I am back from southern California. Our plane was late because of the weather in New York yesterday, so between that and the incredibly slow baggage-handling at JFK, we walked into my boyfriend’s house around 2:30 this morning. My brain is sleep-deprived goo. In the process of unpacking, I noticed the library book that I assumed I’d finish on the plane is due tomorrow. I’ve just finished it now.
I have a visceral relationship with some writers’ work, and W.G. Sebald is one of them. The only two playwrights I can think of who write about memory as engagingly as Sebald are Mr. Albee (“Virginia Woolf” and “All Over”), and Harold Pinter (particularly in “Old Times”). You’d think that any translated fiction would be more likely to be distant from the reader (Sebald wrote in German), but that’s not true at all in this instance. I never read any Sebald until after he died- he was killed in a car accident in 2001. He didn’t write that many books, so once I discovered him, I had to dole them out to myself as treats. I have two books left to go, one of which (“Austerlitz”) I bought this week.
It’s difficult to describe Sebald as a novelist. In most of his work he writes about a protagonist named W.G. Sebald, who’s kind of him but not. There are many photographs taken by the author in these books, and always a lot of history, tinged often with curiosity and other times with deserved moral outrage. Sebald wrote, obliquely and less so, about his time and himself: growing up in post-war Germany and the difficulty, if not inability, to come to terms with all that happened in the 1930s and 1940s. Sebald wrestled with this in all his work, and immigrated to England in the 1970s, where he lived until his death.
In “The Rings of Saturn,” which I just finished, Sebald tells an amazing story of Roger Casement (the Irish patriot executed by the British in 1916) and his encounter with Joseph Conrad and Franz Kafka’s uncle in the Belgian Congo in 1915. I’d never really consider those three men inhabiting the same world, let alone King Leopold’s hellish Congo.
Sebald’s most traditionally fiction book is “The Emigrants,” which is haunting, and haunted by memory. It’s also one of those novels where you feel like you know the world the writer’s drawn you into, even though you can’t quite put your finger on what will happen next. The link to Sebald’s obituary in The Guardian is above.
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