W.G. Sebald was born in 1944 in the corner of southern Germany where Germany, Austria, and Switzerland converge. In his early twenties he left for England to further his studies in German literature, and spent most of his working life teaching there at a provincial university. By the time of his death in 2001 he had a solid body of academic publications to his name, mainly on the literature of Austria.
But in his middle years Sebald also blossomed as a writer, first with a book of poetry, then with a sequence of four prose fictions. The second of these, The Emigrants (1993, English translation 1996), brought him wide attention, particularly in the English-speaking world, where its blend of storytelling, travel record, fictive biography, antiquarian essay, dream, and philosophical rumination, executed in elegant if rather lugubrious prose and supplemented with photographic documentation of an endearingly amateurish quality, struck a decidedly new note (the German reading public was accustomed by this time to the crossing and indeed trampling of boundaries between fiction and nonfiction).
The people in Sebald’s books are for the most part what used to be called melancholics. The tone of their lives is defined by a hard-to-articulate sense that they do not belong in the world, that perhaps human beings in general do not belong here. They are humble enough not to claim they are preternaturally sensitive to the currents of history—in fact they tend to believe there is something wrong with them—but the tenor of Sebald’s enterprise is to suggest that his people are prophetic, even though the fate of the prophet in the modern world is to be obscure and unheard.
What is the basis of their melancholy? Again and again Sebald suggests they are laboring under the burden of Europe’s recent history, a history in which the Holocaust looms large. Internally they are wracked by conflict between a self-protective urge to block off a painful past and a blind groping for something, they do not know what, that has been lost.
Although in Sebald’s stories the overcoming of amnesia is often figured as the culmination of a labor of research—burrowing in archives, tracking down witnesses—the recovery of the past only confirms what at the deepest level his people already know, what their steady melancholy in the face of the world already expresses, and what, in their intermittent breakdowns or catalepsies, their bodies have all along been saying in their own language, the language of symptom: that there is no cure, no salvation.
The form that the crisis of melancholy in Sebald takes is well defined. There is a lead-up full of compulsive activity, often consisting of nocturnal walking, dominated by feelings of apprehension. The world seems full of messages in some secret code. Dreams come thick and fast. Then there is the experience itself: one is on a cliff or in an aircraft, looking down in space but also back in time; man and his activities …