Mines of Nonfiction, Veins of Fiction

April 22, 2012 § 3 Comments

Finished a while ago: The Emigrants, by W.G. Sebald, and The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi (translated by Raymond Rosenthal).

Reading now: Selected Writings, by Lady Gregory.

Reading next: My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, by Mark Leyner.

Wish I’d had the time to write about Levi via Sebald before now, when those thoughts have fossilized.  But the serendipity of having Levi on my shelf to read right after Sebald was so nice that I wanted to record the delight, however briefly.

Both of these books are about the central trauma of the twentieth century, the Holocaust — or more accurately, about the complicated ramifications of that trauma, ramifications which we are still living with, still trying our best to ignore.  (I’ve been reading a bit about Palestine lately.)  There is Adorno’s famous quote, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”; no artists have agreed (more or less by definition, else they would not be artists), and I don’t even know if Adorno’s beef was with prettification or adornment (pun intended) of bare fact, or untruth, or entertainment imperatives, or appropriation of survivors’ and perpetrators’ experiences, or if he meant the word “barbaric” more literally as a comment on Civilization.

Sebald and Levi each embed fiction in their nonfiction.  In “Nickel,” one of the more memorable sections of Levi’s memoir, he recounts his attempts as a chemist to extract and enrich the small percentage of nickel found in the rock extracted from an Italian mine.  During his time in these “asbestos-filled solitudes,” he feels the desire to write fiction for the first time since childhood, and composes two fascinating tales of lead and mercury, alchemical fables of a particularly poetic, gorgeous sort.  He includes both in the middle of his memoir, and introduces them as follows:

They have had a troubled fate, almost as troubled as my own: they have suffered bombings and escapes, I had given them up for lost, and I found them recently while going through papers forgotten for decades.  I did not want to abandon them: the reader will find them in the succeeding pages, inserted, like a prisoner’s dream of escape, between these tales of militant chemistry.

“I did not want to abandon them”: Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, had thought his fictional creations lost in the ravages of the war and its aftermath, but rediscovers them and inserts them “like a prisoner’s dream of escape” in his memoir.  Whether this loss and rediscovery is literal or metaphorical is an interesting question — did Levi really not know they were among his papers, or not know how to use them, in his years of working through his wartime experience?  Are these tales even to be understood as actual historical documents — are they fictional fictions (not truly written by Levi at the time, but fictions created later to reflect on his experience at this time, with a “nonfictional” frame of having been discovered later) or nonfictional fictions (actual historical documents rediscovered by Levi)? The kind of question that must be answered by resort to archival research.

Levi recollects the violence done to the land by the mining process, and admits that he “did not realize” that the end result of his work, were he successful, would have been to support the war effort of the Germans and Italians who would attempt to murder him and all his people.  And yet there are these tales “like a prisoner’s dream of escape”: already he felt a prisoner in his country, in his self, dreaming of islands and magical transformations.

Nickel mine in Canada.

It strikes me that, in creating The Emigrants, Sebald the writer acts somewhat like the reverse of Levi the chemist: he creates a mine of sorts, threading his nonfiction through with veins of fictional ore.  He creates a whole, an act of healing.  The fiction enriches reality, and is not to be so easily extracted, or at all.  It is to be understood as part and parcel of its context: history, consciousness, life.

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§ 3 Responses to Mines of Nonfiction, Veins of Fiction

  • Heather says:

    I’ve not read any Sebald yet but clearly I should – maybe The Emigrants would be a good starting place. The Periodic Table is one of those books I keep going back to – I first read it in high school and may be about due for a re-read.

    • willhansen2 says:

      The Emigrants does seem to be the book that gets mentioned a lot as the book to start with for Sebald. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Can’t wait to read the rest of his work (at least, what’s been translated).

  • [...] The Emigrants, by W. G. Sebald.  See posts here and here.  One of the great works of literature.  Period.  Everyone should read it.  You: read it now.  [...]

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