Jeannette Baxter, Valerie Henitiuk and Ben Hutchinson (eds), A Literature of Restitution. Critical Essays on W G Sebald

Jeannette Baxter, Valerie Henitiuk and Ben Hutchinson (eds), A Literature of Restitution. Critical Essays on W G Sebald (Manchester: Manchester University Press 2013) 320 pp. £70.00 Hb, £17.99 Pb. ISBN: 978-0-7190-8852-0

In the last essay of this book, ‘The Question of Genre in W G Sebald’s "Prose" (Towards a Post-Memorial Literature of Restitution)’, Russell Kilbourn analyses the subject which so many readers ask about Sebald’s oeuvre: What kind of books are these? The genre question isn’t as much about which category to assign to Sebald’s 'prose narratives', says Kilbourn, but about genre itself - that is, 'the cultural impulse […] to classify works of literature according to pre-existing and predictable categories as a way of assigning meaning and formal closure' (249). Kilbourn says genre is a contradiction between revolution and reaction - on the one hand it challenges, but on the other it perpetually extends the 'ideological status quo'. Ergo, Sebald’s prose texts 'represent both the novel in its later twentieth-century completion and what might be called the twenty-first-century 'post-novel' as a form of perpetual state of becoming'. Understanding Sebald’s output as a ‘literature of restitution’, Kilbourn says, can only be done by acknowledging that any study about his books’ 'hybridity' (ie their problematization of categorization), must also do so in the full awareness of their common characteristic as 'self-reflexive meta-critiques of genre'.

The self-reflexive and 'meta' nature of Sebald’s work is reflected in this book’s connecting thread of 'literary restitution', an idea which emanates from Sebald’s last public speech at the opening of the Stuttgart House of Literature in 2001,1 referred to by Kilbourn (261) and in several of the book’s other essays, where he claimed 'there are many forms of writing; only in literature, however, can there be an attempt at restitution.' Restitution, says Kilbourn, serves as a secular alternative to the much more loaded concept of redemption, and in opposition to a term like retribution, and signifies 'the preliminary - and purely imaginative - restoring of the other of what is most proper to it: the radical otherness of that which would otherwise remain forgotten'. Can literature arrogate to itself such a role? Such a question, inextricably tied to the question of genre, says Kilbourn in his own self-reflexive, postmodern concluding reflection 'must for now remain open, any final answers - any closure - still awaiting us, in our post-Sebaldian future'.

In the introduction, Anthea Bell, one of Sebald’s English translators, sets the scene for this 'open' relationship with Sebald when she says each of the chapters is written 'out of a shared awareness of the ambiguities inherent in Sebald’s project of literary restitution' (2). One of the points which Bell highlights, is the issue of translation: 'it would be erroneous to limit its [Sebald’s work's] restorative ambitions to the atrocities of the recent past', she says, highlighting consideration of the original German texts as an interpretative approach relevant especially to English readers and students of Sebald. For example, in Chapter One of this book, discussing the 'parallel world' of Sebald’s English translations, Arthur Williams says: 'one word, used just once by Sebald, serves to bring home something of the elusive nature of his [Sebald’s] language: "Masche"' (27) . He explains this using the example of the specific translation of a phrase in Vertigo - ‘Das Binden einer Masche’ - which is rendered in English as ‘to tie a bow’. The translator, says Williams, faced with many options from the German, chose to render the 'immediate sense' of the phrase, rather than the senses of 'net', 'mesh' or even 'snare', thereby illustrating the elusive and often tricky nature of Sebald’s writing.

Another example where the original German texts provide additional insights for the English reader, is given in Shane Weller’s essay, ‘Unquiet Prose: W G Sebald and the Writing of the Negative’ (Chapter Three), where he focuses on Sebald’s usage of 'unwords', such as ‘Unglück’, ‘unheimlich’ (already widely known in English thanks to Freud), ‘ungeheuer’, ‘unruhig’, ‘unsicher’, etc. (57) For example, ‘Unglück’, which means both 'accident' and 'bad luck', and most often translated as 'misfortune' in Sebald: 'Understood as “calamity”, "Unglück" inhabits a liminal space, pointing in two directions simultaneously, challenging the reader to resist any simple answer' says Weller. 'As soon as one begins to pay attention to this enactment of the negative, it becomes apparent that particular words, phrases and syntactical forms play a key role in a given work', for example, 'unheimlich', in Vertigo and ‘aus dem Nichts’ in Austerlitz.

In Chapter Eight, ‘Twisted Threads: The Entwined Narratives of W G Sebald and H G Adler’, Peter Filkins, a translator of Adler, discusses the relationship between Adler’s Theresienstadt and Sebald’s Austerlitz, and highlights the 'genre hybridity' mentioned earlier in Kilbourn’s essay: 'Sebald, like Adler, employs both fact and fiction to reconstitute the past,' he says (161). But with Sebald things are always tricky, as shown by his 'open usage' (ie, without acknowledgement) of Adler’s work, which highlights the limitations of a 'non-survivor' (unlike Adler, both Sebald and the main character in Austerlitz have no account they can lay claim to), but also shows in a very 'meta' way that Sebald risks ending up as a non-survivor himself, namely of his own fictional project. Sebald’s answer to this, says Filkens, is to be found in that last public speech he gave, which Filkens highlights by this quotation: 'Perhaps only to remember, and teach us to understand that some strange connections cannot be explained by causal logic.'

This book is divided into three parts: 'Translation and Style', 'Texts and Contexts' and 'Prose and Photography'.  In the first section, Williams and Weller are accompanied by George Szirtes in his essay, ‘Encounter and Cry: W G Sebald as Poet’ (Chapter Two), which starts with him noticing that even though For Years Now distinctly says 'Poems by W.G. Sebald' on the cover of the book, the publisher’s blurb on Amazon says “twenty-three short stories by W G Sebald”. Even here, it seems, there is no getting away from Sebald’s 'genre hybridity'! In the second section of the book, the essays focus on particular themes in specific books of Sebald, always coming back to the themes of duality, openness and non-closure, and genre hybridity.  In Chapter Four, Jeannette Baxter provides a reading of Vertigo (Schwindel Gefühle. in German) against the background of Surrealist models - of vertigo and play, vertigo, chance and the labyrinth, and ‘double vertigo’ and the uncanny - where she concludes that the 'counter-historical imagination' in Vertigo is not brought into play to finalise matters, but to 'repeatedly and relentlessly' remain in process, 'open to risk, ambiguity and the certain threat of uncertainty'.

The other essays in the book provide equally interesting explorations of themes in Sebald. In Chapter Five, Dora Osborne discusses the restoration of vision in Sebald’s emigrants in The Emigrants (Die Ausgewanderten in German); in Chapter Six Helen Finch picks an Anglo-Irish theme for The Rings of Saturn (Die Ringe des Saturn. Eine englische Wallfahrt in German); in Chapter Seven Graeme Gilloch draws parallels between Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project and Sebald’s unfinished and fragmented Corsican studies, named the ‘Arca Project’; and in the last essay of Section Two, Chapter Nine, David Darby discusses stations, dark rooms and false worlds in Austerlitz. In the third section of the book, a particularly interesting essay is Simon Murray’s ‘Fields of Association: W G Sebald and Contemporary Performance Practices’ (Chapter Ten), where he discusses stage adaptations of Sebald’s work, such as i-witness, an adaptation of The Rings of Saturn by Volcano, a Welsh theatre company. Murray also touches on the 'anti-Brechtian' (anti-realist) nature of Sebald, saying it is an important, but under-researched perspective on the author’s work. The remaining two essays of the book, ‘Still Life, Portrait, Photograph, Narrative in the Work of W G Sebald’ by Clive Scott (Chapter Eleven), and ‘The Return of the Repressed Mother in W G Sebald’s Fiction’ by Graley Herren (Chapter Twelve), again address issues of genre hybridity and the limitations of vision.

I enjoyed every essay in this collection and recommend this book to students who encounter Sebald in any of their university courses, and for any reader who has already embarked on a journey with Sebald. The collection is fresh, adding a completely new set of reference points for the scholar and opens up underdeveloped areas for further research, for example, Sebald and the theatre. This book adds to the already rich body of work surrounding Sebald, and reading it will leave the reader in even greater awe of this great writer.

1 An online copy of Sebald’s last public speech in English is available at

Tielman de Villiers, University of Hertfordshire