The Shadow of Annihilation: On W. G. Sebald

Alex Harvey explores the hidden treasures of memory in the work of W. G. Sebald.

The Shadow of Annihilation: On W. G. Sebald

Memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in some strange way blind us to life. How often this has caused me to feel that my memories, and the labours expended in writing them down are all part of the same humiliating and, at bottom, contemptible business! And yet, what would we be without memory? We would not be capable of ordering even the simplest thoughts, the most sensitive heart would lose the ability to show affection, our existence would be a mere never-ending chain of meaningless moments, and there would not be the faintest trace of a past.— from François-René de Chateaubriand in Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe (1849–50), quoted in Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995)

ONE FINE SPRING DAY in the Bavarian Alps, back in 1962, a teenage W. G. Sebald sat down with his high school peers expecting to watch a light entertainment movie. Instead, without warning, the teacher showed the class Die Todesmühlen (Death Mills), Billy Wilder’s 1945 documentary on the concentration camps. Sebald, whose writing is driven by an intense need to deal with the Holocaust’s legacy, stated that this was the moment his awareness about what the Nazis had done to the Jews really began. “[N]ormal life went on,” he said, “but these experiences lay down a sediment in you, that somehow moves on, pushes itself on, like the moraine in front of a glacier.” In Speak, Silence: In Search of W. G. Sebald (2021), the first biography of the author since his premature death in 2001, Carole Angier interprets this event as singularly traumatic, a wound that was, from then on, “grow[ing] slowly and inexorably inside [him].” Angier’s indefatigable pursuit of the autobiographical elements in Sebald’s work is admirable (both his widow and daughter refused to talk), but her dogged attempt at an overtly psychological reading of her subject is also self-defeating, given the extent to which Sebald is such an elusive and self-negating writer.

Take, for example, the final part of Vertigo (1990), Sebald’s first major book. On the surface, it appears to be a personal narrative of the author’s return in 1987 to Wertach, an “idyllic” Alpine village where he spent his early childhood. The narrator stays in a bedroom at an inn, which was previously his mother’s vaulted living room. Although the room is completely different from what he remembers, the writer’s past life “was no more than a breath away and if the living room clock had started chiming in my sleep, I would not have been in the least surprised.” Sebald creates a typically disorientating space that exists neither in the past nor present, but in its own dimension. Wertach becomes “W,” an imaginary place living within its narrator’s mind:

A good thirty years had gone by since I had last been in W. […] [M]any of the localities […] had continually returned in my dreams and daydreams and had become more real to me than they had been then […] The more images I gathered from the past, I said, the more unlikely it seemed to me that the past had actually happened in this or that way, for nothing about it could be called normal: most of it was absurd, and if not absurd, then appalling.

Sebald calls Vertigo’s last section “Il ritorno in patria,” referring to the title of a Monteverdi opera about Ulysses’s much delayed return to his Ithaca homeland (Sebald stayed away from his childhood haunts for 30 years). His personal account is an amalgam of literary echoes and quotations: a description of his walk to the nearby chapel pays homage to George Buchner’s 1839 novella Lenz (about a German Romantic writer who went mad and died young like Buchner); when the narrator reaches the bridge outside the village, he pauses for a long time “looking into the blackness which now enveloped everything,” echoing Kafka’s The Castle (1926), whose protagonist K also suspends time, waiting on the bridge below the castle and “gazing into the illusory emptiness above him,” before proceeding to stay at a local inn. As German critic Andreas Isenschmid put it, Sebald “Kafka-ised his autobiography.” Part Three of Vertigo, entitled “Dr. K. Takes the Waters at Riva,” is constructed straight out of Kafka’s letters and diaries. Sebald fixates on a gray “chasseur,” a somewhat mythical figure drawn from Kafka’s fragment “In the Attic”; the narrator recoils in horror:

Time and again I dreamed, and occasionally still do, that this stranger reaches out his hand to me and I, in the teeth of my fear, venture ever closer to him, so close that, at last, I can touch him. And every time, I then see before me the fingers of my right hand, dusty and even blackened from that one touch, like the token of some great woe that nothing in the world will ever put right.

This death-in-life apparition recurs as the ultimate wanderer, doomed to find no home or grave. The endless circularity of repetition is the main motif in Vertigo: Sebald is compelled to repeat Kafka’s journey in the way Kafka replicates Stendhal’s Italian journey a century earlier. Sebald suggests that Kafka “would have recognised a kind of doppelgänger” when he viewed The Student of Prague (1913), a silent horror film. The protagonist confronts “his own image in the mirror and presently, to his horror, that unreal figure steps out of the frame, and henceforth follows him as the ghostly shadow of his own restlessness.” Kafka and Stendhal are Sebald’s doppelgängers — both melancholic, death-obsessed writers, ghostly shadows of his own restlessness.

Despite this intense level of intertextuality, Angier pursues the factual elements of “Il ritorno in patria” in order to read it as direct self-exploration. Although Angier recognizes the way Sebald has reworked his journey to fit an “underlying pattern of obsessive repetition and return,” she feels the need to assert that “the experience was still his own.” Vertigo’s narrator, as in all his books, is and isn’t Sebald; he’s always transforming the actual, in his presentation of self or the world, into wider fiction. When Vertigo was published, Wertach’s residents felt Sebald’s writing had misrepresented the village, making it “sound horrible and frightening.” The more grotesque details (the man who burned a hole in his leg, which healed before turning gangrenous, or the doctor who was a morphine addict) turn out to be factually correct. Sebald’s mother, the source of many stories, felt so betrayed by her son that she never revisited the village.

What’s valuable in Speak, Silence is the texture of Sebald’s strange postwar West German upbringing — mainly the underlying tensions with his father, Georg, a soldier during the Third Reich who “refused to talk about the war.” The more Sebald questioned and attacked his father, the more silent he’d become. The repressed family atmosphere was like “living under a bell jar.” A weekend visit to Uncle Hans, who lived in Dachau, prompted his relative to deny all knowledge of Hitler’s first concentration camp. Hans explained to his nephew that the Germans weren’t responsible for what had happened to the Jews. Yet, in the guest bedroom, placed on the bedside table, was a copy of Mein Kampf.

Sonthofen, where the Sebalds moved in 1952, was a military town, dominated by the vast Ordensburg barracks. It became the Adolf Hitler Schule, an elite training place for SS officers. Given this fact, it’s unsurprising that Sebald writes about “the appalling will to power expressed by gigantic buildings” or that his narrator in Austerlitz (2001) is a student of architectural history. Sebald’s own time as a student in the Bundesrepublik, far from bringing freedom from evasion, taught him that “complicity and silence […] were everywhere,” not just with his uneducated father:

Many professors were of the generation above or older; they’d got their jobs in the 1930s and 1940s; and almost all had either actively supported the regime, or at best been silent. “You were surrounded by dissembling old fascists,” [Sebald] would say, and “The ghosts of the Third Reich were still floating through the halls.”

Only Frankfurt School writers like Adorno and Benjamin “saved [Sebald] from the ‘dismal and distorted’ approach to literature” of German universities. When his first academic publication fiercely criticized Sternheim, a prewar dramatist who had adopted reactionary Prussian values and abandoned his Jewish identity, it enraged conventional German literary academia. But Sebald’s suspicions were confirmed when the professors behind the revival of Sternheim’s work were later revealed to be active Nazi supporters trying to cover their tracks.

Young Sebald’s experience of personal and societal denial makes the main themes of his writing — the evasions of memory and the burial of the act of remembrance — seem inescapable and his obsession with the human cost of history inevitable. His background gave him insight into the complex, self-deceiving quality of memory. Part One of Vertigo sets out Sebald’s literary credo, characteristically threading his own ideas on the act of representation through another writer, Marie-Henri Beyle. Known by his nom de plume Stendhal, the 19th-century French novelist was a direct witness of several Napoleonic battles. His actual written observations, however,

afford eloquent proof of the various difficulties entailed in the act of recollection. At times his view of the past consists of nothing but grey patches, then at others images appear of such extraordinary clarity he feels he can scarce credit them […] [H]e was so affected by the large number of dead horses lying by the wayside, and the other detritus of war the army left in its wake […] that he now has no clear idea whatsoever of the things he found so horrifying then. It seemed to him that his impressions had been erased by the very violence of their impact.

Looking through his papers, Beyle finds a pictorial engraving called Prospetto d’Ivrea. He’s forced to admit “that his recollected picture of the town in the evening sun was nothing but a copy of that very engraving.” Sebald opens his first major book by foregrounding the way any attempt to represent historical truth through personal recollection must engage with memory’s fragmentary and self-fictionalizing qualities. The moment that Beyle realizes this, a dizzying sense of the arbitrariness of social reality occurs: “The difference between the images of the battle which he had in his head and what he now saw before him as evidence that the battle had in fact taken place occasioned in him a vertiginous sense of confusion such as he had never previously experienced.”

Many of the elements of Sebald’s writing (which have been very influential during the last 20 years) are present in Stendhal: a seamless interweaving of fact and invention or the personal and the mythic; a hybrid mix of literary genres, from travelogue and essay to literary criticism and nature writing; the reproduction of illustrations to support (or undermine) the text. Stendhal’s witty memoir The Life of Henry Brulard (published in 1890, half a century after the author’s death) blends autobiography with fiction and incorporates a scrawled list of the initials of his lovers as validation. He admits that few women returned his affections: the “habitual condition of my life is that of an unhappy lover.” Love is seen as a chimera, existing only in imagination or art. The plaster cast of his great, unrequited love Mathilde’s hand “meant almost as much to him as Mathilde herself could ever have done.”

In his 1822 essay On Love, Stendhal recounts a journey from Bologna with the “mysterious” Madame Gherardi. Beyle probably, as Sebald points out,

used her name as a cipher for various lovers […] and that Mme Gherardi, whose life would easily furnish a whole novel, as Beyle writes at one point, never really existed, despite all the documentary evidence, and was merely a phantom, albeit one to whom Beyle remained true for decades.

Sebald’s admiration for Stendhal’s accounts of journeys that “may have been wholly imaginary, made with a companion who may likewise have been a mere figment of his own mind,” indicates how any straight biographical approach to his “essayistic semi-fiction, which gives rope to both observation and imagination” (in Michael Hamburger’s fine description), is bound to be fraught with difficulties. But, as the daughter of German-speaking refugees who fled the Nazis and settled in the United Kingdom, Angier reveals the personal reasons for her search for the “real” Sebald: for her, he is “the German writer who most deeply took on the burden of German responsibility for the Holocaust.”

The Emigrants (1992), Sebald’s second major prose work (but the first to be translated into English) is the book that most lends itself to Angier’s pursuit. With its four parallel, semifictionalized biographies, The Emigrants may be Sebald’s most perfectly achieved work. Doctor Henry Selwyn, Paul Bereyter, Ambros Adelwarth, and Max Ferber, whose lives Sebald creates and narrates, share a common trajectory: the re-emergence of trauma, buried in the past, that overwhelms them in later life. Each figure is Jewish, or has a close relationship with a Jew; each lives in exile, estranged from home and past. Such a path is shared by Sebald: The Emigrants is a surrogate autobiography in that the author lets aspects of himself be reflected in each of the four lives.

When he left Germany in 1967 to move to the United Kingdom for postgraduate research at the University of Manchester, Sebald gave himself a new first name, changing Winfried to Max: “M as a reversed W […] and x for the big unknown; the future lies in the past.” Like the painter Max Ferber, the final émigré in the book, Max Sebald was profoundly affected by his time in Manchester, overcome by feelings of alienation and futility, of “a deep sense of isolation in which [he] might well have become completely submerged.” Sebald found himself adrift in a foreign city, which seemed “like a necropolis or mausoleum,” so great was Manchester’s decline from its status in the 19th century when it was “the industrial Jerusalem […] its entrepreneurial spirit and progressive vigour the envy of the world and [when] the completion of the immense canal project had made it the largest inland port on earth.” Sebald would spend his Sundays “overcome by such a sense of aimlessness and futility” that he would go out “to preserve an illusion of purpose, and walk about amidst the city’s immense and time-blackened nineteenth-century buildings, with no particular destination in mind.”

Even the grandest of the buildings […] seemed so empty and abandoned that one might have supposed oneself surrounded by mysterious façades or theatrical backdrops. Everything then would appear utterly unreal to me […]

It was so strangely silent that (as I now think I remember) I could hear sighs in the abandoned depots and warehouses, and was frightened to death when a number of seagulls, squawking stridently, all of a sudden flew out of the shadow of one of the high buildings, into the light.

Ferber also finds that Manchester’s “square and circular smokestacks, and the countless chimneys from which a yellowy-grey smoke rose, made a deeper impression on me when I arrived than anything else I had previously seen.” Ferber had fled from his Southern German home at a young age, sent to the United Kingdom by his parents to escape Nazi persecution. He imagines he can begin “a new life in Manchester, from scratch; but instead […] Manchester is an immigrant city, and for a hundred and fifty years […] the immigrants were chiefly Germans and Jews.” He never sees his mother and father again; they are sent to Auschwitz and exterminated. The narrator only discovers the truth about the past of his friend years after he first meets the old Jewish painter: “As I now thought back, it seemed unforgivable that I should have omitted, or failed, in those Manchester times, to ask Ferber the questions he must surely have expected from me.” Sebald inserts within his narrator’s experience a sense of failure — a failure to question history or a refusal to understand what was evident and most important, a kind of intellectual cowardice. Avoidance has also governed the painter’s life. He discloses to the narrator that, for decades, he evaded coming to terms with the reality of his family’s fate. It had only recently dawned on him he’d “never again be able to write home”:

[I]n fact, to tell the truth, I do not know if I have really grasped it to this day […] that tragedy in my youth struck such deep roots within me that it later shot up again, put forth evil flowers, and spread the poisonous canopy over me which has kept me so much in the shade and dark in recent years.

The main sources for Ferber were Peter Jordan, Sebald’s Manchester landlord, who told him of his experiences as a wartime refugee from Munich, and Frank Auerbach, an émigré painter who (according to the critic Robert Hughes) “transposed the wound of parental loss into the realm of art making.” All that Ferber can do is paint, keeping his Manchester studio unchanged: “[N]othing further should be added but the debris generated by painting and the dust that continuously fell and which, as he was coming to realize, he loved more than anything else in the world.”

Ferber’s studio floor is covered with the detritus of his art, and similarly the narrator constantly scores out what he has written, leaving hundreds of pages covered with his scribble (Sebald wrote vast amounts of notes, drafts, and corrections). The compulsion and failure of the artistic process connects to the need to, but also the impossibility of, escape from history’s maw. Ferber states how he has come to realize that “I am here, as they used to say, to serve under the chimney.” Sebald links the development of industrial society with the Holocaust. The dark satanic mills of England’s northern city mirror and presage the chimney and furnace at Auschwitz.

All the portraits in The Emigrants touch on Sebald’s life. His great-uncle William who emigrated to the United States (his wife would spend the first half of her visits back to Germany weeping for joy and the second for sorrow) is memorialized in “Ambros Adelwarth.” The sad story of “Paul Bereyter” is based on Sebald’s history teacher in Sonthofen, Armin Müller, whose photos appear in the text. Like his character Bereyter, Müller was classified as a Mischling (“half-breed”) by the Nazis for having one Jewish grandparent. Like Bereyter, Müller was going blind before he killed himself (his wife said he couldn’t imagine a life without books). Before his death, Müller made a list of Jewish writers forced to flee the Third Reich. Bereyter is stopped from teaching and forced into exile. He returns to fight for Germany in 1939: he can only understand himself if he is German, but, given his experience, he can’t be. Such “contrarieties” in his “longings” tear him apart. “Paul Bereyter” is the warmest of The Emigrant’s portraits. His lover, Lucy Landau, has an enchanted vision of the Lake Geneva scenery, comparing it to a model railway. But it foreshadows the protagonist’s end as does his uncle’s joke that Bereyter would “end up on the railways.” The premonition of the railways as an image of death predicts both where Bereyter will kill himself and the terminus for millions of Jews. Suffering from survivor’s guilt, Bereyter chooses the fate of his first girlfriend, sent by special train to a death camp. Müller also took his own life at a railway junction. Thirty years earlier, he’d made his pupils mark the place in a map they drew in their books (Sebald reproduces the image in the text).

Bereyter is a composite portrait, drawn from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s practice as a teacher in a remote Austrian Alpine village: his passion for lessons outdoors, for teaching songs, for flinging the windows open despite the cold; his gift for music, mathematics, and odd activities like boiling a fox carcass at home and bringing its skeleton to school. Like Wittgenstein, Bereyter is very fond of his pupils, yet they also seem “contemptible and repulsive creatures” (like the children in Michael Haneke’s 2009 film The White Ribbon, who will become the Nazi generation). Sebald’s writing is always a collage of other works and writers. Images of Vladimir Nabokov recur as motifs within all four portraits: “Dr Henry Selwyn” has a shot of the doctor “in knee-length shorts, with a shoulder bag and butterfly net,” which resembled “a photograph of Nabokov in the mountains above Gstaad that [the narrator] had clipped from a Swiss magazine”; “Paul Bereyter” specifies that Lucy Landau is reading Nabokov’s autobiography when she first meets Bereyter; “Ambros Adelwarth” has a mentally ill Adelwarth fixate on “the butterfly man”; “Max Ferber” tells how the painter is stopped from an act of self-destruction by a man of about 60 who appears “before him — like someone who’s popped out of the bloody ground. He was carrying a large white gauze butterfly net”; Ferber’s mother recalls in her diary a youthful encounter with “a boy of about ten who had been chasing butterflies,” whom she later sees as a “messenger of joy.”

Speak, Silence pays homage to Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory, which blends fact with fantasy, incorporates photos, and obsesses over exile and memory. In an essay on Nabokov in a posthumous collection, Campo Santo (2003), Sebald notes how the Russian novelist had a panic attack caused by seeing a home movie shot in his parents’ home weeks before his birth:

All the images trembling on the screen are familiar to him, he recognizes everything, everything is right except for the fact, which disturbs him deeply, that he himself is not where he has always been, and the other people in the house do not seem to mourn his absence. The sight of his mother waving from one of the windows on the upper floor is felt by the distressed viewer to be a farewell gesture, and he is terrified by the sight of the new baby carriage standing on the porch — “with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; and even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.”

Nabokov experiences the anticipation of death in the memory of a time before life — the way it makes the viewer a kind of ghost in his own family. Sebald similarly and repeatedly tries to cast a little light into “the darkness lying on both sides of our life.” Nabokov’s passion for moths and butterflies is viewed as “part of his study of spirits,” and Sebald shares such an interest. Both writers exploit imagery drawn from 19th-century ghost stories, as Sebald describes in Campo Santo: “[D]ust swirls in circles above the floor; there are inexplicable drafts of air, curiously iridescent effects of light, mysterious coincidences, and strange chance meetings.” Both write about “transparent beings of uncertain provenance and purpose,” mainly encountered in the many dreams that feature in their works. Sebald locates Nabokov’s metaphysical side in the realm of his Russian childhood, which completely vanished in the October Revolution: “[D]espite the evocative accuracy of his memories, he sometimes wonders whether that Arcadian land ever existed.” What Sebald finds as central to Nabokov’s writing, and what he shares, is the price paid for going into exile — “the certainty of your own reality.” The young emigrants of Nabokov’s early novels, marked more deeply by the experience of loss than by their new surroundings, are seen as “airy beings living a quasi-extraterritorial, somehow unlawful afterlife in rented rooms and boardinghouses, just as their author lived at one remove from the reality of Berlin in the twenties.”

The Rings of Saturn, Sebald’s most English book, presents the strange unreality of such an existence in a foreign land. What at first appears to be a travelogue based on a tour of Norfolk and Suffolk (reflecting Sebald’s tenure at the University of East Anglia), becomes an unsettling, ghostlike narrative as it proceeds. Using Nabokov’s technique of “barely perceptible nuances and shifts of perspective,” Sebald creates a narrator who is also observed — “a trick that allows Nabokov to see the world, and himself in it, from above.” When he visits Somerleyton Hall, a 19th-century country estate built on the site of a medieval manor house, Sebald is surrounded by the relics of British imperialist conquest: “[H]ussars’ sabres, African masks, spears, safari trophies, [and] hand-coloured engravings of Boer War battles” hang on the faded walls.

The stuffed polar bear in the entrance hall stands over three yards tall. With its yellowish and moth-eaten fur, it resembles a ghost bowed by sorrows. There are indeed moments, as one passes through the rooms […] at Somerleyton, when one is not quite sure whether one is in a country house in Suffolk or some kind of no-man’s-land, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean or in the heart of the dark continent. Nor can one readily say which decade or century it is, for many ages are superimposed here and coexist.

Sebald knows that any attempt to suspend time can only be achieved in the most precise re-evocation of things long overtaken by oblivion:

And now there was nothing any more, nobody, no stationmaster in gleaming peaked cap, no servants, no coachman, no house guests, no shooting parties, neither gentleman in indestructible tweeds nor ladies in stylish travelling clothes. It takes just one awful second, I often think, and an entire epoch passes.

The last line’s shift into the present tense shows the narrator as “a traveler in the past” (like “V” in Nabokov’s 1941 novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight), aiming to retrieve time’s buried landscapes. Subsequent encounters with local residents highlight the contradictions of memory, its proximity to dreaming. The Somerleyton gardener, William Hazel, complains that his attempt to discover the extent of the Allied destruction of Germany has become a fruitless search: “Even if you asked people directly, it was as if everything had been erased from their minds.” When the narrator reaches the coastal town of Lowestoft, Frederick Farrar, a deceased friend, resurfaces in his memory. Looking back at the past, “it is as if I were seeing everything through flowing white veils: the town like a mirage over the water, the seaside villas right down to the shore surrounded by green trees and shrubs, the summer light, and the beach, across which we have just returned from an outing.”

Sebald prepares the reader for this metaphysical paradox, a simultaneous sense of time erased and time regained, by featuring the work of Thomas Browne, a 17th-century writer who once practiced as a doctor in Norwich. “[A]ll knowledge is enveloped in darkness,” wrote Browne. “On every new thing, there lies already the shadow of annihilation.” Nothing endures for this melancholic witness to the cycle of suffering and death that defines the arc of humanity:

The shadow of night is drawn like a black veil across the earth, and since almost all creatures, from one meridian to the next, lie down after the sun has set, so […] one might, in following the setting sun, see on our globe nothing but prone bodies, row upon row, as if levelled by the scythe of Saturn — an endless graveyard for a humanity struck by falling sickness.

Yet Browne still attempts to perceive the “shadow image” of a world “beyond” our own. Like Nabokov, he tries “to look upon earthly existence, from the things that were closest to him to the spheres of the universe, with the eye of an outsider, one might even say of the creator.” Browne’s search for the numinous is underpinned by the “loftiness in his language.” He writes “out of the fullness of his erudition, deploying [like Sebald] a vast repertoire of quotations”:

[W]hen [Browne] does succeed in rising higher and higher through the circles of his spiralling prose, borne aloft like a glider on warm currents of air, even today the reader is overcome by a sense of levitation. The greater the distance, the clearer the view: one sees the tiniest of details with the utmost clarity. It is as if one were looking through a reversed opera glass and through a microscope at the same time.

Sebald’s own prose, created out of a complex amalgam of sources (The Rings of Saturn blends an analysis of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, newspaper articles on World War II concentration camps, the memoirs of Chateaubriand, biographies of 19th-century writers, and extracts from a friend’s autobiography), has a protean quality, which some critics have called old-fashioned. Angier shares the view that modernity was dangerous for Sebald’s art, citing the cuts he made, removing contemporary references from The Rings of Saturn, as evidence. But this is a limited reading; present-day naturalistic details and snatches of popular culture are woven into wider patterns. The Emigrants uses lyrics from “Green, Green Grass of Home,” a 1960s pop song by Tom Jones, to underscore the abandonment felt by young Max Ferber 30 years earlier. The framework of a contemporary walking tour is integral to the way The Rings of Saturn achieves its sense of timelessness. Sebald doesn’t seek to escape the present; he shows how, within modernity, there’s vertiginous dissolving of past, present, and even future time. Ryan Ruby, in a piece for New Left Review, notes that some of the universal acclaim Sebald received in the 1990s rested on a fin-de-siècle zeitgeist. Here was a writer whose works “collapsed” time, who could be viewed within the prism of the dissolution of the Soviet bloc and the promotion of Fukuyama’s absurd “end of history” thesis. Twenty years on, it’s clear such readings are misleading. What makes Sebald’s work so relevant is his sense of history’s brutal processes, its remorseless erasure of human value and relentless destruction of the natural world.

The Rings of Saturn transforms itself from an initial geographical journey (or combination of factual and imagined trips) into an internal voyage into the darkest areas of European history, a meditation on what Joseph Conrad witnessed in Heart of Darkness (1899): “[I]n the entire history of colonialism […] there is scarcely a darker chapter than the one termed The Opening of the Congo.” The appearance of Conrad, whom the narrator experiences via a dream, prompts Sebald to try and measure the extent of the Belgians’ genocidal killing under King Leopold II: “Every year from 1890 to 1900, an estimated five hundred thousand of these nameless victims […] lost their lives.” Conrad perceived how such barbarism is inscribed within the very structure of European architecture and modernity: Conrad “saw the capital of the Kingdom of Belgium, with its ever more bombastic buildings, as a sepulchral monument erected over a hecatomb of black bodies.”

The narrator and protagonist of Austerlitz, Sebald’s most ambitious work, published just before his death, first meet in such a building — Antwerp’s Central Train Station, “with its dome arching sixty meters high above” the great hall. Jacques Austerlitz, an architectural historian, recounts how it was constructed at the behest of King Leopold, when Belgium, “a little patch of yellowish gray barely visible on the map of the world, spread its sphere of influence to the African continent with its colonial enterprises.” The building is a hymn to this new epoch:

[H]alfway up the walls of the entrance hall […] there were stone escutcheons bearing symbolic sheaves of corn, crossed hammers, winged wheels […] with the heraldic motif of the beehive standing not, as one might at first think, for nature made serviceable to mankind, or even industrious labor as a social good, but symbolizing the principle of capital accumulation.

Connections between colonial exploitation and Nazi persecution of the Jews are embodied in Austerlitz’s experience and identity. Arriving in Britain during the summer of 1939 as a child refugee on a Kindertransport from Prague, Austerlitz is Sebald’s last, most complex emigrant. The book reworks the Bildungsroman, which records the formation of a young adult sensibility. Instead of progressing into the world with newfound maturity, Austerlitz, who is adopted by Nonconformist Welsh parents and attends an English public school, can only find refuge in academic studies of 19th-century architecture. Suffering a nervous breakdown, he revisits Prague and meets a friend of his lost parents, Vera. She reveals that his mother was deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp. Austerlitz watches parts of a Nazi propaganda film about the camp, a twisted inversion of Sebald’s own experience watching Wilder’s factual documentary.

Austerlitz is Sebald’s most successful representation of his ideas on the simultaneity of time. Austerlitz movingly slows down the propaganda film to search for his mother, or imagines he could, at any moment, see his father in Paris, 60 years after he vanished. Earlier, his greatest fear had been the past’s return, defending himself against his trauma by willed ignorance, refusing to study the 20th century. But when memories return, the anguish he felt as a child engulfs him. Austerlitz finds an architectural equivalent with its detailed inquiry into the history of European fortification: “the more you entrench yourself the more you must remain on the defensive.” The narrator (not Jacques Austerlitz) learns that Breendonk, a self-defeating, useless fort in Belgium, is turned by the Nazis into a concentration camp mostly for Jews. The construction of Austerlitz’s identity, based on a denial of the past, does not protect but destroys him. He becomes withdrawn and isolated, “a frightful and hideous creature,” losing the love of Marie de Verneuil.

Another tale of enforced exile, Austerlitz is an amalgam of Sebald’s earlier books: Wittgenstein reappears from The Emigrants, as well as Kafka and Casanova from Vertigo; the imagery of white mists, veils, and silk again suggests the fragility of life or traces of a world beyond; there’s further use of pairs and twins to create disturbing doppelgängers. The “fixed, inquiring gaze” that Sebald finds in “certain painters […] who seek to penetrate the darkness which surrounds us” he awards to Austerlitz himself. The visceral description of Jean Améry’s torture (“with a crack and a splintering sound […] his arms dislocated from the sockets of his shoulder joints”) is visually expressed in the text by “the letter A […] rising and falling in waves like a long-drawn-out scream”:


It echoes the list of the initials of Stendhal’s former lovers, scratched in the dust — “the enigmatic runes of his life,” consisting mainly of As: Angela, Adéle, Alexandrine, Angéline, Madame Azur.

Sebald continues to include “fictitious” photographs as evidence, claiming that two images were of Jacques Austerlitz’s childhood — an English school rugby team and an image, reproduced on the cover, in which Austerlitz is dressed as the Rose Queen’s page accompanying his mother to a masked ball. The critic James Wood discovered, while going through Sebald’s archive, that this supposed childhood photograph was a postcard obtained in a junk shop, its price of 30 pence visible on the back. In Speak, Silence, Angier considers the contradictory use of photographs within his texts to be problematic and “an insoluble question.” But it goes to the heart of his attempt to replicate the elusive nature of historical memory, so often based on false recollection and the substitution of representation for lived experience. To write truthfully about memory must mean to show its partial trickiness. Sebald emphasizes his reasons in The Emigrants when he makes Ferber’s Uncle Leo point out how the Nazi photograph of the book-burning was faked.

Michael Hamburger once congratulated his friend Max Sebald on the way “fact and fantasy or dream co-exist” in his work, how his writing is held together not by biography but by thematic imagery and an allusive reading of history. Angier admits that she can be “crude and simple-minded” when she interprets his shadowy literary fiction as being based on real affairs or persons, but she remains in thrall to a desire to view it within the frame of the literal. She seems compelled, like a doomed Sebaldian character, to continue in a Sisyphean quest, one she knows can never be assuaged, given that the type of truth she seeks is one that he is always undermining or rejecting.

“Max Ferber” contains a story that ironically reflects on the way an artist’s life and art can be bound up together. Ferber tells the narrator about his photographic assistant whose body had absorbed so much silver that “he had become a kind of photographic plate, which was apparent in the fact […] that the man’s face and hands turned blue in strong light or, as one might say, developed.” It’s a paradoxical image: Ferber, whose hands and skin are always covered with charcoal dust, is being poisoned by his art. There’s also the sense of being so committed to the artistic process that one’s physical being becomes a part of the process. Only months after the publication of Austerlitz, Sebald suffered a premature death from a massive heart attack, which caused him to crash while driving. He had seemed fatalistic to colleagues and friends about the cost of his compulsive writing. A Place in the Country (2013), a series of essays on writers he admired, features those who suffer from madness or melancholy such as Hölderlin, who described himself as “morose, ill-humored [and] sickly” when writing to his long-lost love. We must be grateful they were driven to go on, Sebald concludes, since sometimes these “hapless writers trapped in their web of words […] succeed in opening up vistas of such beauty and intensity as life itself is scarcely able to provide.”

Speak, Silence has a story about Sebald’s early years. His kindergarten had a large toy chest containing 200 animals of different types, but only one bull. Every morning when the children reached in and took out an animal to play with, young Sebald would find and get the bull. This seemed like magic to the other children. They could never understand how he did it. Sebald told his mother that, when the toys were put away, he’d conceal the bull in his hand and, at the last moment, hide it in a particular corner where, next morning, he would miraculously find it. Years later, when Sebald was in his thirties, his sister Gertrud asked why he didn’t write anything other than academic articles, since she knew from his letters that he was a fine writer. He replied that he didn’t want to write simple things. He admired writing that could be read on many levels, like Kafka’s. He wasn’t ready to try until he was in his forties.

By that time, he had hidden all the treasure and knew exactly where to find it.


Alex Harvey is a writer and director based in Los Angeles. Song Noir, his book on Tom Waits and the spirit of Los Angeles, was recently published by Reaktion Books in the United Kingdom and University of Chicago Press in the United States. He is currently making a film about Satyajit Ray and Kolkata.


Featured image: Vasily Kandinsky. Landscape with Two Poplars, 1912. The Art Institute of Chicago. Image has been cropped.

LARB Contributor

Alex Harvey is a writer and director based in Los Angeles. His book Song Noir: Tom Waits and the Spirit of Los Angeles was recently published by Reaktion Books in the United Kingdom and University of Chicago Press in the United States. He is currently making a film about Satyajit Ray and Kolkata.


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