WG Sebald; ‘one of contemporary literature’s most transformative figures’ – he might have won a Nobel if not for his early death. I have only read one of his four novels, “Austerlitz”, which is a simple enough story, and one told many times before; a Jewish child, sent to England through the Kindertransporte, begins to retrace his roots.
I found it difficult to read; the structure is unsettling, making you feel disorientated, but the narrative voice is richly rewarding. Sebald has a ground-breaking take on structure and storytelling, which felt utterly unique in its breadth. In Austerlitz (and all his novels, I believe), he combines fiction with memoir, essay, psychogeography, biography and history. This is a strange fusion, and it took me a while to get my head around the figurative and literal ramblings of the novel, but in the end after thinking the oddness through alongside the atmospheric mood of the book I had to agree with Susan Sontag, who, in the Times Literary Supplement in 2000, was asked if literary greatness was still possible. Her reply; “one of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.” And in the New Yorker, his work was described as moving the boundaries of narrative fiction as radically as anyone since Borges.
Reading him is a disorienting experience, partly because of this fusion of forms; I kept wanting this to ‘just be a novel’, but Sebald was not going to let me off the hook that easily. Quite a lot of the narrative is taken up with Austerlitz, who, having been brought up in Wales as Dafyyd Elias during and after the war, discovers his real identity and tries to piece together his first, lost four years. As he moves across the continent, he is constantly encountered by Sebald and at each, apparently random, meeting, begins to talk deeply of what is in his mind at that given time; long, winding stories, opinions and discussions, which cover philosophical dilemmas, which slowly move towards the heart of the thing; that his parents put him on a train before being taken to a concentration camp..
If you want an experience beyond the norm in your reading; if you want to see where novels can go when writers are this brave, read Sebald.