Wandering With W.G. Sebald
If a writer were to eliminate the paragraph altogether, would we care? Would it change our experience of the book very much? Would it give us some pleasures and effects that we would enjoy? Would it be a gimmick or a real artistic choice with consequences that mattered to us? Why would a writer want to do this? To take us back to the 19th century? To give us a sense of the uninterrupted flow of story linked to other stories? W. G. Sebald raises questions like these in our minds as we read his books. He doesn't eliminate the paragraph but he seems to nearly do so, or to really want to do so. Also section breaks, chapters. Perhaps this is especially so in his last book, Austerlitz. I like to imagine a complete edition of Sebald's work, a memorial edition, that would experiment with this and do away with all breaks and give us an unending flow of text. He published one book of poems, For Years Now, done in collaboration with the painter Tess Jaray. These would go at the beginning, or perhaps at the end, of the four 'novels.' (One more book is due out next June, After Nature.) His death a few weeks ago was a terrible shock, a terrible loss. There is no other way to say it. I have not felt as saddened by the death of a writer since the death of Bruce Chatwin. I only discovered Sebald about six weeks ago and when I got into the midst of The Rings of Saturn, I thought of Chatwin's books, Chatwin's style. I was then taking the book as a travel memoir, not as fiction, and it felt reminiscent of Chatwin in some ways. We grasp for analogues when we are reading a truly new writer. Sebald baffled and entranced me. What was he doing? So many fascinating things, such a simple and new way of telling stories, of weaving things together, and yet as old as memory and association and the search for connections among people and places and buildings and landscape. The friend who had stopped me and told me I had to read Rings shortly thereafter photocopied a passage from Vivian Gornick's new book on the memoir. After I finished it, I learned that Sebald made clear that his books were fiction, even if they felt like memoirs, and surely in some ways they must be. But this genre difference really didn't matter and didn't demand much attention. Sebald blends everything together, blurs distinctions, so the narrative moves forward effortlessly becoming essay, prose lyric, fabulation, history, criticism, literary history, and travel album. Photographs lace the books. Drawings, maps, scraps of illustrations. Some seem to be old postcards, or photos from family albums. These punctuate the text, give the reader pause, double the sense of the uncanny. Sebald wanders around a city or the countryside and thinks about what he is seeing and looking for. The narrator is never named so we take him to be 'Sebald' in the same way we take 'Marcel' to be Proust. There is a lot of Proust behind Sebald's work, and Borges, and many other writers. Anthony Lane says 'he is an easy read, just as Kafka is.' In The Emigrants Sebald travels to the US and re-traces the steps of German Jewish exiles. Long Island is one place. The more haunting locale is Ithaca. Homelessness, nostalgia, remembrance of lost lives, these are themes of Sebald's wanderingscatastrophes and horrors like the wars, the Holocaust, the Slave trade of the Belgian Congo, Napoleon's campaigns, the ugliness of buildings in some European capitals, the beauties of Venice and the small Bavarian village where Sebald was born. It is impossible to convey how richly Sebald's mind, his consciousness, plays over the things he gathers to ponder as he wanders, the richness of his historical imagination, his historical consciousness, his lyric imagination, the ways he interweaves everything, his accuracy of detail, both real and invented, the sense he creates that he has no agenda, no argument to make, and yet the sense that he does know that by the end of his tales all does create a whole, a cosmic view of the human drama as it is played through the facets he has chosen to use. It doesn't do to list his topics and themes, or to decide that the fate of European Jewry, or the Holocaust, or the memory of his generation of the war, or the drag of pain and loss are his primary subjects or concerns. As the painter Wolfe Kahn likes to say of his own paintings, always landscapes, with trees, sometimes with barns, 'the subject is never the subject.' If we're not to see the painting as 'of a barn,' neither are we to read Sebald's books as 'about recent German history or about the search for lost people.' Sebald deals with tragic events and stories, he wander in landscapes of noble monumentality and abysmal desolation. The effect is often of great sadness, of melancholy, of 'germanic romanticism' filtered through the techniques of post-post-modernism, but the overall, final effect is much more than any of these temporary feelings. On one book cover Cynthia Ozick says simply 'Sublime.' I am afraid I have to agree with her. We are so used to seeing book jacket quotations and dismissing them skeptically as part of the game of publishing hype. But once I had finished one of Sebald's books and now that I've finished them all and look forward to re-reading all of them as soon as possible, I look at the the extravagant claims made by reviewers (these are on the American editions) and I nod my head in agreement and want to shout Yes from the rooftops to all of them: 'He makes narration a state of investigative bliss.' says W. S. Di Piero. Yes. Anthony Lane says 'an addiction.' Yes. James Wood says 'This is very beautiful, and its strangeness is what is beautiful... one of the most mysteriously sublime of contemporary writers...' Yes. I have two quotations from German press on the back of the British Harvill edition of Rings: Neue ZŲricher Zeitung says 'Sebald has borrowed his way of writing from the dreaming...' Yes. And Weltwoche says 'Sebald's prose makes the reader feel free, light and as if suspended in thin air. This is perhaps the greatest delight of a book rich with beauty.' Yes & Yes & Yes! Vertigo is the title of one of the books, and a perfect description the word is, of one of the many effects the books have on you. And an upward vertigo as well as a downward one. Is 'euphoria' the antonym of 'vertigo?' Or 'elation,' or 'enlightened tranquillity?' The sublime, in fact. Just after Christmas I read Sebald's final book, Austerlitz. I wondered, with the news of his death, if this effect of lightness could still be true. Temporarily, perhaps not. But the works will last and I am sure when I begin to re-read them I will experience this strange and new lightness once again. Perhaps it is a feeling new to literature? (Sontag says of The Emigrants, 'perfect while being unlike any book one has ever read.') Certainly to literature written in my lifetime, which started the same year as Sebald's, 1944. How important it can be to feel that someone in your time has accomplished writing that marks your own generation memorably and might carry beyond your own death and your generation's death. And what if he has created a new lightness born not of escaping meditations on the horrors of our times but of facing them, if indirectly, and from roundabout and odd angles?
© Robert E. Garlitz 2002 2002