22 August 2012

A note on W. G. Sebald's prose

"Il ritorno in patria", from Vertigo (1990) by W. G. Sebald, translated by Michael Hulse (Vintage Books, 2011)

The fourth and final section of W. G. Sebald's first novel starts rather singsong-like.

In November 1987, after spending the last weeks of the summer in Verona, working on my various tasks, and the month of October, because I could not bear to wait any longer for the onset of winter, in a hotel high above Bruneck, near the tree line, I decided one afternoon, when the Großvenediger emerged from behind a grey snow cloud in an especially ominous way, that I should return to England, but before that go to W. for a while, where I had not been since my childhood.

The qualifying clauses extended an otherwise straightforward statement. Removing the obfuscating clauses, what the narrator was saying was simply, "I decided one afternoon ... that I should return to England, but before that go to W. for a while, where I had not been since my childhood."

It was "a good thirty years" since the narrator had left W. (Sebald himself was born in Wertach im Allgäu.) It was about time to come back. But his manner of saying so through the words of his translator, in a roundabout way, creating a staccato rhythm, with clipped clauses separated by commas piling up like lines of a poem, was a signal that we were once again about to enter a labyrinth. Of memories, dreams, hallucinations, ghosts. But mainly ghosts.

Going home. Nothing could better artistically map out the structure of memory, reveal the writer's hyperreal recollections in polished prose. Nothing could exercise his tragic worldviews than a jog through home-grown memories. W. was the fixed destination; but the mental itinerary and landscapes were ever fluid. The narrator's voice unfolded just as ponderously with Sebald, shaped and refined by a singular sensitivity and sensibility.

For that purpose, he boarded a train and espied the countryside and gossiping passengers. The scenery outside was transparent, yet the atmosphere was dense. He seemed to be accelerating toward something catastrophic, if not apocalyptic. The ominous train journey could remind one of the cold hysteria enveloping the opening scene of The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkai, with whom Sebald shared some literary affinities.

Encountering a dozen hens on an open field affected the narrator deeply, "for some reason that [he] still cannot fathom". "I do not know what it is about certain things or creatures that sometimes moves me like this."

As if to counterbalance the awkwardness of his opening lines, the ensuing sentences flowed rather magically. The Sebald sentence could be a treasure. Deadly funny or serious, it had a Walserian compactness that nudged ordinary objects towards their lifelong destiny.

The doorbell clanged, and there we were, standing in the small shop in which a host of long-case clocks, wall-mounted regulators, kitchen and living room clocks, alarm clocks, pocket and wrist watches were all ticking at once, just as if one clock on its own could not destroy enough time.

Mounted on the walls above the brown-painted panelling, stuffed martens, lynxes, capercaillies, vultures and other exterminated creatures were awaiting their time until they could take their long overdue revenge.

The novelist's conveyance of his aesthetics required the paraphrasing of his reference materials (diary entries, news articles, short stories, books, memoirs, frescoes). It also involved periphrasis or the extension of words, phrases, and sentences – a device he probably borrowed from classical German writers. Hence, "further and further" instead of just "further", "more and more" and nothing less.

A periphrastic exposition was obvious from the awakenings of memory. It was there in the Bernhard-inspired attributions (he said, she said) in conversations. The mechanism of memory was not forced but rather delicately prodded, as when a neighbor of the narrator required him to participate in the remembering:

When I inquired about the origins of the books, Lukas was able to tell me only that Mathild had always been a great reader, and because of this, as I might perhaps remember, was thought of by the villagers as peculiar, if not deranged.


To the contrary, said Lukas, she evidently came to feel quite comfortable in her detachment, and indeed the way in which, year after year, she went about among the villagers whom she despised, forever dressed in a black frock or a black coat, and always in a hat and never, even in the finest weather, without an umbrella, had, as I might remember from my own childhood days, something blissful about it. [my emphases]

The elevated style of translation was perhaps faithful to the courteous original. The topic was madness and/or memory and yet the elegant shape of the sentences had a hint of darkish humor in them.

Then again, the narrator was, like his novelist, coming face to face with the legacy of his sanitized memory, the unexplained rubble and ruins in German cities he encountered as a child every fortnight in a newsreel, signs of wartime disgrace never to be talked about. Dealing with the amnesia – cheated, swindled memory – that saddled his growing up was quite possibly the narrator and the novelist's raison d'etre, the "indication of the cause" (Die Ursache), as the title of Thomas Bernhard's memoir of air bombings would have it. Unlike Bernhard's having witnessed firsthand the bombing of cities and hence being exposed to the true "natural history of destruction", the narrator was mourning his ignorance of the meaning of the images in the newsreel – "Almost every week we saw the mountains of rubble in places like Berlin and Hamburg, which for a long time I did not associate with the destruction wrought in the closing years of the war, knowing nothing of it, but considered them a natural condition of all larger cities." It was necessary for him to go back to W. to pick up the pieces of his family history and to start to bear witness to his muddled existence.

Even as a precocious little child, the young narrator already had a penchant for collecting documents, photographs, and found objects.

The door to the Engelwirt landlady's room was usually left slightly ajar, and I frequently went in to her and would spend hours looking at the collection of postcards she kept in three large folio volumes. The landlady, wine glass in hand, sometimes sat next to me at the table as I browsed, but only ever spoke to tell me the name of the town I happened to be pointing to. As the minutes passed by this resulted in a long topographical litany of place names such as Chur, Bregenz, Innsbruck, Altaussee, Hallstatt, Salzburg, Vienna, Pilsen, Marienbad, Bad Kissingen, Würzburg, Bad Homburg and Frank am Main. There were also numerous Italian cards from Merano, Bolzano, Riva, Verona, Milan, Ferrara, Rome and Naples. One of these postcards, showing the smoking peak of Vesuvius, somehow or other got into an album belonging to my parents, and so has come into my possession. [emphases mine; a photograph of the smoking crater of Vesuvius was shown on the page]

Two things to note in this passage. First is I would have liked to put all those proper place names in ellipses but they were obviously part of the periphrasis. It was necessary to itemize these names, to the point of brute force method of remembering, because that was the point of remembering. Not mentioning them, and not reproducing the post card of Mt. Vesuvius, could throw into question the whole account. These were evidences made to bear on the telling, to authenticate the details, to punctuate their reality. (Sebald's periphrasis came to full utility in the extra-long sentence in Austerlitz. Cf. the seemingly endless crime scenes in Roberto Bolaño's 2666, and José Saramago's litany of saints martyred by every conceivable means in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.) The second point is that the "somehow or other" could be an indirect admission that the child had filched the postcard from the landlady!

Sebald's use of the two devices in his prose, one that lengthens (periphrasis) and one that foreshortens (paraphrase), was not rigid. The two usually worked in combination. Franz Kafka's story "The Hunter Gracchus", was directly alluded to and paraphrased in the third section. It was already hinted at in the second section, with one of the characters named Salvatore, just like in the Kafka story. The story was reenacted, or adapted, in a sort of false or made-up version (a periphrasis) in this section when Sebald introduced a Gracchus figure. The paraphrase and the periphrastic were the potent tools of Sebald's aesthetics of falsification.

The reader was also suddenly winked back to the first part of the book, the Stendhal section. Touching an old, hanging uniform sleeve brought the narrator "utter horror" as the clothing "crumbled into dust". And then we were told it belonged to an Austrian who fought the French in 1800, the year Stendhal started his campaign. In fact, it was the year mentioned in the first sentence of the novel.

In Sebald's calculated writing, memories and coincidences speak the same language. The seemingly hidden, invisible, or fictional(ized) ideas are collapsed or augmented. The syntactical structures and textures of poetic prose point to a robust instance of transtextuality.


  1. Your examples definitely bring back memories of the type of language I experienced in 'Die Ringe des Saturn' (and analysed in a lot more detail than I attempted!). Good to see that his other work is as nuanced and rewarding :)

  2. Tony, he is one of the prose stylists I admire. Now that I've completed reading his fiction, I appreciate how he cultivated his persona in them and assembled works that are consistently grand.