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Undiscover’d Country.1

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.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. It sounds a great book and that’s a lovely introduction. To what extent though is a cultured traveller just a tourist with books in a rucksack? A sort of more energetic flaneur who intentionally veers off the beaten track? Is it heretical to say that as much can be seen from within a ghastly honeytrap as from a desolate space on the other side of the map? What is special about Sebald could be his vision and his style rather than what he looked at.

    October 4, 2010
  2. John, Thanks for the comment. Zisselsberger makes a lengthy and complex presentation about the kind of traveler that he believes Sebald to be, and much of his argument is based on statements made by Sebald himself about the places he chose to go (or not go) and what kind of experience he was looking for. It wouldn’t be possible or fair for me to summarize Zisselsberger’s complete argument, but I think he makes a very convincing case.

    October 5, 2010
    • i like your word “liminal”, Terry. I just looked it up!Literally(AND metaphorically), “threshold”; but, metaphorically, “ambiguity, openness, indeterminancy”; or, according to Ian Buchanan, in “A Dictionary of Critical Theory”(2010): “the liminal is the in-between, the neither one thing nor the other”. Sorry, Terry, not trying to tell you what it means but just thinking aloud:I believe that, although the travelogue is the structural linking device, especially in “Rings of Saturn”,what we are getting at here is the transcendental, timeless journey, of which the recounting of very disparate, but probably complexedly linked, landscapes(and events therein), is only the structural binding device. To me Sebald’s liminal landscapes are those of what I have seen,once, called “spectral geography”(or you could say “landscape”): the worlds BETWEEN literal and psychological death, where the living meet the dead; or the psychologicallly dead person experiences(the beginnings of ) a re-awakening. To be more concrete, the ladies waiting room at the pre-refurbished Liverpool St station is the physical location point for the start of Austerlitz’ remembering of his trauma, but its very ghostliness(the semi-dereliction, the dust)are allegorical of the mental state he has hitherto been in: living out an identity imposed upon him. Or, Dr. K(“Vertigo”) where the restlessnesses of “Dr. K’S” own travelogue, via Verona or Vienna etc etc is a physical representation of the central metaphor of the “story”, of his own inner restlessness and rootlessness, as he attempts(unsuccessfully) to follow the homo-erotic desires he has, and which society does not permit(so a mirroring of his own inner partly spectral, partly restless landscape). But I think we are probably on the same lines here, Terry; and perhaps I am being somewhat too premature in my comments as you are remarking on only the first few stages of the new book.

      There are further thoughts on my (non-commercial)”decayetude” blog on Sebald, especially in connection with the homoerotics and marginalisation issues of Dr. K(though 5, in tota of his narratives are concerned with this issue)

      And, John, I think your commments very pertinent, in that Sebald’s vision or visions,(about what man does to man,meditations on decay and destruction, including the marginalised in his narratives and, therby and therefore, re-appropriating the hegemonic “grand narratives” for those invisibilised people), is /are the key thing. So, I agree, : not just “an energetic flaneur”(great phrase!).

      October 6, 2010

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