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Spring 2002

A Symposium on W.G. Sebald

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Editor’s Note: On Friday, December 14, 2001, the writer W. G. Sebald was killed in a car accident in Norwich, England, where he had lived since 1970. In the days after his death, we received a number of emails, faxes, and calls from people who, though they had never met him, felt connected to Sebald through his books. This symposium is our way of responding to that spontaneous expressions of shock and loss.

What Arthur Penn said of film—that it trembles constantly on the brink of being boring—also holds true for the work of W. G. Sebald. This is not the reaction of a middlebrow philistine—or at least it’s not only that. I find thrillers boring but that’s just a personal thing; they don’t engage with the idea of boredom in the way that Thomas Bernhard or Sebald does. It is the trembling, the perpetual uncertainty, the hovering on the edge of infinitely tedious regress (a yawning chasm, so to speak), that generate the peculiar suspense—the sense, more exactly, of suspended narration—that makes Sebald’s writing so compelling. This was most pronounced, paradoxically, in The Rings of Saturn, where the flatness of the landscape, the profound inaction described, accentuated the dizzy psychological depths plumbed. Like The Emigrants, it held one’s interest constantly because any clues as to what was going to make the book work always seemed likely to be hidden in the least interesting passages, the passages one was most tempted to skim. The reader was thereby forced to attend (in every sense) with a patience-straining diligence that proceeded in tandem with the narrator’s weary tramping through the Suffolk lowlands.

Sebald’s hypnotic prose lulls you into tranced submission, a kind of stupor that is also a state of heightened attention. After a while (long after you would normally be prepared to wait), you sense that the studied avoidance of anything resembling momentum has generated a purpose and direction of its own: not a story as such, but the process and chance encounters from which a novel could have been coaxed.

The idea of the digression was so intrinsic to the conception of both The Rings of Saturn and The Emigrants that one never doubted, however wayward and unfamiliar the territory, that Sebald knew exactly where he was going. By the time of Austerlitz I had become sufficiently acclimatized to this weird literary terrain to feel that I too knew exactly what was going on. “Exactly” in the sense of, well, vaguely. Sebald was a meteorological writer: atmosphere and weather do much of the work of character and plot. Austerlitz is all mist, drizzle, dissolution, and haze. “All forms of colour were dissolved in a pearl-grey haze; there were no contrasts, no shading any more, only flowing transitions with the light throbbing through them, a single blur from which only the most fleeting of visions emerged.” That passage is itself one of those visions, a subtle swell of lyrical brilliance emerging from the carefully articulated narrative blur. You resolve to concentrate harder but, within a few pages, the “diminished corporeality” of the writing drifts, like a “creeping miasma,” towards an “impenetrable fog.”

As Austerlitz had its mists, so Saturn had its melancholy wash of cloud. The combination of lowering cloud and the narrator’s wryly nonspecific depression trembled constantly on the brink of wan humor. Indeed, this initially wary reader’s conversion to Sebald occurred with the dim realization that he was, along with everything else, a comic writer. In this respect his world is reminiscent of the “black idylls” of Bernhard, whose relentless, paralyzing hysteria is sedated and transformed by Sebald into his own unique form of repressed almost-hilarity.

Sebald’s death was as unsettling and anomalous as his work. Here was a writer struck down at the height of his powers, at the age of fifty-seven, when he had just begun to achieve wide recognition. Each of these statements would typically be incompatible with at least one—often both—of the others. He was one of the most innovative and original contemporary writers in the world, and yet part of this originality derived from the way his prose felt as if it had been exhumed from the past, as if the spirit of ruined Europe were speaking through him. Perhaps this is why it was said, in Germany, that he wrote like a ghost. There was always something weirdly posthumous about his writing, but this only makes his physical death more shocking.

Geoff Dyer


The loss feels unbearable. Premature death has brutally imposed a retroactive shape on Max Sebald’s life and work, turning early or middle things into last things. Perhaps in the future it may come to seem inevitable that the elegiac intensities inscribed by Sebald in literature do not result in a large body of work. That, instead, we have the imperishable gift of just a few books written once he found the voice in which to deliver his commanding, exquisite prose arias. But, for the moment, the loss simply feels...devastating. Unacceptable. Difficult to take in. He had an exemplary sense of vocation, full of scruples and self-doubts. The work is recklessly literary and inspired by a thrilling variety of models. These writers—from Adalbert Stifter and Jean Henri Fabre to Virginia Woolf and Thomas Bernhard—illustrate Sebald’s connection to several kinds of moral seriousness, luminousness of description, and purity of motive. He was one who demonstrates that literature can be, literally, indispensable. He was one by whom literature continues to live.

—Susan Sontag


In the summer of 1998, when I was taking a trip in Northern California, I came upon a paperback copy of The Emigrants in a small independent bookshop. I had been told about the book by a friend but was not prepared for the effect it had on me, one that I can only describe as total entrancement, accompanied by a profound sense of vertigo. I kept reading it in fits and starts as my journey was often interrupted. At times, even as I was caught up in the narrative, I would have to stop because I had become confused as to who was the I that was doing the telling—as if all the I’s in the story, fictional and real, were merging into one in this circling of storytelling.

At one point in the narrative of Max Ferber, I came to the words “time, he went on, is an unreliable way of gauging these things, indeed it is nothing but a disquiet of the soul,” and I realized that the vertigo was extending to the experience of time as well.

Propelled onward, not by suspense but by something even more fundamental to narrative, I came to the bottom of the next page, and suddenly there was total disjunction. The words on this next page were not only out of time; I could not tell at all if it was indeed the person speaking who had been speaking. At the same time, the words I was reading were strangely and deeply familiar to me.

What had happened—and it took me a good few minutes to realize this—was that the book had been improperly bound, so that after page 182 came page 151, and then a repeat of a section I had already read.

I bought a new copy of the book to read, but I also kept the old one. Since Sebald’s death, I have looked again at that flawed copy of The Emigrants. I have thought how the sudden disjunction of voice and time—which was a fluke of the binding process—is at the core for me of Sebald’s work. It is as if, reading him, I am constantly being dropped into an abyss and just as constantly pulled back, shaken yet knowing what I should have known (but may have forgotten or simply refused to know) about life and death.

I first heard of Sebald’s death from a friend, who called and told me, and I said at once, almost harshly, “You must have made a mistake, it can’t be so.”

Later, rereading The Emigrants, I came across these words: “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.”

—Millicent Dillon


As anyone who has ever driven it will tell you, the Norwich/London road cuts, slack and dull, through low-lying fields. I say fields, knowing that the word might imply ample vistas. Not in Norfolk. In Norfolk it is sometimes hard to think there is a landscape present in any ample or comforting sense. If you see twenty feet ahead, you count yourself lucky. Fog and rain are as frequent as landmarks are few. Towns are fewer. Coming or going there is only one road, whose two lanes quickly clog with traffic. The fast follow the slow, and vice versa. The carts and tractors do eventually pull over, slowly yielding to speed, but there isn’t much of anywhere for their concessions to lead.

I finished reading Austerlitz on the day Sebald died. This is true. I was on a plane (which has its own hazards), and did not learn at once that “he was gone.” I know the phrase is dramatic, and Victorian: I hope it captures how it felt to register that something as vast as Sebald’s writing was at an end.

At first I was angry that the end came, of all places, on the Norwich/ London road. His was a mind that was anything but linear; it could switch lanes, jump in time and place, and maybe not bother to signal that something new (really new) was on the way. Lapses and leaps are frequent in his pages. Chaos threatens—think of the untidy piles in Austerlitz’s study—and patterns are agonizingly hard to find. They demand endless details—large facts, faint traces—and time is essential for connections to emerge. I was angry that such a mind, such a way of understanding time and thought and history, could have been so fatally boxed in. Now, however, when I think of Sebald’s death, I realize how much its irony fits with the very patterns his writing taught us to perceive.

—Anne M. Wagner


Amid all the sublimity, mystery, and abysmal autumn of W. G. Sebald’s work, it is easy to forget its more vigorous and vulgar arts: in particular, Sebald’s ear for gothic melodrama, and for comedy. “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...” This sentence from The Rings of Saturn is really the purest antiquarianism—it sounds almost indistinguishable from the nineteenth-century Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter. Sebald, among many other talents, had a genius for this kind of muted extremism, which he used to slyly comic effect. For all the inevitable emphasis we put on Sebald’s relationship to the Holocaust, he was in many ways an amused connoisseur of eccentricity, which represents, I suppose, the “English” side of him. I remember, when first reading The Emigrants, laughing out loud at several moments. One such occurred during the last story, “Max Ferber,” in which Sebald recounts his early days in England, in a Manchester boarding house. The landlady provided him with an English machine, called a “Teasmade,” which looked like “a miniature power plant,” a machine that combined an alarm clock and a tea-making mechanism. Sebald, proudly deadpan, reproduces a photograph of this absurd device. It was at that moment that I realized that there was something comic (as well as wistful, elegiac, radical, etc.) about Sebald’s entire habit of reproducing photographs. Even the sad photo-graphs, the most elegiac ones, have a kind of cheekiness, an amusing impertinence, as they sit there in their careful novelty on the page, quietly ensuring that Sebald’s work can belong to no known literary genre.

Another moment, also involving a machine, occurs in the first story, about Dr. Henry Selwyn. Sebald and his wife have been invited by Selwyn to dinner. The housekeeper “pushed in a serving trolley equipped with hotplates, some kind of patented design dating from the Thirties.” Since every word in Sebald is carefully chosen, we should ponder the deliberate, almost maddening vagueness of that phrase “some kind of patented design.” As opposed to an unpatented design? Is Sebald not suggesting, mildly, that this extraordinary and doubtless inefficient contraption had no right to its patent?

I emphasize this aspect of his writing —its own patented design, indeed— only because the reviews that appeared in his lifetime rarely commented on it. Certainly I was delighted, when we had dinner once in New York (the only time I met him), that in person he was as quietly funny as his writing. He said that one of the elements of English life he most liked was English humor. “What is German humor like?” I asked him. “It is dreadful,” he said. “Have you seen any German comedy shows on television?” he asked. I had not. “They are simply indescribable,” he said, stretching the word in his lugubrious German accent. “Simply indescribable.”

—James Wood


A friend who spent an evening with Sebald a few months ago—a relaxed evening, the writer talking with people he knew well—told me that in this setting he came across as easily, caustically, a man of the Left. His remarks were brief but their drift unmistakable. We agreed that this was not surprising, but that it mattered that neither of us would have risked a prediction of Sebald’s politics—his political attitudes, his style in the face of day-to-day events—on the basis of the books he had written.

Oddly, I found this resonated with what another friend, a German literary critic, had said to me a year or so before, explaining his failure to go along with the lionizing of Sebald in the English-speaking world. He found Sebald’s prose too reminiscent of a run of late-nineteenth-century elegiac German and Swiss essayists (he named names, but they meant nothing to me and are long forgotten), sharing their slightly aggrieved disappointment in modernity, and like them not giving an inkling of the form of life he would prefer. Not even going in for nostalgia.

I did not doubt the charge, but I ended up thinking that what I admired in Sebald had to do with just this ability to retrieve a late-nineteenth-century tone—a minor tone, if you like, a posture of privacy and bad nerves—and have it apply to the hugeness, the atrocity, of the century following. And in applying, change key. Likewise, the verdict on Sebald’s suspension between past and present seemed to me to cut both ways. The books he wrote are about living in the past, and what it is that conspires to make this a way— maybe the only bearable or defensible one—of living in the present. Preference has nothing to do with it. Sebald’s past is a spell, a medication—sometimes transparently a fake—whose purpose is to figure and resist the madness pressing in on all sides. On goes the querulous patter of the memoir, past flow the indecipherable photographs, up pile the facts about herring and Omar Khayyam—and we are in hell before we know it, smelling the smell, hearing the screams, being offered a path through the fire. It is bitter to think the path now peters out.

—T. J. Clark


He was the writer we could least afford to lose. His language and breadth of vision combined in a slow burn, and by the light of that combustion we could glimpse what we have come from and what we have arrived at. Even, in a few dark, prophetic passages, where we’re going: “For somehow we know by instinct that outsize 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.” This I found in Austerlitz, his newest novel, which I happened to open in mid-September—a coincidence eerily in keeping with Sebald’s own broodings on serendipity across time and space, and on “the imponderables that govern our course through life.”

More than anyone else writing today, he made it new. His undulating, hypnotic sentences are perfect paradigms of the modern sensibility, its tangled restlessness and torpor. His meandering narratives, convoluted yet meticulous, embody the lingering state of shock that is our legacy—not only from two world wars but from the decades of colonialism that preceded them, and still farther back. He made history new as well: the gaze that took in centuries of flourish and inexorable decay resurrected them with heartbreaking lyrical precision.

His notions of time make that possible. Like the spectral wanderers of his novels—all of them facets of himself, Sebald the prism—he sees time as plastic, irregular, subjective, “a disquiet of the mind.” Only our panic willfully orders it by the movements of the planets. Past and present might be concurrent or not, might stop and start with the erratic spasms of the mind, of memory. Why might we not have “appointments to keep in the past” just as we do in the future? But in our collective shock, we tend to erase time as we go, forgetting what defines us. He has not forgotten. He pieces together the shards to remind us. And by some unfathomable sleight-of-hand, in making things clear and whole, he gives them the luster of mystery.

He left four novels: Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz (all superbly translated, the first three by Michael Hulse, the last by Anthea Bell). According to his New York Times obituary, a fifth book, Airwar, about the bombing of Dresden, will soon appear in English. Although to say a Sebald work is “about” anything so local is misleading. Like many writers of genius—the Greek tragedians, say, or Dostoyevsky—he dwells always on the same large themes. His favorite is the swift blossoming of every human endeavor and the long slow death, leaving a wealth of remains to be pored over. The Rings of Saturn does this most brilliantly and idiosyncratically: the narrator’s search for the skeleton of Sir Thomas Browne (the seventeenth-century author of Urn Burial) leads circuitously to a meditation on Belgian atrocities in the Congo, to the execution of Roger Casement, and eventually loops to silkworm cultivation in China and its spread through Europe in the Enlightenment.

Sebald’s more specific preoccupation is the aftershock, physical and metaphysical, of the war waged by the Third Reich. Born in 1944, he left his native and forgetful Germany for England at the age of twenty-one, with the sense of something being hidden from him. Judging by his work, he seems to have remained appalled forever after at what he discovered. (The narrator of Vertigo, on hearing a bunch of rowdy German tourists beneath his hotel room, thinks: “How I wished during those sleepless hours that I belonged to a different nation, or, better still, to none at all.”)

I call his books novels, partly, I think, because I want to claim him for fiction, and partly because that seems the most inclusive term for their melange of fictionalized memoir, travel journals, inventories of natural and man-made curiosities, impressionistic musings on painting, entomology, architecture, military fortifications, riffs on the lives of Kafka, Stendhal, Casanova, Conrad, Swinburne...Whatnot. Encyclopedic. Defying classification, Sebald’s books take the shape of his consciousness. That is what makes them great. I call them novels because what unifies them is the narrator’s distilled voice—melancholy, resonant as a voice in a tunnel, witty—the effluvia of their author’s inner life. And against all odds, from the accounts of exile and decay, the voice wrests a magical exhilaration. In the face of decline, Sebald offers writerly passion. It is gorgeous; it yields aesthetic bliss.

The Sebald character is a wanderer, by train through Italian cities and New York suburbs, on foot through the empty reaches of the English countryside, exploring the history of each settlement he passes through. Wherever he is, he finds strangely vacant streets and roads, not a soul around. He sees apparitions, figures from history gliding by. He spends sleepless, despairing nights in bleak hotel rooms. He visits deserted museums, “collections of oddities” gathered by eccentrics or specimen jars of nature’s anomalies; he saves and photographs his ticket stubs (Sebald’s books are famously strewn with evocative, gloomy photographs) as proof of his passage. Like the author, he is German and left home young, in profound dismay. Returning to his native town revives the dismay: “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.” Sometimes he visits or simply recalls an old friend and we hear the friend’s story, very like his own, in a voice like his own. Often the friend dies by suicide. We barely know him, but his death spears us to the marrow. You might expect that so many losses would diminish each single death, but on the contrary, every one deepens the grief of the next.

Always, the world is veiled, seen through fog and mist: a “veil of rain,” a “veil of ash,” “a profusion of dusty glitter.” An exiled German painter in The Emigrants loves the accumulation of dust in his studio, “the grey, velvety sinter left when matter dissolved, little by little into nothingness.” After a dust storm, the narrator observes, “although it now grew lighter once more, the sun, which was at its zenith, remained hidden behind the banners of pollen-fine dust that hung for a long time in the air. This, I thought, will be what is left after the earth has ground itself down.” Instead of feeling crushed by the image, we feel exalted. Truth, in the truth-teller’s genuine voice, cannot help but be exalting.

An eccentric naturalist in Austerlitz makes his own veil, choosing to see the world through “glasses with gray silk tissue instead of lenses in the frames.” Mysterious bits of silk turn up again and again—in the ash from a burnt manuscript that resembles “a scrap of black silk,” or in the oddments left by a Russian rabbi in 1920. The narrator of The Rings of Saturn wonders: “That purple piece of silk...in the urn of Patroclus—what does it mean?” The question is answered in Austerlitz. The young protagonist, growing up alien in a Welsh town, listens to Evan the cobbler’s tales of seeing the dead “who had been struck down by fate untimely... marching up the hill above the town to the soft beat of a drum.” Evan shows the boy a piece of black veil his grandfather saved from one of their biers: “Nothing but a piece of silk like that separates us from the next world.”

The porousness of that border is a fitting message for Jacques Austerlitz, who lost his past to “the next world.” Only at fifteen does he learn his real name, which aptly recalls a battleground; not until years later does he discover his true identity. We hear his emblematic story through the familiar Sebald narrator, who uncannily resembles Austerlitz: an emigrant, intrigued by architectural history, subject to periodic emotional collapse. The two keep meeting, at first by improbable chance and later by design, over a period of some thirty years. Each time, without any of the usual formalities, Austerlitz takes up his narration from where it left off, his tale enlaced in a web of images that conjure up exile, loss, and return: homing pigeons, the “shadows of reality” that emerge in developing photographs, and railroad stations, his lifelong obsession.

Born in Prague, Austerlitz was evacuated by train at the age of four, along with other Jewish children, to escape the war. An emotionally frozen Welsh Calvinist couple raise him; in the silence and austerity of their airless house, he “forgets” his early years (quite as the Germany of Sebald’s youth managed to “forget” the recent past). When the “vortex of past time” becomes too turbulent, he suffers a breakdown: “I had neither memory nor the power of thought, nor even any existence...All my life had been a constant process of obliteration, a turning away from myself and the world.”

Then comes a reprieve, unprecedented in Sebald’s work. In a vision, Austerlitz sees himself as a small boy sitting on a bench in a railroad station. From that image, as from Proust’s madeleine, his past begins to emerge, like the photograph images on exposed paper. Unlike Proust’s hero, Austerlitz can return literally to the tangible remains, to Prague, to hunt down his past.

The great riddle and perplexity of the novel is not Austerlitz himself, though. Sebald makes that story poignantly, passionately lucid, and for the first time gives a graphic description of what a number of his emigrants eluded: Terezin, the camp where Austerlitz’s mother ended up. The mystery is the relationship of the narrator, epitome of all Sebald’s narrators, to Austerlitz. Gradually that too comes to light. Austerlitz “must find someone to whom he could tell his own story... and for which he needed the kind of listener I had been.” The narrator bears the burden of the tale. More than mere witness, he is a trusted confidant who by his unstinting attention takes on the storyteller’s fate. Toward the end of his story, Austerlitz gives the narrator a photo of his actress mother, found in the Prague theatrical archives. He gives him the key to his apartment, too, passing on his life for safekeeping. The novel is the key Sebald passes on to us.

With its fully developed character and story line, Austerlitz may seem a reversion to a more traditional novel, but like the preceding books, it has been finely ground through the sieve of history and metaphor. Though not as wide-ranging or dazzling as The Rings of Saturn, it is more intimate. It wrenches the heart quicker and tighter. Of all Sebald’s emigrants—a fictional family of sorts—Austerlitz is the most scrupulously drawn. And Sebald offers him a dust-mote of hope at the end, as, having successfully traced his mother, he plans to continue the search for his father.

Max Ferber, an exile from The Emigrants, also left the narrator a memento, along with words that augur the task Sebald assumed: Ferber’s mother’s memoirs “had seemed to him like one of those evil German fairy tales in which, once you are under the spell, you have to carry on to the finish, till your heart breaks, with whatever work you have begun—in this case, the remembering, writing and reading. That is why I would rather you took this package, Ferber said.”

—Lynne Sharon Schwartz


As a child in a Bavarian village in the lean years after the Second World War, W. G. Sebald constructed his own playthings. “If you grow up not with toys bought in the shop but things that are found around the farmyard, you do a sort of bricolage,” he told me. “Bits of string and bits of wood. Making all sorts of things, like webs across the legs of a chair. And then you sit there, like the spider.” We were talking about the idiosyncratic way in which he composed his books. He said that the urge “to connect bits that don’t seem to belong together” had fascinated him all his life.

I was visiting Sebald in Norwich, England, in August—a few weeks before the publication of what proved to be his last novel, Austerlitz—in order to write a profile for the New York Times Magazine. The September 11 attacks and the Afghanistan war intervened, so that the piece did not run until December, and then at reduced length in the daily newspaper. Three days after the article appeared, Sebald died in an accident. Once the first shock of the news had receded, I rethought our conversations, connecting the pieces differently in this stark new light. The jokes about attractive ways of dying, the descriptions of the book in progress, the vacillations over post-retirement plans—all took on unintended irony and unwelcome poignancy. But I was unsure whether these new associations were instructive or merely distracting.

Writing before Sebald’s death, I hadn’t felt the need to devote much space to the book he was working on. Now that the book would never be born, I wondered if my jottings on his remarks (like an architect’s unbuilt doodle) possessed a new value. And what about his future? In two years he would have been able to step down with a full pension from his position teaching literature at the University of East Anglia. Because he wrote so eloquently about the sense of dislocation, I had asked if there was any place he had ever felt at home, and that line of talk had led to his musing about where he might spend his final years. Did those dreams, brutally foreclosed, become irrelevant or somehow more important?

Thinking about Sebald, I slipped into Sebaldian logic. The boundaries between the dead and the living, the planned and the accomplished, the remembered and the real, came to seem arbitrary. That the book and the retirement would never occur didn’t much change the valence of the material. Reading Sebald, you feel the excitement of exploring a strange new landscape. The bits I had gathered could serve as road markers—or, at least, travel posters—for the territory of his mind.

Sebald was “Proustian,” people often said. Since his tone was elegiacal and his sentence structure was serpentine, this pigeonholing arose predictably. Furthermore, Sebald and Proust were alike in their creation of a unique format; one might aptly say of Sebald’s books, as Walter Benjamin once wrote of Proust’s, that “all great works of literature found a genre or dissolve one.” That said, it strikes me that the differences between Sebald and Proust are more instructive than the similarities. When people call something “Proust-ian,” they are usually referring to Proust’s fascination with involuntary memory, the way in which sensory associations conjure up the past. Yet the French writer elaborated just as extravagantly on the joys and tortures of anticipation. (The present moment is what disappointed him.) Sebald, temperamentally, preferred to keep his eyes averted from the future, which for him impended heavily with disaster. And he accumulated his recollections not in windfalls, but through diligent dredging and mining. Having been born in Germany in 1944 and raised in a society that willed itself into amnesia, he regarded remembering as a moral and political act. When I said offhandedly that by now his mother, in her late eighties, could probably no longer remember the war years, he replied quickly, speaking of his mother’s generation: “They could remember if they wanted to.”

At the time of his death, Sebald was researching a book that would explore, among other subjects, his family history. “As they all came from the lower classes, there are often not even exact dates of birth or places of residence,” he told me. “This uncertainty begins two generations back.” His ancestors inhabited a forested region between Bavaria and Bohemia that had, from the time of the seventeenth century, been devoted to glassworks, and so Sebald could speculate with reasonable confidence about their working life. But even of that he was never quite certain. Like an archeologist reconstructing a pot from a couple of shards, he worked in a way that he characterized as “extremely tenuous and unreliable.” He could not blame this entirely on the paucity of his documentation. He was also, for the same book, reading through twenty-three volumes of diaries (each consisting of two hundred pages, written in a minuscule hand, in ink made from elderberry fruit) that had been kept from 1905 into the 1950s by the grandfather of a friend of his, a Frenchwoman his age named Marie, who grew up in Picardy. This diarist grandfather, a miller, “was obviously the family scribe and the family rememberer, and yet he wasn’t always accurate,” Sebald said. “He took notes and he didn’t always write them down at once, but in the evenings or on Sundays, because he was working.” Relatives offered variant versions of the same events. “So there are all these different narratives, and they have equal rights and equal status,” Sebald said. And in some places, of course, there are simply gaps. “You can say once or twice that the evidence is scarce, but you can’t do that on every page, it becomes a bore,” Sebald said. “So you borrow things. You adulterate the truth as you try to write it. There isn’t that pretense that you try to arrive at the literal truth. And the only consolation when you confess to this flaw is that you are seeking to arrive at the highest truth.”

Marie’s family in France had endured an intimately unhappy relationship with the Germans. Her grandfather’s village was located near St. Quentin, right on the German defensive trench line in the last year of World War I. During World War II, her father joined the Resistance and was murdered by the Nazis. “He was shot at the age of twenty-two or twenty-three and had his eyes gouged out,” Sebald said. Marie was born a few months later. Sebald showed me a photograph snapped by a Catholic priest of the austere stone building where the execution took place. “I think there is something there that you wouldn’t get hold of without the photograph,” he said. “Not necessarily to be put in the book, but for the working process. Certain things emerge from the images if you look at them long enough.”

Scrutinizing documents—photographs, diaries, war records—launched Sebald into a receptive state. (In The Emigrants, he wrote that, looking at photographs, we feel “as if the dead were coming back, or as if we were on the point of joining them.”) He chose the objects of his attention intuitively, then followed where they led him. “I conduct my research randomly, but persistently,” he said. “I often compare it to the comportment of a dog when he runs across a field. He follows something that is immaterial. And he always finds it, and he find it quicker than I did. Especially these days, when there is so much information about everything, you have to disregard most of it. You must find a way of ignoring everything else and just follow your nose.” In The Rings of Saturn, he compared writers to weavers: melancholics working complex patterns, always fearful that they have gotten hold of the wrong thread. One of the threads he was tracing in his next book concerned a commander of the Red Army in the short-lived Bavarian Socialist Republic. Executed in Munich in 1919, on a spot that is now a Hermès store on posh Maximilienstrasse, this man had the same name as Sebald’s mother’s family. While Sebald had not established a family connection, what was at the least a coincidence had caught his attention. He was following the trail.

He showed me a topographical map from 1918 used by the German army command: “This gives you an idea of the density of the trench system, the irrationality of it...The completely insane collective effort that marks this event—I don’t think I shall be able to understand it, but I want to marvel at it.” Whenever he visited Munich, Sebald would spend half a day at the War Archive, calling up volumes that no one had touched in decades. He recalled the first time that the files that he had ordered arrived on a trolley. “You have a visual sense of how much something weighs,” he said. “You try to pick this up, and you can barely lift it. It’s as if the specific weight of the paper they used is higher than the paper we use. Or it’s as if the dust has gotten in there and insinuated itself, so they have become like a rock. If you have any imagination, you can’t help but wonder about it. These are questions a historian is not permitted to ask, because they are of a metaphysical nature. And if one thing interests me, it is metaphysics.” He paused for a second. “I am not seeking an answer,” he said. “I just want to say, ‘This is very odd, indeed.’”

Much of modern life repelled Sebald. He told me that one of the chief reasons he departed Germany, first for French-speaking Switzerland, then for England, was that he “found it agreeable not to hear current German spoken all around me.” His literary models wrote in nineteenth-century German—Gottfried Keller, Adalbert Stifter, Heinrich von Kleist, Jean Paul Richter. “The contemporary language is usually hideous, but in German it’s especially nauseating,” he said. He asked if I knew the German word for “mobile phone.” With a look of horror, he told me: a handi.

There was a shopping mall in Norwich that he avoided: “If I have to go into it, I am seized by all these disagreeable feelings.” He owned neither a fax machine nor a telephone answering machine. He was the only faculty member at the University of East Anglia without a computer in his office: he had declined the one allotted him, recommending that the money be used instead for student aid. (“Was it?” I asked. He shrugged. “Of course not.”) The impersonality of the personal computer alienated him—“this chatting going on from one machine to another,” and, even worse, the prospect of being “locked up with a machine muttering under its breath at me.” Amused by human foibles, his own very much included, he knew that there was something comical about his reactionary posture. “I hold with the wireless and the motor-car,” he proclaimed. “I don’t especially appreciate the blessings of technology.” Passively but stubbornly, he fought off the tawdry intrusions of the modern world. “There’s always an argument that is hard to resist,” he observed. “So your daughter says, ‘What if I get stranded in the middle of Thetford Forest in my not very reliable car—shouldn’t I have a mobile phone?’ The devil comes in with a carte de visite. That is always the way.”

The gigantism of modernity—the scale of buildings, the acceleration of pace, the profusion of choices—afflicted Sebald with a kind of vertigo. Ill at ease with the time in which he lived, he may have felt most comfortable in a place in which he was foreign. “I don’t feel at home here in any sense,” he said of Norwich, where he lived for thirty years. Drawn repeatedly to the stories of people whose accents, native landscapes, and histories mirrored his own, he never failed, when he visited his mother in the town in which he was raised, to be disgusted by “all the nasty people in the street” who were “as boxed in as they have always been.” His favorite subject was the Germans who had been cast out of their boxes, often Jews who had been forced to flee Nazi Germany. He insisted, persuasively, that he was not interested in Judaism or in the Jewish people for their own sake. “I have an interest in them not for any philo-Semitic reasons,” he told me, “but because they are part of a social history that was obliterated in Germany and I wanted to know what happened.” He felt a rapport with displaced people in general, and, in particular, with outcast writers. “I can read the memoirs of Chateau-briand about his childhood in Brittany and find it very moving,” he told me. “I can feel a closeness to him that may be greater than the proximity I feel to the people I find around me.” His desire to know just a few people and places probably stemmed from this profound sense of dislocation. He derided the promiscuity of contemporary travel. “That is what is so awful about our modern life, we never return,” he said. “One year we go to India and the next year to Peru and the next to Greenland. Because now you can go everywhere. I would much rather have half a dozen places that mean something to me than to say, at the end of my life, ‘I have been practically everywhere.’ The first visit doesn’t reveal very much at all.”

When I asked if there was any place in which he had ever felt at home, he thought of one spot, which, not coincidentally, has a literary pedigree: the island of St. Pierre in the Lac de Bienne in Switzerland, famous as the refuge of Rousseau in 1765. “I felt at home, strangely, because it is a miniature world,” he said. “One manor house, one farmhouse. A vineyard, a field of potatoes, a field of wheat, a cherry tree, an orchard. It has one of everything, so it is in a sense an ark. It is like when you draw a place when you are a child. I don’t like large-scale things, not in architecture or evolutionary leaps. I think it’s an aberration. This notion of something that is small and self-contained is for me both an aesthetic and moral ideal.” Although St. Pierre was not a realistic retirement choice, Sebald thought he might spend his final years in a French-speaking region, probably Switzerland. “With someone like me, you always have two sides,” he said. “‘Oh, I’ll just move to the most beastly part of northern France and live in rented accommodations in St. Quentin or Combray and see if I survive.’ But naturally there is another part of me that thinks of moving near Neuchâtel in Switzerland. I know that drawing up a plan makes no sense, because plans are never followed. It will be a question of constellations.”

Even as a student, Sebald deviated from the academic path. He recalled that his professors at Freiburg University would mark his papers, “This is not a cabaret, this is a German literature seminar.” As he progressed as a professor, he felt more at liberty to let his mind follow its natural bent. His first nonconformist book, After Nature, was a prose poem (to be published in an English translation by Random House) that resembled a Cubist self-portrait. In it, Sebald discusses the sixteenth-century painter Matthias Grunewald, who was from Würzburg, not far from Sebald’s hometown, and a young botanist, Georg Wilhelm Steller, who not only hailed from southern Germany but also shared Sebald’s initials. The book ends with what Sebald described to me as “this pseudo-biographical part about growing up in southern Germany in the postwar years.”

Again and again, Sebald returned to figures who were rooted in or somehow connected to southern Germany. Like many lesser writers, he was primarily interested in himself; what redeemed this solipsism was the extraordinary and capacious nature of that self. The form that he devised for his writing (which he called, with uncharacteristic inelegance, “prose fiction”) was a rumination or meditation, in which all of the characters shared the rueful, melancholic tone of the narrator. In Austerlitz, he tried to cleave more closely to the structure of a traditional novel, propelling the narrative forward with the saga of a man’s search for his parents, and you could feel the author’s unconventional mind creaking against the walls of convention. The new book promised to return to the free-ranging, more musical structure of the earlier ones, as seemed natural for someone who deprecated the ability of the old-fashioned novel to function in modern times. “There is so often about the standard novel something terribly contrived, which somewhere along the line tends to falter,” he said. “The business of having to have bits of dialogue to move the plot along, that’s fine for an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century novel, but that becomes in our day a bit trying, where you always see the wheels of the novel grinding and going on. Very often you don’t know who the narrator is, which I find unacceptable. The story comes through someone’s mind. I feel I have the right to know who that person is and what his credentials are. This has been known in science for a long time. The field of vision changes according to the observer, so I think this has to be part of the equation.” He cautioned that the narrator was of course not to be confused with an “authentic person.” In other words, the narrator of Sebald’s novels was not to be mistaken for Sebald himself.

Notwithstanding the disclaimer, the joy of reading Sebald is the pleasure of stepping into the quirky treasure-house of his mind. “I don’t consider myself a writer,” he said. “It’s like someone who builds a model of the Eiffel Tower out of matchsticks. It’s devotional work. Obsessive.” His books are like some eighteenth-century Wunderkammer, filled with marvelous specimens, organized eccentrically. Even without the inclusion of the blurry black-and-white photographs that became a trademark, they would feel like journals or notebooks. Sebald himself, when I asked why every character in his novels sounded like the narrator, said, “It’s all relayed through this narrative figure. It’s as he remembers it, so it’s in his cast.” He credited the monologues of Thomas Bernhard, in which the layers of attribution can run four-deep, as an influence. Like an old-fashioned newspaper reporter in the era before blind quotes, Sebald believed in naming sources. “Otherwise, there’s either the ‘she said with a disconsolate expression on her face’—how does he know?—or ‘as thoughts of regret passed through her mind,’” he complained. “I find it hard to suspend my disbelief.” He was a literary magistrate who admitted nothing but hearsay as evidence. Or, to put it more precisely, he thought that a statement can no longer be evaluated once it is prised from the mind which gives it utterance.

In person, Sebald was funnier than his lugubrious narrators. He was celebrated among those lucky enough to hear him as a witty raconteur. Of course, one knows not to confuse a narrator and his author; but, as I was reminded when speaking with Sebald, that admonition is merely one corollary of the impossibility of knowing with assurance another person’s mind. “Say you write fairly gloomy things,” he told me. “They think they should sue you under the Trade Description Act if you tell a joke. Who’s to say? What you reveal in a dark text may be closer to the real truth than the person who tells a joke at a party.” Some of his own melancholia came to him as a paternal legacy: both his father and grandfather spent the last years of their lives morbidly depressed. His father, who in Sebald’s telling resembled a caricature of the pedantic, subservient, frugal German, didn’t like to read books. “The only book I ever saw him read was one my younger sister gave him for Christmas, just at the beginning of the ecological movement, with a name like The End of the Planet,” Sebald said. “And my father was bowled over by it. I saw him underlining every sentence of it—with a ruler, naturally—saying, ‘Ja, ja.’”

Sebald’s talk often turned to death, which he regarded with the same dry, wry eye that he cast on life. When I asked him casually why he had changed publishers, expecting the usual tale of finances and contracts and agents, he instead explained that it had all begun with the mysterious suicide of his German publisher, who hopped the S-bahn to the mountains outside Frankfurt, drank half a bottle of liquor, took off his jacket, and lay down to die in the snow. “When hypothermia sets in, it’s apparently quite agreeable,” Sebald said. “Like drowning,” I said. To which Sebald replied, with a nod, “Drowning also is quite agreeable.”

According equal status to the living and the dead—after all, they jostled side by side for space in his mind—Sebald would perhaps view his own passing with equanimity. He is spared the labor of writing the next book. For the rest of us, not having that book to look forward to is a blow, a subtracted hope. I am reminded of Sebald’s account of an experiment that intrigued him. “They put a rat in a cylinder that is full of water and the rat swims around for about a minute until it sees that it can’t get out and then it dies of cardiac arrest,” he told me. A second rat is placed in a similar cylinder, except that this cylinder has a ladder, which enables the rat to climb out. “Then, if you put this rat in another cylinder and don’t offer it a ladder, it will keep swimming until it dies of exhaustion,” he explained. “You’re given something—a holiday in Tene-rife, or you meet a nice person—and so you carry on, even though it’s quite hopeless. That may tell you everything you need to know.” He chuckled. Disconsolately, merrily, companionably, bitterly, resignedly, darkly, theatrically, dourly, inconsolably? One is in no position to say.

—Arthur Lubow


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