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.
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.
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.
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.