Susan Sontag on W.G. Sebald

Books, Literature, Writers

Susan Sontag on W.G. Sebald:

IS LITERARY GREATNESS still possible? Given the implacable devolution of literary ambition, and the concurrent ascendancy of the tepid, the glib, and the senselessly cruel as normative fictional subjects, what would a noble literary enterprise look like now? One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.

Vertigo, the third of Sebald’s books to be translated into English, is how he began. It appeared in German in 1990, when its author was forty-six; three years later came The Emigrants; and two years after that, The Rings of Saturn. When The Emigrants appeared in English in 1996, the acclaim bordered on awe. Here was a masterly writer, mature, autumnal even, in his persona and themes, who had delivered a book as exotic as it was irrefutable. The language was a wonder—delicate, dense, steeped in thinghood; but there were ample precedents for that in English. What seemed foreign as well as most persuasive was the preternatural authority of Sebald’s voice: its gravity, its sinuosity, its precision, its freedom from all-undermining or undignified self-consciousness or irony.

In W. G. Sebald’s books, a narrator who, we are reminded oc­casionally, bears the name W. G. Sebald, travels about registering evidence of the mortality of nature, recoiling from the ravages of modernity, musing over the secrets of obscure lives. On some mission of investigation, triggered by a memory or news from a world irretriev­ably lost, he remembers, evokes, hallucinates, grieves.

Is the narrator Sebald? Or a fictional character to whom the author has lent his name, and selected elements of his biography? Born in 1944, in a village in Germany he calls “W.” in his books (and the dust jacket identifies for us as Wertach im Allgau), settled in England in his early twenties, and a career academic currently teaching modern German literature at the University of East Anglia, the author in­cludes a scattering of allusions to these bare facts and a few others, as well as, among other self-referring documents reproduced in his books, a grainy picture of himself posed in front of a massive Lebanese cedar in The Rings of Saturn and the photo on his new passport in Vertigo.

And yet these books ask, rightly, to be considered fiction. Fiction they are, not least because there is good reason to believe that much is invented or altered, just as, surely, some of what he relates really did happen—names, places, dates, and all. Fiction and factuality are, of course, not opposed. One of the founding claims for the novel in En­glish is that it is a true history. What makes a work fiction is not that the story is untrue—it may well be true, in part or in whole—but its use, or extension, of a variety of devices (including false or forged doc­uments) which produce what literary theorists call “the effect of the real.” Sebald’s fictions—and their accompanying visual illustration— carry the effect of the real to a plangent extreme.

This “real” narrator is an exemplary fictional construction: the promeneur solitaire of many generations of romantic literature. A soli­tary, even when a companion is mentioned (the Clara of the opening paragraph of The Emigrants), the narrator is ready to undertake jour­neys at whim, to follow some flare-up of curiosity about a life that has ended (as, in The Emigrants, in the story of Paul, a beloved primary-school teacher, which brings the narrator back for the first time to “the new Germany,” and of his Uncle Adelwarth, which brings the narrator to America). Another motive for traveling is proposed in Vertigo and The Rings of Saturn, where it is clearer that the narrator is also a writer, with a writer’s restlessness and a writer’s taste for isolation. Often the narrator begins to travel in the wake of some crisis. And usually the journey is a quest, even if the nature of that quest is not immediately apparent.

Here is the beginning of the second of the four narratives in Vertigo:

In October 1980 I traveled from England, where I had then been living for nearly twenty-five years in a county which was almost always under grey skies, to Vienna, hoping that a change of place would help me get over a particularly difficult period in my life. In Vienna, however, Ifound that the days proved inordinately long, now they were not taken up by my customary routine of writing and gardening tasks, and I lit­erally did not know where to turn. Every morning I would set out and walk without aim or purpose through the streets of the inner city.

This long section, entitled “All’ estero” (Abroad), which takes the nar­rator from Vienna to various places in northern Italy, follows the open­ing chapter, a brilliant exercise in Brief-Life writing which recounts the biography of the much-traveled Stendhal, and is followed by a brief third chapter relating the Italian journey of another writer, “Dr. K,” to some of the sites of Sebald’s travels in Italy. The fourth, and last, chap­ter, as long as the second and complementary to it, is entitled “II ri-torno in patria” (The Return Home). The four narratives of Vertigo adumbrate all Sebald’s major themes: journeys; the lives of writers, who are also travelers; being haunted and being light. And always, there are visions of destruction. In the first narrative, Stendhal dreams, while re­covering from an illness, of the great fire of Moscow; and the last nar­rative ends with Sebald falling asleep over his Pepys and dreaming of London destroyed by the Great Fire.

The Emigrants uses this same four-part musical structure, in which the fourth narrative is longest and most powerful. Journeys of one kind or another are at the heart of all Sebald’s narratives: the narrator’s own peregrinations, and the lives, ah1 in some way displaced, that the narra­tor evokes.

Compare the first sentence of The Rings of Saturn:

In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.

The whole of The Rings of Saturn is the account of this walking trip un­dertaken to dispel emptiness. For whereas the traditional tour brought one close to nature, here it measures degrees of devastation, and the opening of the book tells us that the narrator was so overcome by “the traces of destruction” he encountered that, a year to the day after be­ginning his tour, he was taken to a hospital in Norwich “in a state of al­most total immobility.”

Travels under the sign of Saturn, emblem of melancholy, are the subject of all three books Sebald wrote in the first half of the 19905. De­struction is his master theme: of nature (the lament for the trees de­stroyed by Dutch elm disease and those destroyed in the hurricane of 1987 in the next-to-last section of The Rings of Saturn); of cities; of ways of life. The Emigrants tells of a trip to Deauville in 1991, in search perhaps of “some remnant of the past,” which confirms that “the once legendary resort, like everywhere else that one visits now, regardless of the country or continent, was hopelessly run down and ruined by traf­fic, shops and boutiques, and the insatiable urge for destruction.” And the return home, in the fourth narrative of Vertigo, to W., which the narrator says he had not revisited since his childhood, is an extended recherche du temps perdu.

The climax of The Emigrants, four stories about people who have left their native lands, is the heartrending evocation—purportedly a memoir in manuscript—of an idyllic German-Jewish childhood. The narrator goes on to describe his decision to visit the town, Kissingen, where this life had been lived, to see what traces of it remained. Be -cause it was The Emigrants that launched Sebald in English, and be- cause the subject of the last narrative, a famous painter given the name Max Ferber, is a German Jew sent out of Nazi Germany as a child to safety in England—his mother, who perished in the camps with his father, being the author of the memoir—the book was routinely labeled by most of the reviewers (especially, but not only, in America) as an ex- ample of Holocaust literature. Ending a book of lament with the ulti-mate subject of lament, The Emigrants may have set up some of Sebald’s admirers for a disappointment with the work that followed it in translation, The Rings of Saturn. This book is not divided into distinct narratives but consists of a chain or progress of stories: one story leads to another. In The Rings of Saturn, the well-stocked mind speculates whether Sir Thomas Browne, visiting Holland, was present at an anatomy lesson depicted by Rembrandt; remembers a romantic inter­lude, during his English exile, in the life of Chateaubriand; recalls Roger Casement’s noble efforts to publicize the infamies of Leopold’s rule in the Congo; and retells the childhood in exile and early adven­tures at sea of Joseph Conrad—these stories, and many others. With its cavalcade of erudite and curious anecdotes, and its tender encounters with bookish people (two lecturers on French literature, one of them a Flaubert scholar; the translator and poet Michael Hamburger), The Rings of Saturn could seem—after the high excruciation of The Emi­grants—merely “literary.”

It would be a pity if the expectations about Sebald’s work created by The Emigrants also influenced the reception of Vertigo, which makes still clearer the nature of his morally accelerated travel narra­tives—history-minded in their obsessions; fictional in their reach.  Travel frees the mind for the play of associations; for the afflictions (and erosions) of memory; for the savoring of solitude. The awareness of the solitary narrator is the true protagonist of Sebald’s books, even when it is doing one of the things it does best: recounting, summing up, the lives of others.

Vertigo is the book in which the narrator’s English life is least in ev­idence. And, even more than the two succeeding books, this is a self-portrait of a mind: a restless, chronically dissatisfied mind; a harrowed mind; a mind prone to hallucinations. Walking in Vienna, he thinks he recognizes the poet Dante, banished from his hometown on pain of being burned at the stake. Sitting on the rear bench of a vaporetto in Venice, he sees Ludwig II of Bavaria; riding on a bus along the shore of Lake Gardatoward Riva, he sees an adolescent boy who looks exactly like Kafka. This narrator, who defines himself as a foreigner—over­hearing the babble of some German tourists in a hotel, he wishes he did not understand them; “that is, that he were the citizen of a better country, or of no country at all”—is also a mind in mourning. At one moment, the narrator says he does not know whether he is still in the land of the living or already somewhere else.

In fact, he is both: both alive and, if his imagination is the guide, posthumous. A journey is often a revisiting. It is the return to a place for some unfinished business, to retrace a memory, to repeat (or com­plete) an experience; to offer oneself up—as in the fourth narrative of The Emigrants—to the final, most devastating revelations. These heroic acts of remembering and retracing bring with them a price. Part of the power of Vertigo is that it dwells more on the cost of this effort. “Ver­tigo,” the word used to translate the playful German title, Schwindel. Gefuhle (roughly: Giddiness. Feeling), hardly suggests all the kinds of panic and torpor and disorientation described in the book. In Vertigo, he relates how, after arriving in Vienna, he walked so far that, he dis­covered returning to the hotel, his shoes had fallen apart. In The Rings of Saturn and, above all, in The Emigrants, the mind is less focused on itself; the narrator is more elusive. More than the later books, Vertigo is about the narrator’s own afflicted consciousness. But the laconically evoked mental distress that edges the narrator’s calm, knowledgeable awareness is never solipsistic, as in the literature of lesser concerns.

What anchors the unstable consciousness of the narrator is the spa­ciousness and acuity of the details. As travel is the generative principle of mental activity in Sebald’s books, moving through space gives a ki­netic rush to his marvelous descriptions, especially of landscapes. This is a propelled narrator.

Where has one heard in English a voice of such confidence and precision, so direct in its expression of feeling, yet so respectfully de­voted to recording “the real”? D. H. Lawrence may come to mind, and the Naipaul of The Enigma of Arrival. But they have little of the pas­sionate bleakness of Sebald’s voice. For this one must look to a Ger­man genealogy. Jean Paul, Franz Grillparzer, Adalbert Stifter, Robert Walser, the Hofmannsthal of “The Lord Chandos Letter,” Thomas Bernhard are a few of the affiliations of this contemporary master of the literature of lament and of mental restlessness. The consen­sus about English literature for most of the past century has decreed the relentlessly elegiac and lyrical to be inappropriate for fiction,overblown, pretentious. (Even so great a novel, and exception, as Vir­ginia Woolf’s The Waves has not escaped these strictures.) Postwar German literature, mindful of how congenial the grandiosity of past art and literature, particularly that of German Romanticism, proved to the work of totalitarian mythmaking, has been suspicious of anything like the romantic or nostalgic relation to the past. But then perhaps only a German writer permanently domiciled abroad, in the precincts of a lit­erature with a modern predilection for the anti-sublime, could indulge in so convincing a noble tone.

Besides the narrator’s moral fervency and gifts of compassion (here he parts company with Bernhard), what keeps this writing always fresh, never merely rhetorical, is the saturated naming and visualizing in words; that, and the ever-surprising device of pictorial illustration. Pic­tures of train tickets or a torn-out leaf from a pocket diary, drawings, a calling card, newspaper clippings, a detail from a painting, and, of course, photographs have the charm and, in many instances, the im­perfections of relics. Thus, in Vertigo, at one moment the narrator loses his passport; or rather, his hotel loses it for him. And here is the docu­ment made out by the police in Riva, with—a touch of mystery—the G in W. G. Sebald inked out. And the new passport, with the photograph issued by the German consulate in Milan. (Yes, this professional for­eigner travels on a German passport—at least he did in 1987.) In The Emigrants these visual documents seem talismanic. It seems likely that not all of them are genuine. In The Kings of Saturn they seem, less in­terestingly, merely illustrative. If the narrator speaks of Swinburne, there is a small portrait of Swinburne set in the middle of the page; if relating a visit to a cemetery in Suffolk, where his attention is captured by a funerary monument to a woman who died in 1799, which he de­scribes in detail, from fulsome epitaph to the holes bored in the stone on the upper edges of the four sides, we are given a blurry little photo­graph of the tomb, again in the middle of the page.

-In Vertigo the documents have a more poignant message. They say, it’s true, what I’ve been telling you—which is hardly what a reader of fiction normally demands. To offer evidence at all is to endow what has been described by words with a mysterious surplus of pathos. The photographs and other relics reproduced on the page become an ex­quisite index of the pastness of the past.

Sometimes they seem like the squiggles in Tristram Shandy; the au­thor is being intimate with us. At other moments, these insistently prof­fered visual relics seem an insolent challenge to the sufficiency of the verbal. And yet, as Sebald writes in The Rings of Saturn, describing a favorite haunt, the Sailors’ Reading Room in Southwold, where he pored over entries from the log of a patrol ship anchored off the pier during the autumn of 1914, “Every time I decipher one of these entries I am astounded that a trail that has long since vanished from the air or the water remains visible here on the paper.” And, he continues, clos­ing the marbled cover of the logbook, he pondered “the mysterious survival of the written word.”

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5 thoughts on “Susan Sontag on W.G. Sebald

    1. The link was fine two days ago. Then it was gone. Then I put it in the internet archive machine, but if you’re still not seeing it, there could be some issue with the cache—so I’ve put the essay here in full.

  1. The American academic J. S. Finch speculated upon Thomas Browne’s attendance and possible appearance in Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson’, some four decades earlier than W. G. Sebald.

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