrators.
The talk ranged widely, covering Sebald’s relationship with the past, his father’s war record, and the way in which his adoption by the English as a lovable, tweedy curmudgeon may obscure the more troubling aspects of his work. Self also examined the ethics and efficacy of Holocaust commemoration in general, asking whether Britain’s Holocaust Memorial Day (on the 27th of this month) is not an indulgence, an opportunity to remind ourselves complacently that “we didn’t do it”, instead of a chance to reflect on the fact that mass murder is “something humans do to other humans from time to time”. Sebald, he pointed out, also refers to the atrocities committed by the Belgians in Congo that formed the basis of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and which (in Sebald’s words) made Brussels “a sepulchral monument erected over a hecatomb of black bodies.”
In Sebald, the dead and the living coexist, the past, like a miasma, is all around us, in the very fabric of our being. Will Self quoted a haunting passage from Austerlitz that sums up this idea of the permanence of events:
Sebald’s work is, ultimately, an act of atonement, and a memorial to the lost world of German-Jewish culture – the world of which Stefan Zweig’s work also speaks so eloquently from the other side of the catastrophe.heart of darkness, holocaust, joseph conrad, literary translation, pushkin press, stefan zweig, wg sebald, will self
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