Sebald’s Melancholic Method: Writing as Ethical Memory in Austerlitz

Astrid Oesmann


Sebald's ethics of remembrance coincides with his complex notion of history that includes cultural, economic, and natural history. This article shows that the narrative dynamic between the protagonist and his narrator creates a collective memory out of amnesia. Furthermore, Sebald's unique style incorporates an ethics of memory that seeks to let the past take shape independently of subjective intentionality. This becomes clear through discussion of the secondary literature that Sebald consulted in his preparation of Austerlitz, including Halbwachs' La mémoire collective and a small body of more recent memory research. Sebald often made marginal annotations to his personal copies of these works, some of which are cited. I use these annotations to inform my reading of the theoretical foundations of Sebald's approach to the past, which are best understood in the context of Theodor W. Adorno's concept of natural history, Freud's thoughts on the death drive, and Sebald's own criticism, especially his early works on the Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter. In Austerlitz the protagonist and the narrator undertake a collaborative form of remembrance to overcome the amnesia that the protagonist suffered as an individual and that the narrator inherited culturally. (AO)

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