The Unknowable Past / November 1917: WG Sebald's documentary fiction and A documentary novel.

Charles Rangeley-Wilson

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


Abstract - The Unknowable Past

W.G. Sebald defined his prose works variously: as investigative journalism, as hybrids of fact and fiction, and as documentary fiction – but never as conventional fiction. He often expressed an impatience with traditional fictional narrative, with a depth of feeling that pointed to something more beyond taste. Nevertheless, the bulk of contemporary critical reception was insistent on the status of Sebald’s work as fiction, as if in a qualitative as well as theoretical sense. This missed the point. Sebald’s hybrid prose form was determined not so much by a desire to push at the boundaries of post-modern fiction as by his search for an ethically tolerable way to describe a world disfigured by absolutism: for a form of literature that did not impose on either the subjects of the narrative or its readers, that acknowledged the uncertainty of the narrator and between what is real and invented: these ethical constraints prescribed the relationship between the author, his material and the reader so that Sebald’s creative prose has more in common with traditional genres of non-fiction such as essay, memoir (including diaries and albums), travelogue and documentary reportage, than with anything normally understood to be fictional. These ethical constraints (and the aesthetic possibilities those constraints suggested) constituted a dialectical process the formal resolution of which was prose which allowed for a tactful and yet powerful evocation and exploration of territory otherwise prone to cliché and empathetic imposture.

Abstract - November 1917

On the 20th November 1917, in the opening minutes of the battle of Cambrai and as he led his men out of Hush Valley towards the German line and Bleak Trench, Captain Charley Taddy was killed by a sniper. Decades later as the century turns, the impact of the shot that killed him still echoes on the edge of the Norfolk Fens. William, the youngest of the five sons Charley left behind, is confined by a stroke to the bedroom he has slept in ever since he was a small boy and heard the house-maid crying out ‘the Captain’s dead! The Captain’s dead!’ His brother Alfred is racing William to the grave. He has also taken to his bed, the one place he was always most afraid of. ‘As long as I am not abandoned,’ Alfred says each night, before the nightmares start. Tracing the traumatic impact of a death in the family as it cascades through generations, November 1917 is about how we are shaped by our inherited histories and live under the shadow of the past.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Cowie, Douglas, Supervisor
  • Hampson, Robert, Supervisor
  • Motion, Andrew, Supervisor
Award date1 Jan 2022
Publication statusUnpublished - 21 Feb 2022

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