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.
June 16, 2007
In Vertigo, W.G. Sebald describes his return to the southwestern German village of his youth, Wertach im Allgaü.
A good thirty years had gone by since I had last been in W. In the course of that time – by far the longest period of my life – many of the localities I associated with it, such as the Altachmoos, the parish woods, the tree-lined lane that led to Haslach, the pumping station, Petersthal cemetery where the plague dead lay, or the house in the Schray where Dopfer the hunchback lived, had continually returned in my dreams and daydreams and had become more real to me than they had been then, yet the village itself, I reflected, as I arrived at that late hour was more remote from me than any other place I could conceive of. In a certain sense it was reassuring , on my first walk around the streets in the pale glow of the lamps, to find that everything was completely changed.
After staying a few days, he recalls being taught as a young schoolboy “the chronicle of the calamities” which had befallen Wertach over the ages.
In 1511 the Black Death claimed 105 lives. In 1530, 100 houses went up in flames. 1569: the whole settlement devasted in a blaze. 1605: another fire reduced 140 houses to ashes. 1633: W. burned down by the Swedes. 1635: 700 inhabitants died of the plague. 1806-14: 19 volunteers from W. fell in the wars of liberation. 1816-17: years of famine in consequence of unprecedented rainfall. 1870-71: 5 fusiliers from W. lost their lives in battle. 1893: on the 16th of April a great conflagration destroyed the entire village. 1914-18: 68 of our sons laid down their lives for the fatherland. 1939-45: 125 from our ranks did not return home from the Second World War. In the quiet of the classroom the nibs of our pens scratched across the paper.