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Posts from the ‘Susan Sontag’ Category

Three Encounters with W.G. Sebald


The latest issue of the Journal of European Studies (vol. 44, no 4, December 2014), contains a section called “Three Encounters with W.G. Sebald (February 1992 – July 2013),” edited by Richard Sheppard. Sheppard also provides some introductory remarks. (The complete Table of Contents for the issue can be found here.)

The first encounter is a reprint of Toby Green’s 1992 revealing interview with Sebald called “The Questionable Business of Writing,” accompanied by a new introduction by Green. This first appeared on the Amazon.UK website, where, somewhat surprisingly, it can still be found.

The second encounter is a transcript of a reading held October 15, 2001 at Kaufmann Concert Hall, Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y in New York City. After brief introductions by Hanna Arie-Gaifman, David Yezzi, and André Aciman, Sebald came onstage to make some remarks and read a section from his the-newly published Austerlitz. Then Susan Sontag replaced Sebald onstage and read from two essays: “Homage to Halliburton” and “Answers to a Questionnaire.” This was followed by an audience questions and answer period with both Sebald and Sontag. Sheppard has provided a complete transcript of the remarks by all of the speakers, omitting only the published texts from which Sebald and Sontag read. A video of Sebald’s reading is available here.

In the final encounter, Sheppard provides his own translation of an introductory talk given by Jürgen Wertheimer before he and others read from Austerlitz at the Academy of the Spoken Word, Stuttgart, on July 3, 2013. Part of Wertheimer’s message is:

We must not allow Max Sebald to become a canonical author. For when a writer has been canonized and no-one dares to laugh any more for fear of looking silly in front of the cognoscenti,that is when he or she is really dead.

Summer in Baden-Baden, Part II

The literature of the second half of the twentieth century is a much traversed field and it seems unlikely that there are still masterpieces in major, intently patrolled languages waiting to be discovered.  Yet some ten years ago I came across just such a book, Summer in Baden-Baden, which I would include among the most beautiful, exalting, and original achievements of a century’s worth of fiction and para-fiction. Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag’s Introduction to Leonid Tsypkin’s novel Summer in Baden-Baden tells us that Tsypkin (1926-1982) wrote this remarkable novel while he worked as a scientist at Moscow’s Institute for Poliomyelitis and Viral Encephalitis.  It appears that he started writing in earnest in 1977 after being demoted as punishment for the fact that his son and daughter-in-law had just emigrated to the United States.  Tsypkin conducted archival research on Dostoyevsky and, Sontag tells us, made many photographs of “places associated with Dostoyevsky’s life as well as ones frequented by Dostoyevsky’s characters during the seasons and at the times of day mentioned in the novels.”  Faced with the realization that he would never receive his own exit visa Tsypkin decided in 1981 to ask a friend to smuggle the completed manuscript and some related photographs out of the Soviet Union.  The following year Tsypkin’s novel, illustrated with his photographs, began to appear in the weekly New York-based Russian-émigré periodical Novaya Gazeta.  Tsypkin never lived to see it.

In 1987, Summer in Baden-Baden was finally translated into English and published – without any photographs – in London by Quartet Books, and presumably this is the book that Sontag read.  Its romantic cover design suggests a marketing scheme more appropriate to a title like E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View than a frenetic book about Dostoyevsky’s summer in the gambling halls of Germany.

Baden-Baden Quartet

In 2001, New Directions took a chance on an American edition with a cover that more appropriately represents the intensity of the fiction within.  (It’s is a great example of the power of typography.)  This edition also included the newly-commissioned Introduction by Susan Sontag, but only one of Tsypkin’s photographs, which was placed opposite the title page.

Baden-Baden New Directions

The New Directions volume is the edition that I bought and read when it first came out, and then subsequently shelved for another eight years – until a reader of Vertigo asked me if I’d ever seen the photographically-illustrated version of Summer in Baden-Baden issued in London by Penguin in 2006.  Needless to say, I ordered a used copy immediately.

The Publisher’s Note in the Penguin edition explains “This edition is the first to be published in book form with the author’s original photographs.”  Full captions for each photograph are located at the end of the book.  Unfortunately, the reader is left not knowing if the author had a hand in placing the photographs within the text.  I tend to doubt it.  Tsypkin never traveled outside the Soviet Union and his photographs were restricted to Leningrad (Dostoyevsky’s St. Petersburg).   A main point of Tsypkin’s book is the suggestion that an authentic bridge can be erected between past and present, that we can temporarily comprehend some other time and become someone else through an act of the imagination.  Tsypkin, like W.G. Sebald, believed that the power of the imagination is strengthened – if not dependent upon – visiting the actual locations where events happened.   “In front of me was the Kuznechny Market, and to the right and behind me the Vladimir Church – I had reached exactly the right spot, and my heart was pounding with joy and some other vaguely sensed feeling…”  And he talks about making sure that the locations for his photographs were accurate: “I was anxious not to mistake the street or the number of the building supposed to appear before my camera lens.”  This does not sound like the kind of author who would shift images from Russia to Germany just for the sake of having photographs more or less equally spaced throughout his book.

Nevertheless, in the Penguin edition a number of photographs of St. Petersburg can be found in the areas of text relating to Baden-Baden.  While these images vaguely add to the atmosphere of Baden-Baden, this ambient use strikes me as inimical to Tsypkin’s methodical research methods.  For example, in the first example shown below, Tsypkin’s photograph of the the dark stairway leading to the location that Dostoyevsky used for Raskolnikov’s apartment is inexplicably dropped in the midst of a gambling scene in Baden-Baden.  On the other hand, the second example – a St. Petersburg street image appearing in the midst of a discussion of the streets of that city – is at least contextualized a little more closely.

Baden-Baden 1

“The steps leading up to the room where Raskolnikov lived.  These steps no longer exist as the building has been renovated.”

Baden-Baden 2“Gorokhavaya Street, which frequently features in Dostoyevsky’s novels.”

Even though the Penguin edition has the advantage of being the first English edition to include some of Tsypkin’s photographs, Penguin didn’t seem to have really understood what kind of book it was dealing with.  Their disastrous cover design suggests a fin-de-siècle farce or light romance.  Innocent purchasers were probably more than a little surprised at the powerful – and heavy – work of art behind this loopy image .  Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Summer in Baden-Baden has completely disappeared from Penguin’s website as if it had never been published.  What we need now is a new edition of Summer in Baden-Baden that answers questions about Tsypkin’s photographs and their placement.

My post Summer in Baden-Baden, Part I is here.

“Intense, uncompromising” – Blurbs by Sebald

One of the challenges for a completist book collector like me has been to figure out how to keep collecting Sebald after I had every one of his books (or at least every one that I could afford). Some directions were obvious and thus I started adding books about Sebald, books that anthologized Sebald, magazines in which his work had appeared… But when I came across Norbert Gstrein’s The English Years, I saw yet another subset within my Sebald collection – books with jacket blurbs written by Sebald. I thought that, if nothing else, these books might shed light on Sebald’s reading tastes or on the network of literary friendships that often lead to requests for blurbs.

In Sebald’s own case, I think book jacket blurbs played a critical role in helping expand international awareness of his writing. And it was all because of of one book review – Susan Sontag’s “A Mind in Mourning” (Times Literary Supplement February 25, 2000) – and the resulting blurbs by Sontag that appeared on some of Sebald’s subsequent editions in English.I know that I picked up my first book by Sebald because of her imprimatur on the cover.


Sebald’s first published blurb seems to have been for Foreign Brides by Moscow-born journalist and author Elena Lappin, which was first published in London in a hard cover edition by Picador in 1999, to be closely followed that year followed by an American edition from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Both contained the somewhat ambivalent jacket blurb by Sebald: “A wonderful story collection set between one place and another and shaped by a fearless sense of comedy.” When the British-based Lappin’s next book The Nose came out in 2001, Picador simply trimmed down and recycled the crux of Sebald’s earlier blurb on the front cover: “A fearless sense of comedy.”

The next occasion for a blurb seems to have been for the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance (NY: New Directions, 2000). Appropriately, the two blurbs on the back cover are from Sebald and Susan Sontag.Sebald’s blurb reads: “[The Melancholy of Resistance] is a book about a world into which the Leviathan has returned. The universality of its vision rivals that of Gogol’s Dead Souls and far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing.” The book was first published in English as a paperback by Quartet in London in 1998, apparently with the same blurb by Sebald although I have not seen a copy myself.The connection between Sebald and Krasznahorkai was made by Sebald’s friend the poet and translator George Szirtes (born 1948), who has written in the Hungarian Quarterly of his experiences translating The Melancholy of Resistance and other books from the original Hungarian: “Asked by Quartet as to who might provide a suitable endorsement of the book, I gave the name of W.G. Sebald, then forgot to mention it to the man himself; so when he rang up one day to announce he had received the typescript I was full of apologies. He was not at all put out: he thought it was a marvellous book and was pleased to provide a few sentences.” (George Szirtes, “Foreign Laughter.” Hungarian Quarterly XLVI, No. 180 Winter 2005.)

Most likely Sebald’s last true blurb was written for Norbert Gstrein’s novel The English Years, which was published shortly after Sebald died (London: Harvill, 2002). Sebald is quoted on the front cover of the dust jacket: “An exceptional work of prose fiction: carefully crafted, unpretentious, and accomplished at the same time.” The connection between the Austrian writer (born 1961) Gstrein and Sebald may well have been the translator they shared during 2001, Anthea Bell.


With the rediscovery of the writings of the German Gert Ledig (1921-1999), instigated in part by Sebald’s discussion of his “unjustly forgotten” books in On the Natural History of Destruction, blurbs by Sebald have become standard issue as Ledig’s books are translated into English and released on both sides of the Atlantic. By comparison with his brief earlier blurbs, the quotation on the back cover of Gert Ledig’s Payback is a generous fifty words or so in length. In this case, however, the blurb is actually a patchwork quotation carefully extracted (and ever so slightly massaged for clarity) from a three-page span of Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction (see pps. 94-6 in the Random House edition). In addition, the top of the book’s front cover is emblazoned with the two word quote from Sebald: “Intense, uncompromising.”Payback (London:Granta, 2003), issued as a paperback original, was the first English-language appearance of Ledig’s Vergeltung (1956).

Ledig’s The Stalin Organ, also released as a paperback original (Granta, 2004), reduced Sebald’s contribution to two words – “Intense, uncompromising” – but left them dramatically at the top of the front cover. This was the first English translation of Ledig’s Der Stalinorgel (1955).When the New York Review of Books released this in America in 2005, the title was changed to The Stalin Front and the publishers reverted to a lengthier, albeit significantly different, quotation from On the Natural History of Destruction – and once again the transcription from Sebald’s original book into blurb was rather loosely but strategically massaged.

Undoubtedly there are more blurbs by Sebald to be found and more to come as publishers mine his critical writings and his fame.

Reading and Collecting W.G. Sebald

Shortly after Susan Sontag began writing about W. G. Sebald, I read The Emigrants and subsequently each of Sebald’s works as they appeared in English. I have often found myself drawn to non-American literature, but no one that I had read previously seemed to affect me the way Sebald’s writing did. Perhaps it was the sense of melancholy that subtly pervades everything he wrote that reverberated at my core. As someone who has always collected books, I at first became fascinated by the challenge of building a truly international collection that would include first editions of his books from the three different countries in which they appeared: his native Germany, his adopted England, and my home, America. As time went on, my collection has expanded to include all sorts of publications by and about Sebald.

My collection has also branched out into a somewhat unusual direction. Each of Sebald’s four works of fiction have paradoxically included photographs. Without rambling on at length in this post about the relationship between text and image in Sebald’s works, let me just say that I am fascinated by the complex way in which Sebald’s writing and uses of photographic imagery toy with the issues such as truth, history, and memory. The popularity of Sebald’s books seems to have led to a minor explosion in the use of photography in fictional works by other authors, including Umberto Eco, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Frederick Reuss (to name a few). It has also led me to explore the long but spotty history of photographs appearing within works of fiction in works by authors such as Ishmael Reed, Wright Morris, and the Surrealists – especially Andre Breton. Accordingly, I am building a collection of fiction that includes photographs as an integral part of the work of art, starting with Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte of 1892 all the way up to the latest example published this year.

I am using this site – Vertigo: Collecting Sebald – to continue my personal exploration of Sebald’s writings, to share information about Sebald’s books and related topics, and to learn and experiment with WordPress. Comments welcomed.

Terry Pitts