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Posts from the ‘W.G. Sebald’ Category

New Book: “Über W.G. Sebald”

schutte-uberDe 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Instead, the volume explores unpublished texts (such as Sebald’s early novel and his film script on the life and death of Immanuel Kant), revisits the critical discussions initiated by his polemical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.

“What is literature good for?”: Lynn L. Wolff on Sebald’s Hybrid Poetics

Wolff Hybrid Poetics

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.

The definitions of “history” and “literature” were once seen as as fixed and oppositional. History was truth and literature was fiction. We now understand this very differently. History is an interpretation, an argument – a story about the past, if you will. And literature – well literature is now equally unstable. It can embrace biography, autobiography, documentary materials, photographs, and much more. What Sebald did, Wolff argues, was to create a hybrid form that envelopes historiography and literature in a very specific and creative way that “is not a mere fictionalization of history but rather a reconstruction of history that attempts to represent the past while simultaneously channeling the potentiality of literature.” It’s a hybrid form “that reveals literature’s privileged position for exploring, perceiving, and understanding the past.”

From the very beginning of his career, Sebald “walked on a tightrope between the two sides of scholarly and literary writing” and “he bristled against the constraints of form and methodology in place at that time.” And so it was “liberating” when he began to create a hybrid form that could blend the two disciplines, which he did in Logis in einem Landhaus (1998), where his portraits of Robert Walser, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jan Peter Tripp, and others blended scholarly research, personal narrative, and images into essays that revealed much about Sebald’s own trajectory as a writer grappling with topics such as history, ethics, and representation.

Wolff discusses at some length the controversial and “morally-charged” lectures that Sebald delivered in Zurich in 1997 and published two years later as Luftkrieg und Literatur (and issued in English with additional chapters as On the Natural History of Destruction in 2003). She suggests that “these lectures present a willful (mis)reading of the past in order to get at a larger issue: [which was to] emphasize the broader concern of transferring traumatic events and experiences into a linguistic form.” In other words, Sebald was zeroing in on “the translation process from experience into language,” because simply knowing facts or relating eye-witness accounts will not truly let us understand the past or have access to someone else’s experiences. Facts and experiences have to be translated into “a historiography that is consciously and purposefully literary. ” This is a critical argument in Wolff’s book because it leads us directly to Sebald’s decision about how to write. Here, Wolff quotes (and translates) a statement by Sebald:

Historical monographs cannot produce a metaphor or allegory for the collective course of history. It is only in this process of metaphorization that history becomes empathetically accessible. […] This of course does not mean that I am making a case for the novel. I find all cheap forms of fictionalization horrific. My medium is prose, not the novel.

The decisions that Sebald would make about how to write radically affect the way in which we read what he wrote about. Wolff argues persuasively that there is an “essential tension” in his writing between “the relationship between history and literature, documentation and imagination, rational explanations and defiantly non-rational insights,” and, as one example, she points to the tensions between his use of text and image as one of the ways in which Sebald “activates his readers.”

The chapter on images – “What is (in) an image? Mimesis, Representability, and Visual History” – is the longest in Wolff’s book. By way of background, she explores how photography’s relationship to reality has been modeled since the public announcement of photography’s invention in 1839, specifically examining the responses of Charles Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, Roland Barthes, and Susan Sontag. At issue is “photography’s deceptively authentic mirroring of reality.” What Sebald wants to do, she argues, is “demand that we move the discussion away from images as documents of the past” and toward the concept of images as “testimony.” Wolff also touches on the complex relationships that exist between photographs and memory. Photographs can evoke memories. Photographs can create memories (thus “falsifying” memory). But photographs can also fail us. As Wolff notes in her discussion of Austerlitz, “Sebald’s characters are frustrated again and again in their search for historical truth or personal memory  as they view photograph after photograph or read and study various sorts of historical documentation.” Sometimes, only personal memory or individual narrative can point to places where history has otherwise been erased.

As Wolff carefully untangles Sebald’s “photo-textual aesthetic” she gets to the core values and intentions embedded within Sebald’s writing. Just as Sebald blends fact and fiction in his writing, so he blends actual and invented images, images for which he provides neither captions nor sources. “The question of what is fact and what is fiction in Sebald’s texts…[becomes a] productive tension” that forces the reader to engage in questions such as: What is real? What is truth? What is authentic?

I have aimed to show how literature has the ability to respond to these challenges of representation and how the texts we label, if not dismiss, as “literary” make a contribution o the historical record that cannot be made in any other way… the true achievement of literary discourse is neither the direct representation of reality nor the transmission of knowledge, rather it is the way literary texts engage us to formulate new questions, to consider both what is presented and how it is formulated. Out of this dynamic process of engagement with literature – an imaginative as well as aesthetic engagement – it becomes possible to develop an ethical as well as emotional connection to the past.

At the end of her book, Wolff provides an extensive and invaluable bibliography of the primary and secondary literature on Sebald.

My brief review cannot possibly cover every aspect of Wolff’s cogently argued and thoroughly researched assessment of Sebald’s writing. But to my mind,  W.G. Sebald’s Hybrid Poetics is the finest critical overview of Sebald that exists in English. Because of my personal interests I have chosen to focus on her commentary on his use of photographs, so I thought it might be useful to present a scan of her table of contents.


A Literature of Restitution


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.)

2. In “Encounter and Cry: W.G. Sebald as Poet,” George Szirtes tries to determine how we should distinguish the poetic from the prose elements in Sebald’s writings, primarily through a close encounter with the early book-length poem After Nature. (Szirtes discusses only the English version because he doesn’t read German.)

3. Shane Weller’s “Unquiet Prose: W.G. Sebald and the Writing of the Negative” looks at the fact that Sebald is “haunted” by the works of a wide range of other modern European writers – “especially in terms of its writing the negative, that is, a writing which seeks to resist the dark forces of modernity, as identified by Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947).” Weller discusses a number of “particular words, phrases and syntactical forms” that are part of Sebald’s strategy of negativity, notably what he refers to as Sebald’s German “unwords,” such as unheimlich, ungeheuer, unruhig, unsicher, etc.

Part 2. Texts and Contexts

4. In her essay “Surrealist Vertigo in Schwindel. Gefühle.,” Jeannette Baxter makes the case for reading Sebald’s book “as an exercise in late twentieth century historiography that is identifiably Surrealist in impulse.” “What aligns Sebald’s literature of restitution with the dissident Surrealist writings of [Georges] Bataille, [Roger] Caillois and [André] Masson, I suggest, is its very willingness to recognize and give itself (and its reader) up to the dizzying energies of recover and loss, memory and forgetting, light and darkness, life and death.”

5. Using Derrida’s Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins as a framework, Dora Osborn looks at both “the similarities and the differences between the textual and visual modes of representation” in her essay “Memoirs of the Blind: W.G. Sebald’s Die Ausgewanderten.” She argues that “the blindness marking Sebald’s work – that residue of belatedness and failed witness – at once obscures his narrative figures and reveals in them a potentially visionary power.” Each of the four portraits in the book are “obscured” in both an inability to see and an inability to remember, she suggests.

The blindness affecting the emigrants can be understood in two ways, and as such reflects the complexity of the trope as it figures in Die Ausgewanderten: on the one hand, it is the symptom of the traumatic encounters of their past and the failure to make sense of the circumstances which led to their emigration and which prohibit their return; and on the other, it can be understood as the symptom of the narrator’s (and, by extension, the author’s) inability to make sense of the experiences he came to late to know himself.

6. In her essay “‘Like refugees who have come through dreadful ordeals’: The Theme of the Anglo-Irish in Die Ringe des Saturn. Eine englische Wallfahrt,” Helen Finch notes that several of the key characters in The Rings of Saturn – Roger Casement, Edward Fitzgerald, and the Ashbury family (with whom Sebald’s narrator spends a night) – all “exist in varying relationships to the post-colonial narrative of conquest and loss” that is Irish history. “The common thread binding the three sets of figures, however, is their exile status.”

7.  In “‘The Arca Project:’ W.G. Sebald’s Corsica,” Graeme Gilloch makes the case that Sebald’s unfinished project on Corsica (some of which was published posthumously in Campo Santo), has echoes of Walter Benjamin’s similarly unfinished (and perhaps unfinishable) Arcades project. “Preoccupied with death, destruction, ghosts and haunting, imbued with melancholy, Sebald’s Corsican studies constitute fragments of what might be termed “The Arca Project,” in which the edifices of death and mourning littering the island…constitute sites of intense scrutiny and brooding speculation.”

8. Peter Filkins’ essay “Twisted Threads: The Entwined Narratives of W.G. Sebald and H.G. Adler” gives a preview of what would appear in book form in 2014 in Witnessing, Memory, Poetics: H.G. Adler & W.G. Sebald, edited by Helen Finch and Lynn L. Woolf, with a key contribution by Filkins. As Filkins demonstrates, Sebald’s Austerlitz – especially the parts on Theresienstadt – owes a great deal to his reading of Adler’s writings.

9. In his essay “Stations, Dark Rooms and False Worlds in W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz,” David Darby writes that the four great railway stations in Austerlitz serve as symbolic photographic darkrooms and he discusses at length the ways in which Sebald makes analogies between photography and memory. “Sebald’s stations are characteristically dark spaces, in which seeing is described in terms of photographic processes … [where] the narrator fixes and save images…”

Part 3. “Prose” and Photography

10. Reflecting on Sebald’s long-standing interest in theater, Simon Murray’s “Fields of Association: W.G. Sebald and Contemporary Performance Practice” reminds us that Sebald preferred the kind of theater that worked “against preconceived notions of what a play ought to look like.” In this essay Murray explores the relationship between Sebald’s writing and his views on performance “in terms of approach to narrative structure” in these ways:

the construction of reader-spectators as witnesses inevitably complicit in events that unfold on page or stage; a playful disregard for the immutability of boundaries between fact and fiction / the real and the imaginary; a quality of attention tethered loosely in lightness and circling; and the necessity of speaking through multiple voices, not as some ironic postmodern gamed, but as an ethical and ideological imperative for restitution which might begin to address the fractures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

11. In “Still Life, Portrait, Photograph, Narrative in the Work of W.G. Sebald,” Clive Scott tells us that he believes that Sebald subscribed to the concept that the photograph is “a material object which has broken free from the context of its taking and has become an indexicality without a referent, an indexicality looking for a new referent, not the referent of its taking, but the referent of its being seen by a spectator… ”  In other words, Scott argues, photographs are always being recontextualized by their viewers.

12. “Anxieties about the Holocaust often assume the form of anxieties about lost mothers in Sebald’s fiction,” says Graley Herren in the essay that was, for me, one of the highlights of this anthology. Herren does an excellent job of articulating the complex relationships that exist between Sebald (the man and his own life story) and the narrators that closely resemble him. Understanding the nature of this separation is essential for Herren’s analysis.

Like Oedipus, Sebald’s narrator wanders through a waste land, corrupted by some vast but shadowy crime from the past. Whoever is responsible for this crime must be rooted out and punished with exile, even if the investigation leads to the investigator’s own hearth. For Sebald as for Kafka and Beckett, the protagonist’s exile is an established fact from the outset, so he is really working backwards from the punishment in an effort to discover the unnameable original crime. The narrator traverses Europe in search of clues, compiling evidence, searching for justice, atonement, and reparation. However, the more evidence he accumulates, the more the trail leads him back to where he started – his corrupt family home, the primal scene of the crime. His father’s complicity was already understood, and indeed he paid some penance for his crimes with a stint in a prisoner of war camp. Yet the narrator’s investigations increasingly point to another unindicted co-conspirator at home. He resists this knowledge, he deflects it – he tries to keep her true identity sub rosa.

Sebald’s narrator, like Sebald himself, Herren tells us, knew that his own mother was “complicit” in supporting some of the values of German Fascism. But Sebald’s narrator “half-sees and then looks away,” while Sebald himself “provides his readers with sufficient evidence to see beyond the narrator’s averted gaze…”

13. In the volume’s final essay, Russell J.A. Kilbourn carefully works through “The Question of Genre in W.G. Sebald’s ‘Prose’ (Toward a Post-Memorial Literature of Restitution).” From the appearance of his first work of prose, Die Augewanderten (The Emigrants), readers and critics have claimed that Sebald had either created an entirely new genre or was hybridizing existing genres.  Kilbourn rummages through every conceivable genre that has been applied to Sebald’s four “prose” books and, in essence, assesses the appropriateness of each. In the end, as the title of his essay predicts, Kilbourn suggests that Sebald’s work is, indeed, a literature of restitution, as Sebald himself referred to in his final public speech: “So what is literature good for?…There are many forms of writing; only in literature, however, can there be an attempt at restitution.”

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. 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