- A Persistent Fascination:Recent Publications on the Work of W. G. Sebald
Eine fremdartige KlageUnd ein Verwundern daß esTraurigkeit gibt—die eigeneNiemals die fremde derer die leidenDerer die ein Recht darauf haben—W. G. Sebald, "Bleston"1
In December 2007, I was boarding a flight to Chicago to attend the annual convention of the Modern Language Association. As I was about to take my seat in the back of the plane, I looked down the aisle where many passengers were busy stowing their luggage and taking out personal belongings before taking their seats. Several of them had taken out books, and I noticed that two of them had a copy of Austerlitz, W. G. Sebald's last prose text, in their hands, one the English edition, the other the German original. Such a coincidence [End Page 88] may not be that unlikely on an airplane headed to the city hosting one of largest annual gatherings of professional readers; nor will it seem strange to those familiar with Sebald's texts, which are often organized around precisely such chance encounters and uncanny resemblances. Nevertheless, the encounter highlights a seemingly trivial fact: Sebald readers and aficionados are everywhere, testifying to a persistent fascination that his work continues to exert on readers, academic and non-academic alike. There is, at the moment, no indication that this fascination is waning. Scholarly studies about Sebald continue to be published at an astonishing pace. His writing has been the subject of numerous conferences and of a considerable body of academic articles, essay collections, monographs,2 exhibitions,3 and even sophisticated online-blogs.4 More recently, it has also inspired writers and visual artists to create artworks that employ "Sebaldian" methods.5 In addition, the recent publication of previously unpublished German-language poems from his literary estate—Über das Land und das Wasser. Ausgewählte Gedichte 1964–2001—will likely generate more interest in Sebald as a prose poet (see note 1).
One explanation for this readerly fascination might in fact be Sebald's combination of an innovative and hybrid writing style with an exploration of topics that continue to be of relevance in our contemporary culture, including the relationship among memory, history, and historiography; visual and memorial culture; intertexuality and intermediality; and the ethical challenges of commemorative practices in the twenty-first century. While Sebald's critical engagement with these topics rightly establishes the intellectual significance of his writing project, it does not necessarily fully explain our fascination with his work. After all, Sebald was certainly not the only German-language writer to explore these topics, nor was he the first to combine literary genres, use a variety of modern and postmodern literary techniques, and include photographs in his texts. It is questionable, then, whether the thematic orientation of Sebald's oeuvre or its stylistic hybridity, however innovative, really suffice to explain the enormous enthusiasm with which readers continue to respond to his writing. That we might do well to distinguish between a readerly fascination with Sebald and an intellectual interest in his work is perhaps suggested by the expressions of amazement with which many readers have responded to his writing, a reaction exemplified by Susan Sontag's frequently quoted response to her first reading of Die Ausgewanderten: "I have never read anything like it."6 It seems that when it comes to explaining what Scott Denham has called the "Sebald phenomenon,"7 an appeal to themes and style will only take us so far and at some point must, strangely enough, give way to wonder and a certain speechlessness. The question, then, remains: why are we so fascinated with Sebald's writing, with his pursuit of the traces of individual life-stories and his melancholy meanderings into the landscapes of twentieth-century European...