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Posts from the ‘Sebald: Essays On’ Category

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.)

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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.

“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.