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09/05/2013 09:45 am ET Updated Nov 05, 2013

After Sebald

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This essay appears in the September issue of The Writer's Chronicle.

W.G. Sebald, a German writer who spent much of his life in England, wrote a small number of highly respected and strange literary novels. He also wrote some poetry and criticism, but his most-widely read books are Austerlitz, a melancholy recollection told through the eyes of a now adult kindertransport refugee, and Rings of Saturn, a walking tour of the eastern coast of England that sweeps up all the historical detritus in its path. Rings of Saturn is what introduced me to Sebald. I purchased the book at a Barnes & Noble in Eatontown, New Jersey, to read on the beach during the summer of 1999. This is possibly the strangest choice of beach reading I have ever made; the book is steeped in an erudite gloom. But the choice was also wise and provided an antidote to the various other goings on--yelling for "Johnny," the reek of tanning lotion, a baffling sun--that characterize the summer in Belmar. The book was a revelation and inducted me swiftly into the church of Sebald's reverential readers. I would read everything he wrote, and did, as the various works were translated and presented throughout the bookstores of America. Sebald seemed to herald something new, and as a writer and teacher of writers--I'm now a professor in the MFA program at Umass Amherst--I felt that I should read Sebald's work, which seemed essential. It was something of a shock, therefore, when in the final days of 2001, not long after my ardent conversion, Sebald was suddenly dead. The writer had suffered a heart attack while driving and lost control of his car. A daughter, Anna, survived the crash. All the rest of us survivors--his readers--mourned his passing and wondered how we would get by robbed of his literature, and, in the weeks that followed, what the import of his work had been.

Sebald's death was unexpected, but what surprised me most about it was the fact of Sebald's driving. Even Sebald's presence in a car seems implausible. The tone of his work is formal, even Victorian, and his narrators--who often read as a projection of self--make him appear to be the kind of person who could and did walk everywhere, or the sort who--if it were possible--would remain in one place and assemble his life through observation as the world rotated past where he stood. Death in a car crash or even by heart attack does not seem a fitting end for Sebald, who probably would have chosen something a little less fast and a little more singular: for example, the death of the father in the Ambros Adelwarth chapter of 1992's The Emigrants, whose brief hegemony upon the page is brought to an end when a boiler explodes in a soda factory on the Lower East Side, killing him, after which the body is found "in a partly poached state." Sebald is a patient writer and one of his hallmarks is his ability to slow and still every process; here, "partly poached" seems to imply that perhaps the body is on its way to being completely dead, rather than actually having arrived. This frozen state--the prolonged pause that stutters like the image on a VHS player--is one of Sebald's signatures. The pause will expire, the image move on, but not until we've indulged in its unnatural stasis. It's as if Sebald gives the reader permission to stare, to slowly explore memory, image, and most particularly time, and he seems to define time as what happens to man and object alike on their way to annihilation. Time is tracked by subtracting an articulate past from a less articulate present. In his narratives, people are survived by their possessions, things that summon the ghosts of their former owners, and Sebald's fiction is cluttered with these melancholy objects. Often, it is the objects themselves that speak of their former owners, objects that evoke the specific melancholy that rises when we stand for too long in an antiques store or, more powerfully, when we encounter our old toys and other once-loved things, each telling of what has been lost as we hold what still remains.

Sebald is also a chronicler of dislocation, and migration--forced or voluntary--looms large in all his major work. In fact, Sebald's fiction is so concerned with migration and death (which, in his books, reads as a sort of migration from this world to the next) that it is remarkable when a character is possibly indigenous or still alive. That Sebald's narrators are constantly in transit and, most often, aliens, guarantees that they are always approaching their subject matter with a fresh set of eyes. In the rovings and observations of, let's say, the unnamed narrator of Rings of Saturn, we have a character who mostly conforms to the flaneur as described by James Wood in his book How Fiction Works, "the loafer, usually a young man, who walks the streets with no great urgency, seeing, looking, reflecting." Ring's narrator is not particularly young and has forsaken streets for the less-populated English countryside, but we are still walking and observing and not much else. Plot is unnecessary to move a book around when you've given the narrative an actual pair of legs, pair of eyes, and an articulate, thoughtful voice. Observation becomes an organizing principle and places and people quickly assume the status of objects, picked up one at a time, until the interest is exhausted, as if we're browsing in a quirky junk shop. This digressive mode of narrative organization is another of Sebald's hallmarks, as is using pictures in the text, or approaching a fictional narrative as if it were travelogue. Also, Sebald looks at some of the bleakest moments in history, but doesn't approach them head on; in Austerlitz, we do not go to Auschwitz, but rather see the dispossessed furniture that remains after its owners have been transported. This sense of distance is further enhanced by the measured, "ghostlike" voice of the narrator. Sebald also writes long sentences and longer paragraphs with an airless yet hypnotic effect and this particular device has been adopted--often with unintelligible results--by a few young writers who understand the form of what Sebald is doing but often miss the content.

All of these literary techniques and devices--digression, distance, a need to address history however obliquely, et cetera--pre-date Sebald, but his work calls attention to them in a startling way. Sebald's technique is fore-grounded and provides an easy vocabulary for discussing anyone who seems to resemble him. I'm not undermining my assertion that Sebald is influential, but in a world defined by, let's say, migration, one cannot conclude that writers would start addressing this phenomenon in response to Sebald. And in a technology driven culture where escaping screens has become impossible, it seems inevitable that photos would pop-up in literary fiction. But it's hard to write about travel, surviving horror, historical asides, eccentrics, furniture, birds, architecture, landscapes, schools, dust, drafts--to write observantly at all--without evoking the German master. As the daughter of someone who lived through the Japanese Occupation of Manila, I experienced that "horror" in an "oblique" way, and this has inspired some of my writing. I am familiar both with items that survived the war--bizarre plantation-style chairs ornately carved with the Garcia "G"--and what didn't: my grandfather. I have also written of the power of "melancholy objects" in a novel, Forgery, and my last book, Tales of the New World, on explorers, owes something to the travelogue. Certainly, I admire Sebald, but I am also a writer who ponders the ills of society--contemporary and historical--through her work. Since I've migrated several times, (U.S., Australia, Philippines, U.S.) narratives of "dislocation" intrigue me. Others have, or are familiar with, personal histories not unlike my own; therefore, despite the chilliness of his narrative tone, Sebald provides a register of emotion--grief, awe, curiosity--that, along with his expansive historical sweep, resonates with a surprisingly broad readership.

Sebald is a writer who inspires writers to write about Sebald. That Sebald is a good writer contributes to this, but there is also the fact that he is somewhat mannered, as opposed to, say, Tolstoy, who most people feel is also good, but who does things in such an organic and subtle way that the criticism seems far more speculative. I've read that Tolstoy's characters "determine themselves," which is considerably more opaque an assertion than "Sebald puts pictures in his books." Sebald's tendencies are so clearly defined and specific that, although he invites discussion, one is at constant risk of repeating the observations of others. Susan Sontag, James Wood, Stephen Clingman, Geoff Dyer--a respectable slew of writers and critics--have written astute analyses of Sebald's style and, in the luxury of writing after Sebald's death, what his work now means. Sometimes these critics are moved by Sebald's moral fortitude, or are in the grip of his "repressed humor." No one seems to have anything negative to say. Even Sebald's flirtation with the boring, as observed by Dyer, can be seen as a hypnotic literary technique. For me (writer, teacher) Sebald's influence--or what looks like Sebald's influence--becomes remarkable in its ability to be instantly recognized, in the pictures in Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, for example, or in Dyer's literary travelogues, but in this short space I will address the echoes of Sebald in a few contemporary writers' recent books-- Teju Cole's Open City, Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, Nicole Krauss's Great House, and Edmund De Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes-- and then take a couple of paragraphs to wonder about where Sebald might have come from and how this affects and defines the current literary scene.

The strict flaneurial approach (young doctor, New York City) is easily identified in Cole's novel, Open City. And this may account for some of Wood's warm embrace of the book in a New Yorker review of February 28, 2011, which, incidentally, poked fun at the "comedy" of allying the book with writers like Joseph O'Neill and Sebald--names bandied about at the time for the purpose of selling a then unknown author, but there is merit to the comparison. Cole's book is more plotted than Rings of Saturn, however no more so than Austerlitz, with which it resonates in a profound way. A fascination with migrating birds in Open City echoes an interest in homing pigeons in Austerlitz. Sebald's patient exploration of Antwerp's Centraal Station is brought to mind when reading Cole's description of the Wall Street subway stop in Open City. Cole's narrator Julius's depressed state permits a number of people to relate their tales to him with little interruption, allowing these peripheral characters a presence on the page, guided yet unfiltered by Julius, and free from the dominant narrative: the trajective movement of the narrator--Julius is a flaneur--acts as a sort of clothesline on which to peg minor narratives. These marginal figures speak unmolested, and this stylistic swerve is much evidenced in Vertigo, Emigrants--in truly all of Sebald's fiction. Cole toys with the same structure, although his work is more interested in idea and identity, and not--as is Sebald--with ironic gloom and history, public and private. Although where Sebald is a presenter of historical event and character and process, Cole prefers the ideas that move people and therefore nations: the motivations that act as the engines for what propels the present. Unlike Sebald, Cole renders sex and its aftermath (love, trauma, children) as the driving force of human experience. Sebald prefers torture to be self-generated--ontological--or the result of mass annihilation, such as war or aging. Searching for romantic love in Sebald, I find the section in Austerlitz, in which the title character goes on holiday with his girlfriend and ends up in the hospital. One can't say that Sebald finds romance physically incapacitating--Austerlitz is in the hospital with depression--but that is how it inscribes itself in memory, and since Sebald compulsively peddles in memory, it's hard not to think that he intended the two--romance and hospitalization--to be linked in the reader's mind.

Ultimately, what binds Open City and Austerlitz together is dislocation, but since Cole is Nigerian-born, living in New York, one can't attribute that to Sebald--he could just as easily be inspired by V.S. Naipaul or Caryl Phillips or, given his history, no one--but Sebald's masterly handling of the subject matter is much in evidence.

In Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, set in New York shortly after 9/11, we again have our migrants and alienation and loss, as well as fixated observation that increases the volume of every detail, in one instance quite literally when, because of the acoustics of a Tribeca loft, "a goods truck smashing into a pothole sounded like an explosion, and the fantastic howl of a passing motorbike once caused Rachel to vomit with terror." I can't imagine that O'Neill is really inviting us to be terrified by a motorbike, no matter how loud. We're not supposed to hear it without the narrator controlling its meaning and effect. We're not reading about the sound of motorbikes, but rather the frozen helplessness of the narrator. This filtered observation mutes the surroundings, controls it, and--despite the mystery and linear narrative embraced in Netherland--allies the book with Sebald. Sebald's narrators often seem to be haunting their own narrative, and van den Broek speaks from this twilit life that best chronicles the modes and actions of others who inhabit their societies more fully. O'Neill's van den Broek is also a walker, who after his mother's death will "walk and walk" and who sees this as some mild form of somnambulation. Of course, characters in books walked before Sebald came along, and O'Neill might just as easily be showing his Irish roots--Stephen Daedelus was a great one for walking--as anything else. But the tone of this migrant's tale brings him to the table with Cole and Sebald.

The academic, erudite manner of Sebald's voice--what Wood refers to as "sly faux antiquarianism"--is evidenced in yet another young lion of fiction, Nicole Krauss. In Great House she writes of Cloudenberg, a manor on the outskirts of Brussels, owned by a man who once worked in King Leopold's Congo. Brussels, Leopold, and the Congo are all subjects dear to Sebald: Austerlitz opens in Brussels and Leopold's Congo is explored in the Rings of Saturn. As our narrator, Isabel, follows the master of the house "down the long hallways and the winding garden paths, past sheared hedges, through the boxwood maze, and up and down (mostly up) the stairs of the great stony castle, blooming into the atmosphere the way water around a harpooned seal fills with a cloud of blood," I find myself recalling the many corridors and gardens, boxwoods and meandering stairs of Sebald's fiction. Of course, Sebald can take no credit for the dying seal's gorgeous exsanguination, but Krauss's measured voice, as Isabel encounters "a great melancholy mass" of furniture, does show an appreciation for some of what Sebald is about. Austerlitz ends in Paris with a similar excess of furniture, abandoned to this world by transported Jews. Both Sebald and Krauss write about the Holocaust, heading from different directions but creating points of convergence as they explore history--large and personal--in their work.

Interestingly, the book that most evokes Sebald in all his particular concerns is a work of non-fiction, Edmund De Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes. Hare starts in Japan as we gaze at a collection of netsuke, Japanese carved ornaments formerly affixed to the sash of a kimono, carved by hobbyists and masters alike as a sort of meditation. De Waal, a highly respected ceramicist, is of the Ephrussi family, bankers, whose success once rivaled that of the Rothschilds. Of the Ephrussis fabulous wealth, all that remains--in the wake of the Third Reich--is this one collection that, through circumstance and guile, has managed to find its way back to Japan. De Waal's book traces the netsukes's journey, winding us back from the rubble of the Holocaust to the unfathomable heights of Ephrussi wealth in Paris and Vienna in the half-century before World War II.

"This is a book Sebald would have loved," declares the Irish Times on the book's back cover. It is tempting to respond, "Actually, this is a book that Sebald could have written." But that is not all together true. Edmund De Waal's family legacy is such that Sebald would have desired it for one of his characters. The pictures in De Waal's book do more than create a tension between text and image--that pleasing divide so conducive to introspection. De Waal's pictures are actual works of art and the images--an ancestral uncle captured in a corner of Renior's Boating Party, a mansion on Vienna's Ringstrasse--stand on their own as objects of fascination. And the digressive nature of the narrative is less an eroding of the undergirding structure of the work, and more of a pointed journeying-about on a prescribed track as we reenact the movements of the netsuke. Also, De Waal works very hard to bring the tactile seduction of netsuke to the reader: History--letters, photographs, beds, hats--is to be touched, handled, and shared. To contrast, Sebald gives us the great machine of memory--constant, unspooling--and its implied solitude.

Fiction and non-fiction. German and Jew. Writer of words and creator of objects. It is as if Sebald and De Waal stand in opposition, separated by the surface of a mirror. De Waal uses his melancholy objects as a way to keep focused on what has survived, to distance himself from violent loss and painful survival. Sebald approaches these same objects and finds a touchstone in their survival, a way of communing with the innocent dead.

There is a tendency to revere Sebald as if he had exploded onto the literary scene fully-formed, as adult Athena burst forth from Zeus's forehead, but of course this is not true. His belief that the writer has a moral obligation to represent history in all its horror, no matter how obliquely, is something that Sebald shares with the Frankfurt School of Writers, who had their heyday in the 1920s. As for Sebald's tunneling narrative style, in a 2001 radio interview, Sebald expressed admiration for Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard's "periscopic form of narration," which, according to Sebald, maintains an integrity by not inventing, but rather by relating what one has heard from others. Whether Bernhard shared the moral certainty that "periscopic narration" is intrinsically honest is impossible to determine--Bernhard too is dead--but currently one reads both Thomas Bernhard and W.G. Sebald, and while listing similarities does verge on the pedantic, it is interesting to look at some of their shared territory. In Woodcutters, Bernhard's darkly comic novel of 1984, although half the narrator's tale is related from a quickly iconic "wing chair" and all of it told in a seated position, there is tremendous movement through the narrator's psychological landscape: he might as well be walking. In Rings, the narrator's physical movement through the countryside--registering, filtering, cataloguing--creates a psychological landscape through observation. In Woodcutters, we have a deepening understanding of the narrator's emotional terrain, whereas in Rings, we enter with a presumption of intimacy (the voice is intimate) but are slowly--in tandem with the narrator--alienated. Neither writer has an interest in action-driven plot. Both like a long, uninterrupted sentence or paragraph, which represents a single uninterrupted consciousness relating a tale whose parameters are defined by that consciousness. Sebald traffics in personal absence; Bernhard spins out of a charged hyper-presence. Sebald moves linearly; Bernhard circles like a vulture. Sebald prefers the slow march of narrative that reads like a leisurely slideshow; Bernhard believes in the emphatic burst. Both writers pursue sense through accretion, but where Bernhard feels raw and unprocessed, Sebald feels utterly distilled. And one might wonder why I marry the two so casually, and some of it is from the critical comparisons of others, but my confidence truly comes from something in the culture. As of late, I have encountered people who are "rereading all of Bernhard" and people who are "rereading all of Sebald," although I meet few people who will admit to be encountering either writer for the first time. And I leave off my discourse on Bernhard with this: although some books, for example Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station, might seem to owe a debt to Sebald (there are pictures), in truth they owe more to Sebald's German-speaking neighbor, the caustic, brilliant ranter, Thomas Bernhard.

In the past eleven or so years much has been written about Sebald. We know well the elements of his fiction and we who admire him know that he is so much more than their sum. Few writers who might still be living are so admired by so many people who are themselves admired, and Sebald does herald the emergence of a movement in fiction, which--much like the Slow Food Movement that emerged around the same time as Sebald's early work-- requires patience. So how influential is Sebald? There have always been pictures in books-- medieval books of hours were all illustrated--and narratives that blur the line between travelogue and fiction have been around since the days of Pliny, and, as stated earlier, there are persuasive cultural reasons to mobilize both these techniques. The last (and maybe the first) time someone said "a genre is hardening" it was James Wood in his essay "Hysterical Realism" that appeared in The New Republic in 2000. That essay looked at big books packed to capacity whose elements and fabric--almost like compressed molecules--had a sense of fizzing density, but little else; these books were deemed the less talented offspring of distant Dickens. The big contemporary novel was a "perpetual motion machine" that wanted to "abolish stillness." Standing on this particular piece of literary terrain ten or so years after both Wood's essay and Sebald's death, I am likewise tempted to say that a genre is hardening. It is a genre characterized by all the "Sebaldian" elements mentioned earlier in this essay, and it is a body of writing that, despite its affinity for walking, does not eschew stillness. Its writers are confident that a book composed of erudite, patient exploration--one that does not cajole nor tempt, and if it does flirt, flirts with the possibility that the reader might misidentify the fascinating for the boring--could have sufficient, beguiling narrative force to justify its existence. A book like this does not compete for the attention of certain readers, but rather for readers of certain attention. A book of this genre--Sebaldian-- would identify the "page-turner" as the reader, and not the book itself. And this, perhaps, is Sebald's legacy.