A Journey In Time
An essay in the form of a novel
David Kalischer teaches History to university students, but in a moment of existential crisis it comes to him that the entire paradigm is wrong, that what he is teaching is simply nationalistic propaganda for the purposes of patriotic acculturation, when what he should be teaching is universal history, inculcating the critical and analytical skills and tools from which his students can learn the lessons of the past and build a more intelligent future. But how can you teach universal history? Perhaps by focusing on something that is itself universal, and studying it in all its facets. The history of food perhaps, or sailing, of berry-gathering, or marriage. But history is only meaningful when it is also personal. So David Kalischer sets out on an intellectual voyage in search of the universal history of...his birthday. What he discovers on this fascinating voyage that takes him across space as well as time may well confirm his theory, though it is highly unlikely the managers of the education system will change the paradigm.
"What came to fascinate me as I wrote the book were the coincidences and the endlessly recurrent themes. I began quite randomly with the writer Max Sebald, whose two main subjects are coincidence and the search for redemption from the past, and both these themes came to haunt the book; the pursuit of liberty made a third. I started with no idea who had been born or died on this date, what historic events were connected with it, and I refused to leave out anything I found; and they all connected somehow, linked back to each other in some way that wasn't a writer's manoeuverings for literary effect. It would be really fascinating to write another book about a completely different date, and see if the same themes emerged again. I strongly suspect they would."
Excerpt: Chapter One: Departures
2001 C.E; 1422 A.H; 5761 (Jewish); 4698 (Chinese)
On Friday 14th December 2001, when the dog days were drawing to an end, the writer Max Sebald set off with his daughter Anna to drive across Norfolk, no doubt in the hope – I am paraphrasing the opening of his novel "The Rings Of Saturn" – of dispelling the emptiness that took hold of him whenever he had completed a long stint of work. His greatest opus yet, the novel "Austerlitz", had just been published to exaggerated critical acclaim and general neglect, and already the foolhardy hyperbolists, encouraged I imagine by his publisher's marketing department, were suggesting his name as a future Nobel laureate. Professor of Modern German Literature (being German it is necessary to put all these abstractions into capitals) at the University of East Anglia, author of four of the strangest yet most enticing intellectual voyages set to paper in the last years of the twentieth century – alongside "The Rings of Saturn" and "Austerlitz" there were also "Vertigo" and "The Emigrants" – he was just fifty-seven years old and had scarcely taken off the surface of the furrow he was ploughing: the attempt of a German, born after the end of World War Two, to redeem his nation's history from the ravages of indestructible time. What precisely happened is as unclear as his own plots; possibly a heart attack, possibly a failure of road management by one or both drivers. His car collided with a lorry at a bend close to his home, and what remains after the coroner is the re-evaluation of posterity.
I heard about his death that morning on the news, like him driving in a car with my daughter, myself almost involved in a collision when the damned fool of a learner driver stalled at a roundabout and a lorry, not anticipating a hiatus in the flow of traffic, swerved into my lane to avoid her. Hannah had just completed her Grade 5 violin exam, and I was taking her for lunch before returning her to school. While she ordered our Burger Kings, I stepped into the adjacent bookshop and bought my hardback "Austerlitz", wrote in it the date, and noted the author’s death. Having intended to wait for the paperback, this seemed the right response, the perfect homage; and over that weekend I read the book almost without stopping, moved as I had not been since Bruce Chatwin’s death, and before his the deaths of Borges and Lawrence Durrell, by an enormous sense of universal loss; but more than that, by a kind of anger that was egocentric in the extreme; anger that by this death I had been deprived of all those future books he surely would have written had he lived. Only a comment in the next day’s paper, that another novel, "Airwar", written two decades earlier, was due for publication shortly, helped to mollify this, though I have yet to see any evidence of that book's appearance.
There was one other thought however, akin to putting flowers on his grave; that somebody should write Max's biography, but that it shouldn't be one of the usual round of literary hacks who supplement their incomes by "doing" the biographies of the briefly famous. What was needed was a biography in Sebald's own voice, in his own style; indeed, in his own automythological first person. Perhaps not even a biography, but a novel, in which he was an occasional and yet the central figure, part factual, part fictional, part autograph, part mime. It is not a book that I am capable of writing, for lack of knowledge of the facts, let alone the time to find them out. Instead, I have written this journey in time; and perhaps, in some obscure manner, it is that book.