On My Shelves: W.G. Sebald

The first Sebald that I read was The Rings of Saturn. This was in the spring of 2006.

Back then I didn’t like writing in my books, so I used these sticky colored tape things to mark passages I found interesting.

After that was On the Natural History of Destruction. There was no real reason I read this one next—I just happened to find it used at Moe’s Books, and I took it to Mexico with me.

I read it in late 2006. You can see my ticket for the anthropological museum of Xalapa, Veracruz, which has a magnificent collection of enormous Toltec heads, among many other items. Definitely a Sebaldian location. Incidentally, that entry fee is in Mexican pesos, not dollars, so it came out to about $4.00, not $40.00.

After that it was Austerlitz. I recall reading this in a subletted apartment in Berkeley right after I had returned form Latin America, while writing an essay on Bioy and Kafka.

It was about this time I read my first work of Sebald criticism, J.J. Long’s W.G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity.

And some marginalia.

Than came Vertigo, one of the first books of many, many I was to read on my commutes on the Bay Area Rapid Transit.

And some marginalia from that one.

Shortly thereafter, I think it was around the spring of 2011, I came upon these two works of Sebald criticism. The bottom one, Searching for Sebald, is particularly special. It’s about 600 pages in length, is full of very interesting photos, mixed media pieces, essays, and interview. It even includes this:

The infamous photo taken where Sebald had his fatal car accident. Some say that the patters in the smoke resemble Sebald’s face, particularly his trademark mustache. (This photo was later discussed in the Sebald documentary, Patience (After Sebald), which I viewed in spring 2012.)

About that time I also happened onto this book: Unrecounted, which combines portraits of eyes with brief poetry. Famously, Javier Marías is included in here:

I discuss this briefly in an essay I wrote on Marías.

It was after Unrecounted that I acquired After Nature, Sebald’s first book, and Campo Santo, which was the first book of Sebald’s that I ever heard of, via a review published in the San Francisco Chronicle upon the book’s release in spring 2005.

2013 brought Across the Land and the Water and A Place in the Country, an essay collection which is Sebald’s most recent book in translation (and possibly the last?)

The latter I bought at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris in May 2013, shortly after presenting a paper on Bolaño at a conference in Warwick, England.

All that leaves is The Emigrants, which I have not yet read. This was actually the first book of Sebald’s that I ever purchased, but I did so as a gift. Being as much of a Sebaldian as I am, I know I will have to read this one day, but I’ll also be a bit sorry to see any unread full-length Sebald departing from my life.

In addition to The Emigrants there also remain For Years Now, a short book of stories/poetry, and The Emergence of Memory, which is interviews, not writings.

I would be interested if anyone is aware of any other worthwhile books of Sebald criticism.

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Saturn’s Moons, W.G. Sebald – A Handbook, edited by Jo Catling and Richard Hibbit

Was Ring of Saturn nearly everyone’s first Sebald? I was assigned a chapter of it in a course in college, on Las Vegas, oddly enough. We were given the standard photocopied pages. Being both a completist and completely enamored, I bought the book and read the whole thing. I loved it and it was one of the first things I read so aware of its status at as a translation. That first reading, I was also against making notes in my books. I put it aside for a while, but Sebald would later push so much fog from my world, opening new avenue after avenue.

That initial introduction was in my last year of college. At the time, Murakami was one of my favorite authors, and between him and Sebald. I wanted to read translations. So in my completist mode, I read only Japanese translations for a year. Then I turned to the Germans. I reread Rings, read all of Sebald’s fiction. Read other Germans. But it was his non-fiction that did me in. He mentions so many other writers that I wanted to read, who then led me to others, to others, etc. I think I was already lost in the translated world at that point, but he gave me no chance of coming back.

Other than that, Austerlitz was the most memorable. In warmer weather, I often read while walking. If I’m reading in one place, and then headed to another, I’ll keep reading. Or going to read some place, I’ll read on the way. Austerlitz, bizarrely, considering Rings, is the only book that made me get up to read and walk. I had been sitting on a park bench, but couldn’t any longer, so got up to walk in circles on the edge of the fountain.

I’m glad you’re holding out on Emigrants. I regret my completist phase in some ways, all the author’s whose work I read in one sprint and have nothing left. My favorites, I hold back now. It’s why I still have some Sebald non-fiction left.

I love the bookmark, by the way. My favorite bookmarks, so favored I hesitate to use them for fear of losing, are train and plane tickets.

I hope you continue these. I often think idly about my journeys with specific authors, so it is nice to see someone take the time to share them.

Two books about Sebald I’ve wanted to read but have not yet: http://www.amazon.com/dp/1571134654/ref=wl_it_dp_o_pC_nS_ttl?_encoding=UTF8&colid=2WJLGZEEH66AL&coliid=I28CRNLAI1RJZ6


I meant to comment on this when you posted it, but the week at work got away from me.

In 2001, I tried reading Vertigo, but didn’t finish it. I would try to read it during breaks at work and it was so unusual that it just escaped me. I put it aside. In 2004, I both started law school and started reading lit blogs, of which Conversational Reading was one of the first.

One day, I began thinking about reading Sebald again and happened upon one of your early posts about Rings of Saturn. In it you quote, I think, another essay wherein the writer talks about reading the part of Rings about the model of Jerusalem and a seemingly meaningless reference to goose quills (I think–I’ve tried to go back and find the post to clarify, but I can’t find it), only to later discover that there is an obsolete meaning to quills that perfectly fit the meaning in the novel. The essayist talked about how Sebaldian things happen when you read Sebald, which I thought appropriate since I’d been thinking about him and then suddenly you posted about him.

That evening, or maybe the next day, I learned that my step-father passed away and then, another day or two later, I received a copy of Rings of Saturn in the mail. I hadn’t remembered ordering it and was mystified for a day until I learned that close friend had sent it as a gift. I read it on the bus back and forth to law school and from that point, I was in love.

Since then I’ve found that it is true: When you read Sebald, your life becomes like a Sebald book. Sebalesque things happen, or, perhaps, you just notice them. The next year I graduated and moved to a new town. My wife was out of state for a few weeks and since we only had one car, I walked everywhere, reading Vertigo as I walked. There is a part where he talks about having difficultly making up his mind about where he going to eat dinner–which I read as I was having a difficult time making up my mind about where I was going to eat dinner. Everything seems to have its own secrete goose-quill meaning, but it is only revealed when I read Sebald.

Even this post: Where I learn that my decision to not read The Emigrants yet (because I want to have one to read in the future when I need it) is not particularly unusual.

Thanks for the post and for the years of good book memories.

I just find it surprising that you only learned about Sebald in 2005 when The Emigrants was published in English in 1996. Of course I don’t think think I read it until 98.

Fortunately I have plenty of Sebald material ahead and I understand that desire to have something set aside for a rainy day, but The Emigrants is one of the most profound pieces of literature in my life and I would be very interested to hear what you think of it. The experience of the migrant has parallels in my mind to journeys across the borders defined (or undefined) by gender identity and expression. It’s a theme I am interested in exploring in my own writing and someday I will write more explicitly about this book and its relation to my own experiences.

As to related Sebald material, Helen Finch’s Sebald’s Bachelors (#10 on Anthony’s list above) is a fascinating queer reading of Sebald.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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