Sunday, 5 September 2010

Who wrote that anyway?

I've long believed that any work of art should be considered by itself, independent of any assessment of the personality of the artist. It's not a popular idea in this era of celebrity: five minutes after publishing a book an author is tearfully recounting an awful childhood experience to Larry King or giving his opinion on all and sundry in a Vanity Fair spread. Or if he does try to remain discretely hidden behind his work some hack will expose him regardless, warts, open sores and all.

I try to avoid all of these exposés, but sometimes you just can't help knowing what you know - you just have to consciously forget it so that it doesn't stop you appreciating the work. So yes, Philip Larkin was a spiteful misogynist, but The Whitsun Weddings is still a wonderful evocation of our hopes setting out on life's journey. And though Ted Hughes seems to have had some serious flaws in his character, Wind still blows me away. "This house has been far out at sea all night..."

But now I've come across an unavoidable challenge to my belief. One of my most beloved books is Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald. It's the only book where upon finishing it I immediately started to read it again from the beginning, to savour it and follow all the myriad sidetracks and insights. I know little about Sebald: he was German, lived in England, and died in a car crash a short time after Austerlitz was published. However I've now read one of his earlier works, Rings of Saturn; it is also (seemingly) a delicate blend of fact and fiction, of autobiographical detail and mental exploration, but contains more obvious personal opinion and reflection than his later work. It's the section on Roger Casement that troubles me. In it, Sebald expounds on the romantic view of Ireland's Easter rebellion of 1916, referring to the republican protagonists only as school-teachers and poets in order to explain how the refined humanist Casement became involved. Unlike his ruminations on Croat massacres of Serbs in the Balkans, I have some knowledge of the 20th century history of Ireland and this romantic view is hugely problematic for me. School-teachers and poets were also murderers, and most Irish nationalists in 1916 were waiting for a political solution to be negotiated with Great Britain at the end of the Great War. And the romanticising of 1916 in Ireland led many a mis-guided youth into we now call terrorism, the barbaric acts of violence committed in our 30-year "troubles" beginning in 1969.

Frankly, Sebald is demonstrating considerable ignorance in his simplistic description, but this would not be apparent to many outside Ireland. So have I been similarly misled in his ruminations about other events he described in his works? My third reading of Austerlitz is likely to be quite different from the first two, as I comb through the book for over-simplification and misleading opinion.

Dammit, the book is ruined for me...

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