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, 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...
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