‘German Intellectuals from Student Revolution to Reaction: Botho Strauß, Peter Handke, W. G. Sebald’.

This Thursday, I’ll be speaking in the University of Manchester German seminar series, on a topic related to their Public Intellectual theme. My PhD. thesis was a comparative study of Strauß, Handke and Sebald, but I’ve developed the sections on Sebald into my new book (Sebald’s Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life), and haven’t given Strauß and Handke much thought since my viva back in 2008. At the time, I researched the public controversies that the three writers engaged in in the 1990s – Strauß’s ‘Anschwellender Bocksgesang’ essay, Handke’s interventions on Milosevic and Serbia, and Sebald’s Luftkrieg und Literatur lectures. I tried to see whether theories of generational guilt and of a very German version of poetic autonomy could explain these three seemingly neo-conservative interventions in the public sphere.

It’s really exciting to be able to return to that material and to reconsider it in the lights of my new research interest in literary canon, and of the Manchester seminar series and its overarching theme of the public intellectual. So far, my notes for the talk include the scrawled questions ‘Do public discourse and the ideal of communicability conflict with poetic concept of language grounded in the image’? and ‘Where do left-wing and right-wing attempts to redeem the past coincide’? I think this will be quite a speculative talk, but I’m really glad to have the opportunity to discuss my ideas in the brilliant company of the Manchester Germanists. For a long time, I’ve thought I should write up this section of my PhD as a standalone article, so I’m really grateful to the University of Manchester for giving me the impetus to do so!

Sabbatical has its own rhythm, very distinct to that of term, I’m discovering; weeks of quiet reading and writing and sudden frenetic bursts of public activity and engagement. This is one of the frenetic weeks, with lots of exciting announcements which I’ll be posting here soon. But in the meantime, I’ll have to keep trying to integrate my PhD. research and new theoretical questions into a stimulating talk by Thursday. Wish me luck!

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.

Return to Sebaldian Manchester: the lost Jewish quarter

One reason that I was happy to abandon our Sebaldian tour of Manchester before the Northern Manchester Jewish quarter was that I had already made a pilgrimage there some years ago, when I first moved to Manchester. Here’s what I wrote about my pilgrimage at the time.

One time, driving into the city through the north inner-city wasteland, I saw a sign for the Manchester Jewish Museum, and one grey moody Sunday I decided to visit. It’s in the old Sephardic synagogue, ten minutes’ walk north from here; full of relics of a lively Jewish community, complete, in that very British twentieth century fashion, with a flurry of self-improving organisations: schools, charitable organisations, amateur dramatic societies, working men’s clubs, all the trappings of a lost community life.

But Jewish Manchester hasn’t gone. I am sadly used to wandering around the Scheunenviertel in Berlin and its equivalents in other European cities, stumbling over the Stolpersteine and realising the extent of the lives and communities destroyed by the Nazis. Manchester, though, is still one of the Jewish cultural centres of Britain. So why was this area – Red Bank and Strangeways, as it is properly called – devastated, triste and empty where once it was full of working-class Eastern European Ashkenazis, Sephardic lords of industry and Gentile Mancunians besides? The guide at the museum explained that it had been designated a light industrial zone after the war, so the dwellings were pulled down.

“Didn’t the Jewish community feel attacked?” I asked, the forced resettlements and ethnic cleansings of Europe on my mind. “Oh no,” she said breezily, “people were upwardly mobile, and most of them had moved to the leafy suburbs already.” The same story, then, as with Dublin’s Little Jerusalem, where I used to live, which was full of Jewish immigrants in 1900 who had mostly become middle-class and moved to Terenure and similarly salubrious pastures by 1930. No tragic tale, then, just… rezoning. But Little Jerusalem is still an immigrant district, boasting Ireland’s first mosque, full of halal southern fried chicken shops and callshops and African hairdressers. One set of immigrants moves up in society, another moves in; it’s the multi-cultural urban dream, right? And the energetic clash of cultures and influx of new citizens keeps areas alive? Whereas this utter abandonment of a district within ten minutes’ walk of the city centre to shabby warehousing, import-export businesses and decaying surface carpark is baffling to me.

Armed with a map of the old Jewish Quarter, I wandered around the district, and realised that it’s not dead at all. There’s the Sikh temple, for one thing, and the erstwhile Red Bank is now brimming with independent businesses – car hire or storage warehouses, but mostly the rag trade, with Asian names and hard-nosed discounts on the signs stacked up on the frontages of a wild array of disreputable buildings. These range from corrugated iron shacks, brave 1990s one-story brick buildings to mouldering palaces of industry of indeterminate age. And among them are the lost Jewish buildings: that is, those that remain and haven’t been used and re-used until they’ve been condemned and replaced. I’m still bewildered by the mentality that sternly deems the area for industry only, not for dwellings or heritage or art or leisure, but that’s the learning experience of emigration for you. Andere Länder, andere Sitten. And hey, there’s always the inexorable onward march of buy-to-let apartmentland to revive the area, right? I didn’t find any lawyer’s office, with the names Glickmann, Grunwald and Gottgetreu on it, but this is what I found…

Archived/Talmud Torah School, Bent Street. Founded in 1894 for teaching Hebrew and religion to the poor. Still standing and in use, just; the upper windows have no glass, and trees are growing out of the roof

Talmud Torah school. The Memorial Stones Of This Building

Were Laid August 6th 1894

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Sebald in Manchester

In between grant applications and entertaining evenings with German writers, my work teaching and reading Sebald continues. I’ve been lucky enough to host two fellow- Sebald scholars, Lynn Wolff and Dora Osborne, on my ‘W. G. Sebald: The Politics of Literature’ module, and their input into classroom debates has been really appreciated by the students. (Some of the students were kind enough to say that the seminars felt like a community of learning, rather than a traditional lecture – exactly what I hoped to achieve, and I’m so lucky that it worked. Thanks so much to my guest speakers!)

As well as the teaching, we went on a Sebald pilgrimage around my adopted home town of Manchester. The narrator of ‘Max Ferber’ in The Emigrants, you will remember, circles around Manchester when he first arrives, and then walks back in to Manchester when he says farewell to Ferber for the last time at the end of the book. We started at the very end, at the Midland hotel, of which the narrator says ‘Today the Midland is on the brink of ruin […] it is presumably only a matter of time before the midland closes its doors and is sold off and transformed into a Holiday Inn’ (E 233). The narrator spends a haunted night behind its ruinous facade. Anyone who’s been to Manchester recently will know that the Midland, far from being a Holiday Inn, has been restored to its former vulgar glory, with a terrifyingly over-priced tea room and plenty of exotic plants. I wouldn’t say that it was still ‘famous throughout the land for its luxurious plumbing’ (E 232), but I can report that it does have very fancy bathrooms. Indeed, the Free Trade Hall, from which the narrator imagines he can hear ‘(though it was utterly impossible) […] the orchestra tuning their instruments’ (E 234) is now a posh hotel as well. Double the bourgeois comforts for the spiritual descendants of mill owners! Manchester itself is so changed that there are barely any ruins at all to be found out at the Quays, by Trafford Park, where Sebald’s narrator finds his enticing sign ‘To the Studios’ (E160). In the semi-privatised Salford Quays spaces built by Peel and leased to the BBC, the only studios around are pretty expensive and decidedly high-tech.

Image

Cambridge Mills with Sebald scholars

So there’s not a trace of Sebaldian melancholy left in Manchester? Oh, of course there is. We walked back out from the Midland back along the route of Higher Cambridge Street, where Sebald’s narrator reports ‘warehouses where the ventilators were still revolving in the broken windows’ (E 232). In post-boom Manchester, these industrial relics have been transformed, Holiday Inn-style, into expensive flats, which provides a nice further turn in the ironies of history, particularly after the credit crunch. Further out along the narrator’s route, he encounters ‘the deserted Hulme estates, which had been rebuilt in the early Seventies and had now been left to fall down again’ (E 232). Infamously, the Hulme crescents – with their crime and their musical subculture – have now been completely razed, and there would have been no hope of recreating the photograph on p. 231.

So Sebald’s ruins are now bourgeois capitalist palaces again, and his relics of modernism are erased. At the end of the walk, we went to Angel Flags and I pointed out Strangeways, still the grim star-shaped panopticon that Sebald describes, with a little more infamous history attached now. And ‘the one-time Jewish quarter around the star-shaped complex of Strangeways prison’ that he reports in the north of the city is still there, mouldering away. ‘We could go wandering there too,’ I suggested, in the darkening March evening, ‘…but we are also next to the Marble Arch, and could have a legendary Manchester pint, also’. And so we did, which was a lovely end to our travels too, even if entirely un-Sebaldian.

(All references are from Sebald, The Emigrants, tr. Michael Hulse (London: Harvill, 1996).