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The Anatomist of Melancholy

It’s very slim and has no writing on the spine, which is how I excuse the fact that I had not looked at this small green volume since I first acquired it years ago. But on second reading I am reminded of the vitality contained in this volume of essays, a spare 93 pages in length. The Anatomist of Melancholy: Essays in Memory of W.G. Sebald, edited by Rüdiger Görner, is a collection of uniformly excellent papers given at the University of London’s Institute of Germanic Studies (where Prof. Görner teaches) on January 31, 2003. The day was billed as “W. G. Sebald Memorial Day”, and Sebald, who said “these borders between the dead and the living are not hermetically sealed”, was clearly present in the minds of those who spoke that day.  “Still stunned by his sudden death, I can’t write anything as public as an obituary for W.G. Sebald, the author, or Max, my friend.” That was Michael Hamburger, in his brief opening remembrance. In a felicitous phrase, he refers to Sebald as a “collector of existential extremities.” After the stunned comments of Hamburger, who was the prime translator of Sebald’s poetry, the next contribution is by another of his translators, Anthea Bell. On Translating W.G. Sebald is an articulate and equally personal recollection of working closely with Sebald on several of his books, and provides insights both biographical and textual.

The core essay, if I may make such a distinction, is Jo Catling’s Gratwanderungen bis an den Rand der Natur: W.G. Sebald’s Landscapes of Memory, the longest and most ambitious piece in the collection (and nearly impossible to discuss in brief). Landscape, arguably, is the predominant motif in his books and Catling catalogs and clarifies, as it were, the multiple roles that landscapes (real, imagined, remembered) serve over the course of Sebald’s books. Interspersed throughout her essay, Catling drops in memories of Sebald, her colleague at the University of East Anglia – tantalizing tidbits, like the Walter Benjamin poster outside his office door or the readings he assigned some of his classes.

Elinor Shaffer’s essay W.G. Sebald’s Photographic Narrative is an early and excellent foray into an aspect of Sebaldology that has since become a cottage industry. What I like so much about her overview is her refusal to get bogged down in minutiae; she reproduces no images and spends little time analyzing individual images. Instead, Shaffer looks at the way in which images and text inflect each other in a kind of ebb and flow of reinforcement and contradiction. She’s a generous and careful reader who understands that it is equally important to come to grips with the absence of images at certain places in Sebald’s books.

Uwe Shütte’s “In einer wildfremden Gegend” – W.G. Sebald’s Essays über die österreichische Literatur is the only essay in German and deals with Sebald’s critical essays on Austrian literature.

Rüdiger Görner’s After Words. On W.G. Sebald’s Poetry reminds us that, in terms of his literary output, Sebald was a poet first (his 1988 book-length poem Nach der Natur did not appear in English until after all of his later prose works had been translated). Accordingly, in what feels to me like a refreshing tonic after writers who view Sebald’s poetry largely as an annex to the books of prose, Görner treats Sebald like a full-fledged poet.

Between the words falls the shadow of their etymology and usage. Word after word creates an echo of meaning and leaves behind a trail of associations. In poetry words often engage in paradoxical interplay between a sense of transience and feelings of finality. Signs of verbal playfulness can alter with expressions of melancholy and resignation.

Martin Swales’ Intertextuality, Authenticity, Metonymy?: On Reading W.G. Sebald tries to come to terms with three key aspects of Sebald’s work: “the documentary feel of Sebald’s prose; its wonderful, suggestive, literary quality; and the presence of a characteristic voice that is both urgently in evidence and immensely difficult to pin down.” Concisely and clearly, Swales hones in on the conundrum between presence and absence in Sebald’s writing (to greatly oversimplify the argument). Why is it that Sebald “never quite manages to say what he wants to say”? And why does he continually give us “the rings caused by destruction and deprivation, rather than the haemorraging centre”? Sebald, in other words, navigates between silence and the scream in order to bear witness. “It is a form of supremely valuable witness; perhaps the only manageable and endurable one there is. Not so much an anatomy, nor an allegory, nor a confession, nor an inventory of melancholy. But a hauntingly metonymic witness to it.”

The volume concludes with Will Stone’s elegaic poem To Max (For W.G. Sebald).

for you at least there is no oblivion,
the ink is dry.

As the treatises on Sebald start to mount up, The Anatomist of Melancholy really stands out despite, or perhaps because of, its size.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. I just got my copy yesterday, thanks to the help of the folks at

    It’s a wonderful book! Thank you for highlighting it :)

    May 6, 2008

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