Part of the disorientation of Sebald’s characters can be viewed as precisely an attempt to go astray, to resist compulsory heterosexuality and to transgress the borders of Germany and Europe in search of a queer affinity that might provide a source of resistance to the straightening and oppressive orientation of bourgeois society and family.
Helen Finch’s new book Sebald’s Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life is an ambitious, thin book that contains a dense, closely argued “queer reading of Sebald’s work.” The result is one of the most important books on Sebald to date. I am sure that there are a number of Sebald readers, casual and otherwise, who will look askance at a queer reading of his work, but, as Finch demonstrates, the clues – both obvious and coded – are there in plain sight. And keep in mind Finch’s careful caveat: “this study confines itself to Sebald’s literature only, and makes few claims about his biography and none about his personal orientations.”
At the risk of gravely oversimplifying things, let me try to summarize what seems to be a major theme that binds all of Sebald’s writing into a single, albeit broad, trajectory – namely the development of a theory of European history that might attempt to explain the incalculable destruction caused by colonialism, racism, and Germany’s Nazi era. In even cruder terms, how did we move from the Enlightenment to the Holocaust? As scholars begin to closely examine the critique that Sebald has now left us, the question arises whether his work proposes any response to the tragedy of history other than a kind of morose and pessimistic melancholy. This is where Helen Finch’s book enters the picture.
Sebald readers who primarily know only his prose fiction will benefit greatly from Finch’s book, since it is in Sebald’s critical writing (still largely untranslated into English) that one finds the theoretical framework for his sustained critique of Enlightenment idealism and European history since Napoleon. Finch does a great job of making the connections between Sebald’s extensive critical writings and his four books of prose fiction and the book-length poem After Nature. His critical writing on literature is, as Finch puts it, “saturated in sexuality” and structured around Freudian critical theory beginning with his 1969 monograph on Carl Sternheim. Sebald’s early and deep engagement with the Frankfurt School led him to reject textually-grounded criticism “in favour of applying sociological, psychological, and biographical criteria to German texts, criteria that helped him to develop a psychopathology of the bourgeois self” – especially the bourgeois conception of masculinity. Over the years, Sebald further developed his theory of poetics around the writings of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, notably their book Kafka: For a Minor Literature.
But there was more at stake for Sebald than history and literature; it was familial and personal as well. Sebald’s father served in Poland during the Second World War and Sebald grew up in a family environment that remained utterly silent on the failures and horrors of National Socialism and the war years. “Sebald may be viewed as a paradigmatic member of the 1968 generation who was locked in a lifelong unresolved Oedipal contest with his National Socialist father and his father’s generation.” And, one might add, with the entire generation of German writers that preceded him. By linking traditional European – and specifically German – patriarchal society with the nationalism, colonialism, and racism that led to the destructive triumph of National Socialism in Germany, Sebald developed a critique of traditional male roles and began to populate his poetry and prose with male figures who resisted “bourgeois constructs of masculinity” in favor of a more queered existence.
As Finch points out, Sebald’s books are almost completely populated by male characters. A number of key characters are openly homosexual, including two of the title characters from The Emigrants – Ambros Adelwarth (whom Sebald claimed was based on his own great uncle) and Paul Bereyter – and a number of key figures in The Rings of Saturn, notably Roger Casement, Algernon Swinburne, and Edward Fitzgerald. Many of Sebald’s other characters also fall into Sebald’s coterie of queer bachelors, figures who might superficially appear to be just odd or eccentric or, in the case or writers like Robert Walser and Ernst Herbeck, mentally unstable. What they all share, in one way or another, is a “queer imperative” to resist traditional marriage, fatherhood, and sexuality in order to lead the “unconforming life” of Finch’s subtitle. In this way, Finch sees Sebald offering an alternative to or a way out from the destructiveness of history other than melancholy and mourning.
I make a claim not only for the centrality of queerness to Sebald’s poetic project, but also for its status as a mode of resistance to oppressive structures. This book delineates a disruptive, at times utopian, at times joyful concept of the “Sebaldian queer.” Very broadly speaking, my reading of Sebald is allied with theorists, chief among them Sara Ahmed, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and Michael D. Snedicker, whose versions of queer identity and queer textuality express transgression and immanence…I argue against reading into Sebald the categories of “melancholy, self-shattering, shame, the ‘death drive'” that have become categories to conjure with in queer theory. Rather, I claim that the Sebaldian queer, although inflected and constrained by melancholy, contains the possibility of an immanent, ethical, and critical optimism.
But this is not to say that Sebald comes off spotless in Finch’s eyes. She cautions that Sebald exhibits a blind spot to certain behaviors of his queer bachelors, such as the affinity that Roger Casement along with Ambros Adelwarth and his partner share for young boys. She is also mildly worried about some inconsistencies in Sebald’s work, especially in two cases. The first instance has to do with the final chapter of Vertigo, in which the narrator visits the village in Germany where he grew up and re-envisions his childhood. To Finch, this seems to represent a “return to a genealogical plot, heterosexual themes, and the German household, in part undoing the queer potential that came before” in the earlier sections of the book. In the second, and more important, instance, she tries to understand why it is that Sebald’s final book, Austerlitz, represents a return to more normative, less queered modes of fiction. Finch’s discussion of these two areas seemed to me to be the weakest points in the books, but then I should also say that these instances simply aren’t as problematic for me as they are for Finch.
I have only scratched the surface of all that Finch has to say. So, by way of a wrap-up, I’ll let the author have the final word. Here are the concluding sentences of Finch’s book.
If at times the Sebaldian queer itself borders on kitsch, dallies with Orientalism, and avails itself of a range of creakily outmoded theories of homosexuality, it nonetheless represents a real attempt to resist the oppressive orders of history in a way not solely conditioned by melancholia, Thanatos, and mourning. Sebald’s idiosyncratic portrayal of queer desire is located right at the fault lines of history, memory, identity, theory, and narrative, and as such represents a significant contribution to queer letters. If, as has so often been claimed, Sebald’s work represents a profoundly important intervention in European literature and politics, some of its most radical, joyful, and political potential is queer.
Helen Finch. Sebald’s Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life. Oxford: Legenda, 2013. Distributed by Oxbow Books and David Brown Book Company (in the US).