The Sebald Fiction Poll

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'..if I am walking through the city and look into one of those quiet courtyards where nothing has changed for decades, I feel, almost physically, the current of time slowing down in the gravitational field of oblivion.'

Poll Results

The Rings of Saturn 5
Austerlitz 3
The Emigrants 0
Vertigo 0

Zeno, Thursday, 30 April 2009 01:54 (twelve years ago) link

i think i read rings of saturn first, so i might have to say that. just cuz that was the first time i had come into contact with his particular brand of genius. but i like all the books for similar reasons. you know? also, weirdly, i can't remember much about any one book. all i know is when i was reading them i was totally engaged and riveted by his technique and his voice.

scott seward, Thursday, 30 April 2009 12:13 (twelve years ago) link

I'm in the same position. If asked which book hangs together best as a novel, I'd say Austerlitz.

I'm crossing over into enterprise (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Thursday, 30 April 2009 12:33 (twelve years ago) link

Reluctantly revealing myself as a hopeless philistine in the matter of Sebald, or at least the Rings of Saturn. All sorts of things annoyed me about it. I disliked his self-conscious nervous friability, to the point of comic feebleness. Like in the hospital at the beginning or when he claims he got lost in a labyrinth (a visual reproduction of which reveals that a child of five couldn't have got lost in it).

The thematic association of elements that goes to make up the structure results in a meaningless saturation of eclectic information. Prose style is sometimes frown-inducingly rotten.

There's a lot more I'm afraid, I wrote a very long rant about it while I was reading it, but sensibly refrained from putting it up anywhere thank God, especially since for all that I disliked it, I rather enjoyed The Rings of Saturn as a sort of informal gazetteer of an area of England I have a lot of affection for. The criticisms I had seemed over the top, and in some ways were addressed more to the reverence in which he is held by some people - especially the critics quoted on the back of my copy.

I must read Austerlitz however, and the fact that everyone seems to disagree suggests that I am probably 'wrong' (if that means anything here).

Abbe Black Tentacle (GamalielRatsey), Thursday, 30 April 2009 13:08 (twelve years ago) link

i think i just liked being hypnotized by his books. they kinda put me in a trance.

scott seward, Thursday, 30 April 2009 14:34 (twelve years ago) link

I'm ok w/trance-like -- but I reckon Ballard (to pick a random example) is trance-like and manages to work up a hidden alchemy within that happens to tie some of the strands together. I've yet to find that when I read Sebald.

So A Natural History of Destruction is the only ones of his which I liked an awful lot. That, also, is an essay collection which actually has a central point...

xyzzzz__, Friday, 1 May 2009 22:19 (twelve years ago) link

i loved austerlitz. i think? i found rings of saturn a bit, dunno, formless in its digressions and ultimately a bit pointless (for me). most of the time i had no idea why he was telling me what he was telling me and what that was supposed to mean. it's refreshing to be so completely at a loss about the actual point of a book - both while reading it and afterward - and i find the prose always lovely and precise (so GamalielRatsey's comment surprises me) and, yes, hypnotic. will read more for sure but i'm voting austerlitz.

also i suppose it's worth asking whether any of this is actually fiction?

jed_, Saturday, 2 May 2009 00:59 (twelve years ago) link

"The thematic association of elements that goes to make up the structure results in a meaningless saturation of eclectic information."

i agree with this to an extent, however, i'm pretty sure there's always more going on than most readers can decipher & certainly much more than i can.

jed_, Saturday, 2 May 2009 01:04 (twelve years ago) link

that strikethrough was meant to be an underline.

jed_, Saturday, 2 May 2009 01:04 (twelve years ago) link

"The thematic association of elements that goes to make up the structure results in a meaningless saturation of eclectic information."

"a bit, dunno, formless in its digressions"

I don't agree although both these views I think rightly focus on the essential feature of the book itself - cf. one of the epigraphs:

"The rings of Saturn consist of ice crystals and probably meteorite particles describing circular orbits around the planet's equator. In all likelihood these are fragments of a former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effect"

Sebald is super and RoS is the greatest of his greats.

Neil Willett, Saturday, 2 May 2009 08:30 (twelve years ago) link

Another vote for Rings of Saturn. Digressive, eclectic, associative, that's all true-- and also trancelike, haunted. Like the quote at the top of the page. All his books seem sad, and yet when I think of RoS I want to reread it, to be on that walk with him, through the marshes, thinking of... whatever
As for the point of all his books mentioned here-- aren't they all about being German of a certain generation, and shame (trying to come to terms with it, or get beyond it, or at least air it out)? They're all about the war, and what lingers of it

donald nitchie, Saturday, 2 May 2009 14:14 (twelve years ago) link

I think that's a huge part of it. Another vote for RoS, with Austerlitz a close second.

Soukesian, Saturday, 2 May 2009 15:01 (twelve years ago) link

Out of interest I dug out the notebook where I'd written down my feelings on reading The Rings of Saturn. I don't think I'd agree with the tone now - mainly because there is so much to enjoy in the book (although the bits I enjoy tend to be the straightforward historical bits - guidebook stuff) -

When he starts asking sundry nurses and receptionists for 17th Century scientist Thomas Browne's skull in the hospital where it is supposed to be kept and where coincidentally Sebald has been admitted for 'total immobility' (causes unstated) he tells us,
'Not only did they stare at me in utter incomprehension when I voiced my strange request, but I even had the impression that some of those I asked thought of me as an eccentric crank'

No way.

[Of the maze -]

Either Sebald is lying or he is so mentally enfeebled by his hypersensitive imagination that he is unable to perform the most basic of everyday tasks. This feebleness produces moments of unintentional comedy, such as when he starts absent-mindedly walking round in circles near Dunwich.

I suppose we may need such hypersensitive sorts to perceive things that normal people cannot, but it seems rather like a condition where colours are seen too vividly to make proper sense of the world around. The perspective is wrong, misleading, the proportions distorted.

'The great pain of separation, Frederick recalled, was with me for a long time, especially before going to sleep or when I was tidying my things'

I suppose a willing soul would say the obscurity of this sentence represents one of the book's hidden themes; the osmosis between the self, the environment and other people within it so that each disperses and is lost in the other, that others' recollections become yours and vice versa, meaning all experience becomes as a whole: uninterrupted by divisive and destructive concepts such as the self or narrative time, a redemption of the nature of experience (and the the presence of events like Belsen). But it feels more like bad writing.

(The picture of Belsen is not labelled. WHY? Is it some pissy notion related to the conjectured one outlined above of trying to decontextualise photo, to make it part of the [can't read this word] chiarascuro/light and shade of the text - a single experience? PUNISH.)

Incidentally, the method by which Sebald introduces Belsen is illuminatingly cackhanded, and the reader would perhaps take it as a deliberate though inexplicable guying of his general method of association, were it not for the gravity of the subject: he has gone out for a walk whereupon 'great cumulous clouds brewed up out of the west casting a grey shadow upon the earth. Perhaps it was the darkening that called to my mind [...] Major George Wyndham Le Strange [...] who served in the anti-tank regiment that liberated the camp at Bergen Belsen on the 14th of April 1945.'

He seems to me deliberately obscure, to have a rather high-handed mandarin attitude towards the reader - unlabelled photos, refers to Borges' Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis, but doesn't name it, why so coy?

The book is full of little nuggets of history - and it is here that it has its greatest interest - when he packs his monstrous ego away and discourses interestingly and lucidly on diverse matters.

So why the savagery? I would have liked this book had I found it mouldering away in the back of a second-hand bookshop. The gushing. The critical praise on the back of the book makes me 'irritated to the point of fear'

'A desperate intensity of feeling is thrillingly counterpoised by the workings of a wonderfully learned and rigorous mind'

That 'desperate intensity of feeling' is horrible, but also true, which is horrible. Is it 'thrillingly counterpoised'? or even 'rigorous'?

'Sebald is surely a major European author... he reaches heights of epiphanic beauty only encountered normally in the likes of Proust' (groan).

If you heard this sentence spoken by someone in a pub, it would be followed shortly by the sound of the bolt sliding into place across the door and a group of grim-faced drinkers easing themselves heavily off their bar stools patting fists in open palms as a prelude to some hard learning. 'Epiphanic beauty' indeed. I suppose Proust may approach this but it seems hard lines to call his astonishing ability to harmoniously combine [punctilises?] attention to the minutiae of existence, both the material and immaterial, into the epic rhythms and swells of human existance. 'Exquisite' suggests a willingness to pull punches at the expense of unflattering description and this emphatically he does not do - his satiric eye as sharp as ice in Hell.

where Sebald trims his observations to fit his aesthetic.

The hand-wringing love of the over-sensitive.

The criticism is disproportionate, but I'm still happy with the essential criticism - that in the Rings of Saturn his desire for an aesthetic causes him to fudge his observation of the world around him, to subsume it to his personality, which feels like a lie, because of the points where you can see the concealment.

He got a revenge of sorts - over Christmas I went for a long walk to Dunwich, but had left it so late I got completely lost in the dark.

Abbe Black Tentacle (GamalielRatsey), Saturday, 2 May 2009 15:14 (twelve years ago) link

Oh, I'm not sure I buy that rings of Saturn thing - or rather I buy it, but saying it's the point doesn't, for me, justify the point.

Abbe Black Tentacle (GamalielRatsey), Saturday, 2 May 2009 15:15 (twelve years ago) link

i wish i could comment more. i need to read these books again. they FEEL like a dream to me now. or a ghost story someone told me a long time ago. something almost gothic about all that rambling around all those ghost towns. the Dunwich horror!

scott seward, Saturday, 2 May 2009 23:06 (twelve years ago) link

i didn't read Vertigo, though i think it's considered his relatevely worst novel.
RoS - gonna read very soon, really looking forward to it.
Between Austerlitz and Emigrants - the first is a better, more complex effort than the latter (which is also magnificent) - Emigrants is kinda dry and laconic compared to Austerlitz, which has take the techniques even further, into an unstable, haunted, twisted world, which is seen through subjective glasses that carry the weight of the past and the guilt of the heroine.
i mostly remember the original perspective about architecture, and how it is seen now, compared to it's original uses in the past, how everything that supposed to be "in order" actually creates chaos.
and Sebald transforms it to it's writing style in a very unique way.

for me,reading Sebald at first, was like reading someone who managed to create to perfect combination between Bernhard,Nabokov and Borges, and yeah, the effect on the reader is totally trance-like.

Zeno, Saturday, 2 May 2009 23:13 (twelve years ago) link

I think Sebald namedropped Poe as an influence..

Zeno, Saturday, 2 May 2009 23:14 (twelve years ago) link

Couple of thoughts: I don't think any of the humour in Sebald is unintentional - I think he's very dry and droll, and very self-aware. Calling him pretentious seems like missing the point. He never pretended to be anything other than an introspective academic, and never, never talked down to his audience.

Soukesian, Sunday, 3 May 2009 01:25 (twelve years ago) link

Fair enough - I certainly need to read more to get a feeling as to whether he's companionable. What I wrote above came from approaching Rings of Saturn with a feeling of great sympathy, ready to like it, and finding it rebarbative and irritating - will approach the next I read softly, softly. I certainly don't want to argue myself into a corner where he becomes inaccessible.

Abbe Black Tentacle (GamalielRatsey), Sunday, 3 May 2009 13:03 (twelve years ago) link

Automatic thread bump. This poll is closing tomorrow.

System, Monday, 4 May 2009 23:01 (twelve years ago) link

Automatic thread bump. This poll's results are now in.

System, Tuesday, 5 May 2009 23:01 (twelve years ago) link

for me,reading Sebald at first, was like reading someone who managed to create to perfect combination between Bernhard,Nabokov and Borges

Well, now I'm going to have to read me some Sebald, Zeno!

James Morrison, Wednesday, 6 May 2009 00:46 (twelve years ago) link

his casual unpretentious erudition definitely reminds me of Borges. which is why GamalielRatsey's complaints make no sense to me.

(also annoyed because this

He seems to me deliberately obscure, to have a rather high-handed mandarin attitude towards the reader - unlabelled photos, refers to Borges' Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis, but doesn't name it, why so coy?

is just not true. I don't like to accuse people of lazy reading or anything, but when someone calls out a writer for not saying something which is clearly in fact clearly said somewhere else, I get kinda annoyed)

otto von biz markie (bernard snowy), Wednesday, 6 May 2009 01:01 (twelve years ago) link

that last sentence was a shambles but the bottom line is, I can't imagine anyone getting angry over his books. they're slow-moving, thoughtful, introspective, harmless. it's like going to the beach in April and then getting upset that it's too cold to swim.

otto von biz markie (bernard snowy), Wednesday, 6 May 2009 01:05 (twelve years ago) link

wish i had voted in this--would have given it to the emigrants, which i found more moving than any of the others.

rip dom passantino 3/5/09 never forget (max), Wednesday, 6 May 2009 13:30 (twelve years ago) link

Sebald does name "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis" but doesn't give the author, just refers to it being written in Uruguay or some such. I did think there was an element of obscurity about this bit when i read it.

Number None, Tuesday, 12 May 2009 20:00 (twelve years ago) link

his casual unpretenious erudition definitely reminds me of Borges

For me, I find him more someone trying to be like Borges, but with the brevity or compressed wit, which tends to produce part of the irritation.

I'm not sure I find him patronising, as I say, I just find him slightly high-handed.

Apologies for the (slight) misreading, I didn't have the book on me and was going off my barely legible notes - my gripe was with not saying who the author was.

As I say, I think my reaction was over the top.

And I get into that mood where I feel the need to fight my corner with slightly more vim than is perhaps warranted - troll mode I suppose.

Actually even as I type this I find my heart beating dangerously quickly, and my mind teetering on the brink of fist-slamming mode, saying 'Hell! I'll be damned for a Dutchman if I'm going to...'

So I think I should stop there, especially since saying 'no, no, no' gets a little boring and unproductive after a while.

The Fairy Josser (GamalielRatsey), Wednesday, 13 May 2009 15:27 (twelve years ago) link

i dont think its an unreasonable or weird criticism that youre making! in fact it makes total sense to me—if you dislike sebald (or rather "sebald" i.e. the narrator), personally (which is at least part of what youre saying, right? unless im misreading you?), or at the very least find him irritating, well then, the books arent going to be for you at all!

because, you know, i kind of dont disagree with your assessment of him. i just happen to like him, and not really mind the eccentric pretentiousness, the "friability" etc. or even find in those qualities reasons to like him (this may have something to do w/ what you were saying about having a different feeling finding the book in a dusty corner of a secondhand shop, which is close enough to how i found the emigrants)...

rip dom passantino 3/5/09 never forget (max), Wednesday, 13 May 2009 15:56 (twelve years ago) link

five years pass...

finished the rings of Saturn thinking "well the others are meant to be better i guess ..."

♛ LIL UNIT ♛ (thomp), Wednesday, 4 June 2014 17:53 (seven years ago) link

thank you for listing all of the facts about silk that you know, wally gordon sebald

♛ LIL UNIT ♛ (thomp), Wednesday, 4 June 2014 17:55 (seven years ago) link

ten months pass...

Thought rings of saturn was great, happy to read random facts about silkworms, late chinese empire, conrad, weird people he met in ireland once. The travelogue and melancholic/ironic aspect put me in mind of Robinson in Space, after which I couldn't help but read it in Paul Scofield's voice - maybe that contributed to my enjoyment. It was wilfully obscure in places but that only really annoyed me once or twice, in particular when he was visiting his friend michael hamburger and started going on about holderlin, about whom i know nothing anyway, in a way that was obviously extremely tied up with hamburger's thoughts and feelings, about which i know less than nothing, have no desire to know about, and wouldn't know where to go looking if i did. Otherwise i thought the obscurity contributed to a somewhat dreamlike quality.

ledge, Monday, 20 April 2015 13:08 (six years ago) link

two years pass...

1. This is a story about the most courteous act of hostility I've ever witnessed. This came from the author W.G. Sebald.

— Sandra Newman (@sannewman) September 5, 2017

mookieproof, Wednesday, 6 September 2017 00:06 (four years ago) link

That's a great story. Sebald is one of those authors I feel I should like more than I do...

Zelda Zonk, Wednesday, 6 September 2017 00:44 (four years ago) link

i just realized that i read that the other day thinking it was about thomas bernhard

j., Wednesday, 6 September 2017 05:25 (four years ago) link


When I Get To The Borad (James Redd and the Blecchs), Wednesday, 6 September 2017 05:30 (four years ago) link

four years pass...

Ben Lerner's review of the recently published Sebald biog in the NYRB was great btw. Certainly seems more worthwhile than the book.

xyzzzz__, Monday, 11 October 2021 22:37 (one week ago) link

The only one I've read (so far!) is Austerlitz, the edition with James Wood's handy intro (he's also got a couple of Sebald commentaries on lrb and newyorker). Looking at the takes on other books here, I suspect he's even more self-aware here, deliberately putting (most of) his own persona/voice in the narrator's occasional encounters with the long and winding, musically associative, gradually and compulsively accruing momentum of Austerlitz the outsider pilgrim---results: beautiful (go A. go). What a swan song.

dow, Monday, 11 October 2021 23:31 (one week ago) link

Putting most of it in the narrative-within-the narrative, I mean, as in Heart of Darkness.

dow, Monday, 11 October 2021 23:33 (one week ago) link

thought this would be about -

just sayin, Tuesday, 12 October 2021 03:39 (one week ago) link

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