Let me just say right from the start that Uwe Schütte’s new short, general introductory book W.G. Sebald is excellent. Published in Liverpool University Press’s “Writers and their Work” series, Schütte’s book is now the place to start with one’s study of Sebald. I am really surprised that something like this had not been done in the seventeen years since Sebald’s death. It seems so simple, doesn’t it—summarize an author’s life, books, and impact in 130 pages? Schütte makes this look easy, which is a credit to the clarity of his writing and critical thinking. But in truth this is not an easy genre to master. And undoubtedly, some passage of time is required so that a solid body of critical writing can amass and, in turn, be evaluated.
From 1992 to 1997, Schütte was Sebald’s sole post-graduate student at the University of East Anglia, and thus, he notes, “I could witness his meteoric rise to international literary fame from a close distance.” Schütte’s book contains seven chapters, five of which are dedicated to specific books by Sebald: After Nature, Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz. “From After Nature to Austerlitz, [Sebald’s] goal is always to create a poetic truth, to make visible the invisible, to allow the metaphysical to enter the profane.” Schütte is good at outlining the sources for these five books—how much originated originated from Sebald’s own life and personal experience, how much from his German upbringing, and what came out of his extensive research. The Rings of Saturn, for example, was not intended to be a book but was simply a plan to make ten walks in East Anglia and write ten articles for a German newspaper.
Sebald rewards “disobedient and adventurous readers: readers who call into question the credibility of the narrator and who use the texts as a starting point for their own investigations into the dubious claims being made in the books.” In Schütte’s opinion, The Rings of Saturn is the book which most fully met the goals that Sebald set for his writing.
His efforts were directed at coming up with a new type of writing that would address the horrors of the German past but also place them in an overarching matrix, in order to enable a more insightful understanding of how our own existence is inextricably linked with that of other creatures and the natural world around us.
Austerlitz, on the other hand, is Sebald’s most “problematic” book. Here, “Sebald veered dangerously close to the conventions of the novel.” As Schütte notes, “for the first time Sebald directly engaged the Nazi genocide,” a move that “backfired” when it helped catergorize him as a Holocaust author, something Sebald tried to avoid his entire career. Sebald even went so far as to privately express his own concerns about Austerlitz to the book’s translator Anthea Bell. (Schütte gives a shout out to the recently deceased Bell for her “Herculean feat” of translating the incredible sentence late in Austerlitz that runs to ten pages describing life in the concentration camp/ghetto Terezín.) Nevertheless, in the end, Schütte believes that Austerlitz, despite it’s flaws, is a “landmark moment in contemporary literature” for the number of significant themes that Sebald manages to subtly blend into a single book.
The opening chapter, “W.G. Sebald: Emigrant and Academic,” briefly and discreetly covers the essential stages of Sebald’s biography and delves into Sebald’s academic literary criticism, which Schütte generally portrays in a less than positive light. “Sebald always employed highly problematic critical tactics to argue his contentious opinions.” For example, Der Mythus der Zerstörung im Werk Döblins (The Myth of Destruction in Döblin’s Work), published in 1980 and based on his 1973 thesis, was “polemical” and “harsh” and “essentially disappeared without a trace.” Except for occasional poems, very little in Sebald’s early academic and writing life foreshadowed the literary star he would eventually become. But in another sense, it was his failure and discomfort at this type of writing that led him to explore a more unconstrained form of prose narrative.
In the closing chapter, “The Cult of Sebald,” Schütte gives a brief overview of Sebald’s posthumous reputation and critical reception and tries to undo some of the myths that have grown up around him since his death. Schütte is not alone in ruing the multitude of books that have appeared which “imitate his style and themes”—usually with poor results—and “the recent craze for books intertwining text and images.” Schütte makes a case that Sebald himself was partially destroyed by his own success. “Viewing academia as a dead end, he managed to extricate himself by writing literature only to discover that he had ended up in a new trap,” namely “the exhausting and arduous labour that went into both the writing and the promotion of Austerlitz.
For an academic title, the paperback edition of W.G. Sebald is pretty affordable at £16.99 and $29.95. There is a nice interview with Schütte about his book over at the website of the Liverpool University Press. And next January, Schütte will participate in a program at Waterstones in Birmingham:
Tuesday 29th January 18:30 at Birmingham
24-26 High Street, Birmingham, B4 7SL
Waterstones Birmingham would like to invite you to a very special evening discussing WG Sebald. WG Sebald is a special writer, widely admired in the English-speaking world yet often controversial in his native Germany. Indeed, he was a writer between two cultures, two languages and two forms of writing: academic and imaginative. This new general introduction written by his former PhD student Uwe Schütte aims not just to provide a knowledgeable overview of his oeuvre, but also to alert readers of English to the hidden “German” side of his writing.
Uwe Schütte is Reader in German at Aston University. He is joined by Derek Littlewood, poet and Senior Lecturer in Literature at Birmingham City University, and Richard Hibbitt, Director of Comparative Literature at the University of Leeds and the co-editor with Jo Catling of Saturn’s Moons: A W. G. Sebald Handbook.
Tickets cost £4 and are available online.