After Sebald


In 2001, W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz had barely hatched when its expat German author died in an auto accident near Norwich, England. The book came of age in its creator’s absence. As a steady stream of miscellany, new translations, and critical exegesis in books about World War II has emerged, Sebald’s posthumous trajectory resembles, of all things, that of slain West Coast rapper Tupac Shakur. An Inside a Thug’s Heart/Campo Santo mash-up is a pipe dream, but both artists’ beyond-the-grave success is a lesson in memory’s resonance and Sebald’s refrain that the dead are still around us (cf. Shakur’s “How Long Will They Mourn Me?”).

Before his death, Sebald was working on a text about his father, who spent most of his time away from the family as a prisoner in a French P.O.W. camp and then as a “manager” in the town of Sonthofen. Campo Santo‘s intro states, however, that beyond the four Corsica-based pieces here, which were ostensibly to become a book on the French island, “Sebald’s literary estate, which has not yet been studied and edited, contains no other recent literary works.” Well, if this truly is it, the lesser of two recent offerings, Unrecounted, is an elliptical, ultimately unsatisfying curtain call. The book pairs 33 ultra-spare “micropoems” with Jan Peter Tripp’s eyeball/visage lithography, looping back upon images and themes spotted in Sebald’s earlier books. One of the beauties of Sebald’s prose is its spare elegance; Unrecounted is uncharacteristically bogged down by bonus tracks, including surplus poetic homage by publisher and early supporter Hans Magnus Enzensberger.

Fittingly named after the term for cemetery, Campo Santo‘s 16 pieces are an exhilarating exeunt, adding to an understanding of oblivion, mourning, photography as doppelgänger, and the power of nontraditional literary methods to identify with victims. For those weary of treatises on the silence surrounding the Allied bombings of German cities during World War II, some of the author’s less celebrated obsessions represent en masse, providing fertile ground for newer critical avenues. A quick sampling includes lepidoptera, collapsing nature (a treeless society leading to mythmaking via Kafka), color-blind Napoleon’s mistaking blood for greener grass, a Sir Thomas Browne-style exposition on graves and the dead as wanderers (as previewed in The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz), and a retelling of Flaubert’s “The Legend of St. Julian Hospitator” without fear of patricide.

As would be expected from a lifetime academic, there are sharp riffs on wordsmiths such as Hölderlin, Kafka, Bruce Chatwin, and poet Ernst Herbeck, whose alternative worlds, in which gazelles are historians, offer “more to think about than does the professional disposal of our burden of guilt and the past.” Each is as much about Sebald as the authors he unpacks—increasingly non-footnoted, they gather steam when he uses imperfect memory alone as a source. Sebaldian self-analysis is easiest spotted in “Dream Textures: A Brief Note on Nabokov,” a piece on the “anticipation of death in the memory of a time before life,” exile, invisible observers, Speak, Memory, and ghosts and writers meeting in their concern for the past.

Elsewhere, a continual presence is Hans Erich Nossack, author of The End: Hamburg 1943. Given a sustained analysis in On the Natural History of Destruction, Sebald mentions The End so frequently that as I read it for the first time, it felt as familiar as my own personal memories. In Sebald’s mind, it is a largely unpretentious report that “lapses here and there into the mythologizing approach to extreme social circumstances” that had become a matter of course since WW I (understanding that the difficulty of post-war lit was the fact that “memory was shameful,” a literary attempt at “the new historical factor of total destruction”).

Written three months after the bombing of Hamburg, The End reports the flinch-worthy facts: slugs as big as fingers, rats taking over the city, and a group of people found “roasted alive” in a bomb shelter, “bloated from the heat.” Nossack eloquently expounds upon apocalypse and “slipp[ing] away from the precincts of time,” wherein all actions lose meaning. His meditations find an immediate, disturbing mirror in the photos of Erich Andres, which reiterate Nossack’s lament that “the truly sad thing is the mind, because it thinks it has wings, but it keeps falling back to earth.”

Translator Joel Agee believes Sebald misunderstood Nossack’s project, claiming “plain facts” when Nossack’s imagination and nonobjective position as a witness—not in the “juridical” sense “but in the confessional sense of religious parlance”—proves an important aspect of the text. Agee has a point, but as with most of Sebald’s essays, the Nossack thesis is best read as Sebald’s delineation of his own project. Bourgeois literature’s inability to “convey an authentic attempt to mourn by identifying with the real victims” is certainly a major reason he considered his own medium prose and not the novel.

In the monumental New History of German Literature, Andreas Huyssen offers the lovely insight that Sebald “does not aestheticize pain as some critics have claimed”; rather “his carefully crafted language . . . offers the possibility of imagining unimaginable pain. Its seeming restfulness and long syntactic breath makes the mimetic approximation of historical trauma possible for the reader. What emerges in the end is a vision of the world as ruin.” Though short on Sebald, the book is a treat, arranged chronologically and vigorously cross-referenced, allowing the intrepid to jump among Thomas Bernhard’s rejection of an inherited past, vegetarian utopias, Wilhelm Busch’s comic precursors, “rubble literature,” the rather emo reception of The Sorrows of Young Werther, Elfriede Jelinek, and The Easter Play of Muri.

Even if it’s academic smooth-talking, editor in chief David E. Wellbery’s intro feels more salvo than starch as it describes the book’s attempt to “transform the structure and content of literary-historical presentation.” His method recalls a tactic of Sebald’s Austerlitz, following a path of footnotes “from factual, scholarly accounts to the strangest of details, in a kind of continual regression expressed in the form of my own marginal remarks and glosses, which increasingly diverged into the most varied and impenetrable of ramifications.” But Sebald’s most important textual paths are headstones and makeshift graves: individuals memorialized in granite or forgotten, lines of connection emanating from each.

Brandon Stosuy recently meditated on Glenn Danzig and gothy teens for Sue de Beer’s EMERGE monograph. His anthology of Downtown New York literature is forthcoming from NYU Press in 2006.