Across the Land and the Water by W. G. Sebald

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W.G. Sebald left Germany, his native country, in his twenties. He could not reconcile his remaining in a country where silence permeated everything. When his father returned from the war, having served under the Nazis, a broken man, he said nothing to his son about what he’d seen. He spent the rest of his life in exile. First, in Manchester and then eventually in Wymondham and Poringland until his untimely death at 57 Like a ghost, he reinvented himself, leaving his native country for the United Kingdom, changing his name from “Wifried Georg Maximiliann” to “W.G. Sebald”, and then, quite simply, to “Max.”

He was best known for his hybrid writing style, a kind of memoir/travel/fiction he began publishing in his forties and it seemed, at least to his American readers, that his work, his prose books, arrived miraculously out of nowhere. But, in fact, he began writing poetry in his early twenties and, his prose work was a direct result of the work he did with poetry. As it turns out, his poetry is a kind of road map, or atlas, to his prose works. In his prose works, Sebald uses cyclical movement: endless, breathless sentences that seem to go on and on, without paragraphs. Characters who begin in one place, travel far distances and, yet, in the end, find themselves in the exact same spot where they began. As a result of the long endless lines, and the compulsive repetition, we drop off. This trick is one Sebald picked up from Thomas Bernhard, one of his favorite writers. Take, for example, a sentence from Rings of Saturn:

The family fortune, amassed over generations
through warring feuds with other lords, by ruthless
subjection of the local people and by a no less
ruthless marriage strategy, was legendary even
at a time when the wealth of the topmost social
strata was beginning to exceed all that had hitherto
been known, and consisted principally, apart from
properties in England, of their vast holdings in Ireland,
together with the goods and chattels, and hosts of peasants
who were effectively no more than serfs.

As Sebald said, himself, in an interview regarding the work of Thomas Bernhard, “Because the Bernhard works are often composed in one long paragraph, sometimes in one long sentence, if I’m not mistaken, the effect is of a dream, of being spoken to in a dream, and your attentions can’t help but flicker in and out”(the emergence of memory, page 83). The experience is as if listening to a man who has lost everything. Desperate, he has the need to explain every single thing that has happened. His sentences are endless, he is breathless, and he goes on and on, explaining, in detail, each little thing. This is the language of melancholia. In the end, the reader experiences the exact same experience of torpor and malaise that the writer has.

Though he does not use the same long, breathless line, in some ways, Sebald’s poetry is similar to his prose. For example, in both his prose and poetry, he makes use of repetition. Repetition, when used throughout a collection or, in this case, throughout several collections, helps the reader recognize the theme or themes. In addition, it creates an echo throughout the book. In Across the Land and the Water, the theme is clear. In these collections, we have named men and women (names) traveling, staying in hotels, unanchored, exiled and lost, seemingly forever, from their home. This is the same exact obsession, the same rumination, as in Sebald’s prose works. By simply reading the book’s table of contents, we are already introduced to this theme: “Schattwald in Tyrol,” “Nymphenburg,” “Didsbury,” “Border Crossing,” “Scythian Journey,” “Poor Summer in Franconia,” “Solnhofen,” “Near Crailsheim,” “Leaving Bavaria,” “Through Holland in the Dark,” “Abandoned.” “Molkerbastei,” “Norfolk, “ “Holkham Gap,” “Crossing the Water,” “Obscure Passage,” “Eerie Effects of the Hell Valley Wind on my Nerves,” “New Jersey Journey,” “Im Bamberg,” “Marienbad Elegy,” “”Room 645,” “My ICE Rail-Planner,” and, “I Alfermee.” Very quickly we know where we are. Whenever we have a series of trains and a listing of misplaced people, we know we are inside the literature of the Holocaust. He need not ever name it and, as in his fiction works, he never does.

Similarly, the repetition of the words “white,” “fog,” gray,” “mist” “snow”” and “silver” create a shroud of white fog, which hovers over the collection. This is the same technique he uses in his prose works to create the illusion of amnesia or dream.

These collections of poems, then, are a kind of workbook for his later masterpieces. It has been said, on numerous occasions, that Sebald’s prose work arrived into this world fully formed, perfect, in fact. This has been held up as proof of his genius. And yet, it is simply not true that his work arrived out of nowhere. Instead, we see now, his works are the direct result of his having spent decades working out his ideas, craft techniques, and voice in his poetry.

In his early poems, he is stumbling to find his voice. For example, in “Life is Beautiful” and “Matins for G,” we hear an unsophisticated, simple voice unrecognizable from his later poems or prose works

I’ve already bought
My pig in a poke
It’s all Tom or Dick
Kids or Caboodle
In the home and castle.
My day is truly

–Life is Beautiful

A pain in the neck
In the early morn.
Where no kitchen
There no cook.
We don’t need no

–Matins for G.

Whose voice is this? The voice that would say, “We don’t need no” cannot be the same voice who would later write the endless, multi-claused sentences readers would connect with Sebald’s writing. Or would it? Is this Sebald’s voice uncloaked? He is either attempting an every day voice or we have come across his true voice. In either case, it vanishes and transforms quickly to the voice we know and recognize.

Throughout the collections, Sebald experiments with form, punctuation, length, and narrative. It is through these various craft techniques that he is trying to find his true voice. He is trying to find a means to carry to dark message he wishes to carry but without being didactic, without stating the obvious, without pity, or melodrama. He is attempting to find a new way of speaking of the Holocaust. He uses Thomas Bernhard and Robert Wallser as guides: incorporating the subject matter into the voice, into the so-called story so that the melancholia he wishes o address becomes submerged into the craft and technique. But, as of yet, he has not yet found this answer. He plods along trying on different craft techniques, different voices.

He tries out a narrative, prose style in The Year Before Last:

Next day we sat in the café
beneath a painting of water-lilies. Or
perhaps they were even flamingoes.
Do you remember the waiter?
His closely cropped white hair,
his turn-of-the-century
frock-coat and taffeta bow?
The way he kept touching
his left temple with his fingers?

Brief, enigmatic poems in Crossing the Water:

In early November 1980
walking across
the Bridge of Peace I almost
went out of my mind

He uses some punctuation, and then also no punctuation. He tries music and no music. He uses narrative and then lyrical techniques and, by the time we reach the poem “Il ritorno d’Ulisse” in School Latin, Sebald has found his voice, the voice we know from his prose works: the same voice and also the same subject matter:

Returning from a lengthy trip
he was astonished to find
he had strayed to a country
not his place of origin

And he has found his identity, as well. Reading through Across the Land and the Water, one sees Sebald as he experiments with form, trying on different voices, to find the final voice he will use in his novels. In his poem, “I Remember,” written in English, and published in 2000, towards the end of the book (one of 2 such poems included in the Appendix) he ends the poem with

I’ll have a
wash in Russia
he said. I
wished him the
best of British. He
replied been good
to meet you Max.

Max, so now, at the very end of his poetic work, he is finally Max. Max, the name he created from his old name, his old identity. Max, the name of his true self and so, as he comes to find his voice as a result of having written these poems over the years, he comes also to his new, true name. He has finally found his true self, his true voice.

Cynthia Cruz’s poems have been published in the New Yorker, Paris Review, Boston Review, American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, and others. Her first collection of poems, RUIN, was published by Alice James Books, and her second collection, The Glimmering Room, was published by Four Way Books in the fall of 2012. She has received fellowships from Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony as well as a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University. Her third collection of poems, Wunderkammer, is forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2014. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn, New York. More from this author →