W G Sebald’s Bleston

I discovered Sebald and Butor at around the same time, and noted the biographical coincidence that both had spent time at the University of Manchester, but it’s only with the publication of Across the Land and the Water that I’ve discovered quite how strong the links between the writers are.    Reading The Emigrants, I had been struck by the echoes of Butor’s descriptions of Manchester, but had attributed them mainly to the common subject – after all, there are common features in descriptions of the city, particularly of the first encounters with the city, across a couple of centuries, upon which both authors draw.  In the light of the ‘Mancunian Cantical’ however,  it’s very clear that Butor’s novel was a direct influence, and of real significance to Sebald.  I’ve gone back since both to the Max Ferber segment of The Emigrants, and to the final part of After Nature, part of which also relates to Sebald’s Manchester days.  (There are interesting connections between all four texts – to take just a couple of examples, the fascination with the star-shaped Strangeways prison, and the Guy Fawkes anecdote – which deserve more attention, and may well get it at some future point.)

I’ve been much taken with the notion that Sebald might have chanced upon Passing Time in a Manchester bookshop, just as Butor’s hero Revel finds the book that’s going to shape his experience of the city, Le Meurtre de Bleston, nestling between Torture through the Ages, and a Handbook of Cricket.  I now know that he owned the French text (the 1966 edition – thanks go to Terry Pitts, of the Vertigo blog, for that information), and the poem itself provides internal evidence of this – but the idea is too delightful to let go.   Of course, the English edition may have prompted him to track down the French, having recognised that this extraordinary text was going to be profoundly important to him.  Either way, as this poem was finished on or shortly before 26 January 1967, his response to the book must have been pretty immediate.

The poem contains a number of direct quotations in French from L’Emploi du temps, which are noted by Iain Galbraith   The title of the final section is ‘Perdu dans ces filaments’, which refers to Revel’s sense that he was a virus, caught in Bleston’s threads.  ‘Filaments’ also echoes ‘fil d’Ariane’, a reference to the story of Theseus who found his way through the labyrinth to kill the minotaur with the help of Ariadne’s thread – a legend that is central to L’Emploi du temps.

There are also a number of phrases that aren’t presented as quotations from L’Emploi du Temps:

Sebald L’Emploi Passing time
The mere shadow of a feast-day phantom/Of a defunct feast-day Bleston L’ombre d’une fête, le fantôme d’une fête morte (24 July, p. 237) The shadow of a festival, the ghost of a dead festival (p. 176)
Bleston my ashes in the wind of your dreams Toi … qui éparpillais mes cendres au vent de tes rêves (20 Aug, p. 306) You who in your dreams scattered my ashes to the winds (p. 225)
From time to time the howls of animals in the zoological/Department reach my ears On entendait de temps en temps les hurlements des animaux dans la section zoologique (30 July, p.250) From time to time you could hear the animals howling in their nearby cages (p. 185)

I’ve shown these against the French text and the English translation because I think this makes it clear that Sebald’s source was the French text, which he translated into German, and which Iain Galbraith has now rendered into English.

Of course, what’s interesting isn’t just that Sebald has chosen to quote (albeit via translation) Butor’s novel, but which aspects of it appear to have made the most powerful impact on him.   There are key words in L’Emploi du temps, motifs which are repeated and which gain cumulative weight as the narrative develops, and a number of these recur in the ‘Cantical’ too.   I’ve picked out a few, to set out some markers for a future study, or for real Sebaldians to take further than I can.

  • A shuttered world – the image of a closed shutter (grille de fer, literally Iron Curtain) is found throughout L’Emploi, reinforcing the idea of a city that is closed, but also the sense that the protagonist’s efforts to find his way, to make connections, are constantly thwarted by ‘une grille de fer fermee’.
  • Mute – silence is a theme here, repeated in ‘the silence of revelation’ in part III,  ‘reclining in silence’ , ‘The valleys of Bleston do not echo’, in part IV .  In The Emigrants,  Max Ferber speaks of the loss of his mother tongue, German, which he hasn’t spoken since parting from his parents in 1939, ‘and which survives in me as no more than an echo, a muted and incomprehensible murmur’ (p.182).  Music and silence are key themes for Butor – Revel ponders the absence of music in Bleston, a symptom of its malaise.  There is actually a strong musical theme in L’Emploi, and throughout Butor’s work, which will be the subject of  a later blog post.
  • ‘The starlings … sleepless on the sills of Lewis’s Big Warehouse’ – this passage is reworked in The Emigrants (p. 157)
  • Shadows – one of the most often repeated motifs in L’Emploi.  Bleston is full of shadows, both literal and metaphorical, obscuring both the way ahead and the motives and intentions of the people.
  • Mamucium – Sebald’s reference to the origins of Manchester’s name recalls Butor’s offering of alternative etymologies for Bleston, from the popular ‘Bells Town’ to the improbable ‘Bella Civitas’  but focusing on Bellista, city of war.  (Manchester itself was the site of a temple of Mithras.)
  • ‘torture a travers les ages’ – this phrase is translated by Galbraith but he doesn’t note that it’s a quotation from L’Emploi.  This is the title of one of the books that Revel sees when he’s looking for the detective novel, Le Meurtre de Bleston, which plays a key role in the narrative.
  • feast-day phantom – see also Fete nocturne, more shadows, and the phantom.  Bleston reduces, or tries to reduce, its inhabitants to ghosts, or shades.   But there’s also a ghost in The Emigrants, the ‘grey lady’ who visits Ferber daily (pp.181-2).
  • ‘the howls Of animals in the zoological Department’ – in context in L’Emploi,  the animals echo Revel’s despair, and his sense of imprisonment
  • Sharon’s Full Gospel – referred to also in After Nature: ‘row after rock of the sick, amid the congregation’s shrieking, were healed and even the blind had their sight restored’ (p. 98)
  • The offshore ships waiting in the fog recur in The Emigrants (p. 166)
  • opgekilte schottns – translated as ‘frozen shadows’ (see earlier references to shadows).  Galbraith also relates this to the story of Theseus who causes the death of his father, a legend that is represented in the tapestries in Bleston’s museum
  • wasteland – Bleston’s centre is ringed by areas of ‘terrain vague’.  These are the locations for the travelling fair as it moves around the city, and for many of the fires which punctuate the narrative.
  • ‘my ashes In the wind of your dreams’ – Sebald retains the construction ‘in the wind of your dreams’ which is lost or weakened in the English.   However, whereas his wording suggests that it is Bleston that is being addressed, in the context of the novel, it is the city which is addressing Revel, who has burned his map in an attempt to revenge himself on the city.
  • On ne doit plus dormir – Pascal via Adorno, the abundance of suffering permits no forgetting.  Both Sebald and Butor wrote ‘contre l’oubli’.

As Galbraith says, ‘The poem presents a labyrinth of allusions, and the reader who attempts to follow them risks becoming ‘perdu dans ces filaments’ .  To which I’d have to say, ‘Challenge accepted’!

Michel Butor, L’Emploi du temps (Paris: Minuit, 1956)

Michel Butor, Passing Time, translated by Jean Stewart (London : John Calder, 1965)

W G Sebald, ‘Dark Night Sallies Forth’, in After Nature, translated by Michael Hamburger (London, Hamish Hamilton, 1988)

W G Sebald, ‘Max Ferber’, in The Emigrants, translated by Michael Hulse (London: Vintage, 2002)

W G Sebald, ‘Bleston: A Mancunian Cantical’, in Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001, translated by Iain Galbraith (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011)

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  1. #1 by PlastiCités on February 26, 2012 - 10:37 pm

    Reblogged this on occursus.


  2. #2 by decayetude on June 2, 2012 - 2:28 pm

    Comments to follow, Cath; i have started “Passing Time”!Steve


  3. #3 by A Deniz Temiz on August 15, 2018 - 12:13 pm

    Challenge accepted! Thank you for restoring the beacons before translators and publishers bespatter the roadstead with mud-water and/ to make it unaccessible.

    It is surprising not to be able to find any of the German originals of Sebald’s work on the online libraries. I’m trying my hand in translating some of the poems into Turkish (have put the “Mithraisch” on my academia.edu page so far) but have not been able to reach the German edition of Uber das Land und das Wasser as yet. Given that Turkish currency rates are headed towards Mars, I doubt that acquiring books will remain a possibility in the unforeseeable future. I would dearly appreciate if you or your readers were willing to share the German original of some poems, such as those in the fete nocturne series.


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