October 21, 2011
Since August, I have been slowly traversing the contents of Saturn’s Moons: W.G. Sebald – A Handbook, edited by Jo Catling and Richard Hibbitt. Saturn’s Moons opens with a section called The Writer in Context, which provides five biographical essays by as many authors, each dealing with a section of Sebald’s life. Here the link to all of my posts on Saturn’s Moons. The most recent essays that I have managed to squeeze in between my travel and a pressing fall schedule are both biographical essays dealing with the years leading up to Sebald’s tenure at the University of East Anglia.
Mark M. Anderson’s A Childhood in the Allgäu: Wertach, 1944-52 covers Sebald’s childhood in the southwest part of Bavaria. He portrays this period as a rather happy time, with the young Sebald being heavily influenced by his maternal grandfather, who was, among other things, a “passionate walker.” Anderson suggests that it was through his grandfather (born in 1872) that Sebald found his “old-fashioned, nineteenth-century tone.”Anderson contends that Sebald never completely recovered from his grandfather’s death when he was twelve.
Richard Sheppard’s The Sternheim Years: W.G. Sebald’s Lehrjahre and Theatralische Sendung 1963-75 is essentially a detailed history of Sebald’s college years and his early teaching years in Manchester. Sheppard begins with fairly extensive coverage of Sebald’s years at the University of Freiburg (1963-65), where he was interested in literature, the arts and the theater. Sebald even acted in several plays. It was here that he discovered Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt School, which would be enduring influences on his thinking and writing. These years also coincided with the Auschwitz trails, which, Sheppard argues, led Sebald “to believe that the post-war German university system had been tacitly colluding in the cover-up” of the true history of war years. From 1965-66 Sebald attended the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, where he began to develop and sharpen his critical stance through his research and writing on the German dramatist Carl Sternheim (1878-1942). From 1966-68 Sebald taught at the University of Manchester. Here, I was very pleased to see, Sebald read Michel Butor’s 1957 novel L’Emploi du Temps (Passing Time), written when the French novelist was also a visiting lecturer at the University of Manchester. From 1968-69 Sebald taught in St. Gallen, Switzerland, before returning to Manchester for the 1969-70 year. Through Sheppard’s extensive research and close reading of Sebald’s writings from this time, we see exactly how Sebald’s critical positions and literary tastes evolved and strengthened.
Anyone with more than a passing interest in Sebald will find these two essays (which consume nearly one hundred pages) to be fascinating and revealing.
May 30, 2008
I suppose one could use psychogeography to look closer at the current attempts by Manchester United (“the world’s most popular football team”) to keep its Portuguese-born star Ronaldo from defecting to the Spanish team Real Madrid, but Manchester artists are using that same discipline (perhaps to better advantage) to explore the post-industrial status of their city. Earlier I wrote about the city of Manchester in connection with its appearances in two novels: W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and Michel Butor’s Passing Time. In this connection, I recommend a new blog Ruinous Recollections:
Ruinous Recollections is an art project established by two Manchester-based curators, Darien Jane Rozentals and Robert Knifton. Taking multiple stories of the city as its start point, it will create works that etch memories into Manchester’s urban canvas, re-imagining and adding layers to an already fluid city. This blog will document the project as it evolves…
Especially of interest to me was this post, describing the project by photographer Victoria Lem. As her contribution to the exhibition:
Vic photographs post-industrial ruins, uncovering ghostly remnants of preserved memory, often adding extra layers of palimpsestuous reading to her artefacts by using a time-based pin hole camera techniques and by making spectral fragmented screen prints of the images she captures – the dramatic photograph above is from a series Vic took at Barnes Hospital. Re-tracing the footsteps of Sebald, Vic will add her own memories and fictions to the city.
August 10, 2007
In re-reading the Max Ferber section of The Emigrants the other day, I suddenly realized that W.G. Sebald was referring to the same city that Michel Butor had described in his great novel of 1957 L’Emploi du Temps (Passing Time). Sebald moved to Manchester, England in 1966 to take up an assistant lectureship at the University of Manchester, where Butor had taught from 1951 to 1953.
The opening two sentences of Passing Time never fail to suck me right into the rest of the book:
Thursday, May 1. Suddenly there were a lot of lights.
And then I was in the town; my year’s stay there, more than half of which has now elapsed, began at that moment, while I gradually struggled free of drowsiness, sitting there alone in the corner of the compartment, facing the engine, beside the dark windowpane covered on the outside with raindrops, myriad tiny mirrors each reflecting a quivering particle of the feeble light that drizzled down from the grimy ceiling, while the thick blanket of noise that for hours past, almost unremittingly, had enfolded me began to thin at last, to break up.
The French narrator of Passing Time, fulfilling a year’s term as translator for a British firm, largely detested his time in Manchester, which Butor called Bleston. The entire book is a labyrinth of streets and time . The book opens with a map (above) representing the narrator’s attempt to mark the major locations of his year in limbo, while every diary entry contains precise walking or bus-line directions for the day’s activities.The diary, begun in May, is six months in arrears, and so the narrator can alternately hold time at bay then let it surge forward like lava.
While Butor’s narrator arrived by train, Sebald’s arrives by plane.
Looping round in one more curve, the roar of the engines steadily increasing, the plane set a course across open country. By now, we should have been able to make out the sprawling mass of Manchester, yet one could see nothing but a faint glimmer, as if from a fire almost suffocated in ash. A blanket of fog that had risen out of the marshy plains that reached as far as the Irish Sea had covered the city, a city spread across a thousand square kilometres, built of countless bricks and inhabited by millions of souls, dead and alive.
Both Butor and Sebald found Manchester to be haunted by its faded past and enlivened by its immigrants. Sebald spends nearly a page delighting in the foreign-sounding names of immigrants and listing the trades that they took up (pp. 191-2). Sebald’s narrator and Max Ferber (a German Jewish exile) often meet at an unlicensed Kenyan restaurant called Wadi Halfa. And both narrators spend a considerable amount of time just walking the city.
I won’t belabor the many intriguing parallels between the two writer’s views on Manchester, but I encourage fans of Sebald to find a copy of Michel Butor’s Passing Time.