Passing on: "The Weight of Memory" and the Second Generation Fiction of Anne Michaels, W. G. Sebald and Bernhard Schlink

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

The value of second generation fiction for Holocaust studies can be found in its self-conscious examination of what might constitute an ethical response to the testimony of another. I bring together the fictional texts of three authors of the generation after, Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces, W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and Austerlitz and Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, in order to investigate the textual strategies each text employs to bear witness on behalf of another and pass on what Sebald has called "the weight of memory" . While Sebald uses the phrase to describe the burden of memory experienced by survivors, I use his phrase as a point of departure to consider how the second generation responds to the burden of memory. Rather than portraying fictional examples of "vicarious witnessing" (Zeitlin) or "witness by adoption"(Hartman), these texts present a form of structural witnessing that models how one storyteller can carry and pass on the story of another as a kind of caretaker. I argue that such forms of witnessing on behalf of or for another comprise ethical acts in which the other’s story is accepted as distinct from one’s own. Rather than simply examining "the weight of memory" thematically, each text develops strategies for passing on this weight, and its resultant sense of responsibility, to the reader. I examine the structural and aesthetic strategies employed in these four texts to show how these devices set up the terms by which the text becomes the site of response. I pay particular attention to narrative structures that both model and perform instances of literary address and which create layered structures of "proxy­witnessing"(Gubar) within the space of the text. I consider how fragmentation and failure inform the aesthetics of these authors whose representational strategies may be considered productively "barbaric," to appropriate Adorno’s misunderstood aphorism, as the texts present narratives that are unsettling and yet engaging. The work of the gene ration after is that of carrying memory, but not so as to appropriate it or unduly over -identify with it, but rather to respond and demonstrate response in a gesture which then provokes alternative and continued responses.

Includes bibliographical references