Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2571
Anyone picking up one of W. G. Sebald’s novels for the first time might be initially perplexed. Are these really novels, or are they documentaries? Multiple shifts of point of view, the use of photographs that depict everything from family reunions to historical events, the lack of specific plot, the use of real people as characters (Stendhal, Michael Hamburger), and the mixture of fact and fiction create a surrealistic world where expectations and events change from moment to moment. Like Kafka, Walser, and Thomas Mann before him, Sebald records the lives of individuals who wander though their lives searching the past for some clues about their identities. These characters often drift through broken landscapes littered with the debris of shattered families, madness, and the shards of history as they try to remember how they came to their particular historical moment and discern ways to live within that moment. More than any other contemporary German novelist, Sebald explores the ways that individuals manage to carry—or cannot manage to bear—the unbearable weight of history in their lives. Much like the spiritual wanderers of Hermann Hesse’s novels and the pilgrim in Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), Sebald’s characters find themselves ever restless, always on a quest—either through their consciousness or through journeys through cities such as Dresden—to reach that ever-receding horizon that promises revelation and knowledge.
All four of Sebald’s novels are extended meditations on the function of memory. In his first novel, Vertigo, for example, the narrator engages in a long process of reconstructing his identity through writing down—literally, since the novel itself functions as the preservation of his writing, and figuratively, as he writes a journal or a novel as the central part of the novel’s action—the events of his life, the political affairs through which he has lived, and the women he has loved. As the narrator of this particular novel discovers, memory can be both unreliable and accurate. By the end of the novel, has he learned any more about himself than he knew at the beginning? Has the reader learned any more about him? All of Sebald’s other novels involve similar exercises in which the narrators set out to recall, in whatever fashion they have at hand, the events that have led them to their present state, as well as to use those events to reveal to themselves something of the character of their lives. As Sebald’s characters discover, memory often unsettles them, forcing them to uncomfortable recognitions about themselves and others, or it lulls them momentarily into thinking that indeed they have found the keys to their identities.
Exile and homelessness are also two major themes of Sebald’s novels. Every one of his novels features a narrator who is wandering throughout Germany, England, or Europe, trying to find some semblance of the home he has left behind. The German title of his second novel, Die Ausgewanderten (which comes from a word whose root is “to wander”), literally expresses these themes. The novel features stories of four such wanderers who must endure the loneliness and pathos of their attempts to construct for themselves a new home in a foreign land. Given that Sebald himself was an emigrant—a German writer living in England—and that many of his narrators are thinly veiled doubles for himself, it is perhaps not surprising that homelessness, exile, and wandering dominate his novels.
Although Vertigo was Sebald’s first novel, it did not appear in English translation until after two of his other novels—The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn—had been published. By the time it was published, critical acclaim for Sebald had been building. The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn had established Sebald as a brilliantly original thinker whom critics called a rare and elusive species and the epitome of literary greatness. Vertigo merely confirmed critical opinion of Sebald and reinforced opinions regarding his genius.
Much as its title indicates, Vertigo is a dizzying journey through European history and through the minds of several different narrators trying to find their identities within those Wordsworthian “spots of time” in which they find themselves ensconced. The book consists of four sections, each narrated by a different narrator (although the narrators of the second and fourth parts of the book may be the same individual). The point of view shifts from the third person in the first and third sections to the first person in the second and fourth sections. All of the narrators are wanderers, traveling through various settings in Europe and involved in particular events in those settings. The settings here range from Italy and France, Austria and Italy, to England and Germany.
Each section of the novel also takes place roughly during a certain period of time. The first section occurs in 1813, the year in which Napoleon I is finally defeated. The third section takes place in 1913, the year prior to World War I and its history-altering consequences. The second section takes place in Italy and Austria around 1980, and the fourth section occurs in Italy around 1987. As in other Sebald novels, the narrators of the sections move from historical individuals (Stendhal in the first section and Kafka in the third) to fictional characters (a writer in the second and fourth sections—although the narrator in each of these sections resembles Sebald himself).
With its line drawings and its observations about the nature of the writing life and the nature of love, the first section of Vertigo resembles Stendhal’s own “autobiography,” Vie de Henry Brulard (1890; The Life of Henry Brulard, 1925). In the aftermath of his reluctantly undertaken military service, Marie Henri Beyle (Stendhal) resolves to become the greatest writer of all time. In addition, he falls in love with a married woman, pursues her surreptitiously, loses her through his incautious manner, and mourns this loss (she never loved him in the first place, but his love for her is eternal) in his little book On Love. The second section is also a story of wandering abroad (the title of the section), and it resembles Dante’s Divine Comedy in its search for a road out of the chaos in which the narrator (who resembles Sebald and may be him) finds himself. Here, the road may be through writing, as the narrator jots down a long account—his memoir?—of his travels and his personal history.
In the third section, “Dr. K. Takes the Waters at Riva,” the third-person narrator weaves passages from Kafka’s diaries and letters into an account that identifies Kafka with his own story, “Der Jäger Gracchus” (1931; “The Hunter Gracchus,” 1946). In this section of Vertigo, much as in that story, the identity of the main character remains mysterious, his secrets confined to a shrouded past. Finally, in the fourth section, the narrator of the second section returns to Germany (“Il ritorno in patria,” or “return to the Fatherland,” is the section’s title) in an attempt to find out whether he belongs in a country that still proclaims its superiority through its nationalistic spirit. As he wanders through the mountains, he feels his foreignness and realizes that he has never gazed into such chasms before. Sebald’s Vertigo explores the uncanny ways in which memory shapes identity and provides human beings with some kind of hope for the future.
As in Vertigo, Sebald’s The Emigrants follows the lives of individuals who are “wandering out” (Ausgewanderten) in search of their identities. The Emigrants contains Sebald’s characteristic blend of fact and fiction, documentary and photography, and the narrator of at least two of these stories may be Sebald himself. The characters in the four sketches that constitute the novel have voluntarily migrated from their homelands to various places in Europe and must confront the loneliness and isolation that such emigration brings with it. Although each of the characters hopes in some way to begin his life anew in a new place, the longing for home is unbearable. Unable to bear the weight of such longing, each of these individuals commits suicide, so that all the tales become cautious reflections on the burden of memory and the hope of emigration.
In the first story, the narrator meets Henry Selwyn, a Lithuanian Jew who had emigrated to London quite by accident. Through a series of conversations with various other characters, Selwyn reveals that he has kept his Jewish identity a secret (his real name is Hersch Serewyn) even from his wife, and he realizes that he must come to terms with the guilt of his past. When he realizes he can never be free from these memories, he ends his life, and the narrator uses this death as the starting point for his own reflections on the nature of memory and the weight of the past.
The second story focuses on schoolteacher Paul Bereyter, who adores his students but also reviles them for their disrespectful attitudes toward art, music, and literature. While Paul considers his students the hope for a more open future—without the prejudices that characterize the nationalistic pride of Germany—he is also disheartened by his students’ failures to recognize or understand beauty. Sebald likely modeled this character on one of his own teachers.
The third story is a family tale of Great Uncle Ambros Adelwarth (perhaps Sebald’s own uncle), who emigrates to New York, works for a wealthy family, becomes the lover of the family’s younger son, loses his lover to death, and goes through a deep depression leading to his own death. In the end, Adelworth is exiled not only from his community but also from himself.
Sebald modeled the main character of the final story, Max Ferber, on the English Jewish painter Frank Auerbach. The narrator of this story—who may be Sebald—meets Ferber in Manchester, England, where Ferber has been living for twenty-two years. As the two begin to talk about the present and the past, they offer each other the community of exiles in a strange place. Only after Ferber’s death does the narrator understand the gravity of the secrets Ferber has kept hidden and the horrors from which neither his exile nor his memory would allow him to escape.
The Rings of Saturn
Much like Sebald’s previous novels, The Rings of Saturn is a diary of a wanderer. Unlike his previous novels, however, this work focuses on one narrator—who again at times appears to be Sebald himself—and his journey through eastern England. As in much of Sebald’s other work, in this novel the borders between illusion and reality, fact and fiction, and dreams and life are porous and permeable. In a stream-of-consciousness description of his reveries and dreams, the narrator reflects on the dust and ash that surround him from the destruction of the war. Like the rings of Saturn, which are particles of ash and dust remaining after the destruction of one of the planet’s former moons, the ashes to which Sir Thomas Browne refers in his Hydriotaphia: Or, Urn Burial (1658) signify for the narrator the waning of human civilization. Saturn also plays another role in the novel, for both the narrator and Browne were born under the sign of Saturn.
Like Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), Dante’s Divine Comedy, and James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), among others, Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn depicts a journey or a quest to find one’s way back home or to move out of a mysterious stage of life into a place where new directions for life are revealed. Memory plays a major role here, as it does in Vertigo, especially as the narrator looks to the distant past for models of individuals looking for the transformative power of Nature.
As he ambles through the countryside, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, the narrator feels a joyous sense of freedom in Nature but also a sense of revulsion when he encounters destruction in Nature, primarily from the bombings of World War II. He recollects his own search for the skull of Sir Thomas Browne, with whom the narrator feels a close kinship. Like Browne, he is captivated by the idea that nothing of the human remains after death. For the narrator, life is simply the metamorphosis from one form into another. Browne’s poem about burial urns reflects humans’ attempts to somehow mark this transformation from the living to the dead. As he continues on his journey, the narrator, like the Ancient Mariner, recognizes the organic unity of all life and starts to understand the ways in which transformation can be destructive and destruction can be transformative. As he learns, however, the journey toward transformation and revelation is never-ending.
Unlike Vertigo, The Emigrants, and The Rings of Saturn, Austerlitz contains a relatively straightforward plot that most readers can follow without much difficulty. The characters often speak interchangeably, and without quotation marks to distinguish speakers, but Jacques Austerlitz does not meander too far off his path when he tells his story. More than any of Sebald’s other novels, however, Austerlitz offers a powerful meditation on memory and self-identity. Ironically, the English translation of Austerlitz was published only two months before Sebald’s untimely death in December, 2001.
Raised as Dafyyd Elias in Wales, Jacques Austerlitz is now living in Britain, which he believes to be his native country. The narrator meets up with Austerlitz in Belgium, where they strike up a friendship based on their mutual love of history and architecture. Ten years later, the two meet again in London, where Austerlitz begins to tell the story of his origins, unfolding for himself and the narrator his own identity and history. As he begins to talk to the narrator, Austerlitz learns more about himself than he is prepared to face. When he learns that his mother shipped him off to England in the Kindertransport (in which Jewish children were transported out of Nazi Germany and German-occupied territories to safety in the United Kingdom in the months preceding World War II), he realizes that his past is lost to him and that he can recover it only through a painful process of recollection. He no longer knows whether his own family is alive, and they do not know his fate. His attempts to return to the past often paralyze him, for he does not have a language to describe himself or his past.
Just as the memory of the past is an unbearable burden for the characters in all of Sebald’s novels, so Austerlitz must learn how to bear this burden without losing himself in the pathos of fear and guilt. As the narrator helps Austerlitz slowly to recover his past by looking at photographs in various archives, these moments both horrify and transport him. Eventually, Austerlitz comes to an understanding of himself, though he knows that he must continually open the doors of his memory as he seeks to know himself. He also relearns his native language, a skill that allows him symbolically to return to his homeland and to open doors to himself and a world he thought he had lost. Austerlitz provides a snapshot of Sebald’s major themes: the burden of the past, the quest for self-identity, the alienation and loneliness that come from exile, and the transformative power of memory.