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

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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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…

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.