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Saturn’s Moons – Sebald’s Library

Curiosity and voyeurism got the better of me and I plunged directly into the middle of my brand-new copy of Saturn’s Moons to scan “A Catalogue of W.G. Sebald’s Library,” prepared by Jo Catling.  The catalog is well-intentioned and, within limits, will prove invaluable to certain types of research questions, but any hope for thoroughness was undone by Sebald himself and the apparent fluidity of his library.  As Catling notes, “Sebald habitually sold, gave away, or otherwise disposed of books he no longer had a use for.”  The catalog contains sections for 1) Sebaldiana (books by or about him), 2) literature, 3) literary criticism, 4) philosophy, psychology, anthropology & religion, 5) history, culture & geography, 6) art & art history, 7) topography, travel & natural history, 8) dictionaries, phrase books & reference works, 9) periodicals, and 10) books “disposed of.”  Elsewhere, Catling refers to a volume count for Sebald’s library of 1,255, so I presume this is the basic range of the sixty-five page catalog here.

Unsurprisingly, the literature section is heavily focused on German-language authors.  The catalog also suggests that Sebald read foreign literature mostly in translation, since a fair number of the titles originally written in English, French, Spanish, etc. are represented only in German translations.  The list of literature by English-language authors is a scant five pages and will undoubtedly lead to much speculation.  The paucity of modern and contemporary authors is especially noticeable; most are represented by a single volume, as is the case with John Banville, Bruce Chatwin, Graham Greene, and V. S. Naipul, for example.  As far as American literature was concerned, perhaps Sebald concurred with Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury, who famously suggested that American literature was too insular and that, as a whole, it did not “participate in the big dialogue of literature.”  Sebald only owned four books relating to American writers (not counting two books of criticism by Susan Sontag): American Short Stories of the 19th Century (Everyman, 1930), Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery an the Imagination (Everyman 1912), one book of Wallace Steven’s poetry, and, rather mysteriously, a book of prose by the Beat-Zen poet Gary Snyder.  Contemporary authors looking to see if Sebald had their volumes handy on the shelf will find little support for their egos; Sebald didn’t even keep the books he had honored with a personal blurb.

What was I looking for?  Well, I was hoping for more guidance on how the idea evolved of embedding photographs in his own writings, and I would have loved  to have seen that Sebald owned a copy of Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Mort (nope) or perhaps something by Andre Breton (nope).  On the other hand, Sebald did have fiction titles by Alexander Kluge, Christoph Ransmayr, Konrad Bayer, and Javier Marias that use photographs.  Plus he owned two key critical volumes: Roland Barthe’s Camera Lucida and Susan Sontag’s On Photography.  Finally, as a bit of a long-shot, I was really pulling to see a copy of Moby-Dick appear.  But, again, I was to be disappointed.

Next, I turned to Jo Catling’s chapter in Saturn’s Moons entitled “Biblotheca Abscondita: On W.G. Sebald’s Library” (the Latin phrase refers to Sir Thomas Browne’s imaginary library), which blends an extended riff on the library motif within Sebald’s work with first-hand observations on the physical nature of Sebald’s own library.  Catling’s piece serves as a lengthy warning for anyone hoping to draw firm conclusions from the presence or absence of books in the inventory or even the presence or absence of annotations, notes, underlinings, etc. within the books themselves.  As she points out, Sebald had ready access to several other libraries that he could almost treat as part of his own library (and which he sometimes marked up as if the books were indeed his own).  Catling discusses the wide variety of ways in which Sebald marked up the books he read, some of the ways in which he acquired and disposed of books, and the vast array of things left between the pages of his volumes: clippings, book reviews, tickets of various kinds, postcards and letters, leaves, grasses and flowers, and much more.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. hermeneut #

    Yes, Banville, Beckett, and Naipaul, those famous “British” authors…

    August 6, 2011
    • Dear Hermeneut, Well, labeling these as British writers was my fault, not Catling’s. There just didn’t seem to be a short way to me to say “non-North American authors writing in English.” I’ve fixed the post to be more geographically correct. And I removed Samuel Beckett entirely when I noticed that the book in Sebald’s library is not by Beckett but about him. So, technically speaking, Sebald did not own a book by Beckett.

      August 6, 2011
  2. Fascinating. I am a fond reader of Sebald and I will surely buy Catling’s book. Thanks so much!!

    August 7, 2011
  3. Don’t forget that Sebald had access to the entire library at UEA, probably the largest library in East Anglia outside of Cambridge universities and that he probably had many books in his office on-site at the UEA campus.

    Library catalogues are always fascinating to reveal possible sources but there’s always the danger of over-interpreting the importance of the presence of any book found as being an influence upon an author.

    August 7, 2011
    • Kevin, Catling talks about the UEA library at some length, noting that a number of the library’s books still contain marginalia by Sebald.

      August 7, 2011
  4. Not sure that a title ‘borrowed’ from a Browne miscellaneous tract is appropriate to describe Sebald’s library. Sir T.B.’s inventory is a creative work of the imagination which lists not only rumoured, lost (abscondita) or imagined books, but also pictures and objects, Catling’s inventory however is I take it, quite the opposite as it is list of very real books which most certainly do exist, there’s a difference.

    August 8, 2011
    • jmc #

      Kevin, thanks for the comments. As the scan of the contents page shows, the Browne quote is the title of Catling’s chapter about the library, not of the catalogue/ inventory itself (btw the figure 1255 which Terry quotes refers to the first tranche of the library acquired by the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach: the number of items in the catalogue is around 3 times that, as the chapter explains; it also lists books from Sebald’s UEA office). Inter alia the chapter explores notions around Browne’s (and Sebald’s) fantastical cataloguings while also taking gentle issue with Marcel Atze’s speculative notion of a Bibliotheca Sebaldiana (in the 1997 Porträt volume).

      August 8, 2011
      • Cheers Terry for your v. informative reply. So much new material about Sebald to catch up on in advance of the 10th commemoration year, though personally I prefer his Italian counter-part, Umbero Eco.

        August 8, 2011
      • Cheers Terry for your v. informative reply. So much new material about Sebald to catch up on in advance of the 10th commemoration year, though personally I prefer his Italian counter-part, Umberto Eco.

        August 8, 2011
  5. Markus #

    Is it already possible to buy it online?

    August 14, 2011
  6. Prof. Richard Sheppard #

    In one of his interviews – see my index to them in Saturn’s Moons – Max said in so many words that he didn’t have much time for modern, English-language prose fiction. Mind you, he said the same about modern, German-language prose fiction, too, even though it’s rarely about butlers.

    October 6, 2011
  7. Gary #

    “[A]s a bit of a long-shot, I was really pulling to see a copy of Moby-Dick appear.” Can you please explain to me how M-D might give you “guidance on how the idea evolved of embedding photographs in his own writings”? I’m not being facetious. I’d genuinely like to hear your thoughts. It’s in the same paragraph as the other photography-themed texts and I’d like to hear your justification. Thank you.

    March 30, 2014
  8. Gary, Great question. One of the more interesting questions about Sebald’s use of photographs is what previous literary models he might have had. Did some particular book or author inspire him to insert photographs into his book? Was he looking at Surrealist writers who used photography? Had he ever seen a copy of Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte? In looking at the contents of Sebald’s library, I didn’t see any obvious answers to this mystery.

    March 31, 2014
  9. Gary #

    Thanks for your response Terry.
    Re: photography – I think Barthes’ Cameral Lucida alone might be enough inspiration!
    I also think Walter Benjamin’s influence cannot be emphasised enough.
    I too, unsystematically, have sought tentative connections between Moby-Dick and Rings of Saturn and continue to only find the obvious openings of both (Ishmael’s “growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul” and Rings’ narrator’s “hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work” and the subsequent “journey” of each.
    You might be interested (or have already discovered) one of the “Extracts – supplied by a sub-sub-librarian” from Robert Sibbald’s Fife and Kinross. Cursory research tells us that Sibbald was a physician and actuary (a la Browne) and studied medicine at Leiden (a la Browne) and the Blue Whale was for a time classified as Sibbaldus, etc and all very Sebaldian in the connections (maybe or not). It seems one might at least have an argument to make and so I was really hoping an edition (preferably well-worn) of M-D had cropped up in his library.
    New to this site but I’ll spend many happy hours browsing.
    Thanks again.

    April 1, 2014

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