The chamber of silence
02 .03 .2015 - Sergio Chejfec
Writers are often asked how they write: where, what with. I don’t know if Sebald ever answered, but if I had to imagine his reply I would say that he wrote inside a chamber of silence.
[Translated by Mark Waudby]I’m not referring to his slow-paced narrative style and the meditation that is an essential part of his storytelling. I’m not referring to the silence of the past either, or those now outmoded solitary and obsolete environments that emanate from his anecdotes and stories. I am thinking in particular about the statutory distance writing keeps between itself and the objects it summons up, based on approximations and uncertainties, and the way this fluctuating distance, which is, at times, more empathetic yet, nevertheless, much greater, expresses a kind of disarray: there is something this storyteller never understands whereas there are other things he does understand, as if we were dealing with a hyperselective consciousness, albeit unpredictable, floating and concentrated at one and the same time. It is a form of disarray which, from my point of view, is less abstract than physical, even though, in the case of this author, his stories have many abstract qualities. This is, to use a pedestrian comparison, a type of behaviour I tend to ascribe to people who are not good listeners.
Did Sebald have hearing difficulties? I’m not aware of any and I’m not particularly interested in finding out if he did. But I clearly remember his comment in an interview when he was asked, in relation to his book After Nature, about the balance or relationship between man and nature1. He replied that he didn’t know why he was so interested in the subject; but if someone has grown up in a mountain village during the post-war period, a place where there were no cars or machines, where the only sounds came from nature, manual tools, or even the houses when the temperature changed, then that person had probably lived through the radical changes of the last few decades and the hegemony of machines, with all the noise associated with these changes. Sebald goes on to give an example. He says that if you move into a house with CCTV, when you look at the footage, you’ll get the idea that the people in the house are there to service the machines. Sebald then recalls the famous image of the RCA Victor dog listening to the gramophone. In other words, the natural life and sound of man.With this example, Sebald evokes the experience of the watcher. The silent subject who observes without being seen. And, by extension, this could be the experience of the scholar or researcher; the person who analyses the traces of others without their knowledge, even when they are no longer there. I mean that this example not only leads Sebald to show the feeling of strangeness triggered by witnessing physical movements around a house, but also to describe the spirit of his customary procedure of depiction, which consists of detaching from the immediate context the fragment or aspect of reality he is interested in investigating; and, in the case of this example, he achieves this by leaving the noise outside this setting. The sensitivity to noise that emanates from Sebald’s version of the way he lived alongside this noise, also allows me to refer to a certain attitude of some of his narrators. I’m talking about their saturnine nature that combines aloof observation and solipsistic reflection: traits that evince, almost theatrically, that typical hesitant disposition of those people who, for one reason or another, suffer some kind of auditory disconnection from their surroundings. This would be tantamount to underscoring attention and stupefaction at the same time; ambivalent states in search of signals that will compensate for how convoluted it can be to relate directly – and above all clearly – to the simultaneous. At times, then, it is not so much about the solitude of the walker, but the isolation of the hearing-impaired.
However, I don’t want to put forward a physiological explanation for Sebald’s characters. Instead I want to tell you about my experience of reading connected to the temperaments of his characters and narrators, whose greatest virtue stems from their sensitivities being diverted. Let us take his tendency to make tireless observations: this is what underpins the delayed elaborations of his descriptive developments. This aptitude, as I see it, stems from the fairly curious mismatch that characterises Sebald’s gaze; because, in fact, historic observation is coupled with the condition of an elegiac nature. I’m referring to a certain romantic disposition that tends to find, in the story, in the objects and, above all, in the different beings, the validation of his presence as an observer-subject. Through his gaze he brings a status of reality to the observed, as if he were incorporating it into the landscape as a result of the same discourse that allows him to evoke this landscape. Even when Sebald criticises this intermittent romantic disposition, which is at times anachronistic and therefore ironic, he may not have perceived it as such (because Sebald is supposed to be taken as a writer who is always serious and associated with grave subject matter, although I can find no explanation as to why). These rhetorical constructions of romantic reminiscences were interwoven into the literature of these years like the unforeseen reincarnations of a buried past.
This is a narrative strategy that bears fruit even when it is not dealing with ancient materials. An example is the last part of Vertigo, when the narrator is sheltering from the rain at night in the waiting room at Innsbruck station: “The down-and-outs then appeared, one after the other, though from where was uncertain, till there were a dozen of them, a lively group gathered around a crate of Gösser beer which had made a sudden miraculous appearance in their midst, seemingly out of thin air. United by the inveterate alcoholism of the Tyrol which is known for its extremism far beyond the region, these Innsbruck dossers, some of whom appeared to have only recently dropped out of ordered life, while others were already in a completely ruinous state, and every single one of whom had something of the philosopher or even of the preacher about him, were holding forth on current events as well as the most fundamental questions. It was remarkable in their disputations that those who chimed in at the top of their voices were invariably the ones who left off in mid-sentence, suddenly silenced as if by a stroke. Whatever happened to be the topic, every point was underscored by highly theatrical, apodictic gestures, and even when one of their number, no longer able to put into words the thought which had just come into his head, turned away with a wave of contempt, it seemed to me as if their manner derived from a distinctive dramatic repertoire completely unknown on this stage. Possibly this was because all of them were holding their beer bottle in their right hands, and were thus in a sense acting out one-armed, left-handed roles. And perhaps, I concluded from this observation, it might be a good ploy to tie the right hands of all drama students behind their backs for a year after the start of their training.” (Vertigo, Vintage Classics, London, 2002, pp. 172-173, translated by Michael Hulse). More than a new episode in the history of realism, it resembles the affected echo of a romantic sensibility. Sebald’s works often contain these kinds of ethnological observations. One of the effects they create is a slowing-down which seems designed to turn the story into the development of the writing process itself. I get the impression that the materiality of the scene comes, on the one hand, from the singularity of the details of the scenes and, on the other, from the absence of the sounds referred to; as if the early-morning episode found an unforeseen and more eloquent texture in the silent description and in the omission of all noise. What occurs inside the bell of silence becomes an avatar of the story, as well as a journey of the conceptual imagination of the first person.We can find another unique example of the unresolved conflict between noise and silence in Austerlitz, also towards the end of the book, when the central character, in a viewing room, watches a fragment from the Nazi film about Theresienstadt, The Führer Gives a City to the Jews, in the hope of seeing an image of his mother. The film lasts 15 minutes. When it is projected, there are certain things he misses, so he has a slow-motion copy made which extends the film to four times its original length. In the new version, the images become more incorporeal, the scenes are difficult to define and the subject matter dissolves in the exposure to the light. And as the situations and movements become more elastic, reflecting a slowness from beyond the grave, the sounds are also distorted: music, voices and noises seem to show the horrific nature they really belong to: “… the merry polka by some Austrian operetta composer on the soundtrack of the Berlin copy had become a funeral march dragging along at a grotesquely sluggish pace, and the rest of the musical pieces accompanying the film, among which I could identify only the can-can from La Vie Parisienne and the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, also moved in a kind of subterranean world, through the most nightmarish depths, said Austerlitz, to which no human voice has ever descended.” (Austerlitz, Random House, New York, 2001, pp. 348-9, translated by Anthea Bell).
The noises state a truth that would be hard to represent were they to be heard at normal speed. The real, then, is tangible insofar as, when it is shown after it has been manipulated technically, it is able to reveal those aspects the “unmanipulated” technique disguises or makes commonplace: rhetorical snapshots that are unable to represent what has happened. In other words, only distorted technology (one could say: deficient or artful reproduction) can reveal the truth without subjecting itself to the protocols imposed by the partisan versions of the truth; and, above all, it can be read as a horror that cannot be verbalised for those who are its eternal victims. This aspect – which could imply a Benjaminesque disenchantment or assertion – also explains that the effectiveness of manipulated technology isn’t underpinned by its capacity for automatic revelation but by its virtue to knock perception off balance. It is no coincidence that Sebald himself, who was so profoundly engaged in iconography and depicting the landscape, chose hearing as a tool for expressing the truth more vigorously, that is, for his system of thought that is hard to represent.
1 Lynne Sharon Schwartz (ed.): The Emergence of Memory. Conversations with W.G. Sebald, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2007, pp.93-117.
Sergio Chejfec is an Argentine writer. Chejfec has written novels, essays and a poetry collection. His works include Lenta biografía (1990), Los Planetas (1999), El llamado de la especie (1999) Boca de lobo (2000), Los incompletos (2004), Baroni: un viaje (2007 and 2012); Dos Mis mundos (2008), La Experiencia dramática (2013) y Modo Linterna (2014). He has been compared to Juan José Saer, which he finds flattering but not accurate. His novels usually feature a slow-paced narration that interweaves a minimal plot with reflection. Memory, political violence, and Jewish-Argentine culture and history are some of the recurring themes in his work. He currently lives in New York City and teaches in the Creative Writing program in Spanish at New York University.