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Posts from the ‘W.G. Sebald’ Category

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.

John le Carré Pays Homage to Sebald

The main character in John le Carré’s posthumously published novel Silverview (Viking, 2021) is Julian Lawndsley, a man who had impetuously fled the rat-race in London for East Anglia, where, with no previous experience whatsoever, he has somewhat naively opened Lawndsley’s Better Books. As Silverview opens, Julian is confronted by a repeat visitor to his bookshop, one who has yet to buy a book but nevertheless has a suggestion for his inventory.

“It is my considered view that no local interest shelf in this magnificent county, or in any other county for that matter, should regard itself as complete without Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. But I see you are not familiar with Sebald.”

See from what, Julian wonders, even as he concedes that the name is indeed new to him, and all the more so since Edward Avon has used the German pronunciation, Zaybult.

Rings of Saturn, I must warn you in advance, is not a guidebook as you and I might understand the term. I’m being pompous. Will you forgive me?’

He will.

Rings of Saturn is a literary sleight of hand of the first water. Rings of Saturn is a spiritual journey that takes off from the marches of East Anglia and embraces the entire cultural heritage of Europe, even unto death. Sebald, W. G.”–this time using the English pronunciation and waiting while Julian writes it down. “Formerly Professor of European Literature at our University of East Anglia, a depressive like the best of us, now, alas, dead. Weep for Sebald.”

Not long thereafter, a dozen copies of The Rings of Saturn duly arrive at Lawndsley’s Better Books. But le Carré is not finished using Sebald in his final novel of twenty-first century spies. Edward Avon now asks Julian if he wouldn’t mind performing “a small errand” on his behalf the next time he is in London.

“And if the errand I am asking were to involve taking a confidential message to [a certain lady without my wife’s knowledge], might I count on your absolute and permanent discretion in all circumstances?” asks Avon. Julian is instructed to sit outside a certain theater holding a copy of The Rings of Saturn “for purposes of identification.”

Needless to say, since this is a novel by John le Carré, the mission that Edward sends the poor, innocent bookseller on is not between two lovers, and before long Julian is caught up in an international cat-and-mouse game between spies that is way above his pay grade.

Later, when Edward needs to say a mysterious farewell to Julian, he arranges for them to meet one more time and the location he picks is Orford Ness, a location of special interest to Sebald. Lawndsley “had battled his way through Rings of Saturn. He knew what to expect of the godforsaken loneliness of that outpost in the middle of nowhere. He knew that even fishermen supposedly found it unbearable.” Sebald’s own visit to Orford Ness, the abandoned secret research station of England’s Ministry of Defence, which he described in The Rings of Saturn, left him feeling as if he had found himself “amidst the remains of our own civilization after its extinction in some future catastrophe.”

le Carré’s playful homage to Sebald takes a little poke at Sebald’s reputation for a being a melancholy, “depressive” personality, but seems to bear a genuine message of appreciation for The Rings of Saturn. Silverview is an entertaining novel, but ultimately nowhere near le Carré’s high point.

Elina Brotherus: Photographs of Sebald’s Corsica

Plage de Sebald 2 / Sebald’s Beach 2 (diptych), 2019

W.G. Sebald’s posthumously published book Campo Santo (Hamish Hamilton, 2003) opens with a series of short pieces he wrote about the trip he took to Corsica around 1990. In the title piece “Campo Santo,” he described one of his days on the island: “My first walk the day after my arrival in Piana took me out on a road that soon begins falling away steeply in terrifying curves, sharp bends and zigzags, leading past almost vertical rocky precipices densely overgrown with green scrub, and so down to the bottom of a ravine opening out into the Bay of Ficajola several hundred meters below.” After a swim in the bay, during which he had a terrifying moment of vertigo, Sebald climbed the steep path back up to the village of Piana where he visited a graveyard, which resulted in what I think is one of his most evocative pieces of writing. As he carefully picked his way through the “rather desolate graveyard” with its “untidy rows” of gravestones, he thought about death and about the complicated, fraught relationship between the dead and the living. For seventeen pages he ruminated about such things as the weeds that had grown up around the graves “to form actual herbariums,” the “oval sepia portraits” of the dead that were embedded in some of the gravestones, the inscriptions and the names on the gravestones, and the history of Corsican burial rites and superstitions surrounding death. It’s obvious to the reader that Sebald had studied this subject with more than just a tourist’s interest.

In 2019, the Finnish photographer Elina Brotherus, one of the finest photographers working today, went to Corsica with “Campo Santo” in mind. There she created a project called “Sebaldiana. Memento mori,” which consists of thirty-six large color photographs and a group of fifty-seven cyanotypes that form her own “Herbarium Pianense.” She has generously given me permission to reproduce eight of the photographs from that series, along with her artist’s statement about the project, which can be read after the photographs.

A number of photographers and artists have created artworks that speak in conversation with Sebald’s books, but Brotherus has done so in an especially rich and complex manner. Brotherus herself always appears in her photographs, giving a strong element of performance to her art. In other projects she dances, acts, and more clearly “performs,” but in “Sebaldiana. Memento Mori,” she strikes more simple, contemplative poses. Her clothing is all black, with the exception of a scarf that matches the color of her bangs. (“Campo Santo” is, after all, largely about death and mourning.) I particularly like the way in which she breaks the fourth wall in several images in this series. We don’t often think of the fourth wall in photography. With the general exception of portrait photography, the subjects in the photography we find in art galleries and museums rarely acknowledge any awareness that they are being photographed or that they will ever be seen by an audience. By staring at us and eyeing us, Brotherus invites her viewers to share more personally in her exploration of Sebald’s Corsica, to imagine becoming participants, not just observers.

Tombeau imaginaire 7 / Imaginary Burial Place 7, by the way, might remind readers of Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer), 1818, the classic German Romantic painting of a man in a dark overcoat standing on a crag overlooking mountaintops wrapped in clouds and fog.

Hôtel de Sebald 1 / Sebald's Hotel 1
Hôtel de Sebald 1 / Sebald’s Hotel 1, 2019
Hôtel de Sebald 2 / Sebald’s Hotel 2, 2019
Tombeau imaginaire 7 / Imaginary Burial Place 7, 2019
Tombeau imaginaire 14 / Imaginary Burial Place 14, 2019
Tombeau imaginaire 18 / Imaginary Burial Place 18, 2019
Tombeau imaginaire 23 / Imaginary Burial Place 23 (diptych), 2019
Herbarium Pianense 55, 2019

Sebaldiana. Memento mori (2019), by Elina Brotherus

Before I first visited Corsica, I read a collection of text fragments by W. G. Sebald, building blocks for a book about Corsica that was left unfinished at his premature death. Sebald as a writer is highly unusual and difficult to classify: between essayist, novelist and historian, he is scholarly without being dry, poetic without sentimentality, touching on deeply humane topics of post-war Europe with a great sense of historicity. His use of photographs within his books has inspired many artists.

Sebald writes about a certain hotel on the steep red cliffs overlooking the village of Piana on the Western coast of Corsica. His narrator goes to swim from a close-by secluded beach and nearly doesn’t make it back to shore. In the village cemetery he observes the small weeds that grow between the tombstones, nature’s modest ones, unplanted and unplanned, in stark contrast with the looked-after but austere cemetery plantations of Sebald’s native Germany. He then talks about the relatively recent use of cemeteries in Corsica. The old habit was to bury the dead in a beautiful spot in their own land, perhaps under a particular tree, or on the slope behind the house where they could continue to contemplate the view on their ancestral territory. The poorest ones who had no land were simply put in a common grave or in ravine in the mountains.

Sebald became my guide to Corsica. I went to places he mentions: the forest of Aitone and the massif of Bavella, the hotel, the beach and the cemetery in Piana and its backcountry with sculptural rock formations. I was remembering my dead. I looked for places so beautiful that I would like to bury them there, were I Corsican. I collected humble weeds at the cemetery of Piana to make a herbarium.

My father was a hobby photographer and gave me my first camera. When my mother was widowed at the age of 37, she went to art school and had four years of fulfillment. I’m a photographer because of my father, but because of my mother I’m an artist.

My mother died four years later at the age of 41. She was born the same year as Sebald but died 16 years before him. Recently I found some aquarelle paper that she hadn’t had time to use. The sheets had suffered from humidity, were spotted, partly moldy. It is this paper that I used to create my Herbarium Pianense, the cyanotype herbarium of the cemetery. Thus this work became an homage not only to the Island of Beauty and to my favorite writer, but also to my mother, Ulla Brita Brotherus, née Sommar (1944-1985).

All photographs by Elina Brotherus are courtesy of the artist and gb agency, Paris. She gives special thanks to the Centre méditerranéen de la photographie. I urge you to visit her extensive website and view all of her photographic projects.

A View Between Thresholds: W.G. Sebald at the University of East Anglia

Annotations in a book borrowed from the UEA library by WG Sebald.

This December will mark the twentieth anniversary of the death of W.G. Sebald. His colleague at the University of East Anglia, Dr Nick Warr, Lecturer in Art History and Curation at School of Art, Media and American Studies, has written about Sebald’s life, legacy, and times at the University in a lovely piece called “A View Between Thresholds.” Read it and see what Warr is still discovering about Sebald, even today.

Three Archivists of the Marginal: Keiller, Sebald, Sinclair

David Anderson’s recent book, Landscape and Subjectivity in the Work of Patrick Keiller, W.G. Sebald, and Iain Sinclair (Oxford, 2020), begins by quoting from Rebecca Solnit’s book Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Solnit has made it clear to us how closely related walking and creativity are. “To write,” she says in that important book, “is to carve a new path through the terrain of the imagination.” Since the age of Wordsworth, walking and literature, along with the other arts, have become increasingly entwined. Anderson has chosen three of my favorite artists—two writers and one filmmaker—for whom walking plays an essential role. Although, I must say that walking somehow seems to me like the exact wrong word for what these three did within the context of their art. Anderson uses the word “peregrination” once or twice and I think this is where we should start.

Film still from Patrick Keiller’s London, 1992.

A peregrination usually implies a long, often meandering walk, perhaps somewhat geographically aimless and often directed by goals other than a physical destination. Anderson first examines Patrick Keiller’s trilogy of pseudo-documentary films, London (1994), Robinson in Space (1997), and Robinson in Ruins (2010), in which an enigmatic and melancholy flaneur named Robinson takes meandering journeys around parts of England, while a narrator recites an often ironic text that is somewhat, but not always, related to whatever we are watching on screen. Keiller uses “melancholia and estrangement” to achieve his goal to create a “compelling reimagination of [the UK] landscape.” Keiller (like the other two artists in this study) often focuses in on the human impact on the landscape, especially the ways in which technology and bad public policy have changed, damaged, and restricted the use of the land. If you haven’t seen these films—especially London—I encourage you to seek them out.

In 1992, the year in which Keiller was filming London, W.G. Sebald set off to make the first of the walks that would result in The Rings of Saturn, which would be published in Germany in 1995. Anderson sees “a strong family resemblance” in these two works. “Merging the mannerisms and form of documentary with a distinctly melancholic, reflective subjectivity, [The Rings of Saturn] offers a rich and nuanced account of space and place as a densely woven texture of loss, suffering, and ruination.” He identifies the fact that Sebald’s fictional texts are so loaded with “documentary data” that they often produce a “vertiginous, uncanny sensation” in the reader. Anderson then proceeds to give an attentive and sensitive reading to most of Sebald’s books and he manages to very briefly discuss the conclusions of a number of writers who have previously weighed in on Sebald, including Geoff Dyer, Susan Sontag, Dora Osborne, J.J. Long, Diane Blacker, and Jon Cook, just to name some.

“Walking,” Anderson writes about the writer Iain Sinclair, “from Lights Out for the Territory [1997] onwards, becomes not simply a theme for Sinclair, but the key to his creative-critical practice.” Sinclair, whose writing has tended to shift over time from poetry and fiction to “a highly idiosyncratic brand of non-fiction” in the 1990s, has claimed as his turf East London and the Thames Estuary, about which he seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge. Like Keiller, Sinclair is more of an urban walker, and his walks are sometimes more theoretical than possible, such as his plan to circumambulate the M25 motorway loop encircling London, which Sinclair “walked” and wrote about in his 2003 book London Orbital: A Walk Around the M25. Because, as Anderson notes, the road has become “emblematic of madness,” Sinclair’s logical response is often to make “a self-defeating, ritualistic journey to nowhere.”

After considering several of Sinclair’s works (including his strange little 2013 piece on Sebald, whom he never met, Austerlitz & After: Tracking Sebald), Anderson sums up his section on Sinclair by saying that it is a kind of “‘attention’—one that is often obsessive, neurotic, producing a disorienting and provocative ‘psychotic geography’—that motivates and energizes Sinclair’s practice, fueling a body of work that bristles with vital energy and in which, finally, ‘place is burnished and confirmed.'” (Anderson is quoting Sinclair’s The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City.)

In Anderson’s eyes, the work of Keiller, Sebald, and Sinclair “celebrates, criticizes, and condemns often in the same breath, while always insisting on the reading of space as a thickly determined and open-ended texture or archive.” By this I think he means that, each of these three artists, in his own way, is deeply critical of the effects of modernization and industrialization on the land, is suspicious of traditional notions of landscape beauty and the “heritage” agenda, and often have a “melancholic attachment to objects, people, and places” that are overlooked and marginalized. But Anderson is also aware that other commonalities between the three can be more problematic. These are three more or less privileged white men for whom “the trope of the male ‘explorer’ figure” is not misplaced, and yet their explorations show little or no interest in ethnic or cultural diversity.

“Chestnut Tree Farm,” the home of “Thomas Abrams” from W.G. Sebald, Die Ringe des Saturn, 1995

In Sebald’s case, Anderson also worries about the “quasi-religiosity” of the Sebald cult and the early “canonization” of the writer, which, he feels, leaves some “blind spots” in Sebald criticism. He suggests that Sebald gave a relatively “untainted” picture of contemporary Britain and had a “preoccupation with ‘eccentric’ English people, the bizarre traditions of private schools, and the picturesque decay of stately homes” that betrays a blindness to the British class system. In his chapter “An English Pilgrim: Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn,” he considers various accusations that Sebald misrepresented England in his writings, most notably in The Rings of Saturn, where Sebald has been accused of various sins including offering up an outdated, antiquarian vision of England to being utterly blind to the country’s raging economic problems. Anderson reminds us that, despite the length of his time in England (approximately three and a half decades), Sebald nevertheless seemed to remain a German tourist in the country, someone who always sought the “strange, desolate, and undeveloped” when he traveled in England, subjects which he then invested with his own extended cultural meanings. (Think of the visit to to see Thomas Abrams’ miniature Temple of Jerusalem in The Rings of Saturn, as one example.)

In spite of the word “landscape in its title, Anderson’s book ranges over an enormous variety of topics that will of a great interest to any reader of contemporary literature or anyone interested in the implications of contemporary art. As with any original, deeply researched academic title that I write about here, my few paragraphs can never do justice to the 275 pages of David Anderson’s remarkable book. I urge you to read it yourself.

NOTE: Anderson credits the phrase “archivist of the marginal” to the writer Michael Moorcock, who used it in reference to Iain Sinclair.

For the full story behind the photograph of Chestnut Tree Farm, check out my earlier post on The Missing Picture from The Rings of Saturn.

“The most exquisite writer I know”: Carole Angier’s “Speak, Silence”

For anyone who read W.G. Sebald attentively, he seemed to be giving readers bits and pieces of his autobiography in nearly every one of his books. And yet, when most outsiders probed a little further into Sebald the man, they would hit a wall, for he was a notoriously private person. A few facts and stories leaked out here and there if you were a close reader of the vast literature that was growing up around Sebald, but he was not a public figure like so many writers these days.

Sebald has now been gone twenty years, having died suddenly in an automobile accident in 2001 at the age of 57, and it’s striking that it is only this week that the first biography has come out. And what might also strike you when you begin to read the Preface to Carole Angier’s Speak, Silence: In Search of W.G. Sebald (Bloomsbury), is that several key people still would not speak to her. His widow, perhaps understandably, asked that his family life be kept private, and so Angier carefully tiptoes around Sebald’s marriage—except at the very end of Sebald’s life, when she can’t. But the voices of a number of important friends and colleagues are noticeably absent.

But an even bigger hurdle for Angier was the lack of permission to quote from many of Sebald’s letters or from his books and interviews. As she explains in her book, when Sebald was in his late fifties he was desperate to raise enough money to be freed of the grind of academia, so he turned to the powerful mega-agent Andrew Wylie for help. Wylie’s agency pulled the rights to his forthcoming book Austerlitz from his devoted long-time publishers Eichborn in Germany, Harvill in the U.K, and New Directions in the U.S. and instead auctioned the book off for very large sums to publishers that are, in effect, multinational corporations. This made Sebald modestly wealthy for the last few years of his life. But in an instant, much of his literary output became, and still is, heavily controlled by corporate interests that appear, at times, to place a curious, if not unwarranted chokehold around his copyright. Was Angier singled out for rights denial because there was some disapproval of her approach? Is the Wylie Agency working with a another biographer and doesn’t want competitors? I do not know.

“Why on earth,” asks Angier, “with these limitations, did I persist? I persisted because W.G. Sebald is the most exquisite writer I know.”

Read more

New Volume of Sebald Interviews Published

Thomas Honickel. Curriculum Vitae. Die W.G. Sebald-Interviews: Schriftenreihe der Deutschen Sebald Gesellschaft. Bd. 1. Herausgegeben von Uwe Schütte und Kay Wolfinger. Würzburg, Germany: Königshausen & Neumann, 2021. 39,80 Euro.

The first volume in a series of publications from the recently established Deutsche Sebald Gesellschaft brings together extensive interview material from the director and documentary filmmaker Thomas Honickel. Made for Honickel’s acclaimed 44-minute documentary W. G. Sebald: The Emigrant (2007), the full interviews, which were used selectively in the film, were completely transcribed for this volume. The interviews average about ten pages each. The result is a sort of oral history about Sebald’s life and work. Uwe Schütte places the interviews in context in a foreword. Several of the interviews are in English: Peter & Dorothy Jordan (partly in German), Gordon Turner, Anne Beresford, Stephen Watts, and Susi Bechhöfer. The rest are in German.

From the publisher’s website: Thomas Honickel studied German and is a graduate of the University of Television and Film, Munich. He has made 30 documentaries for ARD/ARTE, including portraits of Elias Canetti and W. G. Sebald. His film W. G. Sebald: The Emigrant was premiered in the Literaturhaus Stuttgart in 2007 and was shown in numerous Goethe Institutes and literature houses in Europe and can currently be seen on YouTube. Uwe Schütte studied modern German literature and history at the LMU Munich and received his doctorate in 1996 from the University of East Anglia under W. G. Sebald. He teaches at an English university and is a private lecturer at the University of Göttingen. Kay Wolfinger is a research assistant in Modern German Literature and lecturer at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich.

The people whose interviews are included in the volume are:

Gertrud Aebischer
Jürgen Kaeser
Ursula Liebsch
Jan Peter Tripp
Heidemarie Nowak
Karl-Heinz Schmelzer
Franz Meier
Heribert Wagner
Reinbert Tabbert
Peter & Dorothy Jordan
Peter Jonas
Richard Sheppard
Gordon Turner
Anne Beresford
Uwe Schütte
Hans Magnus Enzensberger
Günter Herburger
Michael Hamburger
Wolfgang Schlüter
Peter von Matt
Sigrid Löffler
Franz Loquai
Ruth Klüger
Irène Heidelberger-Leonard
Michael Krüger
Wolfgang Matz
Stephen Watts
Susi Bechhöfer
Thomas Honickel provides excerpts from the shooting diaries of his film.

The Emigrants via Virtual Book Club

Somehow, I only learned about this last night. A Public Space magazine and the poet & writer Elisa Gabbert are in the midst of doing a virtual book club which is reading W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants on Twitter through June 22. They are going into the book in some detail, so there are multiple posts per day. To catch up, you’ll have to do quite a bit of backward scrolling on Twitter. (There are only a few quotes on Instagram.) But it’s well worth it. The following is from the magazine’s website:

Elisa Gabbert | W. G. Sebald

May 6, 2021 Share: Read W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants with Elisa Gabbert in the June edition of #APStogether, our series of virtual book clubs, free and open to all. Starting June 10, you can read Elisa’s daily posts, and comments from our fellow readers, on our Twitter and Instagram accounts. And join us for a virtual discussion at the end of the book club, on June 22—register here.

W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants is a novel in four portraits, the stories of four men in exile: a doctor, a teacher, a painter, and Sebald’s Great-Uncle Adelwarth, the traveling companion of an American aviator. Written in Sebald’s signature indeterminate, essayistic style, intercut with photographs of people and places, The Emigrants explores post-war trauma and memory, guilt and displacement, and what it means to survive. Join us to read this book Larry Wolff called “an end-of-century meditation” on “the most delicate, most painful, most nervously repressed and carefully concealed lesions of the last hundred years.”

Elisa Gabbert is the author of five collections of poetry, essays, and criticism, most recently The Unreality of Memory & Other Essays and The Word Pretty. She writes a regular poetry column for the New York Times, and her work has appeared in Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, A Public Space, the Nation, and many other venues. Her next book of poems, Normal Distance, will be out from Soft Skull next year.

W. G. Sebald (1944-2001) was born in the Bavarian Alps. From 1975 he taught at the University of East Anglia, became Professor of German in 1986, and was the first director of the British Centre for Translation. His books include The Rings of Saturn, The Emigrants, and Vertigo (all New Directions).

Reading Schedule:

June 10 | Day 1. Dr Henry Selwyn

June 11 | Day 2. Paul Bereyter (through “awoken in her a sense of the contrarieties that are in our longings.”)

June 12 | Day 3. Paul Bereyter (to end)

June 13 | Day 4. Ambros Adelwarth (through “and life up in the dizzy heights came to an end”)

June 14 | Day 5. Ambros Adelwarth (through “remained indelibly in my memory ever since.”)

June 15 | Day 6. Ambros Adelwarth (through “the enormous cauliflower he held in his crooked left arm”)

June 16 | Day 7. Ambros Adelwarth (to end)

June 17 | Day 8. Max Ferber (“a herd of deer headed for the night”)

June 18 | Day 9. (“so much in the shade and dark in recent years”)

June 19 | Day 10. (“who was then staying in Kissingen”)

June 20 | Day 11. (to end)

June 22 – A virtual discussion of The Emigrants with Elisa Gabbert.

Day 1 | June 10
Dr Henry Selwyn

“And I recalled the château in the Charente that I had once visited from Angoulême.” A very Sebaldian sentence! For Sebald, seeing begets memory; his walks, travels, & reading are all ways of looking, thus ways of cultivating encounters with memory.

Sebald once said “The older you get the more the passage of time between your present age and your childhood or youth begins to shrink somehow.” We see this in Selwyn’s story, the *closeness* of Naegeli, the way the sharp images of Lithuania return.

It’s as though aging involves a reversal of time as well as a racing forward. (I think of William Maxwell: “I have liked remembering almost as much as I have liked living”—for Sebald’s characters memories can be both treasured and traumatic)

Day 2 | June 11
Paul Bereyter (through “awoken in her a sense of the contrarieties that are in our longings.”) p. 27-45

We start to see the importance of chance, coincidence and “miracles” in Sebald’s work. Leo Damrosch contrasts realism w/ verisimilitude, which doesn’t have to be realistic. Do Sebald’s stories have to, in their nebulous space between fiction & reality?

The photo on p. 39 is uncaptioned, like all the photos here, its exact relationship to the text unclear. Is young W.G. among them? Which boy is he? They could be any boys, but Sebald has said his photos are “to a very large extent documentary.”

The story of Paul Bereyter’s moments of “utterly groundless violence” against his young pupils connects so neatly to Wittgenstein one has to wonder if this is mere coincidence, or fictive legerdemain, or a warping of Sebald’s own memory.

Day 3 | June 12
Paul Bereyter (to end)

Mme Landau says that after years of silence and secrets people sometimes “really did forget” their past—memory is active work, and not to remember is to undo that history.

I love the detail of the case of rainbow sewing thread that “seemed especially magical” to Paul as he rode through the emporium on his tricycle.

Our oldest memories, which somehow grow in clarity as we age, becoming more real than reality, have this quality of magic because the past is an unreachable place, a fiction, a fairyland.

Mme Landau again: “It is hard to know what it is that someone dies of.” Where is causation in a complex chain of events? Had Paul come to see suicide as inevitable? Was it any more a choice than other deaths of despair (as in broken heart syndrome)?

Day 4 | June 13
Ambros Adelwarth (through “and life up in the dizzy heights came to an end”)

Emigrants “tend to seek out their own kind.” (As we read in the previous section, Paul “belonged to the exiles.”) Emigrants are citizens of their own country, a nowhere that is not utopian.

Sebald can be surprisingly hilarious—see the passage about Theres’s constant weeping. “There were times when one really did not know whether she was in tears because she was at home at long last or because she was already dreading having to leave.”

Sebald’s eschewing of quotation marks creates interesting ambiguities. In The Rings of Saturn, it is difficult to know when he is quoting from a text vs. paraphrasing. Here, remarks in the first person often seem to be shared sentiments—it’s easy to imagine that Adelwarth’s “extremely dignified German” astounds both Fini and the narrator.

Day 5 | June 14
Ambros Adelwarth (through “remained indelibly in my memory ever since.”)

Kasimir is a fascinating character, with his slow driving and macabre revelries (“This is the edge of darkness”… “I am a long way away, though I never quite know from where”)

Cosmo Solomon has a legendary quality, an otherworldly clairvoyance that wins him fortunes at the casinos but also destroys his mind when the great war in Europe begins, and he claims he can see it from overseas: “the inferno, the dying”

Fini says Ambros, recounting his past, was “at once saving” and “mercilessly destroying himself.” Like life-saving poison. (Was Paul’s suicide also self-salvation?)

She herself has trouble believing Ambros’ history, wonders not if he was lying but if he had Korsakoff syndrome (“which causes lost memories to be replaced by fantastic inventions”), an interesting metaphor for imagination in the “nonfiction novel.”

Day 6 | June 15
Ambros Adelwarth (through “the enormous cauliflower he held in his crooked left arm”) p. 107-126

Dr. Abramsky’s comment about madness being “a question of perspective” makes me think of the famous paper “On Being Sane in Insane Places”
https://science.sciencemag.org/content/179/4070/250.long

Abramsky’s fantasia of the collapsing sanatorium reminds me of the labyrinth in The Rings of Saturn, a physical space that represents the conceptual space of the book—we re-create the past in such fine detail before we watch it fall.

Ambros’s difficult with dressing/undressing: a much more tragic version of Theres’s continuous weeping.

The Deauville dream! The endless dream that goes on for days. He is tired and even sleeps in the dream.

Day 7 | June 16
Ambros Adelwarth (to end) p. 126-145

From Ambros’s diary: “A day out of time.” And later: “Are we no longer part of time?” It’s time travel for Cosmos and Ambros, and for Sebald, reading the diary, and for us reading The Emigrants.

The lostness in time reminds me again of Maxwell—memory is dangerous
https://www.nytimes.com/1997/03/09/magazine/nearing-90.html

Again one has to wonder if these beautiful passages are straight transcription from the diary or fictionalized, stylized, at all. (The photocopied pages are illegible to me; German speakers, can you make anything out?)

This embedded tale of Ambros and Cosmo’s journey is very dreamlike, or play-like, as in theater, everything condensed on a stage, like the schooners that pass by so close you could touch them.

We are suddenly immersed in their world; the agenda opens and we enter it like a magic storybook. And we never quite leave it; Sebald doesn’t quite close the parenthesis, ending on A’s words, not his own.

Day 8 | June 17
Max Ferber (“a herd of deer headed for the night”), p. 149-169

Max Ferber’s aestheticization of dust! “The grey, velvety sinter left when matter dissolved”! Made me think of this Jeremy Gordon essay on dust as “metaphor for the futility of the human experience.”
https://theoutline.com/post/7692/im-upset-dusting-is-a-waste-of-time

There is so much mist and dust in this book. Mist the unreal and ineffable; dust the banal real, the deathly real.

Sebald is so cute with a phrase sometimes: “a little ratcatcher”; “an incomparable stylish apathy.” Endearing little Sebaldisms.

The fresco in the restaurant recalls Cosmo’s mirage in the theater, the one that tipped him over into madness. Recurring images are part of what makes Sebald’s work feel fictive (while still highly nonfictive, as in nonfictionlike, for a novel!).

A Few Reading Highlights, After a Third of a Year – 2021

This seemed like a good time to pick out a few of the best books that I have read this year that haven’t made it into my blog. Just as a reminder, I write a little bit about every book I read during the year on the 2021 Reading Log, which can be found at the top of my blog. (I know the link wasn’t working earlier this year, but that has been corrected.)

At the top of my list of favorites are two Virginia Woolf classics, Mrs. Dalloway and The Years, but I won’t say anything more about them here. And I have already written at some length about two outstanding books by Wolfgang Koeppen, Death in Rome and The Hothouse. If you’ve followed Vertigo for awhile, you probably know that I greatly value good detective stories and police procedurals. So far this year, three have stood out among the handful that I’ve read: Ben H. Winters, The Last Detective (Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2012); Nicholas Freeling, Love in Amsterdam (Gollancz, 1962); Kate London, Post Mortem (London: Corvus, 2015). But here are seven books that I thought warranted your attention.

Caryl Pagel. Out of Nowhere Into Nothing. Tuscaloosa, AL: FC2: 2020. The following statement is blandly appended to the copyright page of this book, but don’t overlook it: “This book is interested in memory, accumulating particulars, and retelling a good story. It is a work of nonfiction and fiction. Though it includes research and aims for veracity, the narratives ultimately rely on the author’s version of events. The author has been, and could still be, mistaken.” The pieces in this wonderful book (one hesitates to call them essays) morph slowly and mysteriously from subject to subject. Anything is game to Pagel’s curiously open mind—from sinkholes to Spiral Jetty, from Alexander Humboldt to Lucy Lippard. There are photographs, but they usually don’t explain or illustrate. Instead, they tend to complicate the words around them. Pagel seems obsessed with those moments when the wobbling mind daydreams about “strange associations, abstract anxieties, and bewildering, unintelligible images.” Most of us gloss over such moments, but Pagel probes them for the creative leaps they take across our mind’s synapses.

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New Podcast About Sebald’s “Austerlitz”

The podcast About Buildings & Cities has recently done a two-part broadcast on W.G. Sebald’s final work of prose fiction, Austerlitz. You can track down episode numbers 77 & 78 through the website here.

Sebald’s novel is a natural for this podcast since Jacques Austerlitz is an architectural historian and a number of architectural spaces figure prominently in the book’s story, including London’s Liverpool Street Station, the Palace of Justice (Brussels), and the Bibliothèque Nationale (Paris). The podcast’s hosts, Luke Jones and George Gingell, read from Sebald’s book, give an overview of the plot, and discuss some of the key themes, including the kindertransport, the uses of photography in the novel, and, of course, some of the buildings referred to in Austerlitz. The two have a terrific conversation about the way in which Sebald continually hints at the Holocaust in Austerlitz, without quite discussing it overtly, and they ask if Sebald might have been too coy at times. Did Sebald see the Holocaust as a single aberrant event or part of a long-standing pattern of imperial genocides in Western history?

A long-time reader of Vertigo turned me on to the About Cities & Buildings podcast and now I’m a dedicated fan. Earlier episodes include subjects such as the filmmaker Patrick Keiller, New York’s Robert Moses, urbanist Jane Jacobs, and a four-part series on architect Zaha Hadid. Take a listen.