With his Gothic meanderings and limp mimicry of Kafka, this unlikely darling of high European style is merely lost in an English cul-de-sacby Michael Hofmann / October 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
one of the most striking developments in English-language publishing in the past five years has been the extraordinary success of the books of WG Sebald. The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo were received-pretty unanimously, as far as I could tell-with deference and superlatives. This is the more unlikely as I don’t think such a success could have been predicted for them or their author. Sebald, a professor at the University of East Anglia for many years, and settled in England since 1970, nevertheless insisted on writing in his native German-and then taking a hand in the heavy, somewhat dated English presentation of his books. These books, furnished with, one presumed, the author’s own photographs, hovered coquettishly on the verge of non-fiction; certainly, their elaboration of what appeared to be painstakingly researched historical narratives and circumstances contained much of their appeal. They called themselves novels, but they were more like introverted lectures, suites of digression, their form given them by the knowledge they contained; like water, finding its own levels everywhere, pooling and dribbling, with excurses on such things as silk, herrings, architecture, battles.
It was strange to see so many of England’s hidden stops-snobbery, gossip, melancholy, privileged information, eccentricities, the countryside reliably full of rich Keatsian glooms, daylight ghosts, dead machines, hulks of buildings, your Edward Thomas, your Pevsner, your Larkin, your Motion-so expertly manipulated by someone not even writing in English. But what was even stranger was that Sebald operated without any of the rigmarole or the pleasantnesses of the novel. The complete absence of humour, charm, grace, touch is startling-as startling as the fact that books written without them could enjoy any sort of success in England. Or, to take a different measure, that books without much pretence of character or action, but where the role of story is taken by thought or reading-or even more starkly, by the memory of thought or reading-could catch on at all. It is almost unaccountable to me that in the culture of “the good read” or “the book at bedtime” people would bother with books where the action-history-is always going on elsewhere, where the connection between the speaker and the hero or the plot is unspoken, unexamined, possibly non-existent: where for the dearly loved cogs and springs of conventional fiction there is no greater lubricant or persuader than ruminant curiosity.
In Austerlitz, the unnamed first-person writer gives us his…