“What is your earliest memory?” — these were the words embroidered onto a square pillow at the center of a photograph posted by Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade or vintage goods. More often than not, Etsy posts offer both commerce and food for thought and this time was no exception.
Austerlitz, the last book of W. G. Sebald, is a narrative dissection of human memory.
This is the opening line from an article by Jens Brockmeier titled “Austerlitz’s Memory” in which he explores the author’s narrative style that brings forth memory in unsettling ways. In Austerlitz, Sebald is once again explicating quotidian realities that undergo changes, both subtle and seismic, as Nazi rule upended, evacuated or extinguished the lives of German Jews who had, for so long, been citizens of the very landscapes in which they had become the focus of persecution. Of this now-quintessential Sebaldian prose, Brockmeier writes:
No doubt, Austerlitz demands a serious reader who follows attentively a meandering syntax without clear paragraph structure, a peculiar mixture of the narrative voices of the protagonist and the narrator, several layers of free indirect thought and discourse, and wide-ranging associative chains that encompass extensive accounts of very specific details that may or may not contribute to a labyrinthine plot, if we can call it a plot at all.
For these two German authors, writing at different times, one (Brockmeier) in response to the words of another (Sebald), himself consumed with the responsibility to communicate affectively and still somewhat dispassionately — but not without effecting the reader, nor, I suspect, himself — the narrativized life of a character whose history embodies events experienced by many others living and growing up in the time of World War 2 … these are great burdens to carry, let along to represent in story.
Sebald’s writing provokes a question in me about the significance of poetics and narrative — what if the subject matter is ugly? How does one write beautiful prose about horrific events? The filmmakers of the documentary War Dance — that follows the lives of children who are recruited to become soldiers in Uganda (as part of the L.R.A.), some of whom have barely reached adolescence — during a panel about beauty in film, wrestled with a similar question: “How do you make a beautiful film about a difficult and deeply upsetting topic?” And the film, both narratively and visually, is stunning.
We ought to remember, of course, that some of our memories are not even our own. They have been given to us, pre-wrapped and fully assembled; yet even these take on new veneers with each retelling. Brockmeier has studied Sebald’s writing, particularly the careful attention with which the latter crafts the nature of remembrance:
The prose of Austerlitz intermingles fact (or apparent fact), recollection (or apparent recollection), and fiction (or apparent fiction), making them indistinguishable. What interests me, however, is not the challenge this prose poses for the critical, narratological, and epistemological reflection of these borderlines, but something else: in blurring the borderlines be- tween the documentary and the fictional Sebald seems to come as close as possible to tracing the dynamics of remembering and forgetting.
Remembering is intimately tied to forgetting; I think often of dreams I can’t remember.
In her Nobel Lecture delivered in December of 1993, Toni Morrison reminded her audience of a simple and awesome truth, “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
My earliest memory is tethered to storytelling — of listening to stories, of lining up my toys to listen to my stories, of constructing tales about my very origin. Another memory, that I am convinced is more mine than given to me by others, focuses on an exchange I had with my grandmother about purchasing $.25 root beer from the vending machine with neighborhood friends with whom I recall spending large blocks of time while my family and I lived in an apartment complex soon after immigrating to the States; this was less of a conversation than an ardent pitch to convince my older namesake that root beer was not, in fact, a version of beer.
These recollections are always of summertime, of heat, of feeling the hot concrete underneath my feet while walking barefoot along the swimming pool, of riding Hot Wheels and racing miniature cars, of being admonished for having friends of both genders, of learning to speak English but not being hampered by my limited language proficiency, of being four turning five.
But these are the linguistic memories, preserved in my mind as storied chunks; I’m not sure what the earliest sentient or embodied ones are, but I do know that I am soothed by the rhythm of a rocking chair or moving train.
I am rereading Sebald alongside Brockmeier now, in part as a way to return to an essay I began last summer and in part to hold on to the glimpses of my own humanity that I re-discovered in this past year; as a promise to do something, to do language justly, to live purposefully.