January 22, 2013
W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo is steeped in the presence of Franz Kafka – even to the eye of the most casual reader. But, as Daniel L. Medin’s book Three Sons: Franz Kafka and the Fiction of J.M. Coetzee, Philip Roth, and W.G. Sebald demonstrates, Sebald’s debt to Kafka is deep, deeply nuanced, and complicated. Building upon (and simultaneously critiquing) the work of Harold Bloom – especially The Anxiety of Influence and A Map of Misreading – Medin describes his Bloom-like task with Roth, Sebald, and Coetzee as follows:
I have endeavored to distinguish between what I take to be two opposing methods of appropriation: those bent, Bloom-like, on usurpation through imitative violence and those that pursue misreadings with greater reverence, aspiring to stand alongside or in the company of an antecedent rather than above him.
To put it a little more bluntly, do Roth, Sebald, and Coetzee want to dine with Kafka or devour him? In Sebald’s case, Medin decides that from the beginning of his career, Sebald seemed to deliberately misread Kafka to suit his own ends. Ultimately, “Sebald’s portrayal of Kafka in Vertigo is purposefully and methodically selective.”
Three Sons derives from Medin’s doctoral dissertation and it immediately begs the question: Of the many writers who demonstrate some literary paternity to Kafka, why Roth, Sebald, and Coetzee? Medin say he chose them because each had “revisited” Kafka over the course of thirty years or more, although his primary focus is a single work of fiction by each author: Roth’s Zuckerman Bound, Sebald’s Vertigo, and Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. But there is another commonality between these three sons; each has addressed Kafka not only through fiction but also through works of literary criticism, and Medin, himself a scholar and literary critic, spends a fair amount of time analyzing that aspect of their oeuvre.
We in English-speaking parts can all rejoice that Sebald’s volumes of literary criticism are starting to be translated, with an English translation of Logis in einem Landhaus appearing sometime in the near future. As Medin says, these essays are a gold mine for the study of Sebald’s poetry and prose fiction. Medin begins by examining the essays that Sebald wrote for scholarly publications on Kafka and The Castle before embarking on Vertigo, essays in which it was already possible to detect how Sebald had absorbed Kafka. To greatly oversimplify Medin (and Bloom, for that matter), the question is exactly how does Sebald use Kafka. For Medin, the evidence is clear. Even when writing as a scholar and ostensibly trying to dissect the motifs in Kafka’s work, Sebald seems intent on employing “a blend of biography, fiction, and text.” Sebald’s critical interpretation of The Castle “swerves defiantly from Kafka’s novel.” In particular, Medin believes “his emphasis on the death motif skews rather than clarifies the work.”
Sebald said that in his prose fiction he often “tipped his hat” to other writers like Kafka and Robert Walser, but Medin suggests that this is a misleading metaphor for an act that “belied the aggression inherent in his approach” to the writers he admired and used. In Vertigo, Medin asserts that Sebald “forcefully bent the voices of Kafka, Walser, Conrad, and others toward that of his narrator, divesting them of their original spirit to reinforce his own thematic emphases.” Sebald, of course, knew what he was doing – or at least to a large extent. In Vertigo, his use of the appellation “Dr. K.” rather than “Kafka” signaled his strategy of playing loose with Kafka’s life and texts. Medin’s extended essay shows, through careful analysis of Kafka’s diaries and texts (primarily The Castle, “The Hunter Gracchus,” and “The Country Doctor)” how “the pattern of misreading” that Sebald employed permitted him to reshape Kafka more to his own obsessions. By the end of Medin’s careful and detailed reading of Vertigo I felt as if I had been watching him carefully separate two thin layers that had at first appeared to be nearly identical, one representing the historical and textual record left behind by Franz Kafka and the other representing the Dr. K. that Sebald needed. By the end, Medin had made it clear just how much those two versions diverged.
During the process of untangling Vertigo, Medin also builds a critique of Sebald’s literary criticism on the side. His summary judgment is severe; he takes Sebald to task for “critical manipulations…[that] mar his critical work” on Kafka and on other writers as well.
Most of the essays in Describing Misfortune (Beschreibung des Unglücks) and Uncanny Homeland (Unheimliche Heimat) fall short of the scrupulous standards exemplified by Coetzee. They are too fictive to convince as research, and too fettered by convention to successfully execute the sort of autobiographical exegesis pursued in later volumes (Lodgings in a Country House, Campo Santo).
By comparison, Medin expresses his admiration for Coetzee’s “critical reserve” and “interpretive restraint.” While Coetzee’s “less combative” stance toward Kafka seems to be Medin’s preference, I don’t think he is invoking a value judgment on Sebald or Roth for their approaches. His primary objective is to demonstrate that, contrary to Harold Bloom’s assertion, not every author-forerunner relationship needs to be murderously Oedipal.
Daniel L. Medin. Three Sons: Franz Kafka and the Fiction of J.M. Coetzee, Philip Roth, and W.G. Sebald. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2010.
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.
August 28, 2011
In the final pages of W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo the narrator takes a train out of London while reading Samuel Pepys account of the Great Fire of London, which occurred in 1666. In his fatigue, the voice of the narrator and Pepys become one.
Is this the end of time? A muffled, fearful, thudding sound, moving, like waves, throughout the air. The powder house exploded. We flee onto the water. The glare around us everywhere, and yonder, before the darkened skies, in one great arc the jagged wall of fire. And, the day after, a silent rain of ashes, westward, as far as Windsor Park.
And thus ends Vertigo. Or so I thought.
Reading “Echoes from the Past: A Conversation with Piet de Moor,” in Saturn’s Moons: W.G. Sebald – A Handbook, my eyes froze upon reading a question that de Moor asked Sebald about the end of Vertigo: “Does that end with the apocalypse that you have taking place in 2013?”
2013? Vertigo was first published in German in 1990. Had Sebald intended the final scene of the book to happen twenty three years into the future?
Of course [Sebald replied], I don’t know what 2013 will bring, but whether we shall carry on for that long, either individually or collectively, is uncertain. Even so, it is amazing that we still learnt at school that the world is eternal and that we are all very secure within the balance of Nature. Less than half a century later, this comforting certainty has simply vanished; one day we shall be presented with the bill. Since reaching that insight, we have been under enormous psychic pressure. I believe that because of this the last foundation stone of our secure existence in this world has been removed. The theocratic supports fell away much earlier. After that, we could find solace on the notion that we, as mortal individuals, depend on a greater process that ends in a comforting form. But now, even transcendence can no longer be taken for granted either.
The editors of Saturn’s Moons kindly placed a footnote here that cleared up my confusion.
In the German original, and Dutch (and most other) translations, Schwindel. Gefühle. ends with the lines ‘ – 2013 – | Ende’. This is omitted in the English translation.
Sebald’s use of the year 2013 brings a numerical rhyme to three of the four sections of Vertigo. As de Moor notes, the sections describing the Italian trips of Stendhal and Kafka take place in 1813 and 1913 respectively.
I suppose the mystery of the missing 2013 lurks in various places in the Sebald literature, but this was the first time it grabbed my attention.
November 7, 2010
The second triptych of essays in The Undiscover’d Country: W.G. Sebald and the Poetics of Travel uses the heading Textual Excursions, Expeditions, and Adventures to focus on some narrower aspects of Sebald’s writings.
The best essay of this section, in spite of its title, is Alan Itkin’s “Eine Art Eingang zur Unterwelt”: Katabasis in Austerliz, which examines Austerlitz within the tradition of epic literature, notably Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil, Dante, and Milton, showing how Sebald structured Austerlitz as a venture in the underworld. Itkin makes the case that Austerlitz is Sebald’s most novel-like work of prose fiction and that with this book Sebald broke the pattern in which he had formerly used the trope of travel. In his first three books of prose fiction, Sebald’s model of travel writing was to “demonstrate that it is the uncanny position of the modern subject never to be sufficiently lost.” But with Austerlitz, he returned to something more closely approaching the classic model of travel writing in which the narrator loses his way, then finds it again.
Itkin sees Sebald making the case that National Socialism was inextricably linked to “the senseless expansion of the bourgeois age” that preceded it. The dark side of progress is “an equally strong compulsion to destruction,” a theme that weaves in and out of all of Sebald’s books.
The remaining two essays are exercises in diminishing returns. Each left me feeling that the needles I finally found in these haystacks were blunt and only marginally useful. Martin Klebes’ essay If You Come to a Spa: Displacing the Cure in Schwindel. Gefühle and Austerlitz, looks at two of Sebald’s travelers and their visits to spas. He looks at the Dr. K. Takes the Waters at Riva section of Vertigo and at Jacques Austerlitz’s trip to the spa at Marienbad. Each man undergoes a transformation at the spa that has nothing to do with the expected “medical regimen” function of a spa. Instead, “Sebald’s narrative strategy is to ‘renew’ his protagonists at the spas …through intertextual references that reveal the split within each of them not as a feature of their psychological constitution but rather as a division visible on the textual surface itself.” What does this mean? Well, in both of the situations that Klebes cites, Sebald creates uncertainty and tension surrounding the identity of the protagonist, both of whom echo characters in other works of art. In the Vertigo example, “Dr. K. both is and is not ‘Franz Kafka’.” While in the Austerlitz example, Sebald overlays references to characters from Alain Resnais’ film L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad).
James Martin’s essay Campi deserti: Polar Landscapes and the Limits of Knowledge in Sebald and Ransmayr examines the middle section of Sebald’s long poem Nach der Nature (After Nature) and Ransmayr’s 1984 novel Die Schrecken des Eises und der Finsternis (The Terrors of Ice and Darkness), which I wrote about earlier. In this section of After Nature, Wilhelm Georg Stiller joins the Great Northern Expedition of 1741, led by Vitus Bering (of the Bering Sea and Strait). Martin sees Sebald making the point that these polar expeditions represent “the limits of the Enlightenment’s quest for knowledge” and “the extreme limits of the knowable world.” Like some of the essayists in the earlier section of Undiscover’d Country, Martin sees Sebald rejecting a totalizing view of history: “Science in the Enlightenment takes a totalizing character as a system for understanding the world under the banner of an unwavering belief in progress and rationality.” In After Nature and elsewhere, Sebald seems to completely reject this belief.
Other posts relating to this volume are here.