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  • W. G. Sebald's Pre-Texts:"Dr. Henry Selwyn" and its Textual Predecessor
  • Richard T. Gray

Text-philological investigations of the works of W. G. Sebald are still in their early stages. This is a situation destined to change quickly, given the recent acquisition of Sebald's literary estate and his private library by the Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach. However, at present Sebald's papers and manuscripts are still closed to the general scholarly public, since a major exhibition, based on the materials that make up his literary "remains," is being prepared by the archival staff in Marbach. This exhibition itself is guaranteed to shed considerable light on the working method of a writer who is notorious for his creative use of documentary material as well as for the frequent incorporation of intertextual citations and allusions into his fictional texts. Sebald is also known, of course, for the meditative and self-reflexive character of his writing, and his prose fictions often include passages that refer more or less openly to the process of their own composition. One thinks in this regard of the narrator's deliberations in "All'Estero," the second section of Schwindel. Gefühle, which depicts the narrator sitting on the terrace of a hotel in Limone, his papers and notes spread around him, attempting to draw "Verbindungslinien zwischen weit auseinanderliegenden Ereignissen, die mir derselben Ordnung anzugehören schienen" (112). It is difficult not to read this passage as a self-commentary on the Beziehungswahn, the mania for connections and coincidences, that forms one of the central impulses of Sebald's writing (Atze 152; Köhler 348). More common than such immediate self-reflections on the act and process of composition, however, are descriptions of the artistic practices of third parties, whereby the details of these characterizations often seem to invoke Sebald's own style and method. The first chapter of Die Ringe des Saturn, for example, contains a series of such seemingly digressive episodes that appear to contain the narrator's exposition of his own writing practice: the longer passage on Thomas Browne's use of metaphors and his labyrinthine sentence structure (Ringe 30; see also Albes 295); the discussions the narrator once had with his colleague Janine Dakyns about Flaubert's literary scruples and philosophy of writing (16–18); or even his thoughts about Rembrandt's painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, where the apparent anatomical error incorporated in the painting is interpreted as a critical and subversive gesture on the part of the artist (27). [End Page 387] The best known and most widely affirmed self-commentary on Sebald's – or perhaps his narrator's – method and practice of writing is found, as scholars have widely recognized, in the final story of the collection Die Ausgewanderten, "Max Aurach," where the narrator explicitly compares the obsessive revisions the artist Aurach undertakes in his paintings – Aurach's creative process, like that of "Max" Sebald, is informed by a sense of "failed portraiture" (Jacobs 909–11) – to his own so-called "Skrupulantismus," the constant and deliberate correcting and rewriting of the manuscript of this very piece.

Dieser Skrupulantismus bezog sich sowohl auf den Gegenstand meiner Erzählung, dem ich, wie ich es auch anstellte, nicht gerecht zu werden glaubte, als auch auf die Fragwürdigeit der Schriftstellerei überhaupt. Hunderte von Seiten hatte ich bedeckt mit meinem Bleistift- und Kugelschreibergekritzel. Weitaus das meiste davon war durchgestrichen, verworfen oder bis zur Unleserlichkeit mit Zusätzen überschmiert. Selbst das, was ich schließlich für die "endgültige" Fassung retten konnte, erschien mir als ein mißratenes Stückwerk.

(Die Ausgewanderten 344–45)

This passage provides a salient description of what Sebald once called the palimpsest-like quality of his writing. "My texts are written like palimpsests," he maintained, "They are written over and over again, until I feel that a kind of metaphysical meaning can be read through the writing" (qtd. in Baker). This diffidence towards his own ability to "capture" an object in the act of composition – a diffidence with which Sebald was intimately familiar from the critical self-reflections of such admired writers as Kafka and Flaubert – leads to a seemingly never-ending process of revisions...


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