Gatekeeping the literature of the Shoah: W. G. Sebald and Jurek Becker

For this talk we welcome speaker Helen Finch, Associate Professor in German in the School of Languages, Cultures and Society, University of Leeds.

Organised by the Centre for Jewish Studies, this event is free and all are welcome.

About the talk

How did expectations of German-language “Holocaust literature” change from the 1970s to the 1990s? What role did the famous author W. G. Sebald have in shaping the expectations of authenticity’ in fictional engagements with the aftermaths of the Shoah?

In this talk, Dr Helen Finch will discuss the 1985 novel The Boxer by East German writer and child survivor of the Lodz ghetto Jurek Becker, together with a posthumously published attack on that novel by W. G. Sebald.

The Boxer traces the failure of its Jewish survivor protagonist, Arno Blank, to integrate into post-war East German society, despite the supposedly ‘anti-fascist’ image that East Germany liked to cultivate. It thus forms a moving echo of Becker’s own inability to testify to traumatic experiences that as an adult he could not remember, as well as a critique of East German society.

When W. G. Sebald, the author of Austerlitz, came to write an essay on this text in 1991, he critiqued it for its supposedly East German sentimentality and inauthenticity. Dr Finch will argue that this essay marks a hinge moment in Sebald’s career, as argued by Carole Angier in her recent (2021) biography. It also serves as a manifesto for Sebald’s complex criteria for ethically correct Holocaust literature, which still have lasting influence. Perhaps most saliently, although Becker was a Jewish survivor of the Shoah, Sebald still condemned his work as inauthentic.

Although Sebald’s essay was not published during either his or Becker’s lifetime, it still shows the ways in which a normative West German and non-Jewish model of “Holocaust literature” sought to assert itself in the 1990s.

Event link

This event will be hosted on Zoom.

Link to Dr Helen Finch’s talk.

Meeting ID: 874 6921 3517
Passcode: Z&zC7


Photograph of Dr Helen Finch.