8 Worthy Literary Heirs to W. G. Sebald
Happy Birthday, Max
Today is the birthday of one of my very favorite writers, the luminous W.G. Sebald, who would have been 73 on this date had he not died in 2001 after suffering an aneurysm behind the wheel of his car. His work is discursive, self-referential, not straddling the line between fiction and non-fiction so much as shrugging at it; such a division is irrelevant in these Nabokov-stalked pages. He is concerned with memory and its loss, recollection and re-recollection, the passage of time and how to mark it.
The aftermath of World War II is a shroud over it all. His books are often punctuated with grainy black-and-white photos, which sometimes illustrate an element of the text directly, and sometimes are more oblique. He wanders. His work is its own singular genre, a feat of travelogue-memoir-fiction-history. I recall hearing somewhere, though now I can’t remember where, that when Sebald’s editors asked him in which section he thought his work should be shelved, he shrugged and said “fiction,” because it was the most all-encompassing. Still, he has nudged its edges slightly wider. He’s not the first writer to do so, of course, nor the last—but as one of the kings of any list of writers’ writers, he has influenced the work of many contemporary authors. I have collected a few of these here—all heirs in one way or another to his literary legacy—for those who’ve exhausted the Sebald catalogue and are eager for more. Sebald’s untimely death was a blow to literature, but these writers at least will carry his ideas into the future.
Much like Sebald, Erpenbeck writes eloquently about memory, loss, displacement, and time, her storytelling discursive—Visitation spans decades in individual stories; its beauty and power comes from the overlay of images, the patterning, the fugue. A German writer, she too uses this technique to reckon with World War II, whittling history down to the level of the individual. The epigraph from Sebald’s Austerlitz she chose for her novel The End of Days might just as easily sum up her own work as Sebald’s own:
We left from here for Marienbad only last summer.
And now—where will we be going now?
When Cole’s Open City was published in 2012, almost everyone who wrote about it compared him to Sebald. No surprise, of course, as Cole’s slim novel elegantly picks up Sebald’s intelligent wander-and-think, and the episodic storytelling of encountered persons, all of it under a semi-surreal glaze. James Wood, a Sebald expert, compared the two in his New Yorker review of Open City:
So the novel does move in the shadow of W.G. Sebald’s work. While “Open City” has nominally separate chapters, it has the form and atmosphere of a text written in a single, unbroken paragraph: though people speak and occasionally converse, this speech is not marked by quotation marks, dashes, or paragraph breaks and is formally indistinguishable from the narrator’s own language. As in Sebald, what moves the prose forward is not event or contrivance but a steady, accidental inquiry, a firm pressurelessness (which is to say, what moves the prose forward is the prose—the desire to write, to defeat solitude by writing). The first few pages of “Open City” are intensely Sebaldian, with something of his sly faux antiquarianism . . . [But] the novel soon begins to throw off its obvious influences. The prose relaxes into a voice rather than an effect, and it becomes apparent that Cole is attempting something different from Sebald’s project. Eschewing the systematic rigor of Sebald’s work, as well as its atmosphere of fatigued nervous tension, Cole has made his novel as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition.
This is the best of both worlds, of course: taking something magical, reflecting it, and then making it your own stupendous thing.
There’s something about the texture of Cusk’s prose—a sort of coldness to her storytelling that, somewhere along the line, magically transforms into understanding—that reminds me of Sebald. Plus there’s the whole obvious blistering intelligence thing. About her most recent novel Transit, in The New York Review of Books, Claire Messud writes:
Outline and Transit, however, turn away from self-involvement and draw formal inspiration from a particularly powerful antecedent: the work of W.G. Sebald, whose revolutionary fictions eschew the familiar pleasures of animated characters in action and a rising narrative arc with a climax and dénouement; they rely, instead, on self-consciously crafted summaries of individual life stories. Sebald’s The Emigrants, published in English in 1996, is comprised of four such narratives, thematically linked in an illumination of the legacy of World War II and its trauma and loss. Sebald’s semiautobiographical narrator is both incidental and essential, largely self-effacing. He emerges—as does Cusk’s Faye—chiefly through what he chooses to relay about others.
However, Messud points out, Cusk focuses her “Sebaldian techniques” on the exploration of familial relationships—she is less swamped by history than Sebald.
While Cole certainly acknowledges his love of Sebald, Self goes a step further, and has positioned himself as something of an expert on the writer. He has written about Sebald in a number of places, including in The Guardian, where he writes about loving Sebald’s work:
My growing sense of affinity with Sebald’s alter ego was based in part on my own increasingly picaresque pieces of writing: I walked, I drove, I flew, I walked again—then I wrote it up. And also on my increasingly Sebaldian alter ego: I was closing on the age at which he had begun to write his picaresques, I was a middle-aged man with minimal baggage, few accessories, and a growing loathing of computers. When I walked, I too found it difficult to bridge the gap between the reeling and spooling of my internal discourse and the curiously dwarfish people I came upon. As for the douceur de la vie, well, I have it in spades, natch.
He goes on to describe his experience “reverse engineering” a Sebaldian piece of writing by taking that sensibility “for a walk and see[ing] what it came up with.” Sebald’s influence—or at least their affinity—shows up in Self’s own work as well, though his works of psychogeography have not always been compared favorably to Sebald.
Dyer’s another author who both writes like and about Sebald—though he’s only really an “heir” in the sense that he’s still alive and writing, whereas Sebald is not. Famously (to me, at least), Dyer commented on this New Yorker piece—in which Mark O’Connoll wrote that Dyer had been “inspired” by Sebald, and that “Dyer’s work—part essay, part travelogue, part fiction—sometimes reads like a less melancholy, more comic (and more English) variant of Sebald’s peregrinatory prose”—by reminding everyone that actually The Missing of the Somme (which has the “Sebaldian” qualities of inserted photographs, distorted memories, reflections on war, etc.) came out two years before The Emigrants was translated into English, and Out of Sheer Rage, his book about not writing a book about D.H. Lawrence, was completed before then too. Dyer wrote: “I’m guessing those are the two books that look like they were most influenced by Sebald—whom I love, of course—but they couldn’t have been! I was doing the “part essay, part travelogue, part fiction” thing before Sebald invented it!” Works for me if their stylistic similarities were developed concurrently—so long as we get to read them.
Genre-blending, check. Discursive thinking, check. Inserted images, oh beauteous check. In an interview with The Believer, Lerner acknowledges Sebald’s influence (alongside Javier Marías and Alexander Kluge), particularly when it comes to treatment of images:
I’m particularly interested in what the photograph can do in or to fiction, how the inclusion of even a few photographs changes the novel’s relationship to the conventions of realism.
The old claim of the novel to make you “see” is complicated by the surfeit of visual detail that’s provided by almost any photograph. The thickest novelistic description is less optically realistic than any conventional photograph. As a result, including photographs both subtracts and adds pressure to the prose: it relieves it of the burden of simulating the optical if only because it reminds us how narrative prose just isn’t as good at that as the camera.
It’s worth noting that Lerner doesn’t just insert photographs, but he sometimes uses them tangentially, even cryptically, in high Sebaldian fashion—though James Woods comments that “The effect is less Sebald than Glen Baxter.” Still, in the widest of views, Lerner seems to be carrying on Sebald’s tradition of throwing everything—fiction, non-fiction, the self, art, artifice, a scrap of story you heard once, or one you wrote—into the novel, building it out into an all-encompassing form. Or to put it another way: I have never been able to successfully describe either The Rings of Saturn or 10:04, and yet they are both works of genius.
In bitter moments, I imagine that Patrick Modiano won the Nobel in 2014 because Sebald wasn’t around any more to get it. (I am sure Modiano is worthy too, but I have my preferences—and the bitterness comes from the fact that Modiano shows me how much more Sebald might have accomplished had he lived longer.) At The Week, Ryu Spaeth writes:
Like Sebald, Modiano blends fact and fiction, memoir and reportage. Both are obsessed with unearthing lives buried under the avalanche of time. But perhaps the most compelling trait they share, one so striking as to suggest a larger phenomenon, is the extremely oblique way in which they address their subject, as if their books are mere points of light against a vast vault of depthless silence.
I had never heard of Slovenian writer Šarotar until I began putting this list together and stumbled across Nicholas Lezard’s review of his novel Panorama, his first to be translated into English, at The Guardian. Lezard’s review begins:
About two-thirds of the way through this book, I broke off to read the afterword and fossick around on the internet to do some research on Šarotar, and I discovered that what I had been reading was, in fact, a novel. Oh. And I had been enjoying it so much. I exaggerate my reaction a little, but it does not read like a novel until the end. It begins in Galway with a Slovenian writer, in first-person narration, watching a storm build up across the bay. The text is illustrated with black-and-white photographs; the tone is melancholy, thoughtful, the sentences long, the paragraphs sometimes taking up nine pages at a stretch. We are evidently meant to recall W.G. Sebald, who is, indeed, cited towards the end. If it is a novel, it is not a typical one.
He concludes the review: “This is not a novel in which anything happens; it has all happened already, catastrophically, and the condition of exile is the only place from which one can achieve peace or perspective. This is what I think this marvelous book is telling us.” Sold.