Tag Archives: W G Sebald

The Ghosts of Memory

Hermetic Library fellow John Eberly reviews the books of W G Sebald.

Sometimes conventional labels fail us. This is certainly the case with the hybrid style of the late post-WWII German writer W. G. Sebald. Is it fiction or non-fiction? Narrative? Memoir? Reportage? Biography? Travelogue? A synthesis of all of the above connected at times by the faintest of associations that produce a unique, compelling dream-like effect on the reader might be a workable definition of the Sebald style. The only other writer of the twentieth century who vaguely compares with him might be Thomas Bernhard, who Sebald acknowledged as important, but this similarity is solely based on Bernhard’s more biographical writing. When one experiences what writer Rick Moody calls “textual compulsion” regarding the addictive quality of Sebald’s experimental prose, you see that there is no peer for this author, there is only corpus Sebald. It is, however, a relatively brief corpus, considering that during a lifetime cut short by a fatal automobile accident at the age of 57 in 2001, he produced only four works of what is commonly considered “fiction,” or novelesque prose: Vertigo (1990), The Emigrants (1996), The Rings of Saturn (1998), and Austerlitz (2001)—not counting three volumes of poetry and the excellent posthumous collection of essays, On the Natural History of Destruction (2003). All of his writing in some measure explores an obsession with Germany during World War II and the aftermath of loss and denial on the German people. Sebald artfully uncovers a hidden history of the imagination framed within the architecture of presumed fact and memory. Melancholy, the muse of philosophers and writers of a much earlier time, runs like a black river through the stories retold by characters–including the author himself—who strain to recall a past that just might be real: or not. Time and again he asks us: exactly how well is present reality served by memory? For Sebald, our lives reflect the tenuously connected fragments of experience collected that serve as reminders of who we think we are–or were—or might be—and how this informs the choices we make–or may make—right now. At the time of his death, W.G. Sebald was on a short list of authors being considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He has received widespread critical acclaim while at the same time his work remains largely undiscovered by a larger general readership. This is a shame, because it would not be an exaggeration to claim that W. G. Sebald is one of the most interesting and important authors of the 20th century. [via]