Sebald, W. G.
W. G. Sebald 1944-2001
(Full name Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald) German-born English novelist, nonfiction writer, essayist, and poet.
The following entry presents an overview of Sebald's career through 2004.
During the 1990s, Sebald emerged as one of the most beguiling and admired European writers on the international literary scene. His melancholic, self-styled meditations on the irrevocable desolations wrought by time, nature, and the history of Western civilization signaled the arrival of a highly original and talented author. Though classified as novels, his four major works—Schwindel, Gefühle (1990; Vertigo), Die Ringe des Saturn (1995; The Rings of Saturn), Die Ausgewanderten (1992; The Emigrants), and Austerlitz (2001)—are enigmatic composites of autobiography, travelogue, historical vignette, fiction, and amateur photography that defy classification. Sebald's death in a 2001 automobile accident prompted an outpouring of tributes lamenting the loss of an author whose strange, eagerly anticipated work was viewed by many as among the most unique and promising of the late twentieth century.
Born Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald in the Bavarian village of Wertach im Allgäu, Sebald (who went by “Max”) was one of four children raised in a Catholic, anti-communist family amid the aftermath of World War II. His father served in the German military and, after being captured and imprisoned in France, returned to his family a virtual stranger when Sebald was three. The conspicuous silence surrounding the history of the Third Reich, which disturbed and intrigued Sebald during his formative years, would become a central motif in his fiction. Sebald attended Freiburg University, where he studied German literature and met his future wife, Ute, whom he married in 1967. Completing his degree in 1965, he received an appointment as assistant lecturer at the University of Manchester in England the next year. During this time he began to establish himself as a noted scholar of twentieth-century German literature. In 1969, he published his first critical work, a study of German dramatist Carl Sternheim. In 1970, Sebald moved to the newly established University of East Anglia in Norwich to teach European literature. He was named a professor of German literature in 1987 and from 1989 to 1994 served as founding director of the British Centre for Literary Translation at East Anglia. During the 1980s, he published several scholarly works, including Der Mythus der Zerstörung im Werk Döblins (1980), a study of German expressionist writer Alfred Döblin; Die Beschreibung des Unglücks (1985), a volume of essays on Austrian literature; and A Radical Stage (1988), a collection of critical essays on contemporary German drama that he edited. In 1988, Sebald published his first volume of creative work, Nach der Natur (After Nature), an extended prose poem that prefigured the thematic concerns of his fiction. He received numerous honors, including the Berlin Literature Prize, the Johannes Bobrowski Medal, and the Literature Nord Prize for The Emigrants, and the Heinrich Böll Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award for Austerlitz. Sebald died near his home in Norwich, East Anglia, at age fifty-seven when the car he was driving swerved into oncoming traffic and collided with a truck; it is suspected that Sebald suffered a heart attack. His daughter, Anna, a passenger in his car, sustained severe injuries but survived the accident.
Sebald's first work of literary fiction, Vertigo, embodies the author's characteristic preoccupation with memory, mortality, and the uncanny ironies and coincidences that link individual lives to each other. As suggested by the title, the narrative evokes a mixture of confusion, anxiety, and frisson as Sebald moves between historical reality, personal reflection, and imaginative speculation. The first of the book's four sections recounts the experiences of French novelist Henri Beyle—better known by his pseudonym, Stendhal—during his Alps crossing with Napoleon. The second section relates Sebald's sojourn to Vienna and Italy to escape unspecified personal difficulties and includes descriptions of the author's delusions, random interactions with others, and digressions on Casanova's Venetian jailbreak and Renaissance painter Pisanello. The third section describes Franz Kafka's visit to Verona, drawing parallels to his own life and Stendhal's, and the final section describes Sebald's return to his Bavarian birthplace on his way back to England. As in his other books, Vertigo is illustrated by what are presumably the author's own uncaptioned black-and-white photographs of his travels and accumulated memorabilia, including ticket stubs, drawings, and newspaper clippings, all contributing to the haunting quality of Sebald's prose and his quizzical search for metaphysical certainty. The Emigrants employs a similar four-part structure, this time revolving around exilic German Jews whose displaced and tragic lives are set against the specter of the Holocaust, a subject that also figures importantly in Austerlitz. The first section features Henry Selwyn, an aristocratic retired doctor whom Sebald encounters while renting an apartment in his overgrown mansion in the English countryside. Though bearing all the signs of a full-blooded Englishman, Selwyn finally reveals that he emigrated to London as a child with a Jewish Lithuanian family. Afflicted by homesickness, Selwyn subsequently commits suicide and Sebald later recalls him upon discovering a newspaper story about Selwyn's former friend, a Swiss hiker who perished in the Alps in 1914 and whose body has finally been recovered. The second section recollects the life of Paul Bereyter, an engaging, unconventional German schoolteacher whom Sebald encountered as a student in the 1950s. Sebald learns that the Nazi pogroms of the 1930s precipitated the decline of Bereyter's Jewish family and his temporary flight to France. During World War II, however, Bereyter returned to Germany and was conscripted into the Nazi military despite his Jewish ancestry. As Sebald learns, Bereyter became disillusioned with teaching and harbored a preoccupation with trains; he ultimately killed himself by lying in the path of one. The third section involves Sebald's great-uncle Ambrose Adelwarth, who immigrated to the United States in the 1920s and was hired as a steward for Cosmo Solomon, the young heir of a wealthy Jewish family on Long Island. Adelwarth dutifully accompanies his unstable charge to European casinos and on a desert-crossing trek to Jerusalem, during which Cosmo attempts suicide and lapses into insanity, resulting in his internment in an upstate New York asylum. Adelwarth, whom Sebald suggests was romantically involved with Cosmo, later commits himself to the same asylum, where he succumbs to electroshock treatments and dies. The final section revolves around Max Ferber, a Manchester-based German Jewish artist whose dust-filled studio and ashen charcoal drawings parallel the sooty industrial decline of Manchester and evoke the imagery of Polish ghettos and Nazi death camps. Sebald attempts to reconstruct Ferber's family history and, upon visiting the aging artist some twenty years after their first meeting, learns that Ferber was sent by his parents to England to escape the Nazis in 1939, two years before his parents were deported and killed in Lithuania. A packet of letters from his mother, which Ferber shares with Sebald, serves as a heart-rending memoir of his mother's youth and Jewish life at the turn of the twentieth century. The Rings of Saturn recounts Sebald's 1992 walking tour of England's southeastern coast, which he recalls from a hospital bed in Norwich after suffering a debilitating but unspecified breakdown. Though ostensibly a travelogue of East Anglia, including descriptions of the desolate coastal plains, once thriving but now dilapidated resort towns, North Sea industries, and local personalities and lore, such provincial settings are merely a pretext for Sebald's wide-ranging historical and literary ruminations. Beginning with a meditation on the seventeenth-century scholar and pseudo-scientist Sir Thomas Browne, Sebald presents vignettes and extended digressions on Joseph Conrad, Belgian colonialism, Irish rebel Roger Casement, nineteenth-century imperial China, poets Edward FitzGerald, Algernon Swinburne, and Michael Hamburger, herring, and silkworms, among other topics. Together, Sebald's roving reflections suggest meaning-making connections—historical, aesthetic, and intertextual—among apparently disparate subjects, while demonstrating the inexorable process of decay by which individuals, physical landscapes, and whole civilizations are cast into oblivion. In Austerlitz, Sebald relates the story of Jacques Austerlitz, an Oxford-educated architectural historian whom Sebald first encounters in an Antwerp train terminal in 1967 and occasionally reencounters in chance meetings over the next three decades. Over the years, Sebald gradually learns of Austerlitz's tumultuous childhood and groping efforts to reconstruct his past. Sent to England from Prague via Kindertransport in 1939, Austerlitz was adopted at age four by a Calvinist minister and his wife and raised in Wales as Dafydd Elias. Though informed of his true identity as a teenager, Austerlitz represses his early memories until midlife, when after a nervous breakdown he travels to Prague to track down his Jewish parents and learns that they perished, separately and anonymously, at the hands of the Nazis. The incomplete information retrieved by Austerlitz offers little consolation, and his irreconcilable estrangement reveals the inadequacies of memory and the ruthlessness of history. In addition to his four major literary works, Sebald also published Unheimliche Heimat (1991), a collection of nine essays on Austrian literary identity; Logis in einem Landhaus (1998), a volume of essays on Gottfried Keller, Johann Peter Hebel, Robert Walser, Eduard Mörike, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau; and Luftkrieg und Literatur (1999; On the Natural History of Destruction), which consists of critical pieces on Alfred Andersch, Jean Améry, and Peter Weiss, and the essay “Air War and Literature,” in which Sebald addresses the Allied fire-bombing of Germany during World War II.
Sebald was immediately hailed as a profound literary master with the publication of The Emigrants, the first of his four major literary works to be translated into English. Several prominent critics, including Susan Sontag, dubbed the book a masterpiece. Though he had already established a reputation in the German-speaking world, Sebald won lavish praise from Anglo-American critics who marveled at the author's entrancing narrative voice, elegant but oddly anachronistic prose, and disquieting ruminations on memory, identity, and history. Commentators often cite Sebald's own expatriate life and grievous German inheritance as the source of his insight into the isolation and despair of the dispossessed. The English translations of Vertigo, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz were similarly greeted with enthusiastic praise, with critics lauding Sebald's genre-defying narratives and peculiar ability to conjure and comingle the ghosts of the dead, the lost, and the forgotten. His bleak vision and idiosyncratic narrative style—described as a mixture of Proustian subjectivity, documentary fact, and hallucination—have elicited comparisons to the work of Kafka, Elias Canetti, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Bernhard, Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino. Both The Emigrants and Austerlitz have been praised for their poignant treatment of the Holocaust and European Jewry. As critics note, the Holocaust looms ominously in much of Sebald's writing, a weighty presence that is acknowledged tacitly and indirectly without the sentimentality or sensationalism that mars other works on the subject. Despite almost uniformly positive response to his work, Sebald did become the center of controversy in 1999 as a result of his essay “Air War and Literature,” in which he questioned the silence of German writers on the horrific Allied bombing of German cities during World War II. Sebald's effort to open discussion of German suffering during the bombings—staggering in its own right—was misinterpreted by some as a reaction against German war guilt. A minority of critics have also objected to a perceived sterility, artifice, and disengagement in Sebald's fiction. At the time of Sebald's death, however, he was considered one of the most gifted writers of his generation and, in the eyes of his many admirers, destined for greatness. As disappointed commentators note, Sebald's small but formidable oeuvre is evidence of a tragically stunted literary career whose full potential will remain unknown.
Carl Sternheim: Kritiker und Opfer der Wilhelminschen Aera (nonfiction) 1969
Der Mythus der Zerstörung im Werk Döblins (nonfiction) 1980
Die Beschreibung des Unglücks: Zur Österreichischen Literatur von Stifter bis Handke (essays) 1985
Nach der Natur: Ein Elementardgedicht [After Nature] (poetry) 1988
A Radical Stage: Theatre in Germany in the 1970s and 1980s [editor and contributor] (essays) 1988
Schwindel, Gefühle [Vertigo] (novel) 1990
Unheimliche Heimat: Essays zur Österreichischen Literatur (essays) 1991
Die Ringe des Saturn: Eine Englische Wallfahrt [The Rings of Saturn] (novel) 1995
Die Ausgewanderten [The Emigrants] (novel) 1992
Logis in einem Landhaus: Uber Gottfried Keller, Johann Peter Hebel, Robert Walser und Andere (essays) 1998
Luftkrieg und Literatur: mit einem Essay zu Alfred Andersch [On the Natural History of Destruction] (essays) 1999
Austerlitz (novel) 2001
For Years Now: Poems [illustrated by Tess Jaray] (poetry) 2001
After Nature (poetry) 2003
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SOURCE: Swales, Martin. Review of Die Beschreibung des Unglücks, by W. G. Sebald. Modern Language Review 82, no. 1 (January 1987): 248-50.
[In the following review of Die Beschreibung des Unglücks, Swales faults Sebald's view of the literary critic as an interpreter of authorial pathology.]
In his collection of ten essays [Die Beschreibung des Unglücks] (nine of which are reworked versions of earlier papers) W. G. Sebald highlights particular topographical features of the Austrian literary landscape from Stifter to Handke (and, in view of the prominence accorded to descriptions of natural phenomena in that literary tradition, the notion of a ‘literary landscape’ is by no means only a metaphor). By any standards, it is not a very cheering journey. Stifter figures at both the beginning and the end. Dr Sebald is at pains to stress the repressions and pathological tensions in Stifter's own psyche (particularly his ‘unüberwindlichen Freβzwang’), and to suggest that the literary work, in its desperate attempt to vindicate rationality and orderliness, intimates the catastrophic possibilities that it wishes to keep at arm's length. Schnitzler's Traumnovelle is interpreted with respect to the role of woman within the corporate (male) imagination of declining Austria-Hungary. Sebald sees Andreas as Hofmannsthal's most daring venture into the realms of perversion and...
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SOURCE: Rundell, Richard J. Review of A Radical Stage, by W. G. Sebald. Theatre Journal 43, no. 21 (May 1991): 263-64.
[In the following excerpt, Rundell praises Sebald's analysis of contemporary German theatre in A Radical Stage.]
Although the word is gradually getting around in the United States that there is a lot of artistically vibrant and intellectually challenging activity these days on the heavily subsidized stages of the German-speaking countries of Europe, even well-informed American theater practitioners are familiar with little more than the names of those currently active German playwrights whose plays are most frequently produced. Very few of their plays have yet been staged in the United States, for reasons I shall explain below.
W. G. Sebald's collection of twelve essays [A Radical Stage] seeks to provide an overview of German-language theater in the past twenty years, with emphasis on the work of such individual playwrights as Botho Strauss, Friederike Roth, Tankred Dorst, Franz Xaver Kroetz, Volker Braun, Heiner Müller, Thomas Bernhard, and Herbert Achternbusch. One of the more notable German producer-directors, Peter Stein, is also discussed, as are the West Berlin political children's theater, Grips, and a number of recent productions in East Germany. Taken together, the essays provide a valuable survey of a theater scene to which Americans otherwise...
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SOURCE: Rosenfeld, Sidney. Review of Unheimliche Heimat, by W. G. Sebald. World Literature Today 66, no. 1 (winter 1992): 127-28.
[In the following review, Rosenfeld commends Sebald's insightful analysis in Unheimliche Heimat.]
The subtitle of W. G. Sebald's book Unheimliche Heimat posits a distinct identity for Austrian—as opposed to German—literature, and in the nine essays collected here Sebald finds a variety of instructive approaches to this long-debated and ultimately unresolvable question. Certainly, writers such as Jean Améry, Hermann Broch, Peter Handke, Franz Kafka, and Joseph Roth have found their place within the greater corpus of German-language writing. But whether Sebald is dealing in his separate interpretations with them, or with Karl Postl, Leopold Kompert, Karl Emil Franzos, Peter Altenberg, or Gerhard Roth, his focus on the specifically Austrian social determinants of their alienation from their “unheimliche Heimat” yields fruitful results. That seven of the ten writers he treats were Jews (or of Jewish background) is intrinsic to the theme, for no other group within the monarchy and later republic was more closely bound to the ideal of “Heimat” in its particular Austrian expression; and, as Sebald shows, these writers responded to their life situations as Austrians with an unusually probing mixture of ardent loyalty and criticism.
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SOURCE: Reiter, Andrea. Review of Unheimliche Heimat, by W. G. Sebald. Modern Language Review 88, no. 3 (July 1993): 803-05.
[In the following excerpt, Reiter commends Sebald's sociological perspective and novelistic approach in Unheimliche Heimat, but finds shortcomings in the omission of female author Ilse Aichinger and a tendency to allow his analysis to become subordinate to style.]
Since Claudio Magris's controversial suggestion (1966) that the ‘Habsburg Mythos’ is the common denominator of Austrian literature, there have been several further attempts to pinpoint the Austrian quality in the writings of that country which would distinguish them clearly from German, in particular West German, literature. One of the more important of these was Ulrich Greiner's Der Tod des Nachsommers (Munich: Hanser, 1979), which detected the Austrian character in the ‘Wirklichkeitsverweigerung und Handlungsverzicht’; these qualities are rooted in the absence of political engagement, which dates back as far as the end of the Josephine era and is detectable in Austrian writings right up to the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy in 1919. Stifter's œuvre is seen as the model which, albeit in a modified way, exercises its influence even in the post-war generation of writers.
The most recent attempt to find a common denominator of Austrian literature is presented in W....
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SOURCE: Brady, Philip. “Ghosts of the Present.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4867 (12 July 1996): 22.
[In the following review, Brady praises Sebald's use of vivid imagination and haunting evocation of memory in The Emigrants.]
In an essay first published in 1927 and entitled “Photography”, Siegfried Kracauer, one of a group of cultural critics—it included Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht—who were looking for meanings below the surface appearance of photographs, scrutinizes an old, faded photograph of his grandmother. He reflects on what he calls the “demonic ambiguity” of old photographs, the tension between an opaqueness “which scarcely a ray of light can penetrate” and a transparence that can increase “to the extent that insights thin out the vegetation of the soul”. And behind the ambiguity, he finds something unsettling: photographs fail in their “attempt to banish the recollection of death”. While Kracauer muses, letting a photograph generate ideas, the German writer, W. G. Sebald uses photographs as narrative material. In The Emigrants, they function as key memorabilia in a complex recovery of four personal histories. The result is a striking mixture of fact, alleged fact, and fantasy, punctuated by often hazy, artless snapshots. It has much of the ambiguity that Kracauer found so arresting and it has a great deal of the “recollection of death” that the...
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SOURCE: Chalmers, Martin. “Angels of History.” New Statesman 125, no. 4292 (12 July 1996): 44-5.
[In the following review, Chalmers lauds Sebald's evocation of history and memory in The Emigrants.]
Perhaps the last moment at which our 20th century of murder and destruction might have taken a different course was 1913. Certainly the summer of that year recurs in W G Sebald's four linked stories of emigration and exclusion as a time of happiness that was never to be recaptured. The longest, “Max Ferber”, begins in 1966, in a startlingly evoked Manchester: a sooty mausoleum of industrialisation. The narrator, a young German student with a biography much like that of Sebald, explores the wastelands of the city. He stumbles on an artist's studio in some otherwise deserted buildings by the docks. The artist is a German-Jewish émigré, Max Gerber. They talk, walk in the Manchester murk, and the student watches the artist at work.
More than 20 years later, now an academic but still in England, the former student reads a magazine article about Ferber's belated success. He visits him, still in the same studio, and only now does the narrator learn the full extent of Ferber's tragedy. He was put on a plane to England in 1939, while his parents were sent to their deaths in November 1941.
Ferber presses on the narrator the hand-written memoirs his mother Luisa composed...
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SOURCE: Angier, Carole. “They Forgot to Remember to Forget.” Spectator 277, no. 8770 (17 August 1996): 28-30.
[In the following review, Angier praises The Emigrants asserting that it “may be a masterpiece,” and lauds the treatment of such themes as exile, memory, art, and loss within the book.]
The Emigrants is not only about emigration. It is about internal as well as external exile; it is about loss, and above all about memory. Finally, therefore, it is about art. Another great German writer, Günther Grass, has said that writing is the naming of lost things; that without loss there would be no literature. The Emigrants both explores and embodies this theme. It is quiet and understated, and it has taken us three years (and three German prizes) to translate it. But I think it may be a masterpiece.
It begins—not on page one, but internally—from the central fact of German life since the war: the need not to remember the Third Reich. The narrator, who like W. G. Sebald lives in his own exile in England, tells of the recovery of German memory by four exiles, after lifetimes of forgetting. And one of the things that makes The Emigrants an unconsoling masterpiece is that this recovery is not only the rebirth it is post-Freudianly meant to be, but also a re-death: a recognition that some pain is simply too bad to face.
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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Taken Over by Dead Men's Ghosts.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (27 October 1996): 2.
[In the following review, Eder offers praise for The Emigrants.]
Everything, it seems, is paid for—there is no scot-free; the bill comes around, our dreams send it. The German novelist and scholar W. G. Sebald has written a haunting and limitlessly suggestive book about the most terrible example in our memory.
The Emigrants is four narratives about the death that persists within survival. Each is about a German Jew who in one fashion or another escaped the Holocaust yet gradually succumbed to it years later, in his old age.
The fictional narrator, like Sebald, was born in Germany in 1944, immigrated to Britain and teaches at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. The resemblance provides a framework of apparent fact. The narrator's stories—of his Norwich neighbor, a retired doctor who shoots himself; of a teacher who, at 73, lies down in front of a train: of his great-uncle, who wastes away in a psychiatric establishment in upstate New York; and of an old artist whose fatal lung disease stems from an obsessive painting technique—all begin as an ostensible mix of remembrance and biographical investigation.
Bit by bit, the external details acquire the colors of poetic introspection. Sifting his subjects' lives, the...
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SOURCE: Drabelle, Dennis. “What They Left Behind.” Washington Post Book World (15 December 1996): 6.
[In the following review, Drabelle praises Sebald's stories in The Emigrants as grim and beautiful.]
As best I can tell, this is a collection of four slightly fictionalized narratives, embellished with photographs some of which are culled from family albums and some taken specially for the book. Sorry to be so tentative, but the publisher's promotional material is not very helpful on this score, and in any case the book's genre seems less important than such features as its elegiac tone, its inventive prose, and the affecting composite picture it paints of uprooted German Jews.
W. G. Sebald's subject, then, is not the Holocaust per se but the loss of home suffered by some German Jews (the astute, the ostensibly lucky) in fleeing the increasingly hateful climate that preceded the Final Solution. Each episode is named for its principal actor, who is male (although about half the text of the fourth episode comes from a mother's memoirs). In addition to their theme, the episodes are held together by the actors' ties of blood or friendship to the narrator. Ambros Adelwarth, for example, was Sebald's great-uncle, and Max Ferber was an older friend from the narrator's sojourn in Manchester, England, as a young man in the mid-1960s.
Neither assimilated nor...
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SOURCE: Ozick, Cynthia. “The Posthumous Sublime.” New Republic 215, no. 25 (16 December 1996): 33-8.
[In the following review, Ozick praises Sebald's profound and evocative depiction of grief, loss, and German Jewish experience in The Emigrants.]
There is almost no clarifying publisher's apparatus surrounding W. G. Sebald's restless, melancholy and (I am almost sorry to say) sublime narrative quartet. One is compelled—ludicrously, clumsily—to settle for that hapless term (what is a “narrative quartet”?) because the very identity of this work remains murky. Which parts of it are memoir, which fiction—and ought it to matter? As for external facticity, we learn from the copyright page that the date of the original German publication is 1993, and that the initials W. G. represent Winfried Georg. A meager paragraph supplies a handful of biographical notes: the author was born in Wertach im Allgäu, Germany; he studied German language and literature in Freiburg (where, one recalls, Heidegger's influence as rector of the university, despite his earlier Nazi affiliations, extended well into the 1970s), and later in Francophone Switzerland and in Manchester, England, where he began a career in British university teaching. Two dates stand out: Sebald's birth in 1944, an appalling year for all of Europe, and for European Jews a death's-head year; and 1970, when, at the age of 26, Sebald left...
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SOURCE: Coe, Jonathan. “Tact.” London Review of Books (20 March 1997): 24-5.
[In the following review, Coe praises the tactfulness with which Sebald conveys the suffering, dislocation, and painful legacy of the Holocaust in The Emigrants.]
This curious, mesmerising book, a hybrid of fiction and memoir which tells the life stories of four unhappy exiles, is the work of a German writer until now almost unknown in this country. It has already scooped up prizes in continental Europe and been published to great acclaim both in Britain and America. The epithets which have been flung at it include sober, delicate, beautiful, moving, powerful, mysterious, civilised and a hundred others: but it would be hard to praise The Emigrants more highly than by saying that it is a supremely tactful book.
Why isn't tact invoked more often, I wonder, in the hierarchy of literary virtues? It can appear in so many different guises: in the kinds of choice that authors make—what they choose to tell, and what they choose to withhold; in their mode of address to the reader, their willingness to allow for the fact that readers come to a book with different expectations, different sensibilities; in their use of material from real life—how carefully they handle the delicate process by which remembered experience (their own and other people's) is transformed into fictional incident; and, of course, in...
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SOURCE: Malin, Irving. Review of The Emigrants, by W. G. Sebald. Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 1 (spring 1997): 173-74.
[In the following review, Malin assesses Sebald's exploration of history, memory, and meaning in The Emigrants as enigmatic.]
This novel, which is surely one of the best novels to appear since World War II, cannot be reviewed briefly. I will try, nevertheless, to emphasize a few details that demand more significant explorations. The novel consists of four parts. Each is an eccentric extended portrait of a person: Dr. Henry Selwyn, Paul Bereyter, Ambros Adelwarth, and Max Ferber. The narrator tries to discover their pasts; he hopes to confront the reasons for their dramatic acts of re-creation and self-destruction. He tries to find a pattern linking “the emigrants” because he uncannily knows that he is related to them. Thus the novel becomes a search for kinship—literally and symbolically. It is a detective story about origins and endings, about the nature of history and memory. The narrator recognizes that his search is somehow doomed to incompletion.
The novel is filled with photographs: stills of childhood activities and, perhaps, more profoundly, with ones of cemeteries, enigmatic loads, journals, and hotels. The photographs are the remnants of the past. They must be studied as closely as the words of the narrator. Therefore, the...
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SOURCE: Aciman, André. “In the Crevasse.” Commentary 103, no. 6 (June 1997): 61-4.
[In the following review, Aciman lauds Sebald's evocation of memory, fate, and the legacy of the Holocaust in The Emigrants.]
W. G. Sebald was born in Germany, studied literature there as well as in Switzerland and in Manchester, England, and since 1970 has been teaching at the University of East Anglia, where he is now a professor of European literature. That he and I are both emigrants—a cross of immigrant, exile, and extraterritorial—and that we have both written on the impact of personal as well as acquired memories, and that the question of Jewish suffering lies at the root of our work (though Sebald is not himself Jewish) are coincidences that should have drawn me to his book, which was published in this country late last year and which in literary form combines a variety of fictional and nonfictional motifs. Still, or perhaps just so, I put off reading it long after it had been recommended to me, first by a friend who found it “quite astonishingly beautiful and enigmatic,” then by reviewers whose taste I either respected or did not respect, and finally by the editor of this magazine, who was not entirely sure I would like the book.
So when I began reading The Emigrants on the commuter train into Manhattan, I was half-expecting to find a reason to put it down by the end of the...
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SOURCE: Annan, Gabriele. “Ghosts.” New York Review of Books 44, no. 14 (25 September 1997): 29-30.
[In the following review, Annan praises The Emigrants as a melancholy study of memory and loss, rather than an example of Holocaust literature, in which Sebald laments the irretrievability of the past and the oblivion into which the dead are cast by the passage of time.]
The Emigrants consists of four short biographies told in the first person by the author. Perhaps “displaced persons” or the French dépaysés would better describe these men, who are without the sense of purpose, of going somewhere, implicit in the word “emigrant.” (To be pedantic: the German for “emigrants” is Auswanderer, suggesting people on the move. Die Ausgewanderten—Sebald's original German title—means people who once emigrated.) Sebald's four men aren't going anywhere. They have reached the end of the road. His book is tragic, stunningly beautiful, strange, and haunting. What makes it beautiful is the fastidious prose with its sad resigned rhythm—as appealing and hypnotic in Michael Hulse's English translation as in the German original; and also Sebald's wonderfully desolate landscapes and townscapes, where depression rises like mist from quite factual, unemphatic descriptions of people and things.
The strangeness lies in the hybrid genre that he has invented...
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SOURCE: Howell-Jones, Gareth. “A Doubting Pilgrim's Happy Progress.” Spectator 280, no. 8860 (30 May 1998): 34-5.
[In the following review, Howell-Jones commends Sebald's use of anecdotes, observations, and coincidences to impute a sense of orderliness to the process of worldly decay in The Rings of Saturn.]
Lying in a hospital bed, ‘in a state of almost total immobility', W. G. Sebald, a German lecturer long domiciled in England, recalls a walking tour of Suffolk made the previous year. In calm, formal prose well-suited to the barren beauty of that coast, he tracks his mind's wanderings through the literary and historical associations evoked by his journey.
The range of his susceptibilities is immense. One might have expected the affectionate portrait of Edward FitzGerald and perhaps the entertaining account of Swinburne seeking desolation in the lost town of Dunwich. But Sebald, impelled by a grave fancy, can go much further, into stranger territory. He ponders the relationship between art and sugar, the phosphorescence of dead herring, curious facts about James I and silkworms, Roger Casement, Joseph Conrad, an empress killed by a surfeit of crab-apples and a pall-bearer called Squirrel. There is a heartbreaking portrait of an Irish country-house family sunk in mournful eccentricity. There are wonders and surprises everywhere and if, at first, his tales seem wholly...
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SOURCE: Morrison, Blake. “Suffolk through Death-Tinted Specs.” New Statesman 127, no. 4388 (5 June 1998): 45-6.
[In the following review, Morrison credits Sebald with an idiosyncratic style, melancholic perspective, and engaging storytelling in The Rings of Saturn.]
This is one of the strangest books I've ever read. Finishing it, I went out and bought W G Sebald's previous book, the much acclaimed The Emigrants (1996), after which it seemed less strange since the two have much in common: an acute sense of place, a fascination with émigrés and eccentrics, a dislike of paragraphing, a uniquely seductive tone of voice. The Emigrants is the more successful work. Even so, there is nothing quite like The Rings of Saturn.
Ostensibly, it describes a journey on foot through coastal Norfolk and Suffolk, but it isn't a travel book. It gives accounts of the Battle of Sole Bay, the rise and fall of silkworm breeding in Europe and the destruction of the medieval port of Dunwich, but it isn't historical narrative. It looks, in passing, at the lives of (among others) Conrad, Swinburne, Edward FitzGerald and the Vicomte de Chateaubriand, but it isn't literary biography. It reads like fiction at times but gives every impression, not least through the inclusion of some authentically amateurish authorial photographs, of telling a true story. Stylistically, it's as if Bruce...
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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “The Anatomy of Melancholy.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (28 June 1998): 2.
[In the following review, Eder offers a favorable assessment of The Rings of Saturn, which he views as a lament and an extension of The Emigrants, albeit less focused and potent.]
At the end of his tormented pilgrim's regress through memory and the stripped flatlands of East Anglia, the narrator cites for one last time his ghostly companion throughout: the 17th century writer Sir Thomas Browne.
Mourning—in a very large sense, the heart of W. G. Sebald's fictional meditation—was traditionally observed by wearing black. Browne wrote of the old custom of draping in black silks the mirrors, portraits and landscapes hanging in the house of the deceased “so that the soul, as it left the body, would not be distracted on its final journey, either by a reflection of itself or by a last glimpse of the land now being lost forever.”
Browne's prose was as spacious and light-filled as his own East Anglian skies. Sebald's prose (excellently translated from German by Michael Hulse) recalls his model not only in its light but in the sere temper that its cascade of allusion and digression paradoxically sets off, as an elaborate costume sets off a wasting body.
It is not Browne's “Religio Medici” but his “Urn Burial” that Sebald keeps in...
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SOURCE: Wood, James. “The Right Thread.” New Republic 219, no. 1 (6 July 1998): 38-42.
[In the following review, Wood discusses what he considers Sebald's pessimistic aesthetic and preoccupation with death in The Rings of Saturn.]
Anxious, daring, extreme, muted—only an annulling wash of contradictory adjectives can approach the agitated density of W. G. Sebald's writing. For this German who has lived in England for over thirty years is one of the most mysteriously sublime of contemporary writers. When his book The Emigrants appeared two years ago, one immediately recalled Walter Benjamin's remark in his essay on Proust that all great works found a new genre or dissolve an old one. Here was the first contemporary writer since Beckett to have found a way to protest the good government of the conventional novel-form and to harass realism into a state of self-examination.
And here, in The Rings of Saturn, is a book more uncanny than The Emigrants. In it, a man who might be Sebald walks around the English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. The book is curlingly set in the present, but this man is something of an old-fashioned journeyman, a turnpike-pounder, as if from a nineteenth-century tale. Sebald's book is divided into ten bending and opaque chapters. In these chapters, the narrator alights upon certain natural and man-made features: a town here, a village...
(The entire section is 4270 words.)
SOURCE: Stow, Randolph. “The Plangency of Ruins.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4974 (31 July 1998): 11.
[In the following review, Stow offers favorable comments on what he considers Sebald's mournful tone and unique narrative style in The Rings of Saturn.]
W. G. Sebald, Professor of German at the University of East Anglia, has lived in that region since 1970, but was born in 1944, in what was left of Nazi Germany. The Rings of Saturn is his second work to appear in English, having been preceded by The Emigrants, a book whose haunting qualities have been saluted by critics as diverse as A. S. Byatt and Tariq Ali.
Both volumes are described by the publisher as “works of fiction”, an unexpected categorization in view of their contents. The narrator of The Rings of Saturn is certainly a man called Sebald, since he regards “the holy prince of heaven Saint Sebolt”, another restless and self-dissatisfied man, as his patron. We even have a blurred snapshot of him, at Ditchingham Park, against a cedar of Lebanon which was (probably) destroyed in the hurricane of October 1987. So far as one can tell, no detail of the narrator's experience has been invented. Did he, then, one wonders, instruct his publishers to call his books fiction? Is this a comment on the fabricative powers of memory? Do Chateaubriand's Mémoires d'outre-tombe, to some extent Sebald's...
(The entire section is 1694 words.)
SOURCE: Enright, D. J. “The German Ocean.” London Review of Books (17 September 1998): 27.
[In the following review, Enright commends Sebald's “seductive” and “entrancing” writing in The Rings of Saturn, but finds his digressions occasionally dull and his melancholy overdetermined.]
Change and decay in all around we see. As one of W. G. Sebald's epigraphs points out, the rings of Saturn are probably fragments of a moon, broken up by tidal effect when its orbit decayed.
In August 1992, we are told, Sebald walked through coastal Suffolk. Possibly because of the ‘paralysing horror’ caused in him by the traces of destruction he observed, a year later he was admitted to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital ‘in a state of almost total immobility’. We might like to know more about his condition (the reference to Gregor Samsa and his little legs doesn't help much), its diagnosis and how it was treated. But Sebald prefers to let other people, other events and objects, speak for him. An exquisite sound picture of two night nurses points to his peculiar and remarkable gift: ‘Of the everyday matters they chatted about I understood very little. All I heard was the rise and fall of their voices, a kind of warbling such as comes from the throats of birds, a perfect, fluting sound, part celestial and part the song of sirens.’
Sebald, Professor of Modern...
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SOURCE: Roberson, Matthew. Review of The Rings of Saturn, by W. G. Sebald. Review of Contemporary Fiction 18, no. 3 (fall 1998): 241-42.
[In the following review, Roberson judges The Rings of Saturn favorably, asserting that it contains engaging intelligence and prose.]
The narrator of The Rings of Saturn (who both is and is not W. G. Sebald in this combination of fiction, travel writing, historical study, and memoir) makes clear again and again his fascination with the life and work of Thomas Browne. He admires, in particular, Browne's “Musaeum Clausum,” a “catalogue of remarkable books … listing pictures, antiquities and sundry singular items.” What distinguishes this catalogue for the narrator, in addition to its eclectic scope, is that, like another of his favorite texts, Borges's Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, it deals with “our attempts to invent secondary or tertiary worlds”; the items in Browne's text “may have formed part of a collection put together by Browne but were more likely products of his imagination, the inventory of a treasure house that existed purely in his head and to which there is no access except through the letters on the page.” In turn, Sebald's book is a similar treasure house of items. As well as being the narrator's account of a walking tour through England's East Anglia, it is a map of the author's brilliantly wandering mind,...
(The entire section is 342 words.)
SOURCE: Butler, Michael. “The Human Cost of Exile.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4983 (2 October 1998): 10.
[In the following review, Butler offers a positive assessment of Logis in einem Landhaus.]
W. G. Sebald is a distinguished scholar (he holds a Chair of German in the University of East Anglia) and a novelist with a growing international reputation. His latest book brings both sides of his personality together. For though at one level Logis in einem Landhaus is a collection of essays on Swiss or Alemannic writers, at another it is an exploration of spiritual affinities that indicate some of the sources of his own inspiration as a creator of fiction.
These are occasional pieces, modestly entitled “a memoir” or “notes”, but they have a unifying theme in that the writers Sebald discusses—Johann Peter Hebel, Gottfried Keller, Eduard Mörike, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Robert Walser—are, to varying degrees, eccentric figures, men who were either in conflict with their environment, as with the case of Rousseau, or lived their imaginative lives at a tangent to social reality. Whether they travelled or stayed in the same restricted environment, their existence—as the title of the book suggests—appears to be that of transient residents within ostensibly stable communities.
Even Hebel, who rose to high rank in the Lutheran Church, wrote his gently...
(The entire section is 719 words.)
SOURCE: Tate, Trudi. “The Writer Among the Ruins.” Quadrant 42, no. 11 (November 1998): 76-8.
[In the following review, Tate appreciates Sebald's preoccupation with historical memory and the continuing relevance of the past in The Rings of Saturn.]
Although W. G. Sebald lives in Britain and teaches at the University of East Anglia, he writes in German and publishes his books in his adopted homeland in translation. His first work to appear in English was The Emigrants (Harvill, 1996). His new book, The Rings of Saturn, tells of a walking trip along the coast of Suffolk. Part memoir, part mediation, the book interweaves personal memory and observation with a collection of historical narratives. Sebald's reflections on the history and geography of the eastern edge of England are as peculiar and haunting as the landscape itself.
Sebald undertook the walk, he tells us, in the hope that it might dispel the sense of emptiness he felt after a long period of writing. But the journey between Lowestoft and Felixstowe, a distance of about forty miles, produced a melancholia of its own. A year to the day after he had started his walk, Sebald was taken to hospital with a strange paralysis. The ailment is never explained, but it seems to be a physical expression of psychic distress, caused by his journey. Everywhere he went, he tells us, he found evidence of centuries of violence and...
(The entire section is 2046 words.)
SOURCE: Aciman, André. “Out of Novemberland.” New York Review of Books 45, no. 19 (3 December 1998): 44-7.
[In the following review, Aciman contends that The Rings of Saturn, despite its ostensible interest in historical interconnections and cosmic coincidences, is a self-absorbed meditation with a flawed form that prevents Sebald from transcending his private intellectual concerns.]
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,...
(The entire section is 5916 words.)
SOURCE: Schwarz, Robert. Review of Logis in einem Landhaus, by W. G. Sebald. World Literature Today 73, no. 3 (summer 1999): 521.
[In the following review, Schwartz offers praise for Logis in einem Landhaus.]
In a handsomely designed, tastefully printed, and creatively illustrated volume, six men who have enriched European culture are discussed with expertise and charm. W. G. Sebald has selected the early-twentieth-century Swiss author Robert Walser, the nineteenth-century Swiss novelist and poet Gottfried Keller, the nineteenth-century German poet Eduard Mörike, the early-nineteenth-century Swiss chronicler and poet Johann Peter Hebel, the eighteenth-century Swiss-French poetic philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the early-twentieth-century Swiss painter Jan Peter Tripp to tell us things about each which we could hardly find in textbooks on literature or art. Not since Rejection and Emancipation was published in 1991 have I acquired such unique insights into the world of Swiss literati. Bibliophiles will be inspired to reread the works of Keller, the romantic essays of Rousseau, the lonely and melancholy prose of Walser (whom Sebald calls “le promeneur solitaire”), and the amazingly beautiful poetry of Mörike. The emphasis here is on reread, for familiarization with the works of these chosen six figures prior to reading Logis is important, lest one wind up in a...
(The entire section is 538 words.)
SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “Pursued across Europe by Ghosts and Unease.” Spectator 283, no. 8941 (18-25 December 1999): 65-6.
[In the following review, Brookner admires Sebald's disquieting description of anxiety, displacement, and solitary travels in Vertigo.]
A fine array of symptoms is on offer in Vertigo, the first volume of what would become a celebrated trilogy. In The Emigrants Professor Sebald traced the lives of four exiles; in The Rings of Saturn he took a protracted walk around and across East Anglia, which is now his home. In Vertigo he is on the move again, not on foot, but in a series of displacements no less extreme and rather more disturbing, although he offers no comment on his particular form of experience. In Vienna he was unable to proceed beyond the boundaries of three streets, where he spent his days and part of his nights until his shoes wore out. He also reports, with similar lack of affect, clouded vision and a sensation of weightlessness. In this state he was able to take an excursion with a friend who had suffered lifelong mental illness, in the course of which neither of them appeared to have exchanged a word. Before they parted the friend, Ernst Herbeck, scribbled a note, in irregular unravelling handwriting, in Sebald's diary, and dated it 30 November 1980.
From time to time in this mysterious narrative an objective correlative...
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SOURCE: Sontag, Susan. “A Mind in Mourning.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5056 (25 February 2000): 3-4.
[In the following review, Sontag examines stylistic and thematic continuities in Sebald's literary works and offers a positive assessment of Vertigo.]
Is literary greatness still possible? Given the implacable devolution of literary ambition, and the concurrent ascendancy of the tepid, the glib and the senselessly cruel as normative fictional subjects, what would a noble literary enterprise look like now? One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.
Vertigo, the third of Sebald's books to be translated into English, is how he began. It appeared in German in 1990, when its author was forty-six; three years later came The Emigrants; and two years after that, The Rings of Saturn. When The Emigrants appeared in English in 1996, the acclaim bordered on awe. Here was a masterly writer, mature, autumnal even, in his persona and themes, who had delivered a book as exotic as it was irrefutable. The language was a wonder—delicate, dense, steeped in thinghood; but there were ample precedents for that in English. What seemed foreign as well as most persuasive was the preternatural authority of Sebald's voice: its gravity, its sinuosity, its precision, its freedom from all undermining or undignified self-consciousness...
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SOURCE: Parks, Tim. “The Hunter.” New York Review of Books 47, no. 10 (15 June 2000): 52-3, 56.
[In the following review, Parks offers a positive evaluation of Vertigo and discusses Sebald's attention to coincidences and repetitions.]
In the closing pages of Cervantes's masterpiece, at last disabused and disillusioned, a decrepit Don Quixote finds that there is nothing for him beyond folly but death. When giants are only windmills and Dulcinea a stout peasant lass who has no time for a knight errant, life, alas, is unlivable. “Truly he is dying,” says the priest who takes his confession, “and truly he is sane.” Sancho Panza breaks down in tears: “Oh don't die, dear master! … Take my advice and live many years. For the maddest thing a man can do in this life is to let himself die just like that, without anybody killing him, but just finished off by his own melancholy.”
Centuries later, observing the loss of all illusion that he felt characterized the modern world, the melancholic Giacomo Leopardi wrote: “Everything is folly but folly itself.” And again a hundred and more years later, the arch pessimist Emil Cioran rephrased the reflection thus: “The true vertigo is the absence of folly.” What makes Don Quixote so much luckier than Leopardi and Cioran, and doubtless Cervantes himself, is that, as the epitaph on his tombstone puts it, “he had the luck …...
(The entire section is 4390 words.)
SOURCE: Dirda, Michael. Review of Vertigo, by W. G. Sebald. Washington Post Book World (25 June 2000): 15.
[In the following review, Dirda notes the critical acclaim Sebald has gathered, but finds Vertigo tenuously constructed and confusing for readers who do not enjoy Sebald's pessimistic European sensibility.]
Children's literature, it has been rashly said (by me), can be divided into two subgenres: the books that kids like (Animorphs, the American Girl series) and those that grown-ups like (various Newbery and Caldecott winners). As it happens, one can make a comparable judgment about adult fiction. There are novels that readers love, and there are texts, fictions, experiments that critics rave about.
Vertigo falls into this latter category. I enjoyed it and admired it immensely, but then my suspect taste for all kinds of narrative, from the most popular to the most innovative, could easily give the word catholic a bad name. W. G. Sebald is extremely—how shall I say it?—European and this, the first of his memoir-novels, demands a liking for digressive travel writing and somber reminiscence.
But consider a few facts. Susan Sontag, no less, called Sebald's The Emigrants (first published in German in 1993, here in English in 1996) “an astonishing masterpiece: it seems perfect while being unlike any book one has ever read.” That...
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SOURCE: Landon, Philip. Review of Vertigo, by W. G. Sebald. Review of Contemporary Fiction 20, no. 3 (fall 2000): 137.
[In the following review, Landon offers a positive assessment of Vertigo.]
The appearance in English of Sebald's first novel will be warmly greeted by those who know the two later books already translated from the German by Michael Hulse: The Rings of Saturn (1995) and The Emigrants (1997). You need a list to suggest the scope, originality, and richness of Sebald's prose. Scrapbook, essay collection, personal diary, historical fiction, novel of ideas—whatever you want to call it, Vertigo diverts and surprises at every turn, and bears the unmistakable stamp of maturity and erudition.
Sebald is a deeply personal writer who views the European experience from a wide-angle perspective, reaffirming humanism through curiosity and tact. There is no complacency or cynicism in any of his books, whose quiet decency renders garish the overbearing and rapacious spirit of our culture of entertainment and globalization. To be sure, Sebald himself is both entertaining and cosmopolitan, but his art is nourished by humility and learning. He shares the detached sensibility of Conrad, Kafka, Nabokov, and Beckett, and like them, has forged his own form.
The exquisite Rings of Saturn, which catapulted Sebald to the forefront of European...
(The entire section is 282 words.)
SOURCE: Krauss, Nicole. “Arabesques of Journeys.” Partisan Review 68, no. 4 (fall 2001): 646-50.
[In the following review, Krauss praises Sebald's distinctive, though elusive, authorial presence and storytelling in Vertigo.]
Who is W. G. Sebald? Who is the enigmatic German writer who first appeared in English in 1996 with the publication of his elegiac quartet, The Emigrants, who reappeared in 1998 with The Rings of Saturn, and who now visits us once more with Vertigo (his first novel, which, in German, preceded the other two)? Scattered throughout all three books are grainy photographs, and occasionally we glimpse Sebald peering out from behind his weeping-willow mustache. But these snapshots have the odd effect of making him seem not more familiar but more otherworldly, as elusive as the eccentric figures from history who haunt his pages. Sebald guides us through time across Europe. But he is always moving, always just ahead of us, already speaking to us from the shadowy realm of the beyond.
Even the books themselves are evasive: “novel” is an impoverished word to describe Sebald's peculiar alloy of travelogue, fiction, memoir, scholarly essay, and historical investigation. Each derives its meandering form from a journey, or a series of journeys, that Sebald undertakes from England, his adopted country of thirty years. Often the itinerary traces the...
(The entire section is 2232 words.)
SOURCE: Landon, Philip. Review of Austerlitz, by W. G. Sebald. Review of Contemporary Fiction 21, no. 3 (fall 2001): 196.
[In the following review, Landon offers praise for Austerlitz.]
[Austerlitz, t]he fourth novel by the German expatriate author W. G. Sebald records the life story of Jacques Austerlitz, an eccentric architectural historian born in Prague and raised by foster parents in Wales. Battling the alienation that has wrecked his life, Austerlitz eventually reclaims his origins from the darkness of the Holocaust, aspiring to “a kind of historical metaphysic, bringing remembered events back to life.” Sebald's narrator, driven by a similar impulse, shudders to think “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.” Sebald employs an old-fashioned, scholarly manner to entirely fresh ends, fusing learning and sensitivity into a kind of neurotic sublime. He stares into the abyss, yet engages in an act of affirmation: of the individual against the mass, of the detail against our habitual inattention, of recollection against oblivion. The repressed memories of Jacques Austerlitz serve to indict the entire postwar age of denial through forgetting. Identity is...
(The entire section is 305 words.)
SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “A Journey Without Maps.” Spectator 287, no. 9035 (6 October 2001): 64-5.
[In the following review, Brookner finds Austerlitz a harrowing blend of memory, digression, and observation.]
Exiles inhabit another dimension, somewhere beyond nostalgia, in which acuity of vision and the weight of memory combine to convey a strangeness not available to innocent natives. The Russian Andreï Makine, now writing in French, and the German W. G. Sebald have produced books, none finer than their present productions, which transport the reader not only to a different place but to a different time. Both have a preternatural ability to establish a reality which has left indelible traces in their respective memories, so that their accounts of what has vanished outweigh present circumstances and force recognition of what it must be like to live a posthumous life, one which has no connection with their day-to-day occupations in the translated present. In both cases that translated present seems insubstantial, evanescent, as if it were a radical departure from some anterior life, and in which correspondences are to be sought in abstractions, in landscapes, in skies, in deserted buildings, in an emptiness which is more familiar than the verifiable occurrences which they now with some difficulty accept.
Memory is crucial in this process; indeed memory is the process, never...
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SOURCE: Byatt, A. S. “Only Connect.” New Statesman 130, no. 4559 (15 October 2001): 52-3.
[In the following review, Byatt offers a positive assessment of Austerlitz, but notes that its internal coincidences and interconnections seem more “overtly constructed” than in Sebald's previous works.]
W G Sebald's narratives are both old and new, in form and subject matter. They are characteristically modern in that they attempt, more and more desperately and elaborately, to make sense of a world that is always elusive. His isolated narrators move through a world with none of the ancient structures of thought and feeling—no myth, no pattern of belief—trying to make sense, and also afraid of making sense.
They move through both time and space, making endless connections. In time, they explore the structures of memory, private and public. There are digressions on national, local and individual history. People burrow through archives or examine diaries. Sebald uses public and private photographs and snapshots to telling effect—frozen moments of human or geological or national time that are both present and absent. His characters study traces of human and animal predecessors long gone. Like many modern artists, visual and literary, he is interested in collections and catalogues—birds and insects, fish and stones.
His steady-paced narrator, a witness who is...
(The entire section is 1248 words.)
SOURCE: Tindall, Gillian. “The Fortress of the Heart.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5142 (19 October 2001): 21.
[In the following review, Tindall judges Sebald's fictionalization of past lives and identities in Austerlitz as convincing.]
It is a strange country, W. G. Sebald's, though one that has become familiar through his four books now published in English. Its hidden heart seems to be in Germany, but often a Germany of night-time railway stations that are there as doorways to other destinations, other versions of existence, in Belgium, Italy, or further east. It has a significant territory in the windswept fields and secret country houses of East Anglia (where Sebald is Professor of European Literature), but from there the waves wash the shores of Holland and so back into the Continental flux. The European routes criss-cross between the present, moments of Sebald's own past, the more remote pasts of those now moving out of living memory, and the classic past of distant battles, “the marks of pain, which … trace countless fine lines through history”.
Sebald's journeys therefore take place in several dimensions, geographically, but also through multiple, overlapping time zones. Austerlitz, like the other books, sets out to convince the reader, even with photographs of buildings and train tickets, that it is no fiction, but it is nevertheless called “a...
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SOURCE: Annan, Gabriele. “Ghost Story.” New York Review of Books 48, no. 17 (1 November 2001): 26-7.
[In the following review, Annan praises the haunting blend of fact, fiction, and meditative digression by which Sebald conjures the past and its uncanny connections with the present.]
On the cover photograph a little boy stands alone on a bleak heath. He wears the white satin costume of an eighteenth-century page and in his hand he holds a white satin tricorne with an ostrich feather. His pale blond hair blows in the wind. He is not an attractive child, and his expression is puzzled, anxious, defensive—or so it seems to me. Sebald calls it “piercing, inquiring.” The photograph is printed in moody sepia, like the others in this and Sebald's previous books. Like them. Austerlitz hovers enigmatically on the border between fact and fiction. He has created a new genre, a mysterious defensive hedge to hide behind as he sorts out his inmost thoughts.
Nearly all the photographs are either melancholy or sinister or both, even when they are architectural—which in the case of Austerlitz most of them are. Interiors of railway stations, fortresses, hotels, municipal buildings, libraries, conservatories draw one into eerie spaces somewhere between Escher's surreal flights of stairs and Piranesi's imaginary prisons. The prose corroborates the impression: in the disused ladies'...
(The entire section is 2637 words.)
SOURCE: Banville, John. “The Rubble Artist.” New Republic 225, no. 22 (26 November 2001): 35-8.
[In the following review, Banville asserts that Austerlitz contains masterful narrative control and a poignant evocation of European desolation.]
For a novelist, the Holocaust is at once a safe subject and a dangerous subject. Safe, because the emotional reaction of practically all readers will be already primed; dangerous, because almost any attempt to deal imaginatively with a crime that is well nigh unimaginable is likely to result in bathos. There is also the moral question of whether an artist has the right to turn such horrors into the stuff of art; Adorno was sure he knew the answer to that one, while even the supremely scrupulous Celan was criticized for the musical beauty of his death-camp poem “Deathfugue.” Perhaps the most succinct statement of the matter was made by Larkin, who in a comment on a poem about another twentieth-century catastrophe said that he had used Roman numerals for the title of “MCMXIV” because “once you've said Nineteen Fourteen, everything after that is superfluous.”
It would be an injustice to W. G. Sebald to suggest that he has made the Shoah his subject. Indeed, it would be an injustice to claim that he has a “subject” as such, unless it be the lachrimae rerum in general. His books deal with a bewildering range of topics,...
(The entire section is 2517 words.)
SOURCE: Lewis, Tess. “W. G. Sebald: The Past Is Another Country.” New Criterion 20, no. 4 (December 2001): 85-90.
[In the following essay, Lewis provides an overview of Sebald's literary works, thematic preoccupations, and prose style upon the publication of Austerlitz, concluding that Sebald's overriding concern is the irretrievability of the past.]
How strange it is, to be standing leaning against the current of time.
—W. G. Sebald, Vertigo
Travel, Kierkegaard claimed, is the best way to avoid despair. But for the German writer W. G. Sebald, it leads, as often as not, from one state of despair to another. In his first novel, Vertigo (1990), translated two years ago, Sebald's lightly fictionalized alter ego explains that “In October 1980 I travelled from England, where I had then been living for nearly twenty-five years in a country which was almost always under grey skies, to Vienna, hoping that a change of place would help me get over a particularly difficult period in my life.” Yet without his routines of work in his garden or with his books, he finds himself at a loss. During ten days of compulsive walking, he is incapable of moving outside a precisely defined sickle-shaped area. The narrator begins hallucinating; he sees Dante walking ahead of him, then figures from his childhood. He...
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SOURCE: Kunkel, Benjamin. “The Emigrant.” Nation 274, no. 12 (1 April 2002): 42-4.
[In the following review of Austerlitz, Kunkel discusses Sebald's romanticism and preoccupation with the calamities of history, concluding that Sebald's autobiographical reticence deprives his work of truth.]
On December 14, the German writer W. G. Sebald died, age 57, in a car accident in England, where he had lived for thirty-five years. He had published four remarkable books: fluid, melancholy novel-essays composed in beautifully rich and formal language, and studded with odd black-and-white photos rescued from the oblivion that was his overwhelming theme. In each book, including Austerlitz, brought out just before Sebald's death in an English translation he supervised, a solitary traveler undertakes research into devastation (of trees and animal species, of human practices and populations) and conducts interviews among the bereaved, making himself into a kind of tribune of universal loss. About the traveler we know little but that he shares the main features of the author's life and suffers from precarious mental health, especially a “paralyzing horror … when confronted with the traces of destruction.”
I had read Sebald with uneasy admiration, and learning of his death I felt jolted, brought up short. It wasn't only that he was in the middle of a great career; there was...
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SOURCE: Pettingell, Phoebe. “Old Masters of Suffering.” New Leader 85, no. 4 (July-August 2002): 33-5.
[In the following excerpt, Pettingell commends Sebald's depiction of suffering and the fallibility of human reason and memory in After Nature.]
W. H. Auden's much-anthologized poem, “Musée des Beaux Arts,” begins memorably, “About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters.” He had in mind the Gothic painters of Northern Europe's 16th century, like Mathias Grünewald, Albrecht Dürer, Albrecht Altdorfer, and Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Their straightforward depictions of human bodies in the throes of various agonies and degradations were a far cry from the glowing, idealized visions of the Italian Renaissance. These artists, most of whom endured times of extreme conflict, were only too familiar with the horrors they painted. They had seen atrocities committed in the name of religion, and had watched disfiguring, fatal plagues sweep through their countries. Often they chose to reflect on the troubles of the period in Biblical or Classical terms. Some of their masterpieces imagine the Apocalypse with relish, as though their world were crying out for God's refining fires to purge humanity of its evil disposition. It is not surprising that such gruesome works were largely ignored during the idealistic 19th century, but were terribly resonant to many in the 20th. A surfeit of wars teaches...
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SOURCE: Franklin, Ruth. “Rings of Smoke.” New Republic 227, no. 13 (23 September 2002): 32-9.
[In the following review, Franklin discusses Sebald's authorial persona and tensions between fact and fiction in his writings, his portrayal of historical suffering and persecution in After Nature, and his controversial statements about the Allied bombing of Germany in Luftkrieg und Literatur.]
If there is an underworld where the darkest nightmares of the twentieth century dwell, W. G. Sebald could be its Charon. Starting with Vertigo, which combines sketches of Kafka and Stendhal with a fictionalized record of travels in Italy and elsewhere, and ending with Austerlitz, the story of a boy sent to England via Kindertransport in 1939 and brought up under a false name, all of Sebald's books have been about bridging gaps, and about the impossibility of bridging gaps—between memory and forgetting, between art and reality, between the living and the dead. These extraordinary works are different on each reading, constantly in flux. Sebald's sudden death in a car accident last December was tragic for many reasons, but for his readers foremost because his books, all of them variations on a small group of themes, seemed parts of a whole that had not yet been brought to completion but had already broken new literary ground.
Like the origami figures that open and close...
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SOURCE: Bere, Carol. “The Book of Memory: W. G. Sebald's The Emigrants and Austerlitz.” Literary Review 46, no. 1 (fall 2002): 184-92.
[In the following essay, Bere explores Sebald's effort to recover the Holocaust's legacy of individual suffering, displacement, and repressed memories in The Emigrants and Austerlitz.]
“And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.”
The tragic death of W. G. Sebald in a traffic accident on December 14, 2001 in Norwich, England, occurred at a time in his relatively brief career when he had just begun to receive major international recognition. Sadly, it is an irony that Sebald, always attuned to the inexplicable or random nature of experience, might well have understood. By most standards, his success was something of an anomaly. Sebald did not begin writing until his mid-forties, wrote only in his native German, and his reputation rests, for the most part, on the four books published in English before his death: The Emigrants (1996); The Rings of Saturn (1998), Vertigo (1999), and Austerlitz (2001).1 Melancholy, ruminative, strange, Sebald's writing defies easy genre classifications, but is rather a mosaic of several forms—“prose fiction,” which straddles the edges between fiction and fact; essay;...
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SOURCE: Gimson, Andrew. “Looking—and Looking Away.” Spectator 291, no. 9106 (15 February 2003): 37-8.
[In the following review, Gimson discusses Sebald's attempt in On the Natural History of Destruction to address the silence of German writers on the devastation inflicted by Allied bombings during World War II.]
Sebald is perturbed by the almost complete failure of German writers to describe the devastation of their country by British and American bombers during the second world war. Here, one might have thought, was an inescapable subject, a reality which confronted anyone who was in Germany during or after the war. About 600,000 civilians were killed in the raids and, as Sebald points out, ‘even after 1950 wooden crosses still stood on the piles of rubble in towns like Pforzheim, which lost almost one third of its 60,000 inhabitants in a single raid on the night of 22 February 1945’. Among the ruins dreadful smells emanated from the corpses and rats and flies multiplied. But while many foreigners tried to describe the evidence of their own eyes on visits at the end of the war, German writers were silent.
Why was this? Sebald is too subtle a writer to pretend that he has more than the first intimations of an answer. He proceeds by understatement and by lucid reference to writers such as Friedrich Reck (whose Diary of a Man in Despair can, as he says, ‘hardly...
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SOURCE: Winder, Robert. “The Unfortunate Traveller.” New Statesman 132, no. 4626 (24 February 2003): 48-9.
[In the following review, Winder discusses Sebald's peculiar, engaging literary style and his interest in the Allied bombardment of Germany in On the Natural History of Destruction.]
A year ago last December, the German writer W G Sebald was killed in a car crash in East Anglia. He had lived in England since 1966, first in Manchester and then near Norwich, after becoming professor of European literature at the University of East Anglia. At that time, he was a writer of small but glittering renown, on the basis of four works that were winning prizes and new admirers every day. In Germany he was also a noted literary critic, and the book under review here—a critique of Germany's failure to respond in literature to the Allied bombardment that killed more than 600,000 people—created its own firestorm when it was published there in 1999.
It appears here at a time when aerial bombing is much on our minds. But despite the title—which suggests a thorough anatomy—this is no wide-ranging meditation on air power (for that, see Sven Lindqvist's A History of Bombing, published by Granta). Sebald's focus is narrower. He is surprised that so few German writers were able to bear witness to the destruction of their own cities, and wants to explore this telling imaginative lapse....
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SOURCE: Evans, Julian. “Platform.” New Statesman 132, no. 4634 (21 April 2003): 54.
[In the following essay, Evans judges Sebald's writing to be unrealistic and withdrawn, citing the author's preoccupation with illness and scenes without people as evidence of his empty disengagement.]
I have never understood the fanatical intensity of critical admiration for the novels of W G Sebald. A fortnight ago I reread the first of his “novels” to be published in English, The Emigrants, then the other three books—Vertigo, The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz—because I wanted to understand why I couldn't believe most of what he wrote. In the process I discovered that what, in these four books which are among the most acclaimed of the past decade, is supposed to be rooted in “the real”—in the devastation of the Holocaust and the failure of 19th-century rationalism to prevent the darkness of the 20th—has, if you look past the brilliant descriptive writing, a sense of reality so flawed as to lie in the realm of pathology.
Exactly halfway through The Emigrants, when the narrator visits the sanatorium at Ithaca where his great-uncle, Ambros Adelwarth, perished, I got an inkling of what I was to find subsequently in all of the books. Rather than enactment of a character's actions and life, the narrative of these four Jewish exiles is simply a string of...
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SOURCE: Davis, Barbara Beckerman. Review of After Nature, by W. G. Sebald. Antioch Review 62, no. 1 (winter 2004): 171.
[In the following review, Davis offers a positive assessment of After Nature.]
After Nature, Sebald's first work, published after his death (but with his imprimateur), is a blueprint of the themes that inform his oeuvre: grief and melancholia; a fascination with the natural world; memory. Invoking Dante as his spiritual guide, Sebald has chosen a representative personage around whom to unravel each cluster of concerns. Mattaeus Grünewald (ca. 1475/80-1528), whose religious paintings illustrate a sensibility to suffering that ultimately enfolds him; Georg Wilhem Stellar, the German naturalist, who, in 1741, accompanied Vitus Bering on his second expedition to Alaskan waters; Sebald himself, whose meditation on his family and early life in Germany illuminates his preoccupation with memory and with the tragic legacy of the modern world. Like the two seekers in whose footsteps he follows, he too ruminates on human kind's place in the universe, and on his relationship to nature.
Each person also represents a phase of European development: Grünewald's sensibility is cast within a religious framework; Stellar's, the exploration and conquest of the natural world; Sebald's, the catastrophes of the industrial world. Underlying each phase is the articulation of...
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Eakin, Hugh. “War and Remembrance.” Nation 276, no. 12 (31 March 2003): 31-3.
Review discussing the controversy surrounding Sebald's attempt to address the suffering wrought by the Allied bombing of Germany during World War II in On the Natural History of Destruction.
Eder, Richard. “Excavating a Life.” New York Times Book Review (28 October 2001): 7.
Positive review of Austerlitz in which Eder discusses Sebald's evocation of the past.
———. “Exploring a Present That Is Invaded by the Past.” New York Times (22 May 2000): E8.
Eder believes Sebald's literary style displays inventive genius in Vertigo.
Eshel, Amir. “Against the Power of Time: The Poetics of Suspension in W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz.” New German Critique 88 (winter 2003): 71-86.
Examines Sebald's subversion of chronological time and modernist notions of narrative, consciousness, and historical knowledge in Austerlitz.
Gussow, Mel. “W. G. Sebald, Elegiac German Novelist, Is Dead at 57.” New York Times (15 December 2001): C16.
Obituary that recounts Sebald's life, career, and literary works.
Harris, Stefanie. “The Return of the Dead: Memory and Photography in W. G. Sebald's...
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