by Shawn Rossiter
W.G. Sebald was one of our most visual writers. He was also one of our best. The German author, who spent most of his career in England, where he died in a car crash in 2001, has been called the last great author of the 20th century – an epithet that only makes sense because of his premature death: had he lived another decade or more (he was only 57) he would have likely been hailed one of the best writers of the 21st century.
Writers’ reputations are often decided on the merits of style and theme, elements that are well developed in the seven books Sebald published before his death. His work is singular however, for its form, a hybrid of the novel, memoir, essay, travelogue and history, punctuated with his distinctive use of photographs. Inserted into the middle of the text and frequently without overt explanation, these images are more rough than polished: fuzzy snapshots, newspaper advertisements, crude drawings, architectural plans and official documents evoke fragmented memories and the unreliable gauge of time, what Sebald calls “the disquiet of the soul.”
Sebald’s use of photography make his books pictorial, but the writing itself is equally visual. Sebald’s prose is often sparse, moving from one point to the next with little ostentation; but it can also sparkle with passages of descriptive splendor more common to the 19th Century than the 20th. In The Emigrants, Sebald’s first novel to appear in English, the narrator describes his first sight, by plane, of the north of England:
“ . . . from behind a bank of cloud that covered the entire horizon to the east, the disc of the moon rose, and by its pale glow the hills, peaks and ridges which had previously been invisible could be seen below us, like a vast, ice-grey sea moved by a great swell. With a grinding roar, its wings trembling, the aircraft toiled downwards until we passed by the strangely ribbed flank of a long, bare mountain ridge seemingly close enough to touch, and appearing to me to be rising and sinking like a giant recumbent body, heaving as it breathed.”
The Emigrants reverberates with similarly powerful passages of observation and metaphor. The book is laid out in four sections, two short and two long, each an independent story or novella. It reads as a sort of memoir, so that the narrator of each section can be seen as the same character, one who shares many biographical details with the author (though it is not, finally, the author). More importantly, thematic and stylistic associations, and recurring imagery and motifs, link the sections. This approach is advanced in Sebald’s Vertigo, a similarly structured book, where the author says: “I sat at a table near the open terrace door, my papers and notes spread out around me, drawing connections between events that lay far apart but which seemed to me to be of the same order.”
All four subjects of The Emigrants – a school teacher, an aging doctor, a legendary uncle, and a painter – are, as the title suggests, emigrants, Germans living isolated and abroad (Sebald knows that, to the emigrant, as much as a change in accent or language, a change in scenery emphasizes one’s foreignness, hence his masterful attention to the description of the landscape). The “order” that unites the stories of Dr Henry Selwyn, Paul Bereyter, Ambros Adelwarth and Max Ferber, however, is something more abstract. Theirs are as much interior emigrations as exterior ones: each lives a lonely existence, their connections to family and home truncated by historical events. The narrator, whose melancholy infuses the book, pieces together their fragmented “stories”.
“Max Ferber,” the book’s final section, tells the story of a German painter* who, as a young man, emigrates to England in 1939; his parents, who stay behind, are arrested and deported, and he never sees them again. The narrator — — who has become an emigrant himself — meets Ferber in the late sixties in the once grand but now declining industrial city of Manchester, stumbling upon his studio by chance.
“When one entered the studio it was a good while before one’s eyes adjusted to the curious light, and, as one began to see again, it seemed as if everything in that space, which measured perhaps twelve metres by twelve and was impenetrable to the gaze, was slowly but surely moving in upon the middle. The darkness that had gathered in the corners, the puffy tidemarked plaster and the paint that flaked off the walls, the shelves overloaded with books and piles of newspapers, the boxes, work benches and side tables, the wing armchair, the gas cooker, the mattresses, the crammed mountains of papers, crockery and various materials, the paint pots gleaming carmine red, leaf green and lead white in the gloom, the blue flames of the two paraffin heaters: the entire furniture was advancing, millimeter by millimeter, upon the central space where Ferber had set up his easel in the grey light that entered through a high north-facing window layered with the dust of decades. 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 centimeters thick at the centre and thinning out towards the outer edges, in places resembling the flow of lava. This, said Ferber, was the true product of his continuing endeavours and the most palpable proof of his failure.”
Half the novella is the narrator’s retelling of Ferber’s life story, snatched in irregular visits over a twenty-year span. The other half is the recounting of the diary of the artist’s mother, given to the narrator toward the end of Ferber’s life, which extends the family history to the 19th century. Both are interwoven with the narrator’s own life and peripatetic memories.
This is Sebald’s central interest, memory — personal, familial and cultural. Like his countryman and contemporary, artist Anselm Kiefer (see yesterday’s post), Sebald has explored the power, limitations and ethical responsibilities of memory.** Memory is something Sebald does not wholly trust, but something from which he cannot turn away. Sebald’s gaze is always oblique, his prose carrying the reader down the stream of one narrative, while its shores are filled with forms of menace, absence and melancholy. This is why photographs – a seemingly fixed and reliable “memory” — enhance and complicate his texts, and why his descriptive powers are so important to a work like The Emigrants.
*Painters and painting are frequently subjects in Sebald’s work: his 1988 long poem After Nature focuses, in part, on Matthias Grunewald; Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson” appears both in The Rings of Saturn, his last “novel”, and On The Natural History of Destruction, his one non-fiction book; literary figures are the main focus of Sebald’s Vertigo, but the narrator’s peregrinations also take him to a Pisanello fresco by in the dark corner of an out-of-the-way chapel and Giotto’s Scrovegni chapel.
**Considering the two artists together lays bare the different registers of words and images, but that is a subject for another place. Sebald’s use of photographs in his text elicits associations with many of his contemporaries, including Kiefer. For an extended conversation see Searching for Sebald: Photography After W.G. Sebald. For a short look at similarities between Sebald and Kiefer see this article by Tim Adams in the New Statesman.