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Posts from the ‘Manchester’ Category

Passing Time, Weaving Time

Then I decided to write in order to get things straight, to cure myself, to explain to myself what had happened to me in this hateful town, to offer some resistance to its evil spell, to shake myself awake from the torpor it instilled in me with its rain, its bricks, its dirty children, its lifeless districts, its river and its stations, its sheds and its parks, in order not to become like those sleepwalkers who passed me in its streets, in order that the grime of Bleston should not seep into my blood, into my bones, into the lenses of my eyes; I decided to erect around me this rampart of writing, feeling how deeply tainted I must already be to have come to such a stupid pass and to be so distressed about it, feeling how completely Bleston had outwitted my pitiful vigilance and how, in a few months of loathsome caresses, its slow poison had oozed into my brain.

If you want to read one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century (in its English translation, that is), be prepared to pay at least $75 to obtain one of the six used copies currently available for sale on Michel Butor’s Passing Time has lamentably been out of print since 1969. I was shocked to see that my worn copy of two novels by Butor—Passing Time and A Change of Heart in one volume (Simon & Schuster, 1969)—was selling for at least $100. But my copy will probably be worthless in late May when Pariah Press of Manchester comes out with a new edition of Passing Time for the first time in fifty-two years. (See below for a special pre-publication offer.) Just imagine James Joyce’s Ulysses or any one of Virginia Woolf’s books being out of print that long. Inconceivable.

First published in France in 1956 as L’Emploi du Temps and in the U.S in 1960, the basic storyline in Passing Time is simple. Jacques Revel, a Frenchman, arrives in the English city of Bleston (modeled after Manchester), having been hired by a small company for one year to translate business documents between French and English. Over the course of his year he makes a few friends, starts to fall in love with one woman, then shifts his attention to her sister, all the while exploring the city on foot and by bus. Midway through his term, one of his acquaintances is nearly killed by a car in a hit-and-run accident, and Revel believes that something he did may have set off the chain of events that led to the attempted murder. So he sets out to play detective and try to discover if his actions were in any way connected to that event. To aid himself, he decides to recall and document in writing everything he can remember about his stay in Bleston, and that becomes the book we are reading.

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Vertiginous Links for February

At the University of East Anglia’s #NewWriting website, former Sebald student Luke Williams has posted his article A Watch on Each Wrist: Twelve Seminars with W.G. Sebald, which originally appeared in the anthology Saturn’s Moons: W.G. Sebald – A Handbook.  Williams’ vivid recollections of Sebald, the professor, provide wonderful and insightful reading. His essay gets its title from the fact that he would observe Sebald apparently wearing two wrist watches in class.  “Why two watches? Why one digital and one analogue? Why was the analogue watch turned face down? I didn’t know.”  The answer, which I found quite quite surprising, is revealed at #NewWriting in the comments section.  So, click here to make your way over there and read Williams’ piece.

At the always-worth-reading Los Angeles Review of Books there is an essay called Imperfect Strollers: Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, and W.G. Sebald, and the Alienated Cosmopolitan by Michelle Kuo and Albert Wu. I’ve written about both Lerner and Cole.

What ultimately drives Sebald’s narrator is not doubt, but desire: to believe in a shadow world; to find evidence of it in the wondrous impossibilities of the natural world; to tell stories of metamorphosis, and therefore to imagine the indestructibility of soul, being, or spirit. Through these desires, we escape the mourning that we each have equally inherited. Thus, unlike Cole and Lerner, Sebald does choose a position from where his narrator speaks. In grief yet also in wonder, he invites us to observe alongside him. What certainties arise from his observations? The history of our world, for Sebald, is like a thread of a thousand yards woven by silkworm. Our recent past has broken it irrevocably.

Melilah 2 front copy

Melilah: Manchester Journal of Jewish Studies 2012 Supplement 2 is devoted to Memory, Traces and the Holocaust in the Writings of W.G. Sebald, edited by Jean-Marc Dreyfus and Janet Wolff.  (Yes, the official title given at the website and on the magazine title page doesn’t match the title shown on the sample cover.)  At Melilah’s website, the entire issue can be downloaded as a PDF for free. Here’s the list of contents:

  • Memory, Traces and the Holocaust in the Writings of W.G. Sebald by Jean-Marc Dreyfus and Janet Wolff
  • ‘And So They Are Ever Returning to Us, the Dead:The Presence of the Dead in W.G. Sebald by Carole Angier
  • Kindertransport, Camps and the Holocaust in Austerlitz by Jean-Marc Dreyfus
  • The Peripatetic Paragraph:Walking (and Walking) with W.G. Sebald by Monica B. Pearl
  • I Couldn’t Imagine Any World Outside Wales: The Place of Wales and Welsh Calvinist Methodism in Sebald’s European Story by Jeremy Gregory
  • Utter Blackness: Figuring Sebald’s Manchester by John Sears
  • Max Ferber and the Persistence of Pre-Memory in Mancunian Exile by Janet Wolff
  • The Uses of Images: W.G. Sebald & T.J. Clark by Helen Hills
  • Novel Crime, Hunting and Investigation of the Trace in Sebald’s Prose by Muriel Pic
  • Notes on Contributors

Finally, to continue the Manchester theme, I’m going to make a link to something I wrote in 2011.  I was invited to submit an essay to the French magazine Ligeia: Dossiers Sur L’Art for an issue devoted to “Ruines, Photo & Histoire.”  My essay The Silent Catastrophe: Sebald’s Manchester, was published as La Catastrophe Muette, translated by Zaha Redman.  I’m putting the previously unpublished English version up on Vertigo here.

Saturn’s Moons – Young Sebald

Josef Egelhofer, W.G. Sebald’s maternal grandfather in his uniform as village policeman, Wertach, 1920

Since August, I have been slowly traversing the contents of Saturn’s Moons: W.G. Sebald – A Handbook, edited by Jo Catling and Richard Hibbitt.   Saturn’s Moons opens with a section called The Writer in Context, which provides five biographical essays by as many authors, each dealing with a section of Sebald’s life.  Here the link to all of my posts on Saturn’s Moons.  The most recent essays that I have managed to squeeze in between my travel and a pressing fall schedule are both biographical essays dealing with the years leading up to Sebald’s tenure at the University of East Anglia.

Mark M. Anderson’s A Childhood in the Allgäu: Wertach, 1944-52 covers Sebald’s childhood in the southwest part of Bavaria.  He portrays this period as a rather happy time, with the young Sebald being heavily influenced by his maternal grandfather, who was, among other things, a “passionate walker.”  Anderson suggests that it was through his grandfather (born in 1872) that Sebald found his “old-fashioned, nineteenth-century tone.”Anderson contends that Sebald never completely recovered from his grandfather’s death when he was twelve.

Richard Sheppard’s The Sternheim Years: W.G. Sebald’s Lehrjahre and Theatralische Sendung 1963-75 is essentially a detailed history of Sebald’s college years and his early teaching years in Manchester.  Sheppard begins with fairly extensive coverage of Sebald’s years at the University of Freiburg (1963-65), where he was interested in literature, the arts and the theater.  Sebald even acted in several plays.  It was here that he discovered Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt School, which would be enduring influences on his thinking and writing.  These years also coincided with the Auschwitz trails, which, Sheppard argues, led Sebald “to believe that the post-war German university system had been tacitly colluding in the cover-up” of the true history of war years.   From 1965-66 Sebald attended the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, where he began to develop and sharpen his critical stance through his research and writing on the German dramatist Carl Sternheim (1878-1942).  From 1966-68 Sebald taught at the University of Manchester.  Here, I was very pleased to see, Sebald read Michel Butor’s 1957 novel L’Emploi du Temps (Passing Time), written when the French novelist was also a visiting lecturer at the University of Manchester.   From 1968-69 Sebald taught in St. Gallen, Switzerland, before returning to Manchester for the 1969-70 year.  Through Sheppard’s extensive research and close reading of Sebald’s writings from this time, we see exactly how Sebald’s critical positions and literary tastes evolved and strengthened.

Anyone with more than a passing interest in Sebald will find these two essays (which consume nearly one hundred pages) to be fascinating and revealing.

Palimpsestuous Manchester

I suppose one could use psychogeography to look closer at the current attempts by Manchester United (“the world’s most popular football team”) to keep its Portuguese-born star Ronaldo from defecting to the Spanish team Real Madrid, but Manchester artists are using that same discipline (perhaps to better advantage) to explore the post-industrial status of their city. Earlier I wrote about the city of Manchester in connection with its appearances in two novels: W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and Michel Butor’s Passing Time. In this connection, I recommend a new blog Ruinous Recollections:

Ruinous Recollections is an art project established by two Manchester-based curators, Darien Jane Rozentals and Robert Knifton. Taking multiple stories of the city as its start point, it will create works that etch memories into Manchester’s urban canvas, re-imagining and adding layers to an already fluid city. This blog will document the project as it evolves…

Especially of interest to me was this post, describing the project by photographer Victoria Lem. As her contribution to the exhibition:

Vic photographs post-industrial ruins, uncovering ghostly remnants of preserved memory, often adding extra layers of palimpsestuous reading to her artefacts by using a time-based pin hole camera techniques and by making spectral fragmented screen prints of the images she captures – the dramatic photograph above is from a series Vic took at Barnes Hospital. Re-tracing the footsteps of Sebald, Vic will add her own memories and fictions to the city.

Literary Cities: Manchester


In re-reading the Max Ferber section of The Emigrants the other day, I suddenly realized that W.G. Sebald was referring to the same city that Michel Butor had described in his great novel of 1957 L’Emploi du Temps (Passing Time). Sebald moved to Manchester, England in 1966 to take up an assistant lectureship at the University of Manchester, where Butor had taught from 1951 to 1953.

The opening two sentences of Passing Time never fail to suck me right into the rest of the book:

Thursday, May 1. Suddenly there were a lot of lights.

And then I was in the town; my year’s stay there, more than half of which has now elapsed, began at that moment, while I gradually struggled free of drowsiness, sitting there alone in the corner of the compartment, facing the engine, beside the dark windowpane covered on the outside with raindrops, myriad tiny mirrors each reflecting a quivering particle of the feeble light that drizzled down from the grimy ceiling, while the thick blanket of noise that for hours past, almost unremittingly, had enfolded me began to thin at last, to break up.

The French narrator of Passing Time, fulfilling a year’s term as translator for a British firm, largely detested his time in Manchester, which Butor called Bleston. The entire book is a labyrinth of streets and time . The book opens with a map (above) representing the narrator’s attempt to mark the major locations of his year in limbo, while every diary entry contains precise walking or bus-line directions for the day’s activities.The diary, begun in May, is six months in arrears, and so the narrator can alternately hold time at bay then let it surge forward like lava.

While Butor’s narrator arrived by train, Sebald’s arrives by plane.

Looping round in one more curve, the roar of the engines steadily increasing, the plane set a course across open country. By now, we should have been able to make out the sprawling mass of Manchester, yet one could see nothing but a faint glimmer, as if from a fire almost suffocated in ash. A blanket of fog that had risen out of the marshy plains that reached as far as the Irish Sea had covered the city, a city spread across a thousand square kilometres, built of countless bricks and inhabited by millions of souls, dead and alive.

Both Butor and Sebald found Manchester to be haunted by its faded past and enlivened by its immigrants. Sebald spends nearly a page delighting in the foreign-sounding names of immigrants and listing the trades that they took up (pp. 191-2). Sebald’s narrator and Max Ferber (a German Jewish exile) often meet at an unlicensed Kenyan restaurant called Wadi Halfa. And both narrators spend a considerable amount of time just walking the city.


I won’t belabor the many intriguing parallels between the two writer’s views on Manchester, but I encourage fans of Sebald to find a copy of Michel Butor’s Passing Time.