reviewed by Fin Keegan

WITH THE UNTIMELY DEATH OF W.G. SEBALD IN 2001, Europe lost one of its greatest writers. He was born in Germany–the initials stand for Winfried Georg–in the alpine town of Wertach-im-Allgau in 1944. Since his early twenties he lived in England, first in Manchester and then, from 1970, in Norwich, where he taught at the University of East Anglia. We can safely say Sebald did not cross the North Sea to hobnob with the literati: his own agent once claimed never to have met him.

W.B. Sebald


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Sebald’s work is striking for its deep-seated indifference to pop culture and the hackneyed preoccupations of much “serious” fiction. Not for him tales of incest or lonely novelists spying on their neighbours. Nor does he indulge in the cult of the whittled-down sentence, the artful vanities of which practise have ravaged our prose diet in recent decades. Sebald confesses a love of rich, well-sprung prose that has almost become anachronistic in our style-obsessed age. His subject–he never loses sight of it–is the Past. But this is not a personal past of family characters and aesthetic epiphanies, though the narrators of his best known books are unnamed variations of himself. Nor is his obsession a Proustian quest for inner certitude: Sebald’s narratives are shifting and not entirely reliable, like a rambling house which conceals the occasional trapdoor or imprisoned madwoman. As with the coast of East Anglia itself, continuously evoked in the book under consideration, our certainties slip away with each successive page, and suspicions foment that all is not as it seems in this melancholy world, forever resounding to the echoes of man’s inhumanity. Sebald may have lived in sleepy, damp Norfolk for over a quarter of a century, but he remains as thoroughly and painfully German as Günther Grass: “I am oppressed by [my country's history]” he once remarked. “It is a terrible burden.”

His first mark in the English-speaking world came with the spectacularly original The Emigrants (Die Ausgewanderten, 1992), published in London in 1996. Not that Sebald was writing fiction for long before that, his first book, excluding critical studies of German and Austrian literature, and an as yet untranslated extended narrative in verse, came out in 1990. (Schwindel, Gefuehle, translated as Vertigo in 1999). The Rings of Saturn (Die Ringe des Saturn: Eine Englische Wallfahrt, 1995) sealed his reputation, particularly in Europe where the Irish Timeswent so far as to pronounce it the “Book of the Decade”.
The book opens in Sebald’s keynote register but the emotional world he describes is anything but understated: he is experiencing “the emptiness that takes hold of him whenever [he has] completed a long stint of work.” Sebald’s solution is to walk the length and breadth of Suffolk, remedy insufficient to stave off a “paralysing horror” which is responsible, he speculates, for an unspecified breakdown and subsequent spell in hospital. All this in the first four sentences of a book which is later to segue into an extended consideration of the English herring industry: it is the miracle of his style that we sip all this like vintage wine. Kafka is invoked  and it is but a short step to consideration of lost friends and their untimely passings. Before we know it we are searching for the skull of Thomas Browne, author of Urn Burial, a consideration of the many and varied rites with which human beings mark death and the disposal of remains. The chapter ends with a Perec-like array of funeral practice drawn from this latter work.
Sebald’s linking method for all this is purely related to the deep structure of the book, by which I mean that the surface relations are as arbitrary as possible, in keeping with the writer’s disdain for fictional contrivance: rather than trouble the reader with artful hinges bereft of thematic purpose or meaning Sebald furnishes the scantiest of excuses for moving from one subject to the next. Like comedians (and seducers, for that matter) he knows that these links are fundamentally unimportant and, like punctuation, a mere matter of convention.

This unabashed freewheeling would be useless were Sebald’s ruminations themselves dreamy or self-regarding. But sensitivity to suffering and loneliness informs every page. One of the concerns of The Rings of Saturn is the relationship of human matter to  the indwelling spirit. In a Rembrandt painting of a public dissection–the tableau a veritable icon of enlightenment confidence–Sebald feels for the corpse and finds in its depiction criticism of the Cartesian disdain of the physical (needless to say Sebald has discovered that Descartes and possibly Browne are in the audience). Later in the book he develops Rembrandt’s criticism, finding in history a human propensity to ignore the obvious fact that all living creatures are sentient, feeling beings and, from the hunted fish or fox to the forgotten peasant, solitary eccentric or great poet, capable of suffering pain and terror. There is an abiding mystery to life, Sebald suggests, and our (Philosophical) Materialism, in contradiction to its claims, neither copes with, nor recognizes its inadequacy to cope with, this fact. 

Fin Keegan

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