On 14 December 2001, the 57-year-old German writer WG “Max” Sebald suffered a heart attack at the wheel of his car and steered into the path of an oncoming lorry on the Norwich by-pass, resulting in a collision which killed him instantly. His colleagues at the University of East Anglia, his students present and past, including myself, and his many admirers around the world were shocked and heartbroken. With the publication of his fourth and last novel Austerlitz that year, the humble literature professor had been spoken of as a possible Nobel Prize winner.
I lost touch with him after university, and became aware of his growing celebrity only with his third novel, The Rings of Saturn, published in 1995. Heavyweight critics admired its extended paragraphs in lofty think-pieces and I approached it with trepidation, but was relieved to discover a delightful account of travels in East Anglia: moving, humorous, personal and gripping, like no travel book I had ever read. Walks ignited memories in the writer and led him into landscapes of time and history. The paragraphs are indeed labyrinthine, but the stories weave the reader along winding paths as if deep into one of his native Bavarian forests.
Sebald was born in the last year of the war in Wertach-im-Allgäu, a village in the mountainous south-west corner of Bavaria. He spoke his language with a gentle purr and a rolled “R”. Although his father served in the Wehrmacht, his knowledge of the conflict was distant and when he first saw the ruined urban landscapes, he thought that was how all cities looked. His evocation of the deathly forces sent out across the North Sea (or “German Ocean”) from East Anglian airfields has an awesome, unemotional solemnity. His reflections on his own community are the subject of his first novel Vertigo (Schwindel-Gefühle in German), published in 1990, and the historic connections between the books lead one to think of them as a tetralogy.
Though he wrote in German, Sebald is read more widely in English translations by Anthea Bell and Paul Hamburger, who have resisted the urge to anglicise his prose and managed to retain the Teutonic charm of his syntax. Their first translation was of Sebald’s second novel The Emigrants in 1996, so that the English books appeared to have a different chronology. In these poignant stories of exile, Sebald never alludes to his own situation, though he remained in England from 1970 until his death.
I attended the ceremony in 2008 when he was inaugurated into the Deutsche Literatur Archiv at Marbach-am-Neckar — a singular honour. His manuscripts and effects filled more than fifty crates. It became apparent that illustrations in the novels around which he had related seemingly true stories were often no more than postcards salvaged from Norfolk junk shops. The German literary world might have been forgiven for thinking it had been hoodwinked. Yet in a sense the discovery only made his mastery as a novelist seem greater and the power of his story-telling remains undiminished. Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously, but Sebald’s reputation is sure to grow with time.
“The Ghost of Future Past: WG Sebald and the Trauma of Modernity” is the title of a talk both live and on zoom by the writer Will Self at 7pm on Tuesday 20 December 2022 in St George’s German Lutheran Church, Whitechapel, London E1 8EB. Rick Jones hosts the event. Tickets £5 from https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/360314850417
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