Sebald’s Vision (Book acquired 10.06.2015)


  1. I can barely keep up with these “book acquired” posts this fall.
  2. I was actually reading Sebald last night—his essay on Rousseau in A Place in the Country. “How difficult it is in general to bring the machinery of thought to a standstill“—yes, yes, of course. Machinery! If there was just a switch…
  3. I mean that I would love to be like, transcendentalist (transcendent?  transcending? to transcend? trance? tr….) but the feeling of the feeling, the machinery of thought gets in the way. But anyway—
  4. (Sebald in this picture, and a few others, looks so much like my father that it frightens the fuck out of me. It’s horrifying).
  5. [Optometry joke]
  6. I was going somewhere with this (or not): Sebald’s Vision by Carol Jacobs. Publisher Columbia University Press’s blurb:

    W. G. Sebald’s writing has been widely recognized for its intense, nuanced engagement with the Holocaust, the Allied bombing of Germany in WWII, and other episodes of violence throughout history. Through his inventive use of narrative form and juxtaposition of image and text, Sebald’s work has offered readers new ways to think about remembering and representing trauma.

    In Sebald’s Vision, Carol Jacobs examines the author’s prose, novels, and poems, illuminating the ethical and aesthetic questions that shaped his remarkable oeuvre. Through the trope of “vision,” Jacobs explores aspects of Sebald’s writing and the way the author’s indirect depiction of events highlights the ethical imperative of representing history while at the same time calling into question the possibility of such representation.

    Jacobs’s lucid readings of Sebald’s work also consider his famous juxtaposition of images and use of citations to explain his interest in the vagaries of perception. Isolating different ideas of vision in some of his most noted works, including Rings of Saturn, Austerlitz, and After Nature, as well as in Sebald’s interviews, poetry, art criticism, and his lecture Air War and Literature, Jacobs introduces new perspectives for understanding the distinctiveness of Sebald’s work and its profound moral implications.

To bring the machinery of thought to a standstill (W.G. Sebald)

How difficult it is in general to bring the machinery of thought to a standstill is shown by Rousseau’s description of his apparently so happy days on the island in the Lac de Bienne. He has, as he writes in the fifth Promenade, deliberately forsworn the burden of work, and his greatest joy has been to leave his books safely shut away and to have neither ink nor paper to hand. However, since the leisure time thus freed up must be put to some use, Rousseau devotes himself to the study of botany, whose basic principles he had acquired in Môtiers on excursions with Jean Antoine d’Ivernois. “I set out to compose,” writes Rousseau in the fifth Promenade, “a Flora Petrinsularis and to describe every single plant on the island in enough detail to keep me busy for the rest of my days. They say a German once wrote a book about a lemon peel; I could have written one about every grass in the meadows, every moss in the woods, every lichen covering the rocks—and I did not want to leave even one blade of grass or atom of vegetation without a full and detailed description. In accordance with this noble plan, every morning after breakfast I would set out with a magnifying glass in my hand and my Systemae Naturae under my arm to study one particular section of the island, which I had divided for this purpose into small squares, intending to visit them all one after another in every season.” The central motif of this passage is not so much the impartial insight into the indigenous plants of the island as that of ordering, classification, and the creation of a perfect system. Thus this apparently innocent occupation—the deliberate resolve no longer to think and merely to look at nature—becomes, for the writer plagued by the chronic need to think and work, a demanding rationalistic project involving the compiling of lists, indices, and catalogs, along with the precise description of, for example, the long stamens of self-heal, the springiness of those of nettle and of wall-pellitory, and the sudden bursting of the seed capsules of balsam and of beech. Nonetheless, the leaves of the small herbaria which Rousseau later compiled for Madelon and Julie de la Tour and other young ladies take on the aspect of an innocent bricolage in comparison with the self-destructive business of writing to which he usually submitted himself. A faint aura of unconscious beauty still hovers over these flower collections, in which lichens, sprigs of veronica, lilies of the valley, and autumn crocuses have survived, pressed and a little faded, from the eighteenth century. They can still be admired today in the Musée Carnavalet and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. The herbarium Rousseau compiled for himself, meanwhile—eleven quarto volumes—was, up to the Second World War, preserved in the Botanical Museum in Berlin, until, like so much and so many in that city, it went up in flames one night during one of the nocturnal bombing raids.

From W. G. Sebald’s essay “J’aurais voulu que ce lac eût été l’Océan.” Translated by Jo Catling and collected in A Place in the Country.

A Conversation about Ben Lerner’s Novel 10:04 (Part 2)


[Context/editorial noteThis is the second and final part of a discussion between Biblioklept contributor Ryan Chang and myself about Ben Lerner’s new novel 10:04. You can read the first part of the discussion here, if you like—the gist of that conversation is that I am kinda sorta hating the book, while Ryan makes a strong case for my finishing it. Which I did. — ET].

Edwin Turner: Okay, Ryan, so I’m still having a hard time with the book, and I think that Hari Kunzru pins down why in his (diplomatic) review at The New York Times:

Does [the novel’s] ironic tone (which often feels like a reflex, a tic) preclude sincerity? Is all this talk of community no more than an artful confection, the purest kind of cynicism? The question is impossible to resolve, so each of these episodes — and indeed the book as a whole — takes on a sort of hermetic undecidability.

I find the “hermetic undecidability” not so much unsettling—the proper rhetorical gambit to match the novel’s themes—but rather a dodge, an escape hatch even, to avoid adequately answering to the model that the narrator wants to find in Whitman. There’s this wonderful moment where the narrator says “Art has to offer something other than stylized despair” — and I take this to be something like the mission of the book — but the archness, the cleverness of the book, its frequent retreats away from (what I take to be) Whitman’s project (the kosmos, the roughneck with the unstopped throat) — I just don’t see much but a kind of stylized ennui (if not despair) about the “bad forms of collectivity” our narrator is forced (forces himself) to partake in.

My favorite moments of the book continue to be the essay passages, the art or literary theory that he spackles in—the riff on Peggy Noonan writing Reagan’s Challenger-explosion speech, the elements of borrowed language, etc. (Again, I’m almost the same age as Lerner. I was in Young Astronauts, and our field trip to Cape Canaveral was canceled because of inclement weather, so we watched it in the cafeteria—live. I did not understand what happened, but I remember my teachers crying).

Ryan Chang: Hey man, I just skimmed the NYT review—per the excerpt you provided—because I don’t want Kunzru clouding any of my response. It’s certainly a question I too grapple with, and I think Kunzru is right insofar that the question is “undecidable” but not for the reason(s) he suggests. I agree with you that he dodges the question, whether or not from editorial pressure or a reticence to actually address “hermetic undecidability.”

For one, I’m not sure myself if The Author ever arrives at the Whitmanic model of democracy he posits. I’m also not sure if he is supposed to “arrive” in the sense that a finality is set. I guess I also want to riff a bit on how finality might be described. Is finality then something static; as in, somehow 10:04 transmits–electrocutes, reverberates–through its readership, now coeval (the when negligent, the position of the reader enmeshed in the text is the same at 10 PM here as it is at 5 AM there), the novel’s theses and everything is suddenly Whitmanic? Community successfully reimagined and cemented? That sounds too easy, too convenient, too short-sighted. Or is it a kind of arrival into an embodiment of time that exists outside of conventional literary clocks, which is also a Market-based clock — it’s my sense that the kind of democracy Whitman envisions in his work is one constantly in flux, a “reality in process” and thus in opposition to the capitalist clock? That is, we know we are supposed to “stop” working at 5, the embodiment of the currency-based clock disappears after 5, but it’s a contrasting relationship. Our time outside of the currency then absorbs a negative value (I think The Author only mentions once or twice how we are all connected by our debt, a negativity projected into the future), though the illusion of the clock is that we are “free” in our time. OK: in a literary sense, wouldn’t this be a sense of a text’s world stopping, a suspension that retroactively pauses the whole book? That 10:04 ends not only with a dissolution of prose into poetry, but also The Author into Whitman and thus recasting the first-/third-person narrator into a lyric-poet mode suggests the book’s integration into our, the reader’s, time (and also, retroactively, the entirety of the text). In that sense, for me, the issue whether or not The Author of 10:04 integrates the book fully into a Whitmanic model is not necessarily the point — it is that he, and also we hopefully through him — actively participate in remaking a “bad form of collectivity” less so. Continue reading “A Conversation about Ben Lerner’s Novel 10:04 (Part 2)”

“Technologies of Heartbreak” — Josephine Demme


Illustration for a syllabus by Ben Marcus. (via)

“Kafka himself is known to have distrusted all utopianism” (Sebald)


Kafka himself is known to have distrusted all utopianism. Not long before his death he said that he had been exiled from Canaan for forty years, and even the community which he sometimes longed for was basically suspect to him; he wanted only to dissolve away by himself, as the water runs into the sea. Few people ever seem to have been as much alone as Kafka appears in the last pictures of him, to which we may add one extrapolated from them, so to speak, and painted by Jan Peter Tripp. It shows Kafka as he might have looked had he lived eleven or twelve years longer. That would have been in 1935. The Reich party rally would have been held, just as Riefenstahl’s film shows it. The race laws would have come into force, and Kafka, if he had had his photograph taken again, would have looked at us as he does from Tripp’s ghostly picture—from beyond the grave.

From W.G. Sebald’s essay “Kafka Goes to the Movies,” collected in Campo Santo.

Topless W.G. Sebald


S.D. Chrostowska’s Novel Permission Deconstructs the Episotolary Form


In trying to frame a review of S.D. Chrostowska’s novel Permission, I have repeatedly jammed myself against many of the conundrums that the book’s narrator describes, imposes, chews, digests, and synthesizes for her reader.

I have, for example, just now resisted the impulse to place the terms novelnarrator, and reader under radical suspicion. (I realize that the last sentence carries out the impulse even as it purports not to). Permission, thoroughly soaked in deconstruction, repeatedly places its own composition under radical suspicion.

This is maybe a bad start to a review.

Another description:

Permission pretends to be the emails that F.W. (later F. Wren, and even later, Fearn Wren) sends to an unnamed artist, a person she does not know, has never met, whom she contacts in a kind of affirmation of reciprocity tempered in the condition that her identity is “random and immaterial.” She aims to work out “an elementary philosophy of giving that is, by its very definition, anti-Western.” Her gift is the book she creates — “Permit me to write to you, today, beyond today,” the book begins.


What I want to measure—or, rather, what I want to obtain an impression of, since I do not claim exactitude of measurement for my results—is my own potential for creatio ad nihilum (creation fully within the limits of human ability, out of something and unto nothing). To rephrase my experimental question: can I give away what is inalienable from me (my utterance, myself) without the faintest expectation or hope of authority, solidarity, reciprocity?

F.W.’s project (Chrostowska’s project) here echoes Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction of giving, of the (im)possibility of authentic giving. F.W. wants to give, but she also deconstructs that impulse repeatedly. This is a novel (novel-essay, really) that cites Gilles Deleuze and Maurice Blanchot in its first twenty pages.

Her project is deconstruction; as she promises at the outset, her giving, her writing “is not solid, and does not lead to solidarity.” On the contrary,

it is solvent, and leads, through its progressive dissolution, towards the final solution of this writing (my work), which meanwhile becomes progressively less difficult, less obscure.

“Will it?” I asked in the margin of my copy. It does, perhaps.

After an opening that deconstructs its own opening, Chrostowska’s F.W. turns her attention to more concrete matters. We get a brief tour of cemeteries, a snapshot of the F.W.’s father (as a child) at a child’s funeral, a recollection of her first clumsy foray into fiction writing, a miniature memoir of a failed painter, color theory, the sun, the moon. We get an overview of our F.W.’s most intimate library—The Hound of the Baskervilles, a samizdat copy of Listy y Bialoleki [Letters from Bialoleka Prison], 1984. We get an analysis of Philip Larkin’s most famous line. Prisons, lunatic asylums, schools. Indian masks. Hamlet. More cemeteries.

My favorite entry in the book is a longish take on the “thingness of books,” a passage that concretizes the problems of writing—even thinking—after others. I think here of Blanchot’s claim that, ” No sooner is something said than something else must be said to correct the tendency of all that is said to become final.”


The most intriguing passages in Permission seem to pop out of nowhere, as Chrostowska turns her keen intellect to historical or aesthetic objects. These are often accompanied by black and white photographs (sometimes gloomy, even murky), recalling the works of W.G. Sebald, novel-essays that Permission follows in its form (and even tone). Teju Cole—who also clearly followed Sebald in his wonderful novel Open Cityprovides the blurb for Permission, comparing it to the work of Sebald’s predecessors, Thomas Browne and Robert Burton. There’s a pervasive melancholy here too. Permission, haunted by history, atrocity, memory, and writing itself, is often dour. The novel-essay is discursive but never freewheeling, and by constantly deconstructing itself, it ironically creates its own center, a decentered center, a center that initiates and then closes the work—dissolves the book.

Permission, often bleak and oblique, essentially plotless (a ridiculous statement this, plotless—this book is its own plot (I don’t know if that statement makes any sense; it makes sense to me, but I’ve read the book—the book is plotless in the conventional sense of plotedness, but there is a plot, a tapestry that refuses to yield one big picture because its threads must be unthreaded—dissolved to use Chrostowska’s metaphor)—where was I?—Yes, okay, Permission, as you undoubtedly have determined now, you dear, beautiful, bright thing, is Not For EveryoneHowever, readers intrigued by the spirit of (the spirit of) writing may appreciate and find much to consider in this deconstruction of the epistolary form.

Permission is new from The Dalkey Archive.

“Lay of Ill Luck” — W.G. Sebald


“Rites of Melancholy” — W.G. Sebald

This realization of the impossibility of salvation matches the unrelated condition of melancholy which, in developing its own rituals, promises some relief but not release from suffering and the “feral deseases” so often mentioned in Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. Among these rituals, in the narrator’s case, are the nocturnal reading of telephone directories and timetables, the unfolding of maps, and the making of plans for imaginary journeys to the most distant of lands, countries that might well lie beyond the sea shown in the background of Dürer’s Melencolia. Like Robert Burton, who was familiar with melancholy all his life, the narrator is a man “who delights in cosmography … but has never travelled except by map and card.” And the summer bed with room enough for seven sleepers where he meditates on stories such as that of the Black Death, with all its paths and coincidences, is of the same century as Burton’s compendium, an era of anxiety when the fear was first uttered “that the great mutations of the world are acted, or time may be too short for our designes.” The narrator’s digressive excursions from the starting point of this realization open up the view—again, a reminiscence from Hamlet—of a world lying far below melancholy, a “dead globe crawling with parasites” whose power of attraction is spent and forfeit. The icy sense of distance as the narrator turns away from all earthly life represents a vanishing point in the dialectic of melancholy. However, the other dimension of the Saturnian circumstances responsible for melancholy does point, as Benjamin has said and in the context of the heavy, dry nature of that planet, to the type of man predestined to hard and fruitless agricultural labor. It is probably no coincidence that the narrator’s only utilitarian occupation seems to be growing herbs. He sends these herbs, dried and in carefully adjusted mixtures, to various delicatessens in Milan and Amsterdam as well as to Germany, to Hamburg and Hannover. Perhaps they bear the words “Rosemary, that’s for remembrance” written in Ophelia’s hand.

From W.G. Sebald’s essay “Constructs of Mourning,” collected in Campo Santo.


Susan Sontag on W.G. Sebald

Susan Sontag on W.G. Sebald:

IS LITERARY GREATNESS still possible? Given the implacable devolution of literary ambition, and the concurrent ascendancy of the tepid, the glib, and the senselessly cruel as normative fictional subjects, what would a noble literary enterprise look like now? One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.

Vertigo, the third of Sebald’s books to be translated into English, is how he began. It appeared in German in 1990, when its author was forty-six; three years later came The Emigrants; and two years after that, The Rings of Saturn. When The Emigrants appeared in English in 1996, the acclaim bordered on awe. Here was a masterly writer, mature, autumnal even, in his persona and themes, who had delivered a book as exotic as it was irrefutable. The language was a wonder—delicate, dense, steeped in thinghood; but there were ample precedents for that in English. What seemed foreign as well as most persuasive was the preternatural authority of Sebald’s voice: its gravity, its sinuosity, its precision, its freedom from all-undermining or undignified self-consciousness or irony.

In W. G. Sebald’s books, a narrator who, we are reminded oc­casionally, bears the name W. G. Sebald, travels about registering evidence of the mortality of nature, recoiling from the ravages of modernity, musing over the secrets of obscure lives. On some mission of investigation, triggered by a memory or news from a world irretriev­ably lost, he remembers, evokes, hallucinates, grieves.

Is the narrator Sebald? Or a fictional character to whom the author has lent his name, and selected elements of his biography? Born in 1944, in a village in Germany he calls “W.” in his books (and the dust jacket identifies for us as Wertach im Allgau), settled in England in his early twenties, and a career academic currently teaching modern German literature at the University of East Anglia, the author in­cludes a scattering of allusions to these bare facts and a few others, as well as, among other self-referring documents reproduced in his books, a grainy picture of himself posed in front of a massive Lebanese cedar in The Rings of Saturn and the photo on his new passport in Vertigo. Continue reading “Susan Sontag on W.G. Sebald”

W.G. Sebald Reads from His Novel Austerlitz at the 92nd Street Y (Video)

W. G. Sebald reading from his novel Austerlitz at 92nd Street Y. October 15, 2001, just two months before his death.

He later takes questions (beginning at the 28 minute mark), including a discussion of how he uses photography in his work. Susan Sontag then takes a question in which she addresses “cowboy rhetoric” after 9/11. They then discuss which of their books might be their “favorite.”

(Via prefer-not-to on Twitter).