Monday, January 21st 2013

Kevin,

I don’t know about you, but being up here has made me nostalgic. Something about the fact that I’ve been ripped from my everyday concerns (albeit I’m still on the internet, ALL THE TIME) makes me think about my past more than I usually do. It’s odd. I’m not wishing my life had gone in a different direction, but still, I feel strangely aware of my choices, old loves, lost friendships. Usually I don’t think about the people who no longer affect my life because I’m so plugged into my current world than unless they have an impact on it they don’t show up. Now that isn’t an issue, so memory takes a turn for the weird. If I had less willpower I’d probably send out some stupid emails to people about getting back in touch. Jesus, I already have trouble being attentive to the friends I do have, I don’t need to reclaim any past relationships.

All right, enough prattling on about my emotional state (Though here’s a photo of me at 15 with one of my good friends, Will, who I’m lucky to still be very close with. Why? Because it’s the youngest picture of myself I have on the internet).

Me and Will

I finished Austerlitz, and have moved on to one of Sebald’s influences, Borges. Yes, this is my first time reading him. Yes, that’s a huge failure in my life as a reader (you’ve read him, yes? It seems like you should have, considering your love of Bolano). But I’m more interested in the differences between Borges and Sebald. Or, more importantly, how Sebald takes some of Borges innovative ideas and makes them better.

So, Borges basic shtick (to really dumb everything down) is to make up worlds and fictions that he describes for us. He won’t give us a book that takes place in a magical realm, but instead will write a short story about the author of that magical realm, and describe the place as artifice. He also takes the opposite tack: telling fake biographies – short pieces about fictional people who are treated with the utmost gravity. It’s artifice, again, clothed in the semblance of science. It’s pretty genius, and his prose is so incredible that he can make anything interesting.

Sebald takes this idea of “fake biography” and runs with it. Austerlitz is in many ways a chapter from Borges’ A Universal History of Iniquity expanded into a novel (except not quite, since Austerlitz the character is a decent man). But while it is always obvious in Borges the whole thing is fiction, Sebald consistently undercuts the idea of disbelief. Like I mentioned last time, Sebald keeps blurring the line between what is real, and what is not. The photographs that I mentioned in my last letter are key to this. Sebald will have Austerlitz describe a scene with deadly accuracy, and then produce a real photograph to back up his description. Here’s the problem: Austerlitz isn’t real, and neither is the scene he describes (unless he’s just describing a building or landscape, but even then, his description of the scene isn’t real, because it’s from the perspective of a fiction). What are we to make of the fact that we’re given visual evidence of something we know, because we know we’re reading fiction, isn’t true?

It’s a toughie, and that’s the reason I love Sebald so much. But back to his relationship to Borges. Borges uses the rigors of biography and science to illuminate (and undermine) fiction. That’s exactly what the photos do as well, but they’re eversomuch stronger. I’m always aware as a reader that Borges is pulling my leg, and he’s aware of it as a writer. I never have any idea about what’s close to real, or totally made up, in Austerlitz. Sebald takes the ground out from under me, and makes me question our distinctions between autobiography and fiction. Borges gives me the same questions, but he does not do so with such power. It’s like Borges invented a machine, and Sebald souped it up to make it so much more effective. I think that’s why I’d say Sebald is a better writer – not that Borges is “bad” in any sense of the word (again, he’s a genius) – because he takes the conceptual work Borges starts to play with and really uses it to shake the understanding of fiction to its core.

Anyway, long story short, you should read him.

-N

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About greycitywhitenorth

Canadian born, Chicago raised writer. Contributer to The A.V. Club. Wearer of Brooks Brothers.
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