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Posts from the ‘Emigrants (Ausgewanderten)’ Category

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.

Click here for more information and tickets.

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. There is a 9 1/2 minute interview with Bill T. Jones on the dance on Soundcloud. 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.

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“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.

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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.


Ligeia XXIV° ANNÉE, N° 105-108, JANVIER-JUIN 2011

The newest issue of the French art magazine Ligeia: Dossiers sur L’Art has a major section devoted to the theme of Ruins, Photography & History, edited by art historian Zaha Redman.  I was invited to submit something on Sebald, which allowed me to write a piece that was longer than my usual blog post.  My essay The Silent Catastrophe: Sebald’s Manchester (that’s the English title) explores Sebald’s relationship with Manchester as reflected in After Nature and The Emigrants.  None of the essays are online and I’m afraid I don’t know how easy it is to obtain an issue outside of France.

Here are the contents of the special section:

Zaha Redman, Une histoire de pauvreté
Zaha Redman, Hadamar
Zaha Redman, Quel temps il fait, Stéphane Duroy
Pauline Vermare, L’Irlande du Nord de Paul Graham
Jean-Christian Fleury et Jacqueline Salmon, Le Hangar
Denis Baudier, Lewis Baltz, la désagrégation en acte
Zaha Redman, « Les Tombes » de Gilles Peress
Philippe Arbaïzar, Christina’s History, Mikael Levin
Jean-François Chevrier, Plus d’autres sujets, Mikael Levin
Tim Maul, The Devil’s Half-Acre
Zaha Redman, L’espace naturel de la puissance, Shaï Kremer
Auset Nassir, 012011/Égypte
Gilles Mora, New Orleans : mythes, ruines et chaos
Zaha Redman, Les visions tumultueuses de Wang Qinsong
Eduardo Cadava, Lapsus Imagini
Cécile Yapaudjian-Labat, ‘Histoire’ de Claude Simon, La mélancolie des restes
Terry Pitts, La catastrophe muette, Sebald à Manchester
Zaha Redman, La pauvreté de la photographie chez W. G. Sebald

Undiscover’d Country.5

Barbara Hui’s Litmap for The Rings of Saturn using Google Maps
[See the larger version here]

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.

Nossack’s The End: Caught in the Middle

Nossack End

How ought such a natural history of destruction to begin? With a summary of the technical, organizational, and political prerequisites for carrying out large-scale air-raids? With a scientific account of the previously unknown phenomenon of the firestorms? With a pathological record of typical modes of death, or with behaviorist studies of the instincts of flight and homecoming?

In Air War and Literature, the essay that dominates W.G. Sebald’s book of essays On the Natural History of Destruction, Sebald deplored what he saw in immediate post-war writing by Germans about the devastation that their country suffered in its defeat, especially the near total destruction that resulted from the Allied tactic of firebombing German cities. “There was a tacit agreement,” he suggested, “equally binding on everyone, that the true state of material and moral ruin in which the country found itself was not to be described.” Sebald then named a handful of writers who “ventured to break the taboo on any mention of the inward and outward destruction,” even if they “generally did so rather equivocally.”

Indeed, it seems that no German writer, with the sole exception of Nossack, was ready or able to put any concrete facts down on paper about the progress and repercussions of this gigantic, long-term campaign of destruction.

Sebald particularly praised Der Untergang, Hans Erich Nossack’s account of the July 1943 firebombing of Hamburg, which was included in a group of stories in a book called Interview mit dem Tode (Interview with Death), first published in Germany in 1948. Probably because of the attention it received in Sebald’s book, Der Untergang finally appeared in English in 2004 from the University of Chicago Press, translated by Joel Agee and retitled The End: Hamburg 1943.

By sheer luck, Nossack, a writer living in Hamburg in 1943, took his first vacation in years on the very week that the city was firebombed by Allies. Staying in a small rental cottage within sight of the city, Nossack witnessed the days of bombing and the ensuing flight of survivors before making his way back into Hamburg to see if anything was left of his home and office. At the outset, Nossack identifies himself as a “spectator,” an observer who used his location at the fringe of events – rather than at their center – to his advantage. There was a “danger,” he said, at “knowing the entirety.” Though his writing vacillates between the utterly precise and the casually impressionistic, Nossack uses his relentless sense of observation to try to understand the survivors, who, because of their experiences at the center of the firebombing, stand on the other side of “an invisible abyss.” “Why didn’t they cry and lament?” It seemed to him that “shelter, food, and clothing basically didn’t make any difference at all.” At this level, Nossack’s enterprise of trying to comprehend this horrendous experience from which he was largely exempt is not unlike Sebald’s own attempt to slowly excavate the damaged lives of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in The Emigrants.

But Nossack is more than an observer, he is also a moralist.  Watching others applaud each time an Allied plane is downed, he declines to join in.  “Now was no longer the time for petty distinctions as that between friend and foe,” he writes before quoting from Homer’s Odyssey about the unholiness of rejoicing over the death of enemies.    But Nossack goes even further and confesses his own sense of guilt “in the city’s destruction.”   Moreover, he suspects other Germans also secretly harbor the same sense of guilt, a theme on which he elaborates throughout The End.

Nossack’s brief book is the document of someone who records the nuances of his own response as the world around him is being destroyed.  “One must confess or forget, there is no third option.”  Ironically, it is only as he returns to “the dead city” that “at last real life begins.”  At that point, it felt “as if a prison door had sprung open before me…”

Sebald’s essay (based on lectures delivered in Zurich in 1997 and later published in The New Yorker) created its own little firestorm. There have been questions about his motivations, his circumscribed list of responsible writers, and his basic thesis – none of which do I really want to wade into. But over the weekend, as I reread The End after a lapse of several years – Nossack’s piece is a mere 63 pages long – I found myself inevitably caught up in the controversy all over again, because the topic somewhat oddly consumes much of translator Joel Agee’s Foreword. “It is worth taking a closer look at Sebald’s thesis,” Agee writes, “because it espouses a program in which Nossack cannot be enlisted without misunderstanding him.” (Agee’s Foreword can be read here.)

There is no doubt that Air War and Literature is a problematic essay. In this and many of Sebald’s later essays, we are presented with an author that is a blend of Sebald the writer of prose fiction and Sebald the historian and critic of German-language literature. Eschewing academic approaches for a more personal essay, Sebald approaches the complex issues of German guilt and Allied moral culpability through the more informal avenues of lecture and essay, rather than developing a tightly argued case. At times, his uncharacteristic imprecision about what he likes and dislikes in German literature of the war era provides an opening for the objections of Agee and others. For example, Sebald makes the somewhat odd claim that Nossack was “primarily concerned with the plain facts,” a statement that earns him the disdain of Agee.  In Sebald’s eyes, Nossack stood out from other German writers on the subject of the firebombings because he wrote about

the season of the year, the weather, the observer’s viewpoint, the drone of the approaching squadrons, the red firelight on the horizon, the physical and mental condition of refugees from the cities, the burnt-out scenery, chimneys that curiously still remain standing, washing put out to dry on a rack outside a kitchen window, a torn net curtain blowing from an empty veranda, a living room sofa with a crochet cover, countless other objects lost forever, the rubble burying them and the dreadful new life moving beneath it, people’s sudden craving for perfume.

Agee disputes Sebald’s claim. “These are not ‘plain facts’,” he writes. And he has a point. For, as one reads and rereads Sebald’s comments on Nossack, his position becomes ever more convoluted. In addition to delivering the “plain facts,” Sebald praises Nossack for the manner in which he delivers his facts. He approves of Nossack’s tendency to link “the sacred with the utmost profanity…a device that always proves effective.” Moreover, Nossack’s “narrative tone here is that of the messenger in classical tragedy.” Flipping and and forth between Nossack’s book, Sebald writing about Nossack, and Agee writing about Sebald, I began to think that the differences between Sebald and Agee are more semantic than substantive. Nossack, it seems to me, is not notable for his “plain facts” (although there are plenty of them) as much as for the telling details, which are something altogether different. One night, while taking shelter from the bombing in the cabin’s basement, Nossack knocks something over in the dark and it breaks. It was “a glass bowl that didn’t belong to us.” It’s a typical Nossack moment to register the brief concern that he has broken something that belongs to the cabin’s owner while all of Hamburg is on fire. Or to notice that some escaped pet parakeets have taken to sitting in the branches of a poplar tree. In fact, Nossack himself admits he didn’t remember much of what the survivors said to him as they fled. “It’s not really important,” he writes, as if what they might say was far less important than what they were doing.

Agee’s Foreword has the tone of someone quickly trying to mark the boundaries of his turf as an unwanted stranger approaches. Nonetheless, I also think he properly suggests one of the motivations of Sebald’s essay in something he writes at the end of one of his footnotes:

An unstated motif throughout Sebald’s essay appears to be a polemical claim for his own quasi-documentary aesthetic as the only responsible way to contemplate the bitter truth of historical memory.

While Agee is correct here, I don’t think he should be in the least surprised. Writers and artists have always proposed their own aesthetic lineage (often through a process of misdiagnosing or creatively misreading the work of their predecessors) and they often find ways to leave a trail of breadcrumbs between themselves and those fore-bearers they most admire. Sebald practically said as much himself in Air War and Literature.

It is with this documentary approach, which has an early precursor in Nossack’s Der Untergang, that German postwar literature really comes into its own and begins the serious study of material incommensurable with traditional aesthetics.