"Why shouldn't things be largely absurd, futile, and transitory? They are so, and we are so, and they and we go very well together."
--George Santayana


I was glad to see Issue #3 of Riggwelter appear yesterday, with my “Intersection” among the stories. 

I pulled up a to a light in my pickup, which sputtered and coughed like a two-pack-a-day smoker. I never knew if the old green Chevy was going to stall. I always felt anxious at a red light because anything could happen there.

It was after my divorce, and between alimony and child support and rent and groceries, there wasn’t much cash left for car repairs. So you could say the Chevy was a casualty of my inability to form lasting relationships, if you want to use that kind of psychobabble.

That light seemed to last for years. It was the middle of the day, a busy intersection bounded by gas stations and stores and offices, with traffic lights timed to maximize drivers’ frustrations as they waited in their air-conditioned metal coffins. Except that my pickup’s air conditioning had gone the way of all sinners.

So I waited and I looked across a traffic island toward a shopping center on the other side of the road. I saw this poor guy on the corner, all ragged and dirty, not doing anything really, he looked to be in a stupor of some kind. I stared at him for a while and then I realized I recognized him through his scruffy beard and wild ginger hair sticking out from underneath a stocking cap he had no business of wearing on a humid overcast day in August. He was sitting with his legs splayed on the sidewalk and his back resting against one of two thick wooden stakes supporting a sign that read Now Hiring. I recall laughing about the sign. It wasn’t clear who was hiring and what they were hiring for, but there it was, Now Hiring.

Frank Bidwell was the ragged guy’s name. He and I had worked construction some years before and I remember I didn’t like him. He showed up drunk a lot and I knew from second hand talk he was into cocaine and other stuff. He was a wife-beater too, and I knew that partly through rumor and partly because I saw his wife Rosie one day at a Walmart. I’d known Rosie in high school, and I noticed she had a bruise under her eye. I looked at her, she looked at me, and without a word passing between us, I knew what the bruise meant and she knew I knew.

So, Frank Bidwell, a nasty piece of work who now sat, apparently homeless and gorked out, watching nothing in particular as my Chevy idled at a red light that had overlooked a simple fact of life, namely that it had to turn green at some point. I remember not feeling all that bad about Frank. Some people get their comeuppance, and I guessed Frank was among them. Still, my conscience stammered like an engine with two-hundred thousand miles on it, and I remembered something my mother used to say, There but for the grace of God go I.

Next thing I knew Frank was surrounded by a group of guys, three or four of them in their twenties maybe, completely normal looking if my recollection serves me, like they worked in one of the nearby insurance companies or real estate offices. I saw polo shirts and khaki pants and black loafers and regular incomes and savings accounts.

They started beating on Frank. One of them had a truncheon or something and the other a baseball bat. I had my window open and even with traffic noise I could hear the blows make sickening thwacks on Bidwell’s body. They were beating and kicking him, not saying a thing but going about their business calmly and professionally, like satellite-TV repairmen. Soon Frank’s face ran red, and still the men didn’t stop, not even when the Now Hiring sign was splattered with blood. One of the men picked up an old shopping bag Frank had with him and scattered stuff about. There were crushed tin cans and some clothes and a few yellowed newspapers.

I don’t believe I thought much about what I did next. I may or may not have looked at the light. I may or may not have turned off the ignition, but then I didn’t have to because once left unattended, that old engine did pretty much what it pleased anyway. I reached behind me and took my rifle off its window rack. I got out of the truck, walked to the traffic island, and aimed it across the street and at the guys. I told ‘em to get lost, or something like that, and leave the guy alone, you got no business beatin’ up on him.

The guys didn’t even look at me, they were still staring at Frank, maybe considering what further damage they could do. Next I heard a siren and then screeching tires. A police car pulls up right in front of me as I lower my rifle from my shoulder. So between me and the guys and bleeding Frank there’s a white and blue SUV with rotating blue lights on the roof. Two policemen explode out of the car, point their service revolvers at my heart. They yell drop it and get down, and next thing I know I’m cuffed with my face smashed against cool grass on the traffic island and the cop is calling in the incident on his shoulder microphone.

I couldn’t see Frank and I couldn’t see his attackers. I remember a lot of police chatter on a radio. But what I remember most at just that moment was that people were honking and yelling. The light had turned green and my pickup was sitting there and I could see a line of Hondas and Buicks and Volvos behind it.

Some words stick with you even when they’re buried in a heap of unwashed memory. Hey, jerkoff, we got jobs to get to, someone yelled. A woman rolled down her window—I think she had two kids in the back seat, mind you—and she yelled, Serves you right, asshole, keep your nose out of other people’s business.

I sat at the police station for hours. They questioned me and wanted to know what I planned to do with the rifle and if I had suicidal thoughts and whether I was an Islamic terrorist, and I said Jesus Christ at one point, and so they made me stay the night and then released me and told me they came this close to charging me with assault. Instead they ticketed me for disturbing the peace and let me know where my Chevy had been towed. I seriously considered not retrieving the truck, but finally I got an ex-girlfriend to give me a ride to the auto yard where it was impounded because what other transportation did I have?

I heard later that Frank Bidwell died in a hospital, and the Polo Shirts and Khakis were never even brought to trial. Sometimes I think that a dark cloud of cruelty descended on that intersection for a short time that day and Frank and me and the police and the murderers and the people who shouted from their cars were caught up in it. It was like some perverse reality lasting no more than a few minutes had intruded on the everyday world, which then switched back to normal mode. But then I glance at a newspaper and I say, no, that’s how it is everywhere now.


Architectures of Trauma

My short story, “Architectures of Trauma,” just appeared in The Breakroom Stories, an audio magazine that “evokes the eerie familiarity we all feel with the region between wakefulness and dream.” It’s read by the editor, Carl Fuerst. Below is the introduction and a link to the magazine.

My sleep is a turbulent burst of being, and then I’m awake, then I have to do something, act, live. So many times I have wished my sleep were not like a dash but a marathon. A steady unfolding, and then morning, and illumination of what was dark and hidden. My sleep is not that. In Hypnos’s realm, I am more sinned against than sinning. So I am on the go. Even in the dead of night, which is not dead but roaring and alive, and so too is it for those people I encounter in darkness—a serious problem for them.

A few weeks ago my sleep was a rushing stream pounding over rocks and carrying everything with it until it was damned up with a suddenness so breathtaking it left me gasping. I awoke and an image came to mind: a balloon touching a hot burner on the stove. Bang!

Midnight, wired, geared for action. I fixed a beautiful omelet. Creamy cheddar cheese, delicate fresh scallions, jalapeño peppers. Then I slathered so much salsa on it that it was inedible.

I love beautiful things ruined.

Read more here.


The Emotional Life of Electrical Wires

My thanks to decomP magazinE for publishing my short story, “The Emotional Life of Electrical Wires.” I excerpt the introduction here along with a link to the magazine, which, with the April 2017 issue, celebrates its 13th anniversary.

Matthew was a wood carver, homeless and a full-blooded Anishinaabe, whom everyone knew in the downtown neighborhood of a big city where I once had a pointless cubicle job. As I gained knowledge of my surroundings, I became aware of Matthew, who would strike up a conversation with anyone willing to listen. He always carried several small blocks of wood with him, which, as I learned later, he picked up here and there from people who had learned of his considerable skill as a carver. He carved with a three-blade pocketknife, which he’d inherited from his grandfather. Matthew would carve something interesting, an animal figurine or a human face, and return the block of wood to the person who’d given it to him. People paid him money, and he always made a show of refusing payment until, with a theatrical gesture, he threw up his hands in concession and pocketed the bills. That’s what he lived on, and what allowed him to get gloriously drunk whenever it suited him.

Several weeks before I got to know him well, Matthew sat next to me at a public fountain near my office. I was in the habit of having my lunch outside when the weather was nice. At first I thought Matthew was going to ask for spare change, and I looked around to see if there was a more suitable spot. But it was a beautiful May day and the square was quite crowded with people who had escaped their cubicles and shops, thirsty for sunshine after winter’s parched darkness. So I remained at my spot as Matthew talked to me.

“Too bubbly, ain’t she?” he said.

I was new to big city life—I was raised in a small town and educated at a small Midwestern liberal arts college in the heart of nowhere—and friends had warned me not to look directly at street people or engage them in conversation. But there was something about Matthew’s voice I found inviting, so against my better judgment, I responded. “Pardon me?”

“The fountain. A little too bubbly, ain’t she? Too blonde and bouncy and cheery. Like a homecoming queen who’s addicted to exuberance. Makes you tired just bein’ around her, huh?”

I learned from our ensuing conversation that Matthew not only made lovely detailed figurines out of wood, but he also had a special relationship with ordinary objects on the street. I’d once taken a sociology class and remembered Max Weber’s concept of “elective affinity.” That’s what Matthew had, an elective affinity, or resonance, with things. In short: he talked to them, and they talked back. The fire hydrant, a lamppost, a shop window—he engaged them all in conversation.

My first thought was that the man should be on medication or even institutionalized. I asked around in the office about Matthew, wondering if he was a little “off.” Newcomers shrugged with disinterest. But the old-timers took umbrage at my suggestion. They’d developed a deep affection for Matthew, and wouldn’t hear of his being mentally unbalanced. Instead they insisted he had an insight into the world of material objects that was uncanny. Several colleagues with whom I’d discussed Matthew had a number of his wood figurines on their desks.

I became curious about Matthew, the wood carver who talked with the material world. I began seeking him out at lunchtime. Most days I found him in the vicinity, and if he wasn’t already chattering away with someone, I made a point of striking up a conversation. Soon I began bringing him small blocks of wood, which I’d bought at a local woodworking shop, and after a few months I had several of his figurines on my desk. There was a Labrador retriever’s face, which Matthew carved after I’d told him I still missed a Labrador I’d had as a kid. There was a gnome, which I thought was so artfully done I sent it to my mother, who I knew would find a place for it with her other figurines and knickknacks on the mantel at home. At times, it was frightening to watch Matthew wield his small carving knife. There was alcohol on his breath and his eyes were glassy. His speech didn’t slur—he was always quite articulate—but there was nonetheless something about him that made him both present and distant, there but not there. Still, his cuts were perfect, his dirty fingers moved with grace, and as he described what he was doing, a small elegant figure would emerge from a rectangle of maple or pine.

Read more



Artificium, Issue 5, is now out with my “Fortress.” See below for the introduction and a link to purchase the volume.

The black phone in the cramped back office of Novak’s filling station rang as it always did. The office was windowless and lined with shelves on which there were stacked blue and yellow oil cans, containers of brake fluid and anti-freeze, and other toxic fluids automobiles needed to keep life and limb together. Squat and menacing, the phone sat on a small desk illuminated by a single lamp. The phone smelled of oil and gasoline and the handgrip had a greasy feel no matter how often Karl Novak wiped it with a clean shop rag. It was the summer of 1966, Laurentide, Michigan, and he was learning the gas station business. He was a junior in high school and his father, who owned the station, thought it was time he spent his summer vacations working rather than water skiing, hanging out with friends, and reading mysteries and science fiction. So he serviced cars and changed tires. He waited on customers on the hot asphalt drive and pumped six grades of gasoline (from economy to premium), checked tire pressures, cleaned windshields. It wasn’t bad work, and at times it was enjoyable, but most often Karl Novak looked forward to having his workday over.

On a still cool August morning Karl was helping Al the mechanic change the oil of a black ‘62 Mercury with turquoise trim. Al was stocky, round-faced, rosy-cheeked, and the most foul-mouthed person Karl had ever met. Karl’s father said he was “the best damned mechanic there is,” but also said he was a “dirty Pollock” and “a crook if you let him get away with stuff.” Karl couldn’t decide if he disliked Al intensely or if he thought he was an exotic figure, like a spy or bank robber, and a welcome break from the nice boring people he’d come to know at the Lutheran church his mother insisted he attend. When Al spoke, a well-chewed cigar dangled from the right side of his mouth. Once he put his still lit cigar on the end of the workbench and Karl examined it closely. Its brown color had changed to an ugly black slime at the tip where Al gnawed on it. Many times Karl had thought of asking Al to let him smoke one of his cigars. The most propitious moment would have been when Al showed up at work with alcohol on his breath, which was often, and he was pliable and more willing to take reckless chances. But Karl didn’t want Al to get into hot water for leading the boss’s son astray—that’s how Karl’s father would see it—so he never asked.

When the phone rang, Karl hurried into the office, which was just off the garage bay where they worked on the Mercury, but he hesitated to pick up. He didn’t know why. When he first started working at the station, he liked answering the phone. It had made him feel like a grownup. He wrote down messages and gave people what information he could. This time he hesitated. He sensed he had a good reason, but it was more like a shadow in his mind than a well-formed idea. He looked around the shelves and noticed that an oilcan had been turned around. He straightened it so that its label faced out. He heard Al yell, “Hey, Karl, you gonna wait all day to answer the fuckin’ thing?” Still he didn’t reach for the phone. He wasn’t sure how many times it had rung. He hoped it would stop, but he knew it would not. Something in the ring gnawed and was unyielding.

His cheeks puffed out in an exaggerated motion. He raised his shoulders and inhaled deeply. His nostrils filled with smells from the garage. He exhaled, and, as if it were detached from the rest of his body, his hand reached for the phone and brought the handset to his head. The phone felt cold and hard against his ear. He said, “Novak’s Service,” with a slight interrogative curve that made it sound like an arguable point.

“May I speak to Zachary?” said the voice.

It was a woman with a slow humid southern drawl. Her voice had a searing effect, like a long forgotten pain suddenly returned. He’d never heard the voice before, and yet he had. It was known, yet unknown. His stomach ground stones and his blood-drenched ears burned. He looked down at his black work shoes, which he’d shined that morning. They felt as is they were welded to the concrete. What the hell was wrong with him?

“Hon, are you there?” said the voice, a mix of honey and vinegar.

“Yes, oh, sorry, I’ll get him,” said Karl.

He left the office to look for his father. The queasiness in his stomach rose up through his chest and back behind his eyes. He surveyed the drive, checked the customer waiting area at the front of the station, walked around to the back alley where they kept dumpsters. Zach Novak was nowhere to be found. “He’s out test driving the silver Impala. We gotta brake job on it this afternoon, I think,” said Al after Karl had come back into the garage. “Coulda told you that first thing, boy, if you’d asked.”

Karl returned to the back office hoping the voice had hung up. He’d been out looking for his father several minutes. “Sorry, ma’am, but he’s not here at the moment. Can I take a message?”

“Tell him Luella called,” said the drawl. “I’m an old friend. He knows where to reach me. You make sure you tell him, child, and thank you.”

Karl put down the phone and steadied himself with both hands on the desk. After a few minutes, his hands and wrists ached and his arms felt leaden.

Read more.


King Dramilo

My thanks to Disclaimer Magazine for publishing “King Dramilo” today in their Weekend Fiction feature. Below is the introduction and a link to read more:

The dog showed up one day out of nowhere, and everyone said it wouldn’t hang around long. It was old and mangy, blind in one eye and half-blind in the other, brown and black with patches of whitish skin that made it look like it had undergone chemotherapy. People fed the dog scraps or gave it water, and it got to know almost everyone in the neighborhood after going house to house several times. All the kids got along well with the old hound, who wagged his tail and licked their faces when they petted him. Some kids called the dog “Buck,” others “Spike,” and one knock-kneed, thirteen-year-old girl, Ina, called it “King Dramilo,” because it reminded her of a Slovenian fairy tale her mother once read her. In the fairy tale an old peasant couple found a baby floating in a basket on a river. They named the baby Dramilo, or “a pick-me-up,” not only because he’d been picked up out of the river, but also because he was so cheery and made everyone around him feel good. Dramilo grew into an ugly little gnome of a man, but he had a loving heart, and when he died bravely fighting the evil monster Avar, he became king of a mystical land as big as the heavens. Ina’s name made the rounds once or twice and then it stuck. Soon everyone called the dog King Dramilo, never just Dramilo, never just King.

Read more.


Showing White

Here’s my “Showing White,” just out with Flash Fiction Magazine (21 January 2017):

A man with a red baseball cap and green leather apron led a cow into a pen. The cow was black and white and had big brown eyes, glistening with comprehension.

A thin boy watched the animal, and for a moment he thought the cow focused on him. Maybe it was his flannel shirt, a blue-and-red-checked affair his mother had picked out. You wear your nicest shirt on a class outing, she’d said. Of course, he thought, a cow would recognize a mother’s choice.

It was three in the afternoon, and the boy looked around at his classmates, 20 third graders from Trinity Lutheran School. They were so quiet it made him nervous. Why wasn’t Karl making wisecracks? Everyone stared at a single pair of huge bovine eyes, which just then flashed a large amount of white.

The man held a rifle.

The boy looked at his teacher, a stocky man with a large chin and red hair. He’d told them they were going to see where hamburger came from. The boy thought of the last time his father had grilled a batch of juicy burgers and sang as he put cheese slices on them.

No one was smiling as the man aimed the rifle at the cow’s head.

The cow let out a long, loud moan—a plea, or maybe a question. The boy thought of the Bible passage they’d just memorized in religion class, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” But cows had no idea of the Bible, right?

The boy was frightened. His teacher’s chin jutted out, the cow’s eyes showed even more white than before, and his classmates stood on the edge of a cliff, as if they were about to plunge into some dark abyss from which they would never escape.

The shot made the world shudder.

The cow fell with a thud, its eyes wide and staring but not seeing.

Nerdy David fainted and had to be held up by one of the mothers who’d accompanied the class. The boy now knew why his mother hadn’t volunteered.

Soon the man in the green apron used a squeaking chain to hoist the cow up by its back legs. With a shining blade too quick to follow he slit the cow’s neck. With another long slice, gray, red, and pink matter hit the cement floor with a mournful slop that made Doris, the girl with a port-wine stain on her forehead, spew her bologna-sandwich lunch on her new white shoes.

The man worked quickly. He talked as he wielded his blade, said the cow had once given milk, she’d been used up.

The boy wasn’t listening. He felt his knees go jellylike. He thought of the time his mother told him his hamster Nellie had died. Some of his classmates were crying. His teacher told everyone to calm down, watch and listen, this is important, not everyone has a chance to see this process.

When they filed out, the boy’s friend Tony looked green.

The boy thought he should comfort Tony, say something, but the rifle shot still sang in his ears and words felt blocky and thick.



Million Writers Award: Notable Stories of 2016

I was happy to hear that my short story, “Saving Hermann Hesse,” Eclectica (April/May 2015) made the 2016 storySouth Million Writers Award list of notable stories. The goal of the competition is to honor and promote the best fiction published in online literary journals and magazines during 2015. Thanks to Eclectica editor Tom Dooley for nominating me. For stories and links, see below.

“The Brooklyn Tolstoy” by Doug Berverole

“Where Do You Think You’re Going” by Daphne Buter

“Tasneem” by Ahsan Butt

“The Clean Rooms” by J’Lyn Chapman

“The Vishakanya’s Choice” by Roshani Chockshi

“Giver of Life” by Dawn S. Davies

“Soup” by Chikodili Emelumadu

“The Salt Wedding” by Gemma Files

“Shueyville” by Kate Folk

“All That We Loved, All That We Burned” by Laura Haugen

“Saving Hermann Hesse” by Rudy Koshar

“The Son of Summer and Eli” by Lee L. Krecklow

“The Parable of Nick Burns” by Danny Judge

“Tiny Dancer” by Lisa Lang

“Leftovers by Kiare Ladner”

“Half in the Truth” by Gariot Louima

“Devildoms” by Saytchyn Maddux-Creech

“A Series of Accidents & Punctuation Marks” by Ilana Masad

“Act 1 of That Football Story, or: The Tragedy of Mack Bethlehem” by JD Mitchell

“The Battle” by David Naimon

“On A Wild, Red Dawn” by Billy O’Callaghan

“The Glass Girl” by Wendy Oleson

“The Orange Line by Cantrice J. Penn”

“Father Fox” by Martin Pousson

“Last Song” by Annie Reid

“The Boy Wonder” by Robert Roman

“The Android’s Prehistoric Menagerie” by A. Merc Rustas

“A Famous Man” by Kathryn Scanlan

“On the Moon” by Amy Scharmann

“Hot Lesbian Vampire Magic School” by Julia Ridley Smith

“From Within” by Richard Thomas

“Bethlehem” by Chika Unigwe

“A Primer on Separation” by Debbie Urbanski

“Do You Hear What I’m Saying?” by Kori Waring

“Big Joy Family” by Jude Whelchel



My thanks to Crack the Spine and editor Kerri Farrell Foley for publishing my flash fiction piece, “northwoods” (Issue 206, January 4, 2017). Here’s the piece, and a link to read more.

Scraping, you’re up on a ladder in the northwoods working on this cabin, thoughts scattering. You’ve already put in hours on the job but there’s more, more, more, to quote a disco hit, do you remember Andrea True Connection? Things go through the mind when you’re a little bit shaky up on that ladder, sixty some years old, you, not the ladder.

Your northwoods wife, Andrea, comes around the side of the house, she’s been scraping too, though she’s on the ground, because no way, she says, I’m not going up there, and she asks if you’d like some tea, we have some Mei Ji. You say, I’m feeling lightheaded.

Down on the ground, you realize you’ve been airborne too long, ten, twelve feet, inhaling, paint chips like snow on eyebrows, beard, hands, arms. Looking radioactive.

Chinese tea scrapes up against northwoods air and tastes fine, like Andrea’s earlobe.

Back up the ladder, and thoughts tend toward death, scraping will do that, and there is a moment, you lean back and your knees remind you of a Psalmist’s words—“my shadow declinith”—and you’re like, is this it?

More tea? calls Andrea, and you know there will be more, more, more, and you whistle, how do you like it? how do you like it?

And you know the answer.

To read the magazine, go here.


Two Interviews

My thanks to Justin Meckes at Scrutiny, a literary journal specializing in magical realism, for publishing an interview with me on December 6. You can read it here. Also on the 6th I did an interview with Carousel Bayrd, host of the WORT-FM show, “A Public Affair,” on “The Rise of the Nazi Party and Parallels Today.” Listen to it here.


On Stillness

I’ve published mostly fiction and op-eds on my site so far, but I thought I’d include a few academic pieces for a change. The following is my “On Stillness: European Political Fiction in the Age of Extremes,” which I gave on October 26,2012 as the Edward N. Peterson Lecturer at University of Wisconsin-River Falls. It may still be relevant as writers today think about fiction in moments of political crisis.

In the “age of extremes,” many fiction writers felt obliged to respond to the unprecedented political violence of the time.[1] Two world wars, Communist revolution and devolution, fascism and Nazism, multiple civil wars, class conflict, genocide, decolonization, the Cold War—all elicited a stunning archive of fictional representations. If, as George Lukács argued[2], the nineteenth century was the golden age of the historical novel, then surely the twentieth century was the age of the political novel.

My starting point is that the political novels of the era not only have a history; they tell a history as well. This is an arguable statement. Whereas historians often use fiction as primary sources—and not a few historians write fiction themselves—in general they are less enthusiastic than their colleagues in language departments to consider fictional narratives as alternative histories that may enrich academic history or even trouble widely accepted explanatory schemas. When historians entertain such ideas, it is more often to point out shortcomings, or warn against dangerous or misinformed renderings of historical events by invaders from the literary dark side.[3] With some notable exceptions, historians’ willingness to consider what Carlo Ginsborg calls “reciprocal, hybrid borrowings” between history and fiction is intermittent and skeptical at best.[4] Even so, today many historians recognize there are multiple historical “truths,” some aspiring to verisimilitude, and others, as in fiction, to more revelatory insights.[5]

Political scientist Stuart Scheingold’s recent book, The Political Novel, makes an important intervention in this conversation.[6] Scheingold argues that political fiction allows us to “re-imagine” the twentieth century and at the same time to “remember” the twenty-first. Without such remembrance, without seeing that politicians often disregard or misinterpret past mistakes, the future may repeat those mistakes with even more disastrous consequences. Scheingold’s goal is the “exploration of the contribution of the literary imagination to political inquiry.”[7] The author tells us that, starting with Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” (1925), Euro-American fiction expressed growing political estrangement. This took many forms, from antiwar sentiment to skepticism about modernity’s claims of progress. Its major outcome was a conviction that political struggle was futile and the “modern project’s” goals had been distorted beyond recognition. Despite the seeming “victory” of democracy and liberal values, the twentieth century’s legacy is the mournful discovery of people’s lack of agency and pessimism over historical change.

Scheingold argues that twentieth-century “novels of political estrangement” constitute a new literary genre that previous scholars have overlooked or misidentified. His ambit is wide, including European and American anti-war novels by Remarque, Hemingway, and Trumbo; Holocaust novels by Imre Kertész, Elie Wiesel, and Ian MacMillan; West German novels of memory and guilt by Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass, and Bernhard Schlink; and novels of disillusionment with American-style prosperity by Russell Banks, Phillip Roth, Alan Sillitoe, and Ian McEwen.

Scheingold distinguishes his work from that of Irving Howe, who in his Politics and the Novel from 1957 did more than any other English-speaking literary critic of the past century to define and analyze “the political novel.”[8] Howe’s understanding of the political novel was subtle. He resisted rigidly defined genres; indeed, he denied that the political novel was a genre at all. “By a political novel,” he wrote, “I mean a novel in which political ideas play a dominant role or in which the political milieu is the dominant setting…[or] a novel in which we take to be dominant political ideas or the political milieu.” Such a novel permitted these assumptions without “suffering any radical distortion and…with the possibility of some analytical profit.”[9]

Scheingold’s goal is not to supplant Howe’s approach but to critique its underlying premise: that the calamities of the twentieth century, including the often toxic workings of political ideologies, can be salvaged for an ultimate goal, which for Howe was a social democratic vision of harmony. In Scheingold’s estimation, Howe “puts his faith in politics and honors novelists who believe that in the long run political action will somehow be successful.”[10] Howe embraces a modern vision of political possibility, even political heroism, whereas the novelists Scheingold studies have a much darker perspective, “late-modern” rather than modern, that draws the full consequences of war, genocide, and failed revolution. “Howe is,” writes Scheingold, “simply unable or unwilling to grasp the possibility that his vision of heroic struggle as the essence of politics had lost much of its explanatory power over the course of the twentieth century.”[11]

Howe and Scheingold assume that political novels have a prophetic quality, hopeful or pessimistic, an assumption with which I agree. But for different reasons I also take issue with each approach. My argument is that both authors overlook a moment—perhaps a predisposition—of the literary imagination that is more fleeting but paradoxically also more ”foundational” than either heroism or estrangement. I call this predisposition “stillness,” and I’ll try to uncover some of its features by concentrating on two major (and quite dissimilar) novels that to my knowledge have never been discussed together—Ignazio Silone’s Bread and Wine (1936) and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001).[12] I’ll speculate that both novels belong to a larger literary trajectory, traceable throughout the past century, and shaped by a willingness to stand with history’s victims without however giving up on history itself or on a politics by which alternative histories may be made.


Ignazio Silone (Secondo Tranquilli) was until recently one of the most beloved figures of the Italian Left. A founding member of the Italian Communist party in 1921, Silone rose to prominence in the party until he was expelled a decade later. Already by 1929 he had gone into self-imposed exile in Switzerland. There he launched a literary career that produced the Abruzzo Trilogy, of which Bread and Wine was the second book. He went on to become an internationally renowned novelist whose Fontamara, the first book of the trilogy, was translated into thirty-seven languages. He was rightly regarded as a defender of individual conscience against authoritarian rule and an exemplary figure in the history of political fiction.[13]

Silone has recently become a figure of controversy. In the late 1990s, nearly two decades after his death, archival research showed that the young Communist militant was also a fascist police informer in the ‘20s. This discovery set off a firestorm of debate that still continues. I’ll not enter that debate here, but I will stress, as literary critic Elizabeth Leake does, that we mustn’t overlook how “good things happen when people read [Silone]” even when they know of his personal history.[14]

The Abruzzo Trilogy tells the story of the cafoni, the peasantry of the central Italian region in which Silone grew up. Of the three novels, Bread and Wine is regarded as the masterpiece, although Fontamara is celebrated for its raw evocation of peasant life under fascism. Bread and Wine is also central to understanding the relation between the author’s text and the “extra-text” of his life and politics.[15] The novel’s main character, Pietro Spina, is a Communist party agitator who returns to his home area of the Abruzzo after years in political exile. In order to survive in Mussolini’s Italy, Spina adopts a new identity, that of a Catholic priest, whose name is Paolo Spade. The novel follows Spina/Spade’s movements between his public life as a priest and his underground existence as a Communist operative seeking reconnection with his party’s struggle against fascism.

Silone set his novel against the historical backdrop of Italy’s brutal war on Ethiopia in 1935. But of equal significance are the socio-economic conditions of the peasantry. The peasants are portrayed in their everyday struggles to eke out an existence under a regime that offered praise and numerous modernization schemes but simultaneously enhanced large landowners’ power. One learns that fascism finally did little for the peasantry, especially for those at the bottom of society; the “Southern problem” remained, in all its complexity. Tied to the land, dependent on weather and crops, perched precariously between subsistence and disaster, the peasantry’s existence remained out of step with the glare and movement of fascist “history.” This juxtaposition of fascist noise and the stillness of the peasant’s hard, “timeless” existence, of history and nature, is a key source of the novel’s narrative tension.

Equally important is the evolution of Pietro Spina’s attitude toward politics and the church. Returning from exile, Spina re-establishes contact with the Communist underground, only to rediscover his ambivalence about the party. “I have ceased to be a peasant,” he says, “but I have not become a politician” (76). Much as Silone himself was disillusioned with party orthodoxy in the late 1920s, Spina recoils at the imposition of Communist dogma on grassroots activists whose target populations care little about arcane internecine battles within the Soviet Union. The party is excessively bureaucratized, dependent on Moscow’s direction, preoccupied with ideological correctness. Spina realizes he needs to be “free of all abstractions” (75) if he is to connect with the peasants. Notions of “class struggle,” “freedom,” and “liberty” mean little to a poverty-stricken people whose horizon is unalterably shaped by daily agricultural labor. At one point, Spina writes in his notebook what sounds like the title to a theoretical essay: “On the inaccessibility of the cafoni to politics” (130). He sits “for a long time with his head between his hands,” finally writing, “`Perhaps they are right’” (130).

Spina the political operative is also Paolo Spade the Catholic priest. As a deeply religious schoolboy, Spina had been the pupil of Don Benedetto, now an elderly priest who is persona non grata in fascist Italy because of his open disregard for the regime. Benedetto’s opposition to a Church that slavishly supports fascist politics is likewise a source of the old priest’s isolation. Spade’s critical attitude toward organized Catholicism was deeply marked by Benedetto’s mentoring. He hates the idea of impersonating a priest, which, as he finds out later, was Don Benedetto’s plan to give him cover. He is annoyed that the peasants of the mountain town Pietrasecca fall over one another currying his favor. He resists requests to hear confession, claiming the Church has sent him to an isolated spot to recover from a long illness. But just as he discovers that the peasantry is “inaccessible” to Communist politics, he finds they are at some level inaccessible to Catholic teaching. Despite their respect for the office of the priest, they are coarse and often childlike in their gullibility, they drink too much, they are envious and often selfish, and they see no contradiction between Catholic teaching and their belief in the evil eye, magical spells, and superstitions.[16] The peasants were not “good Catholics.”

If one were to stop there, one could agree with Stuart Scheingold that Bread and Wine confirms the thesis of political estrangement and despair over the individual’s lack of political agency. Not only that: Paolo Spade’s experience as a priest seems only to reinforce his hatred of the Catholic church and to further alienate him from the religiosity of his early years. At one point Spade writes, “we can’t go on nursing illusions,” (83) and this point applied to both politics and religion. Furthermore, just as Scheingold argues, Irving Howe’s praise of Bread and Wine is based on, in Howe’s own words, appreciation for Silone’s faithfulness “to the rebellious and fraternal impulse behind the dogmas” that have been discarded.[17] But one must not stop there either.

Irving Howe gets somewhat closer to the nub of the matter than Scheingold does when he notes that Silone in Bread and Wine and Fontamara hits on “the most profound vision of what heroism can be in the modern world.”[18] This is neither the virile and very public heroism of Hemingway’s characters nor the Existentialist commitment of Andre Malraux’s Man’s Fate. Rather, “in the age of totalitarianism,” writes Howe, “it is possible for an heroic action to consist of nothing but stillness.” Moreover, “for Spina and many others there may never be the possibility of an outward or public gesture.” “Heroism,” in short, “is a condition of readiness, a talent for waiting.”[19]

I agree with the spirit of Howe’s observation, but since Howe does not provide the letter, I want to move beyond his argument to suggest how “stillness” works. One clue comes from Howe’s remark that in Fontamara in particular, Silone captures the “nonpolitical actuality” of the peasantry.[20] Spina/Spade’s great discovery is that neither abstract political argument nor religious dogma mean much to the peasantry. When a local fascist schoolmistress lectures the peasantry on Mussolini, she claims that all nations of the world envied Italy for il Duce. “`Who knows what they would be willing to pay to acquire our leader’,” she gushes. The old peasant Magascià, however, “disliked generalities,” and was unhappy with the statement. “He wanted to know exactly how much other nations would be willing to pay to acquire” Mussolini (125). Additionally, Bread and Wine is famous for its numerous peasant anecdotes. To questions that seem to require more general or summary statements, peasant interlocutors often respond with pithy stories and jokes drawn from their daily experiences.

The theme of “actuality” is most forcefully found in the title of the novel itself. The meaning of “bread and wine” in Silone’s work goes well beyond Catholic dogma. Throughout the novel, the characters drink wine and eat bread. Spina/Spade constantly refuses an overly solicitous landlady’s offerings of pasta for the evening meal; since the better wheat always goes into pasta, he prefers the wheat used for bread, the everyday food of the peasantry. The making of bread, as Don Paolo witnesses, was “a ritual with strict rules,” prescribed in tradition and carried out with almost religious reverence (228). As Spade watches the bread-making, a young man, Luigi Murica, recommended by Don Benedetto, visits to “confess” to him. It turns out that the young man, like Silone in his youth, had been both a member of the Communist party and a fascist informer who was nearly torn apart by his double life. In the end we learn that Murica is imprisoned, tortured, and murdered in a way that resembles Christ’s passion. Shedding his priestly garb, Spina attends the wake, where not only the Murica family but several of the novel’s other characters meet in a kind of secular communion. Murica’s father offers the mourners bread and wine, recalling that Luigi had helped his father harvest the wheat and grow the grapes. “This is his bread,” says the father, and “his wine” (262). Pietro tells the mourners that bread is made of many grains and therefore symbolized unity just as wine is made of many grapes. Murica’s father notes that it takes nine months to make bread and nine months for grapes to ripen, just as it takes nine months to make a man, a coincidence that has the force of a revelation for the assembled.

Bread and wine in their daily actuality is “presence,” not in the sense of Catholic orthodoxy, but in a multiplicity of tangible objects, relations, and practices. A “Christ-figure” such as Luigi Murica—which some readers see an aspect of the author’s own persona—is a staple of Silone’s fiction[21], and in the scene of the Murica family’s “communion,” he may be taken as one such manifestation of this presence. But so too are the quotidian routines of peasant life and the peasants themselves. In his resistance against abstraction, Pietro Spina discovers that peasant politics, if such a thing can exist, consists of the intermittent moments of “organic” solidarity such as the Murica family’s get-together, which itself is rooted in the everyday life of the community and the often generations-long familiarity of families with one another.

Similarly, Paolo Spade, initially reluctant to perform priestly duties, finds himself gradually (and still reluctantly) drawn into the confessional life of the peasantry, so that by the end of the novel, his hotel room “became public property, as it were, with people continually coming in and going out” (242). People come to confess, receive advice, and find out for themselves if he is the saint many locals say he is. By the time of the event at the Murica household, his speech is as much pastoral as political. The bread and the wine, he says, are “unity of similar, equal, useful things. Hence truth and fraternity are also things that go well together” (263). The false Catholic priest has discovered a primitive Christian fraternity in the presence of the peasants that overlaps with and reinforces the event of solidarity itself. And he has found all this not by “educating” the peasantry or fitting them into some grand political narrative, not, in other words, “standing for” them in any way, but rather by “standing with” them, arm-in-arm as it were, whatever the result. This “standing-with,” this identification with the victims of social injustice, is a key attribute of that stillness Silone captures so well.

Spina/Spade’s “standing-with” is made possible finally by his willingness to wait and listen. The presence of the peasantry, whom Silone goes to great pains not to idealize, forces the main character of Bread and Wine to unlearn much of what he knows, to abandon past “meaning” in other words, and to rely on his own native sense of what to do. The character of Cristina, the beautiful and saintly daughter of a landowning family fallen on hard times, plays a central role here. Pietro Spina falls in love with Cristina, who seems to return to him a feeling of youthful innocence. Indeed, some readers have found in Cristina another dimension of Spina’s personality, as if Cristina/Pietro were one person.[22] The central point is that to “stand with” the peasantry necessitates stripping one’s personality of adult abstractions, whether from politics or religion, and returning to a more authentic and childlike engagement with the world.

Such engagement includes sociability and a willingness to wait and listen. As Spina/Spade begins to come out of his isolation, he rediscovers “a natural urge…to be sociable” (113). One afternoon, he waits to meet someone, anyone, in the village with whom he can talk. He recalls that, “as a boy he had waited after catechism in the evening in the square…for other boys, nearly all the sons of poor people, to join him and play games…He knew how to wait” (113). His calm waiting is rewarded by a chance meeting with one of the local peasants and his son, who complain, tell him stories, and respond to his questions.

There is much more to say about Bread and Wine, but I’d like now to turn the second novel under consideration here, W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, to elaborate further these three elements of stillness—presence, standing-with, and waiting/listening—in a much different context.


Silone was once quite famous on this side of the Atlantic, but his visibility has lessened over the decades. W.G. Sebald is by contrast now internationally renowned. It is no exaggeration to say a kind of cottage industry has grown up around the German-born author after his premature death in 2001 in a car accident in England, where he lived and taught for thirty years.[23] Not only his novels but his nonfiction has garnered much attention, most notably On the Natural History of Destruction, which stimulated debate on Allied bombing of German cities and German victimhood. Unlike Silone’s prose, which is unadorned and realistic, Sebald’s writing is complex and serpentine. Also unlike Silone’s work, Sebald’s fiction defies categorization. Sebald himself referred to Austerlitz not as a novel but as a “prose-book of uncertain form.”[24] Because Sebald often includes numerous photographs and diagrams in his novels, some critics see him in the tradition of German “documentary fiction” like that written by the novelist and filmmaker Alexander Kluge. Perhaps the most that can be said about Sebald’s style here is that his fiction travels through numerous genres including the novel, history book, document, memoir, and travelogue.

Of course, Silone and Sebald stand in very different historical locations—the Italian author within the international political crisis that led up to war and genocide, and the German in the still powerful wake of the Holocaust, the most extreme event of an age of extremes. So “extreme” was the Holocaust—in the sense of being so utterly concentrated on a single group and designed so explicitly to bring about its annihilation—that of course many scholars argue for its non-comparability. It would take us well beyond this paper to discuss such ethically fraught debates about the “limits of representation.” I hope it suffices to note that I am aware of the stakes involved in discussing the novels together.

Despite such differences, I would suggest that Bread and Wine and Austerlitz speak to a related political trajectory. Austerlitz does so in a circuitous manner ostensibly not at all like the linear plot progression of Bread and Wine. But there is perhaps more affinity here than a superficial reading suggests. It has been written of Silone that he was a writer who knew how to take his time, and indeed, Bread and Wine is often a leisurely narrative that captures the rhythm of peasant life.[25] In a related way, Sebald’s prose, marked by famously long sentences and undulating paragraphs spreading over several pages, is known for its melancholic slowness. It is as if both authors have made a concerted attempt to achieve a stylistic stillness that halts the inimitable and clamorous march of “progress,” either in its 1930s fascist version, or its contemporary, neo-liberal version. But Sebald’s stillness has another function related to the specific nature of contemporary society, namely that he writes against the often strident and self-serving rhetoric of “victimology” that has congealed around much Holocaust fiction. He does so, moreover, by writing with a clear view of Jewish victims.

Sebald’s story is told through the eyes of a German-born narrator living in England (likely Sebald) who by chance meets a professor of architecture, Jacques Austerlitz, in a train station waiting room in Antwerp in the 1960s. We learn that Austerlitz was sent to England by his Czech-Jewish parents in the Kindertransport program designed to rescue children from Europe before the start of World War II. But Austerlitz, raised by foster parents in Wales, has no recollection of his early life in Prague except for a feeling of being haunted by trauma. Unable to relate emotionally to his own life history, depressed and alone, he has a breakdown in the early ‘90s, which leads him to try to recover his personal past by studying photographs, films, stories, and archival documents. His efforts meet with partial success, as when he has an emotionally charged meeting with his old nursemaid in Prague, who tells him of his mother’s death in the Terezín (Theresienstadt) concentration camp.

Even so, his attempts to reach a deeper emotional memory of his parents fail. Not only has his life been irretrievably altered by a major historical event; his desire to remember also confronts the inadequacies of “post-memory,” the effort to gain a personal understanding of the past through prosthetic or mediated sources. The novel suggests that Austerlitz’s failure is a specific and extreme example of a much wider dilemma from which the narrator too cannot escape, namely the enormous difficulty of remembering in an image-driven society that multiplies “pasts” even as it renders them bloodless, abstract, and distant.

If desiccated memory, both personal and public, is the core of the story, there is nonetheless a sense that the presence of Austerlitz as such is an important rejoinder. As with Bread and Wine, the title of the book itself points to a living presence. Austerlitz’s being was violently shaped by history, but his survival and suffering are crucial foils to societal amnesia. The title of the book announces that Austerlitz is here, riven by the pain of a traumatic past, but here nonetheless. It is true that, as we learn through the course of the telling, Austerlitz’s presence is filtered through his collection of texts and images that comes into the narrator’s possession much after the main action of the novel takes place; the narrator’s story is based on his often indistinct memory of the two men’s encounters. Yet Austerlitz is a unique character whose being shines through the thick fabric of abstraction that separates the narrator’s past and present. Austerlitz, writes the narrator, differed from the other people in the waiting room at the Antwerp train station “in being the only one who was not staring apathetically into space” (7). Instead, he was taking notes and making sketches. Even here, Austerlitz’s presence is mediated. The narrator notes Austerlitz was youthful in appearance, “with fair, curiously wavy hair of a kind I had seen elsewhere only on the German hero Siegfried in Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen film” (7). To the narrator, Austerlitz’s uniqueness can be described only with reference to film—and a film richly steeped in German myth at that. Much later in the novel, this indirection continues, as the narrator remembers Austerlitz not always by how he actually looks, but rather by recalling his similarity to photographs of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, rucksack and all.

Still, the German-born narrator is changed by his encounter. As the novel begins, we read that he often traveled from England to Belgium for study purposes, but “partly for other reasons which were never entirely clear to [him]” (3). Like Austerlitz, the narrator is aware of unknown, unrecoverable aspects of his own persona. Soon after first meeting with Austerlitz, who speaks at length about “the marks of pain which…trace countless fine lines through history” (14), he breaks off a subsequent trip to stop at the Belgian fortress of Breendonk, which Austerlitz has also mentioned. Twice captured by German armies in the world wars, Breendonk causes the narrator to feel overwhelmed by “how everything is lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life” (24). This comment opens a window on the disaster that has marked both Austerlitz’s being as well as that of the narrator, an expatriate member of the perpetrator community. As he explores the fortress, its eerie walls and underground chambers lead him to contemplate how “no one can explain exactly what happens with us when the doors behind which our childhood terrors lurk are flung open” (25).

It is here in Breendonk—to which the narrator will return at the end of the novel— where we first glimpse his pain as he recognizes his inextricable link to the perpetrator nation. Breendonk was used by the Germans to torture prisoners, including the French resister Jean Améry, who hung by his hands tied behind his back, and who throughout his life recalled the sound of his arms dislocating from the shoulders. The narrator recalls reading of Améry’s account as well as that of another prisoner, Gastone Novelli, who was subjected to similar torture, and who after liberation found the sight of a German intolerable. The narrator becomes sick, he rests his head against the fortress wall, “which was gritty, covered with bluish spots, and seemed to me to be perspiring cold beads of sweat” (25-6). Nausea overtakes him. Yet we learn that he read Améry’s account only years after his visit to Breendonk. It appears to have been a much more direct and personal memory that occasioned his sickness. Unaccountably, the “nauseating smell of soft soap” (25) came to him in the fortress, calling forth a memory from “some strange place in my head” (25) the “bizarre German word for scrubbing brush, Wurzelbürste,” which his father loved but he, the narrator, hated. A quite specific memory of childhood has years later wound its way through Austerlitz’s story and the narrator’s subsequent reading. The result for the narrator is both physical discomfort and anxiety over knowing that such violence was done to fellow-human beings on one’s behalf.

He continues to meet Austerlitz, usually through chance encounters. During such meetings, “it was almost impossible to talk to [Austerlitz] about anything personal” (31). Yet if Austerlitz remains an obscure figure, the narrator develops a strong attachment to him. They converse mostly in French at first, a language Austerlitz speaks with “natural perfection,” the narrator with “lamentable awkwardness” (31). When they switch to English, the narrator is more fluent, and it is Austerlitz who hesitates, stutters, clutches his glasses case so tightly his knuckles turn white. The narrator “was strangely touched to notice in him an insecurity” (32). The narrator is also impressed by Austerlitz’s learning. He comments that Austerlitz, a lecturer at a London art institute, was “the first teacher I could listen to since my time in primary school” (33). Most of his other teachers in Germany had built their careers in the 1930s and ‘40s, “and still nurtured delusions of power” (33). The narrator easily grasped Austerlitz’s argument that architecture of the capitalist era had a “compulsive sense of order,” evidenced in law courts, stock exchanges, even mass housing for laborers (33). The Holocaust survivor and the non-Jewish German expatriate come to share a common feeling that modernity is capable of shattering everything in its path, including much of nature—all that is solid does indeed melt into air. They see that the Foucaldian subjugation of the individual is prefigured in the architectural spaces of earlier centuries. They arrive at this shared insight from quite different paths, but they arrive nonetheless, to stand in the same place.

The depth of the narrator’s attachment to Austerlitz is even clearer when we read that after twenty years when the two men did not see each other—during which time the narrator moved back to Germany, then returned to England and had an unspecified psychological crisis (34)—a chance meeting between them takes place in the Great Eastern bar at the Liverpool Street train station in London. There they take up their conversation “more or less where it had been broken off” two decades earlier (41). An “astonishing, positively imperative internal logic” (44) drew Austerlitz there to meet the narrator. Austerlitz had been thinking of the two men’s encounters in Belgium years before and told himself he needed someone to whom he could tell the story of his early life, a story he had learned only in the intervening years. For this, Austerlitz said, “he needed the kind of listener” the narrator had once been (43).

The narrator serves a function despite his relative marginality to Austerlitz’s story. He has received a “call,” a summons from an “other.” He is not responsible for the call; most of his meetings with Austerlitz are uncanny, chance occurrences. Nor has he decided to “work through” or “overcome” history. Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the idea of “mastering the past,” still widely discussed in German culture, is not on the agenda. “Mastering the past” is an agentic metaphor suggesting that the rational, self-contained individual could dominate an unwieldy history, almost as if she were training for a marathon—and without the presence of victims as well. What is on the agenda for the narrator is the seemingly simple task of listening and waiting, being ready—a standing “with,” not a standing “in” or “for.”

So the narrator listens. He hears how Austerlitz’s Welsh foster parents, a Calvinist preacher and his depressed wife Gwendolyn, leave the young boy with “a kind of Old Testament mythology of retribution” encompassing all human history including modern-day ideas of progress. He hears of how the young boy feels abandoned in the emotionless home of his foster parents and sees Austerlitz’s need for genuine human warmth (51). He listens as Austerlitz recalls being told his real name by one of his schoolteachers, and how he felt at home with the name only once it was repeated in history lessons on the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, that is, through second-hand sources. Ensconced in the Liverpool Street bar, the two are so engrossed in Austerlitz’s Welsh tale that they lose track of time. It is as if they have found a point of relative equilibrium, a minute, still island, in what is a noisily flowing river of memory. Deeply moved, the narrator goes to his hotel room to write what he remembers of Austerlitz’s story; he works until late into the next morning (97).

Sebald took great chances in crafting this story of “identification’’ between Austerlitz and the narrator.[26] He was aware of the enormous ethical problems associated with fictional accounts of how “good Germans” come to identify with the Jewish victims of the Shoah. From interviews we know he was conversant with Holocaust literature by Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, who insisted on victims’ testimony as the most authentic and only morally defensible form of writing on the Holocaust. Sebald felt keenly how the dangers of blending victim and perpetrator, as happens in Bernhard Schlink’s flawed novel The Reader, could result in sentimentalized kitsch or worse, and he warned against “usurpation.” His use of unconventional motifs and documentary forms, his denial that Austerlitz was a novel at all, bespoke his awareness of the numerous dilemmas inherent in Holocaust representation. As Mary Cosgrove notes, Sebald understood the central paradox, namely “the desire to meet the ethical standards of testimony while producing a fictional text.” [27]

Yet Sebald felt the writer must plunge ahead, convinced that some form of identification was finally necessary, indeed that one’s humanity, one’s ability to empathize with those who suffer, was at stake. Importantly, this identification takes place on Austerlitz’s terms as he relates his deep sense of trauma, his depression, and his breakdown. The entire novel is scorched with Austerlitz’s pain, indeed, with the pulsating emotions of his heart.[28] When Austerlitz heard his Welsh foster father’s memory of the submersion of his boyhood village by a reservoir, he, Austerlitz, carried with him a vision of the village still going about its daily affairs underwater, an image that prefigured his constant sense of being haunted by the dead (51). When his former nursemaid showed him a picture of his five-year-old self dressed up to go to a masked ball months before he was taken away from Prague, he “dared not touch it…[he was] speechless and uncomprehending, incapable of any lucid thought” (184, 185). When he toured the Ghetto Museum of Terezín, where his mother was murdered, he “could not believe his eyes, and several times has to turn away…having for the first time acquired some idea of the history of the persecution which my avoidance system had kept from me for so long” (198). The narrator does not intervene in Austerlitz’s wrenching memory-work; nor does he try to impart some deeper meaning. He stands and listens, moved by the raw emotion, the never-quite-finished pain of the man before him.

Nor does Sebald suggest there are definitive historical conclusions to be made. Austerlitz, in the Terezín museum, says at one point: “I understood it all now, yet I did not understand it, for every detail…far exceeded my comprehension” (199). Irresolution remains at the heart of the two men’s relationship. Their bond is, as the narrator notes, “both a close and a distant one” (34), almost as if he is characterizing the awkward relation of German and Jew in the post-Holocaust world. There is neither a moving forward, in the strict sense, nor an ending. We are left with narrator’s musing where he began, at the Breendonk fortress. Neither heroism nor estrangement characterizes Austerlitz’s or the narrator’s position. Nonetheless, something has happened. A still, incomplete, often painful relation has been created. A simple yet vastly complex motion has occurred. Somebody spoke, and an unnamed narrator stood, waited, and listened—nothing more.


I conclude by referring to an essay written in 1922 by the social philosopher Siegfried Kracauer. The title of the essay, “Those Who Wait,” referred to individuals whose “metaphysical suffering” was attributable to their realization that the world lacked higher meaning.[29] The reasons for this “emptying out of people’s spiritual/intellectual space” (129)[30] were numerous—secularization, Enlightenment rationality and Romantic deepening of the self, capitalism’s atomizing effects on community. This metaphysical suffering left such individuals in “exile,” where an inability to believe in “every major trans-individual agreement” (131) obtained. Kracauer saw the philosopher Georg Simmel and sociologist Max Weber as key intellectuals within this group. But he also noted other less distinguished sufferers who restlessly searched for escape.

Yet there was a positive element. Individuals wandering in the spiritual wasteland of postwar Europe were also open to new discoveries, new prisms with which to refract societal light. These individuals “waited,” which did not mean literal stasis but often “engaged self-preparation” (139). The activity of “one-who-waits” (139) involved a shift in emphasis “from the theoretical self to the self of the entire human being” as an antidote to the “overburdening of theoretical thinking [that] has led us, to a horrifying degree, to become distanced from reality” (139-40). For the one-who-waits, the world “demands to be seen concretely” (140); when it is so seen, it may lead to an awareness of “multiple determinations” for life in community, determinations whose effectiveness cannot be gauged through conceptual-theoretical or purely subjective means.

Kracauer’s commentary may be read alongside Carlo Ginsburg’s notion of “borrowings” between history and fiction to suggest that fictional narratives do a better job directing the historian to the felt emotional reality of “those who wait” than analytical history does. While intellectual or cultural history may tell us much about what happened and why it happened, the novelist, the short story writer, and the poet may sound narrative depths unavailable to the historian. In very different ways, Silone and Sebald do that by giving tangible form to “waiting.”

But Kracauer’s commentary leads to a historical argument as well. In Bread and Wine and Austerlitz, books separated by decades and deep historical ruptures, the symbolic stillness of waiting is engendered through encounters with history’s victims. These literary narratives imagine an authentic bond between those who suffer and those willing to stand with them, simply and unspectacularly, as necessary listeners. They stand outside or disrupt history in ways that neither Howe’s heroes nor Scheingold’s alienated souls do. Though pointing in opposite directions, both Howe’s and Scheingold’s readings are heavily invested in the noise and passion of a violent age; they are cut from the same gaudy historical fabric they critique. In contrast, stillness is a worn gray suit, an almost languid exile in an age of fury and conflict. From stillness may eventually come either heroism or estrangement; but it is necessarily antecedent to both.

From stillness may come a kind of productive laziness as well, as one finds it in the 1950s in the Franco-Egyptian novelist Albert Cossery’s Proud Beggars.[31] Such laziness is not necessarily a lack of action, but rather an unhurried solidarity among Cossery’s impoverished characters, whose only power comes from refusing modern capitalism’s competitive ruthlessness. “Proud beggars” all, they stand aside, and stand with each other in the process. Or from stillness may come the simple awareness of life’s value, even when death approaches, as it does for the German soldier and Polish prostitute of Heinrich Böll’s 1949 novel, The Train Was on Time.[32] Noting these other examples suggests that Silone and Sebald participate in a historical trajectory that is wide and deep.

Kracauer wrote of how one-who-waits looks to a more rounded self than that offered by an overly rationalized theoretical culture, which leads to my final remark. In a recent study, Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey[33], literary theorist Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht argues that humanities scholarship’s obsession with interpretation and attribution of meaning leads it to overlook how both art and life “bring forth” more concrete, sensory reactions. The “presence effect” of reality is as important as its “meaning effect,” and may under certain conditions be even more important. Gumbrecht is careful not to posit an unproblematic or naïve notion of experience. His emphasis on “presence” nonetheless points to a more “authentic,” somatically rich, less intellectualized engagement with “world” than that offered by the Cartesian philosophical tradition or postmodernist reduction of everything to pure textuality. Such engagement often requires stillness, a willingness to wait, and (to use Gumbrecht’s Heideggerian terms) openness to the “unconcealment” and hiding of Being in the happening of truth.

Pietro Spina and the unnamed narrator of Austerlitz experience Gumbrecht’s “presence.” Responding to the actuality of those crushed by history, they divest themselves of abstract “meaning effects” that might have resulted in the former’s ideological suicide or the latter’s amnesia. In doing so, they are able to stand, quietly and soberly, with the peasant victims of fascism and the survivors of Nazi genocide. Their authors remind us, in other words, of what it may take to become more fully human again after the age of extremes, when the “dialectic of Enlightenment” produced untold violence that still scars the world. And if the recovery of humanity is a premise for rethinking community, then both novels, along with the trajectory in which they are nested, are important resources for a recovery of the political in the twenty-first century.


[1] Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 (New York: Pantheon, 1994).

[2] The Historical Novel (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1962).

[3] Sarah Pinto, “Emotional Histories and Historical Emotions: Looking at the Past in Historical Novels, Rethinking History 14, 2 (June 2010): 189-207; Harry Liebersohn, “Reliving an Age of Heroes with Patrick O’Brian,” Rethinking History 11, 3 (September, 2007): 447-460.

[4] Carlo Ginsborg, Threads and Traces: True False Fictive (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012), 2.

[5] Agnes Heller, “The Contemporary Historical Novel,” Thesis Eleven 106, 1 (2011): 89.

[6] Stuart Scheingold, The Political Novel: Re-Imagining the Twentieth Century (New York: Continuum, 2012).

[7] Ibid., 3.

[8] Irving Howe, Politics and the Novel (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1957; 2002).

[9] Ibid., 17; italics in original.

[10] Scheingold, Political Novel, 17.

[11] Ibid., 12.

[12] Ignazio Silone, Bread and Wine (New York: Signet Classics, 1986; originally published 1936); W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz (New York: Modern Library, 2001).

[13] Howe, Politics and the Novel, 217-26.

[14] Elizabeth Leake, The Reinvention of Ignazio Silone (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), 156.

[15] The terminology is taken from Brian Moloney, Italian Novels of Peasant Crisis, 1930-1950 (Dublin, Ireland: Four Courts Press, 2005).

[16] One hears echoes of Silone’s passages on the peasantry’s religious syncretism in another very different book of the time, Carlo Levi’s account of his year in exile in 1935 in Christ stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1947; 1974).

[17] Howe, Politics and the Novel, 224.

[18] Ibid., 226.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 219.

[21] Moloney, Italian Novels, ch. 8.

[22] Find source.

[23] Richard Sheppard, “`Woods, Trees, and Spaces in Between’: A Report on Work Published on W.G. Sebald 2005-2008,” Journal of European Studies 39 (1): 79-128; Scott Denham and Mark McCulloh, eds. W.G. Sebald: History-Memory-Trauma (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2006; Richard Crownshaw, The Afterlife of Holocaust Memory in Contemporary Literature and Culture (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010).

[24] Cited in Mary Cosgrove, “W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz,” in The Novel in German Since 1990, ed. Stuart Taberner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 195-210, here 195.

[25] Howe, Politics and the Novel, 219.

[26] For this argument, see Cosgrove, “Sebald’s Austerlitz,” 198-200.

[27] Ibid., 200.

[28] Ibid.

[29] In Siegfried Kracauer, The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, ed. Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995), 129-140.

[30] Italics in the original.

[31] (New York: New York Review of Books Press, 1981); originally published 1955.

[32] (New York: Melville House, 2011); originally published, 1949.

[33] (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2004).