German writer shaped by the 'forgetfulness' of his fellow countrymen after the second world war
Monday December 17, 2001
'I don't think one can write from a compromised moral position," remarked the German writer WG Sebald, who has died, aged 57, in a car crash in East Anglia. That scruple put him at odds with much of contemporary writing.
Scorning the Holocaust "industry", and what he referred to as an official culture of mourning and remembering, Sebald disliked feel-good sentimental portrayals of terrible events - such as Thomas Keneally's Schindler's Ark. He claimed no false intimacy with the dead.
He wanted to find a literary form responsive to the waves and echoes of human tragedy which spread out, across generations and nations, yet which began in his childhood. In the ruined cities and towns of post-war Germany the causes of the destruction of an entire society were never discussed. His father, who came home a stranger to his three-year-old son in 1947, after being released from a PoW camp in France, said nothing about the war. Silence and forgetting were conditions of his early life.
In his father's photo albums he found pictures taken during the Polish campaign in 1939, and he sensed that something in the grinning German soldiers and boy scout atmosphere of the campaign, ending with the torching of villages not unlike his own Bavarian home in Wertach Am Allgäu, hinted at the meaning of the destroyed buildings, silences and absence of memory around him.
Sebald doubted whether those who had never experienced Theresienstadt or Auschwitz could simply describe what occurred there. That would have been presumptuous, an appropriation of others' sufferings. Like a Medusa's head, he felt that the attempts to look directly at the horror would turn a writer into stone, or sentimentality.
It was necessary, he found, to approach this subject obliquely, and to invent a new literary form, part hybrid novel, part memoir and part travelogue, often involving the experiences of one "WG Sebald", a German writer long settled in East Anglia. He was reluctant to call his books "novels", because he had little interest in the way contemporary writers seemed to find all meaning in personal relationships, and out of a comic but heartfelt disdain for the "grinding noises" which heavily plotted novels demanded. "As he rose from the table, frowning ..." was precisely the type of clumsy machinery, moving a character from here to there, which Sebald mocked.
In four books published in translations since 1996 (the Emigrants, the Rings Of Saturn, Vertigo and Austerlitz), Sebald was compared to Borges, Calvino, Thomas Bernhard, Nabokov and Kafka. (Sebald worked extremely closely with his English translators Michael Hulse and Anthea Bell.)
The narrative voice in his books is an inventive one, richly delineated. Reviewers grasped for the right comparison. Was it a gloomy Proustian. Or was it Jamesian? The persona or mask in his prose fictions, subtle and persuasive, was admirably serviceable for a writer devoted to an intense privacy. Paradoxically, for this most private of persons, Sebald delighted in using the "real" world as a springboard for meditations upon writing, history and the inner life.
Readers sometimes wrote to him, pointing out mistakes of one kind or another (the clock at an Italian train station was in the wrong location), but the deliberate "mistakes" were, for writerly purposes, adjustments to the historical truth. But only small things, and never the big issues, were to be changed.
Sebald, who was a devoted photographer, used images in his novels. Sometimes they were found objects, postcards, or something from an old newspaper. He was an exacting customer at the University of East Anglia copy shop, discussing what might be done with his images, adjusting the size and contrast. The photographs appear without captions and acquire meaning from the surrounding text. We read those enigmatic images through the story which Sebald provides, and then, later, come to the suspicion that they were something more (or less) than an illustration or documentation of the story. The way he handled visual images was characteristic of the way he wrote, determined not to make his point in an assertive way, but with implication and suggestion.
"Max" Sebald - he preferred the short form of one of his middle names, Maximilian, to his first name - grew up in a Bavarian village, one of four children of Rosa and Georg Sebald. His father, from a glass-making family, struggled in the disastrous postwar period, and joined the German army in 1929. He remained in the army after the Nazis came to power, and the family prospered under the Third Reich. The Sebalds came from an intensely Catholic, anti-communist rural world, wedded to local traditions and hostile to foreigners. His father remained a detached figure, and it was a kindly grandfather who was the most important male presence in his early years.
While studying at the grammar school at Obersdorf, his class was shown newsreel films from Belsen. He recalled that there was no discussion afterwards, and no one knew what to think about what they had just seen, or how to explain it. Sebald studied German literature at Freiburg University, taking his degree in 1965.
It was while he was at Freiburg that the Auschwitz trials took place in Frankfurt. The discovery that the defendants were ordinary people, like those he knew and had grown up with, came as a disturbing revelation. The witnesses for the prosecution, Jews who had survived Auschwitz and had come to Frankfurt from Brooklyn and Sydney to speak in a German courtroom, were disturbing in another way.
The confrontation of the German student radicals with the national past, and with their parents, in the late 1960s was not, in style, Sebald's. But he, no less than the Red Army Faction, was challenging the willed forgetfulness of his country.
In 1966, Sebald was appointed "lektor" at the University of Manchester, and four years later took a lectureship in German in the school of European studies at the newly founded University of East Anglia (UEA). Living in a small home with a decidedly rural feel at Wymondham, Sebald wrote a series of books which made him a formidable critic of German writing, including studies of Sternheim, Doeblin, the German theatre, and two collections of essays on Austrian writing.
The work of Elias Canetti, another European writer who was living in exile in Britain, and who, in the 1960s and 1970s, was unread, strongly attracted Sebald, and he urged the cause of getting Canetti back into print. He, too, thought of himself as living in exile, as a writer whose work could not be read around him. There was a healing isolation in that, of freedom which left him undistracted by the events of the day.
His lectures were sardonic and challenging, and possessed the same dry wit, and feel for irony, which enlivened his conversation. He had an incomparable feel for the oddness of life in East Anglia, where he was an inveterate walker and connoisseur of the isolation of an area which has been left largely untouched. There was not even a decent autobahn in East Anglia, and that suited him fine.
In 1987, he was appointed to a chair of German literature at UEA and, in 1989, became the founding director of the British Centre for Literary Translation. Amidst what was, by academic standards, a conventional and hugely successful career, there was another story: that of the decline and fall of the idea of "European" studies, and the shrinking pool of British students with the interest or the language skills to study German at degree level. The downward spiral of higher education in the 1980s strengthened Sebald's sense of isolation.
Yet it was, despite Thatcher, a period of stunning creativity for Sebald. In 1988 he published Nach Der Natur: Ein Elementargedicht, a meditation in unrhymed verse on the destruction of nature, to be published as After Nature in 2002. It was followed in 1990 by Schwindel Gefuhle (Vertigo) and Die Ausgewanderten: Vier Lange Erzahlungen (The Emigrants) in 1992, Die Ringe Der Saturn: Eine Englische Walfahrt (the Ring of Saturn, without the subtitle "an English Pilgrimage") in 1995.
Air, War And Literature, lectures delivered in Germany on the Allied fire bombing of German cities during the war, which caused protests from German readers who did not want to hear about their responsibility for the destruction of Warsaw and other European cities, is planned for publication in 2002.
Sebald became a writer who enriched the culture of Europe. The loss to literature and to his friends and family is unspeakable. He is survived by his wife Ute, whom he married in 1967, and his daughter Anna.
· Winfried Georg
Maximilian Sebald, writer, born May 18 1944; died December 14 2001