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Literature as a Record of Resistance

Between travel and other commitments, I’m very slow at making my way through the December 2011 issue of the Journal of European Studies, edited by Dr. Richard Sheppard and devoted to W.G. Sebald.  My first post included the full Table of Contents and focused largely on a short travelogue intended for German visitors to East Anglia that Sebald wrote for a German publication in 1974.   Even though I am only about halfway through the Journal, it’s clear that this is an important anthology of essays that delve into some of the core issues surrounding Sebald’s work and legacy.  Needless to say, these are densely argued essays that can only be butchered by my minor remarks.  I won’t even pretend to offer a full synopsis of any of the essays, I’ll try to just give the flavor of several of the papers that I’ve read so far.

Ben Hutchinson’s The Shadow of Resistance: W.G. Sebald and the Frankfurt School examines Sebald’s sizable debt to the Frankfurt School, especially in relation to his books on Carl Sternheim and Alfred Döblin and on Sebald’s four works of prose fiction.  Hutchinson argues that a primary tenet that Sebald took from the Frankfurt School was their insistence on “literature’s relationship to a contingent historical context.”  “Sebald consistently insisted that aesthetic problems were also ethical ones.”  Hutchinson points out that Sebald’s praise for Thomas Bernhard (quoted from his 2001 radio interview with Michael Silverblatt) corresponds to the aesthetic values Sebald derived from the Frankfurt School. Bernhard’s fiction, Sebald said “wasn’t compromised in any sense…He only tells you in his books what he has heard from others.  So he invented, as it were, a kind of periscopic form of narrative.”

In his essay W.G. Sebald as Critic of Austrian Literature, Ritchie Robertson proposes that Sebald related so well to Austrian literature because it is a “literature of displacement.  Its writers and its literary figures are alienated from their childhood, their places of origin, and their native cultures.”  He relates this, in part, to Sebald’s sympathy for schizophrenics and the literature that they have produced – most notably Ernst Herbeck, who he visits and describes in the opening pages of the “All’estero” section of Vertigo.

Lynn L. Wolff’s essay The ‘Solitary Mallard’: On Sebald and Translation, reminds us the extent to which Sebald’s fictions themselves are “translations.”  Wolff points out, for example, how, in Austerlitz, the conversations between the narrator and Austerlitz were “originally” in English and French, and that Austerlitz often related prior conversations that presumably took place in Czech.  But Sebald has “translated”, as it were, all of these conversations into German.  Wolff discusses at length the many challenges that face Sebald’s translators and she notes some of the issues relating to the placement of images in various editions.

In The Calamitous Perspective of Modernity: Sebald’s Negative Ontology, Rob Burns and Wilfried van der Will argue that “for Sebald, the world is rotten to the core.”  They believe that he saw no hope for mankind, that our history is a history of destruction, and that modernity’s promise of progress was hollow.  So why did Sebald write? They argue that “Sebald was able to sustain his practice of writing partly because of his increasingly embattled belief that he was called to fashion literature as a record of resistance.”

Sebald’s negative ontology produced in him neither a state of complete apathy nor, by any manner of means, one of abject nihilism.  On the contrary, his dominant mood of melancholic irony inspired a mode of writing where his inconsolability over history, nature, and, ultimately, the whole of Being provided constant motivation for further creativity, both fictional and essayistic….Sebald remarked that melancholia, “the contemplation of our continuing misfortune, has nothing in common with the craving for death,” being “a form of resistance…”

[I’ll be traveling until early April.]

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. I find Sebald’s comment on Bernhard to be very convincing. In relation to this you quote Hutchinson saying: “Sebald consistently insisted that aesthetic problems were also ethical ones”, how, as you see it, is this ethical-aesthetics displayed in Sebald’s narrative fiction?

    March 22, 2012
    • Sigrun,  Your question deserves an essay-length reply.  I think the basis for Sebald’s ethical position are his narrators.  Somewhere else (I forget where) Sebald says something to the effect that only a first-person narrator can have moral or ethical authority or believability.  Sebald can’t follow the same guidelines for which he praises Thomas Bernhard and have his narrators only speak about what they’ve witnesses (although there is much of that in Sebald’s books).  But because Sebald continually wants to introduce the historical record (things not witnessed or experienced by Sebald himself – or his narrators, for that matter), I think Sebald decided that he needed to build up a rapport with readers that would convince them that he was making valid interpretations and connections with the past. 



      March 22, 2012
      • Thank you. Your response made me think of Imre Kertész, who is, as I see it, exploring the ethical obligation of the first-person narrator in a very personal and original way.

        I am afraid comparing the two, is to yet again ask for an essay-lenght reply – just treat it for what it is; an idea that popped up in my head…inspired by your great blog post!

        All the best, Sigrun

        March 23, 2012
      • I haven’t read Kertesz in a while. I’ll have to take a look again. Sorry for the meager response, but I’m traveling for a week.



        March 23, 2012
  2. I’ve only recently discovered Sebald and I’m glad I found this blog. I’m interested (for my own work) in Sebald’s choice to write in German rather than in English, but also in his choice of POV as briefly discussed here in relation to Sebald’s ethical position; Sebald’s first person narrator (e.g. in Rings of Saturn which I’m reading now) is only technically an ego, but practically a filter that works almost like an omniscient POV. The way in which Sebald weaves in and out of history, art etc. is an artefact of that. Perhaps one reason why he valued research so much (he called the writing of younger writers who only explore from their PC “anemic”) was to anchor the first person in a larger perspective. Thomas Bernhard by comparison writes, to my ear, in a much more intimate, localized fashion. Not to mention the fact that the German “Ich” position does not straightforwardly translate into the English “I” except in a superficial grammatical way. Even more so in relation to the historical events that Sebald is concerned with.

    March 27, 2012
    • …in extension of the interesting statement that Sebald “insisted that aesthetic problems were also ethical ones.” I couldn’t agree more—reminiscent of Gardner’s position towards writing (about which I’ve blogged a while back).

      March 27, 2012
  3. As a writer, I notice that real literature is always embodying, resisting, and transcending something. Sometimes obviously, sometimes not….

    March 27, 2012

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