Nationalisms and Sexualities – As Opposed to What?

Valentines Day, 2013: what better date for a joyful and emotional conference to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Tendencies? I was privileged and not a little surprised to be invited to participate, commenting on Sedgwick’s essay ‘Nationalisms and Sexualities … Continue reading

Writing, Creativity and Translation at the British Library

It’s not often that I’m down in London and able to swank around all the amazing literary and German-language events here, but that’s the joy of sabbatical! Yesterday, I was lucky enough to be able to go to an Open University-sponsored event on Writing, Creativity and Translation at the British library, with German literary hero Birgit Vanderbeke, translation hero Jamie Bulloch, and new literary heroes Jordi Punti, Miha Mazzini and Maja Visenjak Limon.

I first encountered Vanderbeke’s work eight years ago, when I taught Geld oder Leben (Your Money Or Your Life) to first year students at Trinity College Dublin, and was enchanted by how angry the students were at the critique of capitalism in the seemingly guileless novel. How dare Vanderbeke suggest that there might be a way of living outside capitalism! How dare her deceptively simple prose lead the teenagers into an unexpected linguistic critique of marketing! I developed a healthy respect for her dark literary arts.

The British Library didn’t showcase one superstar, though – it created a brilliant, transEuropean dialogue on literature between five brilliant, opinionated and collegiate literary experts. I livetweeted the discussion under the hashtag #wct, if you’re interested in reliving the experience via breathless Twitter, but what’s missing there is the repartee, the translation heresies and the shared vision of European literature that emerged.

Translation heresy was definitely a theme – Limon confessed to translating into her second language, Bulloch to not knowing or caring much about literary theory, and Vanderbeke vigorously asserted that translation had to disrespect, indeed destroy the text to bring it closer to a new audience. Quite fabulous.

But even more moving than the translation heresy was the passionate commitment to translation in evidence. Although all three writers declared emphatically that writing with a translator in mind would be impossible, all three argued that translation is essential to literature, and indeed to human communication – it allows us to see the human in someone who is far away. Punti argued eloquently that European culture has in fact been constituted by inter-European translation, from the first Catalan translations of Dante in the fifteenth century onwards, and that Europe can be seen as a space of distinct but interlinking translation traditions – the Mediterranean tradition, the Slav tradition, and the declining but crucially important U.K. tradition.

There were many more insights in the mix, from discussions about new readability and the influence of Anglo-Saxon plot-driven fiction on other languages, to concerns about the number of national literatures that are becoming increasingly insular. I even managed to ask Vanderbeke and Bulloch a question about the Nachleben of Vanderbeke’s Muschelessen: what does it mean to have a text translated almost 25 years later? (Vanderbeke said that this book is an exception, it has stayed alive through readings and dialogues and constant publications ever since she first wrote it in 1989). I didn’t get a chance to tell her how delighted I was that her work managed to outrage my students so thoroughly eight years ago, but instead I left with a new reading list and a renewed passion for translation – an even more important gift.

The famed Terry Pitts of Vertigo has given Sebald’s Bachelors a plug – very kind of him!



Helen Finch has announced that her forthcoming book has a new name and a great looking cover – Sebald’s Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life.


Sebald is one of the authors covered in a new publication from Edinburgh University Press called Travellers’ Tales of Wonder: Chatwin, Naipul, Sebald by Simon Cooke.  The book promises “new, in-depth readings of the work of three major writers, in each case drawing on as yet unpublished results of archival research.”  Cooke has written about Sebald several times before, according to his post-doctoral fellow page at the University of Edinburgh.  Here’s the blurb on the publisher’s website:

Exploring travellers’ tales of wonder in contemporary literature, this study challenges a sensibility of disenchantment with travel. It reassesses travel writing as an aesthetically and ethically innovative form in contemporary international literature, and demonstrates the crucial role of wonder in the travel narratives of…

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Terry Pitts has written a wonderful post on Sebald’s essay ‘Across the Border: Peter Handke’s Repetition‘, which is available as a download in English for the first time. I wrote an essay on this, ”Die irdische Erfüllung”: Peter Handke’s Poetic Landscapes and W. G. Sebald’s Metaphysics of History’, in: W. G. Sebald and the Writing of History, eds Anne Fuchs, Jonathan Long (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2007), pp. 179-197. (I’ve made it available on Sebald’s Bachelors has a section on homoeroticism in this essay, too… watch this space for more details…



In Repetition, Handke allows the peculiar light which illuminates the space under a leafy canopy or a tent canvas to glisten between words, placed here with astounding caution and precision; in doing so, he  succeeds in making the text into a sort of refuge amid the arid lands which, even in the culture industry, grow larger day by day.

W.G. Sebald’s essay Across the Border: Peter Handke’s Repetition has just been translated for the first time into English and is now posted as a downloadable PDF over at thelastbooks.  The essay, on Handke’s 1986 book Die Wiederholung, was originally published in Sebald’s 1991 anthology of literary essays Unheimliche Heimat under the title Jenseits der Grenze.  This translation of Sebald’s essay is by Nathaniel Davis and is apparently to be included in a forthcoming reissue of Ralph Manheim’s  1989 translation of Handke’s book, which is currently out-of-print. As…

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Me and my grant

Mhairi McFarlane has written a fantastic parody of vapid celebrity interviews that may sound familiar to any of you who read women’s magazines:

So, I say, was it a difficult decision to choose to play Eva Braun, as she’s a controversial figure? She suddenly looks serious. “Obviously people have their views on what she did but really I just approached her as a character, as a story. You know, before anything else she was just a woman, in love with a man, trying to make a life for herself in Nazi Germany.” Did she do much research? “I avoided reading anything about her because I didn’t want my performance to be affected by other peoples’ opinions. You know, I wanted to get to the emotional truth. That’s your job, as an actor.”

I’d like to think that I’m slightly more concerned about the implications of representing the Nazi past than McFarlane’s fictional interviewee… but you can judge for yourself. Penny Sarchet interviewed me about my AHRC fellowship for Research Fortnightly, and you can read it here, though unfortunately only if you’re a subscriber to Research Fortnightly or you work for a university that subscribes. Some extracts:

Of the seven new fellows, two others also conduct research related to the Holocaust. Is this a coincidence, or is this a particularly strong field right now?

I think it is particularly strong and Britain has strength in it. [Other fellows] Stuart Taberner, from my own institution, and Jean Boase-Beier, from the University of East Anglia, are really world-leading scholars in the field. And I think there has also been a very strong development of memory studies, that’s been an academic trend over the past 10 years, so I think there is a cultural moment, certainly.

Do you have any advice for recent PhD graduates about pursuing a languages research career?

I think applying for research fellowships is the best way to go. I’ve been a teaching fellow myself, I haven’t had a research fellowship up until now, and that’s worked for me. But I do think it is really useful having a period of one or two years to really focus on your research, take that critical step away from your PhD research, get your book out, and start thinking about your next project.

The countryside is full of undeclared pathologies: Max Sebald’s Writing Tips

W. G. Sebald
A wonderful treat for all Sebaldians: UEA creative writing students David Lambert & Robert McGill noted down Sebald’s tips on writing three days before he died.

Physicists now say there is no such thing as time: everything co-exists. Chronology is entirely artificial and essentially determined by emotion. Contiguity suggests layers of things, the past and present somehow coalescing or co-existing.

via Max Sebald's Writing Tips – Richard Skinner.

Guilty Pleasures of the Year 2012: a year in #fridayreads

It would be wonderful, of course, to write an elegant in-depth review of every book I read, but that is an aspiration reserved for the more serious book bloggers out there. Instead, I have compiled a short, ascerbic and in no way particularly reflected selection of my leisure reading this year below. Kafka, Adler and my colleagues’ monographs predominate in my non-leisure reading, but on the train, late at night and in the bath, here’s what I finished and, mostly, enjoyed, in 2012:


Book of the year, of the decade: Open City, by Teju Cole. So wonderful and Sebaldian and cerebral and beautiful that I need to wait a year and read it again and make it part of my life.

Other runners-up: Traveller of the Century, by Andres Neuman, lovely whimsical romance set in Biedermeier Mitteldeutschland, full of the sounds of Schubert and the plots of E. T. A. Hoffmann and the daffy ideas of German idealists.

South Riding, by Winifred Holtby, which is completely absorbing, combining Brontëesque passions with some good solid Marxism. Excellent stuff.

Tales from the Mall, by Ewan Morrison: half Fast Food Nation anti-capitalist rant, half flash fiction set in Scottish malls. Wildly entertaining.

Edward St. Aubyn’s Melrose novels, which I glugged down one by one in Germany, as thirsty as the aristocratic alcoholic protagonists. They left little trace, but were wonderfully biting.

The empty family, and A Guest at the Feast, by Colm Tóibín, who cannot write an untrue sentence.

Hope. A Tragedy, by Shalom Ausländer. Post-Holocaust, riotously impious novel. What would you do, dear reader, if you found an aged, filthy and spiteful Anne Frank in your attic?

Kraken, by China Miéville: squiddy fantasy fun from everyone’s favourite Socialist Worker

Pack Men, by Alan Bissett: aaaah, so brilliant! Masculinity tenderly filleted, with a side order of Manchester streetscape, Scottish culture and queer sex. Just: fab.

The Journey, Oh! What a beautiful Sunday and Literature or Life, by Jorge Semprún: amazingly sharp, moral literature by a Marxist philosopher who survived Buchenwald.

The Ministry of Special Cases, by Nathan Englander: conventional but gripping and moving novel about disappearances in the Argentinian dictatorship.

HHhH, by Laurent Binet: Binet manages to pull off both a meta-reflection on the ethical pitfalls of writing historical fiction, and an utterly gripping and moving account of the heros who assassinated Heydrich.

Inoffensive: Disgrace, by Coetzee: very well-done, yes, and I certainly learned a lot about white people in South Africa. I suspect the correct adjective is ‘fine’, or even more dispiriting, ‘Booker-prize-winning’.

Daylight Gate, by Jeanette Winterson: she really is gloriously unhinged at times, but such madness is ideally suited to Pendle witch fiction.

Thursbitch, by Alan Garner: Perhaps it is the Manchester hinterland that sends writers gloriously mad. More dark magic lurks in the Cheshire hills.

Stasiland, by Anna Funder: not the GDR I know from friends who grew up in the former East, but quite gripping, still.

Story of the Eye, by Georges Bataille: WELL GOSH.

Pleasured, by Philip Hensher: fun, well-done fall-of-the-Berlin-wall saga.

Gewalten, by Clemens Meyer: fantastic, foulmouthed prose fizzing with energy and intelligence.

There but for the, by Ali Smith. Wry, well-observed State of the Middle Classes epic in miniature.

Imperium, by Christian Kracht: rollicking adventures of a deluded German vegetarian in the South Seas before the outbreak of WW1. Enjoyable and not remotely racist, despite some odd fight on the matter in the media.

Entertaining Trash for those brainfree moments: Historical tosh by Karen Maitland, feminist chicklit by Mhairi McFarlane, scabrous Jude in Ireland by Julian Gough.

Not So Amazing: Time’s Arrow, by Martin Amis: evidently initiated the manic, maximalist, magical voice–of-the-Nazi-perpetrator narrative that Jonathan Littell continued two decades later. I still think it’s a meretricious kind of achievement. Mass murderers are not interesting.

Zoo Time, by Howard Jacobson: I loved the rants about middlebrow fiction, but not so much the creaking misogyny. Sigh.

Childish Loves, by Benjamin Markovits: I really wanted to love this, but in the end just couldn’t. Byron is horrible, and effete New York writers with midlife crises just too dull.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman: the premise of a self-conscious meta-magic-novel set in Narnia is brilliant, but why make the protagonist really miserable all the way through?

There were a lot of books that I ordered from the library and never read, including most of the Booker shortlist. Whoops. Perhaps I should call them up again. This was also the year I got a Kindle and, much to my surprise, I find I really dislike reading books on it, find it stressful and unsatisfying, and would far rather have the comforting heft of a paper book in my hand. It is wonderfully convenient for travelling, but I always look forward to picking up real books when I come home.

I always mean to read more history and sociology, but never do, and am sure I have missed some wonderful new gems. Readers, what have I left out?