by Robert Goree
Any writer who spends as much time contemplating memory as W.G. Sebald did is bound, every now and then, to fall into the bittersweet embrace of nostalgia. But the remarkable thing about Sebald’s literary works is how rarely they wallow in the past, idealized or not. Memory for Sebald is an unquenchable thirst for whatever it is out there that flows, freezes, and thaws between the past and the present; and his books chronicle that unquenchable thirst.
Much can be learned from these chronicles of Sebald’s native Germany and adopted England, or the many places he rambles through on foot, or the parade of fascinating people he presents. Much can also be learned from Sebald about memory itself as a deeply flawed and beautiful human experience common to all. With all this potential for learning, one might imagine Sebald to be a pedant pumping iron with a jargon-filled treatise. Nothing could be further from the truth. He’s a playful experimenter, even if his themes are weighty. With words and a few grainy photographs, he presents us with his memory at its most graceful and candid—all the while teasing our expectations for what makes literature literature.
Like many late bloomers, Sebald wrote a great deal earlier in his life, but nothing that would win him accolades as a writer. After studying literature at the University of Freiburg, then earning an M.A. in German literature at the University of Manchester, he published a study of the German-Jewish writer Carl Sternheim. He soon joined the faculty at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, where he also earned his Ph.D. in German literature. Monographs about the description of melancholy in modern Austrian literature and radical theater in Germany during the 1970s and 1980s confirmed Sebald’s standing as a literary historian. Serving as the first director of the British Centre for Literary Translation, which continues to thrive, confirmed his reputation as a scholar.
In 1989, one year after his book on German theater came out, Sebald published After Nature (Nach der Natur: Ein Elementargedicht, 1989), a narrative poem. This first endeavor in non-scholarly writing takes as its subjects the 16th-century painter Matthaeus Grünewald, the 19th-century Arctic explorer Georg Wilhelm Steller, and Sebald’s own musings about the interplay between artifacts and historical understanding. Obscure though these subjects are, Sebald’s treatment of them rings with cool clarity. It’s this combination of arcane topics and stylistic accessibility that makes After Nature a terrific introduction to his subsequent works.
What prompted this talented professor of literature to stray, in mid-life, from the cautious path of peer review, footnotes, and disciplinary specialization? After all, he was a competent academic, and continued to be so, judging from his subsequent critical essays on Austrian literature and post-war German literature. The opening lines of After Nature suggest some motivation:
For it is hard to discover
the winged vertebrates of prehistory
embedded in tablets of slate.
But if I see before me
the nervature of past life
in one image, I always think
that this has something to do
with truth. Our brains, after all,
are always at work on some quivers
of self-organization, however faint,
and it is from this that an order
arises, in places beautiful
and comforting, though more cruel, too,
than the previous state of ignorance.
To my mind, his desire to bloom creatively must have stemmed from his intrepid inquiries into how to recuperate the past. He would need a way to capture the ordering movements of those faint, truth-seeking “quivers” in the brain—a medium that could be experienced by anyone and not merely scrutinized by specialists or students. It seems scholarly prose wasn’t up to the task of showing, in particular, how the past took shape in his own mind and in the minds of others. He needed a form of writing that was both sprawling and exacting.
Sebald’s choice of subjects—memory, and also time, destruction, emigration, nature, travel—may have been reason enough for his mid-40s unfurling as an artist. The ability to write about such big subjects in a fresh way must have taken time to mature. He was also busy tending to his rigorous academic career. But by middle age, not only was he better situated to take on the topic of memory in particular, he also may have been much more sensitive to the wheretofores and techniques of unburdening the mind of accumulated memory. In his penultimate work, The Rings of Saturn (Die Ringe des Saturn: eine englische Wallfahrt, 1995), Sebald suggests as much in his thoughts about the French romantic, Vicomte de Chateaubriand, whose voice he presents to us like this:
But the fact is that writing is the only way in which I am able to cope with the memories which overwhelm me so frequently and so unexpectedly. If they remained locked away, they would become heavier and heavier as time went on, so that in the end I would succumb under their mounting weight. Memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in some strange way blind us to life. How often this has caused me to feel that my memories, and the labours expended in writing them down are all part of the same humiliating and, at bottom, contemptible business! And yet, what would we be without memory?
Throughout his ouevre, Sebald is drawn to writers, artists, and a wide assortment of oddballs, including himself, for the ways in which they’ve relieved themselves of the weight of memory through the paradoxical act of exercising it fully—through artistic creation. Sebald plays the essayistic narrator in his meandering accounts of such acts, which for him are often heroic. His scholarly training no doubt prepared him to become a meticulous interpreter of memory in others, but in a literary form of his own fashioning he found a way to pursue others’ memories as part of his own.
Sebald’s first creative prose work, Vertigo (Schwindel. Gefühle, 1990), starts off with an essay-like treatment of an account by Marie-Henri Beyle—known to most of us as Stendhal—at age 53, of marching behind Napoleon across the alps as a 17-year-old soldier. With this description of Beyle (whom Sebald never refers to by his pen name) begins the book’s meditation on the difficulties involved in the act of recollection.
At times his view of the past consists of nothing but grey patches, then at others images appear of such extraordinary clarity he feels he can scarce credit them—such as that of General Marmont, whom he believes he saw at Martigny to the left of the track along which the column was moving, clad in the royal-and sky-blue robes of a Councilor of State, an image which he still beholds precisely thus, Beyle assures us, whenever he closes his eyes and pictures that scene, although he is well aware that at that time Marmont must have been wearing his general’s uniform and not the blue robes of state.
Sebald offers several more instances of Beyle identifying gaps in his memory (did the very intensity of an experience preclude recollection of it?) and distortions in his memory (is he remembering the event itself or merely an artistic representation of it?). When revisiting a battleground where he once fought, Beyle realizes the images he has kept alive in his head do not match the shabbiness of the ruinous scene before him. For Sebald, it is this productive unreliability of memory that gives Beyle, and indeed anyone, a sense of vertigo. This kind of existential dizziness is what inspired Beyle to write the memoir he is now famous for in the first place—a blooming, Sebald reminds us, which came rather late in the man’s life. And a blooming Sebald wasn’t able to fully fathom until he visited the place where Beyle made his vertiginous breakthrough.
Most publishers categorize Sebald’s creative prose as fiction. Sebald himself calls them “notes,” and this non-category reflects the exploratory and pragmatic nature of his work, which is unconcerned with standard conventions of fiction. There are no endings and only the faintest of beginnings in Sebald; but it would be misleading to characterize these “notes” as mere scaffolding put together for the sake of something more fully realized to come: they are like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, impressions and thoughts that together comprise panoramic views.
Sebald’s books don’t have characters in the conventional sense. They don’t have fabricated plotlines either. They do have real people, though, whether they’re well-known historical figures, such as Chateaubriand and Beyle, or more obscure figures from the past or present. These people may be “developed,” but only insofar as they contribute to the big unwieldy “plot” unfolding about the nature of memory as a human experience. These figures appear serially; they appear only once, except for Sebald himself. He doesn’t make anything up about these people, as might a writer of historical fiction, but he’s not writing biography either, since he’s not interested in presenting the overall arc of any single person’s life. This is perhaps why we learn next to nothing about Sebald’s wife; and why the biographical tidbit of Sebald eating fries at a McDonald’s is such a satisfying detail.
In The Emigrants (Die Ausgewanderten, 1992), his second creative prose work, Sebald recounts experiences he had while tracking down several people, deceased and living, who had experienced some form of exile. He interviews them when he can and searches for any thing or place that might help him understand the unique circumstances of their forced or unforced migration. More than anything else, he wishes to remember them. His hunt for finding out something about his mysterious great-uncle Ambrose Adelwarth, for example, comprises an entire section and begins with a photograph Sebald once saw of the man surrounded by other relatives in the Bronx. Intrigued by this artifact, Sebald travels to New Jersey to meet his Aunt Fini and Uncle Kasimir. He learns from them that Ambrose Adelwarth spent his adult life after leaving Germany as the hired companion of Cosmo Solomon, the eccentric son of a wealthy New York financier named Samuel Solomon. Sebald’s research ultimately takes him to an upstate sanatorium where Adelwarth volunteered for electrotherapy and eventually died. During the account, Adelwarth becomes a full-fledged tragic figure in a strange story of personal discovery for Sebald.
Sebald’s account of the painter Max Ferber is similarly compelling, and affecting for Sebald personally. Of particular interest to Sebald is the way Ferber’s sedentary existence in a Manchester studio allows for perpetual revisions to single paintings.
Time and time again, at the end of a working day, I marveled to see that Ferber, with the few lines and shadows that had escaped annihilation, had created a portrait of great vividness. And all the more did I marvel when, the following morning, the moment the model had sat down and he had taken a look at him or her, he would erase the portrait yet again, and once more set about excavating the features of his model, who by now was distinctly wearied by this manner of working, from a surface already badly damaged by the continual destruction. The facial features and eyes, said Ferber, remained ultimately unknowable for him. He might reject as many as forty variants, or smudge them back into the paper and overdraw new attempts upon them; and if he then decided that the portrait was done, not so much because he was convinced that it was finished as through sheer exhaustion, an onlooker might well feel that it had evolved from a long lineage of grey, ancestral faces, rendered unto ash but still there, as ghostly presences, on the harried paper.
Ferber’s dogged commitment to the endurance of old brushstrokes as tangible specters among new ones provides inspiration for Sebald. A Ferber painting is indeed an apt metaphor for Sebald’s own perspective on the past: never fully realized as a construct, it constantly changes with the accretion of new artistic choices. It’s a big mess that somehow makes sense.
Sebald’s sentences last a very long time—so long that they end up feeling like they have mini-histories of their own, just as the author’s sustained search for the past cuts its own ever widening wake. The sentences are also, however, broken up into several phrases that regulate the pace. This is one reason why I find it impossible to read Sebald quickly. Consider this sentence, from The Rings of Saturn.
All I know is that I stood spellbound in his [the writer Michael Hamberger’s] high-ceilinged studio room, with its north-facing windows in front of the heavy mahogany bureau at which Michael said he no longer worked because the room was so cold, even in midsummer; and that, while we talked of the difficulty of heating old houses, a strange feeling came upon me, as if it were not he who had abandoned that place of work but I, as if the spectacles cases, letters and writing materials that had evidently lain untouched for months in the soft north light had once been my spectacle cases, my letters and my writing materials.
So many phrases in such a sentence are like unevenly spaced rungs on a ladder. They prompt close consideration of each micro-level idea or description, which does more than draw attention to Sebald’s detailed word-working, since it also makes for a steadying effect as you move through the long sentence. This effect and the formal discipline behind it are all the more conspicuous when considering the Sebaldian paragraph, which is also very, very long. For example, the 23-page opening chapter of The Rings of Saturn consists of a mere three paragraphs. If it weren’t for all the regulating phrases in such omnigraphs, the prose would be exhausting and possibly infuriating. As it is, they are pleasingly hypnotic.
Fortunately for English readers, these formal tensions have been preserved in translations from the German I’ve read so far by Michael Hamberger (as it turns out) and Michael Hulse. Fortunate because they magnify the emotional tensions felt by the author himself: when Sebald feels as if he somehow is Hamberger in the above passage, I feel it too.
Given Sebald’s meticulously crafted sentences and paragraphs, together with the stamina that the rendering of his impressions demanded, it’s no wonder he found the process of writing onerous. As he puts it in The Rings of Saturn.
For days and weeks on end one racks one’s brains to no avail, and, if asked, one could not say whether one goes on writing purely out of habit, or a craving for admiration, or because one knows not how to do anything other, or out of sheer wonderment, despair or, outrage, any more than one could say whether writing renders one more perceptive or more insane. Perhaps we all lose our sense of reality to the precise degree to which we are engrossed in our own work, and perhaps that is why we see in the increasing complexity of our mental constructs a means for greater understanding, even while intuitively we know that we shall never be able to fathom the imponderables that govern our course through life.
Here is a committed writer who nevertheless doubts the very value and purpose of writing. Sebald does not know why he writes, but he writes anyway. Or, more accurately, and tragically, wrote. In 2001, Sebald died in a car accident, at the age of 57. His endurance in the face of what may have seemed like a meaningless endeavor during his bloom now seems like meaning itself.
Robert Goree lives in New York City, where he teaches Japanese literature and history at Columbia University.
Robert Goree’s previous features: James Michener