It isn’t so easy to find words for a concentrated sort of illumination that comes from reading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, a sense as one progresses through the book that one is learning to read her work, and, in turn, understanding something new about others and oneself.
That Kübler-Ross model, much criticised today, the notion of stage theories of grief, superseded by this idea that we live in a state of middle knowledge, not really truly living but unable to acknowledge the reality of death. An absence of certainty: is reality socially constructed, or objective? Richardson teaches us that it is both, that women intuit these in-between spaces more readily than men.
In a fascinating essay Tim Parks writes that novels may “open our eyes to different worlds of feeling from our own”. Richardson, more than any other writer I’ve read, articulates a part of life that escapes and exists unnamed. For obvious reasons, it isn’t always clear but she is writing of in-between spaces, a world where science and language are incomplete. In Pilgrimage, she is mapping a shadowy geography of interstices that defy our certainties and that shelter life left out from a more open and sunlit terrain.
In the next few days I’ll draw to a close my present immersion into Sebald’s work, leaving The Natural History of Destruction, Campo Santo, Across the Land and the Water, Unrecounted and For Years Now for another day.It’ll prolong the moment when I can only reread Sebald, and also give me the chance to take a breather from his unique atmosphere of mourning and ghosts. Sebald’s work induces in me a particular sensation of vulnerability and melancholy; splashing about in the deep end is luxurious in its own peculiar way, but immersion can become overwhelming. (Though I’m considering reading some Woolf next so simply substituting another flavour of haunting and reflecting on the work of memory.)
Previously I’ve compiled bibliographies of worthwhile secondary literature of writers whose work I hold in affection, Beckett and Kafka in particular. In Sebald’s case, Terry Pitt’s Vertigo should be the first stop for English-speaking Sebald obsessives, followed by Christian Wirth’s Sebald site for German speakers.
I’m sure the list below isn’t definitive. It represents those publications that caught my attention, which I plan to get around to reading sometime. If you think I’ve missed any that are worthwhile please let me know in comments.
- Saturn’s Moons: WG Sebald – A Handbook. Legenda, 2001. If you only buy a single piece of secondary material, this is the one to get. Jo Catling and Richard Hibbit have compiled an extraordinarily rich resource, including a huge secondary bibliography. The chapter on WG Sebald’s library alone makes this book worthwhile.
- Searching for Sebald: Photography After WG Sebald. Institute of Cultural Enquiry, 2007. There are some fancy editions of this book, but I have a softcover version. I have barely dipped into this beautifully produced book. Photographs in Sebald’s books constitute a parallel narrative, so I’m looking forward to studying this closely at some point.
- The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with WG Sebald. Seven Stories Press, 2007. I’ve read and enjoyed the Tim Parks essay, and will finish the other essays and interviews before moving on from Sebald.
- WG Sebald: History – Memory – Trauma. Walter de Gruyter, 2006. Looks like an interesting collection of essays, including Sebald’s Amateurs by Ruth Franklin.
- Reading WG Sebald: Adventure and Disobedience – Deane Blackler. Camden House, 2007. In his thoughts on the book, Terry Pitts said, “I will say that I found myself feeling that Blackler was often articulating how I feel as I struggle to understand why reading Sebald is unlike reading just about anyone else.”
- WG Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity – JJ Long. Columbia University Press, 2007. Sebald’s work in context with the ‘problem of modernity’ looks right up my street.
- WG Sebald: A Critical Companion. Edinburgh University Press, 2004. Essays and poems include those by JJ Long and Anne Whitehead and George Szirtes.
- The Undiscover’d Country: WG Sebald and the Poetics of Travel. Camden House, 2010. Terry Pitt’s posts on this publication.
- After Sebald: Essays and Illuminations. Full Circle Editions, 2014. I picked this book up at its London Review Bookshop launch. Intriguing collection of essays by artists and writers as diverse as Coetzee, Tacita Dean, Robert Macfarlane and Ali Smith.
- Sebald’s Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life – Helen Finch. Legends, 2013. I enjoy Helen Finch’s blog and Twitter account, and am very interested to read a book that Terry Pitts calls, “one of the most important books on Sebald to date”.
For a whimsical purchase one Sunday afternoon, I’m pleased with the rich provocations in Tim Parks’s Where I’m Reading From, a collection of powerful essays written for the New York Review of Books.
Parks’s clear incisive discussion of contemporary criticism, translation and literary convention is uncommonly fresh, but it is the essays on literary globalisation that strike me with greatest intensity. These essays, in particular, makes some of the stakes clear of a relentless pressure to make novels attractive to a global audience. I quote a passage here from his essay Writing Adrift in the World:
Perhaps the problem is rather a slow weakening of our sense of being inside a society with related and competing visions of the world to which we make our own urgent narrative contributions; this being replaced by the author who takes courses to learn how to create a product with universal appeal, something that can float in the world mix, rather than feed into the immediate experience of people in his own culture.
I’m surprised not to have come across Parks’s essays before. His essays share the passion and flair I associate with Joseph Epstein, Zadie Smith (a better essayist than novelist) and Geoff Dyer.
Parks also leaves me with a tantalising list of reading suggestions to look into, including an earlier collection of his own essays.