WG Sebald the poet: a chilly, elusive reality


POETRY: GERALD DAWEreviews Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems 1962-2001By WG Sebald Hamish Hamilton, 213pp. £14.99

DURING THE LATE 1980s and 1990s I spent quite a bit of time travelling in what would become known as “former Eastern bloc countries”. Many of the towns and villages I passed through were little known outside of their own state, and often the state itself had changed hands on numerous bloody occasions through the 19th and 20th centuries until, after the second World War, the Soviet grip fastened tight.

On one such journey, near the border between Slovakia and Hungary, in a once-impressive provincial capital, we saw an elderly peasant woman selling, on the main street, tiny bouquets of wild flowers, along with a handful of eggs. Few people bothered to heed her, but the poverty was plain to see and shocking in a woman her age. Across from where she was selling these wares a Tesco was being constructed, and, as chance would have it, on our journey home some Tesco executives were talking about the imminent move into “Europe” as their new-fangled cell phones erupted into life.

No matter where one went the sole topic of public conversation was business, buying and selling, the great unfolding saga of the end of Soviet domination and the “rebirth of history” as central and eastern Europe reconnected with its western flank. By the turn of the new century Europe would itself be expanded and the conquering market would liberate all from the oppression of the past: that was the mantra.

It hasn’t happened like that, and where once in Ireland, Europe’s western frontier, there was such an appetite for everything European – so much so it seemed every shop and State function had “Euro” somewhere in its title – we have become much less impressed and more critical of the entire project; eaten bread and all that.

Along with the enthusiasm for Europe, the critical fashion for European literature may have faded a little too. In the last two decades of the 20th century writers such as the Trieste-born Claudio Magris, author of Danube, Microcosmand the novel A Different Sea, were published in translation by the wonderful Harvill Press of London to great acclaim. During the same period, WG Sebald, the German writer, who was living and teaching in England until his tragic death, 10 years ago, in his mid 50s, met with huge critical recognition in the English-speaking world.

Sebald is the quintessential European writer, erudite, worldly and aware of the inescapable legacies of war, as in his haiku-like poem Somewhere:

behind Türkenfeld

a spruce nursery

a pond in the

moor on which

the March ice

is slowly melting [.]

Türkenfeld, the editor informs us, was a place name on the train route Sebald would have taken as a young man; it was also a site where subcamps of the concentration camp at Dachau were constructed, though never used. Landscape is never innocent; behind the everyday world lies a history capable of disabling the imagination.

Sebald famously remarked that his “medium is prose not the novel”, but from an early stage in his writing life he also wrote poetry, some of which has been previously available in English, including After Nature(2002), translated from the German by the late Michael Hamburger. After Nature contained three sequences of long prose poems to set alongside Sebald’s best-known work, the internationally regarded Austerlitz(2001), a new edition of which has just been published by Penguin with an introductory essay by James Wood. An unforgettable story of hauntedness and the personal pursuit of broken historical understanding, Austerlitz, like Sebald’s previous works The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturnand Vertigo, carries an aura of estranged melancholia marked with a brightening vision of the distinctiveness of things: maps, tickets, photographs, streetscapes; the bric-a-brac of family and social life that accumulates in his remarkable tales. Now with the publication of Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems 1962-2001, thanks to the translation and scholarship of Iain Galbraith, Sebald readers can hear the master’s voice again and see in distilled form the Sebald landscape, as if for the first time:

Pulling into the north-easterly

quarters of the metropolis

Gilderson’s Funeral Service

Merton’s Rubbish Disposal

the A1 Wastepaper Company

Stratford the forest of Arden

and the first colonists

on the platform at Maryland

heavenly Jerusalem

skyline of the City

brick-wall catacombs

Liverpool Street Station

The train journeys, air travel, jaunts in the car that criss-cross land and water give a sense of restlessness as Sebald’s personality peers out from behind these unpunctuated, unformulaic lines. The knowledge and exposure to the world he is experiencing shift timelessly back and forth through European history. Sometimes the viewpoint is so cryptically concentrated that the hard facts of what we are looking at pass by, but in these landscapes, shades of light and weather merge like Constable into chilly elusive reality. Sebald reminds me of the humanist tradition of Günter Grass or Heinrich Böll, company he unquestionably belongs to as poet, essayist and prose writer, one of the great artists of ourtime.

Gerald Dawe’s Conversations: Poets & Poetryhas just been published by Lagan Press. His Selected Poems will appear next spring from The Gallery Press. He teaches at Trinity College Dublin