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.