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With Us, Without Us: In Memoriam W.G. Sebald

W.G. Sebald, the German writer whose four elegant, memory-drenched books have gained increasing acclaim over the past decade, dies near his English home in December. As he drove his daughter to her home in East Anglia, where Sebald lived for 30 years, a heart attack caused him to torch from his lane. She was injured but survived the ensuing collision; he was killed when they were struck by an oncoming truck.

The loss is great. Sebald’s work raised high expectations in the literary world. He’d developed a position of melancholy authority, through his sui generis, photo illustrated hybrids of fiction, travelogue, historical meditation and researched expose, on the attainments of human wonder and cultural atrocity. But surely the highest expectations were those of readers responding to his charged and allusive prose. With dense subtlety, it bound searing revelation with enduring mystery.

Susan Sontag, a prominent Sebald enthusiast, suggested that his was a noble enterprise, and her line was used as a jacket quote when Sebald’s first book made it into English, and on his last book, Austerlitz (published in 2001 both in Sebald’s German and in Anthea Bells’s translation).

Copping jacket blurbs is a reviewer’s cheap prop, but there’s no mistaking the compulsion to reread a book one has just concluded. A remark of Balzac’s comes to mind, made early in his study of Stendhal’s just published Charterhouse of Parma. As critic, he’s just read it for the third time and “found the book finer even than before, and have felt in my heart the kind of happiness that comes from the opportunity of doing a good action.”

Not that readers are recommended to Sebald for great draughts of happiness, though. As perilous as it is finely constructed, Sebald’s work most often uncovers and recovers thematic nodes in humanity’s wounds. Among the calamities this article will touch on are colonial atrocities in the Belgian Congo, detailed in 1995’s The Rings of Saturn, and the emotional cost of the Holocaust portrayed through the main character in Austerlitz, a man who’d survived it on a kindertransport. Sebald’s aptitudes, these painful revelations of the human condition, because interwoven constructions of meticulous prose in which he’s sometimes labor his points, and more often levitate them towards defiant, sublime incantation. When the latter’s the effect, Sebald overarches our work, a meandering and fateful guide with whom the reader gazes at the horrors we inhabit. Hell is now, yet with that threat recovered from the metaphysical realm and made real one has (at least in a poetic sense) nothing left to fear. His narrative voice, weary, sly, and instantly recognizable, is consistently presented as being on the verge of, or in recovery from, a breakdown. Are you keen on a companion who tries to carry, and manages to juggle, the weight of the world?

Sebald was born in Bavaria during the Second World War, in the secluded mountain village of Wertach im Allgau. In the concluding section of Vertigo (his first published fiction, the third translated into English), his fictional stand-in sidetracks to “W.”, not having been there since his departure as a boy. That home coming section, the diversion of an impulsive wanderer with a mind making nonstop connections, serves as a template for Sebald’s work. On one hand, it contains some of the most unbridled, erupting prose available – the Austrian Thomas Bernhard’s TK unparagraphed novels and memoirs, savage and outlandishly concentrated in the face of postwar guilt and the ugly face of his nation’s complacency, are a rare association to the hurtling propulsion Sebald achieves. On the other, the section’s title, “Il ritorno in patria,” alludes both to Monteverdi’s seminal opera, and to Ulysses, who is that opera’s subject and who is also the figurehead of Joyce’s novel-to-end-novels.

But Sebald didn’t call his books novels, and it’s not technical virtuosity or profound allusion that consume the reader in Vertigo’s finale. Wracked and enthralled, memory overwhelms the narrator, alone in a village inn, revisiting his childhood. Rife with snares and links to the book’s preceding sections (which mix literary history with the narrator’s tracking of antecedents from Tiepolo to Kafka), “Il ritorno in patria” resounds in Sebald’s minor keys, a non-choral “ode to Joy” closing a debut that’s both loosely formed and astonishingly evocative.

Vertigo was something of a late start for Sebald. Schooled in Freiburg then Fribourg, he’s been a university lecturer at Manchester at 21, and then went on to teach at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, where he was founding director of the British Centre for Literary Translation. Studies of Sternheim and Doeblin established his expertise in German literature, and he edited a volume on German theater of the 70s and 80s. Next came two books of essays on Austrian writers from Walser to Handke, after which, with academic horizons cramped under Thatcher, Sebald sought his own creative bent. For Years Now, a poetry collection from this translation is published in English by Short Books. After Nature is due out this year, a translation of Sebald’s book-length prose poem from ’89.

And then he turned to fiction. He published Vertigo in 1990; Michael Hulce’s transparent translation arrived in 2000, after he’d already translated the books that followed Vertigo. The first of them available in English, ‘92s The Emigrants, held tales of the Holocaust’s pervasive impact and had garnered the Berlin Publishers’ Prize and the Literatur Nord Prize. Sebald’s next book, The Rings of Saturn (1995/1998), is loosely premised on walks the narrator took “in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.” The reader is wary of overly autobiographical connections: Rings as Emigrants’ emotional aftermath? But then the narrator hikes through Suffolk to visit Michael Hamburger (the port who translated Celan, whose essays “Reason” and “Energy” link early Romantics Heine, Kleist and Novalis to Trakl and Benn, the poets of European nihilism). He begins registering comparisons with the older man, writes “that I am now thinking of giving up teaching as he did,” and one wishes Sebald had managed to do so before his untimely death.

When Austerlitz was published in English last year, Random House had outbid New Directions as Sebald’s U.S. publisher, the New Yorker had given 20 pages to a pre-publication excerpt, and the author was slated to read at the 92nd st. Y. The NY Times Book Review reviewed Austerlitz for its cover article. That paper remained on the hot tip, with Debald on the cover of it’s Arts & Leisure section in a profile that appeared, with uncanny timing, on the Tuesday before he died.

The article’s photo, of Sebald’s proud, careworn face wreathed in green leaves, was still atop stacks in my apartment when the news of his death came. It was an especially Sebaldian lurch; a newspaper’s real (live) account (memory) slips beneath the flesh of the painful moment. For the pages of Sebald’s fictions are littered with grainy, un-captioned B&W photos, illustrations, timetables, reproductions culled from manuals and periodicals. An arcana of sightseeing, public records, art history, this gamut of pictorial evidence accompanies the narratives, positioned to coincide with events the narrator relates.

This pictorial tactic, however, tends to serve as affirmation in the first Sebald one reads (“Yes! Interconnectiveness IS the world!”). Then these visuals grow to legitimize less the veracity in events with their apparent significances, than the tenuous grasp anyone has on importance, be it in the book one’s reading or the life one’s leading. The pictures orientate the reader within Sebald’s compelling interworld of associativeness, but with Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson on par with a clipping from the Eastern Daily Press in Rings, the evidence that these pictures represent becomes debatable. Their artifactual presence prods and teases the reader’s attempts at suspending disbelief. One ends up recognizing, if not an answer about narrative authority and memory’s trustworthiness, then the mutable and seismic boundaries that are the best we have to go by, as each of us negotiates with a harrowing, exquisite, fleeting experience.

With news of Sebald’s death, I bought a copy of The Rings of Saturn, a book I had yet to read. Reminded that being chary of life’s rewards is a chancy gamble, and having noticed comments that the book was grating and problematic, it seemed just the ticket to help in mourning.

Rings lost its subtitle, Eine Englische Wallfahrt (An English Pilgrimage), in translation. It’s nominal plot is a walking tour the narrator took in Suffolk. Embarked on as a healing, it results in immobility and hospitalization, at which point, he says, he began to write the book. Rings does not paint a pastoral picture, yet it is shot through with beautitudes. A miniature train in the Suffolk countryside, built for but never sent to a Chinese ruler, spurs the narrator’s reflections on the Taiping rebellion, crushed after perhaps 20 million deaths by French and English intervention that established the Dowager Empress Tzu-hsi’s crushing reign.

The narrator recalls a Mrs. Ashbury, proprietor of a B&B he visited during an Irish ramble, who’d declared herself “a completely impractical person, caught up in endless trains of thought.” Her daughters stitch and unstitch silk remnants (like Penelope, like the memory-keeper in A Tale of Two Cities). One gown they spare is “of such intricacy and perfection” that he could “no more believe my eyes than I now trust my memory.” In on allusion, a visitor likens the poet Swinburne to “the ashy grey silkworm, Bombyx mori,” because of his munching and abrupt reawakenings. Silk also recurs as one of the book’s themes: in the late exposition, German duchies and the principalities rampantly planted the worms’ favorite mulberry trees, establishing an industry in the early 19th century that was then jettisoned. “The main reason why silk husbandry failed so soon after it had been introduced was not so much that the mercantile calculations were adrift, but rather the despotic manner in which German rulers attempted to force it along, whatever the cost.” One cringes, again and retroactively, at the force of German rulers.

The young, still-Polish Joseph Conrad works in the Belgian Congo, where stupendous wealth is wrung from uncounted enslaved lives, as he’ll relate years later in Heart of Darkness. Roger Casement works there, too, as British consul at Boma. Casement exposes the savagery , then is transferred to South America. He blows the whistle on colonial exploitations by London’s Amazon Company, gets knighted but returns his decorations and returns to his Irish homeland, is tried with great publicity, and then executed for his part in the Easter Rebellion. One senses the vigor and capacity of the human mind as part and parcel with the abuses and malignancies of human behavior. Is Rings a cabinet of wonders of a veritable minefield? Is it musings of a man in a Norwich hospital bed, or the bare relations of awareness?

The book careens from one pole to the other, a kaleidoscoping series of compendiums within compendiums that packs additional heft as a devotional to the writer’s art. Large passages from the diaries of Hamburger and Chateaubriand are quoted verbatim (the latter, in old age, watches women “with the same ardent bewilderment that I used to feel in an embrace”). Undistinguished by quotation marks, these lifts trouble the surface of the book, limn Borges’s (and Emerson’s) assertion that all writers are perhaps one writer, while inadvertently suggesting recent newsworthy plagiarisms by the historians Ambrose and Goodwin.

Sebald’s narrator, both distinct and familiar, is resonant of Mann’s mouthpieces, of Marlowe’s dockside, twilight recollections, and of Larsen, the implacable and fatalistic manager of Juan Carlos Onetti’s The Shipyard (kudos to Margo Jefferson, who mentions Onetti in her Sebald appreciation). In the Hague and unable “to decide on a place to eat, I bought a carton of chips at McDonald’s, where I felt like a criminal wanted worldwide as I stood at the brightly lit counter, and ate them as I walked back to my hotel.”

Trapped as in a maze trying to cross a treeless heath, he’ll be slammed pages later by a sandstorm while crossing the former Rendlesham Forest, denuded by a hurricane in ’87. “All I remember is that my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth and I felt as if I were walking on the spot.” He’s on his way, impelled by natural curiosity, to visit the once-restricted coastal promontory of Orfordness, site of the Minstry of Defence’s abandoned installations at their Secret Weapons Research Establishment. But we won’t go in to that…

It’s a strange pleasure, the company of such a sensibility with a taste for what’s mandatory. The connections it affords anyone are uncounted, intangible: at The Hague, for us now, the Milosevic trial has begun, while spider DNA is implanted in cattle to produce silk strands stronger than steel from creatures bigger than men. Detailing these possible connections risks making Sebald’s fluid, fruitful work out to be crowded and these-like. But reviewing is literary bean counting, while Sebald’s fictions wear precision on their surfaces and their concerns on their sleeves. Upon rereading, his extraordinary musicality comes to the fore. Musicality: the delicate, insistent, intuitive relation of parts, a genre bursting quality that remains the ultimate human form.

The Odyssey has the gods weaving misfortunes so future generations will have something to sing about. Home may have given poetry its best expression long ago, yet there remain new forms for writers to seek. Sebald sought such a form to occupy his sense of what’s human, and has left it behind in his books.

Another one arrives in English this August, and it is not fiction. Airwar and Literature expands on controversial lectures Sebald gave in Zurich in ’97. From works by Heinrich Boll and Alexander Kluges, books that relate the devastation as Germany was beaten to defeat in the 40s and that were published decades later, Sebald extrapolates German shame, shack and silence after the war.

He grew up in just that atmosphere. National suppression was also personal: his father, a military man promoted to captain by the Nazis, returned from POW camp then never spoke to his son of wartime experiences. Small wonder Sebald moved to England, though he said in interviews that he never felt at home there. Last year, he began converting family stories towards his next book. One can only wonder what that might have come to, and what else he would have written.

His final fiction Austerlitz (which historically is the Czech town where Napoleon beat the Russians and Austrians), takes its title from the rare family name of Sebald’s one sustained fictional character. A Czech, Jacques Austerlitz, was ejected from family and state by the Nazi occupation. He grew to be a man who’d been told his real name only when he lost his Welsh foster parents at fifteen, and who does not begin to learn of his own first years until he’s fifty. These devastating oppressions were Sebald’s motivations. Processing a legacy of distorted realities inflicted by totalitarian regimes, and by more refined versions of cultural submission, became his hard art.


Alan Lockwood


The Brooklyn Rail


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