Man who put tragedy into words

By Oliver Kamm, December 8, 2011

WG "Max" Sebald, the novelist, was killed in a car crash near his home in Norfolk ten years ago this week. He was 57 and at the peak of his creative powers. He was posthumously awarded the Jewish Quarterly Wingate Literary Prize for his novel Austerlitz, of which a tenth anniversary edition has just been published. Admirers of Sebald, including AS Byatt and the tenor Ian Bostridge (singing from Schubert's Winterreise), will gather at Wilton's Music Hall in east London on Wednesday to celebrate a notable life and a body of work that stands among the most remarkable artistic achievements of modern times.

If you haven't read Sebald, you may wonder what remains to be said about the crimes of Nazism, let alone by fiction writers rather than victims or historians. You would be surprised. In Austerlitz, Sebald writes of his protagonist's speaking "at length about the marks of pain which, as he said he well knew, trace countless fine lines through history". It turns out that the character (Jacques Austerlitz) has been borne along one of those historical tributaries, having arrived in Britain in 1939 on the Kindertransport. Sebald's description of the piecemeal recovery of tragic memories speaks to the Jewish experience powerfully, harrowingly and- extraordinarily enough - freshly.

The late Susan Sontag said of Sebald that he "demonstrates that literature can be, literally, indispensable". AN Wilson wrote of Austerlitz that very few novels had ever moved him so much; he had finished reading it with tears streaming down his face.

Yet his output was spare. His other main fictional works comprise Vertigo, The Rings of Saturn, a Suffolk travelogue, After Nature, a long poem on the despoliation of the natural world, and The Emigrants, a novel of four linked narratives of exile. There is also On the Natural History of Destruction, a set of lectures that reflect on the Allied firebombing of German cities during the war. A selection of poems has just been published. These works, appearing in the space of a few years, exercise a hold on readers that can properly be described as devotion. Sebald's reputation has burgeoned still more since his untimely death.

So who was Sebald? He was born in Bavaria towards the end of the Second World War but spent most of his adult life as an academic in Britain. His father was a soldier and his family, rooted in rural Catholicism, was typical of the traditionalist German heartland that proved susceptible to Hitler's malign message. Germans of Sebald's generation expressed widespread revulsion at their parents' acquiescence to Nazism, but did so in varying ways. Some perversely sympathised with the murderous cause of the terrorist left in the 1970s. Sebald was different; his protest at his nation's reluctance to come to terms with its barbarous past was through the written word and the work of the imagination.

Sebald taught for four years at Manchester University before being appointed to a lectureship in German at the University of East Anglia in 1970. There he remained for the rest of his life. He wrote in German, while collaborating closely with his English translators, first Michael Hulse and then Anthea Bell (who, I should disclose, is my mother).

Sebald's fiction, especially through the character of Austerlitz, expresses a consciousness of "how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life". Being too young to have personal recollection of the Holocaust, Sebald wrote not of its horrors direct but of the void its perpetrators created. That sense of oblivion and menace is implicit but always present. Wittgenstein wrote starkly that "whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent". But in incomparable, masterly works, Sebald found a way of depicting the unspeakable.

Oliver Kamm is a leader writer for The Times

Last updated: 12:56pm, June 7 2012