The literary elite likes to keep certain authors to itself. Rather in the way that libraries segregate adults from children, it prefers to keep books by these authors out of the reach of the common reader. Publishers join the conspiracy for their own ends by making it easy to know a book by its cover, so that each finds its target audience and none ever falls into the wrong hands. Popular fiction and its various genres are distinguished from literary fiction by the recognisable styles of illustration used to market them. Literary elite fiction is an exclusive brand with covers that are designed to put everybody else off by making it clear that it is not for them.
The Penguin edition of W.G.Sebald’s Austerlitz has on its cover a sepia-toned photograph of a child running across a field, wearing fancy dress and an enigmatic expression, below which is printed the title and the name of the author, both rather forbidding in a Germanic sort of way, presenting the average English reader with an immediate pronunciation problem. Underneath that is a quote from a review in The Times which must have been chosen as the one most likely to put people off. ‘His tale of one man’s odyssey through the dark ages of European history is one of the most moving and true fictions in the postwar world.’ As if that wasn’t enough, ‘Sebald,’ it concludes, ‘is the Joyce of the 21st century.’ That’s the killer punch, guaranteed to keep Sebald’s book out of the hands of the hoi polloi. You won’t like this, it says. Here, try this debut novel that everybody says is a masterpiece. That’ll be more in your line.
Austerlitz is in fact very readable. It might not be divided into paragraphs, let alone chapters, which makes it seem rather daunting to begin with, but the experience it gives you, if you give way to it, is like being swept along on a wave. A better comparison than Joyce, though no less likely to put people off, it must be admitted, would be Beckett. Two men meet at a railway station, one tells the other the story of his life. That’s it.
Another comparison, one that might actually persuade more people to read it, is Conrad. He made frequent use of this particular narrative device, one person telling a story to someone else, nor was he by any means the first to do so. It is sometimes called a framing device, setting one story inside another, as in The 1001 Nights, but it can also be a distancing device, putting two voices between the novelist and the reader. It is and has been for a very long time a common way of telling a story, a way for the writer to establish his credentials as an honest chronicler (‘I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but it’s what I was told,’ as Herodotus used to say) and a way of making an incredible story credible by putting it into someone else’s mouth.
Conrad does it in his way, Sebald in his. With Conrad, we soon forget who is telling the story. Sebald on the other hand keeps reminding us. The words, ‘said Austerlitz,’ inserted into a sentence, appear regularly throughout the novel, just to keep us on our toes. Sometimes, when Austerlitz himself is reporting what someone else said to him, we get a ‘said so-and-so, said Austerlitz’. In my view, this is meant to be funny. It made me laugh anyway. James Wood, in his introduction to the Penguin edition, describes it as ‘a kind of parody of the source-attribution we encounter in a newspaper’, but then he also has a lot to say about Roland Barthes.
The other device that Sebald uses is withholding information. Austerlitz is a kind of detective story. The story Austerlitz tells starts with his earliest memories and proceeds chronologically to the point where he discovers that he is not who he has been brought up to think he is, that is to say a Welsh boy called Dafydd Elias, but Jacques Austerlitz, a Jewish boy who came to England on the kindertransport in the years before the war and was adopted by a childless Welsh couple. Then begins the detective story. The elements of the genre are all present – a mystery to be solved, an obsessive detective, helpful and unhelpful witnesses, evidence unearthed during the course of an inquiry that takes us to strange, unsettling, alien places – but, as with the old-fashioned narrative device he uses to frame his story, Sebald uses these elements in his own way.
The comparison here, perhaps, is with José Saramago. Sebald abandons paragraphs, Saramago abandons punctuation, but they both make up for it by telling a story that captures and holds their readers’ attention in the traditional way. They both want to be read and not just by the literary elite. Saramago confronts his characters with apparently insoluble problems in impossible circumstances and gives his readers the pleasure of seeing how they cope and guessing how it will end. Sebald engages his readers in an exercise in historical analysis that, because it is located in real places and grounded in real experience, reveals both the history and the analysis as human acts. Both use fiction as she should be used, to turn fact into truth.
You will say (James Wood will say) that it is unrealistic to expect the common reader to overcome the difficulties presented by W.G.Sebald. I say that, if that is the case, the fault lies with the English education system, which has one kind of school for common readers and another for the literary elite, demanding too little of the former and (not infrequently) too much of the latter. Not to mention publishers who serve up identikit debut novels for the masses, keeping the real thing for themselves.
My Reader’s Diary on 23 April will be on a suitably Shakespearean theme.
My essay on 30 April will be a contribution to this year’s centenary celebration of the work of Dylan Thomas.
Click here for an extract from my new book, An Englishman (and his mother) Abroad.