Friday, April 27, 2012

haunted by millions and millions of breakfast eggs - searching for clues in Sebald's poetry

To the book itself, to the new collection of W. G. Sebald poetry, Across the Land and Water.  Few of the poems in the book had been previously published before the 2008 German version.  The footnotes for most of the poems refer the interested graduate student to the appropriate folder in the Sebald archives in Marbach-am-Neckar.  So most of the poems are more interesting as process, as evidence of the creative functioning of a great artist.

Many of them, for a reader who knows Sebald’s work, are quite intensely interesting.  “Remembered Triptych of a Journey from Brussels,” published in 1965, includes a visit to the Waterloo battlefield.  The Sebaldish narrator of Austerlitz will revisit it thirty-five years later.  The poet notes

a stately home, sheltered by ivy, transformed
into the Belgian Royal Ornithological
Research and Observation Unit
of the University of Brussels.

Sebald’s novels, the first of which is twenty-five years in the future, contain dozens of similarly unlikely metamorphoses.

“New Jersey Journey” (from Folder 2) corresponds directly to a specific passage in the “Ambrose Adelworth” chapter of The Emigrants (1992), the narrator’s drive through New Jersey to visit his uncle:

a Siberian countryside
colonized then run to seed
with moribund supermarkets
abandoned poultry farms
haunted by millions and millions
of breakfast eggs

At the end of the poem, the uncle photographs Sebald; the actual photograph appears in the novel.

What is really fascinating to me is how important the writing of these poems obviously was to the writing of the novels.  Perhaps this is not as unusual as I think.

Point 1, I will call that.  Point 2 is that the poems in the last third of the book begin to look more interesting on their own.  I am still not convinced that they are separable from Sebald’s corpus, and they sometimes feel like pieces that might have been drawn into Sebald’s next novel, whatever that might have been.  “On 9 June 1904” describes Chekhov’s decline:

but the spelt porridge
and creamy cocoa
brought no improvement.

And then his death and the transport of his corpse:

in a green, refrigerated
freight car marked
in big letters.

“Marienbad Elegy” includes an incident from Goethe’s biography, a late, hopeless love affair, “In the Summer of 1836” a similar episode of Chopin’s life while he suffers from tuberculosis.  It is easy enough to imagine all three stories combined into a Rings of Saturn-like chapter.  Or perhaps they were meant to be left as they are now.

The poems are all about traveling.  Even Goethe, Chopin, and Chekhov are on the road.  Sebald is in his hotel room (e.g. “Hotel Schweizer \ hof, in Hinüber \ Straβe Hannover,” “Room 645”) or in an airport (“among globetrotters \ from Seoul & Saõ Paulo \  Singapore & Seattle,” “On the Eve of”) or waiting for a train at a small station where I myself have waited for a train (“One Sunday in Autumn 94” – but I was there six years later).

What I am likely doing, of course, is searching the poems for clues to the next Sebald novel, now imaginary, an activity entirely in keeping with Sebald’s fiction.  Everything is a clue to something else.


  1. You've reminded me of something: that I must be angry with myself, for I haven't gotten back to Sebald as I promised myself I would.

    Also, is it just me, or is the pathos of spelt porridge and creamy cocoa failing to improve one's health one of the most tragic things you've ever heard? (Forgive my hyperbole; I've spent the evening thinking about Jorge Amado.)

  2. His next finished prose work would probably have been the pieces on Corsica. It appeared in Campo Santo (excerpts here and here).

  3. I have had a copy of 'Die Ringe des Saturns' on my shelf for ages, and I *must* get to it soon. Very bad of me not to have read anything by Sebald yet :(

  4. Rise, why do you think that? The introduction to Campo Santo suggests the Corsican book is an "abandoned book."

    Plus, it would not have been a novel. One does wonder, though.

    I would not be angry or call anyone bad for not reading Sebald. He did write unusually rich books.

  5. Anthea Bell mentioned in the excerpt that it was only set aside in favor of Austerlitz and that a longer treatment was planned by Sebald. There's already 50 pages of it. Whether it was a straight novel or a quartet à la The Emigrants ...

  6. We are definitely interpreting Bell differently. I think the Corsica book had been retired indefinitely.

    If anybody wandering by is wondering, the 50 pages Rise mentions are fascinating (of course, Corsica itself is facsinating), as is almost all of the Campo Santo book.