A madness most discreet, or the queer pain and pleasure of writing on Sebald

This lunchtime, after a frenzy of last-minute reference-checking, translating and flicking through Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus (guaranteed to induce paranoia and terror, if nothing else is), I pulled together the chapters of my Sebald monograph and clicked ‘Send’ to a publisher. It’s been a long and complex process of writing, re-writing, re-conceptualisation and hard revision, and I hope that it finds favour! 

My working title is A madness most discreet: Melancholy bachelors, queer desires and Oedipal trouble in the works of W. G. Sebald, though a publisher might well want to change that! In conversation, I’ve been referring to the project as ‘Queer Sebald’ for short, though that title is both a bit reductive and unnecessarily provocative. Let me hasten to state that my argument isn’t for one moment anything to do with the person of the writer W. G. Sebald; my book isn’t at all biographical. Instead, I look at the numerous homosexual bachelors, moments of queer desire and alternative models of masculinity that are scattered throughout Sebald’s work, from Matthias Grünewald in After Nature who has a ‘better eye for men’, to Edward FitzGerald in The Rings of Saturn who goes  cruising on the North Sea in search of a lover, decked out in a feather boa. The more I examined queer themes in W. G. Sebald’s work, the more it seemed to me that these queer masculinities subvert melancholy throughout his poems and prose. While Sebald is of course the pre-eminent ‘anatomist of melancholy’, literary historian of trauma and mourner of the Holocaust, the queer moments in his texts offer moments that disrupt the dominant themes of catastrophe in Sebald’s work. By refusing normative structures of masculinity, heterosexual desire and reproduction, I argue that these queer moments serve as a form of resistance to the dominant structures of German literature, European history and patriarchal society. Sebald’s queer bachelors are by turns comic, tragic and poetic, but they still combine to the production of a ‘desiring machine’ within Sebald’s work, which provides a different way to respond to the tragic effects of capitalism and the losses caused by the progress of history.

On a theoretical level, the book combines a critical analysis of Sebald’s own reception of Foucault, Freud and Deleuze and Guattari with a mobilisation of key contemporary queer theorists (principally Edelman and Ahmed). I also argue that Sebald’s characteristic style, recursive and digressive, is in itself a queer aesthetic. Further, I read through Sebald’s early critical works (most of which aren’t yet available in English) to piece together an account of his critical opposition to patriarchal structures of family and masculinity in German literature, and to trace the influence of this opposition in his fiction.

I combined this theoretical framework with a series of close readings of queer figures and moments in Sebald’s work. Queer love and homosexual men provide a ‘line of flight’ away from the patriarchal and repressive order of German society, which led to the diasters of the Nazis. It also provides the possibility for a reconciliation between Germans and Jews, and for the wounds of Jewish assimilation to heal. Nonetheless, I also found that the possibilities for a queer moment of redemption narrow throughout the course of Sebald’s oeuvre, from the moments of queer fantasy and pleasure in Vertigo to the return to the bourgeois family and German history in On the Natural History of Destruction. I also argue that at times Sebald reanimates a modernist conception of homosexuality (think Thomas Mann, but also Havelock Ellis or Proust) that at times falls foul of orientalist traps.

Every book is, I think, in a sense an autobiography. The germs of this book developed not far from Oscar Wilde’s rooms in Trinity College Dublin, as I thought about my undergraduate readings of the German Romantics and realised that the Doppelgängers in Sebald’s work were rich with subversive potential. It continued through late-night writing in the blazing-hot World Cup summer of 2006 in Berlin, where I’d wrap up writing at midnight and still manage to make it out clubbing in Schwuz afterwards (ah, youth!). And it was finished here in Manchester, where Sebald started his own research career, and which is beautifully described in the ‘Max Ferber’ section of The Emigrants. The project is part of my own history over the last eight years, and it feels very strange (and unqueer!) to be bringing it to a conclusion.

Understandably, publishers have asked to see the whole volume before they’re committing to publishing it. I’m certain that it’s rife with small errors, some over-stretched arguments and some of my own cherished blind spots, and I’m looking forward to working with readers to rectify them. But ‘Queer Sebald’ is complete from beginning to end, for the first time, today, and that makes me very proud.

13 thoughts on “A madness most discreet, or the queer pain and pleasure of writing on Sebald

    • Thanks so much for the positive comment! There are some great exceptions: there’s Maya Barzilai’s groundbreaking essay ‘Facing the Past and the Female Spectre in W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants,’ in W. G. Sebald – A Critical Companion, pp. 203-216. I also really recommend Katja Garloff, ‘Kafka’s Crypt: W. G. Sebald and the Melancholy of Modern German Jewish Culture’, The Germanic Review: Literature, Culture, Theory, 82: 2 (2007), 123 – 140. Several other critics do mention gender and sexuality, particularly Santner, who has quite a comprehensive chapter on ‘On the Sexual Life of Creatures and Other Matters’ in ‘On Creaturely Life’. And I’m sure there are others I’ve missed.

      But in general I agree with you; gender and sexuality are seen as secondary to the great Sebaldian themes of melancholy, mourning, catastrophe, the Holocaust and trauma. I hope this is changing, and that I won’t have the last word on the topic at all.

  1. Congratulations! It must be an odd feeling to send off something that’s been so long in the making, but I hope there’s joy mixed in with the “but my baaaaby! project of my LOST YOUTH” feelings.

  2. Pingback: Sebald Events August 2012 (and beyond) « Vertigo

  3. The only Sebald tome in my book case is “The Emigrants”, so I guess I have to re-read it and look for both queer and Mancunian references… (Also, you just made me want to buy more Sebald, though I guess I really ought to read him in German.)

    • Read ‘Ambros Adelwarth’ for the queer references, and ‘Max Ferber’ for the Mancunian. And, although of course you should read him in German, the translations are wonderful too – Sebald collaborated on them very heavily.

      • I fought my way through Auerbach in German, so I’m sure I can handle Sebald if I decide to. (And I have vouchers for £100 for a well-stocked online bookshop sitting around, so…)

  4. Fascinating stuff and I can’t wait for it to come out. I’ve been interested in anatomy of the bachelor uncle in Tacita Dean’s work for some time now (and her many forrays into modern German literature and space, Sebald, Fernsehturm and Hamburger especially). So I look forward to reading this when it comes out.

  5. I think, Helen, i get your use of queer at bit more in Sebald now, ie not just referring to sexual orientation but also to those gaps in the fabric of being, like differance, quikiness, etc.i have just got a copy of the Santner book so am interested to read him first hand-at last!i think he deals with the Sebald and the (natural/manmade ) catastrophisation theory stuff; but i will re-read some Sebald with a view to discovering those queer moments in the non-sexual-orientation sense:). Thanks for opening my eyes to it/them!Steven Benson(no relation to Stephen Benson at UEA!)

  6. Pingback: ‘German Intellectuals from Student Revolution to Reaction: Botho Strauß, Peter Handke, W. G. Sebald’. | Helen Finch

  7. Pingback: Sebald’s Bachelors | Helen Finch

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