A Short Reading of Long
W.G. Sebald once praised a book entitled Feuding Conflict and Banditry in Nineteenth-Century Corsica by his academic colleague Stephen Wilson as a “model study [written] with the greatest imaginable care, clarity, and restraint.” I wonder what Sebald would have thought of J.J. Long’s new book W.G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity. Long’s volume of dense academic prose and critical theory seems to be much the kind of thing that Sebald deliberately abandoned when he turned away from his own career of literary analysis to the writing of prose fiction. Yet there is no denying that Sebald’s works of fiction contain, at least in some minor fashion, a dialogue with certain modern critical theory, notably that of Michel Foucault, with whom Sebald had a sustained engagement “of thoroughgoing ambivalence,” as Long puts it.
Long’s Introduction encouraged me to think that maybe this would be the book that would provide the crystal clear overview Sebald deserves. Largely following Foucault, Long defines modernity as “the seismic social, economic, political and cultural transformations that took place in European societies from the eighteenth century onwards” and he characterizes an “archival desire” as the essential means by which modern societies for the past two centuries or so have extended control and maintained power. By identifying the central topos in Sebald’s writings as the Holocaust, memory, institutions of memory (museums, archives, etc.), photography (yet another institution of memory), Heimat (homeland, more or less), melancholy, and intertextuality, Long makes the point that the “meta-problem” or connective tissue that links Sebald’s four books of prose is “the problem of modernity.” So far, so good.
In the three chapters of Part I (The Collection, The Photograph, and Discipline), it almost seems as if Long tries to shine the light of Foucault on Sebald’s works to see what glows. Here, Long’s strategy is to selectively isolate topics in Sebald’s books (e.g. tortured bodies, sexualized bodies, passports, maps, files, libraries, and so on) and then to locate each topic within a Foucault-like framework as a way of articulating on Sebald’s behalf an extended critique of modernity. What bothered me here was, in part, the ratio of attention: after minimal textual referencing to Sebald, Long often proceeds to devote considerably more space to extracting the related social, economic, political, and cultural implications. This is easier to see in an example. In his discussion of Passports, Tourism, Ethnography, Long in a single sentence refers to the passport that goes missing in Vertigo and which leads the narrator on a meandering, humorous and very Kafkaesque journey to obtain a new one. Long tries to unpack Sebald’s brief mention of a passport into an extended explanation of what the passport says “about the archival practices within the disciplinary regimes of modernity.” True, my familiarity with Foucault has gotten a bit rusty over the years, but as a reader I found that Long’s use of Foucault as a way to filter through Sebald managed to drain every last drop of blood and life out of Sebald’s writing for me.
Thankfully, Part II restored my hope for Long’s enterprise. In the second half of his book, Long spends about twenty pages each on Sebald’s four principal prose works, providing a nuanced and well-argued rationale for his thesis on Sebald’s critique of modernity. I don’t see any point in attempting to summarize Long’s readings of these books, but I’ll mention two of his key conclusions, both of which I find convincing. First, he argues persuasively that Sebald should not be considered a postmodern writer as he is often labeled. With the possible exception of Sebald’s use of photographs, I think Sebald cannot otherwise be construed as a true postmodernist (not that it matters all that much). Secondly and more importantly, Long wants to temper the frequent claim that Sebald is primarily a “Holocaust author.”
I do not diminish the central role played by the Holocaust in Sebald’s work, nor do I deny that in some respects Sebald does indeed represent the Holocaust as a radical rupture in Western history. My argument in this book is not that the Holocaust is a minor issue or an irrelevance, but that the narrow concentration on post-Holocaust remembrance in a large proportion of criticism on Sebald blinds us to the longer history with which his texts are also fundamentally concerned.
I remain convinced that Sebald’s hybrid form of prose narrative will resist being synthesized by any overly deterministic literary theory, and Long’s attempt to create and analyze thematic silos within Sebald’s work fell flat for me. But the rest of the book succeeded at presenting a clear, well-argued, and enlightening assessment of Sebald’s unique literary achievement.