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Sebald, Winfried Georg Maximilian [Max]free

(1944–2001)
  • Michael Robinson

Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald (1944–2001)

by Eamonn McCabe

© Eamonn McCabe

Sebald, Winfried Georg Maximilian [Max] (1944–2001), writer and scholar of literature in German, was born on 18 May 1944 in Wertach im Allgäu, Bavaria, the only son in the family of four children of rural glassmakers whom he once described as 'conventional, Catholic, anti-Communist, working-class' (The Times). His father, Georg Sebald, escaped unemployment in 1929 by entering the army and prospered under the Third Reich, ending the war as a captain and prisoner in France. When he returned home in 1947 Sebald 'found it odd that this person turned up and claimed to be my father' (Daily Telegraph); by now he related more readily to his grandfather, Josef Egelhofer, on his mother Rosa's side. With him he explored the local countryside and until his death when Sebald was twelve his grandfather was perhaps the most important presence of his early years. Sebald was educated at the Gymnasium in Oberstdorf where, with little or no explanation, he and the other children were once shown a newsreel of Belsen. However, during his childhood, the recent past was never discussed, and when he was taken to Munich for the first time he assumed that all cities were likewise untidy compositions of rubble.

Sebald studied literature at the universities of Freiburg (1963–5) and Fribourg (1965–6), before moving in 1966 to the University of Manchester where, interrupted only briefly for a spell as a schoolteacher in St Gallen, he was Lektor in German until 1970. Then, together with his wife, Ute Rosenbauer, an Austrian whom he had met at university and married on 1 September 1967 (they had one daughter, Anna), he moved to a lectureship in German at the University of East Anglia (UEA), where he proved an inspiring, if exacting, teacher, remembered both for his high standards and for his kindness and humour. Without it being planned as such this move proved permanent, and Sebald appeared to have embarked on what was a distinguished but conventional academic career. He was appointed professor of European literature at UEA in 1987 and became the quixotic and exemplary founding director of the British Centre for Literary Translation there from 1989 to 1994. In 1999, following the reorganization of the school of modern languages and European studies, he transferred to the school of English and American studies at UEA. He published a controversial study of Carl Sternheim and Wilhelmine Germany (1969) and further books on Alfred Döblin (1980) and contemporary German theatre, as well as two volumes of essays on Austrian writing, Die Beschreibung des Unglücks: zur österreichischen Literatur von Stifter bis Handke (1985) and Unheimliche Heimat (1991). The more personal collection, Logis in einem Landhaus (1998), contained a series of literary meditations on six Swiss and Austrian authors or painters with whom he felt an affinity. Finally among his academic and discursive writing, an essay on Alfred Andersch helped to redefine the moral history of post-war German literature, and in 1999 he published Luftkrieg und Literatur (translated as On the Natural History of Destruction, 2003), based on lectures delivered at the University of Zürich. In it he maintained that the wholesale destruction of Germany in the Second World War had been comprehensively ignored, or suppressed, by its literature, a thesis that caused widespread outrage, much controversy, and not a little confusion: 'There's a danger of getting applause from the wrong side', he once observed, after receiving dozens of letters from those who blamed the bombing on the Jews (Daily Telegraph).

Although there was nothing in Sebald's earlier academic writing to herald the intense and sustained period of literary productivity on which, publishing as W. G. Sebald, he suddenly embarked in the late 1980s, it is possible in retrospect to realize how he was all along mining numerous seams to do with language, memory, landscape, identity, exile, and belonging that his fiction soon made familiar. Spurred on by an intense dislike for what he regarded as the sabotage of English higher education by successive governments, he turned abruptly away from traditional scholarship and produced, from 1989 to 2001, a series of no less meticulously researched fictions which rapidly brought him an international reputation. Written always in an unmistakable, precise, sinuous, grave, and rhythmic German prose, these works were soon translated into English (mainly by Michael Hulse and Anthea Bell, but with much input from Sebald himself), where the events and experiences he described resonated very differently according to the language employed. Thus for a decade he enjoyed three careers, the academic sharing his name with two writers, each with his own audience of German or English readers. Indeed, as his books succeeded one another, the recipient of numerous literary German prizes gained a reputation as an author in English which was, if anything, even higher. Compared at times with Proust, Nabokov, and Kafka, he was described by Michael Ondaatje as 'the most interesting and ambitious writer working in Britain today' (The Times), while Susan Sontag wrote that his books were unique in modern literature for an ability to 'attain the sublime' (Sontag). Whatever the language, however, their voice, and the values it articulated, were unmistakably European, and were haunted by the devastation amid which Sebald first grew up.

The earliest of Sebald's fictional books was Nach der Natur (1989; After Nature, 2002), a prose poem in three parts which recreated the lives of the painter of the Isenheim altarpiece, Matthias Grünewald, the explorer Georg Steller, and Sebald himself, each in their relationship with nature and its destruction. This was followed by Schwindel, Gefühle (1990; Vertigo, 1999), four prose narratives in which the narrator's identity was interwoven with those of Kafka and Stendhal, and Die Ausgewanderten (1993; The Emigrants, 1996), his first unquestionable masterpiece, which traced the destinies of four exiles (three of them Jewish) from the Third Reich. Although Sebald's feeling for his adopted East Anglia was evident in the account of a journey on foot along the Suffolk coast that provided the framework of his next book, Die Ringe des Saturn (1995; The Rings of Saturn, 1998), it is clear that the lives with which the narrator engaged in Die Ausgewanderten were in accord with Sebald's own situation: as he once said of Norwich, 'I've lived here for thirty years, but I don't feel in the least at home' (The Times). Finally, in 2001, came Austerlitz, his fictional masterpiece, in which he narrated the life of another emigrant, its eponymous protagonist who arrived in Britain courtesy of the Kindertransport, and whose destiny confirmed that, for Sebald, a life was only ever to be understood in its details as well as in the haunted voices in which its story was told. For him, each person possessed a remarkable history arising out of circumstances that seemed always touched with a sense of irretrievable loss and devastation.

In all these works Sebald explored the occluded memory that engulfed so many aspects of his parents' Germany. As with others in his generation, it was the Frankfurt trial of those involved in running Auschwitz that made him fully aware of the events that formed the background to so much of his writing, to be discerned obliquely in the background, as in the pre-echo of Auschwitz in the title of his most elaborate novel, Austerlitz. Moreover, he generally employed a hybrid form, sited half-way between critical and creative writing, that embraced elements of fiction, history, travelogue, memoir, and essay, in which fragments of the real and the invented were intertwined in accordance with his concern that fictional truth should not be obscured by the meretricious mechanics of the novel. Describing himself as 'a much more passionate reader than I am a writer', he was fascinated by what he called 'incidental writing of various kinds' (The Observer), and hence delighted in the often fading, usually amateur, photographs that he incorporated into these works where, together with reproductions of train tickets, diary entries, sketches, and other clippings, they functioned both as an indicator of the real and as reminders that every text has a past, one that poses moral questions regarding the nature of fiction.

These books which, notwithstanding an exceptional command of English, Sebald wrote in German and in longhand (he detested the claims of technology and preferred a blunt pencil to the most elegant of computers), brought him a distinguished series of literary awards and prizes, including the Fedor-Malchow Preis (1991), Berliner Literaturpreis (1994), Johannes Bobrowski medal (1994), Mörike-Preis (1996), Heinrich Böll Preis (1997), and Heinrich Heine Preis (2000), as well as the Los Angeles Times award for fiction (1999) and the prix Laure Bataillon (1999). In England The Emigrants received the Jewish Quarterly Wingate literary prize (1996) and Austerlitz the foreign fiction prize from The Independent (2002). He had been a member of the Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung since 1996, while growing recognition of the importance of his work in Britain had been acknowledged in 2000 by the award of one of the first fellowships from the new National Endowment for Science and Technology and the Arts. A number of Sebald's writings have been published or collected, edited, and republished posthumously, including Unerzählt (2003; Unrecounted, 2004) and Campo santo (German and English, 2003).

Always known to friends and colleagues as Max, when speaking English Sebald retained the unmistakable trace of a warm, soft, southern German accent, and notwithstanding his height, moustache, and penetrating glance, he exuded a form of wonderfully relaxed gravitas, his eyes smiling even as they probed. He was a man of extraordinary compassion, modesty, and still greater generosity, a fine raconteur, at once wry, wittily humorous, and ironic, and it was only the most unsubtle reader of his books who equated him with the sometimes lugubrious persona of their narrator. The latter was no more ‘Max’ in person than the figures who populated his books were always identical with the real-life people with whom they sometimes shared a name. For a writer whose books were so haunted by intimations of catastrophe, it was a peculiarly nasty intervention of the kind of aleatory fate with which he was so fascinated that Sebald should die at the height of his powers in a car accident between his home and UEA on 14 December 2001. He was buried in the very English churchyard of Framingham Earl near his home in Poringland on 3 January 2002. He was survived by his wife, Ute, and his daughter, Anna, who was seriously injured in the accident but enjoyed a complete recovery.

Sources

  • R. McCrum, ‘The week in reviews: books’, The Observer (7 June 1998)
  • S. Sontag, ‘A mind in mourning’, TLS (25 Feb 2000)
  • M. Jaggi, ‘Recovered memories’, The Guardian (22 Sept 2001)
  • A. Lubow, ‘W. G. Sebald’, New York Times (11 Dec 2001)
  • The Times (17 Dec 2001)
  • Daily Telegraph (17 Dec 2001)
  • J. Catling and R. Hibbitt, eds., Saturn's moons: W. G. Sebald—a handbook (2008)
  • personal knowledge (2005)
  • private information (2005)
  • d. cert.

Archives

  • Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach, Germany

Sound

  • Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach, Germany, recorded reading
  • University of East Anglia, Norwich, recorded reading

Likenesses

  • J. Edelstein, photograph, repro. in New York Times
  • E. McCabe, colour photograph, priv. coll., Camera Press, London [see illus.]
  • E. McCabe, photograph, repro. in The Times
  • E. McCabe, two photographs, Camera Press, London
  • A. Testa, photograph, repro. in The Guardian (17 Dec 2001)
  • photograph, repro. in The Independent (17 Dec 2001)

Wealth at Death

£823,124: probate, 23 April 2003, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Podcast

Times Literary Supplement