Uwe Schütte on W.G. Sebald

This event starts on 01 December 2016, 00:00 and ends on 04 June 2016, 00:00


Uwe Schütte on W.G. Sebald

This month saw the publication of Uwe Schütte's substantial study "Interventionen. Literaturkritik als Widerspruch bei W.G. Sebald" which promises to revise many perceptions about the writer Sebald who was also Schütte's PhD supervisor. 

It was in late September 1992 that I arrived in the UK from Munich to embark on an MA programme in German literature. The unusual decision to come to England to study German (rather than English) literature resulted from a book I had only come across by chance: It was called Die Beschreibung des Unglücks (The Description of Unhappiness) and contained a number of essay on Austrian literature from the nineteenth century to the present.

These essays that were quite unlike the kind of literary research I had read during my years at Munich University. – lLucidly written and free from academic jargon, they not only contained many surprising and insightful observations on the texts discussed, but they also engaged with the biographies of the authors concerned and did not shy away from polemical remarks, or vicious attacks on Germanistik (German studies).

It was only after I had secured a place on the MA programme in German Literature at the University of East Anglia in early 1992 that I also another book by the very same author, a German-born professor called W.G. Sebald. Astonishingly, he had also written a literary book entitled Schwindel. Gefühle. (Vertigo) – and reading it left me puzzled and perplexed. I was fascinated by the unusual combination of text and image, and by the odd interrelation between the four stories the volume contained. But what was most striking was the way in which the narrator, who evidently shared very many traits with Sebald, exposed himself as a deeply melancholic person.

Meeting my MA supervisor for the first time, I was immediately taken by the fact that he was so much unlike the self-important and mostly arrogant professors I had to deal with in Munich. As Sebald's sole post-graduate student, we had weekly one-to-one tutorials (both in his office as well at his Victorian vicarage home or in country hotel bars) that forever changed my views on literature. We laughed a lot, about all sorts of things, and he shared many anecdotes with me about his academic career. I never looked back and, having completed my MA, also took my PhD with Sebald as supervisor – despite his stern warnings. He advised against embarking on an academic career in the UK and predicted increasing bureaucratisation and the advent of neo-liberal policies hell-bent on driving out both academic freedom and intellectual substance from the humanities. I was naïve, and paid no attention to his warnings. With hindsight, I found out that he was absolutely right, of course.


I still vividly remember his negative reaction when the first edited volume on his literary writings had appeared in the late 1990s. It was actually with a sense of disgust that he handed me a copy of that book. Following the publications of Die Ausgewanderten (The Emigrants) and Die Ringe des Saturn (The Rings of Saturn) my supervisor had become a literary star. Inevitably, he now also served as the object of German Studies, the very discipline he had so many reservations about. As it turned out in the years after his untimely death in 2001, his worries about what fellow members of the Germanist community  would do with, or rather to, his books were not unfounded. I read many of the texts churned out by an ever-burgeoning "Sebald-industry" and found many of them lacking.

That initially put me off becoming a part of it. Though I did produce a few essays I restricted myself to commenting only on his critical writings – after all, they had been the reason for my close acquaintance with Sebald during the years that he rose to literary stardom. But with the tenth anniversary of his death approaching, I felt that a general introduction to his life and works was needed to dispel many of the myths that surrounded his biography, Equally, I wanted to provide interested Sebald readers with accessible interpretations which would dispel the mist with which theory- and jargon-laden research had obscured his books.

The enthusiastic reaction with which W.G. Sebald. Einführung in Leben und Werk was met upon its publication in 2011, both by academics and a general readership (which in Sebald's case is of a considerable number), encouraged me to carry on. Based on my existing essays, I started to work on a study of his critical writings. The ambitious aim was to cover all major texts – from his 1969 MA dissertation and the PhD thesis from 1978 to the essays on Austrian and German writers he had produced in the 1980s, concluding with a closer look at the mostly polemical attacks he launched during the 1990s on figureheads of German literature. But the deeper I delved into the corpus of critical texts, the more interesting discoveries I made, particularly amongst the unpublished material contained in the Sebald archive held at Marbach. And the longer I studied the critical writings, the more intricate connections with his literary texts became apparent.

As a result, the book essentially doubled in size, finally comprising over 650 pages. But writing such a massive book is just the first step; finding an interested publisher is even harder. It took a year, many phone calls and reminder emails, before I received the contract. But that only meant I had to overcome the next obstacle – securing the substantial print subsidy that German publishers require before they agree to actually take on a book.

Waiting for the various publishers’ rejection letters, and approval of funding applications, took about as long as writing the book itself. At least I knew how to put that excruciating waiting time to good use - by writing a shorter book on his poetry. Just as Sebald's critical texts, his poems (most of which only became available posthumously) were often overlooked. Being in, as it were, "full swing," having spent three years reading and writing about Sebald, it only took a few weeks in summer 2013 to write two original chapters as well as to thoroughly revise an existing chapter on Nach der Natur (After Nature), the small prose poetry volume from 1988 that marked his debut as a literary writer.

With Figurationen. Über das lyrische Werk von W.G. Sebald, (Figurations. On the poetical works of W.G. Sebald) I fortunately had fewer problems finding an interested publisher and paid the necessary subsidy of €1000 from my own pocket to see it printed with no delay. It appeared in January of this year while Interventionen. Literaturkritik als Widerspruch bei W.G. Sebald, its bigger "brother" on the critical writings, eventually came out in autumn. With the trilogy completed, I thought I had exhausted my capacities. However, I was repeatedly approached by Anglophone publishers about a general introduction in English – and, alas, could not resist that temptation.

Just translating my German introduction would not have been appropriate, though. It had been written for the German market and English-language readers, I felt, deserved a tailor-made book. Writing in English, however, takes me much longer than in my native tongue. Fortunately, a fellow Sebald enthusiast helps me to eradicate my many Germaniscisms, cutting down the over-long sentences that sound so sophisticated in German but simply confusing in English. Expect the book to be out in early 2015 as part of the "Writers And Their Work" series, if all goes well.

So, will this be end of my part in the Sebald-industry? Actually, I hope so. But then I am not totally sure. After all, I am currently drafting a proposal for an edited volume that is supposed to deal with important aspects that have been neglected so far by the Sebald-industry. Watch this space….

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