Today in Literary History – December 14, 2001 – W.G. Sebald dies

The German writer W.G. Sebald died on December 14, 2001, after a car accident near Norwich, England. He was 57 years old and had lived in England for most of his life as a University lecturer. At the time of his death he was teaching at The University of East Anglia.


He was driving, with his daughter in the passenger seat, when his car swerved suddenly into the next lane and collided with an oncoming truck. An autopsy showed that Sebald had suffered a massive heart attack which was the cause of his death and his losing control of the car. His daughter survived unharmed.

At the time of his death Sebald was beginning to be hailed as one of the most original and creative writers of his generation. Many critics believe that had he lived he would have been a prime contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.


I started reading his books a decade or so after he died and became a big fan. His books — Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn among others — are mixtures of fact and fiction that seem emotionally real and make the political and the historical feel deeply personal.

Sebald referred to his prose books (he also wrote poetry) as being “documentary fiction” and his style as “elliptical.” He also included enigmatic photos in his books.

His prose often seems dreamlike — precise and metaphorical at the same time. Sebald grew up in Germany in the shadow of the war and the Holocaust. Like other Germans of his generation he always seemed to be talking obliquely about recent shameful past events even when he was discussing something else.

He left a wonderful body of work but it is still sad to reflect on the work he left undone.

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