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Posts from the ‘W.G. Sebald’ Category

New Revelations about Sebald’s Austerlitz

Sebald Austerlitz-British

There is a fascinating and revealing article on the New Yorker‘s literature-oriented blog, Page-Turner, that sheds new light on Sebald’s research for his final work of prose fiction Austerlitz. In his essay “W. G. Sebald and the Emigrants: How a friendship with two elderly Jewish refugees inspired the German novelist,” writer André Aciman describes how casual conversations with another father, Martin Ostwald, whose son attended the same kindergarten as Aciman’s, led to the remarkable discovery that Ostwald’s parents had met Sebald and had corresponded with him numerous times. Aciman’s tale is wonderfully told and illustrated with great photographs provided by Ostwald.

If you haven’t read Aciman’s Out of Egypt: A Memoir (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1994), you really should.

Thanks to all the Vertigo readers who alerted me to this article.

Summer Distractions


OK. It’s summer, the distractions are numerous, and the pile of half-read and unread books is mounting. And now I’m away for a week in Door County, which is on a narrow peninsula at the northern tip of Wisconsin, surrounded by Green Bay and and the north end of Lake Michigan. The books that I have brought with me with have to compete with the many distractions that Door County offers, so I don’t know how much progress I’ll make. Bear with me. Vertigo will reconvene in a week or two with a write up off Ananda Devi’s fine (more than fine!) book Eve Out of her Ruins, another stellar offering from Deep Vellum Publishing.

Two Key Books on Sebald Reissued in Paperback

Wolff Hybrid Poetics

The Berlin-based publisher De Gruyter is releasing an affordable paperback edition of Lynn Wolff’s W.G. Sebald’s Hybrid Poetics: Literature as Historiography, which first came out two years ago. With the hardcover version currently priced at €89.95 (or $126) the paperback price of 19.95 (in both euros and dollars) is welcome news. It comes with high praise from Richard Sheppard, who wrote in Journal of European Studies:

Wolff’s book does not, however, simply challenge the interested reader to think about Sebald’s literary work in a meta-representational way, it also shows the academic reader the advantages of familiarity with his critical work, the benefits of wrestling critically with – as opposed to just paraphrasing – the relevant secondary literature, the insights that come from the careful analysis of manuscript sources, and the creative understanding that derives from close reading, untrammelled by theoretical ideas for which Sebald had little or no time. Wolff has been publishing carefully researched, insightful and authoritative work on Sebald since 2007, but the originality and depth of her excellent new book will raise her into the top echelon of those younger scholars who have made Sebald’s life and work one of their primary preoccupations.

The edition should be available any day now.


And Manchester University Press has also released an affordable paperback edition of A Literature of Restitution: Critical Essays on W.G. Sebald priced at £17.99 and $29.95 (the 2013 hardcover edition is $99.99). According to Lynn Wolff’s review of this title, “The volume’s organizing principle, the question of restitution, lends this book a much clearer profile than other edited volumes on Sebald. Taken together, the contributions provide readers with an excellent overview of Sebald’s oeuvre…The variety of perspectives from both within and beyond German Studies further sets this volume apart from other publications by offering fresh insights and new contexts within which to consider Sebald’s works.” The paperback version is already widely available.

I’m looking forward to reviewing both titles later this summer.

Medical Leave

Hospital Room

I was taken to hospital in Norwich in a state of almost total immobility.

W.G. Sebald. The Rings of Saturn.

A little more than a week ago, I suddenly found myself unable to stand or walk without immense pain. Somehow I managed to hobble to the car for the ride to the emergency room, where the triage began. “Have you been out of the country recently? Have you…?” Within a few minutes a sonogram and its operator appeared and she began scanning. The operator and the doctor hovered and pointed. “Gall stones,” one of them declared. Five days later I came home with no gall bladder, but four sore incisions from the laparoscopic procedure. All this is to say that I am taking a bit of medical leave from Vertigo – probably just another week or so. I am returning to normal health pretty well, but it’s mysteriously exhausting at times – and I’m craving pure entertainment at the moment. I’m reading Ann Cleeves’ Shetland Island quartet of mysteries – apparently in reverse order. I’ve got to get well by early June, because I have a ticket to see Argentina play Jamaica in the Copa America in Chicago. Lionel Messi!

My hospital window, I am happy to report, was much larger than the one Sebald’s shows us in The Rings of Saturn, but the view was no better.

Sebald's Hospital Window_0001


Sebald Program on German Radio

SR2 Radio

Dr. Ralp Schock, literary editor of the Saarland Radio, will host a two and a half hour radio program about W.G. Sebald on Tuesday January 26 starting at 20:00 (German time). Titled “Ein Themenabend mit und über W. G. Sebald,” the program on station SR-2 will include readings, discussions, and recollections of Sebald from friends and colleagues. Here is the link to the program’s s web page. The program is designed to air on the seventy-first anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Some of the individuals rumored to be participating in the program include author and musicologist Wolfgang Schlüter, Sebald’s publisher at the German firm Carl Hanser Verlag Michael Krüger, artist Jan Peter Tripp, and Dr. Uwe Schütte, who is reader in German at Aston University.

Conversations with the Dead: Patti Smith’s M Train


I let my coffee run cold and thought about detectives. Partners depend on one another’s eyes. The one says, tell me what you see. His partner must speak assuredly, not leaving anything out. But a writer has no partner. He has to step back and ask himself – tell me what you see. But since he is telling himself he doesn’t have to be perfectly clear, because something inside holds any given missing part – the unclear or partially articulated.

Patti Smith’s M Train (I presume the M stands for memory) is essentially a series of conversations with the dead and pilgrimages to the haunts and grave sites of writers past: Rimbaud, Burroughs, Bowles, Genet, Wittgenstein, Camus, Sebald, Plath, Mishima, Akutagawa, Dasai. Comprised of a patchwork quilt of genres, it combines autobiography with a book of dreams, a touch of travel writing, a salute to coffee houses, an ode to memory. Smith, who is a latter-day Beat and an admitted Romantic, blends a deep, if non-denominational spirituality with an unshakable commitment to fate. She reads Tarot cards, believes in dreams, isn’t concerned if she loses a camera or a favorite overcoat or realizes she has forgetfully left all of her luggage in a hotel room as she boards a flight. Unlike the A train that Smith takes to her ramshackle bungalow on the boardwalk of Far Rockaway, her M train delightfully meanders through time and place without warning or direction.

Perhaps the most telling story in Patti Smith M Train (Knopf, 2015) is the one we encounter at the outset of the book.

Several months before our first anniversary Fred [Sonic Smith, who she married around 1980] told me that if I promised to give him a child he would first take me anywhere in the world. Without hesitation I chose Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, a border town in northwest French Guiana, on the North Atlantic coast of South America. I had long wished to see the remains of the French penal colony where hard-core criminals were once shipped before being transferred to Devil’s Island. In The Thief’s Journal Jean Genet had written of Saint-Laurent as hallowed ground and of the inmates incarcerated there with devotional empathy. In his Journal he wrote of a hierarchy of inviolable criminality, a manly saintliness that flowered at its crown in the terrible reaches of French Guiana. He had ascended the ladder toward them: reform school, petty thief, and three-time loser; but as he was sentenced the prison he’d held in such reverence was closed…Genet served his time in Fresnes Prison, bitterly lamenting that he would never attain the grandeur that he aspired to.

Patti and Fred make their way to French Guiana (no easy task) and when they finally reach Saint-Laurent she solemnly takes some photographs and gathers up three stones to save in a Gitane matchbox, “with its silhouette of a Gypsy posturing with her tambourine in a swirl of indig0-tinged smoke. I pictured a small yet triumphal moment passing the stones to Genet.” She never managed to meet Genet, but some two decades later, on a visit to Morocco, she finally deposited the three stones on Genet’s grave in Larache, not far from Tangier. But it isn’t Genet that she recalls when she places the stones (“Genet was dead and belonged to no one”). It was Fred, who died in 1994, “dressed in khaki, his long hair shorn, standing alone in the undergrowth of tall grass and spreading palms. I saw his hand and his wristwatch. I saw his wedding ring and his brown leather shoes.”

This difficult trip to French Guiana represents, if you will, the yang side of Patti Smith, the intense, often gregarious world traveler. Smith’s yin side manifests itself as a kind of routine New York-centered idleness, a deliberately meditative isolation. But it’s a nourishing, regenerative idleness in which Smith dreams, observes, thinks, soaks in detective programs on the television, fills up her notebooks. Smith’s life, the reader quickly sees, is full of rituals, whether it is occupying a favorite chair at the neighborhood coffee house, visiting the grave of a hallowed writer, or photographing objects and places as if they were sacred.

Smith is well-known for being an admirer of W.G. Sebald. She put “anything by W.G. Sebald” on her list of favorite books a few years ago. In 2011 she participated in a huge Sebald event on the tenth anniversary of his death, and so it is not surprising that she spends a few pages in M Train writing about the effect his book-length poem After Nature had on her.

What a drug this little book is; to imbibe it is to find oneself presuming his process. I read and feel that same compulsion; the desire to possess what he has written, which can only be subdued by writing something myself. It is not mere envy but a delusional quickening in the blood.

If I had a “best ten books of 2015,” M Train would be on the list, and now I am anxious to read Smith’s memoir of her time with Mapplethorpe, Just Kids. Smith writes with a lack of pretension that is utterly winning. Other than an occasional reference to giving a concert or a reading, nothing in M Train tells us that the author is an internationally acclaimed writer and musician (or, in the unfortunate wording of the book jacket, a “mulitplatform”artist). She takes the subway, rides the bus, feeds her cats, and sits on her East Village stoop to smoke a cigarette like any other ordinary New Yorker.

Jan Peter Tripp’s Portraits of Sebald

In Heike Polster’s book The Aesthetics of Passage: The Imag(in)ed Experience of Time in Thomas Lehr, W.G. Sebald, and Peter Handke, which I wrote about recently, Polster reproduces a painting that I had never seen before by Sebald’s close friend Jan Peter Tripp, which he created in 2003 as a memorial portrait of Sebald. Titled “L’Oeil oder die weisse Zeit” (“The Eye or the White Time”) the acrylic on canvas painting is divided into five sections, four of which represent Sebald seen from different angles. Looked at sequentially, the four portraits depict Sebald gradually disappearing and a bright light coming into view over his head, while the bottom section represents a mysterious still life comprised of pencil stubs and other objects, some of which appear to be small, polished stones. According to Polster, the painting was made on the second anniversary of Sebald’s death and is currently owned by Sebald’s widow, Ute Sebald.

The reproduction below is more or less how the painting appears in Polster’s book.


Ealier this summer, in an article written for the online celebration of Sebald held at Kosmopolis, Jorge Carrión published high quality reproductions of the four sections of this painting devoted to Sebald’s portrait. One is shown below (all four can be seen at Kosmopolis). The entire painting can be seen in color at an online page of works by Tripp published in Quart Heft für Kultur Tirol (scroll down slightly). In these color reproductions, we can see that the top two images which show side views of Sebald’s face and the still life at the bottom are painted in full color, while the two frontal views of Sebald are monochromatic.


Now, if you scroll further down on the same page at Quart Heft für Kultur Tirol there is another painting I have never seen before. It is two-sided painting on wood from 2010 called “Remember Max” that is a trompe-l’œil image of a black board into which a bent portrait of Sebald has been tucked. Three pencil stubs are held tightly to the blackboard with a rubber band. As Polster noted in closely examining “L’Oeil oder die weisse Zeit,” the sharpened pencil stubs in “Remember Max” appear to have teeth marks on them. One has to guess that Tripps identifies the sharpened but well-used pencil stubs with Sebald, who famously hated modern technology and did not write on a computer.Max RememberedThe view of Sebald’s face in the top left section of “L’Oeil oder die weisse Zeit” and the portrait of Sebald shown in “Remember Max” are both very similar to Tripp’s portrait of Sebald that appears in Unerzählt (published in English as Unrecounted), except the image is reversed.

Sebald Unerzahlt

“Gazing into Eternity”: Sebald & The Aesthetics of Passage

Garrard and Temple

Now, as the edges of my field of vision are beginning to darken, I sometimes wonder if I will ever finish the Temple and whether all I have done so far has not been a wretched waste of time. But on other days, when the evening light streams in through the window and I allow myself to be taken in by the overall view, then I see for a moment the Temple with its antechambers and the living quarters for the priesthood, the Roman garrison, the bath-houses, the market stalls, the sacrificial altars, covered walkways and the booths of the moneylenders, the great gateways and staircases, the forecourts and outer provinces and the mountains in the background, as if everything were already completed and as if I were gazing into eternity.

This is W.G. Sebald’s narrator summarizing for the reader the statements made to the narrator by “Thomas Abrams” in The Rings of Saturn. Abrams, a pseudonym for Alec Garrard, spent some thirty years making an archeologically-correct model of the Temple of Jerusalem from 1980 until his death in 2010. To scholar Heike Polster, a professor of German at the University of Memphis, “the parallels between Abrams’ model building and Sebald’s poetics warrant a comparison.”

In her 2009 book The Aesthetics of Passage: The Imag(in)ed Experience of Time in Thomas Lehr, W.G. Sebald, and Peter Handke (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann), Polster “investigates how we came to image time and space in the first place, and how specific narratives and aesthetic images  can probe philosophical concepts of temporality and spatiality.”

The point of this book is to map an alternative to the concept of simultaneity, one which is oriented toward Deleuzian models of the imaging of time. This innovative concept, which I call “heterochronicity,” denotes visual strategies that seek to parallelize temporally non-identical acts of visual reception…It builds on recent work in anthropology and social geography that has emphasized the evocative potential of space….Hence, this book develops a nuanced vocabulary able to determine the narrative and aesthetic strategies of images and texts which attempt to show past times, and unfolding times without changing the frame of observation.

Polster Passage

Polster begins by investigating how “common assumptions about time and space” are found in the writings of Hegel, Kant, and Bergson. In general, Polster observes, “when we imagine time, we usually create a mental image of sorts which spatializes the relationship of a before/after situation.” After closely examining the ways in which these three philosophers construct time, she moves on to the three writers Thomas Lehr, W.G. Sebald, and Peter Handke. Somewhat oddly, in spite of not being recognized in the book’s title, there is also a substantial (and fascinating) chapter devoted to investigating the ways in which the artist Jan Peter Tripp incorporates time and heterochronicity into his paintings.

Other than a brief mention of Lehr’s novel (which I would love to read), I am going to concentrate on Polster’s approach to Sebald. Thomas Lehr’s 2005 German novel 42, which has not been translated into English, describes what might happen if time stopped on Earth – except for a small group of people who remain unaffected. As a group of seventy people finish their tour of the large particle research center in Switzerland known as CERN, the passage of time basically comes to a halt on Earth and everyone other than the seventy seems to be frozen in time and space. The plot sounds sci-fi, but the outcome is anything but. Here is Polster’s description/conclusion of what happens in a world without time.

Without time, Lehr’s horrific scenarios ultimately suspends all human value systems: in a world without constant interaction between the self and other people, human experience loses most of its meaning. Without the passage of time to generate change, development, and productive understanding, the individual is barred from any negotiation of identity, and therefore also of freedom…identity, I would argue, requires the passage of time…

In her chapter on Sebald, Polster discusses both his use of photographs and his writing, especially his writing on landscapes.

I claim that Sebald’s intention connected with his specific use of photographic images, due to the lack of supplying them with a caption, is to render them useless as documentary proof, and instead stress careful engagement with the world through an attentive gaze. This book is guided by the assumption that the prolonged gaze sustains a dialogue between the past and the present, and is a form of “heterochronic vision.” Sebald’s visual approach to landscapes creates “mnemoscapes,” heterochronic, associative, narrative spatializations that consist of memory fragments, information from literary accounts of a specific historical period, and his own visual perceptions of a particular site. Sebald’s representational practice underlines the evocative potential of space, and makes it productive for the literary project of postmemory.

In discussing Sebald’s use of photographs, Polster focuses largely, though not exclusively, on the lack of captions, which, she argues persuasively, turns these images into “an unreliable medium for memory and recollection.” Instead, these images become “reality fragments” (nice term) “that must always be interpreted, interrogated, reread….contesting the idea that past can be fixed or represented in a static image, photographic or otherwise.”

Polster notes that Sebald’s narrators are often mediating on behalf of other narrators, just as, in the quote that begins this post, the narrator of The Rings of Saturn seems to speak in the voice of Alec Garrard. For Polster, this argues that Sebald’s narratives “cannot be termed historical or documentary,” just as they are “neither memory nor history, but partake in both.” And this eventually brings us around to Polster’s thesis regarding Sebald’s relationship with time and space, her concept of “mnemoscape,” and why Alex Garrard’s odd project of reconstructing the long lost Temple of Jerusalem serves as an analogy for Sebald’s strategy of writing about histories that he has not witnessed himself. Both, she notes, “rely on information transmitted from a multitude of sources.” At one and the same time, Garrard’s model of the Temple gives an “impression of being true to life” (Sebald’s words) and yet is also what Polster calls utterly “artificial” due to its scale of 1:100.

[Sebald] develops strategies to counter a lack or loss of memories by interacting with the visible or imagined traces of the past…His imaged texts, as works of postmemory, posit the observer as the mediator between the past and the present. In place of a first-hand experience of historical events, the perception of a mnemoscape, The Rings of Saturn suggests, combines a long, uninterrupted passage through temporal phases, landscapes, discourses, and media.

This thesis was echoed more recently by several writers in the book Witnessing, Memory, Poetics: H.G. Adler & W.G. Sebald, edited by Helen Finch and Lynn L. Wolff, when they dissect and examine the strategies that Sebald, who was born in 1944, used to overcome the fact that when he wrote about World War II and the Holocaust he was addressing a history that he can scarcely claim to have experienced or born witness to.

As I like to do when I report on scholarly tomes like Polster’s, I encourage readers to get and read the book for themselves. In my very brief summary I have greatly condensed (and very possibly misconstrued) her arguments and supporting evidence. Her chapters on Lehr, Tripp, and Handke are equally deserving of attention.


The Deconstructive Theatre Project’s “Searching for Sebald”

Searching for Sebald play

Based in Brooklyn, The Deconstructive Theatre Project has announced that its upcoming project is Searching for Sebald. Here’s the description of the project from their website:

Suggested by the life and writings of “memory’s Einstein” W.G. “Max” Sebald, The Deconstructive Theatre Project’s newest hybrid media experience, Searching for Sebald, is a fractured ghost story that excavates the hidden spaces lurking between geography and time, the imagined and the real, and the language in a book and the cinema in your mind. An innovative and striking collision of live movie making, analogue film reels, live Foley soundscapes, and animation, Searching for Sebald is the second in the company’s series of projects exploring the neuroscience of creativity through the construction of vivid and emotional theatrical events.

The group describes itself as an “ensemble creative laboratory that exists to devise and premiere new multidisciplinary work… at the intersection of live performance, neuroscience, and interactive technology.” Two preview performances showing Searching for Sebald as a work in progress are scheduled for October 21 & 22, 2015, with the world premiere scheduled for the spring of 2016. The previews will be held at The Green Building 452 Union St Brooklyn, NY, 11231. More details here. They have posted a very brief trailer on Vimeo.

Hell on Earth

Winkler When the Time Comes

If there is a Hell on earth, the Austrian novelist Josef Winkler seems to be nominating his own country for that honor. Winkler’s When the Time Comes  is set in a small village in Carinthia in the south of Austria and the central figure in this novel is the bone burner, a man who fills “his satchel up with bones, especially in winter, when the farmers slaughtered their pigs and cows…”

All winter he kept the bones hidden from his dog in a niche in his goat pen. In spring, with the first thaw, before the draught horses were driven over the fields hitched to plows, the bone burner would rebuild his bone furnace. He would place the bone-filled clay vessel in a hole in the ground atop glowing coals, cover it with dirt and grass and let the bones simmer until they secreted  the viscous pandapigl.

The pandapigl is then smeared with a crow’s feather onto the bodies of the field horses to protect them from biting insects. In the mind of the anonymous narrator of When the Time Comes, the bone burner also adds the bones of the deceased members of the village into his pandapigl.

As the title implies, the abiding motif of the book is death – violent death, suicide, and, occasionally, death by “natural” causes. We read of death from drinking bleach, drowning, amputation, insanity, cancer, tuberculosis, heart attack, lung cancer, tractor accident, carbon monoxide poisoning, traffic accident, hanging, freezing, battle, and undoubtedly a few more ways that I failed to note.

The entire village seems adrift in time. With the exception of a half dozen mentions of a modern vehicle or television set and several references to World War II, everything in the book might be occurring in the middle ages. In a community “engulfed in spite, slander, and litigation,” the villagers are filled with superstition, motivated by suspicion and religious intolerance, and embroiled in endless family quarrels. One group of old men, some of whom are veterans of the SS, annually reminisce on All Saint’s Day about the old days when there were no “Turks or Yugos,” no Jews or blacks, no vagrants or beggars, and no unemployment. “We need a little Hitler to bring back peace & quiet to the country. Someone needs to crack down!”

And yet, not everything is bleak and ugly. Winkler lovingly describes the rituals of childhood: decorating a Christmas tree, eating gooseberries and sweets, or getting a new book by Karl May (1842-1912), the German author of fanciful tales of far-away places like the American West.

After lighting the colored Christmas tree candles and the sparklers that hung in every corner the tree, throwing sparks over the branches and down onto the presents and deepening the pervading scent of spruce, they began to pray for their dead grandfather, and for their mother’s three brothers who had fallen in the war, and tears drained from their eyes and snot from their noses, until their father, who led the prayers, began an Our Father and a Hail Mary for Aunt Waltraud, who had died two days before, still lay exposed in the Annabichler funeral home in Klagenfurt, and would not be buried until after Christmas. While the father, a little shortsighted, raised his trimmed eyebrows & wrinkled his forehead to read the nametags and pass out the presents, the children continued mourning Aunt Waltraud – she had come to visit one summer day & had brought the children their first ice creams, lemon, and vanilla, in an insulated box from her pastry shop. Their tears, tickling their cheeks & dripping down onto the boxes, softened the wrapping paper covering a flannel shirt, a pair of wool socks, or long underwear. Each one of them could take some sweets down from the Christmas tree, the children also gave the maid and the farmhand chocolate pine-cones and varicolored gelatin stars coated in sugar. Nor did Maximilian’s sister neglect to give the stammering farmhand a chocolate half-moon and a pair of chocolate pliers. With their fingers, the children smoothed out the colored wrappings, printed with pine cones, chimney-sweeps, lucky clovers, rocking horses, frogs, and butterflies, and slid them as book marks into their storybooks and Karl May novels.

As this excerpt shows, Winkler’s writing is delicious and exact and deeply rooted in the visible world. Winkler writes with the authority and conviction of an insider who once saw the world through a child’s eye and who still might harbor thoughts of being capable of loving his fellow Austrians, but who simply no longer can. The hypocrisy he sees runs too deep. When the Time Comes is an indictment of a brutal and boorish society and an utter rejection of the cynicism of Catholicism, if not of all Christianity. The book is laced with quotations from two very different textual sources. The first set of quotations are ones that Winkler has apparently culled from Catholic songbooks. They represent some of the more bitter verses which serve as a reminder that sin, violence, and death are at the core of Catholicism (“She saw Jesus tied & pierced with a thousand wounds for the iniquity of man. She saw the son she had once nourished disgraced and abandoned, pale and thirsting on the cross.”). The other set of quotations come from Baudelaire’s poem “Les Litanies de Satan” (The Litanies of Satan) from Les Fleurs du Mal, a poem that, as Wikipedia nicely puts it, is a blasphemous “renunciation of religion, and Catholicism in particular.”

In a review of When the Time Comes in The Guardian, Alberto Manguel briefly recounts a lunch he had with W.G. Sebald in 2000, during which he asked Sebald to recommend some Austrian writers. “Immediately he mentioned Josef Winkler, whose work he considered a counterweight to what he saw as Austria’s moral infamy.” Contra Mundum’s publication of When the Time Comes, with a translation by Adrian West, has a blurb from Sebald planted on the back cover that originates in an essay published in 1990 on the Grazer Gruppe of writers, which includes Elfriede Jelinek, Peter Handke, and Gert Jonke, among others.

Josef Winkler’s entire, monomaniac oeuvre…is actually an attempt to compensate for the experience of humiliation and moral violation by casting a malevolent eye on one’s own origins.