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Posts tagged ‘W.G. Sebald’

“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.”

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New Sebald Book

Uwe Schütte, who teaches at Aston University in Birmingham, U.K., has published a new book W.G. Sebald: Leben und literarisches Werk. The publisher, De Gruyter, describes it as a book that “provides a comprehensive and critical overview of his literary work and surveys the extensive secondary literature.” It looks like the first biographical chapter might well present the most detailed information on Sebald’s life available to date. The 471-page book contains thirty-two photographs and is priced at a modest $28.99 in the U.S., even less on Kindle.

The basic Table of Contents is listed below. An extended Table of Contents and a generous preview of the biographical chapter can be seen using Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature for this book.

Als Vorwort 
Zur Biografie
Nach der Natur: Ein Elementargedicht (1988)
Schwindel. Gefühle. (1990)
Die Ausgewanderten. Vier lange Erzählungen (1992)
Die Ringe des Saturn. Eine englische Wallfahrt (1995)
Aufzeichnungen aus Korsika und andere Interimswerke
Austerlitz (2001)
Ein Nachwort
Siglenverzeichnis
Abbildungsnachweis
Danksagung

The Paris Review Interview with W.G. Sebald

Paris Review Issue151

When I arrived in Norwich that morning on the train from London, Max had been waiting at the gate. I recognized him from the photograph on the back of The Emigrants. He was shy at first as we drove through the streets of Norwich in his rattletrap Peugeot, but he soon grew talkative, pointing out the eleventh-century Norman cathedral that towers immensely over the town and going on about his dealings with publishers, agents, advances—a writer’s shoptalk.

The Paris Review has removed the paywall for the interview that James Atlas did with W.G. Sebald in 1999—but only until Sunday, July 12! So hurry over and read this excellent piece. After a visit at his house, Sebald took Atlas for a drive through Norwich and then later they visited the poets Michael Hamburger and Anne Beresford in their ancient cottage. Atlas (1949-2019) was a publisher and writer, most notably as the biographer of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow. He would have been a great Sebald biographer, I think.

So That the Soul Would not Be Distracted

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A very astute reader of Sebald’s work sent me an email recently noting that the final sentence of The Rings of Saturn (1995) bears a striking resemblance to the final sentence of the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert’s book Still Life with Bridle: Essays and Apocryphas (London: Jonathan Cape, 1993).  What’s up with this, we both wondered?

Here’s Sebald:

And Sir Thomas Browne, who was the son of a silk merchant and may well have had an eye for these things, remarks in a passage of the Pseudodoxia Epidemica that I can no longer find that in Holland of his time it was customary, in a home where there had been a death, to drape black mourning ribbons over all the mirrors and all canvasses depicting landscapes or people or the fruits of the fields, so that the soul, as if left the body, would not be distracted on its final journey, either by a reflection of itself or by a last glimpse of the land now being lost for ever.

Here’s Herbert. describing how a family prepares for the departure of the soul of a recently deceased Dutch merchant in the seventeenth century:

Then they would cover all the mirrors in the house, and turn all the pictures to the walls so the image of a girl writing a letter, of ships in open sea, of peasants dancing under a tall oak, would not stop the one who wanders toward unimaginable worlds from going on his way.

It would not be surprising at all that Sebald might insist that Browne is the source for this paraphrased quote rather than Herbert, for he used Browne as a source and a handy foil throughout The Rings of Saturn and it would make sense that the closing statement be shoehorned so that it appear to come from Browne. But had Sebald read Herbert? And might he have lifted from him the idea of be-ribboning mirrors and turning canvasses to the wall so that the spirits of the dead would not be distracted on their passage?

We know that Sebald read Still Life with Bridle. In an interview Sebald did with then Los Angeles Times Book Editor Steve Wasserman at the Los Angeles Public Library in 2001, Sebald recounts having disliked Herbert’s book when he read it first in English but then loving it when he read it in French. (I had earlier written said that it was not known if Sebald read Herbert’s book, but a Vertigo reader kindly pointed out that the point is settled on p. 372 of Saturn’s Moons.*) Still Life with Bridle is primarily about Dutch art of the seventeenth century, a subject that Sebald addresses several times in The Rings of Saturn, most notably in his discussion of Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson (1632). The quote we have been looking at from Herbert is the last sentence in “Epilogue,” the final of ten short “Apocryphas,” pieces in which he freely mixes up fact and fiction to tell brief stories that often include real historical characters, such as Rembrandt and Vermeer. When Herbert’s book first came out, Matthew Stadler, writing in the New Times Book Review, was troubled about “this untraceable blurring of fact and fiction” in the Apocryphas, but this is exactly what Sebald would have loved about them. It’s easy to see why Sebald would have been attracted to Herbert’s description of the departure of the dead soul.

Curiously, when The Rings of Saturn was initially reviewed in the New York Times on July 26, 1998, Roberta Silman wrote in her opening sentence:

This is a hybrid of a book — fiction, travel, biography, myth, and memoir — that obliterates time and defies comparison. Stunning and strange, it may remind you of Zbigniew Herbert’s Still Life With a Bridle or Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, or the work of Italo Calvino, Walter Benjamin or even Jonathan Swift, yet by the end you know it is like none of these.

Silman picked out Herbert’s book for other reasons, but now it seems prescient for this other linkage between the two authors.

Herbert’s book was reissued in 2012 by the terrific Notting Hill Editions. Translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter.

*Jo Catling. Saturn’s Moons: A W.G Sebald Handbook. Routledge, 2019.

 

 

Take a Train Journey with Sebaldsound

Ear Edgeland Sebald 2

Here’s another audio piece about W.G. Sebald to help you through whatever level of confinement you are subjecting yourself to these days. Nick Warr and Guy Moreton recently taped a fascinating conversation about Sebald while taking a train journey and the recording they made is now up on Soundcloud. Warr and Moreton meander through many topics, including Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn, his use of photographs, and the significance of the trains that keep appearing in his work. Here’s their description of the thirty-three minute program.

The third episode in the [‘Ear of the Edgeland’] series finds us back on the rural railways, from Norwich to Lowestoft.

Commissioned by Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, ‘Sebaldsound’ acts as a complimentary audio piece to the 2019 exhibition ‘Lines of Sight’ about the artist W G Sebald.

In this episode ‘Lines of Sight’ curator Nick Warr talks to artist and academic Guy Moreton about the landscape, Sebald’s life and work, whilst travelling on part of the journey featured in Sebald’s much revered book The Rings of Saturn.

Sebaldsound includes field recordings by Oliver Payne with ‘Increasingly Absorbed In His Own World’ and ‘When the Dog Days Were Drawing To An End’ composed by The Caretaker for his album ‘Patience (After Sebald)’.

Guy Moreton is a photographer and teaches at Solent University, Southampton. Dr. Nick Warr is Curator of Photographic Collections, University of East Anglia and co-author of the forthcoming book W.G. Sebald: Shadows of Reality.

“Lines of  Sight: When a Literary Landscape Comes to Life”

Cantu Sebald

“Lines of  Sight: When a Literary Landscape Comes to Life,” an essay by Francisco Cantú is currently available online in the Virginia Quarterly Review Spring 2020 issue. In his essay, Cantú meditates on landscape, violence, and borders, inspired by a walking trip he took along the Suffolk Coast described in W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Cantú’s 2018 book The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border explored the harsh realities of the U.S./Mexican border and it made several top ten book lists that year. To better understand the issues facing those who were trying to smuggle themselves north into the U.S. he enlisted as a Border Patrol agent for a while.

In “Lines of Sight,” Cantú writes of the universality of Sebald’s message.

I first began to read Sebald during the years I worked in the deserts of Arizona, as an agent for the US Border Patrol. I was in my early twenties, living alone in a two-bedroom home built for mine workers in the former copper town of Ajo. I read his books one after another in that hot, silent, sparsely furnished house, encountering detailed descriptions of his European wanderings and long digressions into obscure chapters of world history, immersing myself in places and stories that were distant and foreign, yet still somehow familiar. The way Sebald interrogated his surroundings—the reminders of horror he found in abandoned buildings, pieces of detritus, swaths of cleared land—reminded me, perhaps, of the glimmers of violence I encountered day after day in the borderlands. Despite writing from another continent and another decade, Sebald somehow seemed to be speaking about the precise moment I was living in, about the very nature of my own work as an agent of oppression, about the violence being imprinted into me each day as I rose to police the border. More broadly, his work gave language to how violence has been normalized throughout history and written into our landscapes, cities, cultures, and bodies. Sebald’s books taught me, in effect, to look for what had been hidden in plain sight all around me.

Read the piece now. Cantú warns on his Twitter feed that the piece will eventually go behind a paywall.

“Walking with Sebald” Programs Online

Kindertransport Memorial

At the Kindertransport Memorial, London

My previous post alerted readers to a radio program called “Walking with Sebald,” aired online by London radio station 104.4 Resonance FM on two nights in February. This fascinating program is now available to listen to anytime through the links below.

Novo Cemetery

Novo Cemetery, London

Patrick Bernard follows in the footsteps of W. G. Sebald and his eponymous character Austerlitz as he explores the East End of London with poet Stephen Watts (a friend of ‘Max’ Sebald who accompanied him on many of his walks). They are joined by Nadia Valman and David Anderson from Queen Mary University of London as they visit many of the locations in the novel to uncover the layers of history hidden beneath the surface of the city and Sebald’s text. In the first episode Patrick and his guests walk from Exchange Square behind Liverpool Street Station – where Austerlitz first arrives to London on the Kindertransport – to Brick Lane where Stephen reads a poem dedicated to Altab Ali and Bill Fishman.

There are more photographs of the walk here.

W.G. Sebald Literature Prize & Conference Announced in the Allgäu, Where He Grew Up

die-stelen-zeigen-textauszuege-aus-dem-buch-schwindel-gefuehle
The stele with the relevant text from Vertigo as seen on the Sebaldweg, near Wertach, Germany, birthplace of W.G. Sebald.

The Allgäu, the Bavarian region southwest of Munich where W.G. Sebald was born and raised, is extending its effort to claim its native son who fled to England. Sebald was born in Wertach im Allgäu and later lived in Sonthofen, two towns which, along with nearby Kempten in Allgäu, have launched the Deutsche Sebald-Gesellschaft, or German Sebald Society. A few years after his death, the Allgäu region established the Sebaldweg, or Sebald Walk, a 12-kilometer hiking trail that somewhat follows the route that Sebald describes in the “Ritorno in Patria” section of Vertigo, in which the Sebald character returns to the town of his birth. (Do yourself a favor and take a delightful stroll along the Sebaldweg with Saim Demircan over at Frieze.)

Now, the German Sebald Society has announced an annual Sebald Literature Prize of 10,000 EUR for a longer prose text in German on the subject of “Gedächtnis und Erinnerung” (shall we say “memory and recollection”?). German-speaking authors from around the world may submit to the competition by April 30, 2020. The prize is endowed, which implies that it will be awarded annually into the future.

In addition, during November 20-22 of this year, there will be a conference in Sonthofen on the topic of “Nebelflecken und das Unbeobachtete” (“nebulae and the unobserved”), at which time the Sebald Literature Prize will be awarded. The papers of the conference will apparently be published. Further instructions for applying to both the competition and the conference can be found here.

As if that wasn’t enough, the Theater in Kempten is going to stage “Die Ausgewanderten – vier lange Erzählungen” or “The Emigrants – Four Long Stories,” a dramatization of Sebald’s 1992 book, with eight performances between March 5-27.

What would Sebald have thought of all of this?

Die-Ausgewanderten-c-Birgitta-Weizenegger-4_presse-e1578478905144
The actors from the Theater in Kempten production: Julia Jaschke, Annette Wunsch, Christian Kaiser, Hans Piesbergen. Photo © Birgitta Weizenegger.

 

Dreamlife of Debris

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In an interview with London Jazz News, musician Kit Downes talks about how his two recent albums Obsidian and Dreamlife of Debris (both for ECM Records, 2018 and 2019, respectively) were inspired by W.G. Sebald and by Grant Gee’s film Patience (After Sebald):

LJN: And continuing the “place” theme in a more abstract way, can you tell us about W.G. Sebald (both albums contain references to his work) and his influence on the music?

KD: The title, Dreamlife of Debris, itself comes from a supposed quote by Nabakov, mentioned in a documentary film about W.G. Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn. The quote itself alludes to the way we can project emotion and character onto inanimate objects, to the point where they feel like they have their own life, dreamt by us – like a musician and their instrument in a way, especially the organ (being the enormous chaotic collection of pipes, whistles and reeds that it is).

These objects could be mundane and everyday, or galaxy clusters and gas giants – whatever the scale. This quote (in reference to the book) is alluding to the way Sebald finds meaning in these isolated landmarks and events on his walking tour through Suffolk by using them as springboards for enormous mental leaps of association and story telling – to places across the world and from other times.

This resonated with me – these unlikely combinations of instruments, alluding to different styles and periods, with no established pretext, meeting together in a space with no singular character. I enjoyed the risk of diving into that challenge, and enjoyed the strange dream-like space that we often found ourselves in musically.

There are several wonderful videos on Downe’s website, including one about Dreamlife and one for his piece “Rings of Saturn” from the Obsidian album. (Also, make sure to watch the video with Aidan O’Rouke.) If you are a Spotify subscriber, ECM recently released its entire music catalog on Spotify after years of refusing to. So go enjoy Kit Downe’s music there or find the CDs or LPs. Or go to Downe’s website where there are several older pieces you can listen to. This is terrific music, the instruments like sonic universes slowly passing by each other.

On the album, Downes plays piano and organ, Tom Challenger plays tenor saxophone, Stian Westerhus plays guitar, Lucy Railton plays cello, and Sebastian Rochford, drums.

UPCOMING CONCERT NOTE: Kit Downes will be appearing at the Royal Academy of Music, Sainsbury Theatre, London on January 31, 2020. According to its website, the “event opens with the presentation of honorary membership of the Royal Academy of Music to eminent jazz pianist and alumnus Kit Downes, who then leads his trio, ENEMY, and students from the Jazz and Strings departments in a side-by-side performance.”

2632-downes-groupThe musicians of Dreamlife of Debris:
Sebastian Rochford, Kit Downes, Tom Challenger and Lucy Railton. Photo courtesy ECM.
(Minus Stian Westerhus, Guitar)

Jane Benson’s “Song for Sebald”

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Detail of a “Song for Sebald” print, © Jane Benson

New York artist Jane Benson has been exhibiting a series of hand-cut archival inkjet-prints called “Song for Sebald.” In the exhibition, the prints are accompanied by music Benson has commissioned from Matthew Schickele. Here’s the full description from her website:

In “Song for Sebald,” Jane Benson explores the themes of separation and belonging through a radical encounter with the writer W.G. Sebald’s novel, The Rings of Saturn.  Benson begins with the physical text of the novel and a knife.  By carefully excising every part of the text except the syllables of the musical scale – do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti – she uncovers what we might call the “potential music” of Sebald’s prose:  a set of notes with a full tonal range hovering both inside and outside of the novel, untethered from the original text and radically disjointed within itself.  

From that point of radical excision and destruction, Benson moves to the process of re-creation. Benson actualizes the novel’s potential music through a process that links together author, artist, composer, and performer.  Each of the novel’s ten chapters produces a separate movement created collaboratively by composer Matthew Schickele; in each, the pace of the music is guided by the spaces between the excavated syllables (the spaces Benson has cut) and its emotive lyric determined by a set of improvisations guided by elements of Sebald’s prose.  Each chapter/movement has its own mood, dynamics, and process of creation, depending on the characters and themes of the original novel, and on interactive processes determined by Benson and Schickele.  The collaged recordings of each movement are encountered by viewers in sound pods equipped with headphones that are presented alongside each chapter of incised text, with the entire score played in the gallery daily at noon. 

Sebald’s experimental fiction and essays demonstrate a preoccupation with displacement, foreignness, and extraterritoriality, reflecting his own experience of self-imposed exile from his native Germany.  Both thematically and formally, Sebald’s prose reflects its author’s experience of radical dislocation; his narrators often seem to stand apart from their physical and textual surroundings, the stories they tell – at once personal and impersonal – reflect the creative potential of estrangement and disorientation. 

Benson’s work explores and expands this same creative potential; her elaborate and multi-stage process creates gaps and absences in order to stitch them together over time and across media, in a process of collaboration that links together nationalities, disciplines, genders, and fields of creative work.  In this, Song for Sebald not only gestures toward the work of a single author, but also speaks with urgency to our present international moment, in which the plight – and the promise – of displaced persons has become more important than ever before.

At Benson’s website, you can see all of the images and hear an eleven minute sample of Schickele’s haunting and spare music. (And yes, Matthew Schickele is the son of Peter Schickele, the sometimes comedic composer.)