Austerlitz, cemeteries, East End of London, Karen Stuke, Literature, London, Paul Auster, photography, place, psychogeography, Stephen Watts, Tower Hamlets, W G Sebald, walking, Wapping Hydraulic Power Station
“The beautiful thing about Sebald’s writing is that it keeps us in a state of permanent disequilibrium…… his books are impossible to categorize. Are they novels? Are they autobiographies? Are they historical meditations?”
(Paul Auster, quoted in the frontispiece to Sebald’s Vertigo)
Although any worthwhile literature can stand in its own right it is natural for a reader to try to visualize a novel, for example. With any translation to another media, such as film, some things work and some don’t and different individuals react differently to someone else’s interpretation. Literary pilgrimage is just another version of this. I went to two linked events last weekend relating to W G Sebald‘s book Austerlitz. A walk around Sebald and Austerlitz’s East End with Sebald’s friend, the poet Stephen Watts (we are also following Iain Sinclair here), was followed by a discussion at the exhibition by German artist Karen Stuke, Stuke After Sebald’s Austerlitz, currently on show at Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, home of The Wapping Project Gallery.
“Alderney Street is quite a long way out in the East End of London. It is a remarkably quiet street running parallel to the main road not far from the Mile End junction, where there are always traffic jams…..the brick wall on the right about fifty yards long and tall as a man. At the end of it I found the house, where Austerlitz lived, the first in a row of six or seven.”
“And I should not omit, he (Austerlitz) added, to ring the bell at the gateway in the brick wall adjoining his house, for behind that wall, although he had never been able to see it from any of his windows, there was a plot where lime trees and lilacs grew and in which members of the Ashkenazi community had been buried ever since the eighteenth century.”
“You might have thought, Austerlitz told me, that you had entered a fairy tale which, like life itself, had grown older with the passing of time.”
There is a cemetery hidden within Queen Mary College, just down the road from Alderney Road, used since the 17th century by Portuguese Jews, one of the several Jewish cemeteries in the area.
“The light was already fading when we left the house in Alderney Street together to walk a little way out of town, along the Mile End road to the large Tower Hamlets cemetery, which is surrounded by a tall dark brick wall and, like the adjoining complex of St Clement’s Hospital, according to a remark made by Austerlitz in passing, was one of the scenes of this phase of his story.”
“both desolate and weirdly contented I wandered, all through that winter, up and down the long corridors, staring out for hours through one of the dirty windows at the cemetery below, where we are standing now, feeling nothing inside my head but the four burnt-out walls of my brain.”
“In the twilight slowly falling over London we walked slowly along the paths of the cemetery, past monuments erected by the Victorians to commemorate their dead, past mausoleums, marble crosses, stelae and obelisks, bulbous urns and statues of angels, many of them wingless or otherwise mutilated, turned to stone, so it seemed to me, at the very moment when they were about to take off from the earth. most of these memorials had long ago been tilted to one side or thrown over entirely by the roots of sycamores which were shooting up everywhere. The sarcophagi covered with pale-green, grey ochre and orange lichens were broken, some of the graves themselves had risen above the ground or sunk into it, so that you might think an earthquake had shaken the abode of the departed , or else that, summoned to the Last Judgement, they had upset, as they rose from their resting places, the neat and tidy order we impose on them.”
(all above quotes are from Austerlitz)
The Exhibition and Discussion
“The installation, which includes monumental pinhole camera photographs taken in the book’s key locations, a metaphorical railway line and Jewish actors reading the novel is created by Stuke in collaboration with The Wapping Project’s curator Jules Wright. The commissioning of a German artist to respond to a work which deals with the Nazi oppression of Jews is not lost on Karen Stuke for whom the process has been often difficult and painful.”
(Quoted from information on Karen Stuke’s web site)
The exhibition continues until the 10th November and on the 2nd & 3rd November Austerlitz will be read in its entirety in the evocative setting of the exhibition.
- W.G. Sebald Reads from His Novel Austerlitz at the 92nd Street Y (Video) (biblioklept.org)