Winfried Georg Sebald (18 May 1944 – 14 December 2001), known as W. G. Sebald or (as he preferred) Max Sebald, was a German writer and academic. At the time of his death at the age of 57, he was being cited by literary critics as one of the greatest living authors.
Sebald was born in Wertach, Bavaria and was one of three children of Rosa and Georg Sebald. From 1948 to 1963, he lived in Sonthofen. His father joined the Reichswehr in 1929 and remained in the Wehrmacht under the Nazis. His father remained a detached figure, a prisoner of war until 1947; a grandfather was the most important male presence in his early years. Sebald was shown images of the Holocaust while at school in Oberstdorf and recalled that no one knew how to explain what they had just seen. The Holocaust and post-war Germany are central themes in his work.
Sebald studied German and English literature first at the University of Freiburg and then at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, where he received a degree in 1965. He was a Lector at the University of Manchester from 1966 to 1969. He returned to St. Gallen in Switzerland for a year hoping to work as a teacher but could not settle. Sebald married his Austrian-born wife, Ute, in 1967. In 1970 he became a lecturer at the University of East Anglia (UEA). There, he completed his PhD in 1973 with a dissertation entitled "The Revival of Myth: A Study of Alfred Döblin's Novels". Sebald acquired habilitation from the University of Hamburg in 1986. In 1987, he was appointed to a chair of European literature at UEA. In 1989 he became the founding director of the British Centre for Literary Translation. He lived at Wymondham and Poringland while at UEA.
Sebald died while driving near Norwich in December 2001. The coroner's report, released some six months later, stated that Sebald had suffered an aneurysm and had died of this condition before his car swerved across the road and collided with an oncoming lorry. He was driving with his daughter Anna, who survived the crash. He is buried in St. Andrew's churchyard in Framingham Earl, close to where he lived.
In 2011, Grant Gee made the documentary Patience (After Sebald) about the author's trek through the East Anglian landscape.
Sebald's works are largely concerned with the themes of memory and loss of memory (both personal and collective) and decay (of civilizations, traditions or physical objects). They are, in particular, attempts to reconcile himself with, and deal in literary terms with, the trauma of the Second World War and its effect on the German people. In On the Natural History of Destruction (1999), he wrote a major essay on the wartime bombing of German cities and the absence in German writing of any real response. His concern with the Holocaust is expressed in several books delicately tracing his own biographical connections with Jews.
His distinctive and innovative novels were written in an intentionally somewhat old-fashioned and elaborate German (one passage in Austerlitz famously contains a sentence that is 9 pages long), but are well known in English translations (principally by Anthea Bell and Michael Hulse) which Sebald supervised closely. They include Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz. They are notable for their curious and wide-ranging mixture of fact (or apparent fact), recollection and fiction, often punctuated by indistinct black-and-white photographs set in evocative counterpoint to the narrative rather than illustrating it directly. His novels are presented as observations and recollections made while travelling around Europe. They also have a dry and mischievous sense of humour.
Sebald was also the author of three books of poetry: For Years Now with Tess Jaray (2001), After Nature (1988), and Unrecounted (2004).
- 1988 After Nature. London: Hamish Hamilton. (Nach der Natur. Ein Elementargedicht) English ed. 2002
- 1990 Vertigo. London: Harvill. (Schwindel. Gefühle) English ed. 1999
- 1992 The Emigrants. London: Harvill. (Die Ausgewanderten. Vier lange Erzählungen) English ed. 1996
- 1995 The Rings of Saturn. London: Harvill. (Die Ringe des Saturn. Eine englische Wallfahrt) English ed. 1998
- 1998 A Place in the Country. (Logis in einem Landhaus.) English ed. 2013
- 1999 On the Natural History of Destruction. London: Hamish Hamilton. (Luftkrieg und Literatur: Mit einem Essay zu Alfred Andersch) English ed. 2003
- 2001 Austerlitz. London: Hamish Hamilton. (Austerlitz)
- 2001 For Years Now. London: Short Books.
- 2003 Unrecounted London: Hamish Hamilton. (Unerzählt, 33 Texte) English ed. 2004
- 2003 Campo Santo London: Hamish Hamilton. (Campo Santo, Prosa, Essays) English ed. 2005
- 2008 Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964–2001. (Über das Land und das Wasser. Ausgewählte Gedichte 1964–2001.) English ed. 2012
The works of Jorge Luis Borges, especially "The Garden of Forking Paths" and "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", were a major influence on Sebald. (Tlön and Uqbar appear in The Rings of Saturn.) Sebald himself credited the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard as a major influence on his work, and paid homage within his work to Kafka and Nabokov (the figure of Nabokov appears in every one of the four sections of The Emigrants).
Sebald was tipped as a possible future winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 2007 Horace Engdahl, former secretary of the Swedish Academy, mentioned Sebald, Ryszard Kapuściński and Jacques Derrida as three recently deceased writers who would have been worthy laureates.