Thursday, 22 May 2008

Sebald's New Narrative Genre

One of the real innovators in imaginative literature in the second half of the Twentieth Century was W. G. Sebald. He was born in 1944, in a small town in the German Alps. In his early twenties he emigrated to England, worked at the University of Manchester, and later became a professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia. He died in a car accident in 2001.

Sebald's writing, beautiful in the density of its thought, is deeply concerned with memory both individual and cultural. It is pervaded by the trauma of the Second World War and its profound effects on everyone in Europe not just at the time but subsequently. Sebald's first three books, which I review here, are a new narrative genre: part memory, part history, part fiction, part travelogue with, every few pages, a black and white photograph or diagram, without a caption, often indistinct, but always evocative, which takes part in a counterpoint with the text. Overall the tone of Sebald's writing is melancholy, but he is also wry, ironic, and occasionally extraordinarily funny. Susan Sontag has written: "Is literary greatness still possible? What would a noble literary enterprise look like? One of the few answers still available to English language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald."

You can access my review, from The Literary Review of Canada, of Sebald's The emigrants, Vertigo, and The rings of Saturn, by clicking here.

4 comments:

Amateur Reader said...

The idea that Sebald has created a new genre is basically correct, I think, but I every once in a while run into real predecessors. The stories of Adalbert Stifter, for example, or Stendhal's memoir, use in Vertigo.

Part of the greatness or originality of Sebald is that these older books are now interwoven with Sebald - I read them through Sebaldian eyes.

Keith Oatley said...

Thanks very much for this comment. I think I have read all of Sebald's books that have been translated into English, but I have not read Stifter. I must do so. And, of course, as you say, Sebald uses Stendhal's memoir in Vertigo.

Anonymous said...

When will writers on Sebald ever mention Guy Davenport as equal a precursor as Sebald at least? There was that one piece in Literary Imagination a year or two ago about both Sebald and Davenport. Davenport was doing these things before Sebald....

Keith Oatley said...

Many thanks for this suggestion. I have done a bit of searching, and found the article you mention on Davenport and Sebald: it's by Andre Furlani (2006) in Literary Imagination, 8, 319-330. I look forward to reading it.

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