The inventive and distinguished designer Peter Mendelsund is responsible for the new book covers on New Directions’ recent reissue of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, Vertigo, and The Rings of Saturn. The most recent post on Mendelsund’s blog Thoughts is called “After Sebald.” In this wonderful piece, Mendelsund writes about how the intersection of his family memories and his reading and re-reading of Sebald contributed to the evolution of the new designs. Additionally, Mendelsund expounds his theory about The Emigrants. “I was, then, on my third reading of Sebald’s The Emigrants, and it began to occur to me in this re-reading, first as a hunch, and then as a gathering certitude, that this book was a kind of refracted, prismatic biography…comprising the actual life of Ludwig Wittgenstein.”
(Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Ulf!)
While we’re on the subject of New Directions, they have recently posted the contact sheet of the photo shoot that resulted in the portrait of Sebald by Jerry Bauer for the back flap of the dust jacket of their original hardcover edition of Vertigo. Bauer (1934-2010), often called “the author’s photographer,” made portraits of an endless list of writers including Simone de Beauvoir, Samuel Beckett, Jack Kerouac, Gore Vidal, Patricia Highsmith, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Joyce Carol Oates. Reputedly a very private person, no portrait, no obituary, no biography of Bauer seems to exist.
The first release from the new House Sparrow Press is a beautifully produced book/CD combo called A Sparrow’s Journey: John Berger Reads Andrey Platonov. The book contains a short story by Platonov (1899-1951) called “Love for the Motherland, or A Sparrow’s Journey: A Fairytale Happening,” along with a piece of writing by Berger that is obliquely about Platonov called “That Have Not Been Asked: Ten Dispatches about Endurance in Face of Walls,” a brief essay about Platonov’s story by Robert Chandler (who co-translated it with his wife Elizabeth), and an even briefer piece about discovering this previously untranslated story by Gareth Evans, editor of House Sparrow Press (among other things). Platonov’s story about a fiddler and a sparrow was written in 1936 in homage to Alexander Pushkin in advance of the one hundredth anniversary of his death in 1937.
A Sparrow’s Journey is one of those publications that remind you how wonderful it is to hold and read a book. Smartly designed and nicely printed on thick paper, handling this small volume is like holding a sparrow in your bare hands. The accompanying CD of a recording of Berger reading the Platonov story is housed in it’s own paper folder with artwork by Georgia Keeling. The story fits into 25 slim pages but Berger takes a full 44 minutes to read it in his quiet, luscious, and deliberate voice and I didn’t want the reading to come to an end. Somehow, Berger’s reading gave me insights into Platonov’s story that I never suspected were there. More information about A Sparrow’s Journey can be found at the publisher’s website.
As I was writing this yesterday, word spread that John Berger had died at the age of ninety. Do yourself a favor and get this publication and listen to his voice over and over.
WDR radio has produced a 15-minute program in memory of the 15th anniversary of W.G. Sebald’s death on December 14, 2001. You can listen here.
De Gruyter has just issued a new book edited by Uwe Schütte titled Über W.G. Sebald: Beiträge zu einem anderen Bild des Autors. According to an announcement by the German Department at Aston University where Schütte teaches:
The aim of the book is to provide a counterweight to the dominant strands in Sebald criticism by excluding over-researched topics like the novel Austerlitz and themes such as melancholia, Holocaust and memory.
Instead, the volume explores unpublished texts (such as Sebald’s early novel and his film script on the life and death of Immanuel Kant), revisits the critical discussions initiated by his polemical writings on Alfred Döblin and Alfred Andersch, and explores the Luftkrieg und Literatur debate. Another focus of the volume is philological groundwork, as it were, to establish the biographical and factual background to Sebald’s writings on his native region, the Allgäu, and to his prose volume Schwindel. Gefühle.
In addition to addressing often overlooked or ignored aspects of his writings, the specific approach of the volume was to include contributions from post-docs, Auslandsgermanisten and private scholars in an attempt to break free from the often tautological critical debates taking place within German academia.
The book’s authors include Sven Meyer, Melissa Etzler, Michael Hutchins, Uwe Schütte, Scott Bartsch, Peter Schmucker, Kay Wolfinger, Christoph Steker, Christian Hein, Ulrike Dronske, Markus Joch, Jakob Hayner, Axel Englund, Adrian Nathan West, Florian Radvan, and Ralf Jeutter. Further information on the book can be found at the De Gruyter website. The entire Table of Contents can be viewed online.
The complex constellation of historical event, individual experience, and the poietic presentation of both events and experiences is at the heart of Sebald’s work and reveals why his texts elude established genre traditions.
If I were to pick one book for the passionate Sebald reader who might want to dip a toe into serious Sebald scholarship or for the non-Sebald scholar wishing to get a clear sense of Sebald’s contribution to literature and history, I would direct you to Lynn L. Wolff’s fine book W.G. Sebald’s Hybrid Poetics: Literature as Historiography (De Gruyter). First published in 2014 as a hardcover with a price aimed at specialists and libraries, DeGruyter has now reissued the book in paperback at a price aimed for the rest of us – 19.95 (in both euros and dollars). The book is widely available from the publisher, Book Depository, and Amazon.
In her introduction, “Why W.G. Sebald,” Wolff gives a compact biography of his adult life and then discusses the “Sebald phenomenon” – the rise in films, exhibitions, artworks, blogs, and other forms of public and creative response to Sebald’s books. She provides a succinct, but wide-ranging overview of the critical secondary literature that has sprung up around Sebald in a variety of academic disciplines, as well as the seemingly endless academic frameworks through which scholars have tried to view Sebald’s work – postmemory, Freudianism, intertextuality, etc. Yet despite the onslaught of literature about Sebald’s works, Wolff senses that “there are significant gaps” in the way that scholars have examined “the specificity of his poetics” and it is her intention to focus on the mechanics of his writing and their implications. In doing so, she examines all of Sebald’s texts – critical writings, prose fiction, and poetry – with an “open perspective” and in “a methodologically non-dogmatic way.”
Central questions of my investigation are: What is particular about Sebald’s writing? How is he “translating” history into literature? How and where does he emphasize this process? Where are his sources apparent? Where does he cover them up?…These questions prove productive in initiating the reader’s engagement with not only the text but also the broader questions of memory, history, and authenticity.
Why in fact did I come to write, why do I write books? Out of opposition to myself, suddenly, and against this condition – because to me, as I’ve said, resistance is everything…I wanted exactly this tremendous resistance, and that’s why I write prose…
For portions of three consecutive days in June 1970, the Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard sat on a park bench in a Hamburg suburb and gave an impromptu monologue for the camera of filmmaker Ferry Radax, a fellow Austrian. In the 52-minute film that resulted, Drei Tage (3 Days), Bernhard is restrained, self-contained, and utterly eloquent in the enforced brevity. His monologue wanders from his childhood to the problematics of writing to the pleasures of solitude to the literary figures that influenced him. Part of the charm of Radax’s engaging film is that it as much about the art of filmmaking as it is a brief portrait of Thomas Bernhard. At times, the camera shows members of the film crew at work or watching on a portable monitor the very film they are making, while at other times the camera ignores Bernhard entirely and settles for a minute on a tree rustling in the breeze or on one of Bernhard’s shoes as it calmly bobs and dips while Bernhard talks on. Drei Tage can be seen in two sections on YouTube: here, and here (in German, with no subtitles).
On September 9 of this year, a symposium on “The Poetry of W.G. Sebald” was held at Stockholm University under the organization of Axel Englund. The participants were:
Axel Englund: “W.G. Sebald as poet: an introduction”
Iain Galbraith: “’A cover / of marbled faux / leather’: the uses of surface in the poetry of W.G. Sebald”
Adrian Nathan West: “Coincidences without antecedents, histories without verification”
Uwe Schütte (with Melissa Etzler): “On W.G. Sebald’s unpublished poetry”
Sven Meyer: “Our brothers the ducks: Sebald’s birds”
Thankfully, translator and writer Adrian Nathan West has posted on his blog (which I highly-recommend) a transcript of his presentation.
Ukrainian film director Sergei Loznitsa’s newest release is a 94-minute film called Austerlitz, which premiered in Venice earlier this year. According to a review in the New York Times, “Mr. Loznitsa varied between calling his work an adaptation and a ‘variation'” of Sebald’s novel of the same name. Austerlitz recently had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Andréa Picard has written a short piece about the film:
What happens when the memorial and the museological meet — when places of death and destruction are transformed into tourist destinations? Sergei Loznitsa’s new film Austerlitz (which takes its title from, and enters into cryptic and compelling dialogue with, the final masterpiece by the great novelist W.G. Sebald) is a stark yet rich and complex portrait of people visiting the grounds of former Nazi extermination camps, and a sometimes sardonic study of the relationship (or the clash) between contemporary culture and the sanctity of the site…
Here’s the link to a short trailer for the film.
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.)