4.6.10

Coetzee on Sebald and the Uncanny

Nobel Prize winner J. M. Coetzee reflects on the writing of W. G. Sebald
W. G. Sebald

J. M. Coetzee outlines the uncanny role that history plays in the writing of W. G. Sebald:
Vertigo (1990), Sebald's first long prose work, emphasises the apocalyptic dimension of this mental crisis. In the final section of the book the 'I' narrator takes a trip to his birthplace, the town of W. There, as he pores over a clutter of objects in a dusty attic, a flood of memories is released, followed by intimations that retribution is about to be visited on the town. Fearing madness, he flees. The homeward trip through southern Germany is eerie. The landscape has an alien air; people at the train station look like refugees from doomed cities; before his eyes someone reads a book that, as his later bibliographical researches prove, does not exist.

In Sebald, 1914 often appears as the year when Europe took the wrong turn. But, looked at more closely, the pre-1914 idyll reveals itself to be without foundation. Did the true wrong turn take place earlier, then, with the triumph of Enlightenment reason and the enthronement of the idea of progress? While there is plenty of historical awareness in Sebald - the cities and landscapes through which his people move are ghost-ridden, layered with signs of the past - and while part of his general gloom is about the destruction of habitat in the name of progress, he is not conservative in the sense of harking back to a golden age when mankind was at home in the world in a good, natural way. On the contrary, he subjects  the concepts of home and being  to continual sceptical scrutiny. One of his literary-critical books is a study of the notion of Heimat (homeland) in Austrian literature. Playing on the ambiguity of the word unheimlich (unhomelike, unfamiliar, hence uncanny), he suggests that for today's Austrians, citizens of a notional country whose territory and population have altered with each turn in modern European history, there ought to be something ghostly in feeling at home.

J. M. Coetzee, 'W. G. Sebald, After Nature'
Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005
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