On W. G. Sebald
By Susan Sontag
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 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 Allgau), 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 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 story 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 traveling 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 traveled from
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-traveled 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 "II ri-torno in patria" (The Return Home). The four
narratives of Vertigo adumbrate all Sebald's major themes:
journeys; the lives of writers, who are also
travelers; 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
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, ah1 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
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 19905. 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 have 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. Be -cause it was The Emigrants that launched Sebald in English, and be- cause the subject of the last narrative, a famous painter given the name Max Ferber, is a German Jew sent out of Nazi Germany as a child to safety in England—his mother, who perished in the camps with his father, being the author of the memoir—the book was routinely labeled by most of the reviewers (especially, but not only, in America) as an ex- ample of Holocaust literature. Ending a book of lament with the ulti-mate 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 to another. In The Rings of Saturn, the well-stocked mind speculates whether Sir Thomas Browne, visiting Holland, was present at an 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 savoring 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.
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
In fact, he is both: both alive and, if his imagination
is the guide, posthumous. A journey is often a revisiting. It is the return to a
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 playful
German title, Schwindel. Gefuhle (roughly: Giddiness. Feeling), hardly
suggests all the kinds of panic and torpor and disorientation described in the
book. In Vertigo, he relates how, after arriving in
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 marvelous 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 mythmaking, 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
-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 favorite haunt, the Sailors' Reading Room in Southwold, where he pored over entries from the log of a patrol ship anchored off the pier during 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 logbook, he pondered "the mysterious survival of the written word."
Susan Sontag