Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald (ZAY-bahlt) was an accomplished German literary scholar who first began writing poetry and fiction in his forties. In the last decade of the twentieth century he succeeded in creating what many regard as a new genre, combining fact, fiction, travelogue, hallucinatory imagery, cultural criticism, art history, diary, and memoir in a prose form that was both highly referential and stunningly original. A hallmark of his prose is the use of captionless photographs and other images.
The attempt to come to terms with his native country’s destructive past is the impulse behind much of Sebald’s fiction as well as his academic writing. He was born in the remote Alpine village of Wertach in Bavaria and grew up knowing little of what his fellow Germans (including his father, a soldier who served on several fronts) had participated in during World War II. The first in his family to pursue an academic career, Sebald matriculated at the University of Freiburg in 1963. The period of his studies coincided with the first Auschwitz trials and the emergence of a radical form of German theater aimed at exposing the institutionalized crimes of the German past and the survival of many Nazi Party members in positions of wealth and power in West Germany. In this atmosphere, Sebald became disenchanted with the German academic scene, which was characterized by congested lecture halls and a faculty composed of scholars who had received their degrees during Adolf Hitler’s rule. Pursuing his interest in French literature, Sebald transferred to the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, where he received a Licence des Lettres in 1966. Emboldened by his Swiss sojourn to venture even further afield, he accepted a temporary teaching position in England, at the University of Manchester, even though his knowledge of English was rudimentary. In Manchester he obtained a master’s degree in German literature and then returned to Switzerland in 1968. He taught at a grammar school for a year in St. Gallen but became disillusioned with elementary school teaching as well as life in Switzerland, which he regarded as too comfortable and too complacent. In 1969 he returned to England and taught another year at the University of Manchester. In 1970 he accepted a position in Norwich at the University of East Anglia, where he remained, with the exception of a year at the Goethe Institute in Munich in the mid-1970’s, until his death in 2001.
Sebald developed a professional interest in Jewish writers early in his career, and he wrote a number of articles and books on authors such as Alfred Döblin, Joseph Roth, Franz Kafka, Elias Canetti, and Jean Améry. He was especially interested in those writers’ experiences as outsiders and exiles, being himself an expatriate. Sebald was also intrigued by what he viewed as a particularly Austrian form of melancholy in the works of Adalbert Stifter, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Gerhard Roth, Thomas Bernhard, and Peter Handke. By 1986 he was in possession of both British and German doctoral degrees, and had established himself as an original and provocative scholar. In 1988 he was promoted to professor of Modern German Literature at the University of East Anglia and also became director of the British Centre for Literary Translation. Sebald became increasingly dissatisfied with university conditions during the regime of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose educational policies he considered meddlesome and ill-advised. He turned to nonacademic writing. In the same year as his promotion to full professor, he produced a volume of poetry titled After Nature . Sebald would not truly make his mark on the German literary scene until some time later,...
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when the well-known writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger selected his first novel,Vertigo, for publication in 1990. The book comprises four distinct sections, two on literary figures and two on separate journeys to Italy and to Sebald’s native Wertach. Despite its variety of subjects, the novel exhibits a thematic unity rooted in Sebald’s preoccupation with artistic creativity, the nature of identity, the uncanny in everyday life, and the dynamics of memory.
The Emigrants appeared in German in 1992 and in English (Sebald took part in this and all other translations) in 1996. The novel, also in four distinct parts, signaled his emergence as a writer of international stature. It concerns four personalities, all affected in one way or another by exile, depression, and European anti-Semitism in the first half of the twentieth century. The novel met with unanimous critical acclaim and won numerous literary prizes. In 1995, even before the appearance of The Emigrants in English, Sebald published a third novel in German, The Rings of Saturn. The title alludes to the crushing forces of nature that produced Saturn’s rings; the book is a lengthy meditation on Walter Benjamin’s assertion that history is really an ongoing calamity, piling wreckage upon wreckage. In The Rings of Saturn, Sebald’s first-person protagonist explores the “wreckage” of East Anglia, visiting country houses, heaths, churches, and various other sites, all the while indulging in diverse biographical, literary, historical, and cultural digressions which blend to form an eclectic narrative unity. The English translation followed closely on the heels of the success of The Emigrants, appearing less than two years later, in 1998. In the same year the novel was awarded Best Fiction Book by the Los Angeles Times.
In the meantime, Sebald had stirred up considerable scholarly controversy with a series of lectures at the University of Zurich in 1997. Elaborating on a theme he introduced in The Rings of Saturn, he used these lectures, which appeared later in book form, to illustrate how German postwar literature had remained mostly silent on the horror and mayhem of the massive aerial bombardment of German cities and had thereby failed to do justice to the human cost of the Allied bombing efforts. While some objected that Sebald had overlooked certain writers and texts, the rarity or obscurity of such exceptions only served to prove the rule.
Sebald’s last novel was his most mature and in some ways most conventional narrative. Austerlitz, which appeared both in German and in English in 2001, is a sensitive study of a Czech exile’s attempt to reconstruct his past after discovering that he was one of the Jewish children evacuated to Britain in the “Kindertransport” of 1938. Like most of Sebald’s portraits, it is a composite, combining not only fact and fiction but also several individual identities. Not long after returning from a book tour of the United States in the autumn of 2001, Sebald died in a car crash near his home in Norwich on December 14, 2001.
Outwardly, Sebald’s life was unexceptional; he went to work every day, taught his classes, helped raise a daughter, and was married to the same woman for more than thirty years. His inner life, as revealed in his erudite, allusive, and keenly inventive prose and poetry, was hardly ordinary. His perspective and methods were rightly recognized as highly original; not only was his writing unlike that of any other writer’s, but his compositions were also in large part prompted by myriad visual cues in the form of collected drawings, paintings, and photographs, many of which he provided in his texts. Because of his status as a German expatriate who was fully at home neither in his native land nor in England, Sebald’s oeuvre does not fit easily into the canon of either national literature. He occupies a place beside a number of modern international predecessors, however, including the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges, the Austrian Thomas Bernhard, and the Italian Claudio Magris. Sebald is admired as a “writer’s writer” and is considered by many to be one of the most important European novelists of the last decade of the twentieth century.
Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald was one of four children born to Georg and Rosa Genovefa Sebald in the quiet southern Bavarian village of Wertach im Allgäu. Because Sebald knew little of his father, who was mostly absent from the family, working in larger towns and engaging in military service under Adolf Hitler, Sebald’s maternal grandfather, Josef Engelhofer, played a significant role in raising the young boy.
Almost all of Sebald’s writings deal in some way with the Holocaust and with Germany’s inability to understand the political and social scope and gravity of the event. After attending elementary school in Wertach and Sonthofen, Sebald learned about the Holocaust in his secondary school in Oberstdorf, where his teachers showed their students pictures of the camps and the consequences of the activities in the camps. None of his teachers was able, however, to explain adequately to the students the significance of the Holocaust or the meaning of the pictures. Frustrated with this overwhelming silence, Sebald left Germany to study German literature in Switzerland, where he received a licence des lettres from the University of Fribourg in 1966, and where he also began his lifelong love of French literature. He also married a fellow student, Ute, in 1967.
His work in Fribourg began his move away from Germany, and he moved among teaching positions in England, Switzerland, and Germany over the next decade. He began his academic career at the University of Manchester in 1968. After completing his dissertation on the work of novelist Alfred Döblin in 1973 at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, Sebald returned to Germany in 1975 to work at the Goethe Institute. After only one year, however, he went back to the University of East Anglia to teach German literature. He became professor of modern German literature in 1988 and the director of the British Centre for Literary Translation in 1989, and he spent the remainder of his academic and writing career at East Anglia.
From 1989 until his death in 2001, Sebald increasingly gained recognition for his novels. When his first novel, Vertigo, was published in 1990, critics hailed him as an original voice and praised his mysterious and sublime prose. Over the course of the next decade, his three other novels—The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz—won numerous prizes and awards. Sebald’s lyrical prose and his haunting and evocative scenes of melancholy exiles sifting for meaning through the detritus of the past won him the admiration of critics and readers, who saw him as being part of the long tradition of philosophical novelists from Franz Kafka and Robert Walser to Rainer Maria Rilke. His untimely death in an automobile accident at age fifty-seven in December, 2001, prompted critics to compare Sebald to Albert Camus, another European writer whose promising career as a novelist was cut short by a car crash. Like Camus, Sebald often dealt with themes of exile, alienation, and evil in his novels, and his focus on the Holocaust resembles Camus’s own concerns with the consequences of Hitler’s rise to power and the marginalization of Jews in Nazi Germany.