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Sebald’s Bachelors

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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).

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thank you so much for this thoughtful and very detailed review! I’m so touched at the attention you devoted to the book, and would like to thank you again for the fine service you do on behalf of the worldwide Sebaldian community.

    September 19, 2013
  2. Reblogged this on Helen Finch and commented:
    Terry Pitts is incredibly kind about my book. Attentive reading is the most wonderful form of compliment.

    September 19, 2013
  3. Reblogged this on Passing Time and commented:
    Terry Pitts’ Vertigo blog reviews a fascinating and important new study of W G Sebald by Helen Finch.

    September 19, 2013
  4. Thanks Terry for reviewing Helen Finch’s groundbreaking book; which i shall eventually get round to reading (all of it!)and reviewing. It is so heartening to see such a reception to a book which cuts across the hegemonic, mainstream academic readings of Sebald, and takes full on a subject which re-appears, as you say, so frequently throughout Sebald’s oevre. I do so hope it receives a good response from other Sebald scholars and avoids the kind of unpleasantness that has dogged gay subtextual readings of, eg Gerard Manley Hopkins and Forster; or even openly homosexual writers like Whitman; the thing is that Sebald rarely writes in subtext and most of the references to sexual orientation of his protagonists are wholly OVERT so we do not have the excuse/extenuation often used for a heterosexist reading that it is all extrapolation from some ambivalent , reader-response orientated reaction to the signifier/signified; as you say, the characters are all there in their quirky queerness. I am yet to work out, as i have said to Helen, whether i think Sebald DOES actually put forward an “immanent”, ie what I take to be politically realisable,critique/direction towards action that would make his queer utopias come true; a lot of the Utopia seems to happen after death, eg Naegeli frozen in ice (“Emmigrants”); a sort of part redemption after death, with all Sebald’s concomitant doubts thereto, (as expressed in a couple of the “Place in the Country” essays, of which i am writing). But i am so open to being convinced, so i won’t say anymore till the book is read wholly!take care and thanks for your open-,minded and comprehensive blog:). Steve Benson

    September 19, 2013
  5. As a reader who’s been beguiled by W G Sebald, who’s found himself as himself in the author’s factually accurate dream landscapes, I welcome any criticism that takes his work outside and beyond the prison of interpretation that relegates him as failed or resigned. Sebald has always been a poet or a painter to me, on a quest.

    September 20, 2013
  6. After reading more re immanence, i take it as to mean the “transcendent” (or God, in theistic religions)internalised into the self, the creaturely/human body as divine, so transendence is already WITHIN us and our body/minds(to use dualistic thinking!); it is not some “transcendent” external Godhead.So,Helen seems to be arguing that Sebald’s moments of queer immanence are representative of the divine/essential self/ spirit already within us and his own characters and narrators. Am still not sure at all: Sebald’s homosexual and homosexual Jewish still seem abject to me; it seems as if its a deconstructionist argument, to an extent, whereby something automatically/ipse facto implies its opposite: of course abjection and suffering and how people cope with it will always have the potential to show how it MIGHT have been(and, indeed, in regard to lgbt rights, in a time later than Sebald writes about, how it has actually become, in some countries anyway, legally more than socially). But Naegeli’s bones disturb me; where is the the queer, towardsutopia, plenitude in merely IMPLYING what might have been; Naegeli is dead and Selwyn is decimated and bereft and unwhole; or perhaps the immanence lies in the fact that Naegeli and Selwyn’s love, though tragic in outcome, had a queer, intrinsically/immanent, becoming/epiphany WITHIN it. It also depends on your spiritual beliefs re what happens after death. I am STILL open to being convinced; and i don’t want to knock AT ALL this brave book,dealing with this semi-taboo and heterosexistly appropriated subject(that is a seperate matter) but melancholy pervades Sebald despite his occasional dolefeul humour. i am openminded about looking for the moments of camp humour too, and I WILL do.I SO want to believe Helen. We CERTAINLY have a queer(in its sense of anti-hegemonic, anticapitalist, antiheteropatriarchal) world view in Sebald; that is throughout, eg the “Place in the County” essays in their espousal of communitarianism and damning indictment of capitalism.Yes, that is there, repeatedly. And this word queer: i am opening a can of worms here;it has to be defined(in its various coinages of relating solely to sexual orientation and/or gender; or to antihegemonic worldviews generally)before it can be used with any understanding by : either lgbt people who may have grown up with its pejorative meanings and straight people who have also grown up with these negative meanings. Please, don’t misunderstand, I LOVE Queer THEORY and its ideas of idiosyncrasy, equality in difference. And this is not written so that people can, homophobically/heterosexistly/hegemonically say “told u so” re the word queer. Its just the signifier of queer is so variegated in reference to the signified (to many various individuals and subjectivities and life experiences) that it can be divisive, problematic, be open to being used as a tool for putting down the “loony left”. I wish i knew what Sebald had thought of the word. Its about getting towards what Sebald MEANT, what he was trying to do both thematically and poetically; but then that too is mediated by each individual perceiver. He is certainly 100% pro equality for (in his case, abject, marginalised lgbt people and other minorised groups). This is what i am wrestling with; but thanks so much, again, to Helen,for being the strong catalyst to bring these seeming aporias to the surface; and again, wow, Helen, whatever the various relativistic takes on queer etc and immanence, WHAT a (much-needed in Sebald scholarship)achievement. Steve

    September 23, 2013
  7. André Dias #

    «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’.»

    This is such a surprising reference; one that I had never encountered nor had it crossed my mind. In which of Sebald’s works of literary criticism can we find it?

    September 28, 2013
    • André – Good question. Finch states that Sebald knew the work of Deleuze and Guattari well and she makes the case that his work frequently reflects a deep awareness of their concepts. But as far as I can tell, Finch mentions only one essay in which Sebald actually refers to their work and that is an essay on Ernst Herbeck, presumably the one published in 1981 in Manuskripte and not translated into English. Curiously, it doesn’t appear that Sebald’s library in Marbach contains any books by Deleuze & Guattari, according to the inventory in Saturn’s Moons.

      September 29, 2013
      • Dear Terry, that’s correct,the Herbeck essay is the sole direct reference I’ve found. However, I’ll stand by my claim that Deleuze and Guattari’s understanding of Kafka had a broader influence on Sebald’s work. As Jo Catling says, the fact that a book is not in Sebald’s personal library means little; he used the University of East Anglia university library extensively, and also threw out books once he had no more use for them. I hope this helps!

        The links to Deleuze and Guattari have been explored also by, among others, Judith Ryan and Dora Osborne:

        udith Ryan, ‘“Lines of Flight”: History and Territory in The Rings of Saturn’, in Schreiben ex
        patria/Expatriate Writing, pp. 45–60

        Dora Osborne, ‘Topographical Anxiety and Dysfunctional Systems: Die Ausgewanderten and Freud’s Little Hans’, in The Undiscover’d Country: W. G. Sebald and the Poetics of Travel, ed. by Markus Zisselsberger (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2010), pp. 299–321

        September 30, 2013
      • André Dias #

        Thank you both for the clarifications and additional references.

        September 30, 2013
  8. I wanted to toss in a comment here. I recently heard about this book on Time’s Flow Stemmed and immediately searched the inter-library loan system to locate the only copy in my province. I have it for less than a month and I am sure that I have neither the literary or queer theory to fully understand it, or sufficient grounding in Sebald’s work. I just wanted to say that as a reader, the queerness of Sebald’s writings hit me suddenly and directly just this past New Year’s Day when I read The Emigrants for the first time.

    I am a transgendered man who transitioned at 40 (I am in my 50’s now), and once I could disappear I did, dedicating myself to work and raising children as a single parent. A serious breakdown last year threw my fragile facade of a life into disarray and I was forced to reclaim my identity. My sexuality as a man is gay (not the most common or most readily accepted LGBT identity) and although I would have actively denied any association with the “Q” word since I first came out in my 30’s, I now most comfortably and accurately call myself queer. I have also been exploring a more authentic way to articulate the trans experience as I know it in reference to an experience more akin to that of an emigrant – as one that is forever in the process of being redefined. The Emigrants was an absolutely pivotal piece in my own process of self definition, one in which so many strands either fell into place or were articulated in the lives of the men chronicled. Reading a queerness potentially inherit in Sebald’s work from the inside out holds, for me, in essence, a sense of coming full circle.

    Thank you for your fascinating site and this particular review.

    February 24, 2015
    • Roughghosts: that is the most moving testimony and reponse to Sebald’s work I have ever read; the victim of a double marginalisation (the characters, in regard to their sexual orientation) and the academic exegeses (mainly ignoring this issue) led to me first writing on the subject on my blogs;u will find Decayetude but also google “TowardsUtopia WordPress”; or google both plus “sebald” and “queer” “gay”. I am an out gay man; and my own lgbt/queer interpretations of Sebald, particularly “The Emmigrants “, as you say (the ineffably moving story of Ambros and Adelwarth and its queer potential), with the catalyst being Santner’s “Creaturely Life” who deals full on with the subject in his section on Sebald in that book. Just afterwards, it turns out Helen Finch, author of the book u mention, wrote her magnificent elucidation of lgbt issues and queer potential; together with brief exegeses by a couple of others, and Terry’ approbatory reception of Helen’s work, there is nothing else on the subject. This , of course, mirrors the academic, heterosexist establishment’s(with some noteable free-thinking exceptions) reception; and in Sebald there is an attempt to make him canonic so to many of them lgbt/queer does not sit comfortably. I find it quite insulting to Sebald, as a writer, so obviously concerned with this subject, as with INNUMERABLE others,has been subject to marginalisation in this regard; but sadly it is true of many others with overt or subtextual lgbt/queer/homosexual content (cf. Moffat on Forster, and , before that, Arthur Maitland, FULLY looking at Forster as a rounded personality, which included but was by no means solely defined by his sexual orientation.) It is a scandal. Thanks to people like Santner, Helen and myself for redressing some of that imbalance. AS an openly gay man, I have been welcomed on Terry’s site, which is in itself healing! I am so moved and glad this greatest of writers helped you in your journey; and hope Helen and I’s and Santer’s gay/queer elucidations are only the start! You should try the “Place in the Country” essays: Sebald indulges, occasionally, in these areas, in deadpan camp humour and at one point is even a bit risqué and homoerotic. Yes, I said Sebald in connection with camp(knowingly so ) humour: it is , sporadically, definitely there!
      The last time I posted on this subject I got the predictable response-this time on the subject of Sebald’s anti-masculinism(which especially pervades “Place in the Country”)- of “it canno possibly be so or words to that effect; but, thank yu to the person concerned, who thought twice and acknowledged there was something in it! Keep the faith and keep being inspired by the writer who moves me more than any other and who is a signpost towards psychological wholeness for lgbt people and ALL people.:)Steve Benson

      February 25, 2015
      • Thank you so much for your response. I am always eager to engage in intelligent dialogue with gay men. In real life I am typically perceived as a cis-gendered gay man, but engage a certain level of caution around outing myself beyond that when I do not wish to meet a barrage of transphobia with nothing to gain. I inhabit a space in which I am at risk of meeting negative responses from gay men (who deny my orientation to other men/male individuals) and from transpeople who don’t want to acknowledge the deep alienation inherent in the trans experience that I wish to explore. I do not see these realities reflected in the current “movie of the week” ubiquity of gender identity issues or the LGBT fight for heteronormative inclusion. The reality is far more complex and more interesting in my opinion.

        I am personally interested in exploring a literary expression of my own trans experiences and observations, being frustrated that transgendered characters in literature are few, unrealistic and typically written by cis-gendered (often straight) authors. I do suspect that there are contemporary gay authors who admit to a strong attraction to Sebald’s work who have either absorbed or been drawn in to the themes that his bachelors reflect. Implicitly or explicitly a dialectical process seems to be at play between the work of Sebald and the writers who have been inspired by him – writers who are themselves exploring themes of marginal identity (if not sexual, racial, ethnic, etc). It is unfortunate that scholars want to hold to a sacrosanct interpretation of his work that reflects their own biases. Literature exists for readers to engage with in a dynamic and challenging context or it ceases to have any value beyond the moment.

        I will check out your blogs. Thanks again.

        February 25, 2015

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