By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
and neurosis common to many of Sebald's characters are like a sedated version of the raging frenzy into which Bernhard's narrators habitually drive themselves. The influence was most explicit in Austerlitz, whose long pages of unparagraphed meanderings even look like Bernhard's. Most significantly, Bernhard's autobiography, published in English as Gathering Evidence (1985), dwells at some length on his experience of the bombing campaign.
Bernhard was born in 1931. In 1944 he is at school in Salzburg, watching the "hundreds and thousands of droning, menacing aircraft which daily darkened the cloudless sky." Sebald notes that at some level perhaps the German people felt they deserved this retribution. In a childish version of this impulse, Bernhard and his pals, "while afraid of an actual bombing raid . . . secretly longed for the actual experience of an air attack." It happens soon enough, and Bernhard emerges from the shelter to be confronted by "huge piles of smoking rubble, under which many people were said to be buried."
In the course of one of his strolls through the ruined city, the young Bernhard "stepped on something soft lying on the pavement in front of the Bürgerspital Church. At first sight I took it to be a doll's hand . . . but in fact it was the severed hand of a child." As this section of Bernhard's autobiography proceeds, you realize that it is exactly the kind of thing that Sebald says does not exist. Every detail that Sebald claims is buried beneath a blanket of silence is unearthed by Bernhard. At one point Bernhard looks back and understands that "whenever I walk through the city today, imagining that it has nothing to do with me because I wish to have nothing to do with it, the fact remains that everything about me, everything within me, derives from this city. I am bound to it by a terrible, indissoluble bond."
BERNHARD IS THE MOST PERVERSELY contradictory of writers. How perfect, then, that this book which refutes Sebald's thesis absolutely should simultaneously confirm it: "Whenever I speak to people about what happened, nobody knows what I am talking about. In fact everybody seems to have lost all recollection of the many houses that were destroyed and the many people who were killed, or else they no longer want to know when someone tries to remind them," writes Bernhard. "It is like being confronted with a concerted determination not to know, and I find this offensive -- offensive to the spirit."
Again, this is Austria, not Germany (Bernhard insisted the rhythms of his prose were Austrian). If someone adopted a similar critical ploy, using an American writer to correct a perceived traumatized silence in British writing, this would be discredited simply by the geographical distance and historical difference. But Austria borders Germany and, more importantly, the experience Bernhard describes ("So-called total war was getting closer and closer and had now made itself felt even in Salzburg") is practically indistinguishable from the one Sebald is concerned with. If we accept the comparison as valid, two intriguing possibilities follow. One is that by failing to take account of Bernhard, it is as if Sebald has in some way fallen victim to his own thesis, succumbing to the amnesia he describes. The other is that because of their intense stylistic similarities, we already have a premonition of how Sebald himself might have made good the lack he laments. In a proto-Sebaldian moment Whitman declared, "I do not doubt interiors have their interiors."
Yes, and ghosts have their ghosts too.
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