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Sven Birkerts recently wrote about W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo, which he stumbled upon in his library and realized he had somehow managed to not read yet.  The result is a very refreshing take on Sebald.  Rather than writing about books, one might say that Birkert writes  about his experience reading books.  The result is a multi-layered, nuanced response that has a compelling confessional honesty.

Sebald’s work has always held a complicated attraction for me—his work and the idea of his work, for truth be told I have not read everything. Though I have long counted The Rings of Saturn as one of my reading revelations, I never finished The Emigrants, and I have only nibbled at Austerlitz, always stopping about thirty pages in. Here I rush to my own defense: sometimes you don’t devour the writers you know will be important to you. For that very reason. Their power and influence need to be taken in with care, possibly in small doses. Vertigo—which I have here on the desk now—I took up once, years ago, but I must not have been in the right state. The book ran out on me, or I ran out on it. I didn’t feel the grab of intimacy I thought I should be feeling, where the words move in almost like confidences, so I put it back on the shelf and forgot about it, maybe more deliberately than I forget about many other books. I associated it with a failure on my part, a connection that did not come to pass, but which had, Sebald being who he is, seemed so likely.

Birkerts’ essay resulted in two wonderful posts over at night rpm, one on the role that Gracchus plays in Sebald’s work and another post that carries the discussion even further.

Over on Page-turner, the New Yorker‘s blog  about books, Daniel Mendelsohn writes “A Critic’s Manifesto,” which I think is required reading for anyone who cares about literature.  Mendelsohn tries to calmly sort through the current angst over criticism in order to differentiate the real art of criticism amid the explosion of writing about books made possible by the Internet.

…the advent of the Internet [has] transformed our thinking about reviewing and criticism in particular. First, there has been the explosion of criticism and reviews by ordinary readers, in forums ranging from the simple rating (by means of stars, or whatever) of books on sites such as Amazon.com to serious longform review-essays by deeply committed lit bloggers. For the first time, ordinary readers (or ballet fans or architecture aficionados) have been able to express their opinions about books (or ballet, or architecture) publicly. This development inevitably raises questions about the role of the traditional critic. (“Why should we listen to X, when we can say what we think?”)

I happen to agree with Mendelsohn’s belief that that “criticism is its own genre, a legitimate and (yes) creative enterprise for which, in fact, very few people are suited—because very few people have the rare combination of qualities that make a good critic, just as very few people have the combination of qualities that make a good novelist or poet.”

The serious critic ultimately loves his subject more than he loves his reader—a consideration that brings you to the question of what ought to be reviewed in the first place. When you write criticism about literature or any other subject, you’re writing for literature or that subject, even more than you’re writing for your reader: you’re adding to the accumulated sum of things that have been said about your subject over the years. If the subject is an interesting one, that’s a worthy project. Because the serious literary critic (or dance critic, or music critic) loves his subject above anything else, he will review, either negatively or positively, those works of literature or dance or music—high and low, rarefied and popular, celebrated and neglected—that he finds worthy of examination, analysis, and interpretation. To set interesting works before intelligent audiences does honor to the subject.

Finally, Sebald readers should go over to Asymptote to read Adrian West’s “Hope as Insult and Provocation,” an excellent essay on the suicide of Jean Améry, who was the subject of an essay included in Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction.

Améry’s philosophical and moral achievement lies in his insistence on the ease with which the outside—in the form of the torturer, of age and infirmity, the winds of history, or the specter of death—may restrict or irreparably corrupt one’s subjectivity, and in his unmasking of solace as a nefarious conciliation with forces whose ineluctability does not detract from their injustice.

At the very end of West’s essay, don’t forget to click on the link to read his translation of Améry’s suicide note.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Could you set a link with the site bruges-la-morte.net
    I wrote a Chapter about Vertigo and Rodenbach’s novel.
    Thanks a lot !
    Best regards to Will…
    Jo

    December 4, 2012
    • Done! The site looks great. I’ll have to spend some time there.

      Terry

      ________________________________

      December 9, 2012

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