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.
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