W.G. Sebald’s writing is well known for its bricolage of styles, genres, modalities, and interests. Combining fiction with photography, travel writing with memoir, and essay with historiography, Sebald’s generic complexity has engendered a variety of critical responses inside and outside of the academy. Over the past decade, the most notable studies of Sebald’s work have overwhelmingly emphasised issues pertaining to the overlap of Holocaust memory, trauma, and textual hybridity. The question that follows, then, is this: where next for Sebald scholarship?
This is the first question that we (Ian Ellison and Dominic O’Key) had in mind when we began discussing the possibility of hosting a postgraduate workshop on Sebald. Over the course of these conversations, however, a second question would become equally as important: how do contemporary writers, artists and filmmakers respond to or challenge the concept of the ‘Sebaldian’? Specifically, how is Sebald’s work evoked, registered, and/or reshaped by writers such as Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, Sergio Chefjec, and Micheline Aharonian Marcom, among others? Our one-day workshop at the University of Leeds on 2nd May 2017 was a direct outcome of these questions, bringing together artists, writers, and emerging scholars from several countries in order to initiate new conversations about Sebald’s work. Titled ‘Beyond Sebald: New Trajectories in Sebald Studies,’ our workshop aimed to assess the state of play in Sebald studies, to propose new directions for research, and to reflect on the continued relevance of Sebald’s work as it inevitably flows beyond the author himself. The workshop proceedings were disseminated live on Twitter via the hashtag #BeyondSebald.
The symposium opened with a panel dedicated to current research on Sebald at the University of Leeds. We began with Dr Helen Finch, author of Sebald’s Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life (2013). Finch’s presentation revolved around a key question: how do we approach Sebald’s work without simply reproducing a reductive oscillation between hagiography on the one hand, and an Oedipal slaying of the father on the other? Finch worked around this by adopting a self-proclaimed cynical Bourdieusian frame and assessing the publication strategies and reception histories that helped propel Sebald to popularity and canonicity, including positive reviews by literary gatekeepers such as Susan Sontag and Will Self. However, Finch also emphasised the uniqueness of Sebald’s project, its aesthetic and ethical components, and the stakes of these components’ interrelation with the memory of the Holocaust.
The University of Leeds panel further consisted of three PhD candidates: Ian Ellison, Maya Caspari, and Dominic O’Key. Ellison’s paper questioned whether Sebald’s merging of melancholy, the baroque, and myth resonates with the Romantic literary form of the Kunstmärchen. Ellison suggested considering the frequently mentioned ‘false world’ in Austerlitz not only in terms of Adorno’s maxim that ‘es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen,’ but also as a literary space of artificiality, coincidences, one-dimensional narrators, quest narratives, with no clear moral or happy ending. In short, is Austerlitz the latest iteration of the Germanic fairy tale, a melancholy Kunstmärchen for Europe at the end of the twentieth century? Caspari’s presentation also picked up on Sebald’s performative melancholy, but this time put it in conversation with studies of affect and gender, in order to unpick the supposed ethics of Sebald’s project. Caspari foregrounded the ambivalence of Sebald’s ethics, and performed a particularly sharp interrogation based around the following question: are non-hegemonic subjects used as instruments in Sebald’s texts? Are Sebald’s women, for instance, merely foils for the heroic procedures of the narrator? O’Key’s paper built on Caspari’s interrogation by focusing on a singular moment in The Rings of Saturn in which Sebald’s narrator fixes their attention on a terrified hare. O’Key was especially interested in considering how this narrative instrumentality – Sebald uses the hare as a device to reflect back on the uncanny and alienated world of the novel – cannot be reduced to a purely negative assessment of Sebald’s ethics. Rather, the hare can be recuperated as a gateway to exploring Sebald’s broader preoccupation with worlds beyond the human.
The second panel of the day, ‘Images and Intertextualities’, concentrated on Sebaldian poetics that go beyond the texts themselves. Carlos Kong (Courtauld Institute of Art, London) paid attention to the way in which Tacita Dean deliberately places her work into conversation with Sebald’s. Kong focused in particular on Dean’s The Green Ray, as well as Paul Celan’s famous Büchner Prize speech, ‘The Meridian’, in order to consider the parallels and contradictions of their relationship with one another. Kong suggested reading the convergences of Dean’s and Sebald’s work as a model of contingency that refracts Sebald through Dean, preserving the literary and filmic inscription of absent pasts in a vanishing present. Kong’s focus on intertextuality was taken forward by Anthony Nuckols (Universitat de València), who explored Sebaldian poetics in Alberto Méndez’s 2004 novel Blind Sunflowers. Like Sebald, Méndez seeks to unearth forgotten pasts, and in turn plays with the boundaries of fiction and truth. Nuckols examined Blind Sunflowers in the context of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory in Spain, which attempts to un-disappear those who were disappeared under Franco. Considering the novel’s Sebaldian poetics as functioning both in parallel and in contrast to the recovery of Spanish historical memory, Nuckols argued that despite revealing the past’s direct bearing on the present, they also highlight an inability to remediate and fully know the past. In the final paper of the panel, Haley Stewart (University of Cambridge) examined the dialectic of presence and absence that emerges from Sebald’s use of photographs. This ontological ambiguity, Stewart suggested, encourages the reader to perform various, and sometimes contradictory, interpretive tasks. Thinking beyond memory and trauma, via Sebald’s Benjaminian understandings of technology in relation to the human, and his Agambian understandings of the state in relation to the camp, Stewart elaborated how these two photographic logics enable Sebald to balance the ethics of memory with a politically acute historical consciousness.
Our final panel focused on responses to Sebald’s work from outside the academy. For this we featured Phil Wood and Sara Rees, artistic practitioners who create multimodal works which mobilise particular aspects, tones, affects and potentialities of the Sebaldian. Phil Wood, a freelance writer and ‘urban therapist,’ discussed his current project, which entails walking the ‘migrant arrival zone’ in his hometown of Huddersfield, as well as exploring the landscapes that migrants and refugees have left behind. His project invents characters and magical realist stories, based upon the real lives of people as expressed in their first-hand accounts, oral histories, or interviews. It is an attempt, he says, to ‘reach beyond the dominant monoculturalism of many such accounts (and the inherent risk of ‘competitive victimhood’) to find transcultural and transtemporal interactions and the recognition of syncretic intersectional identities.’ The workshop closed with a screening of Cardiff-based artist Sara Rees’s essay film Fragments for a City in Ruins. Set in present-day Athens, the film juxtaposes photographic images and narrated fragments of text written by W.G. Sebald, Walter Benjamin, and Italo Calvino. Rees’s work resituates their writing within the geopolitical context of contemporary Europe, tracing Athens’s entwined histories of empire and ruins, while seeking to generate new and unexpected resonances between colliding narratives and histories. Drawing particularly on the current refugee crisis, Fragments for a City in Ruins challenges the notion of one hegemonic historical narrative, proposing instead a poly-focal and multi-vocal perspective.
The quality and scope of the work presented over the course of just one afternoon is a testament to the continuing relevance and vibrancy of Sebald studies in the fields of literature, history, art, film, philosophy, politics, and memory. It became clear during the workshop that, almost sixteen years after Sebald’s untimely death, his life, work, and legacy remain a key touchstone and point of departure for artwork and research across many disciplines and along many discrete and interconnected trajectories. The coming-together of so many different forms of engagement with and beyond the Sebaldian at our workshop in Leeds will undoubtedly be a catalyst for further future collaborations.
The workshop was made possible by generous funding from the University of Leeds’s PGR Experience Fund (School of Languages, Cultures, and Societies) and Professor Stuart Taberner’s Leverhulme Trust-funded project on Traumatic Pasts, Cosmopolitanism, and Nation-Building in Contemporary World Literatures. We would also like to thank the Leeds Humanities Research Institute for hosting.
Panel 1: University of Leeds
Helen Finch: Canonicity, Witnessing, Remediation
Ian Ellison: Austerlitz: A Sebaldian Fairytale?
Maya Caspari: “Emigrants, as is well known, tend to seek out their own kind”: W. G. Sebald and the Ambivalence of Empathy
Dominic O’Key: Beyond Sebald, Beyond the Human
Panel 2: Images and Intertextualities
Carlos Kong (Courtauld Institute of Art, London): The Green Ray: Sebald through Tacita Dean
Anthony Nuckols (Universitat de València): Sebaldian Poetics in Alberto Méndez’s Blind Sunflowers (2004)
Haley Stewart (University of Cambridge): Images of the City and the Concentration Camp in The Emigrants and Austerlitz
Panel 3: Doing and Making
Phil Wood (independent writer): Ghost Trails of Diaspora
Sara Rees (independent artist): Fragments for a City in Ruins
Film Screening: Fragments For A City In Ruins