W. G. Sebald

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Martin Swales (review date January 1987)

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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 ‘literary landscape’ is by no means only a metaphor). By any standards, it is not a very cheering journey. Stifter figures at both the beginning and the end. Dr Sebald is at pains to stress the repressions and pathological tensions in Stifter's own psyche (particularly his ‘unüberwindlichen Freβzwang’), and to suggest that the literary work, in its desperate attempt to vindicate rationality and orderliness, intimates the catastrophic possibilities that it wishes to keep at arm's length. Schnitzler's Traumnovelle is interpreted with respect to the role of woman within the corporate (male) imagination of declining Austria-Hungary. Sebald sees Andreas as Hofmannsthal's most daring venture into the realms of perversion and cruelty, arguing that in conception it is ‘eine pornographische Etüde auf dem höchsten Niveau der Kunst, … der absolute Gegensatz also zum Konzept des Bildungsromans’. Kafka's Das Schloβ is interpreted as a journey located in the domain of death, and Canetti is seen as the diagnostician of the pathology of power, a pathology that works through imagination, mind, and language. Sebald discusses Thomas Bernhard and Peter Handke, arguing that they portray conditions of psychological disturbance in such a way that pathology becomes revelation, fantasy becomes the agency of a precise retracing of the contours of unaccommodated—and therefore truthful—existence. The volume concludes with essays on the suggestive power of Ernst Herbeck's dislocated texts, on Gerhard Roth's Winterreise (this is the most critical essay in the collection, highlighting the atrophied narrative mode in which the passages of sexual explicitness become mere pornography), and on the eschatological impetus behind both Stifter's and Handke's art, an impulse which decrees that immediate things are treated with a weight of narrative constatation that transforms them into last things.

Sebald writes well and there is a splendid urgency to every analysis that he offers. It is fascinating to see that Stifter, the only writer from the nineteenth century who is discussed, should emerge as the patron saint of so much twentieth-century Austrian prose. Yet certain problems remain. Sebald writes at one point: ‘Wenig Wunder, daβ Stifter, bewegt von den chaotischen Vorgängen in seinem Innern und von der naturwissenschaftlichen Einsicht in die grauenvolle Ausgesetztheit der Welt, zeit seines Lebens in einer Art literarischer Autotherapie an der Darstellung einer helleren Welt sich abgearbeitet hat’ (p. 174), and, in a later passage, he argues that literature ‘verwandelt … das Fleisch und Blut der Wirklichkeit in eine ohne Beschwernis verzehrbare Speise vermittels eines Rituals der Transsubstantiation und dient zur Beschwichtigung eines schlechten Gewissens, das, wie wir am Fall Stifters sehen konnten, weniger im Herzen als im Magen des Autors seinen Sitz hat’ (p. 180). The argument here is that literature is an act of compensation, is the creation of a beautiful lie which it is the task of the critic to reconvert into the substance of authorial pathology. I am far from wishing to reinstate the notion of an intact, high-mindedly pedagogic Stifter, and I agree with Sebald that the art is remarkable for the tensions and undercurrents that disturb the placid surface. But one must beware of seeing art as the biography writ (or, more accurately, rewrit) large, and Sebald, in his discussion of Stifter, comes perilously close to this seductive heresy. But with the twentieth-century writers he obviously feels surer of his ground, and the discussion of the works is for the most part conducted without reference to the biographical circumstances from which they derive. But then, there is hardly any need for such delving, because with Canetti, Bernhard, Handke, Herbeck, and Gerhard Roth the pathology is foregrounded in the texts themselves. But there still remains a problem. Without wishing to sound censorious, one has to ask why these unashamedly pathological themes should be found truthful and persuasive. Why, in other words, should the unaccommodated existence be more truthful than the accommodated one, why should it be the case (to quote Sebald again) that ‘die Motorik der Trostlosigkeit und diejenige der Erkenntnis identische Exekutiven sind’? Why should pathology be insight—and not simply delusion or a symptom of cultural and social decadence (an argument that Marxist critics are never slow to advance)? Here one detects a weakness in Sebald's study, a weakness that may derive from the fact that his book began its life as separate essays. As I have already mentioned, he is critical of Gerhard Roth's Winterreise. One wishes that the arguments in respect of literary value (or lack of it) had been sustained throughout the book. Sebald leaves us in no doubt that he regards Winterreise as inferior, as pornographic, whereas he sees other works (by, for example, Hofmannsthal or Schnitzler) as exploring (rather than succumbing to) the pornographic imagination. The distinction is, of course, a valid one. But the line that divides diagnosis from muck-raking is a fine one. Similarly, with Handke, the line that divides critique of linguistic atrophy from succumbing to linguistic atrophy is by no means self-evident. But Sebald simply asserts the distinction, without showing it. It is, at one level, a matter of style (and Sebald is—rightly—stern with the limpness of Roth's narrative). But more needs to be said on, for example, the sheer elation and vitality of Bernhard's prose (a vitality that differentiates the stultifying matter of his writing), on the obliqueness and intensely associative range of Kafka's art, one which infuses the bleakness with a strangely generous range of concerns. Granted, the blight of mere pathology, of ‘sour kitsch', of pornography is never far away. But it is exorcized in a triumph of art. Sebald knows this too, of course; but he takes it for granted. And, given the kind of literature which concerns him in this book [Die Beschreibung des Unglücks], he owes it to himself, to the authors he values, and to us his readers, to spell out that triumph.


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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.

Richard J. Rundell (review date May 1991)

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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 plays have yet been staged in the United States, for reasons I shall explain below.

W. G. Sebald's collection of twelve essays [A Radical Stage] seeks to provide an overview of German-language theater in the past twenty years, with emphasis on the work of such individual playwrights as Botho Strauss, Friederike Roth, Tankred Dorst, Franz Xaver Kroetz, Volker Braun, Heiner Müller, Thomas Bernhard, and Herbert Achternbusch. One of the more notable German producer-directors, Peter Stein, is also discussed, as are the West Berlin political children's theater, Grips, and a number of recent productions in East Germany. Taken together, the essays provide a valuable survey of a theater scene to which Americans otherwise have little exposure. The uniformly lucid and well-written essays were presented as papers at a colloquium held in early 1987 at the University of East Anglia.

Sebald's useful preface notes that many plays which have come out of Germany since 1970 “pose severe problems of understanding,” to the effect that “critical reception has therefore been rather delayed,” in spite of the fact that these plays are being performed in Italy, France, and England “to a much greater extent than at any time since the late Weimar years” (i). Moreover, current plays “appear to represent, yet again, something that can be construed as prototypically German, something horrendous and fascinating at the same time” (i). Sebald has thus suggested reasons why non-German audiences have difficulty with current German drama and why they ought to work at understanding it.

Much more than in the United States, the heavily subsidized theater of the German-speaking countries (West Germany, East Germany, Austria, and German-speaking Switzerland) is a theater of ideas relatively unconcerned with commercial success and entertainment value. Nonetheless, the theaters showing this new work are generally well-filled, and controversial productions are usually sold out in houses somewhat larger, on the average, than North American regional theaters. The subject matter of virtually all of the plays discussed in the essays in Sebald's book assumes some familiarity with German social, political, and intellectual affairs of the twentieth century with particular emphasis on the post-World War II era. Although there is often a wry, sardonic humor in current German dramatic writing, there is very little frivolity. These playwrights want to make significant statements about the world in which they work; none of them can be called escapist.

Sebald reminds us that the German theater-going public after 1945 saw mainly productions of classics and translations of imported plays by Wilder, Williams, Shaw, O'Neill, Anouilh, Sartre, Camus, and Pirandello. Until 1963, the reputation of German-language playwriting was based largely on the work of the two Swiss dramatists, Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Max Frisch. The mid-1960s saw the re-emergence of serious German playwriting which attracted international attention through such plays as Rolf Hochhuth's The Deputy (1963) and works by Martin Walser, Heinar Kipphardt, and Peter Weiss, all of whom were concerned with coming to grips with the causes and consequences of the recent nightmare of Nazism and the Holocaust.

Sebald is quite right when he asserts that “the dozen or so years from 1968 to the early 1980s were among the most inspiring in the history of the twentieth-century German theatre” (3). A number of fine ensembles were formed during these years, and the work of such theaters as the West Berlin Schaubühne has unmistakably risen to the top rank of world theater.

An often almost overwhelming zeal for experimentation characterizes much of what one sees today on the principal German metropolitan stages; the provinces take fewer chances. Freed from the constraints of commercial considerations, current German dramaturgy tends to nurture work that is generally more ambiguous than anything on the English-language stage. Postwar German dramatists have also placed considerable emphasis on a point of view stemming from a keen sense of historical consciousness. …

All three of these books illuminate a theater culture that promises to become steadily more important in the United States. Sebald's collection of essays assumes little familiarity with the plays under discussion and thus can serve as something of a primer. Weber's solid translations of Heiner Müller's richly layered plays [in The Battle and Explosion of Memory] will almost certainly form the foundation for the further evolution of Müller's American reputation.

Principal Works

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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 Saturn: Eine Englische Wallfahrt [The Rings of Saturn] (novel) 1995

Die Ausgewanderten [The Emigrants] (novel) 1992

Logis in einem Landhaus: Uber Gottfried Keller, Johann Peter Hebel, Robert Walser und Andere (essays) 1998

Luftkrieg und Literatur: mit einem Essay zu Alfred Andersch [On the Natural History of Destruction] (essays) 1999

Austerlitz (novel) 2001

For Years Now: Poems [illustrated by Tess Jaray] (poetry) 2001

After Nature (poetry) 2003

Sidney Rosenfeld (review date winter 1992)

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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 German-language writing. But whether Sebald is dealing in his separate interpretations with them, or with Karl Postl, Leopold Kompert, Karl Emil Franzos, Peter Altenberg, or Gerhard Roth, his focus on the specifically Austrian social determinants of their alienation from their “unheimliche Heimat” yields fruitful results. That seven of the ten writers he treats were Jews (or of Jewish background) is intrinsic to the theme, for no other group within the monarchy and later republic was more closely bound to the ideal of “Heimat” in its particular Austrian expression; and, as Sebald shows, these writers responded to their life situations as Austrians with an unusually probing mixture of ardent loyalty and criticism.

The author, a Germanist at the University of East Anglia, writes deftly and with clear inner involvement, all the while maintaining a salutary critical attitude toward the writers under view. At times I found myself disturbed by eight-line sentences and what seems a rather conscious indulgence in Austrianisms, but these reservations are more than offset by the sparkling insights and reading pleasure that Sebald provides at his impressive best. A book such as this will find its natural readership among teachers and advanced students of Austrian literature. Both to them and to the academic libraries that serve them, I recommend it most warmly. The serious lay reader as well will find more than enough new discovery and inspiration in Sebald's essays to warrant them a place on his or her bookshelf.

Andrea Reiter (review date July 1993)

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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 clearly from German, in particular West German, literature. One of the more important of these was Ulrich Greiner's Der Tod des Nachsommers (Munich: Hanser, 1979), which detected the Austrian character in the ‘Wirklichkeitsverweigerung und Handlungsverzicht’; these qualities are rooted in the absence of political engagement, which dates back as far as the end of the Josephine era and is detectable in Austrian writings right up to the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy in 1919. Stifter's œuvre is seen as the model which, albeit in a modified way, exercises its influence even in the post-war generation of writers.

The most recent attempt to find a common denominator of Austrian literature is presented in W. G. Sebald's latest volume of collected essays, published under the witty title Unheimliche Heimat. An earlier collection, Die Beschreibung des Unglücks (Salzburg: Residenz, 1985), was noteworthy for its exemplary analysis of the personalities of some Austrian writers. This time, however, the approach is sociological rather than psychological. Sebald is interested in the way the concept of ‘Heimat’ is treated by writers born in Austria. He is not, however, concerned with ‘Heimatliteratur’ as such (that is to say, with the highly ideological celebration of ‘das flache Land’) but with writers whose relationship to their native land was, and remains, a problematic one. Having lived in exile himself for many years, Sebald, born in the Austrian enclave of Kleines Walsertal and the author of a recent, well-received novel himself (Schwindel, Gefühle (Frankfurt a.M.: Eichborn, 1990)), takes a special interest in the literature of exiled writers, including those who have chosen a kind of exile within Austria: for example, Gerhard Roth and Peter Handke.

Although his approach is somewhat less systematic than Greiner's, Sebald illustrates his thesis in much the same way, with a number of essays on a variety of writers. He digs up some lesser names such as Charles Sealsfield, Karl Emil Franzos, or Leopold Kompert. His list of subjects includes the essays of Jean Améry, and Hermann Broch's controversial Bergroman (see also David Horrocks, ‘The Novel as Parable of Nation Socialism: On the Political Significance and Status of Hermann Broch's Bergroman’, MLR, 86 (1991), 361-71), but disappointingly fails to include any work by a woman writer. Ilse Aichinger's Die gröβere Hoffnung would have merited inclusion, since it is a better illustration of Sebald's thesis than Bergroman. On the other hand, it would have been a pity to leave out the essay on Broch because it is such a brilliant explanation of the book's shortcomings, which turn the original ambitious intentions of its author into their exact opposite.

At least two other essays should be mentioned for their memorable argumentation: those on Gerhard Roth's Landläufiger Tod and on Peter Handke's Die Wiederholung. Sebald's almost personal engagement with his texts appears to tell us more about himself, rather than offering a dispassionate approach to literary criticism. Drawing on post-structuralist theories, in particular on those of Lévi-Strauss, he praises Roth's overwhelming poetic imagination for its mythological dimension. It is in the accumulation of the apparently diverse images that reality becomes apparent. Handke's latest writings are even better known than Roth's for cherishing notoriously overlooked and underestimated ‘unspectacular’ aspects of the Creation. Handke has perfected an eye for seeking out and celebrating these moments, which has earned him a mixed reception among critics. Sebald exemplarily defends Handke's metaphysical turn in Die Wiederholung without, however, showing its roots in such earlier works as Der kurze Brief zum langen Abschied (1972).

His book is a collection of essays in the true sense: an attempt to use writing as a way of organizing and clarifying his reading impressions. The result is always engaging: whether he depicts the milieu of the stetl or contemplates Altenberg's Vienna, he draws his readers to these places with the force of a novelist. However, at times his polished style seems in danger of becoming an end in itself, and occasionally, some anglicism inadvertently appears: for example, ‘erinnern’ used as a transitive verb, the noun ‘Konjektur’, which Duden lists as old-fashioned.

Further Reading

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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.

Eder believes Sebald's literary style displays inventive genius in Vertigo.

Eshel, Amir. “Against the Power of Time: The Poetics of Suspension in W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz.New German Critique 88 (winter 2003): 71-86.

Examines Sebald's subversion of chronological time and modernist notions of narrative, consciousness, and historical knowledge in Austerlitz.

Gussow, Mel. “W. G. Sebald, Elegiac German Novelist, Is Dead at 57.” New York Times (15 December 2001): C16.

Obituary that recounts Sebald's life, career, and literary works.

Harris, Stefanie. “The Return of the Dead: Memory and Photography in W. G. Sebald's Die Ausgewanderten.

Examines Sebald's incorporation of photographic illustrations to supplement and enhance his narrative allusions to the Holocaust in The Emigrants.

Heinegg, Peter. “Memory's Martyr.” Cross Currents 52, no. 1 (spring 2002): 126-29.

Provides a posthumous overview of Sebald's literary works and thematic concerns.

Hoffman, Eva. “Curiosity and Catastrophe.” New York Times Book Review (22 September 2002): 10.

A positive review of After Nature in which Hoffman praises the beauty and maturity of Sebald's early writing.

Iyer, Pico. “Dead Man Writing.” Harper's Magazine 301, no. 1805 (October 2000): 86-90.

Review of Vertigo providing a summary of Sebald's literary style and preoccupation with death.

Jones, Malcolm. “Blending Fact with Fiction.” Newsweek 138, no. 19 (5 November 2001): 66.

Positive review of Austerlitz in which Jones praises the haunting beauty of Sebald's idiosyncratic narrative style.

Kakutani, Michiko. “In a No Man's Land of Memories and Loss.” New York Times (26 October 2001): E2.

Positive review of Austerlitz in which Kakutani lauds Sebald's investigations of the past.

Lubow, Arthur. “Preoccupied with Death, but Still Funny.” New York Times (11 December 2001): E1.

Provides an overview of Sebald's literary career and artistic preoccupations upon the publication of Austerlitz.

Wolff, Larry. “When Memory Speaks.” New York Times Book Review (30 March 1997): 19.

Wolff praises Sebald's profound meditation on twentieth-century history in The Emigrants.

Additional coverage of Sebald's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: British Writers Supplement, Vol. 8; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 159, 202; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 98; and Literature Resource Center.

Philip Brady (review date 12 July 1996)

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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 light can penetrate” and a transparence that can increase “to the extent that insights thin out the vegetation of the soul”. And behind the ambiguity, he finds something unsettling: photographs fail in their “attempt to banish the recollection of death”. While Kracauer muses, letting a photograph generate ideas, the German writer, W. G. Sebald uses photographs as narrative material. In The Emigrants, they function as key memorabilia in a complex recovery of four personal histories. The result is a striking mixture of fact, alleged fact, and fantasy, punctuated by often hazy, artless snapshots. It has much of the ambiguity that Kracauer found so arresting and it has a great deal of the “recollection of death” that the photographic image and indeed other modes of retrieval fail to banish.

Sebald, educated in Germany but living for over a quarter of a century in England, is himself an emigrant. A succession of works—poems in the late 1980s, three prose works since 1990—have been enthusiastically received in German-speaking countries. There have been narrative poems, modern in their avoidance of “poetic” gesturing, unmodern perhaps in their attention to historical detail. These have included a long exploration of the life of a mid-eighteenth-century German theologian-turned-scientist who joined the nightmare expedition of Vitus Bering; a scrutiny that is both atmospheric and meticulously observant of the world of the painter, Grünewald; a journey to Manchester with its “wasted elysian fields” and its “dead mythic rivers” and a wrecked Heldentenor singing Wagner in Liston's Music Hall. And there have been three prose narratives: first, in 1990, Schwindel, Gefuhle, an intricate linked sequence of four narratives in which history—Stendhal and Kafka in Italy, recent serial killings in Verona, Sebald in his German birthplace—is overlaid with visions (Dante glimpsed in Vienna, King Ludwig II of Bavaria in Venice) and with the confusions and the changing moods of a narrator. That narrator is clearly Sebald himself, who shifts in and out of focus as he meanders in haunted fashion in Vienna and Venice, loses a passport in Italy or ferrets out with unnerving persistence a multitude of private worlds in his own South German birthplace. In his third and most recent book, Die Ringe des Saturn—Eine englische Wallfahrt (The Rings of Saturn—an English Pilgrimage, 1991), Sebald is more unswervingly at the centre of a journey through Suffolk, through physical landscapes which mesmerize and inspire him, through mental landscapes peopled by Roger Casement, Sir Thomas Browne, and embracing dreams, recollections of the silk-industry in Germany and Italy and a multitude of fascinating, deftly negotiated twists and turns out from Suffolk into a rich past and a wider world.

The Emigrants, the second of Sebald's three narratives and the first to be translated into English, is in more than a convenient chronological sense half way between the elusively centred Schwindel, Gefuhle and the more linear structure of Die Ringe des Saturn; between, as the titles suggest, vertiginous feelings on the one hand and a pilgrimage on the other. Its four parts concern four distinct figures, connected not only by their shared, if richly varied emigrant status but also by their links with Sebald: an old doctor outside Norwich from whom he rents a flat; a childhood teacher whose death is reported; a great-uncle seen only once but part of a rediscovered network of relatives; a painter hidden away in Manchester where Sebald first lived in the first phase of his emigration. All four have variously withdrawn. The doctor counts the blades of grass on his lawn; the teacher is reported to have spent hours “gazing at the greenery that burgeoned all around”, as he went blind, “soon all he could see were fragmented and shattered images”; the great uncle ends his days “waiting for the butterfly man” (Nabokov is a ghostly presence more than once) and attended by a doctor whose self-characterization could stand for all Sebald's figures: “I no longer concern myself with what goes on in the so-called real world. No doubt I am now, in some sense, mad; but, as you may know, these things are merely a question of perspective.” Max Ferber, the painter in Manchester, is the closest that Sebald comes to a familiar species of emigrant—he is the son of deported Jewish parents whose deaths he discovers only much later. He too has withdrawn into “self-imposed seclusion”.

All four emigrants end wretchedly; two kill themselves, two waste away. Personal tragedies are reconstructed through surviving records—diaries and jottings, the recollections of others—but above all by Sebald's blend of empathy, distance and imagination. Shadowy figures emerge from their obscure private worlds to become vivid, memorable, three-dimensional characters, and yet Sebald's business is more than character-portrayal. The rejoining of scattered remains is a fraught matter—and an endlessly fascinating one—because memory cannot be steered and kept on course, and because the past invades uncontrollably. When, for example, Sebald himself walks around Manchester he is “frightened to death” by seagulls rushing off a high building; he sees—very sharply—what is around him, but is distracted by memory:

the sight of the Ordsall slaughterhouse absurdly brought to my mind the name of Baeberlin & Metzger, the Nuremberg Lebkuchen makers; whereupon that name promptly stuck in my head, a bad joke of sorts, and continued to knock about there for the rest of the day.

That kind of disruptive recollection is a part of the narrative of The Emigrants because, for all its waywardness, it has its own kind of authenticity. It is a part of the record. And dreams are another part. Ferber, he tells Sebald, dreamt once (“he could not say whether by day or by night”) of opening the Trafford Park Exhibition in 1887 with Queen Victoria—“hand in hand with the fat Queen who gave off an unsavoury odour”. They passed through a trompe-l'oeil door into Ferber's parents' drawing-room. At this point, Sebald inserts a photograph of an ornate Victorian drawing-room, using the photograph to redirect a circuitous act of recollection. Dreams and hard facts interact; retracing his dead great-uncle, Sebald travels to Deauville, and there he dreams of arriving in 1913 at Le Havre in an ocean steamer, listing a vast number of aristocrats who flit through his dream. But the dream is preceded by his own observations, in 1991, of an undreamed Deauville, whose atmosphere is rooted in things seen (and recaptured, moreover, in Michael Hulse's resourceful and sensitive translation). It is a place where closed window shutters

will open slightly, and a hand will appear and shake out a duster, fearfully slowly, so that one inevitably concludes that the whole of Deauville consists of gloomy interiors where womenfolk, condemned to perpetual invisibility and eternal dusting, move soundlessly about, waiting for the moment when they can signal with their dusters to some passer-by. …

Where records fail, people are silent or dreams are missing, the imagination takes over. Sebald's old schoolmaster, unheard of for years, kills himself by lying down on a railway track. Nobody was there:

I imagined him skating in winter, alone on the fish ponds at Moosbach; and I imagined him stretched out on the track. As I pictured him, he had taken off his spectacles and put them on the ballast stones by his side. The gleaming bands of steel, the crossbars of the sleepers, the spruce trees on the hillside above the village of Altstadten, the arc of the mountains he knew so well, were a blur before his short-sighted eyes, smudged out in the gathering dusk.

Yet—a further twist—even that kind of imagining can be a “wrongful trespass”.

In his autobiography, Nabokov sees memory as a “robust reality” that “makes a ghost of the present”. The realities that Sebald uncovers are rarely “robust”. Memory can indeed, as his great-uncle's diary puts it, be destabilizing: “Memory”, he added in a postscript, “often strikes me as a kind of dumbness. It makes one's head heavy and giddy.” The giddiness is there, beautifully held in check. But there's no sign of dumbness in Sebald's multitude of moods and voices. Memory—if it is one single thing at all—is a kind of eloquence.

Martin Chalmers (review date 12 July 1996)

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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 of Sebald, explores the wastelands of the city. He stumbles on an artist's studio in some otherwise deserted buildings by the docks. The artist is a German-Jewish émigré, Max Gerber. They talk, walk in the Manchester murk, and the student watches the artist at work.

More than 20 years later, now an academic but still in England, the former student reads a magazine article about Ferber's belated success. He visits him, still in the same studio, and only now does the narrator learn the full extent of Ferber's tragedy. He was put on a plane to England in 1939, while his parents were sent to their deaths in November 1941.

Ferber presses on the narrator the hand-written memoirs his mother Luisa composed about her childhood and youth. This story within the story is a remarkable and touching account of Jewish life around the turn of the century in the small German village of Steinach and in the nearby spa of Bad Kissingen. The memoir climaxes in the summer of 1913 with Luisa's engagement to a Gentile—a French-horn player—who soon dies of a stroke. She never gets over the death.

A second story, “Ambros Adelwarth”, has as its subject the narrator's great uncle, who emigrated to America in the early 1900s after training as a servant in the great hotels of Switzerland. He is employed as a companion to Cosmo Solomon, son of one of the wealthiest New York Jewish bankers, and they travel across Europe and the Near East. The first world war, however, seems to pitch the unstable Cosmo into madness and he dies without recovering.

Ambrose (as he has become) loved Cosmo and the latter's death overshadowed his life, even though he continued as butler to the Solomons. On retirement he falls into deep depression, and commits himself to the same home in which Cosmo died. Again there is a story within a story. The narrator is given a diary kept by Ambrose. It records a journey the pair made in 1913 from Trieste to Constantinople and Palestine, with extraordinary descriptions of cities, not least of Jerusalem in abject decay. Ambrose's story ends by evoking memory as “a kind of dumbness. It makes one's head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspective of time, but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.”

That is a giddy-making vantage point for sure. But it is also an angel's perspective. It recalls that angel who, in Walter Benjamin's “Ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History”, sees progress as “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.” One can read Sebald's marvellous book, with its documents, photographs and reported speech, as a debate with the immigrant Benjamin's arguments on history, progress and memory. If we can no longer dare to share Benjamin's hopes, we can still believe with him that “nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history”. To ensure that, we need stories like those of The Emigrants.

Carole Angier (review date 17 August 1996)

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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 embodies this theme. It is quiet and understated, and it has taken us three years (and three German prizes) to translate it. But I think it may be a masterpiece.

It begins—not on page one, but internally—from the central fact of German life since the war: the need not to remember the Third Reich. The narrator, who like W. G. Sebald lives in his own exile in England, tells of the recovery of German memory by four exiles, after lifetimes of forgetting. And one of the things that makes The Emigrants an unconsoling masterpiece is that this recovery is not only the rebirth it is post-Freudianly meant to be, but also a re-death: a recognition that some pain is simply too bad to face.

Among them the four narratives cover various German exiles—Jewish and non-Jewish (or part-Jewish), wartime and prewar. They move like memory itself—not logically or openly, but mysteriously, through images, echoes and accidents. The opening story, ‘Dr Henry Selwyn', sounds the notes which the others will pick up and develop. Its first hint that Dr Selwyn is not what he seems is the way his house reminds the narrator of the false front of a French château he'd once seen. He moves into the house himself; and discovers that behind its hollow walls are servants' passageways, in which ‘the shadows of the servants were perpetually flitting past’—just as the shadowy memories flit behind the walls of Dr Selwyn's skull.

One night Selwyn tells him of the loss of a friend, an alpine guide called Johannes Naegeli, whose death in 1914 had plunged him into a deep depression, ‘as if I was buried under snow and ice’. Only months later does he tell him his real loss and his real name. Many years after that the narrator reads in a newspaper that the Oberaar glacier has finally yielded up the remains of Johannes Naegeli. ‘And so they are ever returning to us, the dead,’ Sebald writes, from the snow and ice of forgetting.

The next is the saddest story, that of Paul Bereyter, who was one-quarter Jewish but ‘German to the marrow’; who could neither love nor leave Germany, and whose only way out was the same as Dr Selwyn's. The third is the most mysterious: the story of Ambros Adelwarth, Sebald's own great-uncle, who left Germany in 1900 at the age of 14 and became a gentleman's gentleman, in every sense of the phrase. It is not clear what is behind Uncle Adelwarth's longing for extinction, but his story is full of clues, not only to his own pain but to all the others': his mad employer's visions of war, and their journey together to Jerusalem; and his nephew Kasimir's standing on the American coast, saying, ‘It makes me feel that I am a long way away, though I never quite know from where.’

The last is the story of Max Ferber, a Manchester artist who works by scratching the thick paint off his canvasses instead of spreading it on, and who says that his real product is the dust that this creates. Though he has not changed his name, he too hides his true story, which the narrator only begins to learn by accident 20 years later. This sends him on a journey into his own past and Ferber's, which pulls together all the notes and clues of the earlier narratives in a final resolving movement.

With its artist hero, this is a story about art. And its conclusion is as ambivalent as the one about memory: that literature, for instance, is as much torment as liberation for the teller, as much reduction as celebration of the told. It is what Ferber says about his mother's memoirs: heart-breaking but necessary work, ‘the remembering, writing and reading’. It is like the last extraordinary image of the salt-frames on the river at Bad Kissingen, in which the mineral water dissolves the hanging twigs, but reproduces them in crystallised form.

This vision of art is especially distilled in an image which links all four narratives: a man with a butterfly net, who is first Dr Selwyn, later a madman, and finally an unnamed Russian boy, but who is always also Vladimir Nabokov, the supreme artist of exile and memory. All the images of exile culminate in ‘Max Ferber’; and here too the central loss is identified as the Jewish one. We know why Ferber feels at home in Manchester, with its echoes of Lodz (‘the polski Manczester’) and its smoking chimneys; and we remember Uncle Adelwarth's description of the destruction of Jerusalem, until nothing remained ‘but dry stone and a remote idea in the heads of its people’.

If I have made The Emigrants sound too abstract, I should add that we see its images, in photographs which are part of the artistry and originality of the text. If I have made it sound too gloomy, I should add that it is shot through with a subtle and Grimm humour. It is exquisitely written and exquisitely translated, and I think we should give both author and translator a few prizes ourselves. In a dream which unites the themes of memory, art and Jewish loss, Max Ferber sees an exact model of the Temple of Solomon by a ghetto craftsman, and recognises a true work of art. This is an image of what Sebald himself has achieved.

Richard Eder (review date 27 October 1996)

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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.

The fictional narrator, like Sebald, was born in Germany in 1944, immigrated to Britain and teaches at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. The resemblance provides a framework of apparent fact. The narrator's stories—of his Norwich neighbor, a retired doctor who shoots himself; of a teacher who, at 73, lies down in front of a train: of his great-uncle, who wastes away in a psychiatric establishment in upstate New York; and of an old artist whose fatal lung disease stems from an obsessive painting technique—all begin as an ostensible mix of remembrance and biographical investigation.

Bit by bit, the external details acquire the colors of poetic introspection. Sifting his subjects' lives, the Sebald-narrator has, like a tomb excavator, been taken over by the dead men's ghosts. Each account is profusely illustrated by old postcards, family portraits, snapshots. As do all such scrapbook memorabilia, the faces that peer from the class pictures, excursions, holidays and eavesdropped intimacies bear two opposite messages: “I am”—and “I no longer am.”

Even more significant than the deaths are the truncated parabolas that precede them. Each of the émigrés—two left Germany decades before the advent of the Nazis—displays a vital energy and earns some kind of success in the first years. Then there is a break or an undermining: a nervous collapse or slow extinguishment.

These are removed in space or time from the Holocaust—the great-uncle's decline is a foreshadowing, in fact—but its depredation attains them, dreamlike and almost invisible. Sebald's fascinating, beautifully written (and translated) novel makes the invisible visible and submerges us in the dreams.

The first story is the narrator's casual introduction to what will become a series of quests. Looking for a place to live in Norwich, he explores a large house with a series of secluded gardens and outbuildings. Lying on the lawn is an old man, who rises apologetically: “I was counting the grass,” he explains. A facetious excuse; we will see it in retrospect as a presage of death.

It is characteristic of Sebald's method: The stories are sprightly, intensely alive, curiously and sometimes divertingly detailed. Infection drifts in imperceptibly. It is a tragic darkening, but we would not be able to perceive it properly without the buoyancies and lightenings of the stories themselves.

The 79-year-old Henry Selwyn becomes the narrator's landlord and neighbor. His story is seemingly undramatic. His family immigrated to England at the turn of the century. He studied medicine, married a wealthy Swiss woman and lived extravagantly for many years. From 1940 he began a depressive decline, gradually abandoned his practice and spent more and more time in reverie about an old Alpine guide who befriended him in his youthful mountain trips and later vanished in an ice crevice.

Selwyn has become increasingly distant from his own life. His eventual suicide is almost a detail. It is the image of the icy mountains and the obsession with the dead Swiss guide that lead us into the soul of this old man who anglicized his name and never mentions the six million other deaths that inhabit his cells like a genetic code.

The narrator, himself a Jew born in Germany in 1944 and raised there—we never learn how his parents survived—learns of another death. At 73, his third-grade teacher, Paul Bereyter, has laid himself down in front of an oncoming train.

Bereyter grew up in the prewar period feeling exuberantly German. He loved the language and the culture, he went on soulful hikes, he trained to be a teacher to impart these things. In 1935, just after receiving his first assignment, he was discharged because he was one-quarter Jewish.

It broke his heart; he spent the next few years in France as a tutor, but when war began he returned to join the army, which took him for his 7[frac12] pints of Aryan blood and ignored the other two-and-a-half. After the war, he returned to his hometown and became a brilliant and beloved teacher. It was resuming a love affair in the face of monstrous betrayal. Over the years, his effort to ignore what Germany had done became too much for him; he retired to live in France.

A single image foreshadows the suicide and suggests the repressed memory that attended his effort to be German. Like Selwyn, he never spoke of the death camps but in class he would draw trains and tracks. “Railways always meant a great deal to him,” observed the Frenchwoman who was Bereyter's companion. “Perhaps he felt they were headed to death.”

The most complex and ghostly account is that of the narrator's Great-Uncle Ambrose. He immigrates to the United States early in the century and goes to work for one of the great Jewish American families. He becomes the companion to the wastrel heir, Cosmo—also his lover—and accompanies him in his manic gambling trips to pre-World War I Deauville.

It is a hallucinatory story of excess, followed by an even more hallucinatory visit to Jerusalem, pictured as a dead city of monuments and boneyards standing frozen in moonlight. Cosmos' mad euphoria and Ambrose's subsequent depressive decline—both die in an asylum—are prophetic fever signals of the century's mortal illness.

The final story tells of Ferber, an émigré painter in the devastated, once flourishing center of industrial Manchester. Ferber, whose parents died in Theresienstadt, works feverishly in thick layers of charcoal, choking the air of his studio. As other artists paint light, the narrator says, Ferber painted dust. Painter and city—both are emblems of the death of civilizations.

Sebald weaves recurring images through these stories, so convergent in theme and so ingeniously varied in method. The Swiss Alps appear in three of them, with their lofty inhuman view of the world below and their country's cold isolation from the horrors around it. All four contain fleeting glimpses of Vladimir Nabokov with his butterfly net: in the Alps, on a meadow near Cornell, where he taught, and as a little boy at a German spa.

Why Nabokov? I am not sure. Some of the images in Sebald's brilliant and somber book work inexplicably. This one is arbitrary, on the face of it, but it doesn't feel that way. Its playfulness both lightens and illuminates. Nabokov, whose liberal father was assassinated by Russian émigré extremists, steps out of another dark history, portly and pursuing butterflies. Sebald has fashioned a net of his own.

Dennis Drabelle (review date 15 December 1996)

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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 uprooted German Jews.

W. G. Sebald's subject, then, is not the Holocaust per se but the loss of home suffered by some German Jews (the astute, the ostensibly lucky) in fleeing the increasingly hateful climate that preceded the Final Solution. Each episode is named for its principal actor, who is male (although about half the text of the fourth episode comes from a mother's memoirs). In addition to their theme, the episodes are held together by the actors' ties of blood or friendship to the narrator. Ambros Adelwarth, for example, was Sebald's great-uncle, and Max Ferber was an older friend from the narrator's sojourn in Manchester, England, as a young man in the mid-1960s.

Neither assimilated nor redoubtably clannish, in some cases not at all religious, Sebald's characters wanted merely to be at ease with their Jewishness and their Germanness—an impossibility. In the excerpt from her memoirs, Luiza Lanzberg, Max Ferber's mother, provides most of the book's details from the texture of German-Jewish life: the round of autumn holidays, from Rosh Hashanah to the Feast of the Tabernacles; “the silver menora which is required on Friday evenings and for which Papa cuts paper cuffs especially every time, to prevent the wax dripping from the candles”; the teacher in the Jewish school whose birthday happens to fall on Hanukkah and who pretends not to notice the children decorating the room and placing a gift on his desk (“on one occasion it was a red velvet blanket, and once a copper hot-water bottle”); the summer arrival of Russian Jews at a German spa town because “Jews were not allowed at watering places in Russia.”

Yet Luisa is the one who fell in love with a Gentile, a horn player in the spa orchestra. Her father balked, but her mother interceded. Soon the girl was engaged. Her fiance died suddenly before they could be married; during World War I she loved and lost another Gentile before finally marrying a Jew brought to the family by a marriage broker. Years later, the couple managed to get their son, Max, out of Germany in time but never made good on their plan to join him. Deported from Munich to Riga in 1941, they “were subsequently murdered there.”

In England, Ferber became an artist. And in some strange, almost viscerally comprehensible way, his work habits seemed of a piece with his loss of home and family. The man was an admitted lover of dust. “He felt closer to dust, he said, than to light, air or water. There was nothing he found so unbearable as a well-dusted house, and he never felt more at home than in places where things remained undisturbed, muted under the grey, velvety sinter [sediment] left when matter dissolved, little by little, into nothingness. And indeed, when I watched Ferber working on one of his portrait studies over a number of weeks, I often thought that his prime concern was to increase the dust. He drew with vigorous abandon, frequently going through half a dozen of his willow-wood charcoal sticks in the shortest of time; and that process of drawing and shading on the thick, leathery paper, as well as the concomitant business of constantly erasing what he had drawn with a woolen rag already heavy with charcoal, really amounted to nothing but a steady production of dust …”

Although each of the four episodes is unique, the plight of Ambros Adelwarth seems emblematic. In late middle age he became so depressed that he checked himself into a sanitarium in upstate New York, from which he never emerged. Visiting the United States in order to learn more about his uncle, the narrator talks with Adelwarth's psychiatrist, who remembers the patient as follows: “Even when he was simply standing at the window looking out he always gave the impression of being filled with some appalling grief. I do not think that I have ever met a more melancholy person than your great-uncle; every casual utterance, every gesture, his entire deportment (he held himself erect until the end), was tantamount to a constant pleading for leave of absence.”

Adelwarth's “appalling grief” derived from multiple alienations. He was homosexual (“of the other persuasion,” as a relative puts it) and, after emigrating, lived a Remains of the Day life as major domo to a rich Jewish family on Long Island. (“I always felt sorry for him,” remarks that same relative, “because he could never, his whole life long, permit anything to ruffle his composure.”) And also, of course, he was a Jew during the first half of the 20th century.

The author, W. G. Sebald, was born in Germany in 1944 and has lived in England since 1970. The Emigrants has won several awards, among them the Berlin Literature Prize. As I trust my quotations bear witness, Michael Hulse's translation is a gem, providing one of those rare occasions when the reader doesn't sense a stylistic letdown between the original and English versions. The photographs are uniformly good—the narrator's extended family must have been blessed with an uncommon number of snapshot artists.

These are grim stories, made bearable and beautiful by the narrator's restless urge to gather and tell them and by the evident rapport between the author and his translator.

Cynthia Ozick (review date 16 December 1996)

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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 facticity, we learn from the copyright page that the date of the original German publication is 1993, and that the initials W. G. represent Winfried Georg. A meager paragraph supplies a handful of biographical notes: the author was born in Wertach im Allgäu, Germany; he studied German language and literature in Freiburg (where, one recalls, Heidegger's influence as rector of the university, despite his earlier Nazi affiliations, extended well into the 1970s), and later in Francophone Switzerland and in Manchester, England, where he began a career in British university teaching. Two dates stand out: Sebald's birth in 1944, an appalling year for all of Europe, and for European Jews a death's-head year; and 1970, when, at the age of 26, Sebald left his native Germany and moved permanently to England.

It cannot be inappropriate to speculate why. One can imagine that in 1966, during the high period of Germany's “economic miracle,” when Sebald was (as that meagerly informative paragraph tells us) a very young assistant lecturer at the University of Manchester, he may have encountered a romantic attachment that finally lured him back to Britain; or else he came to the explicit determination, with or without any romantic attachment (yet he may, in fact, have fallen in love with the pathos of soot-blackened Manchester), that he would anyhow avoid the life of a contemporary German. The life of a contemporary German: I observe, though from a non-visitor's distance, and at so great a remove now from those twelve years of intoxicated popular zeal for Nazism, that such a life is somehow still touched with a smudge, or taint, of the old shameful history; and that the smudge, or taint—or call it, rather, the little tic of self-consciousness—is there all the same, whether it is regretted or repudiated, examined or ignored, forgotten or relegated to a principled indifference. Even the youngest Germans traveling abroad, especially in New York, know what it is to be made to face, willy-nilly, a history of national crime, however long receded and repented.

For a German citizen to live with 1944 as a birth date is reminder enough. Mengele stood that year on the ramp at Auschwitz, lifting the omnipotent gloved hand that dissolved Jewish families: mothers, babies and the old to the chimneys, the rest to the slave labor that temporarily forestalled death. Ah, and it is sentences like this last one that present-day Germans, thriving in a democratic Western polity, resent and decry. A German professor of comparative literature accused me not long ago—thanks to a sentence like that—of having a fossilized mind, of being unable to recognize that a nation “develops and moves on.” Max Ferber, the painter-protagonist of the final tale in Sebald's quartet, might also earn that professor's fury. “To me, you see,” Sebald quotes Ferber, “Germany is a country frozen in the past, destroyed, a curiously extraterritorial place.” It is just this extraterritorialism—this ineradicable, inescapable, ever-recurring, hideously retrievable 1944—that Sebald investigates, though veiled and at a slant, in The Emigrants. And it was, I suspect, not the democratic Germany of the economic miracle from which Sebald emigrated in 1970; it may have been, after all, the horribly frozen year of his birth that he meant to leave behind.

That he did not relinquish his native language or its literature goes without saying; and we are indebted to Michael Hulse, Sebald's translator (himself a poet), for allowing us to see, through the stained glass of his consummate Englishing, what must surely be the most delicately powerful German prose since Thomas Mann. Or, on second thought, perhaps not Mann really, despite a common attraction to the history-soaked. Mann on occasion can be as heavily ornate as those carved mahogany sideboards and wardrobes—vestiges of proper German domesticity abandoned by the fleeing Jews—which are currently reported to add a certain glamorous middle-'30s tone to today's fashionable Berlin apartments. Sebald is more translucent than Mann. He writes as Turner paints: “To the south, lofty Mount Spathi, two thousand metres high, towered above the plateau, like a mirage beyond the flood of light. The fields of potatoes and vegetables across the broad valley floor, the orchards and clumps of other trees, and the untilled land, were awash with green upon green, studded with the hundreds of white sails of wind pumps.” Notably, this is not a landscape viewed by a fresh and naked eye. It is, in fact, a verbal rendering of an old photograph—a slide shown by a projector on a screen.

An obsession with old photographs is what separates Sebald from traces of Mann, from Turner's hallucinatory mists, from the winding reflections of Proust (with whom, in his freely searching musings and paragraphs wheeling cumulatively over pages, Sebald has been rightly compared), and even from the elusively reappearing shade of Nabokov. The four narratives recounted in The Emigrants are each accompanied by superannuated poses captured by obsolete cameras; in their fierce time-bound isolations they suggest nothing so much as Diane Arbus. And, wittingly or not, Sebald evokes Henry James as well, partly for his theme of expatriation, and partly on account of the mysterious stillness inherent in photography's icy precision. In the late New York edition of his work, James eschewed illustration, that nineteenth-century standby, and turned instead to the unsentimental fixity of photography's Time and Place, or Place-in-Time. In Sebald's choosing to incorporate so many photos (I count eighty-six in 237 pages of text)—houses, streets, cars, headstones, cobblestones, motionless school-children, mountain crevasses, country roads, posters, roofs, steeples, hotel postcards, bridges, tenements, grand and simple rooms, overgrown gardens—he, like James with his 1909 frontispieces, is acknowledging the uncanny ache that cries out from the silence of solid things. These odd old pictures attach to Sebald's voice like an echo that cannot be heard, no matter how hard one strains; they lie in the crevices of print with a terrible helplessness, deaf-mutes without the capacity to sign.

The heard language of these four stories—memories personal, borrowed, invented—is, as I noted earlier, sublime; and I wish it were not, or, if that is not altogether true, I admit to being disconcerted by a grieving that has been made beautiful. Grief, absence, loss, longing, wandering, exile, homesickness: these have been made millennially, sadly beautiful since the Odyssey, since the Aeneid, since Dante (“You shall come to know how salt is the taste of another's bread”); and, more venerably still, since the Psalmist's song by the waters of Babylon. Nostalgia is itself a lovely and piercing word, and even more so is the German Heimweh, “home-ache.” It is art's sacred ancient trick to beautify pain, to romanticize the shadows of the irretrievable. “O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again”: Thomas Wolfe, too much scorned for boyishness, tolls that bell as mournfully as anyone; but it is an American tolling, not a German one.

Sebald's mourning bell is German, unmistakably German; when it tolls the hour, it is almost always 1944. And if I regret the bittersweet sublime Turner-like wash of Beauty that shimmers over the whole of this volume, it is because sublime grieving is a category of yearning, fit for that which is irretrievable. But 1944 is always, always retrievable. There stands Mengele on the ramp, forever lifting his gloved hand; and there, sent off to the left and the right, are the Jews, going to the left and the right, are the Jews, going to the left and the right forever. Nor is this any intimation of Keats's urn—there are human ashes in it. The posthumous sublime is discordant; an oxymoron. Adorno told us this long ago: after Auschwitz, no more poetry. We resist such a dictum; the Psalmist by the waters of Babylon resisted it; Paul Celan resisted it; Sebald resists it. It is perhaps natural to resist it.

So, in language sublime, Sebald is haunted by Jewish ghosts—Europe's phantoms: the absent Jews, the deported, the gassed, the suffering, the hidden, the fled. There is a not-to-be-overlooked irony (a fossilized irony, my professor-critic might call it) in Sebald's having been awarded the Berlin Literature Prize—Berlin, the native city of Gershom (né Gerhardt) Scholem, who wrote definitively about the one-sided infatuation of Jews in love with high German culture and with the Vaterland itself. The Jewish passion for Germany was never reciprocated—until now. Sebald returns that Jewish attachment, although tragically: he is too late for reciprocity. The Jews for whom he searches are either stricken escapees or smoke. Like all ghosts, they need to be conjured.

Or, if not conjured, then come upon by degrees, gradually, incrementally, in hints and echoes. Sebald allows himself to discover his ghosts almost stealthily, with a dawning notion of who they really are. It is as if he is intruding on them, and so he is cautious, gentle, wavering at the outer margins of the strange places in which he finds them. In “Dr. Henry Selwyn,” as the first narrative is called, the young Sebald and his wife drive out into the English countryside to rent a flat in a wing of an overgrown mansion surrounded by a neglected garden and a park of looming trees. The house seems deserted. Tentatively, they venture onto the grounds and stumble unexpectedly on a white-haired, talkative old man who describes himself as “a dweller in the garden, a kind of ornamental hermit.” By the time we arrive at the end of this faintly Gothic episode, however, we have learned that Dr. Henry Selwyn was once a cheder-yingl, a Jewish schoolchild named Hersch Seweryn in a village near Grodno in Lithuania.

When he was 7 years old his family, including his sisters Gita and Raja, set out for America, like thousands of other impoverished shtetl Jews at the beginning of the century; but “in fact, as we learnt some time later to our dismay (the ship having long since cast off again), we had gone ashore in London.” The boy begins his English education in Whitechapel in the Jewish East End and eventually wins a scholarship to Cambridge to study medicine. Then, like a proper member of his adopted milieu, he heads for the Continent for advanced training, where he becomes—again like a proper Englishman—enamored of a Swiss Alpine guide named Johannes Naegeli. Naegeli tumbles into a crevasse and is killed; Selwyn returns home to serve in the Great War and in India. Later he marries a Swiss heiress who owns houses in England and lets flats. He has now completed the trajectory from Hersch Seweryn to Dr. Henry Selwyn. But one day, when the word “homesick” flies up out of a melancholy conversation with Sebald, Selwyn tells the story of his childhood as a Jewish immigrant.

The American term is immigrant, not emigrant, and for good reason, America being the famous recipient of newcomers: more come in than ever go out. Our expatriates tend to be artists, often writers: hence that illustrious row of highly polished runaways, James, Eliot, Pound, Wharton, Stein, Hemingway. But an expatriate, a willing (sometimes temporary) seeker, is not yet an emigrant. And an emigrant is not a refugee. A cheder-yingl from a shtetl near Grodno in a place and period not kind to Jews is likely to feel himself closer to being a refugee than an emigrant: our familiar steerage image expresses it best. Sebald, of course, knows this and introduces Dr. Selwyn as a type of foreshadowing. Displaced and homesick in old age for the child he once was (or in despair over the man he has become), Dr. Selwyn commits suicide. And on a visit to Switzerland in 1986, Sebald reads in a Lausanne newspaper that Johannes Naegeli's body has been found frozen in a glacier seventy-two years after his fall. “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead,” Sebald writes.

But of exactly what is Dr. Selwyn a foreshadowing? Sebald's second narrative, titled “Paul Bereyter,” is a portrait of a German primary school teacher, Sebald's own teacher in the '50s, “who spent at least a quarter of all his lessons on teaching us things that were not on the syllabus.” Original, inventive, a lover of music, a scorner of catechism and priests, an explorer, a whistler, a walker (“the very image … of the German Wandervogel hiking movement, which must have had a lasting influence on him from his youth”), Paul Bereyter is nevertheless a lonely and increasingly aberrant figure. In the '30s he had come out of a teachers' training college (here a grim photo of the solemn graduates, in their school ties and rather silly caps) and taught school until 1935, when he was dismissed for being a quarter-Jew.

The next year his father, who owned a small department store, died in a mood of anguish over Nazi pogroms in his native Gunzenhausen, where there had been a thriving Jewish population. After the elder Bereyter's death, the business was confiscated; his widow succumbed to depression and a fatal deterioration. Paul's sweetheart, who had journeyed from Vienna to visit him just before he took up his first teaching post, was also lost to him: deported, it was presumed afterward, to Theresienstadt. Stripped of father, mother, inheritance, work and love, Paul fled to tutor in France for a time, but in 1939 drifted back to Germany, where, though only three-quarters Aryan, he was unaccountably conscripted. For six years he served in the motorized artillery all over Nazi-occupied Europe. At the war's end he returned to teach village boys, one of whom was Sebald.

As Sebald slowly elicits his old teacher's footprints from interviews, reconstructed hints and the flickering lantern of his own searching language, Paul Bereyter turns out to be that rare and mysterious figure: an interior refugee (and this despite his part in the German military machine)—or call it, in ominous '30s lingo, an internal emigrant. After giving up teaching—the boys he had once felt affection for he now began to see as “contemptible and repulsive creatures”—he both lived in and departed from German society, inevitably drawn back to it, and just as inevitably repelled.

All his adult life, Sebald discovers, Paul Bereyter had been interested in railways. (The text is now interrupted by what appears to be Paul's own sketch of the local Bahnhof, or station, with the inscription “So ist es seit dem 4.10.1949,” “This is how it has looked since April 10, 1949.”) On the blackboard he draws “stations, tracks, goods depots, and signal boxes” for the boys to reproduce in their notebooks. He keeps a model train set on a card table in his flat. He obsesses about timetables. Later, though his eyesight is troubled by cataracts, he reads demonically—almost exclusively the works of suicides, among them Benjamin, Klaus Mann, Koestler, Zweig, Tucholsky. He copies out, in shorthand, hundreds of their pages. And finally, on a mild winter afternoon, he puts on a windbreaker that he has not worn since his early teaching days forty years before, and goes out to stretch himself across the train tracks, awaiting his own (as it were) deportation. Years after this event, looking through Paul's photo album with its record of childhood and family life, Sebald again reflects: “it truly seemed to me, and still does, as if the dead were coming back”—but now he adds, “or as if we were on the point of joining them.”

Two tales, two suicides. Yet suicide is hardly the most desolating loss in Sebald's broader scheme of losses. And since he comes at things slant, his next and longest account, the history of his aunts and uncles and their emigration to the United States in the 1920s—a period of extreme unemployment in Germany—is at first something of a conundrum. Where, one muses, are those glimmers of the Jewish ghosts of Germany, or any inkling of entanglement with Jews at all? And why, among these steadily rising German-American burghers, should there be? Aunt Fini and Aunt Lina and Uncle Kasimir, Aunt Theres and Cousin Flossie, “who later became a secretary in Tucson, Arizona, and learnt to belly dance when she was in her fifties”: these are garden-variety acculturating American immigrants; we know them; we know the smells of their kitchens; they are our neighbors. (They were certainly mine in my North Bronx childhood.) The geography is familiar—a photo of a family dinner in a recognizable Bronx apartment (sconces on the wall, steam-heat radiators); then the upwardly mobile move to Mamaroneck, in Westchester; then the retirement community in New Jersey. To get to Fini and Kasimir, drive south from Newark on the Jersey Turnpike and head for Lakehurst and the Garden State Parkway. In search of Uncle Adelwarth in his last years: Route 17, Monticello, Hurleyville, Oswego, Ithaca. There are no ghosts in these parts. It is, all of it, plain-hearted America.

But turn the page: here are the ghosts. A photo of Uncle Kasimir as a young man, soon after his apprenticeship as a tinsmith. It is 1928, and only once in that terrible year, Kasimir recounts, did he get work, “when they were putting a new copper roof on the synagogue in Augsburg.” In the photo Kasimir and six other metal workers are sitting at the top of the curve of a great dome. Behind them, crowning the dome, are three large sculptures of the six-pointed Star of David. “The Jews of Augsburg,” explains Kasimir, “had donated the old copper roof for the war effort during the First World War, and it wasn't till '28 that they had the money they needed for a new roof.” Sebald offers no comment concerning the fate of those patriotic Jews and their synagogue a decade on, in 1938, in the fiery hours of the Nazis' so-called Kristallnacht. But Kasimir and the half-dozen tinsmiths perched against a cluster of Jewish stars leave a silent mark in Sebald's prose: what once was is no more.

After the roofing job in Augsburg, Kasimir followed Fini and Theres to New York. They had been preceded by their legendary Uncle Ambros Adelwarth, who was already established as a major domo on the Long Island estate of the Solomon family, where he was in particular charge of Cosmo Solomon, the son and heir. Adelwarth helped place Fini as a governess with the Seligmanns in Port Washington, and Theres as a lady's maid to a Mrs. Wallerstein, whose husband was from Ulm in Germany. Kasimir, meanwhile, was renting a room on the Lower East Side from a Mrs. Litwak, who made paper flowers and sewed for a living. In the autumn, succahs sprouted on all the fire escapes. At first Kasimir was employed by the Seckler & Margarethen Soda and Seltzers Works; Seckler was a German Jew from Brünn, who recommended Kasimir as a metal worker for the new yeshiva on Amsterdam Avenue. “The very next day,” says Kasimir, “I was up on the top of the tower, just as I had been on the Augsburg Synagogue, only much higher.”

So the immigrants, German and Jewish, mingle in America much as Germans and Jews once mingled in Germany, in lives at least superficially entwined. (One difference being that after the first immigrant generation the German-Americans would not be likely to continue as tinsmiths, just as Mrs. Litwak's progeny would hardly expect to take in sewing. The greater likelihood is that a Litwak daughter is belly dancing beside Flossie in Tucson.) And if Sebald means for us to feel through its American parallel how this ordinariness, this matter-of-factness, of German-Jewish coexistence was brutally ruptured in Germany, then he has succeeded in calling up his most fearful phantoms.

Yet his narrative continues as impregnable here as polished copper, evading conclusions of any kind. Even the remarkably stoic tale of Ambros Adelwarth, born in 1896, is left to speak for itself—Adelwarth, who, traveling as valet and protector and probably lover of mad young Cosmo Solomon, dutifully frequented the polo grounds of Saratoga Springs and Palm Beach, and the casinos of Monte Carlo and Deauville, and saw Paris and Venice and Constantinople and the deserts on the way to Jerusalem. Growing steadily madder, Cosmo tried to hang himself and at last succumbed to catatonic dementia. Uncle Adelwarth was obliged to commit him to a sanitorium in Ithaca, New York, where Cosmo died—the same sanitorium to which Adelwarth, with all the discipline of a lifetime, and in a strange act of replication, later delivered himself to paralysis and death.

The yeshiva on Amsterdam Avenue, the Solomons, Seligmanns, Wallersteins, Mrs. Litwak and the succahs on the Lower East Side: this is how Sebald chooses to shape the story of the emigration to America of his Catholic German relations. It is as if the fervor of Uncle Adelwarth's faithful attachment to Cosmo Solomon were somehow a repudiation of Gershom Scholem's thesis of unrequited Jewish devotion; as if Sebald were casting a posthumous spell to undo that thesis.

And now on to Max Ferber, Sebald's final guide to the deeps. Ferber was a painter whom Sebald got to know—“befriended” is too implicated a term for that early stage—when the 22-year-old Sebald came to study and teach in Manchester, an industrially ailing city studded with mainly defunct chimneys, the erstwhile black fumes of which still coated every civic brick. That was in 1966; my own first glimpse of Manchester was nine years before, and I marveled then that an entire metropolis should be so amazingly, universally charred, as if brushed by a passing conflagration. (Later Sebald will tell us that in its bustling heyday Lodz, in Poland—the site of the Lodz Ghetto, a notorious Nazi vestibule for deportation—was dubbed the Polish Manchester, at a time when Manchester, too, was booming and both cities had flourishing Jewish populations.) At 18, Ferber arrived in Manchester to study art and thereafter rarely left.

It was the thousands of Manchester smokestacks, he confided to the newcomer Sebald, that prompted his belief that “I had found my destiny.” “I am here,” he said, “to serve under the chimney.” In those early days Ferber's studio, as Sebald describes it, resembled an ash pit: “when I watched Ferber working on one of his portrait studies over a number of weeks, I often thought that his prime concern was to increase the dust … that process of drawing and shading [with charcoal sticks] on the thick, leathery paper, as well as the concomitant business of constantly erasing what he had drawn with a woollen rag already heavy with charcoal, really amounted to nothing but a steady production of dust.”

And in 1990, when Sebald urgently undertook to search out the life of the refugee Max Ferber and the history of his lost German Jewish family, he seemed to be duplicating Ferber's own pattern of reluctant consummation, overlaid with haltings, dissatisfactions, fears and erasures: “not infrequently I unraveled what I had done, continuously tormented by scruples that were taking tighter hold and steadily paralysing me. These scruples concerned not only the subject of my narrative, which I felt I could not do justice to, no matter what approach I tried, but also the entire questionable business of writing. I had covered hundreds of pages. … By far the greater part had been crossed out, discarded, or obliterated by additions. Even what I ultimately salvaged as a ‘final’ version seemed to me a thing of shreds and patches, utterly botched.”

All this falls out, one imagines, because Sebald is now openly permitting himself to “become” Max Ferber; or, to put it less emblematically, because in these concluding pages he begins to move, still sidling, still hesitating, from the oblique to the head-on; from intimation to declaration. Here, terminally—at the last stop, so to speak—is a full and direct narrative of Jewish exile and destruction, neither hinted at through an account of a loosely parallel flight from Lithuania a generation before, nor obscured by a quarter-Jew who served in Hitler's army, nor hidden under the copper roof of a German synagogue, nor palely limned in Uncle Adelwarth's journey to Jerusalem with a Jewish companion.

Coming on Max Ferber again after a separation of twenty years, Sebald is no longer that uncomprehending nervous junior scholar fresh from a postwar German education: he is middle-aged, an eminent professor in a British university, the author of two novels. And Ferber, nearing 70, is now a celebrated British painter whose work is exhibited at the Tate. The reunion bears unanticipated fruit: Ferber surrenders to Sebald a cache of letters containing what is, in effect, a record of his mother's life, written when the 15-year-old Max had already been sent to safety in England. Ferber's father, an art dealer, and his mother, decorated for tending the German wounded in the First World War, remained trapped in Germany, unable to obtain the visas that would assure their escape. In 1941 they were deported from Munich to Riga in Lithuania, where they were murdered. “The fact is,” Ferber now tells Sebald, “that tragedy in my youth struck such deep roots within me that it later shot up again, put forth evil flowers, and spread the poisonous canopy over me which has kept me so much in the shade and dark.” Thus the latter-day explication of “I am here to serve under the chimney,” uttered decades after the young Sebald loitered, watchful and bewildered, in the exiled painter's ash-heaped studio.

The memoir itself is all liveliness and light. Sebald recreates it lyrically, meticulously—from, as we say, the inside out. It begins with Luisa and Leo Lanzberg, a little brother and sister in the village of Steinach, near Bad Kissingen, where Jews have lived since the 1600s. (“It almost goes without saying,” Sebald interpolates—it is a new note for him—“that there are no Jews in Steinach now, and that those who live there have difficulty remembering those who were once their neighbors and whose homes and property they appropriated, if indeed they remember them at all.”) Friday nights in Steinach juxtapose the silver Sabbath candelabrum with the beloved poems of Heine. The day nursery, presided over by nuns, excuses the Jewish children from morning prayers. On Sabbath afternoons in summer, before the men return to the synagogue, there is lemonade and challah with corned beef. Rosh Hashanah; Yom Kippur; then the succah hung with apples and pears and chains of rose hips. In winter the Jewish school celebrates both Hanukkah and the Reich. Before Passover “the bustle is dreadful.” Father prospers, and the family moves to the middle-class world of Kissingen. (A photo shows the new house: a mansion with two medieval spires. Nevertheless several rooms are rented out.)

And so on and so on: the blessing of the ordinary. Luisa grows into a young woman with suitors; her Gentile fiancé dies suddenly, of a stroke; a matchmaker finds her a Jewish husband, Max's father. “In the summer of 1921,” Ferber's mother writes, “soon after our marriage, we went to the Allgäu … where the scattered villages were so peaceful it was as if nothing evil had ever happened anywhere on earth.” Sebald, we know, was born in one of those villages.

In 1991, fifty years after the memoirist was deported to Riga, Sebald visits Steinach and Kissingen. In the old Jewish cemetery in Kissingen, “a wilderness of graves, neglected for years, crumbling and gradually sinking into the ground amidst tall grass and wild flowers under the shade of trees, which trembled in the slight movement of the air,” he stands before the gravestones and reads the names of the pre-Hitler dead, Auerbach, Grunwald, Leuthold, Seeligmann, Goldstaub, Baumblatt, Blumenthal, and thinks how “perhaps there was nothing the Germans begrudged the Jews so much as their beautiful names, so intimately bound up with the country they lived in and with its language.” He finds a more recent marker: a relative of max Ferber's who, in expectation of the outcome, took her own life. (The third suicide in Sebald's quartet.) And then he flees: “I felt increasingly that the mental impoverishment and lack of memory that marked the Germans, and the efficiency with which they had cleaned everything up, were beginning to affect my head and my nerves.” A sign on the cemetery gates warns that vandals will be prosecuted.

The Emigrants (an ironically misleading title) ends with a mental flash of the Lodz Ghetto: the German occupiers feasting, the cowed Jewish slave laborers, children among them, toiling for their masters. In the conqueror's lens Sebald sees three young Jewish women at a loom and recalls “the daughters of night, with spindle, scissors and thread.” Here, it strikes me, is the only false image in this ruthlessly moving and profoundly honest work dedicated to the recapture of phantoms. In the time of the German night, it was not the Jews who stood in for the relentless Fates, they who rule over life and death. And no one understands this, from the German side, more mournfully, more painfully, than the author of these sad and subterranean re-creations.

Jonathan Coe (review date 20 March 1997)

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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 hundred others: but it would be hard to praise The Emigrants more highly than by saying that it is a supremely tactful book.

Why isn't tact invoked more often, I wonder, in the hierarchy of literary virtues? It can appear in so many different guises: in the kinds of choice that authors make—what they choose to tell, and what they choose to withhold; in their mode of address to the reader, their willingness to allow for the fact that readers come to a book with different expectations, different sensibilities; in their use of material from real life—how carefully they handle the delicate process by which remembered experience (their own and other people's) is transformed into fictional incident; and, of course, in their choice of tone, the establishment of an authorial voice which the reader can recognise and trust.

It's in these last two areas that the peculiar tactfulness of The Emigrants is most apparent. The book frames a large question about memory, asking to what extent it is possible for individuals to live with the memory of enormous suffering, and how it is possible for an entire nation, on the other hand, to forget it so quickly. Its more specific themes are displacement and homesickness, as experienced by a number of characters—some real and some imagined, some Jewish and some not—who are forced to leave their countries of birth and who find it almost (or in some cases entirely) insupportable to settle elsewhere. Sebald's tact—in choosing when to record, and when to invent, and in finding a suitable voice (neither too timid nor too intrusive) in which to register his characters' pain—informs each of the four discrete episodes.

First of all we encounter Henry Selwyn, an old doctor living outside Norwich, in whose house the narrator—Sebald himself—decides to rent a flat. Selwyn is remote, dreamy, abstracted (when Sebald first meets him he is lying on the lawn in the back garden, counting the blades of grass, and explains, ‘It's a sort of pastime of mine’), but one day, quite abruptly, he decides to share his family history, and reveals that he and his parents left their village outside Grodno, Lithuania, in 1899, intending to sail to America but never getting any further than London. Increasingly homesick, and visited in old age by vivid memories of his childhood home and of a youthful walking tour in the Alps in the company of a beloved guide, Johannes Naegeli, he despairs and commits suicide. Years later, Sebald is travelling by train from Zurich to Lausanne, and reads in a newspaper that the body of Johannes Naegeli has been recovered, intact, from the glacier into which he fell 72 years earlier. He writes: ‘And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.’

The second episode also ends in suicide, and tells of Sebald's own schoolteacher in the Fifties, Paul Bereyter. Although only one-quarter Jewish, Bereyter was expelled from his first job in a German primary school in 1935: over the next few months his father died (terrorised by pogroms in his native town of Gunzenhausen), the family business was confiscated, his mother also died and his girlfriend was deported. Bereyter fled to France, then returned to Germany in 1939 only to find himself conscripted. After the war, he went back to his village and taught in the local school, but could never reconcile his conflicting feelings about Germany, became obsessed with railways, made frequent visits to France and finally, in 1984, put an end to his own life at the age of 74 by laying his head on a railway line.

Sebald's great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth, the subject of the third section, did not kill himself, although his story in some ways is even bleaker. Many of Sebald's aunts and uncles emigrated to America in the Twenties, establishing an extended, mutually supporting family network in which German Jews and non-Jews co-existed happily, in bitter contrast to the situation then unfolding back home. Adelwarth worked as a servant for a wealthy Long Island family, eventually becoming a companion to their unstable son Cosmo, who took him around the casinos of Europe and on a long, extensively documented trip across the deserts to Jerusalem, before attempting to hang himself and being committed to a sanatorium in Ithaca, New York. Sebald hints, very delicately, that Cosmo and Adelwarth might have been lovers: certainly the rapturous excitement of that friendship, and those journeys, continued to haunt his great-uncle, who ended up committing himself to the very same sanatorium where Cosmo had died, and submitting docilely to a fatal course of electric shock therapy, possessed by a ‘longing for an extinction as total and irreversible as possible of his capacity to think and remember’.

The subject of the final narrative, Max Ferber, is the book's only composite figure: Sebald has said that he is based both on his own landlord in Manchester in the Sixties and on a well-known painter whom some have identified as Frank Auerbach. Having arrived in Manchester as a research student, Sebald chances on Ferber's studio during one of his long, solitary, weekend walks around the city's soot-blackened ruins, the haunted mansions of its industrial past. The artist's method is to apply paint thickly to the canvas, and then repeatedly to scratch it off until the floor of the studio is thick with a mixture of paint scrapings and coal dust, ‘several centimeters thick at the centre and thinning out towards the outer edges, in places resembling the flow of lava’. This dust, according to Ferber, is ‘the true product of his continuing endeavours and the most palpable proof of his failure’. Sebald and Ferber strike up a friendship but they never discuss their reasons for leaving Germany: not until almost a quarter of a century later, when the painter has become famous and entrusts Sebald with a number of letters telling the story of his mother's life. In this way Sebald learns that, although Ferber found safety as a refugee in England, his parents, who were supposed to follow him, failed to obtain the necessary visas. In 1941 they were deported to Lithuania and killed.

Max Ferber's story, the longest in the book, is an unconsoling parable about the consolations of art. Like the others, it is narrated with scrupulous diffidence, and shot through with Sebald's pressing anxieties about the legitimacy of his project. In fact, Sebald's uncertainty as to whether he has any right to probe and publicise the secret anguish of another man and another man's family reduces him to a kind of editorial hyper-selectivity which has echoes of his subject's own frenzies of erasure at the canvas:

During the winter of 1990/91 … I was working on the account of Max Ferber given above. It was an arduous task. Often I could not get on for hours or days at a time, and not infrequently I unravelled what I had done, continuously tormented by scruples that were taking tighter hold and steadily paralysing me. These scruples concerned not only the subject of my narrative, which I felt I could not do justice to, no matter what approach I tried, but also the entire questionable business of writing. I had covered hundreds of pages with my scribble, in pencil and ballpoint. By far the greater part had been crossed out, discarded or obliterated by additions. Even what I ultimately salvaged as a ‘final’ version seemed to me a thing of shreds and patches, utterly botched.

These words appear towards the very end of The Emigrants. Not only do they convey an impression of Sebald's habitual tone—measured, reflective and beautifully served by Michael Hulse's translation—but they illustrate his tact in a wider sense. It is only at this point in the book that we have finally been challenged by an explicit reference to the Holocaust, an event adumbrated by the other narratives, casting its noisome cloud over them, but never named or directly confronted. It seems typical of this (non-Jewish) writer that he should choose this moment to express his severest reservations: to recognise that any address to the great trauma of our century, the one that has wreaked the worst havoc with his own country's capacity to remember, must even now be accompanied by any number of revisions, erasures and backtrackings. It's not that the Holocaust is unmentionable in this sort of context: simply that it is, as Sebald here makes us realise, the ultimate test of a writer's tact.

And then there's the form in which Sebald has chosen to cast this book: literary form as another instance of tact. It's become a commonplace to suggest that literature is no longer possible after Auschwitz. Certainly there is no shortage of bad novels which purport to concern themselves with the Holocaust and its post-traumatic effects, and then grimly fail to rise to the occasion. To take only one of the most recent and wretched examples, D. M. Thomas's Pictures at an Exhibition, a lurid tale of concentration camp abuse and its psychosexual fall-out among the victims in later life, was not only guilty of failures of tone (in its head-on, hysterical revelling in excess) but also exposed the sheer puniness of the conventional, third-person novel of manners as a vehicle for the treatment of such material.

Tactfully, Sebald has realised this: and indeed, his book can be seen as a marker not just of the state of post-Holocaust writing, but of the point at which the novel itself seems to have arrived in the closing decade of this century. The slow death of the imagination, our palpable erosion of faith in stories as a way of explaining the world, might be epitomised by this writer with his rigorous preference for fact over invention wherever it is available. On one level our awareness, at almost any given moment during The Emigrants, that we are reading truth rather than fiction, chimes with the book's thesis about memory, its insistence that remembered fact is indelible. In his chapter on memory and the Holocaust in The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi was at pains to stress that memory is unreliable, and that ‘even under normal conditions a slow degradation is at work, an obfuscation of outlines, a, so-to-speak, physiological oblivion, which few memories resist.’ But Sebald's book shows us that there are some things which can never be forgotten, and then goes further, arguing that they can never be fictionalised, either. Indeed, it even implies that these two processes might amount to the same thing, and that a writer's desire to weave a web of invention around the sufferings of his real-life models is as distorting, and as dishonest, as the collective amnesia Sebald continues to identify among his countrymen—the ‘mental impoverishment and lack of memory that marked the Germans, and the efficiency with which they had cleaned everything up'—which by the end of his investigations ‘were beginning to affect my head and my nerves’.

Any resemblance between The Emigrants and, say, D. M. Thomas's exploitative fable begins and ends with its subject-matter. In many ways a more fruitful point of comparison might be with Seamus Deane's recent novel/memoir Reading in the Dark. The two books share the same sobriety, the same reasonableness of tone; both are about the ways in which lives—whole generations of lives—can be paralysed by the memory of suffering and injustice; and both are committed to the notion that novelistic shape can be given to remembered experience (patterns observed, narratives traced, symmetries teased out) without falsifying it. My own view was that Reading in the Dark faltered whenever it tried to become too novelistic: that somewhere deep beneath its immaculate surface lay two competing narrative forms—the family history and the fictional ‘plot'—which the book itself was not supple enough to reconcile. The Emigrants is a more nearly perfect work because it is more formally radical. It is, in fact, an unclassifiable book, not least because the text itself stands in complex relationship to a series of photographs, appearing on almost every page: pictures of faces, household objects, buildings, notices, family groups, the pages of a diary, landscapes, cityscapes, old postcards. These photographs are never captioned. They offer themselves up to the reader placidly, mute but eloquent, bolstering the sense of documentary reality but also reminding us that even in a book which is crammed full of words, beautifully chosen, beautifully organised words, there should also be a place for wordlessness. Another instance, it would seem, of the tact for which this short but momentous book is so remarkable.

Irving Malin (review date spring 1997)

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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 hopes to confront the reasons for their dramatic acts of re-creation and self-destruction. He tries to find a pattern linking “the emigrants” because he uncannily knows that he is related to them. Thus the novel becomes a search for kinship—literally and symbolically. It is a detective story about origins and endings, about the nature of history and memory. The narrator recognizes that his search is somehow doomed to incompletion.

The novel is filled with photographs: stills of childhood activities and, perhaps, more profoundly, with ones of cemeteries, enigmatic loads, journals, and hotels. The photographs are the remnants of the past. They must be studied as closely as the words of the narrator. Therefore, the novel, in part, is an “album” of what the relationship is between word and image. This is an occult text, one which defies clear, closed meaning and genre. It is autobiography, biography (of four characters), travelogue, meditation on the meaning of the Holocaust, Germany, past and present, self and other, word and world. It uses a four-part structure as does a symphony or Pale Fire and demonstrates that the four parts, usually closed, may be “violations,” not the perfection of closure.

Perhaps the last words of the text express the “final solution” or the mystery of any solution. The narrator sees three women at a window: “Who the young women are I do not know. The light falls on them from the window in the background, so that I cannot make out their eyes clearly but I sense that all three are looking across at me.” The vision is a long passage. The narrator cannot understand the relationship of this deception and one elsewhere. He does sense that these women are possibly the three fates: “None, Decume, and Morta, the daughters of night, with spindle, scissors and thread.” The text is a mysterious interpretation of noninterpretation.

André Aciman (review date June 1997)

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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 of our work (though Sebald is not himself Jewish) are coincidences that should have drawn me to his book, which was published in this country late last year and which in literary form combines a variety of fictional and nonfictional motifs. Still, or perhaps just so, I put off reading it long after it had been recommended to me, first by a friend who found it “quite astonishingly beautiful and enigmatic,” then by reviewers whose taste I either respected or did not respect, and finally by the editor of this magazine, who was not entirely sure I would like the book.

So when I began reading The Emigrants on the commuter train into Manhattan, I was half-expecting to find a reason to put it down by the end of the first page. But as things turned out, it was the labored flatness of the opening paragraph that reeled me in: its everydayness, and behind it, in the deliberate rhythms of Michael Hulse's extraordinary translation, that extra nudge in the language, part cadence and part syntax, that suggests literary excellence:

At the end of September 1970, shortly before I took up my position in Norwich, I drove out to Hingham with Clara in search of somewhere to live. For some 25 kilometers the road runs amidst fields and hedgerows, beneath spreading oak trees, past a few scattered hamlets, till at length Hingham appears, its asymmetrical gables, church tower and treetops barely rising above the flatland. The marketplace, broad and lined with silent façades, was deserted, but still it did not take us long to find the house the agents described.

This strange braid of the lyrical with the irreducibly ordinary is precisely what gives Sebald's world its haunting, hypnotic, and, at times, even hallucinatory quality (not to be confused with anything so paltry as magic realism). Everything in The Emigrants is rendered through a prism of dispassionate observation, spiritual fatigue, and sudden revelation—an elusive blend of eloquence and silence, riddle and revelation. What is uncanny is that, shift the prism however you like, Sebald's subject remains nothing subtle at all, but rather our century's most devastating chapter, the Holocaust and the disappearance of European Jewry.

This is, though, a Holocaust not as experienced by its primary victims but as perceived from distant shores or after the fact. The light, like the pain, that is refracted in Sebald's prism is quite gray, a numb gray, the color of emptied cities, the color of ashes, of dust, of strayed lives that end long before death comes. Grayness lowers over the black-and-white photographs scattered throughout the book, as it does over the characters who people it: unfinished spectral beings, hollow, sapped, bruised, hopelessly and quite futilely homesick.

The Emigrants is divided into four parts, each a portrait—a parable—of a different character. The first section, “Dr. Henry Selwyn,” is the shortest and for me the most uncanny of all.

Henry Selwyn, a successful doctor who is now the very picture of the retired county Englishman, hunting rifle and all, rents an apartment in his house in Hingham to the narrator and his companion Clara whom we have met in the extract above. The house is strange in a Gothic sort of way, its tennis court overgrown, its kitchen “on its last legs.” The real owner is the doctor's wife, who is suspected by her husband of having amassed a fortune during their married years but who leads a separate life in the same house, in a pattern of estrangement that is not unusual in Sebald's characters. A mysterious kitchen maid also makes an appearance, though, again typically, nothing is made of her. In Sebald's prose, loose strands and red herrings are not exactly meaningless, and not exactly clues to an overarching meaning, but rather the specter of meaning in its larval stage.

One day the young couple is invited to dinner. Although Mrs. Selwyn is absent, her husband has invited an old friend, and to entertain his guests he shows them pictures of the two of them on a trip to Crete many years before; the narrator observes that this “return of [the men's] past selves was an occasion for some emotion.” Then Selwyn tells the young couple about his experiences in the Swiss Alps before World War I, when he befriended a sixty-five-year-old Swiss guide by the name of Johannes Naegeli. The two had become very close and their separation when war broke out in 1914 was traumatic. Some time after, Naegeli, continues Selwyn, disappeared, and “it was assumed that he had fallen in a crevasse in the [Oberaar] glacier.” “It is an old story,” he adds, before admitting that now, fully 60 years after the fact, the image of Naegeli has begun to haunt him more than ever.

Another day, after the couple have moved to a different place in town, Henry Selwyn walks in bearing a basket of vegetables from his garden. In the course of the ensuing conversation he confesses that, recently, he has become prey to homesickness. And then comes a major revelation, spoken in a minor key: the doctor turns out to be no echt-Englishman at all, but to have come from a small village in Lithuania. From the names of relatives whom he mentions it rapidly becomes clear that his family, who emigrated at the turn of the century, and whose name was not Selwyn but Seweryn, is Jewish. Intending to emigrate to the U.S., they had boarded a ship they thought bound for that destination, but after about a week, “far sooner than we had reckoned … we entered a broad river estuary.” Somehow they had landed in England.

“Certain things,” writes Sebald, “… have a way of returning unexpectedly, often after a lengthy absence.” He is referring to repressed sorrows, though it is not quite clear which sorrows he has in mind: the memory of an abandoned shtetl in Lithuania, the pain of emigration, Selwyn's youthful love for the Swiss guide Naegeli, his estrangement from a wife who may never have forgiven him his Jewish roots, or the loss of younger days briefly recaptured in the photographs of Crete.

But we are not done with revelations—nor with the way coincidence combines here with memory to produce something that supersedes ordinary experience and leads to a kind of meaning. Some time after these events, while vacationing in France, the narrator and his companion suddenly hear that the doctor has committed suicide with his own rifle. And then, in July 1986, as if the past never can be done seeping through the layers we place between it and ourselves, the narrator finds himself reading a newspaper on a train in Switzerland—only minutes before, “the memory of Dr. Selwyn returned to me for the first time in a long while”—and chances upon an article announcing the recovery in the Oberaar glacier of the body of an Alpine guide named Johannes Naegeli, missing since 1914.

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

The Emigrants is about people who are not just ultimately homeless but whose lives have strayed, who missed the boat that never sailed, or who took the boat that sailed elsewhere. Henry Selwyn, Hersch Seweryn, strays to England. Paul Bereyter, the protagonist of the second of the book's four sections who, the reader eventually infers, must also be partly Jewish, drifts back from Switzerland to his native Germany, where he ends up serving in Hitler's army. Ambros Adelwarth, also partly Jewish, wanders from Germany, to Switzerland, to Japan, and finally finds employment as a gentleman's gentleman for the Solomon family in New York. Finally, the artist Max Ferber, who escapes Germany during the war, settles in Manchester, the same city where the narrator, too, once lived and where Ferber “imagined [he] could begin a new life … from scratch; but instead, Manchester reminded [him] of everything [he] was trying to forget.”

All are displaced persons, all caught staring into the void, all feeling “a long way away, though they never quite know from where.” Paul Bereyter, like Dr. Selwyn, commits suicide several decades after the Holocaust; Ambros Adelwarth, after a life filled with world travel, consigns himself to electroshock therapy and wastes away in a “home” in upstate New York—in Ithaca, of all places. And Max Ferber wastes away, too, in his ash-ridden studio, painting in gray and feeling “closer to dust than to light, air, or water.” Thus does the Holocaust exact final payment even from those who escaped its maw.

And it does so with staggering precision. Henry Selwyn, the man who shows his guests his gun, ends up taking his own life with it. Paul Bereyter, a schoolteacher obsessed with railroads, puts an end to his life by lying down upon the tracks. Ambros Adelwarth, having once delivered a friend/lover to an asylum, years later finds his own way to the same place. And Max Ferber, who escaped Germany to avoid the gas chambers in Poland, ends up in Manchester, an industrial city whose spewing smokestacks inevitably remind the narrator of the industrial center of Lodz, a heavily Jewish city once referred to as the Polski Manczester.

Things come back; but nothing is ever restored. Time—that “disquiet of the soul”—works its way with Sebald's characters as it does with abandoned buildings and countries, abandoned gardens and homes. Like Sebald's prose, the photographs that pepper the pages of The Emigrants succeed in illustrating this point without fully illuminating it. An “x” sitting at the top of a group picture indicates the narrator's diminutive mother, and tugs at the reader with the resonance of her certain death; workmen sitting on the roof of a synagogue in Germany—the copper had been donated to the German war effort in World War I—have “Holocaust” written all over their happy faces; Max Ferber's father, at a ski resort, is shown in a pose that communicates, “I will never see my son again.”

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes writes that a photograph is disturbing not by virtue of what it shows but because of what we know is about to happen to its subjects. The pictures in Sebald's book evoke, in the reader, a similar mechanism of psychic dread and recoil.

When, in the final section of The Emigrants, the narrator leaves Max Ferber's studio in Manchester and returns to his hotel—like so many hotels in this book, it is a large, luxury establishment that has fallen on very hard times—he thinks not only of his “own” Manchester of a quarter of a century earlier, when he himself first came to England as a student, but of a “hotel somewhere in Poland,” and in thus thinking of Poland works his way back to “Manczester,” and the Lodz ghetto during the Nazi occupation. His mind moves to a photograph of working girls in the ghetto—it is not reproduced here—and suddenly he sees three weavers “looking across at him” with such intensity in their gaze that he “cannot meet [it] for long.” He could be staring at the abyss of time, or at the abyss of collective memory, or in any event at the land of the dead, the dead who are “always coming back” so many decades afterward the way the frozen body of Johannes Naegeli suddenly appeared, Rip-Van-Winkle-like, after two world wars and an entire lifetime.

“I wonder what the three women's names were,” the narrator finally asks, still mesmerized. “Roza, Luisa, and Lea, or Nona, Decuma, and Morta, the daughters of night, with spindle, scissors, and thread.”

Except in books, one seldom comes face to face with fate, let alone with the Three Fates. And yet, while reading The Emigrants, I thought repeatedly of a friend of mine whose father had escaped the Holocaust as a boy on the last train headed for England. Two years after the end of the war, six years after last seeing his parents, my friend's father, who was by then studying in Canada, received, exactly as does Max Ferber, a letter from his mother. In typical Sebaldian fashion, the package arrived too late.

What must he have thought? On recognizing his mother's handwriting, must he not have caught himself doing something he had sworn never to do again: namely, hope? I called my friend to urge that he buy a copy of The Emigrants for his father. But then, a half-hour later, I called back to retract the suggestion: what need had he to be brought back into the past which had claimed the lives of both his parents? The need, rather, is ours, and The Emigrants, an astonishingly beautiful book, just as my friend had said, meets our need in a consummate act of artistic fatedness.

Gabriele Annan (review date 25 September 1997)

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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 pedantic: the German for “emigrants” is Auswanderer, suggesting people on the move. Die Ausgewanderten—Sebald's original German title—means people who once emigrated.) Sebald's four men aren't going anywhere. They have reached the end of the road. His book is tragic, stunningly beautiful, strange, and haunting. What makes it beautiful is the fastidious prose with its sad resigned rhythm—as appealing and hypnotic in Michael Hulse's English translation as in the German original; and also Sebald's wonderfully desolate landscapes and townscapes, where depression rises like mist from quite factual, unemphatic descriptions of people and things.

The strangeness lies in the hybrid genre that he has invented for himself, a mixture of fact and fiction, illustrated by small blurry photographs which may, or may not, be photographs of the places and people in the stories. One of the characters recalls “trying to see further and further” into old photographs with a magnifying glass. I tried that too, but, especially when the illustrations were of inscriptions on graves or pages from diaries or children in the back row of school photographs, it wasn't strong enough. Puzzles, unexplained happenings, cryptic subtexts remain to be decoded in the text as well. The reader becomes a sleuth. The author is a ghost hunter.

Sebald has used variations of this hybrid format before: in 1990 he published Schwindel, Gefühle, which also comprises four strange pieces about real people, Henri Beyle and Kafka among them; and in 1995 he produced Die Ringe des Saturn, a dreamy account—with photographs—of his wanderings in Suffolk and his encounters with some of its inhabitants, both living and dead. The dead include Sir Thomas Browne and Chateaubriand, and among the living is the Jewish poet Michael Hamburger, who writes in English, but was born in Berlin and emigrated with his parents in the Thirties. Suffolk is the English county to the south of Norfolk, where Sebald has lived for more than thirty years, himself an emigrant, but still writing in his native language. He was born in a village in the Bavarian Alps, studied in Freiburg, Switzerland, and Manchester, and is now Professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia.

He writes about people who haunt him, and his stories can be read as attempts at exorcism. Does it work for him? Probably not, or he would not sound so sad. Or so repetitive: for while there is no repetition within The Emigrants, it takes up themes and motifs he has dealt with before, and which seem to obsess him. In Germany, where his work is well known and has won several prizes, he is famous for melancholy and pessimism. In 1985 he collected his scholarly essays on Austrian writers from Adelbert Stifter to Peter Handke and called the book Die Beschreibung des UnglücksDescribing Unhappiness—a title so typical of him that it sounds like an insider joke. These studies are written in the most inspissated German academic jargon imaginable—one can't, in fact, imagine that they are by the same man whose non-academic writing is so limpid, calm, and modest.

Among the unhappy things that haunt him is the Holocaust. He is not a Jew. If the narrator's self-portrait in The Emigrants is en clair, he was born in 1944 into a Catholic Bavarian peasant milieu. He seems to hate it, judging it to be complacent and insufficiently contrite about the Holocaust. No wonder reviewers of The Emigrants have written about it as though it belonged to the genre of Holocaust literature. But it is really more general than that: it is about time, distance, absence, isolation, loneliness, depression, withdrawal, nostalgia, memory, and oblivion. Besides, of his four protagonists, only two had their lives disrupted by the advent of Hitler, and a third, his own great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth, is not Jewish at all.

All four portraits bear the names of their sitters. The first is “Dr. Henry Selwyn,” a retired country doctor in a Norfolk village. His wife has a flat to let in their house, and Sebald and his companion Clara move into it in 1970. Selwyn seems typical of what he seems to be. He shoots, grows vegetables, and keeps horses he has saved from the knacker. His marriage is finished, although he and his wife still live under the same roof. He spends most of his time in the garden or in a folly at the bottom of it. One day when Sebald and he are talking about themselves, he says that he is homesick for the Lithuanian village where he was born and attended the Orthodox Jewish school. His real name is Seweryn. Just before the turn of the century his family emigrated. They meant to go to America, but landed in the London docks and stayed. The boy won scholarships, studied medicine, became a doctor. He played tennis and went climbing in Switzerland, where he made friends with a mountain guide. In 1914 the guide disappeared on the Oberaar glacier; his body was never found.

Selwyn shows Sebald photographs of his friend. “In 1960,” he says, “when I had to give up my practice and my patients. I severed my last ties with what they call the real world. Since then, almost my only companions have been plants and animals.” After a few months Sebald and Clara move to a house of their own. Dr. Selwyn keeps visiting them with presents of vegetables from his garden. Then one day he shoots himself. In 1986 Sebald is in Switzerland. He picks up a paper and sees a report about a human skeleton found in the Oberaar glacier. It belonged to a guide who disappeared in 1914: “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.”

Almost the same words recur in the second story, “Paul Bereyter.” Bereyter was a schoolmaster in Sebald's village. Like Dr. Selwyn, he had very few—perhaps no—attachments, and he too committed suicide. Sebald gets to see the dead man's photo album, and: “Looking at the pictures in it, it truly seemed to me, and still does, as if the dead were coming back, or as if we were on the point of joining them”—Bereyter's father was half Jewish. He was sent to a concentration camp, released, and died not long after. His mother was ostracized because she had married a half-Jew. She committed suicide. Bereyter had to give up teaching and went to France as a private tutor. In 1939 he returned to Germany, perhaps because life in France became too difficult for a German, “or out of blind rage or even a sort of perversion.” He was called up and served in the German army in Belgium and Russia, in Romania and France: always, as he wrote under a photograph of himself taken at the time, “about 2,000 km away—but from where?” This phrase is another Leitmotif: in the next story, an old German emigrant stands on a beach in New Jersey and says: “I often come out here. … it makes me feel that I am a long way away, though I never quite know from where.”

After the war Bereyter returns to his teaching job. Sebald is in his class, and even as a little boy recognizes his teacher's extraordinary dedication and talent. Bereyter lives in a modern apartment block built on the site where a charming old building once occupied by him and his parents has been pulled down. He hates his new flat, but even after his retirement, when he lives mainly in Switzerland, he pays it regular, conscientious visits to keep it in order. Then he commits suicide. Selwyn was fond of shooting and shot himself; Bereyter loved railways and lay down under a train. And he must have loved the past, or else he would not have resented the destruction of the old house so much.

Apart from “Dr. Selwyn,” which is shorter and less elaborately constructed than the other pieces, they all include Sebald's quest for someone who knew his subject when he was alive. It is on these journeys that some of his most powerful landscapes loom up, all of them testifying to change and decay. His informant may then produce diaries and memoirs—not to speak of photographs—sometimes of a generation before his own. Some of these reminiscences are reported in indirect speech. So the past is seen at several removes, like a print of a print of a painting, or a reflection in a suite of mirrors, growing fainter and more poignant at every stage: verbal sepia. In “Paul Bereyter” Sebald's quest leads him to an old lady in Switzerland, herself a displaced person whose early memories (not of Bereyter at all) are full of charm. It is she who produces Bereyter's photo album; and she who arranged his burial. He had struck up an acquaintance with her in 1971 because he noticed her reading Nabokov's Speak, Memory on a park bench.

Nabokov makes fleeting appearances (usually with his butterfly net) in three of the stories. He seems a strange mascot for Sebald to have, since he dealt so gaily and optimistically with his own exile. Instead of being destroyed by memory and nostalgia, he came to enjoy them. Or perhaps that is what qualifies him to be a mascot. But he is not the only wraith flitting in and out of The Emigrants. The other is Adelbert Stifter, who comes first in Sebald's collection of unhappy Austrian writers. He committed suicide in 1868. Sebald tempts one to hunt for clues and correspondences. So: one of Stifter's stories (“Der Waldgänger”) has a mysterious butterfly hunter in it, and in another collection every story is named after a mineral. Its index reads almost exactly like a list of minerals remembered by one of Sebald's emigrants from a geology lesson in his childhood: “Rose quartz, rock crystal, amethyst, topaz and tourmaline. We draw a long line to mark how much time it has taken for them to form. Our entire lives would not show as the tiniest dot on that line.”

Sebald sees Stifter as “living in a kind of exile”—another emigrant. He is traditionally regarded as the Biedermeier writer par excellence, celebrating God through the beauty and permanence of His inanimate creation. He was an obsessive describer of things. Sebald turns this around: Stifter, he maintains, dedicates himself to things in the hope of permanence, but by highlighting them he only shows up the ravages of time. One of Stifter's best-known stories is called “The Bachelor.” Bachelors are lonely by definition. Three of Sebald's emigrants are bachelors, and Dr. Selwyn is a bachelor in all but name. His blank marriage sounds not unlike Stifter's own. You could, if you wanted, read a faint hint of homosexuality into his inextinguishable attachment to the Swiss guide. But there are no hints of pedophilia in “Paul Bereyter,” even though, in his essay on Stifter—another gifted teacher—Sebald declares that all good teachers must have a streak of pedophilia in them.

Homosexuality is more explicit in “Ambros Adelwarth.” This is the story of a whole family of displaced people. Sebald's great-uncle (he saw him only once, in 1951) was born in 1886. At thirteen he left home to work in a hotel on Lake Constance; at fourteen he was taken on

as an apprenti garçon in room service at the Grand Hôtel Eden in Montreux, probably thanks to his unusually appealing but nonetheless self-controlled nature. At least I think it was the Eden, said Aunt Fini because, in one of the postcard albums that Uncle Adewarth left, the world-famous hotel is on one of the opening pages, with its awnings lowered over the windows against the afternoon sun.

The Emigrants is adorned with photographs of this and other brooding Victorian grand hotels in France, the US, Canada, Egypt, and Manchester. As for Aunt Fini, she is Sebald's aunt and Ambros Adelwarth's niece. She is the main source of his story, and an emigrant herself.

She embarked for New York in 1927 with her elder sister Theres. There was no future for poor girls like them in Germany. “Theres was twenty-three and I was twenty-one, and both of us were wearing bonnets.” This is the only slip-up in Hulse's lovely translation. They were wearing cloche hats (Kapotthüte)—a much more poignant headgear for these country girls who were hoping, perhaps, to look like real American flappers. Unfortunately this photograph is not reproduced. By the time they got to the States, Uncle Adelwarth had worked his way up through all the grand hotels to become a very grand gentleman's gentleman, a profession he took with the utmost perfectionist seriousness. He was able to find domestic jobs for the girls, and a job for their younger brother Kasimir, who followed them two years later. Sixty years or so after that, Kasimir is the old man on the beach who feels a long way away, though he never knows from where.

By this time the three siblings are living in a retirement community in New Jersey, where Sebald finds them in his quest for Ambros Adelwarth. Adelwarth's last employer, just before the First World War, was a New York millionaire called Samuel Solomon, who trusted him to look after his wild playboy son, Cosmo. Together the pair traveled to every smart casino around the world, and their relationship changed from servant and master to friends. “Of course, said Uncle Kasimir, he was of the other persuasion, as anyone could see, even if the family always ignored or glossed over the fact. … I always felt sorry for him, because he could never, his whole life long, permit anything to ruffle his composure.” Cosmo's behavior became more and more strange until he fell into dementia. “When darkness fell he would lie down on the floor, draw his legs up to his chest and hide his face in his hands.” Uncle Adelwarth had to take him to a sanatorium in Ithaca, “where that same year, without saying a word or moving a muscle, he faded away.” When Samuel Solomon died in 1947 he left Uncle Adelwarth a property on Long Island, where he lived alone, falling deeper and deeper into depression himself. One day when Aunt Fini went to see him, she found the house empty and “a visiting card with a message for me, and I have carried it with me ever since.” The card is reproduced in the text, and the message reads “Have gone to Ithaca” Adelwarth had gone to Cosmo's sanatorium and voluntarily submitted himself to shock therapy. He died soon after.

In 1984 Sebald traveled to the States to find the sanatorium. His journey along Highway 17 to Ithaca (where Nabokov once lived) is one of his most stunning descriptions. He found the sanatorium, now in decay, and wandered around its vast park, where he came upon Dr. Abramsky, a psychiatrist who had known Uncle Adelwarth. Dr. Abramsky is a replay of Dr. Selwyn, except that he keeps bees instead of growing vegetables. He is cleaning out their hives with a goose wing, and explains that he gave up psychiatry years ago, appalled by the brutality of the then-primitive shock therapy he had to administer, and had administered to Adelwarth the day before he died—wearing his best butler's get-up. He sees Sebald back to his car “in silence. Nor did he say a word in farewell, but described a gentle arc with the goose wing in the darkening air.”

In a press interview Sebald explained that his fourth emigrant, “Max Ferber,” was partly based on the British Jewish painter Frank Auerbach, whose paintings (like Ferber's) hang in the Tate Gallery. The other part of the portrait is based on Sebald's landlord during his first visit to England. When his plane landed in Manchester, “a blanket of fog that had risen out of the marshy plains that reached as far as the Irish Sea had covered the city, a city spread across a thousand square kilometers, built of countless bricks, and inhabited by millions of souls, dead and alive.” This was “in the autumn of 1966.” The Emigrants is thick with dates—essential, because Sebald is always switching from the present to the past, and from one past to another. So lives have to be measured out in coffee spoons. The dates remind you both how long and how short they are; insignificantly, pathetically short when you recall what the child—it was Ferber—learnt in his geology lesson: “that our entire lives would not show as a dot” on a line representing the life of a piece of stone.

Ferber left Nazi Germany as a child refugee. He never saw his parents again after they waved goodbye to him at the Munich airport in 1939, and he has lived in Manchester ever since, a recluse in his studio. “Manchester,” he says,

reminded me of everything I was trying to forget. Manchester is an immigrant city, and for a hundred and fifty years, leaving aside the poor Irish, the immigrants were chiefly Germans and Jews, manual workers, tradesmen, freelancers, retailers and wholesalers, watchmakers, hatters, cabinet-makers, umbrella makers, tailors, bookbinders, typesetters, silversmiths, photographers, furriers and glovers, scrap merchants, hawkers, pawnbrokers, auctioneers, jewellers, estate agents, stockbrokers, chemists and doctors. The Sephardic Jews, who had been settled in Manchester a long time and had names like Besso, Raphael, Cattun, Calderon, Farache, Negriu, Messulam or di Moro, made little distinction between the Germans and other Jews with names like Leibrand, Wohlgemuth, Herzmann, Gottschalk, Adler, Engels, Landeshut, Frank, Zirndorf, Wallerstein, Aronsberg, Haarbleicher, Crailsheimer, Danziger, Lipmann, or Lazarus. Throughout the nineteenth century, the German and Jewish influence was stronger in Manchester than in any other European city.

The lists of names and professions evoke Manchester's “millions of souls, dead and alive” better than any social history could.

After the war, Ferber received a parcel containing a memoir written—after they parted—by his mother, Luisa, about her youth. He knew she had died in a concentration camp, so the shock of this late arrival was great. The memoir—this is a long flashback—describes her idyllic childhood in a village, and then her youth in the spa town of Kissingen. “At that time,” she wrote, “I was almost sixteen, and believed that a completely new world, even lovelier than that of childhood, would be revealed to me in Kissingen. In some respects that was really how it was, but in others the Kissingen years up until my marriage in 1921 seem in retrospect to have marked the first step on a path that grew narrower day by day and led inevitably to the point I have now arrived at.”

Luisa's memoir is one of the most moving episodes in the book, largely because Sebald catches so well the tone of a gentle, serene, resigned, and very feminine woman. Perhaps her most touching recollection, as a small girl, is of an ornately bound book: “This, says Mama [i.e., her mother, Ferber's grandmother], is the works of her favorite poet, Heine, who is also the favorite poet of Empress Elisabeth.” Heine has always been almost every German's favorite poet, and the fact that he was Jewish made no difference. Ferber's grandmother was too simple to know this; but she was proud of sharing her favorite with the Empress, and there is something doomed and heart-rending about this pride. “Max Ferber” is certainly a Holocaust story, although the Holocaust is barely alluded to and not mentioned in the other stories at all. Sebald's affection and pity for Jews is part of a general sorrow for the dead.

Gareth Howell-Jones (review date 30 May 1998)

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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.

The range of his susceptibilities is immense. One might have expected the affectionate portrait of Edward FitzGerald and perhaps the entertaining account of Swinburne seeking desolation in the lost town of Dunwich. But Sebald, impelled by a grave fancy, can go much further, into stranger territory. He ponders the relationship between art and sugar, the phosphorescence of dead herring, curious facts about James I and silkworms, Roger Casement, Joseph Conrad, an empress killed by a surfeit of crab-apples and a pall-bearer called Squirrel. There is a heartbreaking portrait of an Irish country-house family sunk in mournful eccentricity. There are wonders and surprises everywhere and if, at first, his tales seem wholly inconsequential, soon one realises that each ramification of his mind recoils upon itself like the oriental planes he finds in Somerleyton Park, their bowed branches rooting in the earth and sending up new trees which intertwine again with their parents.

On a second reading the fineness of the construction is even more astonishing. This is no mere ragbag of anecdotes. Coincidences, often unacknowledged, abound. Even the most casual of references—Flaubert's likening the spread of stupidity in the world to sinking in sand—is pertinently but silently taken up 200 pages later in the tale of the church tower in Dunwich which, built on sand, slowly sank without toppling from the cliff-top to the shore.

Individually these remembered facts and anecdotes are entertaining diversions: woven together in this way they form, or at least appear to Sebald to form, a pattern of consonant order which may not explain life or death but which offers a real consolation. This order is Sebald's rock. All around him he sees destruction and decay. His sentences are elegantly underscored with a continuo of parenthetic memento mori: ‘which has since been destroyed by fire', ‘who was debilitated despite his youthful years', ‘himself long since deceased’. As Saturn is encircled by rings made up of fragments of a former moon, so we revolve surrounded by shards of a lost and broken-up world, ‘our history which is but a long account of calamities’. These are much on his mind. He spares us no brutality or evidence of decline from Balkan atrocities and carpet-bombing to Dutch elm disease and the déclassé grimness of Lowestoft. Certainly The Rings of Saturn is not a celebration, but the author is assiduous in seeking out glimpses of compensatory beauty: above the devastation caused by the great hurricane of 1987 is the brightest night-sky he has ever seen.

It is a very personal book: these are his markers, but he implies that we can find our own. The search for affinities and unexpected significances becomes invigoratingly contagious. ‘Only connect', as Forster said (a phrase Sebald must have thought too hackneyed to include himself).

An order built of minute correspondence in a transitory world is a very 17th-century conceit and so it is entirely appropriate that his spiritual companion and constant point of reference is Sir Thomas Browne. The Rings of Saturn is a doubting pilgrim's progress in which all the allegorical characters represent death and desuetude. The protagonist ends up not in Heaven but in hospital. Perhaps in a final, unstated analogy one is supposed to remember Browne's famous description of the world as ‘not an Inne, but an Hospital, and a place, not to live, but to die in', though Sebald, one feels a little sadly, is not so confident of the happy redemption Browne is sure will follow.

Blake Morrison (review date 5 June 1998)

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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 successful work. Even so, there is nothing quite like The Rings of Saturn.

Ostensibly, it describes a journey on foot through coastal Norfolk and Suffolk, but it isn't a travel book. It gives accounts of the Battle of Sole Bay, the rise and fall of silkworm breeding in Europe and the destruction of the medieval port of Dunwich, but it isn't historical narrative. It looks, in passing, at the lives of (among others) Conrad, Swinburne, Edward FitzGerald and the Vicomte de Chateaubriand, but it isn't literary biography. It reads like fiction at times but gives every impression, not least through the inclusion of some authentically amateurish authorial photographs, of telling a true story. Stylistically, it's as if Bruce Chatwin had joined forces with Nabokov, Canetti and Borges. You could worry yourself silly trying to define its status. But since the author seems indifferent to the place he occupies on the bookshelves, it's best to surrender and let yourself be led by the nose.

The story opens in a hospital bed in Norwich, to which Sebald has been sent “in a state of almost total immobility”, a year to the day after beginning his coastal hike. He is there for surgery, but the “paralysing horror” that had come over him at times on his journey suggests he may be suffering some kind of depression, too—a sort of post-imperial, post-Holocaust, post-traumatic stress disorder—and that, in this perturbed state, he may not be the most reliable of narrators. Caged, alienated and much possessed by death, he compares himself to Gregor Samsa in Kafka's Metamorphosis.

Walking tours in East Anglia don't usually have this kind of effect, but Sebald isn't your usual rambler. We discover this when, going back a year, he hits his first large town en route, Lowestoft, and pitches up at the Albion Hotel on the recommendation of a guidebook “published shortly after the turn of the century”. The Albion has come down in the world since then. The same “startled young woman” who checks him in at reception (“startled” to have a guest at all, it's implied) serves him, for his evening meal in the huge dining room, “a fish that had doubtless lain entombed in the deep freeze for years. The breadcrumb armour-plating of the fish had been partly singed by the grill, and the prongs of my fork bent in on it.”

The scene is reminiscent of Somerset Maugham's description of dinner in a Whitstable hotel in Cakes and Ale. One can imagine Paul Theroux or Howard Jacobson eagerly exploiting its satiric potential. But Sebald's note is more melancholy and inward. It's there in the word “entombed”, or again when he gazes beyond the dining room: “Outside was the beach, somewhere between the darkness and the light, and nothing was moving, neither in the air nor on the land nor on the water.”

The language is old-fashioned throughout. Sebald, though he has lived in Britain for 30 years, isn't directly responsible for the archaic lilt, since he writes in German. But there is no reason to doubt the accuracy of his translator, Michael Hulse, who catches brilliantly the voice of a wistful, highly cultured mid-European, a man of 54 who sounds 120 at least. It is true that a British writer, taking the same journey, would notice very different things. But the absence from the narrative of out-of-town shopping centres, video stores and Little Chefs only underlines the oddity of Sebald's vision. He looks through death-tinted spectacles. He sees what only he would see.

At Covehithe he sees a herd of pigs—“swine” as he prefers to call them—and strokes one behind the ear, “till at length it sighed like one enduring endless suffering”. Further on he sees a couple lying on the beach “like some great mollusc washed ashore”. They're having sex, it seems, but what he notices is that “the man's feet twitched like those of one just hanged”. At Dunwich, leaving the low cliffs crumbling like ash behind him and losing himself in thought, he wanders in circles around the heath, as if trapped in a labyrinth or reincarnated as Gloucester in Lear. At Middleton, in the home of the poet Michael Hamburger, a fellow exile and kindred spirit, he is overwhelmed by a feeling of déjà vu, “as if I lived or had once lived there … as if the spectacle cases, letters and writing materials that had evidently lain untouched for months in the soft north light had once been my spectacle cases, my letters and my writing materials”.

This knack of inhabiting of the lives of others is captured in one of Sebald's stylistic tics, his avoidance of speech marks. Often, quoting or paraphrasing someone, whether living or dead, he will slide from the third person to the first. Near Harleston, for example, he visits a farmer called Thomas Abrams, who for 20 years has been making a wooden model of the Temple of Jerusalem. They fall into conversation and, for a couple of pages, we hear a voice musing aloud (“Now, as the edges of the field of vision are beginning to darken, I sometimes wonder if I will ever finish the Temple and whether all I have done so far has not been a wretched waste of time”); and we have to remind ourselves, since there is nothing to indicate it, that the “I” here is Abrams, not Sebald—although part of the point is to suggest that the distinction is meaningless, since we are all prey to the same few common experiences, the vanity of human wishes not least.

Like The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn is at its mournful best when absorbed by the histories of chance acquaintances. Since it's clear from the outset that its wanderings are as much intellectual as physical, and are loosely strung on the theme of colonial or commercial ambition, most of its tenuous links (“Such were my thoughts when …” and so on) seem natural enough; so a hypothesis that a narrow-gauge railway bridge over the river Blyth might have been built for the Emperor of China is the pretext for a short essay on the Taiping rebellion.

Mostly, Sebald gets away with it, though his publishers surely wouldn't have indulged his Shandyism but for the success of The Emigrants. Sometimes even the most patient reader feels short-changed. There's a particularly digressive digression in Southwold, where he recalls spending time in Schiphol airport, reads an article in the Independent about a concentration camp, falls asleep watching a BBC documentary about Roger Casement and wakes up to give us 30 pages on Joseph Conrad. Southwold itself, apart from the Sailors' Reading Room, doesn't engage him at all.

Still, the stories Sebald tells, whether about herrings or hangings, skulls or silkworms, are rarely less than fascinating. And even his absent-mindedness (there's a good deal of nodding off and dreaming) seems a part of the story: the story of a man with a curious mind and a long memory who can find no peace even in peaceful Suffolk.

Richard Eder (review date 28 June 1998)

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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 of the old custom of draping in black silks the mirrors, portraits and landscapes hanging in the house of the deceased “so that the soul, as it left the body, would not be distracted on its final journey, either by a reflection of itself or by a last glimpse of the land now being lost forever.”

Browne's prose was as spacious and light-filled as his own East Anglian skies. Sebald's prose (excellently translated from German by Michael Hulse) recalls his model not only in its light but in the sere temper that its cascade of allusion and digression paradoxically sets off, as an elaborate costume sets off a wasting body.

It is not Browne's “Religio Medici” but his “Urn Burial” that Sebald keeps in mind as he rambles Suffolk's monotone of coast, fenland and heath. “Burial” was ostensibly a minute description of the contents of a set of funerary urns: the remains, their manner of interment and the artifacts chosen to accompany them. In fact, it belongs to a literary figure going back to Ecclesiastes' “vanity of vanities” and up through Thomas Nashe's “brightness falls from the air.” What becomes of human graces, achievements, passions and illusions?

Browne counterpoised the pitiful golden dust in the urns with the hope of Christian resurrection. Sebald's dust has no such resurrection. The Rings of Saturn—fragments of what were once moons—is a book of what dies. There is no decanting his own urn memories, histories and lives. If anything, they will undergo the absurdity that befell Browne himself: When his body was disinterred for reburial, the skull was filched and remained for a time in the curio cabinet of a local physician.

Sebald or his narrator—the two are and are not the same, like the dreamer and his dream—refers to this near the start. He also includes the photograph of a skull. Photographs, many blurred, some snapshots, accompany the text throughout. They show a place the narrator walks past, a house he sees, a personage he refers to, a personal or historical incident he recounts. There is even a dim photograph of the window of the hospital room where he stayed after a breakdown that took place a year or so after his walk.

The writer uses photographs the way he did in The Emigrants, his extraordinary set of fact-woven fictions about the collapses, late in life, of half a dozen Jews who for one reason or other were not caught in the Holocaust. Seeming to proclaim sufficiency the images proclaim insufficiency; seeming to announce solid permanence they announce transience. Here we are, the snapshots seem to say, but Sebald uses them to say: Like trees, flowers, mansions and hopes, we are gone.

In his tramp through once flourishing, now depressed parts of Suffolk, Sebald compiles a narrative of all that is gone. In Lowestoft, the shops are boarded up. The herring fleet is no more—an old photo shows workers knee-deep in a silver avalanche—and pollution breeds monsters: fish with male and female genitals that still perform a mating dance that has become “a dance of death.”

Frederick, an old neighbor, recalled his childhood summers at the once fashionable resort “as if I were seeing everything through flowing white veils.” His father and mother and sisters led the way up from the beach; behind came the servants with Frederick mounted on a donkey. “Once, years ago,” he said, “I even dreamed of that scene, and our family seemed to me like the court of King James II in exile on the coast of The Hague.”

The once great houses are crumbling or maintained, for example, as at Somerleyton, where the heir drives tourists around the park in a miniature train. Not all were beautiful; some were monuments of mid-Victorian, nouveau-riche kitsch. Ugliness, just like brightness, falls from the air; the horrendous collections of bric-a-brac are exemplars of the senility of possessions.

As he plods along, transience on the ground, the narrator describes airy circles of transience in his mind and memory: an apparently random inventory of what he has encountered and read.

There is a sketch of Joseph Conrad meeting a British consul in the Congo who was preparing a public denunciation of Belgian atrocities. Later the consul, by then Sir Roger Casement, would be hanged for his aid to Irish rebels. (A photo of two pages of the Casement diaries—a record of homosexual encounters used by the British to blacken his name—is included.) Conrad recurs, seemingly arbitrarily: He is in Ostend at the same time as an uncle of Kafka's; he rides in a sleigh to visit his family's estate in Poland; he makes love to the mistress of a Spanish royal claimant.

The juxtapositions go on: sketches of Algernon Swinburne and Edward FitzGerald, translator of the Rubaiyat—etiolated descendants of blimpish naval and land-owning families, respectively. There is an eccentric Anglo-Irish widow and her four children, incompetently trying to survive in their decaying mansion.

All these are random, seemingly; all suggest mortality of one kind or another. So do two lively encounters. A Dutch sugar beet operative notes the connection between sugar and art: Both the Tate collection in London and the Mauritshuis in The Hague are products of slave-worked sugar plantation fortunes. The paintings, the Dutchman remarks, strike him as having a caramelized sheen.

A Suffolk farmer shows him an enormous model of Jerusalem's Second Temple that he has worked on for 30 years. Archeologists, religious leaders and Lord Rothschild visit him regularly; he painstakingly alters the model to take account of the latest scholarly findings. When an American evangelist suggested that he must be divinely inspired, he retorted that if that were so, he wouldn't have to keep making changes.

Transience, or the illusion of countering it, takes on a darker hue. The narrator's approaching breakdown is foreshadowed. He tells of the 1987 hurricane that knocked down 14 million trees in Britain and turned the park outside his home turned into something like a desert, with silence replacing bird songs. At Dunwich, a flourishing port in the Middle Ages, there is only a ruin or two remaining: The seas have clawed away the bluffs on which it stood. The narrator looks out over the gray tide that covers it. What he sees is “the immense power of emptiness.”

Rings, in fact, with all the gracefulness of its writing, its air of simply observing the oddities of change and its literary digressions, is a lament. Pain runs beneath it, an aquifer of loss undermining the surface upon which the narrator walks and digresses. It is not a slip, for example, when he refers to the North Sea off Suffolk as the German Ocean. (“Death,” we remember the Paul Celan line, “is a master from Germany.”)

Only slowly do we realize that Rings is an extension, an expansion of The Emigrants, though harder to fathom, less accessible and less immediately stirring. In the former, the fact of the Holocaust provided a mighty current on which Sebald sailed his flotilla of stories, connections and disassociations—each variously ramshackle, graceful, tragic and fearsomely armed.

Rings lacks the thunderous current; it eddies and scatters, sometimes aimlessly, it seems, and with considerable prolixity. It may be a while before the reader realizes that for Sebald the Holocaust set in motion a shock wave for all, not just part, of mankind. It has leached away the illusion of life and permanence that allows humanity to take pleasure in its endeavors even if theoretically aware of their mortality.

Neither the peaceful monotonous landscape of Suffolk nor its crumbling monuments nor the narrator's lifetime store of art, language and remembrance can escape the blight.

James Wood (review date 6 July 1998)

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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 genre or dissolve an old one. Here was the first contemporary writer since Beckett to have found a way to protest the good government of the conventional novel-form and to harass realism into a state of self-examination.

And here, in The Rings of Saturn, is a book more uncanny than The Emigrants. In it, a man who might be Sebald walks around the English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. The book is curlingly set in the present, but this man is something of an old-fashioned journeyman, a turnpike-pounder, as if from a nineteenth-century tale. Sebald's book is divided into ten bending and opaque chapters. In these chapters, the narrator alights upon certain natural and man-made features: a town here, a village there, a strange piece of the coast, a church, and several country houses. He reflects on all kinds of things: on the decline of the country house in England, on Belgian colonialism, on Conrad, Swinburne, and Edward Fitzgerald, on the history of the silkworm industry. The book proceeds in great, withholding arcs, never quite delivering the information it seems to cherish so. Like The Emigrants, the book is amphibiously slippery, neither quite fiction nor travelogue, and yet always absolutely artistic.

In The Emigrants, Sebald told the stories of four men, each of whom had been menaced by twentieth-century history. The book was not really about the Holocaust, as many reviewers claimed, and it was most certainly not about Nazism. Sebald's subjects were victims of slightly different kinds of upheaval or catastrophe: two were casualties of Nazism and two of exile, and all, very much like nineteenth-century fictional characters, had their lives eaten at by sadness, by a kind of internal wasting sickness that Sebald superbly evoked.

The two exiles furnished, perhaps, the most mysterious tales. Dr. Henry Selwyn was a Lithuanian Jew who arrived in England as a child at the turn of the century. When Sebald met him in the 1970s, Selwyn was at the end of his life, and was quietly demented. He had retreated from his country house to live in his garden, in a stone folly of his own making; and he shot himself dead a few years after telling Sebald his story. The other exile, Sebald's great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth, left Germany in the early years of the century, and worked for a long time as a butler for a Long Island family called the Solomons. Ambros went mad, and died in an Ithaca asylum in the early 1960s.

Three of these characters actually existed, and the other was partly based on the British painter Frank Auerbach. Yet The Emigrants reads like fiction. It is fiction, because of the care and the patterning of Sebald's narration, because of its anguished interiority, and because Sebald so mixes established fact with unstable invention that the two categories copulate and produce a kind of truth which lies just beyond verification: that is, fictional truth.

On its own, this would not be extraordinary. What is remarkable about The Emigrants and about The Rings of Saturn is the reticent artificiality of Sebald's narration, whereby fact is taken from the real world and made fictional. This is the opposite of the trivial “factional” breeziness of writers such as Julian Barnes or Umberto Eco, who take facts and superficially destabilize them within fiction, who make facts quiver a little, but whose entire work is actually in homage to the superstition of fact. Such writers do not believe deeply enough in the fictional to abandon the actual world. They toy with accuracy; they are obsessed with questions of accuracy and inaccuracy, for even inaccurate facts, to such writers, have a kind of empirical electricity, since they connect us to a larger informational zealousness. This informational neurosis makes their fiction buzzingly unaffecting. Facts are a sport for such writers, a semiotic superfluity, ultimately quite readable.

For Sebald, however, facts are indecipherable, and therefore tragic. He works in exactly the opposite way to Barnes or Eco. Though his deeply elegiac books are made out of the cinders of the real world, he makes facts fictive by binding them so deeply into the forms of his narratives that these facts seem never to have belonged to the actual world, and seem only to have found their proper life within Sebald's prose. This, of course, is the movement of any powerful fiction, however realistic, this is the definition of fiction-making: the real world gains a harsher, stronger life within a fiction because it receives a concentrated patterning that actual life does not exert. It is not that facts merely seem fictive in Sebald's work; it is that they actually become fictive, even though they remain true and real. (It is true, for instance, that Sebald's great-uncle left Germany in the early years of the century.) They become fictive not in the sense that they become untrue or are distorted, but in the sense that they become newly real, in a way parasitical of, yet rivalrous to, the real world.

In addition to the delicacy of his patterning, Sebald invests his narrations with a scrupulous uncertainty. Again, although he wants us to reflect on this uncertainty, Sebald's self-reflexive procedures differ from much postmodernism in important respects. Sebald's reticence is more than teasing; it is the sound of anguish. Sebald's narrators, in The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn, are somewhat proximate to Sebald: they are German men who live in England, and who teach. Yet they are also voices in pain, and their pain is that they do not seem to know themselves, and cannot be known by the reader because they are apparently incapable of fully revealing themselves. (This is also true about Sebald's human subjects, such as the four emigrants.)

In The Rings of Saturn, for instance, the narrator appears to be half-mad, wandering around the English countryside collecting stray information. An uneasy comedy is never far away. When this narrator stops in Southwold, he tells us: “Whenever I am in Southwold, the Sailors' Reading Room is by far my favourite haunt.” Beckett is the most obvious influence here, and in both writers uncertainty is always raised to a metaphysical power. Self-reflexiveness in such writers is the text pinching itself to see if it actually exists.

Consider Sebald's use of photographs, which, in different hands, might easily degenerate into a glib game of spot-the-truth. In both these books, uncaptioned photographs are included, most of which seem to relate to a place or an incident in the text, but some of which do not. It seems likely that Sebald borrowed this idea from Stendhal's autobiography, The Life of Henry Brulard, throughout which Stendhal litters his own often unreliable drawings and diagrams. But Sebald uses his photographs solemnly, elegiacally, and rarely jauntily.

If one passage can suggest the frail beauties, the dreamy suggestiveness, and the soft pain of this use of text and photograph, it might be a passage from The Emigrants, in which Sebald is walking on the beach in New Jersey with his Uncle Kasimir. He has come here to gather information on the strange and sad life of his great-uncle. Uncle Kasimir looks at the sea:

I often come out here, said Uncle Kasimir, it makes me feel that I am a long way away, though I never quite know from where. Then he took a camera out of his large-check jacket and took this picture, a print of which he sent me two years later, probably when he had finally shot the whole film, together with his pocket watch.

Under this paragraph, Sebald prints a photograph of a man who looks a little like the author, standing on a beach. Yet the photograph is so murky that it is impossible to identify its subject. We are encouraged to look at the photograph, which then turns us away from itself, converting the passage, very movingly, into a meditation on visibility. The book's deep theme, after all, is visibility: how we see the past, and how it sees us. Sebald has arrived in New Jersey partly to look at old photographs of his great-uncle. His Uncle Kasimir has been standing on the beach “gazing out at the ocean,” trying to see something he cannot articulate—the past, perhaps. And then come these two sentences, whose literary care is immense: the blurred photograph reminds us that we cannot read this narrator; the tiny, pregnant detail about how it took Uncle Kasimir two years to shoot the rest of the film suggests a life without photographs, a life without much sense of its own visibility. And the detail of the pocket watch closes the scene like a still life, like a skull in a Renaissance painting, suggesting Time vainly controlled (by the writer who has assembled these constituents) and also lost (by these characters).

In both books, Sebald's language is an extraordinary, almost antiquarian edifice, full of the daintiest lusters. He is helped in this by Michael Hulse, an English poet, who renders his German into English. Sebald, who teaches German at the University of East Anglia, then powerfully treads his own English into Hulse's, sometimes rewriting entire passages. One of the oddest effects of this prose is a quality of melodrama and extremism running alongside a soft mutedness.

Sebald's melodramatic side, one suspects, comes from the mid-nineteenth-century German tale, such as was written by Adalbert Stifter. Often, in The Rings of Saturn, Sebald's narrator finds himself on a desolate heath, or caught in a storm, like the narrator of Stifter's tale “Limestone.” (Sebald's English prose is sometimes almost indistinguishable in diction from Stifter's in English translation.) There is a quality of the Gothic about Sebald, written up in dementedly patient locutions: “I stuck to the sandy path until to my astonishment, not to say horror, I found myself back again at the same tangled thicket from which I had emerged about an hour before. …” Speaking of Belgium, Sebald's narrator notes that that country seems physically scarred by the memory of its vicious colonialism in the Congo; and he allows himself a rant, which sounds deliberately antiquarian:

And indeed, to this day one sees in Belgium a distinctive ugliness, dating from the time when the Congo colony was exploited without restraint and manifested in the macabre atmosphere of certain salons and the strikingly stunted growth of the population, such as one rarely comes across elsewhere. At all events, I well recall that on my first visit to Brussels in December 1964 I encountered more hunchbacks and lunatics than normally in a whole year.

One notes again the desperate comedy, and the strongly artificial, even dumbfounding, prose. A phrase such as “the macabre atmosphere of certain salons” exists in its own register of rhetorical excess; it does not really refer to anything outside language. For what salons is Sebald talking about? Indeed, for all the apparent quietness of Sebald's prose, exaggeration is its principle, an exaggeration that he has undoubtedly learned in part from Thomas Bernhard. Sebald's pessimism is Bernhard-like, too; as the narrator puts it here: “In reality of course, whenever one is imagining a bright future, the next disaster is just around the corner.”

Bernhard exaggerates the grotesque, but Sebald exaggerates the elegiac. Where Bernhard uses a Nietzschean hammer, Sebald's exaggeration is squeezed through a dream-like reticence. This effect does not resemble any other writer. The narrator of The Rings of Saturn tells us often that the world is dwindling, that nothing is as it used to be: there are fewer herring in the sea; all the elms that used to sway in England's woods and gardens have died, victims of the terrible Dutch elm disease; all the country houses Sebald visits in East Anglia were once thriving and are now either defunct, or are popular museums. Yet the narrator donates this information narrowly, slipping it to us by way of the dreamiest indirections.

Early in the book, for example, the narrator reaches a beach:

I reached Benacre Broad, a lake of brackish water beyond a bank of shingle halfway between Lowestoft and Southwold. The lake is encircled by deciduous woodland that is now dying, owing to the steady erosion of the coastline by the sea. Doubtless it is only a matter of time before one stormy night the shingle bank is broken, and the appearance of the entire area changes.

The coastline of East Anglia is subject to severe erosion, and this causes the narrator to recall a tale of human erosion, the story of one Major George Wyndham Le Strange, whose obituary he has recently read in a local newspaper. This Le Strange was one of the British soldiers who liberated the death camp at Belsen in April 1945. As with so many of Sebald's subjects, this event appears to have frayed his normality. The narrator tells us that Le Strange retreated from life, letting his large house and grounds fall into ruin, and sharing his life only with a cook, to whom he left the estate when he died. And then the narrator moves away from this story, and says:

As these things were going through my mind I was watching the sand martins darting to and fro over the sea. Ceaselessly emitting their tiny cries they sped along their flight-paths faster than my eyes could follow them. At earlier times, in the summer evenings during my childhood when I had watched from the valley as swallows circled in the last light, still in great numbers in those days, I would imagine that the world was held together by the courses they flew through the air.

This is very beautiful, and its strangeness is what is beautiful. We know nothing about this narrator. He has so far revealed little about his childhood, about its location; we merely assume it to be roughly contiguous with Sebald's. (That is, with Germany in the 1950s; Sebald was born in 1944.) But suddenly this man who has told us nothing about himself delivers this: “At earlier times, in the summer evenings during my childhood when I had watched from the valley. …” He speaks of these “earlier times” as if they were already familiar to us, as if we had dreamed them. And then follows this mysterious, utterly unfounded lament: “as swallows circled in the last light, still in great numbers in those days. …” But why would the swallows have disappeared? Why would they have been more abundant “in earlier times,” whenever exactly those times were?

Slowly the reader gathers the beautiful complexity of Sebald's elegy. This narrator mourns not only for what is lost (the swallows), but for what he has had to leave out of his own narrative. All that has disappeared from his life is what has also disappeared from his narrative. This is why neither we nor he can make sense of these backward glances. Reticence becomes the very stutter of mourning. This resembles a careful attenuation, almost a reversal, of Proustian retrospect: in Sebald, we are defined by the terrible abundance of our lacunae. And so the narrator who tells us that as a child he believed that the world was held together by the courses the birds took through the air, is now simply holding his life together by the strange courses his sentences take.

It is a film, more than any other book, that most resembles Sebald's lovely combination of opacity and extremity. That film is Werner Herzog's Caspar Hauser, to which Sebald silently alludes in The Emigrants. (His work is saturated in reference.) In that film, Caspar is asked by his mentor why nothing has been going right since he escaped from the prison in which he was kept for the early years of his life. “I have the feeling,” says Caspar—dreamily, modestly, but also somewhat grandiloquently—“that my life since that moment has been a great fall.” All of Sebald's characters have experienced some kind of “great fall,” beginning with the narrators of his books.

Like Caspar Hauser, the narrator of The Rings of Saturn dreams of the desert, and is something of a brilliant child, wandering around a landscape both real and imagined, at a finely bemused angle to all knowledge. As he tramps through East Anglia, he communicates with the dead, and ponders the strangest information, with which he is insanely profligate: the destruction of trees, the habits of the silkworm.

And he communicates to the reader in a language of exceptional beauty. Its diction is also imprisoned, as if only just escaped from the nineteenth century. “The day was dull and oppressive, and there was so little breeze that not even the ears of the delicate quaking grass were nodding.” Or: “The water in the gutter gurgled like a mountain stream.” Always, an alienated dreaminess pervades everything. The narrator visits a family called the Ashburys in Ireland, who live in a crumbling mansion: “The curtains had gone and the paper had been stripped off the walls, which had traces of whitewash with bluish streaks like the skin of a dying body, and reminded me of one of those maps of the far north on which next to nothing is marked.”

He is attracted again and again to all that is dwindling and passing. At Somerleyton Hall, he sees nothing but grasses and weeds where once was a thriving estate: “It takes just one awful second, I often think, and an entire epoch passes.” It is just the same at Sudbourne Hall, where the flamboyant Sir Cuthbert Quilter once held sway. At Dunwich, on the coast, Sebald tells us that one of the most important ports in Europe during the Middle Ages now lies underwater: “All of it has gone under, quite literally, and is now below the sea. …”

Sebald tells the stories of eccentrics and fantasists, many of whom resemble the first subject of The Emigrants, Dr. Henry Selwyn, the Lithuanian who reinvented himself as the perfect Englishman but ended his days in a stone folly eating only his own garden vegetables. We encounter the memory of Edward Fitzgerald, the translator of the Rubaiyat, who retired at an early age to a “tiny two-roomed cottage on the perimeter of the estate, and there he spent the next fifteen years, from 1837 till 1853, leading a bachelor life.” There Fitzgerald read and wrote, becoming increasingly eccentric.

For decades he had eaten a diet of vegetables, offended as he was by the consumption of large quantities of rare meat which his contemporaries considered necessary to keep one's strength up, and now he altogether dispensed with the chore of cooking, which struck him as absurd, and took little but bread, butter and tea. On fine days he sat in the garden surrounded by doves, and at other times he spent long periods at the window. …

Swinburne the poet is also of interest to Sebald's unhappy narrator, for Swinburne, like Fitzgerald, essentially retreated from life, and lived quietly in Putney. He “reminded a visitor,” writes Sebald, of a “silkworm”; and it is entirely characteristic of Sebald's writing that this last fact might be invented, and that the “visitor” might be Sebald himself.

Sebald narrates Fitzgerald's abrupt death superbly; and it is a sign of his nineteenth-centuriness that his narrated lives so often end with fully-told, full-blown deaths. The true subject of The Rings of Saturn is death. In the first section of the book, Sebald writes about (and incorporates passages from) Sir Thomas Browne's Urn-Burial, which is about the complicated artifacts that human beings surround themselves with in death. The country houses which Sebald describes again and again in this book are like the Pyramids and pagan graves that Browne described: they are mausolea.

Yet Sebald is always deeply self-examining, and he feels the need to include his own book among these mausolea. The silkworm is his emblem for this, and it appears throughout the book. The artist is like the silkworm, suggests Sebald, killing himself as he produces his fine thread of silk.

The book ends with a moving passage, in which Sebald compares the worker at a loom to the writer or the scholar. Both, he writes, are manacled to their work. An old loom, he writes, resembles a cage, and reminds us that “we are able to maintain ourselves on this earth only by being harnessed to the machines we have invented.” Writers and scholars, like weavers, tend to suffer from “melancholy and all the evils associated with it.” And this is understandable, writes Sebald, “given the nature of their work, which force[s] them to sit bent over, day after day, straining to keep their eye on the complex patterns they created. It is difficult to imagine the depths of despair into which those can be driven who, even after the end of the working day, are engrossed in their intricate designs and who are pursued, into their dreams, by the feeling that they have got hold of the wrong thread.”

In this sense, we are all artists, or death-artists. In a plane from Amsterdam to Norwich, the narrator looks down and notes that one never sees people on the ground, only buildings, cars, objects: “it is as if there were no people, only the things they have made and in which they are hiding.” Sebald is hiding in this book, of course. All of us create edifices in which to hide; these then become our mausolea; every third thought shall be my grave.

Elegy, in England, is easy to buy, especially of the country-house kind. But what distinguishes Sebald from most English elegists is the deep unease of his elegy—its melancholy, Germanic insistence. Sebald does not just see a Romantic-political decline in England, as Larkin did; he sees a decline of which we are not just the inheritors but also the creators. This is, I think, because Sebald believes in a kind of eternal recurrence. He does not say exactly this; but his book suggests that in every historical moment we have already been here. Standing in a camera obscura on the fields of Waterloo, he looks down on the old battlefield and remarks that history is always falsely seen: “We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.” Now, “survivors” is an odd word. How can we be the survivors of Waterloo? We were not there. Typically opaque, Sebald proceeds in mournfully shuffled sentences touched with comedy, never underlining anything. But I take him to be suggesting that we are always the survivors of a history that we attended in a previous incarnation.

Sebald's subjects, in this book and in The Emigrants, can escape nothing; they are always “survivors,” even of events which they never directly experienced. The virus of history infects even the inoculated. This is why the two exiles in The Emigrants suffer in similar ways to the two direct victims of Nazism. They are all survivors of a kind. This might explain why so many of Sebald's characters feel like Mrs. Ashbury and her daughters, the eccentric Anglo-Irish family who have escaped from life, who live in their rotting mansion and who consider breeding silkworms. About them, Sebald writes that they “lived under their roof like refugees who have come through dreadful ordeals and do not now dare to settle in the place where they have ended up.” Mrs. Ashbury, sounding just like Caspar Hauser, tells the narrator: “It seems to me sometimes that we never got used to being on this earth and life is just one great, ongoing, incomprehensible blunder.”

Sebald's pessimism, though touched by the wing of the idea of eternal recurrence, is not really metaphysical or theological. It is aesthetic. In the same way that Sebald's facts appear to exist only in the fictional form that Sebald gives them, so Sebald's pessimism is a mood that can only express itself in the forms of his own books. That is to say, in patterned fragments, haltingly, uncertainly. This mood is a kind of nineteenth-century melancholia, a tendency rather than a system. Outside Sebald's books, in bald précis, this melancholia would amount to little. Inside these pages, it lives vividly; and so each book by Sebald becomes a test-case of itself, and of the artistic, for each book is indescribable except in its own terms.

Sebald's quality of elegy is quietistic. Life is a “blunder” partly because it also seems a dream, and it seems a dream because it is dreaming us, not the other way around. The special beauty of Sebald's peroration on how the weaver and the writer are both haunted by the idea that they have got hold of the wrong thread is that Sebald admits into his own books the condition of being beautifully mistaken. Sebald and his characters are haunted by the incomprehensible, the indecipherable, the wrong turn. And Sebald includes his own thread, his own course, in this category. These intensely patterned books might, after all, be in search of the wrong pattern. They are themselves silken errors. But how will we know?

Randolph Stow (review date 31 July 1998)

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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 described by the publisher as “works of fiction”, an unexpected categorization in view of their contents. The narrator of The Rings of Saturn is certainly a man called Sebald, since he regards “the holy prince of heaven Saint Sebolt”, another restless and self-dissatisfied man, as his patron. We even have a blurred snapshot of him, at Ditchingham Park, against a cedar of Lebanon which was (probably) destroyed in the hurricane of October 1987. So far as one can tell, no detail of the narrator's experience has been invented. Did he, then, one wonders, instruct his publishers to call his books fiction? Is this a comment on the fabricative powers of memory? Do Chateaubriand's Mémoires d'outre-tombe, to some extent Sebald's model, also deserve this label?

Probably they do. When Sebald writes of Chateaubriand's youthful romance with the vicar's daughter of Ilketshall St Margaret in Suffolk, he must fabricate a little in order to understand. And Chateaubriand himself, though a distruster of memory (“memories … in some strange way blind us to life”), must tread the same path, otherwise “our existence would be a mere never-ending chain of meaningless moments”. The recording of memory, however “humiliating” and “contemptible”, is an act of salvaging, preceding the all-engulfing shipwreck.

Sebald, in his act of recording, has some hope of a therapeutic outcome. The short walking-tour of Suffolk which provides his book's framework was begun in the August dog days of 1992, to counteract the flatness felt after a long stint of work. “A year to the day after I began my tour, I was taken into hospital in Norwich in a state of total immobility.” He attributes that breakdown in part to the feelings of desolation aroused, “even in that remote place”, by “traces of destruction reaching far back into the past”. In 1992, there are already signs of disturbance. Puzzled by bewildering tracks through the heath at Minsmere, he seems to suffer a temporary memory loss, or fugue. From Orford Ness, surrounded by reminders of the twentieth century's scientific horrors, he has a vision of Orford's vanished windmills, which may or may not be an actual hallucination. Phrases like “I do not know how long …” are frequent.

Those words have a flavour of another age; a flavour which is one of Sebald's most marked characteristics. The style, while it records much that is distressing, is always, in itself, decorous and reassuring. The tone has been caught, with perfect tact, by Michael Hulse, who has also translated Goethe's Werther and Wassermann's Caspar Hauser. Some lines on a dead friend of Sebald's suggest that almost archaic quality.

Michael was in his late forties, a bachelor, and, I believe, one of the most innocent people I have ever met. … He was remarkable for the modesty of his needs, which some considered bordered on eccentricity. … Year in, year out, as long as I knew him, he wore either a navy blue or a rust coloured jacket, and if the cuffs were frayed or the elbows threadbare he would sew on leather trims or patches. … In the summer vacations, Michael would make long walking tours of the Valais and the area around Lake Geneva, in connection with his Ramuz studies, and sometimes in the Jura or the Cévennes. … But then without warning last May Michael, who had not been seen for some days, was found dead in his bed, lying on his side and already quite rigid, his face curiously mottled with red blotches. The inquest found that he had died of unknown causes, a verdict to which I added the words, in the deep and dark hours of the night.

No Edwardian academic would have done any sewing for himself; but, that apart, we seem to be looking at a typical example of those walking-touring bachelor scholars who people the ghost stories of M. R. James. It is this unflappable style which creates the unity of Sebald's highly complex “narrative”, which works by association, and takes off for faraway places at the drop of an image. Chapter Eight will serve as an example.

At his Southwold hotel, Sebald falls into conversation with a rich Dutchman, who draws his attention to the link between art galleries and sugar money (see the Mauritshuis and the Tate). He then goes to Woodbridge, where he considers the life and work of Edward FitzGerald. In a creaking old pub that night, he has a dream of FitzGerald, which turns into a dream of the Ashburys, for some time his hosts in their crumbling country house at the foot of the Slieve Bloom mountains. In some of his most fascinating pages, Sebald describes the decline of that and other Ascendancy families in and after the Irish Civil War.

He moves on towards Orford, reminded on the way of Victorian nouveaux riches and their conspicuous consumption. In Rendlesham Forest, which was devastated by the 1987 hurricane, he is driven to ground by a sort of sandstorm, from which he emerges with a feeling of post Apocalypse. He remembers some hideous scientific catastrophe which is rumoured to have happened at Shingle Street during the Second World War. A boatman takes him to mysterious Orford Ness, once the sinister preserve of research scientists, now open to those very few members of the public who care to be there. He finds it ugly and oppressive, and on his way back to Orford proper, has a déjà-vu vision of that charming backwater in its prime.

Nowhere does the reader find any sense of dislocation. The style, authoritative and sedate, smoothes all transitions. But implicit in that style is a good deal of pain. The climax (for even a structure as rambling as this can have one) is the hurricane of 1987: an extraordinary experience for everyone in the region. Where I live, the fishermen simply marvelled; the sea, they said, seemed to be boiling. Many strong men and women shed tears over the fate of the trees, already decimated by Dutch elm disease and drought. Sebald's lament for some particular trees, those near his house, is the most heartfelt and moving ever likely to be written about that event. All the raw, dumb shock is still there, as if in the memory of some survivor of Hiroshima.

But ruin is his theme: the destruction, by the sea, of Dunwich in the Middle Ages, and that of “the magic garden of Yuan Ming Yuan near Peking”, by British and French troops, in 1860; the ruination of Irish country-house life, by arson and impoverishment, since 1920; and of the sort of country-house life enjoyed by the new-rich in East Anglia, revolving around the wholesale slaughter of small creatures, by an advance of civilization. Sometimes, as in this last case, the reader is quite glad to see the back of them. And, as for Dunwich, is it not rather pleasurable to look at a map of what is under the North Sea, and then to look at the blank face of the sea itself? The Germans, I believe, have a word for the pleasure of ruins.

One feels that Sebald has not reached, probably will never reach, such a bland acceptance. He seems intransigent in mourning. And yet, he is a reassuring companion. Like Sir Thomas Browne, one of his masters, he has a fund of curious information, and one has absolute confidence in his research, whether he is discussing the North Sea herring fishery or sericulture in England and the world.

Occasionally, I felt that he had missed something. It seems odd to write at length about Joseph Conrad and his connection with Lowestoft, where he first heard English, without quoting his description of the men from whom he heard it (“East Coast chaps each built as though to last forever, and coloured like a Christmas card. Tan and pink—gold hair and blue eyes with that Northern straight-away-there look!”). Odd, too, to write a brief life of Edward FitzGerald without mentioning beloved “Posh”, the fisherman who perhaps exploited his fondness. Since Sebald found himself in Rendlesham Forest (where, according to M. R. James, one of the three gold crowns of East Anglia was dug up in 1687), I should have been interested to hear his thoughts about Staverton Thicks, whose ancient vegetation seems to have held a fascination for the painter John Nash. And Blundeston, of course, was the childhood home of David Copperfield, where he first beheld a certain dressing table, and the “numerous little steel fetters and rivets, with which Miss Murdstone embellished herself when she was dressed”.

A word should be said about Sebald's use of photographs and other illustrations, in this book as in The Emigrants. Most have features about as distinct as those of the “young” Bette Davis at the beginning of Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte. A point is being made, perhaps, about the fallibility of the camera as a recorder; rather, it is an obscure memory-jogger. Such a device is similar to eighteenth-century Grangerism, and strikes one sometimes as slightly comic in its doggedness. Herring-fishing is mentioned, and hey presto, there is a picture of a herring. But if one smiles, it is with the enjoyment of an amiable eccentricity.

If I attempt to sum up Sebald's work, as Englished by Michael Hulse, two adjectives come insistently to mind. One is staid (as to style), and the other is plangent (as to tone). The squaring-up between those two moods has produced a voice of memorable originality. And in the case of The Rings of Saturn, it has also produced a notable addition to the literature of Suffolk.

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

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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 observed, a year later he was admitted to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital ‘in a state of almost total immobility’. We might like to know more about his condition (the reference to Gregor Samsa and his little legs doesn't help much), its diagnosis and how it was treated. But Sebald prefers to let other people, other events and objects, speak for him. An exquisite sound picture of two night nurses points to his peculiar and remarkable gift: ‘Of the everyday matters they chatted about I understood very little. All I heard was the rise and fall of their voices, a kind of warbling such as comes from the throats of birds, a perfect, fluting sound, part celestial and part the song of sirens.’

Sebald, Professor of Modern German Literature at the University of East Anglia, had read that the skull of Sir Thomas Browne, antiquary, lover of mysteries, connoisseur of odds and ends, was kept in the museum of that same hospital. He failed to find it, or the museum, and it turned out that the skull had subsequently been buried with the rest of Browne's body in the Norwich church of St Peter Mancroft. There follows a disquisition on the life and work of Sir Thomas, a man close to Sebald's heart, and his nearest precursor in cast of mind, lightly (if arcanely) learned and enormously curious, including the possibility or probability of his having been present at the dissection in Amsterdam in January 1632 of the corpse of a hanged criminal, as immortalised in Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson, which is duly reproduced.

Here, as elsewhere, Sebald's words run into those of others, without benefit of quotation marks. Seamless, or unseemly? Mildly disconcerting, but the practice adds to the dreamlike effect of much of the writing; past blends with present, the individual becomes representative. ‘It takes just one awful second, I often think, and an entire epoch passes.’ The glories of Somerleyton Hall, once ‘an oriental palace in a fairy tale', have passed away, its stationmaster, its servants, its house guests, its cases of hock and Bordeaux, its boxes of corsets and crinolines … Now the Hall is open to a paying public who arrive in their own cars. From time to time a comical moment relieves Sebald's pictures of decline and dereliction; here he spots a miniature train, bearing sightseers (‘they reminded me of dressed-up circus dogs or seals’), and driven by the present Lord Somerleyton, his ticket satchel slung about him. Later, in a section on the Belgian Congo linking Joseph Conrad (who improved his English by reading the Lowestoft newspapers) with Roger Casement (whom Conrad much admired for his integrity), Sebald remarks on the ‘distinctive ugliness’ of Belgium and the stunted growth of its inhabitants. On one visit to Brussels he encountered more hunchbacks and lunatics than he would normally come across in the course of a year. (Shades of Baudelaire, whose kindliest finding was: ‘Les chiens seuls sont vivants; ils sont les nègres de la Belgique.’) These phenomena he attributes to the appalling exploitation of the Congo colony, the iniquity of the fathers visited on the children. Sir Thomas Browne, on the other hand, accounted it an offence against charity to reproach whole nations ‘by an uncharitable logic’.

That Sebald's links are often tenuous doesn't matter. As he puts it, he cannot ‘help thinking', and one thought leads to another. The bridge over the River Blyth was built in 1875 for a narrow-gauge railway running between Halesworth and Southwold. Local historians believe that the little train itself was originally made for an unspecified Chinese emperor. This thought leads Sebald to the Taiping Rebellion of 1851-64 (‘Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace', more than twenty million dead), backwards to the Opium War, forwards to the laying waste by British soldiers of the Yuan Ming Yuan gardens (an ‘earthly paradise’), and to the child emperor, Kuang-hsu (born in 1871, interested in mechanical toys), and his formidable aunt, the Dowager Empress Tz'u-hsi (enamoured of silkworms, one of Sebald's preoccupations). It may have been—Sebald imagines—that the Dowager Empress cancelled the order for the miniature court train intended for Kuang-hsu when the latter was bold enough to oppose her views. (Historically, this falling out happened in the late 1890s.) And thence to Swinburne, whose life was ‘coterminous to the year’ (well, very nearly) with that of the Dowager Empress, and whose rambles with Watts-Dunton between Southwold and Dunwich had a sedative effect on the poet's overwrought nerves. The thread breaks off with a visitor to The Pines, on Putney Hill, likening Swinburne to the silkworm, Bombyx mori, because of how he munched his way steadily through his food and how, waking from a post prandial nap, he burst into life and, ‘flapping his hands, flitted about his library, like a startled moth’.

Nothing in this lengthy excursus is unduly far-fetched, though not all of it seems worth the fetching. More engaging is a visit to the village of Middleton, and to the poet and critic Michael Hamburger, whose dreams and memories might have been created expressly for this book. ‘Why it was that on my first visit to Michael's house I instantly felt as if I lived or had once lived there, in every respect precisely as he does, I cannot explain.’ Empathy is often inexplicable. The next journey is to Bredfield, birthplace of Edward Fitzgerald, and thus of Omar Khayyám as we know him in English. Of FitzGerald's versions of the Rubáiyát, Sebald observes finely that they ‘feign an anonymity that disdains even the least claim to authorship, and draw us, word by word, to an invisible point where the medieval orient and the fading occident can come together in a way never allowed them by the calamitous course of history’.

Seductive as Sebald's melancholy is, on occasion one wonders if it isn't a little too determined. Was Lowestoft, in its heyday, as splendid a seaside resort as he claims? Is it now quite as utterly derelict as he declares, with nearly a quarter of the population illiterate and every week some bankrupt or jobless individual hanging himself? (As far as I can tell, he normally respects the fine line between fact and fiction. As Jonathan Coe noted in reviewing Sebald's ‘novel’ The Emigrants in this paper, the authorial voice impresses us as one we come to recognise and feel we can trust.) Not too surprisingly, near Lowestoft station a hearse overtakes him, and he is put in mind of the young German in Amsterdam, two centuries back, who marvelled over the ostentatious wealth of a merchant and shortly afterwards met the same man's funeral cortège. The story as told by Johann Peter Hebel is rather different. When the young German asks the name of the merchant, the Dutch cannot understand him, and reply: ‘Kannitverstan’; when he asks the name of the dead man, he is told the same. Poor Mr Kannitverstan, what use to him are all his riches now? Hebel's tale bears on an amusing linguistic misapprehension; Sebald cites the anecdote as a memento mori, another illustration of mutability and the vanity of human wishes.

‘Whenever one is imagining a bright future, the next disaster is just around the corner.’ (Or, as Sir Thomas Browne had it, ‘When all looks fair about, and thou seest not a cloud so big as a hand to threaten thee, forget not the wheel of things.’) Sir Cuthbert Quilter's Bawdsey, an ‘Anglo-Indian fairy-tale palace in the dunes', together with the presence of the German Empress in Felixstowe and the royal yacht Hohenzollern lying at anchor, might have seen the beginnings of a global alliance between Britain and Germany. But war broke out, and both the Kaiser and the fairy-tale palace fell into desuetude. A more cheering story is that of Thomas Abrams, an erstwhile farmer and a Methodist lay preacher, who has worked on a model of the Temple of Jerusalem for twenty years. His neighbours, doing nicely out of agricultural subsidies, reckoned him barmy, and even members of his family doubted his soundness of mind. But latterly archaeologists from all over the world have come to see his work, and publishers and television producers have besieged his gates. The advent of Lord Rothschild in a limousine conclusively restored his good name. Was he inspired by divine revelation, asked an American evangelist. No, he replied, for in that case, he wouldn't have needed to keep making alterations: it was all down to research and long, hard work. The Temple, Mr Abrams notes, lasted a bare hundred years; maybe his re-creation will last longer. For Mr Abrams, success was just around the corner.

That a feeling of monotony should set in is the price of the book's quiddity. Even the author's patron saint, St Sebolt, spreads a little gloom: on his wedding night, they say, he informed his bride that while their bodies were adorned that day, on the morrow they would be food for worms. (We are rather surprised, and oddly pleased for him, to hear that Sebald had ‘a run of good luck’ at the casino in Lindau.) Fishing boats lie abandoned, windmills along the coast have disappeared, ‘and when those bright little points faded away, the whole region, so to speak, faded with them’. Dutch elm disease has taken its toll, and so, too, has the hurricane of 1987; like men, trees flourish as a flower of the field, for as soon as the wind goes over them, they are gone. Yet we should remember that such things were the most precious; and—paradoxically, or indeed not surprisingly—The Rings of Saturn is decidedly elevating in comparison with the lowering effect of the run of books. There are worse things than melancholy.

The most entrancing passages here are Sebald's sudden visions and images (in which he seems to have been well served by the translator) and their hallucinatory yet authentic power. (Though some other adjective than ‘entrancing’ is needed for the photograph from the Forties of Bosnians, Serbs and Jews ‘hanged in rows like crows or magpies', a black spot of time.) For instance, a mallard illuminated by a flash of lightning, in minute detail, down to the pores in its eyelid; cars on motorways, seen from a light plane, ‘like beads on an abacus designed to calculate infinity’; in The Hague, the apparition of an American limousine bearing ‘a pimp in a white suit, wearing gold-framed sun-glasses and on his head a ludicrous Tyrolean hat’; the scratchy sound of a transistor radio, on the beach near Lowestoft, ‘as if the pebbles being dragged back by the waves were talking to each other’; a demented quail in a deserted aviary in the grounds of Somerleyton, ‘running to and fro along the edge of the cage and shaking its head every time it was about to turn, as if it couldn't comprehend how it had got into this hopeless fix’; a meal in a hotel said to be ‘of a superior description’ by the wanderer's guidebook, published shortly after the turn of the century: ‘The breadcrumb armour-plating of the fish had been partly singed by the grill, and the prongs of my fork bent on it’; the Orfordness landscape, with its deserted concrete bunkers and scrap metal, the detritus of what was once an establishment for secret weapons research, looking like the aftermath of a nuclear catastrophe: no wonder that when a hare started up from the grass at Sebald's feet, there was no telling which of them was the more terrified.

Orbits decay; and life itself, Sir Thomas Browne surmised, is but the shadow of death. All things die so that others may live, whether for better or for worse. ‘The discovery of the terrible reality hidden in this narration has a shattering power,’ the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung proclaims of the present book. Perhaps that's a trifle over the top. In fact as a guidebook of a distinctly superior description, The Rings of Saturn should recommend itself to the tourist industry. In the nicest sense Sebald has turned the North Sea back into the German Ocean.

Matthew Roberson (review date fall 1998)

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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 items.” What distinguishes this catalogue for the narrator, in addition to its eclectic scope, is that, like another of his favorite texts, Borges's Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, it deals with “our attempts to invent secondary or tertiary worlds”; the items in Browne's text “may have formed part of a collection put together by Browne but were more likely products of his imagination, the inventory of a treasure house that existed purely in his head and to which there is no access except through the letters on the page.” In turn, Sebald's book is a similar treasure house of items. As well as being the narrator's account of a walking tour through England's East Anglia, it is a map of the author's brilliantly wandering mind, which throughout the book takes flight in various ways: into biographical sketches of the famous, the eccentric, and the forgotten; into remembrances of momentous events and places disappearing now from our world(s) and minds; and into critical analyses of artworks, treasured and fringe, as well as the possible compulsions of their creators. Binding these disparate subjects, as they commingle through past and present, are Sebald's haunting meditations on the human desire for transcendence and the limitations of the earth, the relationships between human systems and natural patterns, the frightening immediacies of and possibilities in change, and the nebulous line separating life and death. The Rings of Saturn is strikingly intelligent. It is beautifully written and utterly captivating.

Michael Butler (review date 2 October 1998)

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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.

These are occasional pieces, modestly entitled “a memoir” or “notes”, but they have a unifying theme in that the writers Sebald discusses—Johann Peter Hebel, Gottfried Keller, Eduard Mörike, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Robert Walser—are, to varying degrees, eccentric figures, men who were either in conflict with their environment, as with the case of Rousseau, or lived their imaginative lives at a tangent to social reality. Whether they travelled or stayed in the same restricted environment, their existence—as the title of the book suggests—appears to be that of transient residents within ostensibly stable communities.

Even Hebel, who rose to high rank in the Lutheran Church, wrote his gently didactic stories from an idiosyncratic angle which attracted, for example, the admiration of that archetypal outsider, Walter Benjamin. Sebald neatly demonstrates how the Nazis (and Heidegger as late as 1956) misunderstood Hebel's prose, erroneously claiming him as a “Heimatdichter” for ideological purposes. At the same time, he does justice to Hebel's conservative paternalism, rejecting Benjamin's view that he supported the French Revolution.

The essay on Rousseau is a meditation on the French-Swiss philosophe, sparked by a visit to the idyllic Peterinsel in the Bieler See where Rousseau spent one of the very few peaceful moments of his turbulent life. Sebald's beautiful prose, juxtaposing contemporary tourism and eighteenth-century reality, skilfully conjures up the tranquillity of nature that Rousseau experienced and which today's visitors in their haste ignore.

With a similar economy of means, Sebald succeeds in delineating the Biedermeier world in which Mörike lived and worked. Behind Mörike's Swabian quietism lurked a constant premonition of disaster and chaos—the past coloured by the horrors of the French Revolution, the future already cloudy with encroaching industrialization.

Keller, too, was aware of the fragility of social existence, despite the fact that Switzerland was the only place where 1848 produced successful democratic change. He observed the waves of emigration from southern Germany and Switzerland to the United States, and knew the human cost of exile. Sebald explores with sensitivity Keller's melancholy, his proximity to an earlier tradition: the baroque obsession with transience.

The brief memoir on Robert Walser is in many ways the most interesting in that it comes closer to Sebald the writer, leaving the professional Germanist firmly in the background. For here the discussion is tentative, the knowledge uncertain. Walser's texts point to empty spaces within existence, defying definition. The so-called “microgrammes”, composed when Walser had retreated into an asylum and which have only recently been deciphered by dedicated and skilled Germanists, map an inner emigration which the reader can only ever follow imperfectly. What they reveal, for Sebald, is not a psychotic deterioration but a heroic attempt at self-defence and self-assertion. Against the approaching barbarism of fascist grandiosity Walser's concentration on the miniature, the unconsidered trifles of everyday life, represents a deeply humanist gesture.

These five meditative studies, impressionistic but threaded with neat insights and formulations, are woven into an extended autobiographical essay. The discussion of language, image and rhythm point to Sebald's own practice as a creative writer. Both the techniques of these older colleagues and their existential concerns find echoes in Sebald's fiction. This close affinity accounts for the empathy he brings to his subjects and enables him to reveal the vitality their work still possesses in our very different age.

The final essay deals with the contemporary painter Jan Peter Tripp. The sudden change of direction from word to paint produces an unexpected coda. Tripp's extreme surface naturalism is seen as a subtle challenge to the prosaic viewer. Like the writers Sebald discusses so illuminatingly, the painter poses frames of apparent order which reveal on closer gaze interstices of doubt.

Trudi Tate (review date November 1998)

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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 with a collection of historical narratives. Sebald's reflections on the history and geography of the eastern edge of England are as peculiar and haunting as the landscape itself.

Sebald undertook the walk, he tells us, in the hope that it might dispel the sense of emptiness he felt after a long period of writing. But the journey between Lowestoft and Felixstowe, a distance of about forty miles, produced a melancholia of its own. A year to the day after he had started his walk, Sebald was taken to hospital with a strange paralysis. The ailment is never explained, but it seems to be a physical expression of psychic distress, caused by his journey. Everywhere he went, he tells us, he found evidence of centuries of violence and destruction. Most of the horrors are manmade, but some are a consequence of geography. For thousands of years, since the last Ice Age, the coasts of Britain have been eroded by the sea. Around six thousand square miles have disappeared since Anglo-Saxon times. Suffolk is particularly vulnerable; occasionally the newspapers speculate that the entire region will be submerged as global warming affects the North Sea.

The coast of Suffolk is less than two hours journey from London, yet its eerie landscape seems a great distance from the rest of England. Sparsely populated villages extend along the coast, once the sites of mighty industries: medieval shipbuilding, sea trade, fishing, nineteenth-century tourism. Now the area is in economic decline. Unemployment is high and the region is littered with the ruins of hundreds of years of lost economic and social achievement. Yet the area is also strangely beautiful, not least because of its ruins, and has a long history of attracting writers and painters.

Sebald is fascinated by the intersection of history and geography in this half-forgotten corner of eastern England. His walk takes him to Dunwich, a village which, is hardly there now, since most of it has fallen into the sea. Dunwich started to disintegrate nearly two thousand years ago, in Roman times. Yet it continued to thrive and reached its height in the early middle ages, becoming the sixth-most important town in England in the thirteenth century. In the Domesday Survey of 1067, Dunwich was found to be growing, even though half of it had already disappeared. It was wealthy, too, and was taxed 60,000 herrings. Now the lost town occupies two or three square miles under water. According to local legend, you can sometimes hear the sound of church bells ringing under the sea. As he looks out over the North Sea, Sebald is struck by the immense power of emptiness. The land, too, has a kind of vacancy which is unsettling yet oddly powerful. A number of nineteenth-century poets were drawn to Dunwich; so was Henry James. In the early eighteenth century, Daniel Defoe wrote that he found Dunwich even more compelling than the lost cities of Carthage, Jerusalem, or ancient Rome. The antique cities had disappeared completely, while Dunwich was eerily present, at least partially. More than a century later, the town had a special appeal for Victorian melancholics, such as Swinburne, who visited several times in the 1870s.

Further to the south, Sebald comes to Orford, once the site of a number of secret military research establishments. For decades, sections of the land were closed to the public. One research area was clearly visible from the village, but what went on was a mystery, and the place was as unreachable, says Sebald, as the Nevada desert or an atoll in the South Seas. Like a number of recent writers, Sebald is interested in the forgotten histories of military experiments and their effects on a local community.

War technology has a complicated and ill-understood place in the cultural memory of a nation, as does war itself. Early in his journey, Sebald meets an Englishman, a gardener named William Hazel. As a schoolboy during the Second World War, Mr Hazel was conscious of the bombing raids launched on Germany from East Anglia's many airfields. People nowadays have hardly any idea of the scale of the operation, said Hazel. In the course of one thousand and nine days, the Eighth airfleet alone used a billion gallons of fuel, dropped seven hundred and thirty-two thousand tons of bombs, and lost nine thousand aircraft and fifty thousand men.

Every evening William Hazel watched the bombers setting off towards Germany, and as he fell asleep he imagined German cities in flames, the firestorms setting the heavens alight, and the survivors rooting about in the ruins. He learned about the allied strategy of carpet-bombing, and discovered the geography of Germany by following the news and tracing the bombings across the map. This traumatic education was followed by a period as a soldier in the army of education in Germany after the war. There he learned some German in the hope of reading what people, themselves had to say about the bombings. To his surprise, he found almost nothing. No one at the time seemed to have written about the experiences or afterwards recorded their memories. Even if you asked people directly, it was as if everything had been erased from their minds.

Sebald is troubled by questions of what societies remember and what they forget, and how we can understand the violence of our common histories. He is also concerned with the effects of war upon the societies and landscapes of Europe. Wars leave their traces across the centuries; their effects can be felt long after the causes and the people involved have been for gotten. For Sebald, it is important to remember the suffering of earlier conflict's as well as those of our own troubled century. As time passes, our memories of war are drawn entirely from representations in literature, war memorials, photographs, written histories and paintings, and Sebald is suspicious of these sources even as his own book demonstrates their power and significance.

Accounts of all battles, Sebald argues, are at best unreliable; worst are the paintings of sea battles which are without exception figments of the imagination. The great pictures of naval engagements in the seventeenth century are profoundly moving, yet they convey no sense of what it might have been like to be on board one of these ships, already overloaded with equipment and men, when burning masts and sails began to fall or cannonballs smashed into the appallingly overcrowded decks. We cannot imagine the agony endured by the people involved, argues Sebald, any more than we can begin to comprehend the amount of work required to build and equip the battle ships, most of which were doomed to destruction.

At another point of his journey, Sebald remembers visiting a memorial on the battlefield at Waterloo. The desolate field extends all around where once fifty thousand soldiers and ten thousand horses met their end within a few hours. Now the land is silent, empty, and Sebald wonders what happened to the remains of the dead. Are they buried under the memorial? Are we standing on a mountain of death? Is that our ultimate vantage point? If so, it is a point from which we understand nothing.

We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was. Or, as he remarks elsewhere: Who can say how things were in ages past? Some readers might find this a pessimistic, even a nihilistic view. If understanding is impossible, why should we take the trouble to learn about the past? Yet Sebald's book has precisely the opposite effect: even as he despairs of understanding, his work constantly demonstrates why history matters, and why we need to keep rethinking the traumas as well as the pleasures of previous generations.

The Rings of Saturn draws upon philosophy, literature, autobiography, natural history and travel writing. But this is not a postmodernist work; rather the opposite. The book resists current notions of history as heritage, too. For Sebald, history is not a commodity to be packaged, but a complicated set of narratives and events which require constant scholarly research and interpretation. It is curious that, at the end of the twentieth century, a literary work such as this seems to be one of the few places in which complex: thinking can take place. In Britain, many commentators are concerned by the disappearance of thoughtful and well-informed discussions from our newspapers, television and radio. And as instantaneous and often inaccurate electronic sources come to dominate our lives, the real books, documents, and material objects which so fascinate Sebald seem increasingly rare and precious. And his concerns are perhaps shared by a wide readership. The Rings of Saturn has been extremely popular in Britain and was for a period among the top ten bestsellers. This should perhaps encourage those who are opposed to the dumbing-down of our culture; the success of this book indicates there is still a large readership for serious work.

Interwoven with Sebald's historical meditations are a number of surreal biographical fragments: Swinburne's thwarted desire to join the cavalry, the twice-buried skull of Thomas Browne. Sebald is particularly interested in melancholics, and devotes an entire chapter to a discussion of the unhappy youth of Joseph Conrad. He quotes Conrad in the epigraph to his book. In a letter of 1890, Conrad tried to explain that some people feel the suffering of the world so deeply that they no longer have a capacity to recognise the good. Such people cause pain to others, and Conrad, himself prone to profound melancholy, urged forgiveness. Above all, he wrote, we must forgive the unhappy souls who have elected to make the pilgrimage on foot, who skirt the shore and look uncomprehendingly upon the horror of the struggle, the joy of victory, the profound hopelessness of the vanquished …

Born in Germany in 1944, Sebald has lived in England for nearly thirty years. He is fascinated by the sheer richness and complexity of British history, and his book suggests new ways of thinking about Britain's complicated relationships—generous, productive, violent, exploitative with other peoples and nations. Current preoccupations with colonial history, important as these are, address only a part of a story which is rich with contradictions and ironies. Sebald, writing as a German, a European, and, in some sense, an English person, offers fresh perspectives on this strange island nation, its people, and its land.

Writers about the landscape often marvel at its capacity for renewal. Yet some places never recover from the assault of human or natural forces. As Henry Selwyn in The Emigrants remarks, it seems, increasingly that Nature itself is groaning and collapsing beneath the burden we place upon it. In The Rings of Saturn, Sebald observes that the rivers in Suffolk carry tons of mercury, cadmium, and lead, as well as fertilisers and pesticides, into the North Sea. Toxic substances sink into the waters of the Dogger Bank, where, he says, a third of the fish are born with strange deformities. Huge rafts of poisonous algae make the waters uninhabitable for other creatures. Some fish are unable to breed due to bizarre sexual mutations caused by pollution. Sebald's melancholy narrative reminds us why these things matter.

If you stand on the shore of the charming town of Aldeburgh, and look towards the north, you can see two large objects sitting serenely on the horizon. One is a brown cube, the other a white sphere. These are nuclear reactors, Sizewell A and Sizewell B. A little further to the north is the lost town of Dunwich and the section of coast which has been disappearing into the sea, sometimes gently, sometimes violently, for the past two thousand years.

André Aciman (review date 3 December 1998)

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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, cadenced, liturgical sound to them. They evoke resigned Old World languor, and something else as well, which isn't lodged in the words themselves but in their tonality, and which hovers above them like the echo of Old Country speak, where people still put the subject at the tail end of a sentence—because that too is typical of Sebald's prose as it is brilliantly rendered by the poet and translator Michael Hulse: it slips back to the melancholy inflections of the late Victorians, as though stirred by their nostalgia, only to come back staring at us from an unsuspected vantage point that is decades ahead of the Victorians and—it takes a chilling moment to realize—ahead of us as well. It is poised in the third millennium, startled, spectral.

Sebald, who is himself an emigrant from his native Germany and has been Professor of German at the University of East Anglia since 1986, takes us into what we initially thought was going to be a short stroll among the obsolete flavors in grandma's spice rack; what The Rings of Saturn is, actually, is a protracted visit to purgatory, except that here Dante, like the lonely eccentrics in all four of The Emigrants' tales, never comes back in one piece, and certainly never quite among the living. The cover of The Emigrants appropriately portrays a yew tree; it is the tree of the dead. And the dead, as is always the case with Sebald's emigrants, are not necessarily those who died. They are the survivors—most notably from the Holocaust.

In Sebald's tales the Holocaust doesn't just continue to haunt its survivors, it does something worse: it hunts them down, the way World War II, or World War I, for that matter, is always just behind those who survived it. These twentieth-century cataclysms continue to exact their toll every day, because history, Sebald reminds us, is not only too stupid to forget, or too mean to forgive, but because it keeps returning, again and again. Human history is a perpetual spiral of depressingly limited episodes. Everything in Sebald comes back. And what makes these returns so tragic is that there is no telling whether theirs is a pattern without purpose or chaos with a method. Saturn completes its cycle around the sun approximately every thirty years. Meanwhile, everyone is distracted by its rings, its moons, and their seeming harmonies, when, in fact, “the rings of Saturn,” says the epigraph to The Rings of Saturn, are “in all likelihood … fragments of a former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effect.” History, no matter how often it comes back, is always about rubble and the piling up of stones. It aches for extinction.

The opening tale of The Emigrants, “Dr. Henry Selwyn,” should be told here, because it sets the tone for the two books Sebald has published in English. In it, a narrator (Sebald) and his companion—a certain Clara, who mysteriously reappears on the penultimate page of The Rings of Saturn—are new lodgers in the house of a retired English gentleman in Norwich. This landed doctor, who is a bit strange, seems affected by depression but is not dysfunctional. He has led a successful life as a doctor and now tends to his house, which, as the reader finds soon enough, is totally run down. But no one seems to care, not the solitary Briton, nor Elli, his wife, from whom he seems totally estranged, nor Elaine the maid, who flits in and out of the story without purpose. No real friendship develops between the tenants and the landowner, though something of a strained informality does blossom.

The tenants are invited to dinner one evening. The mistress of the house is absent, as is her wont, but in her place is a guest, a Mr. Elliott. After dinner, Selwyn begins to tell his guests of his friendship with a sixty-five-year-old Swiss mountain guide named Johannes Naegeli during the years immediately preceding World War I. Naegeli and he had become very close, and there is a hint of something undisclosed, if only because their separation in 1913 proved to be quite traumatic for the young Selwyn—though, there again, Sebald's language is characteristically cryptic and unemotional and prevents us from drawing any conclusions. The two never meet again, for Naegeli disappeared one day, and “it was assumed that he had fallen in a crevasse in the Aare glacier.” Young Selwyn was devastated by the news. “It was as if I were buried under snow and ice.” “But this is an old story,” he adds, trying to check an access of emotion. The reader, meanwhile, has also been told that the memory of Naegeli “comes to [Selwyn's] mind” more than ever now, fifty-seven years later.

Later on after the couple moves out of the Selwyn residence to a house nearby, Henry Selwyn decides to drop in for a visit. In the course of their conversation, he asks Sebald whether he is ever homesick. The narrator, true to form, “cannot think of any adequate reply,” whereupon Selwyn begins to confess that, in recent times, he has been prey to homesickness. Suddenly comes another revelation from the past, spoken almost as an afterthought.

The doctor, it turns out, is not really an Englishman but comes from a small village in Lithuania. Again, nothing is stated overtly, but it becomes clear that Selwyn's family, whose name is not Selwyn but Serewyn and which emigrated at the turn of the century, is Jewish. The move to England took place long before the Holocaust, and therefore the Holocaust as it affects Dr. Selwyn's life is irrelevant—except that, given the novel's focus on other death camp rescapés, the Holocaust casts a retroactive shadow over Selwyn's life as well: he may have avoided it and it may be of no consequence to him, but the Holocaust would doubtless have found him had he not left Lithuania. The narrator knows as much, though he doesn't say anything—and it is ultimately in this counterfactual key that the story is told: with disquieting and deliberate sobriety, but with the eerie sense that the correct tense to tell of these could-have-beens-that-never-really-were-but-aren't-unreal-for-never-having-been may not exist. Supremely tactful, Sebald never brings up the Holocaust. The reader, meanwhile, thinks of nothing else.

Follows another bombshell. Upon leaving Lithuania, the Serewyns had hoped to land in America. But, thinking they had arrived in New York, they inadvertently got off the ship in England. When they realized their mistake, the ship had long since cast off again. Young Hersch Serewyn becomes an Englishman by default. If one could speak of counterfactual selves, it is no longer clear which of the following three is the real Selwyn: the one who belongs to Lithuania, the one who should have gone to America, or the one who ended up in England?

By now, and in typical Sebaldian fashion, the above strands of the stories, each already twisted and twined with unrealized possibilities, are themselves braided together. The Swiss mountain guide, Selwyn's Jewish roots, the landing in England, all are red herrings—but, let us just grant, of such red herrings lives are made. In fact, all of Sebald's characters, not just Dr. Selwyn, live out these thoroughly unintended lives. For no life ever ends up being the one originally scripted, and, with time, it seems all lives go to waste, and everyone longs for the end. In Sebald's universe, the building blocks of life are not love, not truth, not fate, not friendship, not even pleasure or suffering. Life stories happen to other people. Here the units of life are depletion, longevity, and unremitting loneliness. The combination is not lethal, but it kills you where it matters—for the arsenic here is a daily dose of “permanent disquiet.” which is how Sebald defines time, or “a kind of dumbness,” which is how he defines memory.

Fourth Act. While vacationing in France that same year, Selwyn's former tenant suddenly hears that the doctor has committed suicide by using his rifle.

The final revelation comes fifteen years later. Sebald is traveling in Switzerland and it is late July 1986, and he begins to remember Dr. Selwyn. For “certain things … have a way of returning unexpectedly, often after a lengthy absence.” The narrator is on a train and accidentally spots an article in that day's newspaper, which reports that “the remains of the Bernese alpine guide Johannes Naegeli, missing since summer 1914, had been released by the Oberaar glacier, seventy-two years later.”

And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. The body that was lost during the summer just before the start of World War I has finally been recovered—or released—long after the war has become a hazy memory, long after its dead have decomposed, as have the bodies of those who lived through that war only to perish in the next. And yet the frozen body suggests that the Great War couldn't have taken place so long ago, that certain objects, bodies, buildings, stories, memories have ways of enduring or of crossing time zones, and, like unexploded land mines, lie in wait, leering ironies that remind us not just that irony is one of the many masks that death wears among the living, but that irony is the most tragic and unwieldy figure of all, belying our hopeless attempts to understand things before they backfire on us. In a world where there is no Providence, the only indicators that some sort of cosmic intelligence has been guiding our lives are precisely these daily accidents and red herrings.

What could be the meaning behind Naegeli's reappearance? And is there a meaning in the fact that it took the most inadvertent glimpse at a newspaper to let the narrator suddenly piece Dr. Selwyn's life together, linking an event in Switzerland in 1986 with a story told sixteen years earlier in England, about a man who had died in Switzerland in 1914?

“Dr. Henry Selwyn” cannot have a meaning, inasmuch as any meaning pales compared to the magnitude of the questions such a story raises. To aestheticize not only means to give luster, distance, and form to things that are otherwise murky and ineffable; it is also how an author substitutes for the real answer the best answer, provided his answers are mandated by the form of the work in which the questions arose. A great work is often an ideological failure; but it remains great because the answers that it gives are entirely beholden to its form. Mann knew this, as did Joyce, Proust, and Svevo. And the Book of Job, probably the most poorly argued defense of God, knew it best of all. And so they are ever returning to us, the dead is “poetic” for the very reason that it fails to offer a satisfactory explanation but puts forth languor and resignation as the only plausible substitute.

Naegeli, the friend, Elli, the wife, Elaine, the maid, Elliott, the friend—their names are almost the same, the way the names in Elective Affinities are almost the same (Otto, Charlotte, Ottilie). Naegeli's body turns up seventy-two years after it disappeared; Dr. Selwyn dies seventy-two years after leaving Lithuania. Is there a connection? And could such a connection mean anything? Henry Selwyn, the man who shows off his gun, ends up taking his own life with it. Another character, Ambros Adelwarth, having once taken his friend to an asylum, finds his own way back to that same asylum years later, where he'll die as well. Does this mean anything, or do these symmetries merely indicate a tormented mind whose only way of groping in the dark is by seeking elective affinities and eternal returns everywhere, because there is nothing else to go by? “The ghosts of repetition,” Sebald writes in The Rings of Saturn, “haunt me with ever greater frequency.”

Goethe, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard are likely suspects here, as are Nabokov and Borges, and in good part Georges Perec and Joyce. But it is Sir Thomas Browne who is Sebald's Virgil in The Rings of Saturn. Browne was born on October 19, 1605, and died on October 19, 1682. His life came full circle, and as such—by another coincidence—epitomizes the sign of Saturn, under which he was born and whose emblem is—coincidentally, again—a snake biting its own tail. Indeed, in “A Letter to a Friend upon the Occasion of the Death of His Intimate Friend,” Browne already marveled at the implied symmetry of dying on one's own birthday. “That the first day should make the last, that the Tail of the Snake should wind upon the day of their Nativity, is indeed a remarkable Coincidence.” A remarkable coincidence it is indeed, especially since Browne is alluding to Saturn, and therefore probably to himself and his own death—but twenty-five years before the fact. Did Browne plan the day of his death as “symmetrically” as do Sebald's other characters? Or do things simply spiral in and around each other? And what kind of affinities do spiraling coincidences imply?

The Rings of Saturn reproduces a page from Browne's The Garden of Cyrus where Browne explores the mysteries of the quincunx—a five-point pattern which Browne detected everywhere and which, he enjoyed thinking, could easily be the numerical coding behind all creation. Thus, if for Galileo—the first to observe the rings of Saturn—God spoke in numbers, for Browne the number was five. Incidentally, Dr. Johnson had little patience for this sort of thing and, despite his admiration for Browne, thought the latter was so resolved on discovering quincunxes that sure enough he “seldom searches long in vain, he finds his favorite figure in almost everything.”

Sebald too finds elective affinities everywhere: in the fact that he lives in East Anglia, which is where Thomas Browne had practiced as a physician three centuries earlier; or that Browne's skull had indeed been stored in that selfsame hospital where Sebald convalesced from a strange illness. Both men, it turns out, see the universe as a series of overlapping secondary and tertiary “dimensions” that, once in a while, and for no apparent reason, cross over onto each other like displaced tectonic plates. One can never say “which decade or century it is, for many ages are superimposed here and coexist.”

The journey is endless, and, no matter how far you stray from one time zone to the next, or migrate from one country to the other, you either find you haven't really budged at all, or that you've taken the wrong boat, or, as in The Emigrants, that you've missed that boat, or, as happens in The Rings of Saturn, that you keep running into yourself coming back from the journey on which you're still heading out.


Sebald opens The Rings of Saturn by narrating how, in the dog days of 1992, he “set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a stint of work.” He will, on the last few pages, close the novel on the 13th of April, 1995. Meanwhile Sebald collapses “a year to the day [my italics] after I began my tour.” He is rushed to the hospital in Norwich, and from there the mind of the writer-narrator begins to drift from one thing to the next, weaving an elaborate skein of associations drawn from his walking tour, his readings, ruminations, dreams, and memories of previous tours in Belgium, Holland, and Ireland, to produce a three-hundred-page spiraling essai noir that is as much a pilgrimage, a memoir, a novel, a poème en prose, as it is a rambling digression that has moments of stunning beauty, quiet introspection, and, it should be said, exasperating tedium.

The names of the stations in Sebald's Dantesque slippage from “one circle to the next” are located in Norfolk, in East Anglia. They are places whose names alone convey the stultifying monotony of a sunless afternoon tea: Somerleyton, Walberswick, Dunwich, Middleton, Bredfield, Boulge Park, Woodbridge, Orford, Yoxford, and Ditchingham. As Sebald remembers stopping at each town, he draws from a huge mine of readings and associations that include Roger Casement, Joseph Conrad, the Dowager Empress, Swinburne, Chateaubriand, Edward Fitzgerald, and Michael Hamburger, with passing mention of Madame de Sévigné, Malibran, Hölderlin, Kurt Waldheim, General Gordon, etc. In the interim we learn about the mysterious sea routes of herring, the annals of silk culture, the destruction of the magic garden of Yuan Ming Yuan, sea battles, the incorrect position of the hand making the incision in Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson, the building of a small-scale model of the Temple in Jerusalem, the buzz of flies over a city filled with corpses.

The narrator's mind is running wild with associations, and—we've already been warned by the book's epigraph—everything in these pages is, after all, a “fragment of a former moon.”

It is not exactly clear what has occasioned the narrator's collapse: anxiety, panic, tedium, vertigo. (Vertigo, incidentally, will be the title of Sebald's forthcoming book.) This feeling of voidism is not unfamiliar in The Emigrants, where all four principal characters waste away from sorrow and weariness. In The Rings of Saturn too, both Sebald and the men he muses about are frequently seized by feelings of “wretchedness” and “unworthiness,” “traumatic fever,” “deep … distress,” “inner coldness and desolation”:

I was overcome by a feeling of panic. The low, leaden sky; the sickly violet hue of the heath clouding the eye; the silence, which rushed in the ears like the sound of the sea in a shell; the flies buzzing about me—all this became oppressive and unnerving. I cannot say how long I walked about in that state of mind, or how I found a way out.

There is quite a bit of this in The Rings of Saturn, and it grows progressively more leaden—which isn't surprising, since lead is the metal associated with the planet Saturn. “At my Nativity,” writes Browne in Religio Medici, “my ascendant was the water signe of Scorpius, I was borne in the Planetary hour of Saturn, and I think I have a piece of that Leaden Planet in me.”

Landscapes in both of Sebald's novels are always a leaden gray, streets are forever void of people, the narrator is regularly about to swoon, and people sink psychologically the way landscapes gradually founder underground and undersea. What juts out on boundless marshlands are abandoned factories, while emptied martello towers and collapsed jetties and wharves line the gray waterfronts of a country that Michael Hamburger, whom Sebald so beautifully evokes in The Rings of Saturn, would have called Novemberland. The world, but for Sebald the promeneur solitaire and the few eccentrics who remain in it, is in a state of near rigor mortis. Even the black-and-white photos that accompany the text of both of Sebald's novels cast an intentionally bituminous shade, where air, buildings, sites, people, fish, down to the economy, are depressed. “This, I thought, will be what is left after the earth has ground itself down.” “The remains of our own civilization after its extinction in some future catastrophe.”

We get it, we get it.

If it was a moral crisis that stopped Dante in his tracks, the equivalent for Sebald is depression—psychological, cultural, historical. “Depressed” may sound a bit too raw and clinical in such a veiled and allusive work; more suitable might be the archaic adjective “saturnine,” which the OED defines as “sluggish, cold, and gloomy.” This crisis immediately happens toward the end of the dog days, in the month of August, a season, according to Browne's own essay “Of the Canicular or Dog-Days,” that “is commonly termed the physician's vacation. … [D]uring those days all medication or use of physick is to be declined, and the cure committed unto nature. …”

Depression is pervasive and has as much to do with the narrator's personal life (of which we're told nothing) as with the sinister state of the things around him. We had already caught similar glimpses of the decline of the West in The Emigrants, where what were once luxury pre-war mansions turn into lurid buildings. Once again now, in The Rings of Saturn, Sebald finds himself visiting erstwhile ritzy hotels where the maître d', bellhop, cook, and waiter happen to be one and the same tired, listless soul. The topography is hollowed of people.

Here is more of the same from The Rings of Saturn:

The train ground into motion again and disappeared round a gradual bend, leaving a trail of black smoke behind it. There was no station at the stop, only an open shelter. I walked down the deserted platform, to my left the seemingly endless expanses of the marshes and to my right, beyond a low brick wall, the shrubs and trees of the park. There was not a soul about. …

Too many buildings have fallen down, too much rubble has been heaped up, the moraines and deposits are insuperable.

Sebald not only depicts a world in pieces, but his tale as well is made up of scattered pieces, whirling around a center that doesn't hold. A fragmented tale, as modernist aesthetics has been drumming for almost a century now, is the necessary consequence of a fragmented world. Such a tale doesn't have a meaning, not just because it really has as many meanings as there are atoms on a page, but because its one overarching meaning is that meaning itself is an obsolete concept. What keeps the fragments together here is an arbitrarily associative aesthetic, where, in essence, anything goes. The journey and transmigrations through East Anglia, through time, through strands and layers and various authors, merely underscore the unstitched character of Sebald's narrative. He soars and sinks in an intellectual vertigo, because the guiding principle here is at once oneiric and whimsical. Everything fits. Because nothing ever does. Just as in dreams.

Ironically, though connections in Sebald are tenuous, hallucinatory, they can also be disconcertingly forced. A man wielding a knife in the streets of The Hague disturbs Sebald so much that he finds himself unable to concentrate on Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson the next day. The connection between the two is, of course, the sharp instrument. But this instrument also allows Sebald to bridge one subject to the other. Thoughts about Africa and Roger Casement, Joseph Conrad and the building of the Belgian Congo Railway drift to Belgium, then to the battle of Waterloo, whose site Sebald remembers visiting, and then to a small restaurant not far from the battlefield, where Sebald, thinking of Stendhal's young hero Fabrizio del Dongo at Waterloo, observes a hunch-backed pensioner wearing a woolen cap and a winter coat and thinks to himself: “She would have been born, it occurs to me now, at about the time that the Congo railway was completed.” This slippery reflection allows Sebald to resume his earlier discussion of Casement and Conrad, but the transition is flimsy, tendentious, heavy-handed.

And yet. For all its variety, The Rings of Saturn is not just about history or about memory or about time or even about depression. Nor is it about intertextuality or, for that matter, silk commerce and herring routes. It may not be about the rise-and-fall, come-and-go view that history is a zero-sum game where yesterday's sceptered isle can easily turn into tomorrow's scrap-metal wasteland. Rather, The Rings of Saturn is about Sebald. All the rest is tangential, if we accept that he will always be portrayed tangentially, because it is not his portrait he is exactly after either.

The Rings of Saturn, perplexing, turgid, and unreadable book that it so frequently is, is saddled with a problem it cannot resolve or even address: that of the dislodged identity. In The Emigrants, Sebald had already caught the essence of the displaced soul, of the displaced person, as survivors of the Holocaust were referred to after the war. Yet, as in The Emigrants, in The Rings of Saturn his fundamental concern is not so much with exile, or transmigration, as it is a long meditation on the subject of displacement, from one's times, one's society, and ultimately—this is the hardest to articulate—from oneself.

Sebald is always elsewhere, as he is always from elsewhere. Identity is an alibi. Sebald is swirling around himself, as he is around his adopted England and his native Germany, around his career as a writer, a scholar, around his fate as a German writing about Jews outside Germany, around his life as a reader of books who, like Montaigne, Burton, and Browne, is so thoroughly woven into what he's read that he is no longer able to think about his dislodgment or anything else for that matter without also thinking of the terms that have made such thoughts possible. Exile may be a condition, but it is also a metaphor for something that has less to do with a homeland and far more with how one slips out of oneself or how in thinking about identity all one does, really, is run circles around oneself.

Sebald will slip out of his skin and put out feelers to get a sense of what his own life means. In Lowestoft, facing the sea, Sebald puts himself in the shoes of Joseph Conrad, the Polish writer who could just as easily have turned into a French writer, and imagines him staring out to sea as well.

In the evenings, when the darkness settled upon the sea, he will have strolled along the esplanade, a twenty-one-year-old foreigner alone amongst the English. I can see him, for instance, standing out on the pier, where a brass band is playing the overture from Tannhäuser as a night-time serenade.

What must the twenty-two-year-old Sebald (or was he twenty-one at the time?) have felt on arriving in England in 1966?

Earlier in the novel, Sebald—“footsore and weary … after [a] long walk from Lowestoft …”—sits before the same “tranquil sea” and imagines the sudden appearance of a hostile Dutch fleet in 1672. A few pages and digressions later, Sebald picks up where he left off:

As I sat there that evening in Southwold overlooking the German Ocean, I sensed quite clearly the earth's slow turning into the dark. … I gazed farther and farther out to sea, to where the darkness was thickest and where there extended a cloudbank of the most curious shape. … I found it impossible to believe, as I sat on Gunhill in Southwold that evening, that just one year earlier I had been looking across to England from a beach in Holland.

The cycle is complete: Sebald sits in England looking out to the German ocean (and by implication to his native Germany) from the same location where he thinks Conrad must have stood looking out to Marseilles (Conrad's temporarily adopted home), and imagines the arrival of Dutch battleships, only to remember having been in Holland a year earlier looking out to England at more or less the same spot where the Dutch ships had once appeared against the British skyline. In Holland, that year, he had taken stock of his earlier travels, and of his panic attack in Baden, and of other “stations of his journey,” which leads him to think, perhaps because the word “station” is so evocative of religion, of a holy man who himself had experienced a sense of profound unworthiness in the Paris of the Middle Ages and whose name was, as it turns out, Saint Sebolt!

Much is made of the raising of silkworms in The Rings of Saturn, and it is never truly clear how many strands Sebald is really pursuing, but as the silk motif twists its way through the novel, from China to modern Europe, down to its emblematic representation of the act of writing, it ends up, once again, at the doorsteps of an old nineteenth-century master dyer in Germany who was employed as Keeper of the Silkworms and Superintendent of Carding and Filature and whose name was, once again, Seybolt!

This pattern is, of course, self-referential and reflects a perspective one finds among many authors today. But the problem here is not that Sebald's view of himself is recursive; the problem is that Sebald's view of recursion, interesting as it genuinely is, is interesting as an idea only; it is conveyed intellectually, not aesthetically; it is not experienced, it is merely worded. Ultimately, it is drawn from the content of the author's life, not worked into the form of the book about that life.

Thus, despite the beautiful picture of the sea at night, or of battleships appearing on the offing, and for all the beauty and cadences of Sebald's style, the dreamlike, musical form of the novel itself is unable to convey the magnitude and meaning of Sebald's elaborate self-refractions and near-misses into himself. These insights into dislodged identity are scattered not because identity is scattered. They are scattered because Sebald wasn't working with the right form.

There is, however, a brief moment in The Rings of Saturn where everything comes together: when he slips into the life and voice of Michael Hamburger, the German-born Jew whose family left Germany in 1933 and settled in England and who, exactly like Sebald, but before Sebald, became a professor of German literature in England. Hamburger is a well-known scholar, essayist, poet, biographer, and translator (of Paul Celan among others). As in The Emigrants, it is, yet again, through the Jew Hamburger that Sebald manages to reflect upon his own bewildered transmigrations. Like the four characters in Sebald's earlier novel, Hamburger too narrates in his Intermittent Memoirs, 1924-1954 how he (like Sebald) found that memory can turn “certain landscapes into perpetual winters,” or how a return to the past can assuage nothing but creates a grayness of its own.

The prose in the pages devoted to Michael Hamburger's return to Charlottenburg in 1947 is perhaps the very best that Sebald has written. It is elegiac, sad, haunting, and as Sebald writes of Browne's prose, it rises “higher and higher through the circles of his spiraling prose,” with the reader “borne aloft like a glider on warm currents of air … overcome by a sense of levitation.” And yet just when the Michael Hamburger episode “soars aloft” it suddenly takes a strange downward spin. This happens when Sebald tries to spell out the correspondences between his life and Hamburger's.

When I now think back to Stanley Kerry, it seems incomprehensible that the paths of Michael's life and mine should have intersected in the person of that most extraordinarily shy man, and that at the time we met him, in 1944 and in 1966 respectively, we were both twenty-two. No matter how often I tell myself that chance happenings of this kind occur far more often than we suspect, since we all move, one after the other, along the same roads mapped out for us by our origins and our hopes, my rational mind is nonetheless unable to lay the ghosts of repetition that haunt me with ever greater frequency.

The cadence, the doleful, resigned tone of these words is not unfamiliar. It conveys the sound of Naegeli's footsteps on the snow. And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. Cadence, after all, is one of the ways Sebald tries to suggest some meaning behind chaos. But the facts narrated here are so clearly dropped out of the blue and reflect a personal—solipsistic—mythology which has been so perfunctorily worked into the rest of the book that the reader is left pondering why coincidences between one man's life and another's should mean anything in a book where coincidences keep cropping up without explanation or resolution. Faced with the inability to answer his own riddles, all Sebald can do is keep threading his way in and out and back into the same riddle.

At the end of The Rings of Saturn, Sebald tells the reader that he finished writing his book on—of all days!—Maundy Thursday, the 13th of April, 1995. He proceeds, immediately afterward, to list all other events that occurred on Maundy Thursday: the first performance of Handel's Messiah, for example, or the founding of the Anti-Semitic League in Prussia. The last item, in what must have been a rather time-consuming list to draw up, reads:

And finally, Maundy Thursday, the 13th of April 1995, was also the day on which Clara's father, shortly after being taken to hospital in Coburg, departed this life.

One is moved—but only just. Were never been told who Clara is—we're merely invited to speculate. What this sentence does do is allow Sebald to nudge his argument a bit further, perhaps even into an unknown void, in the hope of unearthing something. Indeed, he comes up with the thought that, at one time, the only appropriate expression of profound grief was to wear a heavy robe of black silk taffeta or black crepe de Chine—which, once again, nudges the point a bit further out and lets Sebald grope around the oft-alluded-to subject of China and silk and close the book by revealing that Sir Thomas Browne, who had once written that, in Holland, it used to be a mourning custom to drape black mourning ribbons over mirrors and canvasses, was himself none other than the son of a silk merchant.

The problem, as should be clear by now, with this intricate skein of interwoven themes, of private symbols piled upon collective images, of patterns and would-be patterns and brilliant scryptotechnics, is that there comes a sense of something ultimately sterile. Contemporary Europe has repeatedly given us similar macédoines of exquisitely written, superbly crafted and translated works that always seem on the verge of saying something they are not quite able to bring themselves to say. They are works about how works impart meaning, about how relative all meaning is, and about how inadequate all literary constructs are destined to remain. But they are seldom about anything else—which is why, once you remove the patina, and the dream-making, and the intertextual cross-references to keep students and critics at bay for another forty years, these works are really about very little other than our wish that they might have been about much more. Despite their abstruse lucubrations, they seem not to have been thought through.

What they lack, above all other things, is the depth of vision and the unencumbered impulse to come up with what is probably the most necessary thing a good author needs: which is a form, a form that reflects what he wants to say, not what he'll end up saying, a form that doesn't dilute what he says, a form where every sentence upholds and meditates on the story being told. Sebald came close to discovering such a form in The Emigrants. In The Rings of Saturn, for all its intricacies and bravura, he has not.

Robert Schwarz (review date summer 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

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 Swiss-French poetic philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the early-twentieth-century Swiss painter Jan Peter Tripp to tell us things about each which we could hardly find in textbooks on literature or art. Not since Rejection and Emancipation was published in 1991 have I acquired such unique insights into the world of Swiss literati. Bibliophiles will be inspired to reread the works of Keller, the romantic essays of Rousseau, the lonely and melancholy prose of Walser (whom Sebald calls “le promeneur solitaire”), and the amazingly beautiful poetry of Mörike. The emphasis here is on reread, for familiarization with the works of these chosen six figures prior to reading Logis is important, lest one wind up in a literary cul-de-sac.

Sebald's little tome is such a treasure because of the singular way he has of commenting on the subtlest aspects of the lives and cultural contributions of the six geniuses he discusses. He tells us things about the foibles and fears, tears and visions, sufferings and longings of these half-dozen men which sharpen our knowledge and at the same time enhance our appreciation of their work. Examples may include Rousseau's little-known interest in botany, Keller's obsession with harnessing his overbubbling feelings about the mystery of the female Eros, Mörike's unfulfilled love life as expressed in his verse, Tripp's “frightening depth” (to use Sebald's term) which he transmitted in the painting of flowers, and the like. Sebald's commentary on the art and letters of these delicate souls should be missed neither by students of esthetics nor by historians of high culture, for he tells how these six artists of brush or pen were baptized by the zeitgeist of their respective eras in history. Two examples: Hebel's wonderful observations and wisdom stories in his almanac, suggesting historical changes and personages straddling the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; and Rousseau's romantic essays and worship of nature and instinct in the midst of rationalism and philosophes, which the author attempts to revive in his own mind as he muses in Rousseau's study on the island of St. Peter—a wonderful passage. Sebald has a knack for ferreting out unknown secrets in each of these individuals without ever succumbing to the temptation of being anecdotal or psychoanalytic. Neither does he ever stress the droll or eccentric at the expense of the main thrust: literature, art, and philosophy. Thus we appreciate anew the joyful realism of Mörike's poetry, for example, while at the same time tracing the spoor of his animus in writing his beautiful verse.

If there is any fault in Logis in einem Landhaus, I have not found it. And as one critic has said about Nietzsche's Zarathustra, the inexpungeable merits will dwarf all fault-finding.

Anita Brookner (review date 18-25 December 1999)

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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 rather more disturbing, although he offers no comment on his particular form of experience. In Vienna he was unable to proceed beyond the boundaries of three streets, where he spent his days and part of his nights until his shoes wore out. He also reports, with similar lack of affect, clouded vision and a sensation of weightlessness. In this state he was able to take an excursion with a friend who had suffered lifelong mental illness, in the course of which neither of them appeared to have exchanged a word. Before they parted the friend, Ernst Herbeck, scribbled a note, in irregular unravelling handwriting, in Sebald's diary, and dated it 30 November 1980.

From time to time in this mysterious narrative an objective correlative is sought for these wanderings, these dream states, such as might have been experienced by a mediaeval pilgrim or an early 19th-century German mystic. Thus there are chapters devoted to Stendhal in Italy, to Casanova in Venice, and to Kafka in Riva. These are not very reassuring, overshadowed as they are by the author's own uneasy journeyings. Stendhal, crossing the Alps with Napoleon's army at the age of 17, experiences the first of many enthusiasms; gorgeously uniformed, and with the courage that was to characterise his entire life, he embarked on his own manoeuvres and fell in love with Angela Pietragrua, the first of a succession of women with whom he was largely unsuccessful. Professor Sebald takes him back to Italy in later civilian life, on a journey he may or may not have made in the company of a certain Mme. Gherardi, who may or may not have existed. There are no certainties here, either in Stendhal's life (or at least as Sebald reads it) or in his own. This descent into unverifiability, presented within a framework that implies a rigid purpose, is responsible for that strange mixture of biography and autobiography with which Sebald's name will always be associated. Small, gnomic illustrations add to the unease.

Anxiety pursues him to Venice, where he lies in his hotel room for three days before taking up the story of Casanova who was imprisoned there. Thinking that he is being observed, the narrator takes the train to Verona, where he decides to ‘forfeit everything except my sense of vision’ and devote himself to a study of Pisanello. But he does not appear to be an acutely visual person: those illustrations are hardly more explanatory than the schematic scribbles with which Stendhal enlivened his own texts. In Verona he has the sensation of being surrounded by water, another symptom of displacement. It is clear that his sympathy with untethered lives and objectless perambulation is intimately connected with states of mind too all-pervading to be ignored.

Professor Sebald's own journeys—in Italy, in Austria—turn imperceptibly into fugues in which passing reality plays an insistent part. A mislaid passport, a sceptical glance from a waiter, move him on: train tickets are reproduced in grainy black and white. In Verona he asks a passing tourist to take a photograph of a flock of pigeons, and understands the tourist's refusal to be prompted by his wife's hostility, for naturally Sebald has assumed the tourist to be on his honeymoon, but nonetheless willing to oblige him on receipt of a ten-mark gratuity. The reader, by this stage, is completely hypnotised, not only by the fluency with which one incident yields to another, but by the extreme clarity of the writing. If he does not entirely trust the author's sanity he has certainly been entrapped to such an extent that he fears for his own.

In following the travails of Kafka, our narrator is on obviously familiar, or at least sympathetic, ground, particularly as Kafka, on a journey from Prague to Vienna to attend a congress, slips away and heads for Verona. Here Kafka foreshadows Sebald's own journey, noting the Pisanello mural of St George, seeing the same theatre posters advertising the same opera.

On 21 September Dr. K is in Desenzano on the southern shore of Lake Garda. Most of the townspeople have gathered in the market square to welcome the deputy secretary of the Prague Workers' Insurance Company.

This unconvincing statement is borne out by an illustration of a group of people staring in the same direction. Kafka's own words, in his letters to Felice, are here appropriated, but given an extra dimension of fantasy, in which natural phenomena play their ludic part and episodes replicate other episodes, thus acquiring a totemic significance.

One awaits his return to England with some trepidation. The fourth section—‘Il ritorno in patria’—naturally begins with a series of oblique diversions. The homeland referred to might be the German village of W, where the hotel turns out to be the home of his childhood, or it might be England, finally reached after a long parenthesis, in which the contents of his parents' living-room are meticulously itemised. These journeyings, so inconsequential yet so organic, inspire respect, if not understanding. A curious life of wandering, in itself a sign of fearlessness, and of taking notes in obscure rooms watched over by taciturn landladies, lay a hold on the reader's imagination, as if he too might be tempted to embark on such a life. This would be extremely dangerous. Even on a walk from the National Gallery to Liverpool Street station Sebald has time to ponder on a deserted underground line, as if divesting the city of its inhabitants as he goes.

His solitude brings with it illuminations. Falling asleep over a volume of Pepys, he seems to be back in the Tyrol, until a smell of burnt feathers alerts him to the Fire of London. (He has already encountered the Winter Queen in an express heading for the Hook of Holland). Nothing like Vertigo is likely to be encountered in the course of one's regular reading. One emerges from it shaken, seduced, and deeply impressed. For this is freedom of a sort, and also the price that must be paid if such freedom, such extreme non-attachment, is sought by those unfitted to withstand the terrors which must be their accompaniment.

Susan Sontag (review date 25 February 2000)

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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 translated into English, is how he began. It appeared in German in 1990, when its author was forty-six; three years later came The Emigrants; and two years after that, The Rings of Saturn. When The Emigrants appeared in English in 1996, the acclaim bordered on awe. Here was a masterly writer, mature, autumnal even, in his persona and themes, who had delivered a book as exotic as it was irrefutable. The language was a wonder—delicate, dense, steeped in thinghood; but there were ample precedents for that in English. What seemed foreign as well as most persuasive was the preternatural authority of Sebald's voice: its gravity, its sinuosity, its precision, its freedom from all undermining or undignified self-consciousness or irony.

In W. G. Sebald's books, a narrator who, we are reminded occasionally, bears the name of W. G. Sebald, travels about registering evidence of the mortality of nature, recoiling from the ravages of modernity, musing over the secrets of obscure lives. On some mission of investigation, triggered by a memory or news from a world irretrievably lost, he remembers, evokes, hallucinates, grieves.

Is the narrator Sebald? Or a fictional character to whom the author has lent his name, and selected elements of his biography? Born in 1944, in a village in Germany he calls “W.” in his books (and the dust-jacket identifies for us as Wertach im Allgäu), settled in England in his early twenties, and a career academic currently teaching modern German literature at the University of East Anglia, the author includes a scattering of allusions to these bare facts and a few others, as well as, among other self-referring documents reproduced in his books, a grainy picture of himself posed in front of a massive Lebanese cedar in The Rings of Saturn, and the photo on his new passport in Vertigo.

And yet these books ask, rightly, to be considered as fiction. Fiction they are, not least because there is good reason to believe that much is invented or altered, just as, surely, some of what he relates really did happen—names, places, dates and all. Fiction and factuality are, of course, not opposed. One of the founding claims for the novel in English is that it is a true history. What makes a work fiction is not that the story is untrue—it may well be true, in part or in whole—but its use, or extension, of a variety of devices (including false or forged documents) which produce what literary theorists call “the effect of the real”. Sebald's fictions—and their accompanying visual illustration—carry the effect of the real to a plangent extreme.

This “real” narrator is an exemplary fictional construction: the promeneur solitaire of many generations of romantic literature. A solitary, even when a companion is mentioned (the Clara of the opening paragraph of The Emigrants), the narrator is ready to undertake journeys at whim, to follow some flare-up of curiosity about a life that has ended (as, in The Emigrants, in the stories of Paul, a beloved primary-school teacher, which brings the narrator back for the first time to “the new Germany”, and of his Uncle Adelwarth, which brings the narrator to America). Another motive for travelling is proposed in Vertigo and The Rings of Saturn, where it is clearer that the narrator is also a writer, with a writer's restlessness and a writer's taste for isolation. Often the narrator begins to travel in the wake of some crisis. And usually the journey is a quest, even if the nature of that quest is not immediately apparent.

Here is the beginning of the second of the four narratives in Vertigo:

In October 1980 I travelled from England, where I had then been living for nearly twenty-five years in a county which was almost always under grey skies, to Vienna, hoping that a change of place would help me get over a particularly difficult period in my life. In Vienna, however, I found that the days proved inordinately long, now they were not taken up by my customary routine of writing and gardening tasks, and I literally did not know where to turn. Every morning I would set out and walk without aim or purpose through the streets of the inner city. …

This long section, entitled “All 'estero” (Abroad), which takes the narrator from Vienna to various places in northern Italy, follows the opening chapter, a brilliant exercise in Brief-Life writing which recounts the biography of the much-travelled Stendhal, and is followed by a brief third chapter, relating the Italian journey of another writer, “Dr. K”, to some of the sites of Sebald's travels in Italy. The fourth and last chapter, as long as the second and complementary to it, is entitled “Il ritorno in patria” (The Return Home). The four narratives of Vertigo adumbrate all Sebald's major themes: journeys; the lives of writers, who are also travellers; being haunted and being light. And, always, there are visions of destruction. In the first narrative, Stendhal dreams, while recovering from an illness, of the great fire of Moscow; and the last narrative ends with Sebald falling asleep over his Pepys and dreaming of London destroyed by the Great Fire.

The Emigrants uses this same four-part musical structure, in which the fourth narrative is longest and most powerful. Journeys of one kind or another are at the heart of all Sebald's narratives: the narrator's own peregrinations, and the lives, all in some way displaced, that the narrator evokes.

Compare the first sentence of The Rings of Saturn:

In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.

The whole of The Rings of Saturn is the account of this walking trip undertaken to dispel emptiness. For whereas the traditional tour brought one close to nature, here it measures degrees of devastation, and the opening of the book tells us that the narrator was so overcome by “the traces of destruction” he encountered that, a year to the day after beginning his tour, he was taken to a hospital in Norwich “in a state of almost total immobility”.

Travels under the sign of Saturn, emblem of melancholy, are the subject of all three books Sebald wrote in the first half of the 1990s. Destruction is his master theme: of nature (the lament for the trees destroyed by Dutch elm disease and those destroyed in the hurricane of 1987 in the next-to-last section of The Rings of Saturn); of cities; of ways of life. The Emigrants tells of a trip to Deauville in 1991, in search perhaps of “some remnant of the past”, which confirms that “the once legendary resort, like everywhere else that one visits now, regardless of the country or continent, was hopelessly run down and ruined by traffic, shops and boutiques, and the insatiable urge for destruction”. And the return home, in the fourth narrative of Vertigo, to W., which the narrator says he had not revisited since his childhood, is an extended recherche du temps perdu.

The climax of The Emigrants, four stories about people who left their native lands, is the heartrending evocation—purportedly a memoir in manuscript—of an idyllic German-Jewish childhood. The narrator goes on to describe his decision to visit the town, Kissingen, where this life had been lived, to see what traces of it remained. Because it was The Emigrants that launched Sebald in English, and the subject of the last narrative, a famous painter given the name of Max Ferber, was a German Jew sent out of Nazi Germany to safety in England as a child—his mother, who perished in the camps with his father, being the author of the memoir—the book was routinely labelled by most of the reviewers (especially, but not only, in America) as an example of “Holocaust literature”. Ending a book of lament with the ultimate subject of lament, The Emigrants may have set up some of Sebald's admirers for a disappointment with the work that followed it in translation, The Rings of Saturn. This book is not divided into distinct narratives but consists of a chain or progress of stories: one story leads into another. In The Rings of Saturn, the well-stocked mind speculates whether Sir Thomas Browne, visiting Holland, was present at the anatomy lesson depicted by Rembrandt, remembers a romantic interlude, during his English exile, in the life of Chateaubriand, recalls Roger Casement's noble efforts to publicize the infamies of Leopold's rule in the Congo, and retells the childhood in exile and early adventures at sea of Joseph Conrad—these stories, and many others. With its cavalcade of erudite and curious anecdotes, and its tender encounters with bookish people (two lecturers on French literature, one of them a Flaubert scholar; the translator and poet Michael Hamburger), The Rings of Saturn could seem—after the high excruciation of The Emigrants—merely “literary”.

It would be a pity if the expectations about Sebald's work created by The Emigrants also influenced the reception of Vertigo, which makes still clearer the nature of his morally accelerated travel narratives—history-minded in their obsessions; fictional in their reach. Travel frees the mind for the play of associations; for the afflictions (and erosions) of memory; for the savouring of solitude. The awareness of the solitary narrator is the true protagonist of Sebald's books, even when it is doing one of the things it does best: recounting, summing up, the lives of others.

Vertigo is the book in which the narrator's English life is least in evidence. And, even more than the two succeeding books, this is a self-portrait of a mind: a restless, chronically dissatisfied mind; a harrowed mind; a mind prone to hallucinations. Walking in Vienna, he thinks he recognizes the poet Dante, banished from his home town on pain of being burned at the stake. On the rear bench of a vaporetto in Venice he sees Ludwig II of Bavaria; riding on a bus along the shore of Lake Garda towards Riva, he sees an adolescent boy who looks exactly like Kafka. This narrator, who defines himself as a foreigner—overhearing the babble of some German tourists in a hotel, he wishes he did not understand them; “that is, that he were the citizen of a better country, or of no country at all”—is also a mind in mourning. At one moment, the narrator says he does not know whether he is still in the land of the living or already somewhere else.

In fact, he is both: both alive and, if his imagination is the guide, posthumous too. A journey is often a revisiting. It is the return to a place for some unfinished business, to retrace a memory, to repeat (or complete) an experience; to offer oneself up—as in the fourth narrative of The Emigrants—to the final, most devastating revelations. These heroic acts of remembering and retracing bring with them a price. Part of the power of Vertigo is that it dwells more on the cost of this effort. (Vertigo, the word used to translate the German title, Gefühle, Schwindel—roughly: Feeling. Giddiness—hardly suggests all the kinds of panic and torpor and disorientation described in the book.) In Vertigo, he relates how, after arriving in Vienna, he walked so far that, he discovered returning to the hotel, his shoes had fallen apart. In The Rings of Saturn and, above all, in The Emigrants, the mind is less focused on itself; the narrator is more elusive. More than the later books, Vertigo is about the narrator's own afflicted consciousness. But the laconically evoked mental distress that edges the narrator's calm, knowledgeable awareness is never solipsistic, as in the literature of lesser concerns.

What anchors the unstable consciousness of the narrator is the spaciousness and acuity of the details. As travel is the generative principle of mental activity in Sebald's books, moving through space gives a kinetic rush to his marvellous descriptions, especially of landscapes. This is a propelled narrator.

Where has one heard in English a voice of such confidence and precision, so direct in its expression of feeling, yet so respectfully devoted to recording “the real”? D. H. Lawrence may come to mind, and the Naipaul of The Enigma of Arrival. But they have little of the passionate bleakness of Sebald's voice. For this one must look to a German genealogy. Jean Paul, Franz Grillparzer, Adalbert Stifter, Robert Walser, the Hofmannsthal of The Lord Chandos Letter, Thomas Bernhard are a few of the affiliations of this contemporary master of the literature of lament and of mental restlessness. The consensus about English literature for most of the past century has decreed the relentlessly elegiac and lyrical to be inappropriate for fiction, overblown, pretentious. (Even so great a novel, and exception, as Virginia Woolf's The Waves has not escaped these strictures.) Postwar German literature, mindful of how congenial the grandiosity of past art and literature, particularly that of German Romanticism, proved to the work of totalitarian myth-making, has been suspicious of anything like the romantic or nostalgic relation to the past. But then perhaps only a German writer permanently domiciled abroad, in the precincts of a literature with a modern predilection for the anti-sublime, could indulge in so convincing a noble tone.

Besides the narrator's moral fervency and gifts of compassion (here he parts company with Bernhard), what keeps this writing always fresh, never merely rhetorical, is the saturated naming and visualizing in words; that, and the ever-surprising device of pictorial illustration. Pictures of train tickets or a torn-out leaf from a pocket diary, drawings, a calling card, newspaper clippings, a detail from a painting, and, of course, photographs have the charm and, in many instances, the imperfections of relics. Thus, in Vertigo, at one moment the narrator loses his passport; or, rather, his hotel loses it for him. And here is the document made out by the police in Riva, with—a touch of mystery—the G in W. G. Sebald inked out. And the new passport, with the photograph issued by the German consulate in Milan. (Yes, this professional foreigner travels on a German passport—at least, he did in 1987.) In The Emigrants, these visual documents seemed talismanic. It seemed likely that not all of them were genuine. In The Rings of Saturn, they seemed, less interestingly, merely illustrative. If the narrator spoke of Swinburne, there was a small portrait of Swinburne set in the middle of the page; if relating a visit to a cemetery in Suffolk, where his attention was captured by a funerary monument to a woman who died in 1799, which he describes in detail, from fulsome epitaph to the holes bored in the stone on the upper edges of the four sides, we are also given a blurry little photograph of the tomb, again in the middle of the page.

In Vertigo, the documents have a more poignant message, They say: It's true, what I've been telling you—which is hardly what a reader of fiction normally demands. To offer evidence at all is to endow what has been described by words with a mysterious surplus of pathos. The photographs and other relics reproduced on the page become an exquisite index of the pastness of the past.

Sometimes they seem like the squiggles in Tristram Shandy; the author is being intimate with us. At other moments, these insistently proffered visual relics seem an insolent challenge to the sufficiency of the verbal. And yet, as Sebald writes in The Rings of Saturn, describing a favourite haunt, the Sailors' Reading Room in Southwold, where he pored over entries from the log of a patrol ship anchored off the pier from the autumn of 1914, “Every time I decipher one of these entries I am astounded that a trail that has long since vanished from the air or the water remains visible here on the paper.” And, he continues, closing the marbled cover of the log book, he pondered “the mysterious survival of the written word”.

Tim Parks (review date 15 June 2000)

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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: “Oh don't die, dear master! … Take my advice and live many years. For the maddest thing a man can do in this life is to let himself die just like that, without anybody killing him, but just finished off by his own melancholy.”

Centuries later, observing the loss of all illusion that he felt characterized the modern world, the melancholic Giacomo Leopardi wrote: “Everything is folly but folly itself.” And again a hundred and more years later, the arch pessimist Emil Cioran rephrased the reflection thus: “The true vertigo is the absence of folly.” What makes Don Quixote so much luckier than Leopardi and Cioran, and doubtless Cervantes himself, is that, as the epitaph on his tombstone puts it, “he had the luck … to live a fool and yet die wise.” What on earth would have become of such a sentimental idealist had he returned to his senses, as it were a decade or two earlier?

Both in Vertigo and in his later novels The Emigrants and Rings of Saturn,1 W. G. Sebald, the German writer who lives in England, tells the stories of those who reach disillusionment long before the flesh is ready to succumb. The men in his book—they are always men—are engaged in a virtuoso struggle to conjure within themselves the minimum of folly, or we could call it love of life or even engagement, that will prevent them from dying “just like that,” “finished off by [their] own melancholy.”

But perhaps I have got that wrong. For it could also be said that Sebald's characters are men who ruthlessly suppress folly the moment it raises its irrepressible head. So wary are they of engagement in life that they are morbidly and masochistically in complicity with melancholy and all too ready to be overwhelmed by it. There is a back and forth in Sebald's work between the wildest whimsy and the bleakest realism. One extreme calls to the other: the illusions of passion, in the past: a quiet suicide, all too often, in the future. Mediating between the two, images both of his art and of what fragile nostalgic equilibrium may be available to his heroes, are the grainy black-and-white photographs Sebald scatters throughout his books. Undeniably images of something, something real that is, they give documentary evidence of experiences that, as we will discover in the text, sparked off in the narrator or hero a moment of mental excitement, of mystery, or folly, or alarm. They are the wherewithal of an enchantment, at once feared and desired, and above all necessary for staying alive. Not even in the grainiest of these photos, however, will it be possible to mistake a windmill for a giant.

There are four pieces in Vertigo. All of them involve a back and forth across the Alps between northern Europe and Italy. The first is entitled “Beyle, or Love is a Madness Most Discreet,” and it is the only one to offer something like the whole trajectory of a life through passion and engagement to disillusionment and depression. By using Stendhal's baptismal name, Marie-Henri Beyle, Sebald alerts us at once, and far more effectively than if he had used the writer's pseudonym, to the extent to which identity is invented as well as given and thus involves continuous effort. Beyle created Stendhal, as Señor Quesada dreamed up Don Quixote. Taking on the identity was one with the folly, its most positive achievement perhaps. But that is not to say that Beyle, whoever he was, did not live on, as even Quesada reemerged for extreme unction.

In his opening sentence Sebald likes to give us a strong cocktail of date, place, and purposeful action. Thus the Beyle piece begins: “In mid-May of the year 1800 Napoleon and a force of 36,000 men crossed the Great St Bernhard pass. …” The second piece starts: “In October 1980 I travelled from England … to Vienna, hoping that a change of place would help me get over a particularly difficult period in my life.” And the third: “On Saturday the 6th of September, 1913, Dr K., the Deputy Secretary of the Prague Workers' Insurance Company, is on his way to Vienna to attend a congress on rescue services and hygiene.”

It is so concrete, so promising! All too soon, however, and this is one of the most effective elements of comedy in Sebald's work, the concrete will become elusive; the narrative momentum is dispersed in a delta as impenetrable as it is fertile. Thus Beyle, who at age seventeen was with Napoleon on that “memorable” crossing, finds it impossible, at age fifty-three, to arrive at a satisfactory recollection of events. “At times his view of the past consists of nothing but grey patches, then at others images appear of such extraordinary clarity he feels he can scarce credit them.” He is right not to. His vivid memory of General Marmont beside the mountain track wearing the sky-blue robes of a councillor must surely be wrong, since Marmont was a general at the time and would thus have been wearing his general's uniform.

Italo Calvino reports making a similar error when looking back on a battle fought with the partigiani against the Fascists:

I concentrate on the faces I know best: Gino is in the piazza: a thickset boy commanding our brigade, he looks into the square and crouches shooting from a balustrade, black tufts of beard round his tense jaw, small eyes shining under the peak of his Mexican hat. I know that Gino had taken to wearing a different hat at the time but … I keep seeing him with that big straw hat that belongs to a memory of the previous summer.2

If crossing the St. Bernard with an army was, as Sebald concludes his opening sentence, “an undertaking that had been regarded until that time as next to impossible,” remembering that undertaking, even for a man with a mind as formidable as Stendhal's, turns out to be not only “next to” but truly impossible.

This is hardly news. That the difficulty of every act of memory has a way of drawing our attention to the perversity of the mind and the complicity between its creative and corrosive powers is a commonplace. “And the last remnants memory destroys,” we read beneath the title of one of the pieces in The Emigrants. No, it is Sebald's sense of the role of this act of fickle memory in the overall trajectory of his characters' lives that makes the pieces in Vertigo so engaging and convincing.

Beyle/Stendhal's life as described by Sebald is as follows. Crossing the Alps the adolescent dragoon is appalled by the dead horses along the wayside, but later cannot remember why: “His impressions had been erased by the very violence of their impact.” Arriving in Italy he sees a performance of Cimarosa's Il matrimonio segreto, falls wildly in love with a plain if not ugly prima donna overspends on fashionable clothes, and finally “disburdens” himself of his virginity with a prostitute. “Afterwards” we are told, “he could no longer recall the name or face of the donna cattiva who had assisted him in this task.” The word “task” appears frequently and comically in Vertigo, most often in Thomas Bernhard's sense of an action that one is simply and irrationally compelled to do, not a social duty or act of gainful employment.

Despite contracting syphilis in the city's brothels, Beyle cultivates “a passion of a more abstract nature” for the mistress of a fellow soldier. She ignores him, but eleven years later, deploying an “insane loquacity,” he convinces her to yield on the condition that he will then leave Milan at once. Exhilarated by his conquest. Beyle is overcome by melancholy. He sees Il matrimonio segreto again and is entirely unimpressed by a most beautiful and brilliant prima donna. Visiting the battlefield at Marengo, the discrepancy between his frequent imaginings of the heroic battle and the actual presence of the bleached bones of thousands of corpses produces a frightening vertigo, after which the shabby monument to the fallen can only make a mean impression. Again he embarks on a romantic passion, this time for the wife of a Polish officer. His mad indiscretion leads her to reject him, but he retains a plaster cast of her hand (we see a photograph) that was to mean “as much to him as Métilde herself could ever have done.”

Sebald now concentrates on Beyle's account of his romantic attachment to one Madame Gherardi, a “mysterious, not to say unearthly figure,” who may in fact have been only (only!) a figment of his imagination. Usually skeptical of his romantic vision of love, one day this “phantom” lady does at last speak “of a divine happiness beyond comparison with anything else in life.” Overcome by “dread” Beyle backs off. The long last paragraph of the piece begins: “Beyle wrote his great novels between 1829 and 1842, plagued constantly by the symptoms of syphilis.”

The trajectory is clear enough. The effort of memory and of writing begins, it seems, where the intensities of romance and military glory end. It is the “task” of the disillusioned, at once a consolation and a penance. In 1829 Beyle turned forty-seven. Sebald turned forty-seven in 1990, the year in which Vertigo, his first “novel,” was published. Coincidences are important in this writer's work. Why?

The Beyle piece is followed by an account of two journeys Sebald himself made in 1980 and 1987 to Venice, Verona, and Lake Garda (all places visited by Stendhal). The third piece describes a similar journey apparently made by Kafka in the fall of 1913, exactly a hundred years after the French writer reports having visited the lake with the mysterious Madame Gherardi. As Stendhal was referred to only by his baptismal name and not the name he invented, so Kafka, in what is the most fantastical and “poetic” piece in the book, is referred to only as K., the name used for the protagonists of The Trial and The Castle. Or not quite. In fact Sebald refers to him as “Dr K., Deputy Secretary of the Prague Workers' Insurance Company,” thus bringing together Kafka's “professional” existence as an insurance broker and his fictitious creation, begging the question of the “identity” of the man who lies between the two.

Beginning in Verona, the last piece, “Il ritorno in patria,” shows the author interrupting “my various tasks” to undertake a journey that will take him back to the village of his childhood in Alpine Bavaria, where most of the piece is set, and finally on to England, where Sebald has his “professional” existence as a university lecturer. In all three of these pieces the romantic and military adventures of the young Henri Beyle are very much behind our now decidedly melancholic characters, and yet they are ever present too. As if between Scylla and Charybdis, when Dr. K sits down to eat at the sanitarium on Lake Garda, it is to find an aging general on one side and an attractive young lady on the other.

Similarly, on returning to the building where he grew up, Sebald remembers his boyhood longing for the company of the pretty waitress in the bar on the ground floor and the fact that he was forbidden to visit the top floor because of the mysterious presence of a “grey chasseur,” presumably a ghost, in the attic. Satisfying his curiosity forty years later, the narrator climbs to the attic to discover a tailor's dummy dressed in the military uniform of the Austrian chasseurs. It is hard to steer a course across the wild waters generated by these two somehow complicitous follies. Was it not after all a combination of distressed damsels and military grandeur that overwhelmed Don Quixote's sanity? Vertigo offers a number of images of ships heading for shipwrecks.

But the question of coincidences keeps turning up. In the second piece, entitled “All'estero” (“Abroad”), we are introduced to a character who could not be further from Sebald's usually melancholic type, Giovanni Casanova. So far we have heard how the writer, in deep depression, travels from England to Vienna, falls into a state of mental paralysis, and is on the brink of becoming down-and-out when in desperation he sets out for Venice, a city so labyrinthine that “you cannot tell what you will see next or indeed who will see you the very next moment.” One of the things he sees of course in Venice is the Doge's Palace, which causes him to think of Casanova.

With admirable reticence, Sebald has given us no reason for the cause of his depression. But if only because we have just read the Beyle piece, and there are various tiny hints scattered here and there, we suspect that romance is at least part of the problem, or, as Dr. K. will think of it in the following piece: the impossibility of leading “the only possible life, to live together with a woman, each one free and independent.” Just to see the name Casanova, then, to think of that great seducer and endlessly resourceful schemer, produces a fierce contrast. Yet even Casanova experienced a period of depression and mental paralysis. When? When, like some hero of Kafka's, he was imprisoned without explanation in the Doge's Palace. And how did he escape? With the help of a coincidence.

In order to decide on what day he would attempt to break out of his cell, Casanova used a complicated random system to consult Orlando Furioso, thus, incredibly, happening on the words: “Between the end of October and the beginning of November.” The escape was successful. Casanova fled to France, where he later invented for himself the identity Chevalier de Seingalt. But just as remarkable as this propitious consultation of Orlando Furioso is the fact that October 31 turns out to be the very day upon which our author finds himself in Venice. Sebald is amazed, alarmed, fascinated.

Again and again it is coincidence, or uncanny repetition, those most evident outcroppings of the underlying mysteriousness of existence, that jerks the melancholic out of his paralysis. It is as if, disillusioned to the point where certain follies have become unthinkable (and contemporary Europe, as Sebald showed in The Emigrants, has good reason for being thus disillusioned), we can only be set in motion by a fascination with life's mysteries, which are simply forced upon us in all sorts of ways. Between, or perhaps after, passion and glory lie the uncertain resource of curiosity, the recurring emotions of amazement and alarm. Any act of remembering will offer a feast.

Toward that midnight between October and November, Sebald rows out on the Venetian lagoon with an acquaintance who points out the city incinerator, the fires of which burn in perpetuity, and explains that he has been thinking a great deal about death and resurrection. “He had no answers,” Sebald writes, “but believed the questions were quite sufficient to him.” It is an echo, conscious or otherwise, of Rilke's advice to his “young poet” to “have patience with everything unresolved and try to love the questions themselves.” Rilke was another German writer who had considerable problems both with military academies and with love.

But it would be a mistake to imagine that Sebald presents coincidence in a positive light. Extraordinary parallels may, briefly, release the paralyzed mind from its cell, get it sorting through old diaries, or tracking down books in libraries, or comically attempting on a bus, as in Sebald's case, to take photographs of twin boys who exactly resemble the adolescent Kafka, but they do this in the way that an alarm or a siren might. There is a destructive side to coincidence. It has a smell of death about it. What is the night “between the end of October and the beginning of November,” if not the night before All Saints' Day, I morti, the Day of the Dead?

Why is this? To “coincide” is “to occupy the same place or time,” says Chamber's dictionary, “to correspond, to be identical.” The coincidence that Stendhal, Kafka, and Sebald all take similar trips at similar times of year, the first two exactly a century apart, may set curiosity in motion, but it also removes uniqueness from these events; the recurrence diminishes the original, replaces it, falsifies it, the way Beyle reports finding his memories of landscapes destroyed by their painterly representations, the way even an old photograph may be considered as stealing something of its original.

Here we are approaching the core of Sebald's vision, the spring at once of his pessimism, comedy, and lyricism. Engagement in the present inevitably involves devouring the past. Waking up in his Venice hotel on November 1, remarking on the silence, Sebald contrasts it to the ceaseless surging of traffic he hears in the hotels of other cities, the endless oceanic roar of cars and trucks released wave upon wave from traffic lights. He concludes his description: “For some time now I have been convinced that it is out of this din that the life is being born which will come after us and will spell our gradual destruction, just as we have been gradually destroying what was there long before us.” To be set, with Casanova, in motion, is to be returned to the business of destruction. The chasseur, or hunter, he who consumes his own sport (and what was Casanova if not a hunter?), is a recurring figure in this book. Occasionally Sebald hears his arrow whistle past an ear.

It is uncanny, on reading a work that makes so much of coincidences, to find it coinciding in an unsettling way with one's own life. Enviably adept at finding images and anecdotes that will deliver his vision, Sebald now tells us of his experiences in Verona, the town where I have lived for almost twenty years. Eating in a gloomy pizzeria, he is unsettled by the painting of a ship in peril on stormy seas. Trying to distract himself he reads an article in the paper about the so-called “caso Ludwig.” For some years a string of local murders were accompanied by the claims of a group calling itself Ludwig. Some of the victims were prostitutes, and there were incendiary attacks on discothèques which the murderers felt to be dens of sin. Again the sexual and the military seem to have combined in the most disturbing fashion. How could Sebald not be appalled by the macabre German connection? And when the waiter brings his bill, he reads in the small print (again we have a reproduction) that the restaurant owner is one “Carlo Cadavero.” This is too much and the author flees on the night train to Innsbruck.

Aside from the fact that I was able to look up Carlo Cadavero's name in the Verona phone book, what struck me as uncanny was a comment from later in this piece where, returning to Verona seven years later, Sebald hears how the two adolescents, Wolfgang Abel and Marco Furlan, who created this terrible identity Ludwig, a sort of negative two-man Don Quixote, were tried and imprisoned. He remarks that although the evidence against them was “irrefutable,” “the investigation produced nothing that might have made it possible to comprehend a series of crimes extending over almost seven years.”

Irrefutable? It would have been about the same time as Sebald's second trip that, while carrying out English oral exams at the University of Verona, I found myself looking at the ID of a young woman whose surname was Furlan. Seeing my eyebrows rise, she said, “Yes, I am his sister. And he is innocent.” She then went on to pass her exam, a conversation test, in exemplary fashion explaining to me with the utmost conviction that the whole thing was absurd and her brother the sweetest, most normal person on earth. Despite the irrefutable evidence, she believed this, as no doubt the sisters of those who later commit war crimes believe in all honesty that they are growing up in the most normal of families. They are. Not for nothing is Sebald's writing frequently set alight with images of terrible conflagrations that inexplicably consume everything, leaving the world to start again from under a veil of ash. Never mentioned, Shiva presides.

The time has come to say something about this writer's extraordinary prose, without which his rambling plots and ruminations would be merely clever and unsettling. Like the coincidences he speaks of, it is a style that recovers, devours, and displaces the past. He has Bernhard's love of the alarming superlative, the tendency to describe states of the most devastating confusion with great precision and control. But the touch is much lighter than Bernhard's, the instrument more flexible. Kafka is present here too, perhaps from time to time Robert Walser, and no doubt others as well. But all these predecessors have been completely digested, destroyed, and remade in Sebald and above all in his magnificent descriptions, which mediate so effectively between casual incident and grand reflection. One suspects too that Michael Hulse's translation, which possesses a rare internal coherence of register and rhythm, is itself the product of a long process of digestion and recasting, a wonderful, as it were, coincidence. Some of the English is breathtaking. All the same, the most effective moments are often the more modest stylistically. Here is the author in a railway carriage with two beautiful women; knowing what we know of him, any approach to them is impossible, yet how attractive they are in their mystery!

Outside, in the slanting sunlight of late afternoon, the poplars and fields of Lombardy went by. Opposite me sat a Franciscan nun of about thirty or thirty-five and a young girl with a colorful patchwork jacket over her shoulders. The girl had got on at Brescia, while the nun had already been on the train at Desenzano. The nun was reading her breviary, and the girl, no less immersed, was reading a photo story. Both were consummately beautiful, both very much present and yet altogether elsewhere. I admired the profound seriousness with which each of them turned the pages. Now the Franciscan nun would turn a page over, now the girl in the colourful jacket, then the girl again and then the Franciscan nun once more. Thus the time passed without my ever being able to exchange a glance with either the one or the other. I therefore tried to practise a like modesty, and took out Der Beredte Italiener, a handbook published in 1878 in Berne, for all who wish to make speedy and assured progress in colloquial Italian.

Only Sebald, one suspects, would study an out-of-date phrase book while missing the chance to speak to two attractive ladies. The determinedly old-fashioned aura that hangs about all his prose is part and parcel of his decidedly modern version of non-engagement. Yet from the “insane loquacity” of the romantic Beyle to the charming picture in the book's last piece of the schoolboy Sebald enamored of his teacher and “filling my exercise books with a web of lines and numbers in which I hoped to entangle Fraulein Rauch forever,” few writers make us more aware of the seductive powers of language. Sebald's literary enticements seek to achieve an intimacy that will not be so destructive as other follies the direct encounter, the hunter's knife. This truly is a “madness most discreet.”

All of which leads us to the only possible objection that I can imagine being raised against this remarkable writer. That to succumb to his seduction is to resign oneself to more of the same: the broken lives, the coincidences, these unhappy men and enigmatic women. Is it a problem? With his accustomed blend of slyness and grim comedy, Sebald tackles the issue himself in a section from the last piece of Vertigo. Sitting in the hotel in the Bavarian village of his childhood, he observes a gloomy painting depicting woodcutters at work and recalls that the artist, Hengge, was famous for his pictures of woodcutters. “His murals, always in dark shades of brown, were to be seen on the walls of buildings all around W. and the surrounding area, and were always of his favoured motifs.” The author sets out to tramp around the surrounding woods and villages to rediscover all these paintings, finding them “most unsettling,” which is to say, for Sebald, good, since only what is unsettling attracts his attention, heightens sensibility, warns of life's dangers, recuperates its horrors in pathos. He then gives us the following comment on Hengge's tendency always to paint the same subject, ending with a moment of alarming but also amusing vertigo, that dizzying empty space that Sebald finds at the core of every intensity:

Hengge the painter was perfectly capable of extending his repertoire. But whenever he was able to follow his own artistic inclination, he would paint only pictures of woodcutters. Even after the war, when for a variety of reasons his monumental works were no longer much in demand, he continued in the same vein. In the end, his house was said to have been so crammed with pictures of woodcutters that there was scarcely room for Hengge himself and death, so the obituary said, caught him in the midst of a work showing a woodcutter on a sledge hurtling down into the valley below.

As long as Sebald shows this kind of resourcefulness, my only regret, when his task obliges him to repeat himself, will be the tendency of the new book to eclipse the old.


  1. In the US the later works were published a few years ago by New Directions: The Emigrants in 1996 and The Rings of Saturn in 1998.

  2. Italo Calvino, “Memories of a Battle” in The Road to San Giovanni (Pantheon, 1993).

Michael Dirda (review date 25 June 2000)

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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 texts, fictions, experiments that critics rave about.

Vertigo falls into this latter category. I enjoyed it and admired it immensely, but then my suspect taste for all kinds of narrative, from the most popular to the most innovative, could easily give the word catholic a bad name. W. G. Sebald is extremely—how shall I say it?—European and this, the first of his memoir-novels, demands a liking for digressive travel writing and somber reminiscence.

But consider a few facts. Susan Sontag, no less, called Sebald's The Emigrants (first published in German in 1993, here in English in 1996) “an astonishing masterpiece: it seems perfect while being unlike any book one has ever read.” That volume collects narratives, augmented by old photographs, about four mid-century exiles, touches on World War II and the Holocaust and, like all of this German professor's work, apparently merges truth and fiction. Even better, perhaps, The Rings of Saturn (German 1995, English version 1998) chronicles a walking tour of East Anglia, meditates on the 17th-century essayist Thomas Browne and Joseph Conrad, among other writers, and discloses the kind of appealing melancholy that fellow melancholiacs find well-nigh irresistible. It opens: “In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.” By the way, for admirable sentences like that we must thank not only Sebald but also his superb translator, Michael Hulse.

I'd wanted to write about The Rings of Saturn—by the bottom of page 1, Sebald is so depressed that he is at first virtually immobile and then hospitalized: what could be more irresistible?—yet for some forgotten reason didn't. When advanced proofs of Vertigo (first published in German in 1990) appeared, I thought “Aha! Any book that opens with 30 pages about the young Henri Beyle (the novelist Stendhal's real name) has found its reviewer.” In this opening section Sebald provides a potted summary of Beyle's passion for Italy and his concomitant erotic attachments, including a description of his ingenious theory of crystallization (the inevitable process by which a lover finds beauty in every aspect of his often quite ordinary mistress). Sebald also emphasizes Beyle's various illnesses, “his sleeplessness, his giddiness, the roaring in his ears, his palpitating pulse.” This vertigo, the result of drugs taken for syphilis, leads to the novelist's early death from sudden heart failure in his fifties. Beyle once observed that it was all right to die in the street, so long as one didn't do so deliberately.

From this tone-setting preamble, Sebald launches into the 100-page account, titled “All'estero,” of a journey to Vienna and Italy in which he hoped “that a change of place would help me get over a particularly difficult period in my life.” En route, the author suffers delusions, visits a man who has spent most of his life in an insane asylum, discusses the paintings of Pisanello, imagines that people are out to kill him, recounts Casanova's famous escape from a Venetian prison (The Leads), loses his passport, and works steadily away at his writing. Here the mood often recalls Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge—wistful, hallucinatory, essayistic, lyrical. “Before us lay the fading lustre of our world, at which we never tire of looking, as though it were a celestial city.” “I saw the hospital island of La Grazia with its circular panoptic building, from the windows of which thousands of madmen were waving, as though they were aboard a great ship sailing away.” Sebald is even humorous: After fighting his way through a crowded rail-station restaurant, he manages to pick up his order. “My cappuccino was served, and for a moment I felt that having achieved this distinction constituted the supreme victory of my life.”

Following this long chapter, Vertigo then proffers another evocative shorter piece about Franz Kafka's visit to Verona, ending with allusions to that master's great short story “The Hunter Gracchus.” There are Kafkaesque observations—“We lie prostrate, on the boards, dying our whole lives long”; “life nonetheless always goes on, somehow or other”—and echoes of early sections of this very book: a reference to Stendhal, the image of a dead body borne by two men.

In Vertigo's last section, “II ritorno in patria,” Sebald revisits his natal village, relates the lives of his old neighbors, reflects on a provincial, artist's obsession for painting woodcutters, and concludes with a highly charged account of a mysterious death. In the possible murder of Schlag the hunter, Sebald mingles Stendhalian passion (the quiet hunter and the barmaid), Kafka's Gracchus story, his own vision of a dead man on a stretcher, and various Proustian observations:

“The more images I gathered from the past, I said, the more unlikely it seemed to me that the past had actually happened in this or that way, for nothing about it could be called normal: most of it was absurd, and if not absurd, then appalling.”

Some of these family stories, whether normal, absurd or appalling, recall Thomas Hardy-like tales in miniature. Take the unsuccessful Dr. Rambousek: “It was no surprise that this short, corpulent man, who was always dressed like a man about town, was unable to gain a foothold in W. His melancholy and foreign-seeming features, perhaps best described as Levantine, the way his lids were always lowered over his large, dark eyes, and his entire somehow distant demeanour, left little doubt that he was one of those who are born to lead inconsolable lives.” Notice the lovely dying fall of those last dozen words.

But how does all this stuff hang together? And why does Sebald end by mentioning The Seas of Bohemia, a book “not listed in any bibliography, in any catalogue, or indeed anywhere at all,” followed by a vision of the Great Fire of London? I don't really know. The mood throughout is appealing—here is truly the October Country—and one can spot weak links among the various narratives without feeling that they really bind the book together. Instead, one is left with an autumnal prose poem, a mesmerizing voice in the European twilight.

For me, that's more than enough. Some of us identify with the troubled, wistful, and disappointed. But readers of a sunnier disposition may simply shrug with impatience and wonder, “What's all this about?” Or even murmur, “Where's the plot?” As for the many historical photographs and illustrations scattered through these pages, are they in fact evocative historical bits of evidence, or grainy pictures without any aura whatsoever? They certainly reinforce the feeling of memoir—but why then do the publishers dub the work a novel? How much is actually fiction? Maybe it's best simply to accept the book as yet a third haunting masterpiece from W. G. Sebald. So many tantalizing questions, and no clear answers. It's enough to give you vertigo.

Philip Landon (review date fall 2000)

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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 turn, and bears the unmistakable stamp of maturity and erudition.

Sebald is a deeply personal writer who views the European experience from a wide-angle perspective, reaffirming humanism through curiosity and tact. There is no complacency or cynicism in any of his books, whose quiet decency renders garish the overbearing and rapacious spirit of our culture of entertainment and globalization. To be sure, Sebald himself is both entertaining and cosmopolitan, but his art is nourished by humility and learning. He shares the detached sensibility of Conrad, Kafka, Nabokov, and Beckett, and like them, has forged his own form.

The exquisite Rings of Saturn, which catapulted Sebald to the forefront of European writers, explored and interconnected an amazing range of concerns, strolling gracefully through the maze of history, and holding individual vulnerability in view against the annihilating vistas of time and space. Similarly, the eclectic personages that Sebald encounters on his travels in Vertigo share the narrator's fearful alertness to the mystery of existence—a timeless and unfashionable stance that Western tradition associates with the sublime. The translation, by a prominent British poet, is brilliantly crafted.

Nicole Krauss (review date fall 2001)

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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 from behind his weeping-willow mustache. But these snapshots have the odd effect of making him seem not more familiar but more otherworldly, as elusive as the eccentric figures from history who haunt his pages. Sebald guides us through time across Europe. But he is always moving, always just ahead of us, already speaking to us from the shadowy realm of the beyond.

Even the books themselves are evasive: “novel” is an impoverished word to describe Sebald's peculiar alloy of travelogue, fiction, memoir, scholarly essay, and historical investigation. Each derives its meandering form from a journey, or a series of journeys, that Sebald undertakes from England, his adopted country of thirty years. Often the itinerary traces the travels of someone else whom he follows with the tenacity of a detective and the melancholy of an abandoned lover. One journey branches into the recollection of another taken long ago, either by Sebald or one of the phantoms he tracks. The books quickly become arabesques of journeys inside of journeys, lines of motion restlessly crossing and converging in the beautiful terra incognita of Sebald's mind. As we follow him as if he were a Pied Piper, mesmerized by his heartbreakingly beautiful prose, what results is a case of vertigo. The compass points of past and present, reality and memory, absence and presence, truth and fiction, begin to blur and become indistinct.

Webster's definition of “vertigo” is: “(1) a disturbance which is associated with various known diseases or due to unknown causes and in which the external world seems to revolve around the individual or the individual seems to revolve in space; (2) dizziness.” The English word is a fair translation of the title of this most recently translated of Sebald's books, called Schwindel, Gefühle (his variation of the word Schwindel-gefühle). In fact, one could do worse than describe his as a literature of vertigo: the word captures the sense, central to Sebald, of uneasiness brought on by certain types of motion, a discomfort at once physical and mental, impeding further movement. The word “vertigo,” with its allusions to a known or unknown illness, also suggests a pervading sense of an ever-encroaching madness. “While it might have been rare for a man to be driven insane, little was required to tip the balance,” Sebald writes. In the ramblings of all three books, he follows the story of someone gone mad, though it's usually the gentle madness that comes from retreating into one's own mind.

Sebald is greatly empathic towards those whose lives he trails, and seems to have a particular compassion for those not quite made for life. He himself has a delicate constitution: he suffers from headaches, is easily unsettled, and is at once fascinated and repelled by people, most often strangers with whom he has awkward interactions that usually leave him feeling apprehensive if not gripped by terror. When a waitress brushes his shoulder he recalls “how few and far between” are the moments in his life that he has been touched thus by a woman with whom he was barely acquainted, remarking that “about such unwonted gestures there had always been something disembodied and ghoulish, something that went right through me!” In The Rings of Saturn, while observing the nesting holes of some sand martins, he accidentally spies a couple having sex on the beach and they seem to him “a many-limbed, two-headed monster that had drifted in from far out at sea, the last of a prodigious species.” To enter into one of Sebald's books is to experience the almost impossibly peculiar, quite vertiginous, sense of inhabiting another's extreme solitude.

Space, always folding back over itself in these travels, is further distorted by these alienating chasms that open between Sebald and those he encounters. Space both fascinates and terrorizes him, at once beckoning to him and disturbing him. “In August 1992,” he writes, “when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the country of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.” But he becomes pre-occupied with both an “unaccustomed sense of freedom” and a “paralyzing horror” and ends up, a year to the day that he started the tour, in a hospital in Norwich “in a state of almost total immobility.” In Sebald's world, the side effects of motion, of traveling through space and time, are not to be taken lightly. Perhaps the most haunting image in The Emigrants—the closest to perfect of the three books, which traces the stories of four twentieth-century Germans of Jewish descent who left their country—is the suicide of Paul Bereyter on the railway tracks. “Railways had always meant a great deal to him,” explains the woman with whom Bereyter fell in love at the end of his life, “perhaps he felt they were headed for death.” We are reminded of the trains that carried so many other Jews to their deaths. These four emigrants are as inextricably bound to those dead as they are to each other by the disturbing state of freedom and regret their own journeys have brought them. The message Sebald repeatedly impresses upon us is: go, but do not expect to go with impunity.

The fourth story in The Emigrants is that of Max Ferber, for whom even the shortest train ride is torture. After remaining in Manchester for more than twenty years, he finally brings himself to take a trip to Switzerland, during which he severely injures his back in the act of standing up. In the midst of the crippling pain—“related, in the most precise manner conceivable, to the inner constitution I had acquired over the years”—Ferber begins to remember his youth. One understands then that to remain still—actually petrified—all those years had been a way of staying the onslaught of memory. Sebald himself is susceptible to bouts of paralysis, both physical and mental, often following the disorientation that arises when memory is confronted by reality or when the past becomes an interloper in the present, as when he thinks he recognizes Dante in the streets of Vienna. At these times, he writes, “when obliged to lean against a wall or seek refuge in the doorway of a building, I feared that mental paralysis was beginning to take hold of me, I could think of no way of resisting it but to walk until late into the night, till I was utterly worn out.” Travelling is both the cause and cure of the malady—nostalgia, melancholy, vertigo, and even madness—that threatens Sebald and those he shadows. Motion confuses and upsets, but it also fixes things in sharp relief: fleeing one Italian city, he writes, “Not until I am on the train to Milan do I become visible again to my mind's eye.”

For Sebald, whose scholarly mind is a log of the ruins of history, the past is always forcing itself upon the present. Vertigo, divided like The Emigrants into four parts, recounts a journey to Vienna, Venice, Verona, Riva, and finally to Sebald's childhood town in the mountains of southern Germany. The journey progresses, doubles back, and repeats itself, while echoing the travels of Stendhal and Kafka, pausing on the imprisonment of Casanova in Venice, and crossing the paths of countless others. Not only does Sebald spot Dante walking down the street, but also Kind Ludwig II on a vaporetto; Elizabeth, daughter of James I, boarding a train at Heidelberg Station (“whom I recognized instantly, without a shadow of a doubt”); and—in one of the many humorous moments in the book—twin boys who are the spitting image of Kafka, whose picture he tries in vain to take until he is suspected of pederasty. This indulgence in confusing the identities of strangers with figures of history nods to another kind of madness such as Multiple Personality Disorder. And even if Sebald is not quite delusional about his own identity, at the first hotel that allows him to check in without a passport, he signs the guest log as Jakob Philipp Fallmerayer, historian, of Landeck Tyrol. At another hotel his passport is mistakenly given to someone else. Although Sebald never really tries to pass himself off as another, he is constantly stepping in and out of other people's shoes. At times he seems to inhabit others more easily than himself. The transitions between his own thoughts and others' are seamless, and one gets the feeling that the W. G. Sebald that appears in his books is only another of the writer's half-real, half-invented characters.

And invention is important. In the original title, Sebald inserts a deliberate break in the word Schwindelgefühle (dizzy feeling), so that the word Schwindel, which means lie, fraud, swindle, stands alone. The significance of this sly pun should not be lost in translation. Sebald may seem as earnest and unmeddling as a recording angel, but like someone who keeps offering “irrefutable evidence” when one has not expressed disbelief, he invites, even courts, suspicion. He insists, for example, that a certain train ride left no trace on his memory, and then recounts it in almost comically extravagant detail. In the section of the book that follows Stendhal (whom Sebald calls by his real name, Marie Henri Beyle), Sebald drops another hint: “There is reason to suspect that Mme Gherardi, whose life could easily furnish a whole novel, as Beyle writes at one point, never really existed, despite all the documentary evidence.” He further adds that it is unclear when Beyle took his journey to Lake Garda, “always supposing that he made it at all.” The unfocused and deliberately amateurish photographs shroud the events in mystery. The copies of documents, such as passport pictures or official papers, are sometimes inked out in crucial places. He refers to the town he grew up in only by the initial W, and are we really to believe that when he returns for the first time to the house of his childhood and discovers, in what must be one of the finest examples of the unheimlich, that it has been turned into an inn, that he, without blinking an eye, checks in? But though Sebald invites us to cast doubt, to continually wonder what is truth or fiction, his narratives are so tightly wrought and confirmed by so many echoes that they are impossible to unravel. Try to locate some palpable truth and you will discover that when you reach for it it turns to dust, like the sleeve of the uniform of an Austrian chasseur when Sebald touches it. But if he confuses the boundaries between truth and fiction, past and present, memory and reality, it is not to suggest that boundaries don't exist: they do, only not where you might expect them. On the very last pages of Vertigo, he casually wonders why no one is ever unnerved by the ominous warning message in the London Underground, that could well be inscribed under Sebald's literary crest: “Mind the gap.”

The visual element is a hallmark of his novels, but the sound of Sebald is just as distinctive, finely rendered by the translator, Michael Hulse. To read Sebald is to feel you are inside a place with unusual acoustic effects: now like a seashell, now an antiechoic chamber. In this resonant silence, Sebald himself is like a radio, a crystal set, picking up voices from the past that soon fade into the static. Yet it would be wrong to imply that Sebald is only a medium. Whoever W. G. Sebald may be, he is above all a master of storytelling, an art that requires a degree of charlatanism, the talent of keeping a straight face, and finally, a growing belief in one's own tales until one might even swear by their truth. If Sebald tells us he is obsessed with coincidences, convergences, and echoes, and with “drawing connections between events that lay far apart but which seemed to me to be of the same order,” it is because he is constantly honing his alibi. If he experiences vertigo, it may be because he no longer knows where he, W. G. Sebald, ends and his doppelgänger, W. G. Sebald, begins.

So who is W. G. Sebald, this peculiar writer who resurrects figures from the past only to follow them like an undertaker to their deaths; this connoisseur of eccentrics and madmen, of the detritus of history; this poet and swindler who, according to all accounts, doubles as a professor of languages somewhere in the east of England? Whoever he may be, all we can say for sure is that he is restless, and we can only wait until he briefly appears to us again, like one of those phantom creatures rarely sighted, mythical, and easily frightened away.

Philip Landon (review date fall 2001)

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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 impulse, shudders to think “how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.” Sebald employs an old-fashioned, scholarly manner to entirely fresh ends, fusing learning and sensitivity into a kind of neurotic sublime. He stares into the abyss, yet engages in an act of affirmation: of the individual against the mass, of the detail against our habitual inattention, of recollection against oblivion. The repressed memories of Jacques Austerlitz serve to indict the entire postwar age of denial through forgetting. Identity is fragile, we are reminded, and the individual is forever at the mercy of fanatical ideologies, whether religious, capitalist, or totalitarian. Sebald's new translator, Anthea Bell, proves a worthy successor to Michael Hulse: the language is exquisite. But how to evoke the reach and the immense appeal of Sebald's vision, with its uncanny anecdotes, its quirkiness, and its compassion? His humanist stance is qualified by an annihilating sense of historical contingency, yet he never succumbs to cynicism. The sheer quality of the writing seems a statement of value. Austerlitz shines like a light.

Anita Brookner (review date 6 October 2001)

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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 reality which has left indelible traces in their respective memories, so that their accounts of what has vanished outweigh present circumstances and force recognition of what it must be like to live a posthumous life, one which has no connection with their day-to-day occupations in the translated present. In both cases that translated present seems insubstantial, evanescent, as if it were a radical departure from some anterior life, and in which correspondences are to be sought in abstractions, in landscapes, in skies, in deserted buildings, in an emptiness which is more familiar than the verifiable occurrences which they now with some difficulty accept.

Memory is crucial in this process; indeed memory is the process, never more so than in W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz, which marks the coming together of all those disparate strands which were so compelling and also so disconcerting in his previous books. The author/narrator of The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo is easily recognisable: he is the man who embarks on a journey, apparently pointless, in which nothing much happens but which is so loaded with information that the reader may not accommodate the many disconnected facts which make their unannounced appearance, in no particular order and with no apparent relevance to each other.

Sebald's method, somewhat frightening in itself, is to trace a development through a series of surreal but lucid digressions, each one spiralling out of the last, until a conclusion of some sort is reached. The first sentence of Austerlitz is typical in this respect:

In the second half of the 1960s I travelled repeatedly from England to Belgium, partly for study purposes, partly for other reasons which were never entirely clear to me, staying sometimes for one or two days, sometimes for several weeks.

This gentle beginning, which would seem to introduce one of those peripatetic excursions we have come to expect, is in fact the prelude to a sequential account of extreme significance, one to which the reader accedes through the usual thicket of diversions which serve to bind the narrator and his protagonist together, so that it becomes clear that experience is shared between the two of them in a symbiosis so extreme that it becomes impossible to distinguish the one from the other.

Austerlitz, in this instance, is not the site of Napoleon's triumphant battle but a person whose name it might or might not be. The author first meets him in the course of one of those mysterious visits to Belgium, the purpose of which is unclear even to himself. Austerlitz is just the sort of friend or acquaintance this particular author might value, to be encountered by chance in this bar, in that café, not with any definite sense of pleasure, but almost as a matter of course. Austerlitz will, without prevarication, divulge his life story, interspersed with accounts of his architectural studies, which, though real enough, have an air of the fantastical. Abandoned fortifications, deserted railway stations, earthworks, all apparently reached from Antwerp, or later, from the Mile End Road, feed both men's obsession with patterns, the tracery of glass domes, the logic of underground passages, the reality of which is attested by smudged photographs which appear to have survived from some album left over from the 1920s or 1930s. A doorway, a rock formation, a watch, a football team, inserted into the text with little attendant explanation, give sufficient grounding to the apparently depopulated world which both men inhabit.

But this method is recognisable, is even a trope. What is different is the story that Austerlitz gradually unfolds, in those bars and cafés, and later in his house in Alderney Street. Austerlitz is more than an exile; he is a survivor, though an impassive one. At the age of four and a half he was sent on a Kindertransport to safety in Wales and grew up in the chilly care of a pastor and his wife in Bala. He has suffered from hallucinatory anxiety states throughout his adult life, and in an attempt to supply himself with data—for he has no memory of the events which took place—returns to Prague, which he thinks was his home. By dint of archival research he recognises the name of his former nurse, whom he tracks down to an apartment in the Lesser Quarter. Although very old, Vera, the nurse, tells him that long ago his mother was informed that she might bring a few selected items to a depot before being embarked on a journey to a place of which she knows nothing. That place is Theresienstadt, a small town which once harboured a concentration camp. Austerlitz retraces her steps. It is, after all, another excursion, no more informative than the ones he has fashioned for himself.

I grew cold and sick reading this remarkable narrative, which embodies a sense of displacement so radical that it would seem to preclude a safe return to everyday existence. This is not vulgar Holocaust literature, still less a witness statement: this is dislocation of a kind most of us are privileged not to know. Austerlitz receives neither surcease nor consolation from his travails, merely a partial restoration of memories which remain piecemeal. There is no sense of duty done, of conclusions reached, but the illustrations in the text become less abstract. Faces are glimpsed, though these are partly obliterated, and in one image the face of a man in the foreground—neat, well-groomed—masks that of a woman wearing a necklace, so indistinct as to suggest a revenant. This woman may or may not be Austerlitz's mother. It is the necklace that strikes a chord.

Recovery is only intermittent. In Paris a French friend brings him a book from her grandfather's library, a medical work designed for ‘toutes sortes de maladies, internes et externes, invétérées et difficiles à guérir’. Austerlitz delights in the remedies, which consist of infusions of peach blossom, eyebright and other plants. He sets off on another excursion, one nearer to hand, to the new Bibliothèque Nationale, the insane architecture of which nearly sends him off his head again but provides a postscript so ironic that it could not have been invented. This, and another postscript, though welcome, perhaps belong in another book. The body of the work is unforgettable. Like Andreï Makine's La Musique d'une Vie, published earlier this year by Seuil, this is authentic European writing. Its strangeness is so convincing that one is obliged to recognise the truly phenomenal configuration of the author's mind. Even more striking is the blend of conscious and unconscious memory and observation that makes Austerlitz the most accomplished of Sebald's works.

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

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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 to make sense, and also afraid of making sense.

They move through both time and space, making endless connections. In time, they explore the structures of memory, private and public. There are digressions on national, local and individual history. People burrow through archives or examine diaries. Sebald uses public and private photographs and snapshots to telling effect—frozen moments of human or geological or national time that are both present and absent. His characters study traces of human and animal predecessors long gone. Like many modern artists, visual and literary, he is interested in collections and catalogues—birds and insects, fish and stones.

His steady-paced narrator, a witness who is subject to fainting fits, vertigo and loss of consciousness, encounters others for whose narrations he is the audience. They make connections, geographical and imaginative. They are wanderers on foot and also on the railways, those iron lines with junctions and vanishing points which have unified Europe and carried armies and cattle trucks and condemned men, as well as commerce and tourists. His people are interested in human constructions of order—architecture, ancient and modern, factories, working and ruined, fortresses and concentration camps. They move with mournful curiosity through museums and churches and galleries. Everything is interesting, even the most solid things are evanescent, everything is full of dangerous meanings and secrets, as well as lost paradise.

The form is an old form, in that it harks back to what Northrop Frye called the “encyclopaedic” literary work. In The Rings of Saturn, Sebald frequently invokes Sir Thomas Browne's Urne-Buriall, with its coiling sentences enfolding many pasts and many reflections. He also resembles Richard Burton. His work is a modern Anatomy of Melancholy. But the way in which he exploits the ranging forms of memory is very modern, partly in the particular sense of being post-Freudian. His edifices might be said to be constructed out of random free associations—“think of whatever comes into your head”. Sebald's wandering observations, quotations, photo-flash memories have at the same time the randomness of “free association” and the sense of the hidden form of rigorous and ineluctable destiny. Nietzsche said the reality of pure chance was the new form of fate, and a life, and history, do have discernible shapes in a world of chance.

That is not the whole story, because Sebald uses his method to explore the simultaneous memory and forgetting of modern Germany. Both his German characters and his many Jewish or part-Jewish characters have a double need to connect, and not to connect, to forget. Both have had their memories, cultural and personal, taken from them and made terrible. The wandering Jews of The Emigrants are slowly driven to suicide—in many cases, by a slow etiolation of their sense of self, cut off from all its roots and origins, suppressing intolerable griefs and memories. The Jewish Manchester-based painter Max Ferber, in the wonderful last section of that book, comments: “When I think of Germany it feels as if there were some kind of insanity lodged in my head. Probably the reason why I have never been to Germany again is that I am afraid to find that this insanity really exists. To me you see, Germany is a country frozen in the past, destroyed, a curious extraterritorial place, inhabited by people whose faces are both lovely and dreadful. All of them are dressed in the style of the Thirties, or even earlier fashions …”

The German narrator of Sebald's first book, Schwindel, Gefühle (Vertigo), is equally reluctant to revisit Germany or his birthplace, though he eventually does so. Sebald's wandering Jews have been severed from a Jewish and also a German culture they believed was theirs. The Germans feel that they are severed from their culture by what was made of it under the Third Reich. Much powerful modern German art is concerned with this severance, the sense that it is only permissible to work in vacancy, a new, uncontaminated beginning. But in both cases, the repressed past—including poems and paintings, thinkers and ancestors—rises up to haunt the solitary modern, giddy in a void.

Sebald's narrator in The Emigrants, studying Jewish graves in Kissingen and Steinach, remarks that his head and his nerves are affected by “the mental impoverishment and lack of memory that marked the Germans”. He also remarks that “perhaps there is nothing the Germans begrudged the Jews so much as their beautiful names, so intimately bound up with the country they lived in and with its language”. He gives a list of these, all names translatable into solid German objects, brooks, mountains, trees, gold-dust, woods, including names also belonging to great artists—Auerbach, Grünewald.

His new novel, Austerlitz, returns to these themes. It is the story of a man called Austerlitz, narrated in various railway stations and eating places to a vanishing listening-narrative voice. Austerlitz was a Jewish child, sent on a Kindertransport to Britain in 1939 and adopted by a Welsh Calvinist minister and his wife. The couple do not tell the child he is adopted; he discovers at school that his real name is Austerlitz. He grows up to be an architectural historian, orderly, impersonal, repressing all curiosity about his origins, until this makes him ill, with the familiar vanishing and giddy feelings. He then finds his roots in Prague, and tries to trace his mother's fate in the Jewish ghetto of Terezín, or Theresienstadt.

Austerlitz's discovered name is simultaneously overdetermined and meaningless. It is a time and a place in history, where many were slaughtered in a great Napoleonic battle. It is a railway terminal in Paris, next to the magniloquent architecture of the new monumental Bibliothèque Nationale, where he researches Terezín while looking for traces of his father, probably transported to the camps from Paris during the war. Sebald's art of connecting the disconnected appears when Austerlitz finds only three other people with his name. One is Fred Astaire, born Austerlitz, whose father came from Vienna and worked as a master brewer in Omaha, Nebraska. From his veranda, you could hear “freight trains being shunted back and forth”. Astaire said that this sound, and the idea of long train journeys, were his only childhood memory. Then there was the rabbi who circumcised Kafka's nephew. (Sebald's books are all haunted by Kafka.) And a woman, Laura Austerlitz, who was a witness to a crime in Trieste in 1944 and made a statement about it in 1966.

Too many connections in an unthinkably interconnected world. And a central absence of unspeakable things. This is Sebald's extraordinary construction. I think he is one of the important writers of our time, in any language. Austerlitz is perhaps stiffer, less surprising than the earlier novels because it feels more overtly constructed, less inevitably and strangely discovered. But it is nevertheless full of moving things and happenings, retrieved from the debris of the past.

Gillian Tindall (review date 19 October 2001)

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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 Anglia (where Sebald is Professor of European Literature), but from there the waves wash the shores of Holland and so back into the Continental flux. The European routes criss-cross between the present, moments of Sebald's own past, the more remote pasts of those now moving out of living memory, and the classic past of distant battles, “the marks of pain, which … trace countless fine lines through history”.

Sebald's journeys therefore take place in several dimensions, geographically, but also through multiple, overlapping time zones. Austerlitz, like the other books, sets out to convince the reader, even with photographs of buildings and train tickets, that it is no fiction, but it is nevertheless called “a novel”. We seem here to be at the very centre of Sebald's darkly turning world. Surely, one thinks, “Austerlitz” is the battlefield of 1805 (“I am the grass. / Let me work”)? And this new book, like the earlier Vertigo, will no doubt begin with the wars of Napoleon and with other ancient battles; the appearance in the first few pages of the Vauban fortress of Breendonk, near Antwerp, must point this way—?

But no. For “Austerlitz”, it soon becomes clear, is the name of a man, met thirty-five years ago in the grandiose waiting room (now vanished) of Antwerp's main station, a characteristic Sebald encounter. Sebald himself, devoted readers will not be surprised to hear, has been in some state of distress, physical or mental, but Austerlitz, with his solid shoes, his perpetual knapsack and his passion for architecture, seems uniquely well-adjusted to an itinerant, unattached existence. Only gradually, via journeys back and forth across the decades, do we understand the full extent of Austerlitz's alienation from the ties that give meaning to most human lives, and the reason for this. And only incidentally, through the subtle detours of an art that conceals art, does Austerlitz—the battle—figure, when knowledge of it becomes a first key to the schoolboy Austerlitz's lost infancy.

This book appears, at first, as fugitively episodic as The Emigrants (1996) or The Rings of Saturn (1998), which proceed less by story than by theme. But gradually it turns out to tell a structured tale, almost a classic one. Austerlitz has grown up as Dafydd Elias, the adopted son of a dank Welsh manse. The minister shuts himself in his study writing hell-fire sermons; his wife dies by inches, desperately sprinkling talcum powder over herself and her surroundings. No love is given to the boy and no information about his origins; his one moment of closeness with the minister occurs over photographs of the village where the man grew up, which is now drowned beneath a reservoir—another lost past. Only when the boy has spent some years at a minor public school, a ramshackle place but one which enables him to fill his mind with history as a substitute for banished memories, does he discover his original name. He learns that he arrived at the manse aged barely five, in 1939, on one of the Kinder-transports out of Nazi Germany. All the paperwork relating to his case seems, however, to have vanished, perhaps destroyed by the minister, whose disregard for the realities of living eventually meets its own nemesis. Meanwhile, the boy has developed such defences against pain that they take a lifetime to dismantle—a useless Vauban fortress of the heart.

So, a story of the gradual rescue of facts from “the vortex of past time”, a deep vortex, in Austerlitz's case, because he was just too young to retain a coherent understanding of where he had come from and why, but old enough to be traumatized by the loss of all he had known before. This is, you may say, one of Sebald's basic themes, here presented more directly than ever before—“how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life … that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard”.

Eventually, via other journeys interlaced with Sebald's own wanderings, via the long-dead in London's compacted earth, via Liverpool Street Station on the site of the earliest Bedlam and via the new Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris on the site of warehouses where looted Jewish goods were piled during the war—“as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them”—Austerlitz achieves his appointment with his origins. He finds them in an apartment in bourgeois Prague, where a once-loved face greets him and memory is at last restored.

All this is so convincing and, like life itself, so full of other potential accounts, that one is inclined to accept it as real. Are there not blurred little photographs of Theresienstadt Concentration Camp to prove it, including that lifelike touch of a “probably false” photograph of Austerlitz's mother? And a photograph of Austerlitz himself in his other life, a little boy in white satin carnival dress whose appearance on page 258 finally elucidates the dust-jacket illustration?

Only after one has finished this spell-bindingly accomplished book does one reflect that it is, after all, a work of art, and doubt about Austerlitz begins to creep in. For the child in the picture looks older than five—and isn't five a little old already to have lost all memory of one's previous identity, even to one's name? But then, a child any younger than that could not plausibly have been sent to England quite unaccompanied. … It may be significant that while a picture of the author (born in Bavaria, 1944) has appeared on each of Sebald's earlier books, there is none on this one. Comparing the satin-clad boy with the author's picture on his preceding book, there is no compelling evidence to link the determined child's face with that of the bespectacled middle-aged man, but no feature suggests that they could not be the same person. The conviction begins to form that Austerlitz (another academic) is really a Sebald alter ego, freer than his creator and yet without the central creative mechanism that makes the writer what he is. Austerlitz is, in some respects, a miracle of clarity and decency. But he is one of the living dead.

This wonderful book seems more of a parallel version than a translation in the usual sense; it manages to convey the impression (possibly genuine) that it was initially thought in English. Yet it is slightly exhausting to read, for an odd reason: it has no paragraphs. Undivided as life itself, it rushes onwards. The effect, particularly when combined with the reporting of conversations at two removes, is disconcertingly manic. An implicit comment on Austerlitz's driven odyssey? Or something to do with Sebald's own relationship with his material? I await the next volume with a quiet intensity.

Gabriele Annan (review date 1 November 2001)

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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, inquiring.” The photograph is printed in moody sepia, like the others in this and Sebald's previous books. Like them. Austerlitz hovers enigmatically on the border between fact and fiction. He has created a new genre, a mysterious defensive hedge to hide behind as he sorts out his inmost thoughts.

Nearly all the photographs are either melancholy or sinister or both, even when they are architectural—which in the case of Austerlitz most of them are. Interiors of railway stations, fortresses, hotels, municipal buildings, libraries, conservatories draw one into eerie spaces somewhere between Escher's surreal flights of stairs and Piranesi's imaginary prisons. The prose corroborates the impression: in the disused ladies' waiting room at London's Liverpool Street Station, for instance.

when the blanket of cloud above the city parted for a moment or two, occasional rays of light fell into the waiting room, but they were generally extinguished again halfway down. Other beams of light followed curious trajectories which violated the laws of physics, departing from the rectilinear and twisting in spirals and eddies before being swallowed up by the wavering shadows. From time to time and just for a split second, I saw huge halls open up, with rows of pillars and colonnades leading far into the distance, with vaults and brickwork arches bearing on them many-storied structures, with flights of stone steps, wooden stairways and ladders, all leading the eye on and on.

Most of the photographs must have been taken by Sebald, but he attributes them to Austerlitz—who is not a battlefield but a man: the little boy on the cover, now grown up; years ago his mother went to a fancy dress ball as the Rose Queen, and he carried her train. (Incidentally Fred Astaire's real name was Austerlitz too, so Sebald says.)

Two of the four stories in his collection The Emigrants (1992) are about Jewish refugees from Hitler, and one about a second-generation Jewish refugee from Lithuania. The main characters in all three commit suicide. Austerlitz does not do that, although he too is a Jewish refugee. He grows up instead to be a depressive loner with several nervous breakdowns behind him. Sebald went on to describe his own nervous breakdown in The Rings of Saturn (1995), an account of his journey on foot along the English east coast after he recovered. When Austerlitz is fit enough to leave the hospital, his doctor advises him to go to work in a nursery garden that employs “a certain number of assistants who suffered from disabilities.” There is a horrendous photograph of a fat man manically grinning across trays of seedlings. It can't be Austerlitz, let alone Sebald. Maybe it is one of the other disabled assistants, whom he describes as generally “cheerful.”

Their shared breakdown, depression, and loneliness suggest that perhaps Sebald sees Austerlitz as his doppelgänger, “mon semblable, mon frère.” the person he might have been, had he been Jewish. He is not Jewish, though, but a Bavarian from the village of Wertach; and for many years he has taught at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, where he is professor of European literature.

It is in 1967 in the waiting room of the central station in Antwerp that the unnamed narrator we can call Sebald first catches sight of Austerlitz and his defining small rucksack. The rucksack reminds Sebald of Wittgenstein (but on the cover photograph of The Rings of Saturn, Sebald himself—for he must be the figure receding along the country road—is the one who carries a small rucksack; so perhaps he and Austerlitz really are each other's doppelgänger). This waiting room, Sebald says, is known as the salle des pas perdus—the perfect name for the starting point of a melancholy relationship between two melancholy men.

Austerlitz, an architectural historian, is sketching details of the vast dome beneath which “exactly as [King Leopold's] architect had intended, when we step into the entrance hall we are seized by a sense of being beyond the profane, in a cathedral consecrated to international traffic and trade.” Sebald gets into conversation with Austerlitz, and they settle down in the station buffet by a

mighty clock … with a hand some six feet long traveling round a dial which had once been gilded, but was now blackened by railway soot and tobacco smoke. During the pauses in our conversation we both noticed what an endless length of time went by before another minute had passed, and how alarming seemed the movement of the hand, which resembled a sword of justice, even though we were expecting it every time it jerked forward, slicing off the next one-sixtieth of an hour from the future and coming to a halt with such a menacing quiver that one's heart almost stopped.

This arch-Sebaldian description, detailed and precise, resonant and ominous, announces themes that run through everything he writes: transience, neglect, decay, menace—but also a contempt for everything modern and commercial, implied here by the sneer about the cathedral of international traffic and trade. (The only really dispensable passage in this new, unconventional, willful book is a long diatribe against the Bibliothèque François Mitterrand—built near the Gare d'Austerlitz in Paris—that has ousted Sebald's beloved old Bibliothèque Nationale. The criticism may be justified, but it reads just like the grouchy letters in the London Telegraph and Times, which are categorized as “yours disgusted, Tunbridge Wells”—that being the kind of genteel retirement town where their writers would be likely to live.)

Sebald does not see Austerlitz again until 1995—once more by chance and at a railway station. Railway stations are places for experiencing transience—more than noisy, frantic airports, which have no departure platforms, so they lack the unilinear pathos of rails disappearing into the distance. This time the station is Liverpool Street in London. The trains from Norwich come in there, so Sebald has known it for years, and drifts into a wonderful, dreamy, nostalgic account of a night spent in its grand old-fashioned hotel before the place was rebuilt.

Austerlitz lives nearby in Alderney Street in the East End. Next door is an ancient Jewish cemetery, unknown to most people, because the door in its wall is never open. Austerlitz recommends it to Sebald as a place to visit when he takes him to his austere underfurnished house, and shows him his collection of photographs, explaining the weird memory game he plays with them: spreading them out face down, turning them over, and rearranging them until “he felt exhausted by the constant effort of thinking and remembering and had to rest on the ottoman.”

After that, the two men go on meeting, in London. Paris, and Prague, and Austerlitz gradually tells Sebald the story of his life. For many years, he did not know “who he really was.” At the age of four and a half, he was adopted by the Reverend Elias, a grim, disagreeable Welsh nonconformist minister and his silent wife. They lived in the little Welsh town of Bala, and they named the child Dafydd Elias. He had arrived in 1939 on the Kindertransport from Prague. His mother was an opera singer, but was now forbidden to perform. His father had already emigrated to Paris, and they expected that quite soon they would manage to reunite as a family. Instead, Austerlitz's mother was sent to Terezin, and from there to the gas ovens: and his father disappeared when the Germans invaded France.

Mrs. Elias died after a long illness: then her husband lost his mind and had to be taken to an asylum. By this time Datydd was at an English boarding school, and doing well at football as well as academic work. He was fifteen when the headmaster told him what his real name was, but nothing about his origins. He won scholarships, went to Oxford, studied art history at the Warburg Institute, and suppressed every memory of his early childhood. He attributes the nervous breakdown he had in 1992 to this suppression:

It was obviously of little use that I had discovered the sources of my distress and, looking back over all the past years, could now see myself with the utmost clarity as that child suddenly cast out of his familiar surroundings: reason was powerless against the sense of rejection and annihilation which I had always suppressed, and which was now breaking through the walls of its confinement.

Sometime after his recovery, when he was browsing in a London print shop, he happened to overhear a radio broadcast about the Kindertransport: his memory returned—fitfully—and he headed for Prague to reassemble the missing pieces. The city archivist found him an address where his parents might have lived. When he rang the bell, the woman who opened the door recognized him: it was Vera, who now lived in the flat. She had been a student when he was a small child, and had acted as his nanny. She had been loving and kind, and he was very fond of her. Now she was a lonely old spinster, a touching figure, quiet, affectionate, and, Sebald makes you feel, an utterly good person. She tells Austerlitz everything he wants to know, including the harrowing story of how she helped his mother pack the few belongings she was allowed to take, and then accompanied her to the assembly point for Jews destined for Terezin.

It is Vera who shows Austerlitz the photograph of himself as the little page, and it confirms the feeling he has always had, that

time did not exist at all, only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry, between which the living and the dead can move back and forth as they like, and the longer I think about it the more it seems to me that we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead, that only occasionally, in certain lights and atmospheric conditions. do we appear in their field of vision. As far back as I can remember, said Austerlitz. I have always felt as if I had no place in reality, as if I were not there at all. …

Sebald has invented a disturbing, inverted new take on ghosts, for whom we are the unreal people. It may explain why all the figures in his photographs appear ghostly: even the two couples in morning dress, one of the men in a gray top hat, who stand in what looks like a typical English garden (it is, in fact, in Wales), and stare in amazed disapproval at the other man, who has a cockatoo on his shoulder.

After his visit to Vera. Austerlitz makes his way to Terezin. The photographs of its empty streets lined with low-built, dilapidated houses are as depressing and haunting as Sebald could have wished. The place had just been turned into a museum, but on the day Austerlitz goes there, there are no other visitors. He keeps looking in the window of the only shop—a junk shop displaying a stuffed squirrel, china ornaments, old uniforms, glass paperweights with marine flowers inside them, and so on:

It was a long time before I could tear myself away from staring at the hundreds of different objects, my forehead pressed against the cold window, as if one of them or their relationship with each other must provide an unequivocal answer to the many questions I found it impossible to ask in my mind. …

They were all … timeless. … perpetuated but forever just occurring, these ornaments, utensils, and mementoes stranded in the Terezin bazaar, objects that for reasons one could never know had outlived their former owners and survived the process of destruction, so that I could now see my own faint shadow image barely perceptible among them.

It's the “cold window” and his own “faint shadow image” that makes this passage so vivid and haunting, and bring home the coexistence of past and present.

Sebald never writes to get on with the story. When thoughts occur to him, he pauses and lets them take over at their own pace. So there are ruminations—often accompanied by photographs or reproductions of drawings and prints—on subjects as varied as fortresses (which he finds have always proved useless for the purpose they were built for). Schumann's madness and death, the creepy museum of the École Vétérinaire near the Gare d' Austerlitz, night moths, the impossibility of thinking about history except in preconceived clichés, concentration camps (Breendonk in Belgium as well as Terezin), cemeteries and spas, especially Marienbad, where as a child Austerlitz spent happy holidays with Vera and his parents.

Austerlitz went there again in the Nineties with Marie de Verneuil, a woman with whom he was—though he never uses those words—in love. She, too, is an architectural historian, and she comes from an aristocratic French family. Sebald never alludes to Austerlitz's feelings for her, but admiration and tenderness worm their way out of the text and form the image—though he never describes her either—of a strong, impulsive, affectionate, perceptive, understanding woman. Sebald has a mysterious gift for evoking lovable characters without any apparent need to describe them: here they include a fellow pupil at his boarding school and the boy's beautiful widowed mother who befriends him, has him to stay at the family's beautiful house (with cockatoos flying wild in its garden): the adolescent Austerlitz falls in love with her, but that again is never quite stated. Then there is the Bloomsbury bookseller in whose shop he over hears the Kindertransport broadcast, and the Prague city archivist: as well as Vera and Marie, who are more important to the story. But Marie leaves him: she cannot cope with his unreachability when he is depressed.

Austerlitz ends with a long passage about the South African writer Dan Jacobson's book Heshel's Kingdom. In it Jacobson describes his journey to Kaunas in Lithuania, where his grandfather, a rabbi, died soon after World War I. His widow brought her children to South Africa, and Jacobson grew up in Kimberley. The abandoned gold mines there were unfenced, and you could look down into several thousand feet of darkness:

The chasm into which no ray of light could penetrate was Jacobson's image of the vanished past of his family and his people which, as he knows, can never be brought up from those depths again.

Sebald reads Jacobson's book at Breendonk, the (useless) Belgian fortress which became a concentration camp and where his own book begins.

He is one of the most gripping writers imaginable. It's not the story so much that takes hold of the reader: it's the descriptions and the meditations, which can be hallucinatory in their effect. This is true of all his books, but in Austerlitz the proportion of rumination and evocation to narrative is larger than ever. Just occasionally this seems self-indulgent. But it's not: perhaps intentionally, he is writing in the same genre that Goethe used for his autobiography. Goethe called it Dichtung und Wahrheit—“fiction and fact”—and it gives the writer license to put in whatever he wants, so long as it's interesting.

John Banville (review date 26 November 2001)

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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 was sure he knew the answer to that one, while even the supremely scrupulous Celan was criticized for the musical beauty of his death-camp poem “Deathfugue.” Perhaps the most succinct statement of the matter was made by Larkin, who in a comment on a poem about another twentieth-century catastrophe said that he had used Roman numerals for the title of “MCMXIV” because “once you've said Nineteen Fourteen, everything after that is superfluous.”

It would be an injustice to W. G. Sebald to suggest that he has made the Shoah his subject. Indeed, it would be an injustice to claim that he has a “subject” as such, unless it be the lachrimae rerum in general. His books deal with a bewildering range of topics, from the works of Thomas Browne to the loves of Henri Beyle, via the history of silk-making and the ground plan of the fortress of Breendonk outside Antwerp, and cover a very great deal of ground, from the mud flats of East Anglia through an artist's studio up a yard in Manchester to the killing fields of Croatia. Always in the background, however, is the dark echo of the persecution and the murder of the Jews.

Sebald's work is reminiscent of the stories of Borges, of the mysterious pictorial conundrums of Escher, of the precisely vague films of Resnais, though he is much more emotionally affecting than any of those overly cerebral magicians. He is perhaps a direct descendant of Kafka, except that Sebald's books are blessedly free of the transcendent boringness that breathes out grayly from Kafka's novels, though not from the stories or the diaries. Anyway, seeking influences is particularly fruitless in the case of Sebald, for he is unique.

His books—it is hard to know what else to call them; his paperback publisher employs categories such as “fiction/travel/history,” but why stop there?—have appeared in English in a chronologically jumbled fashion. What seems to have been the first one, Vertigo, was first published in German in 1990 and appeared in Britain in 1999; The Emigrants came out in German in 1992, and in English in 1996; The Rings of Saturn, one of his best-known works but not necessarily his best, was published in Frankfurt in 1995 and in London in 1998; and now comes Austerlitz. The first three books were very finely translated by Michael Hulse—that is to say, the English into which Hulse turned them is very fine—while the translator of the new one is Anthea Bell. It may be that Sebald, who came relatively late to fiction writing, or at least to publishing fiction in book form, has by now achieved a poised immaculacy of style that was not quite there before, but certainly Austerlitz, in Bell's pristine translation, strikes a more profound and more moving note than that sounded in the earlier books.

Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald was born in Wertach im Allgäu, in Bavaria, in 1944. He studied in Freiburg, later in Switzerland, and then in Manchester, where he moved in 1966. In 1970, he transferred to the University of East Anglia, where he has been professor of European literature since 1987, and where he was the first director of the British Centre for Literary Translation, a vigorous and very necessary organization in a country that remains resolutely suspicious of literature not written in English. East Anglia was also the college where the first creative-writing course in England was instituted, run by, among others, Angus Wilson and Malcolm Bradbury, and numbering among its graduates Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. The characterizing marks of the East Anglia school are a plain prose style largely free of metaphorical frills, and a fascination with the eerie depths underlying the most ordinary-seeming lives. Although Sebald is not connected with the famous course, his work does bear a superficial resemblance to that of Ishiguro and McEwan. The difference is that he is an infinitely greater artist than either of them.

Sebald's effects are achieved through what seems a sort of superhuman self-control. The narrative walks along at a steady unvarying stride, matching its pace to that of the peripatetic narrator, who is forever on the move, whether ambling through the Norfolk Broads, or down the shell-shocked streets of postwar Manchester, or over the bridges and along the alleyways of Prague. The browser flicking through these books, with their dense, dialogue-free pages amply illustrated with blurry, anonymous, and yet curiously affecting photographs, will acknowledge the veracity of the description “travel/history,” but will wonder where the “fiction” comes in. Sebald's work probably requires an entirely new category.

It has been apparent since literary modernism guttered out in the nouveau roman that fiction would have to find new forms if it was to survive. Signs of a possible instauration have been appearing in the past couple of decades. Claudio Magris's Danube, a novel of ideas cunningly disguised as a travel book, which Sebald's The Rings of Saturn uncannily resembles, and Roberto Calasso's The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony pointed out possible new directions, while the extraordinary popular success of Milan Kundera's essay-fictions—who would have expected that a book that opens with a citation from Nietzsche, as does The Unbearable Lightness of Being, could ever become a best-seller?—showed to novelists, and, not insignificantly, to publishers and booksellers, that the reading public was ready for a new kind of literature, and would welcome books that flouted the categories.

Sebald is a triumphant culmination of that process of change and experimentation, though his work has all the marks of a new beginning. To the hurrying eye in search of plot, characters, dialogue, these books will appear flat and cold. The text looks dauntingly clotted: the first paragraph of Austerlitz is twenty-five pages long, and toward the middle there is a sentence, a marvelous sentence, describing the detention camp at Terezín, that lasts for seven pages. The photographs, viewed out of context, can seem positively twee, and sometimes they do indeed smack of literal-mindedness: one finds oneself recalling the BBC television comedy sketch mocking the illustrative obsessions of the compilers of newscasts, in which mention of the government position of Lord Privy Seal is backed by shots of Jesus Christ, an outdoor lavatory, and an aquatic mammal balancing a ball on its nose.

But Sebald knows what he is up to. At the bottom of page fifty-nine of The Rings of Saturn, in a passage about an English eccentric, a certain Major Le Strange, we are told in the very last line that he was with an anti-tank regiment that liberated Bergen-Belsen in 1945; and when the page is turned it is a genuine shock to be confronted by a two-page spread showing bodies piled at random in a pine wood. Less direct, but no less effective, are the three pages in Austerlitz illustrating doorways in the present-day town of Terezín, the third of which unerringly resembles the door of a gas chamber. (An incidental source of speculation is where these photographs come from—Sebald must spend a lot of time in junk shops—and whether the writer searches them out to illustrate the text or allows the pictures themselves to direct the narrative.)

The tone of all Sebald's books is vaguely autobiographical, mainly in the sense that they seem to chart something of the writer's inner life, his struggles, speculations, nervous turmoils. In Austerlitz there is a gruesome photograph, from a museum of veterinary medicine in Paris, of a three-foot-high tree of bronchial tubes, its “petrified and rust-coloured branches looking like coral growths,” which might be an emblem in general of Sebald's somber, inward, uncanny books. Of Sebald himself we learn little of a concrete nature. He is an unenthusiastic teacher, he has a wife, he likes to hike about the countryside in solitude but with a lively curiosity. There are hints of serious inner troubles, losses, breakdowns. A description in Austerlitz of writer's block is as immediate and as horribly compelling as the predicament of Lord Chandos in Hofmannsthal's “Letter”; the process that begins with writing being “such hard going that it often took me a whole day to compose a single sentence, and no sooner had I thought such a sentence out, with the greatest effort, and written it down, than I saw the awkward falsity of my constructions and the inadequacy of all the words I had employed,” and it ends with the character feeling “in my head the dreadful torpor that heralds disintegration of the personality,” and sensing that “in truth I had neither memory nor the power of thought, nor even any existence, that all my life had been a constant process of obliteration, a turning away from myself and the world.”

The character thus afflicted is not Sebald, or even “Sebald,” but the book's eponymous central character. Austerlitz is cast in a form reminiscent of Diderot's Rameau's Nephew and Coleridge's “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” One day in the 1960s, on a visit to Antwerp, the nameless narrator, whom we are to understand is Sebald himself, encounters in the waiting room of that city's baroque Central Station a solitary traveler like himself, “a man who then, in 1967, appeared almost youthful, with fair, curiously wavy hair of a kind I had seen elsewhere only on the German hero Siegfried in Fritz Lang's Nibelungen film.” This man is Austerlitz. The dreamy drift here, from the man's appearance to the recollection of a movie, is typical of Sebald's method. Over the ensuing three decades the two men meet, occasionally but momentously, and Austerlitz's story gradually emerges.

Having been brought up in a small town in Wales “in the home of a Calvinist preacher and former missionary called Emyr Elias who was married to a timid-natured Englishwoman”—this extended Welsh episode is a bravura piece of mock-Gothic description that is at once deeply gloomy and highly comic—the boy discovers, when Elias has descended into madness, that he is not a son of the manse, but that he was fostered by the Eliases. His real name is Jacques Austerlitz. After many years of dogged detective work, he succeeds in uncovering the identity of his parents. They were the Prague businessman and political activist Maximilian Aychenwald and his actress wife Agáta, both Jews. When war came, his parents sent him to England, and shortly afterwards Maximilian fled to Paris, intending that Agáta should follow, but next day the German tanks rolled into Prague, and she was trapped. Eventually Agáta was sent to Terezín, and perished there or in one of the extermination camps.

Sebald's narrative control in the recounting of this terrible tale is remarkable. The creeping horror of the fate of the Austerlitzes is communicated all the more effectively because the narrative never raises its voice. Instead it maintains a masterly and unnerving evenness of tone. The moment, toward the close of the book, when we are finally shown a photograph of a woman who is almost certainly Agáta, is one of the most moving moments that a reader is likely to encounter in modern literature. There are passages of breathless beauty in this book, as when Austerlitz describes watching in slow motion a propaganda film of life in the Terezín camp: “The men and women employed in the workshops now looked as if they were toiling in their sleep, so long did it take them to draw needle and thread through the air as they stitched, so heavily did their eyelids sink, so slowly did their lips move as they looked up wearily at the camera.” Mysteriously lovely, too, is the account of a performance by a traveling circus that Austerlitz attends in Paris, at the end of which the whole troupe, accompanied by a white goose, gathers to play on a motley of instruments a tune that Austerlitz does not recognize but that moves him deeply. Looking back, however,

it seems to me as if the mystery which touched me at the time was summed up in the image of the snow-white goose standing motionless and steadfast among the musicians as long as they played. Neck craning forward slightly, pale eyelids slightly lowered, it listened there in the tent beneath that shimmering firmament of painted stars until the last notes had died away, as if it knew its own future and the fate of its present companions.

The Europe through which Sebald, or his narrator, wanders is not the Europe of treaties and economic miracles and social progress. The eye that he casts upon his continent is cold and utterly undeceived. The places that he visits are not the grand boulevards, the glittering esplanades, the statued parks, but the unconsidered corners, the bricked-over wastelands and soulless architectural sites. There is a splendidly disgusted visit to Paris's new Bibliothèque Nationale on the quai François Mauriac, a building “devised … on purpose to instill a sense of insecurity and humiliation in the poor readers,” where the reverberations of catastrophe are still unmistakably to be felt. For Sebald, the “new” Europe is as neat and clean and orderly as the vast cemeteries in Flanders where the fallen of World War I are laid out under row upon endless row of white crosses.

The seriousness of Sebald's endeavor is plain and impressive. His work is nothing less than a chronicle of the end of a civilization. Europe, Sebald is telling us, committed suicide in the first half of the twentieth century, and what remains is, for all the carefully applied cosmetics, a lifeless object of desperate veneration and uneasy nostalgia, like Lenin's corpse in its mausoleum in Red Square. As Austerlitz remarks of the Palace of Justice on Gallows Hill in Brussels, “At the most we gaze at it in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that out-sized buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.”

Austerlitz itself is a kind of majestic and mysterious ruin, a place of secret chambers, of hushed and anonymous spaces, of star-shaped structures crouching in silence under glass domes and peopled by the dead, and by the living dead. Yet for all its bleakness, this book, like Sebald's other books, is peculiarly invigorating and, dare one say, filled with hope, of no matter how tentative a variety. Sebald's voice is speaking out of the rubble, erecting the edifice of art.

Tess Lewis (essay date December 2001)

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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, from one state of despair to another. In his first novel, Vertigo (1990), translated two years ago, Sebald's lightly fictionalized alter ego explains that “In October 1980 I travelled from England, where I had then been living for nearly twenty-five years in a country which was almost always under grey skies, to Vienna, hoping that a change of place would help me get over a particularly difficult period in my life.” Yet without his routines of work in his garden or with his books, he finds himself at a loss. During ten days of compulsive walking, he is incapable of moving outside a precisely defined sickle-shaped area. The narrator begins hallucinating; he sees Dante walking ahead of him, then figures from his childhood. He escapes to Venice where, preoccupied by the “ever widening and contracting circles” of his thoughts, he is again temporarily incapacitated before fleeing to Verona, then on to Riva.

A similar, if not the same, narrator, in Sebald's third novel, The Rings of Saturn (1995), seeks release through a journey. “In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.” But on his pilgrimage he is traumatized by traces of destruction, both recent and ancient. A year to the day from the beginning of his journey, he is immobilized with horror and hospitalized.

Yet travel, in Sebald's writing, does prove more than a panacea—however self-defeating—for existential crises. It also offers occasions for elaborate historical, literary, even metaphysical speculation. In the first section of Vertigo, entitled “Beyle, or Love is a Madness Most Discreet,” the narrator retraces the steps of Marie-Henri Beyle (before he became Stendhal or Henry Brulard or any of a hundred pseudonyms) through Italy during and after the Napoleonic campaigns. In the third section, “Dr. K. Takes the Waters at Riva,” he follows Kafka's 1913 trip from Vienna to a spa on Lake Garda. Sebald uses the opportunity to present the two men's various theories of love. Stendhal, chronically prone to infatuation, compares the growth of love and its necessary illusions to the crystallization of salt upon a twig, which, when interred for a time in a salt mine, will glitter as if covered with diamonds. Another theory offered is that of Mme Gherardi, Stendhal's traveling companion in On Love and probably a figment of his imagination. Mme Gherardi, according to Stendhal—in Sebald's version—puts little faith in love. She believes it is a chimaera created by the civilized mind and a solipsistic “passion that pays its debts in coin of its own minting.” Dr. K., as Sebald refers to Kafka, echoing the slipperiness of Stendhal's and his own literary identity, evolves what Sebald describes as a “fragmentary theory of disembodied love, in which there is no difference between intimacy and disengagement.” Embodied love is inevitably false, for all lovers—Dr. K. himself included—are compelled by desire to recall the image of the lover with “the whole gamut of variations and repetitions” until it is extinguished under the strain.

The theme of love appears in a muted, indirect fashion in the second and fourth sections of Vertigo, “All 'estero” (Abroad) and “Ritorno in Patria” (Return to the Homeland). We are led to believe discreetly, through allusions, that the despair the narrator is trying to evade has been caused by complications of the heart. Center stage in these sections are fictionalized events from Sebald's travels and his past, such as an amusing encounter with the Italian police after a hotel receptionist mislays his passport and his return after an absence of three decades to his childhood village “W.” in the Alps. As he revisits the sites and figures of his past, some of his childhood memories are demystified and others made more mysterious.

Kafka's story “The Hunter Gracchus” provides a unifying theme for Vertigo. In this story, the Hunter Gracchus falls to his death in the Black Forest while chasing a chamois. He eagerly boards the boat that is to ferry him to the shores beyond, but the helmsman is briefly distracted and fails to make the crossing. Now Gracchus is fated to sail the world forever, accompanied by a flock of pigeons. Occasionally, Gracchus will be carried ashore on a bier, his body draped with a flowered shawl, as in the story's opening in Riva. He always sets sail again, however. “My boat has no rudder,” Gracchus concludes, “it is driven by the wind that blows in the deepest regions of death.”

Elements from this metaphysical horror story fill Vertigo. Sebald has Stendhal and Mme Gherardi witness the docking of an old boat with a fractured mast and dirty yellow sails in Riva.1 Two men descend carrying a bier with a body under a flower-patterned cloth. In Verona, the narrator stops in a pizzeria whose proprietor's name is Cadavero. Outside this pizzeria, which is complete with a flock of pigeons on its balcony, he experiences a hallucinatory vision of a bier with a corpse under a floral-patterned drape. In “W.,” in an attic he was forbidden to enter as a child, he finds the dusty uniform of an Austrian chasseur from the early nineteenth century. He also recalls an incident from his childhood in which the body of a local hunter, Hans Schlag, is brought into town on a sled after he died in a fall to the bottom of a ravine. In this instance the figure of Schlag not only echoes Gracchus, but is subjected to a further aestheticization as the Sebaldian narrator incorporates elements from a story by Adalbert Stifter—a fatal fall into a ravine, a lapdog who survives the fall but is driven insane and shot by the rescuers, a doctor's verdict that the cause of death was exposure and not the actual fall—into his presumably autobiographical narrative.

Any description of Sebald's writing is bound to make it sound disjointed and overcrowded. He is, however, able to weave a multitude of apparently disparate strands into elegant, unified tapestries. There are nonetheless lapses. His explication of Gracchus's fate in conjunction with Dr. K.'s theory of disembodied love and the cryptic nature of guilt in Kafka's fiction is forced. Sebald offers his reading in a passage of a density that is unusual even by his standards.

The question of who is to blame for this undoubtedly great misfortune remains unresolved, as indeed does the matter of what his guilt, the cause of his misfortune, consists in. But, as it was Dr. K. who conjured up this tale, it seems to me the meaning of Gracchus the huntsman's ceaseless journey lies in a penitence for a longing for love, such as invariably besets Dr. K., as he explains in one of his countless Fledermaus-letters to Felice, precisely at the point where there is seemingly, and in the natural and lawful order of things, nothing to be enjoyed.

This interpretation is, in the context of the book, thematically expedient and aesthetically pleasing but not entirely convincing. Yet such lapses are infrequent and for the most part highlight the mastery of the rest of his writing.

The most celebrated and accessible of Sebald's early fiction is The Emigrants (1992). Although he relates the fates of four exiles buffeted by the forces of history in a much more conventional fashion, Sebald's search for traces of their lives is presented within a network of echoes and coincidences no less effective for its greater subtlety. The Rings of Saturn is the most Sebaldian of the three novels in its dance of associations and complex interweaving of themes. Portraits of Thomas Browne, the seventeenth-century essayist obsessed with “patterns which recur in the seemingly infinite diversity of forms,” Joseph Conrad, Swinburne, Edward Fitzgerald, the English poet and translator Michael Hamburger, and the Dowager Empress Tz'u-hsi, among others, are bound together by meditations on the development of the silkworm industry, the natural history of the herring, King Leopold's savage reign in the Belgian Congo, the rapaciousness of the rising bourgeoisie, and the decline of great country mansions. And, of course, there are discreet, elusive scenes from Sebald's own life.

Sebald has received almost unanimous, ecstatic praise for his intriguing fictional hybrids. He has effectively created a new genre by combining travelogue, biography, memoir, speculation, literary criticism, and erudite detail into an elaborate structure founded on the restless sensibility of a melancholic aesthete. André Aciman, whose own brand of nostalgia runs in a more saccharine vein, perhaps captures it best with his term essai noir. Sebald punctuates his precise, elegant prose with grainy black-and-white photographs of people, details from paintings, pages from diaries, train tickets, receipts, and documents, many of which are tainted with a faint air of dubious authenticity. These illustrations simultaneously reinforce and undermine the narrator's credibility.

In all three of his early fictional works a narrator who shares the author's name and, like Sebald, was born in Bavaria in 1944 but left for England in his twenties where he lives to this day, embarks on a journey. He is ostensibly searching for traces of people he has known or read about, or even simply in search of peace of mind. In truth, however, each quest is undertaken for nothing less than metaphysical certainties.

They are hard to find, especially those of a higher order. In Vertigo, near the end of his journey, the narrator confesses to an equally saturnine former neighbor that

over the years I had puzzled out a good deal in my own mind, but in spite of that, far from becoming clearer, things now appeared to me more incomprehensible than ever. The more images I gathered from the past, I said, the more unlikely it seemed to me that the past had actually happened in this or that way, for nothing about it could be called normal: most of it was absurd, and if not absurd, then appalling.

Faced with history, which “staggers blindly from one catastrophe to the next,” the only certainty Sebald can establish is a variation of Nietzsche's eternal return that he calls the “phenomenon of apparent duplication.” Instead of being condemned endlessly to repeat our past, we are continuously pursued by the “ghosts of repetition.”

Sometimes these ghosts appear in human form, such as the identical twins who bear an uncanny resemblance to the young Kafka with whom Sebald shares a bus ride in Italy, or as Naegeli, the mountain guide whose body resurfaces seventy-two years after his death on a glacier and sixteen years after the guide's friend had described him to Sebald. At other times they manifest themselves in coincidences of time and place such as the intersections of his life with that of Michael Hamburger, another German exile and a man and writer for whom Sebald has a particularly strong “elective affinity.” Sebald finds it incomprehensible that he and his friend Michael, born twenty-two years apart, should have met the eccentric scholar Stanley Kerry in Manchester in 1944 and 1966, respectively, when each was twenty-two years old. Perpetually and eagerly unsettled by such overlapping of lives and times, Sebald remarks,

No matter how often I tell myself that chance happenings of this kind occur far more often than we suspect, since we all move one after the other, along the same roads mapped out for us by our origins and our hopes, my rational mind is nonetheless unable to lay the ghosts of repetition that haunt me with ever greater frequency.

Prominent as they are, the patterns of recurrence, eerie similarities, and the obscure laws of coincidence are not the most important element in Sebald's writing, for the patterns are teasingly portentous but ultimately unfathomable. It is the act of remembering the dead, the recalling of things lost or destroyed that is most significant. For Sebald, as for Chateaubriand, a presiding spirit of The Rings of Saturn, “from the very outset, recapitulating the past can have only one end, the hour of deliverance.” Whether or not this deliverance comes only with death, the dead are ever returning to guide those willing to follow.

Sebald's revenants are unsettling, but far worse than being haunted by history's ghosts is having them exorcised. The Holocaust's “poisonous canopy” overshadows his trilogy. Sebald evokes it continuously, both indirectly in his elegies of its victims and directly in his pursuit of the past. The narrator in The Emigrants notes with quiet horror, for example, that the upright citizens of small German towns with once thriving Jewish communities like Steinach “have difficulty remembering those who were once their neighbors and whose homes and property they appropriated.” Yet the Sebaldian narrator is also repeatedly subject to mounting panic when faced with a more generalized sanitizing of the past. After several days in Steinach, he leaves abruptly because “the mental impoverishment and lack of memory that marked the Germans, and the efficiency with which they had cleaned everything up” were taking its toll on his sanity. In Vertigo he is disturbed by the suppression of history evident even in the landscape.

Sebald's latest novel, Austerlitz, examines the corrosive effects of history's suppression on a more intimate level. Jacques Austerlitz has been haunted for decades by a past that had been erased just as effectively as modern Germany's. In 1939, at the age of four, he was sent on a Kindertransport from Prague to England. There he was adopted by a dour Welsh Calvinist minister and his wife, and renamed Dafydd Elias. He did not learn of his true name until he was fifteen, by which time his adoptive mother was dead and the minister, unable to cope without her, institutionalized. All the traces of his origins seemed to have vanished, until, in his late fifties, he overhears a radio interview of two women who were on a similar transport. The few memories their stories awaken offer him a crucial link in unearthing his family's fate.

In the novel a nameless—but familiarly Sebaldian—narrator recounts Austerlitz's odyssey into this past, which, once the trails he had pursued as a teenager proved deadends, he had strenuously avoided. Despite feelings of “wrenching inside [him], a kind of heartache which,” he later realized, “was caused by the vortex of past time,” he engaged in a constant “self-censorship of the mind,” refusing to acknowledge anything that related to his personal past. “As far as I was concerned, the world ended in the late nineteenth century, I dared go no further than that.” Thus, Austerlitz, almost inconceivably, as he himself admits, reached middle-age, a respected lecturer in a London institute of art history, having spent decades compiling his investigations into the history of bourgeois architecture and civilization, knowing next to nothing about “the conquest of Europe by the Germans and the slave state they set up.” He eventually, painstakingly, reconstructs his parents' final years, up to his mother's deportation to Theresienstadt in 1944 and his father's internment in 1942 in the French camp of Gurs.

In Austerlitz, Sebald covers much the same intellectual territory as in his earlier novels: an anonymous, neurasthenic narrator who shares many biographical details with the author serves as a foil to reflect, with elaborate asides, the lives of history's victims. Yet, with its cohesive story line, Austerlitz is the least obtrusively constructed and the most emotionally powerful of his four novels. Austerlitz himself is a complex and convincing character, and less of a pawn in the illuminating, but highly cerebral literary chess games of Sebald's earlier fiction.

The fascinating digressions in Austerlitz serve, within the more cohesive context of this book, more effectively as metaphors for the human condition than do his earlier fictional diversions. The narrator expounds, for example, theories of fortification from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century, the increasing complexity of which culminated in the star-shaped fortresses of Neuf-Brisach and Breendonk. Such fortresses, almost always obsolete before they were completed, embody man's limited ability to learn from experience and illustrate the fact that it is “our mightiest projects that most obviously betray the degree of our insecurity.” Sebald also portrays François Mitterrand's new Bibliothèque Nationale in its Babylonian proportions and inefficiencies as hostile not just to readers, but to the books it is meant to preserve as well. It is nothing less than an “official manifestation of the increasingly importunate urge to break with everything which still has some living connection to the past.”

This drive towards historical amnesia is evident everywhere, not only in architectural or cultural monstrosities but also in the decreasing standards of contemporary art and scholarship. We ignore the dead at our peril. Sebald's fiction is not merely an intricately ordered collection of fragments shored against our ruin—though it is beautifully and hauntingly that. Most importantly, it is Sebald's own “historical metaphysic,” in which he brings the past to light as an effort to prevent it repeating itself either as tragedy or as farce.

Sebald has not confined himself to the realm of fiction. In 1997 he delivered a controversial series of lectures in Zürich entitled “Luftkrieg und Literatur”2 in which he discussed, with excerpts from his fiction, the deep scars left on the psyches of even those, like himself, who were not direct witnesses to the horror of the Second World War. He also claimed that, despite all their efforts to come to terms with the past, the Germans have become “a people remarkably blind to history and lacking in tradition.” The Holocaust is not the German people's only crippling historical legacy. The “true state of utter material and moral devastation in which the entire country found itself” at the end of the war was treated as a “shameful family secret marked with such a powerful taboo, that one could probably not even acknowledge it to oneself.” Even in the 1950s, when Sebald moved from the alpine village of Wertach to the city of Sonthofen nineteen kilometers away, nothing seemed more appropriate to him than the ruin-filled lots amongst the rows of houses. For ever since a trip to Munich, he explains, “nothing was so closely associated with the word city as mountains of rubble, fire-scorched walls and empty windows frames through which one could see the open sky.” The circumstances of this destruction were never openly discussed, and for most of his childhood Sebald felt that some secret was being kept from him “at home, in school, and even by the German writers [he] read in the hope of learning more about the horrors in the background of [his] own life.”

Sebald found that most historical studies and autobiographical accounts of the bombing raids recounted the complete devastation of Germany's major cities and many of its minor ones only in the most general and superficial terms, if at all. The major postwar writers, the Group 47 and the inner émigrés, were more intent on justifying their decision to stay in Germany throughout the war and on shaping their images for future generations. Only a handful of writers, most notably Heinrich Böll in The Silent Angel, attempted to describe this society that lay in ruins and was “morally as good as discredited.” Yet even Böll's novel, though written in the late 1940s, was not published for almost five decades.

There are a few autobiographical works that do attempt to express, frankly and directly, a reality that defies the imagination. Sebald cites passages from the diary of Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, who was sent to Dachau for subversive comments shortly before the end of the war. Reck-Malleczewen describes how refugees from Hamburg in July, 1943 clad only in pajamas, wandered about aimlessly in a state of utter confusion and amnesia. Reck-Malleczewen also writes about an incident he witnessed a month later when a group of forty or fifty Hamburg refugees tried to storm a train in a station in northern Bavaria.

A cardboard box fell onto the platform and broke open, spilling its contents: toys, a manicure set, singed linen. Finally, the corpse of a child, completely charred, shrivelled like a mummy, which this half-demented woman had carried with her as the meager remains of a past, which, only a few days earlier, had been intact.

“Never truly captured into words,” the horror of those years and its suppression will continue to work its effects, indirectly, insidiously, on the generations born after the war. The clamor raised for and against Sebald's diagnosis led to the rediscovery of a novel by Gert Ledig entitled Retribution. Its singularity, of course, supports Sebald's rule. Sebald is careful not to imply that the survivors have any obligation to describe their experiences and recognizes their “unassailable right to silence.” He compares their trauma to that of the survivors of Hiroshima who, according to Kenzaburo Oe's Hiroshima Notes (1995), were still unable to speak of the explosion twenty years later. With every passing year, there is even less chance a work will be written that will adequately describe and so defuse this particular ghost of Germany's history.

The past is another country, and it is always Sebald's true destination. His geographical sites, however picturesque or fraught with significant correspondences, are merely gateways into a past that is most likely absurd and appalling. Out of his despair, Sebald has created a kind of refuge. We can find comfort in the beauty of his prose, but before long we, too, feel on our backs the wind from the deepest regions of death.


  1. The description of the boat that inspired “The Hunter Gracchus” appears in Kafka's diary and not in the story itself. But Sebald is nothing if not thorough in gathering his sources. He even provides a blurry but convincing picture of the phantom barque in his text.

  2. Sebald published an expanded version of these lectures under the same title in 1999. The translations from Luftkrieg und Literatur are mine.

Benjamin Kunkel (review date 1 April 2002)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1640

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, including Austerlitz, brought out just before Sebald's death in an English translation he supervised, a solitary traveler undertakes research into devastation (of trees and animal species, of human practices and populations) and conducts interviews among the bereaved, making himself into a kind of tribune of universal loss. About the traveler we know little but that he shares the main features of the author's life and suffers from precarious mental health, especially a “paralyzing horror … when confronted with the traces of destruction.”

I had read Sebald with uneasy admiration, and learning of his death I felt jolted, brought up short. It wasn't only that he was in the middle of a great career; there was something in specific I still expected from him, and not until I happened to see a movie version of Hamlet could I formulate my question.

Act I, Scene 2. Queen Gertrude is remonstrating with her gloomy son: “All that lives must die,” she reminds him, “Passing through nature to eternity.” Hamlet: “Ay, madam, it is common.” Gertrude: “If it be, why seems it so particular with thee?”

But we know why grief is so particular with Hamlet: His father has just died. Likewise, in Austerlitz, we discover just why the life of Jacques Austerlitz has been “clouded by an unrelieved despair.” As Austerlitz reveals in one of several huge monologues, he was raised in Wales by a grim Calvinist couple and without any knowledge of his origins. Only as an adolescent was he told of his real name, and not until middle age, when he sits in a London train station slated for demolition, does he recall, in a sudden blow of anamnesis, that he had passed through this station once before, as a child of 4. It turns out that Jacques Austerlitz is the son of Prague Jews, saved from their fate by one of the Kindertransporten that spirited a few Jewish children to safety at the beginning of the Second World War.

Austerlitz's recovered memory, as always in Sebald, serves only to take the measure of his loss. In this way Sebald is the counter-Proust, despite his preoccupation with memory and the serpentine elegance of his precisely measured long sentences. Memories stand in relationship to forgetting as photographs to unrecorded time and Holocaust survivors to the 6 million dead: They are a small, exceptional minority. They refer, in Sebald, more to the absence of others than to their own thin presence. Page 183 of Austerlitz reproduces a photo of a towheaded little boy dressed in operatic costume as a queen's page, a picture Austerlitz's childhood nanny shows him when, searching for traces of his parents, he tracks her down more than fifty years later in post-Communist Prague. She tells him that it is himself looking out from the photograph:

As far back as I can remember, said Austerlitz, I have always felt as if I had no place in reality, as if I were not there at all, and I never had this impression more strongly than on that evening … when the eyes of the Rose Queen's page looked through me.

Of course, the reader doesn't know whether the boy pictured was really, like Austerlitz, the son of a Jewish opera singer. Fact and fiction go into Sebald's characters—even their documentary aspects—in unknown proportions, and to an interviewer he said: “Behind Austerlitz hide two or three, perhaps three-and-a-half, real persons.” Sebald added the unreliability of fiction to the frailty of memory and made it seem a double wonder that anything at all should be plucked from oblivion and spared.

It is this way of representing what has been destroyed that is most moving in his work. That is the task of each of his four books, and it accounts in large part for their having been invariably called sublime. Typically a term of a vague commendation, it must nevertheless have come to mind in Sebald's case because of its precise, Kantian sense: the insufficiency of our faculties to what they contemplate. The sublime is what we know to be more than we can know, and thus the past—available only in fragments—is a perfect instance of sublimeness.

So, too, is the Holocaust, an event, in this sense, as sublime as it was obscene. The Nazis created in their camps and ghettos (to one of which, Theresienstadt, Austerlitz's mother was confined before presumably being shipped east to be murdered) “an infinite enormity of pain,” as Primo Levi wrote, only a tiny portion of which can be apprehended by “our providentially myopic senses.” Sebald's approach to the genocide is more direct in Austerlitz than before, but still exemplary in its indirectness: He depicts only the furthest, charred edge of the phenomenon, letting the sufferings of one comparatively very fortunate European Jew evoke, in the half-imaginary person of Austerlitz, the far greater and unrepresentable sufferings of the massively more numerous unlucky ones. And sometimes it is even as if Sebald matches the degree of indirection to the degree of horror, as when he writes of the notorious Nuremberg rally at fourth hand, the narrator recounting what Austerlitz said about what his nanny said about what his father, Maximilian, an eyewitness, had said. (But it's interesting to note that Sebald's third name was Maximilian and that friends knew him as Max.)

Sebald's art is exemplary in another way. The writers he explicitly identified with were Conrad and Nabokov, emigrants like himself, but his books' deepest affinities are with his native tradition of German Romanticism—its convention of the solitary wanderer, its love of fragments, its sense of the nobility of spiritual sickness, its hymns to night. Yet the same Novalis who wondered, as Sebald might have done, what life could offer “to outweigh the chain of death,” also felt a keen nostalgia for “the beautiful and glorious time, when Europe was a Christian land, inhabited by one Christianity.” Romanticism was a more political and longer-lasting affair in Germany than elsewhere, and its frequent enthusiasm for an “organic” nation-state and disdain for cosmopolitan reason supplied Nazi ideology with much of its spurious dignity, not least in its anti-Semitic elements. Sebald's is a romanticism, then, in which death and grief and wandering retain their strange prestige, but for which European Jews and other displaced people have become questing heroes chasing a lost past. Such a romanticism alludes relentlessly to the murderousness that romanticism once helped to underwrite, and so Sebald manages at once to preserve and to subvert a great literary tradition, to renovate it through disgrace.

It's impossible not to admire a feat like that. But to notice Sebald's romanticism is also to realize what is troubling in his work. Part of the method of romanticism is to find symbols of the self—its moods and truths—in the features of nature. Yet the landscape Sebald has before him belongs not to nature, but to history. It is easy enough to understand why Austerlitz himself would identify with the calamities of history: He has lost his past to them. And Sebald has taken the audacious and even ludicrous step of naming his character after a great Napoleonic battle. When Austerlitz hears a fervent account of the battle of Austerlitz, he naturally feels that his name has made him intimate with the sorrows of Russian and Austrian soldiers drowned in retreat. But why did Sebald make the damaged survivors of his books into his own army, and how is it that he heard in various historical crimes and disasters, above all the Holocaust, an echo of his own name? The grief his books describe is there in the world to be found, but why was it so particular with Sebald?

All we can say is that there seems to have been in him some unspecified pain that sought and found affiliation with the felled trees and vanished industries of The Rings of Saturn, with the dead hunter in Vertigo and with the scarred remnant of European Jewry in The Emigrants and now Austerlitz. At times he made fun of his insistent grief, as when he wrote of drinking a Cherry Coke “at a draught like a cup of hemlock.” But more often this grief was simply his principle of selection, his lens. Because he didn't take its subjective character enough into account, permitting himself only the scantiest and most covert autobiography, his work sometimes had the effect—no doubt unintentional—of muffling the atrocities to which he was so curiously attracted. “Our history,” he wrote, “is but a long account of calamities.” The Holocaust and other historical crimes would belong very naturally to such a history, and might even seem its consummation. Yet history consists no more exclusively of calamity than any population consists of the suicides and other solitaries who are Sebald's characters. There might have been more truth to his work had it been less noble and self-effacing, and explained in some way not only how he came to speak on behalf of the lost, but how it was that they seemed to speak for him. It might also be that in books to come Sebald would have done just that. As it is, he died too soon, forced to illustrate the hidden motto of his work: that time destroys everything but mystery, which it conserves.

Phoebe Pettingell (review date July-August 2002)

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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 from the glowing, idealized visions of the Italian Renaissance. These artists, most of whom endured times of extreme conflict, were only too familiar with the horrors they painted. They had seen atrocities committed in the name of religion, and had watched disfiguring, fatal plagues sweep through their countries. Often they chose to reflect on the troubles of the period in Biblical or Classical terms. Some of their masterpieces imagine the Apocalypse with relish, as though their world were crying out for God's refining fires to purge humanity of its evil disposition. It is not surprising that such gruesome works were largely ignored during the idealistic 19th century, but were terribly resonant to many in the 20th. A surfeit of wars teaches the hard lesson that civilized people can turn against their neighbors, demonize them and feel justified in their destruction—or else selectively forget the cruelty they saw with their own eyes.

W. G. Sebald was clearly influenced by those dark creations of the 1500s. He lived in England for over three decades, but continued to write in his native German. Toward the end of his shortened life—he died in a car wreck last December, at age 57—several of his books were finally translated into English, and Austerlitz posthumously won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Now, one of his earliest efforts, After Nature, is appearing in this country for the first time. A triptych of biographical prose poems, it offers a meditation on Mathias Grünewald; an account of Georg Steller, the 18th-century botanist who traveled with a Russian expedition to the Arctic; and a reconstruction of the lives of the author's grandparents and parents, who witnessed two World Wars and did not try to understand or react to what they saw. These rather different stories, spanning four centuries, might at first appear unrelated. The reader gradually becomes aware, however, that Sebald is always circling around the same themes, and that all of them comment on his development as a writer.

The opening Grünewald section is called “… As the Snow on the Alps,” a title that remains mysterious until the poem's last line. In every Sebald book descriptions of pictures play a vital role. Here the focus is on the oeuvre of Grünewald (c. 1470-1528), an artist best known for his graphic and unflinching portrayals of the dead Christ on the cross. He made no attempt to infuse the crucifixion with any hint of transcendence. His paintings display the corpse of a man who has obviously suffered terribly for hours before his ignominious death. At the foot of the cross Mary and St. John, their faces swollen with weeping, are bowed down with hopelessness.

Another familiar Grünewald painting is almost more horrifying: a phantasmagoric rendering of the temptation of St. Anthony, the third-century desert hermit. This memorable work, explored in detail by Sebald, was part of the great Isenheim Altarpiece, the focal point of a hospital chapel where those with appalling afflictions were treated. The saint is shown being assaulted by demons that are a terrifying mixture of animal and human. Some are feathered and beaked, some have antlers or amphibious faces, or human arms and bird legs. In the foreground, an unnamed man lies mutely, his body distended and covered with the pustules of Saint Anthony's fire, or syphilis. Somehow, the presence of the wracked invalid makes the demons' attack on the saint seem all the more real. As Sebald observes, “pain … entered into the picture.” Heavenly war is being waged against fiendish illness in a broken world, yet we cannot be sure of victory.

                                   The panic-stricken 
kink in the neck to be seen
in all Grünewald's subjects,
exposing the throat and often turning 
the face towards a blinding light,
is the extreme response of our bodies
to the absence of balance in nature
which blindly makes one experiment after another
and like a senseless botcher
undoes the thing it has only just achieved.

The poet interweaves the story of Grünewald's life: his unhappy marriage to a Jewish convert to Christianity at a time of intense Jewish persecution in Frankfurt; his murky sexuality; the death of his only child; his apocalyptic view of the violent era he lived in. The section closes with an image that evokes the blanking out of the world. In many of Grünewald's paintings, there is a corner of intense light:

So, when the optic nerve
tears, in the still space of the air,
all turns white as
the snow on the Alps.

The second section concerns Steller, the botanist who left his native Germany for St. Petersburg in the 1730s and eventually joined Vitus Bering's Arctic voyage in search of a strait to take Russian ships to the Pacific Ocean and America. Again, desolation stalks the poem. When the crew reached what is today the Bering Sea,

All was a greyness, without direction,
with no above or below, nature
in a process of dissolution, in a state
of pure dementia.

The explorers are subjected to extreme privations. Captain Bering dies of melancholia as many of his men perish from scurvy. Steller has come to see nature uncorrupted by the ills of human society, yet nature remains alternately beautiful and mindlessly cruel.

After presenting the two seemingly unconnected stories whose sole common element appears to be suffering, Sebald threads both into the account of his German family that makes up the third section. His mother watched the bombed Nuremberg burn in 1943, but could not recollect “what the burning town looked like / or what her feelings were / at this sight.” Sebald links this with Albrecht Altdorfer's (1480-1538) painting of the drunken Lot lying with his daughters while the city of Sodom blazes behind them. German amnesia about the atrocities of the Third Reich, and the terrors of war and disease are consistent motifs of the book. They prompt Sebald to recall the visions of those 16th-century painters; to shake his head over the Enlightenment's pathetic belief in a rational universe; and finally, to identify with mad King Lear on the blasted heath.

Grünewald and Altdorfer inhabited the same landscapes Sebald knew in his childhood. His grandmother's disfiguring terminal illness is associated in his thoughts with the invalids Grünewald encountered while working on the Isenheim Altarpiece. Anti-Semitism and its denial, lacunae in the history we cannot bear to remember, senseless natural disasters and malign man-made ones—all reappear from age to age. Yet as Sebald shows, we rarely achieve any better understanding of them because we are damaged, and the “truth” of such things may well be unintelligible.

Also—and here we come to the writer's particular strength—he notes that trying to put details together and calling them “history” or “science” only brings us to further rationalizations of the irrational. Our experience of war or disease is personal and social. The artist strives to express a view of nature or conflict or religion that is based on his own experience.

In After Nature, Sebald recounts part of his autobiography, frequently disguised in chronicles about Grünewald and Steller. In the process, he demonstrates how our individual histories follow recurring cultural patterns that ultimately tell us something valuable, even if fragmentary or unsatisfying, about the human condition. …

Both W. G. Sebald and Abba Kovner [in Sloan-Kettering] have enlarged their readers' understanding of suffering and enduring, and of the wonders we can perceive along the way.

Ruth Franklin (review date 23 September 2002)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7147

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 Austerlitz, the story of a boy sent to England via Kindertransport in 1939 and brought up under a false name, all of Sebald's books have been about bridging gaps, and about the impossibility of bridging gaps—between memory and forgetting, between art and reality, between the living and the dead. These extraordinary works are different on each reading, constantly in flux. Sebald's sudden death in a car accident last December was tragic for many reasons, but for his readers foremost because his books, all of them variations on a small group of themes, seemed parts of a whole that had not yet been brought to completion but had already broken new literary ground.

Like the origami figures that open and close with a twist of the fingers, Sebald's prose moves simultaneously inward and outward. The opening of Austerlitz is exemplary:

In the second half of the 1960s I traveled repeatedly from England to Belgium, partly for study purposes, partly for other reasons which were never entirely clear to me, staying sometimes for just one or two days, sometimes for several weeks. On one of these Belgian excursions which, as it seemed to me, always took me further and further abroad, I came on a glorious early summer's day to the city of Antwerp, known to me previously only by name. Even on my arrival, as the train rolled slowly over the viaduct with its curious pointed turrets on both sides and into the dark station concourse, I had begun to feel unwell, and this sense of indisposition persisted for the whole of my visit to Belgium on that occasion. I still remember the uncertainty of my footsteps as I walked all round the inner city, down Jeruzalemstraat, Nachtegaalstraat, Pelikaanstraat, Paradijsstraat, Immerseelstraat, and many other streets and alleyways, until at last, plagued by a headache and my uneasy thoughts, I took refuge in the zoo by the Astridplein, next to the Centraal Station, waiting for the pain to subside. I sat there on a bench in dappled shade, beside an aviary full of brightly feathered finches and siskins fluttering about. As the afternoon drew to a close I walked through the park, and finally went to see the Nocturama, which had first been opened only a few months earlier. It was some time before my eyes became used to its artificial dusk and I could make out different animals leading their sombrous lives behind the glass by the light of a pale moon. I cannot now recall exactly what creatures I saw on that visit to the Antwerp Nocturama, but there were probably bats and jerboas from Egypt and the Gobi Desert, native European hedgehogs and owls, Australian opossums, pine martens, dormice, and lemurs, leaping from branch to branch, darting back and forth over the grayish-yellow sandy ground, or disappearing into a bamboo thicket. The only animal which has remained lingering in my memory is the raccoon. I watched it for a long time as it sat beside a little stream with a serious expression on its face, washing the same piece of apple over and over again, as if it hoped that all this washing, which went far beyond any reasonable thoroughness, would help it to escape the unreal world in which it had arrived, so to speak, through no fault of its own.

The single-mindedness with which this passage proceeds is Sebald's signature. Each sentence, bizarre or mundane, contributes another piece to the overall structure until that structure seems unable to sustain any more weight. The straightforward remark that opens the book, about the trips to and from Belgium, is immediately complicated. What are these reasons that were never clear to the speaker? How can these “excursions,” all within the country, take him “further and further abroad”? The next sentences deepen the mystery: the narrator's sudden illness, the fantastic street names—Jerusalem, Nightingale, Pelican, Paradise, and, most evocatively, Eternal Soul—and finally the Nocturama itself, a symbol so potent that, like all of Sebald's symbols, it stops just this side of parody. And here, too, we get a final shrug of contradiction: Sebald claims to have difficulty remembering which animals he saw in the Nocturama, but at the same time he offers an almost comically specific series of examples. The tug-of-war between what is and what cannot be never stops.

The world of Sebald's books is its own Nocturama, inhabited by creatures at home in the dark. Like the raccoon that he describes so plaintively, Sebald's characters emerge with sudden clarity from the haze of their surroundings, obsessively repeating whatever action they have chosen, though it will not bring them the escape for which they so desperately yearn. They are destroyed souls, fractured under the burden of the pain that they bear. There is the tortured Kafka in Vertigo, sick and disoriented while traveling in Austria and Italy, tormented by dreams “in which everything was forever splitting and multiplying, over and again, in the most terrifying manner.” There is the painter Max Ferber in The Emigrants, a Jew sent to England as a child during the war, whose parents died in Dachau: “that tragedy in my youth struck such deep roots within me that it later shot up again, put forth evil flowers, and spread the poisonous canopy over me which has kept me so much in the shade and dark in recent years.” There is the Ashbury family in The Rings of Saturn, who embroider cloth all day and undo their work each night, and feel that “we never got used to being on this earth and life is just one great, ongoing incomprehensible blunder.” And there is Jacques Austerlitz, whose life journey is driven by a blind and unsatisfiable longing to recapture the childhood memories he has entirely, unwillingly suppressed.

The strangest thing about Sebald's incomparably strange work is that upon first reading it gives us no reason to think that it is fiction. Though Austerlitz was largely taken as a novel, Sebald himself refused to designate it as such; in an interview he called it “a prose book of indefinite form.” Indeed, why must the passage above be anything other than notes from an idiosyncratic travel journal? The street names, improbable though they may be, are easily verified with a map of Antwerp, and the zoo, located near the central train station just as he says, does in fact have a Nocturama. But though the books are marked by an extraordinary profusion of facts—snippets from Kafka's letters, notes on the mating practices of herrings, even reproductions of train tickets and restaurant receipts that appear to document the narrator's journeys—fiction pulls at them with the force of gravity. The four stories that constitute The Emigrants are connected by a single image that flits through each of them: the figure of Nabokov with his butterfly net, sometimes a grown man, sometimes a boy. And the four sketches of Vertigo each contain a line from a story by Kafka, slightly rephrased on each repetition, describing a corpse lying beneath a cloth on a bier. The improbability of all four characters in The Emigrants crossing paths with Nabokov, and the impossibility of a manifestation of Kafka's image appearing in all four parts of Vertigo, is but one signal of the turn into fiction. As one reads more deeply into Sebald's work, its fictionality becomes utterly essential.

But while fiction tugs at one sleeve, reality tugs at the other with nearly equal force, most dramatically in the black-and-white photographs that Sebald has strewn about all his prose books. The photographs have neither captions nor credits to give a clue to their provenance; the text describes the taking of some of them, while others seem to be more generally illustrative, and still others entirely random. In the last chapter of Vertigo, for instance, the narrator, visiting his hometown after many years of absence, mentions a photo album that his father gave his mother as a Christmas present during the first year of the war. “In it are pictures of the Polish campaign, all neatly captioned in white ink. Some of these photographs show gypsies who had been rounded up and put into detention. They are looking out, smiling, from behind the barbed wire, somewhere in a far corner of Slovakia where my father and his vehicle repairs unit had been stationed for several weeks before the outbreak of war.” We are then shown a photograph of a woman carrying a baby in a bundle, dressed in gypsy-like clothes, behind a wire fence, with the caption “Zigeuner” (the German word for gypsy) in white ink. But for every photograph such as this one, there is another that firmly denies any easy correspondence with the text. Several pages earlier Sebald mentions an iron memorial cross that stands in the town graveyard to commemorate four young soldiers who died in a “last skirmish” in April 1945, and he lists their names. When we turn the page there is the cross; but it looks as if there are five names on it, not four, and the photograph is too blurry to make out any names.

The conflict between fact and fiction reaches its epitome in the voice that narrates all these stories of loss. Sebald seems to encourage us to think of this persona as something like his own. His narrator (the books share a single voice) occasionally offers biographical details that are identical with Sebald's own life: he is married, he lives in East Anglia, he was born toward the end of World War II in an Alpine German town, and came to England in the 1960s. Yet these details, like the photographs, obscure as much as they reveal. There are moments of startling intimacy, but even as Sebald's narrator seems to bare his soul, he tells us nothing about himself. And he favors a particularly disorienting narrative device: most of Sebald's characters tell their stories through direct encounters with the narrator, in monologues. At a crucial moment in some of the monologues, Sebald will switch from third person to first person, so that the narrator vanishes, leaving the character behind. Since he does not use quotation marks, the shift is seamless. This is not an “unreliable narrator,” it is an unreliable narrative.

But even as Sebald builds layer upon layer of disguise, his books stumble over their own sentences in their desire to explain themselves to the reader, as the crushing pile of symbols in the opening to Austerlitz illustrates. The books search for patterns in nature and in human life, and as they do so they obsessively repeat themselves. To take one instance: The Rings of Saturn begins with a quotation from an encyclopedia that describes the planet's rings as “consist[ing] of ice crystals and probably meteorite particles describing circular orbits around the planet's equator. In all likelihood these are fragments of a former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effect.” The circular motif is repeated throughout the book, in everything from the déjà vu the narrator experiences visiting a friend's apartment to an extraordinary vision that is one of Sebald's most beautiful and mystical moments: “At earlier times, in the summer evenings during my childhood when I had watched from the valley as swallows circled in the last light … I would imagine that the world was held together by the courses they flew through the air.” The momentum created by the piling of image upon image, of figure upon figure, is so powerful that when one reaches the end of the book—I have experienced this with all of Sebald's books, and others have mentioned it as well—one feels an irresistible compulsion to turn it over and begin again.

Yet there is something unsettling about the spell that Sebald's books weave; and it is not only the disequilibrium that is constantly evoked by the differences between fact and fiction, art and life—a state in which Sebald's narrator continually finds himself, and that Sebald seeks to induce in the reader as well. It is a deeper paradox. In the first chapter of Vertigo, Sebald traces the adventures of the young Stendhal (then known as Marie Henri Beyle) in Napoleon's army, and comments on the writer's own difficulty in recollecting them: “at times his view of the past consists of nothing but grey patches, then at others images appear of such extraordinary clarity he feels he can scarce credit them.” He finds also that “even when the images supplied by memory are true to life, one can place little confidence in them”—years later Beyle will discover that he had replaced his own mental image of Ivrea with that of an engraving of the town. “This being so,” Sebald concludes, “Beyle's advice is not to purchase engravings of fine views and prospects seen on one's travels, since before very long they will displace our memories completely, indeed one might say they destroy them.”

Art is the preserver of memory, but it is also the destroyer of memory: this is the final tug-of-war in Sebald's work, and the most fundamental one. As he searches for patterns in the constellation of grief that his books record, he runs the risk that the patterns themselves, by virtue of their very beauty, will extinguish the grief that they seek to contain. Sebald's peculiar alchemy of aestheticism and sorrow unwittingly underscores its own insubstantiality. Even as he investigates the roots of memory, Sebald, like the weavers whom he finds so emblematic, continually unravels his own creations.


For English readers, Sebald's books have an extra layer of circularity, because they have appeared in translation out of order. Vertigo, his first prose book, was published in the United States after The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn; and Austerlitz followed last year. Now Sebald's first literary work to be published in German, After Nature, is his last to appear in English. (He also published two books of essays on Austrian literature and a collection of lectures on the subject of the Allied bombing campaign in postwar German literature, none of which has yet been translated.) This displacement is actually a boon to English readers, because After Nature benefits immensely from being read after Sebald's other work. It is a panorama of many of his great themes, but they appear in embryonic form.

Like Sebald's other books, After Nature confounds genre: it has been called a prose poem, but while the language in places has the feel of prose, technically it is free verse. Each of the three sections has its own title and can be read as a distinct poem, but Sebald seems to have thought of them as a single entity. (In German the book is subtitled Ein Elementargedicht, “an elemental poem.”) The volume's title refers to the practice of creating a work of art from a living subject (the poem mentions painting “after nature”), and the subject who is patiently submitting is Sebald himself: each of the three characters presented is a self-portrait of the writer. The first section is a biographical meditation on Mathias Grünewald, the sixteenth-century painter known for altarpieces that depict the crucifixion and other torments of the flesh and the soul with harrowing fidelity. (Max Ferber, the painter of The Emigrants, seems to speak for Sebald when he says that “the extreme vision of that strange man, which was lodged in every detail, distorted every limb, and infected the colours like an illness, was one I had always felt in tune with.”) The second section follows eighteenth-century explorer Georg Wilhelm Steller (who shares Sebald's initials) on an Arctic journey led by Vitus Bering. And in the third Sebald investigates his own family history and early memories, much of which will prove fertile ground for later works as well.

The suggestion of self-portraiture is evident from the opening lines of After Nature, which depict a person closing one of Grünewald's altar panels. As the panel folds in upon itself, the face of St. George becomes visible on the outside, “about to step over the frame's / threshold.” George's “silver / feminine features” are those of Grünewald himself, whose face “emerges again and again / in his work.” We are reminded of Sebald's own face and voice appearing over and over in his characters; and it heightens the analogy that the shape of the closed altar panel is reminiscent of a book, with the face of St. George—that is, of Grünewald—in the spot where the author's name should be.

Grünewald's face, Sebald continues, displays “always the same / gentleness, the same burden of grief, / the same irregularity of the eyes, veiled / and sliding sideways down into loneliness.” Holbein the Younger, too, has depicted him in a painting of a female saint:

These were strangely disguised
instances of resemblance, wrote Fraenger
whose books were burned by the fascists.
Indeed it seemed as though in such
          works of art
men had revered each other like
          brothers, and
often made monuments in each other's
image where their paths had crossed.

One could hardly ask for a better description of Sebald's own enterprise. Starting with this book, he would practice a somber cartography, mapping out in his own works of art the crossing paths, real or imagined, of Stendhal, Kafka, Nabokov, and the countless others whose suffering is stenciled on his work: “the marks of pain,” as he put it in Austerlitz, “which … trace countless fine lines through history.”

As the glancing reference above to “the fascists” shows, even when the events of World War II are not front and center in Sebald's books, they never recede far into the background. “We know there is a long tradition / of persecuting the Jews,” the poem declares a bit later in this section, and goes on to describe the torments suffered by the Jews of Frankfurt in the Middle Ages: a fiery massacre, the wearing of yellow rings, their confinement to a ghetto in which they were locked each night, and “on Sundays at four in the / afternoon.” Grünewald would have witnessed this persecution, Sebald continues, because his future wife was reared in the ghetto, though she later converted to Christianity. But the persecution of the Jews is just a tile in the mosaic of human suffering, a mosaic that in this poem includes Grünewald's personal torments—his marriage was unhappy, possibly because “he had an eye for men”—as well as those of the patients in the hospital at Isenheim, the site of Grünewald's masterpiece, whose horrible disfigurements may have inspired some of the artist's work; and the massacre of five thousand peasants in the battle of Frankenhausen in 1525, which Grünewald learns of after meeting two painters who are brothers, Barthel and (yes) Sebald Beham. In Sebald's account, Grünewald refused to leave his house after hearing of this, but

he could hear the gouging out
of eyes that long continued
between Lake Constance and
the Thuringian forest.
For weeks at that time he wore
a dark bandage over his face.

But the dominant event is the solar eclipse of 1502, a “catastrophic incursion of darkness”:

On the first of October the moon's
slid over Eastern Europe from
over Bohemia and the Lausitz to
          southern Poland,
and Grünewald, who repeatedly was
          in touch
with the Aschaffenburg Court Astrologer
          Johann Indagine,
will have travelled to see this event of
          the century,
awaited with great terror, the eclipse
          of the sun,
so will have become a witness to
the secret sickening away of the world,
in which a phantasmal encroachment
          of dusk
in the midst of daytime like a fainting fit
poured through the vault of the sky,
while over the banks of mist and the cold
heavy blues of the clouds
a fiery red arose, and colours
such as his eyes had not known
radiantly wandered about, never again
          to be
driven out of the painter's memory.
These colours unfold as the reverse of
the spectrum in a different consistency
of the air, whose deoxygenated void
in the gasping breath of the figures
on the central Isenheim panel is enough
to portend our death by asphyxiation;
          after which
comes the mountain landscape of
in which Grünewald with a pathetic gaze
into the future has prefigured
a planet utterly strange, chalk-coloured
behind the blackish-blue river.

Despite what the medievals may have thought, it is impossible now to see an eclipse as “catastrophic”: the event simply does not merit the implication of horror. Sebald understands the eclipse, however, not as a single dreadful incident, but as part of a plumb line that descends through history, linking all the horrors that would take place in the same physical location, up to and including the Holocaust.

Later in the poem, similarly, Sebald discusses Altdorfer's painting of Lot and his daughters fleeing Sodom, in reference to the sight of Nuremberg in flames under the Allied bombs; and the epigraph to this section, from Virgil's Eclogues, draws the reader back even further: “and now far-off smoke pearls from homestead rooftops / and from high mountains the greater shadows fall.” Though the conflagrations are distant from one another in every way—temporally, geographically—they are aesthetically part of a greater universal pattern of fiery massacre, a pattern that circles around infinitely, changed slightly upon each recurrence but not fundamentally altered. In later works Sebald has accomplished this kind of pattern-tracing more effectively—here the layers can feel a bit slapped together—but the fundamental idea is the same: that when great suffering takes place somewhere, generation after generation, the sorrows are trodden into the soil.

But there is a crucial difference between the self-portrait and the artist: by witnessing one of the horrors that took place in this locale (the eclipse), Grünewald becomes a witness to them all. Sebald, on the other hand, witnessed none of World War II; and he feels this gap in his experience as painfully as most people feel the experience of trauma. “I grew up, / despite the dreadful course / of events elsewhere, on the northern / edge of the Alps, so it seems / to me now, without any / idea of destruction,” he writes in the poem's final, autobiographical section. Born in the penultimate year of the war in a remote German village, he was shielded from the destruction by virtue of his youth; but still as a child he imagined within him “a silent catastrophe that occurs almost unperceived / … this / I have never got over.”

Like Jacques Austerlitz and Max Ferber, Sebald sees himself as a child brought up unaware of his own identity, a Kaspar Hauser-like figure. The poem never fully reveals the source of the “silent catastrophe,” the absent memory, but each part of this last autobiographical section sifts through a different time period in Sebald's life in search of clues. “For it is hard to discover / the winged vertebrates of prehistory / embedded in tablets of slate,” the section begins, as if continuing a conversation, which in a way it is.

But if I see before me
the nervature of past life
in one image, I always think
that this has something to do
with truth.

“How far, in any case, must one go back / to find the beginning?” Sebald asks. And the “beginning” for which he searches is that of his own prehistory. After passing over the day his grandparents were married and a few other potential “beginnings,” he settles on the day before his father left to serve in Dresden, “of whose beauty his memory, as he / remarks when I question him, / retains no trace.” The next night Nuremberg was attacked, and his mother, on her way back to the Allgau, was stuck at a friend's house in the town of Windsheim, where she discovered that she was pregnant. The narrator's life, then, is indelibly intertwined with the last days of the war. And yet he can retain no memory of it; he was too young.

“I nearly went out of my mind,” Sebald says of his reaction to seeing Altdorfer's painting in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Austerlitz will use exactly the same words to describe revisiting sites in Prague that he had not seen since childhood. Mourning the loss of a memory that he never had, Sebald turns to Altdorfer as a surrogate. When memory is lacking, art will suffice; but art is a shorthand, not a substitute. Sebald aestheticizes history, but he never mistakes history for art.


After Nature, the first of Sebald's literary works, inaugurates the search for “the nervature of past life” that would form the subtext of all his books. The character obsessively driven by a quest for knowledge—a quest rooted in his or her personal life—is a constantly recurring figure. Janine, a French professor in The Rings of Saturn, studies Flaubert's novels with “an intense personal interest” that is never explained. Jacques Austerlitz, a retired art history professor, has spent much of his life working on an investigation into the “family likeness” between various monuments of Europe, a topic that he feels compelled to pursue by an “impulse which he himself … did not really understand.” Sebald's narrator can also be included in this category: though we encounter him at various points along his wanderings through Europe and America, we are never told why he makes his journeys.

But Sebald did write a book in which he explained what it was that possessed him so; and in doing so he ignited a controversy in Germany that one critic compared to the storm about Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners. Invited in 1997 to give a series of lectures at the University of Zurich, Sebald boldly put forth the thesis that postwar German literature had failed adequately to represent the devastating effects of the Allied bombing campaign for the German nation. The lectures were extensively covered in the Swiss and German media, and Sebald published them in book form in 1999 under the title Luftkrieg und Literatur.

The scale of the destruction caused by the bombings, Sebald argues, is difficult “to even halfway comprehend,” but they “appear to have left hardly a trace of pain in the collective consciousness.” Not only did few German novelists concern themselves with the air war against Germany, Sebald says, but there exist almost no testimonies of the war written by Germans; the majority of the information about the destruction comes from foreign journalists reporting from the bombed-out nation. Trummerliteratur, the “rubble literature” movement that emerged in the years immediately following World War II, is most notable for what Sebald calls its “collective amnesia.” Even now that historians have begun to document the destruction of the German cities, “the images of this harrowing chapter of our history have not truly crossed the threshold of the national consciousness.” Sebald describes a “tacit but universally valid agreement” among writers not to record the “true state of material and moral annihilation” in which the nation found itself—in other words, a conspiracy in German culture, the effects of which have lasted to this day.

What is needed to counteract this tendency, Sebald argues, is a “natural history of the destruction.” (Random House has borrowed this phrase for the title of the English version of the book, which will appear next year.) He is generous with statistics: 1 million tons of bombs dropped, 131 cities hit, 600,000 civilians dead, 3.5 million homes destroyed, 7.5 million Germans left homeless. He cites Hans Erich Nossack on the streams of refugees that “noiselessly and incessantly flooded everything,” bringing the chaos of the urban bombing into the quiet villages of the countryside. He devotes pages to the sudden flourishing of the parasites that feed off corpses: the rats, “bold and fat,” that “cavorted in the streets”; the flies, “huge, iridescent green, as had never been seen before.” And he remarks mordantly that “the striking paucity of observations and commentary on this matter can be explained by an unspoken taboo that is more understandable when one considers that the Germans, who had taken upon themselves the cleansing and hygienization of all of Europe, must have had to shield themselves from the mounting fear that they themselves were in fact the ‘rat nation’ [Rattenvolk].”

Though he is generally sympathetic to the German civilians who suffered so greatly, Sebald has harsh words for the way they closed their eyes to the destruction around them. Alfred Döblin remarked that people “walk around as if nothing had happened and … the city had always looked like this.” The Swedish journalist Stig Dagerman, reporting from Hamburg, recalled traveling on a train that passed through the “moonscape” of that city; though the train was full, not a single person looked out the window. “And because he looked out the window,” Sebald writes, “people recognized him as a foreigner.” Nossack reported seeing a woman cleaning the windows of a house that “stands alone, undamaged, in the middle of the wasteland of ruins.” Sebald finds something ghastly in this: we are unsurprised when the inhabitants of an insect colony do not weep over the destruction of a construction nearby, but “from humankind one expects a certain amount of empathy.”

This is really beside the point, though, because the question concerns the responsibility of writers to respond to incidents in their culture, not the responsibility of the average citizen to open his eyes when confronted with the uglinesses of humanity. (The German “amnesia” about the Allied bombing would hardly have been the Germans' first cognitive failure in those terrible years.) Sebald is correct about the profound absence of the bombing campaign in postwar German literature, but it is not as if German writers had chosen to ignore the war. They overwhelmingly concerned themselves with the war—I am thinking of Grass, Böll, Koeppen, Mann, Bachmann, Frisch, Lenz, Hofmann—but not with the Luftkrieg aspect of it. Indeed, in postwar German writing one finds almost an obsession with Nazism: its beginnings, its rise to power, its lingerings in German society long after the war, and not least its crimes. Based on the literary evidence, National Socialism may have been as earth-shaking for German society as the million tons of bombs that fell on German soil. If German writers did not begin to write about the destruction of their cities until the 1990s, this may be because it was simply not as important to them; and that is to their credit, a sign of historical conscience. It is hardly a moral delinquence to worry more about what you have done to others than about what others have done to you.

One could also ask, as many German critics did, whether it actually is the responsibility of literature to register the impact of contemporary events. And there were other criticisms of Sebald's argument as well. Kurt Oesterle, writing in the Suddeutsche Zeitung, pointed out that Sebald may have overestimated the eyewitness reports that make up so much of the basis for his arguments, reports that “shock before they explain.” And Dieter Forte published a long and very personal article in Der Spiegel in which he argued that “there exists horror that is beyond language,” and cited the Polish writer Andrzej Szczypiorski's comment that after he was released from a concentration camp he needed to “switch off his head” so that his body would survive. “Sebald prefers the indirect method, the clear reports, the clarity of calm observation; he remains distant from the actual horror, as if he were on the trail of one of his collages,” Forte wrote. “He overlooks my generation, the generation of the children in the big cities, who can remember, when they are able, when they can find the words for it—and for that one must wait an entire lifetime.”

But these criticisms all overlook the aspect of Sebald's book that, for a non-German reader, is the most obvious, and the most shocking: the utterly ahistorical way in which Sebald discusses the bombing campaign, without giving even a hint of moral or political context. One could argue that everyone knows the context already and so it does not need to be reiterated. But in fact Sebald was misinterpreted by some as implicitly arguing that the sufferings of the Germans could be seen as compensatory for the crimes of the Nazis, as the letters from readers that he discusses in the third chapter of the book reveal. He tries to correct this, quoting from such letters and giving his responses, and ending with the comment that “the majority of Germans today know—at least so one hopes—that we directly provoked the destruction of the cities in which we lived.” But in the first two chapters of his book—that is, the portion delivered as lectures—Sebald mentions the Holocaust only obliquely, and no other form of German aggression during World War II at all.

I do not mean in any way to suggest that Sebald was insensitive to the victims of the Holocaust. His literary work, especially The Emigrants and Austerlitz, shows him to be unique among German writers in his understanding of the catastrophe that befell the European Jews. Indeed, only a writer with Sebald's moral standing with regard to the Holocaust could have dared write a book such as this one. And yet parts of Luftkrieg und Literatur are weirdly lacking in this sensitivity. One hesitates to accuse Sebald of something so crass as “moral equivalency,” but the suspicion of such a confusion cannot be avoided. On the very first page of the book Sebald calls the Allied bombings of Germany during the war “an act of extermination [Vernichtungsaktion] unique in history up to that point.” Later he refers to the “incineration” [Einäscherung] of the city of Hamburg. He knows as well as anyone what those words imply.

In Sebald's defense, one could argue that the Holocaust is simply not his subject here, that he is writing about an entirely different aspect of the war, and that to do justice to the Holocaust as well would have required an entirely different book. But the book makes it hard to sustain such a defense. For Luftkrieg und Literatur goes even further. Most remarkable is the passage in which Sebald discusses the important role of music in Germany, even at the time of the bombings. He quotes an English journalist who said that “in the midst of such shambles only the Germans could produce a magnificent full orchestra and a crowded house of music lovers,” and he rightly takes umbrage with this “double-edged” remark. And then he continues:

Who would deny the audiences, who were listening then with glistening eyes to the music rising throughout the nation once again, the right to be moved by feelings of gratitude for their rescue? And the question must also be permitted as to whether their breasts did not swell with the perverse pride that no one in the history of mankind on earth had been so played upon and had withstood so much as the Germans.

“The history of mankind on earth”? This grandiose and categorical suggestion would be incredible even if it came from a mediocre German writer eager to come to terms with the past (say, Bernhard Schlink); but it is even more incredible coming from Sebald.

And yet in a way it is not so incredible. For Sebald's work has always presented suffering without its cause, as merely a part of the great pattern of pain that defines the human condition. We see this in the unique brand of melancholy that afflicts his characters, a melancholy that always seems to exist outside their comprehension. (“What was it that so darkened our world?” laments one character in Austerlitz on her deathbed.) Sebald's narrator, too, often makes remarks that summon the very depths of grief and then asserts that he “has no idea” why a particular image or anecdote affects him so. For all the empathy that Sebald seems to feel for the people in his books, this willful lack of understanding, this pretense to historical ignorance, is evidence of the “distance from actual horror” that Forte detects in his work. In order to trace the pattern of human suffering, one must have a certain disengagement from it—but at such a height things can begin to blur. And so Jews, Germans, and countless others are all equal elements of the design, equal parts of the mosaic.

Sebald's patterning amounts to an aestheticizing of catastrophe, and thus it annihilates causality. We appreciate the beauty of the image that the writer discerns, but it adds nothing to our understanding of why things happened as they did. And this is the great problem with a “natural history” of the bombings. The air war over Hitler's Germany was not a natural disaster, like the eclipse of 1502. It was not random in its causes or its effects; and so, morally speaking, it was worse than a natural disaster. The bombings may have had the physical impact of an earthquake, but they cannot be understood in the same way, because to do so is to ignore the fact that this catastrophe was man-made, a human action, and thus more complicated and more terrible than another inevitable repetition of nature's rich but meaningless pattern of disaster. We must grieve for the terrible loss of innocent life that occurred in every arena in which World War II was fought, but we must also recognize that Hitler's aggression needed to be stopped.

In light of Sebald's views regarding art and memory, his arguments about the absence of German literature on the Luftkrieg read a bit ironically. For this time the impairment is not a gap in memory, it is a gap in literature. But as we have seen, Sebald looks to art to fill gaps in memory, and the air war is his own biggest gap.

I grew up with the feeling that something had been withheld from me—at home, in school, and also by the German writers whose books I read in the hope of being able to find out more about the enormity in the background of my own life. I spent my childhood and youth in a region on the northern edge of the Alps that was largely protected from the immediate effects of the so-called hostilities. At the end of the war I was just one year old and thus can hardly have retained impressions based on real experiences from that time of destruction. But even today, when I see photographs or documentaries of the war, I feel as if I stemmed from it, so to speak, and as if a shadow of these horrors, which I did not experience at all, had been cast over me from which I would never escape.

I sympathize deeply with Sebald's desire to resurrect a memory never experienced. I have a similar desire to “remember” the Holocaust, which casts a shadow (to borrow his phrase) over my own life and that of my family. But gaps in memory are experience that is forever lost; and art cannot take its place. At the end of The Emigrants, the narrator visits an exhibition of photographs from the Lodz ghetto, and among them he sees a photograph of three women around the age of twenty behind a loom.

The light falls on them from the window in the background, so I cannot make out their eyes clearly, but I sense that all three of them are looking across at me, since I am standing on the very spot where Genewein the accountant stood with his camera. The young woman in the middle is blonde and has the air of a bride about her. … I wonder what the three women's names were—Roza, Luisa and Lea, or Nona, Decuma and Morta, the daughters of night, with spindle, scissors and thread.

I am strangely moved by this passage each time I read it, because the young woman in the photograph could have been my own grandmother, who was blonde and whose family owned a textile factory in Lodz. I imagine her behind the loom, spinning out my own fate: to pace the same ground over and over, looking for the source of the shadow that still darkens my world. Yet such a connection is dangerous, because it illustrates the illusory workings of art against memory. My grandmother is not a quasi-mythological figure peering out from behind a loom; she is a real person whose experiences during the Holocaust cannot be subsumed in the cycle of life's sorrows. I do not know what she looked like as a young woman, but my imagining her behind Sebald's loom, like Sebald's invocation of Altdorfer or Virgil to describe Nuremberg, merely substitutes an artistic image for a blank space. The blankness, however, is closer to the truth.

When it seeks to do the work of memory, art may be a source of illusion. And Sebald may have had his own doubts about his endeavor. As he wrote in The Rings of Saturn:

That weavers in particular, together with scholars and writers with whom they had much in common, tended to suffer from melancholy and all the evils associated with it, is understandable given the nature of their work, which forced them to sit bent over, day after day, straining to keep their eye on the complex patterns they created. It is difficult to imagine the depths of despair into which those can be driven who, even after the end of the working day, are engrossed in their intricate designs and who are pursued, into their dreams, by the feeling that they have got hold of the wrong thread.

I do not know whether Sebald despaired over his own complex patterns; but he recognized himself that the patterning and layering in his books closely resembles the Penelope-like embroidering and unraveling of the weavers who reappear throughout his pages. His material is memory, not thread, but the result is the same: a work of art that vanishes almost as soon as it appears, undone by the opposing forces that it seeks to mesh. And so Sebald's struggle against oblivion ends ironically in evanescence. The art that he created is of near-miraculous beauty, but it is as fragile, and as ephemeral, as a pearl of smoke.

Carol Bere (essay date fall 2002)

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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 major international recognition. Sadly, it is an irony that Sebald, always attuned to the inexplicable or random nature of experience, might well have understood. By most standards, his success was something of an anomaly. Sebald did not begin writing until his mid-forties, wrote only in his native German, and his reputation rests, for the most part, on the four books published in English before his death: The Emigrants (1996); The Rings of Saturn (1998), Vertigo (1999), and Austerlitz (2001).1 Melancholy, ruminative, strange, Sebald's writing defies easy genre classifications, but is rather a mosaic of several forms—“prose fiction,” which straddles the edges between fiction and fact; essay; autobiography or memoir; and travel writing.

Yet all of the books are linked by the voices of Sebald's somewhat obsessive, often displaced narrators—who are and are not Sebald—who move through the world, trying to make connections, burdened by consciousness, by history, overall by memory. Sebald's narrators are also wanderers, often unable to engage with life, and motivated or obsessed by personal memories or enigmas, questions they are unable to resolve. The narrators of The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo appear to be writers, driven by pervasive, perhaps not fully understood feelings of dislocation, memories, inexplicable feelings of emptiness. In both books, the narrators move through time and space—in The Rings of Saturn through the ruins of history explored during a walking tour of the east coast of England, and in Vertigo through the Alps, northern Europe, and Italy. The narrator of The Rings of Saturn discourses on the rise and collapse of many of the great houses, revisits the places of writers who lived in the area, such as Sir Thomas Browne—whose writings, particularly Urn Burial, inform the first section of the book—and considers individual acts of creativity and enterprise against the wider sweep of historic events. Still, there is something ghost-like, a quality of mourning about Rings, as if all of the connections attempted by the narrator have been attenuated, or perhaps refused.

The significant issue for Sebald is not memory in an overall generic sense, however, but the point at which the cost of not remembering supersedes protective strategies for survival, the moment later in life when early, often horrific repressed knowledge or experience move center stage in a person's life. The early memories of the displaced European Jews of The Emigrants are intensified, overpowering, as they reconstruct their pasts, recognize the “tightening ties to those who had gone before,” and know that they will always be alienated. Nowhere are the forces of memories, feelings of dislocation or estrangement more clear, perhaps, than in the story of Jacques Austerlitz. Displaced from both his home and his identity in the early part of the Second World War, Jacques Austerlitz is one of Sebald's loners or outsiders, who late in life is driven to interpret fragmented dreams, suppressed memories, recreate his past—to essentially recover himself.

Like his narrators, Sebald had the sensibility of an exile, and was neither fully at home in England, where he had lived for over thirty years, nor in his native Germany. Winfried Georg Maximilian (known as “Max”) was born in Wertach im Algäu in the Bavarian Alps during the last days of the Third Reich on May 18, 1944, of a Catholic, anti-communist family. His father joined the army in 1929, prospered like many Germans during the 1930s, and was later a prisoner of war in France, returning to Germany when Sebald was three. Sebald studied German literature initially at Freiburg University, left to study in Switzerland, and became a language assistant at Manchester University in the mid-1960s. He moved to the University of East Anglia in 1970, became professor of German literature in 1987, published critical studies of German and Austrian writers, and founded the influential British Center for Literary Translation at the university.

Sebald grew up amid the “conspiracy of silence,” where the Holocaust was never discussed: “There is something about Germans, which for lack of a better word we'll call cowardice,” he said. “They have the habit of avoidance. People don't want to know. It's as if it never happened” (Atlas 284). He first became aware of the atrocities when his grammar school class was shown a film about Belsen, although it was not until he was at Freiburg University in 1965 at the time of the trials of Auschwitz personnel that he began to have some understanding of the actual horrific dimensions of the Holocaust. In an interview not long before his death, Sebald said that he did not assume that guilt was inherited, but “if you know in the generation before you that your parents, your uncles and aunts were tacit accomplices, it's difficult to say you haven't anything to do with it” (Jaggi 3). Elsewhere, Sebald has said that “I've grown up feeling that that there's some sort of emptiness somewhere that needs to be filled by accounts, witnesses one can trust. I would never have encountered these witnesses if I had not left my native country at the age of twenty because the people who tell you the truth, or something at least approximating the truth did not live there any longer” (interview with Silverblatt).

As listener, occasional participant, and somewhat impartial narrator, Sebald “talks” to these people in The Emigrants, a haunting, hypnotic book which established his reputation in the United Kingdom and United States. While never explicit, it is clear that Sebald's more encompassing theme, particularly in The Emigrants and Austerlitz is the Holocaust, and the disappearance or exile of European Jews. In The Emigrants, Sebald attempts to retrace the paths taken by four men, respond to the coincidences that inform a life, and the decisions circumvented, made, or as Jacques Austerlitz remarks, not fully understood: “We take almost all of the decisive steps in our lives as a result of slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious” (Austerlitz 134). The narratives are hybrids, composites of fiction, personal histories or life stories, fragments of history, and anecdotal information. None of the four exiles experienced the Holocaust directly. Yet as they tell their stories, giving voice to previously repressed memories, it becomes clear that the residual impact of the atrocities, to a large degree, has determined or shaped the ways in which their lives have been lived. As the narratives unfold, we learn that three of the men are dead, and the fourth, Max Ferber, is dying. The precipitating reasons, as suggested by Sebald, are far more complex than might be assumed initially: “In the end it is hard to know what it is that someone dies of” (61-62).

When the narrator talks with Dr. Henry Selwyn, the subject of the first and shortest narrative, he is a relative hermit, living in Norwich, England, tending his plants. Selwyn had come to England with his family from Lithuania in 1899, and made major efforts to conceal his origins. He changed his name, attended Cambridge, became a doctor, and married, although he and his wife eventually lived separate lives. Selwyn never assimilated psychologically, always feeling that at some point, he had sold his “soul.” A few weeks after the narrator's last visit, Selwyn shoots himself. In the following narrative about Sebald's former teacher, Paul Bereyter, the effects of anti-semitism and the Holocaust were more immediate as well as far-reaching. Prohibited from teaching during the Third Reich because he was part Jewish, Bereyter nevertheless served in the German army in several occupied countries. He returned to Germany in 1939 “because he was a German to the marrow, profoundly attached to his native land in the foothills of the Alps” (57). But Bereyter came to realize that he had always been an exile, and at the age of seventy-four, and nearly blinded by cataracts, he lies down on railroad tracks to die.

Sebald has commented that the story of Ambros Adelwarth, the third section of the book, related most directly to his family (interview with Wood). This narrative varies from the others in that Adelwarth, a great uncle, is not Jewish, although his life and perhaps ultimate death is closely intertwined with the Solomons, the wealthy Jewish banking family he worked for after arriving in New York before the First World War. As personal assistant to Cosmo, the younger son, Adelwarth accompanies him on his travels throughout several countries, and after his death, devotes his life to providing services as head butler at the family's estate. Adelwarth slowly lost himself, in a sense, as “the private man ceased to exist, … nothing was left but his shell of decorum” (99). Adelwarth later lived alone in a house bequeathed him by the family, but gradually sank into a depression, checked himself into a sanatorium in Ithaca, New York, and ultimately died of the results of shock therapy treatments. A dignified man, and silent exile, he died, suggested his doctor, of a “longing for an extinction as total and irreversible as possible of his capacity to think and remember” (114).

With the fourth narrative, the story of Max Ferber, the exiled German painter who lives in Manchester, Sebald also recaptures some sense of his own feelings of dislocation when he first arrived in the city. He met Ferber initially during a chance wandering in Manchester in 1966, lost track of him, until he learned in a magazine article in 1989 that Ferber had left Munich for England in 1939 at the age of fifteen. Ferber's parents delayed their departure, and were taken to Riga in 1941, where they were later murdered. The narrator revisits Ferber, who tells of attempts to retrace memories of his youth, to learn of his heritage, whether through his brief trip to Switzerland, looking at Grünewald's paintings, studying the work of Tiepolo, or in reading his mother's memoir of Jewish life in Germany in the early twentieth century. Ferber's life has been determined, he concludes, by his parent's deportation, and the delay before he heard the news. Time is not chronological for Ferber, but simply a “disquiet of the soul.” One of the entries in Ambros Adelwarth's agenda book could speak for all of the exiles in The Emigrants: “Memory … often strikes me as a kind of dumbness. It makes one's head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds” (145).

It is often said that the evils of the Holocaust were so great that it cannot be represented, that the only effective way to approach these horrific deeds and its effects is in oblique ways. Sebald himself never delineates the horrors of history head-on, never sentimentalizes his subjects. Yet subtle, tangential references such as the photograph of the Jewish family in Bavarian dress in The Emigrants, or the shift from the nocturama to the train station, or the recurrent scenes in the waiting rooms of railroad stations in Austerlitz, among many references, suggest the concentration camps, silence, and loss.

Further, we also recognize that The Emigrants is somewhat open-ended, that the underlying theme can only be circled, and that the disparate and unknown consequences of the horrific acts of history have yet to be played out fully. Part of this has to do with the ways in which the narrator “writes” the book: in broad terms, the narrator has either heard of his subject previously or known him. He visits the person, takes notes, travels to places referred to in previous conversations, compiles more information, revisits his subject or people who knew the person, often after many years, and later begins writing. Yet as Sebald makes clear throughout the book, memories can be creative, tentative, often unreliable, and photographs or documents are frequently unverifiable—in short, the book continues to be written.

Moreover, The Emigrants, like Sebald's relatively plotless books in general, is a construction, assembled through an accretion of historical and biographical facts, photographs, maps, newspaper clippings, and train schedules. Although there's some literary precedent for this process of “grangerizing,”2 Sebald collected photographs and other oddments for years, and viewed these objects as parts of his working process. About ninety percent of the photographs in The Emigrants are authentic, derived from the collections of some of the people described in the book. The photographs are not add-ons, but integral parts of the narratives, “talking” across the frames, documenting history, commenting on and perhaps questioning the reliability of individual memories, contributing to what Sebald refers to as a level of “mutedness.” The opening photograph of a yew tree, the tree of the dead, among the headstones sets the stage for the sense of absence that underlies all of the narratives. This presence of absence, of individual histories lived but unremarked, is reinforced throughout with several photographs such as those of the German students taught by Paul Bereyter in 1935, Ambros Adelwarth's agenda book, detailing his early travels, and the family picture of the narrator's—in this case, members of Sebald's family—who had emigrated to New York in the early twentieth century.

Sebald's hybrid form is also a natural corollary to a world where the rules are no longer clear, where the events of history have undercut the certainties, where we—and his narrators—are essentially making it up as we go along, “where we have to acknowledge our own sense of ignorance in these matters and therefore to try and write accordingly” (interview with Wood). His books suggest the influences of Nabokov, Kafka, Borges, Stendhal, Conrad, and the innovative narrative style of the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. Yet Sebald's prose, according to German speakers, is difficult, not contemporary, and although extremely well served by his translators, Michael Hulse and Anthea Bell, often conveys a sense of being “not of this time.” He has spoken of being influenced by the discursive prose, sentence structure, and attention to a “carefully composed page of prose” of nineteenth-century writers such as the Austrian Adalbert Stifter and Gottfried Keller of Switzerland (interview with Silverblatt). Much of the power of Sebald's writing, his ability to capture or personalize the tragic nature of individual experience refracted through the wider lens of horrific historical events arises ultimately from this unique amalgamation of the old and the new, of the nineteenth century and a postmodern consciousness. Sebald's distinctive writing style, often circuitous narrative routes, and occasionally surprising metaphorical connections are all part of a conscious effort to avoid exaggeration, and persuade the reader that he has been “engaged” with these issues: “In order to get the full measure of the horrific, one needs to remind the reader of beatific moments of life. … If you existed solely within your imagination …, you would not be able to sense … so it requires that contrast and that contrast and the old-fashionedness of the diction, of the narrative told is therefore nothing to do with nostalgia for a better age that's gone passed, but it is simply that … it heightens the awareness of that which we have managed to engineer in this century” (interview with Silverblatt).

Sebald's distinctive, somewhat old-fashioned prose, set against the postmodern world of Jacques Austerlitz provides the nexus for understanding Sebald's last book, the most consciously “literary” of his writings. Structured on a somewhat linear narrative, the narrator, perhaps Sebald, first begins talking to Austerlitz, an architectural historian in London, in a railway station in Antwerp in 1967. Their paths cross several times—Sebald would probably say by coincidence—during the narrator's stay in Belgium. Austerlitz talks about architectural history, and its relationship to political developments, but reveals little about his personal life, other than that he taught at the London Institute. Over the next thirty years, the men meet sporadically in London, but it is not until they meet in London in 1996, again by chance, that Austerlitz confides that he had realized that he “must find someone to whom he could relate his own story,” which he had only recently learned. The outlines of Austerlitz's story are relatively clear-cut. In 1939, at the age of four, he had been sent from Prague by his Jewish parents to live in Wales with a former missionary and Calvinist preacher, Emyr Elias, and his wife, in what is an emotionally repressed, joyless home. Austerlitz has no memory of his early years, and after the lingering death of his foster mother, and the descent into madness of Elias, he learns of his origins from a headmaster. He also learns that his name is not Dafydd Elias but actually Jacques Austerlitz, the name of a famous Moravian battle site as well as railway station.

Singularly uneasy or estranged in London or anywhere else, Austerlitz is one of Sebald's damaged people, who have suppressed knowledge of the past—whether consciously or unconsciously—until their very existences are short-circuited. Even Austerlitz's approach to his professional life suggests a level of repression, an attempt not to know:

As far as I was concerned, the world ended in the late 19th century. I dared go no further than that, although—the whole history of architecture and civilization of the bourgeois age, the subject of my research, pointed in the direction of the catastrophic events already casting their shadows before them at the time.


Following an illness in his fifties, Austerlitz begins to recognize or at least come to terms with the notion that his memories may have been repressed deliberately. This is the mitigating point of breakup, or erosion of repressed memories to which Sebald often referred. Austerlitz recovers memories tentatively at first, and remembers himself as a child in a railway station, apparently leaving his homeland. At this point, he begins the path back toward understanding of his personal history, its relation to the Holocaust, and toward some sense of recovery of identity. He travels to Prague, and learns that his parents were Maximilian Aychenwald and Agáta, an actress, that his father managed to escape to Paris, but before she could join him, his mother was deported to Terezin. But Austerlitz is driven, obsessed, and his continuing search for information about his father is not an option, but a mandate.

Sebald builds his argument inductively, moving from the zoo, to the train station, the fortress, to the ghettos—opening out from the individual history of Austerlitz and his family to suggest nothing less than the wider, long-term implications of the Holocaust and displacement of European Jews. Images of domes, railway stations, street maps, libraries, a simple rucksack, book-lined study, or empty buildings once used for deportation or as extermination chambers comment on, support, and bear witness. Sebald runs the risk of losing the close attention of even the most committed reader with single paragraphs that run over forty pages, a voice that rarely modulates, and sense of enclosure that offers little respite. Ultimately, this seems to be the point. The sheer effort of telling his story is Austerlitz's validation of his and his family's existence, a way, perhaps, to suggest that individual lives mattered, had purpose. But for Jacques Austerlitz, the psychological injuries have been too deep, and he will always feel “as if I had no place in reality,” always displaced:

It was obviously of little use that I had discovered the sources of my distress and, looking back over all the past years, could now see myself with the utmost clarity as that child suddenly cast out of his familiar surroundings: reason was powerless against the sense of rejection and annihilation which I had always suppressed. …


Finally, it seems premature to assess Sebald's legacy at this stage. After Nature, Sebald's first non-academic writing, published in Germany in 1988, was published recently in an English translation. On the Natural History of Destruction, published as Luftkrieg and Literatur in 1999, will be published in an English translation in 2003. The book, based on a series of highly controversial lectures, argues that postwar German writing had failed to respond to the widespread destruction of German cities in the Allied bombing raids during WW II (briefly mentioned in The Rings of Saturn). Perhaps it is enough to say that this remarkable writer created a new genre.


  1. Vertigo, The Rings of Saturn, and The Emigrants were published initially in Germany by Vito yon Eichborn GmbH & Co Verlag KG. Vertigo, the first book written by Sebald although the third published in English, was published with the title Schwindel, Gefühle. The Emigrants was published in 1992 as Die Ausgewanderten; and The Rings of Saturn was originally published in 1995 as Die Ringe des Saturn, Eine englishe Wallfahrt. Austerlitz was published in Germany, and in an English translation in 2001.

  2. Marginalia, H. J. Jackson traces the term “grangerized” to James Granger (1723-76), Vicar of Shiplake, biographer, and print collector who initially conceived of making a catalogue of portraits which would enrich his Biographical History of England (179-203). Others refer to the process as “extra illustration,” which currently refers to illustration by pictures and material objects. Jackson suggests that extra illustration can be used as a form of comment by the author; elsewhere Sebald has said that the process is one of the ways in which he “declares his position.”

Works Cited

Atlas, James. “W. G. Sebald: A Profile,” Paris Review, 151 (Summer 1999): 278-95.

Jackson, H. J. Marginalia. New York and New Haven: Yale UP, 2000.

Jaggi, Maya. “Recovered Memories.” The Guardian 22 September, 2001.

Sebald, W. G. Austerlitz. New York: Random House, 2001.

———. The Emigrants. London: The Harvill Press, 1996.

———. Interview with Michael Silverblatt. Bookworm. WKRW, Santa Monica, CA, December 6, 2001.

———. Interview. By James Wood. PEN American Centre, July 1997, Brick: A Literary Journal (Spring 1998): 23-29.

———. The Rings of Saturn. London: The Harvill Press, 1998.

———. Vertigo. London: The Harvill Press, 1999.

Andrew Gimson (review date 15 February 2003)

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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 raids and, as Sebald points out, ‘even after 1950 wooden crosses still stood on the piles of rubble in towns like Pforzheim, which lost almost one third of its 60,000 inhabitants in a single raid on the night of 22 February 1945’. Among the ruins dreadful smells emanated from the corpses and rats and flies multiplied. But while many foreigners tried to describe the evidence of their own eyes on visits at the end of the war, German writers were silent.

Why was this? Sebald is too subtle a writer to pretend that he has more than the first intimations of an answer. He proceeds by understatement and by lucid reference to writers such as Friedrich Reck (whose Diary of a Man in Despair can, as he says, ‘hardly be overestimated as genuine contemporary evidence’), Heinrich Boll, Alfred Andersch and Jean Amery. This approach may sound dull, or too literary, but it is not. Sebald, with his aversion to anything bombastic, self-righteous or self-pitying, is a guide with the good manners not to harangue either us or his fellow Germans, and scarcely a page of this book fails to throw out valuable hints. He was born in 1944 in southern Germany and settled in England in 1970, where he died in December 2001, and he combines what might be called German seriousness with a whimsical lightness of touch that is more English.

But he does not lack steel. Take this passage from his foreword:

In spite of strenuous efforts to come to terms with the past, as people like to put it, it seems to me that we Germans today are a nation strikingly blind to history and lacking in tradition. We do not feel any passionate interest in our earlier way of life and the specific features of our own civilisation, of the kind universally perceptible, for instance, in the culture of the British Isles. And when we turn to take a backward view, particularly of the years 1930 to 1950, we are always looking and looking away at the same time. As a result, the works produced by German authors after the war are often marked by a half-consciousness or false consciousness … To the overwhelming majority of those writers who stayed on in Germany under the Third Reich, the redefinition of their idea of themselves after 1945 was a more urgent business than depiction of the real conditions surrounding them.

A writer like Andersch, who set about divorcing his Jewish wife in 1942 and who as late as October 1944 described her—in a letter to his American captors—as ‘a mongrel of Jewish descent', had much in his own history which it was convenient for him to suppress as he adapted to different circumstances after the war. Such careerist conformism—a more polite word would be pragmatism—was found in every aspect of German life after 1945. Nobody wanted to look back. The physical reconstruction of the shattered towns, though a heroic effort, was also, as Sebald says, ‘tantamount to a second liquidation in successive phases of the nation's own past’.

The experience of the bombing was so horrific that most of the survivors found themselves unable to describe it. They survived by suppressing what they had seen. Lack of imagination and failure of memory became valuable qualities as they set about the task of building a new country. But the cost of this mighty collective pretence of normality was great. The whole edifice had a bogus feeling about it. By the time I moved to Berlin in 1994, a huge apparatus of concepts and scholarship had grown up around the Holocaust, but the question of what millions of individual Germans experienced during the war was still considered too hard to document: a silence that allowed self-pity to fester among many who felt that they too had been victims of the Nazis.

Since Sebald's death, a book has been published in Germany which seeks to fill the gap he identified. The historian Jorg Friedrich has published a lengthy account of the Allied bombing of German cities, Der Brand (The Fire), which has attracted great attention in the German press. It is a work drenched in self-pity, but it is a start.

Robert Winder (review date 24 February 2003)

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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 admirers every day. In Germany he was also a noted literary critic, and the book under review here—a critique of Germany's failure to respond in literature to the Allied bombardment that killed more than 600,000 people—created its own firestorm when it was published there in 1999.

It appears here at a time when aerial bombing is much on our minds. But despite the title—which suggests a thorough anatomy—this is no wide-ranging meditation on air power (for that, see Sven Lindqvist's A History of Bombing, published by Granta). Sebald's focus is narrower. He is surprised that so few German writers were able to bear witness to the destruction of their own cities, and wants to explore this telling imaginative lapse.

He looks at writers not much known here, such as Peter de Mendelssohn, Hermann Kasack, Hans Erich Nossack and Arno Schmidt, and finds little more than a cliched recoiling from “that fateful day … that dreadful night” when “all hell was let loose” by the “teeming messengers of death”. It is fine literary criticism (sharp enough to prompt at least one angry letter from Germany claiming that the bombing was a typical Jewish plot). But for a British audience, this is quite arcane material. Nor does it seem so very surprising. Everything he says feels well-judged, but in finding the taboos erected against that unforgettable horror so mystifying he seems to overlook the obvious extent to which postwar German publishers were obliged to wave aside anything that smacked of self-pity. Reconstruction was the order of the day; no one was about to shed tears over German suffering in the war.

There are moments, however, when the neutral critic's voice gives way to the resonant, digressive and mysterious style which has become Sebald's signature. In four books—The Emigrants, Vertigo, The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz—he ranged over recent European history with what seemed an authentic new voice. His prose was filtered through an intense sensibility—by Kafka, out of Nabokov. And it was draped around old photographs—a banister, a fishing smack, the author standing by a tree, a lighthouse—that turned readers into browsers, rummaging about in an attic crammed with flashing images. The text sluiced around these illustrations like water in an Alpine brook, permitting itself to be checked or diverted, but never pausing in its downward rush.

The overall effect is mesmeric and quite wonderful—simultaneously lucid and unfathomable. The text obeys the grammar of causality—the traditional literary taste for causes and effects—but declines to recognise the usual constraints of chronological pressure. The narration is not a sequence of events but a snakes-and-ladders collage of memories. Suspense is generated not by any uncertainty about what might happen next, but through the accumulation of suggestions and the intensity of the sights along the way. The photographs, slamming into sight and whipping away again like glimpses out of a train window, suggest a sobering destination: after a disused tennis court, a pile of skulls; after an Alpine meadow, a row of corpses. But then the line branches, and we find ourselves in a sunlit apple orchard, or being gazed at by a child in fancy dress, or in an empty doorway.

Page follows page with hallucinatory urgency. The narrator might see a brass squirrel in the window of a shop in the Jewish quarter in Prague, which will remind him of the squirrel he once saw foraging beside a canal in Manchester, which will remind him of the rats that colonised Dresden, which will kindle memories of a rat-catcher he once met in Ipswich who was wearing a hat very like the one his uncle used to wear in Heidelberg. And he might remember how this uncle had a crude painting of a squirrel behind the piano in his house, which he would copy with old crayons while the troops marched past outside. And that echo of troops marching outside would trigger echoes of the narrator's own father marching off to war and never coming back, and how the last news they had from him was written on a postcard of an Alpine mountain, a mountain he himself had once tried to climb.

In making these rolling leaps and connections, Sebald achieves nothing so much as a jagged sense of dislocation. Forgotten intensities are retrieved and found still to reverberate. This is especially true in the novel Austerlitz, which presents (as if faithfully transcribing them) the rambling but precise recollections of an evacuated Jewish child trying, as an adult and architectural historian, to retrace the springs of his peculiar temperament. It is unputdownable, and not only because it consists of a single unbroken chapter (in 400 pages there are only three paragraphs). This is no mere stream of consciousness: it is a wide river whose banks we cannot even see, but which bobs us along on its stately journey into one of Europe's bleakest memories. It's like driving in a blizzard. The pictures—a staircase, a watch, a moth, a railway station, a stamp—blink like lamps while the prose drifts and clears and swims before our eyes. As in an overexposed photo, darkness is always seeping in from the edges an d threatening to eclipse these fleeting visions.

There is something disquieting here: a good deal of Sebald's work is of uncertain authenticity. Some of the mementoes seem manifestly his own; others must be borrowed or invented. The task of untangling memoir from fiction is going to keep scholars busy for years, and may prove impossible, because Sebald writes in the persona of a Borgesian first person—one who was born in Germany and lives in East Anglia, but who seems also to have witnessed Napoleonic campaigns. It is not beyond imagination that someone, some day, will pop up and denounce him as a thoroughgoing fraud. But it seems too late for such judgements to matter. The books are mazy tributes to the promptings of both private and collective memories. That Sebald died before divulging his secrets gives him the aura of a magician. Quite how all those rabbits ended up in that hat we will never know.

His new book scarcely belongs in this extraordinary oeuvre. The roaring of aircraft on the news gives it topicality, but its main thesis—the tendency of German literature to ignore all that rubble in the streets—may prove premature. Recollections of horror take years to emerge; it took decades even for memoirs of the Holocaust to appear in print, so it would not be surprising if the accounts whose absence Sebald regrets started to emerge only now. As it happens, a book did appear in Germany last year on precisely this point. Jorg Friedrich's The Fire: Germany under Bombardment (1940-45) created headlines both in Germany and in Britain with its polemical view that the Allied bombardment was a gratuitous war crime. Alas, he was merely outraged—in Sebald's view, a fake and self-important way of giving our own piffling opinions priority over the experience itself. To him, there is only one reasonable response to such events: bafflement, sadness, wonder. Even in his darkest moments, life feels miraculous.

Julian Evans (essay date 21 April 2003)

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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 process I discovered that what, in these four books which are among the most acclaimed of the past decade, is supposed to be rooted in “the real”—in the devastation of the Holocaust and the failure of 19th-century rationalism to prevent the darkness of the 20th—has, if you look past the brilliant descriptive writing, a sense of reality so flawed as to lie in the realm of pathology.

Exactly halfway through The Emigrants, when the narrator visits the sanatorium at Ithaca where his great-uncle, Ambros Adelwarth, perished, I got an inkling of what I was to find subsequently in all of the books. Rather than enactment of a character's actions and life, the narrative of these four Jewish exiles is simply a string of details. Great-Uncle Ambros, a casualty from childhood onwards, is a Sebald archetype. Mental disturbance of every shade, from casual nerves to disabling depressive illness, defines his characters, including three of his four narrators. “I began to sense in me a vague apprehension, which manifested itself as a feeling of vertigo” (Vertigo). “[A] year to the day after I began my tour, I was taken into hospital in Norwich in a state of almost total immobility” (The Rings of Saturn). “Even on my arrival [at Antwerp] as the train rolled slowly over the viaduct … I had begun to feel unwell” (Austerlitz). The italics are mine, and this is not much of a discovery: the last two quotations appear on the first page of their respective books.

Complementary to illness is a mental and physical landscape that can, at best, be described as empty. “At the next station, the halt for Somerleyton Hall, I out … There was not a soul about, of whom one might have asked the way.” In Southwold “everybody who had been out for an evening stroll was gone”. Emptinesses multiply. “There is something peculiarly dispiriting about the emptiness that wells up when, in a strange city, one dials the same telephone numbers in vain,” remarks the narrator of Vertigo. Later, “Sebald” goes to a Tube station the like of which I have never seen, where no one ever gets on or off. Alan Bennett mentioned this un-peopled quality of his work in a recent diary in the London Review of Books. “The fact is, in Sebald nobody is ever about. This may be poetic but it is a short cut to significance.”

Once noticed, these tics become, as Bennett says, almost comic. But Sebald does not stop there: illness and emptiness are exploited to win the reader's sympathy. The invention of time, according to the Holocaust orphan Jacques Austerlitz, “was by far the most artificial of all our inventions”, though he tells us that it is still possible to exist outside time. “The dead are outside time, the dying and all the sick at home or in hospitals …” In Sebald's lexicon it must be the dead, the sick and dying who are outside time. Yet one is tempted to ask: what of children, or artists, or lovers? All of whom, in their pleasure, are also capable of metaphorically existing outside time. Most importantly, illness lets his characters withdraw from life, while emptiness gives them an unpeopled place to withdraw to, and Sebald is able to get away with a pretence: a pretence at involvement with his characters who, restrained as they are by their creator's contrived and people-less world, rarely demand from him that he make them live. As a result, they rarely engage with each other, either. “Misshapen, like some great mollusc washed ashore, they lay there, to all appearances a single being …” On the one occasion that a couple making love on a beach stray into his narrative, the narrator's feeling of horror is tremendous.

Pathological unreality enters in, as he discards truth in favour of an atmosphere that is seldom positive and is also irrelevantly ethereal, as if melancholy towards the 20th century were the only reflex available. The result is a gesture at life that comes nowhere near earning the pathos he claims for it. It is an artistic falling-short of the truth. It is a failure. It tempts me to conclude that his books are not about life at all. They are more truly lifestyle novels, celebrating a certain intellectual sensitivity and consciousness (including a borrowed Jewish one), elevating them way above ordinary (Jewish and non-Jewish) existence.

In one novel, his narrator talks about holiday makers at Lake Garda as “the wandering dead”. Well, they may be; but imagine how you might feel if you were enjoying a drink at an Italian cafe, and a melancholy German with a cultured air told you that you were one of the wandering dead. You might, with justification, want to knock him down. Actually the description better applies to W G Sebald himself, with his sleepless nights, and his Alpine mountains threatening to fall on top of him, and his empty Tube platforms, where he stands “for a considerable time, on the very brink so to speak”, but doesn't dare take the final step.

Barbara Beckerman Davis (review date winter 2004)

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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 enfolds him; Georg Wilhem Stellar, the German naturalist, who, in 1741, accompanied Vitus Bering on his second expedition to Alaskan waters; Sebald himself, whose meditation on his family and early life in Germany illuminates his preoccupation with memory and with the tragic legacy of the modern world. Like the two seekers in whose footsteps he follows, he too ruminates on human kind's place in the universe, and on his relationship to nature.

Each person also represents a phase of European development: Grünewald's sensibility is cast within a religious framework; Stellar's, the exploration and conquest of the natural world; Sebald's, the catastrophes of the industrial world. Underlying each phase is the articulation of violence that has become Sebald's trademark. Grünewald dies of melancholia, and his own femininity ironically distances him from women. Stellar, in a moment of idealism, criticizes Russian authority and learns the difference between nature and society; at his death, virtually by his own hand, “someone took his cloak … and left him to die in the snow like a fox beaten to death.” Sebald contemplates Manchester's industries that reduce its workers to pygmies; they are unacceptable even to a WW I army desperate for recruits. He ponders a family photograph; he wonders how they combined remembering and forgetting to survive the horrors they witnessed under Hitler.

The poems are written in blank verse, the form itself encouraging a fluidity and lightness that enables Sebald to explore his themes in differing moods and voices, giving us an incomparable meditation on life, death, suffering, and nature.

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W. G. Sebald World Literature Analysis