Teju Cole, palimpsests, and Sebald’s ghost

I don’t think one can write from a compromised moral position –  W.G. Sebald

Random House, Teju Cole’s publisher, in publicizing his book, Open City, urged readers to read his prose and be reminded of the German writer W.G. Sebald who died in 2001.  From many of the reviews of Open City, many took heed and agreed with Random House that the book reminded them, perhaps too much, of Sebald. The gloves are coming off in installments. Many readers have noticed the influence and they are muttering about it. The opinions have varied from supportive references, coy hints of plagiarism to outright outrage. I previously reviewed the book here. To be fair, even cursory comparisons of Sebald’s Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn with Cole’s Open City provide plenty of ammunition:

Here are the first lines of Sebald’s Ring of Saturn:

In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work. And in fact my hope was realized, up to a month; for I have seldom felt so carefree as I did then, walking for hours in the day through the thinly populated countryside, which stretches inland from the coast. I wonder now, however whether there might be something in the old superstition that certain ailments of the spirit and of the body are particularly likely to beset us under the sign of the Dog Star. At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralyzing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past that were evident even in that remote place. Perhaps it was because of this that, a year to the day after I began my tour, I was taken into hospital in Norwich in a state of almost total immobility.  It was them that I began in my thoughts to write these pages.

And here are the opening lines of Cole’s Open City:

And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city. The path that drops down from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and crosses Morningside Park is only fifteen minutes from Central Park. In the other direction, going west, it is some ten minutes to Sakura Park, and walking northward from there brings you toward Harlem, along the Hudson, though traffic makes the river on the other side of the trees inaudible. These walks, a counterpoint to my busy days at the hospital, steadily lengthened, taking me farther and farther afield each time, so that I often found myself at quite a distance from home late at night, and was compelled to return home by subway. In this way, at the beginning of the final year of my psychiatry fellowship, New York City worked itself into my life at walking pace.

The resemblance is more than thematic and stylistic, there are similarities of substance. Sebald’s narrator starts out as a patient in a hospital, Julius, Cole’s narrator, is a young doctor in a hospital. It goes on and on; the similarities are plenty. Clearly Cole owes Sebald a huge debt; the least of which would have been an honorable mention in an introduction in the book as his primary influence and inspiration for an admittedly good book. That did not happen, Cole does not share. The blog Bauzeitgeist observes:

The book is clearly influenced by the writing of W.G. Sebald, and in many ways alludes to Sebald’s masterpiece, Austerlitz. Part of the novel takes place in Brussels, and there is even discussion of King Leopold, discussion of ancestors surviving war-ravaged Germany, passages about the Holocaust, and a number of other discrete references to Sebald’s scenery, including mention of crossing the English Channel–the opening scene of Austerlitz.

Bauzeitgeist is quick to conclude that “Cole’s novel is very much its own work, however, with a more contemporary, and American (and African) atmosphere, centered on a far less anonymous main character, who in addition to his perambulations across Manhattan and his four-week visit to Brussels, spends many parts of the novel discussing his family and other relationships, including some wonderful passages recollecting a childhood in Nigeria, including Lagos”

Jay Caspian Kang writing here grumbles about the “influences”:

I know it’s bad manners, but I find it impossible to talk about Teju Cole’s Open City without bringing up a certain dead German writer who wrote about taking walks, meeting professors, eccentrics, immigrants, and people who said things like, “I walked around, looking for an entrance, thinking of these nearby waters. Later, I would find the story recounted by the Dutch settler Antony de Hooges in his memorandum book.” The first 50 pages of Open City, in fact, read so much like W.G. Sebald that my ADD-addled imagination began to paste photos of funny owls and thoroughly unremarkable, vaguely European landscapes onto the pages of the book… As the book moved out of New York, it shook off a bit of the Sebaldian tone and that slow churn of significance, and moved into its own skin. Which I enjoyed. But Sebald still hung over everything and once I put the novel down, I wondered why an author would choose to create a voice with such an immediate, and, frankly, obvious influence.

Thomas Lewek here unwittingly, perhaps coyly, makes the point, without as much as mentioning the ‘P’ word, that when you compare Cole’s Open City with Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, there is more than a stylistic resemblance:

Comfort with sensuality exposes another noticeable disconnection between Cole and Sebald. Sexual relationships exist in Open City whereas the Sebaldian universe remains cold, and uncomfortable with the concept. Compare the following two scenes, the first from Cole, the second from Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn:

In the faux Louis XV bedroom, her shyness dissolved…Then we both went down together, by the side of the Baroque bed, both pushed up against its satin shams, and I pulled the linen skirt upward to her waist.


A couple lay down there, in the bottom of the pit, as I thought: a man stretched full length over another body of which nothing was visible except the legs, spread and angled. In the startled moment when that image went through me, which lasted an eternity, it seemed as if the man’s feet twitched like those of one just hanged.

(By the way, Mark O’Connell has a great piece on Sebald in The New Yorker, Why you should read W.G. Sebald.)  James Woods, the respected critic who knows both writers’ works extremely well (he wrote the Introduction to Sebald’s Austerlitz) observes in his New York Times review:

So the novel does move in the shadow of W. G. Sebald’s work. While “Open City” has nominally separate chapters, it has the form and atmosphere of a text written in a single, unbroken paragraph: though people speak and occasionally converse, this speech is not marked by quotation marks, dashes, or paragraph breaks and is formally indistinguishable from the narrator’s own language. As in Sebald, what moves the prose forward is not event or contrivance but a steady, accidental inquiry, a firm pressurelessness (which is to say, what moves the prose forward is the prose—the desire to write, to defeat solitude by writing). The first few pages of “Open City” are intensely Sebaldian, with something of his sly faux antiquarianism

In the end, Woods pronounces Open City “a beautiful, subtle and… original novel.” I agree. Woods notes:

[T]he novel soon begins to throw off its obvious influences. The prose relaxes into a voice rather than an effect, and it becomes apparent that Cole is attempting something different from Sebald’s project. Eschewing the systematic rigor of Sebald’s work, as well as its atmosphere of fatigued nervous tension, Cole has made his novel as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition. This is extremely difficult, and many accomplished novelists would botch it, since a sure hand is needed to make the writer’s careful stitching look like a thread merely being followed for its own sake.

Edwin Turner in his review agrees also and observes similarly:

“If it needs to be said: Yes, Open City recalls the work of W.G. Sebald, who crammed his books with riffs on history and melancholy reflections on memory and identity. And yes, Open City is flâneur literature, like Sebald (and Joyce, and Bolaño, perhaps). But Cole’s work here does not merely approximate Sebald’s, nor is it to be defined in its departures. Cole gives us an original synthesis, a marvelous and strange novel about history and memory, self and other. It’s a rich text, the sort of book one wants to immediately press on a friend…”

Not all of Turner’s readers are that generous or objective. “Squinto13” commenting on Turner’s review says ruefully:

“I remember seeing that Cole had made a top ten list of “solitude” and that Rings of Saturn was his numero uno [here]. The Sebald similarity actually bothered me substantially. I don’t know. As someone who cherishes RoS as one of those great hidden gems, knowing that Open City is probably more well-known now than RoS is (or ever was) feels like the brilliantly original prose/tone of RoS was stolen and re-directed for greater consumption. Like Google stealing an idea that a smaller company got right or something. I wouldn’t accuse Cole of intentionally doing this, and the book has many merits – it’s still probably my favorite book of 2011, though I haven’t read many beyond some of the other prize winners, and the conversation with Farouq was top notch and non-Sebaldian – but I can’t help feeling like praise for this book owes more to Sebald than to Cole himself.”

Eric Shanfield dismisses it as reading “almost like a parody of Sebald.”  The angriest comment however is on Amazon in the customers’ review section of Open City:

This is less an homage to W. G. Sebald’s novel Rings of Saturn than a wholesale picking of his literary pocket. I found it difficult to read a single page without having to put the book down in mortal outrage because of each passage’s semblance to a similar passage, done better, in Sebald. I don’t know how people aren’t taking to the streets.

I honestly believe that talk of plagiarism is over the top (Cole and Sebald are two distinctly different authors with different messages), but the relationship between Teju Cole’s works and Sebald needs further plumbing and analysis by scholars. It is fair to say that Cole appropriated Sebald’s styles and literary vehicle and adapted them to suit his own unique (yes, unique) literary burden. You read Sebald’s works and you are taken by how much Cole clings to Sebald like white on rice. Examine the following passage from Sebald’s Austerlitz and it is hard not to think of Cole’s prose:

My memory of the fourteen stations which the visitor to Breendonk passes between the entrance and the exit has clouded over in the course of time, or perhaps I could say it was clouding over even on the day when I was in the fort, whether because I did not really want to see what it had to show or because all the outlines seemed to merge in a world illuminated only by a few dim electric bulbs, and cut off forever from the light of nature.  Even now, when I try to remember them, when I look back at the crab-like plan of Breendonk and read the words of the captions – Former Office, Printing Works, Huts, Jacques Ochs Hall, Solitary Confinement Cell, Mortuary, Relics Store and Museum – the darkness does not lift but becomes yet heavier as I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.  Histories, for instance, like those of the straw mattresses which lay, shadow-like, on the stacked plank beds and which had become thinner and shorter because the chaff in them disintegrated over the years, shrunken – and now, in writing this, I do remember that such an idea occurred to me at the time – as if they were the mortal frames of those who once lay there in that darkness.  I also recollect now that as I went on down the tunnel which could be said to form the backbone of the fort, I had to resist the feeling taking root in my heart, one which to this day often comes over me in macabre places, a sense that with every forward step the air was growing thinner and the weight above me heavier. (p 29)

What do I think? If you ask me, Cole definitely needs to wean himself of Sebald. Too much of everything becomes more than just influence. Read Cole’s beautiful essay, Blindspot in Granta (August 20, 2012) about medical issues with his eyesight, he quotes a passage in Open City and it is as if you are reading Sebald in Austerlitz because there is a similar experience that the narrator undergoes. It is eerie. Here is my favorite passage that reminds me of Cole’s Granta essay because it is uncannily similar to Cole’s narrative about his eyesight:

I was in some anxiety at the time because I had noticed, looking up an address in the telephone book, that the sight in my right eye had almost entirely disappeared overnight, so to speak. Even when I glanced up from the page open in front of me and turned my gaze on the framed photographs on the wall, all my right eye could see was a row of dark shapes curiously distorted above and below— the figures and landscapes familiar to me in every detail having resolved indiscriminately into a black and menacing cross-hatching. At the same time I kept feeling as if I could see as clearly as ever on the edge of my field of vision, and had only to look sideways to rid myself of what I took at first for a merely hysterical weakness in my eyesight. Although I tried several times, I did not succeed. Instead, the gray areas seemed to be spreading, and now and then, opening and closing my eyes alternately to compare their degrees of clarity, I thought that I had suffered some impairment on the left as well. Considerably alarmed by what I feared was the progressive decline of my eyesight, I remembered reading once that until well into the nineteenth century a few drops of liquid distilled from belladonna, a plant of the nightshade family, used to be applied to the pupils of operatic divas before they went on stage, and those of young women about to be introduced to a suitor, with the result that their eyes shone with a rapt and almost supernatural radiance, but they themselves could see almost nothing. I no longer know how I connected this memory with my own condition that dark December morning, except that in my mind it had something to do with the deceptiveness of that star-like, beautiful gleam and the danger of its premature extinction, an idea which filled me with concern for my ability to continue working and at the same time, if I may so put it, with a vision of release in which I saw myself, free of the constant compulsion to read and write, sitting in a wicker chair in a garden, surrounded by a world of indistinct shapes recognizable only by their faint colors. Since there was no improvement in my condition over the next few days, I went to London just before Christmas to see a Czech ophthalmologist who had been recommended to me. [Sebald, W.G. (2011-12-06). Austerlitz (Modern Library Paperbacks) (Kindle Locations 579-594). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.]

Cole is his own best enemy. Cole is an accomplished and important writer and it bears restating that Open City is a unique, original novel, albeit one borne on Sebald’s powerful literary shoulders. I do not believe that Open City would have been birthed without the benefit of Sebald’s prodigy. On the other hand, you have to be a really good writer and thinker to do what Cole did with Open City. I do fault Cole on one point: Cole should have given Sebald credit in the book and not look like he waited to be prompted by alert readers before showering him with encomiums. What Cole did is perhaps a more intense version of Ola Rotimi’s adaptation of Oedipus Rex in The Gods are not to Blame. Rotimi is careful to give due credit in his play. This essay would have been unnecessary if Cole had given Sebald credit in his book.

Again, in virtually all of Cole’s works, the Sebald influence is everywhere, it is hard to miss, and it is obvious that Cole has been studying Sebald for a long time. There are little things; the grainy black and white photos in Every Day is for the Thief now remind me of those in Sebald’s books. And all of Cole’s writing today have been travelogues, what James Wood refers to as flâneur.

Cole does not like the reference to the Sebald “influences” and the negative connotation. In this interview he bristles at this question:

It strikes me that if there is a resonance between Sebald’s work and your own it’s what you’ve just described. A lot of reviewers have latched onto stylistic similarities. But it seems to me it’s far more the legacy of traumatic events connecting you than questions of style.

And he responds dismissively with an air of annoyance and tries to put some distance between him and Sebald:

Absolutely. I’m very grateful for that, and I completely agree. Stylistically speaking, I take a lot more from poets like Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott, and prose writers like VS Naipaul, JM Coetzee, Michael Ondaatje and James Salter. It’s fair to say a lot of the cadences in my sentences are inspired by Naipaul. But few critics pick that up, and somehow end up latching onto the Sebald thing instead. His sentences are completely different from mine. His are long, looping and sort of intoxicated, whereas my stuff reads like court testimony; it’s very laconic. To me, that’s an important difference. I know I shouldn’t read reviews, but I do, and somebody recently wrote that it was absolutely disgraceful how I was picking Sebald’s pocket. And I just think, “Well, I have no response to that…

Well, Cole owes Sebald a huge debt of gratitude, no ifs, no buts. Since Open City, as if stung by the criticisms, Cole has been on a charm offensive writing effusive and really good essays on Sebald’s works, like this one here on his poetry. Writing in the UK Guardian, Cole lists Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn as his number one novel of solitude (August 24, 2011). He fairly gushes and breathlessly describes it as a “novel of ideas with a difference: it is nothing but ideas. Framed around the narrator’s long walks in East Anglia, Sebald shows how one man looks aslant at historical atrocity. Formally dexterous, fearlessly written (why shouldn’t an essay be a novel?), and unremittingly arcane; by the end I was in tears.”

In any case, scholars are going to spend an awful amount of time analyzing the relationship between Cole and Sebald and judging whether it was wholesome, that is beyond my pay grade. Judging from this scholarly blog piece from the English department of St. Columbia’s College, history will be kind and just to Cole:

W.G. Sebald’s death in a car crash in 2001 was a great loss to literature; he was in rich form, and we could have expected several really fine books in the years to come. We could hardly, however, expected that a literary descendant would have appeared in 2011 in the form of a part-Nigerian ‘professional historian of Netherlandish art’ writing about the perambulations of a part-Nigerian psychiatric doctor as he is wandering around the island of Manhattan.

But Sebald is the influence that Teju Cole’s first novel Open City inevitably evokes. It’s not that Cole doesn’t have his own voice (through his narrator Julius) or that his book isn’t an achieved work of art in its own right. It’s just that some elements are inescapably ‘Sebaldian': the melchancholy shimmer of its beautiful prose, the apparently freewheeling associations in the mind of the narrator, the fascination with loss and the layerings of personal, cultural and architectural history. ‘Novel’ also seems a crude label, as it does for The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz. And the narrator himself is a tricky figure – in Sebald, often slipping behind veils of irony, in Open City an altogether more ambiguous character than his highly-educated surface at first suggests.

This testimonial in itself is a major achievement for Cole, not many writers will ever have that honor. Ironically, he has done more for Sebald’s works than Sebald could have hoped to do in his lifetime. Cole has established himself as a great voice and an important gifted writer; on balance, given his creative adaptation of Sebald’s works as a vehicle for his own unique ideas, it is a testimony to the force of his voice that he has come away largely unscathed from the grumblings about his relationship with Sebald. Lesser thinkers would be doomed today.

I am a personal admirer of Teju Cole, a groupie even, he has been a great griot and enriched literature as we know it, for that we must appreciate and honor him. Cole will be with us for a long time stoking the embers of burning boundaries, cunningly testing the limits of what is acceptable in literary discourse. I don’t know of any writer in recent times that has garnered as much critical attention as Cole. He has done incredibly well and he deserves the accolades. He does need to come out from under Sebald’s brooding voice. For now, judging by his recent essays, it will take hours of therapy to wean him from Sebald’s shadows. Cole has a flair for mild drama. Reminiscent of the mysterious nocturnal visitor to Edgar Allan Poe’s grave, he recently wrote a moving essay on his visit to Sebald’s grave. No word on whether he left flowers and a half-empty bottle of cognac. And oh, did you know that Teju Cole is the nom de guerre for Yemi Onafuwa? Find out from Margaret DeRitter in this awesome essay about the writer also known as Teju Cole.