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.