Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Twentieth-Century Literature's Andrew J. Kappel Prize in Literary Criticism, 2014

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Twentieth-Century Literature's Andrew J. Kappel Prize in Literary Criticism, 2014

Article excerpt

The winner of this year's prize is Karen Jacobs's "Sebald's Apparitional Nabokov." The judge is Marianne Hirsch, William Peterfield Trent Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and Professor in the Institute for Research in Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Her most recent book is The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust. She is working on a series of essays on memory, mobility, and vulnerability.

Professor Hirsch writes:

If this year's nominees for the Kappel prize are any indication, literary criticism is thriving in today's academy. Each of the nominees offers an enlightening reading of the work of a particular twentieth-century writer, setting that writer's work in historical context and highlighting not just its literary but also its historical and political interventions. What is more, all the authors write elegantly and with ease, approaching their subject with an infectious curiosity and passion. These are not readings that are easily categorized, neither close nor distant, deep nor surface, they simply engage with a writer's work in order to pursue a particular well-formulated question of larger import.

This approach indeed characterizes the essay I chose as the winner--and, though the choice was not an easy one, "Sebald's Apparitional Nabokov" proved a truly thrilling read: despite its complexity, I could not put it down. The essay builds on a few seemingly small details in W. G. Sebald's 1992 novel The Emigrants, several small appearances of various incarnations of Vladimir Nabokov in the text--as "the butterfly man" mentioned in several places and in a photograph printed early in Sebald's text. The essay does more than to ask what Nabokov is doing in Sebald's text and how The Emigrants recalls and relates to Nabokov's 1951 memoir Speak, Memory, though these questions are certainly addressed. It goes further to ask how the detail itself functions for the two writers. It then uses the different conceptions of the textual details to categorize two divergent aesthetic practices and world-views characterizing the work of the two writers and the sites and historical moments from which they are writing. While the details that build Nabokov's Speak, Memory are nostalgically "reimagined as totality" and organic wholeness, those making up Sebald's The Emigrants retain their fragmentariness, defining knowledge as partial and atomized. In inviting Nabokov to "migrate" into his text in the very form of a textual detail, the essay argues, Sebald is invoking a vision of knowledge as totality that haunts his characters and his text.

But there is more. In staging an encounter between Sebald and Nabokov, the essay opens the way to further surprising encounters and apparitions: between Naomi Schor and Jacques Derrida on the function of the detail, between Pierre Nora and Emmanuel Levinas on sites of memory and the appearance of the other. While Nora circumscribes memory within the space of the nation-state, Sebald foregrounds his characters' migration through the spaces of a Europe that is saturated with traces of the past. But for Sebald, memory is private, furtive, marginal, the essay shows; it is not "reified in public spaces" as it is for Nora. …

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