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Thesis title: Authenticity in the work of W G Sebald and Bruce Chatwin
Start year: 2016
My PhD follows on from the MA I undertook a few years ago on the work of the German author W G Sebald, which looked at various aspects of the uncanny in his prose narratives. Using a hybrid blend of fiction, historiography, life-writing and travel narrative, Sebald’s voice is certainly amongst the most interesting in contemporary literature, and as such continues to be studied widely in academia. Alongside Sebald, my research will also include the work of the writer Bruce Chatwin, a far less common figure to be seen studied in universities but arguably one who left a body of work similarly important and difficult to categorise.
Chatwin was a self-mythologist who blurred the boundary between fact and fiction in his own life, and travelled widely because not only was he naturally peripatetic but his concept of self was equally nomadic. Similarly Sebald used themes of physical movement and displacement, often diasporic, as a means by which to problematize the construction of a stable sense of self in the face of unreliable memory and the questionable legitimacy of truth. The end result is that the work of both authors questions the concept of an integrated and centralised self, and asks whether one is able to exist authentically as a unitary subject. The narrators of Sebald and Chatwin attempt various diverse means to locate the authentic, from collecting Meissen porcelain to analysing photographs and films, but their efforts are consistently framed within the narrative device of the physical journey and tropes of movement, often in juxtaposition with representations of stasis and enclosure. My approach is that these journeys allow the narrator to engage with the liminal space between subject and object where interpretations of the self are (de)constructed, a space which Sebald has described as a ‘fault-line’ in our identities.
Furthermore, as part of my research I hope to analyse not only the published work of Sebald and Chatwin but also the holdings of the Chatwin collection at the Bodleian library, where his extensive notes for a book-length project called The Nomadic Alternative are housed. My goal in undertaking a detailed analysis of identity and authenticity through the lens of the travel narrative in these authors is to add something new to the fascinating debate on authenticity in contemporary culture, and to uncover comparisons and textual interpretations previously unexamined in their work.
W G Sebald, Bruce Chatwin, authenticity, Heidegger, peripatetic, psychogeography, phenomenology
Contemporary literature, autobiography and life-writing, the contemporary travel narrative, literature of trauma and loss, creative writing
Currently in the early stages of research – reading and note taking!
Most of my working life has been spent in the NHS, in both clinical and non-clinical roles. I enjoy writing about rare books, literature and modern first editions and have had several articles published on subjects as diverse as the Beat writers, American hardboiled detective fiction and early British sci-fi.