Kevin Brazil – “Schmerzenspuren”: W.G. Sebald and the Traces of Planned Violence

Kevin Brazil, a DPhil candidate in English Literature at New College, University of Oxford, is working on a thesis entitled “The Work of Art in Postwar Fiction”. Here he focuses on W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001), London’s most famous fictional architectural historian of recent years defined his task as bringing to light the “Schmerzenspuren” of the built world: the “marks of pain…which trace countless fine lines through history”. This belief that architecture and the city are residues of previous acts of violence runs through Sebald’s work: in his fictional and photographic explorations not only of London, but of Manchester, Paris, and Prague; or of railways stations, prisons, and concentration camps. One line which Sebald’s work traces are the painful marks of colonialism, and this paper will draw out the relationship in Sebald’s work between the violence of colonialism and the violence of architecture. Or rather, this paper will argue that Sebald’s work proposes that the intertwined acts of colonial and architectural violence are never wholly experienced or understood by those who suffer them. Instead, like Austerlitz, we must respond, in the fictional imaginary, to the affective states of agony and fear generated urban space as the first step in responding to the real and actual history of planned violence: urban, colonial, or otherwise.

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