Skip to content

Posts from the ‘W.G. Sebald’ Category

Sebald-Inspired Music Comes to Brooklyn May 13, 2023

Timeline for the presentation of Michael Hersch’s sew me into a shroud of leaves at the 2019 Wien Modern Festival.

I’m sorry for the late notice, but I just learned about this event, which happens tomorrow in Brooklyn at the performance space National Sawdust, beginning at 9:00 A.M.

From their website:

Michael Hersch brings the U.S. premiere of his sprawling 11-hour new music cycle sew me into a shroud of leaves to National Sawdust for a powerful exploration of endurance. The three-part cycle, composed over 15 years between 2001-2016, finds inspiration in poets Christopher Middleton, W.G. Sebald, and Marius Kociejowski. The ardent piece’s first and last parts are written for solo piano, while the central section is scored for horn and cello. Join us for the U.S. premiere of the work that Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung called “a maximal experience that was absolutely overwhelming.”

About Michael Hersch

A composer of “uncompromising brilliance” (The Washington Post) whose work has been described by The New York Times as “viscerally gripping and emotionally transformative music … claustrophobic and exhilarating at once, with moments of sublime beauty nestled inside thickets of dark virtuosity,” Michael Hersch is widely considered among the most gifted composers of his generation. Recent events and premieres include productions of his opera Poppaea at the Wien Modern and ZeitRäume Basel Festivals, his Violin Concerto, commissioned by Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, at the Lucerne and the Avanti Festivals. His acclaimed two-act monodrama, On the Threshold of Winter has had performances in New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Salt Lake City, and Washington D.C. Recent commissions include his elegy I hope we get a chance to visit soon at the Ojai and Aldeburgh Festivals, and his work Agatha, which had premiere performances in Bern and Geneva as part of Hersch’s residency with the Camerata Bern. Major projects in 22/23 include those for Ensemble Phoenix Basel, and a new opera for Sarah Maria Sun, Schola Heidelberg and Ensemble Musikfabrik.

About Mariel Roberts 

American cellist Mariel Roberts is widely recognized not just for her virtuosic performances which seethe with “excruciating intensity” (The Whole Note), but as a “fearless explorer” in her field (Chicago Reader). Her ravenous appetite for collaboration and experimentation as an interpreter, improvisor, and composer have helped create a body of work which bridges avant-garde, contemporary, classical, improvised, and traditional music.

About Jason Hardink

“A fearless interpreter of large-scale piano works both modern and historical, pianist Jason Hardink’s recent debut at Weill Recital Hall was lauded for its audacious programming and pianism demonstrating “abandon and remarkable clarity” and a “capacity for tenderness and grace” (The New York Times).

About Jacob Rhodebeck

Jacob Rhodebeck is a pianist known for his tremendous command of the instrument and his enthusiasm for performing new and little known music.  Recently, Mr. Rhodebeck’s performance of Michael Hersch’s 3-hour solo piano work, The Vanishing Pavilions was described as “astounding” (The Philadelphia Inquirer) and “a searing performance” (The New York Times).

About Jamie Hersch

Jamie Hersch has been widely lauded for his artistry and virtuosic command in both the standard and contemporary repertoire. An active soloist and chamber artist, he has performed with many ensembles around the world.  With cellist Daniel Gaisford, he gave the world premiere of Michael Hersch’s Last Autumn in Philadelphia. It was selected by The Philadelphia Inquirer as among the Best in Classical Music of that year. He currently serves as Associate Principal Horn with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

There is more about the various inspirations for this piece at Hersch’s website.

From Both Sides Now

Forgive me for referring to Joni Mitchell’s song “Both Sides Now” in a post about war, but simply swapping out one word in her lyric gives us a perfect summary of today’s subject: I’ve looked at war from both sides now. It’s even more fitting that I’ve read somewhere that the inspiration for this song came to her as she was flying in a jet plane looking down at the tops of the clouds below her.

The initial impetus for Françoise Meltzer’s book Dark Lens: Imaging Germany, 1945 (University of Chicago Press, 2019) came from a number of photographs that her mother took in Berlin and other locations in Germany in 1945, immediately after the end of World War II. Her mother’s photographs mostly depict the utter ruination of German cities, the collapsed buildings and broken bridges, and the first attempts at clearing the streets brick by brick. But Meltzer is a Distinguished Professor in the Humanities and chair of comparative literature at the University of Chicago, and she is ultimately after something much larger than what her mother’s photographs can tell us about post-war Germany.

She begins by methodically examining some photographs (both her mother’s and those by some other photographers), paintings, and writings that depict the devastation of German cities in order to ask questions about human suffering. For example, how, if at all, do these depictions of ruins in any of these media help us understand the suffering of others? “Can catastrophe be persuasively represented?”

Jeanne Dumilieu, untitled, 1945.

Looking at photographs, she begins with a close reading of several of her mother’s images. She also discusses how some important critical thinkers have written about looking at photographs, including Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Stanley Cavell, and several others. Importantly, she demonstrates just how easy it is to completely misread what is going on in a photograph. “How we see is always shaped by ideology,” she writes, echoing the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. Ideology is whatever has “educated and thus constructed our gaze.” Keep this in mind as you read my next paragraph.

As Meltzer studies her mother’s photographs, she believes that “we are paradoxically confronting two groups of victims visually absent from the photographs.” The first group is rather obvious: “the thousands of dead civilians, covered over by rubble and ruins.” The second group is not so obvious as the first: “the millions of dead in the [concentration] camps. . . silently and invisibly hovering over the scene.” Initially, I had no problem with this concept, which she calls a “visual prosopopoeia,” or a figure of speech in which an imaginary or absent person is represented. But then I started to wonder how this would work in other circumstances. Is the Holocaust a special case or should we be seeing all sorts of dead hovering over the photographs we see daily? Should we be thinking of the countless dead Native Americans every time we see any photograph made in the United States? Should the dead of 9/11 haunt every image of New York City? What happens with images of places with divided loyalties, like Jerusalem or the Balkans? Different individuals will see different sets of the dead hovering invisibly over every image, each according to their own ideology. I dearly wish Meltzer had explored this issue more deeply and had thought beyond the Holocaust.

She also discusses a few painters, including Karl Hofer and Anselm Kiefer, and a wide range of writers and how each responded to German suffering during and after the war and, more specifically, to the Allied bombing of German cities. On the one hand, there were writers like Hannah Arendt, J. Frank Dobie, and Gertrude Stein who visited Germany soon after the end of the war and came away “convinced that the Germans are escaping their responsibility” by refusing to shoulder their share of guilt for causing the war. These writers felt that the German citizenry had deservedly brought all of the outcomes of the war down upon themselves. But there were other writers who saw the German population with greater differentiation, realizing that not everyone supported Hitler and the National Socialists. These writers tended to take a more cautionary, if not accusatory, attitude toward the Allied carpet-bombing of German civilian populations.

What Meltzer is leading up to is a warning. She and other critics and scholars have seen a recent trend in Germany to balance out all of the victims of World War II, a trend suggesting “that German victims suffered as much as any other victims.” For her, this is morally dangerous and simply a non-starter.

As I was finishing Meltzer’s book I saw the first review appear of Sergei Loznitsa’s new film The Natural History of Destruction (2022), which I have been anticipating for some time now. In language that appears to have been provided by Loznitsa or his crew, the film was briefly described for the U.S. premiere later that happened in March at Ithaca College: “Inspired by W.G. Sebald’s treatise and created entirely from archival footage, The Natural History of Destruction mounts a harrowing critique of the killing of civilian populations during war-time—as seen in the devastation unleashed across both England and Germany during WWII.”

In an early review of the film that is full of subtle insights, Scott MacDonald, writing for The Edge notices the unusually level playing field between England and Germany that is hinted at in this description of Loznitsa’s film.

My own first experience with Natural History seems instructive. My takeaway was that the film was about the mutual brutalities of the second World War, as they played out between the U.K. and Nazi Germany. I assumed I was seeing the devastation that Germany visited on the U.K. and the response of the Allies—though my nagging feeling was that the film didn’t reveal this balance effectively: the Nazis didn’t seem to cause as much devastation as the Allies.

As I watched the film more carefully, I realized that the focus of The Natural History of Destruction is not the mutuality of destruction between the Allies and the Axis, but Loznitsa’s attempt to see the war from the point of view of the Germans—or to be more precise, to consider the full implications of the Allied response to the German war machine. . .

What is unusual about The Natural History of Destruction is Loznitsa’s emphasis throughout the film, and especially during its final minutes, on the overwhelming spectacle of the destruction visited by the U.K. and the USA on Germany. For most of us, the brutality of the German aggression that began the war and which was confirmed, after the war, by revelations of the extent of the Holocaust, has allowed us to feel that the Nazis and all Germans of that era deserved what they got. Indeed, among filmmakers I’m aware of, other than Loznitsa, only Peter Watkins—in both The War Game (1965) and The Journey (1987)—has demanded that we recognize that the Allies were astonishingly brutal in their bombardment of Germany (and, of course, in America’s case, in testing the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in fire-bombing Tokyo). . .

Loznitsa’s The Natural History of Destruction reminds us of how conveniently we’ve used the “victory” of the Allies and the war crimes of Nazi Germany to suppress our awareness, and the filmic evidence, of our own nation’s culpability in wartime horror. Implicitly, he warns us to keep our heads during the current volatile moment.

Scott MacDonald, Guernica 2.0: Loznitsa’s The Natural History of Destruction (2022)

Another, unnamed German reviewer has written:

No one speaks much in [the film] The Natural History of Destruction. The war machinery just plods on until the cities depicted are in ruins. . .

In recent years, Neo-Nazis in Germany have repeatedly used the bombings to relativize the crimes of the Nazi regime. That is not Loznitsa’s intention at all.

Nevertheless, the lack of context and the focus on the suffering of the German population poses potential for criticism. Thus, “an irritatingly skewed view of the war emerges, in which the victims of Nazi terror remain a blank space,” said cultural journalist Christian Berndt on Deutschlandfunk radio. Film critic Patrick Seyboth also notes that Loznitsa’s attitude is “very consistent, but also worthy of discussion.”

Deutsche Welle. “New film on the bombing of German cities in WWII.”

Meltzer concludes her book with the wistful hope that we can somehow transcend the urge toward war.

Perhaps, in confronting representations—whether iconic or textual—the viewer can be motivated to think beyond systems of collective hatred and the vicious cycle of revenge. Perhaps the viewer will be able to think beyond the category of “enemy” and see that the real enemy, truism though this may be, is war itself, along with its political and technological machinery. Admittedly, this “perhaps” is a tenuous and very fragile one. Moreover it has been tried before and clearly failed.


Lens: Imaging Germany, 1945 is a compelling book and I have only scratched the surface of Meltzer’s arguments. I highly recommend it.

Key Sebald Interview Now Available In Print

On December 6, 2001, only eight days before the automobile accident that killed him, W.G. Sebald sat down in Los Angeles for a revealing thirty-minute interview with Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW radio’s exceptional program Bookworm. Among other topics, Sebald talked about his debt to Thomas Bernhard, who he felt was practically the only German-language author who had never compromised his writing. To be morally compromised, Sebald said, ultimately leads to being aesthetically “insufficient.” Sebald described Bernhard’s style as a “periscopic form of writing” in that he only tells you what he sees – nothing more, nothing less – a style Sebald used to some extent in Austerlitz. It’s one of the best interviews Sebald gave and now it’s available in a newly published volume Bookworm: Conversations with Michael Silverblatt, published by The Song Cave. A brilliant mind and an astute reader, Silverblatt is one of the most intelligent interviewers in literature. The volume includes Silverblatt’s conversations with a very impressive group of writers: John Ashbery, John Berger, Octavia Butler, Joan Didion, Carlos Fuentes, William H. Gass, Toni Morrison, Grace Paley, W.G. Sebald, Stephen Sondheim, Susan Sontag, and David Foster Wallace. Although Bookworm stopped production in 2022, its back catalog of broadcasts can be listened to here. Writing on the Los Angeles Review of Books website, Chris Via says: “The depth and breadth of Silverblatt’s literary knowledge is, of course, the stuff of legend.” In his review of the book he discusses each one of the interviews, most of which were multi-part endeavors. Here’s what Via says about Silverblatt’s conversation with Sebald.

One of the great pleasures of reading W. G. Sebald is his style, so it is deeply fulfilling that much of Silverblatt’s conversation with the author is dedicated to examining his prose, tracing its influences back to 19th-century German literature, and connecting it to Sebald’s appreciation for naturalist and scientific writing. At the end of this spectacular discussion, Silverblatt summarizes their talk in a breathtaking passage that bears quoting in full:

It was once explained to me that there was in German prose something called das Glück im Winkel, happiness in a corner. [I think that your radical contribution to prose is to bring] the sensibility of tininess, miniaturization, […] to the enormity of the post-concentration camp world. [So] that a completely or nearly forgotten prose tone is being brought into the postmodern century, and that the extraordinary echo, almost the immediate abyss that opens between the prose and subject, is what happens, that automatically, ghosts, echoes, trance states—it’s almost as if you are allowing the world to howl into the seashell of this prose style.
For me, this captures the essence of what sets Bookworm above any other program about books: Silverblatt’s manifold powers as a reader. He recalls a concept from German prose that most of us don’t know; he poetically situates Sebald’s work historically and highlights its idiosyncrasies; and he reconnects their earlier discussion about the ghostliness of the prose and the shrouded, foggy atmosphere of the pages, using imagery that hasn’t left me since I first heard it. This is why listening to (or reading) each of these conversations is like following a sacred commentary on the pleasures of reading a great book.

18 Notable Books from My 2022 Reading

As I went back through the ninety or so books I read in the past twelve months, it was a challenge to decide which titles should be labelled the “best” of the year. I kept changing my mind until I finally settled on these eighteen as the most outstanding and memorable books of the last year’s reading. Seven of titles are novels, two are mysteries, two are volumes of poetry, one is a volume of photographs with text, and the remainder are various genres of non-fiction. Six of the titles were published for the first time in 2022, another five were from 2019 through 2021, with the remainder having been published as far back as 1959. For the second year in a row, Percival Everett has two books on my list. If you want to see everything that I read throughout 2022, you’ll find that list here underneath the tab for Old Reading Logs. I keep a running commentary on every book I read in my current annual Reading Log, which you can find as a pull-down menu elsewhere at the top of this page. And just for the record, I made ineligible for this list any of the books that I reread as part of my 15 Books Project; they’re getting enough attention on their own. So here are my notable books from this year’s reading, alphabetically by author.

Sara Baume. Handiwork. Dublin: Tramp Press, 2020. Baume, a writer with a growing reputation for her fiction, has a personal craft obsession: carving small birds out of plaster, at the rate of a bird a day. In Handiwork, she blends separate narrative threads about her craft habits, bird-watching, stories of bird migration, and bits of memoir about her husband and her father into a spiraling meditation on obsession and what it means to work with your hands. As she ponders the way in which migration patterns are passed on through generations of birds, she observes her father and herself, wondering what has similarly been passed from father to daughter—especially after his death. Nothing about this book feels superficial to me. Baume explores craft, craftsmanship, and craftsmen deeply and personally.

Last spring, after I had carved 100 plaster objects, a single day devoted to each one, I started to carve them in a slightly different style—a slightly sharper, odder, style—and after a while it became clear that the first hundred were inadequate; that the price of getting a single object right was 100 discarded objects and 100 days, an entire winter.

Kirsty Bell. The Undercurrents. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2022. After a move and then a sudden divorce, Bell found herself the owner of an apartment in one of the few 19th century buildings in Berlin that survived the devastation of World War II. Curious about the building’s history, she began to research it. Before long, she found herself expanding her purview to research the adjacent canal, then the neighborhood, and then the city itself. Throughout the book Bell keeps her building—and the family who built it and had lived in it for nearly a century—as the focal point. Along the way, she tells many fascinating stories about Berlin, and she has a knack for making history’s complications seem understandable. For example, she lays out a concise picture of Berlin’s dismal attempts at post-war city planning, and she gives the best summary I’ve read yet of what went wrong during Germany’s “re-unification.” Every city should have a book like this.

Annabel Dover. Florilegia. Nottingham: Moist Books, 2022. I was taken by Dover’s daring first novel, which is narrated by a woman who becomes enamored with the 19th century British botanist and photographer Anna Atkins. According to my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a florilegia is “a collection of choice extracts from literature; an anthology. . . a book describing choice flowers.” But this didn’t prepare me for what the narrator of Florilegia threw at me. Within the first few pages, she had referenced bear-baiting, the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace, Derek Jarman, AIDS, something called the Paper Museum, Windsor Castle, David Bowie, and well more than a dozen other famous names and obscure subjects, not to mention a mini-history of the poppy plant. The novel is really about the power of objects to provoke memories that, for this narrator, bring her back in touch with memories of her parents and siblings. Packed with nearly one hundred b&w photographs, mostly by Anna Atkins and the author. I wrote longer review of this book here.

Percival Everett. I Am Not Sidney Poitier. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2009. I’ve become a rabid follower of Everett in recent years. This is a funny, pointed satire that aims its sharpest arrows at white Southerners, colorism, and higher education. It’s impossible to give a brief synopsis of the complex plot, but suffice it to say that the main character is a young kid whose mother named him Not Sidney because his last name really was Poitier. He accidentally becomes phenomenally rich through a lucky stock purchase in the company that becomes CNN, which makes him an early partner of Ted Turner. But because he is black, very dark, and named Not Sidney, he must suffer—and suffer egregiously—at the hands of whites and blacks alike before becoming wise. The eventual payback is simply delicious.

Percival Everett. Suder. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1999. This is Everett’s first book from 1983, re-released sixteen years later. Although it seemed to start a bit slow, toggling between baseball and jazz, it turns out to be a doozy, complete with an elephant, a hijacked young girl, some liberated cash, and a man who has decided he wants to fly. Suder is a fairly brave first novel and sets a theme that Everett will return to frequently, that of a man who slowly decides he must come to the rescue of someone in trouble.

Mark Haber, Saint Sebastian’s Abyss. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2022. A delicious novel about the esoteric world of art history and the period known as the Northern Renaissance. “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” is one of only three paintings that survive by the (fictional) painter Count Hugo Beckenbauer (1512- ?), a man who spent most of his abbreviated adult life in Berlin drinking and “purchasing sex from both women and young boys” before succumbing to syphilis. Two highly competitive art historians have built their careers on this tiny gem of a painting—an unnamed American who serves as the narrator and Schmidt, an Austrian. The two have a long and friendly professional rivalry until the narrator one day says a “horrible thing” that angers Schmidt and leads to a rupture that will end their friendship until Schmidt, on his deathbed, reconsiders. Haber has crafted a novel about beauty and spite worthy of the master, Thomas Bernhard. I wrote a longer review here.

Gabriel Josipovici. 100 Days. Manchester: Little Island Press, 2021. During the worst of the Covid pandemic, Josipovici assigned himself to “keep a diary for a hundred days . . . with a short thought or memory, one a day, connected to a person, place, concept or work of art that had played a role in my life . . . not . . . perfect little essays . . . but rather a way of talking to myself.” The alphabetically-arranged entries move from Aachen and Abraham to [Georges] Perec and Piers the Plowman to Zazie dans le métro (Raymond Queneau’s 1960 novel) and Zoos. Josipovici’s erudition and his utter honesty shine through in these wonderful little pieces, each of which is preceded by a short diaristic encapsulation of the current political situation with regard to Covid (usually the British government’s botched handling thereof). If he were a regular diarist, Josipovici could have easily be this era’s Samuel Pepys.

William Melvin Kelley. A Different Drummer. NY: Anchor Books, 1959. [I read the 2019 eBook edition.] This is Kelley’s stunning debut novel, written when he was 24. After reading it, I wasn’t surprised to learn that he was a student of John Hawkes at Harvard. There is something fearless about Kelley’s writing in A Different Drummer. One day, a young Black Southerner named Tucker Caliban burns his house, shoots his farm animals, salts his fields, and heads North. In doing so, he starts a movement that causes the state’s entire Black population to also emigrate Northward. A rich and complex novel told from the perspective of a rotating cast of characters, most of which are the white residents of Caliban’s tiny community, this is a rich satire salted with bits of endearing tenderness, much like what we are seeing now in the novels of Percival Everett.

Ausma Zehanat Khan. Blackwater Falls. NY: Minotaur Books, 2022. In a foothills suburb of Denver, Afghani-American Detective Inaya Rahman pairs up with a Latina Detective to try to solve the murder of a Syrian refugee teenage girl. Although I think Khan stretches credulity a bit in order to demonstrate how racism works in America, I applaud her effort, and I enjoyed this fast-paced police procedural quite a bit. It’s apparently the start of a series and I look forward to more of Khan’s books in the future. Khan lets us look at America from the perspective of several immigrant police officers and their families, and it’s a very different mirror than the one most of us use every morning.

[Tom Lecky.] Peter Ward, ed. The Archive of Bernard Taylor. Hastings-on-Hudson: Understory Books, 2021. Can a spoof be beautiful and serious? At first, this appears to be a stunningly handsome book of formal b&w photographs taken in and around Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. The photographs are mostly of trees and suburban landscapes, which are full of subtle rhythms and symmetries that are hauntingly suggestive of hidden meanings. There are also some historic, vintage photographs and old maps reproduced, as well as finely-worded texts printed opposite many of the photographs. All of the contemporary photographs, we are told, were made by a Bernard Taylor and were purchased as a lot for all of $40 after his death by a Peter Ward, another resident of Hastings-on-Hudson. But the unsigned Publisher’s Afterword plants some doubts about the existence of these two characters and refers to this book as the “facsimile of a phantom.” A piece of paper slipped into the book like an errata sheet informs us that the texts opposite the photographs are actually quotations excerpted from a wide range of authors and notables, such as William Carlos Williams and Werner Heisenberg. The truth is that this book is the work of Tom Lecky, photographer and bookseller, who has decided to give his own smart photographs over to a fictional character, all the better to. . . to accomplish what? My guess is that it was just much more fun to do it this way.

Liam McIlvanney. The Heretic. World Noir, 2022. McIlvanney remains my current favorite mystery writer, despite the fact that there were times I could barely follow the plot of The Heretic or its predecessor, The Quaker. I’m a bit in awe of the writing and pacing, the great characters, and the fine dialogue. McIlvanney is more fearless than most mystery writers about plunging you, the reader, in way over your head and letting the context bubble up slowly, just before you drown.

Tiya Miles. All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. NY: Random House, 2021. This entire book is predicated on fewer than sixty words that a woman embroidered onto a cotton bag in 1920, words that identified the simple cotton sack as the gift her great grandmother gave to her grandmother when the two were being separated and the nine-year old daughter was being sold at a slave auction in South Carolina. Using those few words as a base, Miles conducted extensive research and employed the imagination of numerous scholars and artists to recreate Ashley’s world as a slave in Charleston and the likely life for the generations of African Americans that followed her. At times it feels like an astonishing achievement conjured out of a pittance, but Miles’ book demonstrates how one line of African Americans went from slavery to the Black middle class in Philadelphia in a handful of generations.

Stephen Mitchelmore. This Space of Writing. Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2015. Forty-four essays drawn from Mitchelmore’s invaluable blog This Space, where he has written about literature since 2000. Mitchelmore writes at a level unparalleled, in my opinion, and is one of the most acute thinkers about which books and writers really deserve our fullest attention and why. He has made me a much better reader.

Claudia Piñeiro. Elena Knows. Edinburgh: Charco Press, 2021. Translated from the 2007 Spanish original by Frances Riddle. Elena is positive that her granddaughter Rita would never have committed suicide, but the police won’t believe her. And so Elena is on a mission to find the one woman in Buenos Aires she believes will help her prove that her granddaughter must have been murdered. But Elena has Parkinson’s and it takes every bit of strength and courage that she has (plus a few pills) simply to cross town to knock on the door of a woman she hasn’t seen in twenty years, but on whose shoulders she has pinned all of her hopes. I can’t say any more without revealing the plot, but the denouement is not only unexpected but brilliant. The writing is compelling and Elena is a character I will never forget. This is my book of the year.

The trick is to lift up the right foot, just a few centimeters off the floor, move it forward through the air, just enough to get it past the left foot, and when it gets as far as it can go, lower it. That’s all it is, Elena thinks. But she thinks this, and even though her brain orders the movement, her right foot doesn’t move. It does not lift up. It does not move forward through the air. It does not lower back down. It’s so simple. But it doesn’t do it. So Elena sits and waits.

Emeric Pressburger. The Glass Pearls. London: Faber, 2022. (Originally published by Heinemann, 1966.) Karl Braun, a German emigre who works as a piano tuner and lives in a bedsit in Pimlico, always seems nervous about something. Before too long we find out why. He is really a Nazi war criminal in hiding, a surgeon who brutally experimented on concentration camp prisoners. A few of his fellow Nazis want him to join them in Argentina, but to do so he has to make his way to Zurich to withdraw money from a numbered checking account he created at the end of the war. Pressburger is more famous for the films he made with Michael Powell, but The Glass Pearls is a terrific example of sixties noir writing applied to something other than a classic crime story. Braun’s fears make him his own worst enemy in his race against time.

Richard Siken. Crush. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. After selecting Siken as the winner of the 2004 Yale Series of Younger Poets, Louise Glück wrote in the Foreword to this book of devastating and devastatingly beautiful poems, “this is a book about panic. . . The book is all high beams: reeling, savage, headlong, insatiable.” There are lines in here that take me to emotional places I’ve never felt from literature before, where love is dark, fearful, clinging, passionate, and much more, all wrapped up into one muddled sensation. I’m a huge fan of his 2015 book War of the Foxes, too.

Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake
and dress them in warm clothes again.
How it was late, and no one could sleep, the horses running
until they forget that they are horses.

From “Scheherazade”

Enrique Vila-Matas. The Illogic of Kassel. NY: New Directions, 2014. I re-read this largely because I thought I might go in September to see Documenta 15, that massive exhibition that is put on every five years in Kassel, Germany, but in the end I opted not to. Vila-Matas was a writer-in-residence at Documenta 13, which apparently meant he sat for a few days in a Chinese restaurant in Kassel and scribbled in a notebook and made himself available to anyone who might want to talk with him. As Vila-Matas interacts with some of the artworks and performance pieces he saw in Kassel, he writes articulately and intelligently about his personal experiences and responses. In the end, he feels that “some of the works at Documenta . . . helped me rethink my writing.” A book that is surprisingly rich with ideas and artistic interconnections. Vila-Matas recently wrote another excellent essay about contemporary art for the catalog Cabinet d’amateur, an oblique novel: Works from “la Caixa” Collection of Contemporary Art (#20 in my list of books read in 2022).

Ocean Vuong. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. NY: Penguin, 2019. What can I possibly say that hasn’t been said before about this book? Lyrical, carnal, angry, brilliant, astoundingly beautiful. I just don’t understand how someone can write stunning sentences one after another without end. May his well never run dry.

Will Self to Talk on Sebald Dec. 20, 2022

The online platform The Article, which refers to itself as “a troll-free zone. Entertaining exchanges. Civilised conversation,” has announced that the writer Will Self will deliver a talk called “The Ghost of Future Past: W.G. Sebald and the Trauma of Modernity” at 7 PM on Tuesday, December 20, 2022, at St George’s German Lutheran Church, Whitechapel, London E1 8EB. Rick Jones hosts the event. Tickets are £5. The Article says the event is both live and on zoom. But the church’s website says the event is by Zoom only. On December 4, Rick Jones clarified via email that tickets are to attend the talk in person in St George’s German Lutheran Church. Anyone wishing to watch via Zoom may request to do so via the Eventbrite ticket site.

St. George’s German Lutheran Church is the oldest surviving German Church in Britain. The church closed for regular worship in 1996 when it was taken into care by The Historic Chapels Trust. Although it is still occasionally used for church services by the German community from London and the surrounding area, it is now principally used for concerts, lectures, meetings, and a place of historical study. St George’s German Lutheran Church is a unique testament to common heritage shared by two nations, both in the past and in the present.

Will Self has a long history of writing and speaking about Sebald. He gave the 2009 Sebald Lecture, organized by the British Centre for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia, titled “Absent Jews and Invisible Executioners: W G Sebald and the Holocaust.” (That lecture can be heard here on SoundCloud.) More recently, he led a segment of BBC Radio’s Channel 4 Archive on 4 progam. “In the company of Sebald biographer Carole Angier and former friend, poet Stephen Wells, Self moves through the Sebaldian landscape of Southwold, Liverpool Street and the East End whilst exploring the archive devoted to one of the truly great writers of the late 20th Century.” (That program can be heard here.)

Self’s forthcoming book from Grove Press/Grove Atlantic, Why Read: Selected Writings 2001-2021, contains “a lengthy, dark, autobiographical piece on W.G. Sebald and the role of the Holocaust.”

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.

He told “fictions” rather than “lies”

Carole Angier’s massive biography of W.G. Sebald, Speak, Silence (Bloomsbury, 2021), has garnered dozens of reviews from around the globe, but a surprising number focused on her accounts of how Sebald would use parts of other people’s life stories in his books while feeling free to change some of the facts to suit his own literary needs. Some reviewers understood this to be an essential part of how every fiction writer works, but a handful turned this into an eye-catching headline and a controversial practice. Take Judith Shulevitz’s review in The Atlantic, for example: “W.G. Sebald Ransacked Jewish Lives for His Fictions: Why did he lie about his sources?” Or Lucasta Miller’s “W.G. Sebald’s Borrowed Truths and Barefaced Lies” in The Spectator.

Angier talks about this topic and much more in a new, 35-minute audio interview with J.C Gabel on LitHub‘s podcast Big Table episode 32. In his introduction to the podcast, Gabel writes: “One of the reasons I wanted to talk with her about [her biography]—apart from my longtime love of Sebald—was to ask for her thoughts on the controversy his work still seems to generate, even 20 years after his death. A great deal of the reviews of Speak, Silence, in the States at least, were hyper-critical of Sebald playing fast and loose with some facts in his fiction.”

Here’s part of Angier’s response:

I have to say, I regret having brought this opprobrium upon him, which was entirely unintended. . . when he told me these fictions about his characters, many, many different complex and interesting things were going on. To just boil them down to “lying” is really reductive and terrible. It’s not something I do in my book, although I did call one of the things he said a lie. I regret that now. I should have said he told “fictions” rather than “lies,” because I gave people the excuse to turn against him like that.

After the conclusion of the interview, the Big Table podcast excerpts six or seven minutes of audio from Sebald’s reading of a section of his book Austerlitz, held at New York’s 92nd Street Y on October 15, 2001. If you wish, you can access the entire 45-minute video of that event here. After Sebald’s 25-minute reading, Susan Sontag joins him on stage to talk for awhile before they answer questions.

A Few Reading Highlights—Midway Through 2022

This seemed like a good time to say something about a few of the best books that I have read this year which have not made it into Vertigo yet. Just as a reminder, every book I read during the year receives a short write-up on my 2022 Reading Log, which can be found at the top of this blog. Of the more than fifty books that I’ve read so far this year, I felt that these seven really stood out and deserved a little extra attention.

Eloísa Díaz. Repentance. Aberdeen, NJ: Agora Books, 2021. In the midst of the city’s December 2001 riots, Buenos Aires police Inspector Alzada finds himself with a delicate murder case that takes an unexpected turn, forcing him once again to come to the aid of his brother. Twenty years earlier, when he was a young policeman and his brother belonged to an anti-government guerilla group, he barely managed to keep his brother’s name off a list of those who were going to be disappeared by the regime. Now his brother is in trouble with the new regime, and Inspector Alzada has to risk everything (as book publicists like to say) to try to save his brother once again. Díaz’s first novel toggles back and forth between two dangerous periods in Argentina’s history with such ease that time, history, and memory become beautifully compressed and blurred. Repressive regimes (think Berlin) always seem to provide perfect backdrops for noir novels like this, and Díaz creates a Buenos Aires that is both stiflingly claustrophobic and yet rippling with energy as the anti-government protesters gain confidence. Nicely written with several well-drawn characters.

William Melvin Kelley. A Different Drummer. NY: Anchor Books, 1959. [I read the 2019 eBook edition.] One hot summer day in the South, a young Black man named Tucker Caliban burns his house, shoots his farm animals, salts his fields, and heads North, starting a movement that leads the state’s entire Black population to follow him Northward. Kelley’s fearless novel is told from the perspective of a rotating cast of characters, most of which are the white residents of Caliban’s tiny community. As the Black migration takes place before the puzzled, if not astounded eyes of the white community, we are given the backstory both for Caliban and for his rich, white counterpart, Dewey Willson III. Kelley’s brilliant book is leading up to the ultimate Southern question: What would the South be like if all the Blacks left? It’s only during the last few pages, as the last Black man is about to leave, that the white community suddenly realizes that this is the question they are being asked, and they panic. This is Kelley’s debut novel, written when he was 24. After reading it, I wasn’t surprised to find that he was a student of John Hawkes at Harvard. There’s a bit of devil-may-care attitude about the mechanics of the story that constantly remind you that Kelley has his eyes on something bigger than tidying up the fine points of his plot.

Alison Jean Lester. Glide. Bench Press, 2021. Leo, the book’s narrator, doesn’t know what to believe when his wife fails to return from a trip to Norway. Instead, a man shows up who claims to be a half-brother of hers that Leo has never heard about before and cannot verify in her absence. I don’t normally enjoy books of suspense where tension seems to be the main benefit for the reader. But Lester’s writing is smooth and she doesn’t artificially amp up the drama, so she managed to win my confidence and continuously tickle my curiosity. With each advance in the plot the mystery grew and a new surprise always seemed be around the corner, tightening the tension very slowly. I confess I enjoyed this to the very end. Mostly abstract photographs by Andrew Gurnett at the beginning of each chapter give a visual preview of the ominous level of what is to come.

Liam McIlvanney. The Heretic. World Noir, 2022. McIlvanney remains one of my current favorite writers of police procedurals, despite the fact that I could barely follow the plot of The Heretic‘s predecessor, The Quaker, at times. The Heretic is not much better in this regard, but at some point I just give up and let myself enjoy McIlvanney’s writing, pacing, great characters, and fine dialogue. He is more fearless than most police procedural writers about plunging the reader in over his or her head and letting the context bubble up slowly like oxygen, just before you drown. I won’t even try to explain the plot involving Glasgow, Scotland Detective Duncan McCormack, a deadly tenement fire, the body of a politician that turns up in a dumpster, and a crime lord with whom McCormack seems to have an unhealthily obsession. But it all makes for a few hours of good reading.

Tiya Miles. All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. NY: Random House, 2021. Sometime in the 1850s, a Black mother and her nine-year old daughter Ashley were sold separately at a slave auction in Charleston, South Carolina, never to see each other again. Before the auction, the mother managed to give a sack containing a ragged dress, a handful of pecans, and a lock of her hair to her daughter. In 1921 the woman who inherited the sack embroidered a brief narrative of less than sixty words on it, explaining that her great-grandmother Rose had given it to her grandmother Ashley. Rose told Ashley “It be filled with my Love always.” Using the sack as material evidence and those few words as a base, Miles conducted extensive research and employed the imagination of numerous scholars and a couple of artists to recreate Ashley’s world as a slave in Charleston, and the likely life for her and for the African American generations that followed her survival. At times it feels like an astonishing achievement conjured out of a wisp of evidence, but Miles’ book epitomizes the new direction of scholarship today—cooperative and not afraid to employ the imagination. Miles draws on a wide variety of disciplines: history, genealogy, literature, environmental history, botany, art history, and probably one or two more that I have forgotten. Plus, the book contains a color “visual essay” called “Carrying Capacity,” showing the artworks made by the artists who were engaged to respond to Ashley’s sack, its contents, and the key themes that it raised. Every page of Miles’ book is eye opening.

Richard Siken. Crush. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. After selecting Siken as the winner of the 2004 Yale Series of Younger Poets, Louise Glück wrote in the Foreword to this book of devastating and devastatingly beautiful poems, “this is a book about panic. . . The book is all high beams: reeling, savage, headlong, insatiable.” There are lines in here that take me to emotional places I’ve never felt from literature before, where love is dark, fearful, clinging, passionate, and desperate, all wrapped up into one muddled sensation. It feels wrong to think of this a book of love poetry, since the poems are really, at heart, just as much about relationships, and the difficult, high wire act that they represent. There’s no safety net in this book. I’m a huge fan of his 2015 book War of the Foxes, too.

The way you slam your body into mine reminds me
I’m alive, but monsters are always hungry, darling,
and they’re only a few steps behind you, finding
the flaw, the poor weld, the place where we weren’t
stitched up quite right, the place they could almost
slip right through if the skin wasn’t trying to
keep them out, to keep them here, on the other side
of the theater where the curtain keeps rising.

from “Snow and Dirty Rain” by Richard Siken

Ocean Vuong. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. NY: Penguin, 2019. What can I possibly say that hasn’t been said before about this book? It’s lyrical, carnal, angry, brilliant, and astoundingly beautiful. I just don’t understand how someone can write stunning sentences one after another without end. May his well never run dry. It’s partly a memoir, partly an angry diversion down the avenues of race, sexuality, and addiction, and it’s partly an indescribable genre of its own, written in the form of a letter from Vuong to his illiterate mother. For once, this is a book that is as powerful as everyone says it is.

Ukrainian Film Based on W.G. Sebald Book Debuts at Cannes Film Festival

Film still from Sergei Loznitsa’s The Natural History of Destruction.

As the Washington Post put it, “The war in Ukraine took a starring role on the opening night of the 75th Cannes Film Festival and it has rarely been far out of frame since.” One of the reasons for this was Sergei Loznitsa’s film, The Natural History of Destruction, which is based on the book of a similar name by W.G. Sebald. Loznitsa’s film received its premiere at the Festival on May 23. A regular at Cannes, Loznitsa has shown eight films at the Festival since 2010, including maidan, a film about the 2014 revolution in Ukraine, and last year’s Baby Yar. Context, a documentary about the slaughter of 300,000 Jews in 1941, at the hands of German soldiers, with the assistance of Ukrainian police, which occurred just outside Kyiv.

Loznitsa is no stranger to Sebald’s books. In 2016, he made a 94-minute documentary film called Austerlitz, which was related to Sebald’s novel of the same name, although his film did not follow the plot of Sebald’s book at all. For that film, Loznitsa followed tourists around as they spent a summer day at the Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz, in Poland. The film forces viewers to think about the uneasy mix of visitors who make their way to Auschwitz, ranging from those who view it as a sacred site of death, perhaps even where members of their own family were murdered, to more carefree tourists who treat the place as just another stopover on their summer vacation, almost like a Disney-type attraction. In a review of the film, Nicholas Rapold wrote:

“the film is perhaps above all a haunting meditation, in which the physical history of the camps battles with oblivion. In one sequence, visitor after visitor takes a selfie with the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign on the camp’s front gate. It is easy to be unnerved by the casual manner and lack of emotion of many visitors in the film, though others are shown in states of contemplation as they reckon with the camps.”

Nicolas Rapold, “Sergei Loznitsa’s Movie ‘Austerlitz’ Observes Tourists in Concentration Camps” New York Times Aug. 31, 2016
Film still from Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz.

Austerlitz, and several other of Loznitsa’s films, can be viewed on his website for a small fee.

Peter Bradshaw, writing in the May 24, 2022, Guardian, describes The Natural History of Destruction as a “docu-collation of archive footage meditating on the horrific aerial bombardment inflicted on cities and civilian populations by the British and Germans during the second world war.” But, unlike most documentaries, there is no voice-over. Instead, Loznitsa adds ambient sound, indistinct murmuring, and the music of a string octet. The overall effect, he says, is “sinister and dreamlike.” Bradshaw concludes that “the basic point about the waste and horror of war is entirely valid,” but he adds “I wasn’t sure that enough, and enough of original interest, was being said.”

In the Washington Post, Loznitsa was asked about his controversial opinion that Russian filmmakers should not have been kept from participating in this year’s Cannes Film Festival. “Our duty as filmmakers is to try to understand what’s going on around us,” he said. He was also kicked out of the Ukrainian Film Academy for not supporting a boycott of Russian filmmakers. “I believe our duty is defend culture, all culture. The culture of any nation, of any people, belongs to the entire world.”

Loznitsa’s film is based on Sebald’s 1999 book, Luftkrieg and Literatur, which was published in English in 2003 as On The Natural History of Destruction. The original German title refers to a series of lectures that Sebald gave in Zurich in 1997 on how German literature responded to the Allied carpet bombing of German cities toward the end of World War II. Sebald’s lecture was met with some anger, and the book has continued to create controversy ever since. In the book, Sebald discussed the Allied culpability for the massive civilian deaths that resulted from their carpet bombing of German cities, along with his perception that German writers had largely failed to do justice to this critical historical subject.

Although the Russian invasion of Ukraine had not taken place when Loznitsa was making his film, the Russian destruction of Ukrainian cities and murder of civilians clearly made Sebald’s book—and Loznitsa’s film— seem prescient. “It became clear that the lessons of 80 years ago haven’t been learned,” Loznitsa is quoted as saying by the Washington Post. “It seems possible for us as humans to be thrown back 80 years to the stage where all these atrocities and terrible things were possible. . . If we want to remain human, we need to stop this. This should not be acceptable to a civilized society.” Loznitsa said he next plans to make a film about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

There is currently no word on when or where Loznitsa’s film On The Natural History of Destruction will be shown next.

New BBC Radio Program on Sebald

The BBC radio program Archive on 4 has a new episode “Self on Sebald,” narrated by writer Will Self, which can now be heard here for approximately the coming year. I listened to it and thought it was really engaging and had a terrific soundscape. The program was released on December 11, 2021, on the twentieth anniversary of Sebald’s death. Here’s the description from the program’s website:

WG Sebald created extraordinary fictions that hovered between the real and the imagined. With images and simple, yet fantastically powerful writing he told stories of loss, exile and loneliness that spoke to his own personal life. A German living in England, writing in his native tongue, haunted by history and existing in two worlds. That of his fatherland which had exterminated its Jewish populations and made a compact with memory and truth. And an England that had firebombed German cities during the war. The second silence in post war German writing and thought. In works like Austerlitz, where the burden of memory and forgetting unhinges its central character, a former Kindertransport refugee, the past silts up before breaking through in unexpected ways. The Emigrants delicately portrays the lives in exile and return of German Jewish survivors whereas The Rings of Saturn evokes landscape and the past in unsettling yet subtle ways

Will Self has long been drawn to the multi-layered worlds of WG Sebald’s fiction. Here, in the company of Sebald biographer Carole Angier and former friend, poet Stephen Watts, Self moves through the Sebaldian landscape of Southwold, Liverpool Street and the East End whilst exploring the archive devoted to one of the truly great writers of the late 20th Century.