July 28, 2007
If you want to read great interviews with writers, get the two volumes of Christopher Bigsby’s Writers in Conversation (Norwich: The Arthur Miller Centre for American Studies, 2000 and 2001), many of which were originally done for the BBC. A Professor of American Studies at the University of East Anglia, Bigsby has written at length about W.G. Sebald in a book I have mentioned earlier, Remembering and Imagining the Holocaust. In his interviews, Bigsby brings depth and an obvious sense of curiosity.Volume Two contains eighteen interviews, including John Ashberry, Paul Auster, John Barth, Robertson Davies, Joan Didion, John Fowles, Ursula le Guin, Arthur Miller, Alice Munro, Mordecai Richler, Isaac Bashevis Singer, George Steiner, Paul Theroux, Alice Walker, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Arnold Wesker, and Tom Wolfe. Writers in Conversation, Volume Two also contains perhaps the best interview ever made with W.G. Sebald, who was his friend and colleague at the University of East Anglia.
In this interview, conducted in January 2001, Bigsby explores Sebald’s family, his youth in rural Germany, his academic career, his writing habits, some of his key books, his use of photographs in prose fiction, and much more.Bigsby and Sebald had an obvious rapport that results in revelations on every page. But I’ll just pick one example to quote as a way of urging readers to find the book themselves. Bigsby asks Sebald how, after twenty years of academic writing, he turned to a very different kind of book with the publication of Schwindel. Gefühle (Vertigo) in 1990. Here’s part of Sebald’s answer:
Increasingly I felt drawn to write in a much more tentative sort of way and I moved from the straight monograph to the essayistic exploration, dealing with my subjects in an elliptical sort of way. But even so, I constantly came up against a borderline where I felt, well if I could go a little bit further it might get very interesting, that is, if I were allowed to make things up.
That temptation to work with very fragmentary pieces of evidence, to fill in the gaps and blank spaces and create out of this a meaning which is greater than that which you can prove, led me to work in a way that wasn’t determined by any discipline. It wasn’t history, it wasn’t literary criticism, it wasn’t sociology, but it was all of these things together.
Then, of course, the other reason was that once you have been in an academic career for twenty years certain chores are given you and your range of freedom becomes restricted. Demands of all kinds are made at the same time as family pressures begin to mount and you feel that at that midway point in your life your personality is being eroded and you must think of measures of self-defence. One of the best means of self-defence, as one knows, is to go into the potting shed and build something that no one understands or no one knows what it is meant to be.
That is how the writing of literary texts began for me.It was an eccentric pastime that no one knew about; not even people in my own house knew what I was doing exactly. I just pottered away and produced these bits…
If it weren’t for a footnote on Christopher Bigsby’s book Remembering and Imagining the Holocaust: The Chain of Memory, I probably never would have found an interview between Toby Green and W.G. Sebald , which was conducted shortly after the Harvill publication of Vertigo late in 1999. Green is the author of a number of books, including Inquisition, Thomas More’s Magician, and Saddled with Darwin. He also reviews books for Amazon.com’s website.
In the interview, which is called The Questionable Business of Writing, after a phrase in The Emigrants, Sebald talks about motivations for writing, Kafka, guilt, the sublime, his early influences Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, and why he was the only person in his university not to use a computer. At the end of the interview, Green asks Sebald about the use of photographs in his books.
Amazon.co.uk: Finally, coming back to the way you put your books together, I wanted to ask you what the role of the pictorial element was in them?
Sebald: I have always had a thing about old photographs. The older pictures have an uncanny ability of suggesting that there is another world where the departed are. A black-and-white photograph is a document of an absence, and is almost curiously metaphysical. I have always hoarded them. They represent a sense of otherness. The figures in photographs have been muted, and they stare out at you as if they are asking for a chance to say something.
They have become part of my working process, part of the way in which I declare my position. Although I try to stay as anonymous as possible in the text, at the same time I’m anxious to declare my position. I don’t think one can now attempt to write a book which hasn’t got that notion of relativity in it.
Amazon.co.uk: And the photographs fulfill this function for you?
Sebald: Yes, because they are part of the process. They act as a token of authenticity– but they can be deduced, forged or purloined. And of course that in turn throws up one of the central problems of fiction writing, which is that of legitimacy and the arrival at the truth on a crooked route. This is why “vertigo” in German has a double meaning–schwindel in German means “swindle”. What right do you have to write about any of these things? Have you been there, and felt these things for yourself?
July 9, 2007
The chapter called W.G. Sebald: An Act of Restitution in Christopher Bigsby’s recent book ought to be required reading for anyone interested in Sebald. I’m not sure how often one can say that a book related to the Holocaust can be a “good read,” but that’s how I found his well-written book Remembering and Imagining the Holocaust: The Chain of Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). Bigsby’s fluid style is in keeping with his determination to strike a balance between biography and textual interpretation and, furthermore, to understand the inter-relationships between writers’ lives and their works. The longest and, in my opinion, best chapter is devoted to Sebald, with other chapters on Rolf Hochhuth, Peter Weiss, Arthur Miller, Anne Frank, Jean Améry, Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, and Tadeusz Borowski. Bigsby ends the book with a chapter called Memory Theft, about several writers whose claimed Holocaust experiences have been disproved, including Binjamin Wilkomirski and Jerzy Kosinski.
“This book began with a desire to celebrate the work of W.G. Sebald, a friend and colleague,” Bigsby declares on the first page, and the dual perspective of friend and colleague sets the pattern for an engaging exploration of nearly all of Sebald’s books. Bigsby traces the parallel course of Sebald’s growing awareness of Germany’s unspoken past with his increasing focus as a writer on that same past and on the terrible damage that German silence has inflicted on both war- and post-war generations. Bigsby’s reading of Sebald’s books is nicely nuanced by his friendship with Sebald and their conversations. (Sebald is one of the writers included in Bigsby’s earlier book Writers in Conversation vol. 2, which I have just ordered.) Bigsby, more than any other writer I have read, has really permitted me to better imagine W.G. Sebald as both a man and a writer.
Christopher Bigsby is a Professor of American Studies at the University of East Anglia.