Letters to Kafka

WG Sebald and Memory — writing from one’s history

I am going into the hinterlands of memory and the thoughts of my characters that will never make it into the novel—that is the surmise—but that might tell me what it is I need to write, or rather, what it is they need to say. Lessons on Sebald and Memory.

Dear Franz. It’s a practice of taking the characters out of the novel, away from the strictures of plot, away from the painful plodding process of working out how to dramatize the tension in a story, and back into character, to find the real reasons for why that tension exists in the first place.

Sebald and MemoryTension in a novel, in a narrative, is all about the people desperately wanting one thing but needing another, and the antagonisms that block that change. And the most powerful antagonisms are the people’s own internal blockages, what WG Sebald identifies in The Emergence of Memory as the “double bind” that “govern to a greater or lesser extent almost all lives.” For Sebald and his writing of the history of Germany and the Jews “of course this is a particularly devastating form of double bind, if you are bound, as it were, to the nation that has done harm to you.”

But another devastating double bind is that which binds you to the internal psychological defences that at once both protected and now harm you, or keep you from love.

This is the double bind A finds himself in, in my novel. Wanting to change, but afraid of doing so. Wanting to talk, but fearing that talk will destroy him.

Why? Because A has adopted a new identity and separated from his past. But that doesn’t seem enough. Or is it?

My way into this, going back into A’s memories and relationships, to find again his motivations, his fears, his needs, is to mine my own memories. Is this acceptable? Is this allowed? So I begin with memories of when H and I went to Amsterdam. Of the way that on every trip away we would always begin with an argument in bed, as I forced the issue of our conversations not really going anywhere, rather than allowing H to feel more secure, perhaps, easily and gently teasing out of her a better way of communicating and sharing—or, perhaps that I wasn’t free and open enough myself—not having passed through the work needing to be done to drop my own guilt, that bag of bricks, as T used to call it (without, I may add, dropping it).

But I make these memories A’s for the novel, not my own. Is this too autobiographical? Too unfair to H, if they end up in the novel?

I can make things up. And to be sure, the memories are also made up. Were there really pictures of horses around our Amsterdam AirBnb? Were the curtains really blue? Was it all sadness we shared?

It is this sense of sadness that I am living with: a sense that I left H with mainly miserable memories. That I didn’t love her enough. That I didn’t make her feel as if her life was being well lived. I wish I had been a better person. I also wish she could have shared more, and our conversations deepened, not skimmed along on the surface. So perhaps in the end it was right that we broke up. Of course. But it is still a sadness I feel now for not knowing what is going on in her life, and not being able to make her happy. It is a motivating sadness, for me, at least, in that I want now to make people happy, especially in relationships. And that I want to get into the right relationship where all I do for the rest of my life, or for as long as it lasts, is to focus on making the other person feel loved, cared for, happy, joyful, fearless, independent, and safe. (If that’s what she wants… isn’t it what we all want? Is it what A wants?)

So this sadness is what I am left to work with. “Once you are under the spell,” writes Sebald as Max Ferber in The Emigrants, “you have to carry on to the finish, till your heart breaks, with whatever work you have begun—in this case, the remembering, the writing and reading.”

And so I remember Amsterdam. I remember the curtains, the bed, the strolls around the Jordaan, the mutual planning, the walking hand in hand, buying gluten-fee bread at the plush markets, seeing the prints of the pigs in the outside stalls that I wish I had bought now, of laughing with H, of falling asleep with her on the sofa, of being rested, of being, I thought, I was, in love.

How does A feel about his wife in the novel? Is drawing so directly on my own experiences useful, or obstructing? But it opens the channel to writing, doesn’t it? It keeps opening up those doors in the mind to good writing. So I keep practising this way.

About Alex R Lockwood

I learn as much about the the art of living through literature (especially Kafka) as I do through other people. I read and write fiction and non-fiction, and research the cultural value of the creative writer; the ways that literature impacts our lives; the craft of writing, particularly what it means to be a non-anthropocentric (vegan) writer; the representation of animals; and the ethics of human-animal relations in literature, media and culture since 1945. This site is a platform for capturing the threads of different literary projects and, I hope, offers something to those thinking through the value of reading and writing in their lives.

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