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Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The natural history of remembrance

Pippa Goldschmidt is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team covering the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2011.

W. G. Sebald was one of a small number of writers who gazed at the literal and metaphorical wreckage of the Second World War and attempted to describe as truthfully as possible what they saw. Born in 1944, he was clearly deeply marked by the simultaneity of his seemingly happy childhood in Germany with appalling events such as the deportation of Greek Jews from Corfu. According to Will Self in his lecture on Sebald, this clash of events in his psyche led him to see history as a sort of synoptic vision where everything happens at once, and can only be conveyed through a painstaking accumulation of fact and details. His books weave backwards and forwards through the past and present to build up layers of meaning. They have an apparent artlessness and immediacy to them, they are ‘easy to read’ but the lives of his characters weigh heavily on the reader.

And he didn’t just examine the Nazis’ legacy; his essay ‘Air War and Literature’ makes for uncomfortable reading in its detailed depiction of the physical and biological aftermath of the Allied bombing on German cities. Nobody should be allowed to claim the moral high ground here, he implies, all we are able do is remember and document. But he was not in favour of all types of remembrance. Self said that he would likely have thought that the British ‘Holocaust Remembrance Day’ was too one-sided, too capable of being subtly used for propaganda to demonstrate the moral superiority of the Allies, and perhaps we should have instead an ‘Allied Blanket Bombing of Germany Day’.

As Will Self started his lecture, a black and white photo was projected onto the screen behind him. I found out afterwards that the photo is actually a painting by Gerhard Richter, of a photo of his ‘Onkel Rudi’. It shows a smiling young man in Nazi uniform.

The photo seemed curiously weightless as it fluttered and bobbed behind Self. And this was a quite fitting visual counterpart to the lecture; Sebald’s books are illustrated by anonymous photos that have an uneasy relationship with the words. The photos are never explained or even directly alluded to in the text, and their effect upon the reader is to make you question what is real and what is fictional. As Self explained, Sebald was exposed to images of the Holocaust when he was at school, without any explanation or context. He spent the rest of his life trying to find that context in his writing, an extraordinary unclassifiable mixture of fact and fiction which tells the tales of emigrants and immigrants, people rendered passive by war who make what they can out of their lives.
Originally from London Pippa used to be an astronomer. Now with an MLitt in creative writing from Glasgow University she has had several short stories published. Much of her writing is inspired by science and she is currently writing a novel about a female astronomer. Visit her website for more information www.pippagoldschmidt.co.uk


  1. I'm reading the rings of saturn now, wish I'd been at the event! Are you off to berlin soon?