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 academia.edu.) Sebald’s Bachelors has a section on homoeroticism in this essay, too… watch this space for more details…

Vertigo

repetition

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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Sebald was more interesting than the husband: Austerlitz and l’effet du réel

In wintry mid-December 2012, BBC Radio 3 broadcast a ninety-minute dramatisation of Austerlitz in its Drama on 3 series. Such a lovely surprise! Sebald has been dead over ten years, and I’m never sure the extent to which he is still alive for the general reading or listening public. So I was absolutely delighted that Michael Butt wrote the adaptation and BBC3 put it on; it shows that there are passionate Sebald lovers out there.

I’ll confess, I missed the original broadcast in favour of the pub, and only listened back the next day. I listened with half an ear, and then focussed back on my work. It was pleasant to hear words I knew so well dramatised, re-arranged, given voice and life, but I knew the words themselves very well, whereas the dramatisation, with its plethora of voices with inexplicable English accents, was something of a confusing Babel. It was well done, but it wasn’t my Austerlitz, the complex, slippery text I have lived with for a decade, with its images and vertiginous plunges into the fissures between meaning, its sonorous German sentences and Austrian intertexts. I was thrilled that it was produced so perfectly, and reached such a wide audience, but found little for me there. Terry Pitts of Vertigo felt that the adaptation entirely missed the point, and I can’t say I disagree with him:

Sebald’s book has been taken apart, abbreviated,  and remolded into a 90-minute radio play that at times is indistinguishable from a soap opera.  The narrator is positioned as writer looking for a new project before his eyesight gives out and when he meets Austerlitz he realizes he’s found his ideal subject. […] This is a dramatization that belies Sebald’s original from start to finish by drowning out the text in a miasma of ambiance, never permitting Sebald to try to win over readers on his own terms.

Pitts argues that a more sensitive adaptation would have remained faithful to the voice of the narrator, refusing to ‘soap-operify’ the story with Agáta’s gasps and mawkish background music. But then, I am not sure. For one thing, the problems surrounding adaptations of literary works are a field of study in themselves – indeed, my colleague Catriona Firth has just published a book on this very issue. Adaptations are works of art in themselves, and the very idea of ‘originality’ and ‘derivation’ seem inappropriate for such densely intertextual works as Sebald’s. As an adaptation of Austerlitz, the drama was lacking for me; as a drama in itself, it drew in its listeners. 

And that is a unique feature of Sebald; his ability to draw people in, to make them feel recognised. In my viva voce exam, my external examiner asked me, ‘But why is it that people read Sebald and feel that he has captured some aspect of their lives they themselves couldn’t describe as well? I had a friend who grew up in Wales, and he says that Sebald wrote about that austere chapel-going childhood in a way that no-one before or since has managed to…’ There’s a tension at the heart of Sebald’s work here, one grounded in what he himself describes as l’effet du réel, the effect of the real. When he writes about his friend Jan Peter Tripp’s photorealistic works, he says that his breathtaking artistry is not simple simulation, because on the one hand it is artistry, and carefully modifies nature. And on the other, it contains the tiny flaws – the punctum, in Barthes’s words – that push both observer and painter over the boundaries of reality itself.

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(c) Jan Peter Tripp, Ein leiser Sprung, from http://www.desitinpharma.com/?id=949.

Sebald’s work shares these characteristics also, and that is why, although Sebald never grew up in a cold manse in Wales, it manages to create a perfect illusion of that world. That is the wonder of his technique. So of course, no dramatisation can ever reproduce precisely Sebald’s artistry, and the moment a dramatist attempts to pull Austerlitz apart and extract a reality – a story – from Sebald’s complex textual artifice, the result is nothing like Sebald’s work, any more than an actor playing the subject of Tripp’s painting above could ever approach the effect of his painting, with its tell-tale crack in a non-existant sheet of glass.

But then, it also seems to me (to use the Sebaldian subjunctive with which I’m currently infected) that perhaps it is possible to be too engrossed by the minutiae of Sebald’s technique, and not also acknowledge the emotional effect of his narratives – their affect. Serendipitously, Barbara Graziosi wrote a diary piece on Sebald just this week in the London Review of Books. She has just been enraptured by The Emigrants, so much so that she starts to read reflections of her husband’s life history in its depths. Can it really be a coincidence?

I reverted to reading: Sebald was more interesting than the husband. Except that the two started, somehow, to echo each other. There were the place names: Lake Constance, Lindau, Ulm, the Bernese Oberland – the settings of childhood memories and Alpine excursions. There was the shock of encountering the British city: ‘I looked out in amazement at the rows of uniform houses.’ And there was a Jewish artist remembering his arrival in 1939: ‘My first night in England was sleepless not so much because of my distress as because of the way that one is pinned down … by bedding which has been tucked under the mattress all the way round.’ Johannes pulls out all the sheets and blankets when confronted with a tucked-in bed…

L’effet du réel, once more. Graziosi feels that The Emigrants says something emotionally and historically important about her life with her husband. Does it matter, in this context, that the ‘Jewish artist’ of The Emigrants, called ‘Max Aurach’ or ‘Max Ferber’, is partly based on a real painter, who felt hurt and betrayed at Sebald’s appropriation of his life story? Does it matter that the affecting scene where Agáta bids farewell to Austerlitz is lifted from Kafka’s diary, or that the moving, possibly melodramatic scene where Austerlitz sees a vision of her blue shoe in the theatre, fifty years after her death, is taken from Hofmannsthal’s Andreas, a novel about which Sebald was very ambivalent? Should we have to read Sebald with an erudite concordance to hand before we can begin to respond to him? If Michael Butt tried to present the emotional truth of Austerlitz, as he felt it, in his radio drama, who is to say that his classic BBC drama version, complete with slamming doors and tearjerking music, does not represent that important affective aspect of Sebald’s work which might otherwise be lost behind his complex irony and academic erudition? Or is it the case that if we allow ourselves to be bewitched by Sebald’s artistry into thinking that his work is just a reproduction of the real, nothing more and nothing less, we have consigned ourselves to the realm of kitsch that is the death of art? But after all, if we think back to Agáta’s twinkling shoe, it is not as though Sebald is himself innocent of his own moments of kitsch and melodrama.

Vertiginous questions, and even after writing a book on Sebald that focusses more on affect than technique, I am not sure whether or not this was a legitimate exercise. And precisely for that reason, soap-operatic techniques or not, I’ll range myself on the side of Michael Butt.

‘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!

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!)

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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.

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.

austrianresearchuk

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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Studying W. G. Sebald: Frustration and inspiration, answers as well as questions…

The University of Leeds German student newsletter is out. This year, it’s written by Claire Cordukes, who included a lovely feature about my module on W. G. Sebald and the Politics of Literature, from a student point of view.

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Claire writes enthusiastically about Sebald’s work, describing the choice of texts – Die Ausgewanderten, Luftkrieg und Literatur and Die Ringe des Saturn as ‘a great mixture of literature to get stuck into’. I’m particularly touched at Claire’s kind words about my teaching – she writes that my ‘passion for everything Sebaldian helped to inspire students to think outside the box and embrace Sebald’s original style’.

It was an absolute delight teaching the class, and, Claire, your Sebald Project on angels in Sebald’s work was a really wonderful piece of work! When designing the module, I hoped to achieve a balance between demanding scholarly rigour in the seminar and creating a relaxed structure and atmosphere so that we could explore ideas informally together. Claire’s article suggests that I did manage to achieve some of this ambition.

You can read Claire’s article (and the rest of the newsletter) in full here: W. G. Sebald.