This content of this article was revised and updated in November 2011 and all links were updated in December 2015. It is much longer than my usual articles and is more of a study guide than a review and definitely contains “spoilers”.
Sebald – an oblique vision
The books of W G Sebald have interested me for many years now and unlike most other books, I find myself coming back to them over and over again, quickly becoming absorbed in the images and impressions they create in my own mind.
Sebald’s way of travel, and his way of looking at the places he visits have influenced my own way of seeing, causing me to think in an oblique way about the cities and towns I go to, trying to read the intuitive messages communicated by the built environment I find myself in.
All Sebald’s books are what might be called “difficult”, but Austerlitz (now available in a new edition with a forward by James Wood) is perhaps the most enigmatic and the one which presents some hefty problems of interpretation. Just reading the book can be a challenge, not least because of paragraphs that run on for many pages and even sentences that seem never to end. Fortunately, the new 2011 edition is greatly improved by the addition of a lengthy introductory article by James Wood. I haven’t read it myself but assume that it is not unlike the article “Sent East” which he wrote for the London Review of Books in the 6 October 2011 edition.
This book, The Emergence of Memory, consists of conversations with, and essays upon, the German writer W G Sebald, author of Austerlitz, Vertigo, The Emgrants, and Rings of Saturn. When W G Sebald died in a car accident in 2001, after publishing just four books, his readers felt both a huge sense of loss, and also a sense of irony, that such a melancholic, perceptive writer should have come to an end quite so synchronistic with his writings. It seemed so appropriate that his disjointed, somehow incomplete literary wanderings should come to an abrupt end, leaving so many questions hanging in the wind.
All great works of literature either found a genre or dissolve one (Walter Benjamin, quoted in the book under review), and Sebald’s books are quite unique, baring a resemblance to nothing which has gone before, and almost certainly being followed by no book quite like them. Sebald creates thoughts in us which are entirely our own, as though discovering something which has always been there, but unrecognised until the convoluted prose of Sebald has penetrated into out own depths to release something precious from its swirling eddies.
For those who still hunger after more Sebald, this book fits the bill very well. A collection of essays and interviews with Sebald, it fills in many gaps, offering assistance to those who ask the questions:
- Are these novels or reflective travelogues?
- Are the characters Sebald meets real or imagined (or perhaps composite)?
- Who is the narrator?
- What is the meaning of the photographs?
- Are the photographs genuine illustrations of the events in the books?
- What is the relationship of the books to the Holocaust?