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.
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.
August 5, 2009
I now own a mildly mysterious copy of W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo as published by New Directions. An alert reader of this blog noted that elsewhere I had written: “Curiously, Vertigo is the only one of Sebald’s major books for which I have never seen a British or American proof or advanced readers copy offered for sale. I wonder if one even exists.” He saw just such a title advertised for sale and let me know so that I was able to buy it for my collection.
New Directions published the first American edition of Vertigo sometime in 2000 (the New York Times reviewed it June 11, 2000). More than a year later, when they finally decided to release a soft cover edition, New Directions seems to have sent out an unknown number of advance promotional copies to promote the forthcoming soft cover version – using copies of the hard cover edition. They simply took a jacket-less hard cover copy, slapped a small image of the book’s cover and two pre-printed stickers on the front cover, and then stapled a single page from their October newsletter into the front endpaper. Unfortunately, it probably isn’t possible to know if this copy is from the first or second New Directions printing, because New Directions places information about subsequent printings of hard cover editions on the dust jacket – not in the book itself as most publishers do. Note that the upper sticker misspells the name of the British publisher Harvill.
The mini-book cover for Vertigo that is pasted onto the promotional copy above presents another – admittedly minor – puzzle. Semadar Megged’s front cover designs for the hard cover and soft cover editions of Vertigo (shown below) are essentially the same with only minor changes to adjust for the smaller cover area of about three quarters of an inch in both directions. Although it is closer to the dust jacket of the hard cover edition since it does not reproduce the blurb by Richard Eder that appears in the final design of the soft cover edition, the cover shown above differs from the final designs of both hard cover and soft cover. If you look closely you will see that the relationship between the text and the photograph of the volcano does not match the final designs and we see a second peak to the left of the spewing volcano.
Left: hard cover
Right: soft cover
October 13, 2008
Carl Hanser Verlag has just come out with a beautiful edition of selected poems by W.G. Sebald, Über das Land und das Wasser (Over the Land and the Water). It contains more than sixty poems written by Sebald between 1964 and 2001, selected by Sven Meyer, who also provides the book with an afterword. Nearly half of the poems are previously unpublished. The volume itself is nicely produced, with a wonderful dust jacket photograph of Sebald by Isolde Ohlbaum. The boards are covered in a handsome textured white paper with tiny flecks of color. The spine has a wine-colored leather label. All for the reasonable price of 14,90 Euros (about $20 today). There is no indication how large the first printing was.
I have had mixed feelings about Sebald’s poetry so far (I think Unrecounted is especially problematic). Much of the poetry that has appeared in English so far lacks the complex narratorial voice that is the essence of his prose works. But the publication of Über das Land und das Wasser helps bridge the gap between his hyper-short poems and his long masterpiece After Nature. I hope there is an English translation in the works.
April 23, 2008
I recently upgraded my collection of books by W.G. Sebald by acquiring two rather hard to find copies of his 1990 book Schwindel. Gefühle (Vertigo). The first volume is one of the limited edition of 999 specially bound copies. These were done in a pale green leather and accompanied by an even paler green cardboard slipcase. This edition was issued simultaneously by Eichborn Verlag with the trade edition which had an initial print run of 10,000 copies. Internally, the only difference is the final page of the limited edition, which is hand numbered in ink but not signed by Sebald.
I also acquired a fine copy of the trade edition that includes the Cellophanschuber, or cellophane slipcover. My first copy of this book didn’t have one and now I understand why: it is an extremely fragile, almost transparent thing that probably got tossed or torn most of the time. The cellophanschuber boldly proclaims the enclosed book to be a first edition (erstausgabe). More intriguing, however, it also provides Sebald’s first work of prose fiction with a brief description or blurb that does not seem to have been used anywhere else:
Vom leisen Inferno der Depression und von der Unheimlichkeit des Glücks.
In my humble and no doubt amateur translation, this reads something like “From the quiet inferno of depression and the eeriness of fate…” (Anyone want to take a better shot at this?)
It appears to me that German booksellers use various terms for this kind of transparent paper slipcase, including Pergaminschuber and Rückenschild. [The Rückenschild, I am told, is the pasted label on the spine. Thanks, Claus.]
Last year I wrote about the various first editions of Schwindel. Gefühle and Vertigo here.