- Sebald’s Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life by Helen Finch, and: Witnessing, Memory, Poetics: H.G. Adler & W.G. Sebald ed. by Helen Finch and Lynn L. Wolff, and: Traces of Trauma in W.G. Sebald and Christoph Ransmayr by Dora Osborne
By Helen Finch. Oxford: Legenda, 2013. 141 pages. £45.00.
Edited by Helen Finch and Lynn L. Wolff. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2014. x + 322 pages. $95.00.
By Dora Osborne. Oxford: Legenda, 2013. xi + 185 pages. $89.50.
An early review of W.G. Sebald’s first fictional work published in English, The Emigrants (1996), contained the observation that his narrators and his other significant characters are “always male.” This was true of the quaternion book in question and would be true of the additional three books to come. Yet until Helen Finch’s study of Bachelors in Sebald, there has been no satisfactory or truly systematic study of male characters and homoerotic undercurrents in Sebald. Finch proceeds from the last book and doubles back to Schwindel. Gefühle (1990; published in English as Vertigo 1999), an approach hardly alien to Sebald’s own highly recursive métier. Still, the recalcitrant, skeptical Sebaldian in me wants to challenge the Freudian over-interpretations inherent in Finch’s perspective, where, for instance, “the smoking volcano of sexuality is restrained within the bourgeois confines of the [family] photo album” in “Il ritorno in patria.” The associated reference to Engelwirt’s youthful hip wound is more likely an intertextual nod to the wound on the hip of Kafka’s pubescent patient in the story “Ein Landarzt.” Indeed, the sister in Kafka’s story is Rosa, easily refigured as Sebald’s character Rosinda. The question is, does Sebald’s insertion of a cigar into the story in effect clinch the Freudian deal? Since Finch takes so many of her cues from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (1986), it is surprising she does not pursue this line of reasoning. In any case, Sebald’s literary corpus culminates—to draw again on Deleuze and Guattari, whose [End Page 149] work Finch says Sebald knew well—in a novel of Oedipal incest, Austerlitz (2001), binding “the Sebaldian self back into the logic of melancholy, mourning, and memory.”
Whatever one makes of Finch’s homosexual and Oedipal focus (as opposed to the cultural-historical, ontological, or psycho-aesthetic one that has dominated discussion so far), there is certainly plenty of ore to be mined in Die Ringe des Saturn (1995; The Rings of Saturn 1998). One needs only note the various repressed personalities described at length in the novel, notably Roger Casement, the English literary figures Swinburne and FitzGerald, Austerlitz’s younger companion Gerald Fitzpatrick and other (in the final analysis) fictional characters such as Major Le Strange. While Finch applies the secondary literature to Sebald’s treatment of all the isolated bachelors in his work from Ambros Adelwarth to Kafka himself, this reader missed the subject’s (the Sebaldian narrator’s) quietly sympathetic and empathetic humanity that seems so often overwhelmed by ideology in academic works.
Filling a significant void in Sebald studies, on the other hand, is Finch and Lynn L. Wolff’s thorough and far-reaching study of H.G. Adler and W.G. Sebald, the latter author being virtually single-handedly responsible for a resurgence of interest in the former. Adler, as any student of the Holocaust knows, wrote the definitive study on the “model” prison camp known by its German name Theresienstadt (in Czech Terezin). Assembled from an Austrian garrison town primarily for display to members of the International Red Cross, Theresienstadt was a cynical deception from its dastardly inception, incorporating möchtegern shops and a library, as well as comfortable dormitories and even a spacious auditorium where the musically inclined could rehearse and perform. This camp in particular plays a pivotal role in rounding out the likely fate of the eponymous main character’s mother in Austerlitz.