The City University of New York has just put up an excellent video of a distinguished roundtable on the work of W.G. Sebald, which was held just a few weeks ago on May 6, 2017. It’s an intriguing and revealing discussion that is an hour and 22 minutes in length. At about the 40-minute point, the group talks about Sebald’s use of images in his books. The roundtable was part of the “Fictions of History” conference.
In this roundtable, Mark Anderson (Professor of German and Comparative Literature, Columbia University), Daniel Kehlmann (Novelist and Fellow, The New York Public Library), and Judith Ryan (Robert K. and Dale J. Weary Professor of German and Comparative Literature, Harvard University) discuss the relationship between fiction and history in W.G. Sebald’s work. Sebald situates his work in the gray zone between fiction and history, positioning himself with both proximity and distance to his subject matter, alternating between first-hand victim and third-hand witness. At the center of Sebald’s writing is the taboo of the “wrongful trespass:” a fear that either he will falsely identify with events he himself has not experienced or that his objectivity will dilute the emotional impact of what he describes. This roundtable, moderated by André Aciman (Distinguished Professor, The Graduate Center CUNY) examines how Sebald responds to this concern by creating works that straddle the boundary between fact and fiction in order to portray and grapple with historical events. Presented on May 6, 2017, with the Critical Theory Certificate Program, the Writers’ Institute, and the Center for the Humanities.
I’m very grateful to a Vertigo reader who called this video to my attention.
A call for papers is making the rounds:
Call for Papers
Beyond Sebald: New Trajectories in Sebald Studies
A One-Day Postgraduate Workshop
University of Leeds, Tuesday 2nd May 2017, 12:30–16:30
We invite you to join us for a one-day postgraduate workshop at the University of Leeds to discuss the opportunities and challenges of studying W. G. Sebald today. We are particularly interested in two interrelated questions: first, what are the new directions for Sebald scholarship? And second, how do contemporary writers, artists, and filmmakers respond to or challenge the “Sebaldian”? Read more
[print for the Arca Project by Steven Scott]
More than fifteen years after his death, the writings of W.G. Sebald continue to inspire artists and exhibitions. The latest example is an announcement by the PayneShurvell gallery, whose next exhibition will be “The Arca Project: An Exhibition Inspired by the Work of W.G.Sebald.” According to their website, “The Arca Project is an exhibition consisting of 16 visual and 16 textual responses to one single image. Each response has been realised as a limited edition print, developed and made by Invisible Print Studio.” The exhibition is scheduled to open April 1 at a location about a half hour north of Ipswich in Suffolk, England (details at their website).
In the same way that The Rings of Saturn takes a single idea, a walking tour, to open up a wide range of ideas and conversations, The Arca Project sent 16 international artists and 16 writers exactly the same image and asked them to interpret the image as they wished (the only limitation was the uniform paper orientation and size). The recurrence of this image offers many interpretations. All are fictitious. It is a game of false interpretations. The idea is to have artists and writers in a Sebaldian mix of fact and fiction, documentary and reality. Read more
Springer Verlag and J.B Metzler have just announced a significant handbook on W.G. Sebald. W.G. Sebald-Handbuch: Leben – Werk – Wirkung, edited by Claudia Öhlschläger and Michael Niehaus. I don’t have any further information about the volume’s contents, beyond what can be found on the publisher’s website. The hardcover version is scheduled for release on March 22, 2017. An ebook is also forthcoming. Details here.
The volume contains contributions from a number of Sebald researchers, who deal with his entire body of work as a writer. Essays cover Sebald’s themes (trauma and memory, the natural history of destruction, the Holocaust, home, etc.) as well as the characteristics of his writing (intertextuality, the connection of text and image, etc.), his guiding motifs (melancholy, travel), and the presence of other media (photography, painting, architecture) in his texts. From the publisher’s website: Read more
from Valerie Constantino’s “Performance with Spyglass”
A new exhibition based on W.G. Sebald’s After Nature has just opened up in Sacramento, California. Here’s the information from the website of Sacramento State University:
Valerie Constantino presents “Crossing Sublime (After After Nature),” an exhibit of recent works that kicks off Sacramento State’s art shows for the spring semester. The show runs Jan. 23 to Feb. 22 at the Robert Else Gallery with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 27, and an artist talk from 4 to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 7. Regular gallery hours are noon to 4:30 p.m.
A lecturer at Sacramento State and American River College, Constantino has created new works inspired by W.G. Sebald’s narrative poem After Nature. The pieces consider the fluid crossings of time, matter, and being, and include photo-montages, collages, mixed media on paper, sculptural elements, writing, and an audio component. Sebald’s publisher describes his work as a “haunting vision of the waxing and waning tides of birth and devastation that lie behind and before us.” For Constantino, Sebald’s ruminations of the interrelatedness of materiality and transcendence substantiated analogous themes in her work.
“Sebald composed his text from a presumed kind of intimacy with two historically notable figures in tandem with a third voice, a variant of his own,” Constantino says. “My presentation alleges firsthand knowledge of its own selected subjects: artist Anne Ryan and cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova.”
Constantino’s process of making art is one of personal expression and investigative research. “Such explorations are themselves worthwhile and may not necessarily convey an overarching message,” she says. “Because the work in this exhibition is diverse and based on interpretations of the lives and works of others, an appreciation for each individual work, as well as its conceptual relationships to the whole, would be ideal.”
I recently finished reading Dušan Šarotar’s book Panorama (Peter Owen World Series, 2016), which I plan to write about soon. It’s a book that was openly done in admiration of Sebald. Now, Šarotar has written the introduction to the first Slovenian translation of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, and his English-language publisher has posted a translation of Šarotar’s piece. Take a look.
The inventive and distinguished designer Peter Mendelsund is responsible for the new book covers on New Directions’ recent reissue of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, Vertigo, and The Rings of Saturn. The most recent post on Mendelsund’s blog Thoughts is called “After Sebald.” In this wonderful piece, Mendelsund writes about how the intersection of his family memories and his reading and re-reading of Sebald contributed to the evolution of the new designs. Additionally, Mendelsund expounds his theory about The Emigrants. “I was, then, on my third reading of Sebald’s The Emigrants, and it began to occur to me in this re-reading, first as a hunch, and then as a gathering certitude, that this book was a kind of refracted, prismatic biography…comprising the actual life of Ludwig Wittgenstein.”
(Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Ulf!)
While we’re on the subject of New Directions, they have recently posted the contact sheet of the photo shoot that resulted in the portrait of Sebald by Jerry Bauer for the back flap of the dust jacket of their original hardcover edition of Vertigo. Bauer (1934-2010), often called “the author’s photographer,” made portraits of an endless list of writers including Simone de Beauvoir, Samuel Beckett, Jack Kerouac, Gore Vidal, Patricia Highsmith, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Joyce Carol Oates. Reputedly a very private person, no portrait, no obituary, no biography of Bauer seems to exist.
WDR radio has produced a 15-minute program in memory of the 15th anniversary of W.G. Sebald’s death on December 14, 2001. You can listen here.
De Gruyter has just issued a new book edited by Uwe Schütte titled Über W.G. Sebald: Beiträge zu einem anderen Bild des Autors. According to an announcement by the German Department at Aston University where Schütte teaches:
The aim of the book is to provide a counterweight to the dominant strands in Sebald criticism by excluding over-researched topics like the novel Austerlitz and themes such as melancholia, Holocaust and memory.
Instead, the volume explores unpublished texts (such as Sebald’s early novel and his film script on the life and death of Immanuel Kant), revisits the critical discussions initiated by his polemical writings on Alfred Döblin and Alfred Andersch, and explores the Luftkrieg und Literatur debate. Another focus of the volume is philological groundwork, as it were, to establish the biographical and factual background to Sebald’s writings on his native region, the Allgäu, and to his prose volume Schwindel. Gefühle.
In addition to addressing often overlooked or ignored aspects of his writings, the specific approach of the volume was to include contributions from post-docs, Auslandsgermanisten and private scholars in an attempt to break free from the often tautological critical debates taking place within German academia.
The book’s authors include Sven Meyer, Melissa Etzler, Michael Hutchins, Uwe Schütte, Scott Bartsch, Peter Schmucker, Kay Wolfinger, Christoph Steker, Christian Hein, Ulrike Dronske, Markus Joch, Jakob Hayner, Axel Englund, Adrian Nathan West, Florian Radvan, and Ralf Jeutter. Further information on the book can be found at the De Gruyter website. The entire Table of Contents can be viewed online.
The complex constellation of historical event, individual experience, and the poietic presentation of both events and experiences is at the heart of Sebald’s work and reveals why his texts elude established genre traditions.
If I were to pick one book for the passionate Sebald reader who might want to dip a toe into serious Sebald scholarship or for the non-Sebald scholar wishing to get a clear sense of Sebald’s contribution to literature and history, I would direct you to Lynn L. Wolff’s fine book W.G. Sebald’s Hybrid Poetics: Literature as Historiography (De Gruyter). First published in 2014 as a hardcover with a price aimed at specialists and libraries, DeGruyter has now reissued the book in paperback at a price aimed for the rest of us – 19.95 (in both euros and dollars). The book is widely available from the publisher, Book Depository, and Amazon.
In her introduction, “Why W.G. Sebald,” Wolff gives a compact biography of his adult life and then discusses the “Sebald phenomenon” – the rise in films, exhibitions, artworks, blogs, and other forms of public and creative response to Sebald’s books. She provides a succinct, but wide-ranging overview of the critical secondary literature that has sprung up around Sebald in a variety of academic disciplines, as well as the seemingly endless academic frameworks through which scholars have tried to view Sebald’s work – postmemory, Freudianism, intertextuality, etc. Yet despite the onslaught of literature about Sebald’s works, Wolff senses that “there are significant gaps” in the way that scholars have examined “the specificity of his poetics” and it is her intention to focus on the mechanics of his writing and their implications. In doing so, she examines all of Sebald’s texts – critical writings, prose fiction, and poetry – with an “open perspective” and in “a methodologically non-dogmatic way.”
Central questions of my investigation are: What is particular about Sebald’s writing? How is he “translating” history into literature? How and where does he emphasize this process? Where are his sources apparent? Where does he cover them up?…These questions prove productive in initiating the reader’s engagement with not only the text but also the broader questions of memory, history, and authenticity.
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.)