Posts Tagged 'w. g. sebald'

On Any Given Sunday…


Once again, I find my mind confused and unsettled. It’s a condition that seems to occur almost every Sunday morning. A couple of cups of strong coffee and the Sunday New York Times Book Review Section leave my head, even more than normally, disturbed and aswim with undigested ideas. 

A Daniel Gates review of Philip Roth’s latest novel, “Indignation,” tempered my instinctive lack of empathy for Roth’s obsession with sex and of late with his consciousness of his own ever more imminent demise. As a Roth contemporary I feel like saying, “for Christ’s sake, Phil, get a grip,” an entirely inappropriate response. I remember being much taken in 1959 with his early short story, “Defender Of the Faith,” and over the intervening years I’ve chided myself for not paying more attention to someone who can write that well.  After an abortive attempt at “Portnoy’s Complaint,” I began shying away from Roth. I know enough to chalk that up to my own biases and not to any lack of talent, or more likely, genius on his part. I will pick up a copy of “Indignation.” Old Phil deserves another chance. 

In the same issue of the Book Review, A. O. Scott executed a masterful essay/review of Marilynne Robinson’s new novel “Home,” a companion to her “Gilead,” a book that left its mark on me. I had gone almost immediately from Gilead to her prior “Housekeeping,” an equally haunted and haunting work. No surprise that I went on into the whole W. G.  Sebald catalog. I’ve come to realize that while I do get it, whatever the “it” is, as explained to me by the reviewers and the critics, it’s been the experience of the reading itself that has stayed with me, rather than any conscious memory of the specific content in either Robinson’s or Sebald’s works. What I recall most is the pure pleasure, actually more the sad enchantment, of being guided through elusively complex interior realities, a subjectivity bounded by and infused into the objective history of the stories’ settings. Both writers, in very different ways, seem to deliver a rewarding sense of an understanding on some inexplicable and inexpressible level. No clarifications, no sort of instructive simplifications are revealed. What emerges is akin to Barbara Tuchman’s “Distant Mirror, a heightened sense of the infinitely unknowable complexity and continuity of human existence. 

And finally in today’s edition, the engaging and always entertaining Christopher Hitchens returned gingerly to the latest Left-wing fratricides, this time in a review of Bernard-Henri Levy’s “Left In Dark Times.” Having grown up on Orwell, Koestler and Malraux and having just finished Tony Judt’s terrific essay collection, “Reappraisals,” I figure my ticket’s been punched and I can take a pass on this one. 

Time to unplug the fevered, overwrought and inadequate machinery inside my head and go out into this beautiful day and do something productive, like blowing leaves.


September 29, 2008

A correction: In regard to above posting – I just finished reading Philip Roth’s “Indignation.” It is wonderful. In terms of his ability to write, Roth is the real thing, an American Master. He’s written twenty-eight books. The acclaim, I felt suspect, is in no way unwarranted. Were I to write one such book, I would consider my creative existence vindicated. Now in good conscience, I am obligated, and looking forward, to going back and reading as much of his stuff as I can lay hands on.




W. G. Sebald

A decade or more ago when I first came across the reviews of W. G. Sebald’s (1944 – 2001), “The Emigrants,” the book seemed precisely the kind of writing I’d instinctively take a pass on; plotless obscurantism, the smell of academia, slow, heavy-going introspective stuff. As an unreconstructed literalist, I thought, “nah, not for me.”

In 2004, The New Yorker published Sebald’s essay on postwar Germany’s literary and collective blocking-out of the Allied bombing campaign that destroyed so many German cities. A month later, the magazine ran his address, “An Attempt At Restitution: A Memory of a German City” presented at a literary event in Stuttgart. Both pieces were unlike any interpretations I’d read on the Second World War. I was impressed.

A few years later, in the Musuem shop of Manhattan’s Neue Museum, I came across a selection of Sebald paperbacks. After just a moment or two of browsing “The Emigrants,” I purchased the book. “The Emigrants,” like a gateway drug, led me quickly to the rest of Sebald’s translated works. I read them one after another, tripping as it were on the slow, sad and beautiful meanderings of his writing.

Just last week, randomly Googling, I punched in “Sebald” and discovered a wonderful blog site “Vertigo: Collecting And Reading W. G. Sebald,” the work of a gifted and passionate fan, Terry Pitts. The site,, I quickly realized is like a black hole, swallowing up hour upon hour to the detriment of my other responsibilities. In plunging into the pleasures of things Sebald, I realized that despite it being just a few years since reading most of his work, I had almost totally forgotten the specifics of the books. What I do remember vividly is the experience of the reading itself, of being carried along on the drifting flow of his words, of his reflections and his thinking. Reading his stuff has been compared to finding yourself on a very slow train moving through a misty and tragic dreamscape of twentieth century European history.

I’ve gathered all my remaining Sebald paperbacks. I’ve ordered several volumes of interviews and commenteries on his writing, and just as soon as I’ve exhausted the archived postings on Terry Pitts’ “Vertigo” site, I’ll indulge myself with a leisurely project, an unhurried rereading of each of Sebald’s books.