Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald was born in Allgäu in the southern region of Bavaria in Germany. He grew up in Wertach, a Alpine village which was predominately Roman Catholic. His father, Georg Sebald was a professional soldier, having joined the army prior to 1933 when Adolf Hitler took power. Because of his military profession he was away from home a great deal, fought in World War II, and was interned in France for some time after the war. He rejoined the military when the new German army was established in 1953. In later years Sebald said that his maternal grandfather, Josef Engelhofer, largely brought him up.
Sebald went to school in Immenstadt and Obersdorf and attended the University of Freiburg, where he concentrated on German literature and earned a Licence des Lettres in 1966. Also, he studied French literature in Switzerland. He later taught both subjects. Following his graduation from Freiburg he accepted a position at the University of Manchester in England, beginning his long residence in the United Kingdom. For a year, after receiving a master’s degree in German literature in 1968, he taught elementary school in St. Gallen in Switzerland. In 1969 he returned to Manchester, and, except for a year at the Goethe Institute in Munich in 1975 to 1976, he remained in England for the rest of his life, teaching French and German literature at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, where he became a professor in 1987.
Although he eventually became best known as a novelist and essayist, his literary career began with the prose poem Nach der Natur: Ein Elementargedicht (1988; After Nature, 2002), published in Germany. The poem won the Fedor-Malchow Prize for lyric poetry in 1991 and established Sebald’s literary reputation. Although he spent most of his adult life living and working in England, Sebald wrote his literary works in German, and they were subsequently translated into English. His first novel, Schwindel: Gefühle (1990; Vertigo, 1999) was also well received and was followed during the next ten years by three more. His final novel, Austerlitz (2001), won a number of literary prizes both in England and in the United States. He also continued to write poetry. His last collection, For Years Now, a book of twenty-three poems in English, was published in 2001.
Although Sebald became an accomplished novelist and poet, his first published work was a critical study of a German writer, Carl Sternheim: Kritiker und Opfer der Wilhelminischen Ära (Carl Sternheim: critic and victim of the Wilhelminian era) in 1969. Sebald went on to write or edit six more books of literary and social essays.
Sebald’s reputation has been largely confined to the literary privileged. Although he did gain a wider audience as his works were translated into English, they have remained an acquired taste. However, his place in modern letters is a substantial one, and the critics have uniformly praised him as one of the masters of contemporary prose. His novels are now seen as reflecting a major development in European literature, and he has been credited with the invention of what has been described as a field of “documentary fiction.” His critical works are landmark efforts in experimental prose.
Sebald’s writing has been praised for his scope of cultural and historical knowledge, for his exacting power of its description, for his skill at unifying multiple narrative threads, and for his ability to relate the subjective expression with objective representation. Among his more prominent themes are the human struggle with nature, the burden of personal depression, the relationship between individual talent and society, and the unreliable and autonomous nature of memory. He has developed these ideas by crossing the boundaries in his prose among various types of writing, documentary, fiction, dream diaries, historical record, travelogue, elegy, and case studies. His writing frequently is organized around a series of oppositions: the surreal and the realistic, the melancholy and the hopeful, and the beautiful and the destructive. This all leads to a style that is both disquieting and reassuring.
Sebald’s writing comes out of his experience in postwar Germany, a country devastated by the war and wracked by guilt, although often unacknowledged,...
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