Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Myth, memory and make believe

Homo Ludens has followed up an interesting post on Thorpeness (see News From Elsewhere, right) with another related one on the late German writer W G Sebald. Specifically his post leads from my (quite probably) erroneous suggestion that Sebald visited Thorpeness in his East Anglian travelogue The Rings Of Saturn. Seeing as I lent my copy to a friend I can't clarify this point either but maybe that doesn't matter. I think my memory of this has become appropriately Sebald-like and conflated a number of different, vaguely connected stories.

One of Sebald's other novels Austerlitz - which I have not read - concerns a historian researching European architecture. The eponymous Austerlitz was orphaned as a result of the holocaust and brought up with an assumed name in Wales. The book apparently concerns Austerlitz's reluctant uncovering of his past, although with Sebald these things are never that straightforward.

Another novel which was almost certainly inspired by Sebald and which lifts much of his tone, albeit in a more straightforward English-lit manner, is Esther Freud's The Sea House. This book also concerns a historian although this time it is a young English architectural student who becomes obsessed with a German architect called Klaus Lehmann.

In order to research Lehmann's work she moves to Steerborough which is a thinly disguised Walberswick, another seaside town on the Suffolk coast. Leaving aside the highly unlikely scenario of an architecture student disappearing for six months to research an arcane point of architectural history, Freud's book is also a personal history. Her uncle was Ernst Freud, an architect who left Berlin in 1933 after the Nazis came to power. In London Freud designed Belvedere Court on the edge of Hampstead Garden suburb, as well as the sun room of the museum in Hampstead devoted to his father Sigmund.

The Sea House is a slightly pallid homage to W G Sebald, attempting to capture some of the same ambiguous interweaving of personal and political memory. Strangely, when imagining the The Sea House the place that kept appearing in my mind was the Dutch House in Thorpeness. This building is an emigrant itself, an oddly transposed piece of art noveau sitting in its highly artificial setting on the East Anglian coast.

As Homo Ludens suggests, Thorpeness is a fantasy that uses nostalgic memory to suppress the realities of the twentieth century. Its layout is based on a three dimensional construction of the spaces of Edwardian children's fiction populated by vaguely eerie bits of half-remembered architecture.

Given all that I'm not so sure that W G Sebald would have been uninterested in Thorpeness. Its jollity is too forced and its purpose too odd for it to be so easily dismissed. It is a cock-eyed conflation of other times and places situated somewhere between myth and childhood make believe.

No comments: