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After Sebald

After Sebald Full Circle

Even before I opened up the book, I wondered about the front cover of Full Circle Edition’s new title After Sebald. The list of the nine contributors (excluding Jon Cook, the volume’s editor) – three visual artists, four writers, and two academics – suggested a welcome new approach to Sebald, a possibly refreshing change from the steady appearance of theory-infused academic volumes that have been appearing regularly for years.

But first I had to ask if my tally of four writers was correct. Was “John Coetzee” really J.M. Coetzee, the Nobel Prize winning novelist? I had never, ever seen his name written this way. So I turned to the two pages of Author Biographies to confirm the identification, only to find that Coetzee was missing. The Contents page also listed him as “John Coetzee,” but turning to the actual page on which his essay began I found that the author was suddenly “J.M. Coetzee.” Not an encouraging sign.

Jon Cook, whose two-sentence bio is included in the Author Biographies, is a Professor of Literature at the University of East Anglia, where Sebald spent most of his academic career. In his Introduction, he tells us:

A collection of this kind does not have a single purpose, other than to help readers enjoy and think further about Sebald’s work….If these different readings give us the opportunity to gauge the scale of his achievement they suggest something else as well: that Sebald is an author whom we are still learning how to read and one whose works can stand the test not just of time but of different interpretations.

Fair enough. The presentation of such a wide range of responses in a single volume actually does say a great deal about Sebald and his work. Writers, for instance, tend to have a very different way of analyzing and examining the work of  fellow writers than do academics. And it is difficult to think of another writer who has attracted the attention of visual artists in the way that Sebald has.

Robert Macfarlane, whose simply-titled essay “Sebald” is given the task of batting first in After Sebald, wants to focus on the elusiveness of Sebald’s writing and the varied ways in which readers respond to that. “The extreme resistance of Sebald’s prose to interpretation is one of the reasons why he has already attracted so many interpreters. His writing operates as a mood, rather than as a set of propositions, and as such it is often its own best expression. Certainly, Sebald’s work incites inarticulacy.” Macfarlane’s piece wants to serve as a warning to those who parse and dissect ever smaller bits of Sebald’s work, a warning to those who see only “a set of propositions” that through the examination of the lone branch or the single leaf they risk misunderstanding the entire forest. In short, Sebald’s work is vastly greater than the sum of all its parts. Macfarlane also attempts (in nice Sebaldian fashion) to catalog “the case against Sebald,” beginning with the impression “that he is the Eeyore of contemporary literature whose glum pessimism is relentlessly mistaken for profundity,” but it seems pretty clear that he doesn’t give much credence to any of these concerns

I would argue that Will Self’s “Absent Jews and Invisible Executioners” would have served as a better opening essay. Macfarlane gives a quirky first impression of Sebald and is often hobbled by his own perspective as a  writer who is most at home in the wilds of nature, which limits the range of responses he can give to much of Sebald’s work. Self, on the other hand, meanders over Sebald’s life and work in a compact, determined way, touching, even if lightly, on nearly all of the major issues raised in Sebald’s primary books. In “Loosed in Translation,” novelist and writer Ali Smith focuses on “what gets lost, what gets found, what gets loosed, freed, liberated in the work of Sebald.” Her essay centers on writerly issues like language, silence, and translation. “Reading Sebald in translation is, in many ways, the whole point,” she decides. J.M. Coetzee’s essay “W.G. Sebald, After Nature,” was the most disappointing and dated of the writers’ responses. Originally written as a review of After Nature in 2002, it suffers from its book review brevity and its focus on a single book. I would have much preferred to hear what Coetzee would think of Sebald’s legacy today, after a dozen more years have passed.

Artists observe writers with a completely different set of eyes and concerns. Tacita Dean’s essay-like piece called, simply “W.G. Sebald” (which I have written about at some length earlier) is perhaps the best Sebaldian homage to the writer ever written. She combines descriptions of her own art-making practice and travels, her reading of Sebald, her family history, and numerous photographs into a terrific tale that demonstrates the way in which the uncanny operates in Sebald’s works. Tess Jaray’s “Two Pieces” is the only essay in the anthology which deals with Sebald the man. Jaray recounts several meetings with Sebald at her studio, leading up to the collaborative book that used his poems and her artwork, For Years Now. Her insights into Sebald’s personality seem as incisive and clear as an X-ray. Finally, artist Richard Long contributes a piece called “LIFEDEATH” that consists of two color photographs of a landscape stretching over a pair of double-page spreads, followed by a fold-out text work that has the subtitle “A Four Day Walk on Dartmoor.” Dartmoor, of course, is a long distance from Sebald’s East Anglia, so it’s hard to determine if Long created something specifically in relation to Sebald or merely contributed an image of existing artwork that seemed appropriate. The text piece (without the photographs) can be found on Long’s website dated 2011 with no reference to Sebald.

Gillian Beer turns her scholarly sights on a nice overview of “Sebald in the City.” Sebald’s cities are places where continual renewal and never-ending self-destruction are one and the same. “Cities carry the past and they obliterate it,” Beer writes.

I was particularly interested in Clive Scott’s essay “W.G. Sebald: Enumeration, Photography and the Hermeneutics of History.” Scott carefully binds together Sebald’s endless fascination with lists and repositories of all types with his use of photographs.

The enumerative principle makes itself manifest in many different Sebaldian institutions and activities: the artist’s studio, the graveyard, the collection, the repository, the library, the museum, the catalogue, the treasury, the inventory, the dictionary, the encyclopaedia, the pawnshop, the second-hand shop (where Sebald is in the habit of picking up old photos), the antiques shop, the country house, the attic and the photo-album….my approach to enumeration …here is treated as an existential pivot, a perceptual crux which generates a dialectic between the paratactic (close-up) and the hypotactic (the long view), between a jamming mechanism and the flow of history.

And a few pages later:

The more we discover, the more, proportionately, our ignorance increases; the more we do not know, the more injustices we do, the more we misrepresent reality, the more prejudiced we are, the more unjustified is the store we put by what we do know, the photographs we do have. Sebald’s photos do not fill holes, they create them. We must, then, write the kind of history in which we not only take responsibility for our ignorance, but acknowledge that it is a guilt that subsumes all others, and that it is always in excess of memory’s capacity to redeem it.

After Sebald is a useful, if flawed, book, pulling together a number of helpful articles and presentations on Sebald that are generally hard or impossible to find. Like all of Full Circle’s books, it’s a very handsome volume and reasonably priced at £16. Unfortunately, After Sebald is marred by sloppy editing that permitted several misspelled names, including Sebald’s own first name – which appears (incorrectly) as “Winifred” in Macfarlane’s essay but is later correctly spelled as “Winfried” in Self’s piece. Even the origins of the various contributions are sometimes obscured. As far as I can tell, the only essay being published for the first time here is Clive Scott’s, but even the book’s Acknowledgements page is inconsistent when listing the place where essays were first published or presented as lectures. Coetzee’s piece is simply credited to “Random House,” when it actually first appeared in the New York Review of Books years before being anthologized in his book Inner Workings (2008), and there is no acknowledgement whatsoever that Ali Smith’s piece was presented as the 2011 Sebald Lecture at the British Centre for Literary Translation. Yes, for the most part these are small issues, but if these happen to be merely the mistakes that I caught, I have to wonder what other ones I might have missed.

Jon Cook, ed. After Sebald: Essays & Illuminations. Suffolk: Full Circle Editions, 2014

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