Monash University

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The weight of water (thesis) 'A long topographical litany': On W. G. Sebald's spatial poetics (exegesis)

posted on 2017-02-16, 03:02 authored by MacDonald, Anna Hawthorne
Thesis: The Weight of Water At midnight, on 27 December 1919, a South African lieutenant dives from Hammersmith Bridge into the Thames and saves the life of a drowning woman. Almost a century later, an Australian woman walks the streets of London, circling the river and the bridge as she struggles to shake off tales of the drowned which increasingly haunt her. In a journey that travels between Melbourne and London, 1919 and the present day, this novella weaves together the stories of the lieutenant, the drowning woman and the contemporary narrator. Moving from meditations upon the history of flight to accounts of shipwreck, from Northern perceptions of the South to reflections upon the earth’s magnetic field, from shellshock to other, domestic forms of wreck, this is a story of what it means to be cast adrift. Exegesis: ‘A Long Topographical Litany’: On W. G. Sebald’s Spatial Poetics This exegesis reads in concert W. G. Sebald’s prose narratives—Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz—and argues that in them can be discovered a distinctive spatial poetics that is composed of echoic returns: to sites of memory, elemental metaphors and geographical configurations. My analysis of Sebald’s spatial poetics, and in particular the notion of a home within the text, is underscored by a supposition that his approach to writing about the recent German past can be adapted to Australian and other settler-colonial literatures of place. In both my critical and creative work, I am interested in the possibility of writing that gives voice to an experience of place distinct from a writing that gives voice to a nation. This is a kind of writing that could, ideally, enable the representation of a continuum of belonging, and that reflects the desire to be at home in the world, as well as the histories, inherited memories and guilt that sometimes make it impossible to be so. The exegesis is divided into three parts. Part I takes the form of a review of the scholarly literature about Sebald’s prose narratives, and the principal directions in which such analyses of his work have developed. Part II involves a consideration of Sebald’s narratives as examples of poetic reverie, which foreground the interplay between memory and imagination, fact and fiction. This section is indebted to the writings of French phenomenologist, Gaston Bachelard, in particular his final completed book, The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language and the Cosmos and contributes to the critical discussion of the question of genre with regard to Sebald’s writing. Part III is dedicated to an analysis of Sebald’s spatial poetics, with an emphasis upon his topography of return. I explore the forms repetition takes in all of Sebald’s narratives. These are: the return to particular sites of memory; and the regularity with which he employs elemental metaphors to render a world in perpetual, turbulent motion. I argue that these haunting connections compose a cosmic homeland to which he, his narrator and other characters, as well as his readers, belong.


Principal supervisor

Sue Kossew

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Department, School or Centre

Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics


Doctor of Philosophy

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Faculty of Arts

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