A View from Jason Pontin
W. G. Sebald, Gleaner
I have just finished reading The Emigrants, by W. G. Sebald, a German novelist who died in a car crash in 2001 at the relatively young age of 57. “Max” Sebald (pronounced “Tzebalt”) lived in England from 1970, and…
“Max” Sebald (pronounced “Tzebalt”) lived in England from 1970, and at the time of his death was Professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia. But while he was perfectly fluent in his adopted tongue, he wrote in German in a style that was (at least in Michael Hulse’s translation) at the same time both precise and completely mysterious. Paragraphs begin at a very particular place and time (The Emigrants starts, “At the end of 1970, shortly before I took up my position at Norwich, I drove out to Hingham with Clara in search of somewhere to live…”) and continue for pages, drifting in and out of different characters’ points-of-view. Sebald’s books are also difficult to categorize: they combine fiction, criticism, biography, travel writing, and the commonplace or scrap book. Sebald didn’t publish any non-academic work until he was 44, and by 2001 had seen into press just four books (two more have been published since his death). In Austerlitz, The Rings of Saturn, Vertigo, and The Emigrants his great theme is (I think) the displacement of individuals from the past and the pitiless imminence of death. This has something to do with Sebald’s own personal history, referred to in all the books, but most particularly in On The History of Natural Destruction: Sebald was a German who grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. He believed that his parents’ Germany was utterly destroyed by the Second World War, and that subsequently the German people indulged in a kind of collective amnesia about the past. The War had never happened. No one was a criminal or had lost anything. Sebald frequently said that he himself was guilty of this kind of magical thinking: he had trouble recollecting the old Germany. And yet, as he grew older, the memories of the dead would come back to him–and for this reason he began composing his weird, elusive books. As he writes in The Emigrants, “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.”
Writing in The New Yorker in 2000, Anthony Lane ventured that the The Emigrants was within a “hair’s breadth of greatness.” Now that Sebald is gone we can probably say more: he is the only writer of the last part of the 20th century with whom Nabokov and Kafka can keep good company. Perhaps there is a “shady lane in Heaven” (to use a Nabokovian formulation) where they discuss the sorrows and odd satisfactions of displacement.
To a reader new to Sebald, the strangest property of the books is his use of photography. Nearly every page includes a fuzzy, dark, unexplained black-and-white photograph of a person (all of them dead), or of a building, animal, painting, or scrap of newspaper. Sebald gleaned from the past in his books in a particularly evocative way–a way that reminds me powerfully of tagging and linking in blogs.