Skip to content

Posts from the ‘After Nature (Nach der Natur)’ Category

Sebald Issue of boundary 2 Journal


Readers of W.G. Sebald are in something special. boundary 2: An International Journal of Literature and Culture has devoted the entire contents of Volume 47 Issue 3 to Sebald and it’s all available online for free.  Edited by Sina Rahmani , the title of the issue is “W. G. Sebald and the Global Valences of the Critical.” Here is what you can find in the issue.

Sina Rahmani, “Words, Not Bombs: W. G. Sebald and the Global Valences of the Critical.”

Sebald’s meteoric rise shines a light on the hegemonic role the anglophone literary market plays in the processes that authors and their texts undergo when they migrate from a national literary market to a planetary readership. Indeed, migration offers a key to Sebald’s oddball career and its place in literary history. Like many of the literati holy orders into whose ranks he has been admitted, Sebald’s biography is marked by a permanent departure from the land of his birth.

Uwe Schütte, “Troubling Signs: Sebald, Ambivalence, and the Function of the Critic.”

His unconventional authorial identity cannot be fully comprehended without an appreciation of the critical writings and, in turn, his transformation from scholar to writer. The most prominent feature of his work in the critical sphere is the stubbornly contrarian stance Sebald assumed toward his peers in German studies specifically and the Germanic literary establishment more generally. . . .Only when both sides of Sebald’s coin [his critical writings and his imaginative writings] are considered in concert can one begin to grasp the power and significance of his career.

Stuart Burrows, “The Roar of the Minotaur: W. G. Sebald’s Echospaces.”

I will describe the contours of this different dimension, in the belief that Sebald’s distinctive contribution to the global novel lies in his reordering of the space of representation. This reordering is both literal and metaphorical. It is literal, in the sense that Sebald’s work explores actual spaces: the pages upon which his novels are written, which become inextricable from the world being described, and the landscape being traversed, such as the Suffolk coastline in The Rings of Saturn (1998); it is metaphorical, in the sense that Sebald’s work explores a set of imaginary spaces nested within each other, those spaces occupied by his characters, who inhabit several worlds simultaneously, and those allocated to the narrative voice, which speaks to us out of a clearly demarcated yet ultimately unlocatable place.

Yahya Elsaghe, “Penelope’s Crossword: On W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.”

The crossword as a form has the upper hand over the rhizome as a metaphor for textuality—something it shares with other allegories of memory like a ‘wonderblock’ and ‘palimpsest’ as well as ‘signs and characters from the type case of forgotten things’.

Sina Rahmani, “The Stateless Novel: Refugees, Literary Form, and the Rise of Containerization.”

This ‘prose book of an undetermined kind,’ Sebald’s coy descriptor for Austerlitz, offers an instructive lesson about the novel of the global era, which has become a formal container providing refuge to any and all narrative and literary forms. In the same way that the shipping container is completely unconcerned with its own contents, Austerlitz furnishes us with incontrovertible evidence that in a stateless era, the foundational distinctions between written and visual, fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose, analytic and creative, and, as Stuart Burrows points out in his contribution to this issue, verbal and written have been eradicated.

Isa Murdock- Hinrichs, “Adaptation, Appropriation, Translation: Sebald on the Silver Screen.” Murdock-Hinrichs examines two films based upon books by Sebald: Grant Gee’s Patience (After Sebald) (2012) and Stan Neumann’s Austerlitz (2015).

Gee’s deliberate transformation of the visuals in the film into a maze of images whose uniform intelligibility is obscured represents a translation of Sebald’s disjunction between text and visual.

. . .

Neumann highlights the various qualities of visuals as he weaves static images, alternative film stock, and printed materials into the film. The camera is the translator of the narrative of the literary text by further portraying the instability of systems of meaning.

Global Critical Forum

“This special issue of boundary 2 has sought out translations of articles and reviews of different Sebald texts. The Global Critical Forum highlights the array of responses and mixed feelings Sebald solicits in different national contexts.”

Nissim Calderon, “Sebald or Gevalt?” [Originally published in Yedioth Ahronoth (Tel Aviv, Israel) in 2009.]

Sebald’s Rings of Saturn is a particularly bad text; bad precisely because it features his idiosyncratic and excellent style but lacks the content to justify it. It is an empty style, like the painter Salvador Dalí, who in his youth paved the way for art’s new surrealist path but in his later years became a serial producer of the “Dalí style.”

Rodrigo Fresán, “The Sebald Case.” [This is a slightly revised translation of an article published in Letras Libres, a Spanish- language monthly literary magazine published in Mexico and Spain, in July 2003.]

In the here and now, the departed Sebald is very, very interesting for those who have survived him, for the many that quietly concede in hushed tones, perhaps out of fear of falling victim to a Pharaoh’s curse, his some-what exaggerated prestige, and for the many more that swear by his divine name they continuously invoke in vain—to remain in good standing and to have a ready response to the question, What are you reading at the moment? Sebald serves, functions, protects, and refreshes best, and is so fashionable, so useful for the nouveaux riche of the intelligentsia. Sebald is practical and legible; he grants a certain prestige to his user and his consumer. Sebald is not only learned but also produces the agreeable effect, or impression, of cultivating and producing evangelical astuteness.

Maria Malikova, “Witnessing the Past in the Work of W. G. Sebald.” [This article was published in 2008 in Отечественные записки (Notes from the Home-land: A Journal for Slow Reading).]

Artist and photographer Jan Peter Tripp was a key figure in the career of German writer and critic W. G. Sebald. . . .[in Sebald’s 1998 essay on Tripp] he provides a graphic display of the evolution of the role of the visual in [his] poetics from photographs of objects, faces, landscapes, architecture, and paintings, to depictions of the very organ of sight, the mechanism of vision: eyes, fixed directly on the reader- viewer, demanding a reciprocal gaze, an ethical reaction.

He Ning, “The Bricolage of Words and Images: W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.” [This article is translated from a Mandarin article 文字与照片的拼接—评W. G.赛巴尔德的《奥斯特里茨》, which appeared in Trends of Foreign Literature (《外国文学动态研究》) in 2012.]

Austerlitz’s method of piecing together memories through recategorizing the photos he has into a spatial rather than temporal order reifies what I call a retroactive act of bricolage, an innovative way to reconstruct the protagonist’s own narrative. Inspired by the art of photography, he seems to find a psychological equilibrium between his defense mechanism (i.e., selective amnesia) and his desire to recover and rediscover his own identity.

The issue concludes with an article not about Sebald but one closely aligned with his lectures on “Air War and Literature,” included in On the Natural History of Destruction. Sina Rahmani conducts an interview with Emran Feroz entitled “Death from Above: An Afghan Perspective on the US Drone War.”

boundary 2 has an unusual editorial statement:

The editors of boundary 2 announce that they no longer intend to publish in the standard professional areas, but only materials that identify and analyze the tyrannies of thought and action spreading around the world and that suggest alternatives to these emerging configurations of power.

Sebald Links – January 2017

constantino_performance-with-spyglassfrom Valerie Constantino’s “Performance with Spyglass”

A new exhibition based on W.G. Sebald’s After Nature has just opened up in Sacramento, California. Here’s the information from the website of Sacramento State University:

Valerie Constantino presents “Crossing Sublime (After After Nature),” an exhibit of recent works that kicks off Sacramento State’s art shows for the spring semester. The show runs Jan. 23 to Feb. 22 at the Robert Else Gallery with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 27, and an artist talk from 4 to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 7. Regular gallery hours are noon to 4:30 p.m.

A lecturer at Sacramento State and American River College, Constantino has created new works inspired by W.G. Sebald’s narrative poem After Nature. The pieces consider the fluid crossings of time, matter, and being, and include photo-montages, collages, mixed media on paper, sculptural elements, writing, and an audio component. Sebald’s publisher describes his work as a “haunting vision of the waxing and waning tides of birth and devastation that lie behind and before us.” For Constantino, Sebald’s ruminations of the interrelatedness of materiality and transcendence substantiated analogous themes in her work.

“Sebald composed his text from a presumed kind of intimacy with two historically notable figures in tandem with a third voice, a variant of his own,” Constantino says. “My presentation alleges firsthand knowledge of its own selected subjects: artist Anne Ryan and cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova.”

Constantino’s process of making art is one of personal expression and investigative research. “Such explorations are themselves worthwhile and may not necessarily convey an overarching message,” she says. “Because the work in this exhibition is diverse and based on interpretations of the lives and works of others, an appreciation for each individual work, as well as its conceptual relationships to the whole, would be ideal.”


I recently finished reading Dušan Šarotar’s book Panorama (Peter Owen World Series, 2016), which I plan to write about soon. It’s a book that was openly done in admiration of Sebald. Now, Šarotar has written the introduction to the first Slovenian translation of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, and his English-language publisher has posted a translation of Šarotar’s piece. Take a look.

Conversations with the Dead: Patti Smith’s M Train


I let my coffee run cold and thought about detectives. Partners depend on one another’s eyes. The one says, tell me what you see. His partner must speak assuredly, not leaving anything out. But a writer has no partner. He has to step back and ask himself – tell me what you see. But since he is telling himself he doesn’t have to be perfectly clear, because something inside holds any given missing part – the unclear or partially articulated.

Patti Smith’s M Train (I presume the M stands for memory) is essentially a series of conversations with the dead and pilgrimages to the haunts and grave sites of writers past: Rimbaud, Burroughs, Bowles, Genet, Wittgenstein, Camus, Sebald, Plath, Mishima, Akutagawa, Dasai. Comprised of a patchwork quilt of genres, it combines autobiography with a book of dreams, a touch of travel writing, a salute to coffee houses, an ode to memory. Smith, who is a latter-day Beat and an admitted Romantic, blends a deep, if non-denominational spirituality with an unshakable commitment to fate. She reads Tarot cards, believes in dreams, isn’t concerned if she loses a camera or a favorite overcoat or realizes she has forgetfully left all of her luggage in a hotel room as she boards a flight. Unlike the A train that Smith takes to her ramshackle bungalow on the boardwalk of Far Rockaway, her M train delightfully meanders through time and place without warning or direction.

Perhaps the most telling story in Patti Smith M Train (Knopf, 2015) is the one we encounter at the outset of the book.

Several months before our first anniversary Fred [Sonic Smith, who she married around 1980] told me that if I promised to give him a child he would first take me anywhere in the world. Without hesitation I chose Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, a border town in northwest French Guiana, on the North Atlantic coast of South America. I had long wished to see the remains of the French penal colony where hard-core criminals were once shipped before being transferred to Devil’s Island. In The Thief’s Journal Jean Genet had written of Saint-Laurent as hallowed ground and of the inmates incarcerated there with devotional empathy. In his Journal he wrote of a hierarchy of inviolable criminality, a manly saintliness that flowered at its crown in the terrible reaches of French Guiana. He had ascended the ladder toward them: reform school, petty thief, and three-time loser; but as he was sentenced the prison he’d held in such reverence was closed…Genet served his time in Fresnes Prison, bitterly lamenting that he would never attain the grandeur that he aspired to.

Patti and Fred make their way to French Guiana (no easy task) and when they finally reach Saint-Laurent she solemnly takes some photographs and gathers up three stones to save in a Gitane matchbox, “with its silhouette of a Gypsy posturing with her tambourine in a swirl of indig0-tinged smoke. I pictured a small yet triumphal moment passing the stones to Genet.” She never managed to meet Genet, but some two decades later, on a visit to Morocco, she finally deposited the three stones on Genet’s grave in Larache, not far from Tangier. But it isn’t Genet that she recalls when she places the stones (“Genet was dead and belonged to no one”). It was Fred, who died in 1994, “dressed in khaki, his long hair shorn, standing alone in the undergrowth of tall grass and spreading palms. I saw his hand and his wristwatch. I saw his wedding ring and his brown leather shoes.”

This difficult trip to French Guiana represents, if you will, the yang side of Patti Smith, the intense, often gregarious world traveler. Smith’s yin side manifests itself as a kind of routine New York-centered idleness, a deliberately meditative isolation. But it’s a nourishing, regenerative idleness in which Smith dreams, observes, thinks, soaks in detective programs on the television, fills up her notebooks. Smith’s life, the reader quickly sees, is full of rituals, whether it is occupying a favorite chair at the neighborhood coffee house, visiting the grave of a hallowed writer, or photographing objects and places as if they were sacred.

Smith is well-known for being an admirer of W.G. Sebald. She put “anything by W.G. Sebald” on her list of favorite books a few years ago. In 2011 she participated in a huge Sebald event on the tenth anniversary of his death, and so it is not surprising that she spends a few pages in M Train writing about the effect his book-length poem After Nature had on her.

What a drug this little book is; to imbibe it is to find oneself presuming his process. I read and feel that same compulsion; the desire to possess what he has written, which can only be subdued by writing something myself. It is not mere envy but a delusional quickening in the blood.

If I had a “best ten books of 2015,” M Train would be on the list, and now I am anxious to read Smith’s memoir of her time with Mapplethorpe, Just Kids. Smith writes with a lack of pretension that is utterly winning. Other than an occasional reference to giving a concert or a reading, nothing in M Train tells us that the author is an internationally acclaimed writer and musician (or, in the unfortunate wording of the book jacket, a “mulitplatform”artist). She takes the subway, rides the bus, feeds her cats, and sits on her East Village stoop to smoke a cigarette like any other ordinary New Yorker.

Undiscover’d Country.3

[Film still from Alain Resnais, L’année dernière à Marienbad]

The second triptych of essays in The Undiscover’d Country: W.G. Sebald and the Poetics of Travel uses the heading Textual Excursions, Expeditions, and Adventures to focus on some narrower aspects of Sebald’s writings.

The best essay of this section, in spite of its title, is Alan Itkin’s “Eine Art Eingang zur Unterwelt”: Katabasis in Austerliz, which examines Austerlitz within the tradition of epic literature, notably Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil, Dante, and Milton, showing how Sebald structured Austerlitz as a venture in the underworld.  Itkin makes the case that Austerlitz is Sebald’s most novel-like work of prose fiction and that with this book Sebald broke the pattern in which he had formerly used the trope of travel.  In his first three books of prose fiction, Sebald’s model of travel writing was to “demonstrate that it is the uncanny position of the modern subject never to be sufficiently lost.”  But with Austerlitz, he returned to something more closely approaching the classic model of  travel writing in which the narrator loses his way, then finds it again.

Itkin sees Sebald making the case that National Socialism was inextricably linked to “the senseless expansion of the bourgeois age” that preceded it.  The dark side of progress is “an equally strong compulsion to destruction,” a theme that weaves in and out of all of Sebald’s books.

The remaining two essays are exercises in diminishing returns.  Each left me feeling that the needles I finally found in these haystacks were blunt and only marginally useful.   Martin Klebes’ essay If You Come to a Spa: Displacing the Cure in Schwindel. Gefühle and Austerlitz, looks at two of Sebald’s travelers and their visits to spas.  He looks at the Dr. K. Takes the Waters at Riva section of Vertigo and at Jacques Austerlitz’s trip to the spa at Marienbad.  Each man undergoes a transformation at the spa that has nothing to do with the expected “medical regimen” function of a spa.  Instead, “Sebald’s narrative strategy is to ‘renew’ his protagonists at the spas …through intertextual references that reveal the split within each of them not as a feature of their psychological constitution but rather as a division visible on the textual surface itself.”  What does this mean?  Well, in both of the situations that Klebes cites, Sebald creates uncertainty and tension surrounding the identity of the protagonist, both of whom echo characters in other works of art.  In the Vertigo example, “Dr. K. both is and is not ‘Franz Kafka’.”  While in the Austerlitz example, Sebald overlays references to characters from Alain Resnais’ film L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad).

James Martin’s essay Campi deserti: Polar Landscapes and the Limits of Knowledge in Sebald and Ransmayr examines the middle section of Sebald’s long  poem  Nach der Nature (After Nature) and Ransmayr’s 1984 novel Die Schrecken des Eises und der Finsternis (The Terrors of Ice and Darkness), which I wrote about earlier.  In this section of After Nature, Wilhelm Georg Stiller joins the Great Northern Expedition of 1741, led by Vitus Bering (of the Bering Sea and Strait).  Martin sees Sebald making the point that these polar expeditions represent “the limits of the Enlightenment’s quest for knowledge” and “the extreme limits of the knowable world.”  Like some of the essayists in the earlier section of Undiscover’d Country, Martin sees Sebald rejecting a totalizing view of history: “Science in the Enlightenment takes a totalizing character as a system for understanding the world under the banner of an unwavering belief in progress and rationality.”  In After Nature and elsewhere, Sebald seems to completely reject this belief.

Other posts relating to this volume are here.

After After Nature

Last week I was in New York City and had the opportunity to see two-thirds of the exhibition After Nature at the new New Museum. (The exhibition is opening in stages and the installation of the second floor – the floor which “sets the tone for the exhibition”, according to curator Massimiliano Gioni – was not ready when I was there.) After enjoying the panoramic views of New York from the rooftop I took the stairs down and began the exhibition on the fourth floor. Stepping into a gallery, I immediately encountered a slim woman in jeans and shirt writhing in slow motion on the floor, long hair covering her face most of the time. Perhaps I was seeing the exhibition in reverse, I realized; but it was too late.

Maurizio Cattelan, untitled, 2007 (taxidermied horse skin, fiberglass resin) [installation photograph from site other than the New Museum]

The exhibition’s title, of course, is borrowed from W.G. Sebald’s book-length poem After Nature. Gioni explains that his exhibition “aspires to a similar hallucinatory confusion [as Sebald’s writings], a conflation of temporalities, a blurring of facts and fictions – an exhibition as a visual novel or wunderkammer.” In addition to Sebald, the acknowledged guiding spirits are filmmaker Werner Herzog and novelist Cormac McCarthy. Rather than trying to define anything, After Nature seems to spiral outward in multiple directions: “offended sceneries and scorched earth”, “private cosmologies and universes untouched by man”, “ancient traditions and arcane faiths”, and the “bliss” or “madness” we might experience at the end of the world. There are already a number of exhibition reviews online already, some of which point out the exhibition’s lack of focus. But whether that’s a problem or not (a characteristic like “focus” usually isn’t a goal for exhibitions at the New Museum), there are wonderful pieces to be seen, including Maurizio Cattelan’s untitled (2007) comic/apocalyptic horse implanted some twenty feet off the ground into a gallery wall and Robert Kusmirowski’s Unacabine (2008), a replica of “Unibomber” Theodore Kaczynski’s cabin. And then there was the writhing woman, who, it turns out, is one of several performers in Tino Sehgal’s piece Instead of allowing something to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things (2000).

On the way out, I stopped and bought the eponymous shrink-wrapped exhibition catalog for After Nature ($24.95). Imagine my surprise when I discovered that it consisted of a dust wrapper that unfolded to six panels neatly tucked around a Modern Library paperback copy of W.G. Sebald’s After Nature ($11.95). That’s a nifty mark-up for what is essentially a dust jacket. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an entire book appropriated like this before. The wrapper includes an essay by Gioni and a checklist noted as accurate “as of June 25, 2008”.

After Sebald: Art in New York Summer 2008

[Still from Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness, 1992]

Two new exhibitions in New York claim W.G. Sebald for inspiration. The first is the New Museum’s After Nature. According to their website part of the exhibition will be viewable as of July 9 (the 3rd and 4th floors), while the dates for the full exhibition (including the 2nd floor) are July 17 – September 21, 2008. Here’s a blurb from their website:

Departing from the fictional documentaries of Werner Herzog and drawing its title from W.G. Sebald’s visionary book of the same name, “After Nature” unfolds as a visual novel, depicting a future landscape of wilderness and ruins. Bringing together an international and multigenerational group of contemporary artists, filmmakers, writers, and outsiders, many of whom are showing in an American museum for the first time, the exhibition is a feverish examination of humankind’s relationship to nature. Organized by Massimiliano Gioni, Director of Special Exhibitions, the show spans three floors and includes over ninety works.

Part dystopian fantasy, part ethnographic museum of a lost civilization that eerily resembles our own, “After Nature” brings together artists and artworks that possess a strange, prophetic intensity. When seen in this context, Zoe Leonard’s giant sculpture of a crippled tree, Maurizio Cattelan’s fallen horse, Reverend Howard Finster’s delirious sermon cards, and Eugene Von Bruenchenhein’s apocalyptic finger paintings resonate like a requiem for a vanishing planet.

Artists such as Fikret Atay, Roger Ballen, Robert Kusmirowski, Diego Perrone, and Artur Zmijewski seem fascinated by mystic apparitions, arcane rites, and spiritual illuminations, while Allora and Calzadilla, Nancy Graves, and William Christenberry depict a universe in which the traces of humans have been erased and new ecological systems struggle to find a precarious balance.

The works of Huma Bhabha, Berlinde De Bruyckere, and Thomas Schütte share an archaic quality. Their magic realism transforms sculpture into myth-making and gives birth to a cast of fantastical creatures, including sylvan beings, totemic figures, and neo-primitive idols. These elements also find life in Tino Sehgal’s intricate choreographies: for the duration of the exhibition dancers carry out gestures that could be seen as mysterious rituals and states of ecstasy. Recuperating ancient techniques, Pawel Althamer uses grass and animal intestines to produce vulnerable sculptures and puppets to arrive at a new form of storytelling. Other works, like the animations of Nathalie Djurberg, the imaginary maps of Roberto Cuoghi, or the video travelogue of Erik van Lieshout, guide viewers to the edge of the earth, taking us for a walk in the fictional woods of our near future, while expressing a sincere preoccupation for the world as it is now.

The exhibition will include work by Allora and Calzadilla, Pawel Althamer, Micol Assaël, Fikret Atay, Roger Ballen, Huma Bhabha, Maurizio Cattelan, William Christenberry, Roberto Cuoghi, Bill Daniel, Berlinde De Bruyckere, Nathalie Djurberg, Reverend Howard Finster, Nancy Graves, Werner Herzog, Robert Kusmirowski, Zoe Leonard, Klara Liden, Erik van Lieshout, Diego Perrone, Thomas Schütte, Dana Schutz, Tino Sehgal, August Strindberg, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, and Artur Zmijewski.

“After Nature” is made possible by the Leadership Council of the New Museum. Major support provided by David Teiger. Additional support provided by Kati Lovaas, Randy Slifka, and the Toby Devan Lewis Emerging Artists Exhibitions Fund.

The second exhibition occurs across the East River in Brooklyn at a place called Jack the Pelican Presents. It’s a collaborative exhibition between artists Tyler Coburn and Sebastian Craig called Ghostwriters and it runs only from July 10 – August 10, 2008:

The first collaboration between New Yorker Tyler Coburn and Londoner Sebastian Craig, “Ghostwriters” is an imaginary account of Brooklyn narrated in drawing, architecture and prose.

Building upon the work of Robert Smithson and W.G. Sebald, among others, Coburn and Craig will transform Jack the Pelican Presents into a sparse visitor center, populated with an evolving array of objects and interventions, including Craig’s projected 3D models of the gallery space; oversize, folded halftone prints of local buildings; and a binder filled with text documentation of improvisatory performances that Coburn staged, at Craig’s request, throughout the neighborhood.

The collaboration is long overdue: Coburn first met Craig in London in 2006 at i-cabin, a project space and publisher Craig oversees. In i-cabin’s peripatetic activity and in Craig’s work, which has been exhibited at the Serpentine Gallery, London, and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York, Coburn observed refreshing, innovative approaches to institutional critique. So after completing his first New York solo show, this past spring at MARCH Gallery, and rounding out screenings and exhibitions at CRG Gallery and Gavin Brown’s passerby, respectively, Coburn invited Craig to collaborate.

The Voracious Snow

As I read Aldalbert Stifter’s 1845 Christmas story Rock Crystal, which was published in 1999 as a petite volume by London’s Pushkin Press, it was easy to see why W.G. Sebald admired this nineteenth-century writer so much. Rock Crystal contains the bits and pieces required to construct a morality piece, but in the end Nature shoves everything aside with all of the rudeness of an avalanche.

South of the village you see a snowy mountain with dazzling horn-shaped peaks.

A shoemaker from one village successfully woos the daughter of a wealthy dyer from a village on the other side of the mountain. But more than a mountain separates the two villages. The dyer’s daughter has broken tradition by crossing over to the other village, and her father responds by withholding most of the dowry. Within a few years, the shoemaker and his wife have two young children who regularly trek across the mountain to spend a few hours with their grandparents before returning home.

Mothers may love their children and tenderly long for them when they are absent, but a grandmother’s love for her grandchildren amounts almost to a morbid craving.

One year on the day before Christmas, after a dry and warm autumn, the two children cross over the mountain for a holiday meal with the grandparents. They are dutifully warned about the dangers of winter storms by their father before the depart and they receive the same ominous warning from the grandparents as they set out on the return trip. Naturally, halfway home, a furious snowstorm suddenly begins.

But on every side there was nothing but a blinding whiteness, white everywhere that none the less drew its ever narrow circle about them, paling beyond into fog that came down in waves, devouring and shrouding everything till there was nothing but the voracious snow.

The two children are soon hopelessly lost in an environment that becomes less and less real and more and more dangerous.

As far as the eye could reach there was only ice. Pointed masses and irregular clumps thrusting up from the fearsome snow-encrusted ice. Instead of a barricade that could be surmounted, with snow beyond, as they had expected, yet other walls of ice rose from the buttress, cracked and fissured, with innumerable meandering blue veins, and beyond these walls, others like them; and beyond, others, until the falling snow blurred the distance in its veil of gray.

At night they take shelter beneath to massive boulders and struggle to stay awake and alive. The blinding storm abates and reveals its opposite – the infinite universe of the sky.

The arch of heaven was an even blue, so dark it was almost black, spangled with stars blazing in countless array, and through their midst a broad luminous band was woven, pale as milk…

The following day the two children are found, rescue parties from both villages having set out in a symbolic breaking with the past. Stifter makes token mention of the improved relations between the villages, but the last word, as it were, goes to the mountain.

The children, however, can never forget the mountain, and earnestly fix their gaze upon it when in the garden, when as in times past the sun is out bright and warm, the lime tree diffuses its fragrance, the bees are humming, and the mountain looks down upon them as serene and blue as the sky above.

The sublime beauty and terror of snow, ice, alpine heights, and northern extremes is a thread that runs through Sebald’s book-length poem After Nature. In the first section, devoted to the sixteenth-century German painter Matthias Grünewald, we see “the ice age, the glaringly white / towering of the summits…” in the background of Grünewald’s Temptation of Saint Anthony. At the end of this section, Sebald imagines Grünewald staring at the landscape, mourning the death of his teen-aged son.

The forest recedes, truly,
so far that one cannot tell
where it once lay, and the ice-house
opens, and rime, on to the field, traces
a colourless image of the Earth.
So, when the optic nerve
tears, in the still space of the air
all turns as white as
the snow on the Alps.

In the second section of After Nature, Sebald writes of the voyage of exploration of Vitus Bering, who pursued the “vast tracts of whiteness” of the Arctic Ocean between Siberia and Alaska.

All was a grayness, without direction,
with no above or below, nature
in a process of dissolution, in a state
of pure dementia.

And in the final, autobiographical section, Sebald recounts how, at the hour he was born, a freak mountain storm killed four canopy bearers who were helping with the blessing of the fields on Ascension Day.

terrible midnights
of doubt have I passed
since that time, but now peace
returns to the dust and I read
of the eighteenth century how a
verdant land is submerged
in the blue shadows of the Jurassus
and in the end only the age-old
ice on the Alps retains a faint

For more reading along these lines, try Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), possibly the ultimate novel of the Alps and the Arctic, and Peter Davidson’s wide-ranging study The Idea of North (London: Reaktion Books, 2005). The cover illustration for Rock Crystal, by the way, is from a painting by the British artist Jason Martin.

Typecasting Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn

W.G. Sebald’s books present a number of challenges to book designers, not the least of which is the inclusion of images (some of them deliberately of very poor quality) within his texts. And then there is the challenge to the book jacket designer, who must cope with the fact that there is no identifiable topic to Sebald’s prose and poetic texts.

Typographer, author, critic, and editor Robin Kinross addresses these issues in a wonderful essay in his book Unjustified Texts (London: Hyphen Press, 2002). His essay, Judging a Book by its Material Embodiment: A German-English Example (pp. 186-199) opens with some reflections by Theodor Adorno on the commodification (i.e. consumerification) of books in the twentieth century, then proceeds to a brief history of Die Andere Bibliothek, the important series of books edited by Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Sebald’s first three prose works were released as volumes in this series.Founded in 1985 as an idealistic collaboration between the editor Enzensberger and the publisher Franz Greno (who published Sebald’s most exquisite book Nach der Natur in 1988), the series was sold to Eichborn Verlag in 1989, although Greno continued to be in charge of book production.

Kinross praises the production values, the materials, and the attention to details that typify Die Andere Bibliothek, zeroing in on Sebald’s Die Ringe des Saturn. But more importantly, Kinross suggests that Die Andere Bibliothek is committed to the book as object rather than the book as commodity:

The Andere Bibliothek was, and still is, an attempt to publish books of real content in a form that had distinct material quality, and which, in sum, resisted the apparently irresistible processes of commodification.

Kinross makes a direct physical and aesthetic comparison between the German edition of Die Ringe des Saturn (1995) and The Rings of Saturn as published in Great Britain by Harvill in 1998. He examines the paper, binding, typography, and other physical characteristics of both books, as well as a comparing the placement Sebald’s photographs in both versions. The bottom line, in Kinross’ mind, is that he Harvill edition “betrays the work,” and in reaching this conclusion he feels that the comparison:

tells us something about present-day literary culture in the two countries [and] something about Sebald’s enterprise as a writer.

Anyone interested in books and book production will enjoy the entirety of Kinross’ book. On topics ranging from Jan Tschichold to the layout of the Dutch telephone directory, Kinross brings an erudite intelligence, a sharp eye, and high standards to the discussion.

Sebald’s Literary Prizes and Awards

During the span of scarcely more than a decade, W.G. Sebald won numerous book and literary awards. Several of these awards have their own commemorative publications, which are challenging to discover and collect. Here is a list of the prizes won by Sebald along with information on the related publication if I own it. I welcome comments about any awards or award-related publications that are not mentioned here.

1991. Fedor Malchow Lyrikpreis for Nach der Nature. This prize for poetry is named after poet Fedor Malchow (1905-1978).


1994. Johannes Bobrowski Medaille (medal), Berliner Literaturpreis. Sebald was one of six Berlin Literature Prize winners in 1994. Bobrowksi (1917-1965), after whom Sebald’s medal was named, was a Russian-born German writer. [NOTE: As I learned from a comment below, Bobrowski was born 1917 in Eastern Prussia, then part of the German Empire.] The associated publication, Der Berliner Literaturpreis 1994 (Berlin: Verlag Volk & Welt, 1996) curiously contains an excerpt from Der Ringe des Saturn titled Dunwich Heath & Middleton, even though that book hadn’t been published at the time of the award. It wasn’t published until 1995, the year between the award and the commemorative publication.

1994. Preis der Literatour Nord.


In 1996, Sebald became a member of the Deutschen Akademie, or German Academy. A very brief statement by Sebald is included in the academy’s publication Wie sie sich selber Sehen: Antrittsreden der Mitglieder vor dem Kellegium der Deutschen Akademie (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 1999).(May 20, 2007. I had forgotten that Sebald’s statement has been published in English as “Acceptance Speech to the Collegium of the German Academy.” It can be found as the final chapter in the posthumous book of Sebald’s essays Campo Santo.)

1997. Heinrich Böll Preis der Stadt Köln.


1997. Mörike Preis der Stadt Fellbach. A triennial prize awarded by the city of Fellbach. In 2000, a commemorative volume was published celebrating the previous decade’s winners: Mörike-Preis der Stadt Fellbach 1991-2000: Ein Lesebuch (Fellbach: Stadt Fellbach, 2000). The section on Sebald is rather extensive and runs to 47 pages. It opens with the speech (and poem!) given by the mayor of Fellbach and is followed by Sigrid Löffler’s address on Sebald. The volume includes the text of Sebald’s acceptance speech, which he dedicated to the namesake of the prize, the German Romantic poet Eduard Friedrich Mörike (1804-1875): Was ich traure ich nicht – Kleines Andenken an Mörike and an excerpt from Die Ausgewanderten. During the same year, Wolfgang Schlüter, an essayist and music historian, was awarded a Förderpreis and the text of Sebald’s Laudatio auf Wolfgang Schlüter is also included.

1998. Los Angeles Times Book Award.

1999. Prix du Meilleur livre étranger. (France) for The Rings of Saturn.

2000. Joseph Breitbach Preis. Sebald was one of three winners of the 2000 prize.


2000. Heinrich Heine Preis der Stadt Düsseldorf. Sebald was awarded the sole prize for the year 2000. The commemorative booklet Verleihung Des Heine-Preis 2000 Der Landeshauptstadt Dusseldorf an W.G. Sebald (Dusseldorf: XIM Virgines, 2000) contains the laudatory speech Melancholie als Widerstand by Irene Heidelberger-Leonard (scholar and editor of Jean Améry’s works) and Sebald’s speech entitled Die Alpen im Meer – ein Reisebild.

2001. National Book Critics Circle Award. For Austerlitz.

2002. Independent Foreign Literature Prize. In 2002, the British newspaper The Independent posthumously recognized Sebald for Austerlitz. Sebald’s friend and colleague, Gordon Turner, Professor Emeritus of German at the University of East Anglia, accepted the award on behalf of Sebald’s widow, Ute.

2002. Literaturpreis der Stadt Bremen. Posthumously for Austerlitz.

Collecting W.G. Sebald’s After Nature

Sebald After Nature British Edition

After Nature, published by Hamish Hamilton

Nach der Natur: Ein Elementargedicht was one of Sebald’s earliest books. It was published in a small, almost luxurious volume by Greno (Nordlingen, Germany) in 1988. Nach der Natur was finally published posthumously in English in 2002 by Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Books), after the critical success of his four major works of prose fiction in the English and American publishing worlds. Obviously aware of how much importance Sebald placed on participating in the translation of his own works into English, the English-language editions include a Publisher’s Note stating that “W.G. Sebald approved a final version of the text before his untimely death.” (Update May 12, 2007.Another Sebald collector has told me that Greno also released a limited special edition of Nach der Natur known as a Vorzugsausgabe.It is bound in leather and has a cloth slipcase, but is neither signed nor numbered.He informs me that Franz Greno told him it was in an edition of 200. )

In English, the volume was called simply After Nature, without the subtitle Ein Elementargedicht, which literally translates as “an elementary poem”. The English language volumes also lack the four double-page photographs by German photographer Thomas Becker, which form a prelude and coda to the volume’s text matter. The American edition by Random House (below) curiously omits the admittedly brief Contents page (there are only three poems), but feels the need to tack on three pages at the end for About the Author, About the Translator, and About the Type.

Sebald After Nature American Edition

Random House issued After Nature in an Advance Uncorrected Proofs version, and it has at least one interesting variant from the final version as published by both Hamish Hamilton and Random House. The text of the middle poem “And if I Remained by the Outermost Sea” begins on page 43 in both English-language versions. In the Advance Uncorrected Proofs version the first six lines read as follows (the italics are mine):

Georg Wilhem Steller
born at Windsheim, in Franconia,
while pursuing his studies
at the University of Halle
repeatedly came across news
docketed (inserted) in journals

In the British edition, lines 5 and 6 read this way:

repeatedly came across
news items in journals

And in the Random House edition, those same lines read:

repeatedly came across news
items in journals

The small typographical admission of uncertainty that appears in the Random House Proofs version opens a window into the translating process. In the original German, the two lines quoted above in English are found on a single line which reads:

auf die in die Intelligenzblatter eingeruchte Nachricht,

Clearly, Sebald (or translator Michael Hamburger) was struggling with Sebald’s reference to the obscure 18th century newspaper the Intelligenzblatter and toyed with the possibility of suggesting that news items read by Steller were “docketed” or “inserted” into a generic “journal”. In the end, simplicity and clarity won out and it was decided to refer to “news items”, dropping any reference at all to the existence of a newspaper, specific or otherwise.

Sebald Nach Natur

The original German publication by Greno is a stunningly beautiful slim volume bound in deep green cloth, with finely printed photographic endpapers of Becker’s photographs. The British first edition, although in unfortunate dull brown boards, feels better designed and more generous that the Random House first edition. It employs the typeface Monotype Perpetua and a larger font size, which provides elegant, bold Roman numerals for the frequent section headings of the three poems. The British version’s thicker, whiter paper gives the poems more gravitas, leaving the American version feeling thin and overly delicate.