Notes on a Voice: W. G. Sebald

IL Sebald2 A.D. Miller in Intelligent Life magazine:

The essential theme of W.G. Sebald’s books is memory: how painful it is to live with, how dangerous it can be to live without it, for both nations and individuals. The narrators of his books—of which “Austerlitz” and the four linked narratives of exile in “The Emigrants” are the most compelling—live in a state of constant reminder. Everything blends into everything else: places, people, their stories and experiences, and above all different times, which seep into each other and blur together, often in long, unmoored passages of reported speech. The narrator of “Vertigo” gives a concise account of this method: “drawing connections between events that lay far apart but which seemed to me to be of the same order”.

Sebald, born in Bavaria in 1944, spent most of his adult life as an academic in Britain. He died in Norfolk in 2001, after having a heart attack at the wheel of his car. He wrote in German, but worked closely with his English translators, Michael Hulse and Anthea Bell. In either language, his voice is mesmeric.

Key decision

To invent his own hybrid form. Sebald’s main works blend travelogue and meditation, fiction with history and myth. They have a narrator who both is and is not Sebald himself: a spectral character who is sensitive, digressive and restless, compulsively peregrinating around Europe and its past.

Strong points

Finding a voice to fit his preoccupations. His sentences are looping, reflexive, moving forward yet endlessly turning back on themselves. By the time he wrote “Austerlitz”, the last book he published before his death, Sebald had more or less dispensed with paragraph breaks altogether. This fluidity creates a feeling, as the character Austerlitz says of his own sense of history, that “time will not pass away, has not passed away, that I can turn back after it”—clauses that are themselves part of a much longer, circular sentence. This is a style that tries to unbury the dead through syntax.