Each of W.G. Sebald’s novels is narrated by an unnamed man with a strong resemblance to W.G. Sebald. For a first-person narrator, he says extremely little about himself. But before long the reader comes to know the narrator on intimate terms: to understand his preoccupations (travel, memory, decay); to witness the associative workings of his mind; to feel the melancholy tinting his every perception; and to appreciate the pleasure he takes now and then in having a wry chuckle.
Sebald was born in southern Germany in 1944 and moved to England in 1966. He died suddenly in 2001, and all four of his novels were translated from the German years ago. The most immediate pleasure of Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964–2001 (Random House; $25), a new collection of Sebald’s poetry, translated by Iain Galbraith, comes simply from encountering this reticent but lovable man again—especially if you’d assumed, as I had, that he was gone for good. Here he is riding trains and ferries, visiting overgrown European palaces, browsing in junk shops. He speaks a little faster than in his fiction, thanks to the brevity of his poetic line. But even so, he sounds roughly the same: the long, windy phrases; the aversion to figurative language; the emotion stirring in the folds and crevices of a narration that, at first glance, is all reportorial detachment.
In the novels, this language works wonders as connective tissue. In an archetypal passage, the narrator describes a stranger (X) telling a story from years ago; in the story, X describes someone else (Y) telling another story from years ago. X paraphrases Y, the narrator paraphrases X paraphrasing Y, and the whole nested package is wrapped in Sebaldian prose. X’s and Y’s experiences are largely kept intact, but each sentence also tells us about the narrator: how the stories sound to him, and why he might be seeking them out. As the stories pile up and echoes resound between them, history is simultaneously made palpable and ephemeral. Years seem to occupy brief moments, sometimes enriching them, more often threatening to crush them.
The poems are too short to allow for much accumulation or echo. This explains why even the most striking among them—which are also the most recent—feel incomplete, like fragments awaiting placement in a wide-canvas bricolage. Indeed, more than one rehearses descriptions that would later appear in Sebald’s novels. In prose, fitted into a delicate, continuous pattern of the same timbre, they are thick with feeling and serve as rungs on a ladder leading down into the guarded narrator’s inner life. In Across the Land and the Water, the rungs lie disconnected on the floor, evoking nothing so much as their lack of fit with something larger.
Another difference from the novels: here the narrator has a name, the same name Sebald went by for most of his adult life. It’s called out by a truck driver he’s met on a ferry to Holland: “good to meet you Max.”
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As Sebald’s international renown grows, multiple biographies are sure to emerge. In the meantime there is Saturn’s Moons (Legenda; $89.50), an odd and fascinating “handbook.” Its core consists of essays by Sebald’s friends, translators, and adoring colleagues and students at the University of East Anglia. Also included is a catalog of all the books found in his home and office, several extremely detailed Sebald bibliographies, four poems about him, previously unpublished interviews and rediscovered pieces of his prose. The overwhelming mood of the collection—even the most visibly “scholarly” parts—is one of agitated mourning and loss. Like Sebald’s work, these essays scour the trail of the dead with great melancholy. We learn about his various living quarters, what his letters to Adorno said, the contents of his course syllabuses, the sorts of comments he wrote on his students’ papers, what he thought about computers and his pet hamster Hegel. Invariably, the search for any traces of Sebald gets tangled with the rich record left by his narrator. To peer closely at one is eventually to find yourself looking at the other—and growing gradually unsure which is which. One of his colleagues put it best: “The more I think about Max, the more elusive he becomes.”
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Similar truths lie at the heart of Patience (After Sebald) (Cinema Guild; $20.95), Grant Gee’s documentary response to The Rings of Saturn, Sebald’s digressive novel about a walking tour through the English county of Suffolk. Gee interweaves shots of the locations that Max describes with the voices of Sebald’s friends and devotees, mostly artists and writers, and occasionally the author himself. Insights into the Sebaldian mode and the sneaky magnetism of Rings abound. But the film’s real magic, like the novel’s, is in its atmosphere. Gee usually keeps the camera still and holds his shots long enough to force a real look. The pacing, combined with the predominance of black-and-white footage, captures not only the steady cadence of Sebald’s prose, but also the reader’s sense of ambling alongside him through gray mist and fog, past desolate beaches and cliffs sliding into the sea, and into the destructive flow of history itself.
One of the film’s most fascinating characters is Barbara Hui, a scholar who has made a Google Map tracking all of the places Max visits or ponders in Rings. Gee shows her attempting to zoom in on a shop in Suffolk. Google returns an error: “We are sorry, but we don’t have imagery at this zoom level.” Sometimes, the closer you get to The Rings of Saturn, to Max, to the truth, the more elusive each becomes.