I only encounter my dad’s young self through photographs, and yet over the last few months the face I knew directly has been overlaid with the one in the images I study, so that, when I happened to look at a portrait taken a few years before he died, I was surprised to find him old.
Last week I stitched into (a copy of) a photo I’ve used previously (posts #90+95) which shows him as PoW. The idea was to explore suspending a photograph from something mounted inside the picture. When I took quick snaps I was intrigued by the results. The original object is small (5×7”), but here a different sense of scale and spatial dimensions emerged, as well as aspects of drawing. I’ve ordered prints and will chose a few to stitch into again.
I find some of these thread-drawings quite beautiful, in a melancholy way. This pleases and (of course?) worries me. But maybe that question in itself is interesting: Am I allowed beauty in this context?
I’ve re-read W.G. Sebald‘s Austerlitz and all the way my heart&brain seemed to bob in arctic seas, little lumpy ice-floes, or burn from uncontrollable fevers. I must confess that I read German authors with a degree of distrust, probe their words for instances where they overlook …, make excuses, self-justify, consciously or unconsciously. I’m prone to it myself, as I well know. Fact is: my father is both blind spot and flickering light as I glance at things I really really want to turn away from.
Sebald I trust utterly.
The book is without paragraphs, and (apart from occasional, very grainy b/w photographs set into the text) each page is a block of lines, which in the course of reading become an intermittent flow of devastatingly precise prose. Actually, this flow is stemmed once, quite early in the book, by a scream entirely made up of A’s, over three centred lines – as if all language started and ended there.
Sebald is unconditionally committed to being truthful, and charts and scrutinizes facts and effects of the human catastrophe that is the holocaust. Memory, remembering, is for him a deliberate and without fail fraught act, and a matter of emotional life and death. Grief, sorrow, dread, horror, need to be faced, without solace. Not knowing is terrible. Knowing is terrible. This is true for both sides, with different implications, but the latter allows moments of connection.
For me the text is almost a life-entity, breathes.
The narrator never speaks. He listens, accompanies, becomes a receptacle for Austerlitz’ story, with all its silences, hesitations, uncertainties. All he can do is bear witness, (try to) bear what he hears. Austerlitz, it turns out, was sent from Czechoslovakia to England on the Kindertransport at the age of four. He ends up in Wales, is given a new name and ‘forgets’ where he comes from. Decades later he painfully, laboriously, driven almost against his will, starts to assemble tiny scraps of information about his Jewish family, the circumstances of his parents’ disappearance and murder. Everything he learns leads to more questions, points to what cannot be known yet must be attempted. Remembering comes at a huge cost, but the effort to keep memory at bay is so enormous that it seeps into every aspect of his life:
“I did not read newspapers because, as I now know, I feared unwelcome revelations, I turned on the radio only at certain hours of the day, I was always refining my defensive reactions, creating a kind of quarantine or immune system which, as I maintained my existence in a smaller and smaller space, protected me from anything that could be connected in any way, however distant, with my own early history. Moreover, I had constantly been preoccupied by that accumulation of knowledge which I had pursued for decades, and which serves as a substitute or compensatory memory. And if some dangerous piece of information came my way despite all my precautions, as it inevitably did, I was clearly capable of closing my eyes and ears to it, of simply forgetting it like any other unpleasantness. Yet this self-censorship of my mind, the constant suppression of the memories surfacing in me, Austerlitz continued, demanded ever greater efforts and finally, and unavoidably, led to the almost total paralysis of my linguistic faculties, the destruction of all my notes and sketches, my endless nocturnal peregrinations through London, and the hallucinations which plagued me with increasing frequency up to the point of my nervous breakdown in the summer of 1992.”