BOOKS: Signal from the isle of the dead

Campo Santo By W G Sebald, trans Anthea Bell HAMISH HAMILTON pounds 16.99 (228pp) pounds 15.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
WG Sebald has already received the ultimate accolade of a Private Eye satire by Craig Brown: "Strawberry or orange? It was then that I remembered that orange is the colour of the robes that adorn the corpses of women in Delhi who have died hideous deaths, a haunting and melancholy detail I have never been able to shed from my memory when ordering a lolly."

Brown would have a field day with Campo Santo. In a sunset, Sebald, who died in 2001, sees "a whole race of people stacked onto a great pyre"; congratulating the people of Stuttgart, the birthplace of Holderlin, on opening a House of Literature, he connects the city to the French town of Tulle, where "almost exactly one hundred and one years after Holderlin's death", the entire male population was rounded up by the SS and murdered. I don't suppose that the good burghers of Stuttgart were amused.

But that, of course, was his point. Death, destruction and memory were his obsessive subjects, together with art, literature and nature, and, among other things, absurdity, paranoia and love. Of course, he was punished for it. Killing the messenger is an ancient practice, as is protecting ourselves with laughter - in Sebald's own humour, as well as Private Eye's. In the end, whether you think he is an old gloom-bucket or a great artist will depend on your experience. If you think he exaggerates the evil and suffering in the world, you will take the gloom-bucket line. If you think, as I do, that they cannot be exaggerated, read on.

Campo Santo opens with four short pieces from a book about Corsica which Sebald abandoned in the mid-1990s. There are no other recent literary works left to publish, the editor tells us. Probably, this is the last book of Sebald's fiction that we shall ever have. Publishing what's left on people's desks usually profits the publisher more than the writer, who would be horrified to see uncooked efforts served up as a ready meal.

Perhaps there are elements of that here, in the unrelieved diet of Sebaldian obsessions. But to anyone who already loves Sebald's mysterious circling around his themes, the four slim chapters of his unfinished book will be a precious addition to the canon. Each of the four buzzes like Wittgenstein's fly around one theme: the presence of the past in the first, in which we meet two messengers of Napoleonic history; the dead and their haunting of the living in the second - the richest chapter, and perhaps the greatest Sebald obsession; human violence against animals and trees in the third; and a glimpse of a cursed place in the fourth - once again, perhaps, recalling the Germany of Sebald's birth.

Following this fragment of fiction with a selection of essays shows how similar the genres are in Sebald, equally scholarly and imaginative. Two essays are early versions of his last book, The Natural History of Destruction, and make his argument clear. It is not simply that German literature failed to deal with the wartime destruction of the cities, but rather that - with very few exceptions - it dealt with it in the wrong way: clinging to the old, rhetorical devices of the novel, instead of attempting a documentary confrontation with the facts, which is the only way to ensure that catastrophe is truthfully remembered.

With these two essays he adds writers like Alexander Kluge and Hans Erich Nossack to his canon, which the other ten explore - Kafka, Nabokov, Handke and Chatwin, for example; plus others less familiar to us, such as the schizophrenic poet Ernst Herbeck. Sebald's admiration for Herbeck sheds much light on what he was trying to achieve in his own poetry; just as the other essays illuminate the aims and achievements of his prose.

It was seeing the work of Jan Peter Tripp - a friend from schooldays - which made him want to move from academic to artistic work himself, Sebald says; and which gave him his model of "patiently... linking together apparently disparate things". That is what the boy born in Germany in 1944 was always trying to do: to remind us that we all live in the same world, that the stars over Stuttgart and Beverly Hills are also seen "wherever columns of trucks with their cargo of refugees move along the dusty roads".

Carole Angier's `Primo Levi: the double bond' is published by Penguin