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The modern novel's master strategist

March 23, 2003|E.L. Doctorow | E.L. Doctorow is the author of numerous novels, including "Ragtime" and, most recently, "City of God." Last month Queens College in New York City held a symposium on the work of the late German author W.G. Sebald. Doctorow examined Sebald's "The Emigrants."

Once upon a time, when the only authors were God and his prophets, stories were presumed to be true simply by the fact of being told. No more. In a modern world deprived by rationalism and science of a divinely conceived universe, all authors are recognized as mortal. And their stories are not automatically believed to be true. This creates a problem for the storyteller that writers writing in the name of God never had. And since the appearance of the earliest novels, authors have had to reclaim the authority of their art by ruse.

Cervantes tells us in Part 1 of "Don Quixote" that he found the manuscript of the don's adventures in a marketplace in Toledo -- as written by an Arab historian. Daniel Defoe writes in his introduction to "Robinson Crusoe" that he has functioned only as its editor. Cervantes and Defoe claim authority for their stories -- as history, as biography, as truth -- by denying their own authorship. In recent times, the techniques by which fiction writers claim legitimacy are more various and more subtle: simulations of unmediated consciousness, as in James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, or the stratagem of the self-doubting narrative, as in various works of postmodernism.

The late W.G. Sebald's recourse -- a return to the implicit denial of imaginative authorship -- has been so masterfully conceived (his fictions are melanges of travel writing, memoir, essay, photographs, diaries and spoken reminiscence by subjects sought out and found in the midst of meticulously described settings) that his works, such as "The Emigrants," have puzzled some critics and are seen as some new undefined thing -- perhaps not fiction at all. Yet he is only following the road taken by the itinerant don, if some dark European centuries later.

Sebald himself said in an interview with Arthur Lubow, "There is so often about the standard novel something terribly contrived.... The business of having to have bits of dialogues move the plot along, that's fine for an 18th or 19th century novel, but that becomes in our day a bit trying, where you always see the wheels of the novel grinding and going on." But that becomes in our day a bit trying? This is not the remark of a journalist or a scholar for whom there is no question of fiction's reduced authority. There is too much complaint in it to be anything other than the sentiment of a practitioner, too much of a sense of the burdened storyteller who has given himself the desperate task of trying to make it new.

"The Emigrants" is a work of fiction, a composition of expropriated genres recognized to have authority in a factually driven world.

What Sebald has kept of the 19th century novel is its love of exposition, its descriptive patience, and the confident relaxation of the narrative bond -- the loss of tension -- that is so inevitable in most of the great 600- and 800-page 19th century tomes. He has cultivated that to the point of perversity: His stories have no plot, no obvious suspense; they are without exchanges of dialogue, or expressed conflicts, and receive no momentum from the linear presentation of time.

Each of the four stories that make up "The Emigrants" gives us the life and past of a Jewish or part-Jewish survivor of the European Holocaust of the 1930s and '40s. But there are none of the general statements that would seem necessary in a work of serious historical dimension: I think the word "Nazi" appears just once in the book. Those who don't survive -- the relatives, the mothers and fathers, the lovers -- simply disappear from the narrative. The Holocaust is indicated by the quiet dissolution of family life. And so we recognize another traditional storytelling device -- the withholding of information -- in this case any detailed account of the monumental European disaster that has left the emigrants, who have presumably escaped with their lives, the living dead.

All four sections of "The Emigrants" are the narrative of a curious and reflective voice of judicious intelligence -- a nameless emigrant himself whose own itinerancy is unexplained and so seems to carry the heritage of displacement given him by the survivors he ferrets out, survivors from an older generation than his own. And since he is a person, a speaking voice, and some of what has to be divulged of these other lives he cannot possibly have witnessed himself, the same narrative voice is regularly transferred to others, in their reminiscences, their diaries, so that we are always in the first person, and in the consistent tone of the same sensibility, but with the certainty of truth of the oral history. Sebald of course knew the work of Joseph Conrad, who is a master of this nest-of-boxes technique.

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