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  • The "Sixth Emigrant":Traveling Places in the Works of W. G. Sebald
  • Christopher C. Gregory-Guider (bio)

Places do not remain in place in the works of W. G. Sebald. Like the restless narrator, they tend to roam, to wander. An inn in Woodbridge, England and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris become unlikely vessels whose helms pierce through successive spatio-temporal frames:

I heard the woodwork of the old half-timber building, which had expanded in the heat of the day and was now contracting fraction by fraction, creaking and groaning. In the gloom of the unfamiliar room, my eyes involuntarily turned in the direction from which the sounds came, looking for the crack that might run along the low ceiling, the spot where the plaster was flaking from the wall or the mortar crumbling behind the panelling. And if I closed my eyes for a while it felt as if I were in a cabin aboard a ship on the high seas, as if the whole building were rising on the swell of a wave, shuddering a little on the crest, and then, with a sigh, subsiding into the depths.

(Rings of Saturn 207–8)

You might think, especially on days when the wind drives rain over this totally exposed platform, as it quite often does, said Austerlitz, that by some mistake you had found your way to the deck of the Berengaria or one of the other ocean-going giants, and you would be not in the least surprised if, to the sound of a wailing foghorn, the horizon of the city of Paris suddenly began rising and falling against the gauge of the towers as the great steamer pounded onwards through mountainous waves.

(Austerlitz 387) [End Page 422]

In these and other such instances, place is "never simply itself . . . , but is, rather, its own emigrant," as the critic Adam Z. Newton astutely observes (60). To endow place with the power of movement is a radical affront to its traditional status as reliably located in space-time. The substance of this challenge rests upon the assertion that, as human beings, our encounter with place is an experience largely constructed by our individual (and culturally based) desires, fears, and memories. In short, we create the places in which we live as much as we register their objective reality. "Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind," writes Simon Schama in Landscape and Memory (6–7). Increasingly geographers and cultural critics emphasize the role of human subjectivity in representations of place.1 While this truth may have been long since acknowledged philosophically, it is now being explored with ever greater self-consciousness in the realm of literature and literary studies. The burgeoning genres of travel writing and life writing have mounted numerous challenges to the previously unquestioned status of place as a static geophysical category.2 Rather than a constant in the ever more complicated calculus of the postmodern self, place has become a highly unstable variable, a quantity more likely to unsettle than to ground us. [End Page 423]

Sebald's works provocatively portray place as fluid, unanchored, and interpolated with the disparate geographies traversed by the narrator and his biographical subjects.3 So, for example, Austerlitz's departure from his parents in the Kindertransport is a trauma that he subsequently projects onto the Welsh landscape in the form of superimposed images of the Hebrew exile in the desert and European train stations. This yoking together of divergent times and geographies later receives eloquent articulation in the narrator's description of Austerlitz's habit of rearranging photographs of his journeys into ever-new configurations:

Austerlitz told me that he sometimes sat here for hours, laying out these photographs or others from his collection the wrong way up, as if playing a game of patience, and that then, one by one, he turned them over, always with a new sense of surprise at what he saw, pushing the pictures back and forth and over each other, arranging them in an order depending on their family resemblances, or withdrawing them from the game until . . . there was nothing left but the grey...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9949
Print ISSN
0010-7484
Pages
pp. 422-449
Launched on MUSE
2005-11-28
Open Access
No
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