Hamish Hamilton, £14.99, 213pp. £13.49 from The Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030; Legenda, £45, 677pp from The Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Across The Land And The Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001, By WG Sebald, trans. Iain Galbraith
Saturn's Moons: W G Sebald – A Handbook, Jo Catling and Richard Hibbitt (editors)

 

As Jacques Austerlitz remarks towards the end of the book that bears his name, we "have appointments to keep in the past... and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time, so to speak". Let me, briefly, keep one of those appointments. On a bright February day in 1998, I'm sitting with Max Sebald, professor of European literature, over lunch in the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts on the Norwich campus of the University of East Anglia – where he has taught since 1970.

My tape recorder is running as this conversation will feed a profile (the second British interview, as the heroically complete bibliography in Saturn's Moons tells me) of the expatriate German author Winfried Georg Sebald, born in 1944. He began his literary career in earnest (and in German) with the meditative narrative poem, After Nature, in 1988. First acclaimed in the UK for The Emigrants in 1996, he was soon to publish in translation a fictional-factual account of a walk along the Suffolk coast, The Rings of Saturn.

His talk – droll, deadpan, sharp, sombre, bristling, benign – raises the question defined in a poem called "The Sky At Night": "what relation/ does a heavy heart bear/ to the art of comedy?" An intimate one, for sure. At some point, conversation turns to the gnomic, free-floating and uncaptioned photos that dot his fictions and have become one of the most imitated traits of an inimitable writer. He mentions his habit of scouring junk shops and market stalls for these images. The gazes of the people in them haunt because they no longer live among us – but still have questions to ask. For Sebald, they have "like all the dead, a sense of grievance. They say, 'Please, can you try and do something about it?'"

Can we? On 14 December 2001, on a road near Norwich, Sebald joined their number: a heart attack at the wheel caused the crash that killed him. I had seen him that September after a South Bank event in London, just prior to the publication of Anthea Bell's beautifully shaped and shaded translation of Austerlitz (which he collaborated with, phrase by phrase and page by page). He seemed to be enjoying not so much his late-arriving literary celebrity – the idea would have repelled him – but the rapid expansion of the circles of readers who grasped what his books were trying to do, and loved them for it. Since his death, at 57, those circles have spread across the oceans.

Quite apart from the British authors who follow his paths, acknowledge a debt or simply bow to a master (A S Byatt to Will Self, Geoff Dyer to Robert Macfarlane), the writers overseas who have since 2001 spoken to me of Sebald in awe and gratitude range in their origins from Denmark (Jens-Christian Grondahl) to Colombia (Juan Gabriel Vasquez). Visual artists such as Tess Jaray and Tacita Dean have made works after, in the wake of, his own. Poets from Andrew Motion to George Szirtes and Hans-Magnus Enzensberger have elegised the great elegist. This year, in Aldeburgh, Patti Smith gave a tribute performance for one of her favourite authors. The film-maker Grant Gee – who has directed documentaries with or about U2, Radiohead and Joy Division – has completed Patience (After Sebald). Across continents an academic mill grinds, stocking the shelves of Sebaldiana logged with such passionate diligence in Saturn's Moons.

In Austerlitz, the bewildered Kindertransport émigré finds respite from his stifling Welsh Calvinist foster home and dismal boarding school at his friend Gerald's eccentric house. Gerald's mother Adela, we hear, "had the gift of being remembered". And so, to an extraordinary degree, did Austerlitz's creator. It figures. Sebald's entire career in literature pursued fresh and valid forms of remembrance and reparation – specifically for the Holocaust and the crimes of the "German fascists", but pervasively for all the times of cruelty, and all the cruelties of time. "Only in literature," he said in a speech in Baden-Württemberg in November 2001 (quoted by Florian Radvan in Saturn's Moons), "can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of facts".

Across the Land and the Water, which reframes in Iain Galbraith's gracefully unsettling translations of poems from all stages of Sebald's adult life, contains "Bleston". He wrote this "Mancunian canticle" while a teaching assistant in German at the University of Manchester (1966-1970), after he had left Germany – for good, as it turned out. ("Bleston" was the name given to an imaginary Manchester by Michel Butor, who held a similar post there, in his novel L'Emploi du Temps.) Sebald, the Bavarian soldier's son from Wertach in the Allgäu region, had quit his native hills just after the Auschwitz trials of 1963-1965 in Frankfurt. A mutinous young scholar in the grimy and crumbling Victorian city of The Emigrants, he writes that "Now that death is all of life/ I wish to inquire/ Into the whereabouts of the dead". That inquiry took him the rest of his artistic life. "It strikes me," writes novelist Luke Williams – a former pupil – in Saturn's Moons, "that if the dead were to write themselves, they would write like Sebald". Which is fair enough, so long as we expect from the dead a wickedly oblique sense of humour.

Published to coincide with the 10th anniversary of his death, these two books neatly complement each other. The "selected poems" features two early collections, Poemtrees and School Latin, alongside the later pieces of Across the Land and the Water and The Year Before Last. At the outset, Sebald writes as an enigmatic miniaturist, later as a less delphic chronicler of his voyages. As in his prose, the poems invest every landscape with an archaeologist's sense of the pain, toil and loss secreted in each layer of soil. Always an inveterate "Border Crosser" – between lands, ages, moods, poetry and prose, history and fiction – he seeks "to register/ what we have forgotten". "Hang up your hat/ in the halfway house," advises the early poem "Schattwald in Tyrol". So he did. What a hat – and what a house.

Galbraith's invaluable notes tease out the allusions to literature and history – often enough that of the Third Reich's atrocities – that Sebald can bury in a casual nod to a place name or surname. He also shows how the narrative poems serve as kernels or embryos for longer sequences in the prose works. So the visit in "New Jersey Journey" to a metal-worker uncle nourished the "Ambros Adelwarth" section of The Emigrants. Comically lugubrious, "Day Return" re-runs the routine of the poet's rail trips from Norwich to Liverpool Street and back – another root of Austerlitz. When, in Ipswich, he spots a wall scrawled with "Hands off Caroline", some readers may recall the fight to save a North Sea pirate radio station. But did Sebald also think of Caroline of Brunswick, the much-loved German proto-Princess Di persecuted by her philandering husband, the Prince Regent? In Sebald, each graffito can be a palimpsest, each notice or hoarding a portal into history's seething underworld. These signs he has taken for wonders.

Moving from the style of the poetic telegram (or tweet) to the scholarly encyclopedia, Saturn's Moons gathers memoirs, essays, documents, photos, interviews, poems and bibliographies into an erudite and deeply engrossing Sebald compendium. It fits his oeuvre that in place of a formal biography we have this border-crossing miscellany in which comment may be free but facts are indeed sacred. Michael Hulse, his equally gifted translator before Anthea Bell, reprints the correspondence in which he asked Sebald to confirm that the quartet of exiles' testimonies so artfully braided into The Emigrants tell real stories about real people. It mattered.

Sebald sets Hulse's mind at rest. He writes back that: "I quite understand your concern & can assure you that all four stories are, almost entirely, grounded in fact."

The wonderful alchemy via which Sebald transmuted the found material of actual biography and history into fiction that kept faith with truth explains much of his appeal to a time in which so many literary genres have come to sound vacant – empty vessels or bleached shells. Several contributors here circle around the dogged magic of his art, poised somewhere between pedantry and sorcery. In Luke Williams's words, Sebald wrote in a way that "spoke honestly about loss and confusion, about a world on the verge of destruction, in a voice that was itself clear and precise".

Beyond the critical essays, eye-opening biographical pieces capture (with Sebaldian family photos) his childhood and student years, and the enduring influence of his grandfather: the village policeman Josef Egelhofer. Colleagues' reminiscences include enraptured (even star-struck) snapshots from students who conjure a teacher and friend they found "quite simply extraordinary". Critics plant his fugitive, melancholy, offbeat tones in the ground of the Swiss, Austrian and Bavarian writing that furnished his literary Heimat. Sebald's "southern accent" never faded. Jo Catling unpacks the library of this supreme reader-turned-writer to reveal a learned magpie who swooped on the bookish gems that his art could use. The poet Stephen Watts, whose tramps with Sebald through East End streets also lie in the foundations of Austerlitz, refers in a heartfelt memoir to his friend's "warmth and open spirit, his humour... not against talk of the melancholy in his writing, but alongside it".

Watts points to Sebald's sense of identity as an Alpine writer: a rustic highlander, and a witness to archaic traditions as well as to the crimes and follies of modernity. In an interview, Sebald remembered that during his Allgäu childhood, "you couldn't bury the dead in the winter because the ground was frozen", so "you had to leave them in the woodshed for a month or two until the thaw came".

Yes, there's a laugh line packed in there – as always. Thanks to Sebald, we can converse with the victims of a genocidal century as with those neighbours in the shed, rather than with spectres and statues. So, the next time the pleading looks of the departed fix you from old photos, answer them like this: Max Sebald understood.

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
Crime watch: Cara Delevingne and Daniel Brühl in ‘The Face of an Angel’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
News
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
News
‘The Late Late Show’ presenter James Corden is joined by Mila Kunis and Tom Hanks for his first night as host
news
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss