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.
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.
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.
Obliqueness, or, as one critic put it, tact. Sebald’s prose is finely wrought yet unflashy. His punctuation is rarely more exotic than the comma; his vocabulary is unadorned. Similes are uncommon: he deals instead in a sort of luminous reality. As in style, so in content. Asked about his approach to the horrors of 20th-century history—his work circles the Nazi Holocaust as if it were a mountain—Sebald once said that his aim was to intimate “to the reader that these subjects are constant company; their presence shades every inflection of every sentence one writes”, without describing the camps and catastrophes directly. It is loss, rather than bloodshed, that his books lament.
Putting pictures into the text that subtly reinforce these themes. They are black-and-white, uncaptioned and unexplained—pictures of people, but also train tickets, restaurant receipts, maps and other relics. They seem to advertise the veracity of the stories they appear in, yet they are artful and calculated. The images are often poignant, at once bringing back forgotten people and confirming that they are irrevocably lost. They point up a question that is at the heart of Sebald’s work: why do we cling on to some things from the past while the rest of it escapes us?
In the way it samples and fractures different subjects and stories, Sebald’s work is almost post-modern. Jorge Luis Borges is cited by some as a key influence on him. And yet his sentences are also plangently old-fashioned, sometimes reminiscent, for readers in English, of medieval periods. There are echoes of Thomas Malory and Thomas Browne and, in his dextrous weaving of complementary tales, of Ovid.
Many of the finest are too long to cite, so this, from “The Emigrants”, will have to do: “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.”
Vintage Classics reissue three of Sebald’s books this year: "The Emigrants", March; "Rings of Saturn", April; "Vertigo", June