Memory and myth

W.G. SEBALD was a literary supernova. Just 13 years after his book “After Nature” appeared in Germany in 1988, he was dead at 57, the victim of a car crash. In the U.S., where he was unknown until 1996, his arc seems even more transitory.

It’s ironic, since evanescence and mortality -- and the way coincidence, or circumstance, can weight a moment -- are at the heart of Sebald’s writing, which is as impressionistic as a dream. Who wrote these books, his death makes us wonder. Was Sebald ever really here?

“The Emergence of Memory: Conversations With W.G. Sebald” (Seven Stories: 176 pp., $23.95) offers some perspective on these questions, framing Sebald through his own and others’ eyes. Edited by Lynne Sharon Schwartz, the collection features interviews and critical pieces that address such concerns.

For Sebald, everything comes back to his identity as a German raised in the postwar era, when the Nazi past was the source of a “collective amnesia.” So it makes sense that history would seem a fiction, existing along the border of memory and myth. Sebald plays with this idea, creating novels populated by real people (Kafka, Stendhal), fusing invention and fact. “He had no answers,” he wrote, as if describing his aesthetics, “but believed the questions were quite sufficient to him.”


Schwartz does a fine job of evoking this elusive author, gathering pieces by, among others, Charles Simic and Michael Silverblatt. She also includes a dissenting voice: Michael Hofmann, whose essay “A Chilly Extravagance” argues that under the elaborate architecture of Sebald’s sentences, there is no soul.

Most compelling is Sebald’s belief that while it may not be a consolation, literature is essential just the same. “Well, yes, writing. . . . ,” he says. “That’s the paradox. You have this string of lies, and by this detour you arrive at a form of truth which is more precise, one hopes, than something which is strictly provable.”

-- David L. Ulin