Commuting days until retirement: 477
It’s a rather sad experience to discover a contemporary writer who immediately engages you, only to learn that he has recently died – so that once you have exhausted his published novels there will be no more. This was my experience in the case of W G Sebald.
Sebald was a German writer, an immensely intelligent and learned man, who had learned early in life of his family’s former involvement in Nazi regime activity. He preferred to become an expatriate, studying in Manchester and taking up an academic post there. He then lived in Switzerland for a short time before returning to England to become a lecturer, and then Professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia. He held this post at the time of his death in a car crash in Norfolk in late 2001. He had evidently suffered a heart attack at the wheel.
As far as I remember I came across him simply by picking up one of his books in a shop. At first sight I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but it seemed so different from anything else I had come across that I had to buy it. The book was Austerlitz, his last published novel. Embarking on a Sebald novel takes you into an unfamiliar but compelling experience, where you are never quite sure what is entirely fictional and what is reference to factual reality. This ambiguity is enhanced by the grainy black and white photos, engravings and other visuals which punctuate the text, appearing to depict real things but at the same time conjuring up a dream-like atmosphere. The basic narration is always first person, but it’s never quite clear to what extent the persona is Sebald’s own. This effect is further enhanced in Austerlitz, as most of the story is spoken by the eponymous character, but told to the first person narrator who meets and talks with him in a variety of settings across Europe.
Sebald’s prose style is also unique. Sentences will generally be long, punctuated with commas, and in the course of a single sentence he will often digress from the here-and-now, maybe to refer to some historical fact, or describe the foibles of some character, before returning to the present. A Sebald novel is an other-worldly experience, both real and not-real, and makes reading him (for me, anyway) uniquely pleasurable. I don’t often re-read novels, conscious of everything out there which I have yet to read and probably never will – but Sebald is an exception to this. As is shown by the interview I have included below, the texture of his work is laden with allusions and metaphors, few of which I have been aware of on a first reading. He writes in German, and is translated, but he was generally closely involved in the translations himself, so we can be sure of their authenticity. I would recommend all four of his novels: The Emigrants, Vertigo, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz.
My post was prompted by a piece in this weekend’s Guardian Review, where I was pleased to find that a new book of his essays is being published next month. (There are other books of essays and poetry that I have not yet read – I’m saving them up for myself.) One of the essays is reprinted there: if I had read just the first sentences without knowing who the author was, I would immediately have recognised him as Sebald.
He was, according to all accounts, a shy, modest and delightful man. He was known univerally to those who knew him as ‘Max’. A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to meet someone who had been a friend of his – the Hungarian-born poet George Szirtes, a fellow member of staff at the Univerity of East Anglia. I learned how well liked he was, and what enormous sadness friends felt when he died.
Looking around the internet, I found a YouTube interview with an American radio station, made just before his death, so I have embedded it here.