Issue 151, Summer 1999
“It was an escape route, something entirely private,” Max Sebald mutters as he rummages through a thick folder of old photographs. A boy in a white gown and caftan; a graveyard with tilted headstones; a turn-of-the-century spa: they’re the kind of photographs you’d come across in a junk shop, leafing idly through a box of postcards. Which is more or less where Sebald found them. He had been collecting photographs for years before he began to write, he explains, scouring the shops in the seaside towns of East Anglia, where he’s lived since emigrating from Germany in 1970, for images to put in his books—or rather, to serve as their catalysts. “Not even people in the house knew what I was up to; I’d just retire to my workshop and potter about. I think it was these photographs that eventually got the better of me.”
They had got the better of me, too. In fact they were a large part of the reason I was sitting over a coffee in Sebald’s comfortable, book-lined study in Norwich. I had come on a literary pilgrimage. The Emigrants, his English debut, published three years ago by New Directions, in an elegant translation by Michael Hulse, was like no other book I’d ever read.
Interspersed with the text—a sequence of biographical narratives about Germans exiled by the Holocaust—were captionJess photographs that, out of context, made no sense.
Why a grass tennis court with leafless winter trees in the background? Why a Jewish cemetery overgrown with vines? Why the spire of the Chrysler Building and the Brooklyn Bridge? And who were the people in these photographs, who seemed to have no connection to one another? A family around a dinner cable; children in a classroom; a quartet of goggled passengers in a roadster: they have the musty air of snapshots in a family album, where long-forgotten faces, anonymous and indistinct, gaze up from the yellowing page—“what one imagines lost souls look like in Sebald’s haunting description.
His new book, The Rings of Saturn, supposedly a compilation of random notes begun when the author was in a mental hospital, is a continuation of this peculiar hybrid form. The elusive narrator. a meticulous amateur historian of East Anglia, wanders the countryside with a rucksack on his back, recounting in the digressive but hypnotic prose that is Sebald’s trademark the lore he’s gathered about the area’s medieval past, the long-vanished inhabitants of its derelict manor houses, the archaeology of its quaint seaside villages. Like The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn is illustrated with mysterious photographs that play off and clarify the equally mysterious text.
And like its predecessor, it’s told in the voice of a nameless I whose identity is indeterminate, his odd soliloquy on the ravages of history counterpointed by passages from the works of Swinburne, Chateaubriand, Borges ("I asked Bioy Casares for the source of this memorable remark, the author writes ... “) and Joseph Conrad, who once sailed the North Sea coast in the days when he was still the sailor Jozef Korzeniowski.
From a detailed summary of Conrad’s early life, Sebald segues to the novelist’s traumatic journey into the deepest recesses of the Belgian Congo, which would inspire his masterpiece Heart of Darkness—then abruptly returns to an account of his own travels, his forward narrative progress interrupted by associations with Belgium:
At all events, I well recall that on my first visit to Brussels in December 1964 I encountered more hunchbacks and lunatics than normally in a whole year. One evening in a bar in Rhode Sr Genèse I even watched a deformed billiard player who was racked with spastic contortions but who was able. when it was his turn and he had taken a moment to steady himself, to play the most difficult cannons with unerring precision . The hotel by the Bois de la Cambre where I was then lodging for a few days ...
And so on, proceeding from a brisk inventory of the hotel ’s ponderous furniture to a consideration of the ugly monument the Belgians erected to commemorate the Battle of Waterloo.
For Sebald, the discontinuities of the unconscious are the mainstay of his art.
Sebald, who is fifty-four, speaks with a pronounced German accent, but his English. after nearly three decades, is sophisticated and precise. (How many native English speakers know how to use the word apodictic in a casually tossed-off sentence?) With his thinning mane of white hair, rimless glasses and bushy mustache, he resembles the Frankfurt theorist Walter Benjamin. On this lace winter day he’s dressed in nondescript corduroys and a bulky sweater; only the mustache and the cigarette he’s smoking in a holder give off a hint of his Continental origins. He introduces himself by his nickname- Max.
Sebald’s books elude easy classification. Are they fiction or nonfiction? History or a Borgesian fabrication built upon fact? His publisher, hedging, has resorted to the dual category of fiction-literature. “It’s hard on publishers,” he concedes.
“You have to make sure it doesn’t get in the travel section.”
When I try to pin him down, he becomes slyly evasive. “Facts are troublesome. The idea is to make it seem factual, though some of it might be invented.” In the end, truth as a historian or biographer understands the term is irrelevant to him. “I just want to write decent prose. Whatever it is—biographical, autobiographical, topographical—doesn’t matter. I have an aversion to the standard novel: ‘She said, and walked across the room’—there’s something trite about it. You can feel the wheels turning.”
Sebald’s books are resolutely plotless. Their narrative line follows the contours of the unconscious. His method is to build up a collage of apparently random details—stray bits of personal history, historical events, anecdotes, passages from other books-and fuse them into a story; Sebald, borrowing the term from Claude Levi-Strauss, calls it bricolage. The effect is a kind of organized free association, as if one were reading a sequence of dreams instead of a linear narrative.
The Emigrants begins: “At the end of September 1970, shortly before I took up my position in Norwich, I drove out to Hingham with Clara in search of somewhere to live.” But Clara will soon be left behind, and the narrator—I—will never be more than a shadowy pronoun, like the narrator of The Rings of Saturn, who opens his story: in August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, with the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.”
Who was this authorial presence, this enigmatic I? The biographical note appended to The Emigrants was fuller than most. It revealed that Sebald was born in Wertach im Allgaü, Germany, in 1944; that in 1966 he became an assistant lecturer at the University of Manchester; that he’d taught at the University of Ease Anglia since 1970; that he’d served as Director of the British Centre for Literary Translation from 1989 to 1994. But it still left a great deal unsaid; even the author’s full name-Winfried Georg-could only be teased out by consulting the copyright page. What fascinated me was the inconcrovenible fact yielded up by his birthdate: Sebald wasn’t Jewish. How many Jews born in Germany in 1944 survived Hitler’s ovens? The Emigrants wasn’t the work of a survivor, then; it was something far more rare: the work of a disinterested moral witness. Or was he? “Such a life is somehow still touched with a smudge, or taint, of the old shameful history,” Cynthia Ozick observed in a review of The Emigrants; and “the smudge, or taint—or call it, rather, the little tic of self-consciousness—is there all the same, whether it is regretted or repudiated, examined or ignored, forgotten or relegated to a principled indifference.”
The Emigrants is an anomaly in so-called Holocaust literature.
a book that goes to the heart of that catastrophic event by hovering on its periphery. Like Aharon Appelfeld, whose novels tend either to prefigure the Holocaust or to dwell on its lingering aftermath, Sebald chronicles the ripple effect of recent German history on four indirect victims: a retired English doctor who fled the pogroms in Eastern Europe and, never having felt at home in his adopted land, eventually commits suicide; a German primary-school teacher in the 1950s who also ends a suicide; a cluster of the author’s relatives who emigrated to America in the 1920s; and aJewish refugee painter whose parents were murdered by the Nazis. Each of these stories is tangential to the Holocaust, yet each of the protagonists is fatally implicated in it, caught up, however obliquely, in the eradication of the Jews. Visiting an abandoned Jewish cemetery in Kissingen, the anonymous narrator encounters “a wilderness of graves, neglected for years, crumbling and gradually sinking into the ground amidst call grass and wild flowers under the shade of trees, which trembled in the slight movement of the air.” Soon the graves themselves will vanish.
The great theme of The Emigrants is the hidden consequences of the Holocaust-not only the trauma of the survivors, the allocation of guilt, the Germans’ struggle with their Nazi past, or even the new insights about human nature that it forced upon us, but its eerie aftereffects, the veneer of normality that encourages us to forget. “I felt increasingly that the mental impoverishment and lack of memory that marked the Germans, and the efficiency with which they had cleaned everything up, were beginning to affect my head and nerves,” Sebald writes in the last chapter, recounting his visit to the abandoned graveyard at Kissingen: “It was not possible to decipher all the chiselled inscriptions, but the names I could still read-Hamburger, Kissinger, Wertheimer, Friedlander, Arnsberg, Auerbach, Grunwald, Leuthold, Seeligmann, Frank, Hertz, Goldstaub, Baumblatt and Blumenthal-made me think that perhaps there was nothing the Germans begrudged the Jews so much as their beautiful names, so intimately bound up with the country they lived in and with its language.” Like Daniel Gold hagen, the controversial author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Sebald believes the Holocaust was uniquely German; it was no accident that it happened there. “There is something about Germans, which for lack of a better word we’ll call cowardice,” he says, groping for an explanation of the collective blindness that enabled the Nazis to flourish. “They have a habit of avoidance. People don’t want to know. It’s as if it never happened. In England, the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are still visible; in London, there are tangible layers of history. In Germany, partly because of the destruction of the cities and partly because of the way in which Germany deals with its own past, their history is much less present. It has been, as it were, neutralized. The cities all look like each other-pedestrian zones, wretched malls with trees growing out of concrete pots, the same shops ... ”
Yet for all his moral outrage, Sebald isn’t a polemicist; his intent is less to build a prosecutorial case against Germany, as Goldhagen does, than to puzzle over the transience of human life. However murderous the Nazis’ intent, they were only accelerating the inevitable. “From the earliest times, human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away,” he writes in his new book. All things pass; nothing endures. This is the lesson so powerfully brought home in The Rings of Saturn. Where The Emigrants showed how widely the Holocaust emanated from its epicenter, how efficient was the destruction it unleashed, The Rings of Saturn forces us to loosen our grip on the illusion that anything is permanent. As he sifts through history, cataloging one historical catastrophe after another, Sebald conjures up the image of a globe engulfed in serial chaos: low-lying pons are swallowed up by storms; rainforests are leveled by fire; entire populations are massacred in obscure distant wars. East Anglia itself, Sebald’s quaint and docile corner of England, was only half a century ago the staging ground for the war against Hitler:
Time and again, as one walks across the wide plains, one passes barracks, gateways and fenced-off areas where, behind thin plantations of Scots pines, weapons are concealed in camouflaged hangars and grass-covered bunkers, the weapons with which. if an emergency should arise. whole countries and continents can be transformed into smoking heaps of stone and ash in no time.
Saturn, formally speaking, is like The Emigrants: the signature photographs of people and landscapes described in the text; the rambling, nearly free-associative meditations and long incantatory sentences unwinding with slow serpentine grace; the ruminative first-person voice. But the narrator is a more visible figure, more bodied forth as a literary character on the order of Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man or Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, to whom he compares himself. As 1 made my way through its densely allusive pages, I was put in mind of Mallarme’s dictum that everything in the world exists to be put in a book. The depredations of Dutch elm disease, the lifespan of the silkworm and the social transformation wrought by the silk industry in the eighteenth century, even a five-page discourse on the physiology and migratory habits of herring, all find their way into Sebald’s weave. The leitmotiv that binds his digressive excursions into the past in The Rings of Saturn is the same one that dominated The Emigrants- “scenes of destruction, mutilation, desecration, starvation, conflagration.” It’s not a pretty picture .
Sebald’s self-exile makes him exotic-"How many German writers live in East Anglia?” he notes—but it also makes him a representative case. From Eliot in England to Joyce in Paris and Nabokov in the United States, the writers who dominate the contemporary canon have been essentially stateless, citizens of a domain that requires no cultural passport; George Steiner has named this condition “unhousedness.” Or, as Sebald himself put it to me in his occasionally clumsy but invariably accurate English: “Paradigmatically postmodern writers are often operating on linguistic borderlines.” To this experience he has brought a prose so lapidary, so particular, so loaded with concrete detail that it has the impact of a photograph. “I heard the woodwork of the old half-timber building, which had expanded in the heat of the day and was now contracting fraction by fraction, creaking and groaning,” he writes in The Rings of Saturn, recounting a night spent in a country inn. He goes on:
In the gloom of the unfamiliar room, my eyes involuntarily turned in the direction from which the sounds came, looking for the crack that might run along the low ceiling. the spot where the plaster was flaking from the wall or the mortar crumbling behind the panelling. And if I closed my eyes for a while it felt as if I were in a cabin aboard a ship on the high seas, as if the whole building were rising on the swell of a wave, shuddering a little on the crest, and then, with a sigh, subsiding into the depths.
Like his great stateless predecessor in the famous preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, he wants, “above all, to make you see.”
Others before me had fallen under the spell of Sebald’s work. The paperback edition of The Emigrants carried effusive blurbs from Susan Sontag and A.S. Byan, and it had showed up on several writers’ Best Books of 1997 lists in England.
But hardly anyone I canvased in America had heard of him; the book seemed to be circulating samizdadike from hand to hand. (I’d heard about it from a friend.) Like Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, a small gemlike novel about a love affair in Nazi Germany and its eerie postwar reverberations, Sebald’ s masterpiece had acquired a readership in the old way, without publicity or drumbeating on the part of its publisher, a venerable literary house that tends to concentrate on poetry. No one seemed to know much about the author.
When I asked his London agent, Victoria Edwards, what he was like, she said she’d never met him. Like his peripatetic narrator, he liked to go for walks in all weather; twice when I called, his wife told me he was “out with the dogs.” The notion of a literary profile bewildered him. “I am glad you liked The Emigrants and quite astounded that you propose to come all the way to talk to me,” he’d written in reply to my request for an interview.
He had turned out to be less forbidding than I’d anticipated.
When I arrived in Norwich that morning on the train from London, Max had been waiting at the gate. I recognized him from the photograph on the back of The Emigrants. He was shy at first as we drove through the streets of Norwich in his rattletrap Peugeot, but he soon grew talkative, pointing out the eleventh-century Norman cathedral that towers immensely over the town and going on about his dealings with publishers , agentS, advances-a writer’s shoptalk. “My publishers would say to me that they had sold foreign rights to France or Italy—‘We got you five hundred pounds’—and then I’d never hear another thing about it again,” he complained, grousing like a journalist at Elaine’s. He struck me as worldly. in a quiet, unobtrusive way, possessed of a steely ego and not afraid to engage in public debate on highly charged issues. When he gave a series of lectures on the history of the Allies’ air war against the Reich in Zurich last year, he told me, it provoked intense coverage in the German media. “I felt that I’d touched on a raw nerve,” he said without apparent regret.
Sebald’s house, The Rectory, is a redbrick Victorian manor with tall windows and a manicured lawn in a suburban cul-de- sac on the outskirts of Norwich. He renovated it himself, by hand, over half a dozen years. Trim and tidy, it seemed the very antithesis of his dark, broodingly apocalyptic prose.
While we settled down in the study to talk, his wife, Uta, a handsome fiftyish blond—they met as students at the University of Freiburg-was visible through the windows, mowing the lawn with a tractor mower. Morris, their big black dog , dozed on a cushion. The pristinity of the room-volumes of German literature neatly arranged on the shelves; a blindingly white rug; a leather club chair and couch; a wood-burning stove painted fire-engine red-unnerved me for some reason.
The only eccentric touch was the row of hats hanging on the wall: they reminded me of one of those somber, depopulated museum installations of Joseph Beuys, where the once-living form is represented by an old coat or a scrap of fur. Otherwise he could have been a bourgeois shopkeeper in his suburban domicile. “I like to try to lead a normal life,” he told me-and for all intents and purposes he does. Uta, who brings us tea and cookies, is engaging and friendly; the Sebalds’ daughter, Anna, twenty-six, is a schoolteacher living nearby. б’She’s not all that interested in my work,” Sebald maintained.
I asked him about a sentence from The Emigrants that had stayed with me: “When I think of Germany, it feels as if there were some kind of insanity lodged in my head.” In the fifties and early sixties, he explained, when he was growing up, the Nazi era was regarded as an almost normal episode in German history. “In 1939, my father was unemployed. He had the good fortune, as he saw it, to be admitted to the Weimar One Hundred Thousand Man Army. Once you got in there, you had prospects, a job.” His father fought in the Polish campaign, and was briefly interned in a French POW camp toward the end of the war, but rarely talked about his experiences. Sebald’s childhood was, by his own account, ordinary. “I never thought much about anything at all. I had a penchant for reading.” he says, giving the word a French pronunciation, ’"but otherwise I was the same as everybody else-skiing and all the rest of it.” He painted a rather withering portrait of his parents as bourgeois burghers. “My father was a clerk in an office until the fifties, and then joined up in the army again. He retired early, as one does in that profession, and has done nothing for the last forty years but read the newspaper and comment on the headlines. He has a critical bent of mind, and very pronounced opinions about the issues of the day.” What does he think of his son’s work? “He took a certain interest when there was public attention; then he seemed to be jolly pleased about it."’ It wasn’t until Sebald entered the University of Freiburg that he became aware of the war’s unspoken legacy. ббconditions for students were very poor,” he recalls. “German colleges in those days were unreformed, completely overrun, undersourced. You would sit in lectures with 1,200 other people and never talk to your teachers. Libraries were practically nonexistent.” But what troubled him more than the overcrowded conditions was the conspiracy of silence surrounding the Nazi era. “All my teachers had gotten their jobs during the Brownshirt years and were therefore compromised, either because they had actively supported the regime or been fellow travelers or otherwise been silent. But the strictures of academic discourse prevented me from saying what I wanted to say or even investigating the kinds of things that caught my eye. Everyone avoided all the kinds of issues that ought to have been talked about. Things were kept under wraps in the classroom as much as they had been at home. I found that insufficient.”
He transferred to a university in Switzerland, and then applied for a teaching job in Manchester. “I knew nothing about Manchester. I hardly knew English. and had no intention of staying. I thought I would just be there for a year.”
In The Emigrants, Sebald provides a vivid account of his arrival in that sooty industrial metropolis aboard a night flight from Kloten:
Once we had crossed France and the Channel, sunk in darkness below, I gazed down lost in wonder at the network of lights that stretched from the southerly outskirts of London to the Midlands, their orange sodium glare the first sign that from now on I would be living in a different world . . .. By now, we should have been able to make out the sprawling mass of Manchester, yet one could see nothing but a faint glimmer, as if from a fire almost suffocated in ash. A blanket of fog that had risen out of the marshy plains that reached as far as the Irish Sea had covered the city. a city spread across a thousand square kilometres, built of countless bricks and inhabited by millions of souls, dead and alive.
Sebald was forty-five when he began to write. “I had quite a demanding job. There was never rime to write.” I asked him if he had ever been in therapy: his work is so apparently random in the way it leaps from subject to subject that it mimes the process of free association. “I never got round to it,” he answers. “My therapy consists of reading other case histories.” But in the seventies and eighties he spent summers at a mental clinic near Vienna, a sort of therapeutic vacation from the rigors of teaching that would also serve as research; the director, Leo Navratil, encouraged his patients to draw or paint, and had published a book of poems by one of his inmates, Ernst Herbeck, that Sebald found “mind-boggling.”
He continued: “I thought it would help me understand some of the basic conditions in creativity to go there.” He hadn’t gone as a patient? “Oh, no, no. Writing itself is an insane occupation: hard, compulsive, most of the time not pleasurable.
There is always the desire to find out how one is made up, to get to those layers chat are out of sight; but I would find it hard to write anything confessional. I prefer to look at the trajectories of other lives that cross one’s own trajectory— do it by proxy rather than expose oneself in public …
I was startled to encounter in The Rings of Saturn a description of someone I actually knew, the poet and translator Michael Hamburger, who retired from London some years ago to a rural cottage in Middleton, a hamlet about twenty miles from Sebald’s house. I had met him in the early seventies, when I was a student at Oxford; but 1 hadn’t seen him in more than twenty years, and proposed to Sebald that we go for a visit.
On the way, we stopped off in Southwold for lunch at the Crown Hotel. It was a snug establishment, with rough-hewn wooden cables and small-paned bay windows that looked out on the main street of the town. On this wintry February day, it was full of elderly people in cardigans; Southwold is a popular retirement community for BBC executives, Sebald explained. He seemed at ease in the comfortable dining room.
He said that the Crown was one of his regular haunts, and that he often stopped in for a night or two “to get away from the routine.” It was a curious thing: his work is so relentlessly grim chat it verges on the comic, but Sebald himself appeared wryly cheerful, even when he was discussing the work of Primo Levi or describing a book on euthanasia in Nazi Germany that he’d just read. ("An asylum in Kaufbeuren was still dispatching victims three weeks after the Americans arrived.") Like most writers I know, he showed a lively interest in real estate; as we strolled around the town after lunch, he lamented that he should have bought one of the grand old houses on the village square when he first arrived in the area; now they’re too expensive. ’бIn his writing, he comes across as a melancholy man,” Michael Hulse told me, “but he’s really a very funny man:’ When I commented on this apparent contradiction between his somber world view and his equable disposition, he shrugged. ’"One is born with a certain psychological constitution,” he said, referring to himself in the third person as if to deflect any insinuation of egotism, “and then one discovers that life is partly dispiriting and partly exhilarating in its oddness.” He invoked Flaubert’s famous advice to be a bourgeois in life and a madman in art. “I want to hold on to my job, so I’m not condemned to this activity. If left to my own instincts I might well have become a recluse.”
He wanted to show me the Sailors’ Reading Room on the promenade. I instantly recognized the navigational instruments and barometers on the walls, the bartered leather armchairs and ships’ models, from Sebald’s description in The Rings of Saturn. Two old men were playing pool in the backroom.
It felt odd to be touring the very locales so vividly conjured up in The Rings of Saturn—it was almost as if I myself had stepped into the pages of his book. A writer in exile, Sebald had acquired as deep a sense of place as any writer I know. Tramping the lanes and meadows of East Anglia, he had steeped himself in its lore. “The intriguing thing for me about Suffolk is that it is untouched by history, as the whole country is in a sense,” he remarked ... There hasn’t been a war on English soil since the seventeenth century.” I asked if he ever felt homesick for Germany. He answered: “Yes, until I go there. When I first came here I had no intention of staying in Manchester. I still go over several times a year. and have made repeated attempts to return to Germany, but I always end up coming back here.” At one point in the late 1980s he worked for a German cultural institute, and last year he was offered a position in creative writing at the University of Hamburg. “I did not want to be drawn into the German culture industry. I do feel uncomfortable in Germany. It feels like a cold country.”
It was growing dark as we left town and pulled into a muddy driveway beside an ancient farmhouse . Michael, in a worn corduroy jacket, opened the heavy wooden door. He ’s in his mid-seventies now, but he looked nearly the same as he did when I last saw him, frail and wrenlike; even his hair is still dark. His beautiful wife, the poet Anne Beresford, had also aged well. He welcomed us into a cold, dank room with a low heavy-beamed ceiling, leaded windows, and a charred stone fireplace—a room out of a Brontë novel. There were books everywhere—in a closet, on floor-to-ceiling shelves, piled up by the stairs that lead to the study. The house is “part Stuart, part Tudor,” he said. “It’s falling down around us, but it will probably see us out.”
It was dark now. The wind rattled the windows. Suddenly I felt far away from home, the way I used to feel when I lived in England twenty-five years ago, before there were phones everywhere and central heating and people flew back and forth across the Atlantic for a weekend. But a few minutes later, it was time to go; the spell was broken. Back in the car, we headed for the Norwich train station. Sebald was talking about the family tragedies that had lately befallen so many of his friends. “For years I didn’t know anyone who was ill,” he said. “Now it’s all around me.”
That night, back in my room in London, I looked up the pages about Michael in The Rings of Saturn. I had read the book in galleys, and hadn’t seen the photographs before .
There were two of Michael’s study—one showed his book—crowded writing desk and the ancient small-paned bow window behind it; the other showed a mass of books piled up beside a door. It was strangely moving to find images so recently imprinted on my own consciousness staring up at me from the page. Suddenly I thought of a book I’d read as a child: C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in which a gang of children climb through a closet door and find themselves transported to some other world. That’s what being with Max was like.