When W.G. Sebald died in a car accident in December 2001, he was eulogized in Great Britain and America as one of the great writers of our time. And yet, before his first book, The Emigrants, was translated into English in 1996, very few had ever heard of him outside Germany. The reception of that first book and the others that soon followed in quick order was simply astonishing. He was called one of the most original voices to have come out of Europe in recent years, a Teutonic Borges, strange, sublime, and haunting. “Is literary greatness still possible?” Susan Sontag asked in the TLS and then replied: “One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W.G. Sebald.” Since his death, however, there have been differing views. What at first appeared to be a seamless prose style turned out to be on closer examination a patchwork of literary borrowings. His books, it seemed, were as much the product of his vast erudition as they were of his own imagination and experience. This raises the question whether a writer who draws many of his ideas from other writers can still be called an original. If anyone can, Sebald may be the one.
I suppose most everyone who read The Emigrants in Michael Hulse’s translation, when it came out, shared Sontag’s high opinion. It was a book unlike any other one had read. At times it sounded like a novel, at other times like a memoir or a work of non-fiction. There were even documents and photographs to complicate the question of how it should be understood. The narrative tells about the lives of four emigrants: an old Lithuanian Jewish doctor who accidentally emigrated to London in his youth, having embarked on a ship he thought was going to United States; a German schoolteacher who was forced to leave his job in 1935 and move to France because he had a Jewish grandfather and was thus only three-quarters Aryan, but who then returned home and served in the Wehrmacht; a great-uncle of Sebald’s who emigrated to America and ended in a mental hospital in Ithaca, New York; and finally a Jewish painter who lost his parents in the camps and whom the narrator encounters in Manchester.
These are people like my own parents who could never forget that war, or stop being puzzled by how strange their lives turned out to be. What makes The Emigrants such a powerful book is the laconic way in which tragedies are recounted. That sounds right to me. Those who have lived through horrors tend to acquire a detachment about what happened to them. “It makes one’s head heavy and giddy,” one of them says, “as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.”
As for the author and the presumed narrator of the book, little was known about him at the time except that he was a German living and teaching in England. Sebald, we subsequently learned, was born in 1944 in Wertach im Allgäu, a small village in the Bavarian Alps, to a working-class family. His father fought in the army and was a POW. Their lives were made even more isolated by the general poverty of the postwar years and the difficulty of travel. As he explains, they never went to the cities because the cities were piles of rubble. Neither at home nor in school was there much talk about the war. Like many of his generation in Germany, he grew up feeling that many things were being hidden from him.
Sebald eventually went to study German and comparative literature in Freiburg in Switzerland and at the University of Manchester, and after a few attempts to return home settled in England permanently in 1970. He taught European literature for thirty years at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, publishing several books on nineteenth- and twentieth-century German and Austrian literature. After years of being a literary scholar, at the age of forty-four, he turned to a different kind of writing. A book of prose poems, Nach der Natur (After Nature), came out 1988, followed by a novel, Schwindel, Gefühle (Vertigo), in 1990. It was not, however, until the publication of Die Ausgewanderten: Vier lange Erzählungen (The Emigrants) in 1993 and its huge success in Germany, where he received a major literary prize, that Sebald’s name became known abroad.
Following the critical success of The Emigrants, other works by Sebald were translated, though not always in order of their composition. The Rings of Saturn, which came next, was published in 1995 in Germany. Again, the book belongs to no recognizable literary genre. It tells of a walking tour Sebald undertook on the eastern coast of England. Often, the reader has no idea of the author’s intentions and he is in no hurry to inform us. He roams the empty countryside with its equally deserted towns, stays in cheap hotels where he seems to be the only guest, dines alone, visits local museums and places of interest such as the Persian-style house of a nineteenth-century millionaire and a Sailor’s Reading Room in the town of Southwold, and describes what he saw. All in all, not much happens. His solitude draws him to other loners. There are chance meetings with strangers who have interesting stories to tell. For long stretches of time he just sits in his room:
Night had fallen and I sat in the darkness of my room on the top floor of the Vondel Park Hotel and listened to the stormy gusts buffeting the crowns of the trees. From afar came the rumble of thunder. Pallid sheet lightning streaked the horizon. At about one o’clock, when I heard the first drops rattling on the metal roof, I leant out of the window into the warm, storm-filled air. Soon the rain was pouring down into the shadowy depths of the park, which flared from time to time as if lit up by Bengal fire. The water in the gutter gurgled like a mountain stream. Once, when lightning again flashed across the sky, I looked down into the hotel garden far below me, and there, in the broad ditch that runs between the garden and the park, in the shelter of an overhanging willow, I saw a solitary mallard, motionless on the garish green surface of the water. This image emerged from the darkness, for a fraction of a second, with such perfect clarity that I can still see every individual willow leaf, the myriad green scales of duckweed, the subtlest nuances in the fowl’s plumage, and even the pores in the lid closed over its eye.
Everywhere he goes, the narrator, who evidently has read much about the region, reflects on its history. It’s the eccentricity of what he chooses to relate to us that makes the book so much fun to read. The Rings of Saturn is a literary equivalent of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, a collection of the unbelievable, the inexplicable, the one-of-a-kind. Thomas Browne’s skull is in it, and so are Belgian atrocities in the Congo, World War II bombings of Germany, Joseph Conrad’s early years, the Battle of Waterloo, the natural history of the herring, the Taiping rebellion, the matchstick model of the Jerusalem Temple, and Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson. All of these have a connection with the ports of East Anglia where Conrad started his career as an officer on British ships.
Sebald is an entertaining guide and yet his vision is bleak. Human history for him is mainly a tale about how violence is committed against the innocent and then soon forgotten. “On every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation,” he writes, paraphrasing Sir Thomas Browne.
For the history of every individual, of every social order, indeed of the whole world, does not describe an ever-widening, more and more wonderful arc, but rather follows a course which, once the meridian is reached, leads without fail down into the dark.
Sebald is a writer for out-and-out pessimists. There are no light moments and no humor in his books to speak of. His towns and cities have been swept of nearly all life. They are like stage sets for one of Samuel Beckett’s minimalist plays.
Vertigo, the first prose book he wrote, was published next. It’s been called a novel, but it’s another magic realist travel book. It describes Sebald’s journey across Europe in the footsteps of Stendhal, Casanova, and Kafka, ending in the narrator’s native Bavarian village. Once again, the book is full of fascinating anecdotes, but there are some problems too. Sebald’s pet idea seems to be that our lives are interlinked, that everything is connected, that there’s no such thing as coincidence, that we are mere chess pieces in a game played by an invisible hand; this undermines the believability of the narrative. For instance, he discovers that he is reading the description of Casanova’s escape from a Venetian prison on the same date (October 31) as Casanova’s escape; or he is perplexed to meet identical twin boys on a bus who have an uncanny resemblance to the adolescent Kafka. There’s too much of that for my taste.
All of his books report such experiences and the reader may find them either exhilarating or trying. What is still intriguing in Vertigo is Sebald’s attempt to retrieve the tone and manner of nineteenth-century lyrical prose for contemporary purposes. It’s as if someone decided to use the technique of daguerreotype to convey the appearance of today’s cities and their inhabitants. The effect would be a feeling of estrangement from our familiar surroundings, and that is precisely what Sebald has sought to do in all his books.
Austerlitz, which came out the year of his death, was his one authentic novel. (This time the translator was Anthea Bell, who would go on to translate all his remaining works.) The plot of Austerlitz is similar to the story a character in The Emigrants tells about being brought to England in one of the groups of children sent from Germany in the summer of 1939. Again, the nameless narrator, who encounters the hero, Jacques Austerlitz, in the Antwerp train station, acts as our guide. Austerlitz is an architectural historian who was raised in Wales by a Methodist minister and his wife and told nothing about his German background. Much older, haunted by blurred images of his past, he sets out to find out about the death of his Jewish parents and his early childhood years in Prague. Sebald’s subject is memory. He writes,
I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.
Everything in life conspires to make us forget, the novel is saying, and yet only by remembering do we have a possibility of learning who we are. The stakes are even higher when it comes to historical memory, since those who recall the past risk bringing down upon themselves the wrath of those who can only live from day to day by forgetting.
Austerlitz is an ambitious, intellectually complex, and often harrowing novel with many stretches of fine writing. Particularly harrowing is the account of Austerlitz’s mother being taken off to a camp. Nevertheless, the story doesn’t seem entirely credible. There are too many ideas floating around, too many scenes that remind one of Sebald’s other books, too many coincidences and conspicuous symbols such as waiting rooms. Some of the subject matter is familiar from literature about the Holocaust, and so are many of the references to the events of World War II. But even with these serious reservations, Austerlitz is not a book one easily forgets. Sebald may not be the most skillful novelist, but much of the historical material he draws on is so powerful in its own right that one tends to pass over his weaknesses.
Campo Santo, the final posthumous collection of Sebald’s writings, consists of sixteen pieces, most of them fairly short. By far the most interesting are the four chapters from an abandoned book about a walking tour of the island of Corsica. There are appreciative, finely written essays on Peter Handke, Vladimir Nabokov, Franz Kafka, Bruce Chatwin, and the contemporary German painter Jan Peter Tripp, and a piece on Sebald’s own musical education. The two longish pieces, “Between History and Natural History” and “Constructs of Mourning,” are an early version of Sebald’s nonfiction book On the Natural History of Destruction that was published after his death. The subject was the carpet bombing of German cities by the Allies and the strange silence in German literature after the war about that experience.
In surveying the works of several major fiction writers of the period in Campo Santo, he makes the interesting point that the most effective descriptions of total destruction of cities, an experience that surpasses all imagination, is to be found in the most matter-of-fact reports, such as letters. He is tough on his German compatriots, both the leading writers and the ordinary citizens, for keeping quiet about everything from bombing to the mountains of corpses in concentration camps, the murder of millions of Jews, Poles, and Russians, as well as Germans who risked their lives to oppose Hitler.
It’s not making excuses for Germans, however, to recall here that after the war neither the English nor the Americans were eager to dwell on the horrors of their bombing campaigns. As censors during the occupation, they surely would not have welcomed graphic descriptions of the carnage they created. Sebald is not being entirely fair to the postwar generation of writers. One might have expected him to try to remedy in his own fiction the failings he points to, but the destruction of German cities was never for him a major theme.
His analysis of other writers in the essays in Campo Santo often reads like a description of one of his own books. For instance, in his account of Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s novel Tynset, the protagonist, like many of Sebald’s own narrators, lives in deep distress, speaking to us from the melancholic landscape which he roams by night, entangled in the inescapable associations of a terrifying past. The characterization of the writer Bruce Chatwin reads like another self-portrait:
Just as Chatwin himself ultimately remains an enigma, one never knows how to classify his books. All that is obvious is that their structure and intentions place them in no known genre. Inspired by a kind of avidity for the undiscovered, they move along a line where the points of demarcation are those strange manifestations and objects of which one cannot say whether they are real, or whether they are among the phantasms generated in our minds from time immemorial. Anthropological and mythological studies in the tradition of Tristes Tropiques, adventure stories looking back to our early childhood reading, collections of facts, dream books, regional novels, examples of lush exoticism, puritanical penance, sweeping baroque vision, self-denial, and personal confession—they are all these things together. It probably does them most justice to see their promiscuity, which breaks the mold of the modernist concept, as a late flowering of those early traveler’s tales, going back to Marco Polo, where reality is constantly entering the realm of the metaphysical and miraculous, and the way through the world is taken from the first with an eye fixed on the writer’s own end.
All of Sebald’s books are about journeys. In Campo Santo, he describes his early passion for geography as a schoolboy. He confesses that he has devoted endless hours of his life bent over atlases and brochures of every kind. In his actual travels, he didn’t range far. Except for a short visit to the United States to do research on the life of his great-uncles, he restricted himself mostly to England and Western Europe. He also traveled in books he was reading. “How happily,” Austerlitz says, “have I sat over a book in the deepening twilight until I could no longer make out the words and my mind began to wander.” As the critics have shown, Sebald not only alludes to or quotes from other writers, he even occasionally lifts their words verbatim. Kafka was an influence on him and so were Thomas Bernhardt, Robert Walser, Nabokov, Peter Weiss, Borges, and André Breton, from whose Surrealist novel Nadja he got the idea to include photographs in his own books. There were, of course, others. In Austerlitz, the main character roams the city of London at night, as Dickens once did, to escape and cure his insomnia and the memories of his tragic life, which increasingly torment him.
Writing of Nabokov, Sebald says that he knew better than most of his fellow writers that the desire to suspend time can prove its worth only in the most precise reevocation of things long overtaken by oblivion. This was true of him too. Walking around Ajaccio, the birthplace of Napoleon, in one of the chapters about Corsica, he comes upon a museum which contains a surprisingly fine collection of paintings and Napoleonic mementos. Among the pictures, he is especially struck by one painted by the seventeenth-century Italian painter Pietro Paolini. It shows a woman with large, melancholy eyes in a dark dress against a deep black background. Her right arm protectively embraces her small daughter, who stands in front of her with her grave face turning sideways upon which tears have just dried. The little girl holds out the doll of a soldier hardly three inches high, perhaps in memory of her father who has gone to war. “I stood in front of this double portrait for a long time, seeing in it, as I thought at the time, an annulment of all the unfathomable misfortune of life.” This is a powerful image that goes to the heart of what Sebald tried to do as a writer. When we think of history, we tend to see an official government film running in our heads, while the truth always lies elsewhere, away from it all, with some mother holding a child in her arms.
Unrecounted is a book of thirty-three tiny poems by Sebald and thirty-three lithographs by the painter Jan Peter Tripp. Each lithograph portrays a pair of eyes with photographic accuracy. That’s all there is. Proust, Rembrandt, Beckett, Borges, Francis Bacon, Truman Capote, and Sebald himself are among the subjects. The apparent premise here is that the mouth is good for lying but not the eyes. Whatever the eyes are doing, daydreaming or thinking, they are hinting at some kind of truth. Under each pair of eyes, there’s a small poem. For example, below the eyes of Sebald’s dog Maurice we read the following:
Please send me
the brown overcoat
from the Rhine valley
in which at one time
I used to ramble by night
I can’t say that this has a strong effect. There are better examples, but most of these little “poems” may look more interesting as journal entries than verse. In his introduction, the translator Michael Hamburger, who knew Sebald, has many perceptive things to say about the short poems, describing them as “reductive epiphanies,” “jumbled snapshots of the most diverse occasions and impressions, flashes of remembered moments.” In his postscript, the critic Andrea Köhler has an even better description of the poems. “These are neither aphorisms nor poems,” he says, “but rather flashes of thought and remembrance, moments of illumination on the verges of perception.” Here is an amusing one:
& blood for him
as green as
The declared aim of the book, Andrea Köhler writes, is that the image and text should not explain or illustrate each other. That has always been Sebald’s way. The captionless, frequently blurred black-and-white photographs in his books have only a peripheral connection to the narrative and usually none at all. His writing, too, is most memorable for me when it is like a snapshot or a home movie. As much as he lived in his head and in books, what I find most authentic in Sebald is the times when he’s simply reporting what he experienced.
In another chapter of his unfinished book on Corsica included in Campo Santo, he describes taking his first walk in the town of Piana on a road that soon begins to fall steeply in terrifying curves, sharp bends and zigzags, past almost vertical rocks down to the sea several hundred meters below. He watches the few tourists on the beach, the martins circling the flame-colored cliffs in huge numbers, soaring from the bright side of the rocks into the shadows and darting out into the light again, and finally decides to take a swim in the sea. He goes far out, feeling he could simply let himself drift away into the evening and later on into the night, but decides otherwise:
I turned back after all and made for the land which, from this distance, resembled a foreign continent, swimming became more and more difficult with every stroke, and not as if I were laboring against the current that had been carrying me on before; no, I was inclined to think that I was swimming steadily uphill, if one can say so of a stretch of water. The view before my eyes seemed to have tipped out of its frame, was leaning toward me, swaying and flickering of its own accord, with the upper rim of the picture skewed several degrees in my direction and the lower rim skewed away from me to the same extent. And sometimes I felt as if the prospect towering so menacingly in front of me was not a part of the real world but the reproduction of a now insuperable inner faintness, turned inside out and shot through with blue-black markings. Even harder than reaching the bank was the climb later up the winding road and the barely trodden paths which here and there link one curve in the road to the next in a direct line. Although I placed one foot in front of the other only slowly and very steadily, the afternoon heat building up between the rock walls very soon brought sweat running down my forehead, and the blood pulsed in my neck as it did in the throats of the lizards sitting everywhere in my path, frozen in mid-movement with fear. It took me a good hour and a half to climb to Piana again, but once there I could walk as if weightlessly, like a man who has mastered the art of levitation, past the first houses and gardens and along the wall of the plot of land where the local people bury their dead.
In the essay called “An Attempt at Restitution” in Campo Santo, Sebald describes a visit to the studio of the painter Jan Peter Tripp in 1976, an occasion that had great consequences. While admiring the painter’s work, it occurred to Sebald that he, too, could do something creative like that one day. Tripp gave Sebald one of his engravings, showing a mentally ill judge with a spider in his skull. “What can there be more terrible than the ideas always scurrying around our minds?” Sebald asks himself and then goes on to say:
Much of what I have written later derives from this engraving, even in my method of procedure: in adhering to an exact historical perspective, in patiently engraving and linking together apparently disparate things in the manner of a still life.
This is an odd way of thinking about one’s writing and seems true in some way. Sebald always wanted to step outside time, to locate some imperishable stillness at the heart of things. However, as hard as he tried to attain serenity, he could not make that spider stop crawling inside his head. The spider was his conscience. He was like someone who suffers remorse for crimes he never committed. What gives his books their drama is their inner turmoil and the unexplained origins of his grief. Sebald was torn between mysticism and history. He was a Romantic who kept being haunted by the reality of the world. I expect there will be a protracted, probably never-ending debate over whether the seeming arbitrariness and mysteriousness of some of his work can be justified. Meanwhile his books, starting with The Emigrants, are very much worth reading.