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  • W. G. Sebald: Where Essay Meets Fiction
  • Patrick Madden (bio)

During a relatively short period in the 1990s, W. G. Sebald published his four major literary-prose books, first in German, then in English and other languages. His English publishers called the books novels, though Sebald himself was uncomfortable with the term. So were his reviewers, even as they praised him as a genius, an innovator, a strange and mystical word-magician.

Susan Sontag wrote: “The Emigrants is the most extraordinary, thrilling new book I’ve read [in] several years. It is like nothing I’ve ever read . . . an unclassifiable book, at once autobiography and fiction and historical chronicle. A roman d’essai?” Margo Jefferson of the New York Times wondered: “What does one call them? Meditations, elegies, mutations grown from memoir, history, literary biography and prose poetry?” W. S. Merwin said that Sebald’s writing

conjures from the details and sequences of daily life, and their circumstances and encounters, from apparent chance and its unsounded calculus, [End Page 169] [a] dimension of dream and a sense of the depth of time. . . . He evokes at once the minutiae and the vastness of individual existence, the inconsolable sorrow of history and the scintillating beauty of the moment and its ground of memory.

Apart from obvious adulation, doesn’t it sound like these reviewers are describing essays?

They are, I would argue. Although the essay is an inherently and traditionally nonfictional form, there is nothing preventing an author from writing a fictional essay. With Sebald, you can read his books and never think for once that he is lying or dishonest. Sure, you might doubt that he actually saw Dante sauntering across the piazza in Gonzagagasse, but he’s not trying to make you believe it. Instead, it illustrates his state of mind. And what matters is not the extratextual facticity of Sebald’s accounts, but the form in which he writes. That form is essay. Consider what he told a NewYorker interviewer:

I never liked doing things systematically. Not even my Ph.D. research was done systematically. It was done in a random, haphazard fashion. The more I got on, the more I felt that, really, one can find something only in that way—in the same way in which, say, a dog runs through a field. If you look at a dog following the advice of his nose, he traverses a patch of land in a completely unplottable manner. And he invariably finds what he is looking for. . . . One thing takes you to another, and you make something out of these haphazardly assembled materials. And . . . you have to strain your imagination in order to create a connection between . . . things. . . . You have to take heterogeneous materials in order to get your mind to do something that it hasn’t done before.

He’s talking about essaying. Let me tell you about his four major books.

Vertigo, by W. G. Sebald, translated by Michael Hulse. New Directions, 1999. 263 pages, paper, $15.95.

Sebald’s first literary work, Vertigo, comes to us in four associated sections that follow the journeys of Henri Stendhal, Ernst Herbeck, Franz Kafka, and W. G. Sebald following the journeys of Kafka. As with all of his books, Vertigo is filled with strange black and white images, often out-of-focus [End Page 170] photographs, sometimes pencil drawings, receipts, pages from a day planner, newspaper clippings, his passport. These serve to give the book a documentary feel, certainly, but they also inform and interrogate the text as Sebald travels through Europe and through his own thoughts. Those thoughts center on widely varied people, places, and events: Napoleon’s nearly impossible crossing of St. Bernard’s Pass, Stendhal’s amorous misadventures, Jewish children singing Christmas carols, a strange unsolved murder, the production of Aida, the complex interdependencies that turn the course of history, the despair of the lost past: “They were soundless and weightless, these images and words of times gone by, flaring up briefly and instantly going out, each of them its own empty enigma.” Chief among Sebald’s meditative subjects is the slippery nature of memory itself, the ways in which it can be distorted or deluded...


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pp. 169-175
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