[This page by Dora Osborne]
W. G. Sebald (1944-2001)
Born in the Allgäu region of Southern Germany in 1944, Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald grew up at something of a remove from the events which were changing the shape of Europe and the world at that time. Sebald’s oeuvre is strongly marked by this sense of having come too late to witness a radical moment in twentieth century history, but of being charged with working through its consequences. Sebald was writing later than the authors we think of as ‘postwar’, such as Alfred Andersch, Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass, but he was preoccupied by that period of post-1945 history and literature: he was critical of both the conspiracy of silence (prevalent at school and in the home) in the postwar years and what he felt to be the morally and aesthetically inadequate literary response to National Socialism.
Sebald began his university studies at Freiburg, but he was frustrated by the insufficient engagement with Germany’s fascist past at university level and in 1966 moved to Manchester where he worked as a lector. Sebald settled in the UK, moving to Norwich in 1970 to take up a lectureship at the University of East Anglia. Whilst Sebald is most well known for his own literary works, he was himself a scholar and critic of literature. His academic familiarity with the European literary canon is quite legible in his prose texts and poems and is fundamental to our understanding of them.
Sebald’s early interests were theatrical; he wrote his MA thesis on the Expressionist drama of Carl Sternheim and later edited a volume of essays on German theatre of the 70s and 80s. His doctoral thesis, written during his first years in Norwich, considered the work of the German modernist author, Alfred Döblin. Sebald also had a strong interest in Austrian literature and produced two volumes of literary criticism on this topic, Die Beschreibung des Unglücks; The Description of Misfortune (1985) and Unheimliche Heimat; Strange Homeland (1991). These essays already reflect Sebald’s concerns with traumatic history, national identity, marginalisation and dispossession, themes which would be woven into his own literary work.
Sebald’s first significant publication as author (as opposed to literary critic) was a collection of three long poems with the title Nach der Natur; After Nature (1988). The use of ‘nach’ indicates at an early stage the significance of Sebald’s belated perspective, that is, his retrospective view of the events which had determined the world he was born into. It also reveals the rather melancholy, apocalyptic view which Sebald espouses: man’s desire for progress and consequent disregard for nature has plunged him into a ruined world. Yet, the poet’s endeavour is to give form to nature, to attempt to restore nature in poetic form; ‘after nature’, suggests an imitation of (in dedication to) nature. As important as these subtle poems were for establishing Sebald’s representation as literary figure, they have not attracted as much attention as his prose texts, the first of which, Schwindel. Gefühle; Vertigo, was published two years later in 1990.
Like his subsequent prose, Schwindel. Gefühle contains elements of biography, autobiography, the historical novel, the travelogue and the detective story, thereby resisting any single genre category. On a most basic level, Sebald blurs fact and fiction and his writing has often been called hybrid. Sebald himself rejected the label of ‘novel’, preferring instead ‘prose’ or ‘prose fiction’ (on this point, see reading lists below: Sigrid Löffler, p. 133; Eleanor Wachtel, p. 37).
The hybridity claimed for Sebald’s literary work extends to his highly innovative use of photography and other visual elements such as sketches, reproductions of paintings, postcards, advertisements, newspaper cuttings and diary pages. Although this is not always born out in translation, we know that Sebald was very specific about the position of these images in the text and scholars have scrutinised his use of the visual very carefully. It is clear that photographs are by no means a simple way of illustrating or verifying the text; rather, Sebald uses these things to show the limitations of even combined modes of representation. Whilst the images might show us something the text cannot, Sebald often draws our attention to points of obscurity or uncertainty.
The use of other, supplementary material in the text suggests authentication or verification, but as readers we struggle to know without doubt where it comes from. The narrator is rather elusive and even unreliable. He both gives and retains information and his ability to recall things is notoriously poor. In fact, memory is a key factor in at once facilitating and undermining the work of narrative in all of Sebald’s texts. The identity of the narrator is also disorientatingly uncertain; whilst this figure has clear links to the author, it is never stated explicitly that the narrator is Sebald. Moreover, the narrator is often keen to point out likenesses and affinities with fictional and historical protagonists and so engages in a constant game of revealing and concealing his own identity. He appears to his reader, only to withdraw into the shadows cast by others. This occurs with particular frequency in Sebald’s next prose work, Die Ausgewanderten; The Emigrants (1992). Here, the narrator recounts the fates of four men who all leave their home country and who all have some link to Jewish identity (they are not all Jewish). In the production of these four portraits, the narrator ultimately reveals the perceived similarities with his own story, and in this way, the links between the narrator and Sebald also become apparent, not least, in their status as emigrant and the attendant feeling of dislocation. However, if the narrator and author are the same figure, then they are marked as different from the protagonists because they do not have the same links to Jewish identity. Here we see how Sebald struggles to bridge the gap between different experiences whilst realising how understanding the violent events of the twentieth century are fundamental to his self-understanding.
Although Sebald lived in the UK for many years, he always wrote in German. So it is perhaps curious that Sebald has garnered greatest interest (readerly and scholarly) in Anglo-American circles. The publication of his third prose work, Die Ringe des Saturn; The Rings of Saturn (1995), was surely a contributing factor. Die Ringe des Saturn is an encyclopaedic excursus through a history of destruction spanning centuries and encompassing China, the Congo, Ireland and Holland. And yet, its point of departure is a walking tour of East Anglia, the place where Sebald had settled, and there was something about the specificity of this rather bleak topography which captivated readers. Whilst the appeal of his literary work widened, Sebald maintained his commitment to literary criticism. In 1997 he was invited to give a series of lectures in Zurich which were dedicated to the topic of the Allied aerial bombing campaign and the representation of German suffering. They were later published under the title Luftkrieg und Literatur; On the Natural History of Destruction (1999) and caused much controversy. Sebald’s polemical thesis claimed that the destruction of German cities as a result of aerial attack in the Second World War had not been sufficiently dealt with by the German people, as evidenced in the lack of literary representations of these events. Particularly as the true extent of National Socialist crimes became apparent, the suffering of ordinary German citizens became a taboo subject for literature. Sebald’s claims were bold, but they have been a major catalyst for a wave of scholarly investigation into the impact of the aerial bombing campaigns on German national identity and their position in debates surrounding the politics of memory after 1945.
With Logis in einem Landhaus; A Place in the Country (1998), Sebald added to his critical writing on key authors of the European literary tradition. His essays on Gottfried Keller, Johann Peter Hebel and Robert Walser, emphasised his interest in the role of nature in literature and art. By considering these authors’ own attempts at visual representation, Sebald also introduced readers to his school friend turned artist, Jan Peter Tripp. This relationship found further expression in the posthumously published illustrated poetry project Unerzählt; Unrecounted (2003).
Sebald’s final prose fiction work was Austerlitz (2001). This incredibly dense text exemplifies, in particularly complex ways, things which Sebald grappled with in his previous work and gave new focus to ideas which had not yet been fully developed in his thinking: photography; memory; trauma; modernity (visual technology, museum and archive spaces, European architecture); European literary heritage; the legacy of National Socialism. Sadly, scholars can only guess how Sebald’s project might have developed after Austerlitz, since, save for a few essays (Campo Santo (2003)) and plans, this is where his work ends. In December 2001, Sebald died in a car accident near Norwich. His death at the age of 57 was untimely and Sebald has been acknowledged as one of the most significant literary figures of recent times. The years that followed saw a rapidly growing interest in his project, his works and in the man himself. There have been many conferences and critical publications dedicated to him, as well as themed exhibitions, which reflect the importance of visual culture for his work.
Nach der Natur; After Nature (1988)
Unerzählt; Unrecounted (2003)
Schwindel. Gefühle; Vertigo (1990)
Essays and literary criticism:
Carl Sternheim: Kritiker und Opfer der Wilhelminischen Ära; Carl Sternheim: Critic and Victim of the Wilhelmine Era (1969)
Der Mythus der Zerstörung im Werk Döblins; The Myth of Destruction in Döblin's Work (1980)
Die Beschreibung des Unglücks; The Description of Misfortune (1985)
Unheimliche Heimat; Strange Homeland (1991)
Luftkrieg und Literatur. Mit einem Essay zu Alfred Andersch; On the Natural History of Destruction (1999)
Logis in einem Landhaus; A Place in the Country (1998)
Campo Santo (2003)
Further Reading in English
Stephanie Bird, Comedy and Trauma in Germany and Austria after 1945: The Inner Side of Mourning, Germanic Literatures 10 (Cambridge: Legenda, 2016), Chapter 3: ‘W. G. Sebald: Melancholy’s Seduction and the Pleasures of Comedy’, pp. 84-109
Deane Blackler, Reading W.G. Sebald: Adventure and Disobedience (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2007)
Jo Catlin and Richard Hibbitt (eds.), Saturn’s Moons: W.G. Sebald: A Handbook (Oxford: Legenda, 2011)
Mary Cosgrove, Born under Auschwitz: Melancholy Traditions in Postwar German Literature (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2014)
Scott Denham and Mark McCulloh (eds.), W.G. Sebald: History, Memory, Trauma (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2006)
Helen Finch, Sebald’s Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life (Oxford: Legenda, 2013)
Helen Finch and Lynn L. Wolff (eds.), Witnessing, Memory, Poetics: H.G. Adler and W.G. Sebald (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2014)
Anne Fuchs and J. J. Long (eds.), W.G. Sebald and the Writing of History (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2007)
Rüdiger Görner (ed.), The Anatomist of Melancholy: Essays in Memory of W.G. Sebald (Munich: iudicium, 2003)
Jonathan J. Long and Anne Whitehead (eds.), W.G. Sebald: A Critical Companion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004)
J. J. Long, W. G. Sebald: Image, archive, modernity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007)
Mark R. McCulloh, Understanding W.G. Sebald (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2003)
Peter Morgan, ‘The Sign of Saturn: Melancholy, Homelessness and Apocalypse in W.G. Sebald’s Prose Narratives’, German Life and Letters 58 (2005), 75-92
Dora Osborne, Traces of Trauma in W.G. Sebald and Christoph Ransmayr (Oxford: Legenda, 2013)
Lise Patt (ed.) with Christel Dillbohner, Searching for Sebald: Photography after W.G. Sebald (Los Angeles: Institute of Cultural Inquiry, 2007)
Axel Schalk, ‘Image and Text: W.G. Sebald’s Montage Technique’, in New German Literature: Life-Writing and Dialogue with the Arts, ed. by Julian Preece, Frank Finlay and Ruth J. Owen (Oxford et. al.: Peter Lang, 2007), pp. 37-49
Lynne Sharon Schwartz (ed.), The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W. G. Sebald (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2007)
Richard Sheppard, ‘Dexter – Sinister: Some Observations on Decrypting the Mors Code in the Work of W. G. Sebald’, Journal of European Studies 35:4 (2005), 417-63
Richard Sheppard, ‘W.G. Sebald’s Reception of Alfred Döblin’, in Alfred Döblin: Paradigms of Modernism, ed. by Steffan Davies and Ernest Schonfield (Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 2009), pp. 350-76
Richard Sheppard (ed.), W.G. Sebald, Special Issue of Journal of European Studies 41:3-4 (2011)
Eleanor Wachtel, ‘Ghost Hunter’, in The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald, ed. by Lynne Sharon Schwartz (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2007), pp. 37-61
Lynn L. Wolff, W.G. Sebald’s Hybrid Poetics: Literature as Historiography (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2014)
Markus Zisselsberger (ed.), The Undiscover’d Country: W.G. Sebald and the Poetics of Travel (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2011)
Further Reading in German
Heinz Ludwig Arnold (ed.), W.G. Sebald (Munich: Text + Kritik, 2003)
Ulrich von Bülow, Heike Gfrereis und Ellen Strittmatter (eds.), Wandernde Schatten: W.G. Sebalds Unterwelt (Marbach: Deutsche Schillergesellschaft, 2008)
Anne Fuchs, Die Schmerzensspuren der Geschichte. Zur Poetik der Erinnerung in W.G. Sebalds Prosa (Cologne: Böhlau, 2004)
Ben Hutchinson, Die dialektische Imagination – W.G. Sebald (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009)
Sigrid Löffler, ‘“Wildes Denken”: Ein Gespräch mit W.G. Sebald’, in Portrait: W.G. Sebald, ed. by Franz Loquai (Eggingen: Isele, 1997), pp. 131-33
Michael Niehaus and Claudia Öhlschläger (eds.), W.G. Sebald. Politische Archäologie und melancholische Bastelei (Berlin: Schmidt, 2006)
A blog dedicated to W. G. Sebald
Sebald’s obituary in The Guardian