Interventionen: Criticism as Dissent
Interventionen. Literaturkritik als Widerspruch bei W. G. Sebald (English translation: Interventions. Criticism as Dissent in the Works of W.G. Sebald), a new book by Uwe Schütte, has just been published by Edition Text+Kritik. This massive study, running to some 650 pages, promises to undertake the first comprehensive analysis of Sebald’s critical works. For more than thirty years, Sebald produced a wide-range of critical writings, including several monographs, collected volumes of essays, academic articles, literary essays, journalism, book reviews in English and German, and even obituaries. Until recently the bulk of this large body of critical writings has been generally ignored by Sebald scholars, even though it is increasingly clear that it is an essential component of his total literary output.
Schütte, who studied under Sebald, will explore both the evident and hidden connections between his critical and imaginative writings. Schütte’s book will trace the development of Sebald’s critical writings from the script of a classroom presentation he gave as a student in Fribourg to the scandal caused by his contentious Zurich lectures on air war and literature (as collected in On The Natural History of Destruction). The monograph will discuss Sebald’s idiosyncratic concept of literary criticism, which opposed the norms of Germanistik in a variety of ways. Denouncing mainstream German Studies, Sebald attempted to escape the rigidity of academic discourse in Germany through his non-conformist, highly subjective style of criticism that did not shy away from invectives against colleagues and scathing polemics against established literary authors. Sebald’s striking aggressiveness in his critical attacks on other writers is balanced by a series of essays that demonstrate a very personal attachment to and identification with a small number of writers he saw as more congenial, ranging from Sebald’s contemporaries such as the schizophrenic poet Ernst Herbeck (who features in Vertigo) and the outsider autodidact Herbert Achternbusch to those writers from the nineteenth century that are celebrated in Logis in einem Landhaus, recently translated by Jo Catling as A Place in the Country.
Based on his research in the literary estate of Sebald held at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach, Schütte will discuss for the first time Sebald’s plan in the early 1980s for a book project that aimed to condemn German post-war literature for its failure to engage truthfully with the heritage of Nazi history. Only a few individual essays originally intended for that book – provisionally entitled The Reconstruction of Memory – have appeared in print. Instead, rather than attacking German literature through critical discourse, Sebald decided to take up literary writing himself in order to demonstrate how – in his view – literature could adequately deal with Germany’s past.
Schütte’s book promises to be something of an intellectual biography of Sebald and should go a long way toward helping us have a new understanding of the interplay between Sebald’s critical and literary modes of writing.
Uwe Schütte, Interventionen: Literaturkritik als Widerspruch bei W. G. Sebald. Munich: Edition Text+Kritik, 2014. His previous books include W.G. Sebald : Einführung in Leben und Werk in 2011 and Figurationen: Zum lyrischen Werk von W.G. Sebald in 2013. [I love the great portrait of Sebald on the cover by Cologne photographer Anita Schiffer-Fuchs.]