Helen Finch - In a series of readings of Sebald’s major texts, from ‘After Nature’ to ‘Austerlitz’, Finch’s pioneering study shows that alternative masculinities subvert catastrophe in Sebald’s works


Helen Finch, Sebald’s Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming LifeLegenda, 2013.

Why do queer bachelors and homosexual desire haunt the works of the German writer W. G. Sebald (1944-2001)? In a series of readings of Sebald’s major texts, from ‘After Nature’ to ‘Austerlitz’, Helen Finch’s pioneering study shows that alternative masculinities subvert catastrophe in Sebald’s works. From the schizophrenic poet Ernst Herbeck to the alluring shade of Kafka in Venice, the figure of the bachelor offers a form of resistance to the destructive course of history throughout Sebald’s critical and literary writing. Sebald’s poetics of homosexual desire trace a ‘line of flight’ away from the patriarchal and repressive order of German society, which, in Sebald’s view, led to the disasters of Nazism. This study shows that the potential for subversion personified by Sebald’s solitary males is essential for understanding his work, while also demonstrating the contribution that Sebald made to the German tradition of queer writing.

Helen Finch is Academic Fellow in German at the University of Leeds.

Helen Finch’s genuinely ground-breaking study of the work of W. G. Sebald explores the hitherto under-researched dimension of queer affinities and non-conformist lives in both the fictional and, crucially, the critical work of the now canonical writer... This is an important addition to the critical material and will challenge any interested Sebald scholar.’ — unsigned notice, Forum for Modern Language Studies

Part of the disorientation of Sebald’s characters can be viewed as precisely an attempt to go astray, to resist compulsory heterosexuality and to transgress the borders of Germany and Europe in search of a queer affinity that might provide a source of resistance to the straightening and oppressive orientation of bourgeois society and family.
Helen Finch’s new book Sebald’s Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life is an ambitious, thin book that contains a dense, closely argued “queer reading of Sebald’s work.”  The result is one of the most important books on Sebald to date.  I am sure that there are a number of Sebald readers, casual and otherwise, who will look askance at a queer reading of his work, but, as Finch demonstrates, the clues – both obvious and coded – are there in plain sight.  And keep in mind Finch’s careful caveat: “this study confines itself to Sebald’s literature only, and makes few claims about his biography and none about his personal orientations.”
At the risk of gravely oversimplifying things, let me try to summarize what seems to be a major theme that binds all of Sebald’s writing into a single, albeit broad, trajectory – namely the development of a theory of European history that might attempt to explain the incalculable destruction caused by colonialism, racism, and Germany’s Nazi era.  In even cruder terms, how did we move from the Enlightenment to the Holocaust?  As scholars begin to closely examine the critique that Sebald has now left us, the question arises whether his work proposes any response to the tragedy of history other than a kind of morose and pessimistic melancholy.  This is where Helen Finch’s book enters the picture.
Sebald readers who primarily know only his prose fiction will benefit greatly from Finch’s book, since it is in Sebald’s critical writing (still largely untranslated into English) that one finds the theoretical framework for his sustained critique of Enlightenment idealism and European history since Napoleon.  Finch does a great job of making the connections between Sebald’s extensive critical writings and his four books of prose fiction and the book-length poem After Nature.  His critical writing on literature is, as Finch puts it, “saturated in sexuality” and structured around Freudian critical theory beginning with his 1969 monograph on Carl Sternheim.  Sebald’s early and deep engagement with the Frankfurt School led him to reject textually-grounded criticism “in favour of applying sociological, psychological, and biographical criteria to German texts, criteria that helped him to develop a psychopathology of the bourgeois self” – especially the bourgeois conception of masculinity.  Over the years, Sebald further developed his theory of poetics around the writings of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, notably their book Kafka: For a Minor Literature.
But there was more at stake for Sebald than history and literature; it was familial and personal as well.  Sebald’s father served in Poland during the Second World War and Sebald grew up in a family environment that remained utterly silent on the failures and horrors of National Socialism and the war years.  “Sebald may be viewed as a paradigmatic member of the 1968 generation who was locked in a lifelong unresolved Oedipal contest with his National Socialist father and his father’s generation.”  And, one might add, with the entire generation of German writers that preceded him.  By linking traditional European – and specifically German – patriarchal society with the nationalism, colonialism, and racism that led to the destructive triumph of National Socialism in Germany, Sebald developed a critique of traditional male roles and began to populate his poetry and prose with male figures who resisted “bourgeois constructs of masculinity” in favor of a more queered existence.
As Finch points out, Sebald’s books are almost completely populated by male characters.  A number of key characters are openly homosexual, including two of the title characters from The Emigrants - Ambros Adelwarth (whom Sebald claimed was based on his own great uncle) and Paul Bereyter – and a number of key figures in The Rings of Saturn, notably Roger Casement, Algernon Swinburne, and Edward Fitzgerald.  Many of Sebald’s other characters also fall into Sebald’s coterie of queer bachelors, figures who might superficially appear to be just odd or eccentric or, in the case or writers like Robert Walser and Ernst Herbeck, mentally unstable.  What they all share, in one way or another, is a “queer imperative” to resist traditional marriage, fatherhood, and sexuality in order to lead the “unconforming life” of Finch’s subtitle.  In this way, Finch sees Sebald offering an alternative to or a way out from the destructiveness of history other than melancholy and mourning.
I make a claim not only for the centrality of queerness to Sebald’s poetic project, but also for its status as a mode of resistance to oppressive structures.  This book delineates a disruptive, at times utopian, at times joyful concept of the “Sebaldian queer.”  Very broadly speaking, my reading of Sebald is allied with theorists, chief among them Sara Ahmed, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and Michael D. Snedicker, whose versions of queer identity and queer textuality express transgression and immanence…I argue against reading into Sebald the categories of “melancholy, self-shattering, shame, the ‘death drive'” that have become categories to conjure with in queer theory.  Rather, I claim that the Sebaldian queer, although inflected and constrained by melancholy, contains the possibility of an immanent, ethical, and critical optimism.
But this is not to say that Sebald comes off spotless in Finch’s eyes.  She cautions that Sebald exhibits a blind spot to certain behaviors of his queer bachelors, such as the affinity that Roger Casement along with Ambros Adelwarth and his partner share for young boys.  She is also mildly worried about some inconsistencies in Sebald’s work, especially in two cases.  The first instance has to do with the final chapter of Vertigo, in which the narrator visits the village in Germany where he grew up and re-envisions his childhood.   To Finch, this seems to represent a “return to a genealogical plot, heterosexual themes, and the German household, in part undoing the queer potential that came before” in the earlier sections of the book.  In the second, and more important, instance, she tries to understand why it is that Sebald’s final book, Austerlitz, represents a return to more normative, less queered modes of fiction.  Finch’s discussion of these two areas seemed to me to be the weakest points in the books, but then I should also say that these instances simply aren’t as problematic for me as they are for Finch.
I have only scratched the surface of all that Finch has to say.  So, by way of a wrap-up, I’ll let the author have the final word.  Here are the concluding sentences of Finch’s book.
If at times the Sebaldian queer itself borders on kitsch, dallies with Orientalism, and avails itself of a range of creakily outmoded theories of homosexuality, it nonetheless represents a real attempt to resist the oppressive orders of history in a way not solely conditioned by melancholia, Thanatos, and mourning.  Sebald’s idiosyncratic portrayal of queer desire is located right at the fault lines of history, memory, identity, theory, and narrative, and as such represents a significant contribution to queer letters. If, as has so often been claimed, Sebald’s work represents a profoundly important intervention in European literature and politics, some of its most radical, joyful, and political potential is queer. - Terry Pitts, Vertigo

'Why does the spectre of queer desire haunt the works of W.G. Sebald? The bachelor, and especially the alternative or queer masculinities associated with him, is central to the Sebaldian canon, as Helen’s Finch asserts in her original study Sebald’s Bachelor’s: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life. Her analysis examines the recurrent bachelor figures that populate his narratives, as well as their potential for resistance and refusal to conform to the normative social order.'  read more... (review by Hannah O'Connor) (pdf)

Witnessing, Memory, Poetics: H. G. Adler and W. G. Sebald, ed. by Helen Finch Lynn L. Wolff. Camden House; Bilingual edition, 2014.

Since 1945, authors and scholars have intensely debated what form literary fiction about the Holocaust should take. The works of H. G. Adler (1910-1988) and W. G. Sebald (1944-2001), two modernist scholar-poets who settled in England but never met, present new ways of reconceptualizing the nature of witnessing, literary testimony, and the possibility of a "poetics" after Auschwitz. Adler, a Czech Jew who survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, was a prolific writer of prose and poetry, but his work remained little known until Sebald, possibly the most celebrated German writer of recent years, cited it in his 2001 work, Austerlitz. Since then, a rediscovery of Adler has been under way. This volume of essays by international experts on Adler and Sebald investigates the connections between the two writers to reveal a new hybrid paradigm of writing about the Holocaust that advances our understanding of the relationship between literature, historiography, and autobiography. In doing so, the volume also reflects on the wider literary-political implications of Holocaust representation, demonstrating the shifting norms in German-language "Holocaust literature." Contributors: Jeremy Adler, Jo Catling, Peter Filkins, Helen Finch, Frank Finlay, Kirstin Gwyer, Katrin Kohl, Michael Krüger, Martin Modlinger, Dora Osborne, Ruth Vogel-Klein, Lynn L. Wolff. Helen Finch is Associate Professor in German at the University of Leeds. Lynn L. Wolff is an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellow in German at the University of Stuttgart.

  • 1  Introduction: The Adler-Sebald Intertextual Relationship as Paradigm for Intergenerational Literary Testimony
  • 2  The Connections between H. G. Adler and W. G. Sebald, from a Personal Perspective
  • 3  Memory's Witness-Witnessing Memory
  • 4  Writing the Medusa: A Documentation of H. G. Adler and Theresienstadt in W. G. Sebald's Library
  • 5  Poetics of Bearing Witness: H. G. Adler and W. G. Sebald
  • 6  "Schmerzensspuren der Geschichte(n)": Memory and Intertextuality in H. G. Adler and W. G. Sebald
  • 7  "Der Autor zwischen Literatur und Politik": H. G. Adler's "Engagement" and W. G. Sebald's "Restitution"
  • 8  Memory, Witness, and the (Holocaust) Museum in H. G. Adler and W. G. Sebald
  • 9  History, Emotions, Literature: The Representation of Theresienstadt in H. G. Adler's Theresienstadt 1941-1945, Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft and W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz
  • 10  The Kafkaesque in H. G. Adler's and W. G. Sebald's Literary Historiographies
  • 11  Generational Conflicts, Generational Affinities: Broch, Adorno, Adler, Sebald
  • 12  "Der verwerfliche Literaturbetrieb unserer Epoche": H. G. Adler and the Postwar West German "Literary Field"

As I neared the end of Witnessing, Memory, Poetics: H.G. Adler & W.G. Sebald I began to feel a bit claustrophobic as a succession of scholars resolutely examined the relationships between these two writers. But the final section, “Literary Legacies and Networks,” introduced a new set of faces to the volume – Franz Kafka, Theodor Adorno, Hermann Broch, and Heinrich Böll. In the first of three essays in this section, Martin Modlinger examines “The Kafkaesque in H.G. Adler’s and W.G. Sebald’s Literary Historiographies.” Adler made numerous references to Kafka in his books and short stories and, significantly, warned against viewing Kafka primarily as a prophet of the Holocaust. Adler believed that “totalitarianism makes up just one chapter of many equal, disturbing developments in modern history that Kafka’s work addresses.” Although Sebald’s use of Kafka has been written about frequently, Modlinger brings some new insights of his own, comparing Jacques Austlitz’s inability to gain access a real understanding of Theresienstadt (where his mother perished) with the surveyor’s inability to penetrate the castle in Kafka’s novel The Castle.
As a place of suffering and death, [Theresienstadt] cannot – and should not – be fully accessible to the living. Where literature approaches history, especially the history of the Holocaust, it needs to keep its proper distance. For Sebald, literary historiography can never claim to be able to present the factual or emotional truth of suffering; it can only describe the path of necessary failure toward such an understanding.

Helen Finch, one of the book’s editors (along with Lynn L. Wolff) writes about “Generational Conflicts, Generational Affinities: Broch, Adorno, Adler, Sebald.” Calling on Pierre Bordieu’s theory of literary capital, she looks at “the links between Adler and Sebald as part of a network of intellectual relationships that constituted the field of discourse in postwar Germany.” Ironically, even though Adler and Sebald represented different generations, both tried to jumpstart their literary careers early on by seeking the support of Theodor Adorno, the powerful faculty member of the influential Frankfurt School, whose theory of the dialectical nature of history and culture made him one of the leading gatekeepers of  postwar critical thinking. Finch also looks at the different responses that Adler and Sebald had to one of Germany’s other leading writers, Hermann Broch, whose 1932 novel The Sleepwalkers is often viewed as portraying the steps by which Germany descended over the course of several decades into the state in which Nazi Socialism could flourish.
And in the concluding essay, Frank Finlay examines “‘Der verwerfliche Literatbetrieb unserer Epoche': H.G. Adler and the Postwar West German Literary Field.” Finlay draws upon the correspondence between Adler and Heinrich Böll to delve into the question of why Adler repeatedly failed to attain the same literary status and readership that Böll attracted with his work.
Witnessing, Memory, Poetics is, in the final analysis, an important anthology, in part because it is as much about the two writers H.G. Adler and W.G. Sebald as it is about the subject that they attempted to write about – the Holocaust. The very nature of the Holocaust exacerbated the generational and personal differences between Adler and Sebald – the Jew and the non-Jew, the target of Nazi policies and the son of a German soldier, the concentration camp survivor and the boy who scarcely experienced the war. Adler and Sebald shared the goal of memorializing one of the monumental tragedies in human history, but circumstances demanded that they respond differently. But in truth, as we move further and further away from the Holocaust (which will be seventy years in the past for children born in 2015), we need both the testimony of Adler and his generation and the guidance of Sebald and others if this terrible event is to have any meaning whatsoever in the future. - Terry Pitts, Vertigo