August 20, 2011
W.G. Sebald, Self-Portrait, Manchester, 1967 [back cover image from Saturn's Moons]
I’m back after a brief vacation that was highlighted by the Santa Fe Opera’s production of Alban Berg’s powerful and darkly comic opera Wozzeck. I continue to dip into the important new book Saturn’s Moons: W.G. Sebald – A Handbook, edited by Jo Catling an Richard Hibbett. I just finished a short section entitled Three Conversations with W.G. Sebald, which includes what must be one of the earliest Sebald interviews as well as one of the last public conversations he held before his death. Each of these transcribed (and, in one case, translated) conversations shows us a Sebald who was extraordinarily articulate and nuanced about his own inspirations, methods, and goals as a writer. Here are just a few of the gems to be found.
Statements by Sebald from “Echoes from the Past: A Conversation with Piet de Moor,” published May 6, 1992:
I am not a littérateur in the true sense of the word. As a 21-year old I wrote a novel. When I read it out to my girlfriend, she fell asleep. So I thought I’d better just give up.
I myself work like a painter who has to consider how big to make the frame. The painter’s craft has always fascinated me. I envy painters because of the craftsmanship that is involved in their art.
As a matter of fact there is an interesting parallel between the solving of a crime and the way in which memory works. You try to shed light on something in your mind. Somewhere, pieces of evidence must be lying around under the carpet or in the loft or in other hidden places that offer explanations for the course of your own life. That is why writing is also a forensic activity.
Statement by Sebald from “Lost in Translation: A Conversation with Jon Cook,” held at the University of East Anglia, February 9, 1999:
I’m not very confident of my ability to write English…If you look at cases where a transition happened from one language into another, it was usually forced by circumstances like in the case of Nabokov…The only exception that comes to my mind is Beckett, and he really is an exception because he was a fine-tuning micro-engineer…
Statements by Sebald from “In This Distant Place: A Conversation with Steve Wasserman,” held at the Los Angeles Public Library, October 17, 2001:
Photographs are something I’ve always collected in a random sort of way that began much earlier than my attempts at writing prose fiction. And when I began to write, somehow it became clear to me that they, these images, were part of the material that I had stored up. And so I, right from the beginning, somehow saw no reason for excluding them from the actual process of writing. It seemed to me unquestionable right from the beginning that they had a right to be there, as very frequently they provided the starting points or they came from the photo albums of the people I had talked to – sometimes over long periods of time – and summed up experiences and parts of these people’s lives which would have been very, very difficult to convey in words only.
As a small boy I looked through [my parent's] albums and I thought there was nothing particularly either exciting or remarkable in them and turned the pages without being disturbed. But when I revisited these albums many years later the images revealed a different quality because I had comprehended by then the historical context. I asked myself why there were pages on which some of the pictures were missing and only the glue was left behind and [where] perhaps a kind of jocular caption had been written underneath but which made no sense without the image.
…certainly it an almost biological fact that forgetting is what keeps us going…So naturally, there is a curious dialectic between forgetting and remembering, and they’re not just two opposed moral categories, one positive and the other negative, but they’re interlaced in an extremely complicated way and in a different fashion in each individual.
March 27, 2011
The Spring 2011 issue of The Economist‘s quarterly “lifestyle and culture” magazine Intelligent Life breaks down the “voice” of W.G. Sebald into bite-sized snacks as part of their series Notes on a Voice. Not surprisingly, the six key questions mandated by the series seem more appropriate to a CEO or sports star than a writer, but perhaps there’s a bit of tongue-in-cheek at play. Let’s hope so.
Key Decision (“To invent his own hybrid form…”)
Strong Points (“…a style that tries to unbury the dead through syntax.”)
Golden Rule (“Obliqueness…”)
Favourite Trick (“Putting pictures into the text…”)
Role Models (Jorge Luis Borges, Thomas Malory, Thomas Browne, Ovid.)
Typical Sentence (“And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.”)
In truth, the comments by journalist and novelist A.D. Miller are actually quite good, given their required brevity. Sebald is the fifth author covered by the series, with prior writers being Graham Greene, Chaucer, V.S. Naipaul, and Philip Pullman. I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised that a magazine originating in the world of economics proposes that writing is a man’s profession.
February 21, 2008
Vertigo is pleased to be able to share the following interview with W.G. Sebald conducted by Jens Mühling in 2000. Originally published in Pretext 7 (Spring/Summer 2003), it is reprinted here with permission of the author. This is Part 3 of 3. After his own introductory statement at the beginning of the interview, Mühling published only Sebald’s responses to various topics. Part 1 may be found here. Part 2 may be found here.
The Permanent Exile of W.G. Sebald (continued)
© Jens Mühling
On book reviewing
SEBALD: Of course nothing in general is wrong with book reviewing, but I think it is totally wrong if writers review each other’s books. That happens all the time, you know: some author reviews a contemporary writer’s novel, that kind of thing, I find that idiotic. Truly idiotic. Why can’t they read something else, instead of reading whatever it is that their colleagues write? Not to mention the fact that these things happen for very subjective reasons, that you make enemies, that you build up rivalry, all of which is very unpleasant. I used to write about contemporary authors, too, about Peter Handke, for example, but not after I became a writer myself. Because I simply wouldn’t presume to say: that’s terrible what Handke is doing these days. That’s none of my business. Well, it is my business, but it is simply not my role to go and point fingers, and I wouldn’t want that to happen to me either.
I hold that to be a basic rule, that you should stay away from the contemporary literary business. It has become such an industry, it is quite incredible really. I get at least two manuscripts sent to me every day, from publishers asking me to write some kind of comment for the cover. And there are all these conferences and writers’ meetings and so on, one could go to three different events every week. The whole business really has become terribly inflated these last years. The art really is in isolating yourself and letting as few things into your head as possible. To only admit those things into your head that come from a direction where no one else ever looks. That is the difficult thing.
On the literary industry
SEBALD: I would argue that generally it is rather bad to read books by contemporary authors. Because that is boundless – if you just think about how many thousands of novelists there are in Germany today, you will never get through with that. Due to the fact that in most countries literature is subsidised these days – just look at all these literary awards that there are in Germany today, and positions as town writers, scholarships, the German Literary Fund of the City of Leipzig, and so on. There are a lot of writers who fall into this trap very early on. They become experts at this kind of thing, they apply for this and that and thus manage to keep themselves afloat for ten or twenty years, professionalising themselves in a ridiculous kind of way. Due to this safety net, the number of writers has multiplied by hundreds. Just look at Switzerland, there must be about 5,000 published authors there today. Twenty years ago, there were only two known ones, Frisch and Dürrenmatt, and today there are two dozen just in the city of Basel. And they all meet twice a week and hug each other, while at the same time they are filled with jealousy and mutual contempt. In such an environment it is very difficult to maintain a clear view of what writing is about, because you are entangled in this peculiar rivalry. And unlike in the business world, the rivalry is very hazy, because it is disguised by these false artists’ friendships. That is why it is not at all a good idea to get drawn into this world by writing book reviews, for example. The best thing is to remain outside of all of this.
On teaching creative writing at UEA
SEBALD: That is why it certainly makes sense if people have already acquired some professional experience [before enrolling in a writing course]. The majority of the students on this course are what you call semi-mature. They are people who have already experienced a certain amount of success and disappointment in their lives, who are not entirely naive. The last class I had was extremely heterogeneous. There were people from Hongkong, New Zealand, Canada, the USA, England, Germany, people from all kinds of different backgrounds, actors, gardeners, physicians. I think that is very important, and due to the fact that so many people apply for this programme, it is possible to base your selection not only on people’s texts, but also on their experiences, which sometimes can tell you a lot about whether they fit into the programme or not.
There are no specific qualifications [as a basis for judging students’ entry submissions]. Originality, of course. One always hopes to read something that is shaped by the originality of an individual. There are always people who produce something which you have never read before in this form, and that is obviously the best recommendation. And then, of course, that it is not something terribly weird. That is another difference between England and Germany. That is something one knows of English literature in general, that readability recommends a text. In Germany you have all these authors who produce very bizarre and expressionistic things. They write these over-ambitious 700 page novels, straight out of their own head, which nobody can really follow. That is this old cultural awareness which took such peculiar turns at the beginning of this century. Expressionism still exists in Germany, and every avant-garde tendency in Germany, even today, is still infected with that old expressionism. Arno Schmidt is a classical example, definitely a very talented person, but it’s all so overwrought, isn’t it? There are innumerable examples of this in Germany, whereas in England, there are relatively few of them. Here, it is most people’s ambition to write a readable novel.
On the differences between British and German societies
SEBALD: I think English society is a lot more fragmented than German society. There are all these gaps between Catholicism and Anglicanism and Protestantism and Protestant fundamentalism, between North and South and Rich and Poor and Uneducated and Forgotten and what have you. There are areas of British society which nobody really looks into, how the poor really live in certain regions, in Glasgow, for example. The more such differences there are in a society, the more interesting can you expect its literature to be.
If you are from, say, Hannover, or Oldenburg, one of these mid-sized German towns, and you had a proper high school education, come from a normal middle-class family, always had a certain amount of money on your hands, then it is very hard to start writing with such a background. Because writing is always provoked by certain extreme experiences which a person has made. So when you have always had it relatively good, something is missing. That is often a problem among these Swiss authors, who have always had enough money, who have a heap of Frankens lying around in the bank from their fathers and grandfathers – because money has always existed in Switzerland – and who are married to a doctor who also earns a heap of money. They take care of the household and work as a writer at the same time. They pick up the kids after kindergarten, and then they sit down in the afternoon and write some extremist text about child pornography. There is something wrong with such a situation. That is very different from, say, Jean Genet writing about the extreme experiences in his life, because Genet didn’t simultaneously play Lego with his children. And that is why I think experience, no matter in what form, is important, and I mean a kind of experience that is different from the mainstream. The more homogeneous a society is, the more writers it will produce, but the less good writers. That is the phenomenon we have in central Europe today.
[End of Interview] Thanks, Jens!
February 20, 2008
Vertigo is pleased to be able to share the following interview with W.G. Sebald conducted by Jens Mühling in 2000. Originally published in Pretext 7 (Spring/Summer 2003), it is reprinted here with permission of the author. This is Part 2 of 3. After his own introductory statement at the beginning of the interview, Mühling published only Sebald’s responses to various topics. Part 1 of the interview may be found here.
The Permanent Exile of W.G. Sebald (continued)
© Jens Mühling
On the craft of fiction
SEBALD: All these practical aspects of what it means to be a writer can be explained, but they cannot be conveyed in a systematic way. You cannot start the first week by explaining what working equipment is needed, how to sit down, what to read and what not to read. These issues can only be conveyed in an anecdotal way. What you also cannot do, of course, is to explain how to write a novel. The novel is much too heterogeneous a genre, all kinds of things can be a novel. There is no standard model which to take as a basis for saying: that is how a dialogue has to be structured, that is how a description has to work, this is what a characterisation looks like. But there are certain basic difficulties with fiction writing, such as, for example, the tendency towards generalisation, which occurs especially among people who come from an academic literary background. Whole registers of the vocabulary you acquire as a literature student are entirely useless because they are too general, because in a prose text everything has to be concrete. That is something which is not at all clear to most people.
I remember a student from my last class, who wrote something about band stands in her text, something like there was this person who got interested in band stands in London. And that was it. So I asked her, why did she not take a look at those things, to find out where exactly they stand, how long they have been there for, what kind of people go there, what they look like, and whether there still is music being played there or not. Those are concrete forms of research, and they can be very enjoyable for a fiction writer. You cannot undertake such research if you are writing, say, a dissertation on Robert Musil. But for imaginative writing, it is indispensable to go and take a look at certain things. That seems very obvious, but like most obvious things, it is often overlooked.
SEBALD: Of course it is very important to deliver criticism in an acceptable form. It does not make any sense to expose the weaknesses of a text in a polemic way. One has to be very diplomatic and ensure that the positive aspects of a text are sufficiently honoured. And then you can say: maybe you could do this part here in a different way. Imagine a text like one I recently read, which starts with the description of three photographs: the first picture shows this, the second picture that, and the third one this, and this description takes up three pages. This repetitive element at the very beginning can be disadvantageous. In such a case it might be better to use only one photo and make it really beautiful. That is very simple advice, and that is the kind of influence one takes. Or when somebody uses this terrible trick of accumulating adjectives, or when sentences have no rhythm. You can raise awareness to such things by talking about another person’s text that is very rhythmic, but without sounding like kitsch. You can also show people that literature is, of course, about conveying emotions, but that the art is in conveying emotions without being sentimental. To give them a feeling for that border one must not cross, between drama and melodrama. All these things are demonstrable.
[When a student’s text is discussed in class], the participants usually maintain a certain level of diplomacy. That has something to do with the English national psychology. I could imagine that the atmosphere would be a lot rougher in a German classroom, because Germans tend to be a lot more direct. If they don’t like something, they say it very loudly, whereas the English are known for their politeness. They try not to step on each other’s foot. There are these coded expressions: if someone says a text is “interesting”, then it actually means it’s not very interesting. Everybody knows this, and then you either accept it or you don’t. That is why this diplomacy works very well here, because people are very considerate in their social behaviour. If someone writes some horrible nonsense – which happens – then people won’t go and say straight to this person’s face: that’s terrible what you wrote there. In Germany this kind of controversy arises very often, also in public lectures. There is always someone in the audience who has something to say, who is worried about some problem of his own, and not about the actual event. But of course you have to realise that a lot of the things that people write about are of a very private nature and that they are intricately linked with their self-respect. To undermine that would be of no use. Of course it is a problematic situation when twenty people are together in one group, because, on the hand, everybody who entertains literary aspirations will think that they are alone with their brilliancy. On the other hand, you are faced with twenty other aspiring authors, which works against that illusion.
You also have to make it clear to people that they do not have to become writers by all means. You can also write in an amateur kind of way, there is no pressure for you to be a writer. If you really are serious about it, then it will happen at some point. But you cannot force it at a certain time, you shouldn’t think, now that I have completed this course, I have to publish something by all means. It either happens or it doesn’t. You have to show people that this profession has so many uncomfortable aspects that you might be better off by not pursuing it then by condemning yourself to invent things for the rest of your life. Even if you don’t become a writer after this year, you haven’t necessarily wasted your time. This experience can be useful for all kinds of things. Not least it can help you to reach a higher level of self-knowledge, which is never a bad thing.
On getting a job
SEBALD: And I do tell people in private conversations that there are other ways of making ends meet, and that writing often doesn’t work when you try to force it. People usually understand that. I also make sure to tell everybody that it is extremely important to have a profession besides writing, no matter what job it is. There are certain professions that are more suitable than others, as a parallel to this kind of work. Being a doctor, for example, won’t hurt. Whereas being a dentist is not so good. You know, as a dentist you always look into the same mouths and see the same holes. You never hear anything from the patients, because they sit there like this [pulls his mouth wide open and continues sentence in mock constrained voice], and they cannot say anything. Whereas as a physician you receive valuable insight into social contexts, family stories, personal problems, that is a lot of material. Well, and the best thing probably is to be a notary. Hereditary matters. Nowhere can you see as clearly how human beings work than where money is concerned. But on the whole it doesn’t really matter what you are, be it an insurance agent or a teacher or whatever – you just have to have something that will free you from the burden of having to write something every day.
Even if your first book is published by a halfway decent house, a debut novel usually won’t sell more than, say, 1,500 copies. Let’s say it costs ten pounds, you get ten percent of that, then you’ve earned about 1,500 pounds. If you work on a building site for a month or two, you can easily earn the same money. Which means you will be forced to do something else anyway if you want to survive. A lot of people try to keep themselves afloat by writing book reviews, which is slave work, really. It’s a lot better to be in an altogether different kind of business.
[The final part of the interview will be posted tomorrow.]
February 19, 2008
Vertigo is pleased to be able to share the following interview with W.G. Sebald conducted by Jens Mühling in 2000, when Mühling was an MA student in comparative literature at the University of East Anglia. Although not a student of Sebald’s, Mühling thought that an article on the teaching of creative writing might be of interest to a German audience, where such classes are relatively unheard of. Ultimately, however, the interview was never published in Germany, but first saw the light of day in Pretext 7 (Spring/Summer 2003), a literary magazine formerly published at the University of East Anglia. It is reprinted here with permission of the author. Back issues can be obtained from Inpress Books. This is Part 1 of 3.
The Permanent Exile of W.G. Sebald
© Jens Mühling
On 14 December 2001, German novelist Winfried Georg Sebald, who had spent the greater part of his life as an emigrant in England, died in a car crash. Observers of that year’s Christmas festivities in Sebald’s native country couldn’t help noticing that the writer’s death had come, at least for the German publishing industry, as something of a Christmas gift. Every last book store’s Christmas decoration featured Sebald’s works. The literary press unequivocally named Sebald author of the year. A friend told me that his father, a middle-aged German physician, had received four, and given away three, Sebald novels as Christmas presents.
And yet, in spite of Sebald’s sudden celebrity, his tragic death could by no means be called that of a celebrated German author. Even though he had stuck to his native language throughout his entire career as a writer, Sebald had always remained peculiarly absent from Germany’s literary world. Spatially removed – he had been living in Norwich for more than thirty years when he died – Sebald had led a rather secluded life, and had shown little inclination to participate in any kind of literary scene, let alone the German one.
This reluctance on the part of Sebald, the person, to promote the books of Sebald, the author, resulted in a peculiar situation. In Germany, his books were initially well reviewed, but otherwise went largely unnoticed. When translated into English, however, his works quickly became surprisingly successful, especially in the USA, where Susan Sontag went so far as to propose Sebald as a possible answer to her rhetorical question ‘Is literary greatness still possible?’. To the German public, Sebald’s success in the English-speaking world came as a bit of a mystery, as no one could quite imagine how his peculiar German style could possibly be translated into English – the slowness of it, its longwinded sentences, its abundance of archaisms, its overall reminiscence of the nineteenth century.
Obviously the reception of Sebald’s work in the English-speaking world and in Germany was fundamentally different. In the English translations, the foreignness of Sebald’s style seemed natural and self-evident – after all, Sebald was an emigrant writing about emigrants. In German, where his style felt no less outlandish – as it seemed to date from a bygone era – Sebald’s books created a kind of awkwardness, as readers were unsure whether to regard his way of writing as headstrong traditionalism or self-conscious anachronism. Either way, Sebald’s success in the Anglo-Saxon world did not go unnoticed in Germany: in the years before his death, his novels finally started to find their way into the book shops, and Sebald received the prestigious Heinrich Heine Award.
Was Sebald a German author? He wrote in German, but the use to which he put his native tongue was so different from any contemporary form of the language that this can hardly count as a criterion. Was Sebald an English author? ‘I have lived here for thirty years,’ he said shortly before his death, ‘and yet I do not feel in the least at home here.’ It seems as if there was no such thing as a home country for Sebald anymore, only, as for the emigrants in his novels, the loss of home countries. It seems as if Sebald had emigrated, permanently, into his books. Thus it would be wrong to interpret the above quote in the sense that Sebald did not enjoy living in Norwich. He had been a teacher at the University of East Anglia for many years, was Founding Director of the British Centre for Literary Translation, and among his students and colleagues, Max – as Sebald called himself in England – is remembered with warmth.
His role as a teacher of Creative Writing classes, it may be added, was another factor which estranged Sebald from Germany’s literary world, as such workshops are a phenomenon largely unheard of and often frowned upon in Germany. It was chiefly with this background that I interviewed Sebald in 2000, about his experiences with teaching aspiring authors, and about his view of the differences between England and Germany. A conversation which might help us, now, to understand a little bit better where this permanent emigrant saw himself.
The following is a transcript of an interview with W. G. Sebald which took place in the writer’s UEA office in April 2000. Sebald had agreed to pick me up at the campus cafeteria, as I did not know where his office was located. As we made our way across the campus, he dropped a facetious remark about the astonishing number of people who roamed the corridors in what seemed like theatrical poses of soliloquy – it took me a moment to realise that he was referring to students who were talking into their mobile phones. This seemed to confirm certain rumours I had heard on campus, according to which Sebald was not exactly the most ardent admirer of technological innovation. Thus on entering his office, the absence of a computer came as no big surprise. However, it took me more than a little courage to ask Sebald whether he minded if I taped our conversation – he didn’t, and his smile seemed to indicate that he found humour in my scruples.
Our conversation started – for no particular reason – with an anecdote about a jar of pickled gherkins that was standing on his desk. He told me it was a special, Russian, variety of pickles, which had been sent all the way from France by a friend of his. Intended as a birthday present, it had arrived with considerable delay, which led Sebald to assume that the peculiar weight and size of the parcel must have caused the British customs authorities to suspect that it was a bomb. He insisted that I try one, noting that vinegar was “good for all kinds of things”. In my otherwise perfectly factual notes I later found the cryptic entry “weird comb. of sweet & sour”.
Our conversation then turned to Sebald’s role as a teacher of Creative Writing students. Sebald emphasised that he saw warning aspiring authors about the specific difficulties encountered by professional writers as one of his most important tasks as a teacher.
SEBALD: Being a writer is by no means an easy profession. It is full of difficulties, full of obstacles. For a start, there is the psychology of the author, which is not a simple one. There are these situations when suddenly nothing seems to work anymore, when you feel unable to say anything. In such cases it is very helpful if someone can tell you that this happens to everybody, and show you how one might deal with such problems. In these situations it is very often the case that people neglect the research aspect. Every writer knows that sometimes the best ideas come to you while you are reading something else, say, something about Bismarck, and then suddenly, somewhere between the lines, your head starts drifting, and you arrive at the ideas you need. This research, this kind of disorderly research, so to speak, is the best way of coping with these difficulties. If you sit in front of a blank sheet of paper like a frightened rabbit, things won’t change. In such situations you just have to let it be for a while.
Another important psychological problem occurs the very moment a publisher shows interest in your first manuscript. That is a most vulnerable situation for a writer. The publisher presents you with some contract, and you will sign anything, without thinking about the consequences, if only it helps to get your book published. It is very important to remind students that there are certain rules for such contracts – not many, but there are some. For example, you should never sign a contract for life, you should only sell the rights for the hardback edition, and so on. If you sign that standard contract that is used in England and Germany and anywhere else today, you will lose lots of money, which is something that few people know about. If you become a dentist, the way you earn your money is all regulated. But if you become a writer, you have to sort it all out for yourself.
[Part 2 of the interview will be posted tomorrow.]