They say that when a person dies, there's a 24-hour period when their souls are still wandering. Of course, the great writer W.G. Sebald, who died Friday in a car crash in East Anglia, England, was always wandering. Wandering was his profession.
Mostly on foot, he went, through East Anglia, around Europe, thinking about war and architecture and beauty and permanence, or the lack of it. He used photographs in his four books, "The Emigrants," "Vertigo," "The Rings of Saturn" and "Austerlitz," as testimony, he said when we met in Los Angeles in October, to give credibility to his accounts of small lives and large coincidences.
"I cannot," he told me, "get over the fact that I was born in 1944. I want to find out as much as I can about that year." When Sebald says "everything," he means what people wore, when they took their daily walks, how they felt about the buildings they moved through, what would happen to them, what their associations were and how they unwound their destinies. For it seemed, in October, that he saw life as a process of unraveling, excavating, peering through rubble to find bodies and papers and plans.
"When I was a boy," he said, "I'd hide under the kitchen table and wind string around the chairs. I have a sense now that I am pulling on those threads. The more I pull, the more it comes unraveled."
In his work, Sebald, who was born in the Bavarian Alps and left Germany in 1970 to teach at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, seemed to be moving closer to home, as if he wanted to better understand his father and what he often referred to somewhat sarcastically as his "compatriots." He was just beginning to write in consecutive narrative, rather than the splintered narratives of his previous books.
"There is," says writer Susan Sontag--one of the first to champion Sebald--"no living writer I admire more. You see," she catches herself, "I haven't yet accepted that he's dead. He got an unusually late start writing. His editor sent me the manuscript of 'The Emigrants' [Sebald's first book to be published in English] with a note that said simply, 'You're really gonna love this.'"
Sebald played with the form of the novel in a way that most critics and readers found revolutionary, the way James Joyce with his free association in "Finnegan's Wake," or Thomas Pynchon with "Gravity's Rainbow" or Virginia Woolf with "The Waves" were revolutionary. Rather than using free association, though, Sebald connected word and image in a way that expanded the experience of reading, a mind-altering form accomplished with simple black and white photos that were, with the text, heartbreakingly evocative, as though they reached into a collective image bank that his readers shared.
He didn't believe that things were good, back in October. He mentioned the web of consumption and work that we all get wound up in and want to escape. He made it sound as though the Earth were spinning a little out of control, as though we were children on a merry-go-round we could not get off. "We want to be released," he said, "from the miracles of civilization."
Sebald wrote in German, but, as Sontag says, he spoke "elegant English" and played a large role in the translation of his books. He was fond of his colleagues and teaching, he said, but he loved wandering more. He said that people trusted him and would often tell him their stories and show him their family pictures. He had had breakfast the day before our visit in Philadelphia with a couple from Westphalia, Germany, who brought him old family photos to look at. "The father was the prototypical German lawyer. There was a black dog. They had no idea what would happen to them." Sebald said the photos spoke to him, "I'm no longer here, but I still want an answer."
He was thinking about aggression in October, as we all were. He told me things were getting worse. "There is a beauty in nature and culture that we no longer have access to." He said, "Those things you can't forget, you embroider. ... The further you tell, the further you travel from truth, which means, of course, that literature is a lie."
"Austerlitz," the book that came out in English in October, was about a man Sebald met in a train station, who as a young Jewish boy was on one of the pre-WWII kindertransport trains taking children from Prague to Wales.
A lost boy.
Lost boys, they wander. In schoolyards, down main street, hailing taxi cabs in middle age that will take them to a train station, to another town, to make a connection, somewhere.