Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Teju Cole on W.G. Sebald

Teju Cole writes in the New Yorker about the German author W.G. Sebald:

Throughout his career, W. G. Sebald wrote poems that were strikingly similar to his prose. His tone, in both genres, was always understated but possessed of a mournful grandeur. To this he added a willful blurring of literary boundaries and, in fact, almost all his writing, and not just the poetry and prose, comprised history, memoir, biography, autobiography, art criticism, scholarly arcana, and invention. This expert mixing of forms owed a great deal to his reading of the seventeenth-century melancholics Robert Burton and Thomas Browne, and Sebald’s looping sentences were an intentional homage to nineteenth-century German-language writers like Adalbert Stifter and Gottfried Keller. But so strongly has the style come to be associated with Sebald’s own work that even books that preceded his, such as those by Robert Walser and Thomas Bernhard, can seem, from our perspective as readers of English translations, simply “Sebaldian.”Sebald’s reputation rests on four novels—“Vertigo,” “The Emigrants,” “The Rings of Saturn,” and “Austerlitz”—all of them reflections on the history of violence in general, and on the legacy of the Holocaust in particular. Our sense of this achievement has been enriched by his other works: the ones published in his lifetime (the lectures “On the Natural History of Destruction” and the long poem “After Nature”), and those that were released posthumously (including the essay collection “Campo Santo,” and the volumes of short poems “Unrecounted” and “For Years Now”). Sebald’s shade, like Roberto Bolaño’s, gives the illusion of being extraordinarily productive, and the publication now of “Across the Land and the Water,” billed as his “Selected Poems 1964-2001,” does not feel surprising. Ten years on, we are not quite prepared for him to put down his pen.

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