Sebald preferred Max or – the British way – the two initials W.G., or: Professor Sebald, professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia since 1988 – about 20 years after he decided to move to England, first to Manchester, then to Norwich.
Sebal’s career is not typical for a German student and academic in the 1960s. Sebald was 19 when, in 1963, he started his studies at the University of Freiburg, and instead of continuing his studies in Germany, becoming part of the student and protest movement, he moved to Switzerland, and later to Manchester. The 1960s in Germany was the time of the so-called Auschwitz trials, when, in 1963, the involvement of common Germans in the genocide of millions of Jews, gypsies and homosexuals – the Holocaust – was discussed in the media and, especially, in universities. The students questioned the involvement of their parents’ generation in Hitler’s Germany. The younger generation requested answers, wanted to prevent memories about the horrific past being forgotten or suppressed, and envisaging an ability to mourn and find ways to master the past in a critical way.
Sebald was not part of this – to be honest, severely politicised – protest movement because he gradually retreated from Germany, first to the Swiss University of Fribourg, and in 1970 he landed at the University of Manchester as a teaching assistant. It was here in Great Britain that Sebald became one of the most prominent representatives of the cultural memory of the Second World War, of the destructive elements in the daily life of the “Third Reich” and of the Holocaust. As a German writer in voluntary exile, Sebald developed a unique voice to find a remedy against forgetting, to find a way to overcome silence.
How did this exile find this voice? How did he manage to become such a disturbing feature in Germany’s difficulties to express its attitude towards its own history? For that we need to investigate his writing style.
Just to make sure this talk will not end in a lecture, I will focus on Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn (published in German in 1995, English translation by Michael Hulse in 1998), which the movie Patience (After Sebald) by Grant Gee (2010) addresses.
The Rings of Saturn is not a novel on the German past, it is not even a novel. To make things worse, this book is not even a documentation of a walking tour as the German subtitle promises: Eine englische Wallfahrt (An English Pilgrimage). The book, as with much of his prose, for example Vertigo (1990), The Emigrants (1992) and Austerlitz (2001), is in a hybrid sate: there is no action, no development of characters, it indeed consists of a travelogue, but also of reflections of the things he sees, people he meets, memories of his personal life, and what he has read. The book is an encyclopaedia of world history, cultural history, an archive of stories and memories. And, especially, The Rings of Saturn is a restless book: in the ten chapters we are confronted with newspaper clippings, images of famous paintings, photocopied drawings, and we learn a lot about the local history of East Anglia. This form of narration reminds us of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1927) or the reflections of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin in his Arcades Project in Paris (begun in 1927).
What has this to do with contemporary Germany? For German readers the book was refreshing because it was an alternative method of remembering their national past. Apart from presenting an innovative hybrid genre, Sebald opens archives of material on violence, destruction, genocide, the link between modern life and decay (not all on Germany), but at the same time he offers a new way of remembering, a unique process of memory. This process of remembering the past is not ideologically driven, as is often the case in books dealing with the same violent past by Sebald’s German compatriots. For me that is the uniqueness of Sebald and the significance of his place in contemporary German literary history. Perhaps better: European literary history.
In sum: It is the combination of the things that he presents as memories and the way he remembers them that makes Sebald’s texts special and distinctive in German literary history.