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  • W.G. Sebald. Schreiben ex patria / Expatriate Writing
  • Markus Zisselsberger
W.G. Sebald. Schreiben ex patria / Expatriate Writing. Edited by Gerhard Fischer. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009. 528 pages. €105,00.

This collection of twenty-eight essays is based on papers originally delivered in German and English at the 2006 Sydney German Studies symposium on the topic of "W.G. Sebald and Expatriate Writing." Thematically divided into five sections, the collection focuses on the ways Sebald's oft-cited experiences as an "expatriate" who settled in England in the 1960s but continued to write in German inform his prose writing and work as a literary scholar. Both in his introduction and the opening essay of the book's first section, the editor makes a convincing argument that "the notion of expatriate writing could offer a useful point of departure to describe and to analyze the specificities of Sebald's innovative literary creation" (16). At the core of Sebald's [End Page 689] "expatriate" experience is, for Fischer, the subject's ambivalence towards his place of origin, which generates feelings of loss but also opens up possibilities of exploring and transforming one's identity. In this sense, the expatriate experience affords the subject a "double perspective," which enables insights into historical relations that become legible only to the "Außenseiter, der von England aus auf Deutschland zurückschaut" (37). In particular, life abroad as an expatriate afforded Sebald the privileged opportunity to experience what most Germans since 1945 have been unable to, "nämlich die lebendige Präsenz einer jüdischen community und das Zusammenleben mit jüdischen Nachbarn" (38), as Fischer aptly observes.

Martin Klebes's contribution, also part of the first section on "territorial strategies," in this context fittingly asks whether the border-crossings in Sebald's prose texts are designed to emulate the experiences of exile by Jewish victims such as Jean Améry and the fictional Austerlitz. Complemented by photographic materials from the author's own travels to Sebald's hometown in Wertach, the essay creatively demonstrates that rather than appealing to a shared experience of "exile," Sebald's texts consistently mark the gap that, a priori, separates the "substance" of experience from its linguistic representation, making it impossible to ever demarcate the "borders" from which the experience of exile could be substantively defined. Both Judith Ryan and J.J. Long examine the contradictory movements of Sebald's travel(ing) narratives. Long reads Die Ringe des Saturn in terms of a "poetics of digression" that seeks to advance a "critique of modernity" yet remains essentially bound to its point of departure. Focusing on the significance of maps, Long suggests that the narrator's peregrinations aim to counter the homogenizing and disciplinary effects of the "mapping" of space and "modernity's drive toward increased efficiency"; yet, in the end, "the narrator and his narrative are ultimately beholden to the very forces of modernity that they seek to resist" (70). Ryan arrives at a similar conclusion by way of a comparison of Die Ringe des Saturn with Deleuze and Guattari's engagement with Kafka. She suggests that the narrator's unsystematic travels in the former resemble in structure and content the "deterritorializing" strategies identified and analytically performed in Deleuze and Guattari's Kafka book. Like Long, Ryan ultimately sees Sebald's text as a perambulatory narrative that constantly but unsuccessfully seeks to undermine its own structure. Gunther Pakendorf's essay rounds up the first section, offering rather descriptive and somewhat dated insights into the representation of Heimat, history, and nature in Sebald's writing.

The essays that make up the second section, broadly focused on memory and history, include some of the strongest contributions to the collection and offer genuine new insights into Sebald's work. Bettina Mosbach, Karen Remmler, and Peter Morgan, in particular, meticulously excavate the blind spots of Sebald's literary commemoration of destruction. Mosbach convincingly demonstrates that Sebald's texts, frequently charged with stylistic transgressions in their representation of violence, are characterized by a "autoreflexiven Konstruktion" that both identifies and reflects on the violence inherent in representation, thus marking the "blind spot" that characterizes all literary representation. Remmler, on the other hand, recognizes in Sebald...


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