Magazine article The New Yorker

The Talk of the Town: W. G. Sebald

Magazine article The New Yorker

The Talk of the Town: W. G. Sebald

Article excerpt

The writer W. G. Sebald died in a car crash on December 14th. His daughter Anna was badly injured in the same accident. For many people who knew his work, the initial reaction to this news was not sadness--the emotion that Sebald himself dealt in with such distinction, and of which, in his capacity as a naturalist of human loss, he seemed to collect new and delicate species--but the more strident one of outrage. How dare the Fates expunge, as if with a sharp frost, this talent that was agreed to be in full flower? No life deserves to be cut short, but the injustice in this case approached the monstrous. There was only one person with a wisdom rueful enough to appreciate not just the tragedy but the ridiculous irony of the event, and that, unfortunately, was the deceased.

Then there were the circumstances: Sebald was killed at the wheel of a car. It seems such a hopeless setting. Rightly or wrongly, fans of "The Emigrants," "The Rings of Saturn," "Vertigo," and "Austerlitz" associate him with the tram, the train, and the swaying boat: all the conveyances of a Europe that was not quite up to speed with our craving for unchecked communication, and that spoke instead of a civilized obsession with moseying, meandering, and delay. And yet turn to "The Emigrants"--Sebald's first book to be translated into English, and still, to many readers, his best--and you find the narrator, in the opening sentence, driving through the English countryside. Far from being a throwback, Sebald was a modern figure to his fingertips, or wherever the nerves are most exposed; if deracination is the most pressing of modern themes, then few suffer it more graciously than Sebald's characters, who are doomed both to look homeward and never to arrive. His publications radiate not a reactionary disgust with the world but, instead, an irrepressible wish to enrich the present by digging below its crust--to direct our gaze, as though we were standing before a cliff face, at the compacted strata of history.

Sebald's reputation is one of such high, off-putting seriousness that the record needs to be set straight: he was, on the page as elsewhere, a good companion, and his province was not the ivory tower but the crinkled photograph album and the muddy track. And, just because his narrators could be comically depressed or scarily well read, that is no reason not to follow their musings; for Sebald, like an unexpected guest at a funeral, made it his business to extend elaborate sympathy--toward the bereaved, the dispossessed, and the plain peculiar. …

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