A Literature of Restitution
This summer, Manchester University Press released an affordable paperback edition of A Literature of Restitution: Critical Essays on W.G. Sebald, edited by Jeannette Baxter, Valerie Henitiuk, and Ben Hutchinson. The paperback version is priced at $29.95, compared to the 2013 hardcover edition, which runs around $99. For the most part, the various authors managed to at least partially focus on the theme alluded to in the book’s title, lending the volume a sense of unified purpose. Here are my brief summaries of the thirteen essays included in A Literature of Restitution. Keep in mind that I am in no way attempting to convey the rich complexity of each author’s argument. My goal has been to hint at the direction that each essay heads and to mention or quote ideas that stood out for me. It’s true (so far) that I have never met an anthology of essays about Sebald that I didn’t like, but this one holds a number of essays that provoked me to rethink some key things about his writing.
Part 1: Translation and Style
1. Quite fluent in English, Sebald worked closely with each of the translators who labored to bring his original German-language texts into English. Arthur Williams’ essay “W.G. Sebald’s Three-Letter Word: On the Parallel Worlds of the English Translations” closely examines the differences between the German and English versions and he concludes by saying that:
the translations reveal more about Sebald than his masterly use of language. We discover a writer polishing his expertise with his literary medium and understanding his oeuvre increasingly as one long story, with many varied parts and individual messages, but with a constant underlying ethos…We can chart how he used the opportunity afforded by the translations to refine structures, to create clarity, to moderate early moments which he, perhaps, later regretted (as in, for instance, the quite brutal caricatures of his fellow West Germans in Schwindel. Gefühle.)
2. In “Encounter and Cry: W.G. Sebald as Poet,” George Szirtes tries to determine how we should distinguish the poetic from the prose elements in Sebald’s writings, primarily through a close encounter with the early book-length poem After Nature. (Szirtes discusses only the English version because he doesn’t read German.)
3. Shane Weller’s “Unquiet Prose: W.G. Sebald and the Writing of the Negative” looks at the fact that Sebald is “haunted” by the works of a wide range of other modern European writers – “especially in terms of its writing the negative, that is, a writing which seeks to resist the dark forces of modernity, as identified by Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947).” Weller discusses a number of “particular words, phrases and syntactical forms” that are part of Sebald’s strategy of negativity, notably what he refers to as Sebald’s German “unwords,” such as unheimlich, ungeheuer, unruhig, unsicher, etc.
Part 2. Texts and Contexts
4. In her essay “Surrealist Vertigo in Schwindel. Gefühle.,” Jeannette Baxter makes the case for reading Sebald’s book “as an exercise in late twentieth century historiography that is identifiably Surrealist in impulse.” “What aligns Sebald’s literature of restitution with the dissident Surrealist writings of [Georges] Bataille, [Roger] Caillois and [André] Masson, I suggest, is its very willingness to recognize and give itself (and its reader) up to the dizzying energies of recover and loss, memory and forgetting, light and darkness, life and death.”
5. Using Derrida’s Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins as a framework, Dora Osborn looks at both “the similarities and the differences between the textual and visual modes of representation” in her essay “Memoirs of the Blind: W.G. Sebald’s Die Ausgewanderten.” She argues that “the blindness marking Sebald’s work – that residue of belatedness and failed witness – at once obscures his narrative figures and reveals in them a potentially visionary power.” Each of the four portraits in the book are “obscured” in both an inability to see and an inability to remember, she suggests.
The blindness affecting the emigrants can be understood in two ways, and as such reflects the complexity of the trope as it figures in Die Ausgewanderten: on the one hand, it is the symptom of the traumatic encounters of their past and the failure to make sense of the circumstances which led to their emigration and which prohibit their return; and on the other, it can be understood as the symptom of the narrator’s (and, by extension, the author’s) inability to make sense of the experiences he came to late to know himself.
6. In her essay “‘Like refugees who have come through dreadful ordeals’: The Theme of the Anglo-Irish in Die Ringe des Saturn. Eine englische Wallfahrt,” Helen Finch notes that several of the key characters in The Rings of Saturn – Roger Casement, Edward Fitzgerald, and the Ashbury family (with whom Sebald’s narrator spends a night) – all “exist in varying relationships to the post-colonial narrative of conquest and loss” that is Irish history. “The common thread binding the three sets of figures, however, is their exile status.”
7. In “‘The Arca Project:’ W.G. Sebald’s Corsica,” Graeme Gilloch makes the case that Sebald’s unfinished project on Corsica (some of which was published posthumously in Campo Santo), has echoes of Walter Benjamin’s similarly unfinished (and perhaps unfinishable) Arcades project. “Preoccupied with death, destruction, ghosts and haunting, imbued with melancholy, Sebald’s Corsican studies constitute fragments of what might be termed “The Arca Project,” in which the edifices of death and mourning littering the island…constitute sites of intense scrutiny and brooding speculation.”
8. Peter Filkins’ essay “Twisted Threads: The Entwined Narratives of W.G. Sebald and H.G. Adler” gives a preview of what would appear in book form in 2014 in Witnessing, Memory, Poetics: H.G. Adler & W.G. Sebald, edited by Helen Finch and Lynn L. Woolf, with a key contribution by Filkins. As Filkins demonstrates, Sebald’s Austerlitz – especially the parts on Theresienstadt – owes a great deal to his reading of Adler’s writings.
9. In his essay “Stations, Dark Rooms and False Worlds in W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz,” David Darby writes that the four great railway stations in Austerlitz serve as symbolic photographic darkrooms and he discusses at length the ways in which Sebald makes analogies between photography and memory. “Sebald’s stations are characteristically dark spaces, in which seeing is described in terms of photographic processes … [where] the narrator fixes and save images…”
Part 3. “Prose” and Photography
10. Reflecting on Sebald’s long-standing interest in theater, Simon Murray’s “Fields of Association: W.G. Sebald and Contemporary Performance Practice” reminds us that Sebald preferred the kind of theater that worked “against preconceived notions of what a play ought to look like.” In this essay Murray explores the relationship between Sebald’s writing and his views on performance “in terms of approach to narrative structure” in these ways:
the construction of reader-spectators as witnesses inevitably complicit in events that unfold on page or stage; a playful disregard for the immutability of boundaries between fact and fiction / the real and the imaginary; a quality of attention tethered loosely in lightness and circling; and the necessity of speaking through multiple voices, not as some ironic postmodern gamed, but as an ethical and ideological imperative for restitution which might begin to address the fractures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
11. In “Still Life, Portrait, Photograph, Narrative in the Work of W.G. Sebald,” Clive Scott tells us that he believes that Sebald subscribed to the concept that the photograph is “a material object which has broken free from the context of its taking and has become an indexicality without a referent, an indexicality looking for a new referent, not the referent of its taking, but the referent of its being seen by a spectator… ” In other words, Scott argues, photographs are always being recontextualized by their viewers.
12. “Anxieties about the Holocaust often assume the form of anxieties about lost mothers in Sebald’s fiction,” says Graley Herren in the essay that was, for me, one of the highlights of this anthology. Herren does an excellent job of articulating the complex relationships that exist between Sebald (the man and his own life story) and the narrators that closely resemble him. Understanding the nature of this separation is essential for Herren’s analysis.
Like Oedipus, Sebald’s narrator wanders through a waste land, corrupted by some vast but shadowy crime from the past. Whoever is responsible for this crime must be rooted out and punished with exile, even if the investigation leads to the investigator’s own hearth. For Sebald as for Kafka and Beckett, the protagonist’s exile is an established fact from the outset, so he is really working backwards from the punishment in an effort to discover the unnameable original crime. The narrator traverses Europe in search of clues, compiling evidence, searching for justice, atonement, and reparation. However, the more evidence he accumulates, the more the trail leads him back to where he started – his corrupt family home, the primal scene of the crime. His father’s complicity was already understood, and indeed he paid some penance for his crimes with a stint in a prisoner of war camp. Yet the narrator’s investigations increasingly point to another unindicted co-conspirator at home. He resists this knowledge, he deflects it – he tries to keep her true identity sub rosa.
Sebald’s narrator, like Sebald himself, Herren tells us, knew that his own mother was “complicit” in supporting some of the values of German Fascism. But Sebald’s narrator “half-sees and then looks away,” while Sebald himself “provides his readers with sufficient evidence to see beyond the narrator’s averted gaze…”
13. In the volume’s final essay, Russell J.A. Kilbourn carefully works through “The Question of Genre in W.G. Sebald’s ‘Prose’ (Toward a Post-Memorial Literature of Restitution).” From the appearance of his first work of prose, Die Augewanderten (The Emigrants), readers and critics have claimed that Sebald had either created an entirely new genre or was hybridizing existing genres. Kilbourn rummages through every conceivable genre that has been applied to Sebald’s four “prose” books and, in essence, assesses the appropriateness of each. In the end, as the title of his essay predicts, Kilbourn suggests that Sebald’s work is, indeed, a literature of restitution, as Sebald himself referred to in his final public speech: “So what is literature good for?…There are many forms of writing; only in literature, however, can there be an attempt at restitution.”