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“What is literature good for?”: Lynn L. Wolff on Sebald’s Hybrid Poetics

Wolff Hybrid Poetics

The complex constellation of historical event, individual experience, and the poietic presentation of both events and experiences is at the heart of Sebald’s work and reveals why his texts elude established genre traditions.

If I were to pick one book for the passionate Sebald reader who might want to dip a toe into serious Sebald scholarship or for the non-Sebald scholar wishing to get a clear sense of Sebald’s contribution to literature and history, I would direct you to Lynn L. Wolff’s fine book W.G. Sebald’s Hybrid Poetics: Literature as Historiography (De Gruyter). First published in 2014 as a hardcover with a price aimed at specialists and libraries, DeGruyter has now reissued the book in paperback at a price aimed for the rest of us – 19.95 (in both euros and dollars). The book is widely available from the publisher, Book Depository, and Amazon.

In her introduction, “Why W.G. Sebald,” Wolff gives a compact biography of his adult life and then discusses the “Sebald phenomenon” – the rise in films, exhibitions, artworks, blogs, and other forms of public and creative response to Sebald’s books. She provides a succinct, but wide-ranging overview of the critical secondary literature that has sprung up around Sebald in a variety of academic disciplines, as well as the seemingly endless academic frameworks through which scholars have tried to view Sebald’s work – postmemory, Freudianism, intertextuality, etc. Yet despite the onslaught of literature about Sebald’s works, Wolff senses that “there are significant gaps” in the way that scholars have examined “the specificity of his poetics” and it is her intention to focus on the mechanics of his writing and their implications. In doing so, she examines all of Sebald’s texts – critical writings, prose fiction, and poetry – with an “open perspective” and in “a methodologically non-dogmatic way.”

Central questions of my investigation are: What is particular about Sebald’s writing? How is he “translating” history into literature? How and where does he emphasize this process? Where are his sources apparent? Where does he cover them up?…These questions prove productive in initiating the reader’s engagement with not only the text but also the broader questions of memory, history, and authenticity.

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“I am no writer, I am somebody who writes” – Thomas Bernhard on Thomas Bernhard

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Why in fact did I come to write, why do I write books? Out of opposition to myself, suddenly, and against this condition – because to me, as I’ve said, resistance is everything…I wanted exactly this tremendous resistance, and that’s why I write prose…

For portions of three consecutive days in June 1970, the Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard sat on a park bench in a Hamburg suburb and gave an impromptu monologue for the camera of filmmaker Ferry Radax, a fellow Austrian. In the 52-minute film that resulted,  Drei Tage (3 Days), Bernhard is restrained, self-contained, and utterly eloquent in the enforced brevity. His monologue wanders from his childhood to the problematics of writing to the pleasures of solitude to the literary figures that influenced him. Part of the charm of Radax’s engaging film is that it as much about the art of filmmaking as it is a brief portrait of Thomas Bernhard. At times, the camera shows members of the film crew at work or watching on a portable monitor the very film they are making, while at other times the camera ignores Bernhard entirely and settles for a minute on a tree rustling in the breeze or on one of Bernhard’s shoes as it calmly bobs and dips while Bernhard talks on. Drei Tage can be seen in two sections on YouTube: here, and here (in German, with no subtitles).

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“Confounded by textures”: The Pink Institution

 

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After he shot himself, my grandfather’s face was a spangle bouquet that made grass die. What is difficult about looking at something like that is not that the mind resists fragmentation in general, but that it is confounded by textures which refuse the tensions one desires through edges.

I recently discovered Selah Saterstrom’s well-received first novel The Pink Institution (Coffee House Press, 2004), a tiny but powerful book of sparse poetic prose. Setting her book in the deep South, Saterstrom gives us a disorienting, visceral vision of four generations struggling with poverty, alcoholism, pills, abuse, rape, violence, and more. Instead of a linear narrative, The Pink Institution has dozens of brief, focused sections that are rarely longer than a page. Each section tells a fragment of a story or lingers over an object, a list, or a setting, forcing the reader to slow down and try to fit each loose puzzle piece into some sort of whole. In several sections, Saterstrom employs different tools to make the reader approach her prose as poetry – in effect, pacing the reader’s progress. She will wrap each word within extra spaces or insert semicolons after every second or third word. I loved reading this book, but when I was done I found myself incapable of encapsulating what I had just read. I think that’s the point. This is a book to linger over and re-read. Read more

Sebald Miscellany October 2016

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On September 9 of this year, a symposium on “The Poetry of W.G. Sebald” was held at Stockholm University under the organization of Axel Englund. The participants were:

Axel Englund: “W.G. Sebald as poet: an introduction”
Iain Galbraith: “’A cover / of marbled faux / leather’: the uses of surface in the poetry of W.G. Sebald”
Adrian Nathan West: “Coincidences without antecedents, histories without verification”
Uwe Schütte (with Melissa Etzler): “On W.G. Sebald’s unpublished poetry”
Sven Meyer: “Our brothers the ducks: Sebald’s birds”

Thankfully, translator and writer Adrian Nathan West has posted on his blog (which I highly-recommend) a transcript of his presentation.

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Ukrainian film director Sergei Loznitsa’s newest release is a 94-minute film called Austerlitz, which premiered in Venice earlier this year. According to a review in the New York Times, “Mr. Loznitsa varied between calling his work an adaptation and a ‘variation'” of Sebald’s novel of the same name. Austerlitz recently had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Andréa Picard has written a short piece about the film:

What happens when the memorial and the museological meet — when places of death and destruction are transformed into tourist destinations? Sergei Loznitsa’s new film Austerlitz (which takes its title from, and enters into cryptic and compelling dialogue with, the final masterpiece by the great novelist W.G. Sebald) is a stark yet rich and complex portrait of people visiting the grounds of former Nazi extermination camps, and a sometimes sardonic study of the relationship (or the clash) between contemporary culture and the sanctity of the site…

Here’s the link to a short trailer for the film.

 

A Literature of Restitution

Restitution

This summer, Manchester University Press released an affordable paperback edition of A Literature of Restitution: Critical Essays on W.G. Sebald, edited by Jeannette Baxter, Valerie Henitiuk, and Ben Hutchinson. The paperback version is priced at $29.95, compared to the 2013 hardcover edition, which runs around $99. For the most part, the various authors managed to at least partially focus on the theme alluded to in the book’s title, lending the volume a sense of unified purpose. Here are my brief summaries of the thirteen essays included in A Literature of Restitution. Keep in mind that I am in no way attempting to convey the rich complexity of each author’s argument. My goal has been to hint at the direction that each essay heads and to mention or quote ideas that stood out for me. It’s true (so far) that I have never met an anthology of essays about Sebald that I didn’t like, but this one holds a number of essays that provoked me to rethink some key things about his writing.

Part 1: Translation and Style

1. Quite fluent in English, Sebald worked closely with each of the translators who labored to bring his original German-language texts into English. Arthur Williams’ essay “W.G. Sebald’s Three-Letter Word: On the Parallel Worlds of the English Translations” closely examines the differences between the German and English versions and he concludes by saying that:

the translations reveal more about Sebald than his masterly use of language. We discover a writer polishing his expertise with his literary medium and understanding his oeuvre increasingly as one long story, with many varied parts and individual messages, but with a constant underlying ethos…We can chart how he used the opportunity afforded by the translations to refine structures, to create clarity, to moderate early moments which he, perhaps, later regretted (as in, for instance, the quite brutal caricatures of his fellow West Germans in Schwindel. Gefühle.)

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Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador

Moya Revulsion

I was obliged to return to a country inhabited by drooling freaks with criminal features.

For a longtime admirer of Thomas Bernhard, it was a little eerie to read Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador. Castellanos Moya’s mimicry of the narrative voice of some of Bernhard’s novels – especially Old Masters and Woodcutters – feels nearly pitch perfect, and the transposition from post-Nazi Austria to post-civil war era El Salvador is a brilliant piece of stagecraft. Read more

New Revelations about Sebald’s Austerlitz

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There is a fascinating and revealing article on the New Yorker‘s literature-oriented blog, Page-Turner, that sheds new light on Sebald’s research for his final work of prose fiction Austerlitz. In his essay “W. G. Sebald and the Emigrants: How a friendship with two elderly Jewish refugees inspired the German novelist,” writer André Aciman describes how casual conversations with another father, Martin Ostwald, whose son attended the same kindergarten as Aciman’s, led to the remarkable discovery that Ostwald’s parents had met Sebald and had corresponded with him numerous times. Aciman’s tale is wonderfully told and illustrated with great photographs provided by Ostwald.

If you haven’t read Aciman’s Out of Egypt: A Memoir (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1994), you really should.

Thanks to all the Vertigo readers who alerted me to this article.

Eve Out of Her Ruins

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Eve walks by, her hair like foamy night, in her skin-tight jeans, and the others snigger and suck in their teeth in lust, but I – I just want to kneel down. She doesn’t look at us. She isn’t afraid of us. She has her solitude for armor.

Saad is one of the four teen-aged narrators who take turns telling us about their lives and interconnected friendships in the poor, gang-ridden Troumaron neighborhood of Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius. In Troumaron, “one day we wake up and the future has disappeared.” Saad, who worships Eve, has also fallen under the spell of Rimbaud and writes poetry on the walls of his room at home. Ananda Devi’s Eve Out of Her Ruins is a novel of conversations, emotions, aspirations, and setbacks. Forget where it takes place or the nationality of the author. This is a novel of haunting language with a powerful message about gender and violence.

Eve is the remarkable character at the center of Eve Out of Her Ruins. She is constructed from the different perspectives of Devi’s four narrators – the poet Saad, Clélio, who has already been to prison for his misdeeds, Savika, a young woman who is determined to give Eve her unquestioning love, and Eve herself. Eve is a student by day and prostitute by night. At home her father upbraids and beats her while her mother (“a small pile of shame”) weakly sits by. For years, boys and men have had their way with Eve. But Eve thinks she has found a way to avoid the fate that seems to await her and her friends. She has developed a kind of mind/body separation that allows her to think she is using the men who use her body. Read more

Summer Distractions

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OK. It’s summer, the distractions are numerous, and the pile of half-read and unread books is mounting. And now I’m away for a week in Door County, which is on a narrow peninsula at the northern tip of Wisconsin, surrounded by Green Bay and and the north end of Lake Michigan. The books that I have brought with me with have to compete with the many distractions that Door County offers, so I don’t know how much progress I’ll make. Bear with me. Vertigo will reconvene in a week or two with a write up off Ananda Devi’s fine (more than fine!) book Eve Out of her Ruins, another stellar offering from Deep Vellum Publishing.

The Scattered Shrapnel of the Unknown: Carmen Boullosa’s “Before”

Boullosa Before

But I’ll start at the beginning. Sure, I was like those children, I was one of those awkward children, and here I am cut off from their world forever. Children! I was like you once!

Carmen Boullosa’s narrator is reliving and re-exploring memories of her childhood. It’s a childhood like many – full of blissful moments, mysteries, embarrassments, misunderstandings, intense fear. This is a common – if not cliched – theme in countless novels, but the return to childhood that Carmen Boullosa has given us feels unlike any other book that I have read. I can’t say enough about Boullosa’s incandescent writing, which glows from within, radiating possibilities, contradictions, ambiguities.

In Before, it is we, the readers, who are made up, invented:

When I decided to tell you this, to invent you in order to tell this, and by having an interlocutor to have words myself, I didn’t imagine the bliss my memories would bring. Though I can exaggerate slightly my epiphany, I might say I’ve come alive again.

And what’s real are the memories:

They all rush up, want my hand, as if they were children, shouting “me first,” and I don’t know which to take first, for fear that one will rush out, decide not to come back in a fit of pique.

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