Labyrinthine look at an enigmatic emigrant
Ariadne’s Thread: In Memory of WG Sebald By Philippa Comber Propolis, 270pp, $44.99 (HB) WHEN German-English author WG Sebald died in a car accident in 2001, aged 57, his oblique and haunting novels were already seen as making him a serious contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature — yet his career as a literary figure had spanned only 10 years.
Sebald emigrated from his native Germany to England in the 1960s. A lecturer at the University of East Anglia, he began to write poetry and fiction in the 80s because he was frustrated by the limits of academic prose (though he was still an academic when he died).
The Emigrants, his first novel in English translation — his third in German — was a sensation when it appeared in 1992: melancholy, peripatetic, its pages interleaved with grainy photos, it hovered in a strange territory between novel, travelogue and essay. Like the novels to follow — The Rings of Saturn, Vertigo and Austerlitz in order of English publication — it derived a disturbing power from circling the Holocaust while never depicting it directly.
The Emigrants told the story of four damaged emigres from Europe, and their meeting with an obsessive, melancholy narrator who bore a great resemblance to Sebald. I still have a yellowing copy of British literary eminence Robert McCrumb’s column, hailing Sebald as a major talent, tucked into my own copy, a great discovery of my reading life.
Each of Sebald’s novels derived its terrible power from the sense that its narrator’s every step was connected to catastrophe; the debris of a bloodstained Europe but also a sick landscape. In retrospect, Sebald may be the first writer of the Anthropocene: this terrifying era in which we are beginning to understand humans as agents of planetary change. His reputation has only grown since his death. His posthumous output includes lectures, poetry, essays and the unfinished Corsican novel Campo Santo.
He is also the subject of a large number of critical books, papers and conferences, and less classifiable tributes such as Grant Gee’s moody 2011 essay-film Patience (After Sebald), which retraces the East Anglian pilgrimage of The Rings of Saturn. Inevitably, given the mysterious aura of his narrators, there is an emerging body of work attempting to understand the enigmatic “Max”, as friends knew Sebald, such as the BBC’s 2011 series of 15-minute interviews with friends and colleagues.
Philippa Comber’s Ariadne’s Thread is the first book-length portrait. A psychotherapist and long-term Berlin resident, Comber arrived in Norwich in 1980 after her marriage failed, to run a psychiatric daycare centre. In 1981 she met Sebald, also in his late 30s, on a group outing to Roman Polanski’s film Tess. They hit it off and Sebald began to drop round; visits involving long discussions of writing and film.
There was a frisson, on Comber’s side at least, though her hopes dimmed the week her father died. When she entreated Sebald to come round and keep her company, he declined because, he said, needed to walk his dog. When Comber began a new relationship in 1985, the friendship went into hiatus, reigniting sporadically between 1988 and 1996, then petering out until just before Sebald’s death.
Though focused on a four-year period, the book offers a valuable portrait of Sebald struggling to move into fiction: overworked, elusive and performatively lugubrious, able to reduce friends to fits of helpless laughter with his accounts of personal disaster, though Comber suggests, this was a kind of protective mask. In Rings of Saturn the narrator alludes cryptically to a period of illness sparking his travels. Here Comber reveals Sebald suffered two periods of serious mental turmoil and hinted at some severe trauma blocking his writing. In 1982, he asked Comber to act as his analyst, a request she refused because she still hoped for a closer friendship.
Comber’s detailed account of their shared reading is fascinating. A keen gardener, Sebald delighted in quizzing Comber about her English family’s links to 17th-century gardener and diarist John Evelyn; together they read his description of visiting the great East Anglian essayist Thomas Browne and his riveting account of the Great Fire of London. Browne’s essay Urn Burial would become one of the touchstones of The Rings of Saturn — and Sebald would end Vertigo with diarist Samuel Pepys’s apocalyptic vision of London in flames during the same fire.
But this is no straightforward memoir. As her title suggests, Comber pays homage to Sebald by adapting his labyrinthine approach, interleaving their story with excursions into her own very full life. This works brilliantly when Comber tells us about her lifelong friend, Christine. Her father, she would learn later, was Werner Heisenberg, responsible not only for the famous uncertainty principle but Germany’s nuclear program — a truly Sebaldian connection. Comber’s juxtaposition of Heisenberg’s diary accounts of World War II bombings with Sebald’s German childhood powerfully invokes the role of coincidence — of terrible chance that is not chance — in Sebald’s fiction.
As a psychoanalyst, Comber is also a kind of Ariadne (Minos’s daughter controlled his Cretan maze). But her decision to offer professional insights into Max works against the allusive, web-like delicacy of her narrative model. ( A man “deeply afraid of his physicality” is her diagnosis, which seems a little unfair.)
Overall, this first nonfiction book from Propolis, the small Norwich publishing company that discovered Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, doesn’t quite cohere. Comber’s diary extracts (“Max rang no less than three times!”) sit awkwardly with her higher literary ambitions. Her travel diary of a pilgrimage around his childhood Bavaria reads like padding, though it has its piercing moments; while Comber is charmed, Christine, as if channelling Sebald, sees only a “Nazinest”.
Perhaps out of tact, Comber doesn’t disclose Sebald’s own domestic situation and there’s no mention of the wife and daughter the obituaries listed, though for me, at least, this seems like essential information for assessing motivation.
In the end, Comber’s Max remains an enigma. In a beautiful image borrowed from his poem After Nature, she depicts Sebald as a stingray: “so soundlessly I glided, scarcely moving a wing”.