Camden House kindly sent me a review copy of The Undiscover’d Country: W.G. Sebald and the Poetics of Travel, edited by Markus Zisselsberger, who teaches at the University of Florida. It contains twelve essays (divided into four sections), plus Zisselberger’s Introduction and a previously unanthologized text by Sebald. My plan is to read the book slowly over the course of October and post some thoughts as I finish each section.
In this first brief post I thought I would make some introductory remarks about the book, beginning with the cover image drawn from artwork by Jan Peter Tripp called Das Land der Lächelns, 1990 (the land of smiling), a title taken from a Franz Lehar opera about the difficulty of assimilating to a different culture. The book’s title, Undiscover’d Country, comes from a 1972 essay by Sebald, The Undiscover’d Country: The Death Motif in Kafka’s Castle. The book itself arose from a panel held at the 2006 Modern Language Association annual meeting.
In his Introduction, Zisselsberger uses an untranslated essay by Sebald from 1987 Die Kunst des Fliegens (the art of flying) as his starting point and he proceeds to explore the way in which Sebald blurred the distinction between real and imaginary landscapes, between real and imaginary travel. Surveying all of Sebald’s writings – poetry, prose fiction, and literary scholarship – Zisselsberger sees travel as a unifying “aesthetic strategy” for Sebald. Sebald’s hybrid writing style and his “extremely multifarious material” could only be bound together through his use of travelogue as a narrative structure. More importantly, Zisselsberger distinguishes between tourism and the kind of travel that Sebald undertook, which he likens to a pilgrimage.
…he emphasized that the place [he traveled to] must be carefully chosen from among those ‘that no one else goes to.’ This demand for solitary travel implies an anti-touristic itinerary by a ‘cultured’ traveler who seeks out places on the periphery and is capable of experiencing and looking at them other than in terms of sightseeing.
Zisselsberger goes on to discuss at length more specifically why he feels it was important to Sebald to seek out such liminal sites and what exactly Sebald hoped to gain by exposing himself to such places. Zisselsberger is an attentive and nuanced reader of Sebald – and he is skeptical when required – and he sorts through some of the stickier issues surrounding Sebald’s literary enterprise. I hope this bodes well for the rest of the volume.
The second prefatory piece in the volume is the essay by Sebald that forms the centerpiece for Zisselsberger’s Introduction, Die Kunst des Fliegens, albeit only in German (my only complaint so far).
In scholarly writing, it is typical to quote the German versions of Sebald’s books, even in volumes that are otherwise English language. Here, I was very pleased to see, unlike some other books on Sebald, all quotations in German are immediately followed by the same quotation in English. For those of us with weak or perhaps non-existent German, this is a great help.
You can find all of my posts on Undiscover’d Country here.