- From Kafka to Sebald: Modernism and Narrative Form ed. by Sabine Wilke
As is often the case with collections of disparate scholarly essays, the title of this work, From Kafka to Sebald, suggests a thematic unity and scope that the book doesn’t deliver. The dust jacket’s photographic portrait of Jacques Austerlitz’s mother from Sebald’s novel Austerlitz further confuses matters, since this collection hardly represents a comprehensive critical progression beginning with Kafka and proceeding step by step to Sebald’s last novel, nor is it a critical comparison focusing on Kafka and Sebald. To be fair, scholars familiar with the work of Richard T. Gray, who dealt extensively with Kafka and Sebald, will notice affinities and commonalities among the writings at hand (the book is dedicated to Gray). From Kafka to Sebald is essentially a narratological analysis of what some would view as an arbitrary selection of various works by Kafka, Hofmannsthal, Benjamin, Sebald, Christa Wolf, and the Austrian critic, poet, and novelist Robert Menasse, with the third and longest chapter being devoted mainly to narrative theory as such. Thus, the book is not so much about Kafka and Sebald as it is about narratological theory and practice.
The works of the authors in question provide, in editor Sabine Wilke’s words, “the location of an aesthetic and formal struggle with the main issues of the period, with alienation, urban existence, deception, disjointed life experiences, the collapse of the belief in the possibility of an objective articulation of meaning, the role of language, the fictionality of modes of documentation and the presentation of historical material, the fictionality of life and the performance of cultures, and other issues that emphasize the cultural construction of life experiences in modernism.” This is a tall order, of course, but in this aspect the book seems to acquit itself remarkably well.
One has to admire a book that begins with an article by the famous Kafka scholar Stanley Corngold, in which the author acknowledges the sheer difficulty—that is to say, the near impossibility—of following the narrative progress (or rather, lack of [End Page 200] narrative progress) in Kafka’s Das Schloß. Anyone who has had the patience to read Das Schloß will undoubtedly have the patience to follow Corngold’s illuminating “cartographic” (my adjective) and rhetorical description of Kafka’s narrative technique. What does the protagonist actually want and where is the narrator actually taking him? In order to make sense of Das Schloß, one must get past, in Corngold’s words, “three orders of delay and distraction and distraction from the reader’s expectation of a narrative telos found . . . in the nineteenth century . . . novels of Kafka’s declared masters: Goethe, Stifter, Dickens, Flaubert, Dostoevsky.” One must also recognize what Corngold calls “Kafka-memes”—i.e., recurrent partials taken from other narratives by Kafka and sprinkled throughout the text.
In keeping with the contemporary interests is a considerable attention to “fictionalizing”—i.e., fictionalizing documentary prose in hybrid literature à la W. G. Sebald as well as openly fictionalizing biography and autobiography (of which there are many examples in postmodernist drama and prose). Jens Rieckmann provides an insightful anatomy of Walter Kappacher’s novel about Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Der Fliegenpalast (2009). Interestingly, part of Kappacher’s novel focuses on Hofmannsthal’s novel Andreas oder die Vereinigten (published posthumously in 1930), a fragment that also fascinated Sebald. Rolf J. Goebel in turn explicates Yvan Goll’s novel of urban modernity Die Eurokokke (1927) and, in particular, demonstrates how Goll treats themes that occupied Walter Benjamin in the project that would eventually yield the Passagenwerk, such as “the fascination with exotic personages, apocalyptic boredom, European melancholia, and petty neuroses.” Regrettably, the article gives Benjamin’s birth year as 1982 (65).
Another contemporary issue of interest is the problem of the representation of trauma in literature, which is confronted head on in Gail Finney’s article on two characters of disparate origins in fictional and non-fictional prose, Else in Arthur Schnitzler’s Fräulein Else...