- Modernity and Its Discontents
As J. J. Long notes at the beginning of W. G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity, the expatriate German writer W. G. Sebald's distinctive narratives have garnered a great deal of critical attention over the last decade or so. Sebald turned to literary writing relatively late, in his mid-forties, having spent most of his working life as a professor of German-language literature at the University of East Anglia in England, and his attraction for critics may derive in part from his own background as a literary scholar. His four major literary texts—Vertigo (1999), The Emigrants (1996), The Rings of Saturn (1998), and Austerlitz (2001)—are notoriously difficult to categorize in more specific terms than "prose narratives," mixing as they do elements of memoir, novel, essay, and travel narrative.1 Each text combines astonishing erudition—Sebald's scholarly bent is clearly but never ostentatiously on display—with a keenly compassionate eye for the eccentric and the overlooked, a pervasive and haunting melancholia, and a surprising, wry sense of humor. These qualities along with the texts' inclusion of visual material and their focus on contemporary [End Page 197] critical concerns such as memory, trauma, and history combine to produce their unique appeal.
Thus in spite of the relative recentness of Sebald's appearance on the literary scene and the deeply regrettable brevity of his life and writing career—cut short by an auto accident in December 2001—the critical literature on his work is quite abundant. Yet as Long points out, critical writing on Sebald has been restricted to "a limited number of topoi," which he sums up as "the Holocaust, trauma and memory, melancholy, photography, travel and flânerie, intertextuality and Heimat" (1). Up until now, the criticism on Sebald had lacked a monograph that could synthesize these different strands.
Such a synthesis is precisely what Long's book provides, casting the seven "topoi" "as epiphenomena of a much wider 'meta-problem' in Sebald's work. . . . the problem of modernity" (1). Long, a professor of German at the University of Durham, has already established himself as one of the foremost experts on Sebald, having co-edited collections on the author and published a number of notable essays. This new volume should further solidify his reputation. A well-researched and tightly argued study, it offers a compelling argument about the centrality of modernity and its technologies to Sebald's oeuvre, convincingly linking the until now disparate strands in the critical literature. In doing so, it represents perhaps the most important English-language contribution on Sebald to date.
Long contends that in order to understand Sebald's narratives, one must take account of their relationship to modernity. Neither their thematic concerns nor their unique formal qualities can be adequately apprehended without such an accounting. Long positions Sebald as a figure deeply troubled by the effects of European modernity on individual subjects, Western and non-Western societies, and the natural world, yet also fascinated by its disciplinary and epistemological technologies and the question of how, if at all, these might be circumvented. Long's study centers on images and archives, as these "facilitate a wide-ranging exploration of modernity in Sebald's work. . . . Furthermore . . . the very structural and formal properties of Sebald's writing are themselves governed by an archival logic that can be understood only in relation to the problem of modernity" (8). [End Page 198] His claims gain persuasive force as he weaves insights built largely on the work of Michel Foucault—but also on that of such wide-ranging theorists as Sigmund Freud, Jacques Derrida, Susan Stewart, and Marianne Hirsch—with adroit analyses of key passages from Sebald's narratives.
The introduction opens with a brief explanation of how Long understands modernity, underscoring that, for the purposes of his study of Sebald, its most salient features are "the expansion of the nation state sustained by a proliferation of bureaucratic apparatuses and a range of civic institutions whose intended function was the regulation, discipline and control of populations" (2...