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W. G. Sebald - a Critical Companion

J. J. Long and Anne Whitehead

(Edinburgh University Press)

More Than Any Heart or Eye Can Bear

But in reality, of course, memory fails us.
— W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn


Novelist, poet and academic W. G. Sebald was killed in a car-crash in December, 2001, just after the publication of his last and, perhaps, most daunting book, Austerlitz, which combined in characteristic style elements of fiction, autobiography, travelogue, memoir and philosophical meditation into an entrancing, sometimes bewildering narrative. Austerlitz went on to be one of the major publishing successes of 2002, and established Sebald’s reputation as a difficult but rewarding writer, a purveyor of gloomy, vertiginous prose addressing ideas of massive import.


Born in 1944 in a small town in Bavaria, Sebald moved to England in the late 1960s to pursue a successful academic career, and took up fiction writing late in life. His themes—memory, travel, history, exile, mortality, and, ultimately, the Holocaust and its traces and effects in modern European consciousness, described in The Emigrants as “More than any heart or eye can bear”—are pursued through a series of novels, books of poetry and critical essays.


In his last interview, published posthumously in The Guardian, Sebald stated to Maya Jaggi that “The moral backbone of literature is about that whole question of memory.” Read together, his works constitute a sustained, meticulous and deeply challenging enquiry into the ways in which competing versions of history come into new, sometimes devastating, forms of conflict.


Critical evaluations of Sebald’s work have not been slow in coming, and it’s fair to say that he’s now read as a key late 20th century German writer, well served by some authoritative translations into English by Michael Hulse, Anthea Bell and Michael Hamburger. The essays in this Critical Companion, written by academics working in a variety of national contexts, offer a comprehensive survey of and introduction to the political and aesthetic issues pertinent to reading Sebald.


In their “Introduction” the editors outline some biographical and historical contexts and note some central concerns of Sebald’s writings, arguing that he demonstrates an awareness of the theoretical frameworks, such as psychoanalysis and trauma theory, employed in several of the essays. Sebald is, they suggest, “profoundly imbricated in the ongoing dilemmas and debates of trauma theory and he occupies a central position in contemporary memory discourse.” The relations between memory and writing, and, more broadly, representation itself, are surely crucial to Sebald’s literary project.


Armed with a useful bibliography, index and chronology, the book is divided into sections addressing clusters of topics such as “Landscape and Nature,” “Travel and Walking” and “Haunting, Trauma and Memory,” thus establishing Sebald’s centrality to some of the current debates in literary theory. At all times the essays are intellectually astute, critically observant and deeply informative; in some cases, they are also exquisitely written. George Szirtes’s poem “Meeting Austerlitz” exemplifies this, and offers a refreshingly unconventional opening to the academic debate, what he calls “a kind of speculative journey / into melancholy.”


John Beck’s “Reading Room: Erosion and Sedimentation in Sebald’s Suffolk,” exemplifying the critical essay as well-wrought and well-written, offers a beautifully paced and crafted discussion of, among other things, how Sebald uses metaphors derived from natural forces to represent cultural processes of change and transformation, almost always couched in terms of decline and decay. “Erosion,” writes Beck, “is the subject of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. The book is about the erosion of confidence in the power of representation to record a knowable world adequately and thereby control it. It is about the arrogance of a rapacious European capitalism that built its empires too close to the water.” Sebald’s book, he goes on to argue persuasively, offers “a poetics of history,” a phrase that offers a sensible way of describing the measured, resonant cadences of Sebald’s prose and its obsessively reiterated themes.


Elsewhere, John Zilcosky analyses the functions of travel and home in Sebald (whose books always centre on some kind of travel, from the enforced journeys of The Emigrants to the walking tour of the narrator of The Rings of Saturn) Zilcosky argues through a deconstructive reading that, contrary to appearances, Sebald’s books are about the impossibility of getting lost. Carolin Duttlinger analyses the uses of photographs in Sebald’s books, citing the conventional theorisation of photography as an expression of loss and trauma. Jan Cueppens explores comparable territory through a different theme, that of apparitions of spectres and angels in Sebald’s works, arguing that Sebald’s characters are caught “in a melancholy inability to appropriate and bury their past—and to turn to the future.”


In each case, the essay is clear, focussed on its topic and suggestive of productive links with others in the volume. Most importantly, these essays make one return to the books themselves informed with new, important information—whose eyes are reproduced in the early photographs in Austerlitz, for example, or where to find out more about the hunter Gracchus and his significance for Sebald, or how Sebald’s analysis of the fire-bombing of Dresden (in his essay “On the Natural History of Destruction”) relates to post-war German processes of remembering and forgetting.


The essays in W. G. Sebald - A Critical Companion offer important interventions into the process of reading and thinking about Sebald with the kind of care he read and thought himself. While the theoretical territory is sometimes a touch predictable (if it’s photography, it must be Roland Barthes; Benjamin, Derrida and other familiar names are regularly invoked), and I’d have liked more on Sebald’s relations to German-language writings, which are less familiar to English readers (what of Thomas Bernhard and Peter Weiss? Bernhard Schlink and Peter Schneider? Where is Sebald in relation to Grass and Böll?), there’s more than enough material here to satisfy the curious reader.

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