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Posts from the ‘Philippa Comber’ Category

Sebald Program on BBC 3’s”Free Thinking”

Sebald walking

“W.G. Sebald as the narrator”
© The W. G. Sebald Estate

BBC Radio 3’s program Free Thinking has recently put out on episode that includes a nice segment on W.G.Sebald. The first 18 1/2 minutes of the 48-minute program, “Sebald, Anti-semitism, Carolyn Forche” is devoted to a discussion of Sebald by Adam Scovell, Philippa Comber, Dr Seán Williams, and host Laurence Scott. Here’s the full blurb from the BBC website:

Adam Scovell, Philippa Comber and Sean Williams discuss the influence of the German writer WG Sebald who settled in Norfolk. His novel The Rings of Saturn follows a narrator walking in Suffolk, and in part explores links between the county and German history and emigrants. “Lines of Sight: W.G. Sebald’s East Anglia,” an exhibition celebrating the work of the author W.G. Sebald on the 75th anniversary of his birth runs at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery 10 May 2019 – 5 January 2020 in collaboration with The University of East Anglia. Adam Scovell is a film critic and author whose new novella is called Mothlight. Dr Seán Williams is a New Generation Thinker who teaches Germanic Studies at the University of Sheffield. Phillippa Comber is the author of Ariadne’s Thread – In Memory of W.G. Sebald and “In This Trembling Shade,” ten poems set to music as a song cycle.

Sebald-Related Book Launches in London, Oct. 2014


Propolis, the publishing arm of Norwich’s The Book Hive, is holding a London book launch for Philippa Comber’s Ariadne’s Thread: In Memory of W.G. Sebald at the Chelsea location of Daunt Books on Friday October 17, starting at 6:30 PM.

Daunt Books
158-164 Fulham Road
London SW10 9PR


Daunts launch invitation

Blue Cupboard

Five days later, the Royal Academy of Arts is having a launch for Tess Jaray’s new book The Blue Cupboard: Inspirations and Recollections. It will be held on Wednesday October 22 from 6:30-8:00. In 2001, Jaray and Sebald collaborated on the book of artwork and poems For Years Now. In addition to be a wonderful artist, Tess is an excellent writer. Here’s a link to my piece on her earlier book Painting: Mysteries & Confessions (2010).

The Academician’s Room
The Keeper’s House
Royal Academy of Arts
Burlington House, Picadilly
London W1J 0BD

Following Adriadne’s Thread Back into the Maze


The phrase “Ariadne’s thread” usually refers to the process of solving a maze or other complex problem through a physical trace (the mythical ball of thread) or a some method of recording and verifying one’s options and decisions. In Philippa Comber’s new memoir Ariadne’s Thread: In Memory of W.G. Sebald, the thread ultimately leads us back into the maze that was W.G. Sebald. In 1980, Comber, a young English-born psychotherapist living in Berlin whose marriage was “foundering,” moved to Norwich for a new job. In August 1981 she joined up with a small group of friends and others to see Roman Polanski’s movie Tess. Among the group was Sebald, then in his mid-thirties and a lecturer at the University of East Anglia.  Comber and Sebald hit it off.

They had common interests in European literature and living “in exile,” as she puts it. Sebald began calling her on the telephone and calling on her at home, bringing vegetables and flowers and offering assistance with the renovation of her house. In the first three months they saw each other some ten times and it began to feel like “an old-fashioned courtship” to Comber. But the “courtship” stalled, leaving Comber puzzled over her new friend. When her father died and she asked Sebald over the telephone to visit her, he declined – he had to walk the dog, he explained.

In the summer of 1982, Sebald surprised Comber by asking if she would become his psychotherapist. But she put him off, afraid, in part, that a professional relationship would foreclose any remaining chance for the more personal one for which she still had hopes. Then, in 1985, a new man entered Comber’s life and communications with Sebald ended for three years, resuming in the summer of 1988. In December 1996, Comber took a new position that required her to move to Aberdeen, once again causing her to lose touch with Sebald, this time for the remainder of the decade. They finally resume communicating shortly before Sebald’s death in September 2001.

This, then, is the skeltal structure of the fascinating friendship between Philippa Comber and W.G. Sebald, which Comber enchantingly tells in her memoir. Aided by her diaries, Comber is able to share intriguing facts and her own analyst’s insights into Sebald’s mind at a crucial time in his career. When the two first met, he he had published only his two early academic volumes of literary criticism and some articles. But he was already trying to find another outlet for his writing and he shared with Comber a screenplay he had written about Kant. Later on, he shared with her a section of what would become, in 1988, his book-length poem Nach der Natur. Ariadne’s Memoir is full of enticing bits and pieces, such as the fact that she introduced Sebald to Ulrich Rauff, who would later become Director of the Deutsche Literaurarchiv Marbach, the man who would be responsible for acquiring Sebald’s literary papers. It was Comber who suggested Sebald read Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne Buriall. And in July 1982, she tells us,Sebald barely escaped death in an automobile accident that was strikingly similar to the one that did kill him in 2001.

But perhaps more intriguing are Comber’s many thoughts about Sebald the man. She ultimately came to believe they were both “companions-in-pain” and she sensed “he’s deeply afraid of his physicality…at war with his body.” She also decided that he “took a very dark view indeed of the redeeming power of heterosexual love,” which would seem to provide some support for the thesis underlying Helen Finch’s recent book Sebald’s Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life. In the end, however, Comber remains coy and respectful about Sebald’s private life, never once even mentioning that Sebald had been married since 1967.

Comber’s memoir is not solely about Sebald. It also traces her own fascinating life and the very interesting circles in which she moved, which included a life-long friendship with Christine Heisenberg, the daughter of Werner Heisenberg, and Christine’s husband-to-be Frido Mann (grandson of Thomas Mann). Written with grace and wisdom, Ariadne’s Thread gives us a glimpse of Sebald unseen to date. It also serves as a reminder of how important it will be when one day we have a first-rate full biography of Sebald.

Ariadne’s Thread is the inaugural publication of Propolis Books, the new non-fiction publishing imprint of Norwich’s bookstore The Book Hive. The book will be released on September 5 and there will be a launch party September 18. Comber is one of the presenters at the upcoming colloquium “W.G. Sebald: Littérature et Éthique Documentaire” at the Centre Culturel International de Cerisy, September 3-10, 2014.

Sebald Miscellany August 2014


Before I go on vacation for a spell, I thought I’d toss out two Sebald tidbits just to keep everyone occupied – advance news of an important new book about Sebald and a video lecture on Sebald’s work.

First, I’ve just finished reading an advance copy of a new Sebald-related memoir Ariadne’s Thread: In Memory of W.G. Sebald, by Philippa Comber. A full review will be forthcoming around September 1. It will be the first book published by the new Propolis Books, which originates from The Book Hive bookstore in Norwich. Here’s the promotional text for the book from The Book Hive’s Facebook page:

In 1981 a young woman, recently moved to Norwich after being appointed manager of a psychiatric day-care centre in the city, went with some friends to the now defunct Noverre Cinema to watch Polanski’s Tess. Having spent the previous years living in Germany, a place whose people and language had struck a chord deep within her after first visiting as a teenager, another man had been asked along to the cinema whom mutual friends had thought she might like to meet. His name was Max.

From that first introduction a friendship immediately arose with the young German university lecturer to whom Philippa was to grow ever fonder of and closer to. Their love of European literature and poetry, of people’s personal histories and a shared sense of living in a state of suspended exile gave them great areas of topic for discussion and exploration, as well as identification. As their personal and professional lives carried on in the background – a period which provided difficulties for both of them – their friendship blossomed, until with the arrival of new work and so relocation, physical distance was put between them and contact gradually faded.

Shortly after a reconnection some years later, Max was killed in a car crash having suffered a heart attack at the wheel whilst driving on the A47.

With the use of her extensive diaries kept at the time, Philippa Comber has written not only a memoir about a period in her own fascinating life, with a list of extraordinary family members and friends that go back though English history and throws up some of the most unique characters this island has produced, but also a deeply touching, honest and revealing account of a relationship with a difficult man to know – by turns melancholic, outrageously funny, pessimistic, hopeful, proud and yet riddled with doubt. Ariadne’s Thread describes a man at a turning point in his life, as he begins to think about writing in a more serious capacity for himself, rather than just for academic purposes. Here we see, illuminated in a personal and frank manner, the ideas and motivations that came together in one man’s mind which subsequently went on to make him one of the most influential European writers of the 20th century.

Ariadne’s Thread: In Memory Of W.G. Sebald is published by Propolis, a new imprint based at The Book Hive. Propolis will specialise in idiosyncratic books which may not be able to find a home in the larger publishing market – or even ever have been considered for publication. To be starting out with a title about writers in Norwich, (albeit writers who are not from Norwich), seems a most fitting debut for a publishing house based in a bookshop in the centre of that Fine City.

Publication is scheduled for September 5.


LaCapra Lecture

The second item is an hour-long online video put up by Cornell University in September 2012 of a lecture by Professor Dominick LaCapra called “Sebald and the Narration of Trauma.” I confess that I have not had time to listen to it in its entirety yet, but the website says this about the lecture:

In his much-discussed texts, W. G. Sebald engages the classical double bind of a posttraumatic situation, particularly a situation in which one lives in the heavy shadow of atrocities one did not directly “perpetrate” but for which one nonetheless bears a sense of responsibility if not guilt.

Sensitive to both historical and formal problems in the writing of literature, this lecture explores the stylistic and substantive ways Sebald works his way into and at times through this double bind whereby one feels constrained endlessly to speak of the unspeakable.

The lecture is undoubtedly related to LaCapra’s 2013 book History, Literature, Critical Theory, published by Cornell University Press (description below).

In History, Literature, Critical Theory, Dominick LaCapra continues his exploration of the complex relations between history and literature, here considering history as both process and representation. A trio of chapters at the center of the volume concern the ways in which history and literature (particularly the novel) impact and question each other. In one of the chapters LaCapra revisits Gustave Flaubert, pairing him with Joseph Conrad. Other chapters pair J. M. Coetzee and W. G. Sebald, Jonathan Littell’s novel, The Kindly Ones, and Saul Friedlander’s two-volume, prizewinning history Nazi Germany and the Jews.

A recurrent motif of the book is the role of the sacred, its problematic status in sacrifice, its virulent manifestation in social and political violence (notably the Nazi genocide), its role or transformations in literature and art, and its multivalent expressions in “postsecular” hopes, anxieties, and quests. LaCapra concludes the volume with an essay on the place of violence in the thought of Slavoj Zizek. In LaCapra’s view Zizek’s provocative thought “at times has uncanny echoes of earlier reflections on, or apologies for, political and seemingly regenerative, even sacralized violence.”