Books: Outside The Box

In four genre-bending works of fiction--"Vertigo," "The Emigrants," "The Rings of Saturn" and "Austerlitz"--published in the last decade, 57-year-old W. G. Sebald has established himself as one of Europe's most distinctive authors and certainly its most idiosyncratic. Two of his "novels" are collections of interrelated stories. All of them are narrated in a memoir style by a writer who at least superficially resembles Sebald who, born and raised in Germany, has spent his adult life as a literature professor in England (he continues to write in German). And all are generously salted with grainy black-and-white photographs, and maps, floorplans and railroad timetables that mysteriously both add to and subtract from the idea that these stories are pretending to be factual.

Reading a Sebald book is like nothing else. Confronted with his strange, intoxicating brew of fact and fiction and digressions on everything from European train stations to the lives and times of certain moths, you wind up not knowing what to believe, or who. Everything--history, one's personal mental health--is called into question. It's even hard knowing what to call the books themselves. Each is composed with a kind of droll melancholy. All of them gnaw at the problem of the unreliability of memory and the chaos of modern history. And all are obsessed, in various ways, with the fallout from the Holocaust.

There is something of Poe in these books, and Borges and Kafka, which is to say, here is a storyteller who knows his stuff. Sebald is a master of the tiny detail that implies a world. In "Austerlitz," a Prague Jew in the '30s comes to understand how deeply the Nazis have sunk their claws into the German psyche when he happens upon "a new kind of boiled sweet which had, embedded in its sugary mass, a raspberry-colored swastika that literally melted in the mouth. At the sight of these Nazi treats ... he suddenly realized that the Germans had wholly reorganized their production lines ... not because they had been ordered to do so but each of his own accord."

NEWSWEEK's Malcolm Jones interviewed Sebald recently in New York City, where he was promoting his latest book, "Austerlitz." Excerpts:

W. G. Sebald: I don't really call them anything in terms of genre, and I don't consider them to be novels, not in the strict sense. They are some form of prose fiction. The form is indeterminate, I would say. It's hybridized in all sorts of ways. I did this quite simply because I didn't want to be restricted by a format. If you keep the form open, you have a much greater liberty to do things. You can be more historical. You can be more poetic than the standard novel. You can be much more descriptive. And the only thing that you have that's really different from the standard novel is greater freedom. You can still have characters. You can also have historical figures.

Not really, it really is entirely open. For instance, if ever I were to write something that was autobiographical, I would attempt to make a virtue of the recognized problem that autobiographers never tell the truth. I would not feel bound by any of these constraints. I frequently get letters from people saying, This isn't actually so. Obviously I make mistakes like everybody else, but I also make a lot of deliberate mistakes, and adjust the historical truth whenever I feel it's necessary. The freedom this gives you allows you to construct a different kind of truth.

Oh, yes, there certainly are. I would certainly not invent horror. There is enough of that, and it is practically impossible to describe it, as it were, face to face. I consider the gratuitous invention of horror one of the major faults of our present culture. And it gets peddled everywhere ... On the other hand, one of the major problems for writers now is how to address this, the fact that our lives are dominated by horrendous experiences and that it is very hard to write about them in a legitimate sort of way. How can you approach it? How can you intimate to a reader that you are not impervious to these things? One invariably gets asked about [the events of Sept. 11], and I find it very hard to have opinions about subjects like this, and opinions in general. I don't know what my opinions are most of the time, except I feel a great sense of disquiet about all sorts of aspects of our present, collective lives.

The one thing that unites them all is that they're extremely well written. I think that counts more than the form. It's the quality of the writing, which is much more important than the question of the genre. The reader doesn't care what form it is in. I do find that in the standard novel you have to say things like, "said she as she got up and walked over to the mantelpiece." The grinding noises that the novel makes on every page so irritate me that I can't bear to read them anymore. I'd rather read a telephone directory from Prague in 1920. I find much more interesting things in there.

It certainly has something to do with it. Architecture has always preoccupied me, perhaps because growing up in Germany in the postwar years you got a very lopsided idea of what cities looked like. Somewhere in one of my other books, I say that having grown up in a village on the northern edge of the Alps, where there weren't any bombs, and going from there at the age of 4, I think, with my dad when he had returned from a POW camp, to see his parents, we had to go through Munich. This was in 1948 or thereabouts, and there were still plenty of heaps of rubble. You had half a house standing here and there. It had been tidied up, the streets were clear, but beside the road you could see these hills of rubble. And my dad didn't say anything, and I didn't ask any questions, because it seemed to me as a boy that this was how big cities are. Subsequently, of course, my perspective changed, and I understood that practically the whole of Germany, every city over 80,000 certainly, were on the bombing program, and many smaller places, like the small town we subsequently moved to 20 miles away from the village where I'd grown up, had also been bombed, although there were only 20,000 inhabitants. Quite a number of people perished, 220, I think, in two or three bombings. So, certainly Germany was a country where the experience of wholesale destruction was something that everybody knew but paradoxically no one ever talked about. If you compare it to the now four-week long discussion of what happened [in New York City], this was a taboo subject in Germany. Just imagine that something like that happens here and you're not either permitted or inclined for various reasons to talk about it. The whole thing is kept under all the time. Not even German writers--who had, as it were, a brief to say something in the postwar years--ever touched on the subject. It was always left to one side.

No, no, the war itself was written about in a curious sort of way, but the wholesale destruction for acceptable or unacceptable reasons--it depends on your point of view--was a subject that was always bypassed, (A) because it was too painful, (B) because people had decided to clear things up and never to look back and (C) because you had an interest in not offending the occupying forces. People in Hamburg or in Munich did not want to say to the British or to the Americans, "What you did there--how do you justify it?" They wouldn't be able to ask this question because they are by nature submissive and didn't want, you know, to put these peoples' noses out of joint. And so, one left it to one side, and it's been left like that all the time since then. And in real terms, of course, what you saw growing up was that everything was reconstructed several times over. The local bank was rebuilt in the '50s and the '60s and the '70s, always better and bigger. You now have in Germany a country that is almost completely ahistorical, where there is very little presence of history. There are old towns, timberframed reconstructions, but they look rather like something in Disneyland or in Japan. You don't have, like in, say, France or Switzerland or Britain, a sense of the presence of history. It's neutralized, differences have been leveled in this wholesale rebuilding and reconstruction, tidying things up. It's just like when somebody dies. You throw everything out in the rubbish, all the traces, the bits and pieces that one personally accumulates. It's the same with a country on a larger scale. So certainly this great disaster here [in New York] reminded of that. And what one dare not imagine was how people die in such a disaster. The horror of it is unimaginable. And so was the horror of the, I think it was 600,000 who perished in the bombing of German cities. It's impossible to say anything more about it, except that it seems to be one of the characteristics of our species to do things like this. Other species don't. We do, repeatedly. We clearly don't learn from what's come before. We learn from history as much as a rabbit learns from an experiment that's performed upon it.