Why Sebald?


Marcela: Green-Wood Cemetery, 2015 (CC)

by Greg Gerke

Should it surprise that the writer who has exerted the most influence over English-language writing in the last twenty years has been W.G. Sebald? One can possibly point to David Foster Wallace, but, like Samuel Beckett and Donald Barthelme, his style is nearly impossible to copy. Sebald goes easy on the eyes and the long sinuous sentences carry a patina of lexical inevitability. Tonally, the compassionate and empathetic underbelly of them (Susan Sontag calls it a “moral fervency and gift[s] of compassion (here he parts company with Bernhard)”) is what so many strive for, but is nearly impossible to develop – one starts writing with some trace of it or one goes away for five years and lives a different life to vouchsafe a new approach to the page. Yet here is the hurly-burly: Foster Wallace’s sad-faced snark (more in the essays) is easily achievable – it’s the mood-du-jour, a feisty shadow engulfing many writers since, but his churning bricolage of accruing thought is not. And he rarely has those built-in holds for the reader to pause and let their contrapuntal compass reconnoitre. To key into Sebald’s reportage seems easy and one could argue his books, Renata Adler’s two novels Speedboat and Pitch Dark, and Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights (all three wrote significant criticism) are the most important ones (with Roland Barthes and Sontag’s critical works as important antecedents) that led to the marketing term called ‘Autofiction’. The writers of my generation probably latched onto Sebald and Robert Walser (one of his exemplars) because they are not fraught with any American malarkey, that boom and hiss of ego; they are flaneurs in aspic, fitting into a slackerish ethos that first took over U.S. films and music more than books. Still, writing, always the default art, would finally come to be even more lazy and drib-drab with the internet, the blogger and the social media personality, before the unconscionable Tik Tok generation where people, usually in their teens and twenties, gesture to boxes of words that are more often than not in fragment format – the human voice suddenly grown mercenary and recalcitrant – probably a bad sign. “It’s when you’re not saying anything that no one can hurt you,” John Cassavetes told an actress off-camera during the making of Husbands, which is the unvoiced mantra of a host of persons in many generations.

It seems there are some writers who teach you how to write and there are others who teach you what to write about. For many a mono-linguist, I strongly believe translated fiction makes up the latter, while those who use the same words, constructions, the lexical grain often make up the former. Going through Sebald’s novel Vertigo again recently, I had that uncanny Sebaldian feeling that I had already written my own fiction out of a remembered scene of Vertigo, but I had only read Vertigo once, in 2005 – could it have affected such a territorial pull? He writes: “I pulled the blinds. There were rooftops as far as the eye could see in the gathering dusk…Below, a chasm of backyards yawned. I turned away from this view and without undressing lay down on the bed…folded my arms under my head, and stared up at the ceiling, which appeared to be miles away.” I clearly constructed a scene in my mind or memory of finding a hotel in Arles and laying out my clothes that has no basis in my own reality, out of Sebald’s sequence and others that occur in Rings of Saturn and Campo Santo.

Why Sebald captures the readers he does – maybe more of a melancholic brood – has to do with his programme being more interested in the lustres and colourations of living moment to moment; the memory of this space then, this ruin back when. In Sebald, the nexus with the reader is mainly in the grace notes around large events: “Once I noticed a dozen hens right out in the middle of a green field…the sight of this small flock that had ventured so far out into the open affected me deeply. I do not know what it is about certain things or creatures that sometimes moves me like this.” This experience is so universal it could be dismissed as fluff, but it is clearly stirring simplicity without the vaunted “attack sentence” – its cache is all in its scene setting, directness and moral order. No doubt there have been psychological papers about the effect of these works on readers – J.M. Coetzee considered the heady weight of Austerlitz in a series of letters with a psychotherapist in The Good Story. In Sebald there is no jousting for or jangling a reader’s attention, but, rather, a mild booster shot of sorts, a person gently applying four fingers of their hand to one’s arm to reassure them in a most gracious way that used car salesmen and similar vile persons on the make have little purchase on. Marianne Moore: “Style is a radiograph of the personality” – and Sebald is constantly ministering as an empath, readying to open his stage in the book to a new actor. What this opening does is create a space for the reader in an almost dialectical situation – therapeutic – to press their own experiences into the novel, very physical memories, the leaf or flower pressed and dried into the pages of a book. This is the way of impression for Ricardo Piglia: “The value of reading does not depend on the book in itself but on the emotions associated with the act of reading…” and Gerald Murnane, age-mates of Sebald, who were beginning to tear at the face of fiction in the 80s, when the Updikes, Mailers and Carvers were still charting. Subtly, a different breed of fiction rose up, which is a throwback to Proust.

I’m not professing the historical sections in Sebald are red herrings, they do carry the power of the historian, though writing about ancient times is more often writing about one’s own time. There is an infinity of mirroring going on, the camera looking into the mirror and giving off multiple reflections, as in a funhouse – but with the reflections being the narrator’s and, ultimately, the reader’s own personal history. Coupled with this is a simple circumscribed love of naming things: streets, data points, lost history, but mostly people who would have normally been forgotten to history (aside from the stand-outs in The Rings of Saturn). Sebald built monuments to the forgotten and his books give off the scent of mildewed and mouldy crypts one crosses whether in Père Lachaise or Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, where he writes the world’s pain unto himself.

About the Author

Greg Gerke’s work has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, The Kenyon Review, and other publications. See What I See, a book of essays, and Especially the Bad Things, a book of stories, were both published by Splice. Zerogram Press released a new and expanded version of See What I See in 2021. He also edits the journal: Socrates on the Beach

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