W. G. Sebald Sebald, W. G. - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

W. G. Sebald 1944-2001

(Full name Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald) German-born English novelist, nonfiction writer, essayist, and poet.

The following entry presents an overview of Sebald's career through 2004.

During the 1990s, Sebald emerged as one of the most beguiling and admired European writers on the international literary scene. His melancholic, self-styled meditations on the irrevocable desolations wrought by time, nature, and the history of Western civilization signaled the arrival of a highly original and talented author. Though classified as novels, his four major works—Schwindel, Gefühle (1990; Vertigo), Die Ringe des Saturn (1995; The Rings of Saturn), Die Ausgewanderten (1992; The Emigrants), and Austerlitz (2001)—are enigmatic composites of autobiography, travelogue, historical vignette, fiction, and amateur photography that defy classification. Sebald's death in a 2001 automobile accident prompted an outpouring of tributes lamenting the loss of an author whose strange, eagerly anticipated work was viewed by many as among the most unique and promising of the late twentieth century.

Biographical Information

Born Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald in the Bavarian village of Wertach im Allgäu, Sebald (who went by “Max”) was one of four children raised in a Catholic, anti-communist family amid the aftermath of World War II. His father served in the German military and, after being captured and imprisoned in France, returned to his family a virtual stranger when Sebald was three. The conspicuous silence surrounding the history of the Third Reich, which disturbed and intrigued Sebald during his formative years, would become a central motif in his fiction. Sebald attended Freiburg University, where he studied German literature and met his future wife, Ute, whom he married in 1967. Completing his degree in 1965, he received an appointment as assistant lecturer at the University of Manchester in England the next year. During this time he began to establish himself as a noted scholar of twentieth-century German literature. In 1969, he published his first critical work, a study of German dramatist Carl Sternheim. In 1970, Sebald moved to the newly established University of East Anglia in Norwich to teach European literature. He was named a professor of German literature in 1987 and from 1989 to 1994 served as founding director of the British Centre for Literary Translation at East Anglia. During the 1980s, he published several scholarly works, including Der Mythus der Zerstörung im Werk Döblins (1980), a study of German expressionist writer Alfred Döblin; Die Beschreibung des Unglücks (1985), a volume of essays on Austrian literature; and A Radical Stage (1988), a collection of critical essays on contemporary German drama that he edited. In 1988, Sebald published his first volume of creative work, Nach der Natur (After Nature), an extended prose poem that prefigured the thematic concerns of his fiction. He received numerous honors, including the Berlin Literature Prize, the Johannes Bobrowski Medal, and the Literature Nord Prize for The Emigrants, and the Heinrich Böll Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award for Austerlitz. Sebald died near his home in Norwich, East Anglia, at age fifty-seven when the car he was driving swerved into oncoming traffic and collided with a truck; it is suspected that Sebald suffered a heart attack. His daughter, Anna, a passenger in his car, sustained severe injuries but survived the accident.

Major Works

Sebald's first work of literary fiction, Vertigo, embodies the author's characteristic preoccupation with memory, mortality, and the uncanny ironies and coincidences that link individual lives to each other. As suggested by the title, the narrative evokes a mixture of confusion, anxiety, and frisson as Sebald moves between historical reality, personal reflection, and imaginative speculation. The first of the book's four sections recounts the experiences of French novelist Henri Beyle—better known by his pseudonym, Stendhal—during his Alps crossing with Napoleon. The second section relates Sebald's sojourn to Vienna and Italy to escape unspecified personal difficulties and includes descriptions of the author's delusions, random interactions with others, and digressions on Casanova's Venetian jailbreak and Renaissance painter Pisanello. The third section describes Franz Kafka's visit to Verona, drawing parallels to his own life and Stendhal's, and the final section describes Sebald's return to his Bavarian birthplace on his way back to England. As in his other books, Vertigo is illustrated by what are presumably the author's own uncaptioned black-and-white photographs of his travels and accumulated memorabilia, including ticket stubs, drawings, and newspaper clippings, all contributing to the haunting quality of Sebald's prose and his quizzical search for metaphysical certainty. The Emigrants employs a similar four-part structure, this time revolving around exilic German Jews whose displaced and tragic lives are set against the specter of the Holocaust, a subject that also figures importantly in Austerlitz. The first section features Henry Selwyn, an aristocratic retired doctor whom Sebald encounters while renting an apartment in his overgrown mansion in the English countryside. Though bearing all the signs of a full-blooded Englishman, Selwyn finally reveals that he emigrated to London as a child with a Jewish Lithuanian family. Afflicted by homesickness, Selwyn subsequently commits suicide and Sebald later recalls him upon discovering a newspaper story about Selwyn's former friend, a Swiss hiker who perished in the Alps in 1914 and whose body has finally been recovered. The second section recollects the life of Paul Bereyter, an engaging, unconventional German schoolteacher whom Sebald encountered as a student in the 1950s. Sebald learns that the Nazi pogroms of the 1930s precipitated the decline of Bereyter's Jewish family and his temporary flight to France. During World War II, however, Bereyter returned to Germany and was conscripted into the Nazi military despite his Jewish ancestry. As Sebald learns, Bereyter became disillusioned with teaching and harbored a preoccupation with trains; he ultimately killed himself by lying in the path of one. The third section involves Sebald's great-uncle Ambrose Adelwarth, who immigrated to the United States in the 1920s and was hired as a steward for Cosmo Solomon, the young heir of a wealthy Jewish family on Long Island. Adelwarth dutifully accompanies his unstable charge to European casinos and on a desert-crossing trek to Jerusalem, during which Cosmo attempts suicide and lapses into insanity, resulting in his internment in an upstate New York asylum. Adelwarth, whom Sebald suggests was romantically involved with Cosmo, later commits himself to the same asylum, where he succumbs to electroshock treatments and dies. The final section revolves around Max Ferber, a Manchester-based German Jewish artist whose dust-filled studio and ashen charcoal drawings parallel the sooty industrial decline of Manchester and evoke the imagery of Polish ghettos and Nazi death camps. Sebald attempts to reconstruct Ferber's family history and, upon visiting the aging artist some twenty years after their first meeting, learns that Ferber was sent by his parents to England to escape the Nazis in 1939, two years before his parents were deported and killed in Lithuania. A packet of letters from his mother, which Ferber shares with Sebald, serves as a heart-rending memoir of his mother's youth and Jewish life at the turn of the twentieth century. The Rings of Saturn recounts Sebald's 1992 walking tour of England's southeastern coast, which he recalls from a hospital bed in Norwich after suffering a debilitating but unspecified breakdown. Though ostensibly a travelogue of East Anglia, including descriptions of the desolate coastal plains, once thriving but now dilapidated resort towns, North Sea industries, and local personalities and lore, such provincial settings are merely a pretext for Sebald's wide-ranging historical and literary ruminations. Beginning with a meditation on the seventeenth-century scholar and pseudo-scientist Sir Thomas Browne, Sebald presents vignettes and extended digressions on Joseph Conrad, Belgian colonialism, Irish rebel Roger Casement, nineteenth-century imperial China, poets Edward FitzGerald, Algernon Swinburne, and Michael Hamburger, herring, and silkworms, among other topics. Together, Sebald's roving reflections suggest meaning-making connections—historical, aesthetic, and intertextual—among apparently disparate subjects, while demonstrating the inexorable process of decay by which individuals, physical landscapes, and whole civilizations are cast into oblivion. In Austerlitz, Sebald relates the story of Jacques Austerlitz, an Oxford-educated architectural historian whom Sebald first encounters in an Antwerp train terminal in 1967 and occasionally reencounters in chance meetings over the next three decades. Over the years, Sebald gradually learns of Austerlitz's tumultuous childhood and groping efforts to reconstruct his past. Sent to England from Prague via Kindertransport in 1939, Austerlitz was adopted at age four by a Calvinist minister and his wife and raised in Wales as Dafydd Elias. Though informed of his true identity as a teenager, Austerlitz represses his early memories until midlife, when after a nervous breakdown he travels to Prague to track down his Jewish parents and learns that they perished, separately and anonymously, at the hands of the Nazis. The incomplete information retrieved by Austerlitz offers little consolation, and his irreconcilable estrangement reveals the inadequacies of memory and the ruthlessness of history. In addition to his four major literary works, Sebald also published Unheimliche Heimat (1991), a collection of nine essays on Austrian literary identity; Logis in einem Landhaus (1998), a volume of essays on Gottfried Keller, Johann Peter Hebel, Robert Walser, Eduard Mörike, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau; and Luftkrieg und Literatur (1999; On the Natural History of Destruction), which consists of critical pieces on Alfred Andersch, Jean Améry, and Peter Weiss, and the essay “Air War and Literature,” in which Sebald addresses the Allied fire-bombing of Germany during World War II.

Critical Reception

Sebald was immediately hailed as a profound literary master with the publication of The Emigrants, the first of his four major literary works to be translated into English. Several prominent critics, including Susan Sontag, dubbed the book a masterpiece. Though he had already established a reputation in the German-speaking world, Sebald won lavish praise from Anglo-American critics who marveled at the author's entrancing narrative voice, elegant but oddly anachronistic prose, and disquieting ruminations on memory, identity, and history. Commentators often cite Sebald's own expatriate life and grievous German inheritance as the source of his insight into the isolation and despair of the dispossessed. The English translations of Vertigo, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz were similarly greeted with enthusiastic praise, with critics lauding Sebald's genre-defying narratives and peculiar ability to conjure and comingle the ghosts of the dead, the lost, and the forgotten. His bleak vision and idiosyncratic narrative style—described as a mixture of Proustian subjectivity, documentary fact, and hallucination—have elicited comparisons to the work of Kafka, Elias Canetti, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Bernhard, Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino. Both The Emigrants and Austerlitz have been praised for their poignant treatment of the Holocaust and European Jewry. As critics note, the Holocaust looms ominously in much of Sebald's writing, a weighty presence that is acknowledged tacitly and indirectly without the sentimentality or sensationalism that mars other works on the subject. Despite almost uniformly positive response to his work, Sebald did become the center of controversy in 1999 as a result of his essay “Air War and Literature,” in which he questioned the silence of German writers on the horrific Allied bombing of German cities during World War II. Sebald's effort to open discussion of German suffering during the bombings—staggering in its own right—was misinterpreted by some as a reaction against German war guilt. A minority of critics have also objected to a perceived sterility, artifice, and disengagement in Sebald's fiction. At the time of Sebald's death, however, he was considered one of the most gifted writers of his generation and, in the eyes of his many admirers, destined for greatness. As disappointed commentators note, Sebald's small but formidable oeuvre is evidence of a tragically stunted literary career whose full potential will remain unknown.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Carl Sternheim: Kritiker und Opfer der Wilhelminschen Aera (nonfiction) 1969

Der Mythus der Zerstörung im Werk Döblins (nonfiction) 1980

Die Beschreibung des Unglücks: Zur Österreichischen Literatur von Stifter bis Handke (essays) 1985

Nach der Natur: Ein Elementardgedicht [After Nature] (poetry) 1988

A Radical Stage: Theatre in Germany in the 1970s and 1980s [editor and contributor] (essays) 1988

Schwindel, Gefühle [Vertigo] (novel) 1990

Unheimliche Heimat: Essays zur Österreichischen Literatur (essays) 1991

Die Ringe des...

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Martin Swales (review date January 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Swales, Martin. Review of Die Beschreibung des Unglücks, by W. G. Sebald. Modern Language Review 82, no. 1 (January 1987): 248-50.

[In the following review of Die Beschreibung des Unglücks, Swales faults Sebald's view of the literary critic as an interpreter of authorial pathology.]

In his collection of ten essays [Die Beschreibung des Unglücks] (nine of which are reworked versions of earlier papers) W. G. Sebald highlights particular topographical features of the Austrian literary landscape from Stifter to Handke (and, in view of the prominence accorded to descriptions of natural phenomena in that literary tradition, the notion of a...

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Richard J. Rundell (review date May 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rundell, Richard J. Review of A Radical Stage, by W. G. Sebald. Theatre Journal 43, no. 21 (May 1991): 263-64.

[In the following excerpt, Rundell praises Sebald's analysis of contemporary German theatre in A Radical Stage.]

Although the word is gradually getting around in the United States that there is a lot of artistically vibrant and intellectually challenging activity these days on the heavily subsidized stages of the German-speaking countries of Europe, even well-informed American theater practitioners are familiar with little more than the names of those currently active German playwrights whose plays are most frequently produced. Very few of their...

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Sidney Rosenfeld (review date winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rosenfeld, Sidney. Review of Unheimliche Heimat, by W. G. Sebald. World Literature Today 66, no. 1 (winter 1992): 127-28.

[In the following review, Rosenfeld commends Sebald's insightful analysis in Unheimliche Heimat.]

The subtitle of W. G. Sebald's book Unheimliche Heimat posits a distinct identity for Austrian—as opposed to German—literature, and in the nine essays collected here Sebald finds a variety of instructive approaches to this long-debated and ultimately unresolvable question. Certainly, writers such as Jean Améry, Hermann Broch, Peter Handke, Franz Kafka, and Joseph Roth have found their place within the greater corpus of...

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Andrea Reiter (review date July 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Reiter, Andrea. Review of Unheimliche Heimat, by W. G. Sebald. Modern Language Review 88, no. 3 (July 1993): 803-05.

[In the following excerpt, Reiter commends Sebald's sociological perspective and novelistic approach in Unheimliche Heimat, but finds shortcomings in the omission of female author Ilse Aichinger and a tendency to allow his analysis to become subordinate to style.]

Since Claudio Magris's controversial suggestion (1966) that the ‘Habsburg Mythos’ is the common denominator of Austrian literature, there have been several further attempts to pinpoint the Austrian quality in the writings of that country which would distinguish them...

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Philip Brady (review date 12 July 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brady, Philip. “Ghosts of the Present.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4867 (12 July 1996): 22.

[In the following review, Brady praises Sebald's use of vivid imagination and haunting evocation of memory in The Emigrants.]

In an essay first published in 1927 and entitled “Photography”, Siegfried Kracauer, one of a group of cultural critics—it included Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht—who were looking for meanings below the surface appearance of photographs, scrutinizes an old, faded photograph of his grandmother. He reflects on what he calls the “demonic ambiguity” of old photographs, the tension between an opaqueness “which scarcely a ray of...

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Martin Chalmers (review date 12 July 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Chalmers, Martin. “Angels of History.” New Statesman 125, no. 4292 (12 July 1996): 44-5.

[In the following review, Chalmers lauds Sebald's evocation of history and memory in The Emigrants.]

Perhaps the last moment at which our 20th century of murder and destruction might have taken a different course was 1913. Certainly the summer of that year recurs in W G Sebald's four linked stories of emigration and exclusion as a time of happiness that was never to be recaptured. The longest, “Max Ferber”, begins in 1966, in a startlingly evoked Manchester: a sooty mausoleum of industrialisation. The narrator, a young German student with a biography much like that...

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Carole Angier (review date 17 August 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Angier, Carole. “They Forgot to Remember to Forget.” Spectator 277, no. 8770 (17 August 1996): 28-30.

[In the following review, Angier praises The Emigrants asserting that it “may be a masterpiece,” and lauds the treatment of such themes as exile, memory, art, and loss within the book.]

The Emigrants is not only about emigration. It is about internal as well as external exile; it is about loss, and above all about memory. Finally, therefore, it is about art. Another great German writer, Günther Grass, has said that writing is the naming of lost things; that without loss there would be no literature. The Emigrants both explores and...

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Richard Eder (review date 27 October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Taken Over by Dead Men's Ghosts.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (27 October 1996): 2.

[In the following review, Eder offers praise for The Emigrants.]

Everything, it seems, is paid for—there is no scot-free; the bill comes around, our dreams send it. The German novelist and scholar W. G. Sebald has written a haunting and limitlessly suggestive book about the most terrible example in our memory.

The Emigrants is four narratives about the death that persists within survival. Each is about a German Jew who in one fashion or another escaped the Holocaust yet gradually succumbed to it years later, in his old age....

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Dennis Drabelle (review date 15 December 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Drabelle, Dennis. “What They Left Behind.” Washington Post Book World (15 December 1996): 6.

[In the following review, Drabelle praises Sebald's stories in The Emigrants as grim and beautiful.]

As best I can tell, this is a collection of four slightly fictionalized narratives, embellished with photographs some of which are culled from family albums and some taken specially for the book. Sorry to be so tentative, but the publisher's promotional material is not very helpful on this score, and in any case the book's genre seems less important than such features as its elegiac tone, its inventive prose, and the affecting composite picture it paints of...

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Cynthia Ozick (review date 16 December 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ozick, Cynthia. “The Posthumous Sublime.” New Republic 215, no. 25 (16 December 1996): 33-8.

[In the following review, Ozick praises Sebald's profound and evocative depiction of grief, loss, and German Jewish experience in The Emigrants.]

There is almost no clarifying publisher's apparatus surrounding W. G. Sebald's restless, melancholy and (I am almost sorry to say) sublime narrative quartet. One is compelled—ludicrously, clumsily—to settle for that hapless term (what is a “narrative quartet”?) because the very identity of this work remains murky. Which parts of it are memoir, which fiction—and ought it to matter? As for external...

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Jonathan Coe (review date 20 March 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Coe, Jonathan. “Tact.” London Review of Books (20 March 1997): 24-5.

[In the following review, Coe praises the tactfulness with which Sebald conveys the suffering, dislocation, and painful legacy of the Holocaust in The Emigrants.]

This curious, mesmerising book, a hybrid of fiction and memoir which tells the life stories of four unhappy exiles, is the work of a German writer until now almost unknown in this country. It has already scooped up prizes in continental Europe and been published to great acclaim both in Britain and America. The epithets which have been flung at it include sober, delicate, beautiful, moving, powerful, mysterious, civilised and a...

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Irving Malin (review date spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Malin, Irving. Review of The Emigrants, by W. G. Sebald. Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 1 (spring 1997): 173-74.

[In the following review, Malin assesses Sebald's exploration of history, memory, and meaning in The Emigrants as enigmatic.]

This novel, which is surely one of the best novels to appear since World War II, cannot be reviewed briefly. I will try, nevertheless, to emphasize a few details that demand more significant explorations. The novel consists of four parts. Each is an eccentric extended portrait of a person: Dr. Henry Selwyn, Paul Bereyter, Ambros Adelwarth, and Max Ferber. The narrator tries to discover their pasts; he...

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André Aciman (review date June 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Aciman, André. “In the Crevasse.” Commentary 103, no. 6 (June 1997): 61-4.

[In the following review, Aciman lauds Sebald's evocation of memory, fate, and the legacy of the Holocaust in The Emigrants.]

W. G. Sebald was born in Germany, studied literature there as well as in Switzerland and in Manchester, England, and since 1970 has been teaching at the University of East Anglia, where he is now a professor of European literature. That he and I are both emigrants—a cross of immigrant, exile, and extraterritorial—and that we have both written on the impact of personal as well as acquired memories, and that the question of Jewish suffering lies at the root...

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Gabriele Annan (review date 25 September 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Annan, Gabriele. “Ghosts.” New York Review of Books 44, no. 14 (25 September 1997): 29-30.

[In the following review, Annan praises The Emigrants as a melancholy study of memory and loss, rather than an example of Holocaust literature, in which Sebald laments the irretrievability of the past and the oblivion into which the dead are cast by the passage of time.]

The Emigrants consists of four short biographies told in the first person by the author. Perhaps “displaced persons” or the French dépaysés would better describe these men, who are without the sense of purpose, of going somewhere, implicit in the word “emigrant.” (To be...

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Gareth Howell-Jones (review date 30 May 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Howell-Jones, Gareth. “A Doubting Pilgrim's Happy Progress.” Spectator 280, no. 8860 (30 May 1998): 34-5.

[In the following review, Howell-Jones commends Sebald's use of anecdotes, observations, and coincidences to impute a sense of orderliness to the process of worldly decay in The Rings of Saturn.]

Lying in a hospital bed, ‘in a state of almost total immobility', W. G. Sebald, a German lecturer long domiciled in England, recalls a walking tour of Suffolk made the previous year. In calm, formal prose well-suited to the barren beauty of that coast, he tracks his mind's wanderings through the literary and historical associations evoked by his journey....

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Blake Morrison (review date 5 June 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Morrison, Blake. “Suffolk through Death-Tinted Specs.” New Statesman 127, no. 4388 (5 June 1998): 45-6.

[In the following review, Morrison credits Sebald with an idiosyncratic style, melancholic perspective, and engaging storytelling in The Rings of Saturn.]

This is one of the strangest books I've ever read. Finishing it, I went out and bought W G Sebald's previous book, the much acclaimed The Emigrants (1996), after which it seemed less strange since the two have much in common: an acute sense of place, a fascination with émigrés and eccentrics, a dislike of paragraphing, a uniquely seductive tone of voice. The Emigrants is the more...

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Richard Eder (review date 28 June 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “The Anatomy of Melancholy.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (28 June 1998): 2.

[In the following review, Eder offers a favorable assessment of The Rings of Saturn, which he views as a lament and an extension of The Emigrants, albeit less focused and potent.]

At the end of his tormented pilgrim's regress through memory and the stripped flatlands of East Anglia, the narrator cites for one last time his ghostly companion throughout: the 17th century writer Sir Thomas Browne.

Mourning—in a very large sense, the heart of W. G. Sebald's fictional meditation—was traditionally observed by wearing black. Browne wrote...

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James Wood (review date 6 July 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wood, James. “The Right Thread.” New Republic 219, no. 1 (6 July 1998): 38-42.

[In the following review, Wood discusses what he considers Sebald's pessimistic aesthetic and preoccupation with death in The Rings of Saturn.]

Anxious, daring, extreme, muted—only an annulling wash of contradictory adjectives can approach the agitated density of W. G. Sebald's writing. For this German who has lived in England for over thirty years is one of the most mysteriously sublime of contemporary writers. When his book The Emigrants appeared two years ago, one immediately recalled Walter Benjamin's remark in his essay on Proust that all great works found a new...

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Randolph Stow (review date 31 July 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Stow, Randolph. “The Plangency of Ruins.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4974 (31 July 1998): 11.

[In the following review, Stow offers favorable comments on what he considers Sebald's mournful tone and unique narrative style in The Rings of Saturn.]

W. G. Sebald, Professor of German at the University of East Anglia, has lived in that region since 1970, but was born in 1944, in what was left of Nazi Germany. The Rings of Saturn is his second work to appear in English, having been preceded by The Emigrants, a book whose haunting qualities have been saluted by critics as diverse as A. S. Byatt and Tariq Ali.

Both volumes are...

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D. J. Enright (review date 17 September 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Enright, D. J. “The German Ocean.” London Review of Books (17 September 1998): 27.

[In the following review, Enright commends Sebald's “seductive” and “entrancing” writing in The Rings of Saturn, but finds his digressions occasionally dull and his melancholy overdetermined.]

Change and decay in all around we see. As one of W. G. Sebald's epigraphs points out, the rings of Saturn are probably fragments of a moon, broken up by tidal effect when its orbit decayed.

In August 1992, we are told, Sebald walked through coastal Suffolk. Possibly because of the ‘paralysing horror’ caused in him by the traces of destruction he...

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Matthew Roberson (review date fall 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Roberson, Matthew. Review of The Rings of Saturn, by W. G. Sebald. Review of Contemporary Fiction 18, no. 3 (fall 1998): 241-42.

[In the following review, Roberson judges The Rings of Saturn favorably, asserting that it contains engaging intelligence and prose.]

The narrator of The Rings of Saturn (who both is and is not W. G. Sebald in this combination of fiction, travel writing, historical study, and memoir) makes clear again and again his fascination with the life and work of Thomas Browne. He admires, in particular, Browne's “Musaeum Clausum,” a “catalogue of remarkable books … listing pictures, antiquities and sundry singular...

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Michael Butler (review date 2 October 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Butler, Michael. “The Human Cost of Exile.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4983 (2 October 1998): 10.

[In the following review, Butler offers a positive assessment of Logis in einem Landhaus.]

W. G. Sebald is a distinguished scholar (he holds a Chair of German in the University of East Anglia) and a novelist with a growing international reputation. His latest book brings both sides of his personality together. For though at one level Logis in einem Landhaus is a collection of essays on Swiss or Alemannic writers, at another it is an exploration of spiritual affinities that indicate some of the sources of his own inspiration as a creator of fiction....

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Trudi Tate (review date November 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Tate, Trudi. “The Writer Among the Ruins.” Quadrant 42, no. 11 (November 1998): 76-8.

[In the following review, Tate appreciates Sebald's preoccupation with historical memory and the continuing relevance of the past in The Rings of Saturn.]

Although W. G. Sebald lives in Britain and teaches at the University of East Anglia, he writes in German and publishes his books in his adopted homeland in translation. His first work to appear in English was The Emigrants (Harvill, 1996). His new book, The Rings of Saturn, tells of a walking trip along the coast of Suffolk. Part memoir, part mediation, the book interweaves personal memory and observation...

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André Aciman (review date 3 December 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Aciman, André. “Out of Novemberland.” New York Review of Books 45, no. 19 (3 December 1998): 44-7.

[In the following review, Aciman contends that The Rings of Saturn, despite its ostensible interest in historical interconnections and cosmic coincidences, is a self-absorbed meditation with a flawed form that prevents Sebald from transcending his private intellectual concerns.]


And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. The words with which W. G. Sebald closes the first tale of The Emigrants, a volume of four tales published less than two years ago, have, like everything else Sebald writes, a somber,...

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Robert Schwarz (review date summer 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Schwarz, Robert. Review of Logis in einem Landhaus, by W. G. Sebald. World Literature Today 73, no. 3 (summer 1999): 521.

[In the following review, Schwartz offers praise for Logis in einem Landhaus.]

In a handsomely designed, tastefully printed, and creatively illustrated volume, six men who have enriched European culture are discussed with expertise and charm. W. G. Sebald has selected the early-twentieth-century Swiss author Robert Walser, the nineteenth-century Swiss novelist and poet Gottfried Keller, the nineteenth-century German poet Eduard Mörike, the early-nineteenth-century Swiss chronicler and poet Johann Peter Hebel, the eighteenth-century...

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Anita Brookner (review date 18-25 December 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “Pursued across Europe by Ghosts and Unease.” Spectator 283, no. 8941 (18-25 December 1999): 65-6.

[In the following review, Brookner admires Sebald's disquieting description of anxiety, displacement, and solitary travels in Vertigo.]

A fine array of symptoms is on offer in Vertigo, the first volume of what would become a celebrated trilogy. In The Emigrants Professor Sebald traced the lives of four exiles; in The Rings of Saturn he took a protracted walk around and across East Anglia, which is now his home. In Vertigo he is on the move again, not on foot, but in a series of displacements no less extreme and...

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Susan Sontag (review date 25 February 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sontag, Susan. “A Mind in Mourning.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5056 (25 February 2000): 3-4.

[In the following review, Sontag examines stylistic and thematic continuities in Sebald's literary works and offers a positive assessment of Vertigo.]

Is literary greatness still possible? Given the implacable devolution of literary ambition, and the concurrent ascendancy of the tepid, the glib and the senselessly cruel as normative fictional subjects, what would a noble literary enterprise look like now? One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.

Vertigo, the third of Sebald's books to be...

(The entire section is 2781 words.)

Tim Parks (review date 15 June 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Parks, Tim. “The Hunter.” New York Review of Books 47, no. 10 (15 June 2000): 52-3, 56.

[In the following review, Parks offers a positive evaluation of Vertigo and discusses Sebald's attention to coincidences and repetitions.]

In the closing pages of Cervantes's masterpiece, at last disabused and disillusioned, a decrepit Don Quixote finds that there is nothing for him beyond folly but death. When giants are only windmills and Dulcinea a stout peasant lass who has no time for a knight errant, life, alas, is unlivable. “Truly he is dying,” says the priest who takes his confession, “and truly he is sane.” Sancho Panza breaks down in tears:...

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Michael Dirda (review date 25 June 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Dirda, Michael. Review of Vertigo, by W. G. Sebald. Washington Post Book World (25 June 2000): 15.

[In the following review, Dirda notes the critical acclaim Sebald has gathered, but finds Vertigo tenuously constructed and confusing for readers who do not enjoy Sebald's pessimistic European sensibility.]

Children's literature, it has been rashly said (by me), can be divided into two subgenres: the books that kids like (Animorphs, the American Girl series) and those that grown-ups like (various Newbery and Caldecott winners). As it happens, one can make a comparable judgment about adult fiction. There are novels that readers love, and there are...

(The entire section is 1252 words.)

Philip Landon (review date fall 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Landon, Philip. Review of Vertigo, by W. G. Sebald. Review of Contemporary Fiction 20, no. 3 (fall 2000): 137.

[In the following review, Landon offers a positive assessment of Vertigo.]

The appearance in English of Sebald's first novel will be warmly greeted by those who know the two later books already translated from the German by Michael Hulse: The Rings of Saturn (1995) and The Emigrants (1997). You need a list to suggest the scope, originality, and richness of Sebald's prose. Scrapbook, essay collection, personal diary, historical fiction, novel of ideas—whatever you want to call it, Vertigo diverts and surprises at every...

(The entire section is 282 words.)

Nicole Krauss (review date fall 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Krauss, Nicole. “Arabesques of Journeys.” Partisan Review 68, no. 4 (fall 2001): 646-50.

[In the following review, Krauss praises Sebald's distinctive, though elusive, authorial presence and storytelling in Vertigo.]

Who is W. G. Sebald? Who is the enigmatic German writer who first appeared in English in 1996 with the publication of his elegiac quartet, The Emigrants, who reappeared in 1998 with The Rings of Saturn, and who now visits us once more with Vertigo (his first novel, which, in German, preceded the other two)? Scattered throughout all three books are grainy photographs, and occasionally we glimpse Sebald peering out...

(The entire section is 2232 words.)

Philip Landon (review date fall 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Landon, Philip. Review of Austerlitz, by W. G. Sebald. Review of Contemporary Fiction 21, no. 3 (fall 2001): 196.

[In the following review, Landon offers praise for Austerlitz.]

[Austerlitz, t]he fourth novel by the German expatriate author W. G. Sebald records the life story of Jacques Austerlitz, an eccentric architectural historian born in Prague and raised by foster parents in Wales. Battling the alienation that has wrecked his life, Austerlitz eventually reclaims his origins from the darkness of the Holocaust, aspiring to “a kind of historical metaphysic, bringing remembered events back to life.” Sebald's narrator, driven by a similar...

(The entire section is 305 words.)

Anita Brookner (review date 6 October 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “A Journey Without Maps.” Spectator 287, no. 9035 (6 October 2001): 64-5.

[In the following review, Brookner finds Austerlitz a harrowing blend of memory, digression, and observation.]

Exiles inhabit another dimension, somewhere beyond nostalgia, in which acuity of vision and the weight of memory combine to convey a strangeness not available to innocent natives. The Russian Andreï Makine, now writing in French, and the German W. G. Sebald have produced books, none finer than their present productions, which transport the reader not only to a different place but to a different time. Both have a preternatural ability to establish a...

(The entire section is 1207 words.)

A. S. Byatt (review date 15 October 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Byatt, A. S. “Only Connect.” New Statesman 130, no. 4559 (15 October 2001): 52-3.

[In the following review, Byatt offers a positive assessment of Austerlitz, but notes that its internal coincidences and interconnections seem more “overtly constructed” than in Sebald's previous works.]

W G Sebald's narratives are both old and new, in form and subject matter. They are characteristically modern in that they attempt, more and more desperately and elaborately, to make sense of a world that is always elusive. His isolated narrators move through a world with none of the ancient structures of thought and feeling—no myth, no pattern of belief—trying...

(The entire section is 1248 words.)

Gillian Tindall (review date 19 October 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Tindall, Gillian. “The Fortress of the Heart.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5142 (19 October 2001): 21.

[In the following review, Tindall judges Sebald's fictionalization of past lives and identities in Austerlitz as convincing.]

It is a strange country, W. G. Sebald's, though one that has become familiar through his four books now published in English. Its hidden heart seems to be in Germany, but often a Germany of night-time railway stations that are there as doorways to other destinations, other versions of existence, in Belgium, Italy, or further east. It has a significant territory in the windswept fields and secret country houses of East...

(The entire section is 1225 words.)

Gabriele Annan (review date 1 November 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Annan, Gabriele. “Ghost Story.” New York Review of Books 48, no. 17 (1 November 2001): 26-7.

[In the following review, Annan praises the haunting blend of fact, fiction, and meditative digression by which Sebald conjures the past and its uncanny connections with the present.]

On the cover photograph a little boy stands alone on a bleak heath. He wears the white satin costume of an eighteenth-century page and in his hand he holds a white satin tricorne with an ostrich feather. His pale blond hair blows in the wind. He is not an attractive child, and his expression is puzzled, anxious, defensive—or so it seems to me. Sebald calls it “piercing,...

(The entire section is 2637 words.)

John Banville (review date 26 November 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Banville, John. “The Rubble Artist.” New Republic 225, no. 22 (26 November 2001): 35-8.

[In the following review, Banville asserts that Austerlitz contains masterful narrative control and a poignant evocation of European desolation.]

For a novelist, the Holocaust is at once a safe subject and a dangerous subject. Safe, because the emotional reaction of practically all readers will be already primed; dangerous, because almost any attempt to deal imaginatively with a crime that is well nigh unimaginable is likely to result in bathos. There is also the moral question of whether an artist has the right to turn such horrors into the stuff of art; Adorno...

(The entire section is 2517 words.)

Tess Lewis (essay date December 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lewis, Tess. “W. G. Sebald: The Past Is Another Country.” New Criterion 20, no. 4 (December 2001): 85-90.

[In the following essay, Lewis provides an overview of Sebald's literary works, thematic preoccupations, and prose style upon the publication of Austerlitz, concluding that Sebald's overriding concern is the irretrievability of the past.]

How strange it is, to be standing leaning against the current of time.

—W. G. Sebald, Vertigo

Travel, Kierkegaard claimed, is the best way to avoid despair. But for the German writer W. G. Sebald, it leads, as often as not,...

(The entire section is 3728 words.)

Benjamin Kunkel (review date 1 April 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kunkel, Benjamin. “The Emigrant.” Nation 274, no. 12 (1 April 2002): 42-4.

[In the following review of Austerlitz, Kunkel discusses Sebald's romanticism and preoccupation with the calamities of history, concluding that Sebald's autobiographical reticence deprives his work of truth.]

On December 14, the German writer W. G. Sebald died, age 57, in a car accident in England, where he had lived for thirty-five years. He had published four remarkable books: fluid, melancholy novel-essays composed in beautifully rich and formal language, and studded with odd black-and-white photos rescued from the oblivion that was his overwhelming theme. In each book,...

(The entire section is 1640 words.)

Phoebe Pettingell (review date July-August 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pettingell, Phoebe. “Old Masters of Suffering.” New Leader 85, no. 4 (July-August 2002): 33-5.

[In the following excerpt, Pettingell commends Sebald's depiction of suffering and the fallibility of human reason and memory in After Nature.]

W. H. Auden's much-anthologized poem, “Musée des Beaux Arts,” begins memorably, “About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters.” He had in mind the Gothic painters of Northern Europe's 16th century, like Mathias Grünewald, Albrecht Dürer, Albrecht Altdorfer, and Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Their straightforward depictions of human bodies in the throes of various agonies and degradations were a far cry...

(The entire section is 1336 words.)

Ruth Franklin (review date 23 September 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Franklin, Ruth. “Rings of Smoke.” New Republic 227, no. 13 (23 September 2002): 32-9.

[In the following review, Franklin discusses Sebald's authorial persona and tensions between fact and fiction in his writings, his portrayal of historical suffering and persecution in After Nature, and his controversial statements about the Allied bombing of Germany in Luftkrieg und Literatur.]

If there is an underworld where the darkest nightmares of the twentieth century dwell, W. G. Sebald could be its Charon. Starting with Vertigo, which combines sketches of Kafka and Stendhal with a fictionalized record of travels in Italy and elsewhere, and ending with...

(The entire section is 7147 words.)

Carol Bere (essay date fall 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bere, Carol. “The Book of Memory: W. G. Sebald's The Emigrants and Austerlitz.Literary Review 46, no. 1 (fall 2002): 184-92.

[In the following essay, Bere explores Sebald's effort to recover the Holocaust's legacy of individual suffering, displacement, and repressed memories in The Emigrants and Austerlitz.]

“And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.”

The Emigrants

The tragic death of W. G. Sebald in a traffic accident on December 14, 2001 in Norwich, England, occurred at a time in his relatively brief career when he had just begun to receive...

(The entire section is 3672 words.)

Andrew Gimson (review date 15 February 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gimson, Andrew. “Looking—and Looking Away.” Spectator 291, no. 9106 (15 February 2003): 37-8.

[In the following review, Gimson discusses Sebald's attempt in On the Natural History of Destruction to address the silence of German writers on the devastation inflicted by Allied bombings during World War II.]

Sebald is perturbed by the almost complete failure of German writers to describe the devastation of their country by British and American bombers during the second world war. Here, one might have thought, was an inescapable subject, a reality which confronted anyone who was in Germany during or after the war. About 600,000 civilians were killed in...

(The entire section is 791 words.)

Robert Winder (review date 24 February 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Winder, Robert. “The Unfortunate Traveller.” New Statesman 132, no. 4626 (24 February 2003): 48-9.

[In the following review, Winder discusses Sebald's peculiar, engaging literary style and his interest in the Allied bombardment of Germany in On the Natural History of Destruction.]

A year ago last December, the German writer W G Sebald was killed in a car crash in East Anglia. He had lived in England since 1966, first in Manchester and then near Norwich, after becoming professor of European literature at the University of East Anglia. At that time, he was a writer of small but glittering renown, on the basis of four works that were winning prizes and new...

(The entire section is 1296 words.)

Julian Evans (essay date 21 April 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Evans, Julian. “Platform.” New Statesman 132, no. 4634 (21 April 2003): 54.

[In the following essay, Evans judges Sebald's writing to be unrealistic and withdrawn, citing the author's preoccupation with illness and scenes without people as evidence of his empty disengagement.]

I have never understood the fanatical intensity of critical admiration for the novels of W G Sebald. A fortnight ago I reread the first of his “novels” to be published in English, The Emigrants, then the other three books—Vertigo, The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz—because I wanted to understand why I couldn't believe most of what he wrote. In the...

(The entire section is 942 words.)

Barbara Beckerman Davis (review date winter 2004)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Davis, Barbara Beckerman. Review of After Nature, by W. G. Sebald. Antioch Review 62, no. 1 (winter 2004): 171.

[In the following review, Davis offers a positive assessment of After Nature.]

After Nature, Sebald's first work, published after his death (but with his imprimateur), is a blueprint of the themes that inform his oeuvre: grief and melancholia; a fascination with the natural world; memory. Invoking Dante as his spiritual guide, Sebald has chosen a representative personage around whom to unravel each cluster of concerns. Mattaeus Grünewald (ca. 1475/80-1528), whose religious paintings illustrate a sensibility to suffering that ultimately...

(The entire section is 352 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Eakin, Hugh. “War and Remembrance.” Nation 276, no. 12 (31 March 2003): 31-3.

Review discussing the controversy surrounding Sebald's attempt to address the suffering wrought by the Allied bombing of Germany during World War II in On the Natural History of Destruction.

Eder, Richard. “Excavating a Life.” New York Times Book Review (28 October 2001): 7.

Positive review of Austerlitz in which Eder discusses Sebald's evocation of the past.

———. “Exploring a Present That Is Invaded by the Past.” New York Times (22 May 2000): E8.


(The entire section is 396 words.)