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The Adventure and Disobedience of Reading W.G. Sebald

Blackler Reading Sebald

I’ve just completed a quick read of Deane Blackler’s new book Reading W.G. Sebald: Adventure and Disobedience and I’m impressed. I won’t pretend to review it (I’m not remotely qualified), but I’ll give a brief summing up. Blacker’s principal thesis is simple: “Sebald’s poetics foreground the disobedient, adventurous reader.”

I argue that three aspects of Sebald’s practice manifest in the four works of prose fiction, his use of a writerly narrator figure, the insertion of black-and-white photographs into the text, and his construction of place as poetic space, confirm the fictional nature of his literary enterprise and produce a disobedient reader. [page x]

Noting that many reviewers and scholars have held remarkably different views on Sebald’s basic enterprise – is it fiction? travel? memoir? – Blackler, an Australian scholar, set out to understand “How were we to read Sebald?”She positions herself not as a German-language scholar but as one interested in how Sebald’s works operate on and liberate readers, creating (essentially forcing) them to question the narrator, puzzle over pictures, and otherwise interact with the text rather than dutifully absorbing it. It is this characteristic, more than any other, which makes Sebald a post-modern writer.

In the first half of the book she provides an overview of the interrelationship between Sebald’s biography (as it is known, largely from published sources) and his writings. She also gives a synopsis of the major critical publications on Sebald as of 2006. These are both very useful summaries and are worth the price of admission in themselves. Even though at one time or another I had read most of what she cites, I was surprised what I had forgotten. Until a full biography is published (and one is being written now by Mark M. Anderson), it feels as if so much knowledge about Sebald is spread thinly across a wide range of largely obscure journals, making it easy to miss something crucial. For example, Blackler refers to a novel that Sebald wrote during his 1967 stay in Manchester, a novel that he could not get published. Does this novel, written more than twenty years before his next attempt at fiction, still exist somewhere? Blackler doesn’t say.

The second half of the book consists of her readings of Sebald’s books as she builds up her case that Sebald was deliberately developing a new type of relationship between text and reader. I’ll leave the scholarly discussions over her thesis to others. But I will say that I found myself feeling that Blackler was often articulating how I feel as I struggle to understand why reading Sebald is unlike reading just about anyone else.

Deane Blackler, Reading W.G. Sebald: Adventure and Disobedience (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2007).The cover photograph, by the way, is an unidentified image from Sebald’s Vertigo and, according to Blacker, probably shows Robert Walser.

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