“Not infrequently I unravelled what I had done, continuously tormented by scruples that were taking tighter hold and steadily paralysing me. These scruples concerned not only the subject of my narrative, which I felt I could not do justice to, no matter what approach I tried, but also the entire questionable business of writing.” This is the narrator of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, and his stuttering, paradoxical lament, placed midway through the very story to which it cannot do justice, is a fresh unraveling: It undermines the book we are reading, which we now suspect to have failed, but it also defies its own prognoses for itself. In this way, even Sebald’s modest success—he has written a book he deems unwritable—is presented as a sort of failure. Unable to write effectively but unable to remain silent, Sebald, like his narrator, is condemned to speak unsatisfactorily.
The narrative in question, one of the four novella-length pieces that make up the masterful Emigrants, is a biography of a fictional painter named Max Ferber, a German expat whose parents perished in the Holocaust. (The character is modeled on the German artist Frank Auerbach, now a longtime citizen of the United Kingdom.) Like Sebald, Ferber works uncertainly, wavering between creation and destruction. He paints, then erases, until the vague beginnings of human shapes tentatively emerge, “evolved from a long lineage of grey, ancestral faces, rendered unto ash but still there, as ghostly presences, on the harried paper.” Ferber experiences the urge for artistic creation as a kind of compulsion. He cannot fully renounce it, nor can he fully countenance it. Instead, he regards his work as a series of incremental advances toward an impossible end.
The link between artistic creation and failure is intimate in the best of cases, but nowhere is this sense of inadequacy more acute than in literature or art about the Holocaust, which erects, by its own lights, a series of failed monuments to an event that is fundamentally illegible. To memorialize a tragedy, one must inscribe unmistakable significance into reticent materials, attempting to curb the natural processes of forgetting and obsolescence. In this way, acts of aestheticization are exercises in misrepresentation, requiring us to arrange neutral resources into artificially beautiful or meaningful configurations. But can we misrepresent without also misleading, mangling? These questions rightfully obsess a generation of postwar German-language writers and artists, most notably the author W.G. Sebald, who was born in 1944 in Bavaria and died in the UK in 2001, and the visual artist Anselm Kiefer, born one year later in the neighboring state of Baden-Württemberg, and since 1992 a resident of France.
“Beyond a certain point, pain blots out the one thing that is essential to its being experienced—consciousness—and so perhaps extinguishes itself,” Ferber tells the narrator of The Emigrants. Hence his fixation on forms that strain to delineate themselves from an undifferentiated mass of paint, which are not unlike the memories he can barely distinguish from a deluge of half-recalled detail—retroactive reconstructions never quite suited to the immediacy of their content. Like Ferber, Kiefer disfigures his canvases, challenging contorted human forms to escape from a mass of impasto. The results, displayed in a stunning retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris this spring, are as memorable as scars. Kiefer joins Sebald in asking how German artists are to publicize a war’s worth of pain, a matter of historical record that remains impossibly private.