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MLN 121.3 (2006) 679-698
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Lost and Found:
Disorientation, Nostalgia, and Holocaust Melodrama in Sebald's Austerlitz1
Bianca Theisen and I began discussing the then still-somewhat-mysterious expatriate German writer, W. G. Sebald, in 2001, just before the publication of his final book and his untimely death. In these conversations, we kept circling back to the sense of never having read anything quite like him. His insertion of images into fiction was not new,2 but we, like so many others, still sensed something peculiar in Sebald's form: the way he relentlessly pushed genre borders, especially by continually and ostentatiously placing himself into his books. Were these works facts or fictions? And, what is more, were they autobiographies, novels, short story collections, collages, or travelogues? This latter possibility—seeing Sebald as a writer of travelogues—fascinated us most, not least because of the apparent high/low contradiction: the relentlessly erudite writer of intellectual fiction loved the relatively degraded genre of the travel essay. Sebald, [End Page 679] we discovered, was a travel writer of sorts. As Susan Sontag had written a year earlier, "travel" was the "generative principle of mental activity" in Sebald's writings.3
But what kinds of travels, we asked? And in what ways were Sebald's travels not just journeys through countries but also journeys through books? His voyages often followed explicitly the footsteps of others (Stendhal, Kafka, Casanova), and sometimes took place only in his head, when he read the travel stories of Conrad, Diderot, and Grillparzer. We started to delineate precisely how Sebald's travels fit into this tradition of travel writing he so richly evoked, and we went on to publish, almost simultaneously, two essays focusing on Sebald and travel. Whereas Bianca concentrated on Sebald's highly stylized re-inscribing of German literary journeys to Italy, I examined Sebald's fascination with what may well be travel writing's master trope—the fear of getting lost and the desire to find one's way—in his early 1990s travelogue triptych: Vertigo (1990), The Emigrants (1992), and The Rings of Saturn (1995).4 As I argued there, Sebald obsessively returned to this ancient paradigm—where literary travelers since Odysseus got lost and found their way back home—in order to undermine it, but not as we might expect: he did not claim that we are all hopelessly lost and unable to return to our origins. Rather, he demonstrated how our disorientations never lead to new discoveries, only to a series of uncanny, intertextual returns. This claim went against the grain of what had already become a recurring argument in Sebald criticism: that Sebald's heroes were "postmodern" nomads desperately lost at the turn of our 21st century.5 I maintained that—in these early 1990s narratives—Sebald sustained a decidedly modernist (not postmodernist) tension within this model of lost-and-found. Instead of providing [End Page 680] accounts of nomadism, Sebald's stories presented subjects who could never become sufficiently uprooted, never lose their way at all. Like Freud, Kafka, and Thomas Mann, Sebald viewed modern travel as primarily uncanny. Emblematic was the title of Sebald's essay collection from the same period, Unheimliche Heimat, whose word-play closed the gap between traveling and dwelling, producing the sensation that the traveler, no matter how far away he journeyed, could never really leave his "home."6 In the present essay, I will examine Sebald's last long fiction, Austerlitz (2001), arguing that it turns back toward a more conventional "postmodern" model of lost-and-found, and leads us to consider the aesthetic and ethical dimensions of Holocaust representation.
I. Uncanniness and the Impossibility of Lostness: Vertigo (1990), The Emigrants (1992), The Rings of Saturn (1995)
Beginning with Greek epic and myth and running through to Romantic fairy tales, heroes have traditionally dreaded losing their way: Odysseus held on desperately to his nostos; Theseus unrolled carefully Ariadne's thread behind him; and Hansel and Gretel dropped pieces of bread to guide them safely home. Getting lost...