Late German writer wins book critics fiction prize

— Finalist Jonathan Franzen smiled and applauded when he heard the winner announced for the National Book Critics Circle fiction prize. His reaction is notable since the award didn't go to Franzen, but to W.G. Sebald, a German-born novelist killed last year in a road crash.

"I've enjoyed his work a great deal," Franzen said after Monday night's ceremony. "I'm glad he won."

Sebald was cited for "Austerlitz," a reflective novel covering a 30-year conversation between an unnamed narrator and an orphan with an uncertain, but expansive memory. The English translation, which came out in the United States in October, was heavily publicized and received admiring reviews. But in December the 57-year-old Sebald was killed in a head-on collision in Britain.

"He was happy before he died and he would have been pleased to win this award," said his agent, Andrew Wylie, who accepted the award on Sebald's behalf.

Other works by Sebald, who had lived in Britain since 1970, included "Vertigo," "The Emigrants" and "The Rings of Saturn." He experimented with grammar and narrative and even inserted illustrations and sketches in the text.

Among his fans are Susan Sontag, poet W.S. Merwin and Franzen, nominated for his novel "The Corrections" and otherwise known for his public falling out with Oprah Winfrey. Franzen won the National Book Award for "The Corrections."

Other winners Monday included Adam Sisman, cited in the biography/autobiography category for "Boswell's Presumptuous Task," and Albert Goldbarth for the poetry collection "Saving Lives." Goldbarth also won the poetry prize in 1991.

Martin Amis, known for such satiric novels as "London Fields" and "Money," won in criticism for "The War Against Cliche: Essays and Reviews, 1971-2000." Nicholson Baker, known for such erotic novels as "Vox" and "The Fermata," received the general nonfiction award for "Double Fold," in which he condemns research libraries for destroying newspaper archives.

Two honorary prizes were given. Michael Gorra, whose book criticism has appeared in The New York Times and elsewhere, was cited for "Excellence in Reviewing." Jason Epstein, whose accomplishments range from editing Norman Mailer to helping found The New York Review of Books, received a lifetime achievement award.

The National Book Critics Circle, founded in 1974, is a not-for-profit organization of book editors and critics. No cash prizes are given for the NBCC awards


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