german writer W. G. Sebald is regularly appointed one of the most influential writers of These last decades. He called his genre-defying books prose fiction — not quite novels, not quite autobiographies, not quite no.fiction – but with elements of everything. Examining loss, exile, memory and trauma, they still feel relevant today. To mark the 30th anniversary of Sebald’s book The Emigrants, journalist and doctoral student Sandra Haurant suggests where those new to Sebald should start.
The entry point
The first of Sebald’s works to reach an English readership, The Emigrants, is a collection of four short stories. It was published in German in 1992, and its English translation, by Michael Hulse, came out in 1996. Sebald’s biographer Carole Angier calls it “Sebald’s book”. par excellence”.
As with his other texts, we are never quite sure what is “real” and what Sebald has made up here. His central themes – among them loss, memory, displacement and the relentlessly reverberating consequences of trauma – reappear throughout his work, and the text is punctuated with black and white photos, another trademark.
Angier first read The Emigrants when asked to review it and wrote: “When I closed the cover of the last story late at night I was like someone in love – delighted .” It would be an overstatement to call the undiluted stories uplifting; what they are, however, is melancholy, heartbreaking, and beautifully written.
The page turner
Austerlitz tells the story of Jacques Austerlitz, an academic who has an epiphany in a waiting room at Liverpool Street station in London, recognizing this as the place where he first arrived in Britain as a as a little boy, traveling on the Kindertransport.
It’s a time that memory has erased, and uncovering the rest of her story – her parents’ fate, her birthplace, her mother tongue – requires careful digging. In other hands it might have been a simple quest story, but Sebald does it differently, subtly, creating a page-turner despite long passages where very little seems to happen.
With long, winding sentences and reported speech, it is written (and translated into English by the revered Anthea Bell) with a poetry and sensitivity that earns it Sebald’s prose adjectives such as meditative, dreamlike, and contemplative.
It’s worth persevering
Vertigo, first published in German in 1990 and in English in 1999 (translation by Hulse) opens with a biography of Marie-Henri Beyle, the real name of the French realist writer Stendhal. Brief but curiously detailed, it outlines Beyle’s role in the Napoleonic Wars and examines his mental and physical ailments, including a venereal infection and symptoms of syphilis: “difficulty swallowing, swollen armpits, and achy, atrophied testicles . [which] especially disturbed him”.
Among these stories are moments of transcendence – the “longing for love” that Beyle felt in Italy in the form of a “curious lightness such as he had never known”; hikes in the Lombard mountains where “one only heard the larks rising to the sky”. If you can get past the (often unpleasant) details, the stark contrasts between pain and beauty are part of that haunting prose that Sebald does so well.
The one to miss
Sebald’s first literary work was After Nature, a book-length prose poem published in German in 1988, then translated into English by Michael Hamburger and published in 2002, a year after Sebald’s death. It discusses “the themes of migration, immobility and memory which were his recurring preoccupations”, writes Andrew Motion in the foreword. Perhaps one for the finalists – with his collections of essays, A Place in the Country and On the Natural History of Destruction.
The one you’ll want your friends to read
Sometimes you impose newly loved books on friends because of characters they will identify with or a plot twist that will leave you in shock. The urge to share The Rings of Saturn is just as strong, but difficult to explain exactly Why they should read it.
At first glance, this is not an easy sell; the narrator (who may or may not be Sebald himself) embarks on a drive along the Suffolk coast “in the hope of dispelling the void” caused after completing “a long labor”. Part travelogue, part walk through the narrator’s vast troubled and unsettling landscape of thought, it is also, as Robert McCrum put it, “a strange and profound response to the atrocities of history.” The meandering prose tackles such particular and diverse subjects as “The Natural History of Herring”, “The Battle of Sole Bay”, and “The Dowager Empress Tz’u-hsi”.
Accompanied once again by these black-and-white photographs (the first shows nothing but an uninspiring reinforced glass window and “a colorless piece of sky”), memories, stories and echoes of trauma flow down the page, taking the reader down a strange path and past so many terrible scenes that you walk out of the book blinking and desperate to talk to someone else who also saw what you saw . Just give them the book and save the conversations for later.