W.G. Sebald: Inter-Genre Writer

I find it interesting that people interpret life through the lens of their job, or their surroundings, or the time period in which they live. I've worked with book structures for a few decades and I'm only now aware that I look at the structures of stories in the same way I study book structures: how do they work? When I started reading The Emigrants, by Winfried Georg Maximilian "Max" Sebald (1944-2001), I knew his experiences colored his prose without knowing anything about him, and I was fascinated by his structures. W. G. Sebald wrote several books that were labeled as novels, but the name "novel," isn't quite broad enough. He actually addressed emotional truths of post-war Germany, dove into facts, spun memories and family tales together with notes on travel and combined all with imagination. The Emigrants, translated by Michael Hulse and published by New Directions in 1996 is a wonderful example of Sebald's writing gift.

The Emigrants contains four stories that interweave; but you feel this more as an uncanny sensation rather than a clear picture of how they are related. The stories are titled after the main characters, (all but one is Jewish or partly Jewish, and the one that isn't is gay): Dr. Henry Selwyn (based on a man he met); Paul Bereyter (modeled after his teacher); Ambros Adelwarth (about his uncle, a valet); and Max Ferber (an artist). Memory is the most important subject for him. It is no wonder that a butterfly catcher appears in his work, a reference to Nabokov, for whom memories were also important, particularly in Nabokov's autobiography Speak, Memory. In "Dr. Henry Selwyn," Nabokov is represented as a photograph of a man with a butterfly net (who may or may not actually be Nabokov) (16); in "Paul Bereyter," a young woman "…had been reading Nabokov's autobiography" which causes Paul to strike up a conversation with her (43); Ambros Adelwarth hallucinates "…a man of about sixty…carrying a large white gauze butterfly net…" (104); and he is mentioned in "Max Ferber" as one of Max's paintings, "Man with a Butterfly Net" (174) and as a Russian boy of "…about ten who had been chasing butterflies and had lagged so far behind that they had to wait for him" (213). That is just one example of a theme that runs through all four stories. Others are suicide, trains, mountains, gardens, and, of course, emigrants (Nabokov was also an emigrant).

Sebald explored the collective memory of a country through his own belated discovery. He was born in 1944, too young to have any memory of the horrors of the Shoah. As he grew older, Germany's part in the genocide was revealed to him gradually: the German people remained mostly silent. In each of the four stories that comprise The Emigrants, the narrator gradually learns about a character (based on a real person) who was affected by the war. Since he did not experience the pain directly, Sebald had his narrator learn from those who did, just as he learned. The construction of having the narrator meet with a character and having that character tell the story of a third character is fascinating. The boundaries among all of the characters break down as each speaks in the first person and without quotation marks. Sometimes you have to reread the paragraph to see where one starts and the other begins. The reader gains an entry point to the interior thoughts and feelings of all of the characters. Ultimately, you come away embodying everyone, and incorporating all of their memories into your own, just as a writer does when s/he is writing.

Using factual material in fiction is not new: historical fiction is based on this. In fact, I have been noticing it as I read Wolf Hall: A Novel by Hilary Mantel, which takes on Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, and Henry VIII. The characters come alive based on recorded facts, but Mantel created their inner lives both from research and her imagination. Is it engaging and interesting? Yes. Does it help us understand the time period? Yes. Is it accurate? Unlikely. Does it feel accurate? Yes. Welcome to excellent fiction. Sebald gives us the feeling of accuracy in his engaging work of fiction as well.

I was interested in how he was able to blend various genres in the manner of historical fiction which produced compelling and comprehensible stories, as well as the way he scattered seemingly random images throughout. Sebald incorporated black and white photographs in his books, which became a kind of signature for him, and was made much of in reviews. This is amusing from a book art standpoint; certainly you can include images in a book! I needed to examine what they added, and what the book gained by their addition.

The photos are sometimes used as illustrations, but most tend to highlight certain emotional truths. In one example, he described a specific garden, and then he included a photo of a desolate garden. I found hilarious the image of a family at a dining table about which the narrator says, "I do not know who the other people on the sofa are, except for the little girl wearing glasses" (71). The narrator seems to know who the little girl is, but he does not tell the reader. It may very well be Sebald's own family photo—and if it were Sebald's memoir, we would want to know—but here the ambiguity is acceptable, particularly since this is billed as fiction. In well-written fiction we tend to believe the world of the page: this becomes our reality. In the last interview with him, he said, "I've always been interested in photographs, collecting them not systematically but randomly. They get lost, then turn up again." It may be a stretch, but I can see this relaxed attitude in how the dreamlike stories meander, change narrators, then circle back to find themselves again.

The last story, "Max Ferber," I think sums up the book. Ferber is an artist who cannot seem to finish a painting:
Since he applied the paint thickly, and then repeatedly scratched it off the canvas as his work proceeded, the floor was covered with a largely hardened and encrusted deposit of droppings, mixed with coal dust, several centimetres thick at the centre and thinning out towards the outer edges in places resembling the flow of lava.…I often thought that his prime concern was to increase the dust. (161)
Near the end, Ferber has given the narrator the task of editing the memoirs of Ferber's mother, which the narrator writes and crosses out, tormented that he cannot  possibly recreate them properly (230). Ferber's story captures the frustration of  creation and destruction and recreation, which also seems to be a metaphor for Sebald's attempts at understanding Germany and the generation before him. Sebald thickly paints the portraits of several characters and then seemingly scratches them out with the next story, leaving a palimpsest of swirling shadows and a haunting amount of dust.

After reading The Emigrants I sat down and wrote seven pages that included anecdotes from my life, research, and made-up dialogue. I haven't looked at it since I wrote it a few weeks ago, but I was grateful to Sebald for inspiring me to play with the form.

For reviews and more info:
The Boston Review excellent review by Lisa Cohen
New York Times 2001 review by Margo Jefferson
The New Yorker 2011 article: "Why You Should Read W.G. Sebald" by Mark O'Connell
New York Times Books 1997 excellent review "When Memory Speaks" by Larry Wolff
academia.com (detailed article about Sebald and Nabokov)


Anonymous said…
I am a huge fan of Sebald's, uh, "novels" and I enjoyed reading your thoughts on The Emigrants. (The Rings of Saturn is my favorite--this may seem hyperbolic, but that book changed the course of my life. I like to think for the better, though really who can say?)
However, I think you've made a small error of interpretation--below the photo of the girl with the glasses, and the very first words on the next page, Sebald identifies the little girl: "That's Flossie, who later became a secretary in Tucson, Arizona, and learnt to belly dance when she was in her fifties." Flossie is mentioned one other time in the book, a few pages earlier on pg. 67, when she is introduced with the rest of Uncle Kasimir's family/affiliates.
All that being said, I completely agree that what you described would have been very much in character for his writing--which is just one reason why I love his work SO much. There's just something about that purposeful, pregnant ambiguity that can be terribly intoxicating, haha. I also think he's more playful than he appears at first blush, but that's a discussion for some other time.
Alisa said…
Thanks for your comments and adjustments, Anon—wish I could address you by a name, though, since you took the time to write. Your comment made me go back to the post to remember; it was a curious experience to re-read something I wrote nearly six(!) years ago now, and it makes me want to return and read Sebald again. Interesting what you said about playful. Placing the random photos within the text does give a hint of that.