Our latest blog entry is brought to you by Dr Mererid Puw Davies, Senior Lecturer in German at UCL. In it, she reflects on how language teaching and learning shapes how we think about centres and peripheries of culture. 

Image Attribution: “Mawddach” by Al-fresco is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Reading modern languages at university, we were learning about the great cultural centres of continental Europe. We looked East, we looked South, and searched out the great metropoles far away. This experience was, and remains, entirely formative and meaningful to me. But at the same time, it appeared to fix our ideas of margins and centre, which were which, and where they were. It seemed to point me away from where I’d come from. I think much more about this nowadays.

Last summer, in a hotel lobby on France’s far West coast, the nearby Atlantic stretching away to the Americas, I came across an essay in a travel magazine about a journey to a distant, misty Wales. As a Welsh reader, I was intrigued to find out that the essay’s author had encountered an ‘unfathomable language’ and the sense of being at the very border of the earth. There were various ironies, I thought, at work here. After all, the supposed unfathomability of a language and a sense of being right at the edge are very much matters of perspective. And as it turned out, the author of the essay hadn’t really been to the limits of the known world at all. They had been to Swansea. And clearly, they hadn’t registered that city’s powerful global past and present while they were there. Neither are other regions of Wales remote, illegible or liminal to everyone; as Dafydd Johnston and Mary-Anne Constantine have remarked of the curious optics which can come into play when Wales (indeed any place) is viewed from elsewhere, ‘not everyone starts from the same centre’.

Such thoughts had become a guiding principle for me as I set out recently to explore the representation of Wales in W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001). While that novel addresses the violent past of the twentieth century in continental Europe (and elsewhere), and is an eloquent novel of London too, an important early section is set in twentieth-century rural and coastal Meirionnydd and Mid-Wales. In those passages, to the local eye, apparently familiar subjects flicker in and out of sight uncannily, and reappear in quite the wrong places. Viewed from London, Paris or Berlin, Austerlitz’s Wales might seem a curious place; read from certain vantage points in Wales, Austerlitz itself can sometimes seem extraordinarily strange.

The Coast at Llwyngwril, south of Cutiau, Gwynedd, Wales.

For instance, the Romantic references in Austerlitz seem to efface a sense of lived time and place. An example is the novel’s representation of a funeral which the protagonist attends at a cemetery at the little hamlet of Cutiau on the Mawddach estuary. Cutiau certainly exists. Yet in a characteristically Sebaldian move, the protagonist associates it with a work by JMW Turner: not the painting ‘The Estuary of the Mawddach’ (1798) as one might expect, but more startlingly, ‘Funeral at Lausanne’ (1841). Wales here is not only overlaid with washes of Turner’s colour; is seems to be replaced by an imagined Switzerland of a different time. Interested readers consulting maps will find no cemetery marked at Cutiau, apparently confirming the fictional, intertextual character of this Wales. Consequently, Austerlitz’s mid-century Wales appears interchangeable with any other Romantic location and time, not real at all, but a conspicuously imaginative, artistic space, turning away from history as I know it.

W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz (Fischer, 2001)
Showing J. M. W. Turner, ‘Funeral at Lausanne’ (1841)

So at first I became persuaded by such features in Austerlitz’s Wales that this was an imaginary landscape of no fixed abode, to be explored for its poetic, not its topographical or historical truths; that this key work of European Modernism shows no real place at all. But simultaneously, following a field trip of my own which challenged some of my certainties as to where things really are, I found that the Wales of Austerlitz is in parts more accurate even than contemporary maps. Venturing out to look, I found that there is in fact, despite what maps say, a graveyard at Cutiau, now in disuse, yet an invisible challenge to the official cartographic eye.

What I found in Cutiau brought something home. The place in Austerlitz is not Wales, and yet somehow it is, and this reading tells us many things. Just one of these is that all places are richly plural and endlessly mobile. It shows us, too, about the need to think more critically, expansively and comparatively about the relationships of supposed cultural centres and peripheries, and about our own journeys in, out, to and fro. Fringes and centres are never static, but constantly in motion, depending on where you begin; and that is, generally, from more than one departure point at once.

Especially as I write in 2019, as the contours of Europe, home(s) and away, seem to be shifting at dizzying speed, we would be wise to attend to the possibility that there is no true middle and no true margin to any geography. There is no one point from which it can be seen wholly; everywhere is an archipelago. That seems to me an important thing to learn at university.

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