W G Sebald, Comic Novelist?

In a long article in the latest edition of the New Yorker, Anglo-American literary scholar and critic James Wood (not to be confused with the scriptwriter of the same name who wrote BBC’s recent adaptation of Decline and Fall) tries to make a case for the late German novelist and academic W G Sebald as a “humorist”. He goes so far at one point as to compare Sebald’s “humorous” writing to that of Evelyn Waugh.

Wood concedes that:

Comedy is hardly the first thing one associates with Sebald’s work, partly because his reputation was quickly associated with the literature of the Holocaust, and is still shaped by the two books of his that deal directly with that catastrophe: “The Emigrants,” and… “Austerlitz” … Rereading him, … I’m struck by how much funnier his work is than I first took it to be. Consider “The Rings of Saturn” …, in which the Sebald-like narrator spends much of the book tramping around the English county of Suffolk. He muses on the demise of the old country estates, whose hierarchical grandeur never recovered from the societal shifts brought about by the two World Wars. … Sebald is regularly provoked to humorous indignation by the stubborn intolerability of English service. In Lowestoft, a Suffolk coastal town that was once a prosperous resort and is now impoverished and drab, he puts up at the ghastly Albion hotel. 

Sounds promising as a possible background for a comic Wavian scene. But then comes the punch line:

He is the only diner in the huge dining room, and is brought a piece of fish “that had doubtless lain entombed in the deep-freeze for years…The breadcrumb armour-plating of the fish had been partly singed by the grill, and the prongs of my fork bent on it. Indeed it was so difficult to penetrate what eventually proved to be nothing but an empty shell that my plate was a hideous mess once the operation was over.” Evelyn Waugh would have been quite content to have written such a passage. The secret of the comedy lies in the paradox of painstaking exaggeration (as if the diner were trying to crack a safe, or solve a philosophical conundrum), enforced by Sebald’s calm control of apparently ponderous diction (“operation”).

Assuming that Wood selected one of the more pronouncedly funny passages for an example, it is hard to agree with him that it reminds one of something Waugh might have written with any intention of evoking a laugh. Nor does anything in the remainder of Wood’s essay fly off the page as a example of the sort of comic writing that would bring it into the Waugh tradition. Perhaps some of our readers more familiar with Sebald’s writings than is your correspondent might share Wood’s views and would like to comment. Meanwhile, I am deferring any rash trips to the library to sample one of Sebald’s books (if only because of Wood’s advice that one of them has a sentence that spreads over 6 pages).

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