Sleepwalking certainties: agency, aesthetics, and incapacity in W.G. Sebald’s 'Austerlitz' and Hermann Broch’s 'The Sleepwalkers'
Thomson, S. (2013) Sleepwalking certainties: agency, aesthetics, and incapacity in W.G. Sebald’s 'Austerlitz' and Hermann Broch’s 'The Sleepwalkers'. Comparative Literature, 65 (2). pp. 162-181. ISSN 1945-8517
To link to this article DOI: 10.1215/00104124-2143152
When we first encounter the narrator of Austerlitz, he is wandering around the unfamiliar town of Antwerp with, he tells us, “unsicheren Schritten” (1; 9). As well as reflecting the unfamiliarity of the locale, these “uncertain steps” evince a proud modesty characteristic of the classic Sebaldian narrator, a wanderer who discreetly relays the stories of the people and places he is privileged to encounter. Although Sebald does not use the phrase, steps of this sort, unpurposed yet unerring, are made with what is commonly known in German as somnambule Sicherheit: the legendary surefootedness of the sleepwalker. The convergence of sleepwalking and certainty in a single phrase poses an interesting challenge to one of the central tenets of the English-language canonization of Sebald, for his writing has been most highly valued for its ability to move the reader through apparent certainties towards a salutary uncertainty. But somnambule Sicherheit also presents the possibility that the current may be reversed, that narrative may move under cover of uncertainty towards certainty. That Sebald criticism has not been more troubled by this possibility is in no small part due to the fact that it tends to deploy the notion of sleepwalking with a minimum of reflection on its theoretical ramifications. To evoke some of the complexities of this matter, I first offer a brief cultural history of sleepwalking, as well as a brief account of the topic of uncertainty in Sebald criticism. Most of my argument, however, involves an extended comparative analysis of sleepwalking in Sebald's Austerlitz and Hermann Broch's 1933 trilogy The Sleepwalkers. Although these writers have not previously been the object of any sustained comparison, sleepwalking in Broch's novels illuminates much that is left implicit on the topic in Sebald's fiction and points toward some difficult questions regarding the role of aesthetics and agency in Sebald's work.