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  • On the Restitution of Origins:Recent Work on W.G. Sebald
  • Ian W. Wilson
Underworlds of Memory: W.G. Sebald's Epic Journeys through the Past. By Alan Itkin. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2017. Pp. ix + 257. Paper $34.95. ISBN 978-0810134805.
W.G. Sebald's Postsecular Redemption: Catastrophe with Spectator. By Russell J.A. Kilbourn. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2018. Pp. ix + 220. Paper $34.95. ISBN 978-0810138087.
W.G. Sebald. By Uwe Schütte. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2018. Pp. xiv + 130. Paper £16.99. ISBN 978-0746312995.

On November 18, 2001, months after the publication of his best-known and most accessible text, Austerlitz, and less than a month before his death, W.G. Sebald gave his final public address, celebrating the opening of the Literaturhaus in Stuttgart. His meditation on Stuttgart, now called "Ein Versuch der Restitution," was published posthumously in Campo Santo (2003). The remarks—translated by Anthea Bell and published in The New Yorker in 2004—nearly conclude with the following ambiguous statement: "There are many forms of writing; only in literature, however, can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of facts, and over and above scholarship." What exactly does the term "restitution" (in the original German text, "Restitution") mean here?

The preceding portions of Sebald's Stuttgart remarks illustrate one possible answer. He begins by mentioning his first encounter with Stuttgart as a child, during a card game: it was then only a name and a photo of the Stuttgart main train station. His next encounter came in the form of a postcard of the train station he acquired in the 1960s that had been written by an English girl in August 1939. After that, he recounts his first visit to the city, to meet his friend the painter Jan Peter Tripp, in 1979. The visit ignites his nascent desire to write literary texts. He later discovers that Tripp's house is on a street where a camp for displaced persons was situated in 1946, and his subsequent visits make him recall the bombings of World War II and destruction elsewhere: in Africa, Europe, and Asia. From there he goes back further, to Friedrich Hölderlin, from nearby Lauffen am Neckar, whom Sebald traces from Stuttgart via Tulle to Bordeaux and back to Stuttgart. In Tulle, he mentions, the SS executed ninety-nine males in a mass execution in 1944, weeks after Sebald's birth. Citing Hölderlin's poem "Die Herbstfeier" (1803), Sebald appeals to the poet's "synoptic [End Page 581] view" (der synoptische Blick). Utilizing this atypically detailed, "summarizing" gesture in his own address, Sebald's literary efforts, in only several pages, "restore" the stories of World War II bombings and executions, "restore" aspects of the lives of an English schoolgirl, Hölderlin, Tripp, and himself. Sebald situated these restitutions in the context of contemporary destruction and the opening of a cultural institution.

This brief essay serves as a touchstone for two of the three books under discussion here, all of which search for the origins of Sebald's subjects, style, and success. As we approach twenty years since his death, the focus of critical work has changed significantly. Having investigated the intriguing use of photography and other images in Sebald's texts, his intertexts, and his contributions to memory studies generally, several recent studies endeavor to restore aspects of Sebald. These three books generally focus on his prose literary texts: Schwindel. Gefühle (1990), Die Ausgewanderten (1992), Die Ringe des Saturn (1995), and Austerlitz (2001).

Alan Itkin's Underworlds of Memory, a revision of his 2011 doctoral dissertation, develops the notion that ancient epics—especially Homer's Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid—fundamentally inspired Sebald's work, in both a formal and an ethical sense. Itkin organizes his study around three notions: katabasis (journey to the underworld), ekphrasis (description of a work of art), and nostos (homecoming). He offers a section of two chapters on each of these three elements; the first chapters generally focus on Sebald's inspiration, the second on Sebald's own works. Itkin's thesis is that Sebald's literary works are "modern epics," "massive...


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