“What is literature good for?”: Lynn L. Wolff on Sebald’s Hybrid Poetics
The complex constellation of historical event, individual experience, and the poietic presentation of both events and experiences is at the heart of Sebald’s work and reveals why his texts elude established genre traditions.
If I were to pick one book for the passionate Sebald reader who might want to dip a toe into serious Sebald scholarship or for the non-Sebald scholar wishing to get a clear sense of Sebald’s contribution to literature and history, I would direct you to Lynn L. Wolff’s fine book W.G. Sebald’s Hybrid Poetics: Literature as Historiography (De Gruyter). First published in 2014 as a hardcover with a price aimed at specialists and libraries, DeGruyter has now reissued the book in paperback at a price aimed for the rest of us – 19.95 (in both euros and dollars). The book is widely available from the publisher, Book Depository, and Amazon.
In her introduction, “Why W.G. Sebald,” Wolff gives a compact biography of his adult life and then discusses the “Sebald phenomenon” – the rise in films, exhibitions, artworks, blogs, and other forms of public and creative response to Sebald’s books. She provides a succinct, but wide-ranging overview of the critical secondary literature that has sprung up around Sebald in a variety of academic disciplines, as well as the seemingly endless academic frameworks through which scholars have tried to view Sebald’s work – postmemory, Freudianism, intertextuality, etc. Yet despite the onslaught of literature about Sebald’s works, Wolff senses that “there are significant gaps” in the way that scholars have examined “the specificity of his poetics” and it is her intention to focus on the mechanics of his writing and their implications. In doing so, she examines all of Sebald’s texts – critical writings, prose fiction, and poetry – with an “open perspective” and in “a methodologically non-dogmatic way.”
Central questions of my investigation are: What is particular about Sebald’s writing? How is he “translating” history into literature? How and where does he emphasize this process? Where are his sources apparent? Where does he cover them up?…These questions prove productive in initiating the reader’s engagement with not only the text but also the broader questions of memory, history, and authenticity.
The definitions of “history” and “literature” were once seen as as fixed and oppositional. History was truth and literature was fiction. We now understand this very differently. History is an interpretation, an argument – a story about the past, if you will. And literature – well literature is now equally unstable. It can embrace biography, autobiography, documentary materials, photographs, and much more. What Sebald did, Wolff argues, was to create a hybrid form that envelopes historiography and literature in a very specific and creative way that “is not a mere fictionalization of history but rather a reconstruction of history that attempts to represent the past while simultaneously channeling the potentiality of literature.” It’s a hybrid form “that reveals literature’s privileged position for exploring, perceiving, and understanding the past.”
From the very beginning of his career, Sebald “walked on a tightrope between the two sides of scholarly and literary writing” and “he bristled against the constraints of form and methodology in place at that time.” And so it was “liberating” when he began to create a hybrid form that could blend the two disciplines, which he did in Logis in einem Landhaus (1998), where his portraits of Robert Walser, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jan Peter Tripp, and others blended scholarly research, personal narrative, and images into essays that revealed much about Sebald’s own trajectory as a writer grappling with topics such as history, ethics, and representation.
Wolff discusses at some length the controversial and “morally-charged” lectures that Sebald delivered in Zurich in 1997 and published two years later as Luftkrieg und Literatur (and issued in English with additional chapters as On the Natural History of Destruction in 2003). She suggests that “these lectures present a willful (mis)reading of the past in order to get at a larger issue: [which was to] emphasize the broader concern of transferring traumatic events and experiences into a linguistic form.” In other words, Sebald was zeroing in on “the translation process from experience into language,” because simply knowing facts or relating eye-witness accounts will not truly let us understand the past or have access to someone else’s experiences. Facts and experiences have to be translated into “a historiography that is consciously and purposefully literary. ” This is a critical argument in Wolff’s book because it leads us directly to Sebald’s decision about how to write. Here, Wolff quotes (and translates) a statement by Sebald:
Historical monographs cannot produce a metaphor or allegory for the collective course of history. It is only in this process of metaphorization that history becomes empathetically accessible. […] This of course does not mean that I am making a case for the novel. I find all cheap forms of fictionalization horrific. My medium is prose, not the novel.
The decisions that Sebald would make about how to write radically affect the way in which we read what he wrote about. Wolff argues persuasively that there is an “essential tension” in his writing between “the relationship between history and literature, documentation and imagination, rational explanations and defiantly non-rational insights,” and, as one example, she points to the tensions between his use of text and image as one of the ways in which Sebald “activates his readers.”
The chapter on images – “What is (in) an image? Mimesis, Representability, and Visual History” – is the longest in Wolff’s book. By way of background, she explores how photography’s relationship to reality has been modeled since the public announcement of photography’s invention in 1839, specifically examining the responses of Charles Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, Roland Barthes, and Susan Sontag. At issue is “photography’s deceptively authentic mirroring of reality.” What Sebald wants to do, she argues, is “demand that we move the discussion away from images as documents of the past” and toward the concept of images as “testimony.” Wolff also touches on the complex relationships that exist between photographs and memory. Photographs can evoke memories. Photographs can create memories (thus “falsifying” memory). But photographs can also fail us. As Wolff notes in her discussion of Austerlitz, “Sebald’s characters are frustrated again and again in their search for historical truth or personal memory as they view photograph after photograph or read and study various sorts of historical documentation.” Sometimes, only personal memory or individual narrative can point to places where history has otherwise been erased.
As Wolff carefully untangles Sebald’s “photo-textual aesthetic” she gets to the core values and intentions embedded within Sebald’s writing. Just as Sebald blends fact and fiction in his writing, so he blends actual and invented images, images for which he provides neither captions nor sources. “The question of what is fact and what is fiction in Sebald’s texts…[becomes a] productive tension” that forces the reader to engage in questions such as: What is real? What is truth? What is authentic?
I have aimed to show how literature has the ability to respond to these challenges of representation and how the texts we label, if not dismiss, as “literary” make a contribution o the historical record that cannot be made in any other way… the true achievement of literary discourse is neither the direct representation of reality nor the transmission of knowledge, rather it is the way literary texts engage us to formulate new questions, to consider both what is presented and how it is formulated. Out of this dynamic process of engagement with literature – an imaginative as well as aesthetic engagement – it becomes possible to develop an ethical as well as emotional connection to the past.
At the end of her book, Wolff provides an extensive and invaluable bibliography of the primary and secondary literature on Sebald.
My brief review cannot possibly cover every aspect of Wolff’s cogently argued and thoroughly researched assessment of Sebald’s writing. But to my mind, W.G. Sebald’s Hybrid Poetics is the finest critical overview of Sebald that exists in English. Because of my personal interests I have chosen to focus on her commentary on his use of photographs, so I thought it might be useful to present a scan of her table of contents.