Sebald, W. G. (1944–2001)

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SEBALD, W. G. (1944–2001)


German novelist.

When W. G. Sebald died in a car accident in December 2001, he was at the height of his literary career, having just published his last novel, Austerlitz, to international acclaim. He left behind three other works in prose—Schwindel. Gefühle (1990; Vertigo, 2000); Die Ausgewanderten (1992; The Emigrants, 1996); and Die Ringe des Saturn: Eine englische Wallfahrt (1995; The Rings of Saturn, 1998)—as well as several volumes of literary criticism and poetry. He was a professor of European literature at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, where he had lived on and off for more than three decades. Sebald's prose can be situated at the confluence of three traditions: first, nineteenth-century German realism, represented by such writers as Gottfried Keller and Adalbert Stifter and characterized by detailed descriptions of the natural world; second, literary modernism, represented by the work of Alfred Döblin, Franz Kafka, and Thomas Bernhard; and, third the German-Jewish literature of memory produced after the Holocaust by figures such as Paul Celan, Jean Améry, and Peter Weiss. Because Sebald is one of only a handful of German writers to confront the Holocaust and the burden of memory explicitly, his prose represents an important articulation of the possibilities and pitfalls of the German-Jewish interrelationship after World War II.

Sebald was born in the provincial Bavarian town of Wertach im Allgäu on 18 May 1944. He did not have any firsthand experience or knowledge of the catastrophes taking place in Europe during the last year of the war, but as he noted in Luftkrieg und Literatur (1999; The Natural History of Destruction, 2003), these unseen horrors formed the background of his life. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he spent his entire literary career struggling with what it meant to write literature after World War II and, perhaps even more urgently, responding—through the personalized medium of literature—to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting at the core of postwar German culture. Significantly, he examined this dialectic from England, writing all his major works from the vantage point of a German expatriate and consistently thematizing this perspective in his prose through his searching German narrators.

Although he is best known for those of his literary works that touch upon aspects of the Holocaust, Sebald probes many of the buried layers of Europe's violent past: the carving up of Africa by the colonial powers at the end of the nineteenth century; the ecological catastrophes caused by pollution and the exploitation of the natural world; and the history of modern warfare, particularly the firebombing of German cities, to mention just a few. In so doing, he dissects both the human and the natural history of destruction, illuminating them poignantly in his works through haunting topographies of memory. Sebald describes these topographies through labyrinthine narratives that fold back on themselves, creating precarious constellations of word and image, history and literature, biography and autobiography.

Breaking the taboo on speaking of German suffering, Sebald gave a set of polemical lectures in Zurich in 1997; they were subsequently published as Luftkrieg und Literatur. He accused German authors of repressing and strategically avoiding the trauma of the firebombing by uncritically identifying with the postwar ideology of the "economic miracle." Claiming that virtually every extant account of the firebombing was to some degree untrue, Sebald called for the creation of a synoptic and artificial view of the destruction. He used the techniques of literary modernism to describe the real firebombing of Hamburg in 1943, thereby indicating how literature could help people comprehend, work through, and even write catastrophic history.

This creation of a new, decidedly modernist space between literature and history is nowhere more apparent than in his last work. Hailed as his greatest achievement, one that placed him on a par with Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust, Austerlitz is a fictional story about the recovery and transmittal of memory based on real events. In it, a German narrator befriends a Jewish man named Austerlitz, who, as he discovers in the course of their meetings and journeys together, was sent by his parents to England on a Kindertransport (children's transport) before his family was murdered by the Nazis. But the story Sebald tells is far from simple: as a periscopic composite of text and images, it is a timely meditation on the possibility of remembering, representing, and transmitting the traumatic past in the uncertain spaces of the present.

See alsoGermany; Holocaust.


Eshel, Amir. "Against the Power of Time: The Poetics of Suspension in W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz." New German Critique 88 (winter 2003): 71–96.

Hell, Julia. "The Angel's Enigmatic Eyes; or, The Gothic Beauty of Catastrophic History in W. G. Sebald's Air War and Literature." Criticism 46, no. 3 (summer 2004): 361–392.

Huyssen, Andreas. "Gray Zones of Remembrance." In A New History of German Literature, edited by David E. Wellbery, 970–975. Cambridge, Mass., 2004.

Long, J. J., and Anne Whitehead, eds. W. G. Sebald: A Critical Companion. Seattle, Wash., 2004.

Presner, Todd Samuel. "'What a Synoptic and Artificial View Reveals': Extreme History and the Modernism of W. G. Sebald's Realism." Criticism 46, no. 3 (summer 2004): 341–360.

Todd Samuel Presner