By W.G. Sebald
Translated by Anthea Bell
(Random House, 221 pp., $24.95)
Unrecounted Poems by W.G. Sebald
Lithographs by Jan Peter Tripp
Translated by Michael Hamburger
(New Directions, 109 pp., $22.95)
Although he arrived at it relatively late in his senselessly truncated life, once W.G. Sebald found his real voice, it became unmistakable: melancholy, allusive, inward, and elegant, its cadences carried from book to book until each one seemed like another sketch from a single, instantly recognizable personal landscape. Like all powerful literary instruments, Sebald’s prose was at once an utterly private idiom and a way of feeling and responding to the world, and the unqualified ardor with which it was received says nearly as much about the needs of his admirers as it does about his own achievements. There is a fin-de-sicle aspect to Sebald’s prose, a subtle acquiescence to what he calls, in a characteristic phrase from Campo Santo, “all the unfathomable misfortune of life.” More than any writer since Hugo von Hofmannsthal, whose less worldly heir Sebald seems at times to have become, he found a way to articulate an ever more isolating sense of estrangement from the world’s brutality in a filigree of the most suavely formed sentences.
At the level of syntax and vocabulary, Sebald’s prose is almost preternaturally untroubled by the historical and personal devastations that his books anatomize, and doubtless it is just this kind of doubled effect, the reassurance of an almost stately formal surface as the medium for an intractable focus on “a sense of shame and sorrow” (as he calls it in Austerlitz) that is a chief source of his appeal. Like Hofmannsthal in “The Lord Chandos Letter,” a foundational text of Austro-German modernism whose wrenching confession of language’s impotence in the face of spiritual and moral crisis Sebald often deliberately echoes, his own still deeper suspicion of high culture is formulated entirely in the terms of that culture’s canonical achievements. In Sebald’s writing, although the Western cultural heritage is made to bear witness against itself, it is also implicitly granted a measure of exoneration for having given us the very categories with which to formulate our accusations. There is something subtly flattering to a reader in a prose that permits one to feel so right about feeling so bad, and reassuring to a certain kind of mandarin taste, hyper-educated but deeply aware of culture’s complicity with history’s atrocities.
Sebald’s work offers a morally permissible shelter in which the melancholy and the elegant reinforce and, more seductively, come close to redeeming each other. His works hold out the promise that the inward life of the reader and scholar is not a withdrawal from, but rather an ethically responsible confrontation with, the worst that human beings have inflicted upon one another throughout history. The passionate gratitude with which Sebald’s admirers have embraced him is surely in part a response to such a welcome validation of their own temperaments.
Sebald came by his sense of existence as what one of his characters calls “the scene of some unexpiated crime” with ample justification. He was born in the Bavarian Alps in May 1944 to an absent father who did not return from a French prisoner-of-war camp until 1947; and perhaps especially because the rural area in which he was raised was physically untouched by the war, he later came to believe that the horrors of the Third Reich, which were never discussed by any of the adults among whom he grew up, “had cast a shadow over me from which I shall never entirely emerge.” He became certain that the evasions and the denials that were almost palpable in the silences of his childhood community penetrated every aspect of daily life, from the music programs that his father enjoyed hearing on the radio to the Sunday decorations in an empty butcher-shop window. Even after leaving for university in 1963, Sebald says that he still “learned almost nothing of recent German history.”
Only after he went abroad to study, first in French-speaking Switzerland in 1965, and then, a year later, in England, did he come to understand “the destruction that was present at the beginning of my life.” From then on, with brief interruptions, Sebald spent most of his adult life in self-imposed expatriation as a university teacher of German literature, first in Manchester, then at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, where he was awarded a chair in European literature in 1988. I say expatriation rather than exile, to emphasize an increasingly ignored distinction. Exile is an imposed—often a savagely imposed—condition; it is not a question of free choice. Without the element of coercion, the term loses any useful specificity. Adorno in Los Angeles and Solzhenitsyn in Vermont were exiles; Sebald in East Anglia was not.
Indeed, until 1996, with the appearance in English of The Emigrants, the first of his books to be translated from German, Sebald’s only reputation was as a critic of Austro-German literature whose writings were published exclusively in his homeland. Right up to his fatal car accident on December 14, 2001, shortly after the international success of Austerlitz, his last completed book, he wrote all his important works entirely in German, and returned regularly to his homeland, and showed himself deeply appreciative of the many literary prizes with which he was honored there. In Sebald’s acceptance speeches, one of which appears as the final entry in Campo Santo, he shows little of the wariness and anxiety that marked, say, Paul Celan’s trips to Germany to receive similar recognition.
Yet Sebald had no hesitation about using such occasions to insist that his listeners face up to what had been committed during the Nazi years. His demands are all the more potent for being framed as part of a larger expression of gratitude at being welcomed into the various German literary institutions. In his address to the Collegium of the German Academy, he charged the culture in which he grew up “with an almost premeditated blindness,” and affirmed the validity of what one might call “the view from abroad,” the corrective necessity of a perspective, sharpened and clarified by distance, on what is most determinedly occluded at home.
For Sebald, Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich’s theory of “the inability to mourn,” first formulated in 1967, offers the most powerful single explanation for “the mental disposition of postwar society in West Germany,” and he quotes it to telling effect in the essay “Constructs of Mourning,” one of the central pieces in the critical writings collected in Campo Santo. But if an inability to mourn defined the universe of Sebald’s childhood, the adult writer more than made up for it. A pervasive sense of mourning, an unassuaged but unspecified desolation, dominates his prose. Here, for example, are three characteristic passages from Campo Santo, followed by representative moments from early on in three of Sebald’s prior books.
From Campo Santo:
Where will they all go, the dead of Buenos Aires and So Paolo, of Mexico City, Lagos and Cairo, Tokyo, Shanghai, and Bombay? Very few of them, probably, into a cool grave. And who has remembered them, who remembers them at all?
Early on a Sunday morning, however, I would hear the Rottachtal ensemble or other local musicians on the radio with their dulcimers and guitars, for my father, who came home only on weekends, had a particular liking for this kind of traditional Bavarian folk music, which to me has taken on in retrospect the character of something terrible which I know will pursue me to my grave.
It was a day as fine as another more than twenty years later, when I was sitting in my garden with a bad headache after finishing a work about torture that had occupied me for some time…
From its predecessors: I began to sense in me a vague apprehension which manifested itself as a feeling of vertigo. The outlines on which I tried to focus dissolved, and my thoughts disintegrated before I could fully grasp them. Although at times when obliged to lean against a wall or seek refuge in the doorway of a building, I feared that mental paralysis was beginning to take hold of me, I could think of no way of resisting it but to walk until late into the night, till I was utterly worn out. (Vertigo)
In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work. (The Rings of Saturn)
Even on my arrival, as the train rolled slowly over the viaduct with its curious pointed turrets on both sides and into the dark station concourse, I had begun to feel unwell, and this sense of indisposition persisted for the whole of my visit to Belgium.... I still remember the uncertainty of my footsteps as I walked all around the inner city ... until at last, plagued by a headache and my uneasy thoughts, I took refuge in the zoo.... (Austerlitz)
Irrespective of the particular theme or structure of the individual text, Sebald’s narrator always experiences the same feeling of generalized and omnipresent unease. Characteristically, a scrupulous specificity about date, place, landscape, and architecture is wedded to a shadowy, all-engulfing feeling of emotional disorientation and leaden weariness. Terms such as “a vague apprehension,” “mental paralysis,” and “inner desolation” recur like musical motifs, creating the particular mood and tone that Sebald made his own.
The problem is that after a while the repetition begins to sound like a reflex or a mannerism. Sometimes, as in the contrast between the fine day and his headache “after finishing a work about torture,” there is almost a note of unintended self-parody. Tonally, whole paragraphs could be transposed from one book to another without seriously affecting the work’s integrity, just as, at the level of syntax and rhythm, all of Sebald’s important characters, irrespective of age or gender, sound remarkably similar to one another, and, most of all, to Sebald himself in his autobiographical texts.
It is perhaps this sameness of emotional response and state of mind, from book to book and from character to character, that prompted Sebald to acknowledge that “my medium is prose, not the novel,” and led him to create a new hybrid genre in which travel memoir, autobiography, antiquarian ruminations, fiction, literary biography, and photographic images all merge. The mingling of genres is Sebald’s most notable formal invention, and beginning with Vertigo (originally published in 1990, but not translated into English until 1999), it enabled his astonishing transformation from the writer of capable but not especially compelling academic studies into the author of the books on which his reputation now rests.
Paradoxically, it is Sebald’s isolating, melancholy inwardness that creates the uncanny intimacy between narrator and reader that is the hallmark of his writing. The more Sebald insists on his loneliness and his disorientation, the more powerfully he triggers a compensatory attentiveness, and even solicitude, in his reader. But as with any single tone maintained with such undeviating consistency, sooner or later the problem of modulation arises; and although at his best Sebald belongs in the company of literature’s true connoisseurs of mourning, the sameness of his music can weary all but the most similarly predisposed listener.
The fundamental atmosphere of Sebald’s books, reiterated from setting to setting in his restless wandering, is always the same and always affirmed early. It is composed of two logically separate but emotionally allied elements. On the one hand, there is the sense that the living are saturated with an anxious awareness of the dead. Balanced against this recognition is a contrary lament, succinctly formulated in Austerlitz: “the darkness does not lift but becomes yet heavier as I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life.” Ghost-haunted and ghost-abandoned are viewed as equally dispiriting fates, and either or both conditions testify, in Sebald’s writing, to some basic unreality in our quotidian lives.
Many of Sebald’s most memorable characterizations are of people emotionally numbed, almost to the point of paralysis, by the horrors of Nazism, and his reflections on his own childhood grapple searchingly with the effects of a willful, collective silence about the extermination of European Jewry; and so it is tempting to read Sebald’s books as a series of confrontations with the after-effects of the Shoah. But such a reading strikes me as fundamentally unconvincing. The Nazi genocide figures in Sebald as simply one more instance, even if it is the most often invoked one, of a timeless, repetitive pattern of human savagery. If they resemble any recognizable models at all, Sebald’s works are most akin to the Romantic era’s travel memoirs, in which a man of leisure and sensibility visits the site of what had once been a great historical happening, and if he is of a melancholic disposition, the destination usually carries some sorrowful association and prompts a meditation on human fragility and the vanity of life.
Like all literary melancholics, Sebald finds a similar provocation to sorrowful meditations no matter where he looks; and it is this predisposition, and not a particular historical or moral argument, that makes him regard on a single continuum the slaughter of soldiers sacrificed to their commanders’ ambition and the victims of industrial-scale Nazi extermination. His texts move freely, sometimes even in a single paragraph, from considering the “terrible past” of the Nazi years to the “field of corpses outside Dresden” during the Napoleonic war, until any sense of differentiation is jeopardized. Sebald’s continuum is more aesthetic than ethical. Its function is not to imply that the loss of every single life is equally grievous, still less to get at the truth of a particular episode, but rather to provide a historical occasion for another somber reflection on what Campo Santo calls “our severely disturbed species.”; Sebald’s attack on the political and social amnesia that made the Allied bombing raids over all the major German civilian population centers a taboo subject among German writers has provoked fierce indignation among both German- and English-language readers.
If the deliberate merging of genres in Sebald’s best works serves to create something genuinely unexpected and unsettling, the decision to gather a ragbag of disparate texts—some of them, like the title piece, not written to stand alone, others from so early in his career as to belong almost to a different writer—in order to publish them as a book seems less a tribute than a trivializing imitation of Sebald’s own procedure. Beyond the author’s celebrity and the fact that none of the pieces had been translated into English before, it is impossible to discern any principle governing what is included in Campo Santo. The book’s title is somewhat misleading, since it refers only to the first, brief series of writings drawn from a larger project about Sebald’s trip to Corsica and set aside when he began work on Austerlitz. The four pieces about Corsica, ranging from two to nineteen pages, are grouped together at the beginning of the volume and give a hint of what might have evolved into a significant addition to Sebald’s canon.
For all their brevity, there are moments when these Corsican pages reach toward a newfound interest in lives and situations different from the author’s familiar repertoire. Even the landscape, sun-drenched and rugged, dotted with whitewashed buildings and gardens of eucalyptus and oleanders, is a welcome relief from the fog-enshrouded, chilly grayness that is Sebald’s customary atmosphere. The setting inspires the writer to passages of brilliantly observed, rhythmically and tonally alert prose, re-created in English with matching skill by his gifted translator Anthea Bell. For once, Sebald allows moments of simple humor into his text, as when he suddenly realizes that the cashier at the Casa Bonaparte, Napoleon’s birthplace, looks startlingly like the emperor himself.
Soon enough, though, all the well-known themes re-emerge, and even the poor cashier and her fellow custodian, another formidable lady “who also seemed to be of Napoleonic descent,” are absorbed into the familiar company of Sebaldian ghosts. They are no longer specific individuals, but only two more “discreet messengers from the past.” Ultimately, it is not the island’s landscape nor its present-day inhabitants that holds Sebald’s attention, but rather its funeral and bereavement rituals, and by far the most sustained meditation is inspired by his visit to a local cemetery, the holy ground or Campo Santo that gives its name to the book. What Sebald turns out to cherish most about Corsica is that it is a place where “remembrance of the dead never really comes to an end.” And with that we have come full circle, back to the world of The Emigrants, whose first section closed with Sebald’s most quoted sentence: “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.”
In Corsica, though, he is haunted by the contrary realization, and his prose elegy in a country graveyard ends on the melancholy thought that soon it will be only in such so-called “primitive” settings that the dead and the living can remain in intimate contact. In “the urban societies of the late twentieth century,” he fears that “the whole past will flow into a formless, indistinct, silent mass. And leaving a present without memory, in the face of a future that no individual mind can now envisage, in the end we shall ourselves relinquish life without feeling any need to linger at least for a while, nor shall we be impelled to pay return visits from time to time.’’ It is as desolate a prospect as anything he has written before, but, more importantly, it is a lament that would be entirely at home in any of the books that had preceded his voyage to Corsica. Perhaps this helps to explain why the project was never completed.
The rest of the volume lets us follow Sebald’s various enthusiasms and preoccupations, ranging from a thoroughly academic piece on Peter Handke’s play Kaspar, the original German version of which appeared as far back as 1975, to relatively recent tributes, composed in Sebald’s later, intimately personal voice, to favorite writers such as Kafka, Nabokov, and Bruce Chatwin. Among these literary studies and autobiographical reminiscences, the editor has placed more challengingly polemical essays, such as “Between History and Natural History: On the Literary Description of Total Destruction” and “Constructs of Mourning: Gnter Grass and Wolfgang Hildesheimer.” In the first of these, Sebald raises the problem of “why the destruction of the German cities toward the end of the Second World War was not (with those few exceptions that prove the rule) taken as a subject for literary depiction either then or later.” Here he largely limits himself to a close reading and shrewd critique of three writers willing to touch the topic at all. But this early essay is clearly a preparatory step toward the four texts that make up Luftkrieg und Literatur (which appeared in 1999 and was posthumously translated into English as On the Natural History of Destruction rather than the more straightforward Air War and Literature).
Sebald’s attack on the political and social amnesia that made the Allied bombing raids over all the major German civilian population centers a taboo subject among German writers has provoked fierce indignation among both German- and English-language readers. But while his own way of treating the subject seems to me highly problematic, it is misguided to invoke against Sebald the potential misuse of his texts by right-wing elements in his homeland. German neo-fascists and Nazi sympathizers have no shortage of far more congenial sources for their polemics. Among his contemporaries, very few writers have been as insistent as Sebald on the score of German responsibility for and national complicity with the Nazi genocide, or have made its effects, on both Jewish survivors and on ordinary German citizens, so central to their work. Sebald surely earned the right to explore in his own way a painful issue with which military historians as well as philosophers and novelists have shown themselves increasingly concerned.
More telling, perhaps, is the fact that only by artificially restricting his view to Germany, rather than to Germanlanguage writers, can Sebald justify excluding from consideration the work of Thomas Bernhard. Bernhard is not only one of the most significant writers in the language since World War II, but a major influence on Sebald himself, a writer about whom Sebald has written more than once in other contexts. Bernhard’s five-volume autobiography, published between 1975 and 1982 and translated into English as a single book, Gathering Evidence, contains extended descriptions of walking through Salzburg after a bombing attack, narrated with a specificity of vivid detail that at every point contradicts Sebald’s thesis of an all-engulfing amnesia. Perhaps Bernhard is simply too powerful a voice for Sebald to assimilate here into his more decorously restrained prose. But whatever the cause, Bernhard’s absence leaves one with a sense that the repression Sebald diagnoses in others has taken root in him as well, if only in the form of limiting his imaginative openness to motives for and witnesses to the very silence about which he is determined to speak.
But to the graver charge that Sebald’s attention to the firebombing of German cities is presented without adequate context, and that it thereby implicitly relativizes the Nazi atrocities, there is no satisfactory answer, since all of his writing is grounded in a vision that universalizes endless murder. Auschwitz and Theresienstadt give a twentieth-century local habitation and name to an evil that Sebald finds everywhere in history, and it is from this perspective, not as some never-before-imagined moral and conceptual black hole, that the Shoah is understood in Sebald’s books. In one of the essays in Campo Santo, he gives a litany of present-day sites of horror, distinguishing among them no more than he does among the century’s earlier ones: “the zones of devastation that are always spreading somewhere, in the Sudan, Kosovo, Eritrea, or Afghanistan.” The numbed, vertiginous horror to which Sebald’s prose gives voice finds adequate motivation wherever it looks, and it remains an open question whether such a generalized and all-encompassing fixation on evil ultimately deadens or deepens an author’s moral vision. One cannot sit shivah for the world.
And yet no one has written better of the moral shabbiness of German writers’ postwar apologias for their passivity under the Nazis. “Constructs of Mourning” is a brilliant and unsparing analysis of the strategies by which celebrated authors such as Heinrich Bll and Alfred Andersch propagated “the myth of the good German who had no choice but to let everything wash over him and bear it.” Sebald coldly dismisses the whole “fiction of a difference between passive resistance and passive collaboration” on which the national attempt at self- exculpation depended. All these evasions of the real work of mourning are exposed and rightly rejected, but like much of Sebald’s work, the essay left me wondering whether the psychological and ethical prestige of mourning, especially as it relates to the postwar German response to the Shoah, may be overrated. The rage, the biting irony, and the wild humor of Thomas Bernhard’s voice, so alert to the particulars of Austrian smugness and provincial self- satisfaction, and stung to such inventive fury by his countrymen’s refusal to admit their central role in Nazism, is a welcome alternative to Sebald’s undifferentiated and global sorrow.; Over the years, Tripp and Sebald discussed the possibility of collaborating on a book in which word and painting would not illustrate or even directly comment on each other, but rather enter into a conversation in which the relationship between their separate contributions would be sometimes straightforward but more often tantalizingly oblique.
It is regrettable that Unrecounted, another posthumous work published virtually at the same time as Campo Santo, should have received so much less attention. In many ways Unrecounted is the more powerful book, due largely to the thirty-three lithographs by Jan Peter Tripp, the artist whose images are accompanied by Sebald’s poem fragments in this collaborative volume. Tripp and Sebald were childhood friends in postwar Bavaria. Tripp studied in Stuttgart and Vienna and acquired a reputation as an important painter, especially for his portraits of artists. The two men shared a similar sense of estrangement and inner dislocation, and Sebald would frequently visit Tripp at his studio in Mittelbergheim in Alsace. In 1998, Sebald published an intensely personal essay on Tripp’s work, included in the English edition of Unrecounted, in which he praises the ways the painter’s “deeply searching objectivity” turns ordinary portraiture into a “pathographic enterprise.” “The longer I look at the pictures of Jan Peter Tripp,” Sebald writes, “the better I understand that behind the illusions of the surface, a dread-inspiring depth is concealed. It is the metaphysical lining of reality, so to speak.”
The usual notions of photorealism are radically insufficient to account for the sheer strangeness of Tripp’s images. Although he depicts all of his subjects, from human faces to stray items of furniture, with meticulous care for every physical feature, his work has little in common with such noted photorealists as Chuck Close, Robert Bechtle, Richard Estes, or Ralph Goings. If anything, Tripp’s pictures are closer in their unsettling effect to William Harnett’s somber trompe l’oeil still lifes, painted in late nineteenth-century Philadelphia. In Tripp’s art, there is a disconcerting reversal of the role of the observer and the objects observed, and his consummate technical mastery testifies, in Sebald’s words, to “the autonomous existence of things to which .. . we stand in a subordinate and dependent relationship. Because (in principle) things outlast us, they know more about us than we know about them: they carry the experiences they have had with us inside them and are—in fact—the book of our history opened before us.”
Over the years, Tripp and Sebald discussed the possibility of collaborating on a book in which word and painting would not illustrate or even directly comment on each other, but rather enter into a conversation in which the relationship between their separate contributions would be sometimes straightforward but more often tantalizingly oblique. As a governing principle for a joint work by a painter and a writer, there is nothing especially unusual about such a decision. From the Surrealists to the New York School of poets and painters, collaborative projects between visual artists and writers have been a cornerstone of high modernism, and almost invariably the participants explicitly reject any merely illustrative connection between their contributions. But Unrecounted is one of the oddest examples of this tradition I have come across.
For his part in the venture, Tripp took numerous photos of the eyes of people both he and Sebald either knew personally or admired, and found pictures of others, without regard to chronology or the original medium, including a famous photograph of Proust, a Rembrandt self-portrait, and the Comtesse d’Haussonville as depicted in Ingres’s great painting of 1845. Tripp then redrew these in a series of lithographs, rendered with such precision that on first glance they all seem like photographs. And yet the harder one looks, the clearer it becomes that they are not. The shadings and the lines are not those of a photograph. At times, especially in the way the eyebrows curl upward and the bridge of the nose creates a small valley of minute wrinkles, Tripp’s drawing skills and sensitivity to the interplay of light and shade create an overall effect of luminous, alert stillness that is reminiscent of the fifteenth-century Flemish masters. Tripp is interested in using lithography to approach what they achieved by exploiting the characteristics of oil-based paint to build up layers of transparent glazes, thus creating a surface on which to capture objects in the minutest detail. Panofsky’s comment that the great early Netherlandish painters were not aiming just at representation, but at reconstruction of what they saw, applies equally, I think, to Tripp’s eye- portraits. (He calls them “eye-landscapes.”) The critic Andrea Khler has rightly observed that Tripp short-circuits any serious attempt to conflate his art with the precision of a photographic portrait by finding a way to include “the motions by which a person turns round, lowers the eyelids, shakes his/her head or speaks.” It is a remarkable accomplishment, and one should be grateful that through this book Tripp’s work might begin to be more widely known in this country.
Although they may not realize it, Sebald’s readers are already familiar with Tripp, since the opening pages of Austerlitz contain four eye-portraits, two of nocturnal creatures from the Antwerp Zoo and two of human faces similar to those in Unrecounted. Neither the artist nor his subjects is named in Austerlitz, but in Unrecounted we learn a good deal about Tripp’s life and technique, and are provided with a list of the subjects of the eye-portraits. These include, along with Proust and Rembrandt, many well-known figures from the contemporary world of art and literature such as Burroughs, Borges, Beckett, Truman Capote, Barnett Newman, and Jasper Johns. Sebald, his daughter Anna, and the family dog are also depicted, as is Tripp himself, the translator Michael Hamburger, and their German publisher Michael Krüger.
Krüger has described the genesis of the volume as the product of an abiding obsession shared by writer and painter with the problem of looking, and with the tension between self-revelation and self-concealment that any confrontation with the gaze of another entails. In Austerlitz, Sebald explicitly compares the large eyes of the animals found in the zoo to the “fixed inquiring gaze found in certain painters and philosophers who seek to penetrate the darkness which surrounds us purely by means of looking and thinking.” For their joint book project, Sebald sent Tripp a series of “micro-poems,” or what Michael Hamburger calls “reductive epiphanies.” The book is designed to be held horizontally, with Sebald’s texts placed on a separate page below Tripp’s images. Sometimes the relationship between word and picture seems so explicit as to be almost programmatic, as in these lines accompanying Rembrandt’s eyes: “Like a dog/ Czanne says/that’s how a painter/must see, the eye/fixed and almost/averted.” More often, the link is either tenuous or so strictly personal as to be indecipherable. Jasper Johns, for example, is accompanied by the following lines: “This writing paper/smells/like wood shavings /inside the coffin,” while Moritz, Sebald’s dog (the sole animal included in the book), is placed above these lines: “Please send me/the brown overcoat/ from the Rhine valley/in which at one time/I used to ramble by night.”
Sebald died before the final decisions about the book were made, so there is always the chance that he might have ordered at least some of the juxtapositions differently. More unsettling is the fact that many of Sebald’s texts had already been used in an earlier collaboration with the British artist Tess Jaray. The cover of their book, For Years Now, announces “Poems by W.G. Sebald”and “Images by Tess Jaray”; it was published in December 2001, just before Sebald’s death. Michael Hamburger’s preface to Unrecounted opens by acknowledging that English-speaking readers might be “puzzled or disappointed” to find out about the earlier use of many of the poems, and says that he himself was “worried” about it when Tripp asked him to translate the poems.
Hamburger’s tone in introducing Unrecounted is as strange as anything in the book itself. In a weird amalgam of telling both too much and too little, Hamburger alludes to a “crisis” in Sebald’s life and work, and of “conflicts and contradictions he chose not to clarify.” But after raising these issues, he does nothing further to relate them to Sebald’s decision to use the identical texts for two different collaborative projects. He tells us only that although Sebald gave him copies of all his books, “he never so much as mentioned the writing of these miniatures,” and never referred to the existence of For Years Now. We do not know what Jaray thought upon seeing Unrecounted, but if nothing else, the recycling of identical texts in such radically different contexts makes one wonder whether there was any basis beyond the most purely adventitious to the juxtapositions in either Unrecounted or For Years Now. It is difficult to imagine work further apart in technique or resonance than Jaray’s rigorous geometric abstractions and Tripp’s eye-portraits. If the same words can accompany absolutely unrelated images in two entirely different books, then the issue of multiple lines of interpretations between word and picture is a matter of accident, not of any thematic richness and ambiguity.
And yet Sebald’s readers should not be all that surprised by such a development. In Campo Santo, at the end of the visit to the Casa Bonaparte, Sebald tells us about “an amateur historian called Alfonse Huyghens ... [according to whom] all the cataclysmic events caused by the Emperor of the French in the lands and realms of Europe were to be traced solely to his color blindness, which made him unable to tell red from green. The more blood flowed on the battlefield, this Belgian scholar told me, the greener Napoleon thought the grass was growing.” As an example of dotty speculation, recalled by Sebald in response to seeing Napoleon’s birthplace become yet another European tourist site, the anecdote has one kind of resonance. But set as a poem, “They say/that Napoleon/was colour-blind/%amp% blood for him/ as green as/grass,” and placed below Michael Krüger’s eyes, it has a radically different weight and leads one along an entirely different trajectory of interpretation. Since Sebald’s fundamental vision remained so similar from book to book, the re-use of a constellation of identical texts in both For Years Now and Unrecounted is actually consonant with his deepest impulses as a writer. If his many travels and human encounters ultimately always lead him back to the same emotions and speculations, why should his unvarying music not accompany two very dissimilar kinds of art? But that these posthumous works will contribute much to his reputation seems to me unlikely.
This article originally ran in the July 25, 2005 issue of the magazine.