Out of Novemberland

W. G. Sebald
W. G. Sebald; drawing by David Levine


And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. The words with which W.G. Sebald closes the first tale of The Emigrants, a volume of four tales published less than two years ago, have, like everything else Sebald writes, a somber, cadenced, liturgical sound to them. They evoke resigned Old World languor, and something else as well, which isn’t lodged in the words themselves but in their tonality, and which hovers above them like the echo of Old Country speak, where people still put the subject at the tail end of a sentence—because that too is typical of Sebald’s prose as it is brilliantly rendered by the poet and translator Michael Hulse: it slips back to the melancholy inflections of the late Victorians, as though stirred by their nostalgia, only to come back staring at us from an unsuspected vantage point that is decades ahead of the Victorians and—it takes a chilling moment to realize—ahead of us as well. It is poised in the third millennium, startled, spectral.

Sebald, who is himself an emigrant from his native Germany and has been Professor of German at the University of East Anglia since 1986, takes us into what we initially thought was going to be a short stroll among the obsolete flavors in grandma’s spice rack; what The Rings of Saturn is, actually, is a protracted visit to purgatory, except that here Dante, like the lonely eccentrics in all four of The Emigrants’ tales, never comes back in one piece, and certainly never quite among the living. The cover of The Emigrants appropriately portrays a yew tree; it is the tree of the dead. And the dead, as is always the case with Sebald’s emigrants, are not necessarily those who died. They are the survivors—most notably from the Holocaust.

In Sebald’s tales the Holocaust doesn’t just continue to haunt its survivors, it does something worse: it hunts them down, the way World War II, or World War I, for that matter, is always just behind those who survived it. These twentieth-century cataclysms continue to exact their toll every day, because history, Sebald reminds us, is not only too stupid to forget, or too mean to forgive, but because it keeps returning, again and again. Human history is a perpetual spiral of depressingly limited episodes. Everything in Sebald comes back. And what makes these returns so tragic is that there is no telling whether theirs is a pattern without purpose or chaos with a method. Saturn completes its cycle around the sun approximately every thirty years. Meanwhile, everyone is distracted by its rings, its moons, and their seeming harmonies, when, in fact, “the rings of Saturn,” says the epigraph to The Rings of Saturn, are “in all likelihood…fragments of a former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effect.” History, no matter how often it…

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