W. G. Sebald's new book.

W. G. Sebald's new book.

W. G. Sebald's new book.

Reading between the lines.
March 14 2005 12:28 PM

Speak, Memory

What kind of reader was W. G. Sebald?

Book cover

"And so they are ever returning to us, the dead." This resonant line from W.G. Sebald's astonishing book The Emigrants —which met with little fanfare in his native Germany but was immediately heralded as a masterpiece by American critics on its arrival here nine years ago—has come to serve as a sort of mantra for his work. Starting with his breakthrough travel-diary-cum-memoir Vertigo in 1990 and building to a crescendo with the 2001 not-quite-novel Austerlitz, Sebald's books have taken as a primary concern the enduring resonance of people and events from the past in the lives of those who come after. These extraordinary hybrid works collect facts, stories, memories, and photographs into a singular pattern, "patiently engraving and linking together disparate things in the manner of a still life," as Sebald writes in one essay in the new collection Campo Santo, in an attempt to understand "the invisible connections that determine our lives."

So it seems appropriate that even now, more than three years after his sudden death in Dec. 2001, Sebald's presence continues to make itself felt in surprising new ways. He published only four major literary works in English during his lifetime (there were also several books of scholarly essays, none of which has yet appeared in English), but his posthumous publishing career has nearly doubled that figure. First, in 2002, came After Nature, a book-length prose poem that represents Sebald's first foray into creative writing (it appeared in German in 1989). The following year brought On the Natural History of Destruction, the English version of a 1999 series of lectures in which Sebald argued that German writers had neglected their duty by failing to document the destruction of Germany's cities during World War II by the Allied air war; it provoked a debate over the legitimacy of asserting the suffering of the German people that has yet to be resolved. And now his final work has arrived: Campo Santo, a miscellany of pieces from Sebald's archive.

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The collection was assembled and arranged by the literary scholar Sven Meyer (he goes inexplicably uncredited in the English version), who presents it in two sections: "prose" and "essays." Despite the overlap between these two categories, Meyer takes pains to distinguish them: The first section includes four brief literary texts intended for a book about Corsica, while the second grouping, he writes in his introduction, "illustrates Sebald's other side, as essayist and critic." But the revelation of Campo Santo is that Sebald did not have two sides. His overarching literary project remained constant, regardless of what form he chose. From an anecdote of a disease-ridden village to a contemplation of the mackerel, each piece in this book closely adheres to Sebald's fundamental obsession: how to live under the shadows cast by the cataclysmic events of World War II, European imperialism, environmental destruction—"the marks of pain," as he put it in Austerlitz, "which ... trace countless fine lines through history."

If there is a "side" of Sebald that Campo Santo does reveal—a side that will be new to much of his English and American audience—it is the writer as reader. Eight of the 12 essays, which range from scholarly studies to acceptance speeches, explicitly relate to his literary interests: postwar German literature, Kafka, Nabokov, even Bruce Chatwin. The pieces assembled here are often astonishing, sometimes puzzling, and occasionally inscrutable, but taken together they offer an entirely new perspective on one of contemporary literature's finest minds.

Sebald liked to compare his "haphazard" method of literary investigation with the meanderings of a dog through a field. "If you look at a dog following the advice of his nose," he said in a 2001 interview, "he traverses a patch of land in a completely unplottable manner. And he invariably finds what he is looking for." In Campo Santo's first four pieces, Sebald confines his wanderings to the Corsican landscape, conducting an unfinished walking tour that—as always with his travel writing—is less about the places he visits than the meditations they inspire, which here include everything from Corsican burial customs to the family history of Napoleon. But the remainder of the book shows Sebald on the prowl through the entire literary world, gathering affinities among the writers who speak to him most keenly. This disparate group—Peter Handke, Wolfgang Hildesheimer, Chatwin—share an awareness of the human species' "burden of grief" and a respect for the ghosts that have a way of surfacing in life and in literature.

Sebald as reader, like Sebald as writer, homes in utterly unselfconsciously on the aspects of these writers that interest him most, often to the total disregard of anything else about their work. Though Sebald taught literature at the University of East Anglia for 30 years, his anxiety about academic life betrays itself in his charming yet highly untraditional criticism, which is much more deeply influenced by his personal obsessions than by trends in literary scholarship. Even the essays here that adhere most strictly to scholarly conventions—several first appeared in academic journals—are typically meandering almost in defiance of their academic trappings, often taking a digressive veer just when one expects a conclusion to neatly wrap up the argument. An essay comparing Hildesheimer and Günter Grass, for instance, ends not with any conclusive pronouncement but, mysteriously, with a vision of "the Cold Mamsell," a "sinister lady" who represents the spirit of melancholy.

The later pieces, most of which were published in newspapers or magazines during the 1990s, reveal a writer who felt freer to improvise. Sebald often wrote about literary figures as if they were "characters" in his books—one section of Vertigo imagines what Kafka might have experienced during a fateful visit to a sanatorium—and these items, each just a few pages long, offer criticism in a similarly imaginative vein. "To the Brothel by Way of Switzerland: On Kafka's Travel Diaries," in which Kafka's notes on a journey from Prague to Paris remind the writer of various trips he has taken himself, has all the touchstones of Sebald's literary work: the same relaxed pace, the characteristic lack of a defined goal, the breathtaking remarks casually dropped in ("As I listened, hardly able to tear myself away, I understood why Wiesengrund once wrote of Mahler that his music was the cardiogram of a breaking heart"). "Dream Textures: A Brief Note on Nabokov" offers an original perspective on Speak, Memory, one of Sebald's most primary texts (as any reader of The Emigrants knows). A fascinating passage suggests how much Sebald's literary technique owes to his fellow emigrant:"Nabokov also knew, better than most of his fellow writers, that the desire to suspend time can prove its worth only in the most precise re-evocation of things long overtaken by oblivion. The pattern on the bathroom floor at Vyra, the white steam rising above the tub at which the boy looks dreamily from his seat in the dimly lit lavatory, the curve of the doorframe on which he leans his forehead—suddenly, with a few well-chosen words, the whole cosmos of childhood is conjured up before our eyes."

"What is literature good for?" Sebald asks, not entirely rhetorically, in one of Campo Santo's final essays, recalling the German Romantic writer Friedrich Hölderlin's comparison of the poet to those unfortunates sent to Hades by the avenging gods of fate. Sebald, too, felt the compulsion to look "across the barrier of death," but with the goal, he says, of doing justice to the memory of those "to whom the greatest injustice was done": "There are many forms of writing; only in literature, however, can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of facts, and over and above scholarship." Campo Santo demonstrates that the boundary between the two is more permeable than even Sebald thought. In whatever he wrote, from a completely realized work of fiction to the briefest book review, he found a way of achieving his moral imperative.