Almost exactly a year after Radio 3 broadcast five podcasts on the work of W.G. Sebald, personal reflections by critics and writers who knew him (Anthea Bell, Christopher Bigsby, George Szirtes, Uwe Shutte and Amanda Hopkinson), the BBC has again celebrated the work of the German writer, though this time with a dramatisation of his final book Austerlitz. Those five podcasts, transmitted in the days leading up to the tenth anniversary of Sebald’s death, were good: illuminating and insightful. Like the evening of remembering staged at Wilton’s Music Hall on the anniversary date of 10th December, they made for a fitting tribute. But no-one thought at the time to add to the epitaph the dramatisation of a work that is, one might think, the antitheses of drama.
This was the second occasion in the last year or so that Sebald’s works have been explored in audio-visual media: the first being Grant Gee’s in-the-footsteps movie Patience made in homage to Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Gee’s film, as the title implies, was a more oblique adaptation, an evocation – drawing on his experience of making arty rockumentaries about Joy Division and Radiohead. But a fully-fleshed radio dramatisation of Sebald? How could that end well?
I wonder now what I might have expected when I noticed Austerlitz in the schedules and bookmarked the time to listen in. Optimistically, I had imagined some sort of monologue: more an audiobook than a dramatisation perhaps. And yet plays have been staged with only one actor and one voice might still be considered a dramatisation of sorts. But although Sebald’s novels would be perfect for radio of this kind – his measured, cumulative sentences have a rhythm and precision that would be utterly mesmeric if read skillfully, by one voice – nowhere in Vertigo, or The Emigrants, or The Rings of Saturn or Austerlitz do we encounter anything that might easily or happily be moulded into the more conventional format of radio drama, with its sound effects and conspicuous music and exaggerated inflection.
It began well enough. An eloquent introduction usefully informed listeners how Sebald’s hybrid works are part fiction, part documentary and memoir, and the first voice, Sebald’s voice, which wasn’t far off how I might have imagined it, as he began his story gave me some encouragement that this would be, after all, a sympathetic adaptation of a difficult work.
So, the first lines were not quite right: ‘Black moths fly upwards from the cemetery. Like dark flowers they flap around me in the evening air. Or take their rest for a moment on fallen headstones before lifting their wings again and rising.’ These are not the first lines of the book and dark flowers do not flap around in the evening air or take their rest on fallen headstones. But never mind, within moments we were with the real Sebald, so to speak, traveling from England to Belgium, to Antwerp and the city zoo and nocturama where a raccoon washes an apple over and over again, as though by this ritual he might escape the unreal world in which he is caught. That the trapped almost Sisyphean raccoon is a metaphor for Austerlitz – and perhaps the human condition – was more heavily underlined in the radio play than the book, but this level of explicitness is just fine and overall Sebald’s languorous and meandering introduction was telescoped elegantly in these opening minutes. Before long we were in Antwerp’s central station waiting-room where a tall, tousle-haired man stared fixedly at the ceiling, or scribbled in his notebook. And then our narrator disturbed him with a question: “Excuse me. I couldn’t help but notice: your interest in the waiting room. Can I ask? What are you doing?”
You have to think here, as Sebald did over and over, about the integrity of the artifice. We accept the work as artifice … of a sort. Austerlitz is a book after all, a book by W.G. Sebald who is an author. And yet it is so nearly convincing. There is nothing, in fact, in Austerlitz, but for the label ‘fiction’, to suggest, in spite of what we know, that the story is anything other than a real account.
In Sebald’s earlier books, particularly The Emigrants, the effect (what Sebald himself called l’effet du réel) was so convincing that it was difficult for critics or publishers to know quite how to describe his four stories (in relation to which Austerlitz is essentially a fifth). One can sense the relief expressed by the interviewer to whom Sebald revealed that Max Ferber is a made-up character based on his old Manchester landlord and the artist Frank Auerbach: ‘so, it was fiction after all’.
Stepping outside the spell of the work, we know it is artifice. But for the reader who has passed willingly under the spell, Sebald scrupulously ensured that nothing, absolutely nothing should break it. He referred once to the clumsily obvious flats on the stage of a conventional novel and indeed there are no visible puppet strings in Sebald, no implied puppeteer. So where does this voice come from as it says “Excuse me”? How does it appear? We are listening to a narrator tell his story. We have passed under his spell (ignoring if we can the rather obvious violins and the soundtrack of … railway trains when we are in the station, squawking animals when we are in the zoo, crying babies when we hear of childhood fears etc.). And then like Wyle E Coyote, our story-teller somehow walks into a tunnel he has just painted on a canvas.
Of course one could argue that a radio drama is a radio drama, and that the podcasts and the evening of remembering and even Gee’s movie, were all aimed at those who already enjoyed Sebald’s books. None of these radio or film or stage events set out to bring his difficult works to a wider audience in the way that a good TV or radio drama might. But one has to choose carefully. Adaptations and dramatisations work most successfully with plays or with novels built from scene, action and dialogue, and Sebald – very deliberately – never resorted to these devices, nor the conventional third person or omniscient narrator. All the stories in his four prose books are told by a narrator who is essentially Sebald, or at least a literary alter ego. And when Sebald needs to go beyond what that primary narrator knows or has experienced he does so through a secondary narrator, who narrates to the first. The same with a third witness and so on. In Austerlitz the narrator’s voice blends seamlessly with the voice of Austerlitz, to the extent that Sebald must remind the reader every so often – with ‘he said’ or ‘said Austerlitz’ – who exactly is telling the story to the reader. At times the narration goes beyond Austerlitz and Sebald methodically tags each witness to the story.
Sebald was not the first to use this, what he called ‘periscopic’ narrative: he acknowledged his debt to Thomas Bernhard. It was, one senses, a liberating literary discovery, and not just a trope to be circumnavigated in adaptations. Sebald said in an interview that he could never have countenanced writing in the third person. In fact he referred to the more traditional narrator of this type as totalitarian and monolithic. One must conclude then that this tiered narrative, and its fidelity to the nature of witness is a very large part of the integrity of Sebald’s literature and one he held dear.
And I have often wondered why. Totalitarian and monolithic – these are weighty condemnations. Is it that, the subject matter of all Sebald’s work being a forensic exploration of the traces of destruction wrought through the history of the Twentieth century, of genocide and natural destruction (the latter often as metaphor for the former), the narrative structure of his books lies in direct, wilful opposition to the horror they explore?
Witness is at the heart of the matter I think. Sebald remains ruthlessly faithful to the idea of witness, though it is a faith that is easily lost when writing a work of fiction. By that I mean that Sebald went to some trouble in doing this. Conventional narrative devices are conventional for a reason: they make telling a story so much easier. And maybe that’s his point. Omniscient narrators, their told scenes and verbatum dialogue, these devices of processed story telling, they might well oil the wheels of a novel, but – so Sebald might have argued – their dark shadows oiled the wheels of a calamitous century too, where story – The Eternal Jew, the thousand-year Reich, the master race – drove genocide. In which case, defying the narrative integrity Sebald worked so hard to create risks missing the point. And then what do you have left? A radio drama based on a great book, I guess. You have Austerlitz in Ambridge.
And yet … I stuck out the ninety minutes. The sound effects were too literal and so rather tiresome. Austerlitz was a strung out neurotic with a reedy voice. And yet … as a condensed evocation of the book, Austerlitz was there. Whether this is testament to the power of the novel, or whether in fact Michael Butt’s artistic instincts for adaptation were right all along, I don’t know. But Austerlitz was there.