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.”
His mother and father never spoke about the Holocaust, and Sebald was deeply concerned with destroying the “conspiracy of silence,” as he called it in one interview, in which his parents’ generation cloaked their shame. The title character of Austerlitz escapes Czechoslovakia with the kindertransport. One of the four main characters of The Emigrants describes fleeing Munich as a teen in 1939; another, conscripted despite his Jewish ancestry, loses his fiancée to the camps. (The latter incident, recounted in a single sentence, provides a fine example of Sebald’s unflinching prose: “there could be little doubt that Helen and her mother had been deported in one of those special trains that left Vienna at dawn, probably to Theresienstadt in the first instance.”) His own emigration to England, he suggests in the same novel, stemmed from his repulsion at “the mental impoverishment and lack of memory that marked the Germans, and the efficiency with which they had cleaned everything up.”
Sebald was not referring here only to the Holocaust. In a series of lectures delivered in Zurich in 1997, later published in On the Natural History of Destruction (2003), he broke the mold of postwar German penitence, arguing that the aforementioned impoverishment stemmed not just from the repressed memory of Germany’s infamies, but also from its suffering, specifically the unprecedented destruction of its cities by British aerial bombardments that took 600,000 civilian lives. This slaughter, he wrote, “seems to have left scarcely a trace of pain behind in the collective consciousness,” a banishment that contributed to “the creation of a new, faceless reality, pointing the population exclusively towards the future and enjoining on it silence about the past.”
The lectures were not universally well-received. Even fifty years later, the suggestion that the hardships of the twentieth century’s leading villains were worthy of attention seemed in questionable taste. Christopher Hitchens, writing in The Atlantic Monthly, faulted Sebald for appearing “to want to have this both ways.” But Sebald, who died before the lectures’ English publication, was not interested in asserting German victimhood. He would likely have been repelled by the notion. (At various points in the novels, he writes of encounters with his former countrymen with undisguised aversion: “How I wished…that I belonged to a different nation, or, better still, to none at all.”) His ambitions, and his despair, stretched far beyond the bad conscience of his homeland.
Hence his interest in decay. Nearly every structure and landscape that Sebald’s novels describe is in some advanced state of collapse or abandonment: the city of Manchester, British country homes, French seaside resorts, Belgian forts, asylums too. The usual markers of urban renewal count here as tokens of decline: every place one might visit, he writes in The Emigrants, “regardless of the country or continent, was hopelessly run down and ruined by traffic, shops and boutiques, and the insatiable urge for destruction.” Among many other things, Sebald’s corpus is a furious argument against the Western conceit of progress. History, he writes in The Rings of Saturn, “does not describe an ever-widening, more and more wonderful arc, but rather follows a course which…leads without fail down into the dark.” In On the Natural History of Destruction, he quotes at some length Walter Benjamin’s famous meditation in “Theses on the Philosophy of History” on the “angel of history”: the angel’s face is turned to the past, “one single catastrophe” piling wreckage at its feet as it is blown into the future by a storm called progress. It should be no surprise that in Sebald’s appropriation, the messianism of Benjamin’s allegory passes into oblivion.
Neither the extermination of the Jews nor the firebombing of Hamburg, Munich and Dresden are, for Sebald, exceptional events, but an outcome long foreshadowed by other crimes and by the very shape of modern reason. Sebald delights in spotting rot where others perceive accomplishment, in finding skeletons where others find delight. In The Rings of Saturn, he writes of Conrad, returned to Brussels from the Congo, seeing in the architectural bombast of the Belgian capital “a sepulchral monument erected over a hecatomb of black bodies.” Later he discourses on the “curiously close relationship that existed, until well into the twentieth century, between the history of sugar and the history of art,” namely that many of Europe’s great patrons of the arts made their fortunes with capital originating in the slave economy. The story of the West, if not of all humanity, is one of unmitigated murder and destruction—of other civilizations, and of the natural world. Just as the Amazon is today burnt for grazing land, the forests that once covered Europe were long ago cleared and burned for farmland and industry. “Combustion is the hidden principle behind every artefact we create,” Sebald writes. “Human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away.” Enlightenment is here another word for devastation, the flickering brightness of a cataclysmic flame.
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This view is perhaps nowhere more explicitly articulated than in A Place in the Country, which, curiously, is also perhaps Sebald’s most tender and jovial book. But then it is about six men he professes to adore, a painter and five writers. It is not so different from his novels—the same peripatetic “I” intrudes here and there—except that it is far more direct and less intricately textured than those works. These are essays, after all. They are, Sebald writes in the foreword, tributes to “colleagues who have gone before me,” just a few “extended marginal notes and glosses, which do not otherwise have any particular claim to make.” His modesty isn’t entirely false: the chapters on Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Robert Walser are lovely, but none of the six count as rigorous works of literary criticism. He is, as usual, up to something else.
The book is structured in roughly chronological order, beginning with an essay on Johann Peter Hebel (born 1760, died 1826: forgive yourself if you’ve never heard of him) and ending with the contemporary German painter Jan Peter Tripp. Rousseau was Hebel’s elder by nearly half a century, but starting with Hebel allows Sebald to open by juxtaposing an already anachronistic prelapsarian notion of a “world in perfect equilibrium”—the lapse in this case being the French Revolution, and the beginning of the modern era—against an “eschatological vision unparalleled in German literature.” From that vantage point—“the doom-laden glimmering of a new age which, even as it dreams of humanity’s greatest possible happiness, begins to set in train its greatest possible misfortune”—the essays that follow trace the downward spiral of modernity, which is, seen from another angle, the confident ascendancy of the European bourgeoisie.
Via the Romantic poet Eduard Mörike, we witness the taming of the radical aspirations of the late eighteenth century in “the becalmed waters” of the post-Napoleonic years. Via the Swiss novelist and poet Gottfried Keller, we read of the defeat of the revolutions of 1848 and the growing “havoc which the proliferation of capital inevitably unleashes upon the natural world, upon society, and upon the emotional life of mankind.” The grand cataclysms of the twentieth century remain outside the frame, bracketed by Tripp and Walser, whose descent into madness Sebald reads as an act of “inner emigration,” a flight from Europe’s looming implosion. The final essay is on Tripp, and it feels more like a not particularly pertinent side note than a conclusion. The painter was Sebald’s friend and occasional collaborator, but A Place in the Country—which, in a two-step of literary despair, takes its title from a Walser story about a breakdown suffered by Heinrich von Kleist—is otherwise very much a book about writing.
Sebald doesn’t like it—writing, that is. He doesn’t like it at all. Its byproduct, literature, is well and good, but “from the writer’s point of view, there is almost nothing to be said in its defense, so little does it have to offer by way of gratification.” He calls writing a “vice” and a “peculiar behavioral disturbance.” He elaborates this view in the essay on Rousseau, for whom the capacity to reason was not, as for Descartes, the source of man’s perfection. Thought was instead what exiled us from the happy freedom of our natural state. It was damnation itself. “No one,” Sebald writes, “recognized the pathological aspect of thought as acutely as Rousseau, who himself wished for nothing more than to be able to halt the wheels ceaselessly turning within his head.” In this regard, “one could also see writing as a continually self-perpetuating compulsive act, evidence that of all individuals afflicted by the disease of thought, the writer is perhaps the most incurable.”
A little grandiose perhaps—fellow writers, do you hear the blaring symphony of tiny violins?—but you get the idea. Reason is no savior. It is a false god and an affliction. All the great accomplishments of bourgeois civilization—from the principle of limited liability to the gates of Auschwitz—are symptoms of this disease. And the perspicacious writer, compelled to transform the enormity of existence into ordered lines of small black letters, is perhaps uniquely trapped. The five selected for tribute here are almost stock Sebaldian characters: broken and despondent, struggling to pull themselves from the crevasse of their understanding, seeking refuge in nature, solitude and silence.
There is something sour in all of this, something stodgy and not quite honest. Maybe it’s a knot that Sebald was unwilling or unable to unravel. Maybe his father’s guilt cramped his hands. But could he really have been sincere when he asked how we are to understand Walser, “who was so beset by shadows and who nonetheless illuminated every page with the most genial light”? As if light had nothing to do with shadows? He is willing to allow that—to a reader, at least—language can “sometimes succeed in opening up vistas of such beauty and intensity as life itself is scarcely able to provide.” Sebald, who set other writers’ books inside his books, and other books inside of those, knew better than to suggest that reading and writing are such radically different acts. Why deny that there are satisfactions, ecstasies even, to a sentence that breathes as it should? That writing—and even the unceasing grind of thought—is not “one of those special trains” leaving Vienna at dawn? It departs from other stations too, and travels to destinations other than Theresienstadt, on tracks that bend and warp and intersect in the most delightful and paradoxical of shapes.
This is not to say that we are not doomed, and that thinking didn’t get us here. Or that whatever species have not yet gone extinct won’t be better off without us. Dr. Sebald’s diagnosis seems grimly accurate enough. But as the seas rise and the drones buzz and the polar vortex dips toward the equator, you will likely need a laugh or two, some recollection of the pain of love and the warmth of another’s flesh. This will not be the book you want to tuck beneath your arm.