Born in the United States in 1973, Anthony Doerr recently charmed the demanding judges of the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. In America his work has won several prizes - the literary magazine Granta included him in the 2007 list of the 21 Best Young American Novelists - and one of them allowed him to live in Rome with his family for one year. Doerr's book tip is an example of how distance usually helps us to see things more clearly. With his bright, down-to-earth prose he brings some light into the European mist - which, in Doerr's opinion, has been best described by the German writer Winfried Georg Sebald.
|Photo: Anthony Doerr|
Sometimes you're dining with someone and she says, "Holy Christ, this tuna is perfect, you have to taste this," but me, I'm thinking: Do I? My chicken is fine. If I wanted to taste tuna right now I would have ordered tuna.
This is how I feel about pushing particular books on people. Reading is strange and idiosyncratic and ultimately very personal. What makes my eyes water might strike you as sentimental; what fills your throat with electricity might strike me as pretentious. Your personal reading history is something like your genetic code, unique to you in all the world, and a key determinant of who you are. Who am I to try to say who you should be?
I live in Idaho, a state most Americans are hard-pressed to find on a map. Here we have old mountains and old boulders dropped in fields by the recession of old glaciers. But not much that is old here is human. Even the Shoshone pictographs that we find sometimes, tucked into caves in the deepest canyons, aren't a thousand years old. To have a 100-year-old house in Idaho is such a big deal that officials will come out to your house and nail a plaque to your porch.
But Europe! So many of its old things are human. When we lived in Italy we used to buy diapers at a pharmacy that was once part of an amphitheatre flooded regularly by the Emperor Augustus to stage mock naval battles. At Vilnius University in Lithuania, after washing a bunch of McDonald's ketchup off my hands, I got to page through atlases a couple hundred years older than the United States. In Paris a couple of weeks ago I ate a can of Pringles in the Place de la Concorde. Two-hundred-and-twenty years ago, people were getting their heads chopped off there.
In Europe you always wonder, when you sink your spade into the dirt: What's going to come up?
To me, no writer better renders that feeling than W.G. Sebald. In my experience no writer can better evoke the multiple layering of memory and history one feels at certain misty European moments; no one better uses language to frame the scale of a single life within the scales of all the lives that have preceded it.
Sebald's work is both labyrinthine and diffuse. He incorporates photographs into his texts; he never makes it clear if he's writing fiction or not. Always he sees the things that are and asks what they were. Here he is on the eastern coast of England, upon seeing the ruins of windmills.
"It's hard to imagine now, I was once told by someone who could remember the turning sails in his childhood, that the white flecks of the windmills lit up the landscape just as a tiny highlight brings life to a painted eye. And when those bright little points faded away, the whole region, so to speak, faded with them" (The Rings of Saturn 30).
Everything in Sebald is fading, evaporating, disappearing beneath the leveling scythe of history. Time eats us all.
"For the history of every individual," he writes, "of every social order, indeed of the whole world, does not describe an ever-widening, more and more wonderful arc, but rather follows a course which, once the meridian is reached, leads without fail down into the dark" (24).
If you're only going to try one Sebald book, try Austerlitz. It's about the holocaust, at least ostensibly, but into nearly every sentence of this weird and dazzling book Sebald manages to weave multiple threads of observation and history. Here're two sentences from the ending.
"Years ago, Austerlitz said as we parted, there were great swamps here where people skated in winter, just as they did outside Bishopsgate in London, and then he gave me the key to his house in Alderney Street. I could stay there whenever I liked, he said, and study the black and white photographs which, one day, would be all that was left of his life." (Austerlitz 293).
It is always about oblivion, but somehow Sebald's work is neither despairing nor disheartening. When he is at his best, he shows us something thorny and sublime and fabulously complex beneath the text, something trembling behind the little black symbols on the white page, some truth we can only feebly grasp, as if we are peering up at stars through thin clouds.
That to me has been the overriding lesson of both Sebald and of Europe, and why I need to return there every year or two; to remind myself that we are all sparks against a more permanent darkness.
But, please. Only try him if you want to.