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).