In the third section of The Emigrants, W.G. Sebald’s 1992 novel (if that’s the right word for it), an unnamed narrator who bears a strong resemblance to Sebald journeys in search of the truth (if, again, that’s the right word) about his great-uncle Ambros, whom he met only once, as a small child in southern Germany, and who ended his days in an asylum in Ithaca, New York. The asylum, he discovers, has long since closed. Its records, as the retired psychiatrist who treated old Ambros reveals, have most likely been devoured by mice. “Nowadays,” says the weary doctor, “I place all my hope in the mice, and in the woodworm and deathwatch beetles. The sanatorium is creaking, and in places already caving in, and sooner or later they will bring about its collapse.”
This, in Sebald’s work, counts as optimism, even as whimsy. One day soon, we can only hope, the madhouse of history will crumble, and humans, its creators, will make way for more deserving beasts. When that comes to pass, Sebald, like old Ambros, won’t be alive to see it. He died in a car accident in 2001, leaving behind a great deal of the-Nobel-Prize-that-could-have-been chatter, a few short volumes of poems and essays—among the latter, A Place in the Country, translated by Jo Catling and recently published in English—and four almost unclassifiable works that libraries and bookstores shelve as fiction, but that would not be out of place among memoirs, travel narratives, literary biographies or histories.
For the sake of convenience, let’s call them novels, though they neglect almost all of that genre’s conventions, plot foremost among them. They are rarely funny, never sexy, anything but stylish. Uncaptioned photos, drawings and ticket stubs interrupt the text, but despite this appearance of contemporaneity, Sebald’s rhythms borrow more from nineteenth-century German prose than from any postmodern, or even strictly modernist, forms of disruption. The same authorial voice floats among them all, a ghostly “I” who shares obvious biographical details with Sebald: childhood in Bavaria, graduate studies in Manchester, an academic post and willful exile in Britain, vast erudition, frequent melancholic wanderings. The Sebaldian “I” is a capacious one: he quotes his subjects and interlocutors, often for many pages at a time, his own voice flowing seamlessly into theirs. Although most first-person fiction strives for revelation, for an ever-narrowing focus on a protagonist’s inner truth, Sebald isn’t interested in conforming to the model. His “I” is less subject than vehicle. It doesn’t develop, it simply moves, usually on foot and sometimes by train, not in arcs but in sly, digressive meanderings, frequently returning to its point of departure.
What the novels lack in the forward thrust of plot, they make up for with intricate weavings and an eerie sense of simultaneity. Events do not follow one another; they circle and repeat. Themes develop in an almost fuguelike fashion. Recurring place names, literary references, historical characters and shadowy figures—a Nabokovian man with a butterfly net in The Emigrants, Kafka’s hunter Gracchus in Vertigo, silkworms and Borgesian nausea in The Rings of Saturn (1998)—lend structure to Sebald’s investigations. Strangely, they make for gripping reading. The coincidences and mirrorings create an almost vertiginous sense of urgency, as if Sebald’s orbit is drawing more and more tightly around an abyss. Which, of course, it is.
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Sebald writes about train stations, herring, rubble, sugar, manor houses, the bitterness of exile, firebombing, memory and amnesia, Dutch Elm disease, and writers, always writers: Kafka, Stendhal, Conrad, Swinburne, Flaubert and Thomas Browne, to name a few. He is frequently read, though, as primarily concerned with the legacy of the Nazi genocide. On their copyright pages, Austerlitz (2001) and The Emigrants are categorized as Holocaust fiction. And the concentration camps, of which Sebald rarely makes overt mention, do loom large in his prose. Born in 1944, he was too young to witness much of anything. His parents were not. His father, a career soldier in the German army, brought his mother an album of photos from the Polish front, Sebald writes in Vertigo, including shots of gypsies “who had been rounded up…looking out, smiling, from behind the barbed wire.”