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Posts from the ‘Emigrants (Ausgewanderten)’ Category

The Emigrants via Virtual Book Club

Somehow, I only learned about this last night. A Public Space magazine and the poet & writer Elisa Gabbert are in the midst of doing a virtual book club which is reading W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants on Twitter through June 22. They are going into the book in some detail, so there are multiple posts per day. To catch up, you’ll have to do quite a bit of backward scrolling on Twitter. (There are only a few quotes on Instagram.) But it’s well worth it. The following is from the magazine’s website:

Elisa Gabbert | W. G. Sebald

May 6, 2021 Share: Read W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants with Elisa Gabbert in the June edition of #APStogether, our series of virtual book clubs, free and open to all. Starting June 10, you can read Elisa’s daily posts, and comments from our fellow readers, on our Twitter and Instagram accounts. And join us for a virtual discussion at the end of the book club, on June 22—register here.

W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants is a novel in four portraits, the stories of four men in exile: a doctor, a teacher, a painter, and Sebald’s Great-Uncle Adelwarth, the traveling companion of an American aviator. Written in Sebald’s signature indeterminate, essayistic style, intercut with photographs of people and places, The Emigrants explores post-war trauma and memory, guilt and displacement, and what it means to survive. Join us to read this book Larry Wolff called “an end-of-century meditation” on “the most delicate, most painful, most nervously repressed and carefully concealed lesions of the last hundred years.”

Elisa Gabbert is the author of five collections of poetry, essays, and criticism, most recently The Unreality of Memory & Other Essays and The Word Pretty. She writes a regular poetry column for the New York Times, and her work has appeared in Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, A Public Space, the Nation, and many other venues. Her next book of poems, Normal Distance, will be out from Soft Skull next year.

W. G. Sebald (1944-2001) was born in the Bavarian Alps. From 1975 he taught at the University of East Anglia, became Professor of German in 1986, and was the first director of the British Centre for Translation. His books include The Rings of Saturn, The Emigrants, and Vertigo (all New Directions).

Reading Schedule:

June 10 | Day 1. Dr Henry Selwyn

June 11 | Day 2. Paul Bereyter (through “awoken in her a sense of the contrarieties that are in our longings.”)

June 12 | Day 3. Paul Bereyter (to end)

June 13 | Day 4. Ambros Adelwarth (through “and life up in the dizzy heights came to an end”)

June 14 | Day 5. Ambros Adelwarth (through “remained indelibly in my memory ever since.”)

June 15 | Day 6. Ambros Adelwarth (through “the enormous cauliflower he held in his crooked left arm”)

June 16 | Day 7. Ambros Adelwarth (to end)

June 17 | Day 8. Max Ferber (“a herd of deer headed for the night”)

June 18 | Day 9. (“so much in the shade and dark in recent years”)

June 19 | Day 10. (“who was then staying in Kissingen”)

June 20 | Day 11. (to end)

June 22 – A virtual discussion of The Emigrants with Elisa Gabbert.

Day 1 | June 10
Dr Henry Selwyn

“And I recalled the château in the Charente that I had once visited from Angoulême.” A very Sebaldian sentence! For Sebald, seeing begets memory; his walks, travels, & reading are all ways of looking, thus ways of cultivating encounters with memory.

Sebald once said “The older you get the more the passage of time between your present age and your childhood or youth begins to shrink somehow.” We see this in Selwyn’s story, the *closeness* of Naegeli, the way the sharp images of Lithuania return.

It’s as though aging involves a reversal of time as well as a racing forward. (I think of William Maxwell: “I have liked remembering almost as much as I have liked living”—for Sebald’s characters memories can be both treasured and traumatic)

Day 2 | June 11
Paul Bereyter (through “awoken in her a sense of the contrarieties that are in our longings.”) p. 27-45

We start to see the importance of chance, coincidence and “miracles” in Sebald’s work. Leo Damrosch contrasts realism w/ verisimilitude, which doesn’t have to be realistic. Do Sebald’s stories have to, in their nebulous space between fiction & reality?

The photo on p. 39 is uncaptioned, like all the photos here, its exact relationship to the text unclear. Is young W.G. among them? Which boy is he? They could be any boys, but Sebald has said his photos are “to a very large extent documentary.”

The story of Paul Bereyter’s moments of “utterly groundless violence” against his young pupils connects so neatly to Wittgenstein one has to wonder if this is mere coincidence, or fictive legerdemain, or a warping of Sebald’s own memory.

Day 3 | June 12
Paul Bereyter (to end)

Mme Landau says that after years of silence and secrets people sometimes “really did forget” their past—memory is active work, and not to remember is to undo that history.

I love the detail of the case of rainbow sewing thread that “seemed especially magical” to Paul as he rode through the emporium on his tricycle.

Our oldest memories, which somehow grow in clarity as we age, becoming more real than reality, have this quality of magic because the past is an unreachable place, a fiction, a fairyland.

Mme Landau again: “It is hard to know what it is that someone dies of.” Where is causation in a complex chain of events? Had Paul come to see suicide as inevitable? Was it any more a choice than other deaths of despair (as in broken heart syndrome)?

Day 4 | June 13
Ambros Adelwarth (through “and life up in the dizzy heights came to an end”)

Emigrants “tend to seek out their own kind.” (As we read in the previous section, Paul “belonged to the exiles.”) Emigrants are citizens of their own country, a nowhere that is not utopian.

Sebald can be surprisingly hilarious—see the passage about Theres’s constant weeping. “There were times when one really did not know whether she was in tears because she was at home at long last or because she was already dreading having to leave.”

Sebald’s eschewing of quotation marks creates interesting ambiguities. In The Rings of Saturn, it is difficult to know when he is quoting from a text vs. paraphrasing. Here, remarks in the first person often seem to be shared sentiments—it’s easy to imagine that Adelwarth’s “extremely dignified German” astounds both Fini and the narrator.

Day 5 | June 14
Ambros Adelwarth (through “remained indelibly in my memory ever since.”)

Kasimir is a fascinating character, with his slow driving and macabre revelries (“This is the edge of darkness”… “I am a long way away, though I never quite know from where”)

Cosmo Solomon has a legendary quality, an otherworldly clairvoyance that wins him fortunes at the casinos but also destroys his mind when the great war in Europe begins, and he claims he can see it from overseas: “the inferno, the dying”

Fini says Ambros, recounting his past, was “at once saving” and “mercilessly destroying himself.” Like life-saving poison. (Was Paul’s suicide also self-salvation?)

She herself has trouble believing Ambros’ history, wonders not if he was lying but if he had Korsakoff syndrome (“which causes lost memories to be replaced by fantastic inventions”), an interesting metaphor for imagination in the “nonfiction novel.”

Day 6 | June 15
Ambros Adelwarth (through “the enormous cauliflower he held in his crooked left arm”) p. 107-126

Dr. Abramsky’s comment about madness being “a question of perspective” makes me think of the famous paper “On Being Sane in Insane Places”

Abramsky’s fantasia of the collapsing sanatorium reminds me of the labyrinth in The Rings of Saturn, a physical space that represents the conceptual space of the book—we re-create the past in such fine detail before we watch it fall.

Ambros’s difficult with dressing/undressing: a much more tragic version of Theres’s continuous weeping.

The Deauville dream! The endless dream that goes on for days. He is tired and even sleeps in the dream.

Day 7 | June 16
Ambros Adelwarth (to end) p. 126-145

From Ambros’s diary: “A day out of time.” And later: “Are we no longer part of time?” It’s time travel for Cosmos and Ambros, and for Sebald, reading the diary, and for us reading The Emigrants.

The lostness in time reminds me again of Maxwell—memory is dangerous

Again one has to wonder if these beautiful passages are straight transcription from the diary or fictionalized, stylized, at all. (The photocopied pages are illegible to me; German speakers, can you make anything out?)

This embedded tale of Ambros and Cosmo’s journey is very dreamlike, or play-like, as in theater, everything condensed on a stage, like the schooners that pass by so close you could touch them.

We are suddenly immersed in their world; the agenda opens and we enter it like a magic storybook. And we never quite leave it; Sebald doesn’t quite close the parenthesis, ending on A’s words, not his own.

Day 8 | June 17
Max Ferber (“a herd of deer headed for the night”), p. 149-169

Max Ferber’s aestheticization of dust! “The grey, velvety sinter left when matter dissolved”! Made me think of this Jeremy Gordon essay on dust as “metaphor for the futility of the human experience.”

There is so much mist and dust in this book. Mist the unreal and ineffable; dust the banal real, the deathly real.

Sebald is so cute with a phrase sometimes: “a little ratcatcher”; “an incomparable stylish apathy.” Endearing little Sebaldisms.

The fresco in the restaurant recalls Cosmo’s mirage in the theater, the one that tipped him over into madness. Recurring images are part of what makes Sebald’s work feel fictive (while still highly nonfictive, as in nonfictionlike, for a novel!).


Ghostland Parnell

Edward Parnell’s Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country is a highly personal exploration of the idea of “haunted” in literature and film. It’s also a bit of travel guide, a dash of history, and a family memoir. But as in so many things, it’s the blending that counts and Parnell is an expert bartender. I don’t think he ever uses the word but I felt as if he were trying to demonstrate how various terroirs affect the ghost stories and the strange folk lore that then show up in the fiction and cinema that he has loved since childhood. To do this, he guides us through large swaths of Great Britain in search of the sites depicted in these books and films. As we ride next to and walk alongside the thirty-something Parnell, making pilgrimages to locations where, for example, The Wicker Man was filmed or where some of the tales of Algernon Blackwood were set, we also learn bits and pieces of Parnell’s own life, how he came to love these kinds of books and films, of the difficult deaths of his parents, and the shock when he learns his own brother has a lymphoma that will eventually kill him, too.

Parnell is not an academic and he makes no claim to be covering an entire field, although he writes about scores of nineteenth and twentieth century writers and filmmakers. Some of their names might be familiar, like Walter De La Mare, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Machen, or F.W. Murnau. But Parnell enthusiastically introduces us to names that have, for the most part, become forgotten and lost, names like M.R. James, Lawrence Gordon Clark, L.P. Hartley, Susan Cooper, and Alan Garner. Moreover, Parnell made me want to pursue some of their books and films as well.

Parnell is also a natural tour guide. I would accompany him on a road-trip anywhere. It seemed like he covered the breadth of England from East Anglia to Penzance, from Southampton to the Lake District, with even a dip into Wales for good measure. As an American, I was lost most of the time (there’s no map in the book). But it didn’t matter. I was caught up in the endless charm of English place names like Deeping High Bank, Crowland, Tyne and Wear, Lakenheath, Mow Cap, and Llanymawddwy. I should also mention, for those who care, that he’s quite the bird watcher.

Parnell is most wonderful writing about the Fens, “the unnerving flat landscape of my youth.”

I used to love the anticipation before you ran up the grassy bank: would the tide be in so that you’d feel yourself standing at the seaside, or would you be confronted with a green-and-brown expanse of mud and saltmarsh, the distant water barely visible at the edge of your vision? In the summer the landscape seemed kinder, its harsh edges softened by the pale blooms of cow parsley that grew rampantly along the dykes. My granddad called it “kek”, and one of his sluice-keeping tasks would be to burn it off and the other weeds that would clog the drainage ditches later in the season; in his eighties and early nineties, when I drove him around his old stamping ground, he would wistfully point out tinder-dry stands of dyke-side grasses he’d like to put a match to.

The book’s epigraph comes, appropriately, from W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants: “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.” As a bonus for us Sebald readers, there are some genuine gifts tucked away inside Ghostland. The first occurs during a trip to Suffolk, when he visits Somerleyton Hall, which plays a prominent role in The Rings of Saturn. Parnell takes the official guided tour of the Victorian mansion, asks pointed questions of his tour guide, and snoops around the grounds, all with a mind to tell us how much of Sebald’s description of Somerleyton is factual. The second gift occurs when Parnell discovers that his friend owns the house where Sebald lived when he first came to Norfolk to teach at the University of East Anglia in 1970. Sebald eventually used that very house as the setting for where Dr. Henry Selwyn and his wife lived, in the first story in The Emigrants. As Parnell and his friend talk, she explains that the Selwyns were largely based on her father-in-law and mother-in-law, and she describes some of the transformations that Sebald made with their characters. All of which makes for some fascinating stuff for Sebald readers.

I count it as a blessing that Parnell never truly defines what he means by “haunted” because it lets him roam rather freely. Several times he shifts to the more expansive word “unsettling” and that allows him to not only bring Sebald underneath his umbrella, but it lets him write about such things as Graham Swift’s novel Waterland and the filmmaker Derek Jarman, just to name two examples.

Ghostland took me by surprise. I tend to avoid anything that deals with the haunted or the Gothic or with fairy tales. But a friend recommended the book and I am glad I trusted him. Ghostland, which is filled with Sebald-like photographs and film stills, was published by the William Collins imprint of HarperCollins, London, in 2019.

Sebald, Dance, Seattle

Bill T Jones Adelwarth

Since 2014, the Bill  T. Jones/Arne Zane Company has been developing a trilogy of major, evening-length dances, one of which is based on the Ambros Adelwarth segment of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants. That trilogy is about to be performed in Seattle at the University of Washington on the evenings of February 1, 2, and 3. Here are the details from the University’s website.

Bill T. Jones’s latest work, Analogy: A Trilogy, is comprised of three evening-length works that reflect Jones’s fierce engagement with race, class, gender, history, and identity. Over three nights, Meany Center will present the entire trilogy (one of the first ever presentations in the country). The program, which features a live music soundscape, searches for the connection between three stories, focusing on memory and the effect of powerful events on the inner lives of individuals.

The first work from Analogy stems from an oral history Jones conducted with 95-year old Dora Amelan, a French Jewish nurse and survivor of WWII. Dora is a meditation on perseverance, resourcefulness and resilience while suggesting the amorphous nature of memory.

Based on an oral history Jones conducted with his nephew, Lance T. Briggs. Lance is a tragic, yet humorous journey through the sex trade, drug use and excess during the 1980s.

This final program in Analogy is based on Ambros Adelwarth, a German valet to a dissipated, young scion of a wealthy Jewish family, from W. G. Sebald’s celebrated historical novel, The Emigrants. Ambros is an exploration of how trauma can go underground in the psyche to direct the course of an individual’s life.

Bill T. Jones Debuts “Analogy Trilogy: Ambros: The Emigrant”

Three years ago I wrote about the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company’s plans to develop a dance around the Ambros Adelwarth segment of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants. “Analogy/Ambros: The Emigrant” just had its world premiere on July 21, 2017 at Dancer’s Workshop in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The dance is the final section of a trilogy which was first performed as a unit on the nights of July 27-29 at American Dance Festival 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. The 90-minute dance  was reviewed by Susan Broili in the Raleigh, North Carolina newspaper The News & Observer, in which the following excerpt appeared:

“Analogy/Ambros: The Emigrant” begins with the live sound of whispering voices and Bill T. Jones’ recorded recitation of evocative text from W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, a fictionalized history of four men, including Ambros Adelwarth, a German manservant who serves as companion to Cosmo, the privileged son of a wealthy Jewish family. The narrative tracks Ambros’ experience traveling with Cosmo, through Europe and the Middle East on the eve of WWII.

The recorded text describes how Ambros Adelwarth and his charge, Cosmo, asleep on the deck of a steam ship on their way to an excursion abroad, are visited by a quail, who lands on Cosmo, settles down to sleep, and then flies away in the morning.

 In this work, Jones and collaborators, who include assistant artistic director Janet Wong, amaze with their scope and with the engaging quality of the multi-media elements woven seamlessly into the work.

The live music provides a rare treat as does the dancers’ singing with professional flare. Most of the time, their singing, both in solos and in harmony with others, is achingly beautiful.

The following is from the dance’s program as posted on the ADF website.

Conceived and Directed by Bill T. Jones.
Choreography by Bill T. Jones with Janet Wong and the Company.
Text based on “Ambros Adelwarth” from The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald, performed with the permission of The Wylie Agency, LLC. All rights reserved.
Written by Bill T. Jones and Adrian Silver.
Original Score Composed by Nick Hallett.
Music Performed by Nick Hallett and Emily Manzo.
Décor by Bjorn Amelan.
Lighting Design by Robert Wierzel.
Costume Design by Liz Prince.
Video Design by Janet Wong.
Sound Design by Sam Crawford.
Dramaturgy by Adrian Silver.

Score includes musical themes based upon “Nachtstück” by Franz Schubert and :Alinde” by Franz Schubert.
Guitars recorded by Sam Crawford and Zach Layton.
Recorded strings performed by Pauline Kim Harris (violin) and Clarice Jensen (cello).

The Analogy Trilogy, which Bill T. Jones has been working on since 2013 with Janet Wong and the company, continues the company’s exploration of how text, storytelling, and movement pull and push against one other and how another experience can be had through the combination and recombination of these elements. All three works, while wildly different, consider the nature of  service, duty, and the question of what is a life well lived. Director’s Note – Analogy/Ambros: The Emigrant

“Memory, often strikes me as a kind of dumbness. It makes one’s head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.”
–W.G. Sebald

I found two future performances of “Analogy/Ambros:The Emigrant”: November 18, 2017, Gammage Auditorium, Arizona State University, Tempe. February 3, 2018, Meany Center for the Performing Arts, University of Washington, Seattle.

Photo: Paul B. Goode

“Ambros Adelwarth” as Contemporary Dance


The fabulous Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company is currently working on a major new dance called Analogy, which involves using W.G. Sebald’s story of Ambros Adelwarth from The Emigrants as part of the program. Here’s the official description from the company’s website.

Analogy (working title) is the Company’s newest creation, currently in development. Bill T. Jones, along with Janet Wong (Associate Artistic Director of the Company) and the Company dancers, are developing a new evening-length work in two parts, focusing on the memory and the effect that powerful events have on the actions of individuals and-more importantly-on their often unexpressed inner life. In Analogy (working title), Jones continues to explore the intermingling of text, storytelling and movement, paying special attention to how new experiences can be had through the coalescing of these elements. Informing the work are two literary sources-an interview conducted by Jones with Dora Amelan (a French-Jewish nurse and social worker) chronicling her life experiences, as well as the story of Ambros Adelwarth, from W.G. Sebald’s celebrated historical novel, The Emigrants – that ruminate on the nature of service and duty, and inquire into the characteristics of a life well lived.

Some portion of the dance was presented last month at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey. But now the company has moved on to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  In the local Jackson Hole newspaper, reporter Frances Moody reveals a bit more about plans for using the Sebald story in the dance. Here are some excerpts.

Analogy is in its beginning steps…In Jackson the company will focus on the first half of “Analogy.” Based on an interview Jones conducted with World War II survivor Dora Amelan, the dancers will present Amelan’s account of the Holocaust… “We want to be very sure we are not making this piece about the Holocaust,” Wong said. “We want it to be about this brave, amazing young woman who had a particular view and perspective, a woman who is now 94 years old….”

The second part of Analogy also highlights memory with Sebald’s account of Ambros Adelwarth. In The Emigrants, Adelwarth’s story begins in World War I America and ends in Jerusalem. What appears to be a captivating adventure is something Adelwarth wanted to forget. “He was almost killed by his own memories,” Wong said. “He was someone who could not bear remembering. By the time everyone had died off he had nothing else to live for. He would subject himself to electroshock therapy that killed him.”

After its residency the company will have almost a year to complete the work. Jones and his dancers will return to Jackson in June of 2015 to show the final piece.

Traces of Trauma – part 1

Osborne Trauma

Legenda, which is the publishing imprint of the Modern Humanities Research Association, is on something of a Sebald kick at the moment.  Two years ago they issued the rather massive anthology Saturn’s Moons: W.G. Sebald – A Handbook (which I covered extensively over several posts) and they will publish Helen Finch’s book Sebald’s Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life later this summer.  But in the meantime, they have just released Dora Osborne’s Traces of Trauma in W.G. Sebald and Christoph Ransmayr.

Why these two authors?  Osborne explains that Sebald and Ransmayr are both representative of post-postwar literature, both share a skepticism towards the idea of human progress, and both “respond to the non-viability of conventional forms of narrative after 1945.”  Sebald and Ransmayr are “caught between a contemporary espousal of postmodernist gestures and a nostalgic or melancholic attachment to modernist ones.”  As the title of her book makes clear, Osborne sees trauma as a central way of defining the legacy of the Holocaust and she opts to use trauma theory (largely derived from Freud and Walter Benjamin) as the principal lens through which she will explore the works of Sebald and Ransmayr.

For Freud, “violent experiences are not registered consciously because the subject does not have the psychic resources to process them,” hence trauma works on the memory belatedly and in unexpected ways.  The role of psychoanalysis is to work backward from the symptoms of trauma to locate the hidden, forgotten event that provoked the disorder. But the role of the creative writer is the totally different challenge of attempting to let non-participants or outsiders somehow comprehend the trauma of others, and this inevitably involves ethical, historical, and other complex issues.  “The production of narrative should offer a means for remembering personal experience and commemorating collective events [e.g. the Holocaust], but it is also compromised by the inadequacy of memory and the limits of perspective.”  And the dangers for a writer like Sebald or Ransmayr, who felt compelled to write about events that neither experienced personally, is “to be alert to the dangers of encroaching on territory which is not his own, a danger perhaps inherent in responding to the difficult imperative of writing about the lives of others.”

Thus, in a nutshell, it is Osborne’s intention to examine works by these two authors to see how they deal with the traumas caused by the Second World War.  In order to focus more closely on the Sebald half of her book, I’m going to ignore the chapters dedicated to two books by Ransmayr: The Dog King and The Terrors of Ice and DarknessI wrote about the latter book several years ago, although I can now see from Osborne’s book how much I missed the first time through.

Osborne dedicates a chapter each to Sebald’s books The Emigrants and Austerlitz.  In the four semi-biographical stories told in The Emigrants, the source of their trauma is no mystery, leaving Sebald to focus on the aftermath for each of the protagonists and on the Sebald-like narrator. In the chapter called “Displacement, Dysfunction, and Erasure in The Emigrants” she initially approaches the four stories through Freud’s case from 1909 known as “Little Hans,” which was well-known to Sebald and directly referenced by him in After Nature and elsewhere.  Peculiar to this case were characteristic spatial anxieties (“the spaces of habitation and travel”) that are shared by all of the main individuals portrayed in The Emigrants.

I will show how moments of breakdown or collapse in Sebald”s stories expose the experiences of loss that irreparably mark the lives of the emigrants and overwhelm the attempt to give belated expression to them in narrative.  In other words, I will show how, in The Emigrants, Sebald moves between the two positions of his emigrant protagonists and his emigrant narrator, that is, between a tracing of the modern experience of displacement and dispossession and its retracing as part of a post-postwar narrative.

Osborne argues that Sebald continually demonstrates that the narrator is only permitted to see traces of the traumas experienced by the others.  Even the photographs embedded in the texts tend to obscure rather than enlighten the narrative.  Thus, The Emigrants is about limits – the limits of the protagonists’ abilities to cope with their traumas and the limits of the narrator to effectively grasp the lives of others.

The emigrants seek to escape the constraints of family, family history, and history writ large, but the systems via which they seek liberation are found to be overwhelming because they are implicated in the monstrous working of recent history.  Sebald the post-postwar author is acutely aware of the sense of dislocation, even disintegration affecting the post-Holocaust subject, and viewed from this perspective, the lives he attempts to describe can only be represented in their drive to self-erasure.

In my next post, I’ll say something about Osborne’s chapter on Austerlitz.

The Hidden Vanishing Point

Here is the third installment of my traversal of the essays written for the special W.G. Sebald issue of Journal of European Studies, released last December.

Stephanie Bird’s ‘Er gab mir, was äuβerst ungewöhnlich war, zum Abschied die Hand’: Touch and Tact in W.G. Sebald’s Die Ausgewanderten and Austerlitz discusses exactly what the title infers.  Bird uses touch as a way of exploring “the constellation of suffering, the question of whose suffering is privileged, and how it is represented.”  She notes that Sebald uses the sensation of touch to both cause and alleviate suffering.

Anja K. Johannsen’s essay, ‘The contrarieties that are our yearnings’: Allegorical, nostalgic and transcendent spaces in the work of W.G. Sebald, argues that Sebald viewed “natural history as a downward-moving process of destruction” that was every bit as destructive as mankind.  She suggests this is apparent most clearly when Sebald writes of cities, which he describes as diseased bodies and strata of buried history and which are forever sinking back into a state of entropy. “Sebald turns the notion of progressive evolution upside down because he feels that Nature’s wildly promiscuous love of experimentation creates nothing permanent and that its mechanisms of destruction are more powerful than its drive towards creative reproduction and self-preservation.”  Johannsen pays particular attention to the treatment of Jerusalem as it appears in the diary of Ambros Adelwarth in The Emigrants.  Here, unique among Sebald’s works, is a city “completely devoid of any utopian hope in a redeemed future.”  For Johannsen, the description of Jerusalem is remarkable for its “concentration of words connoting disgust: one can almost smell the putrefying city.”

I was especially taken with Johannsen discussion of Sebald’s allegorical use of “museum-like spaces” and strange collections.  Sebald’s narrators, she argues, are “interested in things only when they have become dysfunctional, transformed into a collector’s item, and testify to both the irretrievability and the secret persistence of time past.”  The many collections that appear in Sebald’s writings present us with an inherent conflict between the idealized (and perhaps unreal) past they represent in our imagination and their signalling of a “universal history of decay and destruction.”

Johannsen’s goal is nothing less than to locate the “meta-apocalyptic model of reality that forms the hidden vanishing point of all of Sebald’s literary texts.”

Sebald’s narrators can bear the ruinous state of our world only because their inner gaze is fixed upon a moment of absolute stillness that points away from that world – either backwards, towards an imaginary heile Welt, or upwards, towards the wholeness of icy transcendence.  Without these escape routes, Sebald’s texts would constantly be in danger of encountering their own limitations – as happens in the Jerusalem episode of “Ambros Adelwarth.”

The earlier posts on this issue Journal of European Studies are here and here.

James Wood and W.G. Sebald

from: Brick 59. Photograph of Sebald by Irma Long, circa 1997

On July 10, 1997, scarcely a year after the publication of The Emigrants (his first book to appear in English translation), W.G. Sebald sat down with critic James Wood in New York city for an interview, which appeared the next spring in a relatively obscure literary journal out of Toronto called Brick.   Wood had already come to realize that The Emigrants was a game-changer.  “Walter Benjamin said that all great works found a new genre or dissolve an old one,” Wood wrote in his opening sentence.  “The Emigrants is such a book.”  Wood continued on to praise the book for its “fastidiousness” and the way “it forces the largest abstract questions on us, while never neglecting our hunger for the ordinary.  It is full of this extraordinary, careful detail…”

Wood’s questioning of Sebald dealt with many of the issues that have come to define Sebald: his use of photographs, the intermingling of fact and fiction, the nature of Sebald’s prose, and his approach to narration.  Here’s Sebald on the latter topic:

I think that fiction writing, which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself, is a form of imposture and which I find very, very difficult to take.  Any form of authorial writing, where the narrator sets himself up as stagehand and director and judge and executor in a text, I find somehow unacceptable.  I cannot bear to read books of this kind.

…I’d much rather read autobiographical texts of a Chateaubriand or a Stendhal, that sort of thing…I find there is a degree of realness in it which I can calculate.  Whereas with the novels, I find we are subjected to the rules and laws of fiction to a degree which I find tedious.

Two years later, Wood elaborated on these ideas in his essay “W.G. Sebald’s Uncertainty,” published in his 1999 collection The Broken Estate.  There, Wood discussed both The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn, emphasizing the way in which facts (including photographs) became fictive in Sebald’s work as a part of Sebald’s strategy of investing “his narration with scrupulous uncertainty.”  For Sebald, “facts are indecipherable, and therefore tragic.”  Quite in opposition to Proust, “in Sebald, we are defined by the terrible abundance of our lacunae.”  Having read The Rings of Saturn, Wood views Sebald’s use of language with even greater clarity.  “Sebald’s language is an extraordinary, almost antiquarian edifice, full of the daintiest lusters.”  The “quality of melodrama and extremism running alongside a soft mutedness” is, Wood thinks, practically “Gothic.”

Last month, Wood returned to Sebald again, writing the introduction to Penguin’s tenth anniversary edition of Austerlitz, which he characterizes as a “journey of detection,” though, he warns, “the book really represents the deliberate frustration of detection, the perpetuation of an enigma.”  Sebald noted in his 1997 interview that he was more interested in biography than in fiction and Austerlitz represents his most extended attempt to write a fictional biography on his own terms.  In his introduction, Wood continues to elaborate on the aspects of Sebald that first attracted his attention in 1997, but he lingers on Sebald’s tactic of forcing the reader into Austerlitz’s shoes by strategically withholding information and by layering Austerlitz’s narrative behind his own narrator’s re-telling of Austerlitz’s story.  “What is so delicate is how Sebald makes Austerlitz’s story a broken, recessed enigma, whose meaning the reader must impossibly rescue.”  In the end, Wood says, “a life has been filled in for us but not a self.”

The new Penguin edition is really a reissue of their standard paperback edition of Austerlitz with the insertion of a new twenty-one page essay by James Wood and the addition of a faux gold seal on the front cover.  Nothing else has changed – not even the blurbs on the cover.  But since it does include a new introduction, most collectors will treat it as a new edition and will want the first printing, which Penguin has appropriately marked with a tiny “1” on the copyright page.

Sebald’s Translator Troubles?

W.G. Sebald’s annotations to Michael Hulse’s draft translation of the ‘Conrad chapter’ (Part V) of Die Ringe des Saturn.
(From Saturn’s Moons)

The other night I continued to make my non-sequential way through Saturn’s Moons: W.G. Sebald – A Handbook by reading short accounts written by two of Sebald’s English-language translators: “Englishing Max” by Michael Hulse and “Translating W.G. Sebald – With and Without the Author” by Anthea Bell.  A fair amount has already been written about turning Sebald’s German into English, a process that always involved the considerable participation of Sebald, who, of course, was extremely articulate in English.  The two essays in Saturn’s Moons add to the well-established image of Sebald and translator collaborating almost as equals.  As the illustration above shows, Sebald was perfectly capable of rephrasing – or even completely rewriting – the work of his own translator, which might well have been unnerving for those who took on the task of “Englishing” his German.

But Hulse provides a rare glimpse into the break-up of their professional (and personal) relationship that seems to expose a rarely seen side of Sebald.  Having already translated Die Ausgewanderten into The Emigrants in 1996 and Die Ringe des Saturn into The Rings of Saturn in 1998, Hulse “agreed against my better judgment to translate Schwindel. Gefühle,” which, in 1999, became Vertigo.  Hulse says he had already heard reports of Sebald complaining in public that he had had to “correct” Hulse’s translations.  Hulse, who was juggling multiple literary projects at once, also sensed that Sebald thought he slowed the translation process down too much.  Eventually, Hulse says, he informed Sebald’s publisher (Harvill) that he would not translate Sebald’s next book.  In January 2000, Sebald wrote Hulse to say that “Perhaps you would agree that, from your point of view also, our partnership has now reached its limits.”  After that they never communicated again.

This admission by Hulse immediately reminded me of Michael Hamburger’s oddly confessional “Translator’s Note” at the beginning of Unrecounted, the book of poems that he posthumously translated from Sebald’s German in 2005.

Although Max Sebald had given me copies of all his books published since our first acquaintance, he never so much as mentioned the writings of these miniatures to me and gave me no copy of For Years Now [the 2001 book in which some of the same poems had been previously published in English, apparently translated by Sebald himself].

Hamburger described the final period of Sebald’s life “as a time of crisis…full of enigmas, conflicts and contradictions he chose not to clarify.”  As a longstanding friend, Hamburger expressed some pique that Sebald was “readily accessible for interviews that probed matters he would not divulge to his closest friends.”

In an intriguing aside, Hamburger mentioned that his wife had received an autographed copy of the English edition of Austerlitz that, surprisingly, “contained emendations in his hand.”  Was Sebald unhappy with aspects of Anthea Bell’s translation, as well?  Bell, who has both written and spoken in interviews about her experiences with Sebald, has never hinted at any issues.

Undiscover’d Country.5

Barbara Hui’s Litmap for The Rings of Saturn using Google Maps

With this segment of the three final essays from The Undiscover’d Country, I finally come to the end of the most recent anthology on W.G. Sebald, edited by Markus Zisselsberger.  These essays are grouped together under the heading Topographies and Theories, which correctly suggests they have little in common with each other.

Barbara Hui’s Mapping Historical Networks in Die Ringe Des Saturn discusses two types of spatial logic used in The Rings of Saturn: the cosmological view of the Enlightenment and the networked perspective of the postmodern world.  The postmodern reconceptualization of space posits that “our experience of time and space in the late twentieth century has changed…fundamentally.”  Hui refers to the work of postmodern geographers who view the newly compressed world as a series of networks more than as a spatial territory.  “For the first time in history we have the godlike perspective that humanity has always imagined” (i.e., viewing the earth from the air).  But, Hui argues, “it turns out that we have nevertheless come no further in terms of knowing ourselves.”  In The Rings of Saturn, Hui sees a postmodern global network (all of “the local and global histories that he encounters on his pilgrimage in Suffolk.”) that is overlaid with a “project that is local and remains stubbornly so.”  By remaining fixated on Suffolk, Sebald can tell a more cosmological story that rejects “the dilettantism of tourism.”  As Sebald goes about a fairly straightforward walking tour, he recounts how Suffolk was affected by numerous historical events that had their origins around the globe.  The history that Sebald creates “is not a world history but rather a local history that is global in scope.”  Hui uses Google Maps to portray these networks visually.  (In September 2009, I posted a short piece about Hui’s work on Sebald.)  Not surprisingly, Hui relates Sebald’s sense of “the failure of post-Enlightenment Western thought” with his fascination for Sir Thomas Browne, whose “view is mystical and quasi-astrological,” and who saw the world as a unified whole that was subject to a cyclical trajectory through time.

Dora Osborne’s essay Topographical Anxiety and Disfunctional Systems: Die Ausgewanderten and Freud’s Little Hans argues for affiliations between the modelling of topographical and genealogical elements in Freud’s case history and Sebald’s narratives.  “The obsessive recurrence of and return to railway stations in Sebald’s work offers a particularly complex example of this inflection and is a key mode for the oblique referencing of the Holocaust that characterizes his writing.”

The volume ends with Peter Arnds’ essay While the Hidden Horrors of History are Briefly Illuminated: The Poetics of Wandering in Austerlitz and Die Ringe des Saturn.  Arnds says that his essay “will show that travel or wandering occurs within a field of tension in Sebald’s two texts, tension between arboresence, the Apollonian, and lethe as tropes of non-movement, concealment, and forgetting on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the rhizome, Dionysus, and aletheia.  This tension is inscribed into concrete textual moments that reflect how wandering triggers memory and the revelation of concealed truths.”  In his discussion, Arnds calls primarily upon the writings of Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger.

I hereby offer my apologies to all of the authors of The Undiscover’d Country for even attempting to describe in a single paragraph what each of them tried to accomplish in their thirty or so pages.  Having authored more than a few academic articles myself, I can sympathize.  However, my goal was to provide a shorthand version of each essay in hopes of directly readers to this remarkably strong anthology.  You can find all of my posts on The Undiscover’d Country here.