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Posts from the ‘Helen Finch’ Category

Literary Legacies & Networks – Witnessing, Memory, Poetics, Pt 4


As I neared the end of Witnessing, Memory, Poetics: H.G. Adler & W.G. Sebald I began to feel a bit claustrophobic as a succession of scholars resolutely examined the relationships between these two writers. But the final section, “Literary Legacies and Networks,” introduced a new set of faces to the volume – Franz Kafka, Theodor Adorno, Hermann Broch, and Heinrich Böll. In the first of three essays in this section, Martin Modlinger examines “The Kafkaesque in H.G. Adler’s and W.G. Sebald’s Literary Historiographies.” Adler made numerous references to Kafka in his books and short stories and, significantly, warned against viewing Kafka primarily as a prophet of the Holocaust. Adler believed that “totalitarianism makes up just one chapter of many equal, disturbing developments in modern history that Kafka’s work addresses.” Although Sebald’s use of Kafka has been written about frequently, Modlinger brings some new insights of his own, comparing Jacques Austlitz’s inability to gain access a real understanding of Theresienstadt (where his mother perished) with the surveyor’s inability to penetrate the castle in Kafka’s novel The Castle.

As a place of suffering and death, [Theresienstadt] cannot – and should not – be fully accessible to the living. Where literature approaches history, especially the history of the Holocaust, it needs to keep its proper distance. For Sebald, literary historiography can never claim to be able to present the factual or emotional truth of suffering; it can only describe the path of necessary failure toward such an understanding.

Helen Finch, one of the book’s editors (along with Lynn L. Wolff) writes about “Generational Conflicts, Generational Affinities: Broch, Adorno, Adler, Sebald.” Calling on Pierre Bordieu’s theory of literary capital, she looks at “the links between Adler and Sebald as part of a network of intellectual relationships that constituted the field of discourse in postwar Germany.” Ironically, even though Adler and Sebald represented different generations, both tried to jumpstart their literary careers early on by seeking the support of Theodor Adorno, the powerful faculty member of the influential Frankfurt School, whose theory of the dialectical nature of history and culture made him one of the leading gatekeepers of  postwar critical thinking. Finch also looks at the different responses that Adler and Sebald had to one of Germany’s other leading writers, Hermann Broch, whose 1932 novel The Sleepwalkers is often viewed as portraying the steps by which Germany descended over the course of several decades into the state in which Nazi Socialism could flourish.

And in the concluding essay, Frank Finlay examines “‘Der verwerfliche Literatbetrieb unserer Epoche’: H.G. Adler and the Postwar West German Literary Field.” Finlay draws upon the correspondence between Adler and Heinrich Böll to delve into the question of why Adler repeatedly failed to attain the same literary status and readership that Böll attracted with his work.

Witnessing, Memory, Poetics is, in the final analysis, an important anthology, in part because it is as much about the two writers H.G. Adler and W.G. Sebald as it is about the subject that they attempted to write about – the Holocaust. The very nature of the Holocaust exacerbated the generational and personal differences between Adler and Sebald – the Jew and the non-Jew, the target of Nazi policies and the son of a German soldier, the concentration camp survivor and the boy who scarcely experienced the war. Adler and Sebald shared the goal of memorializing one of the monumental tragedies in human history, but circumstances demanded that they respond differently. But in truth, as we move further and further away from the Holocaust (which will be seventy years in the past for children born in 2015), we need both the testimony of Adler and his generation and the guidance of Sebald and others if this terrible event is to have any meaning whatsoever in the future.

Helen Finch and Lynn L. Wolff, editors. Witnessing, Memory, Poetics: H.G. Adler & W. G. Sebald. Rochester: Camden House, 2014. For all of my posts on this book, click here.

Helen Finch Lecture on Sebald Nov. 20 in London

Helen Finch

Dr Helen Finch (University of Leeds) will be giving a talk entitled “W. G. Sebald’s Literary Capital: The Sebald Effect in Holocaust Literature?”
Thursday November 20, 2014, 5:30PM – 8:00PM
Location: Fischer Hall, University of Notre Dame, 1-4 Suffolk Street, London SW1Y 4HG

From the website:

W. G. Sebald’s work focuses largely on history, memory, and decay around the theme of the Holocaust and post-war Germany. Initially, it was received both as something new in literature and also something linking to the past, which harks back to the high modernism of Kafka and the melancholic realism of Adalbert Stifter. Thirteen years after Sebald’s death, his work is no longer a novelty, though to the English-speaking world it continues to be a posthumous revelation. In this lecture, Helen Finch will explore how Sebald’s work has accrued cultural capital and has served as a paternal model for a host of new writers such as Teju Cole and Will Self, whom one might dub ‘Sebald’s sons.’ She will question the gender of literary paternity and literary generation, and share ideas from her own monograph Sebald’s Bachelors, to analyze how Sebald avoids reproducing the destructive patriarchy of German society. 

Dr. Finch’s monograph on queer masculine identities in the works of W. G. Sebald, Sebald’s Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life, appeared with Legenda in 2013. She has published widely on W. G. Sebald, H. G. Adler, Günter Grass and contemporary German literature. She is currently working on a book project entitled Holocaust Literature in German: Canon, Witness, Remediation. She is a co-investigator on a series of projects linking researchers in the UK and South Africa working on trauma, reconciliation and reparation in the aftermath of German Nazism and Afrikaner nationalism. In addition, she is a co-investigator on a major AHRC Care for the Future research project, Performing the Jewish Archive. 
A reception will follow the talk.

Registration is required by November 18 (click here).

“The Poetics of Witnessing” – Witnessing, Memory, Poetics, Pt. 2


In the second section of the new book Witnessing, Memory, Poetics: H.G. Adler & W.G. Sebald, edited by Helen Finch and Lynn L. Wolff, we find essays by Katrin Kohl, Kirstin Gwyer, and Lynn L. Wolff grouped under the rubric “Witnessing Trauma and the Poetics of Witnessing.” The first essay is Katrin Kohl’s “Bearing Witness: The Poetics of H.G. Adler and W.G. Sebald.” Using as a touchstone Theodore Adorno’s now-infamous statement that “to write poetry after Aushwitz is barbaric,” Kohl examines how Adler and Sebald cope with the ethical issues of “bearing witness” through their poetry and fiction, focusing mostly on Adler’s novel Eine Reise (The Journey) and exclusively on Sebald’s Austerlitz. The principal contrast, of course, is that Adler was a survivor of the concentration camps while Sebald’s life was essentially untouched by the war or the concentration camps.

In an essay on poetics, which was apparently not published in Adler’s lifetime, Adler – who wrote both poetry and novels related to the Holocaust – directly countered Adorno’s dictum.  Adler declared that “the possibility of an artform cannot be decreed in theoretical terms.”

[Adler] thereby places literature written in the aftermath of the Shoah on a foundation that is independent of philosophical and ethical questions of legitimacy, and focused most immediately on poetic quality. He thus avoids pressing poetry into the service of bearing witness. However…he places the poet’s integrity and commitment at the center of poetic utterance…By freeing poetry from the obligation to respond to external constraints, he defends its potential as an independent counter-discourse that symbolizes the individual’s spiritual autonomy, and allows it to act freely as a force for humanity.

Sebald’s generation, Kohl asserts, was faced with the dilemma of being inundated with “mass statistics designed to induce guilt without emotional or moral understanding.” Sebald, therefore, had to “undertake the project of developing a poetics that responds to the sense of implication in events he perceived to be vital in terms of identity but which are at the same time not directly accessible” to those without firsthand experience of the Holocaust. His poetics, then, become the opposite of Adler’s. Sebald must “facilitate a process that can begin to construct a context in which past lives and actions gain meaning.” Kohl sees the gap between those who witnessed the Holocaust and those who did not as “unbridgeable,” essentially preventing someone like Sebald from “bearing witness” in a manner similar to the way in which Adler’s writing functions.

Sebald thereby evolves a narrative stance of empathetic respect based upon moral implications that rigorously refrains from appropriating any intellectual, moral, or emotional high ground, and above all dispels any notion of the person who was not there being able to act as witness.

Sebald, therefore, becomes a mediator, not a witness. “Where Adler writes sociological studies based on primary sources, and fictional works depicting characters who engage with immediate events, Sebald traces individual lives through the darkening mirror of history, giving them a voice that seeks to move beyond representation in the act of speaking.”


As if in answer to Kohl – and many others who have accorded Sebald a privileged, if not unique, literary place vis-à-vis the Holocaust, Kirstin Gwyer’s essay “‘Schmerzensspuren der Geschichte(n)’: Memory and Intertextuality in H.G. Adler and W.G Sebald,” debates the very legitimacy that Sebald sought for his position.  She deals directly with the tricky question of Sebald’s relationship to the Holocaust, focusing on two works: Austerlitz and a 1990 paper he wrote on “Jean Améry and Primo Levi.” Sebald was not of the generation that personally witnessed the Holocaust, yet in a variety of places and ways he suggested that he had both a special literary approach to the Holocaust (based on his understanding of  the theories of trauma and postmemory) and a personal connection to the Holocaust that seemed to transcend his lack of personal experience. “Even though he was too young to have any genuine firsthand memories of the war, he felt that he was the product of precisely the atrocities he did not experience.”

[In the 1990 essay] Sebald is unspecific about the nature of the horrors he did not experience, during a time of destruction he did not witness. Indeed, here as elsewhere, he is unspecific in a way that suggests he may be referring to more than the bombing of German cities that is, on the face of it, his topic….The never-experienced horrors are presented as having had a far more lasting impact on Sebald than his actual childhood did. The former, not the latter, were felt to have cast a shadow from which he could never emerge.

Gwyer, who I would describe as a gentle but rigorous skeptic, argues forcefully that Sebald “is effectively positioning himself as an elective heir to the victim collective and assuming the (literary) legacy of Holocaust trauma.”

Between its extensive use of intertextuality and its focus on the processes of, and possibilities inherent in, traumatic transmissions across victim-perpetrator or generational boundaries, Austerlitz appears as a text principally occupied with questions of legacy and legitimacy. As such, it…seems to be informed by a similar “wishful sense of belonging” on the part of Sebald – by a desire to be a “postmemorial” witness, invested enough to believe he can feel the pain of the past  and the pain of the victim, almost as if it were his own, but belated enough to feel better equipped to preserve of reproduce its traces in the present than a primary witness might be. 

“In the final analysis,” Gwyer writes, “it is difficult to say where Austerlitz falls on a scale assessing the degree and legitimacy of Sebald’s (literary) identification with,and possible appropriation of, a history, or story, that is not his.”


In the last essay in this section, Lynn L. Wolff tries to “build upon the major intertextual and thematic connections that this volume establishes between Adler and Sebald to explore the degree of ‘wit(h)ness’ in their relationship.” She focuses on two texts: Adler’s 1970 essay “Der Autor zwischen Literatur und Politik” (The Author between Literature and Politics) and Sebald’s 2001 talk/essay  “Ein Versuch der Restitution” (An Attempt at Restitution), contrasting Adler’s philosophy of “engagement” with Sebald’s sense of “restitution.” Adler, a Holocaust survivor who refused to make any autobiographical statements in his sociological or literary texts about the Holocaust, was wary that  “the emotional content” could easily (and understandably) color any survivor’s story. As Wolff puts it, “for Adler, a certain distance is essential for both bearing witness to and scholarly representations of the Holocaust.” To some extent, it is this distance that Sebald tries to employ in his own “poetics of engagement” with Germany’s past. Sebald “strives toward a form of ‘true’ and authentic witnessing that is only possible from a distanced perspective.”

Sebald’s Austerlitz can be read as his direct attempt at restitution, by engaging with Adler’s monumental work Theresienstadt and by bringing attention to this significant yet nearly forgotten survivor and scholar of the Holocaust. Finally, Sebald’s careful approach us further underlined by the title of the lecture, “Ein Versuch der Restitution”: It is important to emphasize the tentativeness in Sebald’s claim, for it is in this attempt, I would argue, that we can locate both the political promise and the respectful distance inherent in his works.

Helen Finch & Lynn L. Wolff, editors. Witnessing, Memory, Poetics: H.G. Adler & W.G. Sebald. Rochester. NY: Camden House, 2014. Here is a link to all of my posts on this book.

Witnessing, Memory, Poetics


Toward the end of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Jacques Austerlitz tells the book’s narrator that he has just read a “heavy tome, running to almost eight hundred close-printed pages, which H.G. Adler, a name previously unknown to me, had written between 1945 and 1947 in the most difficult of circumstances, partly in Prague and partly in London, on the subject of the setting up, development, and internal organization of the Theresienstadt ghetto, and which he had revised several times before it was brought out by a German publishing house in 1955…” It was a struggle for Austerlitz to understand the difficult German and he often spent an entire day translating a single page. “I might as well say it was almost as difficult for me as deciphering an Egyptian or Babylonian text in hieroglyphic or cuneiform script. The long compounds, not listed in my dictionary, which were obviously being spawned the whole time by the pseudo-technical jargon governing everything in Theresienstadt had to be unraveled syllable by syllable.” But Austerlitz persisted until the end and “read down to the last footnote,”anxious to absorb every detail of the terrible place where he had been imprisoned and where his mother had perished. Sebald’s retelling of Adler’s seminal study Theresienstadt 1941-1945: Das Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft. Geschichte, Soziologie, Psychologie,embodied in a single sentence some ten pages long, has resulted in new and widespread interest in Adler’s books, most of which had languished during his lifetime before falling into oblivion.

Hans Günther Adler was born in Prague in 1910. In 1941 he and his family were sent by the Nazis to a Jewish workcamp, then to Theresienstadt, where they remained for two and a half years before being moved to Auschwitz. Adler was the sole member of his family to survive the Holocaust. At the end of the war, he began his immensely detailed study of Theresienstadt, which was finally published in 1955. Taking up residence in London, he eventually produced more than twenty books, including the three novels. Until recently, none of Adler’s books were available in English translation, but by the end of 2014, it will be possible to read all three of his published novels in English for the first time thanks to Modern Library: The Journey (2009), Panorama (2012), and The Wall (December 2014).

In October 2012, a conference was held in London on the subject H.G. Adler/W.G. Sebald: Witnessing, Memory, Poetics, coordinated by Helen Finch and Lynn L. Wolff. Thankfully, Camden House has just published a volume of essays that emerged from the conference: Witnessing, Memory, Poetics: H.G. Adler & W.G. Sebald. In the first section of the book we hear from Finch and Wolff, Adler’s son Jeremy Adler, Adler’s translator Peter Filkins, and scholar Jo Catling.

Finch and Wolff set the stage in their introduction “The Adler-Sebald Intertextual Relationship as Paradigm for Intergenerational Literary Testimony.”

This volume investigates the connections between the major contributions that both writers have made in exploring the poetics of memory, asserting the ethics of witnessing, and establishing new forms of historiography….this volume reveals how, on the one hand, an earlier witness had been repeatedly dismissed as having written illegitimate literary testimonials, while on the other a contemporary author gained renown through his literary writings of Holocaust testimony, memory, and trauma.

In “Memory’s Witness – Witnessing Memory,” Jeremy Adler recalls his reaction when he read Sebald’s account of his father’s book in Austerlitz.

I read with fascination and a growing sense that he had crossed the line. What right had he to fictionalize a free agent? How could he justify his borrowings? Did his predatory witness distort a truthful memory? Sebald’s tragic death broke off the possibility of discussion, forever impeded reconciliation. And since then, I have experienced many different reactions to Austerlitz, from an anger comparable to that which Frank Auerbach voiced at the alleged theft of his personality in Die Ausgewanderten to the gratitude I now feel to Sebald for what was clearly intended as an act of homage.

Adler also summarizes how he views the connections between the two men, who never met or spoke to each other, much to Sebald’s regret.

Adler and Sebald have much in common. They are both scholar-poets -Dichter – who practice scholarship, fiction, poetry, and photography; both write as German-speaking exiles in England; and both stand in the tradition of Austrian literature defined by the work of Adalbert Stifter.

Peter Filkins, who has translated all three of Adler’s novels, writes that “Adler and Sebald are bookends to the central literary problem of our time – namely, in the face of immense suffering experienced at the hands of systematic, mechanized, and largely featureless forces acting upon largely nameless victims, what can literature do to depict, explain, evoke, or understand such suffering.” Ironically, Adler’s response, despite the loss of his family and his own personal suffering, was to erase himself from his writing, “to examine [Theresienstadt] in a scholarly manner and as such to let it remain completely free of any individual experience.” In fact, Filkins points out, it’s difficult to determine how memory might have played a role in Adler’s conception of the Holocaust since he left so few firsthand comments on his own Holocaust experiences. Sebald, on the other hand, with no personal experience of the Holocaust, saw that “his task as a writer is to get at that undiscovered truth” that witnesses choose not to see.

Jo Catling, in her essay “Writing the Medusa: A Documentation of H.G. Adler and Theresienstadt in W.G. Sebald’s Library,” tracks down and analyzes the various resources that Sebald had available to him on Adler, Theresienstadt, and the Holocaust – both in his own library and his university library.

Over the coming weeks I’ll continue to summarize the essays as I read the next three sections of Witnessing, Memory, Poetics.

Sebald’s Bachelors


Part of the disorientation of Sebald’s characters can be viewed as precisely an attempt to go astray, to resist compulsory heterosexuality and to transgress the borders of Germany and Europe in search of a queer affinity that might provide a source of resistance to the straightening and oppressive orientation of bourgeois society and family.

Helen Finch’s new book Sebald’s Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life is an ambitious, thin book that contains a dense, closely argued “queer reading of Sebald’s work.”  The result is one of the most important books on Sebald to date.  I am sure that there are a number of Sebald readers, casual and otherwise, who will look askance at a queer reading of his work, but, as Finch demonstrates, the clues – both obvious and coded – are there in plain sight.  And keep in mind Finch’s careful caveat: “this study confines itself to Sebald’s literature only, and makes few claims about his biography and none about his personal orientations.”

At the risk of gravely oversimplifying things, let me try to summarize what seems to be a major theme that binds all of Sebald’s writing into a single, albeit broad, trajectory – namely the development of a theory of European history that might attempt to explain the incalculable destruction caused by colonialism, racism, and Germany’s Nazi era.  In even cruder terms, how did we move from the Enlightenment to the Holocaust?  As scholars begin to closely examine the critique that Sebald has now left us, the question arises whether his work proposes any response to the tragedy of history other than a kind of morose and pessimistic melancholy.  This is where Helen Finch’s book enters the picture.

Sebald readers who primarily know only his prose fiction will benefit greatly from Finch’s book, since it is in Sebald’s critical writing (still largely untranslated into English) that one finds the theoretical framework for his sustained critique of Enlightenment idealism and European history since Napoleon.  Finch does a great job of making the connections between Sebald’s extensive critical writings and his four books of prose fiction and the book-length poem After Nature.  His critical writing on literature is, as Finch puts it, “saturated in sexuality” and structured around Freudian critical theory beginning with his 1969 monograph on Carl Sternheim.  Sebald’s early and deep engagement with the Frankfurt School led him to reject textually-grounded criticism “in favour of applying sociological, psychological, and biographical criteria to German texts, criteria that helped him to develop a psychopathology of the bourgeois self” – especially the bourgeois conception of masculinity.  Over the years, Sebald further developed his theory of poetics around the writings of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, notably their book Kafka: For a Minor Literature.

But there was more at stake for Sebald than history and literature; it was familial and personal as well.  Sebald’s father served in Poland during the Second World War and Sebald grew up in a family environment that remained utterly silent on the failures and horrors of National Socialism and the war years.  “Sebald may be viewed as a paradigmatic member of the 1968 generation who was locked in a lifelong unresolved Oedipal contest with his National Socialist father and his father’s generation.”  And, one might add, with the entire generation of German writers that preceded him.  By linking traditional European – and specifically German – patriarchal society with the nationalism, colonialism, and racism that led to the destructive triumph of National Socialism in Germany, Sebald developed a critique of traditional male roles and began to populate his poetry and prose with male figures who resisted “bourgeois constructs of masculinity” in favor of a more queered existence.

As Finch points out, Sebald’s books are almost completely populated by male characters.  A number of key characters are openly homosexual, including two of the title characters from The Emigrants – Ambros Adelwarth (whom Sebald claimed was based on his own great uncle) and Paul Bereyter – and a number of key figures in The Rings of Saturn, notably Roger Casement, Algernon Swinburne, and Edward Fitzgerald.  Many of Sebald’s other characters also fall into Sebald’s coterie of queer bachelors, figures who might superficially appear to be just odd or eccentric or, in the case or writers like Robert Walser and Ernst Herbeck, mentally unstable.  What they all share, in one way or another, is a “queer imperative” to resist traditional marriage, fatherhood, and sexuality in order to lead the “unconforming life” of Finch’s subtitle.  In this way, Finch sees Sebald offering an alternative to or a way out from the destructiveness of history other than melancholy and mourning.

I make a claim not only for the centrality of queerness to Sebald’s poetic project, but also for its status as a mode of resistance to oppressive structures.  This book delineates a disruptive, at times utopian, at times joyful concept of the “Sebaldian queer.”  Very broadly speaking, my reading of Sebald is allied with theorists, chief among them Sara Ahmed, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and Michael D. Snedicker, whose versions of queer identity and queer textuality express transgression and immanence…I argue against reading into Sebald the categories of “melancholy, self-shattering, shame, the ‘death drive'” that have become categories to conjure with in queer theory.  Rather, I claim that the Sebaldian queer, although inflected and constrained by melancholy, contains the possibility of an immanent, ethical, and critical optimism.

But this is not to say that Sebald comes off spotless in Finch’s eyes.  She cautions that Sebald exhibits a blind spot to certain behaviors of his queer bachelors, such as the affinity that Roger Casement along with Ambros Adelwarth and his partner share for young boys.  She is also mildly worried about some inconsistencies in Sebald’s work, especially in two cases.  The first instance has to do with the final chapter of Vertigo, in which the narrator visits the village in Germany where he grew up and re-envisions his childhood.   To Finch, this seems to represent a “return to a genealogical plot, heterosexual themes, and the German household, in part undoing the queer potential that came before” in the earlier sections of the book.  In the second, and more important, instance, she tries to understand why it is that Sebald’s final book, Austerlitz, represents a return to more normative, less queered modes of fiction.  Finch’s discussion of these two areas seemed to me to be the weakest points in the books, but then I should also say that these instances simply aren’t as problematic for me as they are for Finch.

I have only scratched the surface of all that Finch has to say.  So, by way of a wrap-up, I’ll let the author have the final word.  Here are the concluding sentences of Finch’s book.

If at times the Sebaldian queer itself borders on kitsch, dallies with Orientalism, and avails itself of a range of creakily outmoded theories of homosexuality, it nonetheless represents a real attempt to resist the oppressive orders of history in a way not solely conditioned by melancholia, Thanatos, and mourning.  Sebald’s idiosyncratic portrayal of queer desire is located right at the fault lines of history, memory, identity, theory, and narrative, and as such represents a significant contribution to queer letters. If, as has so often been claimed, Sebald’s work represents a profoundly important intervention in European literature and politics, some of its most radical, joyful, and political potential is queer.

Helen Finch.  Sebald’s Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life.  Oxford: Legenda, 2013.  Distributed by Oxbow Books and David Brown Book Company (in the US).