Radio 3 The Essay Sebald
WG Sebald has now been dead for twice as long as he was known to be around, to the extent that he was ever exactly around in the half-decade which started in 1996 with the publication, by Harvill, of Michael Hulse's fluent translation of The Emigrants and ended with an aneurysm on the Norwich ring road, just months after he had published – with a new translator, Anthea Bell – his longest work of "prose fiction", Austerlitz.
During those years, Sebald ceased to be what he had been for 30 years, a specialist in European literature, and became, with possible exceptions (Kundera, Saramago, Goytisolo, Miłosz, Mulisch, Grass), the most celebrated of European writers, as well as the rare subject of both an encomium from Susan Sontag and a parody by Craig Brown ("Above me, a seagull swooped, its wings stretched fully out, as though an unseen torturer were pulling them to breaking point").
In the years since his death, the Sontag position has won out, and efforts to co-ordinate a wave of dissent – or to win even partial acceptance for the view, expressed by Alan Bennett, Michael Hofmann and Adam Thirlwell, that his work is pompous or banal – have faltered. Just as Phantom of the Opera is being performed somewhere in the world at any given moment, so the name of WG Sebald, or its spin-off adjective "Sebaldian", is being invoked to characterise the new school of sullen flanerie, to substantiate non-fiction's claims to creativity, or to help dispatch the kind of novel Sebald himself summarised as "relationship problems in Kensington in the late-1990s" to the dustbin of literary history.
But a writer's afterlife is determined less by what is said in his favour than by what is attached to his name, and Sebald has been lucky in his executors – or lucky that he left a backlog of published but not yet translated material. Even the scrappy-looking collection of "extended marginal notes and glosses" on his literary precursors (and a contemporary painter, Jan Peter Tripp) that has now emerged as A Place in the Country appeared, in 1998, under Sebald's own auspices. Translated, with a heavier touch than that of Hulse or Bell, by Sebald's former colleague Jo Catling, the book is itself a contribution to the study of posthumous reputation.
In the course of discussing a writer, Sebald often acknowledges an intermediary, a Brod or Boswell type who played a role in keeping the flame or spreading the word. In the essay on Johann Peter Hebel, a lyric poet and author of almanac stories, this figure is Walter Benjamin, whom Sebald credits with initiating the attack on the "primitive Heideggerrian thesis of Hebel's rootedness in the native soil of the Heimat". In the essay on Robert Walser, it is Walser's friend Carl Seelig who preserved the Swiss writer's Nachlass (literary remains), and without whom, Sebald argues, his rehabilitation "could never have taken place".
A short preface Sebald wrote for the German edition explains that when he travelled to Manchester in 1966, he packed books by Walser, Hebel and Keller which, 30 years on, would still find a place in his luggage. But A Place in the Country, though idiosyncratic, turns out to be less introvert than Sebald's fictions, less insistent on a "Sebald" figure who serves as the origin of its impressions and arguments. As it turns out, Sebald is less involved with what the writers mean to him than with what they might be shown to symbolise or represent. The result, written in his customary and not always helpful long paragraphs, and illustrated with plates, photographs and photocopies, is a passionate and provoking attempt to sketch an alternative tradition of Alpine literature starting with Jean-Jacques Rousseau – described as "the inventor of modern autobiography" and "inventor of the bourgeois cult of romantic sensibility" – and culminating, perhaps, in Sebald's own variant of Romantic autobiography.
The opening chapter, on Hebel, is the most forceful, a piece of historical criticism conducted entirely from the armchair (not a seagull in sight). Sebald makes it clear why Heidegger and Nazi writers such as the Austrian poet Josef Weinheber thought they had found a kindred spirit in a writer who used a local dialect (Alemannic) to tell stories about the pleasures and comforts of rural life. But he argues that they had to commit a lot of wilful narrow reading to make the interpretation stick. Hebel's Yiddish word order is incompatible with conventional German grammar; even at the time – the turn of the 19th century – the recourse to dialect would have been seen as more a "distancing effect" than "a badge of tribal affiliation".
As this essay demonstrates, Sebald is incapable of hiving off the literary and linguistic from the political, or the literary-critical off from the sociological and ethnographic. The method developed in his second prose fiction, The Rings of Saturn, in which history is traced through its public manifestations, is adapted here for the purposes of critical discussion. Sebald looks at the ways in which German historical dynamics make themselves felt in writers' work. While it is a thrill to watch close reading being performed by someone with so strong a taste for looking up from the page – the Cambridge School meets the Frankfurt School – for Sebald it was a product of constriction. Growing up in Germany in the 1950s, he found it difficult to treat literature as simply a source of aesthetic delight, in the way that English and American critics have been able to. Instead, in reading the literature of the two centuries leading up to the second world war, he treated every sentence as a shot fired in the battle between cosmopolitanism and moderate regionalism on the one hand, "narrow-minded provincialism" and militaristic nationalism on the other.
Sebald shows the ways in which writers are forced to take positions and sides – the chapter on Rousseau follows him in his years as an exile – but of all the predicaments in which a writer may find himself, the perennial state of just being a writer emerges as the toughest, or at least the most widespread; the "awful tenacity", the sense that a calling has become a compulsion, afflicts even those who, like Robert Walser, are "connected to the world in the most fleeting of ways".
Sebald's work is driven by associative thinking – coincidences, connections – but his chief aim was to evoke and capture, and his images, rich in mystery, or resonant with pathos, are what linger. A corpse released by a glacier. An office spilling with paper. A pair of writers undone by their calling: Walser, in an asylum, "scrubbing vegetables in the kitchen, sorting scraps of tinfoil, reading a novel by Friedrick Gerstacker or Jules Verne, and sometimes … just standing stiffly in the corner", and the German Romantic Lutheran poet Eduard Mörike, who, after accepting that he was unable to give up writing in the way he could his clerical duties, took nervous notes on pieces of paper, then tore them into tiny pieces, which he dropped into the pockets of his dressing-gown.
Today marks the tenth anniversary of the death of one of contemporary literature’s most transformative figures. On December 14, 2001, the German writer W. G. Sebald suffered a heart attack while driving and was killed instantly in a head-on collision with a truck. He was fifty-seven years old, having lived and worked as a university lecturer in England since his mid-twenties, and had only in the previous five years come to be widely recognized for his extraordinary contribution to world literature. Earlier that year, his book “Austerlitz” (about a Jewish man sent to England as a child through the Kindertransporte in 1939, the memory of whose past has been lost) was published to universal acclaim, and the prospect of a Nobel prize was already beginning to seem inevitable.
The weight of the loss to literature with his early death—of all the books he might have gone on to write—is counterbalanced only by the enigmatic pressure of the work he left behind. His four prose fictions, “Vertigo,” “The Emigrants,” “The Rings of Saturn,” and “Austerlitz” are utterly unique. They combine memoir, fiction, travelogue, history, and biography in the crucible of his haunting prose style to create a strange new literary compound. Susan Sontag, in a 2000 essay in the Times Literary Supplement, asked whether “literary greatness [was] still possible.” She concluded that “one of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.”
The anniversary year has been marked by a number of commemorative events, mainly in Europe. A book of Sebald’s poetry, “Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems 1964-2001,” was published last month by Penguin in the U.K. (and will be out in the U.S. in April). The British filmmaker Grant Gee—best known as a director of music videos for Radiohead, Blur, the Kills, and Nick Cave—has made a documentary entitled “Patience: After Sebald.” The film is an oblique, impressionistic reflection on his work, in which Gee reënacts the walk around Suffolk at the heart of “The Rings of Saturn.” It opened a weekend celebration of Sebald last February in the fantastically named town of Snape Maltings. The weekend concluded with a performance by Patti Smith who, between songs, read from Sebald’s long prose poem “After Nature.”
Recently, BBC Radio 3 broadcast a series of five fifteen-minute audio essays from people who knew Sebald (or Max, as he preferred to be called—he hated his first name, Winfried, because he felt that it sounded too much like the woman’s name Winnifred). Contributors include his English translator Anthea Bell, the poet George Szirtes, and the academic and novelist Christopher Bigsby, a colleague of Sebald’s at the University of East Anglia.
Bigsby suggests that it was out of frustration with the strictures of academic publication that Sebald turned to creative writing (a vague and ungainly term that, by default, winds up being the most accurate generic description of his work). “He’d originally taught German literature,” says Bigsby, “and had published the kind of books that academics do. But he got increasingly frustrated, and began to write in what he called an ‘elliptical’ way, breaching the supposed boundaries between fact and fiction—not what you’re supposed to do as an academic.” Sebald himself sometimes described his work as “documentary fiction,” which goes some way toward capturing its integration of apparently irreconcilable elements.
It is probably too early to predict the extent of the influence Sebald’s hybrid books will exert on the shape of the novel, but it isn’t an exaggeration to say that he erased and redrew the boundaries of narrative fiction as radically as anyone since Borges. British writers like Will Self and, in particular, Geoff Dyer, have been inspired by Sebald’s figurative and literal rambling. Dyer’s work—part essay, part travelogue, part fiction—sometimes reads like a less melancholy, more comic (and more English) variant of Sebald’s peregrinatory prose. One of this year’s most impressive novels, Teju Cole’s debut “Open City,” owes a clear debt to Sebald. James Wood, in his enthusiastic review in the magazine, commented on the way in which Cole moves “in the shadow of W. G. Sebald’s work.” On a more superficial level, Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” adopted the trademark Sebaldian tactic of integrating photographs into its text.
Ten years after his death, however, Sebald’s work remains more or less entirely sui generis. Reading him is a wonderfully disorienting experience, not least because of the odd, invigorating uncertainty as to what it is, precisely, we are reading. His books occupy an unsettled, disputed territory on the border of fiction and fact, and this generic ambivalence is mirrored in the protean movements of his prose. Often what is on the page, the writing itself, gives the impression of being only the faint, flickering shadow of its actual referent. What Sebald seems to be writing about, in other words, is frequently not what he wants us to be thinking about. Take this passage, which comes at the very end of the oneiric history of sadness and futility that he presents in “The Rings of Saturn.” The topic under discussion is a film about the promotion of silk cultivation in Germany, for reasons of national self-sufficiency, in the early years of the Third Reich:
Quite apart from their indubitable utility value, silkworms afforded an almost ideal object lesson for the classroom. Any number could be had for virtually nothing, they were perfectly docile and needed neither cages nor compounds, and they were suitable for a variety of experiments (weighing, measuring and so forth) at every stage in their evolution. They could be used to illustrate the structure and distinctive features of insect anatomy, insect domestication, retrogressive mutations, and the essential measures which are taken by breeders to monitor productivity and selection, including extermination to preempt racial degeneration. In the film, we see a silk-worker receiving eggs dispatched by the Central Reich Institute of Sericulture in Celle, and depositing them in sterile trays. We see the hatching, the feeding of the ravenous caterpillars, the cleaning out of the frames, the spinning of the silken thread, and finally the killing, accomplished in this case not by putting the cocoons out in the sun or in a hot oven, as was often the practice in the past, but by suspending them over a boiling cauldron. The cocoons, spread out on shallow baskets, have to be kept in the rising steam for upwards of three hours, and when a batch is done, it is the next one’s turn, and so on until the entire killing business is completed.
It was Sebald’s conviction that the recent history of his country could not be written about directly, could not be approached head-on, as it were, because the enormity of its horrors paralyzed our ability to think about them morally and rationally. These horrors had to be approached obliquely. It’s insufficient to say that silk cultivation is a “metaphor” for what happened to European Jews; this is not so much a way of understanding the Holocaust, so much as it is a way of making us think about how we can’t understand the Holocaust.
The effect of this quintessentially Sebaldian passage is like that of a dream in which a lecturer is speaking drily about sericulture but also, somehow, about Auschwitz. That place and what it has come to represent is a vast and blank presence at the periphery—and yet somehow at the center—of narrative vision in Sebald’s work. He was born in Bavaria in 1944, and so grew up in the immediate aftermath of the war. His father, he learned much later, had served in the Army and had been among the troops who invaded Poland in 1939. Like so many German men of his generation, Sebald’s father refused to speak about his war experiences, and this reticence, with that of post-war Germany as a whole, is what impels Sebald’s narratives of shame and historical occlusion.
His work is ghostly in any number of senses: thematically, it is troubled by the spectres of recent European history and, stylistically, it is delivered in a hauntingly impassive tone. Independent of the contingent fact of his death, Sebald’s books often read as though they are being narrated from beyond the grave. The past becomes suddenly present, and the present seems mediated by the long passage of years. “I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all,” Sebald has Austerlitz say, “only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry, between which the living and the dead can move back and forth as they like, and the longer I think about it the more it seems to me that we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead.”
Geoff Dyer, in an essay on Sebald and Thomas Bernhard, comments memorably on this strange, spectral aspect of his writing:
The first thing to be said about W. G. Sebald’s books is that they always had a posthumous quality to them. He wrote—as was often remarked—like a ghost. He was one of the most innovative writers of the late twentieth century, and yet part of this originality derived from the way his prose felt exhumed from the nineteenth.
The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’s claim that “Sebald is more like a new kind of historian than a new kind of novelist” might be too provocative for its own good, but it is an indication of the extent to which his work has yet to be placed within a secure canonical niche. The books are fascinating for the way they inhabit their own self-determined genre, but that’s not ultimately why they are essential reading. There is a moral magnitude and a weary, melancholy wisdom in Sebald’s writing that transcends the literary and attains something like an oracular register. Reading him feels like being spoken to in a dream. He does away with the normal proceedings of narrative fiction—plot, characterization, events leading to other events—so that what we get is the unmediated expression of a pure and seemingly disembodied voice. That voice is an extraordinary presence in contemporary literature, and it may be another decade before the magnitude—and the precise nature—of its utterances are fully realized.
Update: As Geoff Dyer gently but firmly points out below, my remark about Sebald’s influence on his work is pretty roundly contradicted by the chronology of publication. Sebald’s “The Emigrants” didn’t appear in English until 1996, by which point Dyer had published “The Missing of the Somme” and had finished writing “Out of Sheer Rage.” The latter book in particular was on my mind when I mentioned Dyer’s being “inspired” by Sebald. I have to come out with my hands up on this point: what I initially described as Sebald’s influence on Dyer is much closer to an affinity, and perhaps has more to do with the shared influence of Thomas Bernhard. (As Dyer points out in his comment, he wrote “Out of Sheer Rage” during a period of “chronic Bernhard addiction”.)
Photograph by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images.