W. G. Sebald

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W. G. Sebald World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3329

Not long after Austerlitz was published in 2001, Sebald was killed in a car accident, robbing modern literature of one of its most distinctive voices. Critics hailed his work, which became more popular in the United States and Great Britain than in Germany. The literary critic Susan Sontag praised Sebald by proclaiming that his work was a noble literary enterprise and an example of literary greatness. Like Günter Grass, Sebald explores the political despair, social chaos, and individual guilt of post-World War II Germany, especially as individuals attempt to come to terms with loss and search to find explanations for the crimes perpetrated against Jews. Like Franz Kafka, Sebald offers portraits of outsiders living in exile continually trying to find their way into the castle or beyond the gates of the law. Like Marcel Proust, Sebald explores the halls of memory but interrogates its facility to be a repository of truth and examines its power to distort. Like Stendhal, Sebald exploits autobiography and twists it into fictional narratives. Like Jorge Luis Borges, Sebald playfully manipulates the borders between truth and imagination.

In his four novels—Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz—Sebald explores themes of exile, memory, identity, history, and truth, beauty, and transience. Sebald questions the boundaries of realism by weaving photographs, real people’s names, and fictional characters in his novels. His writings in many ways resemble the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s notebooks, Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910; The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, 1930), with the narrators observing the activities of a variety of characters, including themselves. The narrators of Sebald’s books, who are often doubles of himself, find themselves wandering through various urban and rural landscapes in search of themselves and their identities. For example, the narrator of The Rings of Saturn sets off on a walking tour of the eastern coast of England and meditates along the way about such seemingly disparate subjects as the natural history of herrings, Sir Thomas Browne’s skull, Joseph Conrad, and silkworms, among other topics. The wanderers of Sebald’s novels often end up circling and circling, wending their way down torturous paths to self-identity. Outsiders, they circle through time and space in search of themselves and for some kind of home. In Austerlitz, the narrator of the novel observes that the future, the present, and the past are connected in space and that individuals must always go in search of places and people with whom they are connected already in time and space. Thus, the lives of individuals become not only a remembrance of lost time but also attempts to connect the present and the future. In various ways, all of Sebald’s books explore the nature of identity and the function of memory.

The narrators of Sebald’s novels resemble the pilgrims of Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), and James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). In The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn, especially, the narrators—who always remain nameless but whose first-person narration draws readers intimately into the novel—act as guides on their own pilgrimages, as they conduct readers through the labyrinthine journeys of their own minds and through the littered and haunted past of European history. Above all, these characters are attempting to locate themselves in a larger scheme, and in order to do so they must wander from place to place in search of clues for the meaning of their past and their own identity. Sebald’s postmodern quest narratives are intricately laced tales of revelation and self-revelation woven from the bricolage of history, architecture, photography, memoir, art, and literature.

Sebald’s books contain such a dazzling array of elements that it is often difficult to think of them as novels. Rather, they are prose fictions in which he blends seamlessly fact and fiction, casts himself in the role of the main characters, features other living authors (and friends)—such as Michael Hamburger in The Rings of Saturn—as well as dead authors whom he admires—like Joseph Conrad in The Rings of Saturn—and inserts photographs into the narrative, sometimes family photographs purporting to be of his own family, without commenting on the photographs. The structure of Sebald’s novels, the blend of fact and fiction, and the mixture of disparate elements often provides a literary challenge for his readers, but his playful tone, his absurdist humor, and his affable first-person narration invite the reader to accompany him, or the narrator, on a journey that reveals the meaning of long-neglected past events, the beauty and mystery of nature, and the despair and hope that motivates the human heart throughout personal and public history.

The Emigrants

First published: Die Ausgewanderten, 1992 (English translation, 1996)

Type of work: Novel

These biographies of four exiled Germans meditate on the nature of loneliness and the depression that involuntary exile, as result of Jewish identity, brings.

In The Emigrants, Sebald explores the nature of exile through an examination of the lives of four Germans who have voluntarily emigrated from their homeland to various places in Europe. The tales grow longer with each subject, and each story focuses on the loneliness, the pathos, the unreliability of memory, and the glimmer of hope that comes with the territory of exile. These are tales of sadness—each ends in suicide—and of the halting attempts each emigrant makes to start a new life in a world that is strange and uninviting to him. In the final two tales at least, Sebald himself may be the narrator, and one of the stories purports to concern his great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth. Whoever the subject, each story contains Sebald’s characteristic blend of fact and fiction, memory and forgetting, narrative and photography, as the narrator tries to retrace the footsteps of each of the emigrants.

In the first story, the narrator meets Henry Selwyn, a Lithuanian Jew who had immigrated to London quite by accident. Although Selwyn’s family originally planned to leave Lithuania to settle in New York City, they settled instead in England when they realized that their original destination was farther than they wished to travel. Although the story opens on a hopeful note—the narrator and his wife are searching for a place to live in an area near Norfolk, England—it soon turns somber as the two come to a graveyard and an old man lying down near it. The opening pages of this story resemble Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and their eloquent description of a run-down house and Malte’s speculations about the house’s inhabitants. Selwyn lives in the past, feeling guilty for hiding his Jewish identity from his wife (his real name is Hersch Serewyn) and reliving incidents, including a butterfly hunting expedition with writer Vladimir Nabokov, from his former life. The narrator’s own memory of Selwyn is sparked on a train trip through Switzerland, when he sees a news story regarding an event in which Selwyn had long been involved. This first tale not only examines the nature of exile but also the reliability of memory.

The remaining three tales of these German exiles work in similar ways to explore the nature of happiness, memory, exile, hope, despair, and identity. The second tale focuses on Paul Bereyter, a schoolteacher modeled on one of Sebald’s own teachers. This story begins at the end, when news reaches the narrator that a former teacher had killed himself. The obituary recalls Bereyter as a dedicated teacher who loved his pupils and loved the subjects—art, literature, and music—he taught. Because he is one-quarter Jewish, Bereyter was not allowed to practice his beloved profession during the Third Reich. The narrator learns from one of the teacher’s close friends, though, that while Bereyter loved his students, he also held them in contempt for their willful disregard for the beauty of music and literature. Thus, the teacher’s devotion to teaching fostered hopefulness in him for the future of the world, but his students’ failures depressed him, leading him to hopelessness about the present and the future, destroying any dreams he had of a more perfect world.

The narrator of the third tale opens the story by remarking that exiles and emigrants tend to seek out their own kind. The story of Great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth concerns family more than the first two stories, and the narrator (Sebald?) inserts many family pictures into the narrative as a way of tracking the footsteps of an uncle whom he had only met once or twice in the past. There are not only family photographs, but there are also photographs of the places the uncle had visited. Adelwarth spent most of his life in New York, where he had a job as a valet for a wealthy family and developed a relationship with the family’s younger son, Cosmo. When his lover dies, Adelwarth sinks into a deep depression that marks him for the rest of his life. In a story reminiscent of Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Mountain, 1927), Adelwarth commits himself to a sanatorium, where he hopes a variety of medications and therapies might cure him of his depression. The narrator contrasts the darkness of the sanatorium with the brightness and happiness of the French resort, Deauville, where he and Cosmo had spent many happy days. In the end, Adelwarth is exiled not only from his community but also from himself, a distance that leads to his death.

In the final story, Max Ferber—whose name in the German edition of The Emigrants is Max Aurach and who is likely modeled on the English Jewish painter, Frank Auerbach—has lived in Manchester, England, for twenty-two years, having moved from Munich in 1939 to Manchester’s Jewish community. The opening of this tale is as haunting as some of the previous ones. The narrator, who is himself moving to Manchester (and, again, who might be Sebald), descends in an airplane over strange territory that he does not recognize. When he arrives in Manchester, his Sundays are so lonely that he must take long walks through the apparently deserted city in order to come to terms with his own feeling of exile. When the narrator comes across Ferber, the two begin to meet every day to discuss Ferber’s art and to offer each other some kind of comfort and community in a city that is alien to each of them. Ferber’s art expresses the lack of unity that he and the narrator feel as exiles in a strange land. Ferber attempts to overcome the loneliness and despair of exile by withdrawing into his studio to practice his art. This withdrawal only results in a greater sense of alienation and a feeling of failure as an artist. When the narrator learns only after Ferber’s death that he had been transported to England following Kristallnacht, and that Ferber had stopped speaking German on the day he arrived in England, never to speak it again, he begins to understand the tremendous loss of identity and memory that exile fosters.

The Rings of Saturn

First published: Die Ringe des Saturn, 1995 (English translation, 1998)

Type of work: Novel

This novel is a dreamlike sojourn of England in which the narrator meditates on subjects as far-ranging as Sir Thomas Browne’s skull and silkworms.

Much like Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (1782; The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, 1783), James Boswell’s The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1785), and the letters between William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, about his walking tour of the British Highlands, Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn is a journal of a walking tour of eastern England in which the narrator—who at times appears to be Sebald himself—records his impressions and his dreams. Like much of Sebald’s other work, the borders between illusion and reality, fact and fiction, and dreams and life are porous and permeable. The novel does not contain a specific plot that can be followed from beginning to end. Much like Joyce’s Ulysses or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), The Rings of Saturn records the narrator’s thoughts in stream-of-consciousness-like fashion as he moves from one topic to another, with various images or events sending him into associative reveries.

As the novel opens, the narrator sets out to walk the county of Suffolk in order to overcome the emptiness he feels after he has completed a long period of work. He feels a joyous sense of freedom while he is traversing the countryside, even as he feels a disabling sense of horror when he encounters past events of destruction there. One year after he begins his walk, he finds himself in a state of complete immobility and must be taken to the hospital. There he looks out on the world from a small window and finds it difficult to judge reality from illusion; he thinks of himself as Gregor Samsa, the young man in Kafka’s story Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis, 1936), who wakes up to find himself transformed into a giant insect and who is no longer accepted by his family. More than a year after his discharge from the hospital, the narrator begins to assemble the recollections of his journey and of his hospitalization.

Chief among his recollections is his search for the skull of Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682), a physician whose best known work is Religio Medici (wr. 1635; pb. 1642; authorized version, 1643), a collection of his opinions on religion. Browne also wrote several treatises on medicine, and his Hydriotaphia, Urne-Buriall (1658) is a meditation on various means of disposing of the dead that had been practiced in Britain. Browne’s skull itself is an image of the interiority of one’s self and the tendency of all individuals to look inward in order to discover personal identity. Many of the themes and images in Sebald’s novel arise from the narrator’s fascination with Browne and his work. Browne, like the narrator, was born under the sign of Saturn. Moreover, both the narrator and Browne are fascinated with death, especially the idea that nothing of the human being endures after death. Life, for the narrator, is a continuing process of transformation (metamorphosis) from one form into another. Death is simply a transformation into the iniquity of oblivion, and ceremonies of burial are attempts by the living to mark this transformation from life into death.

Images of dust, sand, ashes, fog, and mist pervade The Rings of Saturn. The ashes contained in the burial urn are much like the particles of sand on a beach or the dust particles that ring Saturn; they are particles of matter that remain after some form of destruction or transformation of organic matter. One of the epigraphs to the novel recalls that the rings of Saturn consist of ice crystals and meteorite particles that are fragments of a former moon that was destroyed. The narrator concludes that human civilization, from its earliest times, is little more than a strange luminescence whose waning and fading no one can predict.

The most pervasive theme of The Rings of Saturn is journey or quest. Like a modern pilgrim, the narrator sets off on his walk to discover himself and to attempt to assuage the feeling of despair that has overcome him. As he walks into the countryside, the organic unity of all life—with its disorder as well as its order—is revealed to him. Images of ferries, ferrymen (the classical image of the journey from the living to the realm of the dead), and airplanes also pervade the book. As he observes schools of herring and the fisherman who catch them at work, he begins to understand the destructive as well as the transformative power of nature. Along his journey, the narrator lives with his thoughts and his memories, but he also reflects on others who have made similar journeys. He devotes one set of reflections to writer Joseph Conrad, for example, who took his own footsteps into a heart of darkness in order to understand the human psyche and the interior life. Through his journey, the narrator learns that hundreds of fellow travelers—like Browne and Conrad—have preceded him and he cannot quiet the ghosts of repetition that haunt him.


First published: 2001 (English translation, 2001)

Type of work: Novel

Over a period of thirty years, Jacques Austerlitz struggles to solve the riddle of his identity as he tells the story of his life to a companion.

More than any of his other novels, Austerlitz is Sebald’s meditation on the power of memory and its role in the creation, transformation, and destruction of identity. Like his previous books, Austerlitz weaves fact and fiction, documentary and reality, photographs and writing into a powerful exploration of human psyche. However, 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 the speaker, but Jacques Austerlitz does not meander too far off his path when he tells his story.

Late in life, Austerlitz sets out to learn his history. Raised as Dafyyd Elias in Wales, he is now living in England, which he believes to be his native country. Austerlitz barely remembers his parents, and it takes some intense archival work for him to discover anything about his early life in Prague. Born in Czechoslovakia, Austerlitz’s Jewish mother—who could not leave the country—sent her son to England in one of the many Kindertransports organized in Czechoslovakia before World War II to save children. 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.

Although his mother’s decision to put her son on the Kindertransport most certainly rescued him from the Nazis, it shut the door on his ability to know himself. More important, he lost his family, his past, and his language. Much like Max Ferber in The Emigrants, who stops speaking German the day he arrives in England and thereby shuts himself off from his past, Austerlitz’s loss of his native language shuts him off from his past. As far as he is concerned, he has been erased from life and culture. His family is not aware he is alive; he is no longer aware of his family’s fate, and he no longer possesses the one tool that can help him to feel truly a citizen of his culture—his language. Even as he slowly learns about his past, he often panics as he looks at a picture of himself as a five-year-old child and is speechless and incapable of any lucid thought because the power of his absence from his childhood is so strong. He cannot comprehend the laws that govern the return of the past and feels unreal in the eyes of those who are now dead.

Austerlitz’s conversations with the narrator enable him to reconstruct his history. Austerlitz discovers himself and his history not only through conversations with the narrator or trips to the archives in the library but also through photographs of his mother and of places related to his childhood. A picture of a house sparks a clear memory of the home in which he was raised. Photographs complicate the relationship between the living and the dead. On the one hand, the photographs frighten him; on the other hand, they transport him and open the floodgate to memory and his understanding of himself. More than any of his other novels, Austerlitz captures Sebald’s characteristic themes of loss and reconstruction of history and identity.

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W. G. Sebald Long Fiction Analysis


Sebald, W. G.