Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Monday, December 14, 2015

W. G. Sebald in Memoriam

Sebald Rings of Saturn
W. G. Sebald (May 18, 1944 - Dec. 14, 2001) is my favorite German writer of his (and my) generation. He died on this day 14 years ago in a car accident.

I consider Sebald a soul mate (I hope this doesn't sound too presumptuous). We are both expatriates (I do not use the word "immigrants" because it implies a degree of identification with the country I live in that I do not feel), and neither of us can shake a horrified awareness of the atrocities committed by Germans of our parents' generation during the Nazi period. I do not say "memory" because we were too young to have experienced any of this first-hand, but these events become memories for Sebald's protagonists in search of their past and, through them, for the narrator to whom they tell their stories. Through him, a barely disguised Sebald himself, they become like memories also for us, the readers.

It is not surprising that Sebald's temperament appears to be overshadowed by what reviewers have called a deep-seated "melancholy". But it is also important to note that this melancholy can give way to fits of outrage or be lightened, at other times, by a sly sense of humor. What comes across, in the end, is a profound unease about the world he knows, which resounds powerfully with me and has made reading him one of my addictions.

Addendum (12/18/15). Our affinities extend to reactions to specific authors or artists. Nabokov seems to have had a specific appeal for Sebald—the writer appears, in person, in several of his stories—and Nabokov is also one of my favorite authors. Furthermore, Sebald appears to be as impressed by the painter Mathias Grünewald as I am. This elusive painter is the subject of one of the three poems in Nach der Natur (After Nature), and one of the protagonists in Die Ausgewanderten (The Emigrants) visits Colmar in France specifically to see Grünewald's masterpiece, the Isenheim Altar. I have been to Colmar for the same purpose, and standing in front of the crucifixion at the center of the altar, I experienced something that I can only describe as an existential shock—it had never happened before and has never happened again when I came across a piece of art.

Carol Jacobs on W. G. Sebald


avidreader said...

I looked him up after reading your comment. Admit to never have heard of him before. Thanks. What would be his most accessible piece of writing? I like melancholy as much as the next guy but would like it "lite" for starters. (It's the holiday season, after all.)

By the way, what's your opinion of the Time magazine's man of the year?

Merry Christmas and a happy new year to you and yours.

(Thanks for trusting me to not be a robot. My son pondered the question when he was 4.)

Ulrich said...

avidreader: As you can guess, asking about a piece of Sebald that could be called lite is a bit like asking for a traditional French recipe that doesn't use cream or butter. I believe the best way to start is with The Immigrants, a collection of 4 stories that established his reputation in the English-speaking world--you'll be able to get used to him in smaller doses. Spoiler alerts for the following!

The first of these stories is the shortest and the one I still do not get entirely--you may skip if for starters, or be able to tell me me what it is all about after you read it. The second is wonderful, about a 1/4 Jewish teacher who is prevented from working in the profession he loves during the Nazi era. He returns to teaching after the war--the narrator is one of his pupils and lovingly describes what he (i.e. Sebald) must consider to be an ideal teacher. The setting is particularly poignant for me because I know it so well--a school in a small, catholic town where teachers still write with chalk on blackboards and pupils on slate tablets. There is also much humor in this section.

The third one is my favorite--the story of a friendship, in the early decades of the last century, between the Jewish heir of a fortune in New York and a German immigrant employed as his valet, but really his lover, we must assume. They travel extensively, including to the Near and Middle East, and Sebald's description of Jerusalem and the "Holy Land" in the 30s is fascinating, to me (no idea how accurate it is). They experience pure happiness at the Dead Sea (and not much of it afterwards). BTW We get a description of New Jersey along the way that is not entirely flattering.

I have to refresh my memory about the 4th story. One has to keep in mind that Sebald's approach to sadness and horror is what he himself calls "oblique": We get tales of tales, i.e. a narrator reports what others have told him, and the sadness or the horror seep in slowly, sometimes like in a bad dream. That is, you need patience, but if you have the disposition for it, the experience can become addictive, as I have said.

Heika said...

I have read some Sebald but, unlike you, I found his melancholy approach to life understandable but not to my taste. I would have liked a little more of Nabokov's sly, sardonic humor to leaven the sense of doom hanging over Sebald's work. Still, your personal response to his writing has led me to rethink my own, and I will try again, starting with the third story in The Immigrants.

I looked at the Jacobs book on him and thought again about when, why and how it was that literary studies cut itself off from the interests or concerns of ordinary people in order to focus solely on the writer's language and what it reveals about, well, language and, when it gets really wild, memory or cognition.

The standard stereotype of the literary academic was, at least when I went to graduate school in the 80s,was of a man or woman who preferred interacting with words rather than people. Jacob's book makes me think the stereotype, despite the passage of time, needs no revision.

Would you perhaps consider writing a personal essay on the the story you say you like best and explain what it is that pulls you in as a reader. I'd love to read something like that. In fact, I am hoping that this post might the first of many about German writers.

I'd also be interested in your take on how well or poorly you think Merkel is going to survive the current refugee crisis. I admire her compassionate response but wonder if it will do her in politically.

Ulrich said...

@avidreader: Ooops—the book is called "The Emigrants", not "The Immigrants" in English.

@Heika: In the third story, the protagonist Ambros Adelwarth submits to electro-shock treatment in Ithaca, NY after his friend has died. Although Seebald does not say this explicitly, it is clear that Ambros does this because he feels that his life is "over" after his friend's death—he wants to erase his memory, at least, if not to die. I find this very moving, not the least because Seebald does not end the story with the horrifying details of shock treatment, but with the description of the friends' happiness during their last journey. In light of this, it becomes more understandable why Ambros subjects himself voluntarily (Seebald puts great emphasis on this aspect) to the treatment, while the details of the treatment become even more horrifying. It's heart-breaking without a trace of sentimentality.

As usual, Seebald approaches his main subject obliquely. He starts with a rich description of the German immigrant experience, at a time when having an "uncle in America" was something devoutly to be wished in a German village (like the one Seebald or I grew up in). The story of Ambros and his friend emerges slowly. It becomes memorable precisely because it isn't told straight so that the reader is forced to pay attention.

[This is an aside for readers interested in German idioms: At one point, Seebald uses the idiom Sie hat nah am Wasser gebaut [She has built (her house) close to the water], which means she's ready to burst into tears at every opportunity. I'm very fond of this expression.]

I cannot comment on Jacobs's book because I haven't read it yet—bought it, though, and will get back if I have anything to add.