Volume 2, Number 2 (June 2004) : 109-137|
Retracing Twentieth-Century Trauma in Virginia Woolf, Martin Amis, and W. G. Sebald
Rubric A: Topoi
The historical caesura of the Holocaust bisects the twentieth century, its horror effecting a kind of temporal doubling or fold in the psyches of survivors as well as a permanent damage on Enlightenment conceptions of the progressive march of time. The traumatic experience of a continual turning back inflects the twentieth-century novel and our readings of it, calling into question modernist tropes of redemption. This essay examines changes in the way that both the passage of time and the ghostly return of the dead are portrayed, first in a modern text, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which deals with World War I, and then in two postmodern works both of which inscribe a vain dream of the rectification of Holocaust trauma: Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow and W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants. My emphasis is on trajectories of plot and memory, trajectories that trauma distorts and the artistic impulse inclines to even out (as in Amis’s trope of the story told backwards, with genocide undone). While modernist experimentalism cannot help indulging in redemptive fantasies, it also incorporates its own critique of this conservative longing.