What We Learned From Sebald

In literature, too, imports testify to appetites unsatisfied by the home market. Over the past decade and a half, literary people in the US have developed passions for a series of foreigners: W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño, Karl Ove Knausgaard, now Elena Ferrante. The genius and originality of these writers is evident enough but can’t explain why they, and not others of comparable stature, became examples, obsessions. Is there something we’ve needed that we could only get from abroad?

An answer might start with Sebald, the German writer of poetry, criticism, and, above all, simultaneously lyrical and documentary meditations on mortality and oblivion (Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, Austerlitz) who died, only fifty-seven, in 2001. Sebald’s fiction was striking, first, in that it barely seemed fictional. Partly, this was a matter of “content”: His narrators didn’t appear distinct from Sebald himself, and they authenticated descriptions of (doomed) people and (forlorn) places with photographs apparently taken by the author, ticket stubs from his journeys. The huge monologues in The Emigrants and Austerlitz likewise derived at least as much from interviews with refugees from the Nazis as from the author’s imagination. Nor did Sebald’s books, with little or no plot, dramatic confrontation, character development, or realistic dialogue, resemble most novels in formal terms. They wandered freely from subject to subject—a vanished industry, an extinct species—within the range of Sebald’s narrowly and intensely mournful sensibility as a writer. (As a man, he may have been a barrel of laughs.)

W. G. Sebald, ca. 1996.
W. G. Sebald, ca. 1996.

Bolaño, Knausgaard, and Ferrante aren’t such lyrical, focused, or humorless writers. But, like Sebald, they give the impression of writing a kind of nonfictional fiction shaped, or left shapeless, according to the truth of memory and the contents of experience rather than the rules of literary convention. That Sebald’s books were published first also means that his influence, unlike that of the others, can already be seen in the work of younger American novelists. Teju Cole and Ben Lerner, for example, write books that are less novelistically plot-driven than essayistically thought-diverted (not to mention their enlistment of photography, Sebald-style, in the cause of fiction). The implication, to be found in a writer like Sheila Heti, too, is that fiction should have the raggedness and rawness of life if it’s to be alive at all.

If something like this is the lesson North Americans have been absorbing from foreign tutors, there’s an irony in that. Unvarnished sincerity was supposed to be a particular Yankee virtue. Henry Miller used Emerson’s words as the epigraph to Tropic of Cancer: “These novels will give way, by and by, to diaries or autobiographies—captivating books, if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences that which is really his experience, and how to record truth truly.” At any rate, the trick we have been trying to learn, from Sebald and the others, may be for the writer to accept the constraints of his own necessarily limited and merely factual experience without conceding that the artistic result has to be in any way small.

Benjamin Kunkel is the author of Indecision (Random House, 2005) and Utopia or Bust (Verso, 2014).