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.