Since W.G. Sebald’s sudden death in 2001, the cult of the Britain-based German writer has spread fast. Known for his exquisite prose works that, in their combination of the real with the fictional, push at the limits of what novels can be, he is considered one of the foremost German writers of his generation. He was also a poet.
Across the Land and the Water brings together a selection of the poems he never published in book form, if at all. Translated by Iain Galbraith, the volume sketches out a life on the move. Stretching over 37 years, the volume includes poems that Mr Galbraith found jotted down in Sebald’s archives on scraps of paper, others written on menus, theatre programmes or headed paper from hotels. They emerge on trains or at the “unmanned/station in Wolfenbüttel”, Sebald covertly observing fellow commuters as he evokes the differing landscapes shuttling past.
Unlike his epic, vertiginous prose, these poems are often condensed and sparse. And yet they contain many of the themes that would obsess Sebald throughout his writing life. The poet spent his later years in Britain, working at the Universities of Manchester and East Anglia. Preoccupied with memory, desire and the ghostliness of objects, Sebald can evoke in one poem the faded glamour of “a forgotten era/of fountains and chandeliers” or a “turn-of-the-century/frock-coat and taffeta bow” while in another he will speak of an “ugly/tower block” or “moribund supermarkets”. This shift between differing eras could seem forced or artificial. And yet Sebald manages such movement with a lightness of touch. Indeed, the driving force behind his work is a search for the past, for the forgotten or overlooked: “I wish to inquire/Into the whereabouts of the dead.”
Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems 1964-2001 by W.G. Sebald reviewed in The Economist.