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Posts from the ‘Sebald: Essays On’ Category

New Books on Sebald

Two new books about W.G. Sebald have recently been published in Europe, one in Polish, the other in German.

Katarzyna Kończal. Sygnatury Sebalda. Zwierzęta – Widma – Ruiny. (Sebald’s Marks: Animals, Spectres, Ruins.) Wrocław, Poland: Wydawnictwo Ossolineum, 2022.

The following is based on a Google translation from the publisher’s website:

WG Sebald blurs the contours of the created reality. He tells a story about a world “after humans,”  bearing the stigma of decay and populated by ghosts of undefined identity; a story that forms a vision of history as a continuous series of catastrophes. The road to “Sebaldland” is on the fringes—you can get there only by questioning traditional boundaries and binary divisions.

Katarzyna Kończal’s new monographic book focuses on three selected aspects of Sebald’s work: his ways of representing animals, the human condition, and the process of environmental destruction. These interpretations fit in with the latest research tendencies—they capture the achievements of the author of The Rings of Saturn in an insightful and multi-contextual manner, which allows us to see in him not only a delightful stylist, but also an attentive critic of modernity.

“Sebald, like no other contemporary artist, exhibited the aberrant human attitude towards the world of animals and nature, the spectral structure of reality, and the omnipresence of destruction. I refer to these thematic formations as signatures, referring to the basic meaning of this concept (from Latin signare—to mean, seal), which implies both a signature and a set of signs used in creating maps. The three titles of the title—animals, ghosts, ruins—are therefore the hallmarks of Sebald’s prose, but also a collection of cartographic tools that allow you to better find yourself on the dense map of his work.”

Katarzyna Kończal (b. 1987) is a literary scholar, translator, doctor of humanities. She graduated in German philology and Polish philology at the University of Adam Mickiewicz in Poznań; her doctoral dissertation was devoted to the work of W.G. Sebald. She dealt with post-war Polish and German-language literature, incl. the writings of Jean Améry and Bogdan Wojdowski, Jewish culture, and the relationships between literature and photography. She works at the Poznań Publishing House.

Stefanie Stegmann and Torsten Hoffmann, eds. Verschachtelte Räume: Sebald Reminiszenzen von Clemens J. Setz, Nadja Küchenmeister, Jenny Erpenbeck und Michael Krüger.

The following is loosely based on a Google translation from the publisher’s website.

The Literaturhaus Stuttgart was opened on November 17, 2001, with a speech by W.G. Sebald, which appeared two days later in the Stuttgarter Zeitung. Shortly thereafter, on December 14, 2001, Sebald died in a car accident near Norwich. The Stuttgart speech is recognized as a summation of Sebald’s literary efforts, since it addresses both the literary processes and ethical convictions that are most important for his work in a particularly concentrated form. For the 20th anniversary of the Literaturhaus, Jenny Erpenbeck, Michael Krüger, Nadja Küchenmeister, and Clemens J. Setz were invited to talk on November 18, 2021, about their views of Sebald and his speech. The texts they wrote for that evening are collected in this volume.

The slim, 36-page booklet contains an Afterword by Torsten Hoffmann and costs 16 Euros.

Sebald Issue of boundary 2 Journal


Readers of W.G. Sebald are in something special. boundary 2: An International Journal of Literature and Culture has devoted the entire contents of Volume 47 Issue 3 to Sebald and it’s all available online for free.  Edited by Sina Rahmani , the title of the issue is “W. G. Sebald and the Global Valences of the Critical.” Here is what you can find in the issue.

Sina Rahmani, “Words, Not Bombs: W. G. Sebald and the Global Valences of the Critical.”

Sebald’s meteoric rise shines a light on the hegemonic role the anglophone literary market plays in the processes that authors and their texts undergo when they migrate from a national literary market to a planetary readership. Indeed, migration offers a key to Sebald’s oddball career and its place in literary history. Like many of the literati holy orders into whose ranks he has been admitted, Sebald’s biography is marked by a permanent departure from the land of his birth.

Uwe Schütte, “Troubling Signs: Sebald, Ambivalence, and the Function of the Critic.”

His unconventional authorial identity cannot be fully comprehended without an appreciation of the critical writings and, in turn, his transformation from scholar to writer. The most prominent feature of his work in the critical sphere is the stubbornly contrarian stance Sebald assumed toward his peers in German studies specifically and the Germanic literary establishment more generally. . . .Only when both sides of Sebald’s coin [his critical writings and his imaginative writings] are considered in concert can one begin to grasp the power and significance of his career.

Stuart Burrows, “The Roar of the Minotaur: W. G. Sebald’s Echospaces.”

I will describe the contours of this different dimension, in the belief that Sebald’s distinctive contribution to the global novel lies in his reordering of the space of representation. This reordering is both literal and metaphorical. It is literal, in the sense that Sebald’s work explores actual spaces: the pages upon which his novels are written, which become inextricable from the world being described, and the landscape being traversed, such as the Suffolk coastline in The Rings of Saturn (1998); it is metaphorical, in the sense that Sebald’s work explores a set of imaginary spaces nested within each other, those spaces occupied by his characters, who inhabit several worlds simultaneously, and those allocated to the narrative voice, which speaks to us out of a clearly demarcated yet ultimately unlocatable place.

Yahya Elsaghe, “Penelope’s Crossword: On W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.”

The crossword as a form has the upper hand over the rhizome as a metaphor for textuality—something it shares with other allegories of memory like a ‘wonderblock’ and ‘palimpsest’ as well as ‘signs and characters from the type case of forgotten things’.

Sina Rahmani, “The Stateless Novel: Refugees, Literary Form, and the Rise of Containerization.”

This ‘prose book of an undetermined kind,’ Sebald’s coy descriptor for Austerlitz, offers an instructive lesson about the novel of the global era, which has become a formal container providing refuge to any and all narrative and literary forms. In the same way that the shipping container is completely unconcerned with its own contents, Austerlitz furnishes us with incontrovertible evidence that in a stateless era, the foundational distinctions between written and visual, fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose, analytic and creative, and, as Stuart Burrows points out in his contribution to this issue, verbal and written have been eradicated.

Isa Murdock- Hinrichs, “Adaptation, Appropriation, Translation: Sebald on the Silver Screen.” Murdock-Hinrichs examines two films based upon books by Sebald: Grant Gee’s Patience (After Sebald) (2012) and Stan Neumann’s Austerlitz (2015).

Gee’s deliberate transformation of the visuals in the film into a maze of images whose uniform intelligibility is obscured represents a translation of Sebald’s disjunction between text and visual.

. . .

Neumann highlights the various qualities of visuals as he weaves static images, alternative film stock, and printed materials into the film. The camera is the translator of the narrative of the literary text by further portraying the instability of systems of meaning.

Global Critical Forum

“This special issue of boundary 2 has sought out translations of articles and reviews of different Sebald texts. The Global Critical Forum highlights the array of responses and mixed feelings Sebald solicits in different national contexts.”

Nissim Calderon, “Sebald or Gevalt?” [Originally published in Yedioth Ahronoth (Tel Aviv, Israel) in 2009.]

Sebald’s Rings of Saturn is a particularly bad text; bad precisely because it features his idiosyncratic and excellent style but lacks the content to justify it. It is an empty style, like the painter Salvador Dalí, who in his youth paved the way for art’s new surrealist path but in his later years became a serial producer of the “Dalí style.”

Rodrigo Fresán, “The Sebald Case.” [This is a slightly revised translation of an article published in Letras Libres, a Spanish- language monthly literary magazine published in Mexico and Spain, in July 2003.]

In the here and now, the departed Sebald is very, very interesting for those who have survived him, for the many that quietly concede in hushed tones, perhaps out of fear of falling victim to a Pharaoh’s curse, his some-what exaggerated prestige, and for the many more that swear by his divine name they continuously invoke in vain—to remain in good standing and to have a ready response to the question, What are you reading at the moment? Sebald serves, functions, protects, and refreshes best, and is so fashionable, so useful for the nouveaux riche of the intelligentsia. Sebald is practical and legible; he grants a certain prestige to his user and his consumer. Sebald is not only learned but also produces the agreeable effect, or impression, of cultivating and producing evangelical astuteness.

Maria Malikova, “Witnessing the Past in the Work of W. G. Sebald.” [This article was published in 2008 in Отечественные записки (Notes from the Home-land: A Journal for Slow Reading).]

Artist and photographer Jan Peter Tripp was a key figure in the career of German writer and critic W. G. Sebald. . . .[in Sebald’s 1998 essay on Tripp] he provides a graphic display of the evolution of the role of the visual in [his] poetics from photographs of objects, faces, landscapes, architecture, and paintings, to depictions of the very organ of sight, the mechanism of vision: eyes, fixed directly on the reader- viewer, demanding a reciprocal gaze, an ethical reaction.

He Ning, “The Bricolage of Words and Images: W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.” [This article is translated from a Mandarin article 文字与照片的拼接—评W. G.赛巴尔德的《奥斯特里茨》, which appeared in Trends of Foreign Literature (《外国文学动态研究》) in 2012.]

Austerlitz’s method of piecing together memories through recategorizing the photos he has into a spatial rather than temporal order reifies what I call a retroactive act of bricolage, an innovative way to reconstruct the protagonist’s own narrative. Inspired by the art of photography, he seems to find a psychological equilibrium between his defense mechanism (i.e., selective amnesia) and his desire to recover and rediscover his own identity.

The issue concludes with an article not about Sebald but one closely aligned with his lectures on “Air War and Literature,” included in On the Natural History of Destruction. Sina Rahmani conducts an interview with Emran Feroz entitled “Death from Above: An Afghan Perspective on the US Drone War.”

boundary 2 has an unusual editorial statement:

The editors of boundary 2 announce that they no longer intend to publish in the standard professional areas, but only materials that identify and analyze the tyrannies of thought and action spreading around the world and that suggest alternatives to these emerging configurations of power.

A Literature of Restitution


This summer, Manchester University Press released an affordable paperback edition of A Literature of Restitution: Critical Essays on W.G. Sebald, edited by Jeannette Baxter, Valerie Henitiuk, and Ben Hutchinson. The paperback version is priced at $29.95, compared to the 2013 hardcover edition, which runs around $99. For the most part, the various authors managed to at least partially focus on the theme alluded to in the book’s title, lending the volume a sense of unified purpose. Here are my brief summaries of the thirteen essays included in A Literature of Restitution. Keep in mind that I am in no way attempting to convey the rich complexity of each author’s argument. My goal has been to hint at the direction that each essay heads and to mention or quote ideas that stood out for me. It’s true (so far) that I have never met an anthology of essays about Sebald that I didn’t like, but this one holds a number of essays that provoked me to rethink some key things about his writing.

Part 1: Translation and Style

1. Quite fluent in English, Sebald worked closely with each of the translators who labored to bring his original German-language texts into English. Arthur Williams’ essay “W.G. Sebald’s Three-Letter Word: On the Parallel Worlds of the English Translations” closely examines the differences between the German and English versions and he concludes by saying that:

the translations reveal more about Sebald than his masterly use of language. We discover a writer polishing his expertise with his literary medium and understanding his oeuvre increasingly as one long story, with many varied parts and individual messages, but with a constant underlying ethos…We can chart how he used the opportunity afforded by the translations to refine structures, to create clarity, to moderate early moments which he, perhaps, later regretted (as in, for instance, the quite brutal caricatures of his fellow West Germans in Schwindel. Gefühle.)

2. In “Encounter and Cry: W.G. Sebald as Poet,” George Szirtes tries to determine how we should distinguish the poetic from the prose elements in Sebald’s writings, primarily through a close encounter with the early book-length poem After Nature. (Szirtes discusses only the English version because he doesn’t read German.)

3. Shane Weller’s “Unquiet Prose: W.G. Sebald and the Writing of the Negative” looks at the fact that Sebald is “haunted” by the works of a wide range of other modern European writers – “especially in terms of its writing the negative, that is, a writing which seeks to resist the dark forces of modernity, as identified by Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947).” Weller discusses a number of “particular words, phrases and syntactical forms” that are part of Sebald’s strategy of negativity, notably what he refers to as Sebald’s German “unwords,” such as unheimlich, ungeheuer, unruhig, unsicher, etc.

Part 2. Texts and Contexts

4. In her essay “Surrealist Vertigo in Schwindel. Gefühle.,” Jeannette Baxter makes the case for reading Sebald’s book “as an exercise in late twentieth century historiography that is identifiably Surrealist in impulse.” “What aligns Sebald’s literature of restitution with the dissident Surrealist writings of [Georges] Bataille, [Roger] Caillois and [André] Masson, I suggest, is its very willingness to recognize and give itself (and its reader) up to the dizzying energies of recover and loss, memory and forgetting, light and darkness, life and death.”

5. Using Derrida’s Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins as a framework, Dora Osborn looks at both “the similarities and the differences between the textual and visual modes of representation” in her essay “Memoirs of the Blind: W.G. Sebald’s Die Ausgewanderten.” She argues that “the blindness marking Sebald’s work – that residue of belatedness and failed witness – at once obscures his narrative figures and reveals in them a potentially visionary power.” Each of the four portraits in the book are “obscured” in both an inability to see and an inability to remember, she suggests.

The blindness affecting the emigrants can be understood in two ways, and as such reflects the complexity of the trope as it figures in Die Ausgewanderten: on the one hand, it is the symptom of the traumatic encounters of their past and the failure to make sense of the circumstances which led to their emigration and which prohibit their return; and on the other, it can be understood as the symptom of the narrator’s (and, by extension, the author’s) inability to make sense of the experiences he came to late to know himself.

6. In her essay “‘Like refugees who have come through dreadful ordeals’: The Theme of the Anglo-Irish in Die Ringe des Saturn. Eine englische Wallfahrt,” Helen Finch notes that several of the key characters in The Rings of Saturn – Roger Casement, Edward Fitzgerald, and the Ashbury family (with whom Sebald’s narrator spends a night) – all “exist in varying relationships to the post-colonial narrative of conquest and loss” that is Irish history. “The common thread binding the three sets of figures, however, is their exile status.”

7.  In “‘The Arca Project:’ W.G. Sebald’s Corsica,” Graeme Gilloch makes the case that Sebald’s unfinished project on Corsica (some of which was published posthumously in Campo Santo), has echoes of Walter Benjamin’s similarly unfinished (and perhaps unfinishable) Arcades project. “Preoccupied with death, destruction, ghosts and haunting, imbued with melancholy, Sebald’s Corsican studies constitute fragments of what might be termed “The Arca Project,” in which the edifices of death and mourning littering the island…constitute sites of intense scrutiny and brooding speculation.”

8. Peter Filkins’ essay “Twisted Threads: The Entwined Narratives of W.G. Sebald and H.G. Adler” gives a preview of what would appear in book form in 2014 in Witnessing, Memory, Poetics: H.G. Adler & W.G. Sebald, edited by Helen Finch and Lynn L. Woolf, with a key contribution by Filkins. As Filkins demonstrates, Sebald’s Austerlitz – especially the parts on Theresienstadt – owes a great deal to his reading of Adler’s writings.

9. In his essay “Stations, Dark Rooms and False Worlds in W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz,” David Darby writes that the four great railway stations in Austerlitz serve as symbolic photographic darkrooms and he discusses at length the ways in which Sebald makes analogies between photography and memory. “Sebald’s stations are characteristically dark spaces, in which seeing is described in terms of photographic processes … [where] the narrator fixes and save images…”

Part 3. “Prose” and Photography

10. Reflecting on Sebald’s long-standing interest in theater, Simon Murray’s “Fields of Association: W.G. Sebald and Contemporary Performance Practice” reminds us that Sebald preferred the kind of theater that worked “against preconceived notions of what a play ought to look like.” In this essay Murray explores the relationship between Sebald’s writing and his views on performance “in terms of approach to narrative structure” in these ways:

the construction of reader-spectators as witnesses inevitably complicit in events that unfold on page or stage; a playful disregard for the immutability of boundaries between fact and fiction / the real and the imaginary; a quality of attention tethered loosely in lightness and circling; and the necessity of speaking through multiple voices, not as some ironic postmodern gamed, but as an ethical and ideological imperative for restitution which might begin to address the fractures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

11. In “Still Life, Portrait, Photograph, Narrative in the Work of W.G. Sebald,” Clive Scott tells us that he believes that Sebald subscribed to the concept that the photograph is “a material object which has broken free from the context of its taking and has become an indexicality without a referent, an indexicality looking for a new referent, not the referent of its taking, but the referent of its being seen by a spectator… ”  In other words, Scott argues, photographs are always being recontextualized by their viewers.

12. “Anxieties about the Holocaust often assume the form of anxieties about lost mothers in Sebald’s fiction,” says Graley Herren in the essay that was, for me, one of the highlights of this anthology. Herren does an excellent job of articulating the complex relationships that exist between Sebald (the man and his own life story) and the narrators that closely resemble him. Understanding the nature of this separation is essential for Herren’s analysis.

Like Oedipus, Sebald’s narrator wanders through a waste land, corrupted by some vast but shadowy crime from the past. Whoever is responsible for this crime must be rooted out and punished with exile, even if the investigation leads to the investigator’s own hearth. For Sebald as for Kafka and Beckett, the protagonist’s exile is an established fact from the outset, so he is really working backwards from the punishment in an effort to discover the unnameable original crime. The narrator traverses Europe in search of clues, compiling evidence, searching for justice, atonement, and reparation. However, the more evidence he accumulates, the more the trail leads him back to where he started – his corrupt family home, the primal scene of the crime. His father’s complicity was already understood, and indeed he paid some penance for his crimes with a stint in a prisoner of war camp. Yet the narrator’s investigations increasingly point to another unindicted co-conspirator at home. He resists this knowledge, he deflects it – he tries to keep her true identity sub rosa.

Sebald’s narrator, like Sebald himself, Herren tells us, knew that his own mother was “complicit” in supporting some of the values of German Fascism. But Sebald’s narrator “half-sees and then looks away,” while Sebald himself “provides his readers with sufficient evidence to see beyond the narrator’s averted gaze…”

13. In the volume’s final essay, Russell J.A. Kilbourn carefully works through “The Question of Genre in W.G. Sebald’s ‘Prose’ (Toward a Post-Memorial Literature of Restitution).” From the appearance of his first work of prose, Die Augewanderten (The Emigrants), readers and critics have claimed that Sebald had either created an entirely new genre or was hybridizing existing genres.  Kilbourn rummages through every conceivable genre that has been applied to Sebald’s four “prose” books and, in essence, assesses the appropriateness of each. In the end, as the title of his essay predicts, Kilbourn suggests that Sebald’s work is, indeed, a literature of restitution, as Sebald himself referred to in his final public speech: “So what is literature good for?…There are many forms of writing; only in literature, however, can there be an attempt at restitution.”

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.

“Aesthetics is not a value-free area”

Continuing my prolonged reading of Saturn’s Moons, I turn to Luke Williams’ essay “A Watch on Each Wrist: Twelve Seminars with W.G. Sebald.”   Williams piece deals equally with Sebald the teacher and Sebald the writer, since Williams studied for a Creative Writing MA under Sebald, and his essays adapts some of his class notes from Sebald’s final, unfinished seminar in the fall of 2001.  Two themes stood out for me: Sebald’s arguments for a “documentary” approach to the novel and his brief, but tantalizing allusion to Werner Heisenberg.

But first, here’s the explanation for the title of Williams’ essay, taken from his class notes of December 5, 2001, less than two weeks before Sebald’s death.

At one point I stopped looking at the faces of my classmates and instead watched Sebald.  He was leaning back in his chair.  His legs were stretched out in front of him, his body a long diagonal.  His eyes looked up at the ceiling and the round glass of his spectacles reflected the light strip.  Both his hands were placed on the back of his head; together his arms made a coathanger shape…He was wearing a watch on each wrist.  On his left wrist he wore a cheap digital watch, face up.  On his right an analogue watch, its face turned round the underside of his wrist.  The rain continued.  Sebald talked on.  But I wasn’t following him.  I kept looking at the watches on his wrists.  Why two watches?  Why one digital and one analogue?  Why was the analogue watch face down?  I didn’t know.

Here are a few choice excerpts from Williams’ class notes.

Sebald’s point, it seemed to me, was simple.  That precision in writing fiction – especially in writing fiction – is an absolutely fundamental value.  He summed up by saying that if you look carefully you can find problems in all writers, or almost all (Kafka being an exception; especially, he told us, if you look at the reports he wrote for the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute!).

How do you surpass horror once you’ve reached a certain level?  How do you stop it appearing gratuitous?  He answered himself.  Let me get this right.  You (he was addressing the whole class) might think that because you are writing fiction you needn’t be overly concerned to get the facts straight.  But aesthetics is not a value-free area.  And you must be particularly careful if your subject concerns horrific events.  You must stick absolutely to the facts.  The most plausible, perhaps even the only, approach is the documentary one.  I would say that writing about an appalling state of affairs is incommensurable with traditional aesthetics.

In the twentieth century we know that the observer always affects what is being said…writing that does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator is an imposture, jaded, even dangerous.

I was pleasantly surprised to see this last comment, which alludes to Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  Oddly enough, I previously wrote about the unlikely coincidence that Heisenberg spent some of the last days of World War II some forty miles from where a very young Sebald lived at the time.  In fact, Heisenberg witnessed the bombing of some of the towns that Sebald mentions in On the Natural History of Destruction.  Four and a half years ago I wrote:

It’s curious to imagine the Nobel Prize winning author of the Uncertainty Principle alternately napping on a mountainside and watching Allied bombers over the valleys where one year-old Winfred Georg Maximilian Sebald lived at the time.  I wonder what Sebald would have thought of Heisenberg’s often-quoted line: “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”

The Five Dials Goldmine


The new issue of Five Dials is very much an issue devoted to W.G. Sebald.  Nearly half of the 32 pages are related to him in one way or another. The issue opens with a “Letter from the Editor” (Craig Taylor) entitled On Translation and Sebald.  This is followed by A Little Trick of the Mind, in which four translators ( including Sebald’s primary English translator Anthea Bell) discuss “the world’s second oldest profession.”  (Bell’s father edited The Times crossword puzzle, we learn.)  She talks about translating the Asterix books and Sebald, although most of what she says here about Sebald she has said elsewhere.

Joe Dunthorne, a writer and, perhaps more importantly, a striker for the England Writers’ Football Team, writes about reading Austerlitz and what it meant to him as he moved to London.

But the gold mine is The Collected ‘Maxims.’ Robert MacGill and David Lambert were students in Sebald’s last fiction workshop, held in 2001.  They’ve combined many of the notes they made about what Sebald said in class.

Physicists now say there is no such thing as time; everything co-exists.  Chronology is entirely artificial and essentially determined by emotion.  Contiguity suggests layers of things, the past and present somehow coalescing or co-existing.

I can only encourage you to steal as much as you can.  No one will ever notice.  You should keep a notebook of tidbits, but don’t write down the attributions, and then after a couple of years you can come back to the notebook and treat the stuff as your own without guilt.

Lots of things resolve themselves just by being in the drawer a while.

Simon Prosser (publishing director for Hamish Hamilton) provides An A to Z of W.G. Sebald, an alphabetical soup of reminiscences grouped under subheadings  such as Bavaria, Climate, Kant, Lac de Bienne (the one place Sebald felt truly at home), Smoking, and Zembla.

And lastly there is a short piece by the late author Roger Deakin.

Best of all, Five Dials is on online magazine published Hamish Hamilton, W.G. Sebald’s British publisher.  It is a .pdf file for Adobe Acrobat Reader.

The Natural History of Capitalism


Many a time, at the end of a working day, Janine would talk to me about Flaubert’s view of the world, in her office where there were such quantities of lecture notes, letters and other documents lying around that it was like standing amidst a flood of paper. On the desk, which was both the origin and the focal point of this amazing profusion of paper, a virtual paper landscape had come into being in the course of time, with mountains and valleys. Like a glacier when it reaches the sea, it had broken off at the edges and established new deposits all around on the floor, which in turn were advancing imperceptibly towards the centre of the room. Years ago, Janine had been obliged by the ever-increasing masses of paper on her desk to bring further tables into use, and these tables, where similar processes of accretion had subsequently taken place, represented later epochs, so to speak, in the evolution of Janine’s paper universe. The carpet, too, had long since vanished beneath several inches of paper; indeed, the paper had begun climbing from the floor, on which, year after year, it had settled, and was now up the walls as high as the top of the door frame, page upon page of memoranda and notes pinned up in multiple layers, all of them by just one corner. Wherever it was possible there were piles of papers on the books on her shelves as well….Once when I remarked that sitting there amidst her papers she resembled the angel in Durer’s Melancholia, steadfast among the instruments of destruction, her response was that the apparent chaos surrounding her represented a perfect kind of order, or an order which at least tended towards perfection.  And the fact was that whatever she might be looking for amongst her papers or her books, or in her head, she was generally able to find right away. – from W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn.

It seems to typical of Sebald to lovingly and at great length describe the total dissolution of his colleague’s office only, in the end, to insist that there is an abiding order of some sort.  This, it seems to me, is one of the central dualities of Sebald’s work: behind our apprehension that life, history, and nature ceaselessly cascade into chaos, Sebald continually searched for order and for ways to adequately describe the patterns that he saw.

On a sporadic basis I have read more than halfway through the essays in W.G. Sebald and the Writing of History, edited by Anne Fuchs and J.J. Long.  Mary Cosgrove’s Sebald for our Time: The Politics of Melancholy and the Critique of Capitalism in his Work is the first essay to really capture my full attention.  With Dürer’s etching Melancholia I (1514) as her centerpiece, Cosgrove describes Sebald’s subject in The Rings of Saturn and his other works as “the interdependence of human and natural history and the extreme difficulty of developing an adequate temporal sense for grasping this ‘world history’ intellectually.”  In my words then, a main motive in Sebald’s enterprise is to somehow overcome the human inability to have perspective on time and space.  Durer’s image suggests to Cosgrove that melancholy is “a problem specific to the intellectual” because it is “a basic problem of knowledge and understanding,” and she points out how many melancholic intellectuals we encounter in The Rings of Saturn, which she views as an “epistemological framework that would somehow capture the interconnectedness of persons, regions, and events across space and time and that would explain…the place of mankind in the late twentieth century.”

…the starting point for Sebald’s temporal framework [is] the beginnings, through travel, conquest, exploitation and profit, of the Western world’s expansion into an increasingly domineering, interdependent and integrated global system.

In the core section of her essay, entitled The Natural History of Capitalism, Cosgrove ties together numerous threads that are woven throughout Sebald’s works, making a strong case that Sebald represents “history as an ambitious attempt to communicate the strange tempo of capitalism’s espansion.”  I’m with Cosgrove on the importance that capitalism plays in Sebald’s work, but I still don’t feel that capitalism was the holy grail for Sebald,  or, as Cosgrove puts it, the “unifying perspective.”  The history of capitalism doesn’t fully explain (to me, at least) the two men who loom so large (albeit mostly unseen) in Sebald’s work: Napoleon and Hitler.

All of this made me think of Richard Sheppard’s remarkable essay Dexter – sinister: Some observations on decrypting the mors code in the work of W. G. Sebald (Journal of European Studies 2005). Ostensibly a book review of W. G. Sebald: A Critical Companion, edited by Jonathan Long and Anne Whitehead, Sheppard’s text cuts a wide and intelligent swathe across Sebald’s work. But the brief quote I want to pull out is this:

But [essayist Greg] Bond demonstrably gets it wrong when he claims that Max sees the Holocaust as the point when ‘everything began to go downhill’. In an interview of August 2001 that was published ten days after his death, Max explicitly dated that juncture as ‘spätestens mit Napoleon’ (‘with Napoleon at the latest’). In Max’s view, colonialism and the technologically driven excesses of the twentieth century were latter-day aspects of the Napoleonic ‘Traum, aus diesem sehr unordentlichen Kontinent Europa etwas viel Ordentlicheres, Geregeltes, Durchorganisiertes, Machtvolles zu machen’ (‘dream of turning this very disorderly continent of Europe into something much more orderly, rule-governed, thoroughly organized, powerful’) (Pralle, 2001). In making this point, I am not just correcting a factual error. Rather, it seems to me that Napoleon came, in Max’s mind, to personify the Symbolic Order that governed modernizing Europe and that Max spent his entire life as a writer of academic and fictional work in conflict with its allegedly repressive, totalitarian and exploitative nature. Once this point is understood, yet another reason becomes clear why Max gave his last major work the name of a battle that Napoleon decisively won.

To be honest, I sense that Sebald treated these larger than life protagonists in history more as ahistorical characters, not as products of imperialism or capitalism but almost as natural disasters.Even though the shadows of Napoleon and Hitler loom over nearly every page Sebald wrote, they never really appear in their own right and he never attempts to “understand” them in any fashion.  And maybe this partly answers why I have always felt that Sebald was ultimately pessimistic, for while we might be able to sense patterns and reasons for capitalism’s failures, history-shaking figures like Napoleon and Hitler are ultimately as unpredictable, uncontainable, and apparently inevitable as a volcanic eruption.

Scholar or Celebrity Critic? The Scratch-and-Sniff Test


One night last week as the early signs of winter began to settle in around me – the leaves have fallen, the rhubarb plants and potted herbs have succumbed to the frost, and I’ve ordered a new pair of snow boots from Land’s End – I cozied into the corner of the couch to read a newly received anthology of essays on W.G. Sebald.  Even though it had been published more than a year ago and contains only English-language essays, W.G. Sebald and the Writing of History (Wurzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2007) is currently only available in Germany (try Abebooks or  Go figure.

Co-edited by well-known Sebald scholars Anne Fuchs and J.J. Long, W.G. Sebald and the Writing of History begins with a piece by Long called W.G. Sebald: A Bibliographical Essay in Current Research, in which he summarizes the research (i.e. the critical positions) of numerous scholars who have written about Sebald.  Long’s overview provides a welcome assessment of the areas of Sebald’s writing that have proven to be particularly rich for scholars, and I was just about to move onto the next essay in the book when one phrase caught my eye.  Long makes reference to an essay by Scott Denham (Davidson College) on the critical reception of Sebald’s books.

[Denham] considers the role of celebrity critics, such as Susan Sontag, Paul Auster, Gabriel Josipovici, Cynthia Ozick, and James Wood…

What, I wondered, does this mean.  Is a celebrity critic first cousin to a celebrity chef?  Do we suspect that Susan Sontag really doesn’t know how to make a proper soufflé or that someone ghost-wrote James Wood’s recipes? I knew I should have been suspicious when Gabriel Josipovici brought out his own line of cookware.  And what is Auster doing in this list?  He’s never written about Sebald.  His crime, apparently, was to provide a jacket blurb for Vertigo.

So, with all due respect to the excellent Professor Denham, here is my modest proposal.  We need a simple scratch-and-sniff test to help separate true scholars from celebrity critics.  Something so easy it comes with a money-back guarantee.  Maybe like this:

Real scholars don’t blurb.
Real scholars don’t scrimp on footnotes.
Real scholars do research; celebrities do reviews.
Real scholars never write fiction on the side.
Real scholars never have their portrait made by Annie Leibowitz or Elizabeth Peyton.


Well, it’s a start.  I’ll just have to give this a little more thought as I read the rest of the essays on the anthology, not one of which appears to have been written by a celebrity chef.