Arts & Culture

Perpetual Longing and the Wandering Jew

Yesterday I cited some of my main literary influences but I did not mention one which was crucial to me in the writing of Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes, and that is the German writer W. G. Sebald. Sebald … Read More

By / October 29, 2009

Yesterday I cited some of my main literary influences but I did not mention one which was crucial to me in the writing of Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes, and that is the German writer W. G. Sebald.

Sebald was a lifelong exile who made his home in England at the age of 26 and was for many years professor of European literature at the University of East Anglia. His books were all written in German but beautifully rendered into English by his translators Michael Hulse and Anthea Bell. He had perhaps reached the peak of his literary reputation at the time of his tragic death in a car crash in 2001, aged 57.

I had already conceived and begun mapping my Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes when I encountered Sebald’s The Emigrants, four stories about exile whose links, contrasts and parallels combine to form a threnody of loss, punctuated by Sebald’s characteristic grainy and evocative black-and-white snapshots. They have the feel of reportage but are in fact fiction, and indeed it is part of Sebald’s unique style to blur the borders between fiction and non-fiction, memory and invention, history and myth, in a literary form of his own which I call the mental travelogue.

This form works best, in my opinion, in those works of his which are the least self-consciously novelistic, most notably Vertigo and The Rings of Saturn, books whose richness and complexity seem to me almost inexhaustible.

Having already conceived and planned the book I wanted to write it is true to say I was not influenced by Sebald so much as inspired and – what can be even more important – given permission. Here was an author producing page after page of prose without dialogue and virtually without paragraph breaks (never forgetting, of course, those strategic snapshots) and the result was unstoppably readable, utterly compelling. I didn’t want to dispense with paragraphs but I did know that I didn’t want much dialogue and I did want to write a lot of prose. W. G. Sebald gave me permission to try.

The other thing Sebald did for me was to amplify my theme: that of displacement, longing and wandering (leavened always by a dash of salty humour).

I wrote earlier this week of the Jew as metaphor and wish to note that although most of the protagonists in Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes are not overtly Jewish, I have taken the Jewish story of displacement as my central metaphor and the Jew him/herself as the embodiment of exile. In doing so I wanted to ask a question of myself and also of my readers: is the condition of being Jewish always and necessarily one of exile and unbelonging? Is this an essential part of who we are, Israel notwithstanding?

And I would further ask: without this essential sense of journeying, of discomfort, of always seeking a further destination, what would Jewish culture be like?

No homeland, no Israel figures in my novel in which the narrator ends up more lost than ever, pursuing a possibly mythical jungle-dwelling Jew. If that is the case, then it is probably because despite my own deep family and ancestral connections to it, Israel too is a place where I know I will never properly belong. But I was deeply moved, last summer, while discussing this very topic at the Sami Rohr Literary Institute, to hear an Israeli-born author I greatly admire and respect express how, while working and raising his family in the land of his birth, he too does not feel that the destination is reached, the ache assuaged or the journey over. Perpetual longing, it would seem, is an ineradicable part of the Jewish and maybe of the human condition.