W. G. Sebald Additional Biography


Although he lived most of his life in England, Winfred Georg Maximilian Sebald (ZAY-bahlt) was born in the southern region of Bavaria, in the small German village of Wertach im Allgäu. One of four children, Sebald was born in 1944 to Georg and Rosa Genovefa Sebald. Sebald grew up in a quiet rural village, but he rarely saw his father. Georg had joined the German army in 1929, fought under Adolf Hitler, and was a prisoner of war in France when Sebald was born. Even after he returned from his internment in France, Sebald’s father was not often home, working instead in larger towns where jobs were more plentiful than in Wertach. Georg enlisted in the new German army in 1954, leading to even more separation from his family. Little is known of Sebald’s relationship with his mother, but Sebald’s maternal grandfather, Josef Engelhofer, became the leading male figure in the young Sebald’s life.

From 1950 until 1954, Sebald attended elementary school in Wertach and Sonthofen, and he attended secondary school in Immenstadt and Oberstdorf from 1954 until 1963. During his school days at Oberstdorf, his teachers showed him pictures of the Holocaust, but they were unable to explain adequately the meaning of the pictures to the students. This event haunted Sebald throughout his life, and many of his novels attempt to understand the German inability to come to terms with the Holocaust. In part because of his frustration with this overwhelming silence regarding post-World War II German history and in part because of the crowded classrooms of German universities, Sebald left Germany to study German literature in Switzerland, receiving a licence des lettres from the University of Fribourg in 1966. Sebald’s years at Fribourg were the beginning of his lifelong love of French literature, his academic and writing careers outside of Germany, and his love for a fellow student, Ute, whom he married in 1967.

Over the next decade, Sebald completed an M.A. and a Ph.D., moving among teaching positions in England, Switzerland, and Germany. Once he completed his degree at Fribourg, Sebald took a position at the University of Manchester, where he earned his M.A. in German literature in 1968. Sebald then taught elementary school for one year at St. Gallen in Switzerland before returning to teach at the University of Manchester in 1970. In 1969, Sebald published his first book, Carl Sternheim: Kritiker und Opfer der Wilhelminischen Ära (Carl Sternheim: critic and victim of the Wilhelmine era), which met with some controversy because Sebald attributed fascist ideas...

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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

W. G. Sebald’s remarkable novels bequeathed to readers powerful glimpses into the ways that people construct their identities, their memories, and their histories. His invention of a new genre—the docu-novel—allowed him to use facts, photographs, and fiction to probe some of the deepest questions of his time: Who is responsible for erasing the Jews from history—both individually and collectively—in the Holocaust? What is the nature of history? What tools can people use to reconstruct an identity that has been lost to them? How do people use language to oppress and liberate? How can humankind balance the destructive and the orderly forces of nature, and how can it understand its place in nature? How does revelation occur? Sebald’s astonishing writings provide a philosophical and literary legacy for many generations.