Sebald, W(infried) G(eorg)

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SEBALD, W(infried) G(eorg)

Nationality: British (originally German: immigrated to England, 1966). Born: Wertach-im-Allgäu, 1944. Education: University of Fribourg, Switzerland; University of Manchester, England; University of East Anglia, Norwich, England. Career: Since 1970 professor of European literature, University of East Anglia, Norwich. Director, British Center for Literary Translation, University of East Anglia, 1989-94. Awards: Berlin literature prize, Johannes Bobrowski medal, Literature Nord prize, and Jewish Quarterly literary prize for fiction, all in 1997, for The Emigrants; Henrich Böll prize (Cologne); Los Angeles Times book award for fiction, 1998, for The Rings of Saturn: An English Pilgrimage.Address: Office: University of East Anglia, Norwich, Norfolk NR4 7TJ, England. Agent: c/o New Directions Publications, 80 Eighth Avenue, New York, New York 10011, U.S.A. Died: 14 December 2001.



Nach der Natur: Ein Elementardgedicht. 1988.

Schwindel, Gefühle. 1990; as Vertigo, 1999.

Die Ausgewanderten. 1993; as The Emigrants, 1996.

Die Ringe des Saturn: Eine Englische Wallfahrt. 1995; as The Rings of Saturn: An English Pilgrimage, 1998.

Austerlitz. 2001; translated as Austerlitz, 2001.


Carl Sternheim: Kritiker und Opfer der Wilhelminschen Ära. 1969.

Der Mythus der Zerstörung im Werk Döblins. 1980.

Die Beschreibung des Unglücks: Zur Österreichischen Literatur von Stifter bis Handke. 1985.

Unheimliche Heimat: Essays zur Österreichischen Literatur. 1991.

Logis in Einem Landhaus: Uber. 1998.

Luftkrieg und Literatur: Mit Einem Essay zu Alfred Andersch (lectures). 1999.

Editor, A Radical Stage: Theatre in Germany in the 1970s and 1980s. 1988.


Critical Studies:

"An Interview with W.G. Sebald," in Brick, 59, Spring 1998, pp. 23-29, and "W.G. Sebald's Uncertainty," in The Broken Estate, 1999, both by James Wood; "W.G. Sebald: A Profile" by James Atlas, in Paris Review, 41 (151), Summer 1999, pp. 278-95; "W.G. Sebald: A Holistic Approach to Borders, Texts and Perspectives" by Arthur Williams, in German-Language Literature Today: International and Popular, edited by Williams, Stuart Parkes, and Julian Preece, 2000; "Writing in the Shadows" by Margo Jefferson, in New York Times Book Review, 18 March 2001, p. 27; "Only Connect: In His Novel Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald Captures Germany's Tense Relationship with the Debris of the Past" by A.S. Byatt, in New Statesman (England), 15 October 2001, p. 52-3.

* * *

W.G. Sebald, born in 1944 in the Allgäu area of Bavaria, Germany, emerged by the end of the twentieth century as one of the preeminent German-language writers. After studies at the universities of Fribourg (Switzerland), Manchester, and East Anglia (Norwich), he became a professor at the School of English and American Studies at East Anglia.

One of Sebald's primary topics is the exploration of the nature and transmission of memory as it intersects with notions of time and identity (personal and collective). His first fictional text, Nach der Natur: Ein Elementargedicht (1988), already makes use of the intertextual technique of allowing a mutual permeation of fiction and nonfiction and of using documentary and biographical information and their simultaneous fictionalization. The resulting generic instability, a hallmark of Sebald's style, emerges even more forcefully in his next novel, Schwindel, Gefühle (1990; Vertigo, 1999). Published in the United States after the success of The Emigrants and Rings of Saturn, Vertigo is part travelogue, part scholarship, part biography—a text, as one critic has written, that "kneads history, fiction, reportage, fantasy, pictures, travel notes and autobiography into a dense impasto of fatefulness."

The relationship between memory and the perception of the world are a constant theme in Vertigo: "On this occasion in the midst of the holiday season, the night train from Vienna to Venice, on which in the late October of 1980 I had seen nobody except a pale-faced schoolmistress from New Zealand, was so overcrowded that I had to stand in the corridor all the way or crouch uncomfortably among suitcases and rucksacks, so that instead of drifting into sleep I slid into my memories. Or rather, the memories (at least so it seemed to me) rose higher and higher in some space outside of myself, until, having reached a certain level, they overflowed from that space into me, like water over the top of a weir." Facts in this universe are by definition overdetermined, and the piling up of memories and secondary memories leads to an epistemological instability that is, on a textual level, also enacted by the insertion of photographs that may or may not verify or destabilize whatever the narrative tells us.

Die Ausgewanderten (1993; The Emigrants, 1996) further intensifies this technique (the novel includes 86 photos and illustrations) in the exploration of the lives of four Jewish protagonists who were forced to emigrate, in some cases during the Nazi era. The Emigrants marks the first time Sebald explicitly combines the exploration of memory's mechanics with the loss of homeland for German Jewry and the Holocaust. While never mentioned explicitly, the Holocaust forms the still point of the worlds depicted in The Emigrants, an event that can barely sustain direct mention but informs the present, indelibly and without the potential solace of sublimation or Freudian working through. To have demonstrated the circumstances of a present that is always pregnant with the past is one of The Emigrants' merits.

Die Ringe des Saturn (1995; Rings of Saturn, 1998), on its surface a travelogue about a hike undertaken in Suffolk by the narrator, is a text whose rhetorical tangents and scholarly examinations are barely contained within the structure of its putative genre. As so often is the case with Sebald, all individuals and events discussed seem to share a submerged correspondence of sorts, and the narrator constantly attempts to extract what is hidden from what is visible. One critic has described this plethora of details as a sort of rhetorical "curiosity cabinet, a vanitas still life, where every artifact has an allegoric meaning."

Luftkrieg und Literatur (1999), a collection of slightly expanded critical lectures Sebald gave in Zurich, returns to the traces the Nazi terror has permanently left in the collective memory—this time the memory of Germans. Sebald argues that the absence of detailed representations of the Allied bombing campaign toward the end of World War II indicates a German inability to face the pain caused by their nation, as well as a tendency to allow this trauma sway over the collective psyche. Sebald further intimates that this inability to acknowledge psychological disturbances and to revert to "business as usual" as quickly as possible has also characterized Germans' approach to the Holocaust and has prevented them up to this point from addressing it with complete honesty.

Sebald's novel Austerlitz (2001) further refines the author's poetics of memory. As a four-year-old, Jacques Austerlitz, a Jew from Prague, loses his parents in the Holocaust and is brought to England on a Kindertransport in 1939. Thus the book chronicles how Austerlitz, after losing his name and mother tongue, spends a lifetime attempting to reclaim his identity—initially without being aware of either the specifics of his loss or how those specifics condition his unwitting activities at reclaiming his past.

Tellingly Austerlitz is at work on a project that reveals architectural progress as a displacement of history and the past. He realizes that these intellectual activities are an expression of a profound search and represent, in their avoidance of his own history, a flight from the truth. Austerlitz buries all his documents in his garden, meets his erstwhile nurse Vera in Prague, and finds out that his parents, Agáta Austerlitz and Maximilian Aychenwald, were murdered in the Holocaust. As in his other novels, Sebald weaves a dense tapestry of déjá vu moments, correspondences, and echoes of the past—in short, a tapestry of memory that demonstrates that the past never passes.

—Stefan Gunther

See the essays on Austerlitz and The Emigrants.