WG Sebald: Accounting for loss

On 14 December 2001, W. G. Sebald suffered a heart attack while driving and was killed instantly in a head-on collision with a truck. He was 57.  At the time Sebald, a German born in the Bavarian village of Wertach in 1944, was professor of German literature at the University of East Anglia, having lived and worked as a university lecturer in England since his mid-twenties.  Only in the previous five years had he come to be widely recognized as one of the greatest living authors. 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 he was being tipped as a possible future winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Marking the tenth anniversary of Sebald’s death, Mark O’Connell in a piece entitled ‘Why You Should Read WG Sebald’, wrote in the New Yorker:

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’.

Also marking the anniversary was a week of personal reflections on the life, work and influence of WG Sebald by those who knew him, broadcast in The Essay on BBC Radio 3 (and currently available to download as a podcast).  The series began with Sebald’s friend and colleague, Christopher Bigsby discussing, in ‘Not Responsibility – Shame’, how living in Norfolk allowed Sebald to write about the hidden history of his German homeland.

Sebald grew up in Wertach, Bavaria, one of four children of Rosa and Georg Sebald. His father, an army officer who served in the Wehrmacht under the Nazis, was a detached figure with whom Sebald was in contention for most of his life. After studying German literature at the University of Freiburg, Sebald took up the post of assistant lecturer at the University of Manchester in 1966.  In 1970 he was appointed lecturer at the University of East Anglia and settled in Norfolk.

Christopher Bigsby began by noting that in the ten years since his death, Sebald’s reputation has grown: ‘His was a truly orginal voice. He cannot be described in terms of anyone else’. Bigsby defined Sebald’s originality in these terms:

His publishers called his work novels, but that was because they couldn’t think of any other way to describe them.  In fact, they were a blend of fiction, autobiography and biography.  They featured photographs, and sometimes those were informative, sometimes merely ironic.  … In his work it’s difficult to be sure at any one moment whether you’re dealing with fact or fiction.  His books roam through time and space, they explore the nature of memory, and in particular a crime at the heart of his own country – the Holocaust.

Bigsby suggested that the only work comparable to Sebald is that of the Spanish novelist Javier Marías, who also used photographs and mixed fact and fiction, and had a similar approach to language, including a similar disregard for paragraphing.  After writing several books ‘of the sort that academics do’, Sebald developed ‘an elliptical style of writing, breaching the supposed boundaries between fact and fiction which you’re not supposed to do as an academic’.  But he didn’t regard them as being in opposition to one another: ‘reality certainly intruding into fiction and fiction surely shaping the way we see the world’.

In his book Remembering and Imagining the Holocaust: The Chain of Memory Christopher Bigsby devoted a chapter to Sebald, and in his Radio 3 essay he focussed on the question: where in particular did his concern with the Jews and the Holocaust, a growing concern of his books, have its roots?  Bigsby noted that Sebald’s time as a student in Freiburg coincided with the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, in which the accused were former guards at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.  Sebald followed coverage of the trials in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.  He later said that the trials ‘shifted his vision’: for him they were the first public admission that there was such a thing as ‘an unresolved German past’.

Sebald was the son of a man who had served in the war, but who refused to say anything of what he had done or seen.  As he later explained, his father’s first line of defence was always ‘I can’t remember’.  In Sebald’s work, Bigsby argued, the past is problematic, always ‘being re-edited’.  Later in childhood he came a cross a photograph album, a Christmas present from his father to his mother in 1939.  It featured a group of gypsies seen behind barbed wire.  There was no explanation.  His father had been among the troops that invaded Poland.

Reading reports of the Frankfurt trials, Bigsby went on, ‘Sebald suddenly realised that he had been taught by those who were professors under the Third Reich and that his was a country based on willed forgetfulness’.  As Sebald read reports of the trials, the accused seemed familiar figures – they could have been his next-door neighbours. ‘The Jews, however, were a different story; of them he had no experience: an absence for which he’d never had to account’.  Bigsby spoke of  conversations with Sebald in which he’d made the point that, being born in 1944, why did he have any sense of responsibility?  Sebald answered: ‘Not responsibility: shame’.  He felt this, he said, ‘because this is where I come from; this is my identity’.

Graduating from Freiburg, Sebald travelled to Manchester in 1966 to take up his first teaching post.  There, he met his first Jew. Later, he would say that ‘the attempted eradication of the Jewish people by his compatriots loomed largest among the historical experiences in his life, and that as a consequence he found it necessary to write about Jewish lives’.

Bigsby did not want to suggest that the Holocaust dominated his work; his significance, Bigsby argued, ‘lies in his writing’:

You can be reading one of his books, and a passage that seems to be autobiographical suddenly merges with an apparent historical account of someone in the 19th century, and the join is so seamless that I often find myself turning back to see if I can spot where one thing merged into another.  Then it turns out that that person, though an historical figure, is actually a character in a Stendhal novel.  Again, it takes time to realise this and this forces a re-evaluation of what you’ve been reading.  This may sound aridly academic: It is anything but.  What you’re following is a map of Max’s own devising, a collage, bits and pieces of experience that render up new meanings.

Often there’s a literal journey involved, whether it be along the Suffolk coast in The Rings of Saturn, or out of the darkness of Nazi Europe in Austerlitz.  And in that last novel, Austerlitz is the name of a character, a battle and the railway station in Paris from which the French Jews were sent to die.

But the journey is a double one, because it’s also about redemption, for this is the story, in part of the kindertransporte which, for a brief while, rescued Jewish children from their fate.  Why was Max drawn back to the past?  ‘Because’, he explained, ‘might it not be that we have appointments to keep in the past, and must go there in seach of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time?’

The crossing of boundaries was what Sebald himself did, said Bigsby; ‘but it was also his subject and his method’.  He was, argued Bigsby, ‘a writer of true originality… one of the leading figures of his generation’.  He concluded:

If it’s difficult to think of Max without being overwhelmed by a sense of loss, that was, in fact, one of his own major concerns.  When I asked him why it was, he said, ‘that is what life is about to a very large extent – day by day you leave things behind.  Loss is perhaps the most common experience we have and I think that somehow this has to be accounted for.  And as there are fewer places where it is accounted for, it has to be done by writing’.

Sebald wanted to find a literary form responsive to the waves and echoes of human tragedy which spread out, across generations and nations, yet which began in his childhood. Silence and forgetting were conditions of his early life. Sebald doubted whether those who had never experienced Theresienstadt or Auschwitz could simply describe what occurred there. That would have been presumptuous, an appropriation of others’ sufferings. Like a Medusa’s head, he felt that the attempts to look directly at the horror would turn a writer into stone, or sentimentality. It was necessary, he found, to approach this subject obliquely, and to invent a new literary form, part hybrid novel, part memoir and part travelogue, often involving the experiences of one ‘WG Sebald’, a German writer long settled in East Anglia. He was reluctant to call his books “novels”, because he had little interest in the way contemporary writers seemed to find all meaning in personal relationships, and out of a comic but heartfelt disdain for the “grinding noises” which heavily plotted novels demanded.
– Peter Handke

In the second essay, Uwe Schutte reflected on Sebald’s life and work from the perspective of someone who was once taught by him. Schutte spoke of the growing political pressure on academia that drove him towards literature. ‘Conditions in British universities were absolutely ideal in the Sixties and Seventies. Then the so-called reforms began and life became extremely unpleasant’, Sebald explained in an interview with The Observer in 1996. ‘I was looking for a way to re-establish myself in a different form simply as a counterweight to the daily bother in the institution’.

When Schutte told Sebald about his plan to do a PhD with him, he smiled wryly and strongly advised against it. ‘Try your hand at gardening or land surveying’, he suggested – spending one’s working days out in the open air would be so much more preferable to slaving away at completing endless forms and other time-wasting paperwork in a stuffy office’.

Schutte told how, arriving in a grimy Manchester to take up the position of language assistant, Sebald was shocked when he saw how dilapidated the city was, something he describes in the Max Ferber story in The Emigrants (1992). Schutte recounted how the reasons for his decision to drop out of the German university system and emigrate to the UK was more than economic: in Sebald’s view, the German university system was still dominated by a culture of silence and forgetfulness about the recent Nazi past.  The University of Freiburg, where Sebald studied German literature, was the very university whose rector in 1933 was Martin Heidegger, the philosopher who supported the Nazi regime during its first years in power.

The German-speaking literary establishment for a long time ignored Sebald, said Schutte, while in contrast the Anglo-American world hailed him as a ‘Holocaust author’, a term he hated.  Nevertheless, he was co-opted by The New York Times Book Review, alongside Primo Levi, as the ‘prime speaker of the Holocaust’.

Sebald’s works, said Schutte, are largely concerned with the theme of memory, both personal and collective. They are, in particular, attempts to reconcile himself with, and deal in literary terms with, the trauma of the Second World War and its effect on the German people. In On the Natural History of Destruction (1997), he wrote a major essay on the wartime bombing of German cities and the absence in German writing of any real response. His concern with the Holocaust is expressed in several books delicately tracing his own biographical connections with Jews.

Anthea Bell, regarded as one of the finest translators of the last decade, offered a translator’s view of the work of WG Sebald. Bell’s translation of Sebald’s final novel Austerlitz won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2002.  His novels were written in German but became best known in English translations, principally by Anthea Bell and Michael Hulse.  Bell described how Sebald closely supervised the process of translation. Interestingly, Sebald wrote in a rather fusty 19th century German style; the challenge for the translator was to transpose this voice into English, whilst also capturing Sebald’s dry and mischievous sense of humour.

In her essay, Amanda Hopkinson, director of the British Centre for Literary Translation at UEA, discussed Sebald’s use of photographs in his books.  She described Sebald’s fascination with photographs, in which he found an essential, evocative counterpoint to his elegiac narratives.  His books, she said, are strewn with them – enigmatic black-and-white captionless photographs. Never simply illustrative, these images are at once embedded in the prose while remaining disconnected, puzzling and digressive, asking questions and telling their own stories.

In the final essay of the week, poet George Szirtes reflected on Sebald’s poetry. Here are a couple of excerpts from his essay ‘WG Sebald the Poet’, reproduced from his blog:

…This double nature – the poetic shifting between fact and fiction – seemed to hang about him and about everything he wrote. He was a scholar of German literature, but he was also an author of essayistic fictions based on history and coincidence. In what I had read of him there was always a sense that the floor would fall away and that his complicated, old fashioned, melancholy yet droll voice would fall through with it and we would find ourselves altogether elsewhere in history and geography. History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake, said Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s Ulysses. The dreams and nightmares Max was conducting us through were historical, but the history was perceived in terms of accident, coincidence, anecdote and ghosts. History was a way of feeling the world as much as knowing about it.

I sometimes think of Max’s books as haunted magical encyclopedias. It isn’t the story that holds them together, the books are not exactly working towards a climax: it is more that they present us, particularly in his last work, Austerlitz, with intensely seen and felt phenomena that come upon us without warning. Nothing is stable, not even the narrative voice, which is likely to melt into other voices in the course of a sentence. One first becomes conscious of this in The Rings of Saturn where the voices of Michael Hamburger and Sebald wind in and out of each other, with a simple, ‘he said’. Even as I write the words ‘he said’ I note how I have placed the inverted commas around them, rather than, as in normal speech, before or after, around what is actually being said. I think that is appropriate for a voice so insistent yet so evanescent, and one so likely to return to the reader as the reported speech of an encounter behind glass, that intervening glass becoming the very nature of perception…

…Max’s history, the history of the world as he presents it, is the history of suffering. The suffering happens in the real world but is immediately mediated through memory, historical record, art and narrative drift. The suffering is often at second hand but is everywhere, the very air through which we move. Remorseless power and cruelty are the animating factors in his history, leaving behind a trail of vanishings and cries.

The ghost world is, however, lodged in a material one whose physical substance is an object of wonder. The sheer welter of phenomena, the orderings of the natural system as well as the orderings of the museums and palaces of art, are constantly brought before us. The whole place shimmers with it. Reading him made it shimmer.

See also


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