Sebald Guides From New Directions

Just as I'm finishing up my first reading of Vertigo, New Directions has made available guides to The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn. (via Vertigo)

Once I finish Vertigo (likely this evening), I will only have one more Sebald novel remaining to me, The Emigrants. Few authors will have left me more disappointed upon exhausting their novels than Sebald, although I find it impossible to believe that a second reading of The Rings of Saturn won't prove at least as good as the first.

I say this for two reasons. First, because I read Rings three years ago, when I was a much different reader. I don't think I could possibly approach a book like The Rings of Saturn in the same way now, and combining everything new I would see with everything I've forgotten in the intervening three years would create a very fresh experience.

And second, I also say this because Sebald's four novels are very similar in terms of approach, style, and theme, and so a re-reading of Rings after finishing the other three books would be far, far less naive than my original reading. I think so many things would jump out at me that I missed the first time, and I'm curious to see what phrases my underlining pencil originally managed to alight on.

I'm afraid, though, that re-reading Austerlitz (the second Sebald I read) wouldn't be nearly as fresh of an experience as re-reading Rings, largely because the reasons cited above don't hold for that book. It's strange to say, but from Austerlitz on I've rigorously marked up my Sebalds with a pencil, and I feel so connected to each of his books while I'm reading each that it's difficult to imagine coming back to any one of them and finding something the feels wholly new.


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Are you saying you’re disappointed to have finished all Sebald’s novels or that Sebald as a writer has left you disappointed?
The good news either way (and I really hope it’s the latter) is that The Emigrants is his best (with Austerlitz far below the other three).

I meant the former of course. Sorry.

I bet you could read Rings a couple of times a year and still not exhaust it. That book is fantastic and–practically–perpetually new….
I agree with Steve above, also: Austerlitz has its merits but did not impress me as much as the other three. Have you read Campo Santo?

Sorry if the wording was confusing. My regret will be that after The Emigrants I will never read another Sebald novel for the first time. Certainly I did not mean to say that I found Sebald disappointing at all.
My consolation is (in addition to what I wrote about Rings) that there are few authors I’ll be so eager to re-read.
I have read History of Destruction, but not yet Campo Santo. Certainly I will one day.

I second the notion that Emigrants is the best. I’ve got to stand up for Austerlitz, though. It’s the most conventional of the books on the surface, in that, in keeping with expectation, it builds a portrait of a single novel-sized character while confronting the Holocaust directly. But Sebald is also at his peak, in Austerlitz, in terms of the quality of his observations, the subtle accumulation of detail, lyrical power, and the clarity of his thought. To make his narrative technique work in an extended, continuous, 200+ page format was also no small technical achievement.
All four of the books work like poems and are built for rereading.

This is exactly why I have not yet read the Emigrants–I can’t stand the thought that after that I am finished.

A few years ago John Banville was asked in the Guardian what he was most looking forward to reading that year. He said, “That impossible thing, a new novel by WG Sebald.” I know exactly how he feels. If it’s any consolation there are passages I return to in all four books, but the one I reread most often is the second story in The Emigrants.
As well as Campo Santo, the essay On the Natural History of Destruction is very much worth reading too. It makes explicit some of the thinking and research that informs the novels.

I’m glad that y’alls like Sebald, n’all, but can you articulate anything clear about what it is that you like/what you think is good about the novels, and why they might be better than other novels?

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