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“An Awful Depth”

Sebald said that beneath the apparently realistic surface of Tripp’s visual work there lay concealed “an awful depth.”

This is my fourth and final report on the contents of the anthology of essays recently published as the special W.G. Sebald issue of Journal of European Studies.

I’ll let a quote from Mark M. Anderson’s Napoleon and the Ethics of Realism: Hebel, Hölderlin, Büchner, Celan explain the core of the thesis of his essay.

What matters for Sebald is his conviction that the connection between the Napoleonic period and the NS–Zeit was true – and it came to inform his thinking about the relation between literary realism and catastrophic history.  Moreover, this conviction enabled him to set up parallels between the generation of European realists whoo wrote in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars (Stendhal and Balzac, of course, but also Hebel and Georg Büchner) and the two generations of writers who have responded to the massive devastation of the Hitler years.

J.J. Long’s In the Contact Zone: W.G. Sebald and the Ethnographic Imagination examines The Rings of Saturn and the Max Ferber section of The Emigrants to “show how Sebald simultaneously adopts and critically transforms three key facets of ethnographic discourse: participant observation, the salvage paradigm, and the distillation of the typical.”  Long sees Sebald’s literary work as “constituting an ethnographic project to an extent that critics have not fully appreciated.”

Verena Olejniczak Lobsien’s Transformation of Early Modernism in the Work of W.G. Sebald spends most of its time on a discussion of how Sebald uses and transform the works of several “early Modern” sources, notably Mathias Grünewald, Shakespeare, and, most importantly, Sir Thomas Browne.

Claudia Albes’ Between ‘Surface Illusionism’ and ‘Awful Depth’: Reflections on the Poetological and Generic Ambivalence of W.G. Sebald’s Logis in einem Landhaus” brings the volume to a very strong conclusion.  Her essay is a close examination of a book that is clearly transformative in Sebald’s writing career.  To her, Logis in einem Landhaus consists of five Dichterporträts, plus an epilogue (the piece on Jan Peter Tripp), all of which collectively serve as an oblique self-portrait of Sebald the writer.  She sees Sebald using the traditional format of the artist portrait to pay homage to some of his most favorite artistic forebears.  What unifies the five artist portraits? “He interprets those lives such that all five authors are seen to undergo an escalating process of disillusionment” and he “focuses primarily on his subjects’ imminent decline.”  Albes also addresses the curious format of the essays in this book.

His Dichterporträts are collections of recollected fragments comprising carefully arranged quotations, photos, autobiographical aperçus, etc. whose study should stimulate the reader to re-engage with their subjects and interpreters.  This means that, on the one hand, the essays present the reader with what is familiar in order to renew his/her image of the writer, and perhaps encourage him/her to adjust that image.  But, on the other hand, persistent questions are inscribed in the portraits that transcend the limitations set by their subjects’ individual personalities.

My first post on this anthology was “A Balanced and Unobtrusive Beauty” – Sebald’s Travel Guide to East Anglia, the second post was Literature as a Record of Resistance, and the third and most recent post was The Hidden Vanishing Point.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thank you for this thorough reading of the anthology!
    Can you tell me – who are the 5 authors being portrayed in “Logis in einem Landhaus”?

    June 5, 2012
    • The five writers are: Robert Walser, Gottfried Keller, Johann Peter Hebel, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mrike. The sixth essay is on artist Jan Peter Tripp. Terry

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      June 5, 2012
  2. I’d be interested to read more just how W.G.Sebald ‘transforms’ T.Browne’s works. He is the single-most author to have raised the profile of Browne anyway and that in itself is a transformation of awareness.

    June 5, 2012

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