W.G. Sebald

German author W.G. Sebald was at the peak of his career when he died suddenly in a car crash in 2001. If you search the dark web, eventually you will come across conspiracy theories regarding this event. Some believe that the quiet, scholarly man had grown tired of the international limelight and faked his own demise and now continues to live and work in monastic bliss somewhere in Norfolk. Others believe that during the course of his research, he stumbled upon some sort of hidden knowledge about the Second World War and was assassinated by the Illuminati. Still others, perhaps at the deepest levels of the conspiracy vortex, believe that his death was faked by the leaders of the hidden cities of Napoleon and Josephine, who, for reasons unknown, kidnaped him and now keep him in a state of suspended animation beneath either the North or South Pole.

Whatever the true nature of the events surrounding his death or disappearance, his sudden removal from the literary scene nipped in the bud a cult-like status that was accreting to his writing. He was an unusual candidate for this sort of adulation, and his odd blend of fact and fiction was not the sort of narrative that would gain mass financial success. Nonetheless, the cult formed. His ability to create uncanny stories that weaved together arcane scholarship with Kafkaesque first person pseudo-journalism about people and events so obscure as to acquire a hyperrealism (the inclusion of ‘found object’ photographs without captions accentuated this effect), slowly but surely led to an international following promulgated by such high-minded champions as Susan Sontag. That he wrote in his native German while living in England created an aura of European sophistication that often led fans to claim to have read far more of his work than they truly had (all of his work is now available in English). In other words, he was (briefly) an intellectual vogue. Getting past this hysteria requires a reappraisal of his novels. To my mind, they withstand the hype.

(It should be noted that some of the conspiracy theorists have pointed to elements in his writing that they claim as evidence that his untimely death was planned, faked, or never occurred. That many of his works were published posthumously has only fueled such speculation).

Like all authors, Sebald was working in a lineage. He was following the work of ‘experimental’ European authors like the Bernhard and Robbe-Grillet. Part of the reason for his vogue in English was that a generation of American readers who thought that Pynchon and DeLillo’s brand of post-modernism was the only one were suddenly exposed to a European variety that abjured pop culture totems in favor of scholarship and existential dread…and it blew their minds (this is the same generation that ‘discovered’ Werner Herzog and pulled him from art house obscurity into the main stream).

Nonetheless, like all true artists, Sebald’s vision was clear and that clarity allowed him to alter the lineage in which he worked. Which is another way of saying he used the tools of his predecessors to experiment in new ways with literary form and discover new outcomes.

Like many Germans of his generation, the war and the Holocaust, and the near total destruction of German cities by Allied aerial bombing campaigns, all loom large in his imagination. These horrible events become the touchstone of his fiction.  In some ways, all his books are one book, or each is a continuation of the last, for each approaches these themes from a different direction.

His most accomplished work is Austerlitz (2001), the novel he completed shortly before he ‘took his leave’ (as the Javanese describe those who have passed).

Austerlitz is ostensibly an intricate tale of a war orphan (the titular character), a member of the kindertransport, seeking information about his parents. As he tells his tale to the narrator, what unfolds is a tour of underground mid-century Europe, mostly of places that echo forebodingly: libraries, prisons, railway stations, garrisons. Most these were destroyed in the war or transformed beyond recognition in the post-war ‘reconstruction’. As with all of Sebald’s works, this book is an elegy for a time that not only is lost but that always existed at the margins; a lament for liminal spaces.

My favorite trick in this book is that the way Sebald conflates the ‘I’ of the narrator with the ‘I’ of the characters so that the personality of the protagonist becomes sunk completely within the characters of the story. In a nifty meta-textual move, the author and the narrator and the main character become indistinguishable: it’s like the famous M.C. Escher print of hands drawing themselves.

The best review I know of the book is by Gabriele Annan in the NYRB: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2001/nov/01/ghost-story/

Despite the polish of Austerlitz, my favorite Sebald novel is The Rings of Saturn (1998). I taught this book at Lehman College in the Bronx in a course on ‘the history of the novel’ and some of my students reacted to it almost violently. I remember one woman nearly threw her copy at me, yelling that the book ‘isn’t fiction, it isn’t anything!’ The lack of a 3-act narrative, of definable characters, of a discernible genre, was too much for her and a few others. Never before or since have I taught a book that caused such a visceral reaction.

The book describes a walking tour of the coast of Suffolk, which becomes, metaphorically, an earthly version of Saturn’s rings. Sebald himself said that The Rings of Saturn wasn’t a novel, only a collection of notes. This is disingenuous.  There is a narrative element that ties the whole story together, and that is silk (I’ve never seen another critic point this out so I’ll trumpet my originality here). The word silk, or mention of sericulture, the process of making silk, appears on nearly every page of the book. It acts as the warp upon which the weave of the narrative is weft and held together, for the main story is about erosion and the peripheral.

The book ends with the unnamed narrator—perhaps Sebald himself, perhaps not—discovering that during the Holocaust, the Nazis were adopting sericulture. To extract the silk requires the killing of the worm, which presents an odd but apt metaphor Nazi barbarity. It is to this revelation that the long ramble through erosive shorelines and strange archives finally leads.

In the end, Sebald is able to comment on human civilization, human effort, in such a way as to recalibrate our conception of our endeavors. Civilization is predicated on combustion, he posits. Therefore all human effort leads to destruction of one kind or another. Human truth, as such, is a manufactured illusion to hide this horror from ourselves. (This gnostic strain of German existentialism runs throughout Sebald’s work, as well as Werner Herzog’s [they would be about the same age, or they are, if Sebald is still alive]).

Sebald is now something of a known quantity and while the vogue for him is no longer hot, he retains fans. Apparently there was a film made in 2012 called Patience (After Sebald) but I have yet to watch it—the trailer makes it look terribly pretentious.

As for the conspiracy theories, should they exist, the idea that he is working away in secret in the Norfolk woods, or being held in suspended animation under the South Pole, is appealing because its holds the promise of an exquisite return.

Whether or not this will come to pass remains to be revealed. In the meantime, we have the books.

 

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