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.”