HISTORY’S MESH: ‘Ghosts on the Shore: Travels Along Germany’s Baltic Coast’ by Paul Scraton

ECOCRITICISM NOW: The essays, reviews, and poetry collected in this thread trace responses to the interlinked terms nature, ecology, and ecocriticism, all of which have come to occupy increasingly important roles in a number of everyday and academic discourses over the last few decades. The “now” of its title is therefore not only a mark of the interest of certain contributions in the development of ecocritical theory (ecocriticism at this moment in time), but also an injunction, a call for more. This thread is co-edited by Tom White.

Paul Scraton Ghosts on the Shore: Travels Along Germany’s Baltic Coast (Influx Press) 

By Sam Wiseman

From the outset, it’s tempting to approach Paul Scraton’s history/memoir/fiction of Germany’s Baltic coast as a descendant of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995). Sebald’s novel (if we insist on classifying a similarly genre-defying text) has grown in stature to such an extent that it can now be seen as the urtext of a particular approach, or set of approaches, to writing about place. Writing within this lineage is characterised by a sense of historical events (often traumatic ones) as somehow continuing to resonate within landscapes; by an associative writing style, which links apparently disparate figures, events and places to generate an eerie sense of hidden agency; and by the aforementioned blurring of genres, encompassing travel writing, nature writing, memoir, history and narrative fiction. Fittingly, given these texts’ obsessive focus with the spectral (as Scraton’s title indicates), Sebald has been a ghostly presence overshadowing this burgeoning constellation of genres since his death in 2001. Ghosts on the Shore particularly demands consideration in light of The Rings of Saturn because in certain respects it presents a kind of mirror image of Sebald’s text: while Sebald used a coastal region of East Anglia to explore, among other things, the horrors of his native Germany’s twentieth-century history, Scraton is an English author exploring the coastline of his adoptive nation in a deeply personal way, discussing personal history alongside the past of this haunted landscape. While Sebald uses geographical and cultural distance to obliquely approach the Holocaust, Scraton engages directly with the histories of Nazism and Communism as inscribed upon the Baltic coast, but also uses those histories to explore his personal relationship with these places.

Stylistically, Ghosts on the Shore brings Sebald’s novel to mind on its opening page. Both texts present a series of notes that indicate the chapter’s ostensible main subjects (Scraton’s list includes ‘Old National Gallery – Heimat – Zinnowitz 1934 – Zentral Omnibusbahnhof Berlin and the contradiction of the coast’), a feature that other followers of Sebald have played with (see, for example, Robert Macfarlane’s 2012 The Old Ways). Scraton’s enigmatic list serves both to arouse the reader’s curiosity and to lend cohesion to a style that is otherwise generally resistant to a firm sense of structure. As in The Rings of Saturn, it strengthens the sense that these seemingly unrelated subjects are mysteriously interconnected: here is a conception of history and place that runs parallel to what Timothy Morton calls ‘the mesh’, the idea that all entities are somehow entwined and interdependent. But a more significant comparison presents itself in the other feature of the first page: a blurry photograph of German children on a seaside holiday, overshadowed by the presence of a swastika on a flagpole in the background. Like Sebald, Scraton understands the uncanny power of such photographs, the sense that (as Clive Scott says in a discussion of Sebald’s work) the figures in them ‘look at us with eyes that are incomprehensible, though they may themselves seem to comprehend us’. He allows the mystery and anonymity of these figures to lend the opening chapter an eerie charge, before eventually revealing a personal connection: the photograph shows his German partner’s grandmother on a family holiday, one year after the Nazi seizure of power. ‘A place. A year. A location. Katrin’s grandmother and her family were walking on the pier at Zinnowitz in the summer of 1934. […] It was the year that did it. It was more than simply family memory.’ The photograph presents Scraton with a means of simultaneously exploring this family history and the wider context of Nazism.

Zinnowitz Pier. Photo: ANBerlin.

This entwinement of the historical and the personal broadly underpins Scraton’s approach in Ghosts on the Shore, which resists the temptation to generate an atmosphere of mystery through the blurring of fiction and non-fiction. In contrast with Sebald’s work, there is never any sense in these passages that our narrator cannot be identified with Scraton himself, and the origin of the photographs is always eventually revealed to us. In fact, Scraton’s text is remarkable for the clarity with which it separates fiction from non-fiction: Ghosts on the Shore does also include a fictional element, but it is clearly demarcated. This takes the form of three separate sections, telling the stories of several interconnected lives spanning the period from the Communist era of the German Democratic Republic to the current era of reunified Germany. Splicing the fictional sections among the non-fictional ones serves both to illuminate the broader historical background of the text, and to connect us with Scraton’s personal relationship to literary creation. He invites the reader into this process before the first fictional section begins, by describing the moment in which he sees the name for a key character in Lübeck: ‘The doorbell was illuminated by a weak bulb, the letters handwritten on to a thin strip of paper: BARTHELS.’ Thus, while the text avoids generic ambiguity, it encourages the reader to consider the relationships between history, personal experience and literary creativity; our reading of the subsequent fictionalised section is informed – haunted, perhaps – by our awareness of the real thoughts and experiences that underpinned its genesis. Through such methods, Scraton is able to raise questions of generic boundaries without engaging in the kind of deliberate mystification that sometimes mistakes opacity for profundity.

In addition, these fictional sections present another form through which Scraton can explore the history of the Baltic coast. For all of its personal and fictional elements, Ghosts on the Shore remains – perhaps inevitably – overshadowed by the weight of this past, and the text is most powerful in its discussion of historical events, and of their legacy in today’s Germany. Visiting Prora, a vast but never-completed holiday camp built by the Nazis on the island of Rügen, Scraton notes that it represents ‘holidays as an imperialist project’, with ‘a fleet of cruise ships, including the Wilhelm Gustloff’; today, however, it has become ‘less a place haunted by its past than a place of property speculation, where there was some doubt as to whether any kind of historical link or memorial to what went before would be preserved.’ In contemporary Germany, questions of what should be memorialised, and how, are ever-present, and Ghosts on the Shore explores these issues alongside its discussion of historical events. While he acknowledges Germany’s laudable culture of memorialisation with regards to many key sites, Scraton is more interested in the shadowy regions of history and landscape that resist such state-sanctioned remembrance, either through an unwillingness to confront the past, or genuine perplexity regarding how to do so.

The reference to the Wilhelm Gustloff – a military ship sunk by a Soviet submarine in January 1945 while evacuating German civilians, with 9,400 deaths – brings us back to an earlier section of the book, in which Scraton discusses this catastrophe. The shipwreck provides one of the text’s most powerfully symbolic images: it still lies on the Baltic seabed, and constitutes a huge war grave; he imagines ‘the Atlantic sucking the waters back […] and the transformation of a featureless sea into a cracked and fractured landscape of sandbanks and crevices, of breathless fish and the thousands of skeletons, of ships and of people, resting on the damp sands.’ While much contemporary writing about place imagines the overshadowing presence of the dead in a figurative sense, this passage reminds us of the literal, material legacy of twentieth-century horror that remains embedded in these locations. In addition, the Wilhlem Gustloff provides a link to another key element of Ghosts on the Shore: its relation to the literary histories of the region. The ship occupies a central position in Gunter Grass’s 2002 novel Im Krebsgang (Crabwalk) – which also explores neo-Nazism in the former East Germany, another of Scraton’s subjects – and the examination of Grass is one of several literary biographies and histories that are connected to the history of the coastline (Thomas and Heinrich Mann are also key figures). In this way, Ghosts on the Shore gradually weaves a subtle but strong pattern of events, figures, texts and places that interconnect and thus provide a sense of foundation among the coast’s shifting sands and waters. Ultimately, Scraton’s clear distinction between fiction and non-fiction means that his text sits apart from much recent Sebald-inspired writing; questions of truth and narrative reliability do not weigh upon Ghosts on the Shore as they often do in other works that combine memoir, history and place writing. Yet Scraton still succeeds in forging an approach that explores the personal, the historical and the literary, engaging these elements in subtle and unexpected ways.

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