Friday, January 24, 2014

The sepia saga business - De Waal borrows Sebald's voice

What Sebald did for me was to say that a particular voice was allowed.  That voice was very internal, very quiet and credible across a whole piece of writing.  I think I learnt that entirely from reading Sebald.

Edmund de Waal did a little interview with a “pick five books” theme.  W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz was one of them; see above for why.

It is possible that I could write another post about de Waal and Walter Benjamin, another of his five picks, if only I had read Benjamin.

From the quotations I used yesterday, I would not guess that de Waal was especially Sebaldian, but he has more than one rhetorical mode, and at least one of them is the one he describes in the interview, Sebald played on a less complex instrument.  This is aside from common interests in modern European history, or the meaning of objects, or the meaning of loss.  De Waal has separated himself from Sebald enough to put captions on the images he uses, although he is writing non-fiction, which has different standards.

Some odd coincidences pop out.  De Waal’s great uncle, the one from whom he inherits the netsuke, was homosexual (a word never used by de Waal).  He finds a home, a career, and a companion, a husband, in Japan after World War II.  Part Four of The Hare with Amber Eyes is a portrait of the marriage of Iggie and Jiro, “my Japanese uncle.”

They explored Japan together, travelling to an inn that specialized in river trout one weekend; to a town on the coast for an autumn matsuri, a jostling parade of red-and-gold floats…  But music was closest to the heart of their life together…

And this is the fourth resting-place of the netsuke.  It is a vitrine in a sitting-room in post-war Tokyo looking out across a bed of clipped camellias, where the netsuke are washed late at night by waves of Gounod’s Faust, played loud.  (310-11)

This text is above a photo of the two smiling men, the young Jiro’s hand on the balding Iggie’s shoulder.  You can see it at de Waal’s website, along with a shot of Iggie and his vitrine.

Readers familiar with The Emigrants will likely find it hard to escape an overlay of the section of that books about Sebald’s great uncle, Ambros Adelwarth, and its narrative about his gay marriage before the fact, including this weird intersection:

Once, at Mamaroneck, said Aunt Fini, Uncle Adelwarth spent all of one afternoon telling me about his time in Japan.  But I no longer remember what he told me.  Something about paper walls, I think, about archery, and a good deal about evergreen laurel, myrtle and wild camellia.  (79)

The next page has a photo of a pagoda built over a lake, perhaps that “floating and well-nigh empty house” where Adelwarth lived for a time with his Japanese lover.

Why does de Waal need Sebald’s help?  Because he is not a writer. 

I know that my family were Jewish, of course, and I know they were staggeringly rich, but I really don’t want to get into the sepia saga business, writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss.  And I certainly don’t want to turn Iggie into an old great-uncle in his study, a figure like Bruce Chatwin’s Utz, handing over the family story, telling me: Go, be careful.

It could write itself, I think, this kind of story.  A few stitched-together wistful anecdotes, more about the Orient Express, of course, a bit of wandering round Prague or somewhere equally photogenic, some clippings from Google on ballrooms in the Belle Epoque. It would come out as nostalgic. And thin.  (15)

This is early.  De Waal has not even started researching the book.  He is expressing his fear about how to tell the story he wants to tell, how to avoid all of the clichés and received ideas of the genre.  He needs to do a lot more work – the book is in part a chronicle of his work – and he needs a model for the voice.  He finds it in Sebald.

Perhaps a new set of clichés will form around Sebald as his style hardens and dims in the hands of his imitators.  Not yet, though, not in The Hare with Amber Eyes.  Of course de Waal does write a narrative of loss.  But it is not nostalgic, not thin.


  1. "De Waal has separated himself from Sebald enough to put captions on the images he uses, although he is writing non-fiction, which has different standards."

    What claims to be non-fiction, actually. Going back to Defoe at least, claims to be writing non-fiction raise questions as to the truth of what you're saying. That's aside from the fact that Sebald's fiction has an awful lot of verifiable fact in it.

  2. De Waal never really set off my "this is fiction" alert. But I never turned off the sensors. You never know. At this point, though, I am happy to call de Waal's book non-fiction without an asterisk.