- The Facts of Fiction, or the Figure of Vladimir Nabokov in W. G. Sebald
W. G. Sebald began his first creative work by invoking the tradition of artists placing portraits of other artists in their works. “Ja, es scheine,” he wrote in Nach der Natur (1988) [After Nature], “als hätten im Kunstwerk / Die Männer einander verehrt wie Brüder, / Einander dort oft ein Denkmal gesetzt, / Wo ihre Wege sich kreuzten” [Indeed, it seems as though in such works of art men honored one another like brothers, placing monuments in each other’s image there where their paths had crossed].1 Given the place monumentalized artists take in the works to come, a more fitting beginning for Sebald’s creative career would be difficult to imagine.
Sebald’s next work, and his first of prose fiction, Schwindel. Gefühle. (1990) [Vertigo], weaves a web of uncertain coincidences around Franz Kafka. Sebald’s subsequent book, Die Ausgewanderten (1992) [The Emigrants], continues in this vein, but in more subtle and deceptive fashion and it is in this work that we can best grasp Sebald’s practice of literary monumentalization and the role it plays in his art.
The Emigrants recounts four stories and, as its title stresses, what they share is first and foremost emigration. The emigration at issue, however, is more than merely geographic. Besides the central emigrants of the four tales, a great many of those who play major and minor roles in those lives are also emigrants. What else links the four stories? Three of the four flights were precipitated by the rise of National Socialism; three of the four (not the same three) end in suicide. But Sebald’s choice of presenting the stories together, and his favoring of subtle patterns in his fictions, suggests that there is something more which links them, a more carefully hidden tie that binds them together. The figure of Vladimir Nabokov as he appears in the [End Page 425] different stories is such a concealed thread—one that brings the interlaced themes of the book into the starkest relief.
Few artists have been so often and so intensely honored by other artists of the last quarter century as Vladimir Nabokov. From Thomas Pynchon to John Updike, from Italo Calvino to Martin Amis, from Zadie Smith to Michael Chabon, contemporary writers have paid remarkable and remarkably diverse tribute to Nabokov. The following is an examination of the most singular of these tributes—that of W. G. Sebald and endeavors to trace the recurrent figure of Nabokov through his fictions. The argument made in the following pages is that Nabokov appears in Sebald’s work not only as a fellow artist to be “monumentalized” at various points, and not only as a thematic thread linking the four stories in The Emigrants, but as the figure through whom Sebald poses his most fundamental questions about the facts of fiction and the fiction of facts.
Early on in The Emigrants, we find a photo of Vladimir Nabokov.2 This is a large image taking up the better part of the page. It shows an aged yet spry Nabokov gazing into the Alpine distance wearing a cap, shorts, climbing boots, and with a butterfly net tucked under his arm. The ostensible reason the photo has been included by the narrator in his telling the story of Dr. Henry Selwyn is anecdotal. In the passage in question, Selwyn is showing the narrator and his companion slides taken years earlier on Crete. In some of them, he is outfitted for butterfly-hunting—as the narrator notes, “knielangen Shorts, mit Umhängetasche und Schmetter-lingsnetz” (15) [“in knee-length shorts, with a shoulder bag and butterfly net” (26)]. The narrator then relates that “Eine der Aufnahmen glich bis in Einzelheiten einem in den Bergen oberhalb von Gstaad gemachten Foto von Nabokov, das ich ein paar Tage zuvor aus einer Schweizer Zeitschrift ausgeschnitten hatte” (15–16) [“one of the shots resembled, even in detail, a photograph of Nabokov in the mountains above Gstaad that I had clipped from a Swiss magazine a few days before” (26)].3 It seems then that this, thus far self...