Academic reverberations in the work of W. G. Sebald

16 .02 .2015 - Teresa Vinardell

The following article attempts to bring together several approaches to W.G. Sebald’s work, the relevance of which appears to respond to resonances that evoke many of the notions developed by literary and cultural theory in recent decades. Memory, image, temporality, travel and intertextuality comprise a small range of topics that give a good indication of the kaleidoscopic vitality of this German writer.

[Translated by Mark Waudby]

The ambivalence of the archive

Anselm Kiefer exhibition at the Grand Palais

Anselm Kiefer exhibition at the Grand Palais / Wikimedia Commons

W.G. Sebald began writing fiction against the backdrop of reunification. In Germany, this situation fostered the analysis of historical awareness. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that among some intellectuals there surfaced a desire to reactivate certain critical approaches to the subject, formulated between 1960 and 1970. Nevertheless, Sebald didn’t only apply this revision to questions specifically related to Germany; his work encompassed key aspects of modernity in the West, to include some of the effects of its alleged triumphs over nature, society and the individual, as the British scholar J. J. Long points out. Following Michel Foucault’s analysis of power structures, Long’s reading of Sebald pays particular attention to the way the author represents archival processes (photography, references…) and the institutions that preserve individual and collective memory and identity (museums, libraries…). Long highlights the ambivalence with which Sebald connotes these attempts to record the real, bearing in mind that, despite their importance in constructing modern subjectivity, they are also essential to a disciplinary power that seeks to submit this subjectivity to increasing bureaucratisation. In order to reflect the mechanisms of this power and how it is hidden, Sebald makes certain that his writing follows the logic of an archive, albeit fragmented and random, in order to unmask this logic.

Images of remembrance


From the American edition of Austerlitz / SEBALDIANA [ cc ]

In a conversation with Christian Scholz, Sebald acknowledges that found images spur his imagination. The appeal of the photographs he collects lies in their ability to stop the flow of time momentarily, to capture the presence of a person or an object and transform it into a fascination stemming from his world which, in turn, observes and catapults him to another unknown world between existence and disappearance. This enigmatic space of the image seemingly contradicts today’s ubiquitous preference for the visual. Sebald also appears to offer a critical response to this phenomenon, underlining the ambiguity of every image, which prevents us from considering it a reliable witness, and the relative nature of any interpretation of it.

The artist Fernando Baños Fidalgo’s audiovisual project “El turista de la memòria” revolves around the complex relationships between image, fiction and memory, taking as its starting point his reflections on the questions triggered by his reading of the novel Austerlitz. Baños bases himself on the concepts of Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze and other thinkers when analysing how the main character of the novel is able to recognise his mother, decades after being separated from her at the age of four, from the still images taken from a Nazi propaganda film about the Theresienstadt camp. Bergson distinguished between the automatic recognition of the image and attentive recognition, which extracts its characteristic traits. Deleuze points out that attentive recognition connects these traits to a virtual image, a “crystal-image” in which the objective and the subjective are intertwined. Baños uses this markedly dialectical concept to describe how Sebald reconstructs Jacques Austerlitz’s intimate past: intermittently, reflecting his reluctance to do so and making room for ambivalent sentiments and intuitions. The aforementioned crystal-images, that can only be glimpsed at a slower tempo, mark a caesura in the flow of thought.

Musical patterns applied to narrated time

The comparative literature scholar Michal Ben-Horin points out that by reflecting on which images impact on the memory, and how they do so in order to articulate memories, similarities to the notions triggered in the perception of temporality by using certain musical structures or writing about them will be revealed. Ben-Horin is referring to Jonathan Kramer’s classification of certain musical time structures and the effect of  “vertical time” , which is accumulative rather than extensive, and can be generated through the systematic and extreme use of repetition. According to Ben-Horin, Sebald makes a highly metaphorical use of these repetitive patterns in his works in order to achieve the effect of somebody who is delving further into their repressed memories while they are telling a story. One such example is when he points out who is speaking in the long conversations between the narrator and certain characters. Instead of unfolding like a continuum from start to finish, they move back and forth randomly.

Journeys and digressions


Tacita dean with photo archive / SEBALDIANA [cc]

People often talk about the hypnotically erratic nature of Sebald’s prose and how this formal trait ties in with the theme of displacement, which is so central to his writing. In his comparative study of Sebald and Juan Goytisolo’s poetics, Jorge Carrión distinguishes between pro-spatial travellers, their gaze shielded from self-criticism, and counter-spatial travellers, who question the cultural, political and social heritage that shapes their identity as they move away from their homeland. Carrión places both authors in the latter category, but observes notable differences between them, in the maps that seem to guide their respective journeys (from north to south, in Goytisolo’s case, and east to west, in Sebald’s —in the opposite direction to the Nazi deportations), and in the process of paring down their respective mother tongues. In Sebald’s case, this singular ascesis stems from the desire to overcome a dual crisis of language: on the one hand, the crisis expressed by Hugo von Hofmannsthal in 1902 in A Letter, namely, the awareness that language simplifies reality and doesn’t fully reflect its complexity, but rather conceals it; and, on the other, the horror and shame of

the political perversion of language that Sebald had to carry with him as the son of the generation of executioners. The ascetic process involved embedding English, French and Italian sentences and phrases into his prose in an attempt to connect stylistically, using more or less camouflaged quotations, with the Judeo-German tradition, and taking painstaking care over names —an aspect also studied by Iris Denneler.

However, Sebald didn’t only explore displacement (including walking, travel, exile…) as a theme that contributed to his own personal cultural archaeology. In his writings, there is a notable spatialisation of style, which we could term “periscopic”, to use an adjective Sebald himself applied to Thomas Bernhard in an interview with Michael Silverblatt. As far as digression as a reiterated textual strategy is concerned, J.J. Long seeks to analyse how it works, taking into account that, in most of Sebald’s texts, neither the beginning nor the end allow us to understand their dynamics according to terms such as “enigma” and “resolution”. Digression can’t always be conceived as a change in direction on an itinerary that was already established from the outset, because the Sebaldian discourse clearly shows the readers its disorientation from the start. As a result, not even Sebald’s endings offer an immediate retrospective understanding. The coherence of the story is achieved through multiple coincidences and by weaving a dense network of repeated motifs so that, in general, the endings operate in a metaphorical way with regard to the text as a whole, condensing certain thematic threads that run through it.

Storytelling in an age of decline for the grand narrative


Searching for Sebald / SEBALDIANA [cc]

Claudia Öhlschläger focuses on what she considers to be the primary objective of Sebald’s fictional writings and, by extension, of many authors he studied as an academic: telling the story of shattered lives. Sebald attempts to reconstruct a part of history that has been left in a state of destruction or decay, but he also takes pains to verify the conditions that make remembering possible and, particularly, to convey effectively these memories to language. In any event, he questions the attempts at historiographic remembrance that aspire to coherence and consensus. Öhlschläger analyses the fragmentary and seemingly imprecise types of remembrance that interest Sebald. They all adopt strategies such as displacement, condensation or somatisation. In this regard, the quality of something broken or damaged, which defines the lives evoked by Sebald, is also transferred to the stylistic and poetological plane, thus acquiring an undeniable ethical dimension. Attention to detail, which stems from an empathetic attitude, evinces a desire for restitution, albeit it modest in comparison with the harm inflicted.

Lucie Campos explores a selection of fictions that address problematic mourning processes. She believes that one of the concerns running through Sebald’s work, as well as Imre Kertész’s and J. M. Coetzee’s, is how to establish a link with tradition that will allow us to refer to barbarism, without being gullible or arrogant enough to believe in possible reparations. All three authors reject the idea that they want to be part of an agreed “grand narrative”, as well as a concept of inward-looking writing. They champion a fiction that emerged from the decline in the art of storytelling after the Great War —as predicted by Benjamin in his essay The Storyteller— which sees itself as a space for conveying unvarnished continuities and discontinuities. This fiction, structured around a poetics that is, out of necessity, fragmentary, experimental and polyphonic, requires a new reading pact between storyteller and reader… fortunately, without any side effects that impinge on the pleasure of reading.

Teresa Vinardell PhD in Anglo-Germanic Philology from the University of Barcelona, and Professor in the Department of Humanities at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra. Her work focuses on the study of German romanticism, the autobiographical literature, contemporary poetry in German language and literary reception and rewrites. She has translated, among others, Robert Walser, Friedrich Schiller and Hannelore Valencak. About W. G. Sebald highlights his article The work of W. G. Sebald (2006) published in the Portal of Liceus Humanities.