Delighted, honoured, and cheap: AHRC fellowship for ‘The politics of transmission of Holocaust testimony in the German cultural field’

I’m delighted and a little overwhelmed to be able to announce that I’ve been awarded an AHRC Early Career Fellowship for my next research project, ‘The politics of transmission of Holocaust testimony in the German cultural field’. There were only seven awards in the whole of the UK, and mine seems to have come in as the cheapest, which obviously makes me a bargain! On a more serious note, of the seven fellowships awarded, two of them went to German Studies at Leeds – mine and my colleague Professor Stuart Taberner‘s – and a third went to another inspiring and senior scholar in German and translation studies, Professor Jean Boase-Beier of UEA. An amazing vote of confidence for my department, and a fantastic statement of support for German studies nationally. It’s wonderful that the Arts and Humanities Research Council is promoting German and translation studies at a time when the modern languages community really needs support.

My project grew out of my work on H. G. Adler with Professor Frank Finlay. As I researched in Adler’s archive to discover why his literary testimonials to the Holocaust struggled to find publishers and readers, I started wondering whether he was alone in finding the path to publication difficult. In the difficult post-war years, was a canon of Holocaust literature in German established which implicitly excluded some writers, and why did it do so? Was there a particular difficulty about writing in German about the Holocaust that made it hard to have testimonials published and read? I formulated these working research questions, as I read further:

  • How was a canon of German-language Holocaust testimony formed throughout the 1940s and 1950s?
  • What impact has this hitherto unrecognised canon had on later German-language literature about the Holocaust?
  • How and why have German-speaking literary witnesses to the Holocaust challenged this canon?

My study proposes that in the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, an unacknowledged canon of Holocaust literature was formed in Germany. I’m aiming to create an innovative methodology, drawing on the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu as well as on close literary analysis, to account for the mechanisms that ‘canonised’ some writers of German-language testimonial literature about the Holocaust and, more importantly, ‘excluded’ others. My project looks at a series of nine case studies, selected for their exemplary status as excluded writers from the canon of Holocaust literature over the course of the period 1945- 2012.

I suspect that my chosen writers were excluded for various reasons: because of being in exile and away from powerful networks of writers, because of writing in an unfashionable or controversial style (don’t be too funny!), because of their political opinions (a minefield in both parts of a divided Germany) and gender. These are working hypotheses, of course, and I’ll be finding out how the path to canonisation was formed as I dig deeper in the authors’ archives.

More formally, my project addresses the following research questions:

1. How was a canon of German-language Holocaust literature first formed in the 1950s, subsequently challenged in the 1960s and rediscovered and/or remediated in the decades that followed? What rules governed the process by which certain German-language authors had their Holocaust literature or literary testimony canonized, whereas other authors were excluded?

2. What influence has this canon had on later Holocaust literature in German, and how has it been remediated in other, German-or English-language literatures? How has this canon of German Holocaust testimony been remediated as a way to ‘read’ and ‘come to terms with’ other traumas in different, often transnational contexts?

My concrete plans for the fellowship include a monograph, an edited volume, and two conference papers. In addition, I hope to establish a network of scholars concerned with canon-formation in Holocaust literature and its remediation.

As part of the project, I’m co-establishing a Holocaust Memorial Day project based both in the University of Leeds and the wider Leeds community. I’ve also been involved in establishing links with the University of the Free State in South Africa, sharing insights into the role of literature and the literary canon in mediating testimony and trauma in post-Apartheid South Africa. In collaboration with Professor Taberner, I’ve established contact both with the Institute for Studies in Race, Reconciliation and Social Justice at the University of the Free State, and with the Holocaust and Genocide Foundation in South Africa, and we’ve established an ongoing dialogue between UK and South African Holocaust researchers and  educators. I’ll post more about this aspect of the project shortly – it’s complex, exciting and very sensitive.

In addition, the University of Leeds has been generous enough to co-fund a PhD studentship that will be associated with the project. Watch this space for an advertisement!

I’m still overwhelmed and honoured at the award – and excited to start delving in the archives…

Adler / Sebald symposium: still glowing, and some upcoming talks

It’s been two weeks since the ‘H. G. Adler / W. G. Sebald: Witnessing, Memory, Poetics’ symposium in London, and I’m still glowing. The day was generally felt by all participants to have been remarkably productive, intensive and rich. All the contributors brought their own intellectual agenda to the links between the writers, and, as one commented, we could feel the frontiers of knowledge moving forwards. What more could one hope to achieve at a symposium?

So Lynn Wolff and I are tired but happy, as you can possibly see in the photograph of the conference participants below! Currently, we’re working on plans for a conference publication, and I hope we’ll be able to share more details in due course.Image

(Lynn, Dora Osborne and I all met while Ph.D. students at a conference organised by Jo Catling at the University of East Anglia, ‘W. G. Sebald and the European Tradition’, in June 2007. It was wonderful to all be together again five years later collaborating on Sebald once more – so thank you, Jo, for bringing us all together!)


One of the joys of sabbatical is that you get the chance to share the fruits of your research with the academic community at large. I’ve been lucky enough to receive invitations to speak in a number of institutions recently; here’s a list.

  • 14 February 2013: ‘Nationalisms and Sexualities’, Tendencies at Twenty, University of York
  • 29 January 2013: ‘Sebald’s Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life’, University of Warwick German Seminar Series.
  • 13 December 2012: ‘German Intellectuals from Student Revolution to Reaction: Botho Strauß, Peter Handke, W. G. Sebald’, University of Manchester CIDRAL Public Intellectuals Seminar Series.
  • 11-12 November 2012: ”Prague circles: the vicissitudes of H. G. Adler’s modernist poetics’, H. G. Adler: Life, Literature, Legacy, hosted by the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Center for Jewish Studies and the Department of English at York University in Toronto.

I’d best get writing, then…

I’m delighted to have been invited to write for austrianresearchuk, a fantastic new blog promoting Austrian literary research in the UK! Here’s what I wrote for them about H. G. Adler.


Where do the boundaries of Austria end? The boundaries of the Federal Republic are clearly defined, but the boundaries of Austrian literature, culture and memory are are a lot wider and a lot less clear. Robert Musil termed the sprawling, dysfunctional and multicultural Austro-Hungarian Empire ‘Kakania’, and Kakania brought forth many brilliant writers who were born well beyond the current boundaries of Austria, but who certainly contributed to Austrian culture. Perhaps the most famous of these is Franz Kafka (born in Prague, now in the Czech Republic), but there’s also Rainer Maria Rilke (also from Prague), Joseph Roth (born in Brody, now in Ukraine), Elias Canetti (born in Ruse, now in Bulgaria), or Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (born in Lviv, now in Ukraine).

One nearly-forgotten writer from that lost Kakania is H. G. Adler (1910-1988). He was born in Prague and attended the German University there; although he never met Kafka…

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Please Can We Bury the Bodies?

On the tenth of May, 2012, an amiable video went viral across the web. It featured Britain’s Prince Charles, gamely presenting the weather on BBC Scotland. A specially doctored weather map, featuring the crown prince’s inherited Scottish palaces, was displayed behind him, giving viewers the nod that the prince was not, after all, undertaking a real job of broadcasting work, but that he rather was performing in a charming publicity stunt. The video allows the prince to play the everyman, while adding sufficient signs of his inherited privilege and wealth to ensure that the viewer understands that this is a mere performance. It is intended to enhance the prince’s man-of-the-people appeal while simultaneously inculcating deference.

Whether coincidentally or not, the video went live on the same day that Hilary Mantel’s novel Bring Up the Bodies was published. It is the sequel to Wolf Hall, a phenomenally successful historical novel about Thomas Cromwell, one of the bully-boys and fixers of the sixteenth-century British king Henry VIII. Henry VIII, my teenage historical-fiction reading tells me, was very fond of precisely such masquerades, dressing up frequently as a humble huntsman to surprise his subjects, while at the same time ensuring that his retinue both protected him and signified his true royal identity. He might well have been amused by his descendent’s stunt, if unimpressed by the weather.

The publication of Bring Up the Bodies has been received with ecstasy and, indeed, a spot on the flagship BBC Today programme. In a wonderful critical essay on the novel, James Wood tells us just how Mantel performs the trick of letting us feel that we could, indeed, speculate about the mind of Henry VIII, as I did in the previous paragraph. His elegant textual analysis unpicks the techniques whereby Mantel makes us believe that we are witnessing history through reading the novel, as though it were unfolding before us now, without recourse to anachronisms nor to hackneyed clichés of Merrie England. Through her writer’s magic, she draws us invisibly back through four hundred years of history into Cromwell’s mind and world.

So why am I profoundly depressed by the enormous success of this series of novels? Mantel is a clever, accomplished and strange writer, who certainly deserves acclaim. Her Beyond Black is one of the creepiest novels I have read in recent years. Its wry turns of prose forced me to read on at the same time as I wanted to turn from it in fear and disgust. Here, she combines the uncanny – a medium who speaks to the dead – with the politically satirical – a journey around the soulless property boom of Blair’s Britain – with the unspeakable – a childhood harrowed by rape and abuse – to horrific effect. But where is the artistic or political merit in inducing readers to identify with her bourgeoisified Thomas Cromwell? Why should such writerly authority and ingenuity be pressed into the service of making British readers, once again, thrill to the stirring tale of the King’s Great Matter? What purpose does it serve if, once more, readers are drawn in by its false universalism to asking, will Henry VIII divorce Catherine of Aragon? Will he marry Anne Boleyn? Is she really being unfaithful to him? What literary purpose, truly, does reviving this snobbish Tudor soap opera serve?

The German writer Daniel Kehlmann writes that the pitfall of the historical novel is the sentence ‘Ha!’ said Napoleon. We’ll attack at first light. In Measuring the World he tries to evade this problem by using the German Konjunktiv I, a hard-to-translate subjunctive mode, and sprinkling the text with knowing irony. Yet his novel, like Mantel’s, is still a sleight-of-hand soap opera in which the bodies of the famed and powerful are brought up from their historical tomb and made to dance once more for our entertainment. Sebald and Adler tell us, rightly, that the panoramic view of history, which gives the illusion of showing us everything via a limited perspective from above while in fact showing nothing, is a betrayal of the dead. Returning to Prince Charles, it’s hard to believe that the acclaim for Bring Up the Bodies is not linked to the affectionate reception of the prince’s weather video. In a year when the British monarchy is carefully engineering publicity surrounding the queen’s diamond jubilee, revivals of the British royal family in literature, however clever and accomplished they may be, seem perilously close to just such twinkly propaganda as Prince Charles’s ‘Thank god it’s not a Bank Holiday weekend!’. Let’s bury the royal bodies, please, and turn to Mantel’s darker and stranger subjects to let the forgotten and repressed speak instead.

Good news – I’ve been awarded a British Academy grant for ‘Literary witnesses to the Holocaust: H. G. Adler, W. G. Sebald and literary transmission of Holocaust testimony’

The grant supports a preparatory research trip to the German Literary Archive and a major international workshop on the transmission of Holocaust testimony in German literature

The project commissions international experts on Holocaust literature to write about the relationship between the almost forgotten Holocaust survivor and writer H. G. Adler (b. 1910), and the celebrated writer W. G. Sebald (b. 1944), as a case study of a late 20th-century Holocaust writer re-discovering and re-canonising an earlier witness. In 2001, W. G. Sebald drew on Adler’s Theresienstadt: Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft (1955) in his novel Austerlitz. This revived interest in the poetry and novels of Adler, which, although largely ignored on their initial publications between the 1950s and 1989, are now being translated into English and attract growing critical attention. This project uses this as a case study of the workings of the ‘cultural field’ (Bourdieu) in relation to the circulation and reception of Holocaust writing. It forms an initial investigation into the wider relationships between the first literary witnesses to the Holocaust and subsequent discourse about testimony to historical traumas. It questions how cultural legitimacy has been granted to certain ‘first voices’ of the Holocaust while being denied to others. The main output will be a volume discussing the wider significance of the Adler-Sebald literary relationship.

At the workshop, participants will present their draft chapters to ensure coherence, and a dynamic interaction of chapters. A final research trip to Adler’s and Sebald’s archives in Marbach by the editor will follow, to ensure a rigorous introduction to the volume. The volume’s detailed examination of the literary relationship between Adler and Sebald will also reflect on the wider literary-political implications of the remediation of literary Holocaust testimony and of the cultural field of Holocaust representation

Portsmouth: Translation and Memory Conference, 5.11.11

I’ve had a wonderfully exciting and stimulating Reading Week at two conferences – just what Reading Week should be about, except that I didn’t actually have any time to read! Can we have a second Reading Week to follow up on all the wonderful ideas that others propose at conferences?

The first conference was the Portsmouth Translation Studies Conference, on Translation and Memory. I was speaking on H. G. Adler, and my abstract was as follows:

Translating Trauma: the fiction of H. G. Adler

The Prague German writer and scholar H. G. Adler (1910-1988) wrote a massive body of work concerning the Holocaust, much of which has sunk without a trace until a recent revival of interest in his work. While his works of historiography, principally his ‘Theresienstadt: Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft’ (1955) have been viewed as classics of Holocaust scholarship, his literary works and novels have received little reception, despite repeated republication since the 1960s. In particular, publishers rejected them in the 1950s because the way in which they translated Holocaust memory into literature was felt to be inappropriate. Following Adler’s centenary, however, these novels have begun to be translated into English, French and other languages, and are finding a new audience.
This paper addresses itself to two intertwined questions: Firstly, how do Adler’s novels, particularly ‘Eine Reise’/’The Journey’ and ‘Die Unsichtbare Wand’, both written in the late 1940s, address the problems of translation of memory within the texts themselves? Although the two novels have very different poetic strategies – one a highly experimental and polyvocal text, the other a first-person narrative told in mostly realist fashion – both are answers to the question of how to translate memory into text. Artur Landau, the protagonist of ‘Die Unsichtbare Wand’ and Paul Lustig, the only survivor of his family in ‘Eine Reise’, struggle to communicate their experiences in a post-war world bent on forgetting and on the creation of new forms of language that elide the specificity of Holocaust experience, and when faced with a dislocation of the self that makes saying ‘I’ impossible. Drawing on the theories of Agamben, I look at the various strategies that Adler employs to translate the memory of ‘homo sacer’ into literary language, that further draws on the literary memory of the destroyed Prague School. Further, I address some of the problems facing the translation of these texts into our post-memory-boom culture.

Of course, I didn’t get through all of that material at all – abstracts are always so over-ambitious! – but I did manage to get as far as using Agamben to talk about Adler’s impossibility of saying ‘I’, and I look forward to writing up the material into a paper.

I also had a go at livetweeting the event, and rather than have the tweets disappear into the ether, I thought I might as well paste them below. Obviously the chronology now runs from bottom to top, rather than top to bottom, but that’s the multi-directional, non-linear nature of the internet, isn’t it?
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