W.G. Sebald ten years on

The German writer W.G. Sebald died in a car crash near his home in Norfolk ten years ago today. I had only recently heard of him, having a short while previously read a review in the London Review of Books of what proved to be his final work of Sebaldiana, Austerlitz. I use the word Sebaldiana, because I do not know how else to describe the genre in which Sebald wrote: a haunting, inextricable amalgam of fact and fiction, interspersed with enigmatic, captionless photographs, paragraphs (and occasionally sentences) which run on for several pages, narrative nested several narrators deep, unlikely coincidences, dream sequences, panic attacks, curiously empty landscapes, and occasional dry humour. The books are, I think, about the unreliable nature of memory, with the holocaust nagging away, understated, in the background (overstatement being impossible). Or so I believe. But that, it seems to me, might be the whole point: I think you are supposed to work out what it all means to you. Or perhaps I am mistaken.

This year, I re-read three of Sebald's four works of Sebaldiana: The Rings of Saturn, Vertigo, and The Emigrants, and I am as perplexed as ever. Which I think must count as a ringing endorsement. If a ringing endorsement from me isn't enough to put you off, then it seems to me that you could do far worse than to pick up a copy of The Rings of Saturn—perhaps my favourite of Sebald's books—and read it twice: the first time to find it strange, haunting, and unclassifiable; the second time just to reassure yourself that your unreliable memory did not deceive you, and that the book really was as strange, haunting, and unclassifiable as you seem to think you might remember.

Or you could just listen to these five, fifteen-minute programmes about Sebald, which were aired on BBC Radio 3 last week. Or this half-hour American radio interview with Sebald made shortly before his untimely death.


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