Life-blood: WG Sebald

WG Sebald, The Emigrants (New Directions, 1996 [English translation]).

And the last remnants memory destroys
— Epigraph to Chapter One


I read this book over several months, putting it down then picking it up again weeks later. It’s a meandering and meditative text that gestures toward a point about memory, pain, and shame, rather than declaring it outright and obviously. Maybe my reading of it mirrored its style, wandering as I did. And even though I finished The Emigrants a while ago, I’ve had a hard time finding a way to sit down and write a quick account of it.

This is because Sebald’s work defies summary, genre, and the very categories of fiction and nonfiction.

I read Sebald, a longtime professor of literature and translation in Norwich, England, for the first time when I lived in Cincinnati some eight years ago. At the time, I was finishing up the writing of my first book, in which I’d been experimenting with various techniques in a nonfiction text, and I was fearful and uneasy about what I’d written.

It must have been my husband who bought Sebald’s Austerlitz: he’s always been more in tune with new veins in writing than I, but often has less patience for narrative, and tends to read prefer philosophy and criticism. So, even though Sean never finished Austerlitz, I gobbled it up. The book landed on my bedside table at exactly the right time, just when I needed someone to confirm that my own instincts on experimenting in nonfiction were valid. Sebald did that and more.

For me, Sebald was a revelation and a revolution.

The Emigrants, Sebald’s first book that appeared in English translation (he wrote in German), examines the lives of four individuals (Henry Selwyn, Paul Bereyter, Ambros Adelwarth, and Max Ferber) who, like the author (born in Germany in 1944), left their German or Germanized homes. In doing so, they, like their author, become strangers in the world.

The narrative’s characters are quirky and tragic, and through his interactions with them or their memories, and in his tracing of their paths through emigration, Sebald examines broader questions of foreignness and belonging, memory and shame, despair and adaptation, and of what remains of the old once a new home has been adopted.

World War II and the Holocaust return as constant themes in Sebald’s work. But while Austerlitz examines the Kindertransport, whereby many thousands of unaccompanied Jewish children were brought to England from Prague, and thus survived, the war and its horrors are a more oblique presence in The Emigrants.

There is the German-Jewish character of Max Ferber, that of Henry Selwyn whose roots lie in Lithuania, and the almost passing references to the dead who lost their lives in Nazi camps, but questions of Jewishness, of anti-Semitism, collaboration, or perpetration remain under the surface like an ache.

For the emigrants of his book, as for the author himself, home has become a problem and a memory. Permanently on the move, forever displaced, and no longer at ease anywhere (Sebald once said that his ideal post would be at a hotel in Switzerland), both the author and his characters embody rootlessness and restlessness.

Sebald started writing in his signature melancholy, calm voice late in life: only in his forties. And like so many greats, he was taken far too early. He died in 2001 in a car accident at the age of 57.

If you don’t know his work, I highly recommend it. Perhaps it will prove revelatory for you as well.

[Photo: cavale]

Share

On the Dying Tradition of Letter-writing

I’ve been working with letters as literary artifacts for just over a decade now. As a graduate student, my attraction to letters was instant. The very first time I sat down with stack of yellowing missives, I was hooked, and never looked back.

I work with letters because I like the intimacy they afford. Piecing a story together through an unexamined correspondence is a way to tap into untold stories and to break new ground. Reading letters also gives me a glimpse into the ways in which people meld writing and life and make sense of their time on earth. And I’m interested in the ways the big and small combine in letters — how, for example, a letter can give a ground-level view of historical events.

But as we increasingly eschew handwritten letters on paper for electronic correspondence, the materials I use for my research are becoming a bit of dinosaur. I myself have boxes of love letters written on lined notebook paper from when I was a teenager, but mine may be the last generation to be able to say this.

And as I embark on the writing of my third book — my second to use letters as a primary resource — I realize that it’s time to start reflecting not only on what letters say, but on what they are.

I’ve never really cared all that much about physical objects in my work. Whether I read a second-hand copy, a library copy, or a first edition of Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, as long as all the pages are intact, it’s all the same to me. It’s why I could never be an art historian, because the value of objects that interest me has little to do with money, or physical uniqueness.

But now I see that it is no longer enough simply to consider the content of the letters I work with. Because letters are on their way out as a cultural practice, I will inevitably have to start reflecting more seriously on their physical form, the way they travel from sender to recipient, and how the process of letter-writing differs from or in some ways resembles the way we communicate today.

National Public Radio has kick-started this thinking process for me. It’s currently doing a series on the United States Postal System, which is apparently in deep crisis. As part of its Postal series, NPR has curated an on-line exhibit of interesting pieces of mail, called “Mailed Memories: Your Cherished Letters.”

The exhibit includes images of an annual cake-package sent by post, a posthumous birthday card, and a postcard sent to a kid by Allen Ginsburg that was originally addressed to John and Yoko. The last piece in the exhibit is my contribution: a 1947 postcard sent from Siberia to the US by my grandmother. Its tagline: “Finally, a letter from mom.”

It is indeed a cherished piece of mail, and I’m honoured to have it used as part of the piece. You can see the exhibit here.

I rarely write letters anymore myself, and wonder if others do. Share your letter-writing and -receiving stories with me through in the comments section. I’m interested to know about your writing life.

[Photo: Sea Dream Studio]

Share

Writing in a Time of Pestilence and Pain: A Few Thoughts in Anticipation of American Thanksgiving

La varicelle, as it’s called around these parts, or chicken pox to us English speakers. Our doctor confirmed it this morning. Despite my son’s vaccine against it, the virus has taken hold, though perhaps not as firmly as it might have otherwise.

As I write, my red-spotted boy colours beside me with his new markers, picked up at the pharmacy with his prescription. There’s nothing like sickness to make you appreciate your good health and the time you have to work under more normal circumstances. The coughing and sneezing of the past few weeks have been a good reminder to me that, when the body fails, a life of the mind is hard to sustain.

If I want my mind to function, I have to honour my body.

I’ve always had a bad back, and if I write for too long without taking the time to go to my yoga classes, it isn’t long before the pain takes over and saps all my attention. I learned this the hard way some ten years ago, when I sat at my desk from dawn till dusk, seven days a week, five weeks in a row, to finish my dissertation. By the end of it, I could barely walk. Poor me.

But recently, I’ve been trying to think about my back pain differently. I’ve started thinking of it as a gift.

I inherited my bad back from my father, who in turn got it from his mother. And when I speak to my cousins and aunts, we are all surprised hear that we have the same issue. Back pain binds us together in the present, but it also gives us a link to the past – to the grandmother who connects us all, and who inevitably had a whole different relationship to pain.

The fact is that my back pain is but a shadow of what my grandmother went through. Whereas I have the luxury of taking a break and heading to yoga class when I feel my muscles acting up, my grandmother had no such choice. Whereas I have the time to think about this pain, to manage it, and to turn it into a text if I can find the right words, my grandmother had to grit her teeth and keep going.

There were calves to feed, cows to milk, logs to chop, and there was no rest for her aching back. On the farm where she worked (for nothing), in a place she had been exiled to against her will, back pain would have meant something very different to her: pure suffering and an external manifestation of what must have been happening inside her.

This coming weekend (as long as the pox allow – our doctor is hopeful), my son and I will travel to meet with my cousins, their children, and my aunt. Darius, who travelled with me to Siberia to find my grandmother’s village, will come up from San Francisco to meet us on his holiday weekend, and has planned a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner for the occasion.

As I raise my glass to toast the harvest and the gathering of my grandmother’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren for the purpose of hearing stories about and looking at pictures of the place she was exiled, I will remember my minor annoyances. And I will be thankful for the pox and the pain.

Because my trials are so small, I know I am blessed. In this troublesome back of mine, I will always carry of piece of my grandmother.

[Photo: Sara Björk]

Share

Postcard from Siberia

Pictured above is one of my most cherished possessions. It’s a 1947 postcard sent from my grandmother in Siberia, addressed to her husband and children. It was sent to a town in Massachusetts where we had relatives, though at the time my grandfather and his kids (my father among them) were living in the UK. My grandmother wrote their church’s address from memory, I think, and sent it off as a kind of Hail Mary attempt to reach her loved ones.

Amazingly, it made its way out of Stalinist Russia and into the hands of distant cousins in the US. From there, the card found its addressees: my father, my two aunts and grandfather. It was the only moment of communication my grandmother had with her children between 1941 and 1955, when regular correspondence between Siberia and the West became possible.

The back of the postcard reads:

1947.II.16

My Dear Children Birutėlė, Janutė, Algutis and Antanukas [the latter, her husband, is addressed as one of her children, because she had told Soviet authorities her husband was dead],

It made me indescribably happy to learn that you were alive and well. I’m healthy, I work on a farm. In my thoughts and in my heart I am always with you.

The priest, my uncle, is still alive and lives in Liepalingis [Lithuania], as before.

Write to me, all. I await your letters.

Your mother,
Ona Šukienė.

After weeks of working my way through my travel notes from Siberia, I’m now back to my archives: reading my grandmother’s letters, and travelling in my mind across languages, time, space.

My grandmother wrote letters to her children from Siberia from 1955 to 1958, then from Soviet Lithuania from 1958 to 1965, when she joined her family in Canada. The above card marks the first step in their long process of return to one another. For me, now, it marks the beginning of my next stage of writing.

While working through my Siberian travel notebook over the past few weeks, I wrote a great deal in a very short span of time. It was going so well that I didn’t dare stop, question, or even re-read too much. In fact, I was working so fast that I  became uneasy, and started bracing myself for the other shoe to drop.

Well, crisis averted. With the complex tasks of weaving past with present and of melding my life with that of another back in my sights again, the familiar feeling of wading through mud has returned. Writing hurts again and the book resists.

All is well with the world in this regard.

Onward. (Squish.)

[Photo: J. Šukys, Ona Šukienė’s Siberian postcard from 1947, private collection]

Share

Siberia! Siberia!

I’m home.

Two cousins and I spent fourteen days travelling from Lithuania to Siberia’s Tomsk region, in search of the neighbouring villages of Brovka and Bialystok where my grandmother lived in forced exile and worked on a collective farm for seventeen years (for a time she lived in one village, then in the other).

We found both villages (Bialystok still very much alive; Brovka now defunct), plus so much more along the way.

Siberia surprised me at every turn. It was both gentler and at times more desperate than I’d imagined. The journey was worth every minute and every kopeck.

In Tomsk we marvelled at stilettoed women strolling through the city with their babies, and were awed by the beauty of Tomsk’s Catholic Church perched up on the city’s one hill. The nearby Sisters of Charity welcomed us warmly and glowed with joy, all the while telling harrowing drunk tank tales. Six nuns minister to the city’s alcoholics.

We had many local companions and guides without whom the journey from Tomsk north to Bialystok would have been impossible: there was Vasily, the museum director, born and raised in the village; Svetlana, our guardian angel, daughter of a Lithuanian exile, and generally the coolest Siberian you’ll ever meet; 79-year-old Anton who took us into his house and fed us from his kitchen garden; Dusya, Anna and Nina, who shared their memories of our grandmother; and Maria who showed us hospitality with a potato and egg fry that we ate straight out of the skillet plonked down in the centre of the table, Siberian-style.

All this, plus my impressions of Moscow suffocated by wildfire smoke, our deportation from Belarus and resulting mad-dash through Copenhagen’s airport in a race to catch up to our train, and of the still Siberian landscape under the blue shutters and fences of Russian villages, will unpack and reformulate itself into a book over the next year or so.

I’ll share what I can as I work.

To all those who helped along the way: Spasibo bolshoe. Ačiū.

This is only the beginning.

[Photo: M. Angel Herrero]

Share

Globe and Mail essay: “My link to the past is gone”

Today, my essay about my maternal grandmother appeared in the Globe and Mail newspaper. It’s a text I started a few months ago, while she was still alive.

For years, even decades, my grandmother barely aged. My mother and I marvelled at how well she was doing, and celebrated each birthday as a gift.

But after age 95 or so, she seemed to grow old at an accelerated pace.

A few months ago, it became clear that she was starting her exit. Her body was tired, and we knew death was not far off.

That’s when I started writing about her.

Originally, the essay was supposed about a kind of anticipation of mourning or grieving in advance. But with her death, it became an elegy. The Globe piece is a slightly shorter, tighter version of a text called “Blessings from Venus” that I read at her funeral.

My grandmother, Veronika (Verutė) Kubilius, died on June 10, 2010. Had she lived to September 4, 2010 she would have been 99 years old.

You can read the essay here.

[Photo of Veronika Kubilius ca. 2009 by Julija Šukys]

Share

On the kindness of strangers

For the past week I’ve been sending badly written Russian emails to strangers all over Siberia. In them I explain that I will be arriving in Tomsk with my cousin in August by train, that we are looking for the village where our grandmother lived and worked for seventeen years, that I am a Canadian writer of English-language books, and that I would appreciate any help they could offer in locating Brovka.

Amazingly, some of these strangers respond.

This is not the first time I’ve imposed myself and my odd sense of what’s worth writing about on people I don’t know. I’ve arrived in small American towns asking strange questions about saints’ relics, place-names and local history and I’ve shown up in French villages inquiring after long-forgotten WWII prison camps.

Perhaps it’s because I’m obviously harmless and seem a bit naive. Or maybe it’s just because I’m genuinely interested in hearing stories about these out-of-the-way places. But strangers tend to be kind and generous to a writer looking for a story, and people from forgotten parts of the world want to share what they know.

So, over the last week I’ve struck up a friendship with a woman in Tomsk who is the president of the region’s Lithuanian friendship society. Her father was a Lithuanian exile who married a Volga German, also exiled to Siberia. Svetlana was born in town on the Mongolian border and moved to Tomsk to study at one of the city’s five universities.

She has already done a great deal of research on my behalf: making phone calls and passing on information to archivists (more kind strangers) who have taken it upon themselves to search for traces of my grandmother amongst old census documents. We write to each other in different languages: I, in Lithuanian, and she, in Russian. We manage to understand one another, and there is a warmth to our communication that I would never have predicted, though perhaps should have, bound as we are by the memory of exile.

For Svetlana, exile has become home. She lives in Siberia not because she must, but because it is where she was born, where she studied, and where she works.

I can’t wait to meet her. I suspect she’ll have a lot of stories to tell.

[Photo: Daniel Gasienica]

Share

Siberian photographs: on home and exile

A couple months ago I took my son to visit my Aunt Birutė to talk about family history and my grandmother’s exile. She gave me some extraordinary photographs during that visit, including several from Siberia. More than I expected.

One small photograph, dated 1957, shows my grandmother’s house. Made of logs and with a straw roof, it stands on fenced property. Both look bigger than I would have expected. I’d always imagined the house surrounded by forest, but the land all around her house is flat.

Another shows my grandmother and her sister Magrieta standing in the garden, up to their knees in lush leaves. They wear matching shirts and skirts made from fabric sent in care-packages by faraway daughters. On the back, in Magrieta’s handwriting: “The cabbage garden, beyond it that you can see the potatoes and fence.” I’m struck by how happy my grandmother looks in these photographs: strong and ruddy, she could be an early American pioneer. (In the above photograph my grandmother sits on the left. She has several teeth missing, knocked out in an accident with a combine harvester.)

For the last few weeks, I’ve been singing a new song to my son Sebastian at bedtime. We call it “The Bird Song.” I learned it at summer camp as a child.

Like birds returning home
Lead us too, oh Lord.
From the sad road of exile,
Gather us up.

The song was written by my grandmother’s generation about returning to the place they fled or were forced to leave. Now, as I sing my son to sleep, it is these photographs of my grandmother in her cabbage garden that appear in my mind’s eye.

Home: I wonder if it felt like a homecoming when my grandmother returned to Lithuania after seventeen years. Can there be home without family? Her children were grown and far away; it would be another seven years before she saw her family again, when she emigrated Canada. But is family enough to restore home? Surely this country wasn’t home either: the language and customs remained strange to her until her death.

Did exile rob my grandmother of her home in more fundamental way than mere displacement? By taking her away by force, did her captors kill the very possibility of home?

Most people still die within a few kilometres of where they were born. Not so for my grandmother. Not so for many of us who move often and far either by choice or necessity. So what are the ties that bind the landless far from loved ones?

What is home to the exiled?

[Photo: Ona and Magrieta in Brovka, Siberia, 1957. Photographer unknown]

Share

The Writing Life

A writer friend of mine asked me recently how I keep going when things aren’t going well, and what I do when I become blocked.

The most useful thing I do when I feel empty is read. I turn to authors whose work I want to emulate: Virginia Woolf, Anne Carson, Assia Djebar, Joan Didion, for example. I try to feel their rhythms and learn from what they do. I also read for content, and try to learn more by following a trail of bibliographies and footnotes. Lately (and weirdly, for me), I’ve been reading anthropologists. Even though these books look nothing like what I write or want to write, a fresh perspective and a hit of learning is always good for a frustrated writer.

Next, when a text isn’t working, I’ll try something formal to shake it up: I change voice from first- to second-person (two of the articles I’m most proud of are written in the form of letters), I change tense, or cut a text up into very small pieces and start rearranging. Often, I do this literally, sitting on the floor with tape and scissors and paper fragments. Proust’s archived manuscripts are apparently full of pasted-in bits that fold out in all directions. It’s a time-tested technique, and there’s something about physically cutting something up that works differently for me than cutting and pasting on screen. It’s easier to see the crap for what it is, and to tease out the good stuff.

Finally, if I have nothing to write about, I do something. I travel, I go in search of something (I’ve written about visiting the Paris apartment building Šimaitė lived in and travelling to an Iowa town named after an Algerian national hero). The journey is a classic frame, and it works for me.

My next trip will be to Siberia to find the village where my grandmother was exiled for seventeen years. What do I hope to find? If nothing else, the sky she saw and the earth she walked on. That alone will give me something to write about.

[Photo by austinevan]

Share