December 26, 2012
Sebald book collectors haven’t had much new to add to their collection since Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems 1964-2001 came out a year ago. But now there is a handsome new addition to anyone’s Sebald bookshelf. Notting Hill Editions (London) has just released a new cloth-bound edition of W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction using the 2003 Anthea Bell translation. Unlike previous British and American editions, this version reverts to the original content of the original 1999 German edition, which was titled Luftkrieg und Literatur. The Notting Hill volume includes only Sebald’s Foreword and the two essays: “Air War and Literature: Zurich Lectures” and “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: On Alfred Andersch,” eliminating the essays on Jean Amery and Peter Weiss that were added when the English-language version was posthumously released in 2003. The slim, compact volume is very beautifully done, being designed, printed and bound in Germany.
Notting Hill’s website rewards poking through (don’t overlook the Videos page).
Nottinghilleditions.com is intended to be the hub of all Notting Hill Editions activity, developing a community around great essay writing. To achieve this, author, Daily Telegraph columnist and blogger Harry Mount will be editor of our online journal featuring new essays monthly, and Ophelia Field will dynamically referee our Top Essay Chart, where the public get to select and vote on the Greatest Essays of All Time, emphasizing once again, the vital role essays have had in our literary, artistic, philosophical and political cultures.
December 18, 2011
On July 10, 1997, scarcely a year after the publication of The Emigrants (his first book to appear in English translation), W.G. Sebald sat down with critic James Wood in New York city for an interview, which appeared the next spring in a relatively obscure literary journal out of Toronto called Brick. Wood had already come to realize that The Emigrants was a game-changer. “Walter Benjamin said that all great works found a new genre or dissolve an old one,” Wood wrote in his opening sentence. “The Emigrants is such a book.” Wood continued on to praise the book for its “fastidiousness” and the way “it forces the largest abstract questions on us, while never neglecting our hunger for the ordinary. It is full of this extraordinary, careful detail…”
Wood’s questioning of Sebald dealt with many of the issues that have come to define Sebald: his use of photographs, the intermingling of fact and fiction, the nature of Sebald’s prose, and his approach to narration. Here’s Sebald on the latter topic:
I think that fiction writing, which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself, is a form of imposture and which I find very, very difficult to take. Any form of authorial writing, where the narrator sets himself up as stagehand and director and judge and executor in a text, I find somehow unacceptable. I cannot bear to read books of this kind.
…I’d much rather read autobiographical texts of a Chateaubriand or a Stendhal, that sort of thing…I find there is a degree of realness in it which I can calculate. Whereas with the novels, I find we are subjected to the rules and laws of fiction to a degree which I find tedious.
Two years later, Wood elaborated on these ideas in his essay “W.G. Sebald’s Uncertainty,” published in his 1999 collection The Broken Estate. There, Wood discussed both The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn, emphasizing the way in which facts (including photographs) became fictive in Sebald’s work as a part of Sebald’s strategy of investing “his narration with scrupulous uncertainty.” For Sebald, “facts are indecipherable, and therefore tragic.” Quite in opposition to Proust, “in Sebald, we are defined by the terrible abundance of our lacunae.” Having read The Rings of Saturn, Wood views Sebald’s use of language with even greater clarity. “Sebald’s language is an extraordinary, almost antiquarian edifice, full of the daintiest lusters.” The “quality of melodrama and extremism running alongside a soft mutedness” is, Wood thinks, practically “Gothic.”
Last month, Wood returned to Sebald again, writing the introduction to Penguin’s tenth anniversary edition of Austerlitz, which he characterizes as a “journey of detection,” though, he warns, “the book really represents the deliberate frustration of detection, the perpetuation of an enigma.” Sebald noted in his 1997 interview that he was more interested in biography than in fiction and Austerlitz represents his most extended attempt to write a fictional biography on his own terms. In his introduction, Wood continues to elaborate on the aspects of Sebald that first attracted his attention in 1997, but he lingers on Sebald’s tactic of forcing the reader into Austerlitz’s shoes by strategically withholding information and by layering Austerlitz’s narrative behind his own narrator’s re-telling of Austerlitz’s story. “What is so delicate is how Sebald makes Austerlitz’s story a broken, recessed enigma, whose meaning the reader must impossibly rescue.” In the end, Wood says, “a life has been filled in for us but not a self.”
The new Penguin edition is really a reissue of their standard paperback edition of Austerlitz with the insertion of a new twenty-one page essay by James Wood and the addition of a faux gold seal on the front cover. Nothing else has changed – not even the blurbs on the cover. But since it does include a new introduction, most collectors will treat it as a new edition and will want the first printing, which Penguin has appropriately marked with a tiny “1″ on the copyright page.
December 31, 2010
I thought I might complete my Thomas Bernhard trifecta with a post that crosses over into book collecting. Even though Bernhard is an ideal author for serious book collecting, there don’t seem to be many limited edition publications of his work. I have two and I can find reference to one more: a 1962 limited edition that consisted of two early poems.
The Voice Impersonator. New York: William Drenttel, 1995. Designed by Jessica Helfand and William Drenttell, The Voice Impersonator was issued in a limited edition of 100 cloth bound copies (binding by the Campbell Logan Bindery of Minneapolis) and an unnumbered edition in wrappers. (I can find one copy of each currently for sale online in the resale market, although it certainly looks as if both versions are still available directly from Drenttel’s Winterhouse Editions.). The book had wonderful handmade Japanese endpapers and a paper title label on the spine. In seventy-one pages, The Voice Impersonator (originally Der Stimmenimitator, 1978) contains 104 very short pieces of fiction translated by Craig Kinosian. This marks the first English translation of the book.
In 1997, when the University of Chicago Press released the same stories to a wider audience, now translated by Kenneth J. Northcott and under the title The Voice Imitator, this volume was also designed by Helfand and Drenttel.
Beautiful View. New York: William Drenttel, 1994. This piece consists of a single sheet (folded to make four pages) and a hand-sewn cover of handmade paper and was released in an edition of 120 copies. The stunning blue cover stock contains silver, mirror-like spirals. The text pages were hand typeset and printed on lovely, watermarked Johannot paper at the Aralia Press by Jessica Helfand, William Drenttel and Michael Peich. The extremely brief, enigmatic is story taken from The Voice Impersonator.
The single-paragraph pieces in The Voice Impersonator are marvelous exercises in tone. The narrative voice, whether first person or third, maintains a uniformly flat, slightly formal tone no matter whether the story ends with a banal punchline or an act of subdued violence. Here are two of the shorter stories in their entirety.
THE WALDHAUS HOTEL. We had no luck with the weather and also had guests at our table who were obnoxious in every way. They even succeeded in spoiling Nietzsche for us. Even when they had a fatal car accident and lay prostrate at the Church in Sils, we still hated them.
POST OFFICE. For years after our mother had died, the post office delivered letters addressed to her. The post office had not acknowledged her death.
Drenttel and Helfand have formed Winterhouse, an umbrella organization that constitutes an institute, a design studio, a publishing house, and numerous other activities, including the invaluable website Design Observer. Winterhouse Editions is responsible for a number of books that will be of interest to Vertigo readers, such as Hans Erich Nossack’s The End: Hamburg 1943 (which I have written about here) and Hans Zischler’s Kafka Goes to the Movies.
January 11, 2010
I’ve recently contributed an article to the new book-collecting portal called Hyraxia on how my book collection evolved when I began collecting the first editions of W.G. Sebald. Rather than reprint the article here, I’ll send you to Hyraxia where you can explore the site for yourself.
But, in answer to the obvious question, no, I don’t know what Hyraxia means. A hyrax, according to Wikipedia, is a species of “fairly small, thickset, herbivorous mammals.” They are, curiously enough, perhaps the closest living relatives to the elephant. Right now, I’d trade one of my cats for a hyrax.