February 15, 2013
At the University of East Anglia’s #NewWriting website, former Sebald student Luke Williams has posted his article A Watch on Each Wrist: Twelve Seminars with W.G. Sebald, which originally appeared in the anthology Saturn’s Moons: W.G. Sebald – A Handbook. Williams’ vivid recollections of Sebald, the professor, provide wonderful and insightful reading. His essay gets its title from the fact that he would observe Sebald apparently wearing two wrist watches in class. “Why two watches? Why one digital and one analogue? Why was the analogue watch turned face down? I didn’t know.” The answer, which I found quite quite surprising, is revealed at #NewWriting in the comments section. So, click here to make your way over there and read Williams’ piece.
At the always-worth-reading Los Angeles Review of Books there is an essay called Imperfect Strollers: Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, and W.G. Sebald, and the Alienated Cosmopolitan by Michelle Kuo and Albert Wu. I’ve written about both Lerner and Cole.
What ultimately drives Sebald’s narrator is not doubt, but desire: to believe in a shadow world; to find evidence of it in the wondrous impossibilities of the natural world; to tell stories of metamorphosis, and therefore to imagine the indestructibility of soul, being, or spirit. Through these desires, we escape the mourning that we each have equally inherited. Thus, unlike Cole and Lerner, Sebald does choose a position from where his narrator speaks. In grief yet also in wonder, he invites us to observe alongside him. What certainties arise from his observations? The history of our world, for Sebald, is like a thread of a thousand yards woven by silkworm. Our recent past has broken it irrevocably.
Melilah: Manchester Journal of Jewish Studies 2012 Supplement 2 is devoted to Memory, Traces and the Holocaust in the Writings of W.G. Sebald, edited by Jean-Marc Dreyfus and Janet Wolff. (Yes, the official title given at the website and on the magazine title page doesn’t match the title shown on the sample cover.) At Melilah’s website, the entire issue can be downloaded as a PDF for free. Here’s the list of contents:
- Memory, Traces and the Holocaust in the Writings of W.G. Sebald by Jean-Marc Dreyfus and Janet Wolff
- ‘And So They Are Ever Returning to Us, the Dead:The Presence of the Dead in W.G. Sebald by Carole Angier
- Kindertransport, Camps and the Holocaust in Austerlitz by Jean-Marc Dreyfus
- The Peripatetic Paragraph:Walking (and Walking) with W.G. Sebald by Monica B. Pearl
- I Couldn’t Imagine Any World Outside Wales: The Place of Wales and Welsh Calvinist Methodism in Sebald’s European Story by Jeremy Gregory
- Utter Blackness: Figuring Sebald’s Manchester by John Sears
- Max Ferber and the Persistence of Pre-Memory in Mancunian Exile by Janet Wolff
- The Uses of Images: W.G. Sebald & T.J. Clark by Helen Hills
- Novel Crime, Hunting and Investigation of the Trace in Sebald’s Prose by Muriel Pic
- Notes on Contributors
Finally, to continue the Manchester theme, I’m going to make a link to something I wrote in 2011. I was invited to submit an essay to the French magazine Ligeia: Dossiers Sur L’Art for an issue devoted to “Ruines, Photo & Histoire.” My essay The Silent Catastrophe: Sebald’s Manchester, was published as La Catastrophe Muette, translated by Zaha Redman. I’m putting the previously unpublished English version up on Vertigo here.
January 12, 2012
Continuing my prolonged reading of Saturn’s Moons, I turn to Luke Williams’ essay “A Watch on Each Wrist: Twelve Seminars with W.G. Sebald.” Williams piece deals equally with Sebald the teacher and Sebald the writer, since Williams studied for a Creative Writing MA under Sebald, and his essays adapts some of his class notes from Sebald’s final, unfinished seminar in the fall of 2001. Two themes stood out for me: Sebald’s arguments for a “documentary” approach to the novel and his brief, but tantalizing allusion to Werner Heisenberg.
But first, here’s the explanation for the title of Williams’ essay, taken from his class notes of December 5, 2001, less than two weeks before Sebald’s death.
At one point I stopped looking at the faces of my classmates and instead watched Sebald. He was leaning back in his chair. His legs were stretched out in front of him, his body a long diagonal. His eyes looked up at the ceiling and the round glass of his spectacles reflected the light strip. Both his hands were placed on the back of his head; together his arms made a coathanger shape…He was wearing a watch on each wrist. On his left wrist he wore a cheap digital watch, face up. On his right an analogue watch, its face turned round the underside of his wrist. The rain continued. Sebald talked on. But I wasn’t following him. I kept looking at the watches on his wrists. Why two watches? Why one digital and one analogue? Why was the analogue watch face down? I didn’t know.
Here are a few choice excerpts from Williams’ class notes.
Sebald’s point, it seemed to me, was simple. That precision in writing fiction – especially in writing fiction – is an absolutely fundamental value. He summed up by saying that if you look carefully you can find problems in all writers, or almost all (Kafka being an exception; especially, he told us, if you look at the reports he wrote for the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute!).
How do you surpass horror once you’ve reached a certain level? How do you stop it appearing gratuitous? He answered himself. Let me get this right. You (he was addressing the whole class) might think that because you are writing fiction you needn’t be overly concerned to get the facts straight. But aesthetics is not a value-free area. And you must be particularly careful if your subject concerns horrific events. You must stick absolutely to the facts. The most plausible, perhaps even the only, approach is the documentary one. I would say that writing about an appalling state of affairs is incommensurable with traditional aesthetics.
In the twentieth century we know that the observer always affects what is being said…writing that does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator is an imposture, jaded, even dangerous.
I was pleasantly surprised to see this last comment, which alludes to Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Oddly enough, I previously wrote about the unlikely coincidence that Heisenberg spent some of the last days of World War II some forty miles from where a very young Sebald lived at the time. In fact, Heisenberg witnessed the bombing of some of the towns that Sebald mentions in On the Natural History of Destruction. Four and a half years ago I wrote:
It’s curious to imagine the Nobel Prize winning author of the Uncertainty Principle alternately napping on a mountainside and watching Allied bombers over the valleys where one year-old Winfred Georg Maximilian Sebald lived at the time. I wonder what Sebald would have thought of Heisenberg’s often-quoted line: “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”
January 9, 2012
After a brief hiatus I’ve picked up Saturn’s Moons again and I just read the three essays that focus on W.G. Sebald’s time as a professor at the University of East Anglia: Gordon Turner’s “At the University: W.G. Sebald in the Classroom,” Luke Williams’ “A Watch on Each Wrist: Twelve Seminars with W.G. Sebald,” and Florian Radvan’s “The Crystal Mountain of Memory: W.G. Sebald as a Classroom Teacher.” Here is one of the more intriguing excerpts from Turner’s essay, where he writes about Sebald’s general reticence to talk about his life as a writer to most of his colleagues and students.
It is a common perception among colleagues and friends that where his writing was concerned Max played his cards very close to his chest, revealing, if anything, very little, and, if ever, very often after the event. Even though we knew that Max would occasionally submit pieces for publication in German periodicals and literary magazines, successes such as the publication of Nach der Natur (After Nature) in 1988, as well as his being shortlisted for the Ingeborg-Bachmann-Preis in Klagenfurt, Austria, in 1990, were communicated to us casually in typical throwaway lines. A case in point is the story which he recounted on his return to UEA shortly after receiving the Johannes-Bobrowski-Medaille in Berlin in June 1994. At one of our regular convivial gatherings in the German Sector office, Max described how, early in the morning after the award ceremony in Berlin, he had made his way down to the shores of the Wannsee. He had with him what he dubbed the “indescribably hideous” plaque which he had received at the ceremony. Unable to contemplate ever being able to find houseroom for it, Max, an aesthete through and through, had hurled it into the water, where, he assured his incredulous colleagues and to his evident glee, it had sunk without a trace.
Turner pulls together the recollections of some of Sebald’s students and one of the conclusions he draws is that, as Sebald’s “reputation grew as a writer, so he felt able to express his opinions about literature and other subjects considerably more vehemently in seminars and lectures.”
Turner also appends reproductions of several of the reading lists that Sebald distributed for various classes, including his “Essential reading” for a late 1970s or early 1980s seminar on twentieth century European drama, the nine films to be examined for his 1984 seminar on “German Cinema in the Twenties,” twenty-four books to read for his 1993 class “Post-War German Literature – From 1945 to 1968,” the eleven books to read for a 1996/7 class on “Major Trends in European Fiction,” and so on. These make for fascinating reading.
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.
September 24, 2011
More than two-hundred pages of Saturn’s Moons:W.G. Sebald – A Handbook are dedicated to a stunning bibliographic survey of Sebald. I calculate that if all of the entries here were laid end to end they would indeed extend to Saturn and back – hence the source of the book’s title, no doubt. The co-conspirators behind this effort are Richard Sheppard, Jo Catling, Richard Hibbitt, Lynn Wolff, and Gordon Turner.
How do I convey what an extraordinary undertaking this bibliography represents? Let’s just look at the entry for Schwindel. Gefühle (Vertigo), which covers nearly two densely packed pages. The five different German editions are covered in depth, with notations about the size of edition, the number of printings, and brief comments on the textual and image differences between the editions. This is followed by bibliographic entries for the seventeen foreign languages into which this book have been translated (or are known to be in the works). Just for the sake of comparison, Die Ausgewanderten (The Emigrants) has been translated into twenty-seven languages, Die Ringe des Saturn into twenty-two languages, and Austerlitz into twenty-nine.
If it accomplished nothing else, the massive effort by Sheppard et alia points to the productivity and work ethic of Sebald, who most people will know only as the author of a handful of books. For starters, Sebald had more than twenty publications (classed as “Juvenalia”) before exiting university. During the thirty years of his writing career (roughly 1970-2001), Sebald published seventy-six critical articles and essays, plus thirty-one book reviews, many of which appeared in multiple publications (hence, another seventeen pages of exceptional literary sleuthing). And then there are the poems, the published letters, the fifty-four interviews, and even a handful of translations by Sebald.
The “Secondary Bibliography” covers everything published about Sebald, including monographs, special journal editions, articles, chapters, entries in reference works, obituaries, tributes, poems on Sebald, theses and dissertations, and even art works, exhibitions, and performance inspired by Sebald. A separate section (thirty-two pages) covers nothing but the reviews of Sebald’s works. Gordon Turner provides an “Audio-Visual Bibliography,” which mostly covers materials located in archives in Norwich and Marbach. And then there is a detailed “Chronology” that runs from 1943 until 2011 (sixty-four pages).
I saved the most fascinating and astonishing section for last. Richard Sheppard has indexed all of the interviews conducted with Sebald for every reference to a name, a title, or a topic. If the reader wants to see what Sebald said about, say, Theodor Adorno, Jane Austen, Henry Ford, Jean Genet, Gruppe 47, Ernest Hemingway, Adolf Hitler, Herman Melville, Virginia Woolf, animals, butterflies and moths, depression, irony, the Treblinka trials, or countless other names or topics, the index will direct you to the appropriate interviews. (Now, all you have to do is track the interviews down.) Two of my favorite topics in the index were: “surgery, fear of” and “greatest wish: to live outside of time”.
Hats off to the crew who have given us with this monumental bibliographic record!