W. G. Sebald

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 258

In the United States, W. G. Sebald (ZAY-bahlt) gained recognition primarily as a writer of novels. In Germany, his literary output included poetry and critical essays, only a portion of which have been translated into English. His writing as a critic first appeared in his work on German Expressionist playwright Carl Sternheim, Carl Sternheim: Kritiker und Opfer der Wilhelminischen Ära (1969; Carl Sternheim: critic and victim of the Wilhelminian era) and in his dissertation on the novelist Alfred Döblin, titled “Der Mythus der Zerstörung im Werk Alfred Döblins” (1973; the myth of destruction in the work of Alfred Döblin).

Sebald’s history of Austrian literature, Die Beschreibung des Unglücks: Zur österreichischen Literatur von Stifter bis Handke (the description of melancholy in Austrian literature from Stifter to Handke), appeared in 1985, and his edited collection of critical essays on modern German theater, A Radical Stage: Theatre in Germany in the 1970’s and 1980’s, in 1988. In 1999, Sebald’s extended meditation on post-World War II German literature’s reluctance to examine the consequences of the bombings of Germany in World War II, Luftkrieg und Literatur (On the Natural History of Destruction, 2003), was published. A collection of his critical essays, Campo Santo, appeared in 2005. Sebald’s important 1998 collection of critical essays on Robert Walser, Gottfried Keller, and others, Logis in einem Landhaus (lodgings in a country house), remains untranslated into English. After his death, two volumes of Sebald’s poetry—For Years Now (2001) and the English translation of his 1988 collection Nach der Natur: Ein Elementargedicht, titled After Nature (2002)—were published.

Achievements

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From the very beginning of his career, critics recognized W. G. Sebald’s artistic genius, and he received numerous awards and literary prizes for his work. In 2007, the secretary of the Swedish Academy observed that Sebald would have been a worthy recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature if he had lived. In 1990, he received the Feder-Machow Prize for Lyric Poetry for After Nature. Sebald’s second novel, The Emigrants, won several awards, including the Berlin Literature Prize and the Johannes Bobrowski Medal in 1994 and, in 1997, the Heinrich Böll Prize and the Mörike Prize. His third novel, The Rings of Saturn, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction in 1999. Sebald received the Heinrich Heine Prize and the Josef Breitbach Prize in 2000, and he was posthumously awarded the 2002 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction for Austerlitz as well as the Literary Prize of the City of Bremen.

Discussion Topics

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W. G. Sebald inserts many photographs in his novels. How do these photographs contribute to the power and meaning of the novel?

In many of Sebald’s writings, it is difficult to tell whether he is recording fact or telling a story that has no basis in fact. What are the benefits of weaving fact and fiction together as he does in his writings?

Sebald often uses images, scenes, and phrases from other novelists. How does his use of these other works of fiction in his own novels enhance your reading of his novels?

Why does each “biography” in The Emigrants grow increasingly longer?

Discuss the similarities and differences among The Rings of Saturn, Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), and James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).

What is the role of language in Austerlitz?

What is quest literature, and how are Sebald’s novels examples of such literature?

Bibliography

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Iyer, Pico. “The Strange, Haunted World of W. G. Sebald.” Harper’s Magazine, October, 2000, 86-90. This stylistic analysis focuses on the restlessness and unease that drives Sebald’s prose, attributing the uncanny, dreamlike mood of his work largely to the influence of Franz Kafka.

Lane, Anthony. “Higher Ground: Adventures in Fact and Fiction from W. G. Sebald.” The New Yorker, May 29, 2000, 128-136. While Lane notes that Sebald’s narratives all begin with typically “Sebaldian” prose, he nonetheless considers the author one of the most important novelists of the late twentieth century, with few English-speaking rivals in scope and imaginative power.

Lewis, Tess. “W. G. Sebald: The Past Is Another Country.” The New Criterion, December, 2001, 85-90. This article, which appeared shortly before Sebald’s death, is a good introduction for newcomers to the author’s work. Lewis assesses Sebald’s four novels, praising the last one, Austerlitz, as the most emotionally powerful and the most “unobtrusively constructed.” She also discusses Sebald’s theme of German “willful amnesia,” not only in regard to the Holocaust but also in terms of the physical damage and psychological trauma inflicted by the Allied bombing raids in World War II.

Long, J. J. W. G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity. New York: Columbia University, 2008. A comprehensive biography of Sebald which examines common themes in his writing, such as identity, memory, and travel. Long also looks at the function of photography in Sebald’s works, and the way his writing was perceived and analyzed by critics.

Williams, Arthur. “The Elusive First-Person Plural: Real Absences in Reiner Kunze, Bernd-Dieter Hüge, and W. G. Sebald.” In Whose Story? Continuities in Contemporary German-Language Literature, edited by Williams, Stuart Parkes, and Julian Preece. New York: Peter Lang, 1998. Williams focuses on The Emigrants in his comparative treatment of Sebald and two other contemporary German writers who also treat German history within the framework of memoir and autobiography.

Williams, Arthur. “W. G. Sebald: A Holistic Approach to Borders, Texts, and Perspectives.” In German-Language Literature Today: International and Popular?, edited by Williams, Stuart Parkes, and Julian Preece. New York: Peter Lang, 2000. This chapter describes astutely the aesthetic principles behind Sebald’s prose, emphasizing the author’s eclectic but unifying blend of forms, sources, and literary allusions.

Woods, James. “Sebald’s Uncertainty.” In The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief. New York: Random House, 1999. Woods recognizes Sebald’s debt to the nineteenth century Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter, whose writings possess a quiet poignancy and an almost fastidious attention to detail similar to Sebald’s.

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