The second triptych of essays in The Undiscover’d Country: W.G. Sebald and the Poetics of Travel uses the heading Textual Excursions, Expeditions, and Adventures to focus on some narrower aspects of Sebald’s writings.
The best essay of this section, in spite of its title, is Alan Itkin’s “Eine Art Eingang zur Unterwelt”: Katabasis in Austerliz, which examines Austerlitz within the tradition of epic literature, notably Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil, Dante, and Milton, showing how Sebald structured Austerlitz as a venture in the underworld. Itkin makes the case that Austerlitz is Sebald’s most novel-like work of prose fiction and that with this book Sebald broke the pattern in which he had formerly used the trope of travel. In his first three books of prose fiction, Sebald’s model of travel writing was to “demonstrate that it is the uncanny position of the modern subject never to be sufficiently lost.” But with Austerlitz, he returned to something more closely approaching the classic model of travel writing in which the narrator loses his way, then finds it again.
Itkin sees Sebald making the case that National Socialism was inextricably linked to “the senseless expansion of the bourgeois age” that preceded it. The dark side of progress is “an equally strong compulsion to destruction,” a theme that weaves in and out of all of Sebald’s books.
The remaining two essays are exercises in diminishing returns. Each left me feeling that the needles I finally found in these haystacks were blunt and only marginally useful. Martin Klebes’ essay If You Come to a Spa: Displacing the Cure in Schwindel. Gefühle and Austerlitz, looks at two of Sebald’s travelers and their visits to spas. He looks at the Dr. K. Takes the Waters at Riva section of Vertigo and at Jacques Austerlitz’s trip to the spa at Marienbad. Each man undergoes a transformation at the spa that has nothing to do with the expected “medical regimen” function of a spa. Instead, “Sebald’s narrative strategy is to ‘renew’ his protagonists at the spas …through intertextual references that reveal the split within each of them not as a feature of their psychological constitution but rather as a division visible on the textual surface itself.” What does this mean? Well, in both of the situations that Klebes cites, Sebald creates uncertainty and tension surrounding the identity of the protagonist, both of whom echo characters in other works of art. In the Vertigo example, “Dr. K. both is and is not ‘Franz Kafka’.” While in the Austerlitz example, Sebald overlays references to characters from Alain Resnais’ film L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad).
James Martin’s essay Campi deserti: Polar Landscapes and the Limits of Knowledge in Sebald and Ransmayr examines the middle section of Sebald’s long poem Nach der Nature (After Nature) and Ransmayr’s 1984 novel Die Schrecken des Eises und der Finsternis (The Terrors of Ice and Darkness), which I wrote about earlier. In this section of After Nature, Wilhelm Georg Stiller joins the Great Northern Expedition of 1741, led by Vitus Bering (of the Bering Sea and Strait). Martin sees Sebald making the point that these polar expeditions represent “the limits of the Enlightenment’s quest for knowledge” and “the extreme limits of the knowable world.” Like some of the essayists in the earlier section of Undiscover’d Country, Martin sees Sebald rejecting a totalizing view of history: “Science in the Enlightenment takes a totalizing character as a system for understanding the world under the banner of an unwavering belief in progress and rationality.” In After Nature and elsewhere, Sebald seems to completely reject this belief.
Other posts relating to this volume are here.