Reviews

W. G. Sebald - A Critical Companion by J. J. Long and Anne Whitehead

John Sears

Sebald's writings address memory as a structure of experience, and as a series of metaphors through which he tries to understand history and the responsibilities with which it burdens the present.


W. G. Sebald - a Critical Companion

Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Length: 239
Display Artist: J. J. Long and Anne Whitehead
Price: £45 (UK)
Author: Anne Whitehead
UK publication date: 2004-05
Amazon
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.

Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Television

Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone can undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.

Film

Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".

Music

The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.

Music

The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.

Music

Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.

Music

​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.

Music

John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Music

Roots Rocker Webb Wilder Shares a "Night Without Love" (premiere + interview)

Veteran roots rocker Webb Wilder turns back the hands of time on an old favorite of his with "Night Without Love".

Film

The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.

Music

July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.

Music

With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.

Film

Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.

Music

MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.

Books

Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.

Film

Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.

Music

John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."

Books

'Run-Out Groove' Shows the Dark Side of Capitol Records

Music promoter Dave Morrell's memoir, Run Out Groove, recalls the underbelly of the mainstream music industry.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.