Festifal, by W. G. Sebald

5 February 2012

In 2008, George Steiner published My Unwritten Books, which describes the books he long planned to write, but now knows he never will. It is ‘part-memoir, part-scholarly miscellany, which veers wantonly between mandarin obscurity and foolishly naked revelation,’ according to the Independent. (I must add that this remains an unread book, for me; I have his At the New Yorker in my ‘to read’ pile – I thought it best to read more he has written before getting on to things he hasn’t.)

This idea of representing the potential of things that remain unwritten, suggesting works, is one of the appeals of Sebald’s ‘Festifal’. When I first read it, the form (or format) stood out: the summary descriptions of a play. For whatever reason, I love poetry that is squeezed into the confines of apparently functional forms of writing. As for the content, however, I was somewhat nonplussed: Sebald, like Steiner, is a polyglot, and has a far greater knowledge of the classics than I do, and nowhere else have I read him express that so densely as here. But the first three lines of the Intermezzo are brilliant in their suggestion of the possibility of stories, and their arrangement. This, in combination with the form, encapsulates and communicates a tremendous sense of potentiality, even if the elliptical nature of the content, with its reliance on intertextual reference, doesn’t guarantee much immediate substantive ‘satisfaction’ for a reader like me.


On the Sandwich Islands
the Dictaean Grotto

Basil the Rainmaker
and the coiled polar dragon

Somnia, terrores magicos,
miracula, sagas, nocturnos
lemures portentaque Thessala

Acts of negligence in accordance
with relative beauty
strength or wit
——-ex. gratis: The plump Etruscan,
——————–the ivory flute
——————–and Latin song
——————–Proteus sub aqua submersus
——————–putting ugly cattle to pasture
——————–aut etiam:
——————–The Sphinz
——————–fleeing toward Libya

Final Tableau:
Victorious Basil
earns the sobriquet Fifty

Salomo Schellenkönig the skilled
basket weaver counts his coppers

A small fortune


The translator’s notes gloss most of the allusions, so if you’re interested in getting to the bottom of what Sebald’s writing about you can try. But as ‘Plot’ is entirely in Latin, and would seem like an important part of a play, this is what Google Translate offers: ‘Dreams, magic terrors, / miracles, the curtains of the night / ghosts wonders of Thessaly’.

[From Across the Land and the Water.]


One Response to “Festifal, by W. G. Sebald”

  1. dianajhale Says:

    I love Sebald’s books but have not read any of this book of poetry yet. This really does look dense! I will give it some study when I get some time!

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