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Writing After Sebald

[This essay was published on February 9, 2015, on the Sebaldiana website for the 2015 literary festival run by Barcelona-based Kosmopolis. Citation:


by Terry Pitts

Every now and then an artist emerges whose work exerts such a gravitational force that others who work in a manner that is similar or merely perceived to be similar get pulled into the orbit of this singular, powerful figure. W.G. Sebald is just such a writer. Even before Sebald’s death in 2001, other writers were borrowing from his large repertoire of literary mannerisms, transforming them into their own styles. But even more writers – some of whom had never read Sebald – were suddenly labeled “Sebaldian” by reviewers, publishers, and readers around the globe. Many traits contribute to Sebald’s unique style of prose fiction: the inclusion of photographs, stubbornly antiquated sentences that stretch for pages, a narrator who closely resembles the writer in both biography and melancholy temperament, the blending of multiple literary genres, a fascination with walking, an obsession with the past, a playful intertextuality. Perhaps even more remarkable is that Sebald incorporate all of the traits into his books and yet they never seem experimental. Quite the reverse, Sebald’s writing is often felt to be oddly old-fashioned.

For Sebald, the tragic history of mankind appeared as one self-inflicted trauma after another. But it is as a German that Sebald’s own history and moral character was particularly tested. Born in the midst of World War II to a father who served as a German soldier in Poland, Sebald found that his growing moral indignation at his parent’s generation required him to find a way back through postwar guilt, deception, and denial toward some form of restitution for this past. It is this particular historical mission that often sets Sebald apart from other writers with whom he might share certain literary traits.

But before we look at a writers after Sebald, we should acknowledge the one living writer whose shadow probably looms largest over Sebald’s books – his fellow German, the writer and filmmaker Alexander Kluge (born 1932). Kluge’s influential and innovative books – notably his 1977 book Neue Geschichten: Hefte 1–18: “Unheimlichkeit der Zeit”(translated as “New Histories: Notebooks 1–18: ‘The Uncanniness of Time’) – are written in a flat, non-literary prose that becomes a montage of voices, photographs, drawings, and charts that Sebald greatly admired and praised. Kluge’s work provided Sebald with a strategy for responsibly dealing with traumatic, historic events that he himself had not experienced. “The reader may learn [from Neue Geschichten] how personal involvement in the collectively experienced course of events…can only be meaningfully condensed, at least heuristically, through analytical historical investigations, through reference to the prehistory of the events as well as to later developments up to the present day and to possible future perspectives.”

Born in Wales in 1943, a year before Sebald, Iain Sinclair has written a stream of books since 1970 that began venturing into Sebald-like territory years before Sebald’s first volume of prose fiction appeared. Like Sebald, he has a physical restlessness and a relentlessly intelligent curiosity that gives his work an encyclopedic range. Some of his best books, like Downriver (1991), Lights out for the Territory (1997), and London Orbital (2002) – whether fiction or non-fiction or a blend of both – echo Sebald’s repeated wandering explorations. Sinclair often meanders through the marginal, lost neighborhoods of London and its environs, recovering the overlooked history of the city before it gets paved over. But where Sebald looked to the larger panorama of human history and our destructive relationship with nature, Sinclair is more engaged in the current moment, railing against misguided social policies and the rampant amnesia of overeager capitalism. His books side with the underdogs, the artists, and the unfortunate, who serve as the nagging conscience in the face of the dystopia that he sees as modern life. And where Sebald systematically and patiently built up each of his books, all the while disguising the structure in a writing style that seemed aimless, Sinclair’s writing emanates from a kind of verbal logorrhea, with words and ideas and characters spilling onto and overflowing the page. More recently, Sinclair has actually been tracing what he calls Sebald’s “quiet cult of managed melancholy” by writing about him (Austerlitz & After: Tracking Sebald) and narrating a BBC documentary on Sebald.

Christoph Ransmayr (born 1964) is another writer whose key book appeared before Sebald’s did. His 1984 novel Die Schrecken des Eises und der Finsternis (The Terrors of Ice and Darkness), which is embedded with photographs and drawings, explores mankind’s delusional quests to conquer a chaotic and all-powerful Nature. Writing in a style that often feels documentary, Ransmayr, like Sebald, confronts the fact that he can only envision the traces of the trauma experienced by others, that he cannot share their trauma himself – and neither can we.

In several of his novels, Sergio Chejfec often writes of “Insignificant beings limited by a complex series of circumstances.” Born in Argentina in 1956, he has lived much of his adult life in Venezuela and the United States. His narrators tend to be thoughtful, observant loners who are fond of walking. But in several other aspects Chejfec represents an anti-Sebaldian philosophy. His narrators are not interested in history, not even in The Dark, in which the abduction and probable murder of the narrator’s friend seems to have been carried out by government death squads, and his books express little faith in literature’s ability to serve as witness or to attempt the type of restitution so central to Sebald’s writing.  One doesn’t write to uncover what is hidden, but rather to obscure it further, says the narrator of The Dark.

Teju Cole ’s 2011 novel Open City was immediately compared to Sebald, even though he himself prefers to acknowledge other writers – notably Michael Ondaatje and Gabriel Garcia Marquez – as his source of inspiration. As we often find in Sebald’s novels, Open City features a vulnerable, observant loner. Julius, an immigrant from Nigeria is studying in New York City, where he wanders the city by foot and by subway. Wherever he goes he cannot help but see the past – particularly the bleak history of America’s slave trade – like a tragic palimpsest across the streets of today. Infused with politics, history, literature and music (especially Mahler), Open City is intelligent, elegiac, and deeply nuanced.  Born in the United States in 1975 to Nigerian parents, Cole is a keen and astute accountant of the concoction that makes up contemporary life and he shares with Sebald the immigrant’s intensely heightened sensibilities. Unlike Sebald, however, he tackles head-on such contemporary topics as the politics of post 9/11 America, radical Islam, and post-colonial Africa.

Permission: A Novel, by S.D. Chrostowska, consists entirely of emails written to an unidentified filmmaker, which does not sound very Sebaldian. But Chrostowska, like Sebald, an émigré and academic who also writes prose and poetry, deals with many of the same issues found in Sebald, including literature, history, and the holocaust. Permission: A Novel reads like a series of short essays infused with philosophy and the arts. Chrostowska challenges our conviction that we can “know” certain events, especially those that happened to us in our childhood (she grew up in Solidarity-era Poland, but now teaches in Canada) and those we didn’t personally experience, such as the holocaust. Of the many writers who have employed photographs within their works of fiction, Chrostowska, in my opinion, has the most sophisticated sense of how text and images complement each other while operating quite differently on the page.

Three novels by Micheline Aharonian Marcom (born in Saudia Arabia in 1968 of American and Armenian-Lebanese parents) imaginatively take up the challenge of envisioning the effects of the Armenian Genocide on its participants and victims and its succeeding generations. In the first of Marcom’s books, Three Apples Fell from Heaven, 2001, tells the story of the genocide itself from the multiple perspective of perpetrators, victims, and observers. In The Daydreaming Boy, 2004, and Draining the Sea, 2008, Marcom shifts to new generations, moving geographically to 1960s Beirut and present-day Los Angeles to focus on violent, misogynistic men who have inherited the cruelty of those who murdered their Armenian forebears. Marcom´s prose is sensuous and wildly descriptive of things seen, touched, heard, smelt, and tasted, as if only the five senses can be trusted.

But if I had to pick one novel that seems the most Sebaldian of them all it would be Frederick Reuss‘s 2006 book Mohr: A Novel.  It’s the fictional biography of a real person – Reuss’s uncle Max Mohr – a Jewish physician, writer, and close friend of D.H. Lawrence, who abruptly left his wife and daughter behind in Germany in 1934 and moved to Shanghai, where he mysteriously started all over again. Using sepia photographs left behind by Mohr and a quiet, lyrical prose, Reuss evokes the alpine region of Germany where his family remains (which, coincidentally, was scarcely 100 kilometers from where Sebald was born and raised) and his adopted China, as the events of World War II abruptly descend.

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