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Posts from the ‘Across the Land (Über das Land)’ Category

Sealed Intentions: More on Sebald’s Poetry

In The New Republic, Ruth Franklin writes an extended review of W.G. Sebald’s poetry as collected in Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001 and translated by Iain Galbraith.  I highly recommend the piece.  Not only is it probably the most thorough review of the book, but Franklin is an extremely sensitive and thoughtful reader of Sebald.  Franklin has some reservations about Sebald’s poetry, which led me to reread Across the Land and the Water (which I have written about several times earlier).  “What happens when the context is obscure?” she asks, pointing out the exceptional range of esoteric and sometimes unknowable references that are scattered throughout the poems.  “Crucial passages remain opaque,” she worries.  “To track all the references is impossible.”  In the end, Franklin decides that “too often Sebald comes across essentially as an aggregator, who piles up links and references without probing them for meaning.  The connections drawn by the language and the imagery are meant to provide that meaning on their own. Sometimes they do; but not always.”

The truth is, I like the opaque, obscure poems the best.  By far.   Sebald signals very early on that obscurity is one of the directions his poetry will take, when he suggests a preference for the mysteries of a sealed letter over the answers that might be found by opening it up.  Here’s an untitled poem written in the mid-1960s:

The intention is sealed
of preserved signs.
Come through rain
the address has smudged.
Suppose the ‘return’
at the end of the letter!
Sometimes, held to the light,
it reads: ‘of the soul.’

Sebald often writes as if in a kind of shorthand, dashing down the thoughts that flash through his mind and the things that cross paths with his vision.  This Sebald seems truer to his core spirit.  In these poems, Sebald frees himself of the burden of having readers.  These highly compressed, allusive and illusive poems feel more intimate and immediate, pulling me as a reader into unexplained territory and abandoning me there.  One of my favorite poems in this collection is Day Return, about a round-trip train ride into London.  The first section of the poem describes a descent into the underbelly of the city, if not into Hell itself.  In the last few lines of this section Sebald presents us with a familiar litany of businesses that represent decay and death.  But then, after these more or less predictable lines, he then launches into a brief but wild improvisation, enumerating a bewildering sequence of images.

Pulling into the north-easterly
quarter of the metropolis
Gilderson’s Funeral Service
Merton’s Rubbish Disposal
the A1 Wastepaper Company
Stratford the forest of Arden
and the first colonists
on the platform at Maryland
heavenly Jerusalem
skyline of the City
brick-wall catacombs
Liverpool Street Station

Are these images of the Forest of Arden and the Maryland colonists suggested by billboards?  Are they the result of the narrator simply free associating or hallucinating?**   Regardless, the effect is liberating, exhilarating and I don’t find is essential to understand the mechanics of the sequence or the origins of the images.

** A gentle reader has pointed out to this American writer that Stratford and Maryland are, in fact, rail stations along the line that leads to Liverpool Station.  Hence there is a real-world basis to Sebald’s stream of imagery here.

A Silent War: Sebald’s Poetry

when I am here
it always seems to me
as if we were
in the throes of a silent war

(from A Galley Lies off Helsingbore)

Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems 1964-2001, the new English edition of W.G. Sebald’s poetry, has arrived and I’ve been making my way through it for the last week.  Iain Galbraith served as editor, translator, and scholar-in-residence.  The volume opens with his Translator’s Introduction, in which he talks about his approach to translation and some of the issues he faced editing Sebald’s poetry, and it closes with some forty pages of very useful notes that he appended which will help readers with many of the literary, historical, and geographical allusions embedded within Sebald’s work.  Between Galbraith’s bookends of Introduction and Notes lie some ninety poems by Sebald spanning thirty eight years from his school days to the year of his death.

This volume makes it abundantly clear that poetry was never a peripheral enterprise for Sebald.  He consistently wrote poetry throughout his writing life and the themes that infuse his poems are the very same ones that can be found in his prose.  He quickly established his own voice, which then evolved much as his prose style evolved over the years.  But there are some differences.  In contrast to his famously long prose sentences, Sebald honed a very sparse form of poetry, creating poems that tended to be short, dense, and – to the general reader, partially obscure.  As a result, the difference between the surface of the poem and its archaeology can sometimes seem more dramatic than in his prose.  While every Sebald poem has a satisfactory surface reading that any reader can appreciate, every Sebald poem gets incredibly richer as you unpack it.   The challenge with his poetry is that there are few clues as to what can profitably be unpacked and the unaware reader will simply pass right over the unseen depths.  As Galbraith’s many notes indicate, the range of Sebald’s multilingual allusions is mind-boggling, making me think back to the poetry of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.  But more importantly, unpacking a Sebald poem often causes a drastic undoing of the surface reading, and the most innocent landscape can turn into a place of horror. As Sebald says in the poem Calm November Weather,

in fact this ground
is steeped in history
they find corpses
every time they dig.

Sebald’s poems also strike me as more intimate than his prose.  There is much less of the structural framework that puts Sebald’s prose narrators at a slight remove from the reader.  The poems are less mediated.  But I would add that I can’t decide if this makes the poems more personal.  There are moments when certain poems feel more confessional or private, when Sebald the poet seems to lean close and speak quietly in the reader’s ear.  But that doesn’t necessarily indicate that what he is saying at that point is truly a personal secret.

If you knew every cranny
of my heart
you would yet be ignorant
of the pain my happy
memories bring

(from Poetry for an Album)

Here’s how some of the reviewers in the British Isles are responding.

Boyd Tonkin in The Independent (he also discusses Saturn’s Moons): “Iain Galbraith’s gracefully unsettling translations.”

An unnamed reviewer in The Economist: “Mr Galbraith does a good job translating these shifting tones and influences. However, it is a shame that this volume does not include Sebald’s original poems in the German.”

Gerald Dawe in the Irish Times: “Sometimes the viewpoint is so cryptically concentrated that the hard facts of what we are looking at pass by, but in these landscapes, shades of light and weather merge like Constable into chilly elusive reality. ”

Melani Challenger in the New Statesman: “Both Celan and Sebald were masters of rich understatement, conjurors of the dark, hidden sense of words, names and phrases profoundly marked by history. At their best, Sebald’s poems engage thrillingly with the private archives of Germany’s memory of the war. In an age of distrust for abstruseness or overabundance in poetry, the force of suggestion in the seeming simplicity of his word-choice and phraseology contrasts with many modern poetic idioms, which aim to be instantly accessible.”  And: “Galbraith’s translations are both guarded and diligent, and he succeeds in the considerable task of conveying the atmosphere of Sebald’s unmistakable prose voice into the poetic form.”

Andrew Motion in The Guardian: “Galbraith’s versions are scrupulous but incisive – catching…the gloom as well as the intermittent bleak comedy of the original, and the directness that arises from its indirections.”  And: “the old consolations of nature are no longer stable.”

Eric Ormsby in Standpoint: “Galbraith has skilfully caught the cadences of the original and in doing so, reveals Sebald’s indebtedness to a long tradition of German and Austrian elegy; this is not nostalgia but evocation in asperity, akin to the double-edged laments of Georg Trakl, of a past at once illusory and much-cherished. Galbraith provides a perceptive introduction and copious notes; all that the reader of Sebald needs is here.”

My limited “tourist German” doesn’t let me comment if Galbraith is a better translator than Michael Hamburger, the only other major translator of Sebald’s poetry, but I think Galbraith was the right choice to assemble what will long stand as our foundational understanding of what constitutes the core of Sebald’s previously untranslated poetry.  As I noted earlier, Galbraith literally reinvented this book, even though it would superficially seem to be nothing more than a translation of its German predecessor of 2008 Über das Land und das Wasser, edited by Sven Meyer.  Galbraith went back to the Sebald archive in Marbach and found additional poems to include (some never before published in German), resulting in fifty percent more poems than in the German edition.  This permitted Galbraith to create a volume with real integrity.

Finally, I must comment on the oddly pastoral title of the book and the very unfortunate choice of cover art used by Hamish Hamilton.  Über das Land und das Wasser was the title that Sebald himself tentatively selected for one of the volumes of poetry that he never got around to publishing, but that seems like a poor excuse to use it for a volume of his selected poems.   Certainly for an American, the phrase evokes all the wrong images, from Longfellow to Hemingway (I’m thinking of his novel Across the River and into the Trees), not to mention the mid-nineteenth century poem that has become a commonly heard Christmas song “Over the river, and through the wood,/To Grandfather’s house we go;/ The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh/through the white and drifted snow.”  The marketing department at Hamish Hamilton apparently hope that by choosing a placid image of two canoes passing on a lake and placing the Andrew Motion blurb “Marvellously warm, exciting and compassionate” on the back cover they can sell more copies.  (Curiously, Motion says nothing remotely like this in his review, cited above.)  Perhaps the US edition, due out in April 2012, will do justice to Sebald’s dark, challenging, and deeply intellectual poems.

“Published in English with additional material…”

Riddle: When is a translation of a book not a translation of that book?

The earliest hint is buried in tiny print on the copyright page: “Published in English with additional material by Hamish Hamilton 2011.”  Despite the similarity in their titles, the recently released English volume Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems 1964-2001 by W.G. Sebald is dramatically different from it’s German counterpart of 2008 Über das Land und das Wasser, which was edited by Sebald’s longtime editor Sven Meyer.  Across the Land, edited and translated by Iain Galbraith, contains considerably more poems, but, puzzlingly, they are incorporated within a different structure.  Across the Land has five sections: Poemtrees, School Latin, Across the Land and the Water, The Year before Last, and the oddly-named Appendix, which contains two poems that Sebald originally wrote in English.  The German version has three sections: Schullatein, Über das Land und das Wasser, and Das vorvergangene Jahr, each of which is different from its English counterpart.

Gone Missing.

The English edition contains every poem from the German edition – except two: Analytische Sommerfrische and Physikalisches Wunder.

Shuffled Around.

 Across the Land opens with a section called Poemtrees, which contains seventeen of Sebald’s earliest poems.  In the German edition, there is no section by this name; instead, the first fifteen of these poems are in the section called Schullatein – along with four other poems that appear in the School Latin section of the American edition.  (Yes, this is confusing.)  The second section in Across the Land is called School Latin, containing twenty poems – fifteen of which do not appear in the German edition at all.  Four of the poems in School Latin were originally in the Schullatein section of the German edition and one was originally included in the Über das Land und das Wasser section.  (Confused even more?  Sorry, we’re not done.)   The third section in Across the Land is called, appropriately, Across the Land and the Water, which contains twenty-nine poems, ten of which do not appear in the German edition.  The fourth section is called The Year Before Last, which closely corresponds to the German section Das vorvergrangene Jahr, except that it contains six poems that did not appear in the German edition.  How this fourth section got its title is never made clear.  The fifth section is the Appendix, which contains two poems originally written by Sebald in English and, therefore, were not translated by Iain Galbraith.  (Got everything straight now?)

So, What’s Going on Here?

Iain Galbraith writes in his Translator’s Introduction to Across the Land that in the 1908s “Sebald had prepared and paginated, apparently for publication, two collections of shorter poems – ‘Schullatein’ (‘School Latin’) and ‘Über das Land und das Wasser’ (‘Across the Land and the Water’), consisting altogether of some ninety poems – neither of which would find its way into print.”  Sebald’s manuscript for “Schullatein” contained a number of poems that also appeared in an even earlier gathering (which Galbraith calls a “loose bundle of poems”) that he labeled “Poemtrees.”  To further complicate matters, some of the poems in “Schullatein” were included – sometimes in a revised manner – in the later manuscript for Über das Land und das Wasser.  (Endlessly cannibalizing his own poems, Sebald also took some of these early, short poems in their entirety and inserted them into his long poem After Nature.)

If I am reading Galbraith’s introduction correctly, his reshuffling of the poems is based upon the manuscripts in Sebald’s archive at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach.  Furthermore, Galbraith seems to have made at least some of his translations from Sebald’s manuscripts (where multiple version of the same poems can be found), rather than from the German edition of Über das Land und das Wasser.  This means that one cannot reliably compare Galbraith’s English translations with the published German version because Galbraith and Sven Meyer were, on occasion, using different source manuscripts for their respective editions.  It is very conceivable that every time that a poem was shuffled from one section in the German edition to a different section in the English edition, Galbraith and Meyer were using different manuscript versions of the same poem.

Riddle: When is a translation of a book not a translation of a book?
Answer: When the translator works from a different set of manuscripts.

[Please make sure to click on the Comments line below and read Iain Galbraith’s extended comment to this post, in which he addresses all of my questions and assumptions. Notably, he explains that he and Meyer did use the same source manuscript, so that a direct comparison made be made between his translations and the German originals in Über das Land.]

Sebald Events November – December 2011

The long-awaited 240-page volume of W.G. Sebald’s collected poetry is going to hit stores in the UK soon.  Across the Land and the Water will apparently be available in the UK November 3.  But according to the Amazon US website, it will not be available in the US until April 3, 2012, when both hardback and Kindle versions are scheduled to be ready.  I confess that I am not an immediate fan of the cover design for the UK edition, which reeks of lost innocence and suggests nothing more strenuous than a slow row across a lake on a hazy, hot summer’s day.  Perhaps Random House will develop a new cover for the North American market.  Here’s the blurb from the Penguin/Hamish Hamilton website:

When W.G. Sebald died in 2001, he was internationally acknowledged as one of the most important German writers of our era. Now, thanks to Iain Galbraith’s vibrant translations, the full breadth of his poetry is available in English for the first time.

This volume brings together poems published during Sebald’s lifetime with an additional selection of those which were found in his literary archives in Marbach and never published while he was alive. Arranged chronologically, from work published during his student days in the 1960s to the longer narratives he produced during the 1980s, the poems touch on the themes which were closest to Sebald – nature and history; forgetting and remembering; borders, journeys and landscapes – and express in short, lyrical form the same distinctive insight and sensitivity that shaped his great works of prose fiction.


Back in February I wrote briefly about a new work of musical theater based upon W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.  The production of Austerlitz: Eine Kindheitsreise by Jérôme Combier and Pierre Nouvel is now moving on to Opera Lille for performances on November 18 and 19.  (Details here.)

Finally, there will be Max: A Celebration – Remembering W. G. Max Sebald: Readings, Music and Film, something of a mega-event that will be held at Wilton’s Music Hall in London (near Aldgate and Tower Hill) on December 14, 2011, the tenth anniversary of Sebald’s death.  From the website:

In this unique event, many of Britain’s leading writers and artists celebrate Sebald’s life and writing in an evening of readings, music and film. Drawing from his remarkable oeuvre and their own reflections, on the 10th anniversary of his untimely death, they will honour a man whose profound and searching work has exerted an almost uncanny influence on our times. Writers taking part include the multi-award winning essayists, novelists and poets A.S. Byatt, Dan Gretton, Rachel Lichtenstein, Andrew Motion, Iain Sinclair, Marina Warner and Stephen Watts. One of the world’s greatest tenors, Ian Bostridge, will sing from Schubert’s iconic song cycle Winterreise. Award-winning filmmaker Grant Gee (Joy Division) will present an exclusive ‘landscape edit’ of his forthcoming feature essay film Patience (After Sebald), a multi-layered meditation on landscape, art, history, life and loss, and the first film internationally about Sebald. It is released in the UK in January 2012 by Soda Pictures with thanks to Artevents. Finally, it is a privilege to announce that Sebald’s UK publisher Christopher MacLehose and his editor Bill Swainson will attend and share their recollections.

Sebald’s New Translator

Several readers of Vertigo have informed me that Iain Galbraith has been selected as the translator for Über das Land und das Wasser, W.G. Sebald’s collected poems, due to be published in English by Hamish Hamilton in 2010.  Galbraith is a poet and translator and will be succeeding Michael Hamburger (1924-2007), who was the English translator for two of Sebald’s books of poetry.  Fittingly, Galbraith has translated Michael Hamburger’s prose writings into German.  More on Galbraith here.

Sebald’s Poems To Appear in English – in 2010

sebald-land-wasser-cover

An alert Vertigo reader has picked up the fact that Booktrade.info is announcing that the English rights to W.G. Sebald’s posthumously issued collection of poems have finally been picked up at the recent London Book Fair:

Looking forward to autumn 2010, Hamish Hamilton has bought UK and Commonwealth rights to W.G. Sebald’s collection of poems, Across Land and Water: Selected Poems 1964-2001, from Theo Collier at the Wylie Agency.

No advance word of this on the Hamish Hamilton website.  With the June 2007 death of Michael Hamburger, who translated Sebald’s other two books of poetry, I wonder who will do the translation?

Sebald’s Selected Poems

Carl Hanser Verlag has just come out with a beautiful edition of selected poems by W.G. Sebald, Über das Land und das Wasser (Over the Land and the Water).  It contains more than sixty poems written by Sebald between 1964 and 2001, selected by Sven Meyer, who also provides the book with an afterword.  Nearly half of the poems are previously unpublished. The volume itself is nicely produced, with a wonderful dust jacket  photograph of Sebald by Isolde Ohlbaum.  The boards are covered in a handsome textured white paper with tiny flecks of color.  The spine has a wine-colored leather label.  All for the reasonable price of 14,90 Euros (about $20 today).  There is no indication how large the first printing was.

I have had mixed feelings about Sebald’s poetry so far (I think Unrecounted is especially problematic).  Much of the poetry that has appeared in English so far lacks the complex narratorial voice that is the essence of his prose works.  But the publication of Über das Land und das Wasser helps bridge the gap between his hyper-short poems and his long masterpiece After Nature.  I hope there is an English translation in the works.