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.


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