W.G. Sebald: condemned to speak unsatisfactorily.

23SUBCOHEN-master315Becca Rothfeld at The Nation:

“Not infrequently I unravelled what I had done, continuously tormented by scruples that were taking tighter hold and steadily paralysing me. These scruples concerned not only the subject of my narrative, which I felt I could not do justice to, no matter what approach I tried, but also the entire questionable business of writing.” This is the narrator of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, and his stuttering, paradoxical lament, placed midway through the very story to which it cannot do justice, is a fresh unraveling: It undermines the book we are reading, which we now suspect to have failed, but it also defies its own prognoses for itself. In this way, even Sebald’s modest success—he has written a book he deems unwritable—is presented as a sort of failure. Unable to write effectively but unable to remain silent, Sebald, like his narrator, is condemned to speak unsatisfactorily.

The narrative in question, one of the four novella-length pieces that make up the masterful Emigrants, is a biography of a fictional painter named Max Ferber, a German expat whose parents perished in the Holocaust. (The character is modeled on the German artist Frank Auerbach, now a longtime citizen of the United Kingdom.) Like Sebald, Ferber works uncertainly, wavering between creation and destruction. He paints, then erases, until the vague beginnings of human shapes tentatively emerge, “evolved from a long lineage of grey, ancestral faces, rendered unto ash but still there, as ghostly presences, on the harried paper.”

more here.