The Ghastly Albion Hotel
From The New Yorker:
Comedy is hardly the first thing one associates with Sebald’s work, partly because his reputation was quickly associated with the literature of the Holocaust, and is still shaped by the two books of his that deal directly with that catastrophe: “The Emigrants,” a collection of four semi-fictional, history-haunted biographies; and his last book, “Austerlitz” (2001), a novel about a Jewish Welshman who discovers, fairly late in life, that he was born in Prague but had avoided imminent extermination by being sent, at the age of four, to England, in the summer of 1939, on the so-called Kindertransport. The typical Sebaldian character is estranged and isolate, visited by depression and menaced by lunacy, wounded into storytelling by historical trauma. But two other works, “Vertigo” (published in German in 1990 and in English in 1999) and “The Rings of Saturn,” are more various than this, and all of his four major books have an eccentric sense of playfulness.
Rereading him, in handsome new editions of “Vertigo,” “The Emigrants,” and “The Rings of Saturn” (New Directions), I’m struck by how much funnier his work is than I first took it to be. Consider “The Rings of Saturn” (brilliantly translated by Michael Hulse), in which the Sebald-like narrator spends much of the book tramping around the English county of Suffolk. He muses on the demise of the old country estates, whose hierarchical grandeur never recovered from the societal shifts brought about by the two World Wars. He tells stories from the lives of Joseph Conrad, the translator Edward FitzGerald, and the radical diplomat Roger Casement. He visits a friend, the poet Michael Hamburger, who left Berlin for Britain in 1933, at the age of nine. The tone is elegiac, muffled, and yet curiously intense. The Hamburger visit allows Sebald to take the reader back to the Berlin of the poet’s childhood, a scene he meticulously re-creates with the help of Hamburger’s own memoirs. But he also jokily notes that when they have tea the teapot emits “the occasional puff of steam as from a toy engine.”
Elsewhere in the book, Sebald is regularly provoked to humorous indignation by the stubborn intolerability of English service. In Lowestoft, a Suffolk coastal town that was once a prosperous resort and is now impoverished and drab, he puts up at the ghastly Albion hotel. He is the only diner in the huge dining room, and is brought a piece of fish “that had doubtless lain entombed in the deep-freeze for years”:
The breadcrumb armour-plating of the fish had been partly singed by the grill, and the prongs of my fork bent on it. Indeed it was so difficult to penetrate what eventually proved to be nothing but an empty shell that my plate was a hideous mess once the operation was over.
Evelyn Waugh would have been quite content to have written such a passage. The secret of the comedy lies in the paradox of painstaking exaggeration (as if the diner were trying to crack a safe, or solve a philosophical conundrum), enforced by Sebald’s calm control of apparently ponderous diction (“operation”). It is the same at the guest rooms of the Saracen’s Head, in Harleston, where the mirror makes the occupant look “strangely deformed,” and all the furniture seems to be tilting, so that the narrator is pursued even while asleep “by the feeling that the house was about to fall down.”
In “The Emigrants,” Sebald lovingly seizes on eccentric British materials and contraptions. The narrator and his wife dine at the home of Dr. Henry Selwyn, the food pushed into the dining room on “a serving trolley equipped with hotplates, some kind of patented design dating from the Thirties.” Later in the book, Sebald tells the moving story of how, in 1966, he gave up Germany for England. He was a twenty-two-year-old graduate student, who had studied in Germany and Switzerland, and was now on his way to take up a junior teaching job in the German department at the University of Manchester. He arrives in the city of Manchester in the early morning. As his taxi rolls past “rows of uniform houses, which seemed the more run down the closer we got to the city centre,” Sebald reflects on the fate of this mighty place, one of the engines of the Victorian age, now more like “a necropolis or mausoleum.” The narrator is met at the door of his small hotel, called the Arosa, by its owner, Mrs. Irlam, who is wearing a pink dressing gown “that was made of a material found only in the bedrooms of the English lower classes and is unaccountably called candlewick.” (That “unaccountably called candlewick” is a nice example of how Sebald and his English translators often contrived to make of his prose a strange, homeless melody, neither quite English nor quite German but some odd mixture of the two.)