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Ali Smith: “Oh dear God – was that Sebald?”

In an interview in the current issue of The Paris Review, Ali Smith recounts going to a 1998 interview for a fellowship at the University of East Anglia.

I got met at the office by a man named Max—a very nice German man who took me along the corridor to the interview and who sat in as an onlooker. That night, I got home, I went to bed—and I woke up in the middle of the night, going, Oh dear God —was that Sebald?

It was. Smith got the fellowship and got to know Sebald a bit.

What I know, even from that tangent, is that he was an incredibly charismatic figure, he was like no one I’ve ever met. Plus, not many people know that he was funny, funny, funny. He was laugh-out loud droll. We haven’t yet begun to understand his rigor, as a writer.

On reading Sebald:

Austerlitz [is] the most uneasy novel I’ve ever read, a novel uneasy with the notion of being a novel. I read all of Sebald’s books again after his death, and it was very different from reading them when he was alive.He is utterly despairing, particularly in The Rings of Saturn. It’s terrible, beautiful, and there’s no hope. And then you get to Austerlitz, and in Austerlitz despair is ultimately a fiction, too.

I’m a big fan of the The Paris Review interviews, but the interviews with Ali Smith and Percival Everett in this summer’s issue (#221) are terrific. They are two smart writers. Kudos to the interviewers – Justin Taylor and Adam Begley.

The Compass that Always Points East

Mathias Énard’s Zone, which I wrote about in 2011, is one of the best written and most urgent novels that I have read in this quickly aging century. Zones Homeric scale attempts to encompass some of the twentieth century’s most critical themes within the framework of the narrator’s memories during a train ride from Milan to Rome. In Énard’s view, history is perennially unable to free itself from the eternal male infatuation with violence, warfare, and other forms of “manliness,” which  in the last century alone resulted in misery and death for hundreds of millions of people. His narrator has fought in the Balkan wars and has served in the “intelligence” community, but has finally decided to opt out, sell his secrets, and retire to safety. Zone was also Énard’s heartfelt homage to a pantheon of Modernist writers, including James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Malcolm Lowry, Jean Genet, William Burroughs, Paul Bowles, and others. Written fours years after Zone, Street of Thieves was Énard’s next novel to appear in English. Using the first-person perspective of a young Muslim struggling to remain devout in a milieu of  violent radical Muslims, it seemed one-dimensional after the richness of Zone.

Compass, published in France in 2015 and just released in English by New Directions, reverts to the style of Zone. Franz Ritter is an aging scholar, a musicologist who lives in Vienna and has dedicated his life to studying the influences of “the Orient” on western classical music. He’s an erudite, cosmopolitan, old-world gentleman. He’s also an old-school Orientalist, the type of person that Edward Said critiqued in his 1978 classic Orientalism. Compass takes place during a single night when Ritter finds himself unable to sleep. Instead, he launches into an overnight voyage of fond reminiscences through a past that seemed to him fashionably risky, elegant, romantic, and, of course, full of scholarly gossip and feuding. Much of Compass is dedicated to Ritter’s warm, nostalgic memories of his Orientalist adventures, which took place in countries like Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Lebanon, but also at conferences in Vienna, Paris, and other European cities where the Orient was (and often still is) paternalistically stereotyped. One of the great pleasures of reading Compass is Énard’s astonishing command of literary, musical, historical, and other often fascinating references that pass through Ritter’s mind on this restless night. Énard manages to mention, quote, or discuss scores of composers, dozens of European and Middle Eastern writers, and an assortment of other notables that includes people as varied as Sigmund Freud and Edith Piaf, as well as many lesser known characters from history, such as the Baron Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, an Austrian Orientalist (1774-1856). Read more

Sebald Links June 2017

Peter Mendelsund cover design for The Emigrants, (New Directions, 2016)

In the current issue of The New Yorker (June 5 & 12, 2017), James Wood writes at length about W.G. Sebald. It’s a nice, modestly insightful overview of Sebald’s four books of prose fiction, interspersed with bits and pieces of Sebald’s biography, but its basically a rehash of several essays Wood has previously written about Sebald. Perhaps in an effort to find some new way to approach the writer, Wood decides this time to examine “W.G. Sebald, Humorist.” Wood has to work hard to uncover examples of Sebald’s dry, ironical humor, which is more apparent in interviews than in his prose fiction. It’s not at all clear what prompted Wood to write about Sebald now, although he does reference the “handsome new editions of Vertigo, The Emigrants, and The Rings of Saturn” designed by Peter Mendelsund and published by New Directions a full year ago (editions, unfortunately, that did nothing except package the old editions in new covers).

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There will be a symposium “Po Sebaldzie” (“After Sebald) at the Goethe Institute in Warsaw on June 10, 2017. Everything I can find is in Polish. There is a website and a Facebook page.

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Finally, H.G. Adler’s massive scholarly book Theresienstadt 1941-1945: The Face of a Coerced Community has been published in an English translation for the first time, thanks to a collaborative effort between the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Terezin Publishing Project. There is more information and a complete Table of Contents here. The translator is Amy Loewenhaar-Blauweiss. Unfortunately it’s not cheap! I’ve written about Adler a number of times in recent years.

 

Sebald Roundtable Video

The City University of New York has just put up an excellent video of a distinguished roundtable on the work of W.G. Sebald, which was held just a few weeks ago on May 6, 2017. It’s an intriguing and revealing discussion that is an hour and 22 minutes in length. At about the 40-minute point, the group talks about Sebald’s use of images in his books. The roundtable was part of the “Fictions of History” conference.

In this roundtable, Mark Anderson (Professor of German and Comparative Literature, Columbia University), Daniel Kehlmann (Novelist and Fellow, The New York Public Library), and Judith Ryan (Robert K. and Dale J. Weary Professor of German and Comparative Literature, Harvard University) discuss the relationship between fiction and history in W.G. Sebald’s work. Sebald situates his work in the gray zone between fiction and history, positioning himself with both proximity and distance to his subject matter, alternating between first-hand victim and third-hand witness. At the center of Sebald’s writing is the taboo of the “wrongful trespass:” a fear that either he will falsely identify with events he himself has not experienced or that his objectivity will dilute the emotional impact of what he describes. This roundtable, moderated by André Aciman (Distinguished Professor, The Graduate Center CUNY) examines how Sebald responds to this concern by creating works that straddle the boundary between fact and fiction in order to portray and grapple with historical events. Presented on May 6, 2017, with the Critical Theory Certificate Program, the Writers’ Institute, and the Center for the Humanities.

I’m very grateful to a Vertigo reader who called this video to my attention.

Atlantic Hotel

“…retreat seemed only another cowardly act I’d have to shoulder on my journey. So I pressed ahead.”

Two Lines Press describes the books by Brazilian writer João Gilberto Noll, who died this March at the age of 70, as “reminiscent of the films of David Lynch,” which seems about as apt a description as I can think of. The two books that have been translated into English so far —Quiet Creature on the Corner and Atlantic Hotel — are strange, subversive, and compelling that share a sense of bleakness, violence, and anomie.

In Atlantic Hotel, which comes out this month, Noll’s nameless narrator wanders aimlessly across parts of Brazil. He’s rather like a human pinball, making decisions about his next direction abruptly, without forethought. He often says the first thing that comes to his head, which means he often seems to be lying. He has casual sex within minutes of meeting women. We learn almost nothing about his past or about his motivations. He might or might not have once been an actor on a TV soap opera, but now he gives his occupation as “unoccupied.” He is both running from something and searching for something, but he (and we) never know what. Read more

The “Wandering Souls” of Panorama

A tiny dot had been flashing and circling slowly over a virtual point beside the road on the Google map until the satellites intercepted and correlated my precise position in the imaginary landscape; then the dot stopped moving, coming to rest on the road precisely where I was standing; that’s me, I thought, and as I slid my thumb and forefinger across the tablet to shrink the map, I saw my pulsating point, the beating of a heart, melt into an ever vaster landscape, as if my eye had separated from my body and was ascending high into the sky, swiftly, to the edge of space, from where I could see the entire planet.

It’s tempting — and partly right — to think of the Slovenian writer Dušan Šarotar as a modernized W.G. Sebald, as a restless, observant wanderer equipped with a streak of melancholy and a notebook, but also with a tablet and a smart phone. Šarotar’s Panorama: A Narrative About the Course of Events is written in extended sentences that can meander for pages, weaving around the many black-and-white photographs he embeds in his text. Like Sebald, he has apocalyptic visions in which a powerful and indifferent nature can wipe out mankind in a single stroke. When Šarotar’s narrator finds himself in Brussels Central Station, he even name-drops Sebald’s “superb novel Austerlitz.” But Šarotar is also trying to turn the Sebald ship with all of its baggage in a somewhat different direction. Read more

“Or is there a point that I am missing?”

Imagine if The Paris Review gave you 156 pages in its Spring issue. What would you do?

What Jean-René Étienne and Lola Raban-Oliva did with 156 pages (that’s more than half the issue, by the way) was to create a photo-novella called “Formentera Storyline.” The storyline is simple. “An ad hoc group of ten longtime and tentative friends rents a house on the Spanish island of Formentera,” which is just south of Ibiza. They take Pilates classes, eat a strict diet, and basically try to “remedy the deteriorated lifestyle inherent to their high-pressure, low-stakes, medium-impact jobs in the fashion industry.” They also hope that Paul, who is staying on his yacht in the harbor, will deign to pay them a visit. When it becomes clear that Paul is not going to visit, their utopia quickly descends into dystopia. Alcohol and drugs begin to appear. On the twentieth day they run out of water. The tank on the roof is empty and no one knows what to do. Then things really go to hell. “The top symbolic resource is the lone operational MacBook charger.”

“Formentera Storyline” consists of photographs that are printed nearly full-page, beneath which is the sparse text – usually just a sentence or two per page. No people appear in the photographs, just architectural details, interiors, and images of the surrounding woods. The photographs are much more accomplished and more polished than the text. Perhaps not surprisingly, Étienne and Raban-Oliva are a Paris-based duo that work under the name Partel Oliva, creating fashion videos and music videos.  (Just Google “Partel Oliva” to see examples.) Read more

Beyond Sebald: New Trajectories in Sebald Studies

A call for papers is making the rounds:

Call for Papers 

Beyond Sebald: New Trajectories in Sebald Studies 

A One-Day Postgraduate Workshop

University of Leeds, Tuesday 2nd May 2017, 12:30–16:30

We invite you to join us for a one-day postgraduate workshop at the University of Leeds to discuss the opportunities and challenges of studying W. G. Sebald today. We are particularly interested in two interrelated questions: first, what are the new directions for Sebald scholarship? And second, how do contemporary writers, artists, and filmmakers respond to or challenge the “Sebaldian”? Read more

Hall of Mirrors

“I feel like a character in a novel written by myself who runs into a character in a novel written by himself.”

I’m not sure how a book as finely written and original as Mark Henshaw’s Out of the Line of Fire stayed under the radar for nearly three decades, but my guess is that it has something to do with the fact that the author is Australian. How could I resist a novel that opens with the purloined line: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler” and then invokes the name of Walter Abish, one of my favorite writers?

First published in 1988, then reissued in 2014 by Melbourne’s Text Publishing, Out of the Line of Fire reads like a compelling mystery, except that it is laced with bite-sized doses of philosophy drawn from the likes of Kant, Husserl, Hegel, and Wittgenstein. Most of the quotations that Henshaw extracts from their writings deal with the broad question of how language works and how we believe we experience the world, all of which he uses to raise questions about the nature of literature itself (and, by extension, the nature of the book we are reading). Read more

The Arca Project: An Exhibition Inspired by the Work of W.G.Sebald

steven-scott-resized[print for the Arca Project by Steven Scott]

More than fifteen years after his death, the writings of W.G. Sebald continue to inspire artists and exhibitions. The latest example is an announcement by the PayneShurvell gallery, whose next exhibition will be “The Arca Project: An Exhibition Inspired by the Work of W.G.Sebald.” According to their website, “The Arca Project is an exhibition consisting of 16 visual and 16 textual responses to one single image. Each response has been realised as a limited edition print, developed and made by Invisible Print Studio.” The exhibition is scheduled to open April 1 at a location about a half hour north of Ipswich in Suffolk, England (details at their website).

In the same way that The Rings of Saturn takes a single idea, a walking tour, to open up a wide range of ideas and conversations, The Arca Project sent 16 international artists and 16 writers exactly the same image and asked them to interpret the image as they wished (the only limitation was the uniform paper orientation and size). The recurrence of this image offers many interpretations. All are fictitious. It is a game of false interpretations. The idea is to have artists and writers in a Sebaldian mix of fact and fiction, documentary and reality. Read more