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Collecting W.G. Sebald’s Unrecounted

In 2003, Sebald’s German publishing house Hanser posthumously released a volume reminiscent of his 2001 book of short poems For Years Now. The new book of poems, Unerzählt: 33 Texte und 33 Radierungen was also a collaboration between Sebald – again writing as a poet – and a visual artist. But here, instead of being paired with the colorful geometric abstractions of Tess Jaray, the poems are paired with photo-realist images by his long-time friend Jan Peter Tripp. Tripp’s images each depict the narrow midsection of a face – a pair of eyes and nothing more. The subjects of his images, the owners of these visionary eyes, are all identified in the book and range from authors (William Burroughs, Truman Capote, Marcel Proust, Samuel Beckett) to artists (Jasper Johns, Francis Bacon, Tripp) to friends of the two collaborators, and even Sebald himself, his daughter Anna, and his dog Moritz.

The British reviewer Tim Adams provided a small glimpse into the collaboration between Sebald and Tripp. “Michael Krüger, the German publisher of Sebald, remembers the pair of them coming into his office to propose the idea for their book, two schoolfriends, excitedly explaining a project. ‘Max [Sebald] talked a lot about looking, about the little pieces he would write about looking. Some of the pieces would be old, some new, but they would all be about the way we viewed the world.’ While Sebald was talking, Tripp stood up and started taking photographs of Krüger. ‘We will, of course, have to include your eyes in the book, too,’ he explained. Tripp’s subsequent etching of the publisher’s eyes carries with it a typical fragment of Sebald’s verse, what he called a ‘micropoem’: ‘They say / that Napoleon / was colourblind / & blood for him / as green as / grass’.” (Tim Adams, “The Eyes Have It,” The Observer September 19, 2004)

The Hanser volume is an elegant tall quarto bound in gray cloth with a reproduction of Tripp’s portrait of Sebald pasted onto the front cover. A clear plastic dust jacket is imprinted with authors’ names, book title, and publisher. But once the volume is opened, all of the pages, including the title page, are printed horizontally to give more room to Tripp’s extended horizontal images. In addition to Sebald’s poems and Tripp’s images, the volume contains a poem by Sebald’s frequent German editor Hans Magnus Enzensberger “Ein Abschied von Max Sebald” (A Farewell to Max Sebald) and an essay by Andrea Köhler. Appropriately, the endpapers are black.

In addition to the first trade edition, Hanser released two limited edition versions of Unerzählt: an edition of 333 copies each containing a loose etching by Tripp called “Max” that is titled, signed and numbered in pencil, and an even more limited edition of thirty-three copies each containing all thirty-three of Tripp’s original prints.

Sebald Unerzahlt
In 2004, Hamish Hamilton brought out the British edition, now called Unrecounted: 33 Texts and 33 Etchings by W.G. Sebald and Jan Peter Tripp (although the inside front flap of the dust jacket refers to Tripps works as “lithographs”). Several items are new to the English-language edition: a “Translator’s Note” by Michael Hamburger; a second poem by Hans Magnus Enzensburger called “Tripp’s Cabinet of Prodigies”; and an essay by Sebald “As Day and Night, Chalk and Cheese: On the Pictures of Jan Peter Tripp,” which deals with trompe l’oeil, memory, and other Sebaldian subjects, originally published in Logis in einem Landhaus. Hamish Hamilton continued the practice of using horizontally-printed pages within a vertical book format, but reduced the book’s size considerably from Hanser’s 11 1/2 by 7 inches to a handier size of 8 3/4 by 5 1/2 inches, ending up with a book that is less generous to Tripp’s images and – well – more ordinary. It is bound in textbook blue boards with gold-stamped spine and has a dustjacket that reproduces Tripp’s portrait of Sebald.

Sebald Unrecounted British

Perhaps the most striking aspect for the reader of Unrecounted is Michael Hamburger’s “Translator’s Note”, an almost confessional, slightly stunned piece that is full of insights and mysterious revelations about the poems and about Sebald. After Sebald’s death, Hamburger discovered that he didn’t know his friend as well as he had thought. Among other things, Hamburger reveals that Sebald had completely kept him – his current translator – unaware of either of his two book collaborations involving these “micropoems.” And when, posthumously, he began to translate Unerzählt Hamburger discovered that some of the poems for Unrecounted were what he calls “overlapping” but “different” texts that Sebald had used previously in For Years Now. Hamburger speculates that Sebald himself must have made the translations for the earlier book and he discusses his decision to retranslate them anew whenever he encountered a previously published piece.

For example, the first version below is the poem “Blue” from For Years Now (presumably Sebald’s own translation), followed by Hamburger’s translation from Unrecounted:

Blue

grass
seen
through
a wafer
thin layer
of frozen
water

Blue

grass
seen
through a thin
layer
of frozen
water

A few months later in 2004, New Directions released an American edition: Unrecounted: 33 Poems by W.G. Sebald, 33 Lithographs by Jan Peter Tripp, further confusing the question of whether Tripp’s artwork was created through etching or lithography. (The use of “radierungen” in the original German title clearly indicates that they are etchings, and since Hanser had published a limited edition containing Tripp’s original prints one would assume they knew what kind of printing technique he used.) New Directions included everything from the British edition, but also generously threw in the original German texts for Sebald’s 33 poems. They also returned some of the spatiousness to the book, which is 10 1/4 by 6 1/2 inches in size. It is bound in gray cloth and displays a nice hint of red threads at the top and bottom of the book block. The spine is silver-stamped and New Directions returns to the use of memorial black endpapers. But not all of New Directions production choices seem to be improvements on the Hamish Hamilton version. Both the German and British editions had used slightly yellow matte-surfaced papers and had printed Tripp’s images in a warm brown or sepia ink. New Directions use of glossy paper and a cold black ink sucks the warmth out of Tripp’s images and works against the deliberately antiquarian feel of these images.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Peter Stamos #

    In The Death Motif in Kafka’s Castle (1972), Sebald writing about the glint of Klamm’s pince-nez refers to the eyes as “the most vital part of a man.” Hence, most saliently, the first photographs of Austerlitz and hence too finally Unrecounted.

    August 21, 2007
  2. Peter, thanks for adding these early connections with Sebald’s fascination for the eyes. I must confess, his strong feelings for the eyes sometimes strikes me as a real throwback to earlier – and highly questionable – methodologies for reading physiognomy. Unrecounted was the first and only publication by Sebald that gave me pause.

    August 23, 2007
  3. Must agree with you, terrypitts, his feelings for the eyes sometimes really is highly questionable. Physiognomy is really interesting, though. I can recommend Johann Kaspar Lavater`s essays about the topic, although I`ve forgotten the titles; you`ll probably find them on Google. They`re old essays, by the way, from arround 1770. Interesting to see how they was thinking back then.

    April 20, 2009
  4. James #

    Collectors of Sebald may wish to note that a copy of the limited edition (of 33) recently sold at auction in Germany for €6000 (http://www.kiefer.de/auktion_artikel_details.aspx?KatNr=2751&lng=us). The only copy currently on the open market is listed at $7500 – not a huge premium to this auction price, but it has been unsold at that price for some time.

    February 23, 2016

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