Memory's Martyr. (Books)

Article excerpt

Je mehr von Heimat die Rede ist,

desto weniger gibt es sie.

(The more talk about home,

the less it exists.)

- W. G. Sebald from Unheimliche Heimat

Major Works by Winfried Georg Sebald:

1988 Nach der Natur (From Nature, untranslated)

1991 Unheimliche Heimat (Eerie Homeland, untranslated)

1992 Die Ausgewanderten (The Emigrants, trans. Michael Hulse [New York: New Directions, 1997])

Die Ringe des Saturns (The Rings of Saturn, trans. Michael Hulse [New York: New Directions, 1998])

1994 Schwindel Gefuhle (Vertigo, trans. Michael Hulse [New York: New Directions, 2000]).

1999 Luftkrieg und Literatur (Air War and Literature, currently being translated)

2001 Austerlitz, trans. Anthea Bell (New York: Random House, 2001)

On December 14, 2001, the fifty-seven-year-old German-expatriate writer Winfried Georg Sebald was, as the media in his country put it, "mortally mishapped" (todlich verungluckt), i.e., killed when he lost control of his car--perhaps stricken by a heart attack -- and swerved into an oncoming truck in Norfolk, England. (His daughter Anna, riding with him in the car, was severely injured.) Critics and readers around the world mourned the loss of this deeply engaging, quirky, elegiac writer, who had moved in a few years from near-total obscurity at the University of East Anglia to the ranks of the Nobel Prize candidates, but Sebald himself seems to have expected something like this. (His alter-ego Jacques Austerlitz describes himself, shortly before the end of Sebald's very last book, as "thinking I was about to die of the weak heart I have inherited, from whom I do not know....")

All of Sebald's life was overshadowed by death. In one of the prose poems in his first publication Nach der Natur ([drawn or painted] From Nature), Sebald notes that on the day he was born, Ascension Thursday, 1944, there were storm clouds hanging over the Alps in his Bavarian hometown of Wertach im Allgau; and one of the baldachin-bearers in the church procession through the fields was struck dead by lightning. Elsewhere in Europe, of course, death was raining down from the skies in a far more devastating and frightful manner. Later, at the age of fourteen or fifteen Sebald recalls asking his religion teacher at the Oberstdorf Gymnasium how Providence could have allowed the air-raids on nearby Sonthofen (whither his family had moved in 1952) to destroy neither the barracks nor the Hitler Youth "fortress," but the parish church and the hospital chapel, killing about one hundred civilians. Whatever the priest's answer, Sebald was so unimpressed that he forgot it.

Sebald was destined to spend his life wandering from place to place asking similarly unanswerable questions in his own unique form of meditative monologue: dense, detailed, meticulously researched recitatives in an old-fashioned, elaborate, mellifluous periodic style (dubbed by German commentators, who never met an Anglicism they didn't like, the "Sebald-Sound.") Language was, in the end, the closest thing to a homeland he ever found. "When I began to write at forty," he once said, "at first it was only to carve out some free space for myself in the everyday world." Once he started carving, he couldn't stop.

Postwar Germany, absorbed in rebuilding and mesmerized by its prodigious Wirtschaftswunder, deliberately forgetful of both the horrors it had caused (Auschwitz, etc.) and those it had suffered (Dresden, etc.), was unthinkable as a homeland. England's memory of such things was keener (many RAF bombers raiding Germany had taken off from around Norwich, where Sebald wound up spending more than half his life), but even in the Victorian brick house he settled in, Sebald characterized himself as "chronically unsettled....I've lived here for thirty years, but I don't feel in the least at home. …