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Telluric Memory. Restitution and Right to Resentment in W.G. Sebald

Massimo Meccarelli, Università degli Studi di Macerata

«From bitter searching of the heart
We rise to play a greater part
Reshaping narrow law and art
Whose symbols are the millions slain»
Leonard Cohen, Villanelle for Our Time


1. In the Writer’s Workshop - 2. Fiction and the Truth of History - 3. Aesthetics and Ethics in Literary Writing - 4. A Social Function for Literature? - 5. The Device of Telluric Memory - 5.1. The Issue of Restitution - 5.2. The Right to Resentment - 6. The Problem of Transitional Justice - Bibliography - NOTE

1. In the Writer’s Workshop

There are writers whose legacy consists in entrusting the reader with a task of continuation. Carol Angier seems to have taken up this message from W.G. Sebald; in dedicating a dense and accurate biography to him, she ideally relates to that dynamic of transmission that typifies the entire oeuvre of the great German author. In this successful book [1], we find a reconstruction that is rich in detail, well supported by the large bibliographical, documentary and direct testimony base; but this is also an investigation into the creative process behind Sebald’s texts. Angier enters the author’s workshop, identifies what his sources were and how he combined them to create his prose. She clarifies the genesis and aims of his endeavour as a writer and scholar, and makes a contribution to the understanding of his literary theory, although, with a certain understatement, she points out that the analytical plane chosen is biographical and not that of narratology and literary criticism. Above all, Angier succeeds in illustrating, even on the biographical-intellectual level, the value of that highly original ethical and aesthetic experience that the reader encounters in Sebald’s pages.

Considering the limit of my expertise, I cannot here attempt to engage in an analysis of the literary significance of this important biographical research although this is something that would certainly deserve to be done. Rather, I aim to dwell on a few issues that Angier’s work contributes to highlighting, and that question my thinking as a historian and jurist.

It should be noted that although Sebald deals with major themes with considerable relevance for law and justice, he does not pursue this path. However, a closer reading allows us to also perceive in his work some hints for a new look at legal issues. The intention of the following pages [2] is to focus on this perspective. I do not intend to answer the question ‘who is W.G. Sebald?’; rather, I want to ask how his work can contribute to renewing and improving our view of justice, law and history.

2. Fiction and the Truth of History

A feature of Sebald’s writings is that it narrates stories of real characters, but with approximations, artfully altering aspects of the reference model, in some cases mixing different reference models [3]. The highly original way of incorporating real facts and events into the fictional creation makes his works uncategorisable [4].

Carole Angier devotes a great deal of attention to the relationship between the story and its sources («the extraordinary work of Sebaldian bricolage»), precisely in the sense of verifying the degree of correspondence it has with real underlying models [5]. The biographical reconstruction clearly shows how the creative origin of Sebaldian writing lies precisely in the encounter with real people, either through personal testimony or through the traces they left behind (for example, the relevance of diaries in the development of the stories).

The point of interest in this regard is that at the basis of his poetics is «his experience» threaded «with references from his reading, from art and history, and transformed into literature» [6]. Angier emphasises the transformative effect [7] that the real fact must necessarily undergo in literary transposition. Sebald operates such manipulations not for mere narrative purposes; the aim is that the reader believes in the reality of the characters in the story [8]. The narrative dimension (fiction) is used to derive the effet du réel [9], making it a place that allows readers to grasp the ‘truth’ of the experience better than the strictly documentary level (non-fiction) [10]. The artifice of narration serves to investigate the truth of facts at a deeper level; after all, the act of memory itself is like an «act of narrative» [11].

Sebald himself explains this concept. In Luftkrieg und Literatur he stated how the point of view of the eyewitness had to be «supplemented by what a synoptic and artificial view reveals» [12]. And, again, he suggests this perspective by analysing the hyperrealism and «radical objectivity» that characterises the work of the painter Jan Peter Tripp [13]; as has been observed [14], this idea of art as a means of entering more deeply into the representation of reality is also readily applicable to the very nature of Sebald’s writing.

The added value of artistic representation concerns the understanding of the underlying truth of empirical reality [15] which is what differentiates it from mere photographic reproduction, just as literature is distinct from mere documentation. And conversely, «the most precise study of the past» cannot, on its own, achieve the truth of history [16].

In other words, Sebald’s narrative is organized as a way of reporting to the reader true stories that really happened [17]; but this is done by means of a constant field of tension between reality and fiction, on which the reader, confronted with the verisimilitude of the story, tends to continuously question himself. With this ploy, the narrative reaches towards a deeper degree of truth and achieves a transfer and restitution effect, as we will explain later. This is one of the main goals for Sebald as writer, scholar and intellectual.

3. Aesthetics and Ethics in Literary Writing

To some extent we can say that through narrative we can promote an ‘ethical reorientation’ of collective memory [18]. And it is precisely from an ethical placement that storytelling draws its strength in transmitting the truth of history. This is superior, as Sebald says, to what the science of the past is capable, adding that there is no other way of thinking about literature. Angier also explains how ethics and aesthetics are inseparable in Sebald; the rightness of the aesthetic canon corresponds to the moral rightness of the writing [19].

And indeed, his critique of German studies and German writers in the second half of the 20th century focuses on this problem; in his eyes, they are culpable of preferring a merely formal approach to literature. This concerns not only the way of approaching literary criticism but also the type of literature that was produced.

In Sebald’s opinion, German literature, especially that of the 1950s and 1960s, showed an obvious ethical deficit when it did not want to face the experience of the annihilation of the years of the Second World War and Nazism but on the contrary, contributed to neutralising the memory of it [20]. He also renews his criticism, although in less indignant tones, of those literary tendencies which, from the mid-1960s onwards, were then actually faced with the weight of the past; the reasons, once again, lie in the undeniable «ethical and aesthetic inadequacies» [21] that he also finds in that form of remembering the past.

It is perhaps useful to emphasise that this ethical tension in Sebald is part of a more general critique of modernity and its post-modern outcomes, where, in his view, the aesthetic project tends to overwhelm the ethical one; the «responsibility to remember the past», and this applies to Germany in particular, gives the intellectual the task of opposing this trend [22].

4. A Social Function for Literature?

The previous considerations lead us to address a key question in assessing the possible contribution of Sebald’s work to a reflection on law and its justice. What is the function of literature? Does it have a social or even a political function? Angier expresses a fairly clear opinion in this regard: «His work is not about society», she states in the final pages of the volume, rather Sebald is interested in the investigation of the «true nature of reality which lies beyond physics»; he is moved by a metaphysical tension [23].

Indeed, Sebald himself explains this: art is able to capture the truth of things understood as «the metaphysical underside of reality» [24]. He does not limit himself to the social and political level, he wants to go deeper, he wants to understand human nature. It is this quest that leads him to the desolating contemplation of a natural history of destruction; a destruction caused by mankind which, by subjugating other species, undermines «the balance of nature» [25].

Yet this does not resolve the questions posed above. His research, in fact, however much it intends to go to the underside of reality, assumes as an analytical basis the facts of history, society and its problems. And his discourse on destruction is then structured specifically as a critique of the history of modernity, that is, of contemporary history that has been unfolding since the Enlightenment [26]. And then in Sebald «a concern for the human being in the anthropological-social perspective» [27] is undeniable.

The natural history of destruction is thus not just a way of expressing a nihilistic view of reality. Through bedingungslos negativ (unconditional negative) writing [28], Sebald seeks «the possibility of redemption from an ‘obscene’ history» [29]. In this way, I want to argue that it is possible to observe a social and political relevance in his discourse, even though this only considers a superficial level compared to the depth of which it is capable.

Sebald’s literary criticism referred to above, on closer inspection also concerns German society, or rather the way in which post-war West German society has been re-established: under the sign of a removal and of what he called the ‘conspiracy of silence’ [30]. «The deep state of mind in our country», Sebald observes when commenting on the fact of the bombing of German cities, was not formed by the confrontation with the event of annihilation, it did not take on the value of «an experience capable of public decipherment» [31].

The critique against the literature of the 1950s, which failed to ‘explore the truth’ is, at the same time, a critique of the way in which the «postwar society» was re-founded [32]; the «absence of reactions of mourning […] left negative impressions on the internal life of the new society», with a «distorted mental attitude» [33], deprived it of social and political categories such as guilt, penance, atonement and repentance. This, Sebald concludes, tackles «the question of the authenticity of democracy in Germany» [34], since any true project of democratic rebirth cannot do without a confrontation with the past and a «direct or mediated confession of guilt» [35].

Sebald’s thinking both as a scholar and as a writer, while undoubtedly justified by an investigation into the nature of man and the natural drift to destruction towards which his story seems to be heading, is nonetheless within the framework of a civic concern and a commitment to the transformation of society.

There is one final aspect that confirms this conclusion: the dynamics of transmission that literature is called upon to perform and to which we have already alluded. This dynamic is built into the story, in which the narrator is often also the listener (think for example of the narrator of Max Ferber or Austerlitz) to whom the memory of facts is transmitted [36]. He then also acts on the readers of his stories. Sebald wants to dialogue with the reader and give him an active role [37] in the search for the ‘truth content’of the text. This conversion of the reader into a witness [38] makes possible the effect of the transmission of a knowledge of the past and an awareness of the need to rethink society.

5. The Device of Telluric Memory

The events that Sebald narrates and to which the readers are made witnesses, all concern the emergence of trauma, predominantly related to the years of the Second World War and the campaigns of extermination. He therefore deals with issues, as noted at the beginning, that are certainly relevant to law and that question the demand for justice: crimes against humanity or genocide, transitional justice towards democracy, colonialism, emigration, exile and the great Napoleonic epics, which open up the realisation of the new modern order in the 19th century [39], as an announcement of the destruction and tragedies of the 20th century. In order to assess the relevance of Sebald’s discourse to these problems of law and politics, it is necessary to start with a few notations.

The first is that Sebald, in narrating these traumas, always makes use of an indirect, or, as he calls it, tangential approach [40]. This is due primarily to the enormity of the theme that is not easy to write about directly, according to the ethical-aesthetic canons Sebald gives to literature. In my opinion, however, the tangential approach to the narrative of trauma also depends on the choice of focus. Sebald, in fact, does not seem interested in describing the event in itself, but rather in illustrating its after effect, both on the victims who survive the trauma, and on those who have been touched by it even only indirectly and, therefore, remain hooked on that past they have not experienced [41]. This seems to be an important aspect as it emphasises that the act of remembering the past applies above all to the present, or, in other words, that the perspective of meaning of the act of remembering is to be found in its further effects.

The second observation relates to the moment of the emergence of the trauma. The facts that provoke it are not directly reported, but are recalled, that is, they are the outcome of a memory that arises and changes the vision of the present and the future. It is necessary to reflect on this device of memory.

It is a telluric memory [42], which destabilises to the point of inducing the protagonists to commit suicide (for example Paul Bereyter) or in any case to retreat from society (as in the case of Amos Aldewahrt or Austerlitz). It affects different figures (persecuted Jews, political dissidents, writers, artists, intellectuals) but they all share the fact of suffering from a «form of failed symbiosis with the social fabric» [43]. The telluric effect is caused by a «clash of individual and collective memories» [44], which provokes the self-exclusion of those who feel its unsustainability.

The focus of the narrative rests, therefore, on the process of individual disengagement from the social bond, and on society’s inability to include the problem of the weight of the past among the factors of social cohesion. The memory that arises endorses this situation: marks a disillusionment with a project of society that pretended to be based on the value of human dignity (and this is particularly true in the case of federal Germany [45]), but is only superficially succeeding.

The most significant fact to grasp is, therefore, the deconstructive function of telluric memory. Rather than acting as a social glue, it calls into question the social bond at its foundation. Studies on the subject [46], as well as other contributions from literature [47], have already highlighted how important the question of collective memory is in determining the possibility of social cohesion. In other words, the critique of the contemporary world, which we have already mentioned above and which drives Sebald’s commitment as a writer and scholar, returns on the narrative level.

In this respect, then, there could also be a pars construens in the telluric memory: the narration of stories of exclusion or self-exclusion from the social fabric becomes «a proactive means of awakening consciences against ‘the sleep of reason’» [48]. Indeed, the major failure for which Sebald reproaches post-war literature lies precisely in the fact that it has contributed to preventing the past from exercising «its rights over the present» [49] and thus the dynamic of the infuturation of the past [50]. Sebald wants to address the question of the «future of the past», since any condition of collective amnesia is equivalent to «forgetting what defines us» [51].

There is then a third consideration to bear in mind when observing the relevance of Sebald’s discourse to the problems of law and justice. There is an awareness in Sebald that responding to the injustice of events such as mass extermination implies an additional, pre-legal task. The experience of Nazism and the war, the crimes committed in that past, exceeded the limits of law [52], to the point that, afterwards, legal instruments were inadequate to deal with the demand for justice; as has been observed, «what had happened profoundly changed the ways in which it was possible to think about justice and judgement» [53]. For the reasons we mentioned above regarding the removal and conspiracy of silence, transitional justice after the end of the Second World War failed to provide an adequate response.

Telluric memory, confronted with this inadequacy, helps to build a new image of justice. In particular, there are two contributions it can make: implementing an attempt at restitution and enabling the exercise of a right to resentment.

5.1. The Issue of Restitution

Sebald thematised the concept of Restitution in one of his last official speeches; the passage is well known: «only in literature, however, can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of facts and over and above scholarship» [54]. Restitution is an act that can only be attempted through literature; it is a pre-legal act of reparation, before a law and a political project that have been shown to fail in their most essential task: to produce justice.

It is indeed a central aspect of Sebald’s discourse that complements the other two identified above: the ‘transformative capacity’ of fiction to understand the truth of history and the ‘dynamics of transmission’ in the reader made witness. Literature has the capacity to break the division between space and time [55]. Therefore, it can also act as a means of transmitting the memory of the traumatic events of the 20th century – events that social conventions would have put into oblivion – to those who did not experience those moments.

The relevance of the theme of restitution has been the subject of many Sebaldian studies [56]. Angier highlights it in the final chapter of her volume. For her, the concept of Restitution rather than in the compensatory sense of ‘recompense’ should be understood as ‘restoration’: what is irretrievably lost can be «recalled and preserved in art» [57].

It is in this capacity for recovery and at the same time preservation that the redemptive [58] or at least restorative [59] potential for those who have suffered the «greatest injustice» is expressed. The restorative effect, although it can also be interpreted as a form of individual rehabilitation with respect to the victims [60], lies in the propagation of this awareness within society.

In this respect, Restitution is thus addressed more to the reader than to the protagonists of the memorable events narrated. The idea of restitution, in other words, is created from an appreciation of the victim’s point of view with respect to the way in which the problem of justice was collectively solved in transitional phases; it tends, however, to produce its effects precisely with respect to the entire community, since it reconstructs, as Angier argues, «the consolation of fellowship across the years» [61].

The attempt at restitution puts back into the circuit of collective memory problems, values and instances that had been removed from the identitarian horizons of the new democratic societies. In so doing, it contributes to the formation of a collective consciousness, adding a component that was missing at the moment of the ex novo constitution of society [62] from the ashes of the destruction of the Second World War. Recovering the past, in the sense of «cultivating the memory of past events» appears in this sense as a means of building the future [63].

5.2. The Right to Resentment

Alongside restitution there is another ‘legally relevant’outcome of the effect of telluric memory, the identification of a human right: ‘the right to resentment’ (Recht auf Ressentiment). This aspect is rarely considered in studies dedicated to Sebal [64]; Angier herself does not make it a specific object of analysis. Although it may be marginal in the complex of meanings Sebald’s work is able to produce, it is of particular interest for our reasoning.

Sebald mentions this in the essay dedicated to Jean Améry. Here he also resorts to legal terminology, such as when he explains that through the work of writing it is a matter of promoting a demand for the «recognition of the right to resentment» [65], or when he makes reference to the insufficiency of ‘compensation’ as a hypothetical ‘remedy’ for the ‘tort’ suffered by the victims of persecution, or again when he speaks of the exclusion of ‘revengei and ius talionis [66]. While the concern is certainly moral and ethical, here Sebald also intends to reflect in legal terms on the problem [67].

The basis of a right to resentment is identified in the fact of the violence inflicted by society on the surviving victim, the irreparable condition in which the victim was placed. It is a condition marked by the «long delayed effects of an injustice» [68], from the loss of the Heimat [69], from the sense of guilt of having survived and from being trapped in an existence in which «the thread of chronological time is broken, background and foreground merge, the victim’s logical means of support in his existence are suspended» [70]; the memory of the violence suffered, the experience of death while remaining alive are eternalized (in the sense that the traumatic event of the past still persists in the present, giving it form). The victims of these atrocities therefore have an indisputable right to resentment.

Sebald also reflects on the content of the right to resentment: it is the faculty to express an «implacable resentment», a «necessity of continuing to protest», an «unremitting denunciation of injustice». And this, more than for its effects on the victims, is thought of in terms of its effects on society. In fact, with the exercise of the right to resentment, it is possible to promote a «truly critical view of the past», it is possible to reopen «the conflict – which never in the moral sense took place – between the overpowered and those who overpowered them»; this is not in order to enact revenge, nor even to be compensated (considering that the damage suffered is irreparable). The right to resentment reopens the question between victims and perpetrators to «actualize the conflict» over time, so as to make possible «a programmatic attempt to sensitize the consciousness of a people “already rehabilitated by time”» [71].

In short, the right to resentment, which literature allows one to exercise, is a social transformation device, serving to move society towards a ‘moral question’ that was not adequately addressed when it was re-founded according to the new coordinates of democracy, and the new values of human dignity, material equality, and human rights. However, such a legal construction, if accepted, has an important implication on how we understand transitional justice.

6. The Problem of Transitional Justice

I would now like to make a few concluding remarks. Indeed, as a jurist and historian, at this point in the discourse, it is only possible to open up questions rather than summarize them. I will therefore make a short list of opportunities and possible research paths that the reading of Sebald invites us to attempt.

The first observation has to do with the approach to the study of transitional justice. Sebald suggests we adopt a different point of view, that is, starting from that of the victims. In fact, the study of the problems of transitional justice has often been based on the categories, principles and general causes that guided the choices between the restorative or pacifying need, in relation to the objective of reconstructing the social fabric. Some recent research [72] confirms the plausibility of this victimological reconstructive viewpoint. Following the victim’s perspective, moreover, the theme of ‘transitional justice’ extends to that grey, not strictly legal area, which includes not only the phenomenon of truth and justice commissions, but also all those forms of self-organization and strategies of social actors carried out to promote the exercise of a ‘right to truth’.

A second opportunity, which derives from following Sebald’s thought, is to consider a change of focus in studying transitional justice. We should think more about the ‘dynamics of re-opening’ rather than re-composition of conflict. It would not be so much a question of understanding how transitional justice makes it possible to achieve the re-establishment of social peace or the reconstruction of a social fabric or of a political and legal order. Instead, it would be a matter of reflecting on its selective character, the silencing action with which it carried out these processes and the «zones of irresponsibility» [73] it helped to construct. This reconstructive approach [74], appears particularly useful for understanding the long duration of the problems faced during transitions to democracy.

The third opportunity consists in reflecting on the necessarily inconclusive character of transitional justice. It is necessary to consider that the configurations that law and institutions have assumed in the time of transition are affected by the need to respond to the multiplicity of interests and values that fragment the demand for justice. In other words, the solutions it offers in legal terms are very much dependent on the situation. Transitional justice is affected by the attributive force of the time in which it takes place.

However, this original constraint, given the resilience typical of legal institutions, tends to have effects even in the stages following the transition itself. Transitional justice, in addition to being situational, is ultra-active. On the one hand, it serves to fix a starting point, but at the same time it proposes solutions that are necessarily impermanent, because the composition of interests and values that it balanced are destined to confront each other again (and for an indefinite time) in the social fabric. What legal solutions are appropriate for taking account of a demand for justice that will necessarily remain open?

The emergence of telluric memory reminds us that there is a magmatic base beneath our legal foundations; taking care that these can be dipped into is crucial for the effectiveness of the democratic project and its commitment to justice.


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Silverblatt, Michael (2010), A Poem of an Invisible Subject (interview), in Schwartz, Lynne S. (ed.), The Emergence of Memory. Conversations with W.G. Sebald, New York, Seven Stories, pp. 77-86

Solimano, Stefano (2016), Un secolo giuridico (1814-1916). Legislazione, cultura e scienza del diritto in Italia e in Europa, in Alvazzi del Frate, Paolo, Marco Cavina, Riccardo Ferrante, Nicoletta Sarti, Stefano Solimano, Giuseppe Speciale, Elio Tavilla, Tempi del diritto. Età medievale, moderna, contemporanea, Torino, Giappichelli, pp. 319-386

Solimano, Stefano (2021), Ei fu ... il codice (anche). La costruzione di un mito attraverso le immagini, in «LawArt. Rivista di diritto, arte e storia», 2, pp. 19-42

Stolleis, Michael (2014), Nahes Unrecht, fernes Recht. Zur juristischen Zeitgeschichte im 20. Jahrhundert, Göttingen, Wallstein

Stonebridge, Lyndsey (2011), The Judicial Imagination. Writing after Nuremberg, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press

Simic, Charles (2010), Conspiracy of Silence, in Schwartz, Lynne S. (ed.), The Emergence of Memory. Conversations with W.G. Sebald, New York, Seven Stories, pp. 145-158

Vassalli, Giuliano (2001), Formula di Radbruch e diritto penale. Note sulla punizione dei “delitti di Stato” nella Germania post-nazista e nella Germania postcomunista, Milano, Giuffrè

Wachtel, Eleanor (2010), Ghost Hunter (interview), in Schwartz, Lynne S. (ed.), The Emergence of Memory. Conversations with W.G. Sebald, New York, Seven Stories, pp. 37-61

Weller, Sahne (2013), Unquiet Prose: W.G. Sebald and the Writing of the Negative, in Baxter, Jannette, Valerie Henitiuk, Ben Hutchinson (eds.), A Literature of Restitution. Critical Essays on W.G. Sebald, Manchester, Manchester University Press, pp. 56-73


[1] Another successful biographical work by Carole Angier is dedicated to Primo Levi. See Angier (2002).

[2] I thank Cristiano Paixão for suggestions and discussion.

[3] Angier (2021), pp. 19-26, 80-81 416-424. This is the case of Cosmo or Dr. Selvyn, in Die Ausgewanderten, or Austerlitz in Austerlitz.

[4] Angier (2021), pp. VIII-IX.

[5] Angier (2021), pp. 284-291.

[6] Angier (2021), p. 331.

[7] «Most of what he used he transformed»: Angier (2021), p. 285.

[8] Angier (2021), p. 287.

[9] Franklin (2011), pp. 186-188.

[10] Here the influence of Walter Benjamin appears relevant. See Angier (2021), pp. 198, 248, 264; Banki (2016a); Agazzi (2012), pp. 8-12; Matteini (2017), p. 165. Consider in particular the essay Goethe Wahlverwandtschaften where Benjamin writes about the “truth content” of the work of art (Benjamin, 2014, pp. 163-164).

[11] Franklin (2011), p. 12.

[12] Sebald (2004a), p. 26; Sebald (2004b); and the interview by Cuomo (2010), p. 108. See also Franklin (2011), pp. 13 and 188-189; Simic (2010), p. 149.

[13] Sebald (2013), pp. 157 e 160: «The exact reproduction of reality achieves an almost unimaginable degree of precision».

[14] Franklin (2011), pp. 183-184.

[15] Sebald (2013), p. 164. This is due to the fact that art «depends on ambiguity, polyvalence, resonance, obfuscation and illumination, in short, the transcending of that which, according to an ineluctable law, has necessarily to be the case».

[16] Sebald (2006), p. 13; Sebald (2004a), pp. 80-81.

[17] Angier (2021), p. 26.

[18] In this sense also Franklin (2011), p. 189; Kilbourn (2013), p. 251.

[19] Angier (2021), pp. 260, 344-345. See also Agazzi (2012), p. 37; Franklin (2011), pp. 18 and 193; Russell (2013), p. 251.

[20] Sebald (2004a). Writing about the writer Alfred Andersch, Sebald states that «when a morally compromised author claims the field of aesthetics as a value-free area it should make his readers stop and think» (p. 131). See Assmann (2006), pp. 109 and 184-185. She credits Sebald’s polemical initiative with having posed the problem and opened a debate. However, she assesses the lack of mourning in the literature of those decades as a symptom of the trauma itself.

[21] Sebald (2004a), p. 146. It is the essay on Jean Améry: Mit den Augen des Nachtvogels (1987)). In this perspective see also Konstruktionen der Trauer. Zu Günter Grass «Tagebuch einer Schnecke» und Wolfgang Hildesheimer “Tynset” (1983) in Sebald (2006). It may be interesting to point out that here, Sebald attributes to legal events such as the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt am Main, the impulse for a change in the attitude of men of letters towards the problem of the genocide of the Jews. See also Wachtel (2010), p. 48; Angier (2021), pp. 196-197; Schütte (2019), p. 107.

[22] Agazzi (2012), p. 12; Kilbourn (2013), p. 251.

[23] Angier (2021), p. 428. See also Simic (2010), p. 149 and Schütte (2019), pp. 205-207.

[24] Sebald (2013), p. 166.

[25] Angier (2021), pp. 342 and 398. The history of mankind for Sebald, is a history of a ‘long account of calamities’, as explained by Schwartz (2010), p. 9. In his works, Sebald speaks not only of the tragedy of WWII, but also of that of colonialism, and of the destruction of Corsica’s natural paradise. See Sebald (1998) and (2006), pp. 35-46; Gray (2017), pp. 316-412; Schütte (2019), pp. 77-103.

[26] Agazzi (2012), passim, in partic. pp. 73-76, 120, 128, 184. Schütte (2019), p. 86. E.g. the interest in the figure of Rousseau in Sebald (2013). E.g. the Napoleonic vicissitudes in Schwindel. Gefühle or in the essays dedicated to Corsica. Sebald (1990) and (2006), pp. 1-14. Napoleon, as pointed out by Agazzi (2012), p. 76, represents for Sebald «the initiator of the European dream in which a disordered continent was to be made into something more orderly, more regulated»; this is the beginning of the «dream of power politics» that will lead to the catastrophes of the 20th century.

[27] Agazzi (2012), p. 12. Sebald himself expresses his interest for «cultural and social history» in the interview by Wachtel (2010), p. 44.

[28] The negative (e.g. the recurring ‘Unworte/unwords’) is «enacted in his language – in his development of particular words and phrases, in his syntax, and in the rhythm of his prose» Weller (2013), p. 57. It is a revival of the “to do negative” idea formulated in Adorno’s thought (Dialetic of Enlightenment, 1947). See Agazzi (2012), p. 11.

[29] Weller (2013), p. 72.

[30] Sebald, in the interview by Wachtel (2010), pp. 44 and 48 and by Silverblatt (2010), pp. 84-85. See Simic (2010), pp. 145-158. Angier (2021), pp. 126-130.

[31] Sebald (2004a), p. 4.

[32] Sebald (2006), p. 97; Sebald (2004a), p. 69.

[33] Sebald (2006), pp. 97-98. Italics mine.

[34] Sebald (2006), p. 104. Italics mine.

[35] Agazzi (2012), p. 39.

[36] Sebald (1998) and (2001). See Schwartz (2010), p. 17.

[37] Murray (2013), p. 196. Baxter/Henitiuk/Hutchinson (2013), pp. 11-12. Angier (2021), p. 146.

[38] See Murray (2013), p. 202; Banki (2016b).

[39] Which in historiography, significantly, has been defined as the “legal century”. See Solimano (2021) and (2016); Ferrante (2015).

[40] Sebald (2004b); interview by Silverblatt (2010), pp. 79-81; Matteini (2017), p. 164.

[41] «Shaped by the war that happened before they were born» observes Angier (2021), p. 386. See also Franklin (2011), p. 186.

[42] Sebald in the interview with Wachtel (2010), pp. 54-56; Here, it is Sebald himself who, in explaining the device of memory, speaks of «the natural world» and of «that other world which is generated by our brain cells» as «tectonic plates rub against each other»; memory leads «where the sources of pain are» and causes the clash.

[43] Agazzi (2012), p. 13.

[44] Baxter/Henitiuk/Hutchinson (2013), p. 1.

[45] Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 1949, Art. 1: «Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar».

[46] For example, Assmann (2006) and Ricoeur (2000).

[47] For example, a novel such as L’orologio by Carlo Levi (1950), when considering authors writing about the post-WWII transition. See Meccarelli (2020).

[48] Agazzi (2012), p. 13.

[49] Agazzi (2012), pp. 12 and 176-187, where he points out that Sebald shares Walter Benjamin’s vision of history. See Benjamin (2014), p. 76.

[50] Sebald explains (2004a), p. 7, that the effect of that removal is to have prevented people from looking back to the past, thereby «pointing the population exclusively towards the future». And again, in the writing of Campo santo, in Sebald (2006), pp. 32-33, he returns to the subject of deploring «present without memory».

[51] Schwartz (2010), p. 14. For Sebald, memory and restitution through literature are a way out of the «nightmare of a world without memory» argues Gilloch (2013), p. 144.

[52] For example, the Nuremberg trials raised the need for an updating of the legal framework including the setting up of veritable new categories and instruments. E.g. the debate on crime against peace, crime against humanity and genocide. See Sands (2017), pp. 329-387; Stonebridge (2011), p. 25. E.g. also of the debate on the notion of Unrecht and State crimes. See Vassalli (2001); Stolleis (2014).

[53] Stonebridge (2011), p. 2.

[54] Sebald (2004b). Ein Versuch der Restitution was first delivered as a speech at the opening of the House of Literature, in Stuttgart, in 2001, then published in the posthumous essay collection Campo santo – Sebald (2006) – and in an English version in 2004 in the print edition of The New Yorker.

[55] Angier (2021), p. 439.

[56] See for example Baxter/Henitiuk/Hutchinson (2013).

[57] Angier (2021), pp. 438-439. See also Franklin (2011), pp. 193-194; Finch (2013), p. 112; Kilbourn (2013), pp. 260-261.

[58] Finch (2013), p. 112.

[59] Kilbourn (2013), p. 261.

[60] Franklin (2011), p. 194 who speaks of a restoration «of a person’s legal status, taken away from the violation of international law».

[61] Angier (2021), p. 403; Schwartz (2010), p. 17.

[62] Sebald (2004a), p. 69.

[63] Agazzi (2012), 147. Moreover, the memory Sebald (2004a) refers to is not only individual memory but also collective or cultural memory.

[64] A reference can be found in Schütte (2019), p. 34.

[65] Sebald (2004a), in particular p. 158. Sebald himself puts the term ‘right’in italics. See also Schütte (2019), pp. 33-34.

[66] Sebald (2004a), in particular pp. 146-158.

[67] It might be interesting to mention here that Sebald also shows an express interest in law in his early work devoted to Arnold Zweig: Sebald (1977). The essay – which deals with themes such as the «gross injustices» of war (and in particular of its «administrative mechanism») (p. 127) the «fallibility of martial law» (p. 128) and the contrast between law and power (pp. 127-130) – law is considered as an instrument for anchoring society to the value of humanitarianism: «where law is swept aside […] politics becomes criminal and society of men reverts from civilisation to barbarity» (p. 131).

[68] Angier (2021), p. 166.

[69] Sebald (2004a), pp. 158-163, See also Matteini (2017), p. 168; Gray (2017), pp. 191-212; Schütte (2019), pp. 28-34; Angier (2021), pp. 168 and 318.

[70] Sebald (2004a), p. 150.

[71] Sebald (2004a), pp. 157-158.

[72] See for example Paiva (2021); Osmo (2021); Lessa (2022); Carotenuto (2015).

[73] Matteini (2017), p. 163; Agamben (2016), pp. 16-19.

[74] See Paixão (2020); Neuenschwander (2021); Aragoneses (2021); Meniconi/Neppi Modona (2022).