Elective Affinities: Nine on Sebald
October 8, 2007
Elective affinities…are the type of willful connections made among disparate objects which go beyond actual correspondences such as shared dates or locations. [James P. Martin]
Hot off the press is the 2007 Gegenwarts Literatur: A German Studies Yearbook, which focuses on W.G. Sebald through nine essays (four in German, five in English). The secret word (to invoke Groucho Marx and You Bet Your Life) that pops up repeatedly is Goethe’s phrase “elective affinities,” which seems about as good a phrase as any to describe the collective thrust of these essays. Here are my quick and greatly oversimplified summaries of the ones in English.
Richard Langston (Elective Affinities: Sebald and Kluge on Feeling History) simultaneously contributes to and examines the ever-growing aftermath to Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction by dissecting Sebald’s complex re-thinking of Alexander Kluge, especially on Geschichtsgefühl, or feelings about history.
Ben Hutchinson (Der Erzähler als Schutzengel: W.G. Sebald’s Reading of Giorgio Bassani) speculates on the influence that Bassani had on Sebald, based in part on a close examination of the marked-up copies of Bassani’s books in Sebald’s archive. When Sebald was asked about the writers that most influenced him, Bassani was the only non-German writer in the list.
James P. Martin (W.G. Sebald’s Die Ringe des Saturn) discusses the roles that melancholy and exile play in the construction of Sebald’s narrators.
At the heart of this project [Der Ringe des Saturn] is the Sebaldian narrator, a melancholic wanderer whose deliberately peripheral, emigrant perspective evokes the flood of memories and significations in the representation of catastrophic events. [page 132]
The inability of atrocity to be conveyed in its totality using representational language, demands an oblique approach to history and a peripheral perspective upon the traces of destruction in material culture….Sebald’s wandering narrator recognizes that a condition of being-in the-world, in a Heideggerian sense, is that one is forced to continually interpret reality in order to create meaning, and that this process necessarily entails a partial destruction of that reality…in order to create the possibility of a new meaning… [page 133]
Karen Remmler (The Shape of Remembering: W.G. Sebald’s Die Ringe der Saturn and Austerlitz) deals with the way in which memory functions in these two novels, especially the memory of traumatic pasts. She explores the various geometric patterns which recur and which both store and trigger memories (think of the quincunx and the fortress at Breendonk).
Peter O. Arnds (Dans la Salle des Pas Perdus: Wandering, Dwelling, and Myth in W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz) reads Austerlitz and Sebald through the lens of Heidegger.
Authors writing on Sebald in German are Doren Wohlleben, Claudia Öhlschläger, Elena Agazzi, and Yahya Elsaghe.Other essays in the volume deal with Elfriede Jelinek, Turkish-German writer Ermine Sevgi Özdamar, and Urs Widmer.
I purchased my copy directly from the website of the publisher Stauffenburg Verlag, where there is a much fuller description of the contents.