Category Archives: w.g. sebald

Josipovici on Sebald

Terry pretty much says it all when he introduces this review of The Emigrants with:

It is customary now to quote Susan Sontag when praising W.G. Sebald, but perhaps the earliest and most prescient notice of Sebald’s promise came from Gabriel Josipovici, the British novelist, playwright, and critic.

And we can feel fortunate that critics of Josipovici’s caliber were around to take note of this author before he was a common commodity.

Interesting, too that Sontag is commonly blurbed in conjunction with Sebald since she’s also often blurbed in conjunction with Walser. Though in the latter case she has a little more claim in the matter–Susan Bernofsky once informed me that Sontag had caught wind of Walser in the ’80s, long before much of his stuff was in English, and certainly long before English-reading critics began to celebrate him.

And here’s a great a moment from the annals of book reviewing:

I have spent so long describing what is only a twenty-page story because it is not every day one is sent a masterpiece to review (I suppose one is lucky if it happens more than once or twice a lifetime). And this story is what it is because, like all good art, the form and the style bring into being what would otherwise have remained in darkness and silence for ever, so that a mere account of what the story was ‘about’ would not have begun to do it justice.

Sebald's SIlkworms

Some interesting thoughts on The Rings of Saturn over at Vertigo:

Within a few sentences, however, Sebald makes a most remarkable turn by likening the hard labor of the weavers with that of “scholars and writers with whom they had much in common.” . . . And so there, in a revealing metaphor drawn from silk weaving, Sebald has described the doubt that plagues writers, who weave with words that are infinitely more gossamer than silk. It’s not hard to imagine that Sebald is speaking personally here. Remember that at the very beginning of The Rings of Saturn the narrator is to be found lying in a hospital in a state of “almost total immobility” resulting from “the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.” Perhaps this emptiness also encloses the fear that, as a writer, he might “have got hold of the wrong thread.”

Self on Sebald

The TLS has published the text of Will Self’s recent lecture on W.G. Sebald. Required reading, if, like me, you’re capable of falling down in admiration over a page of Sebald’s prose.

Here’s a little bit of it:

Ours is an era intoxicated by its capacity to reproduce history technologically, in an instantaneous digitization of all that has happened. But far from tempering our ability to politicize history, this seems to spur both individuals and regimes on to still greater tendentiousness. Among modern philosophers Baudrillard understood this development the best, and foresaw the deployment of symbolic events alongside the more conventional weaponry of international conflict. Sebald understood it as well: in The Rings of Saturn his fictive alter ego observes the Waterloo Panorama, a 360-degree representation of the battle warped round “an immense domed rotunda”, and muses: “This then . . . is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was”. To counter this synoptic view – which, again and again throughout his work, Sebald links to dangerous idealisms and utopian fantasies – the writer offered us subjective experience. This was not, however, reportage that relies for its authority on witness; Sebald, as he wrote with reference to the Allied bombing of Hamburg in his essay “Air War and Literature”, mistrusted seeming clarity in the retelling of events that had violently deranged the senses. Rather, his was a forensic phenomenology that took into account the very lacunae, the repressions and the partial amnesias that are the reality of lived life.

And here’s a good candidate for translation:

In his writings and interviews Sebald never pretended that his artistic development was entirely sui generis; it’s more that the lamentable insularity of the English-speaking world has made us generally impervious to foreign cultural influences. (This cannot have been far from Sebald’s own mind, not only when he rigorously collaborated on the translations of his own prose works from German into English, but also in his work as a pedagogue and as the founder, in 1989, of the British Centre for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia.) The influence of Alexander Kluge – to name but one exemplar of the documentary literature of post-war Germany – on Sebald’s methodology and concerns is difficult to assess for a non- German speaker, since none of Kluge’s key texts is available in translation.

W.G. Sebald’s A Place in the Country to be Published . . . Eventually

I guess me and Terry from the blog Vertigo have some odd mind-meld currently working, since we both discovered on Sunday that Random House will be publishing W.G. Sebald's essay collection A Place in the Country at some point in the future.

The proof is on the copyright page of Robert Walser's novel The Tanners, recently published by New Directions, which includes a 37-page essay on Walser by Sebald. Said essay is from said collection, and is duly noted on the copyright page. Amazon doesn't list the collection online, which likely means that it won't be available for at least 6 months.

While I'm mentioning The Tanners, I might as well say that I found it to be an odd, highly compelling read. I'm not quite sure what to make of it at the moment, but there are so many standout stories and images in the book that you'd be hard-pressed not to be strongly affected by it.

Sounds Like Sebald

Nice discussion at The Valve of The Lost by Daniel Mendelsohn:

This extraordinary book, at its simplest level, is a more or less chronological account of Mendelsohn’s quest to learn the fate of his great-uncle Schmiel (Sam) Jager, his wife Ester, and their four daughters, Lorka (b. 1920), Frydka (b. 1922), Ruchele (b. 1925), and Bronia (b. 1929?). From early in his childhood Mendesohn knows where his relatives lived, in the Polish town of Bolechow, and he knows that they died during the Holocaust, but beyond this he has only fragments of information, from stories half-heard or half-understood (“Once, I overheard my grandfather saying to my mother, I know only they were hiding in a kessle. Since I knew by then how to make adjustments for his accent, when I heard him say this I simply wondered, What castle?”), from photographs (“killed by the Nazis,” his grandfather has written on the back of a photograph of Schmiel in his WWI uniform, brought by Daniel to school for a presentation to his Grade 10 history class: “I remembered what had been written because I so clearly remembered the reaction to those words of my high school history teacher, who when she read what my gradnfather had written clapped a hand to her handsome, humorous face, . . . and exclaimed, ‘Oh, no!’”), from letters (“The date of Onkel Schmil and his family when they died nobody can say me, 1942 the Germans kild the aunt Ester with 2 daughters,” writes his Great-Aunt Miriam from Israel in 1975).

This, I would say, is was Sebald communicates extremely well, but without ever actually saying it, as Mendelsohn does here:

Mendelsohn’s refusal to take over their specificity, to presume to know them or speak for them, for me was one of the most impressive features of the book. Even when he reconstructs likely scenarios, he frames them with a respectful uncertainty. How presumptuous, after all, to think we can stand, vicariously, in the place of his sixteen-year-old cousin Ruchele, killed in Bolechow’s first official Aktion. “I have often tried to imagine what might have happened to her,” Mendelsohn remarks, “although every time I do, I realize how limited my resources are.” Not only is the evidence fragmentary and unreliable, not only can “memory itself . . . play tricks,” but “there is no way to reconstruct what she herself went through.

Sebald Guides From New Directions

Just as I'm finishing up my first reading of Vertigo, New Directions has made available guides to The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn. (via Vertigo)

Once I finish Vertigo (likely this evening), I will only have one more Sebald novel remaining to me, The Emigrants. Few authors will have left me more disappointed upon exhausting their novels than Sebald, although I find it impossible to believe that a second reading of The Rings of Saturn won't prove at least as good as the first.

I say this for two reasons. First, because I read Rings three years ago, when I was a much different reader. I don't think I could possibly approach a book like The Rings of Saturn in the same way now, and combining everything new I would see with everything I've forgotten in the intervening three years would create a very fresh experience.

And second, I also say this because Sebald's four novels are very similar in terms of approach, style, and theme, and so a re-reading of Rings after finishing the other three books would be far, far less naive than my original reading. I think so many things would jump out at me that I missed the first time, and I'm curious to see what phrases my underlining pencil originally managed to alight on.

I'm afraid, though, that re-reading Austerlitz (the second Sebald I read) wouldn't be nearly as fresh of an experience as re-reading Rings, largely because the reasons cited above don't hold for that book. It's strange to say, but from Austerlitz on I've rigorously marked up my Sebalds with a pencil, and I feel so connected to each of his books while I'm reading each that it's difficult to imagine coming back to any one of them and finding something the feels wholly new.

Re: Sebald and Calvino

At TQC we've just published an interview with Jonathan Tel, whose new book, The Beijing of Possibilities, is getting favorable comparison to Sebald and Calvino.

Tracking the Elusive Vertigo ARC

Terry at the blog Vertigo discusses his efforts to secure an ARC of Sebald’s novel with the same name:

New Directions published the first American edition of Vertigo sometime in 2000 (the New York Times reviewed it June 11, 2000). More than a year later, when they finally decided to release a soft cover edition, New Directions seems to have sent out an unknown number of advance promotional copies to promote the forthcoming soft cover version – using copies of the hard cover edition. They simply took a jacket-less hard cover copy, slapped a small image of the book’s cover and two pre-printed stickers on the front cover, and then stapled a single page from their October newsletter into the front endpaper. Unfortunately, it probably isn’t possible to know if this copy is from the first or second New Directions printing, because New Directions places information about subsequent printings of hard cover editions on the dust jacket – not in the book itself as most publishers do. Note that the upper sticker misspells the name of the British publisher Harvill.

The mini-book cover for Vertigo that is pasted onto the promotional copy above presents another – admittedly minor – puzzle.

This brings up an interesting question. What ARC that you own would you plan your retirement around? Sadly, about the best I can do is a Savage Detectives ARC.


In the context of a couple of prior art exhibitions, Vertigo discusses yet another art exhibition built upon the literature of W.G. Sebald and entitled "Altermodern":

Usually an exhibition begins with a mental image with which we need to reconnect, and whose meanings constitute a basis for discussion with the artists. The research that has preceded the Triennial 2009, however, had its origins in two elements: the idea of the archipelago, and the writings of a German émigré to the UK, Winfred Georg Sebald.

The definition of "altermodern" ("what comes after the postmodern") as quoted at Vertigo is a good summation of Sebald's central themes:

Altermodernism can be defined as that moment when it became possible for us to produce something that made sense starting from an assumed heterochrony, that is, from a vision of human history as constituted of multiple temporalities, disdaining the nostalgia of the avant-garde and indeed for any era – a positive vision of chaos and complexity. It is neither a petrified kind of time advancing in loops (postmodernism) nor a linear vision of history (modernism), but a positive experience of disorientation through an art-form exploring all dimensions of the present, tracing lines in all directions of time and space.

With all this great info, Vertigo doesn't save any space for the art itself. For those who are interested, the Tate museum has a website.

Sebald’s Haphazard Photographs

Vertigo-sebald Andrew Seal makes some interesting commentary on how images function to break up the text in Sebald's works:

If we can think of the long paragraphs as a way of quickening (or
lulling) the eye, the images' precise positions on the page come to
acquire a great deal of significance, as they do redirect and possibly
refocus the eye, and therefore the attention and the mental process of
the reader. Because there are precious few paragraph breaks in
Austerlitz, the interruptions of these images are made more noticeable,
and begin to assume (at least in the way I was reading) the role of
paragraph breaks—suitable nodes within the flow of thoughts,
appropriate pausing points for a moment of reflection on the preceding
words. One would think that this additional semantic role would mean
that the images' position would be more obviously finessed, managed, or
at least considered—there would be more of an obvious effort to arrange
the page in a way that maximized the semantic meaning of the image
placement. But this isn't the case.

Now, the obvious comment to
be made here is that I was reading in English, and Sebald was writing
in a language that often differs in syntactical structure . . .

That itself brings up another good question: how do you "translate" image placement?

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