Currently viewing the tag: "W. G. Sebald"

A resident of England for much of his adult life, a professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia, Sebald was obviously fluent enough, 35 years after arriving in his adopted homeland, to write in English had he wished. His stated reason for not doing so, in an interview given (in English, to the British newspaper The Guardian) mere weeks before his death, at 57, in a car crash, was that “…I become self-conscious about having a funny accent. Unlike Conrad or Nabokov, I didn’t have circumstances which would have coerced me out of my native tongue altogether. But the time may come when my German resources begin to shrink. It is a sore point, because you do have advantages if you have access to more than one language. You also have problems, because on bad days you don’t trust yourself, either in your first or your second language, and so you feel like a complete halfwit.”

That time, of course, never arrived. He did, however, work closely with Michael Hulse and Anthea Bell, translators of his major works into English, and I often have to remind myself that these books were not originally written in English, such is their remarkably limpid prose. Much has been said, or written, about Sebald’s (full name —Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald, and apparently familiarly known as Max) preoccupation with memory, and rightly so, as memory was a major theme throughout his novels; but that’s not much better than saying about a writer that his preoccupation with writing is a major theme of his writing. Writing is by its nature an investigation of memory, and time, and death, and the infinite assortment of tangents associated with both personal and universal memory (which is to say history).

It is certainly a tragedy that he died so young, after having written and published four remarkable novels, which taken in sum, with their hybrid of fact and fiction, interspersed with enigmatic unlabeled photographs, drawings, and maps, seemed to this reader a radical reinvention of the novel form. Of course, every writer of talent radically reinvents the novel form, but Sebald’s innovations, for whatever reason, resonated with peculiar strength in me.

I was greatly looking forward to whatever Sebald, clearly at the height of his powers with the sublime Austerlitz, would turn his hand to next. I had devoured his three previous novels as well, and though his literary reputation had been steadily growing throughout the late 90s, I was nevertheless surprised and pleased to pass by a local bookstore in mid-December 2001 and find a front-window display of all his books. “At last!” was my first thought. “People are discovering him.” Then a second, more morbid thought, occurred to me, and I bought a newspaper, where my fears were confirmed: on December 14, 2001, Sebald had had a heart attack while driving and crashed somewhere near his permanent exile in Norfolk.

“I find that frightful – the incapacity to know what’s round the corner,” Sebald said in the interview referenced above, the last one he would ever give. For a writer whose use of irony seems inextricable from his concept of humanity, that confession is almost too perfect.

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As promised in this post, here is a list of the non-fiction books I’ve read thus far in 2011, either written in or translated into English. Almost everything on here was read for purposes of research, with the exception maybe of the books on/by Godard and Tarkovsky. Though I would argue that these are more or less essential reading for anyone in the film business.

I’ve indicated those which are (thorough) re-reads with an asterisk. Unlike my fiction list, the inclusion of a book here does not constitute a recommendation. In fact, some of them were so awful they made me throw them across the room. But I had to read them, for professional reasons. That said, Ben Schwartz’ compendium of comics criticism and Richard Brody’s book on Godard deserve some kind of special merit badge for general excellence.

In several cases I haven’t provided links, because the version of the book I own is long out of print and I’m too lazy to find out if a contemporary iteration exists.

The final part of this list will concern itself with books I’ve read in the first half of 2011 that were written in French. The French books on this list I read in translation out of lassitude or dread.

1. Alistair Horne, Seven Ages of Paris, Vintage

2. Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting In Time, University of Texas*

3. Augustin Thierry, Tales of the Early Franks, Translated by M.F.O. Jenkins, University of Alabama

4. Ben Schwartz, ed., The Best American Comics Criticism, Fantagraphics

5. Bob Mould, See A Little Light, Little, Brown

6. Caroli Linnaeus, Philosophia Botanica, Joannis Trattner (1763)*

7. Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, L.C. Page and Co.*

8. Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Vintage

9. Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, Norton*

10. Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, Vintage

11. Erwin Schrödinger, Statistical Thermodynamics, Dover

12. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Ignatius

13. Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of England, Penguin Classics

14. George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, Harcourt

15. George Santayana, Scepticism and Animal Faith, Dover*

16. Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces, Belknap/Harvard*

17. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, Black & Red*

18. Harvey F. Berlin and Darrell Ruhl, Ed., Blake and Swedenborg, Swedenborg Foundation

19. Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, The Library of Liberal Arts*

20. Italo Calvino, The Complete Cosmicomics, Penguin Classics

21. Jacob Boehme, The Signature of All Things, James Clarke*

22. Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, Translated by David Wells, University of Chicago*

23. James Clerk Maxwell, Matter and Motion, Dover

24. Jean Cocteau, Past Tense: The Cocteau Diaries, Vol. One, Translated by Richard Howard, Harcourt Brace Jovanovic*

25. John Cook, Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, Algonquin

26. John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Everyman*

27. John Sellers, Perfect From Now On, Simon & Schuster

28. Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming, St. Martin’s Griffin*

29. Jonathan D. Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, Penguin

30. Kaya Oakes, Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture, Henry Holt

31. Ludwig von Beethoven, Letters, Journals, and Conversations, Translated by Michael Hamburger, Thames and Hudson

32. Mao Tsetung, Quotations From Chairman Mao Tsetung, China Books

33. Martin Buber, I And Thou, Simon and Schuster*

34. Michael Angold, Byzantium, St. Martin’s Press

35. Michael Azerrad, Our Band Could Be Your Life, Little, Brown

36. Michael Schmidt, The Lives of the Poets, Vintage

37. Michael Temple, James S. Williams, Michael Witt, eds., Forever Godard, Black Dog

38. Natasha Synessios, Tarkovsky’s Mirror, I.B. Tauris*

39. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton*

40. Peter Ackroyd, Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, Doubleday

41. Richard Brody, Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, Metropolitan

42. Rob Bowman, Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records, Schirmer

43. Roger Penrose, Shadows of the Mind, Oxford University Press*

44. Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs, Translated by Richard Howard, Hill and Wang

45. Sayyid Qutb, In The Shade of the Qur’an, Vol. 30, Islamic Book Service

46. Simon Reynolds, Rip It Up And Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1994, Penguin*

47. Stevie Chick, Spray-Paint The Walls: The Story of Black Flag, Omnibus

48. T. Geoffrey W. Henslow, The Rose Encyclopedia, Arthur Pearson

49. W. G. Sebald, On The Natural History of Destruction, Random House*

50. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Modern Library

These are the Sebald books I currently own.

 

 

“I become self-conscious about having a funny accent. Unlike Conrad or Nabokov, I didn’t have circumstances which would have coerced me out of my native tongue altogether. But the time may come when my German resources begin to shrink. It is a sore point, because you do have advantages if you have access to more than one language. You also have problems, because on bad days you don’t trust yourself, either in your first or your second language, and so you feel like a complete halfwit.”

W.G. Sebald in The Guardian,  on why he continued writing in German despite having achieved fluency in English many years before. Less than 3 months later he died, at age 57.