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The Exile’s Archive

A few selections from W.G. Sebald’s literary archive, which was purchased in 2005 by the Deutsches Literaturarkiv (DLA) have been on exhibit this summer in Marburg in their new wing called the Literaturmuseum der Moderne. When the DLA announced the purchase, it was noted that the archive consisted of some 69 archival boxes of correspondence and manuscripts, along with Sebald’s library.(One scholar, Richard Sheppard, has already made mention of the fact that Sebald’s library contained no books on literary theory, a discovery that I find wonderfully curious and reassuring.)

Whether Sebald himself had indicated or approved such a step while he was alive or if his widow made that choice after his death is currently not public knowledge, as far as I am aware. I confess that, at first, I wondered whether Sebald, who spent more than three decades as an exile, would have wanted his archive to have its final resting place in Germany. But now I think it was the right choice. As Deane Blackler writes in her new book:

Sebald’s deliberately anachronistic prose style echoes in its very form his work’s preoccupation with some of the consoling beauty of the past, including the poetic language of German literary culture. In some deeply resonant way, Sebald writes in German because his “German-ness” informs his being-in-the-world. [page 81]

When he accepted his nomination to the German Academy, Sebald spoke of his voluntary exile as a step that ultimately brought him closer to Germany:

Only when I went to Switzerland in 1965, and a year later to England, did ideas of my native country begin to form from a distance in my head, and these ideas, in the thirty years and more that I have now lived abroad, have grown and multiplied… Only a guest in England, I still hover between feelings of familiarity and dislocation there too. Once I dreamed, and like Hebel I had my dream in Paris, that I was unmasked as a traitor to my country and a fraud. Not least because of my misgivings, my admission to the Academy is very welcome, and an unhoped-for form of justification.


The archival box containing the typescript of Austerlitz beneath two photographs used in the book: the Theresienstadt stamp (page 240) and a close-up of an owl’s eyes (page 4).

A fellow Sebald collector visited the DLA this summer and sent me a brief description of the trip:

To Marburg. A 30 min. train & 10 min. bus ride from Stuttgart.This is the home of Germany’s national literary archive, a Schiller museum (currently closed for renovations), and now, in the last year or two – a purpose-built “Literaturmuseum der Moderne”. The exhibition at the moment is called “Ordnung – eine unendliche Geschichte” and included:

1/ Sebald’s postcard archive (or at least part of it?!) housed in a wooden filing box (maybe 8 inches long) and opened to a postcard of a Norwegian village bearing the inscription “The Road to Hell” – “Hell” being the name of the village! No doubt appealed to Sebald’s morbid sense of humour!

2/ The second object was a Gallimard paperback of Claude Simon’s Les Jardin des Plantes (1997), inscribed by Sebald on the last page with a detailed chronology of Jacques Austerlitz’s life as he planned the writing of Austerlitz… obviously this book was a major influence then… The exhibition catalogue informs you that he based Austerlitz’s character partly on Simon’s character Gaston Novelli, an Italian painter who in his work uses the letter “A” over and over again “like a long-lasting scream”. (I’ve just got hold of a copy of this book incidentally – Northwestern University Press brought out a beautiful hardcover edition of it in 2001 – and it is an extremely interesting book – hard going at first – I’ve read the first 50 pp or so – but it really draws you in!) Also noteworthy in this regard is the crossings-out you can see on the page – Sebald was at pains to get the chronology right for Jacques and alters, for instance, when Austerlitz’s depressions start by a couple of years etc.

3/ A nice touch were books from Sebald’s library, opened to where he had made underlinings or comments – so for instance in Bernhard’s book JA (Yes, in English)) the word “naturgemaess” is underlined and in the margin “=Fatalitaet” written next to it…Also various of Adorno’s books etc (are you aware that they corresponded in Sebald’s student days?)

The DLA website also announces an exhibition related to Sebald for 2008: “W.G. Sebald 25. September 2008 bis 31. Januar 2009, Wechselausstellungsräume Die Ausstellung wird vom Marbacher Katalog 62 begleitet.”

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jo #

    Beware of confusing Marburg, an old university town in Hessen, with Schiller’s birthplace Marbach-am-Neckar, near Stuttgart in Baden-Würtemmberg, home to the Deutsches Literaturarchiv and the Literaturmuseum der Moderne or LiMo (which recently won the RIBA Stirling Prize:!

    March 17, 2008
  2. Prof. Richard Sheppard #

    Dr Ulrich von Buelow, the Librarian at the Marbach archive who looks after Sebald’s papers, has written an excellent account of these (in English) for a book on Sebald (Saturn’s Moons, ed. Jo Catling and Richard Hibbitt)which is due to appear in England in early 2009. The Sebald-Adorno letters (1967-68) have been published in Marcel Atze and Franz Loquai (eds), Sebald – Lektueren, Eggingen, Edition Isele, 2005, pp. 12-16, with an excellent commentary on these by Marcel Atze and Sven Meyer pp. 17-38. A much to be recommended book.

    July 21, 2008

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