Irony in the work of W. G. Sebald examined, discarded, examined again.

by James Greer

A resident of England for much of his adult life, a professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia, Sebald was obviously fluent enough, 35 years after arriving in his adopted homeland, to write in English had he wished. His stated reason for not doing so, in an interview given (in English, to the British newspaper The Guardian) mere weeks before his death, at 57, in a car crash, was that “…I become self-conscious about having a funny accent. Unlike Conrad or Nabokov, I didn’t have circumstances which would have coerced me out of my native tongue altogether. But the time may come when my German resources begin to shrink. It is a sore point, because you do have advantages if you have access to more than one language. You also have problems, because on bad days you don’t trust yourself, either in your first or your second language, and so you feel like a complete halfwit.”

That time, of course, never arrived. He did, however, work closely with Michael Hulse and Anthea Bell, translators of his major works into English, and I often have to remind myself that these books were not originally written in English, such is their remarkably limpid prose. Much has been said, or written, about Sebald’s (full name —Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald, and apparently familiarly known as Max) preoccupation with memory, and rightly so, as memory was a major theme throughout his novels; but that’s not much better than saying about a writer that his preoccupation with writing is a major theme of his writing. Writing is by its nature an investigation of memory, and time, and death, and the infinite assortment of tangents associated with both personal and universal memory (which is to say history).

It is certainly a tragedy that he died so young, after having written and published four remarkable novels, which taken in sum, with their hybrid of fact and fiction, interspersed with enigmatic unlabeled photographs, drawings, and maps, seemed to this reader a radical reinvention of the novel form. Of course, every writer of talent radically reinvents the novel form, but Sebald’s innovations, for whatever reason, resonated with peculiar strength in me.

I was greatly looking forward to whatever Sebald, clearly at the height of his powers with the sublime Austerlitz, would turn his hand to next. I had devoured his three previous novels as well, and though his literary reputation had been steadily growing throughout the late 90s, I was nevertheless surprised and pleased to pass by a local bookstore in mid-December 2001 and find a front-window display of all his books. “At last!” was my first thought. “People are discovering him.” Then a second, more morbid thought, occurred to me, and I bought a newspaper, where my fears were confirmed: on December 14, 2001, Sebald had had a heart attack while driving and crashed somewhere near his permanent exile in Norfolk.

“I find that frightful – the incapacity to know what’s round the corner,” Sebald said in the interview referenced above, the last one he would ever give. For a writer whose use of irony seems inextricable from his concept of humanity, that confession is almost too perfect.