Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Monday, December 14, 2015

W. G. Sebald in Memoriam

Sebald Rings of Saturn
W. G. Sebald (May 18, 1944 - Dec. 14, 2001) is my favorite German writer of his (and my) generation. He died on this day 14 years ago in a car accident.

I consider Sebald a soul mate (I hope this doesn't sound too presumptuous). We are both expatriates (I do not use the word "immigrants" because it implies a degree of identification with the country I live in that I do not feel), and neither of us can shake a horrified awareness of the atrocities committed by Germans of our parents' generation during the Nazi period. I do not say "memory" because we were too young to have experienced any of this first-hand, but these events become memories for Sebald's protagonists in search of their past and, through them, for the narrator to whom they tell their stories. Through him, a barely disguised Sebald himself, they become like memories also for us, the readers.

It is not surprising that Sebald's temperament appears to be overshadowed by what reviewers have called a deep-seated "melancholy". But it is also important to note that this melancholy can give way to fits of outrage or be lightened, at other times, by a sly sense of humor. What comes across, in the end, is a profound unease about the world he knows, which resounds powerfully with me and has made reading him one of my addictions.

Addendum (12/18/15). Our affinities extend to reactions to specific authors or artists. Nabokov seems to have had a specific appeal for Sebald—the writer appears, in person, in several of his stories—and Nabokov is also one of my favorite authors. Furthermore, Sebald appears to be as impressed by the painter Mathias Grünewald as I am. This elusive painter is the subject of one of the three poems in Nach der Natur (After Nature), and one of the protagonists in Die Ausgewanderten (The Emigrants) visits Colmar in France specifically to see Grünewald's masterpiece, the Isenheim Altar. I have been to Colmar for the same purpose, and standing in front of the crucifixion at the center of the altar, I experienced something that I can only describe as an existential shock—it had never happened before and has never happened again when I came across a piece of art.

Carol Jacobs on W. G. Sebald

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Word of the Month: Der Fachidiot

Word of the Month: Index

A Fach is a compartment in a larger container or piece of furniture. In a more figurative sense, the word denotes a specific area of expertise, often acquired through a course of study devoted to this particular field (civil engineering is an example). In the performing arts, Fach denotes the vocal range and related specialization of a singer (for example, lyrical soprano or Heldentenor) or the type of role an actor is particularly suited for (for example, action hero or ingénue).

An Idiot in German is the same as an idiot in English. In combination with Fach, we get a Fachidiot, a person totally focused on or only interested in his special area of expertise while remaining clueless with regard to anything outside that area. Fachidiotin is the female form, but I've heard the masculine form applied to persons of either sex.

Addendum (Dec. 5, 2015). Here's an article that explicitly refers to the German term in connection with one of the hopefuls for the Republican presidential nomination (Ben Carson): The GOP and the Rise of Anti-Knowledge.