A review for Bookforum
|W. G. Sebald|
In 1995, an emigrant from Germany who had lived almost thirty years in England published The Rings of Saturn: An English Pilgrimage, which uses a walk through East Anglia, on and near the coast, to gather reflections on time, destruction, connection, and culture. It appeared in English in 1998, without its subtitle; his next book, the essay collection A Place in the Country (1998), is only now appearing in English, about which more below; his next novel, Austerlitz, turned out to be the last book he would finish before his death in a car crash in December 2001. It takes just one awful second, I often think, and an entire epoch passes, he writes in The Rings of Saturn.
Reading these novels and his first to be translated into English, The Emigrants, was a high point in many people’s cultural life. If you’re someone who hears the tones of W. G. Sebald’s voice at all, it is hard to keep from coming hopelessly under its sway. His quivering sensitivity and thoughtful melancholy seemed to express, like nothing else, what life at the end of the twentieth century meant for anyone aware of the holocausts underlying the various triumphalisms one was expected to get on board with. Not everyone can eagerly turn their face away from the devastating past and toward the super-duper future, and for those of us who couldn’t, Sebald offered irresistible arias of historical aftermath. (A math is a mowing, so aftermath encodes a specific image, which Sebald used, of sheaves laid low, scythed down in the field. It used to be a positive word, referring to a second harvest the same season—not anymore.) [Read More]
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