Fact, fiction, travel writing or autobiography? It is almost impossible to determine the genre within which W.G. Sebald writes. Written in German, translated by a poet and heavily revised by their author, the result is a lyric prose, which dares to admit the single catastrophe of history.

by Thea Abbott

Where no friends are buried nor Pathways stopt up

W G. Sebald was born in Bavaria in 1944 and came to England in 1966 to take up the position of language lecturer at Manchester University. He came to UEA in 1970 and has stayed here ever since, currently as Professor of German in the School of European Studies. He was the first Director of the British Centre for Literary Translation between 1989 and 1994. He rarely gives interviews since, he says, 'I hate to keep going over the same ground.' Yet, if you read his books (translated into English by the poet Michael Hulse) you will find that it is the nature of his narrative to travel the same ground – of loss, of mortality and of absence. In a rare interview given to Boyd Tonkin of The Independent (published in Waterstone's Magazine) he explains that it is that sense of absence which keeps him from living in his native Germany. By the mid-sixties he had discovered, writes Tonkin, his true intellectual mentors: the Jewish writers such as Walter Benjamin whom the Nazis destroyed. 'It was that sort of company I knew I could never find in Germany, because the people don't exist any more. And it's one of the reasons why I feel ill at ease there, because I always sense that absence.'

It is hard to find a way to write about W.G. Sebald without straying into the melancholy and poetic tone which he uses himself. When I first read The Rings of Saturn I was moved by its serendipitous returns of thought and of event. This, I thought, is how life is: a circuitous journey from birth to death. In that spiral towards death, we pass again and again those events which we have already witnessed once, seeing them through a veil of time. And while they may have barely touched us at the first moment of acquaintance, we find that they are now reinforced and given added significance. That is how it is with Sebald's text, a forgotten event, or a place, or a character, is recalled later, when an apparently casual happening has brought it to the surface of a mind which has retained everything. You find an example of this in the story of Dr Henry Selwyn (the first of the characters recalled in The Emigrants). Sebald and his wife, Clara, had rented a flat from Dr and Mrs Selwyn when they first came to Norfolk, and Sebald had been intrigued by the gradual unfolding of the doctor's history in their occasional conversations. Sebald barely separates his own account from the words which we might assume come from Henry Selwyn himself. No quotation marks differentiate the words used to describe the desolation which Selwyn felt in speaking of the death of Johannes Naegli, a 65 year old mountain guide who he met in 1913, from the words which Sebald uses to describe how he heard them.

'He went everywhere with Naegli – up the Zinggenstock, the Scheuchzerhorn and the Ewigshneehorn – and never in his life, neither before nor later, did he feel as good as he did then, in the company of that man. When war broke out and I returned to England and was called up, Dr Selwyn said, nothing felt as hard, as I realise now looking back, as saying goodbye to Johannes Naegli. Even the separation from Elli, whom I had met at Christmas in Berne and married after the war, did not cause me remotely as much pain as the separation from Naegli. I can still see him standing at the station at Meiringen waving. But I may only be imagining it, Dr Selwyn went on in a lower tone, to himself, since Elli has come to seem a stranger to me over the years, whereas Naegli seems closer whenever he comes into my mind, despite the fact that I never saw him again after that farewell in Meiringen. Not long after mobilisation, Naegli went missing on his way from the Oberaar cabin to Oberaar itself. It was assumed that he had fallen into a crevasse in the Aare glacier. The news reached me in one of the first letters I received when I was in uniform, living in barracks, and it plunged me into a deep depression that nearly led to my being discharged. It was as if I was buried under snow and ice.'

The story (is it the story of Selwyn, of Naegli or of Sebald's own encounter with them, or might it be a complete fiction?) is not completed until years after Selwyn's death. Sebald, then travelling from Zurich to Lausanne by train, first, inexplicably recalls his long dead friend who he has not thought of for many years, and then sees, in a casually laid aside newspaper, a report that the remains of the Bernese alpine guide Johannes Naegli, missing since summer 1914, had been released by the Oberaar glacier, 72 years later. 'And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.' writes Sebald. 'At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots.'

What might motivate a writer to produce work so firmly rooted in the past? And to write with such lack of hope for the future? It was in re-reading the opening prose section of Anna Akhmatova's great poem Requiem (a passage which I cannot read without weeping) that I thought I might have found an answer.

'In the fearful years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months in prison queues in Leningrad,' she writes, 'One day somebody 'identified' me. Beside me, in the queue, there was a woman with blue lips. She had, of course, never heard of me; but she suddenly came out of that trance so common to us all and whispered in my ear (everyone spoke in whispers there): 'Can you describe this?' And I said: 'Yes, I can.' And then something like the shadow of a smile crossed what had once been her face.'

Is this the role which Sebald has set himself? To 'describe', on behalf of those who cannot describe their suffering for themselves, how it is to be the observer of, or worse, a survivor of suffering which has claimed other lives? Does he hope to bring the 'shadow of a smile' to what had once been the faces of the dead whom he brings back to life in his pages? The one thing that all his characters have in common, whether one thinks of Thomas Browne, Edward Fitzgerald (both in The Rings of Saturn) or Dr Henry Selwyn (in The Emigrants) is endurance in the lives which they live only in anticipation of leaving, of death. It is as if, in telling their stories Sebald rewards their endurance.

It can be no coincidence that it was in 1966 that he came to England for the first time to teach as a language lecturer in Manchester (a period of loneliness and desolation which he describes in The Emigrants when he recounts his friendship with the artist Friedrich Maximilian Ferber). The previous year, 1965, had been the year of the trials of the Auschwitz personnel which, as he says, 'marked some kind of shift in my consciousness. I began to realise that the defendants were the sort of people I knew well, and who had a little garden down by the river, living off their pension.' Until then he had been swimming, he says, in the sea of silence which covered the events which had occurred in Germany so very recently. He speaks of having been forced to sit through film shot as the British forces liberated Belsen, but says that it seemed to have no real significance or effect on the lives of himself and his fellow students at Oberstdorf grammar school. Yet these 'glib evasions' of post-war Germany horrified him. Sebald has never again lived in Germany. 1

In telling the sad story of the isolation and loneliness of Edward Fitzgerald (translator of The Rubaiyat of the Persian poet Omar Khayyam) I think Sebald recognises in the words Fitzgerald uses to describe the horror of change in his native Suffolk a way to express the much greater horror of the events which have changed Germany for ever. 'They are felling all the trees, he complained, and tearing up the hedgerows. Soon the birds will not know where to go. One copse after another is vanishing, the grassy wayside banks where in spring the cowslips and violets bloomed have been ploughed up and levelled, and if one now takes the path from Bredfield to Hasketon, which was once so delightful, it is like crossing a desert. And so, he said, I get to the water: where no friends are buried nor Pathways stopt up.' Perhaps the crossing of the German Sea has been the escape which Sebald also needed.

Thanks to Professor Sebald and Harvill Press for their permission to use excerpts from The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn (translated by Michael Hulse).
In October Harvill Press will publish Sebald's third non-academic book to be translated into English – Vertigo.
The Emigrants is published by Harvill Press in paperback at £6.99.
The Rings of Saturn is published by Harvill Press in paperback at £12.99.
Anna Akhmatova's poem Requiem can be found in Anna Akhmatova – Selected Poems translated by D M Thomas and published by Penguin in the Twentieth Century Classics series at £7.99

1. Requiem, Anna Akhmaatova.

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