May 26, 2012
Here is the third installment of my traversal of the essays written for the special W.G. Sebald issue of Journal of European Studies, released last December.
Stephanie Bird’s ‘Er gab mir, was äuβerst ungewöhnlich war, zum Abschied die Hand’: Touch and Tact in W.G. Sebald’s Die Ausgewanderten and Austerlitz discusses exactly what the title infers. Bird uses touch as a way of exploring “the constellation of suffering, the question of whose suffering is privileged, and how it is represented.” She notes that Sebald uses the sensation of touch to both cause and alleviate suffering.
Anja K. Johannsen’s essay, ‘The contrarieties that are our yearnings’: Allegorical, nostalgic and transcendent spaces in the work of W.G. Sebald, argues that Sebald viewed “natural history as a downward-moving process of destruction” that was every bit as destructive as mankind. She suggests this is apparent most clearly when Sebald writes of cities, which he describes as diseased bodies and strata of buried history and which are forever sinking back into a state of entropy. “Sebald turns the notion of progressive evolution upside down because he feels that Nature’s wildly promiscuous love of experimentation creates nothing permanent and that its mechanisms of destruction are more powerful than its drive towards creative reproduction and self-preservation.” Johannsen pays particular attention to the treatment of Jerusalem as it appears in the diary of Ambros Adelwarth in The Emigrants. Here, unique among Sebald’s works, is a city “completely devoid of any utopian hope in a redeemed future.” For Johannsen, the description of Jerusalem is remarkable for its “concentration of words connoting disgust: one can almost smell the putrefying city.”
I was especially taken with Johannsen discussion of Sebald’s allegorical use of “museum-like spaces” and strange collections. Sebald’s narrators, she argues, are “interested in things only when they have become dysfunctional, transformed into a collector’s item, and testify to both the irretrievability and the secret persistence of time past.” The many collections that appear in Sebald’s writings present us with an inherent conflict between the idealized (and perhaps unreal) past they represent in our imagination and their signalling of a “universal history of decay and destruction.”
Johannsen’s goal is nothing less than to locate the “meta-apocalyptic model of reality that forms the hidden vanishing point of all of Sebald’s literary texts.”
Sebald’s narrators can bear the ruinous state of our world only because their inner gaze is fixed upon a moment of absolute stillness that points away from that world – either backwards, towards an imaginary heile Welt, or upwards, towards the wholeness of icy transcendence. Without these escape routes, Sebald’s texts would constantly be in danger of encountering their own limitations – as happens in the Jerusalem episode of “Ambros Adelwarth.”
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.
September 2, 2011
The other night I continued to make my non-sequential way through Saturn’s Moons: W.G. Sebald – A Handbook by reading short accounts written by two of Sebald’s English-language translators: “Englishing Max” by Michael Hulse and “Translating W.G. Sebald – With and Without the Author” by Anthea Bell. A fair amount has already been written about turning Sebald’s German into English, a process that always involved the considerable participation of Sebald, who, of course, was extremely articulate in English. The two essays in Saturn’s Moons add to the well-established image of Sebald and translator collaborating almost as equals. As the illustration above shows, Sebald was perfectly capable of rephrasing – or even completely rewriting – the work of his own translator, which might well have been unnerving for those who took on the task of “Englishing” his German.
But Hulse provides a rare glimpse into the break-up of their professional (and personal) relationship that seems to expose a rarely seen side of Sebald. Having already translated Die Ausgewanderten into The Emigrants in 1996 and Die Ringe des Saturn into The Rings of Saturn in 1998, Hulse “agreed against my better judgment to translate Schwindel. Gefühle,” which, in 1999, became Vertigo. Hulse says he had already heard reports of Sebald complaining in public that he had had to “correct” Hulse’s translations. Hulse, who was juggling multiple literary projects at once, also sensed that Sebald thought he slowed the translation process down too much. Eventually, Hulse says, he informed Sebald’s publisher (Harvill) that he would not translate Sebald’s next book. In January 2000, Sebald wrote Hulse to say that “Perhaps you would agree that, from your point of view also, our partnership has now reached its limits.” After that they never communicated again.
This admission by Hulse immediately reminded me of Michael Hamburger’s oddly confessional “Translator’s Note” at the beginning of Unrecounted, the book of poems that he posthumously translated from Sebald’s German in 2005.
Although Max Sebald had given me copies of all his books published since our first acquaintance, he never so much as mentioned the writings of these miniatures to me and gave me no copy of For Years Now [the 2001 book in which some of the same poems had been previously published in English, apparently translated by Sebald himself].
Hamburger described the final period of Sebald’s life “as a time of crisis…full of enigmas, conflicts and contradictions he chose not to clarify.” As a longstanding friend, Hamburger expressed some pique that Sebald was “readily accessible for interviews that probed matters he would not divulge to his closest friends.”
In an intriguing aside, Hamburger mentioned that his wife had received an autographed copy of the English edition of Austerlitz that, surprisingly, “contained emendations in his hand.” Was Sebald unhappy with aspects of Anthea Bell’s translation, as well? Bell, who has both written and spoken in interviews about her experiences with Sebald, has never hinted at any issues.
May 14, 2011
The newest issue of the French art magazine Ligeia: Dossiers sur L’Art has a major section devoted to the theme of Ruins, Photography & History, edited by art historian Zaha Redman. I was invited to submit something on Sebald, which allowed me to write a piece that was longer than my usual blog post. My essay The Silent Catastrophe: Sebald’s Manchester (that’s the English title) explores Sebald’s relationship with Manchester as reflected in After Nature and The Emigrants. None of the essays are online and I’m afraid I don’t know how easy it is to obtain an issue outside of France.
Here are the contents of the special section:
DOSSIER : RUINES, PHOTO & HISTOIRE
Zaha Redman, Une histoire de pauvreté
Zaha Redman, Hadamar
Zaha Redman, Quel temps il fait, Stéphane Duroy
Pauline Vermare, L’Irlande du Nord de Paul Graham
Jean-Christian Fleury et Jacqueline Salmon, Le Hangar
Denis Baudier, Lewis Baltz, la désagrégation en acte
Zaha Redman, « Les Tombes » de Gilles Peress
Philippe Arbaïzar, Christina’s History, Mikael Levin
Jean-François Chevrier, Plus d’autres sujets, Mikael Levin
Tim Maul, The Devil’s Half-Acre
Zaha Redman, L’espace naturel de la puissance, Shaï Kremer
Auset Nassir, 012011/Égypte
Gilles Mora, New Orleans : mythes, ruines et chaos
Zaha Redman, Les visions tumultueuses de Wang Qinsong
Eduardo Cadava, Lapsus Imagini
Cécile Yapaudjian-Labat, ‘Histoire’ de Claude Simon, La mélancolie des restes
Terry Pitts, La catastrophe muette, Sebald à Manchester
Zaha Redman, La pauvreté de la photographie chez W. G. Sebald
January 3, 2011
Barbara Hui’s Litmap for The Rings of Saturn using Google Maps [
See the larger version here]
With this segment of the three final essays from The Undiscover’d Country, I finally come to the end of the most recent anthology on W.G. Sebald, edited by Markus Zisselsberger. These essays are grouped together under the heading Topographies and Theories, which correctly suggests they have little in common with each other.
Barbara Hui’s Mapping Historical Networks in Die Ringe Des Saturn discusses two types of spatial logic used in The Rings of Saturn: the cosmological view of the Enlightenment and the networked perspective of the postmodern world. The postmodern reconceptualization of space posits that “our experience of time and space in the late twentieth century has changed…fundamentally.” Hui refers to the work of postmodern geographers who view the newly compressed world as a series of networks more than as a spatial territory. “For the first time in history we have the godlike perspective that humanity has always imagined” (i.e., viewing the earth from the air). But, Hui argues, “it turns out that we have nevertheless come no further in terms of knowing ourselves.” In The Rings of Saturn, Hui sees a postmodern global network (all of “the local and global histories that he encounters on his pilgrimage in Suffolk.”) that is overlaid with a “project that is local and remains stubbornly so.” By remaining fixated on Suffolk, Sebald can tell a more cosmological story that rejects “the dilettantism of tourism.” As Sebald goes about a fairly straightforward walking tour, he recounts how Suffolk was affected by numerous historical events that had their origins around the globe. The history that Sebald creates “is not a world history but rather a local history that is global in scope.” Hui uses Google Maps to portray these networks visually. (In September 2009, I posted a short piece about Hui’s work on Sebald.) Not surprisingly, Hui relates Sebald’s sense of “the failure of post-Enlightenment Western thought” with his fascination for Sir Thomas Browne, whose “view is mystical and quasi-astrological,” and who saw the world as a unified whole that was subject to a cyclical trajectory through time.
Dora Osborne’s essay Topographical Anxiety and Disfunctional Systems: Die Ausgewanderten and Freud’s Little Hans argues for affiliations between the modelling of topographical and genealogical elements in Freud’s case history and Sebald’s narratives. “The obsessive recurrence of and return to railway stations in Sebald’s work offers a particularly complex example of this inflection and is a key mode for the oblique referencing of the Holocaust that characterizes his writing.”
The volume ends with Peter Arnds’ essay While the Hidden Horrors of History are Briefly Illuminated: The Poetics of Wandering in Austerlitz and Die Ringe des Saturn. Arnds says that his essay “will show that travel or wandering occurs within a field of tension in Sebald’s two texts, tension between arboresence, the Apollonian, and lethe as tropes of non-movement, concealment, and forgetting on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the rhizome, Dionysus, and aletheia. This tension is inscribed into concrete textual moments that reflect how wandering triggers memory and the revelation of concealed truths.” In his discussion, Arnds calls primarily upon the writings of Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger.
I hereby offer my apologies to all of the authors of The Undiscover’d Country for even attempting to describe in a single paragraph what each of them tried to accomplish in their thirty or so pages. Having authored more than a few academic articles myself, I can sympathize. However, my goal was to provide a shorthand version of each essay in hopes of directly readers to this remarkably strong anthology. You can find all of my posts on The Undiscover’d Country here.