W.G. Sebald

All is memory

by Hugh Mahoney


In 1996 The Emigrants was released in English translation*  to an overwhelming reception. Antony Beevor, reviewing the work in the Times Literary Supplement, called Sebald ‘the most significant European writer to have emerged in the last decade.’ Another reviewer for the same publication thought Sebald ‘probably the greatest intellect and voice of the late 20th Century.’ Susan Sontag, also writing in the TLS,  asked, ‘Is literary greatness still possible?’ and she replies that ‘one of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.’ Reviewers and critics around the world agreed. Few writers hit the ground running at the speed this man did.

The works of W.G. Sebald belong to no recognized genre. He gives us no compelling plots, little drama or suspense, and ghost-like characters seen through the fog of memory. His sen­tences can be long, his paragraphs interminable (in his non-fic­tion, they can run on for pages, suggesting that Sebald had no grasp of paragraph structure) and he uses no dialogue (although he does give us extended passages of first-person narration). In compensation for his density of style, he presents us simple, precise, and immediately accessible language. Ten pages into any one of the his three great works, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn or Austerlitz, and we’re hooked. In works that are all about the writing, Sebald’s fictions, like his essays, are hypnotic.

Sebald’s words create an atmosphere of remembrance that works as a magnet, pulling us deeper into the melancholic world of his narrator who, as often as not, melds with the pro­tagonist until we are not quite sure, or at least not consciously aware, whose memory we are sharing, the character’s or the narrator’s. Yet Sebald’s works cannot be classified as memoir. It is not Sebald’s life that we are following with such absorption; the role of author/narrator serves as a mere vehicle for an exposition of the 20th Century European mind. Sebald cap­tures the melancholy of European civilization in the age of its long decline not only in the accounts of his doomed characters adrift in history, but also in haunting depictions in minute detail of once grand now decaying buildings, and in painfully drawn expositions of the bleak remains of once vigorous cities. Sebald sifts through it all, a late 20th Century archeologist using pen rather than a spade. **

Sebald extends his exploration of time irrevocably lost with gray and grainy reproductions of people, places and things sprinkled through his text—street scenes, snapshots of anony­mous people, fragments of art, train schedules, maps, news clips, advertisements, claim checks, rail tickets. These illustra­tions are not graphic descriptions of the text; their purpose is to evoke the past where words are inadequate. All are images that work to draw us increasingly deeper into Sebald’s world of a time gone by. With Sebald, there is no present, all is past. That is the thrust of his works: not to recreate the past as a liv­ing present—that is the art of the novelist—but to evoke the past as a world irrevocably lost to time. For Sebald the past remains in the past, but in demonstrating the fallibility of memory, he escapes into the past without becoming in the least nostalgic.




Once entered, Sebald’s works are not easy to put down. We keep at it until his last book is read. Unfortunately, he left us too few. He began too late and died too soon.

W.G. (Winfred Georg) Maximilian Sebald was born in 1944 in Wertgau im Allgäu, Bavaria, in modest circumstances. His father was in the Wehrmacht, fought in World War II, was taken prisoner of war by the Russians, returned home in 1947 and never spoke of his war experience from that day on. His silence was an example of the German inability to personally deal with the Nazi phenomenon that would influ­ence all of Sebald’s writing. Sebald attended Freiburg University, went to England, and returned to Switzerland’s Fribourg University for a year before moving back to England in 1970; he would remain there for the rest of his life, teaching literature first at the Uni­versity of Manchester and then in the University of East Anglia. Despite the complexity and eccentricity of the works to follow, Sebald lived a conven­tional life, occupying the same house in East Anglia for most of his years in the region. Although Sebald had published books on German and Austrian literature, he did not turn from scholarly to fiction writing until the age of forty-four, publishing in 1988 his first work of fiction, the book length prose poem, After Nature. Sebald wrote in German, and his novels would begin to appear in Germany two years later: Vertigo (1990 in German; 1999 in English), The Emigrants (1992, German; 1996, English), The Rings of Saturn (1995, German; 1998, English), and Austerlitz (2001 in both languages). Besides three books of poetry, essays and travelogues, he wrote the long influential essay, On the Nat­ural History of Destruction (1997), dealing with Germany’s fail­ure to explore the moral implications of the destruction of its cities during World War II, destruction that served no military purpose. Then, in 2002, just as Sebald’s work was gaining international acclaim and he was being mentioned as the prob­able recipient of the Nobel Prize, he was killed  in an automo­bile accident at the age of fifty-seven.




Although early English readers of Sebald could not read his works in the order he created them, now that all of his nov­els are available in English translation, it makes better literary sense to take them in the order written rather than the order of their release. Vertigo (Schwindel, Gefühle) was the first of Sebald’s novels to be published, but not the first to be translated into English, probably because few thought it had a chance in the English language market.Vertigo would not appear in English until Sebald’s name alone guaranteed adequate sales. This may not be his most successful work of fiction, but the reader is best to start here because all the factors that would go into making Sebald’s oeuvre a unique accomplishment appear in seminal form in this, his first novel.**

Typically, Vertigo finds the narrator on the road recovering from a disability, a device Sebald would uses frequently in his non-academic works. This time he is traveling through North­ern Italy where he  picks up on the 19th Century journeys of Stendahl, Casanova and Kafka all seamlessly interspersed with the narrator’s own reflections and experiences as he follows in the footsteps of these literary figures. Sebald adorns these tales with enigmatic graphic reproductions—a tongue-depressed tonsil check shown in identical triptych, a disembodied hand, three line drawings of a man being washed down by a bath­house attendant, a building of no particular interest on an unremarkable street filled with people gazing in rapt attention at we know not what. This use of intriguing illustrations would become a signature Sebaldian device used in all the novels and serves not to extend his ruminations but to deepen the sense of times gone by.

At seventeen, Marie Henri Beyle crossed the Alps with Napoleon. He returns thirty years later under his nom de plume Stendahl to revisit scenes he believes fixed by memory only to discover that memory is not at all trustworthy, a recog­nition that becomes an important theme in Sebald’s fiction to follow. Pursuing the visit of Kafka to Northern Italy in the pre­vious century, the narrator relates a number of incidents which do not add up to a recapitulation of Kafka’s trip but serve as occasions for the narrator to make interesting digressions. Throughout his travels the teller of the tale is struck by the fre­quency of coincidence—the number 1913 reappears on sev­eral occasions as do other coincidental events—and this coincidence is telling us that our lives are interlinked. It is this interlinking of lives through coincidence, not story, that holds reality together. And so it is with Sebald’s fiction: we are given a great many interrupted and often curious events that quite intentionally add up to a permanently unstable reality.   




The Emigrants (Die Ausgewanderte), was Sebald’s second novel but the first of to be trans­lated into English, and many would say it remains his most moving work.  On the surface the novel appears to be straightforward, perhaps even true biographies of four emigrant Jews, but upon reflection, and Sebald always compels the reader to reflect, the lives of these characters constitute an arc of experience carrying the narrator, and the reader, closer to the Holocaust, with the event itself becoming the heart of the story of Max Ferber, the fourth narrative of the collection. All the emigrants escaped the historical event of the Holocaust—two of them emigrated from the continent before the Holocaust occurred—yet through the device of memory, our memory, the Holocaust as an historical event is forever present in the mind of the reader; this acts to shadow each of the emigrants while suggesting that all are doomed.

As in all of Sebald’s fiction, The Emigrants begins with a trip – in this case a search for rooms to rent in East Anglia, which leads to the discovery of old Dr. Henry Selwyn. As Selwyn’s tale unfolds, we learn that he is actually Jewish, only an Eng­lishmen by default. His family leaves Lithuania intending to set­tle in America. They arrive in England, mistake it for America, and do not discover their error until the ship has sailed. Now, a lifetime later, Selwyn feels increasingly estranged from the country he has lived in for most of his life. In his old age he longs for his boyhood home. Without the narrator needing to remind us, we are aware, as Selwyn tells his story, that Lithua­nia has gone through the horrendous experience, especially for Jews, of Nazi occupation. Here and throughout the novels of Sebald, the Holocaust is never mentioned but is constantly on the reader’s mind, evoked through language and selection of material. This shadow of the past, in Dr. Selwyn’s case retroac­tive and anachronistic—he had long since left Lithuania when the Holocaust occurred—lends a sadness to Selwyn’s account that presages a tragic end to his melancholic reflections.

Paul Bereyter, whose story constitutes the second episode of The Emigrants, was the narrator’s primary school teacher. Bereyter, a mischling with three parts Aryan blood, is run out of town to face


The wonderful future he had dreamt of that summer collapsed without a sound like the proverbial house of cards. All his prospects blurred. For the first time, he experienced that insuperable sense of defeat that was so often to beset him in later times and which, finally, he could not shake off.


Once again this is a premonition of tragedy. But German to the core, Bereyter returns to Germany in 1939 to serve in the army—as a mischling, the Nazis allowed him the right to be a soldier but not the right to teach—and at war’s end and the defeat of Germany, he even returns to his old teaching position from which he was sacked. Bereyter is not only obsessed by a country once intent on destroying him, which did in fact destroy him by destroying his future, but harbors as well a seemingly innocent fas­cination with railroads. First preparing himself by reading and notating writers on suicide, he employs his railway obsession to arrive at his own unhappy end.

Ambros Adelwarth, whose story dominates the third episode of the novel, is presented as the narra­tor’s great uncle who emigrated to the United States. In typical Sebaldian fashion, he encourages us to accept Ambros as actually related to him, highly unlikely as that might be since Sebald was not Jewish. Sebald so closely identifies with his narrator that they are often indistinguishable, and through this ploy he continually mixes fact with fiction—the essence of his style—which leads the reader to accept whatever he is telling us as objective reality. Ambros goes to work for a fabulously wealthy American Jewish family, spending his life purportedly as the family’s butler but actually retained as son Cosmo’s compan­ion, lover, and (as Cosmo sinks deeper into insanity) his care­taker. Ambros, eventually overwhelmed by memories of his wandering life with Cosmo, accepts his companion’s fate as his own and voluntarily commits himself to an asylum.

The story of the artist, Max Faber completes this tetralogy of melancholy lives. We meet Faber as an artist working in the decaying port city of Manchester who repeatedly erases his work until the painting is reduced to a few evocative lines. Revisited twenty-two years later by the narrator, we learn that although Max escaped the Holocaust, all of his family perished in it.

And so these lives spanning a century are brought full cir­cle, or for the reader, the arc of expectation reaches its histori­cally inevitable end.




The Rings of Saturn, Sebald’s third work of fiction, ostensi­bly consists of a ramble through East Anglia, and as the narra­tor rambles, so does this work, to grand effect. Rings, even more than Emigrants, is a composite novel made up of memoir, essay, travelogue, art criticism, natural history, and of course, faded graphics of the paraphernalia of the past. If we must con­sign Sebald’s work, especially this work, to a genre, Rings might be thought of as diary. Not a personal diary where the writer remains the focus of concern—Sebald, as narrator, is only the vehicle of memory, memory personified, the voice used to recapture the past. He does not set down personal experiences as they occur, but selects his eccentric material to transport us into the past and to ultimately tell a story, of sorts. Sebald is a master of transitions, and Rings consists of fiction and fact seamlessly interwoven—narratives where we turn back pages trying to discern just where the passage segued from fiction to fact and back again. Within a space of few sen­tences Sebald moves us from the grand palace of Somerleyton, a decayed country house in East Anglia, to the carpet bombing of German cities***, to the effect of depressed economics on the city of Lowestoft, which in turn is followed by dinner at the narrator’s hotel where he was brought


   ...a fish that had doubtless lain entombed in the deep-freeze for years. The breadcrumb armour-plating of the fish had been partly singed by the grill, and the prongs of my fork bent on it. Indeed it was so difficult to penetrate what eventually proved to be nothing but an empty shell that my plate was a hideous mess once the operation was over. The tartar sauce that I had had to squeeze out of a plastic sachet was turned grey by the sooty breadcrumbs, and the fish itself, or what feigned to be fish, lay a sorry wreck among the grass-green peas on the remains of soggy chips that gleamed with fat.


This account of a meal should not be taken as hyperbole but rather as a fair description of the food served in a great number of modest English restaurants.

As meandering as the seemingly aimless ramble of the nar­rator, Rings goes on to offer us an essay on herring fishing fol­lowed by a news article on Major LeStrange, who we are told participated in the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, and after decades of dining nightly in silence with his maid who was ordered not to say a word, left the maid upon his death his entire vast estate and...we turn back to the full two page photo of bodies strewn across a forest floor: is there a connection between the odd disposition of Strange’s estate and the Bergen-Belsen experience? Or was leaving his estate to his silent maid merely an example of English eccen­tricity that had become by Strange’s day a seriously cultivated national trait? Reader, make of it what you will. Following an account of the great maritime battle of Sole Bay (1672) between the Dutch and the English, the narrator pauses to order a carton of chips from McDonald’s before taking us on a tour of classic Dutch painting, all these intriguing digressions preparing us for entering a reading room where the narrator’s attention is drawn to a news item (depict­ing a subject to which Sebald returns in all his works)


...which was about the so-called cleansing operations carried out fifty years ago in Bosnia, by the Croats together with the Austrians and the Germans, [it] began by describ­ing a photograph [Sebald includes the photo] taken as a souvenir by men of the Croatian Ustasha, in which fellow militiamen in the best of spirits, some of them striking heroic poses, are sawing off the head of a Serb named Branco Junigic.


The article goes on to focus on one of the Heeresgruppe E intelligence officers at that time, “a young Viennese lawyer” who after the war


...occupied various high offices, among them that of Secretary General of the United Nations. And reportedly it was in this last capacity that he spoke onto tape, for the benefit of any extra-terrestrials that may happen to share our universe, words of greeting that are now, together with other memorabilia of mankind, approaching the outer lim­its of our solar system aboard the space probe Voyager II.


Later in the day at his hotel Sebald falls asleep watching television, and when he awakes all he can remember is men­tion of the English traitor Roger Casement who happened to have known Joseph Conrad, which initiates an account of the more obscure details of Conrad’s early life which in turn trans­ports the narrator to the Congo to ruminate on the horrors of Belgian imperialism


   ...Where hundreds of thousands of slave laborers were being worked to death every year by their white over­seers, and that mutilation, by severing hands and feet, and execution by revolver, were among the everyday punitive means of maintaining discipline in the Congo.  ...[King] Leopold explained that he considered the work done by the blacks as a perfectly legitimate alternative to the payment  of taxes, and if the white supervisory personnel at times went too far...it was do to the fact that the climate of the Congo triggered a kind of dementia in the brains of the whites...


This is how he does it. In passage after passage Sebald recaptures lost worlds with irony, eccentricity and detailed horror—and we remain glued to the page.

Continuing his hike the narrator espies a bridge that is said to have carried a train purportedly built for the Emperor of China—and so we are off to the waning years of Imperial China on another tour of history told in typically fascinating detail.

Try as they might, no commentator on Sebald has revealed how all this works to such splendid effect. Only those intoxi­cated accolades: stupendous, glorious, sublime.... And we too continue to wonder how Sebald did it, and finding no answer, place him in a genre all his own that must be personally explored to arrive at an answer.




Austerlitz, published in 2001, is much more a novel in the traditional definition of the term. That is not to say it is in any sense commercial-mainstream, but it does tell a story from beginning to end, more or less, and does recount the life, as memory, of Austerlitz, the primary character (and the narrator who so identifies with Austerlitz that it becomes his story as well). The two meet fittingly enough in a relic of the past, the immense and all but abandoned Antwerp rail station. Auster­litz is a student of art history, particularly architectural history. The narrator finds him sketching a detail of the building, they strike up an acquaintance, and so begins the story of Austerlitz. Not immediately. Sebald likes to break off after first meeting for a series of digressions to return decades later to hear the story that constitutes the implied motivation of the novel—when in fact the digressions are essential to the work. He does the same in Emigrants to great effect in revealing the past of Dr. Selwyn and Max Ferber. Austerlitz, we learn, was sent on a Kindertransport from Prague to Wales where he grows up in the home of a stern minister and his wife who conceal the boy’s past. In his early years Austerlitz harbors vague memories but aggressively avoids investigation of his past while living a lonely life with neither friends nor lovers. Then, years later while standing in the long empty Ladies Waiting Room of the Antwerp rail station, he has an epiphany of sorts: he has been there before, he realizes, as a child, and from this inner revela­tion he begins to piece together his past, the Kindertransport and the Jewish mother that put him aboard before being sent herself to a Nazi death camp. Austerlitz unfolds as a Holocaust story, again with no mention of the word and told as if from a great distance. Distance makes these Holocaust episodes all the more effective by lending them a universality not found in painfully intimate accounts emanating from the camps: Auster­litz’s tale becomes everyman’s search for the meaning behind childhood events only vaguely remembered; it is recognition as well and further documentation of the horror and brutality that make up the story of the human race.

Nonetheless, there’s something disappointing about Austerlitz. Coming as it did hard on the heels of three revolu­tionary works, Sebald left us unprepared for a work that is just a mite too conventionally novelistic.




On the Natural History of Destruction, Sebald’s long essay on the allied destruction of German cities during World War II, stands as one of his most important and most original works. Original because the theme of its message, that no German writer had undertaken an investigation into the moral implica­tions of the absolute destruction (through carpet bombing) of eighty percent of German cities, which killed 600,000 civil­ians, obliterated three-and-a-half million homes, created seven-and-a-half million homeless, and left behind 42.8 cubic meters of rubble for every inhabitant of Dresden. (Who, we wonder, measured it?) And Sebald goes on to inventory the destruction:  


Horribly disfigured corpses lay everywhere. Bluish lit­tle phosphorous flames flickered around many of them; others had been roasted brown or purple and reduced to a third of their normal size. They lay doubled up in their own pools of melted fat....


This was the result of a policy which accomplished no mil­itary purpose and was perpetrated solely as an act of revenge, an atrocity made especially repugnant owing to the high moral tone taken by the Allies both during and after the war.

The purpose of Sebald’s essay, however, is not to expose the culpability of the Allies but to underline the ethical limita­tions, or psychic blocks, of the German literary establishment who neglected to take up the moral issue made evident by the destruction that lay everywhere around them:

The darkest aspects of the final act of destruction, as expe­rienced by the great majority of the German population, remained under a kind of taboo like a shameful family secret, a secret that perhaps could not even be privately acknowledged.

But then one might ask what more can be said on the sub­ject of the massive targeting of civilian populations in recent history: once begun in earnest, war pays scant attention to morality. Nonetheless, Sebald insists that it remains the duty of societies that lay claim to being civilized to expose cant and hypocrisy if only by focusing on the evil that gave rise to it.

In all his works, Sebald has done that, taken up the moral cudgel. Speaking in the language of high art, he has excavated the tragic history of man (made particularly apparent in our time by the horror of the Holocaust) as have few writers of fic­tion before him.




Unlike his contemporaries, Sebald avoided exploring the joys and sorrows of interpersonal relationships, a once rich vein of literary inspiration long since mined to exhaustion and which in our time the movies do better. While the noted writ­ers of his day (and ours) seemed content to offer us characters consumed by the psychic and emotional trivia of life as if unaware of the vast number of calories man expends in cere­bral activity, that is, in the contemplation of ideas, Sebald pur­sued his own contrary path through literary territory that remains largely uncharted. Most of Sebald’s commentators agree that his books are not open to comparison but are essen­tially ‘Sebaldian.’ This being said, most do try, and after men­tioning Proust, Borges and Kafka, all masters of their closely inventoried world (but very different writers than Sebald, who made recovering lost worlds, in historical rather than fictional terms, the heart of his work) the commentators are reduced to those brief acclamations—Brilliant. Superb. The greatest writer of his time****—while sidestepping the question, What makes him so?  

Sebald was of course influenced by what went before. As a professor of literature for thirty years he was intimately famil­iar with the great literature of the Western World. There is a revisionist school already at work accusing Sebald of raiding the trove of world literature, with Thomas Browne frequently mentioned as the major inspiration. Browne, as well as Borges, no doubt encouraged the historically esoteric in Sebald, and like Proust, Sebald uses memory as a vehicle. But what Sebald made of these influences was something original. In Rings he renders the curious culs-de-sac of history in a magical realism quite his own, and in much of his work, Emigrants and Austerlitz particularly, memory becomes the dominant character.

Another school of revisionist thought slights Sebald for not being sufficiently realistic. Little response can be made to these critics other than to say they missed the point, since of course Sebald set out to dismantle realism, not replicate it.

Although no commentator in print seems to have made the connection, Ingmar Bergman in film appears to be one of Sebald’s major inspirations. Both are masters of angst achieved through psychic dislocation and a refusal to let story dominate the medium. Movies in the ‘50s and ‘60s were far more suc­cessful in deconstructing art in interesting ways than were prose writers, and Sebald, like all his generation, presumably grew up on Bergman. Just as Bergman did with pictures (par­ticularly in his middle period where he produced his finest work) it was Sebald’s intent through his command of literary technique, compelling language and vast erudition to create “a permanent disquiet” which, certainly in our time, more accu­rately reflects the human condition. In his fiction he entered utterly new prose territory (ignoring the postmodernist notion that the avant-garde in literature no longer applied) and bold frontiersman that he was, Sebald remains the preeminent, certainly the most consistently interesting, writer of his gener­ation.


* Mention must be made of the translators of Sebald—they could not have done it better. The first three novels were translated by Michael Hulse, and Auster­litz, as well as all of Sebald’s remaining works, by Anita Bell. They are both artists in their own right.

** Sebald’s exhaustive exploration of memory and the past and how it relates to the human spirit has been compared to Heinrich Schliemann’s decades-long excavations in search of the lost city of Troy.


** ‘Novels’ is used here merely as a term of convenience—and for lack of an alternative—for these works are made up of  fact and fiction, biography, auto­biography, history, travelogue, art history, photos, etc.


*** Which Sebald will expand on at a later date in his 100-page essay on the subject.

Compare the silence of German writers following the destruction of their cit­ies with the overwhelming response by U.S. writers to the destruction of the Twin Towers.

**** Few disagree that Sebald, if he had lived, would have won the Nobel Prize.