W.G. Sebald was a German academician who had a distinguished career in England. When he died, ten years ago to this day, Sebald was the professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia (UEA) for more than a decade.
If Sebald had only been an academician (he published several papers on European writers in academic journals), perhaps he would not be remembered beyond a small circle of academicians and professors of European literature.
Sebald also wrote novels. At the time of his untimely death in 2001, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Sebald’s reputation in the UK as a writer of great merit was on an upward swing. Indeed there were some who felt he would win the Nobel Prize in Literature. (Not as fanciful as it may sound. In 2007, Horace Engdahl, the former secretary of the Swedish academy, mentioned Sebald as one of the recently diseased writers who would have been a worthy laureate.) Sebald had, by that time, published four novels, all written in German, originally, and published in his native Germany earlier than their English translations. His first novel was published in Germany in 1990, but its English avatar appeared only in 1999 (Vertigo). His first novel to appear in English translation was The Emigrants, which came out in 1996. In 1998 was published The Rings of Saturn. The last novel to come out was Austerlitz, published in 2001.
Austerlitz is one of the most moving novels I have read. It tells the story of a lonely, melancholy man, brought up as an only child by a Welsh Calvinist preacher and his valetudinarian wife. The man, Fred Astaire, meets the novel’s unnamed narrator when both men are in Antwerp, and a kind of acquaintanceship develops between the two. As the novel progresses, we learn that Fred Astaire was born Jacques Austerlitz. Austerlitz is a man, like the protagonists of Sebald’s other novels, burdened with memories. The burden, in this case, is puzzling, even to the man carrying the burden, because he is not actually consciously aware that he is carrying the burden. Gradually, as years go by, via chance encounters and apparently unrelated events, the memories, suppressed since childhood, break through, and slowly Austerlitz becomes painfully aware of his identity. The novel is a brilliant amalgamation of (apparent) facts and history. Right from the first page, an atmosphere of oppressive melancholy and peril envelops the reader. Austerlitz’s journey of self-discovery which brings him face to face with the horror of what happened to his parents and his people breaks your heart. Austerlitz is a man who carries with him a secret, and his torture is all the more because he does not know what the secret is. When he finally discovers it, it devastates him. I can remember very few novels which have overwhelmed me with their powerful emotional ambiance. Austerlitz is one of those novels, which, as far as I am concerned, is all the more remarkable because it is a translated work of fiction. I wonder what effect it would have had on me, had I been able to read German, the language in which the novel was originally published. (In an interview Sebald said that there were three and a half real persons behind Austerlitz. One of them was a person about whom he watched a documentary by ‘sheer chance’. This person was an ‘apparently English’ woman who was brought up in Wales in a Calvinist household. She had been brought to England with her twin. The twin had died and the woman grown up without knowing that she had a twin or her origins were in a Munich orphanage.)
To write a novel on the theme of the Holocaust is a formidable challenge. What Sebald has achieved in Austerlitz is astounding. It is a superb novel; a towering achievement.
The Emigrants is another novel of Sebald I have read and thought it was absolutely brilliant. Like Austerlitz, the novel is a potent and powerful mixture of history, autobiography and meditative discursions. In The Emigrants, Sebald tells apparently factual stories of four men and the devastation that the Second World War brought to their lives. The Emigrants is a work of fiction, though it is presented as factual accounts (one of the portraits is of Sebald’s great uncle). As in Austerlitz, there is the unnamed narrator, born, like his creator in 1944, in the waning years of the Third Reich, and who (again, like his creator) lives elsewhere but returns time and again, almost against his wishes, to the country of his birth.
The Emigrants is a strange, haunting novel. It was Sebald’s first novel to appear in English. He was past fifty when the novel was first published in England, his adopted country where he had lived since 1966 and, upon its publication, many must have wondered where he was hiding all those years.
The Rings of Saturn (which I have in my collection but have not yet read) is a digressive account of its morose narrator (also named W.G. Sebald) through East Anglia (county Suffolk). When The Rings of Saturn appeared the world of literature had begun to take notice of Sebald as a writer of considerable merit, and the novel received very favourable reviews. Sebald however was at pains to clarify that despite spending more than 25 years in England he still did not feel at home here. In an interview he said that he would feel more at home in a hotel in Switzerland (or something to that effect).
I have also read the only work of non-fiction of Sebald that has (so far) appeared in English: On the Natural History of Destruction. Like all of Sebald’s work there was a gap of several years between the original and its English translation. The book (based on lectures Sebald gave in Zurich, in 1997) was published in Germany in 1999. The English translation came out two years after Sebald’s death, in 2003. In On the Natural History of Destruction Sebald describes and discusses the allied campaign towards the end of the Second World War. It is a powerful and striking book. Sebald does not beat around the bush in pointless euphemisms. He comes straight to the point. The Book starts with the sentence:
‘Today it is hard to form an even partly adequate idea of the extent of the devastation suffered by the cities of Germany in the last years of the Second World War, still harder to think about the horrors involved in that devastation.’
Then comes the statistics: 1 million tons of bombs were dropped on 131 German cities—repeatedly on some of them—most of which were flattened. More than half a million German civilians were killed in these raids; 3.5 million homes were destroyed; and, as the war finally came to its bloody end, 7.5 million were left homeless. More mind-numbing statistics follow: in Dresden, in February 1945 (when the Third Reich was in its last throes), the SS burned 7000 corpses in one day, civilians killed in one day by the allied bombing. (Kurt Vonnegut's classic novel, Slaughterhouse 5, was based on the bombing of Dresden, although Vonnegut's treatment of the subject was post-modern.) When Hamburg was bombed (combined British and American operation, codenamed ‘Operation Gomorrah’!) the flames of the fires that engulfed the city leapt up 2000 meters towards the sky. Sebald tells about a writer named Victor Golllancz who spent a month in the British occupied zone of Hamburg, Dusseldorf and the Ruhr. Gollancz particularly noted the profound lethargy of the Germans, which, he remarked, was the most striking feature of the contemporary German urban population. ‘People drift about in such lassitude,’ he wrote, ‘that you are always in danger of running them down when you happen to be in the car.’
What intrigued and shocked Sebald, in equal measures, was the collective silence of the German people about this unprecedented and unparalleled and wanton (and, it might be argued, with some justification, unnecessary) destruction of their land by the enemy. He writes at one point in the book:
‘. . . with remarkable speed social life, that other natural phenomenon, revived. People’s ability to forget what they don’t want to know, to overlook what is before their eyes, was seldom put to test better than in Germany at that time.’
It was as if, Sebald wrote, ‘the sense of unparalleled national humiliation felt by millions [of Germans] in the last years of the war had never really found verbal expression, and those directly affected by the experience neither shared it with each other nor passed it on to the next generation.’
The collective amnesia, it would appear, also affected the writers. Very few writers, Sebald notes, chose to write about the inglorious end to the Second World War culminating in ‘national humiliation’. One of them was the Henrich Boll, who won the Nobel Prize in literature. Boll’s ‘melncholy novel of the ruins’ (Sebald wrote), Der Engel Schwieg, 'was withheld from the reading public for over forty years'.
The book, upon its publication in Germany, triggered furious debate. Sebald was said to have been taken aback by the letters he received from Germany, many blaming the Jews for the Bombings. ‘This was applause from quarters,’ he said, ‘you did not need.’
On the Natural History of Destruction is an essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the madness of the Second World War.
Sebald is not an easy writer to read. I suspect that he was not an easy writer to translate either. (He was presumably proficient in English language and, although, Like Elais Canetti, he chose to write in German, his mother-tongue (it was Canetti's third language), he took great interest in and closely supervised (like Canetti) the English translations of his books.) Sebald remarked on one occasion that his medium was ‘prose, not novel’. That is apparent in all his books I have read. There is a kind of ‘stream of consciousness’ quality to his writing. His writing is not dramatic;if anything it is anti-dramatic. It is discursive and meandering at times, yet it touches your heart. The novels that I have read were, so I felt, meditations on memory and past which come to have a profound effect on our present in ways we don’t always envisage or understand. Sebald had the ability to get to the core with minimum of fuss.
Austerlitz, Sebald’s masterpiece, and one of the greatest novels in the last hundred years, was published in the same year he died, at the age of 57, in a car accident in Norwich. Sebald was at the peak of his powers when he died, and one wonders what he would have achieved had he lived. His untimely death was a great loss to literature.