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The Limits of Feeling

Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964–2001

THE REPUTATION OF an important writer will continue to swell in his or her absence, nourished by the unceasing attentions of friends, scholars, and devoted readers unwilling to forget an artist who changed the way they perceive the world. And so it is with W.G. Sebald. At the time of his shocking and untimely death, in 2001 at the age of fifty-seven, he was the author of only four works of fiction, which, despite their slender size and their occasional inscrutability, had already established him as a defining writer of his era. Starting with Vertigo, which first appeared in German in 1990, and continuing through Austerlitz, published a few months before his death, each was richer and stranger than the last. Part memoir, part travelogue, part biography, and part dream, they seemed to exist in an uncategorizable space beyond genre, at the intersection of history (both personal and collective) and imagination.

Despite their differences, all Sebald’s works inevitably circle back to the same fundamental question: how can we live under the shadows of past cataclysms? Most urgently, those are the disasters of World War II, but the griefs in Sebald’s books range from earthquakes to imperialism: “the marks of pain,” as he wrote in Austerlitz, that “trace countless fine lines through history.” From the sick and disoriented Kafka of Vertigo to the fictional Jacques Austerlitz, sent to England from Prague via Kindertransport in 1939 and forever after seeking his own identity, the figures who populate Sebald’s world are lost souls, breaking beneath the burden of their own anguish. This fixation on mourning gives Sebald’s writing a lugubrious cast that can occasionally verge on the parodic. But his occasional excess of mood or style does not make the questions that he asks—about our responsibility to our own history, as well as to the history of others—any less necessary.

In the absence of the dark star at its center, the Sebald universe has continued to expand. Just over a decade after his death, there is now a substantial body of criticism devoted to his writings, as well as an ever-increasing number of creative works inspired by them, including novels, art installations, and a new documentary film that follows the trek through East Anglia that Sebald loosely chronicled in The Rings of Saturn. And Sebald’s Nachlaß—some sixty-nine boxes of correspondence and manuscripts housed at the Deutsches Literaturarkiv in Marbach, Germany—has proved a dependable source of treasure. It has already yielded Campo Santo, a collection of unpublished prose that included drafts for yet another travelogue-cum-historical investigation, this time based in Corsica. And now we have Across the Land and the Water, a collection of poetry, almost all of it never before seen in English, spanning Sebald’s career from his student days to the end of his life. (A German volume, Über das Land und das Wasser, appeared several years ago, but the English version is better thought of as a companion volume rather than a translation, as it contains a somewhat different selection and includes a number of poems that did not appear in German.)

It is not news that Sebald was also a poet. His first book-length literary work was a triptych of three long poems called After Nature, first published without much fanfare in Germany in 1988 and then in a lovely English translation by Michael Hamburger just after Sebald’s death. Two other books of poetry appeared during his lifetime, both collaborations with artists who were his friends. In For Years Now, very brief, epigrammatic “micropoems” by Sebald in English were juxtaposed with collages by the Vienna-born English painter and printmaker Tess Jaray; Unrecounted combines similar poems (this time in German, the English edition again translated by Hamburger) and hyper-realist paintings of pairs of eyes by the German artist Jan Peter Tripp. If these works were somehow insufficient to establish Sebald as a poet with whom to be seriously reckoned, it could have to do with the fact that all three were deeply unconventional as books of poetry: the first because its lengthy narrative passages often scanned as prose (some critics called them prose poems), and the latter two because the poems were set on equal footing with the art.

But Across the Land and the Water demonstrates that Sebald—who throughout his life published his poems in German language literary periodicals infrequently but consistently—saw poetry not as a diversion from his primary literary endeavor but as a complement to it. The ninety poems gathered here are uneven. They range in length from a five-page “canticle” to imagistic neo-haikus of as few as four lines; some at least appear to be straightforward, while others are maddeningly cryptic collages of obscure literary allusions and enigmatic personal references. But they are uniformly recognizable as Sebaldian, deeply engaged with many of his primary themes: the search for patterns, in nature and in human life; the hidden meanings to be found, through apparent coincidence, in random items (the books on the shelves in a flea market, the advertisements in a travel brochure); the alarming way in which the secrets of the past, thought to be long buried, can unexpectedly turn up.

Reading these poems, one realizes that Sebald’s project, even in his prose, was often essentially poetic: a drawing-out of connections primarily through language and image rather than narrative or causality. But there is a reason that Sebald eventually decided to devote his major efforts to writing prose works, and it has to do with the evolution of his creative vision over the almost forty years this collection spans. “Is it enough,” one of the poems wonders, “to be overcome / by feeling / at a few words / in our children’s / school primer?” The early Sebald would have answered yes. The later Sebald is no longer sure.

ANYONE FAMILIAR WITH Sebald’s itinerant writings will not be surprised that a great number of the poems have to do with travel, especially travel by train. A railway worker, tearing off sheets from a calendar, appears as a modern-date Fate; another, “his lamp bouncing on his bib,” might be a kind of prophet or seer. Here is the first poem in the volume, one of the first Sebald ever published—it appeared in the University of Freiburg student newspaper in 1964—in its entirety: 

For how hard it is
to understand the landscape
as you pass in a train
from here to there
and mutely it
watches you vanish.

In its brevity and its plain style, the poem is reminiscent of the imagist works of Ezra Pound (“In a Station of the Metro”) or William Carlos Williams (“The Red Wheelbarrow”). But those poets always sought to ground their lines in concrete details, whereas Sebald’s poem—it has no title—is open-ended: its image exists to support its idea. Set at the start of his body of work, with its opening as if in mid-sentence (“For how hard it is ...”), the poem functions as a kind of mission statement, a declaration of the disconnect between traveler and landscape, which, uncannily, is felt on both sides. You cannot understand things by speeding by them, the speaker says, implying that understanding comes through pausing, visiting, lingering, talking. Of course, as Sebald’s narrator will discover during his travels, true understanding is always difficult by any means—missed connections and other gaps dominate. And the same is true of history, which is the true landscape through which the narrator of Sebald’s works is always metaphorically traveling.

Why, exactly, is it so hard to understand the landscape? “In fact this ground / is steeped in history / they find corpses / every time they dig,” the speaker of the poem “Calm November Weather” comments (perhaps quoting a guide) upon a visit to the Berlin Cathedral. The outwardly bucolic surfaces of the German countryside, where many of these poems take place, conceal darkness below. A haunting early poem, “Time Signal at Twelve,” dedicated to Lejzer Ajchenrand— a Jewish poet from Poland who lost his mother and sister to the Nazis, and was himself interned under the Vichy regime and then in Switzerland—invokes a “monk from Melk” who “sleeps in his quiet grave,” with snow falling upon his house. According to a note by Iain Galbraith, the volume’s translator, the Austrian town of Melk, site of a Benedictine abbey, housed a subcamp of Mauthausen. Similarly, “Somewhere / behind Türkenfeld,” a small town in southern Germany near Sebald’s native village, there is “a spruce nursery / a pond in the / moor on which / the March ice / is slowly melting.” The Nazis built a subcamp of Dachau behind Türkenfeld; the trains to the camp passed through the station. The ice melts slowly indeed to reveal this history.

“Our first unknowing reading of the [Türkenfeld] poem,” Galbraith writes, “and with it the poem’s own translation of an unruffled, apparently unremarkable landscape ‘mutely’ watching us ‘vanish,’ points to the perilous consequences of our loss of cultural memory.” And the problems of the landscape are not limited to Germany: even England, where Sebald first traveled in 1966 and which he called his home from 1970 on, is unsafe territory. A glimpse of birdwatchers in Holkham Gap, on the Norfolk coast, reminds the poet that the British Home Guard once “waited here / for the sea lion / to appear.” Operation Sea Lion was Hitler’s aborted plan to invade Britain.

These poems, and many others, deepen with the knowledge of their context. But what happens when the context is obscure? “Cold Draught” (the German title is Kalter Zug, literally “cold train,” but Galbraith explains, somewhat heavy-handedly, that his translation alludes to the “icy cultural draft that blows through the narrator’s sensibility”) gives us again a train journey, this time with “German / mothers and conscript / sons homeward on the / Bundesbahn.” The route passes by some of the now-familiar shadows on the map: the “leaning / tower by Landsberg,” site of the prison where Hitler wrote Mein Kampf and, later, the headquarters for the region’s concentration camps; Kaufbeuren, a psychiatric hospital where the Nazis murdered the mentally ill. But other details are obscure. What murder took place at the Hotel Hahn? Was the Buchloe cheese factory, which also figures in the poem, the site of some unknown catastrophe, or is it just another local landmark? Anything could have happened here—or nothing. To track all the references is impossible.

Just as Sebald is most interested in the smaller, lesser-known sites of the tragedies of World War II, the literary landmarks that serve as his guideposts tend to the obscure. But in many cases Urtexte can be unearthed beneath the placid surfaces of these poems. A long early poem about Manchester, where Sebald first worked as a teacher after his arrival in England, refers to the city only as “Bleston”—the name used for it in 1957 in a novel by Michel Butor, who taught at Manchester University some years before Sebald. Other poems refer to writers such as Quirinius Kuhlmann, Sextus Propertius, the medieval German poet Hartmann von Aue, and the contemporary Austrian novelist Marianne Fritz (author of a three-volume, 3,400-page magnum opus published during the mid-1980s).

IN SOME OF THE poems these allusions are collaged with no explanation. The effect is something like reading “The Waste Land” without the notes. “Remembered Triptych of a Journey from Brussels,” originally published in the Freiburg student newspaper in 1965, juxtaposes unattributed quotations in French and English with references to Faulkner and “The Marquise of O.” (Galbraith does offer some notes to the poem, but crucial passages remain opaque.) Other poems, too, leave the reader primarily with the impression of a cacophony of voices—a remark or two in Hebrew, Yiddish, or Dutch, but most often in English and German, the two languages in which Sebald lived. These bilingual poems give some of the schizophrenic texture of the emigrant’s life, simultaneously within and outside of two distinct cultures. But readers of the English version will be unlikely to discern this, since Galbraith—in many other ways a faithful translator—rarely indicates when lines are in English in the original.

Perhaps we are not meant to understand everything. The poem “Obscure Passage” reads, in its entirety:

Aristotle did not
apprehend at all
the word he found
in Archytas 

Somehow it seems appropriate that the source for this poem remains elusive. And even when sources can be traced, they still do not explain all. “Poetry for an Album” begins with what it tells us is a quotation from Schumann:

Feelings my friend
wrote Schumann
are stars which guide us
only when the sky is clear
but reason is a
magnetic needle
driving our ship on
till it shatters on the rocks

Readers who feel a sense of déjà vu upon reading these lines might turn back to For Years Now, to find this:


my friend
wrote Schumann
are stars
which guide us
only under
a dark sky 

Or to Unrecounted, where we find this:


my friend
wrote Schumann
are stars that
guide us only
in brightest daylight 

(The last is Michael Hamburger’s translation of the original: “Sterne die nur / am lichten Tage / uns leiten.”)

Three poems, three different versions of an alleged quotation from Schumann. In the first two, the purpose of the stars is essentially the same (we can see them only in either a dark sky or a clear sky, thus they are of limited use); in the third, the stars paradoxically guide us in bright light. But the message of all the poems is at least relatively clear: feelings are of limited help, if any, in guiding our decisions. Only the first version, in which emotion and reason transform into a kind of Scylla and Charybdis of the psyche, takes the idea a step further.

Which version is accurate? None of them, it turns out. Galbraith traces the quotation not to Schumann but to an early nineteenth-century novel by the German Romantic writer Jean Paul called Flegeljahre, parts of which inspired Schumann’s piano work Papillons. Incidentally, while the first version is the closest to the source, it still is not strictly accurate. The original reads (in Galbraith’s translation): “Feelings ... are stars that guide only when the sky is clear; but reason is the needle that carries on guiding the ship even when the former [stars] are hidden and no longer shine out.”

This doctoring of quotations will not surprise readers of Sebald’s prose, in which Kafka, Flaubert, Nabokov, and many other writers serve as repositories for his own ideas. Sebald’s work has been called “semi-documentary,” in that it springs from the roots of actual documents—postcards, letters, diaries, novels—but blossoms into its own creation, in which the original source might recognize itself, as Sebald once put it, as if “through a dark mirror.” A photograph that appears to illustrate a moment in the narrative will turn out to differ from the prose in some crucial detail; a ticket stub that seems to authenticate the narrator’s journey is in fact entirely unrelated; a page said to be drawn from the diary of some distant relative turns out to have been composed by the author himself. The effect is uncanny and deeply destabilizing, leaving the works suspended between fiction tugging on one side and fact on the other.

There is something of this effect in the poetry as well, which often purports to describe an image or an episode from the speaker’s life: a train trip, a tourist site visited, a passage read. Some of the later poems read like outtakes from the prose narratives that their author was writing alongside them. In “New Jersey Journey,” the narrator visits relatives who emigrated to the United States many years earlier, a trip that also figures in The Emigrants. But often the place is less important than the psychic experiences the speaker underwent there, which themselves tend to be undramatic: a sleepless night, a nightmare, a confused memory, a glimpse of a goose while passing through the countryside “somewhere around / Osnabrück or Oldenburg.” During a stay in Room 645 of a hotel in Hannover, “nothing happens / all day.” Is it significant that the hotel, with its “greenish dotted / textured paper” and mundane view—“an ugly / tower block the / TV-tower / the coal-black / Sparkasse building”—is a short drive from the site of Bergen-Belsen? Nothing in the poem points in that direction. It is up to the reader to make the connection—or not to.

SEBALD'S PROSE is as closely anchored to background Urtexte as the poems. But the prose, at all but its weakest moments, sustains its own narrative momentum atop this foundational layer. The poetry, by contrast, manages this only rarely, which is why it proves to be much less suited for Sebald’s literary project. Too often Sebald comes across as essentially an aggregator, who piles up links and references without probing them for meaning. The connections drawn by the language and the imagery are meant to provide that meaning on their own. Sometimes they do; but not always.

This problem is particularly pronounced in some of the later poems, which combine biography and autobiography in such a way as to make one wonder if they are not cryptic love poems. Over and over Sebald tells stories of unrequited or unconsummated love. “In the Summer of 1836” is ostensibly about Chopin’s ill-fated passion for Marie Wodzinska, whose father forbade her to marry him; the composer mourned their broken engagement, the poem tells us, for the rest of his life. But a shift in tense in the midpoint from past to present—“The peaks / of the blue Bohemian / mountains grow / ever darker ... / The cold /damp weather weighs /on his chest”—creates a sense of slippage: of whom, exactly, do we speak here?

Two poems make oblique reference to Last Year at Marienbad, Alain Resnais’s puzzle-box film about a mysterious love affair that may or may not have taken place. “The Year Before Last” describes a journey with two unusual qualities: the speaker is driving, and he is not alone. “Soon our road curved down / swiftly into a basin and / Marienbad lay suddenly before us ... / We had a fire made up in the hotel / although it was still mid-summer.” Later the speaker’s unidentified companion asks a series of questions about the fate of the world, and they take a surreal walk around the grounds, where the Belzer Rebbe (a figure from Kafka’s letters) and Kafka himself appear. In the end, the speaker imagines himself in the position of the man in Resnais’s film:

The match game
was meant to decide everything.
The gleaming parquet floor
stretched before us. All round us
were mirrors, guests, motionless—
and in the middle you
in your feather boa. Hadn’t
we met once before? ...
You were supposed to say, I
am wholly yours, nothing
but these words;
and you did say them,
while strangely not
coming an inch

It is haunting and romantic, but what do these allusions add up to?

Little is clarified by “Marienbad Elegy,” which picks up the motif once again, this time in the figure of Goethe, who wrote a poem with the same title and structure as Sebald’s. The poem tells of Goethe’s unrequited love as an elderly man for the teenager Ulrike von Levetzow, whom he had met in Marienbad: “a tempest of feeling / the ripest creation / of his old age.” Yet the speaker of the poem admits that “I have never really / liked this gorgeous / braid of interwoven desires” that Goethe wrote after parting from Ulrike. On a visit to the Marienbad Museum, where a facsimile of the manuscript is displayed, he is more deeply moved by the quotidian objects on display: a wick trimmer, a set of sealing wax, a piece of macabre lace, an engraving showing Ulrike as an elderly woman:

By now her
former suitor has
long lain under the soil
& here she stands

in a gray taffeta
dress next to a book
table, with an abominable
bonnet-ful of
corkscrew curls &
a ghostly-white face. 

The unidentified traveling companion—if she is the same person—appears again on a trip to Berlin and Brandenburg in the poem “Calm November weather.” They part at the train station: “She returns / to Brüderstraße while / I set off to Wannsee.” He goes to the Literary Villa there and hears a poet from Greenland read work in her “feathery language.” There is something momentous about this day, we know, if only because Sebald chose to write a poem about it. Yet nothing obviously momentous has happened. Is the significant event simply the fact that these two people were together? It is as if we are reading the diary of a trip without any explanation of why the trip is being recorded.

I DO NOT MEAN TO BE too hard on Sebald as a poet. It is perhaps to his detriment that he was the creator of such a singularly distinctive and haunting prose style: one hopes for his poetry to be equally successful, and one is disappointed when it is not. Unfortunately, this impression is not aided by Iain Galbraith’s translation, which is unfailingly accurate in terms of meaning but fails to convey much of the style or the sound of the original, which can be often quite arresting. The early poem “Nymphenburg,” a description of a visit to the Munich palace, is filled with murmuring sibilants that are undetectable in Galbraith’s thudding English. Sebald built many of the poems out of carefully weighted two-beat lines, most of which get smoothed over into free verse. The late poems are characterized by a change in style: Sebald began breaking the long German compound nouns in unexpected places at the ends of lines, creating a disjointed, choppy effect.

This takes place most strikingly in “One Sunday in Autumn 94,” another description of a train ride through the countryside, in which numerous words are broken across lines with no hyphen: “Schäfchen/wolken” (literally “little-sheep-clouds,” translated by Galbraith as “fleecy clouds”); “erbs/wurstfarbenes” (“grain-sausage-colored”). These broken words are preparation for the final adjective, “wiedervereinigtes” or “reunited,” which is again split ironically in two. (The reference, of course, is to the reunification of Germany.) If the effect is a bit obvious, it is nonetheless an effective way of demonstrating skepticism with the reunified nation. But this poem, again, is a glorified list: it sets a scene without drawing much meaning out of it.

Ultimately Sebald was not content to be an aggregator. It was not enough to be “overcome / by feeling” at the sound of a few nostalgic words. In his later works, he became as deeply engaged with the moral questions of literary writing—the issues involved in appropriating another person’s story, with the implicit and yet duplicitous avowal of certainty on the part of the narrator—as with the writing itself. This, far more than the old-fashioned diction or gorgeously patterned structures, is the most distinctive and enduring quality of Sebald’s prose. And it is a quality achieved not by mutely observing the landscape of history as the train whizzes by, but—as he knew so well—by slowing down and waiting for the ice to melt.

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the July 12, 2012 issue of the magazine.